The Gunpower Plot
By Kristine and Richard
Part Ninety One
On the Thursday morning, Karen felt slightly lighter of heart than she had done in recent weeks. Shell's evidence had to count for something, and today wasn't going to be any ordinary day. Karen was looking forward to George's visit, she was interested to see George's reactions to the normal running of a prison, and to being told what would happen to her if she were ever stupid enough to question John's authority in his own court again. Only one thing remained to be done before George arrived. Picking up the phone, Karen rang down to the officers' room. As she'd hoped, Fenner answered.
"You know that I've got George Channing coming in today," Said Karen.
"So you said," Replied Fenner, "but I still don't see why."
"All you need to know is that the firm she works for is getting its lawyers to spend a day in one of Her Majesty's prisons, in order to get some idea of the conditions their clients may eventually face." Karen didn't enlighten Fenner as to the fact that George's firm only dealt in civil law. That was after all only a detail. "When I bring her down on to the wing," continued Karen, "I need you to keep Alison McKenzy out of the way. She's the only one who knows that Ms Channing was Merriman's barrister. We hardly need a riot on our hands, now do we."
"Okay, leave it to me," Was Fenner's response. Hoping that he could for once do something right, Karen put the phone down.
When George pulled in to the carpark, she was relieved to see Karen waiting for her. She didn't want to have to wait around in this drab, dreary dump longer than necessary. Karen was stood talking to Ken at the gate lodge and George walked over to them.
"I'm not sure whether to thank you or curse you," Said George, opening the conversation. Karen laughed.
"Well, I couldn't exactly let him convict you, now could I."
"Well, thank you for that at least." Karen handed George a visitor's pass which she'd already had made out for her.
"You'll have to hand in your mobile and have your handbag searched," Said Karen. Making sure the phone was switched off, George handed it and her handbag over to Ken. He rifled through the bag's contents, and removed a packet of Ibuprofen which George routinely kept on her.
"I'll have to keep hold of this, Miss," He said to George. "No drugs allowed inside the prison." He put the tablets in to an envelope with her mobile and wrote her name on it. "Just ask for them on your way out." Heartily glad that she would be on her way out at the end of the day, George took her bag back from him and followed Karen through the first set of gates. As they clanged to behind them and as Karen turned the key, George felt an inexplicable urge to flee. Karen must have seen something of this in her face because she said,
"You'll get used to it." As they traversed the dull, narrow corridors, and moved deeper inside the prison, George felt she could easily get lost in here and vowed not to let Karen out of her sight. It gave her the vague impression of walking through the arteries and veins of some enormous being, all its components working either with or against each other. They walked up some stairs, and along a few more corridors, until they reached Karen's office.
"It's not much compared to yours," Said Karen, suddenly feeling self-conscious at her very humble work space.
"Prosecuting and defending companies does tend to allow one a certain amount of luxury," Commented George. After asking her secretary to bring them some coffee, Karen sat behind the familiar barrier of her desk and George took a chair across from her.
"So, tell me why you're here," Prompted Karen, lighting a cigarette and holding the packet out to George who gratefully helped herself.
"I got in to an argument with John, and he didn't like it." George felt an odd sense of the goalposts having been somewhat adjusted. Just under a week ago, it had been her asking the questions, and now here she was, submitting to Karen's probing without a second thought.
"You do know that this is the last time he's prepared to be lenient with you?"
"Yes, I do. He made that perfectly clear. I bet you're enjoying this, aren't you?" George couldn't help asking with a slight grin. Karen's smile matched hers.
"It's certainly interesting. The story is that the firm you work for has decided to make its barristers find out what conditions their clients might end up facing."
"But I don't usually do criminal work."
"No, but Fenner doesn't know that, and it's him I had to convince." A thoughtful look crossed George's face.
"This will give me the perfect opportunity to observe you and him in your normal working environment. When people are on their own territory, their guard is usually somewhat down and they are prone to give away vital signs of their true personality." Karen laughed mirthlessly.
"Fenner doesn't, trust me."
"Not to you, he wouldn't, because you're used to seeing him every day. But it's always useful to see the person about to be prosecuted, on his own turf."
"Jo did, briefly anyway. He certainly went away from that encounter with his tail between his legs."
"Then, I must under no circumstances waste the opportunity to make him do the same," Replied George, an evil little smile touching her lips.
"The plan is," Said Karen, trying to steer the conversation away from Fenner for the moment, "that I'll show you where the inmates first come in, give you their initial impression of prison, and explain to you exactly what happens to any new inmate, no matter what their crime. After that, I'll take you down to my wing, and introduce you to a few of our long-term stayers, and don't worry, I've given orders for Alison McKenzy to be kept out of harm's way. One thing I intend to get through to you," She said, fixing George with a hard stare, "Is that not all criminals are your average drug addict tart raised in the gutter. Most people who commit crime have a, to them, very logical reason for doing it. That doesn't mean we can condone what they've done, but it does enable us to treat them as human beings. I can't pretend you won't see and hear things that might shock you, because you will. I make no apology for that because in order for you to quit winding your ex up in court, you need to see an unvarnished picture of what you would face if you did it again."
"Consider me suitably chastened," Replied George.
"I'm sorry," Said Karen, grinning sheepishly. "When I'm behind this desk, I slip in to full wing governor mode, no matter who's sitting opposite me."
"It suits you," George found herself saying.
"Helen Stewart was exactly the same. I watched her interrogate Shell Dockley."
A while later as they walked down to the reception wing, George was incredibly conscious of the fact that Karen was carrying the keys, and was in fact her only assured way out of this place. Karen moved familiarly throughout this alien environment, utterly sure of herself and her job. George thought it made a pleasant change to see Karen so confident, as on the other two occasions when George had had sustained contact with Karen, had been during their meeting about the rape case and across a court room. Karen let them through the last set of gates, and they moved to stand just inside the room where all inmates were initially received. George could see out of one of the barred windows, to the blacked-out van that had clearly transported the now waiting group of mostly young women. A dumpy, very unattractive woman was stood behind a desk, filling in forms and rifling through any possessions the inmates had brought with them. Karen and George simply stood, no explanation necessary to watch the scene unfold. A girl in her late teens was one of the first to move up to the desk.
"Dawn Jenkins," Said the woman behind the desk, in a brash, northern accent. "Are you here again?"
"Yes, Miss," Dawn replied.
"What for?" Said Sylvia looking at the paperwork accompanying Dawn on her most recent visit to Larkhall. "Shop lifting. You've got to learn not to take things that don't belong to you." Sylvia exchanged a knowing glance with the van driver. "Got a screw loose, that one," She said, gesturing to where Dawn was signing the forms, clearly very familiar with the procedure.
"She's one of our habitual offenders," Said Karen quietly. George gestured to where Sylvia was going through Dawn's belongings.
"Is she really a prison officer?" She said in utter amazement. Karen flashed her a quick smile.
"You wouldn't think so, would you. But yes, as Sylvia would be only too happy to tell you, she's been in the service for over twelve years. Every inmate comes through here, has their possessions gone through to remove anything prohibited such as anything made of glass, which is only returned to them on release. They're then photographed and strip-searched." George looked aghast.
"You must be joking!" She said in a quiet, but nevertheless outraged tone. "Even for contempt of court?"
"Yes," Replied Karen, "Even for contempt of court. Every new inmate is initially treated in exactly the same way, no matter their crime. The officers aren't allowed to touch you, and a strip search would always be done by a female officer." George recoiled at the clear, unequivocal description. "Some, like Sylvia, also wouldn't take kindly to that incredibly posh drawl of yours. The more refined a new inmate sounds, the more Sylvia gives them hell."
"That's no surprise," Said George scornfully. As Sylvia finished with the group of inmates, they all moved passed Karen and George, towards the area where searching and photos took place. Observing Karen's presence, Sylvia stopped and said,
"Only a few in today. That Dawn's back again."
"Yes, so I see," Replied Karen. Then, as Sylvia's gaze moved to George, Karen said,
"This is Ms Channing, a barrister spending a day with me for research purposes." Sylvia looked George up and down.
"Your sort wouldn't last five minutes in this place," She said dismissively. Karen was about to make some response to this, but George got there before her.
"One hopes that one's first impression of a person doesn't actually show who they really are." Suitably beaten, Sylvia turned and walked away.
"If you were an inmate," Said Karen, with a broad smile. "That would have earned you the ugliest cell she could find for you." They moved down the corridor and briefly looked in at the next room, where the group of new girls were sitting on a row of plastic chairs, waiting for their turn to be searched.
"After being searched and having your photo taken," Continued Karen, "You would be allowed one phone call. Then you would be taken for a full medical and psychiatric assessment, complete with drugs test."
"A psychiatric assessment?" Said George, wide-eyed. "What on Earth for." George's expression reminded Karen of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a fast approaching car.
"A psychiatric assessment is purely routine," Karen added, trying to put George at her ease. "And if you're a good actor, you'd have nothing to worry about." George looked a little more relaxed at this assertion. But as they made their way from reception and towards G wing, Karen had time to wonder just why George was so afraid of such a routine part of prison procedure.
As they walked through the last gate on to G wing, there were a few inmates present, but most were still in other parts of the prison, employed in such things as education or stuffing envelopes. George had the immediate impression that she was in a huge goldfish bowl. The glass curved roof made her feel as if there must be someone up there looking down on her every move. Karen led the way towards a set of metal stairs and they walked right up to the 3's. They stood, looking over the rail to the mild activity going on below.
"Queen of all you survey," Commented George. Karen smiled.
"In a manner of speaking," she replied. "This is where we put the prisoners on the enhanced regime. They get their own cell, extra privileges and extra spends. They have to behave in order to rise so high," She finished, the flirtation clear in both voice and expression. George laughed.
"So, there really are incentives for exemplary behaviour?" She said, her tone matching Karen's.
"Oh, without a doubt," Karen replied. They walked back down the stairs, and were accosted by Denny.
"Oy, Miss, I got a letter from Crystal. She's having another baby." Karen smiled broadly.
"Oh, that's wonderful. How is she?"
"She's great. She said to tell you that she'll make sure she's near a hospital this time." Karen laughed. As Denny went over to give the Julies Crystal's news, Karen explained.
"I had the dubious pleasure of delivering Crystal's first baby when she was in here. She gave birth in a cell." George shuddered.
"Does that happen often?" She asked warily.
"No, thank goodness. Crystal was lucky that I used to be a nurse. The thing about this job, is that no day is ever the same. Crises of one form or another are fairly common." As if to affirm this statement, they were then approached by Tina.
"Miss," She said, looking straight at Karen and totally ignoring George's presence. "I think someone should keep an eye on Buki. She got some photos of Lennox sent to her by that social worker yesterday, and she started cutting up again last night." Karen immediately looked serious.
"Did she see the MO?"
"No, it wasn't that bad, but she's lying on her bed looking at the pictures, and she won't stop crying. Only, you know what she's like, it starts off little and then gets worse."
"Okay, Tina, I'll look in on her and put her on fifteen minute watch. but thank you for telling me."
"Well, ever since Maxi died, in here's the only family I've got, innit." As she walked away, George was frowning.
"Maxi?" She said, "Did she mean Maxi Purvis?"
"Yes, Tina is Maxi Purvis's sister."
"And do inmates often..."
"Self harm?" Karen finished for her, observing George's clear discomfort with the concept. "Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more common. I really ought to check on Buki. Do you mind if I leave you for a few minutes. I won't be long, I promise."
"No, of course not," George replied, hoping Karen really wouldn't be long.
While Karen was otherwise engaged, George walked over to a couple of older-looking women sat at one of the tables.
"Hello," Said Phyllida Oswin, "Are you new?" Before George could answer, Bev invited her to sit down. As they were both smoking, George got out her own and lit up.
"How long have you been here?" George asked, feeling that this was probably a universal way of opening a conversation.
"About a year," Said Bev miserably, "And we've got another four to do. What about you?" Used to thinking on her feet in court, George was nevertheless slightly thrown by the question.
"I don't think I'll be here very long," She finally answered.
"Lucky you," Said Phil. "but I must say, it is nice to have someone who comes from the same echelon of society, if you know what I mean." George laughed.
"Do the natives become something of a nuisance then?" She asked, totally unable to resist having a laugh in the midst of this day of sheer oddness.
"Yes, they do," Replied Bev. "Most of them wouldn't know a Quartier watch or a Ralph Lauren dress from the same sold by Marks and Spencer's, and a decent drink in here is like gold dust."
"So, you can get a decent drink in here?" Asked a mystified George.
"Oh yes," Enlightened Phil. "come to our cell during association, and we'll toast your welcome with one of Larkhall's finest gin and tonics." George thought that never again would she be surprised by anything. They were then approached by Karen. As George walked away with her, she said in an undertone,
"I've just been offered a gin and tonic." Karen laughed.
"Those two will offer anyone anything," She said, casting a backwards glance at Bev and Phil. "They're known as the Costa Cons, and as for the G and T, they even manage ice and lemon. Don't ask me how, but they do." George shook her head in wondered amazement.
"I want to introduce you to the Julies," Said Karen, leading George towards the servery where the Julies were beginning preparations for lunch.
"Hello, Miss," Said Julie S. "This a new girl?" She said, looking at George.
"No, this is Ms Channing, she's a barrister here for a day doing research. Can I show her your cell?"
"Yeah, I don't see why not. That all right, Ju?" She said, turning to Julie J.
"Oh, yeah. The tidiest cell on the wing's what we've got," Replied Julie J. Karen led the way up to the 2's, and approached the pulled too door of the Julies' cell. When Karen pushed the door open, they were greeted to the sight of a cramped, very narrow space, taken up with two beds, a couple of metal wardrobes and a chair and table, with the sink and toilet tucked away in a corner. But the Julies had made it theirs, with rose patterned bedspreads and curtains at the tiny barred window. They'd also covered the notice board with pictures of their children. Numerous books and piles of paper which showed clear evidence of Julie S's education classes littered the table. Karen watched as George walked to the end of the tiny cell, and stared up at the window, far above her. Being so small, she had no chance of seeing out between the bars. She could almost feel the walls closing in on her. She turned to face Karen, and Karen could see the sheer panic in her eyes. George moved swiftly out of the cell and leaned on the rail, over which she could see more inmates returning to the wing.
"I'd go mad if I had to stay in here," She said, her quickened breathing returning to normal. Karen briefly rubbed her shoulder.
"Well, this time, you don't have to. Just remember that, and calm down."
"Sorry," Said George, feeling utterly stupid for having reacted like that.
"Do you remember Barbara Hunt?" Asked Karen, "One of the prosecution witnesses. She used to suffer from terrible claustrophobia."
They both heard the sound of the two Julies coming up the stairs, and George schooled her face in to as normal an expression as possible.
"We wondered how you was getting on," Asked Julie S. "Did you see the pictures of our kids?" They moved back to the doorway and Julie pointed to her picture of David which was tacked to the notice board.
"That's my David," She said proudly, taking down the picture so that George could have a closer look. "He goes to public school, doing his A-levels this year." George stared in total shock at the picture of a very handsome seventeen-year-old in his school uniform.
"But my father went there," Said George incredulously, "I recognise the school tie. He's still got one of his old ones at home."
"That was the best thing I ever did for my David," Replied Julie, "Getting him in to that school." George had a thoroughly perplexed look on her face.
"You're wondering how someone like us can afford to send her kid to public school," Stated Julie J, which made George look sheepish.
"Yeah, well, we can afford it when we're not stuck in here," Put in Julie S. "And they reckon getting paid by a bloke for a bit of the other ain't an honourable profession. I'd say it's got to be if it means I can afford to send my kid to a good school."
"You must be very proud of him," Said George, wondering just how many more new concepts her brain could handle.
"Oh, yeah, he's my pride and joy," Said Julie. "I'd just like to be outside, being a mum to him, that's all." As they walked back down stairs, George asked Karen,
"How long have they got?"
"They're doing eight years for GBH, and last year, Julie Saunders, the one with the son at public school, was told that her breast cancer could come back within five."
"No!" Moaned George, for once in her life thoroughly able to see the utter injustice being played out before her eyes.
They were crossing the main association area when there came a howl of anger from behind them.
"What the friggin hell's she doing here?" Yelled Al. Karen and George turned, to see Al advancing on them.
"Al, calm down," Said Julie J placatingly, "She's just a barrister."
"Just a barrister, my arse," Said Al scornfully. "She's the cow that defended Snowball!" There was an awful, stunned silence as the entire population of G wing took in this piece of information. "I think she needs a bit of a kicking for that, don't you, girls?" Al shouted, launching herself at George. With split second reactions, Karen wrapped her arms round George's waist and literally lifted her off her feet to move her out of reach of Al's descending fists. The inevitable shout rose from the inmates at the prospect of a suit getting a well-deserved beating. But Al was so angry, that she failed to notice Karen's lightning removal of George out of harm's way, until she tripped and lay flat on her face, giving Di and Sylvia enough opportunity to grab her arms and drag her away to segregation. Having set George on her feet again, Karen kept her arms protectively round the much smaller woman until McKenzy had been carted off to the block.
"Sorry about that," Said Karen, finally letting go of a clearly frightened George.
"Don't be," Replied George, "I think you just saved my life there." Karen turned, to see an obviously amused Fenner looking over at them. Karen stalked over to him, closely followed by George.
"How bloody stupid can you get!" Said Karen furiously to Fenner.
"McKenzy was only letting off steam," Replied Fenner, as if she'd been doing nothing more than having a raucous game of football.
"If there's one thing you absolutely do not do," Said Karen, her voice rising in anger, "It's to disobey a direct order from me when it involves a person's safety."
"I don't know," Said Fenner nonchalantly, "I think McKenzy's right. Anyone who defends that piece of scum, Merriman, deserves everything they get, and I'd have thought you'd agree, given that Merriman almost got you killed." He said this last bit with his face very close to Karen's.
"I gave you a specific order," Said Karen, giving Fenner the same eyeball treatment he was giving her. "I told you to keep McKenzy out of the way. What's to misunderstand about that. Pull a stunt like that again, and you'll be joining your mate Hedges on the scrap heap."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Asked Fenner, the sudden involvement of Colin's name giving him cause for concern.
"Don't make me spell it out for you," Replied Karen, knowing she was in serious danger of giving Tuesday's game away.
"You don't want to make threats you can't live up to," Challenged Fenner.
"If Karen is in need of a witness, Mr. Fenner, as to today's events," Put in George, in her most authoritative tone, "You can be sure she'll have one."
"Interfering bitch," Said Fenner, clearly rattled by the ice cold gaze that was being sent his way.
"Really," Said George conversationally. "Perhaps one day you'll find out just how much of a bitch I'm capable of being." As Fenner slunk away, Karen turned to George.
"I've never seen him that rattled before. Well done. But I really am sorry about what just happened. You should never have been put at risk like that."
"It wasn't your fault," Said George. "You gave him an order, and he chose to ignore it. I'm fine, really." Karen was not amused to look over to the gate leading on to the wing, to see Grayling staring over at them open mouthed. As he approached them, Karen murmured,
"Here comes my P45."
"Well, if you need a bitch to argue unfair dismissal," Said George, giving Karen a reassuring smile. But Grayling only had one thing to say to Karen.
"When Ms Channing has left, I want to see you in my office." As he left, Karen said,
"He wouldn't dare give me the sack. I've got too much on him for him to even contemplate it."
"His cover up of Fenner?"
"Oh, yes. He hasn't even begun to pay back what he owes me for that."
