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 Sixty One

On the Monday morning, Karen drove in to work with a heavy heart. She hadn't seen Yvonne yesterday, but they'd spoken on the phone. Karen felt that they could both do with some space and that Yvonne needed to spend some time alone with Lauren. Besides, Karen had the joys of Sylvia to deal with, not quite the best start to a week she'd ever had. When Sylvia presented herself, on the dot of nine Karen was pleased to note, she immediately plonked a very neat, very professional-looking report on Karen's desk.

"Get someone to type it for you, Sylvia?" Karen asked, giving it the once over.

"No," Replied Sylvia, her affronted dignity sticking out like a sore thumb. "Since Barbara Hunt was released, I've had to learn to use that damned computer."

"About time," Said Karen dryly. "At least now the inmates won't be able to swindle the canteen right under your very nose."

"You want to ask Tyler and Atkins about that," Replied Sylvia, but Karen privately thought she wouldn't.

"So, tell me what happened, and why you failed to keep Merriman on fifteen minute watch."

"It's all in there," Said Sylvia, gesturing to the report. "Al McKenzy started a fight with one of the new ones, probably trying to see if she was carrying any drugs. There were only three of us here last Friday night, and it took two of us to haul McKenzy down the block and the third to bang up the rest. You might find it hard to believe, but I can't be in two places at once."

"When you were escorting Merriman to court, did you at any time let her speak to Ritchie Atkins?"

"Do I look stupid?" Asked Sylvia and Karen hid a smile. "I wouldn't have let her speak to Atkins if it'd been her dying wish."

"It may well have been," Said Karen.

"If you ask me," Went on Sylvia. "It's Di Barker you want to be talking too, she was with Merriman when they got the verdict, and I can't think of a more likely time for them to exchange a few words than that." Realising that for once, Sylvia had a point, Karen dismissed her and asked her to send up Di Barker. Karen had always thought there was something a little odd about Di. She was one of the most highly strung people Karen had ever encountered. She felt sorry for Di for having lost her baby, but shit happens sometimes. When Di appeared, she was looking slightly worried.

"I don't know why you want to see me," Di began with no preamble, "I wasn't even here on Friday night."

"but you were in court with Snowball Merriman on Friday, weren't you."

"Yes, but I kept my eye on her all the time. They didn't have any opportunity to plan this whilst she was with me."

"Think about that very, very carefully," Continued Karen. "Did you at any time, sanction any communication between Merriman and Atkins?"

"Only once, after the verdict, when they were about to be taken back to prison."

"Before we get on to why you felt it necessary to go against every rule in the book, exactly what was said between them?"

"Nothing really. He didn't say a word, and all she said was I love you and goodbye." On this last word, Di suddenly stopped in her tracks. "But that doesn't mean anything," She added, stammering slightly in her attempt to convince both of them.

"I wonder," Said Karen sarcastically. "If there's one thing you absolutely don't do when you're escorting someone like Snowball Merriman to court, it's allow her to communicate with her co-defendent. This isn't permissible under any circumstances whatsoever. Is that clear?"

"Those few little words couldn't possibly have been part of a plan."

"Maybe not," Conceded Karen. "But I'd say they were her confirmation that the plan was to be put in to action. I think it's possible that the unofficial postal system has been at work again."

"Well, you can't blame me for that," Said Di, now well and truly back on the defensive.

"No," Replied Karen, "I can't blame you for the results of inefficient search procedures, but I can and will apportion blame for your allowing Merriman to speak to Atkins. What were you thinking of?"

"Even if they'd eventually been allowed an interprison visit, which isn't very likely, they wouldn't have been able to communicate for a very long time. I didn't think it would do any harm to let them exchange one last word." Extracting a copy of the prison handbook from the top of her bookcase, Karen thumped it down on the desk in front of Di.

"Let me ask you this," Said Karen, her anger rising. "Why do you think rules exist?"

"To keep the prisoners in line and to make our job easier," Said Di without a second thought.

"Not quite the definition I'd have given," Replied Karen, "But it'll do. The rules exist because there are some things that prisoners must not be allowed to do, like communicate with those who may help them to escape or to commit further crimes, for example. Your allowing Merriman and Atkins those few little words was at least partly responsible for their subsequent joint suicide."

"Oh, and I suppose your sleeping with Ritchie Atkins didn't have anything to do with a gun being smuggled in to this place, did it." Ice cold fury seemed to permeate Karen's entire body. But she knew it would come to this. It needn't have necessarily been Di, and if Karen were honest with herself she would have expected something like this from Sylvia. But here she was, and it was time to make her position as Die's immediate superior extremely clear.

"If you want to continue working in the prison service," She said, the icy threat dripping from her tone. "That had better be the last smart comment of your career. Now get out." Di didn't need telling twice. Knowing she'd gone just that little bit too far, she turned on her heel and stalked out of Karen's office, shutting the door smartly behind her.

Yvonne was sat at home, staring at the painting of Trigger which she'd got round to hanging at the weekend, and wondering just exactly what was expected of her now. She hadn't attended Charlie's funeral, as she had been banged up during the investigation of his murder. But she doubted whether or not she'd have gone even if she could. But Ritchie was different. He was her son, and nothing could ever change that. Outliving their children is the last thing any parent expects to do, and Yvonne was no different. Even being constantly aware that any member of the Atkins family probably had a shorter life expectancy than most other human beings, she hadn't ever considered that Ritchie or Lauren would die before she did. They were her children, and that wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. She'd asked Henry if he would do the funeral, because she knew he would do it sensitively and not spout a load of crap that was superficial and above all wrong. but Yvonne knew she wanted something else, something to make it that little bit special. She wanted to be able to have a last memory of Ritchie, some way in which to remember the time when he'd loved her. Picking up the phone, she dialed Cassie and Roisin's number. Roisin answered.

"How're you doing?" Asked Roisin on hearing it was Yvonne.

"I don't know really," Replied Yvonne, knowing this was the truth. "When are the kids coming home?"

"Aiden's bringing them back on Saturday. He took them to Ireland to see his mother last week, but they're back at school and I'm back at work on Monday." Roisin worked as a secretary at her children's primary school.

"Please would you do something for me?" Asked Yvonne.

"Of course."

"Would you sing something at Ritchie's funeral. Yours is one of the sweetest voices I've ever heard, and it might give me a bit of thinking time."

"I'm flattered," Said Roisin gently. "And yes, of course I will. Did you have anything in mind?"

"No, not really."

"I'll see what I can come up with and let you know."

As it was the first of September, and as she'd been pretty much away from the prison for the last two weeks, Karen was in the process of compiling the statistics for August. This included how many prisoners had been accommodated on G wing, the three different regimes of prisoners, and the types of offences they were in for. She was in the middle of wrestling with a spreadsheet, trying to bring the cost for the next month down to something resembling its budget, when her phone rang.

"Karen Betts," She said as she answered.

"Karen, it's John Deed." Karen was a little surprised, but then realised that the press would have had a field day with the news of the joint suicide.

"Hello, Judge, what can I do for you?"

"I read Friday night's news in Saturday morning's paper and simply wondered how you were." Karen was slightly thrown by this, but then remembered how nice John had been to her when discussing her covered up allegation.

"Well, I've bawled out two of my staff already today and it's only lunchtime. How about you?" John laughed.

"Seeing as I've never had to shout at Coope for anything, my day has been fairly quiet so far. But I suspect I'll be getting a visit from my two very own irritants from the LCD."

"I haven't looked at a paper since last week, but I bet your press has been as bad as mine."

"They'll find something else to talk about in a day or two," Said John, neither confirming nor denying Karen's estimate.

"At least one of your officers wasn't stupid enough to allow Merriman to talk to Atkins after the verdict."

"Not clever," Said John in disgust.

"And then she very kindly reminded me that it was my fault a gun was brought in here in the first place."

"Ouch!" Said John with feeling. "But you're forgetting that I was the one who sent them down," He continued.

"Not exactly without good reason," Replied Karen. "The press can hardly criticize you for doing your job." John laughed.

"They do that every day. How's Yvonne?" Karen was inexplicably grateful that John hadn't referred to Yvonne as Mrs. Atkins.

"She's coping, but how long that'll last I'm not sure."

"Please pass on my condolences. After reading that in the paper, I drove straight over to see my daughter on Saturday."

"Yes, I found myself talking to my son, not something we do all that often since he dropped out of college."

"The joys of being a parent," Replied John, thinking that Karen must have been very young when she became a mother.

"And no matter what they do, you never stop worrying about them." A while later when she ended the call, Karen felt slightly more at ease than she had done ever since she'd heard about the double suicide. They seemed to have struck a chord, her and this Judge who had come in to her life almost by accident. Karen had felt nothing but warmth and compassion on that occasion when he'd summoned her to his chambers, and just now, on the phone, she'd felt again that same empathy that could so easily develop in to a lasting friendship.

Part Sixty Two

After the traumatic events of the weekend, the Atkins household slid into a state of lethargic slump as dirty dishes were piled up in the sink , odd items of clothing were draped carelessly on the settee and empty bottles and glasses were left out on the coffee table. Both Yvonne and Lauren had got used to lying in bed till late as they went through a kickback from the intense strain of the leadup to, the 2 week trial itself and the shattering impact of Ritchie's death. Snatches of trial scenes weaved their way through their half awake, half asleep state first thing in their morning as John Deed's sonorous voice pronounced sentence on their lifestyles and they lay upon the hard bench in the visitor's gallery which mutated into an uncomfortable position on their beds.

"What's it matter, mum. It's only housework. As soon as we're clear of this, whatever it is, things will get straight," Lauren said lazily.

Together, they dreamed away the first few days between Ritchie's death and the funeral in a zomboid state as they felt that they were both convalescent but given time, would pull into shape. Yvonne stuck on the first clothes that came to hand although her makeup remained immaculate as she would not slip that far. Lauren slobbed around in jeans, T shirt and slippers watching daytime television.

"Isn't Trisha a know all pain in the arse?" Lauren joked. "If she was such a bloody good agony aunt, how come she's divorced twice."

"Probably got married to Charlie's long lost cousins," Yvonne joked which made Lauren laugh and spill her drink.

Cassie and Roisin breezed in at this moment, full of the sort of drive and energy born of the acute knowledge that on Saturday, the decadent life of swanning around Yvonne's swimming pool would be curtailed to the period of time that they could get baby sitters. This was summer holiday time which she could now see was a mixed blessing and different from her single days of complaining that the city shops were crowded out with all these schoolkids ruining her retail therapy.

"Just look at you two," Roisin breezed in. "I've seen the bottom of parrot's cages tidier than this."

"Leave it out,Roisin," Yvonne replied in a whinging voice. "We've been taking it easy.After last weekend, we needed a break… OK, Ritchie's funeral is coming up in, shit three days. Hey Lauren, have the bleeding undertakers been contacted." Yvonne's voice rose up the scale in growing panic."

"Sorted, mum," Came the reply as she started to shift the worst of the debris away.

"Well at least you two seem friends and that's the main thing," Cassie spoke earnestly."We were getting really worried about the two of you."

"We'll never forget you both for standing by us." Lauren turned round and gave each of them a hug and a kiss.

"Want a drink," Yvonne offered and went to pour a glass of wine. For herself and Lauren, she made two large mugs full of strong coffee. They needed something to kickstart themselves into life and start picking up the threads of the funeral arrangements. They were able to think of it as an event to be planned that was somehow distanced from them as they chatted amongst themselves. It was their only way of coping with the matter and they knew full well that the tears would come later .

The vague cloudy fogginess round Yvonne's and Lauren's minds cleared and they were able to chatter in a businesslike way about placing a notice in the local paper, that the church was booked and who would be coming to the funeral.

"You know what," Cassie joked. "At one time, you could have had Hollamby Undertakers Ltd to do the funeral."

"Oh yeah, I can just imagine bleeding hearts and sympathy from Bodybag and her coming along for the ride , charging double the bleeding price and all and that cow lying through her teeth saying how she had always been so fond of the Atkins family," Yvonne replied, derisively

Just then, Trigger's sharp ears caught the faintest sounds of a car coming to a halt outside and the door slam shut and his ears pricked up, his tail waved and he started barking.

"I'll answer the door mum while you talk with Roisin about the songs she's singing. I'll go along with anything you come up with," Lauren said in easy tones as she followed her lord and master. She answered the front door and a faintly nervous Karen waited outside, dressed in her Wing Governor's outfit.

"I've come to visit you to see how you're going on after things had quietened down a bit. Give you both time together on your own. Besides," Karen smiled faintly, "I was presented with a petition to take a half day off as I'd bawled out too many Prison Officers."

"Who might these be if you don't mind me asking," Lauren half smiled, offering a tentative olive branch.

"Di Barker and Sylvia Hollamby, my two favourite prison officers," Karen's smile was broader than before.

"Couldn't happen to a better pair," Lauren grinned. "Come in. Mum is in the lounge with Cassie and Roisin. You couldn't have come at a better time." Lauren gestured to her, graciously.

Trigger made a fuss of this extra human that he promptly rounded up to add to his pack at the far end of the house. Just when they came to the back room, they could hear the steel sharp notes of a guitar and singing that could only have come from Roisin.

There was a peculiar feel about the two songs that might have been the sort that an accomplished ballad singer with an exquisite finger picking style could accomplish and the size of the room added subtle echoes. The first song weaved words of a hope despite the heartache and wandering through a wilderness and a secular faith in Jesus no hymn could conjure up and the second song called forth the golden fields and the promises that life calls for. A tear came to Yvonne's eyes as the last delicate steel notes gently faded away.

"They're both beautiful, Roash," Cassie exclaimed admiringly.

"Better than 'Abide with Me' anytime." Yvonne joked. "Seriously, I can't decide. Don't know about you Lauren, but I'd go for 'there is a reason for it all', but it's bloody close."

Roisin's motherly way caused her to be acutely conscious of the sporadic laughing and joking going on between Yvonne and Lauren, that didn't seem right somehow. There was a tacit agreement between the two of them to keep things light so as to get their way through to the funeral which was like some huge milepost in space and time beyond which there was the unknown.

