“I’ve never seen anyone’s throat cut like that before,” the man remarked and then grinned. There was a pathological disregard for anything clearly displayed in his eyes. He looked down to the gently expanding pool of blood that was blossoming onto the stark linoleum flooring beneath his feet. It pumped enthusiastically out from the deep gash in the prison guard’s neck and began its travels. Once contained within the confines of a living organism, its shape now resembled the wings of a magnificent red butterfly as it explored this new freedom it had found.
The man broke from his fascination and looked up to the other men who were gathered immediately in front of him. It was as if he was waiting for guidance or instructions of some kind. There were four in the group in total, all inmates, all frozen here in the same, odd moment together. The other prison guards had fled and distanced themselves rapidly and sensibly clear of the commotion. As they’d hurtled down the corridor, they’d locked the gate behind them. Another party of guards had done the same in the opposite direction, and so now these inmates found themselves alone and marooned in a small part of this high-security facility. To their right was a long bank of cells, 30 or so, whose doors all looked out onto this rather depressing vista. From here, the inmates would gawp out through the bars to the vacant world beyond, appearing like attractions in some travelling freak show, the kind that everyone rushes out to see every time it rumbles into town.
There were six main wings – A to F – which made up the prison. Although its business was incarceration, the site still had to function like any other large social entity, however. It wasn’t so dissimilar to a hospital or military barracks in this regard. There was feeding to be done, washing to be got through, healthcare to be delivered. Mundane, invisible duties were performed, such as the payment of wages too; but of course, security was a huge priority here. And so managers managed, administrators set out tasks, and maintenance staff made sure everything worked as it should and didn’t injure anybody.
The first of the prisoners to move now was Vince. He looked happy with what he was seeing, enjoying it almost as if it was his favourite programme on TV or a relished dish he was about to eat. He was a thickset man in his late 30s, fierce and strong. He was just over six feet tall and had a well-toned physique. Gone now was the fashionable hairstyle he’d worn for all those years. He’d looked so distinctive with his Cavalier style, with its long, alluring, droopy locks. His appearance helped fatten the liaisons which naturally developed in the seedy night clubs he frequented. A subsequent night of raw sex was usually not far behind, and on a number of occasions a visit or two to the sexual health clinic in the local hospital. Complementing his imposing looks were his tattoos. Most of his body was embellished by them. He'd vigorously inform people that these were ‘body art’ and not some mindless, loutish decoration, and more importantly, that on no account should they judge him by them. There was a comical irony in the way he issued what could only have been seen as a warning. It took him perilously close to the border of the country he was apparently so keenly avoiding. The tattoos were impressive, though. There was a real beauty about them. They were expertly crafted, and they looked truly wonderful. One of the larger ones depicted a huge elegant fish which swam down his left forearm. It was a koi carp, the head of which spread over and finished on the back of his hand. Its colours were vibrant and extravagant, and in this sense, Vince was a living painting. By one of the koi’s fins lay a couple of small set of numbers, each with six digits set out in blocks of two, interspersed by dots. They were dates of birth, seeming so important to Vince that he’d had them permanently marked on his skin.
Vince looked about him now. It was as if the morbid spectacle before him had consumed him, intoxicated him, but that now he’d suddenly broken free of its captivating and potentially dangerous hold. A return to reality took over him as he finally came back to his senses.
He still had the small piece of plastic in his hand. He inspected it with admiration and gratitude almost. He looked surprised, as if he’d never expected it to perform the task he’d planned for it so effectively. He glanced down at the body of the guard by his feet, and then back once more to the item grasped in his still-bloodied fingers. He smirked as he nodded his head gently up and down. He looked pleased with himself; that his scheming had worked, that the idea had finally come together.
They’d allowed him a potted plant in his cell. What could be the harm in that, possibly? With it came a drip tray, some 25 centimetres across. The prison guards had welcomed this sudden interest in horticulture; Vince now growing things, taking up some hobby after all those prior aggressive months inside. But time would show that it was something completely different to plants that Vince was actually cultivating.
