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Roman numeral X.
X marks the spot.
In John McNally's case, prison.
On the tenth day of serving his ten-year prison term for manslaughter, John McNally had tattooed an X over his heart.
Ten years. Seven, with parole.
He knew the system. He'd been in and out of it for the past five years. Before that, he'd been in and out of the foster care system. Hell, yes, he knew the systems.
He got parole thirty-seven months ago. He lasted two months on the outside. If that moron at the White Elephant hadn't laughed at his prison tattoos, he would have been long gone from this hole. Even though he barely touched the guy, he was sentenced to two additional years to be served consecutively, based on his history of violent assaults.
They wouldn't give him parole again. But he didn't give a shit. Parole sucked. Reporting to a parole officer and being told what he could and couldn't do frustrated the hell out of him. He knew what he wanted to do, and he couldn't do it with a fucking parole officer breathing down his neck.
So, he did his time on the inside.
Until May 19. Today. His second sentence was complete. The sentence for the manslaughter conviction had expired two years ago.
He would be free.
No conditions, no parole officers, nothing.
McNally sat on his bunk and waited for the CXaka the correctional officer. The air closed in on his ears. He remembered that sensationas if he was in a wind tunnelfrom his days in the band, when he stood at center stage, the amps blasting at him in surround sound, the air vibrating from the noise.
His bed was made, his locker emptied. He had disposed of his personal items last night, giving them to the guys who had done him favors over the years.
He clasped his hands together, studying the tattoos that had shaped his life: LOVE tattooed on the back of the fingers of his left hand; HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand.
The classic ink of the tattooist's psyche.
The love and the hate had never stopped, never changed, never gone away.
For over half his life he had loved Kenzie Sloane.
And for over half his life he had hated her for what she had done to him.
But he had a plan.
A plan that would bring them full circle.
Back to the day they had planned to make Imogen Lange their first victim. Imogen had been the key, the catalyst, the blood tie that would have bound Kenzie to him. He and Kenzie had had it all planned out
And then Imogen was taken away from them. By her sister, Kate Lange.
In her stupid attempt to "save her sister" from doing coke at Kenzie's party, Kate Lange had killed Imogen in a car crash on the way home.
After the night that Imogen died, Kenzie began to drift away from him. He wasn't sure if Imogen's death had scared her. Or if she was getting tired of him. She accused him of being too possessive. Desperate, he arranged for another girlHeather Rigby was her nameto come to the bunkers on Mardi Gras night to take Imogen's place. But it wasn't the same. Too much time had passed. The opportunity had been lost.
If Kate Lange hadn't interfered, Kenzie would still be with him. And he would be running his own tattoo shop by now, Kenzie at his side.
Every plan, every dream he had harbored, had been derailed by Kate Lange the night she killed her sister.
And now, seventeen years later, he was ready to set things right.
First he had to track down Kenzie.
And then he would find Kate Lange.
He flexed his fingers, watching the skin pucker at the knuckles. He fisted them into his palm. The letters of the tattoos strained with tension.
He wondered where Kenzie was now. What she looked like. Did she still have that long red hair? Had she gotten any more tattoos?
Was she with someone?
Sweat dampened his skin. He imagined the spider's web tattooed across the back of his skull glistening with his perspiration.
It didn't matter if Kenzie had a boyfriend. Or if she was married. She belonged to him. He knew it, she knew it. She'd just have to tell the other guy to get lost. Or he'd do it for her.
He jumped to his feet and stared through the bars of the cell.
The corridor was empty.
Roberts glanced at him from his cell across the hall and shrugged.
McNally spun away.
Where the fuck was the CX?
From the top bunk, Digger crossed his arms and leaned his head back against the wall. His eyes appeared shut, but McNally knew they were opened a crack, not missing a thing. He was waiting, everyone was waiting. It was McNally's release day.
But the CX scheduled to work today was Aucoin. McNally wondered if he had requested this shift.
Everyone knew that Aucoin didn't like McNally. The feeling was mutual. Aucoin had gone out of his way to write up McNally over the years, sending him down to the hole at least eight times.
