DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions. I am using them for fun, not for profit.You may also notice a couple nods to BTVS; for those I offer props to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This story depicts a loving/sexual relationship between women. It is not suitable for anyone under age 18.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have also taken great liberties with the British Justice System.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nandh4ever[at]gmail.com

Love, Loyalty and Friendship
By Christie


Part Twenty-One

After a rather good day at work Helen drove to the Potting Shed via Majestic wine shop where she bought a nice bottle of champagne from the cooler for Tony. The women had decided to leave Nikki's Shogun at the garden centre; Helen would drive her to work next morning on her way to HMP Bullwood Hall in Essex. A little more than an hour's drive, Bullwood Hall was one of the last prisons on Helen's list, her weekends of travel having almost come to a close. Except for the one weekend when she would be travelling east to Rochester, any further information gathering she needed to do would all be within a one or two hour radius of London. Day trips. Helen was not the only one thrilled at that prospect.

They arrived at Nikki's former house – now Tony's – at precisely six o'clock. Nikki was so proud of how far Helen had come in her efforts to be more punctual. Greeting them warmly at the door, Tony quickly invited them inside, accepting Helen's champagne and Nikki's potted plant. "I never seen a plant like that before, Nik. What is it?"

"A beaucarnea recurvata," Nikki informed him. "Could grow pretty big, so eventually you may need to replant it outside. But not for a while yet. Thought it might go nicely in the sitting room. It likes sunshine."

"Almost looks like a palm tree, dunnit?" he pointed out.

"Yeah, it's not, but they call it a ponytail palm. Not very manly, I know, but..." she shrugged. It was one of her favourites and something she had often considered putting in her sitting room. "Pretty user friendly, just don't give it a lot of water in the winter. I hope you like it."

"Love it, really. Now let's get into the bubbly! Helen, would you mind doing the honours"? She deftly opened the bottle while Tony pulled some champagne flutes from the cupboard, ceremoniously making a point of giving them a good polish with a dry cloth before handing one to each of his guests, handling them by their stems so as to not mar his handiwork. He picked up the bottle and, holding it awkwardly around the neck, proceeded to fill the three glasses. "Almost feel I should be smashing it against the side of the house, give us a proper send off, eh? But that'd be a waste."

"It certainly would," Helen agreed.

"And difficult to figure where exactly the bow of a house is anyway." Nikki raised her glass, offering playfully, "To the HMS Tony Russo!" The three drank enthusiastically before heading off on the ten cent tour of Tony's house.

An hour or so later Nikki and Helen were back in the Peugeot. "Nikki," Helen began, a cringe coming over her face, "now I know he said he liked your decorating style, but that was a little much." Their walk through of Tony's house was a bit of a revelation; every piece of furniture that Nikki and Helen had chosen to keep for their new Camden home had been supplanted, a doppelgänger put in its place. Even the art on the walls and the duvet in the master bedroom were essentially replicated. "You don't think it's a bit... unsettling?"

The taller woman would not be baited. "Helen, you've seen Tony, know how he dresses. He doesn't have the best taste. So he borrowed some of my ideas. Dun' mean anything."

A smile touching her lips Helen quipped, "I think he fancies you… Should I be worried?"

"'Course you should, Darling. If I were ever going to go off with a man, you know it'd be someone like Tony: short, balding, Coke bottle specs. Doesn't know how to open a champagne bottle. Or how to pour from one, for that matter. But he's got a lovely house, almost felt like home." Both women were laughing. "Turn this car around! I'm going back." Nikki rotated in her seat, gazing longingly out the back window. Despite her protestations, Nikki did find Tony's homage to her décor somewhat disquieting but was not overly concerned. She mostly found herself feeling sorry for the young parole officer, that he had not found his own sense of self, did not have a style of his own and felt he had to emulate Nikki's. "Or maybe he does have a crush," she speculated aloud. "I am pretty hard to resist." She punctuated her statement by giving Helen's neck a protracted nuzzle.

"Mmm, frisky" Helen cooed. "Just promise me that you won't call out Tony's name tonight when we're in bed."

Helen had a long day on the Thursday. After getting Nikki to the Potting Shed for half past seven, she arrived at Bullwood Hall in plenty of time for her nine o'clock meeting. Having previously realised that she had garnered as much information as she was likely to from speaking to Wing Governors and prison officers, Helen had more recently been spending more time interviewing young and juvenile offenders themselves in her efforts to overhaul the system. She wished she could get some of the old-timers to trust her enough to speak to her, recognising them as another valuable resource, but thus far those efforts had been rebuked. She knew there was one prison where she had the respect of some of the long-term inmates, but she was loath to show her face in there unless absolutely necessary.

After a productive day in Essex, Helen drove back to London where, following its two week hiatus between the introductory and advanced classes, she was happy to head directly to the self-defence studio. She was looking forward to the second ten-week session which would end just before their planned trip to America.

She and Nikki had been wading through web pages and travel books and had finally decided that it did not make sense to journey as far as San Francisco without also making their way to the Napa Valley. In fact they were beginning their holidays in Napa and ending up in San Francisco just in time for Gay Pride. Helen, whose previous experiences within the gay community were somewhat pedestrian, was in for a culture shock, Nikki knew. Both women were excited about their trip, having finally booked their hotels. Skiving off a bit at work the previous day, Helen had drawn up a detailed itinerary. When Nikki arrived home following her evening of volunteering, Helen sheepishly presented it to her.

Nikki, who might have been just as content with more of a spontaneous holiday, nonetheless appreciated Helen's efforts and enthusiasm. She could not help teasing, however, "What? Not colour-coded?" as she glanced over its three pages.

Unwilling to admit she had considered it, Helen scoffed unconvincingly, "How obsessive compulsive would that be?" She tendered, "Now, the restaurants are just ones we've talked about; nothing's set in stone. I just thought, based on what we'll be doing, where we'll be..."

Still needling her partner, Nikki asked, "So, you've not booked the reservations yet?" She smiled waggishly at Helen who, aware of San Francisco's reputation for great restaurants, knew she would still be doing more research and held her itinerary to be mutable. She was organised, yes, but not rigid, she argued. Nikki grew serious. "There's just one problem." Her tone had turned sober. Helen looked up at her, concerned, as Nikki scoured the pages again. Without looking up she pointed out, "There's no sex on this schedule." She picked up a Biro and began to amend that. "We've got a window here," she wrote on the itinerary, "and here. Should be home early that night. Let's pencil it in, sex: nine 'til one..."

"Some chance," Helen laughed, rolling her eyes dramatically.

Nikki grabbed Helen around the waist, swinging her playfully. "Are you doubting my stamina?" she accused with feigned affront.

"Of course not, Sweetheart. But if I happen to fall asleep, feel free to go on without me."

A gleam came into Nikki's eye. "Only one way I know to increase endurance: practise!" With that she tossed the papers onto the kitchen counter and raced Helen up the stairs to their bedroom.


Part Twenty-Two

The next couple of weeks passed without incident. Helen was finally beginning to believe she had almost garnered an adequate amount of information to effectively begin to develop her programme. In addition to Thomas Waugh, Helen had found a child psychologist and a social worker, both of whom were already working within the prison system, on a Youth Offending Team, to complement her own squad. She had met with each of them individually but had called a group meeting to brainstorm the following week. She only had a couple more out of town facilities she wanted to visit.

Friday Helen had several appointments set up at the Medway Secure Training Centre. Located in Rochester, Kent, Medway was conceived as a custodial school for children aged twelve to fourteen – referred to as 'trainees' - but had recently been amalgamated with area Young Offenders Institutions to include fifteen to twenty-one year olds. These new Detention and Training Centres covered the whole age range and, though private institutions, remained under contract to the Home Office which bore ultimate responsibility vis-à-vis the range of services provided and penalties imposed upon trainees for breaches of conduct. Helen was meeting with the Headmistress first thing then with a couple staff members, Supervising Officers who had been at the centre since the beginning. In the afternoon she had interviews with four trainees, three of whom were back in Medway for at least the second time.

Scarcely an hour's drive from London, if one treated the posted speed limit with enough contempt, Helen would normally have done the trip in a day, returning home after her meetings, but she had chosen to book yet more appointments next day at HMP Elmley in the Sheppey Cluster, a triumvirate of prisons on the Isle of Sheppy, Kent. A wave of guilt crashed over her as she let herself into the well-appointed hotel room she had taken for the night. This was not something she had ever even considered doing but in the end she could not resist the urge to give in to her basest needs. She turned on the lights but before she could even register the sight of the champagne bucket and room service trolley, strong hands had gripped her wrists and spun her around, pushing her aggressively against the wall, arms pinned. She looked up into eyes dark with want. "'Bout time you got here!" a gravelly voice admonished.

"Nikki! You're early!" Helen's words were almost entirely cut off as Nikki leaned in, capturing the delighted Scot's lips in a crushing kiss. When they finally pulled apart Helen finished, "You weren't supposed to be here for another hour."

Shrugging the tall woman explained, "Alex had everything under control at the shop, so I took an earlier train. Couldn't wait to get started on our 'dirty weekend'." She leered down at her partner, arms still holding her fast.

"I am here for work," Helen chided, clipping the last word harshly, feigning irritation. "And tomorrow we're off to visit Chris," she added soberly, almost managing to conceal the glint in her own eye.

"You see it your way... I stand by my wording." Seeing the look on Helen's face, Nikki discontinued her banter. "You're not still feeling guilty about charging this room to the Home Office, are you?" Helen's silence confirmed Nikki's suspicion. "Look, Darling, you've spent enough nights in cheap, run-down motels and B&B's trying to save the Home Office money. They owe you at least one night in a nice place." Helen seemed unconvinced, especially since visits to Medway and Elmley could have been accomplished as day trips. "And what about all the long driving days you put in, hmm? Way over the eight hours you're billing them for."

"I know, but..." Helen had finally found her speaking voice.

Interrupting, Nikki rebuked gently, "No buts! Now, c'mon, have some champagne. I've charged it to the room." Seeing the exasperation in Helen's expression, Nikki held up her hands. "Joke!" she assured her cost-conscious partner, leading her to the sitting area where she set about opening the champagne and unveiling a platter of fruits and cheeses. She handed Helen a flute of champagne, clinked glasses and took a small sip. "Mmm, very nice. The perfect pairing for chocolate body paint!" The fire in Nikki's eyes had not abated and Helen found herself unable – and unwilling – to resist her charms any further. She finally allowed herself to let go of her guilt and succumb to the seductive nature of the setting. Helen looked up at Nikki, a wicked desire reflected in her hazel eyes. Affecting her own display of dominance, she pushed Nikki backwards against a wall, pulling the taller woman's head down to bring their lips together. Helen revelled in the cool, crisp taste of champagne which still lingered on her lover's tongue. Kissing frenetically, tongues diving, battling, Helen held both of Nikki's wrists in one of her own, smaller hands, all effectively trapped between the raven-haired woman and the wall. Obviously, Nikki could easily have disentangled herself had she been of a mind to, but she most certainly was not, relishing as she was Helen's bold ministrations. In no time Helen had opened Nikki's blood-red, button front top, delighted to discover that her partner was wearing her black lace, front-clasping bra. Unhooking the undergarment, Helen released Nikki's pendulous breasts and went to work in earnest, taking a distended nipple into her mouth, tongue circling, teeth gently nipping while her free hand ministered to the other. A persistent knee wedged Nikki's legs apart and Helen moved in closer, her hip seeking contact with the taller woman's hot centre, grinding insistently which provoked an unintelligible sound from Nikki. Not content with the limited access afforded through Nikki's trousers, Helen sought to undo them, pushing them down and driving her fingers past the satiny restraints of Nikki's knickers, seeking out the other woman's most intimate folds, moved by the wetness she encountered there. She drove two fingers in deep.

