Love and Death at the Red Onion.


“What do murderers look like Professor Crawford?”

Natalie Crawford turned in her seat at the front of the bus to stare at her class. The twelve students were juniors at the local college. Natalie’s course on “Advanced Studies of the Criminal Mind” was required for the Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology that each sought. But one student in particular, seemed fixated on fleshing out the contours of those who had taken the life of another human being.

“Well, Cora if we knew what a murderer looked like we might be able to get one step ahead of someone planning a murder, or someone capable of killing in a moment of passion or lack of compassion. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to create a test for that.”

Cora Bradford considered the answer as the bus pulled up to the penitentiary entrance. Built in 1998 it was a Super-Max facility housing 848 of the most violent prisoners in the state. The students would meet with the warden, prison psychiatrist and three men convicted of murder who had agreed to being interviewed. The class stared out the bus windows at the guard tower where a uniformed man with a rifle stood peering down at them.

Once inside the office Natalie and the students went through the metal detector and checked purses and book bags. They were then escorted to Warden Dan Dunsford’s office for a two hour question and answer session on how convicted murderers were handled at the “Onion” as the prison was known. At noon they met for lunch with some of the staff.

The warden guided the group into the large, state of art kitchen area, where meals were prepared three times a day for over eight hundred inmates and the staff that tended to them. He explained that a new program trained prisoners to work in the restaurant industry upon release.

The group noticed two prisoners in a corner of the prep area putting together a two tiered cake and arranging plates, cups, plastic forks and spoons and ice cream containers on a cart.

“Do you celebrate birthdays with parties and cakes?” asked a wide eyed student.

The warden smiled.

“No, but today is unusual. A court granted a prisoner the right to marry a woman he has known for some time and allowed for cake and ice cream after the ceremony.”

 “Oh yeah. That guy that killed at least 14 or 15 people all over the U.S.” another student offered.

The students had moved closer to look at the cake and continued to discuss whether it was right to allow for such an event for a convicted serial killer. They noted the prisoner was even getting his own small container of peppermint ice cream as a gift from his bride.

The three murderers who were to be interviewed arrived in the kitchen. They shuffled by in shackles, whistling and catcalling to Natalie and the female students, diverting everyone’s attention. Eventually, the students joined them in a conference room.

At 3:30, with the field trip completed, Natalie and the students boarded their bus and rolled out the gate just as an ambulance roared in. Everyone except Cora turned to watch. At 4:30, pulling into the school parking lot the radio music was interrupted:

“At approximately 3:00 this afternoon, convicted serial killer Carl Courtland died of respiratory failure from an apparent overdose of drugs, shortly after marrying his longtime fiancé. A source that did not wish to be identified said a note, found taped to the bottom of the victim’s special order ice cream container read:

“Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.”

Don Corleone

Everyone sat silently for a few minutes and then Natalie guided the students off the bus.

Cora Bradford, the granddaughter of one of Courtland’s victims killed eighteen years before, said goodbye and headed to the city bus stop. As she walked, Cora caught a glimpse of her reflection in a passing car window and wondered again: “What does a murderer look like?”

~ fin ~

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Pamela Ebel was born in Northern California and raised by southern women; part of the diaspora created by the Great Depression. She returned to her roots at 21, receiving an M.A. from LSU-Baton Rouge and a JD from Loyola New Orleans. Her careers have included lawyer, university professor, associate dean, and now fiction writer. She travels between New Orleans, California, Alabama and the Mississippi Delta sharing tales from the crossroads of America. And like the ancient Greeks and the Irish, as a southern writer she knows you can’t out run your blood.