Read an Excerpt
Nick Mason’s freedom lasted less than a minute.
He didn’t see it then, but he’d look back on that day and mark those first free steps through the gate, after five years and twenty-eight days inside. Nobody was standing over him, nobody was watching him, nobody was telling him where to go and when. He could have walked anywhere in that moment. Pick any direction and go. But the black Escalade was waiting for him, and as soon as he took those thirty steps and opened the passenger’s side door, his freedom was gone again.
Mason had effectively signed a contract. When most men do that, they know what’s expected of them. They get to read the terms, understand what the job’s going to be, know exactly what they’ll be expected to do. But Mason didn’t get to read anything, because this contract wasn’t on paper at all, and instead of actually signing anything, he simply gave his word, with no idea what would come next.
It was late afternoon, the heart of the day spent on processing and change-out. The daily discharge from USP Terre Haute. Typical prison operations, hurry up and wait, the screws dragging their feet all the way to the end. There were two other inmates with him, both anxious to get outside. One of the men he’d never seen before. Not unusual in a prison with so many separate units. The second man was vaguely familiar. Someone from his original unit, before he made his move.
“You’re getting out today,” that man said, looking surprised. You don’t talk about the length of your sentence with most men in this place, but there’s no need to keep it a big secret, either. This man had obviously figured Mason for a long-timer. Or maybe he’d heard it from someone else. Mason didn’t care. He shrugged the man off without another word and went back to his final release forms.
When Mason was done with those, the clerk slid a plastic tray across the counter with the clothes he’d been wearing the day he processed in. It felt like a lifetime ago. He’d arrived here in this same room and been told to put his clothes in the tray. The black jeans and the white button- down shirt. Now, it felt strange to be taking off the khaki, like the color was a part of him. But
the old clothes still fit.
All three men walked out together. The concrete walls, the steel doors, the two rows of chain-link fence topped with razor wire – all left behind as they stepped out onto the hot pavement and waited for the gate to grind open. There were two families waiting there. Two wives, five kids, all of them looking like they’d been standing there for hours. The kids held handmade signs with multicolored letters, welcoming their fathers home.
There was no family waiting for Nick Mason. No signs.
He stood there blinking for a few seconds, feeling the hot Indiana sun on the back of his neck. He was clean shaven and fair-skinned, a little over six feet tall. His body was taut with muscle, but lean like a middleweight. An old scar ran the length of his right eyebrow.
He saw the black Escalade, idling near the sidewalk. The vehicle didn’t move, so he walked down to it.
The windows were tinted. He couldn’t see who was inside until he opened the front passenger’s side door. Once he did, he saw that the driver was Hispanic, with dark sunglasses covering his eyes. One arm draped over the steering wheel, the other at rest on the gear shift. He wore a simple white T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, jeans and work boots, one thin gold chain around his neck. Dark hair pulled back and tied with a black band, and as Mason’s eyes adjusted, he saw the gray threaded through the man’s hair and the lines on the man’s face. He was at least ten years older than Mason, maybe a few more. But he was rock solid. His arms were tattooed all the way down both arms to his fingers, and he had three rings in his right ear. Mason couldn’t see the other, because the man did not turn to him.
“Mason,” the man said. A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Mason said.
Out five minutes, Mason said to himself, and I’m already about to break my rules. Rule Number One: Never work with strangers. Strangers put you in prison or they put you in the ground. A stranger already put me in the first. I don’t need another stranger to put me in the other.
Today, Mason didn’t have a choice. He got in and closed the door. The man still hadn’t turned to face him. He put the vehicle in gear and accelerated smoothly out of the prison parking lot.
Mason scanned the vehicle. The interior was clean. The leather seats, the carpet, the windows. He had to give the man credit for that much. The vehicle looked like it had just rolled out of the showroom.
He gave the man’s tattoos another look. No prison ink here. No spider webs. No clocks without hands. This man had spent a lot of time and money in the chair of a real pro, even if some of the color had faded over time. There was an Aztec lattice going all the way up the right arm, with a snake, a jaguar, a headstone, and some Spanish words meaning God knows what. What was unmistakable were the three letters in green, white, and red on the shoulder. LRZ. La Raza. The Mexican gang that ruled the West Side of Chicago.
