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The Exigency

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“Good afternoon, Miss Ocean.”

“Hi.”

“As you know, parole is a privilege, and one of the restrictions on any parolee is to avoid the company of any person who has a criminal record of any kind.” There was a pause, and Debbie said nothing. She kept her face pleasant and impassive. “That would include most of your extended family.”

“Yeah,” Debbie agreed, “that’s…obviously not something I’m proud of.”

“Would this pose an impossible challenge for you?” The parole board officer had a calm monotone voice that reminded Debbie of a computer. He was flanked by two other officers, a man on his left and a woman on his right, both of whom were looking at him rather than at Debbie.

“No,” Debbie replied. “No, I don’t want that life. I never wanted that life. My brother—” She swallowed hard. “—may he rest in peace – was a criminal. I loved him…” Debbie knew that was the truest thing she would say today. She did love Danny, and she hoped that the parole board would see that truth because it probably made her seem a bit more human. “He was a conman,” she went on. “It was in his blood.”

“And it’s not in your blood?”

“No,” Debbie said quickly. “No, sir…uh…” She made a show of her hesitation, trying to demonstrate that this was something difficult for her to discuss, as if the shame of her actions was still eating at her after all these years, which – she reflected – it was, but not for the reasons they thought. “I fell for the wrong person.” Well, that was true. Sort of. “It was a mistake…” She half-smirked, trying to draw them into a sense of her humanity. “…but it…happened, and…” She paused as if she was choosing her words carefully.

The parole board officer said nothing. He stared back at her, pen poised over the pad of paper in front of him, eyebrows raised. The woman on his right clicked her tongue and made a tiny note on the paper in front of her before turning back to stare at the man in the center. 

“…and if I were to be released, I would…uh…” Debbie let the tears gather in her eyes right on cue. “Sorry,” she said thickly, a slight crack in her voice. “Wow, just saying that…” She sighed heavily and shook her head in feigned amazement at her own emotion. “If I were to be released…” She cleared her throat. Each action was calculated and precise, and she could see a crease on the brow of the officer that told her that her crocodile tears were convincing. “…I would just want the simple life. I just want to…hold down a job, make some friends, go for a walk after work in the fresh air, and pay my bills.” Debbie finished speaking and sniffed quietly, blinking quickly to remind everyone watching of the tears in her eyes.

“Right,” the officer said finally. His eyes dropped from her face to his notes. In her peripheral vision, Debbie saw a guard lean forward to pass her a tissue.

“Thanks,” she said quietly, dabbing at her eyes and shooting the guard a strained smile.

“Miss Ocean,” the parole board officer continued. Debbie focused her eyes back on him.

“Yes, sir,” she said politely.

“You will be escorted back to your cell while we deliberate,” he said, still in that blank monotone that she actually found somewhat impressive. He gave a tiny nod toward each of his fellow officers. The man on his left twitched slightly as though he had been staring off into space thinking about his dinner and not paying attention to anything that was said. The woman on his right pursed her lips. Neither of them looked at Debbie.  

“Uh…okay,” Debbie said with a small, nervous smile. Her face might be contorted into a show of meek anxiety, but the pounding of her heart told a different story. Her own true feelings were tortuously loud, born of the yearning ache to just be free of this place, to get out and run the most glamorous and glorious con of her life, to find Lou.

Lou…

Debbie was barely aware of standing up to follow two guards back to her cell. The unchanging cinder blocks passed by in a blur of dull familiarity. There was no reason to think that her parole wouldn’t be granted. She had an almost spotless behavioral record, and she was well liked by guards and inmates alike. True, her entire family was comprised of criminals, but most of them were dead now, even Danny, which hurt more than she could describe. Her friends were criminals, too, but hardly any of them had ever been caught, so there wasn’t a lot tying her to anyone suspicious. There wasn’t a lot tying her to anyone at all. There was Claude, of course; her stomach churned at the thought of him. But if her plan worked, he would end up in a cell just like hers, and she wouldn’t ever have to worry about him again.

And there was Lou.

