Short Fiction ~ Gillian Brown
(First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
I kick open the padded door to the cell of the new prisoner, Angelo Harper. From his name, I’ve conjured up a tough guy with swarthy skin and massive biceps, covered in tattoos. Instead, I find a man so pale it looks like he’s never seen the sun. He has an angular face and little flesh on his body.
I’m somewhat relieved, until I notice the one thing that stands out. His staring grey eyes are cold enough to freeze my blood.
'Don't come any closer,' he says.
I’ve been a screw long enough to know when to mask my face. I push my way through his wall of aggression and dump his dish of porridge on the table, which is fixed to the floor. He jangles the chain attached to his ankle with a menacing clink. I turn abruptly and march out, slamming the door behind me.
The prison psychiatrist, Dr Harris – best known around here as Psycho – is standing outside. He’s doubtless up to his usual tricks, spying through the peephole.
He places a hand on my arm. 'You know what Angelo told the trial judge?’
I shrug, feigning disinterest.
‘He said he killed the two boys to save them from their father's abuse.’
‘That’s his defence lawyer putting words into his mouth.’
‘Maybe. But the forensic psychologist backed him up. Angelo suffered constant abuse in his own childhood. He's never known love.'
I sigh. ‘The usual bullshit.’
‘I’m not so sure. He told me voices in his head told him to do it. The boys were his cousins, you know. It was a humane death, if murder can be such a thing. There was no violence involved, he simply spiked their drinks with drugs legally available on the Internet.’
‘The vibes he sends me are far from humane. Positively aggressive in fact.’
‘Hmm. A common reaction in such cases. Suppressed fear.’ Psycho scratches his stubbly chin. 'I've an idea.’
His madcap plan comes into effect during the cons' next exercise session. He lets three cats into the yard. One glance at the prisoners and two skitter off, tails scraping the ground behind them. The third, a battered and scarred tabby, sits down and twitches her whiskers. She sniffs, stands up and raises her tail in the air. Seemingly without fear, she pads forward straight towards Angelo. He narrows his eyes. A confused look crosses his face.
'I hate cats,' he shouts, aiming his right foot. Too Late. The cat claws at his leg. A dark red stain seeps through his trousers. The cat darts off.
I catch Psycho’s eye and give him an I-told-you-so look. He shrugs.
The experiment is put on hold.
A week later, Angelo glares at me in his usual manner and mumbles, 'Where's the tiger?'
I frown, until what he means dawns on me. 'So you like cats now, do you?'
'Course not.’ His shriek of a laugh sends a chill up my spine. ‘I want to strangle it.'
I don’t doubt his words, but when I tell Psycho, I’m surprised to see his eyes light up. 'As I thought. There's an emotional connexion here. Love…hate…maybe both,’ he mutters, rubbing his hands together. ‘Conflict. It’s a start.’
I shake my head. Psychiatric claptrap.
That evening, Psycho brings the tabby back.
He lets her into Angelo's cell and double bolts the door. I grab Psycho’s sleeve. ‘I’m no cat lover, but what about the poor animal?’ I’m already thinking about the bloody mess I’ll need to clean up.
Psycho fixes his eye to the peephole and relays the scenario as it unfolds. 'Hmm. Neither of them knows what to do. They’re both standing rigid, eyes locked, having a staring match.' He ducks slightly aside, so we can share the view. 'Take a look.'
The apprehension between them is palpable. A mixture of bravado and fear seems to permeate the cell.
Suddenly the cat arches her back. Angelo reaches out a tentative, bony hand. I gasp. Psycho is breathing heavily beside me. Inside the cell the cat and the prisoner continue to eye each other up in a wary silence. The tension mounts.
Siding with the cat, I whisper. ‘Don’t! It’s a trick.’
But it’s Angelo who backs off. A flash of uncertainty crosses his face. He turns to the door, as if he has guessed we are watching.
Psycho shakes his head. ‘If he knows he has an audience, my experiment is worthless.’
He’s right. Angelo lowers his head and reaches forward with both hands towards the cat’s neck. Psycho unbolts the door just in time for the cat to dart out, leaving a high-pitched yowl behind her.
I don’t see Angelo again until just before lights-out that night, during my habitual check of every cell. Looking through his peep-hole, I can barely believe my eyes. He is sitting, chin in hand, on his bed, with tears rolling down his cheeks. I should leave him be, but I can’t resist the chance to embarrass him. As I open the door to make a snarky comment, he turns his head away to hide his face. At the same time, something soft brushes past my legs. I forget what I was going to say as – out of nowhere – the cat slips into the cell.
My jaw drops as the cat flattens her ears and lets out a low growl, sounding more like a tiger than a pussycat. Angelo’s head jerks back towards the sound. His watery eyes lock onto the cat. He presses his lips together. His chest heaves. He seems to have forgotten I’m here.
I hold my breath, ready to take action when necessary.
The cat takes a hesitant step towards Angelo and rubs herself against his legs.
She raises the tip of her tail high in the air, and twitches it from side to side. The air is electric.
Angelo bends down. ‘Hello, Tiger,’ he says and gently strokes her back.
Gillian started out as a travel writer but now concentrates on fiction. Her inspiration often comes from her travels or real life experiences. Motivation comes from short story competitions, for which she has a mild – but enjoyable – addiction. She has had stories published in magazines, in anthologies and online and won and been shortlisted in various competitions.