He’d positioned the pot on the window sill of his cell. It would see light for just a few hours every day. But that was enough. This light would sneak in like a criminal itself, peeking over the tops of roofs, slithering past buildings, but finally getting to its target all the same. Vince was in for murder, a string of spectacular armed robberies and various gang-related serious misdemeanours. Because of the severity of these crimes, he’d accrued a very impressive number of years behind the prison’s bars. Over the months, and then years, Vince had seen the sunlight hit and then harden the unassuming plastic of the tray. After three years, the tray eventually developed a slight crack. This was further worked by age, as if time was the hand of some expert swordsmith, tenderly forging and then sharpening a blade. Along the crack, the plastic hardened further still, until it became menacingly razor-sharp. One afternoon, when he was tending the plant, Vince moved the tray and it suddenly split in half. The first thing Vince noticed was how treacherous the edges of the broken plastic really were. Almost instantly, he saw an alternative use for it. He carefully placed the two halves of the tray back on the sill, and there it sat for a few months more. To everyone else, it was still just a simple plastic drip tray. No one knew of its true potential except Vince, and today, this had been fully revealed. Vince bent down and wiped the lingering blood from the segment of the tray, and then he placed it fondly into the breast pocket of his jacket, as if for safekeeping.
During the struggle, the guard’s keys had become loose in his hand. His efforts to recover them would be his downfall. No doubt in those moments he would have acknowledged the situation that was developing there in that normally peaceful wing of that, for the most part, normally peaceful prison. In place of the routine and the ordinary, danger and chance now appeared, and they were connected by dalliance. This was one of those times in life when the reality of a situation follows painfully slowly behind its supposition. It's that guess that costs you everything. And so it was with him: watching the other guards scatter, picking up well in advance what was happening and him there, stuck in slo-mo, trapped by his slavery to procedure. Many would have left the keys and fled, but not him. When he fell to the floor, semi-lifeless, so his limbs assumed the same state as those troublesome, engineered pieces of metal; their direction, purpose and strength gone, now transformed into cold, inanimate objects. Although he did manage to initially recapture them, his grasping, fading hand, now drained of most of its blood, was forced to let go of its eagerly regained possessions, and the keys to all the cells and the gates spun somewhat flamboyantly across the floor and rattled into open space. Those observing this action would have seen them pirouette, perform their fancy dance, settle, and then – some seconds later – mysteriously disappear.
The final twitches of life left the guard with no tribute to him. There was nothing to signal or celebrate the end of his term on the planet, save the sound of the alarm the prison screamed out when things got totally dire. This was a seldom event but it was here now, and the volume of its shrill seemed to compensate for its months of imposed silence; a chatterbox, gagged for so long, eventually set free on the world, blurting and babbling at every opportunity.
With the guard on the floor evidently being of no further use to them, the gang of prisoners now pursued their quarry. It wasn’t totally clear who they were chasing, and by now the situation had lost all control. It was like a violent drunk on a Saturday night given free access to the bar. Expense was of no object to him now. There were no limits to his craving and so he wreaked havoc, with all his conscience long since gone. But then they spotted him.
The leading guards had nipped inside the closing gate with amazing dexterity. But the one at their rear was less fortunate and the gates closed on him, like the curtains brought down early on some dismal, horrible play. The group of prisoners rushed in on him like a school of sharks consumed by a feeding frenzy, the scent of fresh blood orgasming their senses, driving their madness on.
As they wrestled the guard to the ground, he would have been able to hear the sounds of the locks off in the distance being turned over by his fleeing companions. These sounds were quickly replaced by his own desperate pleas which were duly ignored. He was trapped at the far end of the corridor. There were just two pitiful directions available to him now: the track he'd just covered going one way, and the cold steel bars of the 'International Prison Gates' in the other. Both were impenetrable. He peered up in anguish as the rapidly assembled circle of heads of the gang gazed gleefully down on him.
“Hello, Brian,” Vince greeted him, disturbingly warmly. “You’ll do.”
