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 Seventy One

Karen's appointment with Jo was for eleven o'clock on the Monday morning following her phone call. Once the officers meeting was out of the way, Karen went back to her office and tried to do some work. But the figures kept swimming out of focus on the screen in front of her. She lit one cigarette after another, and only just resisted drinking endless cups of coffee. She was nervous enough without the caffeine making her jittery as well. Both Sylvia and Di seemed to appear at her door with a never-ending stream of inconsequential problems that morning and Karen couldn't help snapping at both of them. At almost ten, she gave in and phoned Yvonne.

"Are you okay?" Asked Yvonne on realising it was Karen.

"No. I'm snapping at everyone, smoking too much and not doing anything useful, and that's before I even go there. I promised myself I wouldn't do this, but please would you come with me?"

"Of course I will," Replied Yvonne.

"The thing is, Jo's going to want every little insignificant detail, and I'm not sure how ready I am for you to hear most of that. When I told you about this, you got only what I thought you needed to know."

"Listen," Said Yvonne gently, attempting to calm Karen down. "I know there's things about all this that I don't know, and only you can decide if and when you want to fill me in. But if all you want today is for me to come with you and wait outside, then that's fine. Okay?"

"Yeah, okay. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"You'd probably have a very quiet but a very boring life," Said Yvonne matter-of-factly, which made Karen laugh.

After talking to Yvonne, Karen knew there was one thing she had to do before leaving to see Jo. Walking down to the wing, she knocked on the partially open door of Denny's cell and was relieved to see that she was alone. Denny appeared pleased to see her.

"I thought you might like to know," Said Karen, coming in and pushing the door too, "That I'm off to see my barrister."

"Yeah? That's great. You're gonna nail him, Miss."

"Don't get your hopes up too high," Warned Karen, "It's not always as simple as it sounds. What are you doing?" She asked, looking at what Denny was reading.

"I borrowed this off Tina," Replied Denny, holding up the education department's prospectus of the courses they had on offer at Larkhall. "only, I don't really understand most of it."

"Would you like me to go through it with you some time this week?"

"Would you, Miss?"

"Of course."

"Cheers, and good luck for today. They've got to listen to you, innit."

"Let's hope so," Said Karen as she left Denny's cell. Quickly putting her head round the door of the officers' room, Karen saw Jim and Sylvia taking a break.

"I've got an appointment so I won't be around for a while."

"Anywhere nice?" Asked Fenner, for once sounding genuinely interested.

"The dentist," Replied Karen off the top of her head. As she was closing the door, she heard Sylvia say,

"Let's hope she gets her jaw wired up. That'd give us all a bit of peace." Leaning back in to the room, Karen replied,

"You never know your luck, Sylvia," Which was followed by a hearty laugh from Fenner and the hint of a blush from Sylvia at being caught in slagging off her boss.

Walking out of the gate lodge a short time later, Karen was relieved to see Yvonne waiting for her, not in the red Ferrari, but in a beautiful silver-gray jag that Karen had seen in Yvonne's drive. At Karen's questioning look, Yvonne said,

"It used to be Charlie's. It hasn't been driven for a while so I thought it would do it good."

"Don't let Fenner see you round here driving this," Said Karen, with a sly grin, "It'd make him as jealous as hell and even more difficult to work with."

"Well, let's hope by doing this that you can finally put him out of action for good," Said Yvonne softly.

"Do you really think I'm doing the right thing?" Asked Karen, needing the reassurance that she usually doled out to others.

"Yes," Said Yvonne emphatically. "If for nothing else than that you won't be able to move on from this until you've done all you possibly can to see that he doesn't do it again."

As they walked in to the reception of the law firm Jo worked for, Karen felt a rising panic in her, a feeling, a warning that she really shouldn't do this. But telling herself this was stupid, she walked purposefully to the desk and informed the receptionist who she was there to see. Having been told to take a seat, they moved to a row of very comfortable-looking armchairs.

"I feel like I'm about to have major surgery," Observed Karen quietly.

"I guess you are in a way," Replied Yvonne, not entirely sure how best to help Karen through this. Then, they were approached by a very pretty redhead who introduced herself as Jo Mills' secretary and asked Karen to follow her. Giving Karen's hand a brief squeeze, Yvonne said,

"Don't worry, I'll be right here." Following this extremely attractive woman upstairs, Karen was led along a corridor to an open door where Jo was waiting for her.

"Come in," She said, holding the door open. Everything about Karen, her posture, her facial expression, gave off rigidity and fear. "Would you like some coffee?" She asked.

"No thank you. I'm nervous enough about this without caffeine."

"That's only natural." Jo had a couple of low armchairs by the window with a coffee table between them, on which she had placed an ashtray. Jo usually tried to avoid sitting at her desk when she had to have this type of meeting with a client. She found that the barrier of a desk often made her clients feel more vulnerable, as if they didn't entirely have her support in what was usually a stressful time.

"I have managed to obtain a copy of your statement to the police," Began Jo once they'd sat down.

"That was quick," Observed Karen.

"An ex-Deputy Assistant Commissioner owed me a favour," Replied Jo, thinking briefly of how Roe Colmore had used both her and John, and that if necessary, this wouldn't be the first time she called in part of the recompense due to both of them.

"And did it make interesting reading?"

"Yes. Now, I know this isn't something you will be in favour of doing, but I need to hear what happened in your own words. If you're serious about taking this further, I need to know everything."

"I know," Said Karen, digging for her cigarettes.

"I purposefully arranged this for my last appointment of the morning to give you as much time as you need."

"How much background do you need on him?"

"As much as you can tell me. It doesn't matter how irrelevant it might seem." Jo reached over to her desk for a tiny cassette recorder. "You have a choice," She said, putting the recorder down on the table between them. "I can either tape this and write it up afterwards, or I can take notes as you talk. Which would you prefer?" Karen privately thought that neither would be the right answer, but agreed to her interview being taped.

"I met Fenner about four years ago. We were at a conference together, some prison officers thing. He was charm personified. He'd been in the job about twelve years and I'd been a prison officer for about eight. I'd mostly worked with men, he with women. He seemed intelligent, experienced at the job, just normal. Anyway, most of us got fairly plastered on the last night of the conference, and me and Jim ended up sleeping together. I was bored with my relationship of five years, and he was bored with his marriage. It was a one night stand, no more no less. I didn't see or hear from him again until I got the job at Larkhall. He was acting wing governor whilst Helen Stewart was on holiday. He seemed pleased to see me. Surprised, but pleased. He tried to take me out for a drink, but not wanting anything to interfere with a working relationship, I said no. Then, Shell Dockley alleged that he'd beaten her up. I saw her straight after it'd happened, so I know he did. He was suspended, but as a result of Simon Stubberfield, the then number one not wanting to thoroughly investigate the matter, Helen Stewart resigned. Somehow, Fenner got at Dockley. I don't know how, but I suspect one of the other officers, Sylvia Hollamby brought in a letter from him, after which, Dockley dropped the charges."

"What explanation did she give?"

"She said she'd made it up because he wouldn't sleep with her. I've never been able to get the entire truth out of her about what happened that day. So, when Helen Stewart resigned, I was made wing governor. Not long after his return, I was certainly glad of his help when an HIV positive inmate came after me with a syringe of her blood." Jo tried not to shudder at this. "Snowball Merriman wasn't the first time I'd been held hostage. A lovely girl by the name of Tessa Spall. Working for the CPS, you may have heard of her." Remembering a particularly nasty case some years back, Jo nodded. "Not long after this, Helen Stewart came back as a prison service professional, overseeing a project for women lifers. All was fairly quiet for quite a long time, at least up until a couple of days before he was stabbed." At Jo's raised eyebrow, Karen explained. "One of the officers had a party in the officers' club, and four of the inmates from G wing were there as waitresses. Shell Dockley was one of them. Two days before this party, I'd ended up sleeping with Jim again. He'd just split up from his wife, and I think I felt sorry for him. The more he drank at this party, the more indiscreet he became. During this party, Shell Dockley told me that her initial allegation of Fenner having assaulted her was true. I can only assume that she either realised or had it pointed out to her that there was more than a professional relationship between Jim and me. I'm not sure why, but I believed her. After the party, she smuggled a broken bottle back to her cell, and when he went to lock her up, she somehow persuaded him in to her cell and stabbed him. I don't know exactly what happened but I wish I did. Seeing him lying there, it really shocked me. She held him hostage and wouldn't let us get to him for a good couple of hours. He almost died. Both me and Helen seemed to be on a power trip that night. She pulled rank because Dockley was a lifer and therefore under her jurisdiction, and I sent the heavies in instead of waiting for Helen's more persuasive tactics because it was my wing and my lover. After that night, Helen conducted an internal investigation in to what had happened, but we couldn't get the truth out of Dockley so we had to conclude that he was totally innocent, and that he wasn't in her cell for any remotely nefarious reason. but she did find out that I was sleeping with him, which is why I tried to put him off, relationships at work and all that. But when it comes to women, he's one of the most persistent men I've ever known. It was too easy to slide back in to a relationship with him, too easy to be seduced by his charm." Finding herself disturbingly thinking of John in the same breath as Fenner, Jo hoped Karen would move off her coincidental comparison of the two men. "Not long after he came back, he assaulted Helen Stewart." Karen handed Jo a copy of Helen's report and watched as she read it. When Jo reached the end, Karen continued. "I didn't know about this at the time, but apart from the date on the report, I'm fairly sure I know when it happened. It was the week before three of the inmates escaped. Helen asked me how things were going with Jim. There was something different about her, something I couldn't put my finger on. Jesus, I was completely under his spell. If he hadn't reeled me in so thoroughly, I would have seen it. Every time she was in the same room as him after that, she seemed to exude a mixture of fear and anger, and I never once questioned it." There was such a corrosive air of sheer self-loathing in Karen's voice that inwardly, Jo winced. "I didn't find out about the assault until she resigned and left a copy of that report on my desk. I don't know why she left, but I'm certain Fenner had something to do with it. He was so happy on the day she left, that he asked me to marry him, and me being the deluded idiot I was, I said yes. But not long after Helen left, me and Jim split up." At Jo's raised eyebrow, Karen said, "You may well ask. I had a lovely little envelope left in my in-tray. It contained a pair of knickers belonging to one of the inmates and a porn mag from his locker. I don't know who put it there, but I think Yvonne instigated it. Someone clearly wanted to tell me just what I was getting in to. Then, Neil Grayling arrived, and demoted me and put Fenner in my place as wing governor. When I began getting closer to Mark Waddle, one of the other officers, Fenner used his position as my boss to try and lecture both of us about relationships at work." At the introduction of Mark's name in to the conversation, Karen's rapid flow of words began to dry up. Sensing they were almost at the heart of the story, Jo simply waited. Karen had to be allowed to tell this in her own way and in her own time. Karen lit another cigarette and Jo became aware that Karen was no longer looking at her.

"It was a week or so after I'd had to deliver a baby for one of the inmates. He'd had a really bad day, had taken more flack from inmates than any of us usually did. I thought he was about to quit the job. When he stormed off the wing, he looked broken. When he was splitting up from his wife, he had a bit of a drink problem, and maybe I thought he was about to go through all that again. He didn't have anyone else to try and pick up the pieces. I went to see him. He was as low as I'd ever seen him." Karen's eyes became fixed on the opposite wall, as if she needed to look at something blank, something that couldn't possibly judge her. "He kept pouring me drinks," She went on, and her voice had taken on the strangled quality that is usually the precursor to tears. "I gave him a hug because he looked so lost. He said I was the best thing that'd ever happened to him and that he cursed himself for losing me. I think I told him I knew he wasn't a quitter, which let's face it, is true. He never has been a quitter, but then maybe that's the problem." Karen was drifting off the subject, but she couldn't help it. Taking a long drag of her cigarette, she willed herself to keep on going. "He started kissing me." Jo got the feeling that every word was being ripped from Karen with as much force and lack of consent as the original act had been. "We were lying on his bed. He began undoing my blouse, and I let him." Karen's eyes were slightly dilated now, as if she could picture the scene taking shape before her. "When he started undoing my skirt, I think I said that I wished I could get him out of my bloody system. He said, why fight it, you know you want me, you can't fake this." Jo could pinpoint the very moment when the tears had risen to Karen's eyes, it was at the utterance of the words, you know you want me. "I said, I don't want this, and he kept insisting that I did. He just wouldn't listen!" Abandoning any hope of keeping up her usual professional facade, Karen allowed the floodgates to open. "I begged him to stop. I told him to let go of me. I kept saying no, but he just held me down and forced me. I couldn't stop him. I just lay there till he fell asleep. Why is it men always do that? All I could think of was what Helen had said to me the last time I saw her. She came to my office to let me know she'd resigned, which is when she left the report on my desk. She said that he'd been playing me since day one and that he was a misogynist bastard. When I questioned this, she said that I was too close and that I couldn't see it. I kept hearing those words as I was getting dressed. She saw straight through him from day one, and I think part of me thought that what he'd done to me was my fault for not listening to her and for not taking her report of sexual assault as far as perhaps I should have done. He woke up just as I was leaving. He tried to stop me getting in to my car and I vaguely remember pushing him in to the hedge and driving off like the devil was after me." Karen seemed to have run out of steam. Jo reached for the box of tissues on her desk and switched off the tape recorder. "I'm sorry," Said Karen, pulling some tissues from the box and wiping her eyes.

"Don't be," Replied Jo softly.

"I usually have more control than this." Jo privately thought that this must be her week for strong women cracking up in her presence. First George, now Karen. She just wondered who would be next. When Karen had calmed down slightly, Jo switched on the tape recorder.

"What made you go to the police?"

"It was Mark. I had to tell him. I was after all supposed to be in a relationship with him. He didn't believe me at first. I've never had anyone look at me the way he did that morning. He said that I expected him to believe me when I didn't believe it myself."

"And did you?"

"I had to," Said Karen, the desperate need to have Jo believe her evident in every word. "Mark wouldn't let it go until I had talked to the police. He implied that I hadn't done so earlier because I wasn't sure whether or not it was rape. After I'd given the police my statement, I had to inform Grayling because of the possible conflict of interest, and you know all about that fiasco."

"Neil Grayling persuaded you to drop the charge because of a fictitious contact at the CPS who supposedly told him they weren't going to take up the case."

"That about sums it up. What I didn't tell either you or the Judge, is that initially, Fenner tried to warn me off taking it further. When I was living with him, he took some pictures of me, pictures that wouldn't have looked out of place in the magazine I was sent from his locker. Using Grayling as his mouthpiece, I was warned that if I did take it further, these pictures would be sent to the press. It was when that threat didn't work that Grayling placed his card of the supposed contact from the CPS."

"Did you try to take this further through area management instead?"

"I was informed that area management wouldn't touch it if the CPS had refused too. Grayling said that they couldn't pre-empt the law."

"And it wasn't long after this that Ritchie Atkins arrived on the scene to further complicate things." Karen laughed mirthlessly.

"A bit of a shambles, isn't it."

"I've seen worse," Replied Jo, switching off the tape recorder and putting it back on her desk, feeling that she'd obtained all the useful information she was going to get out of Karen today.

"How do you feel?" Asked Jo after a moment's silence.

"I don't know," Replied Karen in a hollow voice.

"There are a number of gaps that do need filling in," Went on Jo, "But not today. I need to get my head round all this, and you need to recover slightly before I start playing devil's advocate. Do you object if I use another barrister as a sounding board?"

"No, not at all."

Downstairs in the lobby, Yvonne was reading the paper. Having briefly checked on the stock market to make sure her ever so legal investments were safe for the time being, she turned to the racing pages. Having once owned her own betting shop, she liked to show an interest now and then. But her thoughts kept straying to Karen. Yvonne found that she didn't have the first idea about how to help Karen through this. She knew that it was the right thing to do, Fenner should have been behind his own set of bars years ago. But was pursuing a case that was based on the flimsiest of evidence really worth it. But it was Karen's decision, and she had chosen to try. She was jerked from her musings when she heard a distinctly familiar voice talking to the receptionist. Briefly looking over the top of the paper, she saw it was the Judge himself, the very man who had sent her son to the last place he had ever seen. But she wasn't about to put any blame on this man. He had simply been doing his job in punishing the two guilty people before him.

"I'm sorry, sir, but Mrs. Mills is with a client just now," Said the receptionist who was used to this regular visitor flirting with her. John glanced at his watch.

"I'll wait," He said, and moved over towards where Yvonne was sitting. Taking a seat near her, he looked at what she was reading, the list of horses due to run at Stratford that afternoon.

"I haven't had a bet on a horse for a long time," He said, as a way to open the conversation.

"From what I've heard," Said Yvonne with a smirk, "You just bet on other people's sex lives." Wondering how on earth Yvonne and therefore Karen had known of the bet he'd had with Jo, John had the grace to look a shade uncomfortable. Thinking he had the look of a naughty schoolboy caught with his hand up the gym teacher's skirt, Yvonne laughed, which immediately put him at his ease.

"Female Intuition," She said, pointing to a horse listed for the third race. ""Wins every time."

"I've no doubt," He replied, "But what odds would you give her?"

"Five to one, if some bastard doesn't get in her way."

