Crime Fiction Sequel

This is the first chapter of Unforgiven, the sequel to my debut thriller, Unhinged.

1

North Jersey State Prison
Elizabeth, New Jersey
One year ago

Celia Brown massaged her left pinky finger, but it had been years since she’d conceded any chance of bringing relief to the mangled digit. She’d now adopted the act as a nervous tick. No one copped to anxiety behind bars, and even after seventeen years in North Jersey State Prison, there was rarely a day when calm ruled her mind. North Jersey State saw to that. The decades-old prison prevented some of the worst New Jersey had to offer from expanding upon their prolific rap sheets. She brought her hand close to her face and eyeballed the finger’s crooked path, which somewhat resembled a lightning bolt rendered by a kindergartner. It ached to the bone, serving as a constant reminder of her last day as a nurse—the only job she ever loved. After countless hours of comforting and tending to those in need at Mountainside Hospital, she’d been condemned to live out her remaining years in a place where the vulnerable were swallowed whole, without mercy or remorse.

She had been under constant surveillance from the moment she had first set foot in the prison. The press coverage had subsided within a few weeks of her sentencing. The suicide watch had lasted another several weeks, until they worked her into the general population under the watchful eyes of guards who despised paperwork and internal investigations only marginally more than they despised her. Her first year had been the toughest, par for the course for any mother who would take the life of her own daughter, but then again, Celia couldn’t recall a year of her life that hadn’t been tough. She’d faced the shanks and born the scars. Done a couple of stints in solitary after her verbal powers of persuasion failed. When she wasn’t begging the Lord to let her trade places with her dead daughter, she was fighting to stay alive. It didn’t take long to convince herself that He was unmoved by her pleas. And why shouldn’t He be unmoved? She had strangled the life from one of His children—from her own flesh and blood—as surely as she’d tried, but failed to suffocate it from Amy Forsythe. Deep down, she knew she deserved this life of confinement and loneliness and despair and pain. Her visitor’s log, save for one name, attested to that.

Not a day had passed that she didn’t relive that fateful day. She’d been seeing Ross for six months, after six months of vying for his attention along with every other woman on Earth. At six and a half feet tall, he towered over her, which was a huge draw. Ever since she was a little girl—or rather a young girl, but never a little girl—that had been her fantasy. To look up to a man in more than just the metaphorical sense. His baritone voice turned heads and buckled knees. His head, bald and shiny and beautiful, with its flawless skin. He was no Denzel Washington, but when he looked at you with those deep brown eyes and whispered in that voice, your clothes unbuttoned themselves.

Unfortunately, her daughter Iris had fallen under his spell, too. She had always been a wild child, just like the daddy who’d sired her and fled at the first sign of a pregnancy test. Iris had been tall and buxom like her mom, but lean and flirtatious like her daddy. The boys took notice at an early age, and despite Celia’s impassioned pleas, Iris reveled in it. Celia’s own teenage years had been marked by being passed over for the “prettier” girls. She was ill equipped to deal with the challenges that her daughter presented. Celia was loathe to admit it, but a part of her resented Iris for having it and flaunting it, and it caused a constant undercurrent of tension between them.

That tension reached an all-time high the first time Iris and Ross laid eyes on each other. They’d tried to downplay it, but their mutual attraction was undeniable. Celia had waited to introduce Ross to her daughter until she’d felt secure in her relationship with him, but it hadn’t mattered a lick. That night, having sensed the undeniable spark that was firing between them, she’d pleaded her case between the sheets. Ross fell asleep spooning her, his arm curled around her waist while she stared out the window wondering whether she had set her hook deep enough. Three weeks later, on a hunch, she hugged Iris, left “for work,” waited an hour, and dropped by Ross’s place to find them in bed. Celia stormed in, though only to force them to stop. They were already dead to her. Iris bawled, Ross stammered, and both begged for forgiveness. Celia glared at them, shook her head, and left for work. Distraught beyond words, she’d taken matters into her bare hands. Twenty-four hours later, Iris was dead. Forty-eight hours later, Celia Brown was under arrest for murder and attempted murder.

