The Target by David Baldacci
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To Coach Ron Axselle, for being
such a great mentor and friend
FOUR HUNDRED MEN LIVED HERE, most for the rest of their time on earth.
And then hell would get them for the rest of eternity.
The walls were thick concrete and their interior sides were layered with repulsive graffiti that spared virtually nothing in its collective depravity. And each year more filth was grafted onto the walls like sludge building up in a sewer. The steel bars were nicked and scarred, but still impossible to break by human hands. There had been escapes from here, but none for more than thirty years—once outside the walls there was no place to go. The people living on the outside around here weren’t any friendlier than the ones on the inside.
And they actually had more guns.
The old man had another severe coughing fit and spit up blood, which was as much evidence of his terminal condition as any expert medical pronouncement. He knew he was dying; the only question was when. He had to hang on, though. He had something left to do, and he would not get a second chance to do it.
Earl Fontaine was large but had once been larger still. His body had imploded as the metastatic cancer ate him from the inside out. His face was heavily wrinkled, savaged by time, four packs of menthols a day, a poor diet, and most of all a bitter sense of injustice. His skin was thin and pasty from decades inside this place where the sun did not reach.
With a struggle he sat up in his bed and looked around at the other occupants of the ward. There were only seven of them, none as bad off as he was. They might leave this place upright. He was beyond that. Yet despite his dire condition, he smiled.
Another inmate from across the floor saw Earl’s happy expression and called out, “What in the hell do you have to smile about, Earl? Let us in on the joke, why don’t you.”
Earl let the grin ease all the way across his broad face. He managed to do so despite the pain in his bones that was akin to someone cutting through them with a brittle-bladed saw. “Gettin’ outta here, Junior,” Earl said.
“Bullshit,” said the other inmate, who was known as Junior inside these walls for no apparent reason. He had raped and killed five women across three counties simply because they had been unfortunate enough to cross his path. The authorities were working like mad to treat his current illness so he could keep his official execution date in two months.
Earl nodded. “Out of here.”
“Coffin is how, Junior, just like your scrawny ass.” Earl cackled while Junior shook his head and turned back to stare glumly at his IV lines. They were similar to the ones that would carry the lethal chemicals that would end his life in Alabama’s death chamber. He finally looked away, closed his eyes, and went swiftly to sleep as though practicing for the deepest of all slumbers in exactly sixty days.
Earl lay back and rattled the chain attached to the cuff around his right wrist, which in turn was hooked to a stout though rusted iron ring set into the wall.
“I’m getting away,” he bellowed. “Better send the coon dogs come get me.” Then he went into another coughing spell that lasted until a nurse came over and gave him some water, a pill, and a hard slap on the back. Then he helped Earl sit up straighter.
The nurse probably didn’t know why Earl had been sent to prison and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did know. Every inmate in this max prison had done something so appallingly horrific that every guard and worker here was completely desensitized to it.
“Now, just settle down, Earl,” said the nurse. “You’ll only make things worse.”
Earl calmed, sat back against his pillow, and then eyed the nurse steadily. “Can they be? Worse is what I mean.”
The nurse shrugged. “Guess anything can be worse. And maybe you should’ve thought of that before you got to this place.”
With a burst of energy Earl said, “Hey, kid, can you get me a smoke? Just slip it twixt my fingers and light me up. Won’t tell nobody you done it. Cross and swear and all that crap though I ain’t no God-fearing man.”
The nurse blanched at the very idea of doing such a thing. “Uh, yeah, maybe if it were 1970. You’re hooked up to oxygen, for God’s sake. It’s explosive, Earl, as in boom.”
Earl grinned, revealing discolored teeth and many gaps in between. “Hell, I’ll take blowing up over being eaten alive from this crap inside me.”
“Yeah? But the rest of us wouldn’t. See, that’s most people’s problem, only thinking of themselves.”
“Just one cig, kid. I like the Winstons. You got Winstons? It’s my dying wish. Got to abide by it. Like my last supper. It’s the damn law.” He rattled his chain. “Last smoke. Gotta gimme it.” He rattled his chain louder. “Gimme it.”
The nurse said, “You’re dying of lung cancer, Earl. Now, how do you think you got that? Here’s a clue. They call ’em cancer sticks for a damn good reason. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! With that kinda stupidity you can thank the good Lord you lived long as you have.”
“Gimme the smoke, you little prick.”
The nurse was obviously done dealing with Earl. “Look, I got a lot of patients to take care of. Let’s have a quiet day, what do you say, old man? I don’t want to have to call a guard. Albert’s on ward duty now and Albert is not known for his TLC. He’ll put a baton to your skull, sick and dying or not, and then lie in his report and not one person will dispute it. Dude’s scary and he don’t give a shit. You know that.”
Before the nurse turned away Earl said, “You know why I’m here?”
The nurse smirked. “Let’s see. ’Cause you’re dying and the state of Alabama won’t release someone like you to secure hospice even if you are costing them a ton of money in medical bills?”
“No, not this here hospital ward. I’m talking prison,” said Earl, his voice low and throaty. “Gimme some more water, will ya? I can get me water in this gol-damn place, can’t I?”
The nurse poured a cup and Earl greedily drank it down, wiped his face dry, and said with pent-up energy, “Got behind bars over twenty years ago. First, just for life in a federal cage. But then they got me on the death penalty thing. Sons-a-bitches lawyers. And the state done took ahold of my ass. Feds let ’em. Just let ’em. I got rights? Hell, I got nuthin’ if they can do that. See what I’m saying? Just ’cause I killed her. Had a nice bed in the fed place. Now look at me. Bet I got me the cancer ’cause of this here place. Know I did. In the air. Lucky for me I ain’t never got that AIDS shit.” He raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “You know they got that kind in here.”
“Uh-huh,” said the nurse, who was checking the file of another patient on his laptop. It was set on a rolling cart that had locked compartments where meds were kept.
Earl said, “That’s two decades plus almost two years now. Long damn time.”
“Yep, you know your math all right, Earl,” the nurse said absently.
“The first Bush was still president but that boy from Arkansas done beat him in the election. Saw it on the TV when I got here. Year was 1992. What was his name again? They say he’s part colored.”
“Bill Clinton. And he’s not part black. He just played the saxophone and went to the African-American churches sometimes.”
“That’s right. Him. Been here since then.”
“I was seven.”
“What?” barked Earl, squinting his eyes to see better. He rubbed absently at the pain in his belly.
The nurse said, “I was seven when Clinton was elected. My momma and daddy were conflicted. They were Republicans, of course, but he was a southern boy all right. I think they voted for him, but wouldn’t admit to it. Didn’t matter none. This is Alabama, after all. A liberal wins here hell freezes over. Am I right?”