Authors: Sophie Jordan
For Stacey Kade,
who takes my calls and helps make
everything click into place .Â .Â .
T LOOKED EVERY
bit as intimidating as she thought it would. The broad, three-Âstoried building was almost colorless beige. The minute the thought entered her head, she knew it didn't make sense. Beige was a color. In fact a lot of her wardrobe consisted of beige. Beige shoes. Beige slacks. Maybe a sad testament to her sense of fashion, but there it was.
Through the car window, all light seemed to end in the shadow of the building. As if the sun's rays could not quite reach past the electric fence with its coiling barbed wires and the looming watchtowers with armed guards. All light, all life, ended right before its walls. A small shiver scraped down her spine as one cold fact sank in. She was going in there.
They passed through the brick sally port and stopped at the gatehouse. Dr. Walker spoke with the guard on duty, handing him both their IDs. The guard examined them, his eyes lost behind the shiny lenses of his sunglasses. After a moment he looked up and scrutinized them inside the car. Briar tried for a smile, but it faltered at his impassive expression.
She caught a glimpse of her reflection in those gleaming lenses. She had tamed her unruly hair into its usual ponytail. At least at first glance she looked professional. Only from behind was the wavy mass even visible. She could almost forget that it was as coarse as a horse's tail.
The guard handed back their identifications. “Dr. Walker. Ms. Davis. Follow the signs around to the admin building.”
“Thank you.” Dr. Walker gave him a cheery wave and drove on, following the winding road as though they were on a country drive, and not entering a maximum security prison. Laurel said she was nuts for doing this. Briar was beginning to wonder if maybe her sister was right.
“You sure you want to do this, Briar?”
At the question, she blinked and tore her gaze away past the looming prison with its small windows that watched her like so many dark, soulless eyes. Dr. Walker glanced over at her, his gaze kind behind his spectacles.
“Yes. Of course.”
He smiled indulgently and she felt like a child caught lying. He knew she wasn't being honest, but for whatever reason he didn't call her out on it. He was probably just grateful to have her help. She was the only nurse on staff to respond to his call for volunteers, after all.
He parked the car in the staff parking lot, and they stepped out into the sweltering heat. He pressed the lock on his key chain and the BMW beeped several times behind them as they made their way inside the prison, stopping outside a control room populated by two more guards.
Again they showed their IDs as Dr. Walker signed them in. A door buzzed and slid open. A ruddy-Âfaced guard waited for them on the other side, his thumbs hooked into his heavy belt. “Welcome to Devil's Rock Penitentiary. I'm Officer Renfro.”
He was fit, his barrel chest narrowing to a trim waist. The sight of him offered some reassurance. As did the keys, radio, cuffs, baton, gun, and other paraphernalia she couldn't even begin to identify attached to his belt. He looked ready for anything. She fought to swallow against the perpetual lump in her throat.
“I'll be escorting you to the HSU.” At her cocked head, he explained. “The Health SerÂvices Unit.” He gestured for them to follow. Dr. Walker fell in behind, his dress shoes tapping sharply in Renfro's wake. She brought up the rear, the tread of her tennis shoes silent on the concrete floor.
She'd chosen to wear her purple scrubs. They seemed the least feminine. It was troublesome how many of her scrubs were pink or floral patterned. At least scrubs were thankfully shapeless. Not that she was rocking some siren's body, but this place was full of dangerous men who didn't see too many females. It was best that she not flaunt her gender. At least, that was her logic.
They were buzzed through two more doors. She glanced around as she moved forward, taking in everything. The strategically placed cameras in every corner. The blank stare of the guard that passed them in the long hallway. They stopped at a third door. Renfro punched several numbers onto a keypad that opened a heavy steel door. They stepped out onto a skywalk that stretched over a yard full of inmates wearing white uniforms.
She sucked in a small breath. It was like being on a film set of a prison movie. Except these weren't actors. And this was real.
She scanned the grounds below. Inmates worked out on several crude pieces of gym equipment. Some played basketball. A Âcouple tossed a football. Some simply loitered around, smoking, talking in groups. Sitting. Standing.
