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Always Tried To Be A Good Girl, But I Can't Really Say That That's True

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Chris was always asking Toby questions about herself of the sort Vee'd never even vaguely thought to ask, which Toby found first weirdly engaging, then ultimately exhausting—she'd try to shut them down the obvious way, ie by kissing Chris silent and proceeding from there, but that always only lasted so long. Then the interrogation would begin once more, either subtly or overtly, interrupted on occasion by soft touches, murmurs, the kind of casual intimacy Toby was frankly no longer used to, given Vee's version of affection left raw-rubbed sore patches at best and outright scars at worst. But then again, it wasn't like Chris didn't already know that.

“We were at Lardner together,” she told Toby, one night, after lights-out. “Her 'n' me, Sasha Ross, what-have-you. I was seventeen. They transferred me over from Juvie, after I beat down this bitch tried to do me with a plunger-handle in the storage closet.”

“What was Vee like, back then?”

Chris shrugged. “Hadn't met Mr Schillinger yet,” she replied, with sarcastic emphasis. “Hadn't gotten that Nazi bullshit religion of his, either, so she was just this four-day weekend biker chick who really liked to rumble, didn't matter much over what—I mean, she still didn't drink and still didn't do drugs, 'cause of that asshole Old Man of hers. But if you stepped to her she'd fuck you hard then fuck you UP, you get what I'm sayin?” Quieter then, as Toby nodded, thinking how she'd often assumed Vee probably hated other people for being different long before Mr S., though not as an ideology: “She looked after me; same way she did for you, probably. Though I never did get her initials tattooed on my tit, or anything.”

“I was the one who suggested that, actually,” Toby told her. “To warn other people off, when she wasn't around.”

“Hmmm, okay. It work?”

“Up to a point.”

At that, Chris had just smirked, casting her dark blue eyes up at their pod's ceiling. “Yeah, well—that's just the basic problem with gettin' people out of jail, ain't it? Leaves you defenceless in the crunch, you don't watch out...but you don't have to worry about that with me, baby. Eighty-eight years, possibility of parole in fuckin' fifty.”

“I remember. Shouldn't've taken the bike on your little robbery spree, you wanted to keep things manageable.”

“Maybe so.” After a beat: “You really think that would've helped?”

“...probably not, no.”

Prisoner Number 98K514, Christine Keller—convicted June 16, 1998 of felony murder, two counts of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, driving under the influence and reckless driving. Usually more of a con artist in her more regular criminal career, specializing in ponzi schemes and variations of the badger game, but high on crystal meth at the time, which probably explained a lot; she'd come in with her arm in a cast, then used it as a weapon in at least two punch-ups. Three ex-husbands, no kids: “They say there's somethin' wrong with me,” she'd explained, a thesis Toby definitely agreed with, overall. And that wasn't even the half of it.

Because: from everything Toby'd learned about her while in close quarters, Chris was indubitably a reflexive charmer and an equally reflexive liar, a stone killer prone to fits of coolly violent jealousy, a potentially diagnosable sociopath. A serial killer, actually, according to grim-faced FBI Agent Taylor, which was pretty impressive, statistically speaking; Chris didn't deny it, except to Taylor's face. She was flexible in a way Toby wasn't, even now, and Vee never could have been, given her permanent widowhood pose: “Only one man for me,” Vee'd told Toby once, an odd little shine in her cold blue-grey eyes, and Toby mainly believed her, though that did seem pretty damn functionally gay, in hindsight—another thing she wouldn't ever have said, either to Vee's face or behind her back. But then again, whether or not Vee really believed that jail constituted a standing excuse to fuck as many girls as she could trick into letting her, both she and Chris had spent far more time in jail already than Toby ever would.

“Bet you went to one of those nice schools, huh, Beech?” Chris asked her, sidelong, as they sat together on the quad, with Chris all slouched down in her seat with her long legs ankle-crossed, a too-sexy human roadblock, and Toby's bare feet balanced in her lap. “Those...what d'ya call 'em, anyhow? Preps?”

“Sure,” Toby answered, eyes still on her book. “I got kicked out of two private academies, best my parents could afford. Then they sent me off to boarding school.”

“Aw, poor you. What for?”

“Running with the wrong crowd, uniform infractions, possession of contraband, inappropriate behavior...” Adding, as Chris waggled her eyebrows, like: Of a sexual nature? Tell me more, tell me more. “...underage drinking.”

“Oho, so you were a lush even back then: Tobit Beecher, Portrait of a Teenaged Fuck-Up. That's a sad story, baby.”

“Mmmm. It's a sad world.”

Chris grinned, then paused, apparently thinking. “Up at Lardner, girls used to call this—” A wide-swept arm, indicating Em City, or perhaps the whole prison. “—the finishing school,” she said, finally. “Know why?”

Turning the page: “I do not. But I assume you're going to tell me.”

“'Cause if you end up in Oz, you're finished. 'Cause whatever you are once you get there is just how you're gonna be from then on, the whole rest of your life.”

That did make Toby finally look up, eyes narrowing. “Jesus, that's bleak. You don't really believe that, do you?”

And: “Oh, I'm fine with it...mostly,” Chris replied, taking a look around to see what hacks were on the floor, not to mention where they might be looking at that very moment—before pulling her in for a tongue-hot kiss, sliding her hand fast up under her shirt so she could cop a feel, ringing one nipple with her thumbnail before giving it a last quick flick, so hard it almost hurt. Then sat back once more, snickering at Toby's stunned look, mouth half open, drawn breath like a barely-repressed hiss; added, with a further wicked twist to her smile: “'Sides, you like how I am, don't tell me you don't—like it good enough when we're alone, anyhow, that's for damn sure. I ain't heard any complaints.”

Toby took a second to order herself, sitting there panting, a furious flush blazing up across both cheeks. “Maybe I don't complain because I know you wouldn't take me seriously, even if I did. Ever think of that?”

“Enough to stop? Nope.”

“Some might call that the very definition of dubious content.”

“Yeah? Well, those people don't know what the hell they're missing; send 'em my way, then check back later. See what they say then.”

