Times Magazine " Top
Company Zebra/Pinnacle Books
Excerpt... " The
current flows along a restricted path...in the
meantime the vital organs may be preserved and pain, too great for us to imagine, is
induced... For the sufferer, time stands
still and the excruciating torture seems to
last for an eternity."
The heavy thud of Luke Nolan's heart played a funeral dirge. Footsteps echoed through the tunnel, keeping time with his pulse as if the entire proceeding were meticulously choreographed.
Music to fry by.
His hands were cuffed, and chains linked his ankles, their rhythmic chink, chink, chink punctuating his death march. Everything seemed magnified, in slow motion. Surreal neon lighting provided the finishing touch.
Looking around, he counted one woman--the prison doctor who would pronounce him dead--and eight men. How many assholes does it take to execute Luke Nolan?
He almost laughed. Hell, he should laugh. Eleven years rotting on death row should give him that right. So much for the Court of Appeals and a pitiful excuse for a public defender.
How do you plead?
And no one had believed him, including his so-called attorney.
The prison chaplain appeared at Luke's side, an open Bible clutched in his hands as they continued the long walk to the execution chamber. Luke was beyond prayer, but it couldn't hurt. Maybe, just maybe...
Get over it. You're dead meat, Nolan.
He banished hope from his mind and heart as the heavy doors opened before them. It was freezing cold, in absolute contrast to what he'd soon feel.
Luke swallowed the lump in his throat, commanding himself not to reveal his fear. These sons of bitches wanted him to fry, and there wasn't a frigging thing he could do to prevent it, but he'd be damned before he'd give them the satisfaction of seeing his terror. No matter how real...
" Would you like last rites, Luke?" the chaplain asked.
For a moment, Luke met the man's gaze. The expression in the priest's aging eyes left no doubt he disapproved of these proceedings. " Nah, that's all right, Father. Too late for me."
" I've always believed in your innocence," he whispered. " I'll pray for your soul, my son. Is there anyone you'd like me to call?"
" No thanks, Father." So there was one person in the whole world who actually believed him. One. " Tell my grandma..."
" Never mind." Luke released a long sigh. " She wouldn't even believe you. Thanks just the same, Father."
Raised by his devoutly Catholic grandparents, Luke Nolan had been a kid from the poor side of Denver, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tough, cool, cocky as hell...
Eleven years ago, he'd followed Ricky--a punk from nowhere with no last name--into that liquor store believing they were after a fresh six-pack. One minute they were joking around. A few seconds later, Ricky pulled a gun on the old man behind the counter.
The crotchety old man triggered an alarm before Ricky could clean out the register. Enraged by the man's nerve, Ricky shot the clerk between the eyes and ran, leaving both his gun and Luke behind.
Luke was a wild kid, but not a killer. He'd never even owned a piece, for Christ's sake. But when the cops rushed in and found him on his knees with a rag pressed to the man's bloody forehead, it was a done deal.
No witnesses and no prints on the gun--just an eighteen-year-old punk who'd already found plenty of trouble in his young life. Luke was arrested, tried and convicted practically before the victim drew his last breath.
Eleven years. Luke sighed and looked around the room--anything to keep him from fixating on the chair. Public outrage over capital punishment had delayed his execution countless times. With so much time on his hands, he'd even managed to earn his college degree.
After the raging hormones of adolescence had loosened their grip on his sanity, Luke discovered a new side to himself. If his Appeal had ever came through, he'd intended to complete his Master's and teach high school. Hell, maybe he could've prevented a few punks from ending up like him.
Bitterness settled in his gut like acid and he swallowed the bile that burned his throat. Hell, at least getting his degree had kept him busy.
" I have something for you," the priest said, jerking Luke back to the present. " Your grandfather wrote a--"
" My grandfather died three years ago." Disbelief and the pain of remembrance slithered through Luke. His pulse escalated to a jarring thud in his ears as he recalled his grandmother's words when she'd called with the news. She'd accused him of murdering the old man with shame.
