THE CHILLING KILLING WIND: Prologue

Here, at last, is the Prologue to my forthcoming supernatural thriller, The Chilling Killing Wind. Next up will be the cover reveal in one week’s time, but for now, meet former police detective John Lazarus as he prepares to go witness an execution….

prologue

On the day they were to execute the third and last of Michelle Lazarus’s murderers, her husband John coped the best way he knew how. He went out for a run.

John Lazarus liked running because it helped him forget things for a little while. He liked that whole “runner’s Zen” thing. That was real…but not on execution days. The “Zen” had completely eluded him the day they’d executed Luther Mayhew, and his run on Raoul Serrano’s death day had been an aching, six-mile slog. Today, the same thing. His legs felt like dead weights, and his mind refused to clear itself.

Roy Edgar Chalmers’s date with the needle was in thirteen hours.

The last one.

Lucky number three.

John turned onto Boulanger Street, where he lived with his current girlfriend. Springtime in New Mowbray, Michigan, was always a dank affair, as the air—chilled by Lake Michigan to the west—stubbornly refused to warm up until mid-May. The sky was its usual gray, and the air was filled with whatever it is that’s between rain and mist.

Perfect day for an execution.

John finally stopped at the steps of his brownstone building, where he spent a few minutes stretching and rubbing his calves and thighs. He also did this to give this day’s token reporter a chance to catch him. There had to be one. There always was. And sure enough, here she came.

“Mr. Lazarus? May I ask you a few questions, sir?”

“Sure,” John said.

He had almost overlooked her, having expected a television reporter. TV reporters stood out by being impeccably dressed for their surroundings and by having a guy with a big video camera trailing behind. This woman must have been from the New Mowbray Ledger. Nicely dressed, but not nicely enough to go on TV camera. Her photographer held a normal camera.

“Alyssa James,” she said, sticking out her hand. “I’m with the Ledger.”

“I figured,” John said. He’d been standing still long enough that he could feel the heat from his run starting to build up in his body, the sweat starting to flow. It would make his normally pale skin look redder than usual, and the sweat would highlight the gray hair at his temples, which normally contrasted nicely with his close-clipped brown hair. He wiped his hand on his shorts, and hesitated before taking hers. “Sorry,” he said.

“It’s all right,” Ms. James said. “I’ve shaken nastier hands before.”

“Well, I’m glad I’m not first in that regard,” he said.

She reached into her shoulderbag and pulled out a digital voice recorder…and a bottle of water, which she handed to him.

“Thanks,” he said. “That’s a courtesy I haven’t seen yet.”

“Least I could do,” she replied. “Are you willing to answer questions? On the record?”

“I think I already said I would,” John replied. He gestured to the photographer. “No photos, though. I look like shit.”

“I don’t think you do, but fair enough,” Ms. James said. The photographer lowered his camera and just stood there in that awkward way photographers stood when they’d been told to stand down. “I always like to make sure it’s clear that we’re on the record. People I interview don’t like surprises.”

“I suppose not.”

She turned on the recorder and held it up so its microphone would pick up both of them. “Roy Edgar Chalmers is being executed tonight.”

“Wow, is that tonight?” John made a face of mock surprise, and then he shrugged. “Sorry. I use sarcasm as a defense mechanism.”

“I don’t blame you,” Ms. James said. “Do you plan to attend the execution?”

John gave a rueful smile. “Haven’t missed one yet.”

“And this is the last one.”

“Unless they find someone else. Sorry, there I go again.”

She smiled, and he wondered how much of his sarcasm would show up in print. “Some people say that Chalmers’s death sentence is excessive, that he was essentially the getaway driver. Do you have any reaction to that?”

“No, I don’t.”

Ms. James blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I have no reaction to that.” He took a long sip of water. “I’m not likely to be the most compelling interview, huh?”

“Uhh…may I ask….”

“I don’t know if it’s too much or too little. The punishment is the punishment. I’m glad that he’s going to pay whatever price it is that the courts decided on. And I’m glad that it’s going to be over.” He swigged the water. “Maybe there’s no such thing as enough.”

“That’s kind of a surprising view to hear from a former police detective.”

“Yeah. I like lawyers, too. Go figure.” He drained her water bottle and handed it back. “Thanks. You can return it for the dime.”

She took the empty bottle and tucked it away. “Do you think that Chalmers’s execution will give you any kind of closure?”

John chuckled mirthlessly. “The only person getting closure tonight is Roy Edgar Chalmers. Ain’t that a hell of a thing?” He drew in a deep breath and did a couple of half-lunges. “I just don’t want to have to think about him anymore. Him or his buddies.”

“Luther Mayhew and Raoul Serrano,” she said. “Do you really think you’re not going to think of them anymore?”

