KAREN WILLIS RUBBED HER EYES. IT was two in the morning and Grace Brookstein was climbing into her bed.

"Grace? What is it? Are you sick?"

Grace shook her head. Beneath the blanket, the two of them huddled together for warmth. Karen felt the softness of Grace's breasts against her back. The smell of her skin, the soft caress of her breath. Instinctively, she slid a hand under Grace's nightdress, reaching for the silky wetness between her thighs.

"I love you." Karen turned to press her lips to Grace's. For a few glorious seconds, Grace responded, kissing her back. Then she pulled away.

"I'm sorry. I...I can't."

Grace felt torn. Part of her was tempted to accept the comfort Karen was offering. After all, Lenny was gone. And Grace loved Karen, too, in a way. But she knew it wasn't right. She didn't love Karen in that way. Not really. Even if she had, it would have been wrong to raise her hopes. Especially considering what she was about to tell her.

Karen looked anguished. How could she have been so stupid? She'd misread the signals. "Oh God. Are you angry with me?"

"No. Not at all. Why would I be?"

"I would never have made a move if I hadn't thought...I mean, you came into my bed."

"I know. I'm sorry. Look, it was my fault," said Grace. "I needed to talk to you. I need your advice."

"My advice?"

"Uh-huh. I'm going to escape."

It was the break in the tension Karen needed. She laughed so hard she almost woke Cora.

Grace didn't get it. "What's so funny?"

"Oh, Grace! You can't be serious!"

"I'm deadly serious."

"Honey, it's impossible. No one's ever escaped from Bedford Hills."

Grace shrugged. "There's a first time for everything, right?"

"Not for this." Karen wasn't laughing anymore. "You actually mean it, don't you? You're out of your mind, Grace. Have you looked outside lately? There are nine barbed-wire fences between us and freedom, all of them electrified. There are guards and dogs and cameras and guns."

"I know all that."

"Then you're not thinking clearly. Look, even if you found some way to escape - which you won't, because it's impossible - you have one of the most recognizable faces in America. How far do you think you'll get?"

Grace ran a hand over her broken nose. "I'm not so recognizable anymore. I don't look the way I used to. Anyway, I can disguise myself."

"When they catch you, they'll shoot you. No questions asked."

"I know that, too. It's a risk I'm prepared to take."

Karen stroked Grace's cheek in the darkness. This was madness. No one escaped from Bedford Hills. If Grace tried it, she'd be killed for sure. Even if, by some miracle, she were captured alive, it still meant Karen would never see her again. Grace would be transferred to solitary. Sent out of state. Locked up in some secret CIA holding pen never to be heard of again.

"Don't do this, Grace. Please. I don't want to lose you."

Grace saw Karen's eyes well up. Leaning forward, she kissed her full on the mouth. It was a passionate, lingering kiss. A kiss to be remembered by. A kiss good-bye.

"I have to do it, Karen."

"No you don't. Why?"

"Because Lenny was murdered, okay?"

Karen sat up. "Whaaat? Says who?"

"Davey Buccola. He found evidence, stuff that was suppressed at the inquest."

So Buccola put her up to this. I'll kill him.

"I have to find out who killed my husband."

"But, Grace - "

"I'm going to find him. And then I'm going to kill him."

Grace waited for the outrage, the shock, but it never came. Instead Karen put her arms around her and hugged her tightly. Karen remembered Billy, her sister's boyfriend. How right it had felt when that bullet hit him between the eyes. Despite everything that had happened since, she had never regretted what she'd done. She did not want to lose Grace. But she understood.

"I assume you have a plan?"

"Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about..."

SISTER AGNES WATCHED GRACE BROOKSTEIN CLEARING away a jigsaw puzzle and offered up a silent prayer to the Lord:

Thank You for bringing me this lost soul, Jesus. Thank You for allowing me to be the vessel of Your redeeming grace.

Sister Agnes had only been Sister Agnes for five years. Before that, she was Tracey Grainger, a lonely, unpopular teenage girl from Frenchtown, New Jersey. Tracey Grainger had fallen in love with a local boy named Gordon Hicks. Gordon had told her he loved her and Tracey had believed him. When Gordon got her pregnant, then promptly abandoned her, Tracey went home and swallowed as many pills as she could find. The baby did not survive.