Scarcely able to speak, Nikki nevertheless croaked, "Helen... we have... all night..."

Not letting up at all, Helen argued, her voice rough, "Champagne, strawberries and body paint can wait; you're the one who wanted down and dirty." Her words gave her an idea and she dropped to her knees, pulling Nikki's trousers further down as she did so, but never slowing her fingers' exquisite assault. With a last, daring look into her partner's eyes she thrust her tongue forward, capturing the nub of Nikki's sex, alternately stroking, sucking before lightly skimming across it with her teeth. Nikki found her hips keeping time with Helen's plunging fingers which had begun to pick up speed. Helen could feel that Nikki was close to release.

Nikki stroked a hand on Helen's head, compelling the smaller woman to look up. "I... want you... up here... with me," she managed to say, "to see... what you do to me." Helen stood, never losing eye contact. As Nikki leaned forward for a kiss, tasting herself on her partner's mouth she finally tipped over the edge, clamping down hard on Helen's fingers. As she did she pulled back slightly, inciting Helen once again to meet her eyes, to recognise the effect she produced within Nikki.

As Nikki's breathing was returning to normal she asked of Helen, "Remind me... to send off a thank you note... to the Home Office. This really is a fantastic hotel room."

Helen was typically very thoughtful in the mornings when Nikki was having a lie in. This did not hold true the following morning, however, when Helen lit every lamp in the room and proceeded to blow dry her hair immediately next to her partner's head. Though the exhausted Scot did not hold Nikki wholly responsible for her tired state, she did begrudge her not having plans that morning since Helen herself had to make the thirty minute drive to the Isle of Sheppy in time for a nine AM meeting. Nikki was catching the ten-forty-two train into Canterbury where she had plans to meet Chris in anticipation of their day together. To Helen's frustration it was with a spring in her step that Nikki bounded out of bed. While Helen was finishing up her morning routine, Nikki threw on some clothes and headed down to the hotel's café. Five minutes later she reappeared bearing coffee, yogurt, fruit and pastries to fortify Helen for her drive. At a quarter past eight Nikki escorted Helen out to her Peugeot before going out for her run along the river.

After an uneventful train ride Nikki arrived at Canterbury West Station just before twelve. Ordinarily she would have chosen to walk the mile or so from Canterbury East Station, but, unfamiliar with the area, opted to continue along on the train to the second Canterbury stop which was closer to the King's School. Chris was there to meet her at the platform. "Auntie Nik!" she waved enthusiastically. The two Wades had grown quite close in the short five months they had known each other. While Nikki did her best not to dwell on the years they had lost, she did want to make up for lost time with all of Martin's family, most especially Chris and Nico.

"There's the birthday girl!" the older Wade exclaimed. "Didn't think a fifteen year old was physically able to climb out of bed before noon on a Saturday," she teased.

"Been up all night, haven't I?" Chris teased. "Didn't wanna miss out on getting spoilt by you. You still owe me for fourteen birthdays."

Laughing with her niece Nikki let her know, "Helen's really sorry she couldn't be here today, but she's looking forward to tonight."

Continuing to tease her aunt, Chris went on, "Meaning she won't have missed a single one whereas you've missed fourteen…"

"Write you a cheque, shall I?" Because Nikki had sent most of her things with Helen, she only had a small pack with her. She flung it over her shoulder and asked, "Still keen on going to the pictures?"

"Someone Like You's showing at quarter to one. A ten minute walk."

"Lead the way… But promise me you won't tell your parents that I fed you popcorn for lunch!" Nikki beseeched.

"Lunch? Try breakfast," Chris scoffed. "And, all right, I'll keep schtum. Jst add an extra zero to that cheque, yeah?"

"Sure. At the front." The two strolled companionably to the cinema. "So, Kendra not joining us this afternoon?" Nikki enquired as they stood in line for their 'breakfast'.

Chris sounded like Nikki herself as she jeered, "You can never be sure what she's gonna do."

Nikki could usually all but forget that Chris was only fifteen but the truth of her niece's youth hit her that moment as she heard an almost child-like whine in her voice. "Did something happen between the two of you?" Chris's head snapped up at Nikki who, recognising how that question might have sounded, backpedalled cautiously, "I mean, did you have a falling out?"

Shaking her head Chris denied, "Nothing that dramatic, no. Really, it's just… it's nothing."

Having finally got through the front of the queue they made their way into the auditorium which was filling up quickly. Nikki tread carefully wanting Chris to know that she – Nikki - was available to listen or advise without making the girl feel pressurised into taking advantage of either. "Do you want to talk to me about it? If there's anything to talk about? I mean, I do remember what it's like to be in middle school, an emotional tightrope…"

Sparing Chris any further discomfort, the previews began, effectively rescuing the girl. She was more like her Auntie Nik than either of them knew, preferring to bear her emotional burden alone. Clocking that the teen did not wish to discuss the troubles which might be brewing within her friendship with Kendra, Nikki insisted that they hit High Street following the film for the bit of shopping she had promised the birthday girl. Arriving at Chris's boarding house – almost a hundred and fifty quid lighter, Nikki noted to herself – the younger Wade immediately pulled her new outfit from one of the shopping bags, insisting on donning it for their night out: low-rise trousers and a top which exposed her midriff. Nikki hoped that the girl's parents would not find it too risqué for a fifteen year old - Auntie Nik would have sworn she saw a thong peeking out from the back of the trousers – but at least her budding breasts were adequately covered, she thought.


Part Twenty-Three

Kendra showed up while Chris was in the shower but made no move to wait for the other girl in her dormitory room, choosing instead to sit with Nikki in the house's common room.

"So, sweeper, eh? Good season?" Nikki offered as an icebreaker.

"We came in third, but we had a lot of new girls this season. We'll take top spot next year. I can feel it," Kendra responded confidently.

Recognising that the girl was a bit older than Chris, Nikki probed, "What year are you in?"


"You're, what, two years older than Chris?" Nikki found herself feeling protective of her niece.

Kendra corrected, "Year and a bit. My birthday's July." Born in Northern Ireland, she had started school a full year earlier than she would have in England.

Changing tacks the older woman asked, "So, King's is a sixth form college? You didn't consider going somewhere else?"

Without a second's hesitation the girl replied, "No, never. I love it here. I've got hockey, my mates." Kendra's eyes drifted towards the stairwell.

Nikki cautioned, "Sixth form's different. More freedom, more responsibility. Almost like they think you're young adults." She gave Kendra a teasing look before getting serious. "Can be difficult to maintain friendships with middle school girls," she speculated pointedly if somewhat disconsolately.

Looking Nikki squarely in the eye, Kendra countered, "Not if it's important to you, it isn't." Desperate to change the subject, she said, "Chris tells me you own the Potting Shed?"

Recognising Kendra's discomfiture, Nikki let her off the hook, "You know it?"

"I've been in a few times. Probably not for a couple years. I like working with plants. Before my parents split up, I'd go into the garden just to get away from their rows," Kendra admitted openly.

Looking over the athletic girl, Nikki got an idea. "Are you looking for a job for the summer? Only, I've just hired a landscape designer and I need some keen bodies to help her."

Wistfully Kendra turned her down, "If only. I'm spending the summer in Cascais, outside Lisbon, working for my dad and his wife, playing au-pair to my baby sister." Her tone was bitter.

Not having got any information from her niece about the rift she sensed between the two school chums, Nikki decided to question the older girl. "So, just found out about that, did you? Minding your sister?"

Seeming surprised Kendra conceded, "Just this week, yeah. Wednesday actually."

"Was that when Chris started getting stroppy?" she asked adroitly.

"Now that you mention it…"

At that moment Chris emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed. She had even added a touch of makeup. "So, what d'you think? Will I do?"

Eying her appreciatively, and longer than Nikki would have expected from one who was only a friend, Kendra answered, "You look great."

"Didn't know you'd arrived," Chris said coldly. "Sure you still want to celebrate my birthday with us?"

Exasperated, Kendra sighed, "Why wouldn't I?"

Choosing to interrupt the churlish dialogue, Nikki said, "Ken's just told me she's got to go to Portugal for the summer."

"Sure. 'Got to'," Chris's temper seemed to have taken a turn towards the sarcastic.

"Dun' sound to me like she wants to go any more than you want her to, Chris. Am I wrong?" She turned to the older girl.

"No, not at all. I'd way rather stay here." Almost inaudibly she added, "With you."

Knowing full well that she was watching young love in action, Nikki, after getting past her sense of relief that her own teen years were well behind her, chose to intervene. "What if we were to fly you down to Portugal for a long weekend? Maybe some time in July?"

"Not the same as being here all the time."

"Chris…" Nikki admonished.

"I mean, that'd be great. Thanks." She took a minute to think about it. Looking to Kendra she shrugged, "Maybe your dad'll send you home for a weekend as well. Or you could come home for your birthday in July and I could go to Portugal in August. Better than nothing."

"I'll ask him. Least he can do, really," Kendra decided.

Helen chose that moment to make her arrival in from the Sheppey Cluster, effectively marking an end to the awkwardness of the conversation. The housemistress had let her in and escorted her to the common room where she found the group. "Why's everyone looking so serious? I thought this was meant to be a party!" She made her way over to Chris offering her a big hug which was met with a bit of embarrassment. "Happy birthday, Hen!"

"Ken was just telling us how disappointed she is to be going to Portugal for her summer hols. Not much of a holiday, thought, eh? Having to mind your baby sister." Nikki looked at the older teen. "Good thing they're not going to bin the next two and a half months, though, worrying about that." Her eyes also took in her young niece who had the good grace to look away as she realised that was exactly what she had been prepared to do.

Remembering their own occasions of separation anxiety - and downright jealousy – Helen commiserated, "Did our share of that, didn't we, Nikki."

The taller woman was forced to agree. "It's not easy to stay connected, but you'll phone, email." Ever since taking an IT for Business course, Nikki had done her level best to embrace technology and to find ways in which it could be of benefit to her. In keeping with that, she had just engaged someone to build a website for the Potting Shed and had designs on creating an online catalogue. "Helen, I've already suggested that we might send Chris for a visit, maybe end of July?" Nikki posited sheepishly at the impulsiveness of the offer she had made without consulting her partner.

