The winter hadn’t been that cold, but when February came, it was like the season decided to make up for lost time. For a lot of the nation, it meant snow and office closings and school snow days. For Houston, it meant a lot of rain – that sort of cold rain that clings to you and makes you feel every breeze as though it were an arctic blast. It was a wet that got on you when with a raincoat and umbrella, and waiting for the car heater to really start going always felt like eternity (and always seemed to finally get hot once you’ve reached your destination).
“Now this is an interesting story,” the man on the radio droned, and Rob let the words settle through his conscious thought a brief moment, but then let them go.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Janie said in the seat beside him. “Weird, I guess.”
“Officials in Germany have arrested a 93-year-old man for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder,” said the man on the radio.
Rob had already opened his mouth to say something else, to try to reassure her, comfort Janie, provide some wisdom (that he knew he didn’t have), but that caught his attention, and he turned up the volume two clicks. He couldn’t really think of anything to say anyway.
“Yeah, so apparently this guy was a guard at Auschwitz for a few years, and, you know, he’s like this S.S. guard who works at the death camp while, I guess, doing his stint in the army for the Führer or whatever. So he spends the war supervising the part of the camp where they are killing people. I don’t know, I guess the war ends and he walks away, maybe thinking nothing of it, maybe thinking that was it, it’s over, and here it is, seventy years later, and he gets arrested, and he’s going to be tried.”
“Huh,” Rob said, and he lowered the volume as the man moved on to a different topic.
“Huh?” Janie said. She hadn’t been listening.
“They arrested this old Nazi guy who helped kill Jews in World War II.”
Janie looked out of the window.
“Serves him right, I guess,” he said, frowning. “It’s been a long time though. He probably thought he had gotten away for good.”
The girl beside him wasn’t interested.
“Here it is,” Rob said, turning his blinker on as they approached the clinic’s drive. It was quiet that morning – not many cars on the street. The parking lot had only a few scattered vehicles, so he pulled into the front spot.
“Do you want me to come with you?” he asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“Not even in the waiting room?”
Again, she shook her head.
“Okay, how about I grab some breakfast, and I’ll have it waiting for you. Does that sound okay?”
She nodded, but abruptly opened the door and got out. She had already closed the door and started away when Rob said, “I love you!” He wasn’t sure whether she
heard or not. And he wasn’t sure it really mattered. And lastly, he wasn’t sure he even meant it anymore.
It was on another rainy day, though one a bit warmer, and considerably later in years, when Robert Connor approached Austin on the HAL (the Houston-Austin Elevated in official terms, but such a title is far too cumbersome on the tongue, so people had been calling it “the HAL” for years now). The cylindrical train sped on its 30-foot-high track, making the journey is a bit over a half hour. Robert usually thought it was a waste of time. By the time you get off, get over to the car rental booth, and get out of there, you may as well have just driven. It was only a couple of hours’ trip on the road anyway. But in this case, the governor had promised to send his car to pick Robert up at the station, and a ride in the governor’s car meant that the HAL made a lot more sense, both in time and finances.
He sighed. This had all come together very quickly.
Oddly enough, he didn’t even yet know that the verdict was in fact officially guilty, but the evidence was too overwhelming. Gone were the days that these things would take months and years of motions and arguing over evidence collection and all of that. No, those things would be basically firmed up before the arrest, not while someone was in jail. There really weren’t any more of those loopholes to get good evidence thrown out (or bad evidence allowed in). That wasn’t the debate anymore, though Robert could remember a time when that seemed common enough. The verdict would be guilty, and things would move quickly after that. He needed to be there as soon as possible, lest he miss everything.
He looked through his notes, shaking his head. Uphill battle, this would be, and he wasn’t ready. There hadn’t been enough time.
But he really wasn’t sure more time would make it easier. He would be arguing against what, over time, had been realized by pretty much everyone as Good and The Right Thing To Do. Sure, consensus didn’t always make for good law, and actually rarely did, but some things are really clear in the minds of the people, and this was one of them.
“Be honest with yourself,” he muttered, too low to be overheard. “You’re going to the governor and asking that a truly wicked murderous man be pardoned.”
The HAL started to slow, and the cabin swayed under the pressure of the breaks. There was a high whine outside that grated at the ears. But then again, speed had always grated at the ears, hadn’t it?
