New Age - Book I: "Cells"
rating: +33+x


This is how it ends:

The two men return on the 4th of April and enter the small auto shop where he is working. The long-handled wrench is in his hand; the wheel nuts on a 2004 Suzuki Swift have rusted solid and he is levering them off, one at a time.

They wear expensive suits but are ill at ease in them, adjusting their collars and cuffs. One of them is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He doesn't look at them, because he has still not completely decided they are real. If he has to look at them again, they will become real for him and he will have to make a decision.

"I didn't get your call, Mister O'Neill," says the one he has come to think of as Slick. He remembers Slick has straight, smoothed-back dark hair like an otter and scrubby whiskers. "Our offer only has a limited time period. I thought we'd swing by and get everything straightened out."

There's a clink from the back of the shop as someone begins casually rearranging the spare parts. This, presumably, is the nervous smoker he thinks of as Flash—as in, the waste metal left on a rough cast when you take it out of the mould. Last time he saw Flash, he looked like a shaved ape with four days' stubble and had tattoos around his fingers.

"I'm not interested in what you're selling. Get out of my shop." His voice is hoarse.

"I can't see this is a particularly tough choice," continues Slick, ignoring him. "Like it or not, we're going to be working this area. If you're one of our clients, we'll see to it that you get ahead at the expense of those who aren't. If you don't, we'll help someone else. We're just providing a service. I've tried to be as clear as I absolutely can be."

"I reckon I get you."

"Well then, let's do business—” Slick sounds a lot more cheerful. At the back of the shop, the clinking stops. Flash probably wishes he'd memorised where everything was when he'd started, in case Slick tells him to put everything back as he found it.

"No." He still doesn't look at them. I earned this, he thought. Me.

"Really? I don't think you get us at all." The note of optimism in Slick's voice dies. He puts on the world-weary tone of the suffering wayfarer. "It's idiots like you who stop what we do being such a joy."

"Speak for yourself," rumbles Flash, closer now. "I love this bit, me." There's a cricking of bone and cartilage, pure theatrics.

Please, he thinks, just one moment longer. Let me stay here one moment longer, before the world ends. But Slick is approaching, clipping across the concrete floor.

"You know, Mr O'Neill, I find it rude when people don't look at me. It makes me tetchy."

Something rustles nearby, Slick's jacket, and he can't put it off any longer. Someone, maybe Slick, puts their hand on his shoulder. Ignition; the fuel mixture in his brain burns white, and he swings the wrench.

There's nothing gruesome or bloody about it—it hits Slick just below his ear and his expression flickers to one of confusion and disappointment as he drops. He didn't have a knife after all. Flash is a pace or two away and came with a cricket bat—at least get it right, he thinks briefly as he steps towards him, you play hardball with a baseball bat. Flash doesn't even have the bat up before the wrench hits his jaw. There is, on reflection, a slight pop which he will later learn was Flash's jaw breaking into three separate pieces. Flash falls to his hands and knees—he hits him again, across the back of his neck, and he goes prone.

He throws the wrench into the corner of the shop and looks at the scene. Two men are lying on the floor of his auto-repair shop, face down. He goes over to the door, turns around the sign so it reads 'We are Open' on the inside, and then draws up a chair. He sits for a few minutes before he picks up the phone.

Chapter One: "Cells"

"Mister O'Neill?"

Keagan jolted out of a floating half-sleep—sitting at the chipped plastic table in the public conference room was the most comfortable he had been in days—and looked up. The solicitor standing over him wore semicircular glasses with a worn suit. He was probably no more than thirty, but with a thin, pinched face that made him look older.

"I'm Luke Vikkers, Legal Aid. From Stone Gooding. I'm sorry, I only have fifteen minutes." He extended his hand to Keagan, who gripped it warily.

"Okay," he said.

Vikkers opened a slim black leather case, peeling at the edges, and withdrew a few sheets of carbon-copied paper, squinting at the faded type.

"To be honest, Mister O'Neill, this will be the first case of this type I have handled."

"They didn't have anyone who knew what they were doing, then." Keagan balled up his fists and rubbed his eyes.

The solicitor paused, an offended tone crossing his features. Then: "You're being charged with two counts of murder. I don't seem to have your initial statement, but according to the police notes you've never made any attempt to deny that the killings took place."

"I turned myself in," Keagan said. "I thought it would be manslaughter. I told them it was self-defence."

"Self-defence is a defence in law to the charge of either murder or manslaughter. English law doesn't—currently—have degrees of murder like the US system. Manslaughter in this case would mean you didn't intend to kill them—obviously you said something to the police to make them think you did."

Keagan kept silent. On the next table along, the quiet chatter of prisoners with their legal representation was disrupted by a grown man bursting into tears. His elderly solicitor patted his charge's shoulder in a faint attempt at bonhomie.

"Okay," concluded Vikkers. "Now, all cases start out at the magistrate's court. This is an indictable offence, so they will in the first instance pass you through to the Crown Court. There you'll be asked to indicate how you will plead. Have you given it any thought?"

"No. Like I said, I was just defending myself."

The solicitor looked down at his watch. A few strands of his thinning dark hair, grown longish and carefully teased into place with gel, fell over his forehead and he brushed them back as he continued:

"Self-defence requires reasonable force. According to the police report, you weren't injured in the exchange?"

"No. Look, I already told the police…"

"And I told you, I don't have your statement. Did you have any reason to suspect your life was being threatened?"

"Yes, I thought the guy had a knife." Keagan leaned back on the one-piece plastic chair.

"And by 'the guy', you presumably mean, er, Theo Megali? The first man you hit." That was the name of the man Keagan thought of as Slick.


"The police report says they didn't find a knife on him."

"No, I just thought he had it. I wasn't looking at him." Put like that, Keagan thought, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Oh no, wait.

"Erm. R v. Hatton, ah, 2005, I believe represents the current state of thinking on the matter, I'm afraid. A mistaken belief that one is about to be attacked is irrelevant to innocence or guilt."

"What about the other guy—Crae? He had a cricket bat."

"Ah, maybe." Vikkers, looked at his watch again, irritation briefly crossing his features. "If you didn't have an opportunity to leave or seek police protection self-defence can apply. Did you know they were arriving?"

"Yes," said Keagan. "But I called the police. Several times. They said if no threats had been made there was nothing they could do."

"So they didn't threaten you in any way?" The solicitor pursed his lips.

"Of course they … they were just thugs who wanted to be paid off or they'd wreck my shop."

"But they didn't make it explicit."

"They didn't say 'look, hand over the cash or we'll beat you up and trash your business', no. Apparently that's what the police wanted to hear."

"So why didn't you tell the police that's what they had said?"

"Why didn't I—what?" Keagan looked the solicitor as though he had two heads. Of course, it was perfectly reasonable. It just hadn't occurred to him. He had spent days on the telephone being passed from community support officer to community support officer and he had never once thought of just lying. Too late now, of course.

"Never mind. Mister O'Neill, let me be blunt. No previous complaints had been made against Mister Megali and Mister Crae and they had no criminal records. If they were running a protection racket, either they were very good at it or you were their first victim. Whereas, I see, you have two convictions for battery, for which you were first ordered to pay a £10,000 fine and then received a suspended sentence." Vikkers studied the second sheet of paper.

"I attended an anger management course," Keagan said, slowly.

"Yes, and the result will appear to a jury to be two dead bodies on your shop floor. Look, as your solicitor this is how I see it. You don't deny you killed two men—you had the opportunity to leave and avoid the confrontation, you also had the option to get the police involved. They have no record of criminal activity—you have a history of confrontations escalating into violence."

Keagan glanced at the policeman overseeing their table, trying and failing to gauge his tone. He shouted:

"That shit Crae came at me with a cricket bat! I didn't do nothing wrong!"

The policeman put a hand on his nightstick and stirred himself. Vikkers waved his hand dismissively.

"Okay, so you hit him once." The solicitor slid his spectacles back up his nose.

"I hit him once, but he didn't fall all the way down, so I hit him again."

Vikkers sighed and started fiddling with his hair again. "A jury will see that as the point you crossed from self-defence to murder, even if they were sympathetic about Megali." The solicitor's phone began to vibrate and he picked it up. "Look, we're out of time here. I'll catch up with you just before you go into court, we'll have a little time to talk then. But as your solicitor I strongly advise you to consider a guilty plea."

"If I plead guilty, do I get a lighter sentence or something? I mean, it's better to do that than go to trial?"

"What?" Vikkers had already swiped his phone open and raised it to his ear. "Yes, yes—excuse me, just a second—it'll be taken into account. If you make the State pay for a trial you'll have a rougher time of it if you're found guilty. But there are never any guarantees. No, I'm with a client. I know I'm late. Just a—look, I really need to go. Think about what I've said and let me know before trial. I'll assume if I don't hear anything that you're entering a guilty—no, I'm coming now."

With this disjointed summary, Vikkers gestured to the policeman that the meeting was over and began to move away, leaving his case on the table. Keagan waved it in his direction but he had already left, phone clutched to his ear.

In the coming weeks Keagan would think several times about getting a second legal opinion on his case, but his position as laid out for him by Luke Vikkers seemed so stark and the simple process of finding a firm's phone number and placing a call while in custody so convoluted that he simply never found the will.

"Keagan O'Neill"—The Right Hon Justice Stewart QC once again raised baggy eyes from the case notes to favour Keagan with yet another vaguely puzzled glare. Keagan wondered whether the judge kept being thrown by his skin colour and had to check this was still the defendant with the Irish name.

Vikkers stood at Keagan's side—he had at some point in the intervening days retrieved his flaking legal case and had spent much of the hearing nervelessly peeling flakes of leather off with his thumb.

"Keagan O'Neill," the judge repeated ponderously, "you have accepted the charges brought before you and all that remains is to pass sentence. We have heard from your legal representation arguments in mitigation, including that Misters Megali and Crae may have intended you harm, but I am also conscious of your history of violence and the fact that during these proceedings I have not once heard from you any expression of remorse. Theo Megali's parents and Steven Crae's wife and children are here in court today and expect me to administer justice."

Keagan glanced over his shoulder—impossible to guess which of the dozen or so neutral-faced observers might be the relatives he spoke of; there were no tears he could see. Lauren, his girlfriend of 18 months, was still there, lips set tightly and looking off into the middle distance. She had the decency to show up, he thought, but not to own any connection to the man standing at the table in front of the judge, who continued:

"In view of this I sentence you to two terms of life imprisonment, with a minimum tariff of 7 years each, to be served in a high-security facility."

The words didn't immediately register, but something like a sonic boom hit Keagan in the face. He had expected a prison sentence, but the words 'life imprisonment' sucked the breath from his throat.

"I pled guilty!" he shouted, before he realised he was speaking. "I said I did it, didn't I! What is this?"

Keagan turned to look at Lauren, but she had turned red and was already rising to leave. Vikkers looked scandalised at the outburst and began pulling at Keagan's rented suit. "Sit down! Sit down!" he began bellowing, apparently forgetting they had been told to rise for sentencing. The court officers seemed unsure as to whether they should break up the contact or permit the solicitor to restrain his client.

"The court thanks you for your candour," creaked the judge. "But the Murder Act 1965 is very clear; I am only sorry that it has placed capital punishment in the UK beyond my reach in cases such as this. You are guilty of murder, and you will receive imprisonment for life. Please take the prisoner away."

White-hot rage bubbled up in Keagan's throat and he directed it at the nearest person he could blame for his predicament—the pathetic figure of Luke Vikkers, still weakly holding onto his sleeve as the court officers looked on.

"Life imprisonment! You said it would be a lighter sentence. Lying shit!" He reached out for the solicitor who regained enough presence of mind to step away and behind the reassuring bulk of one of the officers.

"I definitely wouldn't have said that, Mister O'Neill. I said it would be better for you not to make the State go through with a trial. That would have resulted in a longer minimum tariff and possibly a maximum-security prison. A guilty plea will also count in your favour when the time comes for parole."

"In fourteen years!" The officers had closed on him now, placing him back in cuffs.

"I don't know what else you want me to do, Mister O'Neill. I've provided free legal counsel—in the face of, I must add, a generally uncooperative client. I'll thank you to go to another firm if you have any further legal needs." This seemed to conclude matters for Vikkers, who swept out, again leaving his brief on the table.

Luke Vikkers, a five-year Associate with Stone Gooding, whose keen legal mind was presumably the reason Stone Gooding shuffled him off to the monument to British fairness and justice that is Legal Aid, plays no further part in this story, though it may interest you to know that in another five years, frustrated by his failure to make Partner or even Senior Associate, he will leave Stone Gooding and attempt to start his own private practice in civil law, which will fail abysmally.

A prisoner being held awaiting trial is considered innocent until proven guilty, even if they have indicated they intend to file a guilty plea. But as soon as sentence is passed, that changes—Keagan felt it in the way the court officers handled him, the way suddenly no-one in the stands would meet his eye. He looked for Lauren, but of course she had gone. What did you expect, he thought?

Just before he reached the door, the officers were ambushed by a court reporter—a young woman with a blonde page-boy haircut and a brown suit.

"Just a minute," she said, "can I get a quote?"

"Make it quick," advised the officer, "he's a pain in the ass."

"Mister O'Neill, you seemed unhappy with your verdict. Did you have anything you wanted to say?" She clicked on a handheld recorder.

Keagan swallowed. "It's not fair, it's not justice. I mean, if I'd been told it'd be … that is … just the same, I wouldn't have pled guilty, would I? What's the point of it? What's the fucking point?"

Well done, thought Keagan, what a sparkling quote. That'll make the front cover of the Brixton Herald, easily.

"Okay," said the officer, "I think you've made your point." And with that, and an encouraging thump to the back, Keagan was led away.

HMP Wormwood Scrubs is a Category B men's prison, reserved for offenders who are not considered maximum security risks but whose crimes nevertheless necessitate a higher level of security than the lowest 'closed' prison category. While on remand awaiting trial Keagan had spent several nights in HMP Brixton but had seen little of the other prisoners.

The ambience, however, was the same, only amplified—over a thousand men living, sleeping and defecating no more than six feet from the next. As he entered the square processing centre at the front of the complex it struck Keagan to be very similar to the atmosphere of a public swimming pool—humid, slightly clammy, a cacophony of distant hoots and bellows, people talking loudly to be heard, all echoing through the concrete and tiled corridors. Occasionally you could pick out a word or two amongst the screams—always lunatic in the way any snippet of conversation overheard by a third party is lunatic: "fry 'em up … took the fucking budgie and I said … eatin' razorblades … if they can't take a joke."

There would be no orientation this evening—the Warden was sick. Instead, a jovial and rather scruffy guard who introduced himself as Taggart told them they knew what they deserved, and if they didn't, well, they were getting it anyway. If you choose not to behave, he said, you can probably imagine what will happen to you, so make damn sure that if you act out that it's worth it. With that practical advice, they were marched off by twos or threes to their cells.

It was with some surprise that Keagan realised he would not be bunked with one of the prisoners brought in with him. Instead he was led off to the end of B wing where the lifers were accomodated. The guard turned the key in the door—no bars, just a big, blocky green door with a safety bolt, like a garden shed. Inside the cell was painted a sickly shade of yellow and designed so no part of its geometry was hidden from the door. A bunk bed, heaped with thin, dark brown sheets, a writing desk, and one chair. A notice board provided the only relief from monotony in the room—to it had been affixed what seemed to be crude stick pictures.

"Here you go, you creepy bastard," the guard said—apparently to Keagan, as otherwise the room appeared empty, "try not to scare him too much."

This non-sequitur left Keagan somewhat nonplussed; he sat down on the bottom bunk and for want of anything else to do started pulling his prison shirt off, then stopped, leaving it half inside-out around his neck and head. He sat in this undignified posture for a few minutes—nothing was making an impact, everything seemed like some half-waking hallucination. The lurid walls heightened this impression—he was content to sit quietly, now that everything had ended, just waiting for the next thing to come along. He sat for about half an hour, realising that he was shaking slightly.

Why didn't you just lie? The solicitor's question burned in front of his mind—such a simple thing. Because—because I didn't, couldn't, chose not to? Keagan tried and failed to reach for words that summed up the simplicity of how he had seen the situation that had led him here, concluded it was better to kill two men than do something distantly and wordlessly impossible for him.

The voice that he at first took as some continuation of his inner dialogue had been speaking for a few seconds before he realised it was external, and he looked around. Still the same blank yellow walls, the same empty chair.

"Right now," it was saying, in a curious, whining tone, a low keening, "you're regretting everything. Or maybe just one thing. You think there was one thing you could have done different, then everything would have changed. You haven't realised it yet. Don't worry, there's still time, for now."

Keagan blinked, wondering if in his reverie he had entered a state of change blindness. Sometimes, when he had become so invested in a car, so involved in the problem of its corroded engine parts or atrophied wiring that he had forgotten to eat or drink and the air had become stagnant with his effort, he would fail to perceive people moving around him and even talking to him until something clicked and he could recognise faces and voices again. Surely someone could not have entered the room without him noticing? But the voice continued:

"I'm here to help you get there, dear, to realise it's not something you did. It's so hard to give that up, because it makes you a victim. You'll trace that one moment you think ended it all back to first cause, and you'll think, it didn't originate in me at all! But you're wrong. Not that it's over—no, you're right to think that. You're here, with me, and it's over. But the game was over a long time ago, you just didn't realise it."

In an instant of clarity, Keagan perceived that the drone was coming from above him. As he sat there, it seemed to build, becoming more solid, worrying at his nerves until he could no longer stand the idea of its owner hanging over his head, and, grunting, he got up. At that moment, a long, pale arm swung down from the bunk above, clutching at him with long, untrimmed nails. It seized his shoulder, grabbing a hunk of fabric. Keagan tore himself away, swatting at the arm, and collapsed into the chair, facing the bunk bed. The arm retreated into the heap of fabric under which, he now realised, the speaker had lain silently since Keagan had entered the cell.

At the end of the bunk, the fabric shifted and a face emerged, reclined so its large, pale blue-yellow eyes met Keagan's at a ninety-degree angle. Its chalky flesh was surrounded by long, lank blond hair. It regarded him for a long moment then suddenly cracked into a smile crazed in its intensity—a set of long, slightly yellowed teeth were exposed by this action, drawn back to the quick.

"Over," it repeated. "You didn't notice when you died, did you? Somewhere along the way, you died and you just didn't realise it."

Keagan bared his own teeth back at the apparition, which had levered itself into a crouch on the top bunk, the threadbare blankets still piled on top of it, but the tone of voice of whom he could only assume was the Creepy Bastard was like something scraping on your soul.

"You didn't think you would go to heaven, did you? Not deep down. You died a long time ago, it's just taken this long to fall all the way down here, with me, in hell. It's over, but there's no rest. No rest in hell. Every night you'll lie awake, wondering what I'm going to take from you next." Creepy Bastard slid his fingernails over the metal bar at the edge of the bunk, still fixing Keagan with that lidless stare. "So, tell me my dear, what do you think was the moment it all went wrong?"

Keagan realised he was in shock; something that again eluded conscious description had passed over him and frozen him solid. He understood, of course, that he was speaking to a human being, a human being who had probably used this little pantomime on every person he was bunked with in an attempt to compensate for a lack of any physical threat, that he was likely not even dealing with an insane person, for Her Majesty's Prisons are not in the habit of allowing the genuinely disturbed with the merely sociopathic in general population. But something he had said had struck home, like an amateur archer who through sheer chance has managed to nail the dead centre of a target in the dark.

He felt his eyes prick, and in an instant his self-preservation instincts had taken over. He stood up, spine straightening convulsively, and walked back over to the bed. He reached out and grabbed a pale hand, and was not at all surprised to find almost no resistance there as he twisted it painfully.

"I'd say the moment I bludgeoned two men to death with a wrench. How does that work for you? Just a suggestion, if you don't want me to break both your arms, don't fucking touch me again."

The sides of Creepy Bastard's lipless mouth tightened into a citric slash. Keagan waited until those unblinking eyes screwed up in pain then let go, sitting down on the lower bunk again.

