THE INVISIBLE CIPHER
By Ida Smith
Published by Ida Smith at Shakespir
Copyright 2015 by Ida Smith
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Special Thanks to my wonderful husband, Rick Smith, for all your support, encouragement, and help. I couldn’t do this without you.
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Neil Gatlin traveled the back roads, hoping to avoid state police and other law enforcement. He’d managed to slip out of Missouri undetected and was now inching his way through Illinois, he just had to make it to Indiana before Sunshine had her baby.
By the level on the gas gauge Neil knew skirting around Cleavemont wasn’t an option and he didn’t dare try siphoning gas during the day. If only ol’ Gorgons hadn’t caught him slipping a few twenties from the till. Hadn’t he worked for it? He’d tried to explain to Gorgons that he needed the money now, he couldn’t wait around ‘til pay day. But Gorgons wouldn’t hear of it and threatened to make Neil pay with the sweat of his brow—sure that Neil had stolen money and tools on other occasions.
What could Neil do but run? The smell of gasoline interrupted his justification. The gas gauge on his 1950’s International pickup showed a fifth left.
The smell nauseated him. Before he could open the passenger window, the engine sputtered to a stop. He coasted to the roadside and tried the engine again. It started but stopped a few minutes later and wouldn’t restart.
A look under the hood revealed gas under the diaphragm. His fuel pump was shot.
He slammed the hood shut. Why did this have to happen now? He stared across the miles of fields. He’d push his truck into the field and hide it if the corn was higher. A short walk into town, catch the bus and he’d be gone. The police wouldn’t be looking for him on a bus.
He kicked the truck. Abandoning it here would be foolish. They’d find it and start asking around. A stranger in a small town would stand out in a bus station with few if any customers. As soon as they found his truck he was as good as caught.
He could hitchhike, though the idea of some nosey stranger’s questions already raised a sweat. How could he come up with a believable story under pressure? He’d never been any good at lying. Give him time, sure he could devise a story, but not under pressure.
Neil marveled at his choice of routes. The good and bad was that no one would find him. He thought of the forty-seven dollars he had. Money he’d saved for Sunshine and the baby he now needed to fix his truck so he could get home and announce that once again, he’d failed. At least she had the fifty he’d sent a few weeks ago.
He might as well hoof it to a nearby house. He grabbed his knapsack from the cab, slammed the door, and set out to the farm he’d seen several miles back. “Maybe they can help,” he mumbled unbelieving.
He looked at the western sky. Why did it seem he was always headed backwards?
Half a mile from the truck a farmer in a flatbed slowed and offered to tow Neil’s truck to town. Neil managed to keep the guy talking about his crops and the area so he didn’t have to answer too many questions. The farmer dropped him off at a service station in Cleavemont.
“Good luck,” the man said.
“Thanks.” Neil waved to the man. “Luck,” he muttered to himself. Bad luck, he’d always had. Good, that’d be a nice change.
By early afternoon he sat in a bar trying to determine how much he’d have left for Sunshine after fixing the pickup and filling it with gas. He fingered a black and white snapshot of a slender blond with a wide smile wearing a wild patterned mid-thigh dress and go-go boots. Sunshine, so aptly named. She was the only sunshine he’d ever known in an otherwise gray life.
Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Marty Robbins took turns singing on the jukebox in a corner. Across from him several young men shot pool.
“Hey, Mister,” one of the men in a t-shirt said. “You want to play?”
“Why not.” Neil stood. “It’s been a while.” He noticed several suppressed grins.
“I’m Charley,” said the guy who’d invited him. “This is Scotty.” He pointed his pool stick at a clean shaven blond, “and this here’s Willis.”
“Don’t see guys with long hair around here much,” Willis said.
Neil glanced around. “I doubt you do.”
Their first game looked like a bunch of beginners as Neil warmed up and the other three missed shots Neil had seen them make minutes before he’d joined them.
After a couple of games Willis suggested they play for money. Hadn’t Neil seen this coming?
“You don’t mind a little friendly competition do you?” Scotty asked.
“Not at all.”
Charley racked up the balls and Willis broke.
“What brings you to Cleavemont?” Scotty asked.
“Just passing through when my truck broke down.”
“Bad luck,” Charley said.
“Only luck I seem to have.”
Charley shot a quick glare at Willis. “Where’s it at?”
“At the Mobil station down the road.”
They all nodded.
“Clem will do you good,” Scotty said and toyed with a class ring on his finger.
The round-faced bartender swept some imaginary dirt several feet from them. “You boys just going to wear out my pool table?”
Scotty leaned his stick against the table and pulled out his wallet. “Get us each a beer.”
Neil dropped the last ball but it wasn’t enough to keep him from owing several dollars. Scotty suggested they play several more games and Neil agreed.
“So where’s you headed?” Willis asked.
Neil bristled. This was what he was afraid of. He stalled, trying to think of what to say. He could sense their eyes on him. “Chicago.” Why hadn’t he said someplace south? Did Charley just raise his eyebrows at Willis? Why didn’t he say Springfield?
“You taking one-thirty-six?” Scotty asked.
“If you need a place to stay for the night I’ve got an uncle about fifteen miles out of town, only place for miles. I’m sure he’d let you sleep in his barn. Just tell him you’re a friend of Charley’s.”
“Thanks.” Neil leveled his pool cue hoping to knock the twelve into the right corner. “I’m planning to be long gone by then.” He tapped the cue ball but the blue stripped ball stopped short.
Scotty hit the last two balls in and Neil handed over a few more dollars.
Charley finished his beer and ordered another round.
Neil hated taking these guys money, but knew he needed to pay the mechanic—and besides, they didn’t seem to have too much trouble taking his money. When it came his turn he dropped a couple balls in but withheld from putting any more in. By the end of the game Neil had won.
Neil looked at a Budweiser clock made to look like a gigantic pocket watch that spun over the bar. “I’d better go check on my pickup.”
“Oh, you can play one more game,” said Charley, then glanced at Willis, who gave a slight nod.
Neil sighed, “One more game guys.”
Scotty and Neil had both taken their turns when Willis made a show of looking at the clock. “Boy, howdy. Sorry boys, but I told the little woman I’d be home for dinner. I’m gonna have to skedaddle.” He tossed a five on the table. “There’s for the tab. See you around. Nice meetin’ you Neil.”
Scotty ordered more beer and Charley took his turn. Neil sunk a few more balls, gave each of the guys another chance then finished the game.
“Looks like your skills have improved,” Charley said.
“Guess I just needed some warming up.”
It was nearly six according to the Paul Bunyan sized pocket watch when Neil ambled over to the Mobil station. He’d had a couple more beers than he’d have liked and hoped he didn’t let something slip. He shook his head hoping to clear it. Maybe he would take Charley up on his offer to sleep in his uncle’s barn. It would sure beat searching for someplace to hide his truck.
It was seven-thirty when the mechanic finished. In the fading light Neil found the dirt road Charley had suggested. He was maybe ten miles out of town when his radiator overheated. He pulled over, grabbed his flashlight, and jumped from the cab. Steam poured out when he opened the hood. He clicked on the flashlight, dead. Neil kicked the bumper. “You piece of junk.”
He grabbed his knapsack and started for a house he could see a short distance up the road. He rapped on the door and heard something inside crash to the floor. The porch light turned on and a wide-eyed, middle aged woman opened the door. “Sorry to bother you Ma—”
“Help,” she fell toward Neil.
He reached out to her, caught her. “Ma’am, are you—” a glint of silver caught his attention. There, sticking from her back, was a knife. Somewhere from the back of the house a wood screen door banged shut. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
She was motionless. He shook her. Inside the house he could see overturned furniture, photos with cracked glass, and a broken vase—its flowers scattered.
“Hello. Is anyone here?”
He carried the woman to the couch. Blood ran down his arms and jeans. He listened for breathing—knowing he wouldn’t hear any.
A phone sat on an end table. He lifted the receiver but there was no ring tone.
He whirled around, sensing he was watched but saw no one. The iron-like smell of blood filled his nostrils. He stumbled through the house to the kitchen. He had to get this blood off his hands. At the doorway he stopped.
There, on the floor lay a man. Probably the woman’s husband. Blood pooled around him. The man’s wallet lay open beside him—empty. He grabbed the table to steady himself.
The scene blurred. Neil squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them he saw the red spots splattered across the wall, cabinets, and refrigerator. He heard a noise from outside. Neil checked the man’s pulse. Gone.
“Think, Neil. Think. Leave. The killer’s still here. A car, there’s got to be a car.” Neil remembered seeing a detached garage to the side of the house. He fled out the front door.
Outside, dim light from a sliver of moon outlined the garage. Insects chirped and hummed. Something rustled in the bushes and he flinched. He was at the corner of the garage when he heard the hum of a motor just beyond a stand of lilac bushes that lined the drive. He slipped in the open garage door and hid just inside.
On the other side of the bushes gravel, beetles, and locusts crunched under a car’s tires.
Neil peered at the bushes, hoping to get a glimpse of the vehicle that crawled away in complete darkness. When the car was almost to the road Neil darted to the bushes and clawed his way through in time to see the car turn onto the road toward town. Was that an Impala? He couldn’t be sure.
He extracted himself from the bushes and listened. If there was someone else there they were hiding and quiet. Neil returned to the garage but stayed in the shadows. His eyes adjusted to the garage’s silhouetted objects. Then, from the rafters, a flutter of movement. He lifted his arms in self-defense. A large bird swooshed past. Neil grabbed at his chest. He leaned against the car trying to calm his breath, and the pounding in his chest, trying to relax the tension in his shoulders. He felt his way to the driver’s side door.
Inside he found the keys still in the ignition. “Just like gramms and gramps.” He shook his head, remembering summers on his grandparent’s farm. At the end of the drive he stopped. He’d intended to go back to Cleavemont—report the murder, get a mechanic for his truck. But—Neil paused. The warrant for his arrest in Missouri. Would the police in Illinois know about it and arrest him?
He thought about turning right, driving away from town. He could call the police from another town, he wouldn’t have to give them his name. Yes, that’s what he would do.
At the road Neil made a cursory glance. There, less than a quarter of a mile away stood his truck. “Way to go Neil—add stealing a car to your list of failures. Idiot.” He turned left and headed back to Cleavemont. “Two days of hiding from police and now I’m driving straight to them. Maybe telling them what I’ve seen will help clear my name in Missouri. I can’t believe this. I should have headed out of town the way I’d planned.”
Several miles down the road Neil passed a police car, all lights and screams. How did they know? Had the woman managed to call the police before the line was cut? If they knew, did he need to tell them? He could hide the car, clean up, hitchhike back to town and—
Police lights flashed up ahead. Neil gripped the steering wheel tighter to stop his shaking. In the dark he couldn’t see if there were any roads to turn off, as if he could hide in fields of two-foot high corn. He stopped at the road block and opened the car door.
Immediately several officers surrounded the car, guns pulled. “Don’t move. Hands above your head.”
Neil’s arms bolted up. He gasped for air.
An officer pulled the door wide. “Get out. Keep your hands where we can see them.”
“Officers, there’s been a murder. Just down the road a ways.” He tried to turn to talk to the officers but was slammed against the car. “You’ve got to believe me. A man and woman have been stabbed to death.”
“So you thought you’d just take their car?”
“What? No. No. My truck broke down. I went to their door for help and found them.”
“You in the habit of walking into people’s homes, uninvited?”
“No, the woman came to the door.”
“So you killed her.”
“What? No. I didn’t—”
“Mr.?” the officer said.
“Gatlin, and I didn’t kill her. She came to the door with a knife in her back. I caught her—”
“Pete, look at this,” a young officer was exiting the passenger side of the car.
Neil strained to see what the man held.
“What’ch ya got there?” the officer who was handcuffing Neil said.
“A roll of money.”
Neil sat in a multi-functional interrogation and meeting room waiting for a public defender to arrive from several towns over. He massaged his forehead. He should be on his way to Sunshine, not sitting in a police station. Outside the room he heard voices and bits and pieces of the evening’s events. The door opened and a disheveled man in his fifties with a leather satchel entered. “You Neil Allen Gatlin?”
“I am.” He stood to shake the man’s hand only to be ignored.
“I’m Harvey Rubens. I’ll be defending you.” He dropped the bag on the table and pulled out some papers. “I’m told that you are being held on breaking and entering, robbery, and two counts of murder.”
“I didn’t do it.” Neil struggled to control the panic in his voice.
The attorney looked over the police report. “Says here you were covered in blood—” He looked at the dark stains splattered on Neil’s once white t-shirt. “Caught driving the victims’ car, with money stolen from the deceased…”
“I didn’t do it.”
“There was blood on the soles of your sneakers and you tracked it through the house. They’re checking the murder weapon for your prints right now.”
Had the knife brushed his hand as he caught the woman? It all happened so fast. Neil’s head throbbed.
“I’ve also been told that law enforcement from Missouri are on their way to discuss extradition on charges of theft and assault. But with two murders, they’ll have to wait their turn.”
There it was. He hadn’t run away from trouble, he’d run into it. A brown lock fell over his eyes.
Harvey pulled a pen and notepad from his satchel. “Well, boy, let’s hear your side of this tale.”
“Are you going to defend me or am I already condemned?”
“It ain’t looking real good for you, boy.”
“Neil. My names Neil.”
“I don’t care what your name is. Two good people are dead and the police caught you covered in blood and fleeing in the victim’s car.”
Neil stood, “That’s it. Don’t you see it?”
“Don’t get smart with me young man.”
“No. Don’t you see it?” He leaned across the table. “If I killed them why would I drive back to town? And how did the police know I was coming and that the crime had been committed except that the real killer was there when I arrived and left before I did.”
