A sketchy kind of trade

My dreams of freedom, and long walks hand in hand with Luke were rudely interrupted by sharp beeping of the keypad by the cell door, forcing me back into my claustrophobic reality. It had to still be night time – I was in pitch black darkness – and my sleeping eyes were dazzled when the door swung forward to let in the harsh white lighting of the corridor. A guard dressed in black hovered nearby, her uniform a dark blur in the blaze.

“Dress. Now.”

I stripped off my night shirt and tugged on the red shirt and trousers I’d left crumpled at the foot of my bed, not quite awake enough to be embarrassed at having an audience. As per standard procedure, the guard gave my prison garb the final touch; a wire thin collar that she fastened around my neck. If I made a move she didn’t like, or gave her cheek, she now had the means to deliver a jolt of pain so strong that I’d be a wreck on the floor for the next half hour. I tried it once, to better know the enemy; it was every bit as as terrible as I’d been promised.

“Let’s go.”

I followed the guard out of the cell block and into one of the meeting areas; a single office door was waiting for me, open, where a tired-looking scientist was waiting for me behind a desk. I’d seen him before – Dr Barnes, watching us inmates eat from the observation balcony above the canteen – and I felt the same dangerous vibes as I had then. Barnes must have been around fifty years old, with a forehead deeply trenched from frowning, and a mouth free from laughter lines. He was tall, solid but not fat, and the shirt under his white coat was food stained like he hadn’t been home in a while. If this was early morning, maybe he was pulling an all-nighter. He gestured for me to take a seat, and told the guard to wait outside.

“So, you’re here for twenty years.”

Something inside me tightened a little in fear. No pleasantries? Not even a ‘hi’?

“I can get you out in five.”

Surprise jerked me out of my internal over-analysis, and I tried not to stare back with my mouth hanging open. Fifteen whole years off my sentence? Suddenly all the things I missed in life didn’t feel so far removed. Home. Luke. I could already picture his shocked face, and feel the warm hug he’d give me across the visitors table, ignoring the warnings of the guards…

Unimpressed that I was daydreaming, the Dr Barnes continued, “I need more people for a study I’m running, and I think you’d be a good match – we can confirm with some blood tests. You have to do what I tell you, follow the programme for twelve months of treatments, and three years of follow ups and observations, and then you would be released in return for good service.”

If this man had given me a balloon filled with hope, I could now sense the pin waiting to pierce it.

“Treatments?” I repeated nervously.

“Yes, treatments. Drug treatments – first in hu- I mean, safety trials.”

First in human trials. I.e, very, very risky. Who hadn’t read stories of drug trials where people died, painfully, within hours of taking some new pill? I knew that wasn’t exactly a common occurrence, but death wasn’t the only risk. What if I had to spend the next year immobilised by paralysis, or curled up in agony, or unable to think straight…?

“What kind of drug?” I asked, trying to buy time to process it all.

Dr Barnes seemed surprised that I had a question for him – I wondered if his existing ‘participants’ had all agreed without hesitation.

“It’s a new approach to combatting skin cancers; I don’t have time to go into the biology of it, but essentially I’ve found a way of delivering a drug that can distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cells, and break down the ‘undesirables’ without leaving hormones or chemicals that would damage the liver or kidneys.”

“But I don’t have any skin cancers…” I said slowly, feeling like I was missing something.

“…that you know of…”

“What?!”

“Sorry, sorry, I’m not suggesting that you do have cancer, but no one knows for sure. One of the first things we’d do is run some tests, just to confirm. You’d have a thorough health check, so we have a baseline. You don’t have to have cancer to be in the trial – we’re interested in drug safety at this point.”

Something was wrong – his last words were rushed, and emotive in a way that felt false. And suddenly he was watching me closely, like he wished he could hear what I was thinking. Was he desperate to recruit more participants? Or was there something else? I had a strong feeling that he was hiding something from me, and I realised there was something else odd here.

“Why are you recruiting for a drug trial in a prison? At whatever time of night this is?”

His jaw twitched, but before he could answer the guard outside coughed loudly and entered the office, her hand in the jacket pocket of the device that could activate my collar.

“I think this inmate needs to go back to her cell,” she said firmly. I noticed she held out three fingers of the free hand perched on her hip, trying to be covert, and Dr Barnes shook his head and slowly flexed two fingers of his right hand. A plan? A strategy? Why?

Before I could ask, I felt white heat streak down by spine like I’d been struck by lightening – the collar. Incredibly, this was worse than before – I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, and I couldn’t feel my limbs; I was trapped, alone, being sucked in my own private hell. I tried to speak, to ask for help, but even the simple act of breathing seemed impossible. My chest stuttered and convulsed, desperate for air, and I was helpless. Darkness beckoned, and finally took hold.

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