The Last Mile

By: David Baldacci

CHAPTER

1



MARS, MELVIN.

In here, anywhere, anytime, they called out your name backward, and he would instantly respond when he heard his.

Even on the toilet. Like being in the military, only he’d never joined. He’d been brought here very much against his will.

“Mars, Melvin?”

“Yes, sir. Here, sir. Taking a crap, sir.”

Because where else would I be except here, sir?

He didn’t know why they did it this way and had never bothered to ask. The answer would not have mattered to him in the least. And it might have led to a guard baton slamming against the side of his head.

He had other things to concern him here at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. It was called the Walls Unit because of the prison’s redbrick walls. Opened in 1849, it was the oldest prison in the Lone Star State.

And it also housed the execution chamber.

Mars was officially Prisoner 7-4-7, like the plane. The guards at the death row prison from which he’d been brought called him “Jumbo” because of it. And while he wasn’t huge, he wasn’t small either. Most folks would look up to him, if only because they had to. Six-two, plus three-quarters of an inch tacked on for good measure.

He knew his exact height only because they’d measured him precisely at the NFL combine. They’d measured everything about him at the combine. While going through the process his mind had drawn parallels to slaves on the market square as potential owners methodically poked and prodded the merchandise. Well, unlike his slave ancestors, at least he would have had lots of money to deal with the wreckage of his body after his playing days were over.

He was also still two hundred and thirty pounds. No fat, just rock. No mean feat with the crap they served for food in here, processed in huge factories, loaded with fat and sodium, as well as chemicals they probably used to make everything from concrete to carpets.

Killing me softly with your crappy food.

He’d been in this place almost as long as he’d not been in this place.

And the time had not gone by fast. It didn’t feel like twenty years. It felt like two hundred.

But it didn’t matter anymore. It would be over soon. This was the day.

His final, final appeal.

Denied.

He was dead.

He had been brought to the Huntsville Prison from the Polunsky Unit’s death row in Livingston, Texas, sixty miles to the east, in anticipation that this time the state would get its man after a two-decades-long wait. His lawyer’s pale face had held a bleak expression when she’d conveyed this news to him. But she would wake up the next day.

Not me.

Soon he would be listening for the tap-tap of heels heading his way.

The puffing of the burly guards holding the shiny shackles.

The solemn warden who would forget his name the next day.

The pious man of God clutching his Bible and reading aloud his verses because you were supposed to have something spiritual to cling to on your way out of here. Not out of prison. Out of life.

Texas executed more inmates than any other state, over five hundred in just the last thirty years. For nearly a century, starting in 1819, they did it by hanging. Then they used the electric chair called “Old Sparky,” and three hundred and sixty-one inmates had been put to death by electrocution over four decades. Now Texas used lethal injection to send you off to the hereafter.

Either way you were still dead.

By law executions could not begin before 6 p.m. Mars had been told that they would come for him at midnight. Well, nothing like dragging this out, he thought. Made for a really long and really shitty day.

Walking Dead Man, he’d been called.

“Good riddance,” he’d heard more times than he could count from the guards.

He didn’t want to look back. Not to the epicenter of this whole thing.

But really, how could he not?

So as the final moment neared, he started to think of them.

The murders of Roy and Lucinda Mars, his white father and black mother.

Back then that combination had been weird, different, exotic even, certainly in West Texas. Now it was commonplace. Every kid coming in now looked like bits and pieces of fifty different types of humanity.

One recently incarcerated punk was the product of biracial parents, who in turn were also the children of nontraditional pairings. So the new kid—an idiot who’d blown away a store clerk over a shoplifted bag of Twizzlers—was a mishmash of black, brown, and white, with a dash of Chinese thrown in. And he was also a Muslim, though Mars had never seen the man get on his knees and pray five times a day, as some did in here. His name was Anwar. He was originally from Colorado.

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