On the morning of the day he would taste freedom again for the first time in four years, Dexter Bates lay on his bunk in the dimly lit cell, fingers interlaced behind his head, waiting for the arrival of the guards.
He did not tap his feet, hum a song, or count the cracks in the shadowed cement ceiling to pass the time. He was so still and silent that save for the rhythmic rising and falling of his chest, he might have been dead.
Incarceration taught a man many lessons, and chief among them was patience. You either learned how to befriend time, or the rambling passage of monotonous days eventually broke your spirit.
He had long ago vowed that he would not be broken. That he would use time to his advantage. The day ahead promised to reveal the value of his patient efforts.
Resting peacefully, he thought, as ever, about her. About her supple body, and how easily he bent it to his will. Her soft skin, and how it bruised beneath his fists. Her throaty voice, and how he urged it toward raw screams of terror....
Pleasant thoughts to dribble away the last grains of time he had left in this hellhole.
Soon, the metal cell door clanged open. Two correctional officers as tall and wide a NFL linemen entered the cell.
“Let’s go, Bates,” Steele said, the lead guard. Sandy-haired, with a severe crew cut, he had a wide, boyish face that always appeared sunburned. He had a green parka with a fur-lined hood draped over his arm. “Hurry up or you’ll miss your last ride outta here.”
Dexter rose off the narrow cot. He was nude --- he had stripped out of the prison jumpsuit before their arrival. He spread his long, muscular arms and legs.
“All right, open that big-assed cum-catcher of yours,” Jackson said. He was a stern-faced black man with a jagged scar on his chin that he tried to hide with a goatee. He clicked on a pen-sized flashlight.
Dexter opened wide. Jackson panned the flashlight beam inside his mouth, and checked his nostrils and ears, too.
“Now bend over,” Jackson said.
“But we hardly know each other,” Dexter said.
“Don’t test me this morning. I ain’t in the mood for your bullshit.”
Dexter turned around and bent over from the waist. Jackson shone the light up his rectum.
“He’s clear,” Jackson said.
“How about one last blow for the road, Jacky?” Dexter grabbed his length and swung it toward Jackson. “You know I’m gonna miss that sweet tongue action you got.”
“Fuck you,” Jackson said.
During Dexter’s first month in the joint, Jackson had tried to bully him. Word of Dexter’s background had spread quickly, and there were a number of guards and inmates who wanted a crack at him. A shot at glory.
Dexter had repeatedly slammed Jackson’s face against a cinderblock wall, fracturing his jaw and scarring his chin. Although assaulting a guard would normally have resulted in a stint in the hole and additional time tacked onto his ten-year sentence, Jackson had never reported the incident. He had his pride.
Jackson searched Dexter’s jumpsuit and boots for weapons, found nothing, and then Dexter dressed, shrugging on the parka that Steele gave him. Jackson cuffed his hands in front of him and attached the ankle restraints.
The guards marched him down the cell block. None of the inmates taunted Dexter, as was typical when an inmate departed. There were a few softly uttered words of support --- “Peace, brother,” “Take care of yourself, man” --- but mostly, a widespread silence that approached reverence.
“These guys are really gonna miss you, Bates,” Steele said.
“They can always write me,” Dexter said.
They took him to inmate processing, where the final transfer paperwork was completed. He was being sent to Centralia Correctional Center, another medium security prison, to serve out the balance of his sentence. He had put in for the transfer purportedly to take advantage of the inmate work programs offered at that facility, and it had taken almost two years for the approval to come through.
The administrator, a frizzy haired lady with a wart on her nose, expressed surprise that Dexter was not taking any personal items with him. Most transferring inmates left with boxes of belongings in tow, as if they were kids going away to summer camp. Dexter assured Wart Nose that he would get everything he needed once he was settled in his new home.
Paperwork complete, they walked Dexter outside to the boarding area, where an idling white van was parked, exhaust fumes billowing from the pipe. “Illinois Department of Corrections” was painted on the side in large black letters. Steel bars protected the frosted windows.
