The Inmate and the Innocent
New York City
“Miss von Waldeck?”
I stumbled forward at my beckoning, feeling my cheeks flame as I tripped over my heels. Who had decided these contraptions made women appear more professional? My stack of papers and notebook almost flew onto the chipped, tiled floor, the scent clinging to these walls old and musty, the fluorescent lights flickering.
“Hi, yes, I’m here, Mr. Spencer,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand as I juggled my things. He frowned at my disheveled appearance, his attire impeccable, not a single strand of hair out of place, his hand warm as he grasped mine in a firm shake. That was it—I was going to be fired from my internship on my first day. I knew it. He hated me already.
He smoothed down his thin grey tie, and I blushed even more. He was handsome—I’d been expecting some old, eccentric, Freudian-type man. But he was young, fit, studious. I straightened my shoulders, attempting to adopt a more formal air, but my papers began to slide out of my arms as I perspired in the stuffy hallway, and I began to regret my choice in outfit—a black business jacket and conservative pencil skirt. What was it about polyester that trapped heat?
After another gut-wrenching moment, he offered me a genuine smile with a flash of pearly white teeth.
I let out a breathy laugh, relaxing a bit.
“Is it that obvious?” I said, giving a small grimace. He chuckled, the sound deep and resonating.
“Most interns are. A lot is expected of you, but if I did it once upon a time, so can you,” he said, turning and beckoning me to follow him down the hall, thin, pale yellow folders tucked under his arm.
“Thanks for the encouragement,” I breathed, clacking after him. I needed more practice in heels. He glanced sideways at me as we walked, frowning again.
“The university tries not to send women to intern here, so forgive me if I seemed taken aback,” he offered. I watched my feet as I walked, nodding in understanding, knowing his words weren’t misogynistic by any means.
“To be honest, I requested it. My…my boyfriend is a corrections officer here,” I said, more heat flowing through my already stifled body.
“Ahh, makes some sense,” he said, shoving open a door and allowing me through first. “So, what year are you in grad school?”
“Second semester, so still pretty new,” I said as we entered a wider space where officers milled about, the scent of cheap coffee thick in the air. The lack of windows unnerved me, but it made some sense. I felt pity for the inmates, unable to quell the emotion. They were still humans. It was what had inspired me to pursue psychology in the first place—the notion that a life was always a life, comprised of millions of choices. Some just chose wrong sometimes, but it didn’t mean they’d be evil forever, right?
I glanced around for Beck, my boyfriend of eight months, but figured he was doing his rounds. The idea of working in the same facility as him had given me the reassurance to dive right into my internship—I felt safe with him. I loved him. The thought brought a little smile to my lips.
“So, as you know, we will be giving psychological evaluations to inmates ready to reintegrate into society. Some have been here for decades. It’s important to scrutinize every detail. If one answer seems off and we let them out, it can mean the difference between new homicides or not. Got it?” he said as we entered another hall.
“Yes,” I said, my voice wavering with the pressure of such a task. He chuckled again.
“Time to get tough, Miss von Waldeck. These men are in a maximum security prison for a reason,” he warned, pausing before an interview room. I peeked around him, through the reinforced glass. A single metal table resided in the stark, clinical room, two chairs on one side, one chair on the other, a rectangular bar in the middle so each inmate would remain restrained during the interviews. I swallowed hard, my mouth full of cotton.
“You can call me Eira,” I offered. He shook his head.
“They owe you the respect of calling you by your last name. You’ve earned it. Plus, the less they know about you, the better. Stick to the questions, sometimes they can be chatter boxes and attempt to distract you. Got it?” he said, raising his brows. Solemn, I nodded. He waved me after him into the room, seating himself. The room was cold, devoid of anything that resembled life, and all the heat I’d felt earlier diminished as I sat, smoothing out my skirt.
“We have a long list today, so let’s get started. Remember, be stern. They want to fluster you, especially you. Be ready to hear some…well, some nasty comments,” he warned. Stomach roiling as though I’d eaten bad seafood, I nodded. I’d heard plenty of horror stories from Beck.
