My fist connects with the soft spot in Coolie’s right cheek, just above his lower jaw, and I hear teeth shatter under my knuckles. I hit him just the way you’re supposed to, arm straight out, wrist stiff like steel, all forward thrust anchored from the shoulder and popped like a coiled spring at my elbow. You turn your whole arm into a concrete piston when you do that. This guy, he’s big and all—but big doesn’t mean anything when you go straight for the face. A monster can’t grow muscles on his teeth. Giant guys who are used to victory by intimidation never expect it to come right at them like this, not ever. Coolie stumbles back all dazed, the knockout reflex working overtime. I hit him next in the throat, a jujitsu-style straight jab with my fingers. His windpipe closes with a sick crack and he loses all his air. When he drops the shank and reaches up to grab his throat, I kick him dead center, just below the belt. That cancels the fight. But just to be sure, and to make it nice and showy for the boys, I swing around again with the heel of my foot and something that looks like a big red tomato bomb explodes in the center of his face. He goes down on the dirty asphalt, dreaming about whatever.
The crowd goes crazy, like it’s a football game.
The smell of blood crawls up my nose, sharp and wet and stinging, like salt water dripping from a rusty razor. I never get used to that. I always avoid it.
But some things are inevitable.
Like the sweaty smiles of two hundred drooling, backstabbing criminal jerks, cheering your name because you know how to kick the ass of a guy twice your size. It’s surreal. Like something out of a movie. My name, over and over. And the hand claps, in time with the chant:
“Coffin! Coffin! Coffin!”
They clap like this when you go in, when you first walk down the cell block. Some of them spit on you. But they only yell your name out loud when you’ve earned respect. That’s when nobody messes with you. They’ve seen me jack up six guys in broad daylight, right on the yard, just like this. The tougher guys, the big mean black dudes, they don’t chant or clap. But they give you the high nod without a smile. That means you’re protected. That means this idiot at my feet will be servicing the gangbangers for six months in the showers. I’ll get a carton of cigarettes when I’m out of solitary. T-Jay is my sponsor here, a gnarled ebony giant with a cold fifty-yard stare and a mouth filled with jagged glass. I broke the arm of a dirty white boy who called himself Mentor, just after I got here. He was bigger than Coolie, all full of muscle, but it never matters. Boom. They’re down. Then they’re someone else’s bitch.
The hacks are already sounding the lockup bell, surrounding me on all sides, telling me we can go hard or easy. When a full-view fight like this breaks out on the yard, everybody goes back in the can for two hours. The guys are going quietly this time. A month ago, I had to take on three at once and there was almost a riot. Nobody’s in the mood for billy clubs and mace this morning. I give it up with my hands against the concrete, near the basketball stop. They grab my arms and hustle me off. Nothing too rough. They all know I have the cash to pay my way. I’ll get a week in the hole, but it’ll be easy. It’ll give me time to think. One of the hacks kicks Coolie in the guts to see if he’s still alive. I made sure he would be. I could have killed him, but I didn’t. This won’t even go down in the books as self-defense. A few extra bills will make sure nobody saw a thing. I can get word to the Fixer from solitary that I need the money. Second parole hearing in just three weeks. The record has to be clean. I’ll be denied early release, right on schedule. But six rejections later, by the letter of this place, I’ll be out. That’s what the Fixer tells me. So long as the record is clean.
And then . . .
When I’m back on the street, I’ll find Hartman and make him pay. I’ll look right into his eyes and I’ll tell him he should have killed me when he could have. He’ll look me in the eyes and beg me not to kill him. I’ve never killed a man before in my life.
I’ll kill him for you.
• • •
This place is all concrete and corroded metal, almost a hundred years old, renovated once in the seventies. The kind of dungeon that still stands because someone got paid off. My cell is damp and stale. They always stick me in this one when I have to do solitary, because it’s close to the main block causeway, and I’m favored by the management. The walls reek of piss and semen and bad mojo. People get sick a lot because the plumbing is for shit and the water is brown. I never drink it. You can buy the bottled stuff for a buck in the commissary. Six bucks gets it delivered to the hole. Been living off Ozarka and Diet Coke for way too long.