Neither did Tracey Grainger.

The girl who woke up from that overdose in a grimly sterile hospital bed, clutching her stomach and weeping with guilt, was not the same girl whom Gordon Hicks had so peremptorily dumped. She was not the same straight-C student who had disappointed her parents since the day she was born. She was not the same socially awkward, unlovable tenth grader whom no one invited to prom. This girl was an entirely new person. A person loved by God. A person of value. A person whose sins had been forgiven, who would one day become one with Jesus at the right hand of the Father. If anyone believed in the power of redemption, it was Sister Agnes. God had redeemed her. He had saved her life. Now, in His infinite love and mercy, He had redeemed Grace Brookstein, too. And He had allowed her, Sister Agnes, to play a small part in the miracle.

Only this morning, Grace told her, "I feel so fulfilled here, Sister. Working with these children. With you. It's like I've been given a second chance at life."

What a warm glow of satisfaction those words had given her! Sister Agnes hoped she was not guilty of the mortal sin of pride. She must remember that it was God who had transformed Grace, not her. And yet Sister Agnes couldn't help but feel that her friendship had contributed to some of the changes in Grace.

Grace had changed Sister Agnes, too. A nun's life could be lonely. Most of the other Sisters of Mercy were old enough to be Sister Agnes's mother, if not her grandmother. Over the last few months she had come to cherish the easy friendship she seemed to have developed with Grace Brookstein. The shared glances. The smiles. The trust.

Grace put the puzzle pieces back into their box then stacked it neatly on the shelf. Sister Agnes smiled warmly.

"Thank you, Grace. I can finish up here. I know you want to get to the library."

"That's all right," said Grace cheerfully. "I'm happy to help. Oh, by the way, that modeling clay that we ordered last week? We need to return it."

"Do we? Why?"

"I opened seven or eight of the crates this morning, and the stuff inside had completely dried out. I tried soaking it in water but it just ended up all slimy. It'll have to go back."

What a pain, thought Sister Agnes. It had taken her the better part of a day to stack those crates in the children's center storeroom with Sister Theresa. Now she'd have to lug the stupid things back out again.

"I e-mailed the delivery company," said Grace. "They're coming to pick them up on Tuesday at four o'clock."

"Tuesday?" Sister Agnes looked pained. "Oh, Grace, it was kind of you to arrange it. But I can't supervise a pickup on Tuesday, I'm afraid. A delegation from the department of corrections will be here for a tour. Sister Theresa and I have our quarterly budget meeting with them afterward. We'll be out all afternoon."

"Oh." Grace looked disappointed. Then she suddenly brightened. "Perhaps I could do it?"

Sister Agnes frowned. "I don't know about that, Grace."

Inmates in A Wing were not supposed to help with pickups or deliveries. The warden considered it a potential security risk. But Grace had come so far in her rehabilitation. Sister Agnes would hate to give her the impression that she wasn't trusted.

Grace said, "The children have already waited weeks. It seems a shame to delay things even further."

"Those crates are heavy, Grace," Sister Agnes said awkwardly. "It's a two-person job."

"Cora can help me."

"Cora Budds?" This idea was going from bad to worse.

"She has kitchen duty on Tuesdays but she's usually finished by three."

Grace looked so hopeful, so eager to please. Sister Agnes wavered. What harm can it do? Just this once.

"Well, I suppose...if you're sure you and Cora can handle it..."

Grace smiled. "Loading a delivery truck? Yes, Sister. I think we can manage that."

Her heart was pounding so loudly she was surprised Sister Agnes couldn't hear it. She was a sweet, kind woman and Grace felt bad deceiving her. But it couldn't be helped.

It was starting.

GRACE BROOKSTEIN'S PLANNED ESCAPE ATTEMPT RAPIDLY became the worst-kept secret at Bedford Hills. The idea was simple: The delivery truck would arrive at the children's center. Grace and Cora Budds would begin loading up the crates of clay. While Cora distracted the driver, Grace would go back into the storeroom, empty one of the crates and hide herself inside it. Cora would complete the loading on her own, making sure that the lid of Grace's crate was not fully sealed, to allow her some air, and that it was hidden well back among the others.

