You read the definition of a ‘calculated risk’ in the dictionary once. Sitting here today in the courtroom, the well-remembered words make you laugh. ‘Calculated risk, noun: A chance of failure, the probability of which is estimated before an action is undertaken.’ A chance of failure. Fat chance. You’ve never failed, not even once. In fact, you never calculated the risk at all. Well, not in the Oxford English Dictionary sense. The odds of failure had only made the game more exciting.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” Judge Simmons asks.
“Yes, your honour.” There’s the usual dance with the judge, the jury, the bailiff and the folded piece of paper. The judge leans back in her chair. Despite years of experience she hasn’t been able to hide the gleam in her eye. That’s concerning. You lean forward. You can’t help yourself.
“How do you find for the accused?” she asks.
Okaaay. This is a set-back, but not an impossible one. Shorter odds are what you live for.
A day later, Robert Haskwith, your attorney, arrives to visit you before they transfer you to the maximum security prison outside of town. You turn on the charm, slightly modulated with a tinge of despair and supposedly well-hidden grief and regret, even a hint of repentance.
Thank you, Bob.
You know he hates being called Bob, but what’s he going to do, you’re facing the death penalty. Only a jerk would tell you to call him Robert now. Besides, you paid him up front and your case has just made his career, so he’d probably kiss your feet if you asked him to.
“Of course. But, don’t lose hope. We can appeal this. I’ll get—”
No. You did your best.
You can see the relief in his eyes. He’s never liked you and now he’s glad to be shot of you.
But…can you do one more thing for me?
I want to make my will. In my office desk you’ll find a box labelled Last Will and Testament. There’s nothing but a bottle of ink, a fountain pen and a few sheets of paper. You can check inside it, they’ll do that here anyway.
“I don’t know if they’ll let me bring it in, John. A fountain pen can be used—”
Please, it’s a family tradition to use that fountain pen, that ink and that paper to write a Will. I also want to write a letter of apology to everyone I ever harmed. It only seems right to use the same paper. Let’s make that tradition count for something. Can we? We? You smile to yourself. It’s amazing how easy it is to make people feel implicated. That way they’re more likely to do what you ask. You make tears well up in your eyes. A good trick that. One you perfected at thirteen.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Thank you, Bob.
The box arrives and although there are greasy fingerprints on the lid everything is exactly as you left it. You use the top sheet to practise, to get into the rhythm rather; you don’t really need the practise. Forgery is your gift. Once you’re in the flow, you pull over a clean sheet of paper and begin writing.
I know I haven’t spoken to you in over twenty years. I kept my promise, and you kept yours.
I am eternally grateful for the money you have sent ever since Johnny was born. I kept
photocopies of all the cheques to remind me of your goodness to me.
I accepted the fact you could never leave your wife and family for us. I was thankful you
never turned away from me and our son. I wouldn’t have contacted you now but I’m
in trouble, Clarence. Johnny is in trouble. It’s not having a father around to show him
how a man should behave that did it.
Oh, I’m not blaming you. It was enough that you sent all those birthday cards.
I especially loved how you called him ‘son’ in every one. I’ve kept those too, as mementos
of your love.
Like I said, Johnny’s in trouble. All I’m asking for is one phone call. You’re the Governor,
only you can save him. Just one phone call, Clarence, that’s all I’m asking.
I hate to sound desperate, Clarence, but if you could see your way clear to making that
one phone call, you’d never hear from me again. I promise. And you know I always keep
Did I tell you I’d gotten married? Pete Walker. He’s a senior reporter with the Daily News.
I’ve hated keeping our secret from him.
When Bob comes back you get him to promise he’ll hand the sealed envelope to the Governor himself, and post the others. You ate the practise sheets yesterday.
Then you wait.
The straps are so tight they’re cutting into your arms.
Is it to stop me from trying to escape or to contain the mess afterwards?
It reminds you of being tucked into bed as a child by your grandmother. So tightly there wasn’t a wrinkle in the sheets or the blanket, just a small mound where your body was.
JUST LIKE THE EARTH OVER A GRAVE?
Odd thought. Where did that come from?
