The invisible cipher a.., p.6
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       The Invisible Cipher - A Jagged Journeys' Novella, p.6
 

          
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  He thought about his little son. So tiny and innocent. What legacy was he leaving Neil Jr.? A name? No, he had to leave him more. If he was going to die tonight, he would die doing right. He could at least give his son that. Neil furtively slipped a piece of paper and pen into a book, unsure who was watching him. He lay on the cot curled toward the wall, the book propped open.

  Dear Sunshine and Neil Jr.,

  If you are reading this then I am probably dead. Despite what you may have been told, I was not a willing part of the uprising and attempted escape. In fact, I learned of it and wrote you a letter about it, but the letter and my knowledge of the plan was discovered. I have analyzed their plans and think I know the flaws. I will try to thwart them. In doing so, I may lose my life. I am sorry, but I must do what I believe is right.

  Please know I am innocent of murder and I wanted so much better for both of you. I hope you will each have good, long lives. I love you both more than words can say.

  Neil

  He looked around the room. Should he hide it in his cell or on himself? His prison uniform didn’t leave a lot of hiding places. He folded the letter and slipped it inside the Bible Leonard had given him, then reviewed his plan for dinner.

  ***

  Neil glanced at Hugh as he exited his cell. He hoped the man would survive.

  “You’re pretty sullen.” Hugh said.

  Neil glanced at Marv waiting to be released for dinner. “Headache.”

  Marv’s nod was so slight Neil almost missed it.

  In the dining hall there was little conversation as everyone ate. Neil chewed the tough meat, his attention on every movement and sound. Tension pressed against him. Even the guards seemed to sense something was amiss. They appeared vigilant, edgy. Good, thought Neil.

  Then it happened, a fire alarm sounded outside the dining hall. Moments later, in the corner farthest from the kitchen, a prisoner yelled something and flung his tray at the man across from him. Food sprayed everywhere. Within moments fists were flying and other prisoners hustled to get out of their way. Guards moved in and more fights broke out. Several prisoners attacked guards. Neil noticed the gate at the kitchen serving window close and the kitchen’s heavy metal doors slammed shut. He resisted a smile.

  Another alarm announcing trouble joined the fire alarm.

  He rose and looked for Hugh. A table away J.R. sat eating, his attention on the mayhem around him. J.R.’s gaze locked with Neil’s. Neil nodded at him and moved toward Hugh who was breaking up a fight. Neil flung his arm around the guard’s neck like J.R.’s man had done to him earlier and pulled Hugh off the prisoners. Hugh struggled and almost broke free.

  Neil had to use all his strength to hold the man who weighted twenty to thirty pounds more and was solid muscle. He pulled Hugh’s head close to his. “This is a distraction so J.R. can escape.”

  Hugh’s hazel eyes focused on Neil’s.

  “Bear works for J.R. and intercepted my letter of warning.”

  Hugh struggled. Neil wrestled back and pulled the guard toward the kitchen. “I’m supposed to kill you—”

  A couple of men bumped into Neil. He lost his balance and grip. Hugh struggled free and turned on Neil. Neil lunged at the guard but was quickly maneuvered into a hold. “You should have never gotten tangled up with J.R. and his gang,” Hugh said pinning Neil’s hands behind him.

  “I’m not. Listen—”

  “Yeah, right. I thought you were different.” Hugh tightened his grip.

  “Listen, J.R.’s planning to escape out—” A movement caught Neil’s attention. The Rat was moving toward them, the Rat’s hand hung oddly at his side. Behind the Rat, Neil could see J.R., Marv, and a few others headed toward the kitchen door.

  With Neil’s arms pulled behind him he couldn’t stop the downward motion of his body onto a table.

  Neil struggled to free himself as the Rat closed in on them. “J.R.’s headed to the kitchen and the waiting delivery truck.” He leaned his weight onto Hugh’s hand. Neil motioned with his head toward the kitchen. “We’ve got to stop them.”

  “Good try. The kitchen’s on lock down.”

  Neil continued to press against Hugh’s hand. The guard’s grip loosened.

  The Rat was now only a few feet to their left. He raised his hand—a knife clutched in his grip.