Neil pointed his finger at the public defender. “That’s who tipped off the police, probably when they got back to town. The phone line had been cut and that place is in the middle of nowhere. How did the police know about the murder unless someone informed them? How did they know I was driving that car? Can’t you see that? I was framed.” Neil leaned across the table. “You need to find who really killed those poor people. You need to look for the tire tracks on the other side of the bushes and find the car they belong to. I think it was an Impala.”
Harvey stared at him.
“Aren’t you going to write this down?”
“You’re ranting like a madman.”
“Have you ever defended anyone in a murder case?” Neil thought of his hotshot lawyer brother in Georgia. He should call him. But to do so would inform his dad. Neil could hear his old man already: “So you finally did it. You finally got yourself in trouble with the law.” Nope. He would handle this on his own. His little brother wasn’t going to bail him out of another mess.
“So have you?”
“Let’s not worry about that.”
“You haven’t have you?”
“Boy…Neil this is rural Illinois. I deal more with cattle thieves, drunks, and wife beaters than anything. This kind of thing just don’t happen around these parts that often.”
Neil paced—again going over the events in his mind. He took a deep breath. “Alright. I’m going to give you the order of events along with the things you need to check into—like looking for blood, footprints, and tire tracks from the real killer.”
“What about this business in Missouri? I suppose it wasn’t you who robbed and assaulted a…” Harvey rummaged through the papers, “a Mr. Gordon?”
“Mr. Gorgons, and yes, I did assault him—if punching a guy for not wanting to pay you what he owes—listen, I worked for the guy, I needed to leave, my girlfriend’s having a baby and I need to get home. He wouldn’t pay me. Said I had to wait until next week. She’s having problems with the pregnancy and needs me.”
Harvey shook his head. “You just don’t do anything the conventional way, do you?”
“I was just taking what he owed me. Nothing more. He caught me and accused me of stealing. Threatened to have me arrested. I just wanted to be there for Sunshine.”
“That’s her name. I’m really trying to do right by her. She’s a sweet girl. I know it doesn’t look like it but I’m really trying.” Neil’s shoulders slumped. “It’s just that nothing ever goes right. Listen, I’m being honest with you. I didn’t mean to hit Gorgons. I just couldn’t be stuck there.”
“Instead you’re stuck here.” The lawyer looked at him, a sliver of empathy and belief in his eyes.
“Yeah,” Neil’s voice was quiet. “It seems fate caught up with me and added revenge.” Neil sat back down, his face in his hands. “Will you contact her for me?”
A clock on the wall ticked one a.m.
“So how’d you come to be at the Parsons’ place in the first place?”
Neil looked up. “Parsons?”
“The victims, Walter and Harriet Parsons.”
Neil closed his eyes at the image of the middle-aged woman, her face a collage of pain and fear. “My truck broke down.”
Neil stared at the ceiling in his jail cell. He’d been here for three days, yet it seemed a month. He felt so alone. How could he have gotten himself in such a mess? How many times had he asked himself that question? But this time it really mattered. He’d told himself he would be a better man—the man he’d failed so many times before to be. From now on, it wasn’t just about him.
He wanted and needed to be there with Sunshine—to care for her and their baby. Nothing in all his life had ever meant so much to him.
Neil rolled over on the lumpy jail mattress. He wanted to believe this whole mess would work itself out. That the police and authorities would figure out it wasn’t him and find the real killer. But he also knew how things could go wrong, especially for him.
He bit his lip, angry with his latest failure. Neil’s hotshot lawyer brother, Kenneth, came to mind. He resisted the temptation to call him. He would soon be a father, it was time he learned to take care of himself and not rely on his little brother.
No matter how hard Neil worked or how much he tried, things never worked out like he planned. Society’s nit-picky rules and social norms always seemed to trip him up. Sure, some of them made sense to him, but some of the ways people did things, right or wrong, whatever that was, he thought were just a waste of time.
Ken used to mock him. They’d spend hours, whole evenings arguing. Ken always took the side of ethics and Neil rationalized the economy of convenience.
“Seems to me your unethical conveniences aren’t very economical or convenient,” Ken taunted on more than one occasion.
Neil felt Ken always spoke out of pride. The only reason he argued ethics was to try and redeem himself. Ken argued cases based on the purse. Ken’s pride yelled, ‘this is good, that is bad,’ while he sold his flesh for the highest dollar. He was a whore on a high horse.
A guard rattled the keys in Neil’s cell door, jolting him from his denunciation.
“You’ve got a visitor.”
Neil entered the small room where he’d met with his lawyer several days earlier. A clean shaven man, probably in his fifties, sat at the table.
“Mr. Gatlin? I’m Leonard Black.” He stretched out his hand.
“Do I know you?” Neil awkwardly shook the man’s hand.
“No.” Leonard shifted his weight. “I’m um, well, I’ve never done anything like this before. I, uh, I just felt I needed to come and talk with you.”
“Never seen anyone accused of murder and thought you’d come and gawk?”
Leonard cocked his head.
Neil could see in his eyes a kindness he wasn’t used to seeing.
“Gawk, no. I’ve spent the past three days talking myself out of coming. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Then why now?”
“I can’t sleep. I lay in bed and hear the stories floating around town and things don’t add up.”
Neil leaned back in his chair, locked his fingers behind his head. “What doesn’t add up?”
“First let me ask you a question. Do you know anyone around here?”
“Only the fellows I met in the pool hall that day.”
“You’d never met them before?”
A jailer looked in on them.
“Do you remember their names?”
Neil nodded and told him.
Leonard seemed surprised. “You know who the victims were?”
Neil leaned forward. “A Mr. and Mrs. Walter Parsons, or so I’ve been told. I didn’t kill them. She had a knife in her back when she came to the door.” Neil shrugged. “Why am I bothering to tell you this? You’re not going to believe me anyway.”
“What makes you say that?”
“No one’s believed me so far.”
“So how’s it you were there in the first place?”
“My truck overheated. You’re not a newspaper reporter or something are you?” Neil made a series of long and short taps on the table.
Leonard smiled. “Don’t laugh, I actually own a farm supply business.”
“Oh, well, that’s a lot of help.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“I’m sure more than I can imagine.” Leonard pointed to Neil’s fingers. “Do you always tap like that?”
A small grin spread across Neil’s face. “Habit from childhood. My father was a telegraph operator. He used to telegraph instructions to my brother and I.”
“I imagine as boys you had fun with that.”
“Oh, yes. We’d pretend to be war spies.” Neil smiled at that memory.
A clock ticked on the dull beige wall.
“So why’d your truck overheat?”
“I don’t know. I tried to figure that out but my flashlight died.”
“Is the truck still there?”
Neil shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Mind if I look at it?”
Leonard traced a scratch in the table. “I have a suspicion about it I’d like to clarify.”
“You’re not going to pull something on me are you? Like I could do anything if you did.”
“No. I’m just wondering if your truck was tampered with.”
“Huh! Now there’s a thought.” Neil leaned back and banged on the door. “Guard.”
Neil attempted to shield his face from the medias’ cameras. Was that a CBS reporter? He took the marble stairs as fast as he could in leg irons.
Inside, people loitered about the courthouse halls, their conversations hushed when he passed. In a small room Rubens reviewed what to expect.
“I’m telling you now, Neil.” Rubens arranged his files, tapping them against the table top. “This is going to be a tough case to win. The prosecution has a lot of circumstantial evidence that looks pretty convincing.”
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have holes in it.” He made eye contact with Neil. “My job is to expose and open those holes big enough to drive a John Deere through ‘em.”
Neil nodded. “You sure you don’t want me to testify? I—”
Rubens shook his head. “That would be suicide. That prosecutor would drag you from one end of that courtroom to the next as if you were nothing but a plow and he the tractor.”
Neil ground his teeth.
“My best advice is to stay calm, don’t give them any inkling you’ve got a temper.” He straightened his tie. “And if you’re a praying man—pray.”
He shrugged, but his fingers tapped out: God, if you’re there, help, on the worn, oak table.
“Neil,” Rubens rested his hand on the table and bent toward him with a look of compassion. “Sunshine called my office yesterday.”
Neil stopped tapping. “Has she had the baby?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Is she alright?”
“I assume so. She’s on her way.”
“What?” Neil ran his fingers through his hair.
“Told my secretary she’s taking the bus. For all I know, she might be here already.”
Neil pressed his lips together. “Sunshine. Oh…man. I don’t want her to see me, not like this.”
There was a knock at the door and Rubens picked up his satchel. “Time to plow up the truth.”
Neil followed Rubens into the packed courtroom. He guessed everyone in the whole county was there. He scanned the crowd, seeing the three pool players, Charley, Willis, and Scotty, then, before he could find her Sunshine jumped from where she was sitting.
“Neil,” she cried, then clapped her hands over her mouth.
He nodded to her, grieved at the pain this brought her. Even with red eyes and her face blotchy from crying she was beautiful. “I love you,” he mouthed.
Rubens looked at her then nodded to his client. “I see why you wanted to get home.”
“She’s so beautiful, and you’re only seeing the outside. Sunshine’s the sweetest person I’ve ever met. I want to grow old taking care of her. You’ve got to get me out of here.”
Rubens looked again at the very pregnant young woman with long, blond hair and go-go boots then back to Neil. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Neil noticed people whispering and pointing at her. Then he saw Leonard. They made eye contact. Neil motioned to Sunshine with his head. Leonard nodded and moved to sit by her.
The judge entered and things got underway with the prosecutor presenting his case. In the jury sat seven men and five women. Most of them looked the age of the victims and probably knew them. A jury of your peers? None of these people were his peers and from the way they looked at him he wondered if they’d already judged him guilty.
Large ceiling fans made slow, ineffective swipes at the hot stagnant air.
Rubens leaned into him. “Don’t glare.”
“Let them see the side of you that loves that little lady back there.”
Neil tried to relax. He glanced back at Sunshine and tried to smile.
Across the court sat the prosecutor. It was clear to Neil that neither the man nor his team were from around Cleavemont. He’d obviously been brought in from a larger town in the county. He had several assistants with him, all dressed just about as well as he.
Every hair on the man’s thirty-eight year-old head was perfectly cut and sang law, order, and control. His face was smooth and clean, his shoes reflected the morning light shining into the courtroom. His name, Thomas William Van Bourgeon.
In contrast Neil’s public defender wore cowboy boots and a rust-colored polyester suit with large top stitching and looked like he would be more at home selling used cars than defending a murder suspect. Neil wondered if he should have called his brother.
After an endless parade of formalities the prosecutor began questioning the detective. Neil shuddered as the detective’s description of the murder scene brought the horror of that night back to him. Would he have done anything different?
The prosecutor grilled the detective. “How do you know the defendant was at the scene of the crime?”
“His fingerprints were on the murder weapon—”
“Ahhh. No,” Sunshine exclaimed.
Bang. The judge struck his gavel. “Quiet.”
Sunshine nodded through sniffles and Leonard whispered something to her.
The detective continued. “As I was saying, his fingerprints were on the murder weapon, front doorknob, table, and door molding. He also stepped in Mr. Parsons’ blood and tracked it back through the living room. Some was also found in the tread of the defendant’s sneakers.”
Neil ran through that horrible scene like he had so many times. Something was missing. Yes, he was sure he’d touched all those things. But there was something else. He grabbed Rubens’ notepad and scribbled, ‘phone.’
When the prosecutor finished Rubens began his questioning. “Officer Jennings. Weren’t there also bloody footprints leading out the back door?”
“And did those footprints match the defendants’?”
The detective shifted in his seat. “No, sir.”
There was a stirring in the courtroom. Sunshine wiped her eyes, a look of hope flickered across her soft, light complected face.
“How were they different?”
“They were smaller with different tread.”
“And were there bloody fingerprints on the back door?”
“And did those fingerprints match those of the defendant?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“And why is that?”
Officer Jennings glanced at Neil. “Those prints were smudged.”
“Smudged. Hum.” Rubens paced in front of the jurors. “So my client’s fingerprints were very clear everywhere except on the back door?”
“The same back door with different footprints?”
“Wasn’t there even a partial print that could be identified?”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“Objection,” said the prosecutor.
“In your experience, have you seen blood stains where someone was wearing gloves?”
“How similar are the finger smudges on the back door to those glove produced stains you’ve seen?”
“So, Officer Jenson. The fact that we have different footprints and possibly gloved finger smudges, would you conclude that there was someone else in the home the night of the murder?”
“It looks as though there might be.”
“You mentioned several places where my client’s fingerprints were found. Were his fingerprints on the phone?”
“But wasn’t the phone line cut?”
A surge of excitement swelled inside Neil. He glanced at the jury. Their attention was riveted on the exchange.
Rubens now rubbed his chin. “Why would a murderer try to use a phone knowing he’d cut the line?”
“Maybe to make it look like he didn’t commit the crime.”
Neil grimaced. Why had Rubens asked that question?
Several jurors leaned back and looked at Neil.
How should he respond so they wouldn’t believe he had?
Rubens tried to side step the comment. “Or, someone coming upon the crime could have picked up the phone to call for help, not knowing the line was cut.”
The detective stiffened. “Yes.”
“That’s all for now.”
The prosecution called a physician who described the manner of death.
“He wouldn’t do that,” Sunshine said to Leonard in the middle of the grisly description.
“Quiet.” The judge’s gavel echoed through the courtroom.
Bystanders fanned themselves.
Neil felt sorry for Sunshine. She shouldn’t have had to hear this, especially in her condition.
When it was his turn, Rubens asked if it was possible for Harriet Parsons to come to the door with a knife in her back. The doctor pondered the question for a minute before stating that, while Mr. Parsons’ wounds were instantly fatal, those of his wife were not.
Several women wept during his testimony.
The judge pounded his gavel. “Court will recess for lunch and resume at two-o’clock.”
Neil looked at Sunshine. She was exhausted. He wished he could talk with her, hold her, tell her everything would be alright.