The crowd filed out at the station, more efficiently than anyone really got used to, and Robert immediately saw a chauffeur standing a couple of score yards away, holding a sign that read, “R Connor.”
“That’s me,” Robert said.
“Yes, sir,” the man said, then bit his lip, obviously hesitant about the next part of his duty.
Robert shook his head. “Go ahead,” he sighed.
“I have strict instructions, sir. From the governor.”
“I know, it’s fine. I’m used to it.”
“Thank you, sir,” the man said, and then continued, in a very loud, booming voice, to call out, “Bobby Boy! Bobby Boy! Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Boy!”
“Yeah,” Robert said as he heard the chuckles around him. “That never gets old.”
“Bobby Boy! Bobby Boy!”
Robert stood up and buttoned his jacket deftly with one hand as he continued to hold his glass of scotch in the other. Honestly, he had hoped to finish it in peace, since the governor’s arrival would turn the occasion very serious, very quickly, and the scotch was good. Still, it was nice while it lasted. He licked his lips, a nervous habit, but it had the unexpected benefit of giving him one last taste the lingering liquor. It was very good.
Jeffrey McDonald was a jovial man, nearing sixty in age, but every bit as fit as he was during the war when he first made a name for himself. In the early days the best soldiers had become the de facto leaders, but war eventually transitions into rebuilding, and not all at once, and a few men had emerged as people who had actually thought some of this stuff through. That was rare – thinking about what rebuilding would look like rather than just assumed it would be good. It was those people who became the second-wave leaders of the emerging Republic, and the ones who made it actually work. MacDonald was one, as was Billings and Van Dyke, and it was strange being among the very people who had so clearly changed everything. Even more so, to know two of the three personally, and to know one of those two very well. “Thank you for seeing me and providing the ride. Your driver was very good.”
“Now, Bobby, we used to play ball together, and you are being way too formal with someone who shared a locker room with you,” the Governor said, pouring himself a glass to join his old friend. He motioned for Connor to have more, but the other shook his head. MacDonald added, “The driver, did he do it?”
Robert twisted up his expression. “Yes.”
“Excellent. Excellent! I knew it would make you uncomfortable. You’ve always needed to loosen up a bit. Formality gets you somewhere, but it’s not normally passed the living room. To really get beyond that point with someone, it takes unbuttoning the top button.”
Connor faked a chuckle, then said, “About why I came.”
“Um, yes.” He said, stressing the words, “Dr. Stuart. I’d like to ask you to pardon him.”
MacDonald plopped into his chair and leaned as far back as it would go. “Well, now, I had wondered if you were here for that. Didn’t make any sense to me, of course, but why else come all this way suddenly on a Friday evening to talk? Why else would you call up in such a hurry on this day of all days? Nothing else in the news. Nothing overly pressing that couldn’t wait a few days. And that got me wondering. I suppose you know my answer already.”
“I suspect I do, but I’d like to have my say.”
“Of course. Your say is always worth the hearing, old friend.”
“Public opinion notwithstanding, we just don’t have proper jurisdiction here.”
“The courts and Senate disagree.”
“I know, and bad rulings are what got us in this mess in the first place. You’ll remember that it was the court that made what he did legal, and now another court in another country is saying that we’ll prosecute because the original country would not. Dr. Stuart has not committed anything that would be considered murder under the law at the time. He has committed no crime at all in the Republic. The law at the time allowed for the practice, and that status was protected under the U.S. Constitution, which did not allow for the passage of ex post facto laws. His business was perfectly legal, and when it became illegal, he stopped it. But now we pass the very ex post facto that he was guaranteed protection against in his country of residence and citizenship.”
“But we have no such protection when it comes to murder,” MacDonald said. “You know that. The U.S. Constitution banned it, but the Republic Constitution does not, especially when it comes to murder.”
“But he was not a citizen of the Republic then.”
“So we ignore murder because the murderer was in a different jurisdiction when it happened?”
“No, we return him to that jurisdiction.”
“Which doesn’t exist anymore. And which was, at the time, actually here. This very spot. The original country is defunct, and we replaced it.”
“I know, but we have to consider the law he was under.”
“A barbaric and insane law – one, like you said, that came from courts.”
“But it was the law he had, and he followed it. Dammit, Governor! He didn’t break the law! He didn’t break the law, and we’re going around proud that we’re killing him for what he did! We’re toasting drinks and feeling like we accomplished something here.”