John sighed. “No, I don’t think that. I’m gonna be thinking of them until I either die or get Alzheimer’s. That’s the deal. Can’t do anything about it.” He glanced at the door to his home. “Anything else?”

“My readers will want to know how you’re doing now,” Ms. James said. “You left the New Mowbray PD and now you’re a teacher?”

“Yeah,” John said. “Kirkwood. Criminal psychology department. I’m working on a Ph.D. Should be done in a year. I still consult with the NMPD once in a while, though.”

“And your personal life?”

“I’m dating, and I’m afraid that’s all your readers are going to get on that.”

She smiled, and clicked off her recorder. “Thank you, Mr. Lazarus,” she said as she started putting her things back into her messenger bag. “And best wishes. Did you enjoy your run?”

John shook his head. “Not really,” he said.

Alyssa James nodded and turned to go back to her car. John ran his hands through his hair and then he went up the stairs, two at a time, to the front door. He’d timed it pretty well, actually: Mrs. Florabach was coming out with her little dog for its morning walk, so he didn’t have to punch in his code. Instead he held the door for her as she came out, perhaps dressed a little more warmly than was warranted by the weather. This was no surprise. As soon as the first cool days of October rolled around, Mrs. Florabach always dressed like she was training for the Iditarod.

“Good morning, Mrs. Florabach,” John said.

As usual, Mrs. Florabach didn’t say anything; her only reply was to look at him and give him a single, curt nod. She was nice enough, really; it was just that she didn’t bother much putting it into her standard interactions with others. This time, however, after John received his curt nod and turned to continue inside through the inner door, she stopped him with a hand on his arm. He turned to her again, and she held his eyes as she reached up and laid her hand on his cheek. Her hand was cold, but her eyes were warm. He smiled and nodded; she patted him twice on the shoulder and then proceeded outside to walk her dog.

The apartment John shared with Ellen was on the second floor. Out of habit he checked the mailbox, even though he knew that the mail always arrived in mid-afternoon, and then he bounded up the stairs, two at a time, swung around into the hallway, and entered the front apartment, No. 22.

“Oh, you’re back!” Ellen said as she walked into the living room, her mouth full of the spoonful of Golden Grahams she had just shoveled in there. “I’m gonna stop and pay the cable bill today.”

“What?”

She stopped, looked at him, and swallowed. Then she repeated herself, with a lot more clarity: “I’m gonna stop and pay the cable bill today.”

“OK, great.” John hung his keys on the hook and walked through the living room into the kitchen, where he retrieved a bottle of water from the refrigerator, cut a lemon, and squeezed the juice into his water. Meanwhile, Ellen came in behind him. She wasn’t quite ready to go to work yet. Her white blouse was untucked and her vest unbuttoned, and she hadn’t finished dealing with her blond hair yet.

“Meetings today?” John asked, noting Ellen’s more formal attire.

“Just the first half,” Ellen said. “After lunch I’m at Sacred Heart. Two patients there today. I told you about that, didn’t I?”

“Probably.”

Ellen was an occupational therapist. She worked in a lot of the local hospitals and even a few schools. She loved her work, except for when she had to wear nice clothes to meetings. “You know, I can stay home today. Not like these meetings are essential.”

“I know.”

“You sure you’re OK?”

“I’m sure.” He squeezed the second half of the lemon into the water and took a long, slow sip, relishing in the cold and sour taste.

“See, I’m not so sure you’re OK.”

John sighed and turned to face her. “I’ll be fine.”

“I know it’s a hard day,” she said. “I’ll stay with you if you want me to.”

“I don’t,” he said. Then, catching himself, he hastily added, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know,” she said. “You were alone for the first two of these, but that’s because we hadn’t met yet.”

“There’s that,” John agreed. “But it’s also…I just feel like I need to be alone today.”

“I figured.” Ellen took her bowl to the sink, rinsed it, and left it there for washing later. “Chalmers is the last one.”

“Last one,” John agreed.

“Michelle’s still with you, you know.”

“Yeah, she is.” He finally found a smile for her. “And so are you.”

“That’s right. Lucky you!” She came over and kissed him. “I need to finish getting ready. I’ll see you when I get home.”

“I’ll probably be gone before that.”

“I’ll sit at home and watch movies then. Until you get home.” She kissed him again. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

She smiled one more time, and then she moved toward the door.

“Where’s the paper?” he asked. “Should be here by now.”

Ellen hesitated, but then she answered. “Living room, next to the couch.”

He nodded as she left the room. John stood in the kitchen a while longer, not wanting the day to continue quite as urgently as it always did, but time had that way of passing whether you wanted it to or not, so he drained his water bottle, refilled it, and went to the living room. There was the paper, right there next to the couch, and under the haunches of Wrigley, their well-fed tabby cat.

