Chapter 1 ~ Overtime in a Shark Cage

Curt stared at the old man as both of them took their shoes off and tossed them absentmindedly to the side of the room. "Good," the old man said, "now take off that ridiculous necklace and that metal thing on your face."

Frustrated, Curt unclasped his necklace and ripped it off, stuffing it into his pocket. Next came his eyebrow piercing, just old enough that he could afford to take it out for a few hours, which he gently eased out so as not to hurt himself and fitted into the same pocket. "There," he announced, "no belts, no shoes, no jewelry, no weapons, no watch, no hats, no phone, no electronics, pagers or PDA. Anything else I can take off before you finally approve?" he asked, and then, realizing exactly what his word choice had been, added, "Don't get any ideas, dude."

"Shut up you stupid little prick," the old man grunted. He saw the reaction on Curt's face and almost laughed. "Well, back in my day we talked to other people respectively but since that's gone out the door, well then fuck it! I guess I have to keep up with the times, right? You're fine, but I should warn you, that tattoo of yours might set some of them off."

Curt looked down at the black symbol scarred directly into the back of his hand, curling around near the ends as if it wished to reach his palm as well. It looked like a cross between fancy calligraphy and tribal artwork, but in fact it was neither. It was two separate letters scrawled on top of each other in a curvy fashion that offered up a single letter with more corners and edges than one should have. The center segment of the letter M was extended into an upside down Christian cross, but it was impossible to know without being told so that that was what it was. The symbol in its entirety was the logo for an underground punk, thrash, and metal crossover band from Detroit called Hellmouth, something that very few people in Cleveland would know if they looked at it. "I know I'm not the only person beyond that door with a tattoo," he said with a smirk on his face. "Don't you keep up with the times?"

The old man looked quite disgruntled. "I do keep up with the times, you little wiseass, but I also keep up with the Blackwater rules and protocol. Why don't you cover it up with your sleeve or something?"

"Like hell I'm gonna cover it up with my sleeve!" Curt objected.

"Well," the old man replied, "how 'bout instead, I cover up the inside of your ass with my foot?!"

"Nice try, you already took your shoes off."

"All the better," he exclaimed, "I'll wiggle my toes around as I'm doing it." He looked Curt in the eyes with a stare that demanded an immediate comeback.

Curt paused for a moment, at a loss of words. "I like your style, old man," he finally conceded. "My name's Curt, by the way."

"James," the old man introduced himself. "I don't really care whether or not you cover up the tattoo, but I'm required to suggest it. So, you ready to cut the crap and take the grand tour of this place?"

"I suppose so," Curt agreed, getting up and walking to the door hastily.

"Hold on there, you whippersnapper!" James yelled, grabbing Curt's hand from behind and tugging so forcefully that the twenty year old was yanked off his feet and fell clean to the ground. "I didn't give you this yet," he said as he looked down at the fallen kid with a wry smile across his painfully wrinkled face. He handed him a small yellow plastic object that Curt did not recognize. "You'll be needin' this."

Slowly getting to his feet, slightly annoyed but also impressed by the pep in this old man, Curt took the object and carefully studied it, glancing quickly at each of its features. "What is it, some kind of retarded flashlight with Down's syndrome?"

"It's a freakin' taser you numbskull," James said, getting quite loud in his riled up tone. "I thought you young folks were supposed to be up to date with this technology thing, what the hell?"

"Not with that kind of crap," Curt said indignantly, "name me any channel between one and one thousand and I'll tell you what's playing on it right now, give me a videogame controller with five thousand buttons and I'll play Tetris with it, but I don't do weapons." He paused for a second, thinking back to something that the old man had said earlier. "Hey wait a minute, I thought you said not to bring anything that could be considered a weapon into the building."

James shook his head vehemently. "A pistol is a weapon. A knife is a weapon. Fork. Weapon. Dental floss. Weapon. Hell, a chicken drumstick can be used as a weapon if the situation calls for it, but this, this ain't no weapon. This is self defense." He pulled an identical one out of his own holster that was attached to the belt that he technically was not allowed to be wearing. "You'll probably have to use this about once every week. That being said, you will probably use it an additional five times as a cure for boredom every week, so a total of six times on average every week. So clip that sucker on and let's go."

Curt shoved the taser in his pocket with his necklace and ring, everything fitting well due to the absence of the usual cell phone. James was at the door, his hand clasping the doorknob, his key jammed in the lock. "You know, half of the people who take this tour turn the job down as soon as they're finished," he said ominously.

"Yeah?" Curt shot back with a heavy monotone. "Well, half the people who take this tour aren't as broke as I am, so I'll take my chances."

"Alright," he said sneering, "just as long as you don't say I didn't warn you. Follow me."

He opened the door and led Curt into a long, dark passageway with a stone floor and ceiling. The walls consisted of cast iron cage-like bars, separated at regular intervals by a stone wall divider that created countless and countless cells on the other side of the bars. Each cell contained one occupant, one cot, and a sink, with no windows whatsoever. The only source of light was a few light bulbs in the middle of the hallway, set apart no-so-generously from each other so that a select few cells were illuminated while the majority of them were cast in shadows. Most of the prisoners were asleep on their cots, but some of them were wide awake, pacing back and forth in the cell or banging on bars and walls, angrily trying to attract the attention of the old man and his guest. Others were having full blow conversations with themselves, or praying or mumbling under their breath as the two free men passed by.

