The Last Mile – David Baldacci

MARS, MELVIN. In here, anywhere, anytime, they called out your name backward, and he would instantly respond when he heard his. Even on the toilet. Like being in the military, only he’d never joined. He’d been brought here very much against his will. “Mars, Melvin?” “Yes, sir. Here, sir. Taking a crap, sir.” Because where else would I be except here, sir? He didn’t know why they did it this way and had never bothered to ask. The answer would not have mattered to him in the least. And it might have led to a guard baton slamming against the side of his head. He had other things to concern him here at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. It was called the Walls Unit because of the prison’s redbrick walls. Opened in 1849, it was the oldest prison in the Lone Star State. And it also housed the execution chamber.

Mars was officially Prisoner 7-4-7, like the plane. The guards at the death row prison from which he’d been brought called him “Jumbo” because of it. And while he wasn’t huge, he wasn’t small either. Most folks would look up to him, if only because they had to. Six-two, plus three-quarters of an inch tacked on for good measure. He knew his exact height only because they’d measured him precisely at the NFLcombine. They’d measured everything about him at the combine. While going through the process his mind had drawn parallels to slaves on the market square as potential owners methodically poked and prodded the merchandise. Well, unlike his slave ancestors, at least he would have had lots of money to deal with the wreckage of his body after his playing days were over. He was also still two hundred and thirty pounds.

No fat, just rock. No mean feat with the crap they served for food in here, processed in huge factories, loaded with fat and sodium, as well as chemicals they probably used to make everything from concrete to carpets. Killing me softly with your crappy food. He’d been in this place almost as long as he’d not been in this place. And the time had not gone by fast. It didn’t feel like twenty years. It felt like two hundred. But it didn’t matter anymore. It would be over soon. This was the day.

His final, final appeal. Denied. He was dead. He had been brought to the Huntsville Prison from the Polunsky Unit’s death row in Livingston, Texas, sixty miles to the east, in anticipation that this time the state would get its man after a twodecades-long wait. His lawyer’s pale face had held a bleak expression when she’d conveyed this news to him. But she would wake up the next day. Not me. Soon he would be listening for the tap-tap of heels heading his way. The puffing of the burly guards holding the shiny shackles. The solemn warden who would forget his name the next day.

The pious man of God clutching his Bible and reading aloud his verses because you were supposed to have something spiritual to cling to on your way out of here. Not out of prison. Out of life. Texas executed more inmates than any other state, over five hundred in just the last thirty years. For nearly a century, starting in 1819, they did it by hanging. Then they used the electric chair called “Old Sparky,” and three hundred and sixty-one inmates had been put to death by electrocution over four decades. Now Texas used lethal injection to send you off to the hereafter. Either way you were still dead. By law executions could not begin before 6 p.m.

Mars had been told that they would come for him at midnight. Well, nothing like dragging this out, he thought. Made for a really long and really shitty day. Walking Dead Man, he’d been called. “Good riddance,” he’d heard more times than he could count from the guards. He didn’t want to look back. Not to the epicenter of this whole thing. But really, how could he not? So as the final moment neared, he started to think of them. The murders of Roy and Lucinda Mars, his white father and black mother. Back then that combination had been weird, different, exotic even, certainly in West Texas.

Now it was commonplace. Every kid coming in now looked like bits and pieces of fifty different types of humanity. One recently incarcerated punk was the product of biracial parents, who in turn were also the children of nontraditional pairings. So the new kid—an idiot who’d blown away a store clerk over a shoplifted bag of Twizzlers—was a mishmash of black, brown, and white, with a dash of Chinese thrown in. And he was also a Muslim, though Mars had never seen the man get on his knees and pray five times a day, as some did in here. His name was Anwar. He was originally from Colorado. And he had started telling people he really wanted to become Alexis. Mars sat up on the bunk in his cell and looked at his watch. It was time to do his thing.

The last time he would ever do this, in fact. His jumpsuit was white, and on the back were the letters D and R printed in black. They stood for “death row.” Mars had equated it to a snake’s rattle, warning folks to stay the hell away. He dropped to the coolness of the concrete floor and did two hundred push-ups, first on fists and then on fingertips, and finally from the downward dog position, lightly touching the crown of his bald head on the concrete with each pass. Next he performed three hundred deep squats in sets of six, exploding up with every rep—depth charges, he called them. Then followed yoga and Pilates for strength, balance, range of motion, and, most important, flexibility. He could touch his toes to his forehead with his legs ramrod straight, no small feat for a big, ropy-muscled man. Then came the thousand stomach and core reps that seared his abs like acid. It was the reason he had rock-hard obliques, and an eight-pack, his belly button stretched so tight it looked more like a mole than where his umbilical cord had once attached.

