Jack’s first murder was an honest mistake. His second, even the judge privately thought was open to doubt. The third - Jack had to admit, was as cold as they come. Brief, brutal, final. The jury happily agreed and recommended the death penalty like they were offering a tip on a good mechanic. It wasn’t that Jack was a bad guy, just a little unlucky, though perhaps luckier than the three people he put in the ground.
Jack arrived at Parksburg prison at the worst possible time. It was 1977 and the authorities in Utah had just carried out the long-awaited execution of Gary Gilmore – the man who had wanted to die. It was now open-season for executions. Across the country; indignant judges, emasculated prison wardens and ambitious politicians were spearheading a new terror in the American justice system. Men who might normally have served ten years suddenly found themselves making half-formed confessions to priests in the dead of night. As they sat in the chair the next morning; confused and unwashed, many were hoping they might meet Gilmore on the other side, if only to give him a solid punch in the jaw.
One of those at the head of this bloodlust was the governor of Parksburg prison. Governor Shawcross was part of that breed of insecure men who compensate for irredeemable baldness by sprouting as much hair as possible out of all the other roots of their bodies. With his meshed beard, outstretched moustache, overgrown eyebrows, bindweed limbs and shoulders richly fluffed like hotel pillows, the guards at Parksburg had begun to joke that Shawcross was 90% hair and 10% governor – all of which amounted to 100% asshole. He believed in hard work, self-reliance and discretion, which was why Shawcross never felt obliged to let the outside world know much about how he ran Parksburg. The Governor made no secret of his enthusiasm for executions either. For years, he had resented feeling like an underpaid school teacher taking charge of men who would never be free, and privately wished he could march half the prisoners into the yard one evening and mow them down like dominos. Gilmore’s death gave him this opportunity.
Parksburg; like its governor, was cold and unforgiving. Built by convict labour a century before, it had once been held up as the model to which all other prisons should aspire. Designed with six wings, each leading to a central watchtower, it was surrounded on all sides by 30ft high stone walls, trenches deeper than two men and woods stretching three miles to the nearest town. There had been no successful escapes from Parksburg throughout its history and the prison had become infamous amongst convicts, becoming known as the ‘concrete coffin’.
There had already been three executions before Jack arrived at Parksburg. Two hoodlums from the city had fried for their part in a shoot-out which left an elderly bystander dead. The other, dubbed the ‘Vampire of the Rockies’ had murdered eight women in Colorado and had met his end shortly after Jack was convicted. Against these two cases, the story of another career criminal finally meeting his end disappeared into the crimes beats of the local papers. Jack didn’t mind. He guessed early on that he wouldn’t be in Parksburg for long and was determined to keep his head down and not make a name for himself.
After being processed and receiving his uniform, Jack was led away to his cell. On entering, he was surprised to find he recognised one of the men with whom he would be spending his last days.
“Jackie!” the young man called out as he rose from his bunk.
Tommy was around half Jack’s age. Handsome, clean-cut, without prison tattoos or scars, Tommy stood apart from the other convicts in the lunch line. Jack knew the reason; he was familiar with the kid’s story and was disappointed to find him still inside. Like Jack, Tommy was unlucky. At one time, he’d been a high-school football star and had expected to be snapped up by a set of colleges once he turned eighteen. That was until Tommy accepted a ride home one night from an old friend who had dropped out of school the previous year. Half-way through the journey, the guy stopped at a gas station, pulled out a .38 and went inside to rob the place, leaving Tommy alone in the passenger seat. Unfortunately for the both of them, the store clerk was quick on the draw and managed to bury a bullet in the robber’s back before he had even ordered the register open. The cops were called and they arrived to find the guy crippled on the floor and Tommy still in the car completely unaware of what had happened. They charged him as an accessory to armed robbery and gave him ten years.
Tommy greeted Jack like an old friend and the two of them sat down on his bunk to chat.
Watching them was the third man in the cell. On the surface, Joe was the exact opposite of Tommy. Standing around 5ft 6”, he was an ugly little man suited to managing a failing bar in a bad neighbourhood. He had cold, narrow eyes which seemed to clench like fists whenever he spoke. His hair had thinned ahead of his age and his nose bore the marks of many fights fought, and most of them lost. Joe didn’t rise to meet Jack, and instead sat on his bunk eyeing them from a distance and rolling cigarettes with the expertise expected of someone with two murder convictions hanging over his head.
