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The Tartarus Affair

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Other than Napoleon and the CIA watchdog assigned to him, the prison bus was empty. It was once a schoolbus, but had since been rudely repurposed, painted a dark charcoal gray with the words Virginia Department of Corrections printed in neat white paint under the murky windows. Outside, flat, baked farmland went past, acres of it, dotted sparsely with trees. There was no air conditioning in the bus, and the windows were open only in varying slivers; Napoleon felt like he was baking, himself, in clothes that were three days old. His shirt stuck to his back, and his jeans felt uncomfortably stiff on his legs.

Napoleon watched the trees go past in a daze. His hands were cuffed to the chrome ring attached to the seat in front of him, and his legs were hobbled. It was hard to believe that only four days ago he had wandered through MoMa with a gorgeous leggy blonde on his arm, then wined and dined her at a nice French bistro. Strange how quickly the worm turned, just on the back of a single mistake.

“Right side,” the watchdog said. “Get your first look at your new home for the next decade and a half, kid.”

Napoleon looked. Rising out of the farmland, hemmed in by gentle hills, was an ugly scattering of gray blocks, like a movie version of a missile base, all concrete silos, towers, high walls and wire fences, linked with walkways. The next decade and a half. He sucked in a slow, harsh breath.

“That’s right,” murmured the watchdog. He was a lean, whippet-like man, with hard, cold eyes, dressed in a cheap suit too short for his wrists. It was cheap enough that it failed to completely hide the concealed shoulder holster, which was why Napoleon hadn’t tried to get out of his cuffs. “Pretty kid like you, gonna be real popular on the inside.”

“I’m always popular, Agent,” Napoleon shot back, with a bland smile, because if there was one thing that the Army and his subsequent life as a thief had taught him, it was the importance of faking the hell out of it even if you were scared.

“I bet,” the watchdog sniffed. “Ain’t too late, y’know. We could turn the bus around. Just gonna take one call. Boss thinks you got potential. In there, you’re gonna come out older and broke and fucked up. Or maybe you’d never come out at all. The boss doesn’t like it when people refuse a perfectly reasonable offer.”

“The CIA must be really desperate,” Napoleon said mildly, “If they’re trying to blackmail some ‘pretty kid’ into working for them. And that’s the thing about blackmail, Agent. I’ve seen how it works. The blackmailer always squeezes the victim until there’s nothing else left to give. I told Sanders that I don’t believe that the CIA will let me go after my sentence. So I’ll take my chances. Thanks.”

“Your funeral,” the watchdog said, and it was his supreme indifference that very nearly swayed Napoleon. The words were in his throat, on his tongue. Napoleon very nearly changed his mind, apologised-

But then the bus jolted over a pothole, and jarred his wrists against the cuffs, and Napoleon looked away, over at the state prison complex ahead. No. His instincts were usually right. And besides, there were worse things than prison. Better to pay out a debt all at once than dole out instalments forever.

So Napoleon stayed pointedly silent as they drove closer. Arc lights, razor wires, searchlights, sentries with rifles - Napoleon frowned slightly as the bus slowed, close to the giant outermost fence. Rings of fencing padded the outside world from the concrete blocks within, and Napoleon breathed out through gritted teeth as the bus came to a jerky stop. Outside, Napoleon could see a guard talking into a radio. Eventually, the guard signalled, and the bus drove into a long wire cage. The gate behind them closed, while another gate in front of them opened.

They drove through another long wire cage before finally emerging into the flat compound of concrete silos. The bus rattled bravely as it powered over to a blocky gray building, squat and unpainted, then it swung to a stop, shutting down. Over in the front, Napoleon could hear the driver getting out, pulling out his keys.

“End of the line, kid,” the watchdog said quietly.

Napoleon didn’t bother to answer. He was thinking. Beyond the last looming concrete silo, in one of the guard towers, he could see a stocky-looking guard cradling a rifle in one hand while eating something held in the other. An energy bar, maybe. Or a chocolate bar. The guard wasn’t looking outwards, but inwards, watching the bus come in. Napoleon guessed that the bus was probably the most interesting thing to have happened all day. Maybe all week. Napoleon smiled to himself.

