Written by: SwordnQuill (Susanne Beck)
"Who is she?" That one question suddenly encompassed all of me. It was something I needed to know as badly as I needed air to breathe and food to eat.
In answer, my friend rose from her chair and went back to her desk. Opening one of the drawers, she withdrew a scrapbook and came back to the table, sliding it in front of me. "That should give you some of your answers."
Opening the book, I looked down at the first newspaper headline and some of my feelings of recognition clicked into place.
Even if youre not from this area, if you are old enough to have been able to read during the late nineteen sixties, you may remember the name Morgan Steele. At the time, she held the dubious honor of being the youngest female mass murderer in American history. By now, Im sure someone has surpassed her record, but it was headline news for the time period.
Morgan was fifteen, and a child of the streets, when her best friend was murdered in a drug buy gone wrong. Its said that Morgan was out of town on other business at that time, but when she came back and found out what happened, she went berserk. Stealing a gun from a pawn shop, the teen stalked the people who had murdered her friend and, almost a month later, trapped them all in a warehouse. There were sixteen members of a street gang in that warehouse that night. Morgan killed them all. When her gun ran out of ammunition, she went after the survivors with a tire iron. And when that broke, the finished the last teen off with her feet and fists.
Responding to a disturbing the peace call, police entered the warehouse just in time to see Morgan snap the neck of her final victim. Then, her rage not yet spent, she went after the two policemen who tried to apprehend her.
She was shot five times and spent almost two months in the hospital before recovering enough to stand trial.
The verdict was a foregone conclusion and only the sentence sparked interest. Because she was a juvenile, the death penalty, though perhaps warranted, was not an option. Most thought she would spend her time in a juvenile hall until she reached twenty one and was released with a clean record. In a landmark decision, the judge passed a life sentence without possibility of parole, to be served in an adult penitentiary.
There was some public outcry over the decision, but for the most part, people seemed satisfied that justice had been properly served and Morgan was taken off to the Rainwater Womens Correctional Facility to serve out the rest of her natural life behind bars.
However, there were things going on behind the scenes and Morgans case wasnt left to lie in some newspaper morgue collecting dust. High powered attorneys stepped forward and, during the next five years, managed to take the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On March 16, 1972, the Supreme Court declared that Morgans sentence was unconstitutional. Four months later, on her twenty first birthday, Morgan Steele was released from prison, a free woman.
After my eyes scanned the last article, I closed the scrapbook and slid it back across the table to Corinne. "She was just a child when she came here. What happened to turn her into the person who would receive a welcome like the one I just saw?"
Corinne smiled sadly. "I think something happened to her while she was in the hospital recovering from her wounds. The person I met wasnt the same one who murdered all those teens in cold blood. She was quiet, respectful. She just wanted to do her time as smoothly as possible. She didnt want trouble." My friend caressed the leather cover of the scrapbook idly as her eyes took on a far away look. "Trouble managed to find her, though. In the late sixties, the gangs ruled this prison, even moreso than they do today. Racism was a big issue and there were racial riots almost every week. Beatings. Stabbings. Fires. You name it. The guards were quitting faster than they could hire new ones. The governor even threatened to send in the National Guard to restore order."
Corinne sighed. "It got to the point where you either had to choose sides or risk being murdered even by your own people. It was hell."
When my friend looked up, there was a twinkle in her eyes. "Ice was never known as a person who did things conventionally. Rather than join a gang, she started her own. The Amazons."
"Amazons? Who are they? Aside from being a group of mythical women warriors, I mean."
"You should know, Angel. Three of the top members are your close friends."
"Pony. Critter. Sonny."
I was shocked. In all my association with them, I had had no idea that my friends were gang members. "Youre kidding me."
"Nope. Theyre members of the Amazons. A gang Ice started when she was here last."
Intrigued, I leaned closer to Corinne. "And what do these Amazons stand for?"
Corinne shrugged. "Whatever they want to stand for. They are the gang in this prison."
"But . . .but that doesnt make any sense! They all seem so nice!"
"They are nice, Angel. They can also be totally ruthless. It all depends on where youre standing." She caressed the book again. "Let me try and explain it to you. Like Ive already said, the gangs were destroying this prison. No one knew what to do to stop it. Ice, who by this time had developed a reputation as the penitentiarys best fighter, approached some other women who were also known for their fighting ability, intelligence and loyalty. These women banded together to form the Amazons, a new gang. The best of the best, and dedicated to bringing the prison back under control. It took them several months, but when it was all over, the gangs had been pushed back. The Amazons became a sort of inmate peace keeping force. They help people who need it and punish those who need that too. They make sure no one gang is overtly stronger than the others, and they help to protect the truly oppressed."
"And she did all this when she was fifteen?"
Corinnes grin turned smug. "Yup."
"Wow." Looking at the fond smile on my friends face, I was moved to question further. "If you dont mind my asking, Corinne, whats your interest in all this?"
"Oh, thats simple enough. Even though I was an old lady without value as a fighter, I still had some influence in this prison. The whites wanted that influence and the blacks wanted to destroy it. It was the one thing they banded together in. One night, members of both gangs came with molotov cocktails, threatening to burn me and my library down if I didnt choose." Her eyes took on that peculiar hard shine that I had noticed from time to time before. "Ice came out of nowhere and took them all on by herself. The gangs lost eight people that night. One persons still in the hospital. In a coma."
I gasped out, horrified. "And the rest?"
"Oh, they all recovered. Eventually." Corinne sneered. "I was never bothered again. I think part of me fell in love with her that night; my dark avenger. What she did, it was . . . beautiful." She turned back to look at me, her eyes full of love for the woman known as Ice. "Shes kept an eye out for me ever since. Even when she wasnt in prison, she made sure I was safe. The library has been allowed to exist, and grow, in peace and Ive been allowed to do the same. Thanks to her."
"Yes, she is."
"So, do you know why shes back in?"
"Its not very clear. From what Ive been able to gather, when she got out last time, she was approached by some very important people."
"Difficult to say, but Ive heard that theyre the type who wear dark suits and sport very Italian sounding surnames."
"So Ive heard. Somehow, they managed to get her to join up with them. I have to admit that I was pretty shocked. I felt sure she would go straight after her time here. But she didnt."
"So what happened?"
"My contacts tell me she was able to go quite far in the organization, despite the fact that she has absolutely no Italian blood in her whatsoever. Apparently she was some sort of gun for hire, on contract with these fellows. Quite good at her job too, as if you couldnt guess that already."
I listened to Corinne, shaking my head at her story. The mystery of why this young woman, who was given a miraculous second chance, would choose to go back to crime was one I really wanted to solve.
"From what Ive heard, she was sent to take out a witness who was testifying at an upcoming extortion trial. The strange thing is, the witness was apparently testifying for the defense. That doesnt make much sense. Unless, of course, theres someone high up in one of the Families who wants this Boss behind bars for some reason. Something happened and she got caught. Word is that she was set up, big time."
"Do you think she did it?"
"I dont know. I dont think so. Its just not her style. The Ice I know doesnt take out witnesses, no matter which side theyre testifying for."
"Well, it seems like the Ice you knew changed a lot once she left prison."
"True. But still, something just doesnt add up. I really became suspicious when I heard that she was stuck with a court appointed defense attorney. The Mob usually helps its own in these situations. Even when you screw up, theyre usually behind you all the way."
