The Walls is the brand new crime novel by Hollie Overton, bestselling author of the Richard and Judy book club pick Baby Doll. This compelling thriller is a powerful, suspenseful book that questions how far one woman will go to protect her family.
Single mom Kristy Tucker works as a press agent for the Texas Department of Corrections handling everything on death row from inmate interviews, to chronicling the last moments during an execution. Her job exposes Kristy to the worst of humanity and it’s one that’s beginning to take its toll.
So when Kristy meets Lance Dobson, her son’s martial arts instructor, she believes she’s finally found her happy ending. She’s wrong.
Kristy soon discovers that Lance is a monster. Forced to endure his verbal and physical abuse, Kristy is serving her own life sentence – unless she’s willing to take matters into her own hands. Perfectly poised to exploit the criminal justice system she knows so well, Kristy sets out to get rid of Lance – permanently.
Read on for an extract from The Walls…
Dear Ms. Tucker,
I hope this message finds you and your family happy and healthy. I am following up on the request I made regarding the date and time for my interview with 48 Hours. I have been in contact with Debbie, the lead investigative reporter, but she said she has not heard from your office. I know I’ve said it to you, but I will say it again to anyone who will listen. I am innocent. I did not murder my children. I cannot and will not stop fighting to prove my innocence. But the clock is ticking. The state of Texas is committed to executing me. My lawyers believe that if people actually heard the facts of my case, they’d see the truth. All I want is a new trial and I’m hoping these interviews will help secure publicity to help pressure the courts to grant one. I look forward to seeing you this week and discussing my upcoming interviews in person.
Mom, move your butt or we’re going to be late.”
Kristy Tucker heard her son’s voice, annoyance dripping from each syllable. She glanced at the clock and cursed under her breath.
“I’m coming, Ry,” she said, quickly pulling her brown hair into a bun. She grabbed her purse and headed toward her bedroom door, nearly tripping over the edge of the fraying gray carpet. She steadied herself and raced downstairs toward the kitchen. No matter how hard Kristy tried—setting her alarm half an hour earlier, washing her hair the night before—she could never get her act together in the morning. And on execution days, forget about it.
Ryan, on the other hand, had been up for hours. At fourteen years old, Ryan was neat, orderly, and incredibly driven, the polar opposite of Kristy. She found her son seated at the dining table finishing his bowl of oatmeal, his sandy-brown hair neatly combed, and dressed in his usual uniform: pressed jeans, a collared black button-up shirt with a red-and-blackstriped tie, and his beat-up old black cowhide boots. Texas hipster, Kristy dubbed Ryan’s standard uniform. She loved how much care he put into his appearance but it did very little to help him fi t in with the rednecks and jocks at school. She’d heard the whispers and teasing from kids and their parents. “That boy acts like he’s too big for his britches,” they’d said on more than one occasion. Kristy shouldered some of the blame. She was only seventeen when Ryan was born, a baby raising a baby, Pops used to say. She encouraged his differences, wanted her son to accomplish everything she hadn’t.
“Hey, Pops, you owe me five bucks,” Ryan said with a grin.
“Put it on my tab,” Pops said.
“I’m afraid to ask. What was the bet?” Kristy asked as she grabbed her travel mug and filled it with coffee.
“How long it would take you to get ready this morning,” Ryan said.
“I actually gave you the benefi t of the doubt,” Pops replied, shaking his head in dismay.
Kristy’s father, Frank Tucker, let out a strangled laugh as he tugged on the oxygen cannula that snaked from his nose, down his body, and into a giant oxygen tank that kept his O2 levels consistent. Only sixty-eight, Pops appeared much older, his hair wild and gray, rarely combed. A lifetime of chain-smoking had taken its toll, ravaged his lungs, and now he was basically a prisoner trapped inside his own home. But despite Pops’s health challenges, his humor was still intact.
“If you’d set your alarm a few minutes earlier—” Pops began. Kristy cut him off, well aware that her morning routine was the bane of Pops’s and Ryan’s existence. She simply couldn’t deal with their teasing.
“Not today, you two. I don’t have it in me. C’mon, Ry. Let’s go.”
She grabbed her keys and turned to Pops. “Remember: no drugs and no hookers.”
“I’m not making any promises,” he said with a chuckle.
Kristy smiled. “I’ll be back late. Let me know if you need anything from the store on my way home.”
“I’ll be fine, Kristy girl,” Pops said. “You take care of yourself.”
