FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM
“She’s here…Its Elizabeth…That’s the father’s jet…The one with her name on the side in pink bubble letters…”
With those words, the tightly huddled swarm of reporters, local, national and international, who were standing on the private landing strip, and broiling in the merciless Texas sun, turned into an avalanche, throwing elbows, knocking each other over, and trampling the fallen.
But why the frenzy?
Because they were all on the same desperate mission, get the first candid photos of Elizabeth Sunderland, as she descended the metal steps of Daddy’s Boeing 757, all sleek like a swan with spread wings.
The jet trafficked to a stop. The reporters parted down the middle, stood on either side of the plane, and were joined by a gaggle of Elizabeth’s fans and naysayers, who although they moved at half the speed of the press corps, never missed an opportunity to pledge their undying love and loyalty, or toss caustic barbs. Sometimes the haters didn’t stop with insults; there was the unfortunate incident of the pint of blood that got hurled at her on a busy street-corner, a grisly unsubtle metaphor of her romantic entanglements.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice to say, the Bahranian ambassador’s son Elizabeth was showing around town had a most memorable evening in the States, one that climaxed with a screening panel for STD’s.
The Boeing’s clamshell door opened with a vacuum release of air, the staircase unfolded, armed security sporting Bluetooths and bulletproof suits went down first, and then she emerged:
Her Louboutin stilettos dangled from her wrist, which was covered up to her elbow in chunky, blinding bracelets, not an inch of skin visible between the dazzling gold and silver.
She descended the first few steps, looked up, and was blinded by the sun hanging there like a pat of sizzling butter, so hot it had burned the clouds from the sky, and surrounded on all sides by towering rock formations that had been blasted rust-red from the arid desert air.
Welcome back to the end of the Earth, she thought, this is what it looks like. Huntsville. Fucking. Texas. No clouds, nothing’s stopping that sun. And this heat. I don’t care if they tell me it’s dry. It still takes your breath away, makes you see double. She slid on her Cartier sunglasses with the diamond-encrusted frames to shield her eyes. A few of Daddy’s skyscrapers would do the trick. People of a certain ilk always say he ruined Manhattan, but I think he just gave everyone shade. And what thanks does he get?
She looked at the size and energy of the crowd. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before. Sure, the media followed her around, but her celebrity was manageable, and had largely peaked in her enfant terrible years, climaxing with a month of house arrest at twenty-six. She was thirty now, the sell-by date for insanely rich, drop-dead gorgeous heiresses, and coverage had slowed to a trickle.
Until, a month ago, when Elizabeth was given renewed cultural relevance.
She reached the bottom step, and before her toes had a chance to hit the asphalt, the questions and photos began:
“Elizabeth…How does it feel to be bringing home a serial killer?”
Charlie Gillis looked in a mirror for the first time in five years and thought:
Death Row rode me hard.
There was no glass allowed. If you asked for a reflective surface, the guards would give you a wedge of dull, stainless steel, nothing a weapon could be fashioned from, and that smeared and stretched your features into a funhouse image. Worthless for personal upkeep, but Charlie felt there was a totally unintended mercy in not forcing prisoners to glimpse their disintegration.
He examined his face in the mirror. His dirty-blonde hair had started to gray at the temples, but the rest remained thick, lustrous, and ran down his neck. He had begun to grow stubble to hide the serrated knife scar on his cheek. The black circles under his green eyes weren’t from fatigue, but knowledge, learning Charlie’s life lessons wore you out, made it hard to sleep.
He ran the glass down his nude body. Even though he’d lost some weight, unavoidable given the circumstances, he’d managed to maintain his thick, vascular muscularity with push-ups, isometrics, and sit-ups. Fourteen jagged stab wounds to his chest, neck, and abdomen had left behind scars, and messed-up his more ornate tattoos, slicing some of them in halves and thirds.
He laid the mirror on the edge of the sink, slid on the clothes he’d arrived wearing, back in 2012. A pair of ripped blue Levi’s, a black t-shirt he’d gotten at a Stone Temple Pilots concert, and a pair of leather cowboy boots with the state of Texas embroidered on the sides in red, white, and blue.
He took a final look over his surroundings, the eleven by nine cell, not much bigger than a parking space, and furnished by a metal cot with three storage compartments underneath, one of them housing a rolled-up rubber mattress. A dinner tray-desk had been mounted to the wall, and there was a steel sink and adjoining toilet. This room had been his home for twenty-three hours a day, except for the thirty minutes of exercise, consisting of walking around the parking lot at machine gun point courtesy of a turret gun in the guard tower, and exhaustive cell inspections before lights out.
