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Excerpt #2 from The Last Con


 

Present day

Dante Watkins went to jail at least twice a week. It really didn’t bother him.

Jail was familiar—the steps up to the brick-and-concrete edifice, the words COVNTY JAIL engraved over the entrance in block letters, the aging guard behind the desk—they were all commonplace and somehow neutral, like the newsstand outside his apartment or the train platform a block away.

And it was nothing like prison. Not to Dante. Prisons were isolated compounds—little kingdoms unto themselves, wrapped in razor wire and surrounded by gun towers, where men were banished, often for life. The old county jail, on the other hand, was nestled in one of the nicer parts of downtown, between the new casino and the opera house. Driving by, a person could think it was an office building or high-rise apartment complex, so Dante could run in and out without so much as a blip in his mood.

But he had to be quick. Always. Because inside, the jail smelled like tenement and emergency room and disinfectant. And somehow, every surface was sticky. A bit of a germ freak, Dante kept his personal footprint as small as possible while inside, tight and professional, never sprawling in a chair or leaning on a table. In and out.

“Eighty degrees, and the preacher’s in a three-piece suit!” The uniformed man at the desk stretched his mouth into a wide grin full of straight, off-white teeth. “Good to see you; we needed a little class in here today.” He retrieved a clipboard from under the desk and slid it toward the thin man approaching him. “How are you this afternoon, Reverend?”

Dante mirrored the man’s smile. “I’m blessed, James. But busy. Lots of folks need what I’ve got.” He carefully set his bulky King James Bible on the desk and retrieved an ink pen from his jacket. He printed and signed his name on the log sheet before him. “I’m here to see a lost soul named Gregory Barnes,” he said, copying the inmate number from an index card onto the form.

“If you’re gonna save that soul, you better work fast. They’re taking him to Jackson tomorrow.” The guard punched a few buttons on an outdated computer and nodded his approval. “Looks like he’s waiting for you in Consult 6. Go on through.”

“Thanks.” Dante tucked the worn Bible under his arm and stepped up to a reinforced door, where he paused. This was not the visitors’ door with the walk-through metal detector. That wasn’t for Dante. While security had been slowly tightening for a decade, attorneys and clergy were still subject to a mere visual search by the lobby officer. Any measures beyond that were at the officer’s discretion. The wand might come out for a new lawyer or an out-of-towner with a smart mouth, but Dante and his Bible had been coming here for years and no one gave them a second thought. A grinding buzz sounded from the magnetic lock above, signaling the minister to pass through.

The light was greenish and low in the narrow hallway, occasionally flickering out, but Dante could have navigated the space blindfolded. Twenty-four steps, then through a door on his left and into a hub connecting eight small consultation rooms. An orange-clad inmate, lethargically mopping the floor, looked up at Dante with empty eyes before slowly dragging the mop and bucket out of his way. Each of the eight metal doors had been painted a sickly institutional green and bore a stenciled number beneath a small window. An armed guard at the far wall glanced up at the visitor with little interest and pointed to door number six.

Dante entered the bare room. A compact metal table filled the majority of the space, flanked by two cheap molded-plastic chairs. Gregory Barnes was wedged into one of them, tipping back, studying the ceiling. Dante lowered himself into the other and placed his Bible on the table between them.

“Are you a skinhead, Gregory?”

At six foot six, the inmate had to look down to meet Dante’s gaze. “What?”

“You’re going to a state penitentiary tomorrow. You look like a skinhead, you know? That’s a statement you’re making.”

“No. I mean, I’ve been waxing my head, but—”

“Why?”

“Because it feels good. And it looks good.”

“And you’re going bald, right?” Dante said, pointing at the faint shadow of a receding hairline. “I can see it there.”

“What is this?”

“This is your first stretch. You show up looking like a skinhead—that can set the trajectory for your entire stay. You got a skinhead-sounding nickname? What do people call you?”

“Gregory.”

“Huh. That’s like a four out of ten. You’ll probably be okay.” Dante unbuttoned his suit coat and adjusted his tie. “Anyway, enough with the pleasantries. I’m here for a spiritual visit, aren’t I? Let’s you and I pray together.” He placed his hands out on the table, palms up. “Shall we?”

