I’ve never liked the color pink, but for the first time in my life, I have a reason to wear it: Pink is how Control distinguishes all convicts in the cages — men and women.
My faded salmon jumpsuit is baggy in all the wrong places, frayed at the cuffs, and worn thin along the elbows and ass. I got my new least favorite outfit as part of my official welcome kit, along with some saggy underwear, scuffed black boots, a thin bedroll, a hygiene kit, and a metal cup for water.
My cage is roughly six feet deep, four feet wide, and five feet tall — long enough for me to stretch out to sleep if I don’t mind cozying up to the filthy stainless steel toilet/sink in the back corner, but not tall enough to stand upright. The walls are blackened by mildew, and several square feet along the wall are marred by scratched messages and tally marks.
It’s damp and echoey, filled with the sharp scuff of controllers’ boots, the constant drip of water, and the soft murmurs of other inmates. I’m sure they’re talking about me, but the voices disappear on the air before I can discern what they’re saying.
The woman in the cage directly across from mine is asleep. She’s got to be in her late forties, with choppy sand-colored hair and the dull skin of someone who used too many drugs in her day.
To the right of her cage is a pasty girl with white-blond hair so thin it seems to stick to her skull. She hasn’t paid me much attention since I arrived, but she twitches so much that it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking.
I sit on my bedroll and keep the threadbare blanket draped over my shoulders, but the cold air cuts right through to the bone.
“Yo,” calls a voice from across the tunnel.
I peek out from behind my curtain of hair and shift my gaze to the cage just to the left of the older woman.
A girl about my age is watching me from her bedroll. She’s got tawny skin, dark freckles, and a thick mane of brown hair. Two illegal studs glint from her right eyebrow, and I can see the edges of a tattoo peeking out from the side of her face.
She seems to take my attention for a response and rolls her neck so that her long hair shifts to her other side.
“What’re you in for?” she asks.
“I’d rather not say,” I murmur. “It’s complete bullshit.”
“I feel that,” she says with a slow double nod. “Controllers are usually full of shit. They said I assaulted my foreman, but they could never prove it or nothin’.”
“You were in ExCon?”
I’ve never spoken to a woman who worked in Exterior Maintenance and Construction before. Whoever she is, she has to be tough to have survived the brutal heat, the radiation, and the roughneck men.
“How did you do it?” I ask. “I mean, how did it come down when you were convicted?”
The girl lets out a short breath of disgust and rolls her eyes. “He said I rammed a steel rail into his head . . . and he found three other guys who said they saw me do it. Fuckin’ pussies. They would have told the controller anything. But it was their word against mine. You know how it goes . . .”
I feel my breath leave my lungs and turn back to face the opposite wall of my cage. I shouldn’t have asked.
“I’m Ursula, by the way,” she adds.
“Harper,” I choke, not wanting to be rude to a girl who settles disputes with steel rails.
It seems as though Ursula expects me to say more, but she falls silent, and I spend the next few hours listening to the unsteady drip of water down the pipes.
The cages are a filthy, miserable place to be, but I’m sure wherever Constance took Eli is much worse. Jayden will stop at nothing to extract the information she needs to hunt down his brother Owen. When she finds him, she’ll be one step closer to locating Malcolm Martinez and Jackson Mills and eradicating the Fringe gangs for good.
Eli is probably being tortured for information right now, and it’s all my fault. I’m the one who told the Undersecretary of Health and Rehab about the arrowhead Eli smuggled in from the Fringe and gave Jayden the last bit of evidence she needed to put the puzzle together and have us both arrested.
The intimidating thump of controller boots pulls me out of my misery. A door with metal bars creaks at the end of the tunnel, signaling a shift change.
When I see a glint of blond hair accompanied by a cocky swagger, it’s all I can do to suppress a groan. Paxton Dellwood is sidling down the tunnel toward my cage. I can’t quite make out his rat-like face and nasty smirk, but I’ve hated Paxton long enough to have that expression burned into my brain for eternity.
I set my jaw and clench my fists, bracing myself for his taunts and insults.
“Well, well, well,” Paxton murmurs. “Harper Riley . . . back where you belong, I see.”
I just stare at the wall. I’m determined to ignore Paxton. I have to ignore him. If I don’t, I’m going to kill him, and that will definitely earn me more time behind bars.
But he keeps moving toward my cage until he’s less than a foot away, and every nerve in my body lights up in alarm.
“From what I hear, you’re going to be in here for a loooong time.”
His voice is brimming with glee, but I don’t chance a look in his direction.
“You know what that means?” he prompts.
“That I’ll get to watch you get fatter, uglier, and more pathetic?” I mutter.
Paxton chooses to ignore this comment. “That we’ll have lots and lots of quality time together, Riley.”
I let out a bark of laughter, and his expression darkens.
“You laugh now, but we’ll see how desperate you get once you’ve gone ten years in there.”
I turn slowly to face him and fight my instinct to recoil when I get a good look at his cruel expression. “They could put me away for the rest of my life, and I’d still never want anything to do with you.”
