Walking to the warden’s office for my meeting about how I am going to work off this debt, I see one of the men who was in the kitchen yesterday. The one who was doing his own thing behind the counter. He is outside his cabin, number 7, working in the front garden.
He looks so familiar. I figure everyone has been pretty friendly, I might as well take the opportunity to ask if I know him from somewhere.
“You look really familiar to me,” I say casually as I walk up by his waist-high stone wall.
He briefly pauses his weeding and clipping to look up at me, a bit bewildered, and then resumes his work.
“I think we might be related,” I continue.
“Oh yeah?” he says, this time not bothering to look up.
“Yeah, we do kind of look similar,” I say.
He scoffs, “Kid, there’s a billion people that look just like us. We’re what they used to draw in books about what future humans would look like, once all the races finally started fucking each other.”
Not quite sure what to say to that… I feel my cheeks getting a little red.
“Still… I feel like I’ve seen you at an old family reunion or something.”
He ignores me.
“Well, what’s your name?” I ask.
“Alright, I admit it, I banged your mother, I’m your real daddy,” he says deadpan looking me in the eye.
I give an uncomfortable laugh. Then an awkward silence commences as he continues weeding. I guess he’s not going to tell me his name… I switch topics.
“So… what are you in for?”
“Why don’t you mind your own goddamn business?” He picks up his shears and basket of clipped veggies, and walks inside, letting the door slam behind him.
The warden greets me in his office, “Rodigio… can I call you Rod?”
“No! I mean… why don’t you call me Dege? My, uh, friends call me Dege.”
“Why not Gio?” He laughs. I force a smile.
He continues, “Dege, what’s your plan to pay off this debt?”
“Well, I just figured I’d keep working the same job I’ve been working…”
“Okay…” the Warden says glancing to the side, “The thing is, we ran the numbers on that, and it would take you about two years to pay off the minimum balance.”
“Is there something you think I could do to get me there quicker?” I ask.
“Sure, and that’s what we’re going to figure out. For now, keep working your main gig. But start thinking about your side-hustle. We are going to have weekly meetings. So I have a little homework for you. Start brainstorming. I want to see everything you are interested in, and at least one idea for each of those interests for how you could make money with it. It doesn’t have to be realistic, anything goes, just write it down. Sound good?”
Actually, it does sound like a good idea. I nod in agreement.
“Any other questions before I show you to the commissary?”
“Oh, what should I call you?”
“Just call me Warden. Or Ward if you like… no, no I’m kidding. But seriously, we wardens tend to keep our true identities private, just to prevent any conflicts of interests.”
“Okay. There was one other thing I was wondering about. Is there anyone here who has killed someone?”
“Oh sure, but they are kept confined, you won’t run into them.”
“No, but I mean, in the general population… Eric made it seem like someone is here for murder?”
“Well, Dege, I’m really not allowed to get into the nitty-gritty details of all that for confidentiality purposes.”
“Are you serious? You let Crenshaw look all over my information yesterday,” I let it slip before I realize how rude it sounds. But still, it’s a valid point.
The warden scoffs and is clearly annoyed, “Let him? What did you expect me to do, use physical force over that? Call the guards to slam him to the ground, put him in solitary? Part of this camp you’ll find, Dege-” it’s annoying the shit out of me that he keeps using my name over and over, “-is about growing up. You’re young, but growing up can happen at all ages. Yes, Crenshaw still has some growing up to do. But I think you can do your part by letting the little things go.”
In the commissary, I buy all the prison’s technology so that they can spy on me. They block half the internet–well technically more than half the internet since about 60% of it is porn.
I call Majorie to video chat.
“I swear if you come to visit, you are going to feel like it’s a vacation.”
“Oh, you can have visitors?” She sounds shocked, but not pleasantly surprised…
“Well just for select days. No overnight visitors.”
“That’s… cool,” she says… but it doesn’t sound like she thinks it’s cool.
“If you don’t want to visit I understand,” I say, then I start jumbling words trying to give her excuses, making sure she knows she has an out–
“No, stop, it’s not you, it’s none of that. I’m sorry, my mind’s in a weird place right now…”
“What’s wrong?” I ask, assuming it has to do with me. A bit narcissistic I suppose.
“I wasn’t going to say anything…” She’s figuring out how to dump me.
“But my old boss, the one who worked for Elijah, Ben Rupert…”
“They found his body this morning, floating in the Gulf off the coast of Paradisia.”
“Oh my God,” my heart drops.
It’s not like I knew the guy, I only saw him twice and neither instance was particularly pleasant. One involved me being accosted by Elijah, and the other watching Ben fire Majorie after I broke Francesco’s statue.
But it’s always strange to know that the person you saw walking around, talking, breathing, living, just a few days ago is… dead.
“Yeah, so please don’t think my mood has anything to do with you… right now the investigators are calling it a likely suicide, or possible accidental drowning.”
“But you’re skeptical?” I ask, sensing she needs to talk about it.
