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The Name Says It All

Chapter Text

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.’

Zila shrugged.

‘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.

‘Do they?’

‘Uh-huh.’ Zila looked back and flashed a grin, before bending over. ‘And so do I.’

Chapter Text

An idea was scratching at the base of her skull.

Why not?

Night had fallen suddenly, as it always did here. The air was sultry and Joan could smell the tang of her own sweat. Geckos darted between the cracks in the walls, chirruping, hunting. Down in the deserted exercise yard, the weeds, cut back only a week before, were thrusting their way up through the gaps in the concrete again. In Queensland, everything longed to become a jungle.

Outside the window to the governor’s office, a spider the size of Joan’s hand hung outstretched in its quivering web.

Why not?

This wasn’t temptation. Joan didn’t need … anything. She hadn’t needed anything since Blackmoor.

This was just an idea.

It had been another frustrating day. Incident reports, leave requests, complaints about the powdered mashed potatoes. And wondering how to deal with Willis, of course.

Every day she wondered how to deal with Willis.

Grace Willis was a Stone Park legend: a hundred and fifty kilograms of blank-eyed menace in a grey tracksuit. Middle aged and pasty-skinned, with lank brown hair dangling to where her waist should have been, she reminded Joan of a great, pale toad. Every day, Grace sat enthroned in her corner of the exercise yard, her large, shapeless body preternaturally still, while a parade of skinny younger women jittered back and forth, running her errands and begging for what only she could get them. Grace barely spoke and rarely moved. Only her pale, bulging eyes were alight, sliding from one corner of the yard to another, surveying her domain.

The first time Joan had looked into those eyes, she’d seen an emptiness there that was all too familiar. Grace was another one who would never be distracted by emotion. But Grace had no interest in the greater good.

Heroin was Grace’s game, and the stories were legendary. According to the rumours, she’d had the stuff smuggled into Stone Park in babies’ nappies and old women’s false teeth, hollowed out specially. She’d had it stashed in cleaners’ buckets, down guards’ underpants, and in a dying prisoner’s colostomy bag. She’d bribed staff and threatened visitors. No prisoner dared to lag or stand against her, lest Grace send her army of track-marked zombies to tear them apart.

Grace never touched the stuff herself, and had never been caught with it. Still, everyone in Stone Park knew that if the price was right there was nothing Grace Willis wouldn’t do for a fix.

Joan did not like drugs, and she did not like people who were more famous and feared than she. Steps would have to be taken.

But Willis was careful, too careful to be caught by the outdated systems in place here. And Joan was shackled by this governor’s job – this job she’d thought she wanted.

She threw down her pen and clenched her fists and eyes shut. She was sick of these people with their predictable games, their puerile language, and their tiny, little, boring minds. It wasn’t just their uniforms that made them all look the same.

The idea scratched louder.

Joan opened her eyes, straightened her pen, and lifted her radio. She ordered the officer on night duty to fetch Zila Schumann from her unit and bring her to the games room.

***

Joan’s flat, rubber-soled shoes let her move down the darkened corridors in silence. She’d left it a good twenty minutes before heading for the games room herself. Enough time to make a prisoner nervous.

Outside the door, she paused. She expected to hear silence or anxious complaints.

Instead there came the sharp crack of a pool cue against a coloured ball.

Joan jerked her head to dismiss the guard, then stepped slowly through the door.

Zila was craned forward over the pool table, setting up what proved to be a perfect shot. At this angle, her shapely hips and generous buttocks were hard to miss. She must have heard the door open, but did not look around right away.

‘Governor.’ Zila straightened up with a graceful movement. ‘Got time for a game?’

‘No.’ Joan watched her with mingled irritation and interest. Most prisoners dropped the bravado when their cellmates weren’t there, but it seemed to be Zila’s natural state.

‘Pity.’ Zila strolled around the table, contemplating her next shot. ‘I get bored playing with myself.’

Joan didn’t reply. She stood stock-still, her hands clasped, the gaze of her black eyes stony. After a moment, Zila shrugged and looked back at the pool table. Then Joan moved.

She crossed the room in a second, her pulse racing, the reflexes that had lain dormant since Blackmoor surging back. Before Zila could react, Joan had seized her by the elbow and pinned her back against the table, her wrists held behind her, the butt of the pool cue wedged beneath her chin.

Zila didn’t struggle. Her breath came out with something like laughter and her dark eyes glittered. Joan saw no fear there, a fact she found both aggravating and unbearably attractive. She could feel the young woman’s ribcage fluttering and the warmth of her flesh seeping through their clothing. Zila’s shampoo smelled of strawberries, a cheap teenage flavour.

‘You’re having trouble settling in.’ Joan kept her voice quiet, conversational. This was too much contact, and she wasn’t wearing gloves, but for once she didn’t mind. Loosening her grip, she tapped the cue lightly against a yellowing bruise on Zila’s cheekbone.

Zila managed to shrug.

‘Unenlightened comrades, that’s all.’ She paused. ‘Like you.’

Joan’s lips twitched in surprise. Such audacity, and in this position. It was … striking.

‘I’ve never been called that before.’

