Category Archives: Week 1

Chapter 5: Almost Out

Capital Offense CoverThis is a free sample of Capital Offense, which is now available nationwide as an e-book or paperback book.  Find it on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

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.

“Officer Stevens!”

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.”

“Thanks Arnie.”

“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.

Continue to Chapter Six», or purchase a copy of Capital Offense to continue reading.

Chapter 4: A Marked Man

Capital Offense CoverThis is a free sample of Capital Offense, which is now available nationwide as an e-book or paperback book.  Find it on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

I woke at 10:59 the next morning in a queen-sized bed at the Holiday Inn. Shielding my eyes from the blinding sunlight, I sat up and wondered what was real and if last night actually happened. The drowsiness evaporated too soon. My eyes twitched as they relived at lightning speed the bedlam of the night before. How did I even sleep, much less sleep until 11am? Where was the phone call from the police, or Detective Tolliver banging on my door? If they couldn’t drum up any witnesses or alternate theories, they had to come knocking.

The ringing phone almost sent me under the covers. I reached out, my arm shaking, and grabbed the receiver.

“Mr. Stevens?” asked a bored, careless voice.

“Yes?”

“I’m your wake up call.”

I looked at my watch. “It’s eleven-o-two!” I screamed into the mouthpiece and ripped the cord from the mounted base. The cord whipped out and slapped against the wall.

I’d requested a 10:30 wake up call because my shift started at noon. How does a hotel get that wrong? I timed the call so I’d barely have enough time to take a shower and get out the door before my shift. I didn’t want to think about calling Michael, or Tonya’s parents. I didn’t want to have time to think about anything but work, and one last good shower where I could freely drop the soap without anxiety. But now I didn’t even have time for the shower. I’d trudge through my last day of life before I was arrested dirty and groggy. I’d probably never be clean again.

I tried to think of a way to tell Tonya’s parents. It didn’t matter. Elsie would fall to the ground and cry, and Howard might get his gun and try to kill me. This thought had not occurred to me before that moment. Howard, my father-in-law, was going to kill me. And then of course they’d tell Michael if I hadn’t already.

I dressed—black pants, crisp navy blue long-sleeve button down shirt—and left for work. In the lobby, the redheaded girl behind the front desk glared at me as I passed, as if I were to blame for her earlier incompetence.

I had every right to be angry, especially when you consider that this might be my last morning in the free world. As I thought about it, I wondered if it would look better for me if I arrived unkempt and late, a slob who’d been crying all night. Maybe she did me a favor.

I would never again see my lovely wife. In a rush, everything flooded back, and I remembered the Caller ID under the mower, as well as the phone and the credit cards. The weight of the previous night’s memories crashed into me, I staggered backwards onto a leather couch under a dim chandelier, out of breath, and balled for a good minute. The lobby was an under-lit room with chandeliers that looked as though they were ripped out of a mortuary. The leather of the sofa almost crackled under my weight. It was as if everything in the world was decaying since Tonya left. She’d taken with her the life of the world.

An inmate named George Coughlin (who’s since been removed from this world), used to say, “A minute ain’t nothin’ unless you’re cryin’ or dyin.” I took advantage of my last minute.

The worst part was crying my eyes out in front of that moron across the lobby. I’d come in the night before with two policemen on either side of me. What instructions had they given the hotel about me?

I dried my eyes and crossed the room. The girl sat on a high stool in a white blouse and black skirt two sizes too small, legs crossed, staring at her phone. When I knew she was watching, I motioned her over to the counter. She reluctantly hopped off the stool and approached. I leaned across the counter, and she mirrored me.

“You woke me up a half hour too late this morning,” I said in a dry monotone.

Her fingers stumbled over her keyboard to look up my wake up time. “Well, sir…” she stammered.

My voice trembled as I tried to stay a decibel lower than the thump of my heart. “I want you to know that your actions have consequences. Your inaction has consequences. Your mistake this morning could literally send me to death row. It’s your responsibility as a human being to pay attention. If you don’t, people get hurt.” I’d managed to keep my voice to a near whisper, but my rage bubbled through.

