Street Eyes

Prologue: Inside Out


In South Carolina, they build jails right out on the swamp.

 No point in wasting good real estate on people like us, people who've spent our lives outside the walls of the towns, never inside, never sitting on a sofa with a cool drink in our hands. They figured we were half dogs anyway from the way we dressed, and those of us, unlucky enough to get caught by this town's patrol or that town's, came to places like Liberty Bell, whose few barbed windows looked straight out on the wetlands.

 The whole idea was to discourage escape. The guards even let you open the window so as to let the smell in, and when a man did wander off and the body recovered, the guards let us out of our cells to look the man over, to see what three or four days of swamp living does to a body. No one even bothered to swipe off the flies or close the rotting eyes so none of us had to look as their milk white surface. No one bothered to tell us whether we could catch the disease from a rotting body. We all knew you could catch it from the still living, as the seasonal plagues could attest.

 I think that's the thing that finally convinced us that we'd be better off out there, struggling through the march, than here, waiting for someone to knife us in our sleep or a plague to get us anyway. Cova thought of it first, I think, a son of a bitch who had the good life in the city, but got dumped out on his duff cause he couldn't stop complaining about the lack of democracy, saying condo and homeowner associations aren't the same as government. He kept talking and talking and talking about how the guards beat up people outside the walls, until the guards finally beat him up to. Those people in the inside don't want to hear anything about inalienable rights. They just want to keep their property values from plummeting, and their crime rate from going through the roof -- and if their guards happen to shoot one of us outsiders by mistake. Hey, that's the breaks.

 But Cova, despite his bitching, is sharp. He's got that Wall Street instinct, knowing when to leap off the edge of things, and I'd trust him further than I would Bob or Morgan, on this point, though the other two are pure outsiders just like myself. When Cova said it was time to move. I listened, and started to inquire about finding others to go out with us. After all, what's a little swamp after what we've all been through. Life between neighborhoods is pure jungle anyway, rusting cars and crumbling buildings, walls so torn up with bullets it's surprising any of them can still stand. One old man said it reminded him of World War Two films he used to see in school as a kid. With the cops riding tanks between walled neighborhoods, that's no surprise.

 ``Okay,'' I said. ``Let's go.''

 But the population in these private jails doesn't breed the same bold blood you get in the county, state or federal joints. Maybe it has to do with the kind of hoods these places get, people crawling over the wall, not to pillage or rape -- the way most insiders think -- but to get something smart to sell, or to grab a bottle or two of grape. Many of this crowd came from the inside, too, getting dumped, less because they complained like Cova, but because they couldn't keep up their share. People are always falling out of those places, private disasters making it impossible for them to keep up the payments to their home owners association -- with the rise of the associations' defense budget, it's a surprise anybody can afford to stay inside at all. Lose your job, use up your savings, and you're out on the street. At the rate most places are going, they're will be more guards than people living inside. Morgan believes a time will come when the insiders stop building prisons and start shooting us, just to lower their budgets. But Cova says it's pretty close to that now. Although state and federal law says we should get medical care, plagues run rampant. In most cases, the guards don't treat people unless they're ordered by the state health people -- but unless there's an inspection, no one knows, and the disease usually wears itself out after thirty or forty people get it, some dying, others struggling to survive only to die of something else in their weak condition.

 So after Cova says we're leaving, I talk around, being very careful about who I speak with. There are cons, and then there are cons. Some can be trusted to keep their mouths shut, some can't. Others are stooges and will run straight to the guards the minute they hear news, getting paid off in cigarettes and other privileges. One rotten con even got to mess with one of the women cons for his trouble, though the woman found out and scratched his eyes out. But even with the straight population, I get a few nods, a lot more stares and only two fellows saying absolutely yes. Morgan -- a muscle man, who had so many warrants with the state and feds that spending a year in a private prison was more like a vacation. He scares me. One of those hot heads that's all reaction. You never know when he's going to explode. Cova doesn't like him either. But Morgan knows this part of the county, and he's big, strong, and the kind of man who can carry you out of the swamp if he likes you. He keeps talking about getting even with somebody inside one of the neighborhoods, a woman who called the town guards on him after he thought he'd settled in for life. I hate to think what he intends to do when he catches up with her.

