Bloody hell, that was quite a night. It began with me waking to a prospect few survive and ended with me leaving, alive and kicking, in the hearse that had been sent to take me corpse away.
I’d walked out of the death chamber.
That was ten years ago. I think about it daily because it is bloody well impossible not to. One minute you are strapped to a gurney preparing to die and then a phone rings and, literally, 30 seconds later you’re back in the cell you thought you’d left for the last time two minutes ago.
How do you forget any of it, really? How do you forget 15 mindless, torturous, wasted years on death row? Twenty wasted years, more or less, if you count the time I was obliged to hide in plain sight. Sixty wasted years if you count me entire life, most of them spent as thief, pimp, ransom collector.
Sixty years of doing everyone and no one some zero good.
Except for when I saw Monica, which was profound, I had my usual zero emotions once I was strapped in.
It was difficult to believe it was her. They tilted the gurney up and I had been told me witnesses would be off to me left and I had no right to expect anyone there. Pastor Rob was in the death chamber with me and the Colonel was off trying to save me life. I had given the Colonel Monica’s name but actually I had forgotten all about it. There was no reason to expect her there. The best way for me to find peace was to forget about her, so I did.
But there she was, standing at the window when I looked off to my left. Her hair was shorter and she was a tad stouter now, but I would know those eyes anywhere, even, especially, strapped to a gurney seconds away from eternity.
She was pressing a tissue against her face and she was weeping. I was happy to see her one last time. I smiled, too. I couldn’t remember my last genuine smile. Probably when we’d last seen each other.
Then they lowered the gurney, I told the warden I didn’t have any last words and then the bloody phone rang. You might think me heart might jump or me stomach might freeze but no, nothing even though I figured they weren’t calling to order the warden to proceed with killing me. He already had the authority to do that, he’d read it to me, so they could only be calling to tell them to stop.
I laid there staring straight up. Then I closed me eyes and breathed as deep as I could one last time in case the lethal cocktail as they idiotically call it here in the States started doing its work.
But it never did. The needles were taken out of me arms, then I was unstrapped, helped to the floor and hustled out. I tried to find Monica but bloody screws blocked me view. I was taken out of the chamber and Pastor Rob and me were locked in the cell. I sat on the bunk with me back against the wall, legs crossed, eyes closed. Nobody told me anything and after a few moments I asked Pastor Rob what the deal was. He said he didn’t know except the bloody obvious fact my death no longer appeared to be imminent. A couple of minutes later the warden came by, ordered the screw to unlock the cell and keep it unlocked and told me The Colonel was on the phone and did I want to talk to him?
Uh, yeah, sure, I’ll talk with me solicitor after I was taken alive out of the death chamber seconds before the buttons were to be pressed to start killing me. What a bloody stupid question. No one troddles the obvious like they do in the States.
The Colonel said we got a stay. That they had found the weapon used to assassinate the ambassador those many years ago and the guy who owned it had confessed earlier that day. The Colonel noted the bloke bore a striking resemblance to me: short, trim, balding, average looks, could be anybody, could be nobody. I asked if they were still going to try to kill me and the Colonel said no. He was filing paperwork to have my conviction vacated, paperwork the same court that signed me death warrant was standing by to approve, but these things take time.
I asked Pastor Rob if he knew of all this and he said yes, his instructions from the Colonel and his instincts both told him to keep this to himself. Pastor Rob added he didn’t want to ruin what peace I had managed to find. I nodded and told him his instincts had been trusty. My life had always produced whom I needed when I needed them. I needed Beth and Rachel and Monica and they showed up.
I needed Pastor Rob and he showed up, too.
A couple of minutes later, still in the cell even though it was unlocked because where in the bloody hell were we going to go, Monica appeared.
She stood at the entrance, still clutching a Kleenex to her face.
I stood up, seemingly in slow motion.
There was everything to say.
There was nothing to say.
