The Holy Corridor

“Charlie, I ain’t seen digs like this for a long time,” Ben said as he wandered about the stately room, one of many in the immense house. “And that suit fits you good.”

“When you’re on the run, I suppose you don’t get to see the interiors of mansions,” Charlie said, unlocking his liquor cabinet. “Or tailors’ shops, for that matter. You are indeed a mess. Remind me to take care of those rags later.”

“I see that money buys new friends as well as booze and clothes.”

“The ominous gentlemen standing behind you aren’t friends, but they can be compared to my liquor selection. Each one is the finest money can buy, from various parts of the world. Each one is unique and serves only me.”

Charlie’s bodyguards stood apart, near one of the two doors in the room. They were quiet and still, as though living for his next command.

Ben felt uncomfortable in their presence when he entered the house only minutes before. This feeling paled next to the shock he felt when the large men grabbed him out the alley where he was sleeping.

“Your finest gave me a scare when they found me,” he said in his grisly voice.

“Actually Ben, they didn’t find you. I found you, as difficult as it was. Months ago. You were in the jaws of a homeless shelter, living off the state for as long as you could before you had to run away again. Can’t let anyone know your identity, now can you?” Charlie swung open the stained glass cabinet doors and eyed the rows of beautiful antique bottles. “Magnificent, aren’t they? I’ve been collecting them since I was let out of Holiner. Each one tells a story.”

Ben felt a lump in his throat when Charlie mentioned that place. Perhaps it was the sparking of horrible memories. Perhaps it was guilt.

“How long were you in there, 100 years?” he tried to say laughingly.

“22 years, but no less than 100, it seemed,” Charlie replied, still searching for the right drink. He reached in the back of his collection and brought out a dusty gray bottle. “How’s this? Austrian, 1908. Wonderful yard, I’m led to believe. “

“Sure, I love a good wine as much as anyone. Grape juice with a kick.”

“Actually, it’s cognac. I’ve been saving it for our inevitable reunion. It was the first thing I bought when I was let out of Holiner, I couldn’t resist. They gave me a set of clothes, a bus ride to town, and fifty dollars. Forty dollars went to the cognac.”

“I’m touched,” Ben said. The last thing he wanted to talk about was their time at Holiner. He was afraid of bringing up something dangerous, something that would erase their years apart.

Upon his expanse of a desk, Charlie set down two elegant goblets, with the bottle of cognac between them. He then snapped his fingers, sending a servant out of the room.

Ben drooled at the thought of the liquor, trickling at first, then pouring down his palate. Over the years, he had grown an unfortunately attachment to such tastes.

“It must be hard to have limited freedom,” Charlie said. “You made it out of Holly, free as a bird, but a hunted one, doomed to be chased by the law for the rest of your life. I recently saw, on television, a 90-year-old getting caught and tossed back into prison after escaping when he was 24. Can you imagine that? The media can be a powerful tool. I’d be nervous if I were wearing your clothes.”

“You gonna turn me in, Charlie?” Ben asked with an uneasy smile. “I hear there’s a hefty price on my head.”

“Do I look as though I need financial assistance? The chandelier above you costs more than the reward for your capture, and I have at least one in every room. No, my friend, I actually sent for you so that I may reunite us before the authorities become skillful.”

“Then what’s for me to be nervous about?” Ben said with his usual raspy voice of confidence. “I’ve made it this far, more than 25 years. I can make it to the end.”

“Yes indeed, you were always... the lucky one..”

The stoic servant returned with a corkscrew, linen napkins, and a fine wooden box that looked as if it were designed for a fancy pen. Charlie plunged the screw into the cognac, pausing in reflection of what he had just said.

“But to live this way,” he continued, “always dirty, always looking over your shoulder, no one knowing who you really are. This is no way to live. When we were lads, everyone know who Bennie and Charlie were.”

“That they did,” Ben said, smiling with pride. “If they knew what was good for ‘em!”

