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

Part Fifty One

As everyone filed out of court, Karen and George felt a similar desire to go home and simply hide from the rest of the world. For George this was impossible because she lived with Neil Houghton, and he would be wanting an update on how the trial was going, and a further assurance that Merriman and Atkins would be found not guilty. George dreaded going home. She didn't want the kind of interrogation she'd been receiving from Neil on a daily basis since she'd taken over from Brian Cantwell. She just didn't have the energy for it. She had half a mind to drive over to the university and persuade her daughter, Charlie, to come for a drink with her. It'd been a while since they'd done that, and George thought it was long overdue. This time when she fulfilled her habit of lighting a cigarette on the steps of the court, her body seemed to sag as she leaned against the wall. She was exhausted, mentally or physically she wasn't sure. She heartily regretted ever having agreed to take on this case. But then, when did she ever have a choice when it came to political dynamite like this one. It was a shock to her to realise that when Neil wanted something done, he niggled, harrassed and cajoled until he got exactly what he wanted. He didn't seem to care what she knew his efforts were gradually doing to her reputation as a barrister, he just said here's a case, I either want them off or convicted and she usually acquiesced. She usually managed to put up some sort of a fight, but he always broke through her defences in the end.

As Karen, Yvonne and the rest of them came out of the front doors, George was struck by the level of communal support and friendship that seemed to surround the six of them. Four of them had been inmates in Larkhall prison, one was a daughter of one of the four ex-cons, the sixth their former wing governor, and George had been aware of their presence in the public gallery throughout the trial. But something was a bit different today. Karen walked a little apart from them, looking almost lost. Karen's eyes met George's as she passed, in brief acknowledgement of their earlier conversation. Karen walked to her car, knowing she should talk to Yvonne, but not entirely sure what to say. She rummaged in her handbag looking for her car keys. Yvonne approached her quietly.

"Are you still hiding from me?" She asked gently. Karen looked up, finally meeting Yvonne's eyes for the first time since Ritchie had spoken out in court this morning.

"I don't know what to say," Replied Karen.

"You don't have to say anything."

"Yvonne, last night was the happiest I think I've felt in a long time."

"I know," Said Yvonne, trying to see where Karen's thoughts were headed. "It was for me too."

"I didn't expect to feel the way I do about you," Said Karen, finally letting out the thoughts that had followed her round all day. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I don't want to lose you just because I couldn't keep my legs closed once too often."

"Let's get one thing straight," Said Yvonne, her voice gentle but firm. "I hate hearing you talk about yourself like that, so please don't do it. I've known you slept with Ritchie for quite a long time now. I might not like it, but there's nothing you or I can do about that. It happened. What's more important, is that I know why it happened."

"Do you?" Asked Karen in a small voice, tears clouding her vision.

"It's obvious," Said Yvonne softly. "You did whatever you did with Ritchie to prove you still could, to prove that Fenner hadn't totally ruined something you used to enjoy. There isn't anything wrong in that."

George was watching Karen and Yvonne from where she still stood, smoking on the top step of the court. She observed that the other four women left discretely, giving the two women some much needed space. She was musing on the whole idea of an ex-con and her jailer and whether they would make a good couple or not, when John and Jo appeared, clearly arguing.

"Recalling Fenner and Karen to the stand was a complete and utter waste of time," John was insisting.

"John, you can't say that," Jo said, clearly getting in to her stride.

"Much as I hate to admit it, Fenner gave vital evidence that the jury needed to hear."

"Rubbish," Replied John. "As a prosecution witness he was a disaster from the word go."

"All's well in the nest, I see," Commented George, receiving a monumental glare from both of them.

"You have to agree with me, George," John persisted.

"Actually," Said George, flicking away her cigarette end. "I don't. James Fenner might be one of the most corrupt men I've had the displeasure of meeting, but the evidence he gave certainly didn't do the prosecution any harm. I wish I hadn't insisted on Karen Betts being recalled though." John looked at George closely.

"You look tired," He said. "Are you taking care of yourself?"

"Does he ever do the old mother hen routine on you?" George asked Jo who smiled.

"Oh, regularly," She said.

"Well, are you?" John persisted.

"As much as I ever did," George replied.

"That doesn't exactly fill me with boundless optimism," Commented John.

"I'm sorry," Said Karen.

"You've got nothing to be sorry for," Replied Yvonne, putting her arms round Karen. It'd been less than twenty four hours since they'd been so close, but it felt like a year.

"Don't push me away again," Said Yvonne, more relieved than she cared to admit that Karen was talking to her again.

"I thought I might entice our daughter out of the university library and see if she feels like a drink," Said George.

"She spends too much time in that place for the summer holidays," Replied John.

"I bet you were exactly the same," Said Jo.

"At least I didn't spend my time rescuing defenceless animals and landing them on my father at a moment's notice."

"Jo," Said George looking over at Karen and Yvonne, "I think you're about to win your bet."

As Yvonne kissed her, Karen knew this felt like coming home. Every hope she had for her own future rested in this woman who had been the catalyst which made her take that step of falling in love with a woman. They stood between the cars, arms tightly round the other, gently kissing away some of the hurt.

"Oh, to finally prove you wrong," Said Jo, the glee evident in her voice. John just stood and stared. When he'd spoken to Karen Betts over a week ago, he could have sworn she was as straight as the ruler that lived irrevocably on Coope's desk. Yet here she was, kissing and being kissed by another woman, by Yvonne Atkins.

"The world's going mad," He said.

"John darling, it's rude to stare," Said George, sounding like a stern parent when he still couldn't take his eyes off them. Jo laughed.

"Don't mind him, George," She said. "He's just encountered his first sexual anomaly."

"Women never cease to amaze me," said John, finally dragging his gaze away from Karen and Yvonne.

"Oh, that's good to know," Said Jo with a smile.

"Why would two clearly normal women suddenly decide that men aren't good enough any more?"

"Don't knock it till you've tried it, darling. Isn't that what you always told me?" If John had been in the habit of blushing, he would have been as red as a beetroot at this remark from a woman whom he'd taught many things. But John Deed didn't blush.

"So, what does he have to do now that he's lost?" Asked George, clearly hoping it was something truly awful.

"He is going to cook me a three course meal of my choice," Said Jo.

"Not a bad bargain," Said George, impressed.

"Couldn't I just take you out for a meal instead?" Asked John, looking slightly uncomfortable.

"No way," Protested Jo. "You agreed to the bet so now you have to stick to it."

"I doubt he's ever lost a bet in his life," Said George.

"I don't usually make the habit of betting on lost causes," Replied John.

"You were so certain," Said Jo, not able to resist the urge to gloat.

"Just tell me one thing," John said, ignoring her taunt. "Tell me that neither of you two are about to shatter my illusions and do the same thing." George grinned wickedly.

"That'd give you a shock, wouldn't it," She said, wondering just what his reaction would be if she did. John put an arm round both of them.

"Promise me," He cajoled. "Just to save my sanity."

"Oh, I don't know," Jo said, giving George a wink. "It might be fun."

"You really are an old dinosaur," Said George affectionately.

"You two will be the death of me," Replied John.

"I promise," Said Jo, looking him straight in the eye. George also gave him her word, though Jo was alert enough to note the fact that George didn't entirely meet his eyes.

"Thank God for that," He said, "The world really would be going mad if either of you strayed off course."

"Bloody cheek," Said George, moving out of his hold. "You're a fine one to talk about straying."

"Okay, okay," He said, holding his hands up. "I know I'm not perfect."

"Far from it," Quipped Jo, heartily glad that Karen Betts wasn't available. She was just John's type, blonde, blue-eyed, and with a very well constructed figure. As she thought of Karen, her eyes drifted over to see them both getting in to Karen's car and driving away.

"I think we were being watched," Said Yvonne as they drove out of the carpark.

"We were," Replied Karen, waiting for the lights to change. "I've a feeling they had a bet on us."

"You what?"

"I think Jo had a bet with the judge that we weren't as straight as we looked."

"Bet he got the shock of his life," Said Yvonne beginning to laugh. What they didn't know, was that Jo had wondered about the extent of their friendship even before they had themselves.

"The things the judiciary concern themselves with," Said Yvonne. "You'd think they'd have better things to do."

"It might all be over by this time tomorrow," Said Karen quietly.

"Yeah, I know. Let's hope justice prevails for once, and that Merriman gets what's coming to her."

Part Fifty Two

The heat from the fire could be felt in Karen's face and the smoke stung her eyes and she fought for self control in the chaos and confusion. She turned away from the sight and tears washed some of the particles from her eyes. Even now, she could only partly accept the evidence of her senses that the day to day Larkhall was wrenched out of her experience and she was catapaulted into a dream like environment of something terrifying and unknown which she wished she could wake up from.……….

She looked down outside a window at the fire engine in the yard, hosepipes snaking their way from the hydrant that the firemen had found in the nick of time. In an inspired fury of activity, the hosepipes had shot a solid stream of water through the grills in the nick of time. Clouds of smoke were still billowing out the window where five of them had been shut up though the walls and ceiling were now dripping with water.

Karen stood dazedly trying to hold onto her professional self in giving out the necessary orders on automatic pilot. The ambulancemen had crashed their way through the wreckage of the library corridor and Karen could see the smoke blackened figures of the 2 Julies, Babs, Buki, Al and Denny as they were pulled out on stretchers, one, two, three four and five, Buki being the most seriously burnt.

She shivered with self-reproach to think that Larkhall prison had the firehose which had stood from time immemorial in the landing and no one had thought how far the hose would stretch. Typical old time Larkhall that Grayling's thin veneer of managementspeak had done sod all to check. No one even thought of it as being a problem as no one had started looking, noone had had that imagination. Including herself, as she had a stab of self reproach. Twenty feet too bloody short.

And, in the most charred part of the blaze, the side door, burnt to a cinder that had powdered into dust when the firemen's axe had tapped it, was Shaz Wiley lying on her face and her clothes badly singed. Karen had had to hold onto her stomach when she saw it herself and when she had told Denny the news, Denny had burst into tears and sobbing had clung on to her. Karen could remember stroking the cheek of the woman who clung to her and whispering "shh" "shh" into the top of her mop of frizzy hair. It seemed the natural thing for her to do with her long training as a nurse..

Karen couldn't remember what happened next, where Denny went too next but she remembered feeling that she was being well taken care of so she was free to look further at the wreckage. The metal framework of the library racks leant over into the corridor, warped and twisted by the heat while the library books were turned into a heap of ashes. Ugly jagged holes punctured the library wall from the impact of the first blast from the explosion. This was like something like out of a war film as she had watched occasionally on the telly in a moment of boredom.

Once again, Karen felt the heat and the smoke but this cannot be as everything was under control, wasn't it. This wasn't going to go away as easily as the workmen could repair the place, stripping out all the damaged area and tacking new panelling into place. All it takes is that and fresh white paint slapped on the walls and have the place as good as new. She could remember later on her tour of the library wing later on as the proud workmen showed her round the clean fresh area, all sharp clean right angles still smelling of gloss paint on the skirting boards. It's a pity that burns and nightmares take longer to heal. She had been a nurse so she should know.

"How are you feeling, Julie" Karen asked, smiling kindly at the woman in the hospital bed.

"Like shit, Miss Betts." Julie Saunders replied, smiling weakly at her. "Hope you've caught whoever torched the place. We was thinking we'd better get fitted for some wings, if 'eed have us, when the fire brigade rescued us."

"Rescued us," the inevitable delayed echo came from Julie Johnson."Still, you'd better watch Babs over there." Julie S pointed to a sleeping shape turned away from them on her side, huddled under bedclothes. "We was calling out to her earlier, like but she couldn't hear us. When we was in the fire, there was blood coming out of her ear."

A tear came to Karen's eye, easily wiped away when she reflected on the way they had brushed aside their own sufferings in place of someone worse off than them. A real smile of appreciation formed itself easily on Karen's face of the unselfconscious down to earth normal women .They succeeded in rooting her feet to the ground when she needed it and even their singed hair and surface slight burns weren't the visible reproaches she might have feared from them.

…….."Yes, Julies, I'll do everything in my power to get to the bottom of this one , how in hell this infernal bomb, or whatever it was, exploded…..Have no fear on this one."

The nurse came up and explained that they were weak and needed plenty of rest and Karen nodded agreement with their professional opinion as the Julies smiled and closed their eyes. She remembered that first resolve and what happened since………..

Karen turned to walk out of the ward but her normally smooth fitting tailored suit seemed to ride awkwardly on her and seemed to get twisted on her. She walked out through the double doors which swung back shut and went into the ladies to adjust her uniform…

Suddenly, through the door of the cubicle , Fenner's dark form looked, sneering with a mixture of contempt and anger.

"Don't you dare let on and tell tales out of school, Karen Betts, or I'll have you. Stewart's gone, Dockley's gone, Waddle's gone. I got rid of them all one way or another. Looks like your new boyfriend, Atkins's son is next for the chop. I wouldn't like to think what nasty end will happen to him, sooner or later. Nothing I've done will ever see the light of day but it'll be nicely covered up, just where it belongs. You know what I mean…….."

Karen couldn't make head nor tail of this. What did she have to do with Ritchie Atkins anymore ? She twisted away sideways in a frantic effort to escape him and…..she felt a hard lump of metal and the cold evil voice of Snowball and the peculiar personal viciousness with which she said it, conveying every willingness to use the weapon at the first chance.

"Remember I'm an actress. If you don't play this straight, you'll get it."

"Oh yes, Snowball. Like Shaz got it and half of G Wing burnt in the fire that your bomb started but I suppose you didn't mean that to happen." Karen replied sarcastically.

She still felt that wave of real fear sweep over her at the thought that perhaps she was pushing this cow too far when she saw the expression of pure hate on Snowball's face and from the crazy way she's pointing that gun at me.

Jesus, why has she got it in for me so much when Yvonne is her main enemy on the wing. Those scratch marks on the side of her face are hardly marks of friendship.

"You can turn back to Larkhall anytime, Snowball, "Karen urged "You'll just pile more years on your sentence if you don't. You don't want to end up in the dock again on more charges."

"Actually, I do have a good reason to waste a bullet on you, don't I." Snowball's mouth curled with vicious anger." You didn't stop me getting free last time. But don't think you're that important. You're just Ritchie's old shag."

"I'll finish you, you dried up old slag. Leaving me for your new boyfriend, that gangster's moll's son." Fenner's disembodied voice came from behind her in the rear passenger seat. She glanced in the rear view mirror but couldn't see him. But these mirrors had their blind spot and that bastard must really be there.

I can't believe these two. Who are they talking to, Karen Betts? They've got some weird idea that I'm desperately in love with Ritchie and I'm going to shag him just to spite them. Both these two are totally evil but now they're deranged and absurd. I'm the only person making sense around here. They don't know me.

The car sped onto a rough track where she was bundled into the boot of Ritchie's car.

She was wedged tight in total blackness with hardly any sensation except the bumping sounds as the car sped along. She felt a peculiar sensation of being pulled sideways as the car drove. Thank God Fenner's disappeared. Hope him and Snowball keep each other company. They deserve each other. Karen was now just pissed off and irritated and bracing herself with her knees and hands to stop being thrown around in the car. A large assorted metal lump which she supposed to be car tools was digging painfully into her back.

"You can't get away from me, Karen." A loathed voice suddenly spoke into her ear."No matter where you go, I'll always find you." She could feel his breath on her cheek though strangely, she couldn't feel any part of him touching her in such a confined space..

"That's just where you're wrong, Fenner." Karen took fire. She brought her knee sharply forward aiming in the direction of where it hurt most.

Fenner let out an agonised yell as her knee contacted something solid and he faded away into nothingness. Karen smiled with grim satisfaction that, for once in her recent experience, she was making sense of her environment and that she was able to change it. Something right was happening in her life. Anything you can do, Mark Waddle, I can do just as well, and in a much more difficult situation. That's the answer, she thought to herself with satisfaction, deal with your enemies one by one. It's a pity that that deranged cow wouldn't stop the bloody car so I could deal with her.

Suddenly the car gathered speed by the sensations she was experiencing. She could detect by a screech of tyres as the car cut a corner too tight. Oh shit, car chase film never did impress me. And I'm in the wrong bloody place anyway . Karen groaned as the car hit a bump in a road that was clearly some rough track and not some smooth dual carriageway. Now she was thrown all over the place and she had to exert all her strength to avoid being injured. The car tools were working around in the boot but by bracing her back against it with all her strength, it stopped them becoming a dangerous missile to be flung against her. She couldn't see a thing as her hair was falling all over her eyes. She must look a right sight, hair all tangled and her makeup all messed up. .

Suddenly the car gave an almighty swerve to the left that nearly threw her into the opposite corner of the boot. Every muscle in her body fought back but , just when she was about to give in to the enormous pressure, the car suddenly straightened up , slowed down and she sensed the feel of smooth tarmac from the movement of the car. Karen drew a huge sigh of relief that at least that danger had passed.

The car gradually slowed down and she could feel the brakes grind the car to a halt. Suddenly, an enormous rectangle of sky and cloud opened up in front of her and Snowball's scowling face leaning into the space.

"OK, out, bitch" Snowball sneered, manhandling Karen and knocking her to the ground. Karen lay full length on the ground and shouted 'Jesus' at her and looked down the length of Snowball's revolver pointing straight at her. Even though part of her was frozen with fear, the part most in control was damned if she was going to let Snowball have that satisfaction of sensing that fear. That cow gets off on that sort of thing.

"OK Merriman, freeze. I've got you covered" A loud, very familiar voice leapt out of nowhere, no voice that was more welcome or more precious. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the unmistakable slim hawk like silhouette of Yvonne Atkins. But something was strange. Instead of her familiar leathers. Yvonne was wearing jeans, shirt and a brown leather waistcoat. A Stetson hat was perched on her head, incongruously and, round her waist, a gunbelt. She was covering Snowball with a regulation Colt 45

"Mum, don't shoot." Ritchie called out in fear, torn between his mother and girlfriend and indecisive as usual in a moral dilemma.

Snowball's scowling face turned to her hated rival and her pistol cracked, her shot going wide. Yvonne's gun cracked in reply and winged Snowball in her left shoulder. The impact of the shot flung her back against the car where Ritchie instinctively grabbed hold of her.

