Friday, May 31, 2013

"Desolation" and "Justice " Do Not Rhyme

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

In my 75 months on death row, I have borne witness to over 100 executions. Some of these men were friends of mine. Some of them were people that I barely knew. A few I didn't particularly get along with, but I have always known in a less hellish locale, I would have been meeting a completely a different individual. All of them were loved by someone; they were someone's son, brother, father. Years ago I was told by the old-timers that I would eventually grow numb to all of this death, and that each killing would mean a little less. Eventually, I was told, I would learn of the death of a family member or close friend in the free world and that I would be unable to feel much of anything. That such things could happen to a man without his permission terrified me, and I have tried to find some way to honor each man's passing as a means of blocking this horrid progression. I used to make homemade candles, but the penalties for this sort of thing have gotten to be so ridiculous that I actually risk catching free-world arson charges if I light up anything in my cell. Now, I usually just meditate for the dead, and try to remember something good and positive that each taught me. I also do this out of guilt, I think: the old-timers may not have been correct about the extent of my numbness, but they weren't completely wrong, either. When I am completely candid with myself, I must admit that much of this vile place has become normal to me on some level. People get killed. The public yawns. Rinse and repeat.

I arrived on death row on the 23rd of March. It was a beautifully sunny day outside, which I recall irritated me for some reason. On my way from the diagnostics and intake process at the Byrd Unit I met Charles E Smith, better known to everyone on the Row as "Shadow." Shadow was in the chain-van with me because he had taken a day-trip to the Estelle Unit where he received dialysis treatment. He made the trip two or three times each week: I forget the exact number now. He had less than two months to live by this point, with an execution date set in mid-May. He claimed that he was ready to go, that he was "tired of this shit." When he climbed out of the van, he paused to look at a fat gray cat that was perched atop one of the huge industrial bins used by the TDCJ to store rubbish. The cat was sunning, and stretched luxuriously as we looked in its direction. Shadow smiled briefly at this scene, until one of the escort guards put his hand on his back and gave him a hefty shove. The memory of his face is so vivid to me still that I sometimes feel as if I could reach out and trace it with my finger. Many things about that time have long since faded into the gray mists of oblivion, but that look has remained etched into the bones of my memory. It is a sore that simply won’t go away, no matter hard I scrub it. In that moment his capacity to still find joy in something as tiny as a cat yawning, I realized that his claim of readiness was a lie, something he told himself to take the sting out of the reality of what was being done to him. In that moment, I realized the horror of what it meant to execute a healthy human being. His was my fifth execution. I had been at the Polunsky Unit for 54 days.

I have long tried to encapsulate this feeling into my writings. I think if I could somehow translate even a small percentage of the revulsion I feel on a daily basis over the things I have seen into a language recognizable to someone in the freeworld, they would have no choice but to attempt to tear these walls down. I am in my sixth year of writing for this site, and I still do not feel as if I have ever come close to doing this. Some things, I think, maybe cannot be told; they simply must be experienced, witnessed. George Orwell, one of my few heroes, also felt this. In his collected essays I came across one called "A Hanging" (which you can read here), which eerily echoes my experience with Shadow. I say "eerily," but perhaps it should not be surprising that we reached the same epiphany in the same way. Maybe this disgust is universal, and the only people who haven't felt it are people who have kept their comfortable distance. I hope so, because it would mean there is a beautiful wave of light and love that binds all of us together in our common humanity. Whatever the case, just read Orwell's essay. You won't regret it.

I remember that several people wrote to me during the publication of Kevin Varga's Death Watch Journal to tell me that they finally understood what I had been talking about for all of those years. I was proud of Kevin for breaking through that wall where I had so repeatedly failed. The cost was too high, though. He will have been dead for three years in three days, and I'd rather have my friend back than some generalized "understanding." I know that flies in the face of all of my Enlightenment values, but I miss that knucklehead.

