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REDEMPTION

Part 1

Written by: Sword’n’Quill (Susanne Beck)
SwordnQuil@aol.com

Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. That’s right, this is an ‘uber’ story. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.

Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. And quite a lot of each, to be truthful. This takes place in a prison, and where there are criminals, there’s gonna be violence and naughty words.

Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, there’s that too. This piece deals, after a fashion, with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not avoid anyone’s sensibilities. Let me know if I’ve succeeded.

Serialization Disclaimer: When I first started writing and posting, I made a promise to myself and to anyone who read me, that I would never post a work that wasn’t finished. I detest serialization, normally. But . . .this novel, which is one week from being finished, is becoming very long and I’ve had readers write to me that they won’t read novels because they just don’t have time to sit down and read such gargantuan tasks. So, I compromised. This piece is finished (very nearly) and will go up at regular intervals so that the folks who like to read in small chunks can do that and the ones who like to read the whole thing can do that too.

Dedication: As always, I’d like to thank the man who gives up some of his free time every day to read the stuff I send over to him. The best beta-reader on the planet, Mike. I’d also like to thank my other betas: Candace (who read the entire novel in IM and showed her support every night), Rachel, and Alex. A special thank-you goes to Sulli, who made a very bad day a wonderful one with her gift of generosity. I would also like to thank Mary D for reading and housing this at her site. But mostly, I’d like to thank the readers for reading my stuff and giving me such great feedback. It’s what makes sitting in front of this balky computer and tickling the tans so much fun. Feedback, if anyone is so inclined, is always gratefully received and appreciated. I can be reached at SwordnQuil@aol.com .

 

REDEMPTION

 

My name is Angel, and around here, I’m known as the woman who can get whatever you need. ‘Here’, actually, is the Rainwater Women’s Correctional Facility, more commonly known as ‘The Bog’ because we’re safely tucked away in a nice cedar forest hard by a cranberry bog. That’s probably more than you wanted to know, but I promised myself when I started writing this that I’d try my best not to leave anything out and so now you know the name of our little community.

As you may have guessed by now, my name isn’t really Angel either, but I’m gonna save us both a bunch of heartache and just stick to the name I’m known by here. Names are really important in the Bog. To get one means you’ve succeeded in mastering some metaphysical rite-of-passage where the rules and players aren’t really known until after you’ve succeeded. One day, they’re calling you by your real name and beating you up at every opportunity; the next, you’re given some sort of status and the abuse seems to lessen. Oh, it never stops altogether, unless you’re really lucky or really strong, but at least you can close your eyes at night reasonably sure that your body will be in pretty much the same working condition as it was before you went to sleep. And believe me, in a place like this, that’s really important.

They say that I was given the name ‘Angel’ because of my innocent looks. And, looking in the mirror, I guess that’s true enough, though I can tell you that the face looking back at me isn’t the same one that came into the place five long years ago. Back then, my hair was really long and more red than blonde. My face was unlined and my figure could best be described, I suppose, as awkward young adult. Now my hair is short and blonde, my face has lines added by the sun and worry as much as by simple aging, and my body has muscles that would make even an aerobics instructor jealous.

My time here has certainly changed me, and not all of it for the better. But I’d like to think that I’ve been able to retain at least some of that youthful innocence that came into this place with me. And believe me when I tell you that that is very hard to hold onto here. I’ve seen good women become heartless killers in the Bog. I’ve seen strong women end their own lives at the end of a belt. There but for the grace of God, I guess.

I suppose that if I’m to keep to total honesty here, I might as well tell you why I got locked up in the first place. Back in 1978, I was convicted of murder. Of my husband, to be precise. Now, most women in the Bog will tell you they’re here on a bum rap. I’m not one of them. I killed my husband. Oh, I didn’t mean to, but, as someone or other has been known to say, dead is dead.

My story is pretty much the same as any other’s. Just your basic small town girl desperate to get away, grabbing on the first coat-tail heading out of town. My ticket happened to be my high-school sweetheart; a sweet, if rather dull, boy who happened to land a job at some steel mill or other in Pittsburgh. He wanted company and I wanted out, so we eloped, found the first Justice of the Peace who would marry us without our parents’ permission, and set up house in a run-down studio in Pittsburgh. If you could ignore the squadrons of cockroaches who shared our apartment with us, noisy neighbors and middle-of-the-night shootings, our first six months together playing house like a couple of bona fide adults was pretty smooth. I managed to land a job as a secretary and general Gal Friday at a local warehouse while my husband worked nights at the mill. We didn’t get to see each other all that much, but at the time, I was just so relieved at getting out from beneath the oppressive shadow of small town life that I didn’t have time to be lonely.

Then Peter, my husband, started coming in later and later from his shift. He told me he was putting in a lot of overtime so he could buy us some nicer things, and I believed him. Then whole days went by without hearing from him and I began to suspect things weren’t going the way they should. Then he’d come home from these binges smelling of sex and cheap booze and I realized that I’d made a very big mistake. But like many young women, and maybe you are one of them, I was too ashamed to reach out to my folks for help. Besides, I’ve always been an optimist and strong in my convictions. I thought I could change him. Of course, I was wrong.

What I called trying to change my wayward husband’s habits for the better, Peter called nagging. He’d come home drunk, I’d start in on him, and the fights would begin. They weren’t bad at first. Mostly yelling. Then he started becoming a really big man with his fists and I started getting to try out my budding storytelling abilities in explaining just how a cupboard door can manage to hit your face in the exact same spot three weeks in a row.

Now I know that there are plenty of you out there who are just shaking your heads and asking why I didn’t just up and leave the bastard. I’ve asked myself that same question more times than I can count since coming to this place. All I can tell you, and myself, is that I don’t have any good answers. I was young, and nave, and scared. But most of all, I was trying to hang onto any thread that would tell me that I hadn’t just flushed my life down the proverbial toilet.

One evening, Peter came home smelling like a really bad whorehouse and demanding ‘husband’s rights’ to my body. When I refused, he threw me down on the bed and started shredding my clothes. I snapped. I’d taken to sleeping with a baseball bat at the side of my bed for a sense of protection from intruders. I never thought I’d need to use it against my own husband. But use it I did. God knows, I didn’t mean to kill him, just to stun him long enough to get away. But when that wood came into my hand, well . . . .I can’t really explain it. It was like I knew exactly how to wield it as a weapon, and did. I can still remember the sound it made when it crashed down on his skull. It makes me physically sick to think of it to this day. He went limp and I pushed him off of me. He was dead before he hit the ground. At least that’s what the coroner said at the trial, and I’ve got no reason to disbelieve him.

To say that I was completely devastated over what happened would be putting it mildly. At the time, though, it all seemed sort of surreal, like a really bad underground film. I had reached another crossroads in my life; a place where the most important decisions I’ve ever been faced with would have to be made. Should I run? We lived in a very bad neighborhood. Chances are, the police might have believed it was a simple burglary gone awry. Or should I stay and face up to the fact that I’d just taken a human life?

Maturity is a funny thing. You never know how it’s going to come into your life. Most people just go along gaining maturity drop by drop as they grow older. They don’t know they’ve fully matured until they find themselves making the same remark to another that their parents made to them. It’s a scary moment. For me, maturity just walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. One moment, I was a sobbing young girl who had just killed her husband in self defense. The next moment, I was a full-blown adult, with a telephone in my hand, ready to take full responsibility for my actions.

Maturity isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be, however. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and believe me, it should. When the police came to my home, I did the worst thing I could ever have done. I confessed.

Now remember, I grew up in a small town where the worst crime we ever heard came from old Mrs. Simpson getting another ticket for driving on the wrong side of the road. I was raised to believe that the policeman was your friend and you should always be honest with him. So, that’s what I went with.

I was handcuffed and in the back of a squad car before the idiocy of my actions bloomed fully in my brain.

Still, I hung onto that nave optimism for which I’m well known, even here, in a place as near to Hell as I ever hope to get. I mean, the evidence was clear, at least from my viewpoint. My clothes were ripped to shreds and I had bruises, old and new, littering my body bearing what I thought to be mute testimony to Peter’s drunken actions.

I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and was too mortified to call my parents, so they assigned me one. He was an older fellow who always sported a heavy growth of beard no matter how early in the day he came to see me. His suits were shiny, his shirts always stained, and he smelled of those red-striped mints people suck on to cover the scent of whiskey and cigarettes. He had a big mole on his right earlobe and whenever he would listen to me talk, he would rub at it constantly, as if trying, by sheer friction, to wear it away.

But still, I had faith in him and his big shiny briefcase and told him everything I could about the living Hell my life had become in the last six months. He always appeared distracted, as if listening to a sound that only he could hear. As I talked, he would scribble things down on his big yellow legal pad, using a mechanical pencil whose point invariably broke during the most important parts of my recitation. We would then spend the remaining time searching for another one. It got to be so bad that even the guards in the county jail where I was housed pending trial could barely cover their looks of sympathy when they’d bring him yet another pencil.

The days between my arrest and the trial dragged on interminably. Aside from talking to my lawyer, all I could do was sit in my tiny cell on my tiny cot and try to decipher the scribblings of the people who had been housed here before me. Jailhouse writings range from the profound to the sublime and if the day ever comes when I’m able to walk out of here as a free woman, I hope to write a thesis on them.

