A Prisoner's DilemmaMatthew Karabache / History & Fiction
A PRISONER’S DILEMMA
Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Karabache
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‘Hey, Hank,’ Willard whispered under his breath. ‘Ain’t you only in for a five bit? Why you wanna escape for?’
The two men were almost painfully close together, shoulder-to-shoulder. The tunnel was high enough to crouch in, barely, but it was easier to lie down and crawl while they were scraping away with their stolen spoons. It was cool down here, under the prison, and the air stank of sweat and dry earth.
Carefully, Hank took a handful of loose dirt and tucked it into his undershirt against his stomach. ‘I knocked up Ethel not long before I got sent over. Carl came by a couple of weeks ago, told me we had a girl. Dottie, Ethel called her.’
The other man snorted. ‘Well congratulations.’
‘I been in here ten months. Ethel ain’t come to see me, not once. Carl told me she says she don’t want nothing to do with me, not while I’m under glass. My dad sat in the cooler eight years while I was growin’ up and I ain’t gonna do the same to Dottie. I gotta be there for her, Will.’
‘Right, I got ya,’ Willard said. A second later he chuckled softly to himself.
Hank stopped, glaring blindly towards the bank robber in the darkness. ‘What’s funny?’
‘Ah jeez. Nothing. Sorry. You ain’t the only one here ‘cause they’re dizzy with a dame, is all.’ There was still a smile in his voice.
‘I’m not…’ Hank absently turned his digging tool over in his hand as his jaw worked, trying to find the right words. ‘I just gotta be there for my daughter, okay? Ain’t gonna just sit in the cooler while she grows up. Can’t.’
Willard shifted, moving another handful of dirt. ‘Sure, sure. Hey, you run with us after we’re out, you’ll be rolling in kale. That’ll change her mind quick. You’d be surprised how many broads’ll size up as a worker for the right amount of scratch. And if she don’t, forget about her. You’ll have your pick.’
‘Look, Will, that ain’t what I’m about.’ Hank could feel the bile rise up in the back of his throat. He’d been nine when his own father got out of prison; a stranger that had swaggered back into his mom’s world like he owned it.
Hank had been excited at first—his dad had bought him a shiny new bike, a real expensive one. He hadn’t realised it was a bribe, not ‘til later at least. Just one of many his father had used to pay his way back into their lives.
‘Yeah, we’ll see,’ said Willard.
Hank could tell that Willard was still smiling and it pissed him off. He dug into the tunnel wall with a renewed burst of energy, stabbing at the hard-packed earth. It’d always been just like that. His dad would disappear for a few days and come back with even more money. He’d buy them some things, then spend the rest of his time out with Johnny Barleycorn.
Young Hank hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d just lie awake and listen for when his dad got home, slurred and stumbling and pitching for a fight. Sometimes his mom was lucky and the old man would pass out before he got too bad. Sometimes she wasn’t.
‘Careful!’ Willard hissed, nudging him with a shoulder. ‘You wanna bring the bulls down on us?’
Hank dutifully subdued his movements, setting his jaw and pushing away the memories of his childhood. The minutes trickled by in relative silence, broken only by the scrape of spoons on hard earth and their breathing.
After a while a grinding, metallic noise came from behind them. Dim light crept shallowly into the tunnel and Hank could actually see his hands in front of his face again. It was time to change shifts. He handed his spoon to Willard, who grinned at him. ‘See ya.’
Taking care not to grind his knees or elbows into the dirt, he wriggled backwards, lifting himself into a hunched crouch and shuffling back toward the tunnel’s entrance. At the end he stood up, his body just narrowly fitting up into the wallspace. The hole they’d chiselled in the concrete bricks was a tight fit, but Hank flopped through it like a fish, just as he’d done dozens of times before.
The cell was small and cramped. There was a set of bunk beds bolted to the floor on one side, a toilet and tiny washbasin against the opposite wall. Joey stood over him, giving him a quick nod of acknowledgement. Hank hurriedly stood and moved out of the way as Joey moved the toilet back into place against the wall, hiding the tunnel entrance behind the cistern.
Straightening his uniform, Hank carefully brushed away the traces of dirt clinging to the black and white stripes. As usual, some was ground in and wouldn’t come out ‘til he could get it washed, but they were cautiously confident that they were safe so long as the bulls didn’t look too closely. At least, they hadn’t been caught out just yet.
Joey stepped across the cramped room and lifted himself onto the edge of the top bunk, legs dangling down while he kept watch out the door. The bank robber couldn’t see the corridor properly from where he was, but he didn’t need to. Harry Pierpont sat across the way two cells down, watching from where he was, and Louis was down the opposite way, looking bored as he leaned casually against the blank wall. Joey could see both of them from where he was and they had worked out some simple signals to warn him about guards or other problems.