“Pray . . . what? They told me that you were the guy who—”

“This is how it’s done, Greg. Be cool.” He peered at Gregory for a moment over the top of his brow-line glasses, then felt the man’s large, sweaty hands wrap around his own. The irony still amused Dante after all these years. Spouses, parents, children—they all had no-contact visitation with the inmates, through filthy, tiny windows lining a miserable corridor. They spoke on telephones from three feet away, pushed their hands up against the glass. But here in this room there were no barriers, no cameras, no one listening in. This was where confidential meetings—constitutionally protected meetings—took place, beyond the reach of prying eyes and listening ears. And yet it was clearly not human contact that Gregory Barnes was craving as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Big Guy in the Sky,” Dante began, squeezing his eyes shut. “I pray for this skinhead-lookin’ convict. May he land a plush cell at the state pen tomorrow, with a weak little roommate who likes him for who he is inside. You know, the real Greg. May the food not taste like gruel. May he keep his mouth shut, remembering the words of your Good Book, that snitches get stitches. And most importantly, may Gregory pay what he owes lest he reap what he sows.” He paused. “I say again, may he pay what he owes.” Dante opened his eyes. “You’re not praying, Gregory.”

“I didn’t come here to pray.” He broke his hands free from Dante’s grip. “You have something for me.”

“I said be cool, Greg.” Dante shook his head, annoyed. “They think we’re praying in here, right? Otis didn’t tell you how it’s done? You slip it in my hand while we pray. You think I want to hang onto that big clammy mitt of yours? You pay what you owe or you reap what you sow. Now show me what you got.”

Gregory sat back and surreptitiously pulled the zipper of his orange jumpsuit down to his chest and withdrew a small bundle, a few inches squared, wrapped in newspaper.

Dante bared his teeth and quietly chided, “Put it down low, next to the table, man. There may not be cameras, but there’s a window, and the guard makes the rounds. What’s the matter with you?”

“Fine,” Gregory said. “I got it. See? Now give me the stuff.”

“Open it up. Let me have a look.”

Gregory snuffed and pulled open the bundle, fanning a stack of wrinkled tens and twenties.

Dante frowned. “Price is eight hundred fifty, Greg. Looks like you’re trying to short me there.”

The inmate closed his ample fist around the money. “It’s four hundred bucks, but you’re not getting it anyway. Deal’s changed.”

“Has it now?”

“New deal: you give me what I asked for and I won’t tell the deputy warden about the game you’re running in his jail. How about that?”

Dante smiled—not a malicious smile—and sat back in the chair. “You’re going to turn me in? That’s the plan?”

“Why not? I’ve been asking around about you, Preacher. And I think you’re running a solo act. You come in here and jack up the price of everything while we’re locked up and have no choice but to pay. But I won’t be locked up forever. “

“Seven years, from what I understand.”

“Be out in three. Maybe I’ll come visit you then. How about that? You think you can intimidate me? You come in here in your suit jacket and pants and those stupid glasses, looking like Malcolm X, talking about skinheads and how bad it’s gonna be for me inside, and I’m supposed to forget what you really are?”

“What am I?”

“You’re a weak little man with no pull. No connections. No muscle.”

Dante’s smile disappeared. “What do you think would happen if I called for the guard right now, Greg?” He opened the Bible, revealing a cutaway, and withdrew a small cardboard box. “What if I told him that you offered me this in exchange for a favor on the outside? Who do you think they’d believe?”

Gregory twisted his head to the side, cracking his neck and showcasing a network of steel cable muscles and tendons running under the skin. “There you go again with that intimidation,” he said. “But it doesn’t work on me. I’m not stupid like the rest of these dirtbags.”

Controlled rage flickered behind Dante’s eyes. “You’re not like these dirtbags? Son, you’re in an orange jumpsuit because you stole the Jaws of Life from a fire station and tried to crack open an ATM. You called 911 on yourself. How’s the hand, by the way?”

Gregory rubbed his right hand, but said nothing.

“My services are a privilege, not a right. You’ve just lost that privilege.” Dante rebuttoned his jacket, returned the little box to its place in the old Bible, and scooted his chair back.

“Nobody walks away from me,” Gregory growled. “You don’t want to give me what I got coming? What’s to stop me from taking it from you right now?” He motioned at the Bible with his eyes. “Like you said, no cameras in here.”

“So take it.” Dante brought his hands up next to his face. “Go ahead.”