Her knee was pressing up between Zila’s thighs, holding her in place. As she paused, Joan felt the younger woman wriggling, tilting her hips forward and easing her thighs further apart to accommodate her.

This response caused Joan a throb of sensation that was far too visceral for her liking. She frowned and tightened her grip.

‘You could use a friend, Schumann.’

‘What do you think I’d use her for, Governor?’

Joan felt one hand slide free from her grasp. A moment later, there was a tugging at her waist: Zila had hooked her fingers through Joan’s belt.

‘You’re used to getting away with things, aren’t you, Schumann? The police had you under investigation for half a dozen other offences at least.’

Zila sniffed in contempt.

‘They couldn’t make them stick.’

Joan leaned in closer, feeling the grip on her belt tighten and the softness of Zila’s breasts flattening against her stomach.

‘You want something, Governor?’ Zila whispered.

Joan nodded.

‘I want you to tell me how you did it.’

***

It wasn’t difficult to find a reason to have Zila isolated overnight, every couple of weeks. Between her refusal to handle carcinogenic cleaning products in the laundry room, and her meat-is-murder lectures in the kitchen, no one seemed surprised when the governor gave the order to slot her.

Certainly not Zila herself.

And if the governor should take the time after a night shift to make the long walk down the deserted corridors and echoing stairwells, past locked offices and darkened cells – the bare fluorescent bulbs flickering above her, her keychain swaying at her hip – to stop by the young woman’s room and remonstrate with her about her behaviour, to urge her to mend her ways – who could object?

Anyhow, Joan made sure no one knew.

It was from Zila that Joan learned the importance of keeping multiple prepaid phones, and changing the numbers often. It was Zila who explained to her how security systems could be hacked, how time codes could be altered and footage spliced, which cameras gave the clearest picture and which were rubbish – and how sometimes, really, your best bet was just to turn the bloody thing to the wall.

Zila knew people, too. The sort of people who could get you break and enter tools, or spirit away money and files without leaving a trace. She wasn’t naming names, but she seemed happy enough to talk about it, her heart-shaped face alight with excitement, her delicate hands clasped between her knees. You would have thought she was being interviewed in some television studio, instead of stuck in a hot cell with mould on the ceiling and old blood-smears on the wall.

When she got tired of sitting up, Zila would sprawl on her back on the thin mattress, her arms folded elegantly beneath her head, one ankle crossed over her propped-up knee, her sneakered foot swaying as she held forth. No bribes or threats were needed; Zila liked to talk.

Plenty of laggers did, of course; Joan knew that. It made them feel important. In prison, people took whatever semblance of power they could get. But Zila didn’t see this as lagging. She refused to recognise prisoners and screws as different species at all, a fact which earned her the loathing of both groups. She believed in the ‘organic and egalitarian flow of data and wisdom’ – and talking like that didn’t make her popular in prison either.

Zila’s politics were like her tattoos, Joan decided: deviant and outlawed, but too clever and whimsical for this place, and too expensive. When Joan put Zila in solitary, it was partly out of concern for her safety.

But that wasn’t the only reason.

For the first half of each midnight visit, Zila was the teacher. They both knew that, although Joan took care to keep her expression disapproving and her manner one of interrogation. Didn’t you know the penalty? How did you imagine you would get away with that? And always: Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

That was Zila’s cue. No matter how cheerful she had been until then, at that question her face would crumple with pain. She would protest that she hadn’t had an easy life. With a family who didn’t understand her, teachers who didn’t care, friends who led her astray, lovers who introduced her to drugs – no one to keep her in line or punish her when she did wrong…

No wonder she’d gone off the rails, Zila concluded, wiping away an invisible tear. No wonder she needed a little something, sometimes, to take the edge off her loneliness. She didn’t want to mess up her life again, but there was so much gear in this place; the temptation was always there.

‘Are you drug affected now?’ Joan would bark, her expression hardening. Never mind that Zila’s pupils were normal and she had been speaking as thoughtfully as any university professor a moment before.

In response, Zila would bite her lip, her eyes sliding away in schoolgirlish guilt.

‘No, miss. Not – not yet.’

The first time Joan visited her, Zila had made a point of glancing around the cell at that point. In this bare concrete box there was no place contraband could be hidden. Unless…

Joan stepped further into the darkened room.

‘Stand up.’

After an insolent pause, Zila did so. Her movements had just the right measure of reluctance. Her breath caught as the governor drew out the new pair of gloves she’d ordered specially.

In the near-darkness, Joan permitted herself to close her eyes a moment, to relish the firm grip of the latex across her skin, the way it strained when she flexed her fingers, the harsh snap against her wrist, which caused Zila to gasp out loud.

As if she’d been trained, the young woman reached up to finger the zip on her tracksuit top where it strained between her breasts. Then she eased it down, its slow rasp the only sound in the room.

Joan cleared her throat, softly.

‘Face the wall.’

They never deviated from this scrip. There were no embraces, no inappropriate language, nothing to suggest this was anything other than a very protracted and rigorous body search. That was how it had to be.

