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A Study In Morality

A Short Story

Continuing my writing education, I threw my hand to writing in a discursive style. While not the 21st century norm, I’ve developed a fascination with the Dickensian method, almost to the point of ‘Dear Reader’. I would never write a book this way, preferring omniscient or deep 3rd person POV, but it’s fun to dabble.

Morality is a changeable commodity, a person need only scan the internet (or read Trump’s tweets) to see that. I’ve written a few pieces dealing with the issue, and this is the first. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

A Study In Morality

I didn’t plan to hurt him. Spontaneity is both weak and dangerous. All I wanted was to be left alone and peel my potatoes. But no, Sanders had to keep talking, telling me time and time again how badass he was, how important and how scared people were of him. Real villains don’t need to wax lyrical about fear. People know to be afraid.

I didn’t respond to him, not that he needed the encouragement. I tried to tune him out … peel, chop, peel, chop … then I zoned back in. He was laughing and joking about some passed out girl he’d had sex with.

‘High schoolers, man. Can’t handle their drink’ He slapped me on the back, comradery amongst buddies. ‘And you know the best thing? Doesn’t matter how plastered they are, they’re still tight in all the right places.’

I don’t pretend to claim innocence, but everyone has a code. My father used to say everyone has a line they’ll cross over, given the right circumstances. I know what he meant. He was referring to hungry people stealing food or killing in a moment of passion, but there are many lines and tolerance is one of them.

Ever seen what boiling water does to skin? It’s not pretty. It sloughs off like paper mache, flakes so fragile they come apart when you touch them. But that would’ve been too kind. I reached for the sugar, pouring the entire bag into the bubbling pan.

Sweet revenge, I once heard it called, but we called it napalm. It sticks to the skin like a gel, sealing in the heat and keeping the burn going through the layers. The pain is excruciating, and I’ve heard screams attesting to it.

A part of me was offended by the shock in Sanders’ eyes as I turned on him. Being in jail didn’t make us the same. Prisoners can be separated into two simple categories – people will tell you it’s more complex, but it isn’t. There are those who are guilty and proclaim their innocence and those who are guilty. Miscreants and criminals, and Sanders was too stupid to know the difference.

Everything went down in seconds, though it seemed longer. I had time to register his shock turning to fear and then the dulling of his eyes as the pain took over. I still can’t smell a toffee apple without thinking of that moment.

I felt nothing. As he writhed on the floor, I felt absolutely nothing. I’ve been accused of having no emotions, but the truth is quite the opposite. I have the full range, only I know when to engage them. Sanders didn’t deserve my pity or remorse or guilt. I won’t pretend it was justice, that isn’t for me to mete out, but I do know something about vengeance.

The others didn’t react. That might sound strange to you, but they didn’t. Sanders was talking loud enough for them all to hear and they knew the consequences of such a confession. General population had rules. Not the pretentious rules the institution laid down – they were flexible if you knew who to see – the ones the prisoners gave themselves.

For most of you out there, prisoners belong behind bars and I can understand why you’d think so. But crime is not just crime – there are degrees. Murder is worse than stealing a car. Robbing a bank is preferable to mugging an old lady. Maybe it is black and white in your eyes and who am I to judge what you believe? Perception is a strange commodity, valuable only through the eyes of the beholder, and I knew, just as they did, Sanders had broken the code.

He’d passed out by the time the guards made it into the kitchens. No doubt they’d heard his screams, but they hadn’t rushed. He sounded more animal than man, so they couldn’t have identified who it was. The options were limited though. If you had to choose from the small group working the kitchen, the money would always be on Sanders.

Senior Prison Officer MacKenzie stood in the middle of the floor as Sanders was carried out, his expression suggesting he cared more about the paperwork than the man. He looked at each of the blank faces, waiting for an explanation.

Diggs, standing closest, piped up. ‘Fucktard fell carrying a pan.’

The muscles in Mac’s jaw tightened, making the vein in his neck jump. ‘He just tipped the whole thing over his own head?’

Diggs shrugged. ‘Guess so.’

Mac narrowed his eyes on Diggs. ‘And the sugar?’

‘Probably thought it was salt. He don’t read so good.’

Nobody else saw anything. Turned around and he was on the floor. Mac had no choice but to send us back to our cells to await the police. It was procedure and the police’s job to investigate. I wasn’t worried.

