[As promised, here’s the first entry to my novella. Enjoy!]
The place stank.
If a prison should have a common smell, the kind of stench one would expect of such a place, Abbeville State Penitentiary had it. Like a cesspool of human sin, Garret Roth mused. It looked as ugly as it smelled, too, a monolith of gray stone that, even on a bright and sunny day such as this, seemed to leach all the warmth from the air. Three chain-link fences surrounded the site, all fifteen feet high, each topped with loops of concertina wire. Roth counted the eight square-sided gun towers set at regular intervals around the perimeter, on the crowns of which were guardhouses where snipers stood, armed and waiting, behind tinted glass. Abbeville had a reputation, one it had earned. No man had ever escaped it, though four had died trying. People had nicknamed Abbeville the “Alcatraz of the South,” claimed it was escape-proof.
That’s why they’d chosen Abbeville to house Beauregard Toussaint. It was the only prison in the state that could handle a man like him, they’d said. The man’s a mad dog, they’d said. Too dangerous to be housed just anywhere. The worst of the worst, they’d said. And God help me, Roth said to himself, he’s my only hope.
The driver opened the door of the sedan for him, the heat of the late Louisiana summertime rushing in to greet him. Roth’s glasses fogged with condensation as he climbed from the back seat of the car to follow the escort of prison guards inside, the electrical gates sliding closed with a groan behind him. Roth imagined himself on the precipice of hell itself, about to descend into the pit. All hope abandon, ye who enter here, Dante had written. But Dante had not, could not, conceive of any desperation like that which brought Roth here today.
The guards wore uniforms of black trousers with gray shirts, and they led him down a drab hallway of gunmetal walls and tiled floors. Even the panels of fluorescent bulbs overhead gave off a grainy, starched light of no real color. They led him into a room of the same fashion, with no windows and a heavy wooden table painted a dark green. The gray paint on the single door had blistered and peeled away in places to reveal a rusty coating on the steel beneath. One of the guards shut the door behind them. It made a dull clanging sound.
“Have a seat, sir,” another of the guards said. “They’re bringing him down right now.”
Roth had kept his visit to Abbeville a secret, had come in a different car than usual, but he knew word would leak out soon enough. Not that it mattered.
A single knock at the door and one of the guards opened it. There were four men already in the room with Roth, and another four now escorted Roth’s guest. Dressed in the standard orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs on his wrists and shackles on his ankles, and these attached by chains to a heavy leather belt strapped around his waist, the prisoner could only take small steps—baby steps—to the table where Roth sat waiting. All chained up like that, the man shouldn’t have appeared intimidating. He stood a little over six feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds, maybe. Big, but not that big. Roth stood almost as tall and outweighed him by a good forty pounds. And Toussaint could scarce walk in those chains. But there were eight guards in the room, all the same, and Roth had to admit to himself, he wouldn’t have minded a couple more.
Serving two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole, public record documented four murders committed by Toussaint; police officials suspected at least ten more. Jonas Beauregard Batiste Francois Toussaint. The “Piano Man.” Alias Jonah Franks, alias Jack Toussaint, alias Beau Saint (this latter his favorite, and it a grim irony, considering the man constituted anything but holiness). An ex-soldier drummed out of the Army, Toussaint had turned mercenary and then killer-for-hire, and he’d been good at each job, the latter in particular. His uncanny ability to track his victims, they said, bordered on the supernatural. Finding and murdering an informant in the witness protection program had landed Toussaint in Abbeville. How in the hell he’d managed to hunt the man down still confounded the authorities.
Toussaint took a seat across from Roth. “Mornin’, Governor,” he said, his Cajun accent as thick as the humidity outside.
“You know who I am,” Roth said, trying to keep a tremor out of his voice.
Toussaint didn’t reply, only smiled. He was, or rather had once been, a handsome man. Now two nasty scars served to spoil his appearance, at least in part. One stretched from the corner of his left eye almost to the edge of his mouth, a raised semicircle of hardened pink flesh. A second, more jagged scar snaked from his hairline towards his right ear. Toussaint had several days’ worth of razor stubble and wore his long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. His eyes were pale blue, clear and icy cold.
Roth forced himself to speak. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here, then,” he said.
The smile remained. “Reckon I already know that, boss.”
“You, um, you do?”
The man reminded Roth of a snake, coiled and ready to strike. Even chained, he possessed an undeniable air of menace. It wasn’t just Roth who felt it, either. The guards stood rigid, except when one would shuffle from one foot to the other or adjust the billy club at his belt, none of them taking his eyes off Toussaint.
