Sympathy for the Devil
Nobody wants to be an executioner.

I came to that conclusion very early on, as much a consequence of my own position as of the men around me, none of whom were ever enthusiastic about their duties. Well. None who count, anyhow.

I am more pragmatic. In our society the job is almost certainly necessary, and for a fellow such as myself, adrift, purposeless, it paid well and it gave one, occasionally, the sense that the wheels of justice were in fact spinning, if with agonising slowness.

In the employ of the federal penitentiaries, I've done my work with dedication; I've but a few regrets. For the most part my choices are ones I wouldn't make twice but don't regret having made once--you know the sort. And I'm a quiet man; I'm no good at taking charge of things. I go where life takes me, and it's been one hell of a ride.

It was not my intent, to get to where I am now; probably it is the intent of few. My present situation has come about as a result of multiple influences, choices and decisions on my part, outcomes I could predict and many I couldn't. This is a story, then, that I think should be told. It's been buried too long.

You see in my line of work there are always the questions. Mistakes. Doubt. The government official I took my training from told me to ignore them; said they only got in the way. She was right, and I didn't listen. I may not be as idealistic as some but I like to think I have a soul. Of course that could just be me--I know others disagree, some based on principle, others on fact. I'm not wise enough to take the latter course and to be frank not brave enough for the former. I don't apologise for that.

Indeed I may have done many things worth apologising for; I make amends when I can, and wait for the right moment when I can't. In some cases I've been waiting for a while, and I may wait forever. Still, you may see in these few pages some inkling of doubt, a germ of unshouldered responsibility. Perhaps you'd be right. To be fair I seek my absolution in these words, as though words are enough for that sort of thing.

Ah well. I'm no good when I try to be melodramatic.

When I graduated from college my Political Science degree was almost completely useless. I didn't and don't know what to make of it--I entered the university system planning on becoming a lawyer and left unwilling to spend the time and unable to spend the money to do so. Instead I set about finding work.

The man at the Specialisation and Labour Division office downtown was sceptical I could be much use anywhere, I guess--maybe he'd seen more than his share of my kind, the intelligent fool who looks for knowledge in all the wrong places and has the misfortune of finding it there. Or maybe not.

"What do you think you're qualified for?" he had said, after an uncomfortable pause while he ran his eyes over my scanty résumé.

Of course, SLD was supposed to know that for me--that was their point; that was why they existed. Making people useful. It was all part of the second or third New Deal that came about when I was very young. I don't recall which one exactly created Labour; there were a lot of Deals. My father called them 'five year plans,' a bit of cynicism I didn't pick up on until I was nearly forty. Labour was supposed to end the unemployment problems of the Union--they did a pretty good job, really, probably better than could have been hoped; although they had a nasty reputation for putting people into jobs they were unsuited for. The New Deals always involved tradeoffs like that.

They effect of this all is that people without clear qualifications for one thing or another often got the short end of the government employment stick and I, being as I am a rather average man, lacked those clear qualifications. But, I shrugged and tried to appear nonchalant. "What is there available in criminal justice?"

You have to understand something. My father was a lawyer, as was my mother; as I sat in the SLD office my brother was working for a successful practice maybe ten blocks away. With all the intricacies, the formality and the ritual and all the little rules you could find to obsess over, law was perfect for us Border collies--my parents considered the profession sort of a family business. It was expected that I would try my hardest to see it the same way, and to follow their lead.

I hadn't thought of how I would explain myself to my parents yet. There were hints of rationales floating about my head, but the truth is I was done with college, the emotional drain and the bullshit and the hoops. I wanted out, advanced degree or no. But, I figured, I could maybe try to enter the vocation somewhere else.

"Fancy being a clerk?" the man asked. He wasn't very pleasant about it but I suppose when your job consists of trying to find round people for round holes when there aren't enough of the latter and the former is uncooperative you get that right. In retrospect he probably wasn't a bad guy.

Of course, I didn't really fancy being a clerk. It was just employment, but since I sorely needed work I didn't let on. "Where at?"

He made a sort of laughing sound--to this day I don't know what it was supposed to be, although I can hazard a guess or two. "Riverspoint Correctional. North Coast, up on the peninsula."

The North Coast wasn't bad. Mild weather, nice people--I'd spent a summer there once, with a friend from grade school. "I'll take it."

And I did. And, in turn, was taken.

"Oh," my father said. It wasn't an angry 'oh,' more of a befuddled one. I had explained to him my decision.

"Well, I figured it'd be a good place to start... get some practical experience, dad," I explained. "SLD told me there are usually lawyers who are willing to help out people like that, you know."

"A clerk in a corrections facility?" Again, no anger--maybe a hint of confusion.


He shrugged. "Well it's your life, Andy." To be honest that answer was much better than I could have hoped for. I didn't need my family to vindicate me, just to let me alone. Letting people alone is not something Border collies are known for; it wasn't something my father was known for. I guess then he was still shell-shocked, because he followed up his statement with, "good luck, I guess. When do you start?"

Two weeks. I started in two weeks.

You're probably familiar with the big correctional facilities, the huge buildings with the tall guard towers and the attendant massive concrete walls. So I should preface by saying that Riverspoint was and is not one of these facilities. It is very small, deceptively so for the job it performs.

Riverspoint Correctional used to be a small jail for Chase County in the days before everything went federal. It had just ten cells, an office, and a guardpost. Barbed wire--no concrete. No heavily armed patrols, no tripwires. Almost pastoral, really, although there's a reason painters don't often put prisons in their landscapes. They're ugly buildings.

When Sovereign opened forty kilometres down the road all the regular inmates from Riverspoint were transferred along with the staff and the building was abandoned. It stayed that way for ten years; plants began to split the concrete and more than a few colonies of wasps moved into the cellblocks.

That all changed when they reinstated capital punishment.

Yes, it was a controversial decision. Had I been old enough I would've voted against that referendum. I think my father did, though he won't admit it. But the president's arguments were compelling--some people believe them even today--and it passed with broad support, and the North Coast was quick to take advantage.

In the early days they kept them at Sovereign, the capital prisoners, but they didn't have the room to house them or the equipment to... well, I was never good with euphemisms, but I'll try. To capitally punish them. It's not as simple as it looks. Or it didn't used to be.

They expanded Riverspoint by another ten cells and added some more administrative support. They left a space, ten metres by twenty, on the designs--marked "provisional penal-adjunct complex." It was an adjunct complex all the way up until the first prisoner moved in and the higher ups realised they needed to plan on him not moving out again. Government bureaucrats always forget the little details.

Across the country they kill people in different ways. At Sovereign and at Unarmann and at Amma it was lethal injection. They use something called an 'electric chair' at Archersby. For awhile they used direct electric shock, straight to the brain stem, at Gliding until the human rights folks managed to set a good part of the compound on fire and the folks in charge decided it wasn't worth it. I think there was at least one place that used gas but if that was so they stopped long before I started working.

At Riverspoint we shoot them. It sounds callous but the doctors tell us that death is as close to instantaneous as one could wish for, if one were wishing for an execution. It's also cheaper and it doesn't require the same level of support, which is helpful at such a small facility. And you know to be honest I'm pretty sure that every time the people in the town hear the guns go off--they're pretty loud, and the sound carries from the little valley the yard's in--it makes them think twice about committing crimes. That's a good thing from where I stand.

It isn't like I've got an agenda, no sob story about how my kid sister got kidnapped by some evil man and gosh could he have been stopped and so I'm driven by revenge--no, nothing like that. But on my first day as a clerk, when I was being shown around I heard shots outside. Turns out they were just practising, but that noise has always sent chills down my spine and I think it always will. It's by those sorts of things that we reassure ourselves that we're human. It's like pinching your soul to see if it's still awake.

So Riverspoint is just a couple of buildings and a fairly innocuous looking yard out behind the two cellblocks. The two blocks themselves form a kind of 'U'; between them is another yard, mostly unused, and at the bottom of this U is the administration office. It's got good visibility over both sets of cells and it's bulletproof, just in case. That's where the armoury is, and it's where all the paperwork is kept. All things considered it's fairly spacious; there's room for four people to work comfortably although there's usually only one per shift. As I said, it's kind of a small facility. We don't worry much; there's no way the prisoners could get out of their cells and if they did, well, maybe we'd wind up dead but federal troops would be down from Fort Greyhill before you could say 'boo.'

The day the taxi dropped me off it was bright and sunny, the middle of July. It was one of those days where you're happy to be out in the open and life doesn't seem so bad after all. In the field behind the prison, I learned quickly, there are meadowlarks. This sort of thing, you know--when you see life not really quite as life is but as an impressionist painting with bright colours and nothing but happy people. Ideally, you're one of them.

Maybe that was unfortunate, how pretty that day was, since I went into the building with far higher spirits than I should've. But I've learned a few things in my life, and one of them is that you can't change either the weather or the past no matter how hard you try--and tackling both at once, well, that's just for fools.

The door was labelled, "Riverspoint Correctional," a black sign with white lettering. There was a plexiglass panel over the sign that someone had apparently struck with great force, judging from the spiderweb of cracks that ran over the letters, 'orrect.'

I knocked. There was no noise from within; no sign that I had been heard. I kept quiet for a moment, still heard nothing. As I raised my hand to knock again the door swung open, revealing the on-duty guard and the path down the cellblock.

I suppose I'd been expecting a prison to be dark and foreboding, and I was wrong. Riverspoint was brightly lit and the floors were a glittering white. Were it not for the bars across the cells one could imagine an operating room of sorts. It smelled antiseptic, too; more than anything else the odour of cleanliness was overpowering. I wasn't sure how they did it, and even today I marvel that simple cleaning products are so effective in here. It's sort of like a miracle, only completely worthless.

"Who are you?"

I stammered. "André Auragnan. I'm here as a clerk."

He nodded his head. "Ah, yes." He indicated himself. "George Henriksen. My friends call me Chester."

If I'd been wrong about the look of prisons I was even more wrong about the look of their attendants. Chester Henriksen was a fairly short wolf, a bit older--fifty or sixty, I guessed. He did not look imposing, and he did not look very strong--at least on the last count he would prove me wrong time and again, but a greying rotund wolf at eye level with my shoulders was not something to strike terror into the hearts of men. Even I.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Henriksen," I said to him after a half second while we sized each other up.

