by Bart Lessard
Where a football trophy might rest on the bedside shelf of another boy of nine—or a geode, or a Wookiee, or a Snaptite fighter jet—Callum now kept the clean upper of a human skull. Awe was due, gobsmack awe, and friends came in to pay. Shug was a floor up in the scheme, Davy two below, and both had sped along on receipt of a selfie, foreground leer, pride at left shoulder. Thanks to friction with the brother Rab ran late, and he hid the limp on entry.
What built in him at the sight was not sportsmanlike. Jealous to a seethe, he said at last, “It’s no real.” Not a glance his way, whether hard or mild.
“That’s Beltran,” Davy said. “Tommothy Beltran. He’s still got the two gold teeth.”
“Lots of cunts have two gold teeth,” Rab said. “Orangeman Geoff has full grills and rocks ’t spell his name besides.”
“But no this pair—fang and fang.” Davy indicated with the two up ye.
“So it’s a grass,” Callum said. Everybody knew of the vanishing act. Solemn nods all around. “He must have crept out of the canal, perished there and bleached. They sank him yet alive.” Were it truth an oversight, Rab knew. Shawpark Young Team was the local task force. Proper in removals, no more passion than for a half litre at the bin. “It was in the rushes where A found him,” Callum went on, “amongst shopping bags.”
Shug asked, “Nae bones,” to get a line.
“No that A saw. Bloody hell—knuckles would have made a good chain, aye.”
“Didnae crawl out then,” Davy said, yet the boffin. “And the water in the canal, it wullnae wash you up like a clamshell. Wave action is at a minimum and tidal forces dunnae apply. Naw, the way A see it a creepypasta was up on the bank, a bottom dweller ’t ate what was left of him, come up for a shite.”
“Creepypasta!” Rab shouted, to surprise. “Out your arse, that’s where you flap it, and up the nearest too. CSI: Wee Schemie Cunt! Encyclopaedo Brown!”
The brawl upset the shelf and in turn the trove. Callum caught long, and in a whited fury, the skull cherished close, he said, “Fuck off, you—all you schemie cunts.”
Boarding the elevator Rab tongued a raw lip. As he nursed at his spite and blood plans took shape. The car found his floor. He was smiling in a tinge when the doors made way again. Had Junkie Stewart not boarded the drop would have been straight.
“Hey big man, big man. Had a bit of barney, aye? Spare us a fiver?”
Rab knew where he could fetch a head. His would be better. His, it would have a jaw, with teeth and a bite to spare.
* * *
The brother was Team, a year out from his majority and low of rank. But Brace was in on things, if not so taut at mouth as being in should demand. Three hits of swally and he had been at arias in the maw’s kitchen with two Team prospects. They had told him to bite it off, gone loud for fear of their lives, as though powers heard through wall, floor, and tower block alike. Rab had grown crack at his ninjitsu, listening in from the other room. Soon after, an angry head had poked in to check. Earbuds were up, earbuds playing fools, and from behind a comic book Rab threw on a metronomic bob.
“Gie”—and snatch—to an open view of Brace off for the bog, Immortal Hulk in hand.
So he had the vicinity. This was not a dump. The remains were meant to be found— staged, as the shows said. The brother had been amazed that no one had yet caught scent. Skies had been blue, taps aff and aff again. Rab went armed: colours and a chef’s knife. Surely a muggy week or two was enough to reduce a cunt to bone, but there would be gristle. Domestic cutlery was no less outlaw than a chib, and less sly. Whence the scarf. It could have been anything wrapped up—a flute, a carrot—rooting for the F.C.