She quivered behind the counter.

“Wake up!” I screamed.

She jumped back, almost falling over the stool.

I walked away vindicated, ignoring the shrieks and curses that followed me through the door.

Losing your wife gives you perspective. Justice shouldn’t only be administered in a courthouse or a jail cell or on a padded restraining bed. It belongs everywhere. We all have a responsibility to make the world better. Tonya’s death deserved justice.

Continue to Chapter Five», or purchase a copy of Capital Offense to continue reading.

Chapter 3: First Encounters

Capital Offense CoverThis is a free sample of Capital Offense, which is now available nationwide as an e-book or paperback book.  Find it on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

The cops called out, entered of their own accord, and found me sitting on the edge of the living room sofa, wrists dangling over my knees, head between my legs, and a small pile of vomit on the carpet below me.

A few minutes later the place was buzzing with law enforcement. I didn’t recognize any of them. A fat detective with a red mustache escorted me from the couch to the front step, I assume they wanted to search the house without me there and he wanted to ask me questions in the privacy of my front yard. He pulled out his notepad, but before he could begin another detective pulled him aside. This one I recognized from the prison. They talked briefly, mostly grunts from my perspective, and then the fat one left.

The new detective, a middle-aged stocky officer, walked back to me. He was wearing a light blue jacket with a pistol butt poking out, just above his waist.

“Her eyes were open,” I muttered, before he said anything.

“That’s common,” he said. “It happens when it’s sudden, or if there’s a spasm that shocks you for a second before the heart stops, or the brain…”

I eyed him from his shoes to the top of his ugly, shiny head. He looked haggard. He hadn’t shaved his head in a while so patchy areas of stubble poked up from his otherwise smooth, dark scalp. “My name is Detective Tolliver,” he informed me as he approached. I already knew who he was. I’d seen him before. He was soft-spoken, walked purposely, and though his eyes were friendly and he chuckled from time to time, he never smiled.

What struck me first was how deliberate he was, like a surgeon prepping for a long procedure. His movements were precise and methodical, and his eyes scanned me unhurriedly, even before he’d begun to investigate. Like all good detectives, he’d rapidly cycle through impressions, adapting his outlook as the night progressed. I could tell he was someone who deserved his reputation. He was in complete control at all times, and he knew it.

It was 8:25 pm.

“Do you want a smoke?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think in a situation like this you get a pass. I gave it up years ago. Now I suck on throat lozenges and lollipops just to get by. It calms the nerves. But on a night like tonight I just want a cigarette.”

“No thanks,” I insisted.

He looked at me curiously. “I’ve seen you at the prison, haven’t I?”

I nodded. “Kurt Stevens.”

“I thought so.” He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Mind if I get up to speed on the situation, then I’ll catch up with you?”

I nodded and began to pick at the paint peeling off of the trim around the front door. For a minute I was oblivious to everyone, just a guy on his front porch thinking about painting the trim.

The scene was surprisingly quiet. The sirens were muted but still spinning their strobes into the night. Voices resonated in the distance as our neighbors, my neighbors, and the people in my house discussed the “situation.”

I could imagine the scene from their perspective—a few dozen uniformed police officers tramping around, a couple of plain clothes detective types, and me, there in the middle, despondently peeling strips of latex paint off of the wooden trim around my front door. Amidst it all, somehow the loudest noise was the squish of muddy grass beneath their feet. I’m not sure if trauma can heighten the senses, but in that moment I could barely hear Tolliver’s voice, drowned out by the squelching of two dozen black standard-issue shit kickers.

“I said there’s a grocery bag on the table,” Tolliver repeated. “Were you out, Mr. Stevens, this late?” He emphasized the word “out.” He seemed angry, accusatory. Even though I was a fellow law enforcement official, I was still the number one suspect the second I picked up the phone.

“I need to sleep,” I told him, looking around for a place to sit. “It’s been a long day, you know?” In the middle of our yard, next to an ancient-looking concrete angel-boy fountain, there was a small moon-shaped cement bench that Tonya made me buy during her Roman phase. I sat—felt the cold seep through my denim—and stared down at the three-foot ring of stagnant leafy water pooling beneath the angel boy.