As people crowded the court’s aisle to leave Charley stood on a bench above the crowd. “I hope they give you the death sentence, Neil Gatlin. I offer you my Aunt and Uncle’s hospitality and you murdered them. You deserve to die.”
There was a collective gasp followed by whispers and glares at Neil.
People watch as a guard pulled Charley off the bench and out of the courtroom.
Rubens glared at Neil. “You were invited to the Parsons’ home?”
The lawyer held up his hand. “We’ll talk about this in private.”
Neil shuffled out of court, the chains thwarting his otherwise long strides. Once in their small meeting room Rubens shut the door hard and turned on Neil. “You never told me that you’d been invited to the Parsons’ home. I thought you said you didn’t know anyone in this town.”
“I don’t. That guy was one of the guys I played pool with. He said I could probably stay in his aunt and uncle’s barn. He said they lived fifteen miles from town. He never even gave me their names, that I remember.”
Rubens scrutinized Neil.
“Trust me. I had no idea who those people were.”
“So you didn’t know the Parsons were related to that man out there?”
“So you expect me and the court to believe that your truck just happened to break down in front of their house?”
Rubens narrowed his eyes at Neil. “How can I be sure you’re not making this up?”
Neil sat in the hard wood chair and massaged his forehead. How could he prove his innocence all chained up? If he could just look at his truck in the daylight—“Leonard.”
“A man came to visit me. His name’s Leonard Black. He said he’d look over my truck.”
“The police have it impounded.”
A guard brought a couple trays of food.
Neil shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth. “You know.” He swallowed. “He said something interesting.”
“Who? Charley or this Leonard Black?”
“Leonard. He said he wanted to see if the truck had been tampered with.”
Rubens pulled out his notebook. “How do I get in touch with this Leonard Black?”
Neil sat helplessly as the prosecution built its case against him. He had to admit, for someone who hadn’t been there the prosecution certainly made it sound like he was guilty.
Early in the afternoon of the second day the banker testified that Walter Parsons didn’t believe in keeping his money in the bank and that he’d cashed an eight-hundred dollar check that morning.
The prosecution then called the arresting officer. “When you arrested Mr. Gatlin, what was he driving?”
“The Parsons’ 1960 Plymouth.”
“What was his condition?”
“He had blood on his hands and clothes.”
“I show you exhibit B.” The prosecutor held up a bundle of money. “Do you recognize it?”
The officer took the wad of money and looked it over. “Yes.”
“Can you tell the court where you found it?”
“One of my deputies found it stuffed under the front seat of the Parsons’ car.”
There was a gasp from those watching.
“What was the condition of the money when you found it?”
“It had blood on it.”
Neil glanced back at Sunshine. She stared at her hands and shook her head back and forth ever so slightly. He regretted ever leaving home to look for work.
“Can you tell the court how much money is there?”
Gasps, whispers, and shuffling filled the court. “Quiet,” ordered the Judge.
During cross examination Rubens paced before the witness stand. “Officer Tweed, you testified that there was blood on the money. Were there fingerprints?”
“Were there drops of blood on the money?”
“So how would you describe the appearance of the blood on the money?”
“Bloody smudge marks.”
“How large were these smudge marks?”
“About an inch each.”
“Would you say they are about the size of fingertips?”
“Maybe gloved fingertips?”
“Would you say the smudge marks were the size of a gloved fingertip?” Rubens repeated.
“Where was it you caught Mr. Gatlin?”
“Just outside of town.”
“Outside of Cleavemont?”
“What direction was he headed?”
The officer looked down at his shoes. “West,” he mumbled.
“I didn’t hear you, can you repeat that?”
“West. Back to town?”
“And why did you pull him over?”
“He was driving the Parsons’ car.”
“Is it not true that a call had come in about a possible murder at the Parsons’ place?”
“So you were looking for the Parsons’ car?”
“We had a road block set up and were searching all vehicles.”
“Why would you set up a road block so near to town?”
“In case the killer came back to town.”
“Weren’t you concerned that the killer might go the other direction?”
“We were and had contacted the police in Dusky and Sanger to set up road blocks.”
“Thank you, that will be all,” Rubens said. “Your Honor, I would like to continue this line of questioning with a different witness.”
The prosecutor stood. “Your Honor, I object. I fail to see any value in this line of questioning.”
“Your Honor, I believe it will be clear shortly.”
The judge scowled at both lawyers, his jowls red from heat. “If you can do so quickly.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Rubens turned to the courtroom. “I’d like to call Miss Janice Sims.”
A woman in her early forties dressed in a green spotted, short-sleeved dress took the oath.
“Miss Sims, could you please state your occupation?”
“I am a switchboard operator.”
“How long have you been a switchboard operator?”
She thought a moment, “Nineteen, twenty years.”
“Have you always worked here in Cleavemont?”
“After that long of time, do you recognize people’s voices?”
She glanced into the spectators and licked her thin, red lips. “Sometimes,” she said, drawing the word out.
Rubens nodded. “Were you working the night of the murder?”
“At what time did you receive a call about a possible murder at the Parsons’ residence?”
“At twenty-six minutes past eight.”
“And what did the caller say?”
“That they were talking with Mrs. Parsons on the phone when she screamed, ‘No, don’t hurt us,’ and then the line went dead.”
“Did the caller identify him or herself?”
“Was it a man or a woman?”
The judge looked down from his bench. “Mr. Rubens. Where are you going with this line of questioning?”
“Your Honor. I’m trying to establish how the crime, having been committed in a rural location, was discovered so quickly.”
“Your Honor,” the prosecutor said. “I fail to see what impact this has on the case.”
“Your Honor, I hope to show that the real murderer alerted the police and framed my client.”
“That is preposterous,” said the prosecutor.
“I believe there’s enough questionable evidence to hear him out,” said the judge. “Carry on.”
“Miss Sims,” Rubens continued. “Was the caller a man or a woman?”
The woman fidgeted. “A man.”
“Did you recognize the voice?”
She glanced about the court. “Well, um.”
“Just answer the question.”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Miss Sims, I remind you that you are under oath,” Rubens said. “Did you recognize the voice?”
She looked at someone behind the prosecutor and licked her lips again.
The judge’s voice boomed from the bench. “The witness will answer the question.”
She nodded at him. “Well, sometimes voices sound like one person when it’s really someone else.” Her own voice had raised an octave and faltered.
“Who do you think it sounded like?” Rubens asked.
“Objection. Speculation on the part of the witness.”
Rubens mopped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Your Honor, it’s clear the witness is withholding information and protecting someone,” Rubens said.
“Still calls for speculation on the part of the witness. Objection sustained.”
Rubens toyed with his thick mustache. “I’m through for now, but I’d like to reserve the right to recall this witness at a later date.”
“The witness may step down.”
Scotty, who Neil had played pool with, testified that Neil had mentioned he was on the run, in need of money, and had a pregnant girl he was eager to see in Indiana.
Neil leaned over to Rubens, “I never mentioned Sunshine to anyone and never would have said I was on the run. In fact I told them I was headed for Chicago.”
“The story he’s sharing was reported in several papers,” Rubens said.
“What was Mr. Gatlin’s state of mind?” The prosecutor asked.
“He seemed angry and desperate,” Scotty said.
“How much alcohol did he consume?”
“I’m not sure, mind you he’d been drinking before he joined us and he had another four to six beers while we played pool.”
“I did not,” Neil whispered. “I had maybe three all together.”
Rubens motioned with his hand for Neil to be quiet and made a notation on his pad.
At the end of the third day Rubens called Leonard Black to the witness stand. There were muffled whispers as the tall, medium-built man approached.
“Mr. Black, what do you do for a living?”
“I own a farm equipment store.”
“Would you say you’re familiar with the workings of machines?”
“Have you examined Mr. Gatlin’s truck?”
“And what did you find?”
“That the fan belt was missing.”
Several of the men in the jury box leaned forward.
“Mr. Black, what would be the result of a missing fan belt?”
“The engine would overheat.”
“Preventing the vehicle from continuing on?”
“My client claims that he attempted to determine what caused the truck to overheat but couldn’t get his flashlight to work. Did you have an opportunity to examine the flashlight?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What did you find?”
“That the batteries had been removed.”
The judge looked toward the prosecutor. “Would the prosecution like to cross examine the witness?”
“Not at this present time, Your Honor. It is getting late and I would like to confer with my associates about this new evidence.”
The judge banged his gavel. “Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning.”
As Leonard stepped down from the witness stand, Willis ducked out of the courtroom.
That night Leonard brought Sunshine to the jail. She wept as she sat across from Neil. Neil couldn’t look enough at her pale cheeks and soft lips. But at the same time he abhorred the pain he caused her—a pain so strong he sometimes wanted to turn away.
“I’m so sorry, Sunshine. I don’t know how this happened.”
She looked at him with red, puffy eyes, her lips pressed tight.
He knew she was trying to be so strong, trying to hold back the tears.
“I didn’t do it. Please know, I would never kill anyone.”
Sunshine glanced at the table.
“Do you believe me?”
She inhaled. “I’m…I’m trying to. I know you. But what they say—it’s so convincing.”
Neil tapped the table, his eyes no longer on her.
“Why?” She paused. “Why do they make it sound, well, like you did it?”
“Because they can. With my bad luck I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and somebody took advantage of that and framed me.” He looked at her. “If I had it to do over again I’d never have left home.”
She smiled. “I’ve missed you.”
“Me too. Where are you staying?”
“With Mr. Black and his wife. They have been so kind. His wife has even bought a few things for the baby.”
“How are you feeling?”
Sunshine rubbed her belly that protruded under her bright floral print dress. “It’s going to be soon. I sometimes have contractions.”
Neil turned his head and squeezed back the tears. “I hope I’m out in time.”
“I do too. I keep thinking—”
A guard opened the door. “Visiting hours are over.” He grabbed Neil by the arm and forced him up. “Come on.”
“I love you, Sunshine.”
“I love you too.” Her face clouded.
Neil was pulled from the room before he could say or do anything.
The following morning the prosecutor recalled the detective, who testified they had indeed found the fan belt was missing from Neil’s truck.
Behind him, Neil heard Sunshine’s gasp. A faint breath of hope.
“Is it possible the fan belt broke as he drove?” The prosecutor asked.
“Did you attempt to find the fan belt?”
“We did. We searched the road between town and the Parsons’ place.”
“Did you find it?”
A murmur spread throughout the courtroom.
“Where did you find it?”
“In a field across from the defendant’s truck. About fifty feet from the road. It’s as though he flung it.”
Neil stared in disbelief, his mouth agape.
“Objection.” Rubens was on his feet.
“Enough.” The judge banged his gavel.
“Your Honor,” Rubens said. “The witness’s comment is purely speculation and opinion.”
The judge nodded. “Sustained. The jury shall disregard the witness’s last comment.”
Neil felt the glare of almost everyone in the room burning into his head, shoulders, and back. He couldn’t believe what had just transpired. His face fell forward into his hands. How he wished he’d awake from this horrible nightmare.
“How can you be sure this fan belt belonged to my client’s pickup?” Rubens asked during cross questioning.
“It is the same size that would fit the defendant’s pickup,” the detective said.
“We’re there fingerprints on it?”
“Now isn’t that interesting. How do you account that my client’s fingerprints show up on a door knob but not on the fan belt of his own pickup?”
“I don’t know.”
“So, even though it is the same kind of fan belt, you can’t prove that it is the fan belt that came from my client’s pickup?”
The detective shifted his weight. “It was a used belt.”
“How many vehicles use that size of fan belt?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your Honor.” the prosecutor rose. “Defense is grasping at straws.”
“Objection, Your Honor. I am making a valid point. Anyone could have thrown a fan belt into that field between Leonard Black’s testimony yesterday and the search yesterday evening.”
“I’m siding with the prosecution. I think this court has heard enough of these speculative theories. Do you have any further questions for the witness, Mr. Rubens?”
Rubens squinted at the judge, prosecutor, and detective. “No.” He returned to his seat next to Neil and muttered, “Some court of law.”
The judge addressed both lawyers. “Are there any more witnesses?”
“Then prosecution will make its closing statement.”
The young prosecutor stood, straightened his suit, his leather patent shoes tapped against the court’s wood floor as he approached the jury.
Neil’s chest tightened. He looked at each of the jurors, willing them to somehow see his innocence. He couldn’t believe his fate; Sunshine’s, and the baby’s future as well, all lay in the decision of these twelve people he’d never met. Twelve people who didn’t know him. Whose only judgment of him was based on the slanted facts they’d been given. How he wished he could stand on the table in front of him and tell his side of the story—make them see he was blameless.
“Men and women of the jury,” began the prosecutor. “In a community this size I’m sure many of you knew Walter and Harriet Parsons.”
Most of the jurors nodded.
“Their horrible and early deaths bring grief.” He paused. “But they also bring fear. Fear that the same horrific demise could befall any of us.”
“Inside, we each desire safety. But safety can only come when there is justice.”
Each juror watched him, following his every move.
“Before your very eyes you have seen how Mr. Gatlin had motive and opportunity to commit the crime. He was found in the victims’ automobile, covered in their blood, with the money they had just been paid. In addition, his fingerprints and footprints were also found at the scene of the crime. Men and women of the jury, I promise you, it doesn’t get more obvious than this. All attempts to make it appear that there was another murderer are simply attempts by the defendant to cover his tracks.”
Neil saw the agreement on their faces.
“No, no,” Sunshine said, her voice hoarse.
Rubens reached across and gave Neil’s hand a fatherly squeeze, then rose.
The jury settled back in their seats. A large man crossed his arms.
“Like all of you, I too live in a small town and understand the anger when one of my neighbors is violated. In a small town we also know when there is an outsider in our midst and by the sheer fact that we don’t know them, we automatically distrust them.”