“But things change, I suppose. My name is still spoken, just in different circles.”

“Is all this stuff hot or clean?”

“A fine blend of both. I enjoy balancing the two. It keeps me on my toes, as I’m sure you’re on yours.”

“That I am,” Ben said, waiting for the cognac.

“I remember you were very alert the day of the breakout.” Charlie poured the liquor into his goblet, preparing to fill his friend’s as well.

Ben placed a hand over his glass as the bottle was tilted. He sensed something was in the air, and he wanted to clear it before his drink was poured. “What do you mean, Charlie? Is there something you want to get off your chest?”

“I suppose you could say that, Ben.” Charlie looked at his suspicious friend, giving him a reassuring smile.

Ben relaxed his hand, allowing Charlie to fill his goblet. He scrutinized the stream of liquid for a brief moment, as if to find something. “Share it with me then,” he said. “Come on, Charlie, you never could fool me.”

Charlie set the bottle down and reclined in his leather chair, picking up his goblet. “It sounds odd hearing ‘Charlie’. No one’s called me that since... well, since Holiner.”

“That tears it!” Ben said abruptly, bolting up from his chair. The bodyguards altered their stance slightly. Ben knew they’d be on him quick if needed. “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder about our days in the joint. I ain’t touching that booze until we settle this.”

“Afraid of a drink?” Surely, your immune system must be numb against such things by now.”

“I’ve always been able to drop your ass. It was true the day I took you off the streets, and it’s true now.”

“I was barely 19 then,” Charlie said, holding his drink up to the room light. “I’m much older now, and I have these able men working for me. I assure you, at the blink of an eye, any one of them can give you a bullet before your next breath. However, that will not happen.”

“Don’t count this old man out,” said Ben. “I’m all leather after what life’s dealt me.” He looked at the floor in thought, noticing the silence that stood between he and Charlie. A quick deduction of his odds against these men also came to mind. “Look, I’m gonna tell ya, things haven’t been great. I’m a bum. In a way, you should be happy you didn’t make it out. Feel lucky that the Man made you stick to your years.”

Charlie raised his glass to take a drink, pausing just as the rim was near his lips. “You are right about some things, Ben. There is a chip on my shoulder. It does regard Holiner State Prison. But it wasn’t about our days there, rather one particular day.”

“The breakout.”

“Drink your cognac.”

“After you,” Ben said, sitting back in his chair. “You seem like you’re waiting for me. It would be rude for a guest to take the first drink.”

“Please Ben, give me some dignity. You can smell it, swish it in your mouth if you want. I promise, I won’t take much offense.”

“I taught you everything. You know as well as I do that poisons don’t always need a taste or smell. Now are you gonna drink, or is there gonna be an ugly scene?”

Charlie looked at his drink again. He put the goblet to his lips and slowly took in the fine spirit, swishing it in his mouth, then swallowing it quickly. “The most delicious poison I’ve ever tasted. Quite robust.”

Ben felt satisfied and engulfed his entire cognac. Charlie filled both their glasses again, and they shared another drink surrounded by a tense quiet. Though Charlie was drinking along with him, Ben couldn’t shake the feeling that he was making an unwise decision.

“I must take a moment to congratulate myself,” Charlie said, grinning. “As you’ve stated, I’ve never been able to fool you. Never before now.”

Ben stopped gulping his liquor and spit out the little amount he had in his mouth.

“You taught me a lot of things,” Charlie continued, “how to steal, how to lie, how to bleach guilt. But again, I’m older now, and have learned a few things since then.” He noticed doubt in his friend’s face. “Your glass was lined with the poison this entire time. It mixed with the cognac instantly.”

Ben wasn’t sure, but his instincts were telling him that Charlie wasn’t lying. “You son of a bitch,” he said, ready to hurl his goblet. “I should’ve known you’d be trouble. When these goons told me who wanted to see me, I should’ve took off running. You want revenge? For what? You blame me for making you a crook? I didn’t force you to pull those jobs with me. And before we were nabbed, you didn’t seem to have any problems robbing folks. You blame me for your stretch in the joint? Face it, I made it out, you didn’t. Tough crackers, pal. It’s not my fault that you didn’t have what it took.”