At 0720, Aucoin strolled down the corridor and unlocked McNally's cell. "Let's go."
McNally glanced at Digger. They had shared this cell for the past thirteen months. "See you on the outside."
Digger had another five years to go.
He nodded and closed his eyes.
Aucoin led McNally to Admissions and Discharge. It was a nondescript room, with posters on the wall urging him to get screened for various STIs, reminders that all phone numbers had to be on an approved list, and a list of weekly religious services if he had an epiphany that Jesus was waiting for him in this particular federal penitentiary.
Aucoin tossed a sealed bag onto a table. "Hope they don't smell too bad," he said, his face impassive.
McNally grabbed the bag. He knew that Aucoin was taunting him. Most offenders had family who would bring them fresh clothes to wear on their release date. It had not gone unnoticed that McNally's phone list included only his lawyer and his social worker. He had been estranged from his brother, Matt, since he'd killed that girl in the bar. And he had crossed his foster mother off the list, oh, about eight years ago. The only recent change to his phone list was the addition of Rick Lovett, his old band mate.
McNally tore open the bag, his heart thudding.
His fingers dug into the soft knit of his T-shirt.
"Come on, McNally. Move it. You'd think you'd be itching to get out of here." Aucoin crossed his arms.
McNally yanked the shirt out of the bag. A belt fell to his feet. He'd forgotten about the belt
He cinched the belt around Aucoin's neck, tighter, harder. The man's bulbous eyes bulged. Aucoin gasped, his hands clutching his throat. McNally grinned. The CX looked like a fucking fish.
Aucoin snatched the belt from the concrete floor. "Give me your uni. Get your clothes on."
If they were two dogs, the fight to the death would have begun at this moment.
McNally yanked the prison-issued golf shirt over his head, feeling the flex of his muscles as he tossed the uniform onto the floor. You can pick that up, too, Aucoin. The shirt had changed size in direct proportion to the number of hours he had clocked in the weight room.
Aucoin's gaze flickered over the tattoos on McNally's upper arms. It was well known he was the resident tattoo artist of the unit. Usually, the prison staff turned a blind eye unless they had a particular reason to discipline an inmate. Aucoin had been one of the few who went by the book, stripping away McNally's privileges whenever he was able to establish that McNally had done the ink.
But when Aucoin wasn't around supply and demand was the governing law of prison. Whoever had supply was in demand. And there was pent-up demand for tattoos when McNally arrived twelve years ago. It had taken less than a day for the other inmates in his unit to discover that he could sling ink for them. He just needed the tools. When it became obvious that McNally didn't have anyone on the outside to send him supplies within the thirty-day admission period, the other guys on his unit began to smuggle the necessary parts to make a tattoo gun.
Within a week of his incarceration, McNally was in possession of an empty pen tube, an E guitar string, and a pencil eraser. Electrical tape and an emery cloth were smuggled from the machine shop. But he still needed a motor. After some pressure from Hoddera lifer who controlled the unit's contraband supply chainthe kid two cells down sacrificed the rumble pack from his video game controller. "My girlfriend won't even let me get a prison tatt," he muttered.
McNally had filed the tip of the guitar string with a piece of emery cloth, and slid it into the tube. Billy Lyman, his cell mate, had watched with a mixture of fascination and fear. "I don't want no more trouble," he'd told McNally. "I've been down in the hole three times since the summer."
McNally threaded the other end of the guitar string through the top of the pen tube, and pushed it into the eraser.
"See? That's how you do it. The eraser works as a cam," he told Kenzie.
He studied her studying the contraption. "A cam?"
The winter sun cast her face in a cool, unforgiving light. But with Kenzie's features, there had been nothing to forgive. Her skin, always pale and smooth, appeared to be composed of marble. He had a sudden appreciation for the thrill Michelangelo must have felt when confronted with such pure material on which to create his art.
"The cam connects the guitar string to the motor. It's like a spinning wheel. It makes the needle move."
He couldn't wait to create his masterpieces on her.
