They had moved Ned Bulstrode to the Death House yesterday and executed him by lethal injection at about 3.00 am that morning. Rob Williams sat in his 12 by 7 ft cell on Death Row of Coleman Correctional Institution South Carolina and concentrated on reimagining the expanse of blue sky shown on the photograph of Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire, in the watercolor he was painting. The photograph served as a template. He had never been there, had never been on any part of the Appalachian Trail in fact. The photograph was the closest he would ever get to either. He had spent 14 years waiting to die and it had desensitized him to the sporadic ritual of Capital Punishment. He had just turned 18 when he experienced it for the first time. The date was etched in his brain: May 15, 1990. They had taken the guy out of his cell screaming and cursing. It had terrified him. He had not been able to sleep well for a couple of weeks after as he tried to come to terms with the awful realization that this was what lay in store for him. Now it was just part of the rhythm of the place.
It would be his turn soon enough. He knew that. The last appeals were exhausted. He had trained his mind over the long years not to anticipate any clemency. He kept himself in the moment. Right now, he needed to lay down the lighter colors of the cumulus clouds in his painting before applying the blues that would capture the sky as it merged with the mountainous horizon. Williams wondered idly what price his art dealer down in Key West would list it for. Recently his watercolors had been fetching as much as $5000. Of course if I get the needle in the meantime it should put the price up a couple thousand. No more supply! he thought to himself with grim gallows humor. He glanced at his watch. In 25 minutes it was time for his exercise period. He would be given an hour in a narrow outdoor caged enclosure separated from the general prison population. It had a basketball hoop and a weight-training bench with a few free weights. Williams thought of it like a glorified dog run. At least it meant an hour of daylight and pure sunshine. The only natural light in his cell came from a narrow slit window just below the ceiling on the north-facing wall. He habitually positioned his easel to take best advantage of the shaft of illumination that the aperture provided when he was working. Now he carefully rinsed his brushes and palette and put the black disc covers back on the small pots of watercolors. He left the painting until the last minute to allow his most recent work to dry.
While he waited, he put on a pair of runners and grabbed his prison-issue cap to keep the sun off his head. The unfinished painting was then stored carefully under his bed. It was one of two he was working on. That’s all there was room for under the bed. His living space was so confined he restricted works in progress to a maximum of two at any one time. The finished products were shipped to his dealer. Rob Williams was 31 years of age and 170lbs of lithe muscle with very little body fat. He stood six feet 2 inches tall with startling blue eyes and had dark hair cut short. His physique he attributed to good genes, a selective approach to what was presented to him on his meal tray three times a day, and an obsessive approach to his daily workout. He had watched too many death row inmates over the years literally go stir crazy from the boredom, social isolation, and anxiety associated with their incarceration. He kept himself sane by adhering to a rigorous schedule each day. Every waking hour was accounted for. At 1.00 pm precisely the guard came to escort him to the exercise yard. He would stay with Williams for the period allowed, never letting him out of his sight. It was hot and humid as the prisoner emerged to a cloudy sky. What struck Rob Williams as odd though was that there were no birds singing. He gave it little thought as he stripped off his shirt and tossed it into a corner, then began to run sprints.
Chad Grainger was bored. He looked down from his hexagonal guard tower, his rifle propped against the desk. The inmates were out in the exercise yard, walking, playing hoops, talking. They congregated principally by ethnic group: Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian. The air conditioning was inadequate for the temperature outside and Grainger’s uniform felt damp and uncomfortable. Still, it was the start of football season and he was looking forward to tailgating with his buddies at the Gamecock home opener. Cheryl would probably bust his balls about making a whole day of it and leaving her home with the new baby but for fuck’s sake – he needed to be able to blow off steam now and then. As his thoughts drifted his eyes automatically scanned the yard and its perimeter for any sign of disturbance. The walkie talkie crackled into life. “Everything okay up there Chad?”
“Place is like a damn steam room Vern. When they going to do something about this crap AC?” Vern was in the control room located on the third floor of the prison building, which looked out over the yard. “I don’t think your creature comforts are very high on the warden’s list of priorities Chad.” Vern laughed and clicked off the radio. The afternoon wore on. Chad was always relieved when exercise period was over. Fights could break out in a split second. The trick was rapid reaction and containment. No one really tried to breach the perimeter. The walls were 14-foot-high concrete topped with razor wire, and every inch of them was covered by one of the four guard towers located at each corner of the prison compound. The biggest risk was prisoners settling scores. If a gang fight broke out the guards could get caught up in it. In his five years at the prison he had seen four officers badly injured. One guy had lost an eye from a shiv through his cheek bone.