Celia remembered Iris’s terrified, bulging eyes, growing vacant as she choked the life out of her, like it had happened just seconds ago. She recalled the adrenaline surge that had sent chills through her body when Amy had spoken Iris’s name that day in the hospital. At first, Celia had chalked up Amy’s “vision” of a dead waitress to crazy talk from a traumatized patient. Just a coincidence. Hearing her utter Iris’s name was the game changer. Celia realized that the vision was no coincidence, and Amy was as vulnerable emotionally as she was physically, and thus a liability. Besides her distinct physical advantage, Celia had reasoned, she’d also have the element of surprise. She had pressed the pillow into Amy’s face, desperate to end it quickly, to avoid watching the life leave her eyes, and most importantly, to avoid detection. She could still feel the grips of her frantic colleagues peeling her off of Amy and prying her pinky finger from Amy’s death grip. She’d heard the snap, then felt it, then felt it more as Amy had twisted it, ratcheting up an agony unlike anything she’d experienced before or since. She wondered whether Amy remembered it like she did. She’d thought a lot about Amy over the years. Her feelings ranged from resenting her to hating her to the shame of losing a fight in which victory had seemed so certain. Only in recent years had she come to acknowledge that she had given the young girl no choice and had underestimated her. From time to time, she fantasized that Amy came to visit her, giving her the chance to gain some closure—payback. She’d picked up a few moves during her extended stay and was confident about the rematch. She shook her head, returning from her fantasy world, and glanced in the mirror.

Gray streaked her hair like a comet brightens an evening sky. Bags sagged beneath her haunted brown eyes. She was ten pounds lighter than when she’d been sentenced, but she’d stopped caring about her appearance long before the handcuffs had been removed. She’d had only one care left in the world once freedom turned its back on her. She’d get the letters and read them until she’d committed them to memory. This was a minor feat, as she’d committed patients’ charts to memory for years. The difference was, she destroyed the letters once committed. Simple math, really. In the wrong hands, they were tempting targets for desecration or leverage for blackmail. Bottom line, they exposed vulnerabilities.

Five months ago, she had been devastated to learn she’d received the last of them. Her last connection to the outside world had been severed. That outside connection was now inside.

Celia turned and peered out of her cell. The prison had several floors, though she had never set foot on any besides this one. Most walls were bathed in muted beiges or grays. Any splashes of real color were found in areas that most prisoners did their best to avoid—the infirmary and the chaplain’s office. All of the cells opened onto a wide corridor, though the sense of space varied depending on the number of your enemies present at any given time. The block of cells almost directly across from hers caught her eye.

Tara, Elise, and Collette had congregated outside Tara’s cell. Though they said little to each other, Celia had seen them in action enough to know something was up. Tara was the eldest of the three, and by far the meanest. She’d arrived six years after Celia, and they’d taken an instant dislike to each other. Tara was a machine operator before she went on a killing spree with a tire iron during a road-rage incident. Like Celia, she was a lifer. She’d shaved her head down to the stubble, and her otherwise flawless mocha skin bore a crow’s foot-shaped scar above her left ear. She and Celia had tussled a few times over the years, and though Celia had three inches and twenty pounds on her, Tara had matched her physical strength. Elise had been on the block for four years thanks to a vehicular homicide while high on crack. She was about as wide as she was tall and had a face that resembled a boxer of the four-legged variety. Collette Frye was considered the new kid on the block, having arrived just after the New Year, but she was no stranger to the penal system. A perennial “also-ran” on the pageant circuit in her younger days, she’d served time in Alabama and Georgia for prostitution and felony assault on an undercover officer before migrating north to start a new life. Two months into that new life, she impaled an amorous drunk’s thigh with a four-inch knife on the subway. Her once-beautiful auburn hair was a tangle of knots and split ends wrapped in a tight ponytail. Celia watched the three survey the corridor and wondered who they had in their cross hairs this time. Elise made eye contact with her before looking away and muttering to Tara. They started across the corridor, avoiding eye contact with anyone, but Celia knew this drill.

They were coming for her.

They moved with a nonchalance that belied their intentions, but everyone in their path sensed it and gave them a wide berth. A few couldn’t resist stealing a glance in Celia’s general direction. Some more subtle than others. Some of the looks were grave, others more anticipatory.