  “Nooo,” Neil yelled. With all his strength he spun and stood between Hugh and the Rat. As Hugh stumbled backwards and lost his grip on Neil’s right arm, the Rat plunged the knife into Neil’s left bicep. Neil pivoted into the Rat, hitting him square on the jaw. The Rat stumbled backward, pulling the knife out. Neil pressed after him, punched him in the stomach. The Rat doubled and Neil grabbed the prisoner’s head with both hands and shoved him backwards. The man tripped over a chair and fell.

  Hugh scrambled to his feet.

  Blood oozed between Neil’s fingers pressed against the wound. His eyes locked on Hugh’s then moved their focus to the kitchen door, now opening.

  Hugh and the Rat saw it too. The Rat moved to stand but Neil kicked him in the chin, knocking him out. Hugh nodded at Neil as he leapt over the Rat and ran to the kitchen, grabbing another guard as he went.

  Neil saw several more of J.R.’s men making their way to the kitchen. He raced after Hugh.

  The kitchen worker who’d opened the door tried to shut it but Hugh raced through the doorway and seized the man as he went.

  Neil was behind the second guard and almost through the doorway when one of J.R.’s men grabbed his shirt. Neil spun and punched the man in the face. The man backed up momentarily and Neil shut the door. J.R.’s men beat on the locked door.

  J.R. and four other prisoners with knives stopped herding employees and kitchen helpers into the large walk-in freezer and turned toward the sound.

  J.R. glanced at the two guards and then Neil. “Kill them,” he ordered.

  Three of the men turned on Neil and the guards. Now only J.R. and Marv prodded the others into the freezer.

  Neil grabbed several knives from an open drawer, “Hugh.” He tossed two at the guards.

  One of J.R.’s men ran at Neil, a sharpened toothbrush in his hand.

  Neil’s heart raced. He no longer heard the rest of J.R.’s men banging on the door or other noises. His sole focus was on the man attacking him. Neil faced him straight on.

  The man lunged at him.

  Neil spun to the side at the last moment.

  The man’s arms and legs flailed to keep his balance while his long bony fingers grabbed at Neil’s neck.

  Neil leaned back as the man’s nails scraped into Neil’s skin and his fingers caught Neil’s collar.

  Neil yanked the man’s arm away with his left hand and felt searing pain from the earlier stab wound. He tripped the man then shoved his elbow between his attacker’s shoulder blades. The man stumbled to the ground and Neil pounced on him.

  The prisoner writhed beneath Neil, jabbing at Neil’s leg and side with the sharpened toothbrush. Though slender, he was tall with long limbs and as Neil grabbed the arm trying to stab him, his attacker shifted his weight and spun Neil onto his back and pounced on Neil.

  Neil stared into the hard, dark eyes of his attacker, the concrete floor hard against his back, multiplied by the man’s weight.

  “Fool.”

  Spittle sprayed across Neil’s face.

  Somewhere pans clattered to the floor.

  The man raised his homemade weapon above his head to plunge it into Neil’s chest.

  Neil saw the shank plummeting toward him and rolled to his side as the sharp handle grazed his back. He then rolled back, pinning the man’s hand and weapon underneath him. Neil tightened his grip on the knife and thrust it at his attacker.

  His opponent pulled his hand free, leaving the toothbrush blade under Neil, caught Neil’s arm, and banged it repeatedly into the floor while pinning Neil’s left arm under his knee.

  From somewhere in the kitchen a plea for mercy rang out.
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br />   Neil struggled to hold on but could sense his grip on the weapon loosen. As he did, he realized the man’s weight had shifted and while continuing to wrestle with the knife Neil wiggled his left hand free.

  Just then the knife slipped from his hand.

  Neil’s attacker reached for the knife.

  Neil shoved the heel of his hand into the man’s nose with all his might. There was a pop and blood gushed.

  “You son of a…”

  Neil grabbed the man’s ears with both hands and slammed his head to the floor next to him. Neil shoved the man’s limp body off him and retrieved his knife.

  He surveyed the kitchen before standing. The other guard was still wrestling with a man but the guy who’d put a choke hold on him in the exercise yard several hours earlier lay handcuffed on the floor. Hugh crawled behind a work table toward J.R. and Marv who were moving tall metal racks in front of the walk-in freezer.

