might go off.
Skinny Glasses cleared his throat. He looked at the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the one light high up on the ceiling, everywhere except at Mars. It was as though the big, sweaty biracial dude five feet from him was invisible.
He cleared his throat again. To Mars it sounded like all the muck jostling around in the world’s largest sewer.
Staring at the floor now, Skinny Glasses said, “There’s been an unexpected development in your case. Your execution has been called off.”
Mars, Melvin didn’t say anything back.
HE WAS STILL dressed in his white jumpsuit with the warning on the back, but something else was missing. He had been taken from his cell to this room without having to don the chains, a first since his time in prison. Although a half dozen guards lined the wall just in case he became unruly.
Four men sat across from him. He didn’t know any of them. They were all white, all dressed in baggy suits. The youngest was about his age. They looked like they would rather be anyplace else on earth.
They stared across at Mars. And he just as resolutely stared back at them.
He wasn’t going to say anything. They had brought him to the party. They were going to have to start the music.
The man in the center of the table rustled some papers set in front of him. “I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on, Mr. Mars.”
Mars inclined his head slightly but still didn’t say anything. He hadn’t heard a white guy call him “mister” since…hell, he couldn’t remember a white guy ever calling him that. At the NFL combine they’d just called him “Holy Shit.” In prison they called him whatever they wanted to.
The man continued. “The fact is that someone else has confessed to committing the murders that you were convicted of.”
Mars blinked a few times and sat up straighter. He put his huge hands that had made soft targets for many a quarterback on the table.
“Who?” His voice felt strangely unfamiliar, as though someone else was speaking on his behalf.
The man glanced down the table at one of his colleagues, who was older and looked more in control than the rest. This man nodded at the younger gent.
The first man said, “His name is Charles Montgomery.”
“Where is he?”
“In a state prison in Alabama. He’s actually also awaiting execution. For unrelated crimes.”
“Do you believe he did it?” asked Mars.
“What does he know?” asked Mars. “About the murders?”
The man again looked at the older man. This time the fellow seemed indecisive.
Mars sensed this and swiveled his gaze to him. “Why else would you have stopped my execution? Because some con in ’Bama said he did it? I don’t think so. He had to know something. That only the real killer would have.”
The older man nodded and seemed to view Mars in a new and more favorable light. He said, “He did. Certain things that only the murderer would have known, you’re exactly right on that point.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” said Mars, taking a deep breath. Despite his words, he couldn’t seem to process what they were telling him.
“Do you know Mr. Montgomery?” asked the first man.
Mars turned his attention back to him. “Never heard of him until you said his name. Why?”
“Just trying to verify certain facts.”
Mars nodded again. He knew exactly what “fact” the guy was getting at. Had Mars hired Montgomery to kill his parents?
“I don’t know him,” he said flatly. He looked around the room. “So now what?”
“You will remain in prison until certain things can be…verified.”
“And what if you can’t verify them?”
The older man said, “You have been duly convicted of murder, Mr. Mars. That conviction was upheld over many appeals over many years. You were scheduled to be executed tonight. All that cannot be overturned in a few hours. The process has to be given a chance to work.”
“So how long before the process works its magic?”
The man shook his head. “I can’t give you a reliable timetable now. I wish I could, but it would be impossible. I can tell you that we have folks on the way to Alabama to interview Mr. Montgomery more thoroughly. And on this end the Texas authorities have reopened the investigation. We are doing all we can to see that justice is done, I can assure you.”
“Well, if he said he killed my parents and I’m still in prison waiting to die, I’d say that justice isn’t being done.”
“You have to be patient, Mr. Mars.”
“Well, I’ve been patient for twenty years.”
“Then a bit more time will not inconvenience you any.”
“Does my attorney know?”
“She has been informed and is on her way here as we speak.”
“She should be part of this investigation.”
“And she will be. We want full and complete transparency here. Nothing less. Again, our goal is the truth.”
“I’m nearly forty-two. What about all these years of my life gone? Who’s gonna pay for that?”
The man’s face turned to granite and his tone became more officious. “We need to deal with one thing at a time in a professional manner. That is how it has to be.”
