The prison had an unfashionably liberal regime. It was never crowded and the staffing level never fell too far short of the excessive, job-creating demands of the prison officers' union. Her Majesty's Prison at Slane was intended for Category C, low-risk prisoners; white-collar criminals, who were thought not likely to escape, and prisoners nearing release at the end of a sentence.
Individual cells were the usual rule but Slane Prison was enduring a refurbishment campaign, ostensibly for reasons of human decency but also as a prelude to possible privatization. The building and refitting work meant that the inmates had to be doubled up occasionally.
In a society where privacy was treasured, the staff took the opportunity to show awkward prisoners the error of their ways by selecting them for doubling them up, usually with new inmates, who had not earned the rights and expectations of established residents.
Walter Plant arrived at Slane in a period between phases of the refurbishment. He was in the run-down to release from a sentence for an armed robbery, in which he had been captured on a security camera waving an empty sawn-off shotgun around. Plant's assurances that he had taken the weapon along only to ensure that no one got hurt had not impressed the judge. He had gone down for six years.
Plant had behaved himself in prison, stayed out of trouble and done his best to gain the maximum remission. He had no doubts about resuming his criminal career, but he had attended all sorts of educational classes and he had managed to convince the parole board that he could build a career as a mechanic or some sort of repairman after his release.
He had been in two other prisons and he was used to the usual reception routines, which included submitting to a thorough search for illegal substances and unauthorized amounts of money, completing the standard inventory of his possessions and deploying them in a new cell, then receiving a talking-to from the governor.
By the time he had finished jumping through the usual hoops, it was time for the evening meal. A rather strange individual called Chloe took on the job of putting a new arrival in the picture when he reached the canteen. Plant had become used to finding several of that type in every new prison. They seemed to be looking for the perfect companion after rejecting everyone else available in the prison. They latched on to each new intake after discarding all previous acquaintances, as if they had been used up.
Chloe was tall with tattoos on both arms and a deep but oddly feminine voice. Plant was content to let him provide information on the set-up in his new home for a while. But if Chloe tried any funny business, he would soon learn that he was flogging a dead horse.
"I shouldn't get used to having a room all to yourself," Chloe murmured as they waited in line at the counter.
"Oh?" said Plant.
"They're doing some more tarting up next week. Your block's on the list for the week after. So you'll have to double up for a while."
"As long as he doesn't snore," said Plant.
"Or what?" frowned Plant.
"I thought you were going to go on to say he'll get a pillow over his face."
"Not very clever when you're trying to keep your head down and get out of this dump as soon as possible."
"No, but could be worth it," grinned Chloe.
Slop! Slop! Slop! Ladles wielded by practised hands filled the compartments of their trays with exact amounts. Plant often wondered why prison food had to be so semi-liquid, as if the inmates had smashed one another's teeth out and could no longer chew anything solid.
"Table for twelve over here," said Chloe.
"Cut the chatter and get on with it," called one of the warders, exercising the usual pointless authority. "You're here to feed your faces, not have a debate."
"I wish I had a pound for every time I've heard that," signed Chloe.
Plant tore a bread roll in half and dipped it into his liquid stew. The bread, at least, was good. As he ate as much as he could of the nourishing but unexciting fare, he became aware that not everyone was taking care of that chore.
A sad-looking, skinny fellow further along the table was just sitting there, looking down at his tray but almost looking through it, as if he expected to see one of the fashionable computer-generated, three-dimensional images appear if he looked with unfocussed eyes for long enough.
Just before Plant finished eating, the other man picked up his still fully loaded tray and took it to the disposal point. He scraped everything into the swill container, placed tray and cutlery in the appropriate places and left.
"That's Hungry Jeo," Chloe had noticed the focus of Plant's interest.
"I know the food's not brilliant, but I wouldn't say it's that bad," Plant remarked.
"Hungry Jeo's a weirdo. He's been here a month but no one's seen him eat anything."
"A bit mental, is he? Or trying to get himself certified?"
"No, not according to the psychiatrist. She reckons he's okay."
"What, starving himself to death?"
"No, he's not doing that. You'd expect him to be flat on his back if he's not eaten anything for a month. No, he must be surviving on the snacks you can buy. Some of the richer patrons of Her Majesty's Hotels do that. And the drug barons, of course."
"I wouldn't have thought you'd have drug barons here," said Plant.
Chloe smiled wisely. "People are people. And time drags as heavily for us low-risk prisoners as for your armed robbers and murderers."
Plant smiled to himself. Prison etiquette meant that they had not told each other why they were in Slane. And Plant had been in one prison or another for so long that he no longer thought of himself as an armed robber. He was now an almost rehabilitated offender; as far as the Parole Board was concerned.
"Still," he remarked, "it sounds bloody expensive if you don't like prison grub. And he doesn't look like he can afford much in the way of snacks. A fat-cat, he ain't!"
