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
Quickly pulling her notes and copies of the CPS's evidence from her briefcase, Claire reiterated Martin's concerns of the previous night. "All this evidence: it really doesn't look good for Helen." Before Nikki could interrupt she went on, "So we'll look at everything individually and try to sort out a game plan." She set up a tabletop easel which she had picked up at Ryman on her way to the Camden Town house. Brilliant in its simplicity, the easel was two sided with a whiteboard on one side and self-adhesive, tear away sheets on the other which could be fixed to the living room wall for ease of viewing once they had information collected and written upon them. She had also bought one erasable and one set of multicoloured marker pens to keep their thoughts and their strategies organised. A huge fan of colour-coding, Helen would have been so proud. Her three highly-motivated advocates settled in with their mission.
Fenner's blood in Helen's car was the easiest to vitiate; the day she rather aggressively thwarted Fenner's assault attempt she wound up with a fair amount of his nose blood on her outfit which obviously transferred to the upholstery of her Peugeot. Claire tore the first sheet off the easel and stood to adhere it to the wall.
As for the wine bottle they all conceded that it would not have been much of a challenge to go through Helen and Nikki's recycling and locate a wine bottle or two bearing Helen's prints. The glass was a little more difficult to explain away. In red marker Claire made a note of their need to get the original photos of the glass and bottle. The ones in her packet were blown up to simply illustrate the obvious fingerprints, but, as the whole bottle and glass were themselves not in evidence, there was no context, no way of recognising either.
Because the average person sheds around one hundred hairs from their head daily, Helen's found at Fenner's B&B could have been collected from almost anywhere by one who might be trying to frame her for the PO's murder, which was certainly seeming to be the case. "All right," Claire began, "that's green for evidence that points to Helen being stitched up for this." She attached the sheet to the wall with the others. "We'll have to put the alleged sightings of Helen with Fenner at his local in green as well. And in red as something that needs to be investigated further. Same goes for the cash gone missing from your account and the phone calls to Lauren Atkins. I'll see what Helen's got to say about those when I see her tomorrow." She added the fourth, fifth and sixth pages to the already well-papered wall.
The last bits of evidence against Helen were several CCTV photos of a car taken outside Fenner's B&B and parked outside his local. Though somewhat blurred due to the night-time shadows, the number plate was clearly legible, S534 NLR. It was a match to Helen's. The diminutive Scot's doppelgänger sat behind the wheel, clearly comfortable with having her photo taken. Knowing that there was something fundamentally off about the photos, a frustrated Nikki struggled without success to pinpoint it. Claire added a sheet to the wall indicating their need for access to Helen's Peugeot which the police had seized in evidence. She hoped that seeing the vehicle would clarify Nikki's sense of what was amiss. "All right, that was the easy bit," the lawyer announced. "As we can see," she added waving her arm towards the paper-littered wall, "the evidence really stacks up. I think our only way out of this mess is to figure out who would want to fit Helen up for this. Again, I'll find out more from Helen tomorrow."
"Well, if he weren't the victim, I'd say Fenner," Nikki postulated. "No chance he topped himself?" she laughed.
"Shot himself through the back of the head then stashed the pistol. Seems likely," Martin deadpanned.
Nikki went on, delving further into the dark humour, "No, he hired a hitman, stole money from our account to do it. Claire, check Fenner's medical record, make sure he wasn't knocking at death's door, wanting to give Helen the two fingers on his way across the threshold..."
Deciding to put a lid on the Wade siblings fatuous rhetoric, Claire interjected, "I think we can eliminate Jim Fenner from the list. From what I've read he didn't seem likely to ever have considered suicide, so we should move forward. The two things we need to consider are who hates Helen enough to want to fit her up for Fenner's murder other than Fenner himself," she looked pointedly at the other two, "and who would have the wherewithal to stage such an elaborate fit up. Then we need to cross-reference those two lists. Any ideas?"
"I still don't understand," Martin admitted. "It's meant to look like a murder for hire the ten thousand pounds and the calls to Lauren Atkins but then, what, she changes her mind and does it herself? I mean, 'scuse me? How's that make any sense?"
"Just covering all the bases, I imagine. If she doesn't go down for his murder, then perhaps she contracted it out. Except for the physical evidence, the rest could have been surveillance, to give a hitman information," Claire speculated.
Adopting a look of confusion, Nikki said, "Granted, I don't know anything about contract murder, but wouldn't surveillance be included in the price?"
"Well, perhaps Helen's meant to have been cost-cutting, hiring someone on the cheap. No frills. She is Scottish." Martin was not getting any support with that repartee. Getting serious he suggested, "What we need is a list of accomplices he would've needed to pull this off: a forger to make the number plate, a woman to impersonate Helen, probably a prostitute-"
Nikki interrupted, "A computer hacker to get into our bank account." Claire was putting all of their ideas down on a new sheet. "It's got to have been a con, someone who blames Helen for something."
