The chapter in which Firo Prochainezo takes entirely too long to take a bite of Salisbury steak.
I also made a small mistake in terms of time in an earlier chapter; it has been fixed.
Alice in Jails - Prison Episode
Color Pages & Epilogue I
Chapter 1 Front
Chapter 1 Back
Chapter 2 Front
Chapter 2 Back
Chapter 3 Front
Chapter 3 Back
Chapter 4 Front
Chapter 4 Back
Chapter 5 Front & Back, Connecting Chapter, Remaining Chapter
Alice in Jails - Streets Episode
Peter Pan in Chains
San Francisco Bay
The guard's flat voice prompted Firo to open his eyes.
From the way the boat wasn't rocking quite as much as it had been a moment ago, it seemed the boat had finally docked somewhere.
The single naked bulb flooded the hold with light, and Firo took advantage of the opportunity to look around.
There were three people on the boat with him.
He couldn't exactly start up a conversation, what with the guards standing nearby, but their appearances told him their stories in a way.
The first was an Asian man with dragon tattoos on both his arms. He wore long sleeves that hid most of the tattoos from view, but the dragon heads on his wrists and the twin tails peeking out from under his collar easily let Firo imagine the bright array of colors twisting underneath the clothes. From the look of his face, he was still a fairly young man; Firo wagered he was probably somewhere in his late twenties.
The next was a hulking black man. From the sparse white hairs in his thick hair and the wrinkles on his face, Firo placed him at somewhere around his forties. He looked calm and mellow, but the deep scars all over his face and body told a different story altogether. Firo's experienced eye told him that the scars weren't from a work-related accident or an attempted KKK lynching. The scars told him of fights with fists and fights with knives, fights that had ended in broken bones and lost lives.
The last was a Caucasian man, his head bowed and his back hunched as he sighed constantly to himself, mumbling to himself under his breath. From time to time his voice grew louder, earning him a sharp reprimand from the guard standing over him, and then he quieted down again. He looked to be somewhere in his thirties, but the defeated air about him made him look older than his appearance would suggest, and Firo would easily have accepted it if someone had told him the man was actually in his fifties.
Firo sighed again, glancing at his three erstwhile shipmates.
Together with these three motley criminals, Firo had finally arrived at the most impenetrable--and, to the inmates, the most terrible--prison in history.
He'd accepted his fate a long time ago, but that didn't make the reality of it any easier to swallow.
It was dusk outside when Firo finally stepped off the boat and onto the island proper.
He looked up, and the first thing he saw was an observation tower.
As buildings went, it wasn't all that tall, actually. But on the island, which of course had no skyscrapers to speak of, it seemed like an all-seeing and absolute symbol of vigilance, looking down on the inmates from high in the sky. The guards armed with sniper rifles stationed at the very top of the tower only made it seem more foreboding.
This place is pretty big.
Firo couldn't help but be a little surprised as he looked around.
From San Francisco Bay the island had looked like a tiny, inhospitable crag, but now that he was actually standing on it, he saw that the area around him was much wider than he had first surmised. At the same time, though, the rocks jutting up around him now seemed to fence him in, making him feel a faint sense of claustrophobia.
He chanced a look back, taking in the skyscrapers of the San Francisco skyline. They looked so close, as though he could just reach out and touch them, but their small size told him that that was nothing more than a pipe dream. He looked again and now the buildings seemed far away, like he was peering across a great distance at a faraway country.
The guard's voice snapped him out of his thoughts, and together with his three fellow inmates, he began the long trek up to the upper part of the island.
The stone island jutted upward from the sea like a huge boulder; Firo judged that the highest part of the island was maybe fifty yards or so above sea level. The island might be about five hundred yards lengthwise, but the width of it was probably less than half of that.
Somehow it really does feel like Arsène Lupin or Professor Moriarty might've made their hideouts here.
Firo realized that he knew almost nothing about the island save the rumors that everyone else had heard, and he cursed his lack of knowledge. He probably could've stood to read some newspaper articles about the place before coming, at the very least.
