The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard
One Hundred And One
Karen spent the rest of the day in a state of suspended animation. She got on with her tasks, sorted out minor problems on the wing, and outwardly maintained her usual professional exterior. But she was constantly, uncomfortably aware of the extraordinarily heavy weight of guilt tinged with loss pressing down on her. Cassie and Roisin had been right, part of her did miss Fenner. She missed the constant sparring, the way he could keep Di and Sylvia in order, and yes, she was forced to admit it, she did feel some regret for the good times she'd had with him. Oh, don't be so bloody stupid, she told herself furiously. He raped you, he took you for a fool on numerous occasions, you should be glad he's dead. She needed to grieve for Fenner properly, but now wasn't the time for that. Above all, she had to keep herself and if possible Yvonne out of the grasp of the law. This struck her as ironic. On Sunday afternoon, it had been Yvonne who was disposing of any evidence that linked her daughter to Fenner's body, yet that was where Yvonne's fear of the law seemed to stop. Yvonne was the convicted criminal. She knew what it would mean if any of them, Karen included, were to be found in possession of the knowledge that Fenner had been murdered. Yet it was she, Karen, who appeared to be the most concerned about their legal safety. She had a visit from Grayling in the middle of the afternoon, asking where Fenner was and wanting to know what Karen had done to try and find him. She simply had to tell him that they'd tried to contact Fenner at home, and that they'd got no reply. After all, what else could she do? When it came to the time she usually left for home, Karen half contemplated simply staying on, finding anything to keep her brain vaguely occupied. But she had to go, she had to see how Yvonne was doing.
When she drew up in front of Yvonne's, she could see that the Rover was utterly spotless. Yvonne must have extended her cleaning up after her daughter to the car. Karen paused for a moment, haunted by the thought that Fenner had possibly traveled to his last destination in that car. she shivered. She had to banish thoughts like that, especially in front of Yvonne. If Yvonne was ever aware of the confusing feelings of grief and occasional pity that Karen felt for Fenner's killing, she would feel thoroughly betrayed. How odd, thought Karen as she walked to the front door, but that right now, she seemed to be betraying everyone apart from the man himself. When she opened the door, Yvonne looked briefly surprised to see Karen on the doorstep.
"I wanted to see how you were," Said Karen, as she walked in, feeling that this was a pretty inane comment to have made.
"I'm knackered," Said Yvonne truthfully. "Lauren spent most of last night waking herself up from bad dreams."
"Hardly surprising," Said Karen.
"I feel like I'm repeating part of my life," continued Yvonne, moving towards her lounge. "Charlie did exactly the same thing. The first time he came home after doing something like that, he looked like he was on something. He used to say it gave him a buzz to have that much power over someone. But a high is always followed by a low, and Charlie had just as many nightmares as Lauren will. I didn't want her to go the same way as Charlie," Yvonne finally finished, the tears she'd kept from her daughter now allowed to spill over. Seeing that this was at least something she could begin to deal with, Karen took Yvonne's hand and led her to the sofa. They sat with their arms round each other, Karen gently trying to soothe away some of the pain, and Yvonne clinging on with dear life.
"I can't believe she did it," Said Yvonne between sobs. "She knows what I went through in prison, and she knows that Atkins doesn't automatically mean bad any more. Why the hell does she think I've gone straight ever since I got out? Apart from what we've got for our own protection, which I wouldn't have in the house if it wasn't absolutely necessary, we've stayed on the right side of the law. Ritchie was bad through and through, and I have to deal with enough guilt about him to last me a lifetime, but I wanted her to be different. She won't even talk to me about it."
"You need to give her time," Said Karen gently.
"I need to know what she did," Said Yvonne vehemently. "I need to know what my daughter is capable of." Karen reached for the box of tissues on the coffee table and handed them to Yvonne.
"What did you do with the gun?" She asked.
"It's lying at the bottom of the Thames," Said Yvonne succinctly. "Along with the spade she buried him with. I guess you saw the car when you arrived, there's not a single trace of Fenner left in there, not that I think there was to start with."
"And where's Lauren?"
"Asleep, the last time I looked in on her. She didn't get much last night so I knocked her out with one of my sleeping pills. She'll probably be awake soon though."
"Will you let me talk to her?" Asked Karen, not quite sure where the request had come from.
"Sure," Said Yvonne, "I can't promise how communicative she'll be though."
Karen made her way upstairs and approached Lauren's bedroom which overlooked the back of the house and gave her a beautiful view of the garden and swimming pool. Karen softly pushed the door open and sat down in the armchair next to Lauren's bed. Lauren was lying on her side with her back to Karen, but Karen knew that she wasn't asleep.
"Lauren," Karen said softly but firmly, "Turn over and talk to me." Capitulating without a second thought, Lauren turned over to face Karen.
"I thought you were Mum," She said, her voice still drowsy from the sedative Yvonne had given her mid morning.
"And why don't you want to talk to her?"
"She wants to know too much," Said Lauren resignedly. "She's got this weird idea that talking about what I did is likely to help. It never worked with dad, so why should it work with me. Besides, her overall concern seems to be about what I actually did, not how I feel about it." When Lauren said this, Karen was briefly reminded of Ritchie's slightly narcissistic way of expecting those around him to focus on him.
"And you think I don't?" Said Karen, knowing for certain now that she really didn't want to know what Lauren had done to Fenner.
"No," Replied Lauren, "Knowing the gory details isn't your style. The only reason you're here is because you want to know why, not how." Karen smiled slightly at Lauren's clear understanding, in spite of the after effects of sleeping pills.
"You said that Ritchie asked you to do it."
"Yeah, he did. He was so sorry about what he did to you. You might not believe it, but he was. You were something special to him, something different. At first, he thought he was just doing what Snowball needed him to do, to find a way for the gun to get in to Larkhall. But he got in too deep. He didn't expect to feel as much as he did for you."
"Can I see his letter?" Karen found herself asking, out of some nameless curiosity to fill in some of the gaps.
"Sure," Said Lauren, pointing to the dressing-table, where sat the familiar prison issue envelope. Karen walked over and picked it up, returning to her chair. Wondering quite what can of worms she was opening, she began to read.
You're probably more furious with me than Mum is right now. But you know me, I don't do a hard life. I never have, and now I never will. You probably think all this is my own fault, and yeah, I suppose most of it is. But that's another thing isn't it, us, the Atkins family, we don't do blame. Only, it ain't quite worked out like that. I can't ask Mum for what I need you to do, because she won't do it. She never was a real Atkins, only in name. But you and me, Lauren, we've got Charlie Atkins' blood in us all the way. Lauren, I need you to get rid of Fenner for me. Don't throw this away until you've read what I have to say. You were there through the whole of the trial like Mum was, so you heard that stupid wanker of a barrister we had first, trying to pull Karen Betts' evidence to shreds because of what I think he was told by Fenner. Lauren, Fenner did rape Karen, I know he did. You don't sleep with as many women as I have, without knowing when something just isn't right. Lauren, a bit of me loved her. I know that's not how it was supposed to be, but I did, probably still do. She didn't deserve what I did to her. But I can't put any of that right now. This is why I'm asking you to get Fenner out of the picture for good. I can't put right the things I've done, but if you'll do this one thing for me, I can take away one of the worst things that's ever happened to her. You know that Fenner deserves a dose of the Atkins justice as well as I do. Please do this for me, Lauren, please. Don't tell Mum I've asked you. She's stayed on the straight and narrow since she got out, and we both know she won't be in favour of doing what's right. But you're still my sister, and you weren't Charlie Atkins' protégé for nothing. The best shooter in the East End is my little sister.
I'm proud of you Sis,
When Karen looked up after reading it through, she had tears in her eyes.
"Forgive and forget, that's my brother," Said Lauren dryly. "Especially when he wanted something, and he's right, I wasn't Charlie Atkins' favourite protégé for nothing. It doesn't mean I'm cut out for it, though. I probably look totally calm and collected to you, but I'm not. Doing what I did yesterday, has totally done me in, but that doesn't mean I regret it." Karen privately thought that Lauren looked a trifle insane, not calm and collected at all.
"Will you talk to Yvonne?" Asked Karen, her voice not feeling entirely her own.
"Yeah, just not today. We both need some decent sleep before we start on that one. Mum isn't going to let it rest until she knows everything, and right now, I haven't got the energy to even start, never mind finish."
"I don't know how to feel about this," Said Karen, not really knowing where that had come from.
"I know," Said Lauren, "And if I know Mum, how you feel about this is probably the last thing she can think about. I'm not asking you to be grateful or anything else equally as ridiculous to me for getting rid of Fenner. It was something Ritchie wanted me to do, and because it was his last request, I did it. That's all there is to it."
"How can you be so matter of fact about it?" Asked an utterly mystified Karen.
"You should have seen me last night," Replied Lauren, "I woke up screaming about four times because I thought it was him finishing me off, not the other way round. Some might call that divine retribution. I will give Mum the answers she wants, but not now." Karen got up to go.
"Will you be okay?" She asked Lauren, mentally kicking herself for the sheer ludicrousness of the enquiry.
"No, probably not for a long time," Replied Lauren. "Tell Mum to get some sleep, and I'll talk to her tomorrow." As Karen walked down the stairs, she wondered what it was that made some people frightened to their core by the committing of serious crime, and others take it as a day to day occurrence. Lauren was right, Yvonne was only an Atkins by name, but both Ritchie and Lauren were born with Atkins blood, part of the Atkins gene pool, and therefore destined in some way to fulfill the Atkins family traditions, no matter how far across that imperceptible line between right and wrong it would take them.
One Hundred And Two
Lauren didn't reappear downstairs until the middle of Tuesday morning. She'd wanted to give her and her mother some space from each other, and to regain some of her mental equilibrium before they had the very difficult conversation that was looming on the horizon as a source of anguish and heartache for both of them. Walking in to the kitchen, Lauren realised that she hadn't eaten since Sunday morning. Her appetite seemed to have gone out of the window with other normal things like sleep and sticking to the right side of the law. Her mother was sat at the kitchen table, reading the morning paper and smoking a cigarette.
"Do you want some breakfast?" Yvonne asked, for the moment trying to stay on safer ground.
"An apple will do me fine," Said Lauren, walking over to the fruit bowl. Yvonne made no comment on the fact that Lauren hadn't eaten for two days. She had to be allowed to regain the normal things in life in her own way and in her own time. Lauren was about to pick a red apple from the bowl, but its rosiness reminded her of the blood that had flowed through Fenner's veins, until she'd halted its progress. Selecting a green one, she moved to sit opposite her mother.
"How did you sleep?" Asked Yvonne.
"I took another of your knock out pills, so not bad. You?" Yvonne merely shrugged, neither denying nor confirming that she'd had a restless night. Their conversation was stilted, both desperately trying to avoid the inevitable. Lauren was forced to admit that as it was her who'd plunged them both in to the abyss, it was her who should start.
"Where's the gun?" She asked without preamble.
"I chucked it and the spade in the Thames on Sunday night while you were asleep," Yvonne replied succinctly.
"And the car?"
"Spotless as the day it was bought." Lauren went quiet again. Now that the practicalities of what she had done had been dealt with, it was time for her to approach the incident itself.
"Tell me, Lauren?" Prompted Yvonne eventually, totally unable to let the silence go on any longer.
"It isn't quite that simple, Mum," Said Lauren, knowing the time had come, but still willing to postpone it for as long as possible.
"Lauren, please, I need to know," Yvonne said quietly.
"You might need to know," Said Lauren, feeding her apple core to a hovering Trigger. "But I don't think you really want to know, and I'm not sure I want to talk about it."
"Lauren, I am not watching you go through the same cycle of killing someone, coming down off the high with bouts of bad dreams, heavy drinking and not eating that your father did. He used to be like this, insist that I didn't want to know what he'd actually done, hide himself away because he couldn't handle what he was capable of, and come out of it more bitter and twisted every time."
"I'm not my dad," Said Lauren simply.
"No?" Said Yvonne, her fear and anger beginning to peep through, "Because I'm really beginning to wonder." Lauren reached across the table and helped herself to one of her mother's cigarettes.
"Let's not forget, Mum," She said, with all the pretence of calm, inner poise that she'd perceived in the prosecuting barrister at Ritchie's trial, "You're not exactly whiter than white yourself, now are you. Remember Renee Williams, for example?"
"She isn't relevant to this discussion."
"Don't talk crap," Said Lauren, her anger equaling her mother's. "This conversation's been waiting to happen for a very long time, and you know it. We're not just talking about Fenner, because it goes back a hell of a lot further than that. You're trying to make me talk about what I did to Fenner, when you've never once talked about engineering that cow's death by supposed nut allergy. You've buried that in the past, along with every other bad thing you'd rather not think about."
"You know why I did that," Said Yvonne quietly, loathed to admit that her daughter was right. "It was either me or her."
"And does Karen know about this little indiscretion?"
"No, of course not," Said Yvonne disgustedly. "Killing someone is a hell of a lot more than a little indiscretion, which is why she doesn't know about it. This conversation's hard enough without bringing her in to it."
"Well, tough," Said Lauren, getting up to make herself a coffee. "Because she's part of it now, or are you going to cast her feelings aside like everything else you don't want to contemplate."
"If Karen's the topic of concern here," Threw back Yvonne, "It was you who murdered her rapist, not me."
"I know that," Said Lauren, growing slightly calmer. "And when she came to see me yesterday, she didn't attempt to get answers out of me that wouldn't do her any good. She wanted to know why, not how. Most of all, she wanted to see Ritchie's letter. She had enough sense not to demand to know details that I didn't want to tell her and that she wouldn't be able to deal with. But we started with Renee Williams, so let's go back to her. You want me to own up as to how I killed Fenner, so it's only fair that you do the same about dad's old tart." Lauren dug a packet of best Brazilian out of the freezer and waved it in her mother's direction. On receiving a nod, she filled the percolator and returned to the table as the aroma of fresh coffee filled the kitchen.
"You know what I did," Said Yvonne, the words eventually dragged from her unco-operative soul.
"No, I don't," Said Lauren, "Not exactly."
"I put ground nuts in the salt cellar and made sure it was on the table she normally used." Yvonne had said this in a monotone voice that clearly showed her need to display the facts and the facts only, with her feelings about the whole thing remaining hidden.
"Where's all that feeling gone, Mum?" Lauren cajoled, "Like you're expecting me to have?"
"Watching her die," Replied Yvonne, "That haunted me for months. She might have deserved everything she got, Lauren, but that doesn't mean it was right."
"What about Dad then? Didn't he deserve what happened to him? After everything he did to you, Mum, he deserved nothing. He tried to fob you off with a million, and after the way he'd screwed you around."
"As it seems to be the day for home truths," Said Yvonne, finally seizing her opportunity to find out something she'd wondered about for a long time. "It was you who arranged Charlie's last ever pizza delivery, wasn't it." She nailed Lauren with her, by now, famous stare. Lauren might be an Atkins, but she couldn't maintain eye contact with such a look as this one.
" You know it was," Replied Lauren quietly. "What he did to you, that hurt me more than anything in my life. I couldn't bear the thought of having him at home again, trying to run his business like an old dinosaur regaining his old stomping ground. He was planning to carry on with life as if nothing had happened, as if you didn't even exist. I couldn't let him do that, Mum, I just couldn't." Yvonne put out a hand and took one of Lauren's.
"Lauren, tell me what happened with Fenner," She said gently. Knowing that the time had finally come, Lauren lit herself another cigarette.
"I stalked him," She began, "found out what he did, who he did it with. I followed him, finding out what shifts he usually did, where he bought his fags, the pubs he used. There wasn't anything I didn't know about his pathetic little life. Do you know what's funny, not in all that time did he go near a woman. Either he was still getting it on the inside, or he'd decided to turn over a new leaf. I started following him the week after the funeral. When Ritchie wrote me his letter and begged me to get rid of Fenner, he told me I wasn't Charlie Atkins' protege for nothing. So, I decided to do it properly. There wasn't one stone I left unturned. But then came the problem of where to do it. Fenner lives in a typical suburban street, full of families and nosy neighbours. I'm not going to tell you about where he is, because the less you know about anything concrete, the better. Suffice it to say that at this time of year, he'll have plenty of dead leaves for company. So, I followed him on Sunday when he went for his usual drink with the lads at his local pub. All they could talk about was fucking football. Why is it that men can spout shit for hours on end without even noticing? He didn't see me there, too interested in the match and his pint. I followed him back to his house. I did pretty much what Snowball did to Karen, when he was trying to find his door key. He wasn't stupid, he wasn't about to argue with an Atkins and a loaded gun. He kept calling me Atkins, like he did to you and probably like he did when he talked about Ritchie. The further away from the city I drove, the more rattled he became. I made him get out of the car, and I gave him the spade. I forced him to walk ahead of me in to the forest, and I stood with the gun on him as he dug his own grave. Mum, if he hadn't been so pathetically taken in by Merriman, Ritchie wouldn't now be in his own grave. That's what I kept thinking as I watched him digging. When he realised what he was digging, he kept asking me why, why was I doing this to him, what had he ever done to me. God, there's no one who sounds more innocent than the perpetual offender. You told me that, after a few weeks in Larkhall. I shot him, like Ritchie was shot, so that he couldn't move, but was still alive. I wanted to make someone suffer for what Ritchie had done to us, and I think I used Ritchie's request as an excuse. The fucking best excuse I've ever had to make someone like Fenner suffer. He looked so pathetic sat there. When I let some of the earth fall on his face, he pleaded with me. The stupid git still thought I'd let him go." Lauren suddenly became quiet. Yvonne stared at her, not quite able to believe that this was her daughter telling her all this.
