They stopped between two of the orange-glowing bulbs that lit the long corridor at intervals, and the turnkey leaned over to fit a key into a lock. He swung the door open.
"In here," he said.
The lawyer went in and the door clanged shut behind him. The squeak of the turnkey’s shoes and the jangle of the keys he carried faded off into silence.
The cell was small and square, with yellowish-white walls. In the ceiling a recessed light was covered by a wire cage, and high on the wall opposite the door a barred window split a square of blue sky into six rectangular segments. In the center of the floor stood a three-legged stool and against the wall was a cot on which the man, Jack Ward, sat, leaning forward with a cigarette in his hand. As the lawyer looked at him he raised the cigarette to his lips, squinting, and then he lowered it again. He stared back.
The lawyer nodded to him and changed his briefcase to the other hand. Ward didn’t move; he looked in his early thirties, with dark, unkempt hair, a high forehead, heavy brows. His eyes were narrow and slanting, deep-set above broad, high cheekbones.
The lawyer felt himself being inspected in return, and finally Ward rose and stepped forward. He was tall and heavy shouldered, the shoulders slumped now, and his arms hung loosely at his sides. His dark sport coat was too small for him and his khaki trousers were rolled at the top. They had taken his belt, the lawyer saw, and looking down he saw that the laces of his shoes were gone as well. The neck of his shirt was tieless and unbuttoned and beneath a dark fringe of hair the pulse in his throat flickered gently.
"Did my wife send you?" he said. His voice was deep, and there was a note of anger in it.
"I’m your lawyer. The Court appointed me."
"I know you’re a lawyer. Did she send you?"
"The Court appointed me."
Ward’s eyes searched his face. They were hostile and suspicious, and he rubbed the back of his hand over his chin. "I don’t want a lawyer," he said.
"I’m aware of that."
"Beat it, then."
"When the defendant refuses to obtain counsel, the Court..."
"Okay," Ward said suddenly. "You’re my lawyer." His shoes slapped flabbily on the floor as he stepped back to the cot and sat down again. "Go ahead and sit down," he said, jerking his hand at the stool. "But you’re wasting your time. I’m pleading guilty. I shot the bitch and I’d do it again."
The lawyer leaned his briefcase against the stool, sat down and pulled his trousers’ legs up on his ankles. "This is just your first reaction," he said. His voice was thin and nervous, and he coughed and said, "You’ll get over it, and there are a great many angles to this sort of business, insanity, or..."
Ward laughed, tipping his head back. But it was a strange laugh, completely mirthless and unsmiling. "Hell," he said. "I’m not nuts." He laughed again. "Look, I’m not going to try and cheat the bastards. I signed their confession. I told them why I did it and how I’d been meaning to for a long time, and how I’d do it again if..."
"You’ll have to tell me the whole story," the lawyer interrupted.
"Maybe I can help you."
"No," Ward said. He dropped his cigarette to the floor, scraped his foot over it, and then he took another cigarette from the pack beside him on the cot and tossed it up and down in his hand. "No," he said.
"Do you know what it is to die in the gas chamber?"
"Yeah," Ward said. "I die in there all the time. But I wish to hell they’d get me to it."
The lawyer stared at him. Ward’s face was flat and expressionless as he tamped the cigarette and put it between his lips and lit it. Suddenly the lawyer said, "How’d you happen to have the gun?"
"I brought it with me to shoot her with," Ward said carefully. "Listen, they tried all that on me already. I told you you’re wasting your time."
The lawyer leaned forward. "Ward," he said. "I see good reason to believe you didn’t bring the gun with you. If you didn’t, we might be able to prove this was unpremeditated. Was it your gun?"
"Yeah," Ward whispered. He paused, and then he whispered again. "What if it was unpremeditated?"
"It might not mean the death sentence."
Ward stared back at him silently; his shirt front was trembling. Finally he looked down, and, as the lawyer watched, snuffed the glowing end of the cigarette between his fingers. No expression of pain crossed his face but when he looked up again his yellow eyes were blazing and his mouth was stretched tight across his teeth in a hard grin. The lawyer’s breath came faster as he saw the cigarette fall from between Ward’s fingers.
"I hate to see a man commit suicide," he said angrily. "That’s the coward’s way out."
"You ever try it?" Ward said. Then he said, "Well, they fixed that, anyway. They wouldn’t let me do anything as easy as that."
"Why do you want to die?"
"I’ll tell you. It’s simple as hell. I killed her and I want to die for it. Do you think you can understand that?"
