"We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree."
With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense- Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needed the number of a good therapist.
It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess- mother of three- and Abigail- grandmother of eight- had formed an almost mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans- play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had actually placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night's deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.
Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal, and declared- "I just want it over with." His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.
They all received the notice about a week before the execution.
A jury summons.
They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.
But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).
When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both of them would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn't tell why.
Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. "Sam, did you not come with Liz?" Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, "We're not together anymore."
"Guys, something isn't right," Ted began. "This room has pipes it shouldn't."
Luis grunted. "It also has people it shouldn't."
As if on cue, a fine mist filled the room. "I don't feel so good," said Tess, just before passing out. The others followed in rapid succession.
When Zed and Clive woke, they made eye contact. They both immediately displayed expressions of shock and terror. What they saw was the rest of their fellow jurors in a circle around the room. Each was strapped to a rudimentary wooden chair and each had a variety of devices behind them. Some looked like surgical instruments- needles and scalpels and knives. Some were more electrical in nature. Some were tools. And a few had large blades- like guillotines laying on their side.
Olga was the first to scream, then Sam, then a chorus of terrified voices cried out- some tearful, some angry, some pleading.
Ted was still looking around the room- the same they had entered into. But the furniture was different before- more like the courtroom. Now, it looked eerily similar to their deliberation room. Where the judges seat was, there was a large television. The lights were fluorescent, stark and flickery. Below the television, on the wood panel was a clock. It read 6:00 in digital red numbers.
The television flickered on.
There was a shape- a dark, hooded shape not unlike a grim reaper. But where the face should be, there was only blackness. When it spoke, it's voice was mechanical. Altered by some device to mask the true voice. There must have been speakers spread around the room, for when the shape spoke, it seemed to be right behind everyone at the same time.
"Welcome jurors. Today, we are holding court to judge crimes so heinous, so cruel that should a guilty verdict be rendered, then death will be swift and equally cruel. You are judge, jury...and defendant."
It took a moment for that to sink in. Sam began to weep, as did Liz and Tess. Abigail, a woman who had been through much in her life, steeled herself. Jeb began to struggle with his restraints.
Ted- who had been foreman- fell back into his leadership role. He was man of medium build, but large forearms that strained against the restraints told a story of a life wielding heavy hammers and tools. "What do you want from us?" he demanded, his stubbled jaw tense.
The shape moved closer to the screen. "Simple. You must determine who is holding you captive- who am I?"
"That's it?" Olga squealed? "You are holding us for a guessing game? Fine. I guess it's a friend of Jonas Slab. Since he's going to be executed in a few hours, I bet it's one of the witnesses who defended him."
The shape made a 'tsk, tsk' sound and shook what seemed to be its head. "I'm sorry. That's a wrong guess. Now, the penalty for a wrong guess is death."
There was a sound like leather being twisted, from behind Olga's head, and the flat guillotine blade flew forward. Olga's head rolled back and off her shoulders. Another chorus of screams went up. A mechanical whir began below Olga's seat, and her body and the chair were lowered into the floor. A hole remained where her seat had been.
"Now that you know I am serious, let us go over the rules." The voice was calculated and calm. "You must guess who I am. Remember, I am someone that at least one of you has wronged. Once you come to a consensus as a jury- make your accusation. But, if you are wrong, you must choose which of you will die for making a false accusation. Accuse correctly, and you are all free to go. Oh, and you must decide by midnight tonight- when Jonas Slab is executed. If you have not successfully guessed yet, then you will all be joining him in the afterlife. Those pipes along the ceiling? They can deliver killing gases just as they can deliver knockout gasses. I will check back in one hour. Happy deliberations!" The screen went black.
The room was silent except for the sniffling of Sam and Tess and Liz. Abigail sat stock still, facing forward. Luis, Zed, and Clive were looking at their feet. Ted and Reggie (who was an electrician) were looking around the room, trying to see what structural things might help them. Alexis and Jeb were looking around the room at the faces of people they had know so well a year ago, but had not spoken to since.