Kristy gave Pops a quick peck on the cheek and headed toward the front of the house, Ryan shuffling behind her. She opened the door and found herself greeted by a tidal wave of hot, humid air. Not even March and the temperatures were already soaring into the nineties.
She drove east along the 105, heading toward Conroe High School. An arm of the massive Lake Conroe shimmered in the morning sun as they whizzed by. Stretches of white wooden fences and green grass ushered them toward the city. In the passenger’s seat, earbuds in, Ryan sat hunched over his refurbished second-generation iPhone, simultaneously listening to music and texting. Kristy’s long hours working at the prison often meant that morning drop-off was the only chance she had to catch up with Ryan, which was why she normally enforced a strict no-cell-phone policy in the car.
But today she welcomed the silence, trying to brace herself for what lay ahead—interviews with death row inmates and the execution of a brutal killer and serial rapist. Just another day at the office. Kristy witnessed people die year after year. Yes, they were all convicted killers but it still wasn’t normal. Besides, she knew it wasn’t just work that was troubling her. Her life seemed stagnant, chronicling each month by Ryan’s latest accomplishment or Pops’s newest ailment. Some days she woke up with the sense that something terrible was going to happen. Today that feeling seemed worse. Kristy’s sense of impending doom occurred before every tragic event in her life. Kristy sighed. She simply couldn’t handle any bad news today.
Fifteen minutes later, Kristy pulled up a block and a half from Ryan’s school. Lately, he hadn’t wanted her to drop him at the front entrance. Kristy wasn’t stupid. She knew Ryan was embarrassed by her beat-up old pickup. Or maybe he just wanted to assert his independence. She understood it intellectually, though her heart still hurt when she thought about Ryan pulling away from her. The downside to the two of them growing up together.
“You okay?” Ryan asked, eyes widening with worry. He’d always been a sensitive kid, overly concerned with what Kristy was thinking and feeling.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked.
“You can do something else. Get a new job.”
Her smile faded. “Ry, don’t start. I make decent money and get really good benefits.”
“But you hate it.”
“So what? Most people hate their jobs. That’s why it’s called work.”
“Most people aren’t committing murder,” Ryan said pointedly, and it took everything in Kristy’s mind not to lose her temper completely.
Kristy’s job as a public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice required that she serve as mediator between inmates, the press, and the prison system.
Despite the challenges and the pressures, it also required that she act as a witness during executions.
Her job had always been hard on Ryan. She’d done her best to explain to him how the justice system in Texas worked: There were rules, and the men and women on death row had broken those rules in the worst possible way and they deserved to be punished. But Ryan had a tender heart and a curious nature. The older he got, the more he hated watching his mom stand up in front of TV cameras and talk about executions as if they were commonplace, like they weren’t something that the rest of the world considered barbaric. Kristy had spent years listening to her son’s passionate arguments. She’d assumed that it was just a phase, until last year when, eyeing the crowd on her walk to the death house chamber before an execution, she spotted him. There was her son in a crowd of protesters. She’d gasped, staring at him as he proudly waved a sign that read EXECUTE JUSTICE. NOT PEOPLE. Kristy wanted to rush over and tell Ryan to get his butt home, but she couldn’t. She still had a job to do.
Quietly seething at her son’s disobedience, she sat through the execution of Mitchell Hastings, a thirty-year-old drifter convicted of murdering his sister and her best friend, while Ryan stood outside the prison gates chanting, “No justice. No peace.”
Deep down, Kristy was proud of Ryan for being so strong in his convictions. But if any of the reporters had caught wind that Kristy’s own son was anti–death penalty, it would have been a PR nightmare. She could have lost her job. On the drive home that evening, Kristy told Ryan he was allowed to have an opinion, but this type of behavior wasn’t acceptable. This was her livelihood. It was what kept the roof over their heads and food on the table. Ryan respected that but he wanted Kristy to look for a new job. Even now, months later, he’d e-mail her job postings, with subject headings like New Jobs. No Killing Involved. But she simply wasn’t going to indulge him today.
“You’re going to be late,” Kristy said. For once, Ryan didn’t push back.
“All right, Mama Bear, I’ll see ya later,” he said, grabbing his backpack.
“Love you, Ry.”
He didn’t respond, climbing out of the truck and slamming the door behind him. Kristy watched Ryan hurry down the block, waiting until he turned around the corner. God, she missed the days when she would drop him off and he would throw his arms around her and say, Mama, I love you more than the moon and the stars and all the planets in the universe. But that didn’t happen now. Fourteen-year-olds weren’t exactly open vessels of emotion.