Karen struggled to her feet, immediately aware that some grotesque trick of fate had transformed her appearance into the classic damsel in distress, Doris Day Cowboy Western style, complete with flouncy dress.

"I can't remember putting this bloody dress on first thing in the morning even though I know I'm half asleep. The whole of Larkhall must have been laughing their heads off at me. This day has been a nightmare from beginning to end."

Totally mortified yet pleased to be rescued, Karen started to walk towards Yvonne in these ridiculous shoes to match that destiny had chosen her when she felt a frightful wrench to the ankle and fell over headlong and this stupid dress seemed to wrap herself round her legs and ……..

and……and, she rolled sideways and toppled down with a bump onto the floor, pulling the quilt with her on top.

"Where the hell am I?" Karen asked feeling dazed and confused, mentally in dreamland.

"You've been tossing and turning keeping me bleeding awake half the night." Yvonne mumbled sleepily, "and not for the right bleeding reasons. Come on, you'd better come back into bed and tell me what happened,"as Yvonne poked her head over the side of the bed. In her understated matter of fact way that was exactly what Karen needed at that point to get her bearings.

Karen scrabbled at her surroundings to ease herself up off the corner of the floor and the bed where she was stuck. She half flopped, half slid sideways back into her double bed that she had somehow fallen out of. She snuggled up next to Yvonne's warm comforting body to make her feel real again.

"I dreamed that I was in a Wild West film with you and Snowball was trying to kill me after I got dragged out of the car boot……….And you came to rescue me."

"Oh, yeah, and I was dressed as bleeding Wyatt Earp with a six shooter, Karen." Yvonne joked, trying to get her head round this one.

"Nearly right, Yvonne." Karen said with a straight face."And I was also back in time at the time of the fire."

She stumbled on searching for words in disjointed phrases as much as she could make sense of her nightmare. As much as anything else, Yvonne's down to earth Cockney accent and her physical presence did wonders in dragging her back from her grotesque nightmare that she had lived so that and ease her into the early morning sunshine.

Hazy thoughts passed across her mind like the first taste of ground mist on an otherwise sunny day that Snowball and Ritchie had to be faced, for real, across the great divide between the visitor's gallery and the dock where the two accused awaited justice. Perhaps today, the ghosts that haunted her dreams would have a decent burial. But till then, after her unconscious had been grappling all night with this in its scrambled way, she deserved to lie in blissful limbo in her bed with the tenderness and comfort of Yvonne's warm body to hold onto.

Part Fifty Three

On the Friday morning when they reconvened in the public gallery, Karen privately thought she'd seen enough of this place to last her a lifetime, and wondered how the Judge could stand it day in day out. They had adopted a way of sitting, with Lauren on the far left of the front row, and Roisin next to her. They would be followed usually by Cassie, Barbara, Yvonne and then Karen, with only the occasional alteration. It was an accepted arrangement that Karen and Lauren sat as far from each other as possible. A cease fire still hadn't been reached between Yvonne and Lauren on the subject of Karen, and Yvonne was all too aware that hostilities would resume with a vengeance after the trial was over. Karen took note that the two spineless-looking individuals that had been present yesterday had once again taken their places a couple of rows behind. When they all rose at the Judge's entrance, Karen thought that if this charade went on much longer, the whole cast of this farcical play might just take root.

"Ladies and gentlemen," John began as he looked at the jury. "In the words of Mr. Justice Roskill,in the Crown versus List 1996, it is my duty to ensure a fair trial. I consider that I have fulfilled this duty to the best of my ability. You have heard from two excellent opposing councils, both of which have presented to you a range of witnesses, whose testimonies you can either believe or disbelieve. Your task will not be an easy one. Both defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit arson, and you must decide whether either, both or neither of them is guilty of this crime. By extension of conspiracy to commit arson, and as a result of Sharon Wiley's death, Tracy Pilkinton, also referred to throughout this trial as Snowball Merriman, is charged with manslaughter. If your feeling is that she is not guilty of conspiracy to commit arson, then she must therefore by extension, not be guilty of the manslaughter of Sharon Wiley. Tracy Pilkinton is further charged with grievous bodily harm. In making your decision as to her guilt or innocence on this charge, you must decide whether her clear refusal to release the gun from her possession makes her guilty of this crime, or, if, because she did not intend to shoot her co-defendant, she is innocent. As well as being charged with conspiracy to commit arson, Ritchie Atkins is also charged with assisting an offender and with the unlawful possession of a firearm. You may consider that these charges are somewhat minor compared to those of his co-defendant, but I urge you to give them just as much time and examination. The unlawful possession of a firearm and that of assisting an offender, are extremely serious, but perhaps more so in this case. You may feel that the way in which Mr. Atkins assisted his offender led to the untimely and unnecessary death of Sharon Wiley. However, you may also decide otherwise. There are many judges who do not encourage their juries to give some thought to the possible sentence they might recommend should any defendant be found guilty. I am not one of those judges. If you have a sensible suggestion to make with regards to any outcome of your verdict, then I will give it due consideration. Last of all, as this case is a somewhat complex one, the verdict you give must be as a result of a unanimous vote. I will only consider allowing a verdict by majority vote if a protracted delay in deciding is encountered. Court is adjourned until such time as a verdict can be reached. Good luck."

As the weather was still sunny, though as heavy as a fur coat, they all made their way outside. As Yvonne had done on the first morning while she waited to give evidence, Cassie went off and returned with an armful of newspapers and magazines which she dropped on the bench between Roisin and Barbara. Yvonne lit a cigarette and watched the birds that seemed to inhabit the eaves of the old court building. Lauren moved over and sat next to her mother.

"Are you okay?" She asked. This being the most civil thing her daughter had said to her since Monday, Yvonne didn't waste it.

"I've got a really bad feeling about today," Said Yvonne quietly.

"That's just because you've got time on your hands to do nothing but stress," Replied Lauren.

"No, it's not," Said Yvonne, not able to take the worried expression off her face. "I don't know what it is. Something's just not right, that's all."

"Yes, your son's about to be sent to prison for a very long time, that's what's not right about today," Said Lauren, thinking her mother was finally going mad.

"It's a mum thing, Lauren," Said Karen, putting down the paper she'd been reading.

"Sounds like a mad thing to me," Replied Lauren, loathing any hint of communication she had to have with this woman who had insinuated her way in to Yvonne's life.

"I need to see him," Said Yvonne, finally voicing what she knew she somehow had to do.

"You'll be lucky," Said Lauren in disgust. "Mum, he's a defendant and you're a prosecution witness, they won't let you within shouting distance of him."

"Lauren," Yvonne insisted, "I've got to tell him I'm sorry."

"Mum, you've got nothing to be sorry for. Anything that's happened to Ritchie, he's brought on himself, not me, not you. Sure, he might have had some encouragement along the way from that tart Merriman plus others I could mention, but neither you nor I have done anything to push him in to this." When Lauren said the words, others I could mention, Karen jerked as if she'd been slapped. Cassie, who was sitting next to Karen, made as if to leap to her defence.

"Leave it," Karen said quietly, wanting to remain as much out of this argument as possible.

"Why not ask Jo Mills if you can see him," Suggested Barbara. "Anything's worth a try." Seeing that Jo had just emerged through the front doors, Yvonne went to meet her.

"Jo, have you got a minute?"

"All you want until the jury come back," Said Jo, looking for her cigarettes.

"I need to see Ritchie." Jo had retrieved her lighter and packet of Silk Cut and held them poised as she contemplated Yvonne's request. "I know it sounds ridiculous," continued Yvonne, "but I have a really bad feeling about all this, and there's things I need to say to Ritchie before it's too late." Jo returned her addiction to her pocket and said,

"I've got two sons of my own, so no, it doesn't sound ridiculous. I'm fairly sure the answer will be no, but I'll see what I can do." As Yvonne and Jo went inside, they encountered George on her way out.

"George," Said Jo, "This is Yvonne Atkins. Would it be possible for her to speak to her son?"

"Jo, you know the rules as well as I do. A defendant and a prosecution witness cannot interact under any circumstances."

"I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important," Said Yvonne. George gave Yvonne her full attention, seeing something in her face that told her this was important.

"There's the Deed," Said George, gesturing to John who was walking down the stairs. "Let's ask him." As the three women walked towards him, John smiled.

"Three beautiful women simultaneously wanting my attention," He said, "It must be my lucky day."

"John," Began George, "Yvonne Atkins wishes to see her son." John's expression became serious.

"Is there a good reason why I should allow this?" He asked. Jo was about to speak but John held up a hand. "I'm sure Mrs. Atkins can speak for herself."

"There's things Ritchie needs to hear from me, things I should have said a long time ago, and I think this might be my last chance to put things right."

"From what I've heard over the last fortnight," Said John, "You aren't the one who needs to make amends."

"Forgive me, Judge," Said Yvonne, looking him straight in the eye with no hint of apology, "When it comes to me and Ritchie, you don't know enough about the situation to make such an assumption." Jo and George simultaneously prepared for the thunder bolt they were sure was about to descend on Yvonne. No-one, especially not a witness, ever told John that he didn't know what he was talking about, however politely, and got away with it. But John surprised them both.

"Quite," He said. "Ms Channing, will you be so good as to ask Mr. Atkins if he will see his mother?" Then looking back at Yvonne he said, "I cannot grant your wish if Mr. Atkins refuses." Looking somewhat astounded, George walked off towards the area of the court where the cells were situated.

Five minutes later when she returned, George looked like she was the holder of words she didn't even want to know, let alone remember.

"He said no," She said to Yvonne. "I'm sorry." This was possibly the first time either John or Jo had heard George utter those two words and they both stared at her.

"What else did he say?" Asked Yvonne, somehow knowing there was more. George looked pained.

"I don't think you really want to hear it," She said, not wanting to be the one to tell Yvonne what her son had so cruelly said.


"He said, tell her she ain't my mother, not since she chose to stand against one of her own." John winced and an expression of fury and sadness came over Jo's face.

"Thank you," Said Yvonne quietly, looking as if her world had ended.

Yvonne turned and swiftly retreated outside.

"What a total bastard!" Said George, her anger making her rich, clipped drawl more pronounced than usual.

"My thoughts exactly," Replied Jo. "I'd better go and see if she's all right."

As Yvonne moved rapidly towards the others, they could all see that something was very wrong.

"The car keys," She said to Lauren. "Can I have them?"

"What happened?" Asked Barbara.

"Lauren, please," Yvonne insisted.

"Mum, you're not having any car keys in this mood. Whatever he said, it's not worth getting yourself either pulled for speeding or killed."

"I just want to be on my own for a bit," Replied Yvonne, tears finally breaking the surface. "Is that too much to ask." Karen walked over to Yvonne and handed over her own car keys.

"Just be careful," Said Karen gently. Then, putting a hint of the stern parent voice in to her tone, she said, "I don't want to see a scratch on you or the car when you get back." Her lips quirking in to the briefest of smiles, Yvonne took the keys and moved towards Karen's green sports car. When Jo came outside to look for Yvonne, she saw her roaring out of the carpark in Karen's car. Karen walked over to her.

"What on Earth did Ritchie say to her?" She asked without preamble.

"I knew that was a bad idea," Said Jo. "I should have told her from the beginning that the answer was no." Jo gestured for Karen to follow her and they walked round to a side of the building where there was a stretch of lawn, also dotted with benches.

"What happened?" Asked Karen when they'd both sat down.

"Because of the usual rule about the irrevocable divide between prosecution and defence witnesses, we had to ask John's permission. He told George to see if Ritchie would speak to Yvonne. Let's just say he wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the idea."

"So, what made Yvonne drive off in my car on what is possibly the last journey of its life?" When JO told Karen exactly what Ritchie had said, angry tears rose to Karen's eyes.

"How could he?" She said.

"I don't know," Replied Jo.

"Prison seems to have done nothing but given him a cruel streak he certainly didn't have before. Do you know something, Yvonne once mentioned that Ritchie was turning in to the spitting image of his father and I didn't believe her. But I'm beginning to think she was right."

"You amaze me," Said Jo, looking at Karen in total astonishment. "You say that Ritchie Atkins has acquired his so-called cruel streak whilst on remand, but you seem to forget everything he did to you and his mother leading up to the fire."

"That was different," Replied Karen. Then, at Jo's disbelieving expression, she said, "I had an interesting chat with George yesterday. She said that Ritchie would never have done all that he did if it hadn't been for the constant insistence from Snowball, and I think she's right."

"She is his barrister don't forget," Said Jo a little scornfully.

"And she also told me something I needed to hear, so much as I know it's against everything you know to cut her any slack, she isn't all bad." Jo grinned sheepishly.

"It's hard to give George credit for being even remotely human," She said.

"So I gathered," Replied Karen. "Being opposite her in court must be difficult at times."

"It usually means more objections and a far more acrimonious cross-examination."

"Are you two talking about George?" Said John, walking across the grass. He was carrying a sandwich and a coffee and followed by the whippet Mimi.

"How did you guess?" Asked Jo with a smile.

"The words more objections and acrimonious cross-examination do tend to signify George." He sat down on the end of the bench next to Jo and balanced his coffee on his knee.

"whose is the dog?" Asked Karen.

"My daughter has a habit," Replied John, opening his sandwich. "Of unlawfully rescuing thoroughly untrained dogs from pharmaceutical laboratories and duping me in to looking after them."

"What he won't tell you," Put in Jo. "Is that they manage to totally wrap him round their little fingers so that when a home is found, he doesn't want to let go." Karen smiled. After first rolling in a pile of leaves and shaking herself, Mimi scampered over to John and sat looking up at him as he bit in to a roast beef sandwich.

"I ought to go and see if Yvonne's come back, and if my car's still in one piece," Said Karen, getting to her feet. As she walked away, John gave Jo a questioning glance.

"I think Yvonne just wanted a bit of space," Replied Jo.

As Karen walked round towards the carpark, she saw Yvonne driving back in, looking somewhat calmer than she had done earlier. As Yvonne got out of the car, she gave Karen a shaky smile.

"See," She said, handing her the keys. "Not a scratch on either of us."

"I'm glad to hear it," Replied Karen gently. "Jo told me what Ritchie said."

"If I'm honest," Said Yvonne, "It wasn't anything I didn't expect. It was just a shock to hear it, that's all." They moved in to each other's arms with an ease gradually being born of familiarity.

"You will get through this," Said Karen softly. "We both will."

At around three that afternoon, Jo was sitting with Karen and Yvonne and the rest. The tension was slowly rising, Yvonne and Lauren barely able to exchange a civil word. Jo didn't think any of them could handle having to wait over the entire weekend if the jury didn't come back today. When George appeared on the top step of the court, Jo could tell by the look on her face that the time had come.

"Jo," Called George. "The jury are back with a verdict." As they'd all heard George's announcement, they all moved as one towards the court. Once inside, Jo detached herself from the little group and moved towards the door by which the barristers entered. Just before they were about to go in to court, Jo and George seemed to reach for the door at the same time.

"Good luck," Jo said quietly.

"You too," Replied George. As they took their accustomed places at the prosecution and defense benches, neither Jo nor George could stay still. They simply stood, facing the Judge's bench ready for his return. When John sat down, the clerk of the court moved to stand in front of the jury box.

"Will the foreman please stand?" He asked. "On the charge of conspiracy to commit arson, do you find the defendant, Ritchie Atkins, guilty or not guilty?"


"On the charge of assisting an offender, do you find Ritchie Atkins, guilty or not guilty?"


"On the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm, do you find Ritchie Atkins, guilty or not guilty?"


"On the charge of conspiracy to commit arson, do you find the defendant, Tracy Pilkinton, guilty or not guilty?"


"On the charge of man slaughter, do you find the defendant Tracy Pilkinton, guilty or not guilty?"


"On the charge of grievous bodily harm, do you find Tracy Pilkinton, guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty." Throughout this, Yvonne had been gripping Karen's hand, suddenly needing to feel that someone else was physically there with her, seeing her son's fate mapped out before her eyes. Every member of the public gallery was utterly silent. As the clerk of the court retreated, John addressed the foreman of the jury.

"Do you have any recommendations you would wish me to hear?"

"Only one, My Lord," replied the foreman. "On the subject of Ritchie Atkins and the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm, we would advise a certain amount of leniency. Ritchie Atkins is currently paralysed from the waist down, with no hope of a recovery. The jury considers that to suffer this for the rest of his life, is perhaps a far harsher punishment than any custodial sentence that your worship may choose to impose."

"I note your recommendation and will give it due consideration. Thank you." Then John fixed his gaze on Ritchie.

"Mr. Atkins. Over the course of this trial, I have heard nothing but arrogance and insolence from you. You have shown a clear lack of respect both to your mother, and with regards to your relationship with Karen Betts. I have observed that when discussing the finer points of your relationship with Karen Betts, that you have achieved some sense of enjoyment in your continual degrading of her both as a woman and as a professional. I will be taking your attitude in to account when I pass sentence. You have been found guilty of three very serious crimes. The jury has made a recommendation for leniency where the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm is concerned, and I have listened to their reason for this. However, I also believe that justice must and will be served. For your part in conspiring to commit arson, I sentence you to four years. For the continual assistance of Ms Pilkinton, I sentence you to a further four years. Along with the jury's recommendation of your third and final conviction, I have one to add of my own. During the accounts given to this court by various witnesses, it has been established that you saved Karen Betts' life. This is perhaps the one and only noble act of your life, and it is one to be thankful for. On the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm, I therefore sentence you to two years. However, you may be thinking that with good behaviour you could be out in seven years. As a result of your attitude towards various prosecution witnesses together with a clear display of contempt for this court, you will serve the full ten years, before any hint of parole is discussed." Yvonne sat, with silent tears coursing down her face. Karen and Cassie, who were sat on either side of Yvonne, simultaneously put an arm round her. John adjusted his gaze to take in Snowball.

"Ms Pilkinton. Never, have I met such a scheming, conniving woman as you. Throughout this trial you have acted the parts of innocent northern girl and American porn movie star to fit whichever questions were placed before you. I suspect you have done that for much of your life. Well, your charade is to be no more. For your part in conspiring to commit arson, you will serve four years. For the needless, senseless man slaughter of Sharon Wiley, you will serve ten years. For the charge of grievous bodily harm, you will serve eight years. At the end of your twenty two year sentence, I shall personally ensure that you are returned to the United States in order to serve your punishment, whether that be a custodial sentence or death by the electric chair, for the crimes you committed over there. Take them down." Snowball was completely silent as she was led away, but Ritchie had one more parting comment.

