Barrier

by Sue Simpson

Chain Border

Jim Baines walked along the well-polished corridor. His two new boots squeaked loudly in the stillness of the oppressive night. The blister on his right heel throbbed and he longed for eight o'clock in the morning when his shift would come to a merciful end.

It was quiet tonight; too quiet. Peace at nine pm always preceded mayhem at midnight. Baines knew it was going to be a long, long shift.

He slid the hatch back on the door to room forty-three, on the top level of B wing. Miguell, prisoner, number 36045379, lay sullenly on his bunk. Chapman, above him, snored loudly. These two rarely gave any trouble.

"Night lads, lights out in fifteen minutes."

Neither man answered. Baines moved along to the next cell. This one was currently occupied solely by Neil Hutchens, doing a three stretch for assault and battery. His wife's lover, it was said, walked with a limp and had developed an irritating stutter.

Hutchens lay on his back, his right hand moving furiously on his engorged penis.

"Now then, Hutchens, that'll make you go blind, you know."

"Fuck off, you bastard. Can't a man get a minute's privacy in this madhouse?"

He never slowed his pace, never stopped what he was doing, and as Baines shook his head in disgust, the other man's sperm rose in a milky arc, to land on the pale blue government-issue bedspread.

"Dirty git," Baines muttered as he moved on down the corridor. The other man insolently rose one soiled finger in salute of the retreating officer.

Baines felt the hairs on his arms begin to rise as his hand rested on the grill of the next door down. The man in this room went by the name of 'Lightning.' None of the officers or fellow inmates ever referred to him by his real name of Carruthers. This was one of the oddest, oddball mothers on B-wing, Baines thought. He steeled himself to slide back the grill and make eye contact with the man within, who quite frankly scared the shit out of him.

The grill slid back with a nails-on-blackboard squeal, and the officer shuddered. His balls contracted, and every hair follicle along his spine stood to erect attention as it prepared to play pin-ball with the droplets of perspiration that were making their way down the ridge of vertebrae from the base of his neck. Why the hell did he always let this weird fucker rattle him? Because, he answered his own thought, Lightning was criminally insane with a capital I, and about as predictable as a nest of vipers.

Baines took a deep breath and looked through the grid. Sometimes Lightning would be crouched below the opening, and when the grid was slid open he would rise from his squat like a screaming banshee and frighten the bejesus out of whichever screw was on the other side. Knowing he was likely to do it never stopped the duty officers from screaming out in shock and jumping back like a girly confronted with a spider, and the anticipation of knowing he might be there waiting only made the act more jumpy. Sometimes he'd have his filled piss pot in his hand ready to throw at the grill; on other occasions - if the tea urn had just done its rounds - a boiling cup of tea would be thrown into the eyes of the looker. Of course there were other cons on the wing; in fact all the other cons on the wing were violent in varying degrees, but the difference with Lightning was the fact that it was pure sport. His acts were cunningly thought out in a dance of psychology that always seemed to give him the upper hand against the screws. For all his antics, Lightning was cold, as cold as a corpse's todger on burial day. He had a keen intelligence, one that was turned inward. Nobody ever knew what was going on inside the cynical head of Lightning.

Tonight, Baines let out his captive breath in a long low expulsion of relief. Lightning was sitting in the centre of his cell. He had taken to doing this more and more often. The general consensus was that he was waiting for the officers to let down their guard and approach him unaware. Lightning liked blood, especially other people's and most especially if it flowed freely from an open wound in the most sensitive regions of a screw. Baines was rather partial to every drop of his blood and was particular when around Lightning to make sure that it stayed within his ample body.

The crazy bugger had played this stunt before; sitting for the twenty three-hour duration of his lock up in the lotus position, demanding that he not be moved or molested in any way. When four officers had entered the cell mob-handed because he seemed not to be breathing, he had become enraged, and body parts flew, decorating his cell in a garish modern art tableau. Of the four officers, three were hospitalised and the other had fresh flowers placed at his graveside by his mother every Sunday.

Life for Lightning meant just that; he would see out the rest of his troubled days plotting and scheming in the six-by-six cell.

"And God help society if he ever gets loose," thought Baines.