“Something funny?”

He’d forgotten the watchdog. “No sir.”

“Well,” the watchdog grunted, “Glad that you’re finding it funny, whatever it is. Now move. Processing doesn’t like to work past six, because of the union. Go on. Hop to it.”

“Thanks for the company,” Napoleon said, with as much irony as he could manage.

“Don’t mention it. Be seeing you, kid.” The watchdog slouched into his seat and waited as the bus driver came over to unlock the cuffs and ankle shackles, leading Napoleon out to the concrete block to be processed.

Everyone at processing was bored. The guards who had watched him strip down and into the orange jumpsuit were bored. An equally bored, deep-jowled administrator took his picture again, left, front, right, with Napoleon holding up a printed card with a prisoner ID number and a date, just as the NYPD had, days ago, with a beat up little GoPro hooked up to a Dell computer that looked recycled. Napoleon went through the motions quietly and without fuss, projecting unobtrusiveness. The guards had glanced through the purely theft charges on his file and had clearly already lost interest. Just another perp, getting processed into a low sec floor. Napoleon hadn’t come up on their radar as remotely dangerous and he wanted to keep it that way.

The guards took their time with the paperwork. Then Napoleon was walked along a red line deeper into the prison, through corridors, up stairs, more corridors. He guessed that it was already lights out at the prison: the corridors were dark, all doors closed, only dim fluorescent lighting painting the occasional faint bar along the ceiling.

The guard in front eventually overrode an electronic lock with a key. Napoleon was careful not to look too closely, instead pretending to shrink back a little as the out door opened up and the stink of the prison surged through, sweat and human waste and uneven hygiene.

“Silence after lights out,” said the guard behind him, shortly, but it wasn’t silent as they walked out onto the row, a walkway that faced only inwards into levels dotted evenly with cell doors. The men trapped behind each door had gone to sleep, snoring, mumbling; somewhere high above Napoleon could hear the sound of broken whimpering, a whining scratchy record that looped like the start of sanity breaking.

They stopped before a dark cell. Like the rest, it had no windows. The guard opened the door with an electronic key, gestured for Napoleon to get in, then shut the door behind his back once he did. It locked automatically, with a faint metallic click. Electronic lock, on a general and override release system, Napoleon guessed. He stayed close to the bars as the guards walked away, then he looked at his cell.

There was a sink and a john, and the cell was narrow - Napoleon could touch both walls if he stretched out his arms, and the ceiling if he reached up. There was an upper and lower bunk bed, with worn sheets and blankets.

The lower bunk bed was already taken, and his cellmate was awake. The cell was too dark to make out his features: all Napoleon could see was that his cellmate was tall, very tall - the bed was too short for him, and his legs were curled awkwardly on the sheets. He was silent. Napoleon waited, but when the cellmate said nothing at all, Napoleon decided to follow suit, climbing up to the top bunk. He tied the laces of his shoes together and hung them off the rung at the foot of the bed, then he lay on the sheets, feet to the bars, and listened.

His cellmate was waiting too, still silent. Eventually, Napoleon gave in, and wedged his back against the cell wall, closing his eyes. He rather doubted that he was going to get much sleep anyway.


At seven in the morning the prison was always abruptly flooded with light, like the timer going off on a fish tank. Illya blinked the spots away, as he always did, and then quietly sat up on his bed, keeping his back to the wall. Above, his new cellmate let out a soft yelp of surprise, then a bout of muffled swearing, as though he’d abruptly realized exactly where he was.

American. New Yorker, by the sound of the accent. Illya quietly put on his shoes, and sat cross-legged on the bed as the prison woke up, in a cacophonous echoing roar of thousands of people crawling awake into a new day of frozen life. Normally, Illya would take the half an hour before the general unlock to relieve himself and wash up. Today, he waited.

Illya’s cellmate was putting on his shoes. From the faint clunks, Illya guessed that he had tied the shoes to the bunk bar. This told Illya that either his cellmate was paranoid or he was a prison transfer from another pen, who knew that shoes were often a valuable prison commodity. He was leaning towards the latter conclusion when the cellmate finished putting on his shoes and clambered cautiously down, turning to face Illya.