Charlie corked the bottle and placed it back into the cabinet. There was a confidence about him that used to belong to Ben when they were in the same gang, when they were sharing the same prison sentence. A new man was at the controls now, and it was a first for Ben. He’d never been scared like that before.

“So what’s this stuff, Charlie? Am I gonna have the hiccups till Christmas? Am I gonna itch for the next six months? Am I gonna pass out and wake up on the front steps of the 15th Precinct?”

Charlie cupped his hands on his desk, speaking with a eerily calm demeanor. “Your insides will melt into slush, as will your skin. Along the way, your eyesight will fade, your hearing, your sense of touch. By then, however, your brain’s synapses will have become broth, so you won’t feel much. The climactic finale to this retribution, of course, is the inevitable being known as Death.”

Ben was taken aback by the calculating manner in which Charlie delivered his words. He’d never been the type to kill, that was always Ben’s department. Somehow, he knew that the terror he was feeling was not unwarranted.

At that moment, he felt a surge within his stomach. Something was indeed happening to him. This only doubled the fear that was overtaking him.

“Name it,” he said to his host as he clutched his stomach. “Name it Charlie. You got me. What is it you want?”

“You have no funds,” Charlie said, “or possessions of any kind. You have no identity, so I can’t blackmail you, and you can’t get a job to pay me money for the rest of your life. You’re too old to be of any use to my business, and too wanted to be seen near me as my slave.”

“There’s gotta be something you want from me, you son of a bitch. You had this planned, I know you did. Stop fucking around.”

Charlie sat in his deep leather chair, tilted back with his feet on the lavish desk. He looked up at the marble ceiling as he spoke. “Do you remember what we called the breakout?”

“What?” Ben was confused by the sudden change in tone.

“Do you remember what the escape plan was called? The plan was most ingenious, I must commend you on that. We had a name for it.”

“I don’t know, I forgot. It was a long time ago.”

“Funny you feel that way,” Charlie said, “because it’s burned into my memory. ‘The Holy Corridor’ we called it. Looking back at the plan now, it was beautiful.”

He picked up the small wooden box from his desk and blindly held it into the air. On cue, one of his servants took the box from his hand and carried it out of the room.

“What was that?” Ben asked, afraid of the answer.

“You’ll see in a moment.” Charlie drank the rest of his liquor and sat quietly in his chair.

“How long?” asked Ben. “How long before...”

“One hour.”

“One hour!”

The pain was spreading throughout Ben's body. The agony was intense. There were moments when it was all he could do just to remain standing. Ben was brought to a fear he’d never imagined. It was tempting to ask to be shot instead.

“You’ve given me one hour to live, you bastard! How can you just sit there while I die? We were a team, you and me!”

“It was just 300 feet long,” Charlie said as he pictured the past and ignored Ben’s torment. “Seemed much longer back then.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben screamed.

“The Holy Corridor, 300 feet long, 50 feet wide, yet it seemed like a vast warehouse. A section of the power plant below the prison had water running underneath it, water and sewage and other unspeakables. Our power came from a nearby waterfall, and huge canals were everywhere. Across one of them was Heaven. Freedom. We just had to figure out a way across.

“We connected utility piping together until we had a weak bridge that crossed the canal. It was only an inch or two wide, but you were sure it would hold us, one at a time. To ensure that we weren’t followed, you cut the power tubes and tossed the exposed cables into the canal. Brilliant. The river of filth below was alive with electricity. Only desperate men would be able or willing to get across, not the guards earning their two bits an hour.

“On the day of the breakout, we hopped onto the bridge and made our way down the corridor, crossing the baptizing waters. You made it across easy, always the athletic one. But I was not so sure of myself. I froze on the middle of the pipe bridge, terrified of losing my balance and falling into the water to be deep-fried. Never made it across, I was so scared.

