The Last Maneuver
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 me.
Anyway, 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
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
“They give you a medal for that?”
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 boyfriend?”
“Give it back!”
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
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
“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
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
“Knock it off!” I yelled, jumping up to
rattle the bars of my cell. “Just shut up! Nobody wants to hear your
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.
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?”
“What girl?” 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 your curiosity.”
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 afford that.”
“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 pardon.”
“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
“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 the deal.”
“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.”
“The girl’s parents wouldn’t stand for
“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
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 seat.
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
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 like that.
“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.
That’s the breaks. I was going to die
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.