DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard

One Hundred And Eleven

When Karen drove in to the car park of the prison on Monday morning, she found a sea of press waiting for anyone who could offer a comment. Fighting her way through them, she collected her keys from the gate lodge and let herself in to the comparative quiet of the wing. Walking in to the officers' room, she found Di and Sylvia, along with Collin and Selina, speculating on the previous day's events.

"But who can have done it?" Di was saying. "I mean, it's not as if anyone had anything against him, is it." Karen almost laughed out loud at this assertion, but managed to restrain herself.

"I've always said this job's more than it's worth," Put in Sylvia. "At least when the cons are in here, we know what they're up too. But it's when they get let out that the trouble starts."

"What, so you reckon it was an ex-con who did this?" Said Di.

"More than likely," Replied Sylvia. Karen thought it was about time she intervened.

"Let's leave the speculation to the police, shall we? There'll be more than enough time for questions when they arrive, because arrive they will."

"Oh, marvelous," Grumbled Sylvia, "It'll be just like when Renee Williams and Virginia O'kane were killed, and as if we can tell them anything." Telling them all to keep on top of things, because the inmates would probably use this as an opportunity to kick off, Karen walked to her office. What she'd said to Sylvia was right. It would only be a matter of time before the whole world descended on Larkhall and its inhabitants. But on the dot of nine, the ringing of her phone banished all thought of inmates and officers from her mind.

"Karen Betts?" She answered, expecting it to be Grayling, but it was someone quite different.

"Karen, it's Jo."

"Hello," Karen said carefully. "I wondered when I'd be hearing from you." This wasn't strictly true, but it felt like the right thing to say.

"I think we need to talk, don't you," Jo said, sounding very calm and extremely professional, but at the same time slightly removed. Thinking she just might know what was coming, Karen said,

"Yes, though I have no idea what you think I can tell you." God, she was getting good at this acting thing, she thought.

"Well, that's what myself, George and John would like to find out."

"Do I need a lawyer?"

"that depends on whether you think you'll need one," replied Jo.

"then on balance," Said Karen slowly, "No, I don't. Where is this delightful little interview going to take place?"

"John's chambers at the Old Bailey."

"so that if it needs to go official, there's no better place," finished Karen, the bitter edge of hurt creeping through.

"Well, I don't think that was actually the reason behind John's suggestion, but yes, I suppose so."

When Karen drew up in front of the Old Bailey, Jo was waiting for her. Nothing needed to be said by either of them, as they were both preternaturally aware of the seriousness of the situation. Karen simply followed Jo inside and upstairs to John's chambers, where John and George were waiting for them. John was stood behind his enormous mahogany desk, and George was seated in one of the hard, straight-backed chairs in front of the desk. Coope was nowhere to be seen, having been temporarily though politely banished by John, who wanted no audience for the interview that was about to take place. When Karen walked in and saw the closed expression on John's face and the predatory, itching for the attack look on George's, she said,

"Wow, my very own version of the Spanish inquisition."

"Smart comments will get you absolutely nowhere," Replied George icily. Karen looked George full in the face.

"Yes, I suppose I should give due respect to the results of your ever so exemplary behaviour on the three occasions you were found in contempt of court." George bridled at this very accurate plunge of the knife.

"contempt of court and murder, are two very different things," She replied, her sense of betrayal making her anger all the more palpable. Feeling like an umpire at the women's final at Wimbledon, John said,

"Sit down," In the kind of voice that told Karen she did have at least the tentative possibility of an ally. Karen sat in the armchair, and John took the seat behind his desk, a metaphorical barrier that Karen would have clung to had she been in her own office. Jo and George sat opposite her, with John slightly removed, showing Karen that he was merely there as a witness and wanted absolutely no part in what was coming. George was lighting one cigarette from another, and Karen could feel the anger coming off her like heat. Wanting to get this over as soon as possible, Karen opened the conversation with,

"You got me here, because you think I killed Fenner, didn't you." George laughed mirthlessly.

"Now, why would anyone have cause to think that," She said, the sarcasm dripping like molten lava. Karen ignored her and looked at Jo.

"Is that it," She asked, "do you seriously think I'd be so stupid as to kill the man I was hoping one day to see behind bars?"

"Did you?" Asked Jo gently, now thinking that George was definitely on the wrong track with this one. No guilty killer would have attempted to play George at her own game so successfully.

"No, I didn't," Replied Karen.

"One would possibly understand your motive," said George, with slightly less abrasiveness than before. "He did, after all, rape you, make you suffer one of the worst torments a woman can go through."

"answer me this," Said Karen, lighting a cigarette of her own. "Why, if I was planning to do away with Fenner, would I have been working with both of you to construct first a criminal, then a civil case either against Fenner directly or at least involving him. Why, would I make the most ridiculous of all errors, of getting myself known pretty well inside out by two of the most successful barristers in the business, to say nothing of a high court judge. I may have made some fairly catastrophic errors of judgment in my time, but that, I can assure you, isn't one of them."

"the working towards either the criminal or the civil case might have been a pretty brilliant piece of cover up," Replied George, "Because you certainly had me taken in," She added bitterly, "And that's not something I admit lightly."

"Will you get a grip for one second," Said Karen, her anger easily matching George's. "I wanted that case and the criminal one to follow, to be as successful as you did, for obvious reasons, far more than you did. I work in a prison, for god's sake, which means that I know exactly what the consequences would be of committing a serious crime."

"Karen does have a point," Put in John quietly. George turned and glared at him furiously.

"You keep out of this," She said, and Karen was amused to see the ex-wife, not the barrister talking. Jo thought it was high time for some rational behaviour.

"Karen," She began carefully, "We cannot ignore the fact that as far as motive, method and opportunity are concerned, you do actually figure significantly in all three. Whilst you have so far tried to explain away your motive, it cannot yet be discounted. As far as opportunity goes, you have unlimited access to the shift schedules of all your staff. This would have given you at least the exact knowledge of when he would and wouldn't be at work. You would also have had access to his address details and you may even have been aware of whether or not he was living with anyone."

"I'm not the only one in that place who could obtain access to such information," Replied Karen.

"No, but let's move on to the method," continued Jo, keeping her voice calm, clearly in order to make Karen drop her guard and stumble her way in to a confession. "You are, by your own admission, having an affair with Yvonne Atkins."

"Who, let's not forget," Interrupted George, "Did at one time have access via her criminal connections to such things as guns and the knowledge of how to use them." Knowing that George was getting a little too close to the truth, Karen made a fervent effort to stay calm.

"You do realise," She said carefully, "That all your arguments are built on nothing more than supposition and circumstantial evidence?" John was forced to hide a smile, thinking that Karen had been spending far too long with both Jo and George. "And whilst hearsay might be your middle name in some circumstances," Continued Karen, looking George in the eye, "It won't help you here." George was visibly bristling, the hackles rising prior to the kill.

"People have been convicted on much less," Said George, forced to admire Karen for her unwavering resilience and tenacity.

"And many such convictions are later proved to be miscarriages of justice," Said Karen, easily keeping up with George in this verbal tennis match. John felt that it was time for a word from him.

"George," He said slowly, "Exactly what made you so convinced that it was Karen who committed this crime?"

"You agreed to act purely as an impartial observer," Snapped George, "And Ms Betts needs absolutely no help from you. She is quite capable of speaking up for herself."

"Oh, I'll take that as a complement, shall I," Put in Karen dryly. "But John has raised an interesting point, Ms Channing," She said, giving John a brief smile and laying particular emphasis on George's name, playing on the fact that John was still addressing her as a human being, not as a murder suspect. Cursing John for doing this to her, George took a breath to speak, but realised that she didn't actually have even a vaguely credible reason.

"I don't believe it," Said Karen in mock surprise, "I've actually managed to make you speechless." Rising to the bate, George stood up and began pacing.

"As ridiculous as it sounds," She began, "it was simply a feeling, an instinct."

"And you ought to know better than I do," Replied Karen, "That something as intangible as a feeling, wouldn't stand up in court. You're not seriously telling me that when you heard about Fenner, you immediately arrived at my name, and then thought up the arguments to fit it?" Not in the least willing to reveal that this is exactly what she had done, George said,

"You certainly knew something about Fenner's death. I'd stake my house on that." George began gradually moving closer to Karen, as a cat would stalk its prey, ready at any moment with the razor teeth and needle-sharp claws. "When you came to see me last Monday, you were different, distracted, clearly uprooted by something I couldn't quite put my finger on. My secretary wasn't in that day, and I left you to make us some coffee. When I returned, and disturbed your contemplation of the scenery outside my office, you looked like I'd called you back from something far bigger than the case you were there to discuss. I didn't make the connection at the time, but the look on your face was part fear, part guilt. That was it, wasn't it. Less than twenty four hours previously, you'd discovered that someone you knew, possibly even someone you loved, had committed a crime that in this country, procures a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment." George was stood in front of Karen now, nailing her to the spot with those piercing blue eyes. Jo and John simply watched, realising that George, at last, was really on to something. Karen still looked relatively calm, but her barrage had gone.

"You can't prove that," Said Karen, the bite of sarcasm noticeably removed from her tone. George laughed.

"Oh, I could if I wanted to," She replied.

"You got me here to find out if I killed Fenner," Said Karen, "I think you've come to the conclusion that I didn't. Can we leave it at that?" Before George could reply, John said,

"Would you say that under oath?"

"Yes, of course," Said Karen, turning to look over at him. "I might have wanted Fenner to rot for what he did to me and countless others, but I definitely would have preferred him alive to do it." Then, looking back at George, she said more firmly, spacing out her words, "I didn't kill Fenner. Now, please, will you let me go?"

"I think you know all three of us a little better than that," Replied George, not quite ready to relinquish the reins of her inner prosecutor. "If you didn't kill Fenner, then who did?"

"Even if I knew," Said Karen, praying that her act would hold out, "What would it achieve for me to tell you?"

"Because," Said George, "committing murder and shielding someone for committing murder carry the same success rate in career suicide."

"Your career is always your highest concern, isn't it," Karen replied, receiving a stunned expression from Jo and a visible wince from John. Karen realised that this had been going a little too far, but she wasn't about to apologise for putting her foot in something she knew nothing about. Ignoring this extremely sharp dig, George moved even closer to Karen.

"Was it Yvonne?" She asked, not beating around the bush any longer. "did she do this because removing the culprit is the Atkins way of getting rid of a problem?"

"No," Replied Karen quietly, "It wasn't Yvonne. She was behind bars long enough not to want to go back."

"You're not seriously trying to tell me that Yvonne Atkins was quite prepared to see Fenner suffer the legal way?" Said George scornfully. She leaned even closer to Karen. "It must have irked her something rotten to realise that such a loathsome cretin as Fenner had forced himself on her latest acquisition." When George leaned over her, Karen was hit with the feeling of total panic that she'd only previously experienced on that horrific night when Fenner had done just what George was putting in to words. She had an all mighty urge to push George away, to get out of this room, out of this building, to take in deep, shuddering gasps of fresh air. John must have seen something of the brief fear in Karen's face, because he said sternly,

"That is quite enough. We have established that Karen had absolutely nothing to do with James Fenner's murder, so I see no point in continuing this conversation. Jo, will you escort Karen out to her car?" Giving him a brief, shaky smile of gratitude, Karen followed Jo out of the room and down the stairs.

When the door had closed, George turned on John.

"What on Earth did you do that for?" She demanded furiously. "I was just getting somewhere."

"I don't know what you did," Replied John, clearly unimpressed, "But you frightened her."

"Yes, probably because I was getting close to the truth."

"George," Said John, massaging his temples at the approach of an ex-induced headache, "We established the fact that she had nothing to do with Fenner's death. Let's leave it at that for now. I'll try again later in the week. A slightly less confrontational approach might be more successful." George walked over and leaned her hands on his desk, staring him in the face.

"The only reason you went easy on her is because at some point, you'd quite like to finish what I suspect you started when you saw her last week."

"You suggested something similar last night," Replied John conversationally, "Which I might add was not the most tactful thing to say in front of Jo. But that's beside the point. You ought to know me well enough by now, to be sure that I do not compromise my professional duty by allowing my personal involvement with anyone to influence any decision I might make. Let's face it, I've had you and Jo before me often enough, even together on numerous occasions. Have I ever let that deter me from maintaining the correct level of impartiality?"

"That's open for discussion," Replied George. "But you're not denying that you find Karen Betts attractive, that you'd quite like to sleep with her?"

"No, of course not," Said John amiably. "But any hopes I may have in that direction had absolutely nothing to do with why I felt it necessary to back her up. She didn't kill Fenner, she neither wanted it to happen or was aware that it was going to happen. Yes, she may have known it had, fairly soon after it did, but I will get to the bottom of why she didn't report it."

"And if her explanation is satisfactory, you'll continue where you left off?"

"Maybe," Said John, knowing he was winding her up but totally unable to resist.

"As much as I'm furious about her not having reported such a serious crime," Said George, "I wouldn't want her to temporarily fall under your spell."

"You make me sound like Fenner," Said John disgustedly.

"John, Karen Betts does not need your type of conquest that simply means screw them and scarper, and especially not now."

"You want to make your mind up, George," Replied John, looking at her searchingly. "First, you all but rip her to shreds, accusing her of everything from murder to perverting the course of justice, and now, you're doing your utmost to protect her from my so-called ruthless advances. The only reason you're angry with me, is because you were wrong. You're inwardly furious at yourself for thinking Karen guilty and having to acknowledge the fact that she isn't, so you end up taking out your anger at yourself on me, and for the simple, innocent liking I have for her."

"Innocent?" Said George on an angry laugh, "That'll be the day. You haven't got an innocent bone in your body where women are concerned, and you know it."

Jo walked with Karen to her car, and they simply stood looking at each other. Loathing awkward silences, Karen said,

"I'm sorry if you think I betrayed your trust. I really didn't know this was going to happen."

"That's obvious," Said Jo quietly, not blaming Karen for keeping them in the dark. "But you do know who killed him, don't you."

"You know I do," Replied Karen, "But to reveal such information, would without doubt mean signing my own death certificate."

"Is that because it was Yvonne?" Jo persisted gently.

"I might have yet again made the wrong decision with regards to an Atkins, but I wouldn't shield Yvonne for murder, and like I said, Yvonne would never have contemplated doing anything to land her back behind bars."

"When George asked you if it was Yvonne, why did she frighten you?"

"Was it that obvious?" Said Karen regretfully. "Ever since Fenner, I can't stand anyone encroaching on my personal space. I didn't like it much before, but now it scares the hell out of me, and when I'm under extreme stress, the feeling of panic is much easier to provoke."

"Karen," Said Jo, returning to the subject of Fenner's murder, "We do need to know who did kill Fenner. I know without doubt that you didn't, and by your reasoning that it wasn't yvonne, but in order to if necessary defend you, I need to know what I'm dealing with."

"As you are so insistent on getting this out of me, you might try looking in the direction of Yvonne's daughter. But you didn't get this from me. You've got absolutely no idea how shocked I was, and yes, I do feel as stupid as it's possible to feel. I shouldn't have kept quiet about it, but for a while, I think part of me didn't quite believe it was real." Then, unlocking the car door, she said, "If you don't want to see me following the same journey as Fenner, then you won't under any circumstances reveal your source. Yvonne might not have wanted or even suspected that her daughter would do something like this, but if she thought I'd grassed up her daughter, I'd be history."

"Warning received and understood," Said Jo with a brief smile. "But if you ever should require my services, don't hesitate to get in touch with me."