Kristy navigated the pickup down the long stretch of highway, the miles clicking by, a pop-country tune playing on the radio. She switched it off, not in the mood for overproduced melodies. She made a left turn, gripping the steering wheel, and headed toward the entrance of the prison where her day would begin. Set on 472 acres and surrounded by forests and fi elds, the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, was an expansive complex connected by walkways and encircled by two perimeter fences of razor wire with guard towers.
The buildings that housed Texas’s male death row inmates were set apart from the others: three concrete rectangles with white roofs, each with a circular recreation area at the center. In total, the prison housed 2,936 inmates, 279 of them on death row.
Kristy made this drive once a week, arriving every Wednesday morning like clockwork, but she never acclimated to the work. She never grew accustomed to the stern guards with their rifles pointed in the tower above her, or the desperate inmates she met pleading their innocence and begging for her help, or the ones admitting their guilt without an ounce of remorse.
This wasn’t Kristy’s dream job. Not by a long shot. Knocked up at sixteen, Kristy vowed that even though she would be a teenage mother, she wouldn’t be a statistic. She would do something with her life. She earned her GED and then, with Pops’s encouragement, she took night classes at Sam Houston State. Kristy studied communications and psychology, working part-time in various administrative capacities at the prison to help pay the bills. Pops had been a prison guard and so had his father before him. Despite Kristy’s insistence that she could find a job on her own, Pops kept harassing the head of the public information office and before Kristy even graduated from college, she’d landed a job as an assistant to one of the public information offi cers, or PIOs, as they were known.
Part of Kristy had hated the idea of being surrounded by criminals—men and women who had done terrible things—but she’d told herself it was temporary. She’d planned on going to graduate school, studying psychology, and becoming a social worker. She figured her experience in the prison system would be an added bonus on her résumé. Working with and getting to know the inmates strengthened that resolve, made her want to help those in need before they ended up behind bars.
But raising a kid was a nonstop, 24/7 job. Then Pops’s health began to fail, and Kristy got a promotion and a raise and then another raise. Nine years later, she was still here, the graduate program applications growing dusty in her desk drawer.
Now this was her life, week in and week out—meeting with violent inmates, trying to make friends with jaded, disheartened reporters desperate to write something that mattered. These days, Kristy found herself skirting the truth when people asked what she did for a living. I’m in public relations, she would say, hoping they wouldn’t probe, hoping she could make it sound more glamorous than it was.
She had to shake off this doomsday feeling. She had a long day of interviews with death row inmates ahead of her, and they would require every ounce of her emotional energy.
Each week, the prison held media visitation for death row inmates. Mondays were reserved for women incarcerated at the Mountain View Unit. Wednesdays were when the male inmates at the Polunsky Unit were interviewed. For two hours, reporters were able to visit with prisoners who had received prior approval from prison officials.
Kristy parked her truck and entered the Polunsky main gate. Guards waved and called out hello, busy opening packages and sorting mail, the ordinary nature of their tasks contrasting starkly with the people who would be receiving these deliveries.
Kristy went through the metal detectors and grabbed her bag on the other side. She was greeted by Bruce, one of her favorite guards, a thirty-something redneck with liberal leanings who liked discussing Nate Silver, The Bachelorette, and his favorite, Real Housewives. Despite the friendly nature of the staff, everyone here understood the dangers they faced when they walked through these doors. You had to work hard to keep the darkness and anxiety from seeping in, an ongoing battle Kristy wasn’t sure she’d ever win.
Bruce led her toward the warden’s office. Kristy rarely went to death row itself, but the reporters had been complaining about the quality of her stock photos and she was tired of hearing them bitch. Today, before her interviews began, she had arranged with the warden to take new photos of death row cells. Warden Gina Solomon greeted her warmly.
“Warden Solomon. How are you?” Kristy said.
The warden, late forties with a severe bowl cut and bright green eyes, shook Kristy’s hand. “How’s the family doing?” she asked.
“Can’t complain,” Kristy said. “My son just made the debate team. First freshman to do that in ten years,” Kristy boasted, her motherly pride on full display.
Warden Solomon nodded. “That’s nice.”
But Kristy heard the false cheer in her voice. The warden’s son was a star quarterback at Montgomery High School. Kristy hated that she let it bother her. Who cared if anyone else was impressed by Ryan?
“Should we get going?” Kristy asked, changing the subject, hoping to avoid the warden’s enthusiastic stories about this week’s playoff game and her son’s skills on the field.