It was the next part of the plan that was the wild card. Everything rested on the security check. Trucks came in and out of Bedford Hills every day, delivering everything from toilet paper to detergent to food. The prison was equipped with state-of-the-art security systems. As well as manual searches, the guards used sniffer dogs and even infrared scanners to spot-check vehicles, in addition to the CCTV cameras that were everywhere at Bedford. Typically, the more thorough searches took place on the way in to the prison. There was less emphasis on what might be going out. But all searches were at the guards' discretion. If they didn't like the look of a driver, or a vehicle, or if they just felt like it for whatever reason, they could hold people up for hours, X-raying every square inch of their car or person. Grace hoped that on a cold January night, the guards' appetite for hauling out crate after crate of children's modeling clay would be low. But she wouldn't know until they got to the checkpoint.

Once the truck was waved through, if it was waved through, and they drove clear of Bedford, Grace would climb out of the crate and make her way to the rear doors. As soon as the driver stopped at a junction, she would open the door of the truck and jump to freedom.

Easy.

"IT'S NOT GOING TO WORK."

Karen leaned across the table and helped herself to Grace's watery mashed potatoes. They were at lunch, a few days before the breakout was supposed to take place.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Have you thought about what you're gonna do if you do make it out of here?"

Grace had thought of little else. When she fantasized about her escape, she pictured herself as the hunter, unmasking Lenny's killer, wreaking her revenge. But the reality was that she would also be hunted down. If she were going to survive, she'd need food, shelter, money and a disguise. She had no idea how she was going to obtain any of them.

"What about friends on the outside. Is there anybody you can trust? Anyone who'll cover for you?"

Grace shook her head. "No. No one."

There was one person she trusted. Davey Buccola. Davey was working on new information, checking out the alibis for everyone who'd stayed with Grace and Lenny on Nantucket the day Lenny died. If Grace turned to anyone on the outside, it would be him. But she wasn't about to tell Karen that.

"In that case, we need to fix you up with a survival pack from here."

"A survival pack?"

"Sure. You'll need a new identity. A few new identities, so you can keep moving. Driver's licenses, credit cards, some cash. You won't get very far as Grace Brookstein."

"Where am I going to get a driver's license from, Karen? Or a credit card. It's impossible."

"Said the woman who figures she's going to escape from Bedford Hills! Don't sweat the small stuff, Grace. Leave that to me."

Karen had warned Grace that she would need to let "a few of the girls" in on the escape plan in order to get what they needed in such a short space of time. To Grace's horror, "a few of the girls" turned out to be almost every inmate at Bedford. Forging a credit card and a driver's license was no mean feat. Karen was forced to corral help from all over the prison. Inmates in the warden's office, the library and the computer room typed, Photoshopped and laminated for days, all of them risking their own paroles and futures for a chance to help Grace and be part of the Great Escape. The only people who didn't know about the plan were the guards and Lisa Halliday.

It was debatable whether Lisa would have snitched on Grace - powerful inmates could attack their rivals with impunity but selling out another prisoner was still considered taboo. Still Karen wasn't prepared to risk it.

Grace was grateful for everyone's help, but she was nervous.

"Too many people know."

"They're not ' people,'" Karen told her. "They're your friends. You can trust them."

Trust. It was a word from another life, another planet.

TUESDAY MORNING DAWNED GRAY AND COLD. Grace had barely slept. All night long, the voices haunted her:

Lenny: Whatever happens, Grace, I love you.

John Merrivale: Don't worry, Grace. Just do what Frank Hammond tells you and you'll be fine.

Karen: When they catch you, they'll shoot you, no questions asked.

Grace didn't touch her oatmeal at breakfast.

"You need your strength," Cora Budds told her. "Eat somethin'."

"I can't. I'll throw up."

The big black woman narrowed her eyes. "I ain't asking you, Grace. I'm tellin' you. You better get it together, girl. I'm putting my hide on the line for you today. We all are. Now eat."

