BY W. J. LEWIS
THE WINDOW ISN’T EVEN latched, just swings open with a creak. JK holds it and I climb in. I go first cos JK’s a bastard coward. Wouldn’t’ve bought him on the job, but for some reason He insisted on it. Our Mysterious Benefactor.
White paint scrapes off the windowsill as I lever myself down into the musty darkness. Stinks of mould and rot.
I stop stock still. Silent. No alarms. He’d told us the security would be high grade, but so far, no problem. Easy to evade the fat guard and his old guard dog. Couple of ancient CCTV cameras, easy for JK to hack and loop. JK’s good at that stuff, give him his dues. Internet stuff, tech stuff.
I’m the muscle. Bone stuff, fist stuff.
We came through the grounds, round the back, to a window that gives access to the basement level. Easy enough to drop down to the floor, the window now at head height.
I take a breath, shallow, don’t want to breathe that mould. I sniff. Damp, stale air. I hear JK’s heavy breathing above me at that open window. He’s crouched, looking in.
Don’t trust it. The building’s old, the guards are fat, the windows aren’t alarmed. I shift my feet. Something’s wrong, but I’m being paid more money than I’ve ever seen. To break into a half-abandoned hospital. Why me? Why me, specifically? There’s better people out there. Adanna, Wayne. I shake my head, shake away the doubt. Forget it. For this amount of money, I’d dance naked into Number 10 and shoot the Prime Minister while singing Wonderwall. And I hate Oasis. Floppy haired whiny gits.
I’d do anything for this cash, it’s everything. I’ll take little Ivy on the holiday I promised her, a little cottage somewhere by the sea. A proper holiday before the treatments start. This amount of money, might even be able to go private.
I look up at JK’s drawn face. His eyes are wide, rabbit fear. He on something? Wouldn’t put it past him. Last time we worked together we’d had beef. A simple pick up, drop off. JK’d got violent with an unexpected witness, old homeless guy. Pulled a flick knife, threatened to cut the guy’s tongue out. I’d dropped JK with a rabbit punch to the nose and it’s still got a kink in it. JK’d given it mouth, threatened me. “Who you gonna tell?” I’d whispered, and he’d backed off. Walked away without a word, blood pouring from his nose. I’d given the homeless guy a fifty, completed the job on my own.
And now we’re together again, the Dream Team. Wish I had Wayne with me, or Adanna, even Mad Danny. They’d all be better than JK, the bully, the drugee, the coward. But the instructions were crystal. You and Jared King, no-one else. Level Minus Two, find the patient in Cell 246. Set him free.
I gesture to JK, to get him to hurry, to come down. He just stares at me, those eyes wide. A shiver of unease.
“Come on JK.” I hiss it, low, angry. My Not Fucking Around voice.
And at that moment all hell breaks loose.
A dog barks, a man shouts. JK bolts and the window slams shut. Bastard coward bastard. More barks, more shouts outside, coming closer to the building.
I move quickly, but quietly. I’m in a hostile environment. I open the door to a corridor where a fluorescent strip bulb flickers. I stand and breathe that mould.
Then I head deeper into the guts of Cranton Loony Bin.
I take the first corridor slowly. The tiles beneath my feet are chipped. I check for cameras, but no sign. I’d looked this place up, of course, wouldn’t do a job like this without some intel of my own. Not much about Cranton online though. It’s supposed to be high security, but there’s not so much as a latch on a window. I take a shallow breath. Damp and mould.
I’d even checked in with Adanna, who remains close from my military days. She’s always been hot with intel, good in a fight, aces whatever she puts her mind to. Not like me. She works for some private security firm now, sometimes does me favours.
Told me Cranton houses some of Britain’s most dangerous, our most brutal killers. A nurse who murdered ten babies, a grotesquely rich teen who burned his family to death a decade ago, a maths prodigy who strangled eighteen women. Adanna joked that I’d fit right in, that I looked a bit like the kid who killed his family. Same grey eyes, same jawline, same bad haircut. Just older and fatter, she’d said. Won’t tell you my reply.
I move through a door, the hinge squeaks, it’s loose at the bottom, coming free, and I’m in a hallway. Rotting carpet stink claws its way up my nose. To my left and right stretch identical corridors. Ahead of me, a wall with two grimed signs. Right, Games Room. Left, Swimming Pool.
Before I can stop it my brain force-feeds me an image. Ivy’s last holiday. I’m in a swimming pool, the sun hot, Ivy’s small thighs warm on my shoulders. She laughs, that high pitched hee-haw that takes over her body so she jerks uncontrollably and she laughs so much she cries, and I laugh too.
Been a long time since Ivy laughed like that.
I shy away from the pool and those sly memories and head to the games room. I walk, careful and quiet, down the passageway. The door’s open and from here in the corridor I can see emptiness, sense no-one. I strain my ears and wait. A bit longer. Nothing. Not even the gurgle of a water cooler or the hum of air con.
Simple silence. Where the hell is everyone? As I walk towards an open doorway, a smell assaults me. A fist of decay, ramming down my throat. I taste it on the back of my tongue. I step into the room and my foot squelches on damp carpet, scuffed and worn and black with mildew.