"And don't snore if you know what's good for you," said Keagan, exhaling heavily. Reality had reasserted itself, and whatever it was about Creepy Bastard's spiel that had so spooked him had passed. A few more minutes went by before Creepy Bastard ventured a response.

"You didn't let me finish," he said from above, voice quite different now; a resentful kid deprived of his favourite toy. "It's not just some moment that brought you here, or even anything you did. It's you. It's always been you. You'll learn. What you did flows out of what you are."

"Don't talk bullshit. You don't know anything about me," snapped Keagan, and was surprised at the depth of feeling in his voice.

That seemed to conclude the discussion: determined to demonstrate to his companion that he would not be terrorised, Keagan reclined and resolutely closed his eyes—and a short time later heard the call for lights out, followed by the sound of Creepy Bastard tentatively climbing down to turn off the desk lamp before returning to his perch. The world became fuzzier and retreated.

Keagan had expected to dream of judges, courtrooms and endless recriminations, or else of gleaming eyes and sharp nails in the darkness, but instead he found himself reliving a road trip he had taken with Lauren six months back; he had commandeered a caravan he was meant to be servicing and had taken her up to the Lake District. In his dream they drove to the top of a hill overlooking a small village and they ate fish and chips wrapped in slightly wet newspaper, the salt and vinegar pungent in his nostrils.

He began to feel anxious as in the dream he apparently intended to propose to her but had forgotten the ring. He wracked his brains trying to think where he might have left it—but of course found the sequence of events that had led him to the hill (which by this point had metamorphosed into a very scenic old church, and threatened to become an actual wedding ceremony) muddled and confused in his mind.

There was a sudden thumping and knocking, which in the dream he thought must surely be his best man Ron Kingsley (except he hadn't so much as spoken to Ron since secondary school) at the car window (hadn't it been a caravan?) with the ring, but when he turned there was no Ron and no car, and instead he was standing alone, somewhere unfamiliar.

He stood in a great empty warehouse space with peeling, oxidised sheet metal walls—at its centre was a steel cube, suspended within the greater space with metal cables connecting the external corners of the cube to the interior corners of the warehouse. He approached, and realised with a sick horror that the banging was coming from inside the cube, that there was something trapped inside battering its way out, throwing itself again and again against its walls—

And then he was lying in his bed, in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, listening to some idiot further down the ward playing a nocturnal waltz on the pipes with a detached toilet seat, just to keep everyone in good spirits. An outraged roar by another lifer roused from sleep, the rumble of a guard telling the idiot to explain his grievances or else stop keeping everyone else awake. The noise petered out, and there was peace again.

In the first days of Keagan's incarceration at HMP Wormwood Scrubs he was content to stay in his cell, emerging only for mealtimes, when he went out of his way not to engage with anyone—he would stay standing until he saw a pocket of mostly white-collar inmates emerging, then took the last free seat at the table. Usually they didn't say a word and neither did he. In this way he kept himself out of the macho games at lifer tables, where something as small as a pot of yoghurt, the mistaken taking of which by one inmate would be interpreted by another as an attempt to exact tribute, would become the flashpoint for a brawl. When the meal was done Keagan would get up straight away and return to his cell as quickly as possible, where he would lie or sit on his bed, catatonic.

He justified himself thusly—his life as he knew it was over; he had a long time in prison ahead of him. What did it matter, then, if he spent a day—or a week, or a month—simply letting time pass? Creepy Bastard would pad up and down from his bunk and spent time at the table, producing immensely detailed sketches apparently from memory; country landscapes, cathedrals, town streets. After finishing one of these works, he would hold it up to the narrow window that led onto the yard and admire it for a few seconds in the natural light, eyes appearing for a moment more watery than normal. Then he would fold it up small and hide it between the bunkbed's leg and the wall before dashing out a calculatingly disturbed scrawl on a new sheet of paper—stick figures murdering each other, cannibalising each other's limbs, which he would stick up on the wall using the small roll of Blu-Tack allotted for this purpose.

"Is that what you used to do?" asked Keagan one day, watching as Creepy Bastard completed a fabulously intricate pencil drawing of the Thames skyline before preparing to hide it forever. Creepy Bastard swivelled his head in his direction, seeming for the first time to realise he had been observed in his art. "Were you an artist?"

"Do you think it matters?" answered Creepy Bastard, fixing him again with his reptile stare. "We're in stasis. Whatever you do now, dear, there's no-one to see, no-one for it to matter to." He started to fold the piece up; as far as Keagan could see once he had thus packed away his pieces he never looked at them again.

"You could send them out," said Keagan. "Must be some magazine or something that would pay good money for them. Painted from memory by a lifer; that's the sort of thing they go in for, isn't it?"

Creepy Bastard paused, and Keagan could see his pale hands trembling. Then, with a sudden snarl, he began pulling the sketch into pieces, hissing as he threw the scraps around the cell. "It doesn't matter! Whatever you do, it just makes things worse." He went over to the sink and wiped his face, glaring at Keagan over his shoulder. "You've only just arrived, dear. You'll learn. Better not to live anymore. Stay dead." He grabbed another sheet of paper and roughly scratched into it the shape of a stick figure man cutting off his own head with a kukri knife, his alibi.

Keagan saw the abject fear in his cellmate's eyes—fear of change, fear of even the slightest deviation from his self-imposed monsterhood being seen as weakness—and realised that his own semi-comfortable exile from prison life could stretch into years unless he made some resolution. According, he went to the guard in charge of the work and education programmes and asked him if there was anything available. Wormwood Scrubs houses almost 1,500 prisoners, over 60% of whom have nothing to do but gaze at blank walls, and all of whom are desperate for something to relieve the long years of their confinement. What opportunities for study and productive existence are offered disappear in a heartbeat, leaving the bulk of the population of Her Majesty's prisons to amuse themselves with little contraband intrigues, the politics of prison cliques, and fights.

By chance, or perhaps because to most who asked it seemed worse in its dusty obscurity than the simple oblivion of their cell, there was one position open when Keagan asked, and he accepted it almost without asking what it entailed—the position of assistant at the HMP Wormwood Scrubs prison library. Keagan signed the slip of paper, committing himself to 20 hours a week in janitorial duties, and was further advised that if he executed his duties to the satisfaction of the Librarian—himself a trustee lifer—he could expect to be granted restricted area privileges allowing him to spend his free time in the library as well.

He had expected HMP Wormwood Scrubs' library to be something like an ancient castle—solid oak shelves stacked with crumbling parchments. Instead, he found a modern, prefab area laid out identically to the prison shop—plastic and metal shelving designed to have no detachable parts, and stacked with a somewhat limited installment of books, mostly law books, cheap Jeffrey Archer thrillers, biopics and fantasy novels.

The librarian—a stocky older man who spent most of his time huddled in the corner with a Tom Clancy novel—laid out the principle responsibilities that Keagan would be expected to fulfil; chiefly that all loans were documented and passed onto prison staff if not returned promptly, that shelves were kept in alphabetical order, and that the floor is kept swept. Having passed on the torch of this sacred undertaking, the trustee apparently saw no need to take any further hand in the running of the library and was content to entrust it entirely to Keagan.

The library, being a restricted area only accessible through good behaviour, saw little in the way of traffic and Keagan thus found himself with copious free time even during his meager working hours. Accordingly, he began browsing the stacks himself, rediscovering in the long hours of solitude some spark of the enthusiasm he had felt in libraries as a child; the impression that one stood inside a temple of the world's knowledge. He had not, he realised, read as an adult—he had read and understood bills, receipts, and notes from clients at his shop, but had for whatever reason evaded study for pleasure or even work, preferring to call around his colleagues when he found a problem that stymied him in his work rather than look it up. Why, he wondered? Because it was easier not to think, because routine becomes a prison cell without bars, because knowledge becomes hateful to those who no longer consider themselves to have the capacity to enjoy it? He resolved then that he would improve himself in that little library and internalise whatever information he could find on its shelves.

Keagan was in the library when the guard—it was Taggart, the amiable scruffy one who had filled in for the Warden on his first day—told him that Lauren had come to visit him. Keagan realised he had not thought of her, or of how their relationship would survive his incarceration, if at all, since entering the doors of Wormwood Scrubs, and felt a sudden pang of loss. He had assumed, like a child yet to grasp permanence, that if he had left the world it had ceased to exist; the notion that people out there were still affected by his actions was something awkward, foreign to him.

Lauren was waiting at one of the tables in the visiting room, dressed in a dark, sober jacket and skirt. Her hair was pulled back from her face with a tortoiseshell comb he didn't remember seeing before and her eyes were rimmed red. Keagan sat down across from her, unsure what to say.

"They kept me waiting for forty-five minutes." Her voice was thin, dry.

"I'm sorry," Keagan said. "They only just told me you were here."

She pursed her lips—perhaps she didn't believe him. "Do you know there's only three seats in the waiting room?"

"I guess most people around here don't have anyone prepared to come visit them." He tried to laugh, but it died in his throat and he realised the joke had been a mistake.

"I didn't come before because I thought you needed space," she said, as though she had done him a favour. He wanted to say he appreciated it, even though it was a lie—had she come earlier, he would have been as eager to see her, and perhaps she would not have fallen out of his mind the way he realised she had. Instead, he said:

"And I guess you didn't want to be seen with me so soon, right?"

She coloured—dark flush staining her pale cheeks. "You can't accept anything nice people do for you, can you? Look, we need to talk."

"I thought we were," said Keagan, feeling his stomach churning.

"I mean about us. I didn't know what you thought … I mean, how far you considered this a—new chapter in your life. You didn't call me."

"I only gained Enhanced status a couple of days ago," protested Keagan, "it's not bloody Butlins."

"You get a free call when you first arrive," said Lauren, coldly. "I read it on the website."

If that was true, no-one had bothered to inform Keagan. Probably a victim of Taggart's avuncular welcome. He forced himself to dwell on her words and found he resented the effort it took him—had always taken him—to divine her likely meaning.

"A new chapter. Does that mean you want to break up? I mean, there's not much I could do if you…"

"For God's sake," she cut him off. "It's got nothing to do with me. I need to hear from you if you can continue this relationship. Whatever you decide, I have to consider what I'm going to do."

Keagan screwed his eyes shut. "Why do you always ask me? Why do I always have to decide? I can't decide anything right now."

"I'm not the one serving two life sentences," she retorted. "I think it's very simple. Do you still love me?"

Keagan found himself winded. How could she think such boiling indecision—questions of logistics, work, family—could be dismissed based on a question he considered so unalterably answered? It seemed like something out of a fairy story. He spent every day in an environment where such wishes were worthless; the outcome would be determined when you rotated the key, measured the voltage, turned the engine over. What you were really asking for when you wanted something to happen regardless of whether the facts supported it was for reality to evaporate, for the whole world to become lunatic, for the ground under your feet to fall away.

"Of course I still love you," he said.

Lauren looked away—he thought she might have preferred another answer.

"Then that's all there is to it, isn't there?" she said, shrugging even as she began to pull away. "We just have to make the best of it we can. Look, I'm really not comfortable here. We'll talk more another time."

There's another question, he thought, but he did not ask it.

"Lauren," he said, pleading. She looked back, and for a moment looked baffled as to what he could possibly want from her. Then, old habits kicked in and she tilted her head towards him, a martyr to the jailhouse brute. He kissed her as gently as he could just above her hairline, at the front, where she had a natural part. She didn't meet his gaze as she moved off and was escorted to the door by the guard.

Keagan returned to his cell in a daze, unsure what to think or whether he should think anything at all about the exchange. Creepy Bastard had evidently finished drawing for the day and was wrapped up in his blankets so when he spoke Keagan was forced to carry on a conversation with what seemed to be a heap of rags.

"Who was that, dear? Someone to lift your spirits?" Keagan often couldn't tell whether Creepy Bastard was intending to be creepy or whether the persona had so taken him over that he adopted it unconsciously.

"It was my girlfrend," he said, and went to sit over at the writing desk to try and clear his head. From there you had a narrow angle on the yard—right now no-one seemed interested in exercising, instead huddling into groups in an unseasonal chill.

"Is she black?" asked the top bunk.

"Excuse me?"

"I don't mean anything by it, dear. Do you mind if I ask, as it's been bugging me for a while—are you supposed to be black? I've been wondering." The question didn't enrage Keagan so much as surprise him—it had been the first time his race had been brought up since a drunk in the police cells had objected to being bunked with Keagan, but then had proved unable to decide which of his extensive selection of slurs was appropriate for the situation.

"Dad was from Jamaica, originally," Keagan responded, evenly. "He didn't stick around long. Mum was white. Irish. And my girlfriend's white, as if it's any of your business."


"What do you mean by that?" Keagan, finally tiring of addressing the bed linen, went over and ripped it roughly off his cell mate—Creepy Bastard was huddled in a fetal position, knees tucked up to his chin. He looked at Keagan with watery eyes.

"Don't be offended, dear. I just think it's interesting your chosen partner more closely resembles than your mother than your father—or your primary caregiver rather than the absent parent. Is she Irish?"

"No," said Keagan, feeling more drained than anything—lethargic again, like he'd been when he first arrived. He slumped down on the lower bunk. "She's Welsh."

"Celtic stock then. Just think, dear, your children could pass for Italian! Then their children could pass for swarthy southern French, then…"

"Shut up, will you. I'm not even interested."

He lay there for a few minutes, then thought to ask—"Are there gangs in here? I mean, black and white?" He didn't remember noticing it on the occasions he had been out in the yard, but then, maybe he had internalised the images from TV and so expected to see the segregation, blanked it.

"Of course not! This isn't America. Of course, you'd have problems whichever you chose if there were, wouldn't you? Not quite light or dark enough for either, I imagine. But—rejoice!—here it's just language, white or blue collar, and of course, propensity for violence. Positively egalitarian."

Keagan thought this over for a moment, and realised he had almost no idea what the actual shape of general population looked like, so determined he had been to avoid entering lifer society. He asked:

"So, who actually runs things around here? Is it the trustees? The guards? The lifers? Are there any prisoners I should watch for?"

Creepy Bastard sounded positively ecstatic when he responded: "I've just been waiting for you to ask. I'm surprised you haven't put your my foot in it already. Ignore the trustees—they don't have much over a regular Enhanced status prisoner. It's not like they send them out to the shops or anything, like they do at minimum security prisons. They don't rat out other prisoners either, unless you're doing something that could result in them losing their privileges. As for guards, Taggart is as bent as they come—if you need anything from outside, he'll look the other way. Just get someone to cover for you in front of the cameras and you can pass anything across, no problem. McGage thinks he's a hardass in shining armour—you know him when you see him, dear, he looks like a Greek statue."

"And amongst the lifers?"

"Dear, I don't get out much. I walk around the cell block a couple of times a week. I haven't been out of Basic status for months."

"Humour me." Keagan folded his hands and used them to further support his head on top of the thin pillow.

"Well, Travis Lemure is in for killing a cop, which gets you a certain cachet, I suppose, not that he does anything with it. Unless he's been transferred, Cameron Moat is still here. He was a big player in Southampton—drugs, I mean. Came to London to expand there, and ended up shooting five people. He does a lot of contraband. Then there's Hagman, or Marv as he likes to be called. He's been here for twenty years already."

"What did he do?"

"Nothing much out there, dear—armed robbery, I think. Inside, though…"

"He's killed in prison?" asked Keagan in surprise.

"In his first few days, if you believe the stories. He's locked down twenty-two hours a day but still manages to get his cut of most of the drugs and booze coming in here. Amongst the English-languagers, I should say. The Poles, Russians and Pakistanis don't have anyone comparable, but mostly escape having to pay him tribute—language barrier, you see."

"I didn't realise it was such a problem." Keagan responded.

"It's a terrible problem," Creepy Bastard continued. "They can't enrol on education courses or get work—no foreign language provision, you see. So they come out with no qualifications and nothing to live on and go straight back to the drugs and extortion rackets. It's absolutely criminal."

Chapter Two: "You Have The Body"

Spring had begun to give way to Summer. Keagan would rise at six, shower, and eat breakfast, still avoiding the other lifers where he could. At eight he would arrive at the library and spend his four hours a day sweeping the floor with a plastic dustpan and brush (someone could snap the edge off that and make something sharp, a voice at the edge of his mind said), re-ordering the only parts of the library that saw use, to wit, the fantasy and thriller sections, and taking down the name and cell number of the prisoners drifting in to borrow or return books. At the end of his shift he would underline outstanding loans in a red pen and pass them to the librarian, who presumably took them to a guard. The next day the unreturned books would be in a small pile on the end of the counter, or else a little note would advise him to write them off—presumably eaten, or smoked, or flushed down the toilet.

Once his shift was over he would take a seat at one of the dark red plastic tables, take a stack of books down from the shelves and force himself to read passages from each, meditating on the meaning of each before moving on. The law textbooks—with their implicit promise to the inmate of finding some loophole leading to redemption—always seemed attractive, but their desert-dry, labyrinthine style and endless redefinition of words would leave him reeling after only a few minutes, and he would have to stop to find lighter reading elsewhere.

On one such occasion Keagan was wearily grappling with the concept of promissory estoppel—a concept he'd had some notion might be helpful to him but which seemed the more he read to become increasingly limited to arcane scenarios such as museum donations and billionaire philanthropists—when he heard muffled cries from the recessed corner of the library where they kept archived copies of newspapers and magazines; chiefly dog-eared specimens donated by the staff. Keagan got up slowly, trying to gaze around the stacks. Suddenly the shouts, which had previously been muffled, rang loud and clear—'He's killing me! Someone—'—before being choked off again.

Keagan had resolved to turn a blind eye to fights he saw in the prison, but this was different, this was on his territory, and he launched himself around the corner to discover a solidly built man with dark hair—not someone he had seen before—straddling an older, shorter man, pummelling him around the face and neck as his victim weakly held up his forearms in an effort to block the blows, twisting his head from side to side to escape the hand clasped over his mouth. Keagan had no experience with restraining holds, but his improvised solution—a thick forearm thrust under each of the attacker's armpits, hands clasped around his chest, together with repeated exhortions of 'Get off him, you bastard, come on, stop it now' sufficed to induce just enough hesitation in the dark-haired man that he could be inched away, still slamming his elbows into Keagan's stomach in an effort to get free. The librarian had by this time roused himself from The Teeth of the Tiger long enough to assist and between them they were able to extricate the man to the point where he stormed off, giving Keagan a look of hatred so startlingly intense that it seemed he might have been ready to assault him instead.

The librarian-trustee hefted the older man up onto one of the ridiculous beanbag chairs (you could melt the plastic beads into a spike, thought that part of Keagan's mind again, or slip one into a stew and watch someone choke on it) and brought him a tissue. Once he had wiped away the best part of the blood on his face—feeling gingerly around his prominent and now distinctly broken-looking nose—and rearranged his thin grey hair, Keagan recognised him as the Judge.

You didn't have to engage with life at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in any significant way to be aware of the presence of the Judge, especially if you worked at the library, which overlooked the rec room where he held court. Wesley Kellogg—for that was the Judge's real name—had been an honest-to-God high court judge for twenty years. The manner of his fall from grace differed with each retelling, but always ended the same way—life imprisonment in the same facility to which he had sent dozens if not hundreds of men over the course of his career. The notion that the dark-haired man might have been one of those unfortunates, seeking to work out his frustrations on the man who had pronounced his sentence, was a compelling one, and Keagan asked whether that had been the case.

"Oh no, it's not one of my decisions out there he has a problem with, it's a ruling I made in here."

The Judge, with the residual authority of his former position around his shoulders like a tattered ermine robe, was the final authority for inmates in Keagan's cell block; he would listen to two or three cases a day after the fashion of a civil court hearing, and decide in favour of either the plaintiff or the defendant.

"How are you feeling, Judge?" asked the trustee, bringing over a sip-cup of tap water, which the older man accepted gratefully.

