Here we go, first fight of the day. I can hear trouble a few blocks down. Someone's screaming. Sounds like they're being strangled. This kind of thing used to shock me, even scare me, but you get used to it pretty quick. It's par for the course in this place. You can't go for anything longer than a couple of hours here without...

Jesus Christ! Bewsey just scared the hell out of me. I thought he was still asleep. Shit, he just sat bolt upright looking like he's just seen a ghost or had his parole turned down or something. Bloody hell, his face is ashen white. Something's not right with him.

'All right, Bewsey?' I ask.

Bewsey doesn't answer. He's just sitting there, looking at me with this dumb, puzzled expression on his face. Now he's starting to rub at the side of his neck, like he's strained it or something.

'You okay?' I ask him again. Being in this place has made me suspicious of everyone, no matter how harmless they might make themselves out to be. I don't trust him. I'm starting to think that he's either trying to trick me into getting closer or he's about to have a full blown panic attack. Either way I'm stopping over here on my bunk, right out of the way.

'I can't...' he starts to say as he rubs at the side of his neck again. He's looking into space but then his eyes dart up to look above me. Salman is trying to climb down from his bunk above mine. He's half-tripping, half-falling down. Now he's doubled-up with pain and he's coughing and wheezing like he can't catch his breath. He's dragged himself over to the sink. Christ, he's spitting up blood. What the hell is going on here? Now Bewsey's up on his feet and he's grabbing and scratching at his neck too.

'What is it?' I ask but he can't even hear me, never mind answer. He's not messing around. I can tell that this is for real. The cell is suddenly filled with their hoarse, grating coughing and rasping screams for help. The fact that it's happening to both of them is enough to make me... Wait, Bewsey can't breathe. Bloody hell, the poor bastard can't get any oxygen. He's up on his feet and he's trying to take in air but it looks like his throat is blocked. I have to do something. I push him back down onto the bed. He tries to get up again but then collapses back onto the mattress. His body starts to shake and he tries to move but all his strength has gone. I can hear Salman moaning and coughing behind me and I can hear similar noises coming from other cells around this one. I glance back over my shoulder just in time to see Salman fall to the ground and smack his head against the wall.

Bewsey is convulsing now and it's taking all my strength to keep him down on the bed. There's panic in his eyes. They're as wide as fucking saucers and they're staring straight at me like he thinks that whatever's happening to him is my fault. There's blood on his lips. Shit, there's a dribble of blood trickling down his cheek from the corner of his mouth. He's stopped shaking now. Bad sign. Fuck, he's grabbed hold of my arm and he's squeezing it so bloody hard I think he's going to break it. More blood now. Fucking hell. He arches his back and then crashes down onto the bed.

I just stand and look at him for a second before touching his neck and checking for a pulse.

He's dead. Jesus Christ, he's dead.

I stare at Bewsey's body for so long that I almost forget about Salman lying on the floor of the cell behind me. I turn around and I can tell by the way he's lying that he's dead too. Like Bewsey there's blood trickling from his mouth and there's more pouring out from a deep cut on his head.

And now I realise that I can't hear anyone else.

The whole bloody prison block has suddenly gone quiet. It's silent. I've never known it like this before. I'm scared. Jesus Christ I'm scared.

'Help!' I scream, pushing my face hard against the bars and trying to look down the corridor and across the landing. I can't see anyone. 'There are men dead in here. Help! Please, someone, help!'

Shit, I'm crying like a bloody baby now. I don't know what to do. This cell is on the middle floor. I can see the bottom of the staircase which leads up to the top landing. I can see one of the officers sprawled over the last few steps. I don't know whether he fell or whether what killed Salman and Bewsey has got him too. Even from a distance though I can see that he's dead.

For almost half an hour Flynn stood in the corner of the cell in shock. He pushed himself hard against the wall, trying to get as far away as possible from the two bodies incarcerated there with him. It was a while before the initial panic began to subside and his brain was able to function with enough clarity to start trying to make sense of the situation. What had happened to the two men who shared this cell? Why had the rest of the prison also fallen silent? Why did he seem to be the only one left alive?

