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"Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you." Deuteronomy 16:20
Was she insane?
Lightning pulsed past the ominous clouds polluting the sky with their foreboding. She shouldn't be here — every ounce of her screamed this was a bad idea. What had she been thinking?
That was the problem — Riley hadn't been thinking lately. Her love life had come to a screeching halt. She'd messed up so badly at work that her boss awarded her a mandatory leave of absence until she redeemed herself, though how she could do that while on leave was a mystery. Now, the hearing. She should go home, bury her head under the covers, and just cry until she couldn't cry any more.
Yet, she wouldn't let herself leave.
Riley pressed her balled hands into her abdomen and leaned back against the door of her car. Her shoulders and neck were so tight and tense, the ache felt as if it'd taken up permanent residence. She'd lost almost ten pounds in the last two weeks, just from the stress of today. There were a million reasons for separate appearances before the board. Why hadn't she heeded any of them?
Because her heart wouldn't let her.
At the attorney's deep baritone, Riley pushed off the dented, scratched compact and pivoted. She smoothed her pants with damp palms.
The cheap pinstriped suit jacket hung off Corey Patterson as he rushed across the parking lot. "I didn't think you'd make it." His blond hair glistened as lightning streaked across the sky again.
He'd sure tried enough times to discourage her. His arguments had almost worked. Just this morning, she'd debated using the weather as a possible excuse to back out. After all, as she heard on the news, April ushered in full tornado season in south Louisiana.
If the weather wasn't bad enough, the barbed wire atop the fence as she entered the property almost did her in. Everyone would understand if she changed her mind. But if she didn't show, she'd never be able to live with herself.
There was no other option. She had to look him in the eye, see if the crazed haze still glowered in those irises. Needed to see him in person, not on some impersonal terminal via videoconferencing, to know if he still wore the illness in the lines of his face. She had to hear his voice to determine if the venom still bittered his words.
"I said I'd be here." She eyed the crowded parking lot as she fell into step beside the aging prosecutor. So many people lining up to board the white visiting buses ... mainly women and children. Some infants. It broke Riley's heart. Why didn't people think about the consequences on their families before they did something stupid? Such a waste.
The next clap of thunder didn't cover Mr. Patterson's heavy sigh. "You really shouldn't have come. This won't be good for you." Those big, blue eyes of his stared into hers. He squeezed her upper arm.
She denied the urge to sigh herself, already mentally past the argument. They dodged the first raindrops as they made their way along the sidewalk, past the fence with rolls of barbed wire. Riley shivered, then followed Mr. Patterson through the green-trimmed door. The tips of her heels rat-a-tat-tatted on the polished brown tile.
"Wait here for a moment." The attorney's damp soles squeaked as he headed down the hall.
She leaned against the white cinder-block wall. Icy cold crept into her spine, chilling her from the inside out. Women and children moved like cattle to sign in for visitation. Her mouth went dry. What would it be like to have to visit someone you loved like this? Maybe that was the story she needed to get back in her editor's good graces.
Jeremy was beyond furious with her. He'd accused her of letting her bias against criminals get in the way of good journalism. His yelled reprimand that she find emotion for the reader and ignore her own still rang in her ears. What better way to steal the hearts of readers than to expose the angles of pain worn raggedly on some of these women's faces?
It would also prove she was capable of writing a story 100 percent unbiased against someone close to criminal involvement. Given the reason she was here and the emotional mess her life had become, that would be no easy feat.
"They're ready." Mr. Patterson appeared at her side, barely touching her elbow. "Do you remember what I told you? The procedure?" He led her down one hallway into another.
They all looked the same to Riley, but it hardly mattered. Nothing about the location mattered. Her stomach threatened to reverse the cappuccino she'd drunk on the drive here. She licked her lips with a dry tongue. "Yes. I remember."
He paused outside a closed gray door. "You can still back out, you know. You can just walk out, get back into your car, and drive off." He cleared his throat. "We could meet for dinner later and I could fill you in."
Her heart pounded. A bead of sweat dotted her upper lip. Temptation swirled like a tornado inside her chest, and for a moment, just a split second, she considered the option.
But then she squared her shoulders. She never backed out. From anything. That wasn't who Riley Baxter was. Especially when this was so important.
And so personal.
"I'm fine." If only her knees would get that message and stop quivering. Good thing she'd worn slacks so nobody could see her shaking. The beads of sweat felt like lead on her upper lip.
"Okay." The disappointment draped off his shoulders as badly as the ill-fitting suit jacket. He opened the door and motioned for her to precede him into the room.
It was smaller than she'd expected. A computer monitor sat on one table, showing three people — two men and one woman — sitting behind a conference table. Directly across from the monitor were two empty wooden chairs. Adjacent to the monitor a video camera rested atop a tripod, pointing at the empty chairs.
A lady wearing a washed-one-too-many-times dress sat behind a desk, an armed guard hovering behind her. Her attention never lifted from the open file in front of her.