“I knew Ben pretty well… you never know, but suicide would surprise me. That, and the questions the investigators were asking me. They definitely think there was foul play.”
“How can you tell?”
“Well, they showed me a video. He’s staggering around drunk on the deck of some seaside penthouse downtown. Then he just climbs up on the railing and jumps. Something about the way it happens though… it’s just so weird. I’m suspicious it’s a deep fake, and I think the investigators are too.”
“Why are they asking you? Just because of the work you did for Elijah?”
Majorie’s throat tightens, “Yeah, I guess they just think I would have some insight into who might be a suspect, since I did a lot of digging into people surrounding Elijah. But they’re being coy, like they don’t want to clue me in to what they’re thinking.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well– your internet is monitored isn’t it? Like, the prison could watch and listen to this entire conversation if they wanted to?”
“Yeah but I don’t think they would unless they had a reason.”
“Ben liked to be in the know. I mean working for a guy like Elijah, you have to have your eyes on everything. There are always people trying to screw over rich successful guys like that. Ben wasn’t exactly popular with the people he excommunicated from Elijah’s circle– or never let in in the first place. Anyway, I really can’t say anything else. I already got a lawyer because of all the confidential information my job involved. I don’t even know who would come after me for divulging, or not sharing, certain details.”
“Come after you, like hurt you?”
“No, I mean legally,” she shakes her head like it was a silly thing to ask.
But I didn’t think it was such a stupid question. Her ex-boss did just turn up dead.
Sleep. Work. Eat. Sleep. Work. Eat.
I quickly get in the habit of spending my evenings at Eric’s cabin, doing some work for him as the sun sets, and having a drink while playing a game of Chess or Parcheesi or Go.
“You never back out Dege. You never just call it quits when you’re surrounded,” Eric says as he surrounds another set of my black stones.
The way he says it makes me respond, “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Never give up, never surrender.”
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
“Sun Tzu, The Art of War,” I say.
“Very good, you’ve read it?”
“I have to say I’m impressed by how familiar you are with the world of literature. Few your age are so well-read.”
“A lot of good it’s done me. Reading books doesn’t exactly pay well.”
“It pays dividends. But investments take time. And for real wealth of knowledge, you need a broad and diverse portfolio.”
I get a lot of little tidbits like this from Eric. Normally I would roll my eyes, but for some reason the way Eric says it isn’t cringy.
He’s also great for finding out more about Elba, and the people here.
“Hey, what’s the guy’s name in cabin 7?”
Eric tenses up, “Why do you ask?”
“Just felt like I’ve seen him in an old family video or something.”
Eric relaxes, “Oh, ha, you guys do kind of look alike. Hey, actually… yeah that’s weird, his last name is Mercury too. George Mercury.”
“I knew it!”
“Well let’s not jump to conclusions…”
“He kinda seems like an asshole.”
“He is,” Eric says distracted, as he looks on the board where to place his next stone.
“You guys don’t get along?”
Eric looks up, a bit baffled. “We get along great,” he says, to the clack of another white stone hitting the board.
In my free time, I read up on everything I can find about what happened to Ben Rupert.
They’re still calling it a suicide. But Gulf Sails put together a task-force with Paradisia and brought in a third-party investigator to specialize on the case.
Then there’s the statement from Paradisia… It’s Francesco talking about if he had only seen the signs, he could have been there for Ben. In the end, it turned into a pitch for the zen relaxation of Paradisia, versus the hustle and bustle of the money-focused, individualist Gulf Sails.
Francesco sure doesn’t seem to mind them injecting some of that money into Paradisia for four months a year. But I suppose he would say he’s just doing them a favor by cleansing their chakras or thetans or whatever.
On our next video chat, I ask Majorie if she’s learned anything new.
“The task force is trying to get its hands on all the data they can. But Ben had a two terabyte encrypted hard drive they can’t access. Of course, they want my help getting in. But I didn’t have access when I worked for him, let alone with all my permissions revoked.”
“Why would he need so much storage? And why wouldn’t he just store it in the cloud?”
“He probably wanted to maintain physical control of it. I think that’s where a lot of the data I gathered for him ended up… audio, video, pictures, files.”
“Shouldn’t that have gone on a company server? Wouldn’t you think Elijah and others at the company would have access to that kind of stuff?”
Majorie hesitates, “I don’t think Elijah knew about a lot of stuff Ben collected.” Then she adds, “But that’s the way companies work. Elijah shouldn’t be micro-managing his security and intelligence.”
“Still seems strange that he wouldn’t even have access to company info. I assume the investigators are talking to Elijah too?”
Majorie sighs, “Well, yeah, it was Elijah’s building Ben jumped off. But they have already turned over all the footage, and access to the relevant databases. They’re cooperating. Elijah actually even donated some money to the task force.”
“And they’re still calling it a suicide?”
“In public yeah… but they’re getting ready to change that.”