Mars looked away, blinking rapidly. He doubted that if these guys were in his shoes they would be so calm and professional about it. They’d be screaming bloody murder, threatening to sue everyone even remotely involved in all this. But he was just supposed to deal with one thing at a time. Be patient. It shouldn’t be an inconvenience.
The hell with you!
He wanted to go back to his cell, the only place he really felt safe. He rose.
The men looked surprised.
Mars said, “Let me know when you get this all figured out, okay? You know where to find me.”
“We actually had some more questions for you, Mr. Mars,” said the first man.
“You can send them through my attorney,” he said. “I’m done talking. Figure the ball’s in your court. You know everything about me and the case against me. What you need to do now is do the same on this Montgomery dude. If he did kill my parents, then I want out of here. Sooner the better.”
The guards took him back to his cell. Later that morning he was transported via prison van back to death row at the Polunsky Unit.
Mars kept walking. He didn’t even turn his head to look at the man, a reedy-looking punk with a huge Adam’s apple. He was always the one to give Mars a hard jab in the back with his baton for no reason at all. Or spit in his face when no one was looking. Yet if Mars took a swing at him he’d be rotting in here forever, regardless of what happened with this Montgomery guy in Alabama.
The cell door clanged shut and Mars, his legs oddly wobbly, lurched over and fell rather than sat on his bunk.
He immediately hauled himself up and from long habit put his back against the concrete wall and faced the door. No one could attack him through concrete. But the door was another matter.
His mind went over all that had just happened in the last ten hours.
His execution was to take place. He was prepared for that, or as much as anyone could be.
And then it had been called off. But if they weren’t convinced by this guy in Alabama, could they still execute him? The answer to that, he knew, was probably hell yes.
Don’t mess with Texas.
He closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure exactly what emotions he was supposed to have. Happy, nervous, relieved, anxious?
Well, he was feeling all of them. Mostly, he was feeling that somehow, some way, he was never leaving this place. Regardless of what the
He wasn’t being fatalistic. Simply realistic.
He started to sing a tune under his breath, so the guards wouldn’t be able to hear. Perhaps it was stupid under the circumstances, but it felt right anyway.
Oh when the saints, oh when the saints, oh when the saints go marching in, oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.
ON THE VERY last day of the year, Amos Decker sat in his rental car in the drive-through line at a Burger King near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border pondering what to order.
Most of what he owned was in the backseat and trunk of the car. He still had some things back at a storage unit in Burlington. He could not part with them, but he didn’t have the room to bring them with him either.
He was a big man, six-five, and about halfway between three and four hundred pounds—the exact number depended on how much he ate at a particular meal. He was a former college football player with a truncated stint in the NFL, where a vicious blindside hit had altered his mind and given him pretty much a perfect memory. Hyperthymesia, as it was technically known.
It sounded cool.
But it had been nothing compared to walking into his house one night to find his wife, brother-in-law, and daughter brutally murdered. That killer was no longer among the living. Decker had seen to that. But the conclusion of that case had also led him to move from Burlington, Ohio, to Virginia to take up a unique position with the FBI.
He still didn’t know how he felt about it. Thus he ordered two Whoppers, two large fries, and a Coke so big he had difficulty holding it even in his huge hand. When he was anxious, he ate.
When he was really anxious he was a garbage disposal.
He sat in the parking lot and devoured his meal, the salt on the fries sticking to his fingers and sprinkling across his lap. Outside the snow was falling lightly. He had started his journey late and was tired, so he wouldn’t finish the drive tonight. He would grab a bed at a motel in the Keystone State and then complete his journey the next day.
Special Agent Ross Bogart, the man he would be working for at the FBI, had told him that all of his traveling expenses, within reason, would be covered. He’d actually offered to fly Decker to Virginia, but Decker had declined. He wanted to drive. He wanted some time to himself. He would be working at the FBI with a woman he’d met in Burlington, a journalist named Alexandra Jamison. She’d shown her smarts during the investigation of his family’s murder, and Bogart also wanted her as part of his unusual team.
