Someone tries to kill me at least once a day.
I usually see it coming. By definition, people in prison aren’t the smartest creatures in the criminal kingdom. They tend to be violent attention-seekers, so they usually tell someone what they’re planning to do.
But I’m a dirty fighter. I’ll do what it takes to protect myself. Sometimes the women are more discreet. I’d first been held at Stillwater Remand Centre, where someone caught me off guard on my third day and stuck a sharpened piece of fencing wire into the back of my neck, going for my jugular vein. I’d been tired and unfocused, worrying about my upcoming committal hearings. After the attack I’d been moved to a new remand facility, Johnsonborough Correctional Complex, to separate me from my apparent rival, but it became clear to administration not long after the transfer that everyone was my rival.
Today, I’d had the benefit of twenty-four hours warning before my attacker made her move. As the wake-up alarm sounded I was sitting on the floor, stretching my shoulders and strategising a solid plan of defence.
The door to my cell opened in time with a hundred others, a rolling and clunking that almost drowned out the shouts of the guards. I put on my shoes and stood to attention.
Detective Harriet Blue. Inmate 3329.
Charged with a host of crimes. The main one murder. I’d tracked, hunted and killed a man named Regan Banks. Banks had been a serial killer who counted my brother among his victims, but that fact didn’t do me any favours. The law was the law, and as a cop I shouldn’t have acted like I was above it. Now I was in prison.
Any inmate who takes down a cop in prison is a hero.
But it was not going to be this cop.
Dolly Quaddich, my cellmate, stepped into the count line beside me. She stretched her messily tattooed arms towards the ceiling and shook herself like a dog, but ended up looking no more revitalised. Dolly never looked entirely awake. She consumed more marijuana in prison than some junkies did on the outside.
‘What’s for breakfast?’ she asked, yawning.
‘The same unidentifiable slop they’ve been serving at Johnsonborough every morning for the past fifty years,’ I said.
‘Just making conversation, Haz.’
‘Leave me alone today,’ I said. ‘Go sit with the other dopeheads. I’ll see you in forty-eight.’
‘Oh, man,’ she whined. ‘Again? When the hell are you gonna change your name?’
Dolly knew what seeing her in two days meant. It meant I was going to have a fight, and I’d be locked up in solitary for that time. She hated being alone in the cell because she was afraid of the dark. One hundred and seventy women living within sneezing distance of one another, eight guards touring the block every fifteen minutes and all-night security lighting that stayed bright enough for inmates to read jailhouse magazines in bed did little to abate her night-time terror. She was also convinced that if I legally changed my name, the prison population would instantly forget who I was.
I liked Dolly, but she was dumb as a brick and every time I got put in solitary she sold something of mine in exchange for drugs. I didn’t have a lot of things, so my few items were precious. Usually my deodorant went first.
I sat at the table nearest the back wall of the chow hall and shoved my plate of watery eggs, soggy bread and mystery mush aside. The chow hall was a good stage for a fight. I’d seen plenty of scraps go down here – food trays flying, scalding coffee searing faces, eggs splattering on walls.
Frida, today’s planned attacker, was small and wiry like me, but she had big hands for grabbing hair and gouging eyes, and a nose that looked like it had been broken more than a couple of times. I locked eyes with my challenger across the hall and her cronies looked over their shoulders at me. Everybody in the hall knew it was on. A fight is a good distraction, so it’s useful to know when one is on the cards. Fights tie up guards and direct the surveillance cameras to a certain place in the room. I knew when Frida and I got together there would likely be other incidents around the chow hall. Someone shanked. Drug deals made. A smattering of robberies of weaker inmates for food, drugs or phone cards.
A woman at the head of the queue dropped her just-received tray from chest height, spraying food everywhere, drawing over the two guards in the room to assist in the clean-up. An inciting incident to kick things off. Frida stood and started moving down the aisle towards me. I was so focused on Frida as I got up and started walking to meet her that I didn’t even think about her strategy.
I heard the squeak of a rubber shoe on the tiles behind me a second before an arm came around my neck.
I knew the second girl by her smell alone. Mel Briggs hardly ever left the smokers’ corner of the yard. I reached up as she tried to drag me backwards, grabbed a fistful of her hair and twisted out of the headlock, bringing her face down on my knee. The crunch of her nose on my kneecap was like a starting gun. The women around me stood in unison, a wail of surprise, horror, excitement rising up from every mouth. I landed an uppercut to Mel’s face while she was still bent double, in case she had any stupid ideas about recovering for a second run, then I dropped her limp body on the floor.
Three seconds. Frida hadn’t counted on me disposing of Mel so quickly. She had used the time to take out her shank, though, a long splinter of plexiglas wrapped in electrical tape. I’d never resorted to constructing a shank of my own in prison. I’m dirty but I’m not a cheat.
