Sheriff Spencer Arrowood had dodged a bullet. At least in the metaphorical sense he had; that is, he did not die. Literally, he had not been lucky enough to dodge. The bullet had hit him solidly in the thorax, and had cost him his spleen, several pints of blood, and a nearly fatal bout of shock before the rescue squad managed to get him out of the hills and into the hospital in Johnson City. He had been enforcing an eviction—unwillingly, and in full sympathy with the displaced residents. The fact that he had been shot by someone he knew and had wanted to help made the attack on him that much more bitter to his family and his fellow officers, but he had not cared much about the irony of it. The injury seemed disassociated somehow from the events of that day, as if he had been drawn into another place and it did not matter much how he got there. He felt no bitterness toward his assailant, only wonder at what had happened to him. Coming so close to death had been a shock to his mind as well as his body, and its effects were so intense that it seemed pointless to consider the cause of the injury; its effect overshadowed all that went before. In the hospital he did not speak of these feelings to anyone, though. They might be mistaken for fear, or for an anxiety that might require the ministering of yet another physician. Spencer kept quiet. He wanted out of there.
That confrontation on a mountain farm had taken place three weeks earlier, and now, newly released from the Johnson City Medical Center, he was recuperating from his injuries at home.
He was able to get dressed by himself now, and to hobble around the house taking care of his own needs, microwaving what he wanted to eat, walking a bit to keep from getting stiff, and watching movies on cable until he was sick of the flickering screen. Three days earlier he had insisted that his mother go back to her own house and leave him to take care of himself. He understood that she was concerned about him, but her hovering presence had dragged him back into childhood, and he chafed at the old feelings of dependence and helplessness. He had claimed more strength and energy than he had really felt in order to convince her that he was well enough to be left alone. He had walked her to the door, waved a cheerful farewell, and then closed the door and leaned against it for ten minutes until he was strong enough to make it to a chair.
He was better now. His mother still phoned him four times a day to make sure that he was still alive, but he bore that without complaint. He knew how frightened she had been when he was shot, and how many years she had dreaded that moment. He did not begrudge her the reassurance that all was well. In fact he was determined to put an end to his convalescence as soon as he possibly could, to end her worry and his own boredom at his confinement.
He was lying in a lounge chair on his deck looking out at the valley and the mountains beyond, enjoying the spring sunshine and the ribbons of dogwood blooms across the hills, but he was still thinking about death. Physically he was recovering well, but the shock of coming so close to nonexistence had left its mark on him. Although he was past forty, he had never really thought about dying before. As a young man he’d had the youthful illusion of immortality to carry him through the daredevil stunts of adolescence and the rigors of a hitch in the army. When Spencer was eighteen, his brother Cal had been killed in Vietnam, but there had been an unreal quality about that, too: a death that occurred a world away, and a closed-casket funeral in Hamelin. The tiny part of his mind that was only ascendant in the small hours of the morning told him that Cal might not be in that box in Oakdale. To this day he might be roaming the jungles of Southeast Asia, or hanging out in bars in Saigon. Spencer would say that he did not believe any of this, of course, but the tiniest fraction of possibility existed, and he welcomed that doubt because it distanced him from death.
As the years went by, Spencer stayed too busy to think much about philosophical matters. Brooding on death was not a healthy pastime for someone in law enforcement. It was better to take each day as it came without anticipating trouble. Now, though, he found himself with unaccustomed time on his hands, and he was under orders to restrict his physical activity until his body had more fully recovered. He thought too much.
The sound of a car horn in the driveway stirred him from contemplation. He lurched over to the railing of the deck and looked out in time to see a white patrol car coming to a stop in front of the garage doors. Deputy sheriff Martha Ayers got out, and he waved to her, to let her know she should come out to the deck instead of going to the front door.
“Up here, Martha!”
“Figures you wouldn’t be in bed!” Martha yelled back, but she sounded cheerfully resigned to his defection from bed rest.