Bogart had laid out to Decker the details of his vision of this team when they’d both been back in Burlington. It would operate out of the FBI’s Quantico platform. It would bring together FBI agents and civilians with special skills to reopen and, one hoped, solve cold cases.
Maybe we’ll be a team of misfits, Decker thought.
Christmas had come and gone. Today was New Year’s Eve. People would be out partying and celebrating the coming new year. Decker would not be among them. He had nothing to celebrate, despite the new job and new life. He had lost his family. Nothing could replace them, thus he would never have anything to celebrate.
He threw the bag of trash into a receptacle in the parking lot, climbed back into his car, and drove off. He turned on the radio. The top of the hour was coming up as he found the local NPR station. The news was coming on. The lead story had to do with a death row inmate whose life had been spared, melodramatically, at the last minute.
It had been a last-second Christmas present, the announcer said.
The man’s name was Melvin Mars. And he had been convicted over twenty years ago of killing his parents. Now, all of his appeals had been denied and the state of Texas was ready to take the man’s life as punishment for his crimes.
But startling new evidence had emerged, the announcer said.
A prisoner in Alabama had confessed to the crime and had allegedly offered up details that only the real killer could have known. Mars, a former college All-American, Heisman Trophy finalist, and top NFL prospect, was currently still behind bars as he awaited the results of the ensuing investigation. But if that investigation verified the confession, reported the announcer, then Melvin Mars could go free, after two decades behind bars. His NFL dream was over, of course, but perhaps justice would finally be served, if a bit late.
Damn, thought Decker, as he turned off the radio. Some justice for Melvin Mars.
Then his mind started whirring, his memories flashing past in neat chronological order, though Decker did not really need his hyperthymesia to remember this one.
Melvin Mars was a star running back at the University of Texas. The Longhorns had played Decker’s team, the Buckeyes of Ohio State, on the last week of the regular season in a nationally televised game. Decker had played linebacker on his squad. He was tall for a linebacker and was a good player, but not great. He had the size, strength, and toughness, but didn’t have the wheels and pure athleticism of the truly outstanding players.
Mars had made life miserable that afternoon for Decker and the Buckeyes. Texas had ended up winning by a whopping five touchdowns and ruining any chance Ohio State had for a national championship.
Mars himself had scored four times. Three by running and once with a nifty catch-and-run starting at the Buckeyes’ thirty-five yard line. Decker remembered that one well. He had been covering Mars on the play as he came out of the backfield.
He had hit Mars with everything he had as soon as he caught the ball. But Mars had somehow managed to keep on his feet, juked the corner and then the safety, and then run over another safety coming in near the goal line as Decker lay on the field thirty yards back. It had seemed like the fifth time Mars had gotten the better of him that day. As his coaches later pointed out on film day, it was actually the tenth.
Decker had gone to the bench after that hit and miss. The Longhorns were up by twenty-eight points with less than six minutes remaining. They would tack on one more score when they got the ball back after an interception. It was Mars again who hit the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker—a wall of granite named Eddie Keys, who would go on to play twelve years with the Forty-Niners—so hard that the man had been blown backward into the end zone as Mars made his last score of the day.
Decker had thought the guy would be a shoo-in for the NFL too. It was a big story back then about Mars being arrested. But Decker had been working hard for his own shot at the big leagues and the arrest and conviction of Melvin Mars finally had faded into the past.
Two decades in prison. For a crime he maybe didn’t commit.
Another man had confessed. Had details only the real killer would know.
It was so close to the murders of Decker’s family that not even his unique mind could grapple with the possible odds of it.
He drove right through Pennsylvania, and then south into Maryland and farther south into Virginia. He didn’t stop to sleep. His mind was alert and awake and thinking.
He was thinking about Melvin Mars.
A name from the past.
Decker did not believe in fate, or even its little cousin, serendipity.
Yet something had made him turn on the radio right at that very moment. If he had taken a couple minutes longer to eat his meal, or stopped to take a leak, he might never have heard the story.
But he had heard the story.
So what did that mean?