Surrounded by a flock of hot, sweaty, chattering reporters, cameramen and secretaries moving as one for the newsroom’s air conditioned comfort, Jeff staggered out of the lift. Washing up against the reception desk, he smiled wryly at the two women working behind the length of polished mahogany, and wiped the sweat from his face.
‘Take it from me, ladies,’ he said, flicking a bead of sweat from a finger. ‘There’s no reason on Earth that would justify venturing out in that heat.’ He bantered with them for a little longer before entering for the newsroom.
Despite all the changes the computer revolution had wrought on the industry, Jeff was still amazed at the sheer noise news gathering made. Phones constantly rang and people talked endlessly, their voices merging into a dull roar underscored by the relentless clacking of keyboards. At the far end of the open-plan office, six large plasma televisions flickered gaily, one for each of the city’s main television channels. The news at the moment was the heat wave, now into its second week. The station’s weather man, Clarence, had worked himself into near hysteria reciting a seemingly endless series of statistics the night before, much to his colleague’s merriment. Good odds were being offered that Clarence would have a stroke on air that evening if the temperature broke the century mark again.
Jeff made for his office. Once inside the glass walled space, he silently thanked the stars and planets for the perks senior reporters were able to include in their salary packages. True, it wasn’t a corner office and yes, it looked over a building site where several dozen men were leaning on their shovels and doing very little. But it did offer a view of the verdant hills dominating the western side of the bay, with the sunlight sparkling off the reservoir like a crown of fire. His cell chirped.
‘Pete?’ Yeah, just back from lunch with a contact. The Governor’s done what? Crafty bastard. Tonight? I did have plans…fair point, we all have plans. Especially Hatcher. All right, I’ll gather the boys. Yeah, yeah, and when I tell you how to do your job…’
He hung up then dialed a number.
‘Zach? Play time at the arcade’s over, my boy. Don’t ‘aww’ me. We’re wanted down at the Penitentiary. Yep. I thought you might. I’ll call Harry. See you in the loading bay in ten, okay?’
Calling another number, he cradled the phone in the crook of his neck while he sent an e-mail home. While he was aware it was the coward’s way out, he didn’t fancy making a call advising his wife he’d be out all of the evening and a good portion of the morning.
‘Needs must, Harry. Hatcher fries tonight. Yeah, Hutchison wants to capitalise on this before the primary. See you downstairs.’
Jeff Castle sat the cell down and leaned back in his chair. He idly tapped a pen, his mind elsewhere, formulating questions, thinking up angles, plotting out the story he would bring to the homes of hundreds of thousands of viewers that night.
‘Yep,’ he whispered. ‘Hatcher fries tonight.’
Harry was in the back of the van checking equipment when Jeff exited the loading bay elevator. A harsh, dry heat rolled over him. The OB van was parked off in a darkened corner, away from the sunlight lancing into the carpark on the far side. Banging on the hood, Jeff poked his head into the back.
‘Satellite link working, Harry? Don’t want an interrupted transmission for the big cook up.’
Brow furrowed, Harry slammed shut a footlocker then slid his chair over to a panel dominated by several monitors. The dim light made his eyes look hollow, his face more cadaverous than usual. He tapped at a keyboard before looking up at Jeff.
‘I don’t like the death penalty any more than you do, Jeff. But I don’t cover my distaste for it with cheap humor.’ He wiped at his face and slumped in his chair. ‘Don’t mind me. It’s just the heat.’ Jeff nodded.
‘Anyway, about the transmission.’ Harry toggled a switch and grunted, apparently satisfied. ‘Clarence will be fit to bust when he sees that latest weather update. Forecast is for thunderstorms later tonight. With a bit of luck, it won’t effect transmission. Leave the worrying to me. This set up all but drives itself to the location and conducts the interviews.’
Swaying back from a mock punch, Harry smirked at his colleague. They both turned at the rapid fire sound of approaching footsteps down the nearest exit ramp. ‘Well, here comes our erstwhile third. Nice to see him breaking into a sweat for once.’
A slim figure approached, his face flushed and streaked with sweat. Wiping at his forehead, he waved a casual salute.