She's right. I can do this. I have to do it.

Grace ate.

"ARE YOU SURE YOU'RE ALL RIGHT, Grace? Perhaps you should go and lie down."

It was noon at the children's center. The delegation of senior prison officials was due to arrive at twelve thirty. The morning had been spent tidying up desks and toys, putting up fresh artwork and generally ensuring that the facility looked its very best. If the delegation was impressed, they might raise the budget. Or at least not slash it. Grace had worked diligently as usual, but Sister Agnes was worried about her. Her complexion had been green when she arrived for work this morning. Now it had faded to a sickly off-white. A moment ago, reaching up to a high shelf to rearrange some books, she'd become dizzy and almost fainted.

"I'm fine, Sister."

"I don't think you are fine. The infirmary ought to take a look at you."

"No!" Grace felt her throat go dry with panic. You can't send me to the infirmary. Not today. What if they keep me all afternoon? She remembered what Cora said to her at breakfast. She had to pull herself together. "I'm a little dehydrated, that's all. Perhaps I could have a glass of water?"

Sister Agnes went to fetch the water. While she was gone Grace pinched her cheeks and took some deep, calming breaths. By the time the nun returned, she looked slightly better.

From the far corner of the room, Lisa Halliday watched the scene with suspicion. "What's up with Lady Brookstein?" she asked one of the mothers, a young black woman who hadn't been at Bedford long. "She's been acting weird as shit all morning, even by her standards."

"Wouldn't you be if you was gonna bust out of here?" said the girl. One look at Lisa's face told her she'd screwed up big-time. But by then it was too late.

"What'd you say?"

"Nothing. I was just...I don't know what I'm talking about. It's just some crazy rumors."

Lisa Halliday put her face within an inch of the girl's. "Tell me."

"Please. I...I shouldn'ta said nuthin'. Cora'll kill me."

"Tell me everything or I'll make sure the warden never lets you see your kid again."

"Please, Lisa."

"You think I can't do it?"

The girl thought about her son, Tyrone. He was three years old, as cute and chubby as a puppy. He'd be here in a half hour, snuggling up to her, drawing pictures for her to keep in her cell.

She started to talk.

HANNAH DENZEL KNITTED HER BEETLE BROWS into one long, angry caterpillar as she led the VIPs down the hall to the children's center.

"This way, ladies and gentlemen."

Denny did not like showing "delegations" around Bedford Hills. Today's self-important posse of politicians and police officers was as bad as all the others: the do-gooder prison visitors, the priests, the social workers, the therapists, the nuns, the whole goddamn army of meddlesome outsiders who infested her territory twice a year with their clipboards and recommendations. None of them seemed to realize that these women were vermin. That they were at Bedford Hills to be punished, not saved. It made Denny sick.

The group "oohed" and "aahed" over the children's center, scattering among the pristine workstations and play areas. Warden McIntosh stood watching them like a proud father. Then his face changed. Grace Brookstein was hovering by one of the bookcases looking pale and ill. Damn it. He'd completely forgotten about Grace. The last thing he needed was to have his most notorious prisoner distracting the group's attention from the jewel in Bedford's crown.

He whispered in Hannah Denzel's ear. "Get her out of here. Quietly. She's a distraction."

The prison guard's cruel eyes lit up. "Yes, sir." This was more like it. Walking over to Grace, she grabbed her roughly by the arm. "Let's go, Brookstein. Back to your cell."

"My cell? But I-I can't," Grace stammered. "I'm working."

"Not anymore you're not. Move it."

Grace opened her mouth to protest but no sound came out. Panic rose up in her throat like vomit.

"Is something the matter?" Sister Agnes glided over. "Can I help?"

"No," snapped Denny, pushing Grace toward the door. She resented the Sisters of Mercy's presence at Bedford Hills. Sister Agnes should back the fuck off to her rosary and leave the inmates to the professionals. "Warden wants this one on lockdown. And he doesn't want a scene."

Grace looked pleadingly at Sister Agnes. Help me!