"A healthy dose of luck wouldn't go amiss either," He observed, liking her ability to have two conversations rolled in to one.

"Are you here to see Jo?"

"Yes. I was at a loose end so I thought I'd bring her lunch," He said, gesturing to the delicatessen bag on the seat beside him.

"Karen isn't the only one who'll need a hefty shot of luck to get through this one," Observed Yvonne, "The prison service is very good at covering its tracks."

"I'm sure they'll both get all the help they need," Replied John, seeing in Yvonne a strength, a force of will that would back Karen up every step of the way.

About ten minutes later they saw Jo and Karen making their way down the stairs.

"What are you planning to do for the rest of the day?" Asked Jo quietly.

"I wasn't making much headway on my budgets this morning, so I hope I'll have more success this afternoon."

"Possibly the only piece of advice I can give you right now," Replied Jo, "Is that being anywhere near Fenner after telling me all that, probably isn't a good idea. I'd take the rest of the day off and give yourself a chance to come to terms with reopening old wounds."

"We'll see," Replied Karen as she caught sight of John and Yvonne. Jo smiled when she saw him.

"Is that for me?" She said, looking at the bag that clearly held lunch.

"Sometimes I wonder if she's more pleased to see me or lunch," Said John, looking between the other two women, attempting to lighten the palpable tension he could feel coming off Karen. Karen simply offered a shaky smile, knowing that if she tried to speak amidst the different variations of support and comfort she could feel coming from these three people, she knew she would cry. Jo hadn't been surprised to see Yvonne, knowing that some people preferred to bring someone with them, and some didn't. Turning to Karen, Jo said,

"Please do what I suggested. I think you need it. I'll call you in a couple of days." As Karen and Yvonne walked out to her car, Jo simply watched them, wondering if justice would ever be served.

Part Seventy Two

Jo turned on her heel , grim faced, and strode her way back to her office, closely followed by John. John sat himself nonchalantly in a chair while Jo turned her back to him and firmly shut her door. It was as if she wanted to bar the door to any intruders. She was struggling for the mindset that dispassionately sifted out, in her mind, the undeniable facts of the matter in hand from the hearsay and the circumstantial. It was the ingrained training in her and her habit of weighing up the reliability of the testimony. She stared at the cheap cassette recorder that held in its compact rectangular brown reel to reel shape, the personification of the sustained damage done to a woman. This was no abstract cause to be fought for in the name of justice but an intelligent woman with a force of character, ensnared by an evil man and dragged down by a spider's web of conspiracy. For all this, she was a strong woman, as strong as herself?

'Why is it that men always do that………. Why is it that men always do that……. Why is it that men always do that…' echoed round in Jo's mind.

"I told Karen when I saw her privately in chambers that the injustice that she suffered at the hands of Mr Fenner should not go unpunished and that I would do all I can to see that at the very least, this type of cover up never happens again," John spoke in his dispassionate, reasonable tone of voice."

"Injustice!" exploded Jo incredulously, "You call it an injustice?"

"Certainly I do, Jo," John replied, closing his eyes in the attitude of the fictional hero of his youth, Sherlock Holmes. "I was very much moved by the way she spoke to me at the time and I meant every word that I said."

It was the emotionless way that John spoke that caused Jo to explode. He was so damned calm about everything and though, at heart, she believed that he did care, it was the combination of thoughts that blew the top off the emotional pressure cooker.

"Well I'm really glad you felt that way. That makes me feel reassured that the desiccated calculating machine that you are, that weighs the scales of justice, might make you feel just a little bit upset this time," Jo raged sarcastically at him, her voice slightly shaking when the volcanic upsurge of her emotions broke through.

"I am angry, bloody furious and I don't care who hears. You have a typical male reaction to having to face something totally horrible where you must fight down what passes for feelings in your body, to not get emotional about it, to bottle it all up, to make everything so neat and tidy in your mind and then it is safe for you to speak. Why, oh why, can't you storm and rage and stop being so emotionally constipated. I have heard a woman, much like myself, having to pour her heart out about being taken advantage of by a cheap conniving man who she described as 'charm personified."

At that point, Jo paused to draw breath while she strove to put the spoken word to her whirling thoughts. As she did so, her blue eyes stared accusingly at John. She could not say it but the last two words could apply to him, now she realised it. It was a sickening thought because she could not square it with the very real acts of kindness and justice that he dispensed, the way he selflessly helped out her own father with no thought for personal advantage. He was, after all, everything that she aspired to be as a practising barrister and, who knows, a judge. He was the guiding light when ,in moments of doubt, she asked herself what John would have done in a similar situation.

"It could have happened to me, John," Jo finally blurted out.

"Oh come on, Jo," John said as he went to comfort her but she flinched back. "You would never have been so stupid as to go to bed with someone like Fenner."

"Except when………." Jo started to speak but stopped abruptly.

John knew. Jo was talking about the time sixteen years ago when at the height of their intense relationship, she had found herself pregnant. With a dying husband whom, in her way, she was fond of, it made sense not to carry on with the pregnancy. It seemed the right thing to do and Jo had let herself be propelled in the direction of the abortion clinic and the child that she had never had but could have had.

"No one is invulnerable or infallible, John, not you not me and not Karen Betts," Jo said calmly and clearly.

It shook John. He had meant well and, of course, saw Karen as a woman to be pitied and helped. He had done the rational thing and realised that, on top of the public exposure of her relationship with Ritchie Atkins, she was preparing to do the same with her one time relationship with James Fenner. He disliked the shifty treacherous man intensely as he disliked anyone without moral principles. Jo was always level headed and had an incisive mind for the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Why was she getting so emotional about the matter? Emotions are a treacherous beast to be enslaved to where nothing can mean everything and vice versa. He set out his store by the dispassionate application of the law rooted in high principles. He never had cause to doubt himself.

Jo saw that something in what she had thrown at him had registered but saw the familiar tell tale signs of him trying to distance himself from something unpleasant. Of course, what made it very hard for her was that John was nearly right in reducing the raw and bleeding feelings to the bare facts of a case to put to a court of law. Being nearly right wasn't enough, her feelings screamed out in rebellion against the way that their calling had so powerfully influenced them both to think. And, in his own way, John did care, certainly enough to act boldly and courageously on occasion where many a moral coward would hang back. But why was it so hard for John to join his divided selves into the one person? She saw the fatal and painful duality of their calling but, with all his wisdom, how much did John know of this? Was it because he was a man or was it simply John's own complex and enigmatic character.It was only now that Jo's own niggling doubts, buried deep in her, had risen to the surface and given itself words to speak to her.

"I'm getting old, Jo . You can't expect me to change my way of life at my age. Old habits die hard," John explained wearily.

What was he expected to do, he thought, slash his wrists and commit ritual hara kiri in sympathy with all the victims of injustice? There was only so much he could give of himself, and in his own way, he gave generously and unstintingly. There was something within him that made his feeling run cold in the presence of the person and kept his distance but there was some peculiar twist within him that once his senses connected with the dry and arid principles of law and how flagrantly a transgression too place, he became another person. There was something inside him, he could not put a name to it, that caught fire in ardent sympathy for the injustice and the human being. Once his deep sense of honour was engaged, he clung on like a limpet, becoming all the more obstinate the harder he was pushed to back down.

"I know only too well, John," Jo's slightly shaking voice spoke a multitude of confused emotions and very mixed feelings born of their on off relationship.

" But what are we arguing about? We're on the same side. But when everything is said and done , you know what you have to do. If you really care, you must be dispassionate about the case. If I remember rightly from my conversation with Karen, her previous attempt to seek justice was thwarted by Mr Grayling. I recall what a sly and slippery character he was giving evidence in court."

John had alternated between pleading and firm reasoning to Jo and finally switched to a tone of cold contempt and utter distaste of Grayling. He could not stand the sight of anyone who was prepared to sell his soul for material advancement and took an obscene pride in doing so. Toadies and bullies were rife in the semi militaristic regime of the public school that he attended. When he was little, he fought back with his fists so that the sheer look of contempt that he stared back at the bullies made them hold back and leave him alone. Any of the weaker, more defenceless friends of his that were liable to be picked on in some back corner of the school were safe from them as well. He was now in a more sophisticated, more dangerous world of words and institutions but,essentially, matters had not changed.

Jo put her hands to her head in utter frustration. Of course John was right. But it didn't make it any easier. The words he spoke made her want to agree with him as his integrity in these matters was beyond dispute. So why was she fighting with him so much?

"Are you seriously suggesting that that loathsome reptile would collude with Sir Ian Rochester in denying Karen the justice that she is entitled to, in fact that justice is crying out for?" Jo replied, in mounting anger as the hideous possibility dawned on her and finishing in words that she unconsciously borrowed from John many years ago.

"They are two of a kind, that precious pair. I consider the danger very real,"

John replied quietly.

"But they must be stopped," Jo exclaimed.

"By God, I won't let the man get away with it a second time," Came the reply as John's mouth set in a tight line and his anger boiled over in a sudden flame of rage.

"Excuse me, Jo. I have urgent business to attend to with Sir Ian."

After John kissed Jo perfunctorily on the cheek, his sheer suppressed violence of movement as he made for the door made Jo feel that familiar fear for John that he would one day push matters too far.

"You'll be careful, John," She urged, the roles having somehow reversed so that she was entreating him not to be foolhardy and reckless.

"As careful as I always am, Jo," his words floated back with the sudden fierce blast of air that accompanied the closing door and reassured Jo not at all.

Jo helped herself to a stiff drink from the bottle on the side. It was what she felt she needed most at that second.

"Can I have a word with you, Ian?" John said politely to the man.

Ian raised his eyebrows as this was something of a role reversal. He was busy contemplating a paper that he was preparing for the Attorney General about modernising the judiciary. He wondered what on earth the man was doing seeking out his company at a time like this.

"It's strange to see you seeking out my company, John. I would have thought that after the Atkins Pilkinton case you would have kept a low profile. Do you want a cup of tea?" Sir Ian offered with chilly formality.

"Most certainly, Ian," John said politely. Where he had to, he was capable of bottling down his feelings perhaps far too easily though on this occasion, it would work in his favour. The situation was reversed where he was asking a favour from Sir Ian for a change and charging in feet first was not going to help him achieve his end.

While they were waiting , John took in the details of Sir Ian's office. It was large and spacious and had the look of a bygone era in the Civil Service before the brutal efficiency style of the modern switched on executive had taken over. There was something prim and proper in the look of the place.

Eventually, a rather attractive young woman served them tea in ornate bone china cups and saucers and while they sipped, they tried to take the measure of each other before the opening exchanges. John took one glance at her, noticing as always, that she had nice legs.

"Stay away from her. She's married," Sir Ian said firmly and accusingly, having intercepted John's oh so casual glance.

"How's Lady Rochester these days?" John replied with that misleadingly innocent look on his face to which Sir Ian's stoniest glare was sufficient answer. The way that John had once flagrantly carried on an affair with her still rankled with him.

"You will recall from watching the Atkins Pilkinton trial from the gallery that there were three witnesses called, Mr Fenner Principal Officer, Miss Betts Wing governor and Mr Grayling Governing Governor, all of whom work at Larkhall prison. I wanted to inform you before you hear of it officially that Mr Fenner will shortly be facing charges of rape and the plaintiff is Miss Betts," John Deed started in a more conciliatory fashion.

"I'm listening, John," Sir Ian replied warily. An advance tip off from John was even more of a rare occurrence than John seeking out his company. "I'm grateful for any advance news but what do I owe you for this favour?"

"Only this, Ian. This case could and should have been brought before a court of law well before now but she was dissuaded by Mr Grayling from pressing charges through a court of law. He had told her that from advice from an alleged friend in the CPS, that she had very little chance of success. Only I have it on best authority that it was you that he talked to," John said in friendly polite tones but there was a hard glitter in his eye and there was an edge of steel in his tones as he finished.

"I refuse to comment on the matter," Sir Ian replied but his eyes looked away from John's. "Surely from what you are saying, it may go against the woman in question that she has delayed pressing charges. You know that the CPS are not keen in taking up cases where the odds are stacked against the plaintiff."

"That is as it may be," John answered, acknowledging that he had hit upon a potential weakness in the case. "All I am asking for, Ian, is that the case is allowed to stand or fall on its merits and that if as a result of the court case, Mr Grayling does not emerge in a very good light, he takes responsibilities for any shady dealings which he initiated and that you remain in the background."

John fought very hard to remain at his calmest and most controlled and to suppress the anger boiling up in him. God forbid that he has to make a habit of cajoling this corrupt man with arguments partly stolen from Sir Ian's repertoire. His instincts told him how potentially corrupting this was. He remained poker faced throughout this tussle of wills. From long training,

It came second nature to not let his face show his emotions which inadvertently caused him problems in personal matters but in this case, served his purposes well.

Sir Ian looked warily at John and considered his position, he owed Neil no especial favours though a policy of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' had enabled his influence to spread far outside the narrow bureaucratic limits of his department. It was the cement that held time honoured British institutions together against the threat of the barbarian hordes .

"I'll do as you suggest, John. But I trust that this might be the start of a more harmonious relationship between the two of us. We haven't exactly seen eye to eye in the past," Sir Ian responded as he reluctantly acquiesced to John but he saw the opportunity to drive a bargain in return.

John said nothing. This was an obvious trap and he knew himself too well to consider it remotely possible that he would be a good boy in future and please his masters. That ran against the habits of a lifetime.

"While we are speaking so frankly, John, is there any truth in the rumours that you are having an affair with Ms Channing?" Sir Ian asked smugly. "Neil Haughton thinks that you are."

"None whatsoever, Ian. You must know how paranoid and insecure politicians are. You know me better than that. Well," and John looked at his watch in an exaggerated theatrical gesture, "I must not hold you up from your work any more. I hope that I have not taken up too much of your time."

"Anytime you care to drop in, John, you know where I am," Sir Ian responded in icy unwelcoming tones. Somehow, he felt he was wheedled into conceding more than he got in return from this Deed character.

John shut the door behind him and his feet took him with uplifted spirits towards the blue skies and fresh air away from the nest of intrigue and double dealing that served the Attorney General and the impartial administration of law and order.

Part Seventy Three

Jo felt drained. It was almost seven thirty in the evening, and she was still at her desk. This wasn't anything especially out of the ordinary, but today hadn't been an ordinary day. Karen Betts should have been just another case, just another job. but there was far more to it than that. Having first got to know her as a major prosecution witness during the Merriman/Atkins trial, she was now learning more and more about this woman, in an effort to bring another case to court, this time one that directly reflected on Karen. In transcribing the conversation she'd had with her, Jo was perfectly well aware that she was committing the cardinal sin of becoming too emotionally involved with the case. But she couldn't help it. She'd sat here, and watched Karen completely unravel before her eyes, like a jumper whose thread has been pulled once too often. What was she supposed to do, remain aloof, cold, as if Karen's pain hadn't affected her in the slightest. She could almost hear John's voice in her head telling her that yes, to a certain extent, this is what she should do. She'd written down every word of that interview, noted every alteration in tone of voice and facial expression. She'd even recorded the lighting of cigarettes and the exact moment Karen had begun to cry. Jo explained this to herself by thinking that she needed to be able to assess which points of the possible testimony would be most stressful to Karen, and which would therefore leave her open and vulnerable to some cutthroat defense barrister. This was stupid, she eventually thought. She'd been going over and over this for too much of the day. In between every other person she'd seen, she'd continuously revisited the conversation in her head, analysing and deconstructing, trying to decide whether they really would have a case. Picking up the phone, she dialled George's number.

"George, it's Jo, are you busy?"

"Nothing that can't wait. Why?"

"Karen Betts came to see me today, to start putting a case together against James Fenner."

"About bloody time," Was George's firm response. "Do you think you've got a case?"

"I'm not sure. Can I borrow the files you've got on Fenner?"

"Of course. I'd quite like to get them out of the house."

"Are they that bad?"

"Not nice is certainly an understatement. Do you need a sounding board?" Slightly wondering where George's sensitivity and intuition had suddenly come from, Jo said,

"It probably wouldn't do me any harm." George having given her directions, Jo switched off her computer, collected both the transcript of her interview with Karen and Helen Stewart's report, and walked out to her car.

She was intrigued at the thought of seeing George's house. What you can't tell about a person after seeing inside their house just isn't worth knowing. It would also be interesting to see where John had spent a few years of his life, supposedly committed to one woman. when she drew up in George's drive, Jo also wondered if after five days, the black-eye had gone. She walked up the steps and rang the doorbell. When George appeared, she was wearing a pair of black jeans and a white silk blouse. Jo had never seen her so casually dressed before, and briefly thought it suited her.

"I do dress down occasionally, you know," Mocked George as she led her towards the lounge. Jo was impressed. She couldn't help but be impressed. The room they were in stretched from the front of the house to the back, with a large bay window at the front and French windows leading out to the garden at the back. along the far wall opposite the door, was a lovely stone fireplace clearly meant for an open fire. On the wall to the right of the fireplace, though some distance between it and the French windows, was an exquisite baby grand. There was a small TV in one corner, and a cabinet clearly holding a stereo in another. There was an enormous sofa opposite the fireplace with a coffee table in front of it, and numerous armchairs dotted here and there. Jo also noticed a Stubs hanging above the piano and a beautiful but very understated painting of a bowl of lilies over the fireplace. Observing Jo glancing at it, George said,

"John always said he married me for my Monet." Jo laughed, some of the day's tension finally beginning to leave her. "Would you like a drink?" George asked.

