M.V. Ghiorghi delivers a big story, bound by murder, elicit bargains, and rough justice. It begins with the execution of a hopelessly unredeemable and violent man on death row, but not before one last bloody act of revenge and a curious connection between the condemnded man and one of the execution’s witnesses. Soon we are swept one hundred miles away, as a woman gives birth in isolation and drops the hated child on the railroad tracks. The newborn narrowly escapes. How these mysterious, if not heartless, events are joined will be revealed during the course of the story. Ghiorghi’s prose is immediate and captivating, holding the reader from the opening lines. Terror runs through the narrative, with the occasional phrase of dark humor. Ghiorghi’s debut promises to be a welcome addition to the lexicon of murder mysteries as well as the mapping of man’s darker soul.
“Love us when we are dirty. Any fool can love us when we are clean.”
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
It was the eve of his death, but the fiery hatred streaming through his veins filled him with savage life.
Outwardly, he was calm and cool. He chatted with the three guards docked on the bench across from his cell, telling stories suited to the occasion—like the one about Billy, his minor-offender, hapless acquaintance from the county jail where he had waited for his trial. And not just telling it, but role-playing it, different voices and all, with Billy as a high-strung, depressed country bumpkin.
“…So he climbs on the upper cot and tells me, ‘I’ll see you in haven!’ An’ I tell him, ‘I don’t know ‘bout that, Billy,’ sad kinda-like. An’ he says, ‘Don’t despair, Sammy, God will forgive us.’ And I just wait and watch ‘cause the rope is way too long. Sure enough, the moron jumps and screams his head off, ‘cause he broke both his legs. Spent all his time before the trial in the jail’s infirmary, cursing his luck.”
The easily impressible Jimmy, who had always been kind to Sam, laughed.
Dan, the worthless turn-key cockroach, snickered. “Yeah, but who is lucky now, huh, Sam? The moron or the smart ass?”
The laughter died. The oldest of the three, a Russian guard named Michael, stared in front of himself, uncomfortable. Jimmy glared at Dan.
Sam leaned his back against the wall, eyes half-closed to dim the murderous fire in them, smiling a bit for the guards’ benefit as if he was not perturbed. Thus, resting, he went over every detail of his plan.
“It’s time, Samuel,” said a strained old voice.
Sam Horowitz, or ‘Sam the Slasher’ as he was known for most of his adult life, opened his eyes to see, on the other side of the bars, the somber lined face of Father John. Dan sprang up, weasel-like, to unlock the door.
Sam arched his back, yawned, and rubbed his knees. As he rose, they cracked loudly. “How ya feeling, Pop?” he asked the chaplain. “Nervous?”
Jimmy shook his head with a smile. The uncooked, sphinx-like face of Michael remained impassive. He never went further than what his job required. Him and Jimmy, they were okay.
“I’m fine.” Father John stepped inside. He waited as the eager beaver Dan snapped handcuffs tightly on Sam’s wrists. “Did you think about our talk?”
“I tell ya what,” Sam said. “I’ve one wish left. If there’s a God, he’ll know what that is. And if he grants it, you can call me a Believer and save my soul, if you still care to.”
Father John looked at him, puzzled, but Sam’s intense, mocking stare discouraged further inquiry.
The guards ushered the condemned man into the corridor. The chaplain led the group, with Michael on Sam’s right and Jimmy on the left, a step ahead due to the narrowness of the passage. Danny-boy followed with a spring in his step and, Sam imagined, a smirk on his face.
Earlier, Sam had asked Michael and Jimmy—beseeched them, as if the two were his last friends on Earth—to walk his final passage with him. “No offense, Daniel,” Sam had said. “We weren’t on good terms, so you be so kind as to walk behind.”
The Russian and Jimmy, as Sam long observed, didn’t care much for their partner and told Dan to honor Sam’s last request.
Once they started walking, Sam waited a bit then casually moved his cuffed hands to the belt of his gray trousers. He pretended to scratch himself as he reached for a shank beneath. He had made it from a stolen fork, wrapping it in a ribbon torn from his sheet. He carefully shaped it over the course of three months preceding his execution, hiding it in his anus whenever his cell was searched.
Turning the corner…slowing down…
Sam spun around—and Dan walked straight onto the shank.
They fell together as Sam stabbed, twisting the blade again and again. In the brief stunned silence of the other three, Dan shrieked. His blood sprayed the walls, the floor, and Sam’s clothes, turning the dull prison grays a vivid red and coloring the meager shreds of time that Sam had left in abandonment and truth.
Michael and Jimmy screamed and fell on him. They kicked him and slammed his head against the linoleum covered concrete, pulling him away from his enemy who was writhing his last. They pinned Sam down, their sweat dripping on his face, their knees crushing his chest. His ear pressed to the floor felt the pounding vibration even before the sound of the footfalls of more guards racing along the hallway reached him and his captors.
Sam twisted his head, and his eyes found Father John standing frozen as Lot’s wife, the old terrified face salt-white above the white collar. “I believe!” Sam hissed, grimacing at the chaplain, “I believe!”
They bundled him up and carried him like a rag doll to the death chamber, their hearts beating so wildly he could hear them. In the gray, cinder-block room where the witnesses and the execution team waited, they stood him up on his bound feet.
