Rey Alliance Year 7
New Camelot (formerly New Braunfels), Texas
Freedom lay within Gloria's grasp. She stood tense before the window of her cell, moonlight framing her nude figure. She ignored the dank chill. Her flame-red hair, usually smoothed tight, fluffed out like a halo, though in unhallowed splendor. Well-toned muscles tensed under alabaster skin.
The guard fumbled at the lock, dropped the key and cursed under his breath.
"Knock off that noise!" a prisoner down the corridor complained. "Can't a gal get any sleep?"
Gloria held her breath. Don't screw this up, you clumsy bastard. If he caused her to miss this chance...
The iron door squeaked open, and she waited for him. Waited like the black widow that lived in the corner of her cell. All these seven years, the dynasty of ruthless female spiders had schooled her to forge her secret hatred into the guise of patience, the model prisoner. Inspired her to keep herself fit and powerful as a wrestler but neat as a priestess.
Every day she had crouched to watch the black widow while tearing narrow strips from her blanket or the hems of her convict uniform, shreds that wouldn't be missed. With meticulous care, she twisted them into a tight cord--her widow's web.
She cherished the knowledge that both male and female guards considered her an enigma--cold, more beautiful at thirty-two than ever, outwardly cooperative. On her cheek, a tattoo of an ornate dagger cutting off a tear suited her new style much better than it had when she used to spew her malice at the world. Yet they never forgot she was the murderess who had conspired to overthrow the king.
Three months ago, when Billy Ray came to work as a guard, she saw her chance. He would stand in a doorway so she would have to brush against his rigidness then say with a grin, "I don't wanna be hard-on my prisoners. Hope we can be close friends."
"Do that again, asshole, and I'll report you," she whispered. Sexual harassment and intimidation by prison guards constituted a serious offense in the Rey Alliance. But when he backed up too far, she gave him a wink and a smile. "Or maybe I'll take care of it myself." She swayed her hips when she walked away.
Her teasing-threatening game enticed him, as she knew it would.
The first time Billy Ray worked the night shift, she heard him grunting and panting outside her cell, saw his shadow hunched over, one arm jerking. At last, he stifled a piglike squeal of release, and his shoulders went slack.
All the while, Gloria twisted her shreds of cloth into a cord, longer--ever longer and stronger. That night she had crept to the bars so silently he jumped when she reached out and touched his arm.
"Jesus!" Lit by the corridor's single bulb, his pasty face was that of a naughty boy discovered in his guilt.
"Tomorrow night," she whispered, and let the light catch her face and nightshirt-clad breast pressed between the bars. She allowed the garment to gap and reveal one pink nipple.
He looked confused. "You mean...?"
"Come to me then." She had backed into the shadows, melting into her bunk the way the black widow withdrew when a fly approached her web. Or when an unwary suitor disregarded the price of mating.
Tonight, she stood and let the moonlight caress her curves, one hand concealed behind her--the hand that held her cord web and a dry biscuit, saved for this occasion. Breathing hard, Billy Ray left the keyring dangling from the lock and stumbled across the threshold. He shucked off his britches, catching them inside-out on his shoe, almost tripping in his eagerness.
"Take off your shirt, too, and lie down on the bunk," Gloria whispered. Her empty hand caressed his face while he fumbled the buttons open and complied.
"Let me play with you first." She reached down.
Hatred consumed her as she seized his scrotum. She crushed his detestable balls in a vice's grip. Her other hand stuffed the dry biscuit into his gaping mouth and crammed it deep. Releasing him, she sprang clear and looped the garrote around her hands. He convulsed in muted pain, lurching for the door.
She looped the cord tight around his neck, all her past strength-training concentrated on this moment. They thudded to the concrete, Billy Ray on top of her, but pain couldn't loosen her grip. She strained until he turned to dead weight, then longer to make sure.
At last, she rolled him off her. A triumphant shout caught in her throat. Instead, she placed the black widow on his face and watched for a moment while it crawled across one dead eye.
She dressed in Billy Ray's uniform and stuffed her hair under his cap. She dislodged the keyring with a minimum of jingling and slipped out the door. Widow's web clutched in hand, she hurried along the corridor and down the stairs.
The unsuspecting guard at the main exit sat with his feet propped up, reading. A pocketknife lay open on the table. Mustn't let him reach it. She came up behind him in a crouch, and this time, the chair back shielded her from his struggles. The ease of strangling him almost disappointed her. She snapped the dead man's knife closed and pocketed it.
Freedom was hers.
All through her imprisonment, few people from outside had bothered to visit her. A preacher came several times to pray for her soul. Once a year, she got to see her son Edward on his birthday when, out of pity, his foster mother Constance brought him. The boy's recent seventh birthday was still fresh in her mind, his eyes round with fear as he shrank from her embrace.
Yet something in his little face held such poignant appeal it awoke maternal instincts far stronger than she'd ever felt when he was a snotty-nosed, squalling larva of a thing. That tenderness other women had claimed always seemed ridiculous to her before, but now she longed to yank back the love he gave to Constance. She itched to undo the seven years of teaching her kid had undergone at the hands of those pansy-asses who stole him.