"I don't think it's me you'll be hearing from," Replied Karen. "But thank you, I'll bare it in mind." As she drove away, Jo thought she could see Karen's armour beginning to crack. It clearly hadn't been a lightly made decision for Karen to protect Yvonne's daughter, and whilst Jo could only think that it had been the wrong one, she was forced to admit that Karen had the most valid of all reasons.

When Jo returned to John's chambers, she had the feeling that she'd walked in on an argument clearly not meant for her ears.

"Is she all right?" Asked John. Jo sat down and lit herself a cigarette from George's packet that was lying on the table.

"John," She said carefully, "You remember, before the start of the Merriman/Atkins trial, we were talking about my witnesses, and you speculated as to who had arranged for Charlie Atkins to meet his end after the end of his trial?"

"Vaguely, yes," He replied.

"And do you remember that I said I thought it was more likely to be the daughter rather than the mother?" John took in a deep breath, and a look of dawning realisation crept over his face.

"Was it the daughter who killed Fenner?" He asked quietly.

"Yes," Replied Jo. John immediately stretched out a hand to the phone on his desk, clearly about to put the wheels of justice in motion. But Jo held up a hand. "john, don't. This requires the soft and gentle approach. As Karen put it so succinctly to me in the car park, whilst Yvonne Atkins herself might not have known that her daughter would do something like this, if she discovered that Karen had supplied anyone in authority with the correct name, Karen herself would be history." John winced.

"Good god," Said George in disgust, "If ever there was a woman for getting in over her head, it's her."

"That doesn't help anyone, George," Replied Jo. "don't forget, it wasn't all that long ago that you were in over your head with the secretary of state for trade. Yes, you might have been committing career suicide in the legal way, but you were still heading in that direction." Utterly gob smacked, George didn't say a word. Ignoring the little twinkle in John's eye, Jo said, "That Sergeant who helped me during the Diana Halsey case, Sergeant Bridges, he might be persuaded not to ask too many questions if you steered him in the direction of Lauren Atkins."

"Yes, good idea," replied John, "He directed us to One Way's incriminating e-mails, so I'd say we owe him a favour."

"And you," Said Jo, turning back to George, "Need to learn a thing or two about personal space."

"What on Earth are you talking about?" Asked George, clearly mystified.

"You frightened the life out of Karen, simply by getting too close to her. She didn't say as much, but I think you made her briefly feel as vulnerable as she did with Fenner." George looked aghast.

"Oh," She said, feeling thoroughly guilty. "I didn't think of that."

"So I see," Replied Jo, "Just like you clearly didn't think too hard about whether or not Karen was actually guilty of murder." Turning back to John, she said, "You must impress on Sergeant Bridges, that you cannot under any circumstances reveal your source's name. If her name ended up in the hands of the police, Karen would follow the same path as Fenner. The police would trample all over any promise they might make to keep Karen's name out of it. Let's face it, getting the fourth member of the Atkins family behind bars would be too good an opportunity to miss. Promise me, John, because if you reveal Karen's name so much as once, you'll be signing her death warrant."

"Fine, but this will take a while," Said John, "The bigger I make it, the bigger the police will make it. I will do this quietly and carefully, and in my own time. Is that clear?" neither Jo nor George needed to answer, but George was left with the thought that John might leave informing the police until after he'd had what he wanted from Karen.

One Hundred And Twelve

"Sir Ian," Came Lawrence James's harsh voice, abruptly disturbing Sir Ian's mental deliberations. "Have you seen the news in today's Times? I think you ought to read it."

The first sign of Sir Ian's displeasure of being interrupted showed when he squinted in the direction of the unusually flustered man as he tried to switch the train of his thoughts. In the meantime, Lawrence James placed the large newspaper on his desk, over the top of his paperwork, and noisily rustled it open to the relevant page. It was the way he glared at Lawrence James that showed the full impact of the unseemly disturbance by this alien intrusion into Sir Ian's neat and ordered world as symbolised by his desk.

"There, sir, at the bottom of column four," He gesticulated eagerly.

"Thank you, I can read," Came the acid reply.

His eyes flitted their way along the neat columns and right in the bottom right hand corner was the item.

"Prison officer found dead in suspicious circumstances."

Following the discovery yesterday of the murder of James Fenner, Principle Officer at Larkhall Prison, the police are investigating all possible leads as to who was in the vicinity of Epping Forest where his body was found, who may have noticed anything unusual, and who may have seen him. They are also tracing his last known movements on that day and are appealing to anyone to come forward with information."

"Did you see anything about this on the news yesterday, Lawrence?" Sir Ian asked sharply.

"No sir. I took my wife and son out to her parents and we were busy all day. Didn't you notice anything yourself, Sir?" Lawrence James asked anxiously.

Damn the man for asking such a fatuous question. If he had known, he would have said.

"What does this mean for the Department?" he said.

Sir Ian was trying to get his head round this one. At the back of his mind he was aware that a court case was brewing of which he was privy to advance information. He wondered in retrospect what had made him unaccountably diverge from his habitual instinct to pour oil over troubled waters, to sideline all troublemakers and to reward the compliant. He knew that sooner or later, the name of Larkhall Prison would be bandied about in the corridors of power but that there was no need for him to publicly admit knowledge until it became official. Handling information that came to his ears was a large part of the skills that he had acquired over the years. Open government was a contradiction in terms.

And now the man was dead. He felt nothing about the man personally as he had only seen him from a distance when he sat at the back of the Old Bailey and he testified in court in the Atkins/Pilkinton trial. He had that strange sensation that all normal processes, the way he expected himself to conduct his business in this matter were suddenly cut short, his highly developed instinct to prepare for trouble found the source of trouble suddenly removed. It was as if a man, whose leg had been amputated in an operation, still felt the familiar nerve endings and the sensations in his ankle and toes and the feel of the shoe on his foot. He was mentally flinching for no real reason. He was experiencing that very rare feeling of disorientation more than anything because his uncharacteristic refusal to act had somehow removed the problem. This went against all his long experience in the Civil Service.

"For the moment, nothing," Sir Ian said decisively. "There will be the police investigation which may or may not apprehend the criminal. We don't know if some tabloid rag will divulge any scandal against the man's past life."

Sir Ian hesitated a second as the thought struck him that this man's life was wholly in the past, no present or future for him.

"The whole thrust of the civil case will come to nothing as there is nothing more that can be done to the man," He finished.

"We cannot be sure that we are out of the woods, sir," Lawrence James said anxiously.

Sir Ian shut his eyes. That was not the most fortunate choice of words to have been made as it recalled James Fenner's fate. He had to admit to himself that the whole matter was distasteful and unpleasant and the whole matter of the buried body had a sinister flavour about it. He did not want to dwell on it too much as his sudden sense of Man's mortality was quite enough for him to deal with.

"Tomorrow is another day, Lawrence. We have other work to do," Sir Ian said as he carefully folded the newspaper and placed it on the remotest corner of his desk. These words cued in the smoothly operating machinery of power clicking into gear and another normal day unfolding.

DI Sullivan and Ds Greer's white police car drew up outside the front gates of Larkhall Prison. He remembered coming to this dump before and hoped that he would have a more successful outcome this time. They checked in at the gatelodge and were ready to turn the place over. They were part of an enquiry team thrown like a dragnet across several police areas and their chief constable had briefed them that this was a high profile case and to dig up any possible leads and no excuses.

"Can you remember this James Fenner when we were here last time?" DS Greer asked DI Sullivan.

"Not to my knowledge. The only prison officer that I remember was that know all Karen Betts who was Wing Governor," Came the reply in a hard Scottish accent and an edge of anger. He had not forgotten or forgiven the way he was made a fool of when some con died of an allergy due to an overdose of nuts instead of his theory that it was poison and that spiky haired kid was the one in the frame, Shaz Wiley. He had a gut instinct for the criminal type and went at it like a terrier until he got results.

"Miss Betts, I believe we've met before," Came his greeting to a woman who looked slightly ill at ease and nervous and not the very hard, sarcastic dominant woman whom he had remembered.

"We have a room set up for you, the same one as when you came last time," She said with a slightly distracted air.

"Can we have a word with you first in half an hour as we want to question you about the deceased man."

"Sure," Came the reply which betrayed a flicker of unease in her voice. In reality, it was the reference to the way that Jim Fenner was referred to that disturbed her. Added to that, she had her own troubles which the police were not to know of.

"I'll come to the point," DI Sullivan said, stretching himself comfortably in his chair. "We've got the statement alleging that he'd raped you. You're not going to say that you're sorry that he's out of the way, are you?" In his best sarcastic tone underpinned by the need for a bit of personal payback, he started the process of flushing out information to narrow down the possibilities and to apprehend the criminal. Larkhall was on his patch and this was a promising place for his team to start.

"I've locked up criminals for a living for more than eleven years. I'm not about to start to become one at my time of life," Came her stinging reply.

"Just asking. We have to explore all possibilities, don't we DS Greer?"

"Quite," Came Karen's tight smile and her reply that recalled to her a favourite John Deed line that he employed to the likes of Brian Cantwell.

"Do you have any theories as to who might be the killer? After all, you are the Wing Governor."

"Jim Fenner was a long serving prison officer and, inevitably, he came across prisoners over the course of time who took exception to him. More than that, I can't say."

Damn the woman, DI Sullivan thought angrily and he curtly finished the first interview.

"Mr Fenner?" Julie S exclaimed, looking wide eyed. "It was a real shame the way he got done in. Lost our favourite screw, I mean prison officer, haven't we, Ju."

"I remember the time we saw it on the news saying that Larkhall will be a very different place without him. Those were my very words, weren't they, Ju."

This was the prelude to a very frustrating tour of Larkhall where every prisoner had graduated with flying colours from the criminal female finishing school at the art of obfuscating, at suddenly going off the point with irrelevant details and making his brain ache with the effort required to skim through the verbal outpourings for that one chance remark which might give him something to go on. Give him a male prisoner to sink his teeth into and he would be a happier man. DS Greer came to the fore, more and more, in the endless questioning to give him a break.

The prison officers weren't much better with that clodhopping Mrs Hollamby telling the same story as that Miss Barker with her wide open slightly vacant eyes. They might as well have rehearsed their scripts in advance.

"So you are saying that the deceased man…"

"Jim Fenner you are talking about," Mrs Hollamby sniffily interrupted.

"…..Jim Fenner was a pillar of this establishment and that he had absolutely no enemies, either inmates past or present or fellow officers?"

"Of course, there have been some murdering psychopaths who have moved on. Larkhall has a better class of prisoners these days, none of whom have the slightest grudge against him. And all the prison officers have to stand together. You have to as Joe Public doesn't understand as you know from your job," Bodybag finished with a curious mixture of venom and blandishment and an ingratiating smile on her face while her eyes looked in every direction but his.

"You make Larkhall Prison sound like a four star hotel," DI Sullivan replied sarcastically.

"Well we do our best. Don't we?" Came the vacuous reply which prompted the police to move to the next interview.

"Come on, Di," Bodybag said out of earshot. "We've got to report to Her Majesty what we've said to the police. I bet she's delighted that Jim Fenner is no longer around her any more. She's a funny woman, that one, and she never really appreciated him. He'll be a great loss to Larkhall. It seems like the end of an era," She finished reflectively as she couldn't banish from her mind's eye the visual imprint of the tall dark man and his place in the PO's room and his voice echoing in her mind with his wise words of jailcraft which she took to heart many years ago.

The last PO, whose full name he didn't remember, a bad sign for his thought processes, but he could vaguely remember as Selena, spoke in a cool voice, almost too controlled.

"I'm fairly new here and I really didn't know Jim Fenner very well at all. I'm sorry I can't be of more help."

She smiled to herself as she went out the door as it meant that the man whom she'd swiftly figured out as a sexual predator was no longer around and that her sexual tastes which ran in an entirely different direction could be safely concealed behind a glamorous exterior. After all, all lesbians wore trousers, didn't they? She was on the wing that evening and she heard the cheers from the TV room when the news broke but she wasn't saying anything. It meant that her love life was all the safer from the likes of that sleasy man..

After the interview, DI Sullivan slumped in his chair and ran his hands upwards through his hair, a pounding headache temporarily blocking his thought processes.

"We're getting nowhere here, are we?" Came DS Greer's statement of the blindingly obvious.

"We'll have a talk with the Governing Governor, Mr Neil Grayling and then we'll shoot off to the pub. Might as well make up on our subsistence payments and get something out of our investigations."

To begin with, Grayling was as infuriating as the rest of the inhabitants of Larkhall and he came out with the sort of management bullshit that was as infuriating as the lies and excuses of the rest of the inhabitants of Larkhall, both sides of the prison bars.

"Of course, you will know about the recent trial of Tracy Pilkinton better known as Snowball Merriman and her boyfriend Ritchie Atkins who conspired together to blow up the library, me included, as cover for her attempted escape. Ms Pilkinton was an inmate of this establishment and, after the trial, in which Jim Fenner gave evidence for the prosecution, both committed suicide. She has no known family but Ritchie Atkins has family on the outside. Apparently, the Atkins family have a certain notoriety."

At last, the lead they were looking for. DI Sullivan shook Grayling's hand warmly and made their way out of the prison. His instinct in his investigations had been to place more trust in going to the bottom of the organisation with more chance of worming out the truth and leave the boss to the last. After all, his Chief Constable knew sod all about how he did his job but this time, the least likely chance had turned up trumps.

Neil had not slept well for the past week since he had tried to get George on side only to be frustrated by her strange unaccountable desire to make some irrational crusade. He'd had a run of nights where the vision of being interrogated by the man from whom all his power and self esteem flowed, and his cold blue eyes and the scowl on his face banishing him into exile. That worried him as he put everything into his career and, if that were ruined, as Joe Channing had threatened him with, who was he. Everything had changed on that Sunday evening when, in a moment of boredom, he put the television on to distract him from his thoughts.

Neil Houghton arrived at work on Monday with a spring in his step. He had watched the news the night before and the sober sounding BBC presenter announcing James Fenner's death caused an evil smile to wrap itself round his face. He could do without listening to the sympathetic details as the man was not a constituent of his. It was someone else's problem and not his. He stayed glued to the television clicking onto the latest news from all channels with the delicious feeling welling up inside him. So much for George Channing's would be crusade, was the thought that went round and round in his mind. He reached to the drinks cupboard and poured himself a large measure of whisky and let the alcohol and the feeling of being politically saved warm what passed for his soul.

"Dead men don't talk," He said to himself, as he toasted the unknown murderer who had very conveniently buried a political embarrassment in the safest place that he knew, the grave. The man was an ordinary run of the mill minor functionary in the Prison service and, so long as any 'kiss and tell' stories surfaced in rags like the "News of the World" from some money hungry enemy with a grudge, then he could draw a line under…… Whatever irregularities he may have been guilty of in his lifetime would fade into the past as who reads yesterday's papers? There would be no civil case against area, no tabloid exposure as George had predicted. Everyone holding the reins of power, himself included, could sleep a little more soundly in their beds at night and get on with running the country.

The Cabinet meeting was an unusually pleasant affair. Today's items on the agenda included a 'hot spots and good news' item which caused the less successful ministers to become nervous and apologetic and the more successful to brag of the accomplishments of 'their ministries' in terms that their personal achievements. What was intended to raise concerns before they blew up into major crises operated as an exhibition of self-aggrandisement or alternatively, as a tortuous, verbose exercise in face saving. Each minister looked intently as it came close to his or her turn.

"There is a continuing concern in the matter of the potential bad press due to the scare stories of mobile phones causing brain tumours. Our Department is continuing to collate the latest scientific research and will be available for the mobile phone companies so that they aren't caught short as One way PLC were. The Attorney General tells me that there are no court cases on the horizon but we do not intend to be complacent. On the good side is the 4% increase in the last three months seasonally adjusted figures for arms sales overseas. Now that Robin Cook's so called 'ethical policies' have been discredited." And here Neil broke into a wide smile which others round the table joined in. "Our country is in the position of being one step ahead of the competition."