The priest lowered his gaze for a moment, then drew a deep breath, reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope. " Your grandmother sent this yesterday. Your grandfather left instructions that you were to have it if..."
Luke gnashed his teeth, hoping the noise might blot out the memory of his last visit from his grandfather. Albert Nolan was the only man in the world Luke had ever truly respected. That respect had given the old man power--too damned much power.
With shaking fingers, Luke took the envelope, swallowing the lump in his throat. " Thanks, Father." It wasn't the priest's fault that Luke had once cared enough for someone to make himself vulnerable to this kind of pain.
" What's that?" Warden Graham stopped in front of Luke and snatched the envelope away.
" It's only a letter from the boy's grandfather," the priest explained, sighing.
With a smirk, Graham looked at the envelope, then returned it to Luke. " Make it quick."
Luke refused to meet the warden's gaze, knowing he'd find a malicious gleam in those accusing eyes. After the warden turned and walked away, Luke opened the envelope and unfolded the single page to view his grandfather's spidery scrawl. His vision blurred, but he blinked several times to clear it, then noted the ten-year-old date at the top of the page--the same day Luke's death sentence was handed down.
You shamed me. I will go to my grave grieving the end of the Nolan name. I hereby disown you. Albert Nolan.
Neatly, Luke refolded the page and returned it to the envelope. " Will you destroy this for me later, Father?" He cleared his throat and tried not to see the pity so obvious in the priest's faded gray eyes.
" Of course, my son." He sighed. " I'm sorry."
" Don't be, Father," Luke said, looking beyond the priest's white hair to the stark walls of the chamber. " Don't be."
Then a prickling sensation on the back of his neck told him someone was watching him. He looked up and met the doctor's anxious gaze. She looked nervous as hell as she tucked a dark curl behind one ear. Something sparkled on her cheek and she brushed it away with the back of her hand. Tears? Fat chance. No one would cry for him.
" It's time," a rough voice said from behind the priest.
" I hate this," the woman said loud enough for everyone to hear. " Why won't you let me ex--"
" Too late now, Doctor," the warden said.
" But you can't do--"
" All you have to do is tell us when it's over and sign the death certificate." The warden turned his back on the doctor and approached Luke again. " Now I can retire knowing I did my job right," he said, his eyes glinting with malicious victory before he walked away.
Luke drew a deep breath, deciding not to waste it on a response. The warden's wishes had been obvious for years. Swift justice. Yeah, right. Justice.
" Go with God, my son," the chaplain said quietly. As he backed away murmuring in outdated Latin, he made the sign of the cross toward Luke. A blessing.
Once upon a time, Luke would've understood the words. Now, too late, he wished he could remember their meaning. He wished so damned many things, but he dared not think of his grandfather again. Anything but that.
Defeated, he pushed away thoughts of the priest and all things religious. This was the end--he had to face it. Resolutely, he forced his gaze back to the vehicle for his one way trip to hell. It looked like something from Dr. Frankenstein's lab. A moment later, two men led him to the chair, replaced the chains and handcuffs with automatic restraints, then placed electrodes on his shaved head and one leg.
The sick part of him had wanted--needed--to know exactly what would happen today, so he'd researched the fine art of electrocution in preparation for the big event. These innocuous little electrodes would send two thousand volts of current blasting through his body. Nineteen hundred degrees fahrenheit. His eyeballs would pop out of their sockets, and his face and appendages would become hideously contorted and disfigured. The stench of his burning flesh--inside and out--would permeate the chamber.
The burning flesh of an innocent man...
The condemned usually defecated and urinated after the current had done its job. Pity he'd be too far gone by then to witness his executioners' gagging and retching. They'd know soon enough why Luke Nolan had requested a hot and nasty burrito for his last meal.
Another man rushed into the room, his face flushed and his breathing labored. Luke couldn't prevent a surge of hope, and he exchanged a questioning glance with the priest. Could this be a last minute reprieve?