That was Chris, though, in a nutshell. Just like Oz was, indeed, very similar to attending the world's worst-policed live-in educational facility: mean girls and meaner jailhouse “studs,” all jockeying for position with lessons to learn—or teach—'round every given corner, the constant stink of sweat, intimate juices and synched period detritus (no tampons available for some reason, only maxi-pads, which the inmates cobbled into everything from shower-room flip-flops to stolen latex glove-sheathed dildo-stuffing). With everyone involved drunk or high half the time, amped up on excess pheremones and estrogen; everybody always scheming on ways to get the fuck out, forming coalitions against the system only to sell each other out at the drop of a metaphorical hat, hoping they wouldn't miss each other once they were safely back in the “real” world.

Yet knowing they probably would, one way or the other. Since the only person who could ever understand what sheer hell being in Oz was like, day to day, would forever have to be somebody who'd been there too.

***

“You understand the conditions of your parole, right, Beecher?” Officer Jones asked her, studying her file. “Acquire and maintain employment, receive regular psychiatric counselling...”

“I have a job lined up at my family's firm, doing paralegal work for my brother Angus; I'm going over there today, right after we're done here. My husband's psychiatrist says he doesn't think he can take me on because of conflict of interest, but he's got three alternate recommendations, and I'll be seeing one of them tomorrow.”

“These psychiatrists know your background?”

“If one of them agrees to treat me, I'll get Sister Pete to send them my file. She already said she would, right before I was released.”

“Good stuff. And finally—this is important—attend an addiction recovery program. Not negotiable.”

“Didn't think it would be, considering. Sir.”

Jones shoots her a glance at this, but she just stays in the same position, keeping her face nearly expressionless yet projecting everything he should want to see, in context: compliance, commitment, modesty, humility. Like: look at my suit, my purse, my shoes, my hair, my lack of makeup; look how harmless I am, how tame. Don't SEEM like someone who almost bit a woman's nipple off once, now, do I—someone who once beat another inmate with a barbell, then painted a smile on her face with my own menstrual blood? Someone who was banging (two) killers on the regular in exchange for protection, 'cause I'm just too weak to look after myself without help? And watches for that weird look of subliminal satisfaction to come into his eyes, as it eventually almost always does, with most men in positions of authority: Aw yeah, you're good and broke now, aren't ya, rich bitch? Oz really beat the fuck out of you, huh, counsellor-no-more?

But it doesn't, no matter how long Toby waits, which she has to admit actually impresses her. Maybe Jones is a good guy, after all...or a reasonable guy, more like, at the very least. That'd make for a change.

Does it say in there how when I finally did get raped, McManus thought a guard might've done it? she wonders, staring at the file-folder's outer cardboard shell, blank except for her ID number. Does it say I never snitched, even though that would've gotten me time off...or how the lead suspect turned up dead later on in a supply closet, air-holed straight through the neck with a drop-piece shank, his pants down around his ankles?

“Gotta warn you about associating with known felons, too,” Jones continues. “But then, you already know that, right? How you have to tell me if you hear from anybody you did time with, or happen to run across them accidentally? Verena Schillinger, for example...”

Toby nods. “I don't even know where Vee lives, sir. Haven't seen her in years.”

“Yeah. But you helped her get out, it says that here.”

“Well, it was a joint effort: she asked me to look at her parole application, because we were cellmates. Then I found out an old law-school buddy was doing Prisoner Aid in Oz, so I asked him to take a glance at it too.” Pointing to the file: “It should say in there that Khadija Said also worked on Vee's case, even though their viewpoints are diametrically opposed; in return, I did work preparing an appeal for one of her people, Hamida Khan. Eventually, as a result, Khan's sentence was overturned and vacated.”

“It says that. Just like with Jill Robson.”

This time, Toby barely stops herself from shrugging. Just replies, quietly, instead: “Jill wasn't properly Mirandized, as the interrogation room tapes proved. It's a basic mistake, but it happens—I'd've been falling down on the job not to point it out, if I still had my licence.”

“Schillinger must feel like she really owes you for that one.”

“I couldn't tell you what Vee Schillinger feels, Officer; never did know exactly what went on in her head, not really. She's hard to read. Anyhow, we don't choose who we bunk with, even in Em City.”

Jones raises his eyebrows slightly, as though he's caught her in a lie. “Didn't you ask to move in with her, though?”

“Let's call that the best of a bad bargain, maybe. Or...the lesser of two evils.”

Thus implying she does in fact understand how Vee's evil, by some people's standards. And since Jones lets it go by, she guesses he either agrees with the judgement, or simply realizes that harassing Toby isn't going to get Vee in off the street any faster; fine with her, either way. Because a second later, he's hauling out his phone and marking off her appointment in his calendar, with a flourish: that's you done, for now. Don't leave town. “See you next week, then, Beecher,” he says. “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”

“Yessir.”

***

Angus isn't at the firm when she gets there, but her parents are—Dad, who she expected to see, along with Mom, who she didn't. They escort her around the office, show her where her desk will be, then take her out for lunch. “We were all so impressed with the work you did, inside, Toby,” her Dad tells her, as the waiter's clearing away, once they've already exhausted everything that her reunion with Giles, Holly and Gary has to offer. “The appeals, I mean...an amazing achievement, when you think about where you were. Though I must admit, I do wish you'd chosen clients that were a bit less...”

“Guilty?” Beecher suggests, taking a sip of her water, wishing like hell it was a martini. “Problem is, they don't put you in Oz for being innocent, Dad. Everybody in there's low-grade bad at the absolute least, including me.”

Now it's her father's turn to flush, glancing down; her mother steps into the breach immediately, that familiar Don't You Dare Be RUDE, Young Lady look on her face. “I don't think you understand just how lucky you really are, Tobit,” she begins, to which Beecher snaps back: “Oh, don't I? No, I really think I do, mother, actually, at this point. I think I'm pretty well aware.”