"Shit…" Curt muttered. "This looks more like a jail than an asylum."

James turned to the young man with a look of knowing on his face. "Well what were you expecting? Prison and solitary confinement are basically the same thing. What, did you think that the sane criminals would go to a prison cell but the ones who are out of their minds and clearly much more dangerous would be given more freedom? That makes no sense at all, kid."

"Guess not," Curt admitted, thinking silently to himself. His tattoo remark has been proven correct as he noticed a shirtless man with at least eighty percent of his body covered in tattoos. He was staring up at the edge where the wall met the ceiling and chanting something in a language that Curt did not understand. "Actually, I didn't really know what to expect, to be honest. I guess working here is gonna be just like being a prison guard, huh?"

"A little bit," James agreed, continuing the long walk down the hallway that still had no end in sight. "The only differences are that you get to hand out medication, and if they refuse to take it you get to open up the cell, start tasing them, and then force it down their throat."

Curt looked at the old man with a facial expression that understated the disbelief he was feeling. "You do that?" he choked out, as if just the very thought appalled him.

"Nah, not very often," James replied coolly, as if he was referring to a much more common action as normal as reading the newspaper. "Most of these scumbags are druggies too. Ya give 'em one pill, they inhale it and ask for a dozen more." He looked at Curt with that same quasi-evil grin that suggested he was getting a kick out of the boy's reaction. "What's the matter?" he asked tauntingly. "Ready to turn down the job and go back home?"

The old man hadn't even finished his sentence before Curt was stubbornly shaking his head, arms crossed over his chest as he walked. "No, no way," he shot back. "It's just an insane asylum full of locked up whackos, and if I gotta tase them and force pills down their throats, then so be it. I'm taking this job."

James stared right into Curt's eyes for a second. His cold black-brown eyes pierced right through Curt's softer blue ones with intimidating powers that were much more effective than anything Curt had seen from the prisoners thus far. "I wish I could say that I admire the determination in your eyes," he said softly in a voice that was barely audible above a whisper, "but I can see that it's just desperation. Desperation for money. I think they have a word for that, greed?"

Whatever spark James might have seen in Curt's eyes turned instantly into a raging fire of anger. "I am not greedy, you old fuck!" Curt exploded. "This will be my second job that I'll need just to put my broke ass through college and pay for my shithole apartment because my stupid ass family disowned me the day I turned eighteen and kicked me out on my own. Unlike similar people in my situation though, I'm not giving up on my schooling because I'm determined to keep working towards my future career in the engineering industry that I've dreamed of since I was four. So don't think that just because I'm desperate that I'm not determined because let me tell you, I'm one of the most determined people you'll ever meet! And I'm sure as hell not greedy."

To Curt's surprise, the old man just laughed and continued walking. "Relax, kid, I was just pullin' your chain, you don't have to give me your life's story. I'm sure you're not greedy and you've got an admiral heart of gold and all that crap, but look, let's be honest. By the time all your hopes and dreams come true or whatever, I'll be long dead, so I don't really wanna hear you tell me about it 'cause I don't care. I'm just here to give you this tour and explain the job."

Curt knew that James was making fun of his quick little outburst and suddenly felt ashamed for bearing all that information that he need not have shared. "Fine," he said bitterly, "so tell me about the job."

"Alright then," the old man agreed. "Since you work the night shift, you don't have to worry about herding all these bastards for meals, 'cause that's not your shift. Be here at nine, or like ten minutes early to get all your stuff squared away. Medication goes out at ten, twelve, two, and four according to a chart that'll be in your office. The lights are typically out between ten and six, but since you leave at five, just shut 'em off when it's time and leave 'em that way. They're never all quiet right away, so if they keep talkin' or yellin', tell 'em to shut the hell up." The end of the hallway was finally in sight; it simply ended with a wall that housed another door that was unlabeled. "If anybody keeps causin' trouble, and there's always one who will, call for help. You and one other person will cuff 'em and bring 'em down here." He gestured to the door they had just reached, which he was now opening. Through the door was another hallway that made a huge letter "T" with the one they had just finished walking down. A sign plainly pointed both left and right and labeled each direction, one "Offices" and one "Holding Cells."

James pointed to the right. "Over here are the typical padded rooms that you see in cartoons and stuff. If some lune won't shut up, call the other nightshift guard and throw the crazy guy in one of them for a couple hours, then see if he's ready to behave. It usually works. Don't know why, since we're not allowed to use straightjackets anymore. Oh well…" he said disappointedly, hinting that he had been quite fond of straightjackets. "So, you wanna see your office?"

"I guess so," Curt muttered with disinterest.