“Bobby, come on. Look, I get it. I understand. But you are asking me to just ignore the fact that we have a mass murder as a citizen of this land because the prior leaders of this land were okay with it. That butcher, that monster, who has escaped justice so long, is finally getting what is coming to him. He mercilessly slaughtered thousands upon thousands of children and made money off of it. Why in the world should I not be happy that he’s finally being taken down?”
“Because he’s a man. He’s not an animal, he’s a man.”
“A man who made a living as an assassin.”
Connor shook his head. “It wasn’t like that!”
“Yes, it was.” MacDonald’s statement was sympathetic, but nonetheless firm. “Yes, it was. Just because abortion was technically legal at the time doesn’t change the fact that he was slaughtering children for money. He knew what he was doing, and he did it anyway. Whether or not it was technically legal at the time doesn’t change the fact of what it was. The whim of the state doesn’t make murder not murder anymore. You can’t with the stroke of a pen make two and two into five. The whim of the state has been seeking for generations to call evil good and good evil, to declare this people or that not really human, to say the innocent must make way for the guilty. These abortionists decimated entire generations, cutting down millions. Millions of people who would never then have children. Tens of millions gone, and tens of millions more, and that legacy is being passed down to this place, here and now, and our world will never be the same because of it. You remember what effect that had. You remember how much was lost. You were there, Bobby. You were there with us all when we went to war with nearly an entire generation of people missing.”
The admission was weightily said, “I was there.”
“Then why aren’t you standing with us today? He personally killed thousands, and no one stood for them at the time. Why are you standing up now?”
Connor was silent at that, not sure what to say.
“Look, Bobby, come stay with us for dinner. The ballgame will be on, we’ll have some beer. Just like the old days. It will be fun. And if you want to talk further on it, I’d be happy to.”
Connor took him up on his offer, but the conversation made no progress on either end. It was deadlocked then – Connor unwilling to give up, and MacDonald unwilling to concede. Except at last Connor did give up, and for the rest of the night, it was about baseball. But finally, with still a couple of hours before midnight, and with goodbyes and a hug, the two friends parted. It had tried them, but they parted friends, and MacDonald chanted, “Bobby Boy! Bobby Boy! Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Boy!” as his childhood buddy left.
Even Connor smiled at it that time.
The fact that midnight was slowly approaching had lingered on his like a faint dew all evening, but once he was alone in the back of the car again, he felt it more than ever. He glanced at his watch. Little after ten. Couple of hours left. And there was nothing he could do. He didn’t want to go back home, so he requested to be let out at a familiar corner, and once out, he looked over the fading lights of the street, a dim reminder of the old days, when this place was more alive at night than in the day, and yet also a reminder of how far they had come. It was odd – being part of the generation who had seen that very street too crowded to move, and also completely empty of life.
“Mr. Connor,” said a voice behind him, and he realized the chauffer had the window down. “Do you plan to return to Houston tonight, or will you be staying the night in Austin?”
He shook his head. “Haven’t decided yet.”
The chauffer handed over a business card. “I am at your service this evening, sir. Call me when you are ready.”
Robert muttered a thanks and then began to walk. The capitol buildings sparkled in the artificial lights. No, not as bright as it once was, but that wasn’t because they lacked the technology. Instead, it was a question of population. Fewer people meant fewer lights. There were many dark storefronts that had remained rentable since Austin was repopulated, but hadn’t been filled even now, and even at large discounts. Restaurants with too much seating for demand, so half the dining hall was unlit. Still, the infrastructure was there, and the population, at last, was growing.
He absent-mindedly put some tobacco in a pipe and lit it. There were only a few people on the streets that evening, and he definitely wasn’t the only one with a pipe lit. It amused him to wonder about how that trend had reignited, so to speak. A lot of the paranoia of the old world went up in as much smoke in time, perhaps to be replaced by something else, but only time would point out the foibles of this age. People were notoriously bad about recognizing the weaknesses of their own generation.
He turned into a bar on the main street, not far from either the governor’s manor and, he noted mentally, the very jail where Dr. Stuart would be hanged.
He ordered a drink, and he tried not to listen to the news that was being proclaimed from the television above the bar.
When the newsman reported the execution just after midnight, the other patrons didn’t seem to notice. Connor himself just toasted the air, and then downed the remaining brew.
