The prison walls were closing in on me. Six fucking years behind bars were enough to make a man go batshit crazy. What was more maddening was the fact that I was innocent. I swore if I found out who’d set me up, I would slice and dice the fucker.
A chair scraped along the floor in the library. A big-ass-dude carried a book to a shelf while a guard stood watch at the door. It wasn’t as if any of us would break out of the library and use books as weapons. Then again, inmates hid shivs in books.
Rubbing my eyes, I flopped my head back, taking in the smell of old and worn books. For the last hour, I’d been trying to prepare a speech for my parole hearing. On the advice of my lawyer, I should be ready to paint a pretty picture of what my future looked like if they granted me parole. Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t working.
Just tell them how you reformed. College classes. A model prisoner.
I pulled on my shoulder-length blond hair as I righted my head and squinted at the blank notepad. I’d torn up about ten sheets of paper after starting and stopping several times.
I snagged the pen and tried to say what I felt.
Dear Parole Board, I’m angry as fuck for spending six years in this hellhole for a murder I DID NOT commit.
Maybe if I emphasized some words, they would get the message.
I crossed out my first sentence and tried again.
Dear Parole Board, how can I reform for a crime I didn’t commit?
I could hear them answering with, “Mr. Hart, the jury found you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I blamed the moronic court-appointed attorney who’d tried my case. He hadn’t gone to bat for me. He’d given up before I’d even sat down in court.
“Your best bet is to plead guilty,” he’d said. “Save the taxpayers’ money.”
I would’ve hired my own lawyer if I had the money.
Many times in the last six years, I’d dreamed of strangling him. I’d argued with the fucker until I’d been blue in the face.
“Do you think I’m stupid enough to leave the murder weapon at a crime scene? And in my backpack no less!” I’d shouted at the man.
I’d forgotten my backpack on the night in question when I’d left Hector Alvarez’s apartment. More importantly, Hector had been alive and kicking when I left.
Regardless, murder wasn’t my MO. Never in a million years would I shoot a person unless it was in self-defense, and Hector hadn’t given me any reason to defend myself. He and I had gotten along great except when I was late turning in the loot after a night of drug sales. I had been late that night, which was what I’d explained in my statement to the cops.
Hector had yelled, but I’d taken my licks, and we’d moved on. No need to kill him for reprimanding me. Besides, Hector hadn’t been a hothead like his younger brother, Tito. That fucker wouldn’t think twice about shooting me if I pissed him off or he didn’t get his way.
I tapped my pen on the pad, my nerves singing as I tried for the millionth time to figure out who had put the Glock used to kill Alvarez in my backpack—the same gun I’d seen sitting on the coffee table in front of Hector.
I growled low as a big-ass dude strutted by, snarling at me as though he wanted to snap my neck.
I ground my back teeth together. “What’s your problem?” I’d never seen him around before, and I knew just about everyone in most cellblocks.
He backtracked then slapped his fat hands down on the table across from me, causing the stack of books next to me to bounce. “You.”
I debated if I wanted to mitigate my frustration by knocking his crooked yellow teeth from his mouth, break his large nose, or squeeze his bulging eyes out of his pointed head.
I shucked the idea. The hole was the last place I wanted to go, and one fight could put my good behavior in jeopardy, which meant I might not get parole.
But my mouth impeded my brain. “Feeling’s mutual.”
He flared his nostrils.
I clenched my fists. I would like to believe I had the patience to walk away, but my brother Dillon was the only Hart brother who won that award with flying colors.
The big-ass dude growled. “I could plan for you and me to tango later.”
I snorted. “I don’t swing that way.” I knew he was referring to a fistfight, but I couldn’t help myself, although maybe he was one who liked men.
The guy leaned over the table, pressing his big gut on the top as his garlic breath burned the hairs inside my nose.
“If you’re trying to pick me up, then you need some mouthwash.”
His dark eyes narrowed to slits.
Stew, the guard, cleared his throat. He was what the inmates called a good egg. If we needed something or wanted to hide something, Stew was our man. “Costa, back off.” Stew was also the guard we didn’t want to cross. The man was built like a sumo wrestler.
Costa cocked his head. “We’re talking.”
Stew’s uniform pants rubbed together as he came over. “Costa, back the fuck up.”
Costa straightened, gnashing his teeth. “Watch your back, Hart.”