Celia started toward the three, hoping such a bold move would intimidate Elise and Collette. There was no intimidating Tara. Celia stared at Elise and Collette until they made eye contact. They hesitated just enough for her to know it was all about safety in numbers for them. It would come down to her exchange with Tara.

They stopped a few feet from Celia. Close enough to speak without being overheard and just far enough away to see an attack coming. Tara and Celia stared each other down like prizefighters.

“You pick the place,” Tara said.

“I just did.”

“You know what this is about?”

“It’s about me and Vernon.”

Tara took a step toward her, her jaw clenched. Celia’s heart pounded in her chest.

“It’s about no more of you and Vernon. It ends, or you end. Got it?”

Jaden Brown glistened with a thin sheen of sweat, the trembling in her arms traveling through the rest of her athletic frame as she punctuated her final push up with a grunt. She regained her feet and shook the burn out of her lean but powerful arms. She wore a black sleeveless tee shirt and blue jeans, her broad shoulders as imposing as her five-foot, eleven-inch frame. She approached her tiny sink, splashing water on her face before running her hands through her close-cropped, coarse brown hair. Another couple of handfuls went to her neck and shoulders, then she grabbed the small towel from her bunk and dried herself. This quick rinse would do until she hit the showers later. She didn’t want to be late for work. Pocket change per hour added up to more pocket change.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror—olive skin and androgynous features, with her full lips and flawless complexion tipping the scales to female—and tried to remember the last time she’d worn any makeup. She’d been in and out of jail most of her adult life and had only been at North Jersey State for five months, but time stood still in this place like no other. Perhaps it was having her Aunt Celia—she called her Celie, rhyming with really—to worry about that made the minutes seem like hours. When she was wandering the East Coast and Deep South, writing letters to her aunt, it was easier to distract herself, to lie to herself about how her aunt was faring behind bars. She was tough, she’d reasoned, and she was imposing. Then Jaden joined her aunt in prison, this being her fifth time, and realized that prisons were chock full of tough women like Aunt Celie.

She glanced out of her cell and down the corridor at an inmate mopping the floor. It seemed like easy work until you faced your first puddle of puke or pile of feces. Most times, the piles of feces had nothing to do with explosive bowels and everything to do with making life miserable for the mop jockey. It made her appreciate the hundred-and-twenty-degree heat that accompanied working in the kitchen. She lifted her blue prison-issued shirt from the bed frame and slipped into it.

Shouts and jeers rose from across the corridor—another fight. They always drew a crowd when they broke out in the common areas, and the heavy guard presence meant they tended to end quickly. Jaden bolted for the corridor, but not because she feared the fight would end before she arrived.

The fight had broken out very close to Aunt Celie’s cell.

A swarm of blue-clad females had formed a ring around the combatants. Jaden could see at least two heads above the heads of the crowd.

Aunt Celie and Collette. From what Jaden knew about Collette, a stiff breeze could knock her over. Collette seemed to know it, keeping out of range and looking hesitant.

The crowd parted in rapid fashion to avoid getting nailed in the crossfire, and Jaden got a bird’s eye view: Collette, Elise, and Tara Price. Tara alone was bad enough news. Tara and Celie grappled while Elise and Collette fired shots from a distance. Elise got too close, and Celie backhanded her, dropping her to the floor.

Jaden snarled and rushed them. Collette saw her coming, and her eyes widened with fear. She threw a haymaker that Jaden ducked and countered with an uppercut to the abdomen. Collette grunted and crumbled in a heap at her feet. Elise plowed into Jaden and sent her stumbling into the crowd. Her elbow caught someone’s jaw and drew return fire from her and two others. With deft precision, Jaden deflected many of the blows, took a couple, and landed enough of her own to prompt their retreat. She stole a glance back at Celie, who looked gassed as she and Tara tumbled to the floor.

