It must be the Aliens, Howard thought. He’d heard about them from a man at the shelter. The man had talked about Aliens with bug eyes that came at night to harvest bodies and take them back to their spaceship. Howard had never seen them, but it made sense to him. How else could he explain the things he’d seen? The man with the weasel’s head that worked at the newsstand, for example. Or the building on Market Street that breathed fire and oozed slime, though no one else seemed to notice. There were some strange things going around and he was sure that the government was behind them – but the more he thought about it, the more he realized, it very well could be the Aliens.
Howard pushed his shopping cart through the empty street, scanning the curb for aluminum cans. He moved through a canyon of concrete and glass. Buildings and streets that bustled with life in the daytime now seemed to be inhabited by spirits. Dark ghosts that made themselves known by the occasional brightly lit office in an otherwise black expanse. Downtown Houston was deserted at this time of night, all the workers having headed home to hide in their air-conditioned suburban houses. The only people left were the street cleaners, an occasional patrol car, and those like Howard who lived on the street.
The night was hot, and the air so humid it felt like he was breathing through a sponge. Howard pulled the hood of his sweatshirt tighter over his head. It made him sweat more, but he felt safer. It protected him from the creatures of the night, possibly even the Aliens.
God, I need a drink.
There was an all-night convenience store over on Rusk Street close to Tranquility Park. Maybe he could buy a bottle and head over to the park. It would be cooler at this time of night with the trees and all. Other people slept there, and the cops hardly ever came by. He could rest, maybe even sleep. Howard reached deep into his pocket and pulled out his change – one dollar and seventy-nine cents. Not even enough to buy a pint of Thunderbird. That was a major disappointment.
He walked further on down the street, peering into the doorways, constantly on guard against anyone, or anything, that could be lurking there. Night was dangerous. He had to be careful. As he turned the corner onto Lamar Street, he saw a figure racing toward him. He gripped the bar of his shopping cart tightly. Was this a threat? Should he attack and ram him with his cart?
As the man came closer, he saw it was Carmichael, an old black guy, he sometimes saw at the mission. He gripped a bottle inside a paper bag and waved it around excitedly.
“Man, this is your lucky day,” Carmichael said, stopping right in front of the cart. “Man, you been living right or something, cause you are one lucky fool.”
“Don’t you call me a fool, old man,”
“What else should I call you, fool? Anybody who gets good luck falling flat onto his head and is too damn dumb to know it, I call him a fool.”
Howard loosened his grip on the cart. “What kind of luck are you yapping about?”
“You listen and I’ll tell you, fool. There’s a guy just around the corner there giving away free hooch. He just gave me this bottle and he told me he’d give me ten dollars if I brought him three more people. You the third.”
“Why would he do that? Nobody gives away nothin’ for nothin’.”
“Then don’t come, fool. You be the one missing out. They’re preachers. They wants to get some folks to come to their church service.”
Howard didn’t like the idea of having to go to a church service, and the free booze seemed too good to be true—he’d never heard of preachers giving out liquor. Still, he was awful thirsty.
Carmichael peeled away the paper bag from the bottle, revealing a Wild Turkey label. “Look at this, they’re even giving away the hard stuff.”
That was enough for Howard. His thirst was now monumental and he could imagine the warm liquid streaming down his throat. Together, they marched around the corner and over to the waiting van. It was just as Carmichael had said. There were three of them, dressed in black like preachers do, only they weren’t wearing their collars. Probably because of the heat.
They gave Howard his bottle; he snapped open the top and took a huge swig of the fiery nectar. It tasted even better than he’d imagined. His throat burned, his eyes watered, and he felt normal for the first time all day.
The three preachers helped him into the van along with the two other vagrants already there. Carmichael stayed behind. The van was comfortable and the whiskey an unexpected treat. Maybe he was lucky, Howard thought. Fortune had definitely smiled on him tonight. He could put up with a church service. He’d gladly yell out his amen’s and be thankful. He took another hard pull on the bottle and fought back a yawn. He hadn’t realized how tired he was. He could hardly keep his eyes open.
As the van’s doors closed, Howard got a good look at the head preacher. He was tall and lean and radiated authority. But it was curious. He wore mirrored sunglasses, even though it was the middle of the night. The man looked somehow familiar, but Howard wasn’t sure why. The answer was right on the edge of his consciousness, trying to peek through.
The reason came to Howard as the van pulled out into the street. A cold panic rose up from his stomach. The mirrored glasses shining back at him looked just like the eyes of an insect, seen up close.