Two years down.
I shouldn’t even be here.
Not down in the hole with monsters like Coolie and T-Jay.
The good news is that it’s a system set up like grade school compared to what I know how to navigate in the real world. They gave me thirty years. I’ll only be in for five. I’ve worked it like a pro, which is exactly what I am. They transfer you to the east side of the top tier with no cellmate when you have a clean record for a while, when you do good in trade classes and group therapy and play nice with others. I’ve been on the top tier since day one, even though my case file has Organized Crime stamped on it in large red letters. That only cost me six hundred bucks to set up. Little trips like this to the shock corridor are just vacations. Time to get things straight, to plan your next move. You always have to plot everything. It all works if you let it. Once the design is laid out carefully, all the leads running end to end, it’s a puzzle that fits together, and the solutions are pure logic. Like a computer program. Like a time lock.
Like everything I know how to do.
• • •
They send a guy to get me, three days into my vacation. Strange. They never do anything ahead of schedule here.
The hack’s name is Merrick. He’s a skinny little weasel with a big red nose. I’ve known him for six months. He splits my money with four other guys his size. Merrick’s voice crackles trhough the tiny speaker, telling me to step away from the door and put my hands against the opposite wall. The noise is for show because of the TV camera in here.
His key tumbles the lock. I know exactly what the gears and metal rods look like as they move from place to place inside that big steel door.
I could open it using a wire coat hanger and some spit.
That’s why they have two hacks with SPAS-12 riot shotguns on the outer corridor. Not to mention that nasty PC-based access grid wired to the main causeway entrance with laser sensors spiderwebbed across the entire cell block. The grid relays to an orbiting satellite. It’s not the most sophisticated security system I’ve ever sussed out, but it’s enough to keep me in here. Even if I got through the shock corridor to the main causeway, the 50-cal machine guns on the wall would turn me into deep-fried grits faster than you could call me a dumbass. The guards all have iPhones now, like little pocket video games with custom applications that tell you exactly where to look when a con runs for the wire. It’s mostly muscle technology here. Big guns that keep people in line. Targeting systems. Maximum security. Like rigging a rusty old beaver trap with computerized heat sensors. I figured the escape odds once, and five years on the inside working the rehabilitation system was a far better bet. Fifty-seven men have been cut down trying to run from this place, and six of them were wireheads like me. One of them even had a plan all worked out.
Merrick enters the cell, cuffs my hands behind my head and tells me I have a visitor. I don’t say a word to him. I never say much to anybody in this place, not even in the classes, and especially not in group therapy. When you’re silent and dangerous, they always assume the worst. Merrick and the other hacks just know I’m smart.
I go quietly, even though I don’t want to, even though I don’t like surprises. Sometimes the hacks will deliver you right to the bull queers. That doesn’t happen when you pay the right guys. It doesn’t happen today.
Merrick marches me through the shock corridor and off the main causeway. A steel door with a lock older than I am clatters open and sunlight hits me in both eyes like a searing sucker punch. It’s seven thirty in the morning. The cons are all doing chow shifts in the mess hall. We’re moving across the yard now, towards the main administration building. Only trustees get to walk around in there, and I’m no trustee, not yet. I still don’t say a word.
A few more doors, a few more locks.
A long gray corridor that leads to a small white room.
In the center of the room is a woman smoking a cigarette at a brown table behind a wall of six-inch bulletproof glass.
• • •
She looks about mid-forties, green eyes, a shock of blonde hair shot through with elegant gray, brand-new suit jacket pressed like sharp black armor over a white shirt with a rigid collar, buttoned almost to her neck. An air of mystery looming in a halo around her face. Something familiar, something alien. Some papers spread on the table. An open briefcase at her elbow. Hard glints of metal in the briefcase, maybe a handgun.
