The siren tore through the evening air. A high-pitched, teeth-gritting sound, loud enough to rouse every officer and inmate in the compound. From outside in the hall, she could hear swearing and running feet. Normally, the prisoners knew never to hit a panic button. For the women to break that rule, this must be something very alarming indeed. Unusual. Freakish.
Joan Ferguson didn’t blink.
She rose to her feet, lined up the pens on her desk, and frowned at her reflection in the darkening window. Zila had been right; certain adjustments were needed.
The siren wailed on and on. Joan tugged her jacket straight. Time to make an impression.
Earlier that day, Zila had been moved from the infirmary into protection.
Joan had not been to see her since the night of the attack. She’d thought about going, thought about it many times. But the idea of seeing Zila again, all damaged like that, made something inside Joan slam shut and tremble at the impact, like a thick steel door.
It wasn’t frightening or upsetting; she didn’t think like that any more. It was impossible, that was all.
Besides, there were other things Joan needed to do.
She had watched on the cameras, though, as Zila was transferred. The young woman was walking almost normally now, and her dressings had been removed. The nurse said she would make a full recovery.
Joan knew there was no such thing.
Zila must have recalled where the cameras were, but she had not looked up at them as she was escorted down the hall. All Joan could see were the wings of the goddess that stretched across Zila’s shoulders, visible beneath her singlet and standing out black against her pale skin.
Ate: arrogance and delusion. Mistakes made, lines crossed, forgiveness neither sought nor granted.
The siren howled. Joan Ferguson stared out into the night.
The inmates had been gathered in the dining hall. It was cheesecake night, so no one was leaving early. Apart from Grace Willis, who'd complained of an upset stomach and stamped out to the toilet block. People noticed when she didn’t return, but no one wanted to piss off Grace by drawing attention to her bathroom problems. You didn’t spoil cheesecake night.
Darkness had fallen and the lights were sputtering into life all over the compound when the first women strolled, chatting and laughing, into the toilet block. They checked themselves in the mirror – and noticed a tracksuited leg sticking out from under one cubicle door.
They gave a tentative knock – ‘You all right in there?’ – and the door swung open.
Grace Willis’s pale, bulging eyes goggled up at the ceiling; her thin lips were stretched in a ghastly grin. She’d been killed by a massive dose of heroin. You could tell because the syringe was still there, plunged deep into her right eye.
The witnesses’ screams rang out louder than the alarm.
Death by misadventure would be the eventual ruling. While no one had known Grace Willis to use drugs, her fingerprints were the only ones on the syringe. And the security footage, which Joan provided obligingly to the police, showed no one but Grace entering that toilet block. The cameras didn’t lie, did they?
So the mighty Grace Willis, famous for never touching her own products, died like a desperate addict injecting into the last available vein. An inexplicable tragedy.
No one in Stone Park believed a word of it.
Exactly six months later, Joan’s least favourite officer, Mr Fraser, was woken at dawn by police hammering on his door.
Acting on an anonymous tip-off, they raided his house and garage. In the boot of his car, they found a gym bag containing his sweaty tracksuit, running shoes, and half a dozen neatly sealed evidence bags dotted with his fingerprints and packed with heroin.
Spluttering and swearing, Mr Fraser denied all knowledge. The car must have been broken into, he said – although there were no signs of damage and the key was in his pocket. And as for the evidence bags – well, yes, he might have handled them. They used them at the prison for confiscating weapons and contraband. Shaking his head and sweating, he thought about it: someone must have stolen them, that was it! Yes, someone had stolen every bag that Mr Fraser had touched – it must have taken months to collect this many. And that person, whoever they were, had spirited the bags away, taking care not to get their own prints on them, and stored them up specially for – for –
The arresting sergeant looked at him with something like pity.
At the time, Mr Fraser didn’t make a connection to what had happened to Zila Schumann. He had no way of knowing that young Travis had hacked into his bank account and found the presents Grace Willis had left him for his trouble. And he had no reason to connect Joan Ferguson to any of this; as far as he knew, it had been a prisoners’ fight.
It was months later, far too late for Mr Fraser, before the possibility occurred to him. Even then he wasn’t sure, and he never would be. It had been half a year between that Willis business and his arrest, and in that time the governor’s behaviour towards him had been cool and neutral. She’d shown no hint of anger, resentment or even interest. Would anyone wait such a long time to take revenge?
A week after Mr Fraser’s abrupt departure from Stone Park, Joan got word that someone else would be leaving too. Zila’s appeal had been upheld and her sentence was cut short.
For the first time since the attack, Joan went to see her.
‘Governor.’ Zila looked healthy and whole again, but Joan had never seen her eyes so hard. ‘Nice of you to drop by.’
Joan cleared her throat.