"Or an officer, even a cop, anyone with ties to the criminal element, to people who have the skill sets to do these things," Martin pointed out.
The group recognised that they had many questions to answer, many smaller issues to resolve before they could even consider tackling the larger picture. They divvied up the labour and agreed to meet up again Tuesday evening. They made arrangements for telephone updates the following evening.
First thing Monday morning Karen contacted Nikki with the good news that Helen had been transferred to G-Wing and the even better news that Karen had arranged for Nikki to come visit her at half past eleven. She had even got them the use of one of the private visiting rooms where they would have a half hour. Prisoners on remand were eligible for more visits, to a total of ninety minutes per week, which may be divided up into sessions as short as fifteen minutes. The women's reunion was almost forced to be put on hold, however, as Helen was attacked in the yard by an inmate from E-Wing, a woman wielding a sharpened toothbrush. It was obvious that she meant Helen serious harm. Fortunately, upon her arrival on G-Wing, Helen had been taken immediately into Yvonne's inner circle, the older woman having already threatened the likes of Al McKenzie and anyone else looking to do Helen harm. Between Yvonne's prison wisdom and Helen's self-defence training, they managed to deflect the attack. Because of the viciousness and targeted nature of the attempt, Yvonne promised Helen that she would get to the bottom of it, though it would likely be a few days; the attacker had earned herself some time down the block.
Once they had been brought back to the wing, Helen sought Yvonne out in her cell. She rapped softly on the other woman's door, poking her head inside, finding her with her nose in the latest OK! magazine. "Can I come in?" she asked, garnering a quick bob of the toughie's head in reply. "First of all, I just want to say-"
Yvonne shook off Helen's thanks with a wave of her hand. "S'okay, you don't gotta say anything."
Respecting Yvonne's desire not to have a sloppy moment, Helen changed tacks. "Up to you," she began. "Then can we talk? About Fenner?"
"I know you didn't do 'im. You 'aven't got the bottle." She casually flipped a page in her magazine.
Helen laughed at the other woman's forthrightness. "Actually, I was hoping to speak to Lauren."
Instantly, Yvonne was up and towering over Helen menacingly. "You got the balls to come into my bleedin' cell and, what, accuse my Lauren of offing Fenner?"
Maintaining eye contact with the angry inmate, Helen reassured her, "Look, Yvonne, let me finish." She took a deep breath. "All right, I admit when I was first arrested, it occurred to me that I had set something in motion, that maybe Lauren had decided it was just better for all of us... But now I know differently. I believed her when she told me she was taking the business legitimate. Besides, why would she have stitched me up for it?"
Yvonne stepped back appeased, inviting Helen to sit on her bed with her. "Then what d'you need my Lauren for?"
"You know she and I were working to get rid of Fenner," Helen cringed at her choice of words, "to get him arrested or at least out the Prison Service. Lauren had engaged some of her contacts to monitor him. I just need to know if they saw anything curious, anything I can use in my defence," Helen explained. "I'm just hoping that if someone calls her on my behalf, she talk to them."
"What do we get out of it?" This was one of Yvonne's favourite questions.
Helen shrugged with an exasperated sigh, "We'll pay her as a consultant." Yvonne just stared at Helen unspeaking. If there were one thing the Atkins family was not short on, it was money. Once the silence had grown uncomfortably long, Helen added, "Once I'm exonerated, I'll have a load of people at the Home Office bendin' over backwards to make this all up to me. Tell me what you want and I'll do everything in my power."
There was surprisingly not a lot that Yvonne wanted, she realised. It was possible that she would be out of Larkhall in less than a month's time. "You're gonna stand up for me at my parole hearing." Helen nodded; that request was easy enough and her credibility and position with the Home Office might sway the board. "And I want Shaz transferred back 'ere." During Yvonne's imprisonment at Larkhall, Denny had become like a daughter to her. The young woman had been devastated when Shaz was ghosted out and had had sunk into a deep depression, reverting back to her old, cruel ways.
"I'll call in every favour I can to see it done. I promise," the former Governor assured her. "And as a show of good faith, I'm going to petition Karen to put you up on the threes straight away. You saved my life today, Yvonne. And without anyone ending up in hospital." She smiled. "You've certainly come a long way."
Discomfited by such accolades, Yvonne handed Helen Lauren's telephone number. "You ring 'er first, give 'er the name of your contact, else she won't trust 'em, right?"
Helen stood, preparing to leave Yvonne's cell. "Will do. And thanks. I'll talk to Karen straightaway."