"Well done, Neil," Came the smile of approval from the head of the table before his cold blue eyes turned to the next in line. "That's what I like to hear. A run of good news……."

Much later, when they touched on the main press stories, the cabinet agreed that the front-page criticisms of the modernisation of the public services demanded a robust rebuttal and for a dedicated team to be set up specifically to influence the press. And the copy of the story on Page 4 of the Times that was left in the Cabinet room was quietly folded up and left for anyone to pick up and read in an idle moment, probably the cleaner.

One Hundred And Thirteen

After her fairly harrowing interview with Jo, John and George, Karen went back to work, trying to keep everything smoothly ticking over, and attempting to curtail the swollen imaginations of most of her inmates. Sylvia was outraged because every con who had heard about Fenner was over the moon.

"Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, eh Miss?" Julie Saunders had said, and Karen had been forced to hide a smile. But when she left her desk that afternoon, she knew that there was only one thing she could do. She had given Lauren's name to Jo, and she knew that it would only be a matter of time before Lauren's identity as Fenner's killer was put in to the hands of the police. Above all, Karen needed space from this situation. No longer could she maintain the outward indifference with Yvonne that had kept her going for the last week. Driving over to Yvonne's, Karen knew that putting a temporary hold on their relationship was only the beginning.

Yvonne looked pleased to see her when she opened the door, and Karen felt the nagging weight of guilt, constantly reminding her of what she'd done that morning. When she moved in to the hall, Karen said,

"Yvonne, we need to talk." Seeing that this was definitely something serious, Yvonne led the way back to her lounge.

"Drink?" She said, gesturing at the bottle of scotch on the small sideboard.

"Yes please," Said Karen, knowing that she was going to need it. When they were seated on the sofa, Karen didn't beat around the bush.

"I had quite an interesting little interview this morning," She began, finding some slight amusement in the fact that she knew she was starting to talk like George. "I was called to the chambers of Mr. Justice Deed, where he, Jo Mills and George Channing, thoroughly questioned me as to my part in Fenner's death."

"You what?" Asked Yvonne, totally stunned.

"Yes, not the most enjoyable hour of my life," Replied Karen. "George at least, was utterly convinced that it was me who'd killed Fenner. I don't think I've ever been put through anything so legally harrowing in all the time I've worked both for the prison service and the NHS."

"Did you manage to convince them it wasn't you?"

"I'm still walking free, so yes, I did. But I am not, repeat not, going through anything like that again for something that wasn't my fault." Yvonne was quiet. "I can't do this any more, Yvonne," Karen continued, "I just can't keep up the facade." Yvonne looked worried.

"You're not going to grass on her, are you?" Karen gave her a wry smile.

"No. What would be the point? Besides, wouldn't I be signing my own death certificate in doing such a thing?"

"I can't believe you just said that," Said Yvonne, sounding more hurt than Karen had ever heard her. "This is you we're talking about. You're absolutely right in thinking that grassing up my daughter isn't something I'd ever be able to forgive, but giving you a dose of the Atkins treatment isn't something I'd be likely to consider."

"I'm sorry," Said Karen, truly mollified, "I don't seem to have a sense of judgment that's in tune with everyone else's at the moment. Which is why, I need some space."

"From me you mean, from us?"

"Yes. Yvonne, this is the last thing I ever wanted to do, but I need to sort out how I feel about a lot of things. When I saw you cleaning that gun, I was forcefully reminded of the lengths you would still go to in order to protect what's yours. I don't know if I can handle being involved with someone who can so easily revert to some of her old ways."

"I had to do that!" Yvonne protested vehemently.

"I know," Replied Karen gently, "And as weird as it sounds, I understand why you had to do it. But it's not something that I think I can be around. I thought all my dreams had come true when we realised which team we were batting for, but I can't quite get my head around the rest of it. I need some time away, to find out if I can come to terms with that side of you."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," Yvonne said quietly, and Karen could hear the tears threatening to appear. "I'm sorry that you've had to go through this as well, and I'm sorry that you've got to do this. Just, promise me one thing. Promise me that when you make your mind up, you'll let me know, because I ain't going anywhere." Reaching forward to give Yvonne a strong, warm hug, Karen said,

"I promise," and after giving Yvonne one last, lingering kiss, she stood up and walked out of the house, away from something that had, for a short time, given her so much happiness.

She drove home, feeling utterly desolate. Yvonne hadn't really deserved that, but Karen knew that she couldn't keep sleeping with Yvonne, at least certainly not for the moment. Was she jumping before she was pushed, she didn't know. She just prayed that the police never got hold of her name as the source of the identity of Fenner's killer. Picking up a copy of The Evening Standard on her way home, Karen was greeted to the sight of a picture of Fenner, one they'd obviously obtained from Fenner's personnel file.

"I hope you know what I've just done for you, you bastard," Karen found herself saying to the picture as she let herself in to her flat. God, that really was the first sign of total insanity, talking to a newsprint picture of one's rapist. She flung the paper on the sofa, with Fenner's picture facing upwards, as if to remind her why she'd just added an extra bit of misery to Yvonne's already overburdened shoulders. Seeing the message light winking on her answerphone, she pressed the button, only to be greeted by John's voice.

"Karen, it's John Deed. I simply wondered how you were after this morning. I'll try you again later." Thinking that some control over the situation wouldn't do her any harm, Karen read the number on her caller display that had accompanied the message, and rang him back.

"John Deed?" Came the relaxed yet professional masculine tones.

"It's Karen Betts," She replied. "You called."

"So I did," He said, sounding pleased to hear from her. "How are you?"

"I've had better days," She said, sitting down on the sofa and turning the paper over so that she wouldn't have to look at Fenner's face. "I've got a wing full of inmates who couldn't be more pleased at the untimely death of one of their officers, even though for some of them it will mean a few less turning of blind eyes and privileges. I spent most of the morning being interrogated by someone who could audition for the KGB," At which point John couldn't help grinning, "And I've just ended what promised to be the best relationship I've ever had, and in doing so, made Yvonne even more miserable than she already is."

"That's sudden," Commented John.

"What was I supposed to do," Karen said disgustedly. "I've landed her daughter in more trouble than she'll know what to do with. I could hardly go on sleeping with her under those circumstances. But, you didn't phone me to hear about my bloody awful day."

"Well, partly I did," He said, his liking for this outspoken, down to Earth woman not in the least abated. "But there is one other matter that still requires some attention, that of why you chose not to tell anyone." Karen went quiet for a moment.

"Does this absolutely have to be now?" She asked, knowing that another round of questioning would finish her off altogether. "Because I really don't think I've got the energy for it. I'll take George on any day you like, but twice in one day is asking a little too much." John laughed.

"You're forgetting that I was once married to her, so I know exactly where you're coming from, though you certainly gave her a fair run for her money. I was impressed."

"I bet part of you enjoyed that, didn't you," Said Karen, unable to keep the small smile out of her voice.

"It did hold a certain attraction," He found himself admitting, "But the next round won't be with either Jo or George. I'm not planning to take what you tell me any further, unless I am presented with something that I am by law obliged to pass on. I would simply like to understand." Tangling with the fiery Ms George Channing was one thing, thought Karen, trying to maintain her defences in battle with this man, would be quite another.

"Okay," She said carefully, "Though quite what I'm letting myself in for, I don't know."

"Come and see me after court on Wednesday afternoon," He said, "But try to leave the armour behind, because I don't think you'll need it."

All day on Wednesday, Karen couldn't help agonising about the impending interview. On Monday, she hadn't been given much notice, and therefore hadn't had time to worry too much about what was coming. But today was different. She kept coming up with questions that John might ask her, and spent too much of her time attempting to construct plausible answers. The Police had been in to see Grayling on the Monday, and had been crawling over the whole place ever since, talking to all and sundry about Fenner's popularity with his fellow officers. They'd expressed a perfunctory interest in Karen, mainly because of her tentative rape allegation, but she hadn't held their attention for long. Di and Sylvia had unhelpfully both suggested that an ex-con might be to blame, though the police had dismissed this possibility as very unlikely. That's all they knew, thought Karen in disgust. When the clock finally wended its way round to the time she had to leave, she stood for a while, staring at her self in the mirror in the Ladies', taking particular care over making up her face. Even after a hard day's work, argumentative strategy wasn't the only area in which she could give Georgia Channing a run for her money. Splashing on some perfume, and pulling a brush through her hair, she at last felt strong, capable, as if she could hold her own in the verbal fracas she was about to walk in to.

When she walked through the doors of the ancient court building, it was almost deserted. But then, it was after five in the afternoon, long after the court had adjourned for the day. She climbed the marble staircase, and traversed the long, endless corridor to John's chambers. She knocked lightly on the sturdy, oak door, and he called,

"Come in." When she pushed the door open, she saw that he was seated behind his desk, thumbing through an enormous dust-covered tome, and clearly immersed in paperwork. He looked up and smiled.

"Hello," He said, standing up and moving towards her. "How are you?"

"I love my job more than any other job I've ever done, but a combination of riotous inmates and unco-operative officers do take their toll."

"Would you like a drink?" He asked, which was the most welcome question she'd had all day. Pouring them both a scotch, he said, "Have you always worked in the prison service?"

"Only for twelve years or so," Said Karen, sitting down on one end of the sofa. "I was a nurse before that."

"What made you move from one cash-strapped organisation to another?"

"The money's better," She said succinctly. "And I suppose I came in to the job with the same naivete as every other officer who thinks they can make a difference."

"And do you?" He asked, handing her the glass.

"Not really," She replied dully, "Change, or at least real, significant change, requires financial backing and political interest that most cabinet ministers simply can't be bothered to support. So, we muddle through with what we've got, which results in overcrowding, an increase in re-offending rates and a serious shortfall in any form of rehabilitation."

"Well, if they keep appointing cabinet ministers like the current Secretary of State for Trade, then nothing will ever get better." He joined her, sitting at the other end of the sofa. Spying an ashtray on the coffee table, Karen lit up.

"I'm sure I know far more women who smoke than men," Said John, a slight note of teasing in his tone.

"I do give up periodically," Karen replied.

"That's what both Jo and George keep telling me," He said, "But I don't seem to see any sign of it."

"The last time I gave up was before I was raped. Mark, the man I was seeing at the time persuaded me that giving up was a good idea, but I don't seem to have had any great incentive since."

"Tell me why you didn't inform anyone about Fenner's death," He said, knowing that they had to revisit this sooner or later. Karen took a long drag and said,

"I was so shocked when Lauren said that's what she'd done. I had absolutely no idea that she was thinking of doing something like this, and neither did Yvonne. I think she felt like she was being forced to revisit that part of her life which she thought she'd left behind. Lauren didn't look entirely sane, as if she was high on something, but she wasn't."

"That's what killing does for some people," Said John quietly, "It's almost a sexual arousal for some of them."

"It was obvious she'd shot him, but other than that, I really don't know what happened," And John could see that she was telling the truth. "I'm not sure how much more I can tell you, without implicating Yvonne, which isn't something that even I'm stupid enough to do." John stood up and began pacing.

"I'll save you the trouble," He said. "If I know anything of Yvonne Atkins' reputation, she probably disposed of as much evidence as possible, which almost certainly included the cleaning and getting rid of the gun."

"Spot on," Said Karen dryly.

"Are you seriously telling me that you watched her do all this?" he asked, the level of incredulity exponentionally increasing.

"What was I supposed to do?" Asked Karen, her voice rising to keep up with his. "Whilst I realise it isn't much of an excuse, I think I was in shock. As far as I knew, Yvonne had left all reminders of her former life behind, the day she left Larkhall." This wasn't strictly true, but Karen wasn't about to split hairs. "When I eventually returned home that night, I must have looked at the phone a thousand times, desperately wanting to tell you, or Jo or George, anyone, but I couldn't. Yvonne needed me to at least make the pretence of being strong for her, which partially meant not landing her daughter behind bars. As Yvonne said to me on Monday, giving her daughter's name to the police isn't something she'd ever be able to forgive, and I'm not in a hurry to give Yvonne an excuse to get herself a life sentence. She assured me that even if I did do something like that, she wouldn't be likely to consider giving me a dose of what she calls the Atkins justice, but I didn't and don't want to give her a reason to even think about it."

"Which very neatly brings me to my next point," John said, leaning on the edge of his desk, facing her. "I'd have thought, considering the recent trial you were involved in, that you might have been once bitten twice shy with regards to an Atkins."

"Really," Said Karen bitterly, "And I suppose that you've never, not once in your whole life, made the wrong decision regarding a woman. I suppose that it's been your well-deserved privilege to always sleep with the right person, to never become involved with someone who has at the very least some sort of criminal intentions." His face was a picture, the eyes moving rapidly, and a clear realisation crossing his profile.

"Have I struck a chord?" Karen couldn't help asking. John rolled his eyes at her.

"You've got a level of sarcasm to rival George's," He said, "But to answer your question, yes, I did once become emotionally and sexually involved with someone who almost managed to get me arrested. Lady Franchesca Rochester, separated wife of Sir Ian Rochester." Then, seeing a look of vague recognition on Karen's face, he said, "Yes, the insufferable civil servant from the Lord Chancellor's Department who attempts to derail me at every turn. He wasn't amused when I had an affair with his wife, but it didn't last. However, after a year or so away from her, we met by chance, and things began getting interesting again. Through numerous protestations to the contrary from her, I discovered that she and her cousin, who she was also sleeping with, were living off the proceeds from a soft porn empire. The part which almost put me in a cell, was an off shore account in my name, holding yet more proceeds from lap dancing clubs and various other such enterprises. I of course, knew absolutely nothing of this account, and luckily for me, it was speedily proved that I had nothing to do with it. So yes, I have been there and done that, and am not in a hurry to repeat the experience." Karen stood up and began walking round this stately yet comfortable room.

"That sounds pretty similar to me and Fenner," She said, eventually standing in front of one of the tall windows with her back to him. "His act was so convincing," She said bitterly. "Time and time again he managed to make me believe his never-ending stream of stories. He'd always make his act all the more believable by saying, you know I love you, don't you Karen, and it always worked." John could hear the bitter threat of tears in her voice, and he had an urge to comfort her, but he simply listened. "You know, he even came out with that old line after he'd raped me."

"How did you feel when you found out he was dead?" John asked, gently approaching her, but keeping George's intrusion of her personal space on Monday in mind.

"I don't know," Said Karen, still keeping her face averted from him, now that the tears were coursing down her cheeks, the tension of the last ten days finally catching up with her. "I knew I ought to feel relieved, that he could never do what he'd done to me and countless others, to anyone, ever again. But it's not quite as simple as that, is it. Much as I'm loathe to admit it, I did love him. Once, before Virginia O'Kane was killed and before I discovered he was sleeping with Maxi Purvis, I loved him, and I can't forget that. I should hate and despise him, considering everything I know about him. But even now, even after everything that's happened, there's still a part of me that remembers what it was like to love and to be loved by him." John very carefully laid a hand on her shoulder, and when she didn't resist, he turned her round to face him. He was seeing the vulnerable side of Karen Betts now, the side of her that needed holding, comforting and looking after. Ever since he'd read the precise details of her rape allegation, he'd wondered if this might not be the reason why she was so hesitant to pursue a case against Fenner. Slowly, giving her plenty of time to retreat, he put his arms round her, giving her the feeling of a drowning swimmer who has suddenly found a rock they can cling to. She hated letting her guard down in front of him like this, but his hard, warm chest provided a safe, solid presence that told her it was perfectly okay to cry. He gently ran his fingers through her hair, and briefly thought that she was the quietest woman to cry that he'd ever met.

