There were no more attacks, or attempted fondlings, or kisses blown. Karl had a reputation for knowing how to use his mighty fists. It was rumored that a year ago he had used a shiv to kin a fellow prisoner who angered him, though officially the murder was unsolved.
Miles also was transferred, not only to Karl's tier, but to his cell. Obviously the transfer was a result of money changing hands. Miles asked Karl how he had managed it.
The big black chuckled. "Them guys in Mafia Row put up the bread. Over there they like you, baby." "Like me?"
In common with other prisoners, Miles was aware of Mafia Row, otherwise known as the Italian Colony. It was a segment of cells housing the big wheels of organized crime whose outside contacts and influence made them respected and feared even, some said, by the prison governor. Inside Drummonburg their privileges were legendary. Such privileges included key prison jobs, extra freedom
of movement, and superior food, the latter either smuggled in by guards or pilfered from the general ration system. The Mafia Row inhabitants, Miles had heard, frequently enjoyed steaks and other delicacies, cooked on forbidden grills in workshop hideaways. They also managed extra comforts in their cells among them, television and sun lamps. But Miles himself had had no contact with Mafia Row, nor been aware that anyone in it knew of his existence. "They say you're a stand-up guy," Karl told him.
Part of the mystery was resolved a few days later when a weasel-faced, pot-bellied prisoner named LaRocca sidled alongside Miles in the prison yard. LaRocca, while not part of Mafia Row, was known to be on its fringes and acted as a courier.
He nodded to Karl, acknowledging the big black's proprietorial interest, then told Miles, "Gotta message for ya from Russian Ominsky."
Miles was startled and uneasy. Igor (the Russian) Ominsky was the loan shark to whom he had owed and still owed several thousands. He realized, too, there must also be enormous accrued interest on the debt.
Six months ago it was Ominsky's threats which prompted Miles's six-thousand-dollar cash theft from the bank, following which his earlier thefts had been exposed.
"Ominsky knows ye kept ya trap shut," LaRocca said. "He likes the way ya did, 'n figures ya for a stand-up guy."
It was true that during interrogation prior to his trial, Miles had not divulged the names, either of his bookmaker or the loan shark, both of whom he feared at the time of his arrest. There had seemed nothing to be gained by doing so, perhaps much to lose. In any event he had not been pressed hard on the point either by the bank security chief, Wainwright, or the FBI.
"Because ya buttoned up," LaRocca now informed him, "Ominsky says to tell ya he stopped the clock while you're inside." What that meant, Miles knew, was the interest on what he owed was no longer accumulating during his time in prison. He had learned enough of loan sharks to know the concession was a large one. The message also explained how Mafia Row, with its outside connections, knew of Miles's existence.
"Tell Mr. Ominsky thanks," Miles said. He had no idea, though, how he would repay the capital sum when he left prison, or even earn enough to live on.
LaRocca acknowledged, "Someone'll be in touch before ya get sprung. Maybe we can work a deal." With a nod which included Karl, he slipped away.
In the weeks which followed, Miles saw more of the weasel-faced LaRocca who several times sought out his company, along with Karl's, in the prison yard. Something which appeared to fascinate LaRocca and other prisoners was Miles's knowledge about the history of money. In a way, what had once been an interest and hobby achieved for Miles the kind of respect which prison inmates have for those whose background and crimes are cerebral, as opposed to the merely violent. Under the system a mugger is at the bottom of the prison social scale, an embezzler or con artist near the top.
What intrigued LaRocca, in particular, was Miles's description of massive counterfeiting, by governments, of other countries' money. "Those have always been the biggest counterfeit jobs of all," Miles told an interested audience of half a dozen one day.
He described how the British government sanctioned forgery of great quantities of French assignats in an attempt to undermine the French Revolution. This, despite the fact that the same crime by individuals was punishable by hanging, a penalty which continued in Britain until 1821. The American Revolution began with official forgery of British banknotes. But the greatest counterfeit venture of all, Miles reported, was during World War II when Germany forged over 40 million in British money and unknown amounts of U.S. dollars, all of highest quality. The British also printed German money and so, rumor said, did most of the other Allies.
"Wouncha know it!" LaRocca declared. "Them's the kinda bastards put us in here. Betcha they're doing some o' the same right now."
LaRocca was appreciative of the cachet which attached to himself as a result of Miles's knowledge. He also made it clear that he was relaying some of the information to Mafia Row.
"Me and my people'll take care of ya outside," he announced one day, amplifying his earlier promise. Miles already knew that his own release from prison, and La Rocca's, could occur about the same time.
Talking money was a form of mental suspension for Miles, pushing away, however briefly, the horror of the present. He supposed, too, he should feel relief about the stopping of the loan clock. Yet neither talking nor thinking of other things was sufficient to exclude, except momentarily, his general wretchedness and self-disgust. Because of it, he began to consider suicide.
The self-loathing focused on his relationship with Karl. The big man had declared he wanted, "Your sweet white ass, baby. Your body just for me. Any time I need it." Since their agreement, he had made the promise come true with an appetite which seemed insatiable.
At the beginning Miles tried to anesthetize his mind, telling himself that what was happening was preferable to gang rape, which because of Karl's instinctive gentleness fit was. Yet disgust and consciousness remained. But what had developed since was worse.
Even in his own mind Miles found it hard to accept, but the fact was: he was beginning to enjoy what was occurring between himself and Karl. Furthermore, Miles was regarding his protector with new feelings… Affection? Yes… Love? Sol He dared not, for the moment, go that far.
The realizations shattered him. Yet he followed new suggestions which Karl made, even when these caused Miles's homosexual role to become more positive.
After each occasion questions haunted him. Was he a man any longer? He knew he had been before, but now could not be sure. Had he become perverted totally? Was this a way it happened? Could there ever be a turnabout, a reversion later, canceling out the tasting, savoring, here and now? If not, was life worth living? He doubted it.
It was then that despair enveloped him and that suicide seemed logical a panacea, an ending, a release. Though difficult in the crowded prison, it could be done by hanging. Five times since Miles's arrival there had been cries of "hang-up!" usually in the night when guards would rush like storm troopers, cursing, pulling levers to unlock tiers, "cracking" a cell open, racing to cut down a would be suicide before he died. On three of the five occasions, cheered on by prisoners' raucous cries and laughter, they were too late. Immediately after, because suicides were an embarrassment to the prison, night guard patrols were increased, but the effort seldom lasted.
Miles knew how it was done. You soaked a length of sheet or blanket so it wouldn't tear urinating on it would be quieter then secured it to an overhead beam which could be reached from a top bunk. It would have to be done silently while others in the cell were sleeping.. .
In the end one thing, and one thing only, stopped him. No other factor swayed Miles's decision to hang on.
He wanted, when his time in prison was done, to tell Juanita Nunez he was sorry.
Miles Eastin's penitence at his time of sentencing had been genuine. He had felt remorse at having stolen from First Mercantile American Bank where he had been treated honorably, and had given dishonor in return. In retrospect he wondered how he could have stifled his conscience as he did.
Sometimes, when he thought about it now, it seemed as if a fever had possessed hirn. The betting, socializing, sporting events, living beyond his means, the insanity of borrowing from a loan shark, and the stealing, appeared in hindsight like crazily mismated parts of a distemper. He had lost touch with reality and, as with a fever in advanced stages, his mind had been distorted until decency and moral values disappeared. How else, he had asked himself a thousand times, could he have stooped so despicably, have been guilty of such vileness, as to cast blame for his own offense on Juanita Nunez?