"You buried him alive?" Yvonne asked, almost unable to get the words out.
"Yeah, I did," Said Lauren, "And if you're about to tell me how mad that is, and how I must have a screw loose, then yes, I agree with you. I don't know what happened to me on Sunday. I was high on Adrenaline, higher than I've ever been on any drug. I felt good about it, and that scares the shit out of me. But I can't take back what I did, any more than you can. Part of you would like to be able to put this one right for me, but you can't do that, Mum. This was my choice, something Ritchie asked me to do, and something I had to do. If there are any consequences, and going by my total stupidity at leaving the cartridge case behind, there probably will be. But if there are, they're mine, not yours, not Karen's, not anyone's. In his letter, Ritchie said that as a family, we don't do blame, but he was wrong. I killed Fenner, Mum, no one else, and it'll be my freedom on the block if and when the time comes. Mum, I don't regret killing Fenner, he had it coming."
"I don't know what's happened to you," Said Yvonne after a while.
"I've grown up," Said Lauren, "That's what's happened to me. If doing what I did on Sunday has done anything for me, it's made me grow up. I ain't a kid any more, Mum, I've got to deal with what's coming to me, like Dad did, like you did, and like Ritchie did. I'm part of this family, what's left of it, for good or bad, and one thing we Atkins women don't do, is hide from who we are."
One Hundred And Three
George's feeling of depression continued. She didn't seem to have the energy to drag herself out of it this time. It was like she was being persistently pulled down and down below the surface of the waters of misery. She'd kept up the pretence of outward cheerfulness on the phone with John, but she doubted whether it had really worked. John more than anyone had always been able to penetrate her defenses, see right through her mask of indifference to the feelings that were swamping her. Through Tuesday and Wednesday, it only became harder to maintain the act. She was like a wild animal, who knew that the winter was approaching and simply wanted to crawl in to its hole to hide, maybe even to die. She'd needed what John had given her last week, more than she liked to admit, but that didn't mean she should have done it. John had temporarily pulled her out of the downward spiral she seemed destined to tread, only to fling her back on course, with the added force of guilt to accelerate her progress in to her old destructive behaviour. She knew that what she was doing to herself was odd, wrong even, but it helped. She needed the force of willpower that it took to maintain her old desperate standby, in order to reassure herself that her life wasn't entirely out of her control. Like the vast majority of people who suffer from depression and other anxiety-related states of being, George did her best to hide her lowest moments from anyone around her. It would have been a mark of her lack of self-control if she'd ever revealed any of this to anyone. But John had nearly always seen through her, damn him. She'd usually found it impossible to hide how she really felt from him, except perhaps during that time just after Charlie was born and he was so besotted with his daughter that he totally failed to see what was happening under his very nose.
In the middle of Wednesday afternoon, it dawned on her that her father was coming over for dinner. She'd almost forgotten, even though Daddy had come over for dinner on Wednesdays since time immemorial. Picking up the phone, she reached him on his mobile, and his continual inability to understand how it worked made her smile for the first time since Neil's visit.
"Daddy, it's George. Change of plan, can I come over to you this evening instead?"
"Yes, I don't see why not."
"I'll still cook, but I need to get out of the house." Saying that she'd be over about seven, George ended the call, wondering if her father might listen to her. She needed to attempt to make some sense of this with someone, and it looked like her father was all she had left. She didn't always want to hear what he had to say, but he was always honest with her, some might even say brutally honest. But that's what she needed.
She went to the supermarket on her way home, and not being able to come up with any inspiration for what to cook him, she simply picked up her father's three favourite foods, smoked salmon, steak and strawberries, with appropriate accompaniments. She had absolutely no desire to eat food of any kind, but she would be forced to make an effort in front of Daddy, so that he wouldn't start asking awkward questions. When she arrived, and parked her car next to his on the gravel drive, it was done with slightly less of her usual flourish. As she let herself in, she was greeted by his magnificent shaggy blue lurcher. Her father always went hunting and shooting with this dog, but George had caught him on more than one occasion feeding it extras. She was able to let herself straight in to the house, because when she'd married John, her father had made her keep her door key. He'd said that this was still her home, there if she ever needed a bolthole. Had Daddy had some premonition of what would eventually happen between her and John, she never knew. She hadn't ever taken him up on this long standing offer, but it was always nice to know she had somewhere else to go if necessary.
"Daddy," She called, first putting the Tescos carrier bags in the kitchen.
"I'm in here," Replied Joe Channing's deep, sonorous voice. She found him in his study at the back of the house. Study? Den was probably a more accurate description. This was the room where Joe kept all his law books, and an enormous mahogany desk together with a large armchair and a small drinks cabinet. There was a picture of George and her mother on the wall opposite his desk, and George knew he often looked up at it as he worked. He was sitting in the armchair reading the paper.
"Hello," She said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. "How are you?"
"Reading about more of Deed's controversial decisions. I think he sets out to purposefully annoy the rest of the judiciary." George grinned. It was nice to be back in familiar surroundings, to be with her father, whose reactions to change would forever be the same. "Ah yes," Said Joe, appearing to remember something. "And I heard a rumour floating round the Lord Chancellor's department that you were persuaded to visit one of Her Majesty's prisons last week."
"Ah," Said George, feeling as though she was fifteen again, and having to confess to some minor misdemeanour or indiscretion.
"You look as guilty as the time I discovered you had been seducing my gardener when you were seventeen," Said Joe, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Remembering the utter humiliation of the conversation that had followed this discovery, George couldn't help blushing as she laughed. Good God, she thought, that was thirty years ago. Seducing one of Daddy's servants had simply been a new form of entertainment to while away the long summer holidays. Then she became serious.
"I got in to an argument with John in court, and he held me in contempt."
"Might I remind you that this is the third time you've done this," Said her father, looking at her sternly.
"Yes, thank you, Daddy, but I know that. He and someone, who is probably destined to become his next conquest, came up with the idea of my seeing inside a prison, seeing the parts of a prison that barristers don't normally see. So, I spent part of Thursday shadowing a wing governor from Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall."
"Larkhall, isn't that the prison where that Pilkinton woman constructed a bomb?"
"The very same. The woman I shadowed, and who helped the Deed come up with the idea in the first place was one of the prosecution witnesses for that trial, Karen Betts."
Whilst she prepared their meal, she told him some of the highlights of her brief time behind bars.
"I was offered a gin and tonic by one of the inmates," She said, removing the stalks from the strawberries before putting them in the fridge.
"I trust you didn't accept it?" Asked Joe, not entirely certain of the answer he would get.
"Of course," She said, "I could hardly do otherwise with the wing governor not so far away. Oh, and I met a prostitute who sends her son to your old school."
"What!" Joe almost choked on his pre-dinner whisky. George grinned.
"I knew you'd be like that. Yes, one David Saunders has a mother serving time at Her Majesty's pleasure."
"This country's going to the dogs," Grumbled Joe.
"Oh, don't be like that, Daddy. It's better than him ending up in a similar place to his mother."
"Well," Said Joe, his voice rumbling like threatening thunder. "It shouldn't happen. The son of a prostitute going to a school like that. It just isn't on."
"You used to say that about John," Said George thoughtfully. "I remember, when I said that I was going to marry him, you said that you didn't want your daughter marrying some baker's boy who'd risen to heights he couldn't possibly maintain."
"Yes, and I was right wasn't I."
"About our marriage, maybe. But you can't say the same about his career, which was your point of argument at the time." Joe briefly found himself cursing the day he'd ever encouraged his daughter to become an advocate for the law. It gave her far too many skills in argumentative tactics.
They sat at the worn oak kitchen table to eat. It wasn't often Joe used the dining-room any more. This reminded George of the happy mealtimes of her childhood, and those very quiet, not so happy ones after her mother had been killed in a car crash when she was ten. George could remember her mother baking bread at this table. Even though her mother had married an up and coming barrister, destined one day to be a judge and then a law lord, this hadn't meant that she had been willing to relinquish the art of cooking for her family to any random servant. George could also remember the occasions when, after a day's shooting, her father would clean his gun at this table, and her mother would shout at him for cluttering up her workspace. George ate very sparingly, surreptitiously feeding most of her steak to a slavering lurcher.
"You spoil that dog rotten," Her father commented.
"No more than you do," replied George with a smile.
"You don't eat enough," Added Joe, "Hardly enough to feed a sparrow, and you're looking thinner than is really good for you." George opened her mouth to argue with him, but shut it again, biting her tongue to prevent her from justifying her decrease in size. Joe seemed almost to be waiting for some sort of objection to his comment.
"Is something wrong?" He asked after a while.
"Why?" She asked, always with the irritating habit of answering a question with a question.
"Usually if I comment on the amount your eating, or not eating in this case, I get a barrage of protestation to the effect that you are perfectly all right and that it isn't any of my business." George gave him a brief, tired-looking smile.
"You, John, and even Neil, blast him, keep saying it. I'm tired of arguing." He fixed his gaze on her with all the fatherly assurance of thinking that he could read her like a book.
"George, you never get tired of arguing. It's how you live, I'd even go as far as to say it's how you survive."
"Daddy, let's not continue this conversation." Joe looked exasperated.
"That cabinet minister of yours must be rubbing off on you if avoiding any kind of confrontation is now your best line of defence." George visibly winced.
"I doubt it," She said, some of the familiar bite returning to her tone. "Seeing as he left a few weeks ago." Joe looked surprised.
"Well, I can't say I'm not pleased. I was talking to Deed about him not so long ago."
"Oh, he didn't tell me," Said George, wondering just what John had told her father.
"Yes, just after that ludicrous trial of the couple who very successfully bombed that prison you went to see." George slightly relaxed. There was every possibility that her father wasn't aware of what Neil had done to her.
"Well, you don't need to worry any more," She said. "He's gone, and he won't be coming back."
"What happened? Or is fatherly interest not permitted on this occasion." George smiled. He would show fatherly interest whether it was wanted or not. But she couldn't quite hide the slight tremor in her voice when she said,
"You don't need to know, Daddy. It's not important."
"By the look on your face, I would dare to disagree. Clearly it is important."
"Daddy, I mean it. This isn't up for discussion." Her voice had risen slightly, taking on the edge of panic that he hadn't heard in her since he'd tried to talk to her about why his one and only grandchild was living full time with Deed, not with her. Seeing that his perseverance would be fruitless, Joe abandoned this topic of conversation while they finished their meal and George stacked the plates in the dishwasher.
When they were seated in the lounge, George joined her father in an after dinner cigarette.
"At least your taking up this habit again means you won't prevent me from smoking in your house and banish me to the terrace," Said her father with a smile.
"I think I started again just to annoy Neil," Replied George dryly. "But then the addiction kicks in and letting go isn't so easy." Joe was inclined to think that she was talking about something far more serious than smoking, but as she didn't elaborate, he decided not to probe.
"Daddy, can I tell you something?" Asked George, feeling the urge to confess suddenly becoming unbearably strong.
"Do I want to hear it?" Asked Joe, knowing that for her to ask, it must be something serious.
"Probably not," George conceded, "But I expect you'll tell me how stupid I am, and maybe that's what I need to hear."
"I am as ever, intrigued," Replied Joe, raising his eyebrows.
"I've done something incredibly silly," George began. Realising by her tone who this must involve, Joe said,
"Are you seeing Deed again?" George almost laughed. Perhaps her father really did know her as well as he thought he did.
"No," She said, "At least, not exactly." This was her father after all, and she found it almost impossible to find the words necessary to explain exactly how John had come back in to the picture. Observing a hint of embarrassment in her face, Joe got up and walked to the sideboard, pouring himself a whisky and her a glass of Martini. With his back to her, he said,
"George, going to bed with one's ex, is never a good idea."
"I know," Said George miserably. "But I think I needed cheering up."
"And Deed will never say no to a beautiful woman," Added Joe, handing George her drink and sitting down on the sofa next to her. "But why now," Joe persisted, "why suddenly now, when as far as I'm aware, this hasn't happened since you were married to Deed." George turned her face slightly away from her father. Even now, even after all these years, she still found it extremely hard to talk to him about anything vaguely personal. Observing her difficulty, Joe turned her face so that she was forced to look at him.
"Now, you listen to me," He said quietly but firmly. "Your mother ought to be saying things like this to you, but as she isn't here, this parental duty falls to me. There isn't much I don't know about you and Deed, and what I don't know, I would suggest that I neither need nor want to know. So, talk."
"I don't know where to start," Said George, realising that her instinct to confess all to Daddy had after all been the right one.
"Start with Haughton, because I think I'm right in suggesting that this has something to do with him."
"You're determined to get this out of me, aren't you."
"Yes." Feeling thoroughly ashamed of what Neil had done to her, George turned her gaze away from him.
"Neil gave me a black eye," She said, mentally preparing herself for Joe's reaction.
"What!" The bark of fury made George inwardly retreat. "When did this happen?" Joe continued.
"You remember the last time Neil was there when you came over for dinner, about a month ago? Well, after you'd gone, we got in to an argument about why I couldn't achieve a not guilty verdict for Pilkinton and Atkins. You know me, Daddy, I always have to have the last word, and it appeared to be one insult too many."
"That's absolutely no excuse. If there's one thing a man never does it's to ever strike his woman." Briefly smiling at her father's insistence, George said,
Well, it seems he doesn't agree with you."
"I drove away like a bat out of hell."
"Where did you go?" Asked Joe, thinking that he could work out the rest.
"I stayed with John."
"Why didn't you come here?"
"It's stupid, I know, but I was ashamed. I didn't want you to see me like that."
"What was Deed's reaction?"
"He let me stay there, and when Neil came to court the next day to try and talk to me, John held him up against the wall and threatened to see him doing time in the scrubs if he ever did anything like that to me again." Joe smiled broadly.
"Quite right too." Then a thought seemed to occur to him. "Was that when?..." He didn't seem able to voice the words, you slept with him.
"No, of course not," Replied George in defence of John's complete sensitivity on that night. "Not even John is that presumptuous. Daddy, don't be angry with John for this. It was me who went to him in the first place. He was good to me when I needed it, and that's all there is too it."
"But why the need to confess? It's something you've always avoided wherever possible." The dredging up of the real reason why her two evenings with John were getting to her so much, brought tears to George's eyes.
"I feel guilty," She said, unable to keep the tears at bay any longer. His daughter looked so desolate, so miserable, that Joe put aside his usual avoidance of displays of affection and put a strong, comforting arm round her shoulders.
"What's there to feel guilty about?" He asked softly, digging in his pocket for the clean handkerchief that perpetually resided there. "Deed is quite capable of refusing. Just because he never does, is hardly something you should feel guilty about."
"Not about him," Said George disgustedly, "I feel guilty about Jo, Jo Mills."
"Well, if we're talking about two people who certainly shouldn't be having a clandestine affair, it's Deed and Jo Mills. That is, after all, why she was brought up in front of the Professional Conduct Committee."
"Daddy, that's not the point and you know it. She and I have discovered some common ground lately, even managed to be civil to each other for more than five minutes. We've been working together on this case I'm forming against Prison Service area management. We seem to have put aside all the old points of friction, and then I go and do this to her." She took her father's handkerchief and wiped away her tears, loathing herself for revealing how weak she was to him.
"Mrs. Mills is another one who is quite capable of looking after herself," Put in Joe, not quite able to get his head round his daughter's new way of thinking.
"I know," Said George, "I just feel so wrong."
"Now listen," Said her father firmly. "Yes, maybe with hindsight, you shouldn't have slept with Deed again, but as long as you don't intend to repeat that event, you're only course of action is to forget it and move on. Jo Mills need never know about it. Deed is hardly likely to tell her, now is he."
"I know. I just wasn't expecting to feel like this."
"The only guilt I'm concerned about this evening," Said Joe, some of his old bluster returning, "Is that of Haughton for daring to raise a hand to my daughter. If this were two centuries ago, I'd have him clapped in irons." George smiled.
