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Mr. Chop-Chop itself looks just the way you'd expect a guillotine to look: the imposing blade, the release lever, the ropes, the faux wood stockades.
The victims' families have waited years for this moment. It's our job to make sure things go as planned.
Death Penalty
by Leslie What

The ones who scare me most are the ones who want to watch. I understand why, but they scare me just the same. It's usually the victim's husband, sometimes a son or adult daughter. Why anyone would choose to watch another person die takes some explaining. They're looking for what they call "closure," because a story without an end, even a bad one, just isn't satisfying.

My name is Charles Culpepper, and I work in corrections; to be specific, I'm a guard in the Death Penalty Unit, which we call the Chop-Chop floor on account of the guillotine. I'm divorced with two kids living: ten and twelve. I'm thirty-six, extremely fit, and have been assigned to Mr. Chop-Chop for two years. Before that, I worked in medical as a prison guard, and before that I was the very model of carefree youth. Then my eldest boy, Solomon, died of leukemia. You can't go on same as before once everything has changed.

Work starts at 7:00 A.M. It's Friday, and there's an execution scheduled for today, which makes the third one this month, almost a record. I'm anxious to set up for that, but when I punch in, I hear gossip about a potentially bigger problem, one that concerns me.

My boss is waiting in my office. He lets me hang up my coat, then says, "Listen, Charles, there's something you need to know. We're short a box of Hyperware."

"You're kidding," I say. A box of Hyperware is worth over a hundred-thousand dollars to whoever has it.

"When?" I asked. "We counted and signed off on Monday."

"I know," he says. "I can't tell you right now when the theft occurred. We're investigating, and I want you to know that you're not under any suspicion." He leaves me to puzzle things out and wonder why, if I'm under no suspicion, he came in first thing in the morning to let me know.

The news makes me nervous and a bit late to start in on work, knowing I'll be questioned further.

Hyperware is what the death penalty is all about. It allows for hyper-oxygenation of the brain tissue that brings on a sense of extreme awareness. It's a controlled drug, which means we have to account for what we use, to prevent abuse. Users like the intense rush; the rumor is that Hyperware makes sex unbelievable. I'll never know, and not just because I don't get sex. I've witnessed enough executions to be afraid of the drug, afraid of what it would do to me.

The whole thing's got me so worked up I can't remember where I left the paperwork. I straighten up my desk, looking for the folder, but stop when I notice dust on a frame I use for a picture of my kids. The picture is housed in a Civil War–era Union case that was designed to house copper photographic plates—daguerreotype (dags)—of the day. I don't collect the old pictures, but I do the cases. I admit, they fascinate me.

The cases were made from a compressed shellac and sawdust compound known as thermoplastic, strong enough to survive battle. The soldiers died, but their picture frames were passed on to their families.

This Union case, a half-plate, is a dust magnet because it's embossed with intricate stamped designs: a wedding scene on the front and a floral circle on the back. I bought it as an anniversary present for Lucie, before we split up. It's worth about four hundred and fifty dollars.

Despite my efforts, there's probably still some hundred-year-old dust stuck to the crevices, but I'm calm enough to proceed now, and rush down to the Chop-Chop room, where I'm five minutes overdue. I pass two dad types, the victims' fathers, who stand around, waiting to be let into the observation unit anteroom. I'm not supposed to talk to them, but they don't know that.

"You're the guard," one says. "I saw you once, on the news."

He's black, balding, and looks like someone who doesn't often wear a suit. He must be the dead boy's dad. His shoes are new and shiny. He has friendly wrinkles around his eyes, and there's something vaguely familiar about him; I figure I've seen his picture in the paper, or maybe he's just got one of those generic middle-aged balding male faces. He looks to be at the age where you're not sure whether to ask if he deserves a senior discount.

I nod and step up my pace, but the other one leaps up to shake my hand. His suit fits well; he dyes his hair brown, and he's wearing more jewelry than I think a man should wear. I take an instant dislike to him, which is unfair, I know. I should cut him some slack. I remember reading that the girl came from money and figure he's her dad. I'd like to tell them both that I'm sorry for their loss, but it's not my place.

"Thank you for what you're doing," says brown hair.

"Just doing my job," I say. I don't want their gratitude. I don't take any of this personally. They do; they can't help that. I'm not playing God, here. If I took it personally, it would drive me nuts.