On my side of the glass, there is a thick steel chair bolted to the floor that Merrick tells me to have a seat in. He cuffs my feet to the chair, through a loop that runs to a chain attached to the steel on my wrists. I could get free of the bracelets easy in two minutes. The leg irons would be a bigger challenge. By then, I’d probably be dead. So I settle in. Merrick leaves us alone together in the room.
The woman behind the glass doesn’t smile at me.
“I thought you’d look younger,” she says.
Her voice is focused like a laser beam, all precision syllables and cold logic through the cheap tin speakers that separate us.
I don’t say a word. She drags on her cigarette.
“It says in your file that you’re thirty-three years old. Is that true?”
I just look at her.
The lady smiles a little now, sensing my game. “Okay . . . you don’t have to talk to me. Not yet. But you’ll want to talk to me soon. I promise.”
She ruffles through the papers.
“You had a pretty clean record before you went in here. One arrest for drunk and disorderly in Dallas. Your case was dismissed on Deferred Adjudication, but you never had the charge expunged from your record, even after your time as a soldier. I wonder why a pro like you would allow that to stay on there.”
Never thought it mattered.
I was a kid when that happened.
It wasn’t real.
She sees me answer the question without saying a word and gives me a long, serious glare.
“Look, Mister Coffin, I know what’s going on here, and I respect it. Your very survival for the past two years has depended on the cultivation of a certain image. But there’s no camera in this little room today, no cons. I’ve gone to great personal expense to arrange a private audience with you and I need to know if I’m speaking to the right man.”
I sort of nod to her.
Yes, you’re talking to Elroy Coffin.
Yes, I’m the guy who went in for seventeen counts of armed robbery.
Yes, I only went in because I tried to kill a man.
Yes, everything in your silly little file is true.
More or less.
“Okay,” she says. Then stubs out her cigarette on the table in front of her. I notice the No Smoking sign behind her for the first time, and I almost smile.
She doesn’t smile at all.
“Let’s talk about family, Mister Coffin. Let’s talk about why you’re here. I understand what made you want to kill someone. It’s the same reason I’ve used my own personal fortunes to lobby against gun control and death penalty reforms in Texas. I believe in punishment, when the punishment fits the crime. I don’t believe in second chances when it comes to the loss of someone you love. Do you know who I am?”
No. But you’re going to tell me.
She smirks at the other end of her cigarette. “I’m what you might call a . . . concerned citizen.”
That’s really nice.
“My fortunes were made in the building industry, private sector. My assets are recession-proof. I could buy the lives of a thousand talented young men like yourself. And I have. But one thing money can never buy is family. The pain. You know the pain. You live in it here, in this place. You can never be free once that pain takes hold. No prison can compare to it.”
This lady has obviously never been in prison.
She’s also not a criminal psychologist—she’s a rich woman, a powerful woman. I would have known that before the first word left her mouth. The real question is: What the hell is a smart, tough cookie like her doing in a place like this? She could have sent an expert. A lawyer or a lackey, trained to deal with assholes like me. She either made those fortunes of hers by being really hands-on, or she’s not who she says she is.
But I don’t buy that. Not really.
See, the thing is . . . she’s right. About the pain. Nobody knows what the pain is like. Not until you lose it all.
“I’m not just talking about the horror of lost family, Mister Coffin—I think you know what I mean. I’m also talking about very real pain. The bullet that went in your head. To be honest, I’m not only amazed you lived through all that . . . I’m also a little bit astonished that your faculties remain intact. You can still talk, right?”
I nod to her, almost shrugging.
“That’s miraculous. A nine-millimeter shot at such close range is usually lethal.”
Yes it is.
“I’ve read your case files, studied your hospital psych reports. You made the wrong move because you were obsessed. When we become obsessed, Mister Coffin . . . all the best laid plans of mice and men go straight to hell. We see the prize just beyond our reach and it drives us mad.”
Yes it does.
“The assault charges were nothing—they could have been bought. You had the money. Actually, I suspect you still have the money. They had you cold on the robberies. Why was that?”
You know already. You tell me.
