William sucked down a lungful of fresh air. It was going to be agreeable to have sustained exposure to this. For fifteen years he hadn’t been outside for more than an hour at a time. For tonight – only for tonight – he could feel the sun on his back for a decent burst of time. Or the wind, or the rain. He wasn’t bothered.
Many of the men in his situation went straight to a brothel, and stayed there until morning. Others spent time with their family. Neither option appealed to William. There were other pleasures to be had tonight, even more fundamental than sex. Fresh air, a good meal, a walk that traced a more elaborate route than several circuits of an exercise yard: that was what he wanted.
Nor would he inflict himself on his family. They might be distressed or they might not be, and either response would be horrific. This was his time, and it was up to him to determine how to use it. That was his legal right.
However you defined the law which had temporarily liberated him – progressive, innovative or misguided – it was certainly bold. Passed a decade before, it had initially caused an outcry. But as the years rolled on and still no-one offended, opposition parties quietly dropped their promise to repeal the legislation and public disapproval dissipated.
Now it was widely accepted that death row prisoners should have one night of freedom the day before their execution.
There were, of course, precautions in place. All sex offenders were ineligible. Anyone else who was judged likely to pose a violent risk was also prohibited from taking part.
The special treatment of sex offenders was as commonplace as it was inevitable. They were beyond the pale even on death row, which contained despicable men of every variety – along with essentially decent men who had made terrible mistakes and four or five who were wholly innocent.
William shared revulsion at the trespasses of the sex offenders, but also veered between wry amusement and contempt whenever a mass murderer made himself feel better by expressing his hatred of a nonce.
Releasees were fitted with an electronic tag, which was complemented by CCTV cameras, which had massively increased in number in the last ten years. Snipers were positioned in key positions throughout the city. Police officers were sequestered from their desks to the street. As a result, more than one resident had been known to remark that they felt safer than usual when a death row inmate was on the loose.
A substantial proportion of men declined the offer. Some had become hopelessly institutionalised. Others refused to accede to a key stipulation: that all prisoners had to acknowledge their guilt if they were to be let loose.
William had not been at all tense about this requirement. He was guilty. The battering he had inflicted on the teenager who had tried to mug him had gone well beyond self-defence.
Parrying his assailant’s knife had been self-defence. Dropping a forearm into his throat had been self-defence. Arguably, stamping on his ankle to incapacitate him had been self-defence. But kicking him in the head over and over again - that wasn’t self-defence. That was all about William’s marriage falling apart.
He was at peace with himself now. He had done what he had done a decade-and-a-half ago. He had done it to a lowlife robber. Who was only seventeen. He neither felt pangs of guilt nor enjoyed the moral indignation of innocence. A comforting numbness had set in and stayed there.
He was also at peace about what was going to happen tomorrow.
There had been a flurry of activity at the start – he had pleaded self-defence from the outset, and even when he was convicted it didn’t seem to be all over. Several newspapers had expressed incredulity that a white collar professional should be sentenced to death for killing a knife-wielding mugger. William’s lawyer had worked flat out for three years to get the verdict overturned. In the run-up to his execution there had been further, increasingly pathetic efforts.
William was happy to let them go ahead. He didn’t want to die, and wasn’t about to admit his guilt if it could spare him that. Legally, he surely had a good case. But there came a point when it was apparent that nothing was going to change. That being so, it was going to be too draining to continue the appeal. And he wanted his one last night of freedom. However agonising it was going to be, he wanted it.
He had thought about trying to flee, like every fit man did. It wasn’t impossible. The snipers couldn’t be everywhere, and they couldn’t change position just because the tag (which with some effort could be disabled) showed that a releasee had moved to another part of the city. But the odds were so long that William decided it wouldn’t be a fruitful use of his precious time.
Some death rowers sought to do a good deed on their release – motivated either by a desperate hope that it could buy them a pardon, or by a genuine desire to atone. William wasn’t persuaded that this was worth bothering about either.