There was a white building in the center of the island that seemed to loom up before him as he walked, which he surmised was probably the prison proper. A few more buildings dotted the land around it, giving it the feel of a fortress in the middle of nowhere.
The metal of the docks had been so severely rusted that Firo almost thought that they'd made it that way on purpose--perhaps to impress upon new inmates the age of the place--but the building in the center of the island was so obviously new that it was even a little unnerving, giving the onlooker a sense of twisted utilitarian beauty.
Yeah, somehow I don't think escape's gonna be an option.
Alcatraz was fully furnished with tall observation towers and other defenses that had served to keep invaders at bay when it was a military installation, and now they came together with the prison's natural location to form a truly inescapable barrier cutting the prisoners off from the outside.
Firo had heard tell of the lethal currents and biting cold that prevented any attempt at swimming away, but truth be told, when he looked up at the vigilant guards and their long rifles, constantly looking this way and that, he wagered that any escape attempt would probably be stopped by a well-placed bullet long before the inmates reached the sea.
They're more like soldiers than guards, aren't they.
A fine sweat dotted Firo's brow as he walked onward, new portions of the horizon slowly coming into view. He could see the blue ocean, the great bridge spanning San Francisco Bay, the civilian buildings on either side, and all of these looked even more beautiful and vibrant than they had before.
...I wonder what's taking so long. If these were stairs, we'd probably be on the tenth floor by now.
The incline was steeper than he'd thought. It made the walk up to the prison building a bit taxing, especially with his hands bound as they were.
The sea breeze had just begun to cool the sweat on his brow when Firo and the others finally came to a stop.
The guards who'd made the trek with them made a signal toward the door. A bell sounded from inside, and the door built into the stone wall opened.
The first thing that greeted his eyes were rows of steel bars, and past that was what Firo thought was probably the administrative office. He could see guards looking back at him behind the glass windows.
Firo and the other inmates began to walk forward on the guards' orders, looking around uncertainly, but stopped as one of the guards stepped forward and culled Firo from the rest.
"You're going this way."
The prisoners who'd come with him stared at Firo strangely, but the other guards urged them on, and soon enough they disappeared around a nearby corner.
"I don't recall giving you permission to speak," the guard who'd remained with Firo said curtly, and Firo shut up and instead looked at the man's face. At least it wasn't the same guard who'd talked to him about Huey back on the boat, and Firo allowed himself to relax just a little.
The guard led Firo to a room at the end of the hall and opened the door, revealing a man sitting inside a sparsely decorated room, the humble desk and bookcases giving it the feel of an everyday office.
The owner of the room looked up and saw Firo, then shifted his gaze to the guard. It must have been a silent signal, for the guard nodded once and excused himself immediately.
Left alone in the room with the man, Firo let his gaze wander over to him.
He wore a crisply pressed business suit, a marked departure from the drab guard uniforms he'd seen on the island so far. From the looks of his receding hairline, he was already starting to go bald, and the wrinkles on his face gave him a sharp, wizened appearance. But contrary to his intimidating looks, the aging man smiled warmly as he rose to greet Firo.
Firo thought at first that he might be the warden, but the man himself soon proved him wrong.
"Hello, Mr. Prochainezo. I'm Misery, the special administrator here at Alcatraz."
"Well, technically, my official position is 'vice-warden's assistant', but seeing as how I and a select few of the guards are going to be administrating a special being--that being you, of course--in Warden Johnston's stead, I thought I'd try and live it up for once."
"Are you working with Victor Talbot?" Firo asked cautiously, mindful of the fact that he was in someone else's territory, but Misery only smiled, as though relieved that Firo knew what he was talking about.
"Hmm. Yes, I've heard about you from Mr. Talbot. I just want you to know, Mr. Prochainezo, that I was against this plan from the start. You are an outsider and an immortal, just like the very special guest we have staying in this prison, and I strongly advised against using you like this."
"I sorta wish you'd try'd to persuade him a little more forcefully, if you get my drift."
"Oh, believe me, we tried. We beat him and stabbed him and kicked him and shot him, but he's more bullheaded than you'd believe. We tried to hold his family hostage as a last resort, but alas. Mr. Talbot is single."
