"You hear that sound, sir?" comes the reedy voice of the kid, snapping along smartly, boot-heels striking sparks from the grindstone below. He's decked out and grinning, obviously excited. I haven't dealt with a new minor for thirteen years, haven't seen such excitement for the job in a long time.
"What sound?" I ask.
"I don't know, must've been a zeppelin misfire or something," he says. "Anyway I got you a bagel."
"Thanks," I say, take the round package from his proffered hand, wonder where the coffee is. "Nervous?"
"Nope, sir, not at all," he blusters. "My old pops, he told me how it all goes. A deathwatch man for twenty years, he was, sir. Besides, this is my second."
"What was your first?"
He swallows, swirls his tongue round the inside of his mouth. "Number 21," he replies. "You know, the saw and all that?"
"I'm familiar with it," I say gently. "Over quickly then?"
"Yup, real quick. First guy along just worked at the back for a bit, chopped off some hair, souvenir I reckon, then left it at that. Next guy, coupla minutes later, place was just warming up, comes along and does the rest himself. Clean off." He mimes picking up a severed head. I nod.
"Lot of blood," he adds.
"There is," I agree.
"Sure thing, sir, twenty liters. That was on the D-CAT's."
I nod, watch the first pedestrian walk by, staring at the crime boards before the door. After a minute or so he nods, picks up a brick from the stack by the road, carries it over to the door, and sets it down. The first of many. The kid doesn't even notice.
"I requested you especially sir," he jabbers, "after I heard you were looking for a new minor."
I sigh. He hears it, but that's OK. He has no way of knowing his request counted for nothing. It was my request that mattered.
"Of course you did," I say.
He smiles, though he seems a little unsatisfied.
"They say you're the best sir," he says. "Been present at 1216, total. Though of course that's not counting today."
I nod again, turn the bagel packet over in my hand. Looks like green powder and dough. I only wanted coffee, and where's the coffee?
"1216 is one of the highest," he says. "I checked the deathwatch records. Way more than my old man. I reckon it's one of the most, specially now old Reykavan's stepped down. You're a whole case study on the D-CAT's."
A seagull flies overhead. I watch it. The kid keeps talking. Powder sprays from his mouth, and I can see it as falling motes in the brilliant light. The seagull caws, circles, lands on the door, pecks at the silver handle. Not a sound from beneath. The bird loses interest, flies away, and the kid notices the single brick already resting on the door.
"Said in the books they cried out more, sir."
I turn to him, look him up and down, realize I don't even know his name. Standing there, boots too bright and spurs too low, grinning up at me shyly.
"Don't they normally cry out more, sir?"
I have no answer for him. The bagel has gone sticky through the paper wadding. I feel the first thin line of sweat prickle down my spine.
"I hate bagels," I say, hand the clammy mess back to the kid. He falls silent, takes back the crumpled bag, swallows hard.
The day wears on.
I suppose I was like him, when I started. Fresh from the D-CAT's, full of promise, excited at the start. It wears away, though. You change. I've replaced my spurs maybe twelve times in fifteen years. They look strong. They're made of metal. They do the job. And yet they wear away.
Same thing, maybe.
My first wasn't as easy as the kid's. It took a lot more time for me to forget. It was a crucifixion. Not so easy, not so slow, and a helluva thing to deal with off the back of my training alone. There were no majors for rookies back in those days, fifteen years ago, so I was on the deathwatch alone. Protesters came, disorganized right-to-life rabble with their placards, slogans and chants. They must have known, could pick me out the way I can spot the kid now, and knew they could get away with it.
Now, they wouldn't come near. The kid is smart to request me. This way, with me, there's no part in the death. It's only standing by. There's a weapon in your belt, but that's it. You don't need to use it. You shoot your first few protesters, you get a name, and the pistol stays in the holster after that. Shooting protesters is easy enough. A bullet is tidy, at least for the one with the gun. You pull a trigger, somebody screams, business taken care of. It's very different to repair the work of the protesters. You have to pick up the gory nails they pulled out. You have to strap the shivering wreck back down. You have to hold his hand, feel the fingers curl around yours like a lover's, his bearded whisper in your ear, please, then you have to raise the mallet, and you have to hammer the nail right back through his wrist. Maybe you do it a few times, wrist, ankles, each time undone by different protesters. They'll have placards, banners, people chanting. They don't realize how much extra pain they're actually causing. Appealing to me like I'm a factor in this.