The trespass sign by the gap bore the Team tag: ShYT3. Second-string villainy, as Rab saw it, to leave a boast on the fence for the law. Through chainlink and rank shrub he went, shady trash underfoot, into a vault of leaves. Another rankness in mind he began to scent the air. Sight of the bothy, a green tarp on a frame of skids, brought a thrill. A hum rose, flies in the many hundred, and he breached the smell at last, like passing through a blister skin. Just beyond the vegetation lay the channel, the south side walking path. West enders would be out for a jog, and chipper junkies on chipper junkie rounds. Somehow they were unaware of the fumes. Maybe they had lost the nose. The whole bottom of that watercourse was bones, Maryhill and Possil knew, bones in a stack with mud and rubbish, but the flow kept it clean, slow yet steady, in time got out to sea. Wading into the smell—a thickening air—Rab was weighing up the swim. He came to a stop, took two back, thought it through. “Need us a skull.”
A makeshift home will paint a picture of an occupant—rough sleeper, anorak, flasks of Eldorado voided and shed. But no, this cunt had been to a tailor. Not that the cut was so bespoke now. A bloat pulled buttons tight as laces. Rats had worried at his hands, rats or creepypastas, for these had been the only naked meat, now an unfleshed pair of rakes. They lay crossed on a double breast, herringbone tweed, the body in a topcoat. No summerweight getup, no less so for the gunny sack atop the head. It had been cinched up tight—tighter even than the rayon windsor knot.
A muggy week does not reduce a cunt to bone, Rab saw. “Fuck.” Off came the scarf from the knife, to block up mouth and nose. For a better angle he pulled the tarp and let a skid fall out. In he leaned, looked away once the edge was placed, and began a dainty fiddle. The wet whisper was no less regrettable than the reek. Flies crept about his neck and sipped upon his blinking eyes.
Five minutes made for a nick and a sore wrist. Put a back into it, he told himself. On his knees, he bore down, both hands on the stroke. No looking off now, not even as the jostle gave up tenants—both sleeves, both trouser legs. Jumping back Rab gave a shriek. He had a look about to make sure none had heard the girl. Like shadows—gone with a rustle. He looked to his hands. Juices—nasty, like those that had run out from the shell of a pet turtle dead of thirst. He was an older boy now and knew how to commit.
Back to work. A cervical joint gave way easier than he might have thought, not in so many words. Perhaps the neck had been broken in the grip. The wetness was trying, so he doffed the scarf to give himself a wipe. It had not done much in blocking a stink, or so he thought until the nose was left undefended. Flies went spelunking in each nostril. The things he did for honour. Face pinching shut, he tidied up his hands, and the swaddling went on clean side out. He pulled, and a last connection gave way, to a reel of string. Worm, he thought at first as it sagged to dirt. But then he saw that it was spinal tissue. “Turtle!” he said on the revolt, more or less. A shrug and tuck of chin got the retch off.
One more pass, two more deepening heaves, these dry. Done! Neat to the crook of an arm, like a rugger ball up from the scrum. Folded plies kept off the soak. Rab looked down at what would be left. Per local rite he offered up a prayer. “Poor bastard.” One less grass, but in a state of decay all are innocent.
Pure rancid, though. Breath held, looking to his feet, he ran. He would see the deed forever, smell it, a codger in a pub of tomorrow ruing wisdom at a hologram of ale. But first he saw the lawman rear up, a yellow-vested polis of the goddam here and now.
Polis, Rab; Rab, polis. Just beyond, and radiant with open sun, was the gap in the fence. Panic—but no less plainly Rab saw the mind at work. Only a scold being formulated—polis wit, God help us—with no glance to the parcel. This was not a ghoul but a truant, to the officer’s mind, a mere naughty wean.
So Rab said, “There.”
The fright was honest, no less so than the nod back to sin. Sold. The stare broke, the polis looking past. Rab was glad to see range in those eyes: suspicion, focus, puzzlement, focus, surprise, career ambition.
“Stay there,” the polis said. Again ninjitsu came to play. Not a twig underfoot played the clype. You’ll never make DCI, Deppity Hamish, Rab thought between sun and pavement, at a dead run. Next up: find ye an anthill.