Jack fixed his sheets and began pacing the cell, Joe watched him closely. He stopped at the wall and pressed the back of his head against the brickwork. Lowering himself to the floor,
Jack searched his mind for some explanation as to how he had wound up in Parksburg. He was forty-nine and had spent nearly half his life in jail. A ten year stretch from the age of nineteen for the first murder, for which he eventually served only six. A few years of freedom then back inside again, this time with a fifteen-year sentence, served in full. Finally, a death sentence, the natural end to a wasted life. Jack was a failure and he knew it. He had no excuses, his life – his early life at least hadn’t been a tragic story. There were no abusive parents to drag up at therapy sessions. He wasn’t poor, he wasn’t dumb. It was bad luck, plus a couple of stupid decisions that had brought him to this point. Yet, as he sat there on the floor of his cell Jack felt no anger; he wasn’t filled with regret or imagining himself knocking out Gary Gilmore like those other guys. His fate was out of his hands now, he couldn’t fight the decision and hadn’t even tried in court. In part, it was this resignation that had led the trial judge to pass the ultimate sentence. If Jack had shown a little remorse, if he’d wept or begged for mercy he might have kept his life. But that wasn’t Jack, and he was determined not to give the judge, the jury, the governor or the guards that satisfaction. He wouldn’t be the hysterical fool dragged through the corridors one morning to scream for the amusement of waking convicts. He would accept the sentence and face death like a man.
Jack had been in Parksburg a little over a week and his time so far had been unremarkable.
Some people might assume that a man with nothing to lose would take risks, would be out to cause trouble. But Jack wasn’t interested in this, for the next few weeks he would be a model prisoner and give the Governor no reason to bring forward his execution. Each morning he woke with the first clatter of a nightstick against the bars of his cell. Afterwards he would walk smartly to the showers and be washed and ready to face the day by 07:30. Tommy would imitate Jack’s routine the best he could but always found himself a few steps behind the older man. Joe on the other hand, was beginning to carve out a reputation as a toughguy. Before Jack arrived at Parksburg, Joe had been thrown into solitary for slashing another prisoner across the face with part of a broken lunch tray. His time in the hole did little to straighten him out, and a week later he spat at a guard who had woken him by hammering out the reveille on his cell bars. For this, he was stripped naked, made to run a lap of the wing and beaten unconscious by the offended guard.
Joe’s antics had come to the attention of Governor Shawcross, who decided to pay a visit to cell 23 and its three occupants, one of whom he noted was due to be executed shortly.
On Jack’s eighth day in Parksburg, the Governor, accompanied by two guards arrived at the gates of his cell. They found the three men stood against the wall, relaxed and cool as if they were waiting for a bus. Had the Governor arrived five minutes earlier he would have been
wringing his hands with self-satisfaction.
Jack had returned from the shower that morning to find Tommy and Joe crouched behind a bunk, closely inspecting part of the stone wall.
“What you up to fellas?” Jack asked.
Both men quickly jumped to their feet.
“Nothing old man” grunted Joe.
“Come on, what you got there?”
“Mind you own business!” said Joe moving in on Jack.
Tommy pulled away from the wall and turned pale. Jack and Joe stood in the centre of the cell, each man marking the ground with his feet. Jack threw his towel down on the bunk and pushed out his chest.
“It’s okay Joe, we can show him. It’s not like they’ll let him out for good behaviour” said Tommy.
“Shut up! This guy’s been eyeballing me all week” said Joe forcing himself up onto the tips of his toes. Jack’s eyebrows tightened like the strings of a crossbow. Losing his balance, Joe reached out to steady himself. Jack seized his chance and grabbed hold of the shorter man, spinning his arm up and around his back before pinning him against the wall.
“Listen kid, I dunno how long you’ve been in here but I guess you haven’t learned all the rules yet. If you wanna start something with a guy, get your first punch in quick and make it count. Otherwise they’re gonna find you lying on the floor of the shower with more holes in you than the jailhouse dartboard”.
“Let go of me!”
“You gonna calm down and play nice?” asked Jack tightening his grip.
“Yeah, yeah okay – just let go”.
Jack pushed Joe against the wall, where he hit the brickwork with a dull thud. The three men stood in a triangle, each eyeing the other closely.
“Now what was it you wanted to show me?” asked Jack.
Stepping forward, Tommy’s eyes glowed with the excitement of a kid clutching his first missing tooth.
“You heard of Salvatore Sorelli?”
“The gangster? Yeah, I know him a little actually, we were in the County Jail together at one time. Nice guy, despite the headlines” said Jack.
Joe moved alongside Tommy, his face sinking with shame.
“At one time Sorelli ran near enough every racket on the West Coast. When the law finally caught up with him they sent him here”.
“So where is he now?”
“Dead, throat cancer. They moved him to a prison hospital six months ago, he didn’t last long in there”.