He tottered back to the chaise lounge and lowered himself carefully onto the canvas, allowing himself a wince of pain because Martha wasn’t close enough yet to see him grimace. She hurried up the wooden steps to the deck, pausing for a moment as she always did to admire the view. “It sure is peaceful up here.”
“I like it,” he said.
When he bought the twelve acres of ridge land a couple of years back, he had a local contractor build him a wood frame house, three stories: two bedrooms on the top floor, kitchen and living room on the middle floor, and a den, office, and laundry room on the ground floor, garage attached. Both living room and den had sliding glass doors facing the east, where the slope fell away to reveal a landscape of meadows threaded by a country road, and beyond them the wall of green mountains that marked the beginning of Mitchell County, North Carolina—out of his jurisdiction. He had painted the house barn-red, and he had built the decks himself little by little in his free time. Now they encircled the house on the ground floor and the one above, giving views from every conceivable vantage point. Spencer Arrowood liked to see a long way. The view diminished the problems of a country sheriff, because looking out at the green hills made him feel that it could be any century at all, which made his problems seem too ephemeral to fret about. Just lately, though, that same timeless quality had been showing him just how fleeting and fragmentary his own life was against the backdrop of the eternal mountains. The feeling of insignificance disturbed him. For once he was glad to have company.
Martha Ayers leaned against the back of the other deck chair. “I’m on break,” she told him. “Can’t stay long, but I thought I’d see if there’s anything you needed. Glass of water? Pills?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“I brought you your mail,” she said. “But only because you insisted.”
“I appreciate it, Martha.”
He was still too thin, and his cheekbones were still too prominent, making him look haggard, she thought, but some of the color was coming back to his cheeks. The gray sweatshirt and sweatpants he wore hid the bandages. “Pull up a chair,” he said. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t get up.”
Martha snorted. “I’d like to see you try. I’ll have your mother over here faster than white on rice. And don’t think I didn’t see you over there at the railing waving at me when I drove in. I should report you to Miss Jane.”
He grimaced. “The training academy didn’t do anything for your sweet disposition, did it, Martha? How are things at the office?”
“It’s a good thing I came back when I did,” said Martha. She considered the deck chair for a moment, and then sat down in one of the wrought-iron garden chairs. “LeDonne may think he’s Superman, but even he can’t pull two shifts a day seven days a week. He’s nobody’s idea of a diplomat, either. But we manage.”
“Nothing to speak of.” Her tone told him that he wasn’t going to get any details from her. “If you had any sense, Spencer, you’d just lie back in that lawn chair and drink your iced tea without giving the department another thought. Lord knows you could use the rest, and I’ve been telling you so for years now. Trust you to get shot before you’d take my advice.”
Sheriff Arrowood smiled. “Well, Martha, all I can say is: I wish I’d got shot at the beach, or maybe in Hawaii, because this business of laying around the house with nothing to do but watch talk shows is about as dull as ditchwater. The view is nice, but it doesn’t change enough to keep me occupied. I’ve taken to spying on the deer in the evenings. I try not to meddle in the department business, but sometimes the boredom is overpowering.”
“Sounds like you’re feeling better then,” said Martha. “This time last week, you weren’t nearly this feisty. I guess we’ll have to take your car keys soon.”
“I’m fine. Cooking my own meals even. You want some lunch? I have a whole freezer full of frozen dinners.”
“I can’t stay that long,” she told him. “This is my lunch break, but I ate an apple on my way up the mountain to check on you.”
He smiled as he sifted through the stack of letters—mostly junk mail, brochures for various law enforcement–related products, but among the few first-class envelopes he saw an official-looking one from Nashville with the state seal of Tennessee incorporated in the design of the return address.
Martha sighed. “I knew I should have left that one on your desk. It looks like the state wants something from us, which means you’ll either be filling out more forms in triplicate or else driving all over creation going to committee meetings.”
He tore open the letter and began to scan its contents. “I can always plead ill health if they—”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Spencer’s pale face had gone gray, and he was staring at the letter as if he’d forgotten that she was there. Martha clenched her fingers around the iron rim of the garden seat, wondering if she ought to run into the house and phone the rescue squad. The sheriff was supposed to be recovering nicely from the operation that removed a bullet and his injured spleen, but she supposed that even a week later something might go wrong. A blood clot, perhaps? She wondered if her rudimentary knowledge of first aid would be of any use.