I felt my own smile spread across my face. "Well, then. It looks like weve got our own mystery to solve. Colombo, watch out. Angels on the case."
My mirth was halted by a hard hand on my wrist. "Angel," Corinne said seriously, "tread lightly. Ice is a very private woman and if you pry without her consent, youre going to end up on the receiving end of a whole barrel full of trouble, no matter who your friends are. Though I sense that theres going to be a very important connection between the two of you, she is a very, very dangerous woman. Above all else, you need to remember that."
Swallowing hard, I remembered the icy eyes that had met my own only an hour ago, and nodded. "I understand."
Smiling again, Corinne gently squeezed my hand. "Ice can be the best friend youd ever hope to have, Angel. She can also be your worst enemy. Like I said, tread lightly around her. Give her a chance to feel you out, to get to know you. She doesnt trust anyone, not completely. But if she thinks youre worth it, and I know you are, things will come. Good things, I think."
After another moment, I nodded again. Knowing my next statement was going to sound totally stupid, I steeled myself against the probable laughter. "Corinne, when she looked at me just now, I . . . .well . . .I felt something. It was the strangest thing Id ever felt in my life. Almost like I knew her. And not just that. I . . .loved . . .her." I shook my head, damning my tongue for not being able to come up with a better way to express the myriad of sensations that went through me when our eyes had locked for that one brief, perfect second. "I cant explain it. I mean, Ive never met the woman in my life before just now, but . . . ." My voice trailed off as I heaved a heartfelt sigh. "I know I must sound like an idiot to you," I mumbled miserably.
My hand was squeezed again. "Not at all, sweet Angel." Tilting my chin again, Corinne met my eyes. "When I was younger, before all that stuff with Arsenic and Old Husbands. . . ."
" . . . .I used to have a sort of talent for seeing things. Things that werent really there." My friends seamed face creased further in a grin. "Now, I suppose in most parts of the world, that would be called insanity. The good part was that those things often turned out to be true."
"You could see the future?"
"Some. Or the past. I wasnt always sure. It got confusing, sometimes." She laughed lightly. "Good thing was, I was born in Louisiana, were that sort of thing is pretty much accepted as a gift, rather than a curse. In the right circles, of course. It faded as I got older, but I still get flashes now and then. And I got a most definite flash the morning you ran into my library, covered with breakfast. It was something I saw in Ice that first day as well."
I looked up at her, sure my disbelief was showing clearly on my face. "Corinne, forgive me for saying so, but I find it hard to believe that Ice stumbled in here after being pursued by a bunch of crazed inmates. Especially wearing her breakfast on her shirt."
My friend laughed again, a light, musical sound that filled the library pleasingly. "No. Im talking about what I saw in her eyes. Ice is an old soul. Ancient, in fact. I couldnt even begin to guess how far back she goes. Even when she first got here as a young girl, her eyes were ancient, as if theyd seen more of the world than any mortal had a right to. It was . . . disconcerting at first. I got used to it after awhile." She turned her gaze to me, appraising. "I see the same thing in your eyes, Angel. A wisdom that belies your innocence." Her grin deepened, and I swore for the second time that I could see the faintest glimpse of fangs in her mouth. "That, of course, only makes you all the more appealing."
A frightening tingle went down my spine and my skin humped up in gooseflesh. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable in Corinnes presence, seeing her for the first time as the woman she really was, an unrepentant murderer. The walls started to close in on me and Ill freely admit to the start of pure panic.
Seeing my state, Corinne broke the lock of our gazes, reaching down and smoothing the flesh of my arms. "Dont be afraid, Angel. Im not here to hurt you." Her laugh, when it came, was almost bitter. "Im nothing but an old woman, after all. Whos seen much too much of life."
Suddenly I felt very much ashamed of my reaction. Turning my hands, I gripped Corinnes arms tightly. "Youre much more than an old woman to me, Corinne. Youre my friend." Im sure I was blushing by this time. "Im sorry I reacted the way I did. Its just. . . all this talk about seeing things that arent there and ancient souls . . . . Im just a small-town Methodist, after all. Were not supposed to believe in those things."
Corinnes expression gentled, changing her back into the lovable old grandmother Id come to know. "Its alright, Angel. Ive been here so long that I sometimes forget just how frightening this place can be." She shrugged. "Its home to me now, but I need to realize that most dont feel that way." Releasing herself from my grasp, she pushed her chair away from the table and stood. "Anyway, just remember what I said. Keep your eyes and ears open, stay gentle and unassuming around Ice and youll do just fine."
"No problem, child. No problem at all."
The next couple of weeks went by quickly. Thered been a breakthrough with my Mexican students and teaching them had turned from a chore to a pleasure. They took everything I gave them and practically begged me for more.
Money and used books started coming into the library in regular shipments and Corinne and I kept ourselves very busy cataloguing them and sending out thank you letters to our contributors. More and more people were coming to visit the library, for a variety of reasons, making Corinne a very happy woman. She continually bustled about, preparing her famous tea and sharing stories with the other inmates. There was almost always a class going on in one corner as well, making the library, for the first time, a crowded, friendly place to be.
Ice had been released into the general population after just two days in segregation and the prison, though the excitement had settled down somewhat from her initial arrival, still remained on its best behavior. Montana, who had been the head of the Amazons during Ices absence, handed over her mantle of authority gladly and would sometimes come into the library, something she hadnt had time to do before, to chat or read. Though still quite intimidated by the somber, beautiful woman, I got to know her a bit better during these quiet times and found her to be a kind, considerate, intelligent woman very passionate in her beliefs.
She told me that she had once headed a Womens Separatist community in Montana, hence her prison nickname. When the Equal Rights Amendment came up for ratification, she headed up an all-out campaign to get it placed within the Constitution. That campaign eventually led to charges of black-mail and extortion, and she was convicted of those crimes in Pittsburgh. Shed been in The Bog for seven years, an abnormally long sentence for her crime, and hoped to be released soon. The womens community still existed and she missed her home terribly. I enjoyed listening to her stories of an entire community that existed without the presence of men.
My little side business of being the person who got things for you started to really take off after the shower incident and I was busier than Id ever been in my life. Despite the fact that I was locked behind high walls, I started to actually enjoy my life for the first time in a long while.
Taking Corinnes advice to heart, I stayed far away from Ice. As the days passed, my memories of our first encounter began to fade slightly and I chalked most of the bizarre feelings up to some sort of post traumatic mental lapse combined with whatever special herbs were in Corinnes magic tea. Strange stories of past lives and old souls gradually took up space in some far, darkened corner of my mind, to be taken out and examined only in the deep quiet of a prison night.
As late spring passed into early summer, I ventured outside the dim cave of the library one fine day. The feeling of warm sun on my skin was pure bliss and I sank down into a small patch of soft grass with a feeling of pleasure. Relaxing my body and turning my face up to the sun, I let my eyes drift closed and listened to the sounds of insects and birds as they wove their natural song around the sounds of weights being pressed and balls being hit. The sweet smell of new life perfumed the air around me and I took in deep breaths of it, humming with pleasure.
As Im sure youve noticed often happens with me, I was so wrapped up in the pleasure of the moment that I didnt notice that things had changed around me. My first clue came when part of my fuzzy brain suddenly noticed the absence of human sound in the yard. Then, feeling a very warm presence behind me, I whirled, managing to get to my knees and bring my hands up in a defensive posture as I did so. Breathing heavily, I managed to look up, then up again, till I met the fierce blue eyes of Ice, who was smirking down at me, apparently quite pleased with herself for catching me unawares.
