Sensitive content: Profanity, violence, gore, capital punishment.
So, what’s the catch?
Colson reflected now, that it was a question he should have asked, when Ziggy promised that snatching the courier’s bag with the cocaine would be easy pickings. A walk in the park, he said. Maybe, just maybe, he should have thought it through, and told Ziggy to go fuck himself.
Back in the Varner supermax, time had always dragged, and Colson had a lot of it on his hands. There were mainly two things that you could do there by yourself besides pulling your pud, and that was to read or think. He had never been much of a reader; never saw the point in doing something that hurt your head.
In Varner, if he needed to have something read to him to understand it, he had old Doc Toliver for that. As for thinking, he, Colson, had always been an action guy, although way back in the day, a shrink – one of many he had seen since then – had hinted, they never came right out and told you anything, always hinted, that maybe action without thought was his problem.
But he never had a problem back in those days, until suddenly he did. But that wasn’t his fault. It was screwed-up thinking, the gestalt thing. The shrinks at Varner wanted you to see everything as if it was somehow your fault. But now that the time he had left had shrunk down small, like your nuts do in cold water, time had real value. And Colson couldn’t help but think about it, and think about himself. And, yeah, think about the catch. Looking back, it seemed that, for any sure thing, there was always a catch. And if Ziggy had warned him about it then, maybe he wouldn’t be here now.
Shrink-sessions were meant to assign blame so – like he had told the shrinks – best start with his parents, Lucille and Ronald. What a fucked-up, fighting pair of losers they were. But, they had managed to agree on something, or maybe even two things – they had agreed to a divorce, back when he was six – but naming him Patrice? Jeeeesus!
That got him called Patsy at school, in a phony-high girl’s voice, which was always good for starting a punch-up. And at Varner, where starting a punch-up might get you killed six different ways, all the screws also called him Patsy, and joked that with a name like that he shouldn’t be there, he should be over at McPherson, on the row there with the other bints. Haw-fucking-haw.
So, yeah, Lucille and Ronald definitely had a lot to answer for. He’d brought that up again in the last gestalt therapy session. Got that shrink mondo-busy scribbling notes to himself; maybe he’d write a book on it.
So, fuck Patrice, he’d chosen his own name; Cash. That got him some street cred. As a teenager, he got to be known for always having a roll of bills in his jeans. Way before that he’d been regularly lifting a five spot from Lucille’s handbag whenever she left it laying around, before she got wise and started locking it up. Ronald had split right after the divorce. Just disappeared. And hadn’t been seen since.
So, all that yackety-yack in therapy about him taking personal responsibility for what happened in his life, that was pure bullshit. Anyone with any brains could see that Lucille should have taken better care of her purse.
Grim as it was, Varner hadn’t been all bad. Colson had been a top dog there, one of less than thirty out of a population of more than fifteen-hundred; the hardest of the supermax hard cases, and that got you some respect. He was also in solid company with old Doc Toliver – who was on death row the same as him– for killing his neighbor who Doc had caught fucking his wife. Doc had dodged the needle for twenty-three years after a shit-load of appeals, and had still more to go.
Doc Toliver had been more like a father to him than the long-gone and forgotten Ronald had ever been. Everyone in Varner called the old man Doc but he wasn’t a real doctor – someone said he was a PhD – he was a professor before the murder trial. So, everyone naturally went to him for advice, because he was super-smart; he just knew shit.
The day that the word came down that the governor wouldn’t sign on the dotted line and they were going ahead as planned, to do Colson with the needle, Doc had explained the differences between types of clemency, a pardon, or a commutation or a reprieve or a stay. Not that it made a whole Jack-shit of difference; they all meant you got to live longer. Whatever worked.
Doc was always one for pep talks if someone had bad vibes. He usually made good sense, but this time it failed to cheer Colson up. He had been fresh meat, the youngest tough on the row, which had been a big deal, gave him some serious cred among the harder cases, but after being in for eight years, then he wasn’t. Which didn’t make a shit of difference when you thought about it now. But losing that respect had sucked, any way you looked at it. Because there was no chance to ever get it back.
The hardest thing about Varner was that there were no women. There was always your hand of course, but it wasn’t the same. He had zero interest in going the dirt-track route, although there had been plenty of offers. Luckily with your own private cell – joke that it was, with a camera on you even when you took a crap – and the 23/1 daily routine where you only got one hour a day out of the cell, he hadn’t ever been forced. Before Varner he’d always had good luck with women. That was when he got hooked up with Ziggy. And he didn’t like to blame Ziggy, but facts were facts and could not be denied.
