I stepped into the cell. Burner Jackson lay on the cot. Derrick, the night shift guard in D-block, stood beside him.
The old man looked up at me. “Boss, you gotta get me outta that cell. He’s gonna kill me.”
“Who’s going to kill you, Burner?”
He pulled his shirt collar open. Blue-black bruises marched around his neck.
“Ryerson. Last night he was wavin’ his arms an’ screaming at that bitch. Then he damn near choked the life outta me.”
Derrick nodded. “He nearly throttled old Burner before I got somebody in here.”
“Down to the clinic. He was hollering and throwing a fit.”
“Bastard’s got rabies,” muttered Jackson.
“Take Burner to the clinic. Have the medics check him over. Rabies ain’t in it, but he’s got a hell of a bruise there.”
Burner Jackson was an arsonist who gave himself up after one of his fires went wild and someone died. By the time he got out he was past fifty with no chance of employment. After rattling around for a year, he burned down an abandoned shed and got sent up again. He could tell some wild stories of the old days. Some of them were probably true.
And he was the third prisoner we’d had to pull out of Ryerson’s cell.
Ryerson. What was I going to do about him?
When I found time to visit the clinic, Burner was lounging in bed. “Hey, boss! There ain’t no purty nurses. These here medics are plumb ugly.”
“Careful what you say about the medics. They can give enemas, y’know.”
Jackson grinned and said, “I ain’t scareda no medic.” He pulled his blankets up under his chin. “You gonna talk to Ryerson?”
“They shoulda give him the gas chamber, like he wanted. He ain’t crazy. That damn woman won’t leave him alone.”
“The ghost? You believe that crap?”
Burner looked away. “I seen her night ‘fore last. Least — I think I seen her.”
Two other prisoners swore they had seen something in Ryerson’s cell. What, exactly, did they see? Well, it was dark and it happened so fast. Sure.
Ryerson lay on his back, blankets arranged neatly, with a six-inch fold at his chest. I dragged a chair over. “How are you feeling?”
“You nearly killed Burner. What the hell were you doing?”
“It was her. At least — I thought it was her.”
“You thought? God, what am I going to do with you?”
He sat suddenly bolt upright. “Kill me. Before she gets me.”
I’d seen this before. “Take it easy. That’s nonsense.”
He sank back down and readjusted the blanket. “It was that jury. I told ‘em I killed her. They should’ve given me the death penalty. God damn them!”
The jury convicted him of murder, but they doubted his sanity, so he got life. Without parole. Instead of receiving a lethal injection he ended up here.
Three months after his arrival Ryerson tried to throttle his cell mate.
He blamed his dead wife then and he blamed her now. “She’s coming for me, Boss. Said she’d come back even from the grave and settle my hash. Settle my hash — that’s what she said.”
“No more chances. You nearly killed Burner. When you go back to the Block you’ll be in a cell by yourself.”
“Oh, Christ. Oh, Christ. She’ll do for me.”
“No one’s going to hurt you.” I forced a laugh. “Maybe you’ll wake up choking the life out of your pillow.”
The Warden and Derrick were in my office when I arrived the next morning.
“Ryerson. He was attacked. While Officer Mills was asleep. He never noticed until this morning.”
Derrick didn’t say anything; just shook his head.
“Has the doctor seen him? What did he say?”
“The man was nearly killed. What else do you want?”
“Well, sir, the doctor can — ” The Warden stormed out.
“I never saw anything,” said Derrick. “I had the shift commander check the tapes. Nobody went near that cell.”
“All right. I’ll see what the doc has to say.”
The physician was a contract guy and a decent sort. Treated the prisoners as well as they’d let him. “He wasn’t beaten up. There’s a single mark on his chest — like a bruise.”
Ryerson lay on an exam table with a sheet up to his chin. “It was her,” he whispered. His eyes were bloodshot and full of fear.
A chill crept up my spine. “No one else was in that cell.”
The doc looked up. “So I’m told.”
“It’s true. Several people would have to — no — there are tapes. So what happened to him?”
“His chest is bruised.” The doctor reached over and pulled the sheet down.
I saw a livid red bruise, just below his left collarbone. It was in the shape of a hand, one small handprint, ground into Ryerson’s flesh.
“It’s faded somewhat,” said the doc. “But you can see — ”
I stepped back. “No one in this prison has hands that small.”
He nodded. “I know.”
My throat was so dry it hurt. “So what will you — how do we — ?”
“I couldn’t breathe,” croaked Ryerson. “Like an anvil — on my chest. The bitch. She almost killed me.”
We both ignored him. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bruise. Self-inflicted.”
I met his gaze. “Yeah.”
Ryerson pulled the sheet up to his chin. “What can I do, Boss?”
I shook my head and stood up. The doc had practical advice.
“Sleep with a light on.”
“I do. I did.”
“Have you tried apologizing to her?”
“Shit. What d’you think I been screaming at her? She don’t listen.”
The doc took off his white coat and began rolling his shirt sleeves down. “Well, then there’s only one thing left to do.”
Ryerson was almost in tears. “Jesus, doc. What?”
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.