Joan stood staring down at the prisoner’s body as it was zipped into a bag by weary paramedics. A headache was clanging behind her eyes, each throb seeming to say of course, of course.
At three in the morning, all manner of dark things start to seem not just possible, but inevitable.
Cherry Roberts was twenty, with a face that looked older and two portraits tattooed on her upper arm: awkward cartoon drawings of her children. Her blue eyes were open in surprise.
Nothing to be surprised about, Joan decided, a muscle twitching in her face. Both of them should have seen this coming.
In the presence of death, Joan was acutely aware of her own senses. Every shelf and bottle top in the infirmary seemed to be magnified, every chip in the paint and smear on the glass. The noise of the zipper and the muttered exchanges between the paramedics seemed to echo, and the smells were dizzying: coffee on the nurse’s breath, and the reek of disinfectant and Cherry’s dried vomit.
Every detail stood out, but Joan may as well have been a crime scene camera for all she felt.
Was this how it was going to be from now on?
It had started earlier that day. Cherry, who’d had no visitors at all for her first year at Stone Park, had had three different men come to see her in as many weeks, and Joan was suspicious. Positioning herself behind the desk with Cherry’s back to her, she’d settled in to wait.
But when Cherry stepped up to greet her visitor, she must have caught a glimpse reflected in his sunglasses. Her small body froze, and she jerked back from his embrace. Shrinking down into her seat, she darted a glance over her shoulder in time to see the tall, khaki-clad figure of the governor standing not five feet away, arms folded, watching her.
The look on Cherry’s face was one of abject terror. Joan knew she herself was only partially responsible for that, and the knowledge infuriated her.
Cherry sat hunched over and silent for the rest of the visit, ignoring her guest’s outstretched hands. When he stood and yanked her up for a goodbye kiss, she struggled away before their lips could meet, then left the room at something close to a run. The man she left behind looked baffled and furious, and Joan didn’t think it was Cherry’s kisses he was missing.
Now, thirteen hours later, Joan stood outside the infirmary and cursed her own recklessness for allowing Cherry to return to general after that scene. But there’d been nothing to charge her with; the drugs had never been handed over. And yes, Joan had wondered if there would be a confrontation afterwards with Grace Willis, who had doubtless set up the whole thing. If Joan could just catch them at it, if she could get a witness…
She’d told the officer on duty in that wing, the truculent Mr Fraser, to keep a close eye out. But apparently even that was beyond his abilities.
‘Governor.’ The police officer who'd been called to the scene was holding back a yawn ‘The nurse tells me the deceased had a history of heroin use.’
‘Indeed.’ Joan was still staring at the figure inside the thick blue bag.
There was no proof of anyone’s guilt. She had already checked the security cameras and found nothing, and she knew none of the prisoners would come forward. And Joan herself had nothing to gain from letting the truth leak out.
So she did not speak the next words out loud: Roberts had been using for years; she knew what she was doing. She didn’t overdose. Cut her open and tell me what brand of weedkiller they used.
The police officer cleared his throat: ‘So you think someone’s selling crap gear in here?’
‘No.’ Joan’s mouth tightened. Again, she did not repeat the rest of her response to him: No one sold Roberts that gear. They gave it to her for free, to say ‘no hard feelings’. A little reward for trying…
Joan turned and stalked back towards her office. But as she passed the door to the nurse’s station, she heard someone inside clear their throat.
Grace Willis had a voice like sandpaper. She was sitting on the edge of the bed in a hospital gown. Those garments were supposed to make anyone look helpless and foolish, but it didn’t seem to work on Grace. Great bulges of greyish-white flesh swelled out from beneath the gown and strained at its seams. She looked like a huge pile of boulders, Joan thought, and every bit as hard.
Despite the hour, Grace’s pale eyes were bright. ‘Dreadful business.’
‘Got yourself a ringside seat, I see.’ Joan’s voice was glacial, but Grace didn’t flinch.
‘They’re keeping me in for observation.’
‘Oh?’ Joan’s lip curled. ‘Nothing minor, I hope?’
‘Symptoms of a heart condition.’
‘Goodness, don’t tell me they’ve found one?’
Grace just smiled, her wide, thin lips seeming to stretch all the way to her ears.
