The Alphabet Challenge: “X” Story No. 3 of 3 — “X-Con”

This is the 24th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “X“.

Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “X” as submitted by its author.

X-Con

Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)

(3,478  words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)

Well they’re building a gallows outside my cell, and I’ve got 25 minutes to go.

“On your left; that’s Cain McAdams. He killed his brother when they fought over a family shotgun. Seems his unfortunate sibling was a 2nd Amend-not and attempted to pony over Grampa’s old Mossberg to the hippie libs that were coming door-to-door collecting guns back in the day. He says there was a struggle, and it was an accident, but the second, third, and fourth shots, after reloading the double-barrel 12 gauge, convinced the jury he was more than practicing his right to bear arms.”

“I say that,” the fat guard paused for comic effect, “so that you know the caliber of the inmates you are dealing with.” He chuckled smugly as though this were the first, not fortieth, time he had recited it.

Peter Simmons, a recent graduate from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), took a wide-eyed walk with Chuck Sanders, Cell Block 7 Correction Officer or CO at Folsom State Prison. Not unlike a zookeeper, Sgt Sanders extolled the virtues and vices of each exotic species on display and confined securely within the bowels of Folsom prison. The dull-eyed denizens no longer charged the bars or flung feces when new COs took the tour. They had seen generations arrive and retire, and they were now quietly committed for life and committed to the tedium that life now demanded.

“So this is Death Row then?” Peter asked.

“Yeah, but we like to call it the Swinger’s Club,” Sgt Sanders chuckled again, anticipating the question. “The State has hanged 93 men here and most of these losers are on their final appeal. Hanging on by a thread, you might say,” another chuckle at his well-rehearsed attempt at gallows humor.

And the whole town’s wait’n’ just to hear me yell; I’ve got 24 minutes to go.

“Who’s that?” Peter asked, standing too close to the bars.

Sanders hooked Peter’s belt loop and reeled him back gently to the center of the gray tile safety strip even as he continued his droning documentary. Tilting his head as if seeing the con for the first time, Sanders paused and said, “That’s an odd one.”

The old man sat motionless in a wheelchair; his skeins of white hair had no plan; his frayed white hospital gown hung down below his thin ankles. Every inch of his exposed skin portrayed William Blake renderings in exquisitely detailed tattoos. His bony knees spread just wide enough to form a hammock for a curled cat that raised its head and followed the guards with bright green eyes.

Well they gave me some beans for my last meal; I’ve got 23 minutes to go.

“I’ve been here ten years now and nobody seems to know the old guy’s story. I’m sure it’s in his file, but I just never seem to get around to digging it up.”  Sgt Sanders frowned at his own lackluster reply to the rookie and gave himself a mental kick in the pants. In a sudden flash of memory, he rebounded with, “They call him Godfather.”

At the sound of his name, the crippled old man started and the cat spilled from his lap and then somehow vanished in the 6 X 8 cell. “That’s weird,” Peter said, “they allow cats in lockup?”

“What the hell are you talking about, Rook? This is Death Row; there are no pets here.” Sanders shook his head, muttering something about BOP scraping the bottom of the barrel these days.

Peter looked again and saw nothing but a sad, dilapidated old man in a wheelchair.

But nobody asked me how I feel; I’ve got 22 minutes to go.

****

The year was 1968; just two years after Time Magazine asked a God-fearing nation if their scary God was dead and two years before Folsom State prison would become throne to Charles Milles Manson, a poor man’s Jesus. America was tearing itself apart with foreign war, race riots, and anarchist assassinations of preachers and potential presidents.

After a few months, Peter settled into his new job. It paid only $5 an hour starting out and he found himself volunteering for extra shifts to make ends meet. Before long, he got to know the ebb and flow of the penitentiary. There was a rhythmic tide here that good COs learned to surf like California breakers.

Peter’s wife, Mary, was eight months along and they were expecting a boy, maybe boys, the doctor diagnosed with a shrug of his shoulders and a sheepish smile after removing the stethoscope from her abdomen. She looked angelic there in the examination room, her swollen belly covered in a gossamer white hospital gown. Peter attempted a supportive smile as his hand went absently to his wallet pocket and he inwardly cringed. He also cringed at the unshared knowledge that he was probably impotent; the boy or boys were either his…or not.

Well I sent for the governor and the whole damn bunch with 21 minutes to go.