Karen sat politely feeling more relaxed and joining in the smalltalk and in a strange way, Yvonne whose taste and feel she could remember so vividly was diminished as if looking through the wrong end of a telescope to this attractive woman who, months ago, had grown to be such a close friend of hers. Was it only three short weeks ago that Karen had been invited round here for dinner and that she had lent her a pen so that she could write down her address. Stuffed down in the depths of her handbag was that scribbled note that had been the point of entry into Yvonne's world. While she was sat here in one of Yvonne's capacious armchairs, she chattered away to Yvonne as much as she had ever done here, or in the bar near the prison when Yvonne came to visit Denny. Lauren was gracious enough to exchange conversation with Karen and she reflected on how necessary it had come to be to win Lauren's approval. She made a mental note to ask Cassie and Roisin how they got the children to accept them while basking in the warmth and sympathy that came over from them. It seemed totally unreal that she had once locked them up on G wing as so much had moved on since then.

"What do we do about all Charlie's friends who want to pay their respects to Ritchie, Mum?" Lauren asked in despair at all the cocaine dealers, dubious backstreet dealers of cars with fiddled mileage clocks and ripoff repair jobs.

"We just tell them that if they carry anything illegal into the church, they get kneecapped," Yvonne said with a grimly taut face. "It's going to be bleeding hard enough on the day without any tosspot doing anything stupid."

Yvonne's thoughts were dragged to the nightmare of all Charlie's dodgy friends crowding round Ritchie telling him all the tall stories of how smart they were and Ritchie could follow in Charlie's footsteps.

"Right, mum. And what about these letters from long lost cousins that are wanting to come as 'funerals bring families together'. Look at the list there that I've written. I've not seen any of them since I was little. I suppose they've been too busy," Lauren said scornfully.

"They make their own way to the church and they can come."

"What do you want us to do on the day?" Karen asked quietly, "Make our way here first or go direct to the church, whichever you want."

"There's a funeral car and, if you want, the three of you could come with us," Lauren suggested quietly.

"If you don't think we'll be in the way, we'd be only too glad to keep you company," Roisin replied.

"Don't worry, you won't be in the way," Lauren's definite voice reassured Karen that they at least had some sort of a working relationship.There was a proprietorial way that Lauren was possessive around Yvonne that told her sharp senses that Lauren was not at the stage of bringing them breakfast in bed, only that things were getting better and that she ought to be careful not to push matters in that direction.

"And don't forget your guitar, Roisin and, if there's any real trouble, bring along a pair of handcuffs, Karen. Any sniff of anything like the Old Bill will scare the shit out of some of them."

For the first time in what seemed years they were able to laugh together briefly as one.

The formal sombreness of the mood was conveyed by Yvonne's most formal black outfit which was a million miles away from her normal generous splash of bright colours. It was shocking to everyone to see her so frozen with grief and the way her dark glasses blocked anyone off from seeing her eyes.

"It's all right, mum," Lauren slipped her arm into Yvonne's and walked her slowly down the wide staircase as if she was somehow old and frail. Yes she would laugh and love again , the smile would light her face and her supple body would part the waters of the swimming pool and reassure herself and everyone else that she was still young and full of the joys of life.

"I hope you like a good party, girls," were her very first words when she came onto G Wing and so decisively met her future, and Lauren's and Ritchie's. yes, it all started from that one day.

"We're all ready, Yvonne," Karen called quietly. "The car's ready outside whenever you're ready."

"Thank you," Came the answer and the smile at the thoughtfulness shown to her. At the back of her mind stirred the thought that her lover was there for her and that she was being a true friend. She needed that and her daughter and Cassie and Roisin all around her. A huge relief was that around her, everything was being taken care of. Yvonne fumbled in her bag for a much needed cigarette which she took a huge drag of. One last look in her mirror and she nodded to everyone dressed in their formal best.

Once in the funeral car, it was huge inside and very high up off the road as the driver sedately manoeuvred the limousine out onto the open road so that they could look down onto the fields that the hedges had always obscured. Somehow everything looked different today and they felt more as one than they had ever felt after all those days in court. This time, instead of being on the front row of the gallery as onlookers, they would be at the centre of attention, especially Yvonne and Lauren.

They chatted small talk to each other in spurts in between the long silences until they could see the church in the distance.

Yvonne clutched tightly onto Lauren's hand and her face drew tight as she saw the large black hearse ahead, parked outside the church. This was the moment she had been dreading starting to take shape.

"We're with you, Yvonne," Roisin's motherly voice oozed reassurance almost as if she were a child. At moments like this, the others felt that Roisin was the most reassuring and in command.

They stepped out onto the pavement when the pallbearers carried Ritchie's oak coffin in procession into the church, the only visible shape and manifestation of 'her little angel' which would make a brief reappearance only to be later moved out of her sight and reality.

Yvonne was flanked by Lauren and Karen on either side as they walked towards the church doors . Roisin held her black guitar case and walked with Cassie behind ,with downcast eyes and they all murmured greetings to anonymous well dressed suits and grave faces as they filed into the church.

Babs smiled her welcome at them as she turned round at the organ and an usher directed them to their place past stone columns and rows of ancient worn wooden pews right to the front and turning to the right. Henry could be seen rifling through various prayer books as he wondered, in his turn, what words from a bygone age he could ever say whom his testimony in some previous lifetime helped send him to the prison where he had ended his last days. The stately chords from the church organ, more magnificent than the small electric organ at Larkhall Prison, welcomed the increasing congregation which drifted in, and provided enough of a contemplative mood for everyone to face the solemn occasion. Roisin sat on the outside, her guitar resting against the pew, ready to sing her two songs when the time was ready.

Yvonne's long lost aunt bristled a bit when she saw the three strangers take pride of place immediately behind Yvonne and Lauren on the front row.

"We belong there with Yvonne. We're family. How come they've pushed in?" she started to grumble only to be told, under his breath, to shut it by her son. It was handier, being out of the limelight and not to feel so exposed or so he reasoned. Yvonne fought for control as the ceremony started and caught the eye of Henry, looking down from his pulpit with great pity at them. A fragment of her clung onto the comfort that, in the way he had been there for them all in the trial, he was there for them all right now. The silence of centuries hung heavy on them all as did the grief felt for so many confused reasons.

"Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he dies yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. We bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Henry started in his formal tones, staring rigidly ahead of him through to the far entrance door to the church. Having witnessed the events at Larkhall prison, what else could he say about the young man whose girlfriend had severely tested his own Christian charity by exploiting his own foolishness so cleverly? Then he looked down at the congregation from on high, finding it so hard in what he said, to refrain from harsh moral judgement. John Deed's legal judgement in comparison was a comparatively easy affair, morally speaking, even if legally, it was anything else but simple.

"I have some personal knowledge of Ritchie Atkins shortly before he left this earthly life and I very much hope that he finds some release from his short and unhappily troubled life.It was a human tragedy that he chose a desperate way out of life's problems. The Lord God watches over all of us and I am convinced will especially protect the grieving mother and sister of Ritchie Atkins and God will surely grant them the strength in the months to come. I will add my own personal prayers for all of you gathered together," Henry finished on a simple, heartfelt personal note, looking directly at the group around Yvonne and later taking in with a glance at the rest of the congregation..

"Thank you, Henry," Yvonne added in a throaty choked voice, knowing how much he had tried in his own quiet way to help. Vicars as a class weren't a group that she had any time for but Henry's thoughtfulness touched her.

"And better than my own few slight words could say, I am inviting with Yvonne Atkins's wishes a good friend of hers, Roisin Connor to perform two songs that say as much about this day than any hymn does. You will not need to refer to the hymn books for this service."

Roisin picked up her guitar and her high heels clicked their way to the front of the church where she stood, spellbound for a second, by the height and seeming vastness of the space into which she was preparing to throw her voice and guitar in memory of the Richie that should have been, a mother's son and, most of all, for Yvonne.

The prelude of a circular delicate tracery of plucked steel hard guitar notes cast a shaft of light and hope into the darkness and sadness of those in the church congregation

"I've seen hard times, and I've been told,

There isn't any wonder, that I fall.

Why do we suffer, crossing off the years.

There must be a reason for it all.

I've trusted in you Jesus, save me from my sins.

Heaven is a place I call my home.

But I keep on getting caught up, in this world I'm living in,

and your voice it sometimes fades before I know.

Hurtin' brings my heart to you, crying with my need,

depending on your love to carry me.

The love that shed his blood, for all the world to see,

this must be the reason for it all."

Roisin's high strong voice melted its way through the chill atmosphere of the church and Karen looked up briefly at the ancient oak crossmembers which held up the church tower way up into the sky in the same way. She had memories of this when she was a little girl only this time the words said something for her life that she had lived up till now. Everything that day made those most sensitive to it contemplate their places in the universe, far away from the cares of the day to day jobs, the phone calls they had to make, the mobile phone that symbolised the modern at the ready switched on world that, one time in their lives, was switched off.

"Ain't the vicar going to ask us to sing 'Abide with Me'? It always goes down well at funerals," one of Yvonne's distant relations talked too loudly right behind Cassie who turned round and glared at the stupid old bat. She was ignorantly talking in the middle of the superb trailing sequence of notes that Roisin coaxed out of her guitar and Cassie was rapt with admiration with her woman who was out there playing her heart out. This was no performance but Roisin's dedication to Yvonne.

Henry, with great regret, asked the congregation to open their black prayer books and

turn to I Corrinthians verse 15, at which point the rear of the congregation fumbled their way through the unfamiliar volume. He read the assigned passage without great enthusiasm and did not feel that he carried the unquestionable authority as a vicar in his position up on high in his pulpit in the same way that he saw and admired in the imposing red robed presence of John Deed in the trial. Henry had to contend with the combination of the Church of England establishment in the background and the more narrow minded bigoted active members of the congregation. It was the tedium of the genteel arguments and petty politics that made him take the bold step of seeking out a different flock at Larkhall Prison and led him ultimately to Babs, his dear wife who was seated at the organ. It was almost with relief that he came to the end of his reading to introduce Roisin's second song and he sat back in hope of what her song could tell him of life.

The sunlight shone through the stained glass windows and reflected off Roisin's guitar as she sang and played her golden toned ballad to the congregation for those to listen if they had ears to hear with.

"Will you stay with me, will you be my love

Among the fields of barley

We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky

As we lie in fields of gold."

Karen sat meekly at her pew, eyes downcast while Roisin plucked at the heartstrings of a brief relationship that had gone and another that was unfolding before her eyes while Cassie's misty eyes dreamed of a mature love that was hers and the woman who was singing to her as her eyes crossed with hers. At all costs, they all knew that the ominous wooden shape in the middle of the church spelt out the end of the earthly life of someone who some of them knew so briefly but whose weakness led to such terrible consequences that nearly consumed them in the flames. Roisin's own Catholic upbringing rose to the surface to wonder what fate or judgement lay waiting for Ritchie beyond the grave.

"I never made promises lightly

And there have been some that I've broken

But I swear in the days still left

We'll walk in fields of gold

We'll walk in fields of gold."

Yvonne's thoughts went out to the son she had once had and that brief hope that somewhere in eternity she and Ritchie would be reunited some day in the golden glow . She suppressed the cynical side of her that would have said 'some hope' as without that hope, what was there for her or anyone?

"You'll remember me when the west wind moves

Upon the fields of barley

You can tell the sun in his jealous sky

When we walked in fields of gold"

In some sort of trance, Yvonne and Lauren led the congregation out of the church to the moment that they were both dreading. Both of them had a horror of the sight of an open grave and there, an impossible distance down, was the last visual cue of what had been Ritchie. All their family seemed to crowd them in however vaguely sympathetic they were. More than ever, it was the consciousness of their friends that gave them the strength to go on. Yvonne scattered the petals of a magnolia flower on the oak casket with the small brass plaque before the first drops of earth fell upon the open grave. Tears streaming down their faces, they both turned away from the sight.

"Are you a friend of Yvonne?" Yvonne's aged aunt asked her as they stood awhile at the church gate.

"Yes, I know her very well as do our friends," Karen replied with a straight face gesturing to Cassie and roisin who assumed their most respectable appearance they could muster up.

"You all seem to be very close," She replied, seeing the four respectably dressed women as well as Lauren, of course. "Well, I'd best be going. Funny, you only see the family together at weddings and funerals. It brings you closer together. It must be hard seeing off your own son this way, Yvonne having lost your Charlie as well," she said in her own version of sympathy that she was brought up in. There was a set way of doing these things which, in her day, would be followed to the letter, not all this new fangled stuff of that woman singing in church. Couldn't understand what she was singing but sometimes, you have to move with the times a bit.

"I'll hope to see you when you get married, Lauren. Mind you don't leave it too late for your poor old great aunt. None of us are getting any younger, are they Yvonne," she finished with her final homily to Lauren.

"Yes, I'll remember," Lauren said with a straight face.

"I suppose some of you have husbands to go home to so I'll let you go on your way," came the reply as the absentee matriarchal figure made her way towards her car.

"The driver is waiting, Yvonne," Cassie said in a subdued tone.

They made their way to the sanctuary of the limousine to take them out of there as the crowd had rapidly thinned. It was time for them to go.

Part Sixty Three

John Deed was sipping a cup of tea at the long mahogany table on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the peace and serenity of his digs. Despite his busy life, he craved these moments when the pressure of the cases could ease up and the case he had just dealt with was a clear cut Social Security fraud where the evidence was rock solid. The matter was one where he had to merely ensure the case was steered along a straight line to reach a predictable conclusion. The generality of his cases were of this kind but, after the Atkins Pilkinton case he was becoming much more wary as to what he thought of at first glance as a simple case. The afternoon was his to do as he liked and, despite his busy life, there were times that he positively enjoyed his own company.

A message was delivered to him that Joe Channing wished to see him.

"Shall the mountain come to Mohammed?" John asked himself. For a long time, the two of them had an uneasy relationship, John being classified in Joe's eyes as an emotional incontinent while John had Joe pegged as a died in the wool reactionary well to the right of Richard Nixon. He remembered vividly when he and George had first separated that Joe's first instinct was to threaten to give him a good thrashing with a horsewhip for mistreating his daughter. John's views had mellowed over time when he realised that if ever a man came along who mistreated Charlie, his and George's daughter, he might react in a very similar manner.

