Read an Excerpt
Fourth of July morning, Will Stirman woke up with blood on his hands.
He’d been dreaming about the men who killed his wife. He’d been strangling them, one with each hand. His fingernails had cut half-moons into his palms.
Sunlight filtered through the barred window, refracted by lead glass and chicken wire. In the berth above, his cell mate, Zeke, was humming “Amazing Grace.”
“Up yet, boss?” Zeke called, excitement in his voice.
Today was the day.
A few more hours. Then one way or the other, Will would never have to have that dream again.
He wiped his palms on the sheets. He shifted over to his workspace—a metal desk with a toadstool seat welded to the floor. Stuck on the walls with Juicy Fruit gum were eight years’ worth of Will’s sketches, fluttering in the breeze of a little green plastic fan. Adam and Eve. Abraham and Isaac. Moses and Pharaoh.
He opened his Bible and took out what he’d done last night—a map instead of a Bible scene.
Behind him, Zeke slipped down from the bunk. He started doing waist twists, his elbows cutting the air above Will’s head. “Freedom sound good, boss?”
“Watch what you say, Zeke.”
“Hell, just Independence Day.” Zeke grinned. “I didn’t mean nothing.”
Zeke had a gap-toothed smile, vacant green eyes, a wide forehead dotted with acne. He was in Floresville State for raping elderly ladies in a nursing home, which didn’t make him the worst sort Will had met. Been abused as a kid, is all. Had some funny ideas about love. Will worried how the boy would do when he got back to the real world.
Will looked over his map of Kingsville, hoping the police would take the bait. He’d labeled most of the major streets, his old warehouse property, the two biggest banks in town, the home of the attorney who’d defended him unsuccessfully in court.
He had a bad feeling about today—a taste like dirty coins in his mouth. He’d had that feeling before, the night he lost Soledad.
Exactly at eight, the cell door buzzed open.
“Come on, boss!” Zeke hustled outside, his shirt still unbuttoned, his shoes in his hands.
Will felt the urge to hurry, too—to respond to the buzzer like a racetrack dog, burst out of his kennel on time. But he forced himself to wait. He looked up to make sure Zeke was really gone. Then he slipped Soledad’s picture out from under his mattress.
It wasn’t a very good sketch. He’d gotten her long dark hair right, maybe, the intensity of her eyes, the soft curve of her face that made her look so young. But it was hard to get her smile, that look of challenge she’d always given him.
Still, it was all he had.
He kissed the portrait, folded it, and tucked it into his shirt.
Something would go wrong with the plan. He could feel it. He knew if he walked out that door, somebody was going to die.
But he’d made a promise.
He put the Kingsville map in the Bible, and set it on the desk where the guards were sure to find it. Then he went to join Zeke on the walkway.
After chow time, Pablo and his cousin Luis were hanging out on the rec yard, trying to avoid Hermandad Pistoleros Latinos. The HPL didn’t like Pablo and Luis getting all religious when they could’ve been dealing for the homeboys.
Luis tried to joke about it, but he still had bruises across his rib cage from the last time the carnales had cornered him. Pablo figured if they didn’t get out of Floresville soon, they’d both end up in cardboard coffins.
Out past the guard towers and the double line of razor wire fence, the hills hummed with cicadas. Lightning pulsed in the clouds.
Every morning, Pablo tried to imagine Floresville State Pen was a motel. He came out of Pod C and told himself he could check out anytime, get on the road, drive home to El Paso where his wife would be waiting. She’d hug him tight, tell him she still loved him—she’d read his letters and forgiven the one horrible mistake that had put him in jail.
After twelve long months inside, the dream was getting hard to hold on to.
That would change today.
He and Luis stood at the fence, chatting with their favorite guard, a Latina named Gonzales, who had breasts like mortar shells, gold-rimmed glasses, and a wispy mustache that reminded Pablo of his grandmother.
“You want to see fireworks tonight, miss?” Luis grinned.
Gonzales tapped the fence with her flashlight, reminding him to keep his feet behind the line. “Why—you got plans?”
“Picnic,” Luis told her. “Few beers. Patriotic stuff, miss. Come on.”
Pablo should have told him to shut up, but it was harmless talk. You looked at Luis—that pudgy face, boyish smile—and you knew he had to be joking.