"Yes please, I need one after today." After pouring Jo a scotch and herself a gin and tonic, George sat on the sofa and Jo sank gratefully in to an armchair, feeling so exhausted that she thought she might not get up again.

"So," Said George, lighting a cigarette. "Why don't you think you'll make a case out of it?"

"Do you remember the day when we recalled Karen and Fenner to the stand?"

"Vividly," George said drily. "Why?"

"At the end of the morning session, you said that you thought Karen Betts had slept with Ritchie Atkins because she needed to punish herself for not having been able to stop Fenner doing what he did to her."

"That's incredibly insightful for me, I must have been having an off day." Jo's eyes flickered with the hint of a smile.

"I think it goes deeper than that," She said, helping herself to one of George's cigarettes. "After what I heard this morning, I'd bet that Stubs that she went looking for a bit of rough from Ritchie Atkins, because she needed some proof, some evidence that she actually had been raped by Fenner. I think she felt mentally and emotionally raped, but needed the physical action from Ritchie to go with it."

"If she doesn't believe it herself, you've got no chance of getting her to convince a jury."

"I might be wrong, but I think she feels that it was all she deserved." At George's raised eyebrow, Jo handed over the file she'd brought with her. Inside, was the audiotranscription of their conversation that morning, Helen Stewart's report of sexual assault and Karen's initial statement to the police. George began to read. Jo watched her, looking out for any reaction. George hadn't been reading long when she looked up and stared at Jo slightly wide-eyed.

"Charm personified?" Asked Jo, referring to how Karen had described Fenner.

"Yes," Drawled George. "That description is a little too close for comfort." Jo couldn't have put it better herself. The fact that, in describing her first impression of Fenner, Karen had unwittingly given a perfect summing up of John was bizarre to say the least. A little further on, George asked,

"Who's Tessa Spall?"

"I vaguely remembered the case when Karen mentioned her, but I looked it up after she left. Tessa Spall was given life for dismembering her sister, and then savagely attacked a prison officer." George grimaced.

"Now I know why I don't normally do criminal work," She said, returning to the story. Jo's gaze was fixed on George as she continued reading, observing every roll of the eyes, every intake of breath, every wince. Apart from the turning of the pages, George was utterly still. But her face betrayed every involuntary reaction to what she was reading. When she'd finished with the transcript, she moved on to Helen Stewart's report of sexual assault and briefly ran her eyes over Karen's police statement.

"There's an awful lot of pieces missing from this jigsaw," She said eventually.

"I know, but I didn't think today was quite the right time to start digging."

"Fill me in on what she said about Grayling warning her off."

"When the threat of Fenner sending the pictures of her to the press didn't work, Neil Grayling told Karen that he had talked to someone from the CPS who'd said that they weren't going to take up the case. At the time, Karen had no reason not to believe him. On the day when Karen was first in the witness box, Brian Cantwell brought up the issue of the supposedly fake rape allegation. After court, John talked to Karen, and they managed to establish that the contact Grayling said he had at the CPS, didn't exist. John is fairly sure that the person Neil Grayling was in touch with, was Sir Ian Rochester. Let's face it, a prison officer being tried for rape wouldn't exactly put the prison service in a good light, now would it."

"This just gets more corrupt by the minute!" Said George, clearly furious. She got up and refilled their glasses.

"I think whatever you managed to dig up on Fenner might help to fill in some of the gaps," Said Jo. George went to her office at the other side of the house, and returned carrying a folder simply baring Fenner's name. After handing it to Jo, it was George's turn to watch as the other woman read some of the horrors of this case.

On opening the file, Jo was first presented with a report on the suicide of a girl named Rachel Hicks. It simply documented that this nineteen-year-old girl was found hanged in her cell at first unlock, and that the day before she killed herself, she had trashed her cell, and had been moved off the enhanced regime as punishment. It had been assumed by Helen Stewart and James Fenner, that this was all a response to Rachel's mother having put Rachel's ten-month-old daughter in to care.

"Why do you think Fenner was involved with Rachel Hicks?" Asked Jo, having given the document the cross-examination that came naturally to her.

"I don't have all the answers for that one," Said George, "It was simply given to me when I asked for everything connected to James Fenner's time at Larkhall prison. That one's probably the one that needs the most digging." Jo was next confronted by a report of an alleged assault on Michelle Dockley by Principal Officer James Fenner. Both Karen Betts as accompanying officer and Helen Stewart as wing governor had written reports on the alleged incident. The inmate, Shell Dockley, had presented with injuries consistent with having been beaten up, and had alleged that James Fenner had done this to her. During her interview with Helen Stewart, Dockley had also stated that Fenner had been forcing her to have sex with him, and that he had also done this with Rachel Hicks. The police did some preliminary investigation in to the matter, but before they could make up their minds, Dockley withdrew her allegation.

"Karen thinks someone smuggled in a letter from him," Added Jo.

"I used to think the LCD was the most corrupt institution I'd ever come across," Observed George, "But now I'm beginning to wonder." The next thing involving Dockley, was the report of the stabbing. As the resident prison service professional at the time, Helen Stewart had conducted a thorough investigation, concluding that Dockley had intended to stab Fenner, no matter what and that as far as she could deduce, he hadn't been doing anything untoward by being inside her cell.

"Bet she kicked herself for that," Said Jo drily.

"Hindsight's a wonderful thing," Replied George, lighting another cigarette. Reaching over for Helen Stewart's report of sexual assault which George had laid down on the sofa, Jo slotted it in to it's rightful place datewise. Pulling out the next sheaf of papers, Jo whistled.

"I take it that's the one about the escape," Deduced George. Jo read in stunned silence.

"It says here that Fenner was suspected of providing Michelle Dockley and Daniella Blood with the means to abscond, and that when questioned, he became extremely overwrought, possibly displaying the type of violence that could have resulted in the previously alleged assault on Shell Dockley."

"They were looking at him bloody closely," Confirmed George, "They just couldn't prove anything."

"This would be dynamite with a jury if it could be verified. Where the hell did you get all this?" George smirked.

"Look at the author of that last report, the one about Fenner's dose of the third degree. Mrs. Alison Warner, was once a client of mine. Before working for area management, she used to be fairly high up in one of the major credit agencies. I only just managed to save her neck from an enormous fine for violation of the Data Protection Act. It was a good time to call in the favour she owed me, because she was able to give me area management's files on not just Fenner, but most of your witnesses." Jo stared at her.

"You've got absolutely no scruples, have you?"

"There was a lot riding on that case," Said George, her face clouding over. Jo's gaze briefly moved to where there was now only the faintest mark of the healed cut and a slight darkening of the skin to indicate a recently departed bruise. Jo found herself lost for what to say. "I'm okay, really," Said George, correctly interpreting Jo's unspoken question. "It's quite odd having the house to myself again, but I'll get used to it." Turning back to the seemingly endless Fenner file, Jo then extracted possibly the only report putting Fenner in anything resembling a positive light. this document, which almost looked out of place amongst the others, stated that Fenner, with the help of Yvonne Atkins, had uncovered the true killers of Virginia O'Kane, a former prostitute and owner of numerous massage parlours, who had been murdered inside the prison. At the time, it had been assumed that Yvonne Atkins was the culprit. This had been further enhanced by an attempt to abscond by Yvonne Atkins, foiled by James Fenner and Karen Betts. some time after this, Fenner and Atkins had gone to Grayling, the newly arrived governing governor, with the story and the proof that Atkins was innocent.

"Now why would he do a thing like that?" Asked Jo. "He loathes Yvonne, at least that's how it's always appeared."

"Oh, there'd be a reason," Remarked George, sarcasm dripping from every pore. "Perhaps Yvonne could tell you." George handed over the copies of Karen's police statement and the transcript, which Jo slotted in to the back of the file. then Jo seemed to remember something.

"When you were cross-examining Fenner the first time round, you mentioned someone else, someone called Maxine Purvis. Why?"

"I wondered when you'd remember her," Observed George, clearly enjoying the amount of knowledge she had to impart. "Alison Warner wasn't the only person I contacted. Old clients do come in very useful sometimes. Monica Lindsay was convicted of fraud, and spent about nine months at Larkhall, on the same wing where James Fenner was then and is now working. I passed her case on to someone else when it became a criminal rather than a civil case. I wasn't very hopeful that she would be able to supply me with anything useful, as her incarceration was some time ago and she wasn't there for long. But I underestimated how strong friendships made on the inside are. She still has regular contact with two former prostitutes who are still serving time there now. In one of their numerous phonecalls to her, they had talked a lot about Fenner, especially about his sleeping with various inmates. His most recent acquisition before the Snowball Merriman fiasco was Maxine Purvis." Jo began looking through the reports on Fenner, knowing she'd seen that name somewhere. When she found what she was looking for, she stared slightly goggle-eyed at George.

"It says here that Maxine Purvis was one of Virginia O'Kane's killers."

"Yes, and I think you'll find that if you ask Karen Betts about the pair of knickers that were left in her in-tray, you'll discover that they belonged to none other than Maxine Purvis."

"Jesus," Said Jo, "This just gets more complicated by the minute."

"He's been able to get away with everything so far, because Rachel Hicks killed herself, Helen Stewart left, though we don't know why, Michelle Dockley is currently languishing in Ashmore secure psychiatric hospital, and Maxine Purvis also killed herself. If he relies on the fact that area management won't look in to things too deeply, which is exactly what they've done, it's Karen's word against his. With absolutely no physical evidence and his other four victims that we know about either dead, departed or doped up to the eyeballs, I'd say you've got about as much chance of getting this to court, as I had of getting Merriman and Atkins found not guilty."

"He can not be allowed to get away with this," Said Jo furiously. "We've got only half the story so far, and already we've identified five probable victims of his unwanted attention. How many more are there?"

"Considering that he's been a prison officer for about fifteen years, your guess is as good as mine," replied George.

"And what am I supposed to say to Karen Betts?" Asked Jo in disgust, "That there's really no point continuing with this case because Fenner's covered his tracks far too successfully?"

"Do some more digging," Said George calmly, "You never know what you might find."

"This has to get to court," Insisted Jo. "You didn't see her, George, someone usually so strong and controlled, ripped apart by having to describe something that wasn't her fault."

"No," Replied George, still with an air of calm detachment about her, "But I did read your transcript."

"It's hardly the same." Walking over to where Jo was sitting, George plucked the file from her hands. Returning to the sofa, she removed the transcript and briefly ran her eyes over it again.

"Why did you type this out yourself, instead of giving your secretary some work to do?"

"Is it that obvious?" George theatrically rolled her eyes at Jo, holding out the document and pointing to a particular paragraph.

"Considering that you've noted changes in facial expression and the lighting of cigarettes, yes it is."

"It felt like the right thing to do," Replied Jo, somehow knowing that George was going to jump on this admission.

"Why?" George was relentless in her probing.

"I didn't think it was right that some random stranger should hear just how difficult it was for her to say all that she did." Lighting another cigarette, George stared contemplatively at the Monet, using its very subdued beauty to marshall her thoughts.

"Can I make an observation?" She asked after a short silence.

"Would it make the slightest difference if I said no?"

"Not really. I think you're in serious danger of getting too close to this case. Whilst cold, ruthless detachment would be virtually impossible with a situation like this, the type of emotional involvement you are already displaying, won't do you or Karen Betts any favours."

"That's rich," Said Jo without thinking, "Emotional involvement isn't exactly something you could ever be accused of, is it." Immediately these words had been uttered, Jo could have kicked herself. Even with George, that had been going a little too far. She caught the brief flash of hurt in George's eyes, which was soon replaced by the closing down of all the shutters. Instead of promptly responding to such a remark, George breathed slowly through her nose, clearly willing something inside her not to crack.

"No," She said eventually, "It's not." When Jo made a move to speak, George interrupted her. "Why do you think I only usually prosecute and defend companies?"

"The enormous bill you can send them afterwards?" George grinned fleetingly.

"That too," She said, before becoming serious again. "It's utterly impossible to become emotionally involved with a company. Nothing that only really exists on paper has feelings. I can't get attached to it, I can't have feelings for it, and therefore the only ways it can hurt me are either professional or financial. Except for when I've had political pressure put on me to either win or lose a case, it ultimately doesn't matter whether I'm successful or not." Then, seeing Jo's look of incredulity, she said, "It does matter in that I'm a terrible loser, and I won't ever go down quietly or without a fight. But if some large insurance company ends up having to pay a fine that might cripple them, I don't end up feeling guilty because I've failed them. If you can't get a conviction for James Fenner, you'll feel like it was your fault, you'll feel like you've failed." Jo simply looked back at her.

"How can you do it, George? How can you stay so detached knowing everything you do."

"It's as you said," Replied George succinctly, "I haven't seen what it took for her to tell you all this. Somehow, it got to you more than cases usually do. I'm not sure why, maybe it's because you already knew her and were aware of most of what happened as a result of the rape."

"You may be right," Said Jo, "but it's not going to stop me working this case as it should have been a long time ago."

"No, I know," Replied George, "All I'm saying is, be careful." A while later when Jo left, George stood on the doorstep and watched her drive away. Never mind Karen Betts, George wasn't all that optimistic that Jo wouldn't come out of this without a few emotional scars of her own.

Part Seventy Four

"How many prison officers does it take to change a lightbulb?" Lauren asked her audience as both Michael and Niamh had collared Auntie Lauren on her rare visit to Cassie and Roisin's house. Get her being children's favourite, she thought to herself, after a hard day at work looking after the family business.

Niamh screwed up her eyes in concentration, knowing that this was a trick question. She liked Lauren who was fun to be around and a change of company from Mum and Cassie who she loved dearly but were parents and you know what parents are like. Michael was older and he couldn't decide between one and two.

"Give up kids," Lauren smirked with grown up superiority. Both heads nodded.

"It takes one to change the bulb and six more to kick the ……I mean kick it to pieces… when they found out that it didn't work."

Both children rolled round in laughter at this unexpected twist. It was the way she told the jokes that made them come to life. Lauren reflected to herself that she might make a good stand up comedian.

"Tell me what you were going to say, Auntie Lauren," Niamh's gleeful voice interrogated Lauren, noticing the shift in the gagline.

"That would mean telling you a rude word and I oughtn't to do that," Lauren blushed slightly, wondering how in hell she happened to talk like a prudish grown up. It wasn't as if those who worked for her didn't feel the lash of her sharp tongue.If her friends ever heard how she spoke like that, she would lose all street credibility, and the name of Atkins would not protect her.

"But Cassie does that all the time, especially when she thinks that we're not listening." Don't you, Cassie?" Added a grinning Niamh, as Cassie came upstairs into the bedroom which was nicely cluttered with toys, the odd T shirt flung on the floor.

"Whatever the kids are saying about me, it's not true. I would never dare do such a thing." Cassie jokingly covered up her tendency to swear at the wrong moment. She had, she thought proudly to herself, managed to refrain from uttering the word 'nobbing.' With Niamh's naturally inquisitive mind which insisted on asking the word 'why', she knew for certain that she would be reduced to blushing silence.

"Anyway, you two, you'd better tidy up your bedrooms or you're dead meat." Cassie gave orders in her effective joking fashion, neatly switched the topic of conversation as she had learned to do in a crash course of parenting. She noticed the slight smirk on Niamh's face as they tidied everything away for the night.

Cassie smiled to herself at the way Lauren got off her reserved armchair to sprawl all over the floor with the draft board between her and Michael on the thick pile carpet and a little childhood intensity of feeling came back to her mind when her black counters battled for supremacy on the checker board with Michael's flat round white ones. She always chose the black counters.She wasn't aware of it but it subconsciously reminded her of when she was little and she used to play against Ritchie. However, though she was younger, she could beat Ritchie every time and he would go off in a sulk to mummy and accuse her of cheating. At this moment, she suppressed out of sight and out of feel all memories of Ritchie, childhood included. Her feelings of how he ended his life were still far too raw and painful to let her thoughts take her to anything that would lead her to that traumatic event. When she played with Michael, she deliberately underplayed her very rusty style down to Michael's level. The feel of the thick carpet on her body was very comforting and reassuring.

"I'm sorry I couldn't help you out on your Maths homework, Michael." Lauren said apologetically. That wasn't her best subject at school and, true to form in the family, if the matter basically didn't interest her, she wouldn't bother to pursue it. On the other hand, if something grabbed her attention and interest, she followed the matter through to the bitter end. She had always been like that.

"Never mind, auntie Lauren," Michael kindly replied. "You're really good at drafts."

Lauren smiled wholeheartedly. There was something that playing with Roisin's children that was a welcome distraction in her life, something totally opposite to what her daytime, worktime concerns were leading her and the children brought out a side of Lauren which she did not know that she possessed.