The next evening as Peter conducted bed-check rounds, he was stopped by a whisper at the end of Cellblock 6. “Peeeter,” a raspy voice emerged from a dark cell, “it’s been a long time.” The crimson glow of a cigarette tip illuminated a dark face for a brief moment. Peter knew this man as inmate 666, aka Martin Bile; in for life—crimes against humanity, whatever that meant. There was a dry cough and then another drag on the cigarette. “Congratulations on the twin twisters,” he said.

“You are the frog, Peter.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’ve heard it somewhere.”

“I’ve known you for much longer than you know, Peter, and I do declare; you are the frog.” That was the first time Peter heard the man laugh. It sounded to Peter like a poorly-maintained chainsaw.

Peter thought later that he had actually heard a sly smile there in that darkened cell. Peter also sensed that this was the kind of man that always held Aces, knew secrets about secrets, and never showed his real cards. The raspy man wanted things from Peter; easy things for a guard to give, or overlook. Peter thought he heard the phrase ‘turn the other cheek’, but that didn’t seem quite right, maybe it was ‘turn a blind eye’. The dark man made promises of wealth and promotions, and protection—“After all, this is a very dangerous place,” he had laughed and coughed. Peter thought of his wife, his new baby or babies, his next paycheck, and he listened to the smoking shadow in Cell block 6.

It was supposed to be easy-peasy. Just make the midnight rounds as usual, but accidentally turn one church-key to the left instead of the right when checking a particular cell door. The smoky resident of Cellblock 6 wished to make a midnight visit to an old friend in Cellblock 7; that was all, and the deal would be done.

And I called up the mayor but he’s out to lunch; I’ve got 20 minutes to go.

As Peter approached Cellblock 7 at midnight, he heard the sonorous sound of a low purr from a large white cat his Sgt had assured him did not exist. Peter inserted the archaic key into the lock mechanism and saw green eyes light up from the lap of the mysterious Godfather. “Forgive me, Father,” he intoned as he unlocked the cell and pulled back the key, leaving the residents vulnerable to outside forces.

“He simply goes by god now, not Father. He’s a bit sensitive about his offspring these days,”

“Who’s speaking?” Peter asked the darkness. In the distance, a restless rooster cleared its throat.

“Don’t do it, Peter. Don’t betray god…again. He’s not strong enough to survive. Even if he wanted to.” The cat slipped through the iron bars and performed an infinity loop around Peter’s ankles.

“Who…what are you?” Peter asked, recoiling to the point of nearly tripping over the feline.

“I go by many names, but you may best remember me as Michael.” The voice boomed in Peter’s mind; a voice he recognized like an echo from a long tunnel.

Then the sheriff said BOY, I’m gonna watch you die; I’ve got 19 minutes to go.

Peter stared down at the creature as it leisurely licked at the web between its stretched toes, claws protracted like scythed switchblades. “So, you’re Michael, the talking cat?” he asked, hardly believing that he was conversing with an animal.

“Yes, for now, Peter. Because that is what he wants me to be. I am, and have always been his right hand. My flaming sword is sheathed now and my powers to protect are dimmed and limited. I believe he came here to die.”

So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye with 18 minutes to go.

Peter’s voice echoed eerily in the cell. “Well, he’s in the right place, this is Death Row. I checked his file Michael-the-talking cat. This Godfather con is scheduled for the gallows next week. He will be hanged unless God or the governor intervenes.”

“We don’t need the governor, Peter. But we could use a higher power. We simply need Faith.” The voice was melodic yet fierce. It could speak only truth and Peter was solely convinced. Peter suddenly remembered everything. His friendship, his shame. He turned the key back to the locked position. He looked into Michael’s serene-green eyes and dropped to his knees, as he had done in dozens of pious lives on by, always in unswerving service of the lord, but always uneasily unsure of his one true purpose.

Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul with13 minutes to go.

***

Peter woke up at his desk; the church-key still in his hand. He looked at it and threw it down; the ring clanged on the floor like a strange tambourine. The door opened and Chuck Sanders occupied the entire room with his girth and a steaming cup of coffee buried in his mustache.

“Rise and shine Simmons,” he sputtered between sips. “We’ve got an execution order the day after tomorrow and the executioner is on furlough…budget cuts. As the junior CO, we need you to fit the harness and drop the lever. No big deal…it even pays an extra 50 dollar stipend.”

Peter tried to clear the fog from his brain. “Friday? Isn’t that the day of the big concert?”

