It was becoming more and more frequent that Joan would work much later at night. In the beginning it was maybe once a month she would be held back at work until the night shift was half way through. But lately it was once, twice a week. Sometimes Joan would have already returned home when she was called out again. Kate was noticing the fatigue building up in her friend as the time they spent together increased.
Joan was less talkative during their dinners which had now grown to once a fortnight, and she even let Kate cook more meals for her. The fatigue had grown to a point where her controlling needs were being shadowed by her instinctive need to rest.
Her after work stop ins were now only for the duration of a small glass of wine, not a whole bottle.
Those dark eyes looked tired. She laughed less. The stress was building. Kate worried about Joan and how much more she would be able to take before she snapped under the pressure.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Kate asked one night; Joan’s head was resting on Kate’s shoulder and Kate’s hand was resting on Joan’s knee as they sat on the couch finishing a glass of wine after the dinner they had just shared.
Joan knew exactly what Kate was talking about, so she didn’t need to ask. “No,” was her simple answer. And so they purely sat together quietly in the dim light as they finished their wine. Even with the tension building up inside Joan, they were both comfortable just being there together. It was enough for both of them simply to have the company of the other. Joan’s black eyes were watching Ludo swim around his bowl that was now sitting on the coffee table in front of them. She found his laps to be calming and her mind would quieten as she watched the light reflect off his different shaded orange scales.
“The board are watching me like a hawk. I think they are trying to push me out.” Despite herself Joan’s deepest stresses decided they needed an outlet as her body and mind calmed more than they had done in weeks. Something felt different when she was with Kate. With everyone else she always felt like she had to be in control of all situations all the time, she had to make sure she got what she needed from everyone; she would even change her own ways to manipulate others if necessary. But not with Kate, she discovered that she was able to just be who she is, without the need for control or manipulation.
“Okay,” was Kate’s simple response as she stroked Joan’s leg, not wanting to distract her from venting her frustrations.
“I took down a drug trafficking ring that was happening right under the nose of the guards during the garden project with the male prisoners being onsite. And a prisoner fell pregnant on my watch during that time that no one picked up on.”
“Not the one who was sexually assaulted and stabbed the male prisoner in the scrotum?” Kate had read about the incident in the newspaper but hadn’t brought up the issue with Joan; she figured her neighbour was under enough stress without bringing things up. Joan would raise the issue if she needed to.
“No, it was another incident. Completely undetected by my staff, I had to place the officer in charge on suspension and order urine tests throughout which all came back negative so another round of testing was carried out on the samples we had. We found out who the pregnant one is and I managed to find out who the father is. Apparently they are ‘in love’ and happy with their situation. He should be due for parole soon.” Joan’s voice had turned accusatory as though she couldn’t believe the information.
“Okay.” Kate knew this was actually a huge issue but wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it, it was Joan’s huge issue and she would talk about it more when she needed to.
“I’ve had two deaths in custody. Some nasty heroin called Pink Dragon caused the last one. I can’t get them under control. This prison leaks like a sieve.”
“I thought you seized the Pink Dragon?” There had been conversation between the two of them a few weeks before about this and Kate wanted to check her facts, Joan had been bragging about getting it from the prisoners who smuggled it in before they had a chance to distribute. It had been a big win for Joan.
“I did, but obviously not before some of it got out. One of the junkies was found with a needle full of pink fluid in her arm. Vomit everywhere. Clear overdose without even using the whole hit.”
Kate hated the term junkie but wasn’t about to criticize Joan for her language in her less than fit state.
Joan took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, forcing herself to relax a bit as the tension in her body lifted slightly thanks to having the safe space to voice her frustrations.
“One of my officers was run off the road on his motorcycle by an ex-husband of one of the inmates. He claims that my officer is having an unethical relationship with his wife.”
“You mean ex-wife?”
“Yes, but the perpetrator in question continues to call her his wife, despite the fact that he was the one who applied for the divorce. He was a woman basher, a drunk, and obviously a control freak. This could get very messy very quickly if I don’t find a way to bring it under control.”
“Okay.” Kate’s hand moved up Joan’s thigh as she gently caressed.
“Then there’s the ‘no lagging’ policy among the women. A woman quite clearly get’s bashed but she’s adamant she fell and no one saw it. A woman dies from an overdose but no one knows where the drugs came from. I could fix all of this if someone would inform me of what is actually happening when the guards aren’t there but they just won’t.” The exhaustion was evident in Joan’s voice as she poured her heart out, but she was completely devoid of emotion. It was all just fact. Kate was beginning to understand what Joan had meant that night many weeks ago when she had said there was something wrong with her. Most people would be emotionally wrecked by this point, frayed nerves, nightmares, stress poring over into personal lives. But Joan was simply tired, not emotional.
“And I believe one of the board members is having inappropriate relations with a member of staff. And I also believe there is something far more sinister going on with that particular board member too, but I don’t have any proof as yet, just hearsay and suspicion. But if my gut is right and the shreds of evidence I have fit together correctly, I think there may be human trafficking and sex trade happening through the parole network.”
“What?” Kate’s tone was suddenly fierce, her demeanour changed, her body became rigid and tight as what Joan was telling her hit her deep in her emotional core. It was an overly emotional response because of her own history and the things she had seen in Africa. It was a reaction that most people with a normal range of emotion and effective empathy would have. But Joan was simply tired and stating facts and continued to show no emotion whatsoever.
“I need to investigate further before I have any proof, but things are adding up and it doesn’t look good for the general manager.” Joan shifted her body slightly and took a sip of wine. Her eyelids were heavy and she was still wearing her uniform suit. She still needed to return home and shower before bed but she was greatly enjoying the company of Kate and the feel of her neighbours’ hand caressing her thigh through her slacks. “You know at my last prison in Queensland they called me The Fixer. Here, now, I just feel like The Failure.”
“You’re not a failure Joan,” Kate whispered.
“I’m not what you think I am.” It was a moment of weakness due to exhaustion, a new depth of vulnerability that caused the words to tumble so carelessly from Joan’s mouth. Deep down inside she knew what she was. She had hinted to it previously, wanting Kate to know what she was getting herself into, giving her the opportunity to put her own walls up and protect herself from the monster that Joan knew lurked inside of her.
“Nothing has changed Joan,” Kate whispered as she too adjusted herself, removing her arm from Joan’s leg and instead slipping it around her shoulder to hold her closer. Joan’s head fit snugly into Kate’s shoulder and Kate dropped her lips down to plant a gentle kiss on her friend’s forehead. Joan’s skin felt warm and inviting beneath her lips as she savoured the moment, lingering longer that would have been acceptable in any other friendship.
Joan’s skin tingled from the intimate touch and despite her better judgement she knew she had already lost the absolute control she always held so dearly in such circumstances, and so she inclined her head to bring her lips to within an inch of Kate’s.
A rush of adrenaline coursed through Kate’s body and caused her to pause for a moment as she took in the situation that had just been presented to her like a gift. She felt her skin tingle with a prickly heat and her heart race as though it was in her throat. It seemed to last forever, the long moment that it took as they both looked at each other’s lips before Kate finally submitted to the desire coursing through her body and closed the gap between them. Finally, their lips found each other.