viernes, 26 de enero de 2018

THE ROMM 1-3



 

CHAPTER ONE: UNDER THE LAW

1.
Frank Hinkle was staring at the murder weapon in his hand when Correctional Officer Rodgers called his name.
“Hinkle!”
Frank squeezed his eyes shut and muttered a near silent curse.
He had been standing in the prison yard, drifting. Not even thinking. Just drifting. It had been happening more lately, the sense that his mind had become un-anchored from reality. He would find himself standing in the middle of the yard with no idea how long he’d been there. The old timers said the longer you were inside, the more it happened. You would find yourself losing bits of everything—time, your personality, even the reality of the prison walls around you. Still, common or not, it was damn unsettling.
If he had seen the Newg striding toward him, he would have turned and walked the other way. But he had been drifting hard, and he didn’t see the Newg until the other man was up in his face.
The day Jerry Robinson arrived at NTCC, one of the men in the yard called him ‘the New Guy’. As a reward for this burst of wit, Robinson punched the inmate in the throat. In spite of the throat-punch, the nickname had stuck. Over the years, it had morphed from ‘the New Guy’ to ‘the Newg.’ and somewhere along the way the Newg had come to embrace his new name. He even had it memorialized on his right bicep in prison ink.
While the Newg wasn’t opposed to a good old-fashioned throat punch when the need arose, he now preferred to repay perceived slights with a shank. He’d doled out one such repayment only two days ago, and the COs were in an unusual hurry to find out who had stabbed the kid in the shower.
The Newg gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze as he spoke. “Man, I need your help. I know I ain’t paid you back for what you did before, so I feel real bad asking. But I ain’t got no choice.”
Frank blinked hard. His mind snapped back to reality, but he still felt like he was playing catch up, jumping into the middle of a conversation he didn’t fully understand.
The Newg must have taken Frank’s silence as permission to continue. “Need you to hold on to this for me.”
Something slipped into Frank’s hand. He didn’t have to look to see what the Newg had handed him. Frank’s mind, and his pulse, sped to life.
“Whoa, Newg,” he said. “I respect you, and you know I’d love to help. But you also gotta know I’m not putting a murder weapon in my bunk.”
The Newg’s face scrunched up in desperation. The man wasn’t handsome to begin with and the look did nothing to improve the situation. “You were at the laundry, right? They got you signed in at the time of death, and at least three guards laid eyes on you while you were working.”
“It doesn’t matter where I was. They’re going to keep tossing bunks until they find something. How did they not find this already?”
The Newg glanced around and lowered his voice. “I got a hiding spot in the yard. But it’s not the kind of spot that’s gonna withstand a full sweep.”
That was the moment the voice came, shouting his name like it was a cuss word. “Hinkle!”
The Newg looked up and the color drained from his face. He backed up. “Looks like Rodgers wants a word.”
“Newg!” Frank whispered as loudly as he dared. He still hadn’t turned to acknowledge the CO’s call. “Get back here and take this thing!”
The Newg wiggled his head back and forth, his eyes never leaving the figure behind Frank. “I appreciate this. I owe you double.” He turned and hustled away.
Frank remained frozen. There was nothing to do but wait for the inevitable. He snuck the shank into the waistband of his pants and pushed it down as far as he dared. If he shoved it down too far, it would fall down his pant leg and onto the ground. Guards tended to notice stuff falling out of the leg of an inmate’s pants. It was an all too common, last resort option for getting rid of contraband in the loose-fitting, pocketless prisoner’s clothing.
“Hinkle! You got shit in your ears? I’ve been calling your name for two minutes.”
Frank felt a hand on his shoulder, this one from behind him, and he grimaced. He turned and saw Correctional Officer Rodgers standing there, the light hint of a smile on his face. When CO Rodgers smiled, it was never a good sign.
Frank had most of the guards figured out, but Rodgers...Rodgers was different than the others. Rodgers was smart. He was good looking. He was an athlete. Fifteen years ago, Frank had been in the stands the day Rodgers had led the Bristol, Tennessee High School football team to a stunning victory over Virginia High. The kid had been a natural athlete.
