Actions

Work Header

The Name Says It All

Chapter Text

The prison lay in eerie silence. The halls were empty; the fluorescent lights throbbed. The bare plastered walls rushed past her.

Joan heard her own footsteps hitting the linoleum with a fast, flat sound like cards being slapped down on a table. Her chest felt tight, her radio hissed and screeched, giving off shrill waves of static. And a voice, distorted and far away: ‘Code Blue, B Block. Assistance required.’

Code Blue: a medical emergency. She fought the urge to run. Never look like prey, Dad had told her, or that’s how people will treat you.

‘Repeat: urgent assistance required.’

How could this be happening?

***

It had gone so smoothly at first.

Zila’s friend, Travis, had arrived at the visitor’s centre on time. A weedy, shaven-headed kid huddled in an oversized hoodie, he’d blended in with the crowd. From behind the desk, Joan saw him sidle up to Grace Willis’s nephew, Mike, and ask for help to retrieve a can stuck in the drinks machine.

Mike shrugged and bent down to look, and Travis moved. Zila hadn’t been exaggerating; he was so quick and subtle that Joan could barely discern the moment when his hand slipped into the pocket of Mike’s oversized jeans. Mike, straightening up, was clearly none the wiser.

Zila had said that when Travis wasn’t plotting the downfall of the ruling classes, he sometimes worked as a magician at their children’s parties.

Travis’s eyes flickered in Joan’s direction; he gave a faint nod. She muttered to the officer behind the desk ‘When Michael Willis signs in, make sure he’s one of the guests taken aside for a session with the sniffer dogs.’ The officer stared at her, and Joan added blandly ‘At random, of course.’

From the officer’s expression, she clearly thought the order was stupid; top dog Grace Willis wouldn’t risk her best emissary by using him as a drug mule. Mike Willis strolled up to the desk and joined the queue. The officer hesitated, and Joan hissed ‘Go on.’ She fought the impulse to smirk. A victory against Grace, even a small one, would be something to relish.

Until a single sneeze ruined everything.

Mike Willis sniffed wetly, scrubbed his face with his wrist, and then – Joan watched, paralysed with dismay – reached into his pocket for a handkerchief.

He fished around, then frowned as his fingers touched the alien item. His hand began to withdraw, to pull whatever it was out for a look. Joan blinked: if he did that, she would certainly have to detain him, but imagine…

At the last moment, Mike’s face gave a jolt of recognition. His arm froze, his hand still out of sight. He whirled around, wide-eyed, seeking the source of this tiny catastrophe, but Travis had already vanished.

Mike, his face pale, took a step towards the exit. Joan grabbed a radio to summon the two guards by the door, to order them to detain Mike Willis on some pretext – any pretext! – before he could make a run for it. But Mike was looking at those guards as well. He was cornered.

Just as abruptly, the young man’s expression changed. He turned away from the door. A cool determination crossed his face, suddenly making him look as hard as his aunt. Then, before anyone else could even notice anything amiss, before Joan could make the first move to stop him, Mike closed his fist around the little balloon, raised his hand to his mouth as if to stifle a cough, and swallowed the heroin in one gulp.

Then, with a blank-eyed calm that Grace herself would have envied, Mike stepped up to the desk, signed in, and demanded to see his auntie.

Afterwards Joan had paced the corridors, looking as purposeful as she could, until Zila crossed her path. They could not be seen meeting on purpose. Pulling the younger woman aside, Joan warned her about what had happened. Zila mustn’t panic, Joan added. Mike had not got a good look at Travis, did not know who he was, and Zila’s name was not on any visitors’ centre paperwork. Probably it would be all right.

Still, Joan repeated her offer of protection. Zila, her porcelain skin whitening more than ever, considered it and refused. It would only make Grace suspicious, she said, and Joan had to agree. Nonetheless, she promised an officer would stay close and keep an eye on Zila at all times. She, Joan, would think up some plausible reason for this.

If it had been five years ago, Joan could have done it herself. She could have stuck as close to Zila as she longed to, could have made sure she was safe. But how could a governor stand guard in the laundry room or the shower block?

There was so much she could not do. It was appalling.

But Zila just shrugged and gave a wobbly grin.

‘I’ll be all right, Governor. I’ll keep my head down; no one will notice me.’

Joan nodded, and decided she’d never heard anything less convincing in her life.

***

Now Joan rounded the corner, her footsteps quickening as she neared the infirmary. Her radio buzzed, the voices on the other end half suffocated by the static. ‘Code Blue, repeat…’ Her heart was pounding.

She reached the infirmary in time to see them bringing in the stretcher.

***

‘Who did this?’

The guards just shook their heads.

‘Where was the officer on duty?’

Another shrug.

‘Where’s the ambulance?’

The nurse mumbled about having called already. The guards just gaped. Joan’s hands shook with the urge to seize their stupid heads and slam them through the wall.

The blood was draining from her face; a dreadful coldness was pooling in her stomach. The white walls spun.

