After a month in Strangeways, Calix Coniston changed cells. Flanked by guards, he stood on the metal catwalk, holding his cardboard crate. The three men waited, Calix staring at the crate. There were air-holes in the sides, and in a former life it had held apples for a supermarket. Pink Lady. He’d never heard of them.
The cell door jerked into life and rattled from right to left.
Third time lucky?
The first had been a drink-driver who’d killed an old man on a pedestrian crossing. A prison epiphany meant Kerry was constantly praying and quoting the bible. To be woken every day to Psalm 118-24: ‘This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice’ had driven Calix nuts. Two weeks of that and then for a reason never explained, Calix had been moved to a different cell. Havel was a Slovakian lorry driver who’d been stopped at Dover with 38 kilos of heroin hidden behind a false compartment. Didn’t speak a word of English. Hummed to himself at night and always on the bog.
The door juddered to a halt and Calix walked in with the crate. The cell smelt of pot noodle and cigarettes.
As the door rattled shut a man stared down from the top bunk. He was mid-twenties, ginger-haired and freckly. His torso was bare and the tattoo of a lion’s head bulged on his tricep. Thick red headphones angled back on his head. He held a comic. Calix nodded a greeting, then glanced around. A cabbage-green plastic table and two matching chairs. On the table sat a small TV with the sound down low. Above it was a shelf and the bog was in the corner. There wasn’t a mirror because it could be smashed and the shards used to wound – or kill.
Three square metres. Every one identical, like bird boxes.
Calix slid his cardboard crate onto the scratched and graffitied table. Inside was a spare set of clothes. Three books, his toothbrush, and last week’s paper. Changing cells meant he’d missed lunch, and resting on the clothes were clingfilmed sandwiches and a banana. His gratitude was pathetic.
The man on the top bunk put down his comic and swung his legs over the side. He was all muscles and tattoos. He pushed his headphones off. ‘Darren. From Oldham – Oldham Edge, the skinter side.’ He lit a roll-up, and the smell of fresh tobacco flooded the room. He stretched out a hand, the cigarette pinched as if it was a detonator.
Calix took it and nodded his thanks. He inhaled and passed it back.
‘Have a seat.’ Darren flipped his legs back onto the bunk and picked up his comic.
Calix looked at the two plastic chairs. The back was missing on one, and the arms flopped down on the other. ‘Which one?’
‘Which one?’ Darren chuckled into his roll-up and shook his head. ‘Either fucking one.’
Calix sat down alongside the TV and peeled the banana. Next to him, images flickered and voices merged. A drip fell from a corner of the ceiling onto a wet patch on the floor. It reminded him of the cave. He finished the banana and pushed the skin onto the table. He opened the clingfilm and peeled back a corner of the bread. Bright yellow cheese. What else?
He took a bite. He wondered if he should say something, but Darren was looking at his comic. On the cover a black hooded figure waved a chainsaw.
After the sandwiches Calix still felt hungry. He walked over to the bunks and slipped off his shoes. The black elasticated plimsolls were the same as the ones he’d worn at primary school – he was 27 years old and he’d got nowhere. He clambered across the stained mattress and lay down.
Above his ceiling of graffiti and old chewing gum and less than an arm’s length away, Darren talked to himself. ‘We – gotta – do – some – thing ‘bout ten-tent – sigh-tee. City. Tent city. Ra – Raz – Raz-or. Razor. These – pee-o-plur – are a – cann-cerr. Cancer.’ Calix could help him with his reading. He’d taught Havel a few words of English. He glanced across at his crate on the table. Pink Lady.
He closed his eyes. Pink Lady was a good name for a flamingo. Or a chimpanzee.
Darren jumped down onto the floor, wobbling the bunks. ‘What you in for?’ He paused. ‘OY, fuck-face.’
Calix opened his eyes and rubbed his face. ‘You heard of Special K?’
‘I worked with him.’
Darren whistled. ‘You some sort of caped crusader?’
Calix scratched his neck and looked away. He’d been duped by Hant, but he didn’t say that. He wished he hadn’t said anything.
Darren shuffled across to the table and rummaged in the crate. Calix stood up. He was 6’2”. Taller. Darren placed a finger on his chest and pushed.