After a moment, she squatted that long body of hers down in front of me, plucking a blade of grass and twirling it idly between her beautiful, tapering fingers. Then, casually, she met my eyes again, capturing me totally within her icy blue regard. "I hear youre the woman who can get things."
If I hadnt been trapped before, the sound of her low, resonant, melodious voice rolling through my senses did the trick. Im afraid I blinked at her stupidly for a moment, trying to wrap my totally befuddled mind around her words. "What?"
As opening lines went, that one had to rank at the very bottom and my brain received a mental high kick for that particular piece of literary brilliance.
Ice smiled, then. An oddly endearing and achingly familiar little cockeyed grin that sped my heart right up. "Was I wrong about that?"
"Uh . . .no. Not at all." Now if I could only figure out what she wasnt wrong about, Id be ahead of the game. An old axiom of my mothers came into my brain. When in doubt, always try honesty. I gave a mental shrug, figuring at this point, it was better than nothing. "What were we talking about again?"
An ebony brow lifted as she regarded me more closely. "Is something wrong?"
"No! No. Nothings wrong. Nothing at all. I . . .ah . . .just didnt hear you the first time." Brilliant, Angel. Just brilliant. "Could you . . .um . . .repeat your question? Please?"
A long arm tossed the blade of grass away and Ice clasped her hands between her spread legs. "I asked if I was wrong in assuming you were the person who could get things."
Oh! "Oh! No. You werent wrong at all. About that, I mean." Taking in a deep breath, I tried again. "What I mean is that I am the woman who can get . . .things. For people."
To this day, I can still remember praying harder than Id ever prayed in my entire life. I prayed that a huge riot would break out in the yard, or that a sudden rogue tornado would touch down suddenly, sweeping me away from this Oz Id suddenly found myself in. Even an earthquake would do in a pinch, just so long as I was close to the fissure and could throw myself into the breach. The vivid flash of falling into a pool of bubbling lava went through my mind, shutting that particular fantasy down but quick.
Ice looked down at me with a look of almost infinite patience and a faint sparkle of amusement shining in those magnificent eyes.
I swallowed. Hard. "Is there . . .something I can get for you?" Finally! My first coherent sentence of the day. And none too soon either, my shrunken ego was more than happy to point out.
Ice appeared to consider the question, as if as surprised as I was that Id actually managed to get it out. She met my gaze directly. "Do you know anything about Bonsai?"
Well, it was fun while it lasted. "Um . . .unless youre talking about the oath those Kamikaze pilots used to shout out before crashing into the Pacific, then Im afraid I dont."
The dark head nodded. "Not many people do," she allowed. "Bonsai is . . .a sort of art." Her wonderful hands fanned out, describing her words. "You start with a tree. A small one. And you prune and shape and train it until it becomes like a vision you see in your mind."
"It sounds beautiful."
Clearly, speaking of beauty made her uncomfortable. My mind was busy making mental notes. "So . . .you want me to get you, what. A tree?"
My tone must have sounded dubious, because she spoke up quickly to correct me. "No. Im having some of mine sent over. Ive already cleared it with Sandra Pierce. What I need is something called a bonsai rake."
"How big a rake?"
"Its about ten inches long and has a three-pronged metal piece at one end. It sort of looks like one of those cultivating tools you would use for gardening to break up the soil. Only thinner. And the prongs are smaller."
Looking away for a moment, I tried to picture what she was describing in my mind without the distraction of her nearness clouding my thoughts. "I think you should know," I said after a moment, "I dont get anything that might possibly be used as a weapon. Thats a line I wont cross."
Her eyes narrowed for a moment and Ill freely admit to a fine thrill of fear shooting down my back at the look. Then she smiled that cocky half-grin again and I breathed out a silent sigh of relief. "I assure you, I have no intention of using it as a weapon. Its a tool, nothing more."
"But still . . . ." I knew I was taking a big risk, questioning her like this, but like I said, there was a line I wouldnt cross. For anyone.
"Tell you what. Why dont you take some time and think about it. Ill give you the money and the catalogue number and if you decide to go ahead and purchase it for me, great. If not, you can keep the money. No questions asked, no harm done."
"But . . . ."
She held up her hand, silencing my protestations. "And if you do decide to buy it, you can take a look at it when it comes in. If it looks like something Id use as a weapon, then you can keep it, or throw it away. Again, no questions asked, no harm done. Sound fair?"
"But . . . ."
The hand she held up came down, approaching me, palm out. "Deal?"
We locked eyes again. Her gaze was direct and unassuming and I fell into it once again. That strange sense of drowning overwhelmed me and I felt my hand reach out to grasp hers. The touch of her warm palm to mine galvanized me and brought that image of touching an electrified fence blazing from that dark corner of my mind where it had managed to lay dormant until that moment.
Though I dont really remember, I must have stiffened, because she released me after a perfunctory handclasp and looked down at me curiously. "Are you alright?"
Several moments passed as I knelt there, looking stupidly at the money shed cleverly pressed into my palm. Licking my lips, I desperately cast about for something to say. If there was anything I was definitely not, it was alright. Such a mundane adjective didnt even come close to describing what I was feeling. Still . . . . "Yes. Im just fine."
After a final, appraising look, she smiled faintly again, then stood, smoothing the wrinkles out of her jumpsuit with her palms. "Good. Thanks for your time." With a final nod of her head, she turned and left, striding that long-limbed, cocky walk of hers over toward the free weight area.
My eyes followed her every step while I tried to find the most dignified way of gathering my jaw up off the grass at my knees.
Pony looked at me from behind Ice, giving me her rakish grin and winking at my obvious discomfiture. Then she laughed as Ice pushed her out of the way and commandeered the chest press bench, lifting an ungodly amount of weight with fluid ease.
My eyeballs joined my jaw on the ground as I watched her impressive chest and arms flex and relax against the weight of the iron she was lifting.
I was caught in a definite quandary. Those were my friends over there as well. Surely they wouldnt object if I were to join them. The problem was, however, how to make it from where I was to where I wanted to be without managing to lose the last shred of dignity I had managed to hang onto.
To give myself some time, I decided that a full body appraisal was in order. One head, complete with befuddled brain and wide eyes. Check. Shoulders: sagging but still there. Chest: one heart beating three times its normal rate but in otherwise good condition. Arms: weak but present. Hips: lets just not go there right now. Legs: definitely the weak point of this assessment.
Placing my hands firmly on the grass and absorbing some of the solid, sure strength of the earth through my flesh, I pushed myself up onto my feet, wildly pleased that my body seemed to bearing up well under its own weight. Alright. Weve got standing down pretty good here. Now, lets try out that walking thing, shall we?
One step turned into two, which turned into three, and before I knew it, I was making steady progress toward the weight lifting area where a large crowd had gathered to cheer the object of my attention on in what looked to be a prison record amount of weight to be lifted. As more inmates gathered around, blocking my sight of the event, I once again cursed my parents for tossing me into the shallow end of the gene pool.
A huge cheer rang out and though I couldnt see anything, I imagined Ice had just managed to break whatever record she was trying for. As I stared at the inmates, trying to find a way through the sea of orange, something strange hit me. Whereas before, the exercise yard had always been rigidly segregated along racial boundaries, women from every culture were gathered around Ice, cheering her on. There was no sign of the tensions that usually permeated such gatherings. The yard was united in a common cause, to cheer a fellow inmate to victory. And somehow, by doing nothing more than pitting herself against several pieces of unyielding metal, this intense woman had managed to bring a harmony that was otherwise absent in the day to day running of the home we all shared.