Another rule broken, Nick thought. Rule Number Nine: Never work with gang members. They’ve sworn a blood oath of loyalty. But not to you.
An hour of silence passed. The driver hadn’t offered so much as a sideways glance. Mason couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he turned on the radio. Or actually said something out loud. Something made him stay silent. Rule Number Three: When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.
After driving past every exit on US-41, they finally pulled off. For an instant, Mason wondered if this whole thing had been a setup. It was an unavoidable prison reflex, to be ready for the worst at any moment. Two hours away from the prison, somewhere in the middle of western Indiana, the driver could pull off on the most abandoned exit he could find, drive a few miles into the farmland and then put a bullet in the passenger’s head. Leave his body right there in the ditch beside the road. You wouldn’t go to that much trouble to do something that could have been done already, on any given day standing around the prison yard, but Mason could still feel his body tensing as the vehicle slowed down.
The driver pulled into a gas station. He got out and pumped gas into the tank. Mason sat there in the passenger’s seat, looking out at the little minimart. A young woman came out through the glass door. Maybe twenty years old. Shorts and a tank top, flip flops on her feet. Mason hadn’t seen a live woman dressed this way in five years.
The driver got back in and started the vehicle. He pulled out and drove back onto the highway, pointed north and hit seventy on the speedometer. Dark clouds began to assemble in the sky. By the time they reached the Illinois border, it was raining. The driver turned on the wipers. The traffic got heavier and the lights from the other cars were reflected on the rain- slicked road.
The tall buildings were lost in the clouds, but Mason would have known this place, no matter how dark the sky or how low the clouds hung over the city streets.
He was almost home.
But first the long pass over the Calumet River, the cranes and drawbridges and power lines. The harbor was down there. The harbor and the one night in his life when everything changed. The one night that led him all the way to Terre Haute and to a man named Cole. Then somehow all the way back, a lot sooner than he expected.
He counted down the streets. Eighty-seventh Street. Seventy-first Street. They were on the South Side now. The rain kept falling. The driver kept driving. Garfield Avenue. Fifty-first Street. You want to start an argument, you go into any bar around here, ask the regulars if Canaryville starts at Fifty-first or Forty-ninth. Stand back and watch the words fly. Then the fists if it’s late enough.
They passed the big train yard, a thousand boxcars waiting for an engine. Then the tracks running high along the eastern edge of his old neighborhood. Mason took a breath as they passed Forty-third Street. His whole life came back to him at once in a sudden flood of almost random memories, both good and bad – Eddie’s dad taking them to old Comiskey Park, the first car he ever stole, the only game he ever got to see Michael Jordan play in person, the first time Mason spent the night in jail, the party where he met a Canaryville girl named Gina Sullivan, the day he bought their house, the only place he could ever call home… it was all right here, wrapped up together in the city of Chicago. The alleys and the streets of this place ran through him like the veins in his body.
The lights were on at the new Sox park, but it was still raining too hard to play. The Escalade went all the way downtown, crossing the Chicago River. The Sears Tower – always and forever the Sears Tower, despite whatever new name they try to give it – dominated the skyline and looked down at them through a sudden break in the clouds, its two antennae like a devil’s horns.
The driver finally got off the highway and took North Avenue all the way across the North Side, until Mason could see the shores of Lake Michigan. The water stretched out in blues and grays forever, blending into the rainclouds. When they turned on Clark Street, Mason was about to say something. You bring me all the way up to the North Side for what, pal? A Cubs game, maybe? Good luck with that one.
Mason hated the Cubs. He hated everything about the North Side. Everything it represented. When he was growing up, the North Side was everything he didn’t have, and never would have.