"You can't do that," He shouted.

"I just did," Replied John. As the clerk called out, "All rise", John was briefly aware of the scowling faces of Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James in the public gallery. Yvonne dug in her handbag for a tissue and scrubbed her face. The six of them moved as one down the stairs, knowing that finally it was all over.

The only two left in the fast emptying court room, were Jo and George, each gathering together their papers. As a file slipped from George's hand, the contents flowing far and wide, George cursed, bringing Jo's attention on her.

"Are you okay?" Asked Jo, coming over to help George pick up the scattered papers. George looked up, and Jo was shocked to see that her face was completely devoid of colour. George simply said,

"I've got to tell Neil I failed."

Part Fifty Four

"….Take them down …" the final words of John Deed and the trial sealed Snowball's and Ritchie's fate.

A court usher secured Snowball , who still did not believe what she was hearing and led her through narrow corridors to the more functional tradesman's back entrance to the Old Bailey. Two Prison Service trucks waited at the back car park with plenty of security in view of Snowball's past record of escapes. Ritchie was likewise precariously wheeled

out through the back door of the main court and along narrow corridors to the back entrance…….

"Miss Barker," Snowball asked Di Barker in her best sincere gritty "Wigan voice. "can I say a quick word to me boyfriend before we part."

"All right, Snowball, but no messing around." Di Barker replied, moved by Snowball's last performance.

"I promise, Miss.You have my word." Snowball replied , looking directly at Di and then she was led over to where Ritchie was waiting.

"Richie ,I love you goodbye," Snowball called out desperately just before he was being wheeled towards a more customised version of the all too familiar white Prison van. Then she was frogmarched into her own separate van. This was the parting of the ways for the two of them with no escape.

"Make sure that the bloody press don't get round the back. We're not having any paparazzi sneaking any shots of the famous actress," the police Inspector sarcastically directed the small force there to ensure security.

"Right, step on it." The police constable directed the first vehicle to zoom out of the security gates and was off down the busy London Streets closely followed by the second one.

Yvonne emerged blinking into the daylight, leading the way, Lauren's arm linked in hers, both flanked by Roisin ,Cassie and Babs. Karen hung back directly behind Yvonne. Miss Betts was a minor official of the Prison Service and it had been dinned in her experience, not to talk directly to the press, not even now when her own fate as Karen was so personally and so deeply involved.

"Twenty two years for Miss Pilkinton and ten years for Mr Atkins, is it? How do you feel about the length of the sentences. Mr Atkins was your son wasn't he." the first question was fired by the man in the smart blue suit who had pushed to the front of the pack.

"Are you talking as if he is dead? He is my son." Yvonne exclaimed loudly. "But he got into bad company, the woman who was in the same nick that I was at. She nearly killed some of the best mates in my life who've stuck to me like glue, who are as good as family to me. She actually killed one woman whose partner is still grieving over her. She didn't give a shit. And my son who went along with her schemes was as guilty as sin."Yvonne finished on a loud note, her voice carrying backwards to George Channing who smiled slightly at her very own words being echoed. "Yes he is my son but he got an absolutely fair trial."

"I'm his sister." Lauren Atkins hard gaze unsettled the journalist."And he got everything that was coming to him."

"We were all inside with Yvonne Atkins and I can say as God is my witness that Mrs Atkins is telling the absolute truth." Babs, dressed in her best suit and speaking in her impeccable Middle England accent further confused the journalist's preconceptions.

"What," a hardboiled reporter from the Daily Mail sneered. "The wife of a gangland boss tell the truth and talking about fair trials."

"To live outside the law you must be honest," Cassie's insolent blue eyes stared down the reporter. Accustomed as he was to link 'asylum seeker' and 'abuse' in his daily writings and to call for 'firm government', he was no more likely than the likes of Neil Houghton or the Lord Chancellor to think in ways that cut sideways across the narrow grooves of the freedom he was accustomed to travel the length of.

"I don't understand a word you're saying, miss." came the supercilious reply.

"I didn't expect you to but then again, I know Yvonne well. You print what you like and I'm supposed to read it in the paper and it's supposed to tell me what this trial's been about better than I can say supposedly. Even though we've been there, lived it all. So suppose we talk and you listen." Cassie replied with a straight face and with all the irony in the world. This was a turnabout for Cassie who normally didn't do subtlety and, for once in her life, never uttered the word 'nobbing' either.

"Mr Reporter, since you know so much about me, Yvonne Atkins, then you had better know that the judge who ran this trial is no ordinary man." Yvonne cut in on the discussion.

It was on the tip of Cassie's tongue to say that the Judge was so outrageously good looking that she was almost tempted to go straight but at the last minute she stopped. She was aware that she was part of the group with a heavy responsibility to get it straight, for them all and those still left in Larkhall. It was an 'in joke' that these nobbing brain dead reporters would twist out of context and that would be a big mistake. At the very last moment, they all had to get it right.

"Have you a few words to say to the press on behalf of the Prison service." Karen Betts was asked by a spare reporter while the others endured the endless flash bulbs and the microphones pushed into their faces.

"I'm sorry but I can't comment as all press queries should be addressed to the Governing Governor, Neil Grayling. That's GRAYLING," Karen spelled out." I can give you the phone number of Larkhall Prison and I can promise you that he's the sort of person who is only too willing to communicate with the press." The flat level tone in Karen's voice was only betrayed by the faintest hint of a smirk on one side of her face. the man is a coward and will be shaking in his shoes at the fear that he may get it wrong with Area Management and Sir Ian and Lawrence James. Thank heavens, I'm only a Wing Governor, Karen reflected, I have all the freedom that I'll get and I won't have to sell my soul the way he has.

"Yeah, Cassie Tyler and Roisin Connor dragged that man out of the burning library and saved his life." Lauren was sharp eared enough to overhear the conversation to the back of her. Because she was not directly involved in the events described in the trial, Lauren was less emotionally drained by the intensity of the build up to the trial and sharper off the mark.

Nice one, Lauren, Yvonne thought, as she repeated her initial statement for yet another press reporter. The spontaneous words that escaped her mouth at the very beginning of the impromptu press conference were gradually refined and sharpened up as she went along.

"Did you have to do that for someone who locked you both up. I wouldn't have thought that you would waste your time saving the life of a screw." the young female press interviewer asked incredulously. There could be a good angle, she thought, if she pushed hard enough and played these Mrs Averages along. 'Porn star jailed for arson. The inside life of glamour queen Snowball Merriman.' These were the instant headlines that had formed in her mind. Too bad about the prisoners but a story about them would be as dull as ditchwater. Leave that sort of thing for the snob press as she knew what the average reader wanted to read about and she wanted to dig around for what she was convinced was the truth if she could get there. Her training in journalism gave her that effortless assurance and self confidence over the fumbling, stumbling members of the public she came across from time to time.

"The man is a human being." Roisin retorted passionately."If it ever comes to you that your own life is in danger, you won't be so quick to say who should live or who should die. Not even Snowball Merriman and Ritchie Atkins."

"That's very noble of you," came the sarcastic reply.

"Comes of being a mother." Roisin's lilting Irish tones explained with all the wisdom that it represented."When you've grown up a bit, then you will understand."

It seemed like a lifetime that the small group was huddled together in mutual defence on the wide stone steps outside the Old Bailey and their voices were becoming tired. However, the pack of press reporters had gradually thinned out and they were aware that the questions had fallen silent..

"We're heading for the pub, girls." And to Karen who was looking fidgety."And you're coming with us, Karen. You're one of us. You don't need to hold Grayling's hand while he talks to the press."

"I'd be the wrong sex for a start, I mean to hold Grayling's hand.Vicars are his type or so I hear," Karen joked nervously.

"Oh so you've heard that too,"Yvonne grinned broadly at the thought that Karen had her sources of information much like she used to.

The six women walked rapidly away from the Old Bailey whose ancient structure had so dominated their lives for such an intense part of their lives and which none of them would fully leave behind. Ten minutes later, and the vast overpowering , all enveloping structure was reduced to the size and shape that they saw on the TV screen. Then they rounded the corner and a pub sign caught their eye. This place would do for them.

Roisin took the lead and bought in a round of drinks. Lauren gave her a hand to carry the drinks, still jarred by the obvious closeness of Karen and Yvonne. There was something soothing and motherly about Roisin that Lauren liked as much as she liked Cassie as the original ' girls just wanna have fun' clubbing companion.

"You let that snotty journalist have it good and proper." Lauren told her admiringly.

"You know, Lauren." Roisin explained."I'm a mum. I hold down a good job and I saw that slip of a girl who knows nothing of life yet her words will be on the front pages telling me how I should think and feel. To be bossed around in my thoughts by her," Roisin finished on a derisive note.

"You must be getting middle aged, Roisin." Lauren teased.

"Comes of getting to know life, Lauren. Only someone like you gets a head start." Roisin's brilliant smile reassured Lauren that she wasn't included in the category of the young and ignorant. Not with those years of running the Atkins business on her own while mum was inside.

Cassie looked in concern at the sadness in Yvonne's expression where there should be joy in seeing that Snowball tart being finally nailed. It was Ritchie and, even then, she knew that Yvonne was worrying if Ritchie would be looked after properly.

"It's Ritchie isn't it, Yvonne."

"Yeah well, I lost Ritchie years ago. When he got to grow up like Charlie right under my very nose and I was too blind to see it," Yvonne replied mournfully. Even now, Ritchie was her little angel.

Cassie was really worried for Yvonne and thought that a bit of mad humour would lighten things, directed at the one person they could all equally laugh at.

"Get the James Fenner's latest must have fashion accessory guide to wear to all the best parties. A gun up your crotch." Cassie exploded in laughter to the others who, in the release of all the tension that had built up, had an attack of the giggles.

"I wonder how long it will take for that story to get back to Larkhall." Yvonne grinned wickedly."I'd love Denny to hear that one. It would make her day."

The bar had two populations present, the usual morose lunchtime punters content to nurse their drinks and a very lively slightly mad group of women who had invaded the bar bringing their own electric atmosphere with them.

"As if I would be that indiscreet." Karen smirked." Not that the new Prison Officer Selina won't talk. She hates Fenner's guts. He tried it on with her once."

"She must have brains then. Good looking, too. And there's something about her that tells me that she's not straight." Cassie smirked in her inimitable way.

"Come off it, Cassie." Roisin laughed." For all you know, she's got a boyfriend who's faithful and devoted to her. Anyway let's talk about something sensible, like……."

"……like what do you do on a freezing cold day, you're dying for a piss when there's a long queue for the toilet and you've got Mr Designer Fenner's guns stuck up you." Cassie laughed, causing Karen to collapse in helpless laughter.

Yvonne looked on protectively. She knew exactly how cheap Karen must have felt herself to be. She couldn't say what she wanted to in words but for all the girls to make Karen the centre of the protective circle of conversation did what needed to be done. As she sat listening to the chatter of the others, Yvonne shivered as had not Ritchie talked in exactly the same way that Charlie used to in times gone past. And Ritchie had grown up hating his father so much. It touched her in the visitor's room, many months ago when Ritchie said that he'd warned her that Charlie could 'charm the birds off the trees and wring their necks afterwards.' It seemed that Ritchie had really cared for her like a devoted son should. That and the bouquet of flowers. Like father, like son.

Yvonne put down her drink and stood up.

"There's something I've got to do," She said, "I'll be back in ten minutes." She walked out of the pub and began looking for an off licence. Finding one only a couple of streets away, she went in and purchased the finest bottle of Moet they had and persuaded the girl behind the counter to wrap it up for her. She wrote some brief words on the card that this very young and attractive girl had thoughtfully provided, and walked back towards the court carrying the bottle. The press had thankfully all disappeared long ago, and when Yvonne walked in through one of the front doors, all was fairly quiet. She stood for a moment, not quite sure where she should go, but catching sight of the Judge's clerk, she approached her.

"Mrs. Cooper, isn't it?" Yvonne asked. Coope smiled.

"Yes. What can I do for you?"

"Would you happen to know where I could find Jo Mills?"

"Mrs. Mills is upstairs with the Judge," Said Coope, realising too late just how that might sound. Yvonne held out the wrapped bottle.

"Please could you give this to her?"

"Of course," Said Coope taking the bottle.

When Coope returned to John's chambers, he looked up with a smile.

"Is that for me?" He asked.

"No, Judge," Said Coope, putting the bottle down on the table. "It's for Mrs. Mills."

"Who's it from?" Asked Jo.

"I think it was Mrs. Atkins who asked me to give it to you." Tearing off the gold-coloured paper, Jo stared at the finest bottle of champagne she'd ever been given.

"You lucky girl," Said Jon enviously. Utterly astounded, Jo opened the card. It simply said:

"I can't celebrate my son being sent to prison, but this was a victory for you. This last fortnight hasn't been easy for any of us, but you've worked harder than anyone. I owe you one for your achievement of justice for Shaz Wiley, and for Karen.

Enjoy every drop.


Part Fifty Five

Coope was busy finishing off the paperwork on the huge Crown versus Atkins Pilkinton file. The bulky evidence folder and certificates of conviction were being tagged together and bound in manila tape ready to go to the court records office. She was acutely aware that a very fidgety John Deed was fingering his chin, in deep contemplation, on the point of asking a question and then backing away from it.

"Is there anything else you wanted me to do, Judge?" she asked, not beating about the bush.

"Coope, you are a lifesaver," John Deed replied in hearty ringing tones.

Hang on, he hasn't even asked me what it is he wants me to do , Coope thought. This can't be my usual doctor's receptionist role of delicately putting off persistent casual girlfriends popping by on the off chance because 'the judge is busy discussing a client's case with Mrs Mills in chambers.'

"Well, I can hardly promise to be a lifesaver unless you tell me what you want help with," Coope archly replied.

"Er no," John stammered, temporarily stuck for words." But it's like this, Coope. I want a bit of advice on cooking a meal."

That means that he wants me to stay discreetly in the background cooking the meal for some girlfriend of the moment whom he wants to impress, Coope thought to herself, wrongly just for once.

"I'm cooking a meal for Mrs Mills tonight. Something special for her." John smiled looking expectantly at Coope in the same manner as Mimi did to him, with the collar and lead gripped between her teeth, ears pricked up and hoping for the magic word 'walk' from John.

"But Mrs Mills normally cooks when you go to see her. An excellent cook or so I hear," Coope replied in that maddeningly reasonable way.

"All right, all right," John Deed capitulated in despair. "I had a bet with Mrs Mills and I lost. My wager was cooking a meal for her."

"Just what was the bet about, if you don't mind me asking?" Coope asked in her most innocent tones. From his manner, John very much minded explaining what the bet was about but he was clearly desperate.

"I bet Mrs Mills that Yvonne Atkins and Karen Betts were not, a couple. The idea was absurd, or so I thought." John's jerky tones were forced out of his mouth as if it were a confession extracted under torture.

"Well, of course they are," Coope responded in the blandest, most matter-of-fact manner."Even from my limited position, I could have told you that one ages ago if only you had asked me. Still, I suppose you thought you knew best. You are, after all, the judge."

"Yes yes yes," John Deed cut in to head off Coope winding him up even more. His hands were waving like windmills. Give him five rounds with a histrionic George at her most venomously plate throwing, he could deal with that but not this feeling of helpless dependency. All he wanted was a recipe, not a lengthy cross examination.

"Just an easy recipe for a learner cook, that's all I need Coope."

"And at your age? A woman's work is never done or so you'll find out." Coope's smile split her face from ear to ear. At the end of her sustained teasing, she relented. It was the pleading expression in his eyes which showed up how desperate the poor man was.

"Right, one tin of tomatoes, one onion, carrots, some salad garnish, an eight ounce pack of minced beef, dried spaghetti, one lemon, beef stock cubes. A jar of Dolmio sauce for spaghetti bolognese, a large packet of smoked salmon, Parmesan cheese, strawberries, cream, a small Granary loaf and, last of all, a bottle of Jo's favourite wine." John muttered to himself."Shouldn't be hard. People do it everyday."

If the truth be known, he was talking to himself to bolster his own spirits rather than demonstrate to the world how thoroughly he was in command of the situation. He needed the choice of wine badly, not for the alcohol content but to grasp at the one item he felt confident in choosing.

He drove his pride and joy, his grey open top sports car to the local out of town Sainsbury's supermarket which Coope had recommended. What the devil was he doing here rather than lying back in contemplation, his favourite Mozart symphony soothing his nerves from the long drawn out slog of the trial. Captain Scott, if he had returned from discovering the South Pole, and coming home to his nearest and dearest would have felt similarly put out if his wife had told him go down to the local butchers to queue up for a joint of best sirloin as she didn't know he was coming back quite so soon from the frozen wastes of Antarctica. What bruised his spirits most was seeing the broad smile on Jo's face when he announced that he was going to 'pop out and do a bit of shopping.'

"I'm looking forward to this one, John. It isn't often that I'm treated to a meal cooked by someone else after all these years of cooking for my sons."

John didn't answer. Why was Jo being so insufferably right about that little bet that he had so confidently entered into. It seemed like a brilliant surefire idea at the time.

John followed the directions and was confronted by the sight of a huge carpark stretching for miles, or so it seemed. Where the devil was he supposed to park his car, he wondered? Eventually, after much inching back and forth, he manoeuvred his car into a slot and looked nervously behind him in case some careless individual scraped the side of his car. He followed his destiny into the huge open mouth of the supermarket which greeted him with the most hideous Muzak which offended his artistic sensibilities.

Good God, supermarkets have changed since the time I used to do the shopping when I was living with George. They were small friendly places. He remembered ruefully clutching his list written in George's firm writing and still firmer directions. Where in hell was he supposed to start, he wondered. He was not interested in men's and ladies' clothing off the peg, or books about gardening which were first to hand. Why in hell didn't those responsible for planning supermarkets set them out in any logical order. He just wanted some food, dammit, so why shouldn't the food be first to sight when he went in. The sheer scale of the place overwhelmed him, checkouts stretching as far as his eye could see and aisles of assorted shopping only going so far. The ghastly thing was an abomination of nature.

