South Carolina: August, 1933
THE SILENCE in the death house that morning had been absolute. The sun hadn’t been long up, though it streamed through the barred windows and illuminated motes of dust twirling slowly in the stillness. The assembled spectators had taken their seats quietly, and no one looked at any of the others. The observation room consisted of a square space roughly ten by twenty feet, blank on three sides. The fourth side held a long pane of heavy-duty glass, reinforced with iron bars, and—at the moment—curtained from view. On the other side of the window, Calvin Amos knew, was the chair—Old Sparky—primed and waiting.
It wasn’t his first time witnessing an execution, but it was to be his last. No flash of prescience announced this fact, however. As far as he was concerned, his duties to his client included watching him draw his final breath. He owed Thomas Basinger that much at least, but wished there was some means by which he could speed through the entire procedure and have it done with. When the curtain was pulled back and Basinger appeared behind the glass accompanied by two guards, Amos forced his gaze away. He couldn’t bear that agony, that mute entreaty from a man whose entire leeway had just run out. He waited for Basinger to say something, make some last-minute gesture of appeal, but he didn’t. Amos held his eyes averted until Basinger had been strapped into the chair, the electrodes applied, and his shaved scalp covered with a sponge soaked in saline, the better to conduct electricity.
Stories, usually third- or fourth-person accounts, described the initial jolt as seeming to last an eternity; it lasted, Amos knew, for thirty seconds.
The surging current snapped Basinger’s body upright, and his hands tightened convulsively on the arms of the chair. His eyes stared straight ahead, bulging grotesquely in his brick-red face. The current subsided, and Basinger slumped forward, a trickle of bloody saliva drooling from the corner of his mouth. There was a distinct smell of burning. A doctor entered the execution chamber and pressed a stethoscope to Basinger’s chest. He spoke quietly to the executioner, then stepped away. A second jolt was applied, longer than the first. The prisoner strained against the straps holding him in place, his body heaving, bloody vomit bubbling into his lap. The current was again withdrawn, and Basinger slumped against the restraints. A wisp of smoke curled up from the back of his neck.
This time the doctor nodded to the executioner. Yes, Basinger was dead.
Calvin sagged with relief. Thank God. He’s dead this time. Thank God for that. His gorge rose and he shut his eyes, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths until the urge to retch had gone.
He sat quietly as the other spectators shuffled mutely away. There was nothing in his mind, no thought or impulse, and his muscles were utterly devoid of the impetus to motion. He sat there while the body cooled, was shrouded and borne away on a stretcher, and the lights turned off. When he finally rose to go, it was with an effort, like an old man. Somehow he found his way out of the building and into the parking lot. He fumbled his way into his car. He drove until he found a dive bar, far down in the deepest and most foul part of Charleston, where he ordered whiskey sours until daylight.
He had no memory of how he’d gotten home.
The milkman, passing by on his morning rounds, had found him slumped on the doorstep. Rough night, Mr. Amos?
Rough night. Yes, that just about covered it.
“ANY FURTHER problems breathing?” the doctor asked.
“No,” Calvin replied, a little sharply. Some weeks earlier, he’d taken a dive out his eight-floor office window, a gesture intended to finish him—to finish, too, his feelings of shame and hopelessness. He’d read somewhere that a death leap needed to be at least three times a man’s height in order to kill him, but he hadn’t counted on the canvas awning over the doorway of the flower shop below. He imagined he would clear it easily, hit the sidewalk, and death would be close to instant, his body bursting open like a thrown watermelon. “No, I can breathe just fine.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Doc Severs had come to Charleston by way of Natchez, Mississippi, had fought his way—as he told it—through Alabama and then Georgia, hungry for the salty sea air and the incipient threat of hurricanes. He never tired of telling people that, but his real passion was purely meteorological. Doc Severs was a weather enthusiast. “July, 1916,” he’d said, by way of explanation. “Hurricane. Most goddamn rain I ever saw in my life. People swimming in the streets, you know.” Whenever he saw Calvin, Doc Severs had some new anecdote to share with him. Cal’s father had been a man of similar taste and disposition; he and Doc Severs had played golf and cards together, and their friendship endured until the day Cal’s father died. It was one reason why the doctor still made the trip to Calvin’s house, instead of requiring Cal to visit him in his office.
