In The Stars Part I: Capricorn-Gemini (HBTC #4)

(Friday, 6th January)

    Rank mops and disinfectant. The stench clung to every grubby cubic inch of air. Metal clanged loudly against metal; the jangle of keys echoed around the corridors and up through the levels, ricocheting along landings and up into the void above. It was a grey, grey world. The steel doors were painted in industrial grey; the bars were Hammerite grey; the walls, perhaps a shade lighter than the doors, still grey; the skylights up above showed nothing but grey sky. Even the uniforms and overalls were grey. Everything: grey.
    Well, almost everything.
    "Eh, it's our turn," a voice shouted from across the void. "This is f**ked up."
    "Yeah," another voice agreed from behind. "Oy! Marigold! Get a new f**kin' mop, you c**t. It stinks to sh*t."
    'Marigold' continued along the corridor, trying to ignore the multiple complaints as he passed each cell. They had every right. No supplies, the mops hadn't been changed in all the time he'd been in here, which was five months, two weeks, four days and three hours. Seventeen days to go. Then he'd be out. He glanced up and spotted Darren ahead of him.
    "Alright?" he greeted, wheeling the stinking, grey mop bucket behind him.
    "Yeah. Noisy today."
    "Third's not been cleaned this week. That's why," Marigold explained. No-one here ever called him by his real name, not even his fellow wing cleaners.
    "So why're we doing Second?"
    "Don't ask me. Anyway, sooner we get on, the sooner we'll be done."
    Marigold wheeled his bucket on along the filthy concrete third floor of C-wing. Darren followed with the trolley, past the rest of the cells, to the lift, where they waited whilst the screw unlocked the gate. Marigold let Darren enter first, then dragged the mop bucket in and turned to watch as the gate was locked again. The lift started to descend.
    "Not long now, huh?" Darren said, gnawing at the grotty stubs of his fingernails.
    "Nope. Two weeks, three days."
    Darren changed hands. "Wish it was me."
    "Yeah," Marigold replied absently. The lift came to a stop and the gate procedure was repeated, in reverse, to the accompanying shouts of the third landing prisoners tumbling from above. The second landing was empty, with everyone out for exercise, not that it would have mattered, as they only cleaned the corridors. Darren pulled the wide floorbrush free of the trolley and flipped it up the right way.
    "Gonna start at the other end," he told Marigold and headed away from him.
    "Right. I'll just get this sh*t off the wall first."
    The second landing was where they put the weirdos, not the pervs—they were on the fourth floor—the ones that were a bit loopy but not loopy enough to be in K-block. It was closer to the screws' station, just in case anything kicked off, which it didn't very often. In fact, most of the time there was just this line of sh*t along the wall, from the showers to C221. And they wondered why he'd asked for rubber gloves? Doctor Sheridan got him permission eventually, but he had to hand them in at the end of every day. Sometimes he wondered why he wasn't in K-block himself. Obviously he wasn't loony enough, or maybe just not the right kind of loony. He was never the right kind of anything.
    He squirted dilute disinfectant over the trail of faeces, breathing through his nose, which might seem counter-intuitive to the uninitiated, but for as much as it stank worse when it was wet, he'd once got hit in the face by sprayback and swallowed it; he wasn't making that mistake again. Back to the start of the line, he retraced with a rancid, damp cloth, pushing the brown smudge around until it disappeared through absorption or dissipation, then went to join Darren down the far end.
    "So what's this job then?"
    "Don't wanna say," Marigold mumbled quietly.
    "Suit yourself."
    Darren continued along with his brush, missing the edge of the corridor all the way, leaving a grey ridge of dirt and dust.
    "You gonna go back over this then, yeah?"
    "Nah. The mop'll get it."
    Marigold closed his eyes as he wrung out the mop and plonked it down dead-centre of the corridor, then swooshed from side to side, swirling it to pick up the debris Darren had left behind. The mop beat a rhythm as it hit against the walls and the doors, and he started to sing along in his head. Freaking weird choice too: "Message in a Bottle". It was a song that he sometimes heard on the radio when he was little, but not one he'd heard in a while. Up ahead, Darren had stopped to engage in a shouted dialogue with a prisoner on the landing below.
    "Tomorrow," he repeated.
    The prisoner swore and disappeared from view.
    "What was that?" Marigold asked.
    "He wanted to know when First was being done."
    "Some time never, did you tell him?"
    Marigold waited. He couldn't go any further until Darren moved on, so he leaned on the railing and returned to the song, escaping into the thoughts that went with it. They were nothing exciting: just daydreaming about getting out and wondering what the job would be like: cleaning offices wasn't going to be much more interesting than cleaning prisons, but there would hopefully be less sh*t and maybe even some cleaning stuff. That would be a luxury.
    And he'd be free.
    "What d'you think that is?" Darren called. He'd stopped again, just a couple of cells down. It really was no wonder that Third never got done.
    "What what is?"
    Darren pointed up. Marigold's gaze settled on the dirty bitten fingernails, his lips pursing in disgust, then followed the direction of the finger, up to the top of the door of C208, where a small, crumpled triangle of light grey stood out against the darker grey of the heavily scarred paintwork.
    "Dunno." He moved closer to inspect it. "A sheet, maybe?"
    "Huh." Darren shrugged and leaned on his brush. "When you get out, see if there's any jobs going for me, will ya?"
    "I could be working down the sewers, for all you know."
    "It'd still beat cleaning this sh*thole." They both started laughing, but then stopped dead at exactly the same time. "You hear that?" Darren asked. Marigold nodded and moved towards the door, holding his breath, his ear turned towards the barred square aperture. He stood on tiptoes and cautiously peered into the cell.
    "Ring the alarm!" he shouted. He dropped the mop and tripped over it in his haste, falling against the door. Darren was still standing staring. "Ring the f**king alarm!" Darren shook himself out of his trance and ran down the corridor, thumping the nearest button.
    Marigold reached through the bars and grabbed the twisted sheet. It came loose in his hand and he watched in horror as the body dropped from view, slumping to the floor with a thud. The door moved a little and he pushed against it, but he was slightly built and Callaghan was much bigger and heavier. With a mighty shove, he wedged himself between the door and the wall and slowly eased through the gap, his back scraping painfully against the lock. The door slammed shut with him on the inside, looking down on the blue-grey dead man, the sheet now forming a loose coil around his head, not the tightly twisted noose it had previously been. Marigold didn't know what to do. He reached out and touched the flayed-out fingers: icy cold. He was definitely very dead. Marigold started to laugh at how ridiculous that was. You're dead or you're not. You can't be more or less dead. Very dead. It was hysteria.
    The alarm was now joined by rapid-fire bootfall and clanging bunches of keys. About time, he thought, and stepped back out of the way. He'd been in the cell with Callaghan's corpse for less than a minute, but it was long enough.
    The body doubled up and fell into a most unnatural position, the force of two burly screws more than a match for a dead man. As his legs slid outwards, Marigold spotted a small square of white, so incredibly bright against the grey of everything else. He bent down, reached out a yellow-gloved finger and spun the square the right way around, squinting at the single word written on it.
    Marigold picked it up and quickly shoved it inside his overalls.