"Not so good, Don, not so good. I didn't expect him to do that. I always try to make my rulings seem like they turn on some obscure piece of case law, but honestly, Patrick's was pretty cut and dry. He said he lent a mobile phone to Travis Lemure, Travis denied it. No-one's going to back him up, and in any case, the phone was contraband; outside the law. Clear case of volenti non fit injuria. Travis put Patrick in the hospital wing for a week afterwards for bringing the case."

Keagan waited around to see whether any more would come of the incident—he wasn't at all sure he would consider testifying as a witness to the attack—but it seemed the Judge was uninterested in escalating the matter to prison staff and Keagan drifted away, leaving the Judge chatting to the librarian.

Later that night, a prisoner Keagan had never spoken to before rapped on his cell window and said his company had been requested in the rec room. It was the first time he had been invited out of his cell, and he went warily, fearing an ambush by the man whose full name he had learned from Creepy Bastard was Patrick Goettsch, another lifer and one who had already served seven years of his eight-year minimum sentence. A man who risked attacking another inmate with parole so close was surely unpredictable enough to try and lure out the man who stopped him and try to exact vengeance on him as well.

But Goettsch was nowhere in sight—instead, he saw the Judge, still looking slightly worse for wear, surrounded by a ring of supplicants. As Keagan approached, he caught his eye and the Judge wound up his case.

"Okay people, I think I've heard enough. It's—cough—a very close call, but after some deliberation the principle of cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum is decisive. In the case of Hannigan vs Reed, flattened rhubarb in the B block allotments, I order the defendant to pay five pounds sterling, or at the defendant's discretion its equivalent value in such other goods as the plaintiff shall deem acceptable. Court is adjourned!"

There at once arose a chorus of disappointed groans from prisoners waiting to have their own disputes heard, but the Judge ushered them away and beckoned to Keagan, taking him aside to a relatively quiet corner of the rec room.

"There you are, my boy. Look, I'm most grateful to you for helping me out earlier with Patrick—and I have a proposition for you, if you're willing." He interlocked his fingers and twisted them back and forth to restore his circulation.

"Go ahead," said Keagan.

"I'm not getting any younger, and today really drove home to me that I can't really protect myself in here if someone takes a… dislike to me."

"So you want me to act as your bodyguard. Sorry, I'm not interested in taking risks for other people in here," responded Keagan, eyeing the parties between whom the Judge had just ruled. They seemed amiable enough, with the rhubarb-crusher quickly covenanting with his victim to repay him in cigarettes when next his sister came to visit.

"Please—hear me out. I wouldn't be asking you to do it for free. I have certain income streams which I'd be happy to cut you into in return for, well, just generally looking after my wellbeing."

"What income streams?" Keagan asked.

"Well, I'm not sure that's something I can share right…"

"If you expect me to act as your guardian angel I'd damn well better know what you're doing. How could I be expected to protect you if I don't know where the threat is likely to come from?"

"You make a compelling point, but I'm not going to share details with you unless you at least agree in principle to the job".

"Then you'd better find someone else," concluded Keagan, beginning to pull away.

"Wait, wait…" The Judge looked distraught, blinking rapidly. "I'm not going to go into it here. I'll show it to you. It's in my cell."

Despite his protests, the Judge seemed almost eager to show his scheme to Keagan once they reached his cell. The Judge had, it seemed, managed to parlay his former position into an altogether better class of cell than the one Keagan occupied—single bed with a wooden desk facing the allotments and a toilet screened off from the bed. He even had a small bookshelf along the left wall stocked with legal tomes, some of which Keagan couldn't help noticing were loans from the library he had been instructed to write off.

"Here's my latest project," confided the Judge, sliding a sheaf of papers out from a pile of clothes and sitting down at the desk. Keagan learned over the Judge's shoulder and realised he was looking at written correspondence—letters between one Reginald Thompson, who based on the letterhead ran a sizeable haulage business, and someone called Jacky Moire.

"This is Jacky," said the Judge, flipping back through the letters until he arrived at the earliest ones, unclipping an attached photo of a handsome young man with flippy blond hair and a brilliant white smile. "He's fifteen, and doing time in a Secure Training Centre for some nice, unthreatening crime—always something petty, never theft or drugs. And he's looking for a reliable, older male figure to help him through these tough times—as a friend, or maybe something more." He grinned. "Have a look. The institutions are real, of course, and the beauty of it is that STCs aren't legally allowed to confirm the identity of their residents to non-relatives. The photo's from an abandoned Myspace account; just enough internet presence to make it plausible if Thompson goes looking."

Keagan read through the letters, starting from the beginning—Jacky's initial classified ad for a pen pal, answered almost too eagerly by Mr Thompson, whose questions quickly shaded to the personal; was Jacky seeing anyone, did he keep himself clean, was he missing the chance to talk to girls? Jacky's responses indicated that he had no interest in that latter direction, but he would definitely like to meet up after he got out, in just eighteen months when, as he seemed at pains to point out, he would be 16 and therefore no longer a minor. Mr Thompson's suggestions in subsequent letters became increasingly predatory—had Jacky had sex, was he working out? He emphasized his own qualifications in this area, letting slip in the process that he was married with two children.

"Here's where it gets good," said the Judge knowingly.

'Dear Reggie,' the letter began, 'I'm sorry if my handwriting isn't up to its usual standard. I'm shaking so hard I can barely write. I'm being beaten up and extorted by this bully, Brock. Please Reggie, can you send £5k to PO Box 759, care of Medway Secure Training Centre Rochester, so I can pay him off? This could be life or death for me. Reggie, you're the only one I can turn to. If you can do this for me, I would do anything to pay you back—we can meet up when I get out and do whatever you want. I just need you to help me this once, please. All my love, Jacky."

The Judge had retrieved several other wodges of paper with correspondence between Jacky and other men, all apparently wealthy businessmen. Many didn't take the bait, some did, but balked when the time came to send money to help out their new friend, and a few went further, with Jacky finding plenty of new ways to get in trouble, all of which could be rectified by sending ready cash.

"It's a scam," realised Keagan. "Jacky never shows when he gets out, but the mark just thinks he's skipped town, maybe even realises that Jacky's been corresponding with lots of different guys, but never goes as far as thinking he doesn't exist. The STCs won't confirm whether he was ever there either way. But how do you get the money? It goes to this youth detention centre…"

The Judge wagged his finger. "No, that PO box belongs to my solicitor. Any correspondence with that address he knows not to open so he's on the right side of the law. My old job means I'm still consulted regularly on cases I ruled on in the past, which means I need my own solicitor present."

"So he brings the letters to Wormwood Scrubs…" said Keagan.

"And passes them to me in plain sight as part of the case notes I'm being asked to review and summarise for my judicial ex-colleagues. I return my summaries, along with my replies. He doesn't know who I'm corresponding with or why, but the letters themselves fall under solicitor-client privilege. It's a pretty neat system. He gets a cut, of course, which will go in envelopes addressed to a fictional attorney called Mister Sackshaw. He posts them to his own PO box and opens them to receive the money completely legally. I have about twenty fish on the hook at any one time."

"That's pretty clever," admitted Keagan, though the whole setup made him feel slightly nauseous.

"So you can see," said the Judge, "I'm hardly strapped for cash. But I expect to be an old man when I get out on parole—nearly 80. I want enough so I can go someplace nice and enjoy my last years in comfort. I have it all worked out and know how much I need to pull in. I can spare seven and a half grand a month. That's more than you were making on the outside, I'd bet. Don't try to haggle, that's my top price, and it's nearly twenty percent of what I make from this."

Keagan paused, stunned by the offer. If the Judge was able to keep the money coming in, by the time he was eligible for parole Keagan could have stashed away over a million pounds, tax free. The notion was almost overwhelming enough to make him forget he was talking to an admitted con artist.

"I've got just one question," he said slowly, "why go to a guy like me with no connections inside? Wouldn't you be better talking to … Marv, or Cameron?"

"My dear boy," the Judge shook his head, "your lack of 'connections' is exactly the reason I need someone like you. Mr Hagman would want to run the scam himself with his usual lack of tact; Cameron Moat would get too greedy—he would want twenty prisoners all writing letters and get us caught. That's why I've told no-one else about the whole thing. Besides, the nature of my own crime makes me something of a target in here—I want as little to do with the main familias in here as possible."

"The nature of your crime," repeated Keagan, then, somewhat alarmed, "here, you didn't fiddle kids or something, did you? I'm not protecting a nonce."

"What? No, dear God no. Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Well, with those letters—passing yourself off as a kid and talking to those guys…"

"Pure fiction, pure fiction! I certainly don't derive any pleasure from it—beyond the pleasure of lightening the wallets of these idiots. Rest assured, once he's done his job Jacky will be retired to the waste-paper bin of history. No, I was convicted of murder, but not of a kind that earns any kudos within these walls. I found my wife was sleeping with another man—I confronted her, things escalated, and I killed her. There's not a day that I don't think I could have done one thing different … but in any case, wife-killers aren't looked on highly around here. That's why I allow the details of my disgrace to remain a subject of speculation."

"Okay," said Keagan at length, not much reassured.

"So you're in?" said the Judge, reviving somewhat, "you take the money and you watch my back. And don't even think about leaning on me for more."

"As long as you're paying," concluded Keagan. "And I don't have anything to do with your scams, alright? If anyone asks I don't know where you got the money. You're pissing off a lot of powerful people."

"I'm not pissing off anyone," reminded the Judge. "They can get as mad as they like at Jacky—or Jean-Baptist, or Javier—” he lifted various accoutrements and sheets to reveal similar packets of correspondence—"they're just dust in the wind."

"And I want something else besides the money," Keagan said, resolutely.

The Judge sighed. "And what, exactly, might that be?"

"I want you to help me learn the law. I've tried to read through the books in the library but I need someone to help me make sense of it."

"And what's the motivation behind this worthy impulse?" The Judge raised an eyebrow.

"I want to work on an appeal. I was told to plead guilty, but it was never made clear to me I'd go down for life if I did."

The Judge smiled, mischievously. "My dear fellow, if you pleaded guilty, you can't appeal. That avenue is closed to you, I'm afraid."

A horrid black knot settled at the bottom of Keagan's stomach. The notion that if he applied himself and fully comprehended the processes that had brought him here, he might be able to undo it had been the thin gleam of hope that had kept him active.

"No," continued the Judge, "if after a guilty plea you need to explain to a court why you feel the sentence should be overturned or why you should have a trial after all, what you need is a writ of habeas corpus."

Keagan breathed out, sharply. "That's more like it," he said.

The money came trickling in, or perhaps 'trickle' was the wrong word. Keagan quickly asked the Judge to direct it to an account on the outside, after which Keagan would see the cash for only a few seconds before Wesley stuffed it in a new envelope made out to 'Mr Greengoss QC', presumably Mr Sackshaw's equally fictitious partner-in-crime Silk. Verifying that he was not himself being scammed proved harder than Keagan had anticipated—receiving statements from the bank in question independently of the Judge's lawyer was liable to raise red flags, for all prisoner's mail is opened and vetted, and the sight of a lifer making thousands a week, even labelled as he was assured it was as 'severance pay' from a job completed before his incarceration, was sure to arouse suspicion. Nor would phone or email banking via the official channels be immune to interception.

In the end Keagan decided that without telling the Judge he would approach Travis Lemure, who despite his reputation proved affable and open to the proposal Keagan made. Keagan would borrow the mobile Travis clearly no longer owned and use it in his presence to check his account, paying him a pound a minute for the privilege (which sum he asked from the Judge as a fiver's change from his pay packet, ostensibly to buy cigarettes, which he saw no reason to mention he did not smoke). The Judge was true to his word—every Friday, a few hours after the solicitor left, Keagan would see £4,995 deposited into his account, and he began to think not of some grey life on parole, decades from now, but of Keagan the millionaire, emerging with great expectations, still under fifty and with an outside chance of being able to start a family.

Lauren came to visit twice more in the ensuing weeks, each time colder and more silent than the last. Then nothing. Keagan agonised over whether to phone her for days, trying to force himself to simulate her in his mind the way he always used to when he had to decide how she would react to anything he did or so. But the oracle was weak and shimmering, attenuated through time and distance, and vanished before it could deliver a verdict. At length he committed himself to the time and expense of using the prison phone system, calling the same wrong number twice before he finally remembered the last digit of the landline for the flat he had lived in for two years.

It rang for a long time and he stood staring at the digital clock on the telephone, which proclaimed it to to be 1900. The man behind him in the queue for the phone coughed meaningfully. The answerphone kicked in—she'd replaced the joint message they'd recorded, requiring eight takes before they could stop giggling long enough to come in together when they said 'Keagan and Lauren'. Now it was just 'Lauren Vale's residence'. Keagan sighed as the beep sounded and was about to ring off when someone picked up the phone.

"020 5640 7864. Who's calling?" It was a man's voice, mid-register. Keagan didn't answer for a second.

"Who is this?" the voice asked again, and Keagan had to realise it wasn't his own voice asking the same question.

"This is Keagan," he said at length, mouth dry. "Keagan O'Neill. Is Lauren around?"

"She's busy," said the voice, noticeably harder than before.

"Oh." Keagan said. "Do you know when she'll be available? I need to talk to her."

"No you don't," said the man on the other end of the line. "She doesn't want to talk to you. You can write, if you have anything important to say."

Keagan gritted his teeth and leaned hard against the dark, hollow wings of the phone booth.

"Who the hell are you then?" he said, and he realised from the suddenly subdued conversations around him that he must have shouted it.

"Not important, mate," said the voice, now equally truculent, "and if you call here again I'll see to it the Warden hears about it. I'm hanging up now."

"You fucking—!" Keagan screamed at the phone, feeling for a moment so utterly hollow and cast-out that nothing made sense except the rage at the voice on the other end of the line. It was too late in any case—the voice had already dissolved into a dialtone.

A guard came over, brow furrowed. "You mind telling me what that was about? You're disrupting other prisoners' calls."

"Nothing," said Keagan, putting the phone back on the hook and turning into the corner of the room so no-one could see his face, "nothing at all. The person I wanted doesn't live there anymore."

"Maybe next time you'll be a little more civil," said the guard archly. "I don't expect they appreciated a bolshy call from a convict either."

"I guess not," said Keagan, between sucking breaths of air. He stumbled away, yielding up his place to the prisoner behind him.

On his way back to his cell Keagan noticed one of the bunks in a cell near him was vacant—a neatly apportioned single-person job, now with the sheets folded and stacked with military precision (certainly no room for a Creepy Bastard to hide underneath them, the little voice said).

"Who used to be here?" he asked the other occupant of the cell, an ageing Pakistani gentleman with patchy hair and a stump for a ring finger on his right hand which he wrung obsessively with his left.

"That use to be Mister Cam'ron Moat," he said, haltingly. "For ten year."

"Was he transferred out?" asked Keagan, remembering the Judge had said something of the sort.

"No, he is just gone," said the Pakistani cryptically, waving his truncated digit. He didn't seem to happy about the prospect of a new cellmate—but then, maybe the devil you know.

Keagan wondered idly as he returned to his cell if Moat might have been killed, but in the next day or so he heard nothing further from the guards and decided he must have simply been moved between cell blocks—either that or his cellmate had simply failed to understand Keagan's enquiry—and thought no more of the matter.

One of the effects of Keagan accepting the role of Wesley Kellogg's guardian angel was to get him out of his cell and force him into the areas the Judge frequented—the rec room, the visiting room, and the yard, where the Judge, apparently shocked by his encounter with Patrick Goettsch, had evidently decided to get in shape and would put in ten wheezy, gasping circuits a day, after which he would stop by the weight machines and sit, hands on his knees, to regain his composure.

Keagan would generally remain on the sidelines as the Judge jogged, whispered to his lawyer and continued to hold court over the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs—Keagan would read a light thriller, keeping one eye on his charge and wandering over casually if there seemed to be objections to the Judge's ruling or if other lifers seemed to be encroaching on the Judge's space in the yard. Thus far there had been no overt aggression, for which Keagan was grateful.

Today, Keagan watched as the Judge completed his ninth lap and started on the tenth, face red and hair sweat-tousled. Keagan had checked his balance yesterday on Travis's mobile for the first time in a fortnight and had been concerned to see no further payments where there should have been two on the books. He had first wondered whether the mobile browser had somehow cached the page, interrogating Travis over whether he had tried to spy on his business. Travis had denied it easily, and though he knew better than to trust a cop-killer and a known prison thief, he found no further evidence thumbing through the options that he was viewing anything other than an up-to-date version of his account. The next step, of course, was to confront the Judge, which would mean revealing that he had been checking up on the account.

Keagan had thought about the possible scenarios. That the Judge was wilfully robbing him; unlikely—why transfer over £30k thus far if you do not believe your mark is capable of checking up on what you've paid? Furthermore, why risk antagonising a physically stronger inmate to whom you have additionally confessed your involvement in a serious crime? That the Judge had himself become the victim of an opportunistic solicitor who was skimming from the Judge's intake—or perhaps just taking the lot for himself—again, unlikely. That level of involvement in what was clearly a criminal enterprise was enough to trigger a disciplinary hearing before the Solicitors' Regulatory Authority. Keagan could not believe the Judge did not have his own means of checking what his co-conspirator was stashing away on his behalf; and why would the solicitor wish to make an enemy of an ex-judge with knowledge of his own part in the affair? He could not cut the Judge off from communication with the outside—Wesley Kellogg was by all accounts being actively consulted by prosecutors and could simply decide to appoint different legal counsel. No—far more likely that there had been a simple oversight, some direct debit left to expire which the Judge had no power to view nor his solicitor time to notice. He would therefore raise the issue with the Judge and ask the payments to be restored.

"You did what?" The Judge spat—it was hard to judge whether he was apoplectic with rage or simply taking longer than normal to recover from his workout. His chest rose and fell and he waved weakly for help to reach a secluded bench where they could speak freely. After the Judge had eased his trembling legs, Keagan explained again that he had borrowed Travis Lemure's phone to check that the payments were being made and the precautions he had taken, including clearing the browser history after each use.

"And what did you tell him—” retorted the Judge—"you just wanted to check your account to make sure some regular payments were coming in? Travis Lemure, of all people! And don't you realise mobile phone traffic will be routed through the prison mast?"

Keagan kept silent. The notion that the prison could intercept mobile phone traffic within its walls hadn't occured to him at all—he'd foolishly assumed that the signals flew straight up to some orbiting satellite, free of surveillance by HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

"What a stupid risk! If you didn't trust me, we could have worked something out, some notarial instrument assuring you of what you had coming to you. You're lucky we haven't both been pulled up before the Warden."

At length Keagan said, quietly, "I don't know the law. How could I ever know any promise I got from you was binding? You'll excuse me for being suspicious of the guy who told me he was running a scam from his prison cell. But here's the thing. You weren't alarmed when I told you my money hadn't come through—only when I told you I'd checked up on it myself. That means you knew you'd stopped paying me. What's going on, Judge?"

The Judge had the good grace to break eye contact and look down. "To be honest, I didn't think you would notice. I was planning to make it up later. I've been in contact with this guy—he's a big fish, my boy. Most of my respondents are stupid, when they're not using their real names they're writing on company stationery. This guy was careful, which made me think he had something to hide. I went slow, made Jacky promise just enough to keep him interested. He's a politician, Keagan, probably in government. Maybe even a Cabinet Minister. I figured, this is the big one—I can hit him up for a million or more, easy. So I've been shutting down the other marks, letting them down gently or putting them on ice."

"To reduce the risk of them getting together and figuring out who's behind the letters" said Keagan.

"Exactly. To be honest, this scares the shit out of me. The guy's a bona fide nutcase, but he's clever. I don't think he entirely buys into the notion that Jacky is who he says he is, which means I'm going to have to go hard with him—straight blackmail—which I'd have to do to get that much cash out of him anyway."

Keagan thought for a moment. "A million quid?"

"A one-off payment. I don't want to try and bleed this guy. You'll get 20%, same as normal. I just need a couple of weeks focusing on this guy."