A while later when they were seated in Karen's office and Karen's secretary had brought them some lunch, Karen said,
"Dare I ask if you've learnt your lesson?" George rolled her eyes over her cup of coffee.
"I think it's fairly safe to say that yes, I most certainly have. I wouldn't have stood a chance against the likes of Alison McKenzy."
"Denny used to be a bit like that. But she's settled down a lot."
"The one who told me about Crystal's baby. She's in for arson, set fire to her childrens' home because they were threatening to move her away from the only place she'd ever felt happy."
"They really are like a family some of them, aren't they."
"Yes, because for some of them, the people they've met in here are all they've got. Take the Julies, their conviction for GBH, was because they poured an urn of hot tea in to the lap of a man who was pimping Julie J's daughter."
"That sounds like poetic justice," Said George, slightly marvelling at the lengths the women would clearly go to for each other.
"And when Denny's mum died about eighteen months ago, Yvonne took Denny under her wing. If necessary, the one thing they will all do without a moment's consideration is support each other. You get a really mixed bag of people, and when it comes to any threat common to all, they stand as one. It's amazing when it's working in a positive way, but it means they do need careful handling. There was a riot once, when I was on holiday, which Helen had the joys of dealing with, and the only reason it didn't get extremely dangerous for the officers, was because the inmates weren't all working on the same side. If they had been, god knows how that would have ended."
"I've learnt an awful lot today," Said George contemplatively. "Other than not to push John too far again, I've learnt a lot about human nature. It makes what I do most of the time seem pretty inconsequential."
"Don't let Jo hear you say that," Said Karen with a grin. "Or she'll finally think she's won."
"No chance," Said George scornfully. "Talking of winning or losing, how did you get on with Shell Dockley?"
"Well, the court order was absolutely necessary, I wouldn't have got near her without it. She was able to tell me an awful lot, most of which I wish I didn't know. The most important thing being that after she was recaptured, Fenner was pimping her. She was giving handjobs for twenty quid a time, and Fenner was pocketing half of it. One of my other officers, Collin Hedges, it seems he was in on this as well."
"That does give me a bit more to work on," Replied George, "Living off immoral earnings for a start. Come and see me on Monday and we can go over everything else Dockley told you. It sounds like she may be the ace in the pack." When Karen eventually let George back through the last set of gates, and they collected her phone and tablets from the gate lodge, George looked incredibly relieved.
"I wouldn't have left you in there, you know," Said Karen, walking with George to her car.
"I know, it just feels good to be out of there, that's all. It may sound odd, but I feel an incredible need for a shower."
"No, it doesn't," Replied Karen with a smile. "Prison always does that the first few times."
"Well, I'm hoping this is my first and last."
"It will be, if you learn to control your tongue," Said Karen, grinning broadly and looking George straight in the eye.
"You've enjoyed the role reversal, haven't you," Asked George as she unlocked her car.
"Maybe," Conceded Karen, "It makes a change for you to see the confident me."
"Oh, I did that when I crossed swords with you in court. I'll see you next week, when I can assure you the reins of power will be well and truly back in my hands."
Part Ninety Two
A very grateful George drove off down the road as if drunk on the freedom she had regained, very loud music fading on the air with her exhaust smoke. Ken on the gate was puzzled at this and thought that it takes all sorts to make a world, even this woman. In the meantime, Karen turned her footsteps with no great enthusiasm to obey the royal summons.
Karen felt that she had gained a measure of stability and tranquillity in her job as Larkhall had run through its stock of nasty surprises. Grayling had remained frigid and distant with the minimum of social interaction. That suited her fine as that allowed her semi autonomy to run her part of Larkhall pretty much as she wanted. As for Fenner, he was behaving outwardly as near as he could ever become to a model officer. Karen knew now that this was his standard protective device when he felt the heat was on him to lie low until the danger, real or otherwise, had passed. This was how she had found him before but she was certain that this time she wasn't going to be fooled like she was last time. At the end of the day, she reasoned to herself, you start to learn from life rather than forever being a victim of it. Another reason for her satisfied feeling was that , after visiting Shell Dockley, she felt that she knew him at last and knew him for what he really was. The court case was starting to roll and all she needed to do was to stick in there and keep things ticking over in her day to day job.
She knocked politely and pushed the door to Grayling's lair open and smiled briefly. There was no answering smile in response, only a cold gesture to sit in the very kind of seat George had taken opposite her.
"Karen, I'll come to the point. I have just received a complaint about you from the Chief Executive of Ashmore special psychiatric hospital about a visit you made to one of the inmates there. Delighted as I am that you are taking an interest in matters outside the narrow confines of this prison, I frown at such an initiative which results in this prison with my name on the door receiving a complaint ."
"Exactly what was I supposed to have done wrong?" Karen asked quietly. The knack with Grayling was to pin him down to specifics. She had realised that this was his weakness to zero in on.
"You will kindly wait till I have finished my story and I will tell you exactly what you have done wrong, more than you will like," Grayling glared at her.
"For a start, I checked your personal diary for the day and you were down as 'working from home on accounts.' Your visit to Ashmore does not fit in to what I would call a description of working on the G Wing budget, does it?"
For one moment, Karen was locked into the frame of mind that made herself feel guilty as charged and to let someone in authority trample all over her. It had happened before when she was a nurse when some dragon of a ward sister would do that to her and occasionally when she was an ordinary prison officer. She used to come out of such an interview with a mixed feeling of resentment and annoyance with herself at having capitulated when there was no need to. She was younger then and she had toughened up over the years and learned not to play the victim in her professional life.
"The definition of home is rather elastic, Neil. Wherever I'm working out of this prison is home to me. I thought that this was one of the very few perks of my job but perhaps I was wrong about that?"she answered, chancing a touch of irony. "And I was dealing with accounts in the sense that I am settling accounts with Jim Fenner over having raped me many months ago. I've never forgotten or forgiven what he did that night."
"I've had the Chief Executive yelling down the phone at me that you landed yourself on her doorstep with no advance notice and waving court orders around. We depend on them for a spirit of cooperation and your actions are hardly going to make them amenable if we want a favour off them at short notice. In what way do you think that stomping your way all over Ashmore will improve customer relations? What did you think you were doing, Karen?" Grayling blustered.
She sighed in contempt at Grayling's last question. This wasn't the first time she had been hauled up before authority and been asked this question. She could never decide whether that authority symbol really wanted to hear Karen's explanations of her actions or whether or not it was a rhetorical question, appealing to the manifestly sensible majority against the outcast and the rebel. When she had become an authority in her turn, she made absolutely sure that if she handed out any reprimands, she was much more original and she thought out the matter thoroughly in advance. The best rebel was someone who had had a taste of authority and her time when she was back in uniform reminded her of this when the Wing Governor over her was first Fenner and then Sylvia.
"If you must know, Neil, I asked her very politely if I could talk to the one person who knows more about Fenner than anyone else, Shell Dockley. It was only when she was being bloody minded and downright obstructive about the whole business that I had to slap a high court order on her," Karen replied in John's nonchalant tones that he employed when he indicated that he would seek a writ of habeas corpus. "And if you remember rightly we had a little discussion about your non existent friend in the CPS who didn't tell you that my case had very little chance of success like you told me about. I told When you arranged a home visit for Denny Blood, you surely don't think you were paying off a debt to me that easily," Karen retaliated with her best ironic thrust to take the steam out of Grayling.
"It looks as if you have friends in high places."
"Now you know what it feels like ..and my friends are more powerful than yours, even Chief Executives."
"Don't think you can blackmail me, Karen. You are putting yourself in a very questionable position. What's it to be next time, I wonder," Grayling glared. He loved the subtle exercise of pressure to bend someone to his will but hated it when he was on the receiving end.
"It isn't blackmail to grant me something that I had reasonably requested and something that you are well able to do within the rules," Karen's rapier verbal riposte, counterattacked like lightning. She was unaware that her experience of appearing in a court of law had definitely sharpened her ability in the art of verbal cut and thrust and especially as she followed this up with a crushing argument. "Especially as this favour is directly linked to the way you deceived me all those months ago and I was more vulnerable than you will ever know unless you have been in the exact same situation, Neil."
Grayling's mouth was pursed tight and contracted in that characteristic manner that indicated his displeasure while the frozen seconds ticked away. There was a curious expression in his eyes that visibly blanked off any thought that challenged his equilibrium. Such is the nature of the man of vision that alternative thinking is a subversive act.
"You have to understand that you are an essential part of management and that I expect my management team to be 'singing from the same hymnsheet.' We may have our little differences but we should all pull together for the greater good of Larkhall. When I first came to Larkhall as Governor, I made it my mission to ensure that HMS Larkhall would be steaming a straight course ."
Where had she heard that phrase before , a part of Karen's mind nagged away at her as her mind went on automatic pilot while Grayling droned on interminably. Then she was hit by a blinding light of inspirational memory which hardly related to the darkened gloom that Grayling chose to work in. She had exchanged a bit of small talk and remembered George talk sarcastically of that being a favourite phrase of her ex, the other Neil. It seemed no coincidence that the same managementspeak infested both the Home Office and the world of politics like some malignant plague. Ever since she had first talked to John in his chambers, she felt that she was being educated as to who really pulled the strings in institutions and she sensed a spirit of corruption that ran across all institutions. The trouble with working in the prison service day in, day out was that you became very insular in your outlook in a way of life that had as much bolts and bars as did the prisoners. The only difference between them was that the prisoners had no choice but to be behind bars.
"You haven't been listening to a single word I've been saying, Karen," Grayling snapped.
"You were saying, Neil, that I should do as you say," Karen summarised simply.
Grayling's eyes swiveled away from Karen's face with a hint of a smirk at the corner of her lips. This was, indeed, what he meant but he didn't like it when she expressed it so bluntly.
"That's not the only reason I've called you to see me. I want you to explain that disgraceful exhibition when one of our notorious prisoners was allowed to attack the barrister who visited Larkhall. It doesn't matter who the visitor is "which Karen's mind interpreted to mean that it still rankled with Grayling .."but as Wing Governor, you are responsible for ensuring the safety at all times of visitors to this prison. any incidents give Larkhall a bad name."
"I had given explicit orders to Jim Fenner that Al McKenzie be kept strictly away from Ms Channing, only he directly disobeyed my express order. He even had the nerve to say that because she was the barrister who defended Snowball Merriman, she 'deserved everything she got.' I explained that to her and, while she was pretty shaken up, she understood perfectly well what had happened. More than you are right now."
"You're out of line, Karen. I have more trouble from you than all my other Wing Governors put together and I'm not sure how much more I'm going to tolerate your 'go it alone' approach. You have this 'voice of the people' approach which is prejudicial to proper management. You can't run with the hares and hunt with the hounds,'" Grayling growled, a dangerous light in his eye.
"Oh, so running Larkhall is like foxhunting or harecoursing, is it?" Karen fired back at the man for whom she had the utmost loathing and contempt.
"You're getting me wrong," Grayling said irritably. "Listen, I'll overlook your actions this once but if you rock the boat again then I may be forced to make a disciplinary over the matter."
He's on the run, came the triumphant reply. This is his way of trying to get out of the situation without losing face. He's bitten off more than he can chew. It's best to give him the escape route.
"I'll tell you what, Neil. I was seriously thinking of making a disciplinary matter over Jim Fenner's direct disobedience of my order, but I'll leave it as long as I have your permission that I can leave it be this time, but if he crosses the line again, I'll have his guts for garters."
Grayling scowled at Karen, seeing his ploy so neatly turned around against him but even he couldn't think of a pretext to object to Karen.Silently, he gestured to Karen to leave.
In a glow of rejoicing, she got up from her chair and made her way out of the door.
"And don't worry, Neil. I'll let you know immediately if Ms Channing does write or phone me up about today's unfortunate incident," And Karen fired her parting shot at Grayling. She knew very well that her apparent helpfulness poorly concealed the casual way that barristers might contact her rather than Grayling.
She virtually danced down the landing, part of her dizzy and slightly drunk on her victory and the other more cautious part of her advising her that one day she could push matters a little bit too far. At least in her professional life, she had the instinctive knack of where to draw the line.
Part Ninety Three
George was sitting in her home office, at the computer, trying to sort through the day's e-mails, and attempting to put her tour of Larkhall out of her mind. She hated to admit that it had been a good idea of Karen's, but she knew that the threat of a night alongside the likes of Alison McKenzy and Denny Blood would keep her forever polite and subdued in any judge's presence. There were no such things as privacy or dignity where English prisons were concerned, no matter what the age or status of the individual. George liked her home office, it was probably one of her favourite rooms in the house. Opposite the door was an enormous mahogany desk that held a computer, a printer and various other paraphernalia associated with the modern day lawyer. Along the wall between the door and the desk were three filing cabinets reserved for George's either open or most pressing cases. Along the wall behind the door was a floor to ceiling bookcase holding all of her law books plus a number of old cases contained in box files on the upper shelves. Next to the desk under the window and opposite the book shelves, was a very comfortable three seater sofa and along the wall between the sofa and the bookcase was a low table holding a stereo. To George, this room was vaguely reminiscent of her student days and the room she'd had at college. Since finishing her law degree at the London School of Economics, she'd never quite got out of the habit of working to music. The reassuring rhythm of what ever she felt in the mood for always seemed to unfreeze her brain, to release the electrical impulses from their confines to enable them to work in the most effective way possible. Lighting a cigarette, she flicked through various e-mails from people wanting an immediate appointment with her and forwarded them to her secretary at her real office. Having answered two or three that required her urgent attention, she went in to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of red wine. Walking back in to her office, she put the glass down on the desk and moved over to the stereo. She needed something familiar tonight, something that, years ago, had gone some way to defining the person she was. Putting Abba Gold in to the CD-player, she allowed herself a few moments to relive some of her memories from her school and college years. She could vividly remember dancing the night away to some of these old songs, her body clad in as few clothes as possible and her long, blonde hair streaming out behind her. She'd been so sexy in those days. This didn't mean she wasn't now, for her age she looked stunning most of the time, but at the age of nineteen, she'd been able to capture the heart of any man she chose. She remembered fondly the many rows she'd had with her father whenever he saw her about to leave the house for a night out in what he described as two scraps of cloth with the odd button here and there. During the holidays when she had to live at home, she'd listened to many of these records, and they really had been records in those days, whilst getting ready to go out. She'd dance in front of the mirror, totally naked sometimes singing her heart out to these old familiar tunes of her youth. She and her father had clashed on many occasion because he thought her music was far too loud and far too raucous. She smiled when she thought of this. Her music had nothing on some of Charlie's for loud and raucous. Whilst John had still been teaching law, Charlie had lived with him most of the time, which had suited everyone. John had loved every minute he'd spent with Charlie, but George had often found it a strain, especially when Charlie had been younger. They'd had no common ground, nothing on which to base the foundations of a relationship. But once she'd reached her teenaged years, Charlie had begun to live more and more at home. During one of their many numerous arguments, John had told George that the only reason she got on with Charlie was because She'd never grown out of her own adolescent disregard for others. George had hated him for saying that at the time, but in retrospect she supposed he'd been right. As she sat at her desk, thumbing through the latest copy of The Modern Law Review, which in this issue didn't appear to hold anything of major interest to her, she found she was reading the same words over and over again. Flashes of things she'd seen and heard during her little visit to Larkhall kept creeping in on her thoughts. Putting the journal face down so that she wouldn't lose her place, she picked up the remote control to the stereo and flicked through the tracks on the CD, finally settling on one that had been one of her favourites when she'd been at college, and even twenty or so years later still had its charm. As she allowed her throat and lips to fit themselves around the so familiar words, it struck her not for the first time how relevant they'd once been, and perhaps in their own way still were.
When John drew up outside George's house, he was pleased to see that her car was the only one in the drive. They didn't need company for what he had planned. Thinking that after her day's punishment of being shown what a prison would actually be like, he didn't think she'd let him in voluntarily. So, never without a back up plan, he'd driven over to the university to borrow his daughter's door key. George wouldn't thank him for this, and neither would Charlie if she'd known what he really wanted it for, but these were only details. He jabbed his thumb on the doorbell, but not feeling like company, George ignored it. She was in the middle of one of her favourite songs and wasn't stopping for anyone. Knowing she was definitely in because of the presence of her car, John deftly fitted the key in the lock. When he silently pushed the front door open, he was greeted by a sound he hadn't heard for years. For a moment standing transfixed on the doorstep, he just listened. George was singing, something he hadn't heard her do since the happy, early days of their marriage, before everything had been turned upside down. Closing the door with only the tiniest of clicks, he stood in the hall and listened to her. Any amateur singer always sounds so much better when they don't think they're being heard. This is primarily because they have no-one but themselves to impress, no-one but themselves to get it right for. They can let go of all the tension that immediately alters tuning and clarity of tone that is only present when they fear criticism. A soft, warm smile crossed his face as he listened to her. George had only ever not cared about him hearing her sing if she was either happy or drunk, and in both cases it'd enchanted him to know she was capable of letting go some of her reserve. When singing the kind of thing she was now, the plumb disappeared from her mouth, making her sound completely different, and giving her an extra level of intrigue which always rocketed his libido. He knew exactly where she was, sat in her home office, probably at the computer. He crept slowly nearer, but stopped just before the doorway. He didn't want her to become aware of his presence quite yet. Then her words finally began to register with him.
"I was in your arms,
thinking I belonged there.
I figured it made sense, building me a fence.
Building me a home,
thinking I'd be strong there.
But I was a fool, playing by the rules..."
In a few simple lines she'd perfectly described their marriage. At first, she'd clearly felt safe, secure, as though she had belonged somewhere. But then he'd ruined it. He'd met Jo. Sure, she hadn't been the first and George knew that, but Jo had been different, held something that George couldn't hope to give him. He felt a twinge of regret as he listened to her strong, rich tones, hovering somewhere between contralto and mezzo, with the confident, relaxed vibrato that moulded itself to every word. But when she sang,
"Tell me does she kiss,
like I used to kiss you.
Does it feel the same,
when she calls your name.
Somewhere deep inside,
you must know I miss you.
But what can I say,
rules must be obeyed..."
he knew she was talking specifically about Jo. He knew George had always felt compared to Jo, even if he, John, hadn't actually done so. But when she sang,
"The Judges will decide,
the likes of me abide..."
he almost laughed. When had George ever abided by anything he'd said, in or out of court. There was so much bitterness in these few words that it hit him anew how much she resented ever having loved him, and possibly that she resented loving him still. He decided that it was about time he made his presence known. Moving in to the doorway of her office, he was about to speak when, with her back to him, she caught sight of his reflection in the monitor. Whirling round in her swivel chair with a heavy, marble paperweight in her hand, she looked ready to spring in to action.
"Christ all mighty!" She said, realising it was John standing there. "I thought it was Neil."
"Well, you'd have been in a lot of trouble if you'd thrown that thing at him," Replied John moving further in to the room. Ignoring his jibe, she said furiously,
"What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
"I thought I'd come and see how you got on at Larkhall," He said, conveniently forgetting to mention his real reason for turning up.
"Doesn't an unanswered doorbell mean anything to you?" She asked in disgust, finally putting the paperweight back on the desk.
"Not when I borrowed Charlie's key, no," He said holding up the offending object. Scooting across the carpet in the chair, she plucked the key out of his hand.
"Charlie and I will be having words the next time I see her," She said, calming down somewhat.
"Don't be too hard on her," Said John affectionately. "I didn't actually tell her what I wanted it for." Putting the key safely away in a drawer, George said,
"So, what are you really here for?"
