Ronald Varden counted seven men inside the halfway house with the backup lights engaged. He carried a police radio in one hand and a lantern flashlight in the other. The loss of power he could live with, a missing convict he could not. After his stint as a Florida State Trooper, he’d worked as a correctional officer inside the county jail in Sharpes. He understood how temptation could make a man do crazy, unpredictable things. He’d survived his share of confrontations and earned the stitches in his head to prove it. On the scale of evolution, a convicted felon was no more a man behind bars than a wild animal, never to be trusted no matter how reformed or docile he appeared to credulous members of society.
Despite his own tarnished record hammered by unfounded accusations of unnecessary use of force, Varden doled out equal punishment to everyone who broke the rules. And despite the parole board assessments of the apathetic inmates who hid behind their rehabilitation guise, every convict was essentially the same. Unchanged. No better than he was before he entered the prison system.
He trusted no one but himself when it came to managing his own house of ex-convicts, who’d learned over time how to carefully manipulate a broken system for a chance at a new life. A chance they neither valued nor deserved.
The lights flickered, then came back on. A portable radio in the other room played rap music. Then as if on cue, Lloyd Sullivan entered the house dripping wet.
“You’re late, Mr. Sullivan.”
Parolees gathered around Varden to witness the inevitable confrontation.
Lloyd stood grim-faced. He left his wet boots on the outside matt. “I ran out of gas.”
“Curfew started two hours ago.”
“I had to push my bike to get here.”
“The rules of this house are simple, Mr. Sullivan. I expect you to follow them like everyone else.”
Varden quoted the house rules from memory. “Part two, section four, curfew restrictions. If at any time a parolee fails to notify the proper authority, that’s me, of his whereabouts prior to his late arrival for evening head count, said parolee will receive one strike.” He glared at Lloyd. “Is it starting to sink in now?”
“I get it.”
“Keep it up, Mr. Sullivan. I’ll have you back in lockup before the week is finished.” Varden unclipped his PDA from his hip holster and dabbed the pointer at the screen. “You’re making faster progress than I thought.”
Lloyd wiped his face. “What do you mean?”
“You were speeding. That’s a moving violation, Mr. Sullivan. That’s strike two. One more and your time is done here.”
“I wasn’t speeding.”
Varden pointed to Lloyd’s ankle bracelet. “Technology is a beautiful thing. I know where you are and where you’re going before you get there. I know how fast, how long, and how far. I can know where you eat breakfast every morning and how often you take a shit. I can practically read your mind.” He shifted his attention to the other men. “Lights out in five. That goes for everyone.”
* * *
Lloyd pushed his way through the line of convicts hanging on the words of condemnation. He hung up his wet leather jacket behind the door in his room and pulled his shirt over his head. A wall of abdominal muscles melded with his carved pectorals that flexed as he wrung out his soaking wet shirt in a bucket on the floor beneath a ceiling leak.
“Does this always happen?” he asked the dark-skinned bunk-mate resting in the top bunk with a reading light clipped to a textbook on what appeared to be electrical circuit theory.
Marvin Tate looked down at Lloyd. “Only when it rains.” He wore androgynous features with a blue bandanna around his head. He dropped a fist and bumped knuckles with Lloyd. “Name’s Tate. Marvin Tate. The ladies often mistake me for Denzel, but you know… sometimes you gotta play the cards you’re dealt.”
Marvin adjusted the book-mounted reading light. “I saw you the other day when Varden gave you the tour. Stay off his radar or you’ll be bunking with Montgomery in county.”
Lloyd stepped out of his wet jeans and settled on the bottom bunk. “How long have you been in this house?”
“Eighteen days, twelve hours, and forty minutes give or take.” Marvin skimmed the chapter summary. “How long were you in the joint?”
“Too long,” said Lloyd.
Marvin slid his finger to hold his place in the chapter summary. “You don’t look like the head-busting type. I figure you for manslaughter. Some dude groped your girl at a bar. You were drunk, got in a fight. He threw down first. BAM! You hit him back harder than you meant to. Dude croaks. You take the rap. I’ve heard it a hundred times. Am I right?”
“Something like that.”
“I knew it,” said Marvin. “I did four years on a B&E. Believe that? Judge threw the book in my face. I kept my mouth shut and did my time. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a rat.”
“Good to know.”
“Why? You got something to hide?” Marvin stared at him, clearly gauging Lloyd’s reaction. “I’m just messin’ with you.” His grin faded with the heated look on Lloyd’s face.
A door slammed from somewhere inside the house. The television in the other room went silent. Bits of loud conversation faded out of earshot.
“You got family here?” Marvin asked.
“My mother. And a brother.” Lloyd rested the back of his hand against his forehead. Barely forty-eight hours out of prison and he found himself a gnat’s ass away from violating his parole and losing the freedom he embraced. “What about you?”
“I got a sister who lives in Kansas City. My folks live in Jacksonville, Missouri. I grew up there. Went to school. Got mixed up with the wrong woman. That’s when it hit the fan. It always starts with a pretty woman.”
“Amen to that.”
Marvin propped his head on his lumpy pillow. “Life ain’t the same as you remember it when you first get out. You see your reality check bounce when you fill out your first job application. When people discover you did time, they dismiss you like a bad juror. No one wants to be an ex-con. No one sure as hell wants to hire one either. You come out thinking you paid your debt, but once you’re back in the real world again you learn your tab’s never paid. People you knew look at you different, like you grew a third eye in the middle of your forehead. The ones that act like they’re still your friends are lying to your face.”
Marvin’s eyes were red. Lloyd wondered how long he’d been reading, then rolled on his side away from the leaking roof and the constant drip-drip-drip in the plastic bucket. “What’s the deal with Varden?”
“Varden hates everyone who comes through here. Black, white, red, brown—it don’t matter. We’re all the same in his eyes. And he knows things. In a weird way. Like he really can read your mind. I think he spent some time in the pen himself in a former life. God brought him back to work this place and remind him of what he used to be.”
Lloyd touched his ankle monitor and looked up to see Marvin staring down at him from the top bunk.
“Don’t mess with that,” Marvin warned. “It’s got an anti-tamper circuit wired into the clasp. You can trash it with a hacksaw and some serious elbow grease, but Varden will have you back in cuffs faster than you can say ‘oh shit.'”
“Can Varden really track us with this?”
“Like a deer in a rifle scope.”
Marvin opened the chapter summary again. “You play football?”
“I played a little college ball.”
“You must have played linebacker. You got the shoulders for it.”
Lloyd thought about his brother’s offer at the car wash. “Can you spot me some coin?” he asked Marvin straight up.
“You lose your wallet in the rain?”
“I’m good for it.”
Marvin closed the book and reached under his pillow, producing a billfold. He folded a Jackson in half and passed it down to Lloyd. “A white dude asking a brother for a loan? Never thought I’d see the day. Keep this on the down low. I don’t want every motherfucker in here trying to tap me for some paper.”