Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Bad Girls’ by Gemma Rogers.
I stared at my trembling hands, the flesh glowing a radioactive pink. Blood seemed to have worked its way beneath my cuticles and was proving difficult to remove. I’d scrubbed them with bleach, eyes streaming, skin on fire, but still I scraped the brush back and forth, watching rosy specks line the sink.
Karla forced me to stop, resting a cool hand on my arm, her fingertips glacial. She was calm, thinking clearly, whereas my head was spinning like a carousel. What had I done?
‘We have to take care of him, Jess,’ Karla said as I dried my hands on a paper towel, wiped the sink clean and flushed it down the toilet. She handed me some latex gloves, retrieved from the large store cupboard, and nodded in the direction of the warehouse, where the industrial machines were housed.
The unit where Bright’s Laundry Service was based was relatively new; a twelve-thousand-square-foot warehouse in an L-shape on a small industrial estate on the edge of Croydon. Our closest neighbour was an automotive parts supplier who kept to themselves; the rest of the units were mostly offices with a parcel-distribution company taking the largest warehouse at the entrance to the estate. The space was open-plan, with the exception of Terry’s office, the toilets and a store cupboard full of detergent and various supplies. It felt like a shell – a cold, damp space, until all the machines were working and then it became stifling. It had never felt as claustrophobic before now.
Eyes wide, I glared at Karla.
‘We have to call the police,’ I said.
‘And go back to prison?’ she hissed.
Her words were enough. I followed her back to the office. Where he lay sprawled, half in, half out of the door. I glanced towards the window; blinds open a crack to see the sky darkening to a threatening red. There was a chill evident in the air, not unusual for early February. The lights were on a timer, they came on at four and went off at seven unless turned back on.
‘Help me,’ Karla gasped as she rolled him over. His face was purple, blood had begun to pool beneath the skin where he’d been lying on his front. She stood, hands upon bony hips, sweat beading on her brow. Her dark glare piercing as she wiped her cheek with her forearm. Wild corkscrew curls pointing in every direction. ‘We’ve got to get him out the back.’
I could see she was getting frustrated with me, and I chewed my lip, willing myself to think clearly. We were both small; around five feet, years of undernourishment had left my limbs wiry. Was hers for the same reason? The body at our feet had to weigh in excess of thirteen stone. Dead weight.
‘We need tape,’ I said, eyeing the office chair. If we could get him in the chair, taped in so he wouldn’t fall, we could wheel him out between us.
Karla left the office and I wrinkled my nose. It smelt sickly sweet inside; the smell of death lingered in the air. Not helped by him shitting himself as he passed. Bile rose and my chest heaved, but I swallowed it down.
The mobile rang out again, still discarded on the floor where it must have fallen from his pocket. It was the second time it had gone off. Kim, in large capital letters, flashed on the screen. Must be his wife wondering where he was. I glanced at the clock; it was five thirty. No doubt she was expecting him home from work, perhaps wanting him to pick up a pint of milk on the way? What would we do with the phone? I needed time to think. If we got anything wrong, I’d be going back to prison and Karla too, just for helping me.
‘Got it.’ Karla made me jump as she came back in, a role of silver duct tape on her wrist.
She wrapped tape around the ankles of each trouser leg.
‘He’s definitely shit himself, don’t know about you, but I don’t want any of it spilling out when we move him.’
I shook my head, my thumb and forefinger rubbing my earlobe. Trying to concentrate on not being sick.
After ten minutes of struggling, we managed to get him into the chair. His body flopped forwards and I recoiled as I made contact with damp skin. Drool leaked from his mouth, dripping onto his chest. I turned away so I wouldn’t gag. We wrapped tape around his middle, securing him to the back of the chair, and his ankles to the base so his legs wouldn’t drag.
‘What are we going to do with him?’ I asked.
‘There’s only one thing we can do with him. It’s too risky to take him anywhere else. We have to burn him here.’