It was worth listening to all the mundane details Constance recounted to fill the otherwise silent visits. She rattled on about where they lived, about the little boy's room and how he had once frightened them by climbing down an oak tree just outside his second-floor bedroom window. The description would make it easy for her to find the sleeping child.
Now, like a shadow, she glided between darkened houses, stores, churches--many boarded up or crumbling from disuse. A low chuckle escaped her lips. Capital of the illustrious Rey Alliance or not, New Camelot had yet to recover its population after the Plague.
New Camelot, hell! Who were they kidding? What fools they all were to think they could rebuild people's lives any better than before. The idea that Art--or "Arturo el Rey" as they called him--was a reincarnated King Arthur sounded like the kind of propaganda crap his advisor Nilson would dream up. Art--a reincarnated king!
If only the Plague had finished the job and swept stinking humanity off the earth, or at least wiped out Art so the people left over wouldn't idolize him as some kind of savior. Too good for Gloria, the woman who rode with him through battles against terrorists. Savior? He certainly hadn't saved her!
She rounded the corner into the plaza, softly lit with streetlights. No wrecked and abandoned buildings here. A brightly painted sign and the aroma of yeast bread announced "Hans's Bakery." Store windows bulged with shoes, clothing, cookware and musical instruments. A few shiny cars were parked here and there. Where were the guards armed to defend such bounty? And the cavalry?
An oval island of trees and lawn, encircled by streets, belied that anything had ever happened here but peace and harmony. On the bandstand, a pair of young lovers danced to music only they could hear. Neither carried a weapon nor watched for enemies. Was it really that safe now? The girl giggled and ran down the steps, pursued by the boy. They kissed when he caught her then disappeared behind a hedge. A fountain splashed and gave back bits of light as if imitating the fireflies that hovered around crape myrtle and roses.
Gloria slipped past the only lighted windows, the Smitz Hotel lobby. She heard voices inside and flattened her body against the exterior wall. Her face and one palm felt the cold, embossed surface of a bronze plaque and she traced the date "1851" with one finger. A beam from the streetlight fell across a second plaque beneath the first, which noted the hotel's remodeling in 2010, just a year before the Plague. Once more resurrected to thriving life, the vacancy sign beckoned to survivors.
Oh, yeah, they could heal a town's scars, while they left Gloria to rot in jail.
Through the window, she saw the desk clerk joking with a janitor. She hurried past the adjoining Sweet Shoppe to the corner and caught her breath.
There stood the palace, as people called the courthouse, where Arturo el Rey slept with his bitch, "Queen Shanna." When Gloria had been his woman, they bedded only in open air or dead people's houses.
She knew of no other courthouse situated on a street corner. The "king" told everyone he chose it to live in because it sat in the midst of citizen life and connected with court business. Her lip curled back, and she thrust her middle finger at the new annex, linked to the vintage palace building by a glassed-in walkway on the third floor. In a courtroom of that building, a judge and jury had convicted her and doomed her to life imprisonment. She chuckled again. Well, she'd just granted herself parole.
The limestone palace walls rose three stories, topped with a bell tower. Under carved columns, two double-door entrances tempted her. How she yearned to sneak in and strangle the monarchs in their bed. Maybe she could get onto the second floor through the columned balcony overlooking the plaza.
Too risky. Like a black widow, she must bide her time. She shrank back into the sheltering darkness. Must stick to the plan.
She knew exactly where to find her little boy, her only hope. Closer to the river, she found the house where the foster family slept. No sound broke the quiet except crickets and a lonely night bird.
There stood the tree, reaching up to Edward's window, just as Constance had described it. Gloria climbed, hugged a limb when a dog in the next yard began to bark then went on up after it lost interest. She inched across a smaller limb toward the window left open to scoop in the crisp breeze. With the prison guard's knife, she slit the screen and wriggled through.
Edward lay curled on his side, a slice of moonlight across his pale face. She knelt and inhaled the clean, little-boy scent of his tousled black hair.
She hated having to pinch his nostrils shut and seal his mouth with her other hand until he fainted, but how else could she keep him quiet? If he remembered the kidnapping, it wouldn't be her face he had seen, just a dark shape in a cap. She lifted his limp little body, surprised at its light weight, and tied him to her back with the bed sheet. Down the tree she carried him.
The neighbor's dog began to bark furiously. The back porch light went on. She froze.
"Max, get in here, and shut up!" a man's sleepy voice said. The dog whined, and the door slammed. Silence. The light went off.
Slithering to the ground, she listened for Edward's breathing. Okay, just unconscious. She jogged, carrying him on her back, and he didn't whimper until they were out of New Camelot's city limits. A little farther and he could scream his lungs out if he wanted to. She'd get him out of Alliance territory somehow, get their crap out of his head and find a way to live. How? She didn't know. Weaving this new web would take time.
But whatever it took, she and Edward would make them all pay--if it took the rest of her life.