The rest of the evening was nice and comfortably domesticated. Lauren liked coming over to see Cassie and Roisin as the place had a nice lived in feeling. Roisin looked sideways at seeing Lauren comfortably resting in the armchair and was glad that the sociable friendly Lauren was a million times more relaxed than the Lauren who had poured down such a huge amount of alcohol into herself to blot out the pain of losing her brother. Ugly memories surfaced of the way that Lauren took out her pain and hurt on Karen and tried her very determined best to shut her from out of her life. The very words, uttered with all the fury that only a female Atkins could summon up, seemed bent on wiping out Karen as much as a real weapon would do. Somehow, she had achieved a balance of sorts in her life but she wondered how much of it was skin deep.

"Mummy, I got top marks about the story I did for English the other day, you know about the time you rescued that man in the fire," Niamh rushed over to Roisin with her exercise book in her hand. At the bottom of the page, in red ink was the teacher's scrawled comment of 'excellent' and 9.5.

"No one gets ten out of ten, mummy," The child explained to her, showing graphic drawings of Cassie and Roisin with blackened faces with very lurid flames and cotton wool smoke in the background. Cassie grinned at the sight of the trolley seeing a pair of oversized big feet sticking up in the air.

"That looks like Grayling all right. And he did plonk his big feet everywhere all over Larkhall."

"At least he got us a free pardon so we could get the children back," Roisin said.

"All the others were really jealous that they hadn't got anything nearly as exciting to write about," Niamh chattered away excitedly, plonking herself on Roisin's lap.

"Hey, Niamh. You've got my face a bit wrong. I'm better looking than that."

"What, after going through a wall of flames," Roisin said laughing. "They wouldn't use us right then to pose for OK Magazine. My face was raw all over that it hurt me to kiss you."

Lauren marvelled at the way that this family was entirely open and natural with each other. There were no skeletons in the closet, no grand unmentionables that everyone skated their way past, no pretences of any kind which was something Cassie had brought to them all..

"At least something good came out of our time at Larkhall," Cassie said soberly and thoughtfully.

"Come on, it's bedtime," She called out and the children trailed after her to wash their faces, brush their teeth and to be settled down for the night for as long as they could stretch the routine out.

"I hope you're looking after yourself properly, these days, Lauren," Roisin asked the younger woman in a slightly maternal tone which Lauren found comforting, not an intrusion. It came over naturally and not as some everyday insincere platitude as they sat together on the settee and chatted. "We're sorry we haven't been in touch but you know that we've been busy since the children came back from Aiden's. We have to make sure that he hadn't tried to fill up their heads with all sorts of hurtful lies and deceits."

"You're all right, Roisin," Lauren said reassuringly. "I've been fine. I know that I had lost the plot since…after the trial ended," and Roisin picked up on the way that Lauren shied away from any mention of the suicide."It took a mixture of mum giving me an earbending and me working a few things out for myself. But, as they say," Lauren added briskly, "You have to move on. I've got more than enough to do to keep myself busy at work. If anything, I'm been working too hard recently and coming over today is a welcome break for me."

"The front door is always open to you, Lauren," Roisin said warmly. There was something about her that naturally blended into their lives and not just because she made a surprisingly good childminder which she hadn't known before. "And it is closed to Aiden and his perfect mother unless there is a good reason to let them in."

"Talking about being welcome, Roisin," Lauren said hastily. "I'll never forget the night you and Cassie looked after me that night that…it all happened. I really can't remember too much of what happened that night. I know I was a right cow to Karen but I remember Cassie holding onto me while I cried my eyes out. I needed it right then. Next thing I knew was having both of you next to me in bed. It would have seemed cold and empty on my own and I really don't think that I could have dealt with that one."

"It took me back to when I grew up in Ireland," Came the answer. "It was a two up and two down terraced house in Southern Ireland. My parents were poor then and the house was cold. I used to share my bedroom with my sister and I can remember if one or the other of us were cold or upset, we used to share a bed. Not that I made a habit of it, Lauren as she would grab the blankets and I'd wake up frozen stiff with the blankets her side. Selfish cow," Roisin added laughing, indicating that their relationship was warm and close. "She still lives in Ireland and I don't see as much of her as I would like to but she's got children and so have I, Lauren. One thing I won't forget is the way she stood by me when Cassie and I got together."

"Tell me about it," Lauren asked with interest.

"Well, as you might expect, I look and sound like a very traditional and respectable Irishwoman , with a 'successful marriage' and a good job in England. She was taken by surprise and shocked when the news broke when I had been sentenced to prison but she waited till I got released and we talked it over, the way we had done with everything."

"And she accepted everything, that you are a …lesbian, everything," Lauren said with wonder. In her version of a straight up and down, equally traditional Eastend family, it had taken so much to get it through her head about mum and Karen. It wasn't as if the Atkins family observed the niceties of social conventions in the illegalities that their family fortunes were based on. Yvonne was hardly disgusted of Tonbridge Wells.

"We've always been close," Roisin said dreamily. "Even though we're physically miles apart."

There was a thoughtful silence in which the imperceptible quiet household noises and the dim light created the perfect restful environment that she needed right now.It wasn't the painful silence begging someone, anyone to fill the gap but just pleasant and companionable.

"Don't you ever get worried that Cassie would go off with another woman. She likes flaunting it." Lauren's voice broke in from nowhere from a passing thought that somehow broke the surface.

"Cassie likes to give the impression that she would shag any woman wearing a short skirt and packing a pulse rate but it's all show," laughed Roisin. "She would hate to admit it that but it's true. I wasn't seriously worried, not even when we were playing spin the bottle and she was giving you an introduction on what it is like to kiss another woman. You were enjoying it," Roisin said with a raised eyebrow.

"It was a laugh and I was pissed," Lauren laughed lightly being not exactly certain what she was laughing about. She had always been up for a party, just like mum, even though this was something different. Her instinct was always to go with the flow..

At that point, Cassie tiptoed down the stairs instinctively so as not to disturb the children.

It was unnecessary in a way but she had picked up this habit off Roisin who, in turn, had done this since her children were babies and there was a desperate need to grab a few hours of adult company at a time when she thought she loved Aiden.

"I was just telling Lauren how irresistible you are to women," Roisin called out to Cassie.

"Aren't I just?" Cassie smiled smugly to herself. "You ought to try it some time but I guess you're looking for Mr Right," She finished jokingly but thought that in reality that Lauren was another single independent straight woman. She poured out a drink for the other two in her hospitable way and sat down in between Lauren and Roisin.

"I'm trying, sort of," Lauren replied. "but it's not that easy. There's something about me that scares half the men away and the other half are dick brained anyway. It's as if they hear the word Atkins and run off screaming."

"I'm not sure I can advise you about that one as my personal experience is a bit limited as you might imagine. I can only remember hearing my sister Gail going on about how all men are bastards. I had to keep my mouth shut and not tell her the nobbing obvious thing to do about it," Sighed Cassie, remembering past not very happy family memories.

Lauren grinned to herself when she heard Cassie revert to her normal way of talking. She was equally fond of Cassie's daredevil unique personality as she was of Roisin's warm comforting sensitivity. This was a different situation from when Roisin and Cassie came round to Yvonne's very attractive luxuriant lifestyle with no responsibilities when they could let their hair down. Back in the responsible world, a part of them were different people. It was only when the children were in bed that the umbilical chord could be loosened.

They sank back together in the sofa while soft music played at a low volume from a CD that Cassie had stuck on as there was nothing decent on the television apart from some brain dead quiz or a useless soap. It was the ideal time and place for some reflective conversation between three women who were at ease with each other.

"How did you two both manage with the children when you first got out of Larkhall?" Lauren asked out of interest. She sensed that it must have been an upheaval for Niamh and Michael to abruptly lose Roisin for all those months and, after Aiden and his mother had looked after them for Roisin to come back and for Cassie to take their place. Her upbringing up to the children's age was settled in comparison.

"Don't ask," Cassie said, her expression darkening at the memory. "It was bad enough for Roisin to come back from prison and to realise that Aiden had told them all sorts of stories about her."

"It was the way they were both so uneasy with me," Added Roisin. "I could see it in their eyes and the way that they didn't rush forward to greet me the way they used to. Of course, I kicked Aiden out when we got out of prison and that upset them."

"And when I came on the scene, that made things ten times worse for awhile. I tried to be tough bitch mum giving them discipline as you might expect and that was total disaster. I ended up with Roisin taking them on one side while I felt a spare part and a total failure. Of course, I remembered the way my father tried to discipline me and I used to shout back at him and that made me even worse. I remember breaking down crying upstairs and Roisin was the strong one ."

"She had to learn so much so quickly, how to talk at their level, how to win their confidence in her, how to do the million and one things that a mother needed to do, oh yes, and she learnt to clean up sick which you swore you would never do when we were in Larkhall, didn't you Cassie."

She grinned at the memory as she could remember being cuddled up together on that narrow top bunk at Larkhall

"It took longest of all to accept that I wasn't just being 'Roisin's friend' but that, yes, we shared a bed together at night and we were the same as any other Mum and Dad. Weren't we glad when we got past that one? I can still remember the shag we had that night without worrying whether or not there would be two children storming in to break up the show. OK we had to learn to be quiet but it was worth it."Cassie smiled dreamily at the memory of that night of sexual passion in bed with Roisin.

Lauren listened sleepily to the other two women chattering away and it filled in the picture more of how they managed their lives. When she had gone out clubbing with them, or gone to that bar with Cassie, it seemed like months ago, Cassie was that party animal once again. What she had seen tonight was the other side of Cassie and this was interesting to Lauren.

She tried her best to keep up with the gentle flow of conversation but she found her eyelids drooping down more and more over her eyes as the others seemed oblivious of time. Part of that was their ability to make the most of the time that they had. Presently, she looked at her watch. It was a quarter to ten.

"I hope you don't think I'm cheeky but I'm totally knackered. Would it be all right with you if I crash on your sofa for the night. I won't be safe on the road to drive, even with a black coffee inside me. I'll make sure I'm up early as I know the kids will be up for school tomorrow."

Roisin and Cassie assured her that it would be no trouble at all.

"I'm ready to hit the sack. Coming Roisin?"

Lauren shuffled the cushions around, kicked off her shoes and snuggled up on the comfy settee. She looked at the two women as they tiptoed upstairs together looking so right together and it felt good to her not having to break off and head for home in her car. Both Cassie and Roisin looked down on the sleepy ,dark haired woman tenderly as she looked so peaceful.

Part Seventy Five

On Monday afternoon, Karen had taken Jo's advice. She'd gone home with Yvonne and they'd spent a few hours doing nothing more productive than lying on the sofa and listening to soft music. But on the Tuesday morning, she was back in work bright and early, and by the Wednesday morning, was raring to legally take Fenner by the short and curlies. As luck would have it, Jo phoned her soon after nine.

"How are you?" She asked.

"Angry," Was Karen's immediate response. "He's made me show anyone who cares to probe, just how weak I can be, and I don't like that." Knowing that anger can be a very positive emotion in the right hands, Jo said,

"Well, I need to put your anger to good use. There's a lot of questions that need answering. Rachel Hicks being the first."

"How do you know about her?"

"I'm learning," Replied Jo.

"Well, I can't tell you much about her because I wasn't here then."

"Apart from the man himself, is there anyone who was?" Karen turned the chair to face her computer and began scrolling through G wing's list of inmates, looking primarily at their dates of admission.

"Shell Dockley was, but she's currently cloistered in Ashmore."

"I know."

"You really are learning. I'm intrigued as to how you've come across such information." Jo could tell Karen was smiling.

"Lawyers, are not unlike journalists in that we never reveal our sources." Lighting on a possible, Karen clicked on a name.

"There is one inmate who almost certainly has as much info about Rachel Hicks as Fenner and Dockley, Daniella Blood."

"Do you think she'll talk to me?"

"She might, but you'll probably have to come here to see her. She's got absolutely no reason to get licence out of here to see a barrister, and that's if I can persuade her to talk to you. She is coming to see me this morning, and I do know that she wants to see Fenner behind bars almost as much as I do. Denny's the inmate I did the deal with: I told her that if she started behaving, thought about doing some education classes and generally made an effort to convince the parole board to let her out in the not too distant future, I'd go ahead with this case."

"That's certainly some deal," Said Jo drily. "Can she keep it to herself?"

"Oh yeah. Shell Dockley was probably the first person Denny ever really loved. The way Denny sees things at the moment, she couldn't get justice for Shaz Wiley, but her quest for justice for what Fenner did to Shell will never be over until he's behind bars."

"Rachel Hicks isn't the only thing we need to talk about."

"Denny's coming to see me at around ten thirty. If you're not too busy, you could come at about eleven. If Denny will talk to you, you can see her then, if she won't, we can start looking at some of the other gaps. How does that sound?"

"That's fine. I was supposed to be in court today, but the person I was defending pleaded guilty at the last minute so I'm a free agent."

When Karen had been closeted with Denny for twenty minutes, going through the type of education classes Denny might like to think about doing, she knew it was time to tell her about Jo's visit.

"Denny, there's something I need you to do for me. The barrister I went to see on Monday is coming in this morning. She's trying to fill in a lot of the gaps about the time Mr. Fenner has been working with women prisoners. both her and me need to know about Rachel Hicks. I wasn't here when Rachel killed herself, Helen Stewart's left and Shell's in Ashmore. You're the only one who I suspect knows enough about what happened with Rachel to help us." Denny stared at her, clearly remembering things she'd said and done which she would rather be allowed to leave buried.

"Miss, I was a real bitch in those days. I don't want you, or Yvonne, or anyone to know what I was like then."

"I do have access to your prison file," Said Karen quietly, "Which means that I already know about the bullying and the fighting and all the rest of it. Now, has that stopped me from trying to help you get early release?" Denny looked confused.

"No, but, I don't understand."

"We all do bad things in our lives, some of them things we can't put right. But that doesn't mean we should hide away from it as if it has never happened. By telling me and my barrister everything you can about Rachel and Mr. Fenner, that could be considered your way of making up for whatever it was you did. Any possible evidence we can get on him might help to put him behind bars."

"Miss, are you going to talk to Shell about Fenner, only, she knows more about him than anyone, innit."

"I'll talk to Shell if I possibly can, yes."

"This barrister, is she nice?"

"Yes, she is," Said Karen with a smile, wondering just what type of nice Denny's question referred too.

Before Karen could get anything like an answer out of Denny, her secretary put her head round the door to announce that Jo had arrived. When Jo was shown in, Karen noticed with amusement that Denny looked her up and down with enormous interest.

"Jo, this is Denny Blood. Denny, this is Jo Mills."

"Are you gonna nail Fenner?" Asked Denny succinctly, but Jo remained unfazed.

"I'll do my best." Sitting back behind her desk and gesturing to Jo to take a seat near Denny, Karen said,

"Denny was just about to tell me whether or not she would enlighten us both about Rachel Hicks." After again running her critical gaze over Jo's immaculate but understated form, Denny replied,

"Anything that puts that wanker behind bars is worth doing, innit." Giving Jo a brief look to tell her that what you see is usually what you get with Denny, Karen began the questioning.

"When did Rachel arrive?"

"About a year before you did, around the same time as Miss Stewart. She was a YO, only nineteen, and she had a little girl. Maddy her name was. Rachel had this picture of her. Not long after she arrived, Fenner got her a job in the wing office, making tea and that. Bet that's how he picks up all his birds," Then realising that Karen had also been one of Fenner's women, "At least the ones on the inside anyway." Jo, who had been focussing solely on Denny, raised a questioning look at Karen. Correctly interpreting Jo's glance, Denny said, "That wasn't how it was with Shell and Maxi, they were both too," Denny turned her head this way and that looking for the right word, "Too hard, too strong, too much top dog of the wing to ever get a job making cups of tea for Bodybag, Sylvia Hollamby all day. Good thing they weren't ever here together. But it was after Fenner got Rachel the job that he started screwing her."

"How did you become aware of this?" Asked Jo.

"It was friggin obvious. She couldn't leave him alone, like a bloody lapdog she was. Then he put her up on enhanced, so as she'd have her own cell. But the stupid dickhead put her in the one next to Shell. Let's face it, if you've got two women on the go, you don't put them next door to each other, do you." Jo privately thought John could learn a lesson from this. "Then Shell tried to use Rachel to get Nikki Wade searched by the DST. She got Rachel to write to them saying Nikki Wade had drugs in her cell. I think it was when Fenner had a go at Shell for it that she worked out he must be sleeping with Rachel." Here, Denny faltered. Going on would mean telling Karen, someone she was beginning to like and respect, things that Denny knew would alter Karen's view of her. Sensing something of this, Karen said,

"Denny, whatever you did then, you won't be punished for it." Denny laughed scornfully.

"A few days down the block ain't the problem, Miss."

"Then what is?" Denny gave Karen a hard, level stare.

"I don't want Yvonne knowing about this," Denny said quickly. The light dawned in Karen's mind. It wasn't so much her disapproval Denny was afraid of, but Yvonne's.

"She won't," Assured Karen. Giving her one last, wary glance, Denny continued.