It would take 20 minutes until the yard was cleared. He’d have a sandwich and soda at that point. There was a mini fridge in the tower where he could keep supplies. His eyes shifted away from the yard to scan the road and fields surrounding his quadrant of the prison. He noticed that the birds had stopped singing. Must be weather coming in, he thought. He squinted. In the far distance he saw what looked like a pencil in his field of vision. He grabbed the binoculars from the desk, focused them, and then he saw it. The dark snaking funnel cloud tearing along on a direct line toward him. He hit the walkie talkie. “Tornado, Vern! Headed right for us from the north-east!” Vern’s voice crackled back skeptically. “What you on about Chad? The sirens haven’t gone off or nothin’.” Chad was in a cold sweat, the humidity forgotten. “For Christ’s sake Vern we need to clear the yard quickly. Get everyone indoors right now!” Vern patched in the guard in the other north-facing tower. “Will, Chad thinks there’s a twister headed for us. You see anything?”
“Which direction am I looking in Vern?” came the reply.
“North, north-east – right in front of you! Where do you think dumbass?”
“Give us a second Vern. Can’t see anything with the naked eye. Just let me grab the glasses.” There was a 30 second pause. “Jesus! I see the motherfucker! Clear the yard! Clear the yard now!”
The klaxons sounded. The drill kicked in and the guards began to herd the inmates into the basement cells and the dining hall located on the ground floor. The loudspeakers boomed, “Tornado sighted! All prisoners proceed to their designated shelter immediately! This is not a drill!”
There had only been three or four minutes of indecision, but it was enough to cause 12 men to lose their lives that day.
Chad had stayed at his designated position until the evacuation order was given. What had been a pencil-thin strand in his binoculars only a few minutes before now loomed like a massive churning funnel hurtling toward him. Trees were being plucked out of the ground like so much chaff. The noise was that of an approaching freight train. He was halfway down the tower stairs when the tornado struck. It took down the guard tower, half the prison wall, and powered through the yard. Trestle tables, the basketball hoops, dumbbells, bench weights all became lethal projectiles in the confined space. Men who had not made it indoors screamed in pain as the heavy flying objects slammed into them or they were picked up and hurled into the walls of the prison or impaled on the razor wire. Chad Grainger’s body, mangled like a broken doll, was found later that afternoon half a mile away.
When the order was given to clear the yard Rob Williams was among the first to be moved indoors. This was completely predictable. Death row prisoners were the top security priority for the prison authorities. It was a short walk back to his cell.
“Best get under the bed and say your prayers son. This is a bad one!” The guard made sure the cell door was locked and then rushed away. The bed was bolted to the floor. Rob grabbed his mattress and squeezed his lean six-foot frame under the bed frame after first removing his art-in-progress. He pulled the mattress in front of him to protect against flying debris and lay in the spreading gloom listening to the ominous roar outside. It suddenly became very cold and he felt as if the air was being sucked out of his body, out of his cell. Random thought fragments ran through his head. The public defender handling his case had been encouraging him to write a will. “Just in case,” was the expression he had used but it was an indirect way of letting him know that the day was soon coming when Rob would be moved to the death house in preparation for his execution. Might be best if the tornado finished me off considering the alternative, he thought. Good thing I’ve kept myself in such good shape I can fit under the fucking bed! All that healthy eating and weight training so I can have great vascularity for the goddamn needle! What a crock!” He had never had any illusions about how things would end up once the judge had passed the death sentence. All the appeals at State and then Federal level were just a series of delaying tactics. He was white trash convicted of a brutal drug-fueled homicide. The lawyers were just going through the motions.
The air grew thick with dust. The noise was deafening. He thought his eardrums would burst. Then, just as suddenly as it had hit the tornado was gone. Rob pushed away the mattress. What he saw through the dust was utter devastation. Half the outer wall as well as the roof of the one-story death row block was clean gone. He could see out to the yard and into the cell next to him. In it, Leroy Jensen was laid out on the floor with his head grotesquely crushed against a wall by the toilet bowl that had been ripped off the floor. Out in the yard there were bodies everywhere. One guy was staggering around, his left arm dangling uselessly, pouring blood. But what caught Rob’s attention was the outer wall.