Debbie lay on her bed, listening to the noise drifting in from the corridor. A fight had broken out in a cell down the hall. She winced at the unmistakable sound of a skull bouncing off cinderblock. There was a yell from a guard and the click of a taser gun. The quieter sounds that followed seemed to roar in Debbie’s head: the muffled sounds of two guards talking and the rustle of movement as unconscious bodies were born on stretchers towards the infirmary. Debbie bit down on the inside of her cheek and breathed slowly through her nose, willing the nausea in her stomach to pass. She didn’t like the sound of conflict. She had thought she would get used to it in here, but she hadn’t. At last, the sounds faded, and there was silence but for the humming white noise of the fluorescent lights. Debbie’s stomach unclenched just a little – just enough for her to think.

She thought about the job, and she thought about Lou.      

Her cellmate was on a work assignment, and it seemed almost unnaturally quiet, a bit like being back in solitary. Today, Debbie appreciated the time to reflect as she waited for the parole board’s verdict. She had calculated every possible contingency, and practically every single one worked out in her favor. Debbie itched to put her newest con into motion. She could feel the tension in her body as though she were poised at the start of a race, waiting for Lou to swoop in and grab her hand so they could begin. Because she wasn’t going to do it without her, that was for sure. They would be in it together. Together. Tonight – or perhaps tomorrow night, depending on how she felt once she stepped outside – Debbie hoped to fall asleep wrapped around Lou, between eight-hundred thread-count sheets.

Debbie shivered at the thought and turned onto her side to face the wall. The last time she saw Lou had been almost three years ago. They had an unspoken agreement that too many visits might draw unwanted attention. Lou had smuggled her a contraband cell phone two years ago, but Debbie hadn’t even turned it on. Every so often, she told herself she would, but she thought it might be too painful. Their relationship – whatever they were – had always been a very physical, tactile phenomenon. It was Lou tucking a piece of hair behind Debbie’s ear. It was Debbie swiping her thumb across Lou’s cheekbone. It was late-night, post-heist adrenaline manifested in flushed skin and desperate breaths. Debbie closed her eyes against the images floating before her eyes – so close she could almost taste them, and yet…

“Ocean?”

Debbie turned over. “Hey, Dina,” she said as she caught sight of the guard.

“They’re calling you back in.”

Debbie sat up. “They made a decision?”

“Yup. Let’s go.”

Debbie walked one step in front of Dina down the long corridor towards the parole board offices. “You know yet?” Debbie asked. She had a partnership-of-sorts with Dina built on contraband cigarettes and mutual respect. She trusted her, knew she was one of the few guards who was actually a good person and not just in it for the false sense of power.

“Nah,” Dina said, “I’m sure I’ll hear later. I better see you on your way out, okay?”

“Thanks.”

“Yeah.”

Dina knocked on the door of the parole board office before opening it. Debbie stepped inside and heard the door click shut behind her. She fixed the impassive, pleasant expression back on her face and settled onto the cold metal of the folding chair. There was a different parole board officer across from her this time, but he had the same, unfeeling expression. God, everything here was so fucking bland except for the bright orange color of the jumpsuits. Debbie hated it.

“Miss Ocean,” the officer began, “we have reviewed your request and have made the decision to deny your parole.”

Debbie blinked, though her insides were suddenly in knots. Denied. She hadn’t really planned for that. This was her last opportunity for parole. The first of June would mark the end of her sentence, but that was almost a month after the Met Gala. The Met Gala…

The man cleared his throat. “Given the recent passing of your brother under…suspicious circumstances, there’s just too much of a chance for relapse into destructive behaviors.”

Destructive behaviors? Seriously? Debbie thought. I’m in here for art fraud, that’s literally the opposite of destruction. She stayed silent, letting her eyes fall to her hands. Reading between the lines of the parole officer’s words, Debbie knew their real fear was that she had somehow inherited the formidable Ocean empire via Danny’s death. They weren’t exactly wrong, but even so, it stung. 

“We do have some options for grief counseling,” the officer continued after a moment. “And we recommend that you take advantage of those resources during the remainder of your sentence, which will end on or near the first of June.”

Debbie swallowed hard, feeling real tears burn behind her eyes. She blinked slowly and clenched her jaw to ensure that no one noticed. Pulling herself together, she fixed a look of numb disappointment onto her face.

“Do you have any questions?” the officer asked.