The same day I came to Oz, when I was being checked into Em City, somebody got knifed right in front of me—five stabs to the throat and chest, boom, gone. Got blood all over the side of my dress, not that it showed by the time they let me back out. I've done things you couldn't even contemplate since then, and much more than just the once. I have a shank in my coat right now; made it myself. Want me to show you how?

(And: Nobody's ever gonna know you the way I do, baby, Chris's voice says, at almost the exact same time, in her head. No one ever could. Not even Vee.)

She could try pointing out that Hamida Khan was a genuine hero by anybody's standards, someone who'd only ended up in Oz because the rapist she'd been laying the righteous wrath of Allah down on happened to have a heart attack mid-punishment. But then she supposes her Dad would feel obliged to counter with the fact that every other person on whose behalf Toby'd jailhouse-advocated had belonged to the same racist gang her former cellmate led, and who the hell knew where that conversation would end up? With a discussion of why—even after she was finally free of Vee—she'd apparently felt it “necessary” to shack up with yet another violent female offender, a woman who was a person of interest in no less than seven cold cases: four asshole johns known for beating on their pick-ups versus three upper-class, blonde, well-educated lesbians who'd all looked distressingly like Toby herself, once Agent Taylor had laid their photos down with a flourish in the world's most disheartening poker hand?

Sitting there looking at their faces, now both equally stricken, and all the while thinking she should apologize but not knowing exactly to who first, or what for, or how. Or why she would even want to, anyways...'til eventually, it just didn't seem to matter.

“I should call myself a cab,” Toby says, at last, rising. And goes to do just that.

Back at home, she shrugs out of her office drag, pulls on a set of too new to be raggedy sweats, then drops and gives herself a hundred—puts herself through the same gruelling workout routine Vee did almost every day they'd spent together, including a good twenty minutes of shadow-boxing and wrestling practice, blocking and twisting to break holds, ducking invisible punches and dodging invisible thrusts. Hearing that growling voice at the back of her skull throughout, meanwhile, berating and praising her alternately with a fierce, proprietary sort of care: Yeah, go ahead and fight BACK, you odd little hooker—keep yourself alive, you stubborn fucking donkey, you! Who you think is gonna help replace the race if you let yourself die in here, Beecher? Remember those little blonde angels of yours, huh; you're young, you ain't all tapped out just yet. Could have another three kids easy, you just put your fuckin' over-educated mind to it...

Fuck you, Verena!

Yeah, that's the way. We'll talk about that part later, cupcake.

Toby closes her eyes, lets Oz wash back over her; feels the hairs on her neck raise, one by one. Lets her hands knit into fists, her lips peel back. Lets herself feel it all, just for five long, slow breaths, because—it's safe right now, sort of. So long as wonderful, clueless Giles isn't here to feel sorry for her, to try and understand her. So long as her kids aren't here to see what an incredible fucking mess she's made of herself, one way or the other.

You did this, she tells herself, hollowly, feeling sick. You. Other people too, sure...but just because YOU let them, Toby.

(They don't put you in Oz for being innocent, Dad.)

Because: bad as the violence always was, in its moment, the fear of violence—that constant, grinding, inescapable fear—had actually been worse. It was like living in earthquake country, ground always shifting beneath you, a thin skin over lava; the threat of it deformed you, made you grow calluses in weird places, where you least expected them.

I mean, isn't this your job? She'd asked Vee one time, between sparring matches, when she truly thought she might be on the verge of coughing up a lung. I handle your kids' pleas and put out, so you keep me safe. Nature of the contract, right? To which Vee had just laughed, almost fondly, and replied: Well, sure...but I'm not gonna be around forever, Toby—not in here, anyway. That's what you're workin' for too, along with all the rest. You do get that, I hope.

...of course. Of course I do.

'Kay, good. 'Cause that's YOUR job, counsellor, in actual fact. Just like keeping you safe—and happy—is mine.

Toby remembers pausing, eyes downcast, trying not to shudder as the wave of terror suddenly splashed up over her out of nowhere, a connect-the-dots flood. Asking, carefully: When you ARE out, though, and...I'm still here—what then? There are a whole lot of people in Em City who don't like me quite as much as you do...

Vee chuckled: Well, I'd hope not. Then added, obviously registering just how white “her” lawyer's face had gone: Hey now, though; look at me, Tobit. Look up. Yeah, that's it.

Toby swallowed. Okay, she replied, raising her eyes by increments, through force of will alone: Vee's neck, Vee's chin, Vee's lips, nose, eyes. That calm, level gaze, so hot and cool at once, capable of almost anything.

You're MINE, Vee told her, expansively, like it was something she really should thank her for. Check the mark I gave you in the mirror sometime, you ever feel tempted to forget it: that's on you now and for always, no matter what. You belong to me, and everyone here knows what that means, or oughtta. They'll respect it, too, they know what's good for 'em.

A nod, carefully looking down again, unwilling to challenge her directly. Yeah, maybe, Beecher agreed, slow. Or...maybe the minute you're out the gate, they'll be more than willing to do whatever it takes to hurt you, by hurting me. See how that works?

For a breathless moment, she expected true physical push-back: a slap, a punch, a bruising pinch, a skull-rap pitched at just the right level to make her temples ring. This time, however, Vee simply laughed outright, folding her in; ruffled her hair like she was Holly, for Christ's sake, not the woman she let use her like a stress relief device every goddamn night. Assuring Toby: No reason to fret over that just yet, sweetpea. We got a LOT of time left to get through together, still.

Maybe I do need to make a few new friends, though, Beecher thought to herself that night, almost as soon as Vee was asleep, like she'd believed she might've been able to read her mind somehow, if Beecher'd only dared to consider the idea earlier on. Just for a rainy day. And luckily, if that word could even be applied to Oz, the next few days brought a flood of new inmates...amongst them, a certain young Irish hood-rat named Rhea O'Reilly.

