The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1

Eggshell Skull

by M. J. Hyland

The alarm's not yet sounded, but Johnson opens the cell door, comes to my cot, shakes my shoulder.
     "Wake up."
     I'm awake.
     "Get dressed," he says. "It's time to go."
     I think he means it's time to walk free.
     "Your QC's here."
     I dress fast and nick one of Stevenson's extra-strong mints from the table.
     Johnson takes me through to the admissions room. He signs me in and gets another set of keys, and then we go to the corridor where the day ward and fit cell are. He opens the door marked INTERVIEW ROOM and we go in.
     Johnson locks the door from the inside.
     "Security regulations," he says.
     The room's small and gray-walled. There's a white table, four green plastic chairs, and a barred window. The wall to the right of the door is covered with MISSING and WANTED posters, and the wanted are all men and the missing are all girls, bar one.
     "Sit here," he says. "We'll wait."
     I sit facing the window and he sits next to me, and I pray he doesn't have plans to put his hands on me.
     "How are you getting on?" he wants to know, his knee swinging side to side and hitting mine.
     "OK," I say.
     "I keep waking up."
     "Bad thoughts."
     "Last night it was . . ."
     There's somebody out in the corridor. We both look to the door, but whoever's out there only stops for a moment, as though to listen, then goes on walking.
     Johnson's knee rests against mine.
     "Last night?" he says. "What was it last night?"
     "I woke with the same thought going over and over."
     "Like a broken record."
     "What was it?"
     "I can't remember."
     "Tell me."
     "I kept thinking: I'm on my way out. I don't want to be on my way out."
     "What do you think that means?"
     "I don't know."
     Johnson looks at his watch. "Your QC said he was coming before court. Must have got waylaid."
     "Who is he?" I ask.
     "Can't remember his name, but he's a QC and he's appointed by the court."
     "Is he good?"
     "Don't know, but he's a QC and that's what you need."
     I stand and go to the window, but I don't know why I've bothered. I can't stop him if that's what he wants.
     "Good view?"
     There's only a view of a brick wall about ten feet away.
     "Fuck all," I say. "I can see fuck all."
     At last, a knock at the door, the sound of a key rattling on a chain.
     "Come in," I say.
     Johnson laughs, gets up, and unlocks the door.
     My QC enters the room.
     "I'm Michael Edwards," he says, moving at speed to the table. "You must be Patrick Oxtoby."
     I stand and hold out my hand.
     "Yeah. Thanks for coming."
     "Let's get started."
     Johnson moves his chair to the other end of the table and Edwards sits across from me.
     He's gray-haired, somewhere in his fifties, and he has a deep dimple in his chin—the kind of bum-chin a boy at my school called Derek Blunk had. But it hardly matters what Edwards looks like; he's taking off his dark suit jacket and I see the silk lining and I know I'm about to talk to the man who's going to get me out of here.
     "I'm just sorry I couldn't get here sooner," he says. "We don't have much time."
     His words slur, too much saliva in his mouth.
     "I'm glad you could come," I say.
     In a matter of minutes, he'll deliver the good news: I'll be charged with assault and freed within days; another week in remand at the very most.
     "My car refused to start," he says. "Seems not to like the rain."
     "It's raining?"
     "Yes. It was."
     "Heavy rain?"
     "What kind of car do you drive?"
     "Listen. You'll be facing a committal hearing very soon, and it's very likely you're going to be tried for murder."
     "I'm not a fucking murderer."
     "Just listen. I'm going to do my level best for you. But these are difficult cases. Everything turns on your intention. The question is whether you intended to do grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm or whether you intended to murder."
     Johnson pulls his chair in closer to mine, and it scrapes hard against the floor.
     Edwards continues. "As for the rather unforeseeable nature of the victim's death, the law is strict: you must take your victim as you find him."
     "What does that mean?"
     "I'll explain more in a moment. Let's begin with your statement."
     He empties his briefcase on the table and some of the documents fall. I help pick them up. The first page of one is headed: THE TABLE OF MAIMS. Beneath that title are these words: FINGER: £1000. LEG: £2500.
     "What's this?" I ask.
     "You needn't worry about that," he says, the wetness in his voice all the worse. "That's for my civil work. Nothing concerning you."
     He puts the documents away.
     "How much is a head worth?" I ask.
     "That's funny," he says. "But you'd better keep that kind of humor under wraps during the trial."
     His double chin's covered in short black hairs, looks like a spider's fat gut. I'm boiling angry.
     "Whatever the fuck you tell me," I say, "that's what I'll do. I've got to get out of here."
     He looks at me as though he hates me.
     "OK," he says, "then listen closely."
     He talks in his flat, watery voice about the criminal law as it pertains to my case, about past cases involving the death of a victim who, but for a preexisting injury or medical condition, would not have died.
     There's no real defense unless, on the evidence, it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that I didn't intend to do grievous bodily harm. But if the blow to Welkin's head triggered a series of physiological events, or even one, that led to his death, then prima facie I'm guilty of murder.
     "Then I'll be OK," I say.
     I can't be convicted of murder. I only meant to wake the bastard up.
     But Edwards shakes his head, slow, with a kind of relish, as though he enjoys the fact I've failed to grasp the black letter of the law. "What makes you think you'll be OK?" he asks.
     "Because I didn't intend to kill him. I didn't intend to do serious harm. I didn't intend to do a serious injury."
     He puts his chubby hands on the table, palms up.
     "The problem here is that you used a serious weapon, and you applied this weapon to the victim's skull during the dead of night while the victim slept."
     Edwards mimes the act of a man lifting a weapon and bringing it down on another man's head. His right hand holds the imaginary weapon, his left hand, formed into a fist, stands in for the victim's head.
     "But I only meant to—"
     "You went to the victim's room in the early hours of the morning and hit him very solidly with a spanner, so you must have been thinking—" "An adjustable wrench," I say. "Pardon me?" says Edwards.
     "An adjustable wrench," says Johnson.
     "And when you hit him you intended to do some harm," says Edwards. "How much harm you intended to do is critical in this case, and the evidence points to a lot of harm—grievous bodily harm."
     "But I didn't want to kill him."
     "It may look as though you had a motive, of sorts. Not a strong one, but a motive nonetheless."
     It's beginning to seem as though the wrong gray man has been sent.

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