The driver made his last turn, onto the last street Mason thought he’d see that day. Lincoln Park West. It was four blocks of high-end apartment buildings overlooking the gardens and the conservatory and the lake beyond. There were a few townhouses between the apartment buildings, still tall enough to look down at the street and on everyone who passed by. The driver
slowed down and stopped right in front of one of those townhouses. It sat at the end of the block, rising three stories above the heavy front door and the garage bays, the upper-floor windows all covered with iron latticework. Built out to the side was another one story with a balcony on top, overlooking the cross street, the park, and the lake beyond it. Five million for this place? Hell, probably more.
The driver broke the silence. “My name is Quintero.” He made the name sound like it came from the bottom of a tequila bottle. KeenTAYro.
“You work for Cole?”
“Listen to me,” Quintero said. “Because everything I’m about to say is important.”
Mason looked over at him.
“You need something,” Quintero said, “you call me. You get in a situation, you call me.
Don’t get creative. Don’t try to fix anything yourself. You call me. Clear so far?”
“Beyond that, I don’t give a fuck what you do with your time. You were inside for five years so go have a drink, get yourself laid, I don’t care. Just understand, you need to stay out of trouble. You get picked up for anything, now you’ve got two problems. The one you got picked up for… and me.”
Mason turned and looked out the window.
“Why are we here?”
“This is where you live now.”
“Guys like me don’t live in Lincoln Park,” Mason said.
“I’m going to give you a cell phone. You’re going to answer this phone when I call you. Whenever that may be. Day or night. There is no busy. There is no unavailable. There is only you answering this phone. Then doing exactly what I tell you to do.”
Mason sat there in his seat, thinking that one over.
“The phone is in here,” Quintero said, reaching behind the seat and bringing out a large envelope. “Along with the keys to the front and back doors, and the security code.”
Mason took the envelope. It was heavier than he expected.
“Ten thousand dollars in cash, and the key to a safe-deposit box at First Chicago on Western. There’ll be ten thousand more on the first day of each month.”
Mason looked over at the man one more time.
“That’s it,” Quintero said. “Keep your phone on.”
Mason opened the passenger’s side door. Before he could get out, Quintero grabbed his arm. Mason tensed up – another prison reflex, someone grabs you, your first reaction is deciding which finger to break first.
“One more thing,” Quintero said, holding on tight. “This isn’t freedom. This is mobility. Don’t get those two things confused.”
Quintero let him go. Mason stepped out and closed the door. The rain had stopped.
Mason stood there on the sidewalk and watched Quintero’s vehicle pull away from the curb, then disappear into the night. He reached into the envelope and took out the key. Then he opened the front door and went inside.
The townhouse entranceway had a high ceiling and the light fixture hanging over Mason’s head was a piece of modern art with a thousand slivers of glass. The floor was large tiles laid diagonally in a diamond pattern. The stairs were polished cherry. He stood there for a moment until he noticed a beeping noise. He saw the security panel on the wall, took out the code from the envelope and entered it on the keyboard. The beeping stopped.
The door to his right opened to a two-car garage. In one space he saw a black Mustang. He knew exactly what this was. It was a 1968 390 GT Fastback, a jet-black version of the car Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt. He’d never stolen a car like this, because you don’t steal a masterpiece and take it to the chop shop. You don’t steal a car like this and drive it yourself, no matter how much you want to. That’s how amateurs get caught.
The other spot in the garage was empty. He saw the faint outline of tire tracks. Another car belonged here.
Mason opened another door and saw a full gym. A row of dumbbells neatly arranged in pairs ranged from nothing to the big fifty-pounders at the end. A bench with a rack, a treadmill, an elliptical trainer. A television was mounted high in one corner of the room. A heavy bag hung in another corner. The back wall was a full mirror. Mason looked at his own face from twenty feet away. Cole had told him he could go anywhere in the world with this face, but he never thought he’d end up in a Lincoln Park townhouse.
He went up the long flight of stairs to what was obviously the main floor of the townhouse. The sleek, modern kitchen had polished granite countertops, an island with a Viking stove and a restaurant hood hanging over it. The bar top looked out over a great open area dominated by the largest television screen Mason had ever seen. He was pretty sure the square footage of the screen was larger than the square footage of the cell he woke up in that morning. In front of the television was a U-shaped expanse of black leather, with a large oak coffee table in the middle. You could easily sit a dozen people here. It made the quiet emptiness of the place feel like a sin.