“Celie!” Jaden called, a blow struck her right ear lobe and drew her attention back to the unfinished business close at hand. She spun with a back kick, catching her assailant in the solar plexus and lifting her off her feet, taking two onlookers to the floor with her descent. The other two assailants charged together. Jaden sidestepped the closer of the two and drove a side kick to the outside of her knee. The woman bellowed and collapsed, clutching the joint and giving Jaden a clear shot at the other woman. She froze and Jaden didn’t hesitate, driving a side kick to her chin. Down she went.

Jaden whirled and rushed toward the scrum on the floor. Tara straddled Celie, holding her right arm in an arm bar. Celie grimaced in pain. A Hispanic guard rushed Tara, who flailed with one arm to keep him at bay.

Jaden pushed through the crowd, and a riot shield slammed into her right side with bone-rattling force, launching her. When her feet found the floor again, she collided with a thud against something hard. The musky scent of Polo cologne told her the something hard was Temur Robinson, one of the guards. Temur was a strapping young man of African American and Iranian descent. He was also a fairly gifted mixed martial artist who gave Jaden private lessons in exchange for private sessions. Payment in advance, of course. He gripped her around the waist from behind, pinning her arms at her sides. She glared back at him.

“Temur, that’s my aunt!”

Two more guards pushed past Temur and ambled toward the scrum with no sense of urgency. Jaden recognized Hastings and Dickinson. Hastings was five nine in shoes, stocky, and a legend in his own mind. He spent his working hours admiring his image in reflective surfaces and regaling new guards with tales of conquests, both sexual and physical. Dickinson was a six-foot-two police academy washout who let his baton do most of the talking. The cons referred to them as Mutt and Jeff behind their backs, though Popeye and Olive had gained popularity in recent years.

Hastings cast a weary glance at Dickinson and drew his baton.

“Which one you want?”

“Neither,” Dickinson said, already wielding his.

“Get in there!” Temur barked, Jaden thrashing in his grip. Hastings and Dickinson scowled back at him before joining the fray.

Garcia was losing his grip on Tara, who was driving Celie’s skull into the floor with her boot. Celie’s face—terror, shock, and resignation—told Jaden she wouldn’t last much longer.

“Temur, she’s killing her!” she said, now flailing to break free. He spun her around and shoved her away. She turned to him, snarling.

“Wait here,” he said, pointing to her in a warning fashion before bolting to Celia’s aid.

Jaden took a few steps to her left for a clearer view. Hastings, Dickinson, and Garcia had succeeded in wrestling Tara to the floor, but Celie remained motionless. Jaden rushed toward her.

Dickinson’s baton saw to it that she never made it.

Jaden ran her fingertips over the egg-shaped knot that had risen on the back of her head. She wasn’t certain whose baton had felled her, but Dickinson was usually a safe bet where the use of excessive force was concerned. She was the latest in a long line of inmates who’d felt the wrath of Dickinson’s “little friend,” as he liked to refer to it. She figured the baton helped him forget his shortcomings in key areas.

Though solitary confinement was nothing new to her, this was, by far, her most unbearable stint. On previous occasions, her only concern was herself. One two occasions, she privately looked forward to her stay in solitary, viewing it as a temporary reprieve from a toxic cellblock. Solitary was still solitary, exacting its toll on mind and body, but that toll had grown less expensive with each stint.

Until this time.

Celie was in dire straits when Jaden last saw her, her eyes wide with the terror that comes from believing that you’re about to die. Jaden held out hope that the guards had separated Celie and Tara in time, that Celie had received proper medical attention, and that Jaden would be visiting her in the infirmary once they let her out of the hole.

The cell was pitch dark, but that couldn’t hide the smell, a mixture of decades-old sweat, blood, and Lord only knew what other bodily fluids that had seeped into its concrete floor.

The window on the solid steel door slid open with a thack, piercing the silence. Light from the corridor entered through the window before suffocating in the darkness in a matter of a few feet. Jaden approached the window, striking a balance between her sense of urgency and a pace that wouldn’t alarm the guard.

A tray appeared on a shelf with a plated sandwich and a beverage.

“You alive in there, Brown?”

Hastings.

“As unpopular as that may be. Celia okay?”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you.”

“Sure you could.”

“That’s not what solitary’s about. I’m not your proxy pen-pal.”

She stole glances up and down the corridor.