"No, Chester," he answered. Although he grated on me so much at times I thought I would punch him, it's hard to completely dislike a man who befriends you in fewer than ten seconds. "Come, come inside. Stay to the centre."

Walking down the white floor I noticed that the cells were empty and as we walked towards the office he seemed to read my mind. "This wing is unoccupied right now, but it's a good habit to get into. You'd be surprised how long some of their arms are." Ah.

He opened the door to the office, which departed from the antiseptic so violently as to make 'night' and 'day' seem synonymous. Papers were stacked haphazardly everywhere; pens stuck out of coffee mugs and drawers and in one place a block of Styrofoam that had been nailed to the wall. The obsessive in me blanched, gave a little scream, and shut his eyes tightly. I hate chaos. From where I stand, things are supposed to be clean, polished and orderly.

Henriksen and I are good friends now and I like to think that we became so quite early. With that said, he's almost certainly a little crazy. The little corner of the office he is allotted is home to newspaper articles on topics ranging from automobiles to grammar, tacked up to a board with the sharpest object he had available at the time. Laying open on his desk was Walker and Walker's Anatomy; Molotov's Adventures in Theoretical Palaeontology sat precariously atop a stack of anthropological texts. The poor tome was bookmarked with so many slips of paper it looked feathered.

"So you..." I looked at the office and tried to phrase the question with some degree of tact. "You need a clerk?"

Henriksen raised an eyebrow. "Look around you, kid. What do you think?"

"Well I..."

"The guards are too busy... guarding... to clean things up," Henriksen explained, as he busied himself straightening his own desk. He sounded a little embarrassed.

"Oh," I said. "Well that I understand." I tried to change the subject. "So who's the warden here?"

Chester gave one of his puzzling half-laughs. It's a strange sound, like his throat was trying to catch his laughter before it got too far, and it was uniquely his. "You're looking at him," the wolf told me. He glanced up. "Well, listening anyway. What are you..." he caught me staring at the dishevelled filing cabinet. "Well, you know. Place kinda goes to hell if it's not kept together well."

"I guess," I replied, trying hard to be polite. "When did the last clerk leave?"

Chester tapped his head, just forward of his right ear. It was a gesture I saw repeated constantly. At first it didn't seem odd, although in later months and years I'd marvel at how he hadn't managed to wear away the fur and tap right through to his skull.

"Oh... December, I'd say," he finally told me, still tapping. "It was a while back, all right."

I could only blink in amazement. "Seven months without a clerk?"

Chester hemmed and hawed a bit. "Well, we filed our own stuff. Look, we've got our own methods and"--to illustrate he opened a filing cabinet. Papers began to spill from it like a perverse cornucopia, and he slammed the drawer shut. "Uh." I was thinking the same thing. "Well we tried at least."

There were a few moments of awkward silence.

"So what did you say your name was, kid?" he asked.

"André," I said.

"Right, right. André." He nodded. Then he started tapping again. "You want me to show you around a bit?"

"Sure," I agreed. "That'd be ok."

As it turned out, considering the nature of his attraction George "Chester" Henriksen was a competent tour guide.

We started with the hall I'd entered through. He gestured to the cells.

"This is where we keep the prisoners, yes. It's generally... not crowded, like you can see. There isn't anyone here now. I mean, depending on who you ask I guess that is a good thing. These are all empty."

"Awfully clean," I said.

"Oh yes," he chuckled. "State regulations, you know. We've got little crawlers to do that. It's all automated. Once a night. The robots are... hmm. We'll they're down back that way," he gestured towards the office. "I guess I can show you those later." I wondered if the robots thought as little of the office as I did.

At the end of the hall Chester clicked the door open. "This is outside. Really nobody comes out here much. I mean, it's very quiet. And we don't have an exercise yard or anything. What with our being so small. The door isn't really locked so you can come and go without a key. It's--" he pointed at the prison cells. "It's those doors that'll stop you."

He closed the door and we turned back towards the office.

We walked through the cluttered room towards the other wing of the prison. "We've only got one prisoner in here now... I mean the way the system works they generally don't stay long, eh?"

It struck me then that I had no idea what I was getting myself into--that was to say, no idea what Riverspoint's place was in the prison system. "You just hold them here, then?" I asked.

He looked me funnily. "What?"

"This place, what is it? Just a holding place, for transfers or something? It's awfully small," I said. "And... with the low security and all..." I'd been hoping my life wouldn't be in too much danger--I am, you see, a coward. I had noticed when he answered the door that Chester was armed, which worried me. My parents used to spin horror stories about the inmates in some of the federal prisons, and I didn't want to be part of a horror story.

As I trailed off, I thought I saw Chester Henriksen's jaw drop a little. "No, capital cases," he clarified after half a second. "You come here through SLD, right?"

I nodded, a little sheepishly. "That's right. They said Riverspoint needed a clerk."

"Didn't tell you what Riverspoint was?" He shook his head. "They never do. And that--" he waved a finger at me--"is why you do your research. SLD, they are just looking to fill holes. Don't tell you anything to get you to think twice. You know I knew one guy... SLD said they needed a driver, right, for an 'exploration firm.'" He pantomimed quotes around the phrase with his fingers. "Course it turns out they were operating mining sledges twelve miles down! Friend of mine signed a five-year contract and wound up a janitor for Uni-Space because Labour told him they needed support staff. Shame, really. Good computer programmer, he is." He trailed off, as though his wandering narrative tired him.

"So Riverspoint..."

"Oh, yes. It's a capital punishment facilitation complex," he said. I couldn't tell whether the phrase was his own or the Union's. He must've thought I hadn't figured it out, because he continued. "We execute people here, capital murder cases mostly. One arsonist, two years back."

"How?" I asked.

"Hijacked kerosene tanker and a lighter. Very messy, they say."

"No," I clarified. "How do they execute people? I mean this place isn't very big..."

Henriksen nodded. "No, that it's not." He paused. "Anyhow, firing squad--Jesus H. Christ but your eyes just got big." He didn't bother to inflect the statement with much emotion. "Look, kid, I don't know what to tell you. I mean, you'll be working in the office. You won't have to interact with the prisoners or anything."

I managed to nod my head.

I'd never been a fan of capital punishment--to the chagrin of my parents, who had argued about it before they got married but quickly came to support it wholeheartedly. I thought it was cruel, I thought it was immoral. If I had a spine I would've breached the contract with the Specialisation and Labour Division people and just walked out there. But I don't, and I didn't. I stayed.

Perhaps wisely Chester cut off the tour abruptly, saying he'd continue it another time. We sat down in the office and talked about my experience and my responsibilities. We were talking about revising the organisation system of the cabinets when a shot rang out and my heart leapt into my throat.

Henriksen looked at me sideways for a moment and said something I missed entirely while I concentrated on getting my heart to begin beating again.

"They're just practising," I finally heard him say. "Marksmanship, you know. It's important."

My throat, I found, had gone dry, but I nodded an agreement to him. "Right."

Henriksen, in his decency, gave me a couple seconds to recover. Then he took a deep breath and shoved another stack of papers at me.

"And these," he said, "are the medicinal records."

Considering how offensive it looked the office was not too difficult to clean. I have an aptitude for shuffling and filing and stacking and sorting, which served me well in a complex that hadn't yet made the switch to computers that the rest of the country had. I didn't mind; I liked the feel of the papers between my fingers and enjoyed the ability to physically move things. And seeing the office clean gave me a sense of satisfaction that an uncluttered hard drive simply doesn't import.

It took the better part of two days to get the office completely tidy. I worked the same shift as Henriksen and we got to know each other as I sat amidst a dwindling pile of unsorted or hastily clipped papers. Despite Henriksen's claim that their clerk had left seven months prior some of the documents were two or three years old. I recognised some names from the news, even, and I wondered idly why the name 'Riverspoint Correctional' hadn't rung a bell. It's odd how much one misses in day-to-day life.

In that time I also learned a lot about Chester, which I hope I've remembered better. He'd been working at Riverspoint since it opened twenty-three years earlier--"long enough to lose my mind," as he put it, "not long enough to retire." He was from down south, on the Callitekt River. He hadn't ever finished school although he was working his way through a degree in archaeology from a university in Southland's capital--hence the books.

And he read newspapers compulsively. He had subscriptions to four and he claimed to regularly read at least six others when he found them--foreign, domestic, even the free local paper that wasn't ever edited. Beyond the clippings on the corkboard he had four binders, sorted by date. "And I have more at home," he had said. When I asked he tapped his head and said he wasn't sure what they were all about, or why he had clipped them, but Chester Henriksen believed strongly that he would remember someday, so it wasn't worth taking a chance and throwing them out.

He loved birds, too. Between a dogeared copy of the penitentiary rulebook and a pocket dictionary was a well-loved book with only the phrase 'dubon Societ' still legible. He read it often in his spare time; he could talk your ear off about the local avian life. He showed me his sketchbook once or twice--he was no John Audubon, but he tried. And we spent an afternoon hanging up bird feeders in the yard between the two cellblocks, about a year after I started work. "It's dismal," he had complained, "how lifeless this place is." I don't think he recognised the irony.

Chester was right, though, as Chester often is. The grass between the cellblocks was scrubby and half-dead; bare dirt showed through most of the time. We had no groundskeeper. Chester supervised me as I planted a series of flowers in that yard. It wasn't something I would have done on my own; I hate dirt and I'm too fastidious to want to garden-- my fur was stained brown for almost a week after that little project. But they were quite pretty when they bloomed, those flowers, and he and I both took a little pride in the end result.

It seems strange, but I was more confused then than I am now, if you can believe it, and Chester has been an immense figure in my life. He talked me through some difficult times, when I needed there to be someone older, someone wiser. My father was a loving man but for some reason he couldn't relate to me, an impetuous, idealistic youngster--as though he himself had been born already an adult. So, I guess--and to be a bit clichéd--Chester was like the father I always sort of wished I'd had.