“You were put here by the man you threatened. A man who was your own employer. The Travis County District Attorney’s Office knew you were set up. They even waved a deal in front of your face and you told them to go screw themselves. Those were your exact words. They wanted your father also and you wouldn’t roll over on him. I admire that. Family is very important to a person like myself.”
She pauses. A sly little smile crosses her lips.
“As a matter of fact . . . I’ve just come from a meeting with your father, Mister Coffin. He told me to say hello.”
Her words hit me like a wave, my eyes fill with shock.
And it just comes right out:
“Like hell you did.”
• • •
She’s one of those people who know everything. Every damn detail of my life, because she has the money to buy men like me. She reads the bullet points off like it’s the weekly plot synopsis for some soap opera, reprinted in boring English right out of the TV Guide. She knows about the five-man team my father put together more than ten years ago and the reputation we built, cracking safes and security systems. She knows how every generation does it a little better than the one before it.
Ringo Coffin, the old-school machine-gun bandit.
His boy Elroy, the high-tech future of criminal enterprise.
She also knows about everything before that—my bust when I was seventeen, my two years in the army, the muay-kwon martial-arts training in Nacogdoches, my honorable discharge, my four-year apprenticeship in Dallas with Axl Gange, the smartest goddamn thief that ever lived, just before he was killed by David Hartman. Big-time shit kicking. Major blood and guts.
Hartman, the Monster.
God damn him.
The woman on the other side of the glass knows about the seventeen jobs I did for that bastard—me on the laptop, my father on the stick. Vaults filled with folding cash.
And, of course, she knows about Toni.
Who could get any man to believe she loved him.
Toni, our one-woman intelligence squad.
Who went with Hartman finally because men like him get what they want, one way or another.
Because Hartman told her I was dead if she didn’t.
I didn’t care, though—she was still my woman and I wouldn’t sign the papers. In Texas, you can’t get a divorce unless both parties come to terms in front of a judge. She begged me to do it, told me they would kill me. Said she was saving my life. I didn’t care. I would have saved her from him, just like she thought she was saving me, by being his woman.
Hartman, the pig.
God damn him.
I was circling his assets like a shark. His bank accounts and his foreign trust fronts and his contracts with government defense. If you see the leads, all laid out carefully, it all comes together. If you follow the rules and don’t get stupid, revenge can be yours. The rules are what kept my father alive for so many years, even after his fall. You go through channels. You plot it all with precision. You don’t get caught.
But then . . .
Two hundred pounds of meatball muscle stuffed into jogging sweats tried to kill me in my own house—a very ugly man with a red neck and a big gun, one of Hartman’s semi-pro gorillas. The kind of thug you only hire when you’re crazy and cheap. The guy’s name was Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers, no kidding. I broke both of Fred’s legs and dumped him in a parking lot while he cried like a little boy. I told him I was sorry about this. Actually apologized to the son of a bitch. He just kept crying. He smelled like beer and mud and gutter trash. Disgusting.
In Mister Rogers’s wallet, I found a picture of my wife with her throat cut.
That was the end of best laid plans.
That was when the rage took me.
I started by kicking Mister Rogers all over that parking lot, the whole world falling from under my feet in one blazing moment of absolute despair and hopelessness, all good things blown away and replaced with unreason and straight solutions—the kind that fill your eyes with water and your face with blood, your entire life boiled down to one primal scream as you pound and pound and pound. Mister Rogers was almost dead when I left him. He swore to me that Hartman was the one who did Toni and I believed it. Dumb grunts like that never lie well when their bones have all gone south.
So I walked right up to David’s house empty-handed.
Broad daylight, no alibi.
I was going to kill Hartman with my bare hands.
To hell with the plan.
To hell with the rules.
To hell with it all.
A gang of his gorillas were watching a game in the living room when I kicked in the door. I could have taken all five of them easy, but one got the drop on me from behind, a lucky shot. My head still hurts when it’s cold outside. I smell gunmetal and roses when I think too hard about it. When I try to remember Toni’s face.