“You don’t have to say anything. You could just nod,” she whispered.

He leaned closer. “What would you be offering in exchange for this nod?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

“That’s rich coming from you. Tell you what, lose the jeans and back that beautiful ass up to this window while I reconsider.”

“Do me a favor. Don’t tell me a goddamn thing.”

“Hey, if you’re not hungry enough to work for it… ”

He slowly withdrew the tray.

“Dickinson, maybe,” she taunted.

The tray came hurtling back through the opening with cannon-shot force, hitting her in the thighs before crashing to the floor. She glanced down, then leveled her gaze at him before retreating into the darkness.

“You know how they treat child killers in the infirmary, Brown? They treat ’em with a vengeance.”

Hastings slammed the window shut and stormed off, returning Jaden to darkness. Goose bumps rose all over her body as she pictured what might be happening to Celie. She shoved the thought from her mind. She considered calling out to Hastings and…

She shoved that thought even harder.

The scent of the food at her feet coaxed a rabid growl from her stomach. Only it wasn’t a plea for sustenance.

It was a warning.

Whatever went in would be guaranteed a round trip ticket.

Temur hadn’t stopped by to check on her since she’d been sent to solitary, and that worried her. He was either avoiding her because it was over between them or because Celie wasn’t doing well. None of the guards who brought her meals would give her the time of day. Hastings taunted her with ominous but vague comments about Celie. It’s not good. She cries out for you. Dickinson offered information in exchange for anal sex. Payment up front, of course.

Not in this or any other lifetime. She’d settle for memories if she had to.

She lay down on the rickety cot, and it swayed and creaked. The cot in her cell was no sleep number bed, but the cots in solitary were as third-world as it got. Her thoughts drifted back to her reunion with Celie. After years of visitation where contact had been frowned upon, where visits ended with brisk hugs and swallowed tears, she found herself face to face with the woman she’d come to recognize as her real mother.

When Jaden had been a young girl, her biological mother had wandered in and out of her life, brought to her knees, literally and figuratively, by a heroin addiction. Celie hadn’t wanted Jaden exposed to that “nastiness,” as she described it, so she’d taken Jaden in and raised her as her own, despite Iris’s objections. Pampered little Iris hated her mother for that, and as Celie’s affection for Jaden grew, Iris’s hatred of Jaden grew with it. Then Celie killed the little slut and ended up in prison, thanks to the testimony of some hotshot detective and a privileged white bitch who wouldn’t last a day in this world. Jaden had been left to find her own way, but she was eighteen then, so she was able to find work. She also found trouble from time to time, despite promises made to Celie to the contrary. Having an incarcerated aunt didn’t “scare her straight” as they’d both hoped. Still, Jaden visited Celie when she could, and wrote when she couldn’t. Five months ago, a trumped up battery charge—the other woman had thrown the first punch—earned her three hots and a cot in North Jersey State. And the kind of reunion they don’t show on the network news.

Celia had led her into an empty broom closet. First there’d been a hug, the kind of hug only someone who loves you can give you. The kind of hug that makes you feel like things will be okay, that flickering of optimism despite the impossible odds or plain facts.

Then came the slap. Celia’s meaty palm had struck Jaden’s cheek with great force, the thud ringing inside her skull and snapping her head to the right. Celia had never struck Jaden before, and Jaden glared at her, stunned and wounded.

“You stupid bitch,” Celia said. “What I tell you? Keep your act together and don’t end up like Aunt Celie.”

Jaden ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek and tasted blood.

“Great to see you, too.”

“Got nothin’ to do with that, and you know it.”

“Wasn’t like I planned this.”

“No, but you sure asked for it. You’ve got a criminal record, girl. When you’re on the outside, you swallow your fool pride and walk away. Ain’t enough I have to watch my back in here. Now I have to watch yours, too.”

“It’s been years since you or anyone else had to watch my back,” Jaden said, an edge to her voice.

Celia softened. “I know. I still regret that and a whole lot more.”

“I still regret not tracking that college bitch down and finishing what you started.”

“And you will continue to regret it for as long as you live. Anything happens to her, you’ll be high on the list of people they want to talk to.”

Jaden shook her head. “Crazy, hearing you defend her.”