The formal dining room had a table long enough to seat all dozen people that had watched the television in the other room. He left that room and went into what turned out to be the billiards room. An actual room for billiards with a red felt table and a woven net under each pocket. There was dark paneling on the walls. A pair of stained glass Tiffany lamps hung over the table. The far corner of the room was set up for darts, and yet another corner had two overstuffed leather chairs with a three-foot tall humidor between them. Looking through the glass at the selection of cigars inside, Mason remembered how a single cigarette could go for ten dollars in Terre Haute. A carton could get someone killed.
He went up another set of stairs to the top floor. There were bedrooms on each side of a long hallway. When he got to the last door, he tried turning the knob. It was locked.
Mason went back downstairs and found a door on the other side of the kitchen. He walked through and saw another bedroom suite. There was an iron-framed bed topped with black linen, and on top of that were several shopping bags. He took a quick look through them. Pants, shirts, shoes, socks, underwear. Belts, a wallet, everything a man could possibly need. Most of the bags had come from Nordstrom and Armani. One from Balani, the custom shop on Monroe Street. He did a quick check on the tags. Everything was his size.
I don’t see my new friend Quintero doing this, he thought.
Mason went back out to the kitchen and opened up the refrigerator. After five years of prison food, Mason stood there staring at the salmon, at the cooked and chilled lobster, at the aged steaks. He didn’t know where to start. Then he saw the bottles of beer on the lower shelf. He shuffled through the selection, mostly microbrews he’d never heard of. Then he found a bottle of Goose Island.
He opened the bottle and took a long swallow. It took him back to summer nights sitting out on his porch. Listening to a ballgame with Eddie and Finn. Or listening to his wife and watching their daughter try to catch fireflies.
He found a takeout container of beef tenderloin with some kind of shiitake mushroom sauce, with angel hair pasta. He went through the drawers until he found the silverware, grabbed a fork and ate the entire dish cold, standing there in the middle of the kitchen. He wondered what the inmates in Terre Haute had for dinner that night.
Wednesday night, he said to himself. Usually hamburger night. Or at least what they called hamburger.
When he was done eating, he went to the black leather couch, found the remote control, and turned on the television. Leaning back and putting his feet up on the table, he took another long swallow from his beer, found the rain-delayed White Sox game, and watched the last inning. The Sox won. Then he spent a few minutes flipping up and down through the channels, just because he could. You try doing that on the television in the common room and you’ll start a riot. He shut the television off.
He went back to the refrigerator and took out another Goose Island, then went outside through the big sliding glass door off the kitchen. Still high above the street, with a swimming pool sunk into the great concrete monolith beneath the patio, the water surrounded by bluestone, lit up with underwater lights and glowing aquamarine in the darkness. A table, chairs, and a grill with a wet bar stood by, ready for an outdoor party.
Mason went to the rail and looked out at the park, and beyond that the endless horizon of Lake Michigan. He could see the lights from a half-dozen boats on the water. He could hear the distant bass notes from a car cruising by on the street. A perfect summer night to be out on the town, no matter where you were going.
A breeze came off the lake and gave him a brief chill. Sixteen hours ago, Mason had woken up in a maximum security prison cell. Now he was standing in a townhouse in Lincoln Park, drinking a bottle of Goose Island and looking out at the lake.
I knew this man had power, he said to himself. But that was a federal fucking prison I walked out of today. How does one man make that happen?
Unless there’s even more to him than I know…
As he was about to turn away, he looked up and saw the security camera, its little red light blinking. There was a similar camera on each of the other three corner posts. Someone, somewhere, was watching him.
This was his life now. It felt like he was holding his breath, waiting to see what this would truly cost him. How long until that happened?
How long until that phone rings?
When he finally went back into his room and lay down in his bed, he stared at the ceiling for a long time. He was tired. But his body was waiting for the guard to call lights out. Waiting for the metallic click of his cell door locking shut. Then the horn, that lonely faraway buzz that sent him to bed, every single night, for the last five years.
He laid awake, waiting. The sounds never came.