Debbie liked plans, liked situations where she knew exactly what was going to happen. She liked a thrill – that’s where the criminality came in – but she preferred it in the context of the long game. Improvisation made her nervous. She cleared her throat but didn’t say anything. Would it be better to cry? To fight the decision with logic? To plead for an exception to be made? Debbie thought of her plan, her most delicious, beautiful plan – the jewelry heist of the century…

“If you don’t have any questions,” the officer said finally, clearly bored by her silence. “You’ll be escorted back to your cell.”

Debbie glanced up from her lap and met the man’s eyes for a fleeting moment. “Couldn’t I do the grief counseling as part of my parole? I mean,” she sighed, “I think it’s a good idea…” She choked back a sob that was only half-feigned this time. “…I…Danny—”

“The board’s decision is final, Miss Ocean,” the officer said coolly, already packing up his things. “Unless you have a question about something we can actually—”

“Can I get an unsupervised visit?”

The officer stopped midway through reaching for his briefcase and looked skeptically at her. Her clicked the ballpoint pen in his hand nervously several times. Another officer glanced at him in some surprise. Unsupervised visits were generally reserved for spouses, immediate family, and lawyers. Debbie had none of those. “With who?” the officer asked somewhat exasperatedly. It was nearing mid-afternoon now, and Debbie suspected that she was his last appointment of the day. He wanted to get this over with. 

“My…well…” Debbie thought of how much Lou would laugh at what she was about to say. “…well, my…partner…she…” Debbie stammered herself towards a blush that she felt creeping up her cheeks and down over her collarbones. She averted her eyes from the men in front of her in an embarrassed sort of way, partially to hide her own amusement. “We would have gotten married…I was going to ask her on her birthday in May if I was paroled, I…” The lie settled onto her shoulders like a familiar woolen blanket – soft and warm.

The parole board officer looked at her blankly, nonplussed.

Debbie’s brain was working almost too quickly for her to catch up. There was still a way that her plan might work, but she had to talk to Lou. She had to see Lou. “Please,” Debbie said, looking up at the men in front of her with purposefully watery eyes. “It would mean a lot for me to see her, and I know my behavioral record is clear, so…” She trailed off as if she were losing her nerve, giving the officers the chance to swoop in and see themselves as saviors.

“Uh…,” the officer began. He glanced sideways at the man on his left, who nodded once without any change in his impassive expression. “Uh…yeah. We can arrange an unsupervised visit for tomorrow. What’s the name?”

“Louise Miller,” Debbie said firmly. There was no point using fake names at this point; they had to seem legit. “She owns a club called Anchorline, in Brooklyn.”

“Right,” the officer said, scribbling Lou’s name and information on a bright turquoise Post-it note. “Admin will give her a call.”

“Thank you,” Debbie said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I…appreciate it.”

 

**

 

The cell door closed behind Debbie with a familiar clang that she barely heard. She stood frozen in the middle of the small room, staring at her bed without really seeing it. She had been so, so sure that her parole would be granted. She had hung everything on that. It hadn’t occurred to her that Danny’s death would change anything regarding her release. If anything, taking him out of the equation meant one less criminal for her to contact. Destructive behaviors, destructive behaviors…The words turned over and over in her mind. They didn’t make any sense, but then, they didn’t have to. The men who ran this place could bullshit any excuse they wanted to keep someone here.

If Lou agreed, the job could still work. Running it with one less person meant putting a little more on each of their plates to make sure everything went smoothly. It could work, and Debbie admitted (grudgingly) that there was something poetic about pulling a con from behind bars. The revenge would be a little less sweet, perhaps, without Claude catching a glimpse of her face. However, as long as he ended up with a longer sentence than her own, Debbie would be satisfied. Debbie’s mind ticked through her plan, running each element as she had a thousand times, but this time without herself in the picture. It still worked. Perfectly. Like clockwork. Debbie managed a small smile. Lou could do it. They could do it.

Still, Debbie’s body felt heavy with sadness. She wasn’t disappointed about not being present for the Met Gala – that was the least of her worries, really. As long as the job worked and she had an alibi, that was all that mattered. She wasn’t sad about Danny, either – not at the moment, anyway. If he was really dead, she would mourn him once the heist was over. If he wasn’t dead, well, then she just had to wait. There was no use worrying about it now. No, the reason for the tears now pricking at the corners of Debbie’s eyes was that the denial of her parole meant another three months without Lou.