It was a cold, overcast December morning, a fresh layer of snow covering the flat countryside. An icy gust shrieked across the parking lot and sliced at Dexter’s face.
He wondered about the weather in Chicago, and felt a warm tingle in his chest.
Steele slid open the van’s side door, and Dexter climbed in, air pluming from his lips. Two beefy correctional officers from Centralia waited inside, both sitting in the front seat. A wire mesh screen separated the front from the rear bench rows.
“Sit your ass down so we can get moving,” the guard in the passenger seat said. “It’s cold as fuck out here.”
Steele lifted the heavy chain off the vehicle’s floor and clamped it to Dexter’s ankle restraints. He nodded at Dexter, his blue-eyed gaze communicating a subtle message, and then he slammed the door.
As in police vehicles, there were no interior door handles. Packed inside and bolted in place, a prisoner bound for another concrete home could only sit still and enjoy the ride.
“Headed to our home in Centralia, eh?” the driver asked. He glanced in the rearview mirror at Dexter. “Just so you know brother man, whoever you were outside won’t mean shit there, got it? You’ll be everyone’s bitch, especially ours.”
“Spoken like a man who’s always wanted to be a cop,” Dexter said. “Did you fail the exam? Or wash out of the academy?”
“What a piece of work,” the passenger guard said, shaking his head. “You must want deluxe ’commodations in the hole soon as you get there.”
At the manned booth, a guard waved the van through the tall prison gates. Dexter looked out the window. The snowy plains surrounded them, so vast and featureless they nearly blended into the overcast horizon.
By design, many state correctional centers had been erected in barren wastelands, to make it almost impossible for an escaping inmate to progress far before recapture. Dexter had heard rumors of inmates who managed to get away being tracked down within three miles of the joint, upon which they were brought back, weeping like babies, to an increased sentence and a long stay in solitary.
The two-lane road was crusted with dirty slush and riddled with potholes. It wound through nothingness for close to five miles before it fed into a major artery, which eventually intersected the highway.
At that time of morning, there was no traffic, and there wouldn’t be much at all, anyway. The road dead ended at the prison, a place most normal people preferred to avoid.
The guards switched on the radio to a country-western station. The singer crooned about seeing his lady again after being away for so long.
Dexter wasn’t a fan of country western, but he could dig the song’s message.
“What time is it?” Dexter asked.
“You got somewhere to be, asshole?” the driver said.
“I want to make sure we’re on time. I’ve got a hot date with my new warden.”
“Whatever. It’s a quarter after nine, numb nuts.”
Nodding to the music, Dexter dug his bound hands into the right front pocket of the parka.
A key was secreted inside, courtesy of his good man Steele. Correctional officers were even more receptive to bribes than cops, and that was saying something.
“I’m really feeling this song,” Dexter said. “Turn it up, will you, man?”
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said yet,” the passenger guard said, and cranked up the volume.
Dexter used the key to disengage the handcuffs, the loud music drowning out the tinkle of the chains. Leaning forward slightly, he stretched his long arm downward and unlocked the ankle restraints, too.
Then he sat back in the seat, and waited.
What’s Done in the Dark...
The night that changed Joshua Moore’s life began, ironically, with a party.
On Sunday, December 16, Joshua and his wife, Rachel, hosted a holiday get-together at their home in south metro Atlanta. Over twenty people, a lively blend of family and friends, crowded into the four-bedroom house. It was their first time holding an event at their home since they had moved in five months ago, and Joshua’s head was spinning from all the activity.
People gathered in the family room, dining room, kitchen, living room, and hallway, eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. The dining room had been turned into a buffet, featuring a full spread of appetizers, desserts, and beverages such as crab cakes, hot wings, egg rolls, meatballs, pasta salad, peel-and-eat shrimp, cheeses, cookies, cakes, fruit punch, soda, wine, and a glass bowl brimming with rum-spiced eggnog. Holiday music played over the in-house stereo system, loud enough to enliven the mood but low enough to encourage conversation.
