CHARGES: Meet Roth
Every story needs a villain, and in Charges it’s a cop-killing sociopath named Roth. While detestable and uncompromising when it comes to hunting down his quarry, Roth is also a smart guy who knows how to play people so they do his bidding. He has a cold charisma that keeps him going when killing will not. After a global EMP event, the United States of America is just the kind of place for him: A disintegrating nation where the truly murderous can finally succeed at what they do best.
After three days without power, the Pennsylvania Federal Penitentiary reeked of feces, sweat, urine, and garbage.
Even for a man of Roth’s considerable discipline, it was difficult to endure the deteriorating conditions. The heat and humidity seemed to grow daily, and the lack of running water meant there were more than a few full toilets. The guards and civilian employees had been delivering buckets of water to use to flush the commodes once a day, but that had ended when one of the inmates had tried to escape. He’d been shot dead, but the result was that the prison staff refused to expose themselves to danger on a daily basis just to flush some toilets.
So Roth and the others were subjected to the mounting stench of piss and shit. If the prison staff had thought that would make the convicts compliant, they had failed miserably. Angry shouts and taunts ripped through the cell blocks, as prisoners alternately threatened and pleaded to be given water. Several shouted that they still had rights; others yelled that they would be happy to rip off the warden’s head and shit down his neck.
Then, some of the convicts died from heat exhaustion, right in their racks. As the temperatures inside the cell blocks rose into the nineties, with humidity levels to match, the older or weaker simply expired. Roth lay in his rack, sweating and trying not to puke his guts out from the infernal stench.
Once a day, the prisoners were released from their cells for food in the equally hot and miserable cafeteria. Half the time, the chow was approaching inedible—poorly heated, definitely never refrigerated, and entirely bland. The food inside the penal system was downright lousy in the best of times, but the loss of power hit things like food preparation especially hard. Roth was sure it wouldn’t be long until he and the rest of the prison population were receiving stripped Meals Ready to Eat, which was probably a step in the right direction. Like every other man in the prison, Roth was sufficiently institutionalized to eat the mystery meats they put in front of him, but he would never learn to like it. Something like an MRE could only increase the fun factor, even if the worst entrees were served twelve months past their shelf life.
They would shuffle into the large commissary, take whatever they were given, and get thirty minutes to eat. After that, they got an hour of yard time. Before, being in the yard always made Roth feel a bit weak and helpless. He was at the mercy of the general population, which was random at best, chaotic at worst. Once, he had watched the guards shoot a white man dead as he rammed a shiv into a black man’s neck over drug money. It was wasted effort—the black man died, too. But the guards basically didn’t give a shit, which suited him fine, as Roth didn’t give a shit about them either, and if he ever had the opportunity, he would kill as many of them as he could.
On the afternoon of the eighth day after the lights went out, Roth and fifteen of his block mates were led to the commissary. As was the custom, they allowed the black inmates to enter first. There was no free seating. The protocol was you simply grabbed your meal and sat down in the next available space. The whites, blacks, and Latinos never mixed if they could avoid it. Only the Asians, of whom there were four that Roth knew of, would cross racial lines, and when they did, they chose to sit with the whites. But other than that, it was bad news for the races to mix, especially the blacks and the whites. If one white had to sit at a table of blacks or vice versa, that person was forbidden from speaking. It was the way things were. Roth knew that if he spoke to a black man during a meal, it could mean a severe beating from the other whites or worse. The pecking order had to be maintained.
The new kid, some wild-eyed murderer and drug dealer named Blackie—a funny name, since he was practically an albino—would have to sit with the black crew. Usually a seventy-seven-year-old man called Stewie would volunteer for the duty, but Stewie was one of the guys who had up and died in the heat, so Blackie was nominated. Roth was sure his name would make him popular with his new dining companions.
Meals were prepared by other convicts behind gated windows that allowed for no contact. In years past, Roth had been told that one could barter for extra rice and no meat, or an extra hair-thin sliver of corn bread. But that contact had been closed off. Unless you had a friend who knew you on sight, you got the same tired shit as everyone else did. Like the rest of the convicts, Roth worked for a living. He made forty cents an hour as a groundskeeper, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, shoveling snow, and anything else that needed doing. With that money, he was able to procure foods from the commissary that were preferred alternatives to mystery meat and unspiced fare like rice, mashed potatoes, and the absolutely revolting chicken casserole. But that had ended on day four of the power outage. There was nothing left to buy. Roth had no choice but to suck it up and deal with it.