* * *
Four hours’ search down the Kelvin walk, all to see the light: the city parks were home to no such thing. Rab could visualise a hill, aye, a handsome cone littered with a scrap of ladybirds, but this must have been on the shows. Urban ants were a different sort: crack-dwellers, sugar bowl rapists. No death-mounds, no marches skeletonising a jungle road. Glasgow ants were plain shite. But worms could do the polish.
Off the walk he dug, the mill in sight from the fallen tree if he peeked up. Passersby only saw a wee man playing foxhole. Furrow made, he saw that he should take off the wraps. A head made bare would surrender more quickly. The step was clear—he had done the worse—but reluctance grew. Coming up on eight p.m., two hours to nightfall, and he was full of the smell upon him. Off came the scarf, never to be worn again save by weather. Once he laid bare the strangle cord, tight yet on gray meat, he thought back. The maw would miss the knife, as he did now; the cops at the scene, perhaps not.
Live and learn. Rab pulled in opposite directions at the top of the gunny cloth, to a rip. He caught a flash of face before the waft shut his eyes for him. “Fuckin ammonia?” he said in a choke. Biology was foul indeed. Someday we’d turn ours in for robots. No more deil realm of piss and stink. Eyes off, nose out, he picked up the bottom of the sack. A hard shake would lay it in the dirt. Not seeing the who of it, the former human being, was politeness, he told himself. But as the head slipped out it pulled against the throttle, not loose at all, and Rab felt the weight dangle. He shook and shook but let go. The tease flipped it face up. His palms were on the backfill when he glanced to what was shown. And another hour crept by in cold thought.
* * *
His face was a tattle on entry to the homestead. Brace was at the table with a vape pen, hash oil from the scent, slouched in two. Before him was a residue of Bucky in a snifter. Where he had found the snifter is lost to history, but he had poured to the rim.
“Whit’s ra mettur wi ye?”
“Get tae fuck!”
Rab did. He felt haunted to the rearmost teeth. But there were other ghosts making home, he saw. Brace’s eyes were cannabinol pink, or he had wept up a lather, or both.
Faces were much on Rab’s mind. To the bath, for soap and lathers of his own, a scrub from quiff to queef. Afterward, on a frown, he shot Glade straight onto his hands. No trace could be left, not on the surface. The smell would have to wear off from deeper.
The afterimage, that would not. Puffed out, a gray slough, but features known to any. The bastard had disappeared back in wintertime. He had been enough of a figure to cut another by his absence. No grass, this—never. In that sunset hour Rab had been forced to play boy detective. Encyclopaedo Brown, the sequel. Poetic justice. What a cunt.
This was not sanitation, but politics. Surely nothing for Shawpark Young Team, least of all for numpty Brace. Even a nine-year-old schemie cunt could see that. As rinks of diarrhoea went, this was a colder one to skate. Not least for the state of the body after six months’ absence. Rancid, but not rancid enough. The gospel of the shows taught Rab the full. To thwart work in the lab, forensic timetables, they had put him in a freezer. Once the stars were right came the thaw. The ShYT3 tag nearby, Brace playing town crier—Rab saw it all. False flag—setup—a deliberate leak. Brace was a patsy, here confirmed by anguish, Bucky, vape. Rab was about to lose the brother.
“And gain a skull!”
The clothes were fire bound, save the tee. His Suspiria shirt was not going back to Gitche Manitou. He’d just have to drop some Woolite on that cunt. He was under the sink for a shopping bag when he heard Brace sob loud and clear.
“Ooh Netty, Netty. Ooh Netty.”
Netty Maclinnick—a jilt. The slag had shown some taste. A sigh, enthroned on the bog lid to ride it out. Rab would pay in lumps if Brace saw him see. Not soon enough, the maw got home from her shift, and Brace was shooed off to the sofa bed.