"Okay," said Keagan. "But you won't be doing this all the time, will you? Writing letters. You promised you would help me put together that thing you said. A writ of habeas corpum."

The Judge, face returning to its hue, screwed up his eyes and stretched. "Okay, okay. To be honest I'm happy to take my mind off this thing anyway. And it's habeas corpus. It means 'you have the body'."

Thereafter, Keagan and the Judge would work in the library after hours; Keagan studying legal texts and books of case law from the shelves and the Judge's own stash while the Judge suggested topics for study, dissecting the nuances of his case.

"Look!" exclaimed Keagan happily, rising from his seat to show the older man a passage in Smith and Keenan's English Law. "Beckford vs R, 1988. 'A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.'. And R vs Owino says the force must be objectively reasonable in the circumstances you subjectively believe them to be. Slick—” ("Who?" asked the Judge, baffled) "I mean, Theo Megali, I was sure had a knife. My piece-of-crap solicitor told me R v. Hatton applied to all cases of self-defence, and said it meant the defendant can't rely on an honest belief they are about to be attacked, but it only affects beliefs caused by voluntary intoxication. In other words, if you voluntarily get blind drunk and kill someone, you can't say that the drink made you paranoid." The Judge nodded, approvingly.

"He even said I couldn't claim self-defence because I knew they were coming and could have left my shop. But that's bull. Under English law there's no obligation to retreat. I was only able to talk to the fucker half an hour tops before court; it's incredible the amount of crap he managed to cram in."

Kellogg fanned his fingers. "I'm glad to see you make such an able pupil."

Keagan blinked. "You mean you knew all that?"

"I wouldn't be a very good judge if I didn't."

"Great. So I wasted how many weeks learning all this crap, and you could have just told me." Keagan groaned audibly.

"I could have. But here's the rub. I'm a convicted felon, which means I can't practice law, and legally I can't give advice. When you go to a judge—a real one—and try to explain why you should be able to withdraw your guilty plea due to incompetent legal counsel, it would really behoove you to know what you're talking about, rather than having to admit that a wife-killer piece-of-shit coached you in what to say in the prison library."

"I see."

"If I were able to provide legal counsel, however, here's what I'd add. That shop was, as I understand it, your own property. No mortgage, no lease, just bought and paid for. To make things even better, you often slept there." Keagan nodded. "The Castle Doctrine has become weaker over time—blame the bailiffs—but even Tony Martin got his charges knocked down to manslaughter in the end because he killed a burglar in his own home. Three years, not life. And I've seen a lot of court cases—enough to know a solicitor who advises a businessman attacked in his own shop to plead guilty to murder rather than roll the dice with a jury trial doesn't know what he's talking about it."

"Okay," said Keagan. "So what now?"

"Now," said Kellogg, "you learn how to draft a writ. And then you prepare, because you really only get one more chance to convince a judge that you deserve a trial."

"Can't I just hire another solicitor to do it? You must know some halfway competent lawyers."

"Unfortunately, the climate of the industry is such that most solicitors simply won't accept briefs of this sort. There's no money in it for the private sharks—and the Legal Aid cretins are bound to act in accordance with government policy, which I'm afraid means keeping people like you in jail. Frankly, there's no barrister I know who would present a writ of habeas corpus that relies upon accusations against a legal professional, and I wouldn't have done it before I took the bench."

Keagan paused. "Do you think this is a wild goose chase?"

The Judge smiled. "I didn't say that. Perhaps I'm biased, but ultimately I believe the British justice system is fair, and eventually puts right all its wrongs. A lot of people don't believe they got a decent shake out of the system, but they also think that 'innocent until proven guilty' means they don't need to know the law. I'm afraid that includes a lot of solicitors. The law doesn't prove your innocence, Keagan. But it guarantees your right to a trial before a jury of your peers, and if you were misled it offers you the opportunity to make your case."

Keagan left the library that night with his head ringing, filled with light. He couldn't sleep, but then, he didn't want to. He lay on his bunk, reverberating with the words he'd heard, mind conjuring up hallucinations of vindication, of the words 'Not Guilty' echoing in an oak-panelled courtroom, of freedom, of walking in the leafy hills of the Lake District and finding that old church, of Lauren, though he found he could never quite bring her face into focus; she existed in a soft blur of radiance.

It was July. The stifling heat in the old bricks of Wormwood Scrubs, coupled with the stench of over a thousand men packed into a tight, concrete labyrinth drove the inmates into the yard every hour they could get.

"Are you going out?" Keagan asked the bundle of rags above him. It made a shuddering exhalation, which Keagan took as a negative. He waited for the guard to unlock the door and walked down the wing towards the exercise yard, in the process passing the Judge's cell. He rapped on the reinforced plastic window.

"Judge? You going to be okay?"

The older man opened the door and looked up at him. He had dark rims around his eyes and he was more disheveled than usual. "Sure, sure. You go out. I don't feel up to my usual run today. I have to get to work on our mutual friend."

"The politician?" Keagan lowered his voice.

"Yes. Look, I'll show you. Come inside."

Keagan was impatient to get out in even the suggestion of cooling breeze afforded by the exercise yard, and aware that the few minutes a day he was allotted were draining even as he waited. But curiosity made him stay as the Judge pulled out his latest wodge of papers. Keagan sat on the bed and the Judge slid the top sheet across to him.

This is what it said:

Dear Jacky

Though it's been fun talking to you, I feel we must part ways. Soon, although you will not know it, the universe will change and nothing will be as it was, for I have the power to shape it to my will. I will no longer be the servant of the State but its Master and I will no longer have time for these pleasant diversions. I wonder, dear, sweet Jacky, what your face looks like when you are thinking of neither good nor evil? That would be your original face, the face you wore before your mother and father were born. What I would give to know that face—and perhaps I shall.

If my Francesca only knew of our correspondence, surely it would destroy her utterly. Is that what you are counting on, in your secret nights, enclosed in your stone ocean? To enslave my mind to your body—or is it that you wish to enslave my body to your mind? Can it be that the Jacky you have caused me to imagine thinks of the former and the you that Jacky imagines thinks of the latter?

Goodbye, my beautiful my sweet my poppet my pigsnie

Three pounds of flax

Keagan could hardly make heads or tails of the letter. "You said he was a nutcase. Why do you think a guy like this is worth anything?"

The Judge sucked air between his lips. "He's always like this. He uses several zen koans in this."

"Koans?" asked Keagan.

"Buddhist riddles. They sound nonsensical but are usually intended to hide a greater truth. The way he uses them, though, are completely wrong, over-literal and completely dependent on the historical context of their delivery, which undermines the entire point of a koan. See, he signs himself 'three pounds of flax', which is typical. That was the answer by a Zen master to the question "What is Buddha". Our man thinks of himself as some kind of spiritual prodigy, an untouchable. Well, I'll sort him! If it's not another reference to something, he's given me the name of what could be his wife or girlfriend, or maybe a daughter. It's enough to be going on for a bluff."

"What do you make of that 'original face' stuff?" asked Keagan, "is he trying to say he knows Jacky isn't real?"

"I don't care—and it doesn't matter," said the Judge vehemently, passing across his response as he wiped sweat from his forehead. "Read this."

Keagan saw that this latest letter had abandoned all pretense at being Jacky, the 15 year old juvenile delinquent. Instead, a new persona had emerged—'Jan Crucnik', ostensibly a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth. This is what it said:

You want to see my real face? I'm happy to show it to you. You must realise by this point you've been had. There's no Jacky, real or otherwise. And you've not been nearly as careful with your identity as you imagine. Every word you've written will be exposed to the world—and your precious Fran will hear it first; don't think I can't reach her. This is what you must do—you'll send me £1m in cash or traveller's cheques—and I know you're good for it, with all your boasts about what you would do to Jacky on your yacht in Malta—to PO Box 759. Don't try to trace the money, or I will expose you. Don't try to find me, or I will expose you. Pay the money, and you'll never hear from me again. Don't pay, and I will shatter your career, your life, everything.

Jan Crucnik

Keagan held the letter very still. "This goes beyond a simple scam," he said. "You're fucking with what, if your assumptions are true, is one of the most powerful men in the country."

"Don't I know it," said the Judge. "I've been in a state all week. I haven't been able to contact my solicitor. But he's due up here on Thursday to discuss an old robbery-homicide trial I presided over in 1993. I'll give the letter to him then and I'll be done with the whole thing. If the mark doesn't respond, he doesn't respond."

"That sounds very sensible," said Keagan. "Look, I have to get out for a few minutes, at least. Are you going to be alright in here?"

The Judge waved a hand. "Don't worry about me. I'll be locked in here, working on this draft. Safe as houses."

If the yard had been divided between the prison cliques before, it was nothing compared to the territorialisation that had taken place now it had become the one place prisoners could escape the growing heat of summer. Marvin Hagman and his compatriots controlled the weight machines—the contraband traders, suddenly headless with the mysterious disappearance of Cameron Moat, about which it seemed no-one knew anything more than his roommate, huddled close in the shade of the C block walls. The Pakistanis had camped out under the tree, making a simple run a multi-jurisdictional affair. Keagan planned out his route, jinking around the most lively areas in a figure of eight and steadily increased the pace until his muscles began burning. He began to realise how out of shape he was—though it hardly seemed possible on the soup and watery mashed potatoes that formed such a generous portion of their diet he had unquestionably gained weight around his waist and thighs and lost stamina. He resolved to build himself back up to something approaching the level of fitness he had maintained working in the auto repair shop.

The exercise was simple and mindless and he began to appreciate what the Judge saw in it—one allowed one's anxieties to dissolve into the almost voluptuous sensation of complaining joints and anaerobic muscle pangs, and devoted one's entire self to pushing against them, not ignoring them but pushing so close they became granular, the discomfort breaking up into lots of oddly-shaped splinters that the mind no longer registered as painful.

He realised something was badly wrong when he saw Creepy Bastard. Keagan barely recognised him in the sunlight of the yard—he had never before seen him out of the cell. He was taller than he expected, but spindly, like a harvest spider, prison clothes hanging on him like a wire rack. His large pale eyes blinked rapidly as he tried to adjust to the outdoors, finally giving up and squinting.

Keagan changed direction and cut his speed as he worked his way over to him, edging around a group of men he guessed from their chatter were Poles and who were quite blatantly gambling, erupting into the occasional insincere brawl as one accused another of cheating.

"Keagan—Keagan!" Creepy Bastard was shouting, looking nervously left and right and favouring anyone who looked at him with a hostile grin with those narrow, yellow teeth. Finally Keagan got close enough that Creepy Bastard's eyes were able to focus and he saw him.

"What is it, you bastard?" Keagan panted. "Why are you outside?"

But the little voice inside his skull said—You already know that.

"It's the Judge," said Creepy Bastard. "Someone's got him. In his cell. I think he's dead. I heard it all but whoever did it was gone by the time I looked."

"Christ fuck," exclaimed Keagan, grabbing Creepy Bastard and hauling him nearer the doorway. "Who else knows about this?"

"No-one—I mean, I didn't tell anyone about it, dear," said Creepy Bastard, "other than you. I can't swear other people didn't hear, but there's not too many people still inside right now. But whoever's watching the cameras will see his cell's open before long."

Keagan scanned the yard quickly, trying to process faces. Patrick Goettsch was nowhere to be seen.

"Alright," he said. "Jesus Christ. Stay here. I need to do something."

"Stay here?" asked Creepy Bastard, rolling his eyes around the yard in a look of pure animal terror. "What do you expect me to do?"

"I don't know, ask the bloody Poles for a game of poker or something!" retorted Keagan. "Right now anyone inside is going to be a suspect and I'm guessing you don't want that to be you." And with that, he left Creepy Bastard staring with lost eyes at the sight of 200 prisoners talking, trading, gambling and fighting, and plunged back into the stifling air of the prison.

Keagan moved as fast as he dared, almost running into the chisel-jawed blond guard who he vaguely remembered Creepy Bastard had identified as McGage.

"Mind yourself," McGage said, pulling his cap over his eyes and gesturing for Keagan to go on. "No running inside."

When he reached the lifer block, he saw the Judge's cell door open and sheets strewn out into the hall. He ducked around the door.

There was very little blood—just the Judge slumped back in his chair with glassy eyes, head and right arm over his writing table, and four or five diamond-shaped marks on his chest, dull red against his blue trustee's top. The expression on his face was one of disbelief—surprise and disgust mingled; a confidence betrayed. Keagan wondered if the Judge had him in mind in his last moments. Whoever had stabbed the Judge had done it in a hurry, then made a half-hearted attempt to search the room before the noise attracted too many people. Half the Judge's books had been clawed down from their shelves, and his mattress had been picked up and flung aside.

Keagan entered the room, tucking his hands up into his sleeves. He fumbled through the bundle of clothes at the base of the bed and found the sheaf of papers he had been shown earlier; the latest installment of the Judge's correspondence in the persona of Jacky. The draft the Judge had been working on was gone—and a cursory examination of the chaos led Keagan to believe the rest of the scam's documentation—the past exchanges with Reg Thompson and all the rest—had also been discovered and taken. Keagan tucked the remaining evidence of the scam into the band of his trousers and left the cell, a few seconds before other cons and guards arrived.

Keagan jogged through the corridors and through into the library, down into the blind corner where Patrick Goettsch had attacked the Judge before, and stashed the letters in the newspaper archives between back copies of The Guardian. He wandered back out into the yard, trembling, and waited for the lockdown siren.

Chapter Three: "Transfers"

In a lockdown, a prison becomes a fortress—nothing goes in, nothing comes out. All visiting hours are cancelled and prisoners are confined to their cells. Just four guards were tasked with the unenviable task of herding hundreds of sweltering prisoners back inside. Initially, morbid curiosity overwhelmed the inmates' natural resistance to this stifling fate; however, as the guards secured the walkway adjacent to the Judge's cell in anticipation of the arrival of the coroner, it became clear that the only other way for the inhabitants of B block to return to their cells was the long route up the stairs and around the other side. As the guards would permit no more than one inmate at a time to return their cells, the prisoners were forced into a long line snaking through the corridors, advancing maybe a step every five minutes, each slightly hotter, sweatier and more unpleasant than the last.

The lifers, led by Hagman, began to clamour that they should be allowed to remain in the yard until the rest of the block had been repopulated. Despite the eminent sense in this idea, given the fact that the Judge's assailant was, as far as the guards were concerned, almost certainly a lifer himself, prison management felt duty-bound to oppose any exercise of power by prisoners that could develop into a riot. Accordingly, the three guards trying to keep the hundred-metre line in check were pulled away from their positions and out into the yard, where they attempted to subdue and separate Hagman from the other prisoners. Keagan had pulled Creepy Bastard back towards the entrance and was currently in line between a burglar and an over-enthusiastic ex-nightclub bouncer when, despite Taggart's best attempts to negotiate a ceasefire, the first punch was thrown. Hagman went down under the guards' batons, whereupon another prisoner with a cloverleaf tattooed on the back of his shaven head decided this would be an excellent opportunity to score credibility by kicking a guard in the shins.

Suddenly the whole line was alive, inmates rushing backwards and forwards, surging past the sole guard now administering re-entrance to the prison and trampling past the cordon being put up around the Judge's cell, or else out into the yard to get a good look at the fight. They were to be disappointed—the guards had already withdrawn, leaving the inmates gazing blankly at the largely deserted yard. Keagan, perceiving that he and Creepy Bastard were likely to be trampled unless they went along with the crowd, grabbed his cellmate by the collar and allowed them to be buffeted 50 metres deeper into the facility, where he found an empty cell and swung the door shut. They sat on the floor, breathless and dazed, listening to the chaos outside.

15 minutes later, the wing was overrun by nearly 50 helmeted riot personnel, pushing unruly prisoners to the ground and arresting several for further offences. Keagan was restored to his original cell, where he paced angrily, thinking about the circumstances of the Judge's murder. Patrick Goettsch was of course the most likely suspect—he had attacked the Judge before and his motive was relatively straightforward. When Keagan caught a glimpse from his cell window of Goettsch being dragged out of his cell he harboured hope that he would confess then and there, but when he was returned half an hour later and his cellmate taken, he realised the lifers were being interrogated one by one.

Something about the whole setup of the murder had bothered Keagan, and now, cut off from all other sources of distraction, he was able to parse why. Why had there been no response from the guard posted at the hub of the cell block, who would surely have seen and heard the assault which had spilled the Judge's accoutrements into the corridor? Instead, Creepy Bastard of all people had been the first on the scene. Not only that, but there had been time for him to wander out into the yard, talk to Keagan, and for Keagan to return to the cell block, go through the Judge's effects and make it back out to the yard before there was any response from the prison staff. And what had happened to the CCTV? Assuming there had not been a simultaneous failure of the prison's systems on every level—entirely possible, of course—there was only one reasonable conclusion; that the prison staff had not been alarmed by the sight of the killer entering the Judge's cell. The Judge had no roommate—it only now occuring to Keagan that this was not on account of any residual pull in the legal system but because he was a high-risk prisoner, an older man, a wife-murderer surrounded by killers of men. So who else would the guard in the CCTV observation room expect to see entering a prisoner's cell?

As a matter of course, any death in prison is referred to the coroner and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The office of the Coroner for Hammersmith & Fulham who has jurisdiction over the prison was at the time held by one Dr Gerald Wyncroft, and this was the distinguished gentleman who had taken it upon himself to speak with each of the B block lifers.

Creepy Bastard was returned to his cell, screeching and hysterical. There was no time to get from him any indication of what picture the prison staff were forming around the incident—Keagan was next to be taken. Taggart was charged with escorting Keagan from the cell block to the office the coroner had converted into an incident room. His face was grim, but he was humming, for reasons best known to himself, La Marseillaise in a light, airy tone.

Dr Wyncroft was in his late sixties, with greying temples and a sharply peaked hairline that, in combination with his thick glasses and drooping nose, gave him the appearance of some myopic bird of prey. He had abutted several tables together to form a large work surface, across which he had spread what were presumably the files of all inmates he considered relevant to his investigations.

"O'Neill, Keagan," announced Taggart, elbowing Keagan to the plastic chair on the far side of this sea of documentation.

"Keagan, thank you for joining us," said the coroner, as though Keagan had simply dropped in on the way to some more pressing engagement. "You are of course aware that I am collecting evidence for the inquest into the death of Wesley Kellogg?"

Keagan nodded.

"Good. Now, I was particularly interested to hear what contact you might have had with Wesley in the weeks leading up to his death," Wyncroft said measuredly, adjusting his glasses.

Keagan thought carefully. "He was helping me petition a court to try to change my guilty plea," said Keagan, thickly. Don the librarian had to have seen them studying together.

"I see," said Wyncroft, exchanging the papers he was holding for another sheaf. "There's no basis, then, in the notion that Wesley Kellogg was paying you for protection?"

Something sharp and cold went through Keagan's abdomen, as though it was he and not the Judge who had been stabbed. They had taken every precaution against discussing the arrangement in earshot of other prisoners, lest someone else try and muscle in.

"Who told you that?" he asked.

"Never mind that," said Wyncroft sharply. "You must be feeling devastated right now if you were indeed being paid to keep Wesley safe. Personally, I'd be livid."

"You should be talking to Patrick Goettsch!" shouted Keagan. "He attacked the Judge—I mean, Wesley—in the library. Don Dacyk will back me up."

Wyncroft made a terse note. "We've already looked into that, Keagan, at Mister Dacyk's suggestion. Patrick has been in the hospital wing for the past week, complaining of a stomach bug. Is it fair to say that there is some mutual antagonism between Patrick and yourself? Some 'beef', I believe?"

The feeling in Keagan's stomach intensified. What Dr Wyncroft meant, he realised, was this "Does Patrick Goettsch have some reason to lie about you?"

"I stopped him attacking Wesley," he said haltingly. "What is he saying?"

"Interesting," said Wyncroft, making another note. "Okay, I think that's enough. Return Keagan to his cell."

"Come on then," said Taggart.