If he thought he frightened me, he was mistaken. I was afraid of few things in my life, but the one thing that freaked me the fuck out was tiny, dark spaces. I’d learned that quickly when I’d been thrown into the hole, where light was a luxury and rats were my cellmates.
I pushed to my feet, curious as to how Costa knew my name. “Do we know each other?” I angled my head one way then the other. I didn’t remember seeing him around, not even in the chow hall.
Stew stood next to Costa, ready to intervene if a fight broke out. “Go, Costa. Farley will take you back.” He pointed to another broad-chested guard standing outside the library.
Smirking as though he knew a secret, Costa left without a backward glance.
“How did he know my name?” I asked Stew.
Stew shrugged. “He’s new. He just came in yesterday.”
“What cellblock?” I had a feeling Costa would be trouble.
Stew’s radio crackled. “Hart has guests. Get his ass down to the visitors’ center.”
“Copy that,” Stew said into his radio. “All right, Denim. It seems people love you after all.”
I laughed. “I doubt that.” The only person to visit me in the time I’d been locked up had been Dillon and his lawyer friend, Kelton Maxwell, who was now my lawyer.
My other family members didn’t give a shit about me, and my girlfriend… well, I’d ditched her a long time ago. She didn’t deserve to live in my world. She didn’t deserve to look over her shoulder whenever she went out alone. And she certainly didn’t deserve an asshole like me who sold drugs, carried a gun, and fought whenever the need arose.
Still, I wasn’t about to have a pity party. That wasn’t me. Besides, my family was as dysfunctional as they came. My mom had taken off when I was eight. My old man was a drunk. My baby sister had disappeared for years thanks to the Black Knights, a gang into sex trafficking. And my older brother, Duke, was being a dick.
I had no idea why he hadn’t taken the time to visit me. I wasn’t about to analyze the whys and why-nots. Maybe by some miracle or wake-up call, Duke had decided he wanted to see his baby brother, or maybe Dillon had lit a match under Duke’s ass. But my guess was probably Dillon. He made a point to visit me every couple of months.
Locks and doors clicked open as we navigated the prison halls until Stew ushered me into the visitors’ room a few minutes later. Cameras hung from the four corners. Walls that had once been white were now dull, almost yellowish. And empty tables were scattered around except for one.
Two men rose when I entered. Both were dressed in dark suits, white shirts, and black ties. One was shorter than the other. Both had government badges hanging around their necks.
Ugh, great! I had hoped that maybe Stew was right, and my guests were people who loved me. But then again, with the exception of Dillon, no one in my life loved me.
The shorter one with red hair stuck out his hand. “Denim Hart, I’m Special Agent Brock. This is my partner, Special Agent Travers.”
I looked at Stew for answers, even though I knew he didn’t have a clue why the FBI was here to see me. Maybe they’d found the real killer, and I was innocent and free to leave prison.
Hope bloomed quickly, like a spring day filled with the tulips, but I shut it down. I couldn’t go down that path again. I’d gotten excited two years ago when Kelton Maxwell found evidence tampering in my case. As it turned out, though, the loophole was an administrative error that didn’t make a dent in getting my case thrown out.
The news that day had hit me like a train barreling down the tracks at two hundred miles an hour, ramming me right in the gut. I’d feared I would die in prison. I’d come so fucking close a time or two. But after being thrown in the hole one too many times for fighting, I’d made it my mission to be the model prisoner. So far, I’d succeeded, and I prayed the parole board would agree.
Travers folded his lanky body into one of three metal chairs. “We would like your help.”
The only way I could help the FBI was to be a narc, and no fucking way was that happening. If I spilled the beans about anyone in prison, I was a dead man. I knew a handful of secrets from inmates who had befriended me, but what went on inside the joint stayed inside. That was an unspoken rule, and those who’d defied it were buried six feet under.
I shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t help you.” I started for the door.
“Just hear us out.” Travers’s low baritone sent a chill down my spine. The agent’s voice brought back memories I’d buried a long time ago—memories of my sperm donor who would rather suck on a bottle of booze than care for his children.
Stew raised an eyebrow as if asking, “What’s the harm?”
He knew what the fucking harm would be. Costa instantly came to mind. I wasn’t afraid of him, but a gang of inmates could do some damage.