Next came flat-out plyomania where he pushed off all four walls and the floor in a series of maneuvers, many of his own devising. He was like Spider-Man, or Fred Astaire dancing on ceilings. He had a lot of hours to plan such things in prison. His life was very structured, but it also offered up a load of free time. Most inmates just sat around doing nothing. There were no classes, no rehabilitation of any kind. The unofficial prison motto was straightforward: Rehab is for pussies. Finally, Mars ran in place for so long that he lost track of time, high-kneeing it the whole way. It was crazy that he was doing this today of all days. But he had done it pretty much every day since he’d been in here, and part of him felt this was his last act of defiance.

They would not rob him of it. At least he didn’t have to refuse the traditional final meal, because Texas no longer offered one. He didn’t want their crap inside him at the end. He preferred to die on an empty stomach. No one had visited him, because he had no one who wanted to visit him. He was alone, as he had been the last twenty years. He wondered what the papers would say the next day. It would be a small story probably. There was nothing new about another black man getting the Lone Star State’s lethal spa treatment. Hell, it was hardly worth a photo.

But they would recount the crimes of which he’d been convicted. Surely they would. And that would be the only memory of him for many. Melvin Mars, the murderer. He cooled down, the sweat pooling off him and staining the concrete that was already badly scarred with far worse things than perspiration. Condemned men had been known to defecate on the floor before they walked to their deaths. As his breathing normalized he sat on his bunk and tipped his head back against the wall. In his old cell he had named the walls Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben, after the superhero fighting team the Fantastic Four. It was just something do in a place where he had nothing to do. Each day filled with whatever he could think of to fill it.

Mars often fantasized about sexy Sue Storm, but he more closely related to Ben Grimm, the Thing, the freak. As an athlete Mars had been a freak, in a good way. Yet he could be thoughtful, like the brainy Reed. He also related to the flame ball Johnny Storm, Sue’s kid brother, because he felt like he was on fire every second of every day. Principally because every day was like every other day in here. A living hell, actually, hence the flames. This was Day 7,342 for him. The last day for him. He looked at his watch again. Five ticks till Doomsday.

He had spent a year in solitary shortly after going to prison. The reason was simple. His life was over, his dreams shattered, his hard work for naught, and he was pissed beyond all reckoning. His punishment for beating the crap out of three prisoners and then taking on a half-dozen guards and more than holding his own until they Tased and nearly clubbed him to death? Twenty-four hours a day in a sixty-square-foot cell with a slit for a window for a year. No words spoken to him. Never saw another face. Never felt the touch of someone else’s skin. The food was shoved through the door slot along with toilet paper and occasionally washcloths and soap and even less occasionally clean prison garb. He showered in a corner where the water was either ice or scalding. He slept on the floor, and mumbled, screamed, cursed, and finally sobbed.

That’s when he’d realized that human beings, for better or worse, were undeniably social creatures. Without interaction they went mad. And Mars had nearly gone mad inside that cell. It had been Day 169. He remembered it clearly, had even scratched the numbers out on the wall with bloody fingernails. His mind had nearly gone; there was but one shred left. And he had used that shred like a life vest in a tsunami, his port in the storm. He had focused on an imaginary old girlfriend, Tatiana. In his mind she was married now with six kids, big-hipped and bloated, surly and unhappy, and so missing him. But back then this imagined person had been perfect.

Her face, her body, her limitless love for him allowed him to survive Day 169 and then make it through 196 more. When the door opened the first face he saw was Tatiana’s superimposed over the body of a threehundred-pound racist nightmare of a young guard named, aptly, Big Dick, who told Mars to get his mulatto butt up or else he’d be eating through a straw for the rest of his life. And when it was over Melvin Mars was a changed man. He had never done anything that would ever put him back in there. If he did, he knew that he would have killed himself. He wouldn’t have waited for the death chamber. Death chamber. It was right down the hall. The last mile, they called it. Yet it wasn’t a mile.

It was actually only thirty feet, which was good because most guys collapsed before they got there. But they had big guards who picked you up and carried you the rest of the way. Texas killed you dead whether you took it brave or not. The Supreme Court had debated the cruel and unusual aspects of death by lethal injection because of quite a few instances where the inmate had been in terrible agony before he died. The court had come down on the side of letting it continue, appalling agony be damned. It wasn’t like the condemneds’ victims hadn’t suffered horrific pain and fear. So who could say they were wrong? Mars couldn’t. He just hoped they got it right with him. The death chamber was not large, nine by twelve feet, with cheery turquoise-painted brick walls and metal door, which seemed out of place with the room’s purpose. You were being executed, not vacationing in the Caribbean.

The gurney, which came with a comfy pillow and sturdy leather straps, was set near the center of the room. There were two adjacent rooms with glass windows looking into the chamber. One was for families of the victim. The other was for family of the person being executed. Mars knew that in his case the groups were one and the same. And he also knew that both rooms would be empty. He sat back on his bunk soaking in the stink of his own sweat, his mind drifting back to the only good memories he had left. He was hardly a jumbo in the world of college football, but he’d been big for a running back. Most important, he’d been long on talent. The NFL was considered a lock for someone like him.