Alexis, who had been the first to speak in deliberations the year before, did so again. "How can we be sure this guy will let us go if we guess correctly?"
Clive replied, "We don't. But we have to at least make an effort, right? I mean, I don't want to die here."
"Me either," added Luis. "But where do we start?"
Ted spoke again, his voice was always strong and reassuring- part of why they named him foreman. "I think we make a list. Who would want to do this to us? I mean, it must have something to do with Slab, right?"
"His attorney," said Abigail coldly. "He always gave me a funny feeling."
"Okay, that's one. Who was the witness that spoke up most for him? The girlfriend?" asked Reggie.
"Grace Vess," said Liz, through sniffles.
Tess composed herself enough to add, "His parents."
Clive's eyes lit up. "The groupies! Those weird chicks that were in the trial everyday. What did they call themselves?"
Jeb chuckled, "Slabbettes. Like some girl band." He laughed out loud, and the sound was strange in the room. But soon Reggie laughed, too, and then others followed. While it felt odd with the blood of Olga still fresh, it also felt normalizing. And they needed their wits about them if they were to survive.
When it died down, Ted spoke. "I don't think they are capable of this." He indicated the room with his eyes. "But wasn't his dad a plumber?"
"Yeah, he was. But he was a wreck during the trial," countered Reggie. "I think he was even committed to some institution about six months ago."
"Whoever did this had to be planning it for a while," Clive commented. "And strong enough to maneuver us once we were unconscious."
"Unless they had help," Zed commented, his eyes looking from Clive to Reggie. Both looked away from him.
The back and forth of raising an accused and then dismissing them kept up for a long time before Liz called out, "The time! We only have five minutes before we need to accuse someone!"
Despite the mental institution issue, it was the father of Jonas Slab that had kept coming up. The television popped on and the mechanized voice asked, "Who is the accused?" Everyone exchanged a look. They all nodded at Ted, and he said, "Jonas Slab's father."
There was a long moment of silence. The screen went black. Then in place of the hooded man was a newspaper clipping. Jonas Slab's father had died a month ago, and they were looking at his obituary.
Ted swore. Tess shrieked. Sam and Liv sobbed. Abigail was stone still. Luis, Zed, Clive and Reggie all struggled against their restraints. Alexis darted her eyes back and forth across the room, looking at the faces of each person in the room. Jeb began to laugh.
The hood was back on screen. "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
"How do we choose who of us dies?" cried Liz hysterically.
Jeb spoke up. "Don't you see- he is dangling in front of us that we killed Jonas Slab. In his mind anyway. So, so since we so callously killed him-" he looked the clock. "-or will in a few hours, we must be devoid of human emotion. This hood is trying to say we are just as cold blooded as Slab."
Abigail looked coldly at Jeb. "But what choice do we have? We are trapped here- and honestly, I see no way we win this, this...game." She sighed heavily. "Choose me. I'm eighty years old. You all have your lives ahead of you- and I've lived mine."
"No!" screamed Tess. "Think of your grandkids!"
"I am," she replied calmly. "And I am thinking of your kids."
"Why should we consider her kids, Abigail?" Jeb said coldly. "Did you know Tess there has been investigated by CPS for child abuse?"
The eyes in the room went to Tess, who went sheet white. "I...I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You beat your kids?" Reggie shouted angrily. "How could you?"
"I don't- my ex accused me to try to get custody!" She defended, but she saw in the eyes of the room it didn't matter.
The screen came on. "Say a name."
Ted muttered, "Tess."
Tess screamed, but it was cut short. Blood ran out of her mouth, and she slumped forward. The point of a knife stuck out of her chest. The whirring noise came back, and her body was lowered into the floor.
"Tess never beat her children. She was telling the truth." Said the hood.
All eyes turned to Jeb. He began to stutter and stammer. "Look, I work with the boyfriend of a CPS worker that knew about that case. It sounded legit!"
Sam had recovered enough from his crying fit to say, "That's cold, man."
Liz wheeled on him. "Cold? Like cheating on me with my sister 'cold?'"