“I’m not defending her. I’m defending you.”

Jaden sighed. “Whatever.”

“Let’s head back to my cell. I’ll give you the lay of the land,” Celia said as she started for the door.

“Celie.”

Celia turned to her.

“Don’t ever put your hands on me again.”

Celia’s nostrils flared. She stepped forward until they were eye to eye.

“You’re never too old or too big for me to slap you upside your head when you need it.”

“You might want to rethink that. ’Cause if there’s a next time, it won’t be an easy time.”

“Nothing comes easy in here.”

“Least of all, me.”

Celia had grinned, then turned and headed out.

The steel door opening jarred Jaden from her shallow sleep. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“I can stop back in a few more weeks, Brown,” Dickinson taunted from the open doorway.

“Right with you, boss,” she said, staggering to her feet.

“Let’s make it today, then.”

She wobbled past him into the hallway and squinted against the florescent lightning overhead. She found her gait and headed toward the door for the general population.

“Before you go back to gen pop, you’re having a chat with Warden Michaels.”

Her blood ran cold. This had to be a bad sign. She glanced back to find Dickinson close behind her.

“Celie doin’ okay?”

“The warden will explain everything and answer any questions you may have.”

Jaden tried to take a deep breath, but her lungs and chest were in lock-down mode.

Dickinson proved right about one thing. The warden had an explanation for Celia’s death: respiratory failure brought on by coronary heart disease and complications from a crushed windpipe. The fight hadn’t helped her condition, but it hadn’t caused her untimely demise, either. Just a coincidence. The two weeks Tara, Elise, and Collette would spend in solitary were punishment for their role in the fight, but not for Celia’s death. He asked if Jaden had any questions. She wondered how long it would be before Warden Michaels found himself fitted in blue. She shook her head and replied, “No, sir.”

The time for talk had long since passed.

Jaden waited two long months before confronting Tara. Jaws had wagged along the cellblock for weeks before the gossip withered on the vine. They gave each other a wide berth, but Tara knew better than to believe her business with Jaden had been finished. It was a question of when, not if.

Tara wasn’t the type to live in fear. She’d grown up on the streets of Newark, fighting her own battles whether her nemesis was female or not. If you bled, you bled. If you broke, you went to the hospital. She’d only been once, when a former boyfriend accused her of flirting and slapped her in a fit of rage. They were still fighting when the cops arrived, with Tara giving as much punishment as she was getting. That was one of the few times in her life she’d cried, sitting in the emergency room and recounting the story of a knock-down, drag-out with a man she’d loved while her arms trembled from the adrenaline coursing through her. He wouldn’t even look at her after that, much less come near her, and that hurt her more than any blow he’d landed.

When Jaden came calling, Tara had no qualms about answering the bell. She’d been answering bells back when Jaden was still in diapers. Sure, that meant her prime was behind her, but it also spoke to her guile. She knew she wasn’t quite as fast and as strong as she’d been in her twenties, yet she still retained enough of both to endure for decades. Promising new challengers came and went. Some went harder than others, but they went.

Since Jaden had arrived, Tara had wondered what she had in her. What she could take. She’d seen Jaden in action a couple of times and knew she had skills, but what was her threshold for pain? How much punishment could she withstand and still maintain that ferocity?

Tara thought she might be just the person to pressure test her.

Jaden had her by eight inches and their body weights were about even, but Tara was well accustomed to using her low center of gravity and thick legs to her advantage in these situations. She figured Jaden would keep the fight on the perimeter, taking advantage of her reach to do some damage before drawing close to finish it.

Tara hoped she’d think she could do just that. She was ready, having fought the fight countless times in her mind. She ran through different scenarios with varying degrees of aggressiveness.

She liked how she saw it playing out.

Tara showered alone one Sunday, as she had over a thousand times before. She rinsed the soap from her hair and opened her eyes. Immediately, she sensed something was amiss.

She glanced over her shoulder to find Jaden watching her from the shower perimeter. Jaden glistened with sweat and looked pumped in her tank top, jeans, and sneakers. Tara spied her clothes bunched in Jaden’s left hand.