“Do you know, in September of 1925, it was so hot people figured it was the judgment of God upon them for their sins?” Doc Severs asked.
“I did not.” Doc Severs’s enthusiasm for the subject wore on Calvin’s nerves, but he felt obliged to offer a civil answer.
“Small children were allowed to run around in the altogether, simply because it was considered criminal to clothe them. Open your mouth.” He leaned on Calvin’s tongue with a flat strip of wood. “Any sore throat?”
Calvin shook his head as far as he was able. Doc Severs withdrew the tongue depressor, and Calvin coughed. “Not that I have noticed.”
“Let’s have a look at your back.”
Calvin shrugged out of his dressing gown and unbuttoned his pajama jacket. He was slender but well-made, and his torso rippled with the kind of muscle usually built on polo fields and tennis courts. In his youth Amos was an accomplished equestrian, and by the time he turned fourteen, he’d competed at the state and national level. His prowess even at that age was formidable, and in the saddle, he was absolutely fearless, taking the highest and most difficult jumps at a gallop where other, lesser riders took them at a canter. He was lucky too: the skittish Arabian he’d managed to coax over two stiles and an oxer had no intention of hurdling a five-barred log fence, but Calvin managed to leap clear before the animal stumbled, and both of them were, thankfully, unhurt.
In tennis he was equally adept, with a powerful serve and an ability to seemingly be everywhere on the court at once. He was known to play croquet and had learned the intricacies of English cricket from a law school friend some years before. He’d earned his muscles, and he kept himself trim with regular physical activity—or had, until his recent dive out his office window.
“Still quite a lot of bruising,” Doc Severs said, pressing until Calvin hissed in pain. “Sure you’ve been resting like I told you to?”
Cal would have laughed aloud but for the rudeness of it. “I have.”
“X-rays show your bones are healed.” He ghosted his fingers lightly over Calvin’s lower back. It had taken the brunt of the impact when he’d fetched up against the awning, but he was fit and healthy, and the hairline fractures needed little prompting to heal. “You can resume your normal activities, Calvin, as long as you take things easy. You’re almost as good as new.”
He thanked the doctor and saw him to the door. “I appreciate your help, doctor.”
“And you’ll mind what I said? Get out and get some fresh air?”
“Absolutely. I may even try a short ride later… perhaps take Maisie out to the north pasture.” Maisie was a quiet old mare that had belonged to Calvin’s father. When necessary, Calvin lied about as well as he breathed, and he would tell Doc Severs exactly what he wanted to hear. “It looks to be an absolutely lovely day.”
“I hear there’s a storm coming later in the week.” Doc Severs squinted at the sky. “If conditions are right, it might turn out to be a real howler.” He paused on the porch and turned back. “Calvin, if there’s anything you need… I mean, anything at all… you call me, you hear?”
“Of course.” Cal stood with his hand on the door.
“If you need to talk,” the doctor said, “I mean, if there’s anything on your mind.” He drew a deep breath. “I was mighty fond of your daddy.” He reached out and squeezed Cal’s shoulder gently. “I am mighty fond of you, Calvin. I hope you will consider me a friend.”
He waited until he heard Doc Severs’s car start up before going to the liquor cabinet and fetching out a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon. He splashed three fingers of the amber liquid into a heavy crystal glass and dumped it down his throat. The whiskey burned his palate and brought tears to his eyes, tears he didn’t bother to wipe away. He was a member of the Amos family, and no Amos worth his salt ever cried. It wasn’t his fault if his body couldn’t handle the liquor. It wasn’t his fault at all.
He poured another drink and went to the conservatory, a glass-enclosed space set at the back of the house, directly off the dining room. His father had a great love of green and growing things, and added the conservatory after his retirement so he’d have something to do. He’d been a lawyer too, specializing in litigation and the kinds of knotty legal problems that potentially dragged on for decades. After his withdrawal from active practice, it must have been a comfort to lose himself in orchids and aspidistra, to breathe in calm and comfort and the damp earth smells of living plants.
Calvin liked it because it was nothing like the courtroom.