Huh, so he has a sense of humor.
Firo let some of the tension in his body slip away as he settled back, listening to what Misery had to say.
"I assume that Mr. Talbot has filled you in about the reason for your visit here, of course. About Huey Laforet."
"Yeah, kind of."
"Mmm, good. I'll get straight to the point, then. The important thing is that Laforet has several organizations under his direct control, and according to Mr. Talbot's sources, some of them are beginning to move. It seems that they're going to start something over in New York, sometime in the next few days. Something big."
"In New York?"
"In New York. So Mr. Talbot came up with the idea to send you here, since not only are you immortal, Laforet has no idea who you are, so he won't be able to prepare for your arrival."
It was unwelcome news, but not entirely unexpected.
Come to think of it, the whole start of this mess had been with the ruckus at the Mist Wall a year back, and that had been mostly the fault of Huey's lackeys as well. When he thought back to how strange they'd been, he could easily see them being volatile enough to be cause for concern.
And they tried to get at Ennis too, didn't they...
Firo grit his teeth, thinking of one of Huey's men in particular--a tall, grinning man with sharp teeth and red eyes. But it wasn't like he could go back to New York and act on his new found knowledge. It made him so anxious he couldn't think straight, thinking that perhaps Victor had withheld the information from him on purpose.
He couldn't solve anything by going on a rampage now. The only thing he could do was work on the inside to stop Huey Laforet.
"...So. Sorry if this comes off a little blunt, but..."
"What you're telling me is that if I want to save my friends in New York, I might have to devour Huey Laforet? Is that what you want me to do? And the reason it has to be me is 'cause Huey would be on guard if Talbot came himself, but I can sneak up on him and eat him before he realizes I'm an immortal?"
There was a short silence as Misery thought it over. At length, he shook his head.
"...No. No, I do not think that even Mr. Talbot would be so cold."
"You think, but you don't know."
"Hmm... All I can tell you is that I, personally, would not wish for that outcome. Regardless, until the time comes, I must inform you I can't afford to treat you any differently from the other inmates. Don't expect any special privileges. The guards working with me will contact you when the time is right. Until then, do try not to do anything that might alert Laforet to your nature."
Firo just had to smirk and shake his head at that.
"Sorry, but I think that cat's already out of the bag."
"He already knows. He knows that I'm coming, and he knows that I'm immortal," Firo said, launching into an explanation about what had happened on the boat, and though his voice was calm and steady, inside he was cursing his luck and shaking his head in resignation.
Misery slumped and put a hand to his forehead as Firo finished telling him about the guard who'd been working for Huey, looking resigned and tired.
"You look like you were expecting this."
"Oh, I was. It's one of the things about him that confounds us most."
Misery explained that Huey was somehow not only obtaining information from the outside, but he also seemed to be able to give orders to his cronies across the country while still inside his cell, cut off from all outside contact.
"As you already know, a very small number of the guards are working for him. But we have no evidence, and they refuse to talk when we question them, and their backgrounds, when we study them, are entirely ordinary. When the warden moves them to different prisons, only a few days pass before more guards turn up in his employ."
"Sounds like he really makes you earn that paycheck, huh."
"It's not a laughing matter, I assure you. What's most disconcerting about it is that Laforet's ability to gather information simply cannot be explained, even taking the double agents in our staff into account."
"Yeah, I can see that."
Only a select few outside of Firo's friends and Family knew that he was an immortal, after all. The Daily Days knew, and Firo was certain that the information brokers would probably be more than happy to sell the information for the right price, but somehow he doubted that Huey had access to a phone that'd let him call the newspaper in New York.
Maybe Misery himself was working for Huey.
Firo gave it a moment's thought and dismissed it. It was an unlikely theory at best, and besides, he had the feeling that Misery would've revealed it once they were alone had it been true.
Damn. I guess I just have to make do with what I've got.
It seemed that Victor had sent him to Alcatraz to try and find out just how Huey was getting his information. But contrary to the federal agent's intentions, Firo was going in not with an advantage, but a severe handicap. Firo sighed deeply once more, realizing just how much the odds were stacked against him.