‘These poor young girls,’ she sighed. ‘Makes you sad, doesn’t it, Governor? Stuck in here with no role models, no one to protect them…’
The governor tried staring her down, but knew it would have no effect. Grace just looked right back. Grace Willis didn’t care if she was gazing at an enemy’s face or a television set, or a dead girl.
Joan strode back to her office and slammed the door. She sat looking straight ahead for a moment.
Then she grabbed the radio and snapped ‘Fetch Zila Schumann from her unit. Now.’
‘I don’t know about this.’ Zila sat on the edge of her chair, glancing around the governor’s darkened office and picking at her fingernails.
‘Don’t lose your nerve on me now.’ Joan walked around her desk to lean back against it, her feet almost touching Zila’s. Almost, but not quite.
From here, Joan could smell Zila’s strawberry shampoo, a smell that transported her back to their private sessions in that darkened cell. Last time, she'd given in to temptation for a moment, leaned forward and trailed her tongue up the back of Zila’s neck as the young women climaxed, tasting her warm, salty skin. The memory of her own weakness made Joan impatient now.
‘All you have to do is make a phone call.’
‘And stand against Grace.’ Zila’s body seemed to tighten.
‘Since when do you respect hierarchies?’
‘I don’t.’ Zila grimaced. ‘But it could get a bit … real.’
‘What do you want, Zila – to be an armchair revolutionary all your life?’ Joan leaned forward, her gaze intense. ‘This is your chance to step up, to make a real difference.’ She paused, then sneered ‘Don’t tell me you imagine Grace Willis is some kind of freedom fighter?’
‘No.’ Zila wrinkled her nose. ‘Drug dealing is the shadow side of capitalism. It operates to keep the disenfranchised working class helpless and passive. And ultimately, incarcerated.’
‘Yes, I’m always saying that.’ Joan arched an eyebrow. ‘It didn’t stop you and your friends from experimenting with the stuff, though, did it?’
Zila rolled her eyes.
‘Come on, Governor. I haven’t used in years.’ She looked back at Joan. ‘You know that. Right?’
Joan thought of those long, sweaty sessions in the isolation cell, of her searches for contraband inside Zila's willing body, and didn’t reply.
Instead she said ‘The woman Willis murdered today had two children.’
‘I knew Cherry.’ Zila rubbed her eyes. ‘I don’t need you to tell me this is fucked.’
‘I’m trying to stop it happening again.’
‘Because you care about the women?’ Zila’s eyes narrowed. ‘Or about your own job?’
‘The two things might align, every now and then.’ Joan held the younger woman’s gaze until Zila looked away. ‘Willis is a parasite, and she is destroying these women. Robbing them of whatever self-respect they have left. How many more of them will die because of her?’
‘Joan...’ The governor’s eyes widened. Zila had never called her that before. ‘I’m a bit … scared.’
‘If your friend is as clever as you say he is, there’s nothing to worry about.’ Joan paused, then with some difficulty leaned forward to pat the younger woman’s shoulder. The gesture of comfort felt stilted, unnatural. ‘And I’ll protect you.’
She tried not to think about the last time she’d made that promise.
‘If you put me in protection, they’ll know it was me.’ Zila shivered. ‘And what happens when I get out?’
‘Have your friend come to reception demanding to see a prisoner who’s actually been released.’ Joan bit her lip, improvising. ‘I can give you a name. It will look like he’s made a mistake. Then all he has to do is hang around the waiting room until Willis’s nephew shows up. He’s the one Willis is closest to; he runs her messages on the outside. If we can catch him with drugs on prison grounds, we’ll have a case to charge Willis too, or at least keep her in solitary until – ’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ For the first time since Joan had known her, Zila’s voice sounded subdued. She nodded slowly. ‘All right.’
Then she looked up at Joan. ‘It’s funny, you know. After all these months … I never thought you were using me before. Now I know you are.’
To her annoyance, Joan couldn’t seem to meet the other woman’s eye.
‘I’m just doing what I have to, Zila.’
‘Yeah.’ Zila sighed and reached for the phone. In that moment, Joan knew their midnight visits were at an end. ‘Everyone says that in here.’