He sat for a while, sipping whiskey, and the phone rang five times before he caught on. The telephone table sat directly in front of the double wooden entry doors, just inside the foyer. Cal was forced to dash for it, but managed to pick the receiver up in time and press it to his ear. “Hello?”
It was Janet, the woman he was engaged to marry. The tone and timbre of her voice made his stomach clench in painful anticipation. “Calvin, I thought about sending you a letter, but I’d never live with myself.” Not giving him time to respond, she said, “This isn’t easy for me to say, but if you hear me out, I’m sure you will see my reasoning.” Her breath seemed to hitch on some internal obstacle. “I think we should delay the wedding, dear. Under normal circumstances I’d suggest we go ahead with things, but not now… certainly not while you’re convalescing.” She sounded out of breath—Calvin couldn’t for the life of him think why—and her talk was clearly contrived, as if she’d spent hours and days making up her mind. “You do understand, don’t you?”
“I beg your pardon. What is it I’m supposed to understand?”
The morning sun was coming through the sidelights, sparkling on the intricate facets of the cut-glass panels, beautiful. It reminded him of the first time he’d ever seen snow. He’d attended a law conference held at the venerable old Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts in late November. He wasn’t prepared for the cold, and for much of the weekend, he shivered and wilted like an early magnolia. On the last night of the conference, he walked back to his lodgings alone, and it started to snow—a perfect fairy-tale snow, with large flakes floating down slowly and silently. It was powerfully affecting, and he’d never forgotten it.
“Are you calling off our engagement entirely?” His glass was empty and the decanter in another room. That was most unfortunate.
“Let’s not discuss it over the telephone,” she hedged. Her voice seemed to be coming from a long ways off, or perhaps that was the ringing in his ears. “I wonder if I might call on you this afternoon.”
“This afternoon.” He considered his pajamas, his slippers, and the floppy dressing gown. “Good God, Janet, we’ve announced the date! Don’t you think—?”
“Please don’t swear at me, Calvin. You know it upsets me.”
“Oh, really? Since when?” A hot spike of anger drilled a hole in the space above his left eye. “This afternoon,” he said. There was a long silence, during which he heard only the hum of the wires. “Janet?”
“I think I ought to give you back the ring, Calvin. I’ll bring it with me. Say, two o’clock?”
Calvin had proposed to her with a cushion-cut emerald set in an antique floral pattern and surrounded by a constellation of small diamonds. The ring had belonged to his grandmother, who had received it from her mother, a Charleston society debutante so renowned that her collection of beaus included two Army captains, an English duke, and the younger son of a very old Russian family. “Keep it,” he said. “A memento of our happy time together.” He tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice and failed. “Frame it in memory of me.”
He dropped the receiver back into its cradle. He was no longer interested in anything she had to say.
He spent the morning pretending to read the newspapers and drinking whiskey in such quantity it almost started oozing out his pores. At one o’clock he roused himself to go upstairs. He showered and shaved, brushed his teeth, and spread a cooling scented lotion over his cheeks and throat. From his closet he selected a white seersucker suit with a pale pink shirt and a figured tie the color of blood. He attached his cufflinks and tiepin automatically, just as he’d done every morning of his adult life.
The doorbell rang at twenty minutes to two, while Cal was brushing his hair. Of course Janet was early. She always insisted on doing things her own way. He went downstairs, and then through the huge foyer, and opened the door. “Janet.” Her name stuck in his throat. “Won’t you come in?”
“Calvin.” She pressed close to him and kissed his cheek. She was wearing a peach-colored silk dress and orange shoes, and her small white hat sat atop her elegantly coiffed head like a puff of whipped cream. She looks, he thought uncharitably, like an orange blossom cocktail. “You’re looking well.”
“I do thank you.”
He ushered her into the sitting room and asked her if she’d like a drink.
“Whatever you’re having,” she said. “Don’t go to any trouble.”
Having planted the idea in his mind, he supposed she deserved an orange blossom; he asked her if she would like one. “Or perhaps a gin-and-sin,” he said tartly. “I expect that’s more in your line these days.” He was being impolite, he knew, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care.