"There's nothing anyone can do about a man like him," She said resignedly, "He's gone from my life now, and he won't be coming back. Please, just forget it." Giving his daughter a look that clearly said, how can I, Joe got up to refill their drinks.
"So," He said, "Tell me more about this case against the prison service." As George filled him in, she still had a nagging doubt about what her father might do to Neil, and her guilt about Jo certainly wasn't in any danger of abating.
When the topic of the case had been exhausted, George went quiet for a moment.
"Daddy," She suddenly said, "Have I failed you?" He stared at her.
"What sort of a question is that. Of course not."
"Are you sure?" Asked George, desperately needing the kind of reassurance that only a parent can provide, and which far too many don't.
"George, I couldn't possibly have been more proud of you than I am," Said Joe, this being something he'd never been afraid of saying to his one and only child. "Yes, you've made the odd mistake in your life, but so do we all. The important thing is that you've come through them and moved on."
"There's one thing you're conveniently forgetting in all this," Said George, the alcohol she'd consumed making her able to voice this so hard to deal with of all her failures. "You can't exactly say I made a success of being a mother, can you." Wondering where this had suddenly come from, Joe fixed his daughter with a worried gaze.
"George, anything I may have said at the time, was buried and forgotten about long ago. No, I didn't and still can't understand why you felt the way you did when Charlie was born, but that didn't and hasn't and never will make me love you any less." George didn't know how to respond to this. "When you and Deed went your separate ways," He continued, "I remember having a very long argument with him about why Charlie was living with him and not you. At the time, I said that a child's place was with her mother, but Deed defended you on that point to the end. He couldn't have fought more for you that evening than if he'd been defending you in court. I still don't understand a lot of what he said during that battle of wills, but he managed to convince me that for you, it was the right thing to do."
"He never told me you'd talked to him about it," Said George, feeling an overwhelming gratitude for John's having defended her failure so vehemently.
"I'm not surprised," Replied Joe, remembering some of the harsh things he'd said to John, both on the subject of George's inability to care for her child, and of John's infidelity. A while later when George drove home, perhaps with too much alcohol inside her, she shed a few tears for the times she'd lost with John. He might have treated her badly in his continual conquest of other women, but he had stood by her when she'd failed to do the thing that she thought should come naturally to any mother. She would be eternally grateful to him for that. She just wished that she didn't still need him for the kind of thing he'd given her last week, for the way he could always make her feel safe, and, she realised, for the love she wished he still had for her.
One Hundred And Four
It was the self important tread of Neil Houghton's footsteps along the echoing corridors of the Lord Chancellor's Department that told Sir Ian that he was going to be interrupted again. He laid down his papers with a sigh. If he knew one thing about the workings of the civil service in relation to ministers, it was that they would expect his time to be theirs but God forbid that he intruded into their space, their schedule, their time, their anything. The expectation that civil servants were to be obsequious and to deliver the impossible was the norm these days. Old timers told him when he was a young Administrative Trainee that it was all the dratted fault of that handbag swinging fearful woman Margaret Thatcher who first asked the question of a prospective official "Is he one of us?" As a fast stream young hopeful, he could remember those cold blue staring eyes turn round in his general direction and that grating female 'disgusted of Tonbridge Wells' voice reach out to his Head of Department and tare him off a strip. He had not given her the views which she wished to hear, so she told him, and she threatened him with a swift transfer to the outer reaches of the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He would be banished forever to negotiate fiddly details with Iceland over the cod quota. He never forgot the way that he grovelled in apology to her and after that, the threat was never made again to him. Nor did it ever need to be made. The circus animal jumped before the ringmaster had need to crack the whip. He never forgot that important lesson. No matter who had come and gone at 10 Downing Street and which political party was in control, nothing had really changed. The ability to summon up a false smile of agreement with some of the ridiculous outpourings of these ministers was the same basic survival skill as being equipped with a double barrelled shotgun in going out into a jungle with man eating lions on the loose. The trouble was, no matter how the policies were changed from year to year, nothing ever got better. The golden rule was, don't let the minister ever hear of any possible bad news.
All that worked very well until the day came when Sir Ian's career move, coinciding with his knighthood, took him to the Lord Chancellor's Department and, in turn, into the province of judges who, to his prim and proper way of thinking, were flamboyant would be actors. Donald Sinden would find himself in fine company with the very mannered, eccentric, Old Etonians with their very prickly individualism. Deed, of course, was the worst of all of them.
"Ian," Neil demanded peremptorily of him. "Have you heard of this mad plan to start a civil action against Prison Service area management about some prison officer who was supposedly raped."
Sir Ian raised his eyebrows at this. There was the expectation that whatever the politician breezed in through the door with, he would have instant awareness and knowledge. Sympathy with their views and an ability to put a spanner to lock tight together the nuts and bolts of their enterprises was taken as read. The politicians were there for the grand designs while the likes of Sir Ian were there for the technicalities.
"Perhaps you had better start from the beginning, Neil." Sir Ian's smile was especially fixed and insincere.
"I would have thought that you chaps would keep your ears to the ground," Came the brusque reply. "Still, if you must know, it's about this perpetual source of bad news, Larkhall Prison and one of the witnesses in the recent Atkins Pilkinton trial. A civil action being concocted to say that this man had been guilty of a series of misdemeanours and that some area management personnel people were a bit lax in not reining in this man. Of all the prisons up and down the country, every prison toddles on, day in day out, well enough and this hellhole causes trouble, left right and centre."
"Let's put a few names to faces, Neil," Sir Ian talked in a suspicious tone. "I sat in the public gallery getting a stiff back on those hard benches following that trial. It might help, Neil. Who is the name of the accused?"
"James Fenner," Neil replied shortly.
"Ah, Neil. This is starting to make sense. I wouldn't buy a used car from that man. And who is the woman concerned?"
"I remember her as well. If there is a civil action being taken, there must be either a solicitor or a barrister involved, and especially where an area administration of the Prison Service is concerned. I can hardly imagine Claims Direct taking on that sort of work," Sir Ian continued in his inquisitive way.
"There is a barrister involved, Ian," Neil replied shortly.
Sir Ian was growing more and more suspicious as time went on. He cast a longing sidelong glance at his papers on the side of his mahogany title and yearned to bury himself in the abstractions of the administration of the LCD. However, the matter in hand started the process of making connections in his mind.
"Do I or you happen to know the name of this barrister, Neil?"
The Cabinet Minister abruptly got up from his seat and did a short walk round the office to control his growing anger. He was getting the feeling that those in his life who were at one time, 'on board' and could be relied upon were asking too many awkward questions. At one time, his word was given and the deed would be done but there was an increasingly restless spirit around. The focus in his mind of his troubles was John Deed's aristocratic expression of disdain and he was the serpent who offered Eve the apple of temptation so that his ordered heaven was disturbed forever. There was a dangerous infection of spirit abroad that was a threat to his security as this new 'winter of discontent' had spread. First of all his money loving barrister and socialite ex partner who had always followed his lead had turned her powers of sarcasm on him, cast him out and seemed bent on some vindictive crusade. And now, this toadying official in the LCD had given him the brush off over George last time and seemed to be making awkwardness as a personal development plan.
"You are asking a lot of difficult questions, Ian. I had expected you to be more helpful. You ought to be more careful."
The whiplash of words lashed across Sir Ian's shoulders and instinctively, his head felt as if it was sinking into his shoulders as old painful memories came flooding back. He was becoming indiscreet of late and strange impulses burst through his mandarin reserve from time to time. But he was still able to ask the question that his curiosity demanded an answer too.
"Just who is this barrister, Neil. I must know," Sir Ian asked meekly.
"If I must humour your typical Civil service obsession with detail, George Channing."
A light of understanding dawned in Sir Ian like an incandescent illumination which made everything clear. He shook his head in astonishment that this mere mortal with feet of clay could order him about.
"Now I understand you, Neil. You do seem to have got yourself into a hole. You have an argument with George, you strike her and you wonder why she is not well disposed towards helping the government out. if you behave in such an ungentlemanly fashion, what do you expect?" Sir Ian stood up from his chair to confront the increasingly angry politician.
"What possible connection is there between a little domestic upset and a barrister who seems to have got the bit between her teeth to indulge in some senseless, wrecking campaign?"
"You mean, like the way that Deed behaves?"
Neil laughed out loud in total incredulity at such a comparison. He could not imagine the slightest thing in common between George and that priggish man with using the law to stir up trouble and especially victimising the wealth creators who were the life blood to this country's economy. George's frequent trips to the shops around Oxford Street, her love of all the fine things in life and her mercenary approach to her work as a source of luxuries. Her sympathies towards the wealth creators was well known. She was no rabble rousing revolutionary, it was just that she had just gone off the rails a bit.
Sir Ian could not believe the blindness of this man. Excellent though he might be at shuffling papers around at Cabinet meetings, he had no conception that his actions had driven George away. Who knows where this will end?
"If you want my opinion, Neil, then I can see every reason why George might take up such a case. She has the ability, she may well have had enough of some of the cases you have steered her way and wants to prove herself as a barrister on her own. Most of all, there is no fury like a woman scorned or didn't anyone tell you that?" Sir Ian finished with a note of contempt as he gradually took courage into his hands, bit by bit.
"You need to make the personal approach to her. Then you might get somewhere and maybe she'll drop the case."
"She won't listen, dammit," Neil said, getting red in the face.
"Then you have to work out a way to get her to listen," Sir Ian said calmly. He nearly said that this was the sort of task that Ministers routinely and arrogantly handed down to him but that would be definitely indiscreet.
Neil stalked out without saying another word.
With a sigh, Sir Ian returned to his papers.
"So, how did you get on in your conversation with Deed, sir?" Lawrence James asked him.
"Not bad, Lawrence," Sir Ian said with a certain amount of satisfaction. "Deed was vociferous in his support of his ex wife in pursuing the legal action against the prison Service and daring me to put a spoke in George's wheel. I said that this was a remarkable turnabout as to my recollection, I imagined that he himself would love to see his dream realised of putting his ex wife behind bars once and for all. He denied it hotly, saying it was only as Ms Channing transgressed the rules of standards of adversarial representation."
"Does the man not see that he has no right to talk about transgressions?" the puritanical nature of Lawrence James waxed eloquently. "Has he no shame?"
Sir Ian smiled thinly. While Lawrence James had every reason to violently object to John Deed's idiosyncratic nature and was fond of expounding at length on the subject, he carried on long after the point when Sir Ian was bored with talking about it and wished he would shut up. Zealous though he might be, Lawrence James could irritate him.
"I pointed out to him that he seemed singularly well informed about his ex wife's thoughts and feelings and expressed my hopes that their relationship in court might be more harmonious in future. He smiled and said that there was just a reasonable chance that his ex wife's tempestuous nature might be tamed."
"He was joking of course, sir Ian. What did you say?"
"I told him 'Like the Taming of the Shrew' but he laughed that off. You never quite know where you are with him when he appears to make a joke. Anyway, we talked about the prison service and I dared him to visit a prison of his choice seeing that he has sent many people to prison in his time but had never seen the consequences of his actions."
"Isn't that a little rash, sir," A worried Lawrence James interposed. "You do not know what he is capable of when let loose in any institution."
"It's a calculated risk, Lawrence. I am banking on Deed making contact with the sort of flotsam and jetsam of society that might take the edge off his campaigning zeal. He might as well be enabled to go to the prison which is most in the news, this Larkhall Prison. For the first time in my life, I think that I had him wrongfooted as he did not expect this sort of reaction from me."
"But what about the civil action that Ms Channing is bent on dragging the prison Service through, sir."
Sir Ian stretched himself in his comfortable chair.
"The situation hasn't changed essentially since I last had words with Deed. At that time, it appeared that Miss Betts, the woman concerned, was going to pursue this through the criminal courts. As the evidence hasn't properly come up to scratch, a civil case is being planned instead," Sir Ian explained
"This will not involve the CPS or prejudice our harmonious relationship with them but if sufficient evidence arises in trial, a criminal case may still be brought. It is a risk, sir."
"I don't know. I've worked in the Civil Service all my life to further my career which means to play everything safe. I am not bound to save a Cabinet Minister from the consequences of his actions in raising a hand to his partner any more than I was bound to do a favour for an unscrupulous Prison Governor who enabled a very dangerous man to be let off the hook in the rape of a fellow Prison Officer. I made a mistake at the time and, for once, our policy is 'hands off.' I've nannied too many politicians over the years and I just want an easy life."
"It is strange for you to speak so, sir Ian. Ever since I have worked for you, I have felt that you have never tired in your efforts to maintain the Greater Good of this nation. You have changed."
"You're young and ambitious, Lawrence, with a long way to go. I felt like you once but perhaps I'm getting old and tired. You may feel the same one day. Care for a drink?"
Sir Ian reached out and poured a drink for Lawrence James and they relaxed in the subdued lighting and quiet of the office bearing the title stretching back to antiquity.
One Hundred And Five
On the Thursday morning, Karen was beginning to think that she couldn't keep this up much longer. As was her duty, she'd informed Grayling of Fenner's apparent disappearance, telling him that they'd tried to contact Fenner, and that she'd even been round to Fenner's house. This obviously wasn't true, but Karen had an act to keep up. But as Grayling had said, Fenner wasn't after all breaking the law in quitting his job without a by your leave, he was simply breaking his contract and denying himself a reference. So, Karen was forced to temporarily promote Sylvia to acting Principle Officer, while she searched around for a suitable replacement. She even found herself briefly thinking of Mark and wondering if he would ever come back to work at Larkhall. But she abandoned this thought as soon as it had appeared. Any working relationship she and Mark had once had was history, never to return. His presence would only complicate matters, when they were already more than complicated enough. She didn't know where she and Yvonne could go from here. She felt like they were in limbo, their relationship temporarily on hold until something happened one way or the other. Jesus, she thought, even from the grave he's putting a spanner in the works. She was surprised, therefore, when at around eleven o'clock, her phone rang. It was Ken, to tell her that there was a man at the gate to see her.
"He says he's a high court Judge," Added Ken, "Looks too relaxed to be a judge, but there you are." Smiling ruefully, Karen said she'd be down in a minute.
As she traversed the long, winding corridors from her office down to the gate lodge, she realised that her act would have to be sharper than ever to fool this man. He was the most skilled she'd ever met at seeing behind people's defences, at gently prising out the truth. Thinking that she would deserve a long holiday abroad if she pulled this one off, she let herself through the last set of gates. She forced a broad smile on to her face.
"Hello," She said, "this is a nice surprise."
"Your officer here," John said, gesturing to Ken, "Doesn't believe I'm a high court Judge." He said this with a smile because he knew that Karen was about to put Ken right.
"Ken," Karen said, turning to him, "This is Mr. Justice Deed." Ken looked a trifle embarrassed.
"It's just you don't look like a high court judge," He said, "You look too normal." John laughed.
"Have you ever met a high court Judge," He asked.
"No Sir," Ken replied, "It's the inmates who have experience of Judges, not us officers." As Karen led John through the various sets of gates, she said,
"You've mystified him." John smiled.
"It's nice to know I look vaguely human when I'm not behind the bench." Then, taking in the utterly miserable prison decor, he said, "How on Earth do you manage to work in such drab surroundings?"
"Home Office budgets don't run to such niceties as interior design," She replied dryly.
"At least my chambers at the Old Bailey look vaguely majestic." As Karen let them in to her office, she asked her secretary to bring them some coffee.
"So," She said, sitting behind her desk and gesturing to John to take the chair opposite, "To what do I owe the pleasure."
"Well, actually, I was at a loose end," He admitted with a sheepish grin, "A trial I was overseeing collapsed because the defendant pleaded guilty and I thought it was my duty to find out if my ex-wife behaved herself during her punishment last Thursday."
"A follow up report on a whim?" Karen finished for him, her eyes twinkling.
"Yes, you could say that," He replied.
"Yes," Said Karen sardonically, "I've heard you're one for doing things on the spur of the moment."
"Dare I ask who from?" He asked, though knowing it must either be from Jo or George, or both.
"I never reveal my sources."
"You've been spending too much time with George." Karen smiled.
"Well, she certainly doesn't stand around waiting for things to happen. I saw her on Monday and I think area management are going to find themselves in hot water pretty soon."
"Good. How's it going, working with Fenner and plotting behind his back." The smile was wiped off Karen's face at the mention of Fenner's name.
"It's only what he's been doing to me since day one," She replied, trying to cover up her discomfort. "But yes, it isn't easy keeping up the act of professional tolerance when what I'd really like to do is wring his neck." She couldn't believe she'd said that. She was sat here, making light conversation with a high court Judge about wringing Fenner's neck, when he was lying somewhere, in the middle of Epping forest, his vocal cords silenced for ever.
"Is something wrong?" John asked gently, observing the rapid change of facial expression, from horror, to disgust, to fear.