Though feeling somewhat put on the spot, Helen agreed but with a stipulation. "Not really our offer to make, is it?" she began. "But as long as it's OK with their parents, I don't mind chipping in." It occurred to her that maybe Kendra's parents were using a summer in Portugal to put some distance between the two girls. She was not entirely wrong. "Now, enough of that talk. This Muscat I picked up isn't getting any colder. Shall we have a glass before we head to the restaurant?" All were in agreement and Nikki did the honours, pouring out small glasses of the low ABV sparkling wine for each of them. By a quarter past seven they were snugly encased in Helen's Peugeot and headed towards Pinocchio's Italian Restaurant on Castle Street. It was decided that they would drop off the girls' overnight cases – Nikki and Helen had invited them to stay over with them at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge so as to not have to worry about getting the teens back to their houses before curfew - and walk the seven minutes to the restaurant. It was the first clear evening they had seen all month and they wanted to take advantage of the warming temperatures. After a lovely dinner where the staff had cottoned on to the fact that it was Chris's birthday and given her the royal treatment, the weather had turned and the four lingered over their cappuccinos, waiting out a brief shower. Arriving back at the hotel shortly before half past nine, they changed into their cosies and settled in to play something called Cranium which Nikki had picked up earlier in the week having been informed by Alex that the game was all the rage. She later came to discover something equally important: she had zero aptitude for creating sculpture from Plasticine. All Word Worm questions, however, became hers by default. They played a total of three games with every member of their small group having the opportunity to partner up with each of the other three for one match. Nikki and Helen took on Chris and Kendra in the final showdown. A more competitive group would have been difficult to find, but most of the trash talking had tapered off before they headed off to bed, though Nikki and Helen could still hear some of the girls' banter through the small suite.

"Well, maybe if you'd thought to draw people in your hot air balloon...."

"Have you ever even seen a frog? Any idea what they look like?"

"I was drawing with my eyes closed!"

A pause. "Who's Zsa Zsa Gabor?"

"Not a clue."

On and on it continued until after one o'clock, well after Nikki and Helen had settled themselves into one of the twin beds. Nikki warned her amenable partner that she would be moving over into the second bed once Helen was asleep. With Nikki's height, even as small as Helen was, sharing a twin bed would result in a poor night's sleep for both women. As it was they awoke feeling refreshed and Nikki climbed back into Helen's small bed around seven o'clock. They hoped that the girls were sound sleepers. They finally crawled out of bed a little after eight. Nikki took her shower first while Helen made a pot of coffee and packed up the few things they had brought. At nine o'clock they made a huge din and finally succeeded in rousing the two teens.

While their room did not benefit from a view of the cathedral, it was more than adequate for their needs. Helen was impressed that the competitive rate they had paid for their accommodations included a buffet breakfast for the four of them. Nikki had certainly chosen well. Once the girls had dressed, they all hustled down to the Refectory Restaurant in the main lodge for breakfast. Looking out across the courtyard they saw a large congregation making their way into the cathedral for the half nine mass. Not wanting to elbow in on Chris and Kendra's entire weekend, the women dropped them back at King's immediately after having checked out of the lodge, shortly after eleven.

Shyly Chris gave each of her aunts a hug in turn. "Cheers for everything, Auntie Nik, Auntie Hel."

"When're you back in the city, Hen?" Helen asked.

"Probably a couple weeks. Then I've got half term exeat beginning of June. Home for a week."

"Weren't you just off for three?" Nikki laughed.

Chris explained, "That was Easter break."

"I thought King's was meant to be preparing you for the real world? Not teaching you to be a bunch of skivers. A week off every three..." Nikki continued with her teasing.

"But with loads of homework, yeah?" Kendra interjected, tongue in cheek.

"Hmm. Eight hours a day, I'm sure. You're certainly not going to be mucking about with your mates, hanging about the shops. Is it any wonder England's going to hell? In Scotland students actually attend school." Helen added.

"It's so bleedin' cold, might as well be in class, I s'pose."

Once the repartee had played itself out, Nikki confirmed, "So, a couple weeks, eh? We'll be sure to get together. You're more than welcome too, Ken." Nikki looked at the older girl. "And don't forget to talk to your parents; let Chris know when she can go for a visit." Turning to her niece she added, "Then you can let us know and Helen and I'll get it sorted." The four finished saying their goodbyes and the girls climbed the steps into Chris's house, disappearing behind the heavy wooden door.

Nikki offered to drive home to London and opened the passenger door to allow Helen entry before taking her own seat behind the wheel. She was pleased that it appeared as though the teens – or, more precisely, her niece – had got over that spate of separation anxiety.


Part Twenty-Four

A quick stop at Tesco's and Nikki and Helen arrived home shortly after one o'clock. They headed directly out to the back garden to see how Thea and her crew were managing. Thoroughly impressed with their progress, Helen offered to make the group some sandwiches and fetch them a drink. Thea declined graciously on their behalf; they had just polished off the McDonald's she had picked up. "Looks like you've got everything under control," Nikki said, "but if you need anything, just let us know, yeah?" She looked at Thea more closely. "Sure you don't need a coffee or something? You're looking a bit peaked."

"A bit of a late night. Alex held a 'compulsory staff meeting' at Chix," Thea smiled. "Didn't force me to stay 'til close, mind. That was all down to me. We all went. Kate even brought Tony. Bit odd, that, chumming with my PO. But he's all right, innit? But, no, I've still got a coffee on the go, cheers."

"If you change your mind, just knock us up. We're home for the day." And with that the two homeowners headed back inside. No sooner had they begun putting the groceries away, than the telephone rang. Helen, being nearer to the phone, picked up.

"Hello?" She was greeted by the unmistakeable sound of an open line. "Hello? Is anyone there?" When she received no answer to her query, she cradled the receiver. "I thought we were finished with those. That's the first since we moved, unless you've not told me." She looked at Nikki questioningly.

"No, it's the first. Could've just been a misdial. Try one-four-seven-one," Nikki suggested.

Helen rang the Last Call Return only to discover that the number was blocked. She shook her head. "No, it's no good. Feels like it's starting again." At its height, the women were receiving up to ten hang-ups a day between their two homes. "Shit!"

"It's one phone call. Don't expect the worst; that's my job," Nikki tried to make light of the situation while all the while agreeing with Helen's assessment. The women were right. They received two more hang-ups that day.

Monday Nikki spoke with the travel agent to gather some information about flights into Lisbon. She had designs on speaking with the agent anyway to finalise everything for the trip to San Francisco. Because Mondays were still administrative days for Nikki at the Potting Shed, she had more time to spend on the telephone, or as Helen facetiously referred to it, to slag off, than Helen. Nikki had, therefore, volunteered to take care of all the travel arrangements. Helen was very proud of herself for allowing Nikki to take the reins but insisted that the dark-haired beauty keep a detailed diary of what she had done. "Baby steps," she thought to herself. Control was not something Helen relinquished easily.

Feeling somewhat guilty about it Nikki nevertheless used the travel agent to garner information but, discovering how much money could be saved booking online, set about making all of their holiday arrangements herself. Her only mistake of note was in booking their flights. Helen had made arrangements to meet with the program director of the Detention Diversion Advocacy Program while in San Francisco. She had done some research on the fledgling program and was very excited about its mandate and potential applications for her own youth initiative. The frugal Scot was going to be able to write off her flights to and from America. Consequently, she needed to pay for them using her credit card. Because Nikki was, for all intents and purposes doing two separate transactions, she had a difficult time seating them together on their flights. A quick telephone call to the airline, however, and all was resolved.

The following night Nikki and Helen had been invited to Trisha's for dinner. Alex greeted them at the door. Nikki still had a difficult time wrapping her head around the younger woman and Trisha as a couple, but was doing her best to come to terms with it. Because she thought so highly of both women, she was coming around slowly but surely. "Trisha's just gettin' dressed. Drinks?" Alex asked. The three took up their positions in the kitchen where Alex fixed them each a preprandial cocktail, pouring out a glass of Semillon/ Sauvignon Blanc for Trisha who arrived just as Alex was putting a stopper in the bottle. "She's got good ears, that one," Alex teased.

"No, just good timing. Hiya, Nik, Helen. Glad you could come." Trisha gave each woman a quick hug in turn.

"Something smells delicious," Helen observed.

"Osso bucco. I hope it's all right, never made it before," Trisha admitted.

"Well, if the smell is anything to go by, it'll be fantastic," Nikki assured her. The four women made their way into Trisha's lounge and arranged themselves comfortably with Nikki and Helen on one couch and Trisha and Alex on the other, the one closest to the kitchen. Trisha needed to get up every fifteen minutes or so to baste the veal shanks.

"I seen the drawings that Thea done for your garden. It's gonna be first-rate. How's she comin' along?" Alex asked.

"A lot faster than I ever would have believed. It's already taking shape," Nikki admitted. "Should have the fountain in by next week."

"We'll have the two of you over once it's finished and the weather's a bit warmer," Helen suggested. "We're thinking about getting one of those stand-up heaters so we can enjoy the garden longer."

Trisha added, "Must be nice to be able to get those things wholesale."

"If you ever need anything, yeah?" Nikki offered.

"Did you have a nice weekend with Chris?" Trisha asked.

Nodding effusively, Helen answered, "Really nice. She's a good kid, well, a young woman really. Seems much older than I was at that age."

Nikki, who was forced to grow up fast, could not speak to that. Instead she said, "The drive sure was beautiful, the trees leafing out. It was a great weekend – until we got home." A look of frustration crossed her face. "The phone calls have started again."

"Wha'? The hang-ups? But aren't you ex-directory?" Alex enquired.

With a shrug Nikki acknowledged, "Yeah, that's why I thought we were in the clear. It'd been almost a month... Maybe they somehow got our new number."

"Well, was it just the once?" Alex asked.

Simultaneously Trisha blurted over her girlfriend's question, "Oh, no. Shit!"

In response to both Nikki admitted, "No, there've been a couple since. Not the end of the world, though. But we're thinking about changing our number again."

"No, Nik, you don't understand. I think I know how they got your number," Trisha began.

"How's that, then?" Helen asked.

Sheepishly, unable to meet Nikki's eyes, Trisha explained, "It's Chix... Someone got into the office."

"Because you left the bloody door unlocked. As per usual," Nikki accused.

Trisha did not need to answer for Nikki to know that she had been correct. "I wouldn't have even known except they broke the lock on the file cabinet. I assumed they were looking for money."

"Jesus, Trish! And you deliberately kept it from me, you and Alex both. Mighta thought to mention it. Especially now it looks like they were after my personal information! I am still a sleeping partner in the company." Nikki was beyond agitated. "Now they know where we live! If they had gone after Helen..." She left the threat unsaid.

"Oi, Nik, back off," Alex intervened. "We reckoned it was just someone who'd had a skinful lookin' to make an easy score."

"And they don't have your new address. I never bothered to change it, just your telephone number," Trisha said.

Helen placed her hand on her partner's forearm in an effort to placate her. "Sweetheart, it's just a couple phone calls, not worth getting upset over."

Her distress unabated, Nikki fired, "They just should have said!" Looking at Trisha she asked, "Did you ring the police?"

Sneering at the ridiculousness of Nikki's question – she really should have known better than to ask – Trisha rolled her eyes. "Wha', the same filth that arrested you? Surprisingly, I didn't bother." More softly she added, "I really didn't think that much of it. I am sorry, Nik."

"Well, just lock the sodding door from now on, yeah? We'll change our number again next week." Still not quite over her outrage, Nikki nevertheless did her best to tamp it down. Seeking out a less volatile subject, she asked, "So, osso bucco, eh?"


