Ion Beryl Zabek winced as his hands were tied behind his back. His eyes went back and forth, examining the seven men pointing rifles at him. Not exactly fair odds, he thought to himself.
“Ion Beryl Zabek,” a gentleman announced from a safe distance, “You have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason against His Royal Highness the Prince of Rigoramia. You have plead guilty as was your right. The punishment for this crime is execution by a firing squad of seven. What are your last words?”
Ion looked at the man and said, “I haven’t got any.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t got any? You have to have last words.” If there was anything at which Varfolomei excelled, it was the performance of an execution.
“Well that is fine with me. Firing squad, when you are ready, please prepare to…”
“Sir!” He was interrupted by a younger man who had dashed off into the courtyard. He was Peter, the executioner’s assistant. “Sir, halt the execution!”
Ion looked at the younger man. The executioner did, too — he looked a bit more upset, though. “What do you mean, halt?”
“Sir, the procedure in accordance with the handbook states that all people scheduled for execution must say last words prior to being executed. It is a necessary step! If he doesn’t say last words, he cannot be executed!”
“Zabek!” the executioner said. “Zabek, what are your last words?”
“I’ve already told you that I haven’t got any. What good will words do me when I will soon be dead?”
“You just heard the man say that you have to have last words, didn’t you?”
Ion shook his head. “No, what your young officer said is that the execution cannot take place until after I have said my last words. Until you can find a reason to compel me to say last words, I won’t be saying any.”
“Zabek, how about I punch you in the stomach and kick you in the knee until you have made the right decision? Or should I cut off a few fingers?”
“Sir, the handbook explicitly states that the prisoner may not be hurt prior to execution. You cannot do that.”
“Very well then, I will find a way. Let us say that I shall make you extremely uncomfortable.”
At this point, one of the riflemen looked at his watch. “It’s five o’clock!”
“What has that to do with anything?” This was the last thing Varfolomei wanted to hear. Although the next thing would be even less pleasant.
“Sir,” Peter said, “You must know that all executions stop at five o’clock. It’s…”
“IN the HANDbook, YES. I get it. Look, Zabek, you’re getting executed first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Sir, prisoners are only to be executed in alphabetic order according to their last name. Zabek will be in the queue after all of the other prisoners who are scheduled for tomorrow whose names come before his.”
This routine went on for a number of days. Every day, they would get to Zabek and he would keep arguing with Varfolomei until it was quitting time. There was no winning with Zabek. Varfolomei brought in a troupe of extremely untalented poets to read their worst attempts at poetry, as well as a band that had been ranked dead last in a talent competition that had a larger daily attendence than the recent elections.
One particularly cold morning, it turned out that there were very few people who were scheduled. “We have you today, Zabek,” Varfolomei said.
Peter came out, shaking his head. He was pushing a cart upon which a rather enormous binder was spread open. “Sir, we must release Zabek!”
“Release him? You surely are attempting to infuriate me.”
“No, sir. Look for yourself. It says that if an execution is delayed more than a dozen times, the prisoner must be released.”
As he walked away a free man, Ion thought about all of the last words he could have said.