Dozens of guards milled around, in addition to the guards watching from the surrounding towers. A trio of inmates sat on a bench, working a beat with their hands and feet. Their voices carried across the yard louder than any radio. A small audience gathered around them, nodding in rhythm to their rap.
“Aren't you concerned?” Dr. Walker asked as he slowed to a stop and pointed to the workout area. “Could they use the weights and other equipment as weapons?”
Officer Renfro glanced down. “The area is enclosed. Only a certain number are allowed in at one time. Warden Carter thinks inactivity is more dangerous.”
Dr. Walker nodded. “Progressive man, your warden.”
“You know what they say. Idle hands and allÂ .Â .Â .”
“Indeed.” Dr. Walker nodded.
They were noticed up on the skywalk. Even this far away, she felt the stares, the hot-Âeyed curiosity of the inmates. It was only a moment but it felt like it stretched on forever as they hovered there for the scrutiny of so many hard-Âfaced, dangerous men. Sweat rolled down her nape and slid between her shoulder blades. Not even ten in the morning yet and it was already sweltering.
“Coming?” Renfro's voice grabbed her attention.
She jerked slightly and then moved ahead, quickly following the two men from the skywalk and into the building and the welcoming blast of air-Âconditioning. They turned down a corridor. She held her breath, half fearing they would walk through a cell block housing hundreds of inmates. But that never happened. Thankfully. They turned the corridor and arrived at another door, marked
Officer Renfro punched a code and opened the door.
The infirmary was a large airy room with big windows that looked out over a portion of the parking lot and faced the corner of the prison's west wing.
A white-Âhaired officer stood near the door. He was older and didn't look nearly as fit or vigilant as Officer Renfro.
“This is Officer Murphy,” Renfro said. “He's here most days. Different guards alternate nights in the HSU.”
Dr. Walker and Briar took turns shaking hands with Officer Murphy. With his large belly, he didn't imbue nearly as much confidence as Renfro did, and she couldn't help wondering if maybe he wasn't past retirement age. He reminded her of her high school Spanish teacher. Students had made out in the back of Mr. Delgado's classroom. She was never sure if he knew and didn't care or was just oblivious.
She eyed his rosacea-Âsplashed face, her gaze stopping on his swollen red nose, thinking of an antibiotic cream Dr. Walker might want to prescribe him.
A younger man wearing scrubs stepped forward, hand outstretched. He was thin with bright dark eyes. The fine lines around his eyes spoke to frequent laughter, and his resemblance to her brother-Âin-Âlaw, Caleb, put her at ease.
“I'm Josiah Martinez, the LVN here. We're so glad to have you both. Thank you for volunteering your time.” He released Dr. Walker's hand and turned to shake Briar's. “We've been drowning since Dr. Pollinger took early retirement. There's only so much I can do on my own.”
“We're happy to help.” Dr. Walker shrugged. “Only one day a week, but maybe we can do some good until you find someone to take Dr. Pollinger's place.”
As they continued exchanging pleasantries, Briar observed the room. It consisted of six beds and several utilitarian cabinets. A unit of shelves along the far wall held bedding, pillows, and other supplies. A cracked door revealed a restroom. She released a small breath of relief. She wouldn't even have to leave the infirmary until she was escorted out at the end of the day. She would have to tell Laurel that. It might make her sister feel better.
“I'll leave you in Josiah's capable hands,” Renfro said, clapping the LVN on the back. “He and Murphy will run you through the protocols.” He glanced to each man pointedly. “Yes? Be sure to discuss emergency procedures.”
Josiah and Murphy both nodded. At the door, Renfro stopped as though suddenly remembering. “Oh. Warden Carter had a meeting this morning, but he looks forward to meeting you both. He'll pop in today.”
The moment the door shut behind Renfro, Murphy sank back down into a chair by the door. Somehow, she suspected he usually didn't move from that chair. Unless it was maybe for lunch. The older man smiled vacantly at her as he crossed his arms, tucking his hands beneath the stained armpits of his uniform.