A few minutes later and Flynn's logical thinking helped him to arrive at the cruellest realisation of all. He dropped to the ground and began to sob uncontrollably. He was trapped. Much as he was used to being locked in this small, dark, depressing space for endless hours on end, he realised now that, for the first time, there really was no way out. There would be no exercise or work sessions today. There would be no meals, showers or classes or counselling sessions. If it was true and he really was the only one left here, then there was no-one left alive to let him out of his cell.

As the day wore on and no-one came and nothing more happened, Flynn painfully began to accept that, without warning or explanation, the term of his prison sentence had been dramatically extended to life. No parole, no early release, life. Paradoxically, he also knew that without food or water, this life sentence would ultimately be much shorter than the minimum length of time the law had originally decreed he serve.

All he could do was sit and wait.

BRIGID CULTHORPE

Brigid Culthorpe yawned, rubbed her eyes and squinted at the spraypaint-covered sign at the end of the street, hoping to make out the name of the road they had just turned into.

'It's like a bloody maze round here,' she grumbled to her partner, PC Marco Glover. 'Don't know how you can tell one road from another.'

Glover grunted and nodded as he slowed the patrol car down and coaxed it gently over a speed bump.

'You get used to it,' he said. 'Believe me, you'll spend plenty of time down here. It only took me a few weeks to get my bearings on this beat.'

'Get much trouble down here?'

'Virtually all the trouble we get starts down here,' the grey-haired policeman sighed wearily. 'Every town has an estate like this. It's a dumping ground. It's where the scum and the unfortunate end up, and the scum don't think twice about praying on those folks who can't look after themselves. And even if the trouble doesn't start here, wherever it kicks off it's usually people from round here who start it.'

'Nice,' Culthorpe muttered as the car clattered over another bump.

'Not really,' Glover mumbled. 'Right, here we go, Acacia Road . Sounds okay but...'

'...but it isn't,' Culthorpe interrupted, finishing her colleague's sentence for him. The car stopped. She climbed out and looked down the length of the desolate street. Ten or twenty years ago this might have been a decent area, she thought. Today, however, it was anything but decent. Unchecked weeds sprouted wildly between the cracks in the pavements where overgrown and unruly front lawns had spilled over the remains of collapsed walls and fences. The battered wrecks of old, half-stripped down cars sat useless outside equally dilapidated houses. Uncollected and overflowing black sacks of rubbish had been dumped in piles waiting for a council collection that would probably never come. Acacia Road was a grey, dead and depressing scene. Culthorpe's throat was dry. Not long out of training, an uneasy mixture of nerves, adrenaline and trepidation filled her stomach.

'Which number was it?' Glover asked as he walked around the back of the car to stand next to her.

'Forty-six,' she replied. 'Come on then.'

The male officer began walking down the road. Culthorpe followed, checking the numbers on each one of the dark, shell-like buildings as she walked. They passed number four (which, as it was between numbers twenty-two and twenty-six, was most likely actually number twenty-four) and increased their speed. Thirty-eight, forty, forty-two, forty-four and then they were there. Number forty-six. The number had been daubed on the wall in off-white emulsion paint next to the boarded-up window in the front door. From the end of the path they could already hear the argument taking place inside. She noticed the remains of a large piece of furniture in the middle of the overgrown lawn. The front bedroom window had been smashed and a pair of thin, grey curtains blew out in the early morning breeze like a dirty flag. It didn't take a genius to work out what had happened.

'What gets me,' Glover moaned as he forced open the garden gate (the bottom hinge was broken and it scraped noisily along the ground) and began to walk up the path, 'is the fact that these people are even awake at this time. You know, most of them are usually off their faces on booze or drugs and they don't open their eyes before mid-afternoon. Bloody hell, these people shouldn't even be awake yet, never mind having a domestic before eight o'clock in the bloody morning.'