The old man led him to the first door on the left side of the hall. It had two labels on it even though the metal label holder was clearly designed to hold three, and one was blank. The first said "Benjamin Warner" and the other read "Mathew Kerwin." "Ben's the second shift guy. He gets here at one in the afternoon and he doesn't leave until you're clocked in, suited up and ready to go. Matt's the early morning guy. He'll come in at five in the morning, and once he's ready to go, you get to go home."

Curt threw the office door opened and walked inside. It was a pretty small room, with one desk and a padded rolling chair being the only two pieces of furniture. On the walls were many posters of female models in swim suits, holding surfboards and standing on the beach looking seductive. Curt wondered if one of the guards surfed or if he just liked hot women on his walls. There was also a large dry erase board with one message scribbled on it in red marker. It read 'Prisoner 172 was caught masturbating again. Think we should move him farther from 175, she's kinda hot and might be instigating it.'

James saw Curt eying the message and chuckled. "Grand place to work, ain't it? I suppose if I were cooped up in a cell all my life with no action I'd jerk it once in a while too."

"Um…" Curt trailed off blankly, slightly dumbfounded "With all due respect , aren't you a little…"

"Old? Yeah, that's a little past my time," he admitted, "don't rub it in, you young little yuppie, and I won't have to throw you in the cell with 172."

"I could tase him," Curt pointed out.

"Not if I tase you first," James countered, running a steady finger across his holster. "Then what do you think he would do to your incapacitated body?"

"Dammit," Curt mumbled to himself. "I just can't win."

But the old man didn't answer; a look had come across his face that was void of any signs of joking. He didn't even acknowledge Curt, but instead stared at the floor near the foot of the desk, as if the army green carpet underneath it was a true spectacle of some kind. He tapped his foot repeatedly, with a look that suggested he was lost in thought.

Curt raised an eyebrow questionably. "Hey, old man, are you okay?" he asked cautiously.

"I'm debating whether or not I want to let you in on something," James said slowly, his voice having dropped as if he thought that people might be outside listening to their conversation. "Something that's… well, it's a bit of a secret." He was leaning in closer to Curt as if the secret was some kind of special offer.

"If you're looking to play off my curiosity," Curt began coldly, "in hopes that I'll beg you to tell me your secret, it's not going to work. I'm not the curious type and I have enough apathy not to care about a hundred secrets."

But James shook his head and looked at Curt with nothing but stern seriousness on his face. "Look kid, when your week of training is over, I'm out of here. Retired, finally. Didn't you notice that my name plaque's been taken off the door? Yours is going up there and then I'm history, but I have to pass this secret on to a protégé, if you will, so that it's not forgotten."

Curt saw that the man was dead set on making Curt want this information, so he didn't try to fight it. "Okay, fine," he said, trying to contort his face in a way that would suggest that he cared. "I'll carry on your secret, so spit it out."

"It's not something I can spit out," James replied, sounding once again ominous and foreboding. "It's something that you have to see with your own eyes." To Curt's surprise, he began pushing the desk from its place in the center of the room to one of the empty corners. "Let me make this perfectly clear. What I am about to show you does not exist, so do not discuss it with anyone, and I mean anyone. Not Ben or Matt, not your new boss, not your family or friends or one day your wife and kids. No one." He lifted the rug and peeled it back, uncovering the hard tile floor underneath. To Curt's surprise there was a thin break in the floor that created a square under where one of the desk's legs had been; a trap door. There was a dial on the floor with four separate wheels that each contained the numbers zero through nine on them.

"There is no lock here, because this doesn't exist, but I suppose if it did exist, the combination would be 5278," he informed Curt, who had to admit that now his sense of curiosity had won over his apathy and he was genuinely interested in what was hidden under the floor. "I bet you didn't think this place had a basement, did you?"
Curt shook his head.

"Well that's because it doesn't!" James shouted, throwing open the door and revealing a staircase that descended into the darkness. "But if it did, I suppose this is where it would lead. Follow me." He ducked into the small hole in the floor and disappeared from sight, leaving Curt alone in the room to follow.

Curt looked down the hole at the winding metal stairway that spiraled down as far as the eye could see. Before James could get too far ahead, he began to lower himself into the hold and begin the drop down the stairs one by one, around and around until he was dizzy. He didn't look down, but straight ahead into the darkness, so it came to a surprise moments later when instead of metal, his feet touched down on cold stone. "Whoa…" it escaped his mouth before he could stop it.

"When certain prisoners become too much trouble for a place to handle, or their identity is a threat to the public, it becomes necessary for them to disappear forever," James said, without giving a formal introduction to wherever Curt had just entered. It was a short hallway with three large steel doors that gave no indication of what could be on the other side. "So in 1960, two years after I started working here, this place was built for a place to make prisoners go away."

"So what?" Curt asked astonished. "You're keeping like… Osama Bin Laden, Bruce Wayne, and 2Pac down here?"

James shook his head. "Don't be stupid, we would love for the world to know that we had captured Bin Laden, but we haven't. No, this is quite different." He walked over to the first door. "Are you ready?"

Curt shook his head. "Not really. Ready for what?"

James paused, thinking for a moment as if trying to figure out what to say. Finally, he chuckled. "Have you ever seen 'The Hills Have Eyes?'"