I came to a halt, a full stop, a period of rest, while writing "Venus Virus". Another project started demanding my attention. Without fixed deadlines, I agreed, like a child rushing to open all the presents on Christmas morning.
"The Secret Lives of Melissa Powell" is only a working title. I might decide on another later on. It's a story about prisons, literal and metaphorical. It's less of a horror story and more a tale of mysticism. I suspect the best definition for it, if it turns out the way I anticipate, would be magical realism.
Blurb - When Wanda Jones joins Witchwood Prison as a new guard, she is already aware of the infamy of one inmate. Still it surprises her how afraid everyone seems to be of Melissa Powell. Contrary to frequent warnings, Jones builds a friendship with the enigmatic prisoner, and is enchanted by the woman’s obvious spirituality. Misplaced trust thrusts Jones into a nightmare. When she needs her colleagues the most, she finds that no one will believe her. Can she escape and reclaim what Melissa Powell has stolen?
To whet your appetite here's a segment from chapter 1. Jones has arrived for her first day at work at Witchwood Prison, and after an initial tour of the buildings, meet with her mentor, Dawson.
At 6.30 am she abandoned us in the staff lounge. A room with old sofas and a noisy coffee maker, fridge and sink. She told us to wait for our mentors and nodded to a camera in the corner of the room, as if to say – no one trusts you.
We were on the second floor. At least there was a window, although it was barred. Rain streaked the glass.
I’d been too distracted, from the moment of entering the prison, to report the accident. The rain against the window and the search lights that bounced off the streaks of water reminded me and taunted me. I should have asked to use the phone, to call the ambulance or police, the moment I’d arrived. Now it would be too embarrassing to admit what I had encountered, the abandoned car. I’d be considered forgetful, incompetent, criminally negligent if I owned up now, almost two hours too late, to what I’d driven away from. Surely someone else would have reported it. Someone other than me.
Thankfully the arrival of six guards distracted me from my guilt. It was time to have my head crammed with information again.
The experienced guards sat with us, on the battered sofas, mugs of tea and coffee in their hands, some dragging pitifully on electronic cigarettes.
Unlike Mr Hunter and Ms Reynolds, they didn’t shy away from the celebrity on cell-block D. They passed on her legend to us newbies with relish, each adding fruits the the vine of their shared tale. Melissa Powell had been there for longer than all of them, fifteen years. She was a story they told to spook the new recruits. I’d expected a monster, and their stories promised one.
A woman who ruled the prison without lifting a finger. It was strange that the managers chose not to mention her if a fraction of what we heard from the guards was true – prisoner suicides, guards quitting or needing therapy, protestors outside the gates, reporters buying visitor privileges. Powell’s story had plenty of drama.
I saw reverence and fear in the guards’ eyes when they mentioned her name. But still I felt disconnected from the fiend. Our paths weren’t likely to cross. No doubt, I’d have moved on, left the prison service, before I was experienced enough in my job to have dealings with the Highgate Priestess. Or so I thought until Dawson sidled up to me on the sofa, sitting a little too close for my comfort. She told me she was the guard assigned to mentor me. I’d had the basic academy training before starting my induction, but they did things “by the book” at Witchwood. Everyone knew the rules and followed them. Dawson had worked in other prisons before, but none were as carefully run as this one. Apparently Melissa Powell could be thanked for that too. She was a ticking time-bomb.
Dawson gently told me that - contrary to my expectations - “Jones, you will have direct contact with ‘our most honoured resident’. Not as her personal officer, that dubious pleasure belongs to the most senior guard on D block – Patterson. Sadly, Patterson is a no show today. I have to visit Powell in her absence. You can stay outside the room. However, you and I will regularly escort her to see visitors. She gets visits twice a week. The woman has a waiting list, would you believe? I’m sure I don’t have to warn you to be vigilant, but I will anyway. Don’t speak to her, don’t listen to her, and whatever you do, don’t trust her.
“She gets more letters and visitors than any other prisoner,” Dawson explained. “She has her own room, all the lifers do. It’s on the top floor of D block. She likes the view.” Dawson scoffed, but she was shaking as she told me about Inmate Powell.
“What’s she like? All I’ve seen are old photos of her in the papers.”
Dawson shook her head. “She still looks like a child, but those eyes of hers, they’ve seen things, and sometimes, if you look too closely, you can see things too. Just watch out, okay? It isn’t fair that you have to deal with her so soon, but a lot of the older guards moved on recently and, well there it is, she’s on your list of duties whether we like it or not.
“She’s got some weird power over people. Most of the other inmates, and us guards, keep out of her way as much as possible. She eats in her room, alone. She goes to the chapel alone, except for Patterson, of course. When Powell first arrived, because of how high profile she was, all the inmates knew what she’d done. Some of the hard cases tried to make her life difficult, or so I’m told. Because of the kids. No one appreciates a kiddy-killer on their block. None of those women are here now, transferred mostly, but others committed suicide. It all added to Powell’s reputation. No one bothers her any more, but some of the inmates, they’re drawn to her. We have to keep a close eye on things.”
“What do you mean, drawn to her?” I asked.
“They ask her for favours and offer her gifts.”
I wanted to ask more but Dawson stood up. Coffee break was over. It was seven am, ninety minutes into our working day, and time to get the inmates out of their cells for breakfast. I swilled an HMP branded mug under the hot tap. Dawson advised me to bring my own from home, all the guards had their own. The spares were only for official visitors. I wondered whether I’d be judged for my taste in drinking vessel. Should I buy an impersonal mug from the supermarket on the way home? I decided not to test Dawson’s patience by asking her.
Barred gates were everywhere, sometimes only a dozen paces apart. Too many locks and keys. This week I would shadow Dawson, but eventually I’d have my own bunch of keys, rattling and dragging on my belt. How would I remember which went where? Dawson never seemed to choose the wrong one. I guessed it was important to remember, in case of an emergency. I dreaded the first emergency I’d encounter.
I’d never planned to join the prison service. But it was the best paid job I could find for someone who’d finished school at eighteen, with A Levels in sociology and history. My wife was the academic. She was training to be a doctor. I only had to stick with this job until she finished her studies, then I could be the kept woman, or at least find something I liked. I didn’t allow myself to think about that, though, on my first day. I was there to learn. My life might depend on it. Melissa Powell wasn’t the only murderer on D block. Why was I doing this again? Oh yes, money!