A couple jurors nodded their heads.
“On the other hand, we who live in small towns take for granted that we know each other and each other’s comings and goings. We know each other’s idiosyncrasies. There is a trust that is created in all this knowing. A trust that isn’t always earned.”
The large man glared at Rubens, his arms still crossed.
“I’m sure the banker is not the only one in town who knew Walter Parsons didn’t trust the bank.” He paused and surveyed every face, several gave looks that indicated they were among those who knew. “Anyone who was in the bank when Mr. Parsons cashed his check had opportunity to see all eight-hundred dollars counted out in tens and twenties, as you’ve heard testified.”
Neil liked Rubens’ logic. He hoped the jury would buy it.
“As an outsider, my client would have no way of knowing either Mr. or Mrs. Parsons, their distrust of banks, that Mr. Parsons possessed eight-hundred dollars, or where they lived. Neil Gatlin’s arrival at their door on the night of Friday, May 8, 1964, was purely to request assistance for his broken down truck.”
“Murder is a serious crime and punishing the guilty party is a serious matter. One must be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is actually guilty. To send an innocent person to prison or the electric chair—”
Sunshine shrieked. Then began weeping profusely and was ushered out by Leonard’s wife.
The jurors watched her go. Several women in the jury box appeared empathetic.
The judge stared after Sunshine, his gavel raised but never struck. Neil’s head dropped into his hands. Sunshine, sweet Sunshine.
Rubens waited for the courtroom to settle down. “One must be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is actually guilty,” he repeated. “To send an innocent person to prison or the electric chair is a crime as well.” He looked into each juror’s eyes. Several fidgeted.
“May I remind the court that my client wasn’t the only one in the house that evening. Detective Jenson noted there were different footprints and smudged fingerprints leading to the back door. How could my client possibly have made those smaller prints? He couldn’t. They were made by the actual killer.”
A fly buzzed near one of the jurors who swatted it away.
“No, I contend that my client was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Possibly even framed to be there.”
Whispers arose. Rubens waited.
“When Neil Gatlin discovered Harriet Parsons dying he first tried to help her and then call for help. But the real killer had already cut the line. Upon going to the kitchen to wash off the blood he discovered Walter Parsons.”
“Unable to call for help and with his own vehicle not working, Mr. Gatlin found the Parsons’ car and drove to town where he was immediately accused of a crime he was trying to report. Had my client actually committed the crime he would have driven east—away from town and toward freedom.”
Neil thought back to that night, sitting in the Parsons’ drive debating the same thing. He chose to do what he thought was right and what had it gotten him? He pulled on his wrist chains.
“Though a lot of circumstantial evidence points at Mr. Gatlin, there is also a lot of evidence pointing to another killer. Who was it who reported the crime to the police? If they are innocent, why haven’t they come forward since that evening?” Rubens paused, allowing the question to sink in.
“Put yourselves in Neil Gatlin’s shoes. What would you do if you came upon a murder in progress? Would you try to help and unknowingly leave finger and footprints? To help could leave evidence that could be misconstrued, incriminating you. Are you sure beyond reasonable doubt that my client is guilty of murder or only guilty of helping someone in need?”
Harvey Rubens looked again at each juror then returned to his seat.
Neil absently tapped the tabletop in the small room where he waited with Rubens.
A court officer peered in. “They’ve reached a decision.”
Neil and Rubens exchanged glances. Less than two hours. That’s all the time it had taken for the jury to determine his fate. Neil forced himself to stand. Forced himself to place one foot in front of the other. In the courtroom he took a long hard look at Sunshine. Oh how he hoped she would soon be in his arms and this whole nightmare would be over.
The jury filed in. Neil studied each face. Several stared right at him while others avoided looking his direction.
“Has the jury reached a decision?” the judge asked.
The large man stood. “We have, Your Honor.”
Neil felt everyone in the room could hear his heart pounding. He glanced back at Sunshine. Her usual beautiful smile was gone. He wondered if it would ever return.
“We find the defendant, Neil Gatlin, guilty of murder in the first degree.”
Neil squeezed his lids hard. But the tears refused to stop.
“Did I hear you killed some old folks with your bare hands?” J.R.’s huge frame blocked Neil’s path as he walked into the bright sunshine of the prison exercise yard at Pontiac Correctional Center.
Neil’s stomach clenched. He looked into the ice blue eyes of prisoner number 1-0-7-3-9. Ever since arriving, Neil had tried to keep a low profile and avoid J.R. and his gang. It was clear to him, and confirmed through whispered advice of other prisoners, that J.R. was in charge, dangerous, and used to getting his own way.
J.R. stared down at Neil. Other prisoners—all adorned with rippled tattoos and scars—flanked J.R. on both sides.
“I didn’t do it.” Neil cringed at how weak and warbled his voice came out. The chirps of a scared jailbird?
“Hey, man, you don’t gotta prove yourself innocent to us.” J.R. looked over at his buddies. “Ain’t that right, Marv?”
“Yeah, man. The more brutal the better.”
Neil grimaced. How had he ever gotten lumped in with the likes of these guys? He thought back to his high school dreams of becoming an engineer. Where had he made a wrong turn? In reality, he’d made many wrong turns.
“You deaf, boy?”
“I said, how’d you do it?”
Neil looked at the bulky man. He’d never liked handlebar mustaches and J.R.’s gave him one more reason to hate them. “I didn’t.” His voice sounded stronger—somewhat.
“What’d I tell you, J.R.?” The prisoner to his right sneered. “Told you he didn’t look like the killin’ type.”
J.R. looked Neil up and down then spit on him.
Neil stiffened, but said nothing.
“Boy, looks like you’ve been spit on by the law,” J.R. said. “Now I’m gonna spit on you every day until you prove you’re man enough to be here.”
Other prisoners looked on from a distance as perspiration soaked Neil’s collar.
“Innocent sissy. You’ve tasted the spit of the law, now it’s time you learn to spit back.” J.R. grinned, revealing a chipped tooth filed to a point.
Neil was sure J.R. could sense his fear and allowed the image of his knife-like tooth to plunge deeper into Neil’s mind before wandering off.
Neil glanced down at the thick spittle and rubbed it off with his cuff. Incensed, he glanced at the other prisoners who still watched. After several weeks he felt no more comfortable milling around with other inmates than the day he arrived. It was an odd mixture of emotions. He looked forward to getting out of his cell only to despise his time around the other inmates. He was lonely, but had no desire to make friends.
“Look who’s got a telegram.” A burly guard stood outside Neil’s cell. The man’s paunch draped over his belt.
Neil startled and stood from his cot. His attempt at penning a letter to Sunshine spilled to the floor.
“Wonder what’s so urgent to warrant a telegram. It’s not like you’re going anywhere.”
An uneasiness crept into Neil’s gut. He thought of Sunshine and his infant son. Had something terrible happened to them? Maybe Sunshine realized what a mistake she’d made in loving him. Maybe this was her way of saying it was over. He recalled an inmate he met who received a telegram from his father-in-law, telling him to rot in prison and not to come looking for his wife and kids when he got out or he’d find a bullet between his eyes.
The telegram shook in his hands. He thought of the two visits he’d had with Sunshine while here. Leonard and his wife had driven Sunshine and Neil Jr. to the prison. His son had Sunshine’s twinkling eyes and his jaw. He’d never seen the draw to babies—why people thought they were so pretty.
Now he understood. He hadn’t wanted to take his eyes off the handsome little fellow except to look at Sunshine. Neil Jr. was so small, so fragile. He needed a father. Someone to love him and guide him into manhood. He thought of how hard his own dad had been on him. He would be a different father. More loving and understanding. Neil remembered that fateful night when he was eleven years old. Could he forgive and love his son—even if he hurt Sunshine? Even if Neil Jr. accidentally… Neil pushed the memory away. He hoped he would.
He lay the telegram on his cot, walked to the sink, and splashed cold water on his face. The prison air was stale. Neil paced back and forth trying to ignore the telegram. Who says it has to be bad news? People received telegrams for birthdays and weddings. Maybe his brother was getting married, though Neil hadn’t told his family what had happened.
Neil finally flopped onto the thin mattress and opened the telegram.
NEIL ALLEN GATLIN
PONTIAC CORRECTIONAL CENTER, PONTIAC, IL NEIL YOU HAVE DISGRACED ME, YOUR DEAD MOTHER, AND OUR FAMILY FOR THE LAST TIME. AS OF NOW YOU ARE NO LONGER MY SON.
WILLIAM GEORGE GATLIN
Neil stared in shock. The words he’d unconsciously always feared stared back at him. He could hear their sound on the teletype in his head. His dad must have seen a news report. Lord knows he’d been waiting for this day.
But did his dad really think he was capable of something so horrific as murder? He reread the small sheet of paper, his hands shaking. Of course his dad did. He’d always believed Neil was capable of killing someone, ever since he was eleven.
He crumpled the telegram in his hand. Maybe he was a killer. Maybe he deserved this. Maybe this was his punishment.
Neil’s body quaked. In his mind he could hear Johnny Cash sing, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Why couldn’t anyone believe that he hadn’t killed a man—let alone to watch him die?
At the sound of his brother’s voice on the prisoner phone Neil’s emotions battled within him. Was Ken going to disown him too? Why not?
“Dad just slipped me the news,” Ken said.
“Are you going to disown me too?”
Ken paused. “He didn’t?”
Ken sighed. “I’m sorry Neil. He’s never been the same since Mom died.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I’m the one who felt it every day.”
“What happened there in Illinois?”
“Do you really want to know?” Neil glared at the prison wall. Why was he so hard on Ken? It wasn’t his fault.
“I’d like to help if I can.”
Neil’s body relaxed. “Either I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or I got framed. I’m beginning to suspect the latter.”
“So you’re telling me you didn’t do it?”
Neil almost slammed the receiver down. “What do you think?”
Ken was quiet. “Why didn’t you call me? You know I would have defended you.”
In his mind Neil ran through the list of excuses he’d told himself for the last several months. “I don’t know. I keep asking myself that. Guess I’m tired of always needing my little brother to bail me out of the messes I get in.”
“You picked a good time to hang onto your pride.”
“I know. Just add it to the pile. My innocence seemed so obvious to me that I didn’t think I could possibly be convicted until things started falling apart in the courtroom.”
“That’s what you get for using a public defender,” his brother countered.
“I don’t know. Rubens tried to show them there was another killer.” He paused. “But they had their minds set that it was me.”
“Got any idea who might have framed you?”
“Possibly several guys I played pool with. But I can’t be sure.”
“Give me their names and I’ll have one of my guys look into it.”
“Charley Parsons, Willis, and Scotty. I don’t know the other guys’ last names. I’m sure if you find one you’ll find the others.”
“Is there anything from the trial that stands out to you? Something that might be of help?”
Neil picked at a fleck of loose, gray paint on the concrete wall. His mind snagged on the point where it seemed things really started falling apart. “I think the switchboard operator knows more than she’s telling.”
“Is she married or single?”
Neil pulled the receiver from his ear and stared at it. “What? How would I know?”
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know. Mid-thirties, early forties. Why, you looking for a wife?”
“Oh, maybe one of my men can get some information from her.”
A guard appeared and tapped his watch. “One minute.”
Neil nodded. He now understood why his brother was so successful at what he did. Unlike Neil, Ken wasn’t afraid to waste time going the indirect route.
“Ken, do you think you can help me?”
“Murder is a pretty big secret to keep—especially if more than one person is involved. Someone’s liable to talk. I’ll see what I can dig up and get back to you. I’ll also go over the transcripts and see what mistakes were made. Maybe we can appeal on a technicality.”
As Neil returned to his cell he felt a glimmer of hope. The first in several months. He remembered Leonard’s comment that he was praying for him. Maybe there was a god out there after all. In his cell Neil saw the crumpled telegram. Who was he fooling? It was a small town. Like his lawyer had pointed out, small town folk didn’t trust outsiders. Ken’s investigator was an outsider.
Neil tossed on his cot. Did his dad really think he was so evil he would kill a couple just for their money? He remembered the fear on the woman’s face when she came to the door. Her soft, plump, make-up powdered cheeks pale. Her eyes wild—desperate for help.
Did she trust him? Did it occur to her that maybe he was an accomplice? Would he have thought the same in her situation? No, he had trusted. Trusted the guys in the pool hall. The more he thought back on that night the more he suspected they were behind the murder. They had to be. He remembered Willis leaving. Had Willis removed the fan belt? Had he been the one to kill that couple?
Neil wondered if any of those partial fingerprints matched Willis’ or even Scotty’s or Charley’s. What about the size of the other footprints? He’d forgotten to tell Ken about that. Surely the police had made a mistake by not looking into the different sizes of footprints.
The guys in the pool hall directed him down that particular road. Charley had even encouraged him to stay with his aunt and uncle then made the scene in court. Who would benefit from their deaths? Quite possibly Charley. If they were responsible for the murders, it’s probable one of them called the police.
He had to share these ideas with his brother. Could Ken get the answers? Neil wanted desperately to get out so he could prove his innocence. Not just to the courts—but now to his dad—once and for all.
Neil drifted to sleep, thoughts of freedom weaving through his mind. When he awoke several hours later it was with the idea of joining J.R.’s gang, attacking the guards, and making a break.
He shook his head. Where had that idea come from? Was this place getting to him? He plumped his pillow and rolled onto his side. Yeah, I’ll certainly prove I’m not a killer by attacking guards and setting beds on fire. He shook his head again. What a strange dream—a combination of the past several months and memories of playing cold war spies with his brother.
He pulled the sheet over himself and tried to push the dream out of his thoughts. He was just drifting off to sleep when he heard it—tapping interspersed with scratching sounds. It came from the cell next to him, J.R.’s buddy, Marv, occupied that cell. What was he doing?