He had been a Heisman Trophy finalist his senior year, the only tailback in the group. The others had all been quarterbacks. He could run over, around, or simply through anyone. He could block, and his soft hands could catch the ball coming out of the backfield. And he nearly always made the first guy miss with an instinctive lateral move—a rare talent the NFL gurus lapped up. And when he needed the turbos they flared to life and he was gone. The only thing left to do was hand the ball to the ref after scoring and go let coach pat his butt on the sidelines. His official time in the forty-yard dash at the combine was 4.31 seconds. Twenty years ago that was serious speed even for a corner or a receiver, much less a monster running back with shoulders as wide as the sky who made his living smashing between the tackles.

And it would still be considered exceptional wheels even today. God-given it was. He was the total package. A freak of nature, they called him. He felt a smile spread across his sweaty face. Yes, a lock. A lock with a big paycheck. This was long before the salary constraints for rookies had been implemented. He could have scored big bucks from day one, millions and millions of them. A mansion, cars, women, respect.

He was a guaranteed first rounder, everyone said. Probably top five. He would probably go ahead of several of the quarterbacks he had competed against for the Heisman. It was rumored that the New York Giants, coming off a couple crappy years, and the Tampa Bay Bucs, coming off many crappy years, and both armed with a high draft pick, would love to take him and open the bank of their wealthy owners in doing so. Hell, he might even hoist some Super Bowl hardware one day. It was all looking good. He’d worked his ass off for all of it. No one had given him anything. The hurdles had been immense. He had leapt them all.

And then the jury had spoken. “We find the defendant guilty”—and no one in the world of professional football gave a damn about 4.31 Mars, Melvin anymore. Jumbo had crashed. There were no survivors. And in a few minutes, there would be no more of him. He would be laid to rest in a potter’s field because he had no one left to bury him proper. He would have been forty-two years old in two months. His forty-first had been his very last birthday, as it turned out. He looked at his watch again.

The time was up. His watch told him that, and so did the sound of the footsteps coming down the hall. He had long since made up his mind. He would die like a man. Back straight, head high. Suddenly he felt a lump in his throat and his eyes moistened. He tried to breathe normally, trying to keep it all together. This was it. He looked around his cell and saw the walls of his death row cage back at the Polunsky Unit. See you, Sue, you fine woman.

Adios, Johnny. Godspeed, Ben. Take care, Reed. He stood and put his back against the wall, maybe to stiffen his spine. Like going to sleep, man. You just ain’t waking up is all. Like going to sleep. The door to his cell opened and the men were revealed standing there. Three suits and four uniforms. The suits looked terrified, the uniforms ticked off.

Mars noted this, and also that there was no man of the cloth holding his Bible. Something was definitely off. The man with slender glasses and a build to match stepped gingerly into the cell as though he expected the door to close, trapping him inside forever. Mars could seriously relate to the feeling. The other suits’ expressions were now wary, like they knew there was a bomb in here somewhere but they had no idea when it might go off. Skinny Glasses cleared his throat. He looked at the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the one light high up on the ceiling, everywhere except at Mars. It was as though the big, sweaty biracial dude five feet from him was invisible. He cleared his throat again. To Mars it sounded like all the muck jostling around in the world’s largest sewer.

Staring at the floor now, Skinny Glasses said, “There’s been an unexpected development in your case. Your execution has been called off.” Mars, Melvin didn’t say anything back. CHAPTER 2 HE WAS STILL dressed in his white jumpsuit with the warning on the back, but something else was missing. He had been taken from his cell to this room without having to don the chains, a first since his time in prison. Although a half dozen guards lined the wall just in case he became unruly. Four men sat across from him. He didn’t know any of them. They were all white, all dressed in baggy suits. The youngest was about his age.

They looked like they would rather be anyplace else on earth. They stared across at Mars. And he just as resolutely stared back at them. He wasn’t going to say anything. They had brought him to the party. They were going to have to start the music. The man in the center of the table rustled some papers set in front of him. “I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on, Mr. Mars.” Mars inclined his head slightly but still didn’t say anything.

He hadn’t heard a white guy call him “mister” since…hell, he couldn’t remember a white guy ever calling him that. At the NFL combine they’d just called him “Holy Shit.” In prison they called him whatever they wanted to. The man continued. “The fact is that someone else has confessed to committing the murders that you were convicted of.” Mars blinked a few times and sat up straighter. He put his huge hands that had made soft targets for many a quarterback on the table. “Who?” His voice felt strangely unfamiliar, as though someone else was speaking on his behalf. The man glanced down the table at one of his colleagues, who was older and looked more in control than the rest. This man nodded at the younger gent.