A brainwave struck his reeling senses and a flashback of the time that he had been taken round the famous Hampton Court maze when he was young. His sense of the absurd told him at that time to try to avoid at all costs getting to the centre of the maze and in that way, you will find the centre and vice versa when you wanted to get out. He had overridden his father on this in the commanding way that even then had become part of his nature and, lo and behold, the plan had worked with marvellous simplicity. Likewise, he had set forwards along the most irrelevant part of the shop, never intending in his conscious mind to find anything. Sure enough, he had only travelled a short way when the vast range of lettuces and tomatoes, row on row came in sight. All he had to do was to pick the veg that he wanted.

"Excuse me," John Deed asked a little old lady, ingratiatingly after every form of fruit and veg presented itself but the few he wanted."can you tell me where the carrots and onions are?"

"Second aisle that way," she pointed without hesitation."Right at the end. You can't miss it."

"Thank you, Madam," John replied. She wouldn't miss it but he might, he thought to himself. With utter gratitude, he selected his purchases and set off for the remote far reaches of the hypermarket where no man had set foot before.

Focussing his eyes upwards, he spotted huge overhead hoardings indicating certain categories of purchases, most of which seemed either irrelevant or hopelessly unspecific. Where does one find a Dolmio sauce bottle, is it amongst 'sauces' or whatever. Sighing, he trudged manfully onwards, trying to shut his ears off from the dreadful Muzak. If ever a civil court case presents itself against the retail food network for invasion of human rights for subjecting hapless shoppers to musical purgatory, he would wrest the files out of the hands of Niven or Legover Everard himself. None of them could do heartfelt justice to the matter.

"I'm ever so sorry, madam," John said, his musings having distracted him from the art of navigating a shopping trolley with one wonky wheel round a supermarket so that his trolley had collided into another.

The woman took one glance at the harassed man and her temper subsided in an instant, seeing the look of stress on the man's face, courteously told him where the Dolmio sauces were and went on her way. John smiled a little sheepishly to himself as he realised that the sauces were only at the end of the aisle that he was on. How the devil did she know where it was. When he got to the display, he was thrown into a state of confusion at the next decision he had to make. Even in that small section, there was an endless choice of "Original Dolmio", "Dolmio with mushrooms" etc.How the devil was he going to decide that one as Coope had not forewarned him of the bewildering range of choices he had to make and, for once, he had left his mobile behind. Meditatively, he inspected three jars and checked the ingredients and desperately racked his brain in an effort to work out what would add most to the meal that he had obsessively set himself the task to produce come what may. His mind froze in a lock of indecision until the oldest answer to his dilemma flashed into his mind, the toss of a coin. The same female shopper was very much bemused by the sight of a middle aged man flipping a fifty pence coin to himself and shouting 'That's the one I really wanted' in satisfied tones. You meet all sorts in supermarkets, she thought philosophically.

In John Deed's haphazard wanderings round the hypermarket, he rounded an aisle and, there before his eyes, the heavenly dream in the middle of the living nightmare, the wine section. Instantly, his chaotic thought processes turned to gleeful precision as he selected the bottle of Chablis that he, or rather Jo, favoured out of the endless array of near identical bottles. This was a different matter altogether. He lingered over the selection of wines for future plans on what he might buy for the next four possible social events. Nothing like advance planning in these matters, John thought.

He had a sickening thought as he realised that he had forgotten salad garnish, bread and cream as his uncrossed off list and shopping trolley stared back at him accusingly. Now where in hell does a normal shopper find these items, his upturned eyes asked a practical joker of a fate despairingly.

By what dazed process that John Deed found himself at the checkout a lifetime later, he could not recall except the grim satisfaction of a mission achieved. The slow trudge by which he found his way to the front of the queue was something that, after all he had endured, nothing else mattered, even the totally captive position with which the Muzak malevolently held him at its mercy. He eyed up the shop assistant in some attempt to restore his spirits but the damned inconsiderate chairman of the board had decreed that a shapeless fitting smock would cover the contours of the female form that nature should have decreed should be exposed. Was nothing going right tonight except that he had survived so far.

Once he had settled up, the open exit beckoned the spectre of freedom to John and he was out and away. John Deed came out of the supermarket, totally harrassed, pushing the trolley to the car. After he had manoeuvred out of the car park, his fingers desperately found the tape that Charlie had left for him. Nothing but Black Sabbath could possibly match the total angst that he felt and Ozzy Osborne wailing "Paranoid" to Tony Iommi's power chord guitar thrash wafted far out behind him. He cut past Lawrence James's' surprised face as his wife was set to drag him round clothes shops to add an exquisite edge to the absolute torture of that trial and the dressing down that Sir Ian had given him. Somehow he was to blame for everything going wrong and his wife had got that spending look in her eye and was not to be denied her pleasure , disregarding the deaf mute shuffling three paces behind her. Likewise, the strident sounds competed with and dominated the bass boosted sounds of the local boy racer that John Deed was temporarily next to in the traffic jam. The power of rock lives on forever.

John sat back blissfully in his driving seat, the music still battering at his ears and disturbing life, both humankind and bird, in his path until he completed the all too short distance to his digs and the serenity of the judiciary were greeted by the far from dulcet tones of Black Sabbath.

"What the devil is going on?" Michael Niven complained as he strode out to the front door. "Has this neighbourhood been chosen for a gathering of Hells Angels."

Half expecting a crowd of hairy Hells Angels, complete with dirty jeans, boots and chain studded leather jackets, Michael Niven was disconcerted by the sight of a respectably besuited John Deed holding a plastic Sainsbury's carrier bag.

"Have you seen where that frightful row was coming from, Deed?" Michael Niven asked, trying to assess the situation and proceed delicately.

"Oh, that was me, Michael. Black Sabbath, you know. Charlie bought it for me." John Deed replied in a tone that suggested that the flying saucer that had landed in the field was perfectly normal, the Martians were perfectly friendly and he had everything perfectly under control.

After smashing his door down, Deed goes heavy rock, Niven shook his head. What will happen next. In the good old days, this used to be such a peaceful respectable place.

"I'm glad everything is under control. Perhaps we can have some peace now," Michael Niven said with a certain amount of edge as he retreated to the safety of his rooms. It isn't safe out here.

"I'm just going out anyway, Michael. No problems," John Deed assured him. You may be all right, Michael, but I've got to cook a damned meal, John Deed said under his breath after he had got a few personal things ready for staying the night with Jo.

His car slid out onto the main road once again, Black Sabbath still trailing behind him though not at the original volume that any self respecting rock musician would have pumped out. Somehow this new quirk of John Deed's complex personality had taken shape, however uneasily it sat with the virtuoso violinist playing Schubert. Then again, both type of performers had the knack of pulling the birds.

The last guitar chords were switched off as John Deed's car came to rest outside Jo's mews cottage and he knocked at the door with the one finger that wasn't holding either shopping or personal stuff..

"Had a good time food shopping?" Jo asked brightly."You know where the kitchen is, John but mind you, don't make a mess in there," she finished in that forceful female tone that could repel an invasion of Nazi Stormtroopers with voice alone if they showed her sanctum any similar disrespect.

Snowball sat staring at the dull, gray walls of her cell. Straight down the block they'd sent her, supposedly for her own protection. but she didn't care. She would have quite liked to spend a last evening with some of the girls, at least with those who'd arrived after the fire, but it wasn't to be. No more would the likes of Denny Blood or al McKenzy look on her with a mixture of scorn and loathing. No more would she fear to walk along the landing or to take a shower. But they'd see. They'd regret every bad word they'd ever said about her, especially that bitch Betts. She should have blown Betts' brains out when she had the chance. But Ritchie just had to interfere didn't he. Just because he'd had his dick inside Betts once or twice, he thought that meant he had to save her pathetic, worthless life. Not that she thought Betts had been much good in the sack anyway. Not like her, not like Snowball Merriman, who could put on any show Ritchie asked for. She could remember all the good times they'd had together. She'd dress up for him sometimes, playing any part he wanted. Snowball had hated having to sit there in court, day after day, listening to those two barristers trading ideas about what Ritchie and Betts had got up too. Even that petite posh bitch who was supposed to be defending her and Richie, she didn't give Betts anything like the verbal going over she deserved. But Ritchie had told them all. If nothing else, she was proud of him for this. Snowball smirked as she relived this memory. He'd told them exactly what Karen Betts was, how she liked it rough, how she begged Ritchie to hold her down and fuck her senseless. A hard, cruel smile crept over Snowball's face as she thought of what Karen Betts and Ritchie's cow of a mother would think after this night was out. They'd feel guilty as hell, the pair of them. They'd both stood up in court and did nothing but slag her and Ritchie's every move. Yvonne Atkins ought to know better than to go against one of her own. Perhaps the only thing Snowball regretted about what her and Ritchie would do this night, was that they hadn't been able to make love one last time. The last woman to give him pleasure wouldn't be her, his rightful lover. No, the last woman to give Ritchie an orgasm would forever be Karen Betts. She pulled a grotesque face at herself in the tiny mirror when she thought of this, but in mid-maniacal glare, she reminded herself that very soon, she would be with Ritchie for ever. Never again would they be parted, as long as Ritchie went through with it and Snowball had no reason to think he wouldn't. They would be together, as they should be, and Ritchie would be able to walk again. No more would prison bars and a fractured spine keep them apart. Not nothing nor no-one, not even Yvonne Atkins or Karen Betts would be able to separate them then. What she'd managed to say to Ritchie at the back of the old Bailey would be enough. They'd been able to exchange a few letters here and there via the unofficial postal system that was often more reliable than the real one, and in those letters they'd made their plan. If they were sent down, which even Snowball was realistic enough to know might happen, they would finish it once and for all. The Judge's words briefly flitted in to Snowball's mind and she realised he was right, their charade would be over. Like Romeo and Juliet they would end their lives for the sake of love and love alone. Was Yvonne playing the part of the mother of the house of Montague, determined that her son would never marry the evil temptress Juliet? Well, she wasn't about to have any choice in the matter, and Karen Betts who had taken the part of the nurse a little too far, no more would she be able to interrupt and interfere at every crucial moment. They would be gone far from prison, far from pain. Snowball had no real doubts that Ritchie would go through with it. After all, with no legs and no lover, what else did he have to go on living for. As she picked up the razor blade that she'd kept hidden for weeks now, in wait for this very purpose, her last thought as she cut deep in to her radial artery, was a prayer that Ritchie wouldn't be long in coming to her.

John looked nervously around him at the kitchen, the part of Jo's flat with which he was least familiar. This was where he was long accustomed to seeing her pottering about making a meal while he stretched luxuriantly on the sofa reading the Guardian.

"Don't mind me, John, I'm just popping in to put the Chablis and the Moet in the fridge to keep them chilled. I'll be reading the paper while you cook dinner," Jo called out.

Something is very wrong here, John thought to himself. Then again, his world had not been right since he had seen Yvonne and Karen kissing. Such a waste, he thought, as it still got to him.

He looked nervously round Jo's spick and span kitchen, hoping not to annoy the saucepans as he assembled his tools for the job. This preliminary action gave him a flicker of satisfaction. How in hell does this peeler work ,John thought, as he started gouging at the outer layer of the skin of the carrots until he gradually became a little more used to it. Such an ineffective tool, he reflected as he painstakingly tipped the peel into the wastebin. The carrots are a bit small, but never mind, now for the onions. John's eyes smarted as his knife sliced up the onions which made it difficult for him to pick out the fiddly bits of outside skin which he'd forgotten to peel off to begin with. When he came to dice the carrots according to Coope's emphatic instructions to keep them small, he never realised how an inoffensive looking vegetable could be provokingly fiddly, especially in having its revenge by scattering some of itself on the floor. In a panic, John discreetly picked them up and strained them through a sieve as there wasn't much to spare.

"Oh, tomatoes," John said to himself to keep himself on track and he resolutely attacked the tin of tomatoes with a tin opener at just the right cutting angle.

"Right now," John said with determination when he followed the next instruction in Coope's manual and scattered the diced vegetables into a large heated frying pan and hastily turned the heat down low as the damp carrot fragments began to spit and splutter back at him.

"Are you getting on all right, John?" Jo chirped up hearing the sounds of muttering seeping through the closed door like some gas.

"Yeah, fine." John replied shortly at which point Jo smiled even more and started to study the financial section of the Guardian. This is the life, she thought.

By tenderly nursing the dinner as if it were his first born as, in a way it was, he had the veg at the mystical point where he could confidently gently fry the mince and, in a moment of enthusiasm, started to sing a snatch of operatic aria to himself which a hugely grinning Jo overheard as her feet reclined on the footstool. Her radar hearing was finely attuned to what she imagined was happening in the kitchen. When John added the stock cube and the tinned tomatoes he was in his element and with a flourish, added a touch of garlic and vigorously stirred the mixture.

"The pasta," John shouted. "When do I start the pasta, Jo?"

"Look at the instructions on the side, John," Jo called out clearly "and start boiling the water in the kettle at the time the bolognese cooking time coincides with the pasta cooking time. You can leave the bolognese to gently simmer apart from an occasional stir."

"How the devil can Jo see through walls and know how far I've got with the meal. And how do you do two things at the same time?" John asked himself.

"Very easily, for a woman." Jo's audible grin could be heard by a mortified John.

At that point, the neglected spatula acted as if some malign poltergeist inhabited it by flopping out of the pan and clattering on the floor complete with a few spots of bolognese. In a total panic, John grabbed feverishly at a strip of kitchen roll and scrubbed and scrubbed at the floor, hoping Jo wouldn't notice afterwards. Nevertheless, the man who kept his nerve in the most abstruse trials persevered and somehow, he found that he was able to manage both jobs side by side and he even had time to prepare the smoked salmon first course and serve the strawberries into some cut glass dishes.

"I'll uncork the wine, John." Jo helpfully called out

"Just like a woman," John muttered in an aggrieved tone to himself."Takes the easiest job."

John wiped his forehead. He was sweating and every bone ached in his body. In comparison, the entire trial hadn't physically taken it out of him in the hard graft that cooking this banquet demanded of him. He glanced round the kitchen an every square inch of work space was covered by plates and cooking utensils of all shapes and descriptions.

At that moment as he stirred the gently bubbling bolognese mixture, Jo sidled past the kitchen door elegantly smoking a cigarette to duly inspect the handiwork

"Take that damned cigarette out of my kitchen!" John said tersely at this interloper.

"Sorry, John," Jo meekly replied."I just came by to see how you're going on. Don't worry, the meal smells wonderful."

John smiled weakly and resumed his industrious cooking. Now that he was near the end, the pressure on him was easing.

"Dinner is served," called John , determined to fulfil his word to the letter as, with a flourish, he carried in two plates of smoked salmon, with salad garnish, lemon quarters and neat slivers of granary bread.

"What about the chef's hat and pinafore?" Jo asked with an impish smile.

"Forget the uniform," John exclaimed with heartfelt emotion and they sat down to the first course on a candlelit table in a dimly lit room. The sun was setting with a glorious splash of red, bathing them both in a golden glow. When John will have recovered from the physical and nervous strain, it will have been a perfect end to the day if he did but know it.

They sat back, contented with the appetiser until, with a theatrical flourish, John produced two large portions of spaghetti bolognese with a neat sprinkling of parmesan cheese on it with a proud expression on his face. Jo concealed the thought that she had produced meals like that every day and fulsomely congratulated John for his efforts as the taste of the whole meal was exquisite, with strawberries and cream to nicely round it off. Then again, someone else's cooking always is brilliant if it is a rare treat..

"I always keep my word on a promise," John explained emphatically.

The expression on Jo's face was distant at that point when she reflected on some of John's casual affairs of the past but, outside the sexual sphere, John was an upright honest man whom she had long admired for that. She was accustomed to be sharply aware of the peculiar limits of John's dependability but, tonight, nothing seemed to matter, nothing existed outside her house.

"So long as you admit that you aren't always right," Jo replied lightly.

"I promise that I, John Deed, am not akin to the Pope as he is bound by the decree of Papal Infallibility and I am not infallible. Besides," John continued with a wicked grin, "non Popes have more fun."

Jo smiled indulgently as the end of a typical day was completed by John sexually propositioning her, yet again. Will anything change, she asked herself. As the sometime lover, friend and human being was settled down snugly on the sofa next to her, Jo clicked on the TV remote control where brash showbiz music announced the finals of 'Pop Idol' and that, the phonelines are open, it only took a phone call to vote for your idol and , after all, it's your vote that counts.

"Good God, turn that rubbish off," John exclaimed. As someone who was becoming increasingly aware of how much the Sir Ians and the Lawrence Jameses of the world will very discreetly hem in your options if you let them, it wasn't just the manufactured music that appalled him. Voting for Pop Idol and choosing your favourite brand of whatever at the supermarket aren't exactly poles apart. Jo clicked over channels to Panorama and a temporary fault appeared in the sound transmission of Neil Houghton and the Conservative Shadow Minister speaking in reply in what must be a pre recorded television debate.

"They don't look much different from each other, do they?" John Deed observed drily as they snuggled down together that evening while waves of tiredness overtook them. Jo wondered how George was getting on with Neil and even worrying about her, a new experience in her life in the same way that cooking for Jo was for John. They still couldn't believe that the intensity of the two weeks had ended as the phantom train carriage, with them in it, carried on rattling through the night.