“Okay, so why do I care?”
Tommy started to twitch wildly, his hair shaking like a dog fresh from a stream.
“This was the Don’s cell” he said pointing to the ground beneath his feet.
“Alright, so what?”
“Listen - Sorelli was a big shot. Before they moved him out there was a rumour he’d gotten an escape plan together. They say he was going to tunnel out, cut right through the wall and crawl to freedom” said Joe.
Jack moved across the room and tapped the wall with his knuckles.
“Bullshit, no one gets through these”.
Joe scoffed and sat down on his bunk. Jack took a seat opposite.
“Sorelli had a guard sneak in a bunch of tools; pick axes, hammers, even a hand drill. These walls aren’t as thick as you think old man, you just have to get through a couple of feet, then you fall into a bunch of air vents. Those are easy enough to crawl through, then there are a couple of weak spots in the wall outside. You get through one of those, you’re at the wire”.
“And then what?” asked Jack.
“Then you’re in trouble. The watchtowers will blind you with searchlights, you might catch a bullet from one of the guards up there. Add to that, I hear Shawcross ordered a charge set through the fence”.
“Can he do that?”
“Probably not, but no one’s stopping him. Anyway, one touch of that and you’re Jail bacon”.
Joe and Tommy could feel Jack grow curious.
“Alright so where’s the hole?”
“That’s the best part – Joe tell him, go on!” said Tommy bouncing up and down on the bunk.
Joe threw him a disapproving look and turned towards Jack.
“One of the screws brought Sorelli a brick, the big kind that keeps this wall together. After they were done cutting through the old one, they left the new one in its place”.
Tommy jumped to his feet and moved across the room, shaking off Joe’s attempts to keep him in place. Jack followed Tommy to the wall and watched him run his hand over the brickwork. He stopped at the far-left corner, at a brick no different to the others; battleship grey with a few chips and weapon scratchings in the centre. Tommy looked over his shoulder for any guards making the rounds. Seeing no one, he reached into his sock and retrieved two pieces of crude, workshop metal, both filed down to the shape of a cut-throat razor. Tommy gently inserted each piece into the side of the chosen brick.
“What’s he doing?”
“Shhh, just watch” said Joe.
The metal disappeared into the brickwork, leaving only an inch tightly clasped between Tommy’s thumb and index fingers. His arms tightened and a hazy layer of sweat formed across his brow. Tommy jerked his hands back and forth as if riding a bike. Gradually the brick began to emerge, pushing out like the extending lens of a camera. Jack let out a curious murmur and watched Tommy wrestle the brick free from the wall and lower it gently to the floor. The other two men fell to their knees in a semi-circle facing the wall. Where the brick had been, there was now a cavern, large enough for a man to fit through, leading into unknown depths of darkness. Jack struck a match on the wall and peered in.
“What d’ya see?” asked Joe.
“Christ, how far does this go?”
“I told you, the tunnel only goes a couple of feet. Then it’s just vents and crawlspaces. It’s like this prison was built for an escape”.
“Then why don’t you try it?” asked Jack.
“Don’t you listen old man, the power. All that electric flowing through the wire, those searchlights. If they don’t shoot you digging free you’ll get fried on the fence”.
“Well, better start praying for a power cut boys”.
“I guess” said Joe bitterly, lifting the brick back into place.
“Well whatever happens, good luck with it boys”
“You won’t say anything will you Jack?” asked Tommy.
“You kidding? I know the rules”.
“You better not say anything old man, or I’ll kill you before they get a chance”.
Annoyed, Jack raised his hand slightly and sent Joe covering his face.
“I know the rules” he said again.
At that moment, a chiming of nightsticks could be heard meeting cell bars along the corridor.
“Attention, Governor on the wing, prisoners out of bed now!” called a voice from outside.
The men of cell 23 stood against the wall and eyed the room for any visible contraband.
Governor Shawcross appeared, his face divided into segments by the bars. The cell gate slid open and in he stepped flanked by two broad and menacing guards.
“Gentlemen” the Governor announced as if conducting a funeral.
The prisoners lined up and stood silently to attention.
“Answer the Governor!” roared one of the guards.
“Bloodtooth, who do we have here?” asked Shawcross turning to the other guard. They moved along the line starting with Tommy.
“Armed robbery sir, ten years”
“I see, good behaviour?”
“Good, good. Are you being reformed young man?”
Tommy stood, struggling for words.
“Answer the Governor!” ordered the guard again.
“Yes sir, I don’t want to come back here”.
“Quite right, a lot of people work very hard to make sure you don’t come back here. You should thank them”
“Say thank you”
Tommy hesitated and shuffled his feet.
