The Death Row Complex Sample




Prologue
2007

By the time they caught up with him, he had forgotten to keep running. Lawrence Naden was incoherent and scarcely recognizable—the sloughed, discarded skin of a human being.
     It had been a rainy week in Tijuana. A small river of brown water carried trash along the gutters of the squalid street. Piles of refuse collected in rough areas, creating dams that would eventually break with the weight of the water and garbage behind them. 
     A burst of static abbreviated the heavily accented warning from a megaphone. “You’ve got nowhere to go, Naden!” The dark-skinned officer holding the megaphone motioned, and several federales carrying M16 rifles moved steadily across a sloping yard.
     Except for a handful of onlookers, most of them ragged children, the street was deserted. The majority of adults had characteristically fled at the first rumor of approaching law enforcement.
     This time, however, the uniformed team filing through the barrio was not in pursuit of drugs. The federales were looking for a single individual.
     A few stepped onto the porches of flanking shacks, peering suspiciously through dirty windows or through plastic taped over holes where windows had been. But most congregated at one rickety house. As they surrounded it, they shouldered the rifles and instead began drawing pistols.
     Another burst of static. A brief command from the megaphone. And both front and back doors of the house exploded inward.
     The men entering the house were greeted by the familiar rank combination of sweet-smelling rotting food, human waste, and burning chemicals. The front room was abandoned but had recently been occupied, as evidenced by a smoldering spoon on a card table against one wall. Needles and syringes, plastic bags, and glass pipes littered makeshift tables, moldy couches, and the concrete floor.   
     Silently, the federales crept through the house with firearms raised. As those behind him assumed formation along the wall of a narrow hallway, the leading officer kicked a bathroom door, and it flung open as he shrank backward against the doorjamb. 
     The evasive maneuver barely saved the officer from being shot in the face. 
     As the bullet cut through the thin drywall behind him and embedded into a rotting wall stud, the officer instinctively leaned in and flicked his index finger three times. The brief staccato of semi-automatic fire rang out, and the shooter fell gurgling into the bathtub.
     Coldly, the officer lowered his pistol to look down at the body. Then he turned to his team. “Esto no es lo,” he said. This isn’t him.
     Two additional doors were visible along the narrow hallway. One was wide open. The leading officer caught the eye of the man nearest it and cocked his head toward the room. The flanking man stepped in, gun drawn. He strode to the closet and opened it, then stepped back out into the hallway and shrugged.
     The attention of the team turned to the other hallway door. It was closed.
     After making eye contact with the rest of the team, the leading officer repeated the motions of kicking in the door and then stepping out of the line of anticipated fire. This time, there was none. Cautiously, he followed the barrel of his weapon into the room, noticeably relaxing as he did.
     Across the room, a man was sitting cross-legged on the floor with his back against the wall, his gaunt body slumping to one side. A trickle of fresh blood flowed down the inner part of his forearm from a newly opened wound. The entire area of flesh was scarred, scabbed, and bruised. As the officers entered the room, the man’s half-opened eyes registered a slight recognition.
     A needled syringe dropped from his hand and rolled toward the officers in the doorway.
     The brief lucidity that had graced Lawrence Naden’s eyes faded as the heroin flooded his bloodstream. His pupils fixed into a lifeless gaze onto a spot on the floor, and then the rush overtook him.