"Like I said," He answered, moving closer to her. "I wondered how you got on at Larkhall."
"rubbish," Said George scornfully. "You could have asked me that on the phone." As she took a swig from the glass of Merlot on the desk, he said,
"Am I that transparent?"
"You always were," She said, putting the glass down. He moved further forward and ran a caressing finger down her cheek.
"I thought we might finish what we started the other night," He said softly.
"I thought so," Replied George, having correctly guessed his true motive. She willed her body not to tremble at his lazy, sensual touch but he didn't miss it. "anyway," She said, slightly flustered and attempting to move back from him, "We did finish what I started." Her mixed use of pronouns amused him, it wasn't as if he'd needed much persuasion.
"You didn't if memory serves," he said, a hand resting on her shoulder.
"You didn't need to remind me of that."
"If that was anyone's fault, it was mine," He assured her.
"It's hardly your fault that I'm as tense and tort as your E string, now is it," She said, turning away from him. Thanking the creator of swivel chairs, he turned her back to face him.
"It sounds like you need relaxing," He said, leaning down to kiss her. God, she loved it when he used every trick in the book to pull her. There was nothing more sexy than a man who is prepared to use every word, every touch at his disposal to really make a girl feel not just wanted, but well and truly lusted after.
"this is terribly presumptuous of you," She said mockingly between kisses.
"You can talk," He said on a laugh, remembering her proposition of the other night.
"Ah, but I had consumed an entire bottle of red wine, so I'd say that gives me an excuse." He stopped for a moment and stared at her aghast.
"I knew you'd been drinking but I didn't think it was that much. Get caught driving after that much and you'll be out of a job."
"I was in a mood for taking risks," She said, pulling his face back down to hers.
"I noticed," He replied, taking her hand and pulling her to her feet. As they moved over to the sofa, they continued kissing.
They lay with her on the inside lying in the crook of his left arm. He made no move to undo her clothing, but just held and kissed her, thinking that she probably hadn't enjoyed much of this simple pleasure from Neil. George felt warm and tranquil cocooned between the soft back of the sofa and John's hard chest. But remembering the urgency which in the old days had fired her up as much as him, she began to wonder if he would find her too slow to respond after all these years. Hard and furious still had its place for George, but more often these days she found herself totally unable to relax unless whoever she was with took their time in making her feel special and wanted.
"This really isn't a good idea, John," She said a while later.
"Why?" She turned her gaze away from him, not for the first time wondering if he could read minds.
"Because as I discovered the other night, I can't pretend with you."
"I'm not asking you too."
"George, the reason you didn't enjoy it the other night was because you weren't relaxed."
"Why do you think I got through a bottle of wine while I was in the bath?"
"Alcohol only relaxes those who are relatively content to start with." George went quiet for a moment.
"Fine," She said, "But don't say I didn't warn you."
"I will consider myself duly forearmed," He said, beginning to kiss her again.
"I need some different music," She said after a while. Reluctantly disentangling himself from her, he moved over to the stereo and removed Abba from the CD-player. Briefly rolling his eyes at the pile of Cd's she had there, he selected Chopin, the only one that positively agreed with him. When he joined her back on the sofa, he said,
"Why are we staying in here?"
"Because I like this room," She replied as if no other explanation were necessary. "Besides," She said with a provocative flutter of her long eyelashes, "This is about the only room in the house we haven't used for nefarious purposes." He laughed.
"I suppose that's as good a reason as any." As Chopin's beautiful notes wandered over her with the feather-light touch of a sprinkler on a drought-parched lawn, the tension gradually began to disappear. As he continued kissing her, and running his fingers through her hair, she briefly thought that she wouldn't mind staying here for ever, but like Jo some weeks before, reminded herself that John wasn't the staying type. When his hand eventually moved to her breast, the friction of the silk of her blouse on her skin made her gasp. He loved watching George's eyes when he was doing things like this to her. Apart from the words she uttered, her eyes were probably the most expressive part of her. They'd widened as he'd coaxed her nipple to a peak where it was pushing at the delicate fabric covering her. She moved her hand to the buttons and began undoing them.
"Now who's eager?" He said softly, his deep, mocking voice making her senses tingle.
"Clothes always seem to get in the way," She replied, wriggling out of her blouse and tossing it carelessly aside. Enchanted to see she wasn't wearing a bra, he ran a finger over her breast, barely making contact, as if she were some priceless artifact with a sign saying "Do not touch."
"You're looking at me as though I'm that priceless strad that you can just about afford but can't quite justify buying."
"ah well," he said conversationally. "Beautiful women and priceless instruments have quite a lot in common. Give them due care and attention, and play them with total dedication and precision, and they usually give out ten times that in return." As she took a breath to admonish him, he dipped his head and ran his tongue over her nipple before enclosing it in the warmest, most agile lips she'd ever had on her. As she'd been about to speak, she couldn't help letting out a deep, throaty moan as the waves of lust began to ripple over her like the incoming tide. She was lying on her back now, with him leaning over her. Every thought, every feeling she had was centered on that one nipple, that one point of extreme pleasure. As he kissed his way over to the other side so as not to leave her other breast unattended, he deftly removed her skirt and underwear almost without her realising. But when she felt his hand on her thigh, she said,
"I swear you just click your fingers to get a woman's clothes off."
"It is something of an art," He replied with a grin.
"Yes," She said knowingly. "One that I'm sure you learnt at a very early age."
"I've never heard you complaining," He said, moving his hand in ever increasing circles until the very tip of his finger grazed her clit.
"Always nice to know someone who is aware of the finer things in life," She said, the word life being forcefully extended in to a sound wholly induced by the skillful manipulation of the most sexually sensitive part of a woman's body. God, she thought, she was loathed to admit it, but she'd never had anyone who could match John for what he was doing now. But then she supposed he'd had a lot of practice. Neil hadn't even come close. In fact, she doubted that Neil even knew the clitoris existed. Foreplay was something to be endured only if he was asked very nicely. George could feel her insides melting, and she was sure John could too as he inched three fingers inside her. As he kissed his way down over her very flat stomach and along her hip bone, she shivered as she knew what was coming. She hadn't had the pleasure of this delicacy for longer than she cared to remember. The one time she'd asked Neil to do this for her, he'd flatly refused, saying that he didn't like it. Even when she'd pointed out that every woman tasted differently and had asked him to at least try it, he'd still said no. John was lying between her legs now, alternately massaging her clit with his tongue and tasting her arousal as if it were the finest wine any French vineyard could produce. Briefly lifting his head to look up at her, he saw the intensity of her expression and her teeth that were clamped down on her lower lip.
"Don't stay quiet on my account," he said, all the time moving his fingers over and inside her.
"Why can't I get you out of my bloody system?" She said, clearly cursing herself for giving in so easily.
"Don't fight it," He said with a broad smile. "I'm told it's my endless sensitivity and charm."
"Which tart told you that then?" She asked, always more prone to slip in to unlawyerly language when she was either drunk or aroused.
"I can't remember offhand," He said, ignoring the jibe. Returning his tongue to her clit, he searched for and located her G spot, something Neil had never even attempted. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps as he simultaneously nibbled on her clit and moved his hand inside her, grazing that internal pleasure point with every thrust. Knowing she had to be close, he reached up with his left hand and rolled her right nipple between finger and thumb. She cried out as she came, finally letting go of every last shred of self-doubt and reserve, simply allowing her orgasm to take her wherever it chose. As a result of all her pent up anger, frustration and self-loathing, her orgasm was more incredible, more explosive than any she'd had in a very long time, possibly even since she'd been married to John. When she finally seemed to have come down from her peak, he gently withdrew his hand and kissed his way back up her body, pausing to soothe each slightly bruised nipple with his tongue on the way up. When he reached her face, he simply lay there, gazing in to those eyes that for once, weren't clouded by either anger or sadness. She just lay there for a while, her breathing returning to normal.
"You ought to come with a government health warning," She said eventually, in the soft, drowsy voice that was completely devoid of all her bitterness.
"Why?" He asked, smiling at her.
"Because I think I'm utterly incapable of moving."
"No-one says you have to move any time soon," He observed.
"But I really ought to return the favour," She said, smiling at him lasciviously. "It would after all be insufferably rude not too." He leaned forward and kissed her.
"The night is very young, George."
"Oh, really," She drawled, lightly fingering his belt buckle. Then, returning his kiss with a long one of her own, she said, "I'm glad to hear it. I wouldn't want you rushing off anywhere too soon." They simply lay there for a while, George allowing herself a few minutes of twilight time, a short drifting between sleeping and waking. John watched her, knowing that this form of total relaxation was probably what she needed.
"You look ridiculous," She said after a while.
"The distinct presence of clothes just doesn't look right somehow, especially as I don't have a stitch on."
"Whereas thoroughly debauched looks very good on you."
A while later as they lay in the enormous bath in her en suite, drinking wine and eating some strawberries that John had found in the fridge, George felt that she could easily become hooked on this. Everything John seemed to do for her tonight was either erotically charged to the point of flash over, or soft and gentle in the way she'd never had it with Neil. Tonight, he seemed to know everything she was feeling, to be able to interpret every nuance, every alteration in tone of voice or facial expression. She felt like one of The Lotus Eaters from the Tennyson poem. She was indulging every sense, taking gratification from every pleasurable experience while she had the chance. She didn't want to move from this utterly addictive little place in time where she felt cherished, as if he really loved her. Like the men in Tennyson's narrative, she had no desire to tare herself away from her island, the source of her exotic fruit of pure pleasure. He had again brought her to orgasm, just with his hand this time as she'd reclined with her legs draped casually over his and with her head on his firm shoulder. The warm subtly scented water had lapped around them as she'd wantonly spread her legs to give him better access which had made him smile. She could behave like a whore with John, in the certain knowledge that he found it incredibly sexy. He'd kissed her as she came for the second time that evening, and she could taste the crisp, yet easy-going flavour of the Chablis on his lips together with the tang of the strawberries.
"This will probably be the last time we do this, won't it?" She said reaching for the bottle to refill their glasses.
"What makes you say that?"
"I don't know," She mused, "There's something final about it, that's all. It was just a thought."
"don't think, just feel," He replied, bringing the last strawberry to her lips.
"I suppose your therapist taught you that little line," She said after eating the strawberry.
"She might have mentioned it."
When they'd finally emerged from the bath and were ensconced in her extremely opulent king-sized bed, George was sprawled with her perfectly manicured feet resting somewhere near the pillow, and her wavy, blonde hair cascading over his thighs. She was fulfilling her earlier promise to return the favour. She'd always enjoyed doing this for John. It was slightly bad, naughty somehow, and allowed her to play the whore she'd always secretly wanted to be. He was lying utterly still, breathing slowly through his nose and with his eyes shut. He had a hand casually resting on her thigh, but made absolutely no movement as he savoured what she knew she was very skilled at. Briefly wondering if he'd fallen asleep on her, she allowed her teeth to gently graze his skin.
"Don't you dare," He murmured, with the rumble of a threat not far below the surface. She couldn't resist emitting a soft, extremely evil little laugh. In retaliation, he found the spot just behind her knees that could reduce her to giggles in seconds. Her mouth otherwise occupied, she lightly slapped his thigh, but to no avail. Her will to speak being too strong, she freed her mouth from its earlier activity and began to fight back. She wasn't the only one who could be reduced to a gibbering heap of laughter. John soon discovered that the problem in trying to provoke an ex in this manner is that they also have a very good memory of particular weak spots. She begged him to stop what he was doing but he wouldn't let up. He thought it was wonderful to hear her laughing like this. George didn't laugh enough, and he wouldn't liked to have attempted to estimate when she'd last given way to helpless giggles as she was doing now. Eventually, she lay completely still, her hair fanning out across the pillow, quite unable to beat him at his own game.
"It is nice to hear you laugh," He said, leaning over her, his soft gaze not fooling her in the least.
"this is where you've wanted me all night, isn't it," She asked, recovering from his onslaught. "Totally at your mercy." The look on his face turned in to that of a lion who had finally cornered his prey.
"I might have hoped it would be the eventual outcome," He said noncommittally.
"I bet you did," She replied, joining her lips with his, in that searing way that can only result from an evening of continual sexual build up. No initial seducing of the senses was necessary, as they'd both been working up to this point since his arrival. As he slid inside her, she knew this was where she belonged, this was coming home. As they moved as one, they clung to each other, in an almost desperate attempt to prolong the moment indefinitely. Again, the feeling of finality swept over George, making her imprint every sight, every sound, every feeling of this night indelibly on her memory. When nature's age old process pushed them simultaneously over the edge, she cried out his name and he could see in her eyes just how much she still loved and needed him.
As they lay replete, sated, as metaphorically full as the carnivore after an enormous meal, John's gaze shifted to the illustration of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden that hung above the bed.
"I thought that used to hang downstairs," He commented.
"It did," Replied George drowsily, "But I needed something to look at if ever Neil's interest turned in my direction, which wasn't all that often."
"Ah, so I do have my uses then."
"You could say so."
"Talking of pictures," Went on John conversationally, "Why did you get those photographs taken of me and Jo?" George was silent for a moment. Then, moving slightly out of his arms, she said,
"Oh, thank you very bloody much."
"I've so far managed not to think about little Miss Oxfam since you arrived. You always have to spoil it, don't you."
"I thought you were getting on better with Jo these days."
"That's the point, you stupid man. do you have any idea just what I've helped you to do to her tonight?"
"Don't even think of going there, George. anyway, she knows I'm thoroughly untrustworthy where women are concerned. She's probably used to it by now."
"You amaze me," Began George, ready to launch in to full prosecution mode but John forestalled her.
"George, what Jo doesn't know won't hurt her."
"You're kidding yourself if you really believe that."
"Why do it then, if it was going to make you feel guilty afterwards?"
"Because I'm clearly as weak and pathetic and utterly worthless as you appear to be."
"I thought you'd left the old self-destructiveness of guilt behind years ago." Knowing what he was really referring to, she said,
"Some things never go completely away, John, no matter how much you think you've buried them." Wanting to return the conversation to safer ground, he asked,
"so, why did you want the photos?"
"Why do you think I wanted them?" She answered in true lawyer fashion. Realising that he'd walked in to that one, he said,
"Well, for all I know, you might have liked the idea of seeing me and Jo together. It was just a shame that all you got was us sleeping." She stared at him for a moment, quite unable to say a word.
"You must be joking! I don't think there's anything I'd rather see less than you taking Miss Oxfam through the finer points of the Kama Sutra." John laughed.
"Aha, the lady doth protest too much, methinks."
"And don't quote Shakespeare at me."
"Why, it's true. Had I known I would be posing for incriminating evidence, I'd have at least given you something worth looking at."
"You're insufferable!" She said, now thoroughly exasperated.
"So, you've never once wondered what she looks like in bed?" He was goading her and she knew it, but to back down would be to go against everything she'd ever believed in where John was concerned.
"No, not in the slightest." Detecting the merest hint of a blush, he said,
"Why don't I believe you?"
"Now I know why I married you, it was so that I wouldn't be forced to appear opposite you in court."
"She's not quite as adventurous as you," He said, still trying to get some semblance of a useful reaction out of her.
"Want me to tell her you said that, do you?"
"Not particularly," He conceded.
"Well, then, drop it."
"Just indulge me for a moment."
"I've learnt by now that indulging you is always a dangerous thing to do."
"Have you ever thought about going to bed with another woman?"
"Not in this life time, no," She said, but the colour had risen to her cheeks to again betray her.
"Never even once?" He cajoled. Knowing she was utterly lost, she hid her blushing face under the duvet. This at last seemed to bring him to his senses. It was a very rare thing for George to be embarrassed by anything sexual. She was broadmindedness personified, and although there had been specific boundaries, there hadn't been much they hadn't tried at least once in those crazy but wonderful early days of their marriage. He lifted the duvet away from her face. Her eyes were bright with brief tears. He gently wiped them away with a finger.
"This isn't like you," He said softly, all the barrage gone.
"It just didn't occur to you, did it," She said, furious with herself for revealing her secret. "That there might be one thing, one little part of me that I would rather you didn't know. My occasional fantasy of another woman is something I will never do anything about. So, before you get any ridiculous ideas about me and Miss Oxfam, forget it." this possibility hadn't yet occurred to him and his eyes widened in surprise. This was quickly followed by the wickedest grin she'd ever seen.
"Wow!" Was all he seemed able to say.
"Yes," Drawled George, "I thought you'd like that idea. But get it in to your head right this minute, that the answer is definitely no way." She put as much emphasis on her last two words as she could muster. She inwardly cursed herself for having inadvertently suggested it to him, but she knew he'd have arrived at the idea soon enough on his own.
"Oh, I don't know," He said, his eyes full of mischief once again. "that thought will keep me quiet for weeks."
"I've no doubt," Replied George dryly. "And don't even contemplate saying a word to Jo about this."
"Why not, she might have had thoughts in the same direction, you never know."
"Jo Mills is as straight as you assumed Karen Betts and Yvonne Atkins to be. Besides, Jo really isn't my type."
"Oh, what is your type?" Her thoughts briefly straying to Karen, George vowed to give him no more information whatsoever.
"You're really loving this, aren't you."
"Discovering something new about you after all these years? Yes, I am."
"Well, I wish you hadn't."
"Why didn't you want to tell me?" He asked. "Let's face it, nothing can be as bad as you wanting me to pick you up like a whore from a street corner in King's Cross and really treat you like one of those women." George couldn't help laughing.
"I was drunk when I said that. Anyway, I'd hoped you'd forgotten." Then she turned serious. "I knew you'd love the idea. I thought you'd be continuously fantasising about me and god knows how many of your other conquests and it isn't something I've ever considered putting in to practice. I find the occasional woman sexually attractive, that's all it is."
"I'm sorry for forcing it out of you," He said, really meaning it for once. She laughed mirthlessly.
"What's new. I'm actually amazed I've kept it from you this long."
"I promise not to talk about it."
"John, I learnt a long time ago to take your promises with a pinch of salt. So please don't make them." They lay quiet for a while, with him gently running her hair through his fingers.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," He said softly.
"Much as I know I'll regret it in the morning, neither would I."
"Don't feel too bad about Jo. If there's any guilt involved here, it's mine, not yours."
"Just don't take her too much for granted." As they listened to the soft tones of Berlioz coming from the small Cd-player on George's dressing-table, John was forced to wonder why she was pleading Jo's case all of a sudden. Thinking of Jo led him to thinking about court which in turn reminded him of where George had been that day.
"You never told me how you got on at Larkhall," He said, praying that his unorthodox punishment had done the trick.
"You'll have to see next time I'm before you," She replied, a soft smile playing over her lips.
"And talking of badly behaved people, why did you think I was Lover Boy this evening?"
"Because when he moved out, his key was the only thing he conveniently forgot to leave behind."
"Typical," Remarked John, vowing to go and retrieve it at the first opportunity he had. As they gradually drifted to sleep in each other's arms, George could already feel the suffocating weight of guilt beginning to creep over her. Where Jo was concerned, it wasn't a feeling she was used to accommodating. But Jo deserved better than this from her. Jo had offered her an olive branch after the Neil incident. Not in so many words of course, but the gesture had been obvious. George had taken it by agreeing to work with Jo on the Karen Betts case. but it looked like she'd just thrown all that away, and all because she couldn't resist the pull of the only man who'd ever really satisfied her.
