How to race rats

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Four hundred and fifty convicted criminals. Never far from something sharp and rusty, their desire is but one: to be somewhere – anywhere – but here. Electric.

Between them and their reverie stand forty prison guards. Ten to one – that’s the cold numbers of the thing. Armed only with their wits and a few cans of pepper spray, the life of a correctional officer might sound to some like a daily march in Custer’s army – if Custer had danced his last stand ballet on a high-wire, without a net. That’s where Chuck Brennan comes in. He’s the net.

Brennan mans the desk of the prison’s Security Intelligence Office – the secret police of the penitentiary. Security Intelligence analyzes all those hidden truths that the prison’s two hundred closed circuit cameras dispassionately record every day. They also read prisoners’ mail. Listen in on their phone calls, and scrutinize every word they might say at an open visit (the visiting room tables are all bugged and attached to recording equipment). But Brennan’s real specialty is playing the pawns in such a way that those forty guards go home alive every night.

“What’s that little worm doing out of his hole?” Stamper said. Kaukaughe and I watched as Brennan sashayed across the courtyard towards the three of us.

“How’s it going, guys?” he said with a cynical smirk. Stamper stiffened up like a housecat at a 3D screening of Cujo.

“Fantastic, boss,” said Stamper. “After twenty-nine years I really think I’m starting to get the hang of this rehabilitations tuff.”

Brennan ignored my acerbic yard dog, and walked his gaze around the courtyard. To the untrained eye, it was a normal prison lunch scene. On the concrete ledge in front of block C, a six-foot-four drag queen we call the Undertaker sat kibitzing with an old black con named Blue. On the paved roundabout, a couple of shirtless Young Turks pranced their perfect six-packs in endless sun drenched laps. One bench over, Mac was courting a graying crow with a handful of crumbling saltines. It was a regular Norman Rockwell painting. But I knew different. I knew that from the corner of a hundred convict eyes, Brennan was the only show in town. And so did he.

“So, how about that craziness in the gym?” In a choreographed move, he stepped one stride closer and lowered his voice by half. It was the footwork of intimacy, the body language of pals. Around the courtyard, the audience all sat up a little straighter and keened their ears. Lately, a group of us had been exercising to the “Insanity” aerobics routine in the gym. But earlier that week, a scuffle in the back of the class had left one of our group in a ball on the floor, spurting blood from a few fresh holes in his chest While the gym camera had caught it all, and those involved were in the hole, Brennan was now working the corners, checking for spot fires.

“You mean the way the night staff have been locking the outside gym doors and turning up the heat during the Insanity class? Yeah, that’s a little crazy,” said Kaukaughe.

“Insane, actually,” I said, holding back a grin.

Brennan blinked. Nobody does dumb con better than Kaukaughe, and for a split second, my Ojibwa pal’s response punched a crack in the intelligence officer’s veneer. Stamper dived in with both flippers.

“I got a question for you, Brennan. On the night that kid got stabbed, I heard there was a suspicious blue truck circling the perimeter of the jail. Somebody even said they saw a gun. Have you checked with your little rats about that one? And quit standing so close to me – you smell like sardines. You want a real tip? Try some gum.”

Brennan looked down and smiled. It was the sort of smile that the Nazi dentist gave Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, just before he drilled into Hoffman’s molar without freezing. Thin.

“Excuse me,” Brennan said, pulling out a palm-sized cell phone from the front pocket of his perfectly pressed Khaki’s. Turning away, he took a measured step into the bright sunlight and stopped. “Uh-huh. Yeah? Right. Well, I’m out front right now. Just give me a minute.” Sliding the phone back to his pocket, Brennan returned to Stamper.

“Well, evidently someone wants to talk to me. I’ll be seeing you gentlemen around.” Brennan extended his hand to Stamper. It was the classic checkmate. A little low octave chitchat, a mysterious phone call, and now a handshake in front of all these convicting eyes. If Stamper took the intelligence officer’s hand, the whole joint would be whispering by supper. And if he didn’t, he could kiss goodbye to any hopes he had for transfer to minimum security this year. I felt the blood thicken in my veins.

Then Stamper started to cough. And cough. And cough. Of course, he aimed every explosion right into the palm of his hand. Then he reached out for Brennan’s. “Thanks for coming out, coach.”

The slippery smooth security chief recoiled, his face as dark as a dirty diaper. Spinning his perfectly polished oxfords in the grit, he stomped off in the direction of Block D. Security Intelligence may be the chess masters of the penitentiary, but sometimes even a pawn can get you to stalemate.

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