Frank Marino sat down on a folding chair, the one with his name on it, located front-row-center. There were perhaps twenty people present: the parents of the murdered girl to his immediate left, some state officials and a number of newspaper and magazine reporters. Directly ahead of him, was a glass-enclosed room, about the size of his kitchenette, with the electric chair located directly in its center. He shifted uncomfortably, wishing that he had drawn a seat in the last row.
It was hard to believe that the terrible chain of events, leading to this day, had started well over five years ago: when the nude body of a Jane Doe was found concealed in the reeds of a marsh, two miles out of the city. Found by a duck hunter, who according to him, would never ever pick up another shotgun, let alone go near a marsh. Marino could still remember the body: bluish-white and bloated; infested with ants, worms and larvae; the eyeballs and tongue pecked out by birds. For the first time in his ten-year career, despite all the crap he had witnessed, he had come darn close to vomiting.
Due to decomposition, fingerprinting was impossible, but the dental work eventually turned up a name: Charlene Thomas, a nineteen-year-old college student; once pretty, perky and vivacious; from an extremely well to-do Portland, Oregon family. She had been a sophomore at the Hotchkiss School of Fine Arts, the very same college where Frank’s baby brother, Peter, was in his senior year. She was a well-liked girl; no history of booze or drugs or rebellious behavior; straight A student; a member of the National Honor Society and at the very top of the dean’s list. If there was a proverbial skeleton in her or her family’s closet, Marino was unable to find it.
The first time that he had questioned his brother about the girl, the kid had gotten strangely antsy – cracking his knuckles and pacing, his eyes settling on everything in the room but Frank. “I don’t know, I hardly knew her,” was all he could offer. Sure it was possible; Charlene had been a sophomore, while Peter was a senior and, all totaled, there were over eight hundred students at the college. A week later, when Frank had again questioned his brother as to Charlene’s habits and acquaintances, anything at all he could recall, no matter how slight, the hundred-pound bucket of shit had hit the fan. Peter had sunk to his knees, crying like a baby, and, right there, under the stern gaze of their late father, he had broken down and confessed to the murder of Charlene Thomas! “It was an accident!” There was an argument, some beer and whiskey, maybe a snort of coke! He had to dispose of her body; he just had to, for the sake of the family!
In a rage, Frank had beaten the snot out of the kid, lefts and rights and uppercuts and roundhouses, until his knuckles were raw and Peter’s face was a bloody mess. When all that was finished, they had embraced, both of them crying and wondering how such a thing, such a terrible thing, could have ever happened. And that’s when Frank had made his vow to protect his brother at all costs, even though it was totally against his grain, contrary to every principle that he had ever held dear. Peter, whose name was only two below Charlene’s on the dean’s list, was in for great things and he would never be able to live with himself if he allowed the kid to be arrested for murder. He was a good boy, from a long line of cops. If it hadn’t been for the booze and coke, this whole terrible thing would have never happened. It was then that Frank started to hatch the plot; a carefully orchestrated series of events that would cast suspicion on some much more deserving individual.
Before long, he came up with just the right man; a compulsive sex offender who had recently been released from prison; a truly reprehensible piece of garbage by the name of Cordell Watts. Inserting his name into the scenario was easy, for the first part of any murder investigation, concerning a female, was to go over lists of sex offenders living anywhere in the vicinity. The second part of the plan would be a lot trickier. For some unfathomable reason, Peter had kept Charlene’s locket, with a small picture of her parents inside, as well as a shorn clump of her hair. Frank had been more than a little troubled by that, but he hardly had the time to pause and wonder. When he dropped Cordell’s name, a judge promptly issued a search warrant and a raid was conducted on the suspect’s apartment, early one morning, before he had gotten out of bed. In one of Frank’s pockets was the locket; in the other, the clump of Charlene’s hair. During the search, the locket found its way into a drawer, beneath a pile of underwear, and three hair follicles were dropped next to Cordell’s pillow. It was so easy, so damn cut and dry, that Frank could hardly suppress a laugh.
The murder trial, a month later, went even better than Frank could have expected. With the locket introduced as exhibit number one and the DNA-tested hair fiber as number two, there was little doubt in the minds of the jury. After a mere fifteen minutes of deliberation, they came up with the expected verdict: guilty as charged. Frank celebrated that night with four hours at Kelly’s bar, not regretting his frame-up one little iota. Better to convict a lowlife like Watts than to destroy the life of a good kid like his brother. When the sentencing stage arrived and Cordell received the death penalty, Frank celebrated with five hours at Kelly’s Bar.
Feeling a hand on his knee, Marino snapped from his reverie, looking into the pale, haggard-looking face of Charlene’s mother.
“You’re the detective, the one who apprehended Cordell Watts.”
“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
“I thanked you way back when, but I would like to thank you again. If it wasn’t for your diligence, he might have gone unpunished.”
“Please, ma’am; no thanks are necessary. Not to coin an old phrase, but I was just doing my job.”
The woman gave his knee a squeeze, returning her attention to her lap.
Frank listened to the excited buzz of the witnesses for a few moments, jerking his head toward the glass-enclosed room as he heard the muted creak of a door. Everyone fell silent as Cordell Watts was escorted to the chair, hands cuffed, a guard holding each of his huge, python-like arms. He looked the same, now, as he had over five years ago: a huge, broad shouldered man with a shaved head, pulpy nose and thick lips, tattoos emblazoning his arms from the shoulders clear down to the wrists. Even at this distance, Frank could make out a Bugs Bunny, a fire-breathing dragon, assorted knives and daggers, and a rattlesnake, curling through the empty eye sockets of a skull. He was dressed in an extra-large orange jumpsuit, its fabric straining against the bulging muscles of his body. His gleaming eyes looked through the glass, darting from one witness to the other, finally focusing their attention exclusively on Marino, taking on an even greater and more ominous shine. Then to Frank’s horror, Cordell slowly, ever so slowly, puckered up his lips and launched a malevolent kiss straight in his direction!
Frank winced as Charlene’s mother once again laid a hand on his knee. “Good Lord; he certainly hasn’t forgotten you.”
“No, it doesn’t appear so.”
“My poor daughter,” she whispered hoarsely under her breath. “He’s... he’s such a hideous man. I’m so glad that I’m here to witness this; to see him, to see him...” She failed to finish what she was about to say, choking back a sob and clutching her husband’s arm.
Marino thought that he would be glad too, but, now, he wished that he was somewhere else, anywhere but here; preferably at Kelly’s Bar, slinging back shots with beer chasers.
After Cordell was seated in the chair, a priest took a step forward, asking the condemned if he would like absolution and a reading from the bible. Watts screwed up his face as though he was sucking on an extra sour lemon and unleashed a stream of profanities at the man, sending him scurrying toward the door. Without further preamble, leather straps were secured around Cordell’s chest, thighs, legs and arms. Then two copper electrodes, treated with a gel called “Electro-cream”, were attached, one to the right leg and the other to a helmet, which had been fitted to the head.
At this point, the warden walked to Cordell’s side, clearing his throat. “If you have any last words, you had better let us hear them now.”
Once again, Watts looked directly at Marino, his jaw working for a few moments before speaking. “I’ll be back, you bastard!” he shouted, his voice carrying over a sound system. “One way or another, I’ll be back!”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Gerald Sheagren