“Come on, get your ass off the paper,” John said as he gently pushed Wrigley aside with one hand and drew the paper out with the other. Wrigley meowed in protest and then jumped down from the couch entirely. John looked at the banner headline on the front page, something about the President declaring his re-election campaign and the opponent’s response. He flipped the paper so he could see below the fold. There it was:

FINAL CHALMERS APPEAL FAILS

Supreme Court refuses to intervene

Execution scheduled for 9:15 pm

John glanced at the clock. Just after 8:30 in the morning.

These hours were always the hardest ones to kill.

“Is it a nice blue sky?” Roy Edgar Chalmers asked.

“Overcast and gray,” his lawyer replied.

“Figures.” Chalmers shook his head. “You could show me a photo of it, but they don’t let you use your phone in here, do they? And they’re sure as hell not gonna give a man like me a window to look out of. Not now.”

Tim, the lawyer, shook his head as he sat down at the table, across from where Roy Edgar Chalmers was about to be sitting. Everything was always a process for the death row guys. Two guards held onto Roy’s arms while the third stood behind the chair. Then the first two sort-of guided Roy into position, mainly just helping him so he didn’t trip on his own leg irons. The chair, bolted to the floor, stayed where it was. That always bugged Roy, that he couldn’t pull the chair in closer, like he liked. Man, the little details you notice and choose to care about when you’re on Death Row….

“How are you sleeping?”

“You gotta be shittin’ me.”

The lawyer tilted his head to one side. “Weird question, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Chalmers said. “Sleep’s fine. Funny that my body still thinks it needs sleep, know what I mean?”

“Yes, well….” Tim sighed as he reached into his briefcase and took out a thick file folder which was jam-packed with notes and papers and memos and briefs and letters and all kinds of stuff from years of legal proceedings that Roy Edgar Chalmers just didn’t care about. None of it mattered in the least, anymore. At least he had that going for him.

Chalmers reached up and scratched the top of his shaved head. He’d been shaving his head since he was ten, so for all he knew, he was starting to go naturally bald already. He was tall and thin, but not tall enough or thin enough to be considered lanky. He was muscular enough to be strong but not athletic. And he was good looking enough to not be ugly, but also not enough to quite be handsome. He’d always had good skin, too, good black skin that had almost no scars from scrapes he’d gotten into. Because he hadn’t gotten into too many, see, and the only really bad one he’d gotten into hadn’t been one where he’d been hurt in any way. Other folks had been hurt that night. Which was why he was where he was.

“So,” Tim began, “the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. The existing judgment stands, at least for now.”

“You hopin’ to pull a miracle outta your hat?”

“I do have a couple things I can try. Last minute stuff. The desperate stuff that’s all that’s left.”

“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t be desperate. I’m the one gonna be on the gurney, know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Tim said. “So are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Desperate.”

Roy considered that and then slowly shook his head. “Nah, man. Not me. Nothin’ to be desperate about. Somebody was always gonna kill me. Might as well be them.”

Tim opened the file folder and looked at the paper on top. Then he folded his hands and looked across the table into the eyes of his client. “I’ve heard this kind of bravado before,” he said.

“Course you have,” Roy replied. “Know why? It’s the truth. I’m goin’ to where they can’t touch me, ever again. I’m goin’ to where they’re never gonna be able to talk to me, ever again. I’m goin’ to where I ain’t ever gonna have to listen to their voices, ever again. I’ll be past their touch.”

Tim stopped looking at the paper as the words reached him. He looked up at Roy. “Past whose touch?”

Roy leaned back in his chair. “Well, we all got a ‘them’, don’t we?” Roy sighed. “Look, counselor. You done good by me, and that means somethin’. But you can’t win this one, you know you can’t. I’m goin’ down and that’s a fact. When I helped Luther and Raoul that night…I should never have listened to those two assholes, but I did and that’s on me and so’s that night, know what I mean?” He shook his head. “You did a good job but some fights are only worth something by fightin’ them, you know? That’ll mean something, someday. But I’m gonna die tonight, and that’s a fact.”

Tim closed the folder and returned it to his briefcase. “I’m still gonna try,” he said

“Well, I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t.” Tim closed his briefcase too. “Is there anything you need, anyone you want me to try and contact?”

Roy shook his head. “Got everything I need. Nice cell, too.”

“I’ve heard.”

Roy was in the prep cell, the one the inmates moved into when the execution was less than seven days away. Soon the cell would be empty until they scheduled it for the next guy. What a thing to have a system for, he thought. Awful lot of moving guys around just to kill them.

Tim nodded and put the folder back in his briefcase. “I’ll let you know if…anything changes. Failing that, I’ll be there tonight.”

Roy nodded. Tim rose to his feet. Roy didn’t. Wasn’t allowed to until the guards said so. “You know what’s weird, Tim? Afterwards, they do an autopsy. Wonder why that is? Are they afraid that I’m gonna die of a heart attack right before they do it?”

Tim shrugged. “Want me to look into that?”

