Talty / HANGMAN
The white van with NY STATE CORRECTIONS written on the side in royal blue crested the hilltop and a gust of wind pushed it toward the center line. Joe Carlson, a black, thick-bodied guard with a permanent scowl on his face, gripped the wheel tighter and eased his foot off the gas. The Corrections officer in the passenger seat, his name was Brian, looked over.
“Starting to blow, dude,” said Brian.
Carlson nodded. He could hear the guy’s right foot jittering on the plastic mat of the van, though there was no music; he never played it when transporting prisoners, as music could cover up the sound of them moving around.
Traffic was light today, mostly farm traffic and commuters cutting a corner on the way to Buffalo. Carlson had planned it that way.
“Supposed to be a cold front moving in,” Brian said. “Only September and they’re talking about a freeze tonight. September!”
Carlson moved the toothpick from the right side of his mouth to the left. “Mm-hmmm,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I’m not ready for that shit.”
Brian’s foot beat a little faster. Tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. “So, how much further?”
Carlson looked over at Brian. “You nervous or somethin’?” he said.
Brian’s face got even whiter and more pinched than usual. “I’m not nervous. I can’t ask a question? If I can’t ask a question, then maybe the deal’s off.”
Carlson laughed softly to himself. “About six miles. Take it easy.”
“I’m easy, dude,” said Brian. He didn’t sound it.
Carlson sighed, then glanced up at the rearview mirror. In the second row of seats, he could see the left half of a face: a bald man with a scar on his left temple that seemed to dent the bone beneath. It gave the prisoner’s face a funhouse-mirror effect. Carlson looked away and silently reviewed the restraints he’d attached to Marcus Flynn that morning: two thick nylon cords around his waist bolted to the floor with heavy clips. Smith & Wesson Model 380 handcuffs around the wrists, not the ones with the two metal links, but the hinged kind he’d chosen special for the trip. The tactical grade, kick-proof double-lock ankle cuffs with eighteen-inch chain and the ditched jaws now clenched extra tight around Flynn’s ankles.
It was the protocol he used only for the most dangerous prisoners. Not the state protocol. His own. Carlson was the transporter of choice for every man and woman leaving Auburn Correctional Facility, and he’d never lost a one.
Houdini would have bust a gut on that rig, Carlson thought. He put his eyes back on the road.
Even after twelve years as a CO, Carlson hadn’t known too many serial killers. Two to be exact, the other one being Randy Tucker back at Auburn. Tucker the Motherfucker, people at the prison called him, not really meaning anything by it. Tucker was just an upstate white boy who’d dipped his brain in crystal meth once too often and gone on a tear with his hunting rifle a few hours after he’d gotten let go from the local John Deere franchise. He’d gotten—what, four, five victims?—before sheriff’s deputies tracked him to his girlfriend’s house.
None of the other COs held it against Tucker. So long as you kept your head down, you could be the Son of Sam and they’d give you a pass. Their prison workers’ unofficial motto, after all, was pretty cynical. “Raising your children,” it went, “because you chose not to.”
Carlson flicked his eyes back to the solitary prisoner for another half-second. Flynn hadn’t moved since they’d pulled through the prison gates. Not a millimeter. Was it self-control? Or the result of the dented temple?
This man here was something else entirely, Carlson thought. He didn’t know any like Hangman because there were none like him.
They passed a sign for the town of Perry.
“Okay,” Carlson said to Brian, speaking the way you would to a ten-year-old, calm and deliberate. “It’s the next exit. I’m going to drop you off at the AutoZone. If anyone asks any questions later on, the van was low on oil and I sent you in there to get some. I was waiting outside when you came walking out with the oil. Got that? Simple as pecan pie.”
“Why can’t I come?”
Carlson’s mouth opened a little. He said nothing but eased the van off the ramp and down to the service road. The AutoZone was a hundred yards up on the right. He swung through the parking lot, waited for a Toyota minivan to clear the fire lane, and pulled up to the front doors.
“Because you can’t.”
He popped the locks on the van. Brian grimaced and got out slowly. He looked nervous, like he was being dropped off for the first day of school.
