A Peek Into “Mercy”


  1. Come up with a vague idea in the middle of the night.
  2. Spend three years taking that vague idea and making it something real that someone would want to read (and do so while having a full-time job and sneaking in writing time while waiting for PPT decks to download or when the in-flight wifi doesn’t work.)
  3. Once that book is ready to go to market, forget all about it and start writing the next one, based on a vague idea from the middle of the night but this time the result is going to be so much better than that piece of crap I just finished.

Okay, sure, it’s not exactly the Stephen King method, but it works for me.

Because of Zaria’s Gate, I’ve been asked whether I now plan to turn it into series. The answer is no, but not just because I’d rather get a broader publishing deal for the first one before entertaining a sequel.

The real reason is because I’ve got Defcon 1 level OCD combined with the attention span of a gopher — and therefore I’ve already moved on from Zaria and the world of Karshen to A.J. Mercer, a Death Row inmate in Alabama who does something impossible on the night of his execution.

He survives.

“Mercy,” my next novel, is loosely based on my experiences on Death Row as a reporter and the people I met while writing my first book, a non-fiction exploration of the death penalty, in the early ’90s. A.J. was real (I changed his last name for the book) and so are some of the other characters, but the premise has just enough fiction to tell a story about the human capacity for forgiveness — and the consequences of our limitations.

Below a short excerpt from early in the book. With any luck, you’ll be able to read the rest in less than three years.


Holman Correctional Facility, Atmore, AL – May 19, 2017

7 PM


“You too, Jimmy,” Jake replied as he emptied the pockets of his black suit for the visiting area prison guard. “How are you holding up?”

Warden Fry let out a laugh, one of those deep hearty types that start at the toes and build until your lungs almost burst.

“What’s so funny?”

“Reverend, you never cease to amaze me. We’re a few hours away from executing a human being, a man you’ve come to know and care about, and your first concern is how I’m holding up? Well let me see if I can spell it out for you any: I got twice as many officers posted inside and out of this building as normal. I got news media camped out in tents all over the road, TV crews from Atlanta and New York and even New Zealand – and damned if I know where the hell Zealand is, much less the new one – and dozens of protesters and counter-protesters everywhere the hell else.

“It’s a damn near party out there Jake – they even got donuts and coffee. We’re the biggest show in town and I’m the goddamn ringmaster.”

Jake allowed himself a quick smile. “Okay, I see your point.”

“You do now? That’s good, Jake, that’s real good. Glad to hear it. But since you asked I’ll tell ya – I’m holdin’ up somethin’ awful. I feel dirty, like a stick of gum stuck on the bottom of a shoe. I feel like I’m killin’ the poor sum bitch myself, no different as if I was gonna put my hands around his throat and squeeze out his last breath. That’s how I’m holdin’ up.

“Now don’t go thinkin’ I’ve had a change of heart or any damn thing. I support the law and intend to abide by it. It’s my job, Jake, and most days I like my job. Jus not today is all. Jus not on my watch.”

Jake understood. He and Fry had become as close to friends as anyone else Jake had met since leaving St. Louis. And he knew that Fry’s heart was as hard as a throw pillow.

Coddling was not the same as compassion – and Fry was nothing if not a compassionate man. He believed in rules but he also believed in relaxing those rules if it made his inmates less likely to beat the living hell out of each other or the guards.

He let the men on Death Row have TVs in their cells (no cable, the last thing he needed was for someone to find a porn channel.) They could make phone calls as often as they wanted and had extended visiting privileges. But it wasn’t just about a few extra creature comforts – he also let inmates go to college.

One class per quarter – there were classes in history, math, science, literature, and a host of other subjects, enough for them to earn an Associate’s Degree. Fry caught holy hell for that move from the governor’s office all the way on down to the local boys at the Atmore Diner, who accused Fry of wasting tax dollars on “a bunch of killers.”

Not that Fry cared about the backlash.

“What people have to understand is that’s a community down there,” Fry often said to anyone who’d challenge his methods. “It’s a town with 85 residents and I’m the goddamn mayor whether I like it or not. If I can get them doing something constructive, well then they’ll take better care of their surroundings and stop hassling the officers. That’s worth a hell of a lot more than a few dollars in my book.

“When you take a person away from all the people he knows by confining him in a five-by-eight foot cell – and I don’t give a damn what you give him – you’ve done some damage. He’s allowed out of that cell 45 minutes a day. He can shower every other day. He eats prison food, which ain’t bad but it’s also not what momma used to make, and he’s far from living in a lap of luxury. Hell, it ain’t even close to a Super 8.

“You’ve got to give Death Row inmates something extra, so you can have something to take away. You really wanna hurt someone on Death Row? I mean really cut ‘em to the bone? Take the TV out of his cell. It’s just hell on Earth when you do that. Within a few hours they’re beggin’ to get strapped into Yellow Mama.”

In the end, very few tax dollars were involved in Fry’s unconventional approach. Most everything was funding through a local non-profit and individual donations, including a few pennies from Jake’s own Lazarus Church congregation (and a more substantial check from Jake himself.)

Jake’s parishioners, as poor as they were, did what they could to support their pastor’s good works in Atmore; they were good people and had a special capacity to turn the other cheek. Most were just grateful that they had a strong local church again and a pastor who supported and cared about them, but Jake liked to believe that his flock wasn’t any more special than the rest of humanity; that given the chance to do the right thing, people would do so, regardless of their station.

Fry was a case in point. He had no obligation to provide anything more to his inmates than three meals day, a rusty bed and a pot to piss in. He could have been bitter and unconcerned about people who were just going to die anyway.

“Doesn’t do any good to treat people less than you would want to be treated,” Fry once told him. “Doesn’t hurt them half as much as it diminishes you…and I’ll be damned if I let some killer take my humanity away from me.”

Jake walked silently beside Fry as they made their way through the series of cold steel doors and checkpoints staffed by officers with vacant eyes. Everyone knew what tonight was – you could feel it more than anything, smell it in the still musty air. Men’s heartbeats mimicked the ticking of a clock, solid and steady, yet creeping ever forward.

Jake had taken this walk countless times – but this time, he counted each step. He felt the hard cement floor seep into his soles, examined the cracks in the tired walls. He tried to slow the clock down, to tame it, to push it aside so he could have this final walk all to himself. But the more he tried the more he found himself closer to his destination.

Time waits for no one. Death always comes.

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