A loud bell, signaling the end of the exercise period, freed me from my musings. With a sad sigh, I broke off my stroll toward the cheering crowd and made my escape back into the prison.
As I walked into the library, Corinne was there, as always, to greet me. The enigmatic smile creased her lips once again as she gestured, with her pen, toward one of the tables where a large book lay, its cover shining in the dim lighting like a beacon. Drawn toward it, my curiosity on full alert, I glanced at the shining cover, then back at my friend, my jaw once again becoming unhinged. "How did you know?"
She smirked, well pleased with herself. "I have my ways, Angel."
Shaking my head, I looked back down at the book waiting smugly for me on the table. My fingertips traced the title, my mind spinning with a sense of the macabre: The Art of Bonsai.
The next morning dawned gray and dreary and, as it was a Saturday, I elected to spend most of it camped out in my bunk exploring the wonderful world of bonsai. Reading of its history gave me valuable new insight into the woman known as Ice and I was drawn up into it, passing many hours in pleasant solitude as life continued on around me.
By mid afternoon, I had finished the book and as my body was beginning to get a bit stiff and sore from lying against the scratchy sheets, I decided to go down to take a shower, secure in the belief that I wouldnt be molested.
The prison was rather quiet for a rainy Saturday afternoon and, as I walked past the cavernous laundry room on my way to the showers, I heard a soft, almost whimpering sound, followed by harsh whispering and the sound of flesh beating against flesh. Dropping my clean uniform to the tiled floor, I stepped around the corner, ready for action.
With the incapacitation of Mouse, the leadership of the white gang had been taken over by a huge mountain of a woman who went by the name of Derby. So named because she once was a queen of the roller derby, the woman was, not to put too fine a point on it, immense. Her face had the look of lumpy bread dough and her nose was so mashed that I wondered how she ever breathed through it. She didnt smile often, which was a blessing, because most of her front teeth were either missing entirely, or had blackened stumps to mark what could have been. Standing close to six feet tall (and, in the prison, only Ice was taller) she weighed in at least two fifty, easy. Most of that looked to be that hard, solid kind of fat you see in the pictures of hard working peasant women that decorate National Geographic from time to time. I knew from experience that she was as strong as an ox and twice as mean.
As I slipped between two industrial washers, taking care not to be heard or seen just yet, I peeked around the corner at the scene before me. A young woman, no older than myself, knelt on the floor, terrified. A piece of duct tape had been plastered over her mouth and her arms had been bound behind her back with what looked to be a still-wet bedsheet. Her jumpsuit had been rent at the neck and pulled back over her shoulders, exposing her heaving breasts. Her face was bloody from multiple blows and her eyes were beginning to blacken and swell. My mind flashed back to the time that I was in the exact same position and, again, I snapped as I watched Derbys coarse, blunt hands reach down to cruelly twist the young womans nipples, earning another whimper. The gang leaders three companions, none of whom I recognized on sight, snickered and elbowed one another.
After a quick and fruitless visual search told me Id have to go into this with no weapons but my wits, I stepped from my hiding place, body tensed and ready. "Thats enough, Derby. Let her go." My voice echoed in the cavernous room, bouncing back at me from all angles.
Slowly turning her head, Derbys thick, rubbery lips split into a sneer as she spied me. "Well, well, well. If it isnt the Amazons little fuck toy. How ya doin, fishie?"
"Let her go, Derby." Keeping alert, I shifted position, determined not to let myself be backed into a corner.
The other three women looked to their leader for direction.
"You just mind your own business, fish, or Ill forget that Mouse asked me to leave you for her to deal with."
"Im asking you one more time, Derby. Let the girl go."
She sneered again. "Fuck you."
As the woman turned back to her prey, I took the opportunity presented and made a running leap, jumping on her broad back and latching a strong arm around her throat. Slightly unbalanced, she staggered back a step, but before I could reinforce my choke hold, the other three came at me from three different directions.
It was like being hit by a semi. Derbys knees collapsed from the pounding, and I went down with her, hitting the floor hard but refusing to release my now shaky hold. Brutal hands grabbed at me, but I used the newly developed strength in my legs to kick them away, listening with no small satisfaction as they grunted out their pain.
Reaching up, Derby wrapped a massive paw around my own hand and jerked it away from her neck, almost breaking my wrist in the process. Bellowing, she flung me away and I landed, slightly stunned, against one of the dryers. Ignoring the pain, I rolled to my feet quickly, my body still ready and balancing lightly on the balls of my feet as the Amazons had taught me.
"You little bitch," the giant said as she rubbed the rawness at her neck. "Fuck Mouse. Im gonna kill you myself!"
She rushed at me, arms wide open as if meaning to give me a hug. Huge she might have been, but I was agile, and quick. As she lumbered at me, I simply ducked under one massive arm, spinning quickly and almost breaking into laughter as her momentum carried her into the dryer I had landed against just a moment before.
The air became blue with her curses as she turned around, holding her massive gut with one arm. "Youre dead, fish. Do you hear me? Dead!!"
"Youll have to catch me before you can kill me, tubby."
Sometimes my mouth has a mind of its own, and this was certainly one of those times. Derbys face turned a shade of red Id never seen before and veins sprung like garden hoses from the thickness of her neck.
With a roar that shook the foundations of the room, she came at me again. As I dodged away for a second time, I spared a brief moment to wonder where the other three had gotten themselves off to. As she blundered past me, I looked around, finally seeing the other three gang members sprawled, unconscious, on the floor. Puzzled, I frowned, knowing that my kicks could not have possibly done so much damage.
My moment of inattention was about to cost me dearly. Recovering her wits, Derby had managed to come at me again and was, at that very second, cocking back a fist that looked to be roughly the size of a canned ham.
I froze, desperately trying to figure out which way to move to avoid being blown across the room. Right? Left? Up? Down? What?
Its truly amazing how fast your thoughts tumble through your head at a time like that. I still hadnt reached a clear decision when I saw the fist start forward, my face clearly in its sights.
I steeled myself for the coming blow while my mind still tried to talk my body into picking some direction in which to move. Finally, I decided left and was just starting to dodge in that direction when a long arm snaked into my field of vision, stopping the fist absolutely stone cold dead just inches from my face. The sound of the impact was amazing, ringing like a rifle shot into the room and rebounding back to me in echoes.
Derby actually whimpered as the tanned hand closed itself around her fist. I could almost hear the sounds of small bones breaking as her face turned from red to white in the beat of a heart.
A low, comforting and absolutely wonderful voice sounded to my left. "Why dont ya try picking on someone your own size, Derby?"
Though caught totally within the grip of another, Derbys false, bullying bravado showed no sign of shutting down. "I aint afraid of you, Ice."
"No? You should be." Without releasing her grip, Ice reached out with her other hand and gently pushed me in the direction of the still bound young woman. "Keep an eye on her while I take care of this one, will ya?"