* * *
Grief was in no short supply, but a day of school was the grief he knew best. Off he went at eight a.m., the psychic smell of curdled victim unrelenting. He pouted through maths, looking forward to the exam that would rid him of the farce once and forever. Until then he would have to slum it in genpop. Callum was in the class, and even in the fug and drudgery Rab could not help but notice his rival looked plenty glum.
“It’s gone,” Callum said at lunch. “Tommothy Beltran’s skull. Alas, A knew him well.” Rab made a face. “Ma parents, they found him, and they would nae hear reason. When A told how A got it, where A got it, ma maw even called the polis.”
“Aye!” Callum laid boustrophedons in neeps and tatties with a spork. Rab had no thought on his own tray and had skipped even the dry morning toast. “It’s no a grass when it’s your maw. The filth came in and grilled me for hours. They wanted to take me in like a proper villain, but da, he drew the line. They were snappin like mongrels in the living room. There were threats of calls—social workers, Legal Aid, prosecutor, queen’s counsel, Uncle Jay. What a shite show.”
‘They could take the skull without a warrant?”
“Aye—a bastard in a hazmat suit—no just gloves but a suit, head to foot, like some kind of moonbase cunt. He dropped it in an evidence bag, didnae he, Fuck Rogers.”
‘Even though you found it fair and square?”
“Even though A found it fair and square. They waved blacklights in ma room. A’m too young to skeet, the twats. They were there for hours. Impressing upon me how A should nae ‘tamper with evidence.’” His index fingers curled marks onto polis words.
“Did they aye.”
“That ‘interfering with human remains’ is a ‘matter for the courts.’”
“That ‘hiding material evidence’ made me ‘accessory to the crime.’”
“In this case a ‘likely homicide.’ Then they left off and went … but ma da, no he.”
‘Aw that’s rough, pal. A’m so sorry.” Inwardly: A’ll rush the schedule.
Recent loss, a sweet spot—sweeter than the thrill of competition. How Callum would boil. And Davy, the sucker-punch bampot, he might as well prepare himself for seppuku.
* * *
Overnight had made no dent, not a single worm a-nibble. Now that he had a better grasp on decomp Rab had not foreseen miracles. And he had come better prepared for a transfer: the maw’s dishwashing gloves; rubbish bags, a whole roll; and Brace’s never-once-used football tote. It had been a gift from the maw’s barnacle, a top chap who had hoped to temper the young through sport. Of course he might as well have brought tea to a troop of morlocks in an irradiated sewer complex but the thought had been nice. No scrape at the dirt—Rab was glad for any mask. The truffle quintuple-bagged, he went his merry way. He had also brought a jar of Tiger Balm, pinched from the Extra, to rub camphor at his nose. The shows again, peace be upon them.
There would be no stink at all, but it was best to avoid a busy route. Setting out for the block, the path near the aqueduct in mind, he saw a polis off the walk with a dog on lead—a Belgian Malinois sniffing through the underbrush.
Fifty feet off, yet it gave Rab a stern look. No need to run a fancy—polis dogs took squat time, same as any—until he saw the same again, yellow movements on the far bank. Each nearest dog turned his way, even from across the glassy slide of water. There would be more sniffing out ahead, were the fear correct—the whole Stasi kennel.
Rab doubled back toward the Extra. No more K-9s, but he saw the same picque amongst civilian dogs out for walkies. Black lab, Staffy, cockapoo, puggle, Pom—each gone grass on him. The last, come closest, drew the lead tight enough to hang wash, and it began to yap. “Jockie!” the human anchor said. “Jockie, you’ll stretch your wee neck! Sorry, son, A don’t know what’s got into him. Are you carrying a ham toastie by chance?”
More came out about ham and Pomeranian. Rab heard none of it. He ran the tenements above the Kelvin, imagining the j’accuse from any pet at a window. His nonhuman pals could scent it, but not Rab. Nor even the curse of the canal from the prior day, and that had been from within. Fright was a good reset.