***

Once the (co-)lead mover and shaker in a neighborhood crew called the Bridge Street Gang that specialized in moving heroin and stolen goods, O'Reilly didn't look like all too much, coming in: a skinny, flat-chested Irish hellcat with disordered brown hair in a slightly butch flat-top cut, eyes the sharp green of badly-printed counterfeit money. Her smile pulled a scar tight on her chin, revealing bad Hell's Kitchen teeth and a cat's pointed tongue, but what she lacked in presentation she more than made up with in canniness; uneducated but intelligent, not to mention completely ruthless, she had a native strategist's mind, capable of thinking up interlocking dance routines so slick she could've won trophies on the competitive ballroom circuit. Everything was a waltz to her, or maybe a cellblock tango, handing off partner to partner to partner until (almost inevitably) somebody ended up dead, though nobody could ever quite remember where the killing impulse had first originated from, afterwards.

As fate would have it, it was Dina Ortolani who fell afoul of O'Reilly first—they had history together, as even O'Reilly would admit. “Bitch thinks I'm the only reason she's in here,” Rhea said, cutting the cards for a game between herself, Hill, Rebadow and Beecher, who was taking an eyestrain break from reading up on cases to cite that'd been overturned on improper rights-readings. “Like it's my own fuckin' fault she shot me in the chest, and I had the bad taste to keep on livin'.”

“Why'd she shoot you?” Hill asked, as O'Reilly shrugged, replying: “'Cause she thought I was sleepin' with her husband—see what I mean? The whole thing was just a stupid-ass misunderstanding.”

Skeptical: “So you ain't been sleepin' with him.”

“Oh well, you wanna get technical...” O'Reilly grinned, unable to keep her game face entirely tight. “See, it happened, but—from my point of view, 'sleepin' with' is definitely talking it up a bit. 'Sides, the guy was a complete asshole; that whole thing was more like a mistake I made, with my pants off...” After another pause: “...like, maybe a couple of times.”

“Guess Dina didn't see it that way,” Beecher observed, studying her hand. “Anybody have any fours?”

“Go fuck yourself, counsellor,” Bertha Rebadow responded, primly, which Beecher had learned by then was the Oz way of saying “Go fish.”

“Nope,” O'Reilly agreed. “So yeah, that's why she stuck my head in the toilet, that crazy wop. Hey, and she really don't like you neither, does she? What's that about?”

“I ran over somebody's kid while I was drunk. She disapproves.”

“Yeah? Crime twin, put it here!” O'Reilly reached across the table to fist-bump Beecher, who sat there bemused, 'til she realized it was just a ruse O'Reilly was using to try and catch a glimpse of her hand. “That's pretty much what I did, ya boil it down. Anyhow—how come Schillinger calls you her lawyer, anyway?”

“Because Ms. Beecher is a lawyer,” Rebadow explained, while Beecher shook her head. “I've been disbarred, so...no, not really. And I keep telling her to call me her legal consultant.”

“Not a lot of people get to tell that woman shit, from what I hear. Which makes you interesting, in my book.”

A few days later, the quad was buzzing with the news that Dina Ortolani'd suffocated an AIDS patient McManus had assigned her to look after, then drawn a beating that landed her in isolation, tied down and sedated. Which meant she was in no shape to resist when somebody bribed a hack to be let in, splashed rubbing alcohol all over her and lit a match. Over the next forty-eight hours, the blame for Ortolani's murder landed first on a gangsta girl named Tishaun Post, who was quickly discovered killed in a way that suggested Mafia payback, then on Post's gangsta faction leader Jethra Keane, who'd had a longstanding grudge against Ortolani for beating Keane's sister Billie up after she came onto her in the shower. Post's death hit Keane hard, softening her up for Khadija Said's proselytization—but by the time she'd converted to Islam, the fix was already in: the Italians, led by Nina Schibetta and Chiara Pancamo, arranged a hit on Keane which landed her on Death Row after killing one of her attackers.

“Looks like the niggers, wops and Spics are takin' each other out,” Vee commented, approvingly. “Less work for the rest of us.” But Beecher shook her head.

“Rebadow says that's not what happened at all,” she replied, still making notes; Vee huffed, unconvinced. Pointing out, as she did: “That old bitch is crazy as a shithouse rat, Toby. Woman thinks God talks to her, for Christ's sake.”

“Yeah, maybe so. But nevertheless—her logic's pretty persuasive.”

“Explain,” Vee ordered, turning to fix her with a stare.

“In law, we say 'cui bono'; that means 'who benefits?' And at every link in the chain, here, there's really only one person who got everything they wanted out of what just happened: Rhea O'Reilly.”

“You're shittin' me.”

“Not at all. Who paid off a guard to get Post a job in the AIDS ward? O'Reilly, in return for a place in Keane's tits trade. Who ratted her out to Schibetta and Pancamo after, ostensibly to get the heat off Keane, but actually for a bigger piece of the Italian side of the pie? O'Reilly. Who let the two Spanish chicks into the gym when she knew Keane would be in there alone, supposedly to meet her? O'Reilly. So now Keane's off the table and the gangstas can't compete with the Italians anymore, meaning they have to adjust to being adjuncts to the Mafia instead—and who gets control of their action in Keane's place?”

“O'Reilly?” Another nod. “Huh. That's...really something.”

“Isn't it?” Beecher agreed, leaning her head back for Vee to stroke and angling into it like a cat, the way she knew Vee liked it. Might have even purred a bit, if she'd been able to; Jesus, it was nice to actually be allowed to really think on occasion, at least about stuff more interesting than whether they'd be having those grody fake chicken nuggets for dinner again or which of the C.O.s was fucking who, McManus very much included—according to the rumor mill, he'd already slept his way through the entire female staff, but was thankfully a bit too moral to start on the prisoners.

A week after Dina Ortolani went up in flames, O'Reilly sidled over. “Hey, Beech,” she said. “Lookin' good, lady.” “Filing my my nails and staying pretty,” Beecher replied, deadpan, while Vee cut her eyes both their way, unamused. “Need to stop harassin' my lawyer, O'Reilly, you want to keep those Lucky Charms of yours where you like 'em,” she barked from her usual table across the quad, where she, Robson and Marta Mack were playing hearts. Only for all three of them to hear C.O. Mineo snort as he went by, throwing back: “That stuck-up bitch of yours is a lawyer same way you're a damn political prisoner, Schillinger,” but Vee just shot him the finger.