You’ve planned meticulously for this moment. You want to savour each second. Everyone in the room is watching the clock. It reads four-fifty. The phone is going to ring at five o’clock. The warden will answer it, listen, say, “I understand, thank you.” He’ll replace the receiver and turn back to you and say, “You’re one lucky son of a gun, you know that?” Although he might not say ‘gun’.
You do, as it happens, know how lucky you are, but only because you’re very good at what you do. The warden will then say, “Release him. That was Governor Talbot. He’s free to go.”
You hiccup. The anticipation is delicious. You aren’t expecting anyone besides the usual predictable and legally required people to be seated behind the glass wall in front of you. The door opens and in they come.
Jenny Benedict, the cub reporter from the local newspaper. Cute redhead. Hates this part of her job. Can’t wait till there’s another newbie on the staff and she can move up to the feel-good stories. It’ll be years before she gets to write a ‘serious’ piece. Sitting one seat across from Jenny is the frowzy, bespectacled Juliet Brewster from the ‘Anti’ squad. You’ve forgotten the exact name of the group, but you know their mantra off by heart; Death to the Death Penalty! The irony of it seems to escape them. She comes to every execution ‘to support the condemned’. Yeah, right. The look on her face says different. She gets her kicks from watching people die. Especially men.
Two rows back is Police Officer Stevens. Another newbie, sent by the Chief to harden him up. Next to him is Inspector Lee. Cunning little Oriental-Hawaiian who figured out what you’d done and proved it. You’re going to have to up your game after this. He’s going to be scrutinising every move you make. Perhaps you’ll have to change your profession and go legit. Or perhaps not. Having one more risk factor to juggle will just make it all that more interesting.
The room on the other side of the glass isn’t that well lit but you can see two other people take their seats. One looks like a hooded monk. How weird. What’s a monk doing here? You already have ‘religious support’ and you’re not Catholic. The prison padre is standing right next to you, trying to look concerned for your soul. As he was one of the victims of your latest caper you seriously doubt it.
Next to the monk is a tubby man who looks confused and slightly dishevelled. The long strands normally pasted across his balding scalp are sticking up like an antenna. His eyes are flicking around the room. It looks like he’s trying to talk to Inspector Lee who’s patently ignoring him. That’s kinda surprising. Lee is usually painfully polite. In fact, everyone in the room is ignoring Tubby.
The two new comers remind you vaguely of the comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel might have been thin but this monk has taken it to a whole new level, like an anorexic that’s been on a crash-diet. The monk stretches an arm up and slides it round the nervous man’s shoulders. Although you can’t see the monk’s eyes you know he’s staring at you. A trickle of fear, the first you have ever felt, dribbles down your spine.
You look at the clock. Five fifty-nine and change. Time, as they say, is ticking by. While everyone else is riveted by the hands on the clock, you’re fixated on that thin, white hand on tubby’s shoulder. There’s a glint against the viewing room wall. In the gloom you can just make out—What the hell! A scythe? Since when can anyone walk into a secure prison with a dangerous implement like a scythe! And one that looks sharp enough to slice stone! You find it hard to swallow. You stare at Tubby. That dribble of fear is now becoming an all-over body sweat. You gasp and try to struggle free of the straps holding you to the bed in their unforgiving death-grip. The padre prays louder. Is he trying to calm you down, cover the noise you’re making so the others won’t get upset? You have to get out of here. Now! Something is wrong. Very wrong.
You can sense the monk’s smile. The bone-thin fingers curled around Tubby’s shoulder lift for a moment and waggle a hello at you. Tubby leans forward, squinting myopically into the death chamber. The light falls on his face. They won’t need to stick those long needles into your arm. Your heart crashes to a halt all on its own.
“Tell me again why we’re here?” you hear Tubby ask.
I HAD AN APPOINTMENT, AND YOU WERE FEELING FAINT, APPARENTLY.
It’s not so much words as a sensation of speech you are aware of. Which is the least scary part of what you’re experiencing right now.
ARE YOU FEELING BETTER?
“What? Oh yes. Thank you,” says Tubby. “Takes a bit of getting used to.”
SO THEY ALL SAY. HE IS HERE NOW. WE CAN GO.
Hang on, get used to what? Go where?
Tubby turns to you, his hands automatically smoothing down his sparse, dyed hair. “Oh, hello. You look familiar; do I know you? I’m Governor Clarence Talbot.”