He was about to slide the grill home and move on to the next cell when something held him back. His head, already turning to the left, snapped back to stare through the hole made by the open grill. His body became immobile. His blood sugar level plummeted and he felt his toes turn to ice crystals in the thick thermal socks he wore for night duty. At that moment officer Jim Baines was paralysed. His eyes were locked unblinking and rigid towards the naked prisoner sitting on the freezing cold cell floor. Baines was scared, he didn't know what the hell was happening, but he knew it sure as hell had something to do with the sociopath sitting in front of him like Hari bloody Krishna.

At first his conscious mind refused to acknowledge the pale green light emanating from the man before him. It wasn't as though it was alien green, or exorcist's puke green; in fact it was barely perceptible, only one hue deeper then mere air. As the light strengthened it still didn't take on the gaudy glow of Halloween, but Baines could no longer deny that it was there - pulsing in a subtle aurora from Lightning.

As much as the officer willed his body to get the hell out of there, the more some unnameable force compelled him to stay rooted to the spot. Baines' mind wasn't programmed to work on the supernatural or anything above a simple man's understanding. He thought about the World Series and pizza and how many pints he could piss up against the bathroom wall the following night when he got to play out with the lads. Green lights pulsing out of freaky prisoners were just way beyond his mental capability.

Lightning's eyes snapped open. The snap was silent, but to Baines it shot him with the same velocity as a round from a sub-machine gun. Although open, Lightning's eyes were rolled back within the sockets, his pupils turned into the back of his head so that only the whites of his eyes were on view. Baines was more scared than he ever thought it possible to be. Scared beyond screaming, or vomiting, or trembling. The simple man understood the meaning of the word 'petrified' for the first time.

As he watched the scene playing out in the cell, for a split second an 'overview'of Lightning appeared in front of the prisoner's body, a sort of second image of the man, again translucent like the green light, almost not there. Had Baines been a drinking on duty type of man, the phenomenon could easily have been attributed to double vision, but Baines knew that there was nothing wrong with his eyesight, only with his body that was being controlled by the man locked in the room beyond the grill.

The overview image hung for a second, shimmering in front of Lightning, and then he inhaled. The long whooshing sigh that followed seemed to suck the overview into his body, the two visions of the same man became one and the prisoner's eyes fell so that the pupils rolled into their proper position. He fixed the paralysed screw with an ice-cold stare. The jagged scar that ran from forehead to chin and gave the prisoner his nickname seemed to throb in time to the pulse at his temple. His skin had become pallid and gaunt, causing the scar to bulge in an angry red ravine that coursed its way along the man's face. There were rumours as to how Lightning had come by the scar. Some said that he had indeed been hit by lightning and that it had turned his mind, but the general consensus of opinion gave its vote to a pub brawl involving a large broken bottle.

Lightning seemed diminished and exhausted, but his eyes danced with evil and malice.

"Aah, my dear Mr. Baines, sir" he said, his voice dripping with languid sarcasm. "You think these feeble barriers can hold me down? Surely you know that you can tie me up, but you will never hold me back." the prisoner's words melted into a laugh that held only venom and disgust for the screws that he so obviously saw as beneath him.

"I travel to places that only your worst nightmares could take you to the threshold of. Can you imagine, Mr. Baines, the world that I play in when I fly free?" He didn't wait for the officer to answer, not that the officer could in any way attempt to answer. Baines wanted only his own freedom. Lightning's ranting insanity held him prisoner, and the crazy man's words cavorted through his mind. He didn't want to be part of Lightning's nightmares, he didn't want to partake in the other man's playground, he wanted only to close the grill and get away from the power that held him captive. Lightning was still talking at him in riddles.

"… The places I go, the things I see, the deeds I do. Can you even begin to imagine what I do when I am free of these manacles? This pathetic establishment that deigns to think it can control me; this is merely my resting-place. I have learned things, you see, Baines. I have used my mind in the ways of the old; have learned to harness my power and control my destiny. What would you think if I told you that I stay here only because it is convenient for me to do so? You would think me mad, would you not? But tell me, Baines, who is the more insane? He who uses his intellect to its full capacity, or he who trundles round his wheel like a frustrated hamster? I tire of you, little man. Go turn your wheel."

Lightning spread his palms on his knees and closed his eyes. His breathing became shallow and he seemed to fall instantly to sleep. Baines felt a tremor move through his body and it was as though the air that had closed around him to hold him rigid fell away. He turned from the man's cell and ran along the corridor, his too-new boots squeaking all the way to the staff room.

"Bloody `ell, Bainsey," said Bill Jackson as he mopped his slopped cup-a-soup from his uniform pants. "`oo's chasin' you? Clean on, these pants were, an' now look, you've made me slop all over `em."