I won’t go into the details of the trial. Suffice it to say that since I’m writing from within the hallowed halls of the Bog, the verdict didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. My bruised body and torn clothes, which I had assumed would prove my case, were instead shown to be the marks of a valiant man’s struggle against the rage of a jealous and deadly wife. My plea of self defense crumbled before my eyes and before I knew it, I was a felon, convicted of one count of second degree murder.

The part of me that was raised Catholic welcomed the verdict and subsequent sentence, seven years to life, as a justified penance for my sins. The rest of me grew red with rage. And believe me when I tell you, the color of rage is red. All bright and shining, like newly spilled blood, and impossible to think past once it has you trapped within its hungry grasp.

If red is the color of the enraged, the color of the despairing is green. Industrial green, as in the peeling, chipped paint adorning the interior of my newest home, Rainwater Women’s Correctional Facility. It is the color of lost hopes and shattered dreams. It is the flat monochrome hue of the loss of innocence.

In the eight years since I first entered the battered steel doors here, that color has become more of a blessing than a curse, but when I first set eyes upon it, I experienced this strange feeling of a huge ocean wave, green and silty and violent, drawing up and over me and bearing me down with it to rest, broken, at the bottom of its oceanic home. In a weird sort of way, that sensation was almost familiar, as if it had happened to me before in some unknown past life.

Now, normally I’m not the type of person who believes in karma and past lives and astral projection, but if, from somewhere down deep in my subconscious I can dredge up a comfort in drowning, I’m more than happy to go with it. That feeling kept me sane those first few months of my new incarceration.

As I look back on the four pages I’ve managed to write amidst the clanks and yells of a humid jailhouse night, I realize that I’ve gone off on an incredible tangent. This story’s not meant to be about me, not really. But, since I’m a large part of this narrative, being your person in the know, so to speak, I’ll just continue on this way in the hopes that you won’t find it terribly inane and boring in the extreme.

As I said before I drove down this long side road, I’m known here as the person who can get it for you. Now I know that makes me sound like I’m some big woman on campus, and, in point of fact, it does give me some sort of pull with the guards and prisoners alike, but mostly it means that a lot of my fellow inmates, big ones who would otherwise like to see what interesting shapes they could twist my nose into, instead come to me with the tiniest shard of respect shining in their eyes. Now, despite the depravity of my crime, at heart I’m still Ms. Small-Town-America. What this means, in plain English, is that I only get what could be gotten by your average citizen, and that in a totally legal way.

So, if they don’t carry your brand of cigarettes in the commissary, or if you’re wanting to wrangle a conjugal visit with your old man, or any one of a hundred other small things, I’m the person you come to see. Because I don’t really have much need for money in the pen, I only mark the price slightly above cost. A girl’s gotta make a living somehow, and for me, this is as good as any. I’ve been able to develop a good rapport with the guards, and the prisoners who’d normally have fun preying on a woman like me give me a wide berth. So it works out quite well for me, as you can guess.

I suppose, to keep this narrative complete, I should backtrack a little, once again, and tell you a little about the hierarchical structure of this particular state prison. In the eight years I’ve been here, I’ve seen two wardens grace the big office. The first, a woman by the name of Antonia Davis, was every writer’s dream, if he or she were trying to think up a stereotypical warden for a revival of one of those horrid nineteen fifties Women in Prison movies. Her blonde hair was always kept in the most severe of buns and her lips were always heavily glossed with a color red more common to fire engines and ladies of the evening than blushing passion. She wore her uniforms at least two sizes too small, as if to show us by the very size of her ‘assets’ how qualified she was to be the top sow in the pen. She was also known to have a voracious appetite, tending toward nubile young blondes fresh off the streets. As a member of that particular genus, I always found it a bit miraculous that I never came under her scrutiny. In this one thing, I consider myself well blessed, since her conquests never did fare well once she tired of them.

Antonia was the darling of the prison gangs, a subject which I shall delve into with a great deal more detail latter in this missive. She curried their favor with a passion, and they, hers. Suffice it to say, for now, that when Antonia got over her latest convict du jour, she’d toss the leavings to her prison pets. What was left after they were through wasn’t pretty.

The warden’s downfall came when she let her hormones rule her mind and picked the wrong prisoner to love and leave.

You may remember, if you’ve been around town long enough, the story of one Missy Gaelen, a State Senator’s daughter who was caught buying the wrong drug from the wrong dealer in a huge police sting. Not all of the mighty Senator Gaelen’s money or prestige could get his daughter out of the trap of her own making, though he did manage to get her sentence reduced from five to ten down to two with one served. Nothing, however, could prevent her from being incarcerated in the Bog, and therefore coming under the appreciative and predatory stare of one Antonia Davis.

That Missy was a beauty there is no doubt. Tall and thin, she had a shock of white blonde hair tumbling in glorious waves down her back and deep green eyes that seemed to melt you even as they looked into the depths of your soul before finding you wanting and moving on. She was also so hooked on the eight-balls that consumed her existence that her beauty paled in comparison to her ravenous need.

Warden Davis hooked her talons into Missy right quick, discovering the quickest path to the young beauty’s heart and trading drugs for sexual favors. At two months, the liaison lasted longer by far than any of Antonia’s past conquests had, but in the end, she found her concubine wanting and tossed her into the tank with her pet sharks, daring them to do their worst. The repeated beatings and rough sex didn’t do the young woman in. Rather, it was the abrupt loss of her drugs that cost her her life. She had turned up missing from the head count one evening, and by the next morning, was found in the laundry room, cold and stiff as the sheets which she had wrapped around her in an hallucinogenic nightmare of drug deprivation. The cause of death was easily discovered and Warden Antonia Davis, defiler of the innocent and guilty alike, went out in a blaze of glory, found at her desk with her service revolver, something she loved to use in her games of sexual power, gripped in a cold, dead fist.

As payment for not using his considerable influence in closing down the whole she-bang, Senator Gaelen was allowed to choose the next warden. And choose he did, bringing in a man who had as much experience in the administration of a prison system as I do in chicken farming. Which is to say none. What he did have, this man by the name of William Wesley Morrison, was the Pastorship of the largest Pentecostal church in Pittsburgh and its surrounding environs.

William Morrison is a man who wears his religion, like a badge of office, on his sleeve. He is also the man who, through his gifts of oration, was able to get the Senator over that final hump and into the State House with a few votes to spare. Morrison had always expressed a fervent desire to ‘minister’ to a group of ‘godless prisoners’ and so, patronage being what it is in this country, his back was scratched quite nicely by the Senator from Pittsburgh as payment for services rendered.

The new broom swept through the Bog with a passion. Gone were the trappings of individuality so prized by the inmates. Bright orange jumpsuits, designed to stand out from the rest of society like the proverbial ‘Scarlet A’, became the new uniform of the damned. Cells were turned out, personal items removed and replaced with crucifixes and bibles. A framed rendering of the Ten Commandments hung in each and every room in the prison, as if to make sure that we knew exactly which rules we were breaking. Cosmetics, jewelry, radios and televisions were confiscated. Mealtimes were preceded by prayers and on Sundays, chapel worship was mandatory no matter what God you did, or didn’t, believe in.

Lily white he isn’t, despite the most careful of appearances. William Morrison, almost immediately upon being instated in his high office, sunk his fingers into many of the prison pies and has, over the years if the rumors are to be believed, made himself a very rich man. Coveting his neighbor’s goods apparently isn’t a commandment Morrison needs to follow, and if the prison grapevine is any indication, he’ll soon be coming to a rude awakening. This too will be delved into later in this story, and with much satisfaction, I might add.

Beneath the Warden come the guards and unlike other prisons, our group is quite extraordinary. The Head Guard is a woman by the name of Sandra Pierce and to the prisoners, she’s a godsend. Tall and broad of body, with arms a bodybuilder would envy, her physical presence alone is enough to intimidate all but the most depraved inmate. Underneath it all, though, she carries a heart that is compassionate, caring and considerate. Her hazel eyes are always twinkling, as if laughing at a joke whose punch line only she knows. Her fellow guards follow her example well or risk expulsion or worse. But, cutbacks in the prison system being what they are, there simply aren’t enough people who are willing to risk daily danger for the meager pay they’re offered.

And so, when all is said and done, it’s the prisoners who rule the roost.

Prison gangs are a fact of life in most facilities across the world, and the Bog is no exception. The gangs are separated along racial lines, with the African Americans holding the top honors in terms of sheer size, followed closely by the whites, with the much smaller groups of Hispanics and Asians rounding out the top four.

Contrary to popular belief, not all prisoners are gang members. The top third of each gang is filled with predators, sexual and otherwise. Most of the rest are hero-worshippers and hangers on who use the gangs to give them a sort of status that they otherwise would not have. The bottom rung is comprised by ‘prey’. By this, I mean young women who haven’t been able, for whatever reason, to find a niche in prison society and so are preyed upon daily by the other inmates. Many of these women turn to the gang for protection against this systemic abuse and so are swallowed up, never realizing that their protectors often turn out to be worse than their nightmares ever were. These hollow-eyed women, resembling nothing so much as World War Two concentration camp victims, shuffle through prison life, merely existing day to day, subjected to the basest depravities their so called protectors see fit to heap upon them.

