“GET UP, you!”
Ash was startled awake by a hand grabbing the back of his shirt and roughly hauling him to his feet. A gruff-looking man dressed in a dark blue peacoat scowled at him before turning away.
The last thing he remembered was being in the history classroom with Grant and Merlin; now he was being manhandled by some burly stranger. The ground under him rose and fell, and it was a little difficult to keep his balance. It took another few moments for it to register in his brain that he was on some sort of a boat. It took only another heartbeat for him to realize it was still raining.
Not raining, exactly. More like misting. The day was gray, overcast, and the water was choppy. He couldn’t tell if the spray hitting his skin was coming from the waves or the sky. Not that it mattered. Wet was wet.
He was no longer wearing his jeans, T-shirt, and hoodie-turned-sponge. Now he wore a threadbare button-up shirt missing the last two buttons, and a pair of scratchy, patched pants. His squidgy sneakers were gone, too, replaced by scuffed brown work boots.
He looked for Grant but didn’t see him, and panic began to brew deep in his gut.
WTF? Merlin never sent them anywhere alone. They always arrived in the past together. Grant has to be here somewhere. He looked around, trying to spot Grant’s familiar face among the men crowded around him.
The boat he was on was a small tug boat, so it wasn’t difficult to scan the entire deck with one sweep. He was one of a small group of men, maybe fifteen in all. They were scruffy-looking, and none seemed the slightest bit friendly. Everyone was dressed in old-fashioned clothing, all worn, and most patched in places. Even their haircuts seemed way out-of-date: cropped short on the sides and back, almost too long on top. More than a few had their hair slicked back with some sort of greasy-looking oil. None of the men seemed eager to make eye contact with him, or anyone else. They stared at their shoes or out at the water.
Ash was confused—not an unusual state of being for him when Merlin sent them back in time, but he’d always had Grant with him before to help figure out where they were and in what time. Being alone threw him off-balance even more than the time travel had. He brought his hands up to rub the wet from his face, and for the first time realized they were weighed down by something heavy.
Handcuffs. Thick, gray metal handcuffs attached to a heavy chain shackled to his wrists. His ankles were manacled too. He shook them as if they might fall off like some magician’s cheap trick, but all they did was clank noisily and rub painfully on his skin. What the hell was going on?
He peered around again, trying to at least get some sense of where he was. Through the fog, he spotted a very familiar-looking bridge off in the distance to his left. He’d seen it loads of times: on television, in the movies, in books. There was no mistaking it. It was the Golden Gate Bridge. He was sure of it.
Which meant the tiny island the boat was fast approaching, the one surrounded by jagged rocks and topped by ominous gray stone buildings, was Alcatraz Island. The Rock.
And for him, being handcuffed and in leg irons could mean only one thing—he was a prisoner, on his way to being incarcerated in the infamous jail from which it was said no one ever escaped. The same prison where Al Capone was confined. It made sense since they were supposed to nab Capone’s locket for Merlin.
His lips tilted in a tiny, lopsided grin. What do you know? He’d figured it out all by himself, and with no help from Grant. Go him.
Speaking of, where the hell was Grant? Was he already on the island? Why didn’t Merlin drop them both in the same place as usual? Seriously, was it just to make things harder on them? That was pretty stupid. Boy, he was going to have a few choice words to say about Merlin when they got back.
Not to Merlin’s face, of course. Ash didn’t have a death wish. No, he’d blister Grant’s ears with them when they were alone.
The boat slowed as it neared the island, and eventually stopped, bumping against the dock and gently rocking. A few more stern-looking men in navy peacoats boarded, all armed with thick black sticks wrapped in leather, which they either brandished or tapped against the palms of their hands. Ash thought the weapons might be called blackjacks. No matter what they were called, each man who held one looked more than ready to smash it into the skull of anyone who pissed them off or even looked at them cross-eyed.
Ash was definitely not going to invite a skull-bashing. When prodded forward, he went along meekly, his feet shuffling because of the weight of the iron chains around his ankles.
When he got to the prow of the boat, a guard removed his leg irons and handcuffs. “No funny business, you got it? Go on, follow the rest.”
After climbing out of the boat and onto the dock, the men were separated into smaller groups. Each group was surrounded by four guards, each guard armed with a rifle, who marched them up a long, steep path leading to the top of the island, where the buildings were located. The side of the path was sheer, and as they climbed higher, he could see unforgiving, jagged rocks below. Falling or trying to jump into the water to escape would be suicide.
No wonder they were okay with unshackling the prisoners. This was the Rock. There was nowhere for them to run.
A stern-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a suit, tie, and round-rimmed glasses stood in front of them, blocking the path. On each side of him was an armed guard.