Ritchie lay on his bunk. He'd made sure he had everything he wanted, and once sprawled on his bed, he gave the wheelchair a violent shove so that it rolled silently over to the other side of the cell. It was now exactly where he wanted it, out of his line of vision, therefore figuratively out of mind. When he did what he was about to do, he didn't want his last thoughts to be of what he'd become. Even though he still couldn't feel the physical presence of his legs, they were still his legs, still attached to his body and therefore still a part of him. Those legs had once made him able to dance the night away with some nameless but attractive bird, to stand at the bar and buy said bird a drink, and to finally fuck said bird senseless in some nameless bedroom. but he could no longer do any of these things. He couldn't even have a shower or put on his clothes without help from some nameless and often faceless prison officer who were always telling him how they had better things to do. But he didn't want to dwell on all that. He wanted to remember the good times. A lascivious smile crossed his face as he remembered some of the women he'd had in his time. Like Karen Betts, for example, she was one of the best he'd ever had. She'd never given him any of that soppy love stuff that even from Snowball sometimes drove him mad. She'd been as up for it as any woman he'd ever known. But something had been a little out of the ordinary the first time she'd come to him. After the cryptic text message which she'd later told him was a song lyric, they'd exchanged several more, establishing where and when they would meet. The last one he'd sent her had said, "How do you like it?" They could almost have been talking about how she preferred her steak. Her reply had surprised him. Instead of saying something like slow and long, or simply well done, she'd answered him with hard and rough. He didn't really think anything of this at the time. After all, some women did like it rough. But the first time, she really had wanted it rough. After receiving that text message, he had played along with her, but been perfectly ready to do things differently if she'd decided that rough wasn't for her. He'd been slightly nervous of taking her at her word, because Atkins men never raped their women. They may treat them like shit, but they never had to rape a woman. But she'd stood there, cool as you like, and said, "I won't break." He'd made some crack about how the bed might, but she'd fixed him with such a piercing gaze that he realised this meant more to her than just a good screw. He'd virtually thrown her down on the bed and himself on top of her. She'd moved to put her arms round him, but he'd held them down. The look that had passed between them held so many words. He could remember the intensity of it now. Half of its meaning asked, no compelled him to treat her like a whore, and the rest simply begged him not to ask questions. Above all, don't ask questions. So, he had held her down, and taken everything granted to him by that fabulous body of hers. Afterwards, they lay replete, satiated, like a lioness and her mate after feasting on the body of a plump adult rhino. He looked over at her and saw unshed tears in her eyes. It hit him that this went much deeper with her than a simple need to be thoroughly fucked. There was something different here, something wrong. He asked,

"what was all that about?" Her answer had mystified him.

"Just laying a few ghosts, that's all." She'd turned on to her side with her back to him so as to hide her weakness.

At the time, Ritchie had wondered what she'd meant. It was probably this that had provided the misgivings about his continuing to see Karen. But what Snowball wanted, she usually got, and the next few times he saw Karen, she acted perfectly normally. Sure, she knew exactly what she wanted, and didn't mind telling him so, but like he'd said, he loved that in a woman. But when she was up on the stand the first time, and that stupid idiot who backed out of representing him and Snowball had flung a supposedly fake rape allegation at her, everything began to fit in to place. If he'd been asked, he could have told any jury who cared to listen that this was no fake allegation. She'd been getting something out of her system that first time he'd slept with her, no doubt about it. If there was one thing he'd inherited from his mother it was her sensitivity. It wasn't often he used it, but he could if he had too. After all, he would never have got as close to Snowball as he had if he hadn't been able to see right through her porn star persona. He couldn't explain what had drawn him to Snowball. There was something different, intriguing about her. But look where the stupid cow had landed him. He loved her to bits, but that didn't stop him from cursing her for shooting him. As his thoughts drifted over that day, he knew one thing for certain. He couldn't have let Snowball just shoot Karen in cold blood and for no real reason. Even if he had to go back and repeat the events of that day, he knew he wouldn't do anything differently. As he took the first two of the barbiturates he'd managed to buy on the black market with phone cards, he switched on the Discman Yvonne had sent him, knowing only too well how long the prison days could be. Robbie Williams Angels was playing and two things struck Ritchie simultaneously. The first was that he'd been listening to this CD on the last night he'd spent with Karen, and the music brought various images and remembered sounds of that night in to clearer focus. The second thing to raise the head of significance, was that his mother used to call him her little angel. He steadily swallowed the stash of tablets he'd accumulated over the last few weeks, and played the Angels song over and over again. When he could feel the drowsiness gradually creeping over him, he made sure that the two letters he'd written, one to his mother and one to his sister, were safely on the bedside table. As the words of the song gently lulled him in to unconsciousness, he kept seeing snatches of how Karen had looked, sprawled on his bed, flushed from the heat of orgasm, breasts as ripe and firm as two peaches, though far more generous in size. She'd thought he was soppy for liking this song, but it hadn't stopped her from putting her arms round him and laying her head on his chest as the words had washed over them. His last thought before his eyes closed, wasn't of Snowball or anything remotely connected with her, it was a combined image of Karen at her most seductive and his mother at her most loving. As his heartbeat became slower, and the rise and fall of his chest became shallower, the song Ritchie had so loved again reached its end, and having no human finger to set it going again, drifted in to silence, taking with it the life of a man who had once had everything and now had nothing.

Part Fifty Six

"You go and celebrate your victory with John tonight, Jo. I'm going home and probably going to get drunk with Lover Boy," were George's parting words to Jo , a hard self protective edge to her voice which didn't deceive Jo in the slightest. That's the first time George has actively encouraged me to go after John. Something new is happening here.

George had made no effort in the slightest to hurry away as she knew full well that there was not much to go home to. She trailed slowly down to the car park and sat in the drivers seat and stared into space. By some instinct, she had clutched onto her bundle of court papers which stared back at her with the confusing morass of statements and evidence. These papers were exactly the same as when she had impatiently grabbed them off Brian Cantwell's listless hands when, all fire and energy, she had visited him in his chambers. She had heard what she then thought of as his spineless account of the case, hectored him for not having sufficient force of will and had driven home with all the drive and determination that came natural to her abrasive personality. The papers were exactly the same but she had changed.

She sat in her car, her eyes unfocussed for ages until a snap decision came into her mind. She needed a copy of the Evening Standard to be forearmed for when she got home tonight. In the distance, she spotted the women who had been in the gallery all week who were as far removed from her as if she were watching them on the cinema screen. Karen was the last in line and George smiled generously that at least the trial had come out well for her. She shook her head as she stood and watched the women clatter past and out of view. Must be getting soft in her old age. She bought the copy of the paper and there the headlines were emblazoned. "Porn Film Star and her Lover Jailed for Firebombing Attack." She folded the paper carefully, and headed back to her car to drive home. It was now or never.

"Twenty two years for one of them and ten years for the other." Neil's tight hard voice opened the hostilities after a very perfunctory kiss on the cheek. "Just think what this will cost the British taxpayer to keep them in idleness. You and I pay enough taxes as it is."

Speak for yourself, darling, George thought sarcastically. Only a total prig like you can talk so loudly that way and conveniently forget the blind trusts and tax shelters which do very nicely for you and keep you in the Saville Row suits to which you are accustomed.

"I suppose you are pleased with yourself, George," Neil snapped, "A nice mess you've landed me in."

"Oh, shut up, Neil." George's temper flared. She had planned on being conciliatory and to steer away from the awkward topic of conversation but her good resolutions disappeared in a flash. She'd had a hard week or so in court and was never keen on enduring Neil moaning away about the rigours of his job. Still less was she going to act the submissive woman in a situation like this.

"You'll have to work that extra hard in persuading your Cabinet friends that black is really white. After all, that's what your kind are good at," She added sarcastically.

"You've let me down," Neil sulked from the far side of the Evening Standard. "Just what sort of message is this supposed to send out to the electorate?"

"The truth," George said shortly."I've told you the way the trial has been heading but you wouldn't listen. But don't ask me, I'm only the barrister defending these two criminals. The jury were right…………… and so was John."

"What!" Neil Houghton exclaimed incredulously, putting down his paper. "After all these years when you've called the man every name under the sun, you're now going soft on him."

"Yes, but at least he knows the difference between right and wrong," George said shortly. She had her hard bitch image to maintain and she'd gone quite soft enough in one day, thank you very much. It was one thing for her to knock John but it was quite another thing for Neil to do it.

"I'm going out to the club, George. See you later." Neil stormed out, throwing the paper down on the elegant table and shutting the front door curtly.

George poured herself a generous measure of gin and tonic and sat out on her terrace at the elegant wrought iron table. This was the favourite part of her house where the evening sun shone into her eyes and she could meditate. Neil never liked being there and preferred sitting stiffly upright in his armchair with his newspaper. She smiled a little to herself as she reflected on their recent awkwardness. Typical Neil, she thought. He was like a little boy who, if the game wasn't going his way, stalked off saying 'I'm not playing' and went into a sulk. She could hardly call it a row as such a word conveyed a theatrical outpouring of your emotions and a readiness to take risks, with yourself, with your relationship, with your partner that Neil was utterly incapable of. But not her and not John. At least, in the old days, John would have given her back as much as he got in a fine stand up row. He used to hardly even flinch when a well directed plate whizzed past his left ear. Most satisfying of all was the making up after the row. John was a wonderful lover and the sex was as incandescent and memorable as the arguments. It was that and their love of Charli that had kept them together and it had hurt her beyond any imagination when she could no longer be there for her daughter full time. It was that pain that she wanted to forget and drove her on to solidify that hard artificial shell round her that served her so well in getting on in this material world.

She had never broken anything in her house while Neil was here and that was a bad sign of their relationship, if you could call it one, rather than the good sign as convention had it. When they fell out, Neil was a distant cold presence on the far side of their bed and only days later, by some imperceptible change did Neil become more agreeable.

Where was she going to, the question, unasked, slipped into her mind as she sipped her drink and stared into the setting son. Why, to make a good match in the way that Daddy had always urged his only child to do. This favourite phrase of her actorish barrister father harked back to a Victorian novel which she unthinkingly accepted. The failure of her marriage to John had only increased that desire in her to do better second time around. It was now as she stared round at her elegant surroundings and at her life in general and wondering what this cold stranger was doing in her own house, that she seriously wondered what this stranger who was sipping a gin and tonic was doing in her own life.

Neil Grayling was not having a good week at Larkhall and certainly not today.

In all his years of managerial authority, he could never remember the feeling of his actions being put under the microscope as the day he gave evidence in court. His vanity was wounded by the way two very powerful women pinned him down with relentless questions and the sarcastic crack that " while you are a glittering ornament decorating Larkhall Prison, practically, you are everywhere and at the same time nowhere at all" was the most wounding of anything. He has long been used to obscuring the truth to those above him to suit his purposes but the relentless cross examination made him feel uncomfortably naked and angry. He resolved that the function of court appearances should henceforth be always entrusted to those who are in charge of the nuts and bolts of Larkhall, and not its Grand Designer. Still, outsiders, even know all barristers like these, are never the ones to know what really goes on. He has the finger on the pulse of Larkhall as no one else does. Responsibility stops with him and this is his calling.

The rest of the week wasn't much better as his contacts consisting of Di Barker, Mrs Hollamby and Sir Ian Rochester alike, were all vague and non committal. Surely, someone somewhere would be able to spill the beans. That is how management systems work, to have your reliable spies in position to know the news before anyone else does. But all the 'Old Boys Networks' and lines of authority alike were silent, even the local Masonic lodge. It was all one big frustration as if his favourite boyfriend had become one maddening tease, promising all yet delivering nothing. As for Ms Betts, she paid periodic flying visits to Larkhall and had come and gone before he knew she was in the building.

Today, Grayling had a small portable television plugged in and was flipping channels while pretending to himself that he was looking at a few files. Destiny ticked away the minutes from which he was isolated, unable for once to influence it.

Suddenly a newsflash interrupted the usual horse racing from Cheltenham and he jerked upwards in his chair.

"Today, British justice is decided that two notorious criminals, Ms Tracy Pilkinton, also wanted for murder in the state of Florida and Mr Ritchie Atkins, a member of a notorious East End gangland family, are sentenced to twenty two years and ten years respectively for conspiring together to set off a home made bomb in Larkhall Prison to aid Ms Pilkinton's escape during which one inmate died …………" the 'voice over' announced what, to him was bad news.

"Oh no," groaned Grayling as the first thought that hit him was that the white wan would be speeding down the road to land what should rightly be someone else's problem back on his doorstep.

When the 'voice over' stopped, the TV screen showed a hubbub of comment from a crowd outside the Old Bailey to Grayling's unhearing ears. They had got their two minutes of fame as so many people wanted these days, Grayling thought spitefully. The camera then panned forward to a very familiar woman with long blond hair whose voice in his mind, was turned up to maximum volume. " ……..all press queries should be addressed to the Governing Governor, Neil Grayling. That's GRAYLING. I can give you the phone number of Larkhall Prison and I can promise you that he's the sort of person who is only too willing to communicate with the press……………."

This can't be happening, Grayling thought to himself and it was on the sixth ring that he was aware that the phone was ringing. Nervously, Grayling picked up the phone, expecting some persistent, pushy reporter but, instead, the Area Director himself was on the phone.

"Is that you Grayling?" the terse voice said without preamble."For your information the line is 'an official spokesman is unavailable for comment.' Got that? I know you like to pose and preen before the world's press but not today. Let the press print what they like and, in two weeks time, the whole sorry mess will be publicly forgotten. Except by us. You do know that you've got your annual appraisal on Thursday September 25th at ten sharp. Don't be late." The voice cut off.

A burst of cheering echoed down from what must be G wing as it was evident that the prisoners had heard the news but treated it in a very different manner from Grayling who was preoccupied with his own rather battered reputation taking another knock.

Grayling could remember nothing more of the rest of the day except from saying, time and time again, 'I have no official comment on the matter.' Despite the way the reporters cajoled, harassed and threatened him All this went completely against his nature. He reached into his draw for some double strength headache tablets and reached for a glass of water. But his musings were disturbed by yet another phone call.

"Mr. Grayling, Sir, It's Sylvia Hollandby from G wing."

Karen was sitting in Yvonne's garden with Yvonne, Lauren, Cassie and Roisin. They'd eaten a meal cooked by Cassie and Roisin, and were now working their way down a few bottles of wine. After the adrenaline rush of the end of the trial, they were now all fairly mellow, listening to some soft music and letting some of the tension begin to seep away. Lauren suddenly looked up as if remembering something.

"Mum, where did you go this afternoon?" Yvonne took a drag of her cigarette.

"None of your business," Yvonne said affectionately, knowing that Lauren would think she'd gone soft if she knew her mother had sent a bottle of Champagne to a barrister.

"Little surprise for someone, was it?" Asked Cassie with a wink.

"Jesus," Said Yvonne laughing, "You're as bad as Lauren."

"That's why you love me," Said Cassie, an utterly angelic look on her face.

"Oh, like a kick in the head," Said Roisin drily. Karen was about to add her own opinion when her mobile rang. Digging it out of her handbag which she'd slung on to a spare sun lounger, she was immensely displeased to see the main number for Larkhall on the display.

"Karen Betts," She said, slipping back in to her professional role even though there was a fair amount of alcohol sloshing about in her blood stream.

"Karen, it's Neil Grayling." Karen was irritated, but something, some instinct told her not to reveal his name to those around her.

"What can I do for you?" She asked politely but making it clear that this better be good.

"I'm afraid we have a problem. Snowball Merriman has killed herself."

"What?" Karen felt a surge of blind fury.

"I know, I know," Said Grayling. "Not exactly in the name of justice, is it."

"When did this happen?"

"About half an hour ago. I thought you'd want to be informed, her being on your wing. But that's not all. I've been on the phone to Wormwood Scrubs. It seems Ritchie Atkins has done the same thing." Karen's blood ran cold. Ritchie was dead. Yvonne's son was dead, and Karen knew she had to be the one to tell her. She couldn't speak at first.

"Karen, are you still there?" Neil asked.

"Yes," Karen said, suddenly knowing she was stone cold sober.

"Are you with Yvonne by any chance?"


"I think this might be better coming from you."

"I suppose so."

"And as Merriman's wing governor, we need you to formally identify her."

"I'll be there when I can." Karen switched off the phone before Grayling could make any more demands of her.

"Sweetheart, you've gone white, what's happened?" Asked Roisin gently. Karen simply stared back at her, at them all, but her gaze focussed mostly on Lauren and Yvonne. How the hell did she break the news to them that Ritchie had killed himself. When she was a nurse, and to a certain extent in her capacity as wing governor, breaking the news of a death to unsuspecting relatives was occasionally part of her job, and as a part of her job she could detach herself from it. She would be polite, sympathetic but still removed in some way from the immediate reactions of a grief stricken partner or parent. But this was different. Karen was far too closely connected with Yvonne and by extension Lauren to remain professionally aloof about this. It hit her in an instant that for the first time in her life, she was utterly stuck for words. She didn't appear to have the ability to verbalise this shocking fact. Her gaze seemed to be irrevocably drawn to Yvonne's, perhaps by the intensity in the other woman's eyes. Yvonne was holding a wineglass in one hand, suspended in mid air as if time itself had come to a standstill.

"Tell me," Said Yvonne, and even though her voice was gentle, it invited no argument. Karen took a deep breath.

"Ritchie died about half an hour ago." With anyone else, Karen might have tried to soften the blow, but with Yvonne she knew this was futile. Yvonne, and Lauren for that matter, would have seen straight through her.

"How?" Asked Lauren. Karen's gaze moved to Lauren, who looked furious.

"Other than that he killed himself, I don't know," Replied Karen softly.

"Forgive me for being thick," Said Lauren, "But why did you get the call and not mum?"

"Because Ritchie wasn't the only one to take that way out this evening."

"You mean Snowball?" Asked Cassie, her anger also beginning to rise.

"Yes." The splintering of glass brought all of their eyes back on Yvonne. The glass she'd been holding had shattered under the pressure of her squeezing hand, but she made no sound. Even as Karen reached for a serviette, she could see the blood running down on to the table cloth. Grabbing Yvonne's wrist and turning her hand palm up, Karen could see tiny fragments of glass embedded in the bleeding skin.

"Jesus, mum," Said Lauren, "Are you all right?" Karen held the serviette gently against the wound, though not applying too much pressure because of the glass in Yvonne's hand.

"Lauren, do you have anything resembling a first aid kit in this house?" She asked, knowing that this at least she could do something about.

"There's one in the kitchen." Roisin went to fetch it.

"Yvonne, I need to get the glass out of your hand, and I need to do that in a bit more light." Yvonne didn't respond. Wrapping the serviette around Yvonne's hand and keeping it held between her own, Karen led Yvonne back to the house and in to the kitchen. As she persuaded her in to a chair at the kitchen table, Karen turned Yvonne's face towards her. It scared her to see the totally blank expression on Yvonne's face.