“I’m fine, Martha.” He didn’t look up, and his voice had that perfunctory tone that meant he wasn’t listening. He was staring past her, gazing at the white-flowering dogwood tree as if he expected it to walk away.
“Don’t give me that,” said Martha. “What’s in that letter? You looked better right after you’d been shot. Tell me what’s wrong.”
He handed her the letter. “I’ve been invited to an execution.”
* * *
The waiting was the hardest part. Spencer had given his testimony hours earlier, but he was still dressed in his dark suit and starched white shirt, feeling as if he, not the defendant, were on trial.
Closing arguments had ended a little after four, and the jury had filed out to begin their deliberations in the case of the State of Tennessee v. Fate Harkryder. Now there was nothing to do but wait. He sat awkwardly on the bench in the reception room of the sheriff’s office, hot and uncomfortable in the unaccustomed business suit. It was just as well that he wasn’t set to go out on patrol that night. He was too jumpy to be much good at it.
Spencer had testified in court cases before, of course, but those trials had been insignificant compared to this one. In previous cases the defendants had faced fines or a few weeks in the county jail at most if his testimony helped to convict them. This time it was a matter of life or death. He felt solemn, weighed down by the fate of the prisoner. He also felt angry at him for committing a vicious and senseless crime and setting this chain of events in motion, soiling so many lives with his recklessness.
“Why don’t you go on home?” asked Nelse Miller, sitting down on the bench beside him.
Spencer shrugged. “Can’t. The jury might come back early, and then we’d have to take the prisoner back to the courtroom. I figure—what with his family and all—all of us ought to be on hand to escort him over.”
“I don’t figure the Harkryders to open fire on a crowded courtroom, like folks in that Hillsville shoot-out over in Virginia. No, the Harkryders would prefer to ambush an unarmed man in the dark some night, preferably at odds of four against one. It’s their way.”
“I’m not worried about them,” said Spencer.
“Now, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate your offer of an extra guard when we have to walk the prisoner back over to the courtroom, because the Harkryders might be in the same melodramatic mood that seems to have seized you—but that jury isn’t coming back tonight.”
“You don’t think so? The case is open-and-shut. We had enough evidence to convict him twice over.”
“Yes, but it’s detailed evidence. Complicated for ordinary folks. Blood evidence, and the forensic testimony about the defendant being a secretor. That’s a lot for a jury to digest. The jewelry is probably the clincher, but it’s circumstantial. Even with an ironclad case, the state wants to make sure it removes any shadow of a doubt, jurors being what they are. It’s hard to convince honest average citizens that there are monsters in this world. They look at the defense table and they see a boyish young man in a Sunday suit with a new haircut, and they just have a hard time believing that this soft-spoken lad would have put a knife to the throat of a twenty-one-year-old boy and severed the windpipe and jugular while the victim’s girlfriend watched, tied to a tree, crying, screaming for him to stop, and knowing she was next. It just doesn’t seem possible.”
“I’ve felt that way myself.”
“Give yourself a few years as a peace officer, then. You’re young yet. The time will come when you’ll count your fingers after shaking hands with the preacher. You’ll lose your faith in humanity if you stay in police work long enough. But juries never get seasoned to evil. Every case is tried before a new bunch of innocents, and you have to bury them in evidence to get it through their heads that clean-cut young men can be guilty of the terrible crimes we’ve charged them with.”
“So you think they’ll take a long time to deliberate?”
“Did you look at those jurors? Some of them were taking notes like there’d be an exam to follow. They won’t want to let that effort go to waste. They’re probably retrying the case right now, just to prove to one another that they were paying attention. And reasonable doubt! Reasonable doubt, mind you. Some juries would make a cat laugh. Why, they’re probably in there looking for loopholes as if this was Perry Mason on TV. What if this fellow had a twin nobody knew about who just happened to own a gun exactly like his—all that hogwash not fit for a fairy tale, much less a court of law. Makes them feel important. This is a big event for Wake County, you know. We go years without having anybody tried for murder.”
