When I reached the front door of the LCI, I thought I was home free. It was 3:56 a.m. on a Sunday, the Lord’s day, when the door clicked open and the buzzer sounded. It had been a long shift (12 p.m. to 4 a.m.), at the end of which a man named Oscar Reed Mort was pronounced dead by lethal injection.
The October morning made my skin prickle, but I was too numb to feel it. It had been a long seventeen hours since I’d received my late wake-up call at the hotel. I’d barely eaten. Witnessing Oscar Mort’s death was one thing. It was a clean, peaceful, succinct affair with an air of solace and requiem. Not like my wife, bleeding out in the bath tub, lips cracked and eyes half-open.
Before I drove down to Lucasville that day, I wandered the damp, musty corridors, staring into the cells, wondering how it would feel to be on the inside for a change.
But now I was outside of those walls in the fresh air, under the glaring bright lights of the prison complex. I smiled and exhaled. I just had to get out of the checkpoints and then I could go see my son.
I stopped forty yards from the building I’d just left. I should have kept walking, or I should have run right then, but the voice was familiar and warm.
I turned and saw Arnie Beatrand, the nicest and oldest LCI guard at sixty-two, standing apprehensively, as though he really didn’t want me to stop. Arnie hadn’t called me “Officer” since my first few days on the job over ten years ago. Arnie was the one guy in there who knew exactly what I’d been going through for the past decade.
He understood nights like these, nights when you held a person’s life in your fingers and single-handedly executed his death sentence with a simple press of a button. Even though the judge and the jury were responsible for the proclamation of death, even though the death of an evil murderer was meant for the good of society, none of that mattered when you were the executioner. It was your responsibility to carry out the sentence. As much as I wanted to push the responsibility on others, I was the one who did the deed. I was the one who took the life of another human being, deserving or not.
Arnie helped me keep my sanity. I did as well as could be expected for a state-sanctioned angel of death. When I performed my first execution, he listened to me, listened to my fears and my musings. “Is any death humane? Does anyone know what terror really happens in your last moments, regardless of how peacefully you close your eyes?”
He listened and nodded and then, finally, when I thought he’d almost forgotten what we were talking about, he cleared his throat and told me: “The thinkin’s not your job.” It was my job to execute justice.
The jury had already done the thinking. I was hired to carry out what had already been decided. It was my job to make it as fast and painless as possible. “There’s honor in that,” he told me. I loved that man from that day on.
Aside from counseling me about the moral dilemma of executions, he was a mentor to me in an otherwise depressing environment where friends were few. Most of the other guards were afraid that the inmates would find out about their personal lives and use it against them when they got out. So they never fraternized with anyone, even the other guards. The occasional coworker barbecue was a stoic affair with beer drank quickly and conversation expressed in grunts. But Arnie, maybe because he always seemed so close to death anyway—for ten years the man had always been old—didn’t see it that way.
I started to turn back towards my car as the lean man with the silvery mane cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Why don’tcha come on back over here, Officer!”
I stopped and looked bck. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes. They had always been confident, but now they were black and lifeless.
“Come on, Kurt. Let’s talk about it.”
Ten years of looking up to a man had taken their toll. Against the force of every fiber of my being, I turned back. I couldn’t give up on ten years of wisdom and friendship in an instant.
Even a hundred feet away I could tell he was trembling. Arnie never trembled.
“She’s gone, Arnie,” I said.
His silhouette was hunched and bent.
“Help us catch the guy who did it.”
“Are they here?” I yelled. After spending so many hours in the echoing concrete of the LCI it was strange not to hear my words come back to me. He didn’t answer. I shook my head.
“I wouldn’t last a day. Even in a holding cell awaiting trial.”
I could barely make out what he said as I drew closer. “They’ll protect you, Kurt.”
“They can’t,” I whispered.
Arnie approached me with a sad, knowing smile.
“They’re in Mendley’s office,” he said with deep resignation. “You might want to go hear what they have to say.”
If anyone should have had my back, it was Arnie. As I came closer to him he clapped me on the back and whispered in my ear. “They won’t let you through the gates anyway, Kurt. You might as well come with me now under your own power.”
We walked inside together to the dim fluorescent hallway. There was a hallway before we got to lockdown. “Kurt,” he said with a wheeze. “I don’t know what you’re going through…” I heard the crackles from his throat as he searched for some way to express his emotion.
“I’m so sorry you lost Tonya.”
“I’m on your side with this. I think…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
There seemed to be more that he wanted to say, but he didn’t continue.
“What is it?” I asked, already feeling the draft of solitude on my back.
“There’s no way you’re getting out of this with your head still on,” he whispered. “I’m sorry to say it, but you know it’s the truth.” He studied my eyes. “Maybe you haven’t noticed what’s been going on here while you been sitting behind that desk.”
I tried to look him in the eye but he just stared straight ahead. “Notice what?” I asked, my voice echoing through the halls.
“I wish I had the dirt, but I don’t. There’s something going on in here, somehow all this business fits together…” He wrinkled his sagging face.
“I’m sorry to call it business. I don’t mean to sound like I don’t feel for you.” He was fumbling, and he shut his mouth.
“Arnie, please, you gotta tell me. I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“Somebody’s dirty,” he finally said, “I’m not saying it’s Gattigan because I don’t know…”
“Arnie, help me out here, there’s got to be another piece, because I don’t see any way this circles back to me.”
He shook his head. “All I’m saying is that it’s not time to be a hero. You know anything, keep it to yourself. Keep your head down you might be able to weather what’s coming. If you rat on your own people then the only trip you’re taking back to Columbus will be in a hearse. There’s no deal that gets you out of this, just remember that.”
His throat croaked again. “What you said before is right on the money. You can’t stay in lockup, no matter what. If the crooked cops don’t get you, the inmates will dice you up in seconds. I wish I could help…”
I still didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but we were already at the first man trap. It’s like an airlock with two doors that are linked together electronically so that you can only open one at a time. At least one of them has to be locked. Once you’re in, the guy in the security room can lock both doors and keep you in there like it’s a tiny jail cell. I unlocked the first door and Arnie walked past me into the man trap. I followed and locked the door behind me.
I looked over at him, his face was sullen and morbid. Suddenly, his eyes brightened and a smirk graced his face.
“Kurt,” he started, choosing his words carefully. “Between the two of us, we got all the keys to work this thing out.”
He pulled his keys off of the cord that attached to his belt, and looked at them as we took the two steps to the next door, then looked me in the eye. He theatrically shifted his gaze to the keys on my belt.
If the size of the keyring indicated rank in the prison system, Arnie would have been a general, and I would have been a private. He had the full set of keys to the facility whereas I only had keys to the administrative offices and the execution area in Lucasville. I didn’t even have keys to death row. Somebody had to let me in and out everywhere I went.
I stared back at him blankly. He licked his lips and nodded.
Arnie unlocked the second door and opened it slowly. With the key still dangling from the lock, he turned to me and said, “I hope you make it through this, Kurt.”
I nodded. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
He walked through the second door, leaving his keys still in the lock.
“Arnie,” I said, “you forgot your keys.”
As the words left my mouth, I finally put the pieces together. I fumbled for a second and locked the door behind me. I handed my set of keys to him, pocketing his.
Thank God for Arnie Beatrand.
Arnie smiled and turned down a corner. “I’ll see you, Kurt,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he was right. If I did, there was a good chance it would be through bars.
“Good luck today,” I said. “Say hi to your wife.”
He paused for a second as if he was about to say the same back to me. Instead he just nodded and walked down the hallway.