He knelt down, grabbed a slim volume of Baudelaire’s poetry and his Dad’s annotated Bible from a storage bin, and whipped his head around, when he heard the familiar sound of the guards shoes scuffing the floor, then saw Kavanaugh and Wurlitzer, the black matte sheen of their truncheons and guns sparkling in the fluorescent light.
Wurlitzer, the comically smaller of the two, sucked in his gut to try and gain an inch or two of height, and raised his truncheon before entering the cell, incase Charlie got any big ideas on his last day:
“You’re free, killer. Processed and ready to walk. You got a ride? If not, state will pay for bus fare to town.”
Charlie met Wurlitzer’s eyes. “I got a ride.”
“Elizabeth…Did you bring a gun…?”
“Elizabeth…Over here…Charlie killed four women, stabbed them over forty times…”
“…And those are only the one’s we know about…”
The security guards cleared a path, so she could reach her Porsche 911 Turbo, painted a shade of specially ordered neon-green, and parked on the tarmac, waiting for her.
“Elizabeth…Any new sex tapes coming out?”
She remembered Daddy’s first rule, don’t answer until they give you the question you want, make them work for your attention. The less you talk, the more it’s like heavenly light pouring out from the back of your throat, when you deign to respond. And besides, she thought, there were only two sex tapes, and one of them was largely shot in night vision, and left a lot to the imagination.
“Elizabeth…Will you be dropping another album soon? You signed to Cash Money records last year…”
After possession charges, an ankle bracelet, and being crowned an “heirhead” by the tabloids, Elizabeth moved into the one industry in which those seeming black marks weren’t necessarily a negative: music. She provided backing vocals to an EDM album, and a Lil’ Wayne single about blowjobs, both of which sold huge in Japan, and led to her newest endeavor, an electro-minimalist ballad, that she sung in phonetic Japanese.
“Elizabeth…When does your new lingerie line hit?”
That one she wanted to answer. “The show for the new season is in eleven days.”
“Elizabeth…What’s it like to not be the superstar this time?”
There was some truth in the question.
Elizabeth knew fame, but Charlie Gillis was a superstar. A man with television specials hyping his menace, a man with websites and podcasts devoted to dissecting his run of terror in minute detail, a man whose image graced clothing lines, a man with twelve unauthorized autobiographies and counting, a man who generated a fresh-faced ensemble of cops and lawyers who could be called in when true crime shows needed commentators to explain ultimate evil. He had built a new industry off his brand, or in the parlance of Elizabeth’s father, Charlie was a jobs creator.
He was the first serial killer to blaze through our perpetually connected, social media age, where celebrity was currency. There was no Facebook when Ted Bundy said goodbye to civilized society and went on a spree, no Instagram when Manson’s “Family” decided to knock on that door on Cielo Drive, hell, now they could have posted a live video of the slaughter, no Twitter when the D.C. sniper turned the highways red, no Snapchat, when Richard Ramirez stalked the night like a vampire looking for victims.
She opened the driver’s side of the Porsche, and slid on a pair on Chanel ballet flats, better for driving.
A journalist waved his arms wildly, like an electric current ran through him, settling at the base of his spine: “Elizabeth…I have a check from my network…Five million for the first nude photos of Charlie…”
And that was the other reason Charlie had been a media obsession since his initial arrest: His looks. And Elizabeth wasn’t immune:
The first time I saw him on television, she thought, reliving the memory, he looked like a cowboy, but not the dusty kind who rustles cattle, the one on the covers of romance novels with titles like “Cowboys Have Always Been My Weakness”, which in all honesty means, not an actual cowboy, but the way you envision it when you want to fuck one.
And that body. Formed from his teen years in and out of juvy labor camps. Those gaudy, stacked muscles and tattoos. That voice. A breathy Texas drawl, like the secretive mumble of a ten-year-old sent to the principal’s office for smoking cigarettes behind the school. But they’d all be nothing without the eyes, a scared deer unsure how he ended up accused of serial murder. But also undressing you at the same time.
A journalist cluster photo’d her and popped another question:
“Elizabeth…Even with your fame for fake’s sake philosophy, isn’t the Charlie Gillis business a dirty one…?”
How dare she? Elizabeth thought. How dare anyone think I’m the dirty one? That I’m the one with fucked-up fantasies. You all wrote to him. He showed me the letters. You’d send him locks of hair, marriage proposals with matching rings, awful poetry, confess your most scandalous needs and lusts accompanied by nude photos. You all wanted to fuck him. You hypocrites. And his harem was damn inclusive. From nurses and librarians, from housewives to retirees, from strippers to Satanists, even judges, lawyers, and CEO’s.