Awake now, he lay listening in the darkness. Scratch, silence. Tap, scratch, scratch, pause, tap, tap, pause, scratch… The sounds continued with a regularity and pattern Neil recognized. Scratch, pause, tap, scratch…
Neil shuddered. He could hear the message scratching and tapping out several cells down. He listened carefully, hoping he could catch the whole thing, though his hands were already cold.
Neil’s head hurt and his stomach churned. Part of him felt the guards had it coming. He was, in fact, an innocent man unfairly incarcerated. Let the judicial system pay for what they’d taken from him.
Keys rattled in the lock. “Time for breakfast.”
Neil looked at the muscular guard, not much older than himself.
“You feeling alright there, Neil?”
Neil’s stomach did a flop. “Didn’t sleep well.” Why had he said that? The last thing he needed was for Marv to know he was awake and heard the message.
“You look kind of pale.”
“I’ll be fine.” Neil made eye contact with the guard. Hugh seemed like a fair, goodhearted guy. In different circumstances Neil could envision he and Hugh as friends. His stomach squeezed tight as though it was a rag wrung dry.
All morning Neil thought about the message he’d heard and the dream he’d had. How much of that dream was simply his imagination and how much was the Morse code filtering in? It had happened before. As kids he and Ken would tap out messages to each other at night. Sometimes Neil fell asleep and when he’d tell his brother about a particularly interesting dream Ken would always say, “You didn’t dream that, dummy, that was part of the message I sent you.” As he’d gotten older Neil suspected Ken had simply been messing with his mind. Maybe not.
Neil stepped out onto the catwalk outside his cell followed by Marv and made his way to the stairs and the dining hall.
“So you didn’t sleep well last night?” Marv whispered.
Neil’s hair prickled.
“Did you hear anything—unusual?”
Neil swallowed. Morse code was not unusual to him. “No. Should I have?” He glanced over his shoulder at Marv.
Marv fixed his beady dark eyes on him. “No.”
Why did he say that? Couldn’t he have just said, “No.” If prison was going to do anything for Neil, it would teach him to keep his mouth shut.
In the dining hall Neil ate his biscuits and gravy in silence, avoiding eye contact with those around him. Most others did the same. He was nearly done when someone fell into him from behind, causing him to knock over his coffee.
“Watch it, man,” the prisoner in front of him said moving to avoid the hot liquid.
Neil turned to see who shoved him and met J.R.’s glare. His breakfast hardened in his gut.
“What’s wrong, sissy boy? Need a bib and a bottle?”
Several others chuckled around him. J.R. moved on but Neil was bumped from behind several more times.
That afternoon Hugh unlocked Neil’s cell door. “The warden wants to see you.”
“What for?” It was too soon for his brother to shake out a confession from Charley or one of his buddies.
On the catwalk Neil noticed Marv watching with distrusting interest. Did he think Neil knew more than he was letting on? Should he tell the warden what he heard last night? Should he commit suicide by murder?
“I think he’s going to give you a job,” Hugh said.
An hour later Neil was pushing a cart with books past cells. A guy Neil recognized as associating with J.R. stopped him. “I’ve got a book I want to return.”
Neil noticed the man was missing a finger when he handed Neil the book. Neil reached for it but the man held on. “No one gets this but the Rat in the last cell.”
Neil nodded. “The Rat.” Even passing out library books couldn’t be without conflict. He noticed a small slip of paper poking from between a couple of pages. He placed the book on the left side of the cart where other prisoners wouldn’t see it.
The man looked pleased though barely a muscle moved on his face.
Neil continued his deliveries, aware of the man’s gaze as he moved from cell to cell. He desperately wanted to glance at the paper. Maybe it was nothing, but he doubted it. Near the end of the cell block he waited for a prisoner to choose a book. His left hand slipped behind the row of books on his cart and quickly fingered the book open and memorized the message of dots and dashes. He looked up to see the prisoner staring at him. Was this man one of J.R.’s gang? “You pick a book?”
“Yeah. That one.” He pointed to a Louis L’Amour. Neil handed him the book. The man looked Neil in the eye. “Don’t mess with J.R. and his boys.” The man’s sinewy arms and neck stiffened. “They’ll kill you.” His voice was almost a whisper.
Neil tried to swallow and pushed the cart. At the last cell he lifted the book he’d been saving. “A man down the way said you might enjoy reading this.” Neil’s voice quivered and he hated the weakness it revealed.
The Rat approached him. His hair was dark and slicked back and he had a scar across his right cheek. “What happened to the other book boy?”
“I’m not sure if I like you.”
He stiffened. The feeling was mutual. For the first time since he’d arrived over three months ago Neil wondered if he’d live to finish out his sentence.
In the days that followed, Neil napped throughout the day and lay awake at night, listening to the tapped out messages passed along the cell block. With every message J.R.’s plan became clearer and Neil’s stomach hurt more. The pros and cons of what he should do with this information tapped out loaded responses back and forth in his mind until his head hurt too.
Every day drew closer to the fulfillment of J.R.’s plan and he dreaded the thought of seeing it. He wanted to do what was right—but he was almost convinced that meant certain death. However, if he didn’t do anything would he still live? If someone found out afterward that he knew of the plan—what would that mean?
As in this whole situation, there were no easy answers.
A guard passed.
“What time is it?”
“Time for you to do your time.” The guard gave him a smug look.
Maybe he wouldn’t say anything. Let this jerk get what he had coming.
Moments later Hugh came and unlocked Neil’s cell. “Visitors.”
Neil entered the visitors’ booth. Sunshine swayed back and forth, their son in her arms. She held Neil Jr. up for him to see. A swell of pride and sorrow washed over him. Neil wished she’d given their son a different name. Someday she might want to forget him and their son’s name would only serve as a reminder of the failure his father was.
“Neil, baby, what’s wrong?” Concern covered Sunshine’s face. “You look so tired and pale. I hate what this place is doing to you.”
“I’m ok.” The last thing he wanted was Sunshine worrying about him. “I guess sleeping on a cot instead of next to you is taking a toll.” He smiled.
Sunshine surveyed him. “Neil, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, babe. How are you doing?”
She squinted her eyes at him. “You’re a terrible liar, you know that?”
“A guy named Vern stopped by. He said he worked for your brother and was looking to clear you and hopefully find the real killer.”
“Great. Ken’s on it.”
Sunshine smiled and her face flushed with color. “I doubt I was very helpful.”
“Did he talk to Leonard?”
Neil Jr. fussed and Neil burned to hold him. It seemed the child had grown since their last visit.
“Did I tell you Leonard’s wife, Phyllis, is teaching me how to cut and set hair? Next week I’ll start helping her at the salon.” She smiled. “Hopefully by Christmas I’ll be able to support us.” She looked down at Neil Jr.
Neil cringed. He felt lousy leaving this all to her.
“Oh, and Leonard is fixing up an old shed for me and Neil Jr. to live in. It’s really cute. He even put flower boxes below each of the windows, and Phyllis is teaching me how to sew curtains.”
“I don’t know what I did to deserve such kind people to help us,” Neil said.
Sunshine smiled. “I guess God was watching over us.” Her voice was meek and she leaned back, as if unsure how Neil would respond.
He raised an eyebrow. “If God was watching over us, why am I here?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice shook.
He knew he’d upset her. “It’s okay, I’m glad Leonard and Phyllis are so good to you. Is Leonard here?”
“Yes, he said he had to pick up some parts.”
“When you leave can you send him in?”
“Are you mad?”
“No.” He smiled at her. “Not at all. I just need to ask him something.”
Neil sat across from the tall, gray-haired man and remembered his first meeting with Leonard. Now he practically considered the man his father.
“You look awful,” Leonard said.
“I can’t imagine it’s easy in here.”
“No, it’s not.” Neil didn’t know where to begin or what and how much to say. He unfolded the telegram, deciding to start with it.
Leonard read it and was silent. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I can’t believe it.”
Neil was surprised to see the hurt on Leonard’s face.
“I always wondered why your father never came to see you.”
“Yeah, well, when I was eleven I thought I was a real mechanic and I decided to adjust the brakes on my mom’s car. She’d been complaining about them and dad had been too busy. I really thought I was helping.”
Leonard lowered his forehead to his fingertips. “Oh, no.”
“Yes.” Neil looked down at his hands. “Our house was at the top of a hill. She drove right into a cement truck.”
They sat in silence.
“You were a child, surely your father realized that.” Leonard’s blue-gray eyes were beseeching.
“Not my old man. He said I should have known better. After that I couldn’t do anything right.”
“Is this what you wanted to ask me about?”
Neil shook his head. “No.” Neil looked around. “I have another problem. It’s…it’s. Well, what if you were in a situation that if you did what you thought was right you could get hurt or killed, but if you kept your mouth shut others including yourself might get hurt or killed?”
Leonard straightened. “You’re just full of tough ones today aren’t you?”
Neil relaxed a little. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Leonard rubbed his chin, his eyes steady on Neil. “You’re serious about this.”
Leonard sighed. “It sounds like you’re in a hard situation. I don’t envy you. The standard I try to follow is that if I know the good I should do, and don’t do it, then that, according to the Bible, would be sin.”
Neil bit his lip. “I thought you’d say something along those lines.”
“Evil has a way of biting you in the butt.”
“Even trying to do the right thing has a way of biting me in the butt.”
“It does,” Leonard agreed. “But good will triumph. And if you survive this situation you’re concerned about, which I’ll pray you do, I believe you will be exonerated.”
Neil’s spirit lifted. “Are you certain?”
“I talked to that investigator your brother sent and we have some ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t convince Willis or Scotty that he has some information that could implicate them. They don’t have as much to gain in this as Charley does.”
“Well, it seems Charley just inherited his uncle and aunt’s farm.”
Marv watched Neil as he returned from his visit.
Neil felt a stab when the metal door clanged behind him. Would he ever get used to that sound? The world sealed off from him? The denial of freedom? Life had done a complete one-eighty on him.
As far as he was concerned, his day—his week—was over. He spent so much time anticipating visits from both Sunshine and Leonard then felt such a low when they ended. With that one sound the hope he’d felt about Ken proving his innocence and living with Sunshine and Neil Jr. escaped through his cell bars. Hope could not be imprisoned. He wondered if he’d live long enough to hear a ‘Not guilty’ verdict or if J.R.’s plans would kill him. He slumped onto his cot.
“Did your girlfriend pay you a visit?” Marv’s voice slithered around the concrete block wall between them.
Neil stiffened. “How’d you know I have a girlfriend?”
“You’re not only innocent of murder, your innocent stupid. You think J.R.’s only got eyes and ears in here, man?” Marv chuckled. “He knows about everyone in here and some of the guys in other buildings.”
A shiver ran up Neil’s spine and spread outward. What was this man capable of?
“From what I hear, your little Sunshine is smokin’ hot.” Marv paused.
Neil knew Marv was allowing the knowledge that they knew her name sink in. He cradled a balled fist. Helpless.
“You really think she’s gonna be around when you get out?”
Sweat rose from Neil’s skin. He trembled with anger.
“If I remember right, J.R.’s familiar with Cleavemont.” He cackled.
That night as Neil lay in bed listening to J.R.’s gang scratch and tap out their plans he tried to fit together the sequence of events and who was assigned to what task. Some of the men must have been struggling with the Morse Code, because plans had to be repeated. This allowed Neil to get the big picture and see the flaws.
Knowing the weak spots of J.R.’s plans could prove beneficial—if he used it right. Neil could leverage his knowledge and the possible problems to maybe get J.R. to lay off him, and leave Sunshine alone. But Neil knew J.R. wasn’t the type to like anyone else calling the shots. Especially someone like him. He’d more likely force Neil to participate or consider him a liability and kill him.
He wished he could just ignore it and play innocent. Let J.R. and his gang get killed trying to escape. They deserved it. He smiled at the thought.
But what if they succeeded? What if guards and other prisoners were killed? What if the Rat succeeded in killing Hugh? What if J.R. got loose? He knew from their messages that they had getaway drivers on the outside ready to hide them.
“J.R.’s familiar with Cleavemont.” Marv’s words exploded in Neil’s mind. Was he implying he would escape to Cleavemont and go after Sunshine? Kidnap her maybe? He needed to warn her.
The next morning Neil took out a pen and paper and began composing a letter to Sunshine—maybe his last.
Hugh walked by Neil’s cell and gave him a nod.
Neil hadn’t been able to save the old farmer and his wife. But maybe he could save Hugh and others, both guards and inmates. If he could just let the authorities know in time.
Neil sealed the envelope, being sure to leave part of one end open before addressing it to Sunshine. Hugh walked by again and Neil smiled but held onto the letter. Ten minutes later a cocky guard with a slimy personality approached. Neil stood. “Guard, how long do you think it takes to get a letter to Cleavemont?”
The man sauntered over to Neil’s cell. “Two, maybe three days.”
Neil tensed. If his first plan didn’t work, it would be close.
“What’s the rush?” the guard asked.
“Oh nothing. Just thinking about my girl and want her to know how much I miss her.”
“Like it’s gonna do her any good. You might as well just resign yourself to the fact you’ll be getting a Dear John letter here one of these days.”
Neil hoped he was wrong. “Well, she hasn’t written one yet, so I want to get this letter to her before she does.” He fondled the envelope, pressed it to his chest and looked at the guard. “You fellows don’t read prisoner’s mail do you?”
The guard scrutinized him. “Why?”
“Well, it’s just that I’m missing my girl and wrote some pretty private things.” He winked.
A smutty grin spread across the guard’s lips. The man took the letter from Neil and looked over the envelope, he fingered the loose end of the flap. “I’m not sure a dangerous murderer should be trusted.”
“What can I possibly do behind these walls?”
“I don’t know. But I doubt we should be taking any chances.”