“See you in forty,” Carlson said. “If it’s an hour, don’t go calling me on my cell. Remember what we talked about?”
“Yeah. Radio silence.”
Brian slammed the door.
“Oh, and dude?” Carlson said, leaning over toward the open window. “Buy some oil. Just in case.”
Brian nodded, his mouth open. Carlson shook his head slowly as he pulled out of the parking lot. Three minutes later he was back on the highway.
The silence in the van was different now. It was almost like the hum from an electric motor, buzzing, physical. Carlson checked the mirror. Marcus Flynn’s left eye, the only one Carlson could see, was locked straight ahead, as if he was still staring at Brian’s neck.
An icy tremor zigzagged up Carlson’s spine. Those eyes. The last things four young girls saw before they died. It was unnerving was what it was.
Carlson checked his watch. The prisoner was due at Attica by one o’clock. He’d built in some extra time by leaving ninety minutes before his scheduled departure. No one gave a shit. He could take this cracker swimming in the local crick if he chose to.
He drove another three miles, watching the signs. When he saw one for the village of Warsaw, he took the exit, turned left at the end of the ramp, and accelerated up onto a two-lane road that cut between heavily wooded acres.
The country spread out on either side of him, farmland and forest stretching to the horizon. Real backcountry out here, home to your native upstate shitkicker. People didn’t know you had shitkickers in New York State, but the woods around here were as thick as anything down South.
Carlson started to count the little country lanes to his left. They were just ten-foot gaps in the trees with two muddy ruts between them. He’d done two trial runs before today and he could tell the lanes apart now. The one he was looking for was the one with the piece of red nylon tape tacked to the tree. The tape he’d nailed into the bark three days ago.
There it was, fluttering in the wind. Carlson slowed and made the turn.
In four and a half minutes, the van emerged from the tree line and out into a clearing.
He eased the van to a stop. They were at the end of the lane, a broad grassy meadow speckled with dandelions ahead of them. Carlson turned the key back in the ignition and the sound of birdsong came wafting in the two inches of open window as the engine noise faded.
He didn’t want to turn and look at Flynn. He took the keys out of the ignition slowly, the skin on the back of his neck growing cold and prickly. He swore he could feel the man’s eyes on him. But if he looked back, he knew the prisoner would be staring at that empty seat.
Four girls this man murdered, Carlson thought, and now he thinks he can mess with me?
Carlson got out, adjusting his gun belt as he walked around the front. He jerked the slide door of the van open.
Marcus Flynn turned slowly. His eyes were cold as a charcoal briquette the day after a barbecue. Blue, with the memory of fire in them.
Carlson unlocked the ankle cuffs and uncoupled the restraints bolted to the floor, leaving the handcuffs on. Then he pulled the prisoner out of the van. As Flynn’s foot cleared the doorsill, Carlson let his supporting hand fall away. Flynn dropped to his knees in the shin-high grass.
“Clumsy bitch,” Carlson said. “The fuck’s wrong with you?”
Flynn looked up at him, a strange questioning in his eyes. It wasn’t just the sudden drop to his knees, Carlson knew, but the wind, the grass, being outside the walls. Flynn was a CU, or control unit inmate, allowed one hour of exercise a day in a chain-link-topped exercise pit, all concrete. If he saw a flower, it was a stray weed growing in a crack in the concrete. Now he was like an animal being reintroduced to the wild; the scents of the pines, the pollen, it must be intoxicating.
Carlson had planned this, too. Keep the man off balance.
He brought his boot up to Flynn’s chest, then rested the muddy sole on the prisoner’s orange jumpsuit.
“Look what you did, Hangman,” he said, smearing mud on the bright orange nylon.
Flynn’s eyes, cold as winter.
Carlson leaned down. “You’re brain-injured and all,” he said, “but you understand that, don’t you?”
A gust of wind turned the long grass over and shook the tops of the trees. Carlson looked around. The clearing was in the shape of a horseshoe, fringed by thick forest on three sides—he’d never learned the names of trees, he wasn’t no nature boy—and open on the fourth, where you could see you were on the top of a tall hill overlooking the valley below.