He was much older than me--I didn't learn his age until I'd been working at Riverspoint almost a decade, so I'd had to guess--and he'd done more things in his life than I'd ever even dreamt of doing. He'd worked at the prison since it opened, but before then he had been a peacekeeper in the Guard; he'd been to every continent, a mile below the surface of the Arctic Sea, at the summit of mountains I'd only seen in pictures. He told me stories about these sorts of things--long, rambling tales that looped back on themselves and spun off in strange and unexpected new directions, but they were worth every word.

Not to say that he didn't have his off-moments, too. He and I sparred over politics--I'm more conservative than him in a few ways; in others he makes me seem like a socialist. He had a quirky sense of humour--once, I remember, he told me that there had been an escape. He said it in a perfect deadpan, but since Chester sometimes seemed to forget how to use emotions I believed him anyway. When I picked up the phone and the line was dead I nearly had a heart attack. Of course there had been no escape, and when I confronted Chester he just raised his eyebrows at me and refused to admit that he had said anything.

Oh, and he was worse than anyone else about keeping things straight. He always knew where the things he wanted were, but his desk was a mess no matter how many times I tried to clean it. Sometimes I thought he had disorder stowed in a box somewhere and he could just sprinkle it around his office space like a garnish. He never seemed to pick up on how much this irked me, and he laughed when he learned that I sorted the paper money in my wallet by denomination, and then by year. It sounds strange, but I found it interesting to think about what you had been doing when the money you spent was minted. Maybe I'm the only one.

Still, Chester made it worth staying, really. He was friendly to me, a mostly kind old man who had a penchant for spinning non-sequitur stories so well you didn't notice how wandering they were. Like a grandfather, I suppose, who tapped his head constantly and clipped newspaper articles for ambiguous reasons. And shot people.

Four weeks into the job I came to work and found a bustle of activity. The parking lot out front has ten spaces, but since there's only the guard on duty and me, most times, there's only one taken. That day cars filled the lot, spilling off the tarmac, abusing the scruffy grass yet further. People milled about, some looking purposeful, some apprehensive. A news van was parked off by the side of the road, and I thought I could see a camera crew setting up behind it. And there were actual police cars, a rarity at the Correctional Facility.

Chester looked harried. When I got to the office he was there, shuffling through papers nervously and periodically pausing to tap his head.

"What's going on?" I asked. Something in me probably already knew.

He turned to me, looking vaguely startled. "Ah, kid, it's you."

I nodded quickly. "What's going on?" I asked, a second time.

"Oh," my question caught up with him as though it'd had to travel some distance. "We're, ah... we've got an event today."


"Yes, an event" he repeated. "David Gaarm,"

It was a strange sounding name and at the time I thought it was a code of some sort. "What's that?"

"The serial killer from Charleston's Glen," Chester explained. "The one in the right wing."

The implication suddenly hit me. "Oh."

"That's what everybody's here for, you know," he continued.

"How many people?"

He tapped his head rapidly. "Oh, twenty witnesses is pretty standard. Family members, stuff like that. Then, uh, the vultures. Twenty people from the lottery, usually. And of course the camera crew."

"Of course." To be honest the thought was a little off-putting to me.

But Chester, who had first talked about the 'vultures' as though it disgusted him to do so, just shrugged. "It's for deterrence, you know. It doesn't do any good to keep everything quiet. Counterproductive, maybe."

He glanced up from his papers and saw the look on my face. "Well that's the idea anyhow. Look, kid... some oversight committee called last night and they want the March expenditure table. I don't even know where that is... they said A-S-A-P. I mean, they never really mean that or anything, but still... If you could get that..." he trailed off.

The expenditure tables were one of the first things I had indexed, by virtue of their having fallen at my feet my first day. "Yeah, I know where it's at."

He bobbed his head. "Great. I'll get the number for you in... uh, in an hour or so." His ear twitched and he blinked rapidly a couple times. "All right, I have to be going." Without another word he turned and left, and I was alone in the office.

I got to work quickly. I'd filed the tables in chronological order, but they went back some time and it took me a couple of minutes to find the right folder. That done, I set the paper on Henriksen's desk. And now I was in something of a quandary, because I had nothing to do. Normally in the morning Chester told me what he needed done, so in his absence I was somewhat rudderless.

I found my thoughts were inexorably drawn to the events transpiring outside. I hadn't really given a lot of thought to capital punishment or the executions themselves. My entire life, they had been something of an abstraction. My parents never worked on capital trials--not because of their convictions or anything, but for the both of them civil cases were the overwhelming part of their load. My mother once said she found working on the government cases "distasteful," but I've always thought that was more because of her antipathy towards the government than anything else.

I knew some guards talked to the prisoners, but I was just a clerk--perhaps that bears explanation. Henriksen and the other permanent guard staff were all employees of the Federal penal system--as was I. They wore uniforms and carried sidearms, however; whereas I wore a polo shirt and carried--if I was feeling daring--a fountain pen (I still do. It's a nice little number and it's monogrammed). There was a gulf between me and the prison guards (Chester excepted), and I was mostly in the dark about how the prison operated then.

Anyway, some guards talk to the prisoners. I know what you're thinking: it's not a good idea; it raises too many problems. I guess it might, but there's not really much of a chance of getting so involved with a prisoner that it compromises the integrity of the officers. For one, the prisoners usually don't stay long enough. And--most importantly--the guards are dedicated people. They don't let things interfere with their work--they can't. It's a mentality they have.

Almost always it's the end of the road for the people who come to Riverspoint. I think the thought, the subtle philosophy, is that they're not being punished here, they're just waiting, for the ultimate punishment, and it generally comes in a few weeks. While they're here, though, there's no reason to maintain silence. Most of them want to talk; all of the guards are willing to listen and some of them make a point of replying. In part this is because it's lonely and quiet in the prison, in part it's because conversation is perhaps the least we can do for the people behind the steel bars incarcerated here. It's just a given that the guards don't let the prisoners get through to them: they're too professional.

The only prisoner the facility had during the first month I worked there was Gaarm, in the right wing. I never went there. Although I had a few minutes free every day I mostly sat in the office and talked with Chester, and since I came and went through the same corridor on the left side of the complex, I never had to interact with the complex's other resident, who was not an employee of the penal system but rather a guest. And if the guards spoke with him, they never talked to me.

As a consequence I knew nothing about Gaarm. His records were in the office and I browsed them with some degree of interest. He was a banker who in his spare time enjoyed golf, a book club he belonged to, antiques, and impaling people with wooden pikes. He collected stamps and ears. He had a family, presumably loving, who naturally ignored his periodic business trips and the bloody homicides that inevitably accompanied them. Perhaps they lived in a dangerous neighbourhood and it didn't seem strange to them.

The trial was a quiet affair, no spectacular outbursts from the defendants or the victims' families, no lawyers who made up clever rhymes. The details in the court record were lurid not out of sensationalism but because it's difficult to present facts about a man who killed people by pinning them to the ground with stakes like giant butterflies without being a little gory. They never found any bodies, and perhaps they never will--Gaarm was not forthcoming. Anecdotally, though, one of the investigators said that they could tell where the killings had occurred because blood running off the bodies framed them months later in lush vegetation like floral chalk lines.

Within two years Gaarm had expended all of his appeals and was moved, a week before I began work, to Riverspoint. In the written record his story ended there. I could surmise it from reports on the weekly expenditures in terms of life support, food, and what have you. Gaarm was a couple of kilos a week and a cell the robots skipped when they scrubbed everything down with bleach or whatever they use.

Henriksen didn't talk of him much. At the time I didn't know why, whether that was his nature or whether Gaarm was especially noisome. Whatever the reason, I spent four weeks filing papers and sorting records with blind, singular devotion, and ignored whatever was transpiring twenty metres from where I worked, the end of one of billions of human stories on this planet. It was an interesting thing to think about, really. For the outside world Gaarm had disappeared, and he would soon do so for everyone else as well.

I could hear the bustle from where I was--shuffling feet on the dirt outside, the grinding noise of car tyres on gravel. People were not especially deferential; there was murmured conversation I could pick out through the walls and occasional laughter. I don't know what the jokes were; perhaps I don't want to know. I can tell you from my experience now, though, that all the humour was coming from the outsiders. The prison workers have always been to my knowledge appropriately respectful.

I was thinking about what the scene outside must have looked like when the atmosphere changed so suddenly I could feel it in an instant. The only sound was my own breathing. I heard someone say something, but the words were indistinct. I felt butterflies dance in my stomach as though I were somehow involved in the goings-on, and the heavy weight of deadly inevitability pressed on me as much as it did any man.

Suddenly there began a low, keening wail that pierced the walls of the prison like a knife. It was inhuman, a low-pitched scream that sounded almost like a malformed song, brutally tortured music. To wax poetic, the noise was like how I have always imagined Hell would sound. It built in pitch and intensity, becoming all the more unbearable as it did so. There were no pauses for words or breath, and I've no idea how long it went. For me, sitting safe and sound in an office where the most dangerous thing was a letter opener, it was close to an eternity.

Without warning there was a brief series of cracking, percussive sounds and the wail stopped. The dead silence was... was terrifying, is the best word I can find, and I felt something catch in my throat. My ears waited attentively, but there was nothing. It's impossible to describe the sickening sensations I felt then, but even now--myself a grizzled veteran, and so forth--they haunt me. At one time or another I've forgotten my address, the phone numbers of girlfriends, my date of birth--but I've never forgotten that warm, pleasant day in August. I think everyone thinking about murder should have to be in my shoes on a day like that. If we did that the crime rate would plummet, I guarantee.

Half an hour later as I still tried to put my mind back together the door to the office clicked open and Chester stepped in. He looked tired. "You have the records?" he asked softly. I nodded and indicated them with a dip of my head. He nodded his own back in appreciation. "Thank you. Let me find the number." He ruffled through papers in a small card box on his desk, the two of us in utter silence.

That kind of quiet is a different one, though, a wholly separate beast than the one I'd heard thirty minutes before. It was a silence born of respect, not terror. The kind of silence you might find at a funeral. A normal, human sort of silence. We humans like noise, of course; that's probably one of the reasons why we never shut up. But there are times when stillness is called for, even healthy, and this was one of them.