"Oooo!" teased Reggie. "Man, I knew you too wouldn't last."
Sam grew defensive. "Oh yeah Reggie? You and Clive and Zed make that Texans game? Or just you and Clive? Cuz, what was it you said? 'Zed is a total loser?'"
Reggie and Clive exchanged looks. Zed grinned a cruel grin. "Yeah, word got around, 'buds.' You guys ghosted me."
Clive became defensive, "Look, we were on a jury together- we were never going to be best friends forever!"
"Hey!" Ted yelled. "This is what he wants- us accusing each other. But none of us are the guy behind the hood. Right?" Nods of agreement. "So, let's focus on who it could be."
The discussion ranged again across the already named suspects. As the time drew near the end of the hour, the group had agreed on the lawyer.
The screen went live.
"Who is the accused?"
"The attorney. Victor Hodge."
The screen went black, and then an image of another newspaper article appeared. This one showed Hodge in handcuffs, and the headline read "Local Attorney Pleads Guilty to Child Pornography Possession."
Multiple swears filled the room. Abigail simply said, "I knew he gave me the willies." Her eyes were still puffy from the tears she shed over Tess- the thing that finally broke her.
From the screen: "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
Abigail looked up. "Jeb."
Jeb's jaw dropped. "Me? Why?"
Coldly, Abigail explained. "You accused- falsely- Tess. And she died. Need I say more?"
"But I said her name," said Ted, tears streaming down his face.
Abigail looked at Ted with compassion. "Sweety, you only said what we all were thinking because of Jeb." Nods all around the room. Jeb continued to protest until the voice came back.
"Say a name."
Through gritted teeth, Ted said, "Jeb."
Jeb began to yell, "That is total bullsh-" but he began to convulse and jerk in his seat. Reggie noticed for the first time that Jeb's seat had wires running into his restraints. He saw the same wires now protruding from his own restraints.
The smell of burned skin and hair began to fill the room, then the floor opened and Jeb was gone.
"And then there were nine," said Clive.
Deliberations continued. The girlfriend was named next. A video was shown of an interview where she admitted that she had been mistaken about Slab- and she wished him dead.
This round of accusation was quieter. Abigail again tossed her name into the ring, it was again dismissed.
Zed through out Clive and Reggie's name, the hurt over being abandoned by his buddies evident.
Reggie shook his head. "Man, we called you a total loser because of what you bragged about doing to your girlfriend." Zed stiffened.
Liz looked at Reggie. "What did he do?"
Clive answered, "He actually did beat her. Unlike Tess and her kids."
"We saw the bruises, and he bragged about it," Reggie confirmed.
"Say a name."
"Zed." No hesitation from Ted this time.
A plastic bag descended over Zed's head, and he squirmed, seeking air but only sucking in plastic. He thrashed and slowly stopped moving.
As the body was being lowered, Sam asked, "Didn't Zed work at that grocery store on 7th- the 5-Spot?"
"Yeah," answered Clive. "Why?"
"That was a 5-Spot bag," Sam responded.
Eight of them remained. Ted had begun to shake, Abigail kept dropping her head. Clive leaned his head back, Reggie was checking out each of the chairs to see how they were set up. Sam and Liz were looking at each other, a softness appearing where once there had been only resentment and guilt. Luis and Alexis were chatting.
"I think it might be one of us," Alexis whispered to Luis. She trusted the middle aged pharmacist because they had spent a good deal of time talking about their lives during the trial. Both of them had been from broken homes and had thus far chosen the single life to avoid that heartache again.
Luis sighed heavily. "How? I mean- how could they be controlling the...game, I guess, if they were in here?"
"Like Jeb said, maybe they had help?"
"Or maybe they understand electrical work well enough to rig up the system to make it look like there really was a hood." Luis indicated Reggie, who was suspiciously looking around at all the chairs. Alexis nodded.
"Hey guys," she spoke loudly enough for all to hear, but her voice, like the rest of the people in the room, was cracked from lack of water. "Have we considered the possibility that someone in this room is the hood?"