"About time he gets what's coming to him," says brown hair. He's so angry I can't stand to look at him, and when he reaches out to shake my hand I find myself cringing and stepping away. "Make him suffer," says brown hair.

I shrug. Not my place. I just work here.

First duty is inspecting the machinery. Mr. Chop-Chop is housed in a dark room with speckled granite walls and flooring. The floors slope so that they drain directly beneath the unit to make cleanup easy. The granite shines up real nice after.

Mr. Chop-Chop itself looks just the way you'd expect a guillotine to look: the imposing blade, the release lever, the ropes, the faux wood stockades. It all smells hospital clean, meaning it doesn't smell so good but you know that even the germs have been sterilized. The room is square, with most of the equipment pressed against the back wall, and across from Mr. Chop-Chop is the observation room. The wall is mirrored glass that lets them see out and us see ourselves.

I look over the mechanicals, making sure the ropes are sturdy and the lever works, all routine. I spray the sides of the titanium blade with fibrinogen tissue glue that prevents blood loss. I sign off on the checklist that I've done the work. Next comes the electronics: the monitors and electrodes that will reassure us our guy's still alive after decapitation.

The execution is scheduled for 8:30, and I finish up the checklist with no time to spare. I use the john, check my uniform and teeth, and finger-comb my hair before walking down the hall to pick up my prisoner. A wall of smoked glass windows hides the offices behind them. I wave to the outlined figure I know is the sound guy over in the director's room. He's checking the sound levels now, before the show, making sure the click of my heels isn't muted, and that the mic will pick up any last minute pleas or confessions when I return with my prisoner in tow.

"Looking good," says the sound guy. I give a practiced wave. If I hadn't gotten into law enforcement, I might have tried acting.

Our killer is held in isolation. "Morning, Roger, Sydney," I say to the guards outside the holding cell. Their uniforms are two shades lighter than mine, and both men are armed with nightsticks and revolvers. We all wear the same kind of heavy, shiny, hard-soled shoes that posses a thicker hide than any of us have. They're both good-looking men in their late twenties, both black, hardworking. They're good guys.

"Hey, Charles," says Sydney. "Knock 'em dead."

Roger laughs, but I think it's inappropriate and just give a smile I hope looks pained.

"Did you hear?" Sydney asks, and I know he means the Hyperware. Suddenly the atmosphere changes, and I notice we're all eyeing one another with suspicion.

The cell has fluorescent lights that leave everyone looking morgue blue. A priest stands before the prisoner giving last rites. An older woman, probably the mother, sits on a folding stool beside the prisoner, holding his hand. She's clutching something to her chest, and when she lifts that arm to wipe her eyes, I see that it's a small brass-colored picture frame. Department store variety. Seems a shame to hold precious memories in something you could buy for under five bucks.

In my pocket is a one-sixteenth plate brown case with tiny pictures of my kids. On the front cover is a picture of Moses parting the Red Sea, and on the back is a design of birds and flowers. The case has been appraised at fifteen hundred bucks.

The prisoner has on white hospital scrubs, no pocket, and paper slippers. The woman wears a wrinkled pantsuit she must have slept in. She looks fifty and the boy looks twenty, if that. I didn't watch the trial or penalty phase and don't know if there's a father in the picture or not. The woman is crying and the prisoner looks like he's trying not to cry. The priest has a look of calm and love; if I still believed in God, he's who I'd want to stand beside me when I go.

I'm supposed to act professional, never angry, sad, or vengeful. Sometimes that's tough, knowing what these guys have done. This one for instance, this baby-faced, clean-cut young man trying so hard not to cry in front of his mother … a year ago, this guy went on a sadistic rampage that left two people dead. He pleaded insanity, said the antidepressants he was taking made him psycho. His defense failed to persuade the jury; my boss thinks because of the methodical way he disposed of the victims' hands, eyes, and teeth to avoid their being identified.

Seeing him gaze up at his mother like he's afraid he's disappointed her makes me think he really is psycho, no matter the legal definition. I'm not saying that a mother's love isn't a powerful thing, just wondering why love is good at encouraging penitence but worthless when it comes to prevention.

At 8:25, the buzzer sounds, and I know that it's a go; the governor hasn't called in a stay of execution. This governor never does, but the last guy was notoriously liberal, and we got into the habit of waiting.

"Is it time?" the mother asks.

The priest nods and says, "God be with you."

Roger and Sydney position themselves.