I shut my eyes for a second, trying to stop my head swimming, until Karla tugged on my arm, bringing me back to the present. There was no time to waste, we had to get on with it.
It wasn’t the easiest method of transportation, but between us we managed to push and pull him out to the large red medical waste incinerator. The warehouse contained the industrial machines: the washers, dryers and presses, as well as the incinerator, which was reserved for sheets that couldn’t be cleaned.
Bright’s would receive a load from a local private hospital Terry had a contract with and some would be stained with blood or faecal matter. These would have to be incinerated and, almost daily, sheets were loaded into the bin tipper at the side, to ensure minimal contact. Using the controls, the bin was raised, sliding the sheets directly into the chamber at the top for incineration.
Unwrapping Terry from the chair, the smell of faeces made me gag. Together, we wrestled him from the chair into the tipping bin, but his dead weight was a struggle. His body, as well as being heavy, was becoming stiffer by the minute as rigor mortis set in. At one point, I was waiting for Karla to suggest removing his legs, as we struggled to fold them in. It would have been the final straw. I’d have given in and called the police. No matter what he’d done, I couldn’t hack him to pieces. Dead or not.
Our muscles screaming, we finally sank onto the floor. A joint puddle of sweat and grime. The effort involved in getting him inside the tipping bin had been immense and we were exhausted.
‘Come on, we’ve got to keep going.’ Karla sighed, heaving herself up. She squinted, trying to remember the controls of the incinerator, saying she’d only used it a couple of times because Terry liked to operate it, as it was the most expensive piece of kit he owned and he didn’t trust anyone else with it. Our speciality was the enormous washing machines that could wash in the region of thirty kilograms of sheets at once.
As she tried to work out which button ignited the cycle, I hurried to the office, ignoring Karla’s calls at my retreating back. I had to pull up the carpet tiles. They were old and cheap, a dark blue colour. Most were coming unstuck and beginning to peel back from the concrete. Only two had bloodstains on that I could see, and they needed to go into the incinerator as well. They came away easily with a good tug, the floor beneath looked to be clean.
I surveyed the office, but nothing else looked out of place. The desk was a mess as usual, covered in paperwork, with three coffee-stained mugs on top and a half-full bottle of Gaviscon next to the monitor.
‘Good thinking,’ Karla said as I returned with the tiles, throwing them in the tipping bin with Terry. She helped me out of my tabard before removing her own and tossed them inside. She hovered at the controls, chewing the inside of her cheek as she deliberated.
‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I asked.
‘Fuck no,’ she said, slamming her fist on the big green button. The machine sprang to life, metal screeching as it lifted the bin and opened the chamber. Terry toppled down inside, landing with a thud. The tipping bin lowered, the chamber locking, and it fell silent for a second. Karla and I looked at one another, but before I had a chance to speak, there was a hiss, a spitting sound and a whoosh of flames from inside. The deed was done.
One Month Earlier
I met Karla on my first day at Bright’s Laundry Service. My case manager, Barry, at the Community Rehabilitation Company had managed to put a good word in for me. I was relieved there was no prolonged job search involving multiple rejections. The following week of my release I’d secured the position as Laundry Operator with an immediate start.
Based on the outskirts of Croydon, it was only a short bus ride away for me, so the location was good. Barry knew the owner, Terry Bright, well apparently, and I was hired at a little over minimum wage to load and unload the enormous washing machines.
My day was spent wheeling around huge trolleys of sheets, getting them washed, and moving them to another section to be dried, folded and repacked. It wouldn’t have been a job I’d have chosen but I was grateful to be employed at all. I knew my prospects weren’t great, my criminal record unappealing to prospective employers. I took a few days to adjust, it was a much more demanding job than my last one as library assistant at HMP Bronzefield.
Bright’s, Terry told me proudly during my induction, had contracts with a number of private hospitals and hotels in South London. Bright’s were climbing the ranks; Terry was trying to get into the more prestigious hotel chains, but to me it was just a laundry, washing dirty linen.