Carlson braced his shoulders. He reached down and grabbed the prisoner under the left armpit and pulled him up. “I don’t have time to mess around with you,” he said. “As much as I’d like to.”
The prisoner’s eyes were staring at his handcuffs. Carlson watched him, a smile on his lips. He felt in control now.
“You think you can slip ’em, Hangman? Well, go for it.” He laughed and began marching Flynn toward the open part of the horseshoe, where the breeze was coming from.
Five steps. Ten. The wind was making a roaring sound, like in the mouth of a cave.
Carlson leaned over as he frog-marched Flynn. “Why’d you kill them girls?” he said casually.
Flynn didn’t reply. In a little bit, they were standing on the edge of the hill. Eighty feet below them, down a steep cliff covered with scrub and flat rusty-looking rocks, the green carpet of the treetops was cut by a snaking black road. To their left was a gas station, doing some lunch business by the looks of it, with three cars fueling up and another waiting for an open pump.
To their right was a black-shingled roof, angled in the shape of an L.
“You see that?” Carlson said.
The prisoner turned his head slowly, looked down at the gas station.
“No, not that,” Carlson said, pointing at the shingled roof. “That place there.”
Flynn’s gaze rotated slowly to follow the guard’s finger. When they reached the roof, the sound of an indrawn breath.
“Yeaaah, you know it. The Warsaw Motel.”
Flynn’s mouth worked, causing the muscles in his cheek to flex as Carlson watched him. This boy never fattened up on that starchy prison food, Carlson thought. Slim as a panther. The arm was strong, and the muscles were taut now. Oh, Flynn knew this place.
“That’s what I brought you up here to see, Hang-man.”
The prisoner turned toward him. His face was chapped by the wind, the ridges of his forehead red with exposure. The eyes were angry now.
“Where’s the girl?” Carlson whispered. “The last one, Sandy Riesen. The one you brought to the motel. The one they never found.”
That got to him. Flynn’s face contorted now as if he’d tasted raw flesh.
“Did you bury her up here?” Carlson whispered.
He leaned in and kept his mouth next to the prisoner’s ear, blocking his view of the gun as he brought the gun up in his right hand. Then Carlson pulled back, and let the prisoner see the Smith & Wesson with the sun glinting dully off its nickel plating.
Flynn’s eyes grew big. Like a horse looking at a dog that had snapped at him before.
“Tell me,” Carlson said. Up here on the hilltop, he could feel a weight in the moment. He had Flynn dead to rights, just the two of them. He could kill the cracker if he chose, say he’d tried to escape and had nearly made it down the hill before Carlson had caught him with a lucky shot.
Justice for those families. His gun hand tingled.
“Last chance, brother,” he said, and his voice cracked just a bit. “It’s been five years now.”
He brought the barrel of the gun up.
He spun the barrel.
Carlson pulled the hammer back, and the snap of the spring was clear in the cold air.
Flynn’s eyes closed.
“Years. Where’s the goddamn girl?”
The prisoner turned. The look in his eyes, it wasn’t what Carlson had hoped for. He’d expected the man to beg for his life, spittle running down his chin. He’d wanted to crack the man wide open, have him begging for mercy.
But Flynn wasn’t crying. His eyes weren’t even on the gun. They bored into Carlson’s like a hot drill.
“You think I’m playing?” Carlson whispered.
Flynn stared him down.
Oh, no, thought Carlson. Don’t tell me that girl, the last one, really is alive. Not after all these years. Christ, what would she even look . . .
The prisoner was leaning forward. He’d whispered something, but the breeze ruffled in Carlson’s ears at just that moment and all he heard was the wind.
“What?” Carlson snapped. “What did you say?”
Flynn leaned closer. The guard watched his lips, wanting to read the words if he missed them again.
“The girls . . .”
Carlson shivered at the voice, thin and ghostly, the voice of a man who has nothing to talk to but concrete walls. The guard felt his stomach flutter.
The gun bobbed a little before he got it steady again.
“Yeah. The girls what?”
The sound of the wind rose a bit and Carlson felt his hand sweat on the faceted surface of the gun grip. Flynn whispered:
“The girls are waiting for you.”