Stone Park was everything Joan Ferguson had expected. A concrete bunker painted twenty years earlier in hospital-green, and surrounded by floodlights and battered basketball courts. The sign outside the gate was scrawled with old graffiti that had faded in the relentless sun, and the bitumen was blistering in the carpark. In the north Queensland heat, even the barbed wire seemed to droop.
‘Predictable,’ she murmured, as she pulled into the parking lot.
It was gratifying to be proved right, as usual, but she was also conscious of a certain disappointment. The prison’s name had brought to mind a garden full of statues: hapless humans and beasts turned to stone like in the castle grounds of Narnia. An enchanted forest waiting for its witch.
In fact, Stone Park had been named after Lancelot Stone, some long-forgotten nineteenth century bureaucrat who had overseen reforms to the penal system in the colony. Abolishing the practice of burying dead convicts with their leg-irons still on, perhaps, or closing down the Female Factory with its reputation for prostitution and lesbianism. Or determining an appropriate distance from which the public could watch a hanging.
Joan had not looked into the details. Still, she knew Queensland had started life as a violent and desolate posting, dreaded by prisoners and officers alike.
Joan herself was satisfied not to be working in an age of floggings and chain gangs. The public theatre of punishment must have been primitive, disorderly and far too noisy. Still, the threat of exile to some distant, mythical hell must have had its uses.
She had never started in a new correctional centre from the top before. Blackmoor had been different; she’d been a guard there before working her way up, and a junior officer at Barnhurst before that. Lowly enough to listen to chatter in exercise yards and visiting rooms, to toss cells and probe into prisoners’ bodies, to be threatened and offered bribes. An officer learned things that way, and could prove herself – in riots and rowdy dining halls, in dripping shower blocks and deserted stairwells.
But to land directly in the governor’s office of an unfamiliar compound, surrounded by strangers…
She didn’t feel nervous, because she didn’t feel things any more. But it was clear she’d have work to do.
Her first year wasn’t a failure. There were no deaths or permanent injuries. She balanced the budget and juggled the intake, always on the verge of overcrowding. She had the graffiti scoured off and the halls repainted. This place would never look attractive, but she would make sure it was clean.
Joan kept her own appearance equally plain and austere. In all her years in Corrections, she had never been issued a uniform that really fitted her tall, powerful body, and had given up hoping for it. But she’d secured the nearest thing available and kept it perfectly pressed. Her hair was scraped back tight to the nape of her neck, then knotted, pinned down and tucked under with such force that her scalp ached all day. Hair as thick as hers could never be held down easily or comfortably, but Joan didn’t want ease or comfort. Her nails were filed down to the quick and her flat, lace-up shoes were polished every morning.
During her first few months at Stone Park, Joan took steps towards the proper governance of the compound. She identified several inmates who would pass on information for a modest reward. She eased out several officers who’d been, if not actively corrupt, then so lazy they would scarcely have noticed a machete fight unless it came between them and the soft drink machine. She got Stone Park through a visit from the justice minister without incident. She even uncovered one source of the heroin trade: someone was smuggling it into the compound in the sanitary bins. Really, and people wondered why she was particular about hygiene.
It wasn’t enough, though. The staff did their work, but nothing more. The inmates didn’t cheek her, but they didn’t defer either. Why should they, when they barely knew who she was? She spent most of her time in an office, dealing with paperwork. And the drugs kept coming.
She needed to make an impression, needed to do more than just manage. And although the idea was both offensive and preposterous, Joan Ferguson was beginning to wonder if she needed … other people.
What a difference a chance encounter can make.
It was a sweltering Tuesday afternoon. The inmates were huddled around the ancient, gasping air conditioners, and Joan was the only officer still wearing her jacket. Outside the air was still and thick with moisture, the only sound the incessant screeching of birds. Storm clouds had been gathering all day.
The crackle of her radio cut through the humid silence. A new prisoner was causing trouble in the admissions office.
Joan looked down at the invoice books on her desk and the message light flashing on her phone. Without checking, she knew it was the Department, calling to discuss a new format for quarterly reports.
She shook her head, stood up, and tugged her jacket until it hung straight.