Part Twenty-Five

Nikki did ring BT to have their telephone number changed the following week. In spite of the fact that only Nikki's staff, Martin's family and Helen's father had the number – it was decided that friends could ring them on their mobiles – the calls resumed within a week of the change. Trisha assured Nikki that her office had not been breached a second time, that she had been diligent about keeping the door locked. The women assumed it would be pointless to change their number again and decided that they would simply have to live with the calls. They decided to add Calling Line Identification to their telephone line and to simply ignore calls where the number was unavailable.

Helen felt she had done as much research into young and juvenile offenders incarcerated in Britain as she was able yet she still felt that she was missing a key component; the picture was not quite as well-defined as she would have liked. She was forced to revisit the idea of speaking with long-term, adult inmates who were in a better position to understand the needs of YO's. She took a deep breath and rang a familiar number. Within a minute she was connected to the party she was trying to reach.

"Karen Betts."

The last time the two women had spoken, harsh words had been exchanged when Karen refused to be swayed by Helen's efforts to warn her off Jim Fenner, with whom the then Wing Governor was living. Helen had hoped to convince Karen before it was too late, even going so far as to leave a copy of her report detailing Fenner's sexual assault against her. The nervous Scot announced, "Karen, it's Helen Stewart."

Surprised, the former Wing Governor said, "Helen. Hadn't expected to be hearing from you again. What can I do for you?"

"I'm working for the Home Office, putting together a training initiative for officers working with YO's. I was hoping to speak to some G Wing inmates, Yvonne Atkins and the Julies maybe, y'know, the mums, see if they've any insight to offer," Helen explained.

"Sounds good, but you know I'm not Wing Governor anymore?"

"I heard. And that Fenner is," Helen spat. "But, as you can well understand, I'd rather not go through him. In spite of your relationship, I'd still hoped you might help me get 'round him."

Quietly Karen admitted, "We're not together anymore." There was a long pause as Helen processed that information and its implications. Karen went on, "Look, I know it's last minute, but would you be able to meet for lunch today?" Karen suggested. Curious about the circumstances surrounding Karen's split with Fenner, Helen quickly agreed. They made a plan to meet at the Dog House Pub near Larkhall at one o'clock. After running a few errands, Helen arrived only a couple minutes late. Nikki had been proving an excellent influence on her. "Helen!" Her head turned in the direction of the voice. She found Karen easily as the blonde rose from her seat at the back bar and waved. Though aware of Karen's demotion, it nevertheless took Helen a moment to get past the sight of her in a prison officer's uniform and not a suit. Helen wove her way over to her former colleague. "I'm glad you could make it," Karen said sincerely.

"Order whatever you want; I'm charging it to the Home Office!" Helen laughed. The two women opted to venture upstairs where it was quieter and more comfortable. They settled in, ordered a drink – a bitter for Helen and a glass of pinot grigio for Karen – and decided to look through their menus before getting stuck in to any heavy conversation. Helen ordered the cod and prawn fishcakes and Karen the fried camembert with green salad. And another glass of wine – to wash down the crow she knew she would be eating as well.

"So, Helen, tell me about your new project. It sounds very promising," Karen insisted, hoping to put off discussing Fenner as long as possible.

Swallowing a mouthful of her drink, Helen nodded. "I'm really excited about it. As I told you it's a training initiative for officers working with YO's. I've built a team to help define the training modules: a child psychologist and a social worker, members of a Youth Offending Team, and Dr. Thomas Waugh."

"Thomas? Are you and he still...?" Though Thomas had stayed on as Senior Medical Officer at Larkhall for a while after Helen's resignation, Karen had had very little contact with him outside of occasionally entrusting prisoners into his care.

"No," Helen answered quickly, "strictly professional, I assure you. But he is a fantastic psychiatrist and someone I thought would be an asset to this project. Anyway, I've spent the past several months travelling to YOI's, interviewing officers and offenders, trying to determine what's lacking. I feel like if we can do a better job with YO's and juveniles, maybe we won't see as many of them returning as adults."

"Makes sense," Karen agreed. "And you think Yvonne and the Julies can offer some insights?"

Nodding enthusiastically, Helen concurred, "They see and hear a lot of things you and I don't. I think their input'll be invaluable." The waitress came with their meals. "Thanks," Helen said to her before returning her attention to her luncheon companion. "D'you think you can get me in to see them? Without having to go through Fenner?"

Heaving a heavy sigh, Karen admitted, "I truly don't know. I can talk to the number one, of course, but he and Fenner are thick as thieves. Grayling seems to think the sun rises and sets out Jim's arse. I don't know why, but it's like he's got a personal vendetta against me. Can't promise he'll do us any favours."

"Just do what you can, Karen. If I have to see Fenner, I will. I'll just be prepared for it." Helen paused. Allowing her curiosity to come to the fore, she finally asked, "So, you and Fenner?"

Sheepishly, Karen admitted, "We were going to be married. The very night I accepted his wedding proposal, I found your report on... what he'd done to you. I didn't believe it, of course; no way I could have been that stupid, falling for a man capable of that." She looked at Helen guiltily. "I shredded it. Oh, Helen, I'm so sorry."

Rolling her eyes at Karen's predictable response, Helen conceded, "Might've guessed. He had you eating out of his hand, believing all his lies."

"Except the one about you having an affair with Nikki Wade, the gardening instructor out on licence?" she added in case Helen had forgotten her. The small Scott stifled a smile. "And you, an employee of the Home Office? No, that was too big a yarn, even by Jim's standards."

"So, then what?" Helen prompted, doing her best to suppress a grin.

"I couldn't get your report out of my mind; it rang too true. So I started thinking about everything else you'd accused him of: taking a cut of Virginia's brothels, affairs with inmates. Suddenly, the ring he'd given me seemed too expensive, his demeanour around the some of the women too familiar..." Karen was staring ahead, unseeing. "Someone left a package on my desk, some things obviously taken from Jim's locker: some reading material of an explicit nature as well as a pair of Maxi Purvis's knickers."

"The last straw, was it?" a sympathetic Helen asked.

With a shrug Karen agreed, "Something like that, yeah. I still have moments of weakness where he's concerned, find myself wanting to believe him. After I chucked him out, Grayling took him in as a lodger. But he's since moved out. Convinced me it was because Grayling had tried it on with him. I suppose I wanted to believe. It allowed me to make sense of Grayling's animosity towards me. I made the mistake of confronting him only to learn that he had copies - that Jim had given him copies - of some rather revealing photos. Erm, photos of me. A gay man would really have no interest in those, now would he?"

Helen shook her head at the way Fenner continued his pattern of violating women. "I am sorry, Karen."

The blonde shook her head. "No reason to be. You tried to warn me. I was the stupid cow who couldn't – wouldn't – see him for what he truly was." Having grown uncomfortable at the scrutiny, Karen turned the tables on Helen. "So, tell me about you: new man in your life?" She arched her eyebrows questioningly.

Haltingly Helen denied, "No... no new man." After only a moment's hesitation she added, "But there is someone."

"Have you had a child?"

"What?! No." It was a rather damp spring day, but Helen found herself immediately regretting her decision to wear a heavy jumper against the cool temperatures. She looked down at herself.

Backpedalling, Karen assured her, "No, Helen, you look fantastic! I just misunderstood what you were saying." The two women found themselves laughing openly together in a way they never had before.

Finally Helen admitted, "No, the 'someone' isn't a child. Well," she considered Nikki's competitive spirit when playing cards and board games and the way she could kick the football around for hours with Nico, "not in the strictest sense. It's Nikki Wade."

Karen's reaction was unsurprising. It was nearly a full minute before she regained her composure and managed to pick her jaw up from the floor. "So, that was the one thing Jim wasn't lying about?" She was nonplussed. "But I defended you. Always thought you were too professional for something like that." Karen seemed almost betrayed by the knowledge.

Helen knew she had to explain and that her explanation would contain some necessary omissions. "Nikki and I formed a fast friendship almost two and a half years ago. Somehow in the midst of it, things changed. She was convinced she was in love with me, started to pursue me." Karen nodded for her to go on, her scowl undiminished. "That's when I started the Lifers' Initiative, to put some distance between us. I wasn't so much worried about Nikki's feelings, but my own. I tried to fight them." Quietly she insisted, "God, I tried. I did manage to maintain my professionalism, knowing the repercussions for both of us if I hadn't, and nearly lost Nikki in the process. But we got together after her appeal. I swear it."

The irony of having once described Helen as 'straight as a die' was not lost on Karen, in one sense, anyway, but she knew that her former colleague was as professional as they come. She nodded her head in deference to that knowledge. "I know you, Helen. And I believe you. Gotta say I'm surprised. I've only ever known you to date men, but..."

Looking over the glass from which she was about to drink, Helen first muttered, "Amazing what effect a few simple words from a parent can have." She took a sip. "Honestly. I've never been happier. We've just bought a house in Camden. My father's even planning a trip down to visit."

"You father? Wait, wasn't he a minister?"

"Yeah, he is. And not an overly-progressive one at that. But I'm the only family he's got. He'll probably never admit it, but he's rather taken with Nikki. He's trying to accept us," Helen stated, more proud of her father than she ever expected she could be. "What about you, Karen? Anyone serious since Fenner?"

"Don't know how serious it is, but I've been seeing Mark Waddle," Karen confided.

"Wasn't he Gina Rossi's-?"

Quickly Karen assured Helen, "They're ex. Their relationship didn't survive losing the baby."

Remembering, Helen nodded. "Right. But didn't he go off with Di Barker?"

"And in the Officers' Club toilets, no less. Don't remind me." Karen rolled her eyes. "I like to think he's traded up," Karen added dryly.

"I'd say you both have." Helen offered candidly. The women had finished their drinks, Helen taking care of the bill as promised. "Look, Karen, thanks again for meeting with me, for trying to help me arrange meetings with Yvonne and the Julies. I suppose I should've asked; Yvonne's not down the block, is she? Another escape attempt perhaps?" Helen smiled across at Karen.

The blonde returned the gesture. "No, we've been cutting her some slack since learning that she wasn't responsible for Virginia O'Kane's death. She was punished rather severely when we thought she was."

"And I'd better come in quickly if I want to see the Julies, eh? Aren't they due to be released soon?" Helen asked.

Karen's demeanour deflated. "No, of course you wouldn't have heard: the Julies were both charged with GBH with intent."

It was Helen's turn to be shocked. "What happened?"

"Julie Johnston's daughter Rhiannon turned up inside a while back. Her boyfriend had got her into drugs and put her on the game. The Julies sent him off a VO and, while he sat in the visiting room, they poured boiling tea in his lap. Second degree burns to his tackle." Both women cringed at the thought while inwardly applauding the two mums for doing what they felt they had to to protect one of their own. Karen stood to retrieve their coats from a hook on the wall and handed Helen hers. "I'll talk to the women first, though I expect they won't need to be coerced into talking to you, then run it past the number one soon as. Should be able to set something up for next week."

Giving Karen a tentative hug, feeling they had turned a corner in their relationship, Helen offered a simple, "Thanks." They made their way downstairs. As they reached the main door she acknowledged, "No promises about Fenner's involvement though, I know." After a moment she added honestly, "I'm really pleased we did this."