He took his plate of cold mystery meat—supposedly chicken fried steak, but even rats and roaches wouldn’t eat it—and moved to the table next to the black sheep squadron. As he walked past, one of the black inmates, Rollo, gave him the stink eye. The rotund man with protruding eyes and a severely receding afro hated Roth for reasons that remained a mystery. Roth suspected it was because Roth had an education, a master’s degree in political science. Or perhaps it was because they were both cop killers, but Roth had murdered more law enforcement officers in three years across twelve states than Rollo had managed in a lifetime of murders in the south. Professional rivalry.
“Bitch, yo ass mine,” Rollo hissed.
A prison guard stood at the head of his table, looking down at the black sheep squadron and poor Blackie as they wrestled with the day’s feast. “Knock that shit off, or you’re headed for isolation,” the guard said.
Rollo had just come off a year of separation from the rest of g-pop, so he just stared down at his plate and tried to cut into the chicken fried steak with his plastic knife. Roth ignored the comment. If Rollo came after him, he wouldn’t leave the fight in one piece. Roth knew he didn’t look like much—six foot two and very thin, with a balding head and graying beard—but he didn’t get into the penitentiary system by accident. And he hadn’t gotten there by killing defenseless innocents, like one of his white associates did when he sprayed a school bus with a semiautomatic rifle then boarded it and finished the job with a nine-millimeter handgun. Roth had been incarcerated for killing fourteen armed law officers and severely disabling almost ten more in his spree before the long arm of the law had caught up to him.
Ah, the good times.
When the Ohio State Police managed to corner him, Roth didn’t resist. He became totally compliant and surrendered without issue. Not because he was frightened and didn’t want to die—David Elliott Roth had no issues with death. Death was going to find him one way or the other. He didn’t choose to enter into a gun battle with the state police because he knew that he would have the opportunity to kill again one day, and that was more precious to him than anything. Prison, he believed, was only a temporary condition.
As he sat down with the rest of the men at the second table, he was surprised to find there wasn’t a guard standing over them, watching them eat. He looked around as he tore open several packets of pepper and sprinkled their contents onto his food. Only the black and Latino tables had guards, which left the two tables of whites unmonitored.
“Looks like we finally get some privacy,” muttered Harley, a broad-shouldered biker with a nasty scar rippling up one side of his face. The mark started at his jaw line and finally petered out somewhere inside his bushy right eyebrow. The knotted tissue had made his eyebrow curl up like a question mark lying on its side. His long hair was streaked with gray, and Roth had learned he’d killed two men in a bar fight somewhere in Oklahoma while riding with a biker gang.
“Yeah, wonder what’s up with that,” Toombs said. He was a slow-witted southern boy from Alabama. Unlike Harley, his hair was high and tight, and on someone so pale and bone-thin, it gave him the appearance of being a dirty Q-Tip. “Heard some o’ the staff been leavin’.”
“Yeah? Where’d you hear that, Toombs?” Roth asked.
“I dunno. Just heard it.”
The problem with Toombs was that he heard a lot, and most of that was inside his head. He was bat-shit crazy, but like almost everyone in the lockup, he wasn’t a very nice person. Toombs liked to kill people as much as everyone did, and even though he definitely had a host of mental health issues and would have been better served in a mental institution, he had found his way into the US penal system. But if what the living, breathing Q-Tip beside him had said was true, it sparked a small flame of hope. Fewer guards means more chances to make it over the fence, he thought, as he cut up the chunk of tough mystery meat. He forked some into his mouth and chewed quickly so that he didn’t have to taste it for long.
“What’re you smiling over, Roth?” Harley asked, his voice a low rumble. “It’s like you enjoy the food, dude.”
Roth hadn’t realized he was smiling until Harley mentioned it, but he kept the potential rationale for glee to himself for the time being. To be free… to kill.
Despite the power failures, work still had to be attended to. Roth and his cohorts were to mow the yards inside the fence. Another group from the adjacent work camp would attend to the fields outside the wire. They were certified as lower risk than Roth and his fellows, still federal criminals but of a lesser variety: embezzlers, larcenists, and thieves who had managed to cross the punishment zone from state crimes to federal. Roth thought that they had it easy, and he chafed at the gutless wonders outside the wire receiving such light treatment.