An observer from Amnesty International rushes in. "Sorry I'm late," he says. "Traffic."

We all nod. It's a bad time, but we didn't make up the schedule, and his tardiness is just one more reason to resent him. He's short, wears glasses, and his nose is too big, but since he's not in uniform, I doubt anyone watching will confuse him for someone who works for our program. He asks the priest several questions before signing off on his form.

"Stand up, please," I say, and the prisoner rises to his feet, lips and hands trembling.

Roger sweeps through and passes a metal detector over the prisoner, cuffs his wrists, and loosely fastens leather restraints around his ankles.

The mother sniffles and weeps. I wonder if she thinks her son is guilty or if she thinks there's been a mistake, the way a lot of them do.

"Have mercy," she says, but there's no answer for that. "Please come with me," I say, and the prisoner shuffles out of the room beside me. His legs are chained together, but he can walk, just not run. Sydney and Roger flank us. The priest wraps his arm around the mother and says, "We should wait here."

At 8:30 on the dot, our entourage begins its slow walk down the hall. The floodlights switch on.

"Cameras rolling," Sydney says. "Action."

Almost unconsciously, we all straighten up, even the guy from Amnesty. The echo of our footfalls marching in unison is a harsh contrast with the shuffle from the prisoner's shoes.

The hall walk is often the moment of realization, when a prisoner understands there's no going back, and sometimes they crumple mid-way, and we have to take them in on a gurney. One time, when I was away on vacation, my replacement dragged a guy to the chamber. That quick thinking earned us lots of bad press, so now we have a gurney and a wheelchair ready, just in case they can't walk.

This one is a crier and I offer him an arm and together we complete the walk and stand in the center of the execution suite. The observation room is up to my left, partially obscured by smoked glass windows, but I can't help but notice the shadowy figures moving about, some of them no doubt looking at me to see if I look like the kind of guy to take Hyperware.

The prisoner watches me with a wide-eyed be-my-savior expression. I've seen that look before. There's nothing I can do or say. I can't reassure him or it will look like I'm taking sides. And pathetic as he looks, I know he deserves this.

"Do you have any last words?" I ask. I hate it when they wait till the end to apologize, but I'm supposed to ask. The bald dad might take comfort in turncoat repentance, though I doubt brown hair will find it believable.

No matter. Our guy is caught up in his own blubbering and isn't thinking about why he's here, only that he's here. I pull off his shirt but leave on his trousers for modesty's sake.

Jerry is my Chop-Chop tech, and he smiles in greeting and gives a mock salute. "All ready here," he says. He's in his forties, originally from Minnesota, very pale with polka dot strawberry freckles, and always in a good mood. Jerry hooks his fingertips to monitors that record his pulse and we strap electrodes to his head and then we unlock the drug cabinet and take out one box of Hyperware.

Jerry removes one patch and I write down the number. After, we'll do a count to make sure things match up, which seems anticlimactic, given that a box is missing. Did he steal the patches? I look at him to see if he's thinking what I'm thinking. Neither of us can speak about it—we're on camera. He points to the dosage indicator on the label. "Death penalty of forty-five seconds?" he asks, and we all check our notes, a formality—it's not like you forget how much time has been awarded—and nod, yes.

The Amnesty observer double-checks the trial report, and all of us examine the dosage on the Hyperware patch and agree it's the correct dose.

I hear movement in the observation room. No doubt some shuffling to accommodate an overflow media crowd. We're continuously aware that six cameras are filming us from different angles but there's a reason we think of executions as "The Show," and we're all good at pretending. Jerry pulls off the backing and sticks the patch behind the prisoner's ear. It will take thirty seconds for his level of alertness to increase to where he can feel his own hair growing. If he looked scared before, now he's terrified.

Jerry clips on retractors to prop open his eyelids so he can't shut his eyes.

"No!" he cries, but we're on a schedule and the sequence has already been programmed in. I couldn't stop it even if I thought it was my job to do so.

I help the prisoner to his knees, conscious that my every move is being watched from the other side of the smoked glass windows.

Sydney unlocks the cuffs and we slide our guy's hands into the stockade. He's strapped into position around the calves and thighs. I press his head down into the slot, and Roger lowers the gate. Roger tightens the grips that will hold and rotate the head after separation.

"We're in position," Jerry says, eyeing the camera.

