Thirty Days on the Fourth Floor – chapter one
‘You have displayed a callous disregard for the well-being of others. This is your third appearance in my court within a single year and I therefore have no hesitation in sentencing you to thirty days’ incarceration in the hope that this time you will learn there is no tolerance of persistent law-breaking in this City.’
The gavel was tapped lightly down on the bench in front of Judge Givens, and by the time the bailiff had led Jeremiah ‘Roxx’ Weston from the court, the Judge’s robes were billowing behind him as he went through the door marked ‘Private’ at the back of the court. Roxx didn’t care. Thirty lousy days playing pool and cards was nothing, it would go by like a flash, the perfect spring break.
A few minutes later he entered a room where a number of others were already waiting. There appeared to be a dispute between a Clerk of the Court and someone who was presumably in Roxx’s situation. This woman wanted to phone her kids, let them know she’d got thirty days this time and they should go and stay with her sister till she could figure out the best thing to do. The Clerk of the Court wasn’t allowing any calls. A police officer came over to encourage the outraged detainee to step back. Another, male, detainee came forward, angry and upset. The clerk was saying,
‘Ma’am, as I already told you, you will be allowed one phone call once you reach the detainment centre, but not until then. I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Sir, step back please, the same goes for you. You can call your secretary later.’
And having said her piece, the clerk turned and left the room. The detainee continued to rant and swear, but more quietly and in a corner. It was now almost five o’clock, and the court was closed for the day.
The bailiff cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will now be leaving the court complex. Please stay in line and follow me.’
He nodded to a nearby police officer who opened the door for them all to pass out and into the hall, hesitantly following after the bailiff. In case anyone got any ideas, Roxx noted, there were a number of officers lining the corridor.
The woman with the children wasn’t giving up. She tried to catch up with the fast-walking bailiff, calling out, ‘Where are we going? We have a right to know! I’ve got children…’
‘Just keep moving, ma’am,’ advised a police officer, but she shook him off.
‘I want to know where…’
But now they were at the exit, surrounded by police officers, and the outer door was opening on a parking bay at the back of the court complex. A police van was waiting, engine purring. The rear doors stood open and the group was chivvied inside. As they were put into their seats and safety belts were locked into place across them, a roll-call began and their names were ticked off by an officer as the bailiff disappeared round to the front of the vehicle.
Immediately the rear doors were locked and the vehicle swung out of the parking bay and onto the road. The woman with the children began a heated debate with the big business corporate guy who wanted to speak with his secretary. A voice spoke next to Roxx. He turned to look at the scrawny white woman sitting next to him.
‘You get thirty days too?’ she asked. He nodded.
‘We all did,’ she said, ‘we were talking about it before you came in. Every one of us – look, nine people, nine of us – we all got thirty days. Don’t you think that’s weird? What are they going to do to us? Where are they taking us?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Roxx told her, ‘don’t sweat it. What so we all got thirty days? We all do the same thing or something?’
‘You do drugs?’ she asked.
He laughed. ‘No. Drugs is a fool’s game. What, even Mrs Mum over there, she got thirty days? What did she do?’
‘Speeding, I think she said. Not just once, all the time, never paid her fines. I was the drugs. Selling. Third time. I just really needed the money. Why d’you get thirty days?
‘Red lights. I just like running through them. It’s nothing, it’s not like I hurt anyone, it’s just a laugh, a buzz. But they got this software catches your number-plate, so they caught me. Again. Thirty ain’t nothing, be out in fifteen on good behaviour.’
‘That’s disgusting, that is, you should be ashamed of yourself! You could kill someone doing that.’ the Mum told him, chipping in on the conversation. He glared at her.
‘How’s it any worse than what you do? Speeding? That’s dangerous. You’re more likely to kill someone than I am. And you got kids, that’s irresponsible, Missus.’
‘I was always in control of the car,’ she began, but someone else disagreed with her.
And then it happened. It broke out into a fight, a half-assed fight, as they were all chained, but loud enough to break someone’s eardrum. They all started shouting at each other, and the row went on and on until the van finally pulled over and stopped, and the rear doors were unlocked. A couple of officers started unlocking them and sending them out onto the pavement where they stood in a shifty-looking bunch surrounded by police and twitching curtains. They were outside an apartment block.