Chapter One
October 12, 2015

The image was lovely in a somewhat odd, geometric way. A bouquet? Or maybe a tree? The flower heads were a jumbled mess, but the stems were perfectly arrayed—an intertwined cylinder spiraling downward from the wad of flowers on top. The overzealous rainbow coloring of it all was unlike anything existing in nature.
     The leaves around Washington, D.C. were turning, and it was already getting cold. Rain was beating against the windows, and White House intern Amanda Dougherty scratched her back with a letter opener while frowning curiously at the bizarre image on the front of the greeting card.
     The card had probably been white. It was now a slightly charred sepia from the UV irradiation. Despite its ugly signature on the paper, Amanda had felt much more comfortable about taking this job after Mr. Callahan had explained that decontaminating irradiation was a mandatory process for all incoming White House mail. It was done in a New Jersey facility after processing and sorting at Brentwood, the facility that had made national headlines years earlier when anthrax spores intended for U.S. government officials had infected several people and killed five. 
     Today, by the time the mail reached Amanda, it was safe.
     Amanda flipped open the greeting card. “Oh, my word,” she said quietly. The handwritten text was small and neatly aligned, but Amanda most certainly could not read it. She thought it might be Arabic, or Hebrew, or Farsi—she could not tell them apart.
     After a moment of thought, Amanda got up and walked to Mr. Callahan’s office, where she rapped softly on the door.
     He yelled through the door for her to come in.
     “I’m sorry to bother you,” Amanda said timidly. “We got a greeting card in a foreign language. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with these.”
     “What language?”
     “I don’t know. Something Middle Eastern. It has all those funny double-you looking things with dots over them.”
     Mr. Callahan motioned for her to enter and took the card from her. He glanced briefly at the brightly colored bouquet on the front and then flipped the card open to look at the text inside.
     “It’s Arabic, but I don’t speak it. I’ll give it to an interpreter. Thank you, Ms. Dougherty.”

*****
On the other side of the country, a prison guard watched from across the visiting room as a man and a woman conversed at a small table.
     Both leaning forward almost close enough to kiss, the couple whispered intimately, his dark hands enveloping her lighter ones on the table. The standard-issue solid blue jumpsuit of the prisoner was a stark contrast to his visitor’s traditional Muslim attire—her formless black robe and the headscarf that shielded her downcast face.
     Their conversation seemed hurried, urgent.   
     The guard nonchalantly crossed the room, slowing ever so slightly as he passed by the couple in a casual effort to overhear them. For a few seconds, he could hear the man impatiently reassuring his mate.  
     “It’s OK, I’ve taken care of it. You don’t have anything to worry about. So shut up already.”
     The woman said nothing. She glanced up, and her face was partially revealed for just a moment from within the folds of the headscarf. She looked afraid. The inmate’s expression was one of defiance. To the seasoned guard, it was a familiar combination. He strolled away to watch over another visiting couple. 
     Overhead, electric eyes were faithfully recording the scene.

*****
Ten minutes later in Washington, D.C., Jack Callahan handed the greeting card to an interpreter who had just entered his office.
     The interpreter frowned.
     “What?” Jack asked.
     “This card may have a cute bouquet on the front, but the text… ” The interpreter trailed off, skimming silently down the card, and then began to read aloud, slowly translating from the Arabic:
 
Dear Mr. President,
     Your nation of puppets will soon know at last the price of fighting against our Islamic State. Those of you who survive Allah’s justice will reflect upon 11 September of 2001 and consider that date insignificant.
     A small taste of the pain we promise has already been put to course. Make no mistake that the blood that will flow is on your hands. Let it paint for you an image of our strength and resolve. Let it serve as a reminder that you cannot defeat Islam.
     You will stand powerless and witness this small shedding of blood, and you will then have the privilege of living in fear for two months, as our faithful brothers and sisters have lived in fear of your Christian Crusaders. 
     And finally, on your Christmas Day of this year, there will begin a cleansing of your country unlike any you can possibly imagine. It will blanket your nation and no man, woman, or child will be safe. Only Allah will decide who may be spared.
     Our Muslim brothers and sisters have been imprisoned by the western leaders for too long. The world will now see that you are the prisoners, and Allah will praise the final victory of ISIL.

*****
The prisoner watched over his shoulder as the guard walked away. Turning back to his visitor, he raised one dark eyebrow and gave a subtle nod.
     The visitor disentangled one hand from the prisoner’s and lowered it to reach beneath the small table. The hand snaked into a fold of the loose black robe and then returned calmly to assume its former position. The guard was now on the other side of the room.
     Couples were beginning to kiss goodbye, and the room was clearing out. Visiting hours were almost over.
     “Stay in contact,” the prisoner whispered. “I will be calling on you.”
     His visitor’s eyes flared in shock. This was supposed to have been their final meeting. “What are you talking about?”
     The prisoner smiled menacingly, revealing a broken fence of rotten teeth. “Oh, did you think it was going to be that easy for you, bitch? That I’d do all the work and you’d get the glory? I know a good negotiation when I see one. Don’t fucking think I’m kidding.”
     “Never mind then! I’ll get someone else!”
     “Too late, lover,” the prisoner said with a grin. “The cat’s already out of the bag.” 