“Welcome to Alcatraz. I’m Warden Johnston. You men will learn that if you behave, if you follow the rules, you’ll get along fine in here. If not, you’ll find out why some people call this America’s Devil’s Island. We keep order here with strict discipline, and make no mistake—you will be punished for infractions of the rules. If you behave, you will be awarded privileges and points for good behavior.” He waved a hand at the guards, then stepped aside.
“Step lively. We ain’t got all day. There’s more new fish coming in after you.” A hard stick poked Ash in the back, and he stumbled forward behind the rest of the men. “Go on. Don’t make me tell you again.”
The path wound up the side of the island in three long hairpin turns. Wind buffeted Ash, whipping his pant legs, growing stronger the higher they climbed. The temperature was dropping, and since he was still damp from the boat ride, he was thoroughly chilled and shaking by the time they reached the top of the hill.
At the end of the path sat an austere building. It was big, stretching nearly from one end of the island to the other, three stories high, and unrelentingly ugly. It was obviously built as a deterrent to anything even vaguely creative or pleasant. It was uniformly gray from the rock underfoot to the buildings, to the general feel of it. Every window Ash could see was set with thick metal bars.
They were ushered into the building through a pair of heavy metal double doors. Inside, it wasn’t much warmer than outside—the only difference was a lack of wind. Ash and the rest of his group joined the end of a line of prisoners who’d been marched up the hill before them.
The smell hit Ash full in the face like a slap. It was the stench of gym class many times over, a powerful reek of body odor so thick it was almost a visible cloud. He coughed and held his arm over his nose, trying to block some of it out. He knew he’d get used to it after a while, like any bad smell, but for now it was singeing his nose hairs.
Ash stood on his tiptoes, trying to look over the heads of taller inmates, searching faces, but Grant was nowhere in sight.
The line moved slowly, the men in it silent, shuffling forward when prodded by the guards. Eventually, Ash’s group reached an interior room. He could hear the sound of running water coming from an adjacent room.
A bored-looking guard at the entrance addressed them. “Strip off. Clothes go into the hampers on your left. Pick up your soap and towel at the window on the right. Then, straight into the shower room. Move quick, no talking.”
Strip off? As in get naked? Here? In front of everybody? Were they insane? He wasn’t doing it. No way. Sure, he’d taken showers at school, but even there they had individual stalls, and anyway, everybody there was basically the same age as he was, not a bunch of middle-aged convicts! Weren’t there laws against making minors do stuff like this? He looked wildly around for someone to ask. He settled on a guard walking nearby.
“Excuse me, sir? I think I’m in the wrong place. I’m a minor. I’m only seventeen—”
The guard, his expression crumpling into a frown, brandished his blackjack in a large, rocklike fist. “You speak English, don’t you? You ain’t deaf, right? Didn’t you hear the captain? You get one free, you understand? Next time you question an order, you get a reminder banged into your skull.”
Ash eyed the weapon and the almost eager look in the guard’s eyes, and forced his mouth shut. The guard didn’t look like he was just trying to scare Ash straight—he looked like he meant business, and the last thing Ash wanted was to start off this adventure with a concussion.
The other men in the line were already following orders, shucking their clothes and dropping them into one of the canvas laundry bags lined up against the left-hand wall. He reluctantly did the same, cupping his hands over his genitals as he walked behind the man in front of him. He had nothing to cover his rear end and felt both embarrassed and vulnerable. Seriously, when he got back home, he was going to let Merlin have it for forcing him into this situation, even if it meant being turned into a pile of dog shit.
He gratefully took the small, scratchy towel and tiny chunk of soap from the person behind the window on the right. The man, wearing a threadbare gray shirt and pair of pants, not a uniform, was probably another inmate, Ash realized. He unfolded the towel, but it was too small to wrap around his waist. He settled for holding it front of himself like a small curtain.
He realized in short order that he needn’t have worried. Nobody was paying him the slightest bit of attention. Everyone acted as if this was all second nature to them, as if communal showering with a bunch of naked men was as commonplace as tying their shoes. Men took their towels and soap and shuffled bare-assed into the shower without question or protest. They stood under the spray, soaped up, and rinsed off, moving quickly and efficiently, with as little noise as possible.
The water was icy cold, and Ash gasped when it hit his skin like a thousand tiny pinpricks. Now he knew why the other men were washing up so quickly—it was that or freeze to death under the shower spray. He took the fastest shower in his life, soaping up the necessary parts, rinsing off, and practically jogging out of the room through the far doorway into the next area, rubbing his skin raw with the rough little towel.
In the next room, several inmates stood behind a long counter. They were handing out neatly folded sets of clothing and pairs of shoes to the naked, damp inmates. Ash shivered violently as he waited his turn.