* * *

It went away and so did Sanders. He didn’t die, if that’s what you’re wondering. Lucky bastard got a transfer. I was done with him, but there was no guarantee everyone else felt the same. Convicted for robbery and GBH, he got out a few months after. He went back. Guys like him always do. Skilled for nothing, they can’t quite resist the lure of easy prey. Life would be simple if they left it at that, but the Sanders of this world always take it one step too far.

I didn’t do what I did for notoriety, but it came nonetheless. A nod here, an offer of pool there, and always a seat at mealtimes. Respect is valuable in prison and there were a few who didn’t like my newfound status. That’s how I met Boydie. He wasn’t the sort you’d look at twice; average build and mousy hair that always looked like he’d slept on it funny. But he had a fire in him, and once stoked it was wild.

I was on my way back from the rec room when it happened. Two lads grabbed and hauled me into a cell. Smart. No CCTV in there. When I was young, my favourite Saturday afternoons were spent watching cowboy movies. You always knew when a wagon train was about to be attacked. They’d be in some canyon or surrounded by higher ground and then the arrows and bullets would start raining down. Defending yourself from the low ground is nearly impossible. If Boydie hadn’t heard the commotion, I’d have taken worse than a couple of broken ribs and bruises.

Boydie’s dad was a bully, using his belt or shoe or any handy implement to reinforce his position. Hardly a new story – plenty of guys in prison will tell you the same one – but it had an impact on Boydie. Right and wrong meant something to him. Why was he in jail then, I hear you ask? The answer is simple, he broke the law. But morality and the law don’t necessarily go in hand in hand. How far would any of us go for the people we love? To keep them safe? To make sure the person who hurt them could never do it again?

I’d always worked alone, but there is something pure in recognising yourself in another. He understood, as few have, what I was trying to achieve and it was an epiphany of sorts. Some would argue it is the very nature of criminals to rebel, but experience has taught me the opposite. A sense of belonging is inherent to the human condition and there is no substitute for the value of working towards a shared ideal. If necessity is the mother of invention, neglect is the father of destruction. Every guy I ever met in prison was the result of an unmet need. Lack of pride, love, self-worth, money, the skills to make appropriate life choices, whatever. Starve them long enough and you’ll see. Profound and fundamental change is rare, and so any good psychologist seeks to make a person the best version of themselves they can be. With that goal in mind, I went on.

An opportunity presented itself about six months later. A man by the name of Edward Vinnicombe arrived. The name didn’t mean anything and there was no reason why it should, but something didn’t sit right. I don’t believe in the paranormal. Ghost sightings, tarot cards, psychics, astrology, the healing power of fancy rocks, it’s all hokum. When alternative medicine has any useful properties it’s just medicine, evidence based and with calculable results. Still, my sixth sense kicked in when I met Eddie.

‘Edward. Edward Vinnicombe.’ He thrust his hand into mine and shook too enthusiastically for too long.

He did the same with everyone else. Always his first name and then first and last. We all have preferences on what we like to be called, but you can guarantee someone at some time will shorten it or add a y or something to that effect. I called him Eddie and you know what? Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition. My connections weren’t what they used to be and it took me a few weeks to get a definitive answer. It was no surprise.

The law states paedophiles are required to inform the police when they change their name, but there’s no requirement for that information to be passed on and even a request for it would be turned down. Eddie wouldn’t be the first sex offender to take on an alias before being locked up, in fact I’ve seen it many times. They’ll tell you it’s so they can lead a normal life and, for some, it’s true, but others have more nefarious reasons.

I studied Eddie carefully before I made my decision, as I have always done. Opportunities to observe him were plentiful. Desperate for acceptance and only too willing to talk, he liked to tell stories. Most people talk about themselves and enjoy sharing amusing anecdotes, often embellishing their own role in events – it’s normal. A degree in psychology wasn’t necessary to know Eddie tipped the scales.

‘And that’s the last time I drove a Porsche in the snow. It was totalled, but you shouldn’t have one if you can’t afford a bit of fun. Am I right?’

I might have believed him if he’d stolen the car, but not Eddie. He’d paid cash for it after toing and froing between that and an Audi R8. Crashing the Porsche gave him an excuse to get the other one and that made everything alright. As in the real world, Eddie’s tales had the opposite effect to what he wanted. Alienation and isolation. And the worse it became, the more he revealed.

‘I started that company and the fucker screwed me out of it. Invested a hundred grand and he gets to relax in hospital for a couple of months while I rot here.’