“I looked over to where you were and didn’t see you. I thought they nabbed you, and was picturing the guards beating the tar out of you. I even considered the possibility that a guard tower pig popped you with his rifle. It wasn’t until weeks later, when I was rotting in solitary, that I found out you made it, and left me alone to fend for myself.”

Charlie turned to face Ben, his brow turned inward, a stone look about him. Ben was sure that his captor was capable of anything now.

“Listen to me,” Ben said slowly and clearly. “You’re better off. You made your sentence stick, and now you’ve got clout again. Look around you. This house, those clothes. You’re big-time, bigger than we ever were back in the day. Me, what do I got? Nothing! Homeless, the cops want me, I can’t stay in one spot, can’t keep a job. Why would you want to mess with a skid like me? What could I have taken from you that was so bad?”

“Like I told you, Ben,” Charlie said. “I never made it across that bridge.”

He lifted his shirt above his head, exposing his chest and back. The grotesque, discolored contortions and puffy labyrinths of dripping flesh were beyond disfigurement. From the neck down, Charlie simply wasn’t human. He looked as if he should have been screaming in pain, as if he should have been screaming constantly for the rest of his life.

“My lower body is much worse. My legs appear almost unrecognizable. They barely fit in my pants.”

“Holy shit,” Ben murmured, finding himself backing away from the hideous sight.

“Fortunately, the canal was only so deep. My head and hands were above the surface, so they were spared, more or less. Doctors called my survival no less than a miracle.”

Ben tried to convince himself that it was all a joke, that Charlie was wearing a body suit of some kind. But the more he looked at the pulpy figure of a man, the more he realized it couldn’t be a trick. “I’m sorry Charlie, I didn’t know.”

“Of course not. You were too busy expanding the distance between the prison and yourself. So busy, in fact, that you let me fry, screaming out for anyone to remove me from the water. I must have cooked for nearly a minute. I waited to die, I hoped to die. Some say I was lucky. With that, I tend to disagree.” Charlie took a cigar from his inside pocket and lit it. He reclined in his chair, enjoying the Latino smoke. “But let’s get to matters at hand. I have a gift for you.”

Two of Charlie’s massive servants walked to Ben’s side, gesturing for him to rise. They escorted him to a set of ornate double doors that stood near the liquor cabinet, opposite the exit.

“Open the doors,” Charlie said, as if it were a suggestion rather than a command.

Ben’s first reaction was to refuse to cooperate. A sudden burst in his chest, followed by deep pains in his gut, reminded him of his disadvantage. “I didn’t want this, Charlie. I never wished this on you.”

“When you’ve invested in revenge for as long as I have, you can forget or dismiss the reasoning behind things. You can replace justified retribution with symbolism. Call this a symbol, of our renewed friendship, and of my quelled anguish.”

Ben hoped for the worst to pass quickly, and opened the doors before him. The silence that passed through the doorway was dominant, and Ben saw nothing inside at first. It was dark to a point where all light seemed to die. A moment later, dim lamps came on, exposing a most devilish design.

“The Holy Corridor,” Charlie said. “An exact replica, true in every detail to the original. Every spot of mildew, every insect, every drop of infected water. I’ve even had a sound system installed to help recreate the blazing roars of the machinery back at Holly. Doesn’t this bring it all back, friend?”

Ben’s pains were becoming more possessive, and he would normally have dropped to the floor by that point. He knew, however, that if he were to live he needed to bite the bullet and do whatever Charlie had in mind.

The obsession behind what Charlie set up was frightening. Just as he said, the recreation of the breakout was perfect. Ben could tell that it must have taken months, perhaps years, to build something so immense, so detailed. “What do I do, Charlie?”

“You know what to do,” Charlie said. “Make it to freedom, just like you did decades ago. Freedom now being the serum for your ailment, which you’ll find on the other end of that bridge.”