" We got a bomb threat and we're evacuating," the man said. " Not a chance. We'll be finished in a few minutes," the warden said. " Those bleeding hearts don't see a damn thing wrong with blowing us to hell and back, but they cry cruelty at simple justice."
Last year, when a particularly aggressive activist organization had threatened to prevent Luke's execution by any means necessary, the authorities had transferred him to a brand new, underground facility far up in the mountains. He didn't even know exactly where they were--some new prison with high-tech equipment for ridding the world of scum like him. The maximum security facility was built into a mountain like NORAD. It wasn't even officially open yet, and as far as he knew, he was the one and only prisoner.
Soon, there would be none.
Compassion filled the priest's eyes, and Luke jerked his gaze away, hating himself for hoping, even for a moment. " Just get it over with," he muttered, grinding his teeth. He refused to beg for his miserable life.
The doctor stood beside the priest, more tears trickling unheeded down her cheeks. Everyone deserved at least one mourner when they died, and now Luke had two more than he'd expected.
Except for the doctor's murmuring to the priest, an obscene silence fell over the room as the head fry cook pulled a black hood over Luke's face. The mournful wail of sirens sounded in the distance as thunder rumbled to a roar then faded, only to return even louder. Closer. Not thunder, Luke realized. Explosions.
The first searing jolt tore through his body and he screamed. Unbearable pain... If the current failed to kill him, insanity would finish the job. No human could endure such pain and live.
The chaplain reverted to English and Luke clung to the familiar words above the boom of another explosion. Pandemonium erupted around him just as the next surge plundered through him. This time he didn't scream. Instead, he could've sworn he heard his own desperate voice join the priest's.
Our Father, who art in Heaven...
Something heavy pressed down on Luke's chest, pinning him beneath its oppressive weight. He had to breathe. He clawed the hood from his face, but even without it only darkness greeted his gaze.
His arms and legs were free. Strange. When had they released the automatic restraints? Or maybe he was already dead and this was hell.
He drew the deepest breath possible as he ran his hands down his chest until he found something cool and rough. Jagged edges scraped his burned fingers and he realized the weight was a pile of pieces, rather than one large object.
His heart slammed against his chest as the truth emerged from his fried brain. No, not quite fried--only singed. The explosions had saved him.
Joy and fear rushed through him as he shoved the crumbled stones from his chest. Little by little, the weight eased until he could breathe. His ribs were intact--a miracle.
Luke closed his eyes and sighed. A miracle, yes.
He remembered the prison chaplain and the doctor. Were they alive, too? Then another thought made his gut wrench into a tight fist against his heart.
Escape was his only hope. If anyone found him, they'd only try again. Hell, they'd probably pin the bombing on him, too. But wasn't there something in the law about men who survived execution? No, he couldn't be sure of that. Warden Graham would find a way.
But Luke Nolan would commit suicide before he allowed them to strap him into that chair again. The pain...
Sweat popped from every pore and his skin stung. He felt sunburned. Yes, his skin was burned all right. No telling how much internal damage all that electricity might have inflicted. He could still die.
The hell I will.
Determinedly, Luke freed himself from the rubble and sat upright. His head throbbed and he rubbed his temples, struggling with his memory. They'd brought him down one or two floors in an elevator, then through a long tunnel. The building must have collapsed during the explosions. Now all he had to do was find his way to the surface.
At least he wasn't completely buried. A few more small rocks fell, as if to remind him how quickly that could change. Shielding the top of his head with his folded arms, he rose. The entire mountain could come down at any moment. He had to get out of here fast, for more reasons than one.
The air was thick with dust and smoke. With gas and electric lines, the place could go up without warning. Resisting the urge to cough, he took a step just as a beam of light appeared in front of him. Instinctively, he ducked, bumping his knee against something hard and smooth. Somehow, he knew it was the electric chair, and he swallowed convulsively.
The light grew brighter, dragging Luke's gaze to it again. At first, he'd thought it was a flashlight, but now he realized it was the sun. Of course. His execution had been scheduled to occur before dawn.