‘I gather congratulations are in order.’
Zila arched an eyebrow. ‘I’m not getting married.’
‘How are you?’ Joan’s voice was stiff. Zila rolled her eyes.
‘Like you give a fuck.’
Joan took a deep breath. She’d thought about this, and decided it was right to take her share of responsibility. It was what a good leader would do.
‘Zila, you’re entitled to an apology.’ The young woman stared at her. Joan pushed on. ‘I underestimated the extent of Grace Willis’s information. And I exercised insufficient authority by not insisting you be moved to protection at the time. I’m … sorry.’
Zila said nothing for a moment. Her eyes were wide.
At last she said ‘Do you think I blame you for what Grace’s crew did to me?’
‘No.’ Zila held her gaze. ‘No, that wasn’t your fault.’ The younger woman paused, then got slowly to her feet. ‘I blame you for dumping me in here with all the nut-jobs and laggers and baby-killers, and for never once bothering to send me so much as a single message, let alone five minutes of your fucking time, for six whole months!’ Her voice was rising, ringing off the concrete walls. ‘What, were you worried this face wouldn’t look so pretty after what Grace did to it?’ Zila sneered ‘Or was it the other end you were worried about?’
‘No – ’ Joan stumbled. ‘Yes, I was worried, but not like that – that wasn’t the reason – ’ A lump like an iceblock had jammed in her throat. The right words were needed, but she had none. ‘I couldn’t visit you here, Zila. It wouldn’t have been safe for you. It was a difficult decision, but it was the right thing – ’
‘Oh, piss off.’
Zila swung around, planting her hands against the windowsill. Her stance reminded Joan of those nights together in the isolation cell. Talking with someone who wanted her conversation, touching someone who wanted her touch.
‘I didn’t think you would want to see me.’ She forced herself to say it, but Zila only snorted.
‘Bullshit. You just can’t stand to be around anything that makes you feel weak.’ The young woman paused, but did not turn around. 'I'm right, aren't I? See, that's the thing, Joan. I get you, but you never got me.'
Joan bit her lip. Dad’s old warnings were whirling inside her like a gathering storm. What did I tell you, Joan? You got too involved, too emotional, it's your fault. You knew this would happen…
She waited until it was almost unbearable, but Zila never did turn around.
Shortly afterwards, Zila stepped back into her black clothes and combat boots, walked out of Stone Park, and vanished into the city. As far as Joan knew, she never appeared in the corrections system again.
Joan saw her once more, though, years later: in the lifestyle magazine of some weekend newspaper. The woman in the photograph had a different name; she wore white cotton clothing with long sleeves, and her hair was traffic-light red instead of raven-black, but it was Zila. She was running an animal shelter in some tiny town in the mountains, surrounded by rainforests. In the photograph, her arm was draped around a three-legged sheepdog which she'd stolen from its abusive owner. The article made her sound like some kind of animal Mother Theresa, but the woman’s face, as she gazed at the viewer, wore a go-fuck-yourself expression that Joan remembered all too well. And above the neck of the woman’s white cotton shirt, tattooed across her pale skin, Joan saw the golden beak of a phoenix rising.
For a moment, Joan actually thought about looking her up. But what could she do for Zila now? No, it would be a distraction and might lead to more mistakes.
And besides, deep down Joan knew that out of uniform she had very little to say for herself.
She kept the picture, though, in a file in a locked drawer with a few other things.
Stone Park had been an education, if a harsh one. And although Joan tried not to remember Zila Schumann, there was no denying the young woman had taught her a lot. Years later, Joan would still think of Zila some mornings, as she buttoned up her once-awkward uniform, now altered by a tailor to fit her tall, powerful body flawlessly. Or she might remember Zila as she stepped into her new high-heeled shoes, solid but elegant. The rubber-soled flats had left Joan’s house in a bin bag.
And it was Zila’s laughter that floated into Joan’s mind the first morning she dismantled her tight, scraped-back hairstyle, and went to work back-combing, spraying and pinning until her hair resembled a helmet and her head appeared almost double its normal size. Yes, any fool could look good. What counted was making an impression.
Under the prison’s fluorescent lights, Joan would look large, lacquered and alarmingly neat. Armoured. Untouchable.
But when the lights went out, her silhouette against the concrete walls would show up monstrous. A figure so tall its bulbous, oversized head brushed the ceiling, its legs unnaturally long and ending in spikes, its huge black hands splayed out like spiders.
Who knew where such a creature might hunt? In an empty corridor or a darkened boiler room? In the sound-proofed cells of the psych ward? Or in the toilet block where they'd found the body of Grace Willis? Grace, who never touched drugs herself, but who would have done anything for a fix.
No, you never knew with her. A figure of whispers and nightmares, a witch stalking her forest of stone.