I did what you all didn’t have the guts to do.
She slid into the Porsche’s driver’s seat, a leather cocoon, and turned to the security guards: “I want to drive myself. I need time to process this alone. It’s a big day for me.” She gave them her million-dollar smile:
“You can follow behind. Make sure I’m safe.”
The media realized she was hitting the road, made a mad dash to their white and beige vans, ready to follow her to Death Row:
“She’s on the move…”
Charlie followed Kavanaugh and Wurtlizer down the corridor of infamy, while looking through a manila envelope holding the effects he arrived at Death Row carrying. They didn’t amount to much: a Velcro wallet on a chain, a digital watch, a silver hoop earring, a red asthma inhaler, and a flip-phone that had been filled with pre-paid minutes right before he’d been arrested. Those five objects, plus the actual clothes on his back, were all he had to show for his life at the age of thirty-five.
He looked to his right, into the cells; there was Johnny Pallenberg performing a yoga headstand against the wall. Johnny was infamous for tossing hookers into a barbeque pit on his backyard property. When the cops discovered his hideaway, they unearthed the bones of forty-seven women. Upon getting locked up, Johnny scrawled that number in the center of his forehead using a razor blade and filling it in with ink.
To Charlie’s left, was Angel Trejo, wearing prison whites, reclined on his cot, and reading the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. Charlie wondered if Angel trying to figure out the odds of encountering one of the more than twenty men, women, and pets that he’d skinned and sacrificed, in the afterlife.
These men had been Charlie’s neighbors for the past four and half years, and thankfully, he barely had to interact with them. Death Row wasn’t like basic jail; there’s no mingling between prisoners, no communal dining, no group television time, and although the isolation was crippling, Charlie imagined it beat spending quality time with guys like Johnny and Angel.
The hallway stretched on and on, far longer than Charlie remembered. It never hit him, until he was free, just how many prisoners the state had earmarked to die. And trust me, the state would have killed each of them already, had it not been for pesky things like courts of appeal, an occasional liberal governor’s pardons, and a growing societal revulsion against capital punishment. So you ended up with something far sadder, lots of men waiting twenty-five years to die, or passing on from natural causes before the state got it’s shot, which is a form of death in itself.
“Gillis. You fuckin’ chickenhawk”, screamed out Brett Frost, who had used his career as a birthday party magician, to come back after the festivities, and wipe out whole families. “Come back and let me give you a goodbye kiss.”
Charlie turned around. Frost had his face pressed between the bars and his lips puckered. Wurtlizer and Kavanaugh stopped dead; fingers teasing their holstered triggers; mace at the ready; knowing this could get ugly.
“Hey,” they shouted in sync. “Back away from him, Gillis.”
Charlie approached the bars. “I’m ready.”
Frost licked his lips. “Know the difference between you and me?”
“I wasn’t a birthday clown.”
Frost wagged his tattooed index finger. “Magician.” He laughed, dark and deep, his mouth open so wide Charlie could see how many fillings he needed. “I could give that blonde bitch who comes to visit you what she really wants. I satisfied lots of ice bitches in heat looking for the master’s bone. That’s what they all are.”
Charlie moved closer to Frost. “The fuck you say about her?”
“Your Daddy knew how to take care of those bitches too. Like when he shot your Momma in the brains. Only mistake, he did himself too, overcommitted to the act.”
Charlie was about to reach through, grab Frost and throttle him, when Kavanaugh, built like a linebacker gone to utter seed, swung his truncheon against the bars, forcing Frost to scramble into the corner like a cockroach when you turn the kitchen lights on. Next, he put his burly ham-hock of a hand around Charlie’s waist to lead him away, back to Wurlitzer, who tried to avoid physical altercation at all costs:
“Killer, it’d behoove you not to be a such a fuckin’ hothead…”
“…You hear what he said…”
“…There’s a buncha people past the gates looking to get a piece of you. You gonna take them all on too?”
Charlie raised an eyebrow.
“Lotsa folks aren’t thrilled you’re out,” Kavanaugh continued. “And they’re gonna put you down before you get a chance to go rabid again. Fix the mistake the law couldn’t. And they’re right and justified in the lord’s eyes to do it.” He turned and glared at Charlie. “Hell, I may even help them.”
Charlie fell silent, then. “You got no beef with me. I didn’t do anything. Why I’m walkin’ outta here today.”
“Right,” said Kavanaugh. “Your prints just happened to be on the weapon, which you were found holding. And all the victim’s DNA happened to be on it too. Some coincidence, killer.”