Young, innocent, nave and on the verge of an all out suicidal depression, I was destined to become one of those women. Only a chance encounter with an extraordinary woman saved me from my fate. Though it was five years ago now, I remember the facts as if the scene had only played out earlier this morning.

I was running. Running as if my life depended on it, which in a way, I suppose it did. The remains of my breakfast tray were soggy on my cotton scrubs and my lungs were heaving with the need to draw a full breath. I had always been quick, but the heavy tread of my three pursuers told me I didn’t have long to seek escape.

"We’re gonna get you, bitch!"

"He-ee-ere, fishy, fishy, fishy!"

The taunting shouts echoed down the deserted hallways, making me want to burst my eardrums just to stop the vibrations from pounding in my panicked brain.

My jittering eyes spied a soft spill of light coming from a doorway just up ahead, and I made it my beacon, running toward it for all I was worth. The door was finally in sight and I plunged through it, tripping over a mop handle and skidding across the polished floor on my knees, still gasping for breath. "Please," I sobbed to the gray-haired figure seated behind the desk, "you’ve got to help me. They’re gonna kill me."

The woman looked up from her reading and her face creased into a friendly smile. "What’s wrong, child? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost."

"They’re gonna kill me. Please, you’ve gotta help me. Please, I beg you. I’ll do anything."

The sounds of running footsteps and heaving breaths came closer, then stopped right outside the door of my sanctuary. The largest of my pursuers, a women by the incongruous name of Mouse, stepped through the door, advancing on me with a predatory grin. "Gotcha now, fish."

The gray-haired woman stood up slowly from her desk, all evidence of her smile gone from her rounded cheeks. "Get out of here, Mouse. Your friends too, or you’ll find out just what it’s like to be hunted down."

The grin fell from Mouse’s face. I almost smiled at the sudden look of fear I saw there. Still, she squared her shoulders and thrust her chin out defiantly. "You can’t hurt me, old woman."

"No? Try me."

I could have sworn I saw my rescuer grow fangs. I blinked, then rubbed my eyes, finally dismissing the illusion as a trick of the light.

Mouse’s deep voice showed a sudden hint of petulance. "She was ours first. We saw her. We got dibs."

I felt a thrill of fear work its way through my guts, wondering if I had just jumped from the frying pan and into the fire. I kept my eyes steadily upon the rotund form of the gray-haired woman.

"She’s in my home now, Mouse. You’ll do well to remember which boundaries you can and cannot cross. Now go and take your friends with you."

After a long stare-down, Mouse finally capitulated, but not without a last parting shot at me. "You can’t hide behind her skirts forever, little fish. One day you’re gonna have to come outta hiding. And we’ll be waiting." Flashing me an evil grin, she spun on her heel and collected her cronies with a jerk of her head.

I couldn’t help the gasp of relief that expelled from between my lips and, upon hearing it, the friendly grin once again graced the face of my rescuer. Walking from her place behind her desk, she wrapped her black shawl more tightly about her shoulders, then reached down a soft hand to help pull me to my feet. I accepted the help gratefully. "Thank you," I said with all the heartfelt gratitude I had in me.

"Think nothing of it, child. I’m always happy to chase off those bullies." Adjusting her half glasses, she looked down at my food-spattered top. "What did you do that caused you to be wearing breakfast so early in the morning?"

I knew my cheeks flushed, I could feel the heat all the way down to my toes. "I . . .um . . .I guess I picked the wrong table to sit at this morning."

I had only been in the Bog for two weeks, and just four days out of the segregation unit that all new inmates are placed in upon first entering the prison. Since I had no friends to tell me the rules, I went down to breakfast with the rest and, after filling my tray with tasteless food, found an empty table tucked into a shadowed corner, figuring to both eat and observe quietly. Mouse and her friends had quickly changed my notion that anything in the Bog could ever be that easy.

My protector looked down at me with a knowing grin. "Happened to me a time or two. This place should come with an instruction manual." Her grin widened. "Maybe I’ll write one. Sure to make me the darling of the new ones." Reaching out, she again took my hand in a gentle, warm clasp and led me over to a long, battle-scarred table, pulling out a wobbly seat and gently pushing me down into it. "Sit here and I’ll get us some tea. Then we can talk like civilized adults. And believe you me, young one, that’ll be a pleasant change."

As the older woman left, walking to a well hidden and highly illegal hot-plate, I took my first look around the room that was my haven. For the first time, I realized that I had somehow stumbled into the prison library. Three of the four walls in the small room were covered with floor to ceiling book cases, which were crammed with all manner of reading material, most of which were dog-eared and tattered, with broken spines and missing covers. Taking in a deep breath, I let the comforting scent of printer’s ink and musty paper enter my lungs, calming my racing heart. I’d always loved the library, even as a small girl. I used to spend most of my free time there when I was younger, caught up in fantasies no self respecting small town girl would dare to have.

Returning to the table, her hands clasping steaming mugs of fragrant tea, the old woman set down the mugs, pulled out her own chair, and settled her corpulent frame down next to me. "What’s your name, child?"

When I told her, a twinkle came into her dark eyes. "Here for killing your husband with a baseball bat, right?"

My eyes must have widened to the size of saucers. "Yes. How did you know?"

"Nothing’s kept a secret for long in here, child. You’ll learn soon enough that the prison grapevine is one of the most accurate sources of information in the Bog. Much better than the paper." She smiled again, placing a hand on top of my own. "We’re kindred spirits then. I buried four of my own husbands and was working on a fifth before they caught me."

I let out a gasp, beyond horrified that five men would take to abusing such a sweet old lady. She looked to me like someone who should be sitting in a rocking chair in a big old home with a litter of happy grandchildren begging her for just one more story, their faces and hands smeared with homemade cookie crumbs. My second lesson came quickly that day. Looks can be deceiving.

The woman’s smile turned hard. "I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as bold about it as you were. Arsenic was my weapon of choice. Not quite so quick, but satisfyingly effective nevertheless."

The look of horror must have shown on my face, because the woman lost her smile. Her eyes took on a calculating look. "Don’t get any notions in your head that you’re better than me, child. I’ve heard the stories that you didn’t mean to kill your beau. Just because I did doesn’t make you any better than me. We’re both stuck here for the duration, isn’t that so?"

In a weird sort of way, the woman’s words made sense and, after a moment, I let my revulsion drain from me, turning a weak smile to my benefactor before lifting my mug to sip my tea. Halfway to my lips, my hand paused, trembling.

The woman threw back her head and laughed, long and loud. "Don’t worry, love. I’m not out to add you to my tally." Reaching up, she used a corner of her woolen shawl to dab at her tearing eyes. "Besides, you’re much easier on the eyes than any of my husbands ever were."

And that’s how I met the infamous Corinne Weaver, known as the Black Widow; a woman who married for money and killed for fun.

In her mid-sixties, Corinne had been behind bars for more than thirty years when we first met, making her both the oldest and longest incarcerated inmate in the Bog. She also had the distinction of being the first prisoner transferred after the prison was changed to female from male back in the late forties. Corrine was a cool and calculating woman who never expressed regret or remorse for her crimes. Indeed, she was known to say, and that often, that if she had the chance, she’d do it all over again. She enjoyed killing and the money it earned her.

But she could also be gentle, considerate, kind and extremely loyal. Though she would cheerfully admit that reformation was a lost cause on one such as her, she was a zealot when it came to the reforming of others. Most of the inmates in the Bog weren’t murderers. Rather they were young women who had made stupid mistakes with their lives. Their short sentences would either reform them or make them worse than they ever were. That was the inmate’s choice. And Corrine made it her sacred duty to set out and find as many as she could, to make sure they made the right choice.

Every day, the library would see at least two or three young women studying for their GED amidst the musty papers and the yelling inmates. There were even a few, like myself, who studied for college courses. Yes, as of this writing, yours truly is the proud owner of a Bachelor of Arts in American Literature and is only six credits shy of obtaining her MBA. Now, before you ask what possible use a killer like myself would have for an MBA, let me remind you of what I’ve said earlier. I’m an optimist. And one day, I’m going to get out of this place. Now, given that I’ve already lived off of the generosity of your tax dollars for five long years now, which would you rather have? Me, an able bodied, intelligent young female spending the rest of her life on state aid, or me, an able bodied, intelligent young female contributing to your local economy? Thought as much.

Corinne was a favorite of the guards, always able to lend a willing ear when troubles with husbands, lovers, children or finances abounded. Though she had killed her own husbands, she was a firm believer in the power of love and was known to give sage advice where matters of the heart were concerned. Her advice actually saved a number of marriages. She was also a financial wizard, somehow managing to retain the fortune obtained with the murder of her husbands. That fortune grew from behind bars, making her one of the richest women in Pittsburgh, a thought that brought her wild glee over the years. To Corinne, it didn’t matter that she couldn’t spend her money. All that mattered was that she was playing the system, and coming out ahead.

Though growing ever older and tending toward frailty, despite her rather rotund stature, Corinne was considered an untouchable inmate. Her library was inviolate and all within were under her protection for as long as they stayed within the safety of those four walls. Aside from earning the respect of most of the prisoners and all of the guards, it was also said (and I have since, to my joy, confirmed this to be truth) that she had the full protection of a prison legend who, though she wasn’t in the prison at the time, had her finger firmly on the pulse of inmate life. To touch Corinne was to die slowly and no one wanted to risk that.