“C’mon man, it’s just to my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, probably telling her where you hid the money.”
“I was framed. C’mon man, just mail the letter.”
“Yeah, you’re innocent, just like everyone else in this joint. It’s always somebody else.” The guard chuckled as he wandered off.
Neil stood there, his heart pounding.
“You’re just plain stupid, ain’t you?” Marv said, his words interrupted Neil’s thoughts.
Neil startled. “What do you mean?” he said, acting dumb.
“If anyone is going to open your letter it’ll be old Bear. He’s as nosy and perverted as they come.”
Neil smiled. He hoped so.
Something was amiss. Neil felt it as soon as he entered the exercise yard. There was a tension that vibrated through muscles and furtive glances. An argument between two of J.R.’s guys broke out and several guards hustled toward them.
Everyone’s attention was on the altercation when Neil caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Before he could react there was an arm around his neck and something sharp stabbing his side.
J.R. moved in front of him. “I hear you’ve intercepted our plan.”
Neil gulped. He’d gambled that the guard wasn’t on the take. And once again, he’d lost.
“Your knowledge of our plan creates a bit of a problem.”
Your knowledge of my knowledge creates an even bigger problem, Neil thought, his mind scrambling for solutions. Everything he’d thought of in case J.R. found out seemed ineffective.
“I knew I couldn’t trust you as soon as you entered this prison,” J.R. said, his eyes squinting. “Anyone who’s innocent,” he hissed the last word. “Is always looking for a way to prove themselves to the parole board.”
The guard who’d ratted on Neil passed behind J.R., a smug smile on his face.
“Sadly, you’re never going to have the chance to go before the parole board.”
The man behind Neil chuckled.
Neil could hardly hear J.R. over the pounding in his chest that echoed in his ears.
“I can’t have my plans ruined by your sudden demise, so you’ve just signed on to be part of our little escape plan.”
Neil glared at the large man in front of him.
“Only you’ll be one of the casualties.”
“Don’t worry,” J.R. continued. “I’ll comfort that cute little woman of yours.”
“Leave her alone.” Neil startled at the sound of his voice.
“Too late. I’ve got guys going to kidnap her right now.”
Neil’s insides clenched. God protect her—please. The prayer slipped out. He had never prayed before, but now, more than anything, he hoped God was real and Sunshine and his son were safe.
“You don’t cooperate and she’s as good as dead,” J.R. continued.
“And if I do?”
“She can come along with us.”
Neil considered which was worse. What were the chances J.R. was only bluffing? Marginal. Not enough to gamble with—as if he ever won.
The fight at the other end of the yard broke up and the men and guards dispersed.
“What do you want me to do?”
A wicked grin spread across J.R.’s face and he nodded to the man behind Neil who released his hold but stayed close enough that the man’s hot breath pressed into Neil’s neck.
“You don’t talk to no one. You understand?”
“Come dinner there’ll be a fight.”
“Yeah, we’ve moved the escape so you don’t have any time to let anyone else in on our plans.”
Neil felt cold despite the early fall heat. He wished now he’d said something to Leonard.
“I’m gonna give you a chance to show us you’re a man.”
Neil’s stomach clenched, afraid of J.R.’s next words.
“You’re gonna kill that guard named Hugh and then head to the kitchen and meet us in the big freezer.”
“Where you’ll chill,” said the man behind him.
“Shut up.” J.R. glared at the man, obviously not happy he’d slipped their plan to Neil.
A loud “no” sprung up inside Neil but he kept silent.
J.R. studied Neil a moment then spit on him.
“You do things right and that may be the last time I have to spit on you—boy.”
The guards were moving them back inside and the man behind Neil gave him one more sharp poke. Neil saw Hugh interacting with prisoners across the yard.
Neil tossed on his cot working the situation from every angle. He feigned sleep whenever Hugh passed. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man. He replayed his last conversations with Sunshine and Leonard. “Evil will bite you in the butt,” Leonard had said. What was it he’d said about doing good? Neil tried to remember. It had something to do with not doing the good you knew you should do was sin. Neil tapped his fingers against his lip.
He thought about his little son. So tiny and innocent. What legacy was he leaving Neil Jr.? A name? No, he had to leave him more. If he was going to die tonight, he would die doing right. He could at least give his son that. Neil furtively slipped a piece of paper and pen into a book, unsure who was watching him. He lay on the cot curled toward the wall, the book propped open.
Dear Sunshine and Neil Jr.,
If you are reading this then I am probably dead. Despite what you may have been told, I was not a willing part of the uprising and attempted escape. In fact, I learned of it and wrote you a letter about it, but the letter and my knowledge of the plan was discovered. I have analyzed their plans and think I know the flaws. I will try to thwart them. In doing so, I may lose my life. I am sorry, but I must do what I believe is right.
Please know I am innocent of murder and I wanted so much better for both of you. I hope you will each have good, long lives. I love you both more than words can say.
He looked around the room. Should he hide it in his cell or on himself? His prison uniform didn’t leave a lot of hiding places. He folded the letter and slipped it inside the Bible Leonard had given him, then reviewed his plan for dinner.
Neil glanced at Hugh as he exited his cell. He hoped the man would survive.
“You’re pretty sullen.” Hugh said.
Neil glanced at Marv waiting to be released for dinner. “Headache.”
Marv’s nod was so slight Neil almost missed it.
In the dining hall there was little conversation as everyone ate. Neil chewed the tough meat, his attention on every movement and sound. Tension pressed against him. Even the guards seemed to sense something was amiss. They appeared vigilant, edgy. Good, thought Neil.
Then it happened, a fire alarm sounded outside the dining hall. Moments later, in the corner farthest from the kitchen, a prisoner yelled something and flung his tray at the man across from him. Food sprayed everywhere. Within moments fists were flying and other prisoners hustled to get out of their way. Guards moved in and more fights broke out. Several prisoners attacked guards. Neil noticed the gate at the kitchen serving window close and the kitchen’s heavy metal doors slammed shut. He resisted a smile.
Another alarm announcing trouble joined the fire alarm.
He rose and looked for Hugh. A table away J.R. sat eating, his attention on the mayhem around him. J.R.’s gaze locked with Neil’s. Neil nodded at him and moved toward Hugh who was breaking up a fight. Neil flung his arm around the guard’s neck like J.R.’s man had done to him earlier and pulled Hugh off the prisoners. Hugh struggled and almost broke free.
Neil had to use all his strength to hold the man who weighted twenty to thirty pounds more and was solid muscle. He pulled Hugh’s head close to his. “This is a distraction so J.R. can escape.”
Hugh’s hazel eyes focused on Neil’s.
“Bear works for J.R. and intercepted my letter of warning.”
Hugh struggled. Neil wrestled back and pulled the guard toward the kitchen. “I’m supposed to kill you—”
A couple of men bumped into Neil. He lost his balance and grip. Hugh struggled free and turned on Neil. Neil lunged at the guard but was quickly maneuvered into a hold. “You should have never gotten tangled up with J.R. and his gang,” Hugh said pinning Neil’s hands behind him.
“I’m not. Listen—”
“Yeah, right. I thought you were different.” Hugh tightened his grip.
“Listen, J.R.’s planning to escape out—” A movement caught Neil’s attention. The Rat was moving toward them, the Rat’s hand hung oddly at his side. Behind the Rat, Neil could see J.R., Marv, and a few others headed toward the kitchen door.
With Neil’s arms pulled behind him he couldn’t stop the downward motion of his body onto a table.
Neil struggled to free himself as the Rat closed in on them. “J.R.’s headed to the kitchen and the waiting delivery truck.” He leaned his weight onto Hugh’s hand. Neil motioned with his head toward the kitchen. “We’ve got to stop them.”
“Good try. The kitchen’s on lock down.”
Neil continued to press against Hugh’s hand. The guard’s grip loosened.
The Rat was now only a few feet to their left. He raised his hand—a knife clutched in his grip.
“Nooo,” Neil yelled. With all his strength he spun and stood between Hugh and the Rat. As Hugh stumbled backwards and lost his grip on Neil’s right arm, the Rat plunged the knife into Neil’s left bicep. Neil pivoted into the Rat, hitting him square on the jaw. The Rat stumbled backward, pulling the knife out. Neil pressed after him, punched him in the stomach. The Rat doubled and Neil grabbed the prisoner’s head with both hands and shoved him backwards. The man tripped over a chair and fell.
Hugh scrambled to his feet.
Blood oozed between Neil’s fingers pressed against the wound. His eyes locked on Hugh’s then moved their focus to the kitchen door, now opening.
Hugh and the Rat saw it too. The Rat moved to stand but Neil kicked him in the chin, knocking him out. Hugh nodded at Neil as he leapt over the Rat and ran to the kitchen, grabbing another guard as he went.
Neil saw several more of J.R.’s men making their way to the kitchen. He raced after Hugh.
The kitchen worker who’d opened the door tried to shut it but Hugh raced through the doorway and seized the man as he went.
Neil was behind the second guard and almost through the doorway when one of J.R.’s men grabbed his shirt. Neil spun and punched the man in the face. The man backed up momentarily and Neil shut the door. J.R.’s men beat on the locked door.
J.R. and four other prisoners with knives stopped herding employees and kitchen helpers into the large walk-in freezer and turned toward the sound.
J.R. glanced at the two guards and then Neil. “Kill them,” he ordered.
Three of the men turned on Neil and the guards. Now only J.R. and Marv prodded the others into the freezer.
Neil grabbed several knives from an open drawer, “Hugh.” He tossed two at the guards.
One of J.R.’s men ran at Neil, a sharpened toothbrush in his hand.
Neil’s heart raced. He no longer heard the rest of J.R.’s men banging on the door or other noises. His sole focus was on the man attacking him. Neil faced him straight on.
The man lunged at him.
Neil spun to the side at the last moment.
The man’s arms and legs flailed to keep his balance while his long bony fingers grabbed at Neil’s neck.
Neil leaned back as the man’s nails scraped into Neil’s skin and his fingers caught Neil’s collar.
Neil yanked the man’s arm away with his left hand and felt searing pain from the earlier stab wound. He tripped the man then shoved his elbow between his attacker’s shoulder blades. The man stumbled to the ground and Neil pounced on him.
The prisoner writhed beneath Neil, jabbing at Neil’s leg and side with the sharpened toothbrush. Though slender, he was tall with long limbs and as Neil grabbed the arm trying to stab him, his attacker shifted his weight and spun Neil onto his back and pounced on Neil.
Neil stared into the hard, dark eyes of his attacker, the concrete floor hard against his back, multiplied by the man’s weight.
Spittle sprayed across Neil’s face.
Somewhere pans clattered to the floor.
The man raised his homemade weapon above his head to plunge it into Neil’s chest.
Neil saw the shank plummeting toward him and rolled to his side as the sharp handle grazed his back. He then rolled back, pinning the man’s hand and weapon underneath him. Neil tightened his grip on the knife and thrust it at his attacker.
His opponent pulled his hand free, leaving the toothbrush blade under Neil, caught Neil’s arm, and banged it repeatedly into the floor while pinning Neil’s left arm under his knee.
From somewhere in the kitchen a plea for mercy rang out.
Neil struggled to hold on but could sense his grip on the weapon loosen. As he did, he realized the man’s weight had shifted and while continuing to wrestle with the knife Neil wiggled his left hand free.
Just then the knife slipped from his hand.
Neil’s attacker reached for the knife.
Neil shoved the heel of his hand into the man’s nose with all his might. There was a pop and blood gushed.
“You son of a…”
Neil grabbed the man’s ears with both hands and slammed his head to the floor next to him. Neil shoved the man’s limp body off him and retrieved his knife.
He surveyed the kitchen before standing. The other guard was still wrestling with a man but the guy who’d put a choke hold on him in the exercise yard several hours earlier lay handcuffed on the floor. Hugh crawled behind a work table toward J.R. and Marv who were moving tall metal racks in front of the walk-in freezer.
As his focus from the fight with his attacker left, his senses expanded to the sounds of the kitchen workers’ pleas from inside the freezer, the cafeteria fight, and the continued banging on the kitchen door.
A buzzer rang at the outside delivery door. J.R. was about to make his move. If Neil didn’t do something quick J.R. would escape. Hugh was now crouched behind a large mixer behind J.R. and Marv. Neil made eye contact with Hugh.
Neil scrambled to his feet. “You’re not gonna get away with this, J.R. I won’t play your game.”
J.R.’s face flushed red. “You little spittoon. I should have known you’d try and double cross me.” A defiant grin spread across his face. “You think scrawny little you and two guards can stop me?” He motioned at the delivery door. “My getaway van is here. Then I’ll go get that pretty little girl of yours.”
Neil tensed, but he continued to move left, away from Hugh and the other guard who had finally cuffed his prisoner. “Like you said, J.R., I’m trouble. That’s just the way I’m wired.” He took a few more steps to the left, forcing J.R. to turn his attention away from the two guards. “You should have asked my old man. He’d have told you.”
The guards inched their way to the right. Neil tried not to look at them and give away their position.
The men outside the kitchen continued to pound on the door.
“Let them in,” J.R. said to Marv. “I’ll take care of this punk.”
Those inside the freezer pushed the door open a crack, banging it against the racks.
Neil took several more steps as Marv moved to the cafeteria door. “Yeah, I’m so much trouble my old man just disowned me.”
J.R. smiled at this.
“Sent me a telegram telling me so.”
“And that don’t make you want to bust this joint and go slit his throat?”
“I wasn’t ever gonna get out. Your friend there—” He nodded to the man Hugh had cuffed while both guards slipped closer to J.R. “—even said I was staying behind. Not much of an incentive to help.”
J.R. turned. “Where’s those guar—”
The guards rushed at him.
Marv was almost to the door. If the others got in, Neil and the guards would again be outnumbered.