Debbie missed Lou more than she had missed anything in her life. It had been ten years since they had last shared a bed, shared a kiss. Debbie wondered if she would be able to prevent herself from simply melting into Lou’s embrace tomorrow during the unsupervised visit. Even though she wasn’t entirely sure what their partnership would look like during the Met Job and afterwards, Debbie was certain that Lou would be there. They had made promises to each other before Lou left ten years ago, and those promises had been implicitly renewed on the day before Debbie’s sentencing when she finally plucked up the courage to call her again. In many ways, Lou was the reason Debbie had come up with the Met Gala Heist in the first place; Lou and the Met Museum itself were the two constants in every version of Debbie’s plan.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted with Lou once this was all over, once the heist was complete and she was out of jail. Debbie wasn’t good at putting words to feelings. However, she did know that her skin felt different without Lou brushing up against her – different in a prickly, uncomfortable way. Lou’s sharp angles, her platinum blonde hair, her leather – it all fit against the edges of Debbie’s shadowy silhouette. It just…worked. They worked, and that was all Debbie needed to know for now.

Stirred into motion by thoughts of Lou, Debbie walked across to her bed and sank onto it, rooting around under the shitty, plastic mattress cover until she felt the hard corner of the contraband cellphone Lou had sent her (via Dina) two years ago. She pulled out the phone and turned it over a few times in her hand. Lou deserved some warning before the prison called her. Debbie wasn’t sure what to say, knew it had to be cryptic and short – nothing that would raise any red flags. Debbie sank onto her side on the bed, facing the wall as the phone powered on. There were two contacts: Lou and Danny. Debbie smiled sadly at Danny’s name as she touched the MESSAGE icon next to Lou’s information.

Parole denied. Private visit tmrw. Debbie typed out the words and then stared at them. Somehow, it made the situation much more real to actually see it written out so succinctly. It was cold and banal, but she couldn’t manage anything else right now. If she started probing her feelings, she was sure her texts would run into paragraphs. It was better to be blunt, to make sure Lou knew that Debbie was okay. Debbie thought about adding a ‘plz’ to the end, but that seemed a bit desperate. She pressed send with a finger that shook slightly, made sure the volume was completely turned off in case Lou responded, and curled into a ball with her eyes squeezed shut. She ran the new version of the heist over and over in her head for uncounted seconds, minutes, hours. There were a few minor snags, but she fixed each one diligently, trying not to clutch the phone too tightly. After what felt like days, the device finally vibrated in her hand. Debbie jumped as though someone had shouted in her ear, and fumbled with the screen to turn it on.

Unsupervised? Lou’s question wasn’t entirely unexpected. One of the factors that had kept her visits few and far between was the discomfort of the supervised visiting room.

Yes, Debbie responded immediately.

I’ll be there, Jailbird.

In a fit of romance, Debbie pressed her lips to the screen of the phone and felt tears behind her eyes once more. Thx, Lou, she typed, once she had mentally shaken herself.  

There was a pause before Lou’s next text, and Debbie buried the side of her head in the pillow, keeping one eye trained on the screen and the phone well-hidden in her hand. Finally, the device buzzed again: I’m sorry.

Debbie pressed her lips into a thin line as she typed a hasty response. Me too. They’ll call u @ the club to set up the visit.

K, Lou replied immediately, U need anything?

No, I’m OK. See u tmrw.

See u, Debs.