It was a restive Nikki who waited to be escorted to the visiting room where Helen was holed up. A familiar blonde approached. "T?" Nikki was incredulous. "You're back here?" Teatra Kennedy had been a PO on G-Wing a few months before Nikki's appeal. The two women had met following one of Nikki's 'Sod U' seminars at Larkhall with Teatra approaching the statuesque brunette at a particularly vulnerable time in Nikki's relationship with Helen. Following several weeks of flirting, during which Helen broke off all ties with Nikki, Teatra and Nikki began a short but intense affair, an affair which ended very badly. T was forced to admit that she had initially pursued Nikki as a result of threats levied against her by Jim Fenner; she had married very young to a man who was subsequently arrested for child sexual abuse, a charge which, Teatra knew, inmates would hold against her if ever they found out. Unwilling to keep up the charade as Fenner demanded, having fallen hard for the raven-haired beauty and loath to hurt her further, Teatra asked for a transfer out of London. She did not even tell Nikki she was going, just disappeared leaving behind a less than satisfying note. "You're always around when Helen's in the shit, aren't you?" Nikki remained bitter in spite of how happy she and Helen were in their relationship.
"Yeah, Nik, I deserve that. But if you think I'm dead keen to be standing here right now with you hating me, about to deliver you to 'Sort Of', you're off your nut." 'Sort Of' was the nickname Teatra had given to Helen, the woman Nikki said she was sort of seeing when they met. "Never expected it to go like this. I just heard Fenner was dead and realised I could come back to the city, Senior Officer now. Just a quirk of fate, yeah? So, are you coming in or what?" Nikki followed her ex-lover into the prison, emptied her pockets into a locker and submitted to the mandatory pat down which Teatra may have drawn out a little too long and from which she may have derived a little too much pleasure. She could never have foreseen how much she would miss Nikki Wade. She reluctantly led the visitor through Larkhall's labyrinthine corridors to her waiting partner.
"Thirty minutes, ladies. And I will be right outside this door, so just remember: this is not a conjugal visit!" The PO closed the door. Seeing herself as a tragic victim of circumstance, Teatra's own bitterness was evident.
Slipping into Nikki's welcoming arms, Helen had to ask, "Was that Teatra Kennedy?"
"None other," Nikki replied dryly. "Looks like she's decided to come back here now Fenner's dead and not a threat to her anymore. Should've asked her which wing she's been assigned to."
"If I'm not released on bail this afternoon, I expect I'll find out." Helen was disconsolate.
"Hey! You mustn't talk like that. Claire's gonna do everything in her power to get you out of here." Nikki pulled back, looking at Helen's face. "Oh, Darling, wha'd they do to you?" She ran her thumb gently over Helen's bruised cheek.
"You should see the other guy..." Helen quipped mirthlessly. Though the door to it was open, Helen opted not to tell Nikki about that morning's attack. She did not want her partner sitting home worrying any more than she already was. "C'mon, sit with me." The two took their seats, facing each other and holding hands. "Now, tell me what's going on. I've a meeting with Claire before my bail hearing, but I need to know now so I can be prepared. Have you spoken with Dad?"
"'Course I did, first thing, didn't want him to find out over the wire. He wanted to come down, but I convinced him to stay at home. He gave me your Uncle Mac's number. I've a meeting with him this afternoon," Nikki explained. Helen gave her a 'go on' gesture. Nikki highlighted all the evidence the CPS had amassed. "Now, we met yesterday, Claire, Martin and I, and went over it all. No other explanation but it's a fit up. So we're looking at each bit of evidence and who could possibly have had the means to tamper with it all. Marty's going to get to your car and get the photos of the wine bottle and glass with your prints on it, Claire's got someone who can clean up the CCTV photos and I'll talk to Mac and Lauren Atkins, see if they know of anyone who could do any or all of this, forgeries, hacking our computer..."
"Leaves me in here feeling bloody useless." Helen's disposition was unimproved, but she promised, "But I'll let you know as soon as I've spoken to Lauren. I need to run that past Claire as well."
Nikki squeezed Helen's hands. "Look, Babes, hopefully you'll be out this afternoon and you can pitch in, but," she stopped Helen's rebuttal with a look, "but if you don't, you've got a font of knowledge in here as well. We're fairly sure that it's a con or an officer someone with the inside track and who better to help you figure it out than more cons?" Helen gave Nikki a look. "Sorry, prisoners."
That broke the tension and even allowed Helen a small laugh. "No, sorry, I was just thinking; you're right. The women in here are intelligent, they know the system. They are a font." Helen looked at her watch with regret. "We've only got a few minutes left. D'you think you could join me on this side of the table?" Nikki did so until Teatra's intrusive knock signalled the end of their visit.
"I'll see you at your bail hearing, yeah?" Nikki assured Helen. "I'm meeting Mac for lunch, to enlist him in all this." As the women shared a parting kiss, Teatra looked away, less in an effort to give them privacy than to cushion her own heart. She led Nikki to the gate as Di Barker escorted Helen back to G-Wing.
