Authors: James Grippando
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Jack Swyteck Book One
The vigil had begun at dusk, and it would last all night. Clouds had moved in after midnight, blocking out the full moon. It was as if heaven had closed its omniscient eye in sorrow or just plain indifference. Another six hours of darkness and waiting, and the red morning sun would rise over the pine trees and palms of northeast Florida. Then, at precisely 7:00 A. M., Raul Fernandez would be put to death.
Crowds gathered along the chain-link fence surrounding the state's largest maximum-security penitentiary. Silence and a few glowing lights emanated from the boxy three-story building across the compound, a human warehouse of useless parts and broken spirits. Armed guards paced in their lookout towers, silhouettes in the occasional sweep of a searchlight. Not as many onlookers gathered tonight as in the old days, back when Florida's executions had been front-page news rather than a blip next to the weather forecast. Even so, the usual shouting had erupted when the black hearse that would carry out the corpse arrived. The loudest spectators were hooting and hollering from the backs of their pickup trucks, chugging their long-neck Budweisers and brandishing banners that proclaimed GO SPARKY, the nickname death-penalty supporters had affectionately given the chair.
The victim's parents peered through the chain-link fence with quiet determination, searching only for retribution, there being no justice or meaning in the slashing of their daughter's throat. Across the road, candles burned and guitars strummed as the names of John Lennon and Joan Baez were invoked by former flower children of a caring generation, their worried faces wrinkled with age and the weight of the world's problems. Beside a cluster of nuns kneeling in prayer, supporters from Miami's Little Havana neighborhood shouted in their native Spanish, Raul es inocente, inocente!
Behind the penitentiary's brick walls and barred windows, Raul Fernandez had just finished his last meal - a bucket of honey-glazed chicken wings with extra mashed potatoes - and he was about to pay his last visit to the prison barber. Escorted by armed correction officers in starched beige-and-brown uniforms, he took a seat in a worn leather barber's chair that was nearly as uncomfortable as the boxy wooden throne on which he was scheduled to die. The guards strapped him in and assumed their posts - one by the door, the other at the prisoner's side.
Barber'll be here in a minute, said one of the guards. Just sit tight.
Fernandez sat rigidly and waited, as if he expected the electricity to flow at any moment. His bloodshot eyes squinted beneath the harsh glare as the bright white lights overhead reflected off the white walls of painted cinder block and the white tile floors. He allowed himself a moment of bitter irony as he noticed that even the guards were white.
All was white, in fact, except the man scheduled to die. Fernandez was one of the thousands of Cuban refugees who'd landed in Miami during the Mariel boat lift of 1980. Within a year he was arrested for first-degree murder. The jury convicted him in less time than it had taken the young victim to choke on her own blood. The judge sentenced him to die in the electric chair, and after a decade of appeals, his time had come.
Mornin', Bud, said the big guard who'd posted himself at the door.
The prisoner watched tentatively as a potbellied barber with cauliflower ears and a self-inflicted marine-style haircut entered the room. His movements were slow and methodical. He seemed to enjoy the fact that for Fernandez every moment was like an eternity. He stood before his captive customer and smirked, his trusty electric shaver in one hand and, in the other, a big plastic cup of the thickest-looking tea Fernandez had ever seen.
Right on time, said the barber through his tobacco-stained teeth. He spat his brown slime into his cup, placed it on the counter, and took a good look at Fernandez. Oh, yeah, he wheezed, you look just like you does on the TV, he said, pronouncing TV as if it rhymed with Stevie.
Fernandez sat stone-faced in the chair, ignoring the remark.
Got a special on the Louis Armstrong look today, the barber said as he switched on his shaver.
Curly black hair fell to the floor as the whining razor transformed the prisoner's thick mop to a stubble that glistened with nervous beads of sweat. At the proper moment, the guards lifted Fernandez's pant legs, and the barber shaved around the ankles. That done, the prisoner was ready to be plugged in at both ends, his bald head and bare ankles serving as human sockets for the surge of kilovolts that would sear his skin, boil his blood, and snuff out his life.
The barber took a step back to admire his handiwork. Now, ain't that a sharp-lookin' haircut, he said. Comes with a lifetime guarantee too.
The guards snickered as Fernandez clenched his fists.
A quick knock on the door broke the tension. The big guard's keys tinkled as he opened the door. Raul strained to hear the mumbling, but he couldn't make out what was being said. Finally, the guard turned to him, looking annoyed.
Fernandez, you got a phone call. It's your lawyer.
Raul's head snapped up at the news.
Let's go, ordered the guard as he took the prisoner by the arm.
Fernandez popped from the chair.
Slow down! said the guard.
Fernandez knew the drill. He extended his arms, and the guard cuffed his wrists. Then he fell to his knees so the other guard could shackle his ankles from behind. He rose slowly but impatiently, and as quickly as his chains and armed escorts would let him travel, he passed through the door and headed down the hallway. In a minute, he was in the small recessed booth where prisoners took calls from their lawyers. It had a diamond-shaped window on the door that allowed the guards to watch but not hear the privileged conversation.
What'd they say, man?
There was a pause on the other end of the line, which didn't bode well.
I'm sorry, Raul, said his attorney.