Lena Dryer had never watched a man die before. She didn’t think it would bother her too much, though. This was a story, just like any other, and a sense of detachment was necessary. In her time as a reporter, she’d seen enough suffering and wasn’t easily shocked. One time, she was first on the scene after an eight-year-old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting, arriving before the detectives. She had to watch her step to avoid tracking blood, and the grandmother’s anguished wail was misery itself. On another story, in a hospital obstetric ward, she held crack-babies who couldn’t stop crying from the pain, strung out at birth. Over the years, she’d done more than her share of interviews with grieving relatives—asking mothers how it felt to lose their sons, and husbands to describe the pain of knowing their wives had been killed. She didn’t like these parts of the job, but had learned to live with them. So she didn’t think this death would bother her, much.
Lena pulled into a parking space across the street from the red brick prison building. The trip from Austin had been quicker than she’d expected and she was in no hurry to get inside. Leaving her engine on and the air-conditioning running, Lena picked up her notebook and leafed through it. For the last three months, she’d been working on a series on capital punishment and the Texas prison system. It made sense for her to witness the execution first-hand. It would be a good hook for the story and it seemed logical, but what was the point?
For that matter, what was the point of the whole series? Back when Lena first pitched the idea to her editor, she’d hoped it would be a way to encourage debate and change opinions. Maybe even alter policy. But the deeper she got into her research, the more pointless it seemed. The whole system was humming along on automatic pilot and nothing was going to change that. Besides a few activists, no one really cared. Lena glanced at her watch and turned off the engine. Enough stalling. It was time to go inside.
As she stepped out of her car, the heat hit her like a wave. This had to be the hottest day of the year. Just a second outside and a sheen of sweat glazed her arms. It felt like her skin was melting. How did people here stand the heat? After two years, she still couldn’t deal with it. Maybe that was the real issue. Not the weather, but that she needed a change. Two years in Texas and she still felt like an outsider. It was time to get back East. Besides, she’d gone as far as she could with the Star.
Clutching her notebook, she scanned the area. The street dead-ended at the prison. The parking area was on one side, a vacant lot on the other. There were times at past executions, she’d heard, when the whole area overflowed with people—though that was a long time back. Today, the only ones gathered here were a priest and a nun on the corner across from her. They had to be miserable in their long robes. Lena glanced at her watch again and walked toward the prison gates. At least it would be cooler inside.
At the gate, she signed the register and walked through the metal detector. The young guard frisked her with his eyes. “This your first time for one of these?”
“It’s real peaceful, I’m told.” He smiled and adjusted the holster on his hip. “Just like falling asleep. I hope it don’t bother you none.”
Lena looked away. “I’m expected inside,” she said.
“Sure. I didn’t mean to keep you or anything. I really didn’t mean nothin’.” The guard lowered his head as he let her through.
An older guard led her into the building. It was cooler here, but not by much. The lights were dim and the air stagnant. The red bricks lining the hallway had faded to a burnt pink. This hallway, Lena thought, was a lot like the one the prisoner would walk down later that night. She wondered how he’d feel as he walked that hall, knowing what was to come. What emotions would he feel? Fear for sure. Maybe anger, grief, or regret. Would he be praying? Searching for a God he’d only recently found?
Lena wondered what would she be thinking if she knew that she was about to die? And almost immediately, she knew—Is this all there is? Here she was, twenty-nine years old, not beautiful maybe, but others considered her attractive. She was tall and slim with ash-blonde hair and cool blue eyes. Her features were plain, but her lips were full and her smile golden. She had a good job with the Austin Star, where her career was on the fast track—that was her focus. But something was missing.
Halfway down the hall, the guard ushered Lena into a small room, much like a classroom. It had desks with hard plastic seats and a blackboard in the front. No one else was there yet.
“The orientation’s in here, ma’am, but it won’t start for another twenty minutes. The execution’ll be at six.” The guard closed the door, leaving her alone.
Lena sat down and tried to make herself comfortable. The room’s air-conditioning cranked and now she wished she’d brought a sweater.
At the orientation, Lena met some of the other witnesses, all relatives of the condemned. Two other reporters would be at the execution later too, but this was their regular beat and they already knew what to expect. Another group of witnesses, relatives of the victims, would also view the execution. But they’d sit in a separate witness area. A Methodist minister, one of the prison chaplains, gave the orientation. This was his thirty-second execution in the two years he’d been there, he said quietly. He went into detail about the process and took extra time to answer questions. After the orientation, the group was led down to another room to wait. Lena used the time to interview the other witnesses and plan the outline for her story.
The execution was scheduled for six, but they didn’t go down to the witness booth until six-forty-five. One of the guards told Lena that the prisoner had been a substance abuser and they’d had a hard time finding a vein they could use.