Charlie had to admit, what Kavanaugh said was true, and made freedom a sticky proposition. Charlie’s prints and the victims DNA were, and would always be, on the murder weapon, and even he’d been unable to explain it, outside of conspiracy theories about being framed by the real killer, who coincidentally, appeared not to have racked up any new victims since Charlie went inside. These unavoidable facts caused Charlie to ask, for the thousandth time:
Who did this to me and why’d they frame me?
And more importantly, one that had only recently begun to bubble in his brain:
Now that I’m out, which one of us is going to find the other first?
Elizabeth banged on the steering wheel in frustration at the fuzzy cell service. Her iPhone had no bars, causing the playlist she’d specially curated for today’s event to get trapped in an endless buffering loop, and right in the middle of “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles, a selection that raised an eternal question the world had about Elizabeth:
Is she fucking serious? How much of her presentation is ironic, a show to keep people talking, and how much of it is actually what she thinks? And then the inevitable follow-up:
Does she even think?
The bars weren’t recovering. She was stuck with the radio in Huntsville. She scanned the radio for a station not riddled with static:
“We’re talking about Charlie Gillis, because what else is there to talk about. Let’s scroll through the news and read some more quotes about his release. Here’s a good one: It’s from Kelly Brunt, who obviously needs no introduction. We’ve all seen her infamous Death Row interview with Gillis. Or maybe I should call it Kelly’s smackdown…”
Elizabeth pointed at the radio, yelled. “You smug fucking bitch.”
“Kelly says: “I hope Charlie will return for a follow-up. Just like all of the country, I’ve got a lot more unanswered questions…”
Elizabeth turned off the station in revulsion:
Kelly motherfucking Brunt. That Bougie bitch who built her name on my Charlie’s corpse. They should call her career “Before Charlie” and “After Charlie”. “Before Charlie” she was a local news personality, a blonde, former beauty-pageant announcer, who had gone to county law school – at night –, used too much bronzer, and had traces of body glitter on her tits, like she stepped off the pole and into the anchor chair. “After Charlie” she was a serious news personality who had faced down the beast of Texas, went brunette, lost the spray-on sheen, got an honorary doctorate, and ended up moderating presidential debates, and handing out peace prizes at the U.N. And I think she either had a boob reduction or a butt implant, because she leans over funky now, like a Jenga block with a jelly spine wearing Michael Kors.
All that said I owe her possibly plastic ass one thing.
If she hadn’t ambushed Charlie on her Dateline special, hadn’t grilled him, hadn’t cemented his guilt in society’s eyes, he and I would never have met, because when she was done running the metaphorical stake through him, he had my eternal empathy. Since I was old enough to remember, the media had been doing the same thing to my family and I. Charlie had just walked through the same crucible of fire.
I knew he’d get me. And I was tired of waiting for the men around me to finally step up to the plate and embrace all the things that made me – me. And it’s not like I had a lot of options.
I’m not kidding.
Here’s a lesson on dating in the one percent. When you climb up that high in the social echelon, you’re down to about fifty men and women forming an available dating pool, making it highly incestuous and shallow. I’m not saying woe is me; poor little rich girl. I’m trying to explain that it may seem odd to some, going to a serial killer to be understood on your own terms, but I’d argue many in my class, or your own, have made far worse compromises.
Some relationships may not make sense, may seem downright baffling to the outside eye, but I can explain them, save everyone a lot of time and money in therapy.
It’s not always your first choice that gets you in their gut.
Not always the rich one, the handsome one, the stable one, who can see your worst self, see how far off the rails you can go, and not run. Not always the one you bring home to your parents who can provide closure to what haunts you, who gives you what you need when the lights are off. Sometimes that gift comes from a far more offbeat path. Sometimes a man in a suit isn’t up to the task.
Sometimes it’s the serial killer.
She passed a road sign: The Huntsville Death Row unit was less than four miles away. In response, she slammed her ballet flat suited foot on the gas.
She couldn’t wait any longer to touch Charlie for the first time without a glass partition, to hold his strong hands without clanking chains, to kiss him without armed guards skulking around, to hear that voice that drove her wild without the filter of a Lysol-scented prison phone, and finally get to see what that body looked like not sheathed in a white jumpsuit. Sensory delirium felt so close.
In her rear-view mirror, she spied the caravan of reporters speeding up in response, inching up to her bumper, praying the lane would verge in two, so they could pull up along the side of her car and snap a photo. From above, she heard the slice of news helicopter blades flying low. She rolled down the window, freaked out by how close the chops sounded, and saw cameramen dangling from ladders trying to get low enough to sneak a shot of her. Suddenly, “Helter Skelter” started back up, as if to power the rest of her ride.