There was a hierarchy to the group of prisoners. They were like a rock band who were gifted with talent, but also afflicted with egos. Their leader was unsurprisingly Vince, and next below him in the order, Jez. He was 40 and had seen incarceration from an early age, for wounding mainly. He was particularly vicious. Being violent, for him came easily, naturally almost; like the callous skill a slaughterman masters. Killing simply a way of life now, a way making a living. Some people had described Jez as being psychotic, but they were wrong. There were no delusions or hallucinations. He just had a loathing for authority, that’s all. Anyone who crossed him was a threat, and he would stop at virtually nothing to defeat them. In this regard, the police were a target-rich environment. In many ways, his behaviour was now obsessive and something he fed off. Because of his criminal past, he had few achievements to boast of in life. Fighting those in charge became at least something he could excel at. It gave him a feeling of success and self-esteem. He’d remember anyone he met along this twisted path. Impact on him enough, and they’d become his mortal enemy. They’d be something he could now settle his misguided vengeance upon, and legitimately destroy.
The third member of their group was Shah. He was in for manslaughter. He’d killed a pedestrian in a police chase which had gone terribly wrong. In court, the police had painted a picture of a heartless young man in his powerful fast car, wantonly seeking out death on the streets. They’d argued that he was an obvious danger to the public and someone they must clearly make an example of. Unfortunately, the jury had supported this recommendation. It didn’t help that the whole thing had been whipped up to a frenzy by the media. Ask Shah though, and his was a totally different story. He had a fast car, that was for certain, but it was more his pride and joy, rather than some weapon he wielded. His version of events was that he’d been out for a quiet drive when a car had suddenly appeared on his tail and baited him. He’d still no idea why. His only mistake had been getting embroiled in the race which subsequently followed. When they’d approached a particularly tight roundabout, the car behind him deliberately nudged Shah and he’d spun off and collided with an old lady out walking her dog. It was only then that Shah had realised that the car behind him was an unmarked police BMW. He recounted how the driver of it had laughed at him as he’d got out. There were no real witnesses to the event, and Shah had always claimed that the whole thing was a police cover-up. He’d said that the driver of the police car had purposely driven into him, resulting in the death of the pensioner. No one had believed him, however.
The last of them was Paddy. He was close to Shah’s age at 25. He seemed to have other similarities to him too, particularly in regard to his relationship with the local police. The prosecuting counsel at Paddy’s trial had described him as ‘carrying out a prolonged and sustained orgy of violence against the officer’. He had hurt him, again that was true, and the graphic pictures of the officer’s battered face made uncomfortable viewing for the jury. But Paddy’s account of how they’d come about differed greatly to that of the police. They’d presented Paddy as some hooligan, a member of a gang brought in for questioning, indiscriminately attacking an interviewing officer for no reason whatsoever. In turn, the Crown’s QC mocked Paddy’s defence as laughable: an innocent stranger randomly picked off a Liverpool street, taken to police headquarters and tortured for names and information; the injuries to the officer inflicted simply through acts of self-defence. This was the stuff of fancy, of fiction, surely? Who on earth should believe that? They didn’t, and Paddy received nine years for the whole messy affair. He was still protesting his innocence as they led him down to the cells, screaming out that one day he’d have his chance, that one day he’d put things right.
The gang were part of the contingent of nearly 2,000 other inmates who occupied the prison which was located in the countryside east of Manchester. If you were racing on your way down the nearby dual carriageway, you could miss it so easily. Pull over and take time to study it, however, and you’d be both impressed and intimidated by its sheer, steep walls topped by high study metal fencing. The prison sat as a big immoveable square in the landscape, peered at by the curious cows munching contentedly in the meadows nearby.
The facility was built in the mid-1990s. It didn’t look too unpleasant with its coloured brick and white windows. Without the reinforced perimeter, it could easily have been mistaken for an old people’s home. In one way, the buildings served the same purpose. They both separated one group of society from the rest and made sure it couldn’t escape. Their layouts and functions would be similar too. They’d tend to bodily needs whilst time was cursed at and frittered away. But there’d be other parallels too, but perhaps some you wouldn’t immediately be able to identify; an inherent potential for overcrowding, a dependency on drugs, and the accepted practice of worrying about your life possibly ending every day.
