Prologue: Going for a Ride
It was dark and cold inside, so cold that I could see my breath. It shouldn't be that cold inside a bus with ten other men packed in, but the driver was smoking and had his window down half way. And it was almost silent, except for the ticking of the larger sized sleet on the windshield and roof, the consistent wheezing coming from the deviated septum belonging to John seated one row back on the other side, and the sporadic clinking of chains.
Tick, tick, wheeze, clank, tick, tick, wheeze, tick, clank.
John's busted up nose was courtesy of zealous police work, as they brought him down hard face first after he blew away his boss with a snub nose 38 special. The nasal septum was apparently damaged permanently. John had been an insurance agent, and was really, really close to making that quota to earn the bonus that he really needed to pay for that above ground pool the family craved, plus maybe get started on the bills for his youngest son's braces. But, he didn't quite make it, and neither did his boss. I knew about John from the newspaper stories - John Bartlett, middle aged, quiet insurance agent. Thinning hair and, true to his name, a physique like a Bartlett pear. Gotta watch those quiet ones.
We were all duly manacled up to metal rails on the top and bottom of the seats, riding along in a dirty white transfer bus that looked like a chopped off school bus. There were four split rows of bench seat on either side, with eight prisoners, two armed guards, and one driver. No one was in the back rows of seats, and the two guards each manned one of the front seats. We were on the way down I-85 to south Atlanta's United States Correctional Unit. Rooms were reserved and ready.
Surprisingly, I was well acquainted with my aisle seat mate, Braxton Johnson. Brax had been my roommate at Georgia Tech less than five years and a lifetime ago. A self-professed redneck from Franklin, Georgia, he had once been a talented and large, 280 pounds, offensive lineman for Georgia Tech. He didn't last long there, nor did I. I actually prolonged his career a bit through some nimble grade hacking, but he caused the early exit when he tossed a guy through the front window of a strip joint on Peachtree Street one night in a steroid-induced rage. As for myself, I got tripped up in my computer hacking career, bringing my college career to a sudden halt. More on this later.
So, here we were, eight cons on the way up, or down, with murder raps. Some were very deserving, such as Cheech in the row to the right of mine. A 250 pound tatted up half Mexican, Cheech had pruned his family tree. He didn't play favorites, taking out both American and Mexican family members for the last three generations.
Others, like Bartlett, had shorter lists of transgressions, but were still also on their way deep into the gears and cogs of the justice system, unlikely to see freedom until their 60s, 70s, or even 80s. Brax, after falling out from Georgia Tech due to a bar fight, went with what worked: tossing guys through the windows of bars. Unfortunately, the last one sliced his carotid artery during the abrupt exit, and had bled out on the sidewalk.
Tick, wheeze, clank, clank, tick, tick, clank wheeze.
And among this lovely group of winners, chaperoned by two armed guards and one driver, was little old me. My 5 foot 8 inch 141 pounds made me look like the little kid who won a prize, letting him ride to the circus with all the performers. Everyone seemed to dwarf me, as even 50ish John with his bad combover was rocking 220 plus.
The reason for the quiet, other than the silent contemplation of such an erudite group of gentleman, was because the highway was relatively deserted, dark, and swirling with snow flurries. Generally, transfers don't happen in such conditions, but someone forgot to tell the skies above Georgia that it wasn't supposed to let loose with snow and ice this late in February. All the sane people had pulled over or gotten off the highway.
I had already gotten caught up with Brax, and out of decorum had not commented about how his once rock hard abs had more or less slipped down to his waistline. Luckily, though, his failure to keep up in the weight room may have ended up saving my life in the next few minutes.
The bus sped through the night, and we were getting ready to cross a bridge over Point Lake. The left side of the the bus slipped a bit, the tired and stressed out driver over corrected, and then we were doing freestyle olympic skating ... at 65 miles an hour. Veering across lanes, the bus clipped the edge of the guard rail over the lake, tipped, and slammed onto its side.
We slid for a bit, scraping and bouncing along the guard rail. Thankfully, the bus tipped to the right, so I was on top of Brax, rather than under him. When the guard rail ran out, we went over the embankment on the side and did a couple of barrel rolls. As I bounced back and forth between my large ex-roommate and the side of the bus, it felt like we were in a clothes dryer - me a pair of tighty-whities and him a bag of sand. If he had been in top shape, it probably would have been more like a bowling ball.
The roll stopped when we hit the edge of the lake, the bus resting on its right side. The front of the bus was on the muddy bank, but the back was in a foot or two of water. The bus had rolled far enough that it was not easily visible from the road. Inside, there was a lot of groaning, and a lot more commotion than before. No more hypnotic tick, wheeze, and clank.
Like the others on the left side, which was now the top, I clung to the top rail to lessen the stress of the manacles on my wrists and ankles. I cheated a bit, using Brax to support me some. And I was glad that I was above Brax, and didn't have to deal with him leaning down on me. I swiveled my head as best I could to survey the damage.