The big Bobcat mower had an electric ignition system, but that was of no use anymore. Roth had to use the pull starter to get it going, and that worked just fine. He filled the green mower with gas, checked the oil, then primed the engine. As he was getting ready to start it, Blackie stepped into the utility shed. His face was made shiny by a sheen of sweat.
“Hey, Roth. Heard the niggers talking about stuff at lunch,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Then you shouldn’t believe whatever you heard,” Roth said. “You know they’ll say things that can lead you to trouble.”
“Dunno, man. They said that Pittsburgh is on fire. Some sort of riots going on there. And that a lot of the guards have vanished.”
That got Roth’s attention. He looked through the shed’s open door, where two armed corrections officers stood a few feet away. They were talking to each other while keeping their eyes on another group of prisoners weeding the small flower beds that surrounded the penitentiary. Usually, one guard would keep eyes on Roth as he prepped the Bobcat. After all, he had access to fuel and other chemicals, things that could conceivably be used as weapons. But the guards seemed distracted.
“Tell me more,” Roth said quietly, handing the gas can to Blackie. “Act like you’re filling up the mower.”
Blackie took the can and tilted over the opening in the fuel tank, spilling a little gas in the process. Roth grimaced. That would need to be wiped up before he could start the Bobcat.
“Three guys in their block didn’t show up for work today, and supposedly, the niggers overheard another guard saying he was taking PTO for the next few days,” Blackie said. “So that’s like an entire shift in that wing that’s gone, man.”
Roth considered that. Given that there were guards missing from the commissary, it kind of made sense. That the blacks discussed it in front of the guard standing at their table was a little odd, but meal times were one of the few times they could talk as a group. And though many of them were as dumb as bricks, Roth knew for certain that Rollo was anything but. While the balding black criminal was loathsome, he knew how to work the system, so their conversation had likely been in shorthand.
“How is it they let you hear this?” Roth asked.
“Roly-poly Rollo wants to talk to you, man,” Blackie said. “Asked me to pass it on to you.”
Roth raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? What does he want to ‘talk’ to me about?”
“Hey, Roth! You done in there?” one of the guards shouted as he walked toward the utility shed. “What’s the hold up?”
“Blackie spilled gas on the mower,” Roth said, picking up a rag and wiping off the tank. “He’s a stupid fuck. This is what I get for asking him to do something for once.”
“Hey, I was just tryin’ to help, man!” Blackie said, sounding genuinely hurt.
“Stop fucking around and get to work,” the guard snapped. His uniform had dark sweat patches under the arms.
“On it,” Roth said. When the guard turned back around, Roth asked Blackie, “Where does Rollo expect me to meet him?”
“Yard time,” Blackie said. “Wants you to keep it cool and on the down low. Also wants you to tell the rest of the guys that this is business, nothing else.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”
“Roth, move your ass!” the guard yelled. He stepped inside the shed, frowning behind his sunglasses and mustache. “What are you guys talking about in here?”
Blackie looked at Roth with disgust. “He’s just telling me what a stupid fuck I am, like usual,” the younger man said. “All I did was spill a little gas, trying to help him out!”
“Then stop trying to help, and get your ass out here!” the guard ordered. “Roth, move it! Now!”
“Sure thing,” Roth said, keeping his expression as vacant as possible though it was almost impossible for him to overcome the urge to take the guard out, right then and there. He knew how to do it, even though the man was armed. Roth could gain control of the weapon and drill the second guard in the right eye before she could do anything. But he didn’t know exactly where the tower snipers were positioned or who they were covering, and that meant he could be popped the second he stepped out of the shed. He vented some frustration by savagely yanking on the Bobcat’s pull starter. It took three hard tugs, but the green piece of shit’s engine finally sputtered to life.
Soon enough, he thought, glancing up at the guard as he grabbed the big mower’s handles and engaged the drive gear.