  As his focus from the fight with his attacker left, his senses expanded to the sounds of the kitchen workers’ pleas from inside the freezer, the cafeteria fight, and the continued banging on the kitchen door.

  A buzzer rang at the outside delivery door. J.R. was about to make his move. If Neil didn’t do something quick J.R. would escape. Hugh was now crouched behind a large mixer behind J.R. and Marv. Neil made eye contact with Hugh.

  Neil scrambled to his feet. “You’re not gonna get away with this, J.R. I won’t play your game.”

  J.R.’s face flushed red. “You little spittoon. I should have known you’d try and double cross me.” A defiant grin spread across his face. “You think scrawny little you and two guards can stop me?” He motioned at the delivery door. “My getaway van is here. Then I’ll go get that pretty little girl of yours.”

  Neil tensed, but he continued to move left, away from Hugh and the other guard who had finally cuffed his prisoner. “Like you said, J.R., I’m trouble. That’s just the way I’m wired.” He took a few more steps to the left, forcing J.R. to turn his attention away from the two guards. “You should have asked my old man. He’d have told you.”

  The guards inched their way to the right. Neil tried not to look at them and give away their position.

  The men outside the kitchen continued to pound on the door.

  “Let them in,” J.R. said to Marv. “I’ll take care of this punk.”

  Those inside the freezer pushed the door open a crack, banging it against the racks.

  Neil took several more steps as Marv moved to the cafeteria door. “Yeah, I’m so much trouble my old man just disowned me.”

  J.R. smiled at this.

  “Sent me a telegram telling me so.”

  “And that don’t make you want to bust this joint and go slit his throat?”

  “I wasn’t ever gonna get out. Your friend there—” He nodded to the man Hugh had cuffed while both guards slipped closer to J.R. “—even said I was staying behind. Not much of an incentive to help.”

  J.R. turned. “Where’s those guar—”

  The guards rushed at him.

  Marv was almost to the door. If the others got in, Neil and the guards would again be outnumbered.

  Neil ran after Marv and rammed into him just as the prisoner turned the door knob. The door scraped open but Neil slammed his weight and the surprised Marv back into it. A stream of profanities and pounding fists assaulted the door. Marv pushed against the door to face Neil but Neil grabbed Marv’s shoulders and bashed him back into the door, knocking his head against the metal several times.

  On the other side of the door Neil could hear a scuffle and guards’ voices.

  Marv’s fight weakened and Neil pulled the man from the door, shoved him to the floor, and pinned him there. Neil looked to the freezer to see the racks pushed away as a lanky kitchen worker escaped and released the others.

  Hugh and the other guard were still wrestling J.R. But as those trapped in the freezer escaped some of them joined in taking J.R. down while others ran to sit on the two cuffed prisoners attempting to crawl to the delivery door.

  Outside the kitchen the fighting subsided. When the head guard unlocked the kitchen door he stopped in surprise as did everyone in the room. He looked at Hugh, the other guard, and those sitting on J.R. and his men. “What’s this all about?”

  “J.R. and some of his gang had plans to escape,” Hugh said.

  The guard nodded. He looked at Neil who straddled Marv. “What about him?”

  “He needs his arm looked after and then send him to solitary,” Hugh said.

  Solitary? Neil looked at Hugh. The guard wiped blood from his lip, they made eye contact then Hugh turned away.

  The alarms quit sounding.

  The head guard called several other guards into the kitchen. He pointed at Neil. “Take that one to the infirmary and J.R. and the others to solitary confinement.”

  “I’d watch my back, Mr. Innocent,” Marv said. “You’re as good as dead.”

  Chapter Four - Deciphering a New Code

  The stab wound in Neil’s arm ached.

  A prisoner moaned in a nearby cell and someone else yelled profanities. Prison was lonely enough but solitary confinement reminded Neil of a crypt he’d seen the day of his mother’s funeral. Was this what death would feel like? The sounds of human agony all around him yet devoid of genuine interaction?

  Neil ran his hands through his hair as he sat on the hard bed in the dim, concrete cell. Why had Hugh sent him here? After all he did, didn’t the guard believe he was innocent?