But her trip hit a snag about a mile from the prison.
Two police officers, one of them holding a leashed German Shepherd, appeared in the middle of the road, held up their hands for Elizabeth to stop, and then came to the driver’s side window.
“License and identification,” the Officer said.
Elizabeth dug in her purse. “What’s the problem, officer?”
“The state’s letting some shitheel off Death Row and the whole town’s about to burn down,” the Officer said. “There’s been bomb threats.”
Elizabeth handed the Officer her license and papers. He looked them over, evinced a cocky smile, and then knelt down slightly to meet her eyes.
“Miss Sunderland,” he said, sneering. “I don’t think I need to search your car. You’re not smuggling a bomb into my city. You’re bringing it home with you.”
Elizabeth smiled back, offering ice instead of anger to his snide commentary. “I am.”
“Hope it doesn’t blow up in your hands,” the Officer said, motioning his partner to move on to the next car. “I’d hate to read about you in the newspapers.” He handed Elizabeth back her things:
“Go ahead and meet your welcoming party,” he said, then whispered under his breath: “Sick city bitch.”
Elizabeth knew enough not to get into it with a cop, she’d been there already. You don’t get a month of lo-jack house arrest for being cooperative. So she rolled up her window, pressed down on the gas, and within a few hundred feet, knew exactly what Sergeant Shithead was talking about.
On either side of the street, penned in by waist-high orange barricades, were a thousand plus protestors, all forming a gauntlet of writhing bodies, and screaming in uniform ecstasy:
“Lock him back up…Lock him back up…It’s not too late…The evil is loose…”
Some of the protestors held huge placards displaying Charlie’s face dripping blood, or framed by a pentagram, symbolizing how demonic the general public considered him. Others held mounted posters with the victim’s faces and shouted so loud Elizabeth’s car nearly shook:
“…Justice for April…Justice for Christine…Justice for Jenny…Justice for Lauren…Justice for all Texans…”
She kept driving, passed a church group scattered on both sides of the street, and presided over by a pastor in a shiny gold suit, who held a megaphone. He was barking out commands in a style equally martial and holy for his flock to raise their candles up high, to pray for forgiveness from the dead women’s souls, and for God to find it in his heart to strike Charlie and boil him in Hell.
Elizabeth shook her head. Fuck me, she thought, this is what backwoods WASPs look like when they’ve gone mad on the Scofield Bible and crystal meth.
She shrunk behind the wheel, watched protestors attempt to scale the barricades:
These people are really pissed. I hope they don’t recognize me. I think they’ll kill me just to release their tension about Charlie’s release. Shit, I don’t want to die from irony. I just like it in my playlist.
I’m beginning to think we were all being naïve, assuming society’s mistrust of the cops and the legal system, would allow Charlie a smooth entrance back in. But he sure knew better. I’ll never forget his reaction when he found out about his release, because it paradoxically prompted our first real fight. I felt he was being cynical and misanthropic; when he said:
“Great. Now I’m fuckin’ O.J. Simpson.”
And he explained further:
“The knife and DNA they used to toss me in here aren’t getting booted because they incorrectly convicted me. The sample was contaminated. That shit doesn’t exonerate me; it means they lost the evidence for trial. Trust me. I wanna get outta here more than anyone, but it ain’t gonna be clean. I’m the new Juice. And they’re gonna tear me limb from limb. Buckle up, boys and girls.”
And watching these protestors frothing in rage, Elizabeth finally understood what Charlie meant. He was going to learn what it was like to be free, but still haunted and hissed at, just like O.J, also supposedly “free”, who got the pleasure of every lower court trying to throw him in jail or bankrupt him for the most minor infraction, so the legal system could try and atone for its past sins. They’d lie in wait for Charlie, like hungry wolves, until he had his Las Vegas armed-robbery trophy moment like the Juice. Then they could overcharge the shit out of him, lock him up, throw away the key, and flush him back down the system.
I actually met the Juice once, Elizabeth thought, shortly after his trial, when Daddy was trying to sell him a natural light drenched loft in a new SoHo building, and convince him to relocate. O.J. was friendly, didn’t seem worse for the wear, and had great shoes.
But appearances can always be deceiving. Maybe he was crumbling inside.
Kavanaugh was the first to notice Elizabeth’s Porsche pull into the lot. She stopped at the security post, reached over to show her credentials, and was clearly told to exit the car for further inspection:
“Think your ride’s here, Gillis.”