“Nah,” Roy said. “What’s life without a little bit of mystery, huh?”

Walking back to his cell felt like the easiest thing in the world, and yet, Roy was acutely aware that this was the second-to-last walk he’d ever take. Next time he walked somewhere it would be to the very last place he’d ever go to sleep. He tried to remember when that had started, this long string of last time I ever’s.

Man, what a pussy!

Tell me about it. Jesus, Roy-boy, you gotta get a grip, man.

Yeah! Hell, we probably wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t shit his pants and come inside. Instead the cops got us and now we’re here.

That’s OK though, man! Roy-boy here’s about to join us! Ain’t you, Roy-boy?

Roy waited until the door was closed and locked behind him, and then he sat down on the bed. Nicely made bed. Only slept in once at a time.

You gonna take a nap, Roy? Nah, you ain’t nappin’. That’s where the dreams are at.

Roy shook his head and sighed. Nothing really changed, did it? Not ever. Not even death changed anything.

He glanced up at the video camera that was monitoring his every move, and then he glanced at the window in the door, the reinforced glass window, through which he could see the other guard who would do nothing but watch him for two hours, at which point another would take over and do nothing but watch him for two hours, and so on. Wouldn’t want to cheat the state its fun by committing suicide, would he? And besides, what was he going to do it with? Even if he could manage to make a rope out of his own clothes before they realized that he was making a rope out of his own clothes, there wasn’t anything to tie it to. Not even this toilet-and-sink combo, with its all-smooth sides and everything. That gave him a bit of pause. What company out there made its living making suicide-proof toilets? Who decided to go into that market?

You’re thinkin’ too much, Roy. Thinkin’ too much about shit that don’t matter. What matters is, soon you’ll be with us again, won’t you?

Oh yeah, man! You can’t get away from us!

“Maybe I can’t,” Roy said out loud. “But I ain’t there yet.”

He sat down on the cold metal chair to wait until his next appointment: a visit with the chaplain. Shortly after that, the last meal. A couple hours after that….

Showtime, Roy-boy. That’s what a couple hours after that.

“Yeah, I know,” Roy said. “Showtime.”

He’d always liked showtime. That’s what he called it when he took the court in high school; he knew he’d get the ball and sink it for three.

Showtime.

John Lazarus watched a couple of episodes of something in the afternoon. He couldn’t have told you what. He thumbed through a pile of magazines, and didn’t remember a single thing he read. He picked up a book a few times, put it back down; he picked up another book a few times, put it back down. Maybe it was the same book. Maybe not.

He ran the vacuum cleaner, and then he ran it again. He washed the dishes and then searched for more to wash. Finding none, he dug around in the cupboard where they kept their pots and pans, dug out the ones they didn’t use more than once a year, and then he washed those. About the only thing John did not do to pass the time was work on his research for his dissertation. He knew better than to even try that.

Finally it came time to put on his dark suit. He’d worn it to Michelle’s funeral, then Mayhew’s execution, and then Serrano’s. After tonight it was going in the trash. No Goodwill or anything like that, just out in the trash. For one thing, it really didn’t fit all that well anymore.

Once he was dressed, he looked through his drawer of old photos of Michelle, where he’d put them when Ellen had moved in. She’d never asked him to do that, but he’d felt it was the right thing to do. After he’d done it, she had said, “You know, it’s not like I’m gonna pretend your life started when you met me.”

That was when he really knew he was in love with Ellen, but even so, he kept the pictures of Michelle put away.

He settled on what had always been his favorite picture of himself and Michelle. He didn’t know why it was his favorite, but it was. It came from their last camping trip in Canada. A nice older couple had been in the site next to theirs; they’d come riding in on a motorcycle and after some conversation the nice lady had offered to take their picture. John was wearing a brown flannel shirt and jeans and hiking boots; his hair had been longer then than it was now, but not by much. Michelle wore a red hooded sweatshirt under blue denim Carhartt overalls, and her reddish hair was tucked under a knit cap. Her smile was so wide and open; his looked so calm and guarded. They’d been a really good couple.

That night he’d recited his favorite poem to her, for what would end up being the last time. That night she’d pointed something out about that poem’s meaning, and he’d nodded. He still loved the poem, though. He hadn’t recited it since then. He wondered if he still remembered the whole thing.

John finished tying his tie, grabbed his phone and wallet and keys, and left.

Roy Edgar Chalmers wiped his mouth after eating his single slice of cheese pizza and bottle of orange soda in the same room he’d used earlier to talk to Tim. He’d thought quite a bit about his last meal, and in the end he’d decided to just go with something simple: cheese pizza and orange soda. All the times he’d eaten that same meal with his big brother, when Mom and Dad had been working until eight or nine or ten or all night.