'Probably still up from last night,' Culthorpe suggested.

'You're probably right,' Glover agreed. 'Bloody dirty bastards. More bloody trouble than they're worth...'

Culthorpe smiled to herself. Glover was a far more experienced officer than she was, but even after just a couple of days working with him she had already learnt to read him like a book. As he got closer to an incident and became more nervous, she'd noticed, he started to swear. She, on the other hand, became more controlled and focussed as dangerous situations approached. It was the idea of conflict that she didn't like. Once she was actually there in the middle of the trouble doing something about it she could handle herself as well as the next man. In fact, she could usually handle herself better than the next man.

'What's this bastard's name again?' asked Glover, nodding towards the grim building they now stood outside.

'Shaun Jenkins,' Culthorpe replied. 'The call came in from his partner, Faye Smith. Said he was threatening her and the kids.'

'And how many kids was it?'

'Three,' she replied as she reached up and banged on the door. 'Open up please, Shaun. It's the police.'

No answer. Culthorpe hammered her fist on the door again. She could hear something happening inside. A child crying and then heavy, desperate footsteps trying to get to the door. A collision and a muffled scream. Jenkins, it seemed, was having a last ditch attempt to sort out the so called domestic problem - whatever it was - without police involvement.

Glover leant forward and thumped on the door.

'Open up,' he bellowed, 'or I'll kick the door down.'

'Fuck off,' a hoarse, angry voice spat from just inside the building. Glover exchanged a momentary glance with Culthorpe before stepping back and kicking the lock. They could hear more struggling inside the house. Something slammed against the back of the door - Faye Smith, presumably - and it then opened inwards. Culthorpe barged her way in through the half-open door and lurched towards Jenkins who was grabbing at Smith, trying to drag her up onto her feet so that he could kick her back down again. In a single movement Culthorpe marched through the hallway, grabbed the junkie by the scruff of his scrawny neck and dragged him into the nearest room where she threw him onto a magazine, beer can and cigarette butt-covered sofa. A large, solid woman, she had a weight advantage over most people so this scarred and drug-addled excuse for a man didn't have a hope. Even if he'd been lucid enough to be able to react he still would have had no chance.

Culthorpe glanced back at Faye Smith who lay on the threadbare hall carpet in a sobbing heap.

'I'll look after this one,' she shouted to Glover. 'You get her and the kids sorted out.'

Glover helped Smith to her feet. She wrestled herself from his grip and began to limp towards the room at the far end of the hallway. The policeman could just make out the shape of a child waiting anxiously in the shadows of the kitchen. He saw two more children - both boys, both half-dressed - standing at the top of the staircase, peering down through a gap in the banister.

'It's all right, lads,' he said, 'your mum's okay. You stay up there and get yourselves dressed and we'll be up to see you in a couple of minutes.'

Glover glanced to his right and saw that Culthorpe was in complete control in the living room. He had to admit, she was turning out to be bloody good in situations like this. He was happy for her to take the lead, despite her relative inexperience. She stood tall over Jenkins. The wiry little man squirmed on the sofa.

'Do you want to tell me what's been going on here, Shaun,' she asked him, 'or should I...?'

A sudden spit of hissing crackle and static from her radio interrupted her. Annoyed and distracted she grabbed at it, keeping one hand tight around Jenkins' neck. Through the white noise and interference she thought for a moment that she could hear something. Muffled, unnatural sounds. It sounded as if someone at the other end was being strangled or choked or...

A sudden movement from Jenkins immediately refocused the police officer.

'Look, Shaun,' she began, 'we can do this here or we can...'

Jenkins' face began to change. His vacant, drugged-up expression disappeared and suddenly became more alert. Culthorpe tensed and reached for the baton on her belt, sensing that he was about to attack. The man tried to push himself up from the sofa but then stopped and fell back down. The expression on his face had again changed. His features began to twist and contort with sudden shock and pain.