I don't want to think about the two dads watching on the other side of the glass. I don't like to think about the personalities when I'm working. "Make him suffer," brown hair had said, as if I had anything to do with this. It was them, not me, who asked for and received a death penalty. I don't know what I'd do if I were in their position.

But I keep imagining the balding man staring at me, wanting answers I can't provide. He's afraid. He wants to believe that seeing his son's killer die will make him feel better. Because it's the senselessness of it all that really gets to you, and the truth is, when your kid dies, nothing can make you feel better. I'm not going to be the one to tell him that.

Forty-five seconds. It could have been worse. He could have gotten a minute and a half, something usually reserved for terrorists.

We all step back, away from Mr. Chop-Chop, to protect us from blood contamination. We stand two on each side, so we can watch the proceedings but not turn our backs to the cameras.

"No!" the prisoner screams. "I don't want to die!" Sydney flashes a look my way and I nod. It's a little late for that.

The timer sounds. It has begun. My brain goes into a practiced state where I'm watching but not paying full attention. Best way to get through this next part.

"No!" screams the prisoner, who is so aware he can probably hear me blink. He can feel the chambers of his heart fill up with blood and feel the muscles contract and relax. I've heard that on Hyperware, the fast pulse of fear makes you feel like you're going to explode.

The blade drops.

There's a whirring and a metal-on-metal clunk and a slight ripping sound as the flesh and blood vessels and bone are severed. I hate this part, but it's over in a second.

A mechanical arm lifts the head and turns it around to face the observation room. There's a clicking like knitting needles as photographers on the other side of the glass snap pictures for the wire services.

The victims' families have waited years for this moment. It's our job to make sure things go as planned.

The fibrinogen glue keeps the head from draining out, but the pressure from his heartbeat is enough to loosen the hold bodyside, and as blood gurgles up through his carotids it dissolves the glue. The body is raised so he can watch himself bleed to death as the heart continues to pump. His feet dangle, awash in gore.

It's part of the penalty that our guy sees his decapitated body with his own eyes, that he knows it's not a dream and that he feels pain. This is not a pain you can ignore. In his Hyperware state, pain is so severe we have no way to measure it, even with our monitors. His mouth starts moving like he's trying to talk. It isn't hard to read what he's saying.


This is not a good job for someone with a queasy stomach, but we've been trained to be ready for surprises and ignore the routine stuff, like bodily functions that would otherwise gross us out.

The room is lit for filming, and the lights are searing and bright, aimed directly at our guy. I think about how, in earlier days, photographers made you look good, even if you started out looking like a frog. They worked with flattering poses and lighting, whereas now it's all about opportunity. But everything's different now, and the only way to make sure that the staff looks better than the prisoner is to pick good-looking staff. Digital feed separates the men from the boys, as it were.

I sneak a peak at our boy and he doesn't look good. His chest is pale, and his arms and legs are twitching. I don't want to look at his face.

The patch prevents our prisoner from passing out before the sentence has been completed. Brain death will occur anywhere between two and five minutes after separation, but that's not our department. There's death, and there's the death penalty. Forty-five seconds takes forever when you work chop-chop, though I know the two dads will later talk about how fast it went, how it wasn't enough.

Down here, on the floor, the seconds pass in slow motion. My eyes aren't propped open like the prisoner's, but I can't turn away, and not just because it's my job to watch. I don't want to look, though I wonder what they're thinking.

The timer sounds as the medication wears off. I remember to take a breath. I sneak a peek, but our guy's eyes are still wide open and he looks as terrified as he looked before. It's just artifact; we believe his mind has shut down. Thirty seconds later, the body is emptied of blood and the heart stops. Another two minutes pass before we see evidence that the brain has ceased functioning.

"Time of death, 8:57," says Jerry. He can't legally pronounce our guy dead—that will be done later by the pathologist—but somebody needs to make the statement for the cameras.

We wait till we're off-line and the media and families are hustled from the observation room before starting in on cleanup.

"Clear," says Sydney. He steps into a hazmat suit to bag the head. Roger labels it while Sydney bags the body. When both segments are labeled, they're sent to the morgue.

"Good one," Sydney says to Jerry. They high-five.

"Later," says Roger. Sydney waves, and the two of them take off.

"Thanks for your help, guys," Jerry says.

"My pleasure," says Roger.

