Peyton Adams eyed the three men who’d driven to the public library with her from the prison, as well as the two they’d secretly come to meet. She knew what she had to say wouldn’t be popular, especially with the warden, who was growing desperate enough to try anything, but she felt duty-bound to express her opinion. “I say no. It’s too risky. Maybe if we put him in the SHU we could protect him, but not in general population. No way.”
Simeon Bennett, the person whose life she was attempting to save, sat across the conference table from her and hardly seemed grateful. “You disagree?” she said when his gaze shifted to her and his ice-blue eyes narrowed.
“I’m confident I can complete the assignment or I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he said.
An employee of Department 6, a company she’d never heard of before but which had just been described as a private security contractor based out of L.A. specializing in domestic investigations, he looked as tough as any inmate she’d seen in the sixteen years she’d been working corrections. Somewhere in the neighborhood of six foot four inches tall and 225 pounds, he could’ve been hewn out of stone. With biceps and pecs that bulged beneath his carefully ironed dress shirt, and his blonde hair shaved in a precise military haircut, he had an intimidating appearance. But it would take a lot more than muscle and a malevolent stare to survive inside Pelican Bay if he happened to spook the wrong inmate.
“I don’t think you understand what it’s like in prison.” She motioned at the door, which they’d just closed, to signify the place where she worked, even though it was eight miles northeast of the library.
It was plain he wanted to contest what she said but, for whatever reason, he quickly leashed the impulse. Maybe he was saving up for the final salvo. Rick Wallace, an Associate Director at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the man who’d brought him, took up the argument instead.
“I know what we’re proposing is unprecedented, but the problems at Pelican Bay are reaching critical proportions. Something’s got to be done. The director is determined to uncover and prosecute whoever is responsible for murdering Judge Garcia.” Forever conscious of his appearance, he straightened his expensive yet conservative tie. “Secretary Hinckley and the governor are both behind him on this. What with various newspapers around the state taking up the old cry that Pelican Bay is a headquarters for gang violence, we’ve got to act and act decisively.” A heavy-looking gold ring flashed as he motioned to Simeon. “Mr. Bennett understands the risks involved. Although on the private side, he’s been working in the criminal justice world for the past decade or so. I say we give him a shot.”
The tranquility of the library outside the community room mocked Peyton’s agitation as she stood. “It’s great that he has some experience at—where did you say?—this Department 6, but I’m sure nothing he’s done in the past could prepare him for this. And besides, you think he can handle the job alone?”
Simeon rocked back and gazed up at her with enough cool reserve to make her believe he was already an inmate, but maintained his silence.
“He won’t be alone,” Wallace said. “He’ll have your full support, right?”
“You mean what little I can give him from the administration building, right? Once he’s been knifed I can certainly see that he gets medical care, but—”
Wallace snapped open the slim leather briefcase he’d carried in with him. “Are you telling me you can’t keep the inmates in your prison safe, Chief Deputy Warden?”
“Prisons are built to keep those on the outside safe, and that’s where I suggest Mr. Bennett stays,” she replied. “If he’s dropped into our population and asks too many of the wrong questions, he won’t live through the first week. And even if he does—”
“Your objection has been noted, Peyton.” Finally deigning to speak, Warden Fischer cut her off and indicated that she should return to her seat. He’d been at the helm of California’s most notorious supermax for only three years but, at sixty-one, he’d been in corrections twice as long as she had, had worked at Corcoran and San Quentin before Pelican Bay, was a personal friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor who’d appointed him, and ruled his prison with an iron fist. A tried-and-true product of the get-tough-on-crime sentiment that’d swept across the nation in the ’70’s and ’80’s—the precursor to prisons like Pelican Bay—Fischer wasn’t well-liked by the staff or the inmates. Stocky, with a barrel chest, bowed legs and a scratchy voice, he reminded her of a grizzly miner. But Peyton did her best to ignore his rough edges. As far as she was concerned, he confused punishment with rehabilitation. She was merely biding her time until he retired. As second in command, she hoped to take his place, at which point she planned to guide the prison in a much more enlightened direction.