And it was different. It's a little difficult to explain, I suppose, to someone who's never quite experienced what I'm talking about. It's difficult to explain a mortal fear so pervasive that it could hush fifty people in an instant, like a conductor might. It's difficult to explain how that silence was far more frightening, far more powerful, than I'd ever thought silence could be. It's difficult to explain how standing on the edge of the precipice, knowing the fall is preordained--how this could be worse than the fall itself. It's difficult to make that stillness seem as absolutely alien as it felt for me that day. Sometimes, words just fail you.

Presently Chester handed me a small white card, neatly labelled in a way that suggested he had not been behind its creation. "Here you go, kid. If you get 'em off by noon, that'll be a record for the higher ups. I'm sure they'll be thrilled." I nodded and pushed my chair over to the fax machine. As I dialled the number, Chester drew his breath a couple of times as though he intended to speak, but didn't. Finally he asked, "so, how's your day been so far?"

"Interesting," I said. I didn't have a better word. "Yours?"

"Oh," he said. "Same."

The next three years passed by as uneventfully as any years can pass when your line of work peripherally involves killing people. Because I worked in the morning I was present at dozens of executions, none as bad--for me--as the first. I kept things in line, instituted new organisation systems that as far as I know everyone ignored, and generally obsessed about the office as a Border collie is wont to do. It passed the time.

One day in March I was busily resorting some of the older utilities bills when Chester began the conversation that likely changed my life as no other event had to that date. "So, kid," he began nonchalantly. "What's new?"

"Nothing much," I said. "The sorting is going faster than I'd thought it would. I think I can have it done by tomorrow. The new system will be much more efficient," I told him.

Chester laughed. "The last three weren't good enough? I swear in one day you care more about those records than I have my whole damn life." He chuckled friendlily.

"There's still room for improvement," I said in mock indignation.

He nodded. "Fair enough." He was quiet for a few seconds. "You like working here?"

I sometimes wish I'd had to think more about that question. There was a quailing rebel, the remains of my old idealistic self, who wanted to hate that I could allow myself to work in such a place. I generally ignored him. "Yeah, it's ok. The work... keeps me busy. You give me a lot of freedom to organise these things... I mean, what more could I want?"

"It doesn't pay so well," he noted. That was quite true, the pay was horrible. Three years after I'd started work I was still living in government-subsidised housing trying to figure out a way to save up enough money to move out. I said as much, and Chester said a few words of sympathy. Then his demeanour changed a bit.

"Listen. You don't have to take me seriously if you don't want, but... uh..." he sighed. "Something has come up. In the system."

I cocked my head a little, raised an eyebrow. I wondered if I'd made a mistake with my filing. "It has?"

"Yeah. You know Vance Regal?" I shook my head--I was pretty sure he wasn't one of the prisoners, but the name was completely unfamiliar. "He's a guard on the shift after ours," Chester explained. "About your height, brown, drives an old sports car." I shrugged and said I still wasn't sure who he was. "All right," Chester said. "Well anyway, he's leaving. And that leaves a spot open we need to fill."

I didn't get the import of what Chester was saying. "Who are you tapping? Do we have his records?" I was still thinking it was an issue with the files I had sorted.

"No, we don't. And, honestly I..." Chester tapped his head. "I do not know who we might find to fill our personnel gap. That's why I'm... I'm asking you," he said quickly.

"You're what?" I said, a little more snappishly than I'd intended. Chester didn't notice.

"Would you be interested in becoming a full employee of the federal government as a guard at Riverspoint Correctional Facility?" he asked, all in one breath. I don't know why he was so hesitant to ask me, really, but he seemed to be uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

Admittedly I was as well; perhaps he understood this. I blinked a few times at him. "Right," Chester said. "I know it's crazy, but we need someone to fill his place."

"You can't just talk to SLD?" I asked.

Chester laughed harshly. "No. I don't trust SLD. SLD sends me people who don't know what they're getting into. You're not the first guy here we hired from Labour, just the only one good enough to be kept around. We got real lucky in getting you." Now it was his turn to be curt. "SLD is garbage."

"Oh," I said.

"Look, kid, I'm not insulting you. Like I said you're great. You're just the only one, you see? They have a horrible track record."

"Oh," I said.

"It's almost not worth the trouble to talk to them."

"Oh." I said. Despite his reassurances it was a little hard not to feel a tad bit insulted.

"I'd talk to Labour but I couldn't be guaranteed that we'd actually get someone. We're on a down cycle now, nobody expected for a few weeks at least. Plenty of time for training, but only if we don't miss with the first employee, you know? I mean..." Chester paused to think about what he meant. "I think you're the best guy for this. Nobody else can just take Regal's shift, they're all working other jobs. But... well, look at what you're doing, kid. There isn't eight hours of organisation to be done a day. I mean, you do a great job but you also do a lot of busywork and all..."

I had to concede that. "Are you suggesting my position may be in danger?"

He shook his head violently. "No, that's not what I meant at all, kid. I'm just saying that if we had to lose a shift somewhere it could probably be the guy who spends six hours a day finding new ways to group a database nobody but him looks like anyway, you know?" I knew.

"So you want me to be a guard?"

"It's a big step up, sure," he said. "But I think you'd be pretty good at it. That's my opinion. Maybe three years, I don't know you so well as I think..."

I thought about that for a silent minute. Chester seemed to know the right way to phrase things so that I'd give them that thought; it was a talent I didn't realise at the time. "Just a guard?" I asked him. The 'guards' at Riverspoint were frequently--almost universally--riflemen as well. Given the unlikelihood of anyone needing to be guarded the word was practically a euphemism. And I could see that Chester knew what I was getting at.

"Well... no," he admitted. "Vance has been working here for six years; has some responsibilities. You'd be taking over, um, all of his duties."

"Can I think about it?"

Chester's face changed. "Sure!"

Had anyone else asked me I know I would have turned them down in an instant. Chester's words had more of an impact; his beliefs of what I could--and should--do were much more valuable than anyone else's, perhaps even more than my own. I didn't even think longer than the end of the shift before I accepted his offer. It was the second time in my life that I had made a decision--looking back on it now--without knowing what I was getting into, the first having been taking SLD's job to begin with. A wiser man would have learned from his mistakes, I suppose, but nobody ever called me a wise man.

Training was perfunctory and took only a week. I was taught protocol, fitted for a uniform, given a thick rulebook. I was also instructed in marksmanship, both with the sidearm all guards carried and the more lethal rifles the facility itself used. Coming as I did from a peaceful urban home, it was my first experience with a gun, and I was scarily good with both of them. My instructor complimented me, and said I was a natural. I thanked her but, personally, I wasn't sure that was a good thing.

I began work as a guard precisely two weeks after I accepted Chester's offer. I did make a point of coming in an hour early to talk with him and to continue my job as office clerk. I planned to do this uncompensated, although Chester swung arrangements to cover the clerk position as part of my guard duties and I drew additional pay for it, which didn't bother me at all.

For nearly a month after I began work on the new shift there were no prisoners anywhere. I sat in oppressive silence as the sky grew dark outside and began to swing towards night, watched blackness set in everywhere, in stark contrast to the brightness of the prison complex itself. I patrolled the grounds, rather futilely--if anyone had wanted to break in I would have been an easy target, and although manned patrols were specified in the manual perimeter security was largely computerised. I spent most of my time, though, in deathly silence and an unfortunate sort of boredom.

I think the sense of inevitability someone such as myself felt at that moment was more emotionally painful than I first gave it credit for. I knew the first moment I held the rifle that the instructor proffered that I would be using it eventually on a living target. A criminal, yes, but when all is said and done I'm not sure you think about that when you're looking down the sight. It's more a rationale for later. Later in the office, later at home, later at the Pearly Gates.

Although a similar reason, I think, is one of the reasons why a few of the guards don't talk to the prisoners; why there's a bit of a tradition that says you're not supposed to. That tradition says it's not a good idea to think of the people on the cellblock as human. The longer and more effectively you can tell yourself that they aren't, the longer and more effectively you can perform your job. I think this goes for soldiers too, but warfare and the justice system are different in ways I hope is clear. Our lives aren't in danger, here--only our souls.

I thought about the problem many, many long nights when I was alone at Riverspoint--you think about things like that when it's late and there's nothing else to do. I decided that it mattered that the creatures in the cells were people, and that trying to convince myself of anything else was unfair, maybe immoral. Names and prison numbers don't commit crimes, people do--it's important that one remembers this. It's also important to remember that people are the ones being punished. The more we dehumanise the inmates, the less meaning anything else we do to them has. I've tried to never lose sight of the raw humanity that makes Riverspoint at once so important and so depressing. And I've never told myself that anything but people sit behind the cold steel bars--or on the platform, out in the courtyard, where their lives end.

A rifle squad is five people (generally three trained shooters from the state and, to save cost, two of the complex guards), two of whom are given blanks on any given execution. Your chances are fair, then, that you won't be firing anything more than a relatively harmless pyrotechnic. A lot of people hold on to that. I do as well, but of course as your number of 'events' goes up the likelihood that all of the times you pulled the trigger you had a blank chambered tends towards zero. So I knew from the moment I first fired at a paper target that not only would I eventually be part of a group that killed people, I would inevitably be the one doing the killing.

I'm not idealistic enough to think that this makes me as bad as the people whom the state executes, to be fair, but it's still an interesting thought. It's a troubling one, too, when one is sitting alone in a complex where countless hundreds of souls have sat with similar inevitabilities weighing down on them until at last they are taken out to the yard and capitally punished. When I started work I wondered if there were any ghosts who haunted Riverspoint. In the following years, working a late night shift until one in the morning, I lost all doubt. That's probably for another day, though. It's a bright June afternoon outside and I'm getting somewhat chilled thinking about it, you see.

So, as surely as the prisoners all knew that they would eventually be killed, so I knew that I would eventually be killing them. As I said, a similar inevitability. It only grew worse when the first prisoner moved in.

His name was Taubok. That was it, Taubok; either he lacked a first name or he lacked a last name, I was never sure. He was a small-time criminal who had the opportunity to become a bigger-time criminal and just had a few rivals to bump off first. A landlord apprehended him in a citizen's arrest while Taubok's second victim lay dying in his armchair, probably still drawing breath, and the barrel of his pistol was hot. It was an open-and-shut case.