Misery shook his head pityingly, then suddenly snapped his fingers as though remembering something.
"Oh, that's right. One last thing before I send you on your way."
"What do you think of the inmates who came in with you?"
Was he talking about the three men who'd been on the boat with him? Firo thought it a strange question to ask--he hadn't been allowed to talk to them at all, so what could he say? The most he could offer regarding them were his thoughts on what they looked like.
"Why do you want to know?" Firo asked at length, answering the question with a question.
"Oh, no reason. It's just that yours was the only name on today's list, you see."
"What, indeed. Things have been exceedingly busy these past few days here at Alcatraz. So busy, in fact, that someone apparently misplaced a scheduling order, and three men who were supposed to be transferred here next week were mistakenly placed on the boat with you."
It was a strange story. It didn't strike Firo as particularly sinister, but something was definitely up. He'd figured that Victor's people had done the fixing to make Firo's sudden transferal to the island seem less suspicious, but it appeared that wasn't the case.
"Did any of them feel different? A little out of the ordinary, perhaps?"
"No, not really... I guess the white guy kept talking to himself, sounded a little funny in the head, but nothing much besides that."
"I see... Perhaps... No, no. Forget it. They're going to be your neighbors, so try and get along with them. Though I must inform you, chatting among inmates is strictly forbidden."
What, am I supposed to know sign language or something now?
Firo grumbled to himself as he shucked off his clothes, getting ready for his physical examination.
Naked as the day he was born, the young gangster frowned as he glanced sidelong at the guard stationed at the entrance. The doctor he could understand, but to be quite honest it was a little embarrassing to have the guard watching as well.
With swift, practiced motions, the doctor examined his nose, mouth, and ears, making sure Firo hadn't hidden anything inside. Then he gave a quick tug and ruffle to make sure that Firo's hair was indeed his own, and moved on to a basic physical checkup and cavity search that managed to be both blindingly quick and exceedingly thorough.
Having to endure an invasive cavity search before someone else's eyes would normally have had Firo blushing scarlet and vowing to get revenge on whoever had subjected him to such an ignoble disgrace, but the search was over and done with before he could even get properly angry.
Huh. That was something else.
Firo reached for his clothes, shrugging tiredly to himself, but the guard who'd been watching him apparently had different thoughts.
"Hands off the clothes."
"We've got the latest in fashion waiting in your cell. Guess who gets to walk naked all the way there?"
Surrounded by uniformed guards, Firo made no effort to hide the fierce scowl on his face as he walked the halls of Alcatraz without a stitch on. Unable to take out his foul mood on the men around him, he had no choice but to turn his anger inward at himself.
They turned the corner, and Firo found himself looking down a long hallway.
He could hear noises all around him--not a cacophony of voices as might be expected, but enough to give him an idea of just how many people were there.
So this is where we stay in this place, huh.
Iron bars lined the walls, as far as he could see. Behind them were tight rows of cells, just large enough to house one person each, giving Firo the feeling that human beings had been packed into the building like sardines.
Looks like it's two... no, three stories high?
Firo saw that the cells were stacked atop one another as well, and Firo amended the image in this head to that of a beehive, though of course there was no way the inmates could enter and exit as freely as actual bees might.
Bad enough we're stuck on this island. Did they really have to make the cells this small while they were at it?
Sadly, he didn't really have the presence of mind to think beyond that, given his current state of dress.
A few of the inmates looked up as Firo walked past, scoping out the new fish. Most of them took a perfunctory glance at his face and were done with it, but a few of them stared at him hungrily, their eyes roaming up and down over his body.
"Welcome to Broadway, doll," someone whispered.
Firo looked toward where the sound had come from and saw a short man with heavy jowls leering back at him, blackened teeth peeking out from behind cracked lips.
I got your face, asshole.
Firo snorted and moved on, musing darkly about what he'd do to the pudgy bastard when he got the chance, but one of the guards motioned for him to wait, coming to a stop himself in front of the short man's cell.
"Shut up," the guard said.
He hadn't even raised his voice, but the two words reverberated through the hall, seeming to fill the very air with their presence.