“Rosenburg, what do you think?” The warden turned to the much younger man on his left.
Head of the prison’s four-member police force, Investigative Officer Frank Rosenburg was in his late twenties and wore a police uniform instead of a suit. Charged with monitoring all drug and gang activity, as well as investigating any other crime perpetrated in or originating from Pelican Bay, including homicide, money laundering, bank robberies, home invasions, even prostitution, Rosenburg and his men had their hands full. With 3,343 inmates incarcerated in the supermax, most of which were level four-“the worst of the worst,” to use a catch phrase Peyton had heard ad nauseam since accepting her position there six months ago—the ratio of investigators to inmates definitely wasn’t optimal.
The Segregated Housing Unit or SHU was supposed to even the playing field. Approximately 1,200 of Pelican Bay’s inmates resided in complete isolation with no break from their 8’x 12′ concrete cells except for one hour a day when they were allowed to pace, alone, in a cement box the size of a raquetball court. Despite being constantly monitored and having no privileges, they managed to run extensive criminal organizations that affected people both inside and outside the prison.
Fingering his dark brown goatee, which matched his eyes, Frank scowled. “You know how it is, boss. We’re working our asses off, but it takes hours and hours each day just to go through inmate communications. The bad guys are winning. I believe the Hells Fury are responsible for the death of Judge Garcia. Detric Whitehead or someone else put out the hit. Garcia was about to preside at Chester Wellington’s trial, and the Hells Fury didn’t want that. But I can’t explain exactly how they pulled it off. And proving it? That’ll be even tougher.”
“So you like this idea,” Warden Fischer prompted.
Barely 5’8″, an inch taller than Peyton, Frank glanced at the mass of unyielding male that was Simeon. It was clear he didn’t like the idea, but in deference to the CDCR, he was trying not to reject it out of hand. “I’d rather hire a few more officers who would work under my command so we could handle this in-house—”
“There’s no money with which to hire additional staff, Frank. You know that.” The warden drummed his yellowed fingernails on the table.
“We could ally ourselves with the Santa Rosa Police, set up another task force, like they did for Operation Black Widow,” Frank suggested.
The warden had begun to chuckle before Frank could even get the words out. “That’s your answer? Operation Black Widow encompassed thirty government agencies, including the FBI. It took nearly three years and was one of the largest, most expensive investigations of a U.S. gang to date. If this state doesn’t have the funds to hire a few more cops, it doesn’t have the funds for another Operation Black Widow. You can bet the feds won’t bankroll it. They have too many of their own problems right now.”
Not pleased with this response, Frank sat taller. “What we can’t afford is a misstep. If we screw up, the Hells Fury will gain even more power. I don’t have to tell you they’re growing at an unprecedented rate, on both sides of the fence.”
Wallace jumped in again. “Operation Black Widow succeeded because of an informant. That’s what kicked off the whole thing, and that’s what we’re missing here. Without information-names, dates, places—we have nothing except a new gang that’s quickly taking over Pelican Bay and moving into the streets of Northern California.”
“Maybe we can get someone to flip,” Peyton said. “Someone who’s about to be paroled and wants to enjoy his freedom instead of becoming a foot soldier in some street regiment for the Hells Fury, which will only land him back in prison.”
Relief eased the worry in Rosenburg’s face. “Shorty Criven is due out next month. If we could offer him a deal-”
“Even if you offer him a deal, and he accepts it, there’s no telling if he’d keep up his end.” Warden Fischer pinched his nostrils, pulled and let go-one of his less attractive habits. “You know what’s at stake for him, how those bastards lie.”
“That’s why I’m suggesting we create a mole,” Wallace said.
But at what cost? Peyton wondered. Since when was human life worth less than the expense of a regular investigation? If Simeon Bennett thought he’d be trusted by the Hells Fury just because he was white and appeared to be a fellow inmate, he was sadly mistaken. Gangs didn’t work that way.
