Today's Reading

I sat down and listened to the sounds of chains scraping, men slurping gravy, and guard boots tapping the linoleum floor. The place smelled of decaying meat and disinfectant. I lifted the bun of my cheeseburger after spying a white hair on it. The hair turned out to be a piece of paper with a message: 

8 pm tonight. Stay in bed!

I looked at the clock on the wall, which read 7:04 p.m. The clock was circular like we had in Fayetteville Public Schools some forty years ago. It was battery powered and high up on the wall so no one could reach in and use the second hand as a shiv.

In my periphery, I saw McWhorley's hand flash with a kitchen knife. A small group of unfamiliar prisoners gathered maybe twenty meters away near the kitchen entrance. In the opposite direction I noticed Smyth ascend the steps to a small sally port bridge that looked like a church choir balcony. He stared in my direction as the group near the kitchen began walking toward me like a blocking wedge for a kick-off returner on the football field.

I rotated my neck and rolled my shoulders. I ate the cheeseburger and the piece of paper, which went down smoothly with the warm, diluted tea. Was it poisoned? I pushed away from my table and began to stand to confront the aggressors.

"What's that?" Calles demanded. She moved between me and McWhorley's wedge; McWhorley stopped, eyes curious, when Calles inserted herself in the equation. Without her, the battlefield geometry was five to one. After a year of lifting weights, I put my meager prison bank account on me, despite my fifty-two years.

I continued to stand. That was the protocol. If a guard addressed you, standing to pay respects was expected. I was six feet two inches tall, and she was every bit of six feet in her jackboots.

"Cheeseburger, Sergeant," I said. McWhorley's group inched forward, some casting their eyes upward at the bridge where Smyth stood.

"The white thing," she snapped.

"Oh, mayonnaise, I guess. Or maggots. I don't look at it. I just eat it.

Like in Ranger school," I said.

Importantly, the inmate chatter claimed that Calles had played college softball at the University of Nebraska. The Ranger School comment was probably unnecessary and resulted in a swing for the fences into my kidneys. I would be pissing blood tonight for sure. Was she the artillery to soften up the target for McWhorley and team?

"You're out of line, Sinclair," she barked in my face. Then she turned to the halted wedge and said through clenched teeth, "Stand down!"

The entire cafeteria had gone silent. The clock ticked loudly. Time froze. McWhorley's wedge was conspicuously motionless, maybe stunned by her intervention.

"Yes, Sergeant," I said.

I was thankful for the interruption, though I wouldn't have minded a good fight right now. Emotionally processing an abrupt halt to a lifetime of service was already challenging, especially from the confines of a maximum-security prison. So, goddamnit, bring it on. Make me a convict and I'll act like one.

As I stood there watching the motionless cafeteria like a narrator walking through a three-dimensional movie freeze-frame, I reverted to my observation training as an army Ranger and special mission unit operator. McWhorley's knife was a forked garden tool with a wooden handle and tips honed to razor points. The lead man in the attack had a shaved head and tattoos crawling up his neck. He was jacked and the look in his eyes told me he was high on meth. He stood there flexing like a weight lifter who had just bounced a personal best snatch-and-clean on the floor.

The two men on either flank of McWhorley were equally muscled. Why they had left the task to the smallest guy in the foursome, McWhorley, was a mystery, but I could guess it was revenge for my sentencing of his rape charge.

I thought of my dead wife, Melissa, and my daughter, Reagan, anger rising again at his crime. Maybe now I could give him an even more proper sentence.

The freeze-frame went from motionless to fast-forward.

The man leading the wedge barreled toward me. Calles attempted to block him but was tossed aside with the flick of the man's left arm. His demonic eyes sparked red with evil. The two flankers protected McWhorley. The thing about fighting someone doped up on amphetamines is that they are all energy and no coordination. The army had transitioned to a respectable hand-to-hand combat training regimen about twenty years before in special mission units; we practiced combative techniques almost daily. As the commander, I did "man in the middle" drills where my men would come at me one at a time from a different direction as I stood in the center of the circle they formed.

It was rare that I lost.

My mind roared. Make me a convict and I'll act like one.

This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, May 20th, we begin the book Everyone Is Watching: A Locked-Room Thriller by Heather Gudenkauf.

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