I'm not. I wasn't. We never are. It wasn't me hammering those nails. It wasn't me hoisting the cross up again, putting back the spear, I felt nothing either way. There was no me there. There were merely the people, and their desire, and I was merely a guardian of their will. I only did what had been undone.
That first time there had been blood under my fingernails when I got home, scoured into the lines of my palms, clotted blobs clinging to the hairs on my forearms like red dew on the grass. It made it difficult to think I wasn't responsible. It made it difficult to remember I was only a caretaker. So I never left a shift bloody again. Next time, I used the pistol, and there were no problems. It's much easier that way.
My brother joined the deathwatch two years after me. Our parents were so proud. I gave him all the advice I could. I didn't want him to go through what I had to, and with me there to do it for him, he never had to. I assigned myself as his major, called in some favors, and pushed it through. It was like we were kids again, hanging out like we used to. People died, and we hung out. It took the edge off it. It took the sting out of my memories. Those were happy days.
He shot his first protester with me there. Nothing fatal, just enough. We pack very thin charges, more like a needle than a bullet, so it's only enough to injure, rarely fatal. You have to aim for the heart or head to make it fatal. He never had any trouble after that.
Well, not never.
There's a routine to it. There's rules. Each death, there's a different protocol. For each death, a different perceived crime. Everybody's guilty. Or they're innocent. The shades of gray, the indistinct boundaries, the fuzzy lines that divide me from the guy tied up under the door, who needs that? Who needs guilt as a measure of degree? Either you die for your crimes, or you live. Black and white.
I used to believe in the system. I used to think it worked. These days, I'm not so sure.
It's simple really. Nobody executes. There is no such thing as an execution. There are merely deaths, and the people. Some deaths are easy, and some aren't. It's a lottery, really.
At toll booths, in public parks, on top of buildings, in front of houses, strapped along highways like billboards, hanging like traffic lights at junctions, on bridges, on boats, mounted on trucks and paraded round the city, in stocks, in malls, on television, on the radio, on the Internet, hanging from zeppelins like fly fishing lures.
There are no lawyers, no judges, nothing, only the people, and the accused, and the deathwatch.
It's cumulative death. It's death by accretion. More nails, more water, more rope, more knives, more twists, more sawing, more height, more stones, more ice, more rats, more revolutions, more spikes, and at the end, you either live or you die, and that's the matter sealed.
My name is Stanislav Uslow. I am six foot two inches tall. I have black hair and brown eyes, just like my mother. I have a lightning shaped scar on the thumb of my right hand, and a mole in my left armpit, but other than this, no distinguishing features.
I have three nieces, though no family of my own. I am not married. The nieces are named Ramus, Yviten, and Sacha. They are all girls, and I love them. The eldest is seven. I am hoping that one day they will all get married, and have more children, then I will have more nieces and nephews to care for.
My mother lives in the country. I hadn't been to see her for years, up until three weeks ago when my father died. I'll have to go back again shortly, for she will hear the news soon enough. Even in that sick community, sitting every day waiting for death to come take her too, she will hear the news.
My mother writes me letters about flowers. I read them, but they mean nothing to me. I find myself wondering, is this really my mother. Did I really come from this.
My father never wrote. He was deaf and half-blind by the end. He used to sit by the fountain in that dying community all day, dabbing at the water with his walking stick. I sat and watched him do this. My mother used to write that he was too busy to write to me, too busy to write to my brother, even though she knew I'd seen him at his business before. I used to wonder sometimes, if that was what I would one day become.
"He's very quite, sir," says the kid, nodding at the canting door, straining against its corner pinions.
People are passing us by. Traffic is flowing. There's a smog here, on this bridge, that even the sea breezes cannot stir, like a mist rising up from the grindstone itself.
"I know," I say.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, twists one leg behind the other, twists it back. There is no slouching in the deathwatch.
"But it's unusual, sir, isn't it? I mean, it's already pretty heavy. It must be some fifty pounds, sir."
"Fifty-five," I correct, "and yes, it is unusual."
Every few minutes a man will stop as he strolls by, some guy will pull his car over and get out. Survey the scene. Read the name on the sign, eyes skimming the black and white list of deeds and misdeeds. Then he will make his judgement, cast his lot, and either carry a brick from the stack to the door, or get back in his car, return to his stroll, and forget the whole thing.
"I mean, sir, he must want to scream, right? How could he not? Number 32, crushing, that has to be one of the worst numbers available?"
