October 30, 2000 11:16 PM
My current address reads Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia. I’m doing a five year bit for drug possession. The feds enhanced my sentence because I was caught carrying a gun. A stupid little chrome Berretta .25 more suited for a woman’s purse. The damn thing didn’t even belong to me. It was my girlfriend Anna’s. She insisted I take it along. You never know what kind of weirdoes and low life you’re gonna’ run into these days when you are dealing.
Not like the old days.
Then, a little weed, a couple of blotters of acid, some Boone’s Farm apple and its peace and free love for everyone. If you were lucky some cutie hippie chick in torn jeans and tie-died halter would invite you to join the party. Hell, you didn’t even have to smoke. Just take a deep pull of the Maui-wowie atmosphere and chill to the Dead.
Today you meet some hyped up street thug who is shakin’ so bad you could use him to mix paint. And you know he’s packin’, too. As are his two homies sitting in the purple juke box with the 20” rims across the street. As is the skinny chick in the blown afro and hot pants. As is the prismatic pimp leaning on the light pole, she’s rubbin’ against. As is the old dude in dirty Tee shirt and suspenders, leaning out the third floor window, watching as daddy shakes-a-lot stands in front of you trying to count his Benjamins.
Everybody’s packin’. You gotta protect yourself. The feds don’t care. They’ve got a real hard on for gun cases these days.
Actually, I’m anything but a drug dealer. Sure, I sell a few tabs of ecstasy and maybe a tiny amount of coke. But I’m small potatoes. Very small. One or two buys a month max, just to supplement my income as a free lance photographer. Man, I don’t even use the stuff. Not since Carter went back to being a peanut farmer and disco crawled back into the slimy pit it slithered from. Honest. It’s strictly a business. These days you do what you have to do to survive. Am I right?
The gun charge also upped the ante and landed me in a federal pen instead of a low or medium facility. Thanks, Anna. Being in prison is bad enough. Pens are the worse, and Atlanta is the worse of the worse.
Built over a hundred years ago, Atlanta has maintained it’s hard as nails reputation as well as its foreboding appearance. Other joints have been remodeled, modernized, updated or torn down. Not Atlanta. Indoor plumbing, running water and electricity are its only concessions to civilization. Even the tall battlements capped with gun towers were left unchanged. Together with the rough stone construction, they give the place a medieval feel. Like something out of the Marquis de Sade’s nightmares.
Inside it’s downright creepy. The dark narrow corridors echo and ring eerily. The antiquated pipes scream and belch. And the cold stone walls bleed a dark rust red color. Satan’s blood the inmates call it.
This is the place that broke the likes of Al Capone. Alcatraz must have seemed like a picnic after Atlanta. Here James Cagney and Edward G Robinson get the chair in old black and white flicks. This is the place no convict wants to go. In the entire world there is no more desperate place than Atlanta Federal Prison.
I rolled restlessly in my bunk. The hard plastic mattress crackled like fire, beneath me. I have two years and two months left on my sentence as of today. The crude calendar etched into the bottom of the bunk above told me so. I took the homemade scribe and marked off another day, then returned it to its hiding place. The scribe is only an inch and a half long, made of soft aluminum scrounged from a wall rivet, and barely sharp enough to scratch the flaking layers of decades old paint. But it’s considered contraband. If you are caught with it, and if the guards aren’t in a good humor, it could be considered a weapon. Then you find yourself in the hole for thirty days. And when you get out some of your hard earned good time has evaporated into thin air. And here at Atlanta the guards are rarely in a good humor.
Actually, five years isn’t too bad a stretch these days. And for a place like Atlanta it’s a walk in the park. The sad reality is many of these guys will never again see a sunset that isn’t crosshatched with chain link and razor wire.
My cellie, Nathan leaned over from his top bunk. “Hey, School, lets me check your radio, man.”
I handed him up the small, overpriced Sonny Walkman that’s sold on commissary. Nathan’s not a bad kid, for a murderer. When he was nineteen he knifed a guy during a botched drug deal. That was five years ago. He’s looking at twenty five more.