Unfortunately, that reality is upon us again. I learned last night that the State of Florida has set a June 12 execution date for Bill Van Poyck. Texas prisons ban inmate-to-inmate correspondence so when I communicate with the other writers of the MB6 collective, I am forced to do so surreptitiously. This means that I do not know Bill nearly as well as I would like. I am not going to spend much time discussing Bill's case here. It is my understanding that he was involved in an attempt to rescue his best friend from a prison transport van in 1987. Another accomplice named Frank Valdes killed one of the transport officers, and both he and Bill were sent to death row. (Valdes was killed in his cell by a group of prison guards in 1999.) I think my stance on executing non-triggermen is well documented, so I won't belabor the point here. Historically, serving 26 years for being an accomplice to murder was seen as an appropriate sentence, but we seem to have entered a brave new world of disproportionate sentences where all definitions of "appropriateness" have been declared null and void.

All death penalty cases are mirrors. Sometimes the reflection shines upon the economic inequalities inherent in our hyper-capitalist fantasies, the conflict which has always been a class war even if we cannot call it that in polite company. Sometimes the mirror displays the racial bigotry that still exists in the judiciary, even as we pretend such specters of the past have been completely dispelled. In this case, I think the mirror asks us whether we truly believe in the capacity for human change. Well, do you? That wasn't a rhetorical question. Do you believe that a person can climb out of the hells that defined their younger selves and become a true human being, worthy of life? I would be hard- pressed to come up with a better example for this sort of figure than Bill. Half a lifetime has passed since he participated in his attempted rescue of his friend, a crime whose very nature speaks of a deep sense of compassion. In that time, Bill has published books and papers in legal journals. He has placed in the PEN contest numerous times. He has been a fearless reporter of corruption on Florida's death row, a truly brave act considering what was done to his co-defendant. If this man's penal existence has not earned him a second chance at life, then none of us here has earned that honor.

True remorse is not just regret over consequences, but regret over motive. I believe that Bill's writings stand as evidence that he understands the difference. I am writing this on the 9th of May. I do not think this will be published in time for you to reach out to the Governor of Florida and to appeal for executive clemency. If I am wrong, by all means, make your voice heard if you feel morally compelled to do so. If not, I ask you to take a few minutes on the 12th to read through some of Bill's writings. I want you to ask yourself whether or not this man's life has value. Because if it does, he needn't have died. He didn't die; he was killed - by us. If you do nothing else on that day, think about whether or not you feel as if you have blood on your hands. If you find that you do, what then do you intend to do about it?

In their conquest of Britain, the Romans fought a nasty battle against the Chaledonians in what is now Scotland. Gaius Cornelius Tacitus wrote of the battle in De vita et moribus faciunt pacem appellant. The chief of the Chaledonians was a man called Calgacus, who was reported to describe the behavior of Rome before the battle with these words:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant
Where they create a desolation they call it peace.

The thing is, there is no way that Tacitus could have heard Calgacus give this speech. This charge, therefore, was not a fiery arrow aimed at Rome from an enemy, but rather a bitter attempt at self- critique. The Roman peace came at too heavy a price; so, too, does our justice. George Bernard Shaw made a similar point in his Caesar and Cleopatra, when Caesar says:

Murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace,
until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.

The gods are busy being non-existent. The creation of this race is in your hands, not theirs. It all starts with empathy. If you can look at Bill and see a life worth saving, you have a debt to your conscience to take that knowledge to its logical conclusion. You will not regret it.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston TX 77351

Friday, May 24, 2013

The San-Man Speaks…Why I Continue to Write for MB6

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013

By Santonio Murff

Family (Everyone of the righteous heart, mind and works is my family),

My name is Santonio.  Family and friends have always called me “San” for short.  San-Man is a nickname I earned by being a knock-out artist.  I am now knocking out ignorance with The San-Man Speaks pieces.  I’ve seen it all and done most of it in and outside of these barbed wire fences.  There is very little that you can miss me with when it comes to this concrete jungle I’ve been residing in for nearly two decades.

In my 39 years here on earth, I’ve done a few things that I regret, but absolutely nothing that I am ashamed of.  So I’m an open book.  You have a question, I’ll answer it truthfully. I’m going to give you the truth as I see it, as I’ve lived it.

If you can’t stomach honesty, then you’ve come to the wrong man.

My fiancé “Tender,” a very beautiful Christian woman, recently went to Minutes Before Six for the first time.  She was shocked and appalled by some of the comments left in response to my writings.  “They totally miss the message,” she said.  “They write as if my sweetie’s a bad person.”