“Thank you” he whispered uneasily.
“Thank you, sir!” shouted Tommy, loud enough to make Shawcross jump back slightly.
“Very good, next Bloodtooth” he said moving along the line.
“This one’s trouble sir, two counts of murder”.
“Well why haven’t we executed him yet?”
“They suspect he committed another sir, they want him to stand trial for that one as well”.
“Hmm, what a waste of money” said the Governor contemptuously.
“Poor sir; violent towards staff and inmates, repeated escape attempts, drug possession”
“I see, so you want to cause trouble in my prison?”
Joe fixed his eyes on the Governor’s beard, isolating the rest of his face.
“Answer!” ordered the Guard.
“Then why do you fight with other prisoners? Why do you assault my staff?”
“I blame my mother sir”
“Your mother?” asked the Governor.
“She didn’t treat me well”.
“Your mother on the other hand, she’s very friendly, very friendly indeed. Ask any guy in here”.
“Shut up prisoner!” screamed the guard drawing his nightstick.
“It’s okay Bloodtooth” said the Governor gesturing to lower the weapon.
“So…a fighter and a joker, what a combination”.
“Don’t forget a lover sir”
The Governor smiled and folded his arms.
“Well I’m going to give you plenty of free time to work on your routine. Jackknife!” he said calling over the other guard.
“Take the prisoner to solitary confinement”.
“Fine, I just came out of the hole, my soup’s probably still warm”.
The Governor moistened his lips and tucked his thumbs into his beltline.
“Very well, perhaps we can put you to use elsewhere. Hmmm, Jackknife, Dental Detail – two weeks should be enough. Thank you”
Dental Detail or DD, was one of the Governor’s favourite punishments; because unlike solitary confinement, it had a practical as well as penal use. A man on DD would be made to clean the wing, fourteen hours a day using nothing but an old prison-issue toothbrush. If he was lucky, the prisoner might get the one toothbrush that still had a dozen bristles left on it. The wing didn’t just mean the cells; it meant the guards’ quarters, the hole, the medical room, and the workshop. The worst part of DD was that at the end of the day a prisoner would have to sleep on the floor, in the spot that he felt reflected his best efforts on that particular day. The result was that the next morning, the poor guy would have to clean that spot again because his prison uniform had dirtied it all up. After three days of this, most inmates were begging to be thrown in the hole.
The guard led Joe away silently and the governor finished his inspection by questioning Jack.
“What about this one Bloodtooth?”
“Murder sir, sentenced to death”.
“Ahh yes, our next offering for Old Sparky. Behaviour?”
“Excellent, I hope you’re using this time to reflect on your crimes”
Jack remained silent and looked out across the Governor’s gleaming head.
“Answer!” said the guard.
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence” Jack said, almost without moving his lips.
“Really? A good attitude to take. But are you sorry for your crimes?”
Jack remained still and repeated:
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence”
Something in Jack’s speech frightened the Governor, ordinarily such insubordination would have seen him following Joe, toothbrush in hand, straight out onto the wing. Instead, he peered up beneath Jack’s chin and announced:
“Well I have some good news for you, we’ve got a date for your execution – fifteen days from now. A Sunday, I hope that doesn’t bother you?”
Jack said nothing and breathed through his nose.
“Very well, that’s all, at ease gentlemen”.
Shawcross scuttled out of the cell and the guard pulled the gate shut.
Jack had fallen ill. It had been ten days since the Governor’s visit and he had been lying in bed, aching and moaning for almost a week. Although his execution was still a few days away, those men on the wing who heard the sounds coming from cell 23 imagined the procedure had already begun.
There were now two men in the cell, and Tommy dedicated much of his time to caring for Jack. The night when the older man vomited blood all over his bedsheets, Tommy lifted Jack across the room and laid him out on Joe’s empty bunk. The vomiting eventually became so frequent that Tommy called for a doctor, but the duty officer didn’t think it worthwhile making a fuss over a man who one way or another, would be dead by the end of the week.
One night, as Jack lay curled up on his bunk, an excitable Tommy tried to strike up a conversation.
“You know, you never told me how you ended up in here?”
Jack raised his hand from the bed, dismissing Tommy and groaning in pain.
“Come on, I can’t sleep, talk to me a little while”.
“I’m dying here. Let me die in peace”.
“You’ve been here long enough. Don’t you know the rules either? You never ask specifics about a man’s story” said Jack.
“Please, if you tell me I’ll let you sleep. I’ve earned a bit of conversation after the way I’ve looked after you this week”.
