Authors: Lindsay Ashford
Praise for Lindsay Ashford:
“Gritty, streetwise and raw, Frozen takes us into a labyrinth of deviant murderers, crooked cops and hapless young female victims with an authenticity and detail borne of Ashford’s own journalistic experience”
Denise Hamilton, author of the Eve Diamond crime novels
“Patricia Cornwell has patented the persona of the doughty heroine who bucks the system, but Ashford is closer to her personal demons”
“Ashford’s excellent understanding of society gives this exciting book an added depth”
Big Issue Magazine
“Chilling… Will appeal to those who enjoy the forensic procedurals of Kathy Reichs”
For Mum and Dad
Read more of Megan’s investigations in Strange Blood, Frozen and Death Studies
ALSO FROM LINDSAY ASHFORD:
Other titles in the Megan Rhys Crime series by Lindsay Ashford
About the Author
I would like to thank C. K. for allowing me to talk to him about the experience of spending a year in jail. I know that he found it difficult to discuss the trauma of being imprisoned but I hope that sharing it with someone has helped him to come to terms with it.
I gained further valuable insights into prison life from
A Life Inside
by Erwin James (Guardian Books) and
Bang Up For Men
by Adrian Rudesind (Starborne).
Thanks go to my editor, Caroline Oakley, for her sound advice and to Helena Earnshaw and Janet Thomas for their suggestions and unwavering support. Also to my children, Ciaran, Ruth, Isabella and Deri for putting up with a mother who writes about murder rather than magic.
Finally, thank you to Steve Lawrence, who has contributed to this book in so many ways and whose love and encouragement make writing a far from lonely experience.
Sometimes I wish I’d never found him. But somebody had to. He shouldn’t have been left like that. Unburied.
The sight of his face, wizened and unreal, sent spiders scuttling from some dark corner of my mind: images of a place I don’t remember. And now, every time I close my eyes, I go back there.
I’m climbing out of bed but it’s not my bed. It’s a cot with white-painted bars. My legs are just long enough to straddle them and slither over the side. I can hear my own footsteps, bare feet padding along a hard surface. Wooden floorboards or lino, maybe. It’s light outside, but not very. The hallway has an eerie grey pre-dawn look about it. I pause in the doorway of a kitchen. I’m about to step in something but I stop just in time.
It looks like ketchup. A big sticky pool of red. Curious, I move closer. Dip my fingers in it. I don’t lick them, though. It smells funny. Then I see him lying behind the door. His eyes are closed. ‘Daddy,’ I whisper, tugging at his vest. ‘Daddy!’ He doesn’t move.
I back away from him and turn round. The door to another room is open. I take a step towards it. I see her lying on a settee in a black nightie with little red hearts for buttons. Her eyes are closed, too, but they look strange. They twitch like a dog chasing cats in its sleep.
I touch her arm, then tug it. Her head moves a bit but she doesn’t wake up. I go to the other end of the settee to tickle her toes because that always works when she doesn’t want
to get up. But there’s something on her legs. Red stuff . Then I see something lying by her feet. It looks like a doll. But its face is a different colour from other dolls. Sort of blueywhite. Its body is wrapped up. Not like a present. Like fish and chips. I want to unwrap it. Give it a kiss. But there’s something scary about its eyes.
Now I’m back in bed. My own bed. Blinking back tears as I stare out of the window. The sky blurs pink and orange. Tiny clouds swim out of the sun. On the horizon, like a black paper cut-out of a castle, is Balsall Gate jail. ‘If only you were here, Dad,’ I whisper. ‘You’d know what to do.’
HMP Balsall Gate was a squat, grey, Victorian monstrosity of a prison. Monstrous not only in appearance but for what went on inside its walls. To reach it Megan Rhys had to walk through the equally depressing graveyard that bordered its west side. The derelict church overlooking the graveyard was almost as forbidding as the prison, its stained glass windows smashed to jagged shards.
