The Last Maneuver
By Lamont A. Turner
Maybe I deserved
to die for what I did. I ain’t one of these guys blathering on about how they were
framed. I killed that broad. I caught her going through my wallet and I snapped. That’s
all there was to it. The kid, on the other hand, shouldn’t have been here.
Bobby Jefferson was simple.
There was no getting around the fact the kid didn’t even understand what they’d
done to him. Sending somebody like that to the chair was worse than anything I ever did.
It was flat out murder.
They’d picked up Bobby after I was already slated
to fry, but the murder they nailed him for happened while I was still on the other side
of the bars. I remember the outrage when that little white girl was found with her head
smashed in, and how the black folks had all kept to themselves after it came out she’d
been seen talking with a colored kid before she went missing. Jackson wasn’t the
best place to be colored in the first place, not even for the soldiers who came back from
wrestling in the dirt and blood with the Huns. It must have smarted to spend four years
getting shot at and then have to step aside for the white boys who’d sat it out.
There weren’t any brown men trying to shoot
my head off while I did my stint with Uncle Sam in Africa and Europe. I’d
drink with any man so long as he spoke English and didn’t try to get one over on
they found the kid wandering around the field where they found the girl, and a witness
fingered him as the one she’d seen talking to her the day she disappeared. Bobby
was dumb enough to let them bully him into a confession, but I doubt he knew what he was
putting his mark on. The cops had their patsy, and it didn’t much matter that his
momma said he’d been with her the day the girl was killed, or that there wasn’t
any evidence to show otherwise.
I’d killed a whore. I often wondered if
they would have even bothered to have charged me if I hadn’t been an outsider. If
I’d been a local boy, they would have probably slapped me on the back and told me
to be more careful next time. I didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered me. Poor
Bobby, though, he got his ass handed to him just for opening his mouth, and got beat twice
as hard for keeping it closed. The guards would step in just in time to make sure there
was enough left of him to fry when the time came. More often than not, they’d beat
on him themselves. My cell being directly across from Bobby’s, I got used to waking
up to the sound of his groans.
I mostly stayed out of it. I didn’t like what they were
doing to the kid, but what was he to me? Leastways that’s how I felt until I spotted
Bobby sitting on his bunk, crying over a tattered photo.
“What ya got there, a picture of your
“It’s my Pa. He’s in heaven now. If he was here they never woulda
put me in this cage. My Pa woulda made sure of that. You wanna see him?” I nodded
just to be polite and Bobby walked to the bars and waved a photo of a GI in a neatly pressed
uniform at me. The man in the photo didn’t look much older than his son.
“My mom said he got killed
on a ship, shoot’n at the Japanese. She said he kept shoot’n so everybody else
could get away. He even got a medal for it. Course, he never saw it. Momma says he’s
sleep’n on the bottom of the ocean.”
It’d been over seven years since I was
mustered out, but I’d still feel sick all over whenever something brought the war
back to me. I’d felt it the night I woke up to find that whore stuffing my cash down
her blouse. I felt it right then, listening to Bobby.
I must have had that look, the one I get when I’m back
on the battlefield, or maybe it was the way I was gripping the bars that made Bobby ask:
“You kill any Japanese?”
“Naw. I never even saw any. I was too busy killing Krauts.”
“They give you a medal
I had to laugh. Nobody was giving me any medals. Like Bobby,
I was disposable, something to be used up and thrown away. The only difference was I was
smart enough to realize it. I could tell Bobby wanted to ask me more, but a screw named
McGinty wandered up and banged on the bars of Bobby’s cell with his stick, causing
Bobby to drop the picture. I felt a chill as the screw bent down and scooped it up.
“What we got here?”
he said, holding the picture by the corner like it was something dirty. “This your
“Give it back!”
Bobby shouted. It was the first time I’d heard him raise his voice.
“You don’t give the orders round
here, boy,” McGinty said as he slowly tore the picture in half, making a big production
out of it. Bobby screamed and pawed at the air, but McGinty stepped back and kept tearing.
Dropping the scraps just out of Bobby’s reach, he wore an ugly smirk as Bobby dropped
down and tried to squeeze through the bars to get at them. He found it entertaining enough
to let it go on for several minutes before stomping on Bobby’s hand. If he’d
done it to anyone else, the other guys on the block wouldn’t have put up it. They’d
have raised a ruckus and the screw would spend the rest of his days in the yard looking
over his shoulder, waiting for somebody to slip a shiv between his ribs. There was no
sympathy for Bobby though. He’d murdered a white girl. As far as the other cons were
concerned, he had it coming.