There is a kind of perverse unwritten code among inmates; a status and pecking order. Take Nathan for example. According to the code, anybody can shoot a person. It takes balls and nerves of nails to gut a man up close. Nathan is shown respect and fear. Even by some of the guards. I know he’s just a scared kid surviving the only way he knows how, in a world he didn’t create and doesn’t understand. Then again, aren’t we all?
“Thanks, School.” Nathan settled in above me. I could hear the vulgar, repetitive hip hop lyrics hammering out of the tiny ear buds. I wondered which would blow first, the cheap speakers or his ear drums.
Inmates speak a language all their own. Anyone over forty is School as in old school. It’s a term of respect. For the most part the older guys are looked up to and treated well by the other inmates. I’m fifty-four and white, a definite minority in the system. For the last few years the feds have busied themselves trolling the city sewers for serious offenders. Mostly what they’ve caught are street punks in their teens and twenties. Obnoxious and usually illiterate, toss them in with harden, older criminals who are only interested in doing their time quietly, and you’ve got the makings of real trouble.
To make matters worse, the system is overcrowded to the max. Three men in two man cells isn't unusual, especially when you heard in a bunch of temporary hold overs. That was the situation this Monday night.
Lights had been out for about ninety minutes when the door to my cell creaked open. A tattered green mattress hit the floor. It was followed by an old wool army blanket and a stained sheet. A lanky figure in orange overalls three sizes too big for his needle frame stood silhouetted, as the guard removed his handcuffs.
“You can’t treat me like this,” he screamed in a cracked, scratchy voice.
The solid steel door slammed shut with the heavy ominous metallic clunk common to jail and prison cell doors everywhere. The stranger gave the door an ineffectual kick and cursed.
“Welcome to the block.” Nathan had one ear bud out and was hanging out of his bunk like a hungry vulture. “Whats you gots for me, homie?”
“What?” The stranger turned. Gold shone from between two fleshy lips in the dim light. “Whats you say, boy?”
“You can’t come into my house empty handed,” Nathan spit back.
The stranger’s eyes flashed white with anger. “I gots nothin’ for you, bitch. Nothin’!”
I wasn’t worried. I’d seen Nathan’s jail house act before. For the most part that’s all it was, just an act.
He rolled over, replacing the ear bud. “Sokay. For now. But your corn flakes are mine, pops.”
The first thing every con does when he hits a new facility is try to establish his toughness, his manliness, his street cool. Peacocks struttin’, it’s always ninety-five percent show and five percent blow. It’s a prison ritual as old as prison itself.
The stranger grunted and looked down at me. “And what’s your friggin’ problem?”
I stared back up at him, “Three men in a cell for starters.”
He kicked at the mattress then turned around and punched the cell door harder than he meant. Stifling a chuckle, I could see the grimace on his face in the pale yellow moonlight filtering in through the small window.
“Yeah, well, I ain’t doing this!” he barked, then raised his voice. “You hear me you dumb ass bastards, I ain’t doing this!” And he kicked the door again.
“Hold it down,” I said. “You’re disturbing the rats.”
The stranger spun around, his eyes searchlights in the dark. “Rats? They ain’t said nothin’ ’bout no rats!”
“It ain’t the two legged kind,” I said.
“And it ain’t the rats you gots to worry about, pops,” Nathan quipped and let out a sick giggle.
I smiled to myself and rolled over. Inside, a cold shutter shook my body.
Our guest noisily settled down, making himself at home on the concrete floor. I was still awake an hour later when the scratching started. Almost imperceptible at first, it grew louder, closer.
“What’s that?” There was fear in the stranger’s voice.
“I told you, rats.”
“You was serious about that, boss?”
I turned over. The stranger was sitting up in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat. He looked like a frightened little girl who had just heard the boogie man.
Maybe he wasn’t that far off.
“Relax. They seldom come in here. If one does just throw your shoe at it,” I replied.
