Friday, October 28, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer

I lean forward, place my arms on the table, and stare into those black holes.

“Let me give you a hypothetical,” I say to Fields.

An intrigued smile crosses his lips.


“Flash forward to the day of your death.”

“That’s a hypothetical?”

I shrug. “Okay, it’s more of a timing issue. As you know, the state allows every death-row inmate one final statement.”

The smile broadens. “And you want to know what I’m going to say?”

“I want you to imagine yourself standing before the families, looking into the eyes of those who have lost so much because of you.”

“But it’s like I said, Rusty.” He leans forward, and we’re close enough now that I can see two white hairs poking through the flesh between his eyebrows. A small scar on his cheek lies almost hidden within the folds of his aging skin. “It wasn’t just me.”

I give him a dismissive nod. “But you’ll be the only one standing there.”

He doesn’t say anything to that.

“So place yourself in front of those families. In fact, I would like you to imagine that this represents every mother and father.” I slide the recorder a little closer. “What are you going to say to them?”

It’s a moment that every inmate on death row has to face. Unfortunately, it comes with a risk. Do they stand in silent acceptance, knowing that in a few moments they’ll see and breathe no more, or do they try to say something that will last forever? Preferably, they will offer the victims a slice of humanity, apologizing for what they’ve done, but that’s not always the case. Some stand by their innocence. And who knows? Maybe they are. Others want one last act of terror. Men like Clyde Boudreaux, who stood before his panel of witnesses and said, “Seein’ as how I got here a real nice audience, who’s got nothin’ better to do tonight than to listen to little ol’ me, I guess I might as well give you somethin’ good for your money—not that you paid anything for them seats.” And before the state stuck the needle in his arm, he went into graphic detail on every one of his crimes, and then gave the families a big grin as his final act of defiance.

Fields looks at the recorder for a long moment.

“I guess I’ll say that their daughters’ sacrifice, while small here on earth”—he looks back at me, and I can see it coming—“was big in the kingdom of God.”

I play with my ring, twist it around my finger, and give him a nod. He still thinks he's a saint, but in the end he’s only another crazy the world can do better without.

I turn off the recorder.

“I would like to thank you for your time.”

He frowns. “You don’t sound thankful.”

I stand and give him a smile of my own. “The spectrum of gratitude has many colors.”

I offer my hand, and he looks at it for a moment. I wonder what he’s thinking. Is it a hand he would have liked to torture? Is the skin something he can imagine knifing his fingers under, lifting it up and peeling it off the meat, like the women of old used to do with chickens because they didn’t want to mess with plucking the feathers? I blink away the thought.

Finally he stands. He looks to the guards first, his way of showing them he has no intentions of doing anything stupid, and then reaches for my hand. As he holds it, I lean forward and slap his hand with my left, a common two-handed shake of camaraderie. I can see the wince of pain in his eyebrows.

“The families will be grateful for this moment,” I say.

Confusion replaces the pain in his face as I let go. I reach to my ring and give it another twist. The small needle retracts, once again hidden within the stone. Picking up the recorder and the rest of my things, I turn and walk toward the door. Before I can reach it, I hear his voice.

“Who did you say you worked for again?”

I stop and look at him. He is rubbing at the back of his hand.

“I told you. I’m with the Houston Chronicle.”

I point to the press card I made for today. It looks authentic enough. To tell him the truth—that I once worked for the government doing things that would cause most people to shudder, but now work for anyone willing to pay—would only mean my visit might turn into something longer, with bars of my own, and I have no intention of staying. He nods, but the look of confusion presses deeper into his brow like a first-grader trying to remember what two plus two equals—Is it four or five?—or on which side of the O does the bar stand for the lower case B. All those years of studying and learning vectors and coefficients slither away, a scared snake faced with the prospect of things even more frightening: exposure and vulnerability.

Past the guards and through the door, I make my way out of the prison. Walking through a long hallway, my shoes pock-pock-pocking! on the concrete floor, my thoughts turn to my report and the people who will read it, especially the one with cancer. She can now die knowing for certain that John Winston Fields faced her own version of justice. The poison in his system will attack his heart, forcing it to race faster and faster until it finally explodes from exhaustion.

I also think about my stomach roiling at his first admission. It wasn’t because of the mutilation. I’ve seen worse. I do hope, however, those girls were truly dead first. Through the outside gate at last, I shake my head. Some things are just not worth exploring.


S.B.: There it is. I hope you've enjoyed four weeks of this one. One additional note. I will be absent from the #FridayFlash for a good month. As you may have seen already, I have a side project running with some friends on the Writer's Digest Forums, and it will consume some of my time. On top of that, I've also decided to engage in NaNoWriMo for the second time in my life. Suffice it to say, I'm going to be fairly busy over the next month and won't have time to dedicate myself to writing anything else. But I will take time to read your stories each week. I look forward to that. Until next time...