There was something about the perfunctory ending of their conversation that made yet another wave of emotion to crash over Debbie. She wasn’t usually prone to tears; she preferred lying in a blank stupor staring up at an even blanker ceiling. But this…this was different. The four years between when Lou had left and the date of her arrest had been full of a similar, uncontrollable level of emotion. Debbie had felt herself spiraling as each of her solo jobs went wrong. It wasn’t as if everything had gone perfectly with Lou. It hadn’t, not at the end – that was part of why they had separated, but there was still a comfort to it that Debbie hadn’t recognized until it was gone; until Lou was gone. Eventually, she had given up on the solo gigs and teamed up with Danny, but his team didn’t really value her skills. That’s when she had started things with Claude. It had been a dull, though lucrative, way to get back on her feet – until it wasn’t. Until he had framed her for art fraud and gotten her thrown in prison. Six years with a chance for parole. A chance for parole. A chance…That chance had flickered and died. All the strength and all the hope that Debbie had cultivated in prison seemed very fragile now. She clutched the rough blankets of her bunk tightly in her fists, imagining them to be the only two things she could count on: in her left hand was the perfection of her Met Gala plan, and in her right hand was Lou. The job and Lou, Debbie told herself. The job and Lou. Tomorrow. The job…and Lou…Lou…Lou.

“Didn’t expect to see you back here, Ocean.” A sympathetic voice cut through Debbie’s repetitive thoughts.

Debbie turned over to face the middle of the room. She hadn’t heard the door of the cell open and close, but her cellmate had clearly just returned from dinner. Mercifully, Debbie had been allowed to skip the meal tonight. She suspected that Dina had pulled some strings. “Hey, Marcia,” Debbie said, trying to sound normal. 

Marcia winced at the look on her face. “That bad, huh?”

Debbie grimaced. “Not good.”

“Denied?” Marcia asked, sinking onto her own bed and looking across the narrow cell at Debbie.

“Yeah,” Debbie replied, tilting her neck to each side until it cracked and surreptitiously turning off the contraband phone while keeping it hidden under her pillow.

“Fuck ‘em.”

“Yes,” Debbie agreed. They sat in silence for several minutes. Debbie liked Marcia. She was down-to-Earth and quiet, and she didn’t take anybody’s bullshit. She hadn’t been here as long as Debbie, but they’d been placed together in a double cell well over a year ago. It had been a better year than the first few by far.

“I really thought you’d get it,” Marcia said eventually, shaking her head. “Let’s face it, you’re pretty and white, and it’s your first time in here.” She gestured vaguely at her own dark skin. “I mean, there’s no way they’d ever let me out early, but you…I thought you had a decent shot. They say why?”

“Danny.” It was all Debbie could say. Marcia didn’t know that Debbie’s family were criminals, but she knew Danny had died. She had been there when Dina brought Debbie the news, and she had stayed awake all night to make sure Debbie was alright. Debbie hadn’t quite worked through the gratitude she felt for that, but it really had meant something. 

“What, they think you’ll fuck up some more paintings ‘cause your brother died?”

“Something like that.” Debbie met Marcia’s eyes and managed a half-smile.

“Fuck, I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Debbie said with a sigh, repeating the same words she had texted Lou. She was sorry. It put a serious wrench in her plans, and Debbie didn’t like wrenches in her plans.

“How long you got left now?”

“Three months.”

“Shit,” Marcia let her breath out in a hiss, propping her elbows on her knees and resting her chin on her entwined fingers. 

“Mm hmm. It’ll be a long few months.” Debbie uncrossed her legs and set both feet on the floor. She ran her hands down her shins and stretched her back. “I got an unsupervised visit, though,” Debbie added after a moment.

“With that rock-chick Australian girlfriend of yours?” Marcia asked, eyebrows raised. Marcia had seen the Polaroid photo that Lou had sent two years ago when she had been going through some old boxes: Debbie and Lou in Paris twelve years ago.

“She’s not my—”

“Yes, she is,” Marcia interrupted her firmly.

Debbie shook her head and smirked, but she didn’t argue the point. It was…nice to think of Lou that way.

“What’d you say to make that happen?” Marcia asked.

Debbie felt herself blush very slightly. “Told them I wanted to marry her.”

“See? What I tell you?”

“It’s not…” Debbie trailed off. She had been meaning to say that it wasn’t true, but that didn’t feel quite right. Maybe she hadn’t actually planned to ask Lou to be her wife, but she didn’t not want to marry her. Debbie hadn’t ever considered it before, not really, not beyond a few jokes here and there over the years. But now they could actually get married, what if…what if

Marcia raised her eyebrows at the expression on Debbie’s face and sighed. “Oh, you’ve got it hard for that girl.”