“I could have done without this time,” said Spencer.
“It’s finished. Your part is, anyhow. You said your piece in court, and the lawyers said theirs, and now the matter rests in the hands of twelve other people. And I know for a fact that the judge has dinner plans. It’s over for the night. So go home.”
Spencer shook his head. “I wouldn’t be able to get my mind off it. Might as well be here.”
The old sheriff sighed. “You sure do beat all, boy. Now, if it was me having to testify against that little piece of bull turd, I’d leave that courtroom with a spring in my step and never give him another second’s thought. That boy is trash and trouble, like all his kinfolk up there in the holler, and if he didn’t do this crime, he did a lot more we never caught him at, and he deserves what he gets.”
“What do you mean if he didn’t do this crime?” said Spencer.
“Oh, nothing. It’s not our job to decide guilt anyhow. That’s for judges, lawyers, juries. We just catch the suspects and round up such evidence as we can find. After that, it’s their call.”
“I know that, but what do you mean if he didn’t do this crime? Don’t you think he’s guilty?”
“Well, personally, I don’t care,” said Nelse Miller. “You could have looked into Fate Harkryder’s cradle and told that he was going to end up in prison. If it wasn’t one thing, it’d be another. I’ve known his kin for more than fifty years, and there’s not a solid citizen in the bunch. You’d stand a better chance of getting a thoroughbred out of a swaybacked donkey than you would of getting a good man out of the Harkryder bloodline.”
Spencer just looked at him, waiting.
Finally Nelse Miller let out a sigh, and looked away. “Oh, hell. I just got a feeling, that’s all.”
“But the case is ironclad. Blood type. Forensic evidence. The victims’ possessions found on him. We have him dead to rights. Everything but a confession.”
The sheriff shrugged. “It’s not up to me. Or you. We gather the evidence. They decide.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about this feeling of yours before now?”
“Because feelings aren’t evidence. They’d have laughed me out of the courtroom. Maybe Elissa Rountree would believe me. Sensible woman. She’s the only juror that would have! But nobody cares what your opinion is in a murder case. Facts. Evidence. Fingerprints. Then they make up their own minds. We’re well out of it.”
Spencer nodded. “I think he’s guilty,” he said. “I was there that night. I’m the one who arrested him. I wouldn’t have testified for the prosecution if I thought he wasn’t guilty.”
“Oh, you’d have testified. You were the law that night, and what you saw and what you did is the state’s business. But it helped that you had a moral certainty. Now stop fretting about it.”
Spencer wanted to protest that he hadn’t been fretting at all about the matter of guilt until the sheriff brought it up, but instead he said, “You’ve testified in capital cases before. Are you ever unsure of the man’s guilt?”
“Well, son, I tell you: I’ve been lucky that way. The doubts I’ve had have been in trifling cases, most of them. The punishment was at most a couple of months in jail, and like I said, most of the folks we arrest have that coming to them on general principles. But a capital case? There’s only two murder cases in these mountains that I’m not happy with. And I may be wrong on both of them, mind you.”
“What two cases?”
“One is the fellow you’re about to put on death row. And the other one is Frankie Silver.”
* * *
“What do you mean, an execution? In Tennessee?” Martha shook her head. “It just doesn’t happen.”
“It does now.” Spencer handed her the letter. “That judge who has been granting automatic stays for all these years finally retired, and now it looks like the state is going back into the capital punishment business.”
“After all these years? When was the last time we executed anybody in Tennessee?”
“The early sixties. But we didn’t abolish capital punishment. Juries kept handing out death sentences right along. We just haven’t carried one out in a very long time. Decades. Apparently, that’s going to change in about”—he glanced at the letter—“six weeks.”
“Why are they telling you about it?”
“Tradition. The sheriff of the prisoner’s home county is usually asked to be one of the official witnesses when the sentence is carried out.”
“Can you refuse? Like you said: plead ill health. Or decline the honor—if that’s what you’d call it—of being a witness.”
He didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t think I can do that, Martha.”
“Sure you could. Dr. Banner would write a letter to get you out of it. And it wouldn’t even be a lie, Spencer. You just had major surgery. Shot in the line of duty. They shouldn’t ask you to hand out doughnuts at a choir meet, much less do something as stressful as—as watch a man die.”
Spencer didn’t answer. He was looking out at the ridge lines, where a bank of dark clouds settled in low on the horizon, adding a new mountain chain at the edge of the mist.
Martha tried again. “How do we do it in Tennessee these days? Lethal injection?”
“No,” he said. He watched the cloud lines with even greater attention. “It’s still Old Sparky. No options.”
“Oh. The electric chair. I see.” Martha shuddered. After another stretch of silence she added, “Of course, the victims didn’t get any options, either. You’ve got to remember that.”
“I’ll try to bear it in mind.” Spencer folded the letter and slid it under the rest of the stack of mail.
“You’re not against capital punishment, are you? Not after what we see in this job. Not after what happens to children at the hands of some of these people.…”
“I can’t say I’m against capital punishment, no,” said Spencer. “I see the victims, which is a misfortune that most people don’t have. It’s just this one. Just—this—one.”
“Why do you feel like you have to go to this thing, Spencer? You’re already upset about it, and it’s still six weeks away. If the state of Tennessee insists on having somebody from Wake County present for the occasion, why don’t you send LeDonne? It wouldn’t bother him to watch an execution. He’d pull the switch himself and never turn a hair.”
Martha looked at him. She had known Spencer Arrowood all her life. They had been students together at the local high school. She knew his mother from church. She had been a dispatcher in the sheriff’s office, and now she was a newly appointed Wake County deputy, all of which added up to a good number of years of close observation of the man. She decided that his reaction to the summons from the Tennessee Department of Corrections amounted to more than just squeamishness. The sheriff hated cruelty on any level, but he was no coward, and he never shirked an obligation. “You want to tell me what this is about, Spencer?” she said quietly.
“It’s been about twenty years ago now. I guess you don’t remember.”
Martha frowned. “Twenty years ago. I was gone by then. I was off being an army wife in some godforsaken little town close to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Husband number one.”
“I forgot. You wouldn’t know about the case then.”
“Who is it they’re executing?”
“Fate Harkryder. I arrested him. Testified against him. And he got the death penalty. He’s been sitting on death row in a Nashville prison ever since. Lord, I haven’t thought of him in ages. And now this.”
“What did he do?”
He had been planning to leave it at that, but Martha’s expression told him that the discussion wouldn’t be over until he told her the rest. He sighed. “He killed two hikers from the Appalachian Trail. Boy and girl—college students from the University of North Carolina. He was ROTC; she was a colonel’s daughter. Honor students. They were very clean-cut and attractive kids. They were worth ten of him.”
In his mind he could hear Nelse Miller’s voice. He might as well have killed Donny and Marie. The Osmonds. Spencer had nearly forgotten them, too.
“Apparently he ambushed them at their campsite while they were sleeping. He tortured the boy. We…” He didn’t want to remember about the burn marks. “And he raped the girl before he killed her. Mutilated the body. I think that’s what really got him the death penalty. The jury looked at pictures of that smiling girl with the big calf’s eyes, and then at what was left of her in the crime scene photos.…” He shrugged.
He took a deep breath and wished he hadn’t started talking about the case, because he had tried hard to forget what he had seen that day. He didn’t want to picture the remnants of bodies he’d found at that campsite. He hadn’t had that nightmare in a long time. And now he would.
“I don’t remember this,” said Martha. “What were their names?”
“Her name was Emily Stanton. I can’t remember his.”
Martha shook her head. “The name doesn’t mean anything to me. I sure do remember the Harkryders, though. They were memorable, every single one of them. How many were there? I lost count.”
Spencer smiled. “Seemed like dozens, though some of them were cousins of the other ones. Nobody talked family with the Harkryders. If you were kin to them, you wouldn’t claim it. Tom was the one in our class, wasn’t he? I don’t think he started out with us, though. We caught up with him.”