‘Hutchison going early, is he?’ Zach had an angular face accentuated by a high, narrow forehead topped with a shock of blond hair. His trainers were scruffy and his t-shirt hung over faded jeans.
‘Haven’t you heard there’s an election on?’ Harry said drily. He flicked a switch and one of the monitors came to life.
‘Aah, the lovely Jessica,’ Zach said, moving closer, eyes alight.
‘Easy tiger,’ Jeff murmured, admiring the woman on the monitor. ‘I hear she exercises by breaking balls.’ Her voice sounded tinny in the van’s tight confines.
‘…a spokesman for GenSure said today that the substance which leaked into the reservoir was an inert compound posing no risk to the community. Local environmental groups, however, strongly condemned GenSure, saying they had been tardy in informing the authorities and secretive regarding the nature of the leak.’ A silent image of a large body of water flashed up, with figures carrying equipment milling around the water’s edge. This was replaced by a suited man who smiled with practiced ease.
‘Attorney-General John Hutchison (there were ironic jeers from around the monitor) had this to say in his capacity as head of the state’s environmental protection agency.’
‘We have full faith in GenSure’s standards of practice and will continue working with them to ensure that remains so. I am advised that the water is perfectly safe to – ‘
Harry flicked off the monitor and sat back.
‘Anyone want to guess who’s greasing his palm? If that prick says its safe to drink, I want to stop by the nearest 7-11 and get a crate of bottled water.’
Zach cracked open the driver’s door. ‘Careful, Harry, your liberal skirt is starting to slip. We are the impartial news media.’
‘Screw that and screw you. Stop off at Twelfth and Deakin. I want the best filtered water money can buy.’ Harry slid his door shut with a crash. Exchanging an amused look with his cameraman, Jeff exchanged walked around the van and jumped into the passenger seat.
‘You heard the man. Drive on, McDuff.’
Out on the street, the sun’s glare was relentless. All along downtown’s steel and concrete canyon acres of windows shimmered like mercury. The sky was a sere, faded colour that hurt the eye. Heat rose off the road in waves, making the slow moving traffic shimmer hypnotically. With shoppers and office workers seeking refuge, the sidewalks were mostly deserted. Zach punched the van’s air conditioning to high, assaulting Jeff with a furnace blast of hot air.
‘Jesus, Zach.’ He pushed the vents away.
‘Stay frosty, boss, it’ll cool down in a minute,’ Zach said, pulling into the transit lane.
Looking sidelong at his friend, Jeff decided he wasn’t being sarcastic. With the temperature rapidly cooling, he settled back into his seat, took his notebook out, and started composing questions.
Freed from the traffic quagmire, the van sped through the gentrified inner city. Quickly leaving the leafy suburbs behind, they crossed the river into the city’s industrial sector. Decayed factories swam out of clouds of smoke and ash. Looking up from his notes, the impression Jeff got was of a mechanised version of Hell. He shook his head and switched on the radio.
‘…unconfirmed reports of rioting in the Lower Halton neighbourhood. Police spokesman Anna Rodriguez had this to say.’
‘I can assure you there was no riot. Several units attended a local neighbourhood dispute and…’ A shouted question cut her off.
‘What about reports of four people being killed in a gang fight?’
‘How did you…’ There was a pause, and Jeff and Zach glanced uneasily at each other. They had been at press conferences conducted by Rodriguez and had never heard her as uncomfortable as she sounded now.
‘There were some minor injuries but the community can rest assured the matter is under – ‘ Flicking the radio off, Jeff reached for his cell.
‘Peter? What the hell is happening down in Halton? I’m thinking we should divert. What do you mean Stefanovic is down there? He’s a complete hack with no idea how…yeah, yeah, okay.’ Stabbing at the phone, he threw it on the dashboard and stared moodily out the window.
A speaker crackled, carrying Harry’s voice through.
‘What’s wrong, boss? Peter riding you again?’
‘No other station is interested in covering tonight’s festivities, but that idiot thinks they’re ratings gold. He’s just after an in with Hutchison if he wins the election. All we’ll be doing is bullshit pieces to camera with the nutters outside followed by some very tasteful shots of the victim’s weeping relatives after Hatcher has ridden a lighting bolt straight down into Hell.’