I say nothing. He won't know about the uncommon ones yet. He wouldn't be able to finish his bagels if he did.
"Do they normally scream, sir?"
I say nothing.
"It's only, I've never seen a crushing before."
"Well, this is it," I say softly, gesturing to the door. Still, not a sound escapes.
The kid seems almost disappointed.
I'm watching the city in the distance, over the rails of the bridge, over the bay. A zeppelin glides lazily, like an untethered buoy drifting on a calm sea, over the tops of looming skyscrapers.
It hovers over the tallest, starts to descend. They're winding it in, must've dropped the latching hooks already. Soon it hangs from the edge of the building's spike like a deflated balloon, clinging for support to stay in the air. People will be getting off. People will be getting on. People will be going places.
Soon, it's rising. I see it buffeted by low winds, before its engines kick in, propel its outsized bulk back inland.
The seagull swoops again, cawing loudly. Lands by the door, waddles over, pecks at the thin red trail on the grindstone.
People are passing in throngs. It's gone midday. Sunlight reflects like an endless diamond bracelet from car windshields, flashing across my eyes.
Here I stand, watching a death.
"Sir, I can't even hear him breathing," says the kid, kneeling by the door.
"It's just, sir, if he's bleeding, shouldn't we be able to hear him coughing, or something?'
He's seen the red trail on the ground. It's fading now, the sun burning up the color. I turn to face him.
"Maybe he's already dead," I suggest.
"It's only seventy pounds though, sir, he can't be dead yet!"
"Maybe not," I muse.
"Really, sir?" he asks. "Seventy? They told us on the D-CATS it takes at least 100 pounds to kill a man."
I shrug. "They don't teach you everything on the D-CAT's, son."
He stutters something. I turn back to the crowd, streaming by, watch them judging a man they do not know.
When I was a child, my father used to take us fishing, me and my brother, down to the pier off old Coney Island, along with all the other fathers and sons, tackle boxes and rods in hand. I had a new Spraycatcher, my brother a Venom 350. Our dad had the oldest, one of the Blacks range. It was rusted at the reel, and the line often snagged on the eyelets as he threaded the nylon through. It looked ancient and useless next to ours. He used to catch more fish though.
We all used the same bait, red or purple rubber worms, set with a few solder balls for weights, plastic red and white buoys for floats. When we caught something, we always threw it back.
We used to spend hours down there. I remember the first time he took us with him. He caught a tiny carp, all wriggle and silver in the bucket. I watched wide-eyed as he lifted it, snapped the hook from its jaw, tossed it back into the sea.
I'd cried that time. For the pain of the fish, maybe. My father comforted me. He told me fish didn't feel any pain. It helped, but I couldn't forget the plastic snap as the barbed metal came free, the rabid twitching of the fish.
"This, boys," he'd say to us, "this is the life," and sigh happily.
We'd nod, agree. We'd compete, see who could get the most. Always it was our father, though he pretended it wasn't, claiming to have lost count, or forgotten. He offered prizes to the winner, but somehow he always contrived for it to be a draw.
"This calls for ice cream!" he'd boom, clap his hands enthusiastically, and predictably enough we'd jump to our feet and clap in return, jabber excitedly.
"I think Stanny here caught two cod, maybe a jellyfish, hard to be sure really, and an old boot, making him today's winner!""
At this, my brother's eyes would sink to the floor, all part of the act.
"But," my father would continue, "the boot was a little too lively and we had to throw it back before I could weigh it." (He never weighed any of the fish.) "So I think, maybe, perhaps, that puts Reyk in the lead by a particularly sizable clump of seaweed!"
Then it was my turn to be downcast, my brother's turn to whoop with joy. And so, we would seesaw back and forth as our father re-tallied the catches, resulting in both of us getting ice cream every time.
We'd keep fishing while he strolled off to the vendor, way up the beach. We'd jostle each other, get rough with the nylon, cross our threads and often have to re-spool ourselves, muttering feverishly as we watched our father return, dripping ice cream to the sandy pier boards below.
It was our thing. He let us, I think. He knew we loved it, to squabble, to patch things up before he arrived. He understood things like that.
One time though, he didn't come back fast enough. We were fighting, as usual. My brother took our father's rod and swept it back over his shoulder, the line lying weighted and hooked at our feet.
"Fly fishing!" my brother cried, and hurled the tip of the rod forward as though he were throwing a baseball. Next thing he was screaming.