"That's what you were so desperate to tell me when I came to see you last week, wasn't it," He said quietly. She looked up.

"Do you have any idea just how much I wanted to?" She said, attempting to calm down. "But then they do say that the urge to confess is uncommonly strong, even when all the confession is likely to do is to bring no end of trouble down on one's head." He smiled, thinking of the many times he'd been forced to confess his infidelity to either Jo or George. When her tears eventually dried, she stayed close to him, taking an enormous amount of comfort from being held by him. When she finally moved away from him, she said,

"I'm sorry, that isn't something I usually let anyone witness."

"You should," He said gently, "It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"And I've got mascara on your shirt," She said, gesturing to the tell tale black streaks.

"It won't be the first time," He said, looking down at the offending marks. A little while later when he walked out with her to her car, Karen felt lighter than she had done since Fenner's death. She felt like she'd manage to eradicate some of the disease that had been inside her for far too long. As he watched her unlock the car door, he said,

"Would you like to have dinner with me?" She looked up, only slightly surprised.

"Yes, that'd be nice," She said, sliding behind the wheel. Agreeing a time to pick her up on Friday evening, John watched her drive away, feeling that initial, inexorable excitement that always preceded a conquest.

One Hundred And Fourteen

Yvonne's bedroom was almost entirely enveloped in blackness except for the tiny bedside light turned down to its lowest. The huddled shape hidden under the quilt was almost impossible to distinguish and Yvonne felt lost in the darkness where she wanted to be. The house was so quiet that the loud ticking of the clock could be heard very distinctly.

It was only in the safety and isolation of the deep impenetrable space of her bedroom that Yvonne could let the tears stream down her face and the feelings of grief could overwhelm her. It was at moments like these that she was least like an Atkins, being able to shed that cool hard façade that only those closest to her had glimpses of. The one saving grace these days was that only Lauren was around her and she had more space to cry in than before she went to prison. She didn't have the likes of Charlie and the woman that she used to be telling her that she looked like a monkey's arse if she was seen in public with tear marks running down her face. She knew now that before she went to Larkhall, she had had no one to turn to for that instinctive generosity that she knew was a quality that no one should despise or confuse with weakness. Curiously enough, her time in Larkhall had helped her to make that emotional jump with all the other women around who looked after each other when one of them was feeling down. Every woman worth her salt that she had ever known who was locked up in prison with her, acted that way with unthinking human decency.

She had hoped against hope over these last days that nothing would come out of Lauren's mad act, that no one would discover the crime, if she cared to call it that. For the first time in her life, the word 'crime' had an ugly sound. She had worked so hard to get Lauren to hold it together and to stop her going down the weird self-destructive route that Charlie and Ritchie had been capable of. Lauren's welfare had taken up all her emotional energies so that she hadn't given time for anything else and she had taken for granted Karen's help to keep Lauren on the straight and narrow, even to going upstairs and having a quiet word with her. She feared now that she might have overcompensated towards Lauren like an Atkins mother does and had taken Karen for granted.

It felt like eternity that she was shut out in the cold and the dark with no hope, no future.

Fresh sobs racked her body as the events of the past days flashed through her brain, replaying over and over again despite her wish to forget it and everything that was going on in her life. Time more than anything else in her life had no meaning.

Lauren sat quietly downstairs. She had no inclination to go out and, though she had brought a fresh set of troubles down on the Atkins family, her place was to be around Mum. She distracted herself by leafing through the same crappy magazine which she had read for the twentieth time featuring the same sun tanned, fake golden haired mindless bimbo that always angered her. What do you do when you are a dark brunette with brains? There was something in the magazine which told her that she didn't fit into this conventional world that was being offered to her on a gilt platter.

Trigger nuzzled himself against her knee, wagging his tail and his big brown eyes sensing that his mistress was troubled. Animals and children always knew instinctively when something was wrong even if they did not know what it was.

It was that spark of self-preservation that rescued Yvonne when she was at her lowest point as it always did, her ultimate strength that alone marked her out as not being an Atkins. She suddenly felt at her most submerged in being buried in the depths of her bed and had a desperate drive to get out of here into the real world, as she was doing neither herself nor Lauren any good lying here stewing.

"Yvonne. Hey, come in," Cassie greeted her as an unexpected ring at the door.

"The house sounds bleeding quiet," Yvonne remarked.

"Roisin's taken the kids to the pictures. I would have gone along but I feel dead on my feet after a bad day at work and I've got a lousy headache. Niamh offered to tuck me into bed but I went for the settee instead." She gestured to the quilt, which had been displaced, and the settee, which she had been lying on, the packet of 'Anadin extra' and a mug of water on a side table next to it.

"No rest for the wicked," Yvonne said nonchalantly without thinking too much about the expression and then wincing slightly at its connotations.

"You look pretty rough," Cassie said rather tactlessly. She had had a rough day at work and wasn't feeling in the mood to watch every word.

"Thanks for the bleeding compliment," Yvonne snapped. "I'll say the same to you sometime."

"I'm sorry, Yvonne. You've caught me at a bad time. I've had too many brain dead idiots to deal with," Cassie offered in a more conciliatory tone. This reasonableness was only skin deep as one of Cassie's failings was that illness made her new found maturity and flexibility go out the window and made her revert to being self centred and short tempered.

"Being a mother of a daughter who's killed a prison officer, so that it hits the front pages of the national papers and feeling like it's only a matter of time before the Old Bill comes sniffing around isn't my idea of having a ball. Being dumped by your girlfriend doesn't exactly help much either," Yvonne reared up, almost subconsciously wanting a confrontation as one way of dealing with her feelings.

"Hey, Yvonne, I'm really sorry to hear about that. What on earth happened?" Cassie said with genuine concern, her more mature side of her personality starting to be engaged.

"Karen doesn't want to deal with the fact that Lauren killed Fenner. I didn't want any of that. I hadn't the slightest idea that she had this crazy idea of stalking Fenner and then killing him. Soon as she waltzed in through the door and told me what she'd done, I had to clean everything up, the gun, Lauren's clothes, the car, the lot. If you mess up on something like this, the shit will hit the fan and Lauren would be nicked. It won't happen to Lauren, not if I can help it."

"And how on earth did you think Karen felt about it?" Cassie asked Yvonne with an incredulous edge which Yvonne thought totally patronising. She was back to being confrontational again.

"There was no time but to act fast. I thought Karen would have understood that you have to deal with the emergency first before anything else," Yvonne snapped.

"For Christ's sake, grow up!" Cassie exploded. How on earth did Yvonne think that Karen, the Karen Betts who is a Wing Governor of a prison and had been upholding the law, would catch Yvonne half way through a typical Atkins quick cover up and would nonchalantly go along with it because she was starry eyed in love with her.

"Look here, I did the same with Roisin as you have done with Karen. I had this mad idea of siphoning off money from the company accounts and thought I could get away with it. I persuaded Roisin to go along with it and, if she hadn't been madly in love with me," And here Cassie gave off a self satisfied narcissistic smile at her awareness of her own charms, "she would have had no hand in it. When we were caught, I had to go through so much of a guilt trip from her, and rightly. I couldn't see it at the time and that's why I'm putting you straight so you don't mess up the same way that I did."

"In case it might have escaped your mind, darling," and here the genuine Yvonne sarcastic thrust, not a term of endearment, embroidered the word. "It was Lauren who killed Fenner, not me and I had no hand in it."

"Apart from clearing up any incriminating evidence, you're right," Cassie retorted, the pain from her headache reaching new heights of agony. "The difference between Roisin and I as we were then and you and Karen as you are now," and Cassie paused for reflection to check that she had got the tortuous sentence right, "is that we were locked up in the same cell even if we were split up some of the time. We didn't have choices in our personal space while you and Karen have. The trouble is that, emotionally, Karen doesn't see what Lauren did in the same way that you do."

The two women glared at each other as they paused, as if in an old fashioned naval battle where two fighting galleons had hurled all their ammunition at each other, the shot lockers were empty and there was nothing to do but think venomous thoughts at each other as substitute lethal weapons as they both did right now.

"You have to give Karen some space, for how long, you can't say and neither, I suspect can Karen," Cassie urged patiently, struggling to be reasonable.

"Thanks for being bleeding Marge Proops. Anyway, I can see I've come round at the wrong time. I'm off."

And Yvonne exited and Cassie made her way back to the security blanket of her quilt and reached for two more tablets.

"Nikki Wade," came the familiar, well modulated voice that brought back to Yvonne such intense nostalgic feelings of closeness that none of Charlie's old friends could conjure up. She had known them for years and now they kept their distance. After her bust up with Cassie and Roisin being out for the evening, Nikki was her last hope. She had phoned up Nikki on her mobile after having driven aimlessly around and had cooled down a bit. She was stuck in the middle of nowhere and she was getting nowhere fast.

"Nikki, I need to see you. It's sort of personal stuff and I could really do with your help and advice."

Yvonne amazed herself as she heard her own voice in instant recall. Perhaps the Yvonne Atkins of old would never have talked that way. She would have turned it over in her own mind and stewed in her own worries and suffered. Of course, no one around her at that time would have picked up the slightest trace of these worries. That wasn't like our Eevie, was it?

"Sure, no time like the present. Why don't you come over tonight to the club?" Nikki's split second judgement told her that this was serious.

"Give me half an hour and I'll be over."

Yvonne's car swung round in an arc and scrunched to a halt with a screech of tyres on the loose gravel in the car park at the back of the club. Out of breath, she stumbled through the front doors of the one place that, in the past, had made her nervous. After all, it's just another club, isn't it.

She greeted Yvonne with a dazzling smile and a big hug and a peck on her cheek that was so Nikki and gestured her to a side room. The girl behind the bar recognised the woman who came into the club and cynically concluded that she might be Nikki's new bird. This older woman looked the hard and dominating type for those who fancied them. She knew better than to make a joke about it as Nikki drew a very precise line between what she would tolerate from someone who worked for her and Trish and what she wouldn't. Nikki was responsible for hiring and firing staff and had a very blunt way of expressing herself and any barmaid who seriously transgressed was out on her ear.

Nikki took one look at Yvonne's drawn face which had noticeably aged in comparison with the glowing serene law abiding Yvonne who was asking her to talk to Helen so that Fenner could be nailed the legal way. It spelt trouble when she recalled the dramatic and unexpected headlines of Fenner's death and the sight of Yvonne's clearly troubled mind.

"I'd have had this place decked out with balloons and streamers to celebrate Fenner getting what he deserved only what does one less bastard screw in this world mean to the women who come to this club?" Nikki joked as she poured Yvonne a drink.

Yvonne grimaced. The joke was well intended but her nerves were stretched wire taut which made her more aggressive than normal.

"You're not telling me that I killed Fenner, Nikki?" she asked Nikki slightly aggressively.

"No, you're too smart for that or the body would never have turned up," Nikki cut off the potential argument before it could get going. "But that's why you wanted to see me, isn't it," And Nikki laid a hand on her shoulder.

That gesture brought back to her the time that they had joked about Yvonne 'turning lezzie' and Nikki's semi joking mock sexual proposition in the brief halcyon days when they had really run G Wing when the screws had organised the 'mass sick in.' This time, this was the gesture of affection that she needed and she settled back into her chair and smiled for the first time.

"You don't miss much, Nikki. I'd better tell you the truth. I've got to talk to someone about it and you're a close friend who I know will listen to me."

Nikki pricked up her ears. Surely, Karen was the first person she would go to. After all, what are lovers for though good friends sometimes had the advantage of being detached from the situation. She could have done with someone to whom she could have talked about her love for Helen to when she was stuck inside Larkhall.

"You tell it how it is from the very beginning."

Yvonne took a swig from her drink and the occasion rapidly assembled her conflicting thoughts that had jarred up against themselves into order.

"Last time I saw you, Karen and I were going to nail Fenner the legal way and Karen had got two red hot barristers on the job…….."

"You've changed, Yvonne. The Yvonne Atkins I knew would have had Fenner die very painfully given half a chance," Smiled Nikki.

"I've changed but Lauren hasn't. That's the trouble," Yvonne's very throaty, choked up voice told Nikki everything.

"So it was Lauren who murdered Fenner?" Nikki asked gently.

"Yeah. I caught her coming back waving that bloody gun around looking as if she'd been snorting Bolivian marching powder and told me and Karen straight off what she'd done. We'd had one of the best days in our lives till she burst in," Yvonne's words struggled out of her mouth.

"Did you have any idea about what Lauren was up to till then?" Nikki questioned reluctantly. Her tones expressed all the delicacy of touch that she could summon up.

Yvonne shook her head decisively and looked down at the table in silence. Nikki knew instinctively to leave off the questions for the moment.

"Nikki, there's a call for you." as the sudden racket of the phone disturbed the silence.

"Can you take the name and phone number and tell whoever it is that I'll phone back as soon as I can," Nikki's sharp edged voice and glare was directed at her unfavourite barmaid.

"No don't go, Yvonne," She added as Yvonne went to stand up with the obvious intention of leaving and not getting in the way of her work. Right now, the last thing she wanted was to blow it with Nikki after her visit to Cassie had gone so spectacularly wrong. "I'll phone back only when I'm good and ready and not before."

"So you don't get to pick up your medal for bumping off Fenner?" Nikki's joke drew a wan smile from Yvonne.

"Not this time, Nikki, for once in my life."

"So where does Karen come into it, Yvonne?"

Yvonne drew in a deep breath and inhaled cigarette smoke as her device for working her way round to verbalising what was most emotionally painful.

"Karen wants some space from me," Yvonne's short sentence concealed a multitude of pain and she stopped.

"Is that what she wants to do or what you want to do?" came the gentle question, as soft as that of a slowly falling leaf on an autumn day.

"Not me, Nikki. As for Karen, I don't know. She had been given the third degree by the two barristers I told you about and the judge who was due to hear the case. They believed in her and wanted to see Fenner behind bars for raping Karen and for all the shit that happened to every woman who was at Larkhall. They're all decent people and they felt let down and that's the trouble. It's not like going up before the screws and being banged up by some bastard who doesn't give a shit. The two women really cared in their different ways. Anyway, Karen can't believe that I'm not the Yvonne Atkins of old and that I've put my past behind me. I'm not sure she knows what she feels," Yvonne added earnestly.

Nikki held her glass meditatively between her long shapely fingers. She could see it from both sides but it didn't make it any easier to put it into words that she could say to Yvonne.

"Yvonne, would it help if I explained what happened when Helen and I split up once. I think it might help you."

"Helen like Karen is or was Wing Governor. They are used to being on the right side of the bars." she made a tentative start, feeling her way by touch and intuition. "You know well enough that a screw ending up on the wrong side of the prison bars is in big trouble if that screw is the one who is used to carrying the keys. Take Lorna Rose for example. I made it feel too dangerous for Helen in the way that I landed on her doorstep and she didn't have the choice whether or not I was going to call on her. Helen had to smuggle me back into Larkhall the very night that everything kicked off at Bodybag's party. Of course, I had to miss out on the sight of Bodybag prancing around out of her head on E's."

Yvonne smiled broadly at Nikki's recall of one of the highlights of her life.

"At the time though, Helen freaked out as, going through her mind was the fear that she was, quote, harbouring a criminal, unquote, on the very night that we slept together. Crystal did time for harbouring Denny Blood and Shell Dockley. When she found out that I'd threatened to stick a bottle into Fenner's guts, or at least made out that I was about to, that helped finish it between us though I didn't know at the time. I was standing up for Helen the same way that Lauren was standing up for you, and Ritchie and the rest of us. That doesn't make it any easier for Karen. I have a pretty good idea through Helen how Karen is feeling."