The first inmate was escorted in, and I straightened as he eyed me. Mr. Spencer introduced us both, and set to work on the long list of questions. I jotted down notes, observing the aged man. He was calm, congenial, easy to speak with. As he left, Mr. Spencer leaned in, pointing to the inmate’s case file. My eyes widened in shock. He’d been incarcerated for thirty-five years for first degree murder, and was about to be released early for being a model prisoner.
“Are…are all in here for murder?” I asked, apprehensive. He shook his head.
“Some are in for drug charges, or gang related incidences, but this was deemed the prison to hold them. These men are smart, they know how to work the system,” he explained. Sighing, I settled in, hearing the sound of rustling chains as another inmate was shuffled in. And so it went, for hours. It became boring, only a few men making snide remarks about my looks or gender. I was used to hearing worse on the streets of the city, in all honesty. We took an hour break for lunch, but Beck was in a debriefing—apparently, he’d had to fire off rubber bullets for crowd control in his pod this morning. Super.
The inmate in front of us now was old enough to croak any minute, so I took to doodling in the top corner of my notebook, my mind scampering from my boyfriend, to my family, to the prospect of finding a new job. Excitement pooled in my gut as I envisioned Beck and I moving in together. We were serious enough, and he’d mentioned it last week, and from that point on, it was all I could think about.
After the death of my father last year, I’d been rather lost. My step-mother, Lilith, was more focused on raising my younger half-sister than on me, and once we’d discovered my father had left every last penny he had to my name, she’d become even more unbearable than usual. I’d moved out, paid for a six-month stint at my tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn, and applied for my masters. The work was the only thing that kept me from falling apart, until Beck.
He was my first…well, everything. I’d met him at a bar near campus, and my friends had all but forced me to accept his incessant requests for a date. They told me I was too invested in my studies and that I needed fun. I hated admitting they were right.
The inmate was escorted out, and another man in a suit popped his head in.
“I can really use your help in D4, Spencer,” he said, eyes pleading.
I glanced at my new boss, eyes wide. Finally, some action. He sighed, glancing at his watch.
“Can’t it wait? I have one more exit interview,” he said, sounding as tired as I felt.
“Well, that depends. Does a paranoid schizo have time to wait when he believes his cell mate is a demon?”
“Shit, fine,” he said, exasperated as he stood. I moved to follow, but he grinned impishly down at me.
“I think you’ve got the hang of this. One interview by yourself will boost your confidence. Just stick to the questions. They can reply verbally or written, and there will be an officer right outside the door the entire time,” he assured. I felt my stomach clench.
“Oh, umm, yeah, yeah that’s fine,” I stammered, now wishing I’d paid more attention.
“You’re a lifesaver. Remember, be strong, be tough, stick to the questions,” he said with a nod as he gathered his things and disappeared. I slumped back in the cold metal chair, heart hammering, as I wiped my sweaty palms along my thighs. I nodded to myself, staring at my jumbled notes next to the clean sheet of questions. Be tough. Be bold.
I snorted, for I was neither. My father and uncle had taken me hunting once when I was still in elementary school. I’d sobbed for hours after he’d shot what I presumed to be Bambi’s father. Beck had often poked fun at me for my compassionate side, saying it would get me into trouble someday. He called me naive, but then again, he worked in a prison. I assumed his judgement was a bit jaded and unfair.
I jumped, startled as the door swung open and an officer led in the last inmate. I kept my eyes on my notes, tapping the eraser of my pencil as my nerves mounted. The man sat before me, reaching up his shackled hands to be cuffed to the bar. As quickly as the officer had come, he left. I swallowed hard, shuffling my notes around, clearing my throat, reddening with each passing second.
The inmate remained stoic, quiet, but the air felt charged somehow, thick with a power he seemed to exude. Perhaps it was because I was alone with a criminal. I pulled his sheet to the front of my stack. His chains jangled as he clasped his large, tan hands, and I cleared my throat again.