"Sweetheart, look at me," She pleaded, wanting some kind of recognition from Yvonne to show she was still there with them. Yvonne gradually focussed her gaze on Karen, but still didn't speak. Rifling through the contents of the first aid kit that Roisin had unearthed, Karen was slightly astounded to see various things that no ordinary person would keep for simple domestic emergencies. She held up the type of needle and thread that she hadn't seen since her nursing days. At her raised eyebrow, Lauren remarked,

"What do you expect. We do illegal things which occasionally result in illegal injuries in this house." Not wanting any more details, Karen picked up the tweezers and wiped them with one of the sterile alcohol wipes.

"Yvonne, this is going to hurt." As Karen delicately extracted the tiny slivers of glass from Yvonne's hand with the tweezers, she was dimly aware of Lauren going away and returning with a bottle, a glass and searching in the fridge for orange juice.

"Did you used to be a nurse or something?" Asked Roisin, watching Karen's precise movements.

"Yes," Was Karen's unequivocal answer. Yvonne didn't even flinch whilst the glass was being removed, nor when Karen cleaned her palm with alcohol wipes, though Karen found herself ludicrously tempted to simply dunk Yvonne's hand in Lauren's glass of vodka. There were three quite deep gashes on Yvonne's hand which Karen knew would not heal up by themselves. Karen picked up the human sewing kit and looked at it contemplatively, her gaze straying back and forth to Yvonne's hand which still rested in one of her own. Roisin, whose head again seemed to be the clearest in a crisis said,

"Could you stitch her up?" Lauren laughed mirthlessly.

"She already did that," Was her unemphatic comment. Karen ignored her, needing to keep her mind resolutely on the job.

"It's years since I did anything like this," Said Karen, not wanting to hurt Yvonne more than necessary.

"And casualty on a Friday night is exactly what mum doesn't need," Put in Lauren.

"I'm perfectly well aware of that," Replied Karen, her patience with Lauren fading fast. She rummaged through the first aid box, looking for anything that remotely resembled local anaesthetic. Finding a prepackaged, sterile syringe of Novacain complete with needle, Karen reflected that never again would she be surprised by anything she saw within the walls of this house.

"Jesus, you certainly do keep a stash," commented Cassie, fervently hoping that the sight of this wouldn't reignite Roisin's interest in other more lethal drugs. As Karen began reading the instructions on the packet, Yvonne's left hand came up and removed it. Yvonne put the end to her physical pain aside and gestured to Karen to stitch her up without it. Karen stared at her, but saw something in Yvonne's face which told her that she needed the physical pain to attempt to take her away from the emotional.

"Are you absolutely sure?" Asked Karen gently, knowing just how much this was going to hurt. All she received from Yvonne was a small nod. At least she's communicating with me, thought Karen. She opened the sterile needle and threaded it with a length of incredibly fine twine which brought back numerous memories from her nursing days. Needle poised, she approached Yvonne's palm with something like trepidation. What if she got this wrong, what if her memories of thirteen years ago weren't enough. At the first introduction of the needle in to her wounded flesh, Yvonne's hand jerked. Karen stopped what she was doing and looked Yvonne full in the face.

"Sure you want the pain?" She asked, "Because it's going to get much worse than that." At Yvonne's affirmative nod, she said, "Okay, but Roisin is going to have to hold your arm still for me and if you change your mind, just let me know." Roisin moved round the table and held Yvonne's arm flat to the wood. Cassie watched with a kind of sick fascination as Karen slowly but deftly sewed up the three gashes in Yvonne's hand. Apart from being aware of the clink of bottle on glass as Lauren continued drinking, Karen's whole mind was focussed on her task. She felt every flinch from Yvonne. Roisin was as good as her word and Yvonne's reflexive reaction didn't jeopardise what Karen was doing, but every shudder was felt all the same. When Karen tied off the final stitch, and covered Yvonne's hand with a thin gauze bandage, both Cassie and Roisin stared at her with a new level of respect. Karen tidied away the paraphenalia of her craft, and finally laid a hand on Yvonne's shoulder to get her attention. Looking in to Yvonne's face, Karen was still concerned at her lack of speech.

"Yvonne, you know that I've got to go in to Larkhall. I won't be there any longer than necessary, and I promise I'll be back as soon as possible. Will you be okay till I get back?" Yvonne's left hand, the one not covered by a bandage, came up and briefly rested against Karen's cheek. As Karen walked out in to the hall, Cassie got up and followed her.

"Be careful," Said Cassie. "You've been drinking."

"I'll be okay," Replied Karen. "I feel more sober than I think I've ever felt in my life."

"You did brilliantly back there," Said Cassie in awe. Karen walked out in to the garden to collect her handbag, Cassie following her.

"Like I said, it used to be my job. But no, I wasn't expecting to have to do something like that tonight."

"How could he do this to her?" Asked Cassie, the tears for Yvonne evident in her voice.

"I don't know," Said Karen softly. "But she's going to need us all."

Part Fifty Seven

As Karen drove towards the prison, she felt like she was being torn in two. The wing governor half of her knew that she had to go in to Larkhall to sort out the ramifications of any suicide on her wing. But the woman, the human part of her knew she ought to have stayed with Yvonne. She hadn't spoken since she'd been told that her only son had killed himself, and Karen was all too aware how quickly this kind of mental shock could turn in to physical shock if left unwatched. When Yvonne had cut herself by squeezing the wineglass so hard that it had smashed, she hadn't uttered a sound. Even when Karen had extracted the tiny slivers of cut glass from Yvonne's hand with a pair of tweezers, she'd barely flinched. Lauren's answer had simply been to unearth a new bottle of vodka and settle down, almost as if she intended on drinking the lot. Karen left her car at a slight angle and jogged towards the gate lodge.

"I suppose you're here about Snowball Merriman," Said Ken, taking his time finding her keys. She met up with Grayling as she walked towards G wing.

"Thanks for coming in so quickly, Karen," He said, leading her towards the part of the hospital wing where Snowball had been taken.

"I thought she was supposed to be on suicide watch," Said Karen, taking out her anger on Neil.

"It seems Mrs. Hollandby has some explaining to do," Was Neil's reply. Then slowing his pace slightly he said, "How's Yvonne?"

"Yeah, well, that's precisely where I should be now," Replied Karen, not caring who heard her. "She's in total shock, how would you expect a mother to feel on finding out her son's just killed himself." Neil made no comment. They rounded a corner and came to the room where the nurses and Dr. Nicholson had tried to save Snowball's life. She lay on the bed, loosely covered from head to toe by a thin cotton sheet. Karen twitched back the sheet and took a brief glance.

"For identification purposes," She said, "It's definitely her." This was a formality, but one which had to be gone through. Before replacing the sheet, Karen took her last look at the woman who'd caused so much death and destruction in such a short time. Even in death, she wore a soft, smug smile, as if she really had achieved all she'd intended. Karen let the sheet drop back over Snowball's face, briefly wondering if this self-satisfied tart had left anything else in her wake besides anger, and a feeling of justice not quite having been served.

After locking Snowball's cell and taping it, "No Entry", and telling Neil she would deal with any of Snowball's personal effects on Monday, Karen walked smartly to the officers' room to find Sylvia brewing a cup of tea. Karen stalked in to the room and seeing that nobody else was in sight, closed the door. Sylvia turned to face her.

"It wasn't my fault. I was about to check on Merriman like I've been doing every fifteen minutes since she was brought back from court, but Al McKenzy started a fight with one of the new ones and it took a good quarter of an hour to get them separated and down the block." Karen couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"You were the senior officer on duty, Sylvia, making sure that Snowball Merriman was kept on fifteen minute watch was your responsibility."

"Well, what was I supposed to do?" Asked Sylvia, now also getting angry. "There was only me and two others here. You know what it's like on a Friday night, you can't get staff for love nor money." Karen suddenly realised that she could be doing this another time.

"Look, Sylvia," She said, calming down slightly. "I haven't got time to hear all this now. Come and see me first thing on Monday morning, and you'd better have times, dates and documented reasons to support your defense, or you'll be picking up your P45." Leaving Sylvia mouthing like a fish out of water, Karen walked back out to her car. The likes of Sylvia Hollandby were not her highest priority right now. Cursing the late Friday night traffic, mostly generated by people moving from closing pubs to nightclubs, she sat at red light after red light, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. Traffic jams were like men, she decided. There was never one around when you needed one, but when you loathed the very thought of them, they kept getting in your way.

Pulling in to Yvonne's drive, she knew someone must have heard her car, because Roisin was standing by the open front door. She looked almost relieved to see Karen had returned.

"How're you doing?" Asked Karen, following Roisin in to the house.

"Oh, don't worry about us," Said Roisin, "It's Yvonne and Lauren I'm worried about. Yvonne's gone to bed, still without saying a bloody word, and Lauren's getting gradually more drunk by the minute." Then, as if remembering where Karen had been, she asked, "How's everything at Larkhall?"

"Don't ask," Was Karen's unemphatic comment. They walked in to the kitchen, to see Lauren and Cassie sat at the table, Lauren certainly the worse for where, being watched over by a very concerned Cassie. Karen walked round the table to get a better look at Lauren. There were tears running down her cheeks, and she wasn't making any attempt to wipe them.

"How could he do this to her?" Lauren said, her words ever so slightly slurred. "How could my complete wanker of a brother do that to his own mother." Then she caught sight of Karen, and the look in her eyes turned to blind fury. "What are you doing here?" She asked. Both Cassie and Roisin were about to try and soften her words but Karen got there first.

"I've come back to see how you and your mum are doing," She said quietly. Lauren laughed mirthlessly.

"We don't need you," She said, the venom dripping from every word. "I don't need you, and mum certainly doesn't need you. If that tart Merriman had shot you instead, like she wanted to, we wouldn't be here now and mum wouldn't be going through the worst thing she's ever had to deal with in her life."

"Lauren," Cassie said tentatively, not wanting her to go any further with this line of punishment, but Lauren ignored her.

"If Ritchie had been able to walk," She went on, pouring herself another glass of vodka with only a fraction of a taste of orange juice. "He'd have done his time, got out and moved on. He'd never have killed himself if he'd had anything left. But his trying to save your miserable, pathetic life took that away from him."

"Lauren, give it a rest," Said Cassie sharply, seeing the stunned expression on Karen's face. But lauren was on to something now, and like a dog with a rabbit, she'd resolved to shake it to death.

"So you see," She went on, pinning Karen to the spot with eyes that burned with pure hatred. "You are the reason my brother chose to take the coward's way out, you're the reason why mum is lying upstairs in total shock, not speaking to anyone." Karen couldn't speak. Is this really what Lauren, what Yvonne thought? If so, she really shouldn't be here. "Jesus," Said Lauren getting unsteadily to her feet. "You can't even have the decency to say one word in your defense, can you." When she lifted her right hand to strike Karen across the face, Karen reacted with lightening reflexes and gripped Lauren's wrist. Roisin, who had still been standing, moved swiftly forward and grabbed Lauren's other arm to stop her trying again.

"I wouldn't," Said Karen, in that firm, not to be fucked about with tone that both Cassie and Roisin remembered so well. Dropping Lauren's wrist, Karen moved towards the Dorr. Lauren had begun to sob and Roisin stood and held her close. Cassie stood up and followed Karen in to the hall.

"Where are you going?" Cassie asked. Karen turned to face her, the tears in her eyes only just prevented from spilling.

"I'd have thought that was obvious," She said quietly.

"Don't listen to lauren," Said Cassie following the direction of Karen's thoughts. "She's more pissed than I've ever seen her."

"Is that really what Yvonne thinks of me?" Asked Karen in a high, strangled voice.

"Let's face it," Said Cassie softly, "Nobody knows how Yvonne feels about anything. She hasn't spoken a word to anyone since you told her."

"I should go," Said Karen, one tear escaping and being furiously wiped away by the back of her hand. Cassie moved forward and gave her a hug.

"I never thought I'd say this of a screw and an ex-con," She said, "But Yvonne needs you. She needs you now more than I think she's ever needed anyone, probably more than she knows it herself." Karen returned the hug, seeming to take some of Cassie's strength to replenish her own depleted stores.

As Karen softly opened Yvonne's bedroom door, she could see a lamp, giving off a gentle glow on what Karen found herself thinking of as her side of the bed. This was as clear a sign that Yvonne could have left to say she needed her and hoped she'd come back. Yvonne was lying on her side, facing the door, but her eyes were tightly shut. Karen wasn't all that sure they had been, but if Yvonne still didn't want to talk, this was as good a way of any of saying so. Karen closed the door, as if trying to keep out all the things Lauren had said to her downstairs. She quickly and silently undressed, putting on the piece of black silk she'd worn last Saturday night, which had been left clean and folded on a chair as if waiting for her. Last Saturday night seemed so far away now. Had they really been so happy? It seemed almost unbelievable. She slipped in to bed and gently put her arms round Yvonne from behind. No words needed to be said. Karen knew Yvonne wasn't asleep. The tension was coming off her like heat. She found Yvonne's left hand, the one not covered by a small dressing, and began chafing it between her own. Yvonne was freezing. Knowing this to be a further sign of mental and physical shock, Karen knew she couldn't go to sleep. She had to keep an eye on Yvonne, for one thing to make sure she didn't get any colder. She left the lamp on, knowing that Yvonne might prefer to have a little light, because darkness only intensifies the swiftly flowing current of the soul's unchartered waters. Karen didn't know how long she lay like that, almost seeming to wrap her slightly longer frame around Yvonne to keep her warm. It felt like hours, and maybe it was. At one point she heard Cassie and Roisin making their way up the stairs, clearly bringing Lauren to bed.

After Karen had gone up to Yvonne, Lauren had simply cried herself out. Roisin had taken her in to the lounge, sat with her on the sofa and held her while sobs wracked her entire body. Cassie had brewed some coffee and forced Lauren to drink it. Then, when she'd eventually calmed down, they persuaded her she ought to go to bed. Lauren briefly spared a thought to wonder how Yvonne was doing, but Cassie managed to persuade her that Yvonne was being well looked after. When Cassie left them to lock up, Trigger came and laid his head on lauren's knee.

"He always knows," Said lauren, scratching his ears. "They always know when something's wrong." He followed the three of them when they went upstairs. Lauren was faintly surprised when both Cassie and Roisin joined her in her large double bed, one on each side of her.

"I think you need company tonight," Said Cassie, putting her arms round lauren who had turned on her side.

"We'll always be here for you," Said Roisin, putting her arms round Lauren from behind. Never before had lauren felt so safe, so comforted. As she lay in two pairs of warm arms, and slowly drifted off to sleep, she knew that if this was all she ever had from these two women who had come in to her life, really by way of her mother, it would do her just fine. She knew she couldn't have got through tonight without them.

"I'm sorry," She murmured.

"What for?" Asked Roisin sleepily.

"For being such a cow. Mum'll kill me when she finds out what I said to Karen."

"I doubt Karen's stupid enough to tell her," Mumbled Cassie. Lauren vehemently hoped this was true.

Despite her best efforts, Karen could feel her eyes gradually closing. She forced them to stay open, because she knew Yvonne still hadn't gone to sleep. As time passed, she managed to push all irrelevant thoughts from her brain, nothing mattered but Yvonne. when Karen was beginning to think that she really couldn't keep her eyes open any longer, she felt Yvonne's body begin to shake, and knew that the numbness had finally given way to tears. At first, Yvonne made no sound as she cried, though Karen could feel every shudder of her ribcage.

"Turn over," She gently said to Yvonne, and when her request was obeyed, she could see all the pain reflected in Yvonne's eyes. Karen simply held her through this outpouring of grief.

"Talk to me," Karen said softly. Yvonne seemed to have needed permission to say all the feelings that were tearing her heart to shreds.

"He was my baby," She said in such a primeavlely heart-rending voice that it brought the tears to Karen's eyes.

"I know," Karen said, almost able to see the blood pouring from Yvonne's wounded spirit.

"He was my first born baby," Yvonne continued, "No matter what he did, he was still my baby." The pain Yvonne was feeling cut deep in to Karen, and she found her tears joining Yvonne's. "Why did he have to do it?" Asked yvonne. "I could have stopped him doing this."

"No, you couldn't," Said Karen vehemently. "There was absolutely nothing you could have done."

"I should have known," Said Yvonne, "He was my son, I should have known him well enough to at the very least wonder if he might do this."

"Yvonne, this isn't your fault," Said Karen, not liking the direction Yvonne's thoughts were taking.

"Yes, it is," Said Yvonne deprecatingly. "If I'd even once stood up to Charlie, Ritchie wouldn't have had to go away, and he wouldn't have got mixed up with that tart Merriman."

"Yvonne, you can't blame yourself for this, because that won't help anyone, not you, not Lauren and not Ritchie. Killing yourself, it's like having the last word, the final fuck you. That doesn't mean any one person was to blame, it just means that it was Ritchie's way of getting out in the only way he could." Karen continued to cradle Yvonne as her crying slowly ceased. Karen thought briefly of what Lauren had said to her earlier, and knew that this is what really signified how different Yvonne was from her Atkins name. It had been Yvonne's response to blame herself for Ritchie's suicide, but for Lauren, who was undoubtedly an Atkins, it'd been her way to look for someone else to blame. Ritchie had been like that, and Karen suspected Charlie had too. Both Ritchie and Lauren had looked for someone else to take the responsibility for the pain they felt, but Yvonne who no more had the blood of an Atkins than Karen herself did, had looked to her own part in what she was now suffering. As Yvonne slipped in to an exhausted, troubled sleep, Karen spared a thought to wonder if Lauren really had been right. Karen had given no thought to her brief liaison with Ritchie, other than that it was her first step on the road to recovery from Fenner. But had she taken more care, been more vigilant to the insidious way Ritchie had crept in under her professional and emotional guard, he might not have been serving time and therefore might not have taken such a desperate course of action.

Part Fifty Eight

One of Jo's eyes opened a fraction and let the sunlight of the morning mix in with that sleepy satiated feeling that a night of lovemaking with John always left her feeling, in a tangle of quilts. It was a glorious Saturday after a fortnight of one of the most gruelling trials she had undertaken that called out for a lazy morning in bed. It was at times like these that she was tempted by the dreamy prospect of a lifetime with John before the more rational side of her took herself to task about this. On a morning like this, she told herself, she oughtn't to plan too far ahead but just savour the moment.

Presently, the squeaky mechanical sound of the spring on the brass letter box being forced back announced to her that either the morning post or the Guardian was being forced through the letter box to flop onto the mat.