"So what do I do, Nikki?" Yvonne asked her and the world around her, emotion choking her voice.

"You can't force her to come back to you, Yvonne. It doesn't work out that way. You have to see that. Helen and I will be here for you whenever you want us. I can promise you this much."

Tears came to Yvonne's eyes but for once in her life, she made no attempt to brush them away.

"Your word is worth more than most people's word sworn on the Bible," Yvonne declared emotionally.

They drifted along for a while chatting about everyday matters when the barmaid returned and both Nikki and Yvonne realised that Nikki had work to do. She looked at the time and it was getting late. Lauren would be worrying about her.

"I'll take you up on this sometime. I'd better be going and thanks," Yvonne got to her feet and her smile and tone of voice being more relaxed than she had been for days ever since the darkness fell when Fenner was killed.

"Night night, Yvonne," Nikki called out to her as if she were in the cell next to hers at Larkhall and not to her house somewhere in London.

One Hundred And Fifteen

On the Friday morning, Karen sat at her desk, feeling a tingling sense of anticipation. She knew that she probably shouldn't be feeling like this, but the knowledge that in a few hours time, she would be doing something as normal as having dinner with someone who was fast becoming a very good friend, was amazing. After all that had gone on over the last two months, and especially the last two weeks, she needed to do something normal, something random, something that couldn't possibly bring her any more trouble. Ever since the beginning of Ritchie and Snowball's trial, and her getting together with Yvonne, Karen realised that she hadn't really spent any time with anyone who didn't in some way have any connection with her job. Yvonne, despite all the wonderful times they'd had together, had once been part of her job. But to do something as normal as have dinner with someone who wasn't in the least connected with what she did every day, that would be good. John had made her feel safe the other day when she'd cried on his shoulder. A minute part of her was thoroughly ashamed at having done that with him, but the rest of her knew that it didn't matter. Maybe this was one male friend she could have without having to keep up any kind of an act. She was mulling this over, whilst twirling a biro between her fingers, when a sound from her computer told her she had mail. Swiveling the chair round to face the screen, she read the message that had landed in her in-box.

From: Georgia.Channing@sopwithandpartners.co.uk

To: Karen.Betts@larkhall.hmprisonservice.gov.uk

Date: October 17th 2003.

Subject: Apology


I feel I owe you an explanation, as to why I assumed you were responsible for James Fenner's murder. First of all, let me say that I should never have jumped to such a conclusion. Having read and discussed with you everything that James Fenner put you through, it struck me as perfectly understandable that you might have had quite enough and wanted rid of him. When I spent those few hours with you, as my punishment for contempt of court, I saw a different side to you. I saw the confident, emotionally and professionally strong, utterly together side of you that had absolutely no problem in keeping Fenner in his place. I have never ever doubted anything you've said as regards what Fenner did to you, but seeing the amount of anger you displayed when you tore a strip off him for disobeying an order, set my belief in you in concrete. As has been revealed by the transcript of your conversation with Jo, and by some of the things you've said or not said to me, it's pretty obvious that you haven't even begun to deal with what Fenner did to you. This has almost certainly been exacerbated by the fact that you've had to work with him day in day out. When I heard that he'd been killed, I think I simply put all these conclusions together, and assumed that everything had finally got to you. I clearly should have known better, because you are far stronger than that. Unlike me, you don't lose control on a regular basis. I think I was so angry with you on Monday, because I felt slightly betrayed that you hadn't trusted me enough to tell me, which I do know sounds utterly ridiculous. However, you stood up to my barrage incredibly well, and I have to say that I was quietly impressed. This brings me to the other matter on which I owe you an apology. I had absolutely no idea that my method of attempting to wear you down would have frightened you the way it did. Had I spared a thought to how you might take what was clearly an intrusion of your personal space, I would never have done what I did. I'm sorry for introducing yet one more stress factor in to what was already an extremely fraught situation.

Now, what I am about to say may appear to be unduly intrusive and presumptuous. I suspect you have managed to work out for yourself that John is attracted to you. If you should ever find yourself being pursued by John, I would advise you to steer clear. Emotionally, he will hurt you, as he has hurt every other woman he's ever known. I would simply urge you not to attempt to get too close to him. Just, please, be careful.

If you should ever require my help in the future, you know where to find me.

Good luck,


Karen read the message through three times. She hadn't expected anything remotely like this from George, and she felt incredibly touched. In the small amount of time that Karen had got to know George, she had realised that George wasn't one for apologising for anything. It must have taken a great deal of effort for her to do this. George hadn't owed her an explanation of any sort, yet she'd still felt the need to provide one. Clicking on the icon for Reply, Karen sent the following message.

From: Karen.Betts@larkhall.hmprisonservice.gov.uk

To: Georgia.Channing@sopwithandpartners.co.uk

Date: October 17th 2003.

Subject: Re: Apology


Apology well and truly accepted, though it really wasn't necessary. I wanted to tell you, I really did. You all but managed to drag it out of me when you saw me the day after it happened. But for obvious reasons, you know why I couldn't. You're right, I haven't really begun to deal with what Fenner did to me, but maybe now that he's gone I can. If the situation hadn't been quite so grave, I'd have thoroughly enjoyed sparring with you the way I did. In an odd kind of way, it gave me an outlet, a way to get rid of some of the tension that had been building up ever since I found out he was dead. As for my reaction to your very insistent questioning, please don't worry about it. Yes, I did feel briefly threatened, which I know was completely irrational. But I think I know you well enough, to know that you would never have made me feel like that intentionally.

Regarding what you said about John, warning received and understood.

No hard feelings,


Clicking on Send, Karen felt that this was certainly one matter that had been satisfactorily dealt with. She'd liked George, the mixture of arrogance, poise and sensitivity making her one of the most interesting people Karen had ever met. George was a quandary, a puzzle, something she would have liked the chance to work out and understand. Also, Karen knew enough to realise that George's warning had been given with the best intentions, and whilst she had some slight inkling of what may take place between herself and John tonight, Karen wasn't about to dismiss the well-chosen words entirely.

Having informed those who needed to know that she had a dentist appointment that afternoon, Karen switched off her computer at one thirty and made her way thankfully out of the prison. For two and a half days, she resolved not to think once about any inmate or officer, and woe-betide anyone who caused a disturbance that required her presence over the weekend. She wanted nothing to do with either Larkhall or any of its inhabitants. After having her hair cut, she went home, and lay in a sensually scented bath, listening to happy music and giving every inch of her body due care and attention in preparation for any possibility that the evening might provide. As she sipped from a glass of scotch on the rocks, which was perched on the corner of the bath, she thought about Yvonne. Should she, Karen, really be preparing herself for a possible seduction attempt by another person? No, probably not, but she tried to justify herself by thinking that some normality in her life might help her to make sense of the rest of it. She could hear the happy country music from her lounge, and it lightened her soul. Thinking about Yvonne wasn't going to do her any good right now. Yvonne didn't need to know about anything that may or may not happen with John, and in this case, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her in the least. After an hour of soaking in warm, aromatic bubbles, she finally felt fairly relaxed. Larkhall and all its pervading atmosphere had been thoroughly washed away, and she was forced to admit that she felt ready for anything. Drying off, she stood in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, critically examining her entire body. In spite of the serious lack of sleep she'd endured over the last couple of weeks, she was looking good. Her breasts were full and firm, her skin slightly flushed from the heat of the bath. Still standing in front of the mirror, she massaged skin food in to her torso, feeling the cream slide over her skin like a woman's delicate fingers. She couldn't help thinking that she made a pretty stunning sight, with her soft, supple skin, her long, endless legs, and every conceivable hair perpetually banished from her body. She moved to stand in front of the wardrobe, unable to decide on what to wear. Sexy but subtle was clearly the order of the day. This resulted in a smart black skirt, with a slit up the back to show off her still tanned legs. To accompany this, she selected the red silk shirt that had so inflamed Ritchie's passion all that time ago. She didn't know why she picked on the same clothes she'd worn for Ritchie Atkins, except that it was a private indication that she was clearly going up in the world. Standing again in front of the mirror, she applied her make up, also trying to keep the emphasis on subtle. When she was finally satisfied with her appearance, she splashed on some of her favourite perfume, and slipped her feet in to a pair of simple black high heels. Going in to the kitchen to rinse her whisky glass, she felt a thrill of excitement in wondering what the night would bring.

One Hundred And Sixteen

John looked at the reflection of himself in his mirror and glanced up and down. What looked back at him pleased him to survey his naturally debonair good looks. Although they were ageing slightly, his neatly cut, thick greying hair and intense blue eyes made him no less attractive to the opposite sex. This marked him out in the singles game as the archetypal Older Man. This was a role that he had slipped into unconsciously though, inside, his drives and feelings felt the same as his younger self, passionate for life in all its forms and this welling forth of energy kept him ahead of the game, ahead of his contemporaries and of the up and coming barristers. This little theatrical performance was as necessary to him as the moment in court when he slipped on his red judge's robes. The only difference between the two occasions was that he could choose his smartest dark suit not as a uniform but for the cut and feel of the cloth.

His thoughts of Karen in his mind's eye shifted back and forth in focus. At the furthest removed from him was far back in time at the start of the Atkins/Pilkinton trial when he had seen her in his chambers as a human being who was worthy of justice's compassion and of his sympathetic outrage that such a blatant cover up was committed against her…This distant image urged on him a measure of restraint on his natural libido. In the middle ground was the image of the highly capable and articulate wing governor whose mind and abilities commanded his respect. Close up was the vision of Karen's shapely legs and full bodied figure. Her long flowing mane of blond hair falling on her shoulders framed the challenging look in her blue eyes and the slight smile at the corners of her full lips. All this dissolved into a kaleidoscope of images of Karen so that his natural urges were unusually tempered by restraint and a sense of decorum.

He eased his steel grey convertible out into the London traffic and into the heart of London's Docklands and arrived outside the modern block of flats where Karen lived.

Karen greeted him effusively with a kiss on his cheek.

"Where are we going?"

"A table for two at the Ivy if that suits you."

"Sounds fine by me." It was not usual for her not to make the decisions in her life but after her interminable mental turmoil of the past few weeks, she wanted to let life flow and end up tonight where it took her. It gave her an enormous feeling of relaxation as, for a change, she got into the unaccustomed left-hand door and into the passenger seat. One look at the convertible told her that, not for John was it to be the sedate family saloon. The convertible was for the mistress and Karen felt sure that this was the reason for John's choice and not the fresh air in summer.

"It's not every day I go out with a High Court judge. At least I know I'll be safe," Karen's husky mellow voice wound itself round John's waking dreams as he steered the car towards the Ivy Restaurant, a place Karen had not been to before.

John smiled back at her enigmatically as the smooth motion of the car which he controlled took them towards the subdued lights of the discreet restaurant.

When they entered, they were swept up into a different world of soft lights and elegance which put the dingy distempered bare brick walls of Larkhall far behind Karen. The waiter who greeted John knew him to be a regular and gestured them to an intimate table for two. Overhead, four brass fans lazily wafted fresh air round the restaurant that, towards the end of the evening would warm up as the crowds increased. In the centre of the room, the innumerable bulbs of the chandelier threw an endlessly and gently flickering glow that cast its spell on the diners and removed them from the dust and grime of London's busy streets.

It was the first time that John had had the chance to properly look at Karen and the colour of Karen's red silk shirt resonated against the golden glow that had descended upon them all. The vision before him barely separated by the table between them was definitely more sensuous than his mind's eye had dreamed of.

A very pretty waitress approached them with the menu and the wine list. John prided himself as a connoisseur of the fairer sex and could not help but notice the sultry brunette looks of the waitress and her firm breasts even at a moment like this. She offered them the opportunity to take their time to choose their wine in advance of the meal.

"If you don't mind waiting. I am rather particular," John's feeble pretext informed the waitress to wait while, out of the corner of his eye, he stole sidelong glances at her.

In the meantime, he was rather nonplussed when Karen's glance boldly alternated between the wine list and admiring the woman's slender legs and taking in the curves of her body behind the formality of the waitress uniform.

"Are you ready to choose the wine now, Karen. We shouldn't keep the waitress standing around," John replied, his tone of voice a little shorter than he intended. Karen smiled her sphinx like smile back at him.

"I can see you come here regularly," Karen started on an inconsequential note.

"I come here as a refuge from being harangued by some of my fellow judges in the digs," John smiled. "I am regarded as something of a maverick by some of the brethren. At least they would not dream of causing a scene here. Besides," John gestured, "I find the atmosphere soothing. It would be better still if there were a string quartet playing but you can't have everything in life these days."

"I've been there, all right," Karen's cool reply concealed the replay in images of all the unreliable, smooth-talking men there had been in her life.

"Especially when I have the thankless task, equivalent to the Wimbledon umpire, of refereeing between Jo Mills and George Channing as you have seen for yourself," John continued with a wry smile.

"I don't know, John. I would have thought that you would rather like the idea of two women competing for your favours," Karen's reply was framed with her patented brand of playful directness which was very alluring, much though she had rather put him on the spot.

John burst into a hearty laugh to detract from where his thoughts might have been leading him.

"Fine in theory," John retorted playfully in his best outrageous style. "In practice, the idea has its drawbacks. I am fond of them both in different ways but I wish they wouldn't be at each other's throats so much. In recent times, I have to admit that they seem to be capable of working more amicably together," John's melodious voice played expertly against Karen's dreams and fantasies of a few hours ago, as they became real before her eyes. He stopped short just in time before launching into an example of this spirit of unity in citing the civil case against Fenner that was cut brutally short as was Fenner's life. He felt that it was incumbent upon him as a friend of hers, or so the word popped into his mind, to avoid any painful subjects.

Presently, the waitress served them the first course of mussels, expertly presented to them and John's and Karen's attention was not even briefly distracted from each other, a first for John.

"While we're on the subject, it's been on the tip of my tongue," Karen's voice teased its way up and down the scales, "to ask you if you were really having a bet with Jo about whether Yvonne and I were lovers."

John laughed again to distract attention from Karen's level playful gaze.

"It's a new experience for me to be on the receiving end of so many well placed questions. I'm the one who so disgracefully misuses the privileges of the judge's throne," and here he played his pause in a way that a professional actor would admire. "To ask questions, Karen. You are worse than my daughter. And the answer to your question is yes," John added hastily, seeing the twinkle in Karen's eye, which was the prelude to the repeated question, and so he decided to act quickly.

"Perhaps you could tell me about your daughter," Karen asked softly. Her sight of John was slightly swimming before her eyes as the soft background muted conversations broke on her ears like the gentle small waves breaking on the shingles and the soft gentle lighting seduced her senses.

"Her name is Charlie. She's a final year law student who is and has always been very dear to me since I first saw her in hospital many years ago with her big blue eyes and her long eyelashes." A gentle nostalgic smile softened all the lines in John's face and made him feel at peace with himself when he thought of the distant Charlie out there in the adult world while the here and now was this sensuous woman who held him in her spell.

"I wish I could say the same about my son, Ross. Dropped out of uni and we're not exactly on the best of terms. It's funny, John. I thought that as he was growing up entirely in my care that I could give him my strength of will to see him through life but it didn't work out that way," Karen finished with a chill feeling of self accusation. It was as if the window to the cold world outside was opened for a moment and dispelled the delicious warm feeling, especially with this most sympathetic of men.