She could have driven to the prison and parked her car in the inner courtyard but it was only fifteen minutes’ walk from her office at Heartland University. Hardly worth it. And she needed the exercise. She felt bloated and her trousers were uncomfortably tight. She could no longer fit into half the clothes in her wardrobe.
The very thought of the way her waistline was expanding made her dive into her bag for her latest prop: dried prunes. She was snacking on them instead of the
she’d become addicted to after giving up smoking. The problem was the packets were so hard to undo you could starve to death trying to get at the damned things. So she’d taken to carrying a pair of nail scissors round with her, which she fished out along with the prunes. Cheeks bulging like a hamster, she picked her way past gravestones choked with weeds. Lucky there was no one about. She must make sure there were no telltale bits stuck to her teeth by the time she reached her destination.
The weather had been very hot for April. The closer she got to the prison walls the more oppressive the air seemed
to become. She glanced up at the sky. Today was the kind of day the forecasters described as quiet: notable more for what wasn’t going on than what was. There was no rain, no wind, no sunshine. It was as if the elements were holding their breath, waiting for something to happen.
‘Good morning, Dr Rhys!’ The security man in the office at the prison gate beamed at her as she handed over her bag. She’d only been coming here for a few weeks but he greeted her like an old friend. Probably because the majority of people he met in the course of his working day were sullen, miserable and aggressive. And who could blame them, she thought, glancing back as the huge wooden gate thudded shut. It was the entrance to hell.
Megan knew prisons like some people knew football grounds. She had visited all the high and medium security jails in the UK, as well as several in the States. In her head she had a league table and Balsall Gate was at the bottom. She was here to investigate the unusually high rate of suicide among the inmates. During the previous six months no fewer than ten men had taken their own lives. It had been too much for the resident prison psychologist to handle: he was on long-term sick leave after a year on anti-depressants.
She was in the inner courtyard now, a cobbled area the size of a tennis court enclosed by towering stone walls coated in the grime of inner-city Birmingham. She could hear the shouts of men through tiny, barred windows. Barked conversations between inmates desperate for a way to pass the time. The shouts were peppered with obscenities. Then a chorus of wolf whistles as someone spotted her walking across the cobbles. She closed her ears to the lewd catcalls that followed. She’d heard them all before and she knew that any female under retirement age was likely to get the same treatment.
It wasn’t difficult to understand how despairing a person
could become in a place like this. But the frequency of the deaths was alarming. There were hundreds of other Category B prisoners housed in cramped, outdated conditions – so why had this one driven so many to take their lives?
At the inner gate she was met by Fergus, the prison officer who had escorted her the previous day. Fergus was possibly the tallest man she had ever met. At six foot seven he had to bend his head to get through the doors to the cells. Not fat, but solid, he had the look of Jaws – the James Bond villain – minus the metal dental work. Not the sort of man any inmate would want to get on the wrong side of.
On her first day at the prison Fergus had taken her to the governor’s office. She had known in advance that Malcolm Meredith was a member of the old school of prison management, not impressed by the efforts of prison psychologists to rehabilitate inmates. As far as he was concerned, prison was all about retribution, not rehabilitation. He had a world-weariness that she had seen in many men at the top of their profession who were nearing the end of their careers. Malcolm Meredith had less than a year to go before hanging up his governor’s hat for good. It was pretty clear that all he was thinking about was escaping the daily grind and getting out onto the golf course. His leadership was lax and his staff appeared to be taking full advantage. All prisons had a pecking order amongst the inmates, but Megan knew that in Balsall Gate there was also an unofficial pecking order amongst the screws. Someone was wielding far more power than they ought to and that, she believed, was the key to the misery in this place.
