Joel Dowd looked out from between the bars of the Death Row cage he had lived in for seventeen long years. “Somebody has to do something,” he told Carlson, the guard.
Carlson shrugged. He’d heard the complaints of convicts for even longer than Joel had been in prison. He’d heard Joel’s for the last six years since he took over as night guard down in the Pit as they called Death Row in this state lockup.
“They tricked me,” complained Joel. “I’m going to die and they tricked me.”
“Hmm,” said the guard. The state had a mercy clause in their death penalty statute. No one could be executed unless they actually confessed to the capital crime they had been convicted of. Carlson thought it seemed like a good law.
No more worrying about the state sending an innocent to be legally killed. Only a small class of criminals ended up in the Pit and only those who confessed to their crimes made the final trip to the Glass Room where they would be tied down on a gurney and injected with a lethal combination of pain relievers, sedatives, paralytics and heart-stopping poison.
“I’m going to die,” said Joel. “Somebody help me because I’m going to die.”
“You confessed. They can’t kill you unless you do.”
“They tricked me,” whined Joel. “They said they had a treatment that would cure me of why….” He stopped to swallow bile. “Why I killed those people. I’m going to be sick again.”
“Keep it off the floor,” said Carlson.
Joel threw up into the rimless stainless steel bowl of the jailhouse toilet. The same bowl he had used everyday of his seventeen year stay in the Pit. Piss, shit and vomit went into the bowl and were flushed away.
Joel Dowd had led a takeover robbery of a large suburban bank. He or one of his men had shot a security guard. The police arrived before the robbers could escape. Fourteen customers and bank staff were trapped inside. Joel threatened to start shooting hostages if he and his men did not receive a million dollars and safe passage to a country that promised not to prosecute or extradite them.
To demonstrate the seriousness of his demands, Joel shot the bank manager in the thigh with the intent that the man should bleed out if the police did not concede quickly. Hostage cellphone and bank security cameras caught the shooting on video.
The governor made an immediate appeal to the international community on CNN. Belize promised to feed the bank robbers to alligators without waiting for a trial if they would only visit the warm tropical country. Joel cursed Belize. Libya offered crocodiles. Mongolia suggested that they could be trampled to death by rare Przewalski’s wild horses. It would be the hit of YouTube for months. Joel damned Libya, Mongolia and YouTube to hell, too.
The SWAT team came in shooting and Joel killed five hostages before being wounded. Almost a miracle, he alone survived of the robbers and after a lengthy hospital stay and a trial, he had come to live in the Pit. No one doubted his guilt, most of his killing spree had been seen on the internet by millions. Finding twelve people who were not virtual witnesses proved the hardest part of getting him convicted.
But state law said he could not be executed unless he confessed after he had lost his automatic state appeal. He’d held out through five more appeals, three at the federal level. The Supreme Court had refused to review his case.
“Why did you do it?” asked Carlson.
“I don’t know,” muttered Joel. He stood to rinse his mouth out at the stainless steel sink. “They were all losers. People who believed in the rules. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not steal. Though shalt not lie or covet or dishonor God.”
“No,” said Carlson. “I meant why did you confess.” Carlson knew why but he wanted to hear Joel’s explanation.”
“I told you!” Joel wailed. “They tricked me!”
Carlson turned away. “It can’t be more than another hour before they come for you. Sure you don’t want something to eat?”
“I couldn’t,” said Joel. “I haven’t eaten all day. I’m going to die and my last meal will be that slop you served me last night.” He sat down on his bunk and stared at the one picture the guards allowed him in his cell, a woman in an old-fashioned swimsuit posed against the background of a waterfall.
The guard turned back to Joel and found a comfortable seat himself. No other prisoners lived in the Pit currently. Joel and Carlson were alone.
“Anything else you want to say?” Carlson asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the two liter thermos his wife sent with him every night.
“They tricked me,” said Joel.
“How did that work?” asked Carlson.
“They told me,” Joel had to stand up and pace. “They told me that if I took the treatment, I could leave the Pit. That I could go into a regular cell. Go outside for exercise. And in another year, apply to have my sentence reduced to life which would make me eligible for parole.” He grabbed the bars and stared at Carlson drinking coffee.
“Want some?” the guard offered, waving his cup.
“No, I’d just throw it up.” Joel paused. “Thanks, anyway,” he said. He sounded as if he really did want coffee.
Carlson poured a cup and put it into the serving trap, pushing the triangular hinged cage through the slot where Joel could retrieve the cup in his cell.
Joel did take the cup, holding it in his hands as if warming them with its heat. “Thanks,” he said again. He began to cry.
Carlson had seen a lot of prisoners cry. Some of them could turn it on and off like a faucet, complete with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Joel cried silently, letting the tears run down his face and drip from his cheeks onto his orange prison uniform.
He did not drink any of the coffee but raised the cup up to sniff of it twice before putting it back in the serving cage.
“You were telling me how they tricked you,” Carlson prompted.
“I took the treatment. Then I confessed and now they are going to kill me,” said Joel.
“Some kind of truth serum?” asked the guard.
Joel shook his head. “Drugs. Surgery. They implanted some stem cells in my brain, in just the right place. Made new connections there that I didn’t have. They said it would cure me. Make me like other people.”
“Yeah?” said Carlson. He knew he would enjoy hearing Joel say it. “So you had a get-out-of-the-Pit-free card. They couldn’t execute you unless you confessed. Did you confess? Did you tell them you did it?”
Joel stumbled away from the bars, going to the toilet bowl for more dry heaves, coughing and choking and tasting bile and ashes in his mouth. “I killed them. I killed them all,” he moaned. “I’m sorry, I wish it had never happened.”
Carlson laughed, a short, mean sound like a dog barking.
Joel looked up at him. “They cured me. I had to confess.”
“Only a couple more hours to wait,” said Carlson. “Feeling guilty?”
“It’s been a year,” said Joel. “How can anyone live like this?”
“Most of us don’t kill seven people in front of cameras,” said Carlson. “And the law says they have to wait a year after your confession to — you know.” He didn’t like to say it, that soon the warden and the technicians would come and strap Joel Dowd to a gurney and take him to the Glass Room where he would be executed in front of cameras.
“I know,” said Joel. “I know I’m going to die. They tricked me. They turned me into a loser like the rest of you. I’m guilty and I have to die. They gave me the soul I never had and now they’re going to take it away.”
He looked at the guard again, pleading. “Can’t they at least be on time?”