'What's the matter?' Culthorpe asked, still cautious of the junkie. 'What's wrong?'

Jenkins grabbed at his throat and she relaxed her grip. His breathing changed. His drug-fuelled panting became shallow, irregular and forced. She could hear him beginning to rasp and rattle. Was he for real? Christ, what should she do? She hadn't covered this in training. Did she risk trying to help him or should she call Glover and... and the colour in his face was beginning to drain. Bloody hell, there was no way he was faking this. Was it a seizure or a fit brought on by whatever he'd taken or was it something she'd done? Had she used too much force...? Jenkins' eyes, already wild and dilated, began to bulge as he fought for breath. He threw himself back in suffocating agony and began to desperately claw at his inflamed throat. 'Glover!' Culthorpe shouted. 'Glover, get yourself in here now!'

Culthorpe had to take a chance. She grabbed Jenkins' flailing legs and laid him out flat on the sofa. He arched his back in pain, his willowy frame beginning to shake and convulse furiously. Pressing down on his bare chest with one hand she tried to hold his thrashing head still with the other and clear his airway. Suddenly motionless for the briefest of moments, the odious addict then let out a tearing, agonising cough of pain and suffocation which splattered the police officer with blood and spittle. Shocked and repulsed she staggered back and wiped her face clean.

'Shit,' she cursed. 'Glover, where are you?'

Still no response from her partner. Jenkins began to convulse again and she forced herself to move back closer towards him. It was her duty to try and save his life, much as she knew it wasn't worth saving. She crouched down next to him. By the time she'd decided what she needed to do he'd already lost consciousness. He wasn't moving.

'Glover!' she yelled again. Now that Jenkins was still she could hear more noises all over the dark, dank and squalid house. Her heart thumping in her chest, she stood up and walked cautiously towards the door. From the kitchen came a sudden crashing noise as plates, dishes and glasses fell to the ground and smashed. Culthorpe ran into the room and found Glover, Faye Smith and one of her three children sprawled motionless on the cold, sticky linoleum, surrounded by the remains of the food and crockery which had been knocked off a now upturned table. They were all dead. Smith, Glover and the child at her feet were dead, as was Jenkins when she returned to him. She ran upstairs. The two children up there were dead too. One was in the bathroom, the corpse wedged between the base of the sink and the toilet pan. She found his brother lying on the carpet next to his bed. Both of the children were white-faced but with crimson, almost black blood dribbling from their silent mouths.

With clumsy, nervous hands Culthorpe reached for her radio again and called for assistance. The familiar sound of hissing static cut through the silence, reassuring her momentarily.

She yelled desperately into the radio for help. No-one answered.

PETER GUEST

I keep going over the conversation in my head again and again and again, and every time I see Joe's face it hurts me more. I've been close before but I know I've really done it this time. I've made a huge mistake.

What happened at home this morning has been brewing for weeks, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it. Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped and that I don't have any control. I'm trying to do my best for everyone but no-one can see it, and at the same time everyone blames me whenever anything goes wrong. I'm starting to think that whichever way I turn and whatever I do I'll end up pissing someone off and paying one hell of a price. I can't stop looking at the clock. It's almost eight. Jenny will have Joe ready for school now. He'll be in the playground with his friends before long and everything that happened last night and this morning will be forgotten until he gets home. He kept telling me it didn't matter but I could see that it did. He kept telling me it was all right and that there'd be another time but there's no escaping the fact that I've let my son down again. The trouble is, how can I justify sitting in a school hall watching my child's first class assembly when I should be at the office, closing a deal that's taken days and weeks of effort to bring to the table? I know that in financial terms there's no competition and the office has to take precedence, but I also know that on just about every other level I should be putting work at the very bottom of the pile. It's hard to do that. The pressure they're putting me under is immense. And worst of all, I have this gnawing, nagging emptiness in the pit of my stomach which is telling me this morning that I might have just paid a price that can't be measured in pounds and pence.