The place was gradually clearing by then, and every few minutes saw another customer pay their bill and depart, their bellies full and their spirits high. It was Friday night, after all, Robert mused. The weekend was there at last. The worries of the week were behind them.
“Anything new on tap?” said a voice beside him. The newcomer was just sitting at the bar and the barkeep had strolled over with some pretzels.
“Sure, Rev,” said the barkeep. “PB finally got us a keg of their new bock.”
“Sounds good. How is it?”
“Fair enough,” was the honest reply.
“Worth a try, then,” said the newcomer.
The beer came quickly, and it was a nice amber color which seemed to glow in the low lights of the establishment.
“You’re Rev Billings,” said Robert, recognition dawning on him. “I barely recognized you.”
The man looked up. “Wait, I know you. Bobby O’Connor?” he asked.
“Connor, just Connor.”
“Oh, sorry about that. It’s been a long time.”
“No problem. I wouldn’t have remembered your name even half that well if you weren’t, well, if you weren’t Rev Billings.”
The other man laughed at that. He was a lanky man, early sixties, with a whiff of white hair on his head a wrinkled face. He didn’t look old, but he certainly looked like a man who had seen much in his life. Well, they all could lay claim to that.
“I’m glad to know you survived,” said Rev. “We were separated before the end of it all, so I fear I never knew what happened to some of my old soldiering friends. I’ve caught up with several, but a lot of them, well, we won’t know on this side of glory.”
“True enough,” Robert said, sipping on his cup.
Rev leaned back and rubbed his eyes.
“Indeed.” He paused. “What about you?” the older man asked. “You living around here now?”
“No, I’m lawyering out of Houston.”
“Oh, good, good. What brings you here today?”
Robert tipped his beer toward the television, which was still discussing the story.
“Heh,” Rev grunted.
“I was discussing staying the execution with the governor.”
Rev licked his lips after a long sip. “I see,” he intoned.
Robert laughed suddenly. “Rev, I’m sorry. I didn’t come here to make things awkward. I just wanted a beer after a long day. I’m not here to argue anymore. It’s done. I tried, and I failed.”
Billings nodded knowingly. “I’ll drink to that. Might surprise you to know that I feel like I failed too.”
Connor didn’t understand the comment, but it didn’t seem the type that needed an answer, so he let it linger there as they sat together for a while, watching the coverage, but the volume was down, so they couldn’t even hear what was being said.
Billings sighed, and said, “But then, so much depends on the trying, and that’s the only part we really have any sort of say in. Succeed or fail, we did our part, and we should be able to rest easy in that. Doesn’t always help, knowing that. Sometimes resting is not at all easy.”
There was silence between the two then, and Connor was unsure how to proceed, even though it seemed like Billings was staying there, ready to be his drinking companion for the night.
“Were you his lawyer?” Billings finally asked. “I followed the case a bit, I would have recognized your name on the stories, whether Connor or O’Connor.” The men laughed at that part, even though the statement was a moment of levity atop a tense subject.
“No,” he said. “I just felt like I should say something. I thought I should make an appeal on it, whether it would go through or not.”
Billings nodded thoughtfully. “Not his lawyer, but his advocate nonetheless. That was good of you.”
Connor chuckled. “Didn’t think you would say that.”
Rev shrugged. “The thing that got me interested in criminal justice in the first place was a wrongful conviction. I perhaps have the reputation now of advocating for harsher sentences than we had in the Old World, but all of those harsher sentences, when they actually are harsher, and most were in fact not nearly as harsh, also had stricter rules of evidence and fairer rules of representation. My journey through all of this began before the war, you know, when I saw a man come out of prison after more than ten years, newly exonerated because of DNA evidence. It had been a man so many of us cursed a decade before, and it was a shock to see how wrong we got it. It got me wondering what put him in there in the first place. It was a dimly-lit street, a moment of being seen, a well-intentioned eye-witness who believed his own eyesight was better than it actually was, and an overworked appointed attorney with no experience and less discernment. A lot of media pressure too. No, that was no way to treat a man, and I knew it. That got me moving. And I got nowhere until the war, and then, suddenly, providentially, I suppose, I was where I was meant to be the whole time. Lots of trying, over the years, not much succeeding until it all fell together.”
“Hm,” Connor said thoughtfully. He mused upon the story, then said, “But you took that into a completely different direction than most people seeing that play out would have.”
“Well, let’s just address the elephant in the room. You were the one who advocated to the Senate to not protect abortionists from ex post facto laws. They were ready to put that protection in until you changed their minds.”