Jack breathed heavily, rolling over on his bunk to face Tommy and offering up a thin, uncomfortable smile. Jack didn’t like to talk about his crimes. They belonged to him, the court and the people he killed, no one else. Nevertheless, he felt he owed it to Tommy and decided to open up a little.
“Okay Tommy, I’ll tell you”.
The younger man leapt through the air like a ballet dancer and came to his knees beside Jack’s bunk.
“The first was an accident, seriously – a real accident, nobody’s fault at all”.
“I was working on a construction site. Me and this other guy had the job of hauling planks of wood up to the top floor of this apartment building and laying them out as flooring. There was no elevator so we had to carry as many as twenty units a go up ten flights of stairs. It was one of those exposed staircases so we had the wind blowing against us all day”.
Jack bent over to vomit again but managed only a mouthful of pale, bloody saliva.
“Anyway, the two of us didn’t get along. I don’t know why exactly but everyone on the site could see we were desperate to knock each other’s heads off. One day we got into an argument and I gave the guy a bloody nose. The rest of the crew broke up the fight, we calmed down and went back to work – no big deal”.
“And later that day, when I was carrying a bunch of planks up the stairs, the bum sneaks up behind me with a screwdriver and tries to get at my throat. I could hear his footsteps scurrying behind me, then…well it’s all kind of a blur. I guess I must have brought the planks around with me when I turned to face him. The next thing I know the guy’s taking a nosedive off the building, 100ft onto a pile of scrap metal”.
“And they put you in here for that?”
“Well they did once. What could I say? Everyone knew I hated the guy, we’d been kicking the hell out of each other just half an hour earlier. There was nothing unusual about a guy on a construction site holding a screwdriver. On top of all that there were no witnesses”.
“I can’t believe they did you for that”
“Funny isn’t it, Laurel and Hardy made a career off gags like that, me – I get ten years”.
Jack rolled over again and pressed his nose tight to the wall of the cell. Tommy tugged at his shirt.
“Huh?” mumbled Jack.
“What about the second one?”
“The second one?”
“The second charge”
“Ergh, come on, don’t make me go through that again”.
“Come on, you tell your story well”.
“Ergh, alright then. But this was an accident too, although I probably got a little carried away this time”.
Jack lay on his back, coughed up a wispy halo of blood and described his second charge.
“When I got out the first time, I found a job tending bar at a little place near the Mexican border. I was happy there, it was peaceful”.
“Then what happened?”
“This one night, two kids come into the bar when I was closing up. I was counting out the money with my back to them. I turned around to find a sawn-off lurking under my chin. They were there to rob the place”.
“What did you do?”
“I handed them the money, I wasn’t going to get my neck lowered for the sake of a couple hundred bucks”.
“So what was the problem?”
“These kids were drugged up or something. I slid the money across the counter and held up my hands as if to say ‘you get going’. But the one with the gun just stared at me, the meanest stare I’ve ever seen on a guy. He pressed the gun barrel into my throat and left me struggling for breath”.
“So what d’ya do?”
“What could I do? I thought the crazy kid was gonna shatter my windpipe. I coughed and looked off to my side, hoping to distract him. It worked too! As his eyes followed mine I reached under the counter for a glass, pulled my arm round and smashed it over his head”.
“Wow, did you get the gun off him?”
“You’re damned right I did. It fell straight into my arms and I pointed it at the bum as he collapsed in a heap on the counter. I told the two of them to get the hell out or I’d break them in half. That’s when I noticed the other guy going for his pocket, he had a piece on him too,
one of those little things they use to shoot cans at the county fair. He pulled it up to my face and just as he was about to pull the trigger, I swung round and took half his head off. His brains were all over the jukebox”.
“What about the other guy?”
“Ergh, he sprung back to life and slashed my arm with a shard of glass – I still have the scar, see”
Jack painfully tugged the sleeves of his uniform up to the elbow, exposing a long, shining gash on the underside of his forearm.
“I’m gonna tell you a secret Tommy, I could have let him go at that point. I could have cracked him with the gun and sent him off crying into the night. They would have given me
manslaughter, self-defence. I would have served maybe a year”.
“So what did you do?”
Jack sighed and wiped some dried blood from around his mouth.
“I pushed him to the floor, jumped over the counter and fired a round into his crotch. He screamed like a baby”.
“Oh Jackie, that’s never okay”.
“I know, I know. I regret it but…I dunno, all I could see was red. I just wanted to hurt this guy so bad”.
“What did they give you for that?”
“That’s the crazy part. The guy with his brains all over the jukebox – he survived. He was a total vegetable but he’s still breathing somewhere. The guy on the floor missing two nuts, he bled out immediately. The judge said my actions ‘demonstrated a cruel and sadistic desire to inflict pain on the victim, above and beyond what was reasonable under the circumstances’.