"I think it's just all beginning to get to me," Said Karen, feeling that irresistible urge to confess all to this man whose trust she'd betrayed.
"I'm amazed you can keep on working with him, after everything that's happened."
"Well, with Grayling and area management refusing to give me one ounce of back up, I didn't really have any choice. If I'd left this job, Fenner would have been behind this desk in the blink of an eye, and there's no way I'd give him the satisfaction. Besides, I've had a bit of a break from him this week. He didn't turn up for work on Monday, and he hasn't been seen since." John stared at her. "We've phoned, someone's called round at his house, but no show, and as Grayling pointed out to me yesterday, Fenner isn't exactly breaking the law by quitting his job without a moment's notice." John looked thoughtful.
"Is there any possibility that he could be aware of the case you're forming against him?"
"I don't think so. But then he has seen both Jo and George inside these gates." Then, the penny dropped. "You think he's done a moonlight flit."
"Well, he does have everything to lose if he's ever found guilty. Ex-prison officers don't exactly get an easy time of it inside."
"He wouldn't," Said Karen, "Fenner's as evil as they come, but he's not stupid."
"Perhaps this time, he realises his number's up."
"But we've tried everything to find him," Went on Karen, "I even got in touch with his ex-wife yesterday."
"Fine," Said John, "I'll issue a bench warrant for his arrest. There is every possibility that he is attempting to evade the clawing hands of the justice system. If, when he's picked up, he's got a valid reason for absconding, then we'll let him go. If he hasn't, then I'll remand him in custody." Briefly thinking that she would be the one remanded in custody if and when Fenner was ever found, Karen simply said,
"Okay." Then, reaching for her ever-present cigarettes, she said, "How much have you seen of the case?"
"I haven't seen anything of it since George took over, but I saw most of what Jo had gathered together. Why?"
"Do you really think I'm doing the right thing?" Karen asked seriously.
"Yes, of course."
"I know that everything Fenner has ever done as regards virtually any woman is wrong and that he deserves to be punished for it, I absolutely endorse that. Shell Dockley, Rachel Hicks, Helen Stewart, they all deserve for Fenner to pay for what he's done to them. Maybe I'm just not sure that I do." Realising that she'd definitely said too much, she waited for his response.
"Having read the transcript of your conversation with Jo, I know that you are without doubt doing the right thing. What Fenner did to you was thoroughly, reprehensibly wrong. I know why you are questioning the validity of your particular incident, and part of you probably always will. But the facts speak for themselves. You said no, and at least morally speaking, that's all there is to it." Karen stared at him. How could this man, this wonderful, trusting, supportive man, have so much faith in her. Brief tears had risen to her eyes at his unequivocal belief in her and she rapidly attempted to blink them away.
"I'm sorry," She said, feeling a complete fool. "It's just sometimes nice to know that someone believes in me." He put out a hand, and took one of hers that was lying on top of the desk, running his thumb over the knuckles.
"You will get through this," He said gently. "George, Jo and I, will be there to help you every step of the way." Karen turned her hand over, so that she was momentarily holding his.
"Thank you," She said, hoping he would still mean it, when that inevitable day of the finding of Fenner's body eventually arrived, because arrive it would, like the Spanish train in the Chris De Burgh song, which had always carried the souls of the dead.
"Would you like to see my wing?" Karen asked, desperate to find an alternative topic of conversation. John smiled.
"Yes, I would. I can satisfy a point of curiosity I've had since the days when I was a practicing barrister." Karen reached for the phone, and rang down to the officer's room.
"G wing," Answered Sylvia abruptly, not amused to be disturbed in the middle of her tea break.
"Sylvia, where is Alison McKenzy?"
"She's still down the block. I was just on my way to bring her back. Her week's up today."
"Well, do me a favour, leave her there for a bit longer." Putting the phone down a moment later, she said, "I can do without another incident like last week." At John's raised eyebrow, she said, "didn't George tell you?"
"Didn't George tell me what?"
"That Alison McKenzy wasn't very pleased to see her and came within inches of attacking her."
"You took George in to the vicinity of Alison McKenzy? A witness whom she attempted to brow beat in court?" He said, nailing Karen with the sort of stare that made her think of Yvonne.
"No," She said patiently. "Not intentionally. I gave Fenner a direct order to keep McKenzy well out of harm's way, which he chose to disobey. George wasn't harmed in any way, I promise you. I would never have knowingly put her in any danger whatsoever."
"Good," Replied John, though he didn't look entirely convince, and Karen was forcefully introduced to the intense protectiveness he clearly still felt for his ex-wife.
As they drew closer to the wing, they could hear the random conglomerate of sounds that denoted a section of one of her Majesty's female prisons. The rattle of keys, the slamming of metal doors, the combined voices of a lot of women crammed in to a small space. When Karen let them through the last gate on to the wing, John was greeted to the sight of the association area. Looking up at the roof, he knew that George would have felt incredibly claustrophobic in here, as if everyone were looking down on her, as if everything she did was on display for all to see. As some of the women caught sight of John, a cheer rose up.
"I should have you on a tight leash in here," Said Karen, grinning broadly. At John's raised eyebrow, she said, "Fifty sex starved women, you never know your luck." He laughed, and said,
"My reputation clearly precedes me."
"Only slightly," Replied Karen. she found herself thinking that John possibly needed more looking after in this place than George had. Seeing that their wing Governor wasn't about to introduce the very good-looking stranger, the women returned to whatever they were doing, but one of them detached herself from the group around the Pool table and walked towards them. It was Denny. Walking straight up to John, she said,
"Sir, weren't you the Judge who sent Snowball down?" Not entirely sure of the reaction he would get, he said,
"Yes, I was." Denny held out a hand.
"Only, I recognised you from the picture they put in the paper after the trial. You're the only judge that's ever been worth shaking by the hand. You got justice for my Shaz, innit." For once, he was totally speechless. Holding out his own hand, he shook Denny's firmly.
"Was Sharon Wiley your?..." He didn't seem to know what word to attach to their possible relationship.
"Yeah," Replied Denny, "She was my bird, the most precious thing I ever had." Seeing that Di was beckoning to her, Karen said,
"Can I leave you with Denny for a moment? I won't be long." Following her gaze, John said,
"Of course." Keeping one eye firmly on John, who looked to be quite happy talking to Denny, Karen walked over to Di.
"Have you heard any more about Jim?" Di asked.
"No, not yet," Replied Karen, "It seems he's done a bunk." As Karen walked away, Di gestured to John and said,
"It seems our Miss Betts is going up in the world." Sylvia looked scornful.
"You might be right, Di," She said, "First Ritchie Atkins, and now a high court Judge. She'll have to start making her mind up which side of the fence she's on."
"What did Shaz look like?" Asked John, feeling more humble than he'd ever done in his life at the appreciation from this girl in front of him.
"Didn't you never see a picture of her?" Asked Denny.
"No. It's funny, but I conducted the trial of her killer, and yet never knew anything about her."
"One of the Costa Cons drew a picture of her for me. I'll go and get it." Denny was back in an instant, holding out the vibrant drawing, the purples and greens clearly portraying the dead girl's personality. John took it, and looked at the bright, mischievous face topped by short spiky hair. He thought that the age of Impressionism had moved in an interesting direction with this drawing.
"The mad colours are because she was mad," Put in Denny. "She always made me laugh, and you don't get a lot of laughs in here." When Karen returned, Denny left them and John said,
"That's the first time I've ever been congratulated by someone who actually mattered, for sending someone down." A sad smile crossed Karen's face as she watched Denny walk back to the dorm.
"Shaz Wiley was probably the happiest inmate I've ever seen. Even though she was serving three life sentences at the age of nineteen, most of the time she didn't let it get to her. I remember once when all my officers went on strike, and the inmates pretty much had to look after themselves, someone produced a guitar and she started singing Scarborough Fayre. She had the most innocently sweet voice I've ever heard. Denny was virtually catatonic for about a month after the fire." John looked around him, at the various little groups of women, most of them looking far too at home than was surely natural. Observing his survey of the way the women clearly had particular people with whom they spent their time, Karen said, "the majority of them try to make the best of it. They know they're here for a certain amount of time, but they just get on with it."
"Who are the Costa Cons?" He asked, "Denny said that it was one of them who drew the picture for her." Karen grinned and gestured to where Bev and Phil were sitting, smoking as usual.
"It was one of those two who offered George a gin and tonic," She said with a broad smile. "Not in my hearing of course, or I would have had to spin their cell."
"Yes, that's about the only thing George would tell me about her time here, that she'd been offered a gin and tonic, and that she'd met a prostitute whose son goes to public school."
"You should have seen the look on her face," Said Karen, leading John over to where the Julies were wiping down the servery.
"Wow, is he for us, Miss?" Asked Julie Saunders looking up with great interest. Karen laughed.
"No, I'm afraid not, Julie. This is Mr. Justice deed." And turning to John, she said, "This is Julie Saunders, whose son resides at Marlborough College, and this is Julie Johnston," She said, as Julie J joined them.
"Oh, I had a judge once," Said Julie J. "Tall, brown hair, wore horrible gray suits and had enormous eyebrows. All us girls used to call him Legover." John's face split in to the wickedest grin Karen had ever seen on a member of the legal profession. His posture stiffened, and he screwed his face up in to a mockery of the stiff upper lip countenance that Legover Everard always presented.
"You don't mean Legover Everard?" He said, his voice taking on an extremely accurate imitation of Mr. Justice Everard's voice.
"Yeah," Said the Julies in unison, "That's him. Why, do you know him?"
"Oh, yes," Said John, the glint of triumph evident in his face. "Everyone I know talks about him as Legover, it's a standing joke."
"Well, he'd remember us as the two Trudies," Said Julie S. "He was quite a regular at one time, wasn't he, Ju."
"Oh, yeah," Replied Julie J, "Every Thursday, eight o'clock on the dot. He used to say his wife wasn't attractive enough to get him going, but then they all say that."
"Oh, believe me," Said John, "He was telling you the truth when he said that."
"Okay, Julies," Put in Karen, thinking this really had gone far enough. But as she and John walked towards the gate leading out of the wing, he kept breaking in to spontaneous little outbursts of laughter. When they emerged from G wing, Karen said,
"I'll assume that you'll use everything you've learnt today to your maximum enjoyment?"
"You're absolutely right," Said John, "This has the potential to be the best laugh I've had in a long time, and it will without doubt give me access to the cases I take a liking to."
"Trust the Julies to have known a judge," Said Karen. Then John became serious again.
"They really are like a family in here, aren't they."
"Yes," Replied Karen, "As Tina Purvis pointed out in front of George, for some of them, in here's all the family they've got."
"And Denny, what's she in for?"
"For setting fire to her last childrens' home, because they were going to move her away from the first and only place she'd ever felt secure."
"Having seen something of what I condemn the guilty to," Said John, "Will almost certainly make a difference to my future sentencing."
"I thought it might. George said that it made her feel that what she did on a day to day basis was pretty worthless. I think you'll find her doing far more criminal work than she has done up to now." Whilst they were walking down a stretch of long, narrow corridor that was devoid of any other human beings, John stopped.
"If I'm on the bench when Fenner's case eventually comes to court, and I will make sure I am, he'll be going down for the longest stretch I can give him. From what I've read on this case, his freedom is what he values the most, the freedom to take advantage of anyone he takes a fancy to. So, in his case, prison ought to be the perfect punishment."
"What makes you so certain it'll get to court?" Asked Karen, being hit anew by the realisation that none of this would ever happen now.
"Because if it doesn't, the Attorney General will be explaining the reason why." There was so much vehemence in John's tone, that Karen inwardly flinched at the thought of his anger one day being turned on her. As she watched him drive away, she found herself mentally locking away the few brief occasions she'd spent in his company, as if to preserve them from the harsh reality that must, one day fall on her.
One Hundred And Six
Cassie and Roisin were lazing together on the comfortable settee, cuddled up with the children after a normal Thursday evening after work. They had eaten their fill and they all had a mellow contented feeling when they all watched children's television together. The inevitable grotesque cartoon characters and loud voices washed over them all in a comforting cocoon to take the edge off the day. This was part of the fabric of their children centred universe and their brief holidays from it, of sampling the decadent lifestyle at Yvonne's house and everything that went with it was lived to the full. As this time was so limited, it was all the more precious to them.
Tom and Jerry was the ultimate electronic corny cosy Americanised TV junk fare as inevitable and universal as McDonalds takeaways, an inescapable part of modern childhood. Michael and Niamh, of course loved it and the more recent creations and were glued to their seats in fascination. They were all watching Jerry the mouse as he escaped from his cosy mousehole and scooted at great speed across the enormous front room. The next second, Tom, the cat, picked up his six shooter and with glee sent a series of shots after Jerry which whistled past him but miraculously failed to hit him.
Cassie shuddered as the symbolism of the gun made her go cold inside. She had watched this cartoon when she was little which, ordinarily, something like this ought to have made her feel more comfortable. Since Karen had come round to see them to tell them of Fenner's death, their world had been knocked askew. Yet relatively speaking, they were at the edge of a growing whirlpool which they sensed spinning around to the side of them.
Presently, the six o'clock news broke in with its staccato music to command the nation's attention and its handed down agenda of relative importance of what was supposedly going on all around them.
"Jordan signs up for her first film role," came the dramatic glamorous news headlines as announced in split second images of the pouting lips and big breasts of everyone's front page sense of importance as she stepped out from the expensive studio offices, smiling for the flashing news cameras. An appropriately grim note was struck when the Chancellor of the Exchequer warned of the danger of above inflation pay rises. The grey suited man's mouth opened and closed voicelessly in sonorous tones to Cassie and Roisin while Niamh and Michael wriggled in boredom wondering why mum and Cassie forced this grown up torture on them that made no sense to them. The last news item was David Blunkett, the Home Secretary being pleased to announce that the three months crime figures showing a significant average seven percent downturn in violent crime figures of all kinds. "This country is at last becoming a more law abiding Christian society where those who are tempted to break the law think twice about it for fear of being caught."
"Let's switch channels, eh, kids," Cassie said, clicking the button on the remote control. "It's boring, isn't it?"
The children were surprised and pleased by the unexpected reprieve. Roisin's basically serious outlook on life was the main mover in watching serious programmes but tonight she made not the slightest objection. Cassie's basically carefree, child like nature was naturally more in tune with the children but it had been modified by her deep love for Roisin which educated her to ideas which her basically lazy nature would not have picked up on unless she were forced too. Cassie had become a 'born for the first time ' responsible grown up, well at least some of the time.
What the children could not see was the TV news item which never appeared that night but which Cassie and Roisin had dreaded would break, if not that night then it would the night after. There was a vivid wide screen news footage transmitted but only inside both Cassie's and Roisin's troubled minds. It was only a matter of time before it would happen. Their awareness of the enormity of what a small handful of them knew but the world didn't, scared them.
"Police are searching for the killer of the Prison Officer, James Fenner who mysteriously disappeared last Sunday after going out for a drink with his friends. The body was recently discovered and various lines of investigations are being followed. The likeliest theory is that the murderer is someone who is connected with a present or past prisoner at Larkhall Prison where he had worked for many years .."
"Right, kids," Cassie suddenly broke in, "Have you any homework to do tonight?"
Michael and Niamh exchanged glances. As it happened, there was no homework set tonight and they had anticipated a lazy evening in with nothing much to do as mum and Cassie were never known to take them anywhere mid week. Both shook their heads.
"Then how do you fancy seeing Auntie Yvonne and Auntie Lauren tonight?"
Both of them yelled their noisy approval. To them, it was like going on a foreign holiday on their doorstep with grownups who were kind and good fun. They didn't talk down to them like some grownups did but told the funniest jokes around. The house was a place of wonder, chock full of all the latest gadgets and rooms to play in and, in the summer, the sun seemed hotter by their swimming pool than in their own back garden. The huge grounds provided a marvellous area to explore and their dog, Trigger, was so cute. They had once tried begging and pleading with mum and Cassie to take Trigger home with them, having planned in detail where he could sleep, but they had firmly declined.
Roisin raised her eyebrows at Cassie's suggestion but made no objection. They had not wished to make contact with Yvonne and Lauren in the first few days, having witnessed the spectacular verbal fireworks between them when Ritchie had died and had waited for them to phone. Cassie had thought that someone had to make the first move so it might as well be them as anyone.
"You don't normally take us out on a school night," Niamh piped up, her enquiring mind occasionally asking awkward questions.
"This is a little treat, children, because you're so good. Cassie and I suddenly thought of this tonight. Mind you, we have to make sure that we're back for bedtime so get ready, now," Roisin intervened, her concerned mum approach sounding authentic.
"I'll phone her up and let them know we're coming, Roash," Cassie offered casually though she was by no means certain just what sort of frame of mind they would be in.