I nodded, stunned by the full smile she gave me, then walked over to where the wide-eyed woman still knelt. "Its gonna be alright now. Youre going to be ok." Still crooning gently to her, I stripped away her bonds, taking special care with the tape plastered cruelly across her face. Finally free, sobs overcame her and she collapsed against me, grabbing at the fabric of my uniform as if to an anchor. Enfolding her in my arms, I gently rocked her as my eyes drifted back over to the center of the action, drawn, as always, to Ice.
After being assured by my calm presence that the young woman was as well as could be expected, Ice released Derbys hand and stepped back, putting her hands on her hips and appraising her panting opponent. "We can do this one of two ways, Derby. You can leave well enough alone and walk out of here with the broken hand I just gave you, or you can be an idiot and come at me, in which case youll go out of here on a stretcher. Which is it gonna be?"
Shaking out her swelling hand, Derby stared daggers of hatred at Ice, who looked back, cool and calm as her namesake. "You think youre so damn tough, Ice. Well, you aint." Trying the bull-rush maneuver once again, she lumbered at Ice. Instead of dodging, though, Ice met the huge onrushing body with a knee in the gut, doubling Derby over. A slashing elbow to the back of her skull, and the gang leader went down like a sack of over-ripe apples, howling as her face met the cold stone floor.
I couldnt resist. "Oooooh. Wrong choice."
Ice grinned fiercely at me, clearly enjoying herself as she danced out of the way of the falling body.
Actually gobbling in rage, Derby pushed herself up to her hands and knees, shaking her head and spraying fans of blood over the floor. Her face looked as if it had battled with a chainsaw and lost. Scrabbling back up to her feet, she came at Ice once again, her dripping blood staining her jumpsuit to a sickly rust color.
Ice met her with a high kick to the head, and then, in an absolutely incredible move, switched legs, straightening the behemoths body with another high kick to the other side. As Derby pinwheeled her arms, trying to maintain her balance, Ice launched a truly spectacular, right-from-the-hip side kick that caused the gang leader to actually leave her feet and fly halfway across the room.
She landed hard against one of the washers, her back bending almost double over its edge. The back of her skull smashed against the top with a huge, gonging clatter. Her legs gave out and she slid down the washer, landing on the floor in a bleeding heap.
"Had enough yet, Derby? Cause theres plenty more where that came from." Ice smiled a smile that I can only describe as purely erotic. And I should know, because when I saw it, all the hormones in my body immediately sat up and did the mambo. "And its all for you."
Though I have no idea where her strength was coming from, Derby managed, by slow inches, to get herself back to her feet and she stood there, tottering, looking as if one stiff wind would blow her back to the floor again. "Youll never beat me, bitch," she mumbled, half dazed.
I looked up at Ice, curious as to what she would do. Clearly, Derby wasnt a threat to anyone anymore. The woman half stumbled toward her taller opponent, dragging one leg awkwardly behind her while wiping the blood from her nose with the back of her hand.
Ice stood calm and still, watching everything with that intensely piercing gaze that reminded me of an inquisitive bird of prey looking at a potential meal.
The distance between them closed, Derby drew back her fist, moving as if underwater. At the last second, her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed into Ices strong arms.
Smirking, Ice bore her weight easily.
At that very moment, as if by fortuitous circumstance, two guards strode into the laundry room, their batons out and ready. "Let her go, Ice," the taller one, Phyllis, said.
Shrugging, Ice did as she was told and Derbys limp body once again crumpled to the floor.
"Now back away from her. Slowly."
Keeping her hands open and away from her body, Ice did as requested, taking two long, careful steps away from the downed prisoner.
Phyllis stepped over to the slumped form of Derby as her partner, Nancy, kept a wary eye on Ice. Squatting down, she pushed the heavy body over then brought her hand back. It was covered with blood. She turned wide eyes up to Ice. "Jesus Christ. What happened?"
Ice shrugged again. "She tripped."
"Bullshit. Tell me the truth, Ice."
I was about to speak up, when Derby came back to struggling consciousness. Phyllis dodged the flailing fists as she struggled to push the inmates huge shoulders back against the rough concrete floor. "Stay still, Derby!"
"Fuck that! Im gonna kill that fucking bitch! Let me go!!!"
"Derby, Im warning you, stay still!"
Nancy jumped in to help her partner and between the two of them, they barely managed to subdue the raging woman. Finally they were able to calm her and Nancy grabbed a fresh sheet from atop one of the dryers and pressed it down over Derbys flattened nose. "Now, what in the hell happened here?" Phyllis asked again.
"What? Fuck, woman, are you blind?" Derby bellowed, her voice muffled with blood and a sheet. "Fucking bitch beat the shit outta me here! Fuckin dirty fighter."
"Im not blind, Derby. Im asking what happened."
Derbys eyes darted around quickly, her obviously laboring mind trying to come up with some sort of excuse. Ice waited patiently, the faint smirk still present on her beautiful face. God, the woman wasnt even breathing hard.
"Me and my buddies came in here cause we heard a noise," the huge woman finally said. "We found that bitch beatin on the little fish over there."
It was obvious the two guards hadnt noticed us before, because Nancy uttered an "oh shit" and bustled over, gently taking the young woman from my grasp and grabbing yet another sheet to dab away the blood on her face.
"Derby," I started, only to be stopped by a truly chilling glare from Ice. I looked back at her, confused, but kept my peace. The meaning of her look was clear. Shut up.
"We tried ta stop her, and she took us all out. Even hit me when I was down. Fucking dirty fighter."
I bit my cheeks against the need to say something.
Phyllis looked up. "Is that true, Ice?"
Phyllis was a good guard and she obviously didnt believe Derbys story. But without any conflicting evidence, she couldnt do anything about it. "Damn it, Ice, say something! You know youll end up in the hole if you dont."
Ice remained silent, immovable.
"Yeah, the hole. Thats where that bitch belongs. Look at that little fish! She was gonna rape her if we hadnt come in!"
That did it. Freezing glare or no, I was not going to stand by and let Derby continue to spew her lies while Ice did nothing to defend herself. My arms free of my injured burden, I shot to my feet, fire in my own eyes.
"Angel . . . ." The warning tone in Ices voice was unmistakable, but I was having none of it.
"No, Ice. Im sorry, but no." I turned pleading eyes on the guard. "Phyllis, you know me. You know I dont lie. I was on my way to the shower when I heard this woman whimpering. I walked in to find Derby and her three friends beating up on her. Theyd tied her up and gagged her! I tried to stop them when Ice came in. She gave Derby the chance to leave, fair and square. Derby chose to fight."
"Thats a fucking lie!" Derby roared, once again struggling to get away from Phyllis. "You fucking piece of shit lying bitch!!"
Phyllis straddled Derbys immense body while looking over at Ice. "Is what Angels saying the truth?"
Damn the woman to all seven levels of hell, she still wouldnt answer!
"Its true, Phyllis. All of it. I swear. Ice didnt start the fight. She finished it."
Finally, Phyllis looked over to the young woman whose beating had started all this. "Laura, whos telling the truth, hon? Just tell us and well make sure theyre punished."
Derby twisted her head to glare at the young woman, who caught the look and cowered against Nancys protective form. "You better answer right, fish, or Ill fucking kill you."
Laura stifled a sob of fear.
"Cmon, hon. Just tell us. No one here will hurt you anymore. I promise."
After a long moment, Laura held out a trembling hand. "Sh she did it."
"Who? Ice or Derby? Tell us, hon. Please."
"DDerby. She . . .she was . . .was gonna . . .rrape me!" Laura broke down into sobs once again and Nancy cradled her shaking form gently.