“Blood in, blood out. That’s the code gangs live by, at least most of the gangs in Pelican Bay.” She focused exclusively on Simeon. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
Lifting his hands onto the table, he clasped them in front of him. They had enough nicks and scars to suggest he’d been in more than a few fights already, but it was the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles that caught Peyton’s eye. Obviously, he wasn’t a typical cop—technically he wasn’t a cop at all—but that didn’t mean he’d be safe housed with convicted rapists, murderers and gang bangers.
“What, do you want to give me some sort of gang quiz?” he asked. “Make sure I know the lingo?”
She straightened the jacket of her suit, a navy-blue pinstripe with a pencil skirt she’d bought on her last trip to San Francisco. “You’re saying you’re willing to stab someone to get in? Because if that’s true, I’ll reserve a cell for you this minute.”
He winked at her. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Peyton felt her mouth drop open. “This is who you want to put inside our prison?” she said to Wallace.
“Perfect, isn’t he?” he replied with a grin.
To avoid an angry, knee-jerk reaction, she made a pretense of smoothing her hair into place, even though it was, like always, sleekly arranged in a tight knot at her nape-an efficient style that enabled her to feel slightly fashionable, despite working in a world where fashion played no part. “I can’t believe you liked his response.”
As calm, cool and collected as a politician, even when he was under fire, Wallace met her gaze with a level stare. “I think he’s believable. And that’s what we need.”
In an effort to make herself as clear as possible, she leaned forward. “The point I was trying to make is this: it takes more than words to pass a gang initiation.”
“Simeon and I have already discussed it,” he responded. “We could stage certain…events. It’ll take some cooperation on your part, of course, but we can make a stabbing or…whatever else appear real.”
Peyton used a pen someone else had left on the table to punctuate her words. “You don’t get it. You can’t choose who you stab. The Hells Fury set the mark.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Wallace looked to Fischer as if to say, “Are you going to let her continue to fight us?” and Fischer spoke again, but he didn’t rebuke Peyton. He seemed more interested in clarification.
“The department will pay for the investigation?”
Wallace hurried to confirm. “That’s correct. Why not? It’ll be a bargain compared to what we’ll need just to stop the bleeding if we don’t head off the problem.”
The warden was under constant pressure to trim the operating budget—every warden was, especially with the economic problems facing California. This state had a higher percentage of its population locked up than any other and was struggling to support what it had created. But Peyton didn’t believe saving money justified jeopardizing a man’s life, even if that man was too foolhardy to know better than to get involved in such a dangerous operation. She hoped the fifth person at the table—Joseph Perry, one of the associate wardens below her and the third man who’d ridden over with her to meet Wallace and Bennett—would speak up as she had. If he agreed with her, maybe Fischer would listen.
But she should’ve known better than to count on Perry. When she arched an eyebrow at him, essentially asking him to offer his opinion, he shoved his wire-rimmed glasses higher and remained mum.
“You don’t have anything to say?” she pressed.
With a sniff—he battled constant allergies—he finally spoke in a characteristically nasal voice. “I…ah…I think it can work.”
In other words, he didn’t give a damn if it didn’t. It wasn’t his neck on the line.
Peyton turned to the warden. “At least take some time to think this over, sir.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.” Fischer studied Simeon. “You sure you’ve got the balls for this, son?”
One side of Bennett’s mouth hitched up as he rolled up his sleeve to expose a tattoo that looked like a prisoner ID number.
“You’re an ex-con?” Peyton cried.
Bennett didn’t rush to explain, as she thought he should. Buttoning his sleeve, he nodded.
“Oh, that’s great.” She leaned back so she could cross her legs. “That really makes me feel as if I can rely on you.”
He didn’t seem to find her sarcasm warranted. “Considering your reservations, I’m more worried about being able to rely on you.”
Peyton would have offered a retort, but the warden spoke before she could. “Why’d they put you behind bars?”
“Murder One,” he said without hesitation.