Sometimes, I have to remind her that “her sweetie” once was.  Sometimes I have to remind my readers that I’m not anymore.  One visitor called my PEN-award winning essay, Retired from the Game,“creepy” and “disturbing”.  The dozens in my writing community found that one a head-scratcher.  What is creepy or disturbing about a love story?  If it’s the setting (prison), then I’m sorry Bro, but it happens often.

Banging for a Solution, another PEN winner, was called inane and dismissed as implausible.  Well, I guess my life and thousands of others across this country are inane, because those are our realities.  That was no movie, Bro.  That was my life, my community, my friends who lived it and died for it.

Ice Cream and…stuff certainly don’t mitigate the killing, but it is definitely influential upon young impoverished minds.  Not everyone who makes the adolescent mistake of joining a gang is a killer.  Most are simply trying to survive that environment that you speed through during the daytime and avoid at night. You see, Bro, they live there!

One need only do some research on the “6109” (Rollin’ 60’s and 19 street) or “CMW” (Cedar Grove, Motown, and Wilkaland) truce in Shreveport, the Jordan Down/Watts truce in California, and the Hoova/Tres truce in Fort Worth, to name a few, to see the plausibility of Banging.  All orchestrated by OxGx gang members!  One need only look to the influence of Stanley “Big Tookie” Williams, who after nearly three decades on “The Row,” had the power to start or stop the rioting with his execution.  Educated and elevated, even with his life being erroneously taken from him, he chose to stop the rioting and leave a final message of peace and redemption! 

Banging was about getting to the youth before they’ve been miseducated; before they’ve embraced that negative self-destructive lifestyle; before they’ve taken a life and been sentenced to die at the hands of the State.  In Banging, I gave you the reasons why the gangs thrive and the only solutions that have worked.  If the over one million strong Crips and Bloods across the globe today is any measure, criticizing and condemning them, looking them up, and killing them off have been dismal failures as far as solutions go.

I fail to understand how obviously compassionate people who fight so valiantly to save the lives of the men and women on Death Row don’t seem capable of seeing the potential in these children and fighting as vigilantly for them before they reach such a precarious state of existence.  The baggie clothes, the scowl, and the weapons may fool you.  But, you take all of that away, and what you’ll usually find is a child searching for love and acceptance.

No one is running around joining gangs at 20 – 30 years of age. I know some are beyond disrespectful.  Some commit heinous crimes.  I understand that you are afraid of them.  But, people, these are still children.  And they should not be given up on.

If you can only find it in yourself to see the potential, escape your fears long enough to lend a hand, we can turn the negative into a positive and do a whole bunch of good before it’s too late.

Tender asked me why do I continue to write for MB6?  “Because they care enough to read it,” I told her.  I doubt very many of you have ever been in a gang or prison.  Ya’ll probably don’t know a single certified OxGx (honorably Inactive) to open such a dialogue with.  So, if I must get trashed to keep ya’ll talking, so be it.  Maybe I’ll hit the right cord with just one of you and you will carry the message back to the majority who matter… and they’ll listen and realize that they are not all bad people.  That most, if educated and given half a chance, are really good people.

That is my dream anyway.  And, that is why I continue to write for MB6.

Join the Righteous Movement!

Santonio Murff #00773394
Robertson Unit

12071 FM 3522

Abilene, Texas 79601


Santonio D. Murff is a seven-time PEN Prison Writing Contest winner, award-winning novelist and essayist who is searching the planet for the right agent/publishing house for his anthology of rehabilitated prisoners’ memoirs and essays, Apologies From Within. He’s become the go-to author for dealing with prisoners’ rehabilitation and prison reform.
Santonio and his family THANK YOU for your support!!!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Quietus - Chapter Three

Admin Note: Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013

By William Van Poyck

The following morning Danny watched the sun rise starkly against a turquoise sky, a molten disc of lurid orange inflaming the eastern horizon. Foregoing his routine morning jog he quickly packed. Then he carefully wiped down the house, a modest, secluded residence he’d rented several months earlier when the daily eighty-mile commute up from Miami finally proved too burdensome. An hour later he called the real estate agent and told her he was returning to California. She could keep his deposit; he’d leave the keys in the flowerpot on the porch.