"Alright, Derby. Youve just earned yourself a nice long stretch in the hole."
"Fuck her! Youre gonna believe that fucking fish??? Shes lying! Theyre all lying!! They all just want to protect Ice, goddamnit!!"
Phyllis allowed Derby to struggle to her feet, then grabbed her arm and twisted it, high and tight, against her back. "The only liar here is you, Derby. Lets go." She looked over her shoulder. "Take her over to the infirmary and meet me back in the office." Then she looked over at me. "And you two, get outta here before the warden hears what happened."
Breathing out a sigh of relief, I nodded. Phyllis smiled slightly, then quick marched the growling Derby out of the laundry room, followed closely by Nancy who gently guided Laura down the hall toward the infirmary.
The coldness in the room was suddenly very palpable and I searched around for something to say. "Thanks for your help," I finally commented softly.
Ice turned her deadly cold eyes toward me, her face completely devoid of expression. "I can take care of myself, Angel." Her voice was as cold as the bottom of a new grave. Without another word, she spun and stalked from the room, leaving me to my utter confusion. The three still unconscious members of Derbys gang werent any help either. With a small shrug, I turned and left the room.
So, this is what a broken heart feels like.
Now, before you go crazy on me and ask where a thought like that could possibly have come from, let me go on record as saying that I had no idea either, at the time. All I knew is that I had done something to displease the woman who I was rapidly coming to see as some type of knight in shining armor. And it hurt. Badly.
What I didnt know is why she had reacted so badly to what I had done. After all, I had stopped her from being branded a rapist, which, even in a womens prison, is something that ranks right on the low rung with child abuse and molestation. While I didnt expect gushing praise, I surely didnt anticipate the coldness I received.
All thoughts of a shower gone in the excitement and its aftermath, I wandered aimlessly, wondering what to do. Part of me wanted to talk to Corinne in the hopes she could tell me what I did wrong. But most of me just wanted to crawl back into my bunk and forget that the day had even happened.
That part won out.
I crawled back into my bunk and laid out on my back, crossing my arms behind my head and staring sightlessly at the ceiling. My mind kept replaying Ices last words to me, trying to find a secret meaning that I had obviously missed. "She can take care of herself, she says," I mumbled to the silent plaster. "Well, of course she can. She managed to take out a woman the size of Texas without even breaking a sweat!"
My mind chose that moment to insert a scene depicting the fight in all its glorious detail. My hormones happily applauded as I shifted on the bed. Being attracted to a woman wasnt something I really considered before. But, then again, there was never a woman in my life who looked, sounded and smelled like Ice. Still, it didnt bother me too much. Small town girl or not, I had an open mind and knew how to use it. Usually.
My thoughts rode the morbid train right around to the beginning again. What did I do to earn such coldness? What was so wrong about speaking out to defend the innocent? If I hadnt spoken up, Derby would have gone free and Ice would have been thrown in isolation for something she didnt do. What unspeakable harm had I done?
Groaning, I flopped my weary body over onto my side, just in time to see the golden curls of Critter as she peeked into my cell. "Mind if I come in?" she asked with a friendly smile on her face.
Returning the smile, I struggled to sit up. "Sure! Come on in."
Nodding, Critter entered and sprawled out on my roommates vacant bunk. "Heard what happened."
I let out a slow breath. "Did Ice send you?"
"Nope. Corinne did. Figured you might need someone to talk to."
I shook my head. "How does that woman know so much?"
My friend grinned. "One of the eternal mysteries of the Bog."
"So . . .are you here to yell at me?"
"Nope. Im just here to listen. And help if I can."
I sagged against the lumpy mattress, looking down at my hands. "I sure could use some."
"I figured as much."
Looking up, I met Critters dark, compassionate eyes. "Why was what I did so wrong? I was only trying to make sure justice was done."
"Justice has its own way of being served in prison, Angel. The one rule that stands above all the others is that you never rat out a fellow inmate. Even if they do something that to you is unspeakable."
"But . . . ."
Critter held up one hand. "Angel, why didnt you tell Sandra it was Mouse and her gang who beat you up in the shower?"
Closing my mouth, I sat back and thought about her question for a moment. "Well . . .I guess its because I figured that Id hurt them enough."
"Exactly. Prison justice. From what I heard, Ice pretty much wiped the floor with Derby today."
That brought an involuntary smile to my lips. "Yeah. She did."
"Do you think Derby got a pretty good payback for what she did to the new girl?"
"Well, sure! But Ice didnt deserve to be put in isolation for something she didnt do! And I couldnt just stand by and let the guards, and everyone else, think that Ice was a rapist!"
"I know, Angel. I know. Its hard just to stand back and do nothing. But sometimes you have to. Especially in here. Most of the people in this prison know Ice. They know what shes capable of, and what lines she wont cross. They know she wouldnt stoop to rape. Hell, Angel, half the women in here would give their eyeteeth just to spend one night with her! She has no need to take what would be given freely."
I sighed, considering that thought. "I suppose youre right."
Smiling, Critter got up from the bed and sat down beside me, slinging a friendly arm around my shoulder. "Course I am." Reaching out, she gently cupped my chin, bringing my gaze up to meet hers. "Angel, you know this stuff already. You made a mistake. But it was an admirable one that came from a good heart. This place has all too few of those. Ice was upset, but she knows why you did what you did. Thingsll work out. Youll see."
A horrifying thought came into my head. "But what if Laura gets into even more trouble? If I hadnt opened my big mouth, she wouldnt have been forced to tell the guards who hurt her! Oh God!"
"Shhh. Its ok, Angel. Were keeping a close watch on her. Nothingll happen. I promise."
"But . . . ."
"Trust me, Angel. Trust Ice. Nothing will happen. Shell be safe. In a way, you did her a great favor. Not everyone comes under the protection of the Amazons. Because of you, she is now. No worries, alright?"
Sighing, I looked down at my hands which were twisted in my lap. "Sorry. I guess I just made more work for you."
To my great surprise, Critter threw back her head and laughed. "Oh, Angel. Youre a treasure, you know that? An absolute treasure." Giving me a final hug, she rose from the bed and playfully cuffed me on the shoulder. "Take it easy, my friend."
Meeting her eyes, I couldnt help but return her smile. "You too, Critter."
"Ill take it any way I can get it." With a grin and a final wave, my friend left me to my thoughts, which were much lighter for her visit.
The next day was, of course, Sunday, and after taking my aborted shower of the day before and spending an hour in forced prayer to a God I wasnt sure I believed in anymore, I made my way down to the sanctuary of the library.
Some time during my tossings and turnings of the night before, Id decided to go ahead and purchase Ices bonsai rake for her. After seeing the woman fight first hand, I was sure she couldnt do any more damage with a gardening tool than she could do with her fists and feet. The images of the fight pervaded my dreams all night, causing me to wake up in a sweat more than once, and let me tell you, the sweat wasnt one of fear.
Before my shower, Id managed to connect with one of my contacts on the outside who was just on his way to church himself. The deal was done quickly and with a minimum amount of fuss and I was assured that, if everything went well, I should see my new acquisition within the week..
Walking into the library, I immediately headed for my favorite chair at my favorite table and sat down, stretching my still sleepy body and rolling my neck to get the kinks out.
Corinne greeted me with a smile from her place behind her desk. "How are you doing?"
"Better, thanks. And thank you for sending Critter up to see me. She really helped."