He didn’t especially want to talk to anyone. He had had a lot of conversation – much of it surprisingly stimulating – in prison. And any interaction would have to be based on a lie, as he didn’t want to spend time with the kind of person who would relish meeting someone who was about to be executed.
Rather, he was going to have a good meal and a good walk.
The walk would bookend the meal. William didn’t want to feel bloated and tired for the whole thing. Better to enjoy exposure to the elements while working up an appetite, and then amble back to prison afterwards.
Unusually, he hadn’t yet decided where to eat. Most of his peers put great stress on getting the details of their last supper down to a fine point. William wanted to surprise himself. After all, he hadn’t been surprised by a meal in a very long time. Apart from when he’d found a finger in his lunch.
William walked with purpose but no direction. He was content to wander through main streets and back streets, mildly amused at the thought that the police officers monitoring his tag would not be able to discern any sort of pattern. He walked with his head up, taking in the hustle and bustle around him.
He wasn’t upset or angry that the people he saw had many more days ahead of them. Things were as they were, and he wasn’t going to waste this opportunity by becoming overwrought. Nor would he record every sound and sight for mental posterity. What was the point in that? He just wanted to live in the moment.
William turned a corner, and found himself in an atypically dark and deserted street. Fifteen years ago a decision to walk down a street like this had proved fatal. Tonight, what harm could it do? All was already lost.
The street was filthy. Huge bins overflowed, and rats circled. A broken light flittered unconvincingly. William sped up. Ahead to his right, he saw human activity. It became apparent that it was a couple having sex.
He thought about turning around, but he was two thirds of the way along the street. Moreover, although he wasn’t voyeuristic he certainly didn’t feel inhibited. Tomorrow he would be shaved all over, strapped into an electric chair and fried in front of an audience of twenty. The sight of two people having sex – in public after all – held no erotic or embarrassed concern for him.
However, it was impossible not to sneak them a glance as he trotted past. And in the gloaming and weak artificial light he suddenly saw that the man’s hand was over the woman’s mouth and that her eyes were madly wide with terror.
William froze for a split second. That was enough time for the man to sense his presence and turn to face William. His wretched, crazed face bore into William. The woman fell, and gasped.
And then William punched the man on the jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor.
With his trousers around his feet, and dazed by a solid right cross, the man was in no position to fight back. William sat on his chest, and grabbed him by the throat. He indicated that his life was in peril if he resisted, and turned to the woman. She was too frightened to respond, and stood shaking.
William dropped his weight harder onto the man. Pinioned by someone much stronger, he was helpless. William, aware now that he had this piece of shit in his command, had time to think. What to do?
He didn’t have a mobile. Releasees were issued with fifty dollars, but it was hardly prudent to give them a telephone. The woman was in no fit state to make a call, or to pass William a phone if she had one.
But of course, there was no need to call the police. They would be here soon enough. They would see from his tag that William had stopped in a dark, dank street. There were no restaurants here, or brothels for that matter. They would assume he was up to no good and descend on him.
Presently they did so. They announced themselves with a sonic ferocity that made the woman scream. William was ordered to stand. His hands in the air, he surveyed the man below him once more.
This man would be arrested. He would be found guilty too. Whatever confusion stemmed from the nature of his capture and the nature of the person who had captured him, he was going down. The woman would regain her composure and testify against him.
William might have to give evidence first, though. That would buy him a few more days, maybe another night out. Could it be that his actions tonight would persuade the powers that were to spare his life altogether?
Beneath William lay a rapist. He had known many rapists inside. They didn’t change. They were what they were, just like we all are. This one might serve a few years, and maybe life would be made unpleasant for him. But then he’d be let out. And he would do this again.
William had done his best to protect his friends from sexual predators in jail. But there was only so much he could do. Here, now, he could do something significant.
Suddenly, far too suddenly for the police to stop him, William flung one of the bins onto the man’s head. He was killed instantly.
William hurled himself to the ground. Officers grabbed him and pulled him to his feet. He was dragged through the street and bundled into a van. The woman was taken away in a car.
The next morning William was executed in an electric chair. Asked by the priest if he was seeking redemption, William calmly replied that he had already found it.