Calix sat back down on the bunk and watched Darren empty the crate onto the floor. Two photos flew up, floated down and skidded along the floor. Darren picked them up and studied them. The first was of Calix’s old man in uniform, and the second the three of them together, smiling. Before.
‘Was them it?’
Calix nodded and took back the pictures. He gathered his things. He put everything back in the crate and toe-poked it under his bunk. Darren leant back against the wall. A guard walked past and the metal floors reverberated. ‘How long you looking at, Capeman?’
‘Brief says two to nine.’
Darren grunted, eyes on the TV.
Calix found a drink carton amongst his things. He poked in the straw and lay back on the bunk. He read some of the graffiti. Prisoner BN 89511 would dress up as the governor’s wife. He felt sorry for prisoner GH 53976. He drank some of the juice. Two years would be okay: time spent on remand and early release meant he’d not have long to do. Three would be bearable, four hard, and anything longer, obscene. Eight or nine would mean ticking 35-40 in the exit questionnaire. He couldn’t stay behind bars that long.
He put the empty carton down on the floor and lifted out the two photos from the crate. The one of the three of them was torn. Asking the guards for tape was as pointless as asking for a hedgehog or a bicycle. Or a hedgehog for a bicycle. He brushed away hairs, checked the sticky on the back and pressed them to the wall. Resting his head on the lumpy pillow, he stared at his old man staring back. His old man had wanted him to be a soldier, like him. He rolled over and looked at the floor. One side of the cardboard crate was torn and frayed. Pink Lady. Imported from South Africa. He wondered if she was the first woman in the cell.
On the wing a prisoner started singing. ‘There was ten German bombers in the air, there was ten German bombers in the air.’ More prisoners joined in, coining the pipes in accompaniment. ‘And the RAF shot one down. The RAF from England shot one down. Shot one down.’
It could have been worse: bruises and boredom, but nothing broken and no trips to the infirmary. Calix remained on the fence about his third cell mate. Darren was moody and violent, but funny and less unbearable than Kerry and Havel.
Two things alleviated the monotony. The first was Prison Skool. Subjects included chivs, laundry, disguise, anti-forensic. Two months after being incarcerated, he’d found out he shared a cell with one of the teachers.
Darren taught muling.
There were two basic methods: packing, hiding things by swallowing, and stuffing, hiding things in the rectum. ‘Every fuck in this place should be a proficient stuffer,’ Darren had told him. ‘But packing is more of a special taste. Lit’ra – fucking – ally, ha-ha. Big rewards, but big fucking risk.’
An experienced packer could swallow a kilo in weight in a hundred small packets. Packing was for the longer-term and used for drug smuggling on international flights. Stuffing was for a day or two, used to overcome prison and dibble security and with the added advantage of being employable at short notice. ‘Very fucking short notice, Capeman – if you practice.’ According to Darren, the urge to defecate came at 100 millilitres, but even a novice stuffer could store twice that. With practice, an experienced stuffer could store objects as large as mobile phones.
There was a downside: the prison infirmary invariably held a stuffer or a packer who’d miscalculated or been greedy. So Darren had made him practice. A wad of tissue double-wrapped in condoms stuffed in the morning, and a pound coin, similarly wrapped, packed in the afternoon. Stuffing required a knack and confidence which he’d soon mastered. Packing had been as unpleasant as he’d anticipated. Hands covered with shit and a feeling of violation.
The second thing was visitors. His mother came once a fortnight. The first time she’d cried a lot and said little, but gradually she’d hardened to being searched and the smell of disinfectant. He asked about his parrot Bird Bird, and she told him about Joe, his increasingly frail grandfather. He didn’t like her visiting, but he didn’t like her leaving.
Occasionally, Calix phoned her. There were public phones on the wing, but they were, as Darren said, ‘like Ronfuckingseal’. In addition, numbers had to be approved, there was always a queue and credit was limited. Darren didn’t bother with wing phones. So neither did Calix.
He had a more surprising visitor, too: The Big Red, his former employer. The first time Calix hadn’t been able to fathom why. TBR had asked about trial dates, his plea, and whether his lawyer was ‘safe’. Later, Calix had realised, TBR was checking up, wondering if Calix was going to give him up to the dibble in return for a lighter sentence. The tactic had backfired. Before the visit, Calix had not contemplated anything, but afterwards he’d worked it. TBR knew people and like Darren, he also knew about things. How to buy things, find things out, get things done. On the outside, and on the inside.