Mention of a toastie even got him in a mind to eat. He had not in more than a day. To the Greggs, then. These sausage rolls will give me the quick energy A need to fetch us home, Rab thought, demolishing the pack on site. He was at a table for two, the football tote snug at his feet, and he went back up for caramel shortbread.
* * *
To task. Brace was not at home, and the maw would not be for hours yet. Into a stock pot with the trophy, features down, and water. Rab had seen a stew in his time. Given long enough a simmer would denude the skull and improve the smell along the way.
It did not. Rancid was rancid cooked or raw, he found. All windows open was no help. He thought to add dishwashing liquid, the very essence of cleanliness, and the slurry foamed over. Once that was tended to—heat low, pot sides wiped up and blotted—a residue began to burn. The atmosphere grew hazy as well as foul. Grim, but necessary: Rab bound a hoodie to his face, sleeves back. He added potpourri to the boil—mother’s stash atop the bog—marking whether it made the difference, no, and then, in turn, a cup of salt, no, a liter of bleach, worse, a half of milk, no better, glass cleaner from the unscrewed spray top, fuckin awful, and honey at a drizzle. He was about to reach for straight lye when beefs came in from the windows, neighbours above and below.
“What is that stink?”
“Paulie Boy! Is that bathtub meth again?”
“Who’s frying tripe?”
Rab’s eyes had gone a fierce red, bloodshot to the stems, and he coughed on every take of air. The windows would stay wide. But neither did he need a city council visit. Best to douse. He turned off the burner and threw a saucepan full of tap water. Steam clouds roiled up, and he waved both hands to thin the air.
This was from inside the flat. Here was Brace, uncharacteristically sober, which is to say only mostly drunk or high. Rab did not recognize the brother’s face straight off, for it did not wear its usual malevolence, only a shock.
“Whit ra fuck ur you at in here?” The diction was as usual, but not the tone. Brace had no go for a go in him. A kitchen chair received his blubbery drop.
“Science fair,” Rab said, wincing for the cuff.
None came. Neither did the stare relent. “A’ve been railroaded,” Brace said at last.
“Set up, ye fuckin muppet. A’d be in jail noo if ra haunds an heid wur still oan.”
“Haunds and heid oan whit?” Rab said, through the glare of seeing all at once.
“Ra haunds went tae ra rats, ma pals telt me, fingerprints wi them, but ra rest, ra whole fuckin heid an dental records, naebidy knows who—”
Here Rab found he had a tell.
Brace saw. He followed the glance to the pot. The suspicion deepened. “Rab?”
Up at once, the chair upset, to fetch a pair of tongs. Rab could not move, not even as Brace sounded the broth, nor on the gasp of coming face to face.
A full half minute crept by. Brace broke the freeze, made the turn. And then he was on Rab quick as shot, with a hug and a grin and eyes full of tears.
“A’m proud ay ye, wee man. Ye’ll huv me greetin.”
Rab said nothing.
“But here noo,” Brace went on. “It’s only hauf ra joab.”
Rab said nothing.
Rab said nothing but saw the joke.
“It’s awright,” Brace said. “Ye’ve been a gallus, done yer part. A’ll brek up ra jaw maself.” And soon nothing was left to be explained, except to the maw, once she came home to the newest stench, one of many made by two sons on their own.
by daishin stephenson
i cut her while she was sleeping. a gurgling-wheeze left the hole in her throat.
being in a room with her had never been so quiet. normally, she droned on about how poor my choices were.
i scratched my eyebrow with my thumb; a scratch-patterned blood smear remained.
“choices, the importance of choices,” her voice in my head. i chuckled. it was a poor choice to succumb to the itch; her choice in soap was poor.
by Tony Black
“You’re not cool with this?”
“Do I look fucking cool with it?”
Don curls his lip, bites down. A pained look. “Beer?”
Frowns. “Good stuff... Stella.”
I raise myself from the cowhide chair, cross the floor.