"So am I," Karen admitted. "Perhaps we could do it again?"

"We'll talk about it end of the week." The two women climbed into their respective cars and drove away from the pub, surprised to think that a new friendship may have been forged that afternoon.


Part Twenty-Six

Every spring Helen would invite the Reverend Stewart to London for a few days' visit. Unbeknownst to him it was Helen's birthday gift to Margaret, to whom Helen would give a train ticket to Aberdeen so she could visit her family. Tempted as he might have been to forego that tradition, Rev Stewart rose above his intolerance and took his daughter up on her invitation. As was often the case with Helen's father, there was a condition: he would not stay in the house she shared with Nikki. Helen accepted that stipulation gladly, considering it a victory of sorts; when first faced with her invitation, Rev Stewart had declined out of hand. After a time he softened slightly, accepting her invitation but flatly refusing to either have any contact with Nikki or see the new house. He had later dropped even those last two restrictions. That Thursday Nikki picked him up at King's Cross train station just before three o'clock to deliver him to the Meliá White House Hotel. The women, having spared no expense, secured him a bed and breakfast in a room facing Regent's Park.

When he told Helen that he was arriving Thursday, she attempted to dissuade him, "Now, I'm not going to be home Thursday night, nor is Nikki. I've got a self-defence class and she's volunteering. You're sure you don't want me to book you on a morning train Friday?"

"No, lass, yer Uncle Graham's in London for a wedding. He and yer Uncle Mac and me are havin' dinner. Don't distress yersel'. I'll see you Friday."

James Stewart, Graham Connolly and Duncan Macrae had grown up together in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, twelve miles west of Glasgow. At age twenty-one Graham had gone to Montreal on holiday and never returned; he met a nice, Jewish girl and went to work in her father's deli. Almost three and a half decades later the business had expanded to six delis scattered across the city and Graham oversaw them all. Mac had moved to London around the same time and had risen through the ranks to become Detective Superintendent in one of the city's largest police divisions. Three lads of humble beginnings had all done very well for themselves indeed.

It was a very nervous Nikki who waited for Rev Stewart to alight from the train. Spotting him she quickly made her way over, trying in vain to relieve him of his case. The two shook hands formally. "Reverend Stewart, Nice to see you again," Nikki began.

"Miss Wade," he answered stiffly.

Undaunted by his cool demeanour, she insisted, "Please, sir, it's Nikki." He said nothing. "Shall we head out to the car park?" They proceeded to do exactly that, Nikki's ongoing attempts to draw her partner's father out met with monosyllabic responses. She walked him in to the hotel.

"Hmm, yes, Reverend Stewart, let me just pull up your reservation." The reception clerk tapped his computer's keyboard. "Here it is. Right. I am terribly sorry, sir, but your room's not quite done. We've had a very busy week and a quarter of the housekeeping staff's down with a bug. Couldn't have them coming into work and risking your health, now could we?" the young man said amiably.

"But check in is three o'clock. It's a quarter after." Rev Stewart showed no sign he would be appeased.

"Let me just see if I've another room I can offer you." Fingers flew over the keyboard. "I've only one room ready."

"Is it larger than mine?"

The reception clerk shook his head. "Smaller, I'm afraid. And no view to speak of. If you could be back in, say, an hour, your room will be ready."

A furious Rev Stewart snapped, "And what would ye have me do until then?"

Intervening, Nikki suggested, "You'll come to the house, freshen up, ring your friends to collect you from there."

"What about my case?" he asked, a snide look on his face.

"I'll drop it off on my way to volunteer. I'm sure," she read the young man's name badge, "David will ensure it finds its way to your room."

Nodding he assured them, "Of course. And I'll see to it that a bottle of wine makes its way up as well." Nikki smiled at him favourably.

"Okay, if that's the best ye can manage," Rev Stewart agreed begrudgingly. "I prefer a red." They finished the check-in procedure and Nikki wrested Rev Stewart's small case from him and led him back out to the car park. They arrived at the Camden Town house four minutes later, the Rev Stewart's disposition having grown even dourer at the prospect of seeing the house his daughter shared with a woman. He half expected to be walking into the den of Sodom and Gomorrah. He was pleasantly surprised by the tasteful decor which greeted him and the warmth which the house exuded. "This isnae just a hoose," he thought begrudgingly. "'Tis a home." And in that moment he took another step towards acceptance.

"Now, I'm sure you'd like to freshen up after your train ride, but would you like the grand tour first, or would you rather wait for Helen and do it tomorrow?" Nikki offered.

"May's well do it now. I imagine I'll see too much of it to bother waiting." Nikki nodded. "Lead the way," Rev Stewart insisted. She did just that and he remained impressed by the overall feel of the home which was warm and inviting. They finished up their ten cent tour and Nikki got Rev Stewart a bath sheet and a flannel from the linen cupboard.

"If you don't need anything else..." He shook his head. "Then I'll meet you in the living room in a little while." She headed back downstairs. After a quick shower he rejoined her. "I've made us a pot of tea. Earl Grey, isn't it?" He was reluctantly touched that she had remembered. They doctored up their cups of tea and Rev Stewart declined the biscuit Nikki offered him. "Now, I've not shown you my favourite part of the house. Come," she gestured with her head. He followed her out into the back garden. Though not yet the middle of May, once the morning rains pushed off and the sun came out, the mercury soared to twenty-three degrees that day. "I thought we could sit out?" She put the tea tray down on her new outdoor coffee table.

Rev Stewart looked around stunned. "'Tis beautiful out here. Disnae even feel like you're in the city." He looked at her earnestly. "Ye've a keen eye, Nikki."

She laughed and argued modestly, "No, I've an eye for engaging talented staff. My new girl, she's called Thea, she designed it, insisted I start selling these outdoor living room pieces out of the shop. Can hardly keep them in stock."

Recognising her humility for what it was, Rev Stewart said, "Och, well, it's lovely. I'm sure... you lasses... are lookin' forward makin' great use of it this summer."

His discomfort was obvious and Nikki had to commend him for his efforts. "We are. We've sat out a few times and I've a heater on order, y'know, to extend the season." Not yet having taken their seats, Nikki asked, "Have you seen the fountain?" They spent a few minutes looking over the water feature, Rev Stewart growing more impressed with every new thing Nikki pointed out.

"Amazin' what they can do these days. Imagine a waterfall in the garden!" He shook his head in wonder.

Having suddenly remembered Nikki asked, "Have you rung your mates? To let them know to collect you here?"

"Och, I'd forget ma heid... Thank ye for reminding me. Best do that now," he said.

Gesturing for him to remain seated, Nikki offered, "Don't get up; I'll bring you the phone." She stood and headed for the door. "Back in a tick," she tossed over her shoulder.

The task of the phone call accomplished, they settled in, falling into easy conversation. Shortly before Mac and Graham arrived to collect Rev Stewart, Nikki said, "I really am sorry that you couldn't see Helen today. Thursdays she typically goes directly from work to her class."

He nodded thoughtfully, "Hmm, aye, self-defence, eh? How does she come to be takin' that then?"

Not willing to divulge too much, she simply said, "Well, for her job. It's important for her to know how to protect herself."

Helen's father was unconvinced and Nikki lost the stare down. She looked away. "Ye're sure there's not a wee bit more to it?"

"What more could there be?" she asked vaguely.

He shook his head. "Didnae expect ye t'ever be coy, Nikki." He paused. "Look, Helen's ma bairn and I am concerned."

"Self-defence is simply a matter of personal safety."

"Is there now or has there ever been cause to think that she's no' safe?" he asked very directly, clipping his words in much the same manner that Helen did when she was angry.

Not answering right away, Nikki finally deflected softly, "It's not for me to say."

"But there is something to say? Mighta known workin' wi' all those cons. If one o' them's harmed her..."

"It's not the cons you've got to worry about," she replied angrily without thinking.

"Wha's happened, Nikki? Tell me!" Helen's father was distraught, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios. Yet he was still unprepared for what he heard.

Feeling an overwhelming urge to share Helen's story with someone who loved her as much as she herself did, Nikki gave in, "A prison officer, last year, he assaulted her, grabbed her... touched her... inappropriately." Her face took on an angry cast.

"I'll kill him," Rev Stewart spat.

Bitterly Nikki confided, "No, Helen suggested that wouldn't solve anything when I offered." They both got lost in their own thoughts for a moment. "Rev Stewart, please don't let on that you know. It really wasn't my place. She'll feel much worse knowing you know."

"Ye have ma word. Just tell me, Nikki: is she all right?"

She nodded half-heartedly. "The classes help her, give her a sense of control. But I still wish she'd talk to someone, at least sit in on a session where I volunteer with victims of sexual violence. I'm no shrink."

"I'm sure ye've done loads tae help her, Hen." Nikki looked up at him, surprised by his use of the endearment. "Didnae expect tae ever say it, but I'm happy she has ye." Perhaps it was on account of the high emotions that afternoon or the obvious affection that Nikki felt for his daughter, but it became clear that he had turned yet another corner.

Smiling wistfully, Nikki admitted, "You've no idea what that means to me." Before they could get caught up in an emotional scene, the doorbell sounded. "Saved by the bell, eh?" she quipped.

They made their way through to the front door where Nikki met Graham and Mac, both of whom lifted Rev Stewart in crushing embraces. She saw them out to the car, calling out to them playfully, "Home by eleven, yeah?" She had a quick bite to eat before heading off to her volunteer work, where her mood took a definitive turn for the worse.


Part Twenty-Seven

Nikki walked into the community centre room which had been housing these support groups for almost ten years. She helped arrange the chairs and was busy setting up the coffee urn and cups when she happened to look up, spying a familiar blonde who had just entered the room and was looking around anxiously. Nikki approached the new arrival. "Miss Betts?" she began.

Karen, with the look of a rabbit in the headlights, could only stammer, "Nikki? What? But I..." Her eyes darted around worriedly.

Desperate to put the other woman at ease, Nikki asked simply, "First time here?" Karen nodded mutely. "Would you like me to introduce you to Susan? The facilitator? Or maybe just a cuppa?" Nikki was well aware how useful a cup could be as a prop for buying time.

"Yeah, maybe some tea," Karen agreed. "And, Nikki, please, it's Karen." The women strolled over to the refreshment table and poured tea into paper cups. The room was filling up and Nikki suggested that Karen take her seat. The volunteer then went to Susan, letting her know that she was not going to stay in the room through the session. Knowing that Karen would be uncomfortable and more reluctant to speak if someone she knew were in the room, and out of respect for the prison officer's privacy, Nikki opted to make herself scarce. She promised to return to help with the tidy up.

An hour later the meeting room door opened and Nikki ventured back inside to stow the chairs away and pack up the tea and coffee service. As she was doing the latter Karen came over with an offer of help. Once their task was accomplished – in virtual silence – Karen turned to the raven-haired woman. "Nikki... Thank you." Karen understood what Nikki had done for her by not staying through the session. Her gratitude was significant.

"Dunno what you're talking about." Nikki shrugged humbly. After a moment she asked, "Karen, are you all right?"