T turned to Nikki as the ebony haired woman collected her things from the visitors' locker room. "Look, I'm really sorry, Nik, for being a stroppy cow earlier. I was a prize idiot, I know, but I was just gutted seeing you and Helen again." Nikki simply looked at her, contempt still clouding her features. "I reckon that's not all I need to apologise for. I know you're still cross, but what I did, leaving like that, I did it to protect you. And Helen. Fenner really had his hooks into me."
With a harsh exhalation Nikki countered, "And you couldn't tell me, yeah? Let me find out from Ken at the gatehouse. Left me lookin' like a right arse."
"I bottled out. If I'd told you, I'd've never left; you'd never've let me. You'd've been my champion, sworn to protect me, protect all of us." She hesitated. "And I'd've fallen deeper in love with you," Teatra looked mournfully into Nikki's dark amber eyes, "and you'd've broken my heart, each and every day, because I wasn't her." Nikki knew T's words were true. "As long as she was in the picture, you'd never be able love me. Not the way I love... loved you."
Overcome with guilt for having led the younger woman on, for using her to try to get over Helen, Nikki relented, her anger at and disappointment in Teatra waning. "No, I'm sorry, T, for never fully considering your feelings in all this. So we'll call it a wash? All's forgiven?"
"Sure, Nik, and I promise I'll look after your Helen for as long as she's in here, yeah?"
Not liking Teatra's fatalistic tone, Nikki argued, "Not long, then. She could be out on bail as early as this afternoon and then she'll be exonerated at trial."
"Pull the other one, eh?" T scoffed. "All that evidence against her? Hair, fingerprints... Dun' look good for her, Nik. She could be banged up a long time."
"But she won't be. She's innocent. These charges are all bullshit!"
"I respect the way you're defending her, but word on the wing is she's stuffed." T looked at Nikki with regret. "I just don't want you to get your hopes up, mate, but, look, if you want, I'll do what I can in here to help her with her case. Whatever it takes to make you happy, Nik. That's all I've ever wanted."
While grateful for any support in helping build Helen's case especially from someone inside Larkhall's gates Nikki was nonetheless leery, though she did not show it. "Thanks, T. It's good to know she's got people looking out for her. Sorry, but I've gotta run. I've a lunch meeting."
"Maybe we could go for a drink sometime? I could fill you in on how Helen's doing?" T suggested. "Y'know, if she's not granted bail today."
"Erm, yeah, all right." Nikki unenthusiastically jotted her home phone number on the back of a business card. "Ring me this week if you'd like." She hastily hurried out to her four-by-four, checking her watch and praying she would not hit a tailback anywhere between the prison and the pub where she was meeting Mac for lunch.
Fortunate to find kerbside parking a few doors from the pub, a harried Nikki crossed the threshold of the Ship & Shovell just as the clock struck half twelve. She found Duncan Macrae waiting for her on a stool at the main bar of the bustling pub. He stood to wave her over. "Not late, am I, Superintendent Macrae?"
"Ye're bang on time, lass. And tae ma friends, I'm called Mac," he greeted her warmly. He was nursing half a Hopping Hare Ale and called the barmaid over to get Nikki a drink. She chose a Tanglefoot and the two made their way to a tiny snug off the smaller, more serene side of the pub. Nikki correctly guessed that Mac had pulled some strings to reserve the quiet, intimate room for their meeting. "Okay, now I didnae want to fritter away any time, so I took it upon mesel' tae order us up some sarnies: a cheddar, pickled onion and tomato and a hummus and veggies. One with crisps, one with chips. I hope that'll do?"
Glad that she and Helen's 'uncle' were on the same page, Nikki answered as she pulled out a packet of copies of the evidence against Helen, "Sounds perfect, Mac. Let's get stuck in." She spread her materials across the large table and took a seat beside Mac.
The Detective Superintendent, having made himself very familiar with the evidence against Helen, blew out a long breath. "Och, it's a right shit pile, Nikki," he proclaimed poring over the pages.
Unable to disagree Nikki assured him, "Yeah, but she's got one hell of a support team behind her. Including you, I hope. You've known her since before she was born. You know she couldn't have done this."
Looking at Nikki guardedly, Mac admitted, "Her dad telt me what Fenner did to her."
"Oh, he shouldn't've done that. Wasn't his place!" Misplaced anger washed over Nikki; she was more cross with herself for having violated Helen's trust when she told her father about Fenner's attack.
"Aye, 'twas. Me, Graham and James've been best mates for over fifty years. He couldnae be expected to carry that burden himsel'. But ye're right. Even knowing what that bastard did to her, ye'll not convince me that she kilt him." Mac was as adamant as Nikki had predicted he would be.
"Then you'll work with us? I'm sure there's a conflict of interest in there somewhere."
He shook his head. "Ma only interest, lass, is in seein' that the right person gets done for this." He waved his arm over the evidence spread across the table. "This is a right load o' yad."
"What d'you know about the inspectors working the case?" Nikki was looking for the inside track.
Mac rolled his eyes, "The lead's as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. It's all on us, I'm afeart."