Ten minutes later he was cruising south on I-95, enjoying the balmy, sea-scented air blowing in through the Yukon’s open windows, ignoring the heavy traffic coursing along the Interstate. One by one Danny flashed through the unbroken conga line of communities stretching down to Miami. Lake Worth. Boca Raton. Deerfield Beach. Pompano Beach. Ft. Lauderdale. Hollywood. Hallandale. Bal Harbor. Each, for Danny, prompted scrapbook memories, and more than a few involved burglaries.

Before noon Danny pulled into the garage of his comfortable Coconut Grove house, elated with anticipation. He disarmed the alarm system, went inside and dropped the nylon satchel in the middle of his living room. After carrying his suitcases to his upstairs bedroom he thoroughly patrolled the house, checking all windows, doors and locks. Satisfied, he padded into the kitchen, grabbed a cold bottle of beer and returned to the living room. This is it, he mused, eyeing the black bag appreciatively. This was the score that would enable him to go straight, and finally marry Miriam. Since leaving prison six years earlier he’d been living the high life with resolute abandon, making good money but spending it recklessly, seemingly embarked on a ceaseless quest to atone for the prosaic severity of daily prison life, to quickly make up for the lost years. Lately he was pressing his luck, and his characteristic sense of caution had slipped a cog. Increasingly, in the cave of his heart, he’d felt an almost tangible dread, a persistent uneasiness, like an unsmiling presence knocking at the back door of his mind, gripping his spirit in a tightening bear hug of imminent calamity. One day, he knew, his number would come up, putting him on the wrong side of a yellow ribbon of crime scene tape. And it was then, when he began to hesitate, tasting the dregs of doubt and fear, that his better half finally set the brake. It was time to get out, now, before ending up like Sonny Corleone at the toll booth.

Now, sitting down cross-legged, Danny unzipped the satchel and dumped the contents on the carpet. He began with the bank pouches, zipping them open one by one, removing thick bundles of currency from each. Every pouch contained a slip of paper with names, numbers and notations scribbled on them, mostly inscrutable because everything was in German. When he was done Danny stared at the sixteen stout bundles lined up in ranks. Damn. Armed with a pen and legal pad he carefully counted each stack twice, separating the bills by denominations. Hundreds, fifties, twenties. Nothing smaller than a twenty, and a lot of hundreds. Adding up the columns one last time he underlined the final figure twice. Danny stood up and stretched his back and legs, then looked at the legal pad with a smile of satisfaction: $278,680. Yes!

This was more cash money than he’d ever scored, more than he’d ever possessed at one time. Danny’s typical job netted him between ten and forty grand cash, after he fenced the merchandise, with fifty grand being cause for real celebration. Danny’s primary target was normally jewelry, but the jewelry industry maintains a colossal markup—up to three hundred percent, or more, between wholesale and retail. Neither a thief nor a legitimate citizen can get anything near retail for his merchandise. That five thousand dollar engagement ring Joe Blow buys for his fiancée will get him perhaps eighteen hundred when the romance goes south. Danny had often stolen a quarter million dollars worth of jewelry, or more, only to net forty grand or so. A rule of thumb was twenty percent of retail. Danny’s biggest score was just the year before, when he’d hit a sumptuous seaside estate on Rhode Island’s famous Millionaires’ Row. After coming away with almost a million dollars worth of stones he netted $160,000. It was that job which bought him his Coconut Grove bungalow, a trim little two-story art deco gem on a quiet, secluded street off of Tiger tail Avenue. Now, he had over a quarter million in cash and he hadn’t even touched the gems or coins.

Retrieving another beer from the kitchen Danny slid a CD into his stereo. With Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 wafting in the background Danny sat back down and began rummaging through the pile. Impulsively picking up one of the small ingots he examined it curiously. Though clearly gold, the ingots were devoid of the customary markings denoting weight and purity. Moreover, they were crude and irregularly formed, as though amateurishly cast in handmade molds. Each roughly identical ingot was approximately six inches long, three inches wide and two inches high, and weighed, Danny estimated as he hefted one, about five pounds. There were fourteen of them, but not knowing their purity he couldn’t estimate their value. His fence paid him seventy-five percent of whatever that day’s gold price was, a price based on pure, twenty-four karat. Danny typically produced fourteen or eighteen karat. Estimating that he had about seventy pounds of gold, he calculated that, if pure, that was $5,952 per pound, at that day’s price of $372 an ounce. Seventy pounds would be $416,640, and his seventy-five percent would be $312,480. Damn! If it was only fourteen karat, that figure would be cut almost in half. Still. . . .