There was a small bar to one side of the fireplace where one could stand and converse with others while mixing drinks. He stationed himself behind it, grabbing at glasses and such with arms extended in an attitude of self-crucifixion. A set of silver ice tongs flew into the air during his vigorous ministrations and landed somewhere beyond his field of view. By the time he decanted the drinks into glasses and returned to where Janet was sitting, he was blood-faced and almost incoherent with a rage he fought desperately to suppress.
He sat opposite her on the divan, close enough to confer an illusion of intimacy but not close enough to touch. “You had something to tell me. A continuation of our earlier conversation.”
“Might we go into the conservatory?” she asked, picking up her glass. “I think the discussion would proceed much more amiably there.”
He did as she asked. The conservatory, although not huge, offered enough space for two people to stroll while sipping alcohol and pretending civility toward each other. He walked slowly and waited for her to say something.
“Cal, I think we ought to speak frankly.” She stopped under an enormous umbrella tree whose spreading fronds obscured the section of sky visible through the conservatory’s glass roof.
“Forgive my bluntness, Janet, but have you ever spoken any other way?” He was acting the boor—he knew it, hated it in himself, but couldn’t stop. “I have never, in all our long association, noticed you having any trouble in the area of self-expression.”
“Don’t act ugly.” She placed her drink down on a small glass-topped table and began pulling off her gloves, one finger at a time. “You know I care deeply for you, Calvin.” She glanced up at him through her lashes, ever the coquette. “Which is why I think a temporary separation is the best solution.”
“Solution?” A man laughed harshly somewhere. Calvin wondered if it was him. “A solution to what?”
“You know as well as I that you aren’t yourself.” She pretended interest in a large potted fern. “Ever since that… man… died in the electric chair.” She turned suddenly to look at him, her pale green eyes large and guileless. “You no longer resemble the man I agreed to marry.”
His heart thumped against his breastbone. “Is that so?” He sneered. “Well, who am I, then?”
“Calvin, please.” She put a hand on his arm. “I really do think this is for the best.” She drew a small velvet box out of the pocket of her dress and held it out to him. “I know this belonged to your grandmother. I’m sure she would prefer that you had it back.”
“Keep it,” he mumbled. The silence between them swelled to fill the room.
“I’ll just leave it here.” She set the box on the small table and stood in front of him, hands clasped at her bosom in an attitude of supplication. “I think, after a suitable interval has passed, we might entertain the idea of seeing other people.” She waited for him to say something, and when he didn’t, said, “It really is better this way, Cal. I hate to think of us starting our married life when you aren’t well.” She moved to kiss his cheek, but he drew away.
“I expect you can find your own way out,” he said. He refused to look at her. In a moment the concentrated ticking of her heels sounded on the foyer’s marble tiles and the door closed quietly behind her.
I am not a spring corsage, he thought angrily, to be put on and taken off just as you please.
He finished Janet’s orange blossom, and his own.
THE NOISES from the kitchen woke him the next morning, curious and unfamiliar as they were. The sun filtered through his window blinds, and from outside he could hear innumerable birdcalls. The clock beside his bed read ten minutes past eight. Someone was in the house.
He got up and slipped into his dressing gown, looked around for his slippers, and didn’t find them, so he went downstairs barefoot. Like most houses of its era, the kitchen was situated at the back of the building, with a screen door opening onto the garden. The door was open, letting in the warm, blossom-scented breeze, and it occurred to him that the intruders might have taken what they wanted from the house and left. He leaned over the swinging half door that led into the kitchen and stopped, his pulse pounding in his throat.
A woman was standing at the stove with her back to him. The room smelled like all the breakfasts he’d ever eaten, like coffee and jam and hot buttered toast.
“Polly.” Her name caught in his throat. She couldn’t have come all this way for no good reason; it made no sense. “Polly, I had no idea.”
Their long-time housekeeper, the center of the Amos family, had given up her position a week previous and was on her way to Florida to live with her married daughter and her two small grandsons. Cal asked her several times to stay, to live under his roof and continue to receive a salary, but she refused. On the morning she was due to depart, he waited for her at the foot of the stairs with a dozen long-stemmed red roses and a check for a rather large amount of money.
“Darling, this isn’t necessary,” Polly had said. “You know that.”