‘Never mind, boss.’ The speaker stripped all the warmth and humanity out of Harry’s voice, rendering his words eerily incongruous. ‘Just think of us as doing our bit to harden the hearts of the great viewing public just that little bit more against the death penalty.’
Zach pounded the panel separating them from the rear. ‘Give it a rest, Harry, okay? It’s hot enough without you blowing off steam.’ Harry chuckled metallically and kept his counsel.
The drove in silence, leaving the factories behind for rolling pastures hemmed in by a number of low slung hills swelling and falling along the horizon. Dark fingers of cloud crept across the sky and a freshening breeze unfurled across the pastures, rippling the grass in verdant waves. Jeff saw cows lined up along the road, penned behind a wire fence. He could see their large, rolling eyes gazing emptily at them, devoid of intelligence. Unbidden, the image of a line of people marching onto a semi-trailer marked ‘Abattoir’ on the side surfaced in his mind. Shivering, he looked away and saw, off in the distance, a low, dark building resolve into view. Jeff put his notebook away.
The Hoover Penitentiary visitor’s parking lot was a blank square of asphalt situated on the wrong side of a chain link fenced surrounding the gaol. Rusted razor wire topped the fence, glinting bloodily in the dwindling light. On any given day, a dozen cars might be lined up closest to the guard’s station, where women waited patiently to be identified, logged and marshalled towards the main entrance.
Long shadows groped for them as Zach coasted the van to a stop next to a line of parked black vans with tinted windows. Jumping out, Zach noticed how cool the wind was, sharp with the smell of ozone. Jeff followed, eyeing speculatively the line of harassed police officers keeping two groups of protestors apart. Some started to drift towards the van, drawn by the station’s logo emblazoned on the side. Their pace quickened when Zach shouldered his camera and commenced filming.
Jeff had seen what happened next hundreds of time. Friends who taught journalism argued endlessly whether the media reflected the public’s views, or shaped it. Experience was a better teacher and he saw it once again when the competing groups grew louder, more vigorous in their denunciations, waving placards and banners for Zach’s benefit as he zoomed in and out, gathering coverage for the voracious beast known as the nightly news. Jeff sighed, grabbed his microphone and waded into the ferment.
An hour later, exhausted, sweaty and wrung out, Zach and Jeff staggered out of the milling horde, seeking shelter in the van. Evening had crept up on them and the distant rumble of thunder and a freshening breeze promised to usher Hatcher on his way in a spectacular fashion. In the van, Harry was frantically editing together a piece for the 7 pm news. Jeff was on his cell, while Zach was surreptitiously videoing several of the nicer looking zealots for his personal collection.
‘Peter, come on.’ Frustration salted Jeff’s words. ‘We’re third on the rundown? Jesus wept, what beats a cannibal getting electrocuted while a mob stands at each other’s throats?’ Jeff paused for a long moment and Zach looked up, distracted for the moment.
‘When? How many? Twenty SIX? Christ, Pete, let me and the boys come down and help with the coverage. Why the fuck not?!’ Zach could hear every word of the tirade Jeff was forced to listen to in silence. When it finished, Jeff threw his cell into the footwell and slammed open his door. He stalked off, swearing loudly.
Harry and Zach exchanged a grimace. Jeff’s keenness to be amongst the news was legendary around the newsroom. It was an open secret that he and the chief editor, Pete Bannister, only occasionally saw eye to eye on anything of note.
‘Have a look at this,’ Harry called via the intercom. Watching Jeff stalk off, Zach smiled as the outer edges of the sprawling mob scattered out of his way. He looked at the monitor Harry had indicated, noting absently a figure staggering off the highway towards the crowd.
‘Channel 4 have dumped their schedule for live coverage of this.’ Zach whistled – Friday nights were crammed with the sort of police procedural and medical dramas that had advertisers salivating at the demographic exposed to their wall of advertising. For a station to ditch it meant something even hotter was on show.
The monitor offered a shaky image of a woman leading a cameraman through what looked to be a deserted house that had become an abbatoir. Blood was extravagantly sprayed across the walls, the floor and even the ceiling. The commentary was breathless.