 Bob scares me more than any of them. He's less tough than mean, the kind of man that takes pleasure he watching living things suffer. I saw him torture a rat in his cell once, cutting off its toes, then its legs, then poking out its eyes. The thing didn't die right away, and he simply grinned down at it, saying soothing as it slowly expired. Then, when one of his cell mates came along and killed the creature out of mercy, Bob vowed to get even. And he did. Though no one could prove it was him that poked the man's eyes out, then plunged the home made knife into the heart. Since then, those people who hadn't avoided Bob before, did so, and he seemed to like it that way -- except for the plague, which he seemed convinced would kill him if he didn't get out.

 One thing about private prison. Nobody really cares a whole lot if you escape. Oh, the guard'll shoot you down if they can get good aim. But none of them will go out of their way to chase you, if you've gotten passed them in the first place. After all, what do they care if you die in the swamp. These places are all built outside the neighborhoods. But later, the guards will come out to recover your body. The feds will pay for everyone recovered. That's a ratable the neighborhoods won't live without.  Half the security in these places had nothing to do with barbed or razor wire, or even machine-gun covered walls. It's the outside that kills you. If not the swamp here, then the hundreds of city blocks filled with mean outsiders waiting to cut you down for your shoes and socks. Some people claim cannibalism’s returned, especially in those dismal neighborhoods too far away from the rich to burglarize the supermarkets.

 ``How do we do it?'' Morgan asked.

 ``Bill knows,'' Cova said, nodding at me, causing the other two to stare in my direction.

 ``Him?'' Bob growled. ``How the hell is that twirp going to help us? He's an insider that got caught playing with his condo president's daughter. They stuck him in here to teach him a lesson.''

 ``That's not true,'' I said. ``I'm an outsider. I've always been an outsider. I can't help I worked inside once.''

 ``And screwed it up,'' said Morgan. ``You could have been sitting pretty. But you couldn't control your hormones.''

 ``Neither could you!'' Cova barked. ``You were sitting on the inside, too, living off some rich bitch. But it wasn't enough. You had to beat the crap out of her one day. Leave the boy alone. He has access to a boat.''

 ``A boat?'' Bob said, his mean eyes narrowing. ``Where the hell would you get a boat from?''

 ``I don't own it. I just know where it is.''

 ``Inside the neighborhood won't help us,'' Morgan said.

 ``It's not inside the neighborhood,'' I said. ``The owner keeps it locked up on the outside. He takes joy rides from time to time when the marsh is flooded. He figures its safe enough here, not like the outside in a city where he'd have to shoot his way to get home again, or call for the guards to come rescue him.''

 ``A boat?'' Bob says, his eyes glinting with some private vision that makes me shiver. ``That's the best news I've heard in a long time.''

 ``Well, keep it to yourself,'' Cova said. ``We've got to get to it first, and there is the small matter of getting out of here, then across the swamp to where it's kept.''

 ``Yeah,'' Morgan said. ``But once we get to it, it's clear sailing. We can take that boat right out to the coast and down to Miami.''

 ``Or up to New York,'' said Bob.

 ``I was thinking of getting out of the whole country,'' Cova said. ``Coast down to the Caribbean somewhere, ask one of those small islands to take us in.''

 ``And have them shoot us on sight?'' Morgan said. ``No way.''

 ``You miss the point,'' Cova said. ``I'm not talking about no wealthy neighborhood. Those people down there hate what we've done up here. They've all been invaded by Cuba. They'll look at us as heroes, the innocent victims of a system that hates poor folks. We'll do all right.''

 ``I don't know,'' I said. ``I don't know if the boat has enough fuel to get that far.''

 ``We can get more,'' Cova said, dismissing my fears with a wave of his hand.


 ``How do you think, twirp,'' Bob said. ``We'll steal it.''

 ``But someone might catch us and then we'd be in bigger trouble and go to a real prison.''

 ``No one will catch us,'' Morgan said, slapping the palm of his hand with his fist. ``Or they won't live to tell about it.''

 So they made their plans, leaving me to find the boat once they got us out of the jail -- something so simple that we couldn't have gotten out easier than if we had had the key. Morgan grabbed a guard. Bob cut his throat. Cova took the keys, and we were free.

 Now, there were times when the guards did get riled enough to give chase. I knew -- as I saw the guard bleeding on the pavement -- that we would be pursued. Cova wasn't worried. He said we had hours to get away before anyone discovered the body, and by that time, we would all over near the boat house, or hidden it, or gunning out of the wetlands at full throttle. I was less sure. I kept seeing the helicopter in my head, with flashes of gunfire.