“Mean as a striped snake. Which doesn’t say much to distinguish him from the rest of the litter. Which one was Fate?”
“Lafayette Harkryder. The youngest. There isn’t much to say about him. He was only seventeen when it happened. I guess he’s been in prison now longer than he was out in the world. Funny, in my mind, I still see him as a skinny teenage boy. He must be middle-aged by now, at least in prison years. You age fast in there. I probably wouldn’t know him if I saw him.”
“And you arrested him back then?”
Spencer nodded. “My first murder case. I was a deputy for Nelse Miller, and the bodies were found late one night on my watch.… Fate Harkryder … I’d almost forgotten about him. I fretted over it enough at the time, though. I guess I never thought it would come to this.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” said Martha. “In the first place, I’m sure he has it coming to him, and in the second place, the way they mollycoddle criminals these days, I doubt very much that he’ll keep that date with the executioner. He’s probably got a roomful of lawyers writing appeals on everything they can think of. Trust me. An execution hasn’t happened in Tennessee in thirty-some years, and it won’t happen now.”
“Maybe you’re right, Martha.”
“Of course I am. Now, I have to get back on patrol, so I’m going to leave. You’re sure you’re all right?”
He nodded. “Just a shock to the system, that’s all.”
“But I worry about you being stuck up here on this ridge all alone. Thank the Lord it’s not winter. Is there anything I can bring you?”
“Yes,” said Spencer. “I’d like you to bring me the case file on Fate Harkryder.”
Martha sighed. “You’re going to wear yourself out worrying about this thing, aren’t you?”
“No. I promise I’ll go easy. I just want to refresh my memory. And, Martha—one other thing. Have you ever heard of Frankie Silver?”
* * *
The old woman stood on the side of the road clutching the letter. She waited there until the pickup truck swirled into dust below the brow of the hill before she took a step toward the small iron gate bordered by tiger lilies. The white frame house at the end of the path sat like a pearl on a seashell, poised as it was on the ridge above the patchwork of fields and river far below. The beauty of the scenery did not gladden her heart, though. She looked warily at the prim little house, knowing that for all the urgency of her visit, she was in no hurry to open that gate.
Nora Bonesteel lived here.
Not that anybody ever said a word against old Miz Bonesteel. She was still a handsome woman, who wore well her seventy years, and she never asked favors of a soul. She stood faithfully in her church pew every week, and she kept to herself, but for doing what had to be done: food taken to the sick, and fine things knitted and sewn for the brides and the babies of the parish, but still … Still.
Nobody wanted to have much to do with Nora Bonesteel. She knew things. People said that when you came to tell her the news of a death in the valley, the cake for the family would already be in the oven. The Sight was in the Bonesteel family; her grandmother had been the same. The Bonesteel women never talked about what they knew, never meddled in folks’ lives, but all the same, it made people uneasy to be around them, knowing that whatever happened to you, they would have seen it coming.
The old woman looked down at the letter from Nashville. Would she know about that, what with the letter coming from so far away? With a sigh she bent down to open the gate.
When she looked up again, the tall, straight figure of a woman in gray stood on the porch, silently watching her. She clutched the mason jar of peach preserves tighter against her belly. She had brought a gift. She would not be beholden to this strange old woman.
As she neared the porch, she called out, “Afternoon, Miz Bonesteel! I’ve come to sit a spell.”
Nora Bonesteel nodded. “You’re Pauline Harkryder.”
“I am.” She held out the jar of preserves, but the burden of the letter from Nashville was too great for the pretense of a social call. “I’ve got a letter here,” she said. “It’s about my nephew Lafayette, down at the state prison in Nashville.”
“You’d best come in.”
They sat down in Nora Bonesteel’s parlor with its big glass window overlooking the river valley and the green hills beyond, but Pauline Harkryder had no time to spare for the glories of a mountain summer. She had seen more than fifty of them, and they had not given her much. Each summer reminded her that the world stayed young, while she wore herself out doing the same old thing year after year, with nothing to show for it. She handed the letter to Nora Bonesteel.