“Do they have suspects?” I sort of feel like I’m grilling her. But it’s a mixture of interest and anxiety. This is all too close to Majorie for me to relax.
Majorie takes a deep breath, “Yeah, there was a group of guys from South-East Asia renting a room and-” her voice cracks, and she can’t seem to get the words out. She wipes a tear and continues. “Well, they just think they are connected to organized crime, and it’s strange that they were in and out so quick.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, trying feebly to comfort her through a screen, “let’s talk about something else.”
“Alright Dege, looks like you earned $3,000 last month! Nice Job!” The warden says with annoying enthusiasm.
I can’t believe it’s already been a month. It feels too normal here, and that worries me. On the other hand, that’s the most I’ve ever made in a month. Maybe this place is what I needed…
“So then once we subtract $300 for rent, $664 at the cafeteria, $740 at the commissary, and $280 online, you have $1,016 left. Er–looks like we have a little problem here,” the warden says with an oops sort of laugh. “Looks like you’re supposed to put at least $1,500 a month towards your debt if you have it. At this rate, we are looking at over two years.”
“What?!” I had no idea I spent that much. “Can they just keep me here forever, like a slave until I pay them?
“Well it should have all been explained in the contract you signed. You did read it first, didn’t you?”
“Don’t worry,” the warden says, “This was your first month, I’m sure you won’t be spending that much at the commissary every month now that you’ve got your cabin all furnished with your upgrades, right?”
“Right,” I agree, a bit dejected.
“Now the thing is… it looks like you’ve spent a lot more of your time working, and that’s why you’ve made more money. That’s admirable. But you’ve basically topped out. You showed me a lot of great ideas a couple of weeks ago. Have you chosen a side-hustle to focus on? ”
I cringe everytime he calls it a side-hustle.
“Well I think I want to start a blog about movies, cinema history. Not too many people focus on the real old ones these days. But there’s so much there. It’s like looking into a portal to the past. There’s so much material, so much to talk about. And it’s not too competitive of a niche.”
“A blog,” the warden repeats monotone. “Alright. Well, let’s see how that goes.”
“We have the same last name,” I say to George next time I see him working in his garden outside cabin 7.
“Jesus kid, we have the same last name for the same reason we have the same color skin, and the same round features.”
“What do you mean?”
“What am I your fuckin’ history teacher?”
I stare blankly.
He sighs in aggravation, but he stops what he’s doing, and leans against his gate to explain.
“The god of trade, Mercury. It’s an adopted last name. When the United States broke apart there was an entirely new boom in the merchant class. Laborers, blue collar workers, tradespeople– hell, drug dealers– it became a lot easier for them to make a living doing small time business. Wasn’t so hard to compete anymore. They moved to the least restrictive new jurisdictions. That was like a mixing pot for people of all different backgrounds. And like I told you before, it’s no coincidence that that’s when all the different colored people started screwing each other. Trade, kid, Trade!” he practically yells. “Breaks down all sorts of barriers.”
“Bup bup bup-” he interrupts. “That was your history lesson for the day. Next one will have to wait til the next time you come around to annoy me with more of your stupid bullshit– that is unless I’m feeling violent. Your call on if you wanna take that risk.”
Work. Evening gig. Side-hustle.
“So how’s the blog going?” the Warden asks when we run into each other in the cafeteria. He says it in his usual jovial tone but the whole phrase somehow reeks of an eye roll.
“I got 64 views last post,” I shrug. “It was about Terminator, and why the fear of a real life Skynet was overblown–well, except for the incidents-”
“I read it. Interesting stuff Dege. Not sure if I agree with your take on how they solved the AI consciousness problem… I guess I’ll have to tune in for the Terminator 2 post.”
I eat with Brenton, and am forced to listen to his take on the reality show Evolution.
“I’ve never seen it,” I admit when it’s clear that my nodding in agreement has run its course.
“Oh, man, Dege, you gotta see it! They’re starting to partner up based on the characteristics they want their kids to have in the fifth generation– that’s how long the show’s been running! You should see the muscles on some of these people. And others have practically superhuman eyesight, some have made careers because of the expert sense of smell that’s been bred into them. And it’s all done without gene-editing, just selective breeding.”
“Who produces that?” I ask skeptically.
“Yeah, you know that’s all bullshit right?”
Brenton scoffs and looks at me like I have two heads, “It’s a reality show.”
After the stimulating lunchtime conversation, I walk out past the lobby, where everyone is first booked into Elba.
There’s an airship just arriving, and I glance into the opening hatch.
Elijah Braze is standing right in front of me.
What the fuck is he doing here?! My heart’s pumping with anxiety.
I know my jaw is hanging wide open, and I can’t help but stare.
It has probably only been a few seconds but I feel like I have been gawking at him for way too long, unable to believe I’m actually seeing what I’m seeing. And before I can think to look away, he turns and makes eye contact.
He looks angry. But on recognizing me, he lets out a short laugh of amusement before his face droops into a wry smile.
He’s being led out by guards.
He’s an inmate!