He had kissed her cheek and hugged her tightly. “Tell me you are not leaving.” He clasped both of her hands between his. “Tell me you have realized the idea of retirement is nonsense, and you’ve decided to stay with me.” He kissed her fingers. “Tell me that, would you?”
Tears had welled in Polly’s soft, dark eyes, and she ducked her head, not wanting him to see. “You know I can’t do that, Calvin. My grandbabies are waiting for me.” She freed one of her hands to stroke his cheek, like she did when he was a little boy.
Calvin sighed. “Nothing I can say will make you stay?”
“Not this time, baby.”
So he’d waited with her till the taxi came, then stood in the open door to make sure she got inside all right. He thought she might turn and wave at him, but she didn’t. Maybe it was better that way.
Now, she was still in her hat and coat and tying on her apron. She turned at his approach, no more surprised by him than she had ever been. “About time you got up.”
“How did you…?” Civility and the need for mannered graciousness fought with his desire to run and throw his arms around her. His hands were trembling, his insides quaking fit to shudder him to pieces.
“You don’t look so well, Calvin.” She took off her hat and dropped it onto the kitchen table. “I heard you had a bad accident. I thought you might need me.” Polly was the best—and only—housekeeper they’d ever had. She’d begun working for Calvin’s father a year or two before Calvin himself was born. After the death of Cal’s mother, Angeline, it was Polly who’d raised him, Polly who’d loved him, Polly who was the only mother he could remember.
He surged into her arms and held her so tight he swore he could hear her ribs crack. He held himself still in her embrace, conscious only of her warmth and nearness. “You retired,” he said, when he pulled himself clear. “To Florida, you said. You were going to sit on the beach and become a lady of leisure.”
“Mmm, I tried that and it doesn’t agree with me. Besides, I read about what happened in the papers. I couldn’t let you be alone, with what you were going through.” She fetched the percolator down from the cupboard and spooned coffee into it. “What would your daddy say? He’d be wildly disappointed in me, I can tell you that.” She nodded at the counter, where a row of wooden bar stools sat in a line like quiescent soldiers. “Sit down and I’ll serve you some breakfast.”
She talked while he ate, telling him about her daughter in Tallahassee and the two small boys, with their astounding stores of energy. “I love my grandchildren. I really do. But those boys wear me out.” Polly glanced at his plate. “You hardly touched your breakfast.”
“I….” He knew he looked guilty. “I’m not very hungry.”
“Mm.” She offered him a disapproving look. “Probably all that bourbon you’ve been drinking lately. You planning on leaving those empty bottles on the back porch?”
He prickled with embarrassment. “Those aren’t mine.”
She raised an eyebrow in reply.
“Well,” he continued, “I’ve been recuperating from my injuries. It helps me sleep.”
The percolator popped and bubbled on the stove. “Coffee?” Polly reached over and took it off the heat. “What’s your girl think of all this? I’m surprised she’s not here.”
He’d swallowed a bite of toast with some difficulty, and fought to find sufficient oral moisture now to speak. “She won’t be here anymore.” He took the cup of coffee Polly passed him. “She came around to see me the other day. She’d decided it was best we revoke the terms of our betrothal.” There was acid in the words.
Polly nodded and murmured something as she turned to wipe the counter. It sounded like “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” but he couldn’t be sure, and there was no point asking Polly to repeat it. “Did she give you back your ring?”
“Yes, even though I told her to keep it.” He couldn’t meet her eyes. “A memento of our happy time together.” He waited for her to say something, remonstrate with him, but she was silent. “Maybe it’s time to cut ties with the past, anyway, and go forward from here.” He made a big deal of wiping egg off his plate with a piece of toast, waiting for Polly to say something.
“Calvin,” she said quietly, “I am not here to tell you how to live your life or what to do. I’m here to take care of you because you need me. It’s what your daddy would have wanted.”
He nodded, suddenly unable to speak. He forced himself to swallow some coffee past the lump in his throat. His eyes burned with unshed tears.