Part Ninety Four
George was floating in and out of a dream in which golden visions swam before her eyes and, inside her, that heightened feeling of physical satisfaction and sexual contentment felt natural to her and a normal part of her life. Outside the tall, narrow windows of their hotel in the ancient artistic Montmartre district of that fascinating city, the early morning sounds of the Parisian streets became a lazy background chorus to her physical union with John. Every minute spent on that holiday was on a slow moving idyll where they drifted through the days in the sights and sounds of Paris and the heat of the nights where they shared their double bed. They were first married together there by the exquisite feel of each other's skins before they performed the formal ceremony in the ancient church which only told them what they knew already. Oh yes, John was a wonderful lover at night and her life could only become more perfect than it was already. She felt the twin shapes of her engagement and marriage rings proudly on her finger as she delicately applied nail varnish as part of her morning ritual. She looked sideways at John as he lay there, his eyes only for that enchanting semi dressed vision, She remembered that, of course, she was on her honeymoon just recently married to the man who had given her so much satisfaction in her life and that they had come back to their favourite city.
John looked so different today in his immaculate grey suit complete with top hat alongside her as her long golden hair flowed down her back over her exquisite white lace wedding dress. Daddy, of course, was huffing and puffing as usual even then but was obviously proud to walk up the aisle with his own daughter on his arm to give her away. She was to marry a rising young barrister with good prospects. It was such a good match, so all her relatives said at the champagne reception afterwards.
She remembered in that delirious haze sitting outside in one of the endless cafes that adorned the wide streets. It was so civilised to spend the afternoon drinking red wine, which sparkled with their conversation, and a light breeze stirred the overhead canopy. Nearby, a guitar player's steel strings were strummed rhythmically against the haunting tones of the gypsy violinist as he flicked his dancing notes up and down the scales in a cascade of notes. The singer's French accented voice urgently and stridently declaimed over the compulsive rhythm that
'Here comes the story of the hurricane
the man the authorities came to blame
for something that he never done
put in a prison cell but one time he could have been
the champion of the world.'
She knew that John, like her, was dedicated to the music of the ancients written down so many years ago upon the five parallel lines, the dots and the upright stems in a language that they shared, she on the piano and him on his violin and his outrageous seductive charm that they would make music together the very first time that they got to know each other. Nevertheless, his inquisitive ear picked out the strange way that the notes rose and fell up and down the scale in a primitively fascinating way. The words of the song spoke of his dreams of social justice, John talking then in the way that he always did. She smiled to herself in satisfaction, half-listening, as it was not the theories that were alluring but John himself as she expounded them. Her piano and his violin would make music together but his Bob Dylan and her Abba, their pop music of the day, made a strange combination. Somehow everything fitted together in their lives, just the two of them alone to make of the future what they wanted. She felt young and life was opening its gates to a life of paradise.
Paris was the setting for their love which had an aching intensity about it, as John masterfully guided them round that magic city and half of him expounded the flashing idealistic dreams in an age when all was shiny minted and brand new between them. She could hear John's deep musical voice even now as she stretched herself out luxuriously in that Paris hotel. John would be there for her always. She knew that to be one of those unalterable destinies of her life.
"Wake up, George. We've got a busy day ahead of us."
"Not now, John, darling. We've got all day to go round the Louvre." She murmured sleepily, one eye a fraction open and blinking at the sunlight. She stretched out an arm to smooth the tangle of fair hair on her pillow but somehow today, that did not seem to be where she expected it to be.
The trouble was that George wasn't a morning person and had never been the easiest woman to wake. John lay across George's bed and heard George's reply as she lay there, the half smile on her face at peace with herself with that Mona Lisa quality. He had read books describing that quality and at last got to satisfy his curiosity. He was perplexed at her talk about the Louvre gallery. They had not been to Paris for many years.
"We've got to make a move now even though this time, you won't have to take the tube to work and have some lecherous old man leering at you."
That snapped George awake in a second. For a split second, George thought that he was referring to the clean clinical Paris Metro that they rode round in their discovery of the city. Then, the full horror came back to her of being squashed in the squalor of the London underground. The frustrated angry feelings welled up inside her as she remembered vainly calling out to some deaf cretinous jobsworth in a uniform to ask the way. She needed to know which direction she had to fight her way through the crowds to get to the right platform in this plague ridden smelly rabbit warren. In all her life, she had always been able to get her voice to carry at full volume to convey her wishes and to threaten unspeakable vengeance to anyone who dared to cross her. Her nanny was the first unfortunate victim of the well-hurled rattle being thrown out of the pram and her life after this was variation of this syndrome.
"What on earth are you doing here, John?" George snapped in as heartfelt way that any Negro blues singer could possibly convey with wailing harmonica, whining slide guitar and pain racked singing. Not that the relative aesthetics of the electric Chicago blues of Howling Wolf, Elmore James or Muddy Waters would have had any possible appeal to her. All she knew was that this impossible infuriating man was so cheerful and bright, first thing. He always had been but it didn't matter then somehow.
"I gave you three extremely good orgasms last night. Don't you remember?" John said quietly as he spotted the well-known danger signs. So you did," Drawled George, her face softening for a moment at the memory of his utterly addictive touch. Then, her face hardened again. Her dream had been so vivid, that she could have been back in those hedonistic days of their early marriage. But then he'd spoilt her dream. Observing her returning frown, he said,
"Still if you are regretting everything .."
"I don't." The heartfelt tones wrenched from her, expressed all her desires for the one man who had once meant everything in her life. It was impossible for them to live together as she knew from her bitter experience of his infidelities. A traitorous voice within her was wondering if it was possible for them to ever live apart and be as really divorced from each other as the court order said in print that they were. A bittersweet flavour of her dreams still hung around like some heady perfume as she reflected on her guilt at her behaviour to Jo last night. This feeling grated up against her accumulated anger that, so many years ago, Jo had come between her and her Paris idyll with John. This time in the morning was not the best for deep introspection and she brushed her neat barely shoulder length blond hair and her thoughts out of her mind while she looked at herself in the mirror. It was true that her face had not greatly changed since the days of her youth, the same aristocratic, finely carved lines but the woman inside had changed, especially so in the past few weeks. "Do you really not feel any guilt for cheating on Jo? Still," she added on a hard, cynical note, "You must be used to it after all this time."
John was watching her nonchalantly as he buttoned up his stylish white shirt and slipped on his favourite grey Saville Row jacket, ready to face the day. He looked himself over in George's extremely wide and large dressing table mirror. Somehow the disheveling experience of a night of lovemaking with George didn't prevent him from looking his immaculate self, ready to climb into his judge's red robes the next day.
"Why should I feel guilty? Jo knows what I am like," John said while looking in the mirror to straighten his tie.
The reflection of George's large expressive eyes bounced back off the mirror and stared back at him. This was her way of saying that he was not able to avoid her eyes that easily.
"The day may come when you may feel guilty, John. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes, not even for the largest barrister's fee I have ever earned if that ever happens to you." George's slowly articulated thoughtful voice and slightly open mouth breathed out the words.
"Guilt was never your strong suit, George," John said in his self assured voice, confident of everything as usual. "You've only ever done one kind of guilt, and that had nothing to do with any one of my women."
"Don't even go there," Said George, swivelling her gaze away from him.
"You were always the one to tell me that you worked as a barrister as you were in it for the money and that my absurd devotion to principles was foolish."
George looked over his shoulder to adjust her makeup after silently slipping her own clothes on. The man that she used to call the Deed was right though she loathed to admit it, those were her very words. There was such a similar mirror at the Old Bailey where she had first looked into her own soul and had started the process very dangerous to her of the beginnings of intellectual and emotional honesty. The only thing is that once you start the process, who knows where it will stop? Who knows how far the apple will fall?
"You never told me how you got on at Larkhall," John graciously offered her a cup of coffee and adroitly steered the conversation onto a safer, more neutral topic.
George took a large swig of the strong black cup of coffee that John had made her. With that inside her she was more able to face the day.
"Do you know that I talked to a prostitute who told me that her earnings are enough to send her son to Marlborough College, the same school that Daddy went to?"
John laughed out loud for a long time at that one. It appealed to his sense of what was apparently absurd happening to be the truth.
"If we had had a son called Charles and had sent him to Marlborough College to follow in Daddy's footsteps, they might have been best friends. Who knows?"
"I should think not, John," She snapped, her pervasive guilt being directed into a very convenient and habitual object of her anger. "If that had happened, I would have gone straight to the school and demanded from him that he must dissociate himself immediately from such unsuitable company."
"I am only joking, George," John held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and calculated the precise pause necessary for George's anger to subside.
"Did Karen Betts make you suitably contrite in your visit to Larkhall? I confess that I have never really thought up till now of what happened to all the men and women I have sent to prison," John spoke in a more serious vein.
"Like I'd been buried alive for a week," George shuddered. "It's a completely different world which makes my problems seem small in comparison. I certainly admire Karen, the way she manages to cope with everything. I can't complain about the hospitality I received. I was even offered a gin and tonic - with ice and lemon naturally - by an inmate."
"I take it that you won't need to revisit Larkhall compulsorily next time,"
John replied, smiling and shaking his head in puzzlement at George's revelation. This dislocated his entire conception of what prison life was like. He had some vision of life behind bars and solid walls that was grim and stark having discounted the right wing press conception of a hotel, three meals a day and colour TV.
George nodded as she opened her front door.
"We are going in separate cars, John," George said frostily.
"That is fine by me so long as your car doesn't break down like it did the other day," John said lightly and then flinched as one of George's best killer looks was directed his way.
George led the way in her car to assert her independence from him and John was hard put to keep up with George's aggressive driving style as she sliced in on the umpteenth car that she had overtaken. He winced at the way that she blew her horn at dithering pedestrians on zebra crossings and timid learner drivers who were the special victim of her anger in their indecisiveness in simply being in her way and sticking rigidly to the speed limit. Oh well, he thought, George won't be coming his way on a motoring offence, it will be some unfortunate bumbling magistrate instead that will have to suffer one of her tirades.
George's pulse was racing after her compulsion to arrive at court early to avoid the embarrassment of the other day when everything went so disastrously wrong. When she was most under pressure, the greater was her need to maintain a steely grip on her surroundings and, most of all, to exercise self-control. Nobody must see her when she looked less than perfect, when the expression on her face was out of control. Appearance to her was everything.
Surprisingly, John's car drew up alongside hers only a few minutes later as she had finally got herself ready to face another day in court. Infuriatingly, it took him only a matter of seconds for him to be ready.
"Are you coming, George?" he had the cheek to ask her.
George clattered down the stone tiled corridor on her high heels after John whose long stride ate up the yards to the central court area. When she'd just about caught up with him, out of breath, she caught sight of Jo.
"Hi Jo. If you don't mind, I want to have a word with the Deed before the trial starts. I won't be long." George smiled what she felt to be the most transparently false smile on her face which made her actions of last night as nakedly on display as she had been to John. It wouldn't have mattered 'back in the old days', as she was beginning to call them in her mind, the days when she and Jo were sworn enemies, the days when keeping up appearances was easy and when she didn't know how to behave differently.
"That's no problem, George," Jo called out casually in a way that only made it worse for George.
Despite her small stature, the force of her personality hustled him into his chambers where it propelled him into his chair and she stood facing him, breathing loudly.
"How can you face Jo Mills and look her in the eye after what happened last night?" George opened the battle.
"What happened last night was regrettable," John said in a low measured tone. "Perhaps you're right."
"Oh! Why are you being so maddeningly reasonable about everything? Why don't you get angry, argue back at me like you always used to ever since we first met," George stormed, her opening sound being one of pent up fury tailing off to the faint memories of her dream which still seemed very real to her.
"You know, you look beautiful when you're angry George," John's answer had that maddening hint of flirtatiousness, even at a moment like this.
"You can't run away from yourself forever," George persisted, not quite knowing what she meant by that statement which popped out straight from her unconscious to the words which escaped her mouth.
"no, and neither can you. I am very good at controlling my emotions as you know. I suggest that you do the same especially as we are both appearing in court very soon," John retorted as Coope entered the chamber to prepare him for his scarlet robes as the theatrical props so that he could pass judgement on others. George turned on her heel and let the sprung door shut behind her.
The fading sunlight of a chill October evening dazzled John's eyes as he drove through the city traffic on the way to the House of Commons. It didn't take him long to walk to the car park to catch sight of the finely etched and detailed shape of Big Ben towering over the city streets. The similarly styled complex of the House of Commons nestled at the feet of the fine upstanding clock tower even though it dwarfed in turn the other grey stone buildings on the other side of the road. His mission was the public entrance to the building where generations of the more politically conscious had queued up in their endeavour to reassert the old fashioned human voice, human contact for the minutiae of the anonymous statistical findings of the modern day focus groups and opinion polls. He entered the huge stone mouth of the complex and patiently submitted to the security checks and the metal detector which told of an age where the blind anger and danger of the bomb was a fact of modern life. He made his way through to the Central Lobby which was a vast domed room which sparkled and dazzled in gold from which corridors ran off, north, south, east and west. Marbles statues of famous parliamentarians of the past added their solid roots to the myths of the oldest parliamentary democracy that he was taught in school, years ago. He wondered cynically whether or not his distinguished career would result in him being so dignified for immortality on public display somewhere and decided probably not. He made his way to the lobby clerk and gave in his name in connection with Neil Houghton and of his safe Labour constituency that he could afford to patronise from a distance being a busy cabinet minister.
"It's John Deed for Mr Houghton," John explained. He looked like an average smartly dressed man at whom the bored clerk flicked up an eye and handed him the card to complete. He wondered what sort of political axe to grind this man had. "Judge John Deed," He added with a bit of an edge.
Immediately, the man jumped into life and made the enquiries amongst the rabbit warren of England's seats of democracy.
John sat back in one of the few comfortable chairs in the place which was clearly not designed for crowds of the public who wanted to lobby their MP. The logistics of this sort of direct democracy was clearly designed to be small scale, especially in an age before the electronic aids for tracing the respective MP were available.
"John, this is an unexpected pleasure," drawled Neil. "Come, I'll show you to the House of Commons bar personally."
The man is clearly rattled to see his worst nightmare pop up in an environment where he is worried about what I might say or do and he has good reason to feel that way, John thought. He is also nervous about his political cronies witnessing the sort of scene that he might create which might harm his image.
"Can we talk somewhere private, Neil?" John asked politely.
Neil led him past the ancient drawings of history in the making commissioned by the ruling class who also decided what went into the history books. He pushed open the double swing doors and, once inside, John didn't beat about the bush.
"I want the front door key to George's house. She told me you've got it. Come on, hand it over."
"What, so you can go round whenever you want as a change from seeing your current girlfriend?" Sneered Neil.
"No," Came the contemptuous reply. George must have been very bored to have taken up with a drip like this. "In actual fact, George is nervous about security ever since you hit her and doesn't like loose keys floating around. Who knows, some burglar might come and steal the "Adam and Eve painting" which hangs in her bedroom. It is a fine painting though I say it myself."
Neil turned white with anger while he fumbled in his inside pocket for the key. Anything to get rid of the man. He had thought that after sending flowers round, it might be useful for him to make the personal approach but it looked like he was wasting time that was precious to him.
"How the devil do you know about the picture, John?" Neil's hostile edgy voice demanded of John.
"George told me that she needed something more inspiring to look at when she was in bed with you," John grinned. "Thank you, Neil, for your guided tour."
And then he was gone.
Part Ninety Five
On the Saturday evening, John had taken Jo out for dinner. He had spent some time thinking about all that George had said yesterday, and knew that Jo did deserve better. He just wasn't in the habit of having his misdeeds pointed out to him by George. If he'd done something wrong, he liked to find that out for himself, not have it rammed down his throat by someone who was only being so angry with him to hide her own guilt in the matter. He had felt a strong desire to make up for what Jo didn't know he'd done. Once they'd returned to Jo's inconspicuous little house, it hadn't taken them long to progress to what he knew he'd never failed at, except for last Tuesday when he hadn't been able to reduce George to her usual shuddering submission, but the less thought about that the better. Jo was as eager for him tonight as he was for her. They hadn't spent a night together since the previous weekend, and they were both heartily thankful that Mark, Jo's youngest, was out for the evening. But Jo soon realised that something was different about tonight. John utterly worshipped her, giving her body every little attention she desired. He didn't let her even consider returning the favour until he'd brought her to a gasping peak more than once. when he finally joined their bodies as one, she rode the waves of pleasure with him, thinking that she just might no the reason for his total devotion to giving her pleasure. He had never ever been lax in that department, but he did occasionally surpass himself, usually after he'd had either a one-night stand or a brief fling with some other woman and he wanted to make it up to her. Afterwards, as they lay close in her large bed, the words on the CD coming from the player on her dressing-table began to register with her. This was a new singer, someone Jo had heard recently and immediately taken a liking too. She had an almost child-like voice and sang a mixture of blues, jazz and soft love songs.
"How can you let me watch you sleep, then break my dreams the way you do.
How can I have got in so deep, why did I fall in love with you."
As Jo heard these beautifully haunting words, she gazed at John who had drifted in to a light doze. She was watching him sleep, and she thought that again, he'd broken her dreams. Jo knew that when it came to bed, she wasn't half as interesting and adventurous as probably George and most of his other women had been, but she'd never thought of herself as any the less sexually attractive because of that. She just didn't like to stray too far from the norm, that was all. But still he had to do it, he just had to go and sleep with someone else. For the life of her, she'd never been able to work out why. In those desperate, early days of their affair, when both of them had still been married, John had made her feel like a woman again, not just a wife to a terminally ill man or just a mother to his children. She couldn't explain why she loved John, but she did, more than she'd ever loved anyone in her life. Even though she was used to his sporadic infidelity, it still hurt her enormously every time. It always made her feel as if she simply wasn't good enough for him. The realisation that he must have been with someone else recently brought tears to her eyes. He must have sensed her pain, because his gentle hold on her slightly tightened.
"Who is she?" Asked Jo, knowing he was awake.
"I'm lost," He replied.
"You've never been lost in your life," Responded Jo, anger creeping steadily in to her tone. "Who were you trying to exorcise from your memory this evening."
"No one," He said, the half truth giving him the ability to look her in the eye. No matter how much both he and George might regret what had happened this last week, John wouldn't ever seek to banish its sweetness from his mind.
The song once again insinuated its way in to Jo's mind.
"How can you make me fall apart, then break my fall with loving lies.
It's so easy to break a heart, it's so easy to close your eyes."
Was that what she'd been doing all this time, keeping her eyes closed to his constant betrayal of everything she felt for him.
"Don't lie to me, John," Jo said firmly. "Don't you think I know you well enough by now to know when you're feeling guilty for something that you'd rather I didn't know?"
"Was I that bad?" He asked, knowing he wasn't but trying to distract her.
"No," She said, her voice taking on the flippant edge that he was used to hearing from George. "That's the point."
"Are you saying I usually am?" He asked in mock indignation.
"No, of course not. You were different, the way you are when you are trying to make up for something or someone." Knowing that further denials were pretty futile, he simply lay and held her, not liking the way he'd hurt her any more than she did. But women were just his one blind spot. The chase, the persuasion, the feeling of being loved by some random stranger, or in this case his ex-wife, provided a sexual frisson that just didn't exist in any long-term relationship.
"I love you," He said after a while. Jo laughed mirthlessly.
"You've got a bloody funny way of showing it sometimes." Then the words of the CD again caught her attention.
"You are the tiger burning bright, deep in the forest of my night."