‘Twenty six people are believed to have died, victims of what police say was a drug deal gone wrong.’ Bullet holes pockmarked the walls. The reporter paused to allow two paramedics laden with a stretcher to pass. The camera focused on the body, shapeless beneath a blanket. Zach saw with an electric thrill an arm slip free, swaying loosely. The camera was swinging away when the arm straightened, the fingers flexing. It was so quick Zach took a moment to realise what he had seen. He started to mention when Jeff returned, his face flushed.
‘Okay. We do this shitty little job and we stick it up Pete’s ass. He only wants us here so Hutchison can get his head on television. Everyone owes someone a favour in this god-damn town. If Hutchison wants an interview, we’ll give the prick one.’ He checked his watch. ‘And here’s the AG himself, right on cue.’
A black SUV with darkened windows moved serenely into the car park, coming to a smooth halt nearby. A tall, handsome man, armed with a practiced smile that was all teeth and little warmth alighted. Jeff went to greet him, while several men with matching suits and sunglasses gathered round Hutchison, intimidating the curious into keeping its distance. Zach saw the two men shake hands, then Jeff gestured towards their van.
‘I think a backdrop with the penitentiary wall sends the right message to the voters,’ Jeff said. Hutchison nodded, smoothing his hair and straightening his tie. He strode past Zach without acknowledging him and took up position, the gaol clearly visible over his right shoulder. Jeff winked at Zach and leaned close. ‘Keep it pointing straight and let me do all the talking.’
‘That link ready to go, Harry? We’re third cab off the rank so let’s get to it.’
While Hutchison waited impatiently, Jeff readied himself. Mopping sweat off his face, he slicked back his hair and looked straight into the camera as the red light came on.
‘We’re here tonight to mark the execution of notorious child killer and cannibal, Gabriel Hatcher. With me is Attorney General Simon Hutchison, who, as Assistant DA in 1984, led the successful prosecution case which saw Hatcher sentenced to death.’
‘Attorney-General, what response do you have to comments that state sanctioned executions are merely authorised murder?’
Zach grimaced. No softballs from Jeff tonight. Pete would be throwing a fit in the production booth. Thunder crackled softly in the gap between Jeff’s question and Hutchison’s response.
‘I make no apologies for seeking the death penalty for Hatcher. Given the heinous nature of his crimes, I firmly believe our community demands nothing less.’
‘What about those who say that sentencing him to life without parole would’ve saved the community much more financially than the seemingly endless appeals process has cost it?’
‘Let me be clear on this. Hatcher killed and ate at least a dozen people, some children. You cannot put a price on all those lost lives. I consider executing Gabriel Hatcher to be an investment in the future of this community.’
There was a pause while Jeff gathered his thoughts. Lightning marched across the horizon and he suddenly smiled.
‘Well, Mr Hutchison, I’m sure we’ll have quite a show inside and outside tonight.’
Hutchison was taken off guard, then broke into a smile.
‘I’m sure we will Jeff, I’m sure we will.’
‘That’s it for now, Bill. More updates throughout the night and a special live broadcast in the minutes leading to the execution.’
Harry did the hand off to the studio while Jeff pulled out his earpiece.
‘Peter sends his thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, Simon.’ Hutchison smiled ferally in response.
‘Perhaps you’d like to go interview your happy clapper liberal friends over there? I think sharing like-minded views will make you more agreeable.’ Not bothering to wait for a reply, Hutchison stalked off, his entourage following like chicks round a mother hen. The SUV’s doors clunked shut and the vehicle took off towards the gates.
Zach shrugged the camera off his shoulder and held it in one hand, watching Jeff carefully.
‘Don’t sweat it Jeff, we know what that son of -‘ Jeff had turned to watch a commotion in the centre of the crowd. Several protesters had broken through the ragged police line and were wildly throwing punches at each other. One man, his face suffused with blood, had another in a headlock and was raking fingers over the howling man’s face. Police leaped in and bore both to the ground. Zach was sure he saw a baton raised against the darkening sky and he moved forward into the lurching mass. He focused in on the fight, only to find that the men had been separated, police holding their batons out as a warning to the other protesters.
Disappointed at the lack of action, and feeling a little ashamed at his reaction, Zach returned to a safe vantage point. He caught a glimpse of several ragged looking people hurrying stiff-legged across the highway, making straight for the crowd. He thought it was odd that there were no cars parked on that side of the road and began to drift towards them, when he felt someone clap a hand on his shoulder.
