“i am sorry to see you here like this, slade,” the warden intoned mournfully.
but the twinkle in his eye belied his words.
the international jewel thief stanley slade had been warden jones’s favorite prisoner before his sensational escape - as he was one of the few prisoners with whom he could carry on what he considered a civilized conversation - and the warden hoped that after the requisite time slade would spend in solitary, he would again favor him with his occasional company.
“i am sorry if i embarrassed you, warden,” slade responded politely. “it was not my primary intention.”
“ha ha, no of course not. no doubt you had more pressing concerns.” the warden cleared his throat. “but look here, slade. you have caused me a little embarrassment. with wagging tongues suggesting that i was treating you too much like a guest and not a prisoner. so i thought - in order to show some firmness i thought i might have you kept in solitary for two months instead of the required one. i hope you don’t mind.”
“no, i don’t mind.”
poor fellow, thought the warden, he looked a little dazed. and who wouldn’t be, after the whirlwind events of the past seventy-two hours when he had escaped from the prison only to be picked up less than forty-eight hours later in a seedy manhattan automat - without a fight. and then returned to the prison after an intensive grilling by some sort of top secret government agency that did not even seem to have a name.
“the light in solitary is not too bad at this time of year,” the warden continued apologetically. “you should be able to get some reading done at least.”
slade just nodded.
the warden picked up a book up from his desk. “you had this book checked out of the library at the time of your departure. under western eyes, by joseph conrad. would you like it?’
“uh, sure, thank you.” slade took the book from the warden.
“any other books you would like?” the warden asked.
“um - how about a couple of volumes of the encyclopedia brittanica? “r” and “s” - i never got that far.”
the warden laughed. “nothing personal, slade, but i hope you stick around long enough this time to finish the whole encyclopedia. “
slade laughed politely. “and then i could read the whole catholic encyclopedia.”
“if you blow the dust off it, you mean.” the warden chuckled.
“oh no, the guys read everything. the ones that read at all. uh, that reminds me - “
“yes?” the warden raided his eyebrows.
“when i get out of solitary, can i have my old job back in the library?”
“oh… probably. we’ll see. i can’t make any promises.”
“thank you. i understand.”
“i guess that’s all. once you are out of solitary, and you keep your nose clean, i don’t see why we can’t resume our occasional little chats. and maybe play some games of chess again.”
“i would enjoy that.”
the warden pressed a buzzer and spoke into an intercom device on his desk. “we are through in here, morris. you can take the prisoner away.”
the warden picked some letters off his desk after slade was taken away. that went well, he thought.
morris, the guard escorting slade to solitary, looked at the book in his hand. “the warden gave you a book, huh?”
“what’s it about?”
“a guy who gets in big trouble for something he didn’t do. and has to go on the run. just for hanging out with the wrong people.”
“haw haw! just like all you guys, right? haw haw.”
“i’ve read it before. it’s one of my favorites.”
“i bet.” the guard continued to chuckle.
“i recommend it to everybody.”
the warden did not know it, but slade might have plans for him.
warden jones was a lonely man. he had been a lonely boy, living on a small farm in the distant hills, dreaming of being an outlaw, and riding the rails and robbing the mail train with john dillinger and jesse james, and riding through the american night and sleeping in the woods.
although he did not have the nerve to become a desperado himself, he became a prison guard in order to rub elbows at least with the glamorous men whose daring exploits had lit up his youthful dreams.
needless to say, his expectations had not come true. but then, who among us has expectations that do?
but he continued to seek - without being too obvious about it (he thought) the good graces of the handful of prisoners, like slade, who evinced some pale shadow of the outlaws of his dreams .
in his previous plans, and his previous escape, slade had not thought to take advantage of the poor fellow.
but now he would rethink everything. and consider anything.
two months later.
slade was out of solitary. and back at his desk at the prison library.
he finally got to look at the mail that had come for him while he was in solitary.
there were thirteen letters - hand addressed envelopes from people whose names he did not recognize at all. he got letters like this even before his escape - a few from “lovelorn” women of all ages, but mostly from religious people looking to save his soul. an occasional one from a hero-worshipful boy or young man - like warden jones must have been.
no requests for interviews from reporters. he felt a little disappointed. not that he had anything to say to them. maybe there had been some, but the warden had sent them back.
nothing from miss hyacinth wilde, or any other women of his acquaintance. but that was to be expected.
there was one postcard - of a buxom blonde tossing a beachball on a very clean and sunshiny and almost deserted “coney island”. it was from jake jaspers, a bellhop at slade’s old address, the hotel st crispian on bedford st. jake had written on it - “hey old buddy wish you were here. mort says hello too.”
mort. mortimer, the elevator operator at the hotel. slade would have thought he was more likely to send him a postcard than jake, but then you never knew with mortimer.
last, there was a letter - very wrinkled, as if the censors had been all over it more than once - from the state prison in north carolina.
north carolina? slade did not think he knew anybody in north carolina. and he did not recognize the name or number in the return address.