“Were you out, Mr. Stevens, when it happened?”

“When what happened?” I said, really looking at his face for the first time. Tolliver looked beat, bags under the bags under his eyes. Maybe it was a result of the day’s events but probably it was a result of his entire life. I knew the feeling. “She didn’t kill herself.”

He nodded. I watched his eyes quickly move to my hands, my knuckles. He pulled out his phone, slid the front down and began typing. “Never could read my chicken scratch,” he said without smiling. He pecked away with an experienced pointer finger.

“After work,” I told him, “I stopped at the store for a couple of things.”

“Where do you work?”

I couldn’t believe he’d forgotten. We’d just discussed it a few minutes ago. “For the state.”

“Don’t we all?”

I just stared at him, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh. Was I allowed to laugh?

“Department of Corrections,” I told him flatly, and he stepped back to look me over. I was five-ten, a hundred and eighty pounds, probably close to his build.

“That’s right, the Penitentiary.”

I nodded and watched a kid policeman and another older, fatter cop lift the garage door and vanish inside, their flashlight beams playing tag in the dark. Two additional cruisers pulled up to the curb as a couple of medics carried a stretcher into the house. The mob of neighbors and passersby slowly but surely crowded around the scene.

“You don’t look like a guard,” he said. “And I would have easily identified you if you were. Are you a paper pusher?” Now he was trying to get under my skin.

“Medical Administration,” I said.

Tolliver studied me, shook his head. “Nah, that’s not right. Stevens. Kurt Stevens. Shit. Shit.” He looked down like he was confused, but he didn’t have that aha timbre that you’d expect. For someone who acted like he knew everything it didn’t sound right for him to be so surprised. Then his eyes exploded as he snapped his fingers. “You’re the executioner!” He knew how to interrogate a suspect, how to keep what he knew to himself while trying to get what he wanted. He was playing me, trying to get me to bite, and I knew it.

“You were right the first time, I’m mostly a paper pusher,” I said. “Didn’t think I was famous.”

The detective bit his lip, turned to the house and again he seemed angry. He asked me if it was just Tonya and me, like he already knew. I told him our… my ten-year-old son was at his grandparents’ for the weekend.

“How’d you know about my job?” I asked him.

“Must’ve read it in the paper.” He turned back to me. “Do you know of anyone who might have a vendetta against you?”

I couldn’t help but laugh, the answer was so blatantly obvious. Yet again, his tone didn’t sound right. A guy like that doesn’t sound interested when he asks questions like that. He sounds bland and silent. He wants you to react first so he asks questions in quick, short sentences so you have to fill in the empty space.

“Of course,” I answered. “I get death threats every day.” I could feel a sob coming on from the back of my nose but I couldn’t let it out in front of so many people. In moments like those, when your body is so overwhelmed that it can barely function, emotions just come out of nowhere. I found myself covering the escaping emotion with an awkward, hacking laugh. I said. “I typically kill more people than get to kill me.”

He just blinked.

I continued, “I’ve been picketed and sent questionable packages. I have more security in this house than the C-level at LCI.” I laughed again. “That’s the London Correctional Institution. It’s where I work, in case you forgot.”

He blinked faster. I don’t know why, but I was suddenly feeling simultaneously nervous and excited, and the words just started pouring out of me.

“The Prisoner’s Rights Coalition, Human Dignity International, The State Auditors, they all have my number on speed dial. In fact, they drown my email. They egg my house. I’ve gotten shot at twice since taking this job.”

I looked back into the house. “They’ve gotten worse,” I said. “There’s a new group called ‘Citizens Unitedfor Life.’ They’re a fanatical organization and as much as the name implies that they want to save lives, I bet they’re willing to kill. I’ve gotten at least a hundred different hand written letters in the past two months, all in the same handwriting, all in the same nonsense prose.” I got up to walk inside. “They’re in my study…”

Tolliver stopped me. “We’ll find them.”