Laughs came from most, but Ted and Reggie were silent. Abigail asked, "How would that even work? And why?"
Luis answered, "The first is easy enough- you can rig up automated systems, even voice recognition for the video to start up and respond to certain phrases. Notice the hood does not directly address anyone?"
Ted spoke next. "But the why? Why would one of us do this?"
Alexis shrugged. "I don't know. But something Sam said about Zed being left out by Clive and Reggie. What if someone got really messed up by the trial, and for some reason connected really well with the rest of the group. When we went our separate ways, back to our real lives- what if they felt abandoned? Left for dead, even?"
"Remind me what you did for a living, sweetheart?" asked Clive. His 'sweetheart' held none of the warmth that Abigail would have passed on.
"I'm a psychiatrist."
"Oofff course you are. Just trying to play mind games, huh?" Clive replied sardonically. "Well, maybe it's you."
Luis, who had been quiet so far in these discussions, defended her. "Or perhaps someone with electrical skills, like Reggie? Or Clive, aren't you a computer tech?"
Clive shut his mouth. But the damage was done. Reggie and Clive became prime suspects. Despite his protests, Reggie's name was called by Ted at the next accusation.
From the screen, the hood laughed. "So, you figured out that I must be one of you, huh? Well, you're right! But not about poor Reggie." And with that, Reggie began to convulse and shake, just like Jeb, as he was electrocuted. Reggie's head lolled to one side and his hand dropped free to the floor. When he descended into the floor, his dead eyes met Ted's and Ted began to weep.
"And since you know that one of you is a killer, we will go ahead with the plan to have one of you named right now."
"Clive," blurted Alexis before any discussion. That must have worked because instantly a robotic arm dropped from the ceiling and fired a gun point blank into Clive's chest. He gasped for air, his eyes wide with shock and no sound coming out. Then he moved no more and the seat began to draw down into the floor.
Alexis, Sam, Luis, Abigail, Liz, and Ted were all that remained. Alexis looked around the room. None of these people could be the killer, could they? Abigail, the sweet grandmother who wouldn't hurt fly. Ted was clearly broken by this- no one could fake the pain on his face. Sam and Liz were just two dumb kids. And Luis. No, Alexis couldn't bring herself to think he was capable of that.
For the longest time, it was silent. Each person was thinking about their actions over the last few hours. Whatever happened, the hood had proven that they could kill. Just like Jonas Slab. They had each made snap decisions, based on the heat of the moment. And people died because of it.
Luis began to think about how each person in the room had died. Electrocution for Reggie and Jeb. Clive was shot by a robot arm, Zed got suffocated by a bag from his grocery store, Olga was decapitated, and Tess was stabbed by a knife.
Then Luis had a thought. "Guys- Olga was a florist, right? And what did Tess do?"
Abigail replied quietly, "She was a chef."
"Guys, the manner of death for everyone has been connected to their career." Luis smiled, in spite of the psychological torture he'd been through.
"Yeah, so?" asked Sam.
"Everyone except Jeb. He worked ...well, not with electricity." Liz answered.
"Yeah, what did Jeb do? I don't think he ever mentioned it..." Alexis was trying to remember.
"He never said," Ted replied matter of factly.
"Is Jeb somehow the key to this? Like, why would his death not be connected to him in some personal way?" asked Liz.
"Because we never knew him. Not really," answered Luis. "So his death not being related to him tells us that whoever is doing this, maybe they feel like Alexis said- like we left them behind." All eyes turned to Sam and Liz.
Alexis spoke next. "Sam cheated on Liz, so she might feel abandoned. Sam could feel that we turned our back on him because of his actions."
Sam's face went white. "Wait- guys. I am not doing this! I swear! And Liz could never hurt any of you!"
The screen returned. "Who next?"
Ted was on the verge of catatonic now, so Alexis answered. "Sam- it's Sam!"
Liz suddenly rose up, not of her own volition, and turned, her shackles guiding her hands to Sam's throat. She began choking him and screaming as her own hands acted without her consent. Sam's eyes bulged and he fought unsuccessfully for air. Then he died. Liz was maneuvered back to her seat, and she was hyperventilating from the act of murdering her ex.