The man facing Illya was a young man, possibly in his mid twenties, probably only a few years older than Illya, if at all. He was tall, though not as tall as Illya, with soft dark hair and soft pale skin over sharp cheekbones. Broad shoulders sloped down over a long, rangy frame; he was fit, but it was the sort of gym-made fitness that came from vanity rather than purpose. He was handsome enough that he seemed for a moment utterly incongruous in the orange jumpsuit against the thick concrete-and-brick walls, beside the steel sink and steel toilet pan. But there was a wildness in his eyes that Illya recognised. He had seen its ilk before, in the eyes of caged animals, particularly predators. Wariness, but no panic.

The panic would come, Illya knew dispassionately. His cellmate was pretty enough to ensure that.

“Hi,” the man offered. “Morning. Guess I’m your new cellmate.”

Illya shrugged. “So it seems.”

“You’re Russian?”

“You’re American?” Illya shot back dryly.

This got a wry smile. “Born in Minnesota.”

Illya nodded. He didn’t particularly care. His cellmate’s eyes flicked out over the rows of cells and back, as though checking for exits but keeping an eye on Illya - casing the joint, while being cautious. A career criminal of some sort. He did not look like a killer, however - there wasn’t that sense of poised eye-of-the-storm stillness to him that the truly violent tended to give off. That meant that Illya’s cellmate was quite likely going to end up at least in the prison infirmary by tonight, at the least.

“So, ah,” the man said, as the silence stretched, “Since we’re going to be, well, cellmates… I’m Napoleon.”

“Don’t use that name here,” Illya said curtly, before he could stop himself.

Napoleon blinked. “Why not?”

“Was it fun going through high school with that name?”

“… I see your point. Solo, then. That’s my surname.” Napoleon waited, but when Illya remained silent, he added, with a quick, charming smile, “I didn’t get your name.”

A serial killer, perhaps? No, probably not. Napoleon’s eyes were far too alive for that. “You can call me ‘Peril’.” Illya said shortly.

“How long have you been here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Half a year.” Illya was losing interest in the conversation. He glanced outside. The janitor was finishing his circuit, whisking his broom over the gray floor, avoiding eye contact with the inmates. No one wanted to get too close to lifers.

Napoleon tried to make more small talk, but when Illya ignored him, he gave up, relieving himself and washing his hands. He was wiping his hands dry on his jumpsuit when a loud, waspish electronic buzz told Illya that it was seven thirty. The general unlock. Their cell door twitched an inch to the right. Outside, the murmuring and clanging rose to a crescendo for a moment as people shuffled around, heading out of their cells and into another concrete-clad day.

Illya stayed where he was, and Napoleon eyed him curiously. He didn’t instantly head out on his own, which was probably a good move. There were no guards out on this section of the prison at this time of day: they were in a crew room, emergencies only. And generally, lifers doing what they did to each other in the course of their empty daily lives was not considered an emergency.

It didn’t take long for the cell to get investigated. A processing happening after lights out was a little unusual. That the new cellmate was dropped into Illya’s cell was stranger still. The prison was overcrowded, as were most prisons in the ironically-named Free World, but given what had happened to Illya’s last four cellmates, he had generally been given a cell to himself.

The first group to peer in were the Brotherhood. Neo-Nazis. Illya loathed them, but they generally stayed out of each other’s way. He wasn’t interested in meth, and as far as they were concerned, Illya perfectly fit their so-called ‘Aryan’ concept: blonde, blue-eyed and violent. So they left each other alone, usually by pretending the other party didn’t exist. There was a clump of them, big, thickly muscular, covered in rapidly discolouring eagle and swastika tattoos. They looked at Napoleon, then at Illya, who was still sitting quietly on his bed, and seemed to get the hint: they moved on. Napoleon clearly wasn’t Brotherhood or even Brotherhood material, and didn’t look like a possible customer or a rival pusher.