At the end of each day, my muscles ached from the physical work I wasn’t used to. After a week, my clothes were looser, and I rarely consumed enough calories to cover what I was burning. Inside was like a sauna, and some of the girls who’d been there longest said it often hit a hundred degrees on warmer days. The air was stifling, sweat dripped off us and it was easy to get dehydrated. We had to carry water bottles everywhere. The heat was one thing, but the noise took a while to get used to as well, lots of industrial machines, all whirring at once. Sometimes you had to shout to be heard but I was used to that from Bronzefield.
Lots of girls worked at Bright’s; although not many were talkative and most, like me, preferred to keep themselves to themselves. I got the impression I wasn’t the only one on bail conditions. Everyone had the same look in their eye, all of us just a little bit broken. Stuck in a dead-end job with no prospects there was a general sense of hopelessness that clung to our skin. No one appeared to be much older than twenty-five. We were petite, slim girls, like the Stepford Wives of the laundry world. The conditions weren’t great, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
Karla and I met properly when we were thrust together to deal with a large load on my second day which had to be turned around quickly. The machines were out the back, lining the sides and in motion almost constantly. In the centre were long tables laid out for sorting and folding.
‘Fag?’ Karla asked, as we finished loading two machines side by side and got them going. She rolled her narrow shoulders, collarbones jutting up through her T-shirt.
We had a few minutes before the next load was finished and I was desperate to get out of the stuffy environment. All the air had been sucked out of the atmosphere and into the machines. Sporting yellow underarm stains on our T-shirts became the norm.
I nodded and followed Karla out of the rear of the warehouse, underneath the shutters, where a couple of cars were parked. The fresh air hit like a burst of oxygen to a deep-sea diver and immediately I was light-headed from the temperature dropping so quickly. I took a sharp intake of breath, blowing out foggy air.
‘You don’t talk much,’ she said, seemingly unfazed by the chill and pulling a packet of Mayfairs out of her pocket to offer me one. I took it and she lit it for me.
‘I’m Jess,’ I said, fingering the empty piercing on my earlobe. I already knew her name was Karla, I’d heard another girl call after her. We looked about the same age, early twenties, although I was rubbish at guessing. I knew I didn’t look twenty-two, more like seventeen at a push.
‘How’d you end up here?’ she asked, taking a long drag of her cigarette and flicking the ash into the air. Her chin stuck out, exaggerating her pointed features, and she carried an air of confidence I wasn’t used to here. I gravitated towards her straight away, like a weaker animal in the pack does towards a stronger one.
‘Four years in Bronzefield,’ I said, knowing Karla was almost certainly an ex-offender and would know the female prison.
‘Send,’ she replied. I’d heard of HMP Send, apparently you were lucky if you got sent there.
I nodded and kicked at the gravel with my trainer, spreading the sea of cigarette butts.
We didn’t speak much that day, quietly getting on with our work. We stopped for another couple of cigarette breaks and I promised to bring in some tobacco the next day to repay her. At the end of my first week, when our shift finished at five, we walked out of Bright’s together and stood awkwardly on the pavement. Karla suggested we went for a cup of tea at a nearby café, sitting outside so we could smoke and not be overheard.
She asked me where I was living, and I explained I had a bedsit a couple of miles away. Stuart, a graphic designer, at the offices where my sister, Helen, was a receptionist, had converted his garage into a large bedsit with a kitchenette, toilet and shower. The garage door had been removed and the space bricked up around a newly installed window and uPVC door. Stuart had put underlay and carpet down, plastered and wallpapered the walls, and boarded the ceiling, but it was still a bit cold and occasionally damp. Although it felt like a palace compared to my cell at Bronzefield. The extractor fan in the tiny bathroom wasn’t the best, but I was thrilled to finally be showering alone after four years. I got the impression it had been a cheap renovation, done mostly by Stuart, with the exception of the electrics and plumbing.