The new girl was causing trouble, all right. Specifically, by naming a pet ferret as her next of kin, and listing her medical conditions as capitalism and patriarchy. She was not a criminal, the prisoner insisted, but an anarchist, a hacker and a modern day pirate. Her name was Zila and she said it meant ‘shadow’.
The guard behind the desk – ex-army, ex-rugby, bull-necked and sunburned, a mountain of thwarted rage in a clip-on tie – looked up at her.
‘Listen, you fucken little – ’
‘I’ll take it from here, Mr Fraser.’ Joan’s lips twitched as she plucked the clipboard out of his hands.
Mr Fraser disliked Joan because she was too tall, never smiled at him, and gave orders without saying please or sorry. Joan disliked Mr Fraser because he served no purpose and had egg on his tie.
He grunted and heaved himself out of his chair.
‘She’s all yours.’
The prisoner glanced up, and saw six feet and two inches of governor looming over her in crisp khaki, leather belt and brass buttons.
Zila blinked her heavily made-up eyes. She sat up straighter, stopped chewing, and even took her feet off the seat. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled.
Having read her file, Joan knew Zila’s background. She had been picked up with an underground animal rights group who had broken into a factory farm to photograph the conditions and smash the insemination equipment and electrical prods. Zila had been caught a block away with a liberated piglet in her backpack and no alibi.
A subsequent search of the squat where she lived had uncovered a dozen laptops that had been used to crack the security codes of a major bank and quietly steal tens of thousands of dollars. None of these dollars were evident in Zila’s bank account, though, which caused problems for the prosecution. Later, Zila said she’d given the lot to a baboon sanctuary in South Africa. Which at least made a change from the usual prisoner’s stalwart of ‘I don’t remember’, Joan reflected. Even if the fresh tattoos that peeped below the hems of Zila’s clothing suggested a different use for that money.
All in all, Zila sounded like the sort of loud-mouthed, over-educated pest that prison officers were taught to despise. And yet…
Joan was getting very bored with the usual parade of addicts, drunk drivers, inept shoplifters and scrawny little delinquents. This one might prove more … original.
‘This way.’ Joan did not return the younger woman’s smile. ‘You need to be processed.’
Everything Zila wore was black: shorts, boots, zippered top, nail polish, raggedy fishnets, minimal underwear. Her hair was dyed the black-rainbow sheen of a raven’s wing and stuck out in gelled clumps.
Her skin was ivory and covered with tattoos. (Disfigured with them, Joan thought.) Frida Kahlo’s portrait glared up from one tender forearm, Vincent Van Gogh’s from the other. A phoenix trailing orange flames erupted up from between Zila’s plump breasts. Skeletons with ostrich-feather fans danced a burlesque routine up her firm, rounded thighs. A hunched and shaggy hyena (one of the few matriarchal mammal species, Zila explained without being asked) prowled across her lower back. And above it, from her waist to her shoulder blades, was a figure that dwarfed all the others.
It looked like a picture from an ancient mosaic . A woman with black hair in a Grecian style, flowing robes and bare feet which seemed to be dancing on either side of Zila’s spine. The woman had wide wings and a bright, mad smile.
The prison nurse whistled and said ‘That must have taken a while.’
‘It’s just pain.’
There were chunks of silver metal through Zila’s ears, eyebrow, septum, tongue, nipples and navel. As the body search progressed, Joan predicted she would discover more. It was unhygienic and untidy, and Joan said so, while the nurse made jokes about setting off the prison’s metal detectors.
If Zila felt exposed and humiliated, she showed no sign of it. Standing naked, she smiled pleasantly at them both and glanced around the strip search room with polite interest, like a princess touring the facilities.
It was only when Joan pulled on the latex gloves that Zila’s face showed a real reaction. But it was not the fear Joan was used to. Instead, her gaze lingered over Joan’s long fingers and muscular hands, sheathed in the thin, skin-tight white material. Joan could have sworn she saw Zila's nostrils flutter, inhaling the distinctive smell of the gloves, both sterile and intimate.
The young woman asked ‘Did you know those come in black?’
Joan had not known. In spite of herself, her eyes widened.
‘Uh-huh.’ Zila looked back and flashed a grin, before bending over. ‘And so do I.’