As Keagan was led back through B block, he considered his options. He would need to transfer the money the Judge had paid him out of his account, as soon as possible. There was a chance, of course, that the payments the Judge had made had already been traced and his account frozen—with no means of contacting the Judge's solicitor, Keagan's best option for finding out was Travis Lemure, but surely cell phone activity would be one of the things the prison would be watching in the aftermath of a murder?

Keagan passed Travis' cell, hoping to catch the other lifer's eye, but the only occupant was his cellmate, a young black man who usually wore a sock around his head in imitation of a bandanna. He looked up, grinned widely and made a gun-cocking gesture at Keagan. The upper bunk was empty and cleared out.

"What's happened to Travis?" Keagan asked Taggart, as casually as he could muster with his watery breakfast threatening to force its way up his throat. "He been transferred?"

Taggart tightened his jaw, and Keagan noticed that his usual three days of stubble looked more like five-and-a-half and his eyes were bloodshot. "Don't know who that is. Sorry."

"You're kidding me," said Keagan. "What the fuck is going on?"

"Seriously," said Taggart. "Just shut up. Just—shut up."

The lockdown was lifted after a day, but the investigation continued—Wyncroft, now accompanied by civilian police, became a fixture of B block, speaking to everyone, noting everything.

As soon as he was released from his cell Keagan began haunting the rec room, yard and hallways. He hoped—prayed—that if he came face-to-face with Goettsch he would be able to keep calm enough to talk, figure out exactly what had been said and what Goettsch knew. But he could only catch glimpses of the man, staring back with what now seemed to be absolute terror as he disappeared into one huddle of lifers or another. By the end of the week Goettsch had let it be known—as relayed to Keagan by Creepy Bastard—that he had submitted to the protection of Marvin Hagman. Getting an audience with Marv turned out to be almost as lengthy and expensive a process as placing a call from the prison landline—you started from a friend of a friend of a friend and moved upwards, greasing the wheels with cash or contraband at each stage. Finally, it was agreed via one of his close associates that they should do lunch—Hagman would sit at a table on his own, his subordinates tactfully restraining any clueless white-collar inmates who might be tempted to sit nearby. Keagan would take a seat across from him after putting down his tray and turning out his pockets to show he wasn't carrying anything that could be used as a weapon.

The plan, of course, did not survive contact with the real world—an extra influx of prisoners around mealtime due to closure of the C block tuck shop meant there were no free tables to be had, and it was quickly agreed that Keagan should take a seat, with Hagman's associates quietly taking the others at the table aside one at a time until Hagman himself could make an appearance. Marv Hagman had salt and pepper hair in a grade 2 cut—coupled with similarly greying beard stubble and a round head with piggy eyes and a stubby, broken nose he had the appearance of a bristly bowling ball. Though perhaps an inch shorter than Keagan he was much broader, with massive, sausage-like fingers in which the rounded prison utensils looked almost comically tiny. He still sported plasters on his forehead and cheeks from where he had absorbed a beating from two prison guards during the yard riot. He sat down, ate a few mouthfuls, then breathed out heavily, as though merely being in Keagan's presence was an almost unbearable strain.

"So," he said, around a sloppy mouthful of reprocessed basa fish. "Looks like we have a problem."

"No problem," explained Keagan carefully. "I'm coming to you because I need your help. I feel responsible for what happened to the Judge,"—this phrasing selected in case one of Hagman's associates saw fit to pass on what he heard to Wyncroft—"and I think Goettsch had something to do with it, or knows who did. Now it looks like he's been saying things about me to the police. He's put himself under your protection, but ultimately you have the choice of who to protect. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. You want to get up close and personal with Goettsch because you're a man of honour. I understand that. But I'm a man of honour too. I give my word someone's going to be safe, I don't go back on that. Now, I like the Judge. Maybe Goettsch did him in. I doubt it, but maybe. I know about the thing he had going with Travis. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm a man of my word. I don't break that, if I want to keep respect. You know," he said, waving the spoon close to Keagan's face, "seems like the Judge shoulda come to me first, you know?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Keagan caught Goettsch looking on from behind two of Hagman's associates. He'd wanted to be present to see whether his protector would stand by him.

Keagan kept his face neutral. "Thought you were a businessman. You tell Goettsch to cooperate and I don't need to hurt him. I just need sit-down time."

Marv chuckled. "Cooperate. Who are you, the fucking cops? I don't know you, you haven't shown me one bit of respect for the whole time you've been here, and you come to me, asking to do a deal?" His face suddenly darkened. "Well, who the fuck do you think you are? Go away, you're giving me indigestion."

That seemed to conclude the interview—Hagman's associates closed up and began to move in. The calculating little voice in Keagan's mind told he he could probably plunge the narrow end of the spoon through Hagman's eye before they got there—but it would be counter-productive; there was no way he could reach Goettsch before the situation descended into another riot. Instead Keagan shook his head angrily, got to his feet and walked out of the mealroom.

They came for him early—before 4am, when it was still dark. The last thing Keagan knew, he had been walking across sunlit fields, squinting as he watched birds flying overhead. There was something on the hill opposite—something square and metallic—that caught the light and he was walking towards it. Then everything dissolved for a moment into something horrifying—an onrush of teeth and claws and screams—and he realised he was being pulled out of his bunk bed in HMP Wormwood Scrubs by guards screaming at him to get up, to stand outside in the corridor.

The room was pulled apart—he watched as the blond guard, McGage, effortlessly picked up his mattress and threw it aside, and something in the motion reminded him of something he had seen before, but he was too sleep-befuddled to consider it. Taggart was there, too, hand on his baton, and he kept looking at Keagan with a nervous energy. Finally, McGage bent over the discarded mattress for a long time and announced he'd found something. What he produced was an object no more than eight inches in length—two contraband razor blades wedged into the handle of a toilet brush, blades angled together so they formed a sharp trapezoidal wedge, onto which the force of the object would be focused when it was swung. Keagan recognised the shape, which he had last seen impressed upon Wesley Kellogg's torso.

"It's what they call a 'tomahawk'," McGage helpfully pointed out as he handed the object over to the waiting forensic officer. His eyes met Keagan's, and just for a moment there was a flicker there, something that had shriveled up small but never quite died until now, exhaling for the last time. Keagan stared in mute horror. He had no doubt they would find DNA evidence on the blades corresponding to the Judge's heartblood—and was sure they would not have missed the opportunity to use in the device's construction the toilet brush handle that Keagan had used every day for weeks.

The enormity of it crushed him, made him want to weep. He had dreamed of freedom, he realised, the subconscious still buoyed up by hopes of habeas corpus writs and judicial do-overs that he had not quite yet accepted were finished. To wake, to realise you not only have no chance of clawing your way up from the pit, but that you have not finished falling, that you will fall deeper than Wesley Kellogg, deeper than Marvin Hagman, deeper than Creepy Bastard, until you reach the core of the planet—unbearable. Why? The question was the weight of the Earth, pressing him down until he thought he might be transformed into carboniferous diamond.

Keagan howled then, howled and screamed and shouted and cried. He denied ever seeing the tomahawk, he variously accused Tim McGage and Patrick Goettsch of planting it there, he shrieked he had made it for self-protection against Marvin Hagman, and finally pointed at his cellmate, thin and pale in the shadow of the corridor, and shouted: "It's his! Of course it's his! He was in the Judge's cell before me, it must have been him! Look at the CCTV! Why aren't you taking him instead of me! Not me!". The hurt in Creepy Bastard's eyes scorched him, but he continued ranting until they took him away and placed him in solitary confinement.

He was led to a blind-walled room barely five feet by three with a narrow raised section of floor for a bed. He curled up on it, wanting nothing more than the extinction of time, of life, of everything.

It was two days before they woke him and told him that he was being officially charged with the murder of Wesley Kellogg. As was standard procedure for inmates charged with a further crime, a Legal Aid lawyer had already been assigned to him, and Keagan was half-led, half-dragged to a secure office to meet with his counsel.

Wayne Reeves was a chubby black man who unlike Luke Vikkers had given up on the pretence of being a high-flying lawyer, arriving in a scruffy jumper with the remains of his breakfast on it. He got up as Keagan entered.

"Mister O'Neill," he said, smiling reassuringly. Keagan didn't reply.

"Now, I've been reviewing the case notes as compiled by Dr Gerald Wyncroft—I understand the murder weapon was found hidden in your mattress and has been conclusively matched to the injuries."

Keagan grunted.

"Okay. Now, the prosecution have a witness who they say will testify he heard you threaten Mister Kellogg for getting behind with protection payments. Now, I'm on your side—I need to work out whether their witness is likely to be credible or whether there are angles I could use to discredit him. Were you receiving payments from Mister Kellogg?"

As Keagan listened, some part of his mind that had not been completely overwhelmed was still in action. The witness was almost certainly Patrick Goettsch, who he was certain hadn't known about the arrangement. That means he was being leaned on by someone else to testify—someone who knew about the payments, which meant they almost certainly knew about the scam as well.

He remembered what the Judge had said about the prison phone mast—it had been his fault after all, then. He felt tears welling in his eyes at the feeling of sheer helpless guilt, which Wayne Reeves clearly took as an affirmative.

"Okay. Now, the good thing is they don't claim to have a witness to the murder. The CCTV is also inconclusive—I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy yet but by all accounts several guards and prisoners go out of Wesley Kellogg's cell that morning; you were the last, but you've also been consistent in saying he was dead when you went in. Your cellmate in particular says he saw Mr Kellogg dead before you arrived—problem is, the last person before him to go near that cell on CCTV is a guard, so the position of the prosecution will be that your cellmate is lying to protect you. Your cellmate doesn't actually go in, so there's no possibility of using him as an alternative suspect to establish reasonable doubt, I'm afraid. I don't suppose there's any possibility we be able to get his word against the guard's?"

Keagan thought of Creepy Bastard's eyes as the guards had dragged Keagan away. "No," he said. "I don't think he'd speak up for me now."

"Okay," said Wayne. "Look, Mr O'Neill, I'm going to be honest with you. I will defend you in court if that's what you want—however, the CCTV means my defence will necessarily be a conspiracy on the part of the prison staff, and that rarely goes down well. If you indicate you'll plead guilty, I can get you back in general population before the end of the day. Of course, you'll likely be moved to a more secure facility on sentencing—there's nothing I can do about that—but I can fight to ensure you keep some visitation and socialisation rights."

Keagan exhaled. "Guilty," he said. "I'll plead guilty. I can't face it. I can't—do—anything." His fingers drummed on the graffitied surface of the wooden table.

Wayne patted him on the shoulder. "Good man. I'll see what I can do."

"Sorry, Keagan," said Don Dacyk, holding the door shut behind him. "Any inmate awaiting sentencing is reverted to Basic status. That means no access to sensitive areas like the kitchen or library. If you make a fuss about it I'll have to call Taggart over."

Keagan had hoped with his return to general population that he would be able to get back into the library and study the papers he had been able to salvage from the Judge's cell to look for any clues Kellogg might have missed as to the identity of the man he was blackmailing. But even that dim hope now seemed to be dashed.

"Look—Don," Keagan said, "I just need to fetch something quickly. I left something in the library when I was working here and I need it back."

If Don showed any indication of sympathy it didn't show in his face. "Maybe if you tell me what it is and where you left it I can get it for you. I'd need to run it past the guards first before I gave it back. You understand."

Keagan realised that if he pressed the issue, the library would be ransacked to find whatever it was Keagan was looking for, and saw too that Don knew this, was pleading with him not to push it.

"Nevermind," Keagan said. "It wasn't that important."

"Thanks," said Don flatly, locking up behind him and nodding curtly as he walked off.

As Keagan began to wander away, unsure what to do or where to go, Taggart flagged him down.

"Keagan," he said, "I've been looking for you. You have a visitor—a woman. Very short notice."

Lauren, thought Keagan, and despite his deep misgivings as to what she might say after his conversation with the man who answered her phone, he half-ran ahead of Taggart to the visiting room.

He scanned the room but caught no glimpse of her face. Instead, he was ushered to a chair in front of a severe older woman with scraped-back black hair and a dark business suit.

"Hello?" said Keagan uncertainly. "Are you with Legal Aid?"

The woman chuckled. "Not exactly. My name is Fredericka Mendelbrot. I'm an agent of a private organisation with law enforcement and military connections that works with convicts. You recently turned up in one of our searches and I wanted to make you an offer."

"This isn't about my case?" Keagan asked, irritated. "Look, there's obviously been some misunderstanding. I'm awaiting sentencing for a crime committed inside. I hardly think they're going to let me do some work-release programme."

The woman smiled, archly. "Actually, you're exactly the sort of person we need, and we get a lot of cooperation from prisons. Now, there are just a few questions I'd like to ask—do you have any dependents, anyone who would be seriously negatively impacted if they were no longer able to contact you?"

"Yes, of course—” snapped Keagan, then thought about Lauren. "No," he said, sullen.

"Good," said the woman. "Have you ever had any affiliation with the following terrorist or paramilitary groups—” and she rattled off a long list of what were presumably such organisations. No 'Al Qaeda', no 'IRA', no 'ETA'—instead strange names like the 'Dadaist Art Violence Movement', 'Protect the Wilderness Front' and 'Braydon Revolutionary Council'.

"No," he said again, increasingly baffled.

"Good. Now, last question. Have you ever had any experience you would characterise as 'supernatural'? That's any experience that doesn't fit into the mundane operation of the world as you understand it—”

"What? What the hell is this? Why the hell am I listening to you?" Keagan's temper flared. "I'm about to get another life sentence added on the top of the two I have already. You can't do anything about that, so why should I do anything for you? Oh, and the answer's no, I haven't seen any fucking unicorns or sasquatch or whatever. Go to hell." He looked around for Taggart to take him back to his cell, but the guard was just standing, watching.

"Actually," said the woman, completely unflapped, "I think you'll be very interested in what we have to offer. Convicts who agree to work with us take part in research trials and other activities that are too dangerous or unethical for universities or the military. They work with us for a month, and at the end of that month, we ensure that they receive a complete pardon for any or all crimes they may have committed."

Keagan's mouth sagged open.

"You're catching flies," she said drily.

Keagan recovered himself sufficiently to speak, though his voice was shaky and cracked. "This is some kind of joke, or reality TV programme, or else you're a fucking crank. The government doesn't just let multiple murderers go. Whatever you have in mind, I'm not interested. Taggart, can I go back to my cell please?"

At last the guard deigned to approach the table.

"Of course, this isn't compulsory," the woman said coldly, "but I think you might find a leap into the dark is preferable to what you know faces you right now. When you realise that, you can contact us. I'll give you a card—” she extended it and watched as Keagan took it and tore it up with numb fingers "…aaand another to Mr Taggart here. You can ask him for it when you're ready." She passed the clean white rectangle over to the guard, who put it in his pocket.

"Think carefully about this, Keagan," she said softly, as Keagan was led away. "A number of your fellow inmates have already signed up, including someone I think you know—a Mr Patrick Goettsch."

Keagan looked over his shoulder at her in shock, but said nothing more.

He was returned to his cell, where, as he had for the last week, Creepy Bastard refused to acknowledge his presence. Keagan had learned from Taggart that Creepy Bastard had made efforts to prevent Keagan from being returned to his cell on the grounds that he was in fear of violence, but as a repeated recipient of prison sanctions himself, he was told he was simply the most suitable subject for Keagan to be paired with.

"Come on, you bastard," he said gently, trying to get his cellmate's attention. "I wasn't thinking straight when I said that tomahawk was yours. I hadn't even seen the thing before, so McGage or someone else must have planted it there."

"Sure," said Creepy Bastard finally, reedy voice dripping contempt.

"Seriously, I had no idea it was there. The Judge was involved in some serious stuff," he decided not to elaborate, "and I think someone outside had him killed."

"Well done dear," said Creepy Bastard, "you're finally sounding like a paragon of sanity. So, did they pay the guards to do it, or just to look the other way? McGage put me through hell over this, dear, all because of you. You've never been able to accept it, have you? That you're not the victim of conspiracies or external circumstances, it's what you are that makes these things happen. Maybe you didn't kill the Judge, but you chose to threaten him—it's been going around the prison that he was behind on protection payments to you, God knows how he was supposed to pay you, dear—and you chose to get your hands on the murder weapon and hide it."

Keagan didn't even bother denying it again. "I'm sorry, I really am. I won't talk about it any more if you don't want to."


"Look, I need you to do me a favour," said Keagan carefully. "It's not a big thing, really."

Creepy Bastard began giggling, then dissolved off into coughing, his thin chest rising and falling. "Like when I let you know the Judge had been killed, you mean? You tend to pay back favours in an odd way, dear."

"It's not even something for me. I just need you to get something from the library and keep it safe; I know you have loads of places where you hide papers—they didn't find your drawings when they tossed the room, did they?"

Creepy Bastard fell silent for a moment. Then he turned his head, speaking slowly. "And how, exactly, am I supposed to do this for you, dear? I'm on Basic privileges too; there's nowhere I can go that you can't."

"That's not exactly true," Keagan said.

"Oh really, dear? How is that? Am I supposed to slip under the door?"

"No. But there's an easy way you could get out of Basic status and into Standard or Enhanced status. You could ask for my job."

More silence. Then: "You don't know what you're asking. I can't do that. Even if I were inclined to help you, I just… no, dear, I won't be doing that."

"You should think about it," Keagan said. "I reckon it would be good for you."

When Keagan was told the next day that he was to receive another visit, he assumed it was Fredericka Mendelbrot, come to try to change his mind about her bizarre work-release scheme. Instead, the woman sitting in the visitor's room was small, blonde and petite, with a short bobbed hairstyle. It took him a moment to realise that she had been present at his High Court appearance that now seemed a lifetime ago, when he had been sentenced for the murder of Flash and Slick.

"Hello Keagan," she said, "how is life in prison treating you? You probably don't remember me—I'm Sam Deloitte."

"I do," he said. "Brixton Herald."

She nodded enthusiastically. "I remember you were upset about what happened. Have you made any moves to challenge your sentence?"

"Another inmate was coaching me through a writ of habeas corpus to try to explain to a judge that at the time I didn't realise what pleading guilty would mean," he said, startled at how smooth it sounded. "I thought it worked like one of the plea bargains you see on American TV—you plead guilty and you get a lighter sentence. But that's not how it works in English law—at least, not for serious crimes. I co-operated with the police because I thought I was in the right for defending myself in my own shop. I gave them most of the evidence they then used against me. But now it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to overturn the plea. You've heard I'm being charged again for another crime committed inside, right? That's why you're here."

"Well," Sam said. "I must admit that's when I spotted your name in the news. But what I really wanted to talk to you about was a lead I'm working on—I think there's a scandal in the prison system and I thought I might have an 'in' with you. I'm really sorry, I realise you must want to talk about the difficulties you're facing."

Keagan sighed. "Not really. What's this scandal you're chasing?"

"Corruption," she said. "HM Government is conspiring with third parties to transfer prisoners to private custody and expunging their records from the system. There are cases I've reported on in the courts that no longer exist in the records. All serious, violent crimes—murder, armed robbery and the like. The Ministry of Justice strikes them from the statistics so it looks like they're tackling violence—and saves on the cost of housing them in the state prison system. This organisation—well, I'm not sure what they're getting out of it. A ready source of manpower, maybe."

Keagan looked at her, uncertain what he could and could not believe about the surreal situation in which he found himself. "I think I've talked to them. A woman offered me a full pardon in exchange for participating in some kind of law enforcement or military experiment. I thought she was a lunatic. I tore up her card, but I think it said something like South Kensington Projects."

The court reporter scribbled something in a notebook. "South Chelsea Projects, probably. There's lots like that—Southsea-Cowes Partnership, Security Cooperatives Petersfield, all revolving around the same initials. They're most likely fronts for the same organisation. Have you noticed other prisoners disappearing or being transferred?"

Keagan nodded. "So why come to me? You didn't know I'd spoken to them."