“They’re not on the books,” I said. “It might just be one crazy dude who decided it was my turn to die. The CFL, got it? If you want to start looking for answers, start by tracking those letters.”

He just nodded and tapped notes into his phone. Then he moved on. He asked me if I called my boy yet. No. Her family? No. Was scheduled to work tomorrow? Of course.

“Shift?” He asked.

“Just before noon to whenever I get back from the chamber at Lucasville,” I told him. “Long day…long day.”

“I’ll have someone call up there,” he said. “You can spend the day with your boy.” I didn’t catch his insinuation, but he was doing me a favor, delivering a last rite.

“No, I have to work.”

“What’s so urgent?”

I raised my eyebrows, and thought he got my meaning. “Michael’s better off there anyway, for now,” I told him.

“Mr. Stevens,” he began in a tired, frustrated tone.

I thought of the 911 operator and tried to mimic her sigh. “There’s something scheduled tomorrow,” I said. “Something I can’t miss. You know?”

“Oh…yeah? Tomorrow? How many does that make for you?”

“Too many.”

He spotted someone over my shoulder, disappeared, returned a minute later.

“So unless I’m in trouble…” I paused to give him an opening, but he didn’t take it. ”Am I in trouble?”

The detective shrugged. “You want me to call her parents?”

“Michael’s with them. I’ll call them all at the same time,” I said. “It has to be me.”

He didn’t seem to care. “You can collect a few things, but you can’t stay here.”

“This is my—”

“You can’t stay here, Mr. Stevens. You understand? You find out where you’re gonna stay, you tell us, and we’ll arrange things.”

“What?”

“There’s a Holiday Inn on Route—”

“I know where the fucking Holiday Inn is!”

“Mr. Stevens, I know this is difficult–”

“Do you?”

Tolliver looked off to a young freckle-faced man on the front steps wearing a similar light blue jacket. The young man shrugged. Tolliver breathed deep and turned to face me.

“Me letting you go right now…that’s a gift for your sorrow.” His dead stare shot straight through me. “The man on the porch will follow you around while you collect your things, and I’ll get the Holiday Inn on the horn. You say your boy’s not staying with you?”

When I didn’t respond, he shouted, “Stevens!”

I walked past Tolliver without answering, bumped shoulders with the freckle-faced man on the porch, and collected my overnights.

A gift to let me go? He’d as good as called me a murderer. No matter how much I was expecting it, I wasn’t prepared. I just didn’t realize how it would feel to be accused, just like I didn’t know how it would feel to hold Tonya in my arms for the last time.

Continue to Chapter Four», or purchase a copy of Capital Offense to continue reading.

Chapter 2: Coming Home

Capital Offense CoverThis is a free sample of Capital Offense, which is now available nationwide as an e-book or paperback book.  Find it on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

People react to death in a lot of different ways. Watching the gallery of witnesses from behind the one-way glass of the executioner’s booth, I’ve seen fathers of victims pump their fists, but I’ve also seem them break down and cry. I’ve seen the wives of the executed scream in horror, but I’ve also seen them close their mouths and nod their heads, a long pent-up intensity evaporate and float away, their shoulders rolling toward the ground.

When I found my wife dead in the bathtub, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t scream, I didn’t fall to the ground. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many people die, but I just looked down at her in the bathtub and I felt a cold absorb me from my head to my toe. I felt my life pour out of me, pool on the floor and then run away.

Friday night, October 12, after returning from the grocery store, I found her. I knew she was dead before I touched her.

When I entered the room it looked almost serene, like she was resting. Tonya took at least one bath a week and fell asleep every time. But this time her eyes were slightly open. Her nose and mouth were under the water, no bubbles, and her left hand dangled over the porcelain edge. In shock, I took another step toward her, dipping my fingers into the tub before I studied the darkened lukewarm water.

Before I could examine her any further, I thought I heard footsteps and pulled back. Our son Michael was at Tonya’s parents for the weekend and we had no pets.