They gave me fifteen years”.
“Come to think of it, that was kinda my fault. I shouldn’t have put him down the way I did”.
“No use worrying about it now” said Tommy.
“I guess not”.
“What about the last one, the one that brought you here?”
“I don’t wanna talk about that”
“Oh come on, we’re almost there”.
“No Tommy, go to sleep”
“Come on, I’m enjoying this”.
“Tommy, go to sleep or I’ll put you to sleep!” said Jack holding out a weak fist.
Knowing better, Tommy backed away and let Jack rest.
“Lights out!” yelled a guard from the landing.
The cell fell into darkness and the two men lay silent.
“Jack” whispered Tommy after a couple of minutes had passed.
“I hate the dark, ever since I was a kid I’ve hated the dark”.
“There’s worse things than darkness Tommy” groaned Jack.
“If you say so”
“I do, you can be who you wanna be in the dark – you can be free. Around here that’s gotta count for something”
Tommy was asleep; snoring gently, with each effortless breath blowing the hair across his brow.
Jack tucked his legs beneath his arms, coughed into his pillow and lay awake on his bunk, watching the stars glimmer through the small barred window of the cell.
Joe was released from Dental Detail after two weeks. He was weak, stinking and just as mean as ever. As he was led into cell 23, Joe almost found himself led right back out again for dragging his feet in a manner which the Governor felt unruly. Shawcross was there for two reasons; one he wanted to check up on the man who was threatening his right to carry out an execution by dying prematurely, and second because materials had been disappearing from the prison workshop. Tommy and Joe stood to attention, but the Governor felt kind enough to allow Jack to watch from his bunk, either that or he couldn’t stomach the hassle of moving him.
“Gentlemen, we have a problem. Some supplies have gone missing from the workshop; bolts, nails, scraps of metal. Can one of you tell me why this would be a problem?”
The men were silent, forming their hands into thin blades by their sides.
“It’s a problem gentlemen because metal – crude chunks of metal can become dangerous
weapons in the hands of career criminals like you three”.
“Sir, I’m only here on one conviction…”
“Shut up prisoner!” screamed a guard, seizing Tommy by the arm.
“As I was saying; it doesn’t take much to sharpen down some scrap iron on a cell wall and use the deadly instrument to settle a lovers’ quarrel on the exercise yard”.
The guards moved in beside the bunks.
“So each cell will now be searched. And if we don’t find anything today, we’ll come back the next day and the next, and the day after that. We’ll keep turning over these cells until we find what we’re looking for or someone confesses”.
His final word seemed designed to provoke a hysterical admission of guilt. It found no takers and the infuriated governor clicked his fingers, signalling to the guards to begin.
The two men stepped forward and started to ransack the place with all the joy of a pair of kids in an abandoned house. Joe and Tommy moved against the wall and the Governor retreated into the hallway. A storm of sheets, blankets, pillow entrails and papers rained down over everyone in the room. It was all over in minutes, when they were finished, barely a square inch lay open for a person to occupy. The Governor stepped back into the cell and took up the nearest thing to a free space.
“Anything?” Shawcross asked.
“No sir, all clear”.
The Governor sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Nevermind, we’ll be back again tomorrow”.
Jack coughed violently in his bunk, holding his side as if he’d been stabbed.
“So prisoner, tomorrow’s the big day – your moment to shine. Do you have anything to say?”
Jack looked up, his face running with sweat.
“I have been convicted and will accept my sentence” he groaned.
“Hmm does he know any other words I wonder? I’ll see you in the morning. Thank you gentlemen”.
The Governor and guards surveyed the chaos and left the cell with their heads held high.
Tommy picked up a pile of papers and quickly returned them to the floor.
“Well that was fun”
Joe and Tommy fell onto their bunks, now stripped of sheets and blankets. Jack let out a heavy groan and shook wildly.
“Quit complaining old man, at least you don’t have to make your bed”.
“Leave him alone Joe” said Tommy stretching out on the mattress.
“So what did I miss?” asked Joe.
“It’s prison, nothing ever happens”
“What are you talking about? It’s prison, something’s always happening”.
Tommy swung his feet around and sat up on his bunk.
“Jack was telling me about how he ended up here”
“Oh yeah? What was it, did he crack some old lady over the head for her purse? Looks more like a pimp if you ask me”.
“Nothing like that; from the sound of things he got a raw deal”.
Neither man could tell whether or not Jack had fallen asleep. He lay with his face to the wall, breathing faintly beneath the blanket.
