ERIN PALMER PARKED her fifteen-year-old Dodge Intrepid, which continued to be more reliable than it had any right to be, especially given the time it spent in the relentless desert sun, and checked herself in the rearview mirror. Her hair was pulled back into an ugly, severe bun so tightly that it looked as if she had an oversized forehead. She removed a pair of glasses from a case—glasses containing large, strangely shaped lenses set in thick, brown plastic that seemed to clash in every way possible with the contours of her face—slipped them on, and checked her makeup, which added fifteen years to her face and left the impression of wrinkles rather than a silky-smooth, flawless complexion.
She exited the car and adjusted her drab but professional outfit, which had virtually no waist and was cut in a way that made it unclear to anyone seeing her from the neck down if she was a man or a woman, covering every inch of her body more surely than a burka.
She left the car and walked past a sign that was surrounded by cacti and sagebrush, a tiny oasis of landscaping in an otherwise barren and uncared-for desert landscape. The sign read, Arizona State Prison Complex—Tucson.
Another day at her home away from home.
As she approached the entrance, the main yard came into view within the fenced-in perimeter, the coils of razor wire on top of the tall fences looking as lethal and intimidating as ever. Inmates exercised or conversed in small clusters throughout the dry, dusty yard, every last one of them wearing orange: some wearing cotton slacks and an orange T-shirt, some having chosen orange sweats in the chilly morning desert air, but all of the clothing stamped with giant black letters, ADC, which stood for Arizona Department of Corrections.
She submitted to scanning and security procedures with a mechanical detachment and finally walked through two heavy metal doors that slid open before her, triggered by a guard manning a control station. The doors were programmed so that the second door wouldn’t release until the first door was closed behind her, so that for just a moment she was trapped between two impenetrable doors, in what she’d learned was called a sally port. As she cleared the second door, which slid shut behind her with a solid thunk, she waved her thanks to the guard behind her.
To Erin’s right a familiar sign read, Welcome to ASPC, Tucson—Medium Security Prison. Medium was a misnomer if ever there was one. No one was getting out of this facility unless they were let out.
“Alejandro,” said Erin cheerfully to her favorite prison guard, who met her just inside the grounds. “Good morning.”
“Good to see you, Erin,” he said, having long since become completely comfortable using her first name, which she had insisted upon, rather than the Miss Palmer he had used in the early days. He began to escort her to the side yard where she would spend the entire day.
“How was your daughter’s birthday party this weekend?” asked Erin.
“She loved it,” he said with a big smile. “The balloon guy was a big hit. And a lot less expensive than a magician,” he added.
Erin nodded. “Good choice. Those magicians can be hit or miss. And you got the added benefit of the kids getting to keep the balloons when your guy was finished.”
They entered a side yard, whose most distinguishing feature was a massive trailer that was parked dead center—a long rectangular container that had been unhitched from the cab of an eighteen-wheeler. Makeshift wooden stairs led up to its entrance.
Inside the trailer there was carpeting, an office, an all-important air-conditioning unit, and a smooth, white, doughnut-shaped MRI apparatus, with a perpendicular platform emerging from the bottom of the doughnut hole. The platform would slide the heads and upper torsos of patients inside the white torus, which generated a potent magnetic field, so they could be bombarded with radio frequency pulses and have their brains mapped. The trailer may have been mobile, but it now seemed as permanent a fixture in the prison as the fences, and it was an office Erin had occupied for three or four days a week for many years.
When they arrived at the trailer, Erin handed Alejandro a printed list of names. “I’ve got a pretty packed schedule today,” she said.
“When don’t you have a packed schedule?” he replied in amusement.
They chatted warmly for another five minutes and then he left, returning a few minutes later with a man named John, dressed in orange, although not restrained in any way.
“Welcome back, Miss Palmer,” said John affably. “How was your weekend?”
“Good,” she said flatly; noncommittally. She made sure she always acted professionally, but was never friendly. But this wasn’t always easy to do. The man in front of her now was even more charming than most of the men she worked with—and that was saying a lot. He was relaxed and confident. He was of average height but managed to look trim and appealing, even in prison orange. He had striking blue eyes that stood out against jet-black hair, a masculine and very symmetrical face, and no tattoos or piercings to mar his classically handsome features.
“Are you ready for today’s session?” asked Erin, keeping her voice monotone.
“Absolutely,” replied John enthusiastically. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Yes, he was the total package. He was handsome and charming and smooth as silk. He had also, three years earlier, beaten a young couple into a bloody paste with a tire iron. They had been out on a date and had paused during a stroll for an extended kiss, leaning against his car as they did so and inadvertently scratching it.
When it was over, John calmly carried the tire iron he had used to kill them to a nearby field, buried it, and returned to his apartment, where he had showered off to remove the significant amount of blood that had splattered on him, ordered a pepperoni pizza—since he had worked up quite an appetite—and settled in to watch a movie on cable.
Since this had happened at night and there were no witnesses, it was more luck than skill that had enabled the police to finally catch him five months later. When asked if he felt remorse for what he had done, a look of disbelief had come over his face and he had said, “Why should I feel remorse? They got what was coming to them. I had just gotten that car repainted the week before. They didn’t care about me. Why should I care about them?”
Erin forced herself to remember the exact reason John was here every time she met with him. He smiled at her pleasantly. “Let’s do this thing,” he said, straightening his orange shirt.
Erin nodded, keeping her face impassive. Yeah, she thought grimly, this John is a real charmer all right. She took a deep breath, motioned him into the trailer, and then followed.
Alejandro watched them both enter, waited for the door to shut, and then walked purposefully over to his post near the entrance to the trailer.
Copyright © 2013 by Douglas E. Richards