The words still echoed in his mind: “To be executed at dawn by firing squad”, everything else that had been said just rang hollow. He was being pulled to his feet; his eyes began to dart around him frantically, if only he could find him. Suddenly he spotted him; Chen was sitting on the right, surrounded by half a dozen suits, as befitted his position of interior minister. He wanted to shout out to him, but a gurgle was the only sound he could conjure. Chen was staring straight at him, his eyes anchored in a shroud of patience and pity, he nodded in recognition. Somehow this calmed him.
The constable opened the door and he was being ushered down a windowless corridor. Down a flight of stairs, and then another. They turned left, the door in front of them clicked and before he knew it he was seated at the back of the armored police van. Zhou didn’t seem to notice this; he didn’t seem to notice anything at all. His brain was on overdrive. “The ruling didn’t mean anything he thought; it was just a PR stunt. They had been through this before; the death penalty had been given, and a pardon had been passed down soon after. After all he was a member of the politburo, he couldn’t die, he knew them all, and you don’t execute your colleagues, it sets a dangerous precedent you see. Chen will take care of this he thought. I made him, he’ll be grateful.
Zhou remembered how he had brought Chen on as a deputy minister, during his time as Security Chief. It all seemed like an age ago. He remembered the conversation they had when the corruption allegations had first come out. He had been assured that it was to be a show trial, and that the charges against him would be dropped in a matter of weeks. That was two months ago. There was still time he thought.
The van was pulling into the prison courtyard. The sliding door gave way and he was motioned out, his thoughts still racing as he was led back to his cell. The metallic click of his cage closing around him brought him back. He sat down on his cot, the only piece of furnishing in his two by three cell, besides the toilet. He had been relieved at first that he had been given a private cell, but as the weeks dragged on he began to long more and more for the company of a sympathetic soul, just someone who could reassure him that his current state wasn’t as hopeless as all that. At times he thought he could make out silhouettes in the shadows, he would cry out only to be reminded of the entirety of his abandonment. He remembered reading somewhere that madness was a byproduct of solitude, but his sanity was the least of his problems of late.
The sound of shuffling boots let him know that the rotation of the guards for the nightshift had begun. Had he already been in his cell that long, time became an alien element in this house of despair; the hourglass at a seeming standstill when the phantoms of desperation preyed on him and racing by when he wished for it to stop entirely. In nothing more than a few hours, he would be no more. For the first time since the sentencing, the full weight of those words struck him. He would be gone, turned to nothingness, and there was nothing he could do to change it. His stomach clenched; he began to think of the all the decisions that had led to this moment, an assemblage of luck and mishaps, with each decision giving him a fifty percent chance of ending up on that prison cot. If just one of those decisions had gone differently, if his feet had carried him to the right instead of the left he would not be here. The arbitrariness of it all suffocated him, he wanted to cry out, but nothing came. The panic convulsed his body over and over as he lay on his mattress, fists clenched in the sheets.
Why did he have to pay for what his peers still did, would his punishment somehow free their world of wrongdoing, would it rebalance the scales? He could write a series of books on the misdeeds of his comrades, and yet it was they who were allowed to play both judge and executioner. The anger had taken over, as he smashed his fists into the floor. He got up and began furiously kicking the wall, pain shot up his leg and he fell to the ground clutching his foot between his hands. What did his surroundings care of his pain, or his anger, he was meaningless. He began to grind his teeth in frustration as the tears began to stream from his eyes. He was exhausted, but he could not sleep. Only hours remained.
He wanted to take everything back, if only he could speak to the judge one last time, perhaps with the right words all could be forgiven. Chen he thought, Chen could change it all; he had to speak to him, get a message to him, anything. He began calling out to the guards, banging on the bars of his cell as a man possessed. The words would come, he could convince him, he was positive. He was gruffly told to “Shut up” but this just made him scream louder, foam streaming from the sides of his mouth. It wasn’t till his jailors made use of their batons that he was finally silenced.
At least the pain had given him something else to think about. He couldn’t think of a worse punishment than the helplessness he felt; awaiting a fate that was completely out of his control and that he could not escape. Then it hit him. Perhaps this had been the object of the entire debacle. Could death truly be worse than awaiting it, when hope of reprieve had vanished? He didn’t think so. What more lasting punishment is there then throwing someone off the precipice and catching them before they hit the bottom. The sentence need never be served, being that the accused has probably died a thousand deaths in his own mind before ever reaching his own. He began to laugh uncontrollably, how had he not seen it before, he thought? The pardon would be given, he was now more confident than ever.
The grey shadow of dawn was beginning to creep into his cell. Strangely he was almost impatient. He was going to be pardoned at the last moment. He just wanted it to be over. He wanted to be given back his keys, to open his front door and lounge on his balcony as he pondered over the city sprawled beneath him. Oh and a bath, above all he wanted a bath, to fall asleep amid the clouds of bubbles.
The door to his cell opened with a clang. Two men motioned for him to stand. Was this it? Were they here to pardon him? But they only led him out into the narrow corridor. It’ll come later, he thought, for appearances sake. He was led out into a barren courtyard, on his left a number of officials were already seated, yawning ceaselessly. He made out Chen’s emotionless face, but the bags under his eyes let him know that his night had probably been as sleepless as his own. He was unsure whether or not this was a harbinger of good news. He smiled at Chen, who only looked at him in disgust. It must be his disheveled appearance he thought.
He was tied to the pole, which was rooted in the far side of the yard. He looked hopefully at Chen, his moment of salvation would come, now was the time, if there ever was. The officer in charge asked him if he wanted a blindfold. He graciously refused, what was the point he thought, he would never have to use it. The exaction wouldn’t be carried out. Why else would Chen be there? The firing squad was directly in front of him now. “Ready” came the order. He looked around him puzzlingly. “Aim” his legs gave way, his arms began to frantically spasm in an attempt to free himself. He opened his mouth to plead with them, his eyes wild with fright. “Fire”!