Straight ahead of him there was a huge hole in the bleakly thick structure. It was as if it had been breached by a massive artillery shell. He crawled cautiously forward on his belly to the edge of his cell where his own wall had once stood. There were no guards in the remaining towers. I can get the fuck away from here! he thought. Sure, they’ll probably catch me in the end but it’s a hell of a lot better than just sitting around waiting like some hog for the slaughter! He crouched and then sprinted across the yard for the gap in the wall, scrambling up the rubble, and hauling himself up the five foot that remained of what had once been a 14-foot rampart. He threw himself forward. As he fell agonizing pain shot up his left leg. He had fallen on a jagged piece of rebar that jutted out from part of the razor wire that had ringed the wall of the prison. “Should have looked before you leapt, dumbass!” he said, wincing at the pain. Debris littered the ground in front of him. He gingerly extricated himself from the coils of wire and dragging his leg after him slid on his backside to the uprooted stump of what had just a few minutes before been a majestic oak. Somehow he got himself upright and started taking slow deep breaths to fight back the waves of pain and nausea, then he began to hobble south in the direction of the interstate.
In the command center prison warden Spencer Clarke III looked out over the carnage in the yard. The reinforced bulletproof glass windows had been useless against the pressure differential exerted by the monstrous violence of the tornado. Only jagged fragments remained sticking out of framework. The prison medical staff were performing triage on the injured. So far three guards were confirmed dead – one critical and one unaccounted for. Five prisoners were dead and three were critical. “Ambulances are on their way chief! Three hospitals responding!”
“Thank Christ it missed town!” another guard muttered. “State troopers are on their way – as many as they can scramble.” The warden nodded grimly. “First priority is to see to the injured. Next we need to secure our perimeter. Half the fucking north wall is gone! State police can help with that, maybe we can get the National Guard in to assist in the rebuild. Schedule me a call with the Governor’s Office ASAP !We need to make this place secure! We’re going to have to offload as many of the prison population as we can. This facility is tore up pretty damn good!”
His deputy looked at him doubtfully. “We’re past capacity as it is chief, I’m not too sure where we can put them.”
“I’ll send them to a women’s prison if I have to!” Clarke snapped back. “Get me the governor’s office on the phone, assuming the line is still working. Let’s see if those sons of bitches have any bright ideas! Also, cancel all leave – I want every man on the payroll here ASAP! Why didn’t the fucking sirens go off? That’s what I want to know. And after I’m done with the governor I want to talk to the Office of Emergency Management. I’ve got three dead officers and counting – I’m going to want some fucking answers here!”
* * *
A couple of hours later the scene at the prison had already been transformed. A fleet of yellow Harvester buses were lined up to begin transporting the secured inmates to other facilities around the State. As each one filled up it was escorted by four state police cruisers, two at the front and two at the rear. National Guardsmen had been deployed to travel on each bus to support the sole prison officer in charge of each transport. This worked for members of the general prison population. The inmates from the high-security wing were being loaded manacled into police paddy wagons with a National Guard escort. In total 450 prisoners – roughly half the jail population – were going to have to be relocated. The warden would have liked to shut the entire facility down for repair, but this had been ruled out as there was simply nowhere else to put the remaining inmates.
“Kitchen is wrecked. Laundry is wrecked. Half the building’s tore to pieces. This place is only 10 years old and was built to withstand major natural disasters. Hurricanes, twisters, earthquakes for God’s sake! So how come that fucking tornado was able to take it apart like so much matchwood?” The warden was on the phone to the Director of Prisons from a trailer in the prison yard, which served as his makeshift office. Personnel from Emergency Management were continuing to perform damage inspections on buildings in the complex that had not sustained any obvious damage. “Well Spence, according to NOAA this tornado clocked in as at a level 4 on the Fujita scale. They estimate the wind speed was in excess of 230 miles an hour.” The warden was not persuaded.
“This place has a foundation of poured concrete. It has concrete wall a foot thick. It was constructed to withstand pretty much any kind of natural disaster. It’s supposed to be able to take sustained winds of 250 mph. I know this because me and my boys were made to sit through a presentation by Emergency Management as part of training. So we have a tornado that touches down for what? Maybe two to three minutes tops and a place that’s supposed to hang tough through several hours of a major hurricane collapses like a pack of cards? The families of my four dead guards – I just got told that Mitch Baker got killed – so that makes four dead and one still missing, and those families are going to want answers and so the fuck do I! And don’t talk to me about fucking NOAA! We got no warning, nothing! No sirens, no weather warnings. A total clusterfuck of a situation.”