The executioner’s assistant, a young guy with a shrewd face, attended the big oak and leather contraption, while the blank-faced executioner by the controls tried to appear as inconspicuous as part of the device. Two somber newspaper reporters, dressed in dark suits wrinkled from traveling in overnight cases, watched from the corner partitioned by a wooden barrier: the Witness Box.
Hiding behind them was a scarecrow of a man, the custodian of the orphanage where Sam grew up and the one witness he had requested. The old alcoholic was the single person from Sam’s childhood that Sam remembered with some goodwill for sharing an occasional bottle of shine with a loner kid. The pasty-faced warden, the clean-shaven doctor, Father John and the guards made up the rest of the public.
“Howdy!” Sam said to all with a broad smile. “Sorry, can’t wave.” He looked at the custodian. “How are ya my good man? Glad to see ya. Hope ya have fun.”
Sam’s old acquaintance shrank even more, mum as a mouse. The puny guy had aged badly. Not that Sam cared. The old fart had one use, to watch and remember Sam’s last show and blabber about it afterward to all those Sam hated. And Sam hated plenty. All those miserable foes of his inglorious bed-wetting childhood, his humiliating past. They would all know. All except for the orphanage director, his wife, and his two whiny little girls—Sam’s first four victims.
Sam’s feet and hands were untied and they propped him into the chair, where he sat like a king on a throne. Jimmy and Michael placed leather straps around his legs, arms and chest. The executioner’s assistant shaved a patch on Sam’s head, cut Sam’s pants up to his left knee, and shaved his calf.
Throughout the process, Sam’s hungry, feverish gaze wandered. He savored every breath of the stale antiseptic air, every crack on the walls. He took in the grainy finish and noted the rough imprint right above the entrance, probably left by one of the builders—a palm in the cement, offering the doomed a high-five.
The doctor handed over sponges soaked in brine, which were placed on the shaven spots of Sam’s body. Father John stood in the corner, eyes averted, lips moving in prayer.
“Samuel Horowitz,” the warden said. “Do you have any last words?”
“Nah. Let’s do it.”
Michael stared hard at Sam, urging him to look at him, and Sam did. The Russian nodded slightly and, unnoticeable to the rest, gave the dead man a thumbs up—the one and only signal of approval Sam had received in his entire life. Sailing off well, kiddo!
Sam grinned at Michael as the black hood fell over his face. He felt the surprising weight of the helmet on his head and its straps being adjusted under his chin. At that moment, a bright thought struck him. If there is a sequel after death, he would come back as a glorious avenger, a hero at last! He would make a great spectacle of his time on the Earth and scratch the coarse hide of history so deep the scar would take centuries to heal—
The executioner threw the switch.
That same night, an angry rain descended on a bleak town sprawled in the low hills a hundred miles west of the prison. At the town’s train depot, the rain’s dull melody mixed with agonizing moans coming from a desolate old boxcar rusting on the back tracks.
Another bout of moans came and went. Then, a howl ended humanity’s oldest song. But inside the boxcar there was a continuation, a newborn’s mewling as it mourned its entrance into the world. The tiny baby squirmed between the legs of a young woman sprawled in the depth of the car, away from the twisted patterns of yellow, sickly light cast on the dirty floor by a security lantern outside.
Exhausted, the woman rose on her elbow to glare over her hiked-up hospital gown. Her offspring, covered with birthing muck, its genitals hidden by the bloody placenta, looked deformed and ugly. With an effort, the new mother hauled herself onto her knees. Without showing any curiosity about the child’s gender or making any attempt to clean it, she scooped it into a filthy rug. Moments later, hair plastered with the rain, losing her soggy slippers every few steps, she waddled along the tracks. Without thinking, she cradled the child in her arms just like any mother would. The baby, secure in the closeness and the feverish heat of her body, cooed.
“Shut up!” she said. “Don’t you act cute on me, you devil’s blood! You joinin’ your damn father soon enough.”
Approaching the depot, an incoming locomotive slowed in preparation to enter the depot’s gates.
The woman hurried toward the rising sound.
Chugging through the depot’s front gate, the locomotive released a mighty shriek in a burst of steam into the wet air.
The wail of a police siren answered it, as the black and white screeched to a stop on the other side of a row of resting boxcars. The woman gawked in the direction of the car and then peered eagerly into the red eye of the Cyclops coming her way.
A man’s voice rang out. “Mary? Are you here?”
A great beam of light washed off the features of the woman’s face. She dropped her bundle onto the vibrating tracks and fled over them and into the darkness away from the rising drone of the locomotive and the cop’s voice.
The sheriff, a grizzly man of fifty, climbed over the slick connecting platforms and jumped down. The engine was approaching, still going at a good speed, and in its glare he saw a figure sprinting away behind the curtain of the rain. He noticed a bundle on the tracks between him and the woman. At first, it looked like some rag she dropped. But then it wriggled.
The heavy man rushed, grabbed the bundle, fell, and rolled off. He huddled still on the wet gravel, his heart thumping, hot dangerous air rushing above dragged by the steel Goliath surging past with an earsplitting screech.