"No," she said. "But you're the sort of person they go after—lifers, preferably serving multiple consecutive sentences. But I guess you're not going to be taking them up on her offer?" She looked disappointed, in a cute, pixie-ish way.

"I need to give it some thought," Keagan said. "I just learned someone I need to talk to has entered the programme."

Sam frowned. "From what I've seen they recruit in shifts—about every 30 days. If you have to talk to this guy, this might be your only chance."

"But you don't believe this leads to a pardon, surely. It would be all over the news if guys like him—and me," Keagan looked away, "were getting out years ahead of schedule."

"No," she said. "There's no evidence they're able to offer a pardon. Also, I have to warn you—the whole reason it's been so hard to get information on these guys is because inmates who go into the programme don't come out anywhere, as far as I can see. I mean, maybe they fit them up with new identities, send them off to New Zealand. Officially, the transfers don't even happen—the prisons just wipe them off their rolls, return 'no information on this topic' to Freedom of Information requests. You've heard of families losing track of loved ones in the system? At least some of that's this organisation—but they mostly target people with no family, no children."

"I see."

"If you do decide to go in, please; find some way to call me, message me. Tell me what's going on with this thing. As far as I know I'm the only one reporting this—I've gone to the national dailies and they aren't interested; they think whatever gets lifers off the books is good news. What scares me is that it's happening so clandestinely—shadowy organisations taking killers out of the system with no judicial review. I haven't been able to get full statistics yet, but I estimate around 360 prisoners a year are disappearing from the system in England and Wales alone, all lifers. The official figure for murders in the past year was 722. Factor in the number of people disappearing from the system and our murder rate is higher than Bolivia. We're being lied to about how safe we are. Worse, they're re-writing the past, erasing convictions from history."

She scribbled down addresses, telephone and mobile numbers and email addresses on a sheet of paper. "Memorise these, if you do decide to go in. Don't put yourself at risk, but the British people deserve to know what's happening to their country."

"Thank you," said Keagan.

Over the next few days Keagan watched and waited. On 30th July the prison was thrown into turmoil by the sudden disappearance of Marvin 'Marv' Hagman. The refusal of the guards to confirm or deny the rumour that quickly spread amongst the prison population that he had been transferred to Category 'A' prison HMP Belmarsh led to sporadic, small-scale riots, as well as fights breaking out as his underlings attempted to establish supremacy.

Creepy Bastard had begun to leave the cell, first for a few minutes at a time, then up to a hour. Finally, on the 30th, he rose at six, showered, and went to breakfast. Keagan didn't see him again until the afternoon, when he padded back in and pulled out a sheaf of papers from under his shirt.

"You still want me to keep this safe, dear?" he asked, quietly.

"Yes," said Keagan. "I don't know whether I'll be able to use it."

Creepy Bastard nodded slowly and began folding each page up small, tucking them into the cracks between the walls and the floor.

Something occured to Keagan. "You haven't been approached, have you? By a woman from 'South Chelsea Projects' or anything like that?"

"No, dear. Why do you ask?"

Keagan explained the strange story of his visits and unlikely offer of pardon, and his subsequent visit from Sam Deloitte who was convinced the government was turning murderers over to private research organisations to whitewash crime figures.

"Well, I don't imagine I'll get that offer," Creepy Bastard said, looking down. "I'm not in for murder."

"You're kidding me," said Keagan. "That whole serial-killer thing you do…"

"Developed over time, dear, piecemeal. I found it was easier. No, I did a lot of things that make me sick now. But they're still a part of me, dear, they flowed out of who I was. There was never a moment when someone put their hand on my hands and made me do them—every step I took was because of who I am. Did you know a life sentence can be imposed for any crime, if a judge thinks the severity is great enough?"

Keagan looked at Creepy Bastard, sitting, eyes watering, in the glare of the summer light from the narrow window, and realised for the first time that under his long, dull hair and pallid skin he was young—probably no more than early twenties.

"I don't want to know what you did," Keagan said, suddenly feeling a wave of revulsion.

"I—I used a knife, dear," Creepy Bastard said. "I never killed anyone, but I used a knife." And with that, he had apparently exhausted his limited stores of will and curled up tight into a ball.

Keagan sat there for a few minutes, then went in search of Taggart and the business card.

It all proved very simple. Taggart made a telephone available and Keagan spoke to the clipped, Received Pronunciation voice on the other end of the line. A time for a meeting was arranged, and Fredericka Mendelbrot was there with a group of men in anonymous dark jumpers and tracksuits, worn like uniforms. Papers were put in front of him to sign.

"You've made the right decision," the woman said, and Taggart studiously found somewhere else to look. Keagan picked up the pen and scribbled K. O'Neill in the box that said he had conferred oral and written powers of attorney over his life, health, property and all, to the SCP Foundation.

Chapter Four: "Lighter"

The prison bus that drew up to the front of HMP Wormwood Scrubs was plain white, without the usual private security logos. Keagan was given fifteen minutes to make any last phone calls or say goodbye to any acquaintances. He considered the prospect of trying to place another call to Lauren but reasoned it would likely take him longer simply to brawl his way to the front of the queue. Instead, he thanked Creepy Bastard for his forbearance, took one last wistful look into the library through the window in the rec room, and submitted to Taggart's ministrations. He was cuffed, hands and feet, and handed over to three stern-faced men who neither spoke to him or indeed gave any indication that they regarded him as anything more than a large and potentially unruly sack of flour.

Keagan had for some reason expected to see Patrick Goettsch, Marv Hagman and Travis Lemure, as though they had been relaxing on the prison bus for the past couple of days. There was, in fact, only one other lifer from Wormwood Scrubs, a skinny youth with a scrubby beard and wild eyes he vaguely recognised as a perennial starter of fights in the mealroom. He, together with another prisoner he didn't recognise, were the only passengers in the bus at first. It was dark inside, with raised seating areas on either side and high-set windows you had to sit stiff upright to see out of.

The driver stepped on the gas and they moved off, a smooth purring noise that reverberated through the passenger unit. Keagan craned his neck and watched, hardly able to keep his mouth from dropping open, as they moved through the light and open space, though the streets of London. In just a few short months, his world had shrunk, he realised, to a series of boxes, connected by corridors. Even the yard was a box—the sky above had become just an illusion, a solid surface stopping in line with the buildings. The thought of being under unbounded heavens—even confined as he was in a vehicle—was breathtaking to him. The twitchy young man next to him favoured him with a scornful look, as though he were an imbecile for wanting to look out at a world he could never reach or touch.

At first they travelled east, through Paddington, Islington, and Bethnal Green. Keagan hoped for a glimpse of the Thames, spread wide and silvered before him, but instead they crossed on the A102 via Blackwall Tunnel, and the plunge into suffocating darkness—punctuated only by the pulse of the passing headlights—almost stifled his desire to look out of the window, as though he had been thrown back into solitary. Then—rebirth, emerging near the Millennium Centre they had travelled under. East again, past the leafy pocket of Broadwater Green and a massive warehouse bearing the legend 'Screwfix', which drew a bark of laughter from the inmate Keagan presumed had been picked up from another prison. They drew up to the walls of HMP Belmarsh, where they stopped, idling while short, terse conversations were had with staff. Another couple of men got in—one youngish, shaven-headed and talking nervously, the other older, massively built with saggy jowls and dropping, grey-rimmed eyes, a full head of dark hair, greying at the temples and combed roughly back, and a spasmodic cough. The younger prisoner chose the seat furthest from his fellow inmate; Keagan noticed this with a careful eye.

Then they travelled west, across Peltman Crescent and the dome of the Greenwich Islamic Centre, then under construction, surrounded by a conglomeration of curry houses and spicy chicken vendors. The older Belmarsh inmate took this in and spat a glob of phlegm on the floor, though whether in response to the house of worship or the fast food Keagan was unsure. Past Woolwich High Street, and for the first time Keagan became aware of the presence of other people around them on the pavements, jumping into focus as though he was back in his shop and something had jolted him out of his meditative contemplation of a leaking brake line or poorly set air filter. Here they were, young and old, black, white, in T-shirts, trench coats, burqas, all joined in contemplation of London the hair salon, London the football club, London the bookies, the MOT centre, the pub. They pushed past the prison wagon, sometimes on crossings but more often not, coming so close he thought he could feel the heat of them. Did they understand they were so close to a people who could not join them, he wondered?

The prison bus took a long, wide arc, stop-starting through the leafiness of Eltham, Catford, Dulwich. They passed parks where he saw families sitting in the sun, eating ice-cream and playing amongst the trees. The van was an austere ten degrees, a bliss after the stifling heat of Wormwood Scrubs. But Keagan found he resented it, resented not being able to feel what they were feeling. He held a hand up to the window and felt the light on his skin, warming it. In a few moments it had become uncomfortable and he withdrew it, feeling like something cold and dead that could not withstand the sun. He realised their route was the reverse of his own journey to Wormwood Scrubs, and for a moment wondered whether they were being returned to HMP Brixton. But again, they slowed outside and waited for another couple of prisoners to arrive. In this manner they travelled west past Wandsworth and Feltham. There were six of them in the back of the bus now, in various attitudes of hope, fear, calm, upset.

Throughout most of London the traffic had choked them in on all sides, offering time for contemplation but mimicking in its sluggishness the walk a man might take from his cell to the mealroom. That changed when they joined the M4—suddenly the world, which had seemed almost too much for Keagan to comprehend before, now raced at him, past him at lunatic speed, so that he had to sit down and look at the floor of the bus for a little while to regain his senses. The City gave way to towns, and the towns gave way to villages. Bagshot, Camberley, Hartley Whitney, North Walton, Sutton Scotney. Then, the world ended.

As they drove, the buildings fell away, crumbling into barns and tumbledown cottages, and then Salisbury Plain opened up before them, a vastness of unbounded heathland, green underneath blue. A sign, wind-worn, screamed:


They drove on in the face of this stark warning—Keagan had expected to feel the road disintegrating into gravel or dirt track beneath the bus's tyres, but it remained smooth and silent as they glided between shallow hills punctuated by the odd weather-worn stub of a tree. Military roads, he realised, maintained regularly in the face of regular use by tracked vehicles.

Finally, buildings loomed out of the landscape, irregular, crumbling squares of brick—no windows, no doors, just skeletons standing abandoned in the evening sun. It reminded Keagan of images he had seen of Chernobyl—abandoned villages dissolving into the wild. The silence, other than the purr of the bus's engine, was absolute—almost frightening for those raised in the heart of London. Far in the distance, camo'd 4x4s would occasionally be glimpsed passing between hedgerows on a far-distant road, then they were gone.

"What kind of prison is this?" asked the younger Belmarsh inmate, running a hand over his almost-shaven head as he looked out of the window with wide eyes.

The wild-eyed young man from Wormwood Scrubs fixed him with a glare. "Does it matter?" he asked angrily. "Would you want to go back? We've sold our fucking souls: we did something, signed something, that gives them jurisdiction over us—that's how they prosecuted us in the first place—so it doesn't matter what we do." He raised his voice again. "So why not join the fucking military death camps or whatever the hell this is? We're already bought and sold under admiralty law, declared lost beyond the seas and—”.

The jowly older inmate with the wet cough spoke for the first time; he'd been sitting with his head down, breathing heavily. "Kid. Shut up." As he said this he lifted his head, almost infinitesimally, so a chink of white was visible at the edge of one eyelid. The kid looked for a moment like he'd seen a scorpion—his lip curled back in fright, turned just as quickly to a defiant sneer. But he said nothing more.

The facility was unimposing until you came close enough to realise how far it spread—a single-storey complex picked out in light beige and blue-sprayed walls, occupying the far edge of the abandoned village in a great crescent. There seemed to be no external fence or wall, but the walls were solid—great poured concrete chunks, curving inwards slightly as they rose. The bus finally shuddered off-road and onto the dirt vehicle yard, and Keagan saw the criss-crossed tracks of countless other vehicles, churning up great ruts in the soil. Here, at least, the bus stopped, and a coterie of man in dark shirts and trousers and blue patrol caps came out to meet them. Obviously not army, thought Keagan, though their posture and bearing was military. They wore clearance cards around their necks and pistols in chest holsters—further evidence if he needed it that this was no prison. In prisons no guard would be equipped with a firearm for fear that a prisoner would jump him, grab it and begin shooting. Which begged the question—why did these men need to be armed?

They stopped in a hemicircle around the back of the bus—only then did the driver get out and open the rear of the vehicle. Keagan and the others emerged, blinking, into the suddenly chill evening air, the sun now close to silhouetting the facility.

"Okay, gentleman," said one of the blue-capped men, "this'll be your home for the next month. If you were expecting your personal belongings to be transferred from your previous facility, sorry to tell you, but those were incinerated about five minutes after they were turned over to us." Angry mutters. "You'll get a full orientation soon enough, but I should probably warn you, this isn't work release as you know it. Until the end of your stay, you're still considered inmates. You've probably gathered this place doesn't operate on any of the normal frequencies. That means no visiting rights, no communication rights—no human rights of any kind, as a matter of fact."

"I told you," said the twitchy youth. "Didn't I fucking say? Death camps."

"You signed up for it," retorted Blue Hat, "I'd make the best of it if I were you."

The blue-hats closed ranks, squeezing off the exit of the bus. With two blue-hats on each side the inmates were marched through the threshold—a heavy, apparently bomb-proofed archway with a series of steel blinds, each closing after they moved through, concrete rough and cold underfoot. Keagan looked up at them, visualising the motors that actuated them within the concrete protrusions above the blinds, probably serviced from a room on the other side of the walls. That naturally led him to wonder what else might be on the other side, and by the third chamber he had worked out that the smooth dark panels recessed into the walls on either side were mostly likely one-way viewing panes. Safe to assume, then, that they would be under surveillance at all times. The fortress-like construction of the facility added to the puzzle of the guns—admittedly, the prisoners being inducted in the programme were all lifers, many multiple murderers. But not even Belmarsh was built like this—the floors sloped downwards as they entered and Keagan realised the bulk of the facility must be underground.

The lead blue-hat—the one who had spoken first—guided the prisoners and their escorts through a series of still downward-sloping corridors, coloured lines on the walls branching off at each junction. Overhead, the lights were set into the ceiling, fluorescent circles behind textured plastic. A series of imposing pneumatic doors hissed and parted as they moved deeper into the facility, in each case opened by a touch from Blue Hat's keycard on the adjacent wall. Good to know, said that little voice in Keagan's head. At the very least a senior security guard has clearance to walk from the main gate all the way in—or out again.

"This is decon," Blue Hat announced as they entered a larger area segmented by PVC strip curtains. One by one the prisoners filed through, and were made to surrender their uniforms. Some of the prisoners objected to being stripped naked and were roughly divested of their garments by the blue-hats, who tossed them in a wheeled bin—no doubt to be incinerated with their other possessions. Keagan rolled off his red top, signifying Basic status in Wormwood Scrubs, and kicked his trousers into a corner. Let the guards pick it up if they wanted. Determined not to show any sign of discomfort or modesty, he locked his fingers behind his head and moved through a gap in the clear plastic divider held open by a guard. He was met by a deluge of shockingly cold water with a strong antiseptic tang, as though someone had emptied a bucket over his head. Gasping for air he stumbled into the next section and was blasted with heated air, pumped out of vents in the floor and walls. He emerged, as the others did, disorientated and with a foul taste in his mouth. He noticed, however, that the observers had emerged from their viewing decks and were now mingling freely with the guards—men in white coats over civilian garb, making notes and ticking each prisoner off as they were admitted to the larger area on the other side of the decontamination unit.

Keagan was handed a starchy orange jumpsuit with an alphanumerical identifier on the nametag; his bore the legend 'D-8671'. Once Keagan had donned this, together with a distressingly de-elasticated undergarment and a battered-looking pair of plimsolls, he was deemed ready to go and moved to the side of the room closest to the door. One by one his fellow inmates were issued with similar accoutrements—to varying degrees of expressed satisfaction—and finally the group was moved off once again.

The coloured lines had separated, one at a time, and now their only guide was a dull orange stripe that terminated at a heavy steel door, built like a meat safe; the last of three they had passed on this last corridor.

"Here's where you'll eat, shit, and sleep," said Blue Hat reassuringly—no keycard this time; instead, a matte black key turned in a traditional Yale lock resulted in a loud click and a persistent electronic buzz as the door opened. Inside were modest-sized residential quarters: to the left a square room, empty except four rows of tables, no different to the ones in Wormwood Scrubs' mealroom; to the right showers and toilets—the lack of cubicles making it clear this was not intended to be comfortable accomodation—and straight ahead a square room, the walls lined with three-level bunks. The walls had once been light blue, but had since faded to grey and been adorned with years of smudged scribbles, ringed at the top by an unhealthy damp yellow stain.

There were others already there—a little over a dozen, mostly sat on their bunks or at the benches, faces sagging and grey like the walls. Keagan recognised many of them from Wormwood Scrubs—Cameron Moat, Travis Lemure, Marv Hagman, all lifers, all enhanced or repeat offenders. Others he didn't know—black and white, mostly young but some older inmates. A face leaned out from behind a post to look at the new arrivals—chubby, with piggy eyes and short dark hair. Patrick Goettsch. Those hooded eyes widened slightly when he saw Keagan, and he reached across to tug on Marv's orange jumpsuit. Marv looked across, then up at the doorway. He fixed Keagan with a steady glare and shook his head slightly. The message: this man is still under my protection. No way to know yet, of course, how much respect—if any—Marv had established here in the last few days, and certainly no sense starting anything with Blue Hat and his friends present. Keagan shrugged, offishly, and made his way to a spare bunk.

"Okay," said Blue Hat. "This will be the last batch of inmates for this shift."

"Fucking hallelujah!" someone shouted.

Blue Hat chuckled. "Sorry we kept you waiting. I'm sure you want to get to work. There's an orientation in 30 minutes with Dr Skinner."

The blue-hats turned and left, and again Keagan heard the click-buzz while the door was opened. He had a pretty good idea what was making that sound, and it only deepened the mystery of this place. He lay on the bunk, hands behind his head. The younger Belmarsh inmate with the shaved head walked over.

"Hey, man, you mind taking the bottom bunk? I'm claustrophobic, man, I can't stand having someone above me."

Keagan thought for a moment. "I actually do mind. I was here first and don't feel like moving. But I'll give you points for looking for sympathy rather than trying to intimidate me."

The other inmate sighed and flopped down on the bottom bunk. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

"You came with that other guy," said Keagan. "Older, face like a bulldog. What's his deal?"

"That's Cancer Herrigan," said the Belmarsh inmate. "At least, that's what we call him. Was a big deal in the Irish mob in London, years ago. Been inside for decades. Scary fucker." He lowered his voice at the end, as though frightened Cancer would hear him.

"Why's he called Cancer?" asked Keagan.

"You've heard the cough. Pancreatic. I heard he only has two years to live."

"He doesn't want to die in prison."

The other inmate nodded. "Only he can't stop killing people long enough to make parole. Guess he thought this was his only shot at dying at home."

"And you?" asked Keagan.

"Me?" said the shaven-headed inmate. "I'm no-one, believe me. I don't wanna make trouble. Frankly, I signed up to get away from guys like Cancer. I shouldn't even have gone to Belmarsh."

"What did you do?"

"Just plugged two guys who woulda killed me, man. Self-fucking-defence. They shoulda given me a medal." The bunk shifted as the skinhead rolled over to look at the wall.

Keagan said nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the others squabble over bunk spaces—the twitchy kid had none of the Belmarsh inmate's finesse and was aggressively staking his claim to a top bunk currently occupied by Travis Lemure. Travis simply ignored his demands until the kid had practically climbed on top of him, then kicked him off the bunk with a foot to the groin. The kid, doubled over in pain, crawled onto the bottom bunk, making odd muttering noises to himself. Another one to keep an eye on, thought Keagan.