"Shell might have been Queen of the wing in those days, but it was me who got everything done. Searching new cons for drugs, protecting Shell, warning off Rachel Hicks, you name it. I ain't proud of it, but that's how it was." She hesitated again, but seeing no sign of recrimination from either of the two women, she said, "We poured hot tea over her at first, made it look like an accident, even old Bodybag thought it was. She made the big mistake of whining to Fenner. He had a go at Shell. So, Shell got me to kick the shit out of her. Rachel thought she was meeting Fenner for a shag, but instead she got a kicking from me." By now, Denny was looking steadfastly at the floor, refusing to meet the gaze of either woman. "Jesus," She said suddenly, "I never meant for her to go and top herself." Jo briefly touched Denny's hand.

"Denny, one thing I've learnt during my career, is that if a person chooses to kill themselves, that is absolutely their choice and no one else's. No matter what you or anyone else said or did, that final decision was Rachel's and hers alone."

"Then, we found out that Rachel's mum was bringing in her daughter to see her. They're not usually so hard about searching people with kids, so Shell told Rachel to get her mum to bring in some drugs for her. Rachel tried, she phoned her mum and asked her, but she said no. Shell threatened her, said that if Rachel's mum didn't bring the drugs, she'd get someone to hurt Rachel's kid. But Rachel's mum didn't bring her kid, because she'd put her in to care. Shell kept winding Rachel up, and Rachel trashed her cell. Instead of putting her down the block, Miss Stewart put her back on basic. I think she thought that Rachel having her kid put in to care was," Again, she searched for the right phrase.

"Extenuating circumstances?" Supplied Jo.

"Yeah, yeah," Agreed Denny. "Mr. McAllister came to see her." Then, at Jo's questioning glance, she added, "He was Rachel's personal officer. He tried to talk to her but Rachel didn't want to know. Fenner came to see her. I don't know what he said to her, but if it was anything like some of the things he's said to Shell, it was probably a version of why had he ever shagged anyone like her. That's basically what he said to Shell when he came back after being suspended. After lock up, Rachel wouldn't stop crying. I told her she was getting on my tits but it didn't make no difference. Eventually, me, Crystal and Zandra went to sleep, and when we woke up in the morning, she was dead. I shouldn't never have done half the things I did to Rachel, but I ain't taking all the blame."

"I don't think anyone's asking you to," Replied Jo, attempting to get her head round the subculture of violence and fear that had clearly sent the unsuspecting Rachel in to the waiting arms of Fenner.

"Will any of that help?" Asked Denny, clearly not wanting the revealing of her past wrongs to have been in vain.

"It might," Said Jo, "But I may need to talk to you again."

"Sure, whatever," Replied Denny, giving Jo a small smile. When Denny had left to return to the wing, with a promise from Karen that she would come and se her later, Karen asked her secretary to make her and Jo some coffee.

"So, any thoughts?" Asked Karen, lighting a cigarette.

"Plenty," Admitted Jo. "I never knew so much could go on in a prison that the officers clearly had no idea about."

"Yes, it does take you by surprise at first. Some of the scams Yvonne got going while she was here, don't bear thinking about."

"How do you do it?" Asked Jo, "How do you remain so calm in the face of a story like the one we've just heard?"

"I have to," Replied Karen succinctly. "When you defend someone in court, you have to believe that they are, without doubt, innocent in order to defend them properly. Perhaps as an extension of that, I know, that the vast majority of people who come to me are definitely guilty. But if I ever dwelt on the crimes they'd committed either outside or inside prison, I wouldn't ever be able to help most of them. Take Denny for example. Clearly, her bullying of Rachel Hicks did play a part in Rachel killing herself. But if I even briefly thought about this fact every time I saw Denny, there's no way I'd be able to remain impartial enough to help her change her outlook on life." Jo was impressed with this argument.

"John was right," Said Jo, "You would make a good barrister." Karen grinned.

"Fighting my corner is something I've always been good at. But, as a single parent and a female wing governor, I suppose it comes with the territory. I had Ross when I was eighteen, and I appear to have been justifying myself ever since." Realising they had the raising of young children without a father's support in common, Jo was again reminded of her words to John on Monday of how Karen's situation could so easily have been her own.

"I need to know some more about Michelle Dockley," Added Jo. Karen walked over to her filing cabinet and dug a thick folder out of the bottom drawer. Handing it to Jo, she said,

"When Shell was transferred to Ashmore, I broke one of the rules that until then I'd always adhered to. I made a copy of Shell's prison file, just in case this day should ever arise. If you want a word of warning, I wouldn't make any of that bedtime reading." Opening the file, Jo was greeted to the affirmation that Michelle Dockley was currently serving life for murder and torture. Quickly realising that it would take her a good couple of hours to go through everything in there, Jo said,

"Tell me about when she was supposedly beaten up by Fenner." Returning to sit behind the comforting barrier of her desk, Karen began.

"It wasn't long after I'd arrived here. It was a Monday afternoon if I remember rightly. I was keeping an eye on some of the inmates during association, and Fenner suddenly appeared from Dockley's cell, which was on basic at the time, looking flustered. He said that he'd told me she was trouble. I went in to her cell and her face was covered in bruises. I asked her what had happened and she at first said nothing. When I wouldn't take nothing for an answer, she said that Mr. Fenner had done this to her. I took her to see Helen Stewart who was wing governor at the time, and Shell told Helen that Fenner had been forcing her to sleep with him. In his report, Fenner said that he'd caught her using a mobile phone. Considering that it wasn't all that long after this that his wife left him, I suspect that Shell was phoning her. During the interview with Helen Stewart, Shell also alleged that he'd been doing the same with Rachel Hicks. Helen's and my reports, plus one written by Fenner are all in there," She said, gesturing to the folder.

"So, what made her withdraw the allegation?"

"I don't know. There are so many questions that only Dockley has the answers for. I know that with her criminal record and her prison record that she wouldn't make a credible witness, but she seems to hold most of the more valuable cards where Fenner's concerned."

"Do you think she'd talk to you?"

"I'm the only one she ever really did talk too. She told me things that she'd certainly never told anyone else."

"Do you ever wish there were things you didn't know, things you hadn't heard?"

"About twice a week, I'll come across a file for a new inmate, and think, I wish I could unknow that."

"Defense work can be a bit like that. Like you said, belief in a client's story is the one absolute certainty you must have in order to do the job. But when they're found guilty, you feel the need to excise a part of your memory, to go back to before that client, that case." Jo's thoughts briefly strayed to George, and how defending Merriman and Atkins had made her reassess her whole way of thinking.

"You're thinking about George Channing," Guessed Karen correctly. Then, at Jo's amazed look, she said, "Just before the closing speeches, when she told me about Ritchie's having been pressured in to a lot of what he'd done, I remember her saying that they were as guilty as sin and that there wasn't anything she could do for either of them now. I asked her why she'd taken up the case, and her cryptic response told me that this time, political expediency had been considered to be far more important than justice. I got the feeling that she was under as much pressure to deliver, as perhaps Ritchie had been."

"That's about the size of it," Replied Jo, hiding her surprise at Karen's astuteness. "George has learnt recently that cabinet ministers aren't all they're cracked up to be."

Part Seventy Six

She was sat at home doing some of her work on a PC in the homely basement flat that she shared in a discreet corner of Shepherd's Bush. The large front room was overlooked by the flight of steps from the front door from the entrance lobby up to the quiet street and the fading sunlight peeked in, creating an illuminated patch on the solid foursquare oak table. Behind her, the huge ceiling height bookcase told the story of two lives as read through the books that they had bought.

She flicked her brown shoulder length bobbed hair out of her large eyes while the computer screen of her laptop stared blankly back at her, and her thoughts wavered, lost shape. She oughtn't to bring work home but her previous job had fatally instilled workaholic habits into her that she knew she really ought to resist but didn't. She had a desire for perfection that made her feel irrationally guilty if she skimped on her work so she took the obvious next step of doing that bit of extra work at home. Staying at work on a sunny evening to write up her case notes after the last patient had gone only made her feel more isolated as everyone else in the practice had gone home. She worked as a psychologist and she and her partners were kept busy. Because modern city life was so rootless, it created a syndrome almost of its own and ensured that the referrals to their practice would never dry up. Neuroses and feelings of insecurity were normal in this city, far from the stone solid certainties of her youth spent growing up in an isolated country vicarage. She was tired and overworked, that was the problem. Nothing that a good rest couldn't cure, she thought to herself.

From the outside, she looked much like the other women in the block of flats where she lived , friendly and outgoing. True, she did not indulge in the eternal complaint of the women office workers who lived in the rest of the tall block of Georgian flats. When the sun was shining , they gathered together in the communal back garden where the collective conversation ran along the lines of 'my husband's so helpless, he needs someone to organise every little thing in his life.' She smiled inwardly at them as it was totally obvious to her that they were nestmakers, one and all and wouldn't want interference from their partners at any price in their homes. What they wanted was a relatively malleable man who they could organise while he slaved away as the rising young entrepreneur in the City to bring in a handsome income. It was the woman who ran the home as they conformed to Cosmopolitan's new post feminist consumerist model who enjoyed their rights that earlier generations of women had got so strident about. Theirs was a world where, with their own earnings, they could afford the luxuries of life. They had worked hard from when they had first started work as the office junior and had fitted into their slot in life where they had it made. It was part of working in offices that introduced the outlook in life that nothing existed outside their mould and created that natural conservatism. Where no one and nothing had crossed their paths to challenge their assumptions and there was no major tumult or rupture in their lives, such a way of thinking seemed the natural order of things.

She tended to stay out of such conversations , smiling politely and listening but was ready enough to joke with the others. They found her likeable enough but not too forthcoming about patches of her life. To all intents and purposes, she didn't talk about the normal topic of conversation that the single unattached woman always talked about as they well remembered from their own days. Her flatmate wasn't often seen around outside but they kept themselves to themselves and there was nothing wrong with that. Helen's marked accent spoke of someone who had not grown up within the wide open London suburbs, only a tube ride away from the bustling metropolis. In their eyes, Hatfield was surely the passport to the north, the point where M1, that wide stretch of tarmac slashes its relentless way through the countryside and opened the way up through the central spine of Britain. Her accent spoke of a far off part of the United Kingdom with a much grittier down to earth lifestyle which living in London hadn't softened.

In many ways, she appeared much like the thousands of other single women making a living in the busy hustle and bustle of London life.

The last clubbers reeled out the door, past the "Chix" sign and shouted to each other into the darkened side street while the tall slim woman with short cropped black hair locked up the night's takings in the stout metal wall safe. The loud music had stopped and the utter silence was deafening to her buzzing ears. She ran a practised eye over the club while the two barmaids, June and Terry, scurried around tidying up the place ready for the next night. She knew that they could be trusted to do their job well from when she had first hired them. She had that instinct about people which served her well, not only in her present line of work but in other strange situations in her turbulent life.She had done her stint that night of the week and her business partner was due to take over for the rest of the week. It was an arrangement they had come to which suited them best and divided up the responsibilities nicely. Both of them knew the business inside out and trusted the other to work to the same ideas that they had struggled for so many years to get off the ground. The evening left her eyes smarting from the cigarette smoke and the crick in her back. She had no need of the workout videos that some minor soapstar lent her name to for a nice fat percentage on the sales.

She clicked off the lights at the back while the two barmaids slipped their coats on and made their way to the door.

"Night Nikki," they both called out as they made their way for the door and shot out.

She was about to reply but they were gone. Teenagers, she smiled, they are always in a hurry everywhere. She was one once, she reminisced fondly.

She slipped on her favourite smart long black coat and made her way to the Underground station round the corner, past the turnstiles, along the ancient worn out while tiled corridors and into the world of mechanical clanking sounds that pulled her homewards to the garish green tiled ceiling of Shepherd's Bush underground station. She was tired and her bed was ready and waiting for her.

Helen Wade was up early while her partner lay sleepily in bed from the night before. The indeterminate mound under the quilt showed her presence. Helen was a morning person, always offensively bright and cheerful while her partner took ages to rub the sleep out of her eyes and let her thoughts collect themselves before she could face the day. The first cigarette of the day was her call to action.

Helen wandered through to the front room in her dressing gown, her hair still rumpled and fished out the copy of the Guardian which had been set apart from the rest of the papers which came and went. That front page story was vividly connected to a past life to which she felt half a stranger, even from the photo of her slightly younger self in a blue two piece suit and short slightly curly hair. That reminder of the past which she wanted to forget was kept out of sight in the photograph album in a seldom disturbed top cupboard.

Helen picked up the paper and stared at the headline story. This had niggled away at the back of her mind when the newspaper flopped its way through the letter box the same way as it did every normal morning. Her first instinct was to hide it away with everything else in her past but logical disposal of the sort of files that she handled didn't work where it personally affected her life. She had had strange dreams where images of her past came back to haunt her. It was always that same face, sometimes sly with fake innocence and downcast eyes, sometimes when the real man emerged, a mingled expression of fury, and a deep rooted personal antagonism for all that she represented which he took as a personal insult. Right then she saw him near the very end, that terrifying assurance of power over her from the one slipup that she had made, small but fatal. It was only later on that Nikki was hunting round for the morning paper that she found it and drew the correct conclusion.

"What's up, darling?" Came that muddy echo of that soft musical voice from out of her dreams while she fought a losing battle with that man to stop him going through the drawer in her office.

"Only another bad dream," Helen mumbled as the bedside light was switched on, banishing her nightmare visions and only Nikki's gentle troubled face and the tender touch of her fingers was there to soothe her fears away. She had jumped through time and space where she was now Helen Wade, psychologist and she had left her old identity, Helen Stewart Wing Governor of Larkhall far behind in her dreams.

Nikki said nothing as she knew only too well, her lover's tendency to bottle up her fears, even with her nearest and dearest and the fear in Helen's eyes betrayed herself. it was strange that Helen worked as a psychologist for a living understanding other people's disturbed psyches. It was as if this enabled her to keep her own problems at a distance.

"Helen, you have to deal with this," Nikki said gently to her one day.

"I'm not going back to Larkhall or having anything ever to do with the place. Not ever," Helen said with real passion and fear. "I've done everything to cut myself off from that part of my life. I don't even drive near that part of London but take the long way round.

"So that's what you've been dreaming about," Nikki said softly, her fingers resting against Helen's bare clammy skin at which point Helen nodded.

"I even changed my name so that none of them could trace me," Helen finally blurted out.

"So that's why you did it?" Nikki asked her softly, eyebrows raised. Only Helen could tell that this admission had hurt Nikki. She could remember with total delight the day that Helen had insisted on changing her name to Wade in the first flush of their life together and the passion with which they shared their first full night together.She had learned from Larkhall to count to ten before speaking in fraught moments. She had not only got her English degree at Larkhall but had learned patience also.

"Yes, Nikki," Helen said apologetically. "But I did it also because after all the shit I landed on you, even though I didn't know half the time what I was doing, I wanted to make it up to you and give myself totally to you, as a demonstration of my love for you. You must believe me, Nikki."

The total sincerity with which Helen spoke convinced Nikki. Helen had changed since she had left Larkhall as Nikki had set to work, lovingly but with great determination, on Helen's curious habit of speaking indirectly and holding a card up her sleeve. As Nikki was the one with the confidence and experience of living together with another woman and Helen was the learner, Helen gratefully cast aside the burdensome shackle of that desire to be boss.

"All right, Helen," she smiled and kissed her gently on the lips. "But sometime, someday, you have to face it. But you decide when."

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," came that hoarse gentle voice from her music system with the steel drum accompaniment that soothed her thoughts. She smiled to herself that John Lennon had it about right. That said everything about her time at Larkhall. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. She'd read that in a book and that was also true.

"Didn't know that Yvonne Atkins had a son, Nikki," She called out rather too loudly for the fragile figure in the bedroom.

"Neither did I," came the sleepy mumble from still under the bedclothes. "Yvonne only talked about Lauren."

Then Nikki sat up bolt upright.

"Has the morning paper come, Hel?" Nikki asked casually as a way into the conversation as she whipped her jeans on.

"No, but the paper with the report of the suicide of Yvonne's son and a woman called Snowball Merriman has." Helen's voice floated up from downstairs announced in casual tones .

'I may be on the way out but I will drag you all the way down with me.' she remembered uttering her very last words to that man as she turned to leave. Well that hadn't happened but who knows, some other person would succeed where she had failed. That bastard's luck couldn't run forever. Sooner or later, he would slip and fall.

A dishevelled Nikki rushed in the front room to see a very relaxed Helen stretched out with the paper in front of her with the headline. "Two die in suicide pact."

"OK so far,Helen." Nikki asked.

"I'm fine, Nikki, so long as I keep it in mind that I'm a spectator, I'm not in charge. It was that instinct that was scaring me that somehow, I'd be pulled back to Larkhall whether I wanted it or not if I as much as started reading the paper.I'm a reader, just like anyone else only I know, sorry, knew the place. Here" and Helen patted the settee next to her, "Sit here next to me and read it with me."

It was Nikki's turn to be apprehensive as she had never read the paper either, supposedly respecting Helen's right to lock away unpleasant memories. Now Helen had made her choice, Nikki's options were left open.

It was a competently written article, rapidly sketching in the background of the two people concerned. The son of a well known Eastend gangster family and his would be American actress girlfriend who was held in this country on drug smuggling charges who had set fire to Larkhall and caused the death of a young prisoner called Shaz Wiley…….