Rodgers went on to play for UT his freshman year of college before being cut from the team as a sophomore. He finished school and got his degree in criminology. And then, for some reason, he had come to work with a bunch of dunces and thugs who’d barely made it through high school.
“Sorry about that,” Frank said. “I was spacing out. Didn’t hear you.”
Rodgers grunted. He nodded his head toward the Newg who was now halfway across the yard. “Having a little conversation with Robinson?”
Frank nodded, not quite meeting the other man’s eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Every time I give you a little bit of credit and start thinking maybe you're an actual human being with a functioning brain, you gotta turn around and prove me wrong. Why is that? Did you have to train hard to act so stupid or does it come naturally?”
The shank in Frank’s waistband felt huge. Rodgers had to see it. Any moment he would blow his little whistle and ten guards would sprint across the yard and tackle Frank to the ground.
Frank said, “I guess it comes naturally, boss.”
The smile faded from Rodgers’s face. “That was a rhetorical question, Hinkle. See what I’m saying? You just proved my damn point.” He grabbed Frank’s right arm and marched toward the administration building. “Come on. Warden wants to have a chat.”
“What?” Frank asked. He struggled to keep up without dislodging the shank from its precarious position. “What’s the warden—?”
Rodgers stopped and spun to face Hinkle. He leaned in close to the prisoner’s face. “Do me a favor. Keep your feet on that side of the yellow line and don’t speak unless you are asked a direct question.”
Frank may not have understood the inner workings of CO Rodgers’s mind, but he did know enough basic guard psychology to understand that Rodgers had no idea why the warden wanted to see him.
They stopped outside the door to the administration building. “Hands in front.”
Frank held out his wrists, and Rodgers clicked the handcuffs into place. “Okay, let’s move,” Rodgers said.
They entered the administration building and walked down a long, institutional gray hallway. It didn’t look much different from the other buildings in the NTCC except for the doors. They were standard office building doors with nameplates instead of the heavy metal monstrosities found in the rest of the prison.
Northern Tennessee Correctional Complex wasn’t a terrible place, at least as far as maximum security prisons went. The bizarre rule changes during Frank’s nine years inside had made things worse, but the location was still hard to beat. The prison was located in Rook Mountain, Tennessee, and the prison yard views of the Smoky Mountains could be outright breathtaking. Still, even after nine years, the sight of the administration building unnerved him.
He had been in this building once before. He had been scared that time, but at least he had known why the warden wanted to see him. He could reveal or withhold the facts as he wished. That little bit of power had been something to hold on to, something to savor. Even though they had him in handcuffs, he chose whether to talk. This time, he had no power.
Also, last time he hadn’t had a murder weapon in his elastic waistband.
Rodgers led Frank into a room with no windows. The warden sat in a chair behind a large metal table. The fluorescent overhead lighting gave his already weathered face a sickly hue. He looked uncomfortable, like maybe he was suffering from a bout of gas. He nodded to Rodgers, and the guard moved Frank to the lone chair on the near side of the table. Frank sat down, and Rodgers locked the handcuffs in the latch built into the table for this purpose. Then Rodgers took a few steps back until he was out of Frank’s field of vision.
The warden leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. “We’ve only got a few moments, so listen to what I am about to tell you.”
Frank shifted in his seat.
“An hour ago I got a call from Rook Mountain City Hall. They told me Becky Raymond needs to meet with you. I know you haven’t had the chance to keep up with politics lately, but Ms. Raymond is the city manager of Rook Mountain.”
The warden stared at Frank for a long moment.
Frank had the feeling that he was supposed to say something. He couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face. “This the same Becky Raymond who used to work at the Road Runner gas station out on Dennis Cove Rd?”
The warden leaned even closer. Frank saw beads of sweat forming on the big man’s forehead. “Ms. Raymond is going to be here any minute, so don’t be cute. I need answers. What the hell does the city manager want with you?”
Frank shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Come on. Think!”
“I...I guess it could be something to do with my brother. He works for the city. Maybe he’s up for a promotion, and they want to interview me for some background check or something.”
Rodgers snickered behind him. “I’m pretty sure your brother isn’t up for a promotion.”