With no way to mark time in prisoner accommodation other than the daylight trickling through the narrow slits at the top of the room, it seemed like hours until the blue-caps returned and the man who had addressed them before called for all twenty prisoners to file out into the corridor. No less than ten blue-capped men awaited them, together with something new—a man dressed in grey fatigues beneath a tactical vest, face obscured by a reflective visored riot helmet and carrying a semi-automatic MP7 with an extended stock. He stood a distance behind the escort and followed them. There's your answer to what happens if someone grabs a pistol, thought Keagan; everyone gets mowed down by Mister Machinegun over there. Which means, of course, that the guns aren't intended to keep us in line—there's something else in this facility so dangerous that it's less risky to have staff armed at all times in the presence of cop killers and serial murderers.

As they moved through the corridors with the blue-caps at their sides, Keagan caught glimpses of other staff moving around—blue-caps, white coats, the occasional black-helmet, and also the flicker of orange jumpsuits. We're not the only 'shift' of prisoners at this facility then, Keagan thought. Which makes sense—it takes time to train any individual to carry out a task to the expected standard; you can't go from a fully-trained shift of prison labour one day to a team of complete novices the next. They must overlap—if there are 20 convicts on any shift, then they must go through 18 shifts a year if the court reporter, Deloitte's, information was correct. Likely, of course, that this is not their only facility—which means the longer you wait, the more likely it is that Patrick Goettsch will quietly disappear again.

They were led through into a wider area with a raised platform—a conference area from which the chairs had been removed. Blue Hat stepped up onto the platform and spoke a few words to a white-coat, who smiled.

"Thank you, Agent Howard," said the white coat. He was about 50, with thin, vaguely rattish features and light grey hair in an incongruously youthful style. "My name is Dr Randolph Skinner, and I've recently gained full responsibility for D-Class personnel supervision and liaison at this facility." He sounded particularly pleased with himself. "D-Class, of course, is what you are. That's the lowest clearance level, which means, fortunately for me, that I would be in breach of security if I now provided a full history and explanation of the goals of this organisation. That's classified. This is what I can tell you, so listen up if you're even interested. This is a research facility that exists outside the normal civilian and military channels. Officially, it does not exist."

Someone coughed, and the cough was then taken up by numerous other inmates, some no doubt the pawns of their mirror neurons, others simply imitating their peers out of the same mindset they had held in primary school and which had never developed further. Dr Skinner cleared his throat himself and waited for quiet.

"Now, you're here because one of our agents approached each and every one of you and gave you an offer; participate in our programme for the duration of one month and you will receive a full pardon for any and all crimes you have committed. What? Yes, I'm sure some of you have wondered about the logistics of that. I'm going to be perfectly and totally frank with you, gentlemen. We don't use university students for a reason. You want to know what the 'D' stands for in D-Class? Disposable. The experiments we conduct here are highly dangerous, and some of you will not survive."

This provoked a round of consternation from the inmates, and the guards packed into the corners of the room began to shuffle forward.

"Now—our agents would have made this perfectly clear to you at the time you agreed to participate … What? Go back to prison? No, I'm afraid it's far too late for that. Now you're here, you will be expected to follow our instructions exactly. To the letter. The penalty for acting out? Well, let's put it this way. There's no justice system here. Any infractions will be dealt with immediately at the discretion of security personnel—their prerogative. So, some ground rules; you may have noticed some other D-Class personnel roaming around the facility. Forget about them. Contact with D-Class outside your shift—Shift B—is forbidden, and subject to the strictest penalties … No, we don't feel the need to provide any identifiers. Memorise the faces of the people in this room, or the serial numbers on their lapel tags if you're a prosopagnosiac. Don't talk to anyone else unless instructed to do so. It's as simple as that. After that the following should go without saying, but here goes: the objects and material you will be working with here are highly sensitive. That means no communication with the outside world whatsoever. Possession of any contraband that could enable outside communication will, you've guessed it, be subject to the strictest penalties possible. Blam. Can I say that?"

Dr Skinner looked at Agent Howard, who made a non-committal gesture. He continued:

"You should also memorise the number on your own lapel. That's you. At the end of this orientation you will be directed down the hall to our medical wing, where that number will be tattooed on your wrist and chest. … Yes, yes, we are quite aware of the historical precedents; Godwin would be proud. What you should be asking is—why the chest? Well, that's quite simple. In the event, say, of an explosion, we need to be able to rapidly identify the deceased, and quite frankly a torso is fairly conclusive. If you feel particularly strongly about it you can have it removed at the end of your time with us. Tattoo removal is a routine procedure these days, and quite painless."

"Your one month term of service is thirty consecutive days, starting today … yes, today … excuse me … yes, I am quite aware some of you have been here over a week while some of you have only just arrived. Have you never heard of the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard?" Twenty blank stares including Keagan's. "Of course not. Well, we never said your month of service started as soon as you entered the facility, but then, I imagine most of you wouldn't be here if you had mastered reading comprehension. What you are asked to do may vary dramatically from day to day—it might include light janitorial duties or assignment to one of several Special Containment Procedures observed in this facility. Ah, I see some of you are nodding your heads knowledgeably when I used those initials, as though I've delivered some sort of revelation. As a matter of fact, you're wrong, but I don't intend to get into that now. These Special Containment Procedures, or 'skips', are programmes under an individual researcher focusing around a particular object or phenomenon. Depending on the needs of the individual researcher you will take part in day-to-day procedures relating to that skip or participate in experiments into the object or phenomenon being studied."

"As D-Class personnel you are on call whenever we need you, for as long as we need you. My advice to you—don't complain, don't talk back. Eyes on the prize, gentlemen. Stay smart—well, as smart as you can be—and do what you're told, and you'll make it to the end of the month. And then, freedom. As to that, the more astute amongst you may have realised that it's not as simple as just dropping you off on the street. Society at large probably wouldn't accept people like you—no offence—turned back into the wild on the say-so of an organisation that doesn't exist for services which are classified seven levels above Top Secret. Instead you'll be enrolled at a series of minimum security institutions, substance abuse clinics and halfway houses—all owned and operated by us—under different names, with increasing autonomy. Contact with your former acquaintances will be tightly controlled until we are persuaded you are not a security threat. When you entered this programme you signed a declaration that you understand and accept the Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989—but just in case that isn't adequate persuasion, we reserve the right to monitor you and your dealings, forever. We don't care what you get up to, but we will preserve the secrecy and security of this organisation. Is that clear?"

Some half-hearted murmurs by inmates who probably intended to go right back to what they were doing before and which had got them put away in the first place. Cancer's already crumpled face sagged further—he looked crushed by the notion that even if he survived the next month he could spend the rest of his remaining life being shuffled between low-security institutions. Keagan listened to the explanation and recognised the effort that had gone into making it plausible—just the right amount of real-world unglamorousness and disappointment to give it the ring of truth. But no secret this large, with this many people sworn to silence, could last long, even with abseiling strike teams ready to take out anyone who called the press. The question, then, the question that held such terrible implications, was this: how long has this been going on?

Dr Skinner continued: "You'll spend any free time you are not required to undertake duties for this Foundation in your dormitory, D-Block Alpha-2…"

A voice began shouting from the crowd—"I want a separate cell! It's not safe for me in there, there's a guy who wants me dead…".

Keagan turned, but the owner of the voice was hidden in the crush. He realised he had never heard Patrick Goettsch talk normally, but felt sure he was the speaker.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," said Dr Skinner with a thin smile. "And that goes for any other personal requests. You'll just have to rub along as best you can. Rest assured, however, you'll be under constant video surveillance." Some inmates didn't seem to find that reassuring at all. "Eyes on the prize, gentlemen, eyes on the prize. Agent Howard, stick a fork in them, they're done. Take them for their concentration camp tattoos … Oh, you're Jewish? That one doesn't find it funny because he's Jewish, Agent Howard, which probably explains the swastika on his forearm. And I very much hope he likes tonight's stew, which I know for a fact contains some very choice reconstituted pork."

The inmates were herded up again and led back down the corridor. The medical wing was almost painfully bright, light shining off brilliant white surfaces. The inmates stood and watched as each in turn was stripped to the waist and a tiny, bald white-coated man with thick spectacles used a tattoo machine mounted on a mechanical arm to inscribe their number on their flesh. Keagan was one of the first to be led up—it prickled, hot and somewhat painful as it branded 'D-8671' across his right pectoral and the inside of his left wrist, black letters on coffee-coloured skin, the area around the letters red and raised. He instinctively rubbed his chest and immediately snatched his hand away as the pressure caused jolts of pain to ripple through the underlying muscle. He watched as the other inmates submitted with various degrees of good grace to the procedure. Cancer—like Keagan formerly tattoo-free—barely seemed to notice what was happening to him, while Marv made a show of grinning the whole time, though Keagan noticed his teeth were clenched tight. The tattooist had a tough time with Cameron Moat—a wiry, vaguely Latin-looking young man with full tattooed 'sleeves' depicting naked women wrapped in grape vines, shifting into a spiralling tribal design across his chest. Eventually they settled for marking his ribcage and a young lady's mostly light-coloured back, this latter addition drawing protests from Mr Moat. The twitchy youth—Keagan now knew his name was Ronny Feldspar because he kept shouting it in various permutations, such as 'Ronny of the family Feldspar' and 'Ronny Colon Feldspar Full Stop'—refused the tattoo and had to be held down by two of the blue-hats. When he had been turned loose—his tattoos jagged and distorted by his writhing, he looked at them with watering eyes then pulled his jumpsuit over them, tucking his hand within the sleeve as though he could amputate it by this motion.

Once each member of Shift B had received their identification tattoos, they were gathered up and led back to their dormitory. As they walked back through the facility, following the orange line to the D-Class accommodation, Keagan heard a faint noise that it took him a second or so to realise was a scream, male and human, muffled by distance and steel doors.

"Keep moving," advised a blue-hat, and Keagan walked on. Back in the dormitory, he looked up at the faded grey walls with their scrawled graffiti and the yellow watermarks on the ceiling, and thought about the abandoned village that surrounded the facility. How long? He saw that much of the graffiti was simple strings of numbers: 1199, 1418, 507, 512, X. 287, 1062, 481, 1213, X. 032, 1388, 272, X. There were at least fifty of these lists written in ink, chalk or that prison favourite blood just in the space by Keagan's head. It didn't escape his notice that the X was often written in a different medium than the rest of the list.

It is a fundamental rule of the universe that where men are locked up together and certain items made contraband, some quantity of said contraband will always be in circulation. Somehow, despite the searches made of the prisoners before they left their former abodes, some few items had made it through, though quite where they had been stored was probably not worth thinking about. In addition, small stashes were found under the bunks, in crevices in the floor, and wedged between the slats at the top of the walls. And, in a global corollary to the above law, even this pathetic collection of cigarettes, Page 3s from The Sun torn out and folded small, plasticine dice and playing cards became something to be claimed, owned, bestowed on friends or demanded as tribute.

The sequence of events went something like this; a lighter, made of light-blue plastic and a quarter-full, was found wedged a foot and a half down the hollow end of one of the metal bedposts, and its recovery became a team effort, with Keagan eventually supplying a mechanical solution—by pushing the bed up against the wall from the opposite corner, the sides would scissor in on the bedpost so as to compress it along the axis of the lighter. Simple lever action. The inmates took turns 'leaning' against the opposite post until eventually there was a rattle and the lighter fell to the floor, which is where the problems began.

Keagan was eventually able to gather from asking the others after the fact that even before the lighter had been recovered, Marvin Hagman had decided that it could be entrusted to Cameron Moat, a known smoker, if Mr Moat acknowledged Marv's clear overlordship of D-Block Alpha-2. Unfortunately, it appeared that Cancer Herrigan had different notions, and had already promised it to one of the inmates who arrived on Keagan's bus and who he evidently thought of as his core support. Accordingly, the men began to argue about who exactly should have the privilege of giving the find away. Keagan had in the meantime gone to lie down, but was jolted awake as the first punches began to be thrown.

By all accounts the combatants had begun by shoving at each other, impugning each other's machismo whilst stopping short of claiming outright dominance. The tussle had apparently broken up and Marv had gone back to his bunk, when, between soggy coughs, Cancer had muttered something that was either 'motherfucker' or 'your mother fucks Pakis', depending on who you asked, and this slight was apparently more than Marv was willing to accept.

Marv rushed across the central space of the dormitory and shoulder-barged Cancer to the floor. Such was the initial ferocity of the attack as Marv continued to press forward, jabbing at Cancer's face and shoulders with his massive fists, that it seemed like the fight might be over then and there. Then Cancer's arm blurred, and all Marv's forward momentum was nullified at once, as though he had hit a brick wall face-first. Cancer got up, seeming almost bored by the encounter, and walked into Marv, swatting at him with his fists, and every time they landed, you could see or hear something rupture or break. "Oh, man!" someone shouted as a wet snapping noise attended a brutal jab into Marv's ribs. Marv made one valiant attempt to turn the tide—a wild, swinging punch right into Cancer's face. It hit the older man just above his left eye, tearing the skin, but Cancer continued to batter Marv, breaking his nose, his jaw, bringing a knee down into his belly. Marv vomited explosively over the dormitory floor. No-one wanted to step in to stop the carnage—they stood, mesmerised, as the Belmarsh inmate, one eye closed with blood pooling around it, beat his near-comatose quarry.

There was a click and a buzz, and black-helmeted men poured in. Cancer arched his back and bellowed as 50,000 volts from a taser overrode his nervous system, before collapsing on the floor. There was some discussion between the guards, and one of the MP7s was brought in and the safety removed, but ultimately they decided to decamp, taking Marv with them. Keagan watched as Cameron Moat and Travis Lemure helped the twitching Cancer to his bunk, and sensed the balance of power in the block had changed decisively. He couldn't see Patrick Goettsch from where he was—Goettsch would be petrified, and with good reason, though if he had any sense he would realise there was still no immediate threat; there was no way Keagan could get anything out of him before the guards reached them. Keagan tried to stay awake that night, wondering whether Goettsch might try a preemptive strike with a piece of rolled-up newspaper or other makeshift weapon. But ultimately he found himself drifting, and succumbed to unconsciousness.

Keagan was walking—well, floating, in the way one sometimes does when one finds oneself in a strange place with no memory of how one got there—down the corridors of a richly appointed office. There was a cold, sharp wind blowing through broken windows, and the whole place seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry, papers strewn over the floor and spilt mugs of coffee on the desks. A cat in a Union Jack bow tie crossed the corridor ahead of him, mewing plaintively. Someone was singing, the voice cracked and broken: "…moving iiiinto the body of a beetle. Getting ready for a long, long craaawwwl…". Keagan drifted up the stairs—at the end of the landing was the door from which the voice was emerging. The plaque read 'Prime Minister's Office'. Keagan stepped inside, for the door now stood open.

"Take a seat, my good man," said the singer, breaking off to address Keagan. His eyes were blurred vortexes, tendrils emerging from them spiralling out through the broken windows of his office, tapering away to the horizon. "Would you like some more wine?" He held out a glass of clear, golden liquid to Keagan.

"I haven't had any yet," Keagan said. He took the glass, but what was inside was now a deep, opaque, glutinous red with a sharp tang of iron, and he set it aside.

"So," asked the man. "Do you like what I've done with the place?" He gestured to the rotting, sagging wallpaper, the carpet which squelched underfoot, the shards of glass on the floor, and the papers which whirled about them as though they were at the eye of a tornado.

Keagan felt himself compelled to ask: "Is it like this everywhere?"

The lunatic blurring spirals of the man's eyes focused on him. "Not quite yet. They're making a last stand in the American Midwest. They have someone or something there who's keeping me out. But they can't last much longer."

Keagan nodded. "Is there anything you need me to do?"

The man laughed. "You can deliver my mail." He held out a sheaf of white envelopes, one of them perforated with diamond-shaped holes. "Take good care of it."

Keagan caught a glimpse of the name to which the tattered envelope was addressed—'J. Moire'—but then the floor broke up and floated away, and Keagan fell down into the darkness, where the thing in the metal box beat and scratched the walls of its metal prison.

He awoke slowly, the wall of the dormitory cold against his face, listening to the whispers as other D-Class exchanged contraband or discussed the fight earlier in the evening. Keagan closed his eyes again, and slept a dreamless sleep until the morning sun shone through the slats at the top of the walls, by which time the dream had mostly evaporated from his memory.

If Keagan had hoped that in the first few days he would be left to his own devices, he was proven wrong. A blue-hat showed up at 0600 hours and called out a number of designations and the tasks they would be assigned.

"D-8671. Maintenance, Science Division."

A few others were assigned Special Containment Procedure numbers, and although no-one had told them what to do, Keagan saw them starting their own lists above their bunks, passing around the biro someone had found inside the radiator and which was by general consensus to be held in common and any transfers to be witnessed by three other inmates, lest it 'go missing' shortly before someone found themselves with pen-shaped holes in their kidneys. Those assigned skip numbers that seemed more often than not to precede an 'X'—no-one had actually said out loud what they suspected it to mean, but it was understood that everybody knew—received commiserations or bonne-chances depending on the outlook of any given colleague and set off with trepidations.

So it was that Keagan found himself charged with a mop and tasked with cleaning up a particularly unpleasant organic-looking slurry which had pooled around a charred plinth in Laboratory Kappa-3. His occasional attempt to make light conversation with the white-coats fell flat—for the most part they seemed surprised that he could even talk, and seemed annoyed by his intrusion. After about the third attempt he began to discern a pattern in the way they turned away, looked into the middle distance or turned red when he talked to them. He had experienced it himself, when he realised that he had signed the Judge's death warrant through his distrust. Guilt. Why guilt? Surely not simply that their programme would put him in danger—he was a multiple murderer, a lifer, the worst of the worst. Ergo, they knew something else, something… the smell of the slurry became overpowering and he found himself hunched over, hands on his knees and the mop half-buried in the substance. He looked down on it, and the thought crossed his mind that if he took a sample and looked at under one of the microscopes around the edge of the laboratory he might discern microscopic tatters of orange fabric. A great wave of nausea rose through him and he began to heave, breathlessly.

"Interesting," he heard from the white-coats who had noticed his plight. "Some new manifestation of the…?" "Stand back in case it happens to him too." "Make a note: possibly transmittable—fuck, I got some on my shoes earlier…".

"He's just feeling sick. Having to clean this stuff up will do that to you," a voice said firmly. Keagan barely registered what was happening as the speaker guided him to a chair and fetched a glass of water. The other white-coats watched for a while, then drifted away one at a time in disappointment when it became clear Keagan was suffering from nothing worse than a bout of dry-retching. The researcher who had taken pity on him was young—pale with very dark hair and light blue eyes.

"How are you feeling?" he asked. Keagan nodded his head shakily to indicate his improving constitution.

"Some of the stuff they'll have you doing can get pretty disgusting, I'm afraid."

"You're telling me."

The researcher paused. "Look, D-8671…"

"I have a name, you know," observed Keagan mildly.

"Sorry. What's your name?"

"Keagan O'Neill," said Keagan.

"Keagan. I thought I might … well, I didn't come here under the best circumstances, and once you're here you're basically cut off from the outside world. I mean, the supply trucks come in on Thursdays, but they aren't allowed to talk to you or bring in anything that might allow you to communicate with the outside world. That includes papers. There are people who mean a lot to me on the outside, and although I told myself it was safer for them if I didn't know anything, I can't…" Keagan saw the young researcher's hands tremble slightly, "…well, it's tough. I was wondering—have you heard anything about the Beaumonts? The London Beaumonts? They haven't been in the news, or…"

Keagan closed his eyes for a moment. Every second he stayed here was a second he didn't have to spend picking the mop out of the gelatinous cellular soup on the floor. Lie, he told himself. Make something up to keep talking, just for a few moments longer. But he couldn't.

"I'm sorry, mate," he said. "I've been out of circulation a while myself. And no offence, but I don't think we moved in the same circles."

"Oh," said the researcher, fidgeting uncomfortably. "No, of course. Why should you? Of course not. You get it into your head that everything revolves around you, that everyone else is thinking about the people that matter to you to, all the time. I can't leave, that's the trouble. I mean, I'm not being held prisoner or anything, as far as I know—”

"That's nice," Keagan observed drily.