‘Hey man, hands off the merch- Jeff?’
‘Come on, time we set up inside.’ He pointed to the churning mass of rapidly approaching clouds. ‘Better off in there than out here. Let’s see if we can bag an interview with the Warden.’
The next half hour was a solid introduction to prison rules and procedures. Entry via an airlock, removal of all metal objects, then through massive scanners that made their skin prickle, followed by a thorough examination with a hand scanner. Forms to fill out, declarations to be made and then a final pat down before they were led down a grim tunnel into the gaol proper. They passed briefly outside, hurrying through a no-man’s land observed on the walls by several blank faced guards armed with scoped rifles. And then into the prison and its general population.
‘The guards will tell you that a place like this goes into a kind of delirium on the night of an execution. There’s at least one suicide and acts of random violence spike. I’ve a psychiatrist friend who argues that the prisoners are like rats in a maze – give them enough hope and they’ll toil along hoping to get to the exit. An execution reminds most that they’re here for life, so they go a little bit crazy. You might say they start biting at themselves, and each other.’
Zach looked up at the tiered levels looming on both sides. Two impassive guards escorted them, while others patrolled the upper walkways. The sense of dread was palpable, a cold, discomfiting presence that made Zach want to weep. A slow hand clap rolled over them as they walked, menacing faces glaring down at them. The exit shimmered in the distance, a mirage Zach thought they would never reach. When they did, he breathed a ragged sigh of relief.
Waiting for them in the administration wing was the Warden, a thin, rat faced man whose nervous, darting eyes missed nothing. The interview was short and to the point, filled with half-hearted questions and monosyllabic responses. By the time the interview ground to a finish, they had been joined by several other visitors. Zach quickly learned they were relatives of Hatcher’s victims who had come to witness his execution.
‘Should we..?’ Zach nodded at them, raising his eyebrows. Jeff’s answer was emphatic.
‘No. We’re here to cover the execution, not exploit anyone.’
Jeff looked at him and sighed heavily. An overwhelming sense of tiredness lay on him like an iron cross.
‘You’ll feel better about this charade if you just think of it as a job. I know I’ll sleep better that way.’
And with that, the evening drew on until the steadily growing crowd was ushered into the viewing room and the countdown began.
Out in the parking lot, Harry was watching one of the monitors with some puzzlement. He could see the newsreader at the desk, and the clock indicated he had about five minutes before the late news started. Movement flickered on the edges of the screen, floor staff who seemed to be whispering urgently to each other. With the sound down for the moment, it was impossible to tell what they were saying. Harry saw the newsreader flinch at something and everyone looked towards a door standing in a far corner of the studio. Even without sound, the level of anxiety was readily apparent.
The other monitors also flickered silently. Harry had spent most of the evening with his head down, editing interviews and ensuring that the three live crosses from inside the prison went smoothly. Only now did he look up and see that the other stations had each broken into normal programming to show an interview with police, several burning houses and what seemed to be the aftermath of a riot. He increased the volume on one screen.
‘…police have cordoned off an entire suburban block in an effort to catch the killer, or killers, of the Standish family. Detective Morrison had this to say at a press conference held in the front yard of the murdered family’s house.’
‘I would urge all members of the local community to remain indoors while we conduct a sweep of the area. Ensure that all doors and windows are locked and listen to the news for any updates. If you see any suspicious activity, please call the number at the bottom of your screen.’
The number that flashed up caught Harry’s attention – he knew for a fact it was the number of a department within Homeland Security, which piqued his interest. He was about to write it down when the link to the studio abruptly collapsed.
‘God damn!’ Harry hurriedly typed instructions into the on board computer to get the dish to realign.
Outside, the storm had grown worse. Rain sheeted down while lighting crackled across the sky, illuminating from within the massive, boiling clouds racing overhead. Via the external camera mounted on the roof, Harry saw protestors surge towards one another, the thin line of police now in riot gear frantically striving to keep them apart. He tracked the camera around and was shocked to see several people go down in a wild melee, arms and legs swinging wildly. One stood up, and Harry was stunned to see its face caked with blood, washed down his face in crimson streaks by the rain. He was about to zoom in when his earpiece crackled.