The warden smacked the table. “You expect me to believe the Rook Mountain city manager would come down here and walk into this prison about a background check?”
Frank paused, unsure of how to continue. “All due respect, but it seems like you may be thinking about this a little too hard. We're going to find out what she wants in a few minutes, right?”
The warden shook his head. “You don’t understand. Things have changed in Rook Mountain. The city manager represents the board of selectmen, and the Board...” The warden paused. He glanced at Rodgers as if looking for an assist, but the CO remained silent. The warden continued. “The Board has done amazing things since you’ve been inside. Wonderful things. But there are rules –”
If Frank hadn’t been looking at the door behind the warden, he wouldn’t have seen it. But he was, and he saw a flash of blue light through the crack below the door.
The door opened and a tall, sharply dressed woman in her early fifties marched into the room. She moved toward the table and held out her hand to the warden. “Warden Cade?”
The warden leapt to his feet and shook her hand. “Yes ma’am. It’s an honor. Thanks for coming down. I think you’ll find what we are doing here is in keeping with the Regulations.”
“Fine.” She slid into the nearest chair and looked at Frank. Her face was all sharp angles. Her deep brown eyes perfectly matched her hair color. “Mr. Hinkle,” she said, “how would you like to get out of prison?”

2.
Will Osmond drew a deep breath and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. They were hiking through a dense stand of pine trees, but it wouldn’t be long now. In a few moments, they would step out of the trees and onto the round bald top of the mountain. The view would be worth it. It always was.
Henry Strauss said, “You holding up okay?”
Will stopped and glanced back at the other man. Henry was red with heat and slick with sweat. Both men were in their late thirties, but, when Will compared his own stamina with that of the six twelve-year-old boys hiking with them, he felt much older.
The two men held up the rear of the procession. Ostensibly, this was so that they could keep watch on the boys in front of them. In truth, it was so they could go at a non-lethal pace without the kids stepping on their heels.
Will grunted in reply.
“Yeah, me too,” Henry said. “It sure was easier when we could drive up.”
Will ignored that last comment. Sometimes it was better to let things slide.
He said, “We made it. That’s the important thing. Almost made it, anyway.”
Two years ago, the board of selectmen had decided vehicles were not allowed past the old ranger station on Rook Mountain. Before that, you could drive all the way up to the parking lot at Carter's Gap. A stroke of a pen turned a fifteen-minute hike into an excursion that took a whole afternoon. Will had no idea why the board had passed the change or what danger a vehicle near the summit of Rook Mountain might pose, but he had long ago stopped asking those types of questions out loud.
When it came to the board of selectmen, trust was a must.
Will stopped for a moment and waited for Henry to catch up to him. Then he fell in step with the other man. When he spoke, it was quiet enough that only Henry could hear him. “Did you see what I saw half a mile back?”
Henry nodded. “Under that boulder by the overlook?”
Will smiled. “Good eye. We have to deal with it on the way back.”
Henry arched his eyebrow. “What about the boys?”
“The boys are the reason we have to deal with it,” Will said. “What if one of them saw the backpack wedged under that boulder? The hiker wasn’t even trying to hide what he’s doing.”
Henry nodded. “So the kids might have seen it. That’s not the end of the world. We’ll report it when we get back to town and let the boys sign the testimony. It’ll be good for them.”
Will snorted. “We're supposed to be teaching these kids to be men, right? How’s it look if we just go back and report it? Sure, we’re fulfilling the letter of the Regulations, but we aren’t doing our duty. Is that what you want to teach Carl? 'Cause it’s sure as hell not what I want to teach Trevor. By the time we go to town, file our report, and the law gets back up here, the hiker could be long gone.”
Henry squinted at him. “What are you suggesting we do?”
“You know what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting we teach our boys to uphold the Regulations.”
Neither man spoke again for a few long moments. Only the call of distant birds and the excited chatter of the boys on the trail ahead cut the silence.
Finally Henry said, “You’re right. We don’t have a choice. We need to take care of it on the way back down.”
Will nodded. “Good man.”
Henry was the leader of their Rook Mountain Scout troop. Henry’s son Carl was Trevor’s best friend, so Henry and Will saw a lot of each other. The two men weren’t close. It was mostly a quick hello when dropping off the kids at some activity or a little chat around the dessert table at a school function.
