Bella sat in the passenger seat of the car, next to her despised social worker, Steph Banning. Steph sighed heavily, and muttered, ''Another one bites the dust.''
For tonight, it would be back to Hamworthy House, and tomorrow morning, the weekly ''What are we going to do with Bella Pleasance'' meeting. She and her colleagues were tearing her hair out over the frightful girl, to the point where Steph worried her alopecia would reach permanent status.
In the ten months since Bella came to them, she had been placed with no fewer than thirty-seven foster families. The longest placement to date was six days. Most only lasted three to four days before the dreaded sound of the telephone in Steph's office presaged another ''Can you please come and collect Bella? We can't put up with her a minute longer.'' call.
She had left behind her a trail of destructed, desperate, dysfunctional families. In one case, one of the natural children of the family had left home, to be found a week later, 200 miles away, living on the streets. She had begged to be left there, agreeing to return home only when her mother, her father and three social workers had promised her that Bella was gone and would not be returning. One foster mother had had a nervous breakdown, and was now on antidepressants. Another had asked to be removed permanently from the fostering list. This was one of their best people, a woman of infinite patience. The woman who had had Bella for six days had paid for it with divorce papers from her husband, as punishment for the most horrendous six days of his life. The grounds for divorce were ''unreasonable behaviour''.
In the gaps between fostering, Bella was to be found in what was beginning to be called ''Bella's Lair''. On her first night there, the night after her parents died, they made the mistake of putting her in with another girl. She immediately went through the poor girl's clothes and other possessions, took what she wanted for herself and destroyed the rest, and blacked her eye for complaining about it.
In the early days, Steph and her colleagues were sympathetic with Bella, putting her bad demeanor down to grief. Now, however, they knew better. They could see in retrospect that Bella had not been the slightest bit sad at her bereavement. The social worker who had accompanied Bella to her parents' funeral had reported on her return that Bella had grinned when her uncle had thrown soil onto her mother's coffin. It probably was the only time anyone had ever seen Bella smile.
Bella got out of Steph's car, walked to the door of Hamworthy House, and went in, shutting the door in Steph's face. Steph was used to this. She sighed and opened it, then went to the kitchen. Carrie, who ran the home, looked up from the cup of tea she was drinking and shook her head.
''I take it she's back, then.''
''I dunno if I can take any more, Steph. I've been scouring the papers for another job. Neil's the same.'' Neil was her husband. They had been in charge of this home for eighteen years and it was a job they loved. ''We'd rather work on a supermarket checkout than have to see that...creature every day.'' She was very worried about Neil. If they didn't either get rid of Bella soon, for good, or find alternative employment, she was sure he would leave her.
Up in her Lair, Bella was grinning. Contrary to what the social workers believed, Bella did plenty of smiling. When she was in her Lair, or any other place she was alone, she smiled all the time - but it didn't improve her looks one bit. She planned and plotted new ways all the time to thwart her social workers and her foster mothers, fathers and ''siblings'', and her smile was terrifying.
So far, she had always got her own way. She knew she always would. In just three years and two months, she would be an adult, and would be able to leave this dump. But on the way there, she could have fun making life miserable for all these stupid do-gooders.