The Target - David Baldacci
FOUR HUNDRED MEN LIVED HERE, most for the rest of their time on earth.
And then hell would get them for the rest of eternity.
The walls were thick concrete and their interior sides were layered with repulsive graffiti that spared virtually nothing in its collective depravity. And each year more filth was grafted onto the walls like sludge building up in a sewer. The steel bars were nicked and scarred, but still impossible to break by human hands. There had been escapes from here, but none for more than thirty years—once outside the walls there was no place to go. The people living on the outside around here weren’t any friendlier than the ones on the inside.
And they actually had more guns.
The old man had another severe coughing fit and spit up blood, which was as much evidence of his terminal condition as any expert medical pronouncement. He knew he was dying; the only question was when. He had to hang on, though. He had something left to do, and he would not get a second chance to do it.
Earl Fontaine was large but had once been larger still. His body had imploded as the metastatic cancer ate him from the inside out. His face was heavily wrinkled, savaged by time, four packs of menthols a day, a poor diet, and most of all a bitter sense of injustice. His skin was thin and pasty from decades inside this place where the sun did not reach.
With a struggle he sat up in his bed and looked around at the other occupants of the ward. There were only seven of them, none as bad off as he was. They might leave this place upright. He was beyond that. Yet despite his dire condition, he smiled.
Another inmate from across the floor saw Earl’s happy expression and called out, “What in the hell do you have to smile about, Earl? Let us in on the joke, why don’t you.”
Earl let the grin ease all the way across his broad face. He managed to do so despite the pain in his bones that was akin to someone cutting through them with a brittle-bladed saw. “Gettin’ outta here, Junior,” Earl said.
“Bullshit,” said the other inmate, who was known as Junior inside these walls for no apparent reason. He had raped and killed five women across three counties simply because they had been unfortunate enough to cross his path. The authorities were working like mad to treat his current illness so he could keep his official execution date in two months.
Earl nodded. “Out of here.”
“Coffin is how, Junior, just like your scrawny ass.” Earl cackled while Junior shook his head and turned back to stare glumly at his IV lines. They were similar to the ones that would carry the lethal chemicals that would end his life in Alabama’s death chamber. He finally looked away, closed his eyes, and went swiftly to sleep as though practicing for the deepest of all slumbers in exactly sixty days.
Earl lay back and rattled the chain attached to the cuff around his right wrist, which in turn was hooked to a stout though rusted iron ring set into the wall.
“I’m getting away,” he bellowed. “Better send the coon dogs come get me.” Then he went into another coughing spell that lasted until a nurse came over and gave him some water, a pill, and a hard slap on the back. Then he helped Earl sit up straighter.
The nurse probably didn’t know why Earl had been sent to prison and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did know. Every inmate in this max prison had done something so appallingly horrific that every guard and worker here was completely desensitized to it.
“Now, just settle down, Earl,” said the nurse. “You’ll only make things worse.”
Earl calmed, sat back against his pillow, and then eyed the nurse steadily. “Can they be? Worse is what I mean.”
The nurse shrugged. “Guess anything can be worse. And maybe you should’ve thought of that before you got to this place.”
With a burst of energy Earl said, “Hey, kid, can you get me a smoke? Just slip it twixt my fingers and light me up. Won’t tell nobody you done it. Cross and swear and all that crap though I ain’t no God-fearing man.”
The nurse blanched at the very idea of doing such a thing. “Uh, yeah, maybe if it were 1970. You’re hooked up to oxygen, for God’s sake. It’s explosive, Earl, as in boom.”
Earl grinned, revealing discolored teeth and