Hide and Seek by M. J. Arlidge

Helen awaits trial in a crumbling women's prison in Southampton. She has a fight on to prove her innocence from inside her prison cell, but this soon turns out to be the least of her worries

Hide and Seek

She was surrounded on all sides by women who’d slit her throat as soon as look at her

It had been like this ever since her arrival. Police officers sit somewhere between grasses and child killers in the prison pecking order, objects of morbid curiosity and derision. So from the gantries, the cell doorways, the serving hatches, they watched her. Detective Inspector Helen Grace was still awaiting trial, but she’d already been convicted by her fellow prisoners, who’d labelled her a murderer and a pervert, while doling out some old‑fashioned Holloway punishment. At the front of the queue were the handful of violent offenders that Helen had put away herself – for them getting even with the disgraced police officer was a duty as well as a pleasure.

Her only respite from the daily grind of petty insults and casual violence came during working hours – inmates knew better than to mess with the smooth running of the prison – but even here there was little cheer. Duties were apportioned by the prison staff and Helen’s nominated officer – a burly sadist called Campbell – took great delight in allotting her the most unpleasant tasks. Toilets and showers, medical waste, laundry and, worst of all, canteen clear‑up.

This was always a painstaking duty, but tonight it had been particularly gruelling, thanks to the mess left behind by ‘Lucy’. Lucy was a woman now living as a man, who’d nevertheless serve her sentence in Holloway as she was biologically female. She loathed the place and was fighting a tortuous legal battle to be transferred to a male prison. Her fellow inmates knew this and enjoyed provoking her, refusing to call her by her chosen name: Michael. Predictably things had kicked off again tonight and in the resulting brawl serious blows had been exchanged. Lucy had later vomited while being restrained, making Helen’s clean‑up operation even more unpleasant.

Helen was just finishing the job, eking out the last few minutes before lock‑up, when she heard someone approaching. Even without looking up, she knew who it was. The inmates were all back on their wings and, besides, the slow measured tread was unmistakable. She looked up to see Cameron Campbell approaching, leaving a steady trail of footprints behind him on her freshly mopped floor.

‘You missed a bit,’ Campbell said, gesturing to his footprints.

‘Sorry, sir,’ Helen replied. ‘Won’t happen again.’

‘Make sure it doesn’t. If there is one thing I abhor, it’s . . . sloppy work.’

As he spoke, he raised his right foot, nudging the rim of Helen’s bucket until it toppled over, slewing huge amounts of vomit‑flecked water across the floor. Helen watched the water’s progress, then turned back to Campbell, her eyes burning with anger.

‘Do it again,’ Campbell continued casually, brushing past Helen. ‘I want this place spick and span for the Christmas festivities.’

Furious, Helen bent down to grab her mop and as she did so she felt a sharp elbow ram into her kidneys. It was so sudden and so violent that it knocked the breath from her and she fell to her knees, clutching the bucket rim for support. Campbell didn’t break stride, didn’t bother to look back, but the girls on the gantries were clearly enjoying the show.

‘Look at the pig with her nose in the trough,’ one wag shouted and others soon joined in.

Helen raised her head, refusing to look broken, but all she saw was a hundred mocking faces – laughing, joking, revelling in her misfortune. In her former life, she’d been a respected police officer – she would have dealt with someone like Campbell swiftly and decisively – but now she was powerless to act. In here she was the butt of all jokes, an accident waiting to happen, a handsome trophy for any inmate brave enough to chance an attack.

She had survived thus far, but how long could her luck hold? She was surrounded on all sides by women who’d slit her throat as soon as look at her, yet the authorities seemed determined to turn a blind eye to her predicament. There was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, so Helen could never let her guard down, never relax.

In Holloway, danger was only a heartbeat away.

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