It had come as a surprise when Henry invited Will to help out with this camping trip. Will knew Henry wouldn’t have called if he wasn’t desperate. The Scout troop’s usual co-leader had come down with a case of something or other, and Henry had nowhere else to turn. People got a little nervous around Will because of his job. Combined with his wife Christine’s job and...well, they didn’t get invited to a lot of cookouts. Sometimes he thought it wasn’t fair the way they were cut off socially just because they served the community. Other times he felt like it was a necessary evil.
Truth be told, he had been a little thrilled at the invitation. Things between Trevor and Will had been strained recently. It was natural. The kid was growing up and finding himself. He was feeling the need to rebel and he was just starting to discover what form his rebellion might take. So far it was a lot of moping around and disdainful glares when he thought Will wasn’t looking. Will could deal with that, and he thought he would be able to deal with whatever rebellion came in the next few years. Still, he couldn’t help hope that the weekend would be a time to reconnect, a time to teach the kid a thing or two about nature, about being a man. It hadn’t worked out that way so far. The kids had kept to themselves, and Trevor had interacted with Will only when required.
And now the thing with the hiker. He hoped it wouldn’t embarrass Trevor too much. Either way, it couldn’t be helped. The Regulations were the Regulations. Trust was a must. Will was a leader of the community, and he was expected to uphold the Regulations. Appearance was everything in Rook Mountain.
The kids had disappeared around a corner, but Will could still hear them talking and laughing. They were out of the dense part of the forest and surrounded by bushes. A few months earlier, this spot had been covered with the blazing purples and reds of rhododendrons. Now, the season of the flowers had passed and the bushes were bare, spindly as a tangle of fishing line left unattended.
The pitch and volume of the boys’ conversation went up a couple excitement levels.
“Sounds like they made it to the clearing,” Henry said.
Will rounded the corner and there it was—the summit.
Rook Mountain and the surrounding peaks were grassy balds—blunt rounded mountain tops covered with dense vegetation. The balds of the Southern Appalachian Mountains were unique because they were well below the tree line. The peaks’ lack of trees was a scientific mystery. Some researchers cited long centuries of grazing by a wide variety of large animals, many of which had gone extinct. Other scientists said it was the composition of the soil. There was no conclusive verdict.
Just another damn Rook Mountain mystery, Will thought. Add it to the list.
The thought snuck into his mind before he could suppress it. He was usually good at blocking those kinds of thoughts before they took shape.
Whatever the origin of the grassy balds, the end result was a clear three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the surrounding landscape. From up there the land looked untouched, an endless sea of deep green forest. Will had lived in the town of Rook Mountain for sixteen years. It had been the center point of his whole adult life. At the summit, it seemed tiny, just a series of small gaps in the thick trees that blanketed the landscape below.
When Will first moved there, the town of Rook Mountain had been a small village to the north of the mountain. The town limits had been expanded eight years ago, and the mountain itself was part of town now, all the way to where it bumped up against the North Carolina border. The prison was in the town limits too. But regardless of what the maps said, the mountain top had always been the real Rook Mountain for Will. It was his favorite place on Earth. The view, the crushingly beautiful, endlessly green view below him, was a large part of the reason he had settled there while most of his college friends had migrated to cities like Chicago, Denver and Phoenix. Up there, more than anywhere else, Will felt like he was home.
But there was a job to do.
The boys were gathered on top of a large boulder near the summit. Just a couple of years ago they would have been playing King of the Mountain, the boy at the top of the boulder fighting to keep his position as the other boys struggled to take it. Now they were too cool or too proud. Or maybe they were just growing up.
Will and Henry stopped a few feet from the boulder.
“You wanna tell them?” Henry asked.
Will nodded.
“Guys,” he said in a voice full of hard-won authority from sixteen years standing in front of a classroom. “Listen up.”
Their roar of conversation diminished to a soft murmur.
“I have something important to tell you. On the way up here Mr. Strauss and I spotted something.”
The boys turned to look at him. They went silent.