Frida swung the shank at me wide and hard, going right for the face, a novice move. If you want to fight with blades you need to dance close, hug your victim to you, go for the fleshy parts – the stomach, thighs, flanks. I leaned back, gave the shank an inch clearance across the bridge of my nose, grabbed Frida’s arm and shoulder as her balance shifted and used her own momentum to drive her forward into a nearby table. Women watching dove out of our path. I grabbed her hair, lifted her head and smashed her face into the table a couple of times. I could feel the impact reverberate through the steel tabletop, into the legs bolted to the floor.
The alarm above us had started wailing seven seconds into the fight. Guards shouted, trying to get through the wall of women near the counter. Red lights flashed on the ceiling. Eighty per cent of the women in the room dropped flat on the floor as they were supposed to, hands over the back of their heads, fingers interlocked.
But Frida wasn’t giving up so easily, and neither were her friends.
I turned and received a palm in the face, the force of the blow snapping my head back. I grabbed a tray and batted the new challenger away with it, fell on top of her, shoved the corner of the tray into her eye socket and drove her head into the tiles.
Frida was there when I stood up again. I took a couple of jabs in the ribs and used the fury that the pain awoke, dumping adrenaline into my system, to lash out with a hard right to her cheekbone. I felt the skin split under my knuckles. I went for another blow as she fell backwards away from me. Frida was out cold before she hit the ground.
The shouting of the guards was lost in the blaring of the alarm, the screams from the inmates still standing and the ringing in my ears from the blow to the face. I stood and examined the blood on my hands, wondering how much of it was mine, as the guards swarmed me. The men swept my legs out from under me and shoved me to the ground. I realised Dolly was lying right beside me, having hit the deck when the fight started. We met eyes as I was cuffed from behind.
‘See you in a couple of days, Harry.’ She waved a finger clamped to her head.
‘Don’t sell any of my shit, Doll,’ I said as they dragged me away.
Tox Barnes was sitting at a table with his feet up on the dancers’ stage at the Eruptions Club. The door opened behind him, far across the empty room. In the whisky glass near his elbow he noted the reflection of a tall man with a thick frame, broad shoulders leading to a bulging neck and a boxy head. It was a silhouette he recognised. Tox shook his head and sighed, set the newspaper he had been reading on his lap and took a packet of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. He was going to need one.
The big man who sat down beside him said nothing at first. Tox lit his cigarette and exhaled as he picked up the paper again. ‘Imagine the Telegraph trying to come up with a headline for this,’ Tox said. ‘Deputy Police Commissioner visits Eruptions in uniform.’
‘Eruptions?’ Woods asked. There was no sign inside or outside the club to indicate the name of the establishment.
‘It used to be called the Boobie Bungalow. It’s an improvement.’ Tox grunted. ‘What the fuck do you want?’ When he exhaled smoke at the commissioner, he noticed the state of the man beside him. He was worn and tired, his name badge askew and hands clasped tightly in his lap.
‘I need your help,’ Woods said. ‘I haven’t been able to contact my daughter in eight days.’
‘Well, she’s not here,’ Tox said.
‘There has been no activity on the credit card I gave her, or on the phone number I knew her to have,’ Woods continued, ignoring Tox. ‘I have a pair of detectives on the case, of course. But as the days are passing I’m beginning to think I have to go harder at this. Bring in the big guns. I need you, Detective Barnes.’
‘Meh.’ Tox waved the older man off. ‘You don’t need me.’
‘If you needed me, you wouldn’t have said you haven’t been able to contact your daughter. You’d have said she was missing. You’d have played it straight. But you, me, those strippers over there at the bar and every other human being with any kind of connection to current affairs in this country knows Tonya Woods is a crackhead and a washout. Eight days? She’s probably just had a good score and is on a binge. You’ll find her on your doorstep wanting money for a re-up on Monday.’ He went back to his newspaper. ‘And don’t call me detective, arsehole. Not while I’m suspended, under your orders.’
‘Look.’ Woods leaned in close. ‘What happened with the Regan Banks case is over. I’m lifting your susp–’
‘Over?’ Tox sneered. ‘It’s not over. Not while I’m suspended, Edward Whittacker’s suspended and Harriet Blue’s in jail. Over? Listen to you, you self-righteous prick. I bet you thought it was over when all the magazines stopped interviewing you about your magnificent work on that case.’ Tox waved at the women standing at the bar, slender, tanned beauties in fluorescent-coloured G-strings. ‘Britney, dump this idiot back out on the street where you found him.’
‘Barnes.’ Woods stood as the woman in towering heels started walking towards him. ‘My child is missing. And my grandchild is with her.’
Tox heard the strain in the old man’s voice. The rumble of genuine panic thrumming through the words. He’d heard it many times before in his career. He didn’t lift his eyes from the paper.
‘I’ll go,’ Woods said as Britney took his arm. ‘But I came to you precisely because of what happened on the Banks case. You, Whittacker and Blue – you found that man and you stopped him. I took credit for it, yes. I had you all punished for it, yes. But I’m a man with his hat in his hand here. I . . . I know it’s different this time with Tonya. I know she’s really gone.’