"Is that the paper, Jo?" John's sleepy mumble emerged out of the duvet. "You'd better fetch it."

Smiling to herself, Jo popped a thin silk dressing gown on though not before John's one eye had the brief early morning delight of a naked Jo. Typical John, trying to compensate by being masterful after his nervous debut as a chef last night.

The soft white stair carpet greeted her bare feet and she picked up the bundle of papers, colour supplement and adverts and, sleepily, cast a casual gaze at it. The headlines,

"Imprisoned Firebombers Commit Suicide" screamed out at Jo's unbelieving eyes as she grasped at the main paper, letting the rest slide sideways on to the carpet. "Last night, Ms Pilkinton was found dead in her cell at Larkhall Prison after slashing her wrist with a razor blade and at Wormwood Scrubs, her lover Mr Ritchie Atkins was found dead from an overdose of sleeping tablets. Only yesterday, they were both sentenced for their joint involvement with setting off a firebomb at Larkhall Prison to cover her escape from the prison. Preliminary investigation has ruled out foul play…….."

"John," Jo called, "Come downstairs and look at the papers."

If it wasn't for the unnatural edge to Jo's voice, John would have played deaf and curled up in bed. This time, he slipped on his trousers and popped his shirt on , which was left unbuttoned, and stumbled sleepily downstairs. The way the colour had drained from Jo's face woke up his senses straightaway.

John grabbed the paper and his features were frozen in shock. He could not even begin to

explore what a turmoil of feelings that were churning round in him. A casual observer might have thought that in real, personal situations that came emotionally close to him, he was simply unfeeling but Jo sensed that this was his way of grappling with a situation that was too big for words.

" I remember Yvonne Atkins saying to me with a peculiar expression in her eye, 'There's things Ritchie needs to hear from me and I think this might be my last chance to put things right.' It's almost like she knew what was going to happen," Jo said at last in a choked voice.

John instantly put his arms round Jo and she buried her face in his shoulder. John was insightful and sensitive to realise when Jo simply wanted the decencies of human comfort. He wanted quite as much to be held by Jo, partly because of their common experiences in the case. Mysteriously, the strong August sunshine bathed the mourners in strong sunshine and warmth, unaffected by the news though the warmth and cosiness of Jo's house did its best to comfort them.

"I'd like to phone someone, anyone, I'm not sure what to say except that our thoughts go out to them," John mumbled into Jo's dishevelled hair. "We ought to do something."

"I don't know who I feel sorry for, not Ritchie Atkins saying that 'she ain't my mother' when she wanted to speak to her but he was under the thumb of Snowball Merriman. It's just something too horrible for words."

The fractured shards of John's everyday thinking latched on to the fact that their joint suicide was no coincidence, that while they were together day after day in the dock, they had the opportunity to plan this whole thing. Someone like Ms Pilkinton, so John named her to place her in the category of proven criminal, who planned the explosion so deviously would have the perverted sick scheming mind to plan their joint suicide. But why?

"I can't understand this one, Jo," John said haltingly, feeling his way for his thoughts and emotions, let alone words. "I couldn't imagine abandoning, say Charlie, in this way or would she do the same to me. Not someone I hold dear however suicidal I might feel."

Jo nodded into John's shoulder. The way John picked out Charlie, not her, was his way of reacting, of imagining himself in Yvonne's shoes as a parent. "I feel the same about tom and Mark," Jo said softly at which John nodded in understanding.

"You must phone George," Jo said with more of her usual confidence. "She'll feel the same as us, much though a part of me still hates to feel that I have anything in common with her except you." Jo finished where the trace of her old attitudes to George was overlain by the recent feelings of somehow being on the same side.

John raised his eyebrows at this strange suggestion but, at such an emotional moment, far be it from him to deny her suggestion.

Neil Houghton was the first to grab the paper at George's house. He was properly dressed in his suit in the house where everything was neat and in mechanical order. He liked everything that way and, of course, George had to fit in with his ways. He looked at the paper and tut tutted to himself as he read the story.

"Hey George.Those two people that you defended have just topped themselves. That means that the Atkins Pilkinton problem won't fade away as is right and proper but there will be more sensational headlines. Still, it could be worse. Dead people can't tell tales to the News of the World. The scandal would have died a natural death anyway," muttered Neil contemptuously. "Still, I suppose that it has saved the British taxpayer a million pounds or so."

"But won't it be more bad publicity?" George's mouth moved on automatic pilot not taking in what she was hearing.

"It's a Home Office Problem, not mine," Neil commented curtly as he resumed reading the financial section of the Daily Telegraph.

There's no honour among thieves, George thought in a blinding moment of fury, and far less in Cabinet Ministers. Something seemed to snap in George that cut herself off irrevocably from Neil as she turned to brush violently at her blond hair. Neil, of course, looked out of the corner of his eye to see George doing her usual routine to get herself ready for the day. Today was just like any other day with the chance that the disagreeable events of the past weeks will fade behind him. Every Cabinet minister goes through a rocky patch these days and survives. Even if it is a resignation matter, some ministers come back from the cold given time. By contrast, George had the presentiment that sooner or later she would resign as Neil Houghton's consort and, if she ever did, she would not come back.

"Is Lover Boy there?" John asked George on the phone.

George took the cordless phone into the kitchen while Neil was busying himself with his cabinet papers and was oblivious to anything.

"Not so that anyone would notice," George's aristocratic drawl dismissed him contemptuously. That told John exactly how matters stood between George and that drip she'd landed herself with.

"You've seen today's headlines?" John asked tentatively. "I know that it sounds feeble but I wanted to phone you and to say that however badly you may be feeling about this, Jo and I feel the same." John finished with a shaky laugh that was half a self reproach for the total inadequacy of the lines.

"Why John," George's upper class drawl, infused with the warmth of feelings she denied to herself and to others. "It's nice of you to phone. And, for once, thank Jo for getting you to."

"How the devil did you guess that, George?" John asked in a puzzled tone.

"I know you of old, John darling," George's teasing tones curled their way down the telephone wires to John. "Still it's nice of you to phone. It's nice to hear a human voice." George ended, speaking in a voice that John had never heard before. George lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.

"All Neil can talk about is what this will now save the bloody tax payer," Said George scornfully.

"I wonder that you expected any different," Replied John. Neil appeared looking for more coffee.

"Do you have to do that?" He said, gesturing at George's cigarette.

"Might I remind you that this is my house," Replied George, her gaze swivelling to burn in to Neil's. "Look, I've got to go," She said to John, "The lord and master is for once demanding my input in to a conversation." As she switched off the phone Neil said,

"Who was that on the phone, George?"

"Only John," George's large eyes swivelled round in his direction, her smile wiped from her face in an instant.

"Why was he phoning, George? To gloat at us because he won?" Neil pursued, operating on his own agenda.

"No, Neil." George replied coldly."And talking of phoning, I was wondering if you wanted to come with me to visit Daddy. I get worried about him. He gets lonely sometimes."

"He calls round on Wednesdays. Isn't that enough of a family duty?" Neil replied curtly. His day was already mapped out and spending his time listening to superannuated old fogeys like him droning on did not strike him as a very productive use of his busy time. Sometimes, he felt that George did not really understand how demanding his job was despite his many efforts to explain patiently to her. A crisis could blow up at 2 in the morning whereas George's job was demanding in its way but once she had done her work, she could forget about everything.

"Just for once," urged George, hoping against hope that he would say no.

"I'm sorry, I can't make it," Neil said shortly."Another time, maybe," He added insincerely.

George concealed her broad smile and with a sad face promised to pass on his best wishes to Daddy. It gave her an excellent chance to get out of the house even if it was hers anyway.

On the other end of the phone, John smiled to himself, being better able to handle the topsy turvy world he was entering where George insisted that he thank Jo for getting him to phone. Before, the most George would have thanked her for was giving her a bad cold and that said with her most barbed sarcasm.

"Well, it looks like George and Lover Boy won't remain an item for much longer. I think it's a case of 'all gong and no dinner' in their relationship, if you could call it one, Jo." John replied smugly. And on a more serious note. "I feel sorry for her as she feels the same about this ghastly matter and hasn't anyone where she is to share her feelings with."

Jo's feelings of sympathy were mixed as she had reservations about a footloose and fancy free George on the loose as much as she had more of a kinship with her than she had ever had with her. She realised that this was why, deep down , she had always clashed with George in the past.

Part Fifty Nine

On the Saturday morning, Cassie was woken by the sound of the phone from downstairs. When it looked like nobody else was going to answer it, she dragged herself out of bed and ran down to the kitchen where the cordless phone sat leering at her on the table amongst the surplus of empty glasses, ashtrays and cigarette packets of last night's vigil. When Cassie answered, she was treated to the tones of some bloke saying that he was the governor of HMP Wormwood Scrubs, and could he possibly speak to Mrs. Atkins.

"I'm sorry," Said Cassie, "But it isn't really a good time right now."

"It's about her son," Said this faceless individual. "We need a next of kin to come and identify the body."

"You don't believe in giving time for the news to settle in, do you," Said Cassie.

"I'm sorry," Said the governor, to Cassie's surprise really sounding it. "But the quicker we can get him officially identified, the quicker we can do the postmortem."

"Does it absolutely have to be a next of kin?" Asked Cassie, wanting to spare Yvonne as much as possible.

"Where we know one exists," Said Governor Bailey, "I'm afraid so."

"Okay, I'll tell her."

"It doesn't need to be immediately, it can be any time today."

Hating what she had to do, Cassie hung up and walked up the stairs. The clock in the hall was just chiming nine o'clock. She gently knocked on Yvonne's bedroom door, and on getting no answer pushed it open. Feeling for the light switch just inside the door, she turned on the dimmer to its lowest setting. As the light was still relatively soft, Karen and Yvonne remained dead to the world. Cassie took a moment to reflect on how complete, how right they looked. Walking over to the bed, she gently shook Yvonne's shoulder. As Yvonne turned over and in so doing disturbed Karen, Cassie said,

"Sorry to have to wake you, but there's just been a phone call you should know about." Yvonne rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

"Who was it?"

"The governor of Wormwood Scrubs," Said Cassie, feeling like she was about to bring all the necessities of an unexplained death down on Yvonne's head.

"He didn't hang about," commented Karen, squinting up at Cassie, sleepily realising why this phone call would have been made.

"What did he want?" Asked Yvonne, but thinking she already knew.

"He wants you to go and identify Ritchie's body, some time today." Yvonne took a couple of minutes to mull this one over.

"Okay," She simply said. Cassie perched on the side of the bed and took one of Yvonne's hands.

"I'm so sorry," Said Cassie, brief tears in her eyes.

"I know," Said Yvonne, giving her hand a squeeze, feeling like she'd cried herself out the night before. "Is Lauren all right?" She asked.

"She's still asleep," Said Cassie trying to bring her voice back under control. "She drank enough to float the QE2 last night, but she'll be okay."

"I'm sorry I left you to look after her," Said Yvonne.

"Hey, that's what mates are for. You concentrate on whatever you've got to do today, and leave Lauren to us. She'll probably spend today sleeping off the mother of all hangovers." Cassie realised she was babbling. She leaned forward and gave Yvonne a quick awkward hug. "We're all here for you, you know," Was all she said before going out of the room. Yvonne turned to Karen who simply held her, not really knowing what to say or do. After a while, she said,

"Do you want me to come with you?"

"Is that okay?" Asked Yvonne.

"I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't," Said Karen gently.

A while later, they were driving, in Karen's car, towards HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Lighting a cigarette, Yvonne asked,

"do you know the governor?"

"Only slightly," Replied Karen keeping her eyes on the road. "I've spoken to him at the odd conference here and there," She elaborated. Yvonne was quiet for a few minutes.

"What is actually involved in identifying a body?" She asked and Karen could hear the panic in her voice. She took Yvonne's hand but still kept her eyes on the road.

"You'll just see his face," Said Karen gently, trying to calm Yvonne down. "And all you'll be asked to do is to confirm that it is or isn't Ritchie." At Yvonne's continued silence, Karen asked, "Are you sure you want to do this now? We can always come back."

"No," Said Yvonne, sounding slightly more resolved to the situation, "The longer I leave it, the harder it'll be."

"Actually," Said Karen, turning in to Du Cane road, "I think seeing Ritchie is something you need to do, to verify that this is real."

"Maybe," Replied Yvonne. They pulled in to the visitor's car park and Yvonne said, "Do you mind waiting here for me?"

"Of course not," Said Karen, knowing that this was something Yvonne probably needed to do on her own.

As she was shown down the endless stream of dull, gray corridors, Yvonne barely took in anything. The brief glimpses she was given of male inmates involved in various pastimes hardly made an impression on her. Governor Bailey showed her in to the small prison mortuary. This wasn't real, she kept telling herself. Any minute now, someone would tell her this was all a mistake. But when she laid eyes on Ritchie's cold, lifeless form, she couldn't doubt it any longer. She gazed at his soft, slightly child-like face. In spite of all the bad things he had done, he still had the cheeky, winning features that had always got round her when he was little. In court, the last time she'd seen him, he'd looked cold, angry, as if he'd really expected to get off. But in death, he looked innocent again, like he'd never known any of the things his mother and father had taught him over the years. A lonely tear ran down her cheek for the loss of her first born baby. Even after everything he'd done to her, she'd have taken away every last painful word or feeling if it would have stopped him from taking that desperate way out. But feeling such a thing was futile now. Ritchie was dead, gone from her, and never again would she be able to hold him, and be the mother she ought to have been.

After formally identifying Ritchie's body, Yvonne followed the governor to his office.

"Do you have any idea how this happened?" Asked Yvonne.

"That's hopefully what the postmortem will tell us," Replied the governor. "But we think he overdosed on something." Yvonne knew better than to ask how an inmate had managed to get hold of any harmful drug inside, she knew enough about that from her time at Larkhall. The governor handed her a prison issue plastic bag clearly full of Ritchie's belongings. Yvonne briefly glanced inside to see a jumble of clothes, plus the discman she'd sent him. This had been the only thing Ritchie had ever asked her for during the last few months whilst he'd been on remand, this and a number of CD's.

"He was listening to music when he died," Said the governor gently. Yvonne picked up the Cd case that had been lying on top of the diskman. It was an album by Robbie Williams, Life Through A Lens. Flicking open the machine, Yvonne saw that the CD was still inside.

She signed all the relevant forms, thanked the governor, though she didn't really know what for, and walked out to the car. Karen was smoking, and flicked her cigarette out the window as Yvonne got in.

"Are you okay?" Asked Karen, mentally clobbering herself for saying such a thing. Yvonne gave her a watery smile.

"No," She said, "I'm not, but I will be." Yvonne went to put the bag of Ritchie's belongings on the floor by her feet, but she fished out the Robbie Williams CD case.

"The governor said he was listening to this when he died," She said, holding it up. As Karen stared transfixed at the album cover, a flood of memories seemed to overtake her. She could remember like it was yesterday, the hard muscle yet soft boyish skin of Ritchie's body. She could still smell the subtle aroma of his aftershave. But most of all, she could clearly remember the music he'd been playing on her last visit to that hotel suite.

"He was playing that CD the last night I spent with him," Karen said quietly.

They drove silently for some minutes. She could tell by Yvonne's expression that in time, she would recover from this. They were both emotionally exhausted. Yvonne, because the weight of grief and partial guilt is heavier than any other intangible feeling, and Karen, because giving the type of constant support Yvonne needed was draining reserves she never knew she had. All she was concentrating on was Yvonne, and every nuance of her silence. Observing a signpost warning of a bad car crash on one of the roads they had taken earlier, Karen automatically swung left and took a different route. Yvonne watched Karen's skillful hands on the wheel and let her mind wander. She didn't need to talk. That was the thing with Karen, simply being with her yet being silent gave her as much comfort as verbalising any of the things she was feeling. Their was a level of empathy from Karen that simply told Yvonne she was there for her. The rain that had started last night was proving everyone's assumption that the heat wave had finally given up. Yvonne felt that the weather reflected her mood. Were the skies crying for her in their own way, she wasn't sure. But it was as she was contemplating this fact, that Karen's sky fell in.

It was driving along that road that had done it. If she'd given any thought to their surroundings at all, she could possibly have avoided doing this. Karen saw it, looming up out of the rain, the true embodiment of all her worst nightmares. It was that road, that road from which she'd driven like a mad woman. That road that held the B and B where it had all happened. It felt like the realisation crept up on her in slow motion, but it took her only a matter of seconds to be plunged back in to that night of horror. Again she could hear him telling her she wanted it, again she could feel him holding her down. But the voice she heard above all wasn't Fenner's, it was Helen's.

"He's been playing you since day one, Karen. He's a misogynist bastard." And as she took in breath after deep breath to try and keep control of the situation, "You're too close Karen, you can't see it." Then, she was driving like she had done that night. The accelerator hit the floor and she roared away from the scene of her downfall. Karen's sudden increase in speed jerked Yvonne out of her musings. Looking at Karen's face to try and find out why they were suddenly tearing away like a bat out of hell, she was worried to see the glazed eyes and white face of someone reliving some horrendous torture. It seemed Karen didn't need to see where she was going, that journey had been imprinted on her memory for ever. But Yvonne soon realised that a Saturday lunchtime in the pouring rain was no time to be driving like that.

"Pull over," Yvonne said perfectly calmly. Then, on getting absolutely no response, she said, "Karen, pull over, now!" This was delivered in the voice that had shaken just about any of Charlie's lackeys in their shoes. Her tone of voice if nothing else must have penetrated Karen's frightened brain, because she turned in to the next side street and came to a stop at the side of the road. Karen leaned on the steering wheel and continued taking deep breaths. The tears were now coursing down her cheeks and her breath came in deep shuddering gasps. Yvonne took her shoulders and turned Karen to face her.

"It's okay," She said gently, still not knowing the reason for all this. "But you've got to calm down, because I don't want you hyperventilating on me." Karen's breathing soon turned in to sobs, which Yvonne could see she was trying her best to prevent. "Don't hold it back," Said Yvonne, undoing both their seatbelts and taking Karen in her arms, "Just let it all out."

They simply sat, Yvonne gently rubbing circles on Karen's back, soothing her in the same way she might a trembling dog or a frightened child.

"I'm sorry," Karen said, her sobs decreasing and her breathing returning to normal.