Paxton tries to laugh it off, but I know it’s grating on his nerves that I’m embarrassing him in front of the other inmates.
“I always knew you’d end up here, Riley. It was only a matter of time. Institute trash can never stay away from this place.”
I’m used to Paxton pushing my buttons, but something about being behind bars while he’s out there walking around free makes my blood boil. As I glare up at him, his hand leaves the security of his electric nightstick and grabs his crotch.
He gives a single violent hip thrust, sneers, and then moves his hand so he can prop himself against the side of my cage. “Did you miss me so much that you got yourself arrested?”
That’s when I snap. Without thinking, I turn to face Paxton and shoot my fist up between the cage bars. I see his expression of shock right before I punch him in the balls, and he staggers backward with a guttural moan.
The women in the cages across the tunnel who’d been watching our whole exchange go crazy. Paxton is still doubled over in pain, his expression shifting from extreme pain to fury.
“You’re gonna pay for that, Riley! I’ll make sure you fucking rot in here!”
“Go to hell.”
The inmates’ jeers and laughter only seem to compound Paxton’s outrage. He jerks his head from side to side, trying and failing to find his trademark sneer.
“What the fuck are you cheering for?” he growls. “Don’t you bitches know who she is?”
The cheers falter for a moment, and I catch a suspicious glance from Ursula.
“Yeah! Yeah! I bet she didn’t tell you, did she?” He looks satisfied by their obvious curiosity and keeps going. “She and her boyfriend are traitors. They were trying to bring the whole compound down. That’s the conniving bitch you’re cheering for.”
At his mention of Eli, a furious sweat breaks out over my neck. But when the noise from the other inmates dies down, I realize I now have a much bigger problem than Paxton.
“That’s bullshit,” I growl, trying to shrug off his accusations so the other prisoners will think he was bluffing.
“You scared, Riley?” he asks, managing half a smirk. “You should be.”
That’s when I feel the mood in the tunnel shift. Ursula and the others are no longer reveling in my small victory over Paxton. They’re staring at me with suspicion and borderline hatred.
Before I have a chance to form a retort, a loud bell sounds in the tunnel and nearly shatters my eardrums. Then several dozen cage doors beep in unison as the women are released for daily exercise.
The women across from me get to their feet, push their cage doors open, and filter into the tunnel. Paxton has disappeared to bang his electric nightstick on the cages at the end to rouse sleeping inmates.
Cautiously, I push my cage door open and join the throng of women jostling toward the gymnasium at the far end of the tunnel. Ursula and my other neighbors have already disappeared, but I’m on high alert as I mingle with the other inmates.
Whispers drift up from the crowd, and I hear the words “traitor” and “new girl” thrown in the mix. I quicken my pace to avoid having to confront my gossipers and reach the large room labeled “gymnasium” right after the first wave of women.
My ears are still ringing from my confrontation with Paxton. It’s not enough that I’m completely at his mercy in the cages; he may have just created an extremely dangerous situation for me.
As soon as I walk into the gymnasium, I get a pang of disappointment. I’d been hoping for a slightly downgraded version of the training center — thinking I could at least use my cage time to get in amazing shape — but the exercise area is just a large open room with a few high windows looking out on the Fringe.
I make a beeline for the far corner so I can observe the other inmates and see several women congregating near the center of the room.
Ursula glances over at me, and for a moment, I wonder if she’s summoning me to her group. Then she frowns and shakes her head, and an uneasy feeling starts to bubble up in my gut.
She turns back to the other women — the blond burnout, a crazy-looking redhead, and two mocha-skinned girls I don’t recognize — and their circle seems to grow tighter.
A loud whistle draws my attention back to the entrance. Paxton herds the last few women into the gym with a flick of his nightstick and then stakes out a position to the left of the door. He turns to the other controller — an overweight ginger with a doughy face — and seems to give him the go-ahead on something.
Doughboy tosses Paxton a grateful fist bump and slips out of the room. The door slams shut behind him, and Paxton shoots me a challenging sneer.
Suddenly my dread is upgraded to full-blown panic. Low murmurs ripple through the crowd, and I catch more than a few stares as news circulates about my alleged crimes.
My heart is pounding in my chest, and my legs are humming with nervous energy. I need to get out of here, but I’m trapped.
As if she heard my cowardly thoughts, Ursula turns and starts making her way through the crowd, flanked by half a dozen of the scariest-looking women I have ever seen.
From her intimidating appearance, I should have guessed she’d be some kind of ringleader in here. Ursula carries herself like some of the little thugs I used to fight with in the Institute: She walks tall, but she’s got this slow swagger that seems to suggest she’s got all the time in the world to beat my ass.
In the golden sunlight filtering through the windows, I see that I was right about her tattoo: Ursula has a colorful dragon curled along the side of her face. Its tail forms a gentle spiral below her cheekbone, and its wings are splayed out across her temple.
A pink jumpsuit never looked so badass.
“How’s it goin’, Scab?” she calls in a loud voice.