What a good brother Larren had been. Good, solid kid. Smart, athletic; got into Michigan State on a baseball scholarship. Killed July of that year when he’d taken a ride with one of his buddies, probably not realizing until the car was wrapping itself around the telephone pole that his buddy was fucking hammered. One minute, here; the next, little nine-year-old Roy had to eat his cheese pizza and orange soda all by himself for the rest of his life. But he couldn’t. Roy never had cheese pizza and orange soda again.

Until tonight.

Sorry, Larren, he thought. He thought that a lot. He never thought that about Mom or Dad. They were both dead now, too: breast cancer not caught until way too late, and a heart attack not caught until Dad had been dead for three hours. This particular branch of the Chalmers family tree was about to be permanently clipped.

One of the guards took Roy’s tray. The other one asked, “Do you want to talk to the Chaplain?”

“Yeah,” Roy said. “I think I’d better.”

The guard nodded to the window in the door, and the guards outside opened it, allowing the prison chaplain to enter. Roy had never talked to the man, only seen him once or twice without exchanging a word. He was short and stocky, definitely Latino. His face was heavily pockmarked and he wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that somehow made him look sadder as well as smarter. His black hair was flecked with gray. He wore the standard black suit with white clerical collar; a cross made of dark polished wood hung around his neck and he held his Bible in his hand, down at his side kind of casually, not double-clutched over his chest the way most clergy seemed to tote that book around.

“Hey, Preacher,” Roy said. “Thought I should finally talk to you a little. I’m not likely to get much chance later on.”

“No,” the chaplain agreed as he took the seat opposite the condemned man. “You’re pretty much taking this one down to the wire, aren’t you? My name is Peter Menendez. My title is Reverend, but I don’t really care if you use it.”

Roy nodded. “I like old-time stuff,” he said. “Thinkin’ I’ll call you Parson.”

“Never been called that one.”

“I like to be memorable.”

“Most death-row guys are memorable.”

“Yeah, but just because they’re on death row. I’m tryin’ for more than that, know what I mean?” Roy leaned back and scratched the top of his head. Man, that damned spot up there always itched! Another thing that wasn’t gonna be a worry much longer. “Tell me about yourself, Parson.”

“We here to talk about me?”

“I don’t know what the hell we’re here to talk about.”

“Fair point. Peter Menendez. I was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.”

“Lutheran.”

“Yeah.”

“Not Catholic?”

“Why? Because I’m Latino?”

“Yeah.”

“Not all Latinos go the Catholic route.”

“Not all black men are murderers.”

“Didn’t say they were.”

“No, you didn’t. I guess we can chalk that up to a little last-minute mischief.”

“And is that why you’re here? Because of a little mischief?”

“I’m here because at some point I started a run of real bad decision-making.”

Reverend Menendez put his Bible on the table.

“You haven’t spoken to anyone in my line of work since you got here, and now, here we are. Are you looking for something?”

“I don’t know that I’m lookin’ for anything.”

“Bullshit.”

Roy raised his eyebrows. “I made the parson swear?”

“I swear plenty. God forgives.”

“And why does he do that?”

“Because I ask him to, and it’s what He does.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“So what if I ask him to?”

“Then He’ll forgive you.”

“And how about the people of the good state of Michigan?”

“Well, we all fall short of the Kingdom of God, don’t we?” The reverend fixed him with a pointed stare. “Mr. Chalmers, you strike me as a guy who’s got something to say.”

“You figured that out already?”

Reverend Menendez shrugged. “How unique do you think you are? I’ve seen it a lot. Men like you, who end up here on the bad end of—what did you call it—a ‘long run of bad decision making,’ who have something to say.”

“And do they say it?”

“Some do. Others don’t figure out how. And more don’t even admit to having anything to say in the first place. But I still keep coming.”

“Why?”

“Because God commands it. Right there, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Big as life. Can’t miss it.”

“I don’t have a Bible.”

“Take my word for it, then.”

“You’re not gonna quote it for me?”

“Not sure I see what the point of that would be. You’re ready to believe, or you’re not. Same as lots of folks. The only difference is, you’ve only got a few hours to make up your mind.”

“I don’t like being rushed.”

“Take that up with the Governor, not God. He gave you your entire life.”

Roy chuckled. “My Mom believed,” he said. “Maybe my Dad did too, but I don’t know. Never talked much about it with him. We tried goin’ to church a few times, but after working so many hours at so many jobs, if they were off on a Sunday, they just wanted to sleep a few minutes more, know what I mean?” He leaned forward a little. “But here’s the thing. I do the things I’ve done and I wind up here. Hours before they come for me, I ‘take Jesus into my heart’ and beg his forgiveness. According to you, I get it. Now take some shitty goatherder in China or someplace. Guy’s never missed a day of work, never raised a hand to his children, does good stuff. But he never knows Jesus from Josephine. He goes to Hell. I got that right?”