The two men locked eyes for a moment.

“No?” Dante laughed. “You jumped right into that little speech you memorized, how you’re not intimidated and all that. But you’re a mess, Greg. I mean, it’s not that hot in here, man; why’s that bald head of yours raining like that? My guess: This isn’t going the way you hoped when you rehearsed it in your cell. Now you’re thinking about an exit strategy, some kind of back road out, but you didn’t lay one.” He scoffed. “Look at you—skin leakin’ all over.” He pulled his jacket up at the lapel and raised his arm over his head, his crisp shirt sliding against his skin. “Cool and dry over here, Greg.”

With a sudden snatch, the inmate’s massive right hand went for the Bible, connecting with the soft leather cover for just a moment before it was gripped hard over the pinky, turned backwards, and pinned against his forearm. He resisted the hold for a second, then yelped and went limp.

“There you go,” Dante said. “Just relax. Now where were we? That’s right, you were telling me how stupid you aren’t. And I was about to tell you how everything you’ve done with your pathetic little life has been stupid. But this—this right here?—this is your stupidest move yet. You think I’d come in here week after week for almost twenty years unprotected? Unconnected?” He gave the big hand a little extra twist. “Answer me.”

“You’re not with”—Gregory gasped in pain—“any gang I heard of.”

Dante leaned forward and looked the man in the eye. “You ever heard of La Bella Donna?” He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his free hand. “I’m guessing by the panic in your eyes that you have. Do you have any idea what would happen to you if I told Bella Donna you tried to take her product without paying? You’re locked in a cage, surrounded by her people, Greg . . . headed to a bigger, nastier cage also filled with her people.”

Gregory’s racing pulse was easily visible in his eighteen-inch neck.

“Did you even know you worked for Bella Donna? The only reason you even got through to me is because you run for Jay on Roosevelt. And Jay reports to D’Angelo, who answers to Big Mike, who answers to Marcus, who handles affairs for Bella Donna.” He was suddenly aware that his voice had been rising steadily as he spoke. He breathed in slowly and let it out.

“I tell you what,” he said. “I may be going soft, but I’m going to let you off the hook this time. I’m going to walk out of here with this”—he tapped his Bible—“and we’ll just forget you tried something so stupid. Sound good?”

A frantic nod was Gregory’s only response. Dante released the man to resume rubbing his hand, and stood, towering over the inmate, drawing his Bible up under his arm. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” Gregory mumbled, staring down at the table like a pouting child.

“I don’t care if you’re sorry.” Dante reached his hand out. “Give it to me.”

Gregory looked up, confused. “You said the deal was off.”

New new deal: I leave with the package and the money, and the boss never hears about this.” Dante accepted the cash and slipped it into his pocket. “And don’t ever call for me again.”

His face resumed its kindly air as he passed through the door. He nodded at the guard with a smile and made for the exit.

Then stopped short.

To his left, in his peripheral vision, he could see a man standing there, staring at him. Dante had walked right past him, the oddness of the man’s presence taking a moment to process. He studied the man’s reflection in the wire mesh reinforced window before him. Small in stature—a good six inches shorter than Dante’s five foot ten—but solid, the man was far from handsome. His head was balding and his face marked by a long nose and wide-set eyes. As if to compensate, his eyebrows reached inward so far as to just barely meet in the middle. But the oddest thing about him was his dress. Or rather, his robe. The man wore a long beige garment reaching to his ankles, with a darker tunic over that. In his hand he tightly gripped a dirty piece of cloth, hanging halfway to the ground.

Beyond the strange man Dante could see the reflection of the guard, sitting on his stool, paying no notice to anyone. Dante felt his heart kick up, although he was unsure why. There was something unnerving about this little man glaring at him, dressed like a monk or some kind of ancient philosopher, standing here where he shouldn’t be. When he shouldn’t be.

Dante forced himself to turn and face the man. He needed to know who he was. It made no sense, his being here, and Dante liked things to make sense.

The mopping inmate looked up from his bucket with the same vacant eyes as before, from precisely the place where the robed man had stood. Dante opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. The guard perked up, put his hand on his sidearm.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Fine.” Dante opened the door and stole another look back into the room. The sense of panic hadn’t subsided, but he smiled all the same. “You gentlemen have a good day.”

“You too, Reverend.”