"Next wise guy who wants to try and be funny gets to practice their repertoire in the Hole."
Silence fell like a blanket over the long hallway.
Inwardly marveling at the way the guard's words had worked their magic, Firo kept walking with the guards until they were about halfway down the hall, still on the first floor. One of them motioned him to look to the left, and Firo found himself staring into a vacant cell.
A guard standing at the end of the hall flipped a switch and the heavy cell door swung inward. Another nudged him inside and raised a hand, signaling the guard manning the switch to close the door.
"Let me give you some advice," the man said in a low voice, his tone sympathetic but stern. "I know that bastard just now must've pissed you off, but don't try and take matters into your own hands. You try it, and the rules say we have to send you to the Hole--that means solitary confinement in the dungeons under Alcatraz.
"On this island, prisoners aren't allowed conveniences like revenge."
"The latest fashion, huh," Firo mused to himself, holding up the clothes that had been left on his bed.
They were rugged work clothes, made to last rather than to look pretty, colored in drab tones of dark navy blue. Most of the prison's population probably wore similar clothing.
Firo didn't really care to think about it any further. Glad to have anything to cover himself, he quickly put them on and then took a more careful look at the clothes on his bed, surprised to find that he'd been given quite a few articles of clothing.
They'd only given him one pair of pants, but he had a spare shirt and spare underwear as well. Six pairs of socks were arranged neatly on the bed, next to a hat, a handkerchief, and even a belt. They'd even given him two pairs of shoes, one pair for casual wear and one more sturdy pair for working.
And the most welcome surprise of all was the wool coat hanging from a peg on the back wall of his cell.
Hmm, at least I won't have to worry about freezing to death.
His own immortality slipped his mind for a moment, and he looked curiously around his new home.
The bed was connected directly to the wall, supported by iron chains. In the far corner was an open toilet, and next to that was a wash basin. Firo gave one of the knobs an experimental turn and made a small noise of surprise as clear water gushed out, far more forcefully than he'd expected.
On the wall opposite of his bed was a folding desk and chair to go with it. Even more unexpected was the fact that he'd been provided with a wide variety of supplies, with toiletries on a shelf near the sink and various other necessities on the desk.
A metal cup.
An eye mask.
A toothbrush, and toothpaste to go with it.
A nail clipper.
A roll of toilet paper.
There was even a small broom for sweeping the floor, propped up in the corner.
A thin pamphlet had been left on the desk as well, labeled "Institution Rules & Regulations." Firo flipped idly through it as he gave his cell another quick once-over. To be honest, he hadn't been expecting so many commodities in Alcatraz of all places, and for a moment he even allowed himself to think that perhaps things wouldn't be so bad after all.
Then he looked up at the ceiling, and his rising spirits fell once more.
The ceiling was abnormally low, making Firo feel like it might come down and crush him at any moment, and the harsh light from the single naked bulb hanging from it stabbed at his eyes and sensitive skin.
He glanced over to the cell across from him and saw that the man there was currently squatting near his toilet.
Firo looked away, snarling as he realized what that meant. The fact that he could see right into the cell across from him meant that the same also applied in reverse, and the knowledge made him wish he could leave as fast as he could.
Firo's first roll call after his incarceration informed him that the hulking black man and the lean Asian man from back on the boat were his cell neighbors. Perhaps the three men who had originally been held in the cells had been released recently, or perhaps they had simply been "removed" by other means to get Firo and the others together. Either way, the constantly mumbling white man who'd also been with him on the boat seemed to have been put somewhere else.
Now what do I do?
Firo decided to look on the bright side of things instead of continuing to mope about his plight. He thought to himself that at least he didn't need to worry about the ceiling and walls collapsing around him, as had been the case in his boyhood when he'd often lived in shoddy, rundown buildings.
The problem was the food.
He'd heard plenty of horror stories about prison meals.
According to Randy and Pecho, who'd served prison sentences themselves in the past, prison food was so terrible that even liquor made from diluted industrial-grade alcohol was better. So bad, in fact, that they'd solemnly sworn never to get caught ever again. The fact that they hadn't actually been inclined to clean up their acts despite their horrible experience had been cause for many laughs among the Martillos at the time, but now it just depressed Firo to think about it.
