Erna Godfrey, sinking into unconsciousness, felt her tongue slide back and obstruct her airway. She’d learned from her husband’s doctor you couldn’t actually swallow your tongue. It was held in place by a muscle called the frenulum. But many a fool had drunk himself into a stupor, lain down in exactly the wrong position and woken up in hell.
It was all a matter of the muscles of the throat and tongue relaxing from intoxication and the loss of consciousness. The tongue rolled back in the mouth and blocked the throat, making breathing impossible. Most times, the act of coughing and gasping for air would be enough to rouse a person, sit her up, restore the muscle tone of the tongue enough to thrust it forward and clear the obstruction.
But if a woman went lights out good and deep the struggle for air wouldn’t rouse her. That was what happened to drunkards. Not that Erna drank alcohol. She considered doing so to be sinful. Also, her jailers wouldn’t have offered her a small beer, had she wanted one.
They had been considerate enough, though, to provide her with mouthwash.
They should have gone with an alcohol-free rinse.
But the federal government was known to make mistakes.
Before Erna had set out to kill Andrew Hudson Grant, she had considered the possibility she might be caught. That notion hadn’t particularly scared her. She felt the chances were good any jury would include at least one person who felt exactly as she did: The lives of the unborn were sacrosanct. It was the evil of those who had been given the gift of life and refused to extend the same consideration to the unborn that had to be stopped.
Congresswoman Patricia Darden Grant had been given the chance to vote in favor of the Support of Motherhood Act and she had rejected it. Even after she’d been warned that doing so would cost the life of her husband. Having made that choice, Erna had felt obliged to make Patricia Grant pay for it.
Erna had asked herself if she was ready to sacrifice her own life for her cause. Looking at things square-on like that had set her back on her heels a bit. It had been her intent to kill a very rich, well-connected man. People like him didn’t get put down without somebody paying full price for it.
That was exactly what the judge had said after the jury had fooled Erna and come back with a guilty verdict: Her penalty would be death.
She’d had the last year in her cell to think about that. Had come to accept it. Had come to embrace it. Execution would be her badge of honor, proof positive she’d held fast to her beliefs. She would be remembered. Her example would inspire others.
But the moment Erna had made peace with the idea of dying the devil put an evil thought in her mind. What if her sentence was commuted? Not that she would ever be set free. She couldn’t fool herself about that. But what if the death sentence got changed to life in prison with no chance of parole?
Erna knew she wasn’t strong enough to handle that. Her mother had lived to be ninety-two. If she were to do the same, she’d have another forty years left. Might as well be a million if she had to spend all that time in a jail cell. She’d go crazy.
She was not about to have that.
She was all but sure that Patricia Grant, who had gone and got herself elected president, would demand that Erna be put to death for killing Andrew Hudson Grant. Ask the executioner to make it right painful while he was at it.
But the doubt the devil had sown wouldn’t let Erna be.
What if the president took it to mind that Erna would suffer more rotting away in her cell, day after day, year after year? The very thought scared Erna silly.
So she made preparations to kill herself, just in case.
Not that it would be easy to commit suicide. A death row prisoner, even one like her at least a year away from execution, was closely watched. Still, she was determined to find a way. It helped that her demeanor with the prison staff, many of them small-town Christians, was always cooperative. She followed orders without hesitation or complaint. Her serene courage in the face of death earned the respect of even the toughest guards.
Everyone made a point of not disturbing Erna when she knelt in prayer.
Anna Lee, the nurse-practitioner who took care of Erna’s female complaints, had bonded so closely with Erna that she had once whispered to her, “I pray for you.”
To which Erna had responded, “I pray for you, too.”
She didn’t need to go beyond that. It was enough for Anna Lee to know that. Erna thought the nurse-practitioner needed her prayers for playing a part in a system that was about to take a good woman’s life.
After much thought and prayer, Erna came up with a plan, and the first thing she had to do to make it work was to go on a diet. Not starve herself. The warden would never stand for that. Still, she had to get her weight down and she cut way back on what she ate. When the prison doctor asked if anything was wrong, she told him she’d lost her appetite.
“A death sentence will do that to ya, Doc,” she said.
After an examination showed nothing wrong with Erna, her explanation had to be taken at face value. Next, she cut back on the hours she allowed herself to sleep.
Insomnia was common on death row, especially as an inmate’s time grew short.
On Anna Lee’s next monthly visit to check up on Erna’s dysmenorrhea problem, the prisoner shared her new complaint.
“I’m having trouble sleeping,” Erna said.
With dark circles under her eyes and her death row jumpsuit hanging on her shrinking frame, Erna cut an increasingly pathetic figure.
Anna Lee offered her the usual over-the-counter sleep remedy.