"You shouldn't accuse yourself this way, Karen," John said, gently placing his hand on hers. His feeling heightened by sexual anticipation were suffused with real pity and understanding and the will to make Karen feel better about herself. For someone so centred, Karen's brief display of vulnerability was far more telling than Franchesca Rochester's utterly insincere "damsel in distress" routine that had ensnared him once.

Presently, the main course of venison cooked with port and crambries arrived and they fell into a companionable silence with no need to plug the gaps of awkward stilted conversations with meaningless trivialities. They knew each other too well to behave that way.

"It's not easy being a parent these days. You need the patience of Job, the judgement of Solomon, the flexibility of mind to understand the rapid succession of teenage trends and………"

"……….still you can get it wrong. You're lucky with your daughter, John," Karen said softly, thinking of the truly gifted man opposite her who she respected.

John warmed to this very intelligent woman with a compassionate understanding who could so neatly cap his thoughts. Flickering images of the various Karens that he saw before him danced before his eyes.

They relaxed in each other's presence while they ate the meal in a leisurely fashion with no need to hurry for what both of them knew lay ahead. The conversation meandered playfully and flirtatiously along between two superbly matched individuals much as in earlier encounters, they had been combative. John admired the way Karen graciously steered the conversation along in much the way that, in another place, his lead violin steered his Mozart piece. The only difference this time was that there were two lead instruments intertwining their melodies along.

"Time to settle the bill, Karen, and then I'll take you home," John's assured voice decided them. There was no suggestion in his voice that he was merely going to drop her off and make his way back to his digs.

They hit the cold night air and the darkness back in the real world. Karen lay back in the passenger seat, content to be driven. The city lights flashed past them and John was conscious more than ever of Karen's subtle perfume and the feeling that the night was young and so was he. It was many a time since he had bought his first car when he was a student that enabled his first conquests. This nights lay in the past, the present and the future as there was no limits to what he could achieve.

Once outside her flat, John politely opened the door for Karen as she smiled up at him. Her earlier reservations had smoothly receded into the far distance as John had made the night out perfect for her. It was this that gave her a delicious feeling of normality that she was in control of her destiny and that she could have a bit of fun for once in her life. Never again would she ever have the vague impression that she once had that judges were some kind of ancient species, a hangover from a bygone age, which their dress in a wig and robes proved to the hilt.

"Would you like a night-cap?" Karen smiled at him invitingly.

"I thought you would never ask," John murmured in his best mock innocent tones.

Karen climbed the steep flight of steps that took her to a place that she was sure of feeling totally safe in the presence of this extraordinary man who wore the majesty of his robes of office so lightly. John, for his part, felt that he was approaching the consummation of his desires when he watched Karen walk on ahead up the flight of stairs ahead of him and the sight of Karen's long slim legs promised him the physical consummation of his desires. Life was good to him and blessed him while he was visited with such pleasures in the life of a carefree bachelor.

A/N: I would be failing in my duty if I didn't warn all concerned, that this chapter is without doubt rated 18.

One Hundred And Seventeen

John's initial impression of Karen's flat seemed to gel completely with her personality. It spoke of confidence, subtlety and style. Karen moved in to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine, and John began looking round. He saw that apart from the computer in one corner, all reminders of work were removed from the immediate vicinity. Moving to stand in front of the sideboard, he picked up a picture of a nineteen or twenty year old man, clearly Karen's son. When she appeared and handed him a glass of wine, he gestured to the picture and said,

"He looks like you."

"He looks more like his father," Replied Karen, as John replaced the picture where he'd found it and they sat near each other on the sofa. "He's got that innocent look that totally belies the occasionally obnoxious adolescent you'd think he still was." John laughed, hearing the clear fondness in her tone.

"Charlie thinks she takes after me," He said, "But I watched her once when she was defending a sit in at college, and when it comes to arguing her point, she's her mother through and through."

"So, tell me about George," Said Karen, lighting a cigarette, and blowing the smoke away from him.

"She's the mother of my daughter, and she appears before me from time to time. Why do you ask?"

"Because you wouldn't worry about her as much as you do if you didn't still feel something for her," She replied, blowing a smoke ring at the ceiling. John's gaze sharpened on her.

"You're very perceptive," He said, a slight smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

"It comes with the territory," Karen replied succinctly.

"George and I was, is, complicated. She wasn't really ready for the responsibility when Charlie arrived. She thinks that she totally failed at being a mother, when in fact she didn't really, she just found it a lot harder than most. Half the anger she directs at me, at Jo, at anyone is self-generated. I met her in her last year of university, and she was probably too young to think about settling down. There won't ever be a time when I don't worry about George, and a part of me will probably always love her."

"What happened with her cabinet minister? The last time I had a meeting with her about the case against area, he made an impromptu visit which she didn't seem too pleased about."

"I don't think I've ever met a more spineless cretin than Neil Haughton," John replied, with all the subdued venom of a patient adder. "He gave George a black eye because she failed to get Pilkinton and Atkins found not guilty."

"Charming," Replied Karen in disgust. "I've a feeling he was dispatched with a flea in his ear."

"More than likely," Said John. "When her father found out, he threatened to politically bury Neil, which is the one thing he fears above anything else. But I would have liked to see him answer an assault charge."

"But I guess justice doesn't usually apply to secretaries of state."

"So it would seem."

"And how does Jo fit in to your complicated lifestyle?"

"When Charlie was born, I started teaching law part time as well as practicing it, mainly because the more I practiced law, the more it took me away from home. I met Jo when Charlie was about six. Jo was one of my students. It's quite an on/off thing with Jo. Sometimes she's quite happy to bend the rules of professional propriety, and sometimes she can't stand to be in the same room as me. Jo, quite rightly, can't handle the fact that I'm what she calls a serial womaniser." He watched, as a look of dawning realisation crossed Karen's well-sculptured face.

"So," She said in slight wonderment, "That would explain George's slightly cryptic e-mail."

"Don't tell me," Said John, in half amusement, half disgust. "You weren't the only one who was unequivocally warned off this enchanting little assignation."

"You too?" Asked Karen, a twinkle appearing in those endless blue eyes that reminded him of George's.

"Oh, yes," replied John, "I was told in no uncertain terms that you didn't need my particular form of ensnarement." Karen laughed huskily.

"Well, that was very sweet of her, but I have to say, I'm glad you chose to ignore her advice. I was simply told that emotionally you would hurt me, and to be careful."

"That's to the point, I suppose. And is that piece of well-informed advice being ignored or acted upon?"

"Mostly ignored, though not entirely. What George didn't take in to consideration is that I haven't got room in my head or my life to get emotionally attached to anyone. So, no emotional attachment, no possibility of being hurt."

"Ah, that's good to know," He said, the twinkle in his eye matching Karen's.

She got up and retrieved the bottle of Chablis from the kitchen. As she moved to refill his glass, he halted her hand and said,

"Not if I'm driving." Karen looked him full in the face.

"Do you want to be driving?" She asked, her voice half-playful, half-serious, the flirtation dancing in her eyes.

"That's up to you," He said, both his gaze and his deepened tone leaving her in no doubt as to what he wanted. Karen stood for a moment, the bottle poised, clearly mulling over the choice she now had.

"I think I'd like you to stay," She said, tilting the bottle to fill his glass.

"Are you sure?" He asked gently.

"Yes," She said more certain this time as she refilled her glass. She put some soft music on, and they simply sat talking for what seemed ages. They'd both consumed a large amount of white wine, and were enjoying the feeling of being utterly relaxed after a hard week's work. Looking over at another picture of Ross on top of the television, John asked,

"What happened to Ross's father?"

"I met him soon after I started my nurse's training with the WRAF when I was seventeen. He married me when I discovered I was pregnant because he was quite a lot older than me and he wasn't going to have his child born without a father, but we weren't happy. You might say the morning sickness lasted longer than the happiness did," which made John smile. "He left just before Ross was born, a divorce following very soon after. It's odd to think of being divorced at eighteen. Then he was killed in action in the Falklands. But I see something of Ross's father every time I look at him." John had, a little while ago, rested an arm gently around her shoulders, and was playing with a lock of her hair.

"Apart from the money," He said, referring to the conversation they'd had the other day, "What made you move to the prison service?"

"I think I was sick of watching people needlessly dying. Just after Maxi Purvis killed herself, I remember thinking that I'd only exchanged one utterly failing system for another. When George came on her little visit to Larkhall, she was horrified to realise just how common it was for inmates to harm themselves."

"I think she got more than she bargained for that day," Replied John, remembering just how that day had ended.

"Oh, really," commented Karen, seeing in his face that there was more to this assertion than met the eye.

"I don't think she was disappointed," He said, leaning towards her.

"Lucky George," Said Karen dryly, just before he kissed her. When their lips met, the exploration was slow, languorous and incredibly erotic. The little sound she made in the back of her throat turned him on enormously. They could both taste the wine they'd been drinking since they'd returned from the restaurant. As they were both extremely skilled at this initial stage of conquest, it was almost a contest to see who could last the longest without coming up for air. But eventually, it was Karen, being the smoker, who was forced to take a breath. He was sincerely impressed at her durability when she immediately resumed with the clear intention of continuing for as long as necessary. He was constantly aware of the inviting swell of her magnificent breasts, and eventually he allowed his left hand to trace their curve. As he gently moved a thumb over her nipple, her eyes took on that momentarily glazed expression that told him he'd hit on one of her favourite pleasure points.

When, a while later, they moved as one towards the bedroom, clothes were rapidly discarded along the way. Neither of them could have explained how they progressed from sofa to bed, but when they found themselves touching skin to skin, it felt right. The duvet was half covering them, but John drew it back to look at her.

"You're beautiful," He said, his voice deep with arousal.

"You're not so bad yourself," She said, her eyes running over his well-muscled torso descending to a considerably large cock that certainly looked as though it was ready for action. He could feel her eyes, as though they were tiny needles forever marking him as having slept with her. He wasn't all that used to being as thoroughly scrutinized as he was being now. For Karen, this was simply because it had been a while since she'd slept with a man, her last being Ritchie Atkins to be specific, and she was determined to enjoy every moment of it. Pulling him back down towards her, she began reacquainting herself with the plains and textures of masculinity. Realising exactly what she was doing, he said,

"Is sleeping with a woman so different?" Knowing she'd been caught in the act, she laughed.

"Of course it's different," She said, moving her hand slowly downwards. He halted her hand in its progress, knowing that he wouldn't be able to last if she gave him any more attention, and wanting to maximise what was possibly her first encounter with a man since Ritchie Atkins. Moving his hand back to her right breast to distract her, he coaxed her nipple to a pebble-like hardness, eliciting a deep, throaty moan from her.

"You like that, do you?" He said mockingly, the smirk of triumph evident in his voice.

"I'd tell you if I didn't," She replied, her voice as rich and sultry as fresh honey. Inwardly cursing the fact that human beings weren't born with two mouths, he kissed his way down over her collarbones, until he was circling one of her nipples with warm, agile lips that induced in her a feeling of floating above the waves of total ecstasy.

"Tell me what you like," He said, mumbling around an exquisite mouthful of female flesh.

"There isn't much I don't," She replied, finding it almost impossible to form a coherent sentence now that his right hand was tenderly massaging her other breast so as not to make it feel left out.

"That's an evasive answer if ever I heard one," He said on a chuckle.

"Trust me," She said, "There isn't much I'm likely to say no to at this stage." It occurred to both of them, that she had once said no at and after this stage of play, but neither of them wanting to spoil the mood, they didn't mention it. But perhaps because of this, John's progress was far more tentative than it had been prior to Karen's badly chosen words. Moving back up to her lips, he simply lay kissing her and mapping gentle circles on her thigh with his left hand, almost wanting direct permission to go further.

"You don't have to be quite so cautious," She said between kisses, "Though the thought is appreciated." As if to qualify this assertion, she took his hand and gently inched it between her thighs. This confirmation that she was absolutely sure that she definitely wanted what he wanted to give her, made John feel a lot happier. As his thumb grazed over her clit and a finger dipped inside her, her legs widened in response. As he discovered just how wet and responsive she was to his ministrations, he was surer than ever that nothing but enjoyment could come out of this night. Having lubricated his finger, he moved it up and around her clit, yet not quite touching it until he knew she was inwardly screaming with frustration. Kissing his way down her body, he replaced his wandering finger with his tongue. She moaned with glorious abandon as he ran his tongue expertly over her clit and its surroundings. She tasted delightful, and he knew he could never get enough of doing this to most women. Her breathing increased as he inched two fingers inside her and kept flicking his tongue over and around her clit. She cried out when he located her G spot, and his relentlessly stabbing fingers served to push her nearer and nearer to the edge.

"Come for me," He murmured, and such unequivocal words of encouragement brought her finally to shuddering submission.

He lay watching her, as her breathing returned to normal. After having read all the horrific details of what had happened with Fenner, it gave him a feeling of immense satisfaction to know that he'd brought her to a wonderful orgasm, and hopefully not her last. When she began kissing him again, she could taste herself on his lips, which briefly made her think of Yvonne. To distract herself from treading the rocky road of guilt, she began kissing her way down his body, eventually taking his delightfully smooth, heavy cock between her lips. He sucked in a deep breath of sheer bliss when she put out a darting pink tongue to flicker over the head. Karen was certainly one of the best he'd ever had doing this to him. In fact, she was probably only superceded by George, who after years of just him, had naturally learnt exactly what made him tick. When he knew he was approaching the point of no return, he gently tugged on a lock of her hair to get her attention. They appeared to be of the same mind as she moved back to lie beside him and he hovered over her. When he entered her, she gasped.

"Did that hurt?" He asked in concern.

"It's just been a while," She said, "That's all." Now almost certain that her last male partner had been Ritchie Atkins, John was all the more determined to make her enjoy every minute of it. As he moved with deep, long strokes inside her, he inched a hand between them to give her clit some much-needed attention. He angled his hips slightly to graze her G spot with every thrust. She cried out as she came for a second time, her internal muscles squeezing him to completion. She could feel his boiling hot seed coating her insides, and he was thoroughly aware of her internal walls twitching and throbbing around him. He felt almost bereft as he gently withdrew from her, knowing just how incredible that had been for both of them.

"Do you have any idea how amazing you are?" She said after a while.

"I am told so very occasionally," He said, the post-coital grin evident in the slice of moonlight that was peeping through the chink in the bedroom curtains.

"Modesty really doesn't suit you," She said on a laugh.

"So, my being something of a serial womaniser didn't bother you then?"

"No. In fact, it probably made it easier. It meant I could do this without having to worry about either of us becoming too attached. Straight, utterly magnificent screwing is clearly what you were after, and it certainly hasn't done me any harm either." With this clear affirmation that he could feel totally relaxed with what they'd just done, he put his arms round her and began kissing her again.

"Do you know, I had therapy for it once," He said a while later.

"What, for picking up too many random women?"

"Yes, only I ended up sleeping with my therapist." Karen laughed.

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" He gave her the wide-eyed, innocent look of someone caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "And don't give me that lost little boy look," She said in mock disgust, "There's nothing wrong with being a complete and utter reprobate as long as you admit it."

"Ah, it doesn't always make me very popular with Jo, though," He said, turning serious.

"No, I bet it doesn't. But then, we do all have our flaws."

When they drifted to sleep, her soft, warm body nestling against his hard, muscular one, they both knew this would probably never happen again, but that in having done this together, they had sewn the seeds for a long and lasting friendship. For Karen, this was the first decent night's sleep she'd had in over a fortnight. She felt safe, relaxed and thoroughly content. John watched her sleep for a little while, thinking that where his philandering usually caused nothing but hassle and heartache for those concerned, this particular little escapade had almost certainly achieved some good.