Tara turned and walked to the center of the shower, then stopped and pivoted to face Jaden. Jaden tossed the clothes toward Tara. They landed at her feet, the boots making a quiet splosh on impact.

Tara shoved them aside with her foot.

“Ready to die, bitch?” Jaden asked.

Tara shifted into a fighting stance, her leg muscles bulging with coiled fury, poised to spring, to retreat, to do whatever the battle called for. She brought her hands up, her arms and shoulders showing muscles forged from chin-ups and pull-ups.

Bring it.

Jaden stepped into the shower and settled well within Tara’s range. So much for the perimeter strategy. This girl wanted Tara’s best.

Tara gave Jaden she everything she had, including a couple of moves she hadn’t seen before.

Seven minutes later, Jaden showered to rinse off the blood and sweat, then left the water running, watching it pool around Tara’s lifeless body, her blood tinting the water as it drifted toward the drain.

Grabbing her bloodstained clothes, Jaden glared at Tara one last time, then spat at her before slipping out in silence.

Once again, Jaden found herself following Hastings, having again been summoned to Warden Michaels’ office. Since the solitary incident, he’d had as little to do with her as possible.

“Wait here,” he barked, then ducked his head in the warden’s office. “Warden, Brown’s here when you’re ready.”

“Thank you. Send her in.”

Hastings ducked back out and gave Jaden a glare. “Move.”

Jaden stepped inside and Hastings shut the door behind her. This was her third time in his office. The first was for a fight shortly after she arrived, and the second was after her release from solitary, when he gave her the “terrible and tragic” news of Celie’s untimely death. The office was a good size, with wood furnishings that looked expensive and gave off a faint scent of molasses. Warden Michaels was a mountain of a man in his fifties with short, silver-blond hair, a radio announcer’s silky-smooth voice and a pleasant face. He offered Jaden a thin smile, circling to the big chair behind his desk and gesturing to the smaller one in front of it.

“Please. Have a seat.”

“Thank you.”

They settled into their chairs. Michaels tipped back in his and propped his elbows on its arms, interlocking his fingers.

“What can you tell me about Tara Mercer’s death that I don’t already know?”

“I doubt I could tell you anything about her death you don’t already know.”

“Try me.”

“I wasn’t surprised to hear about it.”

“Try harder.”

Jaden paused to consider the question.

“Many people hated her, myself included.”

“You must have hated her more than anyone, after your aunt—”

“I wished her dead.”

“And did you fulfill your own wish?”

Jaden took a deep breath.

“They wouldn’t have recognized her if I had.”

Michaels raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“That, I didn’t know.”

Careful here.

“I know how it must look to you, given the history, and I’d be asking the same questions if I were in your position. Celie was…”

Jaden’s eyes glistened with tears.

Michaels nodded and rose from his chair. He circled to the front of his desk and sat on it, looking down at Jaden.

“Tara’s death was ruled inconclusive,” he said, shaking his head. “She’d always been more trouble than she was worth, but in her final moments, the system saw to it that she was no trouble at all. Ask me why.”

She knew she’d hate the answer, but…

“Why?”

“No eyewitnesses or physical evidence tying you or anyone else to the scene. Of course, that doesn’t mean there was no crime committed. You see, my days on the force made me a big believer in motive. And no one within these walls had a stronger motive than you.”

Jaden held still in her chair. The urge to squirm was overwhelming. Word on the block was that Tara looked good in red and had never smelled better. Ding dong, the bitch is dead.

“Wouldn’t that be the perfect time for someone else to kill her, knowing I’d be the primary suspect?”

“I’d considered that, too. So I’m going to leave it to you to make me a believer. Tara’s case is closed and will remain closed, provided the remainder of your sentence is served without incident. Of course, there’s always the possibility that new evidence surfaces or an eyewitness comes forward…”

“I understand, Warden.”

She’d been careful about choosing the place, the time, and the method. The toughest part had been dialing it back, because there was nothing inconclusive about what she would have liked to do to Tara. Still, dead was dead, and keeping her nose clean meant she could be released within a year. Settling scores, new and old. For Celie.

Watching those responsible die at her own hand, saving Amy Dylan for last.