Though I was somewhat under her own protection, that blanket didn’t extend far enough to cover me completely. What I’m absolutely sure of is that I got nowhere near the amount of abuse I was destined for, but even ‘light’ pummeling is no picnic, as I’m sure you’ve guessed.

It was the day after I had first met Corinne, and I was making my way back from a day spent in her pleasant company. I had even taken my lunch within the warm confines of the library. The tuna sandwich and tea she offered was the best meal I’d eaten in months and I licked every crumb and drank every drop offered, much to my new friend’s amusement.

I had spent a long winter’s day wrapped up in the wonderful world of Wuthering Heights, a book I’d never gotten to read in High School, and was thinking about what I’d read. That meant that I was missing what was going on around me and thus breaking another sacred prison rule: "Always be aware."

I made it back to my cell, oblivious of the knowing, sneering looks being cast my way by my fellow inmates. To my great surprise, the cell was empty. My cellmate, a young woman who had earned five years tax free housing for using an iron bar to beat up a fellow street walker who had invaded her ‘corner’, was usually camped out on her bunk, her nose glued to the television we used to be able to keep. In the past four days, I’d been told far more about the plots of various soap operas than I had ever wanted to learn. Checking the ever ticking clock above the head of my bunk, I noted that it was time for her favorite show, and spared a brief moment to wonder where she’d gotten off to. Not wanting to leave the fantasy world I’d created for myself in the library, I simply shrugged the mystery off and prepared to get into my bunk and take a brief nap before the trial of dinner.

A squeak of rubber on tile caused me to whirl around and my heart rose up into my throat as I saw Mouse and her two cronies standing just outside my cell, evil leers on their faces. Mouse and one of the women stepped inside, leaving the third to stand outside my cell and guard the hall.

I looked them both over carefully, slightly relieved to see their hands empty. My eyes darted around my cell in search for a weapon, but, of course, there was none to be found. Squaring my shoulders as best I could, I took in a deep breath and faced them, locking gazes with Mouse.

"Told ya we would getcha, fishie. Your little . . .friend . . .Corinne doesn’t come out of that cave of hers, ya know. That’s why we call her the Bat." Mouse cocked her head, her grin widening. "Maybe that’s what we should call you, huh? You know a lot about bats, doncha."

"What do you want."

Mouse’s eyes widened in mock surprise. "Want? What do I want?" Turning, she poked her partner in the ribs. "Hey, Shorty, she wants to know what we want."

Shorty, who fit her name perfectly, simply laughed, displaying a mouth missing a few teeth.

Mouse took a threatening step toward me, her large hands fisted and held at waist level. "Well, blondie, I guess what I want is my pound of flesh. Ya see, you broke the rules the other morning. And when you break the rules, ya gotta pay the price." Shaking her broad shoulders, Mouse tried to look sorrowful, but failed miserably, the evil glint in her green eyes giving her away. "Wish it could be different, what with you being such a cute little fish and all, but . . . ."

Before I even had the chance to steel myself, Mouse launched a hard fist into my gut, forcing the breath from my lungs in a horrible wheeze. The tuna fish sandwich and tea threatened to make a less than graceful return to the outside world and I swallowed hard against the bile rising in my throat as my eyes quickly blinked back tears of pain.

As I doubled over, my arms crossed over my belly, another fist blasted into my nose, causing me to see stars. Blood flew as my head snapped back, the pain agonizing in my head. My knees rebelled the abuse, turning to water on me, but my fall to the ground was halted by Shorty, who caught me under the armpits while kneeing me in the kidney.

I must have screamed, though I don’t really remember. All I can clearly recall is being pushed forward into yet another rock hard fist which glanced off my right cheekbone.

This time, I was allowed to fall, and fall I did, in an ungainly heap on the ground, using my arms to protect my head as best I could. The two fell into me with kicks and punches, none of which I really remember.

The next sound I can clearly remember is another fist on flesh, but this time, the flesh wasn’t mine. Next came the noise of a softly cleared throat and with that, my captors backed off, straightening and breathing heavily from their depraved exercises.

My eyes were swollen almost shut and my vision trebled with tears, but I managed to pry them open enough to see a shortish woman wish long dark hair and a very muscular build. She had a grin on her face and her massive forearm was clamped hard over the throat of the third member of my beating party. "Hello, Mouse. How’s tricks?"

Mouse rubbed the back of her hand against her nose. It came away bloody, but it was my blood that marred her freckled skin. "This ain’t none of your business," she said, but her voice sounded scared.

"Course it is," the dark woman remarked in a conversational tone. "You were beating up on a friend of Corinne’s, and you know that’s against the rules, Mouse."

"Fuck the rules! We seen her first! That makes this fish ours!"

The woman nodded, easing up some on the third woman’s throat when gasping was heard. "She would have been yours, Mouse, if you’d have been just a little faster. Fact is, though, she found the library, and that makes her safe from you and your gang." Releasing her grip on the third woman’s throat, she twisted the woman’s arm around her back and pulled, forcing her up onto her toes. "Tell ya what, Mousie. I’ll give this to you as a freebie. You got your pound of flesh, we’ll call it even, ok? I won’t even break your friend’s arm here, alright?"

The third woman gasped again against the increased pressure on her arm. "C’mon, Mouse. Let’s just call it quits, ok? Please?"

After a long moment, Mouse nodded, wiping her nose again and stepping out of my cell, giving the dark woman a wide berth. "Fine. But you ain’t heard the last of us for this." Mouse turned to me, her eyes hard and glittering. "You either, fish. You won’t know how, or when, but we’ll be back." Grabbing her two compatriots, Mouse ran off.

Grinning darkly and wiping her hands off on the fabric of her scrubs, the woman walked into the cell, helping me to stand back up on my feet. Trying hard not to sob, I doubled over again, clutching my belly as spasms of pain shot through me. My nose was laying a bloody trail on the tiled floor and my head and kidneys were aching like rotted teeth.

My rescuer pulled the cover off my bunk and tore a strip from the threadbare sheet beneath. Dousing it in cold water from the sink, she tilted my head back and pressed the cool cloth against my nose. Then she grabbed my hand and put it over the cloth. "Keep your head back and the pressure on. The bleeding should stop in a few minutes."

"Sounds like you’ve been through this before," I groaned.

"A few times, yeah." She gave my battered body a cursory once over before placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Listen, I don’t think you’re busted up too bad. Much as I’d like to stick around and make sure, I just can’t. It wouldn’t do you any good. You need to build up your own rep in this place and that means that you have to take your licks like the rest of us. My friends and I will try to make sure things don’t go too badly for you, but you need to learn to stand up for yourself, alright?" Her tone was gentle, her eyes kind. "We can’t do that for you, and until you do, things like this will be an everyday occurrence."

Her words made perfect sense and I nodded, wincing in pain.

The woman smiled. "Great. I knew you were a scrapper. Listen, as soon as you get that bleeding stopped, come down to dinner, alright? I know you can’t be too hungry, but it’ll do Mouse and her groupies a lot of good to see you’re not so easily scared off. I’ll be down there and I’ll point out a safe table for you to sit at, ok?"

I nodded again. "Thank you for helping me."

Smiling rakishly, the dark woman sketched a bow. "My pleasure."

As she turned to leave, I called out. "Wait! Please! What’s your name?"

The rakish grin came again. "They call me Pony."

Though I didn’t know it then, I had just met my first Amazon.

In the months and years to come, I would learn a great deal about this mythical gang. It was something of a secret society, comprised of the best of the best and carrying out the sacred duty of inmate protection. The Amazons were around to make sure the other gangs didn’t get too much control over the prison population, endangering both inmates and guards. If a certain gang leader needed to be knocked down a few pegs without an all out riot starting, the Amazons took the job. If a new fish like myself happened to luck into befriending a friend of the Amazons, we were protected, to some extent.

What made the Amazons so respected, and feared, is that they didn’t try to control the other gangs or inmates. But they made sure everyone followed the rules. Much like my new friend Corinne, they were dangerous and ruthless, but they could also be kind and considerate, lending help to those in need. One thing was known about them as sure as the sun rises in the east. You didn’t cross the Amazons.

Anyway, the next morning, I came into the library sporting two impressive shiners and a new attitude about my incarceration in the Bog. Corinne looked at me with a knowing grin and sent me, post haste, outside to begin my lessons in self defense.

The exercise yard is a study in segregation. It is bordered on all four sides by a fourteen foot high fence topped off by razor wire which loops in great silver-spiked coils along the boundaries. Guard towers, their mirrored windows reflecting the activity in the yard with benign introspection, stand sentinel over each of the four corners.

Within the fence lay the outdoor facilities for the inmate population. A softball diamond with a weedy outfield takes up almost half of the grounds. Closer to the main building, a basketball court, complete with cracked concrete and high backboards sporting rusting hoops without nets, comes next. Hard by the prison proper lies the large cement square which comprises the free weight area. Weight benches, their vinyl padding cracked and stained by the elements, sit, rarely empty of human companionship. Huge stacks of iron weights, collars, plates and bars, their shining finish long since flaked away, lay waiting for an eager hand to lift, push or press. A large, cinder-filled heavy bag hangs down on a thick chain from an overhang on the main building, its off white canvas long stained by hundreds of angry fists.