‘Harry? Harry, can you hear me?.’ One of the monitors flickered into life and Jeff appeared on it, suited up with microphone in hand. A large, rectangular window stood starkly behind him, curtained in black. People milled around, some making for the several rows of seats in front of the observation window.
‘Yeah, Jeff. Loud and clear.’ Thunder boomed overhead and the van rocked. Wincing, Harry continued. ‘It’s a nightmare out here, Jeff. There’s a riot brewing and I think someone’s been badly injured.’ He kept an eye on the spreading riot. People were scattering as several dark figures lunged at them. His view was obscured when several riot police moved in, batons raised.
‘Be ready to intercut my piece with shots of that, okay? How’s the link to the studio?’
‘Rock solid, Jeff,’ he lied. Jeff frowned then checked his watch.
‘Does rock solid mean hanging by a thread?’ Harry hesitated, then saw a red light come on the studio monitor. He sighed in relief.
‘Like Gibraltar, Jeffrey. If the link does go down, we’ll record everything and transmit from the studio. Hatcher’s still gonna be dead, no matter what.’ Jeff heard a soft crackle in his earpiece, then Harry swore.
‘You should see the lightning show out here. This storm is brewing nicely. I reckon the real story is out here. I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.’
Ignoring Jeff’s protests, Harry broke the connection and concentrated on directing the camera, recording the rapidly deteriorating situation now yards from the van. Despite being safe inside his little cocoon, a sense of vulnerability grew with every blow exchanged by the demonstrators. The police looked completely overwhelmed.
Zach raised an eyebrow, but Jeff shook his head.
‘Harry’s gotten his priorities a little confused. Thinks what’s happening outside is more important than this show.’ He was cut off from further comment by a commotion at the front of the room. He moved aside for Zach, who focussed on a woman pounding her fists against the window. In his headphones, Zach heard Jeff begin recording his introduction.
‘Passions are running high tonight at the Hoover Penitentiary as the clock counts down towards the execution of notorious child killer and cannibal Gabriel Hatcher.’ He paused, letting Zach record the sobbing woman being dragged back to her seat and comforted by people around her.
‘Tonight will see the demise of a man who, seventeen years ago, unleashed a reign of terror which still haunts the city today. Only now, after an appeals process once described as personally destructive to the families of the deceased, will Hatcher be executed by the state in front of those very same families.’ He stopped, glancing at the clock. The curtain rippled and people darted to their seats. He motioned for Zach to zoom in.
‘And amidst the high drama, the ordinariness of human existence. For those keeping score, Hatcher’s last meal consisted of a sirloin steak, rare, with vegetables and regular tap water. Mundane fare for a man whose grotesque appetites sickened us all.’ The curtain slid open.
A sigh ran around the room as Hatcher was led, shackled, into the execution chamber. The black metal chair stood in full view of those watching. A metal cap on a stalk was wired into the chair, the cable running down the wall and into the concrete floor. Hatcher’s guards paused for a moment, displaying him like he was being auctioned. Hatcher grinned, his yellow teeth an obscene beacon in the bright, sterile lights overhead.
The Warden stood by the left hand side of the window. He spoke into an intercom.
‘Does the prisoner have any final words?’
To Jeff’s eye, Hatcher seemed disconnected. His eyes wandered and his crackled lips hung loose. He tilted his head to rub the corner of his mouth against his shoulder. Jeff could never forget how Hatcher watched everyone and everything like a hawk, memorizing emotions and expressions for his own perverted fantasies. It was possible he was a little stunned by the imminence of his death. Jeff was even willing to consider that a ludicrously kind-hearted warder had slipped him some drugs to ease his last moments. Whatever the reason, the spell quickly passed. Hatcher’s eyes cleared and a smile slowly crept across his face.
The smile broadened and he began to chuckle, a hoarse, obscene noise carrying hints of intimacy and lunatic pleasure. His body shook, eyes wide and round and starting from his head. Soon, a cracked, maddened sound had erupted from his mouth. He lunged forward, breaking the guard’s grip and smashing headfirst into the window. His forehead split open, smearing the glass with blood. Some of those watching cried out in shock. The guards hauled him back but he broke free again, surging forward and pitching against the window. His long, pink tongue slid along the glass, licking at the blood.