The first man said, “His name is Charles Montgomery.” “Where is he?” “In a state prison in Alabama. He’s actually also awaiting execution. For unrelated crimes.” “Do you believe he did it?” asked Mars. “We’re investigating.” “What does he know?” asked Mars. “About the murders?” The man again looked at the older man. This time the fellow seemed indecisive. Mars sensed this and swiveled his gaze to him.

“Why else would you have stopped my execution? Because some con in ’Bama said he did it? I don’t think so. He had to know something. That only the real killer would have.” The older man nodded and seemed to view Mars in a new and more favorable light. He said, “He did. Certain things that only the murderer would have known, you’re exactly right on that point.” “Okay, that makes sense,” said Mars, taking a deep breath. Despite his words, he couldn’t seem to process what they were telling him. “Do you know Mr. Montgomery?” asked the first man.

Mars turned his attention back to him. “Never heard of him until you said his name. Why?” “Just trying to verify certain facts.” Mars nodded again. He knew exactly what “fact” the guy was getting at. Had Mars hired Montgomery to kill his parents? “I don’t know him,” he said flatly. He looked around the room. “So now what?” “You will remain in prison until certain things can be…verified.” “And what if you can’t verify them?” The older man said, “You have been duly convicted of murder, Mr. Mars.

That conviction was upheld over many appeals over many years. You were scheduled to be executed tonight. All that cannot be overturned in a few hours. The process has to be given a chance to work.” “So how long before the process works its magic?” The man shook his head. “I can’t give you a reliable timetable now. I wish I could, but it would be impossible. I can tell you that we have folks on the way to Alabama to interview Mr. Montgomery more thoroughly. And on this end the Texas authorities have reopened the investigation.

We are doing all we can to see that justice is done, I can assure you.” “Well, if he said he killed my parents and I’m still in prison waiting to die, I’d say that justice isn’t being done.” “You have to be patient, Mr. Mars.” “Well, I’ve been patient for twenty years.” “Then a bit more time will not inconvenience you any.” “Does my attorney know?” “She has been informed and is on her way here as we speak.” “She should be part of this investigation.” “And she will be. We want full and complete transparency here.

Nothing less. Again, our goal is the truth.” “I’m nearly forty-two. What about all these years of my life gone? Who’s gonna pay for that?” The man’s face turned to granite and his tone became more officious. “We need to deal with one thing at a time in a professional manner. That is how it has to be.” Mars looked away, blinking rapidly. He doubted that if these guys were in his shoes they would be so calm and professional about it. They’d be screaming bloody murder, threatening to sue everyone even remotely involved in all this. But he was just supposed to deal with one thing at a time.

Be patient. It shouldn’t be an inconvenience. The hell with you! He wanted to go back to his cell, the only place he really felt safe. He rose. The men looked surprised. Mars said, “Let me know when you get this all figured out, okay? You know where to find me.” “We actually had some more questions for you, Mr. Mars,” said the first man. “You can send them through my attorney,” he said. “I’m done talking.

Figure the ball’s in your court. You know everything about me and the case against me. What you need to do now is do the same on this Montgomery dude. If he did kill my parents, then I want out of here. Sooner the better.” The guards took him back to his cell. Later that morning he was transported via prison van back to death row at the Polunsky Unit. As he was being escorted to his old cell one of the guards whispered to him, “You think you gettin’ outta here, boy? I don’t think so. Don’t care what them suits say. You a killer, Jumbo.

And you goin’ to die for your crimes.” Mars kept walking. He didn’t even turn his head to look at the man, a reedy-looking punk with a huge Adam’s apple. He was always the one to give Mars a hard jab in the back with his baton for no reason at all. Or spit in his face when no one was looking. Yet if Mars took a swing at him he’d be rotting in here forever, regardless of what happened with this Montgomery guy in Alabama. The cell door clanged shut and Mars, his legs oddly wobbly, lurched over and fell rather than sat on his bunk. He immediately hauled himself up and from long habit put his back against the concrete wall and faced the door. No one could attack him through concrete. But the door was another matter.

His mind went over all that had just happened in the last ten hours. His execution was to take place. He was prepared for that, or as much as anyone could be. And then it had been called off. But if they weren’t convinced by this guy in Alabama, could they still execute him? The answer to that, he knew, was probably hell yes. Don’t mess with Texas. He closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure exactly what emotions he was supposed to have. Happy, nervous, relieved, anxious? Well, he was feeling all of them. Mostly, he was feeling that somehow, some way, he was never leaving this place.

Regardless of what the “investigation” showed. He wasn’t being fatalistic. Simply realistic. He started to sing a tune under his breath, so the guards wouldn’t be able to hear. Perhaps it was stupid under the circumstances, but it felt right anyway. Oh when the saints, oh when the saints, oh when the saints go marching in, oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.

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