White plastic chairs spotted with grey-green mould. Against the far wall, a bookcase. One shelf has toppled, leaving books strewn on the floor, all bloated with moisture. In the middle of the room a pool table, the green baize ripped, open wounds revealing dark slate beneath. Three balls, all faded yellow. Nothing else. This building feels like abandonment, a bombstruck ruin, a condemned place.
I grit my teeth, my jaws tense. This feels like a trap, and I’m in too deep, a rabbit with a wire around its neck.
I remove my boot, take off my sock, put my boot back on. I put a faded yellow ball into the sock, think about it, and add another. An improvised flail, they call it a madball. I swing it, get a feel for it.
I spin, madball ready. Mouldy chairs, rotten carpet, pool table, bookshelves. I’m ready.
I’ll trust my ears, let them guide me to the source.
It’s coming from behind the bookcase. I push it, and it slides on freshly oiled tracks. In front of me stands a black metal door. A keypad instead of a handle. This is JK’s area: keypads, electronics, internet, all that. But the keypad, the metal door, it’s evidence there’s something else here. Something hidden, a secret. These top levels are a sham, an illusionist’s trick, a hall of mirrors. And if there’s a keypad, there’s a human somewhere who knows the code.
I need to find a guard so I quicktime it down the hallway and I walk into the natatorium. That’s what you call a room with a swimming pool in. Ivy taught me that, she’s obsessed with the water. She knows words like natatorium, her dad knows the word for madball.
The room’s half-illuminated. In shadow here in the entranceway, a brightly lit strip across the middle, dark on the far side. The pool’s empty, but I taste chlorine in the air. A stench of mulch, algae, damp.
I see something. On the far side of the pool stands a figure.
“Hello?” I say. No response. My footsteps echo as I move closer. I cross into the harsh light, then back into the darkness.
There on the wall hangs a guard’s uniform. Around its neck hangs a keycard on a lanyard string. Pinned to the lapel with a poppy, a small white fragment of paper. On it, written in yellow crayon, a seven-digit number.
A trap a trap a trap a trap. This message beats a refrain in my head as I take the keycard and code, move back down the corridor and into the games room. I enter the code and with a beep the metal door yawns open. A lift.
I step in and sweat beads on my forehead. Enclosed spaces. It lurches, moves down.
I step out into a cold white corridor. The air smells of bleach and alpine air freshener. I walk past cells to my left and right. White, shiny doors, with bars close together.
Figures in beds, their feet to me, heads at the far walls, hidden in the gloom. The rattle of chains. Cell 200. Somewhere, a moan. I keep moving, Cell 210. Somewhere, someone laughs, a man, a woman, a child, I can’t tell. I don’t look in the cells now, they’re all the same. Beds with chained figures, foot soles pointed my way. Bare feet, of all colours. Some move, tap, twitch, some are still, some rail against their chains in fury.
Where are the orderlies? My Mysterious Benefactor isn’t short of money, might’ve paid them to be away tonight. I pass Cell 245. Another figure in a bed, soles towards me.
I put the keypad to the door panel and the door whirs open. I step into the cell and hear the jingle of chains. I step closer.
Something warns me and I try to turn but I feel a jolt through my body. My teeth clack and my bones judder and I clatter to the floor. I’m on my back, and I recognise the figure standing above me, silhouetted in the doorway. It’s JK, barefoot, with a taser in his hand. Bastard coward bastard.
I sink into blackness.
I wake to a jangle of chains, a thumping in my head, and a numb mouth. Like it’s full of cotton wool balls soaked in anaesthetic. My eyes flutter and flicker and settle on a figure. A man looms above me dressed in my clothes.
He could be my twin. Same grey eyes, same jawline, same bad haircut. It’s the rich kid who burnt his family alive. Older now, fatter, but we do look the same. Adanna was right. I try to speak, can only moan.
“I spent a long time searching for you, Danny. My perfect doppelg‰nger.” There’s drugs in my system, I’m fog and fudge inside. Ivy. “Jared here helped me find you.” JK stands in the doorway, bigger than I remember him. He wears a guard’s uniform now. For some reason, his hands are covered in blood. I try to swear, but I can’t speak.
The Patient, my double, the man who wears my clothes, my face, moves to the doorway.
“I’ll take your life, Danny,” he says. “You can have mine.”
He leaves, and JK sneaks closer. He leans over me. He pulls his flick knife and pushes the point under my eye. I smell stale breath, worse than the rot-stink of the hospital.
“Who you gonna tell?” he whispers. Then he laughs, flicks the knife away, and backs off. I try to speak, to say something, anything, and I realise then. My tongue. He’s cut out my tongue.
Somewhere, a madman laughs, and I scream as the cell door slams shut.
© Cell 246, 2023, W. J. Lewis
W. J. Lewis is an actor and writer. He recently co-created and co-wrote Itv2/Hulu tv series Zomboat!
He has written and performed his own Radio 4 series, Strap In It’s Clever Peter, with his award-winning sketch group, with whom he wrote many Edinburgh Fringe shows too. He has appeared on tv and radio with the likes of David Walliams, Gryff Rhys Jones, and Jon Culshaw.
He has most recently performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and toured Brazil with his one man comedy Western show, GUN, which received many favourable reviews and which he is currently transforming into an audio project.
He has had short stories published in Collective Tales and Tales From The Magician’s Skull, and is working on his first novel.