Toni was the last thing I was thinking about when they got me, the smell of her and the cold slash of the bullet overloading my sense memory channels like awful white noise on a psychotic feedback loop, as the gorillas dragged me out of Hartman’s house, half-conscious and screaming.
They kept me under guard in the hospital, held me with no bail. I didn’t know anything about it at first. My heart stopped twice on the operating table. The bad mixture of drugs they gave me cooked what was left of my brain, almost turned me into a vegetable. It took me weeks just to uncross my eyes. As soon as I knew who I was again, I tried to escape from the ward, but that only made things worse. They cuffed me to the bed, gave me more drugs. I sat there for days, hallucinating my life and my talents and everything I ever cared about into some endless black hole. I almost never came back from that.
I can still smell the gunmetal.
Still smell the roses.
The scent of my ruined memories, like faint traces of ammonia and flowers, in the place where Toni used to be.
Her face, lost forever.
God damn them all.
The trial came and went quickly. I couldn’t buy my way out, they made sure. Hartman smiled across the courtroom and gave a little shrug, looking like some kind of fat demon in an expensive white suit. That crooked, greasy smile mocking everyone beneath his weight. His mean eyes, full of perverted genius. Even then, I hated looking into his eyes, because of the secrets he kept there, the things I’d seen him do. You only ever meet a few people in an average lifetime who are capable of anything.
And anything is a pretty scary word.
So I was up the creek. A washed-up thief with a steel plate in his head, a permanent reminder of that copper-jacketed 9-millimeter buddy that came and went—a magic bullet, they called it. They said I was lucky. I could have lost half my vision and my motor reflexes and everything that went along with it—my life, my profession. Everything. They showed me pictures of what happened to Gabby Giffords—that congresswoman who almost got killed when some random maniac took a shot at her in a parking lot—and the doctors said her bullet was magic, too, but not like mine.
Real cute, assholes.
Dad set things up with the Fixer when I went inside, kept what was left of my own money safe. By then, I was back to near 80 percent with my hands and my mind, but so many things were still lost. I still couldn’t see Toni’s face. The most important face of my whole life, shot to hell in one terrible moment, my mind blown away and patched back together, the sickness that robbed me of damn near everything, leaving me with nothing.
And then it got worse.
Dad stopped coming to visit me in the joint.
That was six months before one of the hacks delivered a package to me in solitary. A bright pink box wrapped up in ribbons with three of my father’s fingers in it. There was a note in the package that said this:
You’re all alone now, buddy-boy. How does it feel?
They were more right than they could have known.
The downward spiral took me again. My last lifeline to family, cut off forever.
In the dojo, they teach you guided meditation, how to find peace with what you lose and can never have again. That fighting with your hands is a last resort, that the mind is the most powerful weapon. You find that the rage is your best ally. You go down lower and lower, reconstructing the traces, finding what you’ve lost. It was enough in the beginning to save me from the gangbangers and the skinheads. It was enough to bring back my skill set. I’m almost 100 percent now. I’ve been able to have anything I want on the inside, just by taking myself there.
That last 5 percent.
I can’t resurrect her memory.
I will, though.
In three more years.
That’s when David Hartman will die. That’s when I’ll silence the failure that mocks me. My last, most terrible mistake.
The woman on the other side of the glass sees the hidden rage.
And she says:
“Your wife is alive. My daughter is with her. I can get you out of this place within two weeks if you agree to help me find them.”
• • •
This is bullshit.
Just can’t be true.
She sees that I don’t believe her. Goes into the briefcase and comes up with a photo printed on a slick sheet of letter-sized paper. Holds it to the glass so I can see it. In the picture is the man who destroyed my life, sitting in a nightclub with a pretty blonde on his left arm, bodyguard on his back, a blizzard of beautiful ladies all around them. One of the ladies is a tall brunette, standing closer to them, outlined in disco strobes. My wife was a brunette, under her disguises. I remember that much.
Is that her, right there in the picture?
It seems like her . . . but hurts my head to concentrate on the image. The sharp stabbing smell of razor blades bathed in ammonia hits me, freezing the tiny plate in my head like ice.