After all, if things had been that bad in a normal prison, what kind of slop would they serve in a place that even hardened criminals called Hell?
The thoughts refused to leave his head, and Firo naturally found his feet dragging as he headed to the cafeteria for his first ever prison meal.
The first thing he noticed as he entered the cafeteria was that it felt entirely different from the long rows of cells.
Where the cell blocks, affectionately called "Broadway" by the inmates, had felt crowded and claustrophobic, the cafeteria felt somehow wide and open. Even the blasé walls and ceiling, just as inexpressive and flat as those of his own cell, didn't feel quite as oppressive.
For a moment, he even felt free.
Firo would have liked to stop and take a deep breath, but the long line of people urged him on, and he had no choice but to keep his place. One by one, the inmates were given their metal trays, and one by one they held them out for their food, and one by one they left, dispersing to sit at the tables they chose.
Looking around again as he stepped out of the line with his food, Firo saw that the cafeteria was already filling up with people, banishing the sense of freedom and openness that he'd felt a few moments before.
It seemed that the inmates were expected to take seats at the far side first and move in from there in order, but despite that Firo could spy a few groups forming naturally among them.
The whites and blacks sat apart from one another.
He didn't know whether someone had invited him or he'd made the decision himself, but Firo saw that the black man who'd come in with him had already taken a seat together with several other blacks, and even the lean Asian had found one of the few Asian groups and now sat with them, wordlessly shoveling food into his mouth.
The white man been on the boat with Firo was seated at the far end of the cafeteria by himself, shivering and shaking, but Firo couldn't be bothered to go that far. He decided he'd just take a seat nearby and eat.
According to Misery, any one of those three--or perhaps even all of them--might possibly have an ulterior motive in entering Alcatraz.
At first, Firo had thought of it in simple terms, the Department of Investigation versus Huey, but now that he gave it a bit more thought, he decided that there might be other factions, other interests taking part in the situation.
Maybe Huey had called them in to help him escape.
The only thing he could confidently say was that they probably weren't on his side. Misery would have told him if they were; the FBI agent had no reason to hide that sort of information from him.
Whatever. Everyone here's an enemy anyway.
He had to watch his back at all times. Everyone was a stranger, and he could afford to trust no one.
Steeling himself mentally, Firo prepared to flip the switch inside himself that would tuck away his emotions, leaving him cold and ruthless.
A loud squawk suddenly rose above the quiet murmur in the cafeteria, naturally leading all the inmates to look toward where it had come from. Just the sound of it was like a bucket of cold water to Firo's face,
"Firo? Firo, is that you? It is!"
His shoulders slumped, the dark musings of a moment ago promptly exiting stage left.
Wait wait wait wait wait. Hold on just a damn second here.
He recognized that voice.
This time it was a voice that came from his own memories, not ones that had belonged to Szilard Quates.
What the hell is he doing here?!
Slowly, reluctantly, he looked up to the voice's owner, and saw a very familiar man waving vigorously at him with both hands, a huge grin plastered on his face.
Firo shook his head fiercely, willing himself to wake up in case he was dreaming, but the man who'd been arrested a month before him stubbornly refused to disappear.
Y'know, I thought it was a bit weird we never heard what happened to him after the cops got him, but I didn't think he'd be here of all places...
The other inmates just groaned and shook their heads when they saw who'd caused the commotion, turning back to their meals and lifting their utensils again as though nothing had happened.
What's up with them?
The guards, too, merely sighed and looked meaningfully at one another, walking up and falling into position around Isaac as though this sort of thing happened all the time. They moved like a well-oiled machine, surrounding him from all sides in an instant.
"Hmm? Me again?"
Two guards reached up and snatched Isaac's hands mid-wave, and two others stooped and grabbed hold of his legs.
"Yeah. You again."
"I'm sorry, sirs. Is this some sort of joke?"