“Honey,” Erna said, “that stuff might work in your neighborhood, but it don’t do much good around here. What I’d really like is some hot cocoa.”
That kind of treat wasn’t on the prison menu and the warden wasn’t about to get accused of coddling a killer. But Erna got the look of sympathy from Anna Lee that she wanted. She squeezed the nurse-practitioner’s hand and lay down on her bed.
“I’ll just see what I can manage on my own,” Erna said
She had to wait forty-eight hours for Anna Lee to return. Just stopping by to see how Erna was doing, she said. Having continued to limit herself to four hours of sleep a night, Erna didn’t look good. In fact, if she were anywhere but on death row, she likely would have been rushed to a hospital. But short of a heart attack, a stroke or spontaneous cumbustion condemned prisoners left their cells only to talk with their lawyers.
Erna told Anna Lee, “I think I might be losing the will to live.”
The nurse-practitioner didn’t think that was funny.
“You’ve got to get more sleep,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what they have planned for me.”
Erna’s gallows humor brought Anna Lee to the verge of tears. She took Erna’s hand, and transferred a tiny object to it. Erna made sure she didn’t drop it.
“Bless you,” Anna Lee said as she left.
Lying down that night, Erna took a guarded look at the capsule she’d been slipped. It didn’t look big enough to knock out a gnat, but she took the fact that it was bright red to be a good sign. The vivid color had to mean it was potent, didn’t it?
She fervently hoped so.
She’d fasted herself to the point where she weighed less than she had in middle school. She’d been swallowing sips of mouthwash, forcing herself to get used to the awful harshness of it. She’d deprived herself of as much sleep as she could without collapsing.
It all might have been an exercise in folly. Chances were the federal government would be only too happy to kill her. No reason to go to all the trouble she had.
But Erna couldn’t shake the devil’s warning.
Then the next morning the warden came to her cell and proved Satan right.
“The president has commuted your sentence,” he said. “You’re not going to be executed. You’ll do life with no chance of parole. We’ll move you as soon as a space for you in another facility is found.”
That was it. He walked off without making any personal comment.
Erna decided to take her life that night, but now that the time had arrived it wasn’t so easy to do. Not that night or the next. It took her a week to work up the determination. In the meanwhile, Anna Lee came by and gave her two more red capsules.
As skinny and tired as she was by then, Erna thought the three capsules would be more than enough to kill her. But that morning they’d brought her a new bottle of mouthwash — twenty-one percent alcohol — so she washed the sedatives down with that.
She lay down, so exhausted she knew she wouldn’t have to wait long for the alcohol and drugs to take effect.
She felt her tongue slide back and block her airway.
She was almost there now…
A glow appeared in the darkness, growing brighter as she drew near.
Then, in all his radiant glory, Erna saw her Lord and Savior.
Only he wasn’t smiling.
And standing at his side was Andrew Hudson Grant.
Monday, August 15th, K Street, Washington, DC
Three a.m., a hell of an hour to get off work, Mark Benjamin thought.
There had been times, of course, when he’d worked through the night. But he’d been in his twenties then, single and full of purpose. The purpose had been twofold: to see that his client’s special interests became the law of the land and to assure that his own net worth increased by leaps and bounds.
Mark Benjamin was a K Street lobbyist, and while not yet one of the giants of his trade he was well on his way … except for the recent, unexpected and disturbing appearance of what looked to be a conscience. For that, he blamed his friend Putnam Shady.
Putnam had been a fellow plunderer of the public purse for as long they’d known each other. Even better, Putnam was still single and Mark had been able to enjoy, vicariously, tales of his friend’s adventures with the ladies. Then a woman named Margaret had moved into Putnam’s basement apartment. She was having the damnedest effect on him.
Mark looked up and down the street. Never a cab when you needed one.
His car occupied a preferred slot on the premium parking level of the building behind him. But he knew it was as risky to drive tired as it was to drive drunk. He could go back upstairs and sleep on his office couch. Tonight, though, he wanted to hold his wife, engage in some pillow talk, maybe even ask her advice.
Putnam had enlisted him to take part in a plan that was breathtaking in concept. Mark, disaffected by his work in ways he hadn’t even realized, had jumped at the opportunity to take part. Inevitably, though, he’d started to have second thoughts. He had made plenty of money in his years of lobbying, but fortunes far greater than his had disappeared in the blink of an eye. What if his finances went south and so did Putnam’s plan?
Then where would he be?
Cutting through his existential musing and the fog of his fatigue, Mark heard footsteps off to his left. Quite close to him. He hadn’t noticed anyone approaching. Had heard no roar of a car engine, no screech of tires. Certainly no violin trills of impending doom. But there in front of him was a man with a gun.