“We want to make you an offer.” Brock’s voice was deep and scratchy, a chilling reminder of my bastard of an old man. “Can you give us the room?” he asked Stew.
Stew hesitated. As a guard, he had to ensure inmates didn’t get out of hand. I wasn’t one of the violent ones. Sure, I could talk with my fists, but he knew that as close as I was to becoming a free man, I wouldn’t screw up my chances.
I gave Stew a slight nod only because I was curious about their offer.
When the three of us were alone, Travers waved to the empty chair across from him. “Sit.”
I narrowed my eyes at the fucker. Maybe he was a good egg, but his voice and piercing green gaze made my skin crawl.
His partner stood with his arms folded over his chest, watching me.
One side of my mouth turned up.
“What’s so funny?” Travers asked.
I waggled my finger between the two. “Are you about to play good cop, bad cop?”
“Sit down.” Brock’s tone permitted no argument.
I was fucking tired of the government telling me when to eat, sleep, shit, and sit. Since I didn’t report to these two fuckers, I stood my ground. Then I realized they could affect my parole. Well, fuck.
I dropped into the chair. “Talk.”
Brock’s lips curled as though he’d won a medal. “We understand you’re up for parole, and your stellar behavior for the last three years gives you a great chance of getting out.”
Agent Travers cut in. “If you do, we would like you to help us infiltrate a large criminal organization in Boston.”
“Why me?” My first thought was that they wanted me to involve myself with Alvarez and his drug business. After all, I’d worked for the man and knew the drug trade backward and forward.
Brock unbuttoned his suit jacket as he sat beside Travers. “You can get on the inside of your brother’s business.”
My eyebrows snapped together. “Duke? Oh, fuck and hell no.” No matter how pissed I was at Duke, no amount of bribes or false promises would get me to snitch on my brother.
“Your brother Duke has built a massive empire,” Brock said.
I shrugged. “Not my problem. Not my business.”
Travers elaborated. “The guns he’s selling are falling into the hands of gangs all over the city. Boston PD answers five or more calls a night for drive-by shootings. It’s getting way out of control.”
The laugh that was blaring in my head escaped and echoed throughout the room. “And you think I can stop my brother?” I’d never talked to Duke about his business, even before I was incarcerated. We had a rule—he stayed out of my way, and I stayed out of his.
Leaning in slightly, Travers clasped his hands together. “We can get your record expunged provided you get out on parole. You’ll be free to live like a normal person without a record.”
I straightened. My stomach did one of those butterfly flutters I’d gotten every time I had laid eyes on the most beautiful girl in high school. The same girl who still tortured me in my dreams. The one I would give anything to see.
“If I don’t get out on parole?” As pissed as I was at my brother, I wouldn’t give up Duke. Him not visiting me in prison was no reason for me to help put him behind bars, although I was curious to learn how desperate the FBI was.
“You’ll get out.” Brock bobbed his head, seeming quite sure of himself.
Maybe he knew something I didn’t, or maybe these two were so desperate, they would say anything to convince me to help them. “You’re certain I’ll get parole?”
Travers relaxed back in his chair. He was also giving off a confident vibe. “The early release program is hardly questioned at a parole hearing, provided you don’t fuck up between now and then.”
I rose. “Find someone else to do your dirty work.” I would clear my own name.
It would be a monumental task to find the person who’d set me up. The only witness, Hector’s neighbor, had told police she’d seen a person wearing a hoodie leaving the building right after she’d heard the gunshot. I hadn’t been wearing a hoodie that night. But the crux of my problem was that the neighbor had disappeared before my trial began.
What if you can’t find the neighbor? Even if you do, what then? Most people turned a blind eye, not wanting to put themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. That was probably why the neighbor had skipped town in the first place.
Kelton thought she’d been spooked or bribed. Or maybe whoever killed Hector had murdered her too.
Travers studied me. “We’re offering you an excellent opportunity. Having a murder charge under your belt will make it hard for you to get a job. You’ll need money to live.”
Six years in the joint had given me a wake-up call. I longed to clear my name, find a decent job, and maybe start a family. But blood was blood no matter what.
“Sorry, gents. I’ll pass.”
I was halfway to the door when Brock asked, “What if we told you we believe Duke might’ve had a hand in Alvarez’s murder?”
I went ramrod straight as the blood running through my veins gelled.