‘Jesus Christ.’ Jeff saw Zach’s face go white. A woman in the front row fainted. The guards dragged Hatcher back, still laughing, and threw him into the chair. The quickly strapped him in, then fixed the metal cap firmly to his shaven head. As if avoiding a rabid dog, the guards stepped sharply back, watching Hatcher arch against his restraints. He fell back, his laughter dying away to a bubbling whisper. He looked up at the clock, its hands sweeping towards midnight. The tension, already at breaking point, increased with each passing second.
Jeff’s earpiece crackled, Harry’s panicked voice bursting through the static.
‘Jeff? Jesus, Jeff, they’re taking pieces out of one another out here.’ There was a terrific metallic racket and Harry’s voice rose several octaves. ‘Christ, there trying to get in. Jeff –’. Feedback shrieked through Jeff’s earpiece and he ripped it out, swearing. Wincing, he looked around and saw everyone in the room, parents, children, the Warden, Hutchison, lean forward as the switch was thrown.
Thunder shook the building as electricity poured into Hatcher. His head shot back and sparks crawled over his body like fat worms. His limbs shook and twitched, fingers performing a frantic tattoo against the armrests. Smoke poured from the collar and cuffs of his uniform. His body spasmed forward, lips drawn back in a terrible grimace as blood-tinged steam poured from his mouth. He slumped backwards, his head lolling to one side, blackened tongue protruding between charred teeth. The guard at the switch waited a few more seconds before breaking the connection.
Loud sobbing filled the observation room. For several moments those watching seemed unable to leave their chairs or speak. Then, an elderly man stood and started clapping and cheering. Someone tried to pull him back to his seat, but he shrugged them off, hooting and hollering. Zach zoomed in on him, capturing the tears running down his face while he celebrated. There was a yell, a high, panicked sound and everyone looked at the window.
Hatcher sat bolt upright, head swivelling slowly from side to side. The guards weren’t sure what to do, casting appealing glances to someone just out of view. A woman with a stethoscope slung from her neck moved hesitantly forward. Zach walked closer, swearing quietly to himself while Jeff gave a running commentary.
The window was plate glass, but everyone heard Hatcher’s inarticulate bellow as he surged against his bonds. The enormous strain warped the chair and rivets popped like gunfire. Buckles across his torso and arms burst apart and he rose to his feet, wrenching at the leg restraints. Baton raised, a guard came at him. Hatcher batted it away, then reached out with his free hand and grabbed the stunned doctor by the throat.
Drawing her close into a horrible embrace, Hatcher ignored her weak, pathetic blows. Her piteous screams, audible through the glass, were cut off when a thick film of arterial blood splashed across the chamber. Strands of flesh hung from Hatcher’s grinning mouth. Hurling the doctor’s limp body against the window, the glass crazing and bulging. A guard viciously clubbed him from behind, the baton skidding off Hatcher’s skull. Without flinching, Hatcher turned and tore the baton from guard’s nerveless fingers then bore him to the ground and savagely slammed his head against the concrete until blood poured from his ears and mouth. Lifting the guard, Hatcher threw him against the window as effortlessly as if he was a doll.
The window exploded, showering the audience. Grunting like an animal, Hatcher grabbed the remaining guard and snapped his neck like kindling, taking time to chew on his slack face before casting the body aside. The inhuman light shining from Hatcher’s eyes transfixed Jeff and he shivered uncontrollably when they paused on him before moving on.
An enormous crackle of thunder shook the building and the lights flickered, once. Twice. Then failed. The room dissolved into panicked screams and shouts. Dropping the microphone, Jeff backed away, watching the twin, burning eyes sweeping the room. The light on Zach’s camera leapt into life, illuminating a hellish vista of contorted, frenzied faces and struggling bodies groping blindly for a way out. By its erratic light, Jeff saw a shape loom within the margins of the shattered window, black and misshapen. It paused, and beneath those monstrous eyes, its mouth widened into an enormous, hungry, grin.
Laughter washed over the room. Guttural. Bestial. Then the whirlwind fell on them.