I swallow once and draw myself up to my full height to show her I’m not the girl she wants to fuck with.
“Fine,” I say, clenching my fists together.
Ursula lets out a contemptuous chuckle and turns side to side to bring her bitches in on her private joke. “You’re awful ballsy to be in the women’s wing, Scab. They should have put you in solitary.”
She takes a few more steps toward me, but I hold my ground. When she’s just a few feet away, she says, “I’m a tolerant person, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand . . . it’s a traitor.”
I roll my eyes. “Listen. I think you might have the wrong idea.”
I glance over at the entrance, where Paxton is leaning against the wall with an expectant look on his face — as though he’s about to see the greatest show of all time. “I’ve known that asshole for a long time. You shouldn’t believe every word that comes out of his mouth.”
“Oh I don’t,” she says, curling her lip. “As a matter of fact, I fucking hate the little prick. But I just got confirmation from the outside that they picked up a couple’a traitors in Recon the other day.”
Ursula jerks her thumb over her shoulder to a pale burnout girl in the opposite corner with long black hair and bulky bangs. She isn’t Recon, but it’s entirely possible that she’s spent her fair share of time in tier three on her way to Neverland.
“Twitchy was brought in this afternoon for disorderly conduct. She’s my newest informant.”
That certainly makes it harder to prove my innocence, but I just cross my arms over my chest and fight to keep my voice calm. “Like I said . . . you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
Ursula shakes her head and juts out her lower lip. “Maybe you don’t hear so good, Scab. I said I got no tolerance for traitors in my house. Traitors are snitches. Do you know what I do to snitches?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me . . .” I mutter.
In that instant, I realize that there are some places you can get away with snarky comments. This is not one of those places.
In one sharp motion, Ursula’s hand flies out and grabs a fistful of my hair. I’m so surprised by her move that I don’t react right away, and she uses my moment of hesitation to get a stronger grip.
She yanks me forward, and pain radiates through the back of my skull. I let out a strangled yelp and move with her to avoid getting scalped, but I still feel a chunk of my hair separate from my head.
There’s a roar of noise from the crowd, and my feet fly out from under me.
I hit the floor hard, and my jumpsuit rips along the knees. The heels of my hands skid along the rough concrete, burning and bloodying my palms.
Before I can get to my feet, Ursula plants her boot in my stomach. My abdominals clench in response, and my training finally kicks in.
I spring into my fighting stance and raise my fists, glancing from side to side for other attackers.
The women in Ursula’s crew have gathered around, but they aren’t encroaching; they’ve formed a ring of bodies to block us from view. Not like it matters — Paxton is the only controller present, and this is exactly what he was hoping for.
“Is that all you got, bitch?” I growl at Ursula.
She’s panting hard from the adrenaline, and her wild brown hair and face tattoo are an intimidating package.
She shakes her head with rage and comes at me with a hard cross, but she’s slow and untrained. I slip it easily and come back around with a hook to the body. She missed her punch, and she falls right into it. Her flesh gives beneath my fist, and my entire arm shakes from the bone-on-bone contact.
There’s a collective groan in the crowd as Ursula draws in a labored breath, but then she comes around with a hard overhand right. I’m too close to avoid it, and it sinks right into my left temple. I try to back away, but the bitch grabs me by the hair again.
This was not allowed in Shane’s underground fights, but I don’t succumb to shock this time. Instead, I cover the left side of my face with my arm and swing at her with my right. She’s wide open, and I feel her nose crack beneath my fist.
My knuckles scream from the impact, and the pain radiates all the way up my wrist. I’m not used to hitting without gloves, and I worry I might have broken my hand.
Ursula tugs on my hair and staggers back as blood gushes from her nose, and I use the close proximity to drive up into a liver shot with my good hand.
That’s when it all goes to hell.
Somebody else grabs me around the neck in a full choke, and I reach up desperately to pull my attacker’s arm away from my trachea.
I see pink out of the corner of my eye, so I know it’s another inmate and not a controller. I throw my elbow behind me as hard as I can and connect with her ribs.
As she doubles over, I use that moment of surprise to shift my weight and throw her off balance. She goes down, but she pulls me with her.
For a brief second, the wall of women is upside down — a blur of angry faces and salmon pink suits.
We hit the ground on our sides, but my attacker is much larger. She rolls us onto our backs and clamps down on the choke.
Panic flares through me as she cuts off the flow of blood to my neck. I try to tuck my chin down, but she’s too strong.
We flail around on the ground for a few moments, and there’s a rush of bodies as two more women join the brawl.
I catch another boot to the ribs, and I try to roll to the side to protect myself. But I still can’t breathe, and my body is shutting down.
Through the swaying mass of bodies around me, I catch a glimpse of slick blond waves and Paxton’s satisfied sneer. Then an inky haze settles over everything, and the room goes dark.
* * *
Did you enjoy this chapter? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget to check your inbox for exciting Fringe developments. Lockdown is coming to online bookstores November 2015.