Taubok looked fierce, unlike many of the prisoners who we've held over the years. When I was on duty he was almost always asleep in his cell as I walked past. Once or twice I could feel his eyes on me, turned around and met his smouldering glare. He never said a word to me, not even at those times when the weight of my sidearm was more comforting than anything else in the world and I wished like hell that they had more than one guard assigned to a shift.

The date of his execution came swiftly. By luck--an unfortunate kind--I had been selected to be one of the two guards on the firing squad; a woman named Susan Neal who sometimes worked the shift after mine was the other. A man I had never seen before and who I never saw again read the order of execution. Everything happened very quickly.

I know some people who feel the recoil of their gun extremely carefully when they fire it, and most of them conclude that they were firing blanks. It makes them happy. I don't know what I fired; I suppose I'm content enough to assume either way. Taubok died quickly and without much fuss, in doing so being more polite than he probably ever was in life. Afterwards I told myself, "that was not such a big deal," which was a fiction I maintained until something snapped in me and I was violently ill during my regular shift that afternoon. That it was such a big deal may be one of the reasons I'm so taciturn about it now, although I'm no psychologist and I guess I can't say for sure.

Six years went by after Taubok's execution, and I was present on dozens of firing squads, before a third momentous event transpired.

On the evening of 14 October we received a new prisoner from the state. I was there, as was Chester Henriksen, when the vehicle from Sovereign pulled up in the gravel driveway of the Riverspoint Complex. Two guards stepped out of the back, and then a third escorted the newest addition to our facility to the door at the left wing.

Her name was Katherine Burns. She was a fox both literally and as far as I was concerned figuratively; something like Helen in a blue prison outfit and handcuffs. She was a dusty grey, most unusually coloured, I believe. The underside of her muzzle was a cream colour that ran down her body until it vanished behind the unflattering correctional attire. Myself being a Border collie, black and white, my own fur lies at either end of the spectrum and nowhere in between, like a charcoal drawing. That beauty was found at these poles had been up to that point a given; I hadn't dreamed that half-whites and half-blacks could be so appealing. But I digress.

She looked tired. Her head was bowed; her silvery tail was nearly unmoving as she trudged forward, lead by her escort. Her ears were not pricked upright but instead lay partly flattened against her head. Still, I thought they were attractive, and the long flowing hair that bracketed them drew one's eye naturally as it fell down her back and shoulders.

It's difficult to tell how handsome anyone is behind the ill-fitting and bland light-blue outfits capital prisoners are forced to wear. All the same I could tell that Burns was beyond gorgeous from the moment she stepped to the ground from the corrections van. Gentle curves shaped the outfit in all the right places and none of the wrong ones. Although she looked dispirited, her fur was impeccably arranged, not one piece out of place. Mine is like this as well, but mostly because I refuse to leave my flat looking any other way. It's not vanity, it's compulsion, but what's a man to do? Burns did not strike me as compulsive. At the time I almost wondered if she had given up and God Himself brushed her until she looked as radiant as she did. It's difficult to look radiant when one marches to a cellblock dressed in a coarse denim jumpsuit.

If it seems I'm lavishing description on her when I have done so for no-one else it is because I am doing so purposefully. Most of us Border collies look fairly similar; Chester is the same sort of fellow you see every day on the tram. Katherine Burns was unlike anything I had seen before, and probably unlike anything you will ever see. I consider the description well worth it.

"James!" Chester called out to someone on the Sovereign team. One of the two guards who had first stepped from the vehicle looked up and gave a brief salute.

"Chester! I come bearing gifts from the land of Sovereign," he said in a husky voice. I couldn't place his accent exactly, not being a linguist, but he was not from around the Riverspoint area.

"So you do," Chester said. He opened the door to the institute, and the two of us flanked the door, following the three-man detail inside. "Cell 4," Chester directed them.

It took a scant few minutes before Burns was safely incarcerated and the remaining five persons stood outside her cell.

"Who is she?" Chester asked. James pulled out a sheaf of paper.

"Katherine Burns. Killed her husband and two of his friends, one of them his mistress. She's dangerous. Don't let her out of your sight," he cautioned.

"Oh, we won't," Chester said.

James snorted. "Zip up your pants, Chester," he said around the piece of gum he was chewing. Chester shrugged, and gave a mock salute. "I'm serious, man. She'll get you like she did her husband, won't you Katie?" This last he directed towards the still figure in the cell behind him.

"Yes," the fox said quietly, the first time I heard her speak. "I suppose I will get him like I did my husband." The threat was lifeless, a listless monotone. As she spoke I caught a glance of her eyes. They were dull, and every mannerism was of one who has resigned himself to the fact that he is condemned. I've seen it before; it's disturbing.

"See, there you go." James said. "So watch out."

Papers were transferred quickly and the men filed out, leaving Chester and I alone in his office. I sorted out the documents and directed them to their relevant places. Chester watched, and we were quiet. When I was done, I looked at him and he nodded in approval. "All right," he said. "I'm going to leave, then. Goodnight, kid." I didn't follow him out of the office.

After I watched his car pull away I stood in the office for a few moments before turning to the door that lead to the right cellblock. I opened it a little hesitantly, then walked through.

From what I could tell Katherine had not moved since she had been left there. She looked broken, hunched over herself on the cot in her cell like some child's discarded doll. Her head was parallel to her chest; her tail curled around her compacted form like a sash. I could see her shoulders move rhythmically with her breath, but there was nothing else. I stood across from her cell for ten minutes, as motionless as she. I'm certain she knew I was there, but she said nothing. So I spoke first.

"Welcome to Riverspoint," I said. It was the best thing I could think of saying, although now that I think of it being welcomed to Riverspoint is not something most people would want to hear. Katherine's head moved a little, but so imperceptibly that I'm not sure in which direction.

"Thanks," she said quietly. "I guess."

"I suppose I shouldn't ask how you're doing?"

She raised her head, finally, and looked at me. She had a beautiful face. The shading of her colours was subtle, and the patterns of the grey fur on her muzzle made her look always as though part of her lay in shadow. It naturally drew one's eyes to the rest of her countenance and the effect seemed, when she smiled wanly in response, to illuminate her mouth, highlight the delicate movements of her face, pick out in the contours of her fur little hints of emotion and feeling. "Given the circumstances, I guess I'm doing ok."

"Given the circumstances," I agreed. Dead silence ensued. It was I who broke it a second time. "So where are you from?" I've never been good at small talk.

"Coalton, West Kavettia," she said.

I'd been half-hoping that she and I would share something like that in common, but I've never been to West Kavettia. The province is a popular-enough vacation destination but my folks preferred the North-East and I've always lived in the general area.

"I've never been there," I admitted. "I was born and raised in Tallenberg. Mérèstat," I explained further.

"I hadn't ever seen the Eastern Sea before I was moved out here for the trial," she said. "It's kind of beautiful." She grew quiet. "Isn't there a rule against you guards talking to prisoners?"

As I've said, there wasn't. Just longstanding tradition. I did not tell this to her, though. "Maybe," I said instead. "But if there is I don't think I care much, to be honest."

She looked at me wearily, and I gathered she thought I was just another gawker, if maybe more subtle. "Is that so?"

While it was true that I didn't talk to every prisoner, I did talk to more than one, for reasons that I have already mentioned. Burns was not my first, and I explained the reason behind my conversation: "Well... I'm alone most of the time here. I don't have anyone to talk to. I'm not going to pass up a chance to find a conversation partner."

"Pretty temporary one," she said.

"Maybe," I said again. "But where's the loss in talking?"

"I guess," she said. Her voice throughout was quiet, treading carefully the boundary between speech and whisper. There were of course no other sounds to distract me from what she was saying. At any rate her answer was a welcomed permit to continue the conversation, and I took advantage of it, of course.

We talked frequently from that day forwards. I've said we guards don't allow ourselves to become too involved with the prisoners; I had told myself from the beginning that she would be no different. But I was a fool, of course--I should've known better--and in two weeks I felt closer to her than to any person besides Chester. After a few hours on that first night her face seemed to gain something, a certain spark in her eye. Her speech grew louder, more reasonable--she had a pleasant-sounding voice.

It helped that although we came from different parts of the country we shared many things in common. She had studied political science briefly before dropping out of college to become an artist--something I had always considered, to be honest. She enjoyed reading the same science fiction authors I did. We both loved classical music--she Elvis, I the Rolling Stones, but I believe you take what you can get. We both enjoyed cooking, although she allowed that it had been several years since she had been in a kitchen.

I steered away from discussing the reasons for her incarceration for some time; it was, in fact, Katherine who brought it up one night about three weeks after we had first met. I had been curious, certainly, but I had always thought it was just one of those things you didn't ask people.

As on most nights she was sitting cross-legged on the floor and I was standing with my back against the facing cell. We had been idly talking about the pleasures of shovelling snow when the conversation trailed off. She sighed and said, abruptly, "how many people in here tell you that they're innocent?"

I thought. For sure it was a common statement, although numbers escaped me. "I don't know," I said. "More than a few."

She nodded. Her voice was quieter now. "How many do you believe?"

"Almost none."

"That's probably a good idea," she said. "I don't think they'd be sincere. Not that... not that for most of them lying to you would help I guess."

"It wouldn't," I admitted. "Although many people will tell anyone who listens that they're innocent. I couldn't tell you why, I guess, since I'm pretty sure fewer of them are innocent than say they are."

She thought a moment, her eyes looking up, seeming to search her brain. "Probably. Maybe they want to believe it's true, though. There were plenty of people like that at Sovereign."

"I bet. Why do you ask, though? Are you innocent?" It was an inevitable question, one she had to have known I would ask.

"It's not important," she said. "I've been found guilty in a court of law, and my appeals have been rejected so far. So it would seem I am not."

"That's not an answer most people would give," I pointed out.

She shrugged her shoulders. She looked at me, and her eyes, although soft, were piercing. "I could tell you I was innocent but it would not matter much to anyone but me and maybe you."