"Take a seat, Joe. To what do I owe the privilege of your company on a Sunday afternoon?" John offered hospitably.

Joe huffed and puffed his way into a chair opposite John and gratefully accepted the cup offered. Joe was clearly flustered and had a lot on his mind.

"To tell you the truth, I've been worried about George recently," Joe rumbled his introduction, having not thought of a delicate opening gambit to ease his way into a tricky subject of conversation. He did not expect John to greatly concern himself about his ex-wife other than in the role of mother to their daughter.

"I'm listening, Joe," John said in a reassuring tone. "You know as well as I do that relations between George and me are sometimes fraught which makes discussing personal matters difficult with her."

"The two of you have been arguing for years but you are both Charlie's parents and a fellow judge….even though your judgements are often perverse," Joe added in the peeved tone that he dropped into as a matter of habit with John.

"Exactly what is there about her behaviour that is troubling you?" John cut in, sensing that this conversation was going to be sidetracked to no good purpose unless he intervened.

"Have you seen much of George recently?"

" She was before me in the Crown versus Atkins and Pilkinton trial and she started off her usual argumentative impossible self. I must admit that she got better as the trial progressed, both to me and to Jo Mills. I did think that she got out of her depth and she knew it. Apart from a phone call a week last Saturday with Lover Boy thankfully out of the way, I've not heard anything from her."

"You bring the conversation to the very point I've been meaning to mention, John. It's about Neil Houghton. Between you and me, I don't think that she's very happy with him and that makes me all the happier if he doesn't marry into the family," Joe Channing finished on an emphatic note.

John suppressed his first instinct to let loose all the dammed up criticisms he had to make of Neil Houghton and rub it in how poor Joe Channing's judgement had been of the man. After all, Joe had regarded Neil as the blue eyed boy where the sunshine shone out of his backside and that everyone but John, had been taken for a ride by him.

"What sort of problems do you find with him, Joe?" John kindly asked the evidently troubled man. Joe was of the old school where you kept a stiff upper lip and that you sorted out your own troubles. All this agony aunt nonsense was strictly for women, and weak willed women at that. He wasn't going to adopt any namby pamby attitudes and especially at his time of life.

"We're both men of the world, John," Joe confided in the warmest display of acceptance of John that he had shown to him in years. "I first thought that George was merely having a run of bad luck in the cases that she was handling from casual conversation. Then when I started keeping my ears to the ground , I heard on the grapevine that it was one case after another and when I got to hear of the cases that she was taking on, they were all cases that I wouldn't have touched with a bargepole. I don't mind admitting to you that she was defending some pretty unsavoury characters."

"In what way, Joe?" John asked, now keenly interested. "This is not George's style.Her field is in taking on civil and commercial cases. Ones that guarantee her a lot of money

and where she can cut a deal. One thing I know about George is that she is no fool and that she is a bad loser. That makes her go into a plate throwing mood more than anything else. What you have told me so far doesn't add up."

"My thoughts entirely," Joe replied, ignoring the implied criticism of him which was not lost on John. "George phoned up out of the blue and came over to see me the same day that you were on the phone to her."

"With or without Neil?" John asked quickly.

"Without of course," Joe replied.

"Why the 'of course', Joe?"

"Let me finish telling my story, dammit, without you acting as if you were in the judge's seat and I were one of the barristers that you are irritating to death," Joe exploded. "I am convinced that Neil is getting George to take on political cases to rescue some shady character from the consequences of his wrong doings or, in the case of the Atkins Pilkinton case, to get the pair of them acquitted so that one of them could stand trial in Florida. It's as plain as a pikestaff that I've seriously wondered that you haven't harangued me on the phone to use my influence behind the scenes."

John shook his head in total bewilderment and wonder. Why in hell had he not thought of this obvious brainwave himself. Then again, he had not known how things stood between Joe and Lover Boy. He poured another cup of tea for him at his unspoken request as the day recalled more agreeable conversations a long time ago when he was still living with George. The world was tilting yet another subtle shift on it's axis that Joe Channing was a potential ally and that they were having a heart to heart talk about George's problems.

"It's the man's attitude that offends me, John. He's clearly out for all he can get and thinks that I am merely a blundering old fool who can be of some use to him in his political ambitions just as George is," the rumbling tones of disgust and venom were, for once, not directed in his direction.

"You always accused me of not being career minded, Joe," John smiled and his apparent wisecrack affectionately recalled times gone past including bitter arguments.

"You were always a brilliant man.. You have the infuriating knack of somehow rising to be a High Court judge despite your perverse actions in sabotaging your own career. God knows what you would have become if you had really applied yourself to furthering your career," Joe rumbled on in his curious half critical, half admiring fashion.

"And now you've seen a potential son in law dedicating himself totally to self advancement and you don't like it," John responded softly, having some real understanding of the man for the first time in his life.

"The man has no standards, while you have at least got some standards. Ridiculous liberal bleeding heart left wing standards but standards nevertheless," Joe's bombastic manner recalled a little of George .

"And in what other ways is George not happy with Lover Boy?" John asked quietly.

Joe took a long pause while he collected his wits and sought for the right words. Describing the emotions of a woman was definitely something that did not come natural to him.

"As you know, I see George every week and he only pops in occasionally. George makes excuses about him being a busy man and that sort of stuff and nonsense. I once probed her about the matter, nothing indelicate as you know and one of my best Ming vases went flying through the air and smashed against the wall. After that, there was a frightful scene which I won't describe to you …"

"………I can imagine, Joe," John replied. His imagination could visualise the blunt way that Joe charged in as if George was still a little girl and winced, mentally anticipating the fury of the reaction even before Joe described it.

"I told her that if she was going to break any chinaware, could she kindly break it at her own home at which point she shouted at me that she only broke things at houses that she felt comfortable in and stormed off. I thought that it was a peculiar comment and in very poor taste indeed."

John smiled to himself as he could see the significance of this and the direction the story was pointing. His memory of half forgotten snatched conversations with George were recalled in sharp relief as they had more significance than he realised at the time..

"To cut a long story short as I could go all round the houses on it, she came round on Saturday and she took me out to the back garden. She was happier than I've seen her and we talked about the old days. She said that she liked being out there as it reminded her of when she was a little girl and she used to play in the tree house at the back. She said that when she was in there, she felt peaceful and safe as Daddy would keep all the monsters out. As the day went on, she seemed to be more and more reluctant to go home. She didn't say anything, she never does, that damned obstinate girl………….."

"What did she say or do then, Joe?" John asked quietly.

"You know what she is like, John," Joe reacted with a flash of irritation set off by his allergy to John questioning him. "She was her usual argumentative self about nothing at all and abruptly took off in the car with a quick goodbye."

".I think, Joe, that George really wanted to stay at your house and knew she couldn't and that's why she behaved the way that she did. I was talking to her that day and she told Lover Boy that he was living in her house and , I quote , said 'the lord and master is for once demanding my input in to a conversation.' That sounds to me that it is only a matter of time, Joe."

"Good God," Joe said, looking shaken. "What do we do then."

Joe Channing, had simply not looked that closely at matters and drawn them to the logical conclusion. Much though he loved his daughter, he had visions of the peace and serenity shattered by George's tempestuous ways and felt that he was far too old and set in his ways to cope with all this. However, needs must when the Devil drives, he finally decided with grim resolve. The man has more in him than I've realised, he thought to his vast surprise.

"In the meantime, sit tight. After all, if she does dump that drip, she's far more likely to come your way than mine. George on present reckoning is far more likely to go back to Daddy than land herself at 'the Deed's digs," smiled John, recalling from Jo Mills George's less than flattering reference.

Part Sixty Four

More than ever before , the week after the Atkins Merriman trial made George wonder if there was a home to go home to even though she owned it. George's working week was becoming the enjoyable part of her day with fragments of warmth and liveliness of those around her who at least appreciated her sparkling conversation. She could handle the daily hard slog of the verbal cut and thrust of court work. She was always the sort of woman who threw herself into her work, especially after Charlie was born and provide for Charlie in the same way that Daddy provided the best for her. Even the Deed was at least good company whenever she ran into him, infuriating though the man could be. At least he was a human being. It was going home each night that was becoming the problem.

When she let herself into the house, Neil's mask of disapproval was tangible and hit her like a blast of cold air. The man would never just get any grievance properly out of his system unless it was especially bad and then his idea of a row was a short cold list of things she had done wrong to harm his precious position in the Cabinet. The argument would always fizzle out with nothing ever resolved. He was used to his minions doing everything for him, his aide keeping his diary of events, his letters typed for him only to sign without ever properly reading them and the civil service doing what he wanted. On the other hand, he shamelessly toadied to those above him and it was this cosseted dishonest lifestyle which made him such a poor consort. That word said everything about their relationship, the emptiness of feelings, the focus on career moves and official duties. It was all this that made him so inadequate at home when he had to emerge from behind the shelter of his official identity and deal with things himself. Even the sex was average when they had first got together and was now frequently lacklustre. She had heard how power was such an aphrodisiac and she had expected him to be as good between the sheets as John had been and look what she had ended up with. On the occasional nights in bed that Neil turned in her direction, the lovemaking had been short and perfunctory. He might be all right , reflected George, as he lay gasping on top of her but she did not exactly feel that she was the female lead in a D H Lawrence novel as she gazed upward at the large picture above their bed.

Julie Johnson was in tears as she received a letter from her Rhiannon. Since her pimp, Damian had gone out of her life, she worried how her beloved daughter was getting on. It was one thing in the first rush of guilt for Rhiannon to promise to get through college, but it was quite another thing to sustain that. It was these fears for Rhiannon that made her feel desperately that she wanted to be around her to advise her not to end up with the wrong fella as she had done with her ex. In a way, girls could be more of a worry than boys as she knew from her own experience of what she had been like.

"……………I'm sticking at college still but I'm writing from a Women's Refuge. I met this boy who I thought was the answer to ,my dreams, the kind you read about in the magazines, well the kind I read anyway. He told me that he was in love with me and couldn't live without me and begged me to move in with him. I agreed to as he seemed to be the real thing. Only when I started living with him, he had this weird streak in him and would lash out without warning when he had a few too many to drink. It was as if he became a different person altogether. I did my best to understand him, I really did and tried to talk to him to get him to understand himself and he promised he would never do it again. Only he did and it was this up and down relationship I had with him. All my college friends told me that he'll never change. I agree with them now that I'm out of the relationship but I was trapped as I needed someone to love. I came to this refuge when the police were called in and I'm really getting better now. The women there are really helpful and the college are giving me time to catch up with this years course work. I'm on the Social which isn't much but is something to live on. I'm getting better now, mum, honest as I'm finding my feet. I'm sorry I never told you about all this but I knew you would feel helpless and guilty that you couldn't help me.

I'll come in if you send me a VO and give my love to Auntie Julie. I've not forgotten my promise to her.

Your loving daughter


"Kids, eh. You never stop worrying about them no matter how old they get." Julie Johnson wept into Julie Saunders's shoulder who comforted her and held her tight like she always had.

Neil flung down on the dining room table today's Daily Telegraph with the latest critical headline -'Larkhall prison firebombers double suicide- has the government lost its grip?'

"Just look at this headline, George. I've had to face some very awkward questions in the Cabinet about this. The one event I entrust to you and it blows up in my face," his cold voice abruptly started in on her.

"When I'm in court, I do have all the paperwork I need to read before I speak so when I come home it isn't too much to ask for you to let me read the article, darling, before being cross examined," George replied, her tones empty of affection and the use of the word darling, merely a formality.

George took the paper and in an unhurried way, scanned the columns of coverage. Who writes these headlines anyway, some anally retentive man with an obsession for control. I don't do, I am, George reflected to herself. She scanned the columns of political bile that banged on about the sloppy security in prisons and that the trial had been left to flounder with no sense of proper direction. She agreed with the rest of the paper that she wanted to keep her taxes down and didn't like the euro. It's that living with a career politician awakened in her liberal tendencies that she never knew that she had in her, especially as this time she could measure her own direct experience against the headlines. A quick peek over the conveniently large newspaper told her of the subtle signs of Neil's rising temper behind his cold façade.

"I wouldn't worry as a week is a long time in politics. Who knows, next week the Great British Public will be loving you again," George's icy voice accentuated the sarcasm in the way that her tone climbed up and down the scale.

Neil glared at George without speaking for a moment. He was having enough of this castrating bitch of a woman who had the exact way of belittling his strongly held feelings which were too strong for him to be ever able to put into words. He and George weren't getting along right now. She was turning out different from what he had wanted and a different model, softer, more pliable and more disposed to admire him as he felt was his rightful due. How long ago was it that they first met?

There was something attractive and alluring about Georgia Channing when he first laid eyes on her at a charity do that they were both invited to and he was flattered in the interest that she took in him. In his eyes, they made a brilliant team, he the rising star in New Labour and she, the brilliant talented barrister whose undoubted abilities matched the perfect way that she handled social affairs. They were destined for the top until this recent crisis. It all started from his boast that this brilliant barrister could pull the Government out of an embarrassing fix. He had bragged about her to the Attorney General in an ante room at the House of Commons. It seemed a good idea at the time and it was fixed up that if Cantwell, the then Government favourite, dropped out, George was next in the running. Of course, he didn't trouble her pretty head about it as he had other matters to keep him busy. It was an understood thing between him and the Attorney General, not for anyone else's ears.

"That's not good enough, George," Neil replied shortly. "I live in a world where we are expected to get results with no excuses."

"You mean other people do the hard work for you to get results and you take all the glory if everything goes well and you put the blame on someone else if things go badly. I am such a useful alibi for you." George, in her last stinging attack on Neil's integrity, didn't fully register how she was causing his temper to escalate. It was the sarcastic twist in the tone that she said 'such' that rammed her point home. A part of her was still back in the time when she lived with John and they had flaming rows of operatic proportions and each could give vent to their feelings. Neil had no passionate impulse in his body apart from his insatiable ambition.

"You know that's not true," Neil dismissively brushed her aside.

"Neil, can you explain one thing to me," George pursued making the supreme effort to be reasonable. "If this court case was such a life or death matter, why wasn't I put on the case at the outset so that I had enough time to prepare for it and so that I didn't have to pick up the pieces after Brian Cantwell threw in the towel. Did you find out from the Attorney General just why he gave up the case and why I was told about it? Don't you think the writing was on the wall even then?"