When Karen woke on the Saturday morning, he was gone. What did she really expect, she thought as she turned over to reach the clock, which was when she caught sight of the note he'd left on the bedside table. Putting this down to a particularly John way of doing the difficult bit, she unfolded it.


Last night was enchanting. Please keep in touch as friends, whatever happens. I really mean that.


One Hundred And Eighteen

"I'm going to Cassie's and Roisin's, mum. Be back sometime." Lauren's carrying voice trailed down the length of the house to the lounge and just fell short of Yvonne's hearing distance.

"You what, Lauren? Shout out louder," Yvonne's stentorian voice stopped Lauren as she had opened the front door.

Sucking in a deep intake of air to the bottom of her lungs, Lauren opted for brevity.

"Cassie and Roisin's. Remember?"

"Well don't get too pissed when you go out clubbing." Yvonne gave up the battle and made the best possible guess as to what Lauren said.

Sighing, Lauren slammed the door hard and strode out to her car. She was a woman on a mission.

Lauren had heard from Yvonne about her argument with Cassie and strong feelings of guilt and a sense of urgency ran through her, making her tense and edgy. She knew very well that her period of fixated madness had been directly responsible for the break up between her mum and Karen. She now felt that Karen was the partner that her mother was destined to settle down with. It was just that, at the time, she was totally wierded out by the whole idea of her mother with another woman. She realised that she had been imprisoned by the unthinking acceptance of the rigid family values that this wasn't the sort of thing that the Atkins family did. The female Atkins honesty pushed her into concluding that the other reason for her hostility to Karen was that, as she saw it, she identified Karen as a screw, the same as the Old Bill and the Atkins and their friends didn't socialise with the Old Bill, much less go to bed with them. She had lost her brother who was a confused focus of her feelings now that, too late, she felt that she could talk to, Having messed up so far with two people's lives, all her feelings of urgency were focussed on heading off an impending fracture of relationships with another very real source of emotional nurturing.

She had an easy going comfortable relationship with Cassie and Roisin with whom she could be herself and be 'Auntie Lauren' to their two children. With the gathering clouds looming over her, she dare not lose this now. All this gave a heightened emotional edge in her urge to go over to them, to apologise to them if need be and to be with them. More than ever in her life, she needed emotional reassurance.

Lauren's car screeched round the winding roads to her destination. She slammed the car door shut with a resounding bang and knocked loudly on the familiar front door. The front door opened and the sound of Texas "When we are together" greeted Lauren's ears and Cassie appeared with an empty wine glass in her hand.

"Hey, come in, Lauren. We've laid on a bit of a party for you."

Lauren's grateful senses felt the warm comforting invitation laid out especially for her like a red carpet, gently drawing her inside. Her senses were briefly disorientated as Cassie's and Roisin's house seemed different tonight.

"I'm really sorry for what happened between you and my mum. Part of the reason why I came over is that I wanted to apologise to you," Lauren blurted out before she had time to take in her surroundings.

Lauren looks really attractive when she's apologising, Cassie thought.

"I wasn't at my best, Lauren. I'd had a lousy day and I had a stinking headache. I'm really best not to talk to when I'm like that. Roisin and the kids know that," She grinned.

"If I hadn't done what I'd done, it wouldn't have driven Karen and mum apart and you and mum wouldn't be on opposite sides," Pursued Lauren, feeling uncomfortable that the blame which she felt that she deserved was being taken off her shoulders.

"Hey, Lauren," Cassie said with gentle determination, brushing her fingertips against Lauren's cheek. "Yvonne and me go back a long way. I'll talk to Yvonne and straighten it all out. Nothing's damaged for life that I can't fix. OK?"

"Hey, what's happened?" Lauren answered in a lighter vein, suddenly noticing what was missing. "Where have the kids gone, eh?"

There was a definite party atmosphere that was totally new here. In the past, the almost religiously family atmosphere from two devoted parents drew in Lauren to revert to her childhood to play with Michael and Niamh and when they were in bed, she could savour the quiet serenity of two women who were at peace with themselves and each other. Everything was normally low key and restful.

"Michael and Niamh are at their friends' house tonight as it's half term," Roisin explained. "I know you like to see them but will just the two of us do tonight?" Roisin urged playfully.

"Everything's fine, Roisin," Lauren said evenly. All trace of her nervous edginess evaporated and she had the same feelings of anticipation that she had when she went out clubbing. She had gone out expecting one kind of night out and she had been immediately pitchforked into another kind. The feeling of surprise washed over her and she felt ready for anything.

"We've said before, Lauren, that it's not very often that the kids are away from us," Cassie elaborated. "Roisin used to feel that for the kids to be away from her for one night meant that some sort of umbilical cord was cut. I persuaded her that this was natural insecurity from years of being with Aiden. Now that she is getting some proper loving from me," And here she slipped her arm round Roisin's waist, "she doesn't have to get eaten up by guilt."

Lauren drew an intake of breath when she sensed the strong sexual vibe pass between Roisin and Cassie. This was not part of what she thought of as normality in their house but it fascinated her.

"What do you want to drink, Lauren? And don't say that you can only have a small glass of wine because you're driving," Roisin asked with an indefinable playful edge to her voice.

"I'm staying for the night, am I then?" smiled Lauren, half-questioning, half stating the obvious. She was delighted by the idea that the evening wouldn't end and it made her feel warm inside and wanted.

"Not if you want to risk some late night scalp hunting policeman adding you to his charge list<" Answered Cassie in very definite tones.

"But we'd much rather you stay anyway," Roisin hastily jumped in, highly aware that Cassie's casual talk about the police and being arrested was not exactly well timed.

"What'll you have, anyway?"

"A vodka and orange please," Lauren answered politely, unfazed by Cassie's classic gaffe.

Roisin poured a very generous measure and offered it to Lauren.

"This is so much better than sitting for hours in a parked car all hours of the day watching out for the movements of that bastard Fenner and hiding away at home," Lauren's heartfelt tones were amplified by the feel of the alcohol in her system. The evening was blossoming out to her in a way that was in tune with her feelings. "There's nowhere else I'd rather be tonight, sleeping over here. Much though I love mum, it would do both of us good not to be on top of each other twenty four seven. Anyway," and here she took another swig from the glass, "I could seriously do with some fun in my life right now."

Cassie and Roisin burst out laughing at Lauren's unconscious wordplay and Lauren, the hard faced killer of Fenner, smiled sheepishly and innocently at that joke.

"Not got some man in your life?" Cassie teased.

"Not for a long time, yeah. I don't think that any man could keep up with me. I'm going off the sort of creeps that have been hanging around me."

"So what's the problem?" Cassie asked gently.

"Ever since I've been little, all the men that have been around all remind me of Charlie," Lauren's words came out slowly and reflectively as she gazed out into nothingness. "They've all seen him as the cock of the walk and all been a pale imitation of someone I learned to be a complete waste of space. They come out with the same chat up lines, pretending to be tough and in control. It scared me when Mum told me that I looked the way Charlie used to be after, you know, when I came back from Epping Forest. I really thought that I had done my best to behave as differently from Charlie as I could possibly be. That's why I like playing with your kids, it makes me feel innocent and unspoiled. I grew up to despise the man who was my father and thought I could escape him but it's not as easy as I thought and that scares me." Lauren stared away from Cassie and Roisin so that they could not look her in the eye. Lauren's rambling words brought a sense of real pity to the other two women.

"Anyway, I go out clubbing and the men I meet aren't much better. I feel older than them, more mature and they aren't on my level. Perhaps it's that I had to grow up very fast while mum was away while they've lived their normal lives at their mum and dad's. Perhaps an Atkins woman can only marry within the criminal network but I can't deal with all that hardness. So I don't know what I do want," Lauren finished, shaking her head in bewilderment.

"Perhaps what you could do with is some softness in your life," Roisin asked Lauren, finally catching her eye.

She looked back at the other woman and nodded emphatically. Roisin was right, there was something else she wanted to let into her life.

"Hey Lauren, can you remember that time we were at your mum's playing spin the bottle?" Cassie grinned wickedly in the other woman's direction.

"As if I'd ever forget," Lauren laughed. "I was pissed at the time. It was a good laugh."

"So snogging me full on the way you did was just down to too much alcohol and nothing to do with you?" Cassie's soft voice stole in on Lauren's defences in her most dangerously innocent voice."

"It's not that," Came Lauren's uncertain answer. A total kaleidoscope of indeterminate feelings whirled through her mind equivalent to an alcoholic cocktail of confusion, inhibition and a faint tinge of desire. She floundered, feeling more out of her depth than she had ever done in commanding the Atkins empire.

"I wasn't complaining, Lauren," Roisin's provocative soft Irish voice broke in on Lauren's confusion, subtly taking her feelings by the hand.

As she looked, first at Cassie and then Roisin, both glowing mysteriously in the half light, She pulled a few threads out of the tangled tied up feelings. She latched onto her very real fears of ever coming between the two women that she was fondest of, no two women for whom her feelings were flowering.

"Are you suggesting that we play spin the bottle again, Cassie? We've got a bottle of vodka to finish off and you know very well that time we went out for a drink you got pissed and were passed out on my bed."

"Good point," Cassie said pursing her lips and looking thoughtful. Getting drunk and incapable was not in her scheme of things with Roisin and Lauren around. Then her grin split her face as the obvious solution dawned on her.

"Tell you what, Lauren? I'll spin an imaginary bottle and we'll enjoy ourselves better. It's more flexible as well."

Roisin picked up a CD and she put on Tori Amos "Scarlett's Walk" and the sensual voice and compelling music caught her imagination and her senses were taken down the very alluring trail as much as the second large vodka and orange did.

"You caught me lingering

in another girl's paradise
the way she paints the world --
I want that in my life

Emeralds, you should know,
are renting in her meadow
with a stroke beauty lives
how could I resist
you are Desire

when it all is said
said and done
who can Love you
and still be standing
there's Mary calling
up a storm
can I take from you
and not keep taking
naked as day
Gemma follows him
Does it all come down to
the thing one girl fears
in the night
is another girl's paradise

through twists and turns Jasmine foxed me
in her grove
arms filled with Honeybells,

St. Michaels Sanford Bloods

"you have come to discover
what you want"
what I want is not to
want what isn't mine
"But I am Desire"

when it all is said
said and done
who can Love you and
still be standing
there's Mary calling
up a storm
can I take from you
and not keep taking
naked as day
Gemma follows him
Does it all come down

To the thing one girl fears
in the night is another girl's paradise

Does it all
come down to
the thing one
girl fears
in the night
is another girl
is another girl
is another girl's paradise."

Lauren was unsure of exactly what Cassie was intending but let herself get drawn along without complaining, surrendering to Cassie's inviting smile and the amused look in Roisin's eyes. At the very depths of her mind, this was the perfect escape from the situation she had got herself into at home. She was transfixed with excitement and could not take her eyes off the two women who slowly turned to each other and ran their fingers around each other's bodies, Everything happened to take place in slow motion as their lips met and their mouths opened wide as they kissed each other deeply, savouring every moment.

"This has got to be the sexiest thing I've seen in my life," Lauren's voice breathed in on the two entwined living statues of female desire.

"Then why don't you join in?" Cassie's seductive voice articulated Lauren's desires. "You've done it before, remember last time."

Feelings of desire and confusion in equal measure fought for control in Lauren. A force within her that she couldn't give a name to was telling her not to do it, not to do it.

Lauren's leaden feet took her towards the two women and Cassie's slightly parted lips inched closer and closer. Finally, their lips met and Cassie delivered as expert a kiss that Lauren could remember in her life.

"Don't I get a look in," Roisin whispered into her ear as her left hand slid, expertly running its delicate way up Lauren's back.

Lauren broke off her kiss to see very close, Roisin approach her and their lips joined together, not as bold as Cassie but just as self assured. She could feel Cassie, typically not wanting to be left out of it, kissing her on the neck and running her fingers through her hair. This was surely what her dreams, hidden to herself, were urging her to go into that different world while the three of them were blessed by the dim lights and the sensuous voice of Tori Amos playing the soundtrack of their feelings.

Suddenly, not intended, not wanted, Lauren was struck down by that blind feeling of panic, as if she had woken from her dream and remembered who she was and where she should be. Lauren suddenly broke away and almost fell down in a heap on the chair feeling weak and drained. She felt ashamed of herself, totally guilty and hating the straight Atkins spirit inside her that she could not say no to.

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry," Lauren burst out, her head looking down and her long hair partly falling in front of her eyes, not daring to look either of the women in the eyes.

"Is this what you really want right now?" Roisin's concerned motherly voice asked.

"I don't know right now. I'm not sure if I know who I am."

"I felt the same when Cassie kissed me for the first time. I felt that I was not the woman I thought I was, not with my strict Catholic upbringing. You don't know how something takes charge of you and pulls you away no matter how much you want to do the opposite." To Lauren's incredible relief, she felt the light forgiving touch of Roisin's fingertips on her shoulders.

"If it happens, and it can happen in the future, that you come round here and you feel differently, you know that you can decide differently, Lauren." The words in that soft Irish voice fell on Lauren like tender raindrops to the inexpressible relief to the side of Lauren that really wanted to do and say yes.

"I know that, Roisin," And Lauren's infrequent but brilliant smile told the two other women all that they needed to know.

"Then let's have a nightcap before we settle down and go to bed. Do you want to sleep here on the settee?"

Lauren nodded a slightly dubious yes, thinking that there was an alternative and starting to mentally kick herself that tonight, at least, she had put that alternative outside her reach.

Lauren downed the glass of vodka and orange which made the edges of the room go blurry and swim round while Cassie and Roisin smiled forgivingly and affectionately, or so she felt. She hadn't ruined this relationship for life.

Presently, she lay down on the comfortable settee in the room with the golden glow while Cassie gently turned the light off. Lauren could not help watch with envy when the two women, with their arms round each other, climbed the stairs and the sounds of their lovemaking could be heard. She felt apart from something which she had made that one mistake in her life, to fail to act when she could have acted in the same way that she acted when she should have held back. These thoughts tortured her as she tossed and turned on the settee and the words of Tori Amos "From a Choirgirl Hotel" That had played earlier on the CD that had hypnotised her came back to haunt her.

"You say you don't want it again and again but you don't really mean it

You say you don't want it- the circus we're in

But you don't really mean it you don't really mean it

She's addicted to nicotine patches

She's afraid of the light in the dark

6.58 are you're sure where my spark is."

She shuffled around, trying to find the one comfortable sleeping position that would send her off to sleep but she was only too aware that, despite the comforting words, she had felt a sense of disappointment that the night had not lived up to its promise as her eyes stared out into the darkness. It seemed an eternity that until the muted sounds of ecstasy from upstairs faded away into silence. At that point, Lauren made a snap decision. It was risky but on the face of it, not half as risky as some of the things she had done in her life. It was that there were people's feelings involved, two women who she cared deeply about.

Cassie and Roisin were sexually replete and starting to doze off into a self satisfied sleep when the landing light clicked on.

"Is it all right if I come into bed with you?" came Lauren's soft, almost child like voice very apologetically. "I'm not ready for, you know what I mean, but I would really appreciate being next to both of you in bed like the way we were the night Ritchie died." "Hey, come here, Lauren. There is a space for you," Cassie called out to her, patting the middle of the bed.

Lauren clicked off the light and gratefully slid into the space made free for her. She snuggled down while she could feel soft arms slide round her and Roisin's faint breath on the back of her neck. Tonight was not all it could have been but she had done something to make matters right. Tomorrow was another day and right now, she felt secure and loved in a way she had yet to define.