The line had whipped back at him, the hook lodging through his eyebrow, eyelid, part of the eye. Our father was not to be seen, and my brother was shrieking, pawing desperately at his face as blood trickled down his cheek.
For a second I did nothing. It was too fast. From joking and laughing to this. Then I stood up, slapping his rolling arms from his face, and touched the haft of the deeply embedded hook, felt him shrink away. I remembered my father that first time, snapping free the hook from the fish, telling me they felt no pain, then watching the silver thing buck and squirm in his rough hands.
I knelt, my brother's eyes wide and watery as he screamed, and picked up the tackle knife. I cut the nylon close to his cheek, took the hook, and thrust it deeper through the ball of his eye. He cried, struggled weakly, tried to twist his head away, but I held him firmly locked under my arm. The hook passed through, the barb bobbling a lump of white as it poked free. I pushed again, feeding the metal through my brother's eye like I was threading an eyelet.
It came free. A lot of blood followed. My brother dropped to the ground and started to shake. Sweat poured from his whitening skin.
Then our father came back, and it was all right. The ice cream helped. He wasn't even angry that we used his rod. He stayed calm. He tied cloth round my brother's head, told him to keep his eye closed. He pointed out the cut on my right thumb, where the hook must have sliced up through the air on its way to my brother's face, asked if I could bend it. I couldn't, had to get an operation to reconnect the tendon. My brother had to have stitches in his eye, but there was no permanent damage.
Our father didn't leave us alone again though, not for a long time. We all went to get ice cream together, after that day.
Maybe ninety pounds on the door now, and still no sound. The kid doesn't like it, rolling his spurs, peering under the door.
"Shouldn't we check, sir?" he asks.
"Check what?" I ask.
"Well," he mumbles. "Check he's, uh, alive. Sir."
"And why would we do that?"
"Because, um . . ."
"Because maybe he's not, sir. Alive, that is."
I look at him blankly. "That's kind of the point of the deathwatch, son," I say. "They didn't tell you that on the D-CATS?"
He starts to speak again but I look at him and he falls silent.
"How many did you say I've watched?" I ask. "1216? 1217? Do you know how many of those died?"
"Um," he says.
"Not so ready with that figure?"
"I don't think they, uh, release that--"
"All of them," I say. "All of them except one. What business is it of yours whether they scream or not?"
"Sir?" he asks.
"You forget your place, minor."
He salutes sharply. "Yes sir," he snaps, turns his face forward and falls silent.
Of course, the kid's right. He should be screaming. Ninety-five pounds on his chest, he should be screaming a whole lot. It's my fault. If I hadn't let that one survive, slip through my fingers, everything would be different now. It's ironic, really.
I tell myself, that day, there was no way I could have known, but I always feel like I should have anyway.
My mother called. She never called. She told me our father had had a bad stroke. He was going to die, within hours. He wanted to see me, and just me. I wanted to call my brother, tell him, call off the deathwatch if I had to. But I didn't. My mother made me swear I wouldn't tell him until it was done, so I didn't.
I took the monorail to the country, all the while watching fat zeppelins dusting white trails across the open sky, thinking about my father, stroking the scar on my thumb from that fishing hook when we were children.
Three hours. I took a taxi to the community, ran through the reception without a thought. I was in my black and silvers, spurs striking sparks along the marble corridors, old folks with zimmer frames and fear on their faces skittering out of my way.
At the door, I paused for a moment. I knew what to expect on the other side. I've seen over a thousand men die. Then I opened the door.
A small figure like a child, wrinkled and pale, swaddled with metal and glowing glass screens, my mother huddled and gray at the side. Windows open, daylight streaming in obscenely.
"You came," she whispered, stood, hurried over to me. "And in your uniform!" There were tears in her eyes. "He'll be so proud of you! So proud!"
She stood aside, ushered me forward.
I walked up to him. His eyes were glazed. His mouth was slack. A line of saliva had dribbled down his cheek. He barely moved as I approached, but he knew. I could feel it. I could see the glint of my silver epaulettes in his pupils. He knew, and a tear swelled like a crescent moon against his eyelid, caught up in the lashes. I waited for it to burst, to froth up and flow down his face, but there wasn't enough. I took his withered hand in my own, and I felt his pride shining up at me. Then he died.
The screens whined, green blips fading from sight. A nurse came rushing in, but I waved her away. She left.