O'Reilly wanted Beecher to look over her case, to see if there was any chance of her getting to jump on the appeals train as well, and Beecher had to admit that the very idea of screwing over the system currently engaged in screwing her over by helping the woman she'd just watched (albeit obliquely) maneuver her way to the almost-top of Oz's internal drug importation and sales game over a string of metaphorical graves walk out of Oz gave her, Beecher, just a tiny flare of sick excitement. But it only took one glance to see the task was impossible; O'Reilly'd been right to call them crime twins, in a way. There was no immediately accessible trick she could find to overturn O'Reilly's conviction with, to wipe away her sure and certain guilt, any more than she could legally dispose of her own.

“Two counts of vehicular manslaughter, five counts of reckless endangerment, possession of a controlled substance, criminal possession of a weapon, parole violation—life imprisonment, up for parole in twelve. I know you don't want to hear it, Rhea, but this really was the best you could expect to get, court-appointed or no court-appointed.”

O'Reilly slapped her hand down on the library table. “Fuck! Well...that's kinda what I thought, but thanks for the help, man. Don't got much to pay you with, though, right at the minute—” She looked around, pursed lips twisting. “Been fuckin' a couple of the hacks for extra privileges, so maybe...”

“Oh no, thanks anyway.”

“Really? Could hook ya up with some dick, at least, even if ya don't want anything else. Or some hooch.”

“No, no, that's okay, really.”

That grin again, the scar curving extra-tight: “Mmm-hmh. Or maybe you might be interested in something just a little more—portable.” Without waiting for Beecher's next question, O'Reilly slid her hand underneath the table and rapping her knuckles against the metal top, twitching first one brow then the other, like: c'mon, bitch, don't make me beg. And after a moment, Beecher gave in, curiosity getting the better of her good judgement; she slid her hand in too, palm up, tightening it when O'Reilly dropped something small, round and slick into its center.

“Now that,” O'Reilly murmured in her ear, “is some damn fine China White you got right there, Beech, direct from Donna Schibetta's own pipeline. Just sniff it off your fingernail and you get a buzz smooths every wrinkle outta prison life, right on down to the ground.”

Beecher felt her chest tighten, mouth gone abruptly dry. “Um, I...no, I can't do that, sorry; you'll have to take it back. Vee...doesn't like drugs.”

“Yeah, I heard that. Good thing she don't have to, huh?” Then, as Beecher still tried to demur: “C'mon, you work hard, man, anybody can see that; this place is hard enough without gettin' high, for shit's sake. Give yourself a break.”

“Maybe I should,” Beecher agreed, knowing on some level she shouldn't...on every level, really. But then—

—that's what EVERY junkie thinks, you selfish cunt, Vee would eventually snarl at her, when at last she found out. 'Cause they're all stupid goddamn cowards who can't think past the next bump, the next jolt, the next bottle. And they know if they do it then they're gonna fuck up, 'cause that's just what junkies DO, Tobit: they fuck up, and fuck shit up, in the motherfuckin' bargain...but so long as it gets 'em high, so what? They don't give a crap.

Which is why they always go on ahead and do it anyhow, no matter the fuckin' cost to themselves. Or to anybody else.

***

At the height—or depths—of her previous addiction, alcohol had blunted the world for Beecher at its source, made all the ridiculously simple things she'd once worried over dim and small and far away, as beautifully distant and completely unnecessary as if she was viewing them through the up-turned bottoms of two empty wine bottles at once. Heroin, on the other hand, made everything slow, and soft, and bright, and fun. She couldn't remember having had any fun, for...Jesus, how long, exactly? Long before Oz, and wasn't that just so sad? Wasn't it just so immeasurably fucking sad that she could have had the chance to be happy, chance after chance after chance, yet simply thrown them all away in turn, because she'd been congenitally unable to recognize them, when they came?

With what she'd later recognize as appalling rapidity, Beecher's days became reduced to mere snatches of opportunity, everything outside the time she spent giggling on O'Reilly's bunk like a naughty schoolgirl reduced to static as she surfed towards the next moment she'd be able to catch her co-conspirator's eye, waiting on a wink and a nod to find some excuse to slip away from Vee's watchful eye and escape from Oz, one brief snort at a time. It amazed her how the Irish woman was able to compartmentalize so efficiently, still managing to run tits for the Italians and fend off her gangsta “buddies'” coup attempts, seemingly without ever missing a beat—Adebisi and Wangler were a thing now, apparently, taking big shared steps while coming up from behind. Yet maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise; O'Reilly'd obviously been flirting with heroin's charms for some time now, adept as she was at shrugging off the drug's influence to save her own ass from various set traps and sudden ambushes. Beecher herself, however...

Roaming swoonily arm in arm with O'Reilly on the Em City upper deck with their heads bent together, whispering not-exactly-secrets in each other's ears and laughing like loons; licking the last of their latest shared bump from Rhea's shamrock-tattooed hand, the web of flesh between thumb and fore-finger, only to feel it burn on the way down. And hearing her tell her, words gone soft and slow in the after-effect: “Y'know, Schillinger...'slike she still thinks I'm gonna turn Nazi or somethin', jus' 'cause McManus says she's my sponsor, 'n' shit. Know what she told me, th'other day?”

“Couldn't even begin to guess.”

“How half the, like...DNA in Ireland comes from when th' Vikings came over, rapin' chicks and takin' slaves, so that makes me, like...a secret German, or somethin'.”

Beecher squinted and shook her head, the lights on either side of her starting to leave trails. “I'm pretty sure what she meant was...half the DNA in Norway is Irish. For similar reasons.”

O'Reilly: “Yeah, well, six a' one, man—'m still not in'erested, so no fuckin' sale. Swastikas creep me out, an' I ain't shavin' this for anybody.” And here she pointed at her own short crop of mouse-colored hair with what looked for all the world like like genuine pride, making Beecher dissolve in a sudden laughing fit; O'Reilly first looked insulted, then grinned as well, snorting through her nose. “Hey, you're okay, ya know that? Lawyer.”