I was happy to have my own space, something bigger than the cell I’d shared. Helen had made it pretty clear on my release that I wasn’t welcome back with her and Mum. However, she didn’t want me living on the streets. I suspect Mum would have pushed her to arrange something for me. Stuart was friendly enough and knew my history. Plus, he was only charging £80 a week, including bills; probably because the place wasn’t legally habitable.
We finished our drinks quickly and I bought us refills, wanting to delay going back to the bedsit. I’d been living in one room for long enough and I loved being outside, even if it was freezing. Karla was sofa-surfing, she said, until she could get a deposit together for her own place. I didn’t even own a sofa, well I did, but it was also my bed. I hoped she wasn’t tapping me up for lodgings. There was barely enough space for me. Perhaps she couldn’t afford to rent anywhere? Money was an automatic problem when you were released. Lack of funds meant no roof over your head and relying on friends and family, difficult if they didn’t want to know you any more now you were a convicted criminal. You could earn money inside working, but most of it was spent on tobacco or biscuits. Anything to make your sentence more palatable.
‘You had your first meeting with Barry yet?’ Karla asked.
I shook my head and used my last chunk of tobacco to roll two cigarettes, passing one to her.
‘Not since he got me the job,’ I replied. Barry was the community rehabilitation officer assigned to me on release who had put my name forward for Bright’s. He saw his probationers every week. Karla said she reported to him too, once a week, but only for another two months, then she was free. I would be seeing him for the next six.
Barry was witty, sharp as a tack and impossible not to like. He was in his mid-thirties, average height with kind eyes, freckles and auburn hair that would curl if allowed to grow. On our first introduction, shortly after I was released, he’d talked easily about Catholicism when I mentioned I went to an all girls’ school. I’d remained quiet as his voice boomed around the tiny room. He was a fountain of information on life on the outside and rehabilitation. Not beaten down by the system, like so many others who dealt with us daily, trying to keep us on the straight and narrow. At times, it must have felt like a thankless task.
When he first saw me, he declared I needed feeding up and handed me a lukewarm sausage roll from Greggs. Although rude of him to comment on my stature, I’d munched away, my stomach rumbling gratefully. Pastry crumbs had rained on the table as I watched him complete some forms on my behalf. Together we wrote a rehabilitation plan, how I would go about integrating and adjusting back into society. When we were done, he took a long look at me, sizing me up and said he knew somewhere that might take me on.
‘Can’t wait to get the fuck out of here.’ Karla sighed, wrapping her hands around her mug. Her nails bitten to the quick.
‘You mean Bright’s?’ I asked.
Karla nodded and took a long drag, squinting as the smoke reached her eyes. Her fingers stained yellow from nicotine. ‘Bright’s, Croydon, all of it. Once I’m off licence, I’m going to move down the coast, Brighton or somewhere.’
‘What about your family?’
‘Don’t have any now,’ Karla said, gazing far into the distance.
‘Everyone has parents.’
‘I haven’t been home since I got released. It’s better that way.’ She said it so abruptly, I assumed they’d turned their backs on her. It obviously wasn’t something she wanted to talk about.
I surveyed her without detection. She was pretty, caramel skin and eyes so dark they could be black, but the circles beneath and hollow cheeks aged her. I couldn’t talk, I knew I was a far cry from the girl who had been sent down. My skin no longer glowed, now sallow, and hair like straw. I avoided mirrors, I hated my body, the jutting collar and hip bones. Gone were the soft curves and femininity. I was too angular. Karla and I were the same – pointy and hard.
She grimaced; a shadow crossed her face. I was dying to ask what she’d been in for, but it wasn’t the done thing. Most ex-offenders were private and didn’t want to talk about their time inside or what had led them to it. I suspected whatever it was; it wasn’t as serious as mine.
Although small and fierce, Karla didn’t look like she’d killed anybody.
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