Feigning nonchalance, Hank strolled out the open door and started his walk around the perimeter of the cell block. He didn’t see the guard until it was too late. Rounding the last corner before the yard, Hank walked right into the heavy-set bull coming the other way.
‘Watch it, prisoner!’ the man snarled.
A meaty palm slammed into the middle of Hank’s chest, pinning him against the wall. The bull’s other hand was already hovering over the heavy truncheon at his waist, ready to administer the precise level of beating its owner deemed necessary.
Hank mumbled out an apology, heart pounding in his chest, almost choking on fear and the stench of cheap cigarettes on the guard’s breath. There was a tickling itch at his side and he realised with horror that some of the dirt tucked into his undershirt had spilled out onto the guard’s shoes.
The other man’s eyes drilled into him, daring him to make a wrong move. Hank looked down and away, desperately willing the other man to just move on, praying that he wouldn’t notice the dirt. After a few moments, the guard snorted in amusement, apparently satisfied by Hank’s easy submission.
Hank almost fell over when the bull let him go and walked off. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself, but his mind was racing. If he’d been caught just then, his life would have been over. Escaping…when he did escape, was he going to feel like that all the time?
He forced himself to start walking again, putting one plodding foot in front of the other. He’d been so desperate to not have Dottie start her life without a father, he hadn’t really thought through the situation he’d be throwing himself into. He’d be a wanted criminal for the rest of his life—would he even be able to provide for Ethel and Dottie without running bank robberies with these guys?
Joey, Willard and Louis had robbed a half-dozen banks between them. Willard had even killed a copper during one of his escapes. If they broke out together, he’d be one of them. Probably for the rest of his life.
At the far end of the cell block was a tiny metal drain with thick grating across it set into the concrete floor. Hank looked around, pretending to stretch, then leaned against the wall next to the drain and slid down to sit by it. If he stayed in here, though, Dottie wouldn’t have a father for the first four years of her life. Worse, if Ethel kept refusing to come see him, she might move on. They could both disappear and he wouldn’t even have a chance to do right by them. Then again, would Ethel want anything to do with Hank if he was a wanted man? She was angry enough at him as it was…she might even just report him.
The grating over the drain was welded in place, the spaces between the metal so small that you couldn’t even get a finger between them. That was fine for his purposes, though. As Hank sat and thought, he slowly removed the dirt he’d tucked into his undershirt a bit at a time, tipping it down the drain whenever he felt it was safe enough to do so.
As he let a fistful of dirt trickle into the drain, a thought occurred to him. A long while back, he’d heard about some guy in the big house getting his sentence commuted—five years slashed right off for an early parole release—for snitching on other prisoners when they were planning an escape.
Hank wasn’t a violent offender and, so far as the warden knew, he’d been a model prisoner since day one. Escaping from prison may have been a reckless plan, but maybe these guys could still be his ticket out of here. An icy knot formed in Hank’s stomach and a voice in the back of his mind was yelling that he shouldn’t even be considering this. He’d be putting himself in a lot of danger by betraying these people. And yet…
Could he do it? Could he really drop a dime on the others?
He’d have to be careful. This was Willard’s second escape attempt. He’d organised a play three years ago with some other saps. They’d failed, obviously, and he’d had another eight years slapped onto his sentence and spent a year in bing as punishment. Will hated solitary.
Hank had never found out exactly what had happened to Arthur, the guy Will blamed for the bust. Anyone who’d actually been there avoided talking about it and, the one time it’d come up, Willard had seemed oddly satisfied with himself in a way that had made Hank really uncomfortable. They’d probably throw Willard right back in bing if he got caught again. If he found out that Hank were responsible…he remembered Will’s creepy smile and shuddered to himself.
When the dirt was all gone, swallowed up by the prison’s plumbing, Hank eased himself back to his feet and headed back toward the other side of the cell block. As he walked, he watched Louis straighten up and wander away from his lookout post. Ten seconds later, Hank was standing where Louis had been, pacing slowly back and forth.
He swallowed hard, making up his mind. Carl was supposed to come to visit again tomorrow morning. When the bulls came and got him, he’d wait until they cleared the block before letting them know he had important information for the warden. He’d ask to make a deal. Joey and the rest were dangerous felons—Hank was certain he’d be able to get a commuted sentence for flipping on them. All he’d need to do was survive until he could get out on parole, which would hopefully happen sooner rather than later if the warden played ball.
Hank nodded to himself. He’d do this right. Earn his way back into Ethel and Dottie’s lives. Not with lies, crime, and dirty money, but by acting like a responsible father. All he had to do was survive.
TALES OF THE SUNDERED LAND
The Flame’s Burden
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Matthew Karabache is addicted to stories of all kinds, devouring those made up by others and creating his own with equal gusto. Mythology and folklore hold a special fascination for him and he plunders them for ideas and other riches like some sort of literary pirate. He has been writing for as long as he can remember and will continue to do so for ever and ever. You can’t stop him, so there. He lives in Brisbane, Australia.