The Second Life of Nick Mason (Nick Mason #1)
No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.
—NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, The Scarlet Letter
Everybody’s got a secret Sonny
Something that they just can’t face Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it They carry it with them every step that they take —BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
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 changeout. 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 longtimer. 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 gearshift. 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 threading 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 ear 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 spiderwebs. 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.