Alexis looked around the room, knowing the voice was going to tell them to choose another victim. Her mind raced- not Ted or Liz. That left her, Luis and Abigail.
"Give me a name."
Alexis cut her eyes to Luis and Abigail, telling them silently to not say anything. She was missing something. The lack of personal connection to Jeb in regards to his execution. He did not work with electricity- or at least they did not know he did. Because they didn't know him. He falsely accused Tess, right off the bat, and got himself killed. But by a method not connected to him.
Alexis yelled out- "JEB! I know it's you!"
Luis looked at her with wild eyes- "What are you doing- Jeb is dead!"
"No, he's not. He faked the electricity. And he didn't break the rules of the game because he was never accused- we just killed him because he falsely accused Tess. Which he knew would trigger Abigail to call for his head. Then he could play us from behind the scenes from then on!"
A slow clapping came from the floor below them. A hooded figure arose from the hole where Jeb had been seated, clapping gloved hands. The hands reached up and pulled the hood back, revealing a very alive Jeb.
"Very good, Alexis. You only had to kill six to figure it out." Jeb said sarcastically.
"No- you killed them. Your game, your devices. Your plan."
Jeb smiled. "That is so true. In fact, it is more true than you realize. See, I positioned myself to be on that jury in the first place. I needed to be on that panel."
"Why?" asked Luis.
Jeb sighed. "I was lonely. And then, we bonded. So very much over those months. But then, the trial ended, and I thought 'Finally, friends I can hang out with!' But you all abandoned me, left me alone. Again."
"Wait- the rules," Alexis pointed out. "You set the rules for this game- we guessed it was you- and you have to die now!"
Jeb laughed. It was the same laugh that had brought levity at the start of this ordeal. Now, it was bone-chilling. "Right you are again, Alexis- you are on fire. But the problem is- for me to die, you have to know something about my personal life. And you. Don't. Know. Me. Not even my job."
Luis looked down. He remembered something Jeb said earlier that day. "What did Grace Vess do for a living? Wasn't she CPS?"
Jeb's smile faltered.
"Slab's girlfriend?" asked Abigail. "Yes, she was a CPS worker. Why?"
"Jeb said he worked with the boyfriend of a CPS worker." Luis looked at Jeb's brown eyes. "Jeb worked with Slab. He said he had to get on this jury. He had to vote guilty to make sure Slab took the fall. But I bet Jeb was the mastermind. So, Jeb- how'd I do?"
Jeb walked swiftly over to Luis and raised a knife to his throat.
"Ah, ah, ah, that's not the rule, Jeb," said Alexis. "And a you are such the narcissist that you cannot break the rules to your own perfect game. So, you should die the same way Slab does tonight- at midnight. By lethal injection. In the chair Luis is in- because my guess is that his death was to be by pharmaceuticals."
Jeb gritted his teeth, and pulled a remote from his pocket under his black robe. He pressed a button and all their shackles released. Luis rushed Jeb, who was taller by at least six inches and shoved him down into the chair. The latches clicked. Jeb was trapped.
But he still laughed. "See- you still want blood! Just like Slab. Just like me! You want to kill me- and you have already killed more than half of our fellow jury duty members!"
"No, Jeb. We are not going to kill you," Abigail walked over to him, her steps halting from being held down so long. "But we are going to leave you alone- just like we found you. Because a man like you, you don't deserve an audience." She turned and left the old courtroom, and walked out the door. Ted and Liz were leaning on each other for support as they too left. Finally, Luis and Alexis left.
Jeb was screaming at them, "This is not over! I'll still find a way to win!"
But he was alone. And that loneliness, that was his weakness. It was why he killed, why he groomed and controlled Slab. Why he planned relentlessly.
And why he made sure that if this game failed, there would be another broken soul to pick it up. As he pressed the button on the remote that triggered the needle to enter his arm, right at midnight, right when Slab was executed hundreds of miles away, he smiled one last time. He just wondered which of the survivors would snap first.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.