Suddenly trembling from head to toe, I slipped out of my boots, grabbed scissors from the bathroom counter and stepped into the bedroom. I listened for a few minutes, but the only sounds came from the tub. When I turned, she was still there, not barely alive, not resurrected—motionless, her body cooling in the air of the room. Whatever my wife had been, full of humor and an insatiable zest for life, she was suddenly just a slab of naked flesh. The coldest sight I’d ever seen.

I looked down at the milky red puddle spreading across the tile, inching toward the door. I thought, This doesn’t look like suicide.” Then the same voice in my head whispered, “They’re going to think you did it.” Her skin was broken open around the bridge of her nose. Her blood dripped off of her nose into the water. The wound was beginning to cake.

I didn’t know what to do. Half of me wanted to break down, to fall to my knees and cry right there, to cry out my life until there was no more of me left. But the other half of me was thinking a mile a minute. I knew the odds. My alibi was a ten-minute jaunt to the grocery store. Murders within the home are perpetrated by the spouse sixty-three percent of the time. If you’re a husband and your wife dies in your home without a clear explanation, you’re the man until they can prove otherwise (and usually they don’t try very hard to prove otherwise). Innocent until proven guilty, but being married is proof enough.

I stumbled into the hall, down the stairs, and dialed 911. I should have used the phone in our bedroom or my cell phone in my pocket, but my wife was bleeding out, and all I could think about was how much my son’s world was about to change. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to call the police—no point in waiting.

“How long?” I asked the dispatch operator after I’d given her all the important facts.

“As soon as they can get there, sir.”

“How long!” I screamed.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess!”

Even during painful, traumatic events, dispatch operators have no scruples in expressing their irritation. I’ve heard them huff, inappropriately cackle, and whisper a snide comment to a nearby coworker. This one sighed.

“I don’t know, sir. Ten minutes, twelve, I suppose, if the roads are busy.”

I hung up the phone, but before I could remove my hand from the receiver, it rang. I jumped. I figured it was the operator calling me back.

“Hello?” I said. I didn’t recognize the number on the Caller ID. “Hello?”

I heard breathing, one breath, two, three, and then ‘click.’ I looked around again, more paranoid than ever. I dialed star 69, but no one picked up. Nine minutes. Another minute wasted just staring at the phone, waiting for something, anything. There was something, a gut feeling that told me things were impossibly wrong. My wife was dead, killed, and now an anonymous call?

Eight minutes.

I tried to memorize the number but I couldn’t make sense of it. My head was running in a thousand directions. I could barely keep up, let alone memorize a string of ten digits.

I gave up, ran up the stairs into our bedroom and tried not to look into the bathroom as I crossed the room toward Tonya’s dresser. I’d never once in our eleven years gone through any of her things, but now I was a mad man. I dumped drawers and ripped clothes from the hangers.

Six minutes.

Nothing but magazines, cosmetics, jewelry and a few books on child rearing that she never read but always intended to when Michael was born.

Five minutes, and sirens in the distance.

I opened the bedroom window and looked east toward the center of Hilliard, Ohio, my personal suburb of the Columbus metropolis. Tiny specks of colored light flickered in the distance.

The surly operator had overestimated.

I ran down the stairs and barely noticed the orange blob on the living room recliner, Tonya’s leather purse, oozing off of the chair like a Salvador Dali painting. I dug inside for her phone and remembered the vibration when I’d walked through the door a few minutes ago. It hadn’t hit me then, but now I replayed that scene as I crossed the living room, screamed, “Tonya!” and walked into the kitchen to set down the groceries.

I didn’t have much time, and I knew I’d only get one shot to get everything I might need. It might be the only evidence I’d have. I took the credit cards from her wallet, dropped the wallet back into the purse, and ran back into the kitchen where I snagged the Caller ID unit off the wall, unplugged it and then plugged the phone directly into the wall, to make it look like it had always been that way. I ran into the garage, flipped on the light, and jumped into Tonya’s ’68 Mustang. I checked the glove compartment: owner’s manual, lens wipes and an emergency fifty dollar bill. Under the passenger seat rested a maroon datebook small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. I’d never seen it before, and normally Tonya condemned anything not electronic, but it seemed mostly empty anyway so I threw it back under the seat. Best to give the cops something to find, I thought.