"We reckon he might be trying to slim himself into a shadow so he can slip under his cell door and sneak off for a night out," grinned Chloe. "Or ooze through the boundary fence."
"From the looks of the poor sod," laughed Plant, "he's not got much further to go!"
The next phase of the refurbishment work represented an acceleration in the programme in order to cram all of the expenditure into the same financial year. The money had to be spent before the year-end or it would be lost. It was the usual triumph of accountancy over good sense.
Predictably, Hungry Jeo was doubled. He never spoke about his eccentric behaviour but the staff were suspicious of someone who refused to conform. An individual like Hungry Jeo was a threat to discipline and good order. Having to share a cell was not an official punishment but it was a sure sign of low status or disapproval.
Plant began to wonder whose cell he would have to share when he was doubled the following week. Luckily, Chloe seemed to be something of a model prisoner, like himself, but with more status due to tenure. He was assured single occupancy. He seemed a harmless if not humorous and likeable chap, but Plant knew that he would not feel comfortable locked up in a small room with Chloe.
Three days into the first week of the building work, those still coming to life after the routine morning wake-up were snapped into full awareness by an alarm. Plant's immediate thought was that it was the fire alarm. It was not until he saw staff shoving prisoners back into their cells that he realized that someone had escaped.
Breakfast was very late that morning. Even though Slane was not classed as a high security institution for dangerous criminals, an escape was a serious embarrassment for the prison's staff. Somehow or other, Chloe had all the details and he was eager to share them with his latest friend when they were eventually allowed into the dining room.
"It's that bent accountant they put in with Hungry Jeo," Chloe announced to Plant and his near neighbours.
"What about him? Jeo?" said Plant. "Didn't he go with the accountant?"
"No, they found Jeo fast asleep. On his own," grinned Chloe. "They thought he hadn't been doubled at first. Then they noticed two bunks and two lots of gear in with him."
"How did he get out? This accountant?" said a chubby redhead called Aimes. He had been transferred to Slane about a month before Plant.
"Bribed the screws," remarked a voice just loud enough for the warders to hear.
"And why?" added Aimes. "Old Jobson only had another three months to do."
"People do the strangest things," said Chloe with an elaborate shrug.
"Cut the chatter and get on with it," called a familiar voice. "You're here to feed your faces, not have a debate."
"I wonder if anyone's going to get the sack for letting Jobbo out," said the anonymous voice. "Or end up doing time in here with us lot for helping him get out."
There was an investigation, of course. Police officers and the prison service's own Home Office Investigations Branch questioned staff and inmates to try to find out how the accountant, Mark Jobson, had managed to escape. They also attempted to learn his motive, hoping that knowing why he had escaped with so little of his sentence left would give them a clue.
On the face of it, Jobson was a resigned prisoner. He had never caused any trouble and he was keeping his head down while counting the days to his release. To their frustration, the police were unable to find any reason for Jobson to feel a need to get out of gaol without delay. Most of the money that he had stolen had been accounted for, and the police were also unable to find any trace of a hidden bank account, which he might have used to buy the escape.
Hungry Jeo had nothing to say on the matter. He refused to co-operate with the prison authorities on principle, but he did tell them that he had been asleep all night and he had not been disturbed by Jobson's escape.
Police and Home Office investigators viewed surveillance tapes from the security cameras frame by frame. None of them showed anything out of the ordinary, which raised the question of whether some technically clever person had substituted old tapes with a new date and time signature for the day of the escape.
All building work stopped during the investigation while the contractors' men were screened again. As with the prison officers, nobody had become rich suddenly and there was no evidence that any of the building workers had been near the prison on the night of the escape. They had all had much better things to do elsewhere.
The escape generated a great deal of ill-feeling in the prison staff. Despite the lack of evidence, the investigators felt sure that someone had given Jobson a helping hand. The staff resented being suspects and the inmates took every safe opportunity to mock them.
Walter Plant resisted the temptation to be seen enjoying the discomfort of the prison staff, but he lived in an unreasonable artificial society where stressed authority figures could take a random dislike to a prisoner and vent some of their frustration on him in subtle ways.
Plant had soon learned that nothing he did would ever meet the approval of Officer Bailey, for instance. As far as the squat, mustachioed Welshman was concerned, Walter Plant always did everything too slowly, not thoroughly enough or just plain wrongly.
Plant had become resigned to the endless criticism, accepting it as part of being in prison. He gained a small measure of revenge now by nominating Bailey as the screw who had helped Jobson to get out if anyone wanted to hear his opinion.
Life in Slane Prison returned to normal eventually. No trace of the escaped prisoner had been found. Police forces around the world had Mark Jobson on their wanted list. Every report on the escape offered theories on how Jobson had escaped and further recommendations on how to prevent a recurrence. None could offer the actual solution to the mystery. Being strictly fair and honest, the investigators concluded that security at Slane Prison was as good as it could be and that the escape had not been possible. Only the inconvenient absence of one of the inmates demolished the conclusion.