"Well, let's get you to work, then." Nikki gave Mac some tasks which were in his wheelhouse: she asked him to work his contacts to see if there were anyone capable of all of the elements in Helen's stitch up: forger, computer hacker, murderer, even a Helen impersonator. They finished their working lunch with Mac agreeing to join Nikki and the rest of Helen's support team the following night back at Nikki and Helen's. With the addition of Mac and Karen, its number had grown from three to five but when Nikki left the pub it was with a fervent hope that Helen herself would be take their number up to six. Nikki climbed into her Shogun and drove to the Old Bailey courthouse where Helen's bail hearing was set to begin.
While Nikki was busy enlisting the aid of another ally in their battle for Helen's acquittal, the accused herself was in conference with her friend and solicitor Claire Walker in a small room at the Old Bailey. They had been at it for close to forty-five minutes. "And I'm telling you I've no idea where that ten thousand quid's got to. I certainly didn't withdraw it," Helen adamantly insisted.
Claire held up a hand to stop Helen's unnecessary protestations. "We're in the process of looking for a computer hacker with the skill to get past the bank's firewalls," Claire reassured her. She checked her notes. "Now, I've a friend cleaning up the CCTV footage of what looks to be your car near Fenner's B&B, so that's being taken care of too. Just one last thing: the phone calls between you and Lauren Atkins. Did you make them?" Sheepishly, Helen nodded. "But why, Hel? What's your connection with the Atkins family?"
"Well, I wasn't looking for a hitman!" Helen resented her friend's judgemental tone.
Chagrined, Claire backpedalled, "'Course you weren't. I know that." She paused. "Can you just explain your association for me?" The lawyer knew that this would be a damning bit of evidence should Helen's case ever proceed to trial.
Helen took a deep breath knowing that Claire was not going to like her explanation. "Yvonne Atkins was a prisoner in my charge on G-Wing. She's a strong woman and Fenner hated her for it, did what he could to break her." The diminutive woman hesitated before revealing her own run-ins with the misogynistic PO. "Last year Fenner sexually assaulted me, pushed me back against a wall of filing cabinets and forced his hand between my legs. A month ago, maybe six weeks, he tried it on again, but he got the worst of it that time. I fought back, may have broken his nose." Claire had heard the whole wretched story from Nikki as she explained how Fenner's blood came to be in the Peugeot, but needed to hear it explained in Helen's own words. She nodded for the other woman to go on. "Anyway, after that I approached Yvonne, told her we had to get rid of Fenner... had to get him out of the Prison Service, away from vulnerable women, I mean." The stammering woman looked to her solicitor for understanding. "She gave me Lauren's number and I called her. I knew Fenner had been mixed up in some illegal activities before and thought that Lauren with all her contacts could help me expose him and anything new he might've been getting up to."
"But, Hel, really? An Atkins?" Claire could not help but question her friend's judgement.
Helen stood firm. "She's assured me that she's taken the business legitimate. And I believe her. Her mother's in prison. Her father was gunned down on the steps of this very courthouse where he'd been standing trial... All she did was put a team on Fenner, to watch him, monitor him for anything we could use against him, I promise you." She looked up at Claire earnestly, her gaze unwavering. "But when I was first arrested, I admit it crossed my mind that someone from that team had got carried away, that I had set everything in motion and got Fenner killed. But Lauren's associates are not responsible. I'm sure of it."
Trusting Helen's instincts, Claire nevertheless made a note to look into it further, not willing, should Helen's case go to trial, to let her friend's barrister face an ambush by the Crown Prosecutor. Her face brightened with hope. "But if he was being followed, someone may have noticed something. Something that led to Fenner's death. We need to speak to Lauren, see what she's found out."
"I'm already on it," Helen said proudly. "Spoke to Yvonne this morning and Lauren'll be expecting my call. If I'm not released on bail today, we'll need to assign someone else as her contact. It's a matter of trust." The women needed to realistically plan around Helen losing her bail appeal.
"That'll be me," Claire suggested matter-of-factly.
"No, I think it should be Nikki. You're an honest lawyer no way she'll trust you." Helen offered a small smile. "Besides, Nikki needs to feel like she's doing something."
Claire nodded her head, resigned. "All right, Nikki it is." She took the phone number Helen handed her. "Just let us know when you've paved the way. And, look, the prison's not allowed to monitor phone calls to your brief, so I've given Nikki carte blanche to come over to mine in the evenings. We'll work on your case and if you happen to ring when she's there..." She did not need to spell it out for Helen. Glancing at her watch, Claire declared with feigned optimism, "Now, let's go get you released!"