We met each other halfway. Our embrace was as tender as it was fierce. A moment neither of us had any expectation would come again had arrived, and in the most improbable manner, too. She is a bit taller than me and my face always fit neatly in her bosom when we hugged. I sighed. It was good to be back.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
In a death house that had all the charm of a death house, we had both returned home.
The warden interrupted us to report I was no longer under sentence of death, me conviction had been vacated by the same court that had convicted me. Now, he noted, I was still in custody until some forms could be filled out and, in deference to the ordeal I had been through, immigration officials had waived all rulings on my legal status for ten business days, until I decided what I was going to do with meself.
The warden noted I was the biggest news story on the planet. Did I want to meet with the media? They were camped out a few hundred feet south of the death house, their own little village, actually.
No, I did not. Actually, when the time came, I said I wouldn’t violently object to sneaking out whatever back door was available.
The warden thought about this for a second. He said the media still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on except I was still alive, though they would soon find out when news of the formal vacating of me sentence hit the wires, if they hadn’t already. They weren’t going anywhere. Sneaking me out of a facility designed to prevent escape could be tough. There weren’t too many places to sneak out of.
It was Pastor Rob who had the brilliant idea of sneaking out in the hearse, provided it was still on property. It was, under orders to stay put until instructed otherwise by the warden so, certainly, it was doable.
I took a call from Nigel the reporter here. I didn’t really want to, but Pastor Rob said he had been a big supporter the past month and, you know, any consideration and all that. He had been one of the media witnesses, but they had closed the curtains right as they started disconnecting the needles from me arms and he was wondering what the deal was.
Well, OK. I took the call.
He asked how I felt.
I said I was feeling nothing.
Not elated? Not numb?
No. Nothing meant nothing. I had been at peace facing death, why wouldn’t I be at peace facing life?
He asked what I had felt on the gurney.
Not much, I told him. I had worked awfully hard this past month at finding peace, and I was committed, desperate, to hold on to the peace I had mustered up to the very end.
Nigel still found nothing hard to believe. I told him I was completely detached. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. I was the one actually there in the death chamber, needles in my arms, asked if I had any last words. The lights were bright. Commonplace objects, like the microphone directly above me, were significantly refined. But, really, I had no emotion. I had withdrawn every measure of peace there was to be had from this whole sordid imbroglio, and there was more than you might think.
He asked what happened after I left the chamber. I told him. He liked the Monica angle because a love interest has historically livened up stories of this sort. He asked if I had any idea what me plans were. Outside of my next breath, no, we were playing that by ear right now. I was technically still in custody. He asked if he had an exclusive and I said sure, I was going to do everything possible to avoid the throng outside
Faced with a situation few in his situation had ever encountered, the warden winged it very well. Quite. He got on the phone to someone senior to him. He said he understood my release would happen within hours. He nodded a bit. He said he could send along some officers. He listened some more. He said these were unprecedented times, though with a known outcome. He listened some more, grunted and made some other sounds, hung up.
I later saw the warden’s performance on the telly. Masterful. Utterly brilliant.
By the time he stepped in front of the camera, of course, the world knew I was still alive. The media witnesses had reported what they could and the court that had vacated me conviction had issued a statement. Nigel’s online exclusive had gone viral. All that was left was to report the details the media witnesses were unable to provide and the warden deserves an Oscar for a performance rife with the self-importance few do as well as those in the States.
He stood resolutely in front of the world and reported that after the phone call the prisoner was taken back to his cell. He was left alone for a few minutes before his attorney, via telephone, advised him of the latest developments. He would have advised me himself but he wasn’t entirely sure what the hell those developments happened to be, he had merely been ordered not to kill me, which got some laughs. He was reunited with the old friend he invited to witness his execution. Pressed by the world, he guessed that the telephone call announcing me reprieve had arrived with about 25 seconds to spare.
