This posting features Chapter 34 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
Sing Sing Prison lies along the heavily wooded shores of Ossining, a bedroom community in Westchester County, New York, 30 miles north of New York City. Completed in 1828, the mighty stone fortress has served as home to some of the country’s most notorious criminals. The first execution in the electric chair occurred at Sing Sing in 1891. By the time the device was abandoned for more humane forms of state-sanctioned killing, 613 men and women had died in the prison’s chair, including the infamous atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Like many prisons, Sing Sing’s inmate population is a polyglot sea of humanity, although the demographics are skewed toward minorities, especially blacks and Latinos. Unlike some prisons, it is a place where the most hardened criminals come to serve their time. Gone are pretenses of rehabilitation and reform. In its stead is an atmosphere of hostility and brutal confrontation between guards and detainees alike. Most inmates do not live to taste freedom again because of lengthy sentences or a quick, violent death at the hands of a fellow prisoner.
Shortly after lunch on a rainy Monday afternoon, Sing Sing’s most renowned current resident, Anthony Marciano, sat on the top bunk in his cell. Panting, his hand stretched over his heart, he felt winded. As he had done every afternoon following his mid-day meal, he had dropped to the ground and completed 50 push-ups, many of them one-handed. Time was catching up; he remembered the days when 50 push-ups were nothing, a boring routine that cut into an action-packed day.
His face was smooth-shaven and blemish-free, with one notable exception. A long jagged scar extended from above his right ear and traveled down to the area slightly above his Adam’s apple, the memento of a youthful incarceration in Attica back in the 1980s, when the place was very much in the news. Other parts of his body, most concealed by his orange jumpsuit, bore witness to his many forays into lawlessness. He was proud of his scars; he bore them like the badges of honor they were in Sing Sing.
His silver-gray hair and receding hairline bespoke a man of 58, but he was determined to stay fit as long as possible. The one advantage of prison life was that it gave a man time to keep himself in shape. He used his time wisely. He sported an impressive set of biceps and a lean torso befitting a man twenty years younger.
Panting and tired, he reclined on the thin mattress. Clutching a magazine, he settled back and glanced at photographs of movie actors and celebrities enjoying themselves at the latest star-studded gala. Grunting, he half-watched the television in the corner, a small perk that made a life on the inside at least tolerable. A woman was confessing to the show’s host that she wanted a makeover in the worst way. It would make her life better and give her more confidence to move through society if her boobs were larger and her waist smaller. The host promised he could help her achieve these lofty goals.
The inmate’s eyes occasionally slipped shut, but he was never completely asleep. He was a panther — always wary, always vigilant, always in control in an arena where a complacent fellow soon met his demise. He had not lived close to six decades in an urban jungle without keeping an eye open to the unpredictability — and opportunities — of the future.
His accommodations were hardly luxurious, but by prison standards they were comfortable. An advantage of his exalted position was that prison administrators were anxious to keep him happy. If a single cell and cable TV soothed the savage beast, it was a small price to pay for relative peace and calm. Sing Sing would never be a quiet, peaceful place, but at least Tony the Knife could keep the situation controlled, and controllable, if he were placated. And so life resumed a predictable, almost hypnotic normalcy in one of the nation’s most notorious maximum-security prisons.
“Tony the Knife” was a label the press had put on him years ago when, as a young, impetuous hothead, he had stabbed the vice-mayor of Buffalo, New York, in the neck with a pen knife as retribution for remarks the unfortunate reprobate had made about Tony’s family. The vice-mayor lived through the incident, but he was permanently disabled and Tony was permanently saddled with a silly nickname. He didn’t like or dislike it. To him, it was what it was.
The years had transformed Anthony Marciano into a sanguine man. He took life as it came. His legendary temper was mostly a work of fiction, a tale he had largely written to keep his would-be adversaries in line and feed the media’s fetish for good copy. He also took pleasure in his “hands-on” approach to governance. Although he usually left the dirty work to his associates, he took knife in hand upon occasion to demonstrate his ferocity. He was never impetuous, despite stories to the contrary, but it was imperative that his would-be rivals understood that the old man was not growing soft.
Most people did not understand that for Anthony Marciano, it was all business, never personal. In fact, he was fond of saying, “hey, business is business.” This cool detachment was his true gift to the criminal arts. Angry men made mistakes and enemies. Calm, cool, collected men conducted business and made friends — or at least they did not unnecessarily aggravate enemies.
As he rested on his bunk in an early afternoon funk, alternately glancing at his magazine and the television set, almost half asleep, he heard the sound of boots echoing along the hallway. Someone stopped at his cell and peered between the bars. He knew from long experience that one of the guards, probably Officer Rodriguez, the new kid with an attitude, was looking in on him. What made this visit memorable was the way the boots stopped in front of the cell door. Normally, the guards kept up a steady pace, lingering only at meal and exercise times, neither of which was at hand.
Without looking up, Tony spoke in a quiet voice. “Yeah?” He sounded bored.
“You got a visitor,” the guard said. It was Rodriguez, all right.
“You outta get yourself some Rogaine. That bald spot’s growin,’ man.” The kid was a prick even if he was right about the bald spot. Sooner or later he would have to be taught a lesson. Tony looked forward to that day.
“Yeah?” He tried to sound nonchalant, but failed.
Rodriguez cackled. “Yeah. Fuckin’-A.”
Fuckin’-A? When was the last time he’d heard that expression? It was so Eighties.
“Let’s go, Mr. Spaghetti-o.”
Tony sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. This was an interesting development. He entertained few visitors. Even his surviving family members seldom made the trek out from the city to pay their respects. Face-to-face encounters left a trail too big to ignore. Tony conducted business through other means.
“C’mon,” Rodriguez confirmed as he unlocked the cell door and rapped his nightstick against the bars. “You know the drill, old man.”