Friday, October 21, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part Three)

Years ago, while stationed over in the Persian Gulf, I ran into a platoon leader by the name of Ordell Lewis. A quiet man for the most part, black orbs for eyes pivoting around like radar antennae scanning the sky, Lewis offered few words one way or the other. When he spoke, however, it was usually something thoughtful and clear, a treasured commodity in a world where chaos became the common denomination. On one occasion, we observed a private first class by the name of Samuel Ellison as he slapped at his loaded rifle in frustration. Like brute force would somehow knock the weapon into submission. “You know,” Lewis said, “I think the best part about that boy must’ve dribbled down his mamma’s leg.”

Looking at John Winston Fields, the smile of satisfaction on his face like he’s just revealed the wisdom of the ages, I remember Lewis’s words, and I think the best part of Fields clearly didn’t make it all the way up. But that’s assuming there ever was a best part to begin with. After my experiences in the Gulf War and then after, I am convinced that for some people it’s like farming a crop. You can’t grow good plants from bad seed.

Taking a moment, the seismic admission as to why he skinned those girls still reverberating in my mind, I glance at the recorder, already second-guessing how much will make its way to the final report. Not everything has to. It’s not like they need to know all that has been said here. What benefit would it serve? Will they sleep better knowing the final outcome places an ending period on the story of a man claiming to have committed the crimes because of some perverted understanding of love? I doubt it. In fact, after everything is finished and Fields takes his last breath, I believe some of them will still find restless nights, waking up to the imagined sounds of their daughters, screaming and crying out to be held.

Looking at my watch, the constant tick-tick-tick telling me to move it forward, I prepare to ask the one question I know needs an answer. If it can be answered, that is. I once listened to a prosecutor tell a jury pool that in some cases the best he could do was give consolation. The question the victims needed to ask the most often went unanswered.

“People want to know why.”

He frowns. “Why what?”

“Why you selected the women you did.”

A slight smile. “Ah, there it is. Everyone always wants to know why. Even the D.A., if she could have put me on the stand, would have asked the same question directly. The problem is, though, even with all the witnesses—the specialized testimonials from leading experts in their field—the prosecution never asked the right question.”

“And what is the right question?”

“Did I have a choice?”

It’s my turn to frown. “You think you didn’t?”

Fields slowly shakes his head. “No more than you have a choice to stop breathing. Oh sure, you can hold your breath, will yourself to stop, but unless you tie yourself off with a rope or otherwise engage in some form of suicide, holding your breath won’t do. Pretty soon you’ll pass out. And then what? Your brain tells you to breathe again and you do.”

I shake my head. “But that doesn’t answer the question as to why you selected those women.”

He looks at me like I’m one of his thick-headed students who can’t quite grasp the law of gravity.

“But it does,” he says. “Not only does it tell you that I didn’t have much control over why I killed them, and then skinned them, but it also tells you that I didn’t have much choice in who I selected either.”

“So who or what selected them?”

“I told you, Rusty. It’s ágape.” When I look at him with questioning eyes, he smiles and adds, “It was the love of God that drove me to it.”

At first, I find it hard to accept Fields’s comments. Not that he skinned those women; I have already seen the colored photos and the black and whites—graphic snapshots of his handiwork. To some people, the human body is just a machine, just another creature in the kingdom not unlike anything you might find out in the forest flicking its white tail and jumping through the brush. Skinning one animal is just as easy as skinning another. What’s hard for me is deciding whether or not Fields actually believes his words, that those acts were simply ritualistic manifestations of love and devotion to a higher power. One part of me wants to think that he’s spitting on the live wire again, testing to see if it’s still hot. He wants to see what the little lady will buy, just how far can he take her? But then, looking into those eyes, seeing the darkness that digests light like some black hole without so much as a burp in response, I can see he means it. He really, really means it. He’s a believer who has swallowed all religion and then squatted out his own version of morality, only it’s nothing that anyone in their right mind will ever comprehend. He’s Charles Manson or David Koresh times ten. Times ten thousand. He’s every one of those sick bastards who flew the planes on September eleven. He’s what Saddam saw of himself in the wildest of wet dreams. He’s the devil dressed as the messiah, wrapped up like a fajita with all the twisted trimmings inside.

I think about the mothers and fathers—especially the one dying of cancer. That John Winston Fields is on death row isn’t good enough. With the legal system in place, he’ll continue to sit here for years to come.

And now I know it’s time to finish the interview with a final question.