Neil ran after Marv and rammed into him just as the prisoner turned the door knob. The door scraped open but Neil slammed his weight and the surprised Marv back into it. A stream of profanities and pounding fists assaulted the door. Marv pushed against the door to face Neil but Neil grabbed Marv’s shoulders and bashed him back into the door, knocking his head against the metal several times.
On the other side of the door Neil could hear a scuffle and guards’ voices.
Marv’s fight weakened and Neil pulled the man from the door, shoved him to the floor, and pinned him there. Neil looked to the freezer to see the racks pushed away as a lanky kitchen worker escaped and released the others.
Hugh and the other guard were still wrestling J.R. But as those trapped in the freezer escaped some of them joined in taking J.R. down while others ran to sit on the two cuffed prisoners attempting to crawl to the delivery door.
Outside the kitchen the fighting subsided. When the head guard unlocked the kitchen door he stopped in surprise as did everyone in the room. He looked at Hugh, the other guard, and those sitting on J.R. and his men. “What’s this all about?”
“J.R. and some of his gang had plans to escape,” Hugh said.
The guard nodded. He looked at Neil who straddled Marv. “What about him?”
“He needs his arm looked after and then send him to solitary,” Hugh said.
Solitary? Neil looked at Hugh. The guard wiped blood from his lip, they made eye contact then Hugh turned away.
The alarms quit sounding.
The head guard called several other guards into the kitchen. He pointed at Neil. “Take that one to the infirmary and J.R. and the others to solitary confinement.”
“I’d watch my back, Mr. Innocent,” Marv said. “You’re as good as dead.”
The stab wound in Neil’s arm ached.
A prisoner moaned in a nearby cell and someone else yelled profanities. Prison was lonely enough but solitary confinement reminded Neil of a crypt he’d seen the day of his mother’s funeral. Was this what death would feel like? The sounds of human agony all around him yet devoid of genuine interaction?
Neil ran his hands through his hair as he sat on the hard bed in the dim, concrete cell. Why had Hugh sent him here? After all he did, didn’t the guard believe he was innocent?
“Knock it off,” a guard hollered and struck a prisoner’s door with what Neil imagined was his hand.
Neil flinched. He reviewed how the whole thing went down. Could he have done anything differently? Should he have let J.R. and his gang of thugs get away with their plan of escape? Then he thought of Hugh. If he hadn’t stepped in the officer would be dead—the man who sent him to solitary confinement. Solitary or not, he didn’t have to live with that man’s blood on his hands. And that’s exactly what he would do if he followed J.R.’s instructions. No, he couldn’t see another way out. He’d do it again.
Keys jingled somewhere and a heavy metal door squeaked open then banged shut. A scream wove its way down the hall and into Neil’s cell.
“Guard. Guard,” an inmate called.
“Oh, shut up,” someone yelled.
He thought of his infant son. Sunshine had said Neil Jr. was often colicky. When she said it he wondered how he would handle that. Now he longed to hear it—longed to hold his son and try to soothe him. How long could a person take this? Would he someday be screaming like a mad man?
“Shut up old man.”
He thought back to the events that led him here.
How long would it take to find the real killer? Would Sunshine wait? What if she took their son and moved far away? She was beautiful. Even with a child there were lots of men who would marry her.
Then a horrible thought struck him. What if she didn’t want his child—the child of a murderer? Or what if whatever man she married didn’t want his child? What if whoever she married forced her to give their baby up for adoption? What if her future boyfriend or husband beat their child? Neil jumped to his feet and paced the small room.
Up until this moment he hadn’t allowed himself to think on such things. But now this latest incident reminded him how far away from Sunshine and Neil Jr. he was. How completely out of control he was. There was nothing he could do or say to keep her love or protect his son.
Did Sunshine know about the fight? If she did, did she think he was involved as a troublemaker? As an inmate trying to escape? At what point would she have enough of his antics?
Neil hit the concrete wall with the side of his fist. He was helpless. He was going to lose her and his son and probably his life. A few months ago it seemed all he needed to do was get a job and provide for them. And for what? Nothing. What was the point? He’d tried to do what was right and failed—again.
Footsteps echoed in the hall.
He shoved his fist into his open palm. If he wasn’t around then Sunshine would be free to go her own way and do what she thought best. All he could hope was that she wouldn’t abandon their son. Neil looked around the bare room. There was nothing sharp to slit his wrists with and even though there was a sheet, there was nothing to drape it over with which to hang himself.
It only figured. The warden had masterfully created a space where he could fully experience his misery without even death as a way of escape.
Keys rattled at his door and then it opened. A bored guard stood in the open space. “Exercise.”
Neil nodded and walked slightly ahead of the man to the exercise yard which was nothing more than a larger, empty, concrete cell with twenty-foot walls and a metal grate over the opening.
“One hour,” the guard said and the metal door clanked behind him.
“One hour,” Neil repeated out loud, just to hear his voice. He inhaled deeply. A shadow passed over him and he looked up in time to see several small birds fly by. What was it Leonard had told him once when he’d mentioned his loneliness and fears? Something about God seeing a bird falling and caring about that bird?
Neil stretched, then attempted some one-handed push-ups against a wall, his left arm hanging in a sling from the knife wound. If he was going to stay here he might as well get in the best shape he could to protect himself. He didn’t put much faith in Leonard’s God helping him. It didn’t seem God had helped out yet, or even saw his troubles. Why would God want to help a screw-up like him? What had he ever done that was worth anything?
Neil moved from wall push-ups to lopsided jumping jacks and then jogged in place. He was sure he looked ridiculous and was glad no one could see him. Before he knew it his hour was up and the guard was escorting him back to his cell.
“Hey nark,” someone yelled as he walked past. “Don’t think you got away with stopping us.”
“That’s enough,” ordered the guard.
In his cell the prisoner’s words haunted him. As best as he could tell it was only nine in the morning. He had the rest of the day to dawdle away. That was the downside of going to the exercise yard first thing in the morning. Neil attempted to pen a letter to Sunshine then shoved the paper aside and lay down.
Neil awoke to a rhythmic tapping underneath the sounds of prisoners shouting at each other, metal doors squeaking open, and toilets flushing. He strained to hear the message. It seemed to be repeating itself. Scratch, tap, tap, pause, scratch, scratch, scratch… Silence. “Down,” Neil whispered. More taps and scratches, “boy.” There was a silence, Neil counted to seven. Scratch, tap, scratch, scratch… “Your.” He listened to the rest of the message, “going down boy.” Silence. “You’re going…”
Neil shuddered. The sweat on his skin turned cold. Was this for him? He tried to focus on the other sounds around him. The tapping increased. He flushed his own toilet—once, twice, and again. The tapping didn’t quit. It seemed to be coming from different areas of the ward. He covered his ears but the message repeated like a skipping record.
He’d always thought it cool that he and his brother could secretly communicate; now he hated the mere existence of Morse code.
The meal cart rolled up outside of his cell. “Dinner.” A guard banged on his door and a tray with a bowl of watery soup slid through the small portal in his door.
The smell curled his lips. “What is this?” He grabbed the tray wishing he had a table to slam it down on. Something to interrupt the message that morphed into hundreds of insects crawling the walls of his crypt.
Neil straightened. “Is there shellfish in it?”
“Yeah, buddy, this is one of those fancy restaurants that serves all those highfalutin meals like lobster bisque and oysters. Just shut up and eat it.”
“What kind of fish?”
“Eel.” the guard snickered and the cart squeaked down the hall.
Neil stared at the bowl. His stomach growled despite the smell. The message crawled all around him. He grabbed a piece of stale bread and bit off a chunk. His mind focused on the sounds in his mouth. But by the third bite his teeth chewed out his message of doom.
He ignored the meal. Surely there wasn’t any shellfish in it. The guard was right. The prison wouldn’t waste money feeding shellfish to inmates. There was so little to do. Neil took a deep breath to not smell the fishy stench and gulped down a mouthful.
He’d only taken three or four spoonfuls when he felt the swelling, first his lips and tongue, then his throat. Neil threw the bowl and contents against the door. He struggled to stand, already feeling light headed. “Help. Help.” His voice sounded so puny. All around him toilets flushed and prisoners yelled and banged on doors. “Help.”
“Quiet down,” a guard yelled.
Neil staggered to the door. “Help. I need a doctor. Help.” He banged his fist against the door. “I’m dying. Help.”
Under the ruckus from the other prisoners he could hear the rhythmic taps and scratches, You’re going down boy. An eerie laugh slithered down the hall.
Sweat blistered on Neil’s hands and face. His pulse raced and he struggled to stay alert. “Help.” His voice, weak, blended with the cacophony of sounds swarming around him. He notices the birds when they fall. Leonard’s words came to him. Neil gasped for air. “God, I know I don’t deserve your help.” His hands shook and he struggled to inhale. “Please, help.”
Neil slumped to the cell floor, the eel soup soaking into his prison uniform. I’m gonna die in the poison that killed me, he thought. His eyes fell on the bowl with some of the soup, ironically, puddled in the bottom. He reached for the bowl, careful not to spill it and shoved it through the food portal. It slipped from his hand and fell to the concrete floor.
Black splotches covered the walls, floor, and bed of his cell. “Help.” Neil’s voice was barely a whisper. “God. Please.” He bent to grasp the spoon with his left hand, still confined to the sling. It took all his strength to lift it to the portal. He struggled to pull his other hand out of the portal and with sheer determination Neil grasped the spoon and thrust his hand back through the small opening. He banged the spoon against the outside of the door with all his might, though the sound was a faint tink in his ears.
The black spots spread across Neil’s cell. He closed his eyes to the growing darkness and struggled to take just one more breath. Somewhere nearby he heard keys jingle and inhaled another shaky breath.
Muted voices faded in and out. Neil tried to open his eyes but it seemed like so much work. Where was he? His thoughts were a jumble. A caramel apple. Yes, that’s what he wanted. Where was that vendor? “Sir. Sir.” His voice sounded garbled. What did he want? He drifted back to sleep.
“How is he doc?”
The voice pulled Neil into consciousness with an urgency that baffled him.
“Is he going to make it?”
Fear strangled Neil. Who were they? He opened his eyes but quickly closed them to the bright light and white walls that reflected the light. Two forms seemed to stand somewhere beyond his feet.
“I think so. He’s not out of the woods yet.”
Whoever they were they were getting closer.
“But it’s looking good.”
He opened his eyes just a crack. Everything was bright and blurry but he could see two men. An older man wearing a long white coat and another in a guard’s uniform.
“Do you know what happened?”
That voice. That uniform. Neil panicked. He gasped for breath—his eyes wide open. He struggled to sit up but he had no strength. It was as though someone was pressing him down—holding him back. He looked in terror at Bear, who’d snitched on him.
Beside the guard stood a gray haired doctor siphoning a clear liquid from a bottle into a syringe.
Neil wrestled to sit. Why couldn’t he move?
“Looks like he’s coming to,” Bear said. His eyes locked on Neil.
“No. No. Get him away from me.” Neil’s voice was hoarse, his mouth dry and swollen.
The doctor removed the needle from the small jar and held the syringe up to the light. “Relax, son.” He stepped toward Neil. The guard stayed put but wore an expression of pleasure at Neil’s anxiety.
“We think you ate some shellfish.”
Neil nodded. “What is that? What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry, son. You’re going to be alright.”
“No. Get him out of here. They tried to—”
“Did you say he ate shellfish?” Bear interrupted.
Neil pulled at the straps that tied him down.
“Shellfish?” the guard’s voice increased in volume.
“Is he allergic to shellfish?”
“According to his medical records he is.”
Neil nodded. “Yes. In my—”
“So what are you giving him?”
Panic raised in Neil’s chest. “Doc, lis—”
“Could it have killed him?” Bear interrupted again.
The doctor laid the syringe on a nearby table and focused on Neil.
The guard started to speak again and the doctor raised his hand. “I need you to be quiet. He’s trying to say something.”
“This man’s a dangerous murderer, doc. He started the fight in the cafeteria yesterday with the intent to kill some guards and escape.”
“I’m fully aware of that.” The doctor looked down at Neil who shook his head back and forth. “But he’s strapped down and I have a job to do so if you don’t mind, please go stand outside the door.”
“No offense, doc. But my orders are not to allow this man out of my sight.”
“Then at least go stand by the door and let me do my job without your incessant interruptions.” The doctor turned away from the guard and took Neil’s pulse.
Bear gave Neil a contemptuous look. “You don’t go and give this kind doctor any trouble now, you hear, boy?”
Neil glared at the man. “I won’t.”
The guard waited a few more seconds before returning to the door.
“How are you feeling?”
“They tried to kill me,” Neil whispered.
The doctor placed his stethoscope on Neil’s chest. “Breathe in.”
“I was poisoned.”
The doctor nodded.
“That guard is helping them.” Neil felt so weak.
“Have you ever had delusions or heard voices before?”
“No. They’re trying to kill me.” Neil’s voice raised and he saw the guard take a few steps closer. He tried to calm himself and lowered his voice. “How would shellfish get into eel soup?”
“Oh sometimes they put crawdads in the food. Whatever the state can get at a good price. Open your mouth and say, ‘aahh.’ ”
How could he convince this man they were trying to kill him?
“You’re throat’s still a little swollen.” He looked over Neil’s face and then his neck, arms, and hands. “And you still have some hives. I’m not quite convinced you’re home free.” He reached for the syringe on the metal table.
Did Neil dare trust this man? Was he also on the take? “What are you giving me?” Neil asked.
“Don’t worry. It’s just Epinephrine.”
Neil remembered the drug from the other two times he’d eaten shellfish and reacted with hives and swelling before his father realized Neil was allergic. “You’re just now giving me some?”
“Oh no.” The doctor inserted the needle in Neil’s arm. “This is a second dose. The guard who found you realized you were having an allergic reaction. He got you some Epinephrine right away. It’s a good thing he did too. A minute or two more and we’d have had to give you a tracheotomy.”