“Before we came up, we checked with City Hall. There shouldn’t be anyone on this mountain but us. Unfortunately, we saw someone. They appeared to be camping. Maybe even living up here.”
“Regulation 11,” muttered the boy at the top of the bolder.
Will nodded. “That’s right, Russ. This individual is in violation of Regulation 11.”
There was a long silence. Finally Carl Strauss said, “What are you going to do?”
“Not me. We. We are going to do what we have to. We are going to find this Regulation breaker, and we are going to carry out his sentence.”

3.
Frank looked at the city manager for a long time before speaking. “I’d like to get out of prison very much, but I guess you already knew that.”
Becky Raymond smiled. “I guess I did. Let me restate that. I have it within my power to release you from prison today.”
Frank sat up a little straighter in his chair. The shank in his waistband dug into his side as he moved, reminding Frank of its presence. Was that what this was about? Did they want Frank to give up the Newg?
His palms were sweaty. They always got sweaty when he was nervous. He wished he could wipe them on his pants the way he always did back in the day before reaching for a girl’s hand, but his wrists were handcuffed to the table.
He waited to see if Ms. Raymond would continue. She didn’t, so Frank said, “What do we need to do to make it happen?”
Her lips curled into a smile. “When was the last time you saw your brother?”
Frank recoiled under the pressure of her cold brown eyes and the unexpected question.
The warden spoke before Frank could. “Ma’am, as you know, our prisoners have not been allowed any contact with the outside since Regulation Day.”
Regulation Day. That was a term Frank hadn’t heard before. He could infer its meaning from the context: the day eight years ago when everything had changed at NTCC.
The first year of Frank’s stay at NTCC had been difficult, but there had been contact with the outside world. The prisoners were allowed regular visitors and TV time. There were phone calls and magazines and letters. It had been a lot like the versions of prison Frank had seen in movies, only noisier and smellier.
Then, eight years ago, everything had changed. With no explanation, televisions were removed, mail was cut off, and the phones were taken out. The prisoners were told there would be no more visitors. They had reacted with predictable fury. They’d threatened lawsuits, but since they weren’t allowed contact with lawyers that hadn’t gotten them far. There had been a series of riots, but the guards had violently put those down.
Eventually, the prisoners had come to accept their new circumstances, taking out their anger on each other more than on the prison leadership. New prisoners were kept in a separate cell block, cut off from the prisoners who had been inside before the day everything changed. Except for the occasional new guard, Becky Raymond was the first new person Frank had laid eyes on in eight years.
Ms. Raymond ignored the warden’s comment about Regulation Day and kept her eyes fixed on Frank.
“My brother came to see me once,” Frank said. “Right after the trial.”
“Only once?”
“Ma’am, I’d be happy to pull the visitation records if you’d like to verify Hinkle’s story,” the warden said. “We could get the exact date for you. Wouldn’t take but a moment.”
Ms. Raymond shook her head. “Why didn’t he visit you more?”
Frank shifted in his seat again and the shank wedged deeper into his side. If they were serious about letting him out, what would happen if they found the shank?
“I killed a friend of his,” Frank said. “Jake didn’t take it very well. He didn’t have much to say to me after that.”
“You look like him.”
Frank couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve been hearing that my whole life. It’s been a while, though.”
“A lot has happened while you've been incarcerated. With the town. If you get out of here today, you won’t believe the changes we’ve made. The things we’ve been able to do.”
“The warden mentioned something about that. I think he called it wonderful.”
The warden practically glowed at the comment, but Ms. Raymond didn’t seem to notice.
“That’s an accurate statement,” Ms. Raymond said. “And I don’t say that out of pride. It’s the simple truth. I think it’s fair to say you won’t find a town like Rook Mountain anywhere else on Earth. It is truly a marvel.”
“What’s this have to do with me getting out?”
Ms. Raymond reached forward and touched Frank’s hand, a casual gesture that made him flinch in surprise. It had been a long time since a woman had touched him.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” Ms. Raymond said, “but your brother killed three people.”
Frank drew a deep breath. “That’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is.”
Frank let this idea, this horrible idea, roll around in his mind. Sure, Jake had hit a rough patch and got in some trouble as a teenager, same as Frank. Unlike Frank, Jake had met a nice girl and made a solid life for himself. Jake was a husband and a father. He was the only person Frank knew who could accurately be described as content. The idea that Jake could have taken three lives was absurd.