Neil's feelings of anger and frustration rocketed. A calmly reasonable George making her case was just as intolerable as a sarcastic George sticking in the knife. This was humiliating as he had always been evasive to his Cabinet colleagues when they had talked about how marvellous and supportive their wives had been and smoothed out the troubled brow with oozing sympathy when they got home from a hard day's work at the their Ministries and a hard evening's drinking in the House of Commons bar in the relentlessly competitive world. No, it wasn't the Conservative opposition they had to worry about but their own colleagues who were secretly trying to take their jobs. There was an increasing crowd of New Labour ex ministers on the back benches speculating on who would be the next minister to be replaced.

"In the last war," Neil replied stiffly. "people got on with their jobs without complaining. That Battle of Britain spirit was what preserved the democratic freedoms for our generation to hand on."

George laughed incredulously at that. The image of a glamorous fighter ace, Neil Houghton dressed in a blue RAF uniform, complete with goggles climbing into his Spitfire and revving his engine desperately to take off and confront the Nazi bombers above him was just too absurd to imagine.

"You must be joking. You can't even change a fuse. Why only last week, you had to call out the electrician. Besides, anyone fighting a war as you put it, must by necessity be endowed with a certain amount of stamminer."

"That's enough, George," Neil's choked voice tried to suppress this dangerous woman who was maliciously attacking his masculinity.

"You poor, poor man. John always said that you acted like a spoilt little boy who if he didn't get his own way, went off in a sulk and he's right." George's crowning insult lashed back at him as she grew utterly sick and tired of the man who a split second instinct told her she loathed and for whom she felt a total and utter lack of respect.

Something was switched on in Neil's mind that unaccountably caused him to lash out in total frustration. Maybe it was the spectacle of George going dangerously out of control that caused him to panic or the fear that in his well ordered world, one element was threatening him. Something burst in his mind and he found that he had lunged forward at George to drive away that voice and his hand must have connected with her face. It was so unlike him as he had never done that sort of thing for ages, it must be the build up of this stress in him which every medical journal said was a killer. More than that, he reassured himself, it was George of all people, taking sides with that disreputable Deed character who always mocked and challenged him even in the contemptuous way that he looked at him without speaking.

George had that strange disconnected feeling in her as the pain spread outwards from the blow near her eye and looked at the stranger who had hit her. Then she turned and walked away from Neil who stood rooted to the spot like a paralysed actor in a play that had gone wrong.

"You be out of my house by the time I get home tomorrow." The words leapt from her mouth without her thinking about it and she made an instinctive grab for her mobile phone.

"Where are you going?" Neil asked automatically without thinking.

"Somewhere, anywhere in the world where you aren't," George fired back and she thrust aside the front door without shutting it and escaped into the darkness.

Part Sixty Five

As she walked down the steps to her car, George couldn't believe he'd done it. Neil had actually struck her. Hell, she knew she could be bad on occasions but tonight hadn't been half as bad as she sometimes was. She hadn't even thrown anything. All she'd done was to protest her lack of responsibility in the Merriman/Atkins trial. If they'd really thought she could get those two off, they should have brought her in on it from the beginning. She was at an immediate disadvantage, only having a night to prepare for it, but that didn't seem to make any difference to Neil and his cronies. She stepped on the accelerator and roared out of the drive and down the road. Her cheek throbbed. She briefly took one hand off the wheel to touch the rapidly forming bruise. She winced as her fingers came in to contact with the point where that blasted signet ring she'd given him had broken the skin. She could feel the trickle of blood running down her face and strove to stem the flow with a tissue. But what was she doing, driving through London at this time of night looking like she'd been involved in a drunken brawl. She fumbled for the mobile phone in her handbag, which she'd had enough sense to grab on her way out. The realisation that there was only one person she could call didn't improve her spirits.

When he answered, she said in a rush,

"John, are you busy?"

"I'm doing some reading for a ruling I have tomorrow. Are you in the car?"

"John, I need to see you." He could hear the urgent quiver in her voice.

"Is it Charlie?" He asked, referring to their daughter.

"Charlie's fine," Said George. She swore as another car suddenly loomed up out of the darkness.

"George, get off the phone and keep your eyes on the road. I'll come down and let you in." This was an order and she knew him well enough not to disobey.

When she cruised to a stop in the carpark of the Judge's lodgings, he was waiting for her, stood under the porch. He came forward when she got out of the car, and stared at her as the security light lit up her bruised and bleeding face.

"What the hell happened?" George was so relieved to finally be somewhere safe that at first she couldn't answer. "Did Lover Boy do this?" Asked John and she could hear the fury in his voice.

"John, please, just let me come in. It's freezing out here." He noticed that her voice was less strident than normal, somehow sounding defeated. As they walked up to his apartment, she was utterly quiet. Realising something must be very wrong, he didn't comment on this. When George dropped in to a chair, he put a large glass of brandy in to her hands.

"You're shivering," He said quietly.

"I think it's what they call delayed shock," She replied, her usual level of sarcasm not reaching its normal proportions. He went upstairs, and returned with a blanket and gently tucked it round her. Mimi, the whippet, rose from her basket and lightly jumped on to George's knee. John made to remove her, but George tangled her fingers in the dog's fur, as if needing something to hold on too. When John had filled his own glass and sat down opposite her he said,

"Talk to me, George."

"I don't really know what I'm doing here," She said, after taking a long, eyewatering swig of brandy. "I should go," She said, putting down her glass and preparing to lift the dog from her knee. John put out a hand as if to stop her.

"Calm down," He said gently. "You obviously came here for a reason. I'm assuming you and Lover Boy had a pretty monumental row." George laughed mirthlessly.

"There's no point calling him that any more. I told him to be out of the house by the time I get home tomorrow. I was going to ask you if I could stay here, but I'd forgotten you don't possess anything resembling a sofa." Briefly thinking that George had probably never slept on a sofa of any kind, John smiled.

"You can still stay here. I think we're both adult enough to share the same bed after all these years."

"True," She said, thinking that this really was turning out to be the oddest night of her life. As she dabbed at the cut on her cheek which had begun to bleed again, John filled a glass with cold water and took a clean handkerchief from his pocket. He dipped a corner of the monogrammed square in the water and reached forward to clean away the blood. Her hand came up and halted his progress.

"I'll do it," She said, her voice clearly betraying her tension at having him so close to her. When he'd returned to his chair he asked,

"Was that all he did?" gesturing to her face.

"You didn't seriously think I would have stayed for any more after he did this?" Her tone was incredulous.

"You might not have had a choice," Said John quietly.

"I left virtually as soon as he gave me this," She said, trying to put him at ease.

"What on Earth were you arguing about?" Asked John, thinking that it must have been something pretty serious for this outcome.

"Merriman and Atkins," George said succinctly. "I was supposed to get them off, and I didn't deliver."

"Ah," He said, the pieces beginning to fit in to place. "I'm assuming the cabinet wanted to ship her back to the states to avoid the bad publicity."

"That's about the size of it. Them both committing suicide didn't exactly help the situation."

"George, no-one could have persuaded a jury they weren't guilty. The evidence was stacked sky high."

"Always nice to have an impartial judge," Said George dryly.

"Oh, come on, George, you know me better than that. I'm just saying that it would have taken a miracle, that's all." George began searching through her handbag, then remembered her cigarettes were sat at home on the coffee table.

"Would Jo have left any cigarettes here by any chance?" She asked. John began looking through the clutter on the sideboard.

"I wish you two would give that up," He said in mock disapproval.

"No chance," Said George, taking the packet he'd found for her. As he poised the lighter, he looked in to her face. For all her bravado, she looked hurt, vulnerable and totally drained.

"You look done in," He said gently. The tenderness in his voice brought brief tears to her eyes.

"I'll be fine," She said, the hard edge of bitterness utterly failing to cover up how close to cracking she really was. Looking for anything to change the subject, she spied his violin case leaning up against one end of the sideboard.

"Do you still play?" She asked, gesturing to one of his favourite pastimes.

"When I have the time," He replied. "There's a string quintet I play with on a fairly regular basis."

"And I bet none of them knows you're a Judge," She said, remembering of old how he liked the anonymity of simply being a normal man doing normal things. "You should have gone professional," Continued George.

"I thought about it once," He replied, "But I think I'd have missed the people contact."

"Rubbish," Said George giving him a conspiratorial smile. "You'd have loved all those groupies, women hanging off your every note. Anyway, you've only exchanged one stage for another. That's why you always question the witnesses too much. You can't bare not to be playing the leading role."

"That's rich," He said grinning at her. "Coming from the woman who objects to every question."

"You know I only do that with Jo."

"Yeah, and she gives you as good as she gets."

"You miss all the sparring, don't you."

"There's nothing quite like a good intellectual fight."

"I wish Neil would stick to verbal sparring. But he knows I'd win if he restricted himself to words." George was on her second large glass of brandy, and John could tell the alcohol was having the desired effect of making her open up.

"Has this happened before?" He asked.

"Good god, no," Replied George. "He'd have had to look for somewhere else to live if he had. If I'd thought about it, I might have known he'd resort to fists one of these days. He's like a four-year-old when he can't get his own way." Thinking that this was a fairly good description of George herself, John tried to hide a smile and failed. "Don't look at me like that," Said George. "We're talking about him not me. You're the main thing that gets him started. He stupidly assumed that because of our past, it would be relatively easy to persuade you to lean heavily on the jury." John looked outraged at this. "Oh, I know," Went on George. "But your world and his world are miles apart. The way he sees it, justice is there to be upheld when it suits them and manipulated when it doesn't."

"How did you end up with such a spineless crettin?" Asked John.

"I think I was bored," Replied George without any hesitation.

"What are you going to do?" He asked.

"I don't know," She said, again looking defeated. "I've told him to be out of the house by the time I get home tomorrow, but beyond that, I have no idea."

A while later when she lay in John's large bed, wrapped snugly in a soft duvet, George listened to him washing their glasses and switching lights out downstairs. He'd found her an old T-shirt of his for her to sleep in, and she knew it made her look a little ridiculous. She lay on her right side, so that the cut on her cheek wouldn't be aggravated by the pillow. She heard him coming up the stairs, and watched as he placed the dog basket containing a sleeping Mimi under the window.

"That dog's got you wrapped round her little finger," Said George with a smile.

"She likes to think she has," Replied John. George listened as he prepared for bed, and watched the dog gently twitch its tail in the midst of a dream. This is utterly surreal, she thought. She hadn't shared a bed with John for years. When he joined her under the duvet, she knew this was where she'd always felt safe. But safe had never been enough for Georgia Channing. She liked the challenge of the chase too much. Oh, the sex had been fantastic, but nothing can compensate for that extra little bit of intrigue. But look where that had got her, a black eye and a broken relationship. An enormous wave of regret swept over her for what she'd put John through. She knew she'd never been an easy person to live with, only the appearance of their daughter had calmed her down. Their arguments had been monumental, until he'd learnt that the best way to deal with her was to simply ignore her outbursts. But even when she'd smashed an incredibly valuable vase, he'd never once raised his hand to her. That'd been the night she'd found out about his affair with Jo. George could remember every detail of that nightmare like it was yesterday. She'd picked Charlie up from school; she'd been six at the time. They'd decided on impulse to go to court to pay Daddy a surprise visit. George had only just pulled in to the carpark, when she'd spied John coming out of the front doors of the court, accompanied by a tall, very attractive woman. John hadn't seen her car, if he had, he'd never have kissed this woman long and hard on the steps of the court for all the world to see. George had known about his previous flings, and to be honest they hadn't worried her over much. But John and this woman, whom she'd later found out was called Jo Mills, looked, right, complete, as if no other person existed for either of them. That was the beginning of the end for her and John. From that day onwards, George had always known that any feelings of serious commitment in John were reserved solely for Jo. After watching their little display, George had put the car in to a three point turn, and roared out of the carpark. When she'd had it out with him that evening, after Charlie had been put to bed, she'd discovered that he hadn't even been aware of her presence whilst he'd bid goodbye to his latest sweetheart.

"Am I really such a bitch?" She asked, still with her back to John as they lay closer than they'd ever been since that night. Hearing the slight quiver in her voice that heralded tears, he gently put his arms round her, but she still lay with her face turned away from him.

"Nothing you could have done warranted what he did."

"Oh, come on," Said George scornfully, her anger rising to disguise her tears. "Surely even you can remember what I'm like when I'm furious."

"Yes," He said with a smile in his voice. "We were finding fragments of that Ming vase for weeks."

"So, why did you never give me a black eye?"

"Because, I don't believe in beating up anyone without a good reason, especially someone who couldn't even begin to match me in physical strength." George abandoned any attempt to hide her weakness.

"He was so furious with me," She said in a strangled voice. "He seems to think that because of our relationship, I'm the cabinet's personal QC to do their bidding."

"George, none of this is your fault."

"Oh, of course not," She replied, all her bitterness turned inwards on herself.

"You've got to believe it," He said softly. As she turned over and lay her head on his chest, he held her as her body shook. He didn't think he'd ever seen her quite so vulnerable, not even eighteen months ago when Charlie had been involved in and possibly hurt in that hunger striker protest.

"I'm sorry," Said George, hardly able to believe she was showing him how pathetic she felt.

"Don't be," He said gently. She turned away from him and groped on the bedside table for the box of tissues that sat there.

"I feel so pathetic," She said, the self-disgust all too resonant.

"George, this is me," He said as she dried her face. "I've seen you cry before."

"You've never seen me with a beaten up face before," She said, lying back down. It seemed natural for her to slip back in to his arms, to lay her head on his firmly muscled chest.

"This is like old times," He said, running his fingers gently through her hair.

"No, it's not," She replied, "We're neither fighting nor making up." He laughed.

"We did have some peaceful times."

"Very very occasionally."

"There's something else that's different from then," He said turning serious, "You're far too thin."

"Rubbish," She said sleepily. Deciding for once to let her have the last word, he said nothing. As she slowly drifted to sleep, lying snugly against him, John not only wondered how George was going to deal with this, but he also prayed that Jo would forgive him having given George sanctuary. George was still the mother of his child, and if nothing else, he would always feel the need to protect her.