The whites usually hold court in the softball field, while the blacks use the basketball court as their gathering arena. The Hispanics and Asians grab up what little room is left over for their own devices. The free weight area is the one place in all the prison, inside and out, where all the groups come together, if not in peace, then at least with a sense of mutual understanding. It’s considered a serious breech of prison etiquette to show aggression in an area where weapons are free for the taking and displayed so prominently. And, of course, the Amazons hold dominion over the area, making sure the tenuous peace is held and doling out punishments to those stupid enough to break the rules.

During the weekdays, each cell block is let out into the yard for one hour to exercise, talk, make deals or do whatever else women kept together by forced circumstances are wont to do. My cell block is designated with the letter "E" and so, for the past five years, the time between eleven and noon has always been associated with the outdoors.

I can still remember the first time I went outside, the smell of snow in the winter air, the dull pain in my belly and back from the beating I’d taken the night before, and the insistent throbbing of my nose to the beat of my heart with every step I took.

It seemed as if everyone in the entire yard, prisoner and guard alike, was staring at me and laughing. In truth, probably no one paid me that much attention, but as I stood, frozen like a deer in a hunter’s sight, the relative safety of the warm brick of the main prison at my back, it seemed as if the whole world was having fun at my expense.

I could hear the sound of rubber meeting concrete as it mixed with the sounds of yelling coming from the basketball court. The solid ‘crack’ of a well hit ball filtered through my senses and I looked up, my eyes following the graceful arc of a softball, jealous of its freedom to soar while I stood, hurting, land-bound, and locked up. The closer sounds of grunting came to me as sweat stained women pitted their strength against unyielding metal, and the noises of steel on steel added to the cacophony of sounds flitting through my throbbing head.

Taking several deep breaths and trying to shore up the tattered remains of my spirit, I finally pushed myself away from the safety of the building behind me, walking with no clear destination in mind. My feet unconsciously led me toward the center of the free weight area and when I looked up, I spied, with a profound sense of relief, my rescuer of the evening before. She stood behind a low, horizontal bench, laughing and shouting encouragement as her friend strained and struggled to press what looked to me to be an impossible amount of weight over her chest. A taller woman, thin and sporting a mass of golden curls falling in ringlets around her head, got an evil glint in her eye and reached down to tickle the exposed, muscular belly of the reclining woman. With a shout, the weight lifter pressed the bar the remaining distance, set it on the hooks above her head, and shot to her feet, grabbing the blonde in a headlock. Grinning wildly, Pony separated the two laughing combatants, earning play slaps to her own muscled body.

My feet stopped of their own volition and as I stared at the scene before me, one of joyful camaraderie, it hit me, for the first time, exactly where I was and what I had given up. Tears of self pity blurred my vision as I stared at the three laughing friends, my soul jealous for the friendly touch of another human being or even a smile free of cool appraisal or cold calculation.

Before my ill-fated marriage, I’d never been without friends. Outgoing and gregarious, there wasn’t a person I met who I couldn’t come to enjoy as, at the very least, an acquaintance. I had always surrounded myself with people and, to be honest about it, enjoyed being the center of attention.

Now I was a bit of plankton floating around in a vast ocean and surrounded by ravenous sharks. It probably showed in my rainbow hued face because Pony chose that moment to look up from her tussle, pinning me with a glance, then smiling slightly and beckoning me over. It’s hard to describe the feeling of utter relief that coursed through me at that simple gesture, but my feet resumed their pace with a step much less plodding than earlier and I even managed a return smile of my own.

"Hey, kid," Pony grunted when I came closer. "Wow. Nice face."

"Yeah. The freshly pummeled look is all the rage these days."

Poor though it was, it was the first joke I’d managed to crack in months, and I felt much better for it. The others laughed at my attempt, then grew serious as I turned back to Pony. "I . . .um . . . want to thank you . . .again . . .for your help yesterday." I could feel a blush rising as I studied the ground at my feet, feeling awkwardly adolescent for some reason. Taking another deep breath, I forced my eyes back upward to take in the faintly amused, but caring, gaze of my benefactor. "And I . . .um . . .remember what you said to me last night. I want to learn how to protect myself."

A friendly grin split Pony’s face. "Yeah? That’s great! Though now probably isn’t the best time to learn."

"But why not?"

Pony gestured toward my aching body. "Gotta wait till you heal up a little first."

"What if I can’t afford to wait? What if they’re just waiting around to finish the job?" That thought caused last night to be a sleepless one.

"Don’t worry about that. They’ll stay away. For a little while at least."

"How can you be so sure?"

Pony’s smile turned smug. "I have my ways."

I gulped. "Yeah," I returned weakly, "I guess you do."

"Anyway, let me introduce you to my friends. This," she said, motioning toward the dark haired weight-lifter, "is Sonny. And the blonde here is Critter."

I nodded solemnly at them both, trying hard not to laugh at the name the blonde woman had been given. She must have noticed the look in my eye, because her friendly smile turned to a scowl and she gave a mock punch to my shoulder. Playful or not, that hurt and I rubbed yet another sore place on my body, resolving to watch even my thoughts from now on. "Man," I mumbled half under my breath, "critters are tough."

"You got that right, kiddo." The sting of the words was softened by the reemergence of Critter’s smile which turned her face from somber to beautiful. I was drawn to it, as I was to the feeling of vague familiarity that came over me suddenly, seeing that smile.

I was just about to ask if we had met before when I noticed that the area around me had gone completely silent. Even the late autumn birds had stopped their chatter from the trees on the other side of the fence. My three new friends suddenly turned away from me, their bodies stiffening in an attitude of respect.

From between their closely pressed bodies, I could see a woman striding, almost regally, toward us. She appeared to be only slightly taller than myself (and I should tell you, if I haven’t already, that I’m a bit vertically-challenged), with long hair so dark it was almost black and dark, intense eyes. Her beautiful face was almost expressionless, yet she seemed to exude power and confidence in equal measures. I found myself actively trying not to bow as she stopped before my little group, her effect on me was that strong.

As if reading my thoughts, Critter did bow, sort of, inclining her head in a show of respect. "Good afternoon, Montana."

"Good afternoon, Critter. Ladies." Looking past them, the woman set her eyes on me. I could almost feel her gaze crawling busily inside my skull, rooting out all my secrets and cataloguing them for future use. "And you are?"

She must have taken my voice with her, because, for the life of me, I couldn’t answer, so trapped was I in the dark of her eyes.

Seeing my predicament, Pony once again came to my rescue, introducing me to the imposing woman. Montana smiled and nodded, finally releasing me from her stare. "You’re the one Pony rescued from the Mousketeers then?"

Swallowing frantically and clearing my throat, I finally managed to find my voice. "Yes, Ma’am. That’d be me."

Montana smiled at me then, though it was no more than the slight uplifting of one corner of her full lips, accompanied by a raised eyebrow. "Much as I’d love to hear more of the story behind that, I’m afraid I need these three for something. If you’ll excuse us?"

Normally, I would have felt a sting at being dismissed so easily, but something in the woman’s eyes made the request almost an honor to receive, and so I nodded and turned from the group. My retreat was halted by a gentle hand on my arm and when I looked back up, Pony was smiling down at me. "Give your body a couple of days to rest up. You should be good to go by this weekend. Meet us down here on Saturday around noon and we’ll start on your training, alright?"

I could feel my smile threatening to engulf my whole face. "I’ll be there! Thank you!"

That rakish grin popped back out on Pony’s handsome face. "Not a problem. See you around, kid."

"Bye, Pony."

My walk back into the stale confines of my prison home felt as if I were striding on air.

The next six months of my incarceration managed to pass more smoothly than I ever could have hoped. Between the friendship of Corinne and the long range protection and training from the Amazons (though it would be a few more months before I knew that this gang actually existed. Yes, I told you I was nave.) I felt, if not happy, at least the beginnings of an acceptance for my particular lot in life.

Knowing of my interest in books of all kinds, Corinne immediately put me to work cataloguing her vast assortment of reading materials into some kind of coherent system. I was also appointed her chief scribe and soon developed blisters on my fingers from pounding out notes begging various governmental and non-profit agencies for books or the funds to procure more. More often than not, rejection notices filled our mail slot, but there were times of happy surprise, like when the ACLU donated seven cartons of used and new books as well as a five hundred dollar check to purchase more.

In addition to my own college studies, which Corinne insisted I pursue, I was also pressed into service as a teacher-at-large, doing my best to help several young women in their quest for educational advancement. Most of the women who came to see me weren’t hardened criminals by any stretch of the imagination. Prison life scared many of these women straight, and they begged me to help them do whatever it took to be able to get a better life once outside these cold walls.

I must admit that it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to help these women make something better of their lives.

It was during this heady time that I ‘earned’ the name Angel as well as the reputation as the woman who could get it for you. The Amazons had taken to giving me small jobs to do which usually involved asking the guards for some inmate favor or other. Because I was young, innocent-looking and unfailingly polite, my requests were granted more often than they were refused. I was soon able to set up my own contacts, both inside and outside the prison walls and before I knew it, other prisoners were coming to me asking for favors. By dealing with everyone fairly and granting as many requests as I could, my reputation grew and my status within the prison rose.