Danny trotted up to his bedroom, returning with a loupe and a jeweler’s scale. Opening the curtains to draw in the sunlight, he sat down and pulled the small chest of drawers to him. Closer inspection revealed the chest itself to be a work of art, crafted of some strange, exotic, almost translucent wood, a glassy smooth, pearlescent cinnamon color, devoid of any grain. Danny curiously rapped a knuckle against the oddly lustrous material. Much of the box was intricately carved with beautiful designs and symbols. One by one Danny slid each shallow drawer out of the chest, six drawers in all, and laid them on the carpet. For a long moment he could only stare, dumbfounded at what he saw, struggling mightily to comprehend it all, unable to decide where to start.

Finally, he simply began with the first drawer. Sliding it closer, Danny counted thirty-one enormous unset diamonds sparkling against the velvet lining. Selecting the largest, he carefully inspected it through the loupe. It was an absolutely flawless, pear-cut yellow diamond, stunning in its quality and size. Danny whistled appreciatively when he set it on his jeweler’s scale: Sixty-two carats. Never before had Danny held such a magnificent stone. Holding it up to the sunlight, he gripped it lightly between his fingertips, turning it left and right, raptly staring into its sparkling interior as if consulting a crystal ball.

Reluctantly setting the diamond down, Danny picked up the next largest stone, a brilliantly white marquise-cut that weighed in at forty-eight carats. Like the first stone it was virtually flawless. Also, like the first stone, the diamond’s particular cut and style, the angles and placement of its facets, were decidedly old-fashioned, for lack of a better term. These particular cuts and shapes were no longer used in the industry, dating these stones at least back to the nineteenth century.

Reaching for the next-largest diamond Danny suddenly felt overwhelmed by the scope of the task. Impulsively he selected the smallest stone, a beautiful white, or clear, round-cut that weighed fifteen carats. It was flawless. So, he reflected, there were thirty-one virtually flawless diamonds in this one drawer alone, ranging from sixty-two to fifteen carats. Every conceivable cut, color and style was represented here, as if someone had picked out the absolute best from a much larger sample. This was, he knew, a very deliberately selected collection. Picking up the largest stone he hefted it, awed by its value, trying to estimate its worth. It was impossible. Diamonds of this size and quality were in a class of their own, and any value he assigned to them would be arbitrary. At a minimum, he knew, this single yellow rock could retail for a million.

Deciding, for now, to just take a rough inventory, Danny moved to the second drawer, where he counted sixty-six loose diamonds. These were much smaller, ranging from two carats up to ten, and the majority were of the more common brilliant, or round, cut. Again he noted the old-fashioned style. These stones ran the gamut in color, from dazzling clear, to yellow, to amber, to blue, and each was flawless. The third drawer held eight diamond rings, two diamond necklaces and one diamond-encrusted bracelet. Each piece was spectacular in its own way, all outrageously valuable. These, he noted, examining each one, were definitely old. The style, the settings, all spoke of another era. Jewelry of this caliber could only belong to someone fabulously wealthy, perhaps even to royalty. Inside one ring he saw an inscription in a language he didn’t recognize. The date was 1884.

The fourth drawer contained sixty-two unset rubies. Unsurprisingly, they were of the highest quality. The largest weighed sixty carats, an incredibly valuable stone, and the true worth of which he could only guess. He was out of his league here, and he knew it. It occurred to Danny that there could only be a handful of men on earth who had ever possessed such a vast quantity of such exquisite quality jewels. What kind of man could, or would, amass such a collection? Picking up a twenty-carat cabochon-cut Burmese ruby, Danny paused to consider how beautiful it would look hanging around Miriam’s neck, nestled in the swell of her perfect, delicately veined alabaster breasts.

The fifth drawer held a vivid splash of green—seventy-five enormous emeralds. The largest was also the oddest, an eighty-eight-carat chartreuse rock with strange engravings covering one flat side, as inscrutable as Mayan stelae. He turned it in his hands, rubbing it with his thumb, puzzling over it like an ancient rune. Danny set the emerald down and stared at the drawer. Every stone was perfect. Any single one of them, Danny reflected, would have constituted a successful score for him. And here he was with an entire drawer full of them. Damn.

