Authors: Chris Stevenson
The War Gate
The War Gate © Copyright 2012 by Chris Stevenson
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Chris Stevenson as an electronic book
The War Gate
Through a mist of nausea, Avalon felt the bed roiling under her. Loud, harsh voices crashed in her mind, screaming out warnings. She tried to push up from the bed, but her arms refused to obey. Her legs were like lead. When she opened her eyes for a moment, she could see white beams flitting about. She heard the words, “Secure the scene.”
The hair on the back of her neck rose. Scene. What scene?
What in the hell was going on? Who was that talking
She tried to speak, but her tongue seemed glued to her mouth.
“That’s her all right,” said a deep male voice.
“Avalon Labrador,” said a louder male voice. “Are you Avalon Labrador?”
She looked to the side of the bed, commanding her eyes to focus. A large shadow loomed, showing a man of massive girth.
“I’m—I’m Avalon,” she said. Her head ached with fierce intensity. More words.
“Don’t touch the knife—leave it for homicide. Somebody catch the light switch. Keep the hallway open for the crime scene people.”
The bedroom light flicked on. It was like a welder’s torch going off in her face. For a moment, Avalon was blinded. She flung a hand up to shield her from the harsh glare. Someone grabbed her by the wrist, yanking her off the bed. A heavy knee came down on her back, pinning her onto the hard floor. Something metallic and foreign snapped her hands together.
“Wha—” She tried to enunciate.
“You have the right to remain silent,” someone droned. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Someone thrust a hand under her breasts. The sound of her underwear band snapping rent the air like a firecracker. “Stop it!” she cried, finding her voice. “What are you doing to me?”
Someone lifted her up, suspending her above the carpet. When she came down, her ankles buckled and she collapsed on the floor. Strong arms propped her up again. She fought to keep her balance on spongy legs. The room spun like an out-of-control carousel. The rush of voices garbled like bad calliope music. When her eyes focused, a frightening Neanderthal-like face filled her vision.
“Where are the keys, Mrs. Labrador?” asked the cop with a horrible face.
“What keys?” She was amazed she hadn't passed out. The vise-like grip on her arms brought such searing pain it was the one thing that kept her semi-conscious.
“The keys to the Chevy. The Suburban you used to transport the body.”
“I’m sick,” she said. “I can’t think.” Her nightgown stuck to her, bunched up, wet, giving off a foul odor. Blood splatter freckled the upper arch of her breasts.
“I found the keys in the bed fold, Sergeant,” said one of the male cops.
“Okay, leave them there. Tell Childs we’ll need the front taped off to keep the media away from the premises.”
Avalon staggered. A flash bulb popped in her face.
Police, badges, guns
. They were in her bedroom! Bile churned in her stomach and made its way up to her throat. What the hell was going on? Confusion snarled her thoughts. Where was her husband? He would protect her from all of this!
Large hands shoved her around the bed. She spied swaths of purple stains on the carpet while she was frog marched across the floor. Something terrible had happened, but what? Coherency strained to come back in pieces. Her heart hammered in her chest. “Where’s my husband? I don’t see Tom.”
“It’s too late for him,” said the big cop, escorting her down the hallway. They passed through the living room, which swarmed with khaki uniformed officers and white lab coat technicians who carried aluminum cases. Her nightgown snagged on a piece of wood jutting from the broken door frame, tearing her nightgown. Her feet squished across the dewy lawn. The frigid night chased a chill up her spine. Someone had to tell her what was going on! Tom! Her mind screamed for her husband.
They passed the driveway gate out onto the street. A large van sat at the curb, a generator hummed from within. Spotlights glared from the sidewalk. Her escort cop brought her up even with a police cruiser. He swung the rear door open. A large hand gave her a stark shove. The top of her head struck the door frame with a numbing thud just before she landed on the cold vinyl seat. The door slammed with a sad finality, leaving her to witness the spectacle in front of her house. Why were they treating her like a common criminal?
Uniformed officers carried brown bags from the front door and delivered them to the van while others strung yellow barrier tape from her elm trees, blocking off the front gate access. A rainbow of emergency flashers sliced up the night, leaving ghost-like images on the neighborhood houses.
She yelled several times, but no one responded. She knew something terrible had happened that involved her husband. She fought to understand the words the big cop had used to describe Tom’s condition. He’d said that her husband was past the point of something. She had no memory of anything violent or disturbing happening. She just remembered becoming ill after dinner. Then what? Where was Tom?
She beat her head against the window, sending shock waves through her spine. The big cop waddled across the street and rapped his baton on the roof. He flung the driver’s door open and slid inside. He spoke through the wire grate, his face glistening wet from the humidity. “Settle down. You’re not going anywhere. Maybe you’d like to tell me why this happened, not that it’s going to make any difference.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” she said, sucking the breath between her teeth. “What are you telling me I did? Why have I been arrested?”
The cop pressed a driver’s license up against the divider. “This is Tom Labrador’s driver’s license. He is, or was, your current husband. We know this because we ran a check on the rest of his ID documents. His body was discovered early this morning. You’re being arrested for his murder. Another victim was found in the vicinity. He was a city official. We don’t know if you had anything to do with that, but we aim to find out. Now do you understand what’s happening to you?”
“I, uh,” Avalon tried, a gag fought its way up her throat. “My head hurts!”
“I’d say it’s a good bet you’re looking at capital murder. Now do you get it?”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t think so.”
Avalon couldn’t catch her breath. A buzz throbbed behind her eyes that intensified with such pressure she thought her head would explode at any minute. A shriek started low in her guts. It flew out of her mouth like a steam whistle. She began to kick at the front seat and thrash her head from side to side. It was impossible! She’d had dinner and then gone to bed. Tom had been with her. She hadn’t heard or seen a thing. She’d never killed anything in her life but time. Now the police were accusing her of murdering the only man she’d ever loved.