The corridor’s pipe bridge looked just as weak as the original bridge, made of various sized pipes hooked together in a hurry. At the end of the corridor stood a small table with the fine wooden box on it. From its long, narrow shape, Ben knew that was his freedom. A syringe full of it.

“If there’s anything missing, let me know now,” said Charlie, “and I’ll remedy the mistake.”

“Dogs,” Ben said, hoping it would buy him more time. “There was a pack of guard dogs at the end. They attacked me the second I hopped off the pipe bridge.”

“Oh, they’re present. As I recall, they didn’t pounce on you, revealing themselves, until you were inches away from escape. Now if you’ll step onto the piping, we can get this underway. The sooner you start, the sooner you finish, and we can resume our friendship again.”

Ben carefully stepped onto the bridge, feeling it wobble with the slightest touch. “I tell you one thing, Charlie,” he said. “Whether or not I make it past this, we will not be friends.”

“In that case, you are nothing but entertainment,” said the demented Charlie, strangely upset with what Ben said. “My only effort will be to enjoy popcorn while I watch you die. You will most likely die, of course. The sole alteration I made to the replica was an increase in voltage. This water is quite a bit more fierce than that of Holiner’s, and I suspect it will eliminate any chance of survival should you fall in.”

Ben took a few quick steps across the bridge, scooting along the way he did when he was younger, no less desperate. “What happens after I make it? He yelled, concentrating on his feet.

“If you make it, including past the dogs, I will shut off the power and you can safely join me on this side, wading through the once-deathly water in a victory dance if you so desire.”

Ben barely heard his captor as he balanced himself, moving down the pipe with careful pace. For what seemed like hours, the simulated sounds of machinery blared into his head, accompanied by a rain of insects peppering his face and arms. He was going to make it, he could feel it. The box was within clear sight, only twenty feet more to go.

Suddenly, an enormous blast of scorching hot air shot out of one of the machine walls, making the entire corridor rumble as if a freight train was passing overhead. The piping shook, and Ben flailed his arms wildly, trying to recapture balance. In the distance, he could hear Charlie laughing, munching on popcorn, waiting for the finale of his grand production.

About to fall into the scathing river, Ben blindly leaped for the ledge ahead of him. His fingers miraculously caught the wet concrete, and he dangled inches from the water. It made a crackling sound that sent fear through him, mentally pulling him downward.

Straining to climb out of the canal, he felt sharp stabs on his hands. The drowning thunder of dogs barking was all around him. He wearily hung onto the ledge, watching hordes of beasts tear at his flesh.

“Wonderful, aren’t they?” Charlie bellowed over the sound system. “I wager any one of these handsome fellows could rip a Holliner dog to shreds. Where were they when we needed them?”

Ben shoved at the dogs, sometimes holding onto the ledge with only one arm. He made his way up to level ground. The dogs made it nearly impossible to get to his feet.

“I call them my Little Bennies,” Charlie continued, “because each one of them is the coldest, most evil bastard I could find.”

Ben swung his arms violently, grabbing at his dozen or so attackers. There was no way to hurt them in such large numbers, and nothing to hurt them with. Seeing one of the dogs dangerously close to the ledge gave him a thought.

He lunged at a group of dogs, sending them tumbling into the deadly water. He shoved the rest of them in, one by one, until there were no killers sharing his floor. The beasts were instantly destroyed by the unimaginable intensity of the voltage. Their bodies bled from every pore, twisting into bizarre contortions as they cried. Ben felt queasy from this sight, remembering that it was intended for him.

Turning around, he was eye-level with the wooden box. He slid it off its table and held it high above his head. I’ve got your box!” he screamed down the corridor at Charlie. “I’ve got your fucking box!”

Charlie sat in his chair, quiet, his face emotionless. He removed a remote control from his desk drawer and used it to shut off the power in the corridor. The various sounds from the corridor all stopped. “Good man,” he said. “You may return now.”

“How do I know the power is really off?” Ben asked, still catching his breath.