When his gaze never wavered from her face, even though she wasn’t the one who’d asked the question, Peyton knew he was interested in her reaction. Too stunned to speak, she gaped at him.
Investigative Officer Rosenburg’s chair raked the carpet as he shoved himself away from the table. “How long were you in?”
Simeon had read her shock and repugnance; Peyton could tell. His lips maintained that mocking grin, but this time he looked at Frank when he answered. “Nearly six years.”
“What happened to Mr. Bennett was…unfortunate,” Wallace said. “But, thanks to evidence that surfaced well after his conviction, he was exonerated.”
Exonerated. For a moment, that word held no meaning for Peyton. Simeon Bennett had become a regular ex-con to her—probably because he seemed every bit as hardened as the men in her prison. In order for Wallace’s explanation to undermine that image, she had to manually walk herself through the practical meaning: He didn’t do it. Of course. He wouldn’t be sitting here, working for the CDCR if he’d murdered someone.
But six years? That was a lot of time to serve for a crime he didn’t commit. She couldn’t believe he’d be willing to put himself back in such a vulnerable position. In order to make his pretense believable, they wouldn’t be able to show him any favoritism or give him time off. Going undercover inside Pelican Bay would be very close to going inside for real.
“If you think that convinces me you’re ideal for this job, you’re wrong,” Peyton said.
He had to speak over Wallace in order to respond. “And why is that, Chief Deputy?”
“Something that tragic…it has to have made…changes in who you are.”
A muscle flexed in his cheek. “Which would make me damaged goods. Is that what you’re saying?”
She checked with the Warden, Frank, even Joe for support, but got avid curiosity instead. “It could.”
Simeon’s jaw jutted forward. “I assure you I’ve passed all my psych evaluations…with flying colors.”
Wallace handed them each a manila envelope. “You’ll find Mr. Bennett’s resume inside. Given the unusual nature of his background, I assumed you’d have some questions. We want you to feel completely comfortable with what we’ve got planned—well, as comfortable as any of us can feel considering the risk factor. But rest assured that we’ve at least done our homework. We’re calling this Operation Inside, and we expect it to be a success.”
“We. . .” Peyton repeated.
His emphasis was meant to make a point: it wouldn’t be too beneficial to piss off the entity that employed her. But she couldn’t justify worrying more about her career than a man’s life.
Peyton shifted her gaze to Simeon’s knuckles: Love—Hate. Which emotion dominated the other? Did he even know from one minute to the next? “Where’d you do the time?”
“In the federal system.”
He could’ve elaborated but, once again, he didn’t. Was it because he didn’t want her poking around in his past, checking up on him? If so, that defensiveness bothered Peyton. A man who’d spent six years in prison for murder could have a lot of dark secrets, despite being exonerated….
The warden resumed tapping on the table. “How long have you been out?”
The hard shell of contempt Simeon wore like an army jacket grew more apparent. He didn’t like talking about this, didn’t like being questioned. “Ten years.”
“And you’ve been with Department 6 since then?” Peyton asked.
“That means you went in at…what?”
His eyebrows slid up. “Eighteen.”
That was young. Peyton could only imagine how such an experience had affected him. “Your family must’ve been heartsick.”
He wasn’t fooled by the sympathy in her voice. He knew she was digging for additional information, maybe even some assurances and explanations. But he refused to accommodate her. “Yeah, they were pretty broken up about it.”
This man already had her guessing at what was going on behind the mask of his G.I. Joe face. She prayed the giant chip on his shoulder, if not his background, would cause Warden Fischer to rethink his willingness to go along with such an investigation. But without even opening the manila folder he’d been given, Fischer stood and extended his hand to Wallace.
“We’ll do all we can to keep him safe. When will he go in?”
Apparently, Wallace’s comment about this coming down from the Director of the Division of Adult Institutions had more impact than a few unanswered questions on the part of one Simeon Bennett.
“We were hoping he could arrive just after the other transfers next Tuesday,” Wallace responded as they clasped hands. “During such a busy afternoon he shouldn’t stand out.”