He had created one masterpiece on Kenzie.
Soon after, she had fledand left him to dispose of Heather Rigby's body.
Five years after Kenzie had run away, he had killed the girl at the bar where he worked, and got a ten-year sentence. And on the tenth day of serving his sentence for manslaughter, he had made sure he would never forget Kenzie. Or what she owed him.
He had concentrated on getting the cam just right. After several adjustments, the "needle" moved up and down at the correct depth. Too short, and the needle wouldn't hold the ink. Too long, and the needle would make raw meat out of flesh.
Hodder had slipped him two disposable razors. McNally put them in the unit's microwave. Once burned, the plastic handles left a soot residue, which he mixed with soap and water.
He had sat on his bunk, drew ink into the tube, and tattooed an X on his heart. The needle hurt like hell. His blood thudded. If he had closed his eyes, he would have said that his heart was pounding enough to make his skin undulate.
For whatever reason, the lines of the tattoo had bled. Billy Lyman had laughed. "Can't be straight edge if the lines are blurry."
McNally had ripped the tattoo gun across Billy's cheek. Blood welled from the slash. "You son of a bitch." He had dropped the tattoo gun onto the bunk. "I'm not straight edge." His fingers curled into his palms. He wanted to crush that ugly Adam's apple in Lyman's throat so he could never laugh again. He pointed to the large spider's web tattoo spread across the back of his skull. In the center was a death's head. "You think this is fucking straight edge?"
Lyman backed away. "Didn't mean anything by it. Nothin' wrong with not wanting to do drugs or booze." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "I won't say nothing about the tattoo gun. Or this" He touched the cut. "It was an accident. Shaving. Trust me, you don't wanna spend time in the hole." Eight months later, McNally learned from bitter experience how right Lyman was.
But then, just ten days on the inside, he shrugged and threw himself onto his mattress. He stared at the underside of Lyman's bunk. He hated Lyman for lying to protect him from solitary confinement. He did not want to owe any favors.
It would be so much easier if I just killed him. He could kill him the same way he had killed that girl who had taunted him at the bar. Just grab him by the throat and smash his head on the floor.
McNally hadn't inked any more tattoos on his upper torso after that first X. Partly to make it stand out; partly because it was a difficult angle to tattoo unless he used a mirror. Even when he got an additional two years for assaulting that jerk in the bar, he didn't change the tattoo. The tattoo meant more than just the number of years he spent in prison. It symbolized his heart, his commitment, his willingness to do whatever it took to get Kenzie back with him.
Aucoin whacked the loosely coiled belt against his thigh. "I don't get you, McNally. You could be walking out of here. Instead, you stand there daydreaming."
What are you, the fucking Gestapo? McNally glared at him, pulling his own T-shirt over his head. Despite being sealed in a bag for two years, it didn't smell so bad. The soft, worn knit slid across his skin. He wanted to close his eyes, savor the feel of his own clothing stretching across his body. The shirt strained at his shoulders, hung loosely at the waist. He didn't care. It felt so damned good, he didn't ever want to take it off.
The CX whacked the belt again.
As soon as McNally was dressed he was one step closer to leaving this behind him. One step closer to attaining something that had only been a fantasy. He reached into the plastic bag and removed his boxers and his pants. He stepped out of the prison jeans, then yanked down the worn underwear and kicked it away from his body. Tomorrow, someone else would wear his freshly laundered uniform.
He slid on his boxers, the neon yellow that he'd worn when he was arrested appearing brassy and cheap in the fluorescent lights. His jeans were looser at the waist, snugger across the thighs. He held out his hand for the belt.
Aucoin dropped it into his palm and watched him tighten the buckle. McNally shoved the T-shirt into his waistband. He picked up the plastic bag and scrunched the handle in his fist. His wallet was in the bag, as were his keys. The former was empty, the latter no longer relevant. He had stayed at a halfway house when he'd been out on parole. Lovett, his old band mate, had sold the house in which he had been crashing before his manslaughter conviction. He wondered if the new owners had changed the locks .