Something wasn’t right about this. Something seemed off in a big, bad way. The sudden meeting where even the warden was caught off guard. The way Ms. Raymond had walked through the door as if she owned the place. All this talk about the board of selectmen like they were the President’s Cabinet or something. And now this lady was saying Jake was a killer? Had she come to prison just to deliver this horrible news?
Why was Becky Raymond really there?
Frank’s hands were dripping a fair amount of sweat onto the table. He really wanted to wipe them on his pants. “Okay. So my brother’s a killer. You still haven’t told me what I need to do to get out of here.”
“After the killings, your brother realized that we were on to him, and he ran.”
A chill went through Frank. He pictured Jake on the run, living out of hotel rooms and dying his hair unnatural colors. “When was this?”
Ms. Raymond smiled her hollow smile. “Seven years ago.”
“What about his family?”
“He left them behind.”
Frank’s stomach felt like lead. Christine and Trevor had been going it alone for seven years? “I don’t understand. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
The warden cleared his throat. “We discussed it. But the selectmen decided, and I agreed, of course, that telling you wouldn’t serve any purpose. Time in prison is hard enough without that on your shoulders. Besides, Jake had only been here the one time. We assumed you two must not be close.”
The smoldering lead ball of emotion in Frank’s belly was growing hotter by the moment. He wanted to lash out at them, to scream. Not close? A thousand childhood memories flashed through his mind in an instant. A hundred inside jokes. A dozen secrets. Not close? Frank had been closer to Jake than to anyone else in the world. Jake and his wife and son were the only real family Frank had. Maybe things hadn’t been friendly since the trial, but this went deeper than that. This was family.
Frank took a deep breath and reminded himself of what the city manager had said. He could get out of here today. He couldn’t help Christine from behind the walls of this prison. Whatever emotions he was feeling, he had to remain calm and figure out what the city manager wanted to hear. Whatever he needed to say, he would say it.
“You still haven’t told me how I get out of prison,” Frank said.
Ms. Raymond leaned forward and took a deep breath before speaking. “We have reason to believe your brother is still in town. We believe he’s been in Rook Mountain all this time, deep in hiding. We have used everything we can think of to ferret him out. We’ve failed. We are not one step closer to finding Jake than we were seven years ago. We’ve turned over every stone in this town. There is nowhere we haven’t looked. We’ve investigated every angle. And we have nothing.”
Frank spoke cautiously. “And you think I can help?”
The city manager nodded. “We're hoping you can.”
“You must be pretty desperate.”
“Watch your mouth!” the warden said.
“It’s okay,” Ms. Raymond said. “We are desperate, but we also have our first clue in seven years.”
Frank cocked his head and waited for her to continue.
“Do you remember Sally Badwater?”
Frank nodded. Sally had lived a few doors down from the Hinkles when Frank and Jake were growing up. She was two years younger than Frank, but the boys spent a fair amount of time with her because of the trampoline in her backyard.
“Sally claims that your brother came to see her three days ago.”
“Why would he go see Sally Badwater?” Frank asked.
Ms. Raymond reached into her briefcase, pulled out a stack of paper, and slid it to Frank. Frank repositioned the pages as best he could with his restrained hands.
“Top of page four,” Ms. Raymond said. “Jake approached Sally in the Food City parking lot. She was putting her groceries in the trunk. She turned around and there he was.”
Frank flipped over the first three pieces of paper and looked at the text on the top of the fourth page.
OFFICER DENSON: What did Mr. Hinkle say to you?
SALLY BADWATER: It was about that brother of his. Frank. The murderer.
OFFICER DENSON: Do you remember exactly what he said?
SALLY BADWATER: Yeah, I remember. He was real intense. Got up in my face. He said, ‘Tell my brother to meet me at the quarry.’
OFFICE DENSON: The quarry? Does that mean anything to you?
SALLY BADWATER: No, of course not. He was talking nonsense.
“What did he mean by 'the quarry'?” Ms. Raymond asked.