In the last drawer Danny counted 105 magnificent pearls, including thirty-one black ones. But the oddest were the twenty-two lustrous orange pearls. He had never heard of, much less seen, orange pearls, and he examined them curiously. Pearls were not his area of expertise, but he knew that all of them were natural and of the highest quality. Leaning back Danny suddenly realized that there were no sapphires at all. The guy must not care for sapphires, he mused. Danny suddenly smiled as he mentally pictured Von Scharnhorst. Damn, this will be one mad German!

Danny stood and stretched again, still feeling the exhaustion from last night’s adrenaline rush combined with today’s heightened exhilaration. Stepping back he stared down at the neatly arranged piles. Before him lay millions of dollars, and he hadn’t even touched the coin collection that had been his main goal. He was, he knew, on the cusp of the type of life-turning event he’d once only fantasized about in his maximum security prison cell. In the joint Danny had been surrounded by men he’d dubbed small thinkers, guys seemingly afraid of success, who gladly robbed a gas station or 7-11 store for a hundred bucks, but wilted and spewed out lame excuses when you suggested a real score—a bank, an armored car, a gold refinery—to net some real money. Prisons were full of these nickel-and-dime clowns, forever locked within the confines of their puny imaginations, unable to grasp that the penalty was the same—life imprisonment—no matter the size of the score. Danny had always dreamed big, and now he was staring at the tangible results, the power of thought manifested in concrete reality.

Sitting back down Danny picked up the first coin album, flipping through the plastic coated pages one by one, making a preliminary inventory. After splitting the albums up, separating the American coins from the foreign and historic ones, he saw that the majority of the albums contained the latter. Some coins were thousands of years old, from Greek, Roman and Byzantine, to Assyrian, Persian and Chinese. Many were medieval European and others were Russian. Unlike the American coins, these foreign ones fell outside Danny’s field of expertise. He’d have to leave their evaluation up to his fence, Felix, who was skilled in these matters.

Felix Nunez was that rare commodity in the criminal world, a man of honor, integrity and trustworthiness. Once a wealthy Cuban businessman and landowner, forced to flee when he found himself brushed by Castro’s heavy hand, he arrived in Miami with nothing but a facile mind and intrepid spirit, and he was soon enough wealthy again. A soft-spoken man of beautifully refined manners, given to eloquent ruminations, he nonetheless possessed a wistful lust for danger and intrigue that intersected with his love for all things beautiful, from art to antiques to jewels to rare coins. Danny and Felix had a long and profitable business relationship, going back to when Danny had befriended Felix’s son Delfin, in prison, where Delfin was doing time for cocaine trafficking. Now, Danny decided, he’d take a representative sample of everything to Felix and see what the old man had to say.

Danny’s eyes drifted to the locked metal strongbox. Retrieving a small pry bar from the garage he knelt down to examine the box. It appeared to be old, and for the first time he noticed the very faint script engraved along the gunmetal-blued steel lid. He turned the box at an angle so that the sunlight highlighted the words. They were German. A few words, like Obergrumpenfuhrer, he recognized as military titles. He saw a date, 1943. But it was only when he turned the box at a certain angle that the larger, fainter engraving, covering the entire box top, stood out in relief. It was a faded swastika. The skin across Danny’s back tautened involuntarily, rippling like a skittish thoroughbred as a shiver ran up his spine, and the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Danny paused, wondering what such a box was doing in Von Scharnhorst’s safe. Danny’s research had told him that Von Scharnhorst had fled Germany before the war, residing in Switzerland. Reputedly he had been declared an enemy of the Third Reich.

When Danny popped open the lid he inhaled the musty, faintly pungent aroma of old leather, reminiscent of a well worn saddle. The large box was full and tightly packed, but the first thing he saw was a wide, black leather belt with an attached holster. The belt was stiff with age, permanently folded into an S-shape. A long row of cartridges ran around the belt, their brass casings turned green with age. Danny slipped a Luger pistol out of the holster. Turning it over he sniffed the barrel. It was old and had not been fired in a very long time. The clip was empty. On each side of the checkered wooden grips was a brass, button-like insert with two bold letters: SS. Setting the gun belt aside Danny reached into the box and removed a long, heavy, double-edged dagger. Decorating the end of the hilt was a fierce metal skull. Inlaid on both sides of the ivory handle were solid gold eagles, each grasping a swastika in its claws. Tilting the long blade into the sunlight Danny read the florid script engraved along its length: Meine Ehre heisst Treue. “My honor is loyalty,” Danny whispered, struggling to recall his high school German. Laying the knife on the carpet he felt a palpable sense of dread begin to percolate up from the depths of his spirit.

