Updated: Apr 22
As Roxanne’s eyes snap to the unnamed gentleman sitting wedged between Officer Black and me, my throat dries like a desert. The man with colorful tattoos peeking out of multiple areas of his dress shirt rolled up to the sleeves hasn’t spoken a word to me, yet he seems to know all my deepest darkest secrets.
How is that possible? I thought I was pulling off the ideal inmate ruse to perfection.
Clearly, my acting skills are in need of a polish.
My eyes float up from my balled hands resting in my lap to the man with an outrageously handsome face when he mutters, “Because you seem skittish around them all, but you’ve focused on this half of the room more often than the two guards behind you, so I’m leaning toward it being the warden and one of these pricks.” He nudges his head to the officers standing behind him like he can’t feel them glaring at me, wordlessly warning me to keep my mouth shut.
I obey their orders like I’ve been punished to do. “No one is… fucking with me.” Even with the pause in the middle of my confession to gulp down a much-needed breath, there’s not an ounce of dishonesty in my tone. Officer Black doesn’t fuck me. Not only do the female inmates undergo regular pelvic examinations by an in-house doctor, but several correctional officers learned the hard way that condoms only have a 98% protection rate. Since almost all of them are married, a court-ordered paternity test isn’t something they can easily hide from their wives. “I was just admiring your tattoos. You have quite the collection.”
I bat my lashes at him. I’m sure I look like a wreck. I can feel the knots in my hair Officer Black’s rueful clutch caused, and I’m not wearing an ounce of makeup since Roxanne’s visit was hours earlier than planned, but I’ve got to do something. Officer Black is glaring at me so much, I may not eat for a week once Roxanne and her male friend leave.
My head bobs up and down like a bobble-head toy when the stranger asks, “You like my tattoos?” He stands to his feet, once again commanding the room with the impressive height I couldn’t help but admire when I was ushered into the room by four officers like I’m a serial killer. “Do you have any?” Before I can nod, he presses his finger to his chunky lips, wordlessly requesting for me to remain quiet. “I bet one of them can tell me.” He stops in front of Officer Edgar before slanting his head to the side to better align their eyes. “Does she have any tattoos?”
Officer Edgar is the tamer of the four officers in the room. He knows what happens to the female half of the population at Wallens Ridge, but he neither participates nor stops it from occurring. In a way, that makes him just as bad as Officer Black.
“I don’t believe so,” Officer Edgar replies after a lengthy deliberation.
The tattooed stranger takes just as long to authenticate his answer before he moves onto Officer Black. Even with my stomach in knots, I watch his approach as if not the slightest flutter can be felt. If I were to look away now, who knows how bad Officer Black’s punishment will be. Not from the unnamed man, but to me for tattling. Officer Black made it very clear multiple times the past seven months that I’d lose more than meal privileges if word ever got out about our secret meetings.
“What about you, Officer Black?” the stranger spits out his name as if it is trash. It’s clear they’ve met before. “Do you know if Claudia has any tattoos?”
I almost choke on my spit when Officer Black nods. He isn’t lying, I do have a small collection of ink, but I never thought he’d be stupid enough to admit he’s seen them.
It dawns on me that the only fool in this room is me when Officer Black locks his eyes with the cross tattoo on my right wrist. “She has a cross on her wrist. I notice it almost every time she’s cuffed.” He doesn’t mention the small section of script tattooed on my ribcage. It’s just below my breast, so admitting he had seen that means he would have admitted he’s seen me naked.
He would never do that.
The tension in the room boils over when the stranger asks, “Is that it? Is that the only tattoo she has?”
When I attempt to back up Officer Black’s lie to save my ass, Roxanne’s hand shoots out to cover mine. She knows as well as I do that her tattooed friend has sniffed out a conniving rat, and she’s more than happy for him to punish Officer Black for his crimes. “The final verdict will be yours. Rocco just needs to ensure all the facts are presented first.”
I’m lost to what she means until Rocco repeats his question by screaming it into Officer Black’s face. “I asked you a fucking question. Is the cross on Claudia’s wrist the only tattoo she has?”