“Don't exactly think everybody here shares...that opinion, Rhea.”

“Aw, well, fuck 'em, y'know? Ain't your fault you come from money, or went t'Harvard. An' as for Vee 'n' all that...you did what'cha had to, right? Put y'self first, like every other bitch in here, an' they damn well know it. We ain't so different.”

“...thanks.”

The which exchange, in turn, immediately cast Beecher's addled mind back to just a few days before—that moment when she'd finally realized O'Reilly probably kept her supplied with free samples on the off-chance that hanging with Beecher might be a fount of useful information on the Neo-Nazi side of things. I mean, Schillinger talks to you, right? Rhea'd asked, to which Beecher had immediately replied: She talks AROUND me, yes. To be honest, though, sometimes I'm not listening.

Aw, don't sell yourself short, Beech; you're a smart fuckin' cookie. Somethin' tells me, a part of you's ALWAYS listening.

Not smart enough, however, apparently. Since the minute they disentangled themselves, Toby found herself happily swanning 'round the very next corner with her nose in the air and her attention elsewhere, right into Vee, surrounded by the core of her click: Robson, Mack, Gorman, that chick with the shaved head and a massive lightning-bolt scalp tattoo. Vee, who grabbed her by upper arm and chin simultaneously, holding her still so she could examine her red-rimmed eyes, her inflamed nostrils, that highly suspicious dusting of something white on her upper lip. Demanding, as she did—

“Beecher! Are you fuckin' high?”

“Um—”

“And don't you even try lyin' to me, either, cupcake, 'cause I'll pull your messed-up junkie fuckin' head right off, if you do. Consider that your first and last warning.”

Whatever retort Beecher might have been considering died in her throat the minute she saw that look in Vee's eyes—same one she'd had just before laying out that nameless gangsta bitch who'd been dumb enough to try and cram her breast in Beecher's mouth a month or so before (not to mention too dumb to think Beecher might respond by biting down hard enough to leave a permanent ring of teeth-marks around her areola) with a single punch, then stomping on her head in the ensuing scrum before coolly walking away, letting the crowd do the rest of her work for her. So: “Yes, ma'am,” was all Beecher said instead, eyes downcast, voice shrunken and reedy. And waited to find out what medicine she was going to have to take, once Vee was done with her.

I like to fight, sure, Vee'd said, often enough. It's the Warrior Gene in me. But not for no reason—MEN do that, and I ain't no man.

Up 'til then, Beecher had always assumed Vee's anti-drug policy was mainly to stave off demerits; couldn't get caught with contraband if you never had it, after all. But...no, this was something different, something she hadn't seen before, and it frankly terrified her. This was personal, as if Beecher'd let her down, betrayed her in a way that was potentially unforgivable.

“I know I've disappointed y—” She began, only to fall silent again—obediently—when Vee held up an impatient finger. Correcting her, without a flicker of give in that glacial stare: “No, see, you really didn't, 'cause this is pretty much what I always expected. 'Cause you're a drunk, and I knew that goin' in—drunk's just one step up from a junkie, or maybe down. And junkies, they fuck up.”

“I haven't been...”

“Seriously? You gonna contradict me right here in front of everybody, Tobit, that your big plan to make things right? 'Cause that's really not gonna cut it.”

Behind Vee's broad back, the others snickered or looked away. They hate me, Beecher thought, genuinely surprised. Those fucking Nazi bitches, I've been killing myself trying to get them out, doing everything right, and they damn well RESENT me for it...

“You're fallin' down on the job, counsellor,” Vee continued on, ferociously unaffected, either not getting or just not caring what her underlings might be up to. “Had a meeting with Said today on Jill's appeal, but you didn't show up, so I have to deal with one of her little raghead posse calling me by name on the floor wanting to know where YOU are, like I'm some goddamn Muslim dog. And I'm halfway through my mail route already but I have to turn it over to Gorman here, let her finish up, 'cause I need to go find my fucking wayward property—which I can't even locate myself, offhand, without asking Guard Metzger if he's seen my lawyer anywhere recently.” Mimicking the too-blond, covertly A.B.-allied C.O. in question's flat Midwest tones: “'Oh, she's up top, Verena, havin' a slumber party with her new best friend.' 'Really? Well, thank you oh so very fucking much, Karl; got my back on this one, obviously. Brother.'”

“Vee, I'm—”

“No. You need to talk to me like you know who I am, for once, Beecher; have some respect, you alkie slut, or the next thing you see that Mick buddy of yours dance off of will be the end of this fucking deck. You understand me now, huh? Or do I have to get a little more explicit?”

Eyes down once more, fast as if she'd been slapped: “I understand you, ma'am.”

“Good, 'cause here's the deal: I'm not ecstatic you dropped off the wagon, granted, but I don't blame you either, not entirely. You got a disease, and better yet I still got uses for you, plural. Who I blame is that pusher bitch O'Reilly, for selling to your worthless ass—”

“She didn't—” A bit too loud for acceptability, still, and this time Vee really did hit her: one sharp crack to the jaw, popping the hinge in a way that'd leave a bruise, but sounded worse than it felt. Beecher bit it off, then tried again, more quietly: “Rhea never charged me, ma'am. Just...gave me some of her private stash, I guess.”

At this, Robson turned, goggling. Protested, over Vee's shoulder: “For no money down? This bitch's been spreading it around, Vee, swapping pussy for tits! I told you she'd be more fuckin' trouble than she's worth—”

Vee, without looking: “Shut the fuck up, Jill; Beecher knows better than that. Don't you, sweetpea?”

“I do, ma'am, yes.”

“Yeah. 'Cause you're mine, right?”

Nodding, blindly: “Only yours, now and always, forever. Anybody doesn't believe that, they're free to check my chest.”

Robson snorted, but this last part finally made Vee's frown lift, however slightly; the corners of her grim mouth twitched as she gave Beecher another slap for good measure, this time on the opposite side. Warning her, as she did: “No they're fuckin' well not: say it, you whore. And more like you mean it, this time.”

Into her collar, now, and barely a whisper: “No, ma'am. They're fucking well not.