Way back then, he and Ziggy had a string of teenage hookers that turned tricks for them and he had gotten plenty of free samples. That was before they moved into the drug trade, which was what got him into Varner, so gestalt could go fuck itself because now when he thought about it, there was the catch.
Ziggy was to blame.
It was too easy to land in a lockup for pretty much any dumb-assed thing. The shrinks said that to stay free, all you had to do was follow the rules, keep out of trouble, and you’d be fine. But, what the fuck did they know? It wasn’t his fault that he’d had some bad luck, a couple of really shitty breaks.
The worst was to wind up in Varner, because some stirs were definitely better than others. He’d been in juvie a couple of times after Ronald left and then inside Hotel Innes back in Ottawa for shoplifting after Lucille kicked him out. Then both he and Ziggy graduated to the Quinte pen when they were picked up with a dozen hot laptops from a warehouse score in Orleans, in the trunk of Ziggy’s clapped-out Honda Accord.
But those lockups were both definitely much easier going than being in the Varner supermax here in the U-fucking-S-of-A. One old relic back in the Innes Road pen, who had been in stirs all over the world, called Innes, Club Med. Even at Quinte, the food there was as good as at you could get at any BKing or KFC. And some of the guards would even sneak you extra desserts, on credit if you couldn’t pay right away. Innes and Quinte were way-easy, no-stress detention. But Varner was hard time. And it came with a catch, too. It was why, after sitting eight years on the row there, he had fired McGiven.
McGiven had said getting him extradited would be a slam-dunk. But the catch there was; as long as legal-aid paid the bills. That was the reason why his ass was here now, and not back in Canada. McGiven would file for habeas corpus on the grounds that Colson was a Canadian, unlawfully detained in a foreign country and sentenced to execution.
The filing was supposed to get him extradited back to where there was no death penalty. Then he could call for a new trial in a more lenient court. But before that thick wad of habeas corpus paper had been sent off, McGiven had hinted that he might not be as available as before, because the cross-border legal-aid cash for the case had dried up. Then McGiven had stopped returning phone calls. So, there was always a catch.
And thinking about catches, Ziggy’s was front and center. You weren’t supposed to speak ill of the dead, but if it hadn’t been for Ziggy, he definitely wouldn’t be here at all.
They had been doing beers and shooters on the second-floor patio of the Fox and Feather on Elgin, when they saw the big drug-buy go down. From that vantage point they saw a gray 500-series BMW pull up and the guy on a bicycle, the courier, wheel over toward the car.
They were close enough that they had been able to read a Canada Post logo on the thick padded envelope that the bike-courier handed in through the driver’s window, in exchange for a small bulky backpack. It’s a brick at least, maybe two, Ziggy had said all excited. It’s easy pickings, a walk in the park.
So they had chug-a-lugged the rest of their beers and beat it down the stairs to where Ziggy’s shitbox Honda was parked. They followed the courier-guy on the bicycle with the backpack at a distance, who angled over until he reached Somerset Street and then pedaled his skinny ass on a beeline toward Chinatown and Little Italy. It was after they had gone through the big Chinatown gate that things heated up.
He and Ziggy had cornered the courier in the park on Empress and snatched the backpack with a brick and a half of coke. It’s a lock, two against one, Ziggy had said, and it was until the other two guys showed up to meet the guy on the bike. The courier had a blade, but he and Ziggy both had blades so it was no problem until suddenly it was three against two, and everyone had blades. Then things really got tense.
He and Ziggy were holding back-to-back against the three, and Colson had taken a deep slash across the chest and was bleeding like a stuck-pig, but someone saw the mix-up going on and called the cops. The three dealers suddenly broke it off and split in three different directions when they heard the siren, and he and Ziggy slipped back across the park to the car, with the backpack of coke.
Ziggy cursed him for bleeding all over the car seat, but drove him to the free clinic to get his chest stitched up. He didn’t have a health card and the clinic got shitty about that, but they had to take him in because he was bleeding all over the place. Someone there called the cops and two bœufs in uniform came in while he was getting stitches, but Ziggy had disappeared with the car and the coke and the two cops had lots of questions about who, where and why he had been cut up with a blade but got no answers from him, so they went away with less than zero. Then everything was cool for a while.
But word gets around.
After he got out of the clinic, he tracked Ziggy down and they set about parceling the coke up into street-size lids for sale. That worked OK for a few days and they moved a few dozen lids, but then Ziggy told him that the backpack and BMW guys had put news out about them on the street and were offering five hundred bills to anyone just for information, as well as the cops had been tipped to look for a beater Honda that probably had big bloodstains all over the seats.