“You look dazed,” Eddie Barnes said. Standing in the living room beside a seven-foot high Christmas tree that dwarfed his slight frame, Eddie nursed a glass of eggnog. “Take a load off and chill for a sec.”
“Good idea.” Careful not to spill his soda, Joshua sat on one of the new microfiber sofas they had purchased upon moving in. He stretched his legs in front of him --- which, at his height of six feet five, was a considerable length. “I can’t remember the last time I threw a party.”
“I do,” Eddie said. “Sixteenth birthday. In your parents’ basement. I was the deejay, remember? Mixmaster E?”
“Man, that was a long time ago. Sixteen years?”
Eddie bobbed his clean-shaven head. “We’re getting old, dawg. Married with kids and shit.”
“Speak for yourself. I don’t have any kids.”
“They’re on the way. See how much Rachel’s been talking to Ariel? She’s getting child-rearing tips, trust me. Look at ’em.” Eddie motioned with his glass.
Joshua looked over his shoulder. Dressed in a red sweater, green slacks, and a cute Santa cap, Rachel was in the hallway speaking to Ariel, Eddie’s wife. Ariel bounced their three-year-old son on her hip with practiced ease, while their six-year-old daughter pranced around them. Tanisha May, Rachel’s business partner, was also part of the group. The two as-yet childless women resembled chicks taking lessons from a mother hen.
Joshua shrugged. “We’re in no rush to have kids. We only got married six months ago. We’re planning to just enjoy being married, do some traveling, you know.”
“What’s that saying? Man plans --- God laughs. You never know what life’ll hit you with. Be ready.”
“You must’ve tipped some extra rum into that glass. You’re talking crazy.”
“I joke, but fatherhood is cool, Josh.” Eddie gazed at his young children with a proud smile. “Makes you grow up real quick. Can you honestly say, right now, that you would die for someone else?”
Joshua looked at Rachel again. As sometimes happened when he regarded her, his heart kicked, an almost painfully poignant feeling.
“I’d die for my wife,” he said.
“Most definitely. Now take that same feeling that you’d sacrifice it all for her, and multiply it by ten --- that’s how you’ll feel when you have children.”
“I hear you. Hey, be back in a minute --- I’m gonna grab another crab cake before they’re all gone.”
Joshua started to rise off the couch --- and spilled his soda. Cola splashed onto the beige carpet. He swore under his breath and looked around for a napkin.
“I’ll take care of that,” Rachel said, suddenly beside him with a delicate hand on his arm.
“Sorry. You know how clumsy I can be.”
“Don’t say that, baby.” She took a wadded napkin and pressed it against the darkening damp spot on the carpet. “Can you get some more ice out of the garage, please? Tanisha wants to make some strawberry daiquiris.”
Joshua glanced at Eddie, who had followed their interaction with amusement, and headed to the garage to fetch a bag of ice from the freezer. Eddie, he knew, could remember a time when his spilling a drink at a party would have provoked a hurtful remark from whoever happened to be his girlfriend at the moment. He had been dating since he was a teenager, but Rachel was the first woman who truly loved him for who he was, clumsiness and all.
Sometimes, he honestly wondered how she had fallen in love with him in the first place. He was no one special. He wasn’t rich --- he was a freelance graphic designer, and earned a reasonable but unremarkable income. He wasn’t particularly handsome --- though he was tall and husky, he wore thick glasses to correct a bad case of astigmatism, which back in the day his classmates had teasingly called “Coke bottles.” And he sure as hell wasn’t suave --- no man with a knack for knocking over drinks, bumping into people, or dropping dishes could be considered smooth by any stretch of the imagination.
Further mystifying him was the fact that she, by comparison, was perfect. Sweet-hearted. Intelligent. Successful in her chosen profession as a hair salon owner and stylist. Supportive of his goals, and pursuing goals of her own. And not to overlook, she was absolutely fine --- five feet six, with big pretty brown eyes, smooth skin the color of honey, and a body that would have roused the pulse of a dead man. Although he had often dreamed of finding a woman like Rachel, it had seemed one of those farfetched fantasies, like one might have of hitting the lottery some day.