‘Zila? Zila?’

Beneath the clatter of medical instruments, the tearing of plastic wrappers and the nurse’s instructions, Joan could have sworn she heard other sounds: her own footfalls in a concrete stairwell and the slow, taunting creak of a rope.

She shut her eyes. No. Not now. Stay in control.

This wasn’t Blackmoor, and Zila was still alive.

Just.

Joan stepped up to the bed. As she looked down at the figure lying there, she was conscious of every detail imprinting itself on her memory: crisp, clinical, merciless. There would be no escaping any of it.

The hair she had ruffled, relishing its cheap strawberry scent, was torn up in bloodied clumps. The lips she’d explored with gloved fingers, never permitting herself to kiss, were cracked and blackening. The body she’d caressed was held together with surgical tape and splints. Zila’s bare shoulders were the colour of the sheet draped over her; she’d been half naked, the guards muttered, when they found her.

Joan’s jaw clenched. She trembled with the urge to cleanse herself, to scrub and bleach until her skin was raw and the smell of disinfectant was strong enough to drive everything else away.

With difficulty, for her whole body screamed at the thought of touching anyone now, she reached down to take Zila’s hand. Zila’s knuckles were skinned and there were brownish crescents beneath her nails. She’d tried to fight back.

Joan leaned in.

‘Who was it?’ Zila stared at her through puffy eyes and did not reply. Her gaze slid painfully to the left, where another prisoner sat in the next cubicle, being treated for diabetes, and then towards the nurse who hovered nearby. The door to the infirmary was open.

In spite of herself, Joan’s grip tightened. Zila hissed in pain.

‘Was it Grace Willis? Was it?’

‘No.’ Zila forced the word between cut and swollen lips, loud enough for everyone nearby to hear. ‘No.’

But as she said it, her hand curled around Joan’s little finger and squeezed twice; their old signal from Joan’s midnight visits to Zila’s cell.

Yes. Yes.

Joan didn’t dare risk a nod or even a look of understanding. In the sterile light of the infirmary, Zila’s tattoos looked too bright, mindlessly cheerful, like illustrations from a children’s book. The young woman had thought she was tough, a rebel, and Joan, for all her sneering, must have believed her.

‘Can we get you anything?’ Joan’s voice sounded strange to her own ears. Flat and false, as if she didn’t care at all. She couldn't seem to move. The room felt far too cold – or maybe that was Zila’s fingers? Jianna had been cold like that, at the end, and no matter how hard Joan had grasped her, she couldn’t make her warm again.

Zila’s ruined eyes filled with tears.

‘I want my Mum.’

***

Much later, Joan sat in a deserted carpark, staring into the darkness. Out here, the air was dense and damp with heat, and the sharp drone of cicadas filled her ears. The night sizzled.

There was a knock at her open window, but she didn’t turn her head.

In a soft, even voice, she asked ‘Was it you? Did you name Zila?’

In the rear view mirror, she could see that young Travis had taken a beating. His right eye was closed with bruising and someone had split his lip. He jittered from one sneakered foot to the other, glancing all around him.

‘Is she OK?’ he asked.

‘Answer the question.’ Joan gazed down at her fingers, resting against the steering wheel. They hardly shook at all now.

‘No one followed me out of the visitors’ centre,’ Travis protested. ‘I was careful, I swear. Someone must have told those pricks where to find me.’

‘Did you tell them it was Zila who asked you for that favour?’ Joan repeated, calmly. Then, when he didn’t reply, she thrust both arms through the open window, grabbed his windcheater and dragged him halfway into the car to smack his head against the wheel.

‘Did you?’

‘Yeah, all right, yeah!’ Travis’s voice was rising to a wail as Joan released him. He fell back on the concrete, gasping.

Joan opened the door and stepped out, slowly.

‘I’ve got another job for you, Travis.’

Shaking his head and swearing, he tried to rise, but someone else had twisted his ankle for him. Joan stepped down on his left shoulder, lightly, and Travis froze.

She said ‘And this time you’ll get it right.’

***

‘Fraser?’ Travis stared down at the file Joan had handed him. ‘Who’s Ryan Fraser?’

‘Someone who doesn’t care for my leadership.’ Joan raised an eyebrow. ‘He was on duty when it happened, and nowhere to be found. I need to know if he is just utterly incompetent, or….’ She trailed off. ‘And as an officer, he could have pulled your details off the visitor list the other day.’ She held Travis’s gaze. ‘Get online, find out everything you can. Zila said you were good at this – try not to let her down again.’

She left Travis in Jesper’s care, to make sure the young man didn’t flee. Then she walked back to her car. It was midnight and sweltering.

Joan stood motionless for a moment in the empty street, then raised her fist and smashed it down against the wing mirror, three times. Plastic crunched; the hinges gave way. Glass popped out and shattered. She lifted her hand to examine the blood, and found it didn’t hurt at all.