He was living a new life, as if he was a salamander emerging from the water onto the land or Bird Bird moving north to Manchester, or that guy Watney stranded on Mars. A new life with new rules and a new pecking order.
In May, after being locked up for almost a year – a mistake and a delay in the timing of his trial – Calix received a new visitor.
At the Sycamore Road Apiary, a dozen beehives formed a horseshoe in the clearing of a small copse. Two blackbirds flitted through the scrub. A new patch of Himalayan Balsam was already at waist-height and would soon be in flower. Good for the bees.
It was the first Sunday in May, and the start of the swarming season. The roof of Rick’s hive leant against the base and smoke billowed from his smoker. A trick to keep the bees down in the hive. It made his eyes water. Blinking, he prised loose another frame and lifted it up for inspection. There was a steady hum of activity. Over a thousand bees crawled around on each side. Some flew around his white smock and one or two buzzed his veil.
He spotted a queen cup. The shape and size of half a finger, it hung off the bottom of the frame. He lifted the frame higher. The cup was still closed which meant the new queen was still developing. With thumb and forefinger he crushed it.
He destroyed three more before replacing the dummy board and hive roof. There was no doubt about it: the colony wanted to swarm – would swarm – which meant he’d have to induce it. A process as simple as nuclear fusion. He’d read up on it later or watch a YouTube video.
As he corked the smoker he saw another beekeeper approaching. Like Rick, they wore a white smock and veil and with the exception of one detail could have been any Club member. Yellow washing-up-gloves. Rick picked up his gear and walked towards the other man. They met halfway and unzipped their veils.
‘Did you get a pass?’ said Rick.
‘She got out the wrong side,’ said Robbo. ‘Queen cells?’
‘She wanted lunch at the Royal, but it’s not good for my diet. Beer, roast, custard.’
‘You could have drunk water,’ said Rick.
‘How are Mike’s bees?’
‘How’s Mike?’ The previous season Rick’s own colony had lost their queen and been destroyed by laying workers. Mike had retired at Christmas – at 91 he could no longer lift the supers.
Both men stared into the horseshoe of hives. Squadrons of bees taking off and landing. Balsam swaying in the breeze.
‘I’m thinking of reopening the Coniston missing enquiry,’ said Rick. ‘Arrest Khetan.’
‘You are, are you?’
The reply was inflected as a question, but Rick knew it was an answer. And not the one he was looking for. He sees the long suspension bridge where he’d last seen Khetan. He sees the snowy mountains, the flapping prayer-flags, hears the thunder of the river. He watches Khetan run.
‘You found Calix Coniston.’
‘I lost Khetan.’
‘You had other priorities.’
‘Three people died. There’s been muttering and I want to put things right.’
Robbo pinged off a Marigold and chucked it on the grass. ‘Do you know where he is?’
‘I meant an address.’ The second glove followed the first, and Robbo scratched the tops of his hands. ‘Do you even know he’s in Nepal?’
Rick shook his head.
‘He’s likely to have changed his name.’ Robbo blew on his hands which were red and puffy.
‘Jesus, Rick, have you got anything?’
Rick had known his boss would take some persuading and he harnessed the strategy lesson from his SIO course. Body recovery, forensics, searches, interviews – everything needed a strategy. The instructor, a dour Scot, had finished by saying they could use it at home. ‘Went wifie to wear a catsuit and smear honey on Saturday? Then, dinner-dance her Friday and invite her maw for Hogmanay.’
Rick never forgot strategy. Three points for Robbo: head, heart, and conscience.
‘It’s your fault.’ Point three.
‘You said not to flag him.’ Rick removed his leather gauntlets. Their biosecurity wasn’t as good, but they were less sweaty-itchy.
‘Brigadier Coniston was a brave man and I owe him.’ Point two, heart – Robbo was no robot. During the hostage negotiation the soldier had volunteered to be exchanged for his son. ‘The Brigadier’s death was my fault.’
‘We’ve been over this, Rick, several times. You’ve been debriefed by three senior officers. You’ve read the review document. Accept the criticisms, learn the learning-points and move on.’
Robbo picked up his rubber gloves. ‘In any case, it’s not a priority.’
‘Not a priority – conspiracy to kidnap and manslaughter times three? And that’s just by us.’