When Officer Black stupidly nods, too cowardice to express his lie with words, Rocco slams his fists into his stomach, folding him in two. After pulling a gold-plated gun out of the back of his jeans, he directs it at Officer Edgar’s head. He wasn’t racing to assist his colleague. He was bolting for the exit. “Get word out if Claudia is touched again, for any fucking reason, I’ll come back here and exterminate the lot of you!”
There’s so much protectiveness to his statement, I can’t help but push the boundaries of his offer. “Not just me. All the women.” When Rocco’s furious eyes swing to me, I squeak out like a mouse, “Please.” I’m not special, so I don’t expect to be treated as if I am, but if he can make my years here more comfortable, surely he can extend that branch to the other female inmates as well. “All we want to do is serve our time and get back to our lives. We can’t do that without food.”
Although my underhanded comment as to why I jump on queue doesn’t wholeheartedly dump Officer Black into the deep end without a life jacket, Rocco sees it as that.
After granting my bid with a lift of his chin, Rocco slams the butt of his gun into Officer Black’s temple. Blood flows out a two-inch gash in an instant, but it doesn’t slow down Rocco’s campaign to teach him a lesson. With a roar that exposes he isn’t playing, he lays his boot into Officer Black’s writhing frame while reminding him a position of power doesn’t give him the right to forget the rules.
“A woman gave birth to you, you stupid fuck, so how about you remember that the next time you’re forcing one to suck your dick against her will.”
He raises Officer Black’s head from the ground by his hair before he sends it crashing back by punching him in the face. He does this over and over again, only stopping to demand the officers watching the beat down in stunned silence to bring him the warden.
When Officer Edgar scuttles off to do as asked, Rocco locks his eyes with Roxanne. “It’s time for you to head out.”
“I ain’t asking, Roxie.”
I find their dynamic a little hard to read. It’s obvious they’re close, but I don’t get boyfriend-girlfriend vibes from them. I would have gone with brother and sister if Roxanne hadn’t told me she was an only child during our time together in a prison hospital.
I settle on friends by association when Rocco mutters, “Dimi will blow a gasket if I get a droplet of this prick’s blood on you, so it’s time for you to go.” He gestures his head to Officer Black sobbing on the floor like a baby during the ‘prick’s’ part of his comment
Ignoring my silent begs for her not to leave me alone with a man in the middle of a murderous rampage, Roxanne leans over my half of the table to hug me goodbye. “It will be okay,” she whispers in my ear. “He hurt you first, so only you can choose his punishment.”
I follow the direction of Rocco’s slanted gaze when he says, “Roxie is on her way out. Meet her in the reception area.” He stares at a camera mounted in the corner of the room. “Oh, don’t worry, Smith, I’ll add a stomp for you.”
A sickening crunch booms through the room when he stomps on Officer Black’s head, although it has nothing on the restrictive hold Warden Mattue’s arrival causes my heart. If he thinks I’m too blame for Officer Black’s punishment, he’ll have even more excuse to deny my numerous requests for JJ to be a part of the prison’s nursery program. My son could be here, with me, but Warden Mattue has denied every single application I’ve made.
Agent Mattue’s eyes stray from me to Rocco when Rocco asks, “Did you know about this? Are you aware your guards are fiddling with female inmates… again?” Bile burns the back of my throat from the way he says ‘fiddling,’ but I don’t let it show on my face. I need Warden Mattue to believe Rocco reached his own conclusion on matters, that I have no say in anything happening. “Because I thought I made it abundantly clear when you overtook from your predecessor what would happen if shit like this continued under your watch.” I breathe for the first time in what feels like minutes when he supplies evidence to his claims without the slightest glance my way. He pulls my underwear out of Officer Black’s pocket. “I don’t know about you, but I’m reasonably sure they’re not his size. What do you think, Warden?”
Warden Mattue is smarter than I give him credit for. Instead of answering Rocco’s first question, he keeps his focus on the last one to ensure he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Officer Black. “Ah… no, they don’t appear to be his size.” He steps closer to Rocco like his heart isn’t racing a million miles an hour. “And I assure you I was unaware any of these antics were occurring in my cells.” Technically, that isn’t a lie. The suicide watches occur in the mental health side of Wallens Ridge. It’s branched off this penitentiary, but is funded by private benefactors, so his comment is honest. “You have my word, this will be immediately stopped, and those in the wrong will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Rocco doesn’t want to believe him any more than I do, but I have a feeling he only made his pledge because he’s cooking up a much more lucrative scheme.