Part Sixty Six

Neil felt that the rest of the evening was totally unreal and was in a state of total indecision as George roared off into the dark. His first instinct was to rush off after her, but she had roared off in her car and he knew how George could drive in normal conditions and that was with all the fury and anger that came natural to her vented on her own machinery and other drivers impartially. He stopped mid step, turned and tried to sit down and think this one through calmly.

George was a mature grown woman and could look after herself and so unless she phoned, there was nothing that needed to be done right then. That gave him some reassurance. He could phone the police to keep an eye on her but that would mean inconvenient questions as to why this was strictly necessary. Too many people these days asked too many questions rather than accepting his story as a Cabinet Minister and going out and doing his duty. There was no need to do anything rash.

Neil poured himself a stiff whisky now that he had the run of the house and could do what he damned well liked. When he thought about it rationally, he realised that women were taking over everywhere and there comes a point where you have to take a stand if you are a man. It was the brute primitive in every human being like Desmond Morris said that burst through the civilised man, some sort of throwback instinct in him. Anyway, it really wasn't his fault what happened and anyway, the bitch had deserved it.

What about Jo Channing, Neil thought with a sudden panic attack that made him spill his drink. George would be bound to run off to Daddy and would stay the night there as she had always had this childish irrational attachment to the old fogey. Suppose he were to phone him up and get in his side of the story first? He had a sudden adrenaline rush of fear that froze him to his chair. If George had not gone to Daddy, then what in hell could he say to the man as he was definitely not up to thinking of some feeble excuse as to why he had phoned. The doddering old fool wasn't above finding out that there was something suspicious and would start making enquiries. If he did nothing, there would be no untoward consequences as in a similar way, a mouse reasoned that if he stared out the increasingly bright lights of the juggernaught as he sat in the middle of the motorway then he could face out his problems.

Neil Houghton automatically picked up the Daily Telegraph and looked more closely at it. On page six, it carried an article about the scandal over extortionate mobile phone charges being caused by high licence charges levied by the Department of Trade and Industry on the firms concerned and quoted the official response by Mr Neil Houghton Secretary of State for trade and Industry being quoted as saying 'Someone has got to take the difficult decisions for this country' and that a 'balanced decision had been arrived at which addressed the greater good of the country' where the 'commercial rate charged brought a handsome income into the government's coffers which helped finance the ever expanding education programme.'

He threw the paper down in irritation and told himself to get a grip on the situation. He sat down and tried to review the situation calmly, rationally. What about George's friends? That was a likelier place for George to go as she would not like to admit to her darling daddy that she had failed, an of course in his mind any domestic discord was down to her unreasonable behaviour and she has, she must have, a reputation for being troublesome. Even that arch troublemaker, that Deed character, couldn't live with her.

Neil smiled to himself at that thought that, unknowing to him, he was getting support from the unlikeliest of quarters.

The first logical thing to do is to figure which of George's friends is going to hear all the hard luck, typical neurotic woman tear jerking stuff about how terrible he had been as a partner. If he tries to work that out, he'll know what sort of troublemaker he'll have to face. He thought long and hard and really couldn't place in his mind who George was particularly close to. Her clients came and went and George didn't keep anything around as convenient as an address book. Her mobile phone carried her contacts around with her and George had grabbed it. He tried to create a mental picture in his mind of which member of the legal profession she was particularly friendly with but his memory bank of faces and names produced no answers. All these barristers and judges, he reasoned to himself, they all talk, look and think alike in that curiously affected actorish manner except, of course, that there were more women these days. As it should be, he affirmed stoutly to himself, he is a great believer in equal opportunities as the Class of '97 'Blair babes' demonstrated and this made the House of Commons more attractive to the eye. When he thought about it, he really didn't know much about her social life apart from the social events when she would flit from one person to another, smiling and making conversation in the only way she knew how.

Now that he had calmed down a bit, he thought that he might have been a little hasty. George's assets that she brought to the partnership were not to be lightly thrown aside. Her ability to charm anyone was most useful, her position as a barrister brought a bit of old fashioned respectability to their partnership as the profession had a certain quality and status about it. Besides. He was going to be out of the house if he didn't do something quickly and the edict from above was to display a certain level of respectability to improve the Party's image.

Suddenly the phone rang shrilly and Neil jumped a mile. After an initial hesitation, he braced himself to answer it and be prepared for anything.

"Hello George, I was going to pick your brains about a matter of law. Have you got five minutes?" An educated male voice resonated in his ear.

"Neil here," he replied, feeling relieved as this was clearly a fellow barrister wanting to talk shop. "I'm afraid George is out."

"It's Brian Cantwell here, Neil. If you remember, George took over from me in the Atkins Pilkinton case," Brian Cantwell explained and regretted his words. "I suppose that was a bit tactless of me, old boy, as it didn't end particularly well for the government."

"Yes it was, Brian," Neil replied very coldly. It was his instinct that when he felt at his most resentful that George had flouted his wishes, to take it out on the next person who phoned if he could be safely offended and Cantwell was nothing special. "What you said was very unfortunate. If you give me your phone number, I'll ask George to phone you as I have no idea when she'll be back."

Neil slammed the phone down, sweating. It felt like a ticking bomb as it could herald either George to scream abuse at him, her precious father to splutter in anger at him or some news hound, tipped off by George to cause trouble. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it as it sunk in on his mind that, after all, George was a civil barrister with an appetite for money and she could soak him financially for all he was worth. Imagine if the press got hold of this story. Suddenly George's last words 'you be out of my house by the time I get home tomorrow' leapt into his mind. Now he got really agitated. He knew George well enough that unless he did anything quick, then if he came back here tomorrow night, then George would be further inflamed. He realised that he had better get his possessions packed quickly just in case.

Feverishly, he scrambled around for some spare suitcases and found them in a cubby hole under the stairs. He blew off the dust which scattered itself on the carpet and ran upstairs to his wardrobes and chest of drawers and looked in despair. There were many pairs of suits and shirts hung up on the rail and an impossibly small space to pack the clothes into. Then again, what about everything else of his scattered around the house?

Eventually, he made a quick decision. He would pack the most essential items that he needed most that day and stick the suitcases in the back of his car and get help from the professionals in moving the rest. So as to not forget in the morning, he scrawled a note on a piece of paper and left it out prominently on the sideboard downstairs.

"Have moved some of my personal effects out and the rest are to be collected. Neil."

That made him feel better, no grovelling, nothing over emotional. He settled himself down for the night, found a bottle of sleeping tablets in the furthermost recess of the medicine cabinet, swallowed one and slept like a top.

In the morning, he turned over in bed but there wasn't the familiar shape beside him. Woozily, he collected his wits together as he wasn't used to taking a sleeping tablet and, in the morning, he had trouble holding anything or getting out of bed. It was daylight and, with an effort, he struggled to climb into the uniform and the mindset of a Secretary of State of Trade and Industry. He felt better and more secure, his tie pulled up and anchored to the top shirt button and his smoothest , most expensive suit. He made a cup of strong coffee to clear the fog from his brain and sharpen his wits. As he drank his coffee, his mind went back to when George took a phone call and had the infernal nerve to pollute the house with tobacco smoke. He was at one with professional medical opinion on this issue that he did not want to be a passive smoker and have his lungs polluted. She was on the phone to that Deed character, and he was no doubt gloating about the trial result as he thought at the time. Perhaps that disreputable character had a more sinister agenda and was planning to steal George back from him. He saw the way they behaved with each other and the more he thought about this, the whole thing seemed like a put up job. His face tightened with anger as he slung his suitcases into the car and set off for a day's work. He needed to play his cards carefully, do what was necessary to get George back and, if that didn't work, his worst suspicions would be realised. That man had no moral principles with women, it was well known.

Part Sixty Seven

When George awoke on the Thursday morning, she could hear John moving about downstairs. She lay for a while, trying to persuade her senses in to some sort of order. When he reappeared, he was carrying a cup of tea and followed by Mimi, who immediately jumped on to the bed. George put out a hand and began stroking her.

"She doesn't need any encouragement," He said, handing George the cup of tea as she sat up. She looked very child-like in the early morning sunlight that peeped through the thick curtains. With her hair tousled, and her body only covered by a t-shirt that was clearly too big for her, she looked even more vulnerable than she had done last night. George took a grateful swig of the tea. As both of them were aware of George's almost inability to speak first thing in the morning, they barely exchanged a word. She'd always hated John for being able to be totally coherent at any time of the day or night. As she listened to him take a shower, she drank the rest of her tea and scratched Mimi's ears. She knew she couldn't even think about dealing with the ramifications of last night until her brain had fully woken up. As John emerged wrapped in a towel, George finally dragged herself out of bed. He observed her still extremely pretty legs which descended from the t-shirt like pillars of loveliness. John privately thought she looked enchanting in that t-shirt which barely extended to midthigh and clung to her small, jutting breasts. George walked over to the mirror and stared aghast at her face.

"that's going to look wonderful in court this morning," She said, all the bitterness of last night reasserting itself. He walked over to her and turned her face towards him.

"Concealer or something similar might cover it."

"Well, I don't have any, not here anyway." Whilst George was in the shower, John had an idea. As it was getting on for eight o'clock, he picked up the phone.

"Jo, it's me," He said when she answered.

"this is a nice surprise," She said, in that slightly huskier early morning voice that he found so sexy.

"Please could you do me a favour?"

"John, you never say please, it must be serious." He laughed.

"I do say please, sometimes. On your way in to the office this morning, could you come here first, and bring some concealer or whatever you women use to cover up facial disfigurements you'd rather others didn't see."

"John, you're talking in riddles. Who did you get in to a fight with?"

"Not for me," He said in disgust, "For George." Then, lowering his voice he said, "She turned up here last night after having a row with Lover Boy, looking like she'd gone a couple of rounds with Frank Bruno. I had to let her stay here."

"Give me about an hour, with rush hour traffic."

"You're a star, Jo."

When George appeared downstairs, wearing yesterday's clothes and dragging a brush through her wet hair, she looked nothing like the very together, utterly sophisticated woman he knew. John was seated at the table, eating toast and reading the morning paper. George poured herself a glass of grapefruit juice and peeled an orange.

"I rang Jo," John said, after finishing the article he was reading. "She's going to drop off some concealer for you on her way to work." George put down the segment of orange she was about to eat.

"That's all I need," She said. "Having to be grateful to your girlfriend." John ignored the jibe, knowing that anger and irritation were George's way of hiding how she was really feeling.

"How does it feel?" He asked, gesturing to her face.

"Bloody sore," Was her only comment. A while later there was a knock on the door.

"Mrs. Mills for you, My Lord," Said the man who had witnessed many comings and goings from this particular judge's room. George's immense feeling of insecurity increased a thousand fold when she caught sight of Jo, looking smart, professional and totally unruffled. Sensing the arrival of a friend, Mimi bounded over to stand wagging her tail at Jo's feet. Jo gave George a quick assessing glance, taking in the now dark purple bruise and healing cut under her left eye.

"You should get that looked at," Said Jo as a form of greeting.

"Absolutely not," Said George firmly. "The fewer people who know about this the better." The unspoken affirmation was that George would really rather Jo hadn't had to know about it.

"Oh, and what are you going to say to anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain?" Asked John, thinking that George must be living in cloud cuckoo land if she thought she could get through the next couple of days without anyone noticing.

"That I walked in to a door," Said George flatly. John threw down the paper in disgust.

"That's the oldest and most overused line in the book, George. You're a barrister, which means you'll be aware of every explanation, every apology he'll use to worm his way back in."

"And you're making me feel like a bloody witness," Threw back George.

"Well, go back to Lover Boy and one day you will be."

"John, just give us a minute," Said Jo quietly, trying to defuse their rapidly spiraling argument.

"No," He said refilling his cup with coffee. "I'm not saying anything she doesn't know herself deep down." Jo looked at him stonily.

"John, just take Mimi out or something, because right now I don't think you're helping the situation." Knowing when he was beaten, John stood up, clipped a lead on to a delighted Mimi, and walked out closing the door none too quietly. Jo dug in her handbag and put a tube of concealer down on the table.

"That should help," She said.

"Thank you," Was George's subdued reply. She moved to stand in front of the sideboard, over which hung an enormous gilt-edged mirror. She began applying the cream to her face, wincing as her fingers came in contact with the bruise.

"I'm amazed," Said George, half sarcastic half meaning it. "You've not asked what happened. That's all John really wanted to know last night."

"Well, I'm not John," Said Jo succinctly. "And I think the rest is obvious. It's also absolutely none of my business." George turned to face her in astonishment, the tube of cream in her left hand, and her right poised in midair to apply some more. Staring at Jo assessingly for a moment she turned back to the mirror.

"Has this happened before?" Asked Jo.

"No," Was George's curt reply, and Jo could almost feel all the barriers going back up again.

"What are you going to do?" Asked Jo gently. That was it for George. She'd almost been courting an excuse to sound off at anyone since Neil had done this, and ironically it was the quiet, levelheaded Jo who made her snap. George weeled round, and the pain in her eyes hit Jo and rooted her to the spot.

"Why is it," She began, the clipped, aristocratic bite more prominent than ever, "That you and John seem to think I have all the answers. I don't have the first idea how to deal with this or what I'm going to do, because funnily enough I've never been in this situation before. You've got absolutely no idea, have you. That bastard, who calls himself the secretary of state for trade, has taken away the one thing I value most, my pride. I've got to go in to court this morning, looking no better than a common whore who's just come off the night shift at King's Cross. That isn't how I usually prefer to defend my clients. He's taken away any shred of dignity I might have had. I've always known Neil had no scruples, but I totally misjudged the situation because not once did I ever think he'd go this far. He gave me this, purely because I couldn't come up with a good reason as to why I hadn't been able to get Merriman and Atkins found not guilty. It had to be you, didn't it. It just had to be you and John who between you managed to first convince a jury they were guilty, and second, send them down for the longest stretch possible. You are the biggest rival I've ever had, in and out of court, and you just had to be there on the one occasion I needed to succeed, and yes, before you so kindly point it out, I know that's the price of sleeping with a cabinet minister. John warned me at the time, and though I'm loathed to admit it, he was right. I suppose you think this is all I deserve." This last thing was said in such a hollow, defeated voice, that Jo immediately forgave any inference that George's black eye was in some way her fault. George had needed to get this out of her system, Jo knew that. As George turned away from her, Jo caught sight of the hitherto unwitnessed Channing tears running unheeded down her face. She fumbled blindly for the nearest chair, and her body seemed to collapse in to it. Jo had never seen George this broken, this defeated, and for a moment she stood stock still, simply watching her. Then, realising that there was at least some practical thing she could do, she went upstairs in search of a box of tissues. Taking brief note of the unmade bed where John and George had clearly slept last night, she picked up the box from the bedside table and returned downstairs.