“Yup, that’s a fuckin’ Porsche 911,” Wurlitzer said. “You really went and hooked yourself up, Charlie boy. The lady is loa-ded.”
Charlie waited outside his former home, a squat, stone-faced, barbed wire rimmed tomb with blacked out windows. Wurtlizer and Kavanaugh stood on either side of him, sweat roping down from their armpits.
Charlie’s eyes, weakened by years of indoor confinement, sought sanctuary in a tight squint to guard against the sun. He wished it hadn’t been raining the day he’d gotten arrested; then he’d have his shades.
Wurlitzer whistled at Elizabeth’s car. “Shit. Maybe I need to go hack up some housewives my damn self…”
“…They weren’t housewives,” Kavanaugh cut-in and corrected, slowly reeling off the charges against Charlie to shame him. “Killer here, hacked up Lauren Francois, a grade-school teacher, April Pallant, a nurse with two kids, Jenny Wilner, a paralegal, and Christine Conte, a marketing director at the local network.”
“Yeah,” Wurlitzer said, readjusting his belt. “Well I think Elizabeth Sunderland can take care of herself. And if she can’t, her father definitely can. She tell you about him, killer? Daddy’s a heavy kind of dude.”
Charlie shielded his eyes, watched the security guard finish inspecting Elizabeth’s car: Hurry up, baby. I’m done with these two assholes. It’s been five years too long. All I want to do is touch you in the real world. Slam on the gas. I nearly died in here, and if death’s coming, I want it to be in your arms.
“She’s a real Daddy’s Girl,” Kavanaugh said, working in tandem with Wurlitzer. “That’s all I’ll say.”
Wurlitzer and Kavanaugh were an absurdist prison guard buddy act, and needling Charlie about Elizabeth and her father, showed them working at the height of their powers. They liked to hone in on an uncomfortable fact, really burrow in, and force their inmates to examine pieces of their lives they’d never given prior thought to, like:
How Charlie didn’t know a fucking thing about Elizabeth, outside of what she told him.
Wurlitzer kept pushing. “What exactly has she told you about anything, killer?”
Charlie stood firm, although he was in free-fall. “I know all I need to know.”
Wurlitzer giggled, looked over and shared the joke with Kavanaugh. “He doesn’t know shit. Maybe we should let these bastards have Internet access. Educate themselves on their female admirers.”
Charlie saw Elizabeth drive past the security post, start circling the lot on her way to him: Faster, babe, faster. Drive.
Kavanaugh chimed in with his own joke. “Google as a public fuckin’ service.”
Charlie didn’t need Google. He knew all about the type of women who wanted Death Row inmates, hell, he had the fan mail to prove it, but his wake-up call had been when he realized prisons considered those same women so unstable that they felt compelled to educate and warn convicts, about the pitfalls of that dating pool. Going so far as holding a special session headed by a psychiatrist, who explained that women drawn to inmates were usually motivated by a combination of desiring absolute control over a man — it’s not like a convict can leave you, lose the mortgage payment, piss off your parents, shake the baby, or fuck your best friend — melded to the tingle of meeting sexualized evil behind glass where the danger can’t touch you, like watching panthers at a zoo.
Kavanaugh laughed. “For real though, killer. You and I both know all she wants to do is tell the world she fucked a serial killer and lived. You give her one long hard ride on that criminal cock and she’s gonna sell your sex tape to the tabloids, then toss your ass to the wind, and you’ll be right back to us.” He pointed to the building behind them. “Where you belong.”
The shadow of the Porsche across their torsos announced Elizabeth’s arrival:
“Here she is, killer,” Wurlitzer said. “Have fun dumpin’ five years of criminal back-up into her hole. Tell her to get lots of towels.”
All of them, even Wurtlizer, cringed at that mental image, his final parting gift to Charlie.
Charlie turned around to face the guards, the Death Row edifice, and flipped up both his middle fingers: “Fuck you both and fuck this place. Cause while you go inside and spend the rest of the day wiping Frost’s ass and then go home to jerk off and eat a fuckin’ pot pie, I’m gonna be with my wife.”
Then he sprinted to the Porsche as it slowed to a crawl, ripped open the driver’s side door, hopped inside the car, and didn’t say a word, just started kissing Elizabeth for what seemed like five minutes, kissing her with all the life, love, and lust he’d been storing up, kissing her with the exhilaration of doing what everyone said he’d never do again, and he didn’t stop kissing, until she broke it with a gentle nibble on his lower lip, and said, sporting a feline grin:
“I’ve got to breathe babe.” She gave him one last peck, held up her ring finger hugged by a gold band, and put the car in motion. “Let’s get outta here and get busy being married.”