 Some of that did happen. The guards found the body quicker than we imagined, and we just stepped out onto the marsh when the alarm honked and the search lights started sweeping around the perimeter. Then, we ran, the sound of the helicopters rising from behind the walls as we ran. Then, we saw them sweeping over the tops of the fragmites, their blades bending down the tall reed heads nearly revealing us.

 ``If only I could get my hands on those bastards,'' Morgan kept saying. ``I wring their throats.''

 ``A rocket launcher would be more helpful,'' Bob said, eyes glinting as if he could see the mangled bodies in the twisted wreckage, a vision that gave him extreme pleasure.

 ``Just shut up, both of you, and we'll be fine,'' Cova said. ``They're not going to waste precious helicopter fuel on an extended search. They might not like our killing a guard, but they're not like cops, they won't go to the ends of the earth to eke revenge.''

 He was right. After a while the helicopter went back. Then, Cova pushed us to hurry.

 ``They'll call the real cops now,'' he explained. ``We've got to make tracks quick before they come. The farther away we are, they less likely anyone's going to look for us. The cops don't like the private prisons any more than we do, or the guards. But the law says they've got to come around if one of them gets killed.''

 Yet hurrying wasn't easy. Half the time we marched through muck up to our knees, and for some reason, we didn't have the energy we had when we first escaped. We just slowed down more and more and more, as if the mud was sucking strength out of us as well as our shoes.

 ``Come on! Come on!'' Cova said, already many yards ahead of the rest of us. Strangely enough, Morgan seemed the worst, and then, after awhile, he fell face down into the mud and didn't move.

 Bob went to the man, struggled to turn the bulky man over, then when he succeeded, he yelped, stepping back from the body of our former escapee. Morgan's eyes had the same frosted look as every other disease-ridden soul we'd seen in the jail.

 ``Oh God!'' Bob moaned.

 ``No time to mourn him,'' Cova said. ``If he's got it, he's got it. Nothing we can do about it now. We've just got to move on before we get it, too.''

 ``If he had it, then we have it,'' Bob growled.

 ``Maybe not,'' Cova said. ``Just come on.''

 So we moved on, slowing even more as we went, only vaguely aware of the buzzing of police helicopters behind us somewhere. We didn't even duck into the reeds. We just plodded on until Bob stumbled and fell to his knees, his hands grasping at the air.

 ``I can't see! I can't see!'' he screamed.

 ``Leave him,'' Cova told me as I made to turn back to help Bob to his feet.

 ``But he's hurt.''

 ``He's dead; he just hasn't stop moving yet. If you try to help him, you'll be dead, too. Come on. We've got to get to the boat. Quick. If we're lucky we can get to one of the free clinics and get ourselves a shot.''

 ``Is there a shot for this?'' I asked, feeling even weaker than I had, though seeing two men die before my eyes may have partly accounting for this weakness.

 ``There has to be,'' Cova mumbled, and then pushed on.

 We reached clear water before I fell, but then, I could hardly tell, I had been floating for some time, hearing a buzzing growing louder and louder in my ears, hearing Cova urging me to keep moving, to get to the boat we both knew we could never reach. Then, standing over him, Cova screamed down.

 ``Where is it?'' he demanded though the buzzing had turned to roars as the reed head bent, and the rattle of machine guns sounded from above us, Cove’s chest exploding suddenly in a great surge of what appeared to be red mud.

 ``The other one's only a boy,'' I heard the voices saying above me over the roar of the spinning blades.

 ``Leave him, he's got the disease.''

 ``But he's only a boy!'' the man shouted again. ``What the hell's wrong with those people back there, putting a boy in jail with the rest of that scum. We've got a medic. We can take him out of there.''

 ``Then what?'' the other voice said. ``You think he's going to going to appreciate us letting him live. He'll only wind up on the outside again. Let him die here. It's more merciful.''

 ``We can't,'' the other voice said. ``Everything's been videoed. Headquarters will know we let him die.''

 ``Son of a bitch!'' the harsh voice said. ``All right, bring him and give him the needle. But you're going to have to explain why we wasted good medicine on a goddamn outsider. Out luck, we'll go over budget and get our asses tossed outside.''






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