The twisting round of the quote from Blake struck her as ironic, especially as Blake's title had been The Songs Of Innocence, Proverbs From Hell. Was her part in their relationship a song of innocence, and his infidelity a proverb from hell? She thought so sometimes. "That's what I used to think you were," Said Jo. "You've always made me feel whole, real somehow. But I can't go on like this. Something has got to change, John. Your sleeping with total strangers hurts like hell." The urge to confess to her that this hadn't been a total stranger was incredibly strong, but he fought to bury it. "It's the not knowing that hurts the most," Continued Jo. "I'm never sure that you won't find the next one far more appealing and let's face it, far more interesting in bed than I am."
"Have I ever said I don't find you interesting? Have I ever said I don't love everything about you?" He asked. "I've loved you for the last twenty odd years."
"Then why is it not enough."
"I don't know," He said quietly.
"Well, I suggest you start thinking about it, because I really don't know how many more of your little conquests I can put up with. I'm only human, John, and there's only so much uncertainty I can take." As he gently ran his fingers through her hair to ease away some of the tension, he wondered where they would all end up, the three of them, because this wasn't just about him and Jo any more, it was about George as well.
As promised, Karen and Yvonne were looking after Roisin's children. Karen had made them all homemade pizzas which went down a treat with Michael and Niamh. Michael had been perfectly happy to go to bed and continue reading Harry Potter, but Niamh had insisted on both Karen and Yvonne reading her a story. She'd fallen asleep in the middle of Yvonne's, and they'd left her to her dreams. Across the landing, Michael looked set in for at least another hour's reading.
"I might have to read that book if it's so good," commented Karen. Yvonne laughed.
"He's been itching to get back to it all evening." They went down stairs and took a bottle of wine in to Yvonne's lounge.
"They're good kids," Said Karen, lighting a cigarette.
"I remember the time Aiden brought them to see Roisin when she was inside," Replied Yvonne. "Cassie thought it was the perfect opportunity to enlighten Aiden as to their living arrangements, and he told Roisin that he wouldn't bring them to see her again. I think she'd really have gone under if they hadn't got out."
"Are you giving Snowball credit for something then?" Asked Karen dryly.
That's a twisted bit of logic for a Saturday night."
"I know. But if that bloody fire hadn't happened, and if Cassie and Roisin hadn't rescued Grayling, they'd still be inside now." Yvonne shuddered.
"And those two beautiful kids would be with her bastard ex-husband." They stayed quiet for a while, just listening to some soft music, until Yvonne asked,
"How did George Channing get on the other day? You never told me what happened." Karen roused herself out of the content, relaxed, after dinner drowsiness and grinned.
"Well, she was offered a gin and tonic by one of the Costa cons," Yvonne laughed.
"I take it she said no?"
"Yes, and she discovered that Julie Saunders' son goes to the same public school that her father used to attend. The look on her face was priceless."
"I bet. If anything could bring that one of her high horse, that would." "She's not so bad," Said Karen quietly. "It was interesting seeing her let down her guard."
"How do you mean?"
"She was horrified at the idea that all inmates are routinely given a psychiatric assessment, and she almost had a panic attack when she was presented with the tiny size of the Julies' cell. I think it was not being able to see out of the window because she's so small that did it. But to top everything off, Fenner disobeyed my order to keep Al out of the way, and George was, but for my intervention, almost attacked."
"Quite. Grayling wasn't amused to say the least, though as usual it was me and not Fenner who got the dressing down."
"Grayling has to see what Fenner's really like. He can't keep getting away with shit like that."
"Oh, you know Grayling, he's got a total blind spot where Fenner's concerned."
"Yeah, it's called his dick. They're both as bad as each other." Then, Yvonne seemed to remember something. "Oh yeah, I bought you something yesterday." Karen looked intrigued. Yvonne walked over to her desk and dug about in one of the drawers, emerging with a small Waterstones bag. Handing it to Karen, Yvonne watched as she looked inside. Karen removed a hardback copy of the new Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell, entitled Blow Fly. Karen smiled.
"Thank you," She said, pulling Yvonne back down on to the sofa to give her a long kiss. "I thought this was coming out fairly soon."
"Well, I figured that as you've got all the others in your bookcase, you'd quite like this one," Said Yvonne, kissing her back. "I was walking passed Waterstones and I saw an advert for it in the window. Look inside," She prompted. Karen opened the front cover and was greeted with the following inscription: To wile away all those hours when Body Bag gets too much for you. Karen laughed.
"I'll have to make sure I don't leave it on my desk, open at the front page." Karen put the book on the coffee table.
"I don't deserve you," She said softly.
"Of course you do," murmured Yvonne. "It's me who's incredibly lucky." After a while of simply being close with each other, Yvonne said,
"there's something I want to show you." She got up, and retrieved something from the top drawer of her desk. It looked like a letter. Yvonne handed it to Karen and simply gestured her to read. Karen was greeted by the familiar sight of a prison issue envelope containing the return address of Wormwood Scrubs. Thinking she knew who this must have been from, she removed the letter, also written on prison issue notepaper. She read in silence.
You know why I'm writing this, because I'm too much of a coward to say it in person. Dad would be thoroughly ashamed of me, wouldn't he. No Atkins is supposed to take the easy way out, and all that. But I can't do it, Mum, I can't go on day in and day out like this. It's not prison, it's being like I am. So, I guess this is the first in a long list of things I'm supposed to be sorry for. The second being that you didn't deserve what I did. I am sorry I put you and Lauren through all that, but I had to do it. Snowball was the craziest girl I've ever met, but I loved her. I don't expect you to understand that, but there it is. I know I haven't been the kind of son you really wanted, but then I never could live up to everything you and dad brought me up to believe. Sure, I inherited all the shit parts of dad's nature, and not enough of yours, but Atkins family values just weren't for me.
I've written this letter, not only to try and put the record straight once and for all, but to ask you to do something for me. You remember on the second day of the trial, when Karen Betts was in the witness box, that stupid git who was representing us, tried to question Karen about a supposedly fake rape allegation. Mum, there wasn't nothing fake about that allegation. Fenner did rape her, I'm certain of it. There's things you learn about women, like what's normal, and what isn't, and the way she was with me that first night really wasn't normal, in any sense of the word. A woman asking you to be rough with her, that's nothing new, but this was different. I asked her afterwards what it had all been about, and she said she was laying a few ghosts. Mum, she was trying to punish herself for what had happened with Fenner. I'm guessing she thought it was her fault, but he's the biggest shit going and deserves nothing but a dose of the Atkins justice. You're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this. I've got to say it now, because after tonight, I won't ever get another chance. She was sat in the public gallery with you all through the trial. Mum, please take care of her for me. She's still hurting after what that bastard Fenner did to her, and she needs looking after. I ain't asking you to finish Fenner off, because I know you won't. But I need you to keep an eye on Karen for me. I hate what I did to her and to you, and I can't ever put any of that right. But if somehow, you can see that she's all right, I'll feel like I've at least tried to put something right.
I'm sorry I wouldn't see you when you asked to see me today, but I was angry. I couldn't handle the fact that you'd stood up against one of your own. But then, you never were a true Atkins. You were always above all that. Even though you did all that stuff for dad and brought me and Lauren up to follow in his footsteps, it wasn't really you. I've been losing control of everything in my life, probably ever since I met Snowball, and I guess this was my way of having a bit of control again. I'm sorry you didn't get to say whatever it was you wanted to say, and I'm sorry for every other bad thing I've ever done to you.
I love you Mum,
Karen put the letter back in the envelope and handed it back to Yvonne.
"Could do with a testimony like that now," Karen said, on a mirthless laugh.
"I just wanted to show you that no matter how hard this case gets, because it is going to get harder, that I'm not the only one who believes in you. You've got another meeting with George on Monday, and I know that every time you see either her or Jo about this, you're questioning whether or not you should be going ahead with it."
"I think Ritchie got his intuition from you," Karen said, marvelling at both Yvonne's and Ritchie's sensitivity.
"Yeah, maybe he did, probably the one good thing I gave him."
"This has to succeed," Said Karen. "I've got to put Fenner behind bars for good. Not just for me, but for every other woman he's screwed up."
"I know" Said Yvonne gently. "But don't lose sight of the fact that he's always wriggled away in the past, and with a decent barrister, it's always possible he could do it again. When you see George, ask her about anything Ritchie might have said to her about you. You know that I believe you, because I've got no reason not too. But I think you need some kind of confirmation that someone else does, or did. Apart from Mark, who was too close to the situation to notice something like that, Ritchie was the only one who knew how you were with a bloke after Fenner. Just ask her. I doubt there's anything in any statement of his that could be used, but you never know."
"You're amazing," Said Karen, pressing her cheek against Yvonne's. "You didn't have to show me that letter. It was something personal from Ritchie to you. But you did. I'm not used to someone doing almost anything for me."
"Well, get used to it," Said Yvonne gently but firmly. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and nothing or no one, and especially not Fenner, is ever going to hurt you again as long as I'm around."
A/N: Some viewers may find the following scene disturbing. I should know, I've just betaed it. (Kristine).
Part Ninety Six
It was a nice relaxing Sunday afternoon when Fenner checked his watch and, regretfully, decided to tare himself away from the convivial scene at his local pub.
"I'm sorry lads, but the match is due to kick off on the telly in half an hour's time. I could do with an early night as I've got an early shift at work. I'll be here same time next week and we'll sink a few more pints together."
There were cries of disappointment from the crowd as Fenner was a popular man in his local. The older crowd of regulars did help create a nice atmosphere. The landlord found that he and his crowd spent their money freely and were also well behaved not like some of the young rowdies who got tanked up and aggressive. It wasn't just the lads these days as some of the women were as bad as anyone. His pub was luckier not to have the flashing lights and loud music and being a bit off the beaten track, didn't attract the worst sort of trouble makers.
In a haze of contentment, Fenner sank back into the driving seat of his car. It was a sunny day outside and he had a nice contented weekend. Fluffy white clouds ambled their way across the sky and a nice cool breeze blew gently. Work wasn't so bad these days though. He had decided today when he was drinking with the lads to take life as it came and not to get so jumpy. He'd had a bad patch when he was thinking that someone was out to get him and he had some bad nights but when it came down to it, he ought to trust his survival instincts more. He had had bad enough times when Stewart was after him but he'd seen her off out of Larkhall. Betts was the same sort of dangerous woman and he didn't like the feel of those toffee nosed barristers coming round Larkhall one bit. All he needed to do was to keep his eyes open at work and take it easy when he had the chance to off duty. That way, he wouldn't get all wound up and end up hitting the hard stuff. He'd been around long enough and with his jailcraft, he'd outlast them all and collect his lump sum pension in the end. He even resolved not to shag any more women who had the remotest connection with Larkhall as all his women problems had stemmed from mixing work and pleasure with all the temptations right under his nose.
With that comforting thought, he turned the key in the ignition and headed off back home. That would give him just enough time to fetch a few cans of lager from the fridge, put his feet up in his chair and get settled for the match. The papers told him that it would be a hard fought match which was just what he liked. His car turned smoothly into the line of traffic. Just at this moment, a woman steered her black Rover into the same line of traffic and was heading for her own destination like any other motorist.
Fenner shoved on a cassette for some music to get him into the mood for the match and Status Quo's "Rocking all over the world" seemed to fit the bill just nicely. It gave him that feeling of mastery and control of his world and of getting him in the feeling for the big match. He'd go out later for a takeaway meal as the cobs and packets of crisps he'd eaten at the pub were quite enough for now. As he drove, his car took him along the nice secure, familiar environment of a typical Sunday afternoon, the same as any Sunday in his life. It gave him that feeling of contentment and security, running down the familiar track.
He pulled his car up outside his house and locked his car up safely. You couldn't take things for granted these days, as there had been the car that was stolen from one of his neighbours and was later found torched. He felt in his pockets for his house key but the bloody thing was stuck right at the bottom underneath his wallet.
"Come on, out you bloody well come," He grumbled to himself.
"Just what I was going to say, Fenner. We're going for a little ride." An ice-cold female voice spoke into his ear and a lump of metal was jammed into his back.
Instantly, Fenner's blood ran cold. Where the hell had this bitch sprung from?
"Atkins!" Fenner exclaimed.
"Good guess, Fenner," She sneered. "You turn around and start walking down the road to your right."
"You're making a mistake, love. I've got a football match to watch on telly. The kickoff is due to start in a bit," Fenner replied, his voice betraying less of the fear than he really felt. Whatever tight corners he had been in, this was the tightest.
"You're going to have to miss the match and read all about it in the papers. There are six bullets in this gun. If I have to use them on you, I'll use them all on you with pleasure. Now move it." The hard, cold tone of the reply broke Fenner's willingness to argue.
'So he's still with us, old lover boy Atkins,' the ghosts of memories came back to him of a hard cynical Principal Officer talking so lightly of life and death right after a routine PO's meeting.
"They've removed the bullet, the one he stopped from blowing my brains out," Karen had replied contemptuously, speaking of the day when Snowball had stuck a gun in her back.
She pointed the car keys at the black car and the car locks opened, enabling her to prod Fenner into the passenger seat. With the pistol aimed menacingly at Fenner, she got into the car and the internal door locks clicked shut on him. Fenner's heart sank to hear the ominous click which was much softer than the clang of a prison cell door but just as effective. A ghastly flashback jumped into his mind of when he was locked in a cell with Shell Dockley, another vengeful psycho-bitch who wanted to finish him off. The only difference was that there was no one to raise the alarm when everything looked so normal with a woman driving him around on a normal sunny afternoon. The great British Public will be glued to their television watching the excitement of the premier league football match, far too busy for any idea of acting as a good neighbour.
"Don't even think of trying any heroics. I've got you covered and I'm not taking my eye off you for a single second while I'm driving. Remember, an Atkins never misses."
She felt an enormous leap of exhaltation pulsing through her entire body, through her nerves and feelings that filled her with joy. Hardly any trace of her feelings was noticeable to any observer, even Fenner, beyond a slightly heightened intake of breath when she breathed . It was as if she were a big game hunter that had stalked a dangerous wild animal in its native environment and she had spent hours concealed up a tree, hidden in the undergrowth, anxious at all costs that she would not blow her cover. She had studied the habits and the favourite paths with infinite care, getting everything mapped out in her mind for so long. This morning, she had staked out her prey as he had strolled into the pub and had run over in her mind the possible way that her prey could break cover and bolt. It was the massive exercise of infinite patience, absolute attention to detail and razor sharp concentration that had prepared herself for this moment. She had driven carefully, threading her way through the traffic, tailing the car as she knew best and had parked her car just that sufficient distance away from him so that she would not be noticed but enough to keep an eye on him. She had walked up behind him with the lightness of step of a panther and had made her move when Fenner's head was bent down, looking for his front door key when he had paid least attention to what was going on around him. Yet, she knew that her prey was watchful, dangerous, waiting for the slightest slip on her part to turn the tables. She knew that this had happened before and this time around, she must not make that slip.
With her gun held in her left hand and pointing at Fenner, she drove them down the same road where Fenner, only five short minutes beforehand, had driven without a care in the world with nothing on his mind but what he was going to do on a Sunday afternoon. The Clapham street that he lived on that represented home slipped away from him and was gone.
Fenner was sweating visibly as the streets flashed by. No one knew where the hell he was, not on a Sunday afternoon, for a man who was rootless, who came and went as he pleased according to a lifestyle that was centred on himself, not Marilyn, not the kids who might as well be a million miles away for all the contact he kept with them. Today, the most frightening day of his life had no prospect of any end in sight that he could control, not with about the worst enemy that he had ever made in his life. The feeling that he was totally in the power and control of another human being froze him with horror.
"Why are you doing this, Atkins?" He mumbled in a more subdued tone than he was used to talking in.
She laughed out loud at the absurdity of such a question which gave her the chance to play the sort of deadly mind games that he had used on his victims.
"You have a good think about all you've done wrong in your life, Fenner. Go on, you try to work it out," came the vengeful, reply, dripping with total scorn. Make him guess and make him sweat her manic yet controlled thinking reacted. This was going to be a war of psychology, she reckoned, and she thought that she was up to this one.
Fenner's normally sharp mind blanked out and his memory refused to work. He had had extensive dealings with the Atkins family over the past years and an injury to any one of them was an injury to all of them, father, mother, daughter and son. He knew that what distinguished this family from any other family that was involved, or associated with crime was that unquenchable thirst for vengeance and the breathtaking scope with criminal contacts to ensure that the victim ended up as part of the ready mix concrete foundations for the latest tower block. Flashing through his mind was the account he had heard from Di Barker of the pizza delivery for Charlie outside the Old Bailey and that, in broad daylight he was gunned down and what is more no one was charged.
"I .I .I was only doing my job in stopping that escape out of the pub window or the rope ladder over the prison walls. Any other prison officer would have done the same. Betts helped me second time around."
Her cold laughter told Fenner that he was a mile off the mark while he racked his brains to try and figure this puzzle out. If he could only work out the answer, he might stand a chance.
All the time, she manoeuvred the car expertly along the built up streets of London and never once while she changed gear was that sinister black shape of a gun not pointed directly at Fenner. He knew that she had enough peripheral vision to be able to spot in one second any move by him to wrest the gun from out of her grasp. There wasn't much traffic on the road so that there was never an instance that the car slowed down to give him a chance to escape. Fenner's heart sank at the way he was kept as securely captive as any prisoner was kept banged up in segregation. This evil bitch knew far too much for his good exactly what she was doing.
The first rush of excitement was dying down in her as time went on. She felt more secure as her plan was unfolding, exactly as planned. She was driving the car into the heart of London and the roadsigns indicated that she was bang on course. The huge twin edifices of Tower Bridge loomed ahead and she disappeared into the first archway to reveal out of the corner of her eye, the ancient River Thames, far below her, glittering in the sun, swirling waters forever on the move. This was a signpost to the North side of the city and what she must do.
"Well, have you guessed, Fenner?" came the mocking question. "I'll help you out. What is the worst deed you have ever done in your life?"
Fenner's mind was a confused blur as his past flashed past him in a kaleidoscope of faces, some smiling, some scared, some angry, some indifferent. A confused cacophony of voices of different accents At the centre was that only solid certainty that he knew, Larkhall prison.
"Don't tell me that there is so much shit in your life that you can't work it out?"
"You don't help me by pointing that gun at me. Where are you taking me, Atkins?" Fenner counter questioned.
"You'll find out soon enough. We're not that far away and when we get there, you won't have to worry about anything in your life anymore. I'll make sure of that." Her slowly articulated voice, stretching out the syllables conveyed an air of chilling menace to say that there were no limits to what she was prepared to do to carry out justice, Atkins style. The superficial air of reassurance was only there to taunt him.
'He's the biggest shit going and deserves nothing but a dose of the Atkins justice' were words that were written in words of red blood in her mind. Why the hell can't the evil bastard work it out, she thought contemptuously. He doesn't seem so big and tough out of his uniform and outside Larkhall.
"If you can't work it out, Fenner, tell you what, I'll tell you. Later on."
Fenner was getting confused as to where they were. The car had cut through all the ancient commercial parts of London and the places where all the tourists went. The sign of Hackney flashed up and still this crazy woman drove like someone possessed. Fenner had never come across anything like this before. That was what made everything so frightening.
"Just think, Fenner," Came the voice with that evil laugh. "If Stewart had sacked you and you were signing on the dole right now, you wouldn't be in this mess. You've only yourself to blame for the trouble you are in. You never learn, do you."