Mr. Patterson waved Riley toward a row of chairs along the wall. A lady she'd never seen before sat in one of the chairs. Quite pretty with long, dark hair. Spanish and exotic looking. Beside her sat Alicia Lancaster.
Riley knew who she was only too well: Simon's older sister. The one who had cried on the witness stand. Who testified at his sentencing hearing that her brother's drinking was an illness brought about by genetics, so he shouldn't be incarcerated, but rather, hospitalized. Who told a story of a boy abused by an alcoholic father who had merely followed in his father's footsteps.
Riley swallowed hard, curling her sweaty palms into a ball. She hadn't known Alicia would be here, but she should've considered the likelihood. As much as Riley wanted Simon to stay behind bars, Alicia wanted him free.
Chest tightening, Riley concentrated on breathing normally. Inhale through the nose, slow exhale through the mouth.
Mr. Patterson gestured for her to sit. He wanted her to sit next to Alicia? The bile rose in Riley's throat. No alternatives miraculously appeared with a second glance. She eased to the edge of a chair and slid as far from the woman as possible. Mr. Patterson studied her as if to satisfy himself she wouldn't bolt, then lowered himself onto the chair beside her. Its leg scraped against the waxed floor, the grating bounced off the cement walls until Riley's teeth sat on edge.
The rattle of keys clanked down an adjacent hall, the unnerving jangle drawing closer to the room. Nearer. Nearer. The door on the opposite side of the room opened. An armed guard entered. Another. A prison official wearing a worn suit.
And then Simon Lancaster shuffled into his parole hearing at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Alicia gasped, and Riley had to press her lips together not to do the same. She didn't know what she'd expected, but this wasn't it. His cheekbones stuck out more prominently than Riley remembered, making him appear gaunt. He wore his hair combed back from his pallid face. He walked with the gait of a man ten years his senior.
The guards ushered Simon to the empty chair and assisted him in sitting. The prison official sat beside him and opened a file, skimming the contents.
Simon smiled over at Alicia and the other lady before letting his gaze trip to Riley. He met her stare, hesitation in his eyes, as if trying to place her. After all, it'd been eight years since he'd seen her. Then, she'd been twenty-five, still so naïve. Oh, how she'd changed since then.
The prison official looked into the camera, rattled off his name, and introduced Simon Lancaster to his parole board. He read directly from the chart how Mr. Lancaster had been a model citizen while incarcerated at Angola, how his work ethic in the silk-screen department was to be commended, and how he'd been active in his religious activities, proving his moral rehabilitation.
Riley thought she might be sick.
One of the men on the monitor cleared his throat and leaned forward. "What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Lancaster?"
Simon straightened in the chair, stole a quick look at his sister, then stared into the camera on the tripod. "I believe I've changed in here. I take part in AA, I'm now a Christian, and I can be a worthy member of society now."
Worthy member of society? Right. He'd run straight to the nearest bar as soon as he broke free of the prison walls. Riley bit her tongue while clenching her fists. Her nails dug into her palms but she ignored the pain.
The woman on the parole board spoke. "I understand you have family members to speak on your behalf?"
The prison official waved to his sister and the lady. Both rose and crossed the room. Alicia stood beside Simon, tears glistening in her eyes. "I'm Alicia Lancaster. Simon's my baby brother." She wrung her hands in front of her. "You need to let Simon out. He's served his time and needs to come home." "So if Mr. Lancaster is let out on parole, you'll provide him a place to live?" the woman on the parole board asked.
"Yes, ma'am. He'll be living with me and his fiancée here." Alicia motioned to the pretty lady beside her.
"His fiancée? We don't have any notation of his engagement," the woman said over the monitor.
What a crock! Riley sat on the edge of the hard chair.
"Sí, I marry Simon. As soon as he out."
The pretty lady's broken English confirmed Riley's suspicions — this woman no more loved Simon Lancaster than Riley did, and that was as likely as hades freezing over.
"I see." By the parole woman's tone, it was clear she wasn't fooled by this ... fiancée.
Riley let out the breath she'd held.
"And he has a job waiting on him," Alicia interrupted.
"What type of job?" one of the men asked.
"Working in the shop where I'm the cashier." Alicia nodded. "Boudreaux's Paint and Body. My boss said he'd hire Simon as soon as he was released."
"Just being a hand in the shop. Cleaning up spills. Putting tools back in their places." Alicia shrugged. "Doing whatever is needed."
"I see," the second man on the parole board said.
A place to live. A job. People who cared about him. Riley clutched her hands together. Surely they wouldn't consider letting him out? They couldn't.
"Anything else you'd like to add, Mr. Lancaster?" the first man asked.
"Yes." Simon turned and met Riley's stare. "I'm sorry my drinking killed those people. I wish with everything in me that it hadn't happened. But it did. All I can do now is say I'm sorry."