We just have a few more things to do before we can sign off. "Let's do the count," Jerry says. Because Hyperware is a controlled drug, we're supposed to sign off of how much is used for each execution. Jerry is smiling, and I have a terrible feeling that he's responsible for the disappearance of the Hyperware. I have no reason to suspect him, except I know I didn't do it.

We hose down the room. It feels like it's time to go home, but there's still six hours left on my shift. Jerry finishes up his paperwork, and I go back to my office to get started on mine. On E-Day, I'm allowed a shower. I take a long one and change into a fresh uniform.

It's break time and I wish that I smoked so I could relax with a cigarette. The best I can do is turn off the lights and sit in the quiet room, staring at dark.

· · · · · 

I work late and barely make it home when a single knock sounds at the door, followed by "Hey, Dad," as my boy, John, runs in and attaches himself to the couch. He's channel surfing when I meet him in the living room.

"Where's your sister?" I ask.

"Slumber party," John says. "She'll be here in the morning."

"Thanks for letting me know," I say, steamed.

John looks at me and says, "I am letting you know."

His logic calms me.

"Hey," I tell him. "Got a new case last week." I point to the round red case on the mantle, known by collectors as an "Oreo" because of the sandwich cookie shape.

"Cool," he says. "Where'd you find it?"

"Estate sale," I tell him. "Can you believe anyone would sell something like that?"

He shrugs. I've already promised to leave my collection to him. I'd sit with him, but he's settled in on MTV, and I don't want to watch. "I'll be in the kitchen," I say.

"When's dinner?" he asks.

"Half an hour," I say and go into the kitchen to boil water for macaroni and cheese.

My kids mean everything to me. John especially, who understands why I collect Union cases. They mean something I can't explain. In the Civil War, people died for a reason.

· · · · · 

Sunday night I drop off the kids at Lucie's.

"Bye, Dad," says John. Lisa gives me a quick peck on the cheek and disappears without a word.

I close out the week with my usual stop at Hannah's Pies, where my corner seat at the counter has a full view of the pie case and the entire coffee shop. It's a decent place, if you like pie or people watching. I've had a slice of over twenty-six different types of pie. The pies used to be the best in the world, but the quality has gone down, like everything else.

"What's the special?" I ask.

"Strawberry rhubarb," Ruby, the waitress, answers as she pours my coffee.

I say please when she asks if I want it heated.

She brings my slice just as the balding guy comes in, looks around, spies me, and sits to my left. His eyes are glazed and the little hair he has on his head is messed up.

I freeze up and stop chewing mid-bite. It isn't that I'm afraid he'll hurt me—I could knock him off his stool with a carefully placed elbow to the ribs—it's that he frightens me. I'm afraid of him, of the guy himself, for who he is and not because of what he could do to me.

"I'm sorry," he says. "You probably like to leave it at the office."

It isn't that simple. I say nothing and finish my bite of pie.

Ruby brings baldy a cup of coffee and says, "Haven't seen you much lately, Gabe. How you been?"

He shrugs and I relax a little, knowing she knows him.

Gabe pours about half as much cream as he has coffee and says to me, "I'm not stalking you, you know."

The thought has occurred to me. "How'd you know I'd be here?"

"I thought I recognized you," he says. "It wasn't from TV. I used to be the baker here. I used to see you come in on Sunday nights. I knew you worked the prison but I didn't know what you did."

"Why'd you quit?" I ask, then could smack myself because, of course, he left after his kid got killed. That's what happens. You change jobs, or lose them. "Look," I say. "I'm sorry. Must be tough."

"Yeah, it's tough," he says.

Ruby brings him a slice of coconut cream. "Tell me what you think," she says. "New guy in the back."

He scoops up some and brings the fork to his face, sniffs the cream, then rubs some on his tongue. "Needs vanilla," he says. "Maybe a pinch of salt."

"You got a picture of your son?" I ask, more curious about the frame. It turns out to be a wallet photo, and I have to work not to let my disappointment show. The boy looks like any other twenty-two-year-old black male. I'm sure that if you knew him, you'd notice all the things that make him different. But I can't see it. He's got hair, clothes, skin, all the usual facial features. Otherwise he looks a lot like the balding man, only younger.

"Good-looking boy," I say, and Gabe nods. "I worried about the two of them," Gabe says. "I knew people would judge them."

"It was a senseless crime," I tell him.

"Maybe you remember him," Gabe says. "He came in here sometimes. Sat at the front table."