In the witness booth, two rows of auditorium seats faced a large window. Lena sat in the back row. Through the glass, she looked into the death chamber. It was a small room painted a robin’s-egg-blue, giving the space a false cheer. Her gaze quickly moved to the center, where a large gurney faced the window. The prisoner was already there, fastened in with leather straps. He was a large man with a huge misshapen nose, he barely fit on the gurney. IV needles stuck out from each arm.
The prisoner, Billy Dale Burke, fit the mold for death row. High school dropout, drug addict, a long record of prior convictions. There was no question of his guilt either. Some twelve years earlier, Billy Dale killed a customer and a clerk while robbing a gas station. He’d been convicted of robbing the same station five years before and both times he was caught on video. Appeals dragged the case out for years, but now, all appeals exhausted, his sentence was to be carried out.
The warden stood at the front of the witness booth. He faced the prisoner through the glass and, by microphone, read the death decree. When the warden was done, he asked if there were any final words. A boom mike lowered down from the ceiling.
“I want everyone to know how sorry I am,” Billy Dale said. His voice wavered and his hands, though bound at the wrist, shook. Tears formed in his eyes. “I didn’t plan on none of this happening, and I wish to God I had another chance. I hope the Lord is forgiving. That’s all.”
The warden paused a moment, then removed his glasses. This was the signal to start the process. Lena glanced at her watch. Six-forty-nine. The fluid in the IV tubes changed color, and after a few moments, Billy Dale’s eyes closed. A minute later, he let out a long sigh, almost a snore. And then he lay still.
Lena sat back and waited. No one said a word. The only sound in the room was the muffled sobbing from a tall blonde in the front row. Though the room was air-conditioned chill, it still seemed stuffy. The scent of someone’s aftershave filled the air. After a few minutes, one of the witnesses nervously cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. The minutes dragged by.
Finally, the prison doctor entered the chamber through a separate door. Using a stethoscope, he bent over the body and listened for a full minute. Then he announced the time of death as six-fifty-nine p.m. The whole thing took less than fifteen minutes.
Lena took a deep breath and held it in. She still didn’t know how to react. A man had died in front of her eyes. And all she felt was numb.
Forty-five miles away in the segregation section of the Terrell Unit in Livingston, Ramon Willis lay on his bunk unable to sleep. He’d tried reading, but the words on the page could have been written in Chinese for all the sense they were making. He couldn’t quiet his mind to concentrate. It was as if there was a neon sign flashing in his head with the message saying, You’re next.
One week, just seven more days, and his life would end. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. He stood up and moved around his cell. It measured nine feet long by five feet wide – hardly enough room to turn around in, let alone pace. He was filled with nervous energy and needed some form of outlet. He felt like rattling the bars of his cage and screaming, but he refused to lose control. He couldn’t. He got down on the floor, and wedged between his bunk and the far wall, he pumped off one hundred push-ups. He followed this with another one hundred sit-ups. Ramon had been doing this several times a day since he’d first arrived ten years back, although then he couldn’t do more than a few at a time.
He stood up, barely panting from the exertion, and surveyed his cell. Three concrete walls with the cage in front. A stainless steel bunk built into the wall covered with a thin mattress and sweat-stained sheets, a concrete stool and a concrete desk, a stainless steel toilet next to a stainless steel wash basin with a mirror also made of polished stainless steel. There was a small shelf above his bed. A few books, a radio, and a couple of old photos. This small room was his life. Everything he owned was in this small enclosure. Once he was gone, all evidence he’d been here would disappear too, like a stone sinking below the surface of a pond without leaving a ripple.
Ramon moved over and looked into his mirror. He’d changed a lot in prison. Physically, he hadn’t changed much. He was older, of course, and much stronger, even healthier-looking despite the starch and fat that served as a diet here. If someone had known him before, they’d surely be able to recognize him now. Ramon had a distinctive look. He’d inherited the high cheekbones, jet-black hair, and bronzed complexion from his Mexican mother. From his father, he’d gotten his eyes. Deep blue eyes that caused people to do a double take. Viking eyes in an Aztec face.
In other ways, he’d changed a lot. It was his attitude mostly. He felt different, he thought different, he acted different. Ramon believed the measure of a man was how he responded to adversity, and thought he measured up well. Death row is the end of the line. Once a man is sent there, he might as well give up his humanity at the door. It’s filled with society’s ultimate losers, and being caged together doesn’t bring out their finest qualities. But Ramon had responded to prison as a wakeup call, too late, saying his life had to change. He wasn’t the same person he’d been ten years ago when he first entered this prison.
Not that it mattered—they were about to kill an innocent man.