"I'm outa here, Jacko. I've `ad it with this place. Tomorrow I'm giving in my notice. I'm too old to be coping with these crazy bastards any longer."

Baines made himself a strong cup of coffee and tried not to think too much about what had just happened. Maybe it was just a stitch or something that had held him immobile; a bit of indigestion. Yes, that must be it. No more liver and onions for him before coming to work.

He could no more contemplate the thought of completing his rounds than he could embrace the prospect of indulging in a quiet game of chess with Lightning. He rubbed the aching part of his immense chest as he tried to regulate his breathing and calm his frazzled nerves.

Jacko turned on the television and raised the heat of the gas heater from medium to high.

"Just going for a piss, Bainsey. Won't be long."

Baines sat down in one of the two battered winged armchairs and prepared to wait for the evening news. The last programme was nearing its bleating conclusion. It was one of those bleeding hearts documentaries. This one was a tired old rendition of the conditions and depravation afforded to the children of the Rumanian orphanages. This latest appeal for the good and Christian to reach deep into their mothy pockets was being shot live via satellite. Tormented naked bodies rocked in demented turmoil on filthy shit-laden beds. Large brown eyes, beaten and robbed of intelligence, stared at the no doubt wholesome bodies of the camera people. The film crew breathed shallowly against the stench in the interests of some good footage to send back home for the housewives to tut over. A sombre voice in clipped, well-educated tones did a reasonable talk over, while at the orphanage, children screamed and rocked and shit.

The camera angle shifted and the voice-over was saying that although conditions were indeed still poor and aid was still not getting through, much had been done to aid the fight by one lone man. The camera pointed to a naked child of about ten; a man leant over her cot and stroked the child's arm soothingly to calm her.

He stood and turned to face the camera. His smile was one of pure benevolence, his eyes shone with the love of his fellow man. "I am a simple man," he began. "I know not the ways of the rich and the famous. I just do what I can to help my children." He smiled slightly as he used the possessive suggestion in reference to the orphans. "I made my first rescue some years ago in a country not too far from here, when I was blown up by a land-mine while saving an eight-year-old boy." At this point he fingered the savage scar on his right cheek for effect. "Since then I have dedicated my life to helping these children in need. Like all men I have sinned. The good Lord knows how I have sinned." He gave a self-deprecating little smile that gave the impression that the man himself was merely being modest and that he believed himself to be wholly incapable of the tiniest sin going.

Lightning leaned forward, right into the camera. His face filled the television screen, his eyes shone with a blue intensity of emotion that had never been seen in the prison, and his scar pulsed again with the vein in his forehead.

"There are no barriers that can hold me. The mind is a vast playground that can be harnessed and used for good or evil." He smiled into the camera, with a look that emanated goodness and love. That sincere-looking expression snaked through Baines' blood and made him feel as though he had been crawled over by a rattlesnake. "I have chosen to use the gifts that God gave me for the good of these poor innocent children who have no defence against the evils of man." Again, the 'butter wouldn't melt' smile. "Man can turn in his wheel like a frustrated hamster, or he can break through the barriers imposed upon him."

Lightning leaned even further into the screen and winked. Baines was in no doubt that the wink was meant solely for him. His mind tried to work out how one of his prisoners, who was locked in a cell not five hundred feet from where he sat could somehow be transmitting a live broadcast from Romania. He couldn't make the connection, but what he did know was that there were a lot of helpless people in grave danger if he didn't do something about it. He shook his head to try and make some order of his muddled thoughts. Who would he call? What would he say?

He leaned over to the table and lifted the handset of the telephone, dialled nought for an outside line. Maybe he ought to start with the governor. How the hell was he going to make her believe him, though?

A draft blew slightly to his left and he assumed it was Jacko back from the toilet.

"Hey Jacko, you'll…" he stopped mid-sentence. Lightning's overimage was beside him in the room. Gone was the smile of love. Without the protection of the enforced steel door between them, Lightning looked more evil and more dangerous than he had ever appeared before. The fact that he had no substance only heightened Baines' fear, and his left hand rose instinctively to rub the right side of his chest.

The overimage turned to the television screen. "Such raw material to play with, don't you think?" The voice came not from the apparition of Lightning but from the air of the room itself. The pain in Jim Baines' chest increased and spread until it engulfed his body and head.

"I'll get you, you bastard," were the words that died on his tongue as he took his last breath.

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