"—sorry. But if I leave, the people I came here to escape can find me. For me, the Foundation was a refuge. It makes me overlook a lot of things."

The silence in the air felt more significant than Keagan could entirely comprehend at this moment. But the conversation had, it seemed, run its course, and the guard in the corner was watching with growing impatience.

"I'd better get back to it," Keagan said quietly. "I didn't catch your name?"

"Edward," said the researcher. "Edward Gradley."

Chapter Five: "Learners"

Deprived of his protector, of human rights, and even an individual cell, Patrick Goettsch managed to make himself more scarce than Keagan would have ever dreamed. From what the others told him, Patrick had made every effort to become a model prisoner, volunteering for every unpleasant duty and experiment going, even volunteering in the place of other prisoners to ensure he never returned to the dormitories for more than a few minutes, never while Keagan was there. Keagan saw glimpses of him in the corridors, dark rings around his eyes—from fear, lack of sleep or what he had seen, Keagan was unsure.

For his part, Keagan had begun his own list beside his bunk.


1552 was a cell containing an English bulldog. Keagan's job was to go in, put down a bowl of water and another bowl of chicken chunks, and muck out the corner. Before this, however, he was treated to a lengthy briefing by two white-shirts.

"Wherever possible, you should avoid looking at the subject." The 'subject', apparently, was the dog. "Do not make eye contact with the subject under any circumstances. Do not look at the surface of the bowl of water once you have entered the enclosure. Do not look at the contents of the subject's old feed bowl. If you see the reflection of the subject anywhere where it seems unusual to see a reflection, exit the enclosure immediately. That includes the subject's liquid waste. If possible you are to check over the subject for fleas or other signs of poor health. Veterinary knowledge is not required—simply look for anything that appears unhealthy. If the subject attempts to make eye contact, exit the enclosure immediately. The subject must remain inside the enclosure at all times."

The second white-shirt equipped Keagan with dark glasses with an odd plastic sheen and checked him over for reflective surfaces. Having satisfied himself that Keagan was as matte as it was possible for a human being to be, he nodded and released the door catch. Keagan was all but shoved inside as the animal looked up, wagging its stumpy tail.

"Good boy," said Keagan warily, keeping the white-coat's comments in mind and trying to keep the dog in his peripheral vision as he edged around it towards the food bowl. "Good boy." It bounced around him, trying to get his attention, pushing its smushed-in face against his leg.

The food and drink bowls, both made of textured black plastic, were both empty; Keagan tucked them awkwardly under one arm and placed down the fresh ones. He hoped the food might attract the animal's attention, but it continued to jump up at him, and he wondered how much human contact it had in here, behind the heavy steel door.

"Hey," he said. "It's OK, come on." He set the empty dishes down and turned the animal around so it was facing away from him and roughly stroked its head and back, drawing delighted snuffles. He parted its short, piebald fur, noting a few thin spots that might have been mange, or worms, or maybe just self-inflicted through bored scratching. Its tail drummed on his knee, almost painful. The dog kept trying to turn around and eventually he felt he was causing it more vexation pushing it back than if he had left it alone. He shooed it away and turned his attention to the corner, where another puddle of unsanitary material greeted his efforts. Some attempt had been made to install a drainage system, but the majority of the waste still pooled around it. He looked up at the walls and noted that the rectangle that elsewhere seemed to denote an observation room was here plastered over, only the faintest hint of its shape remaining. He looked dubiously at the makeshift drain—the little voice was suggesting that he could crawl down it, but the engineer in him was pointing out that it was designed for a small animal's excrement and seemed entirely inadequate to cope with even that amount of waste product; that even if Keagan were to jettison some extra weight (say, everything but one arm), the isolated facility was likely not connected to any kind of sewage system and thus the hypothetical Keagan-arm would at best claw its way down into the stinking darkness of the septic tank. As he looked down the drain, he shifted slightly, and the light from one of the diffuse neon tubes in the ceiling struck the foul-smelling water accumulating halfway down.

The face of an English bulldog stared out at him from within the drainage pipe. Its jowls rippled as it let loose a series of playful whufs, which, to make the situation more lunatic, seemed to be emanating from behind him. Keagan stood up suddenly, and felt the animal pawing at the back of his leg. Its face, however, continued to stare from the surface of the water, rippling slightly as the dog bounced on the floor, and in its eyes he could see something shifting and orange. Its head tilted as it looked up…

If you see the reflection of the subject anywhere unusual…

Keagan, half-panicking, unsure what he was looking at, if he was even awake at all, roughly kicked the dog away, provoking a hurt yelp, and stumbled to the door. There was no handle on the inside. He leaned against it then, remembering how it had opened inwards, jammed his fingers into the rubbery filler on the open side and tried to lever it open.

"Let me out!" he shouted. There was movement—distant, muffled, on the other side of the door. A voice over the tannoy.

"D-8671, stand by. Please keep the subject away from the door."

Keagan slumped down next to the door, eyes closed, fending the dog away with open palms when it limped up, still trying to get back the friend who had stroked it and spoken to it gently.

Finally, a hydraulic hiss, and the door opened. The tannoy sounded, but the voice was present, as well.

"D-8671, stand up and leave the enclosure. Keep your eyes closed."

Keagan rose and was guided firmly to a seat. He heard the door seal again behind him. He heard rustling, something heavy being taken out of a locker and put on. A red-orange glow rose behind his eyelids. Finally:

"D-8671, open your eyes. Look into the light and do not close your eyes again until we authorise you to do so."

Keagan opened his eyes wide, then immediately fought against the instinct to snap them shut in the face of the blinding light being shone in his face. The white coats had been replaced by long, dark hessian outfits, sewn shut at the sleeves so they handled him with almost comical mittens. He looked up and saw that their faces were covered by hoods of the same stuff, with filtration beaks like plague doctors and a single cyclopean camera-eye mounted on the forehead that presumably fed a feed to a screen inside the bulky goggles. In their third eyes he saw a reflection of his own face, eyes watering and jaw slack, but otherwise unaffected.

"Contamination—negative," one of them concluded. The sound of the tannoy had gone—now they addressed him in slightly muffled tones from within the hoods. "D-8671, you may now close your eyes."

Keagan blinked desperately to adjust to the light.

"Is he re-usable?" asked a voice from just outside his field of vision, which he recognised as the blue-hat who had been introduced as Agent Howard.

"Yes, yes," said one of the former white-coats. "He'll be fine, more's the pity."

"I saw its face," Keagan said dully. "In the drainpipe. That's not possible."

"That's what we call letting you in gently." said Howard. Then, to the hooded men: "Sounds like you need to flush the drainage pipe into 1552-1 storage again."

"That's another 500ml at least," complained one of his examiners, beginning to strip off his plague-doctor hood. "If this stuff behaves the way we think it does, any of it getting into the water table could be…"

"We have bigger things on our plate right now," retorted Howard. "Right now, this stuff can be contained in a watertight container and the evaporation risk while more of the stuff is being piped in is minimal." Then, to Keagan again: "D-8671, your participation has been noted. You may be called on to assist in research into SCP-1552 in the future…"

"He kicked it," interjected one of the scientists tersely. "Give him to Reeds or Barker. I'm done with him."

"…or not," Howard continued with a grin. "Come on, get up."

In addition to Marv Hagman, who had disappeared off the face of the earth, it appeared a further three D-Class personnel had failed to return to the dormitory after less than a week. There was a dangerous silence in the dormitory as Ronny Feldspar mounted the bunks with the stub of red chalk he had smuggled back in from one of the laboratories inside his cheek and made Xs underneath their missing compatriots' lists after enough days had passed to conclude they were not merely sleeping it off in the hospital wing. Patrick Goettsch was absent again, but a quick roll call revealed he'd taken Travis Lemure's place testing with 1062, a number which, Travis had noted with some alarm, tended to precede marked changes in handwriting in those who listed it on the wall.

Keagan was the first to break the silence. Getting an audience with the pack leader in the Alpha-2 dormitories was significantly easier than HMP Wormwood Scrubs, though no less intimidating. Cancer was squatting on the edge of his bunk, playing with the plasticine dice. He would roll them again and again until he got double sixes, then thrust them aside before reluctantly picking them up again and starting again. Looking for a miracle, Keagan thought. The motion exercised a strange fascination over Keagan, the way the cubes tumbled over each other—a distant thrill as they came down that came from somewhere he couldn't quite explain.

"Mr Herrigan," Keagan began, tearing his eyes away from the dice. How does this even work?, he thought. Do you bow? Curtsey?

"And who might you be?" asked Cancer, wetly. His throat sounded worse since he had arrived; probably the mildewed air in the dormitory.

"Keagan O'Neill. I'm coming to you because—well, I thought I'd better show respect." Did the Irish mob put the same value on that as an armed robber? Too late now, of course.

"Hkk. What do you want outta me?"

"Patrick Goettsch. Shortish, chubby guy, avoids being here whenever I'm around. He was with me in the Scrubs. I got a problem with him."


"He ratted on me about a murder inside, but Hagman—that's the guy you beat down first night here—put him under his protection. I wanted to make sure you weren't, I guess, carrying forward his promises or anything." Put like that, it sounds perfectly… stop it, he thought. It was the Cliff Notes version of events—not even bothering to deny that he'd killed the Judge—but enough, he guessed, for Cancer.

"Lemma get this straight. You're coming to me to ask permission to do over or kill this Goettsch guy? Fucking be my—AKOHK. Be my fucking—AKKAK, KAK, KOUHK."

Keagan waited patiently for Cancer to finish his choking fit. 'Guest' would be a favourite way to end that sentence, he thought. 'Bitch', rather less so. 'Murder victim' is probably the bottom rung here.

"KAAAUGHF. Jesus. Anyway. KAK. This guy Goettsch comes to me, he says, there's this black shit who wants me dead, protect me. I ask him why. He won't tell me. I tell him, screw you, you don't trust me, you don't trust me to protect you. Go hang. So he makes himself scarce. The hell I care."

Keagan nodded as Cancer broke off into another bout of coughing, but inside he was vibrating. Something Goettsch knew was so explosive he would rather risk unknown death at the hands of the SCP Foundation's experiments rather than disclose it to another prisoner, even here with all links to the outside world purportedly cut off. What that meant depended on whether Goettsch was thinking rationally and had a good idea of their current situation. If not, it probably meant nothing more than the forces that had conspired against the Judge were politically powerful. If so, it meant Goettsch suspected they could reach him even in the custody of the Foundation.

Professor Reeds was an elderly white-coat with a vague, dreamy manner who seemed wildly enthused about the potential of the experiment Keagan and Ronny Feldspar had been assigned to undertake.

"It's something like the Milgram shock experiments," he said, before adding reassuringly, "but far less ethical. Now, the questions we hope to answer today will be extremely penetrating—” here he seemed to lose his train of thought. "Yes. Penetrating. The nature of identity, intent, and action at a distance! It goes without saying, of course, that each of you must follow the instructions given to you to the letter. Do you understand, D-8671?"

Keagan nodded.


Ronny pretended not to hear, then when the designation was repeated, responded sullenly "That's not my name."

"Ah!" Professor Reeds declared. "We'll see about that! Yes, that's one of the things we'll be determining. But we'll get to that. What we'll be doing today is playing a game. Darts. Now, one of you must be the player. The other participant will be the scorer."

"I don't want to be the player," Ronny said, before Keagan could get a word out. Keagan shrugged to indicate he had no preference.

"Quite right, D-7780." Professor Reeds said, his eyes glinting. "Both of you, follow me."

Keagan and Ronny followed the Professor into the next room, which had been fitted with an adjoining wall dividing the room into roughly one- and two-thirds. The narrower side contained a chair, facing a blank wall. The other side had measures of distance marked into the floor, with a dartboard on the far edge of the room.

A vague crackle was audible as Professor Reeds turned on his lapel mike and gestured to the technician visible in the brightly-lit observation room.

"D-7780 is also known as Ronny Feldspar, as well as 'Ronny of the family Feldspar' and variants influenced by freemen-on-the-land ideology. He was also widely known in the summer of 2010 as the Docklands Shooter; his real name was not released to the press at the time of arrest for reasons of national security."

Keagan was startled. If what the Professor said was true—and Ronny seemed in no hurry to deny it—the young man was one of the most prolific spree killers of recent years. The Docklands Shooter had blocked the doors of his workplace and gunned down his co-workers with a hunting rifle. When he had killed a dozen or so of his close acquaintances he had taken to the roof and begun taking pot-shots at passers-by, eventually giving himself up to the police when he ran out of ammunition.

"D-8671, also known as Keagan O'Neill, is a violent offender initially incarcerated for a double homicide and charged with a third murder in prison. He will be assisting in the implementation of this experiment. D-7780, please take a seat in the area to the left. D-8671, please move up to the darts board and pick up the first set of darts to your right. I will continue to co-ordinate this experiment from the observation deck."

Ronny, visibly nervous but glad to be the furthest from the action, disappeared on the other side of the partition wall and Keagan walked up the right-hand side of the room. The darts board was faded and battered, the paint on the double and triple rings chipped in several places. The only thing that looked new about it was the gold letter on the outside section that read 'Property of Marshall, Carter & Dark'. Not any more, he guessed. He kneeled down and picked up a foam block containing black darts. Some seemed to have a piece of paper wrapped around them—others didn't. The block was marked 'Control'.

"Thank you, D-8671. Please remove the darts in any order you wish and embed them in the dart board by hand—do not throw them. Please embed at least one in the inner bull."

Keagan pulled the darts out of the foam, noticing how their points glittered in the light. Holding them overarm like a dagger, he punched them into the board, finishing by placing one dead centre.

"Am I supposed to be keeping track of this?" Ronny yelled from the other side of the dividing wall. "I can't see shit."

"That won't be necessary, D-7780. For the record, no anomalous effects were observed from the control group of darts. D-8671, do you feel any ill effects?" Keagan replied in the negative. "Please remove the darts from the board and replace them in the control foam. Then collect the second group of darts and stand behind the 3m line."

Keagan collected the second foam block, labelled 'Live', and retreated towards the door until the toe of his boots crossed the green line indicating that he was three metres from the dartboard.

"Thank you. Please withdraw the dart labelled with a red band and in your own time throw it at the dartboard. If you are a novice player I understand the optimum position to aim is just left of centre at the bottom of the target."

Keagan hefted the projectile thoughtfully. The last time he had played darts had been on his thirtieth birthday. Lauren had been there, though they hadn't been together then, she'd been with Parker. Keagan had had way too much to drink and could barely hit the board at all, but the others, determined to let the birthday boy win, executed feats of poor aim that resulted in at least one full beer glass being knocked over, the pub cat's tail speared and the party nearly barred.

"Throw 1," intoned Professor Reeds. "Dart contains strip of paper reading 'The Docklands Shooter'."

"What?" Ronny shouted, apparently under the impression he had been addressed, but if the Professor heard he gave no response.

Keagan slung the dart at the target where, to his surprise, it lodged in the section labelled '19', just missing the inner triple ring. There was silence for a moment.

"D-7780, do you feel anything?" asked the Professor.

"No. Am I just supposed to sit here?" Ronny shouted back through the dividing wall.

"For the moment. D-8671, please withdraw the yellow-banded dart. Throw 2—” as Keagan pulled out the second dart on the block. "Strip of paper reads 'D-7780'."

This time the dart lodged in the outermost double ring, in the section marked '7', then gravity took over and it sagged down.

"No response," the Professor observed. "Interesting, though we'll be continuing to use the designation. D-8671, please withdraw the blue-banded dart. Throw 3—no strip of paper. D-8671, please hurl the dart at the dartboard, I repeat at the dartboard, with intent to kill or seriously injure D-7780."

"What the fuck is this?" shouted Ronny from behind the screen.

Keagan stopped. "What is this going to do?"

"Please don't concern yourself with that, D-8671. I take full responsibility for anything that happens in this experiment. Please continue."

Keagan lined up the dart, swearing to himself he wasn't going to take part in this morbid little game; there was no way the Professor could read his mind after all, but already he was picturing himself in the dormitory, on the bus, snapping the scrawny gunman's neck, pinning him down and breaking his ribs one at a time… the dart flew and lodged in the outer bull.

"A very good shot, D-8671. But, as expected, no result. At least, nothing the cameras can detect. D-7780, do you feel OK? … Very well. D-8671, please withdraw the green-banded dart. Piece of paper reads 'Ronny of the family Feldspar', the most common formulation of his 'flesh and blood name' according to his conspiracy theory beliefs, in mixed rather than upper case. D-8671, you need not envisage any particular harm coming to D-7780 as a result of this throw."

Keagan stood just beyond the 3m line, the dart in his hand. He felt something in the room gathering, dense and heavy.

"This is some kind of psychological test, isn't it," he said. "You set up this whole thing to see how we react, to see whether we actually believe it can do anything. This is bullshit. I'm stopping here."

"I quit too," shouted Ronny, somewhat unnecessarily. "This is freaking me out."

"D-8671, you have agreed to participate in this programme in return for your freedom. You do not have a choice as to whether you continue," said Professor Reeds, an icily focused tone entering his voice that had not been there before. "Further refusal to obey will lead to severe consequences."

Blam, thought Keagan, remembering Dr Skinner's hand gesture. I've been driven half-way across the country, been locked up in some kind of weird crypto-military base and subjected to all this crap just so I can find out who killed the Judge, why it was being hung on me. I'm not going to get shot over a fucking game of darts.

He squared up to the dartboard, aimed the dart, and let it fly. It wasn't as good a throw as his last one, landing in the section marked '16', between the triple ring and the bullseye."

There was a bloodcurdling shriek from the other side of the divider wall. Keagan dropped the foam block with the remaining dart and made to run around to where Ronny was, but the Professor interrupted him over the tannoy.

"D-8671, please remain where you are. There is no cause for alarm."

"No fucking cause … what the fuck has—I don't… my hand. My hand just…" Ronny was blubbering. Keagan caught a glimpse of a whitecoat with a medical pack trotting swiftly from the door to the covered area.

"Please ensure the bleeding is arrested. Fuller medical treatment can be carried out at the close of the experiment. D-8671, please remove and throw the final dart, which is black-banded. For the record this contains the name 'RONNY FELDSPAR' in uppercase."

"That's a strawman, you fascist—aah, aah. Jesus Christ. It's a legal fiction, legal… Shows you're considered dead under maritime law. It's a gravestone, gravestone name. Aaagh." Ronny sounded delirious.

"Indeed. We are very close to determining whether the object's definition of 'name' is linked to personal identification or whether it is able to somehow determine the legal name of the subject and acceptable variations. D-8671, please do not hesitate any further. Your colleague requires painkillers and stitches which will not be administered until you complete the experiment."

"Just fucking do it!" yelled Ronny to Keagan. "You bastard, just throw it!"

The sucking emptiness in Keagan's chest intensified as he took aim again. The dart seemed to waver in front of his eyes. He hurled it, and for a sickening moment he thought he had scored a bullseye. Then his vision cleared and he realised it had lodged just outside it again in the section marked '7'. There was another howl of pain from beyond the partition.

"Looks like a fractured collarbone," said the muffled voice Keagan assumed was the medic. "Won't know for sure until I get an X-Ray."

"Very well," concluded the Professor, and Keagan detected a note of disappointment in his voice. "Significant evidence in favour of hypothesis-B, albeit more testing is required to determine that the effect of the legal name in all-caps was not diminished compared to the non-standard name in lettercase which had personal identification. Concluding for now; for the record I reiterate my request to Sector-19 for a subject who has changed his name legally in a non-UK jurisdiction."

Keagan was allowed to sit on the bench near the far wall for a few moments to regain his composure. Professor Reeds re-entered the room and collected the glittering darts. Ronny was bundled out past him, still sobbing, his hand a ragged bloom of gore with a tourniquet tied at the wrist and the other hand clapped over the bones near his neck. His eyes were tearstained but fixed Keagan with a look of hatred he recognised last seeing that day in the library, in another life.

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