‘No.’ Robbo flapped his gloves hard against his leg, trying to turn them the right way around.
‘You know he’s the FBI’s Most Wanted in Southern Asia?’
‘It’s still No.’
‘They think he could be the next Bin Laden.’
‘Well, they can worry about that. You’ve got a lot else on your desk.’
Only one prong of Rick’s strategy remained – head – the weakest. He’d been thinking about how to find and arrest Khetan for a year, but still had no big idea. No USP. The sticking point was the lack of an extradition treaty because even if he located Khetan he’d be unable to bring him to the UK.
‘Anyway, you’ve not mentioned an arrest plan.’
‘I’ve a few ideas.’
Robbo held a glove up to his mouth. ‘Details?’ He blew into a finger. It popped out with a crack, leaving him red in the face.
‘Entice Khetan to the UK and arrest him on British soil.’
‘Still being fine-tuned.’ Khetan would be suspicious of everything and everybody, so whatever Rick came up with had to be clever. Subtle, restrained, unremarkable. Adjectives were as far as he’d got.
‘There’s another problem which you’re avoiding. Do our courts even have jurisdiction?’
Rick wanted to punch the air: not only was Robbo wavering, but the answer was positive. ‘They do.’ He paused for effect. McTavish the Scot instructor would be proud of him. ‘Khetan’s a dual national – he was given British citizenship when working in London.’
Robbo blew out the final two fingers on his glove. It induced a coughing fit and he bent over.
‘Are you okay?’ Rick picked up the second Marigold and popped the fingers, one after the other. Like a kid with a cap-gun.
Robbo stood up, recovered. ‘Bloody show off.’
‘Diet’s only half of it. Exercise–’
‘Alright. Dual citizenship still needs the CPS to be willing to prosecute – the deaths were all in Nepal.’
‘I’ve pushed it around with one of their senior lawyers and she says they will.’
‘No.’ Which wasn’t surprising as Louise was a friend and they’d been in the pub.
Robbo puckered his lips and was silent.
‘Fuck, Robbo. If I was a violent no-neck like Phillips or Farad, you’d say Yes. You know you would.’
Robbo picked up his washing-up gloves and eased them back onto his fingers. ‘Okay, Rick, here’s the deal. Firstly, if you get CPS authority to prosecute in writing, and secondly, if you come up with a convincing arrest plan where you lure Khetan to the UK, then, and only then, will I sanction reopening the file. Agreed?’
Robbo had finished as he’d started: an answer masquerading as a question. But it was enough. Rick nodded.
The Superintendent zipped up his veil.
On his way home, Rick stopped off at Three Views to see Dad. He’d investigated suspicious deaths in similar places, and as he walked through the door he reminded himself he was off-duty. Reception was unstaffed and he walked towards the main recreation room where usually he found him. Singing leaked through the double doors. Taking a deep breath, he walked in.
Around the piano in the corner, alongside the row of French doors, a group of white- and grey-haired residents stood singing. Belting out Jerusalem. Dad, tall and thin, was obvious. He wore his old Arran jumper, and pale slacks which Rick hadn’t seen before. He was singing and smiling.
Leaning against the wall near the entrance was Michael, one of the assistants. He nodded at Rick and walked over.
‘Did you look it up?’ said Michael.
Rick shook his head. He hoped someone like Michael would be around to care for him. He was young, kind, and at least looked interested in what was going on.
‘Your mum’s not coming as much. Once a week, sometimes not all.’
Rick frowned. He thought she’d been coming every other day. ‘What about Becky?’
‘Your sister? Every Saturday afternoon, like clockwork.’
The hymn finished.
‘Go on,’ said Michael, his eyes ushering Rick forward.
Rick walked towards the piano, tapped his dad on the shoulder. ‘Dad.’
His dad turned to look at him, his face frowning. ‘Hello. Are you new here?’
The piano restarted. Rick again recognised it from school. I danced in the morning. Two or three people started clapping. Dad, too. Rick had never seen him clap. He retreated back to Michael, each step seeing Dad – on the touchline, winning the father’s race, fishing for crabs.
‘Do you wanna cup of tea?’
‘No. Thank you.’ Instinctively, Rick held out a hand. Michael took it without reaction. His hand was cool and fleshy, the white palm contrasting the black skin.
One day Rick would forget everything. Darkness – forever.
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