Another dawn he was never meant to see.
" God, I'm alive," he whispered, his parched throat stinging as his eyes filled with tears. This sunrise was a gift, a sign. A new beginning. Drawing a deep breath, he took a step toward the light, praying it would lead him outside.
A sharp pain shot through his knee and he stumbled, barely preventing a fall. His injuries were minor after electrocution and being buried alive.
Limping, Luke continued his slow trek through the debris, picking his way blindly over piles of rubble. If only he had shoes...
A sudden sound made him freeze. Despite the thud of his pulse, he listened. There it was again, a low moan. Someone else was alive in this mess. But who? More importantly, did it matter?
An icy chill raced down his spine. Whoever it was could very well cost him his freedom. Nothing--nothing--was worth that price.
He pushed his foot forward to continue his escape, but the moan came again. Closer. Keep going, Nolan. He slid his other foot forward, but it stopped against something solid and warm.
Warm and alive, the body trembled, and Luke jerked his foot back. God, no. Please, no.
" Help me."
The voice was so weak he'd barely heard it. Maybe he hadn't.
" Help," it came again, barely more than a strangled whisper.
He mentally kicked himself for not running. What made him pause? His conscience? Fat lot of good that had done him the night he tried to help a dying liquor store clerk. Remembering the injustice, the past eleven years of living hell, and the horrors of the electric chair, he started to walk away just as icy fingers clamped around his bare ankle.
Luke's gasp sounded more like a shout in the deathly silence. He struggled to free himself, but the person's fingernails gouged his singed flesh.
A death grip.
Terror plucked at his sanity as Luke remembered the pain of the electric chair. No, he couldn't go through that again. He'd rather die here and now by any other means.
Panic strengthened him as he freed his foot and lunged forward, falling headfirst over another body. A strangely still body. Cold like death.
He eased back on hands and knees. The sun was higher now, glinting off something on the dead man's chest. With shaking fingers, Luke reached out to touch the object, knowing without seeing. The crucifix felt cool and smooth beneath his burned fingers.
" Go with God, my son." His memory of the priest's words filled Luke's head even as another moan reached his ears.
The only man who'd believed in his innocence was dead. Luke was supposed to have died this morning, but for some reason he was alive and this man wasn't. He eased the crucifix over the priest's head and slipped it over his own, holding its weight in his palm before releasing it.
It's a sign.
The sun now filled the chamber with enough light to allow Luke to see the dead man. His injuries must've been internal, because there wasn't a mark on him. As Luke stood, he remembered his state of dress. How far would he get wearing something similar to a hospital gown and no shoes? The priest's robe was intact, and he wouldn't need his shoes anymore.
Without another thought, he took the man's black robe and slacks, tugging them on over his tender flesh. He needed shoes, too, and as he slipped on the chaplain's roomy wingtips, Luke was thankful for his smaller feet. The priest's Bible lay to one side, and Luke took that, too, justifying the act as part of his disguise.
" Thank you, Father," Luke whispered, then moved again toward the light.
" Please help me." This time, no doubt remained--the voice was female.
Damn. If it had been anyone else he'd be out of here by now, but he couldn't leave her. The least he could do was help her outside where someone might find her. Hell, for all he knew a rescue team was already digging for them and would drag him back to prison until another execution could be arranged.
Gritting his teeth, he picked his way back to the woman and knelt beside her. Pain pierced his kneecap, but he allowed himself nothing more than a wince. If he and the doctor were alive, then someone else could be, too. Someone like the warden from hell...
He could see her face now. Blood soaked one side of her head and neck, but her eyes were open, pleading. With strangers, his disguise might have worked long enough to permit his escape. Why was he such a sucker?
" We have to get out of here," he said quietly. " Can you walk?"
She licked her lips. " I-I'm not sure."
Luke refrained from telling her she could either walk or stay. Instead, he leaned closer, noting her legs and body seemed unharmed. " I'll help you stand."