They say that pride goeth before a fall, and that was certainly true in my case.

Breathing a huge and heartfelt sigh of relief, I snapped off the final light, allowing the library to go dark and silent around me. I soaked in the feeling of peace with a hungry soul, taking in the comforting smell of printer’s ink and binder’s glue with a sense of satisfaction over another day ended without bruises or bloodshed.

The day had been a particularly trying one. I had offered to teach English as a Second Language to three young Mexican women whose knowledge of our language was sparse, to say the least. Because my knowledge of Spanish wasn’t much better, our time together started off bad and only got worse as the day turned to night.

To say I wasn’t looking forward to the next day’s class would be putting it mildly and so I left the library, my head already filled with dread over another twelve hours of fruitless work. Arriving back at my cell, I decided to take a shower, figuring that perhaps the shock of cold, stinging water might force a plan into my head. In so doing, I managed to break yet another unwritten prison rule. Never shower alone.

To be perfectly honest, that thought did cross my mind, but to my shame, I dismissed it with a shrug and light laugh. My workouts with the Amazons had been inspiring and I’d taken to them like a fish to water after an initial brief bout of awkwardness. My body, after an hour a day and three on weekends for the past six months, was lean and tight with hard muscles beginning to emerge from the softness of my skin. I was quite proud of the work I’d done on it and felt much more capable of defending myself against all comers.

As I’ve already said, pride is a spiteful master. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it turns around and bites you on the ass.

If you’ve ever watched a prison movie, you probably already know what the inside of a prison shower looks like, that being the site of so much action it seems, but in case you need to be reminded, I’ll tell you.

The shower room in the Rainwater Women’s Correctional Facility is a green tiled number that smells of mildew and sharply scented disinfectant. It’s one large square without dividers or privacy of any type. Twenty showerheads, ten to each side, jut out nakedly from the wall. The knob beneath each head dispenses just two temperatures. Cold and colder. The water pressure is sometimes set to ‘sandblasting’ and sometimes, ‘gentle rain’. It’s always a bit of a gamble as to which you’ll be blessed with. The floor is solid cement with a large drain in the middle and is always slimy. Shower shoes are always recommended attire.

Anyway, back to my story.

Shower time was usually closely regulated, but I’d managed to get on the good side of the guards and could pretty much shower whenever I pleased. This was the first time I went so close to ‘lights out’, but I figured myself safe enough, since most of the others would be busy wrapping up their business before turning in for the night.

With a nod to one of the guards who sat behind thick plexi-glass in the observation station, I took the short hallway and followed my nose to the shower room. By this time, our uniforms had been switched to those atrocious bright orange jumpsuits and I had a fresh one under my arm, with my shower shoes in my other hand.

Snapping the naked flourescents on, I listened to the steady drip drip of the faucets while I disrobed, tossing my dirty uniform into the laundry chute and grabbing a stiff and scratchy towel from the pile outside the showers. Slipping into my shoes, I walked into the shower proper, selecting the third nozzle from the end and, taking a deep breath, hit the button.

Icy cold water shot out full blast, drenching me in seconds and sending a spray of fine, stinging needles to pierce the closed pores of my skin. We weren’t allowed shampoo or conditioner, so the slimy bar of off white soap would have to do. Humming softly to myself, and let me warn you right now that I am not a singer, I proceeded to lather up as best I could, musing idly that my nipples were so hard, I could probably etch my name into the ceramic tiles with them and smirking at the thought.

So wrapped up in idle thoughts and off key singing was I that I never heard the snickering coming from behind and to the left of me. I lathered up my hands and proceeded to start on my hair, at that time still long and thick, when soap made its stinging way into my eyes, causing me to drop the soap and reach blindly for the towel I’d dropped beside me.

My motion was arrested by the feel of thick hands on my hips and a pair of muscled thighs pressed tight to my bare ass, grinding into me wantonly. I tried to straighten up, but another pair of legs trapped my head between them, forcing my body to bow tautly.

The water shut off abruptly and evil laughter came to ears which were muffled by wet cloth.

"Hello again, little fish. Tell me, do your little buddies get to play with you like this? You like em ta give it to ya up the ass, do ya?"

I tried to struggle, only to have the legs around my head clench tighter, crushing against my skull.

"Yeah, I thought so. Those freaks probably like it when you struggle." The body moved away from me slightly, though the hands remained tight on my hips. "Let her up, Shorty."

The pressure on my skull loosened and I shot up quickly, rubbing at my stinging eyes and whirling on my tormentor.

Mouse took a short step back and laughed. "Well, well, well. The little Angel has horns, huh? That’ll just make this more fun."

"What do you want from me?"

"Same thing I’ve always wanted, fish. You. You’re getting too big for your britches and ya need someone ta knock you down a few pegs. Your friends are always around to protect you." Mouse took an exaggerated look around the room. "Don’t see em anywhere now, though." Her grin turned into a leer. Thrusting out a hand behind her, the woman grunted as a long length of wood, a mop handle by the look of it, was slapped solidly in her palm. "Let’s see how pretty you can scream for Mouse, ok?" Looking past me, she set eyes on the woman still standing behind me. "Hold her steady, Shorty."

Hard hands clamped down on my shoulders, freezing me to the spot as I blinked my stinging eyes, trying to clear my vision enough to watch as Mouse took a few practice swings with her stick. "Here it comes, little fishie."

From the corner of my eye, I saw the tip of the stick start toward me as Mouse planted her feet on the wet concrete and swung. I tried to dodge out of the way, but Shorty held me fast and the wood cracked against my unprotected side, grazing my hip bone.

Clenching my teeth against a scream, I felt my knees buckle as my right leg went numb. Shorty held me up, tight against her body, and laughed as Mouse drew back for another swing. The stick went low, cracking solidly against the outside of my right knee, welting the skin and totally numbing my leg. I listed drunkenly, almost managing to get away from Shorty’s slippery hold before she clamped down hard on me once again.

The room echoed with their laughter and my heavy breathing and something in me snapped. It was like that night in my apartment all over again, and the redness of rage washed over my vision once again. The mop handle came at me again, but this time I was ready. I caught it in my right hand and pulled hard, managing to grab it away from Mouse.

Like the bat before it, the weapon felt perfect in my hands. I found myself twirling it experimentally, getting the heft of the handle even as my body jerked away from Shorty’s grasp. My leg threatened to give out, but I willed myself to stand straight and steady, narrowing my eyes to mere slits as I stared down my tormentors.

"Think it’s fun beating up on defenseless women, do ya?" I taunted, twirling my weapon again and enjoying the looks of uncertainty that were crossing the women’s faces. "Well, this time, you miserable sack of shit, you picked the wrong girl!" Grabbing the handle firmly in my hands, I swung for all I was worth, listening to the satisfying crack as it landed hard against Mouse’s arm, right above the elbow. Drawing back, I pivoted and swung again, catching Shorty behind the legs and neatly sweeping her off her feet. She landed with a splat onto the puddle filled floor and rolled away quickly, her eyes wide and rolling.

I had no idea how I knew these moves, but I went with the feeling, enjoying my body’s reactions and the adrenaline surge that accompanied them. Mouse was howling in pain, cradling her arm and screaming incoherently at me. I stood patiently, working some feeling back into my leg as I did so, and waiting to see what would happen next.

The third woman took advantage of my stillness to rush into the fray. I walloped her in the abdomen as she came at me, and when she doubled over, I finished her off with an upswing to the face, watching as teeth and blood fell from her face in a ghastly torrent.

With a bellow of rage, Mouse came at me again. I drove her back with a hit directly on her injured arm, but she continued to come at me, her eyes filled with hatred and rage. Raising my staff, I aimed higher, levering a blow at her unprotected skull.

A strong sense of dj vu flashed though me and, suddenly sickened, I pulled the blow at the last moment, glancing the handle off her meaty shoulder and dropping my weapon in horror.

Still bellowing, she crashed full into me, taking out my already weak leg and bearing me to the floor with her. I immediately curled up into a fetal ball, legs tucked tight to my chest and my arms clamped hard around my head.

Jumping off of me, she grabbed the handle and brought it down on my back time after time after time until all I could feel was the sting and welt of the falling wood as my body rocked to the rhythm of her blows.

How long the beating went on I’ll never know, because my body gave up the fight and I passed out, falling quickly into a place that knew no pain.

To this day, almost five years later, I believe the only thing that saved my life that night was the fact that I’d chosen such a late hour to go into the showers. The lights out head count is taken with the utmost seriousness in the Bog and the warning buzzer must have rung during my beating because when I woke up, I was alone, save for a broken and bloodied mop handle and the third woman’s broken teeth sharing space with me.

When I came to full consciousness, my body was a flaming ball of exquisite agony, pulsing with a life of its own that mirrored the beating of my heart. My back and ass were on fire and I wondered idly if my spine had been damaged. Trying out an experimental move, I screamed out in agony as my muscles sent warning flares up and down my nerve endings. Doubling over, I retched weakly between my splayed arms, screaming as that action further jolted my already overloaded senses. "Oh God," I cried out softly into the emptiness of my seeming tomb. "Please help me. Somebody, please help me."