Because: the fear, the fear, the fear. It was all around her now, making her want to run. To tear at herself with her own nails, bite in and keep on biting 'til something tore away. That voice inside her head, pointing out the parallels, like: There you go again, thinking nobody and nothing's more important than your own selfish pleasure—good fuckin' job, Bitch-er. And what do you know, somebody else is gonna die for your mistake, aren't they? Kent Rockwell first, then Rhea, then...who knows? Who fucking knows?

Oz is jam-packed full of collateral victims, potentially, after all—all sorts of fresh meat, waiting to get caught in your bad-luck addict's downward spiral. Just as full as it is of offenders, competitors, fellow predators...

Vee huffed, calming further. To herself, almost: “And you told me that Mick was smart.”

“She is, ma'am. Useful, too. You can't just—”

Robson, butting in, before she could finish: “Oh yeah? Go on and tell her some more about what she can't do, you fuckin' little—”

But: “Jill!” Vee barked again. “Shield-wall.” Then leant down to Beecher's level as Robson turned around like the semi-good soldier Vee'd taught her to be, attention-stiff, orienting herself to block them from any passing hacks' view, to tell Beecher: “The point is, Toby, I very definitely can; point is I will, you don't smarten the hell up. Look, maybe you got some misapprehension 'bout my basic character, just 'cause we made each other come a time or two. You think I got this job when somebody took some kind of fucking vote? There's a Brotherhood in every men's prison in America, but when I got here all there was was a bunch'a chicks who hung around together on the quad, mainly on account of them not being black. So I did this, me—made the hard calls and enforced 'em, too, 'cause...somebody had to, is why. Which is why you either better give me a reason not to just kill O'Reilly as an object lesson for everybody, you very much included, or get ready to say goodbye.”

Beecher let herself feel everything for a moment more, as a bracer. Then she took a long, slow breath, and made herself feel nothing.

“Ma'am,” she began, one more time, hearing her voice crack. “I get that I screwed up. Please tell me what to do to set it right.”

Vee literally tossed her head, like the aurochs she was. Snapped back: “Learn from it, you moron. Sometimes, that's all you CAN do.”

Then turned her back, like she was going to stomp off: oh no, oh no no no no. No no VERY fucking no no NO.

(Jesus, no.)

“No,” Beecher repeated, out loud, pitched so Vee swung back around, fist going automatically up and back, poised to correct her—but waiting, thank Christ. Like she almost wanted to hear what came next. So: “No, I'm not going to accept that, at all. You have to let me make this right, or—”

“Beecher, for Christ's own sake. Did Jill or did Jill not just get through with telling you I don't 'have' to do shit?”

“—or...I will confess to Rhea's murder myself, right to McManus's face. I'll get sent to solitary, maybe even Death Row; good luck getting any help with Jill's case from Said then, not to mention my old law school fuck-buddy Keith. Or maybe I'll just kill myself, how'd you like that? Suicide by guard, steal something sharp and swallow it, step off this same fucking deck right in front of you, if I can. You can't watch me forever.”

She could feel herself trembling like a dog on point, a fluffed-up cat; saw Robson's Neandertal brows try to go up, almost impressed. As Vee simply kept on staring at her for a minute, “Warrior Gene” White Power berserker thing dimming down, starting to drain out of her visibly. Maybe thinking, if Beecher had to take a guess: You'd go on ahead do it, too, wouldn't you? Just to make ME look bad, you fucking bitch on wheels. That's...

...well. That's—sort of interesting too, gotta admit. When I come to consider it.

Oh, man; pretty, crazy Toby B., best toy I ever had. You really gonna try and make me throw you away, THIS soon in the game? Not when I can still find a way I can get out of this with my juice intact, and not even have to.

Another huff, dangerously reminiscent of some cow—some bull—getting ready to charge. Then Vee just nodded her head, dialled back to normal. Told Beecher: “I'm gonna have to punish you, though. You get that, right?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“And it's gonna be public, too; has to be seen. Gonna let them—” nodding at the girls, here, making Marta Mack grin “—jump you in like I should've a long time ago, mark you up in ways you probably don't want your husband seein'...but too bad, 'cause you're still gonna do that next visit, and the next. And everybody else in Em City is gonna get to see you like that too, for exactly as long as I deem necessary.”

“I understand. It's what I deserve.”

“Got THAT right.”

Beecher kept on nodding. “I'm a fuck-up,” she reiterated, voice cracking again, almost in two. To which Vee simply snorted yet one more time, replying: “Yeah, well. Don't say it like you're proud of it.”

***

Buying back O'Reilly's life took at least three weeks, give or take. The rules were simple: Go see McManus, tell him what happened, take the demerits; turn O'Reilly in at the same time, get her thrown in the Hole to detox forcibly, alone and naked on a concrete floor—yeah, she was really going to love Beecher a lot, by the time she came back out. Get worked over with a bar of soap in a bag, wielded by every core Aryan in turn...the pain was intense, especially when Jill went at her straight in the gut, but the bruising actually kept itself pretty much all internal aside from that black-and-purple shiner Vee gave her at the end, a stigmata anyone who cared to glance Beecher's way could probably spot from space. Then it was time to shuffle off to the infirmary, get signed up for therapy through Sister Pete, do it. Tell Giles exactly dumb she'd been this time, like it was “confession or some shit,” as Vee put it.

“I'm gonna hurt you some more tonight, by the way,” Vee told her, when she finally made it back to their pod. “And it will hurt, believe you me—but you're not gonna complain, are ya, huh? Just be a good girl, and take it.”

“Yes.”

“Take anything else I choose to dish out, after. 'Til I tell you otherwise.”

“...yes.”

“All right. You're gonna have a lot of time to think about what not to do, Tobit, from now on—and by the way, sex isn't gonna fix this, either. So keep those bruised-up parts of yours on lock, you wanna heal up in record time.”

Beecher stood there nodding, hugging herself, barely able to stay upright by that point; cast a desperate eye at the bottom bunk, wondering if begging was really going to do the trick. “Ma'am, please...may I...?” But Vee gave the go-ahead motion at last, curtly, and she found herself collapsing onto it with a whimper.