“I almost died?”
The doctor nodded. “You were pretty close. But I think you’ll make it.”
“If he doesn’t finish me off.” Neil looked in the direction of the guard.
The doctor followed Neil’s gaze and appeared to consider the idea.
“Let’s take a look at your arm.” The doctor removed the bandage and cleaned the wound then re-bandaged it.
“That guard’s going to try and kill me.”
“Nobody’s trying to kill you.” He put the medical tape on the table. “Sometimes solitary confinement can make you think you’re hearing or seeing things that aren’t really there.”
“But I was poisoned.”
“It was all a fluke. I’ll talk with the kitchen and warn them about feeding you anything with shellfish in it. But I would suggest that if you ever suspect shellfish might be in something that you don’t eat it.”
“Yeah.” It always came back to him. His choices. His actions. Why had he eaten that eel soup?
“I’m going to keep you overnight for observation. In the meantime, get some rest. It’s much quieter here than solitary confinement.”
Neil watched the doctor leave. The door shut and he was alone in the small room with the guard who’d shared his letter to Sunshine with J.R. The man smirked. Neil vowed to stay awake and watch the guard watching him. They’d gotten him once, they weren’t going to get him again. Especially not here, with all these needles and bottles of who-knew-what.
The guard turned and looked out the door’s window into the infirmary’s entrance. “What’s you so nervous about, boy? You just rest.”
Yeah, right, thought Neil. I’ll rest so you can come over here and kill me.
Neil didn’t know how long he’d been asleep when he awoke with a start. There beside him was the guard—a pillow in his hand. “J.R. will be pleased to know you got to experience your death awake. It’s just sad, due to the circumstances.” He glanced around at the sickbay. “That it can’t be more—” he paused and licked his lips. “Painful.”
The guard forced the pillow over Neil’s face.
Neil struggled to get away but the straps on the gurney held him tight. He turned his head but the guard pressed the pillow around his face. God, please—
Everything was going dark.
Sunshine. He strained to conjure her image one last time. His body felt so heavy. He thought he should fight but couldn’t find the strength. Somewhere, beyond him, he heard pounding and voices.
Neil coughed and sputtered. He squinted at the bright light and flinched as the doctor leaned over him. The straps around his arms and chest were loose.
“Welcome back, son,” the doctor said. “Appears you were correct about that guard.”
Neil looked around. The room was in shambles and two guards were leading Bear away—hands cuffed.
“How?” Neil’s voice was weak.
“A guard came in to check on you and caught that man trying to suffocate you.”
“Did you catch that guard’s name?” the doctor asked a nurse.
“Let me look at the register.” She left and returned a moment later. “He signed in as ‘Hugh.’ ”
The tapping and scratches whirled around Neil back in solitary confinement. Don’t think you’re safe boy. You gonna die. Neil vacillated between fear and an odd sense of peace as he considered the events of the past few days. He’d been allowed to write Sunshine a letter while in the infirmary and told her everything, even how he’d almost died twice—but somehow survived. “It’s as though someone is watching over me,” he wrote.
Now, as these new threats reverberated in the walls and slipped in through his meal door he tried to be cautious but not afraid. He grabbed the Bible Leonard had given him. Inside, Leonard had written a note:
I don’t pretend to understand why you have been framed and imprisoned. You may feel very alone, but you are not the only person to have been wrongly accused. In the book of Genesis, a young man named Joseph was falsely imprisoned but eventually he was freed and even honored. You can read about him in Genesis 37-47. I hope and pray you too will be freed and even honored.
For more words of encouragement read the book of Psalms and Matthew.
I still believe you are innocent and will do all I can to see that the true killers are caught.
Neil thumbed through the pages. “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.” Neil considered these words. If God directed his steps, he sure had a steep path for Neil to walk.
Keys rattled outside his door and Neil realized it was time to go to the exercise yard. The hall was loud with moans, yelling, and demands for a sundry of items. Several times he passed doors only to hear, “Snitch.” “Pig lover.” “Dead man.”
“Knock it off,” ordered the guard.
The door locked behind him and he stepped into the autumn sunshine. Its warmth felt good on his face. Neil inhaled the fresh air. There was the scent of dried corn leaves and a faint whiff of smoke from someone’s burn barrel. He’d lived to see another day. Maybe that was how he would survive—one day at a time.
He stretched and was midway through one-armed push-ups against the wall when the door to the small exercise yard opened.
Neil spun, fist clenched, ready for whatever new assault he must face.
It was Hugh. He chuckled. “I guess if I’d been through what you’ve been through, I’d be a little edgy too.”
Neil unclenched his fist. “What kind of trouble am I in now?”
“Beats me. All I know is the Warden wants to see you.”
“Is it about the attempted jail break? The poisoning? That guard trying to kill me?”
Hugh shrugged. “I’ve got to cuff you. Procedure.”
Neil stretched out his arms. How many times in the past months had he heard that ratchet sound? Neil caught Hugh’s gaze. “Thanks, Man. You know, for—”
Hugh nodded. “When I heard what had happened and who was guarding you I thought I’d better check in on you.”
“Glad you did.”
“I owed you one.”
Neil bit his lip.
“I reckon,” Hugh’s voice was quieter. “If you weren’t here, I’d be a dead man now.” He took Neil’s arm and escorted him out of the building.
They walked across the dirt and gravel yard to the administration building. Inside a wood paneled office the warden questioned him about the riot and jail break, the poisoning, and attempted suffocation. Neil told him about the Morse code messages and how his letter to Sunshine was intercepted by the same guard who tried to kill him.
Neil glanced at the warden’s secretary scribbling notes in shorthand on her green-paged steno-pad and wondered how deeply he was digging his grave. But the fact that someone in power was listening to him kept him talking. He shared J.R.’s threats against Sunshine and expressed his concern for her and Neil Jr.’s safety.
The warden nodded, asked his secretary if she’d gotten it all, and dismissed her.
“Well, Mr. Gatlin, I want to thank you for all the risks you’ve taken. Typically, all that you’ve shared with me would pose a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s obvious that your life is in danger and we should transfer you to a different prison.”
The thought of escape from J.R. and his gang lifted his spirits. But that would place Sunshine several hundred miles away or force her to move and lose the support and help of Leonard and his wife. Besides, wouldn’t there be gangs no matter which prison he went to? The positive and negative ramifications of a transfer swirled around him.
“Like I said,” the warden continued. “Keeping you safe would be a problem, but another situation has arisen.”
Neil straightened in his seat. “Another situation?”
The warden buzzed his secretary. “Mrs. Collins, can you please let those gentlemen in?”
Neil gulped and watched the door.
When it opened, in walked a frail, bookish man he’d never seen; followed by his lawyer, Harvey Rubens; and his brother, Ken.
Neil stared in disbelief.
“Mr. Gatlin,” the warden said, “this is Mr. Burns. He is a clerk of the court.”
The clerk nodded at Neil and opened a briefcase on the warden’s desk, shuffled inside, then asked, “Has Warden Trimble given you the news?”
Neil looked at the man and then his two lawyers. “What news?” He didn’t dare hope.
“No,” said the warden. “I thought I’d let you break the bad news to him.”
Neil held his breath.
“Well, Mr. Gatlin,” the clerk said. “I have papers here declaring that—” he lifted a document from his briefcase. “On this day, October fourteen, nineteen hundred and sixty-four, the defendant, Neil Allen Gatlin, is hereby absolved of all charges of murder in the case of Mr. Walter Parsons and Mrs. Harriet Parsons by the State of Illinois.”
The room was silent except for the clock on the wall.
Neil stared in shock at them.
The clerk handed him a gold bordered paper. “Here is a Certificate of Innocence from Judge Bracket.”
Neil took the paper, his limbs moving more like a man in a trance.
“And this is an Executive Pardon Based on Innocence from Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.,” said the clerk, handing him another stiff sheet of paper.
“You bet, you are, son,” Harvey Rubens said and reached over and squeezed Neil’s arm.
Neil’s brother, Ken, nodded with a suppressed grin.
Neil looked around the room at each of the men. His breathing intensified. “This isn’t a joke?”
“Nope,” Ken said.
“How? What happened?”
“My men cornered Charley’s friend, Scotty, and let him know we had enough evidence to lock him away unless he talked,” Ken said.
“Only hunches. But we were pretty sure Willis did the killing and Scotty corroborated that.”
“Willis and Charley are sitting in jail right now awaiting trial,” Rubens said.
Neil looked at Rubens. “So, I’m, free?”
“You bet your bootstraps.”
Neil raised his head to the smoke-stained ceiling then glanced down to his hands, still cuffed. “Then, can we get these things off?”
“You don’t want to keep those on as a souvenir?” asked Warden Trimble, sifting through his key chain.
Neil rubbed his wrists. “I’m free!” Tears streamed down his face.
Rubens put a hand on Neil’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for the hell you’ve had to endure.”
Neil’s shoulders shook. He wiped the tears on the back of his arm and looked up. “I want to see Sunshine.” His face contorted. “And my son. I want to hold my son.”
“They’re waiting at a diner in town,” Ken said.
Neil jumped to his feet. “Then what are we waiting for?”
“Hold on there young man.” The warden pulled some papers from a drawer and slid them to Rubens and Ken. “We’ve got just a few details to finish up and I think Mr. Burns has some papers that need signing.”
Burns nodded and held out some papers.
“Mrs. Collins,” the warden spoke into his intercom. “Have Neil Gatlin’s belongings been gathered?”
“Yes sir, Officer Landon has just arrived with them.”
“Send him in.”
The strapping Hugh entered carrying a box which he set in front of Neil. “Please verify everything is accounted for.”
Neil removed the lid, scanned the contents then looked at Hugh.
“Congratulations. I knew you were innocent.”
“Thanks. But why’d you send me to solitary?”
“In hopes of protecting you.”
The gate clanked shut behind them. Neil inhaled the fresh, free air. A small group of reporters rushed at him with notepads, cameras, microphones, and questions. He was grateful for the positive attention. He looked into a newsman’s camera and shared his story, all the time wondering if his father would see the report.
A white, four-door Lincoln Continental pulled up.
Rubens opened the door. “You ready to see that little lady?”
Neil looked at his brother, surprised by the fancy car.
“What can I say? It’s a big day, might as well leave in style.”
Neil grinned. “Now where’s my girl?”
The car was barely in the parking lot when Sunshine burst through the diner doors. Neil jumped from the car and scooped her off the ground. He buried his face in her blond hair and took in the faint scent of her violet perfume. “I’m so sorry. You deserve better and from now on you will get better. I love you so much.”
Sunshine sobbed onto his shoulder. “I was so afraid…”
He set her down and brushed her tears with his finger. “I was too. I love you so much.”
Neil looked up. There stood Leonard. “It’s good to see you free.”
Before Neil could say or do anything, Leonard pulled Neil into an embrace.
Neil’s muscles, stiff at first, relaxed. “Thank you.” Neil sniffled. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me and my family. And thank you for believing in me.”
“Leonard.” Phyllis tugged on her husband’s arm.
They both turned and Neil saw she was holding Neil Gatlin Junior. “My son.”
Phyllis placed the baby in his arms.
Neil’s hands trembled with excitement. He stared into the small face. “My son.”
Sunshine wrapped her arm around Neil’s waist and traced their baby’s face with her finger.
“He has your blue eyes,” he said.
“And your jaw,” she replied.
The baby reached for Neil’s face and he leaned closer to his son. “He’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful but with a few signs of stubbornness.”
Neil looked at Sunshine. “I imagine.”
Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave a review at your favorite retailer?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When Ida Smith isn’t writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and scrapbooking. Ida’s love of story began as a child while listening to her parents and their friends share stories of their adventures. When she was ten her parents pulled her out of school and the family traveled across the United States to see many of the important historical sites. That trip planted an interest in history and how people lived and gave Ida her first view of the Illinois plains.
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OTHER BOOKS BY IDA SMITH
Be careful who you cross.
Neil Gatlin may be out of prison, but it doesn’t mean he’s out of trouble. With few prospects, Neil finds himself back where most residents still think he’s a killer. Neil now has suspicious townsfolk and even dangerous criminals watching his every move.
When Neil finds himself entangled in threats from an unknown source it doesn’t take long before his life spirals out of control. Now every choice drives him further from the woman he loves and closer to prison or death.
Neil must discover the art of invisibility before it’s too late.
Available in both print and eBook formats from your favorite online retailer.
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Under the watchful eyes of Roman soldiers, Uzziel pieces together ancient prophecy of a coming king. If only he can rid Israel of Rome’s oppression before they discover his dark secret.
Anticipated Earned a 5 Star Rating from Reader’s Favorite.
“A wonderful story about the Jewish response to Jesus the Messiah in the first century A.D. The author’s description of Jesus is based upon solid research and a realistic portrayal of the different responses to Jesus by first century Jews, as seen through the eyes of Bethlehem shepherd boy Uzziel…fun reading, but also very informative. The grammar is flawless, making for easy reading and an ample desire to keep turning the pages. Author, Ida Smith, knows her craft.”
–Paul F. Murray, Readers’ Favorite
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Neil Gatlin’s bad choices and worse luck only multiply—even when he tries to make good. Will the deciphering skills he learned as a boy rescue him or cause his death? Used to failure, and on the verge of fatherhood, Neil desperately wants to succeed. Instead, his bad choices trap him between both sides of the law. As Neil flees from police he stumbles upon a murder and must choose between doing right or escaping. Soon, his life is in a downward spiral into greater danger than even he thought possible. Now he’s in a fight for his life trying to decipher clues to the hidden truth before others’ lies and deception entangle him for good. Will the deciphering skills he learned as a boy rescue him or aid in his death?