Debbie shrugged. “Maybe a little,” she said with dignity.

Marcia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, let me know how you feel after the visit tomorrow.”

Debbie sighed and shook her head. “I really thought…”

“I know.”

Debbie lay back down on her bed and fell silent. Marcia took the hint that the conversation was over and settled onto her own bunk, pulling out a long letter from her husband from under her pillow. Debbie watched her eyes soften as she read it, and she wondered if that happened to her own eyes when she looked at her photo of Lou. Now she thought of it, she wasn’t even sure where the picture had gotten to. The last time she had looked at it, one of the more threatening guards had interrupted her, storming into her cell to berate her about a wardrobe violation that she was quite sure was fake. She had blindly shoved the photograph into the first book that came to hand, not bothering to look at the cover and far too preoccupied with trying to avoid the guard’s wandering hands to identify the book by feel. By the time the guard left, Debbie hadn’t been able to bring herself to do anything other than curl into a ball and stare at the wall.  

Now, desperate for something to do with her hands, Debbie slid off the bed and went to her stack of books in the corner. She knew it wasn’t in Sherlock Holmes; she read that far too often to keep anything in its pages. She picked up an old edition of The Norton Anthology of Western Music that she had stolen from the prison library and shook out the leaves. Nothing fell out, so she turned to the next book and the next. Most of them she had never opened. They were gifts from Tammy, and they weren’t really her style, though she appreciated the thought.

“It’s in your Shakespeare,” Marcia said through a sigh.

“What?”

“The picture of Lou?”

Debbie looked over her shoulder and blinked in surprise. Marcia smiled and rolled her eyes.

“It’s in your Shakespeare,” Marcia said again, pointing to the large, green tome. “I noticed it sticking out the other day…thought you put it in there on purpose – marked something in Romeo & Juliet or some romantic shit like that.”

Debbie pulled the book towards herself and saw the bent corner of the photo sticking out of the side. The picture fell out onto her lap as she shook out the leaves. She checked the page from where it had come. “No, it was Henry V,” she said with a deadpan glance at Marcia.

Marcia snorted with laughter. “Whatever floats your boat, Ocean.”

Debbie smirked and re-stacked the books in the corner before picking up the photo and returning to her bed to study it. She and Lou both looked a little different than they did now, but it was still them. They looked happy. Their bodies were turned towards each other. Lou’s left arm was wrapped around Debbie’s waist and her right hand was resting over Debbie’s upper stomach and ribs. It was a possessive gesture that had only ever felt right with Lou. Debbie had one arm around Lou’s back. Her other arm hung loosely at her side, hand clutched around the top of a bag full of pastries. Lou was dressed in black leather pants, a matching vest, and her usual tangle of necklaces. Debbie was wearing a denim sundress that buttoned all the way down the front to the hem just above her knees. She had undone the top few buttons for Lou’s benefit, and the edge of her white, lacy bra peeked through just enough to tantalize.

Looking closely at the photo, Debbie found that she could almost feel the heat of the Paris summer, could almost smell the stolen Armani perfume on both of their necks, could almost feel Lou’s hand resting just below her breasts. Debbie stared at the image and willed it to fill her mind. It was all she had, but it was never enough. She should have been back with Lou tonight, should have been sitting across the table from her sharing Chinese food and wearing lingerie. Instead she was stuck in this horrible, nylon jumpsuit with her stomach growling and churning.

The harsh clang of a buzzer sounded outside in the corridor, and Debbie slid the photo under her pillow. She swung her legs off the bed as Marcia did the same, picked up her toothbrush, and followed her cellmate out into the corridor to the bathroom. Debbie counted her steps, counted the other inmates, counted the cracks in the poor excuse for a mirror above the sink. She thought of nothing but numbers until she crawled back into her bed fifteen minutes later wearing her prison-issued cotton pajamas and hand-knitted socks from Tammy’s Christmas package. Debbie didn’t look at the photo of Lou, but she kept her palm over it as she closed her eyes and buried her face in her pillow. She thought of Lou’s hands resting against her ribs, her waist, her hips. She thought of Lou’s lips pressed softly against the sensitive skin just under her ear. She thought of Lou’s eyes gazing into hers, and eventually, Debbie slept.