The inmate at the counter, a burly man with a balding head and the tattoo of a mermaid on his forearm, smirked at Ash. “You’re a skinny one, ain’t you? What’s the matter? Momma too busy screwing the milkman to feed you proper?” He and the other inmates snorted and guffawed.
A guard rapped his blackjack on the counter, just a hairsbreadth away from the inmate’s fingers. “Enough with the comedy, Billy Ray. Get on with your job, or I’ll have you reassigned to dumping the shit pots.”
Ash didn’t know what disturbed him more—that there was such a thing known as a “shit pot” at Alcatraz and that men had to dump it out, or that the prison population seemed to think weak-assed insults to somebody’s mother were the height of comedy.
“I was just—”
The guard whacked the small of Billy Ray’s back with his nightstick, nearly bringing the big man to his knees. “That’s it! Get up. A couple of nights in the Hole will teach you.”
He grabbed up the pile of clothing and boots another inmate slid over to him while trying to ignore the malevolent glare Billy Ray shot him at the same time. It was enough to make him forget for a moment that he was a buck-ass naked time traveler.
“Best watch your back, skinny boy.” Billy Ray’s hoarse whisper was low enough for only Ash to hear, but his expression was black, and his intent was as clear as if he’d bellowed. If he got Ash alone, he was going to do Ash some serious damage. He didn’t get to say anything else because the guard marched him away, but then again, he didn’t have to. He’d already said it all.
Ash hadn’t been at Alcatraz for more than a couple of hours, and he’d already made a mortal enemy. Swell.
Where the hell was Grant?
No one was given the opportunity to dress. Instead, the guards marched the naked men into the prison itself. To Ash’s surprise, there were no catcalls, whistles, or rude commentary like there always was in prison movies. There seemed to be three hallways, each lined with a triple row of cells. Although he could see faces watching intently from the cells as he walked by, it was so quiet all he could hear was the hard click of the guards’ bootheels, and the soft slap of the prisoners’ bare feet on concrete.
“Up here.” The guard nearest Ash poked him again and urged him up a flight of metal stairs. “New fish get the cells upstairs on Broadway.”
“Broadway?” The question was out of Ash’s mouth before he could stop it.
The guard responded by poking Ash hard in the ribs with his blackjack. “Shut up. No talking.” Then, as if he hadn’t just bruised Ash’s ribs for the unforgivable crime of asking a question, he answered it. “All the halls are named after streets, see? This here is Broadway. Over there is Seedy Street, and the other way is Michigan Boulevard.”
Ash bit his lip to keep himself from answering. Instead, he hurried up the stairs and followed the line of men down the upstairs walkway of Broadway. He was ushered into a cell halfway down the row. A number painted on the wall outside the cell proclaimed it to be B-180. His new home, at least until he found Grant and they got their hands on Al Capone’s locket.
He stepped inside, facing the back wall, and jumped at the metallic bang of the door slamming shut behind him. There was a finality to the sound, as if the world and his life had both ended in that moment.
The cell was smaller than their dorm room back at Stanton’s School for Boys. Ash estimated it to be about five feet by nine feet, or so, just big enough to hold a single cot, a toilet, sink, and a metal shelf that attached to the wall and must’ve served as a desk. On the shelf was a thin booklet. He glanced at the title—Institution Rules and Regulations. It had a small black-and-white drawing of Alcatraz Island on it.
The top half of the walls and the ceiling were painted white, but the bottom half of the walls and the floor were painted puke green. There was no window, but the front of the cell was lined ceiling to floor with dull, gray metal bars. There wasn’t even enough room to properly pace. Three steps from the toilet to the bars, and a step and a half from the cot to the wall. That was it.
How do they stand it? Living their lives cooped up in a room like this? His mind reeled. He hadn’t realized until then just how hard prison must be and was suddenly very glad the judge had sentenced him to Stanton’s School for Boys instead of juvenile detention. Juvie might not be Alcatraz, but he had the feeling it wasn’t far off either.
He started, suddenly realizing he was still stark naked, and quickly dressed in the clothing he’d carried up from the intake room. There was a pair of long cotton underwear, pants, shirt, socks, and the boots. Nothing was particularly warm, and he wondered if they got coats and sweaters for winter. Maybe, but he was willing to bet they wouldn’t be as warm as his own winter coat.
Feeling as if all his energy had been sucked out of his body, he sank onto the thin mattress on the cot, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head hang low. There was nothing else for him to do. He couldn’t go anywhere—he was locked in. There was no way for him to search for Grant. He’d just have to wait for Grant to find him.
He hoped it wasn’t going to be a very long wait. He was desperately in hate with Alcatraz already.