On the other end of the line the Director of Prisons was solicitous. “I know it’s a shitstorm down there Spence, and you guys are doing one hell of a job. I’m watching the live feed from CNN now. We’re going to get you answers, you have my word. Right now though what else is it you need from me?” The warden sighed wearily. “Right now I need a way to keep feeding the 600 prisoners and staff that remain onsite.” The director was brisk. “Okay, I’ll get on to our catering contractor and see what they can come up with. I’ll get back to you ASAP.”
The warden looked up from his desk. His deputy had been waiting patiently for him to finish. “Bad news Chief. Sorry to report that Chad Grainger is dead. A farmer just found his body in his field a half mile away from here.”
“The poor bastard! Did he have any family?
“Yes. A wife and a young baby.” The warden glanced away. Amid the havoc in the prison yard a line of three cabbage palms swayed untouched, miraculously spared by the capricious path of the tornado. “So that’s five funerals we got. Everyone who signs up for this job knows there are risks but no one expects to be taken out like this!” He sighed. “What else you got?” His deputy ran his hand through his thinning hair.
“We did the prisoner count. There’s one missing – Robert Williams.” The warden’s gaze sharpened and became more intense. “That’s one of the death-row guys. Getting close to his time as I recall.” His deputy nodded.
“That’s the one. Whole wall of that block is rubble. His neighbor Leroy Jensen is dead with his head stove in. Maybe the tornado took Williams like poor Chad.” The warden snorted. “This isn’t Dorothy in the Wizard of fucking Oz! That guy’s a stone-cold killer. We need his body in custody dead or alive! If he’s dead so much the better. Save the taxpayer a few bucks.” He rocked in his chair. “The north wall is breached. Maybe he took advantage of the confusion and skedaddled. Get some tracker hounds. See if they can pick up a trail. If the vortex took him they’ll come up short. Meantime put out a description and an APB on him. It could be worse, I suppose. At least it’s not a mass breakout.”
* * *
Rob Williams dragged himself slowly and agonizingly across a wheat field that seemed to stretch interminably in front of him. He had navigated the uneven terrain of the wood that abutted the prison without being detected. The ground 1000 yards in all directions from the prison wall was maintained as a dirt perimeter. It was effectively a killing field for anyone trying to escape. In normal circumstances the guard towers had an unobstructed line of sight so making a break for it overland was certain suicide. There had been a couple of escape attempts over the years he had been incarcerated in Coleman Correctional Institution, including one to tunnel out of the prison, but none had succeeded. One pair almost made it but the tunnel collapsed when they were just 50 yards short of the tree line, suffocating one and crippling the other. In Rob’s case the guard towers were abandoned and the perimeter unwatched in the tornado’s immediate aftermath. In the confusion his tortoise-like progress to the woods had gone unnoticed.
Adrenaline and fear had propelled him initially. He had managed to use a broken branch as a makeshift crutch to take the weight of his injured leg. As one hour became two in this tortuous struggle however he was becoming dehydrated and fatigued. I have no plan, he thought to himself, but if I quit now and lie down I’ll surely die and I don’t want to do that! He had been kidding himself that he was coming to terms with the inevitability of his death sentence but confronted with the real possibility that his life was imminently forfeit he realized just how unprepared he was to leave the planet. “I need to get somewhere there are people who can help me,” he mumbled. He could hear the sounds of the traffic on the interstate in the distance. The light was fading fast and he was desperate to get to the verge before the darkness enveloped him. His breathing was ragged and he was dripping with sweat. He could feel himself becoming chilled as the heat went out of the day. He made one last effort, got to the hard shoulder, and collapsed in a heap on the side of the road.
At the prison the sergeant in charge of one of the K9 units reported back to the warden. “Okay sir, we have a trail! The dogs picked up the scent from Williams’ cell. Looks like he made a break for it over the breach in the north wall. We found bloodstains on the far side. The indications are he fell and injured himself pretty bad. The trail is leading off into the woods – do you want us to start the manhunt?” The warden looked at the weather bulletin on his desk. “Light is fading. There’s no rain forecast. Everyone is burnt out right now and we still need to completely secure the prison grounds. That bastard is not going to get far. We’ll start out after him at first light!”