Karen snorted, "You know I'm obviously not."

Nikki regretted her question but pressed on, "You've made a good first step, coming here; you know that?" Karen nodded meekly. Spontaneously, the dark-haired woman offered, "Look, d'you want to come 'round to ours? Don't want to pry, and you don't have to talk about anything, but Helen'll be home now. Come by. Have a glass of wine...?"

Karen let out a small laugh, "Oh, God, that's right. I'd forgotten about you and Helen." Nikki did not detect a single hint of derision in Karen's voice. "Perhaps it was kismet brought me in here tonight, so, yes, I'll take you up on that." They made their way out to their cars, Karen hopping into her little emerald green MG and tailing Nikki home. Fortunately, Helen had only arrived home moments before and had not yet drawn a bath, as had been her intent. Nikki and Karen found her in the kitchen opening up a bottle of wine. "How did you know?" Karen asked almost playfully. "Though if you've got anything stronger..."

"Karen!" Helen exclaimed, embracing the blonde quickly while casting Nikki a questioning glance.

"Now, look, Helen, I don't want to intrude on your evening. It's just... after the... erm... I ran into Nikki at the..." Nikki handed her a generous portion of whiskey from which Karen took a grateful swallow. "I participated in the support group this evening." Karen's matter-of-fact statement served to elicit more questions in the other women's minds. Helen invited her into the living room.

"Only if you want to talk about it, yeah?" Nikki reiterated.

"Thank you – again - Nikki. But it only seems appropriate. To talk about this with Helen. We were sexually assaulted by the same man, after all." She took another draught from her glass.

Helen's hand went to her mouth. "Oh, Karen, no," she cried.

Meanwhile, through clenched teeth Nikki growled, "That bastard!"

Bowing her head Karen said softly, "My own fault, I suppose."

"No, Karen, you mustn't think that," Nikki argued.

"He's the only one who bears any responsibility in this," Helen insisted. "You have to know that."

Unable to face the other women's kindness, Karen reminded them, "But you warned me, Helen. And if I hadn't put myself in that position..."

"It doesn't matter what you did. It still doesn't... Nothing gives him the right to force himself on you," Nikki pressed. "Do you want to tell us what's happened?"

Opting to give them a bit of context, Karen began, "Jim had been having a hard go of it - at work, in his personal life. All of his officers seemed to be going over his head to the Number One and Grayling was siding with them. All the initiatives that Jim had rejected were suddenly getting the go ahead. He kept on insisting that Grayling was sexually harassing him to the point I'd started to believe it. But when Grayling called a staff meeting which excluded Jim, was simply a session of pissing and moaning about him, I, well, I suppose I felt sorry for him." Karen looked up at the other two women, surprised not to see judgement reflected on their faces. She went on, "It got worse. Grayling demoted him, wanted him back on the floor, and Jim walked out." She paused. Nikki and Helen waited her out. "He had told me he was back together with Marilyn. Another lie, which I discovered when I rang her to check up on him. I reckoned he was probably back at the B&B and went over there just to make sure he was all right."

Karen seemed unable to go on, certain that she was wholly responsible for the events which followed. Nikki prodded, "What happened next was done to you. It wasn't your fault, regardless of what led up to it."

Grateful for Nikki's encouragement, Karen went on. "He'd been drinking and poured me a rather large one. Then another. I don't know how it happened, why I can't get him out of my system, but he kissed me and before I knew it we were snogging, made our way onto the bed. But when he unbuttoned my top, I finally came to my senses, tried to sit up... He pulled me back down... I told him, 'no,' that I didn't want that, but he... he raped me." Karen's eyes, riveted to a spot on the floor as they had been since she began her tale, filled with tears. "How could he do that to me?" She finally looked up at the other women whose own faces were clouded with an amalgam of pain and fury. How, indeed?

Helen was the first to respond and she chose her words carefully. The last thing Karen needed was an 'I told you so', Helen knew, but it would be better than shouldering all the blame herself. "Jim had always worked so hard to hide his real self from you. But with all those stressors, my guess is he just snapped. He was feeling impotent and needed to exert some control. I am so sorry, Karen."

Nikki agreed, "People like Fenner, it's about power, innit? He'll never change." She insisted, "Tell me you've been to the police."

"I went to the police straight away, but Governing Governor Grayling's just got back to me, spoke to a mate of his who told him the charges won't be pursued. I'll just be made to look like some slag who's out for revenge." Bitterly she added, "Where's Shell Dockley when you need her, eh? Finish him off for good."

Neither of the other women could contest that notion. "Should've given her a few more minutes with that broken bottle," Helen quipped. "But, no, you had to send in the cavalry."

"Twenty-twenty hindsight," Karen contributed to the dark humour before growing serious. "There's got to be something we can do to stop him abusing any more women."

"Tries it on with me again, let me tell you, he won't know what's hit him," Helen threatened.

Hearing the anger in Helen's voice, Nikki posited pointedly, "Karen's taken a good first step towards putting this behind her, coming to the group." She looked directly at Helen.

Helen's stubbornness won out as usual as she replied, "Sweetheart, I'm a trained psychologist; I can work through it on my own." She looked at her partner. "I've got you to help me. And my elaborate fantasies highlighting the many different ways Fenner could meet his end."

Unable to contain a derisive snort, Nikki mumbled, "Oh, very healthy, that."

Knowing that she was a precipitating factor in - if not the direct cause of – the couple's mild row, Karen interjected, "Can I get anyone else another drink?" She stood, making her way to the kitchen, returning with a bottle whiskey and another of vodka. "How early do you ladies have to work tomorrow," she queried.

The three stayed up until almost one o'clock, catching up and almost deliberately avoiding Fenner's name. Karen stayed the night in the spare bedroom, heading home early next morning to get home and ready to face the day, grateful to Nikki and Helen for their support of the night before.


Part Twenty-Eight

Karen rang Helen up Monday to let her know that Grayling had given her the go-ahead to speak with Yvonne and the Julies, all of whom were looking forward to seeing her, though Yvonne was her usual, leery self. The appointments were scheduled for Tuesday morning. Almost transported back in time, Helen drove in through the gate, making small talk with Ken who was manning it just as he had through the years of Helen's tenure at Larkhall. She had a few extra hoops to jump through as a visitor, but before she knew it she was being escorted by Karen into one of the private visiting rooms. "Bet you're missing the old place now," the blonde joked.

"Mmm, like an abscessed tooth."

"Well, you know Grayling is short a Wing Governor." Both women laughed at the thought of Helen returning to the place which had caused her so much distress. "Offered it to me again, if you can imagine, but I turned him down flat. I don't need the pressure," Karen admitted. "Though if the rumours can be believed, he might be looking to Sylvia. Dunno how long I'd last here then."

Helen was appalled. "Sylvia? You can't be serious." Karen could only throw up her hands. A minute or so later the stubby prison officer about whom the women had been sniping arrived with the two Julies. Karen left them to it.

"'Morning, Ma'am," Sylvia said with undisguised disdain. "Didn't expect to see you back 'round here."

"Just doing my part to make your job easier, Sylvia."

The PO rolled her eyes in obvious contempt. "My eye! More mollycoddling you mean. If you want to stop the YO's coming back as adults, I say make it a bit less like summer camp for them in here. Karaoke, pool table, a telly that gets more stations than mine. Honestly."

"Thank you for bringing the Julies through, Sylvia. We'll need an hour." It was evident that the PO was being dismissed. Bodybag shut the door behind her before taking up her position in a chair outside the door. She snapped open a copy of The Sun and turned to the crossword.

Inside the room the atmosphere had lightened considerably with Hollamby's departure. "Good ta see ya, Miss!" Julie J insisted. "Are you comin' back to work 'ere?"

"Place ain't been the same without ya, has it Ju?" Julie S added.

"Not near the same, no," the shorter Julie agreed.

Helen smiled warmly at the other two. Though not the cleverest women on the wing, they could usually distinguish good people from bad, no matter which side of the wire they were on. "Sorry, Julies, but I'm not staying on. I just need your help with a little project." She went on to outline her YOOTH initiative and the part she wanted the Julies to play in its creation.

An hour later they were wrapping up. Julie J suggested, "We was just wonderin', Miss, what if you give us a bit more time to give it a think? We could talk it over with some of the other girls."

"The other girls," Julie S said simultaneously. "Do some brainstormin'," she added.

"Then we could meet up with you again, like next week?" Julie J posited.

"Next week, yeah."

With a nod Helen agreed. "Great idea. I'm seeing Yvonne next, so if the three of you want to hash it out with some of the other women, mull over some ideas, I'll come back in and see what you've come up with. I really think we can make a difference, Julies."

"We got faith in you, Miss."

Karen had arrived with Yvonne in tow and brought the prisoner into the room Helen had been assigned. "Would you like to escort the Julies back to the wing or shall I, Sylvia?"

"Hmm, well, I might as well stay, now I'm here. And my sciatica's actin' up again. My doctor's told me to stay off my feet..." Hollamby stammered.

Yvonne jibed, "Yeah, wouldn't want you to get up off your brains, eh, Sylvia?"

Sourly the PO countered, "That's Miss! Trouble with you lot: no respect. You won't get anything useful out of her, Ma'am," she warned Helen. "Thinks she's on a field trip."

"Yes, yes, thank you, Sylvia. And it's Helen, not Ma'am. I work for the Home Office; I'm not the bloody Queen." With a smirk Karen and the Julies left and headed back in the direction of the wing. Sylvia left the visiting room as well, shutting the door behind her.

"It's really good of you to meet with me, Yvonne. I feel we've got some unfinished business, like I let you down: never did get rid of Fenner," Helen began. Yvonne shook her head silently, gesturing towards the shadow visible in the space under the door. Hollamby was eavesdropping. Helen was unconcerned. "I heard you had a rough go, repercussions. You all right?"

"You're the one lost 'er job. And you know me, Miss. I always do all right," Yvonne replied with her typical hubris. "Dunno what you're lookin' for off me, though. I ain't in the habit of doin' favours for Governors." Helen smiled at the other woman, remembering the last time Yvonne had said those words to her, when they were co-conspirators in a plot to rid the Prison Service of one Jim Fenner, a plot which had gone horribly awry.

"I'm not the one this favour's for. But if you want to play 'Us and Them', bear in mind I'm not your Governor anymore. I'm on your side." Yvonne knew deep down that she always had been. Helen went on to explain her project to Yvonne in much the same way she had to the Julies, though without feeling the need to simplify it as she had for the others. She respected Yvonne's desire not to have the session recorded and did her best to take extensive notes. An hour later she reiterated the suggestion that Yvonne and the Julies garner as many suggestions as they could from other inmates, especially those who had been YO's; information was invaluable.

Helen opened the door to seek out Hollamby. "Sylvia, would you mind escorting Yvonne back to the wing then coming back to see me to the gate?"

"Oh, sure, nothing I like better than traipsing all over the prison, catering to the cons," Hollamby griped, dripping sarcasm. "I'll send someone 'round to collect you, Ma'am." She exited with Yvonne.

"Helen," the small Scot corrected quietly with a sigh before going about collecting her notes, putting them into her briefcase to organise back at Holloway. She heard the door open and looked up with a smile expecting to see a prison officer come to escort her to the gate. Instead she looked into dark eyes brimming with menace.