‘Where’s the prison?’ the Druggie asked no one in particular. They were herded into the front door of the building and corralled into the lift in twos, starting with Mrs Mum and the Boss Man.
It was fifteen minutes later when Roxx eventually walked in at the front door of an apartment on the fourth floor. He looked around him, puzzled. ‘I’m beginning to think this is a bit odd,’ he told the Druggie. ‘Maybe we been selected for special ops or something.’
‘Why are we here?’ the Druggie asked the bailiff, who ignored her.
‘Where are we? What the fuck is going on?’ Boss Man demanded. Everyone was edgy and tense. Where was the nice conventional prison?
‘Keep walking through to the sitting room. Sit down, shut up and listen, then maybe we can get on with things a little quicker.’ The bailiff urged, and reluctantly, and with the encouragement of a couple of police officers and their batons, they complied. Roxx counted nine detainees, six men, three women, and besides the bailiff there were twelve officers. It was a squeeze.
‘Now,’ said the bailiff in a big loud voice, ‘I want everyone to take a seat at the table, and then I can explain the procedure.’
A couple of people half-heartedly protested, but everyone sat quickly enough.
‘That’s better,’ said the bailiff, and Roxx felt like he was in nursery school again. ‘You will each get one phone call. You will get a hot meal, a shower, and a change of clothes. You will be wearing prison uniform for the next thirty days. You will remain in this apartment for the next thirty days. You will not leave until you have served your sentence as laid down by the ruling of the court. The front door is the only safe exit from the apartment and this will be kept locked at all times. While you are here you will be rehabilitated and, hopefully while justice is being done, you will learn to make wiser choices in the future.’
He paused and a slew of questions had to be dealt with before he could continue.
‘In case of emergency we will evacuate the apartment. There will be no – I repeat no – wardens, guards, police officers or any other official presence within the apartment for the entirety of the thirty days. However, the apartment will be under constant surveillance night and day, but any intervention will be in an emergency only. Just so you know, this is day one. I will return on day thirty if – I repeat if – all conditions are fulfilled, and it is deemed by the court that rehabilitation has taken place and you are all fit to return to society. I will now hand out mobile phones and you may call whomever you wish, you have one call and five minutes only.’
There was a rush to snatch the phones from him. A feverish silence fell for a moment as people tapped in the numbers they wanted. And then a babble of voices as connections were made and information relayed. Mrs Mum was weeping at the end of her five minutes and claiming it wasn’t fair, and two other people claimed their human rights were being violated.
All this was ignored and a large cardboard packing case was dragged into the room. The bailiff ripped off the top and started handing out blue boiler suits and white cotton underwear to everyone. Then, one at a time, a police officer escorted one detainee into the bathroom for a shower and a change of clothes. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated, placed into plastic bags and stashed away in the packing case. Airline-style hot food trays were handed around the table, and the nine detainees, now already showing signs of resignation, ate in near silence.
At the end of the meal, they were shown into the dormitory which was where they would all sleep on narrow lumpy mattresses, the bailiff took his leave, and the police officers, the outer door slammed behind them and locked and the prisoners were there, and it was the end of day one.
Day two dawned brighter and earlier than most of them would have liked.
Roxx was the second one out of bed, the Druggie being the first – she’d been up most of the night in fact and was hunched by the window scratching agitatedly at herself when he came into the sitting room.
One by one they drifted out of their beds and came to sit around the table. One of the men, heavily tattooed and pierced, sat across the table from Mrs Mum who had already been weeping because she wanted to get out, wanted to be with her children, no one knew how she felt, a mother separated from her own flesh and blood and corralled here with a bunch of crazy people and lawless criminals. She started to weep again. The tattooed/pierced guy laughed. He looked around the room, but everyone avoided catching his eye. He rapped on the table and laughed loudly, frightening Mrs Mum into a fresh outburst of sobbing, and having achieved this, he linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the seat to enjoy the spectacle of her misery.
The Druggie was shivering next to Roxx. Roxx, not able to do anything else for her, patted her on the knee. The two of them perched on the windowsill and Roxx surveyed the room.
In the doorway, Boss Man was jogging on the spot and flapping his arms up and down. Roxx shook his head impatiently. It hadn’t been more than 15 hours and the guy already was worrying he was getting flabby?