‘This way, Dr Rhys.’ Fergus unlocked the door to a long corridor, holding it open as she passed through. His size and build would have made him a natural candidate for top dog among his fellow jailers but Megan had decided within seconds of meeting him that Fergus was not the type. He
was the archetypal gentle giant. She guessed that from an early age his sheer physical presence had been enough to get him by without resorting to bullying of any kind. In her experience it was the smaller, less physically impressive warders who were likely to cause the most grief to inmates; the weedy kids who had been picked on in the playground and who saw a guard’s uniform as the perfect way to get their own back. She followed Fergus down the corridor, its walls newly painted in pink gloss.
. Not a colour you’d expect in a prison. It had been done on the recommendation of an interior design team who said the colour would lower aggression among the inmates. Like everything else tried to date, it had failed.
She glanced at her watch. ‘You’ll be unlocking soon, won’t you Fergus? For association, I mean.’
The guard shook his head. ‘Not today, ma’am.’ He cocked his head to the left. ‘Bit of trouble last night, so they’re on twenty-three hour lock-up.’
She heard the guard’s tongue click against the roof of his mouth. ‘In the Segregation Unit. You know what it’s like.’ He glanced at her over his shoulder as he unlocked a door. ‘They sometimes go a bit crazy.’
‘Oh, the usual: some guy screaming his head off, waking everyone else up. Course, they all start bawling then, don’t they?’
Megan frowned. She could just imagine what the noise must have been like, the way the walls in this place echoed. The stress levels must be at an all-time high after a night like that.
‘Here we are, ma’am.’ Fergus showed her into a small room with the kind of furniture not in evidence in the rest of the prison. Two new-looking armchairs upholstered
in green dralon faced each other across a round, wooden coffee table that bore a tray with cups, saucers and a plate of digestive biscuits. As she stepped across the threshold a head appeared from behind the wing of one of the armchairs. Dominic Wilde was only three years older than her but his shoulder-length wavy hair had gone completely white. His face had the inevitable prison pallor. She thought, not for the first time, what an odd pair they must look; with her black hair and olive skin, he was almost like her photographic negative. A lifer with thirteen years under his belt, Dominic was the most serene, well-balanced prisoner she had ever encountered.
‘Morning, Megan.’ His large eyes were the colour of
slate and the creases at their lower corners deepened as he smiled. She settled into the chair opposite. There was a tangible warmth from the man, melting the cold fear that seemed to leak from the very walls of this place.
‘Morning Dom.’ They had been on first name terms for the past few weeks. She had first met him two years ago when she’d visited the prison to interview another inmate for a book she was writing about sex offenders. Dom Wilde was what people in the prison service called a Listener. An inmate trained by the Samaritans to counsel fellow prisoners. He was now so well-respected by the other inmates that he had been made Listener Co-ordinator, which meant he was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, dealing with anything from marriage break-ups to threatened suicides.
Dom was Megan’s cover; her excuse for getting into the jail regularly over a period of weeks. It was a plan she had suggested to the Ministry of Justice. She wanted to find out what was causing the alarming suicide rate in Balsall Gate and so did they. The Ministry knew that if they sent an inspector in they would be presented with a sanitised version of what
was really going on. So Megan had suggested investigating the prison herself on the pretext of carrying out a research project to monitor the effectiveness of the Listener service.
She had marked Dom Wilde out as someone who could give her the answers she was looking for and all her subsequent meetings with him had reinforced her initial instincts about him. He was the only person in Balsall Gate who knew the real motive for her research. If he hadn’t agreed to co-operate she wouldn’t have gone ahead. There were only two conditions: the first was that she wouldn’t ask him to repeat any conversations held with inmates he’d counselled. The second was that the results of her findings wouldn’t be published until after his transfer to open prison, which was due in three months’ time.
‘I’ve been reading one of your books,’ he said, eyeing her over the rim of his coffee mug.
‘Oh?’ Her hand went to her face, her index finger finding the diamond stud in her nose. Rubbing the stone was an idiosyncrasy, a gesture she performed unconsciously the way some people chewed their nails or flicked back their hair ‘Which one?’