She put the tissues down in front of George, and took a seat opposite her.

"John thinks this is so cut and dried," Said George, taking some tissues from the box.

"That's because he thinks the distinction between right and wrong should decide everything. Even after all his years of trying to uphold the law, he sometimes fails to see that it doesn't always work like that."

"I told Neil to be out of the house by the time I get home, but even if he is, which I doubt, I can't just move on and forget he ever existed."

"I know," Said Jo gently, lighting a cigarette for George and then one for herself.

"Bet you never thought you'd see me crumble before your eyes, did you," Said George, taking a grateful drag.

"We all do it, George. The secret is not to be afraid of it." George laughed mirthlessly.

"I remember the time John told me I was maladjusted. Oh, I wouldn't worry," She said, observing Jo's slight wince at John's callous remark. "I suspect he had cause to at the time." On hearing the unmistakable sounds of John and Mimi returning, George, realising that she'd inadvertently wiped mascara over her face, grabbed her handbag and Jo's tube of hopeful cover up and fled upstairs to the bathroom.

When John appeared, he took in the box of tissues on the table and George's absence.

"Is she all right?" He asked, removing Mimi's lead.

"No," Replied Jo, stubbing out her cigarette. "Not very."

"I'm going to ban those things from here," He said, gesturing to the ashtray.

"You wouldn't get away with it," Said Jo with a smile. "For a start, you wouldn't see anywhere near enough of me if you did."

"I suppose it's worth the concession," He said, leaning down to kiss her. When they heard George returning they broke apart. George took one look at John and smirked, the first sign of a smile they'd seen all day.

"What?" He said, staring at her. Jo also looked at what had caught George's attention and laughed. "What is wrong with the pair of you?" He asked in exasperation. "Have I got butter on my chin?"

"No," Drawled George. "Lipstick." He grabbed a napkin off the table and furiously scrubbed at his face.

"I'd half a mind to let you go in to court looking like that," Said George.

"that would have made an interesting story in The Evening Standard," Put in Jo. George handed her back the tube of concealer.

"Thank you," George said, her eyes for once looking straight in to Jo's, not something they usually did, and Jo knew the thank you was more for listening and not judging than anything else. As they walked out of the lodgings, Jo left to drive to her office.

"I'll see you later for that ruling," She said.

"Come earlier and have lunch," He suggested. As he watched Jo drive away and George retrieve her papers which she'd fortunately put in the car the night before, knowing that with her dislike of mornings anything could be forgotten, John wondered just what would happen to her. George wasn't very good at being alone, but if she didn't let Lover Boy worm his way back under her skin, that was exactly what she'd be.

Around one o'clock, George had finished talking to her client and was walking towards the exit. She was exhausted, more emotionally than physically. She could have sworn that every member of the jury had looked curiously at her face, wondering just what this particular QC had been up too. But before she could reach the doors that led outside, Neil Haughton, the secretary of state for trade accosted her.

"George," He said, coming over to her. "We need to talk."

"No we don't," Said George perfectly calmly. "I think we said everything there is to say last night." He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, to stop her walking away from him.

"Don't touch me!" She hissed.

"Georgia, darling, I'm sorry," He weadled.

"That's what you'd tell a barrister in cross examination, is it?" She threw back at him.

"George, you're not going to take this to court, are you?" He asked, in a tone that clearly told her he thought this notion was utterly preposterous.

"I haven't decided what I'm going to do with you yet," She said. "Just look at me. Look at what I had to put up with in court this morning. You did that, nobody else."

"Where did you stay last night?"

"That's absolutely none of your business."

"You stayed here, didn't you?" He asked in disgust. "You stayed with Deed."

"what I do to protect myself in a crisis has nothing whatsoever to do with you." Despite the fury in her tone, she was still managing to stay fairly quiet. But she hadn't noticed the silent, stealthy approach of John. Suddenly, he swung Neil Haughton round and pushed him up against the wall.

"Now, listen to me, Haughton," He said, the anger evident in his still cultured tones. "You do anything like that to George again and I'll have you doing time in the Scrubs. Is that clear?"

"Still fighting her cause, I see," Drawled Neil. "How does Jo Mills feel about that." One of John's hands tightened around Neil's throat.

"John, stop it," Said George, though knowing it was utterly futile. he lifted a fist as if to hit John in the face, and George caught a glint of the signet ring that had given her that cut. But with lightening reflexes, John caught Neil's fist before it could hit him.

"Is that how you believe in sorting everything out that doesn't quite go your way?"

Jo, arriving for her lunch appointment with John, walked up the steps and through the main doors. Taking in the situation and a watchful crowd in an instant, she walked swiftly over to John, grabbed hold of his arm and frog marched him away. He turned on her, his eyes still blazing with fury.

"What the hell did you do that for?" He said.

"I'm trying to stop you from getting in to more trouble than usual," She said.

"He needed teaching a lesson," John protested.

"Not by you," Insisted Jo. "John, this is George's fight, not yours."

"Oh, and like she'll ever do anything about it."

"Even if she doesn't," Continued Jo. "that isn't your decision to make."

"He was hassling her, trying to persuade her to forgive and forget, and she was just going to let him."

"I doubt that very much," Jo said, as they sat down on one of the seats that filled the foyer.

"He should be in a cell," John wouldn't let up.

"Oh, grow up, John," Said Jo, finally losing her patience with him. "He's a cabinet minister, not a sixteen-year-old involved in a drunken brawl. Even if George did pursue this legally, it wouldn't be allowed to get anywhere and you know it."

Part Sixty Eight

Neil Haughton slipped discreetly out of the court building after the unseemly brawl with Deed. He hoped that no one had seen him pinned up against the wall by him as he would never live it down. His first instinct was to straighten his tie which had become an S shaped crumpled strip of material thanks to Deed's hand round his throat. He needed that smooth veneer which he could show the world how in control of himself he was, and everyone else he had to deal with. This unpleasantness could become damaging, he reflected. Deed would be the sort of person with no shame about spreading the story round his cronies in the legal profession about his domestic troubles of last night. He knew well enough from the huge gossiping chamber that was the House of Commons how bad news travelled fast and some rag like Private Eye would be swift to spread it further with its own despicable brand of smear and insinuation.

He had to contain the public damage which this sort of thing might start. The whole thing was getting out of hand and he felt like there was a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.He had seen it before in the gossip he had traded round the bar at the House of Commons where he had heard the inside stories of how one minister after another had fallen from grace as the simmering scandal that had brewed for months unknown to the public had finally boiled over. He enjoyed a tasty morsel of scandal as much as the next person but not at his expense, thank you very much. After all, the Attorney General was not going to be one of his friends now as George had failed to deliver on such a crucial case for his own reputation as a go getter.

The thought came to mind with a flash of brilliance which made him feel much better about himself. He knew that in the final analysis, he would come up with an idea which all it needed was a bit of clever footwork. He could use the Attorney General's underlings, Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James to help him out. He knew that they hated that Deed character like poison and were looking out for him to put one foot wrong to bring him to book. What about what he knew as his long standing association with his paramour, Jo Mills and at the same time, starting a squalid affair with George They would love that one and all he is asking for in return is to put in a good word with the attorney General and keep him off his back. Just how vindictive George would be in having him prosecuted for assault and slapping an injunction order on him would be unpleasant. He had to defend, above all else, his public reputation.

Roisin put on her coat as the school bell rang and she could hear the cheering sound of children and the clatter of heels down the corridors. As she rounded the corner, she felt both hands grabbed by Michael and Niamh.

"My children," She greeted them in her accustomed exuberant fashion having been nagged at by both Niamh and Michael for forever embarrassing them by greeting them with 'my babies' as she used to. With their friends looking on, they used to squirm with embarrassment when she used to say this. Roisin didn't mind however making this compromise. On this sunny September day, she was full of the simple pleasures of life as she walked on to the car, both children swinging on her arms.. She wasn't one for joining the rest of the mothers standing outside the school gates exchanging gossip. She smiled warmly on everyone in general and the others thought that, though she kept herself to herself, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing and that she was obviously devoted to her children. It was known that she had separated from her husband which wasn't uncommon but on the occasion that he used to turn up, he was bad tempered and unfriendly.

Roisin manoeuvred her car into the long line of cars all coming from the school and sped her way back to the home where there was children's television and a warm fire to flop down in front of. Everything was cosy and welcoming at their house.

"Hiya, kids," Cassie's cool but welcoming voice and friendly smile greeted the others when she came in later from work.

"Mrs Edwards wants us to write a story with pictures of the most exciting and dangerous thing that has happened to our parents. Can I write about the time that you and mum rescued that man from the fire."

"You haven't got any problems with writing about mum and me in prison, Niamh?"

Cassie asked seriously. She recalled the moment when Roisin with real humanity and a force of personality took command in that moment of horror to urge them to push a profusely bleeding Neil Grayling on an improvised trolley through what seemed a wall of flames.

"I got a gold sticker the time I wrote about mum when she first went to prison," Said Niamh. "I'm lucky that I've got something good to write about."

"Good girl," approved Cassie using the very words she swore, as a teenager, she would never say, having taken a great delight in being bad.

"Will you help me with the pictures. What did you both look like when you came out of the fire."

"Our faces were blackened, our hands were burnt," Cassie built up to a dramatic climax, "……….and my makeup looked really terrible. I couldn't look in the mirror for weeks." Cassie laughed to general amusement, sending up her well known vanity.

Michael waylaid Roisin with his maths homework and Roisin's eyes tried to focus at the book thrust before her eyes wondering why they had changed the maths since her day at school and made it so difficult for parents to understand.

"Did you see much of Aunt Yvonne while we were away?" Niamh asked presently as the four of them snuggled down on their large comfy settee.

"Yeah, loads," smiled Cassie. "Can't you tell by the suntan? I could make a habit of her lifestyle, drinks by the swimming pool, nice house, great company." Her eyes looked dreamy, thinking of games of spin the bottle in a life far removed from the cosy domesticity. Now the kids were back home, it gave her that comforting feeling of completeness in her life but a holiday away from responsibilities was exciting.

Sir Ian was cloistered in his office, gloomily studying notes that had been passed to them concerning the activities of one Miss Charlotte Deed who was a law student. It was, of course, not unknown for occasional notes to be passed to them concerning the transgressions of law students who would in time become the the up and coming barristers of tomorrow. Usually, it reported nothing more than that they had become totally plastered at some night club and had got into a drunken affray with the local constabulary. That was a natural process of over exuberant youth sowing their wild oats which, in time, was something they grew out of. Not that he had any skeletons in his closet, himself. He had always behaved like a gentleman. Whereas Deed's voluminous file showed the fellow to be a total reprobate from starting from when he was a spectacularly wild and dissolute law student who was only saved from early ruination by a benevolent and foolhardy head of the college. And now there was going to be another Deed let loose on his department in the near future. Whoever said 'in the long term, we are all dead' was merely burying his head in the sand like an ostrich.

A discreet knock on the door heralded the entrance of Neil Houghton who, unusually for him, was smiling pleasantly at him.

"Ian, old man, I was wondering if you would help me with a small private matter. I trust that what I'm going to tell you will be strictly confidential," Came the tone of voice which was curiously ingratiating and yet took his consent for granted. This was not the normal tones of the man who however friendly, let him know all the time just who had the whip hand.

"It depends on what you mean, Neil," He replied cautiously. "You had better explain."

"I've just had a bit of a disagreement with George Channing and, between you and me, she took it rather personally. I offered to make up for anything which I may have done wrong but there is no changing her mind. You know how unreasonable and bad tempered she can get."

For once, the man is sweating, Sir Ian noticed. I thought politicians never sweated and are a breed apart.

"And where do I come into the picture," Sir Ian asked, having the feeling that he had not heard a tenth of the story as yet.

"The truth is, Ian, I wouldn't put it past George to take out an injunction and to pursue a charge of assault against me. Mind you," Neil hastily rushed onwards to skate over the unpleasant sounds of the words that he was uttering, "it may not come to that but forwarned is forarmed so they say and I would appreciate it if anything that might happen you could keep low key and out of the public eye. ."

Sir Ian paused for a second before replying. He looked closely at Neil's face, noticing the way the man couldn't look him straight in the eye but kept looking shiftily away. The man will have been through the 'sincerity school' of training for TV appearances, the appearance of candour in the voice, the 'look you straight in the eye' earnest conviction, just the right appearance of reliability like any other cheap politician. For all this, I wouldn't buy a used car off this man.

"Just exactly what happened between you and George, Neil. I need to know the truth before you ask me to do anything." Sir Ian's voice was sharper, and without even trying he was more assertive in his quiet way than was normally his style. This was ironic as in the past, he had desperately sought to be proud and masterful in his public dealings and had only succeeded in coming over as petulant.

"Well, er, I was telling George that the Atkins Pilkinton trial has let us in for a lot of bad publicity, your department especially. I was only remarking that she ought to have made a better showing and not let the side down. You know that well enough." Neil's ingratiating tones eagerly solicited his support.

"I know exactly how George Channing performed in the trial. I was there in the public gallery most of the time, watching," Sir Ian replied drily.

"There you are, old man. You know how poorly she performed."

"I will not comment to her ex-partner on a barrister whose reputation I believe to be perfectly sound, if unlucky in a string of recent cases. It would be indelicate. So what happened between the two of you?" Sir Ian's response was frosty. After all he was only a direct witness of the trial of everything that this man was talking about, second hand.