This woman was a demon. She knew everything about him. That was one thing that he found so scary. He did not let the world know what Jim Fenner felt, what he schemed for, what he covered up and the left hand know what the right hand was doing, not even his own.
She turned sharp right onto the A104 and the car headed like an arrow, across the junctions and roundabouts and was well into the more spread out suburbs, away from the close confinement and the sense of tall buildings leaning over looking at them. Fenner was dazed and confused and his mind had given up trying to understand what was happening to him. He was trapped in a nightmare world that had sprung out of nowhere and enveloped him.
The steady hum of the car eventually brought them near their destination as there came into sight on the right, a huge bank of trees that cast its shadow over the car. She slowed down slightly as she studied the roads ahead for the turnoff to the right that she was looking for. Eventually, there it was, the brown sign indicating the way in to Epping Forest. All her driving around this stretch of London, painstakingly committing to memory every twist and turn of the route was paying off.
"Tell you what, Fenner, I'll let you into a little secret. I've been following you for weeks now. I know what time you come home from work, when you work early shifts, when you work late shifts, the pub you go to, I know everything ..."
"How the hell can an evil bitch like you stalk me like that?" Fenner's anger suddenly boiled over. For one moment, he forgot about the gun that was pointed at his bollocks, the shape of the nozzle that was looking him straight in the goolies. His rage was the rage of a man who was up against the enemy that had stalked him all his life, as long as he could remember, the enemy that he had to get before she got him. The desperation of his present situation taught him how right he had always been and why he was right to act as he had done.
"I'm a professional, Fenner. You should know what the Atkins family is like, what it is capable of."
The car bumped along the narrow track which took them away from the noise of the city streets and the crowds of people that Fenner was so used to. This was a step into an unknown world for him. On the other hand, her whole being was filled with tension and excitement and her mind was working on overdrive that the climax of all that she had focussed on for so long was approaching.
When the car had got to the point that she wanted, she pulled the car up to a halt and shut off the engine. All was horrifyingly quiet and still.
"Get out of the car, Fenner," Her cold voice cracked like a pistol shot. She had flicked open the catch to the boot which opened at once.
Fenner did not even think of resisting as a pointed gun was aimed at him straight between his eyes.
"Move a little bit away," Came the next order and the woman grabbed the spade from the boot with her left hand, covering Fenner with the pistol and pushed it down shut. She smiled more easily to herself, feeling that all her long term planning to an obsessive level was paying off.
In one slow cystematic slide of perspective, the rapidly moving, sunlit car journey in fast moving traffic from the busy London streets, shot in close up now and smoothly panned out into a wide screen, long shot on another world altogether. Fenner and the woman with the gun now stood a little way off the rough dirt track well away from the humming sound of constant traffic. In utter silence and stillness on both sides of the path, huge old gnarled oak trees cast their tracery pattern of thin twigs growing from their sturdy branches high up into the sky. The pattern shaped leaves on the trees, though turning brown, still clustered on the branches and still blotted out a lot of the sunlight though some had fallen and the first acorns had dropped onto the ground. While the blue sky could still be seen directly overhead, the ancient woodland, a mere fragment of what had covered the counties, invited the two to enter a more primeval world which held fast its own ancient secrets and where human beings were but one of the species that ventured timidly into the heartlands of the forest. Dark shadows were cast from the umbrella of tall trees looming overhead. Paths could be seen which disappeared to somewhere deep in the forest, god knows where and only the ancient art of the explorer would serve to trace a path through to the other side. The place itself struck a trace of fear into the heart of the urban city dweller, unused to the ways of the forest. A faint chill breeze could be felt on Fenner's sweating skin and, caught deep as he was in the trap that was laid for him, the sinister atmosphere all helped to hint to him that the fear and the horror of that afternoon was only just really starting to begin.
"Now keep walking, in a straight line till I tell you when to stop," She said, her spade, slung comfortably under her arm, her hand holding the sturdy tool by the metal haft. Everything was going perfectly to plan as she had pulled up outside the 'no litter' post that advised happy holidaymakers to respect the rules of the countryside. Her memory was faultless in steering her along the footpath, past the two very large oak trees. She only had a short distance to go now.
Fenner stumbled along, his legs feeling leaden and not part of his body. He had hoped against hope that, out of the car, he might have a better chance to make a break for it, but not walking six feet or so, with a gun breathing down his back, totally powerless. His mind had frozen over and all his survival craft had deserted him.
"You can stop right there Fenner, and turn around and face me," Came the hard commanding voice.
"You're going to dig a nice big hole right behind you when I've thrown you this spade." Fenner's hair was standing on end and his panic level jumped to new heights as he had a presentiment of what was in store for him. "Don't think of using it as a weapon or I'll shoot you down where you stand." At that point, she threw the spade at his feet, took a few steps back and assumed a combat position, her gun levelled at him. "Turn around now and start digging. A nice big hole about six feet long and two feet wide."
"You're raving mad, Atkins." A last effort of will flared up inside him to fight off the walls of death that were closing in on him. "Do you really think you can get away with killing me, a Principal Officer in the Prison service? It will hit the front pages of all the press. There'll be a drag net thrown over you and your family so quickly that you'll end up in the nick so fast your feet won't touch the ground, you evil bitch. You don't really mean it, you're too smart to do this. Now stay calm, stay calm."
Fenner shifted his stance from anger, threats, an appeal to reason and finally, his desperate attempt to hypnotise with that fixed stare of his blue, very much unsettled eyes.
"Oh, I am staying calm. It's quite easy, Fenner. You're digging your own grave like the way you've dug the graves of Rachel Hicks and Maxi Pervis for a start and all the women you've tried to ruin."
"You know nothing about them, you mad bitch." A very demented Fenner stood trembling, deathly afraid to be confronted with the ghosts of all his invisible accusers whose very spirits seemed to rise out of the deepening gloom of the forest.
"This is getting away from the point, Fenner," her loud commanding voice grabbed control of the moment together with the click as the gun was cocked, ready to fire. "Get digging or I shoot your bollocks off."
It was as if her force of will had taken Fenner over completely in a way that a fleeting memory of the arrogant principal officer who owned the keys to the prison and had power over the inmates of Larkhall surprised her.
He started to dig the soil and was surprised to find how soft it was, how easy it was to scoop shovelfuls out of the patch of ground in front of him and to pile it either side of the hole. He started to make rapid progress aware of the relentless woman and the gun pointed at his back. Presently, his spade dug into a patch of ground a little way to one side and it immediately hit hard impacted soil which only gouged a groove a few inches deep into the ground. He aimed his spade next at a patch of soil closer to the area that he had been digging and it sank deeply into the soil. He must be getting his knack back of something that he used to do occasionally of a Sunday afternoon when the kids were little and he was still with Marilyn. Funny, he used to grow peas at that time but he went off that like he went off most of the little day to day jobs round the house. Taking the line of least resistance had been a habit which had crept up on him
"Hey, Atkins, why is it easier to dig in some parts of this ground and not in others?"
"Haven't you guessed, Fenner?" Came the contemptuous reply.
"You couldn't have ."
" dug the hole, just ready for you and covered it up. I was here last Sunday, Fenner, when everything was nice and quiet. That is, after I'd sat quietly in the local that you use, hearing you laugh and joke to your mates. Only the joke's on you this time, isn't it."
Fenner's hair felt as if it was standing on end and everything inside him, all his defences, were shriveled up inside by this impossible nightmare before his eyes that could not be real. Just behind him was the wide, deep hole that was ready to receive him and swallow him up.
"Why are you doing this to me, Atkins?" his voice croaked out at last.
The sun suddenly dipped below the level of the trees plunging his world into impenetrable shadow. A darker shape was the woman before him, a symbol of vengeance as sinister and threatening as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, ready to claim his soul for their own.
"Because of what you did to Karen, you bastard. Can you remember the night you raped her? You thought that you had wriggled your way out of trouble and you lied to her and lied to yourself afterwards." The voice started to build up in a peculiar mixture of hatred and excitement which convince Fenner that he was already on the threshold of a darker more dangerous alternate reality. "and you even threatened her at the trial to blacken her name publicly if she didn't cover up for you. When I think about it, if it weren't for you, Ritchie might still be alive right now. Get into the pit, Fenner," Her voice demanded and finally took over what remained of his free will.
Fenner took a step back, stumbled over the pile of earth behind him and fell backwards into the hole and lay at the bottom of the pit. She raised her arm to extend outwards forty five degrees, slowly squeezed the trigger at last and the pistol cracked. Fenner felt a jolt, then an intense feeling of weakness and pain spread from his stomach where, once, Shell's bottle had nearly killed him. He lay there physically paralysed and helpless.
He screamed out in horror when the first spadeful of earth fell in a pattern across his face and he tasted the bitter taste, half blinding him. His arms and legs feebly struggled but now with feverish energy, shower upon shower of earth landed on him, starting to cover him with a layer of earth. The layer started to build in thickness and became a real weight, pressing on his body and starting to choke his lungs. Many years ago, when he was the school bully, he used to duck smaller and weaker boys' heads under water and found it funny to see others suffer. Now everything that he had done that was evil came back to haunt him as he gradually lost consciousness as his will to struggle ebbed away. He had been spiritually dead a long time. It was just that he had never known it. Two final thoughts popped into his mind before his end overtook him, a tearing regret that he had lost Karen and that it was not the Atkins he knew, but Atkins's daughter who had done this to him. At that point, eternity overtook him.
Part Ninety Seven
On the Sunday afternoon, Karen and Yvonne were in the lounge usually used by Lauren, going through the enormous pile of videos on the shelf above the TV, looking for something Yvonne had recorded a while ago and that she and Karen felt like watching. As is the way with most people, neither Yvonne nor Lauren wrote the name of what they'd recorded on any blank video. Yvonne was kneeling on the floor in front of the TV with a stack of videos spread out around her. As she identified what was on each one, she scribbled its title on the case. Cassie and Roisin had picked up the children that morning, after dropping Lauren off. But Lauren had gone almost straight out again.
"Where's Lauren this afternoon?" Asked Karen.
"She took Charlie's old banger," Replied Yvonne, "so god knows, but nowhere very smart if she's driving that old thing." Privately thinking that none of the cars on Yvonne's drive looked like it could be described as an old banger, Karen simply curled herself in to a corner of the enormous sofa, and watched Yvonne furiously searching for the film she'd recorded and forgotten to label. There was something incredibly satisfying about sitting perfectly still and feeling utterly calm, and at the same time watching someone else getting more and more irritated. She couldn't help grinning.
"You think this is funny, do you?" Asked Yvonne, looking over at her, also with a smile.
"You're incredibly sexy when you're angry," Said Karen, her wickedly sensual grin turning predatory.
"Oh, really," Drawled Yvonne, getting up and coming to sit next to Karen.
"Hmm," Replied Karen, stretching luxuriously. "You have an air of subdued fury, as if there's a powder keg in there somewhere, just waiting to be set alight."
"I think you managed that last night," Said Yvonne dryly, remembering their eventual lovemaking of the night before. Karen laughed huskily and leaned forward to kiss her.
"You're so beautiful," Karen said after a while.
"Good looking I may be," Replied Yvonne, "But beautiful I definitely am not." Karen was about to tell Yvonne that if she, Karen, thought Yvonne was beautiful, then beautiful she must be. But the words died in her throat with the opening of the front door. They'd been so centered on each other that they hadn't heard the car pull up. Disentangling herself from Yvonne and doing up the top two buttons of her blouse which had somehow come undone, Karen watched in fascinated horror, as a thoroughly filthy Lauren, with the glazed eyes of someone high on something, strolled nonchalantly in to the lounge, casually holding a gun very loosely in her right hand.
"Hi Mum," Said Lauren, too cheerfully for someone carrying such a tool of death and destruction. Karen just stared. Even if she'd been able to think of something to say, her tongue and throat were simply too dry to formulate the resemblance of speech.
"Lauren, what've you done?" Asked Yvonne, her voice deadly quiet. Lauren grinned, and Karen was briefly reminded of the time she'd promised to get Shell Dockley's kitchen job back for her, and Shell had said that this would be great because she could get a knife from the kitchen and kill Mr. Fenner. There was a look of wild abandon in Lauren's eyes, a look that scared Karen to her core. Lauren couldn't keep still. She was gently waving the gun to and fro, and she moved persistently from one foot to the other. Not having got an answer to her question, Yvonne said,
"Put the gun down," Still keeping her voice as quiet and unthreatening as possible whilst Lauren still held the potential to end anyone's life. Lauren made a move to throw the gun on to the coffee table but seeming to remember one of the first lessons her father had taught her concerning guns, she slid back the compartment which held the bullets and tipped them in to the palm of her hand. Her father had always taught her never to make any casual movement when in possession of a loaded gun. Any sudden contact with the surface of any gun had the potential to make it discharge its ammunition without warning. She put the gun down on the table and was about to drop the bullets in to her jeans pocket when Yvonne grabbed her wrist in a vice-like grip and said,
"Give them to me." Not especially wanting a bruise in the shape of her mother's hand-print, Lauren complied. Yvonne swiftly counted them.
"You've shot one with this," She said, pointing to the pistol on the coffee table, making a somewhat macabre picture amongst the Cd's, cigarette packets and ashtrays. Yvonne herself pocketed the bullets and critically examined Lauren's hands, which were noticeably speckled with gun residue.
"You've got that look in your eye," She said to Lauren.
"What look?" Lauren asked innocently, yet trying to flinch away from her mother's scrutiny.
"You know what look," Said Yvonne, her voice rising as the realisation of what Lauren had been doing finally caught up with her. "The look your father always had when he'd killed someone. Is that it, Lauren, have you been following in his footsteps?" The urge to talk was too strong for Lauren, and she couldn't keep her secret any longer.
"If you were a true Atkins, Mum," she said scornfully, "You'd be proud of me. Fenner's dead. You wanted him out of the picture, and that's what you've got." Yvonne was dimly aware of Karen's stricken profile but remained utterly focused on her daughter.
"You've killed Fenner?" Asked Yvonne quietly.
"That's what I said," Replied Lauren truculently. "They should bring in a medal for finishing off wankers like him." This totally fatuous comment seemed to bring Yvonne out of her temporary shock.
"You stupid cow!" Yvonne said, all the anger of her Larkhall days reasserting itself. Ignoring her mother's outburst, Lauren turned to look at Karen.
"And I don't know why you're looking so gob smacked?" Lauren said harshly, "You're why I did it." Karen opened her mouth to speak, but unable to produce any sound, she shut it again. Yvonne voiced the thought for her.
"What the hell are you talking about?" She asked, forcibly turning Lauren to face her.
"Ritchie asked me to do it," Lauren enlightened. "You weren't the only one who got a letter from him when he died. Ritchie said it was the only way he could put some of the bad stuff right. He asked me to do it for her," She said, looking over at Karen. "I had to do it, Mum. If there's one thing you don't do, it's deny your brother his last request." Yvonne stood as if turned to stone. She needed a moment to decide how she was going to handle this. She couldn't afford to think about why Ritchie had asked Lauren to do this, or to experience the sheer relief that Fenner could no more hurt Karen or anyone else. All she could and should focus her thoughts on was her daughter, and what possible consequences would be in store for them all if she didn't act quickly.
"Where is he?" Yvonne asked after a moment's silence.
"Six feet under in the middle of Epping Forest," Was Lauren's unequivocal reply.
"Jesus," Muttered Yvonne in disgust.
"Mum, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well."
"This isn't, or wasn't, a thing worth doing, well or otherwise," Replied Yvonne stonily. "Do you have any idea what will happen to you if the law catch up with you?"
"Mum, trust me, no one is going to find him."
"I don't believe we're having this conversation," Said Yvonne, feeling that all this was too farcical for words. Grabbing Lauren's arm, Yvonne propelled her towards the kitchen. Once there, she said,
"Strip." Lauren just stared at her. "You heard me," continued Yvonne, "Clothes off and in the washing machine, now."
"Just do it, Lauren. You're covered in earth and god knows what else." Then, as Lauren began to remove her clothes, Yvonne said, "Shoes as well," Pointing to her trainers. When even Lauren's underwear had been put in to the washing machine, Yvonne said,
"Right, go and have the longest shower you've ever had, and I don't want to see you again till I come up. Is that clear?"
"Are you keeping me under house arrest?" Asked Lauren furiously as she walked up the stairs.
"If need be, then yes," Replied Yvonne. "And don't touch anything till you've got that bleedin gun crap off your hands. I don't want a trace of it anywhere in this house." Yvonne returned to the lounge and picked up the gun from the coffee table. She was still aware of Karen's presence, but for the life of her, she didn't know what she could say. As she looked critically at the gun that had ended the life of one of the most ruthless bastards she'd ever known, Yvonne realised that it was a Sig Sauer nine millimetre pistol, a gun that always left its own finger print in the shape of a cartridge case. Retrieving the handful of spare bullets from her pocket, Yvonne was horrified to confirm that there wasn't an empty cartridge case among them, meaning that Lauren had almost certainly left it at the scene, ready to be found by any policeman eager to fulfill his duty. Going to the bottom of the stairs, Yvonne called,
"Lauren?" and when her daughter appeared, she said, "Did you pick up the cartridge case?" At first, Lauren looked at her, totally mystified. Then a light dawned and her face finally began to show the true seriousness of the situation.
"No," She said, sounding like her high had thoroughly worn off.
"This just gets better and bleedin better," Replied Yvonne. "You know that this type of pistol always leaves the shell behind."
"I forgot," Said Lauren miserably. Yvonne turned away from her, her anger at Lauren's utter stupidity making her temporarily speechless. After washing her hands, Yvonne went back in to the lounge and sat down next to Karen.
"You might not want to stay for what I'm going to have to do," She said quietly. "I've got to clean that for a start," She said, gesturing to the gun which she'd put back down on the table whilst talking to Lauren. Karen turned to face her.
"I can't believe he's dead," She said, the first words she'd uttered since Lauren had arrived home.
"I know," Said Yvonne, "But right now, that isn't something I can think about."
"I feel like I'm in the middle of some nightmare, watching a horror film take place before my eyes."
"You and me both," Said Yvonne, taking one of Karen's hands. "But I have to do this for her."
"I know," Said Karen, "And I'll stay, if you want me too."
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you. Getting rid of evidence isn't nice." Yvonne picked up one of the Sunday newspapers, and took it and the gun in to the kitchen. She spread out the newspaper over the table, and laid the gun on top of it. She retrieved some of the solvent and gun oil routinely used in domestic gun cleaning and returned to the kitchen. Karen moved to stand in the kitchen doorway and simply stood and watched her. Soaking a rag in the Hops9 solvent, she scrubbed any hint of left over residue from the gun's outer surface. The Fragrant aroma of the solvent brought many unwelcome memories back to Yvonne of the times she'd either done this for Charlie, or watched him for once cleaning his own murder weapons. Karen thought that the not unpleasant smell of this solvent would for ever be ingrained on her memory. Then, dipping a rod in to the solvent, Yvonne worked it up inside the barrel, to thoroughly clean the pistol's internal workings. Once any evidence of recent firing had been removed, she wiped the cleaning rod, and dipped it this time in to a bottle of gun oil, and again coated the insides of the gun with the substance, to keep its internal mechanisms lubricated and ready for instant action. She briefly thought that there wasn't really any point doing this part, considering what she would be doing with the gun in the near future, but it had always been a part of the routine cleaning of any gun. Karen looked on with the sort of sick fascination that makes drivers stop to look at a horrific road accident.
