|“Breaking news: The Governor has upheld the decision by the parole board in the Mark Henry Marsden clemency hearing. He will not commute the sentence of the convicted serial killer scheduled to die less than an hour from now.” The reporter shouted over the clamor of protestors. The prison dominated the backdrop.
“Look at her holding back a smile. Commutation would’ve ended her night and the biggest story she’ll ever have.” Larry Scalia picked his glass up, swigged it empty, and slammed the tumbler back down on the bar. He motioned the bartender for another and rubbed his bloodshot eyes.
Ricky Mularkey snickered from the seat beside him. “Only you would notice that, Scalia. Did you miss the part that the bastard’s getting what he deserves?” This was Ricky’s first department Deathwatch Party, the department’s brilliant idea of fun.
“Justice begotten in exchange is no justice. For, exchange is trade. A distressing gain through loss.”
“What kind of bullshit is that?”
“It’s Kumar, kid.”
“You’re a strange old bird, Scalia.”
“That’s Detective Scalia to you, rookie.” The investigator lumbered away with his refreshed drink. You may be younger, better looking, and physically superior, kid, but I can whip your ass in the seniority ring. His lip twitched, but he couldn’t smile, not tonight.
Every television in the bar carried the execution coverage. He found a spot near the pool tables where the laughter and conversation was loudest and drowned out the newscast. It didn’t provide him relief from the event.
“There’s the hero.” A tall man straightened up from his shot.
Larry’s face contorted into a mask of rage. He feigned choking on the hovering cigarette smoke while he composed his emotion. “I only did what they pay me to do.”
“Shit, they pay me the same, but I ain’t trying to take on a serial killer head on.” Reynolds spread his feet wide and stuck his chest out.
Scalia could have responded that they didn’t get paid the same since he had ten more years on the force. What difference would it make? Reynolds was obviously ready to fight, as he always was with Scalia. The irony never failed to leave its mark on Scalia. Reynolds had slept with his wife. And you were welcome to her. “Nobody ever accused me of being overly smart.”
“I’d have said a prayer to God and called for backup.” The other man stared back at Scalia in challenge. “Tell us, Scalia, did you pray?”
“You know damned well I didn’t, Reynolds.”
Reynolds smiled in victory as Scalia turned his back and shuffled away. ‘Ah, what a wicked man!’ And—‘Ah , what a redoubtable god!’ Stephen Crane’s poem offered him little solace. Reynolds had known the right button to push.
He stopped and leaned against a wall, trying to remain apart from the death celebration. He sipped from his glass, letting it linger over his mouth and nose like a mask. The strong whiskey smell was oxygen compared to the stifling stench of humanity.
His eyes opened wide and he slowly lowered the glass. He saw someone he recognized; someone that didn’t belong.
“Good evening, Mrs. Cortez. Would you mind if I sat with you?”
She smiled at him. Her dark eyes didn’t mirror the sentiment. “After all this time, you can’t drop the formality, Detective?”
“I’m sorry… Ava.” He nearly squirmed with the familiarity. It was easier when you didn’t get personal. “Call me Larry.”
“Thank you, Detective Larry.”
He didn’t correct her.
The woman motioned to the seat across the small table. Her hand trembled as she set it back on a Bible resting between them. “I knew you’d be here.”
“I’m a man without options. The real question is why you are here?”
“My ex-husband is watching that man die tonight. I couldn’t sit home and watch this alone.”
“My partner is there, too. The state requires at least one of us. He wanted to go.”
She was close to Scalia’s age. The first day he met her, she was overcome with grief. Tears had run her makeup, and her eyes swollen red. She looked worse now.
Her daughter’s senseless murder had taken its toll and paid her back in wrinkles and gray. The scent of familiar perfume tickled Scalia’s nostrils. He didn’t want to guess whether she still wore it or if its seven-year-old wraith haunted him.
“I hate him. I want him to die.” She grasped a silver crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck. It didn’t appear to offer her solace. Her face strained to contain tears. “It makes me feel like a hypocrite.”
Larry reached deep inside his mind to find the right words—words he no longer believed. “The Bible says an eye for an eye.”
“If you lose an eye, you don’t stop breathing. I don’t think God’s word means to kill.”
Her conviction gripped Larry in a bear-hug. “You’re a complex and special woman, Ava Cortez. Your daughter must be looking down on you with a smile.”
“Juanita was an angel on Earth. I hope Heaven offered her more.”
Excitement spread through the bar like a wave in a pool and rescued Larry from the discussion. Conversation fell away as the ripple reached them.
“They have an interview with Marsden from yesterday.” The words came from numerous mouths.
The same reporter from earlier broke through her own coverage. “I am here with Mark Henry Marsden, the Texas Twister. He tortured and killed twenty women over ten years in the Metroplex area. Authorities have granted channel seven an exclusive interview with the condemned serial killer.”
The camera panned to the subject. Marsden was a good-looking guy. The orange jumpsuit cloaked him in a lie, turning one of the scariest monsters the state had ever seen into a harmless-looking, ordinary man. He smiled at the camera as though promoting a book instead of facing a world that despised him.