Yvonne and Lauren had started to make an effort to pretend to each other that everything had blown over. Neither of them wanted to even deal with the possibility that Fenner's murder would come to light. They had done their best to cover up the crime and now it was time to pretend to move on. By tacit conspiracy, they somehow managed it that they never saw the news on the television and police dramas where the perfect crime was committed but some small mistake led to the criminal being caught in the last five minutes was scrupulously avoided. Keep it light, both of them thought and even the most rubbish game show was not all bad.
The atmosphere between them reverted to something like the days when Lauren came to visit Yvonne in prison and she had to be the sensible grown up who carried all the responsibility and was making an extra special effort to cheer Yvonne up. There was a resemblance in another way as both of them had the instinct to lie low within the house for a while and not to flaunt their presence to the outside world. Instead of the carefree thought of grabbing a car and driving out and about the neighbourhood, an invisible set of prison bars seemed to close down on both of them. The autumn nights were drawing in now and the dazzling hot summer of lying out by the pool was a thing of the past. There was an underlying feeling of claustrophobia and tension underneath the surface.
Yvonne had picked up the call earlier from Cassie asking if it was all right to come over and, don't worry, that they had heard from Karen what had happened.
"Sure," Yvonne exhaled down the phone an audible breath of relief. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe to come over. There isn't open warfare here like you might fear. Lauren hasn't grown two bleeding heads overnight. It sounds like a load of bollocks, but she's been acting more grown up in recent days."
"We know, Yvonne. Do you mind if we bring the kids over?" Cassie could detect the universal defensive tone of every mother standing up for their own.
Yvonne's spirits lifted in an instant. What she could do with right now was a bit of innocent company from Cassie and Roisin's kids as a complete change from the emotional fallout from Fenner's killing.
"We would love to see them. It would make us feel bleeding normal again," Yvonne's soft tones expressed all her yearning for that indefinable feeling of safety and normality that they had lost that night.
Trigger had started barking and wagging his tail in excitement just before the sounds of an approaching car could be heard. He nosed the front door open when Lauren had barely turned the handle and the very welcome sight of a familiar car as it drew up on the drive made the presence of close friends all the more welcome. They both blinked at the unfamiliar fresh air and the last of the sunlight.
"Auntie Lauren," Niamh's childish voice piped up to be greeted by a very tender smile from the younger woman. No matter what, she was still the children's favourite. She needed to cling onto that thought. Trigger, of course, gently inserted himself between the two human beings, not to be done out of being made a fuss over and both of them patted and stroked him. He was restored to what he felt was his rightful place in the pack.
Yvonne squinted at the unexpected sunlight and cool fresh air on her skin. Her eyes darted round to take in the distant views of any sights and sounds of the Old Bill heading in their direction.
"Hey, what's wrong, Yvonne?" Cassie enquired, picking up on the other woman's nervousness and background fear. She seemed not entirely well to her and, underneath her make up, pale and washed out."
"It's nothing, Cassie. Just a bleeding cold. Even Atkins can get colds from time to time, you know," She replied a little brusquely and fooling no one.
"If I were your GP, I'd say you are suffering from an overdose of nobbing policemen, or the fear of them," Cassie replied in her blunt way. "You can't stay indoors all of the bloody time."
Yvonne smiled wholeheartedly and hugged the smaller woman. She needed that sort of tough love from a friend who really cared for her. She clung on to her for what seemed a long time.
"You're right, Cassie. Do you want to go out to a pub where they allow children."
"Perhaps another time, Yvonne. We'll go in later as it's getting chilly outside. But mind you, we'll be checking up on you two from time to time," Roisin broke in, her motherly tone bossing her around as much as any of her children's friends. That ability acquired over the years was inwardly welcomed by Yvonne and was the kick up the backside that she wanted to give her a sense of direction.
"You're the boss, Roisin," Came the smiling joking, yet respectful response.
"We really came here to find out how you are both going on and to tell you that we are here for you whatever happens." Roisin's words, spoken with all her gentle yet intense warmth brought a tear or two to Yvonne's eyes.
Lauren found a couple of huge mugs and sloshed out a generous measure of the children's favourite Diet Coke and chattered away to them. She was bright faced and lively, cracking new jokes to the children, for the first time since she had last seen them. She could almost forget the darkness of so many weeks of her life that had obsessed her and held her in a vice like grip. Surely it wasn't too late to break free from that?
Yvonne smiled affectionately at Lauren, seeing in her excited manner the child that she had known and loved. She had always felt close to her from when she was a baby and seen her big guileless eyes somehow filled with wisdom look back at her. She had so many dreams for her future, Lauren and her 'little angel.' It had held at bay some of the ugliness of her life in 'standing by her man' in the way he was so high and tough when he had murdered someone and he had called out to her at night to his 'Eevie' when his sweating nightmares called out to her to comfort him. No one ever called her 'Eevie' any more and perhaps it was as well. That name had died along with Charlie.
"Hey kids," Yvonne talked to the children. "Will you let Auntie Yvonne tell you some new jokes? I do them better than Lauren." She smiled at Lauren who grinned back. Both had that buoyant lift of the spirits which the company of close and trusted friends had brought with them. This was like the old times without having to be in prison. Two tiny hands grabbed her own and, laughingly, she was pulled after them as they clattered their way to another room. She sat them both on her lap and their childish shining innocent eyes made her desire so much to be worthy of them. She knew that she could entertain them as, once you developed the knack, it was as easy as falling off a log.
"So you two think I'm some kind of mad woman and that I messed up?" Lauren asked Cassie with a hint of aggression in her voice.
Cassie did not react with anger as she could see the self torture that lay below the surface.
"I don't think that a prick like Fenner is worth killing if anything bad will happen to you. I'd miss going out clubbing with you, anyway," Cassie finished lightly.
"You are both going to be all right with your kids and everything. You're not going to end up doing anything self destructive like the Atkins family does. We're not that big and tough," Lauren's wierdly spiralling mood had dragged her mood downwards into that sense of blackness and despair.
"It wasn't always that way, Lauren. You forget that both of us have done time. I used to have a five figure salary, company car, penthouse flat. I had it all, once. The only thing was that I got a combined credit card and coke habit. Coke was a clean drug or so I thought and I got greedy for more money than I was earning. I hit on this clever idea of scamming the company and pressured Roash to cover up the accounts for me. Between the two of us, I felt we couldn't lose. I got as much of a high out of the scam as doing coke and lived in an unreal world even though I thought I knew what I was doing. Somehow living dangerously and spending recklessly made sense to me and I felt that I was superwoman and I could do no wrong. If you think in that coked up way, you're heading for a fall. That's when some interfering, nobbing jobsworth did a spot check on the company accounts and we were outed. The next thing I knew, there was a knock on the door after work when I was going to get glammed up to see Roash, only it was the police. I was wearing my best power dressing blue suit when we were taken through the gates of Larkhall for the first time."
"And if you think that I'm a respectable Irishwoman, Lauren, then just remember the Roisin Connor who sold everything she had to buy uppers and downers, anything to kill the pain of not having the children around," Roisin cut in, gesturing to Niamh and Michael who, to Lauren, looked as if they had always been around both of them and forever would be. Thanks to Charlie, the flavour of the shifting of heroin and cocaine in bulk through the veins and arteries of his criminal network had tainted the family as much as it had given them their luxurious lifestyle. What it meant in terms of the brutal physical pain and degradation had never confronted her, face to face.
"I lied over and over again to Cassie as I was ashamed of myself but I couldn't face life without that crutch and, in the end, after swearing never to use needles, I did. I couldn't even blame Al McKenzie for it. It was written all over my face when I asked her for heroin the first time in the women's toilets at Larkhall." Roisin's pained voice recalled her own darkness of mood for the first time since she had cleaned up. "Somehow, when I looked down at her in the witness box when we were all sat together in the visitor's gallery that day, she wasn't the same woman and neither was I."
Lauren's eyes were wide open in shock while Cassie and Roisin spoke so passionately from the shared pain of their past. No matter how tough and streetwise she pretended to be, she had always been a visitor to Larkhall. She had gone through the petty bureaucracy of queuing up and waiting to visit her mother and verbally sparring with the likes of Bodybag and Fenner, the very dead Fenner, in the visitor's room She had been the outside contact when Josh had met her in the Larkhall Arms and done her drug deals. She had even smuggled Julie J's kids into Larkhall so that they could talk to their mother and had seen them dragged away by that cow Bodybag. She had felt that she had almost been at Larkhall herself, except that when visitor's time had ended, she would be allowed to drive away back to this house. Now, she knew that the moment that she had fired that fatal shot and had shoveled the earth on Fenner's grave, she had lost that sense of invulnerability even though she had not known it at the time. She just had to trust to Atkins luck from now on.
"It's been good of you to come out and see us. You don't know how much you've helped us," Yvonne said, her tenderness unashamedly on the surface as the children.
"You would have done the same to us if we were in trouble, Yvonne. You really don't know how even getting a bollocking from you in Larkhall made us grow up. We'd never met anyone like you till we got to Larkhall. That dump at least did something good for us," Cassie replied, the look in her eyes showing total love and respect.
A slightly drunken Lauren came out and threw her arms round first Cassie and then Roisin and kissed them each. The way that they had told her their moments of most pain and degradation at Larkhall flooded her full of emotion and gratitude. She knew how busy they were and many times over, she wished them a safe journey.
"We'll be thinking of you, won't we," Cassie's light, flippant yet very reassuring voice and reassuring smile was left behind in their spirits long after their car had turned its way down the drive and off down the road to the sort of peace and harmony that both Yvonne and Lauren now realised was so taken for granted but all the more precious.
A/N: All lyrics contained within belong to Martina McBride, and I have to thank Henny for introducing me to her.
One Hundred And Seven
As Jo drove towards George's house on the Friday evening, she couldn't help but feel some concern. It wasn't like George to leave one of her case files behind on the defense bench, which is why she was now returning it. But this wasn't all, George's old swagger seemed to have gone. She had without doubt defended her case to a satisfactory level, but the old anger, the old spite that usually seemed to fuel every one of George's arguments just hadn't been there. She'd looked thinner, paler, as if she was outwardly as well as inwardly fading. Nothing had been able to raise a smile, and those usually expressive eyes had remained dull. If Jo was honest, George had been going slowly down hill ever since the break up with Neil. But the change in George seemed to have increased. Something had happened recently to suddenly make George have as little contact with Jo as possible. Prior to the Merriman/Atkins trial, this would have been nothing new, but Jo had thought that with the advent of Karen Betts' case, they were beginning to forge some kind of understanding. All Jo could think was that she had said or done something to put George back to square one where their tentative attempt at friendship was concerned. She turned in to George's driveway and took a brief moment to marshall her thoughts. In the old days, she wouldn't have cared one way or the other about even attempting to get on with George, but the goal posts had moved. It had been Jo's instinctive reaction to drop all antagonism towards her when she'd been presented with George's undoing from the black-eye. It hadn't taken rocket science for Jo to realise that George had been utterly thrown by what Neil had done to her. Neil's resorting to violence had shocked George enough to allow herself to lose control in front of Jo, something that ordinarily would have been against anything George stood for. But then they'd begun working on Karen Betts' case, with George digging up an enormous amount of dirt on Fenner. Jo knew that she'd become too emotionally involved with that case, and George had been there to pick up the pieces when Jo had failed to get Helen Stewart on board. So what had happened, Jo couldn't begin to imagine.
As she walked up the steps, the case file under her arm, she resolved to try and sort out whatever the problem was. She had a feeling of severe reluctance to go back to the way they'd been with each other before the Merriman/Atkins trial. She pressed the doorbell and waited. As George drew nearer the front door, Jo was greeted to the deep, confident sound of George singing. The upper class drawl was gone, the bite of sarcasm was gone. But maybe it was the words that were most significant.
"Love's the only house big enough for all the pain in the world. Love's the only house big enough for all the pain." Was this what George really thought, or were they simply the words to whatever song she was listening too. When George opened the door, she looked surprised to see Jo. She schooled her face in to the most noncommittal expression possible, but Jo hadn't missed the brief grimace that had passed over the other woman's countenance.
"You left this on the defence bench," Said Jo, holding up the file. George opened the door wider and gestured for Jo to come in.
"Thank you," She said, taking the file. "I wondered where I'd left that." In the old days, had Jo done such a thing as to return a forgotten file, George would have asked her if she'd taken the opportunity to view its contents, especially considering the fact that they were on opposite sides of the case, but not any more. For a start, George knew that Jo wouldn't apply the same unprofessional tactics as she would, and second, George simply couldn't be bothered starting an argument. Moving towards the lounge, George said,
"I'm getting drunk, and I'm likely to be particularly bad company, but you're welcome to join me if conversation wasn't your intended goal." Taking a close look at George's face and seeing the slight squint, the only thing to betray her lack of sobriety, Jo said,
"You look like you're half there already." George laughed.
"I may be on the small side," She said, "But I do have a very good resistance to alcohol." As they walked in to the lounge, Jo caught sight of the bottle of Martini and a half-full glass on the coffee table. Retrieving the bottle of scotch and another glass, George placed them near to her own choice of drink and poured Jo a generous measure with a very steady hand. There was some music playing softly on the stereo and George was clearly set for an evening of mellow moroseness. Picking up the CD cover that was on the coffee table next to the ashtray, Jo said,
"Martina McBride, I've never heard of her. I wouldn't have taken you for someone who liked country rock."
"There's an awful lot you don't know about me," Said George, the comment seeming to hold some inner significance.
"So I'm finding out," Replied Jo, realising that some deep torment was going on inside George, that some indefinable weight was pressing on her spirit.
George was unusually quiet as they sat, companionably smoking and allowing the words from the CD to wash over them. George kept refilling her own glass, but Jo made the one she'd started with last. She made no comment on the fact that George really could put it away. George was perfectly old enough to know how much alcohol she could handle. Jo found her thoughts drifting to that time, nearly eighteen months ago now, when she'd allowed her utterly flawless self-control to slip, and had got incredibly drunk with John after the teenaged boy who hadn't wanted a heart transplant had died. For one night, she had dropped her outer layer of dignity, and had allowed John to see her doing the one thing that scared her most. Jo had never hidden the fact that her father had been an alcoholic, but she did hide her awareness of her own tentative leaning in that direction. Jo wasn't, nor if she had anything to do with it, would she ever be an alcoholic, but if ever she was under any enormous stress, her instinct would occasionally be to get drunk. She could drink, in moderation as she was doing now, but if she became aware of her stress level exponentionally rising, she tried to avoid coming in to contact with alcohol, so as not to lead herself in to temptation.
From across the room, George caught sight of the shadow that had crossed Jo's face.
"What are you thinking?" She asked. Jo focused on George, drawn back to the present.
"I was remembering the last time I drank as much as you're doing now. It was the night that led to that thoroughly humiliating confrontation with the Professional Conduct Committee. I never, ever drink that much, and on the one occasion I did, I have to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time." Jo suddenly stopped, not quite knowing where all that had come from. George regarded her thoughtfully.
"That's what really got to you, isn't it. It wasn't the fact that you were caught in the wrong bed, but that you were there because you got plastered."
"Yes, and that John chose to focus on that in his evidence."
"And I didn't let you forget it, did I," Said George, feeling an utter bitch for having done this.
"No," Said Jo with a small smile. They lapsed again in to a comfortable silence. They both became aware of the words coming from the stereo.
"The world's greatest lovers, have turned in to strangers."
"That sounds like my marriage," Commented George dryly. Jo lifted an eyebrow.
"What, the world's greatest lovers or turning in to strangers?" George flashed her a wry smile.
"Both," She said, reaching for a cigarette. "That's one thing you'll never go short of with John," She added, thinking that she definitely was drinking far too much. Jo smiled, remembering how John had been the previous weekend.
"Except that it's always far more intense when he's been up to his old tricks," Replied Jo, feeling the sheer surreal quality of having something in common with George.
"Oh, yes," George said after a long drag, "He always uses the thing he knows best as a form of making up." George knew she was treading the path of the tightrope walker, but she was suddenly desperate to know if Jo was aware of John's having played away with her the week before. "Why," She asked, "Is that what he's been up too? I thought he'd begun to settle down." Jo laughed sardonically.
"You know John as well as I do, George. He just can't resist the chase. I doubt he'll ever stay religiously with one woman for longer than five minutes, and especially not with me."
"But he loves you," Put in George, "Why do you think he keeps coming back?"
"Because ultimately I'm safe," Replied Jo, "He knows that I'm not about to disappear."
"It sounds like he takes you for granted," Said George, thinking that John needed a good kick in the teeth to make him sort himself out.
"Oh, yes," Said Jo dryly, "He's done that all the time I've known him."