"Yes, but you see, you’ll feel differently in a few days. This is just..."
"No," Ward said, shaking his head. "You don’t know."
"Tell me, then."
"You’ll never know," Ward said. "I don’t want any help. Forget it; tell them I don’t want a lawyer."
"But you’ll change your mind. In a day or so..."
"Goddamn it," Ward said. "Listen!" He was trembling, and his voice was hoarse and shaky. "Look at V; I killed her. Look at my wife; what the hell’s she got now? Look at a lot of things you’ll never know about." He stopped and cleared his throat and slapped his hand against the iron rail of the cot.
"Listen!" he commanded. "A man’s got to take stock of himself sometime. Like now. What he’s got and what he’s done and all, see? Well, I don’t have any credits on my sheet and the nearest I can come to squaring up is to get the hell out. Out!" he said again, jerking his thumb as though he were an umpire saying it.
The lawyer took off his glasses and blinked his eyes and put them back on again. The gesture seemed to startle Ward; his hands clenched on the rail of the cot.
"Your wife doesn’t want you to die," the lawyer said.
Ward didn’t say anything. He stared at the lawyer with a kind of grim and detached intensity. He sat perfectly motionless but the pulse beat visibly at the base of his throat and after a moment he pressed his lips closed. After a long time the lawyer sighed and said, "Why did you kill her?"
Still Ward did not answer. He rubbed the sleeve of his coat across his eyes. The silence in the cell was deep and heavy. From somewhere near came a soft, Negro laugh; a man’s voice called out, then drifted off and the silence closed in again. "Had you known her before you came to San Diego?" the lawyer asked.
Ward rose slowly. He took a step forward, holding his right hand rigidly open, the fingers pressed together, and suddenly the hand flashed out. It slapped the lawyer’s cheek with a sharp report; the lawyer’s head was jolted to one side, his glasses flew off and tinkled when they hit the floor. He gasped and opened his mouth to cry out, half-rising from the stool.
But Ward’s hand grasped his shoulder. "Wait!" Ward said. "Don’t yell. Wait. I didn’t mean to do that. Don’t yell. I’m sorry." The lawyer stared up at him through watering eyes; finally he gulped and nodded and Ward’s hand left his shoulder.
Ward moved across to get the glasses. One foot came half out of one of his shoes and he stumbled and stepped on them. Then he picked them up and pressed the frames into the lawyer’s hand, saying over and over again, "I’m sorry. I’m really sorry."
"I got upset," he said. "Look, I’ll buy you another pair. I can give you a check." He grinned reassuringly as he retreated to the cot. The lawyer raised his hand to his cheek."Look," Ward said. "Maybe you better come back tomorrow. Maybe I am nuts. I don’t know what happened to me then. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk it over, will you?" His face had a tight, strained look, as though he were rigidly controlling its expression, and finally he covered it with his hands, rubbing his hands slowly up and down over his mouth and eyes. "Look," he said in a muffled voice. "I’m sorry I scared you."
The lawyer licked his lips, picked up his briefcase and rose stiffly. "All right," he said, slipping the horn frames into his pocket. "I’ll come tomorrow afternoon. Would you mind if I brought an alienist with me?"
"What?...Sure, bring three of them." Ward got up and stepped forward, but as he did so the lawyer instinctively retreated. Ward stopped and said, "Well, thanks. Thanks a lot. You come back tomorrow."
"I will," the lawyer said, and he moved sideways to the door.
When the turnkey had let him out, Jack stood motionless in the center of the cell, staring down at the tiny points of light where the sun from the window caught the shards of glass upon the floor. He listened to the clatter of the lawyer’s black shoes and the squeak-jangle of the turnkey fade away down the hall. He was panting now.
Suddenly he put his hands in his hip pockets and stretched, pushing down on his hips and curving his chest out, trying to keep himself from trembling. Exultantly he flexed his shoulders and yawned, squeezing his eyes closed, and then he stepped across to the door and gripped the bars so tightly the steel seemed to contract under his hands. The long, yellowish corridor was empty and silent, lit at intervals by the caged lights. He could not see the man in the cell opposite him; he could see no one anywhere.
He gripped the bars tighter and pulled his body against them, straining his body tightly against the bars, and when he returned to the cot he was laughing silently and breathlessly. Sitting on the edge of the cot he laughed into his sour-smelling hands, thinking that in a minute he would stop laughing and smoke one more cigarette.
Copyright © 1950 by Oakley Hall.