“O'Reilly...” she whispered, after maybe ten minutes' respite, eyes on the springs above. “...it's screwed, and I know it. But she really is my only friend in here, Verena, aside from you.”

Vee crossed her legs with a creak, thought about it a moment more. Then asked: “Think we're friends, Beecher?”

“Aren't we?”

“Huh. Well...we'll see.”

That night she knelt by the pod wall for as long as she could keep herself from passing out, head high and face blank, showing everybody who was still awake enough to care how good she could be, how she always did what Vee told her to. “I'm...not going to be able to get up without help,” was the only thing she'd said, once the order was given; “Then you'll be there a while,” was all Vee answered, turning on her side. Sometime around three she must've finally keeled over and pissed herself, because she came to around five in Vee's lap, naked, getting her own mess washed off; after, Vee levered her up and put her to bed, brutally efficient, patting her head like a good little pet. Let her sleep until count, then made her follow around behind her throughout that day and the next, and the next—shuffling after the mail cart with her bad eye ticking and a permanent migraine to match every other ache, both knees so bruised they'd barely bend; exhibiting herself under the hot lights of Oz from Em City to Unit B and back again, a living testament to Vee's mercy, her pride and her pure-White power. Like she'd become the very object lesson Rhea's murder would have been, give or take the fact that she couldn't even look forward to ending her humiliation by dying.

Three weeks of the silent treatment, recuperating by very slow degrees, until one day Vee told her it was over—said: “Okay, enough,” right in mid-mail sort, not glancing up. But that night she held Beecher tight and let her cry every bit of it back out again, shuddering all over with Vee's hands on her shoulder-blades, cradled in those otherwise-unforgiving arms. Beecher rolling her wet face in her own tormentor's collarbone, wiping herself clean over and over against the lightning-bolt tattoo, while she listened to Vee lecture her on exactly what she should take away from her most recent descent into helplessness: You're a strong woman, Toby; need to stop actin' like you don't know it, you don't wanna stay some spoilt little fuckin' brat forever. Then adding, gentler, as Beecher kept on weeping: This was to teach you, not hurt you, you get that? Just had to lean on you hard enough to break you just a bit... 'cause the plain fact is, all the crap you pull, you gotta be the single dumbest smart person I've ever met.

I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm just...I'm so sorry.

Ssssh, I know, I know. I know you are.

Then things dimmed, and when Toby came back to herself they were both flat on her bunk, Vee already deep in the act of accepting her apology: tongue inside her and snuffling against her clit, alternately preparing the way then breaking off to lick her own fingers 'til they were wet enough to shove inside, her other palm pressed firm over Toby's gasping mouth in the dark. As comfort cunnilingus went it was amazing and excruciating in roughly equal measure, stomach and thighs cramping up like a wave of slow-motion firecrackers; Toby lay there moaning “oh, ow, oh, ow, OW,” while Vee kept on murmuring “Ssssh, ssssh,” straight into the wet, throbbing heart of her. Yet the pleasure continued building uncontrollably nevertheless, back wrenching and nipples hard as beads, 'til she finally had to turn her face into the pillow and give a single muffled, choked-off scream.

The next morning she came out to find O'Reilly waiting for her by the card-tables, at least having the grace to look slightly guilty. “So, rumor is I oughtta think I owe you somethin' now, huh?” she threw at Toby, who sat down with a still-painful grunt, throwing back: “Bitch, fuck YOU.”

“Nah, I'm not into that, thanks, case you wondered. But I am gonna find a way to pay you back, Beech, no matter how long it takes. For the good turn.” And here Beecher must have given her a look, one which clued O'Reilly in she was being misinterpreted, because she shook her head instead, laughing. Explaining, quickly: “No, dumb-ass—I mean it, ya know? It was time to quit. Plus, you got Schillinger off my ass and back on yours where she belongs, so...yeah, it'll happen; you're on my list, from now on. Don't you ever worry about that.”

“When I least expect it, I'm sure,” Beecher muttered, making O'Reilly give another nod, a thin and secret smile. Replying, as she did: “That's the master plan.”

***

Back in the here and now, Toby stops her workout with a lurch, panting—feels like she's been going for hours, though she knows she can't have been. Her clothes are all stuck to her with sweat; she'll have to shower again, get herself presentable. Because: Don't want your kids coming home to Crazy Beecher 'stead of Mommy, do ya? Chris's voice suddenly seems to breathe against her inner ear, making her shiver.

Giles is home by the time she steps out again, meanwhile, all fragrant in a soft white towel, trailing steam. “There's the girl I missed,” he says, admiringly, like he can't see the scars of Oz all over her, both visible and in-; like he doesn't remember her telling him—haltingly, her wounds so fresh she could basically feel them every time her heart took a beat—how she'd gone in a drunk and still somehow managed to develop yet another habit, there in hell's basement.

But hell, maybe he really doesn't, or maybe he's just good at faking it. Which would certainly be another thing they have in common, now, if so.

“I sent the kids home with my Mom,” Giles tells her, as they embrace. “So we could spend some time together.” And she just nods, as if to say: That's thoughtful of you, honey. “I'll order,” she offers, heading for the phone—

—which rings, at almost the same moment she goes to pick it up.

“Beecher residence,” she says, into the receiver.

There's a click. “Will you accept a collect call from Oswald Maximum Security Correctional?” A voice she vaguely recognizes as belonging to one of the prison switchboard operators asks her. “It's inmate Christine Keller, for Tobit Beecher.” And: “Nope,” Beecher blurts without thinking twice, slamming it back down again.

“Who was that?” Giles calls, from the kitchen; “No one,” she answers, picking the phone up again, placing that aforementioned order at their favourite Thai restaurant. And though she thinks she's schooled her voice perfectly, he's looking at her in what seems like an odd way when she comes back in...so she kisses him instead, fiercely, unzipping his fly.

Ten minutes later they're still fucking on the unset table, dinner forgotten—until the doorbell rings, at least.