The nun smiled kindly at her friend. "Don't look so woebegone, Grace. You could do with a little rest. Enjoy your afternoon off. We'll still be here tomorrow."

Yes. And now so will I, thought Grace. She could have wept.

IT WAS THREE FORTY-FIVE BEFORE LISA Halliday was able to get out of the children's center. That slave-driving do-gooder Sister Theresa had given her a list of chores as long as her police record. Sprinting to the warden's office, she marched up to the reception desk.

"I need to see the warden," she panted. "It's urgent."

The receptionist looked at the surly bull dyke in front of her and stiffened. "Warden McIntosh can't see anybody today. He has a delegation - "

"Like I said. It's urgent."

"I'm sorry," the girl repeated. "He's not here."

"Well, where is he?"

The receptionist's tone got frostier. "Out. He's in meetings all afternoon. Is it something I can help you with?"

"No," Lisa said rudely. "I want the organ grinder, not the friggin' monkey." She had to see the warden and she had to see him alone. If word got out that she was the fink who'd sold out Grace Brookstein, she'd be finished at Bedford Hills.

"Then there's nothing I can do."

Lisa sank her great bulk down onto one of the hard chairs lining the wall.

"Fine. I'll wait."

CORA BUDDS LEFT HER JOB IN the kitchen at ten of four and hurried over to the children's center as arranged. Two mothers were saying good-bye to their kids while a single, bored guard looked on.

Cora asked one of the mothers, "Where's Grace?"

"In lockdown. Denny dragged her off hours ago. She didn't look well."

Cora thought, I bet she didn't. That's it, then. If Grace is in lockdown, the whole plan goes up in smoke.

She walked into the storeroom alone. Maybe it's for the best.

GRACE SAT ON HER BUNK, STARING into space. She was too drained to cry. It was over. God knew when she'd have a chance to try again. Maybe not for years. Years in which whoever killed Lenny would be out there, free, happy, unpunished. The thought was unbearable.

Mindlessly, she looked at the clock on the wall: 3:55...4:00...4:05...The truck would be there by now. Cora would be loading it, alone, wondering what had happened.

At 4:08, Grace heard the jangle of keys in the lock. Karen's shift must have ended early. At least she'd be pleased the escape plan had failed. The door swung open.

"Get up." Denny's eyes blazed with spite. She'd been brooding all day over Sister Agnes's words to Grace. Enjoy your afternoon off. As if this were some sort of summer camp! There were no afternoons off at Bedford Hills. "You missed four hours of work detail this afternoon, you sneaky little bitch. Thought you were on vacation, did you? A free pass?"

Grace said meekly, "No, ma'am."

"Good. Because there are no fucking vacations in A Wing. Not while I'm in charge. You can make up those work hours, starting right now. Get your ass over to the children's center and start scrubbing the floors."

"Yes, ma'am."

"When you've finished, do it again. And you can forget about eating tonight. You stay on that floor, scrubbing, till I come for you, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"MOVE!"

Grace bolted out of the cell and started running down the corridor. Denny watched her go, a slow smile of satisfaction spreading across her face.

She had no idea that Grace was running for her life.

CORA BUDDS HAD ALMOST FINISHED LOADING the crates.

The truck driver grumbled, "I thought there was gonna be two of yous? I'da brought another guy if I'd known."

Cora shrugged. "Life's a bitch, ain't it?" It was already dark in the cramped courtyard backing on to the children's center storeroom. The temperature was below zero, but the biting wind made it feel even colder. The boxes were small, about two feet square. Looking at them, Cora couldn't imagine how Grace had ever thought she was gonna squeeze herself inside one. They were also heavy. Their weight, combined with the finger-numbing cold, made the work slow going.

"Sorry I'm late."

Grace stood shivering in the lamplight. Still in her skirt and thin cotton blouse, she was ridiculously underdressed for the winter evening. The wind sliced into her skin like razor blades. Cora Budds's eyes widened in surprise but she said nothing.

The driver looked pissed. "Are you kidding me? This is your number two? She couldn't lift a cup of coffee, never mind a crate of clay."