"why did you ask Lauren about the cartridge case?" Karen finally said, clearly finding something that could be simply explained. Yvonne looked up, having almost forgotten she was there.
"When this type of pistol is fired, the firing pin always leaves a slight scratch on the cartridge case. It's almost as good as a fingerprint. No firing pin leaves exactly the same marks. So, if someone found the cartridge case and this gun, they'd be able to match the two after about ten minutes in some lab somewhere. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, because I'd just get rid of this gun and no plodding pig would be able to prove it came from this house. But Charlie, being the arrogant git that he was, always engraved his favourite guns with his initials." Yvonne held the gun up to the light, and Karen could see the unobtrusive letters CJA displayed just above the trigger. "Charlie James Atkins," clarified Yvonne. "I always told him not to do it, but he was of the belief that he'd never be caught using one of his own licensed weapons for anything illegal, and give him his due, he only used his engraved guns for the legitimate shooting of pigeons and pheasants and other poor unsuspecting birds."
"Give me some credit, Yvonne," Said Karen scornfully. "I know enough to be well aware that pistols such as this one are never used in game shooting." Yvonne looked at her with complete exasperation.
"And maybe I'm just trying to find some tiny rational thing to cling on too here. Quite why Lauren chose to use one of her father's favourite guns to commit her first and hopefully last murder, I don't want to contemplate."
"You're so calm," Said Karen, marveling at Yvonne's presence of mind in the face of such an afternoon of shocks and revelations.
"It won't last," Said Yvonne, with the certainty of previous experience. "But right now, calm is what I've got to be. When Lauren came in, she looked like she'd had a line of Columbia's finest, but she'll come down from that high, and that's when what she's done will really hit her. If there's one thing I've got to do, it's to try to keep her out of somewhere like Larkhall. if she ended up in that place, I don't think she'd come out alive. She's nowhere near as strong as she makes out she is, and I don't want her taking the same way out as Ritchie."
"You might not be able to stop that happening," Said Karen, who could cheerfully have kicked herself for saying such a thing in the face of Yvonne's current determination.
"Don't you think I know that?" Asked Yvonne, her terror at Lauren's possible future finally beginning to take hold. "I know what it's like to be in there for god knows how long. Lauren couldn't deal with it, I know she couldn't. I can't let her go the same way as Ritchie." Karen privately thought that Lauren was well on her way to Ritchie's state of being already, but managed to hold her tongue. Shock was an odd thing, she thought. It could make you spew forth words with as little prior warning and real direction as vomit. She had the insane urge to say an awful lot of things to Yvonne right then, and had an internal battle with herself to keep quiet. Now wasn't the time to tell Yvonne that she thought she was crazy to even think of covering up for Lauren, that in doing so she was booking herself another bed in Larkhall, and that in any case, Lauren probably wouldn't thank her for it. Yvonne cleared away the solvent and gun oil, and wiped clean the rods she'd used to clean the inside of the pistol. She wrapped the gun in the newspaper it had been lying on and bore it away to some secure location, ready to be disposed of later. Whilst Yvonne was out of sight, Karen had a moment to put her thoughts in order, and the one thing that presented itself as a must, was that she had to inform Cassie and Roisin of what had happened. Over the last few weeks, it had looked to her as if they were both getting far more involved with Lauren than friends usually did, and Karen knew that they had to know. Yvonne possibly wouldn't thank her for it, but Karen wasn't going to be dissuaded from doing this. Besides, she needed to talk to someone about this. She needed to unburden some of the thoughts that just wouldn't leave her alone. Walking swiftly to the table in the hall that held the telephone and answering machine, Karen flicked through the pages of the address book, until she came to Cassie and Roisin's address. Committing it to memory, she was just about to replace it when Yvonne looked over her shoulder.
"I know," She said, "I've had that thought as well."
"They have to know," Said Karen simply. Yvonne seemed deflated.
"I know they do, I just don't want to be the one to do it."
"Would you like me too?" Asked Karen.
"I can't ask you to do that," Replied Yvonne.
"Well, as disposing of crucial evidence has never been a day to day occupation of mine," Said Karen, "This is probably the only thing I can handle doing." Yvonne winced at Karen's clear inference at her previous criminal lifestyle. "I'm sorry," Said Karen, "That wasn't really called for."
"Most of today wasn't really called for," Replied Yvonne sarcastically, "But I've got to deal with it." Karen moved forward and took Yvonne in her arms.
"I am here for you, you know," She said, feeling the rigidity of Yvonne's tense, strung-out body.
"don't say something you don't mean," Replied Yvonne quietly. Karen stood back from her and looked her straight in the eye.
"I didn't ask to be flung in to this situation," She pointed out, clinging on to her control by the skin of her teeth.
"No, and neither did I," Pointed out Yvonne, the tears rising to her eyes. She furiously wiped them away with the back of her hand.
"I'm sorry," Said Karen, hating herself for hurting Yvonne like this.
"Don't be," Said Yvonne, making a determined effort not to let Karen see how much she was hurting. "Let's face it, the way I brought Lauren up, I guess I've got what I asked for."
Part Ninety Eight
A while later when Karen had left, and was driving towards Cassie and Roisin's small, detached house in Notting Hill Gate, she could finally let her real feeling at the situation emerge. What the hell had Lauren been thinking of, and more to the point, what was she, Karen, doing in keeping the events of the afternoon out of the eyes and ears of the law. She couldn't deal with this. In a similar fashion to that in which Helen had greeted Nikki's appearance on her doorstep all that time ago, Karen couldn't quite comprehend her place within this sudden breaking of the law. Sure, she knew that Yvonne did still have the odd gun at her disposal, but purely as a means of protection, and this was something Karen could quite easily ignore most of the time. But what Lauren had done was quite different. This was just too much to get her head round.
When she drew up in front of Cassie and Roisin's house, she briefly wondered if she was doing the right thing in coming here. Did she really have the right to thoroughly spoil a normal Sunday afternoon? But strengthening her resolve, she got out of the car and locked it. Cassie and Roisin had to know, if for no better reason than that they were Lauren's and Yvonne's closest friends. When she rang the doorbell, she attempted to school her face in to a nondescript expression which wouldn't betray her feeling of utterly confused fear to the children. But it was Cassie who answered. She was chewing a piece of raw carrot and made an attempt to swallow it before speaking.
"Hi," She said with a smile. "This is a nice surprise."
"I'm not sure you'll think so when you hear what I've got to tell you," Replied Karen.
"Come in," Said Cassie, holding the door open. Karen followed Cassie in to the kitchen, where Roisin was preparing the vegetables to go with the roast lamb and roast potatoes which were in the oven. Karen liked this kitchen. She'd never been here before, but she was greeted by the sight of one of the most welcoming rooms she'd ever seen. Roisin was stood chopping carrots, which Cassie kept stealing, and was surrounded by the clear evidence of the cooking of a Sunday dinner. There was an enormous notice board on one wall, covered with the childrens' drawings and well-praised pieces of work they'd done at school.
"Look who's here," Said Cassie.
"Hello," Said Roisin looking pleased to see her.
"Would you like a drink?" Asked Cassie.
"Yes please," Replied Karen, "A very large scotch would go down a treat." After pouring Karen's whisky and herself and Roisin vodka and tonic, Cassie said,
"So, what's the extremely unpleasant thing you've come to tell us?" Karen didn't know what to say. She opened her mouth a couple of times but she just didn't know how to begin such a horrific story.
"What's happened?" Asked Roisin, taking a swig of her drink.
"Where are the children?" Asked Karen, not wanting any possibility of either of them hearing what she had to say.
"Michael's trying to increase his sister's football potential," Said Roisin, gesturing out of the kitchen window, where Niamh had just directed the offending object straight in to a flowerbed.
"So much for your geraniums," Remarked Cassie with a smile. Putting the carrots on to boil, Roisin said,
"Come and sit down." They all moved in to the lounge, and Karen slumped gratefully in to an armchair. She could get to like this house, she thought. It was so normal, so cheerful and happy. What right did she have to utter inside its walls, the words to describe an event that must irrevocably change all of their lives?
"I'm not sure I should tell you with the children in hearing distance," Said Karen, craving any excuse to put off the moment when she would shatter the normality that surrounded their little nest. "Maybe I should come back later," She said, making a move to stand up and leave. Roisin put out a hand to keep Karen in her chair.
"You're frightened of something," She said quietly.
"Yes, you could say that," replied Karen on a shaky little laugh.
"And it doesn't take rocket science to work out that it's to do with either Lauren or Yvonne," Finished Cassie. Karen downed the rest of her scotch.
"I shouldn't really be here," She said, "It isn't fair to do this to either of you."
"Okay," Said Cassie, trying to calm Karen down, "So, it's clearly something that should wait until the kids have gone to bed, but what exactly would you be doing if you did go now and come back later."
"I'm not sure," Replied Karen, knowing that going home to her empty flat was unthinkable right now.
"Precisely," Stated Cassie. "And I don't think you should be on your own right now. You look like a fox that's been caught in a trap by the scruff of its neck." Under normal circumstances, Karen would simply have rolled her eyes at Cassie's terminology, but on this occasion, she was probably right.
"Stay for tea," Said Roisin, "There's plenty here." Wondering if she'd be able to eat a thing, Karen agreed, and attempted to bring her feelings back under control so that she wouldn't appear too odd or distant with Michael and Niamh.
All throughout the meal, Karen did her best to maintain an outwardly happy exterior, but both Cassie and Roisin could see that she was finding it extremely difficult. After they'd eaten, Cassie persuaded a reluctant Michael to help her with the washing up, and Karen listened as Roisin heard Niamh practicing her reading. They made such a complete, perfect little family, the four of them. The children looked on Cassie as simply their other parent, not caring that she was a woman, and that she had usurped their father's place in their mother's life. When it got near bedtime, Niamh slid on to Karen's knee and said,
"Please will you read me a story?" Being presented with such an innocent face brought brief tears to Karen's eyes.
"Not tonight, sweetheart," She replied gently.
"Why are you sad?" Asked Niamh, with all the fearless inquisitiveness that always gave children the courage to ask the questions that many adults would shy away from. Karen had no idea how to reply to such a question. But she was saved by Michael's unexpected admonishment.
"Niamh Connor, you don't ask things like that." Karen gave him a watery smile, her first since the revelations of that afternoon.
"Come on, kids," Said Cassie, "Time for bed." Niamh slid off Karen's knee and followed Cassie and Michael upstairs.
"He's wise beyond his years, your son," Said Karen to Roisin.
"He had to grow up very fast when I was in prison. Aiden always tried to avoid answering difficult questions, which as you'll know is always a bad thing to do with children. So, Michael learnt overnight that there simply are some things you don't ask. If Niamh wants an answer to something, she'll still sometimes ask him instead of us, even now."
Up stairs, Cassie was watching as a visibly tired Niamh cleaned her teeth. When she'd got in to bed, she said,
"Why didn't auntie Karen smile today?" Sitting down on the edge of the child's bed, Cassie put her arms round the little girl who was easily as precious to her as her mother was.
"Karen isn't very happy today."
"I don't know, darling. Sometimes, people just are unhappy and need a bit of a cuddle to put it right." But as she switched out the light and walked across the landing to Michael's room, Cassie thought that this wasn't just any need for a hug, it was something huge, something truly enormous, something that she suspected was about to change their lives for ever. She peeped round the half open door of Michael's bedroom, festooned with football posters and his collection of prized model racing cars.
"Are you still reading Harry Potter?" Asked Cassie.
"Yeah," Said Michael, only briefly looking up. "Only got a few more chapters to go now."
"Well, you can read for an hour, but no more. It's a school night don't forget." As she walked down stairs, she smiled. When Michael had pleaded with Roisin to be allowed to read the first Harry Potter book, Roisin had begun to read it, in order to find out what her son would be letting himself in for. But curiosity being her middle name, Cassie had started reading it herself, and to Michael's intense pleasure had finished it far quicker than his mother would have done, which had meant that he could start on it sooner. Cassie had an unbearable feeling of foreboding as she went in to the lounge. She couldn't explain it, but she was sure that whatever Karen had to tell them wasn't going to be easily sorted out.
Roisin had poured them all another drink, and handed Cassie the vodka and tonic as she sat down on the sofa.
"So, what's happened?" Asked Cassie, as ever coming straight to the point. Taking a deep breath, Karen knew she couldn't put it off any longer.
"Fenner's dead," She said bluntly, totally unable to think of any other way of putting it.
"There's more to it than that," Asserted Roisin quietly. Karen waited until Cassie had swallowed a mouthful of her vodka, before saying,
"Lauren, shot him." Cassie face was a picture. Her eyes became as wide as saucers and her mouth opened and closed, making her look like a fish out of water. Roisin simply sat perfectly still.
"Explain?" Said Roisin, with the total calm of the atom bomb just prior to detonation.
"I was with Yvonne this afternoon, and Lauren came home, covered in earth and casually waving a pistol around like it was a cricket bat. She was proud of it, she told Yvonne that if she was a true Atkins, she'd be proud of her." Now that Karen had started, she didn't seem able to stop. "I had to watch as Yvonne cleaned the gun. I'm assuming that she's done the same with the car."
"Oh, no," Said Cassie furiously. "The stupid, stupid cow."
"She said she had to do it," Explained Karen, the tears coursing down her face now that she could finally begin to unburden herself. "She said that she couldn't let Lauren end up in Larkhall."
"Well, that's where they'll both end up at this rate," Replied Cassie, the embodiment of Roisin's silent anger.
"How could she do it?" Asked Roisin eventually.
"She said that she did it partly for Ritchie, and partly for me," Finished Karen hollowly.
"Oh, my God," Said Roisin soberly.
"Ritchie begged her to do it, in the letter he wrote to her before he died," Continued Karen. "I swear I didn't know she was going to do something so stupid, I swear I didn't." This pleading of her own innocence in the matter, made Cassie and Roisin focus on Karen herself rather than on what she was telling them.
"We know you didn't, sweetheart," Said Roisin, the calm, motherly instinct seeming to take over her every action. They moved towards Karen simultaneously, each taking one of her hands and leading her over to the sofa where they could all sit comfortably. They sat on each side of her, their arms holding her shuddering body.
"That's right," Said Roisin, "You let it all out." Karen couldn't have held back now if she'd tried. She'd kept this secret to herself for almost three hours now, and the strain had finally got to her.
"I, should be so relieved, that, that he's gone," She said between sobs, "But I can't. I know, it sounds stupid, but it just feels wrong."
"It doesn't sound stupid at all," Said Roisin gently.
"Why can't I at least feel relieved that possibly the biggest nightmare of my life is finally gone?" Karen asked, in total desperation to find some explanation for the grief-tinged confusion that was currently swamping her.
"Because it doesn't quite work like that," Answered Cassie reasonably.
"No matter what Fenner did to you and to countless others during his lifetime," Clarified Roisin, "Part of you will still grieve for the brief, happy time you had with him." Karen looked aghast.
"That's the last thing I want to think about," She said, utterly humiliated to realise that Roisin was right.
"I know," Went on Roisin, "But you will. You can't help but think about that."
"You lived with him, for God's sake," Said Cassie, "Fenner might have been a shit of the highest order, but you still lived with him, and for a while, were happy with him. Of course you'll grieve for that. Just because he hurt you later on, doesn't mean that those memories can be automatically forgotten."
"I might hate some of the things that Aiden's said to me over the years," Said Roisin, "But that doesn't mean I wouldn't feel some hurt if he was killed, especially by someone I know."
"It's the same with Fenner," Said Cassie, and Karen recoiled at this. "And don't look at me like that," Went on Cassie, "Fenner used to say he loved you, didn't he, and at the time, that must have meant something to you. It isn't wrong to feel confused and hurt and angry and all the rest of it."
"Yvonne was so calm," Said Karen.
"That's no surprise," Said Roisin.
"Most of that will have been to cover up how she really felt," Added Cassie. "She probably just feels that keeping Lauren out of prison is the one definite thing she has to do. Yvonne won't even be able to comprehend how you might feel about this, she won't have any emotional space for it."
"I'm sorry," Said Karen, feeling utterly foolish at her outburst.
"Don't be," Said Roisin. "I'm just amazed you kept quiet about it this long."
"But you were right," Finished off Cassie, "The kids did need to be in bed for this one. I need some time to get my head around this myself."
"Do you know something," Said Karen, "I've got a meeting with a barrister tomorrow morning, to continue work on putting a case together against Fenner and area management. How ludicrous is that?"
"Jesus," Said Cassie, "Can you get out of it?"
"No," Replied Karen, a feeling of certainty creeping back in to her voice. "If there's one thing I've got to do, it's to keep up the appearance that everything's normal. I would look far more suspicious if, when he is found, it could be proved that I had avoided contact with a representative of the law."
A while later when Karen left, Cassie and Roisin simply sat on the sofa where she'd left them. They remained silent for a long time.
"How could she do it?" Asked Roisin eventually, voicing their duplicate thought.
"Lauren's always been a bit different to the rest of us," Replied Cassie. "And even more so since the trial. But as you say, that's no reason for this."
"What're we going to do?"
"There's not much we can do," Replied Cassie with a determined air, "Except to be there when she needs us, because this isn't going to go away. You know that as well as I do."
Part Ninety Nine
On the Monday morning, Karen drove in to work with a feeling of unreality. Part of her was aware that this was just any ordinary day, with her wing to manage and inmates to deal with. But this was overshadowed by the events of the previous afternoon. Once she'd returned home last night, Karen had found herself staring repeatedly at the phone, her eyes straying to the address book which contained both Jo's and George's numbers. Her urge to tell someone, anyone, was almost unbearably strong. She'd cried herself out with Cassie and Roisin, and felt half ashamed of her outburst. But they'd been wonderful to her, when the news of what Lauren had done must have come with just as much shock to them as it had to her. She couldn't sit still, she couldn't settle to doing anything. she had mindlessly worked her way through an entire basket of ironing, to give her hands something to do, to keep them away from picking up the phone. She had moved from alcohol to coffee, knowing that whisky certainly wouldn't help her inclination to make irrational decisions like confiding in a member of the legal profession. But the caffeine only increased her restlessness. When she eventually made her way to bed, she slipped in and out of a troubled sleep, perpetually tortured by images of Fenner's face. Part of her was desperate to know exactly how he had met his end, and the rest of her shied away from such information. But the questions still stayed with her. How much pain had he been in? How had he felt when he'd died? Had he been aware that he was going to die, or was he as surprised as she had been. But the answer to this last one didn't really need any constant mulling over like the others. Lauren was, after all, an Atkins, and clearly an Atkins who took her duty as such to the letter. She would have made Fenner suffer, of that Karen was sure.
As she moved through the familiar gates and corridors of Larkhall, she felt like she was looking down on herself, as if half of her was only observing her day to day activities. During the usual early morning officers meeting, she was presented with the first occasion on which she had to put on an Oscar-winning performance. She found herself asking where Jim was, and listening to the replies of some saying they hadn't seen him. She asked Di to phone Jim to see if he was unwell, and could have cheerfully kicked herself. If there was one thing she shouldn't be doing it was drawing attention to his disappearance. People would discover that soon enough, and it wasn't for her to speed up that inevitable process. Shit, she thought, as she walked back out through the gates to drive to George's office for their eleven o'clock meeting, I'm not really cut out for this. when she pulled in to the car park in front of George's office, she took a few moments to collect her thoughts. If her performance in front of the officers was anything to go by, her act required a lot of major improvement. After all, George was a barrister, highly skilled in drawing out information, beautifully adept at making people trip over their own words. Wishing she could have had a qualification from RADA to back her up, Karen locked the car and walked through the doors in to the legal world that now held only fear and the threat of punishment for her. She was surprised to se George herself appearing in reception to collect her.