No! He banged his fist on the counter. This can't be! I'm innocent! I'm innocent! He took several short, angry breaths as his wild eyes scanned the little booth, searching for a way out.
The lawyer continued in a low, calm voice. I promised you I wouldn't sugarcoat it, Raul. The fact is, we've done absolutely everything we can in the courts. It couldn't be worse. Not only did the Supreme Court deny your request for a stay of execution, but they've issued an order that prevents any other court in the country from giving you a stay.
Why? I want to know why, damn it!
The court didn't say why - it doesn't have to, his lawyer answered.
Then you tell me! Somebody tell me why this is happening to me!
The line was silent.
Fernandez brought his hand to his head in disbelief, but the strange feeling of his baldness only reinforced what he'd just heard. There has some way look, we've gotta stop this, he said, his voice quivering. We've been here before, you and me. Do like the last time. File another appeal, or a writ or a motion or whatever the hell you lawyers call those things. Just buy me some time. And do it like quick, man. They already shaved my fucking hair off!
His lawyer sighed so loudly that the line crackled.
Come on, said Fernandez in desperation. There has to be something you can do.
There may be one thing, his lawyer said without enthusiasm.
Yeah, baby! He came to life, fists clenched for one more round.
It's a billion-to-one shot, the lawyer said, reeling in his client's overreaction. I may have found a new angle on this. I'm going to ask the governor to commute your sentence. But I won't mislead you. You need to prepare for the worst. Remember, the governor is the man who signed your death warrant. He's not likely to scale it back to life imprisonment. You understand what I'm saying?
Fernandez closed his eyes tightly and swallowed his fear, but he didn't give up hope. I understand, man, I really do. But go for it. Just go for it. And thank you, man. Thank you and God bless you, he added as he hung up the phone.
He took a deep breath and checked the clock on the wall. Eight minutes after two. Just five hours left to live.
It was 5:00 A. M. and Governor Harold Swyteck had finally fallen asleep on the daybed. Rest was always elusive on execution nights, which would have been news to anyone who'd heard the governor on numerous occasions emphasizing the need to evict those holdover tenants on Florida's overcrowded death row. A former cop and state legislator, Harry Swyteck had campaigned for governor on a law-and-order platform that prescribed more prisons, longer sentences, and more executions as a swift and certain cure for a runaway crime rate. After sweeping into office by a comfortable margin, he'd delivered immediately on his campaign promise, signing his first death warrant on inauguration day in January 1991. In the ensuing twenty-one months, more death warrants had received the governor's John Hancock than in the previous two administrations combined.
At twenty minutes past five, a shrill ring interrupted the governor's slumber. Instinctively, Harry reached out to swat the alarm clock, but it wasn't there. The ringing continued.
The phone, his wife grumbled from across the room, snug in their bed.
The governor shook himself to full consciousness, realized he was in the daybed, and then started at the blinking red light on the security phone beside his empty half of the four-poster bed.
He stubbed his toe against the bed as he made his way toward the receiver. Dammit! What is it?
Governor, came the reply, this is security.
I know who you are, Mel. What's the emergency?
The guard shifted uncomfortably at his post, the way anyone would who'd just woken his boss before sunrise. Sir, there's someone here who wants to see you. It's about the execution.
The governor gritted his teeth, trying hard not to misdirect the anger of a stubbed toe and a sleepless night toward the man who guarded his safety. Mel - please. You can't be waking me up every time a last-minute plea lands on my doorstep. We have channels for these things. That's why I have counsel. Call them. Now, good -
Sir, he gently interrupted, I - I understand your reaction, sir. But this one, I think, is different. Says he has information that will convince you Fernandez is innocent.
Who is it this time? Harry asked with a roll of his eyes. His mother? Some friend of the family?
No, sir, he well, he says he's your son.
The governor was suddenly wide awake. Send him in, he said, then hung up the phone. He checked the clock. Almost five-thirty. Just ninety minutes left. One hell of a time for your first visit to the mansion, son.
Jack Swyteck stood stiffly on the covered front porch, not sure how to read the sullen expression on his father's face.
Well, well, the governor said, standing in the open doorway in his monogrammed burgundy bathrobe. Jack was the governor's twenty-six-year-old son, his only offspring. Jack's mother had died a few hours after his birth. Try as he might, Harold had never quite forgiven his son for that.
I'm here on business, Jack said quickly. All I need is ten minutes.
The governor stared coolly across the threshold at Jack, who with the same dark, penetrating eyes was plainly his father's son. Tonight he wore faded blue jeans, a brown leather aviator's jacket, and matching boots. His rugged, broad-shouldered appearance could have made him an instant heartthrob as a country singer, though with his perfect diction and Yale law degree he was anything but country. His father had looked much the same in his twenties, and at fifty-three he was still lean and barrel-chested. He'd graduated from the University of Florida, class of 65 - a savvy sabre-fencer who'd turned street cop, then politician. The governor was a man who could take your best shot, bounce right back, and hand you your head if you let your guard down. His son was always on guard.
Come in, Harry said.
Jack entered the foyer, shut the door behind him, and followed his father down the main hall. The rooms were smaller than Jack had expected - elegant but simple, with high coffered ceilings and floors of oak and inlaid mahogany. Period antiques, silk Persian rugs, and crystal chandeliers were the principal furnishings. The art was original and reflected Florida's history.