I don't remember him in the least, but I nod as if I do because I remember how comforting it was after, when people talked to me about my son. Even little things, like seeing him on the playground or watching him ride his bike down the street.

"I miss him," he says, and I don't know how to respond.

"Good pie," I say. "Not as good as when you were here, of course."

"What did you get?" he asks. "Strawberry rhubarb?"

"Yeah," I say. "So, what do you do now?"

"I'm between jobs," he says. "I have a lot of trouble concentrating these days."

I nod. "That's to be expected," I tell him and he stares blankly and says, "What do you mean?"

"Forgetfulness is a common symptom of depression," I say. "Other symptoms include lethargy and low motivation, dysphoria—that feeling like you don't want to be there." My pie is getting cold. This isn't my place to be telling him about mental health.

Ruby refills our coffee. She sets down the pot, pulls a pencil from behind one ear, and finishes up my tab with a signature and frilly "Thanks!"

Gabe says, "Your boy died, too, didn't he? I remember Ruby saying something about leukemia. How are you doing now?"

"I'm fine," I say, and he shrugs.

"When people ask me how I am, I just say, 'I'm fine,' too, so they leave me alone," he explains.

"But I am fine," I say.

He shrugs. "Well," he says. "I didn't mean."

Gabe says, "To tell you the truth, I don't know why I want to talk to you. The way you looked at me back at the prison. Like you understood."

I do understand. "Time to go home," I say. "I gotta work in the morning."

"Wait. You got any pictures of your kids?" he asks.

I slide my sixteenth plate frame from my pocket and open the case to reveal two photographs, one on each side.

"Nice frame," he says.

I nod. The smallest cases are the most valuable.

"What are their names?" Gabe asks.

I point to the photograph on the right: two smiling kids in soccer uniforms. "That's John, and the girl's name is Lisa."

He takes my hand to bring the photo closer and stares at the picture on the left. It's an old picture of all three kids watching television. He points to my dead son, who is no more than a shadow in the corner. "And this one? What's his name?"

"Oh," I say. "That was Robert."

"I'm sorry," Gabe says. "Jeez. I'm so sorry." He looks devastated.

We both stare into the frame.

"Jeez," he says. "Did your marriage survive?"

I shake my head.

"Mine neither," he says.

Maybe five seconds later, I bring together the edges of the frame and slip it back into my pocket.

"I gotta get going," I say.

He nods. "Me too. Can I ask you to give me a lift?"

It's odd, but I don't mind his company.

"No problem," I say, and lead him to my old car.

"You like the Corolla?" he asks.

"It's a good car," I say. Nearly eighty thousand miles and running strong.

"People seem to like them," he says, patting the dash.

I'm not crazy about the interior. The plastic is weak and cracked on the sides. I'd make cars out of stronger material, something meant to last.

"Does it help?" he wants to know. He's asking about my job. There's a secret code that parents of dead children share, so I know what he's getting at. He wants to know if punishing the guilty helps me deal with the loss of the innocent. Except I don't have anyone I can punish for what happened. "Did it help you?" I ask. "To watch?"

"I don't know," he says. "I think so."

"Good," I tell him. "That's why we do it."

"I wish there was something I could do for you," he says, but it's me who thinks of something useful. "Maybe you could get a job in the system," I said. "Pie man. Guards could use a good baker. It probably sounds silly but you'd be helping maintain morale, help us do what we need to do. In your own small way, you'd be helping make things right." I can see he's thinking it over.

"I might like that," he says. "Know anybody I can talk to?"

"I'll ask around," I say. I'm sure I can pull some strings, but it's better not to get his hopes up.

He takes out a pad and writes something down. "Here's my number. What's yours?" he asks, and I tell him. There isn't much left to say, except good-bye, which we say at the next corner.

"Thanks for the lift," he says, and I look at him to see if he's being sarcastic. He opens the door to get out, but pauses and scratches his head. "There's one thing I don't get," he says. "I thought it was supposed to take forty-five seconds. But his face didn't go slack until after a minute. What did you guys do, slip him a little extra?"

Now my heart is pounding like it's on Hyperware. "Results can vary," I say, but when I get home, I plug in the court proceedings and sit up in my comfy chair. I have every episode recorded and filed; I just hardly ever watch them. I owe it to Gabe to watch this one.

I skip through the trial, which doesn't interest me, and on to the death penalty phase.