Back home in El Paso, Luis had always been the favorite at family barbecues. He held the piñata for the kids, flirted with the women, got his cheeks pinched by the abuelitas. He was Tío Luis. The fun one. The nice one. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.
That’s why Luis had to shoot someone whenever he robbed an appliance store. Otherwise, the clerks didn’t take him seriously.
“No picnic for me,” Officer Gonzales said. “Got a promotion. Won’t see you vatos anymore.”
“Aw, miss,” Luis said. “Where you going?”
“Never mind. My last day, today.”
“You gonna miss the fireworks,” Luis coaxed. “And the beer—”
A hand came down on the scruff of Luis’ neck.
Will Stirman was standing there with his cell mate, Zeke.
Stirman wasn’t a big man, but he had a kind of wiry strength that made other cons nervous. One reason he’d gotten his nickname “the Ghost” was because of the way he fought—fast, slippery and vicious. He’d disappear, hit you from an angle you weren’t expecting, disappear again before your fists got anywhere close. Pablo knew this firsthand.
Another reason for Stirman’s nickname was his skin. No matter how much time Stirman spent in the sun, he stayed pale as a corpse. His shaved hair made a faint black triangle on his scalp, an arrow pointing forward.
“Compadres,” Stirman said. “You ’bout ready for chapel?”
Luis’ shoulders stiffened under the gringo’s touch. “Yeah, Brother Stirman.”
Stirman met Pablo’s eyes. Pablo felt the air crackle.
They were the two alpha wolves in the gospel ministry. They could never meet without one of them backing down, and Pablo was getting tired of being the loser. He hated that he and Luis had put their trust in this man—this gringo of all gringos.
He felt the weight of the shank—a sharpened cafeteria spoon—taped to his thigh, and he thought how he might change today’s plans. His plans, until Stirman had joined the ministry and taken over.
He calmed himself with thoughts of seeing his wife again. He looked away, let Stirman think he was still the one in charge.
Stirman tipped an imaginary hat to the guard. “Ma’am.”
He walked off toward the basketball court, Zeke in tow.
“What’s he in for?” Gonzales asked. She tried to sound cool, but Pablo knew Stirman unnerved her.
Pablo’s face burned. He didn’t like that women were allowed to be guards, and they weren’t even told what the inmates were doing time for. Gonzales could be five feet away from a guy like Stirman and not know what he was, how thin a fence separated her from a monster.
“Good luck with your new assignment, miss,” Pablo said.
He hoped Gonzales was moving to some office job where she would never again see people like himself or Will Stirman.
He hooked Luis’ arm and headed toward the chapel, the rough edge of the shank chafing against his thigh.
“Like to get a piece of that,” Zeke said.
It took Will a few steps to realize Zeke was talking about the Latina guard back at the fence. “You supposed to be saved, son.”
Zeke gave him an easy grin. “Hell, I don’t mean nothing.”
Will gritted his teeth.
Boy doesn’t know any better, he reminded himself.
More and more, Zeke’s comments reminded him of the men who’d killed Soledad and put him in jail. If Will didn’t get out of Floresville soon, he was afraid what he’d do with his anger.
He was relieved to see Pastor Riggs’ SUV parked out front of the chapel. The black Ford Explorer had tinted windows and yellow stenciling on the side: Texas Prison Ministry——Redemption Through Christ.
The guards only let Riggs park inside the gates when he was hauling stuff—like prison garden produce to the local orphanage, or delivering books to the prison library. The fact the SUV was here today meant Riggs had brought the extra sheet glass Will had asked for.
Maybe things would work out after all.
Inside the old Quonset hut, Elroy and C.C. were hunched over the worktable, arguing about glass color as they cut out pieces of Jesus Christ.
Will let his shadow fall over their handiwork. “Gonna be ready on time?”
Elroy scowled up at him, his glass cutter pressed against an opaque lemony sheet. “You make me mess up this halo.”
“Should be white,” C.C. complained. “Halo ain’t no fucking yellow.”
“It’s yellow,” Elroy insisted.
“Make Jesus look like he’s got a piss ring around him,” C.C. said. “Fucking toilet seat.”
They both looked at Will, because the picture was Will’s design, based on one of his sketches.