“Best words I’ve ever heard.” He smiled. “Elizabeth Sunderland-Gillis.”
She piloted through the prison lot, passing huddled law-enforcement sedans and correction facility buses, and then slammed down on the gas when she reached the exit back onto the highway.
“Oh no. Daddy would never allow it. I’ll always be a Sunderland.” She said, finding a quaint charm in his lack of understanding about the power of family names in her world. Although delusional, it was still a welcome change of pace. Can you imagine the scandal that would erupt if one of the most powerful men in New York’s daughter took the last name of an accused serial killer?
“You can hyphenate,” she said. “Charlie Gillis-Sunderland.”
The reappearance of her rather inconspicuous car signaled the media convoy to start up their engines, and tag along in pursuit, since they’d all been denied access at the Death Row gate, where only visitors approved by the Warden were granted admittance to enter.
Charlie turned his head, looked back at the endless trail of uninvited guests following them down the single-lane street, like the world’s longest tailgating party:
“Jesus Christ.” He looked to Elizabeth. “How famous are you?”
She laughed. “This is all for you. I don’t draw crowds like this.”
He took a minute to process the carnival, but was still overwhelmed, especially by the sound of whirling blades above. “Are those helicopters?”
She smacked her lips. “Yup.”
“All for me?”
“All for you.”
“I feel like I’m living in the last day of Vietnam, when everyone hid on the Embassy roof waiting to get rescued from above.”
“Charlie,” she said, baffled. “How do you know how Vietnam ended? Was it in one of the books I sent you?”
“It might have been.” Charlie started to roll down the window to get a closer look at the media chaos he was dragging along in his wake.
“Don’t,” Elizabeth shouted, stopping him. “Don’t open that. It’s not safe.”
“Shit. Even dogs get to drive with their head out a window.”
“You’re not a dog in Texas. You’re Charlie Gillis. Dogs have freedom.”
“Is it going to be like this everywhere?”
“Not like this,” she said. “This is where the murders happened. People have strong opinions about you here.”
“Tell me about it. The fuckin’ guard told me he’s going to join a head-hunting party to take me out.”
Charlie threw his hands up, exasperated. “Does it matter?”
“You know I like all the details,” she said, smiling. “It helps make a story feel more real to me. That’s my communication style, we discussed this…”
“…Kavanaugh,” Charlie said, indulging her. “It was Kavanaugh,”
“Is he the one who sold our wedding photos to the tabloids and had to return the money, when the Warden found out?”
“No. That’s Wurlitzer…”
“…I should have thanked him. I looked fucking amazing in that dress. Everyone around me was jealous…”
“…Kavanaugh’s the fat one.”
“Right,” Elizabeth said. “He’s such an asshole. He used to stare at my tits the entire time when I came to visit.”
Charlie smirked. “Well you pushed the Death Row visitor dress code pretty far.”
“I push everything pretty far.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh you’ll find out.”
He laughed, seduced by her charm that traveled in oblique paths. “How do you manage to always make everything about you, and not have me notice? It’s a gift. I’m telling you citizens want to kill me, and we end up on your tits, and I have no idea how we got there.”
“Honestly, Charlie, ask yourself: which is more interesting?”
“I’m serious. It’s not bad enough I got the fucker who framed me to worry about…”
Elizabeth was taken aback, practically slammed on the brake in surprise. “…What would he want with you?”
“What do you mean?” Charlie couldn’t understand how this never crossed her mind. “I’m out. His frame-job got burned. You think he’s just going to let me walk around? I wouldn’t.”
“But you didn’t see him that night.”
“Well yeah,” Charlie said. “I wouldn’t have ended up on Death Row if I saw him.”
“Then what’s he got to worry about? Your release didn’t hurt him.”
It was Charlie’s turn to be taken aback. “How do you figure that?”
“Everyone still thinks you did it,” she said. “The real killer’s safe. If the State found you not guilty, wanted to open up your case again, then he’d be screwed.” She turned to him, gave him a little grin. “It just looks like I bought justice for you by hiring every specialist not nailed down to poke holes in their case, until one of them finally gave way, and they had to let you out.“
“So pretty much everyone thinks I’m guilty?”
“Not everyone.” She blew him a kiss. “I don’t.”
“That sounds pretty grim for me.”
“You asshole,” she said. “Don’t I count?”
He smiled. “You know what I meant.”
