I approached the Warden’s office. I could just barely see him through the thin window in his door. Albert Mendley, all five feet six inches of him, was arguing with the local law enforcement. The loudest was from a voice I knew well, Detective Tolliver. He had a voice like a drill sergeant after a tracheotomy, a different man than the one I had talked to the night before. He was all rasp and grumble, yelling every word at the top of his voice. He argued with the Warden about jurisdiction. The gruff rasp in both their voices let me know they’d been at this for a while, yelling themselves hoarse over what to do with me. They’d probably been going at it since before I pushed down the plunger.
“Jurisdiction?” I heard Detective Tolliver say.
He and Mendley knew each other pretty well, enough that they were most comfortable yelling at each other. We all knew Tolliver. He was a fixture at LCI, having brought in many of the current batch of residents. He was a stickler for the rules and beyond reproach, which made the inmates hate him and the guards respect him.
“You’re the goddamn Warden, which means you don’t have shit for jurisdiction. You can’t make arrests or detain suspects–” Tolliver said.
The Warden cut him off, “I can’t detain anyone? I’ve got twenty-five hundred men inside these walls that would strongly disagree.”
Tolliver refused to listen. The conversation progressed in halting phrases, usually littered with uninventive profanity like “Go fuck yourself!”
The Warden and his staff continued to assert themselves, as did the local boys, until Tolliver’s voice rose over them all.
“If a crime happens here, you call the state police. Kurt Stevens is my arrest. He’ll be booked at the station.”
“Listen here, Detective,” Warden Mendley’s voice boomed in a slightly higher, almost sing song paternal register. “Just get one thing straight. Anything, and I mean anything that happens on prison grounds is my jurisdiction. I’m the Pope and this is the Vatican. This is a goddamn foreign country, and my people will investigate it. Kurt Stevens is ours, and we’ll interrogate him here.”
“Interrogate him for what exactly? I’m arresting him from his place of employment, and taking him with me.”
“That’s a state prison matter, it doesn’t concern any other law enforcement.”
I pressed my back against the wall, and continued to listen. I couldn’t figure out if Mendley was trying to do me a favor, or if he just found himself in the middle of a dick-showing contest that he couldn’t back down from.
“You know what this is?” Tolliver’s voice came through the door. “This is obstruction of justice, and–”
“You gonna arrest me, Tolliver?” Warden Mendley asked. “How about we call Carson at home? It’s 4:30 in the morning. We’ll tell him one of his shit-for-nothing detectives is arresting the state Warden.”
For the first time since I’d come up to the doorway, the room was silent.
“Now listen, Tolliver, you can interview him here, in my ample facility, or…”
“Or you can take that greasy bald head of yours, bend over, and shove it up your ass!” Warden Mendley’s steely voice terminated the conversation, for a moment.
This wasn’t about jurisdiction. This was about a Warden on duty for twenty-four hours straight, as every Warden in the state does during an execution. This was about an exhausted old man who was tired of the system, tired of bowing to every law enforcement prig who came through the door. Prisons weren’t a parasite to the system, prisons are the system. They’re at the top of the food chain, not the bottom, a fact society ignored, and I knew Mendley was tired of being treated like a civil servant’s servant every day of his life.
I peeked around into the window and could see Tolliver sway as he spoke to Mendley. His stocky build collided at his neck with a mass of cheap suit. The younger man I’d pushed out of the way the day before stood beside him, nodding when appropriate.
“Bullshit, Mendley,” Tolliver started up again. “Your boy Kurt Stevens went off the deep end—we all knew it was coming. I have every reason to arrest him.” Tolliver nodded to the kid, who grabbed a laptop from his bag and started it up. It was Tonya’s computer.
From my vantage point, I could just barely see the screen over his shoulder. As the pixels flashed to life, an image of my beautiful Tonya appeared. In the photo, my angel was alone on a bed with red sheets. She bit her finger seductively, her arm obscuring her right breast. The left lay bare to tease the photographer.
I vomited. Just a little bit. I was able to hold it in my mouth until I could swallow. My breath came in and out of my throat in pulses. My hands tightened into fists in front of me, and the muscles in my jaw seized. I don’t think I could have ever been prepared to see something like that, let alone so soon.
I could only see the back of his head but I could feel Tolliver’s delight. He closed the laptop’s lid. “That’s his wife, you know. It came in ninety minutes before she died. About 6:30 last evening an email arrived in her inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org—cute, by the way—from Mr. Martin Dawes, who we assume is the mystery photographer. Said he missed her. The picture was attached…”
He trailed off, put his hand to his head, swallowed hard. “It’s the real deal. I had my guys check to see if it was Photoshopped. It’s not. It’s bonafide.” He chuckled, slow and deep. “It’s not hard to put the pieces together, Mendley.” He grunted in his throaty, grizzled way. “He read the email. He went blind with rage and he bashed her head in. Then he went to the store as an alibi.”
I wanted to run in there and scream in his face that I’d never seen that picture before, but it wouldn’t have helped.
Tolliver pressed forward. “Let me tell you something,” he whispered. “I don’t believe in coincidences, I’ve been doing this job too long.” He took on a pleading tone suddenly, like he needed Mendley to believe him. “This was a crime of passion. It won’t be so bad for him. He’ll go away for seven years or so…”
“In the general prison population?” Mendley scoffed.
Tolliver grunted. “Since he’s such a high profile catch they’ll probably put him up in a resort.”
“If word gets out that he’s the executioner they’ll string him up by his balls and–”
Tolliver cut him off. “I don’t give a shit!” he screamed. “If he’s guilty he deserves to get cut from neck to nuts! He deserves to get what he gave. Leave it to a jury to decide!”
Tears welled in my eyes. Everything was white noise. Everything was far away. I pulled back from the window and rested my head against the wall, still as death. My mind rocked and my pulse raced. I had no choice. I swear I had no choice. If I didn’t know it already, I knew it then. My fate was already sealed. I had to get out, or I didn’t stand a chance.