"She not only laughed in my face but made a personal remark and had the cheek to quote that Deed character in support. I felt that this was a put up job. I had a run in with him at court when I was asking George to patch up our differences and he did his usual 'knight in shining armour' routine, suspiciously so," Neil finished with a sneer.

"So what did you do to George that leads you to believe that she will take legal action against you, Neil?" Sir Ian

"I happened to hit her and she ran off. Back to Deed so I now understand."

"Wait a minute," Sir Ian broke in. "I don't know about you but I was brought up to believe that you do not ever hit a woman. This is something you just don't do under any circumstances. There is absolutely no excuse for such behaviour. "

"It's not like you to take such a high and mighty attitude, Ian. You and your lackey Lawrence James are quite willing to do the Attorney General's bidding at the drop of a hat or even before the hat falls." Neil's face darkened as this spineless man was presuming all of a sudden to take the high moral ground with him.

"I do the Attorney General's bidding and not yours, Neil. If you don't like what I say, perhaps you had better take it up with him." Sir Ian smiled tightly, knowing full well that if he had felt comfortable in doing that in the first place, he would have done so. "As you know, I am separated from Lady Rochester and, no matter how many arguments we had before we finally separated, I never once laid a hand on her, not even when she flaunted her affair with Deed."

"Wait a minute, we can do a deal ,Ian. Let us not be hasty. It seems to me that Deed, in carrying on an affair both with George and Jo Mills is riding for a fall and this can be to both of our advantages. Think of it." Neil eagerly pursued his point with all the only real conviction he could ever summon up, self interest.

"The whole business is compromised and tainted, Neil, by your first hitting Mrs. Channing. We have no definite proof that Deed is having an affair with her. Besides, all I have heard and I have seen with my eyes in the trial is the most violent antipathy between the two of them. It would be unlikely if your fisticuffs will have driven George into Deed's arms and ironic if it were actually the case. I absolutely refuse to touch this business," Sir Ian spoke contemptuously.

Neil turned on his heel, stung by the image of George that Sir Ian's words conjured up and infuriated by the man's unexpectedly stubborn refusal. He slammed the door behind him. At least the door daren't argue with him.

Sir Ian turned back to his work, curiously lighter of heart. It was not often he acted this way and, unaccountably, he felt good about himself.

Part Sixty Nine

On the Friday morning, one week after the funeral, two weeks since the end of the trial and exactly four weeks since she'd first gone to Yvonne's for dinner, Karen was sitting at her desk, preparing for several induction interviews she had to do that day. There seemed to have been an upsurge in the amount of women being sentenced to fairly lengthy stays in prison. She briefly wondered if this was as a result of the blazing hot weather that had taken over most people's lives throughout July and August. Heat always creates a rise in bad temper and therefore a dramatic increase in spur of the moment violent crimes. Finding that she had half an hour to spare before the new inmates began arriving to see her, Karen left her office and walked down on to the wing. There was something slightly comforting about the sight of the two Julies, one up on the 2's and one down in the association area, mopping away with gusto. Karen found herself thinking that her wing wouldn't be quite the same once they left, though that wouldn't be for another few years yet. As sad as this notion was, they'd been part of Larkhall since her arrival, two of the fixtures and fittings so to speak. Tina was sat at one of the tables, clearly wrestling over some work for one of her education classes. After her initial reluctance, Tina had been persuaded to take up education again in an effort to ensure her some sort of employment once she got out, which wouldn't be all that long now. She called to Karen as she passed.

"Miss, have you got a minute?" Karen stopped next to her.

"What is it, Tina?"

"Yesterday, I got given this for homework, only I've forgotten how she said to do it," She said, clearly talking about her tutor. Taking a seat beside her, Karen looked over her shoulder at the GCSE Maths textbook.

"It's a very long time since I did Maths at school, Tina, but I'll try anything once."

"Only, you're always faffing about with budgets, at least that's what Miss Barker always says, so I figured you'd have to be good at this." Thinking that Tina had a valid point, Karen glanced at the simple algebra problem Tina was working on and attempted to explain it to her.

"But what I don't understand," Said Tina after a while. "Is when you have say 12X and 3Y, what does X and Y actually mean?"

"They don't actually mean anything," Replied Karen, "X and Y are simply there to make the two values separate from each other."

"So, what's the point of that then?" Asked Tina, clearly mystified. Karen smiled.

"Would it help you to understand it better if they meant something tangible, something you could actually see?"

"Yeah, I think so." Karen stood up and walked over to the servery counter, returning with a handful of forks and teaspoons. with the use of these prison issue bits of plastic, she was able to explain the simpler points of algebra to Tina in a manner easier for her to grasp. As she left her at the table, pushing the plastic cutlery around to help her answer the list of problems the tutor had set her, Karen fondly remembered the times she'd helped Ross with his homework. If only he'd let her help him now. She would if he asked for it, if he really wanted the help, but he didn't. He was insisting on having his independence yet making no move to do anything with his life.

"You should have been a teacher, Miss," Said Julie Johnston, coming over with her mop and bucket, clearly having watched the little scene.

"Thirty fourteen-year-olds who clearly don't want to be there?" Said Karen with a slight shake of the head, "No thanks."

"Sounds a bit like here," observed Julie.

"How's Rhiannon?" Asked Karen, remembering the mouthy sixteen-year-old who'd been in for shop lifting.

"Well, she's got herself a job and has gone back to college," Replied Julie, "But I got a letter from her this week saying she'd been living with some bloke who was knocking her around. She's left him now though, thank god."

"Men, eh," Said Karen, in clear criticism of the entire male population.

"Yeah," Replied Julie, beginning to mop the floor of the servery, "It's no wonder so many girls change sides." A soft smile crossed Karen's face as she thought of her budding relationship with Yvonne. They'd not seen too much of each other over the last week, and they certainly hadn't made love since the end of the trial, but Karen knew this would pick up again when the time was right. Simply knowing the other was there, in thought if not in body, seemed to be enough for the moment. Yvonne was struggling to sort herself out after Ritchie's death, and Karen was quite prepared to give her as much time and space as she needed. She was brought back to the present when Julie asked,

"Have you heard how Yvonne is, Miss? Only we heard you was at court with her all through the trial. Me and Julie was going to ring her, but we didn't like to intrude."

"I'm sure she'd love to hear from you," Replied Karen. "I think she could do with knowing that her friends are there for her right now."

"Oh, right. Well, we might give her a ring later then."

"Have you seen Denny?" Asked Karen, realising that one of the usual group of inmates was missing. Julie called up this enquiry to Julie Saunders who was still up on the 3's, but came to look over the rail.

"Try the gym. She said something about wanting to kick the shit out of someone and that at least she wouldn't get any more time if it was a punch bag." As Karen walked off towards the gym, she got the feeling that her round this morning had felt like she was checking on her flock, her brood, her little clan of whom she was in charge. This was ridiculous, she sternly told herself. After all, most of them were fully grown women and in some cases far better at looking after themselves than she had ever been.

As Karen approached the gym, she could hear Denny's voice, clearly screaming insults at some hopefully imaginary being. She opened the door slightly, not wanting to startle Denny when she was obviously in a mood for violence. Denny was laying in to one of the punch bags, really giving it hell with both fists and one of her feet. As Karen watched her, she became aware that Denny was treating the punch bag as if it were Snowball. There were tears running freely down Denny's face, and she was letting go all her rage, not just for Shaz's death, but clearly for Snowball having taken the easy way out. Slowly, very slowly, Karen approached her. She didn't say anything, didn't try to interrupt Denny as she thought this was something Denny had needed to do for a long time. For Denny, raging was a necessary part of the grieving process. As Karen stood and watched from the sidelines, a line from John Grisham's The Pellican Brief came to mind.

"The soul needs a brief, very intense period of grieving, then it moves to the next phase. But it must have the pain. It must suffer without restraint before it can move on." It was a while ago that Karen had read this book, but the quote seemed to fit. When Shaz had been killed, Denny hadn't been able to go through this initial, necessary phase of grieving. Karen was forced to admit that this was mainly because Denny had been housed on the same wing as Shaz's killer and so had been forcefully reminded of the brutal way in which Shaz had died every day since. It seemed that Denny was only able to as Grisham had put it, "Grieve without restraint", once Shaz's killer had also died. When Denny finally ran out of energy, she slid to the floor, great tearing sobs wracking her entire body. Knowing that it was now safe to approach her, Karen knelt down beside Denny and put her arms round her. Not knowing or not caring who it was, Denny clung to Karen as if some invisible force were trying to tare her away. Karen murmured words of comfort until Denny eventually began to calm down. Realising that Denny had hit crisis point, Karen gently helped her to her feet and took her arm to lead her out of the gym. As they walked along the wing, Sylvia appeared.

"Blood, where've you been? You should be stuffing envelopes."

"Denny's going to my office with me," Karen smartly replied. "And she won't be stuffing any envelopes for the rest of the day. Is that clear?"

"Why, what's wrong with her?" Asked Sylvia scornfully.

"Sylvia, is it totally beyond your capability to occasionally show a small amount of sensitivity?"

"The likes of Denny Blood wouldn't know sensitivity if it banged them up and through away the key," Sylvia observed.

"Well, it's lucky for Denny that I don't agree with you," Said Karen, letting herself and Denny through the gate at the end of the wing and walking towards her office.

Once Denny had been seated in a chair and handed a box of tissues, Karen lit them both a cigarette. She had known this time might come, when Denny would need to release all her pain, break a hole in the badly constructed and maintained dam of her feelings, and she'd been ready for it. Denny needed to do this, as in her own way Yvonne was doing. But unlike Denny, Yvonne had been allowed to begin her grieving process immediately, instead of having to wait until the cause of her grief was dead and gone. Karen took a chair near Denny and simply waited. This wounded child needed no prompting, for her story would spill out of her soon enough. Karen did not have to wait long.

"Shaz was the only one who ever believed in me right from the start," She began shakily. "I didn't have to prove myself to her, I wasn't useful to her, she just liked me. No-one had ever done that, not even my own mother. She was the craziest girl I ever knew, but she was mine. She'd only been in here two days when we snuck out and she made Bodybag think the wing had a ghost." Remembering the episode of the supposed poltergeists or gremlins, Karen briefly smiled. "Shaz was a total nutter, but none of that mattered. Even when I got out for that six months with Shell, Shaz still forgave me. But then she had that run in with Maxi and nearly got fitted up for killing Yvonne, and that's where everything went wrong. She had a score to settle with Maxi after that, and nothing was going to stop her. Maxi wanted that fight as much as Shaz did, but no-one thought Maxi would top herself. I mean, she was a Purvis and they didn't do things like that. When Shaz got ghosted, she couldn't even write to me because Bodybag kept binning her letters. I only knew because Babs rescued a few of them for me. Then my mum died, without even once coming off the drink or trying to see me again. When I found out Shaz was coming in on the open day, it was like I couldn't see any further than that. It was the only thing I cared about. She brought in some magic mushrooms with her and we got stoned. We was on this boat, and we could see the stars. I ain't ever been anywhere so beautiful. We could feel the waves, gently rocking the boat, and Shaz kept saying I had to save her from the sharks." At this beautiful illustration of a drug-induced fantasy, Karen again found herself thinking of Grisham and The Pelican Brief, of the law student Darbi Shaw, who had escaped from everything she feared to the small harbour of Charlotte Amilie on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. This was in effect what Shaz and Denny had done, escaped by way of a few magic mushrooms to their own sweet, safe haven. But Denny's story worked in reverse to that of the legendary Darbi Shaw. Denny's began with pain, with the soft, seductive twilight in the middle, followed by even more pain. Darbi Shaw had almost been killed alongside her lover, but had been spared by the mere fact that she refused to get in the car with a man intent on driving under the influence. Denny ought to have been killed alongside Shaz in the grand scheme of things, and had only been spared because she had a higher tolerance to illegal drugs than Shaz did. The slightly mutated similarities and differences of these two stories struck Karen as odd, as if some writer way up there had jumbled up the facts. It was almost as if the interfering hand of some unknown deity had handed out to both Darbi Shaw and Denny Blood the haven to which they could escape at a time of crisis, and the guilt of being spared only by a chance of fate when their lover's by coincidence were killed amidst enormous explosions. There, they parted company, the fiction and the fact. Darbi Shaw spent two weeks running the length and breadth of America, hiding from the FBI, the CIA and a serial terrorist named Carmelle. Denny Blood on the other hand was tormented for more than a year by having to live within close proximity to the one who had caused Shaz's death. Strange though that one story had been about a law student and the other a criminal.

"What did you want to happen to Snowball, Denny?" Karen asked softly.

"I wanted her to suffer, like my Shaz suffered."

"Do you not think that maybe she did? It's not every day that people commit suicide."

"You ain't been in the job long enough if you think that, Miss. Snowball cut her wrists because she was shit scared of spending another twenty odd years in this dump. She still hadn't got it in to her thick head that she killed Shaz, and almost killed a load of others. She thought that because she didn't mean it, it wasn't her fault. I just hope she's suffering wherever she is now, but I doubt it. Things like that never happen to them that deserve it most, Crystal told me that. She came out with a load of bollocks most of the time, but there'd be the odd thing that made sense."

"Where do you see yourself going from here?" Asked Karen, knowing it was a stupid question, but needing to ask it.

"The only one as ever really loved me ain't here no more, so I don't know."

"I know someone who needs you now a lot more than you seem to think she does, Yvonne." Denny briefly cast a wistful gaze at the packet of cigarettes and Karen handed her one.

"She's got Lauren, innit," Said Denny succinctly, taking a long drag.

"Yes, she has," conceded Karen, "But that doesn't mean she doesn't need you too. She lost her son in probably the worst way possible two weeks ago, and she needs all the love and support she can get."

"From what I could see," Said Denny conversationally, "She's getting plenty of that from you." Karen briefly blushed, not altogether happy with discussing her private life with an inmate.

"I'm not talking that kind of support," Replied Karen, not committing herself to anything that hours later might be turned in to G wing gossip.

"Are you really sure she wants me around after I get out?" Asked Denny.

"Yes," Replied Karen without hesitation. "The way she sees it, the sooner you get out the better. I'd like to do a deal with you. Now that Snowball's gone, you can begin to think about getting on with your life, really thinking about getting out. Will you try to knuckle down, try to behave for the rest of your sentence, maybe get a better job or do some education classes which would certainly give the parole board something to think about. You wouldn't just be doing this for you, you'd be doing it for Yvonne."