“I do. That’s why we’re going to Manhattan.” She grabbed his knee and held it tight. “Eight million people. And no one gives a shit about anyone else’s business.” She ran her hand up his thigh, inching higher and higher:
“Except if you smoke cigarettes or drink soda. Both really bad. But alleged killers can just waltz around with impunity.”
“They should put that on a brochure.” He held her hand, helped it travel up his leg. “I don’t care where we go, as long we’re together. It’s how I survived Death Row. I forgave it. Because it brought me you.”
Their hands intertwined, as they got closer to the zipper on his jeans.
“All we need to do is keep you alive long enough to get to Daddy’s jet,” she said.
“Sure you’re up to it…”
Her hands caressed the fabric around the top button his pants. “…I’m more than up to it.”
Suddenly, Elizabeth’s cell phone, which she had connected to the car, rang. She pulled her hand away, hit down speaker, and said:
“This is Elizabeth.”
“Miss Sunderland,” said Eddie, one of her security guards. “We just got word the trajectory of Tropical Storm Irma shifted, and will be making landfall in Manhattan in four hours. We’re grounded here for the evening. They won’t let us take off.”
“Even if we leave in half an hour?” She said, practically pleading. “We’re only thirty miles from the fucking landing strip, Eddie.”
“No dice,” Eddie said. “This comes down from the FAA.”
“But I don’t want to spend the night here,” Elizabeth said, partly whining. “I don’t get a good feeling from Huntsville.”
“I got a fuckin’ killer after me, man,” Charlie said. “We gotta keep moving.”
“That was Charlie,” Elizabeth said, frowning. “I’d have preferred to introduce you two properly.”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Gillis,” Eddie said. “I look forward to working with you. But no, Miss Sunderland. We’re officially grounded. Can’t do it. You and your pilot would be in violation of federal…”
“…Whatever, Eddie. Explanations don’t help.” Elizabeth hung up the phone, pissed. “Looks like we’re stuck.” She eyed Charlie, looked out the windows, and sighed. “This is your town. What should we do?”
“This isn’t my town. I was just gonna die here. I grew up in Galveston.”
“See that’s just big-city ignorance and elitism,” Charlie said. “Galveston is a beach town. Tourists go there.”
She laughed. “You’re right, okay. Get to the point and give me an activity.”
“Point is. I don’t know what to do here.”
She turned to him, lips slightly puckered. “We could find a hotel, consummate our marriage.”
He laughed. “You’re not going to find a hotel here. Just a motel.”
She was genuinely intrigued. “What’s a motel?”
“Your room faces your parking space. They’re usually right off the highway.”
She scrunched up her nose. “I’ll pass.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Have you ever stayed in one?”
“I wish. I lived in trailers most of my life.”
She looked over to him and noticed that his erection was pressing against the fabric of his jeans. “Even if we’re not sure, seems like someone knows what he wants.”
“Well you warmed him up before,” he said. “I’ve wanted this from the first moment I saw you. I jerk off to you every night.”
Elizabeth wasn’t entirely sure how to take that. “Thanks.”
Charlie hadn’t picked up that this line of conversation wasn’t exactly doing it for her. “You think about me when you jerk off?”
She seemed slightly offended. “I don’t jerk off, Charlie. I celebrate myself. Don’t belittle it. I’m not just some grunting animal…”
“…Fine,” he said. “Do you think about me when celebrating?”
She slapped his knee. “You’re in my rotation. Way in front though.”
He laughed. “So it’s like a celebratory mix tape.” He slapped his hands together. “Hell, now I’m a little worried I might lose my headline spot. I’m not sure about the length of my upcoming performance.”
She eyed his erection again. “The length looks fine to me.”
“No. I’m gonna get off in thirty seconds. I haven’t had sex for five years.” He laughed. “I think I need to rub one out before I get to you.”
“That can be arranged.” She jangled the bracelets on her wrist. “Show it to me.”
“Are you serious?”
“I can drive with one hand.”
“Take off some of the bracelets though. They might weigh you down. I like some speed and tug to it.”
She smiled. “It won’t be a problem. I’ve done this plenty of times.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “Don’t need to know that.” He unzipped his fly, reached inside to pull his dick out into her welcoming hand, when the car violently jerked forward.
“Fuck,” Elizabeth screeched.
Smoke began to rise from the back. The force of the blow had sent them out of the lane and careening to the side of the road. Someone had rammed right into the car, and both Elizabeth and Charlie thought the same thing:
Someone found Charlie already and was going to kill him.
The only difference was their guess on the culprit. Elizabeth thought it was a Texan hell-bent on vengeance. Charlie imagined it was the killer himself, the man who stabbed him fourteen times and left him for dead to rot for his crimes.