Dante de Luca. In for a drugs charge, awaiting his release. Easy enough. Heaving a calming breath, my eyes crept up his orange-jumpsuit-clad broad torso, to his shoulders that seemed muscled enough to lift a substantial amount of weight, to the bronzed skin of his neck, where the points of tattoos resided before disappearing into his ill-fitting clothes. And finally, to his devastating face.
I shrank down like a coward, hunching my shoulders as his greenish-hazel eyes stared me down. I felt my cheeks flame to life once more, for he was the most handsome, beautiful man I’d ever seen. But there was something there, in his dark, penetrating gaze—something sinister, dangerous. His face was long, nose straight, thick brows slanted as he studied me. His hair was the type of brown all men secretly desired to obtain but were too masculine to tell their hairdressers they wanted highlights. It was tousled on the top, matching the shadows of scruff along his angular jaw.
He dipped his chin before cocking his head to the side, his glare deepening as a malevolent smirk began to form on his full lips. How was it fair when men were blessed with full lips? I shook my head, shaking hands straightening his file as I glanced at the first question. I needed to get this over with. I cleared my throat for the thousandth time, aching for a sip of water.
“D-Dante…erm, Mr. de Luca, sorry,” I said, shaking my head and pinching my eyes shut, voice no louder than the peep of a mouse. I’d already screwed up by calling him by his first name. Mr. Spencer had urged me to give them an equal amount of respect, should I expect to receive any.
“H-how…umm…what are your plans, umm…after…I mean, upon being released?” I said, pencil poised over the paper, cursing my hand as it shook for all to see. He made no move, and the silence around us settled like a heavy, oppressive cloud. I peeked up at him over his file. His smirk had widened.
“I don’t get the courtesy of knowing who is interviewing me?” he said, his voice deep and sweet as honey. I shivered, his tone so authoritative—commanding. I jumped a little.
“Umm…sorry, Miss von Waldeck.”
“That’s a mouthful,” he said, eyes simmering as they continued to stare right through me. I shrank even more, nodding.
“Yup, so…plans?” I said, attempting to be bold. I’d been forced to take theater in high school. I sort of knew how to fake emotions. Poorly, but still.
“To work,” he said. I nodded, biting my lip as I jotted down his answer.
“For my family’s business.”
Fair enough, I thought, trying my best to breeze through this unnerving interview.
“Do…do you feel remorse, for your crimes?”
He snorted, and I glanced back up at him.
“I was convicted of possessing the smallest amount of marijuana one can have and be arrested for, Miss von Waldeck.”
I squinted at him.
“Then why are you here?” I asked, clamping my mouth shut, feeling my eyes widen at my misstep. My heart clenched at the way he’d said my name, so low, so sultry. He was trying to fluster me, somehow, I knew it. His eyes gleamed with evil, with malice.
“I could ask the same of you,” he said, narrowing his eyes. I shook my head, blurting out the first thing that came to my mind, suddenly defensive.
“I’m just an intern, sir.”
He leaned forward a bit, flashing me a devious grin full of perfect white teeth.
“I like it when you call me sir,” he purred. My jaw snapped shut tight, along with my knees. I shook my head, staring down at my papers through watery eyes, hiding behind my curtain of black hair.
“Umm, do you…will you seek psychological care, upon your release?” I said, pencil poised and waiting for an answer.
“Is this your first day, Miss von Waldeck?”
“Please, Mr. de Luca, I just need you to…to answer these questions,” I said, giving him a pleading look. He leaned back a bit, frowning as his brows slanted further over his eyes.
“I can taste your fear,” he said, a coldness seeping into his tone. I blanched, heart racing. “What is your major, Miss von Waldeck?” he pressed. Haunted by his searing gaze, I answered, now the one being interviewed. I’d never been in such a dominant, authoritative presence before in my life. He was bending me to his will with mere words. There was nothing left in me but to obey, to answer him, for I knew what the malice glinting behind those eyes meant—that he had ways to make anything he wanted to happen…well, happen.
“P-psychology,” I stuttered.
“So you know all there is to know of the mind, is that it?”
I shook my head, his eloquence confounding, troubling.
“I…I’m just starting my masters…”
He flashed a dark smirk.
