The blue velvet curtains drew back like it was movie night, allowing Johnny Sanders to stare through the bulletproof window.
Twelve sets of eyes stared back.
The eyes of the people who’d come to watch him die.
Sanders half-smiled in acknowledgment.
Some returned it. Others looked away. One skinny guy flinched, like Sanders had snaked through the glass and tickled him.
Sanders thought that hilarious. He was strapped to a quarter- ton chair, which was bolted to the floor, which was anchored to reinforced concrete.
He wasn’t tickling anyone.
He was waiting. For the end.
Which would come in, oh, a minute and a half.
He tried to relax by taking deep breaths. No good - the air stank of quicklime and paste wax. The former from the fresh-cured concrete that formed the execution center’s floors, ceilings, walls, and corridors. The latter from the chair itself.
He traced his fingers along its wide oak arms.
Slippery as drool.
The paste wax, he figured. Humidity. Restless fingers of the condemned, rubbing the wood like a rosary. . . .
Sanders shivered, suddenly chilled. He wondered why. The execution center’s furnace was pumping heat like the devil opened a hole in the earth.
Maybe I’m getting sick, he thought. Hope I don’t catch my death of a cold.
The little joke made him smile.
He glanced at the official clock over the curtains.
The smile faded.
He wasn’t sick, he knew.
He was scared.
He shouldn’t be. But he was.
“Gonna work this time?” the official executioner asked the electrician.
“Damn well better,” the electrician said.
“I hear ya. Did you replace the power cable?”
The electrician slapped the control panel. “New, just like this. I triple-checked every connection. Polished the electrodes. Replaced the switches. Rebuilt the buzzer box.” He shook his head. “This time she sings like the fat lady.”
“She doesn’t,” the executioner warned, “Covington sticks us both in the thing.”
Sanders worked his teeth into the heavy mouth guard. Like the doctor said, it’d be stupid to crack his molars if clemency came through during the burn.
He chomped till rubber suckled his gums.
Praying the phone would ring.
“Fifteen seconds,” the executioner said. “Get on those push-buttons.”
Black silk touched red plastic.
It was part of the dress code, the silk. Like the rest of the staff, the executioner and his two assistants dressed business casual - tan Dockers and navy sport coats. In addition, they wore black silk hoods and gloves, to shield their identities from the condemned.
A couple of months ago, he’d asked his California counterpart why that mattered. “Dead men tell no tales,” he’d quipped over single-malts at a corrections conference. He received only a shrug and a muttered, “Who the hell knows why we do anything?”
Sanders’s mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow. Yet sweat poured like a broken hydrant.
The chaplain walked in. Told him to stay strong, he was going to a better place, Jesus forgave, and he wanted to pray now, yes?
Sanders didn’t answer.
The chaplain asked more insistently. Sanders kept mum. Let Rev. Michaels sweat a little himself, wondering if he’d done something wrong.
“Five seconds,” the executioner said, eyes on the stuttering clock. “Four. Three . . .”
When the red hand joined the blacks at twelve, the executioners would take a deep breath and push. One of the buttons - and only one, so each could secretly believe he wasn’t the real executioner - would send several thousand volts of Illinois electricity into the condemned prisoner. Killing him.
Or so everyone hoped.
Last time, the multimillion-dollar death system didn’t kill anything but the lights. Prompting an apoplectic Illinois Governor Wayne Covington to boot the Justice Center’s director. If it didn’t work exactly as promised from here on, the governor warned, “I’ll fire every single damn last one of you.”
Nobody wanted that.
“Two. One. Now,” the executioner said, breathing fast and shallow as the second hand completed its march to the sea.
Their thumbs kicked so symmetrically they could have been Rockettes.
Sanders cringed at a warmth he hadn’t felt since third grade. “Oh, man,” he whispered, flushing with shame.
The Justice Center director swaggered in, grinning so hard his eyes vanished. “You’re one hell of an actor, Johnny!” he boomed. “You looked so scared when that buzzer went off I thought you’d wet your pants.”
Yeah, well, Sanders thought.
He decided not to mention that.
“I’ll tell you what’s really scary,” he said, slurring from the mouth guard. “Those twelve official witnesses.”