In the cell’s dim twilight I could see the stranger was close to my age. He wore a short nappy afro, graying at the temples. His large nose had been broken more than once and an ugly hook shaped scar marked his left cheek. The air in the cell was cool, but sweat beaded his grooved forehead as he tried to settle back down. His road mapped eyes remained fixed on the large gap at the bottom of the cell door.
“Don’t worry,” I teased, “they don’t eat much.”
The stranger sucked in a shock of air and grabbed for his shoe.
The scratching continued. It echoed off the drab green painted walls. I could hear the stranger breathing on the floor next to me. Nathan’s words rang in my head: it ain’t the rats yous gots to worry about.
Instinctively, I reached down and tucked the trailing blanket into the sides of my mattress. Parents tuck their children in snugly, telling them to keep their arms and legs under the covers. It breeds a sense of fear into them. A fear of what lurks under the bed. It wasn’t what might be under my bunk that frightened me.
A clatter of chains rattled down the hall: the guards making their count.
The stranger shuffled nervously.
Every inmate hears the story of Satan’s Blood his first week here. The story varies, grows with detail and intensity…and gore…depending on who’s doing the telling. But the basic, grizzly, unfathomable true facts remain the same.
October 31, 1934 4:35 PM
Roger Zaha wore an oversized chip on his shoulder like a medal of honor. He was angry. Angry at life for the lousy trick it played on him. At least that’s how Roger Zaha saw things.
For seven long thankless years he worked as a guard at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The work was honest and steady. It provided an ample living for his wife and son.
But Roger Zaha was a malcontent.
He grew up hard and fast in Atlanta’s toughest tenement. Everything Zaha ever had he fought and scratched to gain. He clawed his way up to a respectable job and position in a clean, quiet community. It was the height of the Depression and a man couldn’t ask for more.
But Roger Zaha wanted more. Hell, he’d paid his dues, he deserved more.
Zaha resented the other guards. None of them had gone through what he did, Depression or no Depression. Yet here he was, almost thirty, and no better off than the rest of them. He hated them for it. And he didn’t bother to conceal his anger.
He was the one who pulled himself up out of nothing. He was the one who made something out of himself. It was time he got what he deserved.
The words came from cell F66. Molech’s cell. Zaha worked in a section of the prison known as the tombs. Here the worst offenders remained caged in their 8x10 cells twenty-four hours a day. None would ever be returned to society. Ahriman Molech was the worse of them all. Molech had coldly immolated his three young children, burning the house down around them while they slept, just to collect the insurance.
“Zaha, come here.”
Molech’s voice was crushed glass in velvet, sibilant. Yet it cut through your ears like razors. His shale black eyes were the devil’s own, never looking at you but piercing straight through your flesh. When he spoke, you felt the gelid fingers of his breath on your throat.
“Wa’da ya want, Molech?”
“You know what today is, Zaha?” He curled one thin, barely perceptible lip into a pointed smile. “It’s Halloween, Zaha.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Halloween, Zaha. You know witches, goblins, and the undead.” He let out a laugh that chilled the guard. “Wouldn’t you like to be with your kid?”
“Leave it alone, Molech,” Zaha replied angrily. He rapped the cell bars with the end of his wooden shillelagh.
Molech’s sneer grew. “I know what you want, Zaha. I know what you think, what you dream.”
“You don’t know nothing.”
The dim cell light cast Molech’s shadow large and misshapen on the rough stone wall. To Zaha it looked like a hulking beast ready to strike.
“I know you’re right,” Molech said. He paused and leaned closer. “You’re better than these illiterate monkeys who prowl around here in their starched uniforms like zombies, much better than them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can help you. I can arrange it so you never have to work again… ever.” Molech’s exaggerated face jutted from between the bars. His voice hissed in Zaha’s ear. “Think about it, Zaha. Everything you need brought right to you… laid at your feet. You won’t have a thing to worry about.” Molech’s words were sure and quiet as a prayer at midnight. “I can give you what you want…”
“You’re crazy as a loon, Molech! How can you do anything for me?”