Once, the first time, Zila had squeezed Joan’s little finger and whispered ‘Twice means yes, all right? And once means no.’ Joan found this baffling, as if they’d wandered into different scenarios, but saw no reason to object. Over time, she came to relish the double-squeeze of Zila’s fingers – it was always 'yes' – but she never spoke about it.

Their midnight visits gave Joan a thrill like the head-rush of caffeine. For days afterwards she would move faster and think harder, her pulse buzzing, her doubts swept away. After so many long, dreary months, it was like being plugged back in at the mains. This wasn’t release; this was revival.

But Joan had learned to shut away experiences as neatly as she did prisoner files, or prisoners. Once she stepped out of Zila’s cell, she would not permit herself to think too much about what had taken place in there.

Not like with Jianna. Jianna whose smile had obsessed her, whose voice flitted after her, whose gentle fingers linking through hers had dragged Joan out of the clean steel box of her mind and into a body that sweated and ached and felt things with an intensity that terrified her.

No, she would never make that mistake again.

She would keep things within their proper boundaries this time. She would stay in control.

And if Joan went the extra mile in her efforts to keep Zila away from drugs, what about it? It was the right thing to do.

If Joan’s gloved fingers took their time ruffling through Zila’s hair or tracing the inside of her ears or lips – if Zila closed her mouth around those fingers and flicked them with her tongue – if Zila’s hands fumbled over her clothing until it was easiest for Joan to assist her, her own hands trailing over sensitised skin and erect nipples – what did that signify?

If Joan lingered while checking the creases beneath Zila’s breasts and the ticklish soles of her feet – if she ran her hands up the younger woman’s thighs with greater force than was strictly necessary – if her lubricated fingers took their time exploring the warm folds of Zila’s sex, combing through her pubic hair and brushing against her swollen clit – if Joan bent the younger woman forward and delved inside her with slow, rhythmic movements – if she took special care over Zila’s tighter point of entry – if Zila moaned and thrashed and clawed at the plastered walls, her fingers leaving moist trails and prints like starfish – if she bit down on Joan’s free hand to swallow her cries –

Well, there was nothing much there that couldn’t be explained away. Like the gloves that reeked enticingly of sweat and sex and strawberry shampoo, it could all be discarded afterwards. Surely.

Likewise, there was nothing wrong with Joan’s words of admonition, which she murmured in Zila’s ear in her low, crisp alto. Why are you wasting your life here? You’re clever. You’re beautiful. You’re special. Repeated again and again, as Zila panted and struggled to stay upright, wetness trickling down her thighs. You could do anything. You could be everything.

Afterwards, Joan held the younger woman up until her knees stopped shaking. Through the latex, she could sense the heat of Zila’s body, the throb of the young woman’s heartbeat, the slickness of her pleasure. Joan could touch everything without feeling anything, and that was what she wanted.

One time, she ran a caressing finger down the length of Zila’s spine, where the strange female figure danced, her wings outstretched.

‘What is this?’ Joan asked. A sheen of moisture had gathered between Zila’s shoulder blades, making the figure glisten.

Ate ’, Zila managed to reply. ‘Blind ruin.’

‘Explain.’

‘She’s a figure from Greek mythology.’ Zila’s voice trembled, but her lecturing tone was returning already. ‘She was the eldest daughter of Zeus, kicked out of heaven for rebelling against him. She represents crazy mistakes, right? Temptation.’ The young woman caught her breath. ‘People blamed Ate when they went too far, when they got arrogant and greedy, and wouldn’t admit they’d screwed up or ask forgiveness.’ Zila paused. ‘Homer said her feet walked not upon the earth, but on the heads of men.’

‘I see.’ Joan blinked. ‘And you decided to have it branded into your skin because…?’

‘Because I knew it would be great, of course.’ Zila’s breathing was slowing. Soon Joan would have to let her go, usher her into bed and cover her up, while instructing her to think seriously about her bad behaviour and do better next time. That, too, was part of their usual routine, and Joan enjoyed it. It reminded her that she was doing the right thing here.

But this time Joan lingered.

‘You didn’t worry that it might look … outlandish?’ Joan wasn’t accustomed to fussing about other people’s feelings, but even she knew that under the circumstances it might be ungallant to say ‘awful’.

Zila chuckled and rested her flushed cheek against the wall.

‘Any idiot can look pretty, Governor. What counts is making an impression.’ She chanced a look behind her. ‘No disrespect intended, but you should think about that.’

Joan’s eyebrows arched.

‘Meaning?’

‘Well, you’ve got so much to work with, but you play it down. And those shoes…’ Zila’s voice trailed off in deep regret.

‘What do you want me to wear?’ Joan’s own voice came out sounding defensive, which annoyed her. ‘We have to do a bit of running in this job, you know.’

Zila turned around and leaned back against the wall. A bead of sweat rolled down between her breasts and disappeared into the phoenix’s feathers.

‘Come on, Governor,’ she said with a grin, looking Joan up and down. ‘Add two more inches onto all of that, and who the hell’s going to chase you?’

Chapter Text

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.

‘Governor.’

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.’

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Blind ruin.

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?’

Joan blinked.

‘Don’t you?’

‘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.

Governor Ferguson.

The Fixer.