The Last Mile

David Baldacci

The Last Mile

To the memories of Alison Parker and Adam Ward,

two brilliant lights taken from us far too soon.

And to Vicki Gardner,

whose courage and grace are inspiring testaments

to the resiliency of the human spirit.

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.

And he had started telling people he really wanted to become Alexis.

Mars sat up on the bunk in his cell and looked at his watch. It was time to do his thing. The last time he would ever do this, in fact.

His jumpsuit was white, and on the back were the letters D and R printed in black. They stood for “death row.” Mars had equated it to a snake’s rattle, warning folks to stay the hell away.

He dropped to the coolness of the concrete floor and did two hundred push-ups, first on fists and then on fingertips, and finally from the downward dog position, lightly touching the crown of his bald head on the concrete with each pass. Next he performed three hundred deep squats in sets of six, exploding up with every rep — depth charges, he called them. Then followed yoga and Pilates for strength, balance, range of motion, and, most important, flexibility. He could touch his toes to his forehead with his legs ramrod straight, no small feat for a big, ropy-muscled man.

Then came the thousand stomach and core reps that seared his abs like acid. It was the reason he had rock-hard obliques, and an eight-pack, his belly button stretched so tight it looked more like a mole than where his umbilical cord had once attached. Next came flat-out plyomania where he pushed off all four walls and the floor in a series of maneuvers, many of his own devising.

He was like Spider-Man, or Fred Astaire dancing on ceilings. He had a lot of hours to plan such things in prison. His life was very structured, but it also offered up a load of free time. Most inmates just sat around doing nothing. There were no classes, no rehabilitation of any kind.

The unofficial prison motto was straightforward:

Rehab is for pussies.

Finally, Mars ran in place for so long that he lost track of time, high-kneeing it the whole way. It was crazy that he was doing this today of all days. But he had done it pretty much every day since he’d been in here, and part of him felt this was his last act of defiance. They would not rob him of it. At least he didn’t have to refuse the traditional final meal, because Texas no longer offered one. He didn’t want their crap inside him at the end. He preferred to die on an empty stomach.

No one had visited him, because he had no one who wanted to visit him. He was alone, as he had been the last twenty years. He wondered what the papers would say the next day. It would be a small story probably. There was nothing new about another black man getting the Lone Star State’s lethal spa treatment. Hell, it was hardly worth a photo. But they would recount the crimes of which he’d been convicted. Surely they would. And that would be the only memory of him for many.

Melvin Mars, the murderer.

He cooled down, the sweat pooling off him and staining the concrete that was already badly scarred with far worse things than perspiration. Condemned men had been known to defecate on the floor before they walked to their deaths.

As his breathing normalized he sat on his bunk and tipped his head back against the wall. In his old cell he had named the walls Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben, after the superhero fighting team the Fantastic Four. It was just something do in a place where he had nothing to do. Each day filled with whatever he could think of to fill it.

Mars often fantasized about sexy Sue Storm, but he more closely related to Ben Grimm, the Thing, the freak. As an athlete Mars had been a freak, in a good way.

Yet he could be thoughtful, like the brainy Reed.

He also related to the flame ball Johnny Storm, Sue’s kid brother, because he felt like he was on fire every second of every day. Principally because every day was like every other day in here. A living hell, actually, hence the flames.

This was Day 7,342 for him. The last day for him.

He looked at his watch again.

Five ticks till Doomsday.

He had spent a year in solitary shortly after going to prison. The reason was simple. His life was over, his dreams shattered, his hard work for naught, and he was pissed beyond all reckoning.

His punishment for beating the crap out of three prisoners and then taking on a half-dozen guards and more than holding his own until they ...

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