Charlie waved his hand at one of his bodyguard servants. The dark-suited man pulled up his sleeve and held his hand under the water’s surface. Seeing this, Ben jumped into the canal and headed back to his host’s parlor, drudging through the bloody remains of the pack of dogs.

“Congratulations,” Charlie said as Ben climbed out of the canal. “The main goal was to kill you, as you are probably aware, but part of me is happy that you’ve made it out. I don’t care how rich you are, a show like this just can’t be bought.”

“That it can’t,” Ben said, breathing heavily. “But now the show’s over.” He opened the slider wooden box in his hands expecting to see the syringe that would save his life. Instead, he found a silver fork and steak knife. “What the hell is this?”

“Freedom, as I promised.”

“What is this, a hoax? Am I really dying, Charlie?”

“Yes yes, you are most certainly dying. In no way did I arrange all this for nothing. In fact, the clock gives you only fifteen minutes before the poison kicks in beyond reversal. That’s just an estimate, of course.”

“You bastard.” Ben readied to tackle Charlie, but was halted by a deep pain in his stomach. He could feel his innards melting away. The two guards in the room held their guns close as he huddled into a ball, groaning, clutching his gut.

“Put the guns away,” Charlie told his servants. “The man is in no shape to...” A guard fell to the floor as Ben jammed the steak knife in his side. In an instantaneous blur, he stabbed at the man again and again, making sure he was out of the picture. He thrust his foot at the other guard just as he was about to fire. Another second later, Ben was on him, slashing, screaming. The servants died quite violently, and a suddenly scared Charlie called out for the others.

Ben took both of the guns lying on the bloody floor and fired two-handed mercilessly at the incoming guards, killing them in a slaughter before they knew what was happening. When the gunfire stopped, charlie and Ben were alone. To the old man’s dismay, Charlie had his own gun now, pointed straight at Ben’s head.

“I’ve never used this before,” Charlie said about his antique pistol, grasping for control. “The man I purchased it from assures me that no one has. Original condition. Flawless. It would be a shame for me to break the chain. But it would be an honor for you to be the first to fall to it.”

“Then pull the trigger,” Ben said flatly.

“Don’t you want to know where the serum is? I’d love for you to have it.”

Without a word, Ben raised his gun at Charlie, surprising his host. A second later, he fired, sending Charlie to his knees.

“You never were the killing kind,” Ben said in an exhale. “At least not when the chips were down, and you were face-to-face with a man.”

Charlie sat on the floor against the side of his desk, patiently awaiting his end. After an initial expression of searing pain, a smile formed on his face, trickling blood from its corners.

“I've received more than I bargained for,” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever have the courage to finish this miserable existence myself. My gratitude, Ben. My deepest gratitude.”

Ben’s body was failing him fast. His vision was starting to fade, and his skin was very cold. He was so weak, he could barely breathe. He rested his gun’s barrel against Charlie’s forehead. “Where’s the serum?” he asked calmly. “If there is one, I’d like to have it now.”

Charlie coughed up a little blood, making it difficult for him to speak. “You may fire if you wish, but I won’t deprive you of your life, friend. I’m a man of my word, always have been.”

“So where’s the needle? Where the syringe that was in this box?”

“Yes, I believe there was a syringe at first,” Charlie said, looking up at his chandelier. “I wanted to ensure you a hearty last meal in the probable event that you didn’t discover the serum in time. So I took the liberty of injecting it into one of the late Bennies. I hope your search is fruitful, as I would guess you only have a few minutes left. A few more minutes than myself.”

Upon that final word, Charlie collapsed, sliding down the desk’s side in a trail of blood. Ben listened for breathing, but there was none.

He was confused, not knowing what Charlie meant with his last words. After a moment of thought, he looked back at the red-stained canal, and realized in horror what he was about to do.

Holding the wooden box in his hand, he admired the beauty of the elegant utensils, walking back toward the corridor’s baptizing water.

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