“You want this?” McGinty shouted, using the foot
not on Bobby’s hand to kick the pieces of the photograph into his face. “Eat
up, boy. That’s your supper.”
I’d seen enough. I returned to my bunk, spread a
newspaper over my face, and tried to shut out the sounds of Bobby’s sobs.
You remember your dreams? I do, especially since they stuck me in here and I didn’t
have anything to drown them in. That night I dreamed I was in Germany. We’d pushed
the Huns out of Africa and fed Mussolini to his people. It was almost over, and we all
knew it. Having picked up enough shrapnel to earn a ticket home, Tom and I were celebrating
with some schnapps we’d picked up while on patrol, waiting for our transport outside
the school house we’d commandeered and turned into a field hospital, when a German
girl approached. She was still pretty, even with the hunger dents in her cheeks and the
dark circles under her large blue eyes. Despite the language barrier, she got it across
to us she was willing to make a trade for a few sips off Tom’s bottle by hiking up
her skirt. I didn’t like it. She shouldn’t have been there. Tom didn’t
see any harm in it, though. That’s how Tom was, always rushing into every situation
like he was Superman. He let her drop into his lap and had his hand in her blouse, giving
her a squeeze as she tipped the bottle back.
“Danka,” she said, but there was no smile
attached to it. A second later she had a pineapple. I didn’t see where she pulled
it from, and Tom was too busy feeling her up to notice until she had the pin out. Tom tried
to push her off him, while I jumped up, reaching for the sidearm that wasn’t there,
but she held on to him until it blew.
“Fucking whore!” I screamed, but now she
was in my hotel room, digging through my wallet. I ran at her, smashing her head into the
dresser. She didn’t resist or make a sound as I pounded her head down again and again
until all I heard was a wet thump.
I woke up wet and shivering. Bobby was still whimpering in the
cell across the corridor. I drained my bladder into the hole
in the concrete floor and then splashed water on my face from the faucet sticking out
of the wall, washing the sweat off. For a second, the lights from the guard tower reflected
red off the water and I was back outside the school house, wiping away Tom’s blood.
It had taken Tom a few minutes to die. His jaw blown all to hell, all he could do was look
up at me with tears streaming down his lacerated cheeks, but I could almost hear him saying
“So close. I almost made it.”
“Knock it off!” I yelled, jumping up to
rattle the bars of my cell. “Just shut up! Nobody wants to hear your blubbering!”
Bobby fell silent. In the red light
I could just make him out, sitting on the floor next to his bunk, the pieces of the
photo arranged in a rectangle before him.
A week later, I got pulled out of the yard and marched into the warden’s office
where a greasy looking guy I never saw before sat puffing on a stogie. He sat in his shirt
sleeves, his knees holding up his gut in a chair before the warden’s desk, his suspenders
looking like they might snap at any moment. The ape standing behind him made no effort
to conceal the bulge of the holster under a jacket so tight they must have stitched him
into it. The warden didn’t approve of smoking, so I knew right off the grease ball
had some clout. If I had any doubts, the warden’s voice confirmed it. It squeaked
when it came out like a mouse with a cat’s paw on its tail.
“This is the man you wanted
to see. I trust you won’t be needing anything else from me.”
The fat man dismissed him with
a nod, and the warden evaporated in a flurry of shuffling papers, not so much as glancing
in my direction as he blew by. The ape stayed, but took a step back as his boss gestured
to the chair facing him and ordered me to sit.
“Know who I am?” the fat man asked around
the cigar in the corner of his mouth, then added, “I’m the governor of this
state,” without waiting for my reply. “Want a smoke?”
I nodded and the ape pulled a pack of Luckies
from his breast pocket. The Governor pushed a pack of matches across the desk with a forefinger
like a hairy sausage.
“See anything familiar?” he asked, lifting his finger off the matchbook
to reveal a white cover with Sal’s Goldmine plastered in red letters above a cartoon
beer stein. “That’s where you picked the girl up, right?”
I asked, picking it up and tearing out a match.
“Don’t play stupid. The one
whose head you smashed in, Debra Reese.”
“She told me her name was Jill.”
“She told a lot
of people a lot of things. I want to know what else she told you.”
“She said she’d
take me to heaven for a ten spot. She lied. That’s about it.”
“She mention a brother?”
“What’s this all about?” I asked. “Trial’s over. I
killed her and you’re going to fry me for it. Unless you’re planning on issuing
a pardon, I think I’ll spend the time I got left doing something other than satisfying
I started to rise, but the Governor glanced over his shoulder at the ape, who rushed
over to push me back down.