It was Friday now, which meant this investigation would begin in only three days…. And, as far as Peyton was concerned such a handsome man would always stand out.
“No problem. We frequently get singles,” Fischer said.
Frank stood and rested his hands on his utility belt. “What will his story be?”
Wallace responded. “His central file will indicate that he was convicted of killing this stepfather. The closer we remain to the truth, the more convincing it’ll be.”
“The truth?” Peyton echoed.
Although she and Wallace had gotten along every other visit, today his lips pursed whenever she spoke. “That’s what he went in for originally.”
A shiver crawled up her spine. Not only had Bennett been convicted of murder, he’d been convicted of killing someone very close to him. That made her uncomfortable whether it’d been a mistake or not. There had to have been a reason he was convicted in the first place.
When Simeon’s piercing blue gaze lingered on Peyton yet again, she got the impression he understood the revulsion she was feeling. He expected it and resented it at the same time.
“Who really killed your stepfather?” she asked.
When he merely smiled, Wallace filled in the blank. “His uncle. He’s serving a life sentence at Solano State in California. He also has a mother in L.A., where he was raised, who might’ve put her brother up to it. There’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest it, but no real proof, so she’s never been charged. The only other member of the family is a younger sister who is now a divorced mother of two, if that helps. Any other information you might need, Chief Deputy?”
There was a lot. If his mother had put her brother up to killing her husband, how was it that Simeon had gone to prison? Certainly, his mother would’ve come forward to stop it. Did she let it happen? Or had she and her brother framed him?
Question after question sped through Peyton’s mind. But she saw no point in pursuing the answers. Not in this setting. Warden Fischer was going to do this with or without her agreement. Why make their mutual boss any angrier? She’d heard the sarcasm in Wallace’s response. “No,” she said.
“We’ll be ready for him on Tuesday, then.” The warden motioned toward the door as if he expected Wallace to leave before him, but Wallace didn’t budge.
“One more thing.”
At his somber tone, everyone perked up.
“Bennett’s true identity and everything else about Operation Inside is top secret,” Wallace said. “Everything. Do you understand?”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Fischer assured him. “When we get back to the prison, I’ll make sure every member of my staff understands the sensitivity of the situation and their responsibility regarding it.”
“No.” Wallace shook his head. “You won’t tell your staff. The only people who can know are already in this room.”
Fischer scratched his sagging jowls. He seemed to be catching on to what Peyton had understood all along. “You’re saying we can’t even tell the C.O.’s working in gen pop?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“Then…how will they protect him?”
Parting his jacket, Wallace hooked his thumbs inside his belt as if posing for GQ. He wanted to be director of the CDCR someday. He’d never actually voiced the aspiration, not to Peyton, but it was clear in how hard he tried to impress those above him and how unyielding he could be to those below. “They won’t do more for him than they would any other inmate,” he said.
“But-” At last the warden started to argue, only to be overrun.
“Treating him differently, pulling him aside to ask how things are going, showing him respect the others aren’t entitled to-that’s what will get him killed. One knowing look could be enough.”
The warden buttoned his coat. “The way you’ve got it set up provides little support.”
As Peyton had already pointed out….
“It’s our only choice,” Wallace responded. “We can’t risk a leak.”
“I promise you, my staff is completely trustworthy,” Fischer insisted.
Wallace’s wedding band wasn’t nearly as impressive as the heavy gold and diamond ring he’d bought to celebrate his last promotion. Once again, it caught Peyton’s attention as he lifted his hand to gain everyone’s attention before the warden could add anything more. “There are 1,400 employees at this prison. I’m not accusing anyone, but we all know that drugs, messages, weapons-these things come in and out. In order for that to happen as frequently as it does, some of those on staff have to be acting as facilitators. One word of warning to the Hells Fury and…well, I don’t have to tell you how fast the truth will spread and what could happen as a result.”
A frown creased Fischer’s already heavily lined face. “So this investigation will include convicts and employees alike?”