The defendant acts like he's been told not to talk on his own behalf. The bastard. He's let his skinhead hair grow long so he can pretend to be Mr. College-boy, even though he's a high-school dropout. He licks his lips and keeps glancing around and stopping himself from smiling into the cameras. He's nervous, which he should be. He's already been sentenced to die. The question to be answered at this hearing is how long it should take after the blade falls.

I watch as expert witness after expert witness is trotted out, each one explaining in graphic detail about the most likely scenarios experienced by our guy's victims. They died horribly, savagely. The boy, Gabe's boy, was probably still conscious, forced to watch as his sweetie was raped and hacked apart.

I get the picture, a little more than I want, and skip through the rest. Altogether, there's six hours of penalty testimony. The two fathers are there, each giving a statement he tries to deliver without breaking down. Brown hair talks about all the things his daughter might have been. Gabe explains the great man that his son was. I notice how they both stare straight ahead, even when standing next to the other. That's too bad. It might have comforted them to be able to talk.

Then there's the sentencing recommendations and the legal maneuvering and that moment when the killer loses his smirk as the death penalty is approved and the DA makes his recommendation.

Forty-five seconds wasn't enough for what he did. "They shoulda cut off your dick and made you watch that," I say.

Poor Gabe. Having to sit through hours of this stuff, hearing the details repeated, imagining the pain. No wonder he wanted to see the execution.

Course, I had to sit through six months of watching Robert die. And there wasn't any one person I could blame, though I blame Lucie. She gave up on Robert. Then she gave up on me. Sometimes I think forty-five seconds isn't enough for her, either.

· · · · · 

Monday is a paperwork day, meaning there isn't anything scheduled except meetings and filling out the forms. We go over the tapes with our supervisors and the media consultant, who says, "Exceptional job, men," before giving a few pointers about where to hold our hands and where to focus our gaze when we think the cameras are trained on someone else.

Then we have to piss in front of each other—testing for Hyperware—and we're shooed away to Jerry's office to wait, presumably so the team can search everyone else's. Jerry has a cheap carved wood frame showing him and a pretty black girl arm and arm. The rest of the day is just filling out and filing. I barely get a chance to talk to the kitchen supervisor, who informs me that yes, there might be something opening up, and Gabe might be perfect. I can hardly wait to let him know.

I'm filling out a requisition for more lubricating gel for the electrodes when I have one of those moments where everything falls into place. I know it was Jerry who ripped off the Hyperware. I don't know quite why, but it was him. Without proof, there's nothing I can do. Except talk to him. I find him in his office.

"What's happening?" he says.

"I was hoping you'd tell me," I say.

He pretends not to know what I'm talking about.

"They'll find out," I tell him. "Unless you're very careful."

He squirms, uncomfortable.

I pick up the picture and stare at the girl. Are they still together? Did something happen? I'm afraid to pry. "Don't single them out for anything having to do with race. You'll get caught unless it seems random," I say.

"I don't know what you mean," Jerry tells me.

"Yeah, you do," I say, but I leave it at that. At least he knows now I won't turn him in.

As I'm about to check out, Michele at the reception desk flashes an especially alluring smile. Just for the hell of it, I ask her out on Friday. Just for the hell of it, she says to pick her up at seven.

I run by a burger joint and pick up takeout and go home. Thursday is another execution. I want to prepare myself. I cliff-note the trial to get a sense of the highlights, then spend the rest of the night perusing the penalty phase. Thursday's guy shot a teenager on his way to choir practice at church.

Random violence. Same as always.

When Robert died, there wasn't anybody around to stand in for me. I was on my own. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about the helplessness except take it out on myself, on my wife, on our kids. Where was God when I needed him? Not His job, I guess. Can't blame Him for that.

After the penalty phase, they show some footage of our killer smoking a cigarette in the prison yard. He doesn't look the least bit unhappy, merely bored.

I get to thinking about Jerry and how he's playing God, but instead of being upset, I have an overwhelming feeling of relief that finally someone has stepped up to the plate. I would never want to be God, but I don't mind being one of His minions. I just hope that I'm a good enough actor not to let my change of attitude show.

Thursday's chop-chop has a penalty of thirty seconds. I freeze-frame our killer's face and stare into his smirking eyes. I can feel my own heart pumping as I get to thinking about the ways that I can make it seem like forty.

The End


© 2003 Leslie What and SCIFI.COM.