‘Profiling Serial Killers’
, he replied. ‘You’re very modest, if you don’t mind me saying so.’
Megan gave him a puzzled smile. ‘Modest?’
‘You never told me you’d been inside every maximum security prison in the UK.’ He cocked his head to one side. ‘Or that you were the youngest person ever to become head of a university department.’
She shook her head with a soft hiss. ‘The prison thing isn’t something I tend to brag about – it’s a bit of a conversation-stopper at dinner parties.’
‘I can imagine!’ His wide grin revealed even, white teeth. ‘Has to be a damn sight more interesting than saying you’re an accountant or something, though?’
‘I suppose.’ She nodded. ‘But I sometimes get the feeling it’s the only reason I’m invited – know what I mean?’
He nodded back. ‘I sometimes feel like that. When they bring people here – government officials, that sort of thing – they trot me out like a prize poodle.’
Megan could picture it. The model inmate, wheeled out to prove that prison
work. She was fairly certain that the person Dom Wilde had become was down to his own strength of character, not anything or anyone he had encountered during his years inside. Prison nowadays was more about warehousing than anything else. There were few attempts at making inmates feel good about themselves.
‘I hear you had a bad night.’ She settled back in her chair, waiting for his version of events.
‘Yeah.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘Young guy called Terry. Someone found out he was in for trying to kill his mother.’ He pursed his lips. ‘Course, the lads in here, well, some of them have got the word “mum” tattooed on their fingers…’
Megan drew in her breath. They might as well have thrown him to the wolves.
‘He came to see me,’ Dom went on. ‘Turns out he’d put a pillow over her head because she had Alzheimer’s. They didn’t want to hear that, though, did they? So he ends up on Seg and on the first night he just loses it, poor sod.’
‘So now they’re all on twenty-three hour bang-up?
‘Yeah.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s nothing new, though. Happens more often than not these days, for all kinds of reasons. Staff shortages, staff training, any excuse, you know?’
‘Can’t do much for the atmosphere…’ She looked him in the eyes. There was a wry smile on her face but she was digging. She had learnt early on that Dom was the sort of person who took time to open up. Talking to him was like
panning for gold. His mind held nuggests of highly valuable information, but bringing them to the surface took patience. Ask him outright about something controversial and he would clam up. Despite the deal they had struck over the publication of her findings she wasn’t sure she had won his trust yet.
As if echoing her thoughts he gave her a long look before replying. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the vibes in here have been pretty dire ever since Charlie got done over.’
‘One of the screws. He was attacked by an inmate in the laundry. Smashed his head against one of the washing machines.’
Megan held his gaze, her face betraying no emotion, waiting for him to go on. This was good. This was something he hadn’t mentioned up to now.
‘There were others there. They saw what happened but they did nothing. Left him for dead.’
‘But he didn’t die?’
‘No. But he was brain-damaged. He’ll never work again.’
‘How long ago did this happen?’
‘Nearly a year ago.’
‘Do you think it’s had an effect on the suicide rates?’ She wasn’t going to say it outright, wasn’t going to ask him to grass anyone up. Not yet, anyway.
He nodded. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘And how.’
‘Dom,’ she ventured, ‘did you ever…I mean, have you ever thought about…’ She hesitated, searching for the right words.
‘Topping myself?’ he finished the sentence for her. ‘There was a time, yes,’ he said softly, stroking his chin. ‘It was five years into my sentence and I’d just had a knockback. They told me I was looking at seventeen years minimum before any chance of parole.’
She nodded, waiting for him to continue. Wondering if he could talk about it.
‘I did the usual, you know,’ he grunted, his mouth twisting into a half smile as his eyes met hers. ‘Tore my bed sheet into strips and plaited them. Tied one end to the top of the window and looped the other round my neck.’ He sniffed, glancing at the scuffed grey lino on the floor. ‘I sat there on the edge of my bunk. Ready to jump. Four, five times I must have got right to the edge, closed my eyes and thought
This is it!