The Man in the Chamber

The Man in the Chamber

Illustration by Vaidehi Tikekar

It began with a committee of 25 wardens, police chiefs, senators, district attorneys, and physicians who had decided the procedure should proceed thusly.

On the topic of methods. A projectile was deemed the only humane way to execute a human being. The committee’s deliberations on this decision had been impassioned, nearly as much as the debate that exploded, predictably, as to whether it was right to kill anyone at all. They agreed to disagree, though such an impasse still leant heavily in favor of death by the state.

On the topic of anticipation. On their appointed day, each inmate would be laid prone, anesthetized, and hooded before the execution. Much was made as to exactly which order those three procedures should take place in. The inmate would never hear anything, no round loaded into the weapon’s chamber, no gun racked, no boots shuffling. The agreement here had been unanimous. Perhaps, many of them thought privately, where the inhumanity of execution lay was in the knowledge of it, in their apprehension of what was to come, in their fear of the countdown. And then, there was their own inhumanity, “they” being the committee, who would have to live with their remorse or their satisfaction at the end of it.

In many ways, this last philosophical question is what led to the third point, the topic of witnessing. Among the many outcries that had been raised against capital punishment, there lurked the unspoken sentiment that the men and women administering the process derived some sort of righteous pleasure out of the whole thing. The one-way mirror in the execution room was brought to mind, the audience watching in the gallery beyond, the performance of competence, the performance of authority. The electric chair or the lethal injection, whose cocktail of venom was never as effective as anyone would have liked. The firing squad had long been retired, too many people against one. A fear passed through the committee that these sins would be remembered, always hanging over their heads.

The 25 of them put it down to a vote, concluding:

A button whose action, when pressed, is delayed by 30 minutes, whose function cannot be fulfilled unless all personnel except the inmate’s lawyer are removed from the facility. The inmate is strapped, hooded, unconscious. A loaded, mechanically-activated pistol containing a single small caliber bullet, pointed 5 inches from the inmate’s temple, gripped firmly by a metal vise. If the inmate’s vitals spike suddenly, if it is feared that the inmate could be trapped in their body, conscious but otherwise paralyzed, if the inmate wakes up, for whatever reason, the entire procedure stops. The cylindrical bar that pulls the trigger will retract automatically. Simultaneously, the metal arm holding the gun will point away from the inmate at a 45 degree angle toward the porous wall behind them.

The whole enterprise satisfied everyone immensely. The time delay was foolproof, the machines monitoring the inmate’s vitals expensively sensitive. Every detail was engineered to be impersonal, devoid of emotional inflection. Best of all for the doctors present on the committee, there would be no need for a physician onsite, the sedative being administered orally, the execution irrevocably effective. At one point, a district attorney wondered aloud if, given the number of precautions and considerations taking place, it was perhaps more fitting to call these inmates “patients”. Unanimously, everyone said no. Death was not a cure, even if the committee believed they were carrying out a public service. That was that.

They didn’t think about anything but the body even as they obsessed over it, rendered it mathematical. The committee was terrified of the work they set out to do. Every step they devised was engineered to be inevitable by the sheer diligence of their care. A life was never so precious and meaningless as one that was prepared to be taken. People, fully incorporated citizens, suffered pain. The inmates were different.

At the end of the day, really, they were not people, just bodies whose inputs had to be reluctantly managed. As faceless and dead as the committee itself.

On the first day, an officer named Cynthia May makes the rounds at the trial prison in southern Nevada. A new wing had been built for the executions. None of the equipment inside was particularly advanced. There were soundproof walls painted cleanly in a fresh matte white. There were new gurneys, new disposable supplies, syringes and straps and drip bags. Still, despite the pageantry, the weapons remained the same, as well as the bullets. The committee could not change gravity, could not deliver death more swiftly. Cynthia checks each system, rooms prepped, pill administered, gun loaded. There was little failure to worry over. Even an accidental death was still, in these circumstances, considered a success.

Cynthia checks the execution room last. She steps through the heavy fire door, soft yellow lights overhead blooming open automatically. Every wall inside is solid, no viewing galleries here. In the middle of the room stands a black wrought-iron chair they had taken to calling the “throne”. It seems to have melted down around a naked body. Depressions on the seat mimic a human’s flat bottom, similar indentations at the elbow fit for a skeleton. Funny, Cynthia thinks, the attempt at comfort for someone who wouldn’t even be conscious of it. She scans the room right to left. The gun stand is dormant, its skinny L-shaped arm pointed toward the wall. The straps on the throne’s limbs are fastened tight. Nothing is out of place.

As she turns back toward the long hallway beyond the room, out of the corner of her eye she sees the day’s subject standing beside the throne. It is him, she knows immediately, not a vision, some aberration brought on by a sudden loss of blood pressure. Yet it also seems to be a slightly different person, a version of the same inmate from a life where his skin is full and shining, his hair dark and curling about his temples, no tattoos, no scars. He stands straight, robust where his counterpart is malnourished. The bottoms of Cynthia’s feet begin to perspire. The inmate, not the inmate, turns his head and looks nakedly at her.