“Bingo,” Sanders said, pointing his finger like a chubby gun. “Warden figured there would be less chance of riots if the cons were being otherwise entertained during the execution.”

Peter didn’t have to ask who was to be hanged. Somehow he knew.

And he’s talking ‘bout burnin’ but I’m so cold; 12 more minutes to go

“They moved up the execution,” Peter whispered that night into the darkened room on Cellblock 7. He had become strangely accustomed to conversing with Michael, god’s guardian cat.

“Yes, he is moving more rapidly toward his demise. He had hoped his old nemesis in Cellblock 6 would be his destroyer, but both are weak, and you have intervened on his behalf. He has now left his fate to man, his greatest achievement and his greatest disappointment.” Peter heard all this when he looked into the flashing green eyes of the white cat.

“We’ve got to do something. Maybe if you told me why he has given up, maybe I could help,” Peter suggested.

“Guilt,” the cat spat as if coughing up a hairball. “Even mortal fathers will cry out for mercy or will offer themselves up before they would stand by and watch their sons tortured and murdered. But J.C. convinced the Immortal One that this sacrifice was required in order to save humanity. Utter foolishness. He had no idea that his beloved people could be so cruel and I think he blames god for refusing to save him from his own arrogance.”

“God knew better; that’s why he’s God,” the cat purred loudly at the remembrance of his Master. “But J.C. didn’t want to hear it. He was sure his plan would work. So a heavy-hearted Godfather granted his wish and J.C was crucified as planned, not just by the Romans, but by all humanity; they still relish the idea that a deity died for them.”

“Sure, Christianity eventually blossomed from his martyrdom—the ultimate sacrifice—but the echoes of his son crying out on that cross, ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’ have haunted God ever since. It was the first and only time that God wept.”

Now they’re testing the trap and it chills my spine; 11 more minutes to go.

Once done, their relationship has never been quite the same. Finally, the disillusioned J.C. just left. Said Heaven, salvation, sacrifice, and all that jazz just wasn’t his bag anymore. Said he might try another way to reach out to humanity; perhaps find a note they could all sing together. ”

Peter shook his head. “So, what can we do?”

“There may be hope yet,” the cat said, looking into Peter’s eyes. “But for now I implore you, pray, Peter, pray.”

And the trap and the rope, aw, they work just fine; 10 more minutes to go.

Peter prayed. In the past he had always found solace in his prayers; now he found this ritual empty and hopeless. He made his rounds that night and found himself on Cellblock 6.

“So, what do you want?” the raspy voice rose up from the dark cell.

“I need help, and I hoped somehow you might find a way to…”

His laugh was raw and sharp, like a barking dog. It quickly devolved into a dry hacking cough.

“I tried to help him, but the cell door was locked. I thought we had an agreement.”

“Not like that,” Peter said. “I thought maybe if Godfather could reconcile with his son, then…I don’t know. Maybe things could be right again.”

“Peter, you were always the optimist, always fighting against the inevitable; you were the frog.” The resident in Cellblock 6 sighed. “Ahh, the good old days. Good and Evil; Black and White; Scorpions and Frogs; everything was so clear back then. He and I are connected, you know. I’m not in this cell for my health,” he laughed, coughing again. “Where he goes, you’ll find me too.”

There was a long pause. “I don’t know if J.C. is ready to reconcile. That was a fucked up day all around; I can’t blame the boy for being pissed. If you asked me, and no one ever does, they are both to blame. So stubborn, those two. But I’ll check in with the kid and see what shakes out. Don’t expect any miracles,” he added like a punch line.

Peter left the dark cell, the echo of the laughing cough reverberating off the gray stone walls.

Well I’m waitin’ for the pardon that’ll set me free with 9 minutes to go.

It was Good Friday and Peter found himself preparing for the execution. The rest of the compound was abuzz with plans for the big concert. Sammy Davis, Jr. would be performing; he was a crowd favorite and the perfect distraction for a hanging on the south yard.

Peter looked up at the sun. It seemed to move faster than he had ever seen, climbing and racing across a perfect blue sky, a hurried traveler rushing to its destination. The execution was scheduled for 5 PM and no miracles were in sight.

But this AINT THE MOVIES, so forget about me; 8 minutes to go.

At 4 o’clock, Peter and Sgt Sanders went to Cellblock 7 to prepare the disabled prisoner. There were no ominous thunder warnings or foreshadowing flashes of lightning as they rolled the old man out of the dank cell, just the squeak of his wheels. They took him to an anteroom overlooking the south yard and the looming, skeletal gallows. He said nothing, refusing even to break bread for a last supper.