The first thing that comes to hand is the purple lava lamp. It smashes like the One O’clock Gun as I take it over Don’s head.
“Need a truckload of Stella for me to be cool with you fucking my girlfriend.”
“London Calling” blares out the Bosch speakers. I think, “Bollocks, Jonny Ladd isn’t going to like this.”
* * *
First I see of the bloke is Don knocking seven bells out of him in Deacon Broadie’s shitter. A suit. Banker type. I’d say ad man, but like I’d know an ad man... I sell Bob Hope for Don. Need a new line.
Don looks up, still kicking fuck out the guy, spots blood on his Kickers, removes one, slaps the fella about the head with it.
“Seen my shoes, y’prick!”
“Sorry... sorry.” He raises his hands, waves them in a girlie manner. Makes Don laugh, he slaps my shoulder; I fall into a cubicle as the main door swings open.
“Jonny!” says Don.
I ease onto the toilet seat, make myself invisible. Dealing for Don’s one thing, mixing with Jonny Ladd is another.
Jonny speaks, “This the cunt?”
“Yeah,” says Don, “clocked him with the blonde bit.” Jonny Ladd says nothing. I see him in the mirror, face crumpled. He gives banker-guy the once over, walks round, motions a thumb, “Get him the fuck out.”
“Your gaff, there’s a brasser on the way... Make sure you’ve got your fucking camera!”
* * *
“You got hold?”
Don drops his end, banker-guy slumps into the wall. Blood from a nasty nosebleed leaves a streak on the plaster.
“Fucksake, Don... I said this would happen.”
Over the banister comes a female voice, “Hello, is suck-suck, yes?” It’s the pro. Thai or something, anxious to get going.
Don shouts, “Yeah... Minute, eh.” He bends, slaps the banker. Mumbles. Don jumps the steps, turns, fishes keys from his pocket, says, “Drag him. I’ll get opened up...”
I raise the guy, balance his arm around my neck. “You have to help me...” he says.
“I know what this is about.”
“You pissed off Jonny Ladd.” No-brainer.
“No... It’s my girlfriend.”
I’m lost, feel my mouth droop, then Don opens the door, hollers, “Get a shift on down there.”
The guy passes out again. “So, he owe Jonny?”
Don eyeballs me, scrunches brows, “Fuck no... bit of fun.”
“The blonde, y’know, one with the big tits... Jonny’s got a bone for her.”
“I’m not with you.”
“Idea is, we get some photos, a pro noshing him off... blondie has a change of heart.”
For a while I’ve been thinking there’s better ways to make a living than dealing for Don. Ange said it... there’s more to life, change is good.
“What’s with the head shakes?” says Don.
“Nah, you don’t approve...”
“It’s not that.”
The brasser points to the banker who’s coming round again. She goes over to him, starts to loosen his tie.
“No, fuck no... his pants, here...” Don directs her to the belt buckle, walks back to me, starts to play with his camera-phone. He says loosen up, get over Ange leaving, and... “You cool with me putting a move on her?”
He offers a beer, Stella... Funny, Ange never liked beer, but lately she’d been big on Stella.
I feel a rush of blood to my head.
* * *
Miss suck-suck screams as the lava lamp explodes. She jumps when Don hits the floor.
I raise a hand, “It’s cool... we’re all cool.”
She goes back to work. “No,” I say, “change of plan.”
“This fella here,” I turn Don over, start to undo his belt, “get your gums round him.”
She goes down; I take Don’s camera-phone.
The banker’s coming round as I snap away, “Don’t worry mate, on our way in no time.”
He keels over again.
“Wise. Get your head down.”
“Okay-dokey,” says Miss Suck-Suck.
The Clash get me moving; “London Calling” sets the mood as I fire off the shots. I’m thinking, now here’s maybe my new job. Fuck knows I need one now. Would Ange approve? I wonder, as I locate her number on Don’s phone, and press send.