Flanked by Bruce, they headed through the labyrinthine halls of the prison, the two women chatting about the upcoming cold front. Weather was a popular topic for prison staff, everyone longing to be outside and away from these dark and depressing cells. They turned down a long corridor and the mechanized gates buzzed open. This was death row.
Kristy regarded the sign posted at the entrance to the cellblock: NOTICE. NO HOSTAGES WILL EXIT THROUGH THIS GATE. This sign served as a reminder that these inmates were not to be trusted, that in here, your life hung in a delicate balance.
Moving down the hallway, Kristy’s senses were assaulted by a wave of smells that no amount of training could prepare you for: piss, shit, sweat, all of it mingling with a hopelessness and desperation so profound it seemed to seep into your bones.
“Take your time,” the warden said. Kristy nodded, but she intended to finish this task as quickly as possible. She hastily snapped photos of the hallways and rows and rows of cells. Inmates’ faces peered out through the tiny shatterproof windows on their cell doors. Some of them recognized her.
“Yo, Miz Tucker, my lawyer’s got questions for you.”
Some were heavily medicated and desperate.
“These motherfuckers are torturing me. You gotta get me help.”
Others were lost causes.
“That’s one fine piece of ass. Come here. I’ll show you what a real man is like.”
“I’ll kill you, you motherfucking, cocksucking bitch. I’ll kill all of you.”
Not much shocked Kristy. Not anymore. She was used to hearing men talk like this. Inmates in prison weren’t that different from regular folk. Some were kind and polite. Some were mentally ill and should never have been put on death row in the first place. Others were wretched, miserable souls with no chance of redemption. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was who. It had taken Kristy years to adjust, but their words no longer rattled her. As a PIO, she had to appear in control, unmovable.
She stepped into an empty cell and snapped more photos. Polunsky was often called “the hardest place to do time in Texas,” and Kristy agreed. All the inmates were kept on lockdown twenty-two hours a day in these small solitary cells. Even their one hour a day of recreation was caged, no contact with any other inmate. With no access to phones or televisions and no contact visits, inmates were basically entombed in these cells. It was about as close to hell on earth as you could get. Kristy couldn’t imagine being trapped behind these walls, day in and day out.
She scanned through the images on the digital camera she had borrowed from Ryan, checking to make sure they would suffice. Good enough. She couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here. She craved sunlight and fresh air. Kristy stepped back into the hall where Warden Solomon and Bruce were waiting, and followed them back down the hall.
For some reason, right before they reached the exit, Kristy glanced over at one of the cells, inexplicably drawn to it. Through the tiny sliver of glass, she spotted an inmate, his body splayed out on the floor beside his state-issued cot. Baby Killer Harris. That’s what the press and some of the guards called him. Kristy knew him as Clifton Harris. He had been sentenced eight years ago for killing his two young children.
“Jesus Christ, he’s bleeding,” Kristy said, turning toward the warden. She hated how shrill and high-pitched her voice sounded, like this man had a paper cut and not wrists that were flayed open. The warden stepped forward, looking through the window to confirm that what Kristy was saying was true.
“Get some more officers down here. Now!” Warden Solomon shouted to Bruce, who pressed a button on his radio, the squawking sound echoing down the halls.
“Get back,” the warden yelled at Kristy. The buzzer sounded and the cell door’s lock opened. Unable to wrench her gaze from Clifton’s pale face, his blue lips, his eyes rolling back in his head, Kristy rushed past the warden and pushed the door open, kneeling beside Clifton, touching his neck and searching for a pulse.
“Hold on, Clifton. Just hold on.”
Clifton’s eyes fluttered open, haunted, life slipping from them. A bloodstained hand reached out, grasping Kristy’s wrist.
“Ms. Tucker, I can’t do this no more. I can’t,” he said desperately, that same hand now reaching up to grab Kristy’s collarbone. “Just let me go,” Clifton begged, his hand starting to squeeze.
Kristy’s breath caught in her throat. She remembered that sign at the entrance. NO HOSTAGES WILL EXIT THROUGH THIS GATE. She had rushed in here without thinking, worried that Clifton might die, desiring to help someone for a change, to do something instead of just being a bystander in her life. But Kristy realized in this moment that her unease, that sense of impending doom, had been an actual warning. With this convicted killer’s hand around her throat, Kristy wondered if Ryan had been right all along, that by staying in this job, by accepting what they did here, Kristy had made a fatal mistake.
Loved this extract from The Walls? Let us know in the comments below – and don’t forget to check out some of the other new releases hitting the shelves this month!