And this was absolutely true, but the more she spoke and the more thought I put into it the more I wanted to play into the trap I imagined she was laying. I wanted to know what she thought, whether she was going to say she was guilty or not, how sincere she would be. "It wouldn't. No matter what you say, it's going to come down to the state and your lawyer, I imagine." Katherine nodded in agreement. "So, are you innocent?"

She broke eye contact with me and stared at the ground for a few moments before lifting her head. "Yes, I suppose I am." And then, in a voice that was soft and hid a subtle plea, she said, "I'd sort of like to tell my story, if you'd listen."

I sat down on the sterile floor of the prison complex, looked at her through bars that framed her figure. "Of course I would." In answer, she smiled fully for the first time since I had met her.

"It is simple enough," she said, and her voice seemed to have changed a little. It was captivating. "My husband and I did not get along well. He was... I suppose he was an all right sort of guy, not my type though. It was a bad decision, our relationship, not the first bad decision I've made." She sighed, and continued.

"I'd known he was having an affair for some time, it was common enough knowledge. I guess I should have been scandalised but nobody seemed to care much. Not even me. I was pretty resigned. I didn't hate him and I wouldn't have hated her, had we met. It wasn't worth caring about anymore. I found that I got more angry when they messed up my order at the sandwich place than I did when I thought about my husband. I guess that's kind of tragic, in a way.

"I wondered off and on what I had done, you know--how I'd failed. I was pretty sure I had failed in some way. I blamed myself. But it was hard to think of a reason beyond the fact that we just weren't meant for each other, and we never had been. I wasn't... happy for him, I suppose... happy about the fact that he had found someone else. I mean, it was ok that he was happy, but he was too stupid to even try to hide what he was doing. Or maybe he didn't care, that's a possibility I don't deny. But if he didn't care, after a while I didn't either. It really wasn't worth it.

"In April two years ago, he and a friend decided that they were going on a fishing trip. That's what they told me, although it wasn't quite true and I knew it even then. We only had one car, and we both used it to drive to work, so he... needed some way of getting to his little rendezvous and he enlisted a friend, a good friend of his. We got along ok, old Roger and me. That's in the past though.

"I guess nobody really knows what happened, but they turned up on a little road off highway 80 four days after they left, quite dead. They were still in Roger's car, and the car was soaked in blood, so it must have been quite a sight. Probably not pleasant for the poor hitchhiker who found it."

Her voice had been slowly getting softer as she spoke. It was like listening to a campfire story, although this one was deadly serious. She was masterful in the way she talked, though.

"I was, of course, the most likely suspect for the obvious reason that I had no idea where they were going and my apathy about his affair was common knowledge. Oh and yes, also because I'm strong enough to overpower three people long enough to stab them to death. Don't I look it?" The sarcasm was bitter, but not inflected in her voice, which was still soft and melodic.

And to tell the truth she didn't look strong enough to overpower three people. She looked reserved and non-confrontational. Not weak, but I didn't worry she would be able to break the bars of her cell and escape. There were a couple of people that I always half-considered had a real chance of being able to do that, but Katherine was by no means one of them.

"I wasn't there. I didn't know where they were headed. You see, I didn't have the time or the money to go out on fishing trips. And... I wouldn't have wanted to go even if I'd had both. By then I was much happier at home when it was quiet, and I could think my own thoughts. He took more than one trip and I always stayed home, just left to go to work and the store if I needed. I'd been at work. That was my answer, you know, when they asked where I'd been.

"In fact the biggest thing working against me was that my husband was well-respected in our community and at his workplace. And our little town didn't want to have a murderer on the loose, so they needed to find someone who could be blamed very quickly.

"I had an alibi, I had a pretty good attorney, character witnesses, the whole deal. It was an interesting trial. Worthless, but I guess maybe I should have known that it would be. At times there is... there is precious little room for the truth in a courtroom. Or a jury.

"My lawyer was very sympathetic to me after the verdict was read, which was an act I'm sure. He still got paid after all. He's still working on the case but I get the feeling he could care less. It's all sort of disheartening for me. Sometimes I want to just give up."

These words for some reason were what finally began to hit me. My heart went out to her. Looking at what I have written perhaps the impact is lost; I'm not nearly as good a storyteller as Katherine. And just telling you what her words meant doesn't do much for you, the reader. But I wished I could say something, maybe even take her hand, comfort her somehow. That of course was most assuredly against the rules, and I was getting in over my head.

She was quiet after this last part of her story. She started a few times to say something else but decided against it and was quiet once more. Finally she shrugged. "And that's me."

I made a decision then that I do not regret, although I should. I reached my arm through the bars of the cell until my hand rested on her shoulder. She looked up at me, a little surprised. Then she smiled, and I found then that I really didn't care how many rules I was breaking, how great a mistake, the degree of my error. I don't know whether that makes me a good person or a bad person, but there are times when simple labels like those just don't do situations justice, and this was one of them.

"You don't have to believe me," she said, while my hand still touched her. It was an interesting thing to say because it was true, and because I had already told myself that I wouldn't believe her. I had to think about whether or not I still thought that this was the best course of action and I came to the conclusion that I'm sure you are expecting.

"I do, though," I told her. "I can't explain everything about this world. I can't even explain the way the courts work all the time, Kate. But I'm sure your appeal will be successful. I don't imagine if what you say is true they'd let a conviction like that stand."

"I hope so," she said, almost inaudibly. One of her arms came up and she laid her hand atop mine. It was warm; her touch was gentle and her paw seemed to fit mine perfectly. We spent a quiet few minutes like this and I thought that our souls touched at that moment. I believe she felt so as well.

Finally she took her hand away. "We aren't supposed to be doing this, are we?"

I withdrew my arm as well. "No, no, I suppose we aren't."

"You don't care, do you?"

I shook my head slowly. "Not really."

We grew closer after that, and I abandoned all notion of impartiality, the principles upon which I had allowed our conversations to begin in the first place. I looked up her files and discovered that what she had said was true, although in places incomplete. I couldn't fill in the gaps; for some reason the court record was sealed and a good two-thirds of the evidence and testimony was either similarly sealed or, more troublingly, mysteriously lost. But I had to weigh what I thought. I had faith in the justice system--I had to, really, or else I'm not sure I could've kept on with what I did. And fifteen people had decided that Kate was guilty. Who was I to believe she was not?

I didn't know, and I don't know. I decided it didn't matter. For the first time in my life I was, as far as I could tell, deeply and undeniably in love. There was not a way around this statement, and the reality coloured my thoughts frequently, especially as Kate and I began to talk more and more often. Furtive touches and half-embraces through the walls of her cell became more common. The flowers in the yard were still in bloom, thanks to the amenable North-East weather, and once or twice I presented her with a couple to enjoy for the few hours it was safe for her to do so--I couldn't risk anyone guessing at what was going on. I made dinner back at my flat and brought it to her; listened to her variously compliment my cooking and offer me pointers. I provided some coloured chalk and some paper, and she gave me in return some beautiful sketches I still have at home.

She seemed to love the activity, grasped at the little shreds of normalcy we take for granted. For my part I loved making her happy. With our relationship becoming more than simple conversation the chances that I would be caught increased, and I worried about this too--hence the flowers departed when I did, after my shift ended.

It was Chester--fortunately--who caught on. One evening as I worked filing, he cleared his throat as though about to speak. I looked at him from my chair at the filing cabinet. "What's going on?" I asked.

He clicked his tongue and tapped his head. As he did so I began to appreciate what he probably knew, and I covered up my apprehension as best I could.

"What do you think about Katherine Burns?" he asked finally.

I shrugged, as convincingly as possible. "She's an interesting case. I've been taking a look at her records in my spare time."

"Is that all?"

"What are you implying, Chester?"

"I've a mind you know already," he said. I just looked at him and said nothing. "Look, kid. Just... just don't do anything stupid, ok?"

I nodded. "That's good advice."

"It is. Trust me, kid, I... know what I'm talking about. I'm not going to tell you what to do, and I'm not going to tell anyone what's going on but... you're a smart guy. You can think for yourself I know. So think about what you're doing, what you plan to do, what your future looks like. Bad decisions..." He stopped, chose his words carefully. "Bad decisions hurt, kid."

I don't know what, exactly, Chester thought was going on between myself and Kate, how far he thought it had gone or how far I was going to allow it to go. I considered his words carefully, though and they rang in my head with an ever-greater urgency as I did gather a plan together.

At the end of the first week of November, I had made a decision. And I spoke to Kate, and Kate alone, about it.

Thursday evening, just after Chester left, I set things into motion. I had checked to make sure that no visitors were due--they weren't; they infrequently were on my shift. And I went to Katherine's cell with my keys in hand.

"How'd you like to go to the beach?"

She smiled broadly, more than I had ever seen her smile. It was a welcome, warming sight. Realising the magnitude of the choice I was about to make I slid my key through the lock on the door and released the catches. The door's bars slid smoothly, and there was nothing between me and the fox but air. I took her hand and we stood closer to each other than we had ever been. That sensation alone, for me, made my choice worthwhile.

I wrote a curt note and left it on the desk. It read, 'Emergency. Radio and phone not working. Heading for Sovereign in staff vehicle. Will return soon.' This was all a lie--we didn't even have a staff vehicle--but it would provide some cover. I hoped. I opened all the locks in the hopes that someone would assume that there had been a general power failure somewhere and I could talk my way out of whatever came up. I realised I would probably fail--in fact it was a near-certainty--but the note gave me a little sense of security, and sometimes that's all we really want.

Kate stuck by my side faithfully as we made our way to my car. I'd told her that if she fled or threatened me I would shoot her and my gun was indeed loaded, although I don't think I could have brought myself to fire and she probably knew it. I opened the passenger-side door for her, shut it behind her, then got in myself.

The drive to the beach was only twenty minutes, and we passed it quickly in idle chatter. I was heading for an area along the Eastern Sea that I knew was public and generally unpatrolled. We would, so far as I could ensure, be safe.

Kate and I sat in the car for a few minutes after we arrived, listening to the sound of the surf and watching the breakers. The sun was setting--unfortunately not in a picturesque way over the waves, since it was behind us, but it cast red and orange light that glinted on the sea as the day slowly expired.

