‘Somewhere beyond the door behind Cal, a high-pitched alarm began to chime.’
Extract taken from Space Team
By Barry Hutchison
Published by Zertex Media
Cal Carver’s last day on Earth started badly, improved momentarily, then rapidly went downhill. It began with him being sentenced to two years in prison, and ended with the annihilation of two thirds of the human race. Somewhere in between, there was a somewhat enjoyable moment when he ate a lemon drop, but otherwise it was a pretty grim twenty-four hours all round.
The sentencing was harsh, but not particularly surprising. It wasn’t Cal’s first offense and, if he were honest, almost certainly wouldn’t be his last.
It was far from his first prison sentence, either, although usually they were dished out in terms of days, rather than years. Still, two years – half, once his impeccable behavior was accounted for – in a cozy open prison would be an opportunity to recharge. A holiday, almost. In some ways, Cal was even looking forward to it. There was just one problem.
‘What do you mean, “the wrong prison”?’
Cal flashed the warden one of his most winning smiles.
He had a number of them at his disposal, and this one was up there with the best, while still holding enough back in reserve to step it up to the next level, if required.
‘I literally do not know another way of saying it,’ Cal said. ‘This is the wrong prison. I’m supposed to be in Highvue – you know, upstate? With the gardens? They’ve got this training kitchen. The chefs there, they do these amazing little sort of pastry whirl things that—’
‘I know of it,’ the warden said, drumming his fingers on one of the few uncluttered patches of desk he had available.
‘Good. Right. Of course you do,’ said Cal. He waited, cranking his smile up a notch to be on the safe side. It was a smile so dazzling, you could practically hear the ding as the light reflected off his teeth. The warden, however, appeared unmoved.
He shrugged. ‘And? What’s your point?’
‘Well, Warden… Grant, was it?’
The warden didn’t do anything to confirm or deny his name, so Cal continued. ‘I’m supposed to be at Highvue. That’s what the judge said. Someone even wrote it down on that document this guard here was kind enough to look out for me.’
He gave the female guard an appreciative nod and a flash of that smile. A blush flushed upwards from the neck of the woman’s shirt, but she managed, to her immense relief, not to giggle.
‘He’s right, sir. Must’ve been a mix-up during transit.’
‘She’s really very good,’ said Cal, gesturing to the guard.
‘I don’t know how it works here, if you take recommendations for promotion or whatever, but if you do I’d be happy – no, I’d be more than happy to—’
‘We don’t,’ said the warden.
‘Oh. Well maybe you should,’ Cal suggested. The warden held his gaze for several excruciating seconds. Cal cleared his throat. ‘I’m going to just let you read that.’
The warden’s stare lingered for a while longer, then he lowered his eyes to the document in front of him. A single crooked finger tapped the desktop as he read, the nicotine-stained nail tic-tic-ticking against the wood.
‘As you can see, my crime – while obviously wrong – wasn’t really all that serious.’
The warden didn’t look up. ‘Identity theft is very serious, Mr Carver.’
‘I didn’t steal it, not really. I borrowed it. Just for a while.’
The warden raised his eyes just long enough to make Cal shut up, then went back to reading.
Cal rocked on his heels and studied the office. It must once have been pretty grand, with its wood-paneled walls, high ceiling and lush carpet, but time and a distinct lack of storage space had taken their toll.
The walls were almost completely concealed by mismatched metal shelving. The shelves themselves groaned under the weight of ramshackle ring binders and bulging box files that looked fit to explode and shower the room with their contents at any moment.
Around half of the carpet was as good as new, but a number of paths had been worn into it. The thinnest, most threadbare of them all terminated right on the spot where Cal now stood. He met the guard’s eye and smiled at her. Despite herself, she smiled back, then fought to straighten her face before the warden looked up again.
‘Hmm,’ the warden grunted. Cal turned, assuming he’d finished reading, but the old man’s eyes were still fixed on the page, his finger still tapping its steady, solemn beat.
Cal whistled softly beneath his breath and went back to looking around the room.