Molech laughed again then squinted at the guard. “What’s the matter, Zaha? What are you afraid of? You got nothing to lose, except this crummy job. You got no faith in your dreams, Zaha? Afraid of what they may cost you?”
Zaha reared back and spat on the floor of the cell. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’! Do you hear that, Molech, nothin’!” he barked, shaking the shillelagh. “You’re as crazy as they come!” Zaha gathered himself and stared back into Molech’s serpentine eyes. “But I’ll tell you something, Molech. I ain’t crazy… no, sir. But for what you said… why… I’d pay any price… any price in hell!”
Molech relaxed back from the bars, the crooked grin melting into a satisfied smile.
The next morning Roger Zaha awoke to a nightmare. He was dressed in prison fatigues and stood behind the bars of a cell. Cell F66.
“What the…hey!” Zaha grabbed at the barred cell door and shook it fiercely. “Hey,” he screamed, “what the hell… what’s going on… what is this… some kind of crazy joke?”
“What’s the matter, Zaha?” A voice from one of the cells called out. “Don’t like the accommodations?”
“Oh, he’s too good for this,” a passing guard snapped back.
Another laughed. “Yeah, don’t you know… Zaha’s better than us!”
“Not anymore he ain’t!”
The cell block erupted in hoots and shouts and laughter. Tin cups raked and rattled against iron bars. Zaha covered his ears from the rising din. “This can’t be real… it can’t be…”
When he looked up, a uniformed guard stood outside his cell. But it wasn’t a guard, it was Ahriman Molech! Zaha lunged at him, grasping through the bars. Molech laughed and turned aside.
“Never have to work again,” he said. His voice was icy and hollow. “Everything you ever need, laid at your feet… at your feet, Zaha!” Molech’s footsteps clattered down the hall, the shillelagh rapping against one iron bar after another, his laughter dissolving in the distance. Just before he disappeared out of sight, Molech raised an arm, snapping his fingers.
At that moment a piece of paper floated down into cell F66. Zaha snatched it up in mid-air. It was a newspaper clipping dated Friday, January 18, 1935. Zaha’s hands trembled as he read:
(Atlanta, GA) Roger Zaha, the man known as
the Halloween butcher, began his life sentence
today at the federal penitentiary here in
Atlanta, the same place he had worked as a
guard. After a sensational trial, Zaha, 29, was
found guilty of the brutal Halloween night
murder of his five year old son, Roger Jr. Zaha
allegedly used a butcher’s knife to dismember
the boy’s body before burning it to conceal the
crime. During the trial, a police spokesman
testified that the cellar walls of Zaha’s Fulton
County home were splattered with the child’s
blood. Unconfirmed sources have stated Zaha
told police he sacrificed his son to appease Satan,
making vague references to Leviticus 20 and
Jeremiah 19 in the Old Testament.
The scream reverberated throughout the prison: the echoing howl of a banshee; the plaintive bay of a wolf caught in a steel trap; the cries of a thousand faceless tortured souls; the tormented scream of a madman.
“I’ll get you, Molech!” Zaha cried out, slumping to his knees. “I’ll get you! As God is my witness, I’ll find you! If it takes me eternity, by hell I’ll find you, Molech! I’ll make you pay… by Satan’s blood I’ll make you pay! Molech…!”
The inhuman screams continued through the night. In the morning Zaha was found in a heap on his cell floor. His bones were broken. His body was covered in thick crimson welts, ugly festering purple and black bruises, and dozens of deep cuts and gashes. It was as if some sinister hand had thrown him about like a rag doll. Dark rust red colored blood was splattered across the cell walls.
Roger Zaha recovered. He spent the rest of his life in cell F66. He didn’t work. Everything he needed was brought to him, just as Ahriman Molech promised.
Zaha died in 1974, still vehemently claiming his innocence. Shortly after, inmates began to mysteriously disappear throughout the prison.
Eighteen to date.