Only the dripping of the showers answered my plea.

I knew that the only person to get me out of this situation was me. Despite my agony, I shuddered at the thought of being discovered, huddled, bloody and shivering, the next morning. "Ok, Angel. This is your chance to show how tough you are."

I’d always been a big one for mental pep talks, and if there ever was a time one was needed, it was now. Breathing as deeply as I dared, I managed to drag myself up on my hands and knees, swaying violently as spots of pretty colored lights swam in my vision, threatening to engulf me and take me under with them once again. I spared a long moment considering exactly that option, before dismissing it out of hand. "Get a move on, woman. Don’t let them beat you. You can do this. You have to do this, right? Right. So let’s just get up and get moving."

The spirit was more than willing, but the flesh was beyond weak. Getting to my feet was not an option, so I resigned myself to a slow crawl across the slimy shower floor, fighting against the seductive pull of unconsciousness with every inch of progress I managed to make.

After what seemed like an hour, but was in reality no more than five or ten minutes, I managed to make it out of the shower proper and into the changing room. Just as standing was impossible, so too was clothing myself. Shaking my head and telling myself that only the guards would be around to see me in my helpless nakedness, I set off for the hallway using that same slow crawl and willing myself to stay alert and fully conscious.

I made it to the hallway and was slumped down, panting through the pain, when I heard the sound of running feet heading toward the hallway. I knew instinctively what had happened. I’d missed the head count and was being searched for. Luckily, I had spoken briefly to the guard as I went to the showers, and so I slid back against my haunches and waited for them to find me.

The sounds of running footsteps came closer and the light in the hallway dimmed as a large body filled the entrance. "Angel!" a voice cried out, spying my huddled form. The figure broke into a run once again, skidding to a stop bare inches from me. "What happened?!? Who did this to you??" Forcing my eyes open, I craned my stiff neck to look up into the concerned eyes of Sandra Pierce, who was pulling graveyard shift that month.

"Help me," I whispered, biting my cheeks against the sobs that were threatening to overcome my resolve. The relief at having been found left me feeling weak and nauseous, fully conscious of my pain for the first time since just after I’d awakened.

"Who did this to you?" she demanded once again, squatting in front of me and running tender hands down my lacerated and bruised back. She yanked them away quickly when I yelped, her voice sorrowful and tender. "Oh, Angel."

"Please . . . ." was all I could manage to get out. "Please . . . ."

"Simmons!" she shouted over her shoulder. "Get down here with a stretcher and tell Kotter to call the doc!"

Pulling my strength from somewhere, I managed to grab her arm. "No! Please. Just . . .take me to my cell. Please."

"Angel, I can’t! You’re badly hurt. I’m taking you to the infirmary. The doc needs to look you over."

"No! Please!"

"Angel . . . ."

"No. Sandra, please. I can’t let them win. Take me to my cell. Please."

"Angel, you know I can’t do that. You’ve been badly beaten and your back’s a bloody mess. You might have permanent damage. You need to be checked out."

"Here then," I pleaded, fighting the darkness that hovered at the edges of my vision. "Can’t let them win."

"Who did this, Angel? Was it Mouse and her crew? Tell me."

My strength gone, I slumped against her, letting the sobs finally come.

Though to this day I’m not sure how I managed it, I was able to talk Sandra into allowing the doc to examine me in the hallway to the shower room. After determining that no major damage was done, the head guard agreed to take me back to my cell. Though she had to carry me in her arms like a small child, I felt an absurd sense of triumph in the fact that I would spend the night in my own bed, in my own cell. I can remember falling into bed, still sobbing, praying that one day, a way would be found to give my abusers the justice they so richly deserved.

I’ve heard it said that sometimes, when prayers are made with a pure and hurting heart, someone listens and gives an answer. Mine certainly were.

*********

It’s nighttime once again and as the prison settles down for the evening, I look back over these pages I’ve managed to write and can’t help but wonder what you must think of my naivete in the face of so much obvious danger. I’ve also noticed that I’ve managed to, yet again, bring the story back around to me, though it was never my intention to write a tale about myself. However, I’ve also discovered that if the Muse points you in a certain direction, it’s always best to just follow along so your words don’t turn on you and make you fight and scrape for every inch gained.

In the preceding twenty or so pages, I’ve used two different pens to differentiate between things happening now and scenes from my checkered past. Since I’ve grown to absolutely detest this purple pen of mine, I’m going to trust that you have figured out my writing style by now and will be able to tell the difference without it.

***********

The morning after my altercation in the shower, I woke up wishing I hadn’t. There wasn’t a place on me that didn’t throb and my body was doing a very good job convincing me to just throw in the towel and spend the day in bed trying to let the blissful fog of unconsciousness soothe away the pain.

Luckily, my brain had other ideas, most of which involved dragging my ass out of bed and being seen as one who wouldn’t back down from a fight anymore. After a long internal debate, I decided to go with mind over matter and slowly pulled myself, like an arthritic old woman on a rainy winter morning, out of bed and onto my feet. I stood by the side of the bed, panting, swaying and willing down the terrible nausea that had decided to come out to play.

After making sure that I wouldn’t lose consciousness with the least of my actions, I slowly began to prepare myself for the day. The rough cloth of my prison uniform rubbed the raw welts littering my back and I used the pain to steady and center my wavering resolve. Come what may, I knew that the only way I would be able to face myself was to start my day under my own power and wear my injuries as a badge of honor for a battle well fought and hard won.

Deciding to skip a breakfast I would, by all rights, be unable to keep within the confines of my stomach, I headed, at a slow walk, toward my sanctuary, the library. As I walked, I took in the glances tossed my way, some filled with barely veiled sympathy, some with hatred, and some with a new sort of respect. The prison grapevine was apparently in good working order.

There was also a sense of excitement that permeated the prison, as if a very important event were about to happen and everyone but me knew all about it. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with me, while at the same time praying fervently that it didn’t.

Corinne met me before I even made it to the library door, catching me under the arm and leading me into the warm room with a hard sheen of respect shining in her eyes. Helping me over to one of the tables, she sat me down in a newly padded chair and bustled over to her hotplate, quickly returning with a mug of fragrant tea.

"Drink this down, Angel. It’s got some stuff in it that’ll help ease your pain."

I took the mug gratefully, bringing it to my lips and inhaling the steam with a sense of pleasure. It smelled of mint and lemon and something almost familiar, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I took a sip, groaning out my gratitude as the mellow taste soothed the rawness of my throat and warmed my insides. My stomach was apparently happy with the gift, for it remained steady and silent. "So, you heard, I guess."

Corinne smiled, her grin almost hard and predatory. "Sure did. Mouse’s arm is in a cast and her little friend won’t be talking clearly for quite awhile."

I winced. "I didn’t mean to hit them that hard."

Reaching out, my friend put a gentle hand beneath my chin, tilting my head up. "Don’t ever be sorry for defending yourself, Angel. They would have killed you last night if they could have. You managed to stop them, and put them out of commission for a long while to boot. Not bad for a night’s work."

I winced again. "I’m not proud of what I did, Corinne."

"You should be."

"Well, I’m not." I ended the conversation by taking another sip from the mug and tilting my head back, my eyes drifting closed. The fact of the matter was that my actions scared me. It’s one thing to know you’re capable of defending yourself. It’s quite another to realize that you have the strength, the skill, and even the will to kill another human being. I’d already done that once. I had no desire to ever do it again.

Corinne sat herself in the chair next to mine, placing a warm hand on my wrist. "I’ll cancel your teaching session for today."

My eyes popped open and I fixed her with a stare. "I’d rather you didn’t. I made a mistake by taking a shower alone. I paid for it. Those women don’t need to suffer for my ignorance."

"They won’t suffer, Angel. It’ll only be for a day or two, until you’re well enough to teach again."

Somehow I managed to straighten myself in my chair, leaning over just slightly to meet Corinne’s concerned gaze with a steady one of my own. "Corinne, please. I need to do this. I appreciate that you care for me, but I don’t want to be coddled, by you or anyone else."

After a long moment, Corinne threw back her head and laughed, her soft round belly jiggling in time to her mirth. "Well, well, well, our little Angel is all grown up."

I looked at her for a long moment, then let out a slow sigh. I even managed to chuckle a little. "Not really. For a minute there, I was worried that I’d offended you."

Corinne laughed again, shaking her head. Then she leaned over and engulfed my upper body in a hug that smelled of cinnamon and warm affection. "Don’t you ever change on us, Angel. You’re perfect, just the way you are."

"Thanks. I think." The words, spoken from the warm heart of a cold killer, warmed me right down to my toes. It was one of those unexplainable paradoxes of prison life, but one I accepted gratefully. Love, after all, is love and you learn to take it where you find it and be grateful for the giving.

Corinne finally released me and sat back in her seat. Looking closely, I could see that same sense of barely repressed excitement hovering around her.

"Corinne, is something going on here that I don’t know about?"

The smile that crossed my friend’s face would have done the Mona Lisa proud. "Could be," she allowed.

"Are you gonna tell me what it is?"

Her grin widened. "Angel, sometimes it’s good to experience certain things by yourself."

