Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in journals many times including Bourbon Penn, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice Fiction, Foliate Oak and Able Muse.
Tim Frank is an upcoming writer specialising in the comic, the dark and the surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and is currently writing a sci-fi thriller novel.
A Season in Hell
As family and friends filtered into the prisoners' visiting room, they took their seats and picked up the phones in the booths, desperate to catch up with their loved ones. Liam Randall's mum greeted him by pressing her hand against the glass. One of the guards, Cartwright, hovered around absorbing snippets of conversation from the variety of criminals until he stopped by Liam and his mum. She said, ‘I don't like you getting so involved with other inmates. You're not like them. You're different, sensitive.’ ‘I've made my bed now I have to lie in it,’ said Liam. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘All I'm saying is that I've offered to help some cons in here and some of them are good people, whatever you or the outside world thinks, and I don't want to let them down. To be honest I'm learning a lot from the characters in here. One day it'll be useful for a part.’ ‘How can you think about an acting career? You've been put away for twenty-five years.’ ‘I'll find my way mum, please believe in me, you're the only person who cares on the outside.’ ‘Liam, I've always defended you but I want you to be realistic. You have to stay grounded and not fill yourself with fanciful ideas.’ Time was called and everyone said their goodbyes. A woman carrying a baby had to be forcibly dragged away as her screams echoed around the bare walls. The men, with their hands and feet shackled, were led back to their cells by Cartwright and a few other correctional officers. One by one, the prisoners shuffled into their lockups and slumped onto their beds dreaming of the outer world and how to get there. When it was Liam's turn the guard guided him inside and slammed the door shut without a word. But a few minutes later the door swung open again and Cartwright shepherded in a young man wearing an ill-fitting tracksuit. He had spots and sprouts of fluffy stubble on his face. He clutched a crumpled piece of paper with notes jotted on it. ‘You have forty minutes,’ said Cartwright as he drew the door closed and went to check in on the other inmates. ‘Take a seat Tyler,’ said Liam, showing the boy to the far end of the bed where a collection of Marvel DVDs was stacked on the shelf. ‘What have you got for me today?’ ‘It's this damn love letter. I'm just fumbling about. I'm struggling to get the spelling together and I can't put down what I'm thinking. This girl is the type who'll obsess about you if you've killed someone but send her one bad letter and that's it.’ ‘Let me see what I can do.’ ‘Thanks mate, I know you're busy. I mean I really don't see why you do this, what's the pay off? I know you don't smoke or do drugs.’ ‘I have a skill; it wouldn't be right if I didn't share it.’ ‘You're a good man. I know you didn't kill your wife, whatever the others say.’ ‘Thank you, Tyler, that means a lot.’ After thirty minutes Liam said, ‘I think we're about finished here, you're good to go. But are you sure you want to brag about killing that hooker on the highway? You know the guards read every letter that goes in and out of here.’ ‘What can they do to me? I've already got three life sentences. Chicks dig it.’ Liam banged on the door and Cartwright showed Tyler out and returned the young man to his cell. Liam flicked on the kettle and prodded the DVD remote, playing The Hulk for the hundredth time. Before he could get comfortable, Cartwright entered the room again and took a seat on Liam's bed. He looked up at the TV perched in the top corner of the chamber and said, ‘Why do you watch this rubbish?’ ‘What can I do for you officer?’ said Liam. ‘I'm taking this down from the message board,’ Cartwright said holding a photocopied piece of paper, advertising Liam's services. ‘Why would you do that?’ ‘I know you're helping the guys in the block, and you've been great. But it's time to move on.’ ‘What exactly...? ‘Hear me out. You've been noticed by someone who could really change your life. Jason Riley wants your help.’ ‘Jason Riley?’ ‘None other. He wants you to ghost-write his autobiography. You could become huge. It all fits so perfectly; I mean given the almost identical methods you both used to kill your victims. It's a neat angle don't you think?’ ‘Very neat. What's in it for you?’ ‘Well, now you mention it, there is something. I want you to teach me to be a writer. Everyone in here wants their bio written. You will write Riley's and I will write the next big book about some other psycho. What do you say?’ ‘I've never written a book before, I don't know.’ ‘Listen, I don't know if you killed your wife or not. No one in here agrees, but if you do this it would look good for parole, especially if you could get Riley to confess to other crimes.’ The kettle clicked and steam spewed out, while on the TV the Hulk was making his transformation. ‘What the hell. I'll do it.’ A few days later Cartwright guided Liam to the far reaches of cell block D. As they approached Riley's room, inmates from nearby cells held mirrors through bars and angled them at the two men striding down the hall. 'Also spoke Zarathustra' blasted out of Riley's cell and there was the smell of acrylic paint. Riley was attacking a large canvas with a paint brush, spreading red oil from corner to corner in large swooping motions. As Liam entered the room Riley turned and gave a maniacal grin. Cartwright left them to it as Riley clicked the music off and took a seat, repetitively tapping his foot and wiping his nose. Beside him were completed paintings of naked women, covered in blood. ‘You know how much these go for?’ Riley said. ‘Thousands.’ He laughed uncontrollably and pounded his thigh with his fist. After he settled down, he said, ‘I really appreciate your help. I know you've admired my work for a while. I have a number of copycats but you are the most interesting of them all. I've been wanting to meet you for some time now.’ ‘I'm no copycat,’ said Liam. ‘So, you think I killed your wife?’ ‘That's irrelevant for now. I'm here to help you that's all and if all goes well I will be handsomely rewarded. You will too, and I think we should concentrate on that. So, shall we get down to it?’ ‘Yes, of course, how shall we begin?’ Liam pulled out a notepad and pen from his back pocket and said, ‘Let's start with your family history.’ ‘OK, that's fine for now, but for the future it's too predictable, too clichéd. I want to inspire my readers' minds,’ Riley said as he stood and paced around the tiny space that was crowded with canvases. ‘Listen to this, you know why I killed the way I did? The movies. Every girl I killed was a homage to a killing in a film I admired and you know why? Because my parents were never at home and I had free reign to watch any horror or thriller I wanted. Of course, when they came back and found out they beat the hell out of me. It carried on like that for years until I got old enough to graduate from watching murder to doing it myself.’ Riley sunk back into his chair and sighed. He wore a grim expression - all signs of joy now dispelled. ‘I'm tired,’ he said. ‘Let's carry on with this tomorrow.’ The next day Riley claimed he was ill and it took two weeks for him to allow Liam to return. When they did hook up again Riley was reading aloud from a screenplay at the top of his lungs. ‘And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!’ As Riley caught sight of Liam, he dropped what he was reading, gave his visitor a vigorous handshake and said, ‘I apologise, I've been very sick but I'm ready to continue our work now. Sit, sit. I want to tell you all about what I believe in.’ ‘OK,’ said Liam, ‘but I was really hoping we could concentrate more on the method of your murders today. I think people would like to know the facts.’ ‘Yes, yes, we'll come to that, but the killings are far deeper than just evidence. There's so much more meaning behind them. Oh, I have so many things to tell you. I'm misunderstood Randall, greatly misunderstood, but in this life or the next I want people to truly know who I am. Once that happens, they will see my greatness. Tell me, which actress from the movies would you most like to kill?’ ‘I'm not sure if... ‘ ‘Come on Randall we both know you and me have the same taste. What floats your boat?’ ‘Really, I think we should focus on you - how you did it, that sort of thing.’ ‘What films do you like? I hear you want to be an actor, is that true?’ ‘How did you know that?’ ‘People talk. Come on, I think finding out about you would be a good way of finding out about me.’ Realising a simple question and answer session was impossible Liam put his pen and pad aside and said, ‘I like comic book movies. I don't like things you have to think too much about.’ ‘And you a convicted felon hope to act in one of those someday?’ Riley said bursting into laughter. Riley picked up a couple of well-thumbed books from his bed. ‘Here I want you to read these. They're French symbolist poetry. I've written notes in the margin. I thought it might help with the bio. And you can lend me one of your films in return, how about that?’ ‘Sure OK.’ ‘What a great, great day. I really think we're making progress.’ Riley squeezed his temples and squinted. ‘That's enough excitement. Come back when you've read the books. I'll get Cartwright to deliver one of your DVDs to me later.’ Liam paid a visit to Riley three days later. Riley was laid out flat on his bed. His canvases had been cleared away and neatly piled against the wall. When Riley noticed Liam had stepped into his cell Riley raised his arm, pointing a finger, warning Liam he was deep in thought and not to be disturbed. After a minute Riley sat up straight and placed his feet on the ground. He wrapped the wire hooks of his glasses around his ears and looked at Liam with a sober aspect in his eyes. ‘Have you read the books?’ said Riley. ‘What books?’ ‘The books. The books I leant to you goddammit.’ ‘Oh, those, yes, sure I have.’ ‘Oh really? Because it took me years to read them. Longer to fully absorb. They have that much meaning, and you're saying to me you've read them in three days. It's impossible.’ ‘Well so what if I didn't read your beloved poems, I'm here to write a book about murder. That's what people want and that's what they'll get. So, can we please get to work and stick to the topic?’ ‘You don't want a book; you want a list of statistics. Have you no imagination? I'm giving you my soul; my essence and you couldn't care less.’ ‘Well, did you watch the movie I gave you?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘And?’ ‘It's about zombies. What do you want me to say?’ ‘Fine, I'll take it back and return your books next time.’ Riley ejected the DVD, snapped it in half, grabbed hold of Liam, and held the jagged edge of the disc to Liam's neck. ‘Don't make a sound. I don't want the books back,’ growled Riley. ‘You have no interests, no insight - in art, life or people.’ Liam took short swift breaths and tried to wrestle himself free. He could feel the DVD slide across his skin but it was too blunt to draw blood. Liam yelled for help and a few seconds later two guards bundled in and seized Riley. He allowed himself to be dragged away without protest. Riley was put in the hole for two weeks and in that time Liam continued to tutor Cartwright in the prison library. During one writing session, while Riley was still in the hole, Cartwright said, ‘Will you carry on with the biography?’ ‘I don't know yet,’ said Liam, ‘is it even safe?’ ‘We can ensure that. You know it’s funny, Riley has never been violent since he was imprisoned. You must have really got under his skin. If I may be so bold, I have some advice for your project.’ Liam closed one of the poetry books Riley had lent him, called A Season in Hell. Liam hadn't even finished reading the foreword. ‘You need to placate Riley, let him drift off with his wild trains of thought and then sift through the junk. I'm sure you'll find nuggets of gold. Maybe that way you'll find some clues as to whether he killed your wife. Anyway, you know writing, structure, technique but I know these prisoners and how they tick. What I'm trying to say is if you need help I'm here for you, just like you've been here for me.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Liam with bitterness, ‘when I need your expert opinion I'll be sure to seek your counsel. Maybe you could start by reading this book of poems for me.’ He slid them across the table and Cartwright inspected it, grunted and then put it in his jacket that was hung over the back of his chair. Liam visited Riley a few days after he was released from the hole. His cell was bare, no paintings, no books, no DVDs. ‘I'm so grateful you've decided to continue with our work. What I did to you was inexcusable. It certainly won't happen again and I hope somehow we can be friends. As you can imagine I've had a lot of time to think and I'd like for us to do a deal. I'm ready to confess to murdering your wife. But firstly, I want you to admit it was you who really did it.’ ‘I don't understand.’ ‘I've killed many women Liam, but I've always been convinced I didn't kill her. However, as the years have passed my memory has become hazy. Gossip and rumours persist, you're aware of that as well as I am. I need to know who did it, so I can relieve my conscience. So, I just want you to tell me the truth and then I will go on record and confess. I'll be repaying you for the work you have and will do for me. After all what difference does it make if they pin another one on my record? Then you will be free and we can continue our project once you are on the outside. So, do you admit that you killed your wife?’ Liam's eyelid twitched a number of times but other than that he remained poised and calm. ‘I didn't kill my wife. If you say it wasn't you then I believe you. But I didn't do it.’ ‘Then it must have been me. I apologise for ruining your life but I was positive I played no part in that crime. Bring a tape recorder and we'll right this wrong for good.’ After Riley had confessed it wasn't long before Liam was roaming the city streets, searching for an acting role. He'd ditched the biography - wanting nothing to do with Riley or the accompanying memories. He'd written a superhero script and had pitched it to a number of production companies, but to no avail. A year or so after his release Liam was desperate and when he got a call for an audition, he felt it was pretty much his last chance to make it in the business. As he entered the audition room there was a panel of three staring at him like he was an exhibit in a museum. One of the panel, a woman wearing a green beret at an angle, curled her upper lip in disgust as Liam took a seat. The other two men in the panel eyed him up and down, bored. ‘So, you have a superhero script you've written that you want to star in as well?’ ‘That's right, I...’ ‘You know the superhero market is heavily saturated. What makes yours different?’ ‘I'm passionate about the genre and I think that shines through.’ ‘I've taken a look at your screenplay and to be honest it's pretty hackneyed. We've seen it all before. Plus, I think you're a little short for this role.’ ‘Right,’ said Liam, close to tears. ‘I mean I'd be happy to work on it in any way that would please you.’ One of the men cleared his throat and said, ‘I don't think this project is right for us at this time. Thank you for coming by.’ The panel waited for Liam to leave but instead he remained in his chair with his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair in distress. Facing the floor, he said, ‘Maybe you could give me a chance if you heard me tell the truth.’ The panel didn't stop him so he began his tale. ‘There was a famous killer with a specific way of killing. I thought if I could mimic his style of homicide on my own wife, the serial killer would be blamed for it and I would become famous and I’d have a great story to sell. But my plan backfired and I was jailed. They caught the serial killer too, and we were locked up in the same prison. Somehow, I managed to get close to the killer and we agreed to write a biography about our lives. I thought this was my ticket to fame but the killer was unbearable to be around and once I got released, I tried to distance myself as far as I could from the psychopath.’ The panel remained unmoved, maintaining their fixed stares. ‘Have you finished?’ said the woman, rifling through her handbag, pulling out a hardback and laying it flat on the table. ‘I have to say your pitch is a little weird and morbid for us. The ending is weak and we prefer something with a little more heart. This book here has just come out, the movie rights have been snapped up. It reminds me of your story.’ She handed over the book. There was one of Riley's bloody paintings on the cover. The title was, ‘A Season in Hell.’ He flipped the book over and there was a small black and white photo of Cartwright on the back. The blurb said, ‘An exploration into a dark and disturbed mind from a writer who knew him best.’ Liam's hands began to shake and he dropped the book. He excused himself, ran out of the production company building and jumped into oncoming traffic. Cars beeped and swerved out of the way. He felt a surge of rage from the pit of his stomach. But it passed. He made his way home full of fantasies and regrets. Then his mind became clear, without a thought for his wife, Riley or Cartwright. He would start again. Somehow. There was a story waiting for him somewhere.