It wouldn't matter so much if this were the first time. It wouldn't even be that bad if it was only the second or third time either. Truth is because of work I seemed to have missed just about every notable landmark event in Joe's short life so far. I missed his first day at playgroup because of an off-site meeting and I missed his first morning at nursery because I was in Hong Kong on a business trip. I missed his first day at school. I missed his first nativity play and his first proper birthday party with his friends. And why did I miss all of those things? If I'm honest, I truly believed that I was doing it all for Jenny and Joe. I just want us to have a good standard of living and not to want for anything. If that means I have to work long hours and be dedicated to my job then so be it, that's what I'm prepared to do.

Jenny doesn't see things that way. She used to, but she doesn't anymore.

She really laid into me last night when I took the call and told her I was going to be at the office early. She started hurling all kinds of threats and accusations in my direction, telling me that we were getting close to the point where I was going to have to make a choice between my career and my family. She's said things like that before, but last night it felt different. I could tell that she meant every last word she said. I tried again to tell her that I was only doing it for her and Joe but she wasn't listening. She asked me if I could imagine a time when I didn't work for the company and I said that I could. It might still be a long way off, but I know the day will eventually come when I don't work for them any longer. Then she asked me if I could imagine being without her and Joe. I said that I couldn't and that I didn't even want to think about it. She said that was the choice I had to make. If they were more important to me than work, why did I keep choosing work over them?

Bloody hell, I know she's right and I know I should be stronger, but the company has got me by the balls.

Traffic's bad this morning. God, that'd be bloody ironic, wouldn't it, if the traffic makes me late for the meeting after all the grief I've had over this. I'm over halfway there now and it's been pretty much bumper to bumper since I left home. This isn't unusual. This is the main route into town and I know that a lot of commuters will be turning off and heading for the motorway soon, leaving the last mile or so to the office relatively clear.

Last major set of traffic lights coming up. I might be sitting here for the next ten minutes or so but, once I'm through, I should be at the office pretty quickly. I'll get this meeting done and I'll see if I can't get away a little earlier tonight. I'll find a way of making it up to Joe and Jen. If we get the deal closed this morning we all stand to get a decent payout next month. I'll take them out for dinner tonight and put it on the credit card. I'll take them for a pizza or a burger, Joe will love that. Maybe we could go to the cinema if he's not too tired after school. I can't keep him out too late. Perhaps I'll take them at the weekend. Maybe I'll just get them both something from town at lunchtime. But I don't want it to seem like I'm just trying to pay for...

Bloody hell, what was that? As I pulled away from the lights just then I'm sure I saw a car going out of control on its way down the bypass. There's no way I can turn back. There are plenty of other people about and there's probably nothing I could do anyway. The police watch all these roads on CCTV and they'll be on the scene before... Jesus Christ! I'm just heading down into the Heapford tunnel and I've seen another crash at the top of the slip road I've just pulled off. I went by so fast I didn't really see what happened. There was a blue-grey estate and it smacked into the back of another car. They both went spinning across the carriageway. Thank God I missed it. I hope everyone involved is all right and I don't want to sound completely uncaring, but I can't afford to be delayed today. A minute or so later and I would have been stuck in the tailback and chaos that rush-hour crashes always leave behind.

Down into the relative darkness of the tunnel. The light quickly fades and I listen to how the sounds change around me - the signal on the radio disappears and the noise of the city is muffled and snuffed out by the sounds of car engines echoing around the inside of the tunnel. The road ahead bends away to the left. I can see the bright red glow of brake lights up ahead. Drivers are always having to brake sharply at the end of this tunnel. They just don't anticipate the filter system. Everyone drives too fast down here and... and there are quite a few cars backed up now. Bloody hell, I hope it is just the filter and nothing more serious. I'm cutting it fine now. To be stuck this close to the office would be just unbelievable.

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