"That's okay," Said Yvonne still mystified. "You just scared the hell out of me, that's all."

"I think that's what's generally known as a flashback," Said Karen, reaching in to the glove compartment to find the box of tissues she always kept in there.

"What happened?" Asked Yvonne gently. Karen blew her nose.

"There was a house back there. You wouldn't know it was any different to any other house. I'd forgotten he used to live round here, so I wasn't expecting to see it." Then at Yvonne's still curious silence she went on, "It was where Fenner used to live, where he was living when..." She didn't seem able to finish the sentence. As Yvonne gently took her hand and began stroking it, something seemed to finally give way in Karen and suddenly she couldn't stop talking.

"I remember waiting till he'd fallen asleep to get dressed. Why is it men always fall asleep immediately afterwards? He woke up just as I was leaving. He really didn't know what he'd done to me. He tried to stop me getting in my car. I drove away from there then pretty much like I did today. When I told Mark what had happened the next morning, at first he was as nice as possible to me, until he realised I'd let things go as far as they had. He looked at me like I was a whore. He was the only one I thought might listen to me, and he made me feel cheaper than I already did." These last words were said with such bitterness that Yvonne winced. "When we drove passed that house," Continued Karen, all I could hear was Helen telling me he'd been playing me since day one. She was right, all along she was right and not once did I listen to her. I knew what he was like. I saw what was left of Shell dockley when he'd beaten the hell out of her, I'd read Helen's report of his sexual assault on her, but I still let the bastard kiss me. What kind of a thick slag does that make me?"

"Don't say that!" Said Yvonne vehemently, hating it when Karen referred to herself in this way. "It makes you human," She said more gently. "Don't you think I knew what Charlie was like? I was married to him for twenty-six years before I got sent to Larkhall. I knew every bad thing there was to know about Charlie, but it didn't stop a part of me loving him. There are too many things Lauren could tell you about the way he treated me occasionally, but I still stayed. It might be totally ridiculous, but it's what we do sometimes."

"I'm sorry," Karen said again, "You don't need this, today of all days."

"You didn't know that was going to happen," Said Yvonne softly, giving Karen a hug.

"but you need me to be strong for you, and I feel a total wreck."

"Listen," Said Yvonne, her cheek pressed against Karen's. "You were strong last night, and I know you will be again. I think we have to be strong for each other. Isn't that what this couple thing's supposed to be about?" Karen smiled shakily.

"Yeah, I suppose," She replied. "What do you want to do?"

"I think we should go back to yours," Said Yvonne, "And I think you should sleep for a bit. You look drained. Oh, and we're swapping right now because you're not doing any more driving today." Not being able to come up with a decent protest to this, Karen got out of the car and they changed seats. As Yvonne drove towards Karen's flat, she knew the only way Karen could begin to move on from what Fenner had done to her was to go after him with one of the best legal mind's she'd ever seen.

"Have you thought about what Jo said?" She asked casually, but nothing could fool Karen.

"We'll see," Said Karen, knowing Yvonne was right, but doubting that she could really pull it off. A while later when she was wrapped in her duvet and on following Yvonne's instructions, drifting towards sleep, she could hear the sounds of Yvonne making a cup of tea, and phoning to see how Lauren was doing. This made her feel slightly guilty, Yvonne should be with Lauren now, not her. but when she heard Yvonne quietly comment on the fact that Lauren was still sleeping off her hangover, she relaxed. She decided that she liked hearing Yvonne in her space. It felt natural somehow. She just prayed that Yvonne wouldn't quit now that she knew how much Karen needed her to stay.

Part Sixty

Yvonne placed a cup of tea in Karen's hand as she awoke and that little gesture was one of utter bliss which had never happened to her before with all the men in her past. There was a little voice in both of them that was telling them that they didn't deserve such good fortune that the tenderness of the touch of each other gently sealed that invisible critic's lips.The feeling of both of them comforting each other at Karen's flat added an extra dimension in their relationship that both of them knew that the one would be there for each other. This was like no past relationship either of them had had before. It was only now that they had opened their horizons as to what was possible that the 'make do and mend ' approach was accepting second best when there was no need to.

"I suppose you've got to face Lauren sometime," Karen eventually said, saying the words at last that both had been putting off.

"Yeah," sighed Yvonne. "Lauren's not a bleeding teenager anymore. Hell, she had all those years picking up the business after Charlie left everything in a mess, coming to visit me, you name it, she did it and now I'm out, I'm worrying about her. Kids. You never stop worrying about them till……." And Yvonne suddenly put her hands to her eyes to rub the tears away as the final brutality of Ritchie's death hit her. It was like the pain that a hospital patient felt in his left leg even though that leg had been amputated. This pain hadn't caught up with Yvonne by a long way but she didn't pretend to publicly conceal the tears that were streaming down her face in the way she would have done with anyone else, Charlie included.

Karen couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound futile or pathetic and the best she could do was to gently put her arms round Yvonne and to hold her. There was a strange instinct in Karen that they must get going quickly so that Yvonne could be with Lauren as soon as possible but she fought that back, Cassie and Roisin being still around and being best placed to hold the fort. Karen gently stroked Yvonne's shoulders and continued to comfort her.

"Better face the music," Yvonne said at length, partly to herself, and she caught sight of herself in the mirror.

" I must look a right sight," she added as Yvonne's basic instinct for facing up to a situation took command. "Can I borrow your mirror?" Yvonne asked politely as she reached for her makeup bag.

"You don't need to ask,Yvonne," Karen replied softly. "You can share anything that's here including me."

Karen lay back reclining on her bed while Yvonne busied herself with her makeup, deliberately not hurrying. Karen knew that Yvonne meant to get her appearance just right so that she could feel at her most confident in facing Lauren. From her own parent offspring rows, she knew that you needed all the strength, resilience and ability to get the words just right.

"Do I look all right, Karen?" Yvonne asked.

"You look wonderful enough to go out with anywhere," Karen warmly congratulated her. "And I know that you'll find it in yourself to face Lauren. Come on."

They drove through the busy streets, chatting lightly to each other about anything but the business in hand. Eventually, Karen found herself on the familiar roads that led to Yvonne's house and pulled up in the front drive that, to Karen, was becoming part of her mental furniture. Just today, Karen didn't stay to linger and turned her car round in the direction of her flat which was beginning to feel too quiet on her own with just her.

Yvonne mustered her confidence and was mightily relieved to see Cassie and Roisin come out to meet her first.

"How did it go, Yvonne?" Cassie asked, concern in her eyes. Yvonne's elaborate makeup didn't fool Cassie into believing that Yvonne was as strong as she superficially appeared to be.

"As well as you could expect, Cassie." Yvonne smiled warmly at Cassie's obvious concern. "He looked like the innocent child he was, once." Yvonne replied with something indefinable in her voice.

"We know how you're feeling, Yvonne." Roisin's natural maternal tones soothed her in words that from other people would sound like empty platitudes. Yvonne felt grateful and supported by Cassie who had grown marvellously in strength and maturity since she had first known her and Roisin whose quieter maternal strength was as solid as a rock. She knew with utter certainty that Lauren had been in safe hands.

"Made an appearance at last, mum. Or is it because you feel guilty?" Lauren was dressed all in black, adding a more foreboding appearance as her cold sarcastic tones greeted Yvonne. Only the pain in her eyes betrayed her to everyone but herself.

"Yeah, well, someone had to go to Wormwood Scrubs to identify his body, to do the sort of things Charlie ducked out of doing when both his parents died. I've had to do it all, Lauren, right through all my bleeding life." Yvonne hit back in a cold, matter of fact tone.

"Tell me about it. Remember when you were in Larkhall. Don't forget it was me that was looking after everything that time," Lauren sneered back.

"Which is why I expect you to be more grown up right now, about Karen, about Ritchie about everything. I'm not in the mood to piss about." Yvonne's superficial combative hardness hit back. It was the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face, as a wake up call. Going all soft and apologetic in front of Lauren wasn't going to work.

"If your……..girlfriend…..hadn't come into our lives, Ritchie would still be alive."

"Did you tell Karen that one, Lauren?" Yvonne asked her sharply with an accusing look in her eye.

Eventually Lauren shrugged her shoulders in mute assent and the very ugly silence made the air go chill. It was on the tip of Yvonne's tongue to call her every name under the sun but some instinct held her back that this was not the best thing to do.Yvonne's manner gave off waves of pent up anger that was more threatening than words could have conveyed that even a very hostile Lauren picked up on and felt a little afraid of.

Cassie and Roisin stayed well in the background at this all out war that was blazing between Lauren and Yvonne. They held back, instinctively knowing that it was not their battle, ready though they were to dress the bandages of the wounded afterwards. This wasn't parent child arguments which they were used to but between two very combative adults who fought so violently because they were so alike.

"Look here, Lauren. Blaming Karen is the easy way out. She's the most convenient person to hand who won't hit back at you," Yvonne said with a huge effort of will to be reasonable.
"Won't she? Women are deadlier than men, mum. Don't be naïve," Came back Lauren's hard tones.

"You're right, Lauren," Yvonne smiled, jumping straight in to the opening in Lauren's defence that she had instantly exposed. "Don't forget who organised the pizza delivery for Charlie when he came out of court, remember? Not that I blame you for that as you only did what I would have wanted to do. And who the hell do you think Karen Betts is, Julie Andrews? She's only a Wing Governor of a women's prison and as tough as they come," Yvonne hit back scornfully.

"Yes, well that was different. I didn't want him to walk over you with that fancy tart of his," Lauren grudgingly mumbled in a totally teenage way, for once not talking about Karen.

"Look here, Lauren," Yvonne spoke in a more even gentle tone. "You know well enough that Ritchie was weak. He fell into bad company, the sort of company that he'd never have come across if I hadn't been so proud to be the gangster's moll, so much of an Atkins. But Ritchie had to take the blame for what he did. He let himself be used and scammed fifty grand off us, off all your hard work. He was guilty, OK not as guilty as Snowball but guilty enough. If those two had pulled it off, they would have pissed off abroad laughing in our faces, and we would not have heard anything more off them while they would have lived it up in luxury. Why are you trying to make out that Ritchie was some kind of bleeding saint? He was ready enough to stick the knife into Karen in open court when she couldn't answer back. That's Ritchie all over, same as his dad. You don't do things like that, Lauren." Yvonne finished on a tender, urging note.

"Is that what you call being an Atkins, mum?"

"I never was an Atkins, Lauren. I only married one and fooled myself into believing that that was who I should be. And I brought up you and Ritchie to become part of the Atkins family. I'll never lose that guilt for what I did wrong that way. You are more of an Atkins than I ever was or will ever be again.."

"Discovering your values late in life eh, mum?" Lauren said, spitefully. "Along with fancying other women."

"You do not say that in front of my friends in my house, Lauren," Yvonne said in cold tones that sounded like ice cold drops hitting a red hot plate.

"I'm sorry ,Cassie and Roisin," Lauren turned beseechingly with her eyes. "The two of you are great together. It's just my mum, with another woman." Roisin secretly squeezed Cassie's hand as a signal to keep quiet as not saying anything can sometimes be best. Lauren felt total remorse for what she had said. Cassie had always been great company and something of a wiser, older sister and recently, Roisin's natural motherly way was something that the softer side of Lauren reached out to. Last night, the physical presence of both of them next to her was more of a comfort than she could say..

"I can't get my head round this, mum," Lauren said, pressing her hands to her head. With a touch of relief, Yvonne could sense the solid implacable wall of Lauren's anger start to crumble. She had gambled that if she faced Lauren out long enough, sooner or later she would win through.

"You think this is easy for me? All this is new to me too. I don't go round giving women the eye every day, Lauren," Yvonne's light joking tones permeated their way through the hard defensive shield and brought back memories of the jokes that her mum always exchanged with her from when she was little. That was her way of treating her as a grown up from an early age and made her fundamentally stable. Somehow Ritchie did not have their quickness of repartee and was always that bit slower than them.

"But this is one thing that has helped me to realise that it's never too late to change," Yvonne ended in her husky tones rich with heartfelt emotion. "And that is why I want a second chance at life with Karen. You know that you won't have to watch out for me being taken for a ride."

Lauren fell silent, looking at her feet and her hair falling in front of her eyes. This wasn't the tense, violent silence of before but Lauren mulling her way through everything she had said and struggling to make sense of it. Mum had been as straight as a die, she reflected, and had given her the chance to give ground gracefully. The longer the silence lasted, the more something softened to mum in the way she had held back and had respected her silence. When she ever got into an argument with Charlie and she showed any weakness, the bastard just verbally crushed her into the ground. Showing weakness to him only encouraged him to grind her down into total surrender. That was what had made her grow up hard. Mum never used to do that with her.

"How did you find out about me and Karen anyway?" Yvonne asked, steering the conversation to a more neutral topic.

Immediately, Lauren felt more relaxed. This was a direct appeal to her intelligence which she could not find it in her to reject and she warmed to her. Instantly, the adult Lauren clicked into operation.

"If you really want to cover up whom you've slept with, mum, always make your bed to look slept in on one side. I went into your bedroom to borrow your hairspray and noticed that your bed was unmade on both sides, therefore you had spent the night with Karen," Lauren said with a hint of a smile on her face. "The rest was dead easy."

"What a total pillock I was to forget that one. I do my best to bring you up to be sharp witted and this is how you repay me." Yvonne smiled for the first time in what seemed an eternity since she had walked through the front door.

"Do you want a drink, mum? I must make one for you, Cassie and Roisin. I'm sorry I was horrible to both of you. I feel terrible.."

"Don't worry, Lauren. We understand." Roisin's warm tones reassured her. "We remember it took a lot to get Michael and Niamh used to the idea of Cassie. It isn't easy for all sides."

"I'm going to stick to coke today," Lauren joked. "The stuff you drink rather than snort."

"Are you going to go easy on Karen in future?" Yvonne asked uneasily taking her life into her hands.

"Look, mum," Lauren put the bottle of wine down firmly on the table and turned to face her. "You don't get me dressing up as bridesmaid for whatever the hell you may have in mind in the future. Besides, it won't do my street cred any good," Lauren added to soften the blow. "I will promise to be polite to her and to be fair with her. You can't ask for more than that at this stage. I need to think things over. Give me time, mum, please."

"I couldn't ask for more from you, Lauren." Yvonne said in her most tender tones.

Both of them reached forward for the other in the first mother and daughter hug that they had exchanged for ages. Somehow a tentative agreement had been reached. Cassie and Roisin looked fondly and sentimentally on at the two of them acting at last like family.

Back at the flat, Karen busied herself with a bit of spring cleaning to keep her busy to stop herself thinking too much about how Yvonne was getting on. Out of the blue, a thought popped into her mind to phone up Ross to make sure he was all right. When he was at university, she used to accept it calmly that if she didn't hear from Ross, everything was fine, that he was being a typical student, scraping together last minute coursework which periodically interfered with his hectic social life. In recent times, Ross's reckless decision to drop out of uni had enraged all Karen's work ethics. She had had to struggle so bloody hard for what she had achieved from life. She had been a single mum for a lot of the time and had completed a university degree while she was working. There had been a blazing argument between the two of them at which point he had walked out and she had frozen him out of her mind. Ross, himself, was too proud to contact Karen. False pride and weakness were features of Ross's father which had been carried on in Ross despite all her urgings and her own example which ought to make some mark on him for God's sake. On the rare occasions, he did make contact, it was always to cadge money off her and she despaired that he was still without a job, drifting and going nowhere. What had happened between Ritchie and Yvonne drove her to resume contact between the two of them while there was still time. Life, she had been taught, may be shorter than you think.

"Ross," Karen said on the phone. "It's mum here."

"Mum," Ross's voice conveyed all the incredulity that someone out for a stroll in the countryside might think on confronting a red London double decker bus. "You don't normally phone me except to give me a lecture. What've I done?"

"I wanted to check that you are still alive. A natural thing to do. How are you getting on?"

"Nothing brilliant. Daytime television is dead boring what with Trisha and that grey haired guy what's his name, talking to you about all these depressing problems that I'd sooner not know about. Nothing ever happens in my life. One day is just like the next and totally boring and depressing."

"There are worse things in life, Ross," Karen said, remembering the fire, nearly having her brains blown out by a homicidal fake American porn star, spending a gruelling two weeks defending her professional and personal reputation on something more testing than a shallow TV confession show.

"Yeah, so you keep telling me mum. Thanks for the lecture. Can I borrow a tenner off you till I cash my giro. I'm really short of money," Ross said in his wheedling way.

"Just this once, Ross. But giving you money doesn't mean I'm buying your approval of me." Karen said this in a severe tone. "If you stay sitting on your backside, you'll get nowhere in life. I'd like to meet up with you but no tapping me for money. It has to be about something positive."

"So you say, mum," Ross yawned. "Well, bye bye."

It was on the tip of Karen's tongue to ask Ross that, in his extensive television watching, had he seen her on the news but thought better of it. What did her fleeting seconds on the news matter in comparison with Dale Winton's latest mindnumbingly boring effort?

She had done her best.

"Did you have something in mind for the funeral, mum?" Lauren asked politely in level tones, which gladdened Yvonne's heart even though a part of her didn't want to move ahead that quickly. "What about getting Henry, you know Babs husband to do the service. I'm not exactly used to mixing with vicars but I'd be more comfortable with him than anyone if you are, and everyone else is."

"Good idea," said Yvonne approvingly as she reached for the phone.

"Yvonne, I can only say how sorry Henry and I were when we read about the terrible news of Ritchie." Babs's Middle England voice carried all the warmth and sympathy across the inanimate telephone wires.

"Do you think Henry would do the service?" Yvonne asked and when Henry broke in on the conversation assuring her that he would be happy to, Lauren nodded in satisfaction.

"Did you ever hear how you ended up with the name Lauren?" Yvonne said later as they sat together on the sofa.

"Who chose it?"

"Charlie and I were watching this Humphrey Bogart film on the telly," Yvonne explained. "Charlie loved all those gangster films as you would guess but the woman who took the part of his wife, and was his wife in real life, looked cool and tough with a bit of a hard edge. She had real taste. She impressed me at the time. Her name was Lauren Bacall."

"I think you knew what you were doing at the time. That suits me fine." Lauren smiled happily to Yvonne's agreement.

Part 61

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