Next, Danny removed seven small jewelry box-like presentation cases. Each contained a war medal of some type, smelling musty in its velvet bed. He immediately recognized the black Iron Cross. In a separate, finely crafted wooden box with brass corner inlays lay a number of military insignias and ribbons, including two silver SS lapel pins in the form of lightning bolts.

Picking up a stiff leather pouch Danny unbuckled the cracked leather strap. A stack of old black and white photograph spilled out, fanning across the carpet like playing cards. Thumbing through them Danny saw one recurring figure, a tall man, lean as a ferret, with a ravenous smile and a shock of light hair. Barely discernible in some of the pictures was a long, thin scar creasing the man’s right cheek. In many of the photographs he wore a German army uniform. It took Danny a long moment to grasp that he was looking at a young Von Scharnhorst.

Setting aside the pouch Danny picked up a heavy silver picture frame. Gazing out at Danny in full color, his slate-blue eyes staring back with a ferocious glitter, was young Von Scharnhorst, resplendent in his black dress uniform, with its smart crimson piping on the jacket and cap and elaborate gold wire on the shoulder boards. Beside him, looking awkward and stiff, stood a shorter man with a rude, ungracious face—a face without happiness or anticipation of any—and bags under his eyes that looked like prunes. Instantly recognizing the caterpillar mustache, Danny involuntarily blurted out the name. “Adolf fucking Hitler!” It was like looking at a page from a history book, Danny thought. At the bottom of the photograph he saw something scrawled in German, followed by Hitler’s signature.

Digging in the box, Danny found an old Swiss passport with a stark photograph of Von Scharnhorst inside. Opening up a small black leather wallet-like folder he again found Von Scharnhorst’s face staring back, his expression haughty, autocratic in his German army uniform. A German eagle was embossed on the leather front, and inside, forming a background for the typed personal information, was a blood-red swastika. It was clearly some form of military identification, but the name below Von Scharnhorst’s photograph was decidedly different: Oskar Wessel.

From the bottom of the box Danny removed a bundle of old papers. Untying the shiny black ribbon binding the packet, he flipped through them, noting that they were all in German. Recognizing the letterhead of a well known Swiss bank he scanned the documents, zeroing in on the columns of figures. Under the name of Oskar Wessel the numbered account held over seventeen million U.S. dollars. The deposits had ceased in March 1945.

Next to the bundle lay a reel of very old film, wrapped in an oilskin. Danny made only a fainthearted inspection of the frames, holding them up to the light. The final item was a carefully folded cloth. The scent of old, stale cotton, faintly moldy, brushed his face as he unfolded it. Ragged and frayed, stained in places, Danny struggled to imagine all of the death and mayhem witnessed by the clearly combat-tested German battle flag spread out before him. The faded red swastika seemed to rise up and grip his throat, transporting him back to a time in history he’d only read about, or heard about in whispers. Danny felt something dark and evil, a palpable aura of malevolence, and that earlier, inchoate sense of dread returned, more definite now, more refined, like some nascent haunting specter struggling mightily to present itself to him, to make itself known, to be recognized.

Again the involuntary shiver ran up his spine. Suddenly his nose was mauled by an awful stench, overwhelmingly foul and putrid, immediately compelling visions of unspeakable death and corruption. Screwing up his face, Danny jerked his head back, looking around, eyes wide, doubting his own senses. What the hell. . . . Just as quickly the fug was gone, replaced by an exquisitely delicate flowery aroma, a supernal bouquet of rose, carnation and lavender scents—rich, delightful, bewitching—that filled the air and caressed his senses as if life itself had breathed on him. Danny sat stunned, as if bound and gagged, whiplashed by this fissure in reality. Something just happened, was all he could think, knowing that something had shifted within him. But what it meant remained inscrutable. Working swiftly, he placed everything back in the box, then closed it up and hid it away.

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

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