Trouble came with the second group. The Buitres were traffickers with roots in the cartels south of the border, their income streams particularly rooted in cocaine and crime-for-hire. So far, Illya had also managed to stay out of their way. The leader of the pack, a thickset, blocky man with a skull tattoo that covered his face, shoved the cell door wide open and looked Napoleon up and down slowly.

“Looks like they locked the two pretty boys in together.”

Illya swallowed a sigh, even as a chuckle rippled through the gang. Now he was going to have to get involved after all. Not for Napoleon’s sake, but for his own. The Buitres had linked them together and now Napoleon’s fate was tied to Illya’s own carefully forged place in the prison hierarchy.

“You’re all not half-bad yourselves,” Napoleon said dryly, which was possibly the worst thing to say. Illya rolled his eyes, under the bunk, as the Buitre leader bristled and sneered.

“Since you think so, puto, come over here. Get on your knees and show us how much you like us, hm?”

Napoleon tensed up, another bad move, then he tried more charm, which was worse. “How about a round of cards instead? I’ll be better at that.”

The Buitre leader growled, and took a step into the cell, at which point Illya grew bored of watching the train wreck and uncurled from the bed, blocking his way. He towered over the Buitre leader, and folded his arms, putting on a flat, thin smile.

“I did not give you permission to walk in here, mudak.”

The leader glared up at Illya, and leered. “You wait your turn-“

Illya was already moving. He grabbed the Buitre leader by the throat and took a long stride forward, shoving him up against the steel bolted pole of the bunk strut even as he snapped the heel of his hand forward, driving it up into the leader’s nose, crushing it up into the bridge even as the leader’s skull slammed into the hollow steel.

The Buitre leader fell, bleeding and poleaxed, and Illya stepped back, with the same flat, thin smile. “Anyone still interested?”

There was only a shocked silence.

“You.” Illya pointed at the closest Buitre man. “The other mudak. You leave rubbish in my house. I think you should pay a fine.”

Wordlessly, the Buitre man reached up one of his sleeves and handed over three cigarettes. As Illya glowered at the others, one by one, a total of four other cigarettes and a nailclipper were produced. Finally, Illya nodded, and the Buitres dragged the unconscious man out, leaving a smear of blood behind.

“Thanks,” Napoleon said quietly, behind him, and Illya nearly flinched. That had been a mistake. He’d let Napoleon stand in his blind spot.

“Didn’t do it for you,” Illya said shortly, and sat down on the bed again, hiding his ‘fines’ under the lining of his pillow.

“Won’t that get you in trouble?”

“Only if he dies. Many such incidents per week. Prison is understaffed.”

“I mean, with them.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“I’ve never seen someone move like that…” Napoleon trailed off, with a rueful laugh. “Were you in the army or something?” When Illya said nothing, Napoleon added, “Well. Thanks anyway, Peril.”

Napoleon smiled, warm and friendly and still with that annoying, playful charm, and despite himself, Illya asked, “What did you do?”


“To get in here?” Illya clarified. Chances were, the word would spread and Illya, and Napoleon by extension, would now be left alone. The downside was, it was possible that Illya would have to do some work to keep that as the status quo, which would be annoying. Getting rid of Napoleon quickly might be necessary. And besides, there were some crimes that could not be forgiven.

“I was a thief.” Napoleon said wryly. “An art thief, if you must know.”

“Oh? Did you kill someone in your last job?”

“No? I don’t kill people.” Napoleon paused. “At least, not since the Army.”

Illya frowned at him. “How long is your sentence?”

“Fifteen years. They threw the book at me.”

“Fifteen years?” Illya tilted his head. “Only a thief? Then you should not be in this section.”

“What?” Napoleon looked outside sharply, then back at Illya, blinking in confusion. “Why not? What’s this section for?”

“Lifers,” Illya said succinctly.

To his surprise, instead of going pale and protesting, or spilling out his real crimes, Napoleon cursed, and slapped a hand against the wall. “Fucking Sanders and the goddamned CIA!”

Illya raised his eyebrows. “CIA?” he repeated warily.

“Long story,” Napoleon muttered, glaring out of the cell door.

“We have time.” Illya pointed out, narrowing his eyes. This was different. “Tell me.”