“You’ve had a hard time, haven’t you? You poor thing.” Polly reached for his hand and held on. “You were so brave when you were a little boy. I remember this one time you were following your daddy around while he was getting ready to leave for work. You couldn’t have been more than four years old.” She smiled fondly, seeming to be lost for a moment in the mists of memory. “You started up the stairs after him as fast as your little legs would go, but you couldn’t keep up.” She turned and gestured to the space behind her left shoulder, where the house’s main stairs were. “You tripped on that top step out there and banged your little chin.” She shook her head, smiling. “You nearly bit your tongue in half and it bled like crazy, but you wouldn’t cry. No, sir, you would not cry.”
Calvin looked up at her, trying in vain to hold back the hot tears sliding down his face. She was his father’s dearest friend, their beloved housekeeper, the woman who had raised him, and he needed her now. He wasn’t ashamed of it. When she came around and hugged him, her cheek resting on his shoulder, he sobbed as though his heart were breaking, because it was.
“I am never going to leave you, Calvin.” She stroked his hair as if he were still a little boy. “I will never leave you.”
THOMAS BASINGER’S immediate impression of the afterlife was nothing like he’d supposed it would be. For one thing, there were no screaming devils, no flames, no dark pit of perdition. Instead, he found himself sitting on a carved stone bench in a grove of towering, enormous trees through which exotic birds of varying shape and hue flitted, calling to each other. Just behind him and to his left stood a pair of doors set into a tall hedge that seemed to encompass the circumference of the garden. A narrow footpath meandered past the bench, stretching on—it seemed—into infinite space. It was bordered by wildflowers Thom had never encountered, and certainly not together: orchids and saffron crocuses, and the gorgeous Juliet rose that Thom had never actually seen but had read about. Rare and exotic blooms trembled on slender green stalks above the banks of jade flowers bobbing in the gentle breeze, a fragrant zephyr carrying the scent of lilacs and golden laburnum.
He felt better than he had in years, ever since a childhood case of tuberculosis had destroyed part of his left lung, leaving him forever breathless. It no longer hurt to breathe, and he could take in a full lung’s worth of air. He laughed, suddenly joyful and wondering why the hell he wasn’t frightened out of his wits. What was this place? How had he come to be here? How could he be alive—more alive, in fact, than he’d ever been—when his last memory was of excruciating pain and the smell of his own flesh burning?
Maybe somebody up here likes you.
The thought was more than a little ridiculous.
The sound of falling water drew him out of the garden, and he followed it to where a thin stream decanted into a wide pool surrounded on three sides by thick, impossibly green foliage. The air was warm and full of birdsong, and he cast a quick look around, but there was no one there but him. Moving quickly, he stripped off his clothes, not caring where they landed, and plunged into the water. The warm liquid closed around him like an embrace, and he dived deep, down to the bottom of the pool, where schools of bright orange fish swirled and darted around him, unafraid. Surfacing, he floated on his back, gazing up at the endless sky above him, bluer than any he’d ever seen. I don’t know how I got here, he thought, and I sure as hell don’t know how to get out, so I might as well enjoy it.
“Hey, Thom Turkey. You gonna lie there all day long?”
The voice was familiar, as familiar as his own. He swam back to the pool’s margin and stood up quickly, feet resting on the warm, sandy bottom. “That you? How long you been standing there? Come on in, why don’t you? Or maybe you’re scared.” This last was issued as a challenge, a schoolboy dare.
A tall, thin man with hair the color of summer wheat stepped around a copse of apple trees. He was dressed in a plain white shirt and the kind of baggy, nondescript pants he’d worn in life. He was standing upright with apparently no pain, and the horrific wounds that had formerly marked him were gone. “I just might do that.” He pulled off his shoes, then his shirt and trousers, and with two quick steps and an even quicker bound, he was in the water. “Tell me now, Thom….” He swam over to where Thom was and, flipping gracefully onto his back, floated for a while. “You like our little swimming pond?”
“Wyatt,” Thom said. “It occurs to me that I am losing my goddamned mind.” For the first time since waking in this place, he was afraid.
“Thom.” Wyatt arrested his floating and stood close to him, his feet resting on the bottom. “You are not losing your mind. You ain’t gone crazy, nobody put nothing in your beer, and this ain’t no kind of dream.”
“What is it, then?” Thom drew his arms through the water slowly, back and forth, long meditative sweeps like he was gathering something up, drawing it to himself. “Last-minute reprieve? Stay o