“Mark, we are a little more than a day away from your execution. You’ve remained relatively silent until now. Why is that?”
“I didn’t know what to say.” His voice was a smooth monotone.
“The families of your victims are watching. What do you have to say to them?”
The killer turned to the camera and penetrated the lens with his stare. His mouth tightened to a thin line and his facial muscles softened as he turned his charm on the viewers—the charm that had lured so many helpless women to their doom.
Larry remembered the interrogations with the man. In person, the attraction was even harder to resist. He and his partner almost let him go after the first session. The personality was a magnet for trust.
“I apologize to my victims and their families. What I did was reprehensible. I beg them their forgiveness. If I could take it all back, I would.”
The camera didn’t waver as the reporter asked her next question. “Can you offer an explanation? Give them closure and tell them and the world…why.”
“I didn’t have a worldly reason for my actions. Satan took hold of my soul and I was too weak to fight him. My life hadn’t armed me against his power.” He pleaded for sympathy with his gaze.
“Are you saying the devil made you do it?” The question oozed with doubt.
Marsden’ eyes shifted from the camera for only a moment. Insecurity broke through his fašade as he lost control of the situation for that second.
Larry’s mind cheered in triumph at the murderer’s discomfort. He knew most wouldn’t notice. I noticed, creep.
“That’s the simple way to say it. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.” Again, he begged the camera for sympathy.
Those poor women never had a chance, did they?
“I never knew Satan had a grip on my soul. I didn’t even believe in an evil force. But now I do. My Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has shown me.”
“You’ve been saved?”
Marsden’ face lit up like the Dallas night skyline. He grinned, eyes glossing over in an ecstatic glow. “I have been forgiven. I can die in peace.”
Larry spared a glance for Ava. Her knuckles were white as she clutched the crucifix. He reached out and laid his hand over hers on the Bible. He turned back to the television screen as the reporter spoke.
“Your lawyer has sent a request to the governor to spare your life. Are you sure dying in peace is your intent?”
Irritation flashed across Marsden’ face as he turned to the interviewer. “If I am granted amnesty, I will devote my life to saving the souls of others.”
“And if it is not?”
“Then I will die happy knowing I will soon be by the side of the Savior.”
Larry jumped as a chair crashed to the floor. He spun his head around. Ava was on her feet glaring at the television with malevolence.
“You son of a bitch.” Her voice cracked as she screamed the words. “You don’t deserve salvation. You have no right to be in Paradise with my sweet Juanita.”
She ripped the chain from her neck and threatened the man on the screen with her fist. Blood trickled down her arm and fell onto the Holy Book on the table. The room fell silent as everyone felt her misery cover them like a coroner’s sheet.
Larry leaped from his seat and managed to reach her just as she collapsed. He righted her chair and eased her back into it.
“Everything’s fine. Go back to your fun.” Larry’s words were a viper’s venom. Most turned away from the scene. Others continued staring as rubberneckers to a car crash.
The years of chasing, catching, and helping prosecute the serial killer built up in his mind. Images of the crime scenes, grieving family, and Marsden’ cocky sureties of innocence crashed against his psyche like rushing waters to a dam. He felt the foundation strain.
“I said mind your fucking business.” His head throbbed as his brain fought for control.
More heads turned and some even stepped away, as if his line of sight were a flood path. A single man stood before the challenge with a foolish grin—Reynolds.
The dam cracked.
Larry reached under his jacket and drew his gun from its holster. Reynolds’ grin faltered and his eyes widened in fear. A hand restrained his arm. Larry would have fought against a firm grip, but this was a gentle touch. He looked down at the bloody fingers on his forearm.
“That’s not the answer, Detective Larry.” Ava’s voice echoed the weariness of her ordeal. Her look conveyed sorrow and compassion—resignation.
Larry slid the weapon back in its home. Reynolds regained his courage and approached. Marsden's face was frozen on the screen, mocking them all with false glamour. Scalia saw resemblances to Reynolds.
“Getting a little something from the vic’s mom? How noble, hero.”
No nudge stalled his arm as he reeled back and cracked Reynolds in the temple. The taller man stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. The crowd turned from the televisions and surrounded him.
“What the hell, Reynolds. Can’t hold your liquor?” a voice said. “He’s passed out.”
As Larry folded back into the chair, Ava smiled at him. “That’s the answer.”
“I should’ve done it years ago.”
“Look at him,” she said, indicating Marsden’s image on the screen. “He isn’t sorry. The priests may say the words, but God will know when he’s repented. The Lord will have his justice.”
Larry nodded his head. “I hope so.”
“I know you don’t believe, Larry, but I’d really like it if you could join me in church tomorrow.” She placed her hand over his. "Maybe we could have coffee after.”
“I’d like that, Ava.” He turned his hand over and grasped it softly.
The announcement of Marsden’s death brought cheers in the background as they stared into each other’s eyes and smiled.