Ordinarily a barrister would have advocated for Helen at the level of the Crown Court, but Marion McLaughlin, who represented Nikki in her appeal and whom Claire wanted as Helen's barrister, was unavailable that day. Having recently attained the status of solicitor advocate, Claire was permitted rights of audience in the higher courts and was therefore able to appear on Helen's behalf, a role in which she was comfortable for minor proceedings. Should Helen's case be held over for trial, however, she would gladly relinquish that responsibility to Marion, a barrister of vast experience. Claire stood before Senior Circuit Judge Inês Barcelos, surprised that a judge of such stature was overseeing something as mundane as a bail appeal, and introduced herself as Helen's lawyer of record.
With a nod to the Crown Prosecutor, Judge Barcelos, a stern-looking woman in her mid-fifties, her salt-and-pepper hair concealed beneath a judge's wig, hurried things along. "Mr Ranks, please proceed."
"Thank you. My Lady, Helen Stewart is charged with unlawfully causing the death of James Graham Fenner. Strong evidence - including hair and fingerprints - puts Ms Stewart at the scene of his murder. Mr Fenner's blood was discovered in a car belonging to the accused. Yet further evidence demonstrates Ms Stewart's pattern of following the deceased in the days leading up to his brutal murder, much as a ferocious animal would stalk its prey. Ms Stewart has already left the country once since the murder. She has no children, no family, weak ties to the community. She has no steady employment, holds only a contract position, but is from a family of not inconsiderable means. We believe the risk of her fleeing the jurisdiction if released on bail is great. For the protection of our citizenry and to ensure that Ms Stewart be brought to justice in the senseless killing of Senior Prison Officer James Fenner, we prevail upon this court to uphold the ruling of Magistrate's Court and detain Ms Stewart on remand at HMP Larkhall pending trial. Thank you." The Crown Prosecutor took his seat.
"You may proceed, Ms Walker." The judge folded her arms across her chest, assuming a closed posture which Claire prayed she could penetrate.
Claire stood. "Thank you. My Lady, contrary to what The Crown Prosecutor has led you to believe, Helen Stewart is an upstanding member of this community with very strong familial ties. Her partner, with whom she owns a home, is a small business owner which effectively roots Ms Stewart to the community as well. While it is true that Ms Stewart has no children, she has a niece and a nephew in London with whom she is very close and whose father is himself a respected solicitor. My esteemed colleague further neglected to mention that the contract under which Ms Stewart is employed is with the Home Office, an institution which even he must acknowledge is rather discerning of whom they employ. The defence will demonstrate that Ms Stewart is the victim of a very elaborate frame up, that someone else is wholly responsible for the lamentable killing of James Fenner. We firmly believe that keeping Ms Stewart in custody would directly interfere with her right to participate in her own defence. As for having left the country, Ms Stewart was on holiday in America, a holiday which had been in the works for months. It certainly cannot be seen to point to any intention on my client's part to flee the country. That being said, however, if the court sees fit, Ms Stewart has agreed to surrender her passport. Further, she will voluntarily submit to electronic tagging and curfew. We ask this court to overrule the Magistrate's ruling and release my client. We ask that bail be set at no more than five hundred thousand pounds. Thank you."
The judge had sat unmoving through Claire's entire argument. Taking a moment to regain the attention of the room, she finally spoke. "Ms Stewart, please stand." As Helen did so she could not be unaware of the unwavering resolve on the judge's face. Her mouth went dry and a coldness seeped through her insides. "Due to the nature and magnitude of the crime with which you are charged," Judge Barcelos began, "this court believes that releasing you on bail would be a grievous dereliction of our responsibility to the people of this community. Request for bail is denied."
From her seat in the balcony facing the proceedings, Nikki sprung up. "This is bullshit!" she said through clenched teeth. Louder, addressing the judge herself, she added, "But she's innocent!"
"Another word from you, Ms Wade, and I'll have you in custody as well," the judge fired back. Swayed less by the judge's words than by the pleading look she got from Helen, Nikki reluctantly and almost painfully - held her tongue; it would do Helen no good if they were both locked up. Judge Barcelos looked at Claire. "And, Ms Walker," she began, "I know you are inexperienced at speaking before a higher court, but allow me to offer you a word of advice: never get into a battle unless you know you can win it. You have wasted enough of this court's time waging this frivolous appeal. If you do not show better judgement and more respect for our time in future, I assure you, you will never set foot in my courtroom again! Am I clear?"
Resisting the impulse to argue against the judge's condemnation of their appeal as frivolous, Claire could only say, "Yes, My Lady," though the judge's sentiment was anything but clear. "May I have some time to speak with my client before she is returned to HMP Larkhall?"
"Thirty minutes." The judge looked to the custody officer flanking Helen in the dock. "Remove the accused." And just like that Helen's hopes for release were dashed. She gazed up at Nikki forlornly before following the court officer back to the meeting room which had held so much hope scarcely more than an hour before.
"Barcelos's mind was made up before Claire even opened her mouth," Martin told Nikki as they made their way out of the building. "Her arguments were sound. I don't know why the judge called her out like that."