First published in Esquire.
by Bart Lessard
Seams of ice atop the branch
A crimp of powder underfoot
Through the door a fireside seat
Window looking in
Window looking out
by Barry Graham
It was a Saturday night in Glasgow, Scotland. Clarendon Street is at the bottom end of the Maryhill area, so residents in denial would say they lived in Woodside. It was 1977, so I was 11 years old. I was walking past a block of flats, and I heard something that made me open the entry door and look into the stairwell.
Three or four young men had another man in a corner, and they were kicking him and slashing at him with knives.
They didn’t seem to realise I was there, but when I ran out of the building, I think they heard the door slam shut, and that made them decide to get out of there, because they emerged close behind me, but they weren’t chasing me. They didn’t even look at me; they looked at one another, laughing, and then they walked away, their demeanour no different than if they had just left a bar or club.
I went back into the building. The man they’d attacked was still slumped against the wall, blood dripping from the gashes on his face and making little pools on the concrete floor.
He lived with his mother in a flat in the building. He’d spent the afternoon and early evening with friends on a pub crawl, and these strangers had attacked him as he entered his building.
Young as I was, the scene wasn’t as scary as others I would witness later. As the man sat on the couch in his living room and told two cops what had happened, his mother and another woman, a neighbour, sat on either side of him, cleaning the cuts on his face, waiting for the ambulance the cops had radioed for. What I still remember most vividly is not the hurt that was done to him, but the laughing faces of the men who had hurt him — how ordinary, how normal, it had seemed for them. But the sound of the police radios, and the angry tears of the mother, and the arrival of the ambulance, reassured me that it wasn’t.
* * *
Years and decades passed. I became a writer, and, having an unfortunate appetite for tragedy, I attended more crime scenes than I’m able to remember. In 1995, that unfortunate appetite made me move to the U.S. Here are a couple I do remember:
I remember when a woman who worked in a porn store the size of a supermarket was abducted at gunpoint, taken out to the desert, shot and left for dead. I remember sitting at her bedside in the hospital, taking notes as she talked to me in a tiny, frightened voice. I remember sitting in an apartment with her husband, taking notes as he tried not to cry. He is dead now, of cancer.
I remember a woman, twenty years old. Her fiancé was a missionary, and he left the country for a while. During his absence, she had sex with one of her co-workers and became pregnant, but she still wanted to be with her fiancé, so she told the other guy it was over, told him to leave her alone. He brought a gun to work and used it to kill her as she walked to her car. Members of his family talked about how much he loved her, how the unborn child was everything to him.
People would ask me how I could be around such awfulness and still live a happy life. I tried, and usually failed, to explain that the lights of police cars, and the yellow crime scene tape, and the very fact that I was there because it was newsworthy, served as a reminder that what I was seeing was wrong, madness, an aberration. Even when brutal crimes were committed by cops, the fact that they tried to conceal what they had done showed that it was not part of the normal world, the realm of the sane.
I had been sickened, horrified or heartbroken by crime scenes, but the first time I felt frightened was in 1998, at a crime scene where nothing illegal happened.
It was around midnight at the state prison in Florence, Arizona. I was there to witness the killing of Jose Ceja, who had been on death row for 23 years, for a double murder he had committed when he was 18. At his clemency hearing earlier in the day, the judge who had sentenced him to death now testified on his behalf. The judge, Mel McDonald, said Ceja hadn’t had a fair trial, and that he wouldn’t have sentenced him to death if he’d known all the facts. He praised Ceja for educating himself while in prison, and said that to kill him after 23 years would be cruel and unusual.
The clemency board voted to kill Ceja anyway.
When the curtain opened, Ceja looked like a man tucked cosily in bed. Because of the sheet that was tucked around him, and the strategic positioning of the gurney he was strapped to, I couldn’t see the needles and catheters that were stuck in his veins. Robust and healthy-looking, he could have been waiting for someone to bring him a cup of coffee. He looked at his lawyer, smiled and winked at him.