“Ah,” Billings said. “Well, that is something different, isn’t it? A lot of people confuse one thing with another. A lot of people assumed it from me. Well, Rev, he advocated for the death penalty, but they never saw me oppose the death penalty on people we assumed were guilty, but didn’t have good evidence on. Or maybe they hear me talk about rights of the accused, and they are surprised that I testify in favor of a law like this one. They think you either want justice or rights, and that’s it. Well, I take a much simpler path than all of that. I’m after the truth. I don’t want to be on any other side than that.”
“The truth is, in this case, that the man was doing something legal when he did it. When it was illegal, he stopped.”
“I can see the logic in that, but I think the truth is much simpler still. I’m sympathetic with you, Robert. I am. I understand the struggle. The difference between us is that you are thinking that if something is legal, then it should not be punishable. I think if something is that wicked, then we should seek justice.”
Connor began to reply, but Billings lifted a hand, saying, “I know. I know. The law is what we have, and that’s the thing by which we measure these things. Well, in a limited sense, perhaps. But then you come at things with a clean slate, and you get to with it what should have been done a long time ago if you are brace enough to do it. That happens more often than we think. The British Empire returned back to the island, and a lot of little provinces are suddenly in control of themselves. Nazi Germany fell, and they started over. America fell – we started over. Governments are changing hands all the time. When we find ourselves in that place, we take a hard look at the wickedness that originally helped bring us down, and we decide to stop it there. We react, perhaps too much, perhaps not enough. We try to take the good and change the bad. The government that came before is gone, but the stain of sin remains. The stain has to be dealt with. The blood cries out from the ground, and that cry is not sated because the country changes names and leaders. Sometimes you land in a place where there was deep wickedness, and what do you do then? Just ignore it? Or try to make it right? I thought very long and very hard before I addressed the matter, and I think it was the right path, but it was not the easiest one.”
Connor furrowed his brow. “I thought you were here to celebrate tonight,” he said. “But now I don’t think you are.”
Rev shook his head with a wry smile. “No, I’m here because I had a very long day of pleading and arguing, and I needed a drink.”
“Who were you arguing with?”
“Dr. Franklin Stuart,” he said, pointing to the television. He looked at the man’s image, the man who not long before had been executed for countless acts of murder. “I was in his cell all day, begging him to repent of what he had done. And to his last breath, he refused.”
There was a thoughtful silence at the bar, and the whole room seemed to have quieted to a reflective melody of night sounds and clinking glasses. The crowd had mostly dispersed, and the barkeep was cleaning up. Connor’s lip had gone dry from thinking too long about what had been said without licking them, and he blinked rapidly at once, trying to think of something more to say.
“Robert,” Rev said, dropping some bills on the bar, “another thing was argued that day in the Senate, and that is whether to punish those who had procured abortions. The Senate decided against it. I do not know whether this was the right decision. They asked me to speak on it, and I did not. I just didn’t want to say, because my heart was torn on the matter. In other words, I don’t know whether the government should have you up there too or not. Doesn’t matter, because you won’t be. You have been shown mercy. What you do with it now is up to you. I think you wish to cover up the stain of that man’s crimes because in doing so, you want to cover your own as well. You don’t have to. You have been offered forgiveness. Go, and sin no more.”
He patted Connor on the shoulder and went to go, but the latter turned suddenly to him. “How did you know?”
“A guess,” Rev said, putting on his coat. “But an educated one. It was good to see you, Robert Connor. God bless you. Come see me next time you are in town.”
And the old man shuffled out into the night.
She didn’t say anything when she got back into the car, and she didn’t touch the kolaches that Rob had bought. They would only be consumed later when Rob found his lunch hadn’t filled him up as much as he had hoped. She just looked through the window as they drove, and there was something missing in that car, and Rob stifled the understanding of what it was that was gone between them, trying to replace that understanding with something else. Maybe the thing that was gone was trust, or love, or maybe she just didn’t feel well. But despite all of his efforts to find a different reason for it, he knew, and so did she.
He would not cry then, but he would, but oddly, it wasn’t until the bombs began to fall years later, when he was on his porch, knowing he should run, but also knowing there was nowhere to run to, and he watched the clouds born of fire fill the sky, and he then, for the first time, put words to it, and he whispered, “My God, what have I done?”