Shaking my head, I heaved a sigh of frustration.

"I think you’ll like it. You’ll see."

"Can you at least answer two questions?"

"Try me."

"Ok. Will this thing happen today?"

"If the prison grapevine is correct, yes."

"Alright. Does it have anything to do with me?"

Corinne’s thin brows knit together in thought for a moment. Then her face cleared. "Perhaps not at first, no. But I have a feeling that one day, it will have everything to do with you."

I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. "So, that’s all you’re gonna tell me, huh?"

My friend smirked. "Yep."

Any retort I could have made was cut off by the entrance of my two students, who walked in giggling and looking at me in a way I’d never seen before. Hero worship.

This time, I did roll my eyes.

Some three hours later, I found myself in a blissfully quiet library, taking a well deserved break. The session had gone only minimally better than the day before and I was beginning to despair over ever getting the basic concepts of English across to my two willing students. Several Spanish to English translation dictionaries hadn’t helped as much as they should have and my mind was too tired to think up something new.

Corinne sat behind her desk, her gray hair sparkling in the round, soft light of her desk lamp. The sound of her ancient fountain pen filled the air with its soothing melody and I allowed my whirling thoughts to calm. The tea had done immeasurable good and, all in all, I was feeling as well as could be expected, given my ordeal.

The comforting sounds of pen to paper combined with the ticking of a clock to put me into a light doze which was more healing than all the sleep I had gotten the night before. A different sound cut through my senses suddenly, causing me to bolt upright in my chair, my body groaning out its protest quite loudly. "What was that?"

Corinne kept silent, smiling that blasted enigmatic smile yet again.

The sound repeated, then became a chant as more voices added their strength to the harsh chorus. Then the noise of metal on metal wove through, keeping time to the voices. My eyes narrowed, trying to make out the words. I stiffened suddenly as I realized that the chant wasn’t a group of words, but rather one word repeated continually.

"Fight! Fight! Fight!"

Turning to Corinne, I struggled to get up out of my chair, thoughts of retribution by proxy tumbling through my scattered thoughts. In my mind’s eye, I could see Pony going up against Mouse and her gang with inmates standing around, cheering their favorites.

As she was often wont to do, Corinne appeared to read my mind and smiled a calming smile. "They’re not fighting. Listen closer."

Try as I might, I could only hear the word "fight" being shouted over and over and over again. I looked back over at my friend. "Is this the surprise you were telling me about?"

"Most likely, yes."

"But it’s not a fight."

"No."

"Then what is it?"

Turning her attention from me and back to her letter, Corinne smirked. "Only one way to find out, Angel."

Still not trusting my friend completely, I nevertheless managed to lever my sore body up and out of my comfortable chair and stand on my own two feet once again. "This better be a damned good surprise," I muttered half under my breath.

"Oh, it will be," Corinne smugly told her paper.

Shooting her a withering glance, I gingerly made my way out of the library.

The shouting and banging became ever louder as I made my way to the prison’s main square. If I haven’t described it before, the Bog is made up of eight levels of cells which run around an open central square. Two sets of winding metal steps, one on either end of the square, wait patiently, their railings rubbed raw of paint from the press of hundreds of hands.

As I made my way down the long hallway that housed the library and stepped out into the square, my vision was filled with hundreds of orange-suited inmates yelling, jumping and chanting in unison, their faces bright with excitement and anticipation. They had split into two huge groups, leaving a narrow alley in the middle, looking much like a gauntlet of old. Even the stairs were crowded with inmates all looking toward the far entrance with expectant expressions.

My lack of height compromised my vision, and by this time, curiosity was killing me. Like the Red, or to be more accurate, Orange Sea, the inmates before me parted to admit a grinning Pony who gently herded me though the crowd and up onto the first riser of steps. Critter and Sonny were also in attendance, and both grinned at me and slapped me on the arms, gently, in congratulations for surviving the beating of the night before. I grinned back happily. "What’s going on?" I shouted above the din.

Critter grinned. "You’ll see!"

Settling back and crossing my arms over my chest, I resolved to wait it out. The sound of the chant finally came together in my ears and I realized that the women weren’t yelling ‘fight’, but ‘ice’. I turned back to Pony, confused. "Ice?"

My friend simply nodded and directed my attention back to the far end of the square and the barred door standing there. My attention managed to wander at the exact second the chanting stopped and the cheers began, swelling in intensity until I was sure my eardrums were going to burst with the force of the noise.

Returning my attention to the waiting door, my eyes caught a flash of bright orange surrounded by the dun brown of guard uniforms. One of the guards stepped forward and grabbed the keys hanging from his belt, using one to unlock the massive door and sliding it open.

An expectant hush settled over the prison as the guard stepped back, hand on the butt of his baton, which was hanging from a loop at his belt. With a nod to his companion, he started forward once again. As they stepped through the door, the prison exploded into a cacophony of sound. Plastering my hands over my ears, I watched the spectacle unfolding before me.

The two guards stepped through with almost military precision, obviously well prepared for trouble. Then, walking a perfect half step behind, arms and legs firmly manacled, came the center of everyone’s attention.

I found myself riveted. The sounds around me seemed to fall away into silence, though my body continued to feel their vibrations. Standing at least half a head taller than the men surrounding her, a vision stepped into the prison proper, moving with a regal grace the likes of which I’d never seen. She seemed to command the room with the strength of her spirit, issuing a compelling summons I found myself unable to turn away from.

Her hair was black and shining, tumbling in violent waves down her back and brushing over shoulders so broad and perfect that they strained the orange jumpsuit that clung to her magnificent form like a lover. In that moment, I would have given anything to be that particular prison uniform.

Her face seemed carved of alabaster, a perfect rendering of some ancient goddess full of fire and fierceness, all slashing cheekbones and full red lips.

But her eyes. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never be able to describe the beauty of their perfection. Shining fierce and proud, they glowed the deepest blue of the hottest part of a candle’s flame. Or, perhaps, the center of a perfect block of ice.

With that thought, I came to realize the meaning of her prison name, and it fit her like none other has before, or ever will.

Her stare burned hot and cold at the same time, taking in the whole room while dismissing us all.

Closer she came on long, muscled legs that carried her like a predatory beast. Her guards followed like a retinue of fawning advisors, keeping her adoring public at a safe distance, lest she lash out, chained limbs and all, killing with just a thought.

Her gaze was straight ahead until she mounted the first step. Then, ever so slowly, her head turned and I felt the heat of those cold eyes as they engulfed me, drowning me in a pool so deep and so pure that I couldn’t help but go willingly to my death. Our gazes locked and I’m sure my face went white. An eternity passed in that brief second. Her soul called out and mine answered as visions spun out between us of past lives led and sacrifices made. All in the name of a perfect love that was never born and would never die.

The attention of the entire prison was upon us, but I had eyes only for her. She represented freedom in a way that even life outside the confines of this prison never could. I saw the blue of a perfect summer’s day in her glance and the promise of safety, and a tattered soul, and a love so deep, offered up in one brief look, if only I could gather the courage to reach out and take it.

My body followed where my mind had already lead and, quite beyond my conscious will, my arm lifted, reaching out to confirm with solid, human contact that this was no mere dream but a living, breathing reality that stood before me.

A flash of brown entered the periphery of my vision and I felt my arm being gently shunted aside as a guard stepped back, shattering the moment. A smirk curved the soft, full lips of my enchantress. With the raise of an eyebrow and the barest ghost of a wink, she turned her attention from me and headed up the stairs to the segregation unit, leaving me more bereft than I can ever remember being.

The sound rushed back, as if from a vacuum, and my head spun from the intensity of the moment. Pony caught me as I sagged back against the railing, the strength suddenly gone from my legs. As the prisoner was led into her new cell, the crowd started to break up and Pony and Critter each took one of my arms, leading me back down the stairs and toward the library, Sonny keeping close behind.

I remember very little about that short trip. The best metaphor I can come up with now is to liken it to the touching of an electrified fence unawares, being galvanized by the current, and, if lucky, living to feel the after-images as they tingle through your seared nerve endings.

So wrapped up in these strange new feelings was I that I didn’t even notice when we finally entered the warm dimness of the library. My new friends escorted me to my chair and parked me there, then grinned down at my dazed expression before talking quietly with Corinne and leaving me to my thoughts once again.

The next thing I can truly remember is Corinne approaching me with a mug of her famous tea. She handed it to me and I gulped almost the entire thing down, unmindful of the intense heat burning at my tongue and palate.

The pain hit a split second later, and I slammed the mug down, fanning my face as my eyes watered. My friend had the good grace not to laugh at my foolishness, but I felt like a child nonetheless. I know I blushed from more than the heat of the tea, and the scarred table top suddenly became an interesting work of art, one requiring my full attention and study.

Corinne patiently waited me out and, finally gathering up the tattered remnants of my courage, I chanced to look up, internally wincing against the look of gentle mocking I was sure was in her eyes.

Instead, her gaze was calm and compassionate and I sunk into it with a feeling of relief. "Are you alright?" she asked in a gentle, quiet voice.

"I . . .I’m not sure. I think so." Looking at her, I struggled to put my feelings into words. "What happened?"

Corinne smiled. "Ice happened."

Continued..Part 2

 


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