Roth, along with Harley and a huge white con named Chester, approached the gang of black prisoners hanging out in their corner of the yard. They came to a halt several feet away, acting as if they were having a conversation amongst themselves. It wasn’t much of a ruse, but it was the best they could come up with; Roth definitely wasn’t going to meet with Rollo alone. It wasn’t that Roth didn’t think he couldn’t handle his fellow inmate in a fight, but he knew Rollo would never try him mano a mano anyway. He’d show up with friends, just as Roth had brought a couple of his own.
After a few minutes, Rollo detached himself from the group and sauntered over to where Roth stood a few feet from his two guys. He asked Roth for a cigarette, a remarkable breach of etiquette. Roth had one last crinkled pack of Winstons, which he never smoked but used to barter with. A single cigarette could get a man a lot of things in the big house. Roth shook one out and handed it over, keeping his face blank and expressionless.
Rollo took it and eyed Harley and Chester for a long moment. “Maybe we can do this without an audience.”
“You don’t want an audience, send someone else,” Roth said.
Rollo considered that. “Heh. Okay.” He turned and looked through the fence behind him. The work camp crew had already finished their work, who were staring back at them. “We gonna make a break,” Rollo said. “World’s gone to shit. No power anywhere. Heard the sun did that shit, man.”
Roth didn’t say anything. He’d heard the same, and he understood the ramifications of a gigantic EMP burst that could have fried the entire world’s power grids.
“Guards, they be leavin’. Staff, they be leavin’. Soon, they’ll just lock us up in our cells, and that be it. We’ll starve. Or die from the goddam heat. They ain’t gonna let us go, and they can’t take care o’ us. So we need to break outta here before they put us in our cages and leave us to rot.”
“So what do you want from me, Rollo?”
“Brothers can’t do it alone. Need some help. You’re a smart fuck; you do the math.”
“So what’s in it for me?” Roth asked.
“You get to kill as many o’ the guards as you want. And after that, we go our own ways. I got people to see on the outside. Not gonna waste a second of it messin’ with you.”
Roth didn’t believe that for a second. But it didn’t matter, not right now. If Rollo and his band were able to get enough action started to make it outside, then the risk was worth it. Besides, while Rollo might make promises he wouldn’t keep, Roth would do no such thing. He’d kill Rollo the second he had a chance.
“So what’s your plan?” Roth asked.
“You good with a gun, right? I hear you’re like some kinda superman with a gun.”
“Yes,” Roth said. “I’m good with firearms.”
“You military or somethin’?”
Roth shook his head. He didn’t see the need to give the guy any more information.
Rollo shrugged his shoulders. “’Kay. Don’t matter. What if I get you a pistol? You any good with that?”
Roth slightly inclined his head toward one of the guard towers. “See that guy up there?”
“With a nine-millimeter, I can hit him twice in the right eye from where we’re standing right now, and do it on the move. Then I can turn and take out the second tower. Less than two seconds. But the ground needs to be clear. I can’t work like that with guards coming at me on the ground. Give me enough time to clear the towers, then I can clear the ground. But the towers have to go first.”
“You serious?” Rollo asked. “You’re really that good?”
“I did the same thing in Colorado, with two cops standing above me on high ground. They had me in sight, and were drawing down on me. I took them both out. Less than two seconds,” Roth emphasized. “If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t put myself in the position where I’d have to try.”
Rollo nodded. “’Kay, man. I feel you. You let us take care of the ground work. You hit the towers. It’s gonna happen out here, obviously. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. You need to keep up with things. Get your boys lined up. We gotta work together to get control of the yard then the rest of the prison long enough for us to get out of here.”
“We gonna spring everyone?”
“You want to take time to do that?”
“No. I don’t.”
“There’s your answer, then. Stay sharp.” Rollo looked down at the cigarette for a moment then flicked it at Roth. “Here. I don’t want your cancer stick.”
“Might as well keep it, Rollo. I’m not going to touch it after you did.”
Rollo’s thick lips curled up into a feral smile. “You got nerve, boy. That’s why I come to you.” He turned away and headed back to his group.
From the corner of his eye, Roth had seen one of the guards in the towers watching the entire exchange, but he and Rollo had kept their faces angled downward as they talked. No lip reading was likely to have occurred, and without power, they didn’t have to worry about electronic surveillance.
“So what was that all about?” Harley asked as Roth sauntered back to them.
“We might be getting out of here,” Roth said.
“Well, either that, or a lot of us are just going to get killed.”
Charges drops tomorrow.