An Excerpt From


A Ben Gallagher Mystery



(Marion Street Mysteries, September 2011)

©Paula LaRocque 2011

[Excerpt: Cannot be reproduced in any manner without permission from the author—except for brief quotations embodied in articles or reviews.]







Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.





Friday morning, February 21, 2003

The best way to get there from Dallas is to go straight down I-45. Takes three hours or so. The terrain’s more rolling and wooded than you might expect, especially around Corsicana. It levels off as you head south, going to heavy underbrush and open fields and farmlands.

When you get close, you can see the compound’s big guard tower from the I-road, a bit of wall, some chain-link fence. Not much foliage, they probably keep it down. You can also see that huge statue of Sam Houston towering nearly eighty feet above I-45— twenty-five or thirty tons of steel mesh covered with white concrete, tall as a steeple.

Take the US 190 exit, and go east. Turn right on Avenue J and left on Twelfth. You’ll see it on your left. You wouldn’t think it would need an address, but it has one:

Texas State Penitentiary

815 12th St.

Huntsville, Texas

* * *

The first time Ben laid eyes on Huntsville’s white concrete colossus commemorating Sam Houston, he thought, Jesus Christ, isn’t that just pure-damn Texas—make it big! But that was many trips ago, the first hellish drive down to see Andrew. Now he didn’t even notice it. Nell had been with him that first time: alternately huddling in the passenger seat, crying quietly—then staring morosely out the window, a lonely bundle of melancholy—then chattering brightly, falsely, taut as piano wire.

A decade ago.

He’d never been here this early in the morning. He pulled his new cherry-red Porsche into the almost empty parking lot and took a spot close to the entrance, twenty-five or so feet from the Walls Unit’s little portico, concrete landing, and stone steps. Andrew should see him right away. The smooth-as-glass finish of the 911 GT3 glittered. He’d wanted the car to gleam like a beacon in the drab parking lot. Andrew! Over here! And so it did, its sparkle undimmed by the trip down, even with dust blowing from the west and intermittent rain from the south.

He turned off the ignition and sat in the sudden stillness—the engine ticking away its heat into the chill, the wind sweeping across the parking lot and softly buffeting the car. He opened the door and hauled his six-foot-six frame out of the driver’s seat, stood, stretched, looked around. Only the Porsche met his expectations for this particular morning. The featureless terrain lay sprawled beneath a low dome of February sky, overcast and opaque, lighter smears of gray daubed along the eastern horizon. Over the years, when Ben had imagined this day, greeting Andrew after three thousand, six hundred and fifty days and nights of lockup, he’d imagined it bright with sun, bluebonnets maybe banking the I-road.

Shivering in his bomber jacket, he zipped the front, pulled his cell phone from a pocket, flipped it open, and punched in Nell’s speed-dial number.

“Ma. I’m here.”

“Oh dear. Already?”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“You have a long wait.”

“Some other cars here already, though. Friday’s a big parole day.”

Nell paused. “Getting them out in time for the weekend, I guess . . .”

Her words drifted away, dry and aimless as dead leaves. Now why would that be, today of all days? She was fine last night, bright as a brand-new penny. What could have happened overnight to change that? He pushed away his surprise and didn’t ask. Nell hated questions. He’d ask Dayton.

God, what would they do without Dayton?

“Dayt there yet?”

“Not yet. He’s closing on the Knowlton Arms this morning. Ben . . . will you call me when you start back?”

“Andrew can call.”

Nell breathed a shuddery ohh. Ben recognized in the syllable a small eureka! Andrew would call. No special provisions or permissions. Pick up a phone, punch in a number . . . free at last. Free at last! Thank God almighty.

“Pretty soon, Ma, honey,” Ben said.

He snapped the mobile closed against his thigh, dropped it into his pocket, and got back into the car. She was right—he had a long wait.

* * *

He’d pulled out of his garage in Arlington this morning while it was still full dark—at the same instant the newspaper guy’s jalopy swung into the cul-de-sac. Ben had braked on the drive and trotted over to retrieve his paper, rolled and wrapped in its plastic sleeve. He’d tossed the newspaper onto the passenger seat. It landed alongside his sketchbook and a thermos filled with freshly brewed French roast. He could catch up on the news, maybe work the crossword puzzle while he waited.

* * *

Now he unscrewed the top from the thermos, and the steaming coffee’s fragrance filled the Porsche—vying with its new-car smell. He carefully poured the hot liquid, set the cup into the dashboard cup-holder, and shifted sideways to lean against the door. Stretching his long legs, he made room for his right foot on the passenger seat and stuck the other in the well, elbow resting on the steering wheel. He adjusted his shoulder holster to keep it from touching the wheel. He’d had the Glock strapped in place this morning before reminding himself this was no usual day. But he left it. All told, he’d be on the road a minimum of six hours round-trip, and this was Texas. And he was a cop. He didn’t want to be the only guy out there not packing.