A bleary-eyed young man wandered in from the dormitory, squeezing past the panting Boss Man.
‘What do we do about food?’ he asked. Everyone looked at him blankly. He looked round at them. ‘Well, hello! There’s no kitchen, in case no one had noticed, so I’m assuming there’s also no maid service, no chef, no restaurant. So how are we getting our meals for the next four weeks?’
There was an immediate rise in the tension, and they were all looking at each other. The kid was right. They’d been told, no one was coming in to the apartment for thirty days.
There was the dormitory. And this room they were in now. And then there was the bathroom.
There were three other doors on one wall. Roxx strolled across and tried the first door. It was locked. He tried the next. Also locked. ‘Hmm,’ he said to himself. Over his shoulder he could see everyone – seated and standing – was watching him. Unaccountably he felt a trickle of fear at the back of his boiler-suit collar. Reminding himself for future reference that red means stop, the thrill is just not worth the sentence, he tried a cocky grin at his audience. ‘Well, one of these had got to open. Hughie, I choose door number three!’ he quipped, going into a kind of exaggerated mime of someone preparing to open a door on a game show. It was odd they were all so tense, just watching him.
He felt the handle of the door beneath his fingers. It was cold and the cold seemed to travel up his arm and along his spine. He felt a pang of nausea. If no one had been watching him, he would have turned and gone back to his perch on the windowsill. His heart beat fast, and he turned the handle, turning again to smile at the audience with his trade-mark grin, and saying, ‘Here goes noth…’
But the phrase died on his lips.
The door opened. That was the first weird thing. He’d been so sure it was locked like the others. At the threshold of the door was a little pile of rubble and ash. He tried to focus, tried to piece together the scene before him, through the door. It was something – else.
It was a street. But how could it be, here on the fourth floor of an apartment block? But there they were, the buildings, the street, he could see them, could smell the ash and smoke. Half the buildings were gone, blackened ruins in heaps and piles with sagging roof timbers hanging down. It was like a movie set for a war film. There was a house nearby, just a few yards from the doorway. If Roxx took a step, or maybe two, if he put out a hand, he would be able to touch the brickwork.
He shook his head. Rubbed his eyes. His vision, never blurred to begin with, still showed him the same scene. He was aware that the others behind him were exclaiming, moving, rushing over. There were cries of disbelief and even fear, but Roxx couldn’t find anything to say. He looked into the room. He looked through the doorway and saw a whole new world, a world of destruction and chaos.
He took a step, and Mrs Mum screeched at him, clutching his arm.
‘Don’t! Don’t go in there!’
Confused, he gaped at her. There were a couple of others, equally fearful, reaching out for him.
‘Shut the door. Shut it. Now! Quick! Shut the frigging door.’
And the tattooed and pierced man was getting up from his chair, noisily chewing gum and nodding, delight all over his face. ‘Yeah! Man, I mean, wow! Yeah! Wow! People, like, I mean, wow!’
And he stepped right up to the doorway, elbowing a bewildered Roxx to one side, and then, glancing back over his shoulder, Tattoo Man laughed again. ‘This is a fucking amazing movie set! It’s wicked. Wicked or what? I’m asking you, people, like wow! Truly fucking, un-fucking-believable!’
And he stepped through the doorway and went into the rubble-strewn street ahead of them, looking around, turning round as he went, looking at the scene around him. ‘Oh man! It’s fucking unbelievable! How the fuck did they do it? This is just like a real…’
And a chimney toppled from a roof and crushed him on the ground. His foot twitched and was still, no more of his body visible beneath the blackened brickwork.
Two of the women screamed, and Roxx fell back in shock. Several shouts rang in his ears, his own among them, and he took a step or two further back until he was back in the room, two feet from the doorway.
They all fell silent. After a moment, Mrs Mum said, softly, tentatively, ‘Do you think he’s definitely… I mean, shouldn’t we…?’
‘Well, I ain’t going out there.’ Roxx said firmly.
‘You opened the door,t the kid said. Roxx blustered. They were watching him, accusing him.
‘Yeah, well, but hell, I didn’t know… I mean, I was just looking for the kitchen, but that don’t mean…’
He looked across at the Druggie who was hugging herself and rocking, shivering. Her face was white, frozen-looking.