She waited, twisting her hands in her lap, while the old woman read the few typed lines announcing the scheduled execution of Lafayette Harkryder in a few weeks’ time.
When Nora Bonesteel had finished reading the letter, she set it down on the table. “You’d better have some tea,” she said.
Pauline Harkryder shrugged. It was all one to her. She couldn’t remember whether she’d eaten anything today or not. “They say they’re going to kill Lafayette,” she called out. Nora Bonesteel was in the kitchen now, setting the copper kettle on to boil. It made her easier to talk to, Pauline thought, if you didn’t have to look at those blue eyes staring through you.
A few moments passed, and there was no answer from the kitchen. Pauline tried again. “Do you think they will? Kill him, I mean.”
Nora Bonesteel appeared in the doorway. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll pray about it.”
“But—what I came to ask … If I could just know for sure … Miz Bonesteel—is he guilty?”
They stared at each other in silence. At last Nora Bonesteel said, “Do you need me to tell you that?”
Pauline Harkryder covered her mouth with her hand. “I’ve never said anything,” she whispered. “In all these years I never did. Is it too late?”
Nora Bonesteel sighed. “Do you have any kind of proof that would convince a judge?”
“Then let it be.” Behind her the teakettle screeched and rumbled, breaking the silence.
“It’s hard to know what’s best to do,” said Pauline. “He was a sweet young ’un, but he growed up wild, same as the other two. I did what I could for those boys after their mama was gone.”
“You can write to him,” said Nora Bonesteel. “Ask him what he wants you to do. Aside from that, all you can do is pray and wait, because only one person can save him, and that isn’t you.”
* * *
A plain wooden chair sits on the tiled floor of an otherwise empty room. The chair is dark oak, with wide, flat arms. Its back is a solid plank, except for the three rectangular openings on either side, positioned to accommodate two pairs of blue nylon restraining straps ending in metal seat-belt buckles. Behind the chair a round wall clock familiar to schoolrooms hangs high on the pale cinder-block wall. The chair faces a large glass window covered by blinds, concealing a viewing room with space for perhaps twenty chairs. The only ornament in the observation room is a wall plaque, approximately one foot in diameter: a circle with the words “The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee 1796” encircling a drawing of a plow with “Agriculture” written beneath it, and below that a sailing ship designated “Commerce.” The walls to the left and right of the chair are fitted with ordinary doors. One leads to the corridor of holding cells and a kitchen such as one might find adjoining the reception hall of a modern country church. The other door opens into another plain, bright room, containing a small metal cabinet with lights and dials fitted on the gray surface. Beside it a power-supply box containing a transformer converts the standard 220-volt current coming into the room into a charge of 2,640 volts at the proper time. A wall telephone hangs a few feet away.
The chair was made for the state of Tennessee by the firm of Fred A. Leuchter Associates in Boston in 1989, but in style and composition, it looks much older. Parts of it are. The state sent the Leuchter company wood from the first Old Sparky, built in 1916, to be used in the construction of the new one, a ritual that was not without precedent. Some of the wood from the 1916 electric chair had been salvaged from Tennessee’s old gallows and used to construct its replacement when hanging went out of fashion. Now its successor contains the wood of both, so that more than a century of tradition has been incorporated into the new device. The new chair cost the state $50,000, and it, too, was called “Old Sparky.”
It has never been used.
Once a month, though, it is tested.
Once a month a jar of salt water—a much more accurate representation of a man than the biblical image of dust—is placed on the flat wooden seat; electrodes are inserted into the water; someone presses a button on the gray machine, and current surges through the water, proving that all is in readiness.
At least that is how the prisoners believe the chair is tested. They recount the story to one another in bull sessions, and engage in private speculations about who among them will be the first to go. Who will christen the new chair with his bodily fluids? But the prisoners also say that there are claw marks in the wide arms of the wooden chair, a chair that was built in 1989 and has never been used.
Even when the power is not turned on, the electric chair generates its own current of legend.
Copyright © 1998 by Sharyn McCrumb