"The only joke around here is the one you're making of the rules. No talking among inmates, remember? Well, I guess your tenth visit to the dungeons will refresh your memory. We'll even throw in an extra pair of chains free of charge, just for the occasion."
The guards lifted Isaac bodily up into the air as though he was some sort of bizarre household appliance, swiftly carrying him through the cafeteria toward the door on the far end.
Firo found himself at a loss for words at the bizarre sight, and all he could do was idly spin his spoon around as he watched.
His hands and feet now bound, Isaac could only squirm feebly as he raised his voice in complaint to the guards around him.
"Ack! What are you people doing? That wasn't a joke at all! I was just giving a New York style hello in celebration of a long overdue reunion! Unhand me!"
The guards ignored him, hoisting Isaac up higher as they carried him away, their easy practiced trot making it clear it was far from the first time they'd done this sort of thing.
"Yeah, yeah, we've heard it all before."
"Shut up and get ready for your stay in the Hole."
"Sorry, pal, but this isn't New York."
"Look on the bright side, you get to enjoy another round of our Alcatraz style hospitality."
"Shh. Come on, champ, upsy daisy. We're moving you over to a nice dark room so you can get some rest all by yourself. Man, I'm so jealous."
The guards approached the cafeteria exit with Isaac in tow, quipping snidely at him as they left.
What should I do? Should I even do anything?
Firo twiddled his thumbs idly, wondering if he should try and help, wondering if he could change anything even if he did try and help his friend against the guards. His train of thought was rudely interrupted as Isaac actually replied to the guards carting him around like a sofa.
"You're jealous? Why? They don't even give you as much food down there, and the chains make it so hard to move!"
"You can lose weight thanks to your new diet, and pulling on the chains'll give you free exercise."
"Hmm. You make a compelling point. Alright, everyone, to the dungeons we go! But wait, am I really that fat?"
"You've got a fat head if that counts. Now shut up."
Eh. Whatever, I guess.
Firo gave up and shrugged, deciding to take the situation in stride.
At least I know I can trust him...
He had to admit he could breathe a little easier, knowing that there was at least someone on the island who he could confide in...
"Hey, you know that idiot? It looked like he was-"
"Never seen him before," Firo replied smoothly, cutting off the guard mid-sentence. He turned away and sighed, smirking bitterly.
...Though I don't know how much I can depend on him.
It had been just for a moment, but the air in the cafeteria had deviated from the norm.
Now, though, things were quickly going back to normal, the cause of the disturbance carted off to solitary confinement. Firo watched Isaac disappear through the door out of the corner of his eye and turned to look at his food, intent on shoveling it all down while tasting as little of it as possible.
He'd been expecting to see something resembling pig slop, which made the sight that greeted his eyes all the more surprising.
He'd only given his tray the most cursory of glances before he sat down, distracted by the complicated thoughts running through his head. Now that he took a closer look, though, he was mildly shocked to see an array of dishes on his tray that actually seemed quite appetizing. Steam still rose lazily from the hot food, and even the amount of it wasn't much different from what he was used to.
He could see chopped carrots and greens floating enticingly in the creamy soup, and the garlic rice looked like it had been carefully fried to keep any of the grains from cooking unevenly. Next to the soup basin on his tray was a slot for a fresh-looking green salad and another that housed the main dish: a hefty Salisbury steak, generously slathered with thick, savory-smelling brown gravy.
What the hell?
Maybe it just looked good, though even as he thought it Firo wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of making bad food at that merely looked delicious. He looked suspiciously down at his oddly appealing food and gave the steak an experimental press with the back of his fork.
It wasn't quite on the level of what he'd expect from a restaurant, but the mouth-watering smell that rose from the meaty juices as they welled up between his fork's slender tines was more than enough to elicit a hearty grumble from his stomach.
Cautiously, he took a bite, and his eyes widened as his taste buds welcomed a taste far richer than what he'd imagined. It caught him completely off guard, all the more so because he'd been dreading a terrible meal all along.
The soup, too, was thick and creamy, much better than the stuff he made himself at home. The vegetables floating in it were still firm and flavorful as well, and their crisp crunch as he bit down was almost enough to make him forget he was on an island prison off the coast of San Francisco, boxed in on all sides by drab walls of concrete.