“If I may offer some advice, since this seems your chosen career path, you need to grow a backbone, Miss von Waldeck.”
I bristled, glaring at him, my temper something that often got the best of me. I straightened a bit, feeling rather haughty.
“I can hold my own,” I argued. He let out a chuckle, but the sound was far from happy, and I hunched down once more, tail tucked like a kicked puppy.
“What all have you dealt with, really?”
“I’ve dealt with…enough,” I said, my eyes flashing to my hands as a jolt of pain tore through my heart.
“Get back to me once you tame a paranoid schizo who tries to gouge his cell mates’s eyes out because God commanded it,” he hissed. My eyes snapped back to his face like the release of a rubber band. His look was steely, austere—no emotions flitted across his face. I swallowed hard, realizing the connection between him and the man Mr. Spencer was called away to help with.
“You’ll be spit on, pissed on. They’ll haunt your nightmares, the shadows in your home. Some stare at a wall and drool, others kill because they find it humorous. They will love an innocent beauty like yourself—because they will picture your face as they fall asleep, as they pleasure themselves. Some may even become obsessed. Better pray those ones don’t get released anytime soon. These men can hunt you down, and they will,” he said, his voice becoming lower, more gravelly with every word. I felt chilled to my core as tears welled in my eyes, because part of me knew he was right—that I was in over my head. Way over my head.
“And one day, Miss von Waldeck, you’ll come across your first psychopath. You probably won’t even know, unless you look closely enough, and by then…it will be too late,” he said, voice lowering to just above a whisper as he leaned in. My brow furrowed as I studied him, coupled his words and actions with those associated with known psychopathic traits. Premonition crept up my spine.
I shook my head, attempting to scatter my rampant thoughts, to rid myself of the hold he seemed to have on me.
“Mr. de Luca—”
“Ask me your questions, bellissima,” he said, an accent just barely detected at the word he tossed my way. I blushed, sensing it meant beauty. His expression remained closed off.
I breathed a sigh of relief, cruising through the rest. He answered each without hesitation, and I stood before him, readying myself to run. His officer came back in, unlocking him from the table, but his eyes never once strayed from my face. I nodded to him, backing out and into the hall to wait for Mr. Spencer.
I turned, eyes catching sight of Beck, my heart melting as calmness overcame me.
“Hey, babe!” I breathed as he pulled me into a side hug, his bulky belt cutting into my waist. The inmate turned, eyes narrowing on Beck’s face, before his officer pushed his shoulder, forcing him forward. I bit the inside of my cheek, praying he hadn’t heard my first name. I didn’t want him to come murder me when he was released, if I’d somehow pissed him off.
“How was your first day?” Beck asked, chaffing my arm as he grinned down at me. I gazed up into his navy blue eyes, melting all over again, a deep rooted pleasure swirling into my gut.
“I definitely need a drink tonight,” I teased. He chuckled, turning his shoulder to showcase the rip in his uniform.
“I do, too. Meet you at Iron Horse?” he asked, pecking my forehead and backing away. I grinned, nodding.
“I’ll invite Joan, we can try to set her up with your brother again,” I said. His cheeks reddened as he rolled his eyes.
“Worth a shot. Love you,” he called as his radio blared in the quiet hallway.
“Love you, too,” I said, smiling as I leaned back against the wall, sighing in relief. Day one was over, and successful, despite one inmate in particular. My eyes slipped closed as I daydreamed about Beck and the hours we’d spent in bed last night, tangled up and enjoying one another. Well, Beck seemed to enjoy himself more, as was usual. I never understood what my friends meant when they talked about how amazing sex was. To me it was more a means to an end. I’d rather spend time cuddling, watching a movie, but Beck couldn’t keep his hands off me until his urges were quenched.
I frowned a little. Tonight, I’d ask to stay alone. I needed a good night’s rest after today. I glanced down the hall, the inmate gone. Heat tore through my veins as his green-hued eyes broke through my thoughts of Beck, centering in the very pit of my stomach. I shook my head, dispelling my thoughts of him—of Dante de Luca.