Reverend Menendez nodded. “Some think that’s how it goes.”

“What do you think, Parson?”

“I’ve struggled with that one my whole life. It doesn’t seem right to me, but…well, God’s ways aren’t my ways, are they?”

“That’s a cop-out answer.”

“Maybe. But we’re humans. We cop out.”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think about, Roy?” Menendez asked. “What goes through your mind at night? Are you sorry for what you did?”

“Not sure that really matters,” Roy said. “Who cares if I’m sorry? The state doesn’t. Nobody who’s gonna watch me die cares. But you know, I think about that woman a lot.”

“The cop’s wife.”

“Yeah, her. The look on her face when she went down…she knew what I’d taken from her. Life, future, family…she knew.”

“I read the report. She was already dead. You killed her instantly.”

“What do those fuckin’ doctors know, anyway? She held my eyes all the way down to the floor. You don’t have a look like that in your eyes if you’re not makin’ it on purpose. She knew.” He stared down at his hands; he flexed his fingers as if wondering how they could have done what they’d done.

“Your friends never expressed any kind of remorse.”

“Weren’t my friends.”

“Then why were you with them?”

“Hell, Parson, I coulda made my lawyer’s life a lot easier if I’d ever been able to come up with a good answer to that one.” He shook his head. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? The stupid shit we do when we’re young with people that aren’t our friends.”

“Yeah.” Reverend Menendez leaned forward. “I think I need to pray for you now. It’s something I’m gonna be doing a lot of over the next few hours.”

“It’s your time, man.”

“It’s God’s time. You ever pray, Roy Edgar Chalmers?”

Roy looked up at him. “Once or twice,” Roy said. His voice was barely more than a whisper.

“Might want to give it another shot.”

“And what does a murderer who’s on his way to the needle pray for? ’If I should die before I wake…’”

“That,” Reverend Menendez said. “That’s exactly what you pray for. You pray Lord God your soul to take.”

Reverend Menendez folded his hands, lowered his head, and prayed. Roy just sat there, not sure of what to do.

When Roy got back to his cell, he sat down. He’d noticed that his heart was starting to speed up a bit. Must be nervousness. This was it, now. The last bit of waiting.

You told that preacher we weren’t friends, Roy-boy! What the hell is that about? We’re the only friends you ever had.

Roy said nothing, thought nothing.

You know how you know we’re your only friends, Roy-boy? It’s because we’re the only ones still waitin’ for your dumb ass.

That notion, more than any other, made Roy Edgar Chalmers shed a tear.

The waiting room for an execution was the strangest, most surreal place in the world that John could think of. And he’d seen some pretty strange things.

He found a seat, sat down, and looked at the informational posters on the wall, mostly about the history of Norden Prison. Why they thought anyone might want to learn the history of this facility while they waited to see someone executed was something John couldn’t figure, other than chalking it up to the unending human need to put something on the wall.

Some of the others were there, too. The wife and kid of the shop owner; the parents of that other unlucky sonofabitch who’d been in the place when Mayhew and Serrano had walked in all bent on mischief. That was it, though. While Mayhew and Serrano had had family there to see them off—possibly just to make sure they were really dead—Chalmers was going into this totally alone.

Time in that room passed neither slowly nor quickly. It just passed, and you were oddly both aware and unaware of it at the same time. At least the clock on the wall was silent. Someone had, at some point in the past, realized how awful a ticking clock would be in a place like this. John wondered, just as he had with Mayhew and Serrano, if Chalmers had a clock. Just as before, he decided that he didn’t care that much.

“We’ll be seating in fifteen minutes,” a prison official said. “The window is one-way glass, so the prisoner will not be able to see any of you. The curtain will not be drawn until the prisoner is in place and ready for the administration of the drugs. You will not see suffering here, nor the infliction of pain; you will simply see what appears to be the prisoner going to sleep. You are to remain seated and there is to be no talking in the viewing room. After the execution is complete, you will be escorted to the media area for the following press conference, unless you have chosen not to participate, in which case you will be escorted back to the visitor parking lot. Are there any questions?”

No one had any. This group had been through this before.

“All right,” the official said. “Fifteen minutes.”

John nodded at nothing in particular. The poem had popped into his head, just like it had the first two times. He hadn’t read that poem or recited it in years, but for some reason, he’d run it through in his head while he’d waited for Mayhew and he’d done it again for Serrano. Now it was Chalmers’s turn. He’d thought it a love poem when he’d first read it, then he’d realized it wasn’t. He’d recited it for Michelle anyway.

John straightened his tie and cross his legs the other way. In a few minutes he’d uncross them entirely so one of them wouldn’t be asleep when he stood up. That had happened at the first one of these.

The things you remember.

Roy Edgar Chalmers thought that this new shirt they’d given him was very nice. Still had the creases. Fit was a bit big, but then, they needed to be able to roll up the sleeves and get at his arm. They’d let him shower, too. Like he had a date.