"Jo, don't underestimate what he feels for you," George found herself saying, "Even in the beginning, there was something different about you. I remember the day I found out about you and John..." then she stopped, not really sure if she should carry on.
"Go on," prompted Jo, "You can satisfy a point of curiosity for me." Knowing that her senses had finally gone right out of the window, George continued.
"Charlie was six and a half, and I'd just picked her up from school. We decided to come to court to see if John had finished for the day." George hesitated, but she could see that Jo had been wondering about the discovery of hers and John's affair for a long time. "He was kissing the life out of you on the front steps of the court. It shocked me because you looked so complete, so right together, as if you needed nothing from anyone else in the whole world. It would have looked incredibly erotic if it hadn't hurt so much. Sorry," She said, mentally clamping her tongue between her teeth, "Forget I said that. So, I put the car in to a U turn and roared away, attempting to explain to Charlie why we couldn't go and visit Daddy after all."
"I'm sorry," Said Jo after a while, feeling that in spite of all the sparring they'd done over the years, this apology to George had been long in coming.
"What on Earth for?" Asked George, thoroughly mystified.
"I'd have thought that was obvious."
"Jo, that was all a very long time ago," Said George gently. "I didn't tell you about it to make you feel guilty. John and I would never have lasted. There were too many things about me that he wasn't prepared to share a life with." Something in George's eyes darkened as she said this, and Jo had a new point of curiosity to focus on.
"But it didn't need me to decide things for you," Replied Jo.
"Maybe not," Conceded George, "But John's infidelity was only the catalyst. He wouldn't have gone looking if I hadn't pushed him away." Knowing that this time, she really had said too much, George abandoned this hazardous topic of conversation, getting up to get herself some more ice. As she rummaged in the freezer, Martina McBride's words again caught her attention.
"You think I'm always makin', something out of nothin'.
You're sayin' everything's okay.
You've always got an answer, before I ask the question.
Whatever you say."
"That sounds like Neil," Said George, walking in to the lounge with the ice tray, dropping ice cubes in to both their glasses. As she replaced the ice in the freezer, she found herself joining the singer on the CD, something which didn't go unnoticed by Jo.
"You say yes, you need me, and no you wouldn't leave me.
And that should be enough to make me stay.
Even though I want to, I don't hear I love you,
in whatever you say."
George's voice sounded so unexpectedly at home with the violins and guitars, that Jo smiled. She could never previously have imagined George's voice without its bite, without its clipped upper-class drawl, but the soft, deep tones with the slight vibration which spoke of at least some minimal training whilst she was at school, George's voice appeared to mould itself almost caressingly around the words. Jo was forced to realise that if she hadn't appeared this evening, George might have been able to let out some of her moroseness by singing. Jo was also hit with a tinge of pity for George, who had almost certainly never heard the words I love you at any time from Neil.
"Have you heard from him?" She asked as George returned and sat down.
"From Neil? Yes, he came to see me on Monday, just as Karen Betts was leaving."
"He's persistent, if nothing else," observed Jo. George opened her mouth to reply that Neil had only really been there to find out how John knew about the Adam and Eve picture, but closed it again when she realised that this would mean explaining it to Jo.
"He made a fairly pathetic effort at wanting to talk," She said, making it clear that it hadn't done Neil any good.
"Will he be at Legover's party on Sunday?" Asked Jo.
"Probably," Replied George, and then her eyes widened. "Oh, no," She groaned, and at Jo's raised eyebrows, she elaborated. "I had dinner with Daddy on Wednesday, and he managed to get out of me why I'd split up with Neil. Daddy will almost certainly be there, and I don't trust him not to use the opportunity to threaten Neil within an inch of his life, or at least his political life."
"Perhaps that's what he needs," Put in Jo.
"I don't care," Replied George emphatically. "I'd really rather everyone just forgot about it. Daddy, John and Neil in the same room for any length of time means trouble, believe me."
They slipped in to another contemplative silence, both feeling relaxed in the other's company. George was irrevocably torn between enjoying having Jo there, and wishing she would go. Being in Jo's presence, was increasing George's feeling of guilt more every minute. When Jo had expressed an apology for breaking up her marriage, this had almost been too much for George. All that had been nearly seventeen years ago, and now wasn't the time for Jo to feel any kind of guilt. No, all the guilt lay with George herself, not Jo. George was drifting on a sea of depression and alcohol, utterly submerged in her thoughts. How could she have done what she'd done to Jo? This woman in front of her didn't deserve John's almost total disregard for female feelings, and she, George, had no business in assisting his betrayal. Jo watched her, seeing something inexplicably sad register in George's eyes. Jo was again presented with the question of what had taken residence in George's mind to make her look as she was doing now. It wasn't Neil, or very little of it was, Jo was certain. But something else, some other recent occurrence had clearly plunged George in to the dark, endless fathoms of depression. Jo watched, as George's eyes widened at the new song on the CD, and observed as first, pain flashed behind the other woman's eyes, and then as this was closely followed by the spilling over of parallel tear tracks which made their inexorable way down George's cheeks.
"I wonder where your heart is
'Cause it sure don't feel like it's here.
Sometimes I think you wish
That I would just disappear.
Have I got it all wrong?
Have you felt this way long?
Are you already gone."
Jo was forced to admit that these words did hold some significance with her. What was it she'd said to John on the previous Saturday when they'd been in bed together? That was it. She'd said that it was the not knowing that she couldn't stand, the uncertainty of whether or not he would finally leave her for some other woman. Had he? Was he? Would he? These were all questions that had been apparent at the time, and which were being resurrected by the singer's words. But why were they affecting George like this. Jo's gaze rested softly on the other woman, not entirely sure whether to intrude on her anguish or not.
"Do you feel lonely
When you're here by my side?
Does the sound of freedom
Echo in your mind.
Do you wish you were by yourself?
Or that I was someone else?
It was at the words, "Does the sound of freedom echo in your mind", that Jo realised George must be thinking of what Jo had said earlier about John's possibly playing away. She couldn't leave George to suffer in silence, it just wasn't in her to do so. Jo had been sitting in the armchair that was at right angles to the fireplace, but she rose and moved over to where George was seated in her usual corner at the right-hand end of the sofa. Sitting down next to her, which appeared to go unnoticed, Jo gently laid a hand on George's left shoulder. Slightly startled, George swiveled her gaze which had previously been focused on nothing in the immediate vicinity, to rest on Jo.
"I'm sorry," She said, unconsciously echoing Karen's words of Monday morning, "I was miles away."
"Not somewhere nice by the look of you," Replied Jo softly. George briefly stared at Jo.
"How odd," She said, "I said exactly the same thing to Karen Betts a few days ago." For the first time in years, Jo was totally at a loss as to how to proceed. How did she even begin to offer some sort of comfort to the woman who for years had given her nothing but scorn and derision? Jo very slowly, very gently, put her arms round George, giving her every opportunity to retreat, though this was not necessary. Jo was a little surprised to find her hug returned, because if there was one thing that rose from George like heat, it was a need to at all costs maintain her barriers. George was virtually silent as she cried, and it struck Jo that in this respect, George wasn't dissimilar to Karen Betts. Both George and Karen were two incredibly strong women, who, on the vast majority of occasions, strove to hide any and every weakness from any casual observer. Jo gently moved her hand over George's back, coming in to contact with an extremely prominent shoulder blade.
"What's happened?" Jo asked quietly.
"It's this song," Replied George, "The words made me think that that's how you must feel about John."
"Yes, sometimes," Said Jo, "John might not usually wish I'm someone else, but he does and will always want his freedom."
"But he shouldn't," Said George vehemently. "He's got to stop mindlessly fucking other women who mean absolutely nothing to him and realise which side his bread's buttered. I'm sorry," She said, suddenly realising that she'd slipped in to the type of vocabulary probably not either welcome with or expected of one of Her Majesty's councils. Jo smiled.
"You've always had a way with words, George, and yes, he probably should decide what is really important to him, but I think we both know that he never will." Jo gently detached herself from George, and handed her the box of tissues on the coffee table.
"You probably think me utterly weak and pathetic," Said George, as she dried her eyes.
"No," Said Jo, "After the way I behaved on the night I was photographed in John's bed, I have absolutely nothing to reproach anyone for, especially when it involves alcohol." Jo knew that there was an awful lot more to George's outburst than she had hitherto imparted, but she was wise enough to see that George wasn't about to provide any further explanation and that her continued probing, would only give George a reason to try and rebuild her walls of defence. When Jo eventually left, she felt that in establishing some personal common ground, she and George were on their way to forming something of a friendship. She didn't spare any thought to the heart of what had got to George that evening. If George wanted her to know, then she would tell her, and if she didn't, then she wouldn't. Jo had more than enough skeletons of her own without feeling a necessity to discover anyone else's. She just hoped that George would come through whatever it was that appeared to have shaken her to the core. Jo had always known, mostly via the court room that George was pretty unstable, but whatever had upset her this evening, seemed to have rocked her right off course.
One Hundred And Eight
The scene was set at Mr. Justice Everard's for the legal profession to collectively relax, bond with itself and to remind itself that, after all, it was a fraternity, albeit with women admitted to the club in line with the changing times. An astute observer at courts up and down the country might suspect that barristers and judges, beneath their theatrical and adversarial robes, were merely actors in their roles. This was confirmed at such a gathering like this where a spirit of bonhomie was artificially stimulated
by discreet waiters holding drinks trays with glasses of red and white wine. All this togetherness need not stop the hidden rivalries, the groups engaged in idle gossip and the turned back to the temporary outsiders of the moment. John Deed, of course, was the one outsider who wasn't afraid to be one and had that force of personality where others came to talk to him.
The setting was the large dining room in the very traditional hotel, where the Judges' digs was now situated, where the old fashioned narrow framed windows were framed by floor length yellow and green brocaded curtains. In one corner was a high narrow bookcase full of hardback books in faded colours in an assortment of titles. On a large side table, a buffet meal was laid out. Only the wide square shaped stone fireplace and the artificial coal fire spoke of anything like the modern age as a reluctant concession. Both the digs and its occupants spoke of a bygone age of gentility and stability, free from the garish neurotic style of this modern age.
Sir Ian, Lawrence James and Lord Justice Everard and his wife made their stately way into the room and looked on in satisfaction at the setting.
"It's at times like these, Ian, that the brethren should feel themselves as one," He boomed, feeling the satisfaction of the nicety of the event as well as a large preliminary whisky already coursing through his veins.
"Am I one of the brethren even if I am on the sidelines?" his large and very formidable wife butted in, in her curiously mannish voice. "Or what am I? It seems to me that it needs a woman to take charge in that recent rape case that we dealt with the other day."
Monty sweated visibly at that memory. The sordid details were something that turned his stomach throughout the trial and he struggled to find the words to describe it. That did not stop his wife's relentless pillow talk on the conduct of the trial that day and lecturing him in what he should do the next day. Alone of all the parties present, she showed a total lack of embarrassment. At some point in time, he resolved to discreetly unload his wife on some unsuspecting souls and he could get entangled in conversation with a separate group.
"I'm using the word as a figure of speech," He replied crossly.
"You think Deed is one of the brethren, Monty?" Sir Ian asked him.
"In a renegade way, even Deed," He reluctantly conceded.
Fortunately Neumann Mason-Allen, his wife, Brian Cantwell and a number of other members of the bar drifted in and the bare room started to fill up and the background buzz of conversation became more noticeable.
"I must socialise with some of the other barristers and do my bit rather than stick in a corner of the room and monopolise you all evening," Everard's wife exclaimed loudly and she detached herself, moving off majestically under full sail to the opposite corner of the room where the barristers politely agreed with the increasingly wine soaked opinions that came off the top of her head. It did not do much for one's career to publicly snub the Presiding Judge's wife, or such a reasonable disagreement would be so interpreted.
Brian Cantwell grinned at the scene in the corner and bumped into George as she entered the room.
"Nice try, George, in the Atkins Pilkinton trial. By all accounts, you did your level best and went down fighting."
George smiled with a flash of her immaculate white teeth and perfectly painted lips. She was wearing a colourful loose fitting dress that suggested the shape of her tiny exquisite figure rather than flaunted it.
"I'm sorry for the way I behaved when I took over the case from you, Brian. I genuinely believed that I could win the case."
"Why did you ever take the case on, George? Was it anything to do with Neil Houghton?"
George shrugged her shoulders non-committally.
"Let's just say that I'm a bad loser. You know that from appearing opposite me," George replied with a hint of flirtatiousness in her manner. Inwardly, she asked herself the same question and for the life of her, she didn't know. Her face had brightened as her memory dragged her to more distant times of the choicer exchanges when she had frequently wrong footed or rattled Brian Cantwell.
"Are you on the waggon, George? I'll get a drink for you as I know your favourite poison." Brian asked more lightheartedly as he took two glasses of dry white wine from the waiter who passed by. Brian Cantwell's actions were not entirely altruistic as he was known to be a heavy drinker and George made him a helpful alibi to knock back another drink without making it obvious. His quick eyes had darted round the crowded room for the waiter and the drinks tray. It was becoming more and more difficult to get to the buffet table and to pick your way through the crowd for the nearest drink.
"Thank you," George said graciously.
Neil gradually made his way across the room, having button holed the Attorney General and was exchanging the latest political gossip as to who was in line for the next promotion and who was due to be dropped from the Cabinet. His eyes focussed in her direction and he veered off from the path he was treading and next moment, the two politicians were talking shop in a corner by the window, their stance totally excluding the casual wanderer at the party, looking for a fresh source of conversation.
Sir Monty Everard's mood was not improved when Deed drifted nonchalantly through the door. He had been manfully acting the part of the genial host to fresh visitors but felt that he could conveniently overlook that Deed character.
"Lover boy doesn't want to know, George," John's melodious voice broke in on George's thoughts. Brian Cantwell had made a bee line for the buffet table which was crowded out with the hungrier gannet population who were picking over the remains.
"Last time we attended one of these soirees, he was giving me plenty of black looks before pretending concern as to how my therapy was going. He couldn't wait to come over in case I was up to no good with you."
"And weren't you?" George laughed.
"You can talk. You were flirting outrageously," John replied in his best mock innocent manner. His gentle riposte was all the more effective as it was perfectly true. In those days, while they both had their respective partners, more or less, they couldn't help but slightly misbehave with each other to ruffle the feathers of their partner of the moment. It was this provocative quality that drew them gently together in the first place.
At that point, John exchanged a few pleasantries with Mr Neumann Mason-Allen while George looked away for a second. Her face fell and the present came back to haunt her. She had come closer to John since the last party only to be aware that his womanising was driving them further apart at the same time, even if she were his mistress, or whatever. It was the "or whatever" that said everything about the two of them. By force of circumstances, John had grown to take everything all too far, especially with Jo.
In a split second, George's smile returned to its accustomed position as she said a few parting words to Mr Newman Mason-Allen before her worst source of bad conscience and tentative friend and work colleague came through the door, Jo Mills.
George's heart was in her mouth as that symbol of a large part of her guilt was frozen in time for one split second. Then the miracle of parties, that which randomly determines how two or three people meet or fail to meet, came to George's rescue. Her view was blocked as Neumann Mason-Allen and Brian Cantwell converged on Jo to engage her in conversation and stop her dead in her tracks. Immediately after, the crowds parted to allow the portly shape of Joe Channing to bustle over in John and George's direction after pointedly ignoring an ingratiating Neil Houghton.
"George, I hope you don't mind if I talk to John on his own. I'll be back to join you later if you don't mind an old fogey like me."
"Anything for Daddy so long as "
" You don't carry out your threat you have made on more than one occasion to horsewhip me." John joked anticipating George's one reservation.
"If I reach for my whip, John, it won't be aimed at you," Joe rumbled, with an unexpected cautious smile in John's direction.
John raised his eyebrows in surprise, having steeled himself for the sort of confrontation that had become habitual. As he sensed the entire absence of this, he felt disorientated.
He went off in a corner with Joe while George flitted about, being the life and soul of the party, as only she knew how.
"I heard from George that that bounder Neil Houghton actually struck my daughter. Did you know anything about this? If you did, and you seem to know most things," and here, Joe gave him a knowing look, "then I would have thought that I would have been the first person that you would have told, at least for 'old time's sake.'"
John blinked at the intonation Joe spun on that last phrase which was half ironic, half meant. A host of old memories that he thought were sealed up and buried rushed to the surface of the early days of his marriage to George. As his own father had cut himself off emotionally from him after his mother's suicide when he was only ten, a part of him reached out to Joe as the archetypal older generation reactionary that he made his life purpose in confronting in duelling verbal debate. Many wine soaked evenings came back to his memory when he'd locked horns in debate with Joe in an atmosphere laden with Joe's cigar smoke. At that moment, he realised that, though times had driven them apart, Joe was still as much a part of his marriage as George was, however problematic.