“This way,” Josiah murmured, a curl of humor to his voice as his gaze shifted from Officer Murphy to her. He motioned to the single desk in the corner that held a computer. “Hope you don't mind. Since I knew you were arriving today, I took the liberty of making appointments this afternoon. There are several inmates who have been coming in for a while with chronic complaints. I've opened their files up on the computer, if you would like to take a look at my notes before they start coming in.”
“Very efficient of you.” Dr. Walker nodded approvingly.
Josiah shrugged. “Dr. Pollinger's sudden retirement left us a bit in the lurch. I've been doing my best but we are very grateful to have your help.”
Dr. Walker nodded as he moved across the room and sank down in the chair before the computer.
Josiah looked at Briar as Dr. Walker started clicking at the keyboard. “I thought you might like to explore the unit. Familiarize yourself with the supplies.” He offered her a key that dangled off a rubber coil around his wrist. “Here you go. We keep all supplies locked.”
She nodded. That made sense. She had an image of some scary yet faceless inmate overpowering her and getting the key that doubtlessly gave him access to all manner of things that could be used as weapons. Syringes, scissors, surgical tape. And then there were drugs, of course. A glance to where Murphy sat near the door, his eyelids drooping to half-Âmast, didn't help eliminate the image.
“Thank you,” she murmured, turning for the cabinets lining the walls. “I'll take a look.”
Josiah spoke quietly behind her. “They always put the older COs on duty in here. Murphy is one breath from retirement.” Apparently he hadn't missed the direction of her concerned gaze.
“Not very comforting,” she murmured, her sister's innumerable warnings ringing in her ears.
“Don't worry. We never see much action in here. When we get inmates, they're sick or injured. They want relief and aren't likely to bite the hand giving it to them. Even the appointments this afternoon .Â .Â . they've been waiting eagerly to see the doctor for weeks. And the more dangerous inmates that come from seg are always in restraints. Even if they wanted to cause trouble, they can't.”
“Oh, that's what we call segregation.”
She nodded, thinking about his words and deciding that she was acting like a wimp. She needed to get over her fears. Turning, she unlocked the mesh glass cabinets and began exploring the supplies. They were well-Âstocked. “Dr. Pollinger's retirement caught y'all by surprise, then?”
“Yeah. He wasn't planning to retire for another five years. No one blames him, of course. The stroke just made him decide to move things along faster.”
“Life's too short,” she agreed. “Hopefully he's recuperating and enjoying himself.”
“Last I heard, he's improving his golf swing in Plano.”
“Good for him.”
“That's right. The rest of us schlubs gotta put in our time.” He grinned good-Ânaturedly.
“Well, hopefully you'll find a replacement soon.”
And then she could stop coming here.
“At this prison?” He snorted. “Not likely. We're eighty miles outside Sweet Hill and five hours from anywhere that serves decent sushi. It's practically the end of civilization. The Texas Badlands aren't exactly where a doctor wants to work. But at least we have you two coming in once a week. That should help.”
Unease trickled through her. When Dr. Walker asked for volunteers, he made it sound like this arrangement would be temporary. A Âcouple of weeks of making the hour and a half trip to Devil's Rock, at the most. She wouldn't have volunteered if she thought this was a permanent arrangement. She didn't get a nursing degree so she could work in a prison, after all. Bless those who did, like Josiah Martinez, but she didn't have it in her for this kind of thing.
She worked in a doctor's office in a small town where the biggest thing to happen was the arrival of Starbucks last year. If she wanted more excitement, she could move to Forth Worth or Houston or Austin and take a job at one of the hospitals there. On any given day, the most extreme thing she saw was a broken arm. On the scariest day, a case of meningitis.
So what are you doing here?
“Guess we better roll through those protocols,” Josiah announced, clapping his hands lightly and rubbing them together.
Banishing that internal voice that sounded a lot like her sister, Briar forced a smile and paid attention as the LVN started explaining what to do in the event of scary-Ânot-Âgoing-Âto-Âhappen-Âin-Âa-Âmillion-Âyears-Âsituations. At least she hoped so.