The driver was crumpled in a heap on the stairs inside the front door. His head was twisted at a very wrong angle, and he was obviously dead. He could have been the new spokesperson for why you should wear a seatbelt. He had not been wearing his, and had been launched head first out of his seat and into the door.
The guard that was at the front on the left, my side, was draped over the bottom of the right side seat's base. I could see his chest moving, so he was alive and breathing, but his head was bleeding and he was definitely not conscious. The bench seats did not have seat belts and, preoccupied with his phone, he had slid off his seat and slammed his head into the railing on the opposite front seat when we tipped over. The other guard, who had been upright, one leg on the floor and one knee bent on the seat with his back pressed against the side of the bus, had the bad luck of tumbling over his seat into Cheech's lap. It's amazing how much free play you can get from manacled hands when you are really motivated. And, when you are strong enough to yank a slightly damaged metal bar the rest of the way out of the seat back.
The prisoners that I could see looked to be relatively okay, surprisingly. With hands manacled to rails, we'd been quick to grab on as things went out of control. To my right, or down, and back a bit, I saw that John's combover was in bad shape, and he looked to have a dislocated shoulder. His seat mate, a country boy named Dab Cole, was trying to shake his head clear, probably from a concussion. I was bruised and had some cuts from broken glass, but did not think anything was broken. Brax actually looked fired up from the ride, as it was probably slightly less traumatic than facing the University of Alabama's six man blitz.
I couldn't see how the guys immediately behind me fared, but the grunting and moaning indicated that they were still among the living. 'They' were a 400 pound behemoth called Slim, and a cajun named Duchamp who was rumored to have eaten most of his murder victim. Duchamp was pretty fortunate to avoid being smothered by Slim's bulk during the roll. I think some of the groaning behind me was coming from the rail that Slim was clinging to.
Cheech did what he was good at to the guard, trimming that part of his family tree by getting the poor guy's head between his manacled wrists and the metal bar and twisting. After liberating the keys from the guard's ring he unchained his hands from the loose metal railing and his feet from the bottom metal rail. Nice manual dexterity, but I guess he'd had plenty of practice.
Based on some unwritten code of conduct, Cheech unlocked his seat mate, who was under him. Rasheem was an older, but still large, black man with premature wispy white hair. He appeared unmoved by the guard's fate as he pushed him away. Cheech handed Rasheem the keys, grabbed the rifle from the guard he'd dispatched, climbed over the driver's seat, and shoved the door open and up. He popped out and hightailed it into the darkening late afternoon. Rasheem seemed to warm up to the task, and took care of everyone else. It was a little tricky getting us unlocked on the left side, as Rasheem had to strain a bit to reach up.
After getting unlocked and rubbing some feeling into our wrists and ankles, Brax and I were ready to crawl out to freedom. Amazingly, I found my glasses, only somewhat bent but nearly tromped on by Brax's giant feet. I picked them up, pulled them on, and we crawled up and out of the bus into the muck at the edge of the lake.
After some loud pounding and cursing, the last two prisoners emerged. First, Duchamp struggled out of the door, using the other guard's gun as a lever and a crutch. Alternating between curses and groans, he appeared to be in a lot of pain. When he rolled off into the mud, I saw that his knee was bent at a bad angle. He used the gun as a crutch, though it was too short to be very effective. Then, through monumental effort, Slim heaved himself up and pulled himself out, much like a very large mouse squeezing through a crack that looked impossibly small. He was also cursing loudly, and muttering about the emergency back door being bolted closed. So that had been the pounding I heard.
Except for Cheech, who was already long gone, the freed prisoners just stood there, staring out into the early evening, unsure what to do next. As quickly as the snow had blown in, it was now dieing down to very light flurries. After some indecision, Rasheem struck out east and the four others followed, possibly deferring to age. They looked like extras from the Walking Dead as they shambled along. Duchamp could not possibly get far with his messed up leg. I looked at Brax, he looked at me, and without a word we set off west. The unspoken plan was just to get as far away as possible and assess things from there. Brax and I didn't really belong on that bus, even though the courts decided otherwise.
I had been riding high, co-heading a hot technology startup with a dynamite new product, before my life went into the crapper about four months back. That life came crashing down when I was accused of a double murder of which I was definitely not guilty. Overwhelming evidence to the contrary, however, fed a quick verdict and punched my ticket on this bus destined for a 40 year reservation at the state penitentiary south of Atlanta. Someone had framed me, but now I had a sliver of an opportunity to set things right.
I didn't know how I would fix things yet, but at least I had a fighting chance now. Squishing through the mud at the edge of the water, I mused that while I was a well abled and accomplished computer hacker, having a 280 pound bruiser along for the ride couldn't hurt.