The building work resumed three weeks after the escape. Chloe, now chummed-up with two new arrivals, gave Walter Plant a smile and a shrug when the refurbishment of Plant's wing was announced. It was inevitable that Hungry Jeo would be selected for doubling up. As Officer Bailey's chief trouble-maker, Plant was ready for the news when he heard that he had to share a cell with another trouble-maker.
He was rather nervous about moving in with an eccentric, equating difference with madness and violence. In the event, he found himself ignored. Hungry Jeo seemed to be saving his strength. When he was in his cell, he just lay or sat on his bunk, staring into space.
It was the same during exercise or association periods. He just found a chair or sat against a wall and stared into space. Minute changes of expression suggested that he might be watching his own, personal, in-flight movie' with his mind's eye; something that was of much more interesting than the drabness of prison life.
The prison staff made up for Hungry Jeo's lack of interest in his new cellmate. Plant was aware of eyes looking at him at frequent but irregular intervals over the first two days whenever he and Hungry Jeo were locked in their cell. He knew that the staff were hoping to see him busy working out a deal with Hungry Jeo Escape Services, Unlimited.
It was not until the fourth night that the surveillance ended and Hungry Jeo noticed that he had company. Walter Plant looked away from his book, an uninspiring thriller from the prison library, to meet a pair of focussed eyes.
"Hello," he said nervously.
"Good evening," said a cultured voice. "Jeo Pegram. How do you do?"
"Er, Walter Plant. Fine, thanks."
"Book not too good?"
"I keep finding I've got to the end of a page and I don't remember anything I've just read."
"Rather like prison life. A day slips by and one has nothing to remember it by. But, as they say, they can't keep us in here forever."
"They can't even keep some of us in for as long as they want."
"The disappearing Mr. Jobson?" Hungry Jeo's thin face put on a mocking grin. "How true. Well, I think I'll call it a day. Good night."
"Right. Good night."
Plant returned to his opaque book for a little while longer. Hungry Jeo was in bed, facing the wall and apparently already asleep. Plant gazed at the still figure for a few moments, wondering just what sort of a person he was. Jeo Pegram, out of his habitual trance, had seemed well bred and well educated. Rather than some sort of madman, he seemed to be a cultured person, who had chosen to go off into an intellectual retreat to escape the grey boredom of prison life.
For him, not eating the liquid but probably nutritious diet seemed to be quite a reasonable choice. Hungry Jeo, as revealed by their brief chat, seemed the sort of person who was used to much better. Walter Plant began to feel safer. He was in the presence of a man, not a crazy animal.
As he lay down in his bed and composed himself for sleep, mentally ticking one more day off the count-down to his release, he began to wonder what he would say if Jeo Pegram favoured him with more conversation. His problem was that he knew nothing much about his cellmate and the first things that he wanted to know such as how Mark Jobson had managed to escape and how Pegram could enjoy an alternative diet on the average inmate's miserable weekly allowance of cash were very awkward areas.
Talking to a stranger requires some common ground to get things started. Unfortunately, the only common ground they had, Plant realized, was that they were both in prison. He suspected that Jeo Pegram would not be too interested in talking about how he had ended up sharing a cell with a stranger.
It was a difficult problem; one that would require some thought and careful handling. Plant felt obliged to make a good impression on Jeo Pegram. He seemed to be that sort of person; someone whose respect is an asset.
Worrying about the problem of cellmate relations, he drifted off to sleep.
A dream fell apart. Plant woke in a dim fog with the impression that something foreign was touching him. That touch became instantly an iron hand gripping his throat, cutting off air; stopping him from screaming.
At first, he thought that he was still dreaming. But the pain in his throat and the growing tension in his chest convinced him that he was awake. In panic, he realized that Hungry Jeo was attacking him.
Plant tried to punch Hungry Jeo, lashing out wildly at his face. He felt a sudden, searing pain and heard a crunching noise. Unable to see, his vision a luminous explosion of bright shapes, he knew that Hungry Jeo had bitten off most of his right hand.
Powerful teeth closed again, biting and tearing, taking away the rest of his hand. Plant felt himself sinking, losing consciousness. Another ferocious bite and half of his right forearm was gone. He felt blood gushing out of his severed arteries but being sucked into a tube with slimy, rubbery lips. His whole body was being engulfed in a dark, wet, foul-smelling hole. He felt the terrible teeth close on his neck as the lips surged onward. Flesh parted, bone collapsed with a grating crunch.
In the very last moment of his life, Walter Plant knew that Hungry Jeo's previous cellmate had not escaped.
Jeo, who would not be hungry for much longer, had eaten him. ■