The attack on the guards had come whilst the prisoners were being put back inside their cells. All the doors could be opened together, and that’s when these four had seen their chance. The doors were still in this position now, but the remaining prisoners stayed obediently inside their coops, all looking bemused as to what might happen next.
Vince was at the far end of the row, peering in, inspecting, cell by cell; clearly looking for someone.
“Where’s that fucker!” he screamed out into the air around him. As he moved to the next cell, the prisoner inside obligingly moved aside to allow him to see what lay beyond. This routine continued for the next eight cells down until Vince met a man standing straight and tall, obscuring most of what was behind him. It was a curious encounter, however. Vince didn’t order, demand or complain. He was silent; demure almost.
“Not with you, no?” Vince asked, a slight grin coming to his face, as if he needed some gesture to dissipate the potential friction caused by this question he'd irreverently presented.
“Does it look like he is?” the prisoner inside the cell replied in a perfectly polished and refined English accent. He tilted his head to one side, before he spoke and threat rolled out. Vince quickly picked this signal up.
“No, course not,” Vince answered and moved speedily on his way. Three steps to his left and his stony, gruesome, dangerous expression returned as he glared at the next inmate who was a little too slow in moving aside.
“Fuckin’ shift!” Vince barked at him and the prisoner followed his command.
The posh English prisoner was Connor. He was 35 years old, lean and muscular. He had brightness in his eyes, intelligence; but there was no fear there. He seemed completely at ease with himself, confident, prepared even, as if he’d already thought through this current situation and how it might progress, and end.
Vince scanned down the bank of cells for one last time.
“He’s not in his cell,” he declared to the rest of his group. “And he’s not with anyone else either. He must have fucked off whilst the gates were open.” Vince turned sharply to Brian. “Give me your key.” Brian hesitated momentarily. Vince almost jumped on top of him. “Give me your fucking key!” he boomed. Brian fumbled on the chain attached to his belt. He’d barely taken it in his hand when Vince swooped in and ripped it clear of his body. He inspected the small, precious collection of keys intently for a few seconds and then looked up again. “Come on,” he instructed, already starting to move. “Let’s try down here.”
Vince and his gang, Brian now in tow, ambled collectively up the corridor like some odd, deformed, mutant creature. They took one last look at the line of cells when Vince stopped again. He was like a wolf taking sense of its prey in a clearing in a forest, the serenity and beauty of the trees and snow belying what atrocity was yet to follow. Then they set off once more. When they reached the end of the corridor, Vince placed in a selected key, unlocked the gate and exited.
Once they’d gone, there was a tangible sense of relief in the corridor. Behind Connor, in his bed, there was a rather large, odd lump under the covers. From this came a strange, muffled bleating sound. Connor took a pace back and lifted up the corner of his duvet to reveal another prisoner hiding underneath it. Cautiously, a face appeared. The person there unwrapped himself, like a hedgehog finally uncurling from its spiny, comforting ball. The terrified, ashen-skinned face of a man in his late 40s peeked out. His eyes were wide and there was the hint of spent tears still on his face.
“It’s alright, they’ve gone,” Connor assured him. The other prisoner remained motionless for a while, terror still obviously enveloping every part of him, rendering him inactive and useless. This prisoner had only just arrived at the facility, but already his presence had provoked serious unrest and attracted intense hatred from the other inmates. Those who didn’t know who he was might have asked ‘why?’ But once they’d discovered his true identity, then such a reaction to him could have seemed perfectly reasonable.
Clearly picking up on this prisoner’s fear, Connor opened his right hand to reveal another set of keys lying there. He glanced over at the dead guard on the floor.
“Well, he’s hardly likely to need them now, is he?” Connor commented. “So, we may as well make proper use of them, eh?”
Before the other prisoner could answer, the rantings of the gang drifted in as they continued their search down the neighbouring corridor. Connor lifted his head up into the air, as if fixing on their exact location. He lowered it again, satisfied that he knew where they were. The other prisoner gazed up at him. There were no words for a moment. What dominated now was the expression on the other prisoner’s face. He seemed to be hastily working out his options – including the amount of time he had left alive in there.