Mark’s eyes went wide and he said, “What do you —”
Want, he intended to ask.
But he never got the chance.
He was shot dead on the K Street sidewalk.
By the dawn’s early light of a perfect summer day, homicide detective Marvin Meeker of the Metro Police Department regarded the crime scene and rendered his expert opinion.
“Looks like Porky Pig.”
“His partner, Big Mike Walker, a.k.a. Beemer, shook his head.
“Unh-uh, Porky wears a bow tie.”
“Does not,” Meeker said.
“Does so,” Beemer insisted.
The detectives turned to the two uniformed cops, the crime scene technician and the M.E. for arbitration. None of them wanted to get involved.
Beemer said, “If he don’t wear a tie, he wears a jacket or somethin’.”
Meeker asked, “You sure?”
“‘Course I’m sure. Them Disney critters might walk around with their asses hangin’ out but they always got something on.”
The crime scene tech spoke up. “Disney doesn’t do Porky.”
Both detectives looked at her.
She said, “The brothers do him.”
“What brothers?” Meeker asked.
Both detectives chuckled. Beemer said, “It was any other brothers, ol’ Porky’d be a plate of ribs.”
Both detectives, the crime scene tech, the uniforms and even the M.E. laughed.
That was enough to make the good-looking African-American woman down on one knee beside the body of the victim look up.
“The minstrel show about over?” she asked the detectives. “You two ready to do some police work?”
The woman stood up. Six-one in her stocking feet, her shoes added another couple of inches. She looked down on both Meeker and Beemer. She outranked them, too.
“Sure, Lou,” Meeker said.
Homicide Lieutenant Rockelle Bullard said, “Good. Now that we remember we’re all law enforcement professionals, what do you think we have here?”
Meeker was about to answer when a car pulled to a stop at the curb. Nice ride, too. A Porsche Boxster all shiny and black. A guy in a suit got out and looked at the body. Gawkers weren’t unfamiliar at crime scenes but not many had the nerve to stare at a dead body with a bunch of cops standing right there wondering what his interest might be.
One of the uniforms was about to get the guy’s story when Rockelle held up a hand. “Tell the gentleman I’ll be right with him.” She turned back to her detectives. “What do we have here?”
“Dead white man,” said Meeker.
“Shot in the chest,” added Beemer.
“Right here on K Street.”
“Third one the last three weeks.”
“Every one of ’em got a little pig pin stuck on his lapel and—”
All three homicide cops saw the gawker’s head snap back when he heard mention of the pig. Now Meeker and Beemer wanted to go talk to him, too. But Rockelle hadn’t released them yet.
“Anything else in common?” she asked.
“All of ’em wearin’ Gucci ‘n’ Armani,” Meeker said.
“Just like this one,” Beemer said.
Looking over at the gawker, all three detectives thought: Just like that one.
Turning back to the victim, Meeker said, “Means he’s likely some big shot lobbyist, too.”
Rockelle flipped open the bloodstained billfold she’d taken off the body, paged through it with a gloved finger, stopped when she saw a family photo. The victim, a woman and two young children. She looked over at the guy in the suit.
“You care to step over here, sir?”
The gawker approached the cops and all of them saw tears forming in his eyes.
“You know this gentleman, sir?” Rockelle inclined her head at the body.
“I do. His name’s Mark Benjamin.”
Meeker asked, “That pig pin, it means something to you?”
“Mark wouldn’t wear it.”
Rockelle Bullard asked, “Why not?”
“He was Jewish. Used to keep kosher. Then he became a vegan.”
Beemer said, “Maybe he just liked the cartoons.”
The guy smiled; it only made him look sadder.
“He wasn’t big on cartoons.”
“Did you know Mr. Benjamin well?” Rockelle asked.
“In a certain way. We were both looking to improve ourselves; we played squash against one another. Mark is…was in better shape than me, but I had a better feel for the game. I usually beat him, and he’d lie on the court after a game, just about like he is now, and ask God where was the justice.”
Meeker said, “So you recognized the man from your car?”
He and Beemer both looked dubious.
Rockelle asked, “What’s your name, sir?”
“Is there anyone who can confirm where you’ve been the past several hours.”
“Yes. Margaret Sweeney.”
Now, Rockelle reacted in surprise, recognizing the name. “Would that be—”
“Yes, that Margaret Sweeney. The one who works with James J. McGill.”
Meeker asked, just to be sure, “You know the president’s henchman?”
“We’ve never met,” Putnam said, “but I’ve heard a lot about him.”
Beemer returned to an earlier subject. “You think that pin looks like Porky Pig?”
Putnam said, “Only at a glance. If I remember right, Porky wears a bow tie. A jacket and white gloves, too.”