Frank thought for a long moment. There was no quarry in Rook Mountain. “So that’s it, huh? Decipher my brother’s cryptic message for you and I can walk free?”
Ms. Raymond nodded.
Frank paused. This was the most power he’d had in nine years. He couldn’t waste it. “I think I’d like a lawyer.”
“Jesus, Hinkle.” The voice came from behind him. Rodgers. Frank had forgotten the guard was in the room.
A cold smile crossed Ms. Raymond’s face. “The whole point of a lawyer is to get you a better deal. I’m offering you the ability to walk out of prison today. You think a lawyer is going to get you something better than that?”
Frank licked his lips, trying to decide how far to push this. “No lawyer means no paperwork. No paperwork means maybe you don’t hold up your end of the deal.”
The woman shrugged. Her face was unreadable. “I understand your concern. Your choice. If you want to go back to your cell, ask for a lawyer again. If you want to get out of prison today, answer the question. What’s the quarry?”
Frank weighed the options and then answered. “You’re right. I couldn’t ask for anything more than what you’re offering. The thing is...I have no idea what Jake was talking about. I’ve never heard of any quarry around Rook Mountain.”
Ms. Raymond sighed. Then she did something unexpected. She reached out and she took one of Frank’s hands. For a moment, he felt the old familiar shame at their sweatiness, but then she looked into his eyes. And when she did, all other thoughts slipped away. Her gaze had a force to it, a weight. There was nothing intimate about it; in fact it was the opposite. Her stare was cold and clinical. She looked into him like he was a math problem. He felt her gaze squirming into him. It was a feeling he had felt only once before.
After an endless moment, she released his hand. She didn’t look away, but her stare lost its weighty intensity. She had an odd look on her face, a surprised look.
“I believe you,” she said, and she stood up. “Thanks, warden.”
“Wait,” Frank said. This was it. His freedom was about to walk out of the room, and he was about to go back to the world of the Newg and mentally drifting and shower stabbings. “Maybe I can still help you.”
“I don’t think so. But I appreciate your willingness to try.”
Frank’s mind was spinning. He had to say something. He had to find the right words to stop her from leaving. Jake needed him. Christine needed him. “Jake wants to see me, right? That’s what he told Sally. He can’t do that in here. But if I were out there maybe he would make contact.”
Ms. Raymond picked up her briefcase from the table and put it under her arm.
“And in the meantime, I could do some digging. I’ve lived here all my life. I know everybody and they’ll talk to me. And I know these mountains. I know them as well as Jake does. If anyone can find him, it’s me.”
Ms. Raymond paused for a long moment, then looked at him. “Thirty days.”
Frank’s heart almost stopped as he waited for her to finish.
“You have thirty days to find him. If you do, you’re free. If you don’t, you come back here and serve out your sentence.”
Frank felt himself nodding.
“You meet with me each week to discuss your progress. You don’t leave town. And if I even suspect you aren’t following through, your little leave of absence ends.”
She reached into her briefcase and pulled out an envelope. She slapped it onto the table in front of him. “This is enough money to get you some clothes and a week of food. I assume you can find somewhere to stay?”
Frank nodded again. He looked at the envelope. She’d had it ready.
“Okay,” she said. She looked at the warden. “Get him released. He has work to do.” The warden looked as shell shocked as Frank felt. He nodded to Rodgers.
“Ma’am,” Frank said. “How do I find you? For the weekly meetings.”
Ms. Raymond smiled. “You don’t. I’ll find you.”
Rodgers moved back into Frank’s field of vision and unhooked the cuffs. Frank felt a smile growing on his face, and he was powerless to stop it. He had a feeling it would be there for a long while.
Ms. Raymond turned to the warden. “He’s carrying a weapon. Tell the guards to overlook it.”
Warden Cade nodded. “Ms. Raymond, I’m not sure how to do the paperwork on this thing.”
“Jesus, Cade. Figure it out. Do it fast. If he’s not a free man in the next sixty minutes, I will not be happy.”
As Rodgers led Frank out of the room, Frank heard the warden say, “Shouldn’t we tell him?”
Ms. Raymond said, “No. Let’s see how he does. He’ll either figure it out or he won’t.”


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