She groaned as he eased her to a sitting position. Blood seeped from the wound at her temple and he fished through his pockets until he found a handkerchief. Pressing it against the flow of blood, he helped her to her feet. She wavered slightly and gripped his arm for support.
" Let's go." He kept one arm wrapped around her waist while she continued to cling to him. Cursing every second's delay, he finally found the opening. He'd never appreciated the sun before, but everything was different now. Every breath was precious.
" My head," she said, leaning more heavily against his arm.
" Look, we're getting out of here now." Luke propped her against a pile of rocks, then turned to examine the opening. It might be wide enough for her to squeeze through, but he'd never fit. Loose bricks hung like broken teeth on either side. Carefully, he knocked them away until the space was wide enough. " C'mon." He practically dragged her through the narrow opening, ignoring the searing pain of his burned flesh scraping against jagged bricks.
Luke paused to look back once. Sunlight glinted off something metal. The chair. A cold lump formed in his gut, followed by a flash of heat, as if he needed reminding....
With renewed resolve, he turned away and led the doctor outside. A sheer wall of granite hid the opening from the outside world. They were lucky even a little sunlight had managed to find its way into the chamber.
Outside, Luke shaded his eyes and looked around. They were far out in the wilderness. To put it simply, he had no idea where they were, other than somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
Where would he go? He glanced at the doctor, knowing he could travel much faster without her. Besides, she needed medical attention. " Someone will find you here," he said, easing her to the ground where she leaned against a rock.
" Don't leave me." Tears trickled down her cheeks when she looked up at him. " I..."
" Trust me, lady," he said quietly, " you don't want to go where I'm going."
Her pleading expression tore at him, but Luke forced himself to remember everything. The injustice, the pain, the betrayal... No, he wasn't willing to sacrifice his freedom for anyone or anything. Never again.
" Please, I--"
" No. I'm outta here." He pushed her hands away and took several steps, that nagging voice in the back of his head tormenting him. She was hurt--he shouldn't leave her here like this. What if she died?
She cried for me.
No one had ever shed a tear on his behalf before. No one. Hell, he knew she hadn't been crying for him specifically, but still...
He barely heard her as a brisk wind whistled through the trees. Clouds gathered and blocked the sun, promising either rain or snow. There were no roads, no parking lot, no sign of civilization at all. Something wasn't right. He stopped and turned in a full circle, trying not to look at her, yet knowing she still followed.
He reached into his pocket and found the priest's car keys. A small crucifix dangled from the key ring. With a sigh, Luke looked directly at the woman. " Come on, let's find the car that goes with these keys."
Ignoring her expression of relief, he waited for her to catch up with him. She seemed more stable now. Maybe her injury wasn't as serious as he'd feared. " I'll drive you to the nearest hospital, then you're on your own."
She nodded, gingerly touching the ugly gash at her temple. " I think the bleeding's stopped."
" Yeah, looks like it." Luke looked around, trying not to dwell on the woman's vulnerability. She didn't reach his shoulder, and he doubted she weighed more than a hundred pounds, if that.
" Where are we going?"
Luke looked at her and shook his head. " Away. Who gives a shit?"
She gave him a look of disbelief. " I didn't know p--"
" Enough talk." Luke had wasted too much precious time already, though every indication told him there was no reason to hurry. None at all. " Weird."
" What's weird?"
" Nothing." He took her hand and started downhill, though there wasn't even a trail to follow. All he could do was hope he'd find a parking lot soon with a Chevy to match the priest's keys. The altitude stole his breath, and sweat did nothing to ease the sting of his skin, but he kept walking. Somehow, miraculously, the woman kept up with him, though he knew she must be even worse off than him. She'd lost a lot of blood.
" How much farther?" she asked at the base of the hill.
Luke shot her a side glance and noticed her flushed face and rapid breathing. He probably looked even worse, especially with his head shaved and his skin fried. " You okay?"