Helen turned white. "I interviewed her once. I set up that meeting with the widow of the man she had killed with her poisoned oysters. That was the meeting which you tried to gatecrash with the tea trolley doing your 2 Julies impersonation……. "

Nikki gave a wry smile at the description but the memory of the desperation with which she sought out Helen to heal a tare in their relationship was one she would as sooner forget.

The article went on to describe the way that the home made bomb had exploded in the corridor next to the library causing flames to sweep through that part of G wing causing her death and nearly caused others to die…….

"Who the hell were the others, Helen. Anyone we might have known?" Nikki demanded of the paper in vain. It could have been any number of the women she had known and had cut herself away from so that they could move on away from Larkhall. She couldn't pretend to herself that she was doing it for Helen's sake.

The article gave the bare details of the facts of the matter, Mr Atkins's overdose of barbiturates and the razor blade that cut Snowball Merriman's wrist. It did not offer up any suggestion as to why the couple had committed suicide so soon after being sentenced to prison nor how it was arranged…..

"How do you think Yvonne is feeling, Helen? I was close to her once," and the last word expressed all Nikki's regret at the distance she had put between her and Yvonne, "……..and I know how she felt about Lauren. I never knew that she had a son. She never told me about him."

"Don't be a daft cow, Nikk," she could hear Yvonne's mocking but gentle Eastend accent and that warm smile despite the affectation of tough bitch. "You've got your life to lead. You've done your bit. I'll be here to carry on taking the piss out of Bodybag………"

Everything signed, sealed and delivered for the reader to digest and move on to the next column

Nikki flicked the TV on and a black and white film showing an angry looking young man with an aquiline nose and wearing dark glasses was talking in an impassioned American accent at the viewer.

"You'll never understand it. It'll go right past you. ……..I'm not going to read any of these magazines. I mean, they've got too much to lose for printing the truth. You know that.

They'd go off the stands in the day if they really printed the truth……the truth is a plain picture, a plain picture of a tramp vomiting into the sewer and next door to the picture Mr Rockefeller on the subway, going to work. Any sort of a picture. Just make some sort of collage of pictures which they don't do.

Just these facts. There's no ideas in Time magazine. Even the article which you're doing, it can't be a good article. Because the guy that's writing the article is sitting at a desk in New York. He's not going out of his office. He's going to get all these fifteen reporters and they're going to send him a quota……….All right, you do your job in the face of that and how seriously you take yourself, you decide for yourself."

"Do you believe in what you're saying." came the answer.

"Ageless portrait of Bob Dylan, the young folksinger looking enigmatically at the world from behind his sunglasses as he tours England with his unique brand of spiky humour and folk protest songs and his patented anti interview style with the faceless reporter from Time Magazine in 1965."ran the critical review in the colour supplement.

Nikki clicked the TV off. Interesting though the film looked , there was a more urgent consideration.

"I ought to write to Yvonne. It is the least that I can do."

"And then you'll want to meet her and you'll drag us back to Larkhall, Nikki. Everything that we've strived for, you are putting at risk." Helen's panic stricken voice and the expression also pleaded with Nikki not to do it.

"Yvonne must be out by now. You know how prisoners come and go, well most of them," Nikki reasoned though a sick feeling in her stomach reasoned that the three appeal court judges, resplendent in the finery of their wigs and robes pronounced on Nikki, the prisoner in the dock, her freedom or else she would be the one stuck forever behind prison bars.

"All right Nikki but you promise for my sake to be careful," And she clung tightly onto Nikki, the one person who might bring her back to a nightmare to be relived.

Part Seventy Seven

Jo had spent most of the rest of Wednesday wading through the file Karen had given her on Michelle Dockley. It really was beginning to look like a jigsaw, a five thousand piece puzzle comprised of pain and suffering, mostly at the hands of one James Fenner. But on the Thursday morning, Jo hit on one large section of the network of fragmented stories that she couldn't solve through George's dubious contact at area management or from Karen's illicit photocopies. Going through the details of the witnesses she'd used for the Merriman/Atkins trial, she found Yvonne's phone number and dialled it.

"Yvonne Atkins?" Came the fairly cheerful reply.

"Yvonne, it's Jo Mills."

"Hi, how's it going?"

"Well, I've come to a part of the trail that I think you might be able to help me with. Does the name Virginia O'Kane mean anything to you?" Yvonne laughed mirthlessly.

"Considering I almost got fitted up for her murder, yeah, I'd say it does."

"Karen seems to know surprisingly little about why Fenner was prepared to help you find her true killers. I was wondering if you could fill me in."

"With pleasure. Though it starts a long time before she even died. When O'Kane first came in to Larkhall, she was in a wheelchair, but it was fake. She did it to get a lighter sentence."

"There was a man not so long ago who tried to avoid a trial by faking a severe catatonic state. It happens."

"Well, Fenner being Fenner figured he was on to a winner and took sympathy on her. At some point during his getting her a cell on her own, and generally easing his way in to her favour, he must have persuaded her that it might be a good idea for someone to keep an eye on her establishments while she was inside. You do know what she was in for?"

"For running various brothels and lifting credit cards from clients."

"Yeah, pretty much. So, in exchange for getting her everything she wanted on the inside, plus a cut of the takings, Fenner starts keeping an eye on her brothels. I figured he must be doing something like this and I got Lauren to check it out. he was going under the name of John Farmer, stupid git, and picking up the takings as regular as clockwork. Finally having something concrete on Fenner was a good feeling, believe me. Helen Stewart was the acting number one in those days, and I took it to her. Not taking a con's word for it, she wanted dates and places, somewhere she knew she could catch him out. Lauren did a bit more digging, and I supplied Helen with a place he was sure to be and let her do the rest."

"And did she?"

"I haven't got a clue. The number one, acting or otherwise, doesn't owe a con anything as simple as an explanation. You'd have to ask her."

"There's the problem, she's proving utterly unobtainable."

"I'd give anything to know why she left."

"Yes, that's yet another of the mysteries coming to light with this case."

"I thought lawyers could lay their hands on anyone," Said Yvonne, the challenge clear in her tone.

"Not always," Admitted Jo regretfully. "We can only do so much before we begin to deviate from the straight and narrow. But tell me the rest of the O'Kane debacle."

"On the day that Helen Stewart left, O'Kane was drowned. It was assumed I'd done it because I'd been seen and heard rowing with her and I was the one who found her, not something I think I'll ever forget. At first, I thought it was Fenner. O'Kane had been about to squeal on him for looking after her brothels. So, I thought it was him and he thought it was me. Yet it wasn't either of us. Just before O'Kane had arrived in Larkhall, Maxi Purvis and her two sidekicks had come on to the wing. Slim, dark-haired, a bit of a tough nut, certainly not above shagging a screw to get a foot in the door." Jo had to smile at Yvonne's turn of phrase. "Anyway, after O'Kane's death, I asked two of my mates, the Julies, who were the wing cleaners and so had access to more of the wing than anyone else, to pick the lock on Fenner's locker to see if they could find any incriminating evidence against Fenner."

"And so enter the knickers and the porn mag."

"Oh, Karen told you about that, did she. Yeah, a pair of skimpy red knickers and a magazine full of pictures of scantily clad female couples. Fenner might claim to loathe those who sleep with their own sex, but it doesn't stop him ogling pictures of them. We'd heard on the grapevine that they were engaged, so one of the Julies left that little package in Karen's intray. Then, I tried to escape and got in to a fight with Karen. It's funny to think about that sometimes. I gave her the best black-eye I think I've ever given anyone, and now that's the last thing I'd ever do." Yvonne went suddenly quiet, showing a level of introspection that also gave Jo a moment's contemplation.

"You really love her, don't you," Said Jo, almost in wonder.

"Yeah," Said Yvonne in surprise. "I've never actually put it in to those terms, but yeah, I guess I do. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for her."

"Would you try and find Helen Stewart?" Having half expected this ever since Jo's admission that lawyers couldn't achieve miracles, Yvonne grinned.

"Now what makes you think I can where you can't?"

"Well, not to put too fine a point on it, you have access to methods which, as a champion of the law, I cannot be seen to use or encourage." Yvonne laughed.

"Very nicely put. I'll see what I can do. I've got an address for her one time girlfriend, so that should be a good starting point." Then, on observing Jo's careful silence, she added, "Helen Stewart was also a jailer with a thing for one of her cons. That place seems to breed them."

"I think I've learnt more about human nature in the last few days than in the last ten years," Said Jo in astonishment.

"Prison is the ultimate social equalizer," Replied Yvonne, "The rich and the poor, the well-educated and the illiterate, the black and the white, the straight and the gay, all shoved in to one confined space. You can't fail to be different in some way when you come out of prison. I'll see if I can track down Helen Stewart, and I'll see if Lauren ever took any pictures of Fenner in the vicinity of O'Kane's brothels. I didn't ask at the time because Helen wanted to collect her own evidence. I think her words were, I don't do deals with prisoners. But Lauren might have taken some anyway."

"Thank you, Yvonne, you've been a great help."

"Anything that puts Fenner behind bars is worth doing," Replied Yvonne, uncannily echoing Denny's words of yesterday.

"How strange," Commented Jo. "You've just used the exact words Denny did yesterday."

"Oh, yeah, Karen said you'd spoken to her. She's like one of mine is Denny. I looked after her through some of the crap she went through with her mum. Sometimes I think I try to make up with Denny for some of the things I got wrong with my own kids. I tried to legally adopt her after I got out of prison, but she's over twenty one so I couldn't."

"Yvonne, for the moment, I would like you to keep what you're doing for me from Karen. After what she's told me, I'm not sure that Helen Stewart will want to become involved in this case. I wouldn't want to get Karen's hopes up."

"But she'd have to. It's the only way to put Fenner behind bars. apart from Karen, Helen Stewart's the only decent witness you've got."

"I know," Said Jo gently, "But it has to be her choice. Please do this for the time being, Yvonne."

"Okay, but Helen Stewart had better have a bloody good reason for not getting involved."

A short while later when they ended the call, Jo sat for a moment, overwhelmed by the feeling of close attachment between some of the most unlikely people, clearly displayed in the way Yvonne had talked about both Karen and Denny. Yes, from what she'd learnt ever since Karen's visit to her on Monday, Jo knew that prison could cultivate some of the most hateful, despicable acts she'd ever heard of. But Yvonne had without realising, shown her a positive side of prison, a fostering of deep, lasting emotional bonds forged between members of every echelon of society. Yvonne was right, prison was the great social leveller, an enormous cauldron of humanity that could help or hinder those who were unfortunate enough to land within its midst. For such as Rachel Hicks and Maxine Purvis, there would never be anything other than the type of release that at some point stole everyone from their place of existence, and the likes of Michelle Dockley would forever remain in limbo, waiting for their minds to acquire the agility necessary for them to return to some semblance of normality. But for Yvonne, and possibly Denny, prison hadn't been all bad. Yvonne appeared to be content in her relationship with Karen, and clearly prepared to do whatever she could for those she loved. In spite of recently losing her son in the worst way possible, Yvonne seemed to know what she wanted from life, to have a purpose, a means of keeping going.

Part Seventy Eight

"So after days of work, the firm's not got as much as a hint as to where Miss Stewart is hiding out, is that it, Lauren?"

"Whatever she's done, she's done a better job of hiding her tracks than the guys who pulled off the Great Train Robbery," Came the succinct reply.

This led to a long meditative silence as two very sharp female minds ran over the impossible conundrum which had also baffled Grayling's 'old boys' network. The only difference was their intelligence network used different contacts and ran on slightly more illegal lines of operation and control.

"How do you find an ex Wing Governor of a prison who doesn't want to be found?" Yvonne said meditatively, helping herself to a glass of wine and reaching for a cigarette .

"Simple. By tracing her girlfriend as well and where the trails meet, there they are," Lauren said promptly, a blinding revelation illuminating her hopes. Why in hell had they used straight line thinking up till now?

"What if they've split up? It happens."

"Is that the voice of experience talking?" Lauren asked mockingly.

"We've got to use every possible lead, however daft it sounds. But then again they could have done a runner overseas. Nikki was always talking about going to San Francisco. That's the place they all head off to."

"Never knew that Nikki wanted to hang out with all the hippies," Lauren said teasingly at which point Yvonne threw a cushion in Lauren's direction, half playfully, half in exasperation.

"What did Nikki do for a living before she got banged up?" Lauren said in a slow meditative voice.

A light visibly dawned on Yvonne's face as that priceless bit of data was retrieved from an obscure neglected corner of her massive memory bank and she grabbed for a phone.

"Cassie Tyler here, what can I do for you?" answered the very businesslike tone far removed from her usual manner of speaking.

"It's Yvonne here, you dickhead," came the friendly banter in the unmistakeable voice that did not need any enlightening as to which Yvonne that might be of her wide circle of business and personal contacts that might be. "I want you to track down a list of gay clubs for women and phone me back straight away."

"Is this the Yvonne Atkins that once gave me the brush off saying that she was interested only if there was a six foot hunk of man on the end of it?" Cassie asked teasingly, her grin very audible.

If only there was a way of lobbing a very hard object down the phone that it would clout that smartarse pisstaker round the ear, she thought with gritted teeth much to Lauren's amusement. So long as it was meant in fun, Mum was so good to wind up. She rises to the bait every time.

"Not for me, you stupid plonker," Yvonne's robust tone of voice reverberated down the phone in forcible tones that a sergeant major on a parade ground would admire. "I want to trace Nikki Wade or Helen Stewart. Nikki's the likelier one."

"Hold on, Yvonne," Cassie said as she took the phone away from her ear and gave the luckless office junior who came through the door an earbending. "As you know, I've been out of circulation on the singles scene so I'll have to contact some of my more disreputable friends to help me out. I'll pop in on that gay bar I took Lauren to a month ago and she got me pissed. I'll phone you back."

Yvonne raised her eyebrows at this very interesting fact but shrugged her shoulders. The main thing was that Cassie was on the case and she could be depended on to come up with the goods.

Cassie left work and zoomed off in her blue Peugeot car like a woman on a mission. After cutting past a series of dithering drivers, she reached her destination and was relieved to see the early evening revellers already in their places though it was quiet this time in the evening. Approaching her was a likely source of information, the most promiscuous woman she had ever known and therefore the likeliest to be informative. The downside was that she was totally treacherous.

"Well hello, Cassie. And how is married life suiting you or are you going off the idea?" that irritating ex of hers smiled invitingly. "I must say, I liked the look of that dark haired girlfriend that you sneaked off with."

The place gave her a peculiar but half pleasurably nostalgic feeling of past experiences, past existences but Cassie was in no mood to tell that treacherous posh bitch that she was way off the mark as usual.

"Never you mind the mate I was having a friendly drink with, Virginia," Cassie snapped, laying heavy emphasis on the word mate and sarcastic emphasis on the woman's grotesquely inappropriate name. "I am sure that you are the same sleeparound woman that I've known you to be. I'm asking you as a friend for the names of the gay clubs. Not the big cattle markets, just the smaller more intimate places."

"You should know. You've been to them all, Cassie darling," The woman with the long dark hair teased her.

This woman is going to play stupid games, Cassie thought and I'm going to be stuck here forever.

"I'll let you into a secret, Virginia," Cassie said in a low confiding whisper. "I do want to pull that bird I brought in that night only she's a bit nervous. It's her first time. I need the name of a few places that won't scare her off."

An evil smile spread over Virginia's very made up face. She loved all the juicy gossip and the thought of spoiling Cassie's virtuous act gave her malicious pleasure. She would have loved to be the one to take Cassie off the straight and narrow but that woman Cassie was with would do very nicely.

"Well, if I were taking a woman out on her first night, Cassie, I couldn't do better than taking her to 'Chix'.I'll write down the address for you," and she fished around in her handbag for a pen and paper. "Very discreet, very friendly. If you take her there, she'll be yours. You tell me how you got on. As you know, I love to hear all the gossip."

"I'm sure that you do, Virginia," the smile on Cassie's face pulled at her unwilling facial muscles. "You'll be the first to hear when I shag her."

She's fallen for that one, hook line and sinker, Cassie thought with grim satisfaction. If she had made a request on straight friendship grounds, she would have been stuck here all night with that bitch acting hard to get and she would have had to offer to spend the night with her to get the information. Once she appealed to the meanest lowest human motives imaginable, she gets the information at once. Briefly, the very attractive memory of kissing Lauren at that spin the bottle party flashed into her mind but this cow wasn't going to know that.

"You're not staying for a drink,Cassie?" drawled Virginia.

"Some other time. I've got a hot date waiting for me. At least, she will be when I've finished with her." Cassie smiled, making her best theatrical exit in her brief role as seductress before zooming off in her car to be welcomed by her beloved, Roisin and their kids. Before she put the key into the ignition, she reached for her mobile.

"Right, Lauren. I'm off to this 'Chix' place. How do I look?" Yvonne asked nervously. "I've never been in a place like this before."

Lauren sighed at her mother who, most unusually, was nervous and was obvious about it.

"You're going to be all right. You're going to see Nikki, remember. She said that Mondays are quiet nights. You'll have time to talk and catch up on the old days and everything. Now, leave it to me, you need a little bit of adjustment," And Lauren straightened Yvonne's clothes in the same way that mum did for her when she was little and about to set off for school.

