Malignant

The icy lake boils. The young woman struggles; a complicated dance of unchoreographed movements. The kicking legs, the out-stretched arms – hands slapping the water – have one purpose.

It won’t take long, Chad thinks. She is tiring; her waterlogged clothes are draining her strength. He crouches down and waits.

Her thrashing becomes less violent until she lays motionless, suspended just beneath the surface. He uses a branch from the undergrowth to drag the body nearer and lifts it out of the water. He cradles her head in his lap.

The slide and click of magnetic bolts followed Chad and his minder into the room and joined the nine other inmates and guards. Each pair was surrounded by the blue glow of electronic restraints, which added a grimness to the room’s cracked panes and flaking paintwork.

Two chairs and a trestle table, Formica chipped and lifting at the corners, had been set up at the front. Above these, a TV screen was showing ‘A Second Chance – It’s In Your Hands’. Theo Steinberg and his co presenter Wallis Lang filled the first frame. Chad looked away.

Some minutes later, Steinberg and Lang entered through a door at the side of the room. The man’s open jacket flashed an orange silk lining as he made a show of settling himself in front of the men, while Lang’s pencil slim skirt and high heels drew obscenities. Static crackled as the guards adjusted their electronic restraints.

“Welcome gentlemen, to the pre-production briefing for ‘A Second Chance.’” He shuffled papers, unable to look anyone in the eye. “As you know you’ve all been selected because of the interesting circumstances surrounding your initial convictions. Some of you were involved in well publicised trials,” – Chad felt Steinberg’s eyes flicker briefly in his direction – “while others were selected because of the horrific nature of your crimes. By agreeing to participate in the show’s third season, you’ve already achieved financial security for your loved ones.  Now you have the opportunity for your sentences to be commuted or even overturned. If our viewers like your performance, of course.”

He turned towards Lang, her smile telegraphing it was more than they deserved. Chad wondered at Steinberg’s use of the word ‘agreeing’; it implied a choice but he was hard pressed to see what choice he’d had.

Lang moved to hand round legal documents and waivers. Steinberg continued.

“You’ll see that under the 2025 amendments to the Criminal Justice Act, you are fully protected against any crimes committed for entertainment purposes.” The words sat uneasily with his smile.

Chad tuned out, focusing instead on the small print. He didn’t trust Theo Steinberg. He needed to be clear he understood the implications of what he was about to do. But there it was, hidden amongst the sub clauses and footnotes, just as Steinberg had said.

The show’s hosts watched as the men scanned the lines.

“Please read all your documents carefully; they’ve been put together for your protection. Even convicted criminals have rights.” Contempt laced Steinberg’s words.

“What about the rights of our – victims?” asked Chad.

Lang, frowning in Steinberg’s direction, said, “They’re all specially chosen: all Malignants. Their families have been fully compensated.” She shook her head to signal there was no need for them to worry. The conversation was closed.

“You’re Chad Wheaton aren’t you?” It was Theo Steinberg standing over him. Chad flicked his gaze upwards then returned to his documents.

“I remember your trial: a bank job to fund experimental treatment for your daughter.” He pulled at his jacket, fussing with his cuffs. Chad raised his head; the two men locked eyes until Steinberg shiftily looked away.

“A desperate man will do desperate things,” said Chad.

“Quite. And how is your daughter; Sadie isn’t it?”

Chad felt a warning shock as Abner, his minder, tweaked the controls of his electronic restraint.

“She’s not good at the moment.”

“Tragic. And such a talented pianist.”

Chad pushed down the picture of Sadie’s wasted hands, withered to a living x-ray.

“So there’s no chance you’ll be backing out then. I mean, you wouldn’t want your sentence extended for refusing the Challenge.” Steinberg brushed imaginary fluff from the sleeve of his jacket. “Let’s hope the treatment works.”

 

Individual sealed envelopes were the last of the day’s paperwork – details of each contestant’s Challenge.

Chad ran a finger under the flap and pulled out a piece of card. The show’s logo was embossed in gold and underneath it was his name, followed by one word.

He breathed, and said, “Christ.”

Chad wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there after everyone had left: quite some time judging by the dim light sliding in dusty rectangles down the wall opposite. He sat forward, elbows on his thighs, regarding the envelope on the floor between his feet.

“There’s no rush to go,” said Abner. “When you’re ready.”

There’s a question – when would he be ready? When would he be ready to coldly plan to kill another human being? When would he be ready to carry it out with the same dispassion his father had used to kill chickens on the farm? Would he ever be ready?