This is really weird. This stuff's...
"Pretty tasty, isn't it?"
He'd just finished spooning the last of the vegetables into his mouth when the inmate sitting next to him chose to start up a conversation.
"I know how you feel. I probably had the same look on my face when I took my first bite, too."
Huh? Wait, am I allowed to talk?
The memory of Isaac being put in solitary for raising his voice still fresh in his mind, Firo hesitated, wondering if he should risk replying.
"Don't worry about talking," the man beside him said, smirking. "The guards used to come running the moment a guy opened his mouth at first, but now they'll let you talk here in the cafeteria as long as you don't get too loud."
"Huh. Why'd they loosen up the rules?"
"The warden who runs the place is smart, see. He knows that if he keeps the inmates cooped up too tight, they'll get mad. And mad inmates are a hell of a lot harder to deal with than happy ones. It's not like the guards want to deal with a riot any more than we really want to start one. You can bet the news would be all over that kind of thing."
"Yeah, I can see that," Firo replied softly, glancing toward the guard standing nearby as he spoke. Sure enough, the guard didn't even glance in his direction. Firo listened carefully and realized that he could actually hear the quiet sounds of low conversation everywhere in the cafeteria.
"Though calling us happy inmates would be a stretch. Prison is still hell, and boring hell at that, after all. Look around you. Most of these goons are already dead on the inside, just waiting for their bodies to catch up. The lights are on but nobody's home."
"That's a shame, I guess."
"Hey, actually, you're new here, aren't you? Tell me, how'd they ship you here?"
"Me? I got on a train that took me to San Francisco, and then the boat at the docks took me the rest of the way."
The man sitting beside him nodded, smiling broadly, and said, "I was one of the first guys in this place. They shunted us down here twenty, thirty people at a time. I spent three days cuffed on a train with two dozen other guys, and you know what? We never got off that train 'till we got here."
How could he had gotten to an island by train? Firo looked askance at the inmate next to him, but the man only grinned back.
"They put the whole damn train car on a boat and shipped us over."
"...You're kidding me."
"Hah, of course I'm not. Us Americans, we like to do things big, you know? And hell, it worked, didn't it? It's actually kind of impressive, to be honest."
Firo gave a low, appreciative whistle at the other man's story, then noticed that something was different about his impromptu conversation partner.
"You're not like the others, are you? I don't think you look like you're dead on the inside."
"Huh? Oh, me? That's because I have something I want to do."
Firo took that to mean that the man had some sort of goal waiting for him outside. He didn't know how long the other man's sentence was, but he had to respect the kind of mental fortitude that kept that cheeky smile on his face despite his bleak conditions.
The man gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
"Well anyway, worst comes to worst we'll be seeing a lot more of each other for years to come, so if there's anything about this place you don't know, you can just ask me."
"Yeah, thanks. I'm Firo. You?"
Firo offered his left hand for a handshake, then hastily drew it back as he realized just why the other man's left arm had barely been moving as he ate.
"Hey... Your arm..."
The man lifted his limp left hand with his right and let it drop.
A dull thud came from the table as his hand made contact, and the sturdy wood even shook slightly.
"It's a prosthetic. Pretty well made, don't you think?"
"Whoa... Is that made of metal? How'd they even let you keep that thing?"
"Special permission. This thing's actually bolted straight to my bones, so they don't know what might happen if they tried to take it off. I don't even know myself. Maybe it'd kill me."
At first Firo thought the man was joking, but he let it go without asking any more questions. It wasn't like he could actually think of a good reason why the guards would let him keep a metal arm, so he shrugged and put it out of his mind.
The man with the fake arm grinned and held it out for a handshake.
"The name's Ladd. Ladd Russo. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The man's smile was feral, somehow. Wild and savage. Firo mused to himself that if a wolf could smile, that might be what it looked like.
The thought lingered for some reason, refusing to leave Firo's mind as he took hold of the cold metal and shook.
And through it all, he remained blissfully unaware of the strange connection that linked them together...
Chapter 2 Front End
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