“Crime of passion I heard – killed some kid” whispered Joe.
“Not Jackie. No way, he’s like me he’s just unlucky”.
“Well you keep thinking that. Listen; I passed a couple of guards on my way up here, they were talking about what he did. They said he caught his girl in bed with the kid next door. Next thing you know the crazy old man’s carving up the poor guy like a thanksgiving turkey”.
“What about the girl?”
“He let her go”
“I let her go because I loved her”.
Jack’s voice fell slowly across the room like a cloud of winter fog. The two men turned to face him and watched a thin streak of blood pour out of his open mouth.
“You okay Jackie?” asked Tommy.
“Come here” he said, motioning to the two of them. They approached and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Yeah, I did it, I killed the kid. That was my last murder, the one that brought me here”.
“Why d’ya do it Jackie?”
“Like Joe said, he was messing around with my wife”
“That happens to guys all over the world, what makes you so special?” asked Joe.
“Nothing, and that’s why I’m here”.
“During my last stint, a woman started writing to me as part of the prison pen-pal programme. Her name was Judy; she was divorced, no kids and lived alone in a place on the coast. We wrote to each other every day. We fell in love in those letters. Once I got out, I went to join her. For a time, it was great; we got married and I felt like my run of bad luck was over”.
“So what happened?” asked Tommy.
“I dunno, I think the excitement of being with an ex-con must have worn off. She lost interest. I could tell she was seeing other people, but I guess I just tried to ignore it. Then one day I came home early from work and found her in bed with some kid. I knew him actually, he lived across the street from us, couldn’t have been more than seventeen”.
“What did you do?”
“I told him to stand up and get dressed, then I left the room. I walked into the kitchen and took a knife from the drawer, then headed back into the bedroom. The kid was still lying there, next to her with his pants around his ankles. They both just stared at me, not seeming to care that I’d caught them – if anything they were mad at me for ruining their fun. I must have stood there for five minutes just waiting for them to show a little shame, to at least try and apologise…but they didn’t. I had the knife behind my back. I wasn’t gonna use it, I just wanted to scare them both. After a while the kid sat up on the bed, and just said ‘I think you better go’. Can you imagine that? In my house, my bed, with my wife. The next thing I know…ahh hell I don’t know what happened. The next thing I know the poor guy’s on the floor and I’m standing over him, bringing the knife down over and over. Judy was screaming and the kid started letting out these little whimpers. He moved and I lost my grip on the knife, it flew behind me and disappeared into the bed sheets. Judy shouted my name and I immediately snapped out of it. I looked around and thought; no accident this time. I left the house, got into my car and drove away”.
The two men shuffled nervously on the bunk.
“The cops picked me up the next day. They told me that Judy had sat up with the kid all night before going to get help. She must have really liked him. That’s why I’m here. I did it, I regret it. My lawyer claimed it was a crime of passion. But it was a crime of pride, and tomorrow that stupid, macho pride’s gonna get me killed”.
Joe rose from the bunk and began tapping on the cell wall.
“So old man, I guess you’re just as bad as the rest of us”.
“Shut up Joe, you never told us what you were in for anyway” said Tommy.
“You never asked, and hey it’s no secret. I killed two girls on their way home from a dance”.
“What?” whispered Jack painfully turning onto his front.
“Caught them on the side of the road, offered them a ride. Did my thing and then…well then they put me in here”.
Jack wheezed and turned white.
“What? Like you’re any better?” said Joe attempting to flex his muscles.
“Let’s all get some sleep” replied Jack.
“Good idea old man, you have to be up early tomorrow”.
“Shut up Joe” said Tommy, now in his bunk and pulling a crumpled blanket over his face.
The ripping open of the cell gate at 4am the next morning felt like a welcome relief compared to usual routine of nightsticks against bars. It was so serene that all the men of cell 23 slept through it and had to be awoken by painful jabs to the ribs by a group of guards. The Governor had come along especially, he never missed an execution. Joe and Tommy were pulled from their beds and made to stand against the wall while the guards helped Jack to his feet. He hadn’t changed his clothes in days, various shades of dried blood had formed across his shirt like the uneven texture of badly cooked meat. It took three attempts to get Jack upright, and even then, he could only be held in place with a guard on each side. Shawcross, his beard peering out like uncut grass, served the official notice of death.
“John Lucas Thompson, you have been found guilty of the crime of murder by a jury of your peers and have been condemned to die by way of electrocution, do you have anything to say?”
Jack coughed, drooling blood onto the floor.
“Let me guess ‘I have been convicted and will accept my sentence’?” said the governor smiling.
“Metal” Jack whispered.
“Metal, I know who’s been taking the metal from the workshop”.