One Hundred And Nineteen

Karen felt lighter of heart than she had done in a fortnight as she walked in through the prison gates on the Monday morning. Fenner was gone, and the initial shock of that announcement was slowly beginning to recede. On the question of her withholding the knowledge of Fenner's death, her conscience was relatively clear. She did feel guilty for having dropped Lauren in it, and she did feel terrible for having called it a day, albeit temporarily, with Yvonne, but these were both things it had been necessary for her to do. As for John, well, that was also something she could safely say she'd needed to do. A slow, sultry smile spread across her face at the memory of Friday evening. Her insides melted at the very thought of him. But she wasn't stupid, men like John Deed rarely came back for more. She knew she was privileged that he'd left her a note, telling her in no uncertain terms that he wanted her to keep in touch as friends. Immersed in her thoughts, she strolled casually in to her office, the soft, sexy smile being immediately wiped off her face. Standing by the window, clearly waiting for her, was Grayling.

"This is an unexpected pleasure," she said, dropping her handbag on the desk, and knowing that this had to be serious for him to accost her like this first thing on a Monday morning.

"I think a little conversation between us is fast becoming overdue," He said sternly, as she sat behind the desk.

"what have I done this time?" Asked Karen, her blasé manner further serving to irritate him.

"I think that's for you to tell me, don't you," Replied Grayling, not moving from his position in front of the window. Karen fished her cigarettes out of a jacket pocket, and lit up.

"Well, we can do this by process of elimination," She said, taking a long, satisfied drag. "As far as I'm aware, no inmate on my wing has caused any major incident over the last couple of weeks. Yes, some of the inmates have been acting up, clearly as a response to one of their officers being murdered, but they're settling down and I don't think their behaviour on that score is anything to worry about. Fenner's death obviously means that the shortage of decent officers has become far more of a priority, and quite where we'll find a replacement at the drop of a hat, is anyone's guess. In spite of everything, I think my wing is holding it's own. So, where's your problem?"

"Well, you've touched on it in a number of ways," Said Grayling carefully, though Karen could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears. "One of your officers has been murdered."

"And precisely what, do you expect me to do about it?"

"Well, filling me in on a few facts might be a start," He said, his voice imperceptibly rising.

"Such as," Asked Karen blandly, but worryingly certain of what was coming.

"Well, wouldn't you say it was a little convenient," He began icily, "that you get in to a relationship with Yvonne Atkins, and a few weeks later, the man you alleged raped you ends up dead."

"I would be very, very careful about what you're saying," Said Karen, her tone quiet but as threatening as Yvonne's could be. "I don't think being sued for slander would do you any good, would it."

"I'd rather be guilty of slander than guilty of either murder itself or perverting the course of justice," He said, her unequivocal threat rattling him.

"Just what are you insinuating?" Asked Karen, totally unable to believe that he was being quite so brazen about the matter.

"It doesn't take a bloody genius to work it out," Said Grayling scornfully. "Anyone as powerful as an Atkins, would naturally want revenge if they thought one of their associates had been harmed in some way."

"First," Said Karen firmly, "I am not, repeat not, any associate of any member of the Atkins family. Second, even if Yvonne wanted revenge on Fenner for what he did to me, she's not stupid enough to think of breaking the law a second time. She was behind bars long enough not to want to go through it again. My third and final point, is that you've got absolutely no right to question me like this."

"Well, considering your previous liaison with an Atkins, and the disastrous results that achieved, I'd have thought I was well within my rights to find out if you were in the process of making a similarly catastrophic mistake. What is it about the Atkins charm. First the son, now the mother. I'd have thought you'd have learnt your lesson."

"Do you know something," Said Karen, sounding falsely cheerful. "You're the second person to say something like that to me in less than a week, and I'm getting a little sick and tired of hearing it." Then, her anger broke over Grayling's head like a tropical storm. "don't you ever speak to me like that again. That is going way beyond the professional call of duty for a superior. It's verging in to the blatantly inquisitive. There's one little angle of all this that you seem to have conveniently forgotten about. Not so long ago, you covered up for Fenner, withheld knowledge about Fenner's having raped one of your juniors from area management. You were also well aware that I was forming a case against Fenner and area management, because I didn't exactly do much to hide the fact. You were perfectly well-acquainted with the knowledge that two barristers and a Judge had visited me on separate occasions, all of whom were at least peripherally involved with the case I was putting together with George Channing. If either the criminal or the civil case had got to court, which I can assure you it would have done, you'd have looked pretty bloody stupid if and when your cover up was revealed. If I'd won, you'd almost certainly have been facing a disciplinary along with Fenner, which wouldn't have enhanced your chances of being promoted to grade one. You'd very possibly have been kicked out of the service for covering up such a serious crime. One might ask what you had to do with Fenner's death, because where there's no Fenner, there's most certainly no case. Without him to rock the boat, your job is safe for good, and let me remind you, that you had absolutely no problem with me having the semblance of an affair with one Atkins, so you have no room whatsoever to talk to me about my brief and now ended affair with the other. Do I make myself clear?" When she'd finally run out of steam, they simply stared at each other, like the Roundheads and the Cavaliers, both armies facing each other across the county line, working out who would strike next. Grayling was the one to back down first.

"I didn't have anything to do with Jim Fenner's death," He said soberly.

"No," Said Karen, the anger still clearly visible though slightly retreated, "Neither did I."

"So, who did?" Asked Grayling, as if Karen held all the answers.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Said Karen, thinking that with practice, her act really was getting better.

"Maybe Sylvia's right," Grayling added, "Maybe it was an ex-con. Let's face it, he must have upset enough of them in his time."

"I doubt it," Karen replied, "Look at it logically. To pull this off successfully, whoever it was, must have stalked him for some time before it happened. They'd have needed to know where he lived, which shifts he worked, that kind of thing. If Fenner was being followed by an ex-con he knew, he would have twigged, he wasn't that stupid. any con he had any serious dealings with, he would have remembered, which shoots Sylvia's theory right out of the water. The police would do better to focus on ex-partners. After all, he probably had enough of them who might have wanted to do away with him."

"Which brings it back to you," Said Grayling reasonably.

"No, it doesn't," Replied Karen, calming down. "I was pursuing him the legal way. If he'd been convicted of rape, which there was a bloody good chance he would have been, he'd have suffered for the rest of his life. Ex-screws don't get an easy time of it in prison, and Fenner wouldn't have made it any easier for himself. I wanted him behind bars. I wanted him to suffer for what he did to me, to Helen Stewart, to countless others. But for that to happen, he needed to be alive. So, that's why I didn't kill him, that's why I had absolutely nothing to do with his death." Thinking over what Karen had said, Grayling stayed quiet for a while.

"Would now be the right time to apologise for covering up for him?" He eventually asked.

"It might be," Said Karen dryly, "If I believed you meant it, which I don't. You've been caught out making the worst mistake I suspect you've ever made in your life. Don't use Fenner's death as an excuse to try and make up to me for what you did. You were responsible for his escaping justice, and for me questioning every move I've made concerning his case. So, please, don't try to put your professional betrayal aside just because the cause of it's dead and gone. If you ever reach the day when you are truly sorry for making me work with him day after day, knowing what he was capable of, then yes, I will accept your apology, but not before." As Grayling rose and walked out of her office, Karen wondered if he ever would repent his cover up of more than one of Fenner's crimes, but she doubted it. Men like him only felt regret for things that concerned them specifically, not for anyone else. Not for her would Grayling ever regret what he'd done. Not for her, not for Helen, not for Shell dockley or any of the others. Grayling would, in his typical, spineless manner, try to put the affair behind him, as something that could for ever be swept under the carpet of his hopeful and continuing rise in professional status.

One Hundred And Twenty

"So how was Yvonne bearing up when you saw her?" Helen's question was accompanied by a sudden squall of wind and rain beating on the window, making them glad they were inside. Summer had long past and it was the time of the year when people started to huddle inside their houses.

"Not good," Nikki reflected out loud. "She was obviously glad to see me but I got the feeling that part of the reason that she opened up was that she hasn't got anyone else to talk too."

"Go on," Helen murmured, knowing that Nikki was at her best verbally groping towards the truth in her intuitive way.

"Yvonne is, or was, one of the proudest, close mouthed women that I've ever known. For instance, you remember Renee Williams."

"I've heard about her, Nikki, but I had hardly anything to do with her. I had only just started to spend more time at Larkhall with the 'lifers group.'" Helen's memory spoke aloud in reply.

"I was in the toilets chatting to Yvonne and next I knew was this headcase comes at her from behind with a razor blade. She managed to cut Yvonne before I put a full nelson hold on her and dragged her away from Yvonne. In my well-meaning way, I advised her to watch out for her and she got very defensive saying that she could look after herself. That's Yvonne all over. That was what convinced me that she's got real problems."

"You sound as if you really want to help her, Nikki," Helen remarked as they lay back on the settee letting the aches and pains of a day's hard work ease out of their bodies.

"I'd just like them to have the same chances that we've had since we got out of Larkhall but I'm not sure if it is possible. Not after what I know about you as Wing Governor and Karen Betts won't be much different."

"What do you mean, Nikki?" Came Helen's slightly defensive retort.

"You're a private citizen now, same as I am," Smiled Nikki. "But I know now looking back at everything that your job made you ultra careful not to be in any way shape or form compromised. You had a position to uphold, not only to prisoners but the others lower down in the shit heap. Add Stubberfield breathing over your shoulder and your Minister father," and here Nikki pulled a face, "and you were one very unrelaxed woman. And in a way rightly so or you couldn't have done your job. I'm a bit the same now with the responsibility of a club to run with Trisha. It's a smaller scale thing, no women behind bars resenting your very existence but not so different. I've thought about it a lot."

Helen ruffled Nikki's hair in a gesture of pure affection for the woman who she was profoundly glad she saw behind the total hard case of years ago who spurned all authority, hers included, with words as barbed and jagged edged as the broken bottle with which she had killed the policeman.

"You know, even though that bastard is dead and six feet under, he still has that ability to ruin people's lives," Helen's slow paced Scottish accent crystallised the dread suspicion that neither of them wanted to acknowledge. The shadow should have lifted but it hadn't. And Nikki shook her head incredulously in denial of that thought.

"Once that bastard has gone and is unable to twist, abuse and fuck up the lives of anyone around him, surely everyone should be able to sort their own lives out and live happily ever after or am I being hopelessly romantic?" Nikki paused a second letting the question or statement hang in the air before plunging on in the blind passionate assertion of all the hopes and fears that balanced in her soul.

"Take Yvonne, for instance, put her gangland associations to one side and she is one of the good ones if ever there was one. OK I never had that much to do with Karen but surely not having him around can't make her go and tare up their relationship like this. Lauren only went out and killed Fenner like I did the same to Gossard except that I did it on the spur of the moment and she must have planned it. Surely Karen can see that?" It frightened her that the one happy thought that was worth throwing the parties to end all parties was starting to go sour. Good should triumph over evil, surely.

"It's not as easy as that, Nikki. Karen can't lay Yvonne's past on one side as easily as that," Helen answered softly. "Besides, disasters can happen despite the best of intentions. It happened to us. Remember that time we were in Larkhall and that riot caused us to break up just at the point when the one thing we were working for, your appeal, was starting to go our way?"

Helen poured a drink while Nikki fell silent, afraid of what Pandora's Box Helen was rashly opening. Nikki felt that she was shrinking into the settee while Helen paced round the flat to aid her place her thoughts in order.

"We've never talked about it before as it was painful to both of us," Started Helen, then stopped.

Nikki shivered at the evil memory.

"That's the understatement of the century, Hel," She muttered quietly.

"Will you trust me just one more time to lay this out before us as if I were delivering a history lecture and Helen Wade and Nikki Wade are historical characters?" Helen cut in, feeling bolder and more certain of her ground, a trick of her daytime trade aiding her.

Nikki could relate to this approach, she hoped.

"It all started when you got talking to Femi, and you wanted to get her help as she was a convicted drugs courier. She was jailed and stuck in a foreign country unable to speak a word of English, with children at home with no one to look after them. You came to me and asked me to help her out, right."

Nikki nodded her initial panic calming down as she looked into Helen's eyes.

"We both blew it as I had started to get too smug for my own good, thinking that I could fix everything on my own because I had had a run of successes. You got a bit too impatient challenging me on that point and I never told you what I had in mind as I could have done to talk to her through a translator and earphones. You got pretty pissed off with me as I can well understand."

"Yes, and we were all grumbling about it in the evening, me, Crystal, Babs, the Julies…….."

"All the old lags…." Grinned Helen.

"It was the others who suggested doing something about it and I tried to persuade them against it. When the feeling went against me, I had to be the leader as that was my position and I stood on my soapbox, sorry, the chair, and started spouting off…."Smiled Nikki almost nostalgically before her face darkened at the memory of what happened next. "Anyway, Bodybag came along with her big boots, sent in the heavy mob and pushed us into a sit down strike. We only wanted information as to what was happening to her……."

"Which, if I was around in the right place at the right time and I was thinking straight, I could have explained and cooled everything down. She later kept banging on to me to send in the riot squad and I held her off," Helen exploded with anger as it was only now that she had heard the truth as Sylvia, typically, had covered up her side in the affair.

"I'd changed over the months, thanks to you, Helen. I remember mouthing off once that everyone should be sacked over Carol Byatt's miscarriage. The second time around I called out for those responsible to be disciplined…."

"It was you speaking my lines that got me angry as I couldn't say out in the open that you were right. I'd had enough stick for being prisoner's friend and I overcompensated…."

"…….and I had the whole bloody thing stolen out of my hands by the bloody Peckham Boot Gang. I felt sick at heart and couldn't look you in the eye……."

"…..and I blamed you for kicking off the riot which you didn't want or I. We had good intentions……."

"But good intentions aren't necessarily enough."

"If we had talked over what had gone wrong that day, could we have put things right between us, Helen?"

"We might, Nikki, but you know well that there wasn't ever the chance of that space and time in Larkhall. There never was that chance and we had to have some space from each other. There was no alternative until we could work it out on the outside of Larkhall."

"But Karen and Yvonne are free," Nikki insisted.

"Karen's a wing Governor at Larkhall and Yvonne might not be able to escape from her past as easily as she thinks she might, especially where Lauren is concerned. We're in a different situation. You've got to admit that Yvonne's had a criminal background for years and has children who could easily pull her back if only for covering up for her. Remember that I've seen her file. I like her and I trusted her as much as I trusted you as to what went on at Larkhall, far more than Sylvia and Jim Fenner."

Helen uttered the last names as if she had eaten something distasteful and had to be spat out as soon as possible.

"I'm sorry, Nikki, but I can see where Karen is coming from. I'm utterly detached from Larkhall and it is much easier for you to pick up the threads of where you left off. Think carefully."

Nikki's face betrayed her discomfort as Helen had held forth but at the end of the day, she pieced her way along the links in the logical chain that Helen had cast and she couldn't find a fault.

"You talked to Karen on the phone recently and you got on with her. I know you didn't want to get mixed up with Larkhall any more but………."

"I'll go and talk to Karen and do what I can for her. Things are different now. No court case now against Fenner, no trials, and no witnesses. The ball game has changed. The one person who blighted my life at Larkhall can't hurt or threaten me now. Whatever happened at Larkhall may come to haunt many people's lives but not us, Nikki. I'm not afraid to talk to those whom we liked once and still like. That's a bit of you rubbing off on me."

"That's not the only way I've influenced you," Nikki's seductive voice and wide smile reflected on the woman who swore blind that 'she was not into women.'

Helen playfully through a cushion at Nikki and missed by a mile.

"I'd like to get back to where I used to be with Karen with someone whose heart was in the right place even if she had a lousy taste in men. That's the one debt to the past I would like to repay."

Part 121

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