The guards formed a perimeter around him, and Warden Daniels stood in front of him as they ushered him forward, out of the special cell for the condemned, and into the preparation room. This room was blindingly, garishly lit. Roy winced as he entered, but then he recovered himself. He stood up straight and walked forward, as confidently as he could. His knees didn’t buckle at all.

Until he saw the gurney.

Typical hospital gurney, but with two wings off to each side, for his arms. Restraining straps of thick tan leather. A doctor standing to one side, with a cart of medical supplies at his side.

This was it. This was real. This was really happening.

“Oh Jesus,” Roy said as he crumpled to the floor. “Oh Jesus oh mama….”

The guards were at his side instantly, their hands beneath his arms as they tried to haul him up. He wasn’t resisting and he wasn’t fighting it; to Roy’s shock, he found that he couldn’t. His legs had no strength at all, and his heart was pounding like it was about to explode. “Oh Jesus,” he said. “Help me God….”

“God helps,” came a voice. Reverend Menendez. His voice was calming, soothing. Roy sagged between the grips of the guards and hung his head.

“This is it,” he said. “It’s really happening—”

“Get him up,” said the Warden. “Get him on the gurney.”

Roy went almost completely limp as the guards picked him up, one at each shoulder and the others at each leg, and carried him onto the gurney. There they started strapping him down. “I’m sorry, Mama,” he said, shaking his head back and forth and trying not to give in to uncontrollable sobs. “I won’t do it again, Mama, I swear….”

“I need him to calm down,” said the doctor.

You believe this bastard? He’s helpin’ to KILL you, Roy-boy!

“Shut the fuck up,” Roy said. He realized he’d spoken aloud, and clamped his mouth shut.

The guards finished strapping Roy down, and then they stepped back and Reverend Menendez stepped up. Roy closed his eyes.

“Give your soul to God, Roy,” Reverend Menendez said. “Give it to God before the end.”

“I don’t deserve peace,” Roy said. “I didn’t give them peace, why should I—”

“None of us deserve God’s peace, Roy. He gives it to us anyway.”

Don’t listen to him Roy-boy!

Roy stopped shaking his head and recovered his breath. “I’m scared, Parson.”

“I know you are. You should be. It’s OK. But this is the chance you get, the chance you have. Your only chance for peace…the peace that passes all understanding.”

Roy hesitated, and then he nodded. “I don’t remember the words, Parson….”

“I’ll start,” Reverend Menendez said. “Our Father, who art in Heaven….”

“Our Father, who art in Heaven….”

Meanwhile the doctor came forward and began preparing Roy’s arm for the insertion of the catheter. When the Reverend and Roy got to “And forgive us our trespasses,” that’s when the doctor slid in the needle. Roy gasped, but kept on praying.

There it is, Roy-boy. There’s that sharp pain. That shit’s real. Last real thing you’re ever gonna feel.

Roy took a deep breath. The entire room seemed to fade away to nothing except the sound of his own voice.

“For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory…forever and ever…amen.” He closed his eyes, swallowed, and opened them again. “I’m ready,” he said.

They were already wheeling him into the room when he said it. They didn’t care if he was ready or not. He didn’t get to be ready or not.

But all the same, he was ready.

John took his seat. The room had three tiers of seats, so that you’d have a good line of sight unless someone six foot ten sat in front of you. The seats were comfortable enough, but John didn’t care about that. The fingers of his left hand migrated to the two rings he wore on a chain around his neck. Michelle’s ring, hanging next to his own. He didn’t wear these often anymore, especially since Ellen had come along. But tonight he did.

He also whispered the poem to himself. His little mantra.

It was unheard of, really – getting the death penalty for all three in the same case. Usually one or two, in a case like this, would land a deal where they’d testify against the “ringleader” and thereby get life while the one guy got the needle. Not so this time. If there was one thing that poor shopkeeper had done right, it was installing that really nice video system, with its digital recordings taken from three different angles. Including the one of the door, showing Chalmers coming in to join the fun already in progress.

Sometimes, when journalists or writers revisited the case, they wondered if Mayhew had had a death wish or if he’d been stupid. John Lazarus figured that Mayhew just simply hadn’t given a shit. Neither, he figured, did Serrano.

But what about Chalmers? What had been in his heart, what had driven him to join in that free-for-all?

John didn’t know.

The lights dimmed in the observation room, and the blinds snapped open.

There he was, just a few feet away, lying on the gurney, all strapped down and looking clean. Roy Edgar Chalmers, all hooked up and one place to go. His face was covered with a fine layer of sweat, and his eyes were focused straight up, at the ceiling of the last room he’d ever be in.