"It's beautiful," Kate breathed. "It's so... it's completely different from... from anything I've seen before..." she was overwhelmed. I was not, so much--or at least not by the ocean. I'd spent many a happy day in my youth playing in the tide pools and distressing my parents, who feared I would drown. I still don't know how to swim.

Eventually we left the automobile. Although it was November the evening was pleasant and the air was still warm from the heat of the day, although it was steadily cooling. I had a blanket in the boot of the car and I fetched this before we headed down to the beach.

The sea is a wonderful thing as far as I'm concerned. It's a sensory experience quite unlike any other, what with the way the foam seems to fluoresce in the twilight and the calls of the seabirds and the feeling of the wet spray and the sand beneath your feet. And it has an interesting smell, as well--not one, I suppose, you'd consider pleasant ordinarily, or all by itself, but it fits just perfectly with the overall nature of the beach. As the gulls circle overhead and the waves crash on the shore in their ceaseless struggle against the sands, you can taste the salt in the air and the beach can seem to be all that matters. Especially at night, when you're alone there, you might as well be on some prehistoric shore, a million miles and years removed from the vagaries of civilisation. Sometimes, I like to imagine that this is so.

Tonight civilisation didn't matter, although Kate did, and I wasn't completely alone, nor did I want to be. I spread the blanket on the beach and weighted it down with some choice stones, and we took to strolling, a few feet away from the reach of the waves. We held hands and talked as we ambulated and walked to nowhere in particular.

Never before in my life have I turned around to look at where I came from on the wet sand of the beach and seen two sets of footprints, side by side. Normally there's just the one, since I'm usually by myself. When we finally walked as far as we wanted to I turned and noticed this phenomenon and I found it extremely powerful. I used to come to the beach at night to be alone, and this night I had wanted more than anything to be with someone else, and there were the footprints. The two sets fit perfectly together, I thought.

We retraced our steps and spoke of minor and inconsequential things. Sometimes we were quiet and just listened to the sounds of the beach and thought our own separate thoughts. We eventually reached the point where we had started. The stars were clear, now--the sky was black out where we were, a perfect inky darkness unmarred by clouds or flying machines, with no moon. I pointed the stars out to Kate as we sat down on the blanket.

She seemed overwhelmed again. "They're lovely... I've never seen them so clearly!" Neither had I. I put my arm around her and she laid her head on my shoulder as we traced patterns in the little glittering points of light. Everything seemed to be perfect, magnified for our own benefit. I don't know what it is that makes these nights so special, but I think it's magic. And if anyone doesn't believe in magic, well, I guarantee you they haven't ever spent a warm night on a perfect beach with perfect stars and the world a painting and the sounds of the waves a symphony no mortal could compose and behind it all a silent stillness that amplifies the glory of each new thing your senses describe. It was one of those nights where everything comes together as though to say, "well kiddo, beat this."

The words just aren't there for me to tell you what that night was like, and they weren't there for me then either. I wanted to tell Kate that just her presence took that perfect night and made it more perfect, if that were possible, and all the things that get said in Shakespeare's plays and slow songs and those romance novels you find at the checkout stand. But I'm no good with words that way.

Instead I said this: "Kate, I love you." It's only four words, and I know Shakespeare wouldn't have approved. But as with so many things, I just don't care. Not now, and most assuredly not then, when she turned her head to look at me and said, very simply, "I love you too."

Friday evening I had some new mail to sort--the mail comes in between three and seven in the afternoon, most days. Chester and I were sitting in the office, him reading some book, making his little notes in the margins, and me reading through the letters and deciding which ones were important, and which were not.

"Kid," Chester said suddenly. "I notice there seems to be some kind of... security issue last night. Looks like the power cut out or something. A bunch of the cells in the right wing got opened."

"They did?"

He looked at me curiously. "Yeah. You know what happened?" Again I was certain that he already knew himself, but I played along.

"Not really. Must be a glitch," I told him. "I was here from four to about one thirty and I didn't see anything."

"Must be." He shook his head. "Well I suppose I should trust you know what's going on."

I shrugged. "You might. Did anyone get out?"

"No, doesn't look like it," Chester said. "Damndest thing. I'll have to have someone take a look at that."

"I can if you want me to," I offered.

He nodded. "Yeah, why don't you?"

He went back to reading and said nothing more for the remainder of his shift. And he never asked me again about the cells being opened. I guess he knew all he needed to, or he didn't care to know more. It's times like this that make me like him so much.

As he stood to leave, though, he tossed an additional comment my way. "I've got word the final decision in Miss Burn's appeal is going to be handed down Monday."

I looked up a little faster than my façade should have allowed. "Really? Any hints on how it'll go?"

"Honestly?" I nodded, not wanting the answer I knew he was going to give. "Honestly I don't think it's going to go well. I'd... I'd expect an execution date to be set down." My heart stopped.

"You really think so ?" He said he did.

I've mentioned before that I'm a coward. I don't like this very much, but I've never been able to change it and I'm not sure how I'd go about doing so anyway.

"Do you think I might be ill Monday evening, and somehow unable to make it to work?"

He looked at me in the sort of grandfatherly fashion Chester sometimes has. "I think you might be at that."

"Thanks," I said, and he left.

I called Chester and told him that I was sick Tuesday as well and would make it in at the start of my shift but probably no earlier. He didn't seem too surprised. He left wordlessly when I arrived about five minutes before I was due to start work.

My heart heavy with the tremendous weight of the next few minutes on my soul, I slowly opened the door to the right cellblock wing. Kate was waiting.

"How are you doing?" I asked, and I made the words sound much more normal than they felt in my head.

"I got a call from my lawyer," she said, and I couldn't tell what the emotion was in her voice.


"My appeal has been rejected," she said, and she broke down as the sentenced finished, letting her breath out as she said the final word as though she had been holding it for some time.

"Oh God," I said, and I think now that I truly meant it as a prayer. For the second time, I unlocked the cell door. She made no move then, nor did she until I took her into my arms. "I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what to tell you."

I hadn't seen Katherine cry and I did not then but she came close. Her voice was broken when she whispered into my shoulder, "I'm scared." These were powerful words as well. I don't know how to tell someone in her position anything that would make it better. Perhaps there aren't words to do such a thing. I wish there were, and I wished at that moment that I knew them.

"I didn't realise," she said, still muffled by my shoulder. "I didn't realise how much I was holding out hope for a good decision. I..." she stopped and drew a few hesitant breaths. "I told myself it didn't matter." I held her a little more tightly. I'm so frequently at a loss for words that one more time shouldn't really matter much, although thinking about it still sort of pains me. But what do you tell to someone handed a literal death sentence?

"I've asked for clemency. That was... that was sort of a last resort. I should hear for certain within a week but..." her voice gave out again. "I think there's not much hope."

"Sure there is," I said. It was the best I could manage. She said something indistinct and I didn't ask her to clarify. It was the wrong sort of moment altogether. We sat on her cot quietly until my shift was nearly over.

Things moved quickly from that point. The governor rejected her clemency petition the following Monday, and the execution was firmly set for that Friday. As I've said, the wheels of justice tend to spin very slowly, and that annoys me. But when everything depended on that slowness: my love, my future, indeed my very existence--then of course they turned furiously. I had four days to take action.

The problem, of course, is how little action there is for one to take. I'm just a guard at a little prison nobody knows about. I have no power. I'm not even a lawyer and if I was I doubt it would matter much. The one thought that kept popping up in my mind was 'escape.' It was a sensible possibility, I suppose, except that I had no idea how to go about doing it, and I didn't have enough time to plan a way around all the contingencies. Friday loomed larger in my mind with each passing hour.

I'm a simple man, you see. I don't like attention, I don't want to be in the spotlight. Half of the problem was that I had no idea how to get around the myriad obstacles... the other half was that I was too afraid to take decisive action. Almost certainly she would be caught, and even if she didn't fingers would eventually be pointed, and they'd point to me. Chester knew what was going on, and Chester--for all that he and I were good friends--would not have hesitated to report what he knew.

I wasn't sure about the punishment for helping a convicted murderer escape. It was conceivable that it could be quite draconian. It was in fact conceivable that I could find myself on the other side of the steel bars at Riverspoint. The statutes were vague.

Weighing strongly against all these things was the fact that I loved Kate in a way I'd never really thought possible outside of romance novels. I loved her so much that I--cowardly little old me--was seriously contemplating paths which I would be able to walk along only once, and only one way. There would be no turning back, and this didn't bother me. I'd never been so deeply engaged with a person that I would put my life on the line for them, to be perfectly honest. And yet there I was.

Wednesday I faced a crisis of sorts. I still had no idea of what I was going to do and I found myself unable to sleep, or eat, or any of those things I typically enjoyed. The idea that someone whom I did, indeed, love with all my heart would be dead outside of thirty-six hours was terrifying. The idea that I might be able to stop it, if only I knew how, if only I had the courage--well, that was something even worse.

And there was something else, too. I believed in the justice system. I've said before that I do, that I have to. What reason did I have to believe Kate's story besides the fact that I loved her? Depressingly little. Nobody else seemed to believe her, maybe not even her lawyer. Could I live with myself, knowing I allowed a killer to go free?

In the movies, the heroes and heroines have it simple. The issues may be complex but the answers are generally in black and white. As I have noted, before Kate I didn't see the beauty in the in-betweens, and now I was being torn apart by them. There wasn't a simple answer here. There wasn't something I could do, some magic spell I could cast, some button I could press, there were none of these to alleviate my plight.

And I'm not a knight in shining armour, much as I try.

Thursday night I sat with Kate, waiting for a solution to jump out at me. It didn't. Kate and I held each other for a long time. I stroked her hair with my hands, outwardly comforting her while inside parts of my soul clashed fiercely with each other. Though I felt I had important things to say, I wasn't sure they were worth dispiriting her further, which I feared they would.

But eventually I had little choice.

"Kate," I said. "I think I have bad news."

She looked at me, and something in her eyes made me want to cry. I'm not the crying sort, generally, but it was a trying situation. "I've been getting a lot of bad news," she managed.

"They..." I didn't want to talk about the execution, to make it real somehow by putting it into words. But I had to. "They choose the men on the firing squad by random draw," I explained the practise to her. "Three of them are from the state, two of them are from the prison here."