It was partly the truth. Eddie had done time a few years back for nearly killing a guy he worked with. He didn’t own the company and probably cost them more in stolen goods than he ever made by working. Confronting Eddie was certainly costly for his manager. I know what you’re thinking, that he was a psychopath, but nothing so interesting. Of course, he had psychopathic tendencies, but he lacked the ability to integrate. And that was the root of his problem.

If Eddie had held any sort of insight, he’d have known it was a trap, but still so eager to please, he readily agreed when asked to deliver a message. Carried out on a stretcher, Eddie resembled a piece of pulverised beef, his features barely recognisable as human. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me.

He died of his injuries and Boydie got six years added to his sentence. Rage isn’t pointless when put to good use. Prison is no picnic, but Boydie handled it just fine, secure in the knowledge he’d made the world a better place.

* * *

My time in prison changed me, perhaps restored my faith in humanity. Everyone is allowed a mistake and regret can be a learning opportunity, but only if that regret is honest. Like the thief who is terribly sorry they’re behind bars, but isn’t the least bit sorry they stole. I am not without forgiveness. What it all comes down to is recidivism, whether or not a person is likely to reoffend. On average, it’s about thirty percent. The odds skew dramatically depending on demographic; young males leaving prison after a short sentence being at the top of the list. I have no interest in them. Burglary, jacking a car, snatching a purse. These are expedient crimes and not within my scope.

It’s said the first time is always the hardest, or the most thrilling. For me it was neither. It was a means to an end, the prevention of an atrocity. There’s a lassitude which only comes from inaction and it’s a vicious circle that steals all the colour and flavour from life.

I was running a substance abuse course when I met Jake. He was a typical case; absentee father, ailing mother who took the limelight, poor impulse control and no ability to delay gratification. Attending the course was a condition of his parole and, to the untrained eye, it might’ve seemed as though he was participating, perhaps even making friends. Dropouts are commonplace, but after three of the most physically and emotionally vulnerable guys stopped attending, my suspicions were aroused.

It took me weeks to track them all down. One had overdosed, one was squatting in a heroin den and wouldn’t tell me anything, and the last was a wreck living with his grandmother. Brian had struggled with inadequacy his whole life and, compounded by the shame of being unable to fend off his supposed friend, it pushed him lower than he’d ever been. He refused to press charges and there was nothing I could do to change his mind.

The hardest part of my job has always been the downward spiral of those I couldn’t save. I couldn’t save Brian, not from himself and not from Jake. But I could make sure it never happened again. I kept a close eye on Jake in the sessions following, camouflaged by addiction in his hunting ground. He made a good job of emulating concern for the missing, even offering to go and encourage them to come back. I took him up on his suggestion.

As an addict, I knew Jake wouldn’t be able to resist. The address I gave him was a shooting gallery and, from the moment he stepped inside, all I had to do was wait. I picked my way past the prone bodies, deep in their drug-induced stupor, until I found Jake. A little extra push and he slipped off his mortal coil.

You may ask what right I had to decide his fate and the answer would be none. It’s not about him and it never was. Like so many others, I set out to do good, to help people and make their lives better. But what do you do when you realise it’s become triage? Putting a plaster on a gaping wound may slow the bleeding, but it doesn’t stop it. Allow me to put it another way. If you knew a cell was cancerous, would you let it spread? If I had known, I would’ve cut it out.

Jake was ground zero, but there were more. I went on without incident for years, honing my skills and ridding the country of vermin. An overdose was my weapon of choice. It was simple, easy to obtain and nobody was very interested in investigating the death of junkies. It turned out to be my downfall. I got caught by the police with various bags of class A drugs and it hardly seemed prudent to tell them the real reason why. Four years for possession and out in three. I consider it time well spent. Yes, a life was taken, but a life was spared and how many others because of it?

Let me be clear, this isn’t an apology or a confession. I didn’t alter my course after being inside and, if anything, it only strengthened my resolve. We are all of us beholden to our own morality and mine is at peace. Maybe you think I’m right and maybe you don’t, but you have no more sympathy than I did. Are you sorry they’re gone? Would you bring them back if you could? I remember each of the names and faces of the people I’ve killed and I can honestly say I’m not sorry for a single one.

As I wait for my end to come, and it won’t be long now, I think my father was wrong about the line. Sometimes, it is only when someone else crosses that we know where ours is. Did I step over yours? Very probably. But I did not find the line I would not cross; rather I found my limit. If there’s a life after this one, I go to it unburdened by guilt and I think God will understand.


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