Then the bombshell, which answered their most pressing question, where was I? My conviction vacated and my release from custody a mere formality, I had left in the hearse that had pulled out a half-hour ago. This caused quite the tumult and the warden had to shout to make it known that the prisoner wanted to be left alone.
It worked. Nobody suspected a thing. Certainly, nobody followed us. It was the first good laugh I’d had in twenty years: I was leaving the death chamber, in the hearse sent to collect me, still alive.
The hearse ruse worked brilliantly. We drove to the funeral home, because where else was a hearse going to go, and Mrs Pastor Rob met us and drove us to a hotel, where Monica secured a room for us and the accompanying screw got one for himself because I was technically still in custody.
Our first night together in ages. Our first night together for forever.
The following morning there was some final officialness to take care of. I had become aware of Nigel’s role so I invited him.
The warden was there with me release-from-prison paperwork to sign. I did so, and for the first time since seconds before the constable called me by my real name many years ago, I was a free man. He turned to leave but then he turned around, reached into his coat pocket, pulled out me death warrant and offered it to me. I didn’t even blink. I took it, a souvenir of a wondrous imbroglio. I shook his hand because he offered it but there was nothing to thank him for and I had some zero use for him. Quite. He wished me luck. I issued thanks.
Someone from immigration was there to brighten up matters by telling me my status in this hellhole country remained uncertain. As if I was anxious to stay, but everything was put on hold for ten days until I got me affairs in order. He gave me a card and advised me to keep in touch.
The Colonel called, right as Pastor Rob was about to marry Monica and me and we let him listen in. His work, as tireless as it was brilliant, was done. I thanked him profusely, told him of our plans and hoped our paths would cross again soon. Later that day he had a heart attack and died. I only saw him that once.
Pastor Rob and I looked at each other. What was there to say? An experience few since time immemorial had gone through was drawing its final curtain. We had a bond as unique as it was deep. Nothing would top it, so we never bothered to try. What were we going to do, sit around, drink some pints and relive it? Rubbish. We hugged. I said thank you, which was inadequate, and he thanked me, too, which was unnecessary. We’ve exchanged holiday cards ever since – he remained in the army and will be pensionable here in a few years – but haven’t seen each other.
The Colonel had arranged a rental car. It was delivered and then it was time to go. I was still the biggest story on the planet but no one knew where I was. Good. The tumult would die down with the next mass shooting or reckless tweet.
Finally, the magnitude of what had transpired began to hit me. I was not going to die. Monica and I were together again for the first time in years under circumstances as incredible as they were improbable.
There were potentially some problems. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to note the passport I had entered the country with was not the same one found in me flat. The former a brilliant forgery, the latter – utterly me own affair – perfectly legitimate thanks to some help, but expired. I was still a fugitive in me home country. There were rumors that I had some association with the attack at the Games, which had never been solved. There were questions about me activities in the States before I went underground, as well there should be because I did not spend my time here leading prayer.
In the end, I was not welcome in the States, even as Mr Monica, who is a citizen. The monarch – an old client of Monica’s – had his request for leniency on me behalf granted and if I wasn’t a conquering hero returning home at least I wasn’t obliged to live underground. We settled in our old cottage, my death warrant hanging framed on the wall.
After we were settled in the cottage, Mauricio visited. He said he was glad I was still alive. The Firm had done no small amount of work behind the scenes. They had found out who really had killed the ambassador but couldn’t make it stick until the week before. He said the Chairman had been murdered in an explosion while I was on death row and the Firm had more or less dispersed itself, the snake dying when the head was cut off. Mauricio said no one knew enough to keep it going on their own.
Me and me wife, Monica, words we had both waited a long time to say, with no guarantee it would ever happen. The days of waltzing into palaces were long gone. Good riddance. Young was long gone and old was closing in. Monica was no longer the planet’s most desired courtesan and I was no longer her maestro, making us both rich, riches that were a fraction of what they used to be.
It had been a long time coming, but we both had made it home.
Chapter 18: Monica II
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