She could tell what I had to be about to reveal, and it her like a physical blow. "You've been chosen, haven't you?"

I nodded and said nothing.

At first she was silent also. "It doesn't matter so much; it's all right," she finally assured me. "Better you than someone else, I guess. I... I trust you." She laid her muzzle against my chest.

Her words were more painful to me than anything else she could have said, although I know she didn't want that. Still, her problems were much worse than my own, her straits by far more dire--and yet in just a few short sentences she had proven herself much stronger than I, and she had placed a trust in me I really no longer thought I deserved. It was awful.

"André," she whispered. "Tomorrow, please... please make it be over quickly."

She meant the words sincerely. It was a request that was made kindly, I think, or at least she did not mean her words to be hurtful. Even now, years and years later, I don't know how I should take them. There are times that try men's souls, and then there are times that wrench them bodily away and torture them to death. We faced such a time together.

The waiting was perhaps not the worst part, but it was at least a contestant. We knew there was nothing either of us could do, knew that Kate's heartbeats were cruelly and exactly being limited, knew all these things people should never have to know. She knew that by nine the next morning she would be dead; and I knew that I would be losing her forever. The moments passed slowly, as we sat together for a final time, but nowhere nearly slow enough. And each inexorable tick of my watch was tinged with greater and greater dread.

I didn't leave the prison, even after the graveyard shift--we didn't call it that, for reasons which I hope are clear--arrived. There wasn't a reason to. I stayed with Kate as long as I could. When my shift ended I had to leave her cell and tried to console her from the other side of the bars. I gave some excuse to Susan--I don't know what I said, but I guess it worked since she didn't bother me.

The procedures to be followed in your average execution are decidedly simple. Thirty minutes before it is scheduled to occur two things happen: the riflemen are given their weapons by the armourer, and the prisoner is read the death warrant. Five minutes prior, the riflemen take position behind a sort of barricade--they can't be seen by anyone but themselves--and the prisoner is moved to a vertical post erected in the yard, where they are secured. There are a few minutes of nervousness, morbid anticipation. Last rites typically happen here, if one is so inclined--and many are, even the non-religious, I've found.

The moment comes and all is very quiet. Not peaceful, of course--there's no way you could describe the scene as peaceful. But it is quiet. All of the readying takes place in a deferential silence. The firing order comes, the triggers are pulled, and the convict drops dead just like in the movies. It's all very orderly. A state corpsman checks to make sure that we have, in fact, killed the poor bastard. And then it's over--smooth. Like on rails.

At eight thirty I went with the other men to the armourer. He handed us each a rifle, clean and polished. They're bolt-action, heavy-duty guns; they feel very solid. He issued us each five rounds, and we made our last-minute checks. If we had to speak--I do not think we did, but perhaps a few words were said--we did so very quietly. Unlike the vultures, we have some respect.

Two men received five blanks instead of five live rounds. Nobody knows which ones do, which is the point of it. Well, no, this is really only theoretical--the armourer knows. He's been at Riverspoint as long as anyone--including Chester--and it's rumoured that the he keeps a permanent record, but nobody has ever checked up on this. Nobody wants to know anyway, I think, but perhaps some do. For them the truth is more important than the quiet self-delusion most riflemen seem to have adopted.

We all hope we receive blanks, we all know the odds are against it. We've sworn to uphold the laws of the Union, and to discharge our duty fully, and we all agree that this is the proper thing to do. But when it comes to it, nobody wants to kill a man in cold blood. It's distasteful to say the least.

Chester told me once something that I've kept close to my heart. He said, "He that is so sure of his own beliefs that he would die for them is only a fool, nothing more. But he that is so sure of his beliefs that he would have others die for them is a madman, and criminally dangerous." Perhaps the legislators and the judges and the juries are all mad; I can't be certain. I think Chester might be right, but I have an unwavering faith in the justice system. And so I regularly do things that sane men would reject out of hand. Perhaps I should reject them as well.

At eight fifty-five we took our positions. By the time I was in place and had set up my rifle I could tell that Kate was in position as well. Her head was covered, as is customary. It is entirely for our benefit and the benefit of the witnesses, of course; and it may make some sense, because I can't imagine staring a man in the face when you shoot him.

One of the men on duty from the state exchanged words with Kate for a few seconds; I don't know what they said. But he stepped away. I checked my watch: eighty fifty-nine. I watched the numbers change, counting upwards. All was quiet around me. Then suddenly it seemed to get more quiet.

The lead officer, standing to the side of Kate, placed his arm across his chest--the 'ready' signal, for people who are accustomed to a 'ready--aim--fire' description. I chambered my round; heard the other four men do so as well. The officer brought his arm straight up, and I aimed at the target on Kate's chest. I tried as hard as possible not to think of when I had last seen her, without the cold white piece of paper. And I failed--God knows I failed. I steeled myself as best I could.

His arm dropped, straight down, and I pulled the trigger.

There was no sound but that of the rifles. Through my sight I watched the paper suddenly become perforated. Kate didn't cry out, as some do. Indeed it was, as executions go, as close to perfect as one could have expected. In later sleepless nights I concluded that perhaps this was her final gift to me, that we didn't have to make her suffer, that she didn't compound the pain in my heart. But maybe I'm hoping for too much. Still, to any observer but me it was a perfect routine. She simply slumped, then ceased to move. As did I.

The corpsman confirmed that she was dead. And that was that. Everyone filed out quietly, even the vultures. Sometimes, after an execution, there's a sense of some relief from the witnesses, a weight lifted from their shoulders--a sort of sick jubilation, later regretted. There was none of that here. Kate had told me that most of the witnesses would have known that she was innocent, and perhaps this explains the crowd's behaviour. Or perhaps not; it's hard to say.

We returned our rifles and our rounds to the armourer, who nodded silently and thanked us as we gave him our arms. Stiffly, I walked back into the complex. The office was open; Chester Henriksen sat inside, motionless. Everything seemed, looking back on it, quite surreal. Time moved slowly.

"I'm sorry," he said. I had said the same words to Kate scant days before, and they were as worthless when I said them as when Chester did. But I nodded, the polite thing to do, and sat down slowly. I happened to look at my watch. It's a habit, a nervous tic.

My watch, as with my fountain pen, is monogrammed, although it's on the underside where you can't see it. It's a nice watch, really, as watches go. It's from somewhere across the sea, wherever they make the good watches--I forget--and I'd had it since I was sixteen. It had always told perfect time.

When I looked, now, it was stopped at thirteen seconds past nine o'clock. The hands did not move.

They haven't since.

Perhaps the watch still tells perfect time, because I don't know how far beyond that day I've really moved. It's been eighteen years and I still can't think about it for long periods of time. It's too difficult. But I'm telling this story because I think it needs to be told. Not for anyone in particular, but for me. It's a memory I've kept because I can't ever give it up, and I no longer try. It's not worth it.

Nobody wants to be an executioner, of any sort. Killing people presents all sorts of dilemmas for we simple folk, and I've found myself smack dab in their centre since that day. Different scenarios run through my mind constantly. What if she had escaped and I had helped her? What if I had refused to fire?

In my dreams, the little fantasies I allow myself, everything turns out well in the end. There's a last-minute pardon, or she silently escapes all by herself and comes and finds me and we live happily ever after. In a few my fantasy self take the action my real-life self never was brave enough to. He stands up behind the barricade and denounces the execution and people listen and she is set free. Or he turns my rifle on the other guards and we bluff our way out of it. We ride off into the sunset. We are always successful, and I have these dreams often.

Of course that's all they are--dreams--and the real questions nag at me more frequently.

Were my rounds live? Should I have aimed off-target, maybe? I don't know. And it's not the greatest problem, by far.

I loved Kate more, I sometimes think, than I can ever love anyone ever again, in this world or in whatever world follows. That's the honest truth, although I haven't told my wife about Kate and maybe I never will. My wife is a wonderful person, a perfectly respectable Border collie like myself, from a perfectly respectable family. But she's no Kate. I love her dearly and absolutely, but somehow--I guess I'm not sure why--it's not the same. On our honeymoon I took Samantha out on a beach very much like the one I visited that Thursday in November. And it was perfect in all the same ways, so perfect that for almost a full day Kate never crossed my mind once. But it was different.

Mind you I don't obsess, even if obsessing is my nature. I love Samantha as Samantha and no one else. I don't dare hope that Katherine Burns lives vicariously through her; I don't even want that to be true. They're different people, and I love them in different ways. I guess it's not fair to my wife to say I loved Kate more than I can ever love again because Sam proves that it isn't so, but sometimes... sometimes I wonder. And sometimes my heart catches when I see a dusty fox strolling along the side of the road, but by and large I've long-ago admitted that Kate lives on only as a memory, and my thoughts of her really can never move much beyond that.

She doesn't haunt me, as I feared she might in the first few days after her death when nothing seemed right, and I thought my life was going to come to an end. And maybe she's left me in peace purposefully, to come to grips with my life on my own. It seems the sort of kindly act she might leave me with.

These are not the sorts of problems that keep an aging and confused man up at night, though. I've mentioned a few times one other thing, that's very important to me. I can't live without faith in what I do; I can't go on if I have uncertainty about the system, about Justice, about Law. To love Kate fully I decided I didn't care about her past but even then I hoped desperately that she was telling the truth: that she was innocent. This is what I say, at least. All I have is her word, of course, and it's very possible that she was lying. Fifteen of us average folk in a jury box said so, after all.

Sometimes I feel cheated. I don't know who I loved, whether it was Kate or an imaginary fox I constructed around her. I don't know whether I loved an innocent Kate who never existed, or whether I truly didn't care about her guilt. It's something I know the answer to, deep down inside of me, but I can't admit it and I can't bring it up to the surface where I can see what the truth is. For now.

But in the end, I can never know. If she was innocent then I was wrong, we were all wrong and that's said and done and when I die I'll wake up to Satan's sneering visage. Maybe I will anyway. I can accept that; I did, in fact, long ago. But there's that other option, the one that keeps me up at night and won't leave me in peace, ever:

What if I did the right thing?
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