Darkness. Then, suddenly the surveillance room of the prison’s main wing, a looming bank of blinking monitors before her. Cynthia feels a calm within, instilled in her, one that she knows is not her own. She clicks through a series of camera feeds on the keyboard before remembering the execution facility’s surveillance system is independent of the main building. Besides, there are no cameras in the chamber.

Cynthia can’t stop herself from wondering. It was instinctual, like judging distance, that she understood the man in the chamber who looked like the inmate was actually not so. In fact, she checks. Two clicks to the camera outside cell 113. That day’s actual subject lays on his bed, fingers laced across his belly. His knuckles, covered in sallow skin, protrude like marbles. Just by looking at his hands, Cynthia can see they aren’t the same.

The execution personnel had already violated the terms of the procedure by giving Harriet’s client the sedative pill without her consent or supervision. She had watched intently over their shoulders as they checked her client’s vitals. Now, they walk down the execution hall toward the chamber, her client strapped to a gurney in a state somewhere beyond sleep. A crowd of people, some fifteen or so, wait in the room. One checks the firing mechanism on the gun, another the emergency shutoff. The others, police officers and agents, mill about in small groups of two and three. No scrubs worn, no white coats.

The personnel pushing the gurney pull up beside the gaudy black iron chair in the middle of the room, a cluster of suited men pushing each other out of the way halfheartedly. They unfasten the leather straps from across the client’s body. Harriet scrutinizes their gloved hands, their ties tucked into the gaps between the buttons of their dress shirts, their sidearms jangling at their hips. One of the officers pulls a lever on the side of the gurney, the scaffolding at the client’s feet collapsing. Another officer pulls a bar beneath the client’s head and lifts until the body is nearly vertical. Harriet steps forward as the sheets on the bed begin to crease with the weight of the body falling toward the ground, but the officers catch the client swiftly, with a tenderness the lawyer has rarely seen exhibited by law enforcement.

Under the armpits, by his ankles, Harriet’s client is grabbed and hoisted into the seat of the throne, his head lolling like a broken hinge against his shoulder. Spittle drips from the corner of his mouth, is wiped away with a handkerchief by one of the men in suits. Someone billows a thick black hood over his face. More lashing, this time like seatbelts, wrap around the client’s waist, across his forehead against the headboard of the throne, about his forearms and his shins. The woman who had been handling the arm of the execution device now adjusts the height of the gun to the client’s temple.

They are right on time. A suited man checks for vitals one last time. With a meaningful look to each person in the room, Harriet nods and everyone files out. The warden shuffles past at the end, grimacing, simply pointing to the large red button on the wall next to the door. Press once to begin, and again if something goes wrong. The door breaths shut behind her. Refusing to look at him, Harriet pushes down hard on the red button.

Time fast counting down. Harriet watches her client carefully. Small bulges like bubbles disturb the black hood where his mouth hangs open, breathing. She keeps expecting to see his fingers twitch, his knees jump, but it takes a moment of shame and embarrassment to remember that he isn’t sleeping. Her client isn’t aware that she’s in the same room. Five minutes gone. She untucks her shirt and sits against the opposite wall. She finds it strange that no one had thought to place a moratorium on lawyers bringing headphones to pass the time. She had heard of others doing so. Harriet knew better on principle. What if the client made a noise in distress? Instead, she pulls out her phone, the camera and lens of which had been removed upon assignment to the execution circuit. She flicks through old photos, most recently a screenshot of the prison’s map she had taken for fear of getting lost in its labyrinthine structure. There were baby pictures of her and her brother, Scottish vistas looking over a precipice towards the sea, a neon-drenched concert. In short, a life.

Ten minutes gone. A latch on the mechanical arm clicks open and the trigger rod slides into place. Harriet tilts her head side to side, the bones in her neck cracking, walls sucking up the echo. She looks at her client, the soft breath of the hood on his head, his limp hands frozen at the end of the armrests. This was horrible, Harriet decides. It feels wrong to wait for someone to die on time. Fifteen minutes. The gun’s chamber automatically pulls back, nothing like the sound she hears in the movies. Harriet puts her phone away and stands up.

She can’t decide if she should watch. The committee claimed it was imperative that every witness be physically aware of what was about to transpire. The viewing had to be embodied since it would not be recorded.

With one minute left, the man who is not the inmate returns. Harriet watches him materialize beside the throne, fading into view fuller and fuller as if someone were turning a dial. He looks exactly like Harriet’s client, but better, vacation ready, completely naked. In the seconds before the gun fires, the man bends his knees, tensing with his arms outstretched. Harriet thinks he looks like a nude wrestler, maybe a football player. His expression is hard to read. Determined, of that she has no doubt. There is something else though. It could be boredom. It could be disappointment. The firing rod clangs against the trigger. A deafening shot bursts from the barrel of the gun through the black hood on the client’s head. A bright red light hurls out the other side. The man catches this in his hands, holds it close to his chest, turns away into nothing.

Nicholas Russell

is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Reverse Shot, The Point, Triangle House, Columbia Journal, and 68to05, among other publications. He's currently a contributing editor at Burrow Press Review and a bookseller at The Writer's Block in Las Vegas.

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