“Who?” asked the Governor excitedly.
Jack hesitated, remembering his years inside, remembering that a snitch was a friend to no man, not even the Governor. To hell with it he thought, what more could they do to him now?
“Joe, the prisoner over there. He’s been taking the metal” he said desperately raising a hand over his shoulder”.
“What? You Goddamn rat!” Joe shouted.
“Shut up!” yelled a guard moving to the back of the room. He seized hold of Joe and dragged him in front of Jack.
“Is this true?” the Governor asked.
“Yes, I saw him do it. He was planning on making a shank and going for you – he was mad that you put him on DD”.
The Governor turned purple and started to sway from side to side.
“Are you okay sir?” asked the guard,
“Of course I’m okay” he said adjusting his collar. Jack tried his best to catch the Governor’s eyes as they held back a flicker of panic.
“Get him out of here. Solitary, for a month!”
The guard threw a hand on Joe’s neck and pushed him towards the door. As he moved, Joe began swiping wildly at the Governor, screaming and cursing, letting him know what he’d do when he came back to the wing. Shawcross recovered his composure and addressed Jack.
“Well since you’ve been so co-operative prisoner, I’m going to let you say goodbye to your friend here” he said beckoning Tommy to approach.
The younger man came around to face Jack, brushing the hair from his eyes.
“Goodbye Jackie, thanks for all your help”
Jack, his eyes rolling as if drunk, motioned him to draw nearer. Tommy leaned in, so close he could feel a haze of bloody, stale breath land on his neck.
“Be at the wire at 5am, use the tunnel, don’t tell anyone”
“Alright that’ll do” said a guard pushing Tommy away and leaving the younger man stood against the wall.
“Let’s get to it then” said the Governor rubbing his hands. He was first out of the cell, followed by the two guards dragging Jack and a third who pulled the gate shut. Tommy was left alone in the cell, his face now fixed on the innocuous brick in the far-left corner of the wall.
Almost an hour later; in another part of the prison, Jack sat barely conscious in the electric chair, his head slumped over as if Old Sparky had already done its work. His hands and feet were secured, the sponge soaked in vinegar and a covering placed over Jack’s head. Governor Shawcross watched from the far corner of the room, his eyes glued to the clock behind the condemned man. It was now 5am, the governor took out his pocket watch and held it up to the light. A minute fast, they would wait. Shawcross believed in precision and fair trades; he would fulfil his end of the bargain at the right time. An elderly guard, his cap pulled down low over his eyes disappeared into the other room and raised the switch. Any moment now it would fall and Shawcross would see another job well done. A groan fell out from under the covering and Jack coughed violently. Ten seconds remaining. Governor Shawcross licked his lips and bounced up on the balls of his feet. Jack shook his head, groaned one last time and whispered three faint words:
“Good luck Tommy”
The switch came down and a flash of light engulfed the room. Sparks flew in every direction, a chorus of screams bounced against the walls and the Governor collapsed to the ground. At that moment, all the lights in Parksburg went out and the prison was absorbed into the vast, unending blackness of the surrounding countryside.
An official investigation found that the power outage was caused by a short circuit generated during the execution of John Lucas Thompson. As most prisoners were asleep the blackout caused no problems. When power was restored, some twenty minutes later, all the inmates were found in their bunks with no idea of what had happened. There was just one prisoner missing, he was the last occupant of cell 23. A young man aged twenty-six named Thomas Furlong, serving ten years for armed robbery. He had escaped from Parksburg during the power outage, using a tunnel that had lay hidden for at least five years. The prisoner left his cell, crawled through the ventilation system at the heart of the prison and emerged out of an air vent between the wall and the wire. No searchlights were there to spot him as he sliced through the wire using a pair of bolt cutters that had been left along the route of the tunnel. The police found his prison uniform in the bathroom of a gas station three miles away. No one has seen him since.
Governor Shawcross didn’t believe in coincidences; he knew that Tommy couldn’t have predicted the outage and so smelled a conspiracy. However, Shawcross was also a man who believed in covering up conspiracy with an even greater conspiracy. This led him to pay one of his guards to state that Tommy had taken him hostage with a shank, stolen his uniform and walked out the front door. This would be totally unconnected to the power outage.
Had the investigators delved deeper, they might have taken another look at the prisoner that had just been executed. Just another of the hundreds of other men that were to die at Parksburg prison in future years. Every death, like every life is significant, but perhaps the death of Jack Thompson was something special. Because of all the men that had sat in that chair previously; and all that were to follow, none, when the autopsy was performed were found to have 5lbs’ worth of prison workshop metal in their stomachs.