He was pleased that Abner hadn’t hustled him back to the cells. He didn’t think he could face the rest of them just now. He had too much to think about. He wondered what Gillian, Sadie’s mother, would have thought about the mess he was in. For the first time, he found himself glad that she was dead.

“You think they’ve got you by the short and curlies, but you don’t have to do it, you know,” Abner tried again.

Chad grunted.

“And even if you go through with it, there’s no guarantee the audience’ll be happy.”

“There’s no other way,” he said.

Abner shrugged and slumped back in his seat, folding his arms.

It didn’t matter how Chad looked at it, he only had two choices: go through with the Challenge and all the turmoil that that involved, or back out and see his sentence doubled. But how could he do that? How could he abandon Sadie when she needed him most? His daughter was what kept him sane: thinking about her took him out of his mundane surroundings, away from the brutality of prison life. But he worried about her constantly. How far had the disease progressed? Was she able to take care of herself? Would they ever lead a normal life again? He missed her so much: another thirty years behind bars was not an option.

But what would she think if he did go through with it? What would she think of her father who’d murdered someone else’s child in an attempt to save his own? She’d stopped accepting his actions long ago, yet she lacked the maturity to understand that life was lived in a compromise of grey.

He exhaled deeply. He needed a drink. A cigarette. Something.

His teeth chatter. He tries to pull his jacket closer. Pins and needles prickle his thigh.

The film crew will arrive shortly. Wallis Lang will lick her lips before asking, ‘What was it like? How do you feel?’ He is bone tired.

Dragging her out of the water has made her skirt ride up her stick-thin legs, encased in woollen tights. He repositions himself and straightens her clothing. The sun’s last rays make her ashen skin look waxy. He traces the M, the sign of a Malignant, tattooed on her neck, strokes the soft lobe of her ear and gently tucks a lock of hair behind it. There is something about her that reminds him of Sadie. The up turned nose, or the long pianist fingers.

A man and a woman come crashing towards him, through the stand of silver birch that borders the lake. The man carries a camera at his shoulder while Wallis Lang speaks breathlessly into a microphone. “Welcome back to ‘A Second Chance’: the game show where ‘It’s In Your Hands’. We’ve caught up with Chad Wheaton at the lakeside where he’s just completed his Challenge. Chad – what’s it like for a thief to turn to murder?”

A camera is pushed into his face. He rocks slowly back and forth. Lang is embarrassed by the silence.

“Perhaps we can get some studio reaction, Theo?” Steinberg’s face, shiny with sweat, fills the camera monitor. Chad can see serried banks of seating rising upwards in a semi circle behind the presenter. They disappear into blackness beyond the reach of the studio lights. A hostile, baying crowd fills them; lager louts, hen parties, baby boomer senior citizens, all looking for excitement and drama.

Wow! That’s generated some feeling here, Wallis. We’ve got a mix of thumbs up and down so I make that a fifty-fifty chance at the moment. But remember viewers – It’s In Your Hands.”

He turns to a man with a crew cut, waving a beer bottle at the camera.

“Let’s get some initial response from our studio audience. What do you think about Chad Wheaton’s performance?”

“What a coward’s trick – drowning! What’s entertaining about that?”

“So you’d have preferred a more violent murder?”

“Too right!”

Steinberg moves on to another section of the audience, thrusts his microphone at random into the crowd. “How about you; what’s your impression of this week’s contestant?”

A woman replies this time. “I like how he’s not leaping about, bragging about what he’s done. Shows he’s got some … humility, I guess.”

The studio camera pans back to focus on Steinberg. “There you are, mixed feelings so far here at the studio. Wallis?”

“Thanks, Theo. Let’s see if we can get a comment from this week’s contestant. Chad – how do you feel?”

As Chad watches the action in the studio, his senses return, his heart races like a runaway car. The wind in the trees behind roars. Eyes glittering, Lang prompts him again. “Chad – a word for the audience on how you feel now you’ve fulfilled your Challenge.”

            He shifts his position again and moves the woman’s head from his lap. He stands, brushes down his trousers, turns to face the camera.

            “Actually, I feel fine, Wallis.” He shakes out his cramped legs. “After all, she was only a Malignant.”

            A sly smile spreads across Lang’s face.

“That was Chad Wheaton and you’re watching ‘A Second Chance’. Remember, ‘It’s In Your Hands’.”

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