Yvonne turned off the main thoroughfare where middle England walked the streets and left up a quiet sidestreet, past the glass windowed office front. She looked up and spotted the sign in question. Before entering the front door, she hesitated a second while she plucked up her courage. This place isn't bleeding Sodom and Gomorrah, you stupid cow, she thought to herself, I'm one of them now anyway. You've gone into some dodgy criminal dives in your time that would make anyone else run away screaming in fright.

With that thought in mind, she opened the door and tried to adjust her eyes to the relative gloom. The place was nice and welcoming, the sort of place she could go with Karen quite easily.

"Yvonne!" A familiar well modulated voice carried across the club and Nikki virtually ran over to her with a huge smile on her face. She gave her a big hug and kissed her on the cheek.

"It's been so long since I've seen you. What are you having? The drink is on me for a change."

Immediately, warm nostalgic memories flooded back into both their minds and the taste of the little miniature bottles of spirits was all the sweeter and more precious as it was so rare and was thanks to Yvonne's resourcefulness. Now both women were on the outside, both more prosperous but both were alike in not forgetting the days of poverty and deprivation. For that memory alone, both women were not the same as the women who were first taken through the prison gates in a white prison cattle truck.

"Can you two see to everything. I'm going into the back room with an old friend of mine. Any problems, then you come and see me," Nikki called out to the barmaids in a voice of authority. Her evident air of command impressed Yvonne greatly who had direct experience of her background for the first time in her life. Back in Larkhall, ultimately it didn't matter who you were before you were banged up. It was the person you were that mattered and you were stripped of all the accessories from the outside world that were labelled and packaged away until your release.

"I've heard about you and Karen Betts. Tell me, was it the uniform that attracted you the same way that it did for me and Helen?" Nikki's eyes danced with mischief. She couldn't believe her ears when she had heard about the ultra straight Yvonne and the equally ultra straight Karen.

"Piss off, Nikki," Yvonne retorted with all the genuine affection that she had always felt for her.

"I want to say how really sorry I felt for you when I read about the death of your son," she said, every intonation in her voice expressing her heartfelt sorrow for her. That is Nikki all over, Yvonne felt with a tear in her own eye. If those words had come from some bleeding politician, she would brush it and the person away as bullshit but not Nikki.

"I mean I never knew him but if I had, I would have felt for him. Me and the Julies had to deal with Monica Lindsey when she tried to OD on tablets and I remember that kind of desperation in her," She stammered."Why did you never talk about him before?"

"We fell out when Charlie tried to nail Ritchie to the floorboards. I took Charlie's side. Ritchie never forgave me." Yvonne looked away, speaking in flat bitter words that chopped off all emotion on the surface but told an astute observer like Nikki all she needed to know about her real feelings on the matter. The terrifying absence of any mention of Ritchie and the memory of her obvious deep affection for Lauren spoke volumes .Till she read about it in the sort of impersonal newspaper that is usually sold over the counter, she had never known from the very real flesh and blood Yvonne that she even had a son.

"That isn't what I came to see you about, Nikki, not even to talk about old times," Yvonne said presently, her eyes that had been staring vacantly away into the distance and were now being focussed on the other woman. "There are plans to nail Fenner and we were wondering if Helen would help, that is, if you are with her."

"In what way,Yvonne and what sort of plans," Came the sharp reply. The words spurred the old adrenaline rush of the two of them together in another partnership though the mention of Helen's name rang a tiny warning bell at the back of her head.

"Karen wants to land Fenner in the dock on a charge of rape. And we could do with Helen's testimony as Wing Governor as she investigated a lot of Fenner's dirty dealings. Dockley, O'Kane, Rachel Hicks She's an ex suit and you must know that that has more clout than a couple of ex cons."

Nikki was about to flare up in anger at Yvonne to hear herself described that way until a visual flash of the tearful yet authoritative evidence provided by Sally Ann Howe ,a one time police colleague of DC Gossard was instrumental in discrediting him and securing her own release. Things were not the same as when they were in Larkhall. Her own abilities in either running a gay club or running up against the hated screws at Larkhall weren't enough.

"Yeah, Nikki, it's amazing what the difference the right way of presenting a case in court makes. I've had a ringside seat in watching how that murdering tart and my son were nailed up far tighter the legal way than any of my mob could do it. The judge who sent them down is a decent man and I never even knew that such people existed."

Nikki shook her head in wonder and disbelief at Yvonne's new found respect for the law and that ,in contrast, Yvonne of all people, accepted the limits of her own power in the same breath as defining Nikki's.

"So where do I come in, Yvonne?" she asked.

"Can you talk to Helen and persuade her to give evidence in support of Karen."

Nikki bit her lip as the first onrush of delight in seeing Fenner get what was coming to him died down. The vision of Fenner in the dock was totally irresistable and it was much more satisfying and permanent than the time she scared him rigid with his very real fear that she would stick a broken milk bottle in his neck in the same way that she had done for Gossard. The pause for thought recalled Helen's total blind panic at the thought of being slightly involved with the goings on at Larkhall, even in a righteous cause. She knew only too well from Helen her passionate scorn and feelings of hurt that Karen ,of all people, had taken Fenner's side, even to the point of threatening Helen with charges of harassing Fenner of all people. If she was honest with herself, she had mixed feelings about getting involved with a part of her past that she was trying to move on from. There were bittersweet memories of all the blind anger against injustice, all the close feelings of friendship, all the love she had felt for Helen and the pain also. Certainly, Fenner had it coming to him but why them? Surely, they had bled enough from the crucifixion for long enough. Do they have to get up, once again, on the cross?

"I don't know, Yvonne," She said to the other woman's dismay. The light of battle which had so inspired Yvonne in her own will to resist in the past was fading off Nikki's face. "there are a lot of problems with this one. For a start, I know how strongly Helen feels about the way that Karen stood up for Fenner against her even to this day. She had warned her right from the very start what he was really like. For another, Helen is petrified at the thought of going back to a part of the past which she escaped from by the skin of her teeth. She's been having nightmares recently ever since the papers came out with all that trial stuff………"

"That's got bugger all to do with Fenner. He was only one of the witnesses that were stacked up against that murdering tart and her boyfriend."

Nikki winced at the way that Yvonne distanced herself from her own son when he was mentioned in the same breath as his girlfriend.

"You're thinking logically, Yvonne," She patiently reasoned back at her. "The fact that the trial is in any way connected with Larkhall is what she's afraid of."

"Fenner ought to be the one that is bleeding scared of us, not the other way round. I threatened him that he'll be finding out what's on the bottom of the Thames as I had my fingers round his throat if he laid one more finger on Karen," Came the vengeful reply.

"Still the same Yvonne," Nikki grinned broadly at the entrancing vision before her eyes.

"Why don't you talk to Helen. See what she says. She may surprise you and me and herself," Yvonne pleaded with Nikki, something she very rarely did.

"I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll talk to Helen about it but I'm making no promises as to whether or not she'll agree to it. You must understand this and why. In the meantime, why don't you stop here for another drink, Have a look round the place," Nikki said expansively and proudly.

Yvonne followed Nikki through the door to the club where women were starting to drift in and she couldn't get over the fact that this was a place where women together was perfectly natural. The monumental row she had with Lauren was something she would not lightly forget. Neither was the way that these women must have worked out their identities in the same way that she and Karen were doing.

Part Seventy Nine

Once Yvonne had left, Nikki retreated to her office, supposedly to work on the books, but in reality to mull over what Yvonne had asked her to do. Could she persuade Helen to stand as a witness, should she even try. They were settled, Helen and her in their new life, Nikki with the club and Helen with her psychology patients. What right did Nikki or anyone else have to upset the apple cart so completely. Nikki was well aware that Helen hadn't entirely dealt with or moved on from what had happened with Fenner, Karen and everything to do with Larkhall. But Nikki sure as hell knew that going back in to that world was not the way forward, for either of them. But Nikki simply couldn't ignore what had happened to Karen. No matter how much Karen had been wrong to dismiss Helen's persistent warnings about Fenner, she didn't deserve to have been raped. Nikki knew none of the details, because Yvonne hadn't voiced them, but Nikki hadn't either needed or wanted her too. Fenner was Fenner, and if someone said they'd been raped by him, then it must be true. Eventually, she abandoned her computer and walked out to the bar and told the women working there that she was going home early tonight and only to ring her if it was urgent.

when she walked in to their flat, Helen was in the kitchen pouring herself a glass of wine.

"Nikki," She called, "Is that you?"

"No one else," Said Nikki, walking in to the kitchen and giving Helen a kiss.

"You're home early. Do you want some of this?" Helen asked, holding up the bottle.

"Please," Replied Nikki, thinking that she'd need some Dutch courage for this one. When they were ensconced on the sofa, Helen said,

"So, to what do I owe the unexpected pleasure of having you home at this time?" Nikki reached for the cigarette packet, a habit that she'd never abandoned since her Larkhall days.

"I had a visit from Yvonne today."

"Oh?" Said Helen, knowing that there must be a lot more to it than this. "How is she?"

"She's okay. Do you remember about a week ago when I told you she was seeing Karen Betts?"

"Of course I do and I didn't believe a word of it. There was never a pair of women more in to men than those two."

"Well, it's true. Believe it or not, but yes, they are. It's in its early days, but Yvonne seems happy."

"Nikki, why are you telling me this?"

"She came to tell me that Karen is in the process of putting a case together against Fenner, for rape."

"What, you mean Fenner raped Karen?"

"Yeah, and she's got herself a hot shot barrister and they're preparing to take him to court."

"No way, Nikki."


"Whatever they want from me, the answer's no."

"You don't know what I was about to say."

"don't give me that, Nikki. Karen wants me to stand as a witness because of what Fenner did to me, and after all the bullshit I had from her. No way!"

"I'm not trying to persuade you either way," Said Nikki, trying to remain calm in the face of Helen's fury.

"Nikki, that is exactly what you're doing by even bringing this up."

"Listen," Said Nikki plicatingly. "I know you're still furious with Karen for not taking any notice of the things you said about Fenner, and in your place, so would I be. But she didn't deserve what he did to her, the same as you didn't."

"I know," Said Helen, sounding utterly defeated. "But I can't go back to all that, Nikki. I just can't do it."

"If it makes you feel any better, I don't think it was Karen who wanted to involve you. For what it's worth, I don't think she even knows Yvonne came to see me. It's Karen's barrister who wants to talk to you, about everything you know about Fenner, not just about what happened to you. Let's face it, you were around for most of his serious blunders."

"Tell me about it. Rachel Hicks, Shell Dockley's beating, the stabbing, the escape, you bloody name it."

"As far as I know, this Barrister, Jo Mills I think she's called, just wants to talk to you. No pressure whatsoever, just a chat."

"You don't seriously believe that?" Said Helen in disgust. "That's how these people start, no pressure, just a chat, and the next thing you know you're entering a witness protection program because of the dirt you've got on some bloody no mark like Fenner." Nikki laughed affectionately.

"They're not all that bad. You're forgetting that one of their ilk got me out on appeal," She said turning serious again.

"I doubt even a QC could put Fenner away."

"This one is by all accounts. After Yvonne left, I did an internet search on her. If anyone can give Fenner what he deserves, it's her."

"Nikki, I really don't know about this. Yes, I want Fenner to rot for what he did to me and everyone else over the years, I just don't know if I can be part of that. Jesus, I even changed my bloody name to get away from all that."

"yeah, Yvonne said they'd had some trouble finding you. I think that's why she came to me."

"did she know about us when you were still in prison?"

"We never discussed it, but she's not stupid."

"I really don't want to have to see him again, not even across a courtroom."

"That's what's really scaring you, isn't it."

"Yeah. I have enough nightmares about him already, without that."

"You don't know that you'd even have to appear in court. For now, Jo Mills simply wants to talk to you because of everything you know, not least because of the Virginia O'kane stuff."

"god, I'd almost forgotten about that. A jury would crucify him if they knew about that."

"Precisely. So, will you at least talk to her, see what she has to say?" Helen poured herself another glass of wine and helped herself to one of Nikki's cigarettes.

"Okay," She said after taking a long drag. "I'll talk to her, but no promises."

A while later, when Helen went for a long soak in the bath, Nikki called Yvonne.

"You bloody owe me one for this," Said Nikki, half joking, half serious. "That is the hardest thing I swear I've ever had to do."

"What did she say?"

"Helen will talk to Jo, but absolutely no promises. You've got to make that clear. It's taken all I've got to get her to do this much, and I don't think your gorgeous QC's got a cat in hell's chance of getting Helen in to court, but she will fill her in on as many of Fenner's misdeeds as possible."

"First, you're an angel, and second, how do you know Jo's gorgeous?" Nikki laughed.

"After you left, I did a search on her. There was a picture of her, very nice if you're free and single."

"And straight," put in Yvonne, "She only indulges in men."

"That's what I'd have said about you a couple of years ago."

"I know, crazy, isn't it. Let's just hope she can do to Fenner what she did to Snowball and Ritchie."

"Was it her who prosecuted Ritchie?"

"Yeah, bloody fine job she did of it as well. Though, with the evidence they had stacked against them, a chimpanzee could have probably still sent them down, just not with as much style." All this was said in the half wistful, half abrasive tone that Nikki knew hid so much regret.

"By the sounds of it," Said Nikki quietly, "You did everything you could for Ritchie."

"Nikki, please don't even think of going there. Karen's the one I've got to concentrate on now."

"Well, tell her from me she's a very lucky woman," Said Nikki fondly.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Said Yvonne with a deprecating smile in her voice.

"Yes," Said Nikki grinning, "She got to initiate you and I didn't. All I can say is, she must be special."

"You daft cow," Said Yvonne beginning to laugh, "But yeah, she is special, very special. Maybe even a you and Helen kind of special."

"Jesus," Said Nikki, "I just hope you don't have half the problems we did at the beginning."

"You're happy now though, aren't you?"

"Oh, yeah, but it was hard at first, incredibly hard."

"You see, this is why I've got to fight all I can for her. She still has to work with Fenner day in day out, and it means she can't move on from what he did to her."

"She's lucky to have you, just don't let her forget that."

After speaking to Nikki, Yvonne phoned Jo.

"I've got you the goods," She said as a way of opening the conversation.

"Do you say that to everyone you do slightly dodgy deals for?" Asked Jo, smiling broadly.

"yeah, sorry," Said Yvonne beginning to laugh, "Force of habit." Then, turning serious, she said, "I have found Helen Stewart and she will talk to you."

"Marvelous, I thought you'd find her."

"No one, not even Fenner on a good day, could hide from me."

"so why couldn't she be traced via normal means?"

"Probably because she's changed her name, to Helen Wade. Her girlfriend is an old mate of mine, someone you may have heard of, Nikki Wade?"

"You mean, The Nikki Wade?" Said Jo in astonishment.

"The very same. Now, there's just one other thing. You need to tread extremely carefully with Helen. There's still clearly a lot of resentment there for Karen's total ignorance of Fenner's true nature. Helen will talk to you, but at this stage, you've got no chance of getting her near a courtroom. Just, treat her with kid gloves, or she might do another disappearing act."

"Okay, unlike George, I know how to be gentle with witnesses."

"Whatever happens with Helen, I really think you ought to tell Karen about this. She isn't going to be amused with me for keeping it from her as it is, but I think she deserves to know."

"Point taken. Thank you for doing this."

"Any time. I just hope it was worth it."

Part Eighty

Jo feverishly stabbed at the dial as she pressed the numbers which would link her to Helen. She drummed her fingers on the telephone table as the audible metronome of the dialling tone drove her frantic to get through to Helen.

"Hi, neither Helen nor Nikki are in, if you want to leave a message for either one of us, speak clearly and leave your message after the pips. If it's urgent can you phone up on………" a friendly automated voice spoke with a pronounced Scottish accent. Despite this, it wound Jo up as the human being who could listen and respond was not there, only this shadowed response.

"Hi, it's Helen Wade here," the real human voice cut in with that fractional change of intonation to the real human voice.

"Helen, my name is Jo Mills. I am the barrister representing Karen Betts. I take it that you already know that I am asking you to tell me what you know and, if you are agreeable, to give evidence in court."

"Yes, my partner Nikki did mention some such matter to me. It is perhaps as well that I am talking to you direct instead of talking via a go between. You had better tell me exactly what you are after and just why you want to involve me in the matter," Helen replied in a precise, chilly, far from reassuring tone of voice.

They make these Wing Governors tough, winced Jo. I would far rather go three rounds with George in any court case you care to name.

"I was the prosecuting barrister in the Atkins Pilkinton case which you may have read about. In the course of the case, it came out that a key witness, Karen Betts who I understand that you know……."

"Yes, I knew her only too well," Helen's grim anger filled voice cut in and the past tense forcibly consigned her to an unwanted part of her past life.

"………had been raped by one of the other witnesses in the trial, Mr Fenner. It's a long story but when Karen Betts gave her evidence the defense hauled her over the coals for her brief involvement with Mr Atkins whose mother, Yvonne Atkins you know."

"…………not exactly the best move in her life," Helen replied dismissively.