  “Knock it off,” a guard hollered and struck a prisoner’s door with what Neil imagined was his hand.

  Neil flinched. He reviewed how the whole thing went down. Could he have done anything differently? Should he have let J.R. and his gang of thugs get away with their plan of escape? Then he thought of Hugh. If he hadn’t stepped in the officer would be dead—the man who sent him to solitary confinement. Solitary or not, he didn’t have to live with that man’s blood on his hands. And that’s exactly what he would do if he followed J.R.’s instructions. No, he couldn’t see another way out. He’d do it again.

  Keys jingled somewhere and a heavy metal door squeaked open then banged shut. A scream wove its way down the hall and into Neil’s cell.

  “Guard. Guard,” an inmate called.

  “Oh, shut up,” someone yelled.

  He thought of his infant son. Sunshine had said Neil Jr. was often colicky. When she said it he wondered how he would handle that. Now he longed to hear it—longed to hold his son and try to soothe him. How long could a person take this? Would he someday be screaming like a mad man?

  “Guard.”

  “Shut up old man.”

  He thought back to the events that led him here.

  How long would it take to find the real killer? Would Sunshine wait? What if she took their son and moved far away? She was beautiful. Even with a child there were lots of men who would marry her.

  Then a horrible thought struck him. What if she didn’t want his child—the child of a murderer? Or what if whatever man she married didn’t want his child? What if whoever she married forced her to give their baby up for adoption? What if her future boyfriend or husband beat their child? Neil jumped to his feet and paced the small room.

  Up until this moment he hadn’t allowed himself to think on such things. But now this latest incident reminded him how far away from Sunshine and Neil Jr. he was. How completely out of control he was. There was nothing he could do or say to keep her love or protect his son.

  Did Sunshine know about the fight? If she did, did she think he was involved as a troublemaker? As an inmate trying to escape? At what point would she have enough of his antics?

  Neil hit the concrete wall with the side of his fist. He was helpless. He was going to lose her and his son and probably his life. A few months ago it seemed all he needed to do was get a job and provide for them. And for what? Nothing. What was the point? He’d tried to do what was right and failed—again.
>
  Footsteps echoed in the hall.

  He shoved his fist into his open palm. If he wasn’t around then Sunshine would be free to go her own way and do what she thought best. All he could hope was that she wouldn’t abandon their son. Neil looked around the bare room. There was nothing sharp to slit his wrists with and even though there was a sheet, there was nothing to drape it over with which to hang himself.

  It only figured. The warden had masterfully created a space where he could fully experience his misery without even death as a way of escape.

  Keys rattled at his door and then it opened. A bored guard stood in the open space. “Exercise.”

  Neil nodded and walked slightly ahead of the man to the exercise yard which was nothing more than a larger, empty, concrete cell with twenty-foot walls and a metal grate over the opening.

  “One hour,” the guard said and the metal door clanked behind him.

  “One hour,” Neil repeated out loud, just to hear his voice. He inhaled deeply. A shadow passed over him and he looked up in time to see several small birds fly by. What was it Leonard had told him once when he’d mentioned his loneliness and fears? Something about God seeing a bird falling and caring about that bird?

  Neil stretched, then attempted some one-handed push-ups against a wall, his left arm hanging in a sling from the knife wound. If he was going to stay here he might as well get in the best shape he could to protect himself. He didn’t put much faith in Leonard’s God helping him. It didn’t seem God had helped out yet, or even saw his troubles. Why would God want to help a screw-up like him? What had he ever done that was worth anything?

  Neil moved from wall push-ups to lopsided jumping jacks and then jogged in place. He was sure he looked ridiculous and was glad no one could see him. Before he knew it his hour was up and the guard was escorting him back to his cell.

  “Hey nark,” someone yelled as he walked past. “Don’t think you got away with stopping us.”

  “That’s enough,” ordered the guard.

  In his cell the prisoner’s words haunted him. As best as he could tell it was only nine in the morning. He had the rest of the day to dawdle away. That was the downside of going to the exercise yard first thing in the morning. Neil attempted to pen a letter to Sunshine then shoved the paper aside and lay down.

 
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