Fourth of July morning, Wil Stirman woke up with blood on his hands.
He’d been dreaming about the men who kil ed 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 cel mate, Zeke, was humming “Amazing Grace. ”
“Up yet, boss?” Zeke cal ed, excitement in his voice.
Today was the day.
A few more hours. Then one way or the other, Wil 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 wal s with Juicy Fruit gum were eight years’ worth of Wil ’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 Wil ’s head. “Freedom sound good, boss?”
“Watch what you say, Zeke. ”
“Hel , 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 Floresvil e State for raping elderly ladies in a nursing home, which didn’t make him the worst sort Wil had met. Been abused as a kid, is al . Had some funny ideas about love. Wil worried how the boy would do when he got back to the real world.
Wil looked over his map of Kingsvil e, 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 unsuccessful y 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 cel door buzzed open.
“Come on, boss!” Zeke hustled outside, his shirt stil unbuttoned, his shoes in his hands.
Wil 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 real y 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 chal enge she’d always given him.
Stil , it was al 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 Kingsvil e 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 al religious when they could’ve been dealing for the homeboys.
Luis tried to joke about it, but he stil had bruises across his rib cage from the last time the carnales had cornered him. Pablo figured if they didn’t get out of Floresvil e soon, they’d both end up in cardboard coffins.
Out past the guard towers and the double line of razor wire fence, the hil s hummed with cicadas.
Lightning pulsed in the clouds.
Every morning, Pablo tried to imagine Floresvil e 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, tel him she stil 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 shel s, 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 pi?ata 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.
Wil Stirman was standing there with his cel 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 al 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 stil the one in charge.
Stirman tipped an imaginary hat to the guard. “Ma’am. ”
He walked off toward the basketbal 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 al owed 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 Wil Stirman.
He hooked Luis’ arm and headed toward the chapel, the rough edge
“Like to get a piece of that,” Zeke said.
It took Wil 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. “Hel , I don’t mean nothing. ”
Wil 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 kil ed Soledad and put him in jail. If Wil didn’t get out of Floresvil e 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 yel ow 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 Wil had asked for.
Maybe things would work out after al .
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.
Wil let his shadow fal 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 yel ow. ”
“It’s yel ow,” Elroy insisted.
“Make Jesus look like he’s got a piss ring around him,” C. C. said. “Fucking toilet seat. ”
They both looked at Wil , because the picture was Wil ’s design, based on one of his sketches.
“C. C. ’s right,” he said. “Can’t have the Savior looking less than pure. Might disappoint those kids today. ”
Elroy studied him.
He could’ve snapped Wil in half, if he wanted to.
He was a former wildcatter with arms like bridge cables, serving forty years for second degree murder.
His foreman had cal ed him a nigger one too many times and Elroy had punched the guy’s nose through his brain. The left side of Elroy’s face was stil webbed with scars from the white policemen in Lubbock who’d convinced him to give a ful confession.
“You done shown me the light, Brother Stirman,” Elroy said, real sober-like. “Can’t disappoint those children. ”
C. C. tapped the stained glass until it split in a perfect curve along the crack. “You both ful of shit. You know that?”
Elroy and Zeke laughed.
C. C. was a nappy-haired little runt with skin like terra-cotta. He could talk trash and get away with it partly because Elroy backed him up, partly because he was so scrawny and ugly his bad-ass routine came off as funny. He also worked in the maintenance shop, which made him indispensable to Wil . At least for today.
At ten o’clock, the buzzer sounded, signaling al trustees to their jobs, the rest of the inmates back to their cel s. Pablo and Luis arrived a minute late, completing the flock.
Pastor Riggs came out of his vestry. They al joined hands for prayer.
Afterward, the Reverend went back in the vestry to write his sermon. The trustees settled back to their work, getting ready for the juvies’ visit at one o’clock.
Wil wrote notes for his testimonial. Luis and Pablo got out their guitars and practiced gospel songs in that god-awful Freddy Fender style they had going. Elroy, C. C. and Zeke worked on the stained glass.