“Play ball with me and you might get that
pardon,” the Governor said, signaling for his bodyguard to relocate to behind my
chair. “I know you’re a vet, so I don’t think we’ll beat it out of you, and
I can’t very well threaten to kill you, can I? If a pardon does the trick, I’m
open to the idea.”
agreed to hear him out and got fed another cigarette. I smoked this one with the ape’s
hands on the back of my chair.
“Your girlfriend got around,” the Governor
said, flicking ashes on the warden’s carpet. “She got to my son, and pictures
“She was shaking you down?”
“Yeah. We thought you took care of that for
us, but two days ago we got a call from some jackass claiming to be her brother doubling
the amount of the payout. He said he had the pictures, plus evidence we’d employed
you to kill his sister.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “I didn’t know
anything about any of it.”
“Of course it’s ridiculous!” the Governor shouted,
pounding a meaty fist on his thigh. “The thing is people will believe it. They won’t
believe it enough for me to sweat a conviction, but it will cost me at the polls. I can’t
“And they’ll think you sent me to the chair to shut me up.”
“And how will it look if I pardon
you? It will still stink. People will say I let you walk because we had a deal.”
“Do we what?”
“Have a deal? I get you the pictures, and I get a full
“You know where he’s holed up?”
“I might,” I lied. Reese had bragged about
having the goods on the governor, saying she was about to get a big payday, but at the
time I’d chalked it up to the gin I’d been feeding her, and there was no mention
of a brother.
“Okay, spill. Where do we find this guy?”
“It doesn’t work that way. You put your
name on the paper and then I solve your problem, but it’s gonna cost you a little
more than a pardon.”
“You expect to get paid?” he said, his face turning as red as the dot
on side of a Zero. “I might as well shell out to the brother.”
“I don’t want your
goddamned money. I want a pardon, a bus ticket out of town, and I want you to do something
for a friend of mine, Bobby Jefferson.”
“Jefferson? The coon who murdered that
girl? I was thinking about throwing the switch myself when the time comes. What the hell
does he have to do with this?”
“He’s not right in the head—and you
railroaded him. I walk and he gets sent to the bug house instead of the chair. That’s
“Why the hell do you care what happens to some half-wit spade? You get religion
or something after you smashed out the brains of that whore?”
“Do we have a deal
or not?” I said, standing. A pair of big paws shifted from the chair to my shoulders
and tried to force me back down, but this time I brushed them off. “I know you can make it happen.”
parents wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Tell them he died. Say he choked to death
on that slop you feed us. Once you have him locked away in the hospital nobody will ever
know the difference. Make the call. Once he’s on his way to his new home, I tell
you what I know. As soon as you collect the pictures, I’m on a bus to Louisiana.”
He mulled it over
for what seemed an hour while he blew clouds in my face and tapped his fat fingers on the
desk. Then he made the call.
It had all worked out just like I’d planned. There was no brother. The call
had come from my lawyer, another vet who was all too happy to play along once I told him
about Bobby’s father. It didn’t hurt that he had political aspirations and
thought he might find something of use in it when he made his own bid for the governor’s
I didn’t know how Bobby would make out in the
asylum, but it was the best I could do. If I could have managed to get him free and clear
he would have ended up swinging from a branch as soon as he hit the street. I couldn’t
do anything for his dad, or for Tom, but at least Bobby wouldn’t fry.
The real gamble was the pictures.
I knew Reese had holed up in a room above the Goldmine and that she wouldn’t have
let the pictures stray too far from her sight. If they hadn’t been there, the
operation would have been a wash. Bobby would be back in the cell across the corridor,
and my pardon would have ended up like the picture of Bobby’s dad, but they were
there, and the door of my cell was swinging open.
One of the guards waiting to escort me out was McGinty,
and he didn’t seem pleased that I was slipping through his fingers. Maybe he suspected
I’d had something to do with him losing his favorite chew toy. Maybe he was just
“Think you’re getting a pass? Something tells me you’ll be back,
solider boy, and I’ll be here to see that you get what’s coming to you.”
I tried to step past him, but
he couldn’t resist giving me a shove. He was saying something, but all I heard was
German. Before I knew it, I was trying to cram his head through the bars while the
other guard, a little guy and one I hadn’t seen before, screamed for help. By
the time help came, it was too late. I didn’t try to resist as they stepped
over the dead man at my feet and forced me back into my cell.
the breaks. I was going to die for killing McGinty,
but at least there’d be one less victim of the state. There was always the chance
the Governor would pull Bobby back in and cook him once I wasn’t around to cry foul,
but I doubted it. That was the one advantage to being disposable. They forgot about you
once they had no more use for you.