Nikki was desperate for a cigarette, regretting her decision to quit as she had been since Helen's arrest. "Could it have only been three days ago?" she wondered. "D'you think you could've done better, Marty?" Nikki needed his reassurance that they had done everything they could to get her released on bail.
He shook his head, certain. "No, no way. No point in dwelling anyway, Nik. We've just got to focus on what we're doing moving forward. We need to work on her defence, on refuting the CPS's evidence against her." Nikki nodded mutely. "Look, do you want to come for dinner tonight? Chris is home from school."
She was quick to answer, "No, thanks. I've got a few things to do yet today before getting to Claire's to wait for Helen's call. Did you get to the police lot? To get the photos of Helen's car?"
"Not yet. I've got to head back to the office now, but I'll pop 'round on my way home. I'll email them to Claire straight away, so she'll have them when you get there."
"Sounds great. I'll have a look, see if I can't figure out what's been nagging at me. Ring us on my mobile though, yeah? I don't want to tie up Claire's home phone."
Martin pulled his sister into a reassuring hug. "Stay positive, Nik. This is a setback, I know, but Helen's got a ton of support behind her. No way we're going to give up." Unwilling to trust her voice, Nikki could only nod. She climbed into her Shogun and headed up the A1 to quickly check in with her Potting Shed staff before her meeting with Karen at a quarter to five. They were set to have a drink at the Jolly Gardeners, a German pub into which Karen had never set foot. Nikki would have been as content to meet Karen in her office, but the acting Wing Governor could not be seen to be aiding a prisoner in her defence. Even meeting with the family of an inmate would be grounds for disciplinary action so she had to be very discreet. Nikki checked her watch knowing she would have to make good time if she did not want to be late meeting Karen. She hurried north.
While Nikki was being reassured by Martin, Helen was having a similar conversation with her solicitor. "The judge never had any intention of granting my appeal, Claire. You did a great job and don't let anyone tell you otherwise." Helen had not been holding out high hopes of being released. She knew, facing a murder charge, that the arguments for appeal would have had to have been very compelling. No, it was up to her army of supporters to win the war.
The women used the half hour the judge had allocated to them less to strategise than to bolster each other up, to regain some of their optimism. Before they could do that, however, Claire had to give Helen a bit of difficult news. "Now, Hel, you know that we're all working to figure out who stitched you up. If I can hand the actual murderer over to the CPS, the Crown Prosecutor and I could then stand before the judge and ask for all charges to be dropped."
"Well, let's do that, then."
Claire laughed ruefully. "If not, if we go to trial, you'll likely be stuck on remand at Larkhall for a few months."
Helen was shocked. "Months? But what about my right to a speedy trial?"
"We'll get a date set this week, but on average it takes about thirteen weeks. The Crown Prosecutor needs time to prepare his case. It could work to our advantage, give us more time to find the tosser who's fit you up." Helen had not heard Claire use such colourful language since university; it spoke to her profound commitment to Helen's case and gave the accused prisoner hope.
Teatra knocked on the door and poked her head into the room. "Sorry, ladies, that's time. Judge's just told me. I've gotta get Helen back to Larkhall."
Helen responded, "That's all right, Miss-"
"It's still Teatra to you, Helen. At least one-on-one, yeah?"
Sensing another ally in her midst, Helen gave the PO a sincere smile. "Teatra," she agreed. "Just a minute to finish up?" She turned to Claire. "Thank you, Claire, if I didn't say it. And you'll be home tonight to talk?"
"I will. Will you be able to ring me after six?" Nikki was expected to arrive at six.
Helen nodded, "I'll call when everyone's having their tea, take mine a little late. Would that be all right, Teatra?"
"Only, Sylvia won't stand for it. Talk to the Julies and see if they'll fix you up your plate first. Eat fast and head straight for the phones," T suggested. "And 'course you can set up a meeting for the two of you tomorrow." This she addressed to Claire.
"I'll ring the prison directly. Hel, we're going to put up one hell of a fight. I'll talk to you tonight." Claire collected her things and the three women made their way out of the Old Bailey.
Karen sat at the bar at the Jolly Gardeners looking to anyone who might spare her a thought like a woman content to be left to her own company. A glass of Riesling adorned her left hand and a cigarette her right. She surreptitiously kept an eye on the door. As her happy hour companion approached the bar Karen exclaimed, "Nikki! What are you doing here? This isn't your neck of the woods."
Recognising the need to play along, Nikki answered, "I was just doing some research at Durning Library. Nice to've run into you, though. Fancy getting a table?"
"Love to," Karen agreed, collecting her handbag from the back of her barstool. Nikki ordered herself a Krombacher Dark and the two women wove their way to a relatively quiet table where they could speak privately. Karen held up a hand. "Before you ask she's fine. As fine as can be expected given the circumstances. We'd all thought bail would be granted this afternoon."