"Miss, you said deal. What's your side of it?" Karen lit another cigarette for herself, not looking forward to what was coming, though it was made much easier by the fact that any long-term prisoner has ears on elastic.

"Some time last year, I was raped."

"I know," Said Denny, leaving Karen utterly gobsmacked. "It was Fenner, wasn't it?" Asked Denny after a short silence. Recovering her momentary loss of equilibrium, Karen asked,

"How did you know?"

"You hear things in this place, sometimes things you shouldn't. I heard it said that the dick of a barrister who was working for Merriman at the start of the trial tried to ask you about an allegation you'd made against Fenner."

"Where did you hear this?"

"Bodybag's got a big mouth, Miss." Privately vowing to bang Sylvia up in her very own cell, Karen said,

"What made you so certain it was true."

"Jesus, you've got a lot to learn," Replied Denny scornfully. "If someone accuses Fenner of rape, it's true. There's never any doubt. You weren't here in the old days when he had the pick of the place, even before Miss Stewart came. Shell Dockley and Rachel Hicks was only two of them." Karen stared at Denny slightly agog, never having heard such words of bitterness and wisdom come out of the mouth of anyone like Denny.

"Well," Went on Karen, continuing her explanation. "The barrister who prosecuted Snowball, offered to help me put a case together against Fenner and what with everything that's happened over the last four weeks, I've avoided thinking about it. If you agree to keep your nose clean and to get out as soon as you possibly can for Yvonne, I'll contact this barrister and start a serious case against Fenner. Do we have a deal?"

"It's gonna be as hard for you to do that as it is for me to be good, innit Miss?"


"Then yeah, you've got a deal." Karen and Denny formally shook hands over their pact, because this was as serious a bargain as either of them had ever entered in too.

When Karen had escorted Denny back to the wing, she returned to her office and picked up the card that had been leering at her for three weeks now. It simply said Jo Mills QC, and gave her office address, e-mail address and telephone and mobile numbers. Lifting the receiver, Karen punched in the number that would eventually lead her in to the unknown territory of being considered a suspect or at the very least an accessory to murder. When she was finally put through to Jo Mills, she said,

"Jo, it's Karen Betts." After a moment's hesitation, Jo answered,

"I wondered if I might hear from you. How are you?"

"I appear to have committed myself to a deal with an inmate that leads me to require your services," Replied Karen.

"Not as defence, I hope." Karen laughed nervously.

"No. Would your offer of three weeks ago still be open?"

"If you mean am I still willing to help you put together a case against James Fenner, then the answer's yes."

"Then, I'd like to take you up on it."

"Other than your deal with a prisoner, is there any particular reason why you've arrived at this decision? Because I think we both know it'll be a bumpy ride."

"Bumpy ride or not, let's just say that it's about time that the odd coffin was treated to a few nails."

Part Seventy

On the nice sunny Friday morning, Fenner reflected on his relative good fortune as he sat lazily with his feet up in the PO Room. It looked out on the first floor of G wing and, for this reason, gave him a chance to keep an eye on the prisoners. A new young female prisoner was pouring him a nice cup of tea. He liked being waited on as it gave him a sense of power. He could tell at a glance when the new prisoner first came that she was as green as they come, likely to be done over by the likes of McKenzy or Yates and in need of his special brand of care and protection, as long as she accepted just who was boss. This was one of his basic rules of the prison service which he stuck to rigidly..

"Is that how you like your tea, sir?" She said shyly and respectfully, glad to have a solid older reliable man treating her nicely. She wasn't used to that from men in her experience.

"You make it just the way I like it," Fenner said soothingly."I've seen you on the wing with some of the others giving you a hard time. I'll keep a special eye on you and make sure you don't come to any harm. Trust me," he looked at the faintly blushing girl in the eye almost trying to hypnotise her with his voice and stare.

"That's my girl," he added, placing his forefinger under her chin.

In every way, she was a vast improvement on that middle aged middle class snob Babs always looking at him in such a disapproving fashion. That time she shared a cell with Wade turned her into one of his worst enemies like the rest of those scheming bitches who made his life hell. Agreed, she wasn't violent and aggressive like some of them but she knew far too much about him and that is the worst crime of anything in his book. Never mind, he reflected to himself, most of them have all gone now ,everything is only a matter of time. The last serious trouble maker he's seen the back of was that tart Merriman who led him a right dance and conned him blind. She's six feet under, pushing up the daisies and can't do him any harm now as dead bodies can't talk. Now the trial's out of the way, he can take life a bit easier. He had to admit that it did give him a bit of a shock the Monday after the trial finished to read about it in the papers that both she and that mouthy boyfriend of her had topped themselves ,just like that. It was just as well that only Sylv and Di were around that night so that they will carry the can for it, not him.. Give everything time and the good times that he had before Stewart came will all come back for him to enjoy. A man needs a few perks in this dump doing a job for which you got no thanks.

A nice cup of tea, a copy of the Sun, Page 3 of course, the pick of the new prisoners and all he needs as well is a boss who will look the other way like the old days and he is made for life. Of course, the one fly in the ointment is Betts but she's got it in for Di at the moment and making her life hell so all he needs to do is to keep a low profile for the moment. His face darkened when he thought of Betts as that murdering Atkins came back into his thoughts. I'm sure that those two are shagging from the way that they are behaving, he thought to himself bitterly, but there's nothing definite. There is something in Larkhall that does that to aggressive female bosses once the power goes to their heads.

'It's as easy as clicking my fingers, Fenner. I could have you wiped off the face of the Earth in a matter of seconds. Don't you forget that.' Those words uttered by Atkins abruptly jumped back into his mind and he remembered the feel of her fingers round his throat. It made him break out in a cold sweat. If he was honest with himself, he hated Atkins more than anything else because she was more dangerous than anyone else. She knew more than the rest of those bitches and also had the gangland connections to bump anyone off once she made up her mind.

But London's a big place, he reasoned to himself. Apart from her connections with Betts, there is absolutely nothing to link his life with hers. People come and go, on the outside of Larkhall. You go up into the big city and ask directions off a passer by and you'll find that you've picked on a tourist, American or French, who knows less than you do. He's got his comfortable house near to Larkhall where he comes and goes each day and Atkins is probably swanning around somewhere in the sticks. She's off his personal map and she'll fade into the background and be no more than a bad memory.

He likes the look of that new prison Officer, Selena, Now she is someone who sets his pulse racing. She looks like she's an Ice Maiden on the surface but give him time, he'll

smooch her up a bit and he'll get his leg over eventually.

He strolled out onto the wing and caught sight of Betts chatting to the 2 Julies who were mopping the servery floor before she swanned off elsewhere. The more Betts is stuck away in her office looking over budgets, the happier he is.

"The mopping's a bit smeary, Julies. Can't you give it another once over?" he said quietly, on principle's sake.

"Yes, Mr Fenner," they chorussed with a fixed smile and made a token gesture at slopping some more water on the floor till they were sure he was out of sight.

"Men," Julie Saunders said scornfully. "I'd like to see a mop in his hand and stand over him till he got it right."

"You'd have to hang around a bloody long time, Ju," Came the equally derisive reply.

In the PO room, Di was complaining ten to the dozen . Even Bodybag found that Di had to make a big drama out of everything and was never known for short concise statements.

"I reckon that Karen Betts has got it in for me, Sylv," She complained. "She talked down to me as if I were a naughty schoolgirl about Ritchie's suicide. I mean it was terrible what happened but there was no reason for her to behave that way with me."

"Hmmph," Bodybag retorted. "Now you understand what I've been getting at all these months. It's because she hasn't got a man about the house. Mark my words. Women get funny like that at her age when they're in that situation. Don't worry as Madam was only looking for a scapegoat. Welcome to the club, Di."

It's only a matter of working out routines, she thought to herself with satisfaction. She was sitting in the parked car, the fourth in the row, watching Fenner as he came off his shift. As his car slid away down the road and he took himself in the direction of the same pub as on every night, she followed behind at a discreet distance. People pretend that they are creatures of impulse but it is not like that. Everyone has their comforting routine of the same supermarket, the same pub, the same group of friends, the same time of coming to work and leaving work, and she would bet even the same TV programmes though she hadn't got the surveillance equipment to check that out for herself. It all adds up to the same feeling of normality that everyone craves and they do it without thinking, without even being aware of it. Even the apparently spontaneous desire for a night out on the town rigidly observes these unconscious patterns of activity. It makes stalking Fenner so much easier. Then again, despite all the TV crime dramas and films over the years, what normal person suspects that they may be caught up in a real life situation. All the excitement and drama is on the other side of the TV screen. Anyone watching 'Crimewatch' thinks for a while that they, too, had the chance of watching some real life drama that they were an unwitting bystander of. But week after week goes by and it always happens to someone else, never them. So people resign themselves to a long stretch of boring normality in dull acceptance.

This applies to even such a man as Fenner whom she knew had taken a lot of chances in his life and the bastard had wriggled out of being nailed by the skin of his teeth. He thinks that life will settle down, and actively craves it. That is why he will not have the inkling of a suspicion that it is no accident that the car three cars behind him every night is hers and that she intends to follow his movements. Who, after all, looks out for danger, especially when he thinks that he is safe. His daytime is spent in looking out for possible danger in his job, he watches the signs of groups of prisoners conspiring together ,that is part of his jailcraft. Outside the grim walls of Larkhall, his defences are dropped with a sigh of relief and he is just like some other normal person going his own way. That is what will make things easy for her.

A TV programme like Cracker talks about profiling the criminal, what makes him tick. But the reverse applies to the stalker following someone like Fenner, especially when she has a bit of a head start. Everything about the life he leads will tell her just what sort of a person he is. In the end, the timing will be right. Even a conniving slimeball like Fenner won't even suspect that the anonymous looking person is watching his every move. If you don't do anything bloody obvious or stupid, her very existence won't be suspected. At the bottom of her very soul, she knows it. It is all a matter of persistence, cool planning and, above all else, time.

Just why she is letting herself in for all this extra hard work, she does not even have to question as this is something she has promised herself that she will do without fail. She has committed herself physically and mentally and all her strength is focussed on this one goal.

"Night Sylv," Fenner called out as he walked out into the bright sunlight after seven hours of artificial strip lights ready for the weekend.. He was ready for a swift half at the pub on the way home to put his feet up. It had been a long day with the boring day to day routines with nothing much happening. He had sorted out the Julies when they came to him about a leaky washing machine and had commiserated with Di when she was moaning on about that power crazed Betts. Secretly, he was cruelly amused that she was getting it in the neck and not him and the longer she took the heat the better, as she was being driven into the same camp as Sylvia and himself. Betts was doing a very good job of undermining her own position and that must be good news.

He drove confidently through the maze of streets and found his local, a backstreet pub and well away from Grayling's local. Sitting around hearing him drivelling away about his wet dreams wasn't his idea of a night out, not even to further his career. Playing a round of golf with Stubberfield on a Sunday morning with a few jars downed at the eighteenth hole and catching up on gossip was far more to his taste. He drew up a chair with some of his mates who were in the pub at that hour and immediately, he was engaged in an intense discussion about the football premiership and earnestly dissecting the standard of play on last night's game. This was the life, he felt, as he sank comfortably in his chair, a pint of beer in front of him and talking with the lads about anything except prisons. There was an unspoken agreement on this and lads night out meant talking about anything that came into their minds, especially if it wasn't about feelings and 'give me a cuddle' shit that he was used to with women.

If this is Fenner's idea of a night out, she thought, give me my idea of having a good time out anytime. How in hell they can stand yabbering mindlessly away about sod all. Still, this is building up her surveillance picture so that everything the bastard does is charted in her mind. Closeted away in a quiet alcove, she nursed her drink and kept her eyes and ears open.

Outside Fenner's house, everything was relatively quiet on a Saturday morning apart from the first of the dedicated shoppers whose compulsion to drive to the shopping malls and to spend the hard earned money that they hadn't got. The rest of the population opened their bleary eyes, serene in knowing that there was no alarm clock to wake up to and the various attractions of Saturday sport, children's television or simple lazing in bed and letting the world go by. Not so was the car that pulled into the row of cars a little distance from Fenner's house and round the corner. It offered a superb view of the frontage of Fenner's terraced house, the front door and a set of four drawn curtains..She was in for a long tedious wait while she mapped in the typical day in Fenner's life. She got out her set of Walkman's and plugged herself in to her favourite music which made her believe that she was listening to the same music which she could have heard in her bedroom on a lazy Saturday morning. Only her alert eyes made her experiences any different and the security that she felt that should switch in a snap second to pulling the Walkman away from her ears, turning the key in the ignition and following Fenner's car down the road. She knew that she was a bit conspicuous with the rows of windows like huge square eyes all focussing down on her but she was gambling on the good old British habit of 'keeping themselves to themselves' and she figured out that a secretive man like him was hardly likely to be a pillar of the local community that a neighbour would tip him off about anyone spying on him.

Suddenly, there was a rustle of front curtains partly drawn as the house came to life and was the cue for her to be ready for anything. A little while later, Fenner emerged from the front door and rushed to his car and sped off down the road. Down the narrow streets, she tailed his car whose registration number was emblazoned obsessively on her mind as somehow symbolising him though exactly how, she couldn't say. She had to cut past some of the slower weekend drivers who doddered their way along as Fenner drove like a bat out of hell. Just why he was in a frantic hurry worried her and it was with a sigh of relief that she saw him pull up with a screech of brakes at the local supermarket. She didn't have to wait outside very long till he rushed out with a trolley stacked with a couple of multipack cans of beer and assorted junk food.

She was feeling tired as she had worked hard in gradually mapping out Fenner's life beyond the prison walls. The picture was coming together and once the time was right, she would know what to do.

Fenner's alarm clock had woken him up with a shrill constant sound as he slept his way through the morning after a night out with the lads. The all important football match was on and he was clean out of booze. He had to go like hell and have a quick swoop round the supermarket and get settled down ready. One phone call for a takeaway pizza and he was set up for a nice normal take it easy Saturday and he was master of his destiny.

Part 71

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