With my feet on the trap and my head in the noose; 5 more minutes to go.

The warden opened the door to the anteroom and looked around. Sgt Sanders jumped to attention. “Is everything going as planned, Sanders?”

“Yes, sir. We’ll be ready for the drop at 5 sharp.”

“Good, good. At least something is going right. Sammy Dee had to cancel at the last minute and the natives are growing restless. Diablo Agency, the promoters, promised us a good replacement, but nobody has showed yet.”

Won’t somebody come and cut me loose with 4 more minutes to go.

Sanders pulled out a rat nest of buckled straps from the execution kit.

“Come on Sarge, we don’t need those. He’s not going to fight this,” Peter said.

“That’s not why we do it, Rook. To get a good neck snap, you’ve got to buckle the perp up for a straight fall, like a torpedo. Can’t have arms flapping and legs kicking.”

I can see the mountains; I can see the skies with 3 more minutes to go.

4:45: “Let’s get him up on the scaffold, Peter.”

A wheelchair-accessible ramp had been cobbled together by a carpenter from the woodshop. Peter helped Sanders push the chair onto the awaiting platform. Peter began to sweat, not from the effort, the chair was light. His conscience told him he couldn’t justify this execution, like he had others in his old story. He kept looking to the sky for a miracle—nothing.

And it’s too damn pretty for a man to want to die; 2 more minutes to go.

4:55: “Go ahead, Peter, put the hood on first, then the noose. We don’t want his head popping off like that guy back in ’59. Poor bastard.” Peter did these things, though he felt like he was watching all this as a spectator. “Alright, come on back here and grab the trap-lever, it’s almost time.”

I can see the buzzards; I can hear the crows; 1 more minute to go.

4:58: “I can’t do it, Sarge. We can’t do it. This is wrong in so many ways.”

Sgt Sanders shook his massive head in disappointment. “I knew you’d punk out, Simmons. Here, get out of the way. I promised the Warden a hangin’ and that’s what he’s going to get.” He pushed Peter out of the way and looked at his wristwatch—1 minute to 5.

Peter fell back but not before he snatched the sidearm from Sgt Sanders’ holster. He pointed the gun at Sanders’ ear and cocked the hammer. Neither moved. “If you don’t listen to me, I’ll blow your ear off. Is that what you want?”

There was an unearthly screech from the prison loudspeakers; high-pitched feedback from a microphone and an electric guitar. Then a gravelly voice announced to the world: “Hello,… I’m Johnny Cash.” Hundreds cheered like thousands from the cafeteria turned concert hall.

The second hand on Sgt Sander’s wristwatch stopped just one second before the 5 o’clock hour. The sun ceased its descent to the horizon. The deep voice on the speakers asked the crowd for silence and he got it. “I’d like to start out with a prayer,” he said. Even the hardened criminals bowed their heads and removed their caps.

“Dear, Heavenly Father…Dad,” he paused. A convict opened one eye out of curiosity. “It’s been a long time since we last spoke. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way,” a  commiserating ‘Amen’ rose from the crowd. “But I’ve grown up to be a man as a result. I want to thank you, Lord, for giving me the freedom to fail and the strength to succeed. Father, forgive me, forgive us, forgive them, and bless this day. Amen.” The man in black raised his head and stroked his guitar. He sang like a truck-stop angel.

“Dad-dy sing bass,” Johnny Cash began.

“Mom-ma sing tenor,” June Carter sang.

“The Circle,” Godfather whispered from under the black hood. The sun suddenly plummeted and Chuck Sanders’ wristwatch ticked frantically forward.

“Okay,” Sgt Sanders said, he raised his hands and moved away from the lever. “But you are gonna lose your job over this, Simmons. You might even end up right back here, behind the bars with this trash.”

Peter waved the pistol. “Get that noose off him and…”

The trap door sprang open and the silent prisoner plunged out of sight. There was a sickening snap, like a snow-laden branch succumbing to the inevitable storm. The astonished guards turned to the executioner’s box where the smoking man laughed and coughed and stroked a large white cat. He was, indeed, the scorpion.

And now I’m swingin’ and here I g-o-o-o-o-o!

The End

If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.

If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

X (Marks The Spot) <<Link

Xerxes <<Link

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