I had maybe thirty seconds left so I stuffed the phone, the Caller ID, and credit cards under the bottom of the lawn mower that sidled against the garage wall. I ran back to the door into the house, flipped off the light, and shut it securely behind me.

Kurt Stevens Murdered Bathtub

Photo courtesy of Mathias Seifert. Used with permission.

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Chapter 1: Land Line

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Inside the small, windowless booth of the execution chamber, I was prepping the equipment and dosing the chemicals. We were hours away from the appointed time. The work normally takes fifteen minutes on a bad day, but I could barely concentrate. I was more nervous than the first time I’d performed an execution. My eyes were clouded with tears and my hands trembled as I filled the syringes and transferred the chemicals into canisters so they could disperse into the veins of the convicted. They could have postponed the execution but somehow I’d been able to convince everybody I could do it. I shouldn’t have been there.

I sank onto the stool. I covered my eyes with my left hand and banged the metal table with my right fist. I was losing it. I shouldn’t have been there.

But I also knew that it was the safest place for me. If I hadn’t followed through with my duty and gone to work that day, I would have been at home, wallowing in my grief. God knows what I might have done. All I wanted was to see my wife, in this world or the next. The execution chamber, a room filled with massive quantities of lethal chemicals, was the safest place for me. I had a job to do, and that was the only thing pulling me forward.

I buried my head in my hands and shook with grief. I yelled to myself, and the noise echoed off the concrete.

Suddenly the phone rang.

I had never heard the phone in the booth ring before. To my knowledge, only one person in the state, the Governor, had the number to that phone. That phone served only one purpose, and it was far too early for the Governor to be calling to stay the execution. That had never happened, not one time in my ten years, and even if he wanted it stopped, he still had plenty of time to go through the normal channels.

I stared at it as it rang. It rang twice, three times.

I lifted the receiver to my ear. “Hello?”

Someone chuckled on the other end.

“Who is this?” I demanded.

“Kurt, Kurt, Kurt…” the voice taunted me. “He who lives by the sword…”

I could hear him breathe, but I didn’t recognize the voice.

“Who is this!?” I yelled into the phone.

“This is judgment day, Kurtis,” the phone clicked dead.

“Hello?” I frantically pushed the switch hook. “Who is this?”

There was no response. I banged the phone back into its cradle and sank to the floor. I balled my hands into fists and pounded the floor. I bit my lower lip until I tasted the blood.

I clenched my jaw and yelled through my teeth. Suddenly I knew. Something snapped inside of me. Like when a burglar breaks into a man’s house in the middle of the night, and a formerly-peaceful man will stop at no violence to protect his family. Like when the minutemen heard the call that started the Revolutionary War. Through my grief, I saw a greater clarity than I’d ever seen before, and I saw a path of action laid out before me, and I knew I had no choice.

Trembling, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed my son. He picked up on the second ring.

“Dad?”

“Hey, Michael,” I said, struggling to calm my quivering voice. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”

My only son, my world—strong and insightful. He continuously surprised me with glimpses of the man he would become. I don’t know why I thought I could fool him.

“Dad, what’s going on?”

“Michael, when you get home, I’m going to tell you something about Mom.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Listen, I can’t talk right now, but I need you to know that Daddy’s going to take care of this.”

“Dad, what are you—”

“Michael, I can’t explain. I’m so sorry, buddy, I’m so, so sorry. But I’m going to do what it takes. I love you more than anything.” I tried to fight back the tears. “You’re the best thing I ever did, Michael. I can’t let this stand. For you, for me, for your Mom, we’re going to make this right. I’m the only one who can do this. You hear me?”

“Dad, you’re scaring me—”

“You trust me, don’t you?”

“Sure, but why—“

“I’ve got to go, Michael. I’ll make it right, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you next. I love you. Know that I’ll always love you.”

I heard him say he loved me too as I hung up the phone and powered it off. And then I wept.


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