"My secretary has chosen today of all days to go off sick," Said George disgustedly.
"Have you recovered from last week?" Asked Karen, desperately trying to find a safe topic of conversation.
"From my visit to Larkhall, yes," Replied George, and Karen had the impression that something else had happened to George in the previous week that overshadowed her visit to Larkhall and that wouldn't be so easily overcome. She followed George up stairs, wondering if she really could pull this off. Once inside her office, George briefly left to make them some coffee, something she would usually have delegated to her long-suffering secretary. Whilst George was otherwise engaged, Karen walked over to the window. She could look down on the busy Knightsbridge street, already full of midmorning shoppers with clearly nothing better to do with their time. How normal they all seemed from her vantage point. But she supposed that she looked exactly the same. She was still Karen Bets, Governor of G wing, thirty-eight-years-old, mother of one son, Ross, aged twenty. But how different she was from twenty four hours ago. Yesterday morning, Karen Betts had still been happy, normal, and judging by her reactions of subsequent events, still relatively innocent. How could she do this? How could she just carry on as if he was still alive, still out there somewhere, she really didn't know. When George returned with the coffee, she found Karen still staring out of the window, though clearly taking no notice of the world out there in front of her. Putting two mugs of coffee down on the small table by the little group of comfortable chairs that faced her desk, she called Karen's name, but got no response. George moved to stand beside Karen and looked up in to her face. The mixture of fear and utter desolation she saw there shocked her. She put out a hand and gently touched one of Karen's which was resting on the windowsill, not wanting to startle her but nevertheless achieving this result. Karen stared at her for a moment, taking a second or two to realise that it was George's concerned face looking at her, not that of some known or unknown demon.
"I'm sorry," Said Karen, making a monumental effort to regain her equilibrium. "I was miles away."
"Yes, and not somewhere nice by the look of you," Replied George. "Has something happened?" It was unlike George to show or even feel this much concern for someone she'd only known for a short time, but the brief look of sheer terror in Karen's eyes, induced a feeling of protectiveness that was utterly alien to George.
"No," Said Karen, "At least not something that's in any way relevant to this case." She ought to be wiped off the face of the earth for such a whopper of a lie. George gave her a look as if to say, give me some credit for being in the business of detecting untruths, but Karen steadfastly wouldn't meet George's eye. Seeing that she wasn't going to get any further, George returned to the matter in hand.
They began talking about Karen's visit the previous week to see Shell Dockley, though this seemed like a lifetime ago to both of them.
"When I came to Larkhall, you said that Fenner had been using Dockley as a prostitute," Said George, taking note of Karen's almost imperceptible flinch at Fenner's name.
"Yes," Replied Karen, attempting to rein in her surely visible reaction to hearing that word that even now, even though he was dead, could irrevocably change her life. "She did say that one of my other officers, Collin Hedges, was in on this arrangement. If he is, then he's in line for the sack at the very least. I remember on the day that Shell was transferred to Ashmore, I found Fenner in her cell, supposedly getting her things together. He looked pretty shifty, but I didn't think anything of it because he looks like that so often. Shell told me that her one possession which didn't make it to Ashmore was her stash of cash that she'd accumulated from this little earner. I think he pocketed it." George walked to her desk and brought her notated entries of the Sexual Offenses Act on to the screen and printed a copy for Karen to see.
"Taking this in to consideration," She said, handing Karen the print-out, "He is without doubt guilty of transgressing against four specific areas of the Sexual Offenses Act, something that area management are duty bound to investigate." Karen began to read what she'd been given. There were four separate excerpts from the 2003 Act, with various names of the relevant victims or individuals involved highlighted underneath. This ran as follows:
"Sexual Offences Act 2003:
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if-
(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether
B consents. (Karen Betts).
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if-
(a) he intentionally touches another person (B),
(b) the touching is sexual,
(c) B does not consent to the touching, and
(d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents. (Helen Stewart, possibly Michelle Dockley).
Causing or inciting prostitution for gain
(1) A person commits an offence if-
(a) he intentionally causes or incites another person to become a prostitute in any part of the world, and
(b) he does so for or in the expectation of gain for himself or a third person. (Michelle Dockley, possibly Maxine Pervis and Rachel Hicks).
Keeping a brothel used for prostitution
(1) It is an offence for a person to keep, or to manage, or act or assist in the management of, a brothel to which people resort for practices involving prostitution (whether or not also for other practices). (Fenner's managing of Virginia O'kane's brothels)."
Karen read this through and then looked up.
"Why have you noted down Maxine Pervis and Rachel Hicks for the prostitution issue?"
"The fact that they used the giving of sexual favours in return for either an easy life or a raise in status could be defined as a form of prostitution. I've talked to Jo about her conversation with Helen Stewart, and it appears that around the time when he was probably beginning his affair with Rachel Hicks, he pleaded her case for a move on to enhanced and for giving her the job of making tea for the officers. Wouldn't you say that these sort of favours would perhaps be worth far more than pure and simple cash to an inmate serving a stretch that could hardly be called short?"
"Definitely, and yes, he did do the same with Pervis. It was just after he was made Wing Governor. He tried to put both her and McKenzy on enhanced, but Grayling blocked it. That was probably the only sensible thing Grayling's ever done."
"So, we've established that a raise in prison status and a raise in employment was the currency with both Hicks and Pervis."
"Is there any legislation about abusing vulnerable people within the confines of a state institution?"
"Yes, I've thought of that one, but no. Prisoners are not, in this case, categorized as vulnerable people."
"But that's ridiculous," Said Karen, clearly astounded.
"After what I saw last week," Replied George, "I wholeheartedly agree. Women who are locked up and have absolutely no way of defending themselves are by definition vulnerable, but all of Fenner's victims, at least the ones we know about, were all over eighteen. If any of them had been younger, then we might have had more to throw at him and area management, because the caring for people under the age of eighteen brings its own inevitable responsibilities."
"How about with the care of mentally disturbed people, because let's face it, you don't get much more mentally disturbed than on some of the occasions I've seen Shell Dockley. I remember once, I think it was just before Helen came back, Shell was stood up on the 3's, with a fake noose round her neck. She called to Fenner to string her up like Rachel Hicks because it was what she thought he wanted."
"I don't envy you your job," Said George soberly, thinking that one person could surely only see so many horrific things going on around them day after day before it began to corrode the spirit.
"Most of the time," Said Karen contemplatively, "I find it the most fascinating job I think I could ever do. But yes, at times it can get a bit much."
"As regards his abuse of mentally disturbed women, that legislation would only be effective if we were talking about a hospital environment, or again if it involved women under the age of eighteen. Corrupt prison officers do have a couple of very successful little loopholes, but we'll certainly not be doing so badly with what we've got."
"Would a court take any of Dockley's evidence seriously?"
"Anything's worth a try," Said George with a shrug, "But if we do use her evidence, we will need a formal statement. Do you think you could get in to see her again?"
"I don't see why not. She said that she was going to put me on her visitors list. This at least means that I won't in future need a court order to see her. But if you want a formal statement from Dockley, it might be worth you coming with me to see her yourself. That way, you'll be able to keep her on the track of exactly what you do and don't want in a statement." George looked aghast.
"No way," She said vehemently, but then tried to sound slightly less terrified by the prospect. "I'm sorry," She continued, "But you will never get me anywhere near anything that resembles a psychiatric hospital." If George's reply had simply been filled with the aristocratic drawing back of skirts from the dregs of society, Karen would have made some flippant comment about George's visit to Larkhall, but she could see that there was more to it than this.
"What are you frightened of?" Asked Karen gently.
"Nothing," Replied George a little too quickly, her eyes darting from one part of the room to the other. "I just don't want to become even remotely acquainted with that kind of place." Knowing there was far more to George's fear at the thought of even temporarily entering a psychiatric hospital of any kind, Karen thought that they had now scored one all in the game of hiding enormous, significant realities from each other. She dug around in her handbag for her cigarettes and offered one to a grateful George.
"Yvonne suggested I ask you something," Karen said, trying to get both her and George on to safer ground. "She wondered if, during the time you were defending Ritchie, he ever put anything in any statement, that might be used to strengthen a subsequent rape case against Fenner. I told her this would be clutching at straws, but I suppose anything's possible." George looked thoughtful. Walking over to a filing cabinet, she retrieved Ritchie Atkins case file from one of its drawers. Rifling through all the documents that certainly wouldn't hold what she was looking for, she finally plucked out his statement and returned to her chair. She quickly ran her eyes over the entire document.
"There's nothing here in writing, though that would certainly have been useful. But he did once talk to me about you. He said that if he'd known that that imbecile Cantwell was going to bring up the withdrawn rape allegation, he'd have done his best to persuade him against it. Ritchie said that it made a lot of things make sense. He said that up until he heard Cantwell introduce the withdrawn allegation, he hadn't been able to put his finger on why you were the way you were on the first night you spent with him. He said that you'd told him afterwards that you were laying a few ghosts and that at the time, he didn't know what you were talking about. I think his words were, she was trying to make herself enjoy being screwed again. Not put in the nicest way, but that was Ritchie Atkins for you." Karen simply stared at George, thinking that Ritchie had been far more perceptive than she would ever have given him credit for.
Karen was about to speak, when George's phone rang. It was reception, to tell her that a Neil Haughton was here to see her. The look on George's face was a mixture of fear, irritation and anger.
"He doesn't have an appointment," She said to the girl on reception, "but tell him he's got five minutes to plead his case and then he's out of here. I'll come down." When George replaced the receiver, Karen said,
"Clearly not someone you're pleased to see."
"No," Said George with a grimace. "The secretary of state for trade, the Right Honourable or in this case dishonourable, Neil Haughton, my ex. I'd have thought he would have learnt his lesson by now, but apparently not."
"you offered me your services as a witness last Thursday," Said Karen, "Would you like me to do the same for you now?" George gave her a tight smile.
"Thank you, but no. This is personal, very very personal. I expect he's come to apologise, again, but it won't do him any good whatsoever." As Karen followed George downstairs, she couldn't quite believe she'd got through that meeting without letting out her secret. She owed George, and Jo and John for that matter, far better than this. They'd, all three of them, offered and given her help when she'd desperately needed it, and what was she doing by knowingly keeping quiet about a monumental bit of lawbreaking, she was betraying all of them.
"I'll give you a call when I make any further progress with this case," George said to Karen as they arrived in reception.
"Thank you," Said Karen, and George had the brief impression that there was far more behind this word of thanks than a simple appreciation of her professionalism.
Part One Hundred
The Autumn sun shone brightly through her window but thunderclouds were clearly heading in her direction personally from the approaching footsteps up the staircase that was clearly Neil Houghton. It helped for him to jump through the hoop of the receptionist and coming upstairs to her office where she was on her home ground. Her inner sanctum made her feel more secure.
George had to leave as unfinished business her thoughts on how the Karen who walked out of the door was definitely not at home with herself and not the woman whom she thought she was. She had work to do on the case against area management. Neil landing on her doorstep was a tiresome intrusion. Something at the back of her mind told her that sooner or later, she would have to face him again.
There was a polite knock on the door and Neil sheepishly let himself in. George immediately waved him to the visitor's chair. Neil stood uneasily in mid tread, intending to move closer to her but, as a goodmorning kiss was clearly not on the cards, ended up visibly not being sure where to put himself.
"We had to talk," Neil blurted out, as if he had been rehearsing this line which, whatever the context, he would have come out with.
"That's what you said last time, Neil," George said in low but firm tones. At the back of her mind, Neil served a useful function for the first time since she had known him in being a convenient object of displaced feelings of discomfort after Karen had talked of psychiatric examinations.
"I did?" Neil's puzzled voice betrayed that his memory had malfunctioned.
"Don't you remember the day when John pinned you up against the wall? He looked so strong and masterful." Her voice drawled with exquisite sarcasm. "Anyway," George added nonchalantly. "Your way of talking is with your fists."
Neil coughed nervously with embarrassment, strange for the man who according to himself, 'never got rattled.'
"That was an unfortunate mistake, George. I am not in the habit of behaving that way."
"Oh, indeed," George scoffed. "I ought to check that one with your previous women before I believe you." In her best theatrical tradition, she did not miss the use of the word, 'that' to distance himself from his excuses rather than 'this' and be drawn in to starting to forgiving him. But trust a politician to behave that way. She should know as she'd lived with one.
"You've changed," Neil said simply, one of the rare occasions that he came out with the first thing that came in to his mind. "Is it an illusion or are you slimmer than when I saw you last?"
"Yes, well, it's all a matter of self control and discipline, Neil," George ungraciously and suspiciously replied. "It's the nearest you've come to a compliment. It must mean you want something."
"It's just that I haven't seen you for a long time," Neil's smooth tones rolled out like honey. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, you know. I've missed you, George."
"More like you are missing the weekly screw, Neil. I've moved on from you."
"I suppose that all this means is that you've hooked up with the Deed. I could tell that a mile away," Neil said sniffily.
George laughed in her brittle fashion at the absurdity of the thought of Neil having deep psychological insight into her feelings.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" George teased, knowing full well that Neil was guessing. "Anyway," she added with aplomb, "It's no business of yours who I sleep with any more than mine of some unfortunate woman who is dazzled by your status and position."
"George, listen to me," Neil urged. "I'm not very good at expressing my feelings and I know that there might have been misunderstandings in the past but really we ought to talk them through .."
Neil was talking in the typical way a politician talks. Where a normal human being would use simple and concise words to come to the point, his innate fear of simple formulations made his mouth work almost without intervention from his brain, collecting worn out phrases as a council workman will rake in dead leaves strewn about in the park. After all, parliamentary debate in the House of Commons involved the same ability to waffle on for hours.
George's eyes were glazing over after the first few minutes and, in a moment of pure tedium, she watched the second hand of the wall clock immediately behind Neil as it silently clicked its way geometrically from the starting position of 12 to complete the lap and do it again and again.
In the meantime, Neil sneaked a sidelong glance at George's computer screen.
"Sexual Offences Act 2003:
" What's that you're doing, George?" Neil suddenly broke in. "Not your usual kind of work. Are you doing work for the other side?"
Her mind went temporarily blank and then an improbable vision of Neil as a glamorous, blue suited James Bond character, complete with smoking gun and herself as an even more improbably named Pussy Galore. She shook her head in wonder.
"But working for the Russians is perfectly respectable these days. Look at President Putin, for example."
For once, Neil thought that this was one of George's sarcastic barbs but had got it wrong.
"I mean, it all looks very suspicious. Charging huge fees in company law is more your style."
"If you must know, Neil, though God knows why I am telling you, I'm preparing a case against the Prison Service area management for negligence in the way that it has consistently failed to take action against that loathsome reptile Mr James Fenner in his systematic sexual abuse, both against the women in his care and also other prison officers. Of course, it may hit the tabloid press 'Fennergate- another Blow for Blair's hopes.' Is that clear enough for you?"
Neil shook his head in puzzlement, having for so long taken for granted George's place in the scheme of things and having taken on board, hints in his direction that members of the Cabinet ought to set a traditional family type of image, especially from the example set to them all.
"You used to be relied upon to bat for the right team," Neil spoke in tones of chilly reproof. "The Attorney General always spoke highly of your skill in extricating the British government from a difficult situation."
"You mean that I was Mrs. Fixit whenever, morally speaking, you and your cronies were caught with your trousers down," George cut in derisively. "And in full view of the paparazzi. Sorry, Neil, but, as I've said before, I've moved on."
"So what sort of political mischief are you cooking up, George?"
"You heard what I said. I'm taking what work I choose that comes my way rather than letting you push the sort of squalid enterprises on me that you have in the past. I've had a run of judgements going against me and why? Because the cases were flawed from beginning to end. I would sooner take my chances with cases I actually believe in for a change. If I can use my skills to enable a woman who was seriously wronged by that ghastly Fenner character, then I'm doing something useful in my life."
"You're sounding more and more like Deed every day," Neil scoffed.
"Do you know what it's like to be raped?" George's tone switched suddenly from languid disdain to steely contempt.
"No of course not, but neither do you."
"No, but I do know what it's like for someone to use his strength against me."
"By the way, George, How does Deed know about that picture that hung in our bedroom? And just how much were you responsible for him coming to retrieve your door key from me?"
George smiled that evil, hugely self satisfied triumphant smile of hers.
"That's what you really came to see me about, none of this 'we'll kiss and make up, darling' routine. That's not your style, either. There's always some ulterior motive in anything you do. That's your trouble. While John, charging over to see you to get my front door key from you at the House of Commons, how romantic."
"Then there's nothing more to be said." Neil's suppressed anger boiled over. George took a step back automatically, suddenly aware that thanks to her secretary being ill, she was on her own.
Fortunately, Neil turned on his heel and went to storm out of the door. Just before the door shut, George spoke in a theatrical aside.
"I'm so exhausted these days."
George made her way back to her computer. This one case was starting to accumulate a vast amount of material and she was starting to create sub folders to hold all the associated material. Fortunately, she held all the information she wanted to know which stretched over time and the complex relationships at Larkhall. She shivered inside when some of the memories of her day at Larkhall started to come back to her. She had felt very uncomfortable at the way it diminished her power over her environment. She had always taken that for granted as something that she enjoyed as of right from her position in society and her own force of personality.
This wasn't some impartial company deal, she reflected. It only took the statement from Shell Dockley for the case to be started and her secretary, when she had condescended to get back to work from her sickbed, to start typing out the summonses which needed to be served. It was curious that she was having some sort of renaissance in her approach to legal work which, for the first time, involved real people with whom, in her detached way, she could not help identifying with to a certain extent. She cursed the way, though, that her secretary who knew her way through the complexities of her cases and records, left her to sort her way through what seemed like the reams of random post which had landed on the front doormat. Perhaps, she ought to make a good resolution to be nicer to her and then maybe she wouldn't have been left in the lurch today.
On a whim to ease her feelings of frustration and anger against inanimate paperwork, she phoned the one person for a casual chat which, in reality, was the person she felt safest with, John.
"Deed," he said automatically.
"John, darling," the very familiar aristocratic drawl answered him. "I have just had that pathetic drip, Neil Houghton at my office. He was complaining about the way you took the key to my house away from him. You must have seriously offended him."
John laughed heartily down the phone. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask George how she could have put up with him all this time but he refrained from the comment that would make George feel defensive. He well knew that a defensive George would suddenly bite back.
"I'm glad that I had that effect on him. I am sure that you sent him on his way."
George laughed that slightly flirtatious laugh of hers. It was like the old days when he would phone up from some town where he was sent as defence barrister on one of his crusades while she was in the City of London, starting to make her reputation. Things were simpler in those days before in later years, she found out that the circuit was a very convenient mechanism to enable his philandering and he would make up by being extra nice to her on the phone, the morning after. While John was only aware of her lively flow of conversation and apparent good spirits, deep down, her own spirits had plunged abruptly into that feeling of desolation which she covered so well with that perfect mask of hers. Jo was in the relationship, the woman she had once labelled Miss Oxfam. George's newfound feeling of not wanting to see her hurt confused her even though what she was doing would be instrumental in this if it ever came out. This was definitely not the good old days, even though she was tempted just for those few minutes to pretend a little. It made life easier to bear.
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