*****
As the prisoner and his visitor were saying their goodbyes, an inmate in a remote wing of the prison was vomiting into his private cell’s toilet for the second time that hour. He half-heartedly cursed the prison food, but he did not really think he had food poisoning. He felt like he was coming down with the flu.

*****
The interpreter paused and looked up, his dark eyes a question mark.
     Jack Callahan seemed relatively unconcerned. “We get messages like that all the time,” he said, shrugging. “They almost always turn out to be a hoax.”
     “This one might be too,” his colleague concurred. “The Arabic is unusual. I was paraphrasing, of course—most of what is here doesn’t translate directly, including the abbreviation ‘ISIL’ itself. But… this reads like it was written by someone who might not be a native speaker. I don’t know exactly. Also, the handwriting. It is sort of, ah, overly meticulous. Like someone who doesn’t speak or write Arabic is trying to copy something they saw written… not like someone writes in their native language.”
     Jack made a related point. “It does seem strange to me that the ISIL organization is mentioned but the author gives no other details. Usually, when we get a direct threat from ISIL, or they claim responsibility for an attack, there are very specific references, things that had to have come from them in order to lend credibility. And since when does ISIL send a greeting card to general White House mail, instead of making some kind of grandiose announcement over international airwaves? Those bastards thrive on publicity.”
     A moment of silence passed, as each man considered the card again. Then Jack mused aloud, “So, there’s allegedly something about to happen. And then something else on Christmas Day…  
     “Email the translation to me when you’ve completed it. I still need to log it into the database, and I’ll send the card to the Postal Inspection office for analysis. But I assume if no shit hits any proverbial fans in the next couple of weeks, then we’re probably fine.” 

*****
Twenty hours passed, and death row was redefined. Convicted murderer Nathan Horn struggled for air as he lay dying on his bed. Every feeble breath felt like lightning in his chest. 
     Much of Horn’s present state was ironically akin to the once familiar sickness of heroin withdrawal—a sensation he had not experienced in twenty-two years. His lungs had become increasingly weak over the last hour, and he now continuously felt light-headed and nauseous. There was nothing left to vomit, but he was vaguely aware that he had soiled himself again. Horn had stopped getting up a few hours ago, after he had fainted in the throes of a violent retching spell and hit his head on the concrete floor hard enough for blood to trickle down his agonized face.
     Too weak to care that his body was shutting down, he could only be grateful that the violent illness he had been engulfed in throughout most of the morning had finally subsided.
     The rotten meat smell of the sores was everywhere. Someone was screaming. Someone else—or maybe it was the same man—was vomiting.
     Horn had no choice but to lie in misery and absorb the sounds and smells of the mortally ill. Mercifully, his vision was totally gone. He could not see the disgusting mess that had become of the six-by-eight cell where he had spent the last eighteen years of his sentence. He was also unaware that Buzz, the child molester on the other side of the wall, had been dead for three hours, or that Sam—who two years earlier had raped and murdered his own sister at the age of nineteen—was now on his hands and knees as he sobbed, mumbling an inarticulate prayer to a God that had never existed to him until that morning.
     Drifting in and out of consciousness, Horn’s ravaged mind was a collage of people and events from his past. His mother. His parole officer. The sixteen-year-old girl he had shot in the chest in her apartment because it turned out that she didn’t have any dope after all. A parade of lawyers. The judge who had asked God for mercy on his soul. Horn had laughed out loud. 
     The sores were like fire, and their flames were spreading. He could no longer feel the distinct patches of corroded flesh; they were all melting into one surreal torture. Internally, he was being slowly devoured. Externally, he was burning alive. His last semi-lucid thought was a forlorn one.
     They had all been right. Nathan Horn finally believed in Hell.