In the corner of the ceiling, where it met a really quite elaborate bit of cornicing, there was a murky brown stain – three roundish blobs and a swooping curve at the bottom.
‘It looks like a face,’ Cal announced. The warden lifted his eyes from the page. His gray-flecked eyebrows knotted in the middle. ‘The damp patch. It looks like a face,’ Cal said, gesturing towards the corner of the ceiling. ‘At least, I hope it’s damp, and not, you know, some kind of dirty protest. I’ve heard what this place can get like.’
He turned and lowered himself until he was half-sitting, half-standing against the edge of the desk. ‘It must be hard. All that responsibility. You know what? I bet they don’t appreciate you enough, John. Can I call you John?’
The warden’s face remained stoically unchanged.
‘Saw it on your stack of mail there,’ Cal explained. ‘You should probably open those, by the way.’
‘No,’ the warden said.
‘No, you’re not going to open the mail, or no they don’t appreciate you enough?’
‘No, you may not call me John.’
Cal held his hands up. ‘I fully understand. I was out of line. That was unprofessional of me.’
He spotted a small round tin on the desk, with a stack of sugar-dusted yellow candy inside. Taking one, he popped it in his mouth. Across the room, the guard stifled a gasp.
‘Mm. Lemon. Is that lemon?’ Cal asked. ‘Tastes like lemon. Nice, though. Not too sour.’
A vein pulsed on the warden’s right temple. He closed the folder, very deliberately replaced the lid on his tin of candy, then stared equally deliberately at the point where Cal’s buttocks met his desktop.
It took a few seconds before Cal got the message.
‘Right. Yes. Sorry, been on my feet most of the day, just taking the weight off,’ he said, standing up. He flashed another beaming smile, and indicated the closed folder. ‘So, we good?’
The warden crossed his hands over the folder and tapped out another slow drum beat on it. ‘It appears there has been an administrative error,’ he admitted, making no effort to hide the fact that doing so caused him very real pain.
‘Hey, these things happen,’ said Cal. ‘You shouldn’t feel bad about it.’
‘I don’t,’ the warden said.
‘That’s the spirit,’ Cal said. ‘So, I guess I’ll just gather up my things…’ He patted down his orange jumpsuit. ‘Yep, looks like I’ve already got everything, so I guess I am ready to go!’
Cal leaned over and shook the guard’s hand. She stared down at it in surprise. ‘Audrey, thank you for your help, it’s been a pleasure. I hope we can do it again sometime.’
‘Uh, no problem.’
Cal winked at her, then turned to the warden and extended a hand across the desk. ‘John, I really appreciate you sorting everything out,’ he said. ‘If I were you, I’d get that damp patch looked at. It’s structurally unsafe, and from this angle looks like the trapped soul of a dead clown, and neither of those – in my opinion, anyway – are things a man in your position should have to put up with.’
His eyes flicked from John to his outstretched hand and back again. He nodded encouragingly.
The warden’s chair creaked as he leaned back in it. ‘Unfortunately, Mr Carver, there are currently no prisoner transport options available to me.’
Cal’s smile wavered, just for a moment. ‘”No prisoner transport options”? What does that mean?’
‘I literally do not know another way of saying it,’ the warden said, the corners of his mouth tugging into a slight smirk. ‘I currently have no means at my disposal with which to transport you to Highvue.’
‘That’s fine. Know what? That’s totally fine. You could call me a cab,’ Cal suggested. ‘Audrey could come with me, if you’re worried about me running away. You’d be OK with that, right Audrey?’
‘Uh, yeah. Yeah, I could…’
‘No. Don’t worry. Prison transport will be arranged,’ the warden said.
Cal’s shoulders heaved with relief. ‘Really? That’s awesome! Thanks, John.’ He laughed. ‘You almost had me going there for a minute. I mean, the thought of spending another minute in this hellhole—’
Cal blinked several times in rapid succession. The warden leaned forwards in his chair again, steepling his hands in front of his face. Somewhere beyond the door behind Cal, a high-pitched alarm began to chime.
Space Team by Barry Hutchison is published by Zertex Media, priced £8.99.