“Tell me, boss,” the prisoner said to Roth, “why do you hate queers so much?”
“What? I don’t, I…”
“Y’know what the head-shrinkers would say; a man who hates queers so much, he must be coverin’ up his own repressed tendencies. That it, now? Have you been livin’ a lie, boss? Are you a queer stuck in the closet?”
Roth cleared his throat. “I see you keep up with the news, Mr. Toussaint.” He forced himself to hold Toussaint’s gaze, but he didn’t at all like it.
“The name’s Saint, boss. An’ yeah, I hear some things. That was some nasty business, ’bout how all the queers ought ta’ be took out an’ shot in the street. Tell me, when you first joined up with that cult…”
“No, no, the Elect was not a cult,” Roth said. “It was only, my understanding was, it was only a fraternity of evangelical Christians working in politics. It was never meant to be anything more than that.”
“Only now they’re all sayin’ we need ta’ start killin’ queers. Don’t seem all that Christian ta’ me. I mean, I never bent that way myself, but I always figured the more queers, the better, y’know? Less competition for a ladies’ man like me.” He winked at Roth. “It does pique my curiosity, though. You got this bunch a’ holy rollers, an’ them all big time senators an’ governors an’ the like, an’ all of ’em tryin’ ta’ keep the organization some big secret. It sounds all George Orwell, don’ it? Then it comes out they wan’ ta’ start cullin’ the population a’ the queers.”
“I had no knowledge of that beforehand,” Roth said. It was the truth. When the Elect had issued the proclamation to its satellite churches in Africa and South America calling for the “cleansing” of reprobates from the countryside surrounding said churches—and to begin with the extermination of homosexuals—Roth had been stunned. He hadn’t been the only American politician left in that position. “I resigned from the organization as soon as I heard about it,” Roth said.
“Maybe so. Still safe ta’ say anybody with ties ta’ this here ‘Elect’ group is as good as dead, in the political sense. Would’n you agree, boss?”
“I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting re-elected, no,” Roth said. “But none of that has anything to do with my coming here, Mr. Toussaint.”
“Don’ it, now? I reckon it explains the whole thing. An’ I told you, boss. The name’s Saint.”
“You act as if you already know why I’m here, Mr. Tou…ah, pardon me. Mr. Saint.”
Saint eased back in his chair. “It’s easy ta’ figure, boss. I jus’ asked myself, now what would the Governor a’ the State a’ Louisiana, a man whose career is already on the rocks, what would that man be wantin’ with me?”
Saint paused and Roth waited, squirming under Saint’s frigid stare. Everything Roth had heard about this man was true. Toussaint was brilliant; despite speech patterns reflecting his bayou country heritage, Toussaint’s IQ reached in excess of 150, Roth knew. He also knew that psychiatrists had diagnosed the man a textbook sociopath, narcissistic in the extreme and viewing the majority of his fellow human beings with contempt. Sitting there, looking the man eye to eye, Roth could see it for himself. A stone-cold killer stared out at him from behind those baby blues.
Roth took a quick look around the room. The guards’ eyes all met his but he found no reserves of strength from which to borrow. These men were as uncomfortable in the presence of the serpent in their midst as Roth himself.
Saint continued at last. “I figure that man could, if he felt so inclined, offer a pardon ta’ the State’s most notorious criminal. Oh, he’d have hell ta’ pay with the newspapers, sure ‘nough, but if his goose is already plucked an’ in the stew pot, well…”
“He’d have nothing left to lose,” Roth finished for him.
“But then there’s the question a’ what that goose would want in return,” Saint said. “That’s pretty easy ta’ figure, too. He’d want me ta’ find somebody for ‘im. That it, boss? Am I right?”
Roth nodded. “It’s my granddaughter, Kiersten. She’s disappeared. The fact that I’m here right now shows how desperate I am. I want her back, Mr. Saint. I want her back more than I want anything else in this world.”
Toussaint leaned forward, folded his hands as if in prayer and rested his chin on them. “You sign those papers an’ get me out’ a’ this place, boss, I’ll find her for you. You can count on that. I’ll bring her back, alive or dead.”
“Kiersten is alive,” Roth said. “I have to believe that. She’s alive.”
“What if she’s not, boss?” Toussaint asked.
Roth clenched his jaw. “Then,” he said, with slow deliberation, “I want you to bring me the severed head of the thing that killed her!”