They injected him with thiopental sodium, a short-acting sedative. Then pancuronium, which paralysed every voluntary muscle in his body, so that, no matter how much pain he might have been in, he couldn’t show it. Then they stopped his heart with a dose of potassium chloride.
This is how it looked: His breathing got fast, and his eyes closed. His face went into spasm, as though there was an explosion just under his skin. His upper lip trembled and then billowed out from his face, like a rag flapping in a strong wind. After some minutes, it stopped.
Immediately afterward, outside, I saw another of the witnesses, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, chatting with officials, laughing.
It was the same madness I’d seen at crime scenes, but this was terrifying, because it was the state, the people, the sane ones, deliberately killing an unarmed man. And the laughter of Rick Romley was the same as the laughter of the men in Glasgow who had cut the face of a stranger for no reason other than that they wanted to. And I realised that the border between the realms of sanity and madness, civilisation and barbarism, existed only in my mind.
Others didn’t believe me. Two years later, I saw the optimism of the legal team who were trying to stop another execution in the same prison. Their case was strong. They were arguing that their client, Michael Poland, was mentally incompetent to be executed — and, as the state’s own psychiatrist agreed, the lawyers were shocked when Judge James E. Don ordered the execution to go ahead anyway.
I wasn’t, for the same reason I wasn’t surprised a decade and a half later, when Donald Trump became President.
I’d told my friends he’d win. They said he wouldn’t even get the nomination. When he did, they said it was impossible that he’d win. At one point, in exasperation, I said: “Six months ago, you were saying he wouldn’t get the nomination. Now you’re saying he won’t win. A year from now, you’ll be saying you can’t believe what President Trump’s doing.”
I knew what was going on with my friends, because I’d seen it before, at another crime scene.
It was at a party during a book festival. One of the authors was owed money by his publisher, an upper class trust funder. The author was clinically depressed, and the publisher openly taunted him in front of other people at the party.
The author had a friend with him, a man who was less genteel than those who usually attend literary events. This friend was so irked by the publisher’s meanness that he threatened him with violence.
The publisher wasn’t intimidated, because he lived in a world where he felt safe. He sneered at the author’s friend.
I remember the publisher was wearing a hat with a wide brim, because I can still see the hat falling off when the author’s friend hit the publisher with a backhanded slap to the face. But what’s clearest in my memory is how the publisher reacted…
Unable to accept what was happening to him, having no idea what to do about it, he went completely into denial. As if his hat had fallen off by accident, he bent, picked it up, and put it back on. The other man hit him again, twice, with each side of an open hand. Again the hat fell off, and again its owner picked it up and replaced it on his head, not acknowledging the man who was hitting him. It was a reality he had no mental/emotional vocabulary to handle, so he pretended it wasn’t happening, as though acting as if everything were normal could make it so. Before the beating could continue, other people at the party intervened. The publisher left, hat on head, body trembling.
During the presidential campaign, I saw my friends do what that publisher had done. Frightened, vulnerable in ways they had never imagined possible for them, they denied reality. While unable to deny that there was madness, they took refuge in a fiction that there was a realm of the mad, and that its denizens were the distant subjugates of the sane, the rational, the normal.
Then the election result was announced, and the hat was knocked off the frightened head.
* * *
I had lived in the U.S. for nearly 22 years, and in that time I had never once gone back to Scotland for a visit. But, as the blow landed and the hat fell, I saw I was living in a crime scene, so I did the only rational thing: I fled. In February 2017, I moved back to Glasgow.
When asked how I could leave the U.S. after so long, I answer that the U.S. left me. This is glib, but it’s also true. I looked at the U.S., and I saw the laughing thugs outside the building where they had cut a man’s face, the laughing county attorney outside the death house. Any pretence of sanity or decency had been abandoned.
© DOCKYARD PRESS