Since that January night in 1935, Atlanta Federal Penitentiary’s halls echo with torturous screams. And its cold stone walls run rich with the dark rust red inmates call Satan’s Blood.
October 31, 2000 2:25 AM
The scratching continued.
I could feel the presence of a pair of cold, unblinking eyes. They stared out from a shadowy corner; searched the dusky light for an errant cornflake or a few stray bread crumbs.
You get used to the nightly scratching and prowling after a while. Some of the guys save their breakfast cereal to feed the rats.
Like I said, it’s no big deal.
Unless the scratching stops.
The scratching stopped after a time. There was a frantic flurry of nails trying to gain traction on the slick, painted cement floor. A few feckless squeals.
You see, the rats know.
“Thank God, theys gone,” the stranger mumbled hoarsely. “That’s ok, right, boss?”
From the position of his voice I could tell he was sitting up again, probably huddled in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat.
I wanted to speak, say something. Tell him: no, it’s not ok, ’cause when the rats run away…
A dry terror crawled up my throat, silencing my words, stitching my lips together. Above me, Nathan folded himself into a tight ball. I knew he was facing the wall, covers pulled over his head, an unavailing defense against the unknown. His usual position when the scratching stopped and the rats ran away.
I knew the position too well.
Boisterous hip hop blared from the tiny ear buds. Nathan had cranked the Walkman’s volume. As if music could drown the fear. From beneath my own covers I cursed for not keeping the radio myself.
The first scream is always the worse. No matter how many you experience. The piercing shriek grabs you by the balls. It squeezes so tightly the back of your brain aches, like the first stabs of the mother of all migraines.
I knew the stranger wanted to say something, maybe scream himself. He shuffled nervously on the floor. Fear had stitched his lips together as well.
If you are not too terrified to listen – if you dare listen at all – you might discern a voice in the truculent wailing:
Shrill. Strained. Raspy.
Tortured. As if imparting pain.
Another twisted howl rent the stagnant air. Then the pounding began, far down the hall.
Closer. Four cells down.
A low, algid fog crept into the cell, like the Avenging Angel.
“Sweet, Holy Jesus.” The solicitous stranger’s whispered prayer floated up from the floor next to me.
The pounding thundered, as if we were trapped inside the breech of discharging cannon.
Lights flickered on at five AM. The food traps in the cell doors hammered open one by one. Footsteps scuffled outside the cell.
“Hey, I thought there were three in here?”
Bleary eyed I accepted the plastic trays from the guard. On the cell floor lay the tattered mattress, old army blanket and stained sheet.
And one lone shoe.
Trembling, I passed a tray up to Nathan.
“The marshals’ probably yanked his ass up out of here during the night,” another guard replied. “You know how the feds operate, they never tell us anything.”
Nathan and I ate our cold cereal and hard, butter-less toast in silence.
It wasn’t the federal marshals.
The stone walls in our cell dripped silently…
…an icy rust red…
18 and up
Excellent short story for collections of horror, urban fiction or general fiction
Prison is bad enough, but what if the prison is haunted?
A young man finds himself in federal prison, locked away in the infamous Atlanta State Prison. He soon learns first hand the frightening secrets contained behind the cold iron bars and ancient concrete walls.
This work will appeal to New Adult and adult readers of general fiction, horror and sci-fi/fantasy.
BJ Neblett is a full time writer with two books and numerous short stories published. His newest novel, Planet Alt-Sete-Nine, a contemporary urban fantasy is due out Fall 2017. BJ teaches creative writing classes at Seattle's famed Hugo House for Writers and has taught ACE writing classes in several locations. He can be found in his Seattle home playing and listening to music, surrounded by his classic guitar collection and his thousands of records.
BJ graduated from Marple Newtown High School where he majored in writing and poetry. After service in the Army he began writing in earnest, being mentored by several writers and writing groups. Drawing on a 30 year career as a radio DJ, BJ finds inspiration in the crazy, colorful characters he has encounter, as well as the irony he finds all around. Preferring the short story format, his writing style encompasses strong characters and richly defined plots.