“Oh, Tom!” she cried. “Dear God, what’s happened?” Her shoulders racked with sobs. None of it made any sense. Nothing could have prepared her for this. With a gasp, she slumped in the seat.
“It’s not going to do you any good to faint. The detectives are just going to wake you up when we get downtown.”
That night hell was an uninvited guest. It didn’t look like it was going to be leaving anytime soon.
Fourteen Years Later
The prison dayroom echoed with a muffled babble punctuated by the harried shouts of restless inmates. A mean feat considering the cell doors were three inches thick.
Avalon Labrador tried to shove aside the morbid thoughts of what the next hour would bring. She'd acquired a collection of manic delusions which were escalating into a full nervous breakdown. She didn’t want to go out like a whimpering dog sprawled on its back, pissing in the air. How did one face execution like a lady?
She looked at Chubby, the deathwatch guard. She noticed that he was turning pages too fast again, too fast for a normal reader. He kept shifting on his stool as though he had hemorrhoids. At one point, he swatted at an imaginary fly. There were no flies in this unit of the North Carolina Central Prison. The facility was sealed—disinfected from top to bottom. An insect would have stood a better chance of entering a submarine.
She’d known Raymond “Chubby” Hammersmith for eons it seemed. Fate had seen him transferred to Central a week prior to her arrival. He’d spent fourteen years with her at the Women’s Correctional Facility at Raleigh. Happenstance struck for a second time when he had been assigned as her permanent deathwatch guard. He wasn’t the brightest guard in Central Prison. Amongst an intellectual sea of strong swimmers, Chubby dog paddled. Yet he had pounds of heart and a benevolent soul. He’d risked his job leaving her cell door open to the dayroom, just one of his many acts of kindness. He had refused to shut her off from the basic human need for camaraderie.
The point of recriminations had reached the eleventh hour. What was it now, she mused, about fifty minutes left to draw breath?
“You doing okay over there, Chubs?” asked Avalon. “You don’t look so good.”
He shifted his eyes from the book, offering her a slight smile. “I guess I’m managing. It’s a rotten book anyway. I can’t even find the plot. Is there anything I can get you? Something to snack on?”
Her husband used to ask her that whenever she was bedridden with the flu or a headache. Thinking about Tom made a chill creep up from her legs to settle in her stomach. “I’m still full of Arby's” she said. Although her last meal had been six hours ago, at least she had shared it in the company of Chubby, who’d enjoyed the food with her. Last meal. Arby’s. What difference did it make? She was about to welcome in the New Year compliments of Doctor Death.
“I was wondering what it’s like outside, Chubs. You think the sun will come out tomorrow?” What was she thinking? She wouldn’t be around to see it.
Chubby frowned. “Got a cold front coming in. It’s still cloudy. Hovering around forty-two degrees.”
“Maybe it’s gearing up for a thunderstorm,” she said. He was afraid to look her in the eye. It was obvious he was more terrified than she.
His face brightening, he added, “The sun is sure to break through. Tomorrow’s the day.” He caught himself clumsily before going on. “To answer your question, I don’t think I’m handling this very well. The regulations say I’m not supposed to have any emotional conversations with you, but I don’t mind saying that I think your second lawyer fell flat on his face.”
Avalon took a sighing breath. It was nice to hear somebody else get the blame for her conviction.
Chubby added, “All the evidence was too pat. I’ve always known you were innocent. There, I said it. For what it’s worth, most of the staff agrees with me. Everybody’s waiting for the attorney general or the governor to come through on the direct line.”
“That means something, Chubby. It’s comforting to know someone believes me. I want to thank you for the support—for your gentle treatment through the years. You’ve always been a standup guy. There, I said it, too.”
Chubby’s cheeks were puffy. His eyes looked moist. “I guess that’s what they mean by closure,” he added, then gazed back down at the pages, but not before glancing at his watch again.
It was a capital murder case. The jury had been out for less than two hours. They had rejected a second degree or manslaughter conviction. The evidence was rolled up tighter than a Cuban cigar. She, with malice and forethought, had brutally knifed her husband to death. Seventeen stab wounds, her prints on the knife, and his blood all over her had sealed her fate. They said she’d dumped his body off interstate twenty-nine, four miles south of Danville, Virginia, in a drainage culvert. The rear compartment of her Suburban had contained blood and fiber evidence, proof that she had transported the corpse. They claimed her motivation had been to acquire her husband’s electronics empire, of which she already owned forty-nine percent.
It got better. They found a Judge Ronald Gillian deceased off the shoulder of the interstate, three miles from her husband’s location. From the looks of it, the judge was jogging in the early morning hours when was struck down by a hit and run driver. Avalon’s Suburban had been seen in the vicinity of the fatal accident. Hair, blood, and tissue remnants were found wedged in the undercarriage of her vehicle.
A ten-man, two-woman jury had abandoned Avalon Labrador to the mercies of the green gurney, the catheter couch. Slam-dunk.
Sitting on the edge of the bunk with her fists balled up between her knees, she cocked her head, listening to the occasional flip of Chubby’s pages. No other sound reached her ears. The adjoining cells of the dayroom had gone graveyard still. Just a few minutes ago, the death row inmates had screamed to her in support. Now she heard only the hollow clap of hard-soled shoes on concrete. She couldn’t see the main entrance of the dayroom, but she presumed the steps came from another watch guard. Her heart staggered for a beat while she watched Chubby for any reaction. It could be the warden, she thought. A prison warden could gag a tank and send inmates running for cover.