"I thought I told you I never wanted to see you in here again," Fenner's voice menaced.

Unfazed, Helen retorted, "And there was no reason for you to've seen me, Jim."

"I warned you what would happen if you came back here, you stupid cow! There's not a bin large enough to catch all the shit I'm going to throw at you and that dyke Wade."

Helen was not going to give in to his posturing. "You've got nothing, Fenner. Nikki's conviction was overturned. She should never have been a prisoner."

"Or maybe there's something else you've come back for, eh?" Fenner was quick, reaching out for one of Helen's breasts. She was not caught unawares as she had been the last time. Taking hold of Fenner's thumb, she wrenched his arm behind his back with all the ferocity she could muster. Using his momentum to propel him forwards, her right hand grabbed the back of his head and she mercilessly smashed his face into the cinder block wall. He broke free, blood streaming down his face and went after her again. Showing not a moment's hesitation, she drove her knee up into his groin, kneeing him as well in his already broken nose as he sank to the floor. Leaving him in a heap she opened the institutional green door and exited out into the corridor.

"Try anythin' like that again and I will kill you," she called back to him through clenched teeth.

Covered as she was in Fenner's blood, she made quite a spectacle for Di Barker and the coterie of prisoners the officer was escorting back from painting the walls of the Mother and Baby Unit. "Helen! My God, what's happened?" Di implored.

Taking a deep breath Helen explained, "A bit of a misunderstanding between me and Mr. Fenner."

"Oi, good on ya, Miss," one of the prisoners called out.

"Respect!" cried another.

Helen was disgusted at the entire scene, the lengths to which Fenner had driven her. Thankfully Karen, sent by Sylvia, chose that moment to arrive to walk Helen out. "All right, ladies. That's enough gawping. Let's get you back to the wing." Di corralled the excited inmates.

Karen took a quick look inside the private room and found Fenner still groaning. "Jesus!" she exclaimed. She shut the door and piloted Helen to the gate, inwardly gratified by what the petite woman had wrought. When the Scot voiced her concern that Fenner might press charges, Karen insisted, "He'll be too embarrassed, Helen. And I don't think he'll want the circumstances that led up to it to get out, do you?" Helen had given Karen a brief recap as they walked. "He'd have too much to answer for."

"I hope you're right, Karen. Thanks."

Quietly Karen responded, "No. Thank you." The women shared a grim smile and Helen was off.

At half past five Nikki arrived home bearing the Thai takeaway Helen had requested to find her partner sitting on the couch in a blood-stained outfit and holding a rather large looking vodka. The tall woman quickly approached her partner. "Helen? Darling, what's happened?"

Scarcely able to put it into words, the aggrieved Scot mumbled a small, "Fenner."

"Are you bleeding?" Nikki examined Helen thoroughly. "Did he hurt you?" she demanded.

Helen let out a bitter laugh. "The blood's his." At Nikki's mask of confusion, she went on. "He came into the visiting room after Yvonne had left, all angry and aggressive. Tried it on with me again." She looked into Nikki deep amber eyes saying ashamedly, "I attacked him. Slammed his face into the wall, nailed him in his dangly bits. And, if that weren't enough cracked my knee into his nose. I think it was already broken." Helen's eyes had drifted from Nikki's and she was staring off vacantly.

Taking hold of Helen's chin, Nikki forced the other woman to face her. "Self-defence, Darling. He was about to assault you. Again."

Shaking her head, Helen argued, "No, Nikki. Well, I mean, yes, he was, but I assaulted him. What I did. How I acted. I wanted to hurt him and I did. He was not getting up from the kick to the balls. I didn't have to go after his face."

Wishing she'd had greater success in her attempts to convince Helen to attend some of the group sessions for sexual abuse victims, Nikki was not surprised that her anger had finally manifested. "How do you feel now?" she asked.

Helen snorted. "Free. Like it was some sort of catharsis; the power he had taken from me, I took it back." She looked sheepishly at Nikki. "And scared too. That I have so much fury inside me. And disgusted that I could have done that to another person. Even Fenner." She raised her glass. "So, cheers!" she offered caustically.

Nikki confiscated Helen's glass from her. "Have you eaten?" she asked, concerned, placing the tumbler back on the coffee table.

"Not since breakfast, no."

Standing, Nikki pulled Helen to her feet with her. "You go get cleaned up and I'll crack open up these parcels, yeah?" Nikki scurried into the kitchen, taking plates from the cupboard and laying out containers of green curry with chicken, garlic pepper prawns, chilli basil beef and steamed rice on the island. When Helen returned from a quick shower, they took their seats.

Still hanging her head Helen asked, "So, does Susan facilitate a group any night other than Thursday?"

First thing the following morning Helen rang Larkhall. "Karen," she began, "I'd like another meeting with Yvonne." After a moment, and sounding almost like an afterthought, she added, "And the Julies."

Unfortunately G-Wing went on lockdown that week following the suicide of Maxi Purvis. A cursory examination showed that the intractable inmate had either been in a rather spirited fight or had been beaten up prior to taking her own life. Acting Wing Governor Sylvia Hollamby, in a desperate bid to redeem herself following a rather unfortunate incident where Maxi's corpse – which Sylvia had frantically been trying to hide from the prison inspectors who were visiting - fell out of a cleaner's cart in front of that same team, had vowed to keep the wing on lockdown until Maxi's combatant confessed.

An attraction between inmate Barbara Hunt and the prison chaplain, Henry Mills, had been playing out over the previous several weeks. Barbara, though by no means fond of Maxi Purvis, was nonetheless beside herself over the death of the other inmate. She unburdened herself to the vicar, admitting that there had been a fight in the gym between Maxi and fellow prisoner, Shaz Wylie, a small pixie of a girl who had been subjected to repeated bullying by the other woman for months. Henry, still and all an employee of the prison, felt compelled to tell the interim Wing Governor what he had learnt. It was a very satisfied Sylvia who arranged to have Shaz ghosted out of Larkhall, ripped away from her lover, Denny Blood. Sylvia considered their lifestyle disgusting and had been trying for a year to separate the two. That Denny had been part of Shell Dockley's efforts to roast Sylvia's husband alive served to make the split-up that much sweeter.

What all this meant for Helen was that she was unable to get back inside Larkhall until the next Tuesday afternoon, Monday being a bank holiday. For obvious reasons Sylvia had been relieved of her ephemeral Governor's mantle. She herself ushered Yvonne to the visiting room where Helen awaited.

Sylvia left the room, shutting the door behind her. "Yvonne, thank you for meeting with me again," Helen said. Remembering Sylvia's attempts at eavesdropping the previous week, the petite Scot reached into her briefcase, pulled out a sheet of paper and held it up for Yvonne.

We have to get rid of F


Part Twenty-Nine

The next three weeks flew by for Helen and Nikki, the latter of whom wasted a lot of time berating herself for deciding to take her holidays in the height of the Potting Shed's busy season. She used those few weeks to challenge Alex and came to realise what a tremendous job the younger woman could do at the helm. Rarely overcome with a need to micromanage, the shop supervisor was not afraid to delegate responsibilities. Thea was more or less left to her own devices insofar as contracts for landscaping and fountain installation went and Kate had proven herself to be an effective floor manager when entrusted with that position. Alex always made herself available when difficulties arose and made a point of meeting with each of the other women one-on-one at least daily. Nikki could not have been prouder and finally allowed the apron strings to be cut just in time, mere days before she and her partner set off for America.

Helen, for her part, wanted to use those weeks to remove the albatross from around her neck. She had been working on her Officers' Training Initiative for months and was desperate to tie a bow on it before her holiday. Further, the added burden she had just taken on – with Yvonne's contacts paving her way - contributed to her increasing tension levels. By the time the women set out on their trip, however, Helen had effectively taken care all of her stressors.

Their trip to America could not have been more perfect. The week spent in wine country saw the two women staying at a charming Napa B&B where they enjoyed their own private cottage for three nights. Their other three nights found them in a Sonoma hotel which offered wine and cheese every evening and superb service throughout. Their room had a good sized balcony suitable for sitting out for a preprandial cocktail. Daily high temperatures were very hot, ranging from 32-37° C, but evenings and overnight temperatures dropped comfortably to below 10° C affording the women the opportunity to take advantage of the Sonoma hotel room's fireplace. On top of a two-day private winery tour, Nikki and Helen took a morning hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley, a hike through the mountains and long drives in their hired car along the beautiful California coastline visiting some of the more out-of-the-way vineyards. Nikki was particularly taken with Sonoma Plaza which was alive with people on the Tuesday evening when the farmer's market was open. A live band as well as street performers entertained the masses. Far from being illegal, drinking wine in the streets was encouraged. They returned to the Plaza on their last day, taking in some local history, enjoying a picnic on the grounds, people watching and visiting some interesting shops.

Their week in San Francisco went by in the twinkling of an eye. They splurged on a hotel in the Castro district, one of America's first and most well-known gay neighbourhoods. One pound sterling was the equivalent of almost a dollar fifty, so the adjusted cost seemed a fairly reasonable price to pay for staying onsite of all of the Pride festivities. The theme for the weekend was Queerific. The B-52s, Dana International and Ultra Nate headlined. The women made a point of getting out early to the parade, proudly the first of its kind to feature a queer Muslim contingent. Helen was transported into a realm outside of anything she had ever known. From the Dykes on Bikes who opened the parade through the leather and lace aficionados, she gaped openly, enjoying herself immensely while at the same time failing to comprehend why drag queens thought it was acceptable to wear evening gowns when it was not yet noon.

Having arrived from Napa Friday lunchtime, Nikki and Helen had immediately given up their car in favour of the street cars and cable cars for which San Francisco was famous. It was almost with relief that they greeted the cooler temperatures of the city. They only got two days of rain mid-week which amounted to little more than a Scotch mist. It was on one of those days, the Wednesday, that they took the ferry across to Alcatraz. What a sight it was to see the forbidding silhouette of the prison rise up through the fog. Taking the self-directed tour, Helen could almost convince herself that Larkhall was not so bad after all.

After a fortnight of touring, wining, dining and shopping – Fisherman's wharf, while ultimately a tacky tourist trap, could not help but charm them – Nikki and Helen were rested and ready to go home. As they touched down at Heathrow just before eleven o'clock on the Friday morning, they entertained no thoughts other than how nice it was going to feel to be back in their own house. As they made their way through to the luggage carousel they were stopped by two people, a man and a woman. "Ms. Helen Stewart?" the man, who was in his fifties, rotund with thinning dark hair, asked unnecessarily.

"Yes," Helen answered quickly, recognising the official nature of the pair. "Why? What's happened?"

"Detective Inspector McDermid, Ms Stewart, and this is DI Taylor" the man confirmed, presenting his identification. "I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of James Graham Fenner."

Interrupting, Nikki interrupted, "You wha'? No, you've made a mistake! We've not even been in the country." She looked from one police officer to the other.

DI McDermid did not pause. "You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence." DI Taylor placed handcuffs around Helen's wrists.

"You can't do this, you bastards!" Nikki cried, trying to get to Helen while DI McDermid held her off.

"Don't make things any worse, love," he cautioned.