The young woman beside John gasped. He remembered her gasping the last two times, too. She must be in college now, but on that night she’d just been a normal fourth-grader. She was very pretty, long dark hair curled into tight ringlets. Her name was Grace, John remembered. Her brother, Adam, had run in there to pick up his mom a lottery ticket. Mom – Mary – had not played the lottery a single time since. Peter, the dad, looked thinner than before, his hair wispier.

The things that bound people together.

One of the people behind John made a low, growling sound. John remained calm, but he knew where that sound came from. There were times when the anger, all of it, every last fiery burning bit of it, came screaming back.

“Roy Edgar Chalmers,” the warden began to read from a piece of paper, “having been found guilty by a jury of your peers for the crime of murder, and having been sentenced to die by lethal injection, such sentence to be administered in a duly designated facility, you have been brought here at this time and place for said sentence to be carried out. At this time, if you have any final statement to make, it will be heard.”

A boom microphone lowered from the ceiling of the execution chamber, to hover over Chalmers’s face. That always seemed the most ridiculous touch, John thought; did it really need to be recorded? Did people actually listen to those?

Chalmers didn’t speak into the microphone, though. He turned his head, toward the window.

Yeah Roy-boy, you got anything to say?

Come on, Roy-boy! You were always so talkative! Man, you could never just shut the fuck up! That’s why we’re here, man! Because you couldn’t shut the fuck up!

Come on, Roy-boy, you’re the one with all the poems and shit. Let’s hear something real pretty. Let’s hear something they’ll remember you forever for!

Roy looked up at the microphone as it came down. It almost made him laugh. Who the hell would want to listen to what his worthless ass had to say about anything? Fuck the microphone. Instead he turned his head, toward the window. The silvered-glass window that he couldn’t see through. He found a single spot to look at, a single spot to focus on. He wasn’t sure why it was that spot and none other, but that was where he had to look.

John wanted to turn his head, his eyes, look somewhere else. He couldn’t.

Chalmers couldn’t possibly see him. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. The glass was silvered on the other side, and it was way lighter in there than it was in here, which is what made the whole one-way thing work.

But Chalmers’s eyes had found his, somehow. Chalmers’s eyes had found his and locked onto them.

John was staring into the eyes of the man who had killed Michelle, the one who had pulled the trigger, the one whose bullet had taken her from him, from everything, forever. John didn’t know what he saw there. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what he saw there. It was bad enough that he didn’t see hate there, or fear, or anger, or laughter – he saw none of the things that Mayhew and Serrano had made so goddamned sure everybody knew was in their hearts. Roy Edgar Chalmers just looked…sad. Sad that this is what his time on Earth had come to.

Then Chalmers spoke.

“We’re put on this Earth to do good,” Roy said. “I didn’t do any. And I’m sorry for that.”

He wanted to wipe the tear away but couldn’t, because he was all strapped down.

A tear. The son-of-a-bitch shed a tear. John wanted to reach through the glass and strangle him, take that tear away. Chalmers had no damn right to shed a tear.

But John shed one too.

Roy turned his head away and faced straight up.

That was nice, Roy-boy. Real nice.

You’re already crying, Roy-boy! Don’t worry, it’s almost over.

Yeah, it is. Roy allowed himself the tiniest of smiles. He didn’t want anyone to see it, and no one probably did. Yeah, it was almost over.

He knew the first drug was already flowing. He stopped listening to everything in the room, none of the sounds mattered. The first drug would put him to sleep, and the next two would do the ugly stuff that he wouldn’t feel. This was gonna be a nice nap.

Roy felt…warm. The warmest, most wonderfully calmest, warmest sensation he’d ever known. It was a warmth that took him back to his earliest days. How could he be remembering that? Nobody remembers what it was like to be a baby, but that’s what this had to be. He was remembering snuggling with Mama.

Oh my…this is how it ends…I’m yours, Jesus…it’s over, it’s over, it’s over, it’s finally over….

What’s that, Roy-boy? Over? You think it’s over?

It’s never over, Roy-boy. Old Luther and I are just gettin’ started, Roy-boy, and that’s a fact.

Yeah, Roy-boy. You think they took care of us? We’re free, man. Freer than we ever been before. And Raoul and I, we’re gonna have us some fun. You have a good time hanging around in Hell, Roy-boy! We got places to be!

Now what was that about? Roy Edgar Chalmers wondered.

It was his last thought.

An hour later, John was in his car, driving back to New Mowbray. He merged onto I-92, and drove in silence all the way back. He had a tight grip on the wheel. It was really windy that night. Wind was common in New Mowbray. It came off the lake, came off it hard, sometimes all the way from up in Canada. But this wind was stronger than usual, and he had to hold tight to the wheel.

It was over, he thought. It was over.

Ahead of him, a thunderstorm was brewing. He barely noticed when it started raining.

The poem was in his mind again, and this time he said it aloud, since there was no one else to hear:

“It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea….”

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