S.B.: I know I mentioned only two or three installments, but this week I have found myself carried away with the characters. The next installment will be the last.

Friday, October 14, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part Two)

In the silence that fills the room like a bear squeezing into a fox den, Fields starts to smile, and I can tell he’s waiting. He wants me to acknowledge him as a slayer of dragons, a rescuer of damsels in distress, a lover of angels. This is an interview, after all, given at his discretion; if I want it to continue, then I have to give something in return. In another time and another place, maybe, he might have asked for something a little more personal—a lot more private. And given the odds that not even a Las Vegas bookie would take, it would most certainly be fatal. But this is prison. Thick walls, steel bars, and a fence line of razor wire surround us; the guards are only a few feet away. The best he can do, then, is test the mental waters. Just how bad do I want to reel in the big fish?

In the fifth grade, I had a run-in with Trey Johnson. Fresh into town, his father a transient minister relocated every few years by the Methodist church, thank you very much, Trey had already developed a bad attitude toward new schools and new faces, and during the first week of class he managed to put the fear of God into several of the homeroom kids just by gritting his teeth, clenching his fist. The threat of force against those untrained to deal with it turned out to be a powerful tool, it seemed. For me, an older brother turned out to be an even more powerful tool. When I talked to him about it, he just smiled and said, “Rusty, you can’t let people push you around, be it even a boy. Here’s what you have to do…” The next day, I kicked Trey in the balls and then put my fist in his eye. I spent a couple of days at home after that, but Trey Johnson never bothered me again. Or anyone else for that matter.

“It’s the fifth of June,” I repeat, my voice slightly louder for the recorder, “and I’m sitting with convicted murderer, John Winston Fields.” His smile widens. He’s enjoying the moment. “First, I would like to say thank you, Mr. Fields, for taking the time to give this interview. I appreciate it.”

He looks at me for a beat, biting the side of his lips, and then nods. “Anything for my favorite journalist.”

I ignore this.

“I would like to start by asking what life is like now.” He frowns, so I add, “What do you do to occupy the time? What are your routines?”

“You kidding me, right?” He snorts. “Girl, it’s like going to a carnival in here. The food is the best you can find anywhere, the sights and sounds like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And the guards? Well, they’re a thrill a minute.”

Standing by the door, the guards give each other a silent chuckle.

“Tell me about the food.”

His lips purse slightly. “Let’s just say there’s maybe one or two ways you can dress up oatmeal. After that it’s still the same ol’ sludge. But really, Rusty, is this what you came to ask? Or should I call you, Mrs. Kelton?”

I raise my eyebrows, and he leans forward.

“Your ring,” he says, nodding toward my left hand. “How many years you been married?”

I shake my head. “This is not about me.”

“Well, for the moment let’s make it about you. It’s a beautiful ring, by the way. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”

I cup one hand over the other.

“Oh, come now, Rusty. I give a little. You give a little. I give a little more. We do the hokey-pokey and we spin ourselves around. That’s what… it’s all… about.” He actually croons the last few words, his voice crackling like a barroom singer with a three-pack-a-day habit. Then, he sits and waits.

I look at my watch and wonder if this is the way the interview will go. Time is limited, and I won’t have what I came for—my readers won’t have what I came for—if I have to play Mexican standoff every few minutes. I glance at the recorder, thinking about the questions that can fill up the dead air, and so I give a little.

“Only a few months,” I tell him. It’s a lie, but he won’t know the difference. Before today, he never knew I existed.

He smiles. “Ah, young love.” Leaning back, he says, “Being in here, you know what I miss, Rusty?”

“Tell me.”

“I miss what you have right now. The wonder. The excitement. The passion.”

I don’t have to ask what he means.

“So, the killings excited you?”

He looks away. “In here, the passions are animalistic. Men need something, they do whatever it takes to get it. For some, that’s by force. Others, they surrender a piece of themselves, forget who they are, in order to have what they desire the most.”

“And you?”

A moment passes before he answers.

“I never forget what I am.”

It’s a subtle change—not who, but what—and I have to ask.

“And what exactly are you?”

“I already told you, Rusty.” He gives me a half-smile. “I’m a convicted lover.”

I nod. I should have guessed as much.

“So, you think you loved those girls?”

“I don’t think, Rusty. I know.” He leans forward again. “Maybe not in the way you love your husband. But there’re different kinds of love.”

“Such as?”

“Well… I think the Greeks got it right. First, there’s storge, just an affection. There’s philia. That’s the brotherly love kind. You know, Philadelphia and all that. Then of course, there’s éros, the passionate, lustful type of love—sometimes good, sometimes dirty. But finally, there’s the best kind, ágape love. It’s unconditional. It’s god-like. It looks beyond the faults, gets beneath the surface.”