That was when Ziggy said they needed to get across the U.S. border because Ottawa was too hot. And that was when everything had all gone to shit, and why he had been on death row at Varner until yesterday evening, when with twenty-four hours to go, they came to transfer him to the death house at Cummins.
Ziggy had said they could easily slip across into the U.S. and he had an American cousin down in Conway pig-fucking Arkansas, who was into the coke trade in a big way.
They were going to take Ziggy’s car, but they got turned back at the border because they didn’t have the right IDs and they both had prison records. So, then Ziggy had laid some coke-cash on a freight dispatcher from a trucking company he knew, and they got themselves tucked into big dummy crates in the back of an eighteen-wheeler, right in the middle of a full load of commercial air-conditioners.
The dispatcher claimed that with good paperwork his loads were never checked at border-customs. Spending three hours in a dark box to get across the border was a pain in the ass, but it got the job done and wasn’t a serious problem.
It was all the shit that had happened after that when it got serious, and facts were facts, Ziggy was to blame for all of what happened, no doubt about it. So fuck what the shrinks kept saying about gestalt and taking personal responsibility. But for Ziggy, he’d still be in Ottawa, maybe in stir there, but not here facing the needle.
Grabbing the backpack from the courier was supposed to be a walk in the park, but Ziggy hadn’t told him that there was always a catch.
Now he was in the death house, and counting down the hours.
Without a stay, his next-to-last resting place would be here at Cummins, just two and a half miles from Varner.
Cummins was on a narrow bit of water officially called Boone Lake that looked like a tapeworm on a map that Doc had showed him. It had taken about five minutes to get here last night in the black, unmarked, armored, windowless van that the cons called Checkmate. Doc had said they had their own morbid names for everything around here. He had said that everyone called the tapeworm of water Lake Spark because Cummins was surrounded by a lethal electric fence. Haw-fucking-haw.
Not everyone got to see a shrink here on the last day, for all the good they were. Colson hadn’t thought to ask, but at Cummins they aimed to please. Or maybe he was just a special case, one for the textbooks.
So this shrink, his name was Gerstone, had started right in from where they had left off at the last session, with him asking six different roundabout ways – but still boiling down to the same question – who should be responsible for Colson’s situation?
So, this time he told Gerstone about Ziggy and McGiven; McGiven because he had fucked up the habeus corpus filing, and Ziggy who had pulled him into the coke business, in the first place. Ziggy who had smuggled him across the U.S. border in the back of a fucking semi; Ziggy who had bought the two AR-15s and the ammo, for self-defense he had said, and Ziggy who had died in the Conway shootout with the cops eight years ago when they were unloading the bricks of coke, choking on his own blood alongside three dead cops, on the cracked, blood-smeared concrete floor of the old furniture warehouse. So, facts being fucking facts, Ziggy was responsible for him, Patrice Colson, being here in the death house.
Gerstone, who had been scribbling in his notebook with his head down, stopped writing and gave him that constipated look before asking him if he was certain that it was only Ziggy who should be blamed. Well, shit yeah, who else for chrisake? Because there was always a catch and Ziggy had the answer.
And then he unloaded on the shrink and told him that the sessions had been pure bullshit all along, and, considering where they were sitting, he had other things to think about right about now.
Gerstone, before he left, gave him a thin-lipped smile and said that maybe they had made some small progress after all, because (his fucking words!) part of the process of gestalt therapy was establishing mindfulness (was this where you were supposed to think about the catch?). Well, fuck him and the horse he rode in on. And fuck Ziggy too.
As the shrink left, something went with him out of the cell, unseen, invisible and without measure. But it had been a presence that had provided a small sense of normalcy that was now missing. Now there was only the heavy, pressing, uncertain weight of anxiety; the stretch ahead a countdown to….what?
There is a noise at the door of the cell. A guard, unfamiliar to him. Understandable, as he’s been locked down here less than 24 hours. The guard is big, huge in fact, has to duck his head at the cell door, but without the usual deadly big-man-in-stir menace. No need, when the state provides menace free of charge, just down the hall.
Stories come to mind. All the screws here at Cummins are big. They need to be. Some prisoners turn to jelly and need to be propped up or half-carried on that last long walk, their dangling legs flopping and flailing like wet spaghetti. The big guard moves into the cell and stands there, neutral, impassive, his face a mask. Then he speaks.
“It’s time, Colson.”