"I felt that it wasn't my place to tell the story to you, Joe. It would have seemed unsporting," He said slowly, feeling for words.
"You really thought that it would have been bad form, John? Nonsense. You could have told me in confidence but I understand why you did not."
For the first time in their lives, Joe and John actually agreed upon something. It took both of them by surprise and Joe's smile became more open and almost fatherly.
As John made his way back to George, he couldn't help bumping into Neil.
"I've just had a very interesting experience," He said curtly. "I've had a tour round one of Her Majesty's Prisons."
"No doubt you have been up to your rabble rousing tricks there as much as anywhere, bleating on about justice. A pity as there is no honour among thieves, especially the convicted and the guilty," Neil said with a nasty tone in his voice.
"It was Larkhall I went too, you know, the prison that the Atkins/Pilkinton trial was about. It seems that some of the criminals in society are on the outside. You meet such an interesting cross section of society in prison. Even Lord Archer went to prison. With your track record, who knows?" John fired back with a fixed smile, with a low menacing voice and glittering eyes.
Neil slunk away to find other company while Joe just behind him, who had not said a word, kept a sharp eye on Neil.
Jo Mills made her way over to John and they were making light conversation when George made her very hesitant way back, eyes flitting about not focussing on anyone except finally Daddy. She carried a half full glass of white wine.
"I hear that when you went to Larkhall, that you were attacked by one of the inmates, Alison McKenzie. Why didn't you tell me about it?" John demanded sternly.
While Jo put two and two together from her memories of the trial, a part of George was glad that the treacherous undercurrent of the party conversation wasn't about to pull her right under. This bone of contention between her and John at least diverted attention from more treacherous matters.
"Karen wasn't to blame for McKenzy attacking me, John," George reasoned forcefully. "I heard from Karen later on that Fenner disobeyed a direct order from her to keep her away from me and I was present as she tore him off a strip. Karen saved my life in bodily dragging me away from the situation."
"I was concerned for your safety, George. I had entrusted you safely to Karen's care and I was angry as I had supposed that she would be fully capable of looking after you," John replied with rather bad grace.
"Well, I hope you weren't totally horrible to her, John. Even you don't get things right all the time," George retorted with a hint of her habitual combativeness, an attitude which she found so easy to adopt.
"All right, all right, George," John raised his hands defensively. "You aren't going to subject me to your favourite prosecuting barrister's ploys designed to get your own way, whether right or wrong."
"George was actually sticking up for someone else, John," Jo interposed gently, seeing the fireworks start to spark again between the pair of them.
At this unexpected assistance, George smiled her dazzling immaculately made up smile and looked down into her handbag to reach for a cigarette. She fiddled about inside it for some time with a touch of irritation and reached for a cigarette which her fumbling fingers coaxed her lighter to align the flame with the cigarette end. She was muttering under her breath and no one dared say anything lest they draw her wrath on to them. She had that reputation. Eventually, she inhaled deeply and looked into the distance as she blew smoke from the depths of her lungs.
"Well, with what I hear of you helping Jo with the civil case against that odious man, Fenner, both of you seem to be working together as a team. I would not have predicted anything like that happening the last time we were at Everard's party. Let's hope you both are successful and that Fenner has his just deserts behind bars instead of locking up others behind bars," John said heartily, trying to smooth oil over troubled waters.
How can you be so crass, John, George thought furiously while she looked every way but in his direction. There can be no real friendship, much less than teamwork or still less, real love if you go behind your lover's back and betray her with your ex-wife. She blew cigarette smoke furiously while, from long training, she kept a perfect mask on her real feelings.
You could win an Oscar, George, Jo thought. There's something troubling you if you reveal yourself so stripped to your raw emotions in front of me in private, yet in this social gathering, you keep up such a brilliant act so that nobody sees the real you. Does John see that or is he pretending not to notice?
In the meantime, Joe had pulled Neil aside to a private room and jabbed in the direction of the second button on his jacket.
"If I were twenty years younger, Neil, I would horsewhip you for striking my daughter the way you did and don't deny it. "
"It was a mistake, a complete mistake, Joe. I have tried to make up with her and apologise "
" ..but I am not. Nevertheless I have the political power to ruin your career. All it takes is a word in the right ear and it is back to the back benches for you. You will have to say goodbye to the luxuries in your life and to people fawning over you. They will go to the next rising star while you surrender your Ministerial limousine and have to buy a guide map to the London underground and share some dingy locker in the house of Commons."
Neil turned white at the prospect and started to stammer incoherently his profuse apologies.
"You are totally spineless, Haughton. You keep away from my daughter and anyone remotely connected with her or the consequences for you will be unspeakable."
"What do you mean by that, Joe?" Neil's voice rose up the scale, thoroughly panic stricken.
"I would suggest that you should work that out for yourself," Joe retorted enigmatically as he himself was not sure of exactly how far he had set the boundaries. "With your acumen as a Government Minister - for the present - you should be able to apply yourself to working out the answer. Goodbye," Joe finally exploded and turned round and made his way back to George, the feelings of expended anger making him feel very happy with himself. The rumbling volcano of anger had finally burst through the crust and had scattered molten lava in all directions and released his pent up emotions. All through his life, he needed to do that from time to time.
Like a galleon which had gone into battle all guns blazing and was replete with the spoils of victory, he made his way proudly in a victory march back to George.
By this time, the party was at its height. The conversation was loud and hearty as the alcohol had performed its traditional function of oiling the wheels of conversation and it had got to that stage where everyone's hearing had to be especially acute and the other person not too far away or else a moving mouth would be seen and what was said being drowned in a barrage of many voices. The space to move in was getting more tightly packed than ever.
Sir Monty Everard's deep baritone voice was holding forth on his pet subject to Sir Ian who was listening intently. Sir Ian reflected on the point that Sir Monty was a perfectly sound judge who had that innate understanding of the sensitivities of the executive and was realistic. He expounded on the difficulties that he had with that insufferable man Deed who persistently let the side down and Sir Ian's active listening mind switched off or just enough to hear.
"Have you done to Neil what I think you have, Daddy?" George smiled in Joe's direction, John and Joe being otherwise immersed in conversation.
"The man's still living, George. No one strikes my daughter and gets away without retribution," Jo rumbled.
"Where would I be without Daddy to look after me?" George's aristocratic drawl spoke half in irony to cover up her real feelings. She was still Daddy's little girl all the years back to when he had taken her for a walk in the country and her little hand had held his huge, hard shinned hand from far up into the sky. While she was at her expensive boarding school, she had heard about the 'birds and the bees' from one of her more sexually precocious friends. Daddy would have died from embarrassment rather than explain that one.
Sir Monty stalked majestically towards the centre of his party and proudly surveyed the room, lord of all those who attended the party or equal with his political friends. It was who attended his party that made the difference and in due course, he saw his path set out before him to be elevated to the appellate bench to follow in the footsteps of Joe Channing. Recognition had rightfully come his way when the New Years Honours list of a few years ago had resulted in him attending Buckingham Palace and to be admitted to the Ancient Order of Knights. As such, he saw his duty to preserve the foundations of this country from all who would disturb it. His cheeks were flushed from the heat of the party and too many glasses of white wine.
John had temporarily become separated from both Jo and George and found himself isolated. All around him, the sound of many conversations had built up orchestrally as if from the intimacy of two violins criss crossing round each other to an overbearing crescendo. He tried to pick out individual items of conversation as he momentarily closed his eyes but he could not for the life of him work out the sense of the very loud and self assured voices. It felt the same as the time he was at Oxford when the 'baker's boy' had had odd moments of morose lucidity that he was with the others in the party but not of their kind no matter how skilfully he had disguised himself. In middle age, he reflected bitterly on how he still aspired to uphold the values which his old school had taught only to discover that they had sold their birthright in return for the rewards of the modern corrupt age. On his judge's throne, the individual barristers who appeared before him were all more or less bearable. When they were all pushed together in a large room becoming hotter and more airless by the minute, the alienation that he felt came to haunt him. Yet by the same token, it was what kept him up to the mark that he had set for himself and what made him human.
"Hello Darkness my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain,
Within the Sounds of Silence.
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
'Neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
"Fools" said I,"You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
In the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the signs said, The words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.
And whisper'd in the sounds of silence."
It was funny the way those words tinkled their way on the wings of softly plucked, patterned guitar strings. Perhaps it was the fleeting memory of when he was at Larkhall and Karen had told him that Shaz Wiley had played and sung "Scarborough Fayre". There was no rhyme or reason in the way that thoughts were placed in his mind by some unknown presence like sparkling jewels. The problem as he saw it was the lack of control in the way these thoughts appeared as sometimes, they were troublesome and to be kept at bay.
John opened his eyes and saw Sir Monty approach him. A happy note of inspiration had come to his mind from his memory of his tour round Larkhall. He personally thought that this party could do with livening up, himself included.
"Monty, I bumped into a couple of old acquaintances of yours the other day, who told me a fascinating story." Too late, he bumped into John Deed while he was in mid procession, blinded by his self image and saw him too late to avoid him.
"Indeed," he said gruffly.
"You may remember meeting them every Thursday on the dot at eight o clock. Two slim attractive women of easy virtue, very friendly and hospitable with an excellent sense of humour. They gave me a very accurate description of you and said that you went with them as your wife wasn't attractive enough to get you going. Their words, I hasten to add, not mine," John raised his hands as if to be prepared in case the very angry Sir Monty struck him.
"You are impertinent, sir, and defamatory," Sir Monty growled. He kept his voice down in case he might be overheard.
"Doubtless you will remember their names as the Two Trudies. I hesitate to tell you the nickname they have for you," John replied, his face creased in amusement.
"I trust that you denied any possible link between me, a Presiding Judge and two common prostitutes."
"Well, I would deny that they are common. Rather attractive in their way. As for covering up for you, well, you must know me better than that," John's best insolent tones caused Sir Monty to turn round and stalk away back to Sir Ian.
"Have you been getting into more trouble, John?" Jo's amused tones broke in on his thoughts.
"No more than usual," John replied.
"Are you feeling all right, John?" George exclaimed from his other side. "I was watching you with your eyes closed for a minute." She knew of old, John's moments of abstraction as she called it but when she asked him about it, he always made light of it.
"I'm fine, George. Really, I am," John said to reassure her and to smooth things down in his normal style.
It helped George at that minute to express concern about John. This and the whole theatrical performance of keeping up appearances at the party had distracted her from looking too closely at herself and from Jo expressing the sympathy that she felt utterly unworthy of. John looked at these two women, one his ex-wife and the other his lover. It was with blinding clarity that he realised for the first time, that he had only ever felt truly at hhome with George and then with Jo. He had the sudden urge to envelop them both in his arms, to for ever preserve them from any wrong doing, to keep them safe. But he managed to subdue the urge for sake of appearances. It would not do for anyone to resurrect any question of his professional conduct with any barrister who might in future appear before him. Both Jo and George watched him, knowing of old that look of contemplation.
"What are you thinking?" Asked Jo.
"Nothing remotely repeatable in present company," Put in George dryly, which made him smile.
One Hundred And Nine
"Prison officer found dead!"
It was half past six on the Sunday evening, and Karen couldn't believe what she was seeing on her television. She stood in the center of her lounge, the glass of wine she was carrying slipping from her hand without her noticing. She stared and stared at the television, totally unable to move a muscle.
"Prison officer James Fenner was found dead earlier today. He was found shot in the abdomen and buried in the middle of Epping forest. Forensic experts estimate that he has been dead up to a week..."
Karen stood and watched the news clip unfold. So, it had happened, Fenner had been found. Eventually, she became aware of the wine and broken glass surrounding her bare feet. Red wine looked like blood in the wrong light, and the shards of broken glass represented the fragments that her career and her life could well be in by this time tomorrow. In a daze, she cleared up the wine, all the time hearing the newsreader's voice.
"Prison officer found dead... Prison officer found dead... Prison officer found dead..." There was only one thing she could do, phone Yvonne.
"It's Karen," She said, as an opening to the conversation. "Have you seen the news?"
"Yeah," Said Yvonne slowly. "That little reprieve didn't last long, did it."
"Yvonne, this isn't funny," Said Karen sternly.
"do I sound like I'm laughing?" Asked Yvonne, just as seriously.
"How's Lauren?" Asked Karen, ignoring Yvonne's jibe.
"she's taken the dog for a walk, said she wanted to do something normal."
"Yvonne, what do we do now?"
"You're guess is as good as mine, sweetheart, we wait and see."
"But I think we both know where they'll start looking," Said Karen bitterly. "If anyone has, or should I say had, a legally documented grudge against Fenner, it was me. The police will get their hands on my initial statement of rape quicker than I snapped the handcuffs on Merriman."
"Karen, you don't know that that's what they'll do."
"Well, maybe you do then," Replied Karen sarcastically. "After all, you've been there, done that, got the mug the T-shirt and the poster. Soon I'll be asking you what it's like behind bars, that's if I don't find that out for myself in the meantime."
"Sweetheart, I don't want to have a row. We'll deal with whatever happens, and we'll deal with it together."
"Oh, such optimism," Said Karen dryly, "You just better hope you're right."
Jo and John were sat close together in Jo's living-room. They'd come here after Legover's party, and now simply wanted some peace. Jo picked up the remote control and switched on the television in time for the early evening news. They sat, stunned, as the news clip ran before their amazed eyes.
"Prison officer found dead! Prison officer James Fenner was found dead earlier today. He was found shot in the abdomen and buried in the middle of Epping forest. Forensic experts estimate that he has been dead up to a week..."
They watched as shots were taken from the air of first Epping Forest and then Larkhall prison. The news helicopter cruised over the surrounding area of both the sites, to the speech from an inspector from The Metropolitan police who said that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt for this man's killer. When the report came to an end, John switched it off.
"I suppose that puts an end to any possible court case," He said quietly. Jo looked at him slightly aghast.
"Is that all you can say?"
"Well, what do you want me to say, Jo? The man's dead, clearly by some unorthodox means, which would by extension put an end to Karen's civil or criminal case."
"George needs to know about this," Said Jo, moving to pick up the cordless phone.
George was slumped in a heap on her sofa. She was tired after having to maintain her act at Legover's party, and all she really wanted to do was nothing. She was listening to some soft music and drinking white wine. She knew that drinking probably wasn't a good idea, what with the distinct amount of food she hadn't eaten that day, but the cool, sharp, crispness of the Frascati was making her feel slightly less volatile. When the phone rang, she had half a mind to ignore it, but seeing Jo's number, she answered.
"George, have you seen the news?" Asked Jo's careful voice.
"Fenner's been found dead."
"What?" Asked George sharply. "When?"
"Epping Forest of all places."
"Jo, why am I getting a really bad feeling about this?"
"He was shot." George went suddenly quiet.
"Jo, I think we have a problem," She said eventually, "One that John probably needs to hear as well." Jo switched the phone on to hands free so that George could talk to both of them.
"when did either of you last see Karen Betts?"
"Over two weeks ago," Replied Jo, "When I brought her to see you."
"And how did she seem to you then?" Asked George.
"Perfectly normal, under the circumstances. Why?" Then the penny dropped. "George, no, she wouldn't."
"You didn't see her last Monday," Replied George, laughing mirthlessly. "Guilt written all over her face, though at the time I didn't recognise it for what it was." John had remained quiet throughout the entire exchange. But George hadn't forgotten his presence.
"John," She said, not letting him avoid the issue, "You didn't answer my question."
"Yes," Said John with a heavy sigh, "I did see her last week, Thursday to be exact."
"Oh, yes," Said George, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. "You went to Larkhall to supposedly check up on my punishment. So, are you going to enlighten us as to the lovely Ms Betts' apparent state of mind?" Jo could feel the icy trickle of dread running down her spine.
"She seemed relatively normal," Said John slowly, as if trying to remember, though the two women were perfectly well aware of his instant, accurate memory for such things.
"And are you saying that as a lawyer or as a lover?" Asked George. Jo let out a slightly hysterical laugh, the incongruity of the situation finally catching up with her.
"Do you know something," She said to George, the bite of sarcasm present in her voice also. "I said exactly the same thing to him once, though I believe that was concerning Lady Francesca Rochester."
"I don't doubt it," Replied George. "John, answer the question," She said firmly.
"I don't consider that such a fatuous question requires a response," Said John, furious with George for putting the thought of such a possibility in to Jo's head.
"Oh, I don't know," Said Jo, "I must admit to being a little intrigued."
"She seemed a little on edge," He admitted eventually, "As if there was something she wanted to tell me, but couldn't."
"The nail hit well and truly on the head," Replied George. "She was exactly the same with me when I saw her last Monday."
"this is utterly ridiculous," Said John firmly. "Karen Betts would no more have murdered Fenner than any of us would have done."