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” Letting go of his belt, Wallace closed his briefcase. Then he and Mr. Bennett walked out.
Peyton heard their car start while she, Fischer, Rosenburg and Perry stood staring at each other. Finally, Fischer asked Rosenburg and Perry to excuse them for a moment, and the two men went out to wait in the van they’d driven over.
Bracing for a tirade, Peyton leaned against the door she’d closed on the heels of Rosenburg. She thought her boss was about to chew her out for putting up a fight during the meeting. He generally didn’t hesitate to let her know if he disapproved of her or her behavior. Because they were so philosophically different, that happened more often than she would’ve liked. But this time he surprised her.
“You don’t like the idea of this investigation, do you, Peyton?”
She’d already made that clear. “No, sir.”
“You don’t think Bennett can handle it?”
“I’m not sure anyone can. You know what it’ll be like if he’s labeled a snitch. The Hells Fury won’t demand proof. Suspicion will be enough. I’m afraid we’ll have blood on our hands before the week is out.”
He rested his hip on the edge of the table. “One way or another, it’s going to turn into a can of worms,” he admitted. “But…if he could break the stranglehold of the Hells Fury, everyone will be better off in the long run.”
She couldn’t deny that. Measuring her words so that she could speak the truth without undermining her integrity, she said, “It would be nice to put a stop to Detric Whitehead and his organization, yes.”
“Regardless, we have no choice except to comply. You understand that, right?”
After a long day in heels, her feet were beginning to hurt, but she resisted the urge to sit down. She didn’t want to appear tired or weak. She worked in a prison, had to prove herself every single day. “And why is that, sir?”
“You heard Wallace. He presented his plan as if we had some input, but we didn’t. The decision was made before he ever asked us to meet him here. Even the governor is set on it.”
Running her thumb over the lip of the envelope Wallace had given her, she bit back the accusation that he could’ve tried harder to refuse. “So…what do you suggest we do?”
“We go along with the damn investigation, as agreed. But it won’t take two of us to spearhead this thing. I’ve given it my blessing, now I want you to run with it.”
Apprehension clawed at Peyton’s stomach. Why would he turn such a high-profile investigation-should it ever become public-over to her? “Would you mind clarifying what you mean by that, sir?”
“I’ve got more than I can handle on my plate already. You’ll take over from here.”
Irritated by a strand of hair that’d fallen from the knot at her nape, she tucked it behind her ear. “Which means…what exactly? I’ll be the liaison?”
“That’s right. You’ll meet with Bennett whenever it’s safe to do so, and you’ll relay his progress to Wallace. This is your baby. All of it.”
But she was the one who had a problem with the operation. And she’d just strained her relationship with Wallace, to say nothing of alienating Bennett. Why would—
And then it dawned on her. Warden Fischer was purposely distancing himself. He was as nervous about this investigation as she was, didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if it blew up in their faces.
At last she understood why he’d invited her to attend such a clandestine meeting even though she was so far from being the patsy Joseph Perry was. She was his “fall guy.” He could keep peace with the Department of Corrections by politely acquiescing to their wishes, and sidestep the blame if it all went to hell.
“Do I have any choice?” she asked.
He smoothed down what was left of his hair, which was as white, if not as thick, as Santa Claus’s. “Not unless you’d rather tender your resignation.”
Peyton drew a steadying breath. As tempting as that sounded at the moment, she’d already invested sixteen years into her career. She wasn’t about to throw it all away without a fight. Especially when there was a chance, albeit a small one, that Bennett could come through and make them both heroes.
She imagined the pale blue eyes of the man who’d sat across the conference table from her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen irises that specific shade of blue, certainly none that so closely resembled shards of ice…. “No, sir.”
Fischer smiled as he accepted her response. “Glad to hear it. Good luck to you and Bennett,” he said and left her standing in the conference room.
Dropping her head into her hands, Peyton cursed Fischer and his reluctance to take responsibility for what he’d just allowed to happen.
Was Bennett as good as Wallace thought?
She hoped so—because if he went down, so did she.