The cages did nothing to block either the flames or smoke, but the smoke concerned him the most. He tore a strip of fabric from his mattress and tied it over his mouth and nose. Fear and instinct commanded he open his burning eyes to grasp the situation, but the noxious smoke hung like a curtain. He fashioned a blindfold and crouched in the middle of his wire mesh cell.
The screams and grunts of the inmates stuck in the exercise yard when the fire broke out echoed between intermittent bursts of gunfire emanating from guard towers and prison walls. Take your pick, either the smoldering volcano’s belly or target practice for Johnny Law. Next he heard the grating of metal on metal echo throughout the block as a section of cage doors opened. Inmates, loose on the inside now, did not celebrate their escape. Primitive, guttural noises and expletives burned his ears like the smoke burned his eyes.
A scuffle followed by a gargling noise and the thump of a limp body occurred just outside his own cage, the door of which he guessed was still shut. Oddly he could not decide whether he wished it open. Would he be meat cooked in a smoker, or given the option would he choose an unknown death outside the confinement of his cage? A coughing fit overwhelmed him, and he hugged his knees tight in an effort to arrest his seizing body. Another minute inside and he knew he would be dead. God, anything would be better than this.
A fresh wind blew across his face, and he sucked in a ragged breath. He tore the blindfold from his eyes squinting through the swollen sockets. Slashes of white light cut through the smoke, a glint revealing his cage door to be open. He scuttled forward and discovered it sliced clean from its moorings rather than released mechanically. Razor sharp edges flashed in another burst of light.
The smoke crowded him again, leaving him no time to ponder the predicament, as he lurched into the hall between the cages and tripped over a body. To his horror, the head was absent. Half in shock, half in awe, he froze there. Holding himself up with his hands planted in a growing pool of blood, he spotted the detached head only inches away. That’s a hell of a thing, he thought.
A mammoth grip yanked him up by the back of his neck cracking his spine. “Hello, pretty. Admiring my work?”
“Not him.” Another voice rose over the tumult, somewhere before him.
“Like hell not him. When’s it become your business who’s to die and who’s to live? I’ve not hit my quota.”
“But not him,”the second voice spoke firmly as its owner stepped into view through the smoke.
“You dull twit. One last time, why the hell not?”
“Because he’s your replacement.”
It was then he noticed a set of scales in the left hand of the skeletal figure before him. They tipped from balanced to wanting and a blinding, white light shot out from them. Immediately the grip released him to the floor. A long gasping wheeze preceded a falling powder, and his captor was gone.
The man with the scales reached down and pulled him up. “Your prayers have been answered,” he said flatly.