With her stomach reversing the coffee she'd inhaled this morning, Riley shot to her feet and rushed from the room. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't take it anymore. Fresh air ... she needed fresh air.
And to get away from the scumbag who'd murdered her parents.
* * *
Tears burned Jasmine's eyes. She couldn't let them spill out. Not with her mom watching. Mom had been through enough already today. The idiots at the prison ... She and Mom and Mikey shouldn't be punished because the guards thought Dad did something wrong. Since when was food considered contraband?
Would have been nice had someone told them not to come. They'd already wasted an hour or so driving to the prison, using up gas they didn't have the money for. The storm had made the trip long and tedious. They'd all been tense when they arrived. Now, to be told they couldn't see Dad ... well, it was just plain wrong.
Her little brother, Mikey, continued his wailing out the front door of the prison and into the parking lot. At only six, he didn't understand why he couldn't see Daddy after Mom had told him they would. He'd been so excited to tell Daddy about his Easter-egg hunt at kindergarten that he'd even let Mom put him in that ridiculously ugly shirt that made him look like a girl.
Jasmine turned and kicked the leg of the bench outside of Angola's front entrance. Her toes crunched against the concrete, but she didn't care. She didn't even pay attention as people came in and out of the prison. She ignored the water puddles, the remnants of the storm from earlier. The rain had disappeared, but the dark skies remained. She'd had enough of Angola already, but if Dad's appeals kept being denied, she would have to deal with it for many more decades. He'd already been in for almost a year now.
"Mikey, honey, I know you want to see Daddy, but we can't today. Just get into your car seat, sweetie. I'll get you McDonald's on the way home if you be a good boy." Mom tried yet again to ease him into the booster seat.
"Buy McDonald's with what, Mom? We put the last twenty we had into the gas tank." The tears slipped down Jasmine's cheeks in spite of her determination not to cry. "And for what? We can't even see Dad." She swiped the back of her hand against her face.
Mom struggled with getting Mike to sit in his seat. "We'll figure it out, Jasmine. Just help me get Mikey settled."
"It's not fair. Dad shouldn't even be here in the first place because he's innocent, much less not be allowed to see his wife and children because he had a certain kind of food hidden in his locker. It's food, not a weapon or cell phone or anything." Jasmine stomped against the asphalt. "Since when is it a crime to hoard food?"
She stopped fighting the tears. "He's already lost so much weight. I don't understand why we can't see him." She bent her head into the crook of her elbow and sobbed. She didn't want to put any additional stress on her mom, but she couldn't take it anymore.
Plain and simple, they were broke. Dad had been the moneymaker of the family. Mom had gotten a job at the local grocery store chain right after Dad was sentenced, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough. Not enough for gas. Not enough for groceries. Forget about new clothes. They'd lost the house months ago and now rented a mobile home in a trashy trailer park. Just two days ago, she'd heard Mom on the phone to the electric company, begging for an extension and not to cut their power off. If things didn't change soon, they'd be homeless.
"Jasmine, honey, just get in the car. We'll talk about this at home." Mom buckled Mike's seat belt. "Hands on noses, Mikey." When he complied and had his hands safe from getting squished, she slammed the back door and stared over the hood of the Honda. "I know you're disappointed, but there's nothing we can do here. We're both upset right now."
"Upset? Mom, I'm so mad. Dad's innocent and we're all paying for something he didn't do."
"Watch your mouth, young lady."
Jasmine waited for Mom to come around and unlock the passenger door. Even the automatic lock and unlock button were broken on the old car. Everything was unfair. Dad hadn't been involved in the stupid robbery. It was all a setup. Why hadn't the jury been able to see that?
"I won't have you talking like a heathen." Mom jammed the key into the door. "No matter how upset and disappointed you are."
A heathen? Really? Where was Mom and Dad's all-powerful God in this? Why had He let an innocent man go to prison? Why was He letting the whole family suffer like this?
Jasmine turned as her mother did. The woman standing mere feet from them had a familiar pain in her eye.
"I couldn't help but overhear your conversation." She took a step closer, her brown hair bouncing against the top of her shoulders.
"I'm sorry if we disturbed you." Mom opened the car door. She pushed Jasmine's shoulder, trying to shove her inside.
"No, please." The woman joined them. "I'm sorry, I'm messing this up. Let me start over. My name is Riley Baxter." Her piercing blue gaze darted between Jasmine and her mother. "Did I hear correctly, that your husband isn't allowed visitors today because he hid food?"
"Yes. How stupid is that?" Jasmine blurted out before her mother could respond.
Mom shot her a glare, then focused on Ms. Baxter. "Why are you asking? No offense, but it's really nobody's business."
Talk about rude, and Mom was forever on Jasmine's case about her sharp tongue.
"I'm a journalist and am interested in writing a story from the point of view of an inmate's family."
Mom frowned. "We're not interested." She pushed Jasmine's shoulder again. "Get in the car, sweetie."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To Write a Wrong"
Copyright © 2012 Robin Miller.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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