There are no photographs of my wife anywhere, just like there used to be no photographs of me or my father. We never allowed them. Part of the rules. You stay invisible, walk in shadows. Forget about owning a driver’s license or a photo ID. Before I went into prison, I even managed to hack my army records and doctor the mug shots. It’s harder to remain a ghost in the machine when you go up the creek for armed robbery and attempted murder, but Toni stayed hidden. I’d made sure of that for years.
But this . . .
The photograph is grainy and fuzzy. She’s got her arm hooked around the blonde’s. There’s an expression on her face I can’t read. I could never read Toni, even when things were good. She was my teacher before she was my one true love.
Would I even know her now, if I saw her?
“That’s my daughter, Mister Coffin. And your wife next to her. The picture was taken in a private club, by an undercover police officer who was working for me. He was killed a week later, most likely by the man in the photograph.”
“Men like him disgust me, Mister Coffin. Texas-sized rhinestone cowboys who make a lot of noise and think they can get away with anything. Ignorant mob operators disguised as oil millionaires. They’re always fat and foul and doused in cheap cologne.”
“David never wore cologne.”
“That’s even worse.”
I look at Hartman’s face: the triple chin and gap in his front teeth, buzzed hair and sleepy eyes mashed back into pale red rolls of sweaty dough, all stuffed into that pinstriped suit jacket. The lady is right, of course. He’s the kind of maniac who wears what’s left of his soul right there in front of you while he rattles on and on about the power and the glory, the rules of being a pervert, all that other stale macho crap that gets far less powerful criminals killed in the street. The kind of maniac who invents new reasons to exist moment-to-moment, crazy and deluded and bloodthirsty. Some people are scared of men like David, and they are right to be, but usually for all the wrong reasons. You have to stand there and take it. You have to listen to them rant and pretend it’s profound wisdom, trying to keep your sanity in a room filled with blood. All those men and women who got in his way, all battered and smashed. While I learned the facts of life.
While I learned that love cannot stay.
The concerned citizen sees my eyes, and tries to read what I’m thinking. It probably isn’t hard. I’ve always worn my soul on my face, just like Hartman did. It almost makes her smile, but she only speaks softly:
“Your old friend has been involved with some very serious people in the past year. Lately he’s been on the payroll of Texas Data Concepts in Houston as a consultant. Are you up on what that company is all about?”
“That’s a silly question to ask a guy like me.”
Every good hacker knows TDC, especially the ones who operate in the Lone Star State. They’re into everything. Computers, applied sciences, rocket technology. Hell, N.A.S.A. is right up the block.
“Fair enough,” she says.
“Hartman is no rocket scientist, that’s for goddamn sure.”
“That’s true also.”
“So what’s he been up to with smart guys like that?”
“That’s a really good question, Mister Coffin.”
She makes a grin set in steel, withholding the information. Guess that’s what I get for calling her silly. I’ve never been all that tactful in situations like this.
I stare her down for a long second. Then, very slowly:
“Why do you need me?”
“You’re one of the best. Seventeen robberies under major electronic security, and not a shot fired.”
“Those are the ones you know about.”
“We know about a few of the other ones, too.”
“I was learning then.”
“We all make mistakes.”
“So you need me to steal something.”
She shifts her weight. Considers her next answer carefully.
“Your father says there’s no one else on earth who can pull off what we have in mind, Mister Coffin.”
“My father’s dead.”
“No. He’s with my people. Has been for a long time. I can’t be any more specific than that, not in this room. I need an answer and I need it right now. Are you in?”
Is that really my wife?
Could I see her face again?
Am I in?
I nod to her quietly and she buzzes Merrick to take me back to my cell.
Quickly drawn into the epicenter of a secret, brutal war between criminal masterminds, Elroy is forced to run for his life through a rapid-fire labyrinth of deception, betrayal, and intrigue—where no one is to be trusted and every fight could be his last . . . and the real truth hidden beneath the myriad levels of treachery may be too shocking to comprehend. . . .