She nodded. " But how much farther to the car?"
" How the hell should I know?" Why hadn't he left her behind? She would've been all right.
" You don't know where you parked your car?"
" My car?" He chuckled in disbelief. " Lady, I've never owned a car."
Furrowing her brow, she looked beyond him. " Maybe we should go up that hill and have a look."
That made sense. If he could find a highway to follow... Of course, he'd have to be more careful about staying hidden once they reached civilization. Without comment, he started up the hill, dragging her by the hand. By the time they reached the summit, they were both gasping for breath and they collapsed at the base of a tall pine. After a few minutes, Luke managed to stand, using the tree for assistance. When he looked down, he saw the doctor holding her hand out toward him in a silent plea for help.
" God, I'm such a fool," he muttered in disgust, even as he pulled her to her feet. The clouds were thicker now, covering the tops of the higher peaks in the distance. He shivered as the air cooled his skin.
" Over there."
Luke looked where the woman still pointed, squinting to see. " What?"
" I saw some buildings, but the clouds moved again."
Shaking his head, Luke slowly surveyed their surroundings. He released her hand and walked around the tree, looking as far as possible in every direction. Trees, mountains, and one stream. No roads, cars, or buildings.
" Where the hell are we?"
" There, I told you so," she said, drawing Luke's attention back to where she'd pointed earlier. " See?"
The clouds at this altitude were more like fog, shrouding mountains and trees in white. He looked where she continued to point, waiting as the clouds grew more dense, then gradually parted.
" See?" she repeated. " Over there."
" Yeah." Several buildings were clustered on the side of a mountain.
" It must be a town," she said.
Luke nodded, then looked back from where they'd come. There was no evidence that a prison had ever existed. None at all. " I don't get this." He remembered being escorted into a brand new facility, with every possible convenience. Where the hell was it now?
Government buildings didn't just vanish. There should be tons of rescue equipment up here now, digging for survivors from the bombed building.
" Come on, let's go," she said, tugging on his sleeve.
The woman didn't seem the least bit concerned about their peculiar situation. " All right." So much for the priest's car, wherever it was.
After they'd walked for what seemed like miles, she stopped and looked at him. " You look tired, Father, and my feet are killing me."
Father? Luke froze in mid-step to stare at her. " What'd you call me?"
" Father. You are a priest, aren't you?" The look on her face screamed sincerity. " Should I call you something else?"
" Uh..." Luke remembered the priest's Bible in the pouch at his waist. The robe. The crucifix. Go with God. " Father is fine." He swallowed hard. If she didn't remember who he was, then...
She didn't know he was a condemned man.
Luke's heart slammed into his bruised ribs and he drew a deep breath. " We'll stop and rest here."
She sat cross-legged on the ground, only a few feet away. The expression on her face was one of complete innocence. Bewilderment. Forgetfulness?
Still, just because she didn't know who he was didn't mean others wouldn't. He had to put some distance between himself and the law. Maybe he'd go to Central America. " Ready?" he asked, suddenly eager to start his new life. Her memory lapse was a gift.
They both stood and looked toward the town. It didn't seem nearly as far now, and the clouds had thinned somewhat, enabling Luke to make out the definite shapes of a few buildings. None of them looked big enough to be a hospital, though.
Once he knew she was safe and being cared for, he could walk away with a clear conscience. At last.
" Father, before we go..."
" What is it?" Luke tried to hide his impatience, reminding himself that she thought he was a real priest. With any luck, she wouldn't remember his true identity until he was hundreds of miles from here.
" Could you answer one question for me?"
" I'll try." Did she remember watching them strap him into that horrible chair? Did she remember his screams of agony? He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Her tug on his sleeve made him open his eyes to meet her gaze.
Her eyes were large pools of blue, their intensity rivaled only by the purpling at the side of her head. " What is it?" he asked. They needed to keep walking. " Your question, I mean."
" Father," she said quietly, " who am I?"
Copyright by Deb Stover - All Rights Reserved.