My friends face dimpled. "Dont mention it."
We sat for a few moments in companionable silence, the ever present ticking of the clock and the scratching of her pen on paper the only sounds around us. Most Sundays saw the library empty, but since Corinne considered it her home, it was open all the time, customers or no.
I looked down at the table, my fingers tracing over some of the deeply carved graffiti, trying to put into words the flow of my thoughts. Finally deciding to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak, I looked over at my companions gray head as it bobbed slightly with her pen strokes. "Corinne, can I ask you something personal?"
Her eyes were warm and kind as they met mine. "Of course, Angel. Whats on your mind?"
"Do you . . .um . . . ." My fingers investigated another piece of inmate artwork. "Do you find women . . .attractive?" I looked up to gauge the expression on her face from the corner of my eye, suddenly feeling very shy in her presence.
Placing her pen down on the desk, Corinne clasped her hands, appearing to give the question serious consideration. "Well, yes, I suppose I do. Not all of them, mind you. That Derby gives me a bit of a pain in my guts, but some . . .yes."
I nodded. "And . . .well . . .have you ever been attracted to one? A woman, I mean. I mean, I know you were married and all, but . . . ."
Her seamed face creased into a grin as she appeared to read my thoughts perfectly. "Indeed I have, Angel. Quite a few, as a matter of fact. Still am, if the truth be told."
The way she looked at me made me blush and turn away slightly. Perhaps this wasnt such a good idea after all.
Seeing my discomfiture, she once again dropped that slightly predatory stare that shed been known to grace me with from time to time. "You have to remember, Angel, that Im quite a bit older than you are. Things were different when I was growing up."
"People werent so . . .open . . .with their sexuality as they are now. If you happened to be attracted to someone of the same gender, you kept it well hidden, or risk a huge scandal. If word got out, you could be whisked away to an insane asylum or even jail and no one wanted to risk that. Plus, my parents had quite a bit of status in the community where I grew up. Our family name and the reputation that went with it meant everything to them."
"So, you never acted on your attractions?"
The grin became predatory once again. "I never said that."
"Oh." My eyes dropped back down to the table.
I heard the faint scrape of a chair against the floor and, a second later, felt Corinnes warm presence next to me as she took a seat at my table. "As Ive said, things were much different when I was a young girl, and my family had status in my community. A marriage was arranged for me, and it was expected that Id accept that as my lot in life. And I did, for awhile. I had no skills other than those of a wife and a hostess, and no money of my own with which to start a different life."
She paused, and when I looked up, I could see a faint smile on her face and a far away look in her eyes. "Then the war happened and Todd, my husband at the time, was drafted to serve his country. Suddenly, my little corner of the world was bereft of men and I found myself surrounded by luscious femininity." Her smile widened, though her eyes were still very far away. "Ah, what a blissful time that was. It was like tasting chocolate for the first time, or being under the influence of an addictive drug. Once I had it, I wanted more." Her pale cheeks took on a faint flush. "Im afraid I went a bit overboard."
I was totally drawn into her story, my own questions totally forgotten. "What happened?"
"Todd returned from London and Im afraid he caught wind of my little indiscretions. Now, when he went off to war, he was a placid, dull man. Easily manipulated. But he returned a greedy, power-hungry tyrant. He agreed to keep quiet on the subject if I would give him hush money. I tried that for awhile, but Im afraid my parents became a bit suspicious. I had never asked for money before, and now it seemed that just about every week Todd would demand something more. Having no skills of my own with which to earn it, they were the only ones I could turn to. Im afraid my excuses became somewhat repetitive."
"What did you do?"
"Well, Todd hadnt been so chaste himself while in London. It seems he dipped his wick into some dirty wax and managed to come home with a good case of syphilis." Her smile turned wicked. "At the time, some of the physicians still treated that particular disease with arsenic."
My mind quickly put two and two together, came up with the requisite four, and forced me to look at my friend with wide eyes.
"Exactly. The treatment for my husbands dirty little illness gave me the perfect means to extricate myself from his machinations. I made up a story about rats in the attic and he even went down to the store to buy me more of the stuff! Soon I was introducing it into his food, just small doses at first, of course. Hed never been very keen on taking his medicine, but I told him that I wouldnt allow him into the marital bed until hed become completely cured. Todd wanted an heir above all, so when I suggested doubling up on his medication, he complied without complaint. It was glorious."
Shaking her head, she laughed softly to herself. "And when the stomach pains started, I played the dutiful little wife and made sure to be seen weeping over my agony-ridden husband. I worked quickly then, stuffing all the arsenic down him I could. He died two days later. Such a grieving and bereft widow this world has never seen, if I do say so myself. His death was attributed to a case of the gastric flu that was going around at the time, complicated, of course, by his syphilis. Naturally, that little bit of information was kept quite hush hush and nary another word was mentioned. I was left with a tidy sum of money and a grand old house. And a maid who was young and beautiful. If there is such a thing as perfection in life, I had achieved it."
"So, what happened?" Im sure I must have sounded like a persistent little child, begging for a bed-time story, but I couldnt help myself. I was utterly fascinated by her tale.
"The money ran out quite quickly, Im afraid. As did the maid. So, being a poor widow in the prime of her life with some social status to boot, I moved away to a town close by and found myself another husband. This time, I was lucky enough to find a rich, older gentleman who already had some long standing stomach problems. He wanted to be married quickly, and I was happy to oblige him. I quickly set myself up as the doting, long suffering wife. I accompanied him on his myriad of journeys to this doctor or that, always taking care to be seen and to be concerned. He was quite a hypochondriac, though in those days, it was known as eccentric. And you know what they say about the boy who cried wolf."
"He got eaten in the end."
Corinne flashed me that hard, triumphant smile of hers. "Exactly."
I shuddered at the expression but managed to keep my voice steady. "Why did you have to kill him, though? Did he abuse you?"
"Oh no. Randolph was quite a nice man when he wasnt complaining about his various aches and pains. We got along quite well, as a matter of fact."
"Because I had discovered an elemental truth about myself during my time with my first husband."
"And what was that?"
"I enjoyed killing. I enjoyed the power it gave me, and I enjoyed the benefits I obtained. I had no need for a man in my life, except for the money they would leave me at their deaths. It was clean. It was simple. And it was fun."
I shuddered again, but Corinne didnt seem to notice. "And so you just . . .killed them. With no remorse."
"Just like snuffing out a candle?"
"Very good analogy, Angel. Thats exactly what it was like. There were no bad emotions behind the act. Though I must admit that I enjoyed watching them suffer and call out to me as if I were some malignant angel of mercy who could grant them eternal peace. I imagine thats what the old gods of death felt like when they snuffed out a life. Powerful. Happy. In complete control."
Swallowing against the dryness in my throat, I broke the lock of our gazes, once again looking down at the scarred table-top as if it would provide the answers I sought. Hard as I tried, I couldnt seem to wrap my mind around the concept of joy in murder. It was as alien a thought to me as there could ever be. I thought back to my own time of depression and profound remorse that followed the killing of my husband. And that was done in self defense! The thought of killing him because I simply wanted to tore at my guts like a razor.
And yet here was a woman who Id come to care for and regard almost like a mother figure, sitting calmly next to me discussing her enjoyment of killing as if she were reporting the weather. I felt a cold, dead space grow inside me and my body drew in on itself as I wrapped my arms around my shoulders, elbows tight to my chest.