"From talking to Karen I know that she bitterly regretted her involvement with Mr Atkins as much as anyone when she found out that she was used for the purposes of the two people who were later put in the dock. What came to light is that her ill judged decision to involve herself with Mr Atkins stemmed directly from her traumatic experience at the hands of Mr Fenner, another man with whom she had a relationship and who totally deceived her. She feels now that he should be put in the dock as a serial abuser of women who will get worse the longer he is allowed to get away with it. I know that you have every reason not to get involved because of what I understand was a very painful period in your life but I am asking you, at the very least, to tell me what you know about Mr Fenner's crimes. You were at the centre of all the investigations and you have the most authority. There is no one who knows more from that side than you. Please, Helen, I am asking you nicely."

There was a long silence where Jo could hear her own breathing and the matter hung in the balance. Helen felt so intensely that there is a world of difference in watching an angst ridden TV programme and actually living it and this woman was a well meaning stranger to all that had happened. Good motives are not enough, she thought bitterly. A part of her mind wanted to slam the door shut on this woman and the locked up feelings of hurt and pain which were threatening to escape as they talked. The back of Helen's mind secretly admitted how persuasive she was in talking in their shared language of intelligence and incisive reason.

"Go on, I'm listening," Helen replied in a more guarded tone.

"We ought to talk about what it is that divides you from Karen Betts. What sort of relationship did you have with her?"

A sudden onrush of memories flooded into the present of the fresh faced respectful friendly Prison Officer with a pleasant smile who was one of the few like minded liberals like herself. How grotesque was her bitter farewell to Karen that she was 'sick and tired' at explaining to an uncomprehending and hostile Karen that Fenner was a 'misogynist bastard'.

"I liked her at the beginning ….she didn't like Jim Fenner any more than I did, or so I thought," Helen replied in halting tones where her anger and hurt broke through the hard veneer. "She had been with me when I interviewed Shell Dockley when she came in ,all bruised and battered by Fenner. She said that he did it when he had accused her of making poison pen phone calls to his wife. I even had a drink with her when I warned her what sort of a devious bastard he was and to watch him. I thought she understood but by some process that I couldn't keep track of she ended up in a relationship with him. I got angry with her for being so blind when she took his side in any row I had with him. I never really wanted an argument with her but she was the one who forced it all the time. If she had stuck with me and kept away from that bastard, we could have got rid of him. I blame her for what happened when she should have known better. A part of me thinks that she got everything that was coming to her."

"And the other half, Helen?" Jo asked softly.

"I don't know," Helen confessed in bewilderment, her voice slow, feeling its way in contrast to the earlier steely certainties. "Perhaps I don't want to know as it all happened a long time ago and I want to keep it that way."

"Perhaps she isn't the Karen Betts that you know. For a start, she's in a relationship with Yvonne Atkins."

"Nikki told me that one," And Jo heard a faint shadow of a laugh down the phone. "All right, I'll tell you what you want to know but don't think for one moment that I'm going soft on her or you. Let me make that totally clear." Helen's Scottish accent broadened as her voice ended on a forceful and confident tone.

"Let's start from the beginning. Can you tell me your impressions of him, what makes him tick," Jo enquired.

"There was something about Jim Fenner that rang loud warning bells in me from the very start, the way he'd smile to your face and stab you in the back . He isn't an ordinary crude liar as he'll mix in truth to suit his purposes and he'll run rings round you if you let him. Knowledge is power and he made it an art form to manipulate that for his selfish purposes and to set people against each other, like…..he did with Karen and myself now I come to think of it.He also had it in for me as a young female graduate in authority over him. You may have come across the kind of man who feels that strong women are a threat.That is Jim Fenner to a T.When I first came to G Wing as an inexperienced Wing Governor I didn't know the half of what went on. I found out the hard way."

The harshness in Helen's voice stood out a mile to Jo and it struck an immediate chord with her when she remembered her early days as a practising barrister. She was made to feel an unwelcome intruder into the very mannered Old Etonian boys club who had their own secretly coded conversations. They saw her that in the very act in assuming their own uniform of wig and gown that it threatened their masculinity. Times had changed in her own formerly male dominated profession ,thought Jo, but Helen was not so lucky.

"That is very helpful, Helen, comparing him to what I've seen of him as a witness in court. Do you want to talk about Rachel Hicks first, or Shell Dockley? It's your choice," Jo astutely asked Helen

"There was something creepy about the way he was with the prisoners, his 'fan club' as Nikki told me a long long time ago. You work at a prison and after a while, you develop feelers for what is going on or else something will go on under your nose and you'll never know it. I could tell that there was obviously something between Shell Dockley and Fenner but there was nothing you could ever pin on her as a young prison officer told me once. Thinking back on it, she got protection from him as G Wing's most dangerous bully in return for sex," Helen's reflective, slow paced voice curled its way down the phone line into Jo's very sharp memory.

"There was always something remote and withdrawn and waiflike about a young single mother called Rachel Hicks. Before she committed suicide, she trashed her cell which was totally out of character. Unfortunately her personal officer hadn't seen much of her but Fenner had 'taken an interest in her.'" Helen spoke the last italicised words with real sarcasm and bitterness. "I interviewed her myself and there was something about her that I could not put my finger on, apart from Fenner's very convincing explanation as he just happened to pop in that her child had just been taken into care. Shell Dockley had got wind of Rachel and had got jealous. With the help of her sidekick, Denny Blood who shared the four bed cell with Rachel Hicks ,they bullied her till she couldn't take any more."

Helen's voice slowed down as she got to the end of the story which recalled her own feelings of guilt that such a thing had happened while she was in her charge.

"I investigated the matter of her suicide myself to find out why , in a four bed cell of all places, she had hanged herself. It was Denny Blood, Shell's sidekick who first told me about Fenner, Dockley and Rachel Hicks as I've told you but her position was compromised. My suspicions became certainties when another prisoner with no axe to grind also tipped me off. It wasn't till Fenner beat up Shell Dockley and she came to me and Karen that I got the full truth from her that the man had been screwing both of them and, of course, Fenner had never told me one word of all this. I went straight to Mr Stubberfield, the Governing Governor who was thick as thieves with Fenner and he was going to believe all that crap that Shell Dockley had been 'knocking her head on the floor'. I forced him to suspend Fenner while an investigation took place. He made it quite clear that this enquiry was going to be a whitewash job to sweep everything under the carpet and I resigned on the spot."

"How did you get back to working at Larkhall and why? I thought you would have had enough of the place?" Jo asked out of interest.

"I was unemployed for a while and eventually came across a Home Office research job working for Area Management into why this country has such a high proportion of women lifers. That involved me spending occasional time at Larkhall to begin with and then I got more involved there with my responsibility for the lifers on the Home Office programme."

"It must have been tough to go back there."

"It happens," Helen replied far too casually for Jo's liking. "I had my duty to do anyway," she finished in Jo's own words. She wasn't going to talk about the background of her relationship with Nikki to a perfect stranger especially the way her growing desires had pulled the opposite way from the clear knowledge that she was breaking the biggest rule in her book of professionalism.

"I was going to ask you about the time Shell Dockley stabbed Fenner. Before we get on to that, can you think of anything relevant that happened before then."

Helen's mind was working freely. Somehow the fear of even talking about her days at Larkhall was dissipating and talking to an intelligent stranger was paradoxically easier.There wasn't any emotional involvement from that person being too closely connected to the events.

"Apart from crossing swords with Fenner on my first day, I can't think of anything significant. I was away from Larkhall that night so the first I knew was a phone call from Karen saying that there was an emergency on and they needed everyone.I tried to gently talk Shell Dockley into giving up the broken bottle that she was threatening Fenner with and to give herself up voluntarily. Just at the point when I was succeeding, Karen Betts stuck her oar in and had the door broken down and Shell Dockley dragged out screaming. I can't remember much else as I was called away to deal with a disturbance on the wing. Karen was there to deal with the aftermath," Helen finished shortly.

"Can you tell me about what you found out in your investigation."

"That night, there was a wedding celebration for one of the prison officers and some of the prisoners were there serving drinks for the guests, I know, not the decision I would have made, especially allowing Shell Dockley to be there. I found out that she had smuggled a broken bottle from out of the party and that Fenner had escorted her back to her cell. I found out from Yvonne Atkins that she had wound her up by saying that Fenner and Karen Betts were sleeping together. While I suspected Fenner's motives in going back with her to her cell, I couldn't conclude otherwise that Shell had fully intended in advance to stab Fenner and had to let him off the hook.I interviewed Shell herself and she gave me a cock and bull yarn about why she had the broken bottle".

"What's your opinion of Shell Dockley? The relationships between you and the two of them are far from clear to me."

Helen silently nodded to herself in appreciation at the very good question.

"Shell Dockley ended up in prison for torturing and killing another woman she was jealous of," Helen said flatly to Jo's horror. "She was as adept a liar as Fenner and kept grudges. She got a kick out of inflicting cruelties. I was never close to her but Karen may know more of her background than I do. She and Nikki hated each other's guts as did Nikki and Fenner. When I came to Larkhall, Shell Dockley was in a favoured position thanks to Fenner and the Old boys network, and Nikki was the outcast. I incurred Shell Dockley's emnity as I broke up Fenner's cosy arrangement and ensured Nikki was treated fairly. However, when Dockley caused trouble for Fenner, they fell out and Dockley came to me for help. I felt genuinely sorry for her and was horrified at the sight of her injuries . I never trusted her any more than Nikki did. Have I made things clear, Jo?" Helen said, having violently compressed a whole complexity of cross cutting allegiances and strong emotions into a few short sentences.

Nikki smiled to herself in the background when she heard this as she knew Helen would be better off if she kept away.

"Perfectly, Helen. I am grateful for you explaining matters so lucidly." Jo meant this as she had experience of clients stories meandering all over the place, glossing over important details while introducing all sorts of irrelevancies.If she could persuade her to stand up in court, she had that assured grip of facts and real strength of personality that was obvious even on the phone. What she would be like in person would be doubly powerful and convincing.

"I have a question to ask which involves you personally. I have had sight of a report that you wrote of the time when Fenner assaulted you. Is there anything you wish to add to it?" The sensitive way that Jo gently forewarned Helen gave her a chance to mentally prepare herself.

"I popped into the PO's room on a deserted evening only to pick up a file and had another verbal run in with him the same as I had done a week or so previously.Of all the evil things I had seen Fenner do or heard that he'd done, I never thought that it could happen to me. In the end, I broke away and ran for it before he could do me any more harm. They say," and Jo heard Helen audibly struggling for control to reduce everything down to a general dispassionate analysis, "that a lot of women who are sexually assaulted know the man responsible. It's not done as much as one might think by some stranger down a dark alley. Still, I was lucky, he only put his hand between my legs, nothing like what he did to Karen from what I've heard."

Helen finished on a note that horribly understated her feelings of total horror and the image flashbacks.

"Do you want to have a break, Helen?" Jo asked.

"Let's carry on. I want to get everything out into the open," She said with a determined emphasis which Jo found had a peculiar edge to it. "Do you want to hear my thoughts on what really happened when Shell Dockley escaped from Larkhall?"

"Go ahead," Jo said politely.It took the edge off the situation if Helen started to take control and was a good omen for her possibly agreeing to testify as a witness. Things were looking up after a tricky start and it looked as if Helen was psyching herself up to decide to testify in court after all.

"Nikki has helped me to piece together a few things about my time at Larkhall which I didn't understand. Shell Dockley would make all sort of veiled threats against him to undermine him when he came back on duty after many weeks sick leave . Anyway, soon after the sexual assault, a TV company came to Larkhall to make a documentary and Stubberfield, that fool of a man, saw it as a way to make cheap publicity totally blind to the way that the whole thing could blow up in our face. Shell Dockley and two others sneaked out in the middle of the mayhem you might expect in a church service where the cameras were on the congregation. Very conveniently, Shell Dockley had left under her bed a bar of soap as a mould so a spare key could be cut of the door at the back of the chapel. They unlocked this and stole the TV company's van. Still more conveniently, she had left a supposed diary which appeared to suggest that the lifer's group that I ran which she was part of was badly supervised."

"In what way was the diary suspect evidence?" Jo enquired.

"The opening line supposedly six weeks before her breakout said 'I want to escape.' Now I was very closely involved with the lifers in the group and they were all encouraged to keep a diary so that their thoughts and feelings could be directed openly and to focus their feelings towards a more constructive use of their time and to maximise their potential. Shell Dockley may have many gifts but literary efforts were not amongst them in keeping diaries. She was a trouble maker in all the group meetings.The whole thing was too suspect for words as I told the investigators from Area that an up to date diary suddenly appeared . Just how they got hold of the keys to the van I don't know but I can see to whose interest it was for her to escape and for both of them to use the incident to damage my reputation. I told them that the key that was cut to aid their escape would be done on the outside and by no stretch of imagination would the bar of soap be brought back into Larkhall except to incriminate me To whose advantage is the obvious question and it clearly points to Shell Dockley and Fenner."

To Jo, Helen was on a roll as she talked and her rapid incisive command of the facts and her ability to articulate them fluently showed her that the Home Office's gain as a Wing Governor was the legal profession's loss as a potentially fine barrister. Jo heard Helen take a swallow of liquid as, unknown to her, Nikki had silently passed her a glass of water as Helen's voice was being strained by all her talking.

"The last link in the chain is the O'Kane brothels. Virginia O'Kane, an owner of a chain of brothels had been locked up and it was Yvonne Atkins, who knows pretty well everything that went on at Larkhall, who tipped me off that Fenner was running the brothels on the side and taking a cut out of the takings. This was my chance to see the back of Fenner and I staked out the main brothel for night after night till I was dropping with fatigue. Yvonne's daughter found out that he was passing himself off as John Farmer…."

"He has to be the same person, Helen. What a transparent disguise," exclaimed Jo.

"……….suspecting something is one thing but proving it is quite another matter as you should know," And that shrewd thrust taught Jo that Helen was definitely in the wrong business as a psychologist or otherwise, had an alternative career. "It wasn't till I found out when and where he was going to pick up the takings and I confronted him one dark night when he was coming out of the massage parlour," Helen exclaimed. "He was actually trying to tell me that he had been there as a punter. That was a first that he had ever admitted anything along that line. I pushed the matter and he threatened me and had me up against a wall. I took the risk of a lifetime and conned him into thinking that I had an accomplice with a handy long range camera and he caved in. The morning after, I confronted him and insisted on his written resignation."

"That's incredible what you've told me, Helen. You've told me that you have direct evidence of him violently assaulting women, your own experience that matches what has also happened to Karen Betts, that he has a record of sexually exploiting women in his charge and that he is totally sleasy and corrupt.You would make a great witness in court both in what you know and in your grasp of the facts."

"And that is what I'm not about to become. I'm sorry Jo, I accept entirely what you say and you almost sound like the way I used to talk a few years ago but I'm not going into the witness box. I've told you what I know and that is as far as I'm prepared to go."

There was a deep silence that lasted far longer than the wall clock where Jo was, ticked out the time. The story had built up from an uncertain start, had gathered pace and rhythm and had built up to a crescendo to be capped by the inevitable conclusion. Except that the story had stopped dead. Jo could hear her own breathing while Helen had hardened her heart as she had known in advance that she must. Then one question popped out of nowhere in Jo's mind and it took words.

"Why did you leave Larkhall?"

Jo could almost feel the tension in Helen while Nikki came silently behind her and gently placed her hands on Helen's tense shoulders. Helen wrestled with the dilemma to tell and the huge risk she was taking but as Nikki said nothing, Helen plucked up the courage to say.

"If I tell you, Jo, I must advise you that I had broken the law."

"Don't worry, Helen. I don't work for the prison service and, after all I have heard, perhaps I am lucky in my career in whom I work with."

Helen was oblivious of the irony in Jo's words when she recalled the slippery Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James.

"All right. It's simple. Fenner found out that I had been having a relationship with Nikki when she was a prisoner in my charge, that she had broken out to land herself on my doorstep the night that Fenner was stabbed and I had slept with her. It's funny that expression," and Helen's laugh was artificial to cover up the tension she felt, "the one thing Nikki and I did not do was sleep, not after all those months that this had been denied to us. I smuggled Nikki back to Larkhall and went on to help get Dockley out of her cell. Fenner remembers all this. If I testify against him, that will be brought up. I dare not take that risk and I insist that you respect our feelings on the matter. One way or another, Fenner must be brought to account but I can't help you out this way."

Jo felt deflated that the chance of a lifetime to build up her case had tantalisingly slipped out of reach. She couldn't blame her but it was no consolation. Helen in contrast, felt that she had been delicately edged towards a cliff's edge that only she could see and she had thrown herself back from going over the edge. She felt sweaty, relieved that she had done the right thing but still felt a trace of that feeling of guilt that she wasn't the Helen Stewart who would have gone into battle. She had moved on.

"You aren't angry with me Jo?" Helen asked. Somehow it was important that she was well thought of by this barrister whose face she didn't even know.

"How can I be, Helen," Jo reassured her with all the sincerity she could summon up. "You deserve a lifetime of contentment with Nikki."

And she meant that and hoped that someday she could achieve a similar peace of mind in her life.

Part 81

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