"Sure she can," said Cora. "You can leave it to us now."

"Fine by me." The driver climbed back into the welcoming warmth of the cab. "One of you ladies give me the nod when you're done."

Back in the storeroom, Cora and Grace worked quickly. Sister Agnes or one of the guards could come back any minute. Cora pulled Grace's documents out of the pocket in her jumpsuit, stuffing them into Grace's bra. There were four fake IDs with matching credit cards, a slip of paper with an anonymous Hotmail address on it and a small wad of cash.

"Karen has a friend on the outside who'll wire you more money with Western Union when you need it. Just e-mail an amount, the zip code you're in and the initials of the fake ID you're using, and this person will do the rest. Take this, too." She handed Grace a silver stiletto. "You never know."

Grace stared at the blade in her palm for a second, hesitating, then slipped it into her shoe. Cora pried open the lid of one of the crates, emptying its contents at lightning speed. Somehow the box looked even smaller when it was empty.

Cora said, "I don' think it's possible, Grace. A cat couldn't fit in there."

Grace smiled. "It's possible. I was a gymnast when I was younger. Watch."

Cora watched in awe as Grace climbed into the box, ass first, folding her tiny limbs around herself like a double-jointed spider. "Girl, that looks painful." She winced. "You sure you're okay?"

"It's not exactly first-class travel, but I'll live. Try the lid. Am I in?"

Cora tried it. Easy. About an inch to spare. She levered it open again. "You're in. I'm gonna load the rest of 'em now. I'll put you three rows back, so you're hidden at the checkpoint, but leave the lid loose so you got some air."

"Thanks."

"Sit tight till you get through the checkpoint. Once you're outta here, soon as the truck stops, you jump."

"Got it. Thanks, Cora. For everything."

Good luck, Amazing Grace.

Cora Budds replaced the lid and carried Grace out into the darkness.

WARDEN MCINTOSH EYED LISA HALLIDAY SUSPICIOUSLY.

"This had better not be some sort of scam."

"It ain't."

"Grace Brookstein is in lockdown. She's been in her cell since lunchtime. Besides, A-Wing prisoners never work on deliveries. Sister Agnes knows the policy."

"Sister Agnes don't know her pussy from her paternoster."

"That's enough!" the warden snapped. "I won't have you disrespecting our voluntary staff."

"Look. You don't wanna check the truck? Fine. Don't check it. Jus' don' say I didn't warn you."

Warden McIntosh did not want to check the truck. It had been a long day. He wanted to finish up his paperwork and get home to his wife. But he knew he had no choice.

"All right, Lisa. Leave it with me."

THE DARKNESS WAS DISORIENTING. GRACE HEARD the rear doors of the truck slam shut. For a moment fear gripped her: I'm trapped! But then she relaxed, forcing herself to take slow, even breaths. It was uncomfortable, coiled inside the crate like a marionette, but she could bear the position. The cold, on the other hand, was debilitating. Limb by limb, Grace felt her body start to go numb. Her head ached violently, as if she'd just sunk her teeth into an ice cube.

The engine rumbled to life. We're moving. Soon, all Grace could hear was the beating of her own heart. She said a silent prayer:

Please God, don't let them check all the boxes.

THE THUD WAS SO LOUD, THE driver heard it through his blaring Bruce Springsteen CD. One of the crates must have come loose.

"What the fuck?" Slamming on the brakes, he climbed out of the cab. Dumb-ass fucking dykes. How hard is it to stack a bunch of boxes? All they had to do was put 'em one on top of another.

Grace heard the rear door open. Rays from a flashlight seeped through the crack above her head, where Cora had left the lid loose. She held her breath

"Goddamn it."

Crates scraped noisily across the metal floor of the truck. The next thing Grace knew, her own box was moving. Oh God, no! He'll see me. But the driver didn't see her. Instead, pulling Grace's crate forward, he noticed the loose lid and banged it shut with his fist. Then he lifted another box and piled it on top of Grace's. The rear door slammed. Grace felt the lurch of the truck as it pulled away.

Cold beads of sweat broke out all over Grace's body.

She had no air.

I'm going to suffocate.




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