‘But he might…’ said Mrs Mum.
Roxx muttered curses to himself. He couldn’t believe what was happening, couldn’t believe what he was about to do.
Slowly he stepped through the doorway, still muttering angrily to himself. He looked all around him, checking carefully, making sure nothing was going to come crashing down on him. He stole across to where the pile of junk lay covering Tattoo Man’s form. A brief glance was enough to answer his questions. He ran for the door and the apartment once again.
‘How do you know, you didn’t check for a pulse or anything?’ protested Mrs Mum.
‘You want to check, be my guest,’ Roxx snapped.
‘Well, we need to be sure.’
‘Lady, when a head’s that far from a body, I’d say that is a pretty good indication that all is not well. But of course, I could be wrong,’ he added, ‘after all, I’m not a mother!’ He did the air-quotes thing and then felt bad when she gasped, horrified.
‘Oh my God!’ said the kid from his corner.
One of the others stepped forward and peeked through the door, then took a couple more steps until he could look down at the Tattoo Man’s remains. He looked back to where the others were watching and nodded just once.
Mrs Mum’s hand went to her mouth and her eyes brimmed. Suddenly feeling brave, Boss Man now also went through the doorway and picked his way across the rubble to look inside the ruined house nearest them. Behind him, a couple of people called warnings. He nodded sagely in reply, a man in control. He stood looking in. ‘It’s completely decimated in here,’ he called back, calmly, sounding wise, authoritative. ‘But the remains of the furnishings, everything, they’re all really old. I think it’s all genuine world war two stuff. Don’t ask me how.’ He touched the brickwork nearby, then leaned forward to sniff. ‘It’s all genuine,’ he said again, ‘don’t ask me how, but I think, I don’t know how, I think it’s all real. This is not just some film set.’ He broke off, turned away slightly and stood listening, holding one hand up to silence them, even though none of them had spoken.
‘I can hear something,’ he said. Roxx and another person approached as quietly as they could, and listened for a moment. Roxx shook his head,
‘No I can’t…’
They fell silent, holding their breath to listen intently, and there, on the very air, was a sound. It was a voice, thin and weak.
‘There’s someone in there!’ Boss Man said in something not far removed from a yelp. He began to back away towards the door.
‘I think it came from over there,’ Roxx said, pointing and starting to move in that direction. But Boss Man made no move and Roxx couldn’t get past him. After a second, Roxx said, ‘Hey man, move already, we need to go over there, check it out.
‘No, no no no! We don’t know it’s safe,’ Boss Man moaned, wringing his hands. Roxx looked at him.
‘Well, like, we’ll obviously have to be really careful…’
‘No. We can’t risk it. They might not even be human.’
‘What?’ Roxx shook his head in disbelief. He glanced back at the door. Everyone was crowding just inside the doorway, trying to see and hear, but at the same time, to stay safe. Roxx tried to push Boss Man out of the way and they had a little tussle, quickly abandoned as they had to leap back when there was an ominous sound somewhere nearby. Some brickwork was swaying slightly.
Roxx found himself back at the door, and Boss Man was trying to usher him through it.
‘No!’ Roxx protested, ‘we can’t just…’
Boss Man gave him an almighty shove and slammed the door shut behind them.
‘We’re not going in there, and that’s final!’ Roxx and a couple of the others tried to shout him down but he persisted. ‘We don’t know what we’d be getting into, and I for one don’t want to end up like that first guy.’
Roxx felt a rage grip him. He began to argue back. But a shout stopped him.
‘No!’ Mrs Mum stepped between Roxx and Boss Man. ‘No! We can’t go back in there – that door’s got to stay shut. We’ve got to think about ourselves. One person has already died and I for one intend to get out of here in a month’s time – I’ve got kids to think about!
Roxx looked around. Everyone seemed to be in agreement with Mrs Mum and Boss Man. They were all looking at him. Two men came to stand in front of the door, arms folded across their chests, barring the way back to the bombsite.
‘You are not opening that door,’ one of them said.
Roxx had to give in. He shrugged.
‘Okay, well, if that’s what everyone wants.’ He turned and went back to the windowsill where he had started out. The Druggie, white and sweating, clung to his arm.
‘It’s just too dangerous,’ she whispered. He put an arm around her scrawny shoulders and held her close.