He took up his coffee and sat loose and brooding in the dull morning, the sun rising somewhere behind the gray flannel sky, and waited. Or tried to wait. For Ben, waiting was an acquired rather than natural skill, and his mind flitted from one uncertainty to another, restless as a fly.

Was Andrew ready? Were they?

At least he wasn’t in the middle of a case. But maybe that would be better, something to work on, discuss. That was the question—which was better? He’d thought about bringing Bood. Andrew loved dogs. Then thought again—sturdy little dreadlocked Bood in Andrew’s lap, licking him to death all the way to Dallas.

Good? Bad?

He didn’t know. Chief of Detectives Ben Gallagher, razzed by the other cops as a boy wonder, didn’t know. Doctor Gallagher—holder of a PhD in Fine Arts, accomplished artist, king of certainty—didn’t know. Not where Andrew was concerned.

Other early arrivals were pulling into the lot. Some parked near Ben. Others stayed well back from the entrance and remained in their cars—as though if they got too close, the jaws of those opening doors might clamp down on them, jerk them inside, close with an iron clang. Ben knew the feeling. How many times had he driven into this lot and passed uneasily through the Walls Unit’s glass doors? Seemed like a thousand. But a couple hundred, anyway.

Dayton almost as many, coming all the way from Kalamazoo. And Nell even more. Their tightly knit little unit. Family.

Ben supposed it was true that friends were the family you chose. But family, by God, were the friends he chose. In any case, family was what he had. Nell had mentioned it once—after Andrew went to prison. Maybe it seemed to her that Ben was more alone— he’d certainly felt more alone.

Benny? You don’t have, like, drinking buddies, do you.


Andrew always did.

He’d paused a beat.

True enough. And look where it got him.

The exchange was just that brief, but it made Ben think. And he’d finally settled on the plain truth. He had what he needed. He had Nell, who was in her way another Ben—solitary, private, independent, intense—with the big difference that she couldn’t help showing her emotions, and he couldn’t help hiding his. He had Dayton, longtime family friend, father he’d never had, all that—the source of calm he most admired and emulated. And now—again!—he would have Andrew, like the self Ben would never be: gregarious, impulsive, a sunny counterpoint to moody Nell and brooding Ben.

He saw that some drivers were out of their cars and wandering toward the entrance, where they milled around restlessly at the foot of the stone stairs—near a little patch of straw-like grass flanked by a large old oak that rattled in the wind, a scatter of dead leaves clinging to its barren branches. Men and women in jackets and puffy vests, exchanging a few words. One walking a little way from the group to light a cigarette, exhale a plume of smoke, yawn, hack into a fist. Like a motley, scruffy UN delegation— blacks, browns, whites, in-betweens.

Waiting for their ex-cons—ex-cons lucky enough to have someone to wait.

Ben studied Walker County’s lockup as if he’d never seen it: tall brick walls bearing warnings, iron doors bleeding rust, spiraling razor wire. At length, he took a drawing pencil from the door pocket and opened his sketchbook. Chattering mind quiet at last, he began to draw. Leaving out the milling crowd, he rapidly sketched the face of the Walls Unit. He laid in shadow with the side of the pencil lead and blurred and softened the edges with his thumb. When he was satisfied, he printed across the bottom of the drawing in his small, vertical script:

“Huntsville’s Walls Unit. February 21. The Day.”

He closed the pad and stowed it behind the passenger seat. Someday he’d show the sketch to Andrew. After all, however many times they’d seen it from this point of view, Andrew was about to see it for only the second time: going in and now coming out.

He checked his watch. As always when sketching or painting, he’d lost track of time. With a breathless little leap inside his chest, he realized it could be any moment now, and excitement strummed within him like a plucked string. He emptied the passenger seat and slipped the thermos and newspaper alongside the sketch pad. He sat awhile with his eyes on the entrance, chewing his lip. In a queue, someone had to be first. Someone—just never you or yours, so it seemed. But still, someone. And after that, sooner or later in the flow of freed men, would come Andrew. He would pass under the Walls Unit’s portico and down the stone steps in his weightless, loose-jointed way, dressed in the clothes he wore when he went inside ten years ago, his hair somewhere between the color of brass and copper, as stocky and well-muscled as Ben was tall and slender. Andrew a good six or seven inches shorter than Ben and still only a fraction of an inch away from six feet himself.

Andrew Gallagher, good kid, his twenties down a Huntsville prison drain.

Two guards appeared inside the Walls Unit’s glass doors, and Ben sat up abruptly, pulling his legs back into the well of the driver’s seat. A third guard appeared, unlocked the double doors, and came through to stand on the concrete landing. Ben extricated himself from the driver’s seat and scrambled from the car. His heart in his throat, he watched as the Walls Unit’s heavy glass doors swung open.

His brother was the first man to push through to the outside.

* * *

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