But somehow, he had found her --- and when he had told Eddie that he would die for her, he meant it.
Around nine, the last guest departed, and blessed calm took over the house. Joshua collapsed on the love seat in the family room, legs too tired to stand any more.
A minute later, Rachel entered from the kitchen. She eased onto his lap, languidly stretched her arms above her head, and released a deep sigh.
“Finally, we can relax,” she said.
Coco, the three-year-old Chihuahua that Rachel had brought to their relationship, scampered across the room and leaped onto Joshua’s lap, too. Restless from being caged upstairs during the party, the dog whined and tried to kiss Joshua on the mouth, and he gently nudged her away.
“Daddy doesn’t want to give you smooches now, sweetie,” Rachel said. She plucked Coco off his chest and tucked the dog against her breast like a purse. “Daddy’s saving his kisses for Mommy.”
Tail wagging, the dog looked at Joshua longingly.
“I think she needs a boyfriend,” he said. “Anyway, what do you think about the party? I thought it was a hit.”
“Me, too. It was a lot of work, but everyone seemed to have a good time.”
He studied her face. Although she had channeled her energies into hosting the party, he’d had the nagging sense that she was distracted by something. A couple of times during the event, he’d noticed her off to herself, not speaking to anyone, her gaze clouded, as if she were deeply immersed in thought.
Now, however, her eyes only looked tired.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked.
“Just wrung out.”
“Too bad tomorrow’s Monday. I’d love to sleep in.”
“Oh, you’re funny. You can sleep in, Mr. I Work from Home. I have to get up at the ass crack of dawn and open a salon.”
“I meant I’d love to sleep in together.” He touched her leg.
“Oh?” Mischief sparkled in her eyes.
“I’d like one of those long, lazy mornings. Hugging, cuddling.”
“Hugging, cuddling, and other bedroom activities.”
“Something like that.”
“I can tell Tanisha I’ll be in late and have someone cover my appointments.” She set Coco on the floor. Then she placed her hand on his groin, and slowly began to massage.
“But why wait until tomorrow morning to get started?” she asked.
“You’re not too tired?”
“Are you?” She squeezed him.
“Let’s go upstairs.”
She began to pull her sweater over her head.
Although he thought he had a healthy sex drive, she was often insatiable. He knew she had been with men before him --- though he didn’t know how many and didn’t care to ask --- but he often got the sense that with him, she felt free to express herself in ways that she never had before. As if with him, she was free for the first time in her life.
Weird, but that was the impression he had.
At some point, they made their way upstairs to the master bedroom. Exhausted, they fell asleep, lying against each other like spoons in a drawer.
Later that night, he awoke to Rachel screaming.
Snatched to alertness by her cries, Joshua bolted upright in bed. He’d never heard Rachel scream like that, and he was half-convinced that he was dreaming. He quickly realized that he wasn’t --- his heart was knocking too hard.
He grabbed his glasses from the nightstand, fumbled them on.
The dark bedroom came into sharp focus. They were alone. Rachel was having a bad dream.
Bed covers pulled up to her chin, face concealed in darkness, Rachel whipped her head back and forth, bed springs creaking as she screeched at her dream assailant.
He’d never seen Rachel suffer a nightmare; she normally slept as soundly as the dead. But she was in such a state of turmoil that he was afraid to touch her, worried that any physical contact might drive her into an uncontrollable frenzy.
Maybe he was dreaming.
Rachel shrieked again. “You bastard!”
He flinched at the fury in her voice. Who was she fighting? She rarely swore like that, and he’d never heard her address anyone with such rage and terror.
But it had to be a man. A woman would call only a man a bastard.
Although part of him wanted to wake her and put an end to her torment, another part of him was curious, and out of that curiosity, didn’t want to intervene. He wanted to wait and see if she would say something else that would clue him in on her relationship with this guy who, whoever he was, frightened her terribly.
She’d never mentioned a prior relationship with an abusive man. Actually, she never said much at all about her previous relationships. “What’s in the past is over and done with,” she would say with a shrug. “All that matters is that today, we’re together.” And with that, she would change the subject.