I stop striving to work out what that could be when Rocco locks his eyes with mine. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t need to. The questioning look in his eyes is very telling, much less Roxanne’s promise that any verdicts handed down today will be solely my choice.
I’m Warden Mattue’s judge, juror, and possibly, his executioner.
After a couple of seconds of deliberation, I shake my head. Relief engulfs Warden Mattue’s face. Rocco looks straight-up disappointed, but it clears somewhat when I say, “But I may change my mind if my applications are continually refused.”
“Bail?” Rocco asks, his tone somewhat hopeful.
A strand of the dead straight hair I tossed into a messy bun while waiting for the door of my cell to pop open falls into my eye when I shake my head. “My son. I haven’t seen him since he was born.”
I’m unsure if it’s a relieved or shocked mask that falls over Rocco’s face. We’ve only just met, so I can’t be sure. Whatever it is, he clears it away before he shifts his focus back to Warden Mattue. “Get onto that.” When Warden Mattue’s lips twitch in preparation to respond, Rocco shouts, “Now!” The scuttle of his boots on the polished concrete floor is still sounding in my ears when Rocco asks me what I want Officer Black’s punishment to be. “He hurt you, so only you can sentence him.”
I peer down at Officer Black, confident I don’t have what it takes to be a cold-blooded murderer but too curious to discount Rocco’s offer immediately. If I hadn’t been such a rule follower, I wouldn’t have needed to put up with Juan’s abuse for so long. There were guns in every drawer at the Sanchez compound. I would have merely needed to point and shoot. I just didn’t have the stomach to view murder so nonchalantly.
When Rocco recognizes my struggle, he says, “He won’t hurt you again either way, but by taking him out, you’ll never have to look over your shoulder.”
“But he will if I don’t. A better lesson might be taught this way.”
Rocco shuffles side to side to hide his ghost-like smile before doing a one-shoulder shrug. “Perhaps, but only you have the choice to decide if that is enough.”
I breathe out slowly before twisting my lips. “Could you tell his wife?”
“Tell her what? That her husband is an adulterous rapist who doesn’t know how to keep his dick in his pants?”
The murderous glint in Rocco’s eyes dims a little when I mutter, “He didn’t rape me, but I’d like her to know the rest.” I wet my lips before continuing, “Then she can choose whether he lives or dies. It’s only fair considering he hurt her first.”
He doesn’t hide his smile this time around. It’s as ridiculously handsome as his face. Not even the droplets of Officer Black’s blood on his cheek can deter from his sexiness. I won’t mention how bloody his fists are, though. I’m acting as if they don’t exist.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Claudia?” I could almost forget the seriousness of our conversation from the way he purrs out my name. There’s no doubt he was born into violence like Juan, but Juan would have participated alongside Officer Black. He would have never punished him for degrading me.
“I’m sure,” I reply with a faint nod. “Thanks, though.”
I inwardly curse my dimness. I couldn’t sound more naïve if I tried.
Rocco doesn’t seem to mind. After chuckling a laugh that does stupid things to my insides, he locks his eyes with Officer Peters. “Get this cleaned up…” When Officer Peters jumps to the command in his tone, he stops his hustle with a straight-up order. “After assuring Claudia and every other inmate in her half of Wallens Ridge are fed and given unlimited access to toiletries, personal hygiene products, and clothing.”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. I’ll get onto that right now, sir,” Officer Peters stammers out before he races to open the door I was pushed through only minutes ago to open it for me.
After shuffling to the exit like I’m not stark naked under my jumpsuit, I crank my neck back to Rocco, smiling when our eyes lock and hold. “Thank you,” I mouth.
He accepts my unvoiced gratitude with a dip of his chin before he hits me with a frisky wink that will keep me warm throughout winter even if Officer Peters doesn’t follow through with his pledge.
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