At my side my mother was weeping quietly. I put my arm around her, held her. She felt so frail. She felt like a whole life, a whole person, squeezed into too frail a shell. She was always so much more alive than this body now allowed her to be.
"He was at the pond," she said, and her voice was clear. "You know. You've seen him. He was talking to me. Telling me stories. Things he'd never told me before. About you two, the boys. About your scar, your brother's accident. You saving his eye. I never knew about that. He told me everything, almost as if he knew it was his last chance. I love him more for it."
She looked up at me, tears burning in her eyes.
"He loved you Stanny. He did. He never wrote, but he was so proud. I can't begin to explain it. Perhaps of you most of all. Did you ever know he tried to join the deathwatch when he was younger? They rejected him, failed tests. Then to have two sons take that position? I think he was so proud, he didn't have words for it. He didn't know how to tell you."
It was almost too much. The old man's body right there, before us, and my mother like that. She fell silent, then reached into the pocket of her blouse, drew out a white square of tissue paper.
"His words, Stanny," she said. "I wrote everything he could say. Read it."
I took the crumpled paper. It was soft and thin in my hands. I read the words: look after your brother, Stanislav. he needs you. he always did. you've been like the father I could never be.
I folded the paper neatly, placed it reverently in my pocket. Stepped back over to my father's body, brushed my palm down his forehead as I've done a thousand times before, over his eyes. They closed, and the swollen tear finally burst free.
It was that day, the day I left my brother alone on the deathwatch for the first time in thirteen years, that the protesters came. It was a crushing. They kicked over the door before my brother could stop them, the pinions too loose to hold it. The half-broken body beneath was unveiled.
Crumpled nose. Shadowy indentations in his chest, in place of ribs. Thick bubbled lines of blood spuming from his mouth. Feet, ankles, twisted at wrong angles.
He tried to put the door back. I know, he tried. He shot the protesters. The man was screaming, all red and white noise, and he tried to put the door back, but he couldn't.
Instead he untied the man, set him in a taxi, and sent him off to hospital. Then he went to the deathwatch council, and offered himself up for judgement.
They held him. They kept it quiet. They told the world, Reykavan Uslow is retiring. Thank you for your service, Reykavan, and enjoy your retirement. Two weeks later, they put him underneath a door on the same bridge, and they offered him up for judgement with the freed man's name and numbers on the boards before him. My brother's name is Reykavan Uslow, and he's my brother, but that's not what it says on the signs.
I had to cheat the system and call in all the favors I've earned over fifteen years to get the assignment.
The kid gets bold and questions me again as it gets dark. I tell him to take off the board himself if he wants to check. He balks. He'll probably file a complaint against me. He's probably shivering him with excitement at the thought of challenging the famous Stanislav Uslow. But it doesn't matter. I'm leaving. With the codes I've already broken, I'll be lucky if I escape the city alive.
When it's dark I leave. I don't stay around for the cleanup. I have to move, now it's finished.
My home is empty. My home was always empty. But now my brother is dead.
I walk over to my study, open the cupboard at the back, behind the fake bookcase. From inside, I take a single silver bullet and I open my pistol, roll the full clip to the single empty slot, slide the metal into the discharged gap. The first time I've fired my pistol in fifteen years.
His last words to me were: "I'm sorry."
That morning, kneeling by his side, waiting for the kid with coffee and bagels, I told him I understood. I told him that father was proud of him. I told him it was all going to be OK, nobody would judge him guilty. I told him he would be returning home soon enough, reinstated with the deathwatch.
His eyes were brimming with tears, and he knew, just as I did.
Then I ran my palm down his forehead, closing his eyes just as I had my father's, just as I had a thousand men before them both, and I shot him in the heart.
I call his wife. Her voice is raw. I can hear the girls playing in the background. Ramus, Yviten, and Sacha. She hasn't told them yet.
"He didn't suffer," I tell her. She hangs up the phone.
Climbing into the night's last zeppelin to the country, I remember my father. He was a good man, but he never made the deathwatch. I wonder about my life now. If I will get married. If I will have children. My brother did. He was never a deathwatch man though. Not really.
I think, tomorrow I start a new life. I killed my first man today. I think, maybe I'm not the man I thought I was. I think, maybe my brother, and my father, were better men than I.
Perhaps that's what my father's last note meant. Perhaps that's what I should do. Perhaps that bullet was the best thing I ever did.
The strangest thing. It was such a beautiful day.
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