I see where he’s going, and a sick feeling roils in my gut. “And I suppose you loved those girls with ágape love?”

He smiles. “It’s why I skinned them.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part One)

I am sitting at the table when the guards open the door and walk John Winston Fields across the room. His hands are cuffed and chained to a belt wrapped around his waist. He’s hunched over like an old man—an act, I believe—and because of the leg irons his white canvass slip-ons make this shushing noise as he shuffles across the concrete floor.

He has a beard now, his hair long and greased back, both new features since he took up temporary residence at Huntsville, and I make a mental note to ask him about it later. During the trial, the hair was short, his face clean shaven. It had been rumored that the defense attorney actually made arrangements for a make-up artist each morning before court. It had also been rumored the defense made arrangements for an updated wardrobe, too, all compliments of a set dresser who worked for a local television show. Nobody in their right mind believed Fields could have afforded the clothes he wore. Which is another change, looking at the fashion du jour, an orange jumpsuit with numbers stenciled across the left breast, and I make mental note to ask him about that as well. My readers will want to know how life has changed, how he has changed because of it. Not that justice is served, but I’m sure it will go a long way in their minds. It certainly has for me.

The three of them stop at the table and Fields looks first to the guard on his right, then to the other one, like he’s asking for their permission. According to the badge pinned upon a shirt the color of a paper grocery bag, the one on the left is Harper. Standing what must be over six feet, with arms as big as my thighs and a bald head the color of midnight, he’s an intimidating specimen. Certainly not one to be flippant with if you’re an inmate.

Harper gives Fields a nod and says, “Take a seat, Johnny.”

Fields gives the guard a dismissive smile. Throughout the trial, even in the media storm before and after, the world learned that the defendant demanded to be called John Winston Fields. His attorneys probably had something to do with that. With such a sophisticated ring to it, sounding almost like British royalty, the jury would have a difficult time looking at him as something evil. After all, that was the name on his birth certificate, punched there in black typewriter-ribbon ink, so why not use it to their advantage? Here, though, I see the guards hold no illusions. He’s not John Winston Fields; he’s just another Johnny who will one day take the long walk to the death chamber and it will be their pleasure to escort him in.

Seated, he finally looks at me. His eyes bore into mine and then take in everything else.

“When they told me a Rusty Kelton was here to talk with me”—his voice has a definite southern twang to it—“I thought I would be seeing a man. Imagine my surprise when I find out this Rusty has pretty hair, a nice pair of tits, and a box I can smell from over here.”

Harper gives him a backhand upside the head. “Mind your manners, Johnny.”

Fields looks at the guard and then at me. A shrug and a smile, and I can see he doesn’t take it personal. It’s just part of the game.

He says, “So, how’d you get a name like Rusty? Your daddy want a boy and didn’t get one?”

I shake my head. The truth is I earned the nickname a long time ago, before I knew how to hold up two fingers and say my age. My brother, thirteen years older than me, stopped by my crib. He looked at my curly auburn hair, and said I looked like a rusted nail. My parents found humor in that, and the name stuck. But I’m not about to tell Fields this. What would be the point?

“My real name’s Jennifer,” I say, “but everyone calls me Rusty.”

He looks at the top of my head and nods, and I can see he’s already pieced it together. One thing is for certain: though the time in lockup may have changed the man’s appearance, it has had no effect on his mind. He’s still the man who could write out complex formulas involving coefficients and then give you the answer before you could punch it all into a calculator.

I lay a recorder on the table. “You mind if I tape the conversation?”

He shrugs. “What do I care?” And before I can start in, he says, “Who’re you with again?”

I hold out a press card. “The Houston Chronicle.”

“Were you at the trial?”


He frowns at this. “I don’t remember you.”

“It was a big courtroom,” I say. “I was one face among many almost a year ago. How could you?”

He continues to frown, and I start to worry the interview is already over, that my readers won’t have the answers they want to see. But then he nods, and I push the PLAY button on my recorder.

“This is Rusty Kelton,” I say. “It’s the fifth of June, and I’m sitting with convicted murderer, John Winston—”

“Convicted lover,” he interjects.

I give him a long look. Before the trial, the only crime he confessed to was a sincere appreciation for women. A regular player at a local night club, he admitted to sleeping with several of them; that one never returned home was a coincidence. The detectives and the prosecutor saw things differently. Sure he was a nice looking man. He attended church and was a high school physics teacher, too. Those things aside, however, he still had one big flaw: he not only killed one woman, he had raped, skinned and buried six others as well.


S.B.: While clearly this is a series, it will not be as long as "Heroes Wanted." Two or three installments is all I envision right now.