He never pushed her for more details. Was the past really that important? He hated talking about old flames, too, because it was embarrassing to remember how women had used to treat him like a human doormat.
Rachel flung away the covers. She flailed her arms and kicked, as though trying to keep someone from climbing on top of her.
“Get off me, damn it!”
Beside the bed, Coco let loose a high-pitched bark. At night, the dog slumbered in a pet kennel atop the nightstand on Rachel’s side of the bed. Like most Chihuahuas, Coco was protective of the person she regarded as her master. She scratched at the bars of her cage, big eyes flashing in the darkness, four pounds of righteous fury.
The little dog shamed him into action. He clicked on the bedside lamp.
Rachel’s face was contorted with her efforts to fight off her attacker, her dark, curly hair disheveled, hands clenched as she shoved at an invisible body.
He touched her shoulder. Her skin was clammy, but she didn’t respond to him.
“Rachel, wake up.” He shook her gently. “It’s only a dream.”
But she was oblivious to him. She gagged, as if being choked, and her hands went to her neck, trying to pry away an imaginary stranglehold.
A cold finger tapped his spine. This had gone far enough.
Choking, Rachel kicked wildly, hands grasping at her neck. A thick vein pulsed in stark relief on her throat.
Coco was barking as if she were one of the hounds of hell.
He grabbed Rachel’s wrists and pulled them away from her neck. It wasn’t easy --- she had the desperate strength of someone fighting for her life.
“Rachel, wake up.”
“Get off!” Spittle sprayed his face. She thrashed like an angry snake.
He pressed her hands down to her sides. He braced his knee across her legs, to keep her from kicking him.
“Rachel, listen to me! It’s only a dream. Wake up!”
She turned to his voice, and finally, her eyes opened.
She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, a light shade of brown flecked with gold that reminded him of autumn days, but at that moment, her eyes glistened with fear and confusion.
“It’s me, Josh. Everything’s okay. You were having a bad dream.”
She blinked, comprehension sinking into her face. She stopped her struggle, and sucked in sharp breaths. Perspiration shone on her brow.
“Only a bad dream,” he said.
“A dream?” Her voice, normally musical and confident, was as soft as a frightened child’s.
“Only a dream.”
A sob burst out of her. She came into his arms. “Hold me.”
He held her and whispered words of comfort. She squeezed against him, fingernails dug into his back.
Soon, her sobs subsided. Her breaths grew deeper, and within a few minutes, she had drifted back to sleep. Coco, too, settled down to slumber again.
He laid Rachel on the bed, pulled the covers up to her chin. Although she had fallen back to sleep, sleep eluded him.
In the year that they had known each other, he thought he’d come to know Rachel well --- certainly, well enough to want to spend the rest of his life with her. He knew all the basics, of course: she was thirty years old, two years younger than him, had never been married or had children, drank alcohol socially but didn’t smoke, had grown up in Illinois the only child of parents who’d died when she was only five and been raised by her aunt, and had built a lucrative career as a hair stylist. She loved Mexican food, white wine, novels by Alice Walker, museums, comedy films, vacations to the beach, and dogs.
But mysteries remained. He’d never met any of her family, or any of her friends that she’d known before she moved to Atlanta. At their wedding, the guest list was composed mostly of his own friends and family, the only people on her side being coworkers and friends from her hair salon.
By way of explanation, she said that her family was small, scattered across the country, and didn’t keep in touch, and that she’d never been the kind of woman who’d had a large roster of friends. She was a loner, she said, a symptom of growing up an only child.
He had accepted her explanations about her past. There was no reason for her to lie. He loved her, she loved him, and he took what she told him at face value.
But as he gazed at her closed eyes, a question hung over him like sour smoke.
Who had she been fighting in her dream?
Excerpted from DON’T EVER TELL © Copyright 2012 by Brandon Massey. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.
Don't Ever Tell
- Genres: Thriller
- Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Pinnacle
- ISBN-10: 078601993X
- ISBN-13: 9780786019939