Finally finding her voice, Helen agreed, "He's right, Nikki. Just call Claire. Tell her what's happened." She turned back to the arresting detectives. "Where are you taking me?"

"West End Central for booking. And we'll need to ask you some questions."

"I want to speak to my solicitor," Helen demanded.

"She can meet you there." DI Taylor had spoken at last.

Helen was held and interrogated for two hours while Claire fought for her and took a cursory look through just what evidence they had on Helen. "Fine, we understand the charges brought against my client, but as of this moment she has nothing more to say to you." Hearing they would be getting no more from Helen, the interrogation was suspended thus affording Claire the time to get her friend to a bail hearing less than an hour later.

"Given the seriousness of the crime for which you stand accused, your petition for bail is denied. It is the order of this court that you be remanded into custody pending trial." Upon hearing those words Nikki's outburst nearly landed her in gaol on a charge of contempt of court.

Claire asked for a moment to confer with her client before Helen was taken away to a cell to await transfer to a prison. They did not know to which one she would be sent. Ordinarily it would have been Holloway, because of its close proximity to her home, but because her office was located within its walls, that would be unlikely. "It'll be all right, Helen," Claire assured her. "First thing Monday we'll appeal your bail at the Crown Court, make them see reason. I'll spend the weekend going through the CPS's case against you. We will get this sorted." Claire's tone was convincing.

Helen was obviously in shock. Though she had scarcely spoken a word since her arrest, as she was being led away Claire did hear her mumble, "God, what have I done?"


Part Thirty

Helen exited the Prison Transport Vehicle, colloquially referred to as the 'Meat Wagon', and laid her eyes on a very familiar sight indeed: the walls of Larkhall prison. Though humiliated, she forced herself to acknowledge the escorting officer by name as he ushered her into reception with a small group of only three other women. She prayed to an unresponsive god that Bodybag would not be on reception that afternoon. The frumpy prison officer looked as though she had just been delivered an entire case of chocolate fingers when she noticed Helen. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen," she said, looking down her nose.

"Sylvia," Helen began.

Interrupting, Sylvia insisted, "That's Miss to you, Stewart! Or Mrs. Hollamby." She smiled smugly letting Helen see how much the change in the balance of power between them delighted her. "And you'll not be getting any special treatment in here, I'll tell you. Jim Fenner was a good man."

"I won't waste my breath disputing that with you... Miss, but I didn't kill him." Helen knew her denials would fall on deaf ears.

"The police say otherwise. Now just sit down and wait until your name is called." Reluctantly, Helen took her seat anxiously awaiting what was to come. As Senior Officer, Sylvia could have delegated the strip searches to one of the other officers, but she was only too happy to be able to contribute yet more to Helen's degradation. The only thing which would have added to her pleasure would have been seeing Helen assigned to G-Wing. Sylvia's luck did not hold, however, and the former Governor was on D-Wing's list. Fortunately, it was still early enough in the day to take the prisoners to their wings so Helen was not made to stay in the holding dormitory through the weekend.

In the ideal prisoners on remand were housed together or placed in cells on their own, but as D-Wing was very crowded, Helen was forced to share a cell with a sentenced inmate, a woman who had served four years of a life sentence for torture and murder. That Helen had been accused of killing a screw was not enough to mitigate against the fact that she herself had once been Governing Governor. She needed all of her self-defence training just to make it through her first night intact. She was also forced to wonder who might have grassed her up, letting the wing know who she was. She was very agitated when she came to realise that it could only have come from an officer.

Though not significantly injured from her altercation with her cellmate, she was transferred to the hospital wing after breakfast next morning. When Karen arrived escorting a flu-ridden prisoner down from G-Wing, Helen got her attention. "Karen? Have you got a mo'?"

"Oh, Helen, there you are. I'd heard you'd landed here at Larkhall. Why're you in Medical?"

Helen grimaced, "Bit of a tussle with my cellmate. First off, you need to know I'm innocent. I couldn't-"

Karen interrupted, "I know. Of course not. I mean if you were going to kill Jim, you'd've at least invited me along to watch." Karen smiled sadly.

Sheepishly, Helen admitted, "Karen, I need your help. I can't stay here and I can't go back to D-Wing; they'll either leave me where I am, in that cell with that woman, or down the block for my own protection."

"I'm not breaking you out of prison, Helen," Karen said dryly.

The smaller woman laughed with her. "So much for Plan A... No, what I need, I think, well, I think I'd be better off on G-Wing."

Karen was confused. "But there everyone will know who you are."

Helen shrugged. "They do anyway, but at least on G-Wing I think I've got some support: the Julies, Denny even Yvonne, people I've helped who, I hope, will return the favour." She paused. "And you. At worst I have to be put on CC for my own protection. That seems like the best I can hope for on D-Wing."

Karen nodded, "I'll talk to the MO, let him know to keep you here through the weekend. Too bad Thomas has moved on," she added absently. "I'll talk to Neil on Monday about your transfer. I've finally accepted the position of Wing Governor – temporarily, beginning Monday - so I should hold some sway." She promised, "We'll get this done, Helen."

Nikki was not having a much better time of it in the Camden Town house which seemed very empty without Helen. Her initial attempts to aid Claire in Helen's defence were rebuffed. The lawyer explained to her that she needed some time alone to wrap her head around the evidence before enlisting anyone's help. The women made a plan to meet the following afternoon. Home alone Nikki rang her brother to see what, if anything, he had heard. "God, it doesn't sound good, Nik. The physical evidence, the circumstantial... It really looks like they could hang this on her."

"But that's impossible! She didn't do this. Her solicitor's put me off 'til tomorrow, so tell me what you've heard. What's this evidence?"

Reluctantly, Martin gave up the information, "Her fingerprints at the scene, a hair sample which is a match to hers, but they're awaiting DNA confirmation, his blood in her car, CCTV footage of her outside the B&B where he was staying, an altercation between them two weeks before the murder. And witnesses at his local have come forth insisting they'd seen them out for drinks a couple of times." He paused, continuing only in an effort to waylay Nikki's argument. "Then there're some other strange things too: half a dozen phone calls between her and Lauren Atkins and £10 000 withdrawn from your joint deposit account two days before the murder."

Nikki was incredulous, "What? This is the first I'm hearing about any money."

"Check with your bank on Monday or now if you can access your account online. But, you see, it doesn't look very good." Martin forced himself to be brutally honest. "And they really didn't like that she'd absconded to America."

"We were on holiday!"

"But as far as they could tell, she had disappeared. Somehow it appeared she was travelling alone. They couldn't find any indication of where she was staying…"

"It's a fit up, Marty. Helen would never..." Hope was suddenly in short supply as Nikki heard the evidence against her partner. She found it difficult to breathe.

"'Course not, Nik; anyone who knows her knows that," the older Wade pledged.

Contemplating things for a moment, Nikki finally spoke, "We've hired her good friend Claire Walker to be her solicitor, but would you be able to work with us on this? Sure looks like Helen could use as much legal help as she can get."

Quickly Martin assured her, "Sure, I've met Claire on a couple occasions. As long as she doesn't mind-"

Interrupting Nikki confirmed, "She wants what's best for Helen, so if you can help, we'll take it. We'll pay you."

"Look, you said you're meeting with Claire tomorrow. Why don't you speak to her in the morning and offer my help. If she's amenable, I'll meet the two of you in the afternoon, whenever she's ready. And just give me a ten pound retainer then I'm working for Helen and privilege applies, yeah?"

Nodding into the phone, Nikki agreed. "Thanks for this, Marty," she said sincerely.

"Oh, c'mon, Nancy; she's my family too." Incredibly moved by her brother's simple statement, Nikki rang off and prepared herself for what would undoubtedly be a sleepless night.

The sound of the ringing doorbell brought Nikki running. It was twenty past twelve when she admitted Claire into the house. Martin had arrived thirty minutes earlier. Realising his sister would not have had the presence of mind to think of such trivial matters in the midst of everything she was going through, he had brought with him a bag full of deli sandwiches and crisps. Not the healthiest of lunches but easy enough to eat while working. "Claire, I think you know my brother Martin," Nikki offered by way of reintroduction.

With a nod Claire said, "Of course. How's, erm, Connie isn't it?"

"As well as any of us at the moment, I suppose. You're sure you don't mind my input here?" Martin graciously asked.

Waving her hand dismissively the other solicitor avowed, "Glad to have you mucking in. I know we'll all do whatever it takes to get Helen out of this mess. That being said, I think we should get stuck in. There's a lot to go through." Nikki led them in to the living room where the sandwiches and coffee had been laid out on the sideboard leaving ample space on the coffee table for Claire to spread out the evidence the police and the CPS had accumulated against Helen.

Just as they were getting settled the telephone rang. Reading HMP Larkhall in the phone's display, Nikki grabbed it quickly hoping it was Helen. "Hello?"

"Sorry, Nikki, it's just Karen." The prison officer had heard the anxiousness in Nikki's tone, "But I've got word from Helen."

"Oh, God, Karen! How is she?" Disappointed that it was not Helen herself, Nikki was still pleased to be getting some information. She heard Karen's deep inhalation down the line and steeled herself for bad news.

"First of all she's fine. But she did have a rough night. Her self-defence instruction was put to the test."

"Christ! What happened?" Nikki was feeling sick to her stomach.

Karen explained succinctly, "She was assigned to D-Wing where she was put in a cell with a convicted prisoner-"

"But don't prisoners on remand usually get put in together or in a cell on their own?" Nikki was quick to interrupt.

"Usually." There was a pause. "Nikki, I'm not so sure it was a cock-up. I think it might have been done deliberately. And someone told her cellmate that she used to be the Governor."

"D'you think someone recognised her?"

Karen hesitated, unsure how much she wanted to share with Helen's distraught partner. Biting the bullet she said, "I can only hope it was that innocuous, but I'm not entirely certain."

Understanding what Karen was loath to say, that one of her fellow PO's could be responsible, Nikki nonetheless faced her own battle with guilt as the fleeting thought that Thea had been an inmate on D-Wing crossed her mind. "Is she in segregation, then?" she finally asked.

"She had them bring her to Medical. She'll be there until Monday when I'm starting back as Wing Governor. I'm going to try to have her moved to G-Wing." Interrupting Nikki's inevitable objection Karen assured her, "It was Helen's idea. She's got a surprising number of loyal friends on G-Wing, officers and prisoners alike. Any problems, though, and she'll be on Rule forty-three."

"Down the block to maintain order on the wing," Nikki interpreted.

With a small laugh Karen said, "She taught you well. Don't worry, Nikki. We'll keep her safe until these ridiculous charges are dropped. And it wouldn't be down the block, just confined to her own cell." Nikki was moved by how quick everyone was to believe in Helen's innocence. "Now, she won't be able to ring you from the Medical wing. But, look, you ring me first thing Monday and I'll see if I can't get you in for a visit, all right?"

"Yeah, I will. I'm pleased she's got you looking out for her, Karen. And thanks for the update, yeah?" Nikki hung up with angry tears in her eyes. "They actually put her in a cell hoping she'd get the shit kicked out of her!" Nikki looked at her two companions. "We have got to get her out of that bastard place."

Part 31

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