Corinnes expression became sad as she looked at me. "And now Ive upset you, sweet Angel. That wasnt my intention, I assure you."
"I know that Corinne," I returned, my voice soft and introspective. "Its just that . . . . It all seems so hard to believe; as if Im having a dream and just waiting for something to come along and wake me up. I guess it wouldnt be so strange if I didnt feel so close to you, but I do. Ive come to care for you a great deal, Corinne, and when you tell me things like this about yourself, well, it scares me. It almost makes me feel that that caring is for a person I dont even know, or maybe for a person who isnt even there. And thats frightening for me."
"And for that I apologize deeply, Angel. Though youve known who I was since the day you met me, I suppose that anyone can choose to overlook parts of someone they dont wish to see. It seems to be part of the human condition. As if in ignoring it, it will simply go away." When she looked again at me, her gaze was calm and direct, showing me through eye contact alone everything she was, and could be. "Angel, I do care for you. Very much. Youve been a ray of light in this dark and dreary place. But if you cant look me in the eye without experiencing fear or revulsion, then I think its best if we end this here and now and spare us both later heartache."
As I gazed at my friend, I thought long and hard over the things she had said. And I knew she had spoken the truth. Corinne had never tried to come across as someone she wasnt. Shed never hidden her deeds, nor made light of them. She spoke about her past with honesty and never tried to sugar-coat it for the benefit of my friendship. I realized that, in the time I had known her, she had always been a murderer, yet I had gotten to both know and care about her despite that fact, or maybe even, if I were to be totally honest with myself, because of it. And I also realized that without her presence, my life would be lacking something that I didnt want to give up.
"I dont want that, Corinne. I dont want to lose you as a friend because of my shallow thinking. Youre an important person in my life and if you can forgive my fear and ignorance, Id like to continue our relationship."
My friend smiled, obviously relieved. "Id like that very much as well, Angel." With a happy grin, she slumped back into her chair. "Now, before we got off on this torturous tangent of ours, we were speaking about attraction to women, were we not?"
Her direct gaze made me blush once again and I nodded.
"Well, then. Im assuming that youre asking me because theres a chance you might be attracted to someone right here in our happy little home?"
My blush deepened as I nodded again.
"Lets see. Who could it be? Perhaps our fair Critter? Ive seen the way she looks at you."
Her eyes twinkled mischievously as mine widened. Critter? "No. No, Critters a very attractive woman, but shes just a friend."
"Hmmm." Obviously having fun at my expense, Corinne pretended to ponder the question. "Pony, perhaps? Or Sonny? No? Is it Montana then? Now theres an intense, striking woman. Ah, if I were only a few years younger."
"No. None of them."
Her eyes went round with false innocence. "Then who, dear Angel? You forget, Im an old woman. My mind isnt as sharp as it once was. These guessing games go right past me, Im afraid."
I took a deep breath. And then another. "Its Ice," I mumbled to the tabletop.
"Who? Speak up, dear. My hearings not what it used to be either."
If there were ever a moment in my life where I would have truly enjoyed killing someone, it would have been right then. Corinnes gaze was sharp and mirthful, allowing me no quarter. "Its Ice," I repeated, more succinctly this time.
Her grin was triumphant. "Ahhhh. So the tall, dark and deadly one has managed to mesmerize my sweet little Angel, has she?"
"Corinne . . . ." I was surprised the sprinklers hadnt been set off, my face got so hot.
"Oh come now, Angel. You think I havent noticed those cute little puppy-dog eyes you get every time you catch sight of her? I may be old, but Im not blind."
"Corinne, please." If there had been an electric chair handy, I would have gladly strapped myself in and used a broom handle to pull the lever. Is it possible to die of embarrassment?
"Oh alright," my friend said, sounding a bit petulant. "Youre just so much fun to tease, Angel. Your face gets the most delightful shade of red. Almost a rose color. Its quite beautiful."
"Corinne. . . ."
"Alright, alright. Ill stop. For now."
A breath of thanks rushed out of my lungs. "Please," I managed to choke out.
"This attraction you have for Ice, does it bother you?"
"No. Yes. God, I dont know!" Propping my elbows on the table, I slumped my still heated face into my hands.
"Alright, lets go through this logically. Do you have a problem with the fact that shes a woman?"
"No. Not exactly. I mean, Ill admit its a little strange since Ive never been attracted to a woman before, unless you count my first grade teacher Mrs. Price."
"I think we can be safe in leaving her out of this for the moment."
"I think youre right. Its not the attraction itself that bothers me so much. Its the intensity of it. Ive never felt something like this before. In anything. I know youve talked about the connection between us before and part of me wants to believe you but . . . ." I sighed, unable yet again to voice my thoughts. "This is just so beyond my experience Im having trouble knowing what to do with my feelings."
"Have you ever thought of talking with Ice about them?"
I looked up at her, stunned. My mouth opened and closed a few times but I couldnt get the words out.
"Cat got your tongue?" Corinne was positively smug.
"Are you crazy?!?"
"Some would say so, yes."
"I mean about this! Have you forgotten that I only talked to the woman for the first time the day before yesterday?"
"And your point would be . . . ?"
Still stunned, all I could do was shake my head. "You have got to be kidding me, Corinne. Please tell me youre kidding me."
"I was quite serious, actually."
"Great. Thats just great. What do you suggest, Corinne? You think I should just waltz into Ices cell, pin her to the bed and say Hey, Ice, I just wanted you to know that, even though weve said a grand total of five words to one another, I think Im in love with you. And if its not love, its some intense kind of lust. Will you please kiss me?"
My friend shrugged. "Why not? Works for me."
For the first time in my life, I actually growled with frustration. Collapsing against the table, Corinne started laughing so hard I was actually worried that shed give herself a stroke.
As I sat there scowling and feeling rather petulant myself, my friend finally managed to bring herself under some sort of control. Isolated chuckles still escaped her as she dabbed at her tear-streaked face with a corner of her shawl. "Oh Angel, sweet, beautiful, wonderful Angel. How I ever survived thirty years in this depraved pit without your presence Ill never know."
"Im not laughing over here, Corinne," I muttered, giving her my best impression of a displeased look.
"I know, Angel. And I apologize for my outburst. Its just that you forget about the beauty of innocence in a place like this. Its freshness brings a joy to my heart. Forgive me for expressing that joy through laughter. Its not something I did much of before you came into my life."
Suddenly, I felt very much like a heel. "Corinne, Im sorry. This is just all so confusing for me. My dreams as a little girl didnt include serving time for murder or having an intense attraction to a fellow inmate, woman or man. Im starting to feel out of control all over again, and I dont like that."
"Oh Angel, I know what youre going through, believe me. Just remember, though, youve only had a day or two to figure out whats going on with you in regards to Ice. Getting a handle on those kinds of feelings will take time, and if theres one thing we have in abundance here in the Bog, its time." She laid a gentle hand on my wrist and I absorbed the warmth of her skin gratefully. "My suggestion to you is to just sit back, relax, drink some tea, and let the world go on without you for awhile."
Despite myself, I cracked a smile. "Is tea your answer for everything?"
"Pretty much, yes. Would you like some?"
"Sounds like the best offer Ive had all day."
Brown eyes twinkled as they looked back at me from over one of Corinnes shoulders. "I could make you a better one."
My day managed to end much better than it started and for that, I was happy.
To Be Continued....Part 3
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