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Mercy's Prisoner

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CHAPTER SIX

When he arrived at the cell around midnight, Thomas found only Starke on duty.

"Couldn't sleep," Starke explained, yawning into my fist. "Might as well be here as anywhere else."

"Where is the night guard?" As he returned Ahiga to the cell, he glanced over at the other prisoners. They were still casting looks of scorn at the Ammippian, but none of them appeared inclined to come near. Nor would they be likely to trouble Ahiga again, Thomas knew, once Ahiga made clear his on-going service to the Assistant Keeper. Such harassment would go against prison custom, now that Ahiga had truly been claimed.

Starke shrugged. "The night guards told me that, if you were going to have a night out, they might as well too."

Thomas made a mental note to interview the night guards. Preferably with his whip. Some time between dusk and midnight, it had occurred to him that what the prison guards lacked was the same thing that Ahiga had lacked until now: loving discipline.

He couldn't discipline Pugh; only Compassion's Keeper could do that. And without Pugh's help, it would take time to bring the day guard to heel. But he would make sure the night guard came under his immediate control, or else prove himself unworthy of the rank he had been given.

He handed Starke the sheet he had been working on. "You're more likely to see Mr. Pugh before the day shift than I am. Tell him that I'm changing my hours slightly. I'll be available for daily consultation between noon and dusk . . . but not in the morning hours, unless it's an emergency."

Starke raised his eyebrows but took the paper silently, asking no questions.

Thomas felt the silence like a punch in the stomach. "The news has already spread, then?"

"That you've taken the Ammippian as your lad? Oh, yes. There have been quite a few words among the guards about your hypocrisy." Starke neatly folded the paper and placed it in his jacket.

"Including from you?" Thomas's throat had grown tight.

Starke shrugged. "I'm keeping quiet. I don't know what to think."

"Very well," said Thomas. "Think this. I want you to go to bed. I want you to sleep. You will sleep, because you're going to borrow bromide from the medical kit to aid you. And I don't want you taking other men's on-duty time in the future. If they abandon their posts, you're to report the matter to me. Understand?"

He waited, heart beating rapidly, as Starke stared at the cell door. After a time, Starke took out his cigarette case, removed a cigarette, and tapped it on the case, all while continuing to stare at the prisoners. Through the hole leading down to the second floor came the sound of the night guards' voices as they returned to their duty in a leisurely manner.

Finally Starke said, "Did I ever tell you that I was fifteen when I joined the army?"

"Fifteen?" Thomas was caught off-guard.

"I lied about my age. Anything to get away from home."

Thomas quickly calculated in his head. "That means you were sixteen when you became a prison guard."

"Yes, sixteen. Not five years older than you. Four." Starke carefully placed the cigarette back in the case, closed the case, and returned it to his jacket pocket. He gave Thomas a half-smile as he turned toward him. "You won't tell your father, will you? He might strip me of my rank if he realized how young I am."

"Your secret is safe with me," Thomas assured him. "But I'll confiscate that cigarette case if I find you smoking on duty again, you know."

"I know." Starke's smile deepened. "Good night . . . Assistant Keeper."

Assistant Keeper, Thomas thought as he watched Starke make his way down the ladder. Not quite the mode of address that Thomas had asked for, but it would do for now. Perhaps Thomas could figure out some devious means to get Pugh to call him by his title. The rest of the day guards would follow Pugh's cue.

As for the night guards . . . With his lips thinned in a grim fashion, Thomas set out to meet his next challenge.

o—o—o

The lad was waiting for him in the prison entryway. His expression showed quite clearly how his interview had gone.

"No luck?" He began to light his pipe, then changed his mind. Tom didn't approve of smoking within the life prisons. Neither did the prison regulations, for that matter.

Dick shook his head. His shoulders had the same hunched, defeated look they had possessed back at Williamsport Station. "No jobs available – not for the likes of me, he said."

"You talked to the day supervisor? Try the night supervisor. He's over there." He pointed toward where Tom has paused to speak to the entry guards. Tom gave him a brief glance, then returned his attention to the guards.

"Do you want me to give him a message?" he had asked Tom as they made their farewells at the lake. No need to specify who "him" was.

Tom had hesitated, clearly tempted, but he had never been a man to give way to strong temptation. "Best not. Just . . . watch over Merrick, please."

Dick chewed at his lip before saying, "Will you give a good word for me, sir?"

He had already given a good word, more than a single good word. Tom, who had the softest heart and the hardest whiplashes of any prison guard in the Tri-Nation area, would certainly hire the lad at once for whatever laborers' jobs were available in the prison. But Tom was discreet; he would not so much as hint that he was doing so as a favor to his recent visitor.

"No need." He put the pipe away. "He'll hire you. You're the sort he's looking for." He tipped his hat, a rare courtesy. "Mercy's fortune to you, Mr.—" He hesitated, realizing that he had never learned the lad's family name.

"Don't have one," said Dick, who was looking somewhat more hopeful after this show of faith. "Servants don't have last names in the Dozen Landsteads. My mama and daddy was going to pick one after we went over the border, but . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Medinger," he said firmly. "Your name is Richard Medinger now." He took a step back. "Don't forget what I told you."

Dick Medinger's shoulders had straightened completely; he had the proud look of a lad who has found his name. "I know," he said. "Keep my mouth shut and my ears and eyes open." He gave a brief, brilliant smile. "I won't tell anyone how I met you."

Feeling that he had underestimated the lad, he tipped his hat again and turned toward the exit door, which had been left open for him. Medinger had been his mother's maiden name. Why in all of Hell's domain had he chosen that name? For that matter, why had his parents been on his mind all day?

"We've no passenger trains till tomorrow, sir," said the agent at the Big Pool passenger station, when he stood there some time later.

"I'll wait overnight in town, then." His leave ended tomorrow morning, but perhaps he would be forgiven a delay in returning to work. He had no desire to show off what he had learned about freight-hopping.

"Destination?" the agent prodded.

"Clear Spring," he heard himself say. It had occurred to him, some time between Williamsport and this moment, that he no longer needed his parents. And it had also occurred to him that they might need him.