"John, will you for once, please extract your libido from the situation," Said George, earning a fruitless glare at the phone from John. As he reached out to pick it up, clearly with the intention of walking out of Jo's hearing to have a furious argument with George, Jo took his hand in hers and held on to it.
"When I saw her," Continued John, ignoring George's jibe, "She was talking about how everyone Fenner had ever abused, deserved to see him pay for what he'd done, but that she wasn't altogether sure that she did. I remember, the mere mention of his name made her look guilty and horrified all at once. I didn't think about it at the time, but now it makes sense. I will not be persuaded, except by her own confession, that Karen Betts killed James Fenner. However, she certainly knows far more about this than she ought too."
"George, do you really think she did this?" Asked Jo quietly.
"Well," Said George, "If a man had held you down, forced his way inside you, and then walked away virtually scot free, wouldn't you want to see him beg for his life?"
"No, I wouldn't," Said Jo without a moment's thought. "I'd want to see him rot behind bars."
"That's what I used to think Karen wanted," Said George, her voice having lost its bite in favour of a miserable finality, "But it seems we were all wrong. The question is, how on Earth to we get her out of this?"
"Stop, right, there," Said John firmly. "If Karen Betts has committed murder, and I say if, neither of you should become involved. You both know far too much about her and would therefore have no choice but to end up becoming far too emotionally involved with her case."
"Only a man would say something like that," Said Jo scornfully.
"Quite," Replied George, "If she did do it, and I'd almost put my Munnings on the fact that she did, she had the best reason in the world for wanting rid of him." John was forced to admit that whilst some may say that hell was being cooped up in eternity with your friends, hell for him was being backed in to a corner by his lover and his ex-wife.
"If Karen is in any way involved in this," Said Jo, "We have got to help her. It's our duty if nothing else. What would you do, sign her over to some thoroughly fickle idiot such as Brian Cantwell or Neumann Mason-Alan?"
"God forbid," Put in George.
"don't you think you'd better find out if you're right," Added John, "Before you start planning her defence?"
"Fine," Said George without a pause, "tomorrow morning, we'll give her a version of the third degree that she isn't likely to forget. I'm not leaving this one to our lackeys in the Metropolitan police. If she's got something to confess, I would suggest that two people she knows and possibly trusts are far more likely to get at the truth than a couple of bumbling detectives with nothing better to do." Jo couldn't help smiling at George's turn of phrase.
"Yeah, well, you're doing this in chambers," Said John firmly, "I'm not having you tare her to shreds without a witness or someone to back her up."
"You just can't entertain the possibility that someone you were preparing to seduce might just be guilty of murder, can you."
"George," Said John slowly, but with the clear edge of warning in his voice, "I wasn't preparing to seduce anyone, least of all someone who's been through everything that she has."
"You really are a terrible liar, John Deed," Said George mockingly. "I'm just glad that I no longer have to put up with your wandering. Jo, you clearly deserve a medal for perseverance. Will you contact Karen in the morning, or will I?"
"Leave it to me, George. I think this needs the gentle approach." When George had put the phone down, Jo simply looked at John.
"It's all supposition, you know," He said gently. "I have never attempted or thought about attempting to seduce Karen Betts."
"I hope so, John," Jo replied resignedly, "But I'm not about to forget that George knows you better than I do, and let's face it, Karen Betts is, at least physically, your type."
"do you really think Karen Betts would have done such a thing?" He asked, trying to change the subject.
"George's reasoning couldn't have been more to the point," Replied Jo, "Who knows what that kind of torment might do to a person's mind. I'm certainly not going to dismiss it as a possibility. Above anything else, John, you really must keep an open mind about this."
"Oh, and that's really what you and George are doing," he threw back.
"What's important," Replied Jo, "Is that George and I are prepared for the possibility. You've had just as much faith in Karen Betts as we have, but you might have to face the prospect of letting go. The people we put our trust in, are always capable of letting us down. Don't you forget that."
One Hundred And Ten
It was an ordinary Sunday for Nikki and Helen, the same dreamily pleasant day when they had all the time in the world with each other. Helen had watched "The Heaven and Earth Show" first thing, a borderline religious programme which she was interested in. Outside, the changeable autumn weather had piled high dark threatening clouds which half blotted out the sunshine and a stinging squall of blustery wind threw raindrops against the bedroom window. It sounded cold and blustery as winter was definitely setting in. Nikki had lain in bed till a bit later until she felt more comfortable to face the day after an early morning cigarette. After a busy night at the club, she hadn't had any natural inclination to greet the early morning sunshine like a member of the same ancient order of Druids. Let those who like it and let her enjoy her early morning laze in bed. They went on to have a lazy Sunday dinner of whatever was easiest to prepare and lay back, with that feeling of peace and contentment and the rest of the day to luxuriate in. It was the end of the year for gardening and the approaching winter cold made them both glad to stay inside.
"The film's on in a couple of minutes," Her carrying voice reached to the far end of the flat while Nikki was busying herself in finishing off the cleaning.
Helen had recently come out of the shower and had slipped her jeans and top back on. Her bare feet trod the soft carpet as she made her way to the armchair as she brushed her still damp hair and reached out for the TV remote control to watch the film that they wanted to immerse themselves in.
Helen had clicked on her hairdryer and its droning sound filled the flat. She had chosen the channel by feel while she concentrated on drying her hair but she had miscalculated as the image of a normal looking smart suited TV announcer appeared on the screen. She allowed him to mouth over the sound of her hair drier the news headlines until, to her huge surprise, the image of the front gates of Larkhall jumped at her from out of the TV screen.
"This isn't right. That dump doesn't belong there on the screen," Helen's thoughts flashed. Day after day for so long, she had parked her car outside those same gates, looking up briefly at those high grey walls, fixing her thoughts and her face so that she could be bright and smiling for Ken or whoever was on the gate and, there, her vision was directed through the impersonal eye of the TV camera in roughly the same perspective. The only difference was that she knew the programme would cut to the next item while her former self knew that no such editing was possible. Real life wasn't like that. So why did part of her still believe that the place was only real when the programme said so?
"Nikki, come here immediately," Helen's urgent tones rang out in total shock and horror, a split second later. "It's about Larkhall."
Nikki shot out of the bedroom to join Helen just in time for the main news item to be repeated and gone into as much depth as the bloody TV news ever did.
"Prison officer found dead!"
"Prison officer James Fenner was found dead earlier today. He was found shot in the abdomen and buried in the middle of Epping Forest. Forensic experts estimate that he has been dead for up to a week..."
A feeling of unreality blocked off the trailing comment and speculation and when the news had switched to some inane topic that wasn't worthy of consideration, both felt like banging on the TV screen to give them more answers instead of the glib one liners thrown out so authoritatively.
"Well, well, someone's finally got the bastard," Nikki said open mouthed, though her statement sounded cool and dismissive, in her mind, she felt anything but.
"I don't know what to think," Helen said slowly shaking her head. This sudden leap of events out of her past was too much to take in. "Who could have done it?"
"Well, if the police start looking for a motive for someone killing Fenner, they will have to question about half the prison population of Larkhall, past and present, and some of the decent screws, past or present, oh yes, his ex wife and people that we don't know anything about."
"You don't mean us?" Helen queried, fear in her eyes.
"Possibly, Helen. But you know from all the detective films ever made, the three questions are motive, opportunity and method. Sure, we've both got grudges against the bastard but we're both busy people and the chances are that we would be knocked off the very long list. Then again, your dream of vengeance was to run him out of the prison service with no pension and to make the prison service safe from the likes of him if I get you right. My dreams, well, while I was at Larkhall, I might at one time have cheerfully killed him, when the little matter of the appeal came up, only once was I ever tempted to wipe out old scores, him included, only you came in just in time. Since then, while you wanted to forget about that place and put it far behind you, then being your caring sharing lover, I felt the same. We passed up a chance to see the bastard get done over the legal way when Jo contacted us, remember?" Nikki concluded putting her forefinger under Helen's chin.
"You're right, Nikki," Helen smiled in relief as she put her arms round Nikki. "It's the 'policeman driving up my backside' guilt trip."
"And you're the psychologist?" Nikki asked jokingly. "I'm seriously wondering who did kill Fenner and why."
At Cassie's and Roisin's house, Roisin, being the one to keep up with the news, had clicked the TV on just before Michael and Niamh were due to clump noisily downstairs and commandeer the television for the children's afternoon programmes of fantasy cartoon figures and the latest pop news and celebrity chit chat. Cassie's main interest in the news surfaced briefly round about budget time when she sensed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, being a mean minded covetous bastard, aimed to also make a couple of her pleasures more expensive, yet again, by raising the tax on cigarettes and alcohol. Other than that, it was an endless prattle by nobbing men in suits who had the gift of the gab in not answering a straight question being put to them. In an interview with David Frost earlier in the morning when the kids were in bed, she had seen the right honourable Minister for Trade, Neil Houghton explain that it wasn't the Government's fault that businesses were suffering from the high price of the pound, it was that the Bank of England had been allowed by the government to have total freedom to determine the level to which the pound should be set. Surely, my Right Honourable Shadow Minister for Trade had no objection to seeing the market determine the price of the pound. He explained that a strong pound could only be good for Britain and that his party were as committed to enabling a proper entrepreneurial spirit so that Britain could sell its goods abroad but at the same time, being the Party of Compassion and investing a record amount of money in health and education. It was at this point when the nobbing useless man started unreeling a whole stream of statistics that Cassie started moaning to Roisin to change the channel before the kids took over.
Roisin was about to switch channels when the news came on and Cassie gave up with a sigh and a groan. Never mind, only five minutes more and her torture would end.
"Prison officer found dead!"
"Prison officer James Fenner was found dead earlier today. He was found shot in the abdomen and buried in the middle of Epping Forest. Forensic experts estimate that he has been dead for up to a week..."
"I don't like this, Cassie. If they've found the body, it means that the police will start a manhunt. You've seen this sort of thing before on Crimewatch. Only it will be Yvonne and Lauren that they'll end up after," Roisin said, fear for their friends in their eyes.
"Oh come now, Roash," Cassie answered, trying to comfort Roisin's fears and her own. "The nobbing police are going to have to work out who hadn't got a grudge against Fenner. Think of all the years he's worked at Larkhall, hardly a convent school exactly, and all the women he's mistreated over the years, and people like Karen and they've got a huge job on their hands."
"Are you really as convinced of what you are saying as you pretend you are, Cassie Tyler or are you trying to make me feel better?" Roisin looked sharply in her direction.
Cassie shook her head to clear her thoughts, her body language betraying her own lack of confidence in her bold words.
"Sort of three quarters convinced," Cassie said, smiling at Roisin and draping her arms round Roisin's shoulders. She closed her eyes for a few moments while she collected her thoughts without interruption.
"I'm absolutely convinced that there are a lot of women that we know of who have a bigtime grudge against Fenner, some of whom would express it violently. I'm convinced that there are a whole lot of other women we don't know who feel the same, as Fenner has been around Larkhall for a long time. I'm hoping against hope that Lauren hasn't left anything incriminating behind that would link her to the murder. I'm really not sure who the police would be after, as we know a lot about Fenner that they don't know. Fact is, Roash, I haven't a clue about how much they know and I'm hoping and praying."
"You pray to God, Cassie? That will be the day," Roisin laughed.
"When we were both at Larkhall, I lay in my bunk, night after night, I prayed to God that you would stay away from the drugs. More than I prayed for anything in my life," Cassie said in a soft voice, with a real soulful intensity which uncovered her light, flip exterior.
They kissed briefly and let the announcer carry on with the rest of the news stories but nobody was hearing him.
To the absolute second, the thunder sounded as Michael and Niamh came downstairs from where they had been doing their homework and assumed their best 'children's concentration' position while Cassie and Roisin looked on tolerantly.
Somehow, an innocent everyday quality had gone out of the day although nothing had changed. At the back of both their minds was the unspoken obligation that they had to do something for their friends though quite what, they weren't entirely sure of.
The news repeated itself inescapably like some sound loop as the evening wore on. Both Nikki and Helen were driven by some horrid fascination to see the matter played out according to the best news drama shock headlines that the well oiled machine could slot into the machinery.
"I don't know how I feel about this one, Helen," Nikki said contemplatively, fingering her wine glass by its long stem. "On the one hand, I'm glad the bastard's dead and on the other hand, the search will be out for somebody who was desperate to kill him in the first place and I'm afraid for that person knowing that the chase is on."
"If I hadn't caught you in the PO's room when you were threatening Fenner, do you really think that you would or could have murdered him?" Helen suddenly turned round with one of her direct looks.
Nikki searched the back of her mind for the woman she had been. It was all so very long ago when the control over her life and others had been wrenched from her and the thousand and one things of her present life were denied to her at that time. For instance, she would not have been allowed to laze away in bed without someone controlling her life. Her exercise in menacing Fenner with the bottle that she very nearly smashed and stuck in his neck was an exercise in straight revenge but a tiny bit of it was taking back into her hands the ability to have power over her life, if only in frightening Fenner. It was almost as if she was a different woman then. Almost, but not quite.
"I really don't know, Helen. I can't give you an honest answer," Nikki said slowly. "I would like to say that killing that bastard Fenner wasn't worth wrecking my chances of getting out on appeal for both of our sakes," and here, Nikki looked round at their cosy flat and every mundane detail told her how precious her freedom was, "but I know how I felt. I just don't know if I would have actually gone that far. I don't even know if I was using my reputation to scare the shit out of him or psyching myself up to kill him. I'd sooner not want to think what might have been, Helen. It doesn't bear thinking about."
Helen wrapped her arms round Nikki who was shivering from the memory of that moment. It was a memory that she wanted to bury forever.
"Do you think it was Yvonne, Nikki?" The thought that had been plaguing both of them finally burst through into words.
"I don't know. I really don't know," Nikki said. At a moment like this, only honesty could guide her however unpalatable she might feel at the thought turned into sound.
Cassie and Roisin had to pretend to the children that there was nothing on their minds but the normal inconsequentialities of a family Sunday night when the children had to get ready for school the next day, to have a bath and freshen themselves up for an early night. The equally inconsequential TV programmes that both children watched had to be endured while they had a compulsion to see if there was any latest developments on the news. Eventually, Michael and Niamh were tucked up in bed with their goodnight kiss on the cheek and Roisin and Cassie smiled to them as they tiptoed out and closed the door quietly.
"Let's try the Channel 4 news, Cassie. It might tell us more."
They settled themselves down with the news and, this time, they resolved to watch the news one more time to see if it made more sense this time. The only difference this time was the shot of Epping Forest which looked like a standard long shot of a woodland scene on a sunny day. There was something about the news that refused to translate itself into reality however much Lauren's last visit had done so, in reality.
"What do you think we should do, Roash?" Cassie's puzzled voice asked.
"Phone Lauren and tell her that we're there for her," Roisin replied with immediate decisiveness.
After Roisin and Cassie had put the phones down, they felt a sense of personal inadequacy. Yvonne who picked up the phone was dry and businesslike as she handed the phone over to Lauren but that was perhaps to be expected from a phone call out of the blue. They were not to know about the extremely tense phone conversation between Karen and Yvonne earlier on and that Yvonne wanted to temporarily disconnect herself from the world before the world took it into its mind to come crashing through the front door in the shape of the Old Bill like the time they came to arrest her for hiring a hit man on Charlie's arch rival.
"We told you that we'd stand by you, Lauren, when we saw you last time. The fact that it's been on the nobbing news doesn't make any difference," Cassie's firm voice came over the miles to Lauren's earpiece.
"Even after it's been splashed all over the news?" Lauren asked hesitantly.
"Does that really change anything between us and you, Lauren?" Came Roisin's motherly tones in reply with all the sweetness of melted honey.
"I guess it doesn't," Lauren's slightly shaky voice answered her. She hadn't thought of it that way.
"Why don't the two of you come over next Saturday," Roisin urged. "The children are stopping at my mother's."
"Do you really mean it?" Lauren asked incredulously. At the back of her mind was the touching way they were trying to carry on as if everything was normal. They aren't fools though, they know the situation. "Do you want to come to Cassie and Roisin's next Saturday, Mum?" She said talking to Yvonne who was sitting motionless in her chair.
"No thanks, if its all the same to you," Yvonne said in an unusually subdued tone of voice. "I'll only spoil the party. But thank them from me." None of Charlie's old friends who knew Lauren since she was little have given a toss or else they would have phoned.
There was a real suppressed sense of anger for some of those wankers who would be the first to pile on the excuses if she ever felt like confronting them which, at the moment, she hadn't got the strength of will or inclination to do.
"I'll come over on my own. I'll be looking forward to it," Came Lauren's reply directed back down the phone. There was something about the situation that gave the social call an extra urgency. It might end up being her last taste of freedom unless the Atkins luck held out.
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