"As did I. Couldn't believe that judge dismissing Claire like that. Did you hear?" Nikki asked all the while knowing, given how tightly knit the prison was, that the Wing Governor had likely been kept up to speed. Karen nodded her confirmation. "But she's settling in all right? No extraordinary fuss with either inmates or officers?"
Shrugging, Karen sighed, "Not since this morning, no."
"Sorry? This morning?" Nikki could not hide her confusion.
Equally surprised Karen said, "She was attacked by an inmate? During association? Out in the yard?" Karen phrased it all in the form of a question. Surely Helen had told Nikki...
"No, that was Friday night. Her cellmate went after her."
Loath to be the one to tell Nikki, Karen nonetheless felt Helen's partner should know. "No, Nikki. I mean, yes, she was attacked on D-Wing, but someone went after her with a sharpened toothbrush this morning, a woman on E-Wing."
"Jesus, Karen! Should she put on Rule forty-three?" Nikki was terrified for Helen's safety.
"She's assured me she's fine. The prisoner who attacked her is down the block and I plan to keep her there for a fortnight. And Helen's got Yvonne Atkins on her side. She'll be safe," the Wing Governor promised.
"How could she not have told me?" Nikki lamented.
"Trying to protect you, I expect. What could you do for her?" Karen made a valid point, Nikki conceded, but the raven-haired woman could not help but feel impotent in the face of her partner's plight. "Right. What you can do for her, what we're all working towards, is getting her exonerated. I can't risk joining you, Martin and Claire tomorrow night, but tell me what you've learnt," Karen insisted.
"Just a few irons in the fire as of now. I met with an old mate of Helen's father, Detective Superintendent Duncan Macrae. He's going to keep us in the loop as far as the evidence goes. And he's going to see if he can find out who might've been responsible for hacking our computer and forging Helen's number plate." Nikki explained. "Martin's going to photograph Helen's car after work today and send Claire the photos. I'll see if I can't see something wrong, compare it to the CCTV shots. But, look, do us a favour, yeah? See what you can find out about the woman who attacked Helen today. There's got to've been a reason for it. Outside of her being a former governor."
"I'll be sure to let you know," Karen guaranteed her. "If there's nothing else, I should probably piss off. Won't do anyone any good if we're seen together. Here's my mobile number if you need to reach me. Untraceable." The cautious blonde handed Nikki a piece of paper.
The women stood with Nikki drawing Karen in for a hug. "Thank you, for everything you're doing," she insisted softly, recognising the risk the Wing Governor was taking. "Into her personal spends, yeah?" she whispered slipping two twenty pound notes into the other woman's hand. "Great running into you, Karen! We need to do this more often." Nikki added more loudly in case anyone was listening. Giving a last glance around their table, ensuring they had not forgotten anything, they headed back out into the bright sunshine. Nikki checked her watch. She had fifteen minutes to get to Claire's Knightsbridge flat.
Greeting the tall woman at the door, Claire insisted, "Nikki, come on in!" It was just before six. "She's not rung yet. The PO who brought her back to G-Wing indicated that she'll not be able to until after tea. Just hold tight."
"And we're sure they can't listen in on the call? I don't want to cause any trouble for Karen or Mac by naming them," Nikki worried.
Claire shrugged, "Well, they're not supposed to listen in on any call to a prisoner's brief, but, then again, you're not meant to be taking her call at my flat." The lawyer thought about it for a minute. "Look, Nikki, just tell her enough to help her sleep tonight. Beyond that, well, just be her partner. I'm meeting with her in the morning where I'll go over our strategies, let her know who's doing what to nail the bastard who's fit her up. Your most important job tonight is just to let her know you love her and that we're doing everything we can to get her out. Understood?" Nikki nodded stoically. "Glass of wine?"
"A small one, thanks." Nikki followed the solicitor into the spacious kitchen where Claire poured from an open bottle of Syrah. "It's a lovely flat," Nikki observed as they ventured into the living room. "More of an open-plan than it looks from the outside."
"Thanks. It was actually two small flats. I bought them both and smashed down the wall between them, opening it up." Nikki finally understood that Claire was not simply Helen's friend: she must be a bloody effective solicitor to be to be able afford a home like this in one of London's most expensive neighbourhoods, Nikki thought, her confidence in Helen's defence increasing apace. She took a look at the coffee table and a wall where Claire had spread out their research notes. Seeing Nikki's attentions directed there, Claire cautioned, "I don't want to get stuck in until after you've heard from Helen; no interruptions if we get on a roll." As though the lawyer had summoned it, the phone rang. Claire nodded to Nikki to answer it then picked up her wine and left the women to their privacy.
"Hello?" Nikki said anxiously, scarcely able to believe she had just seen Helen that morning.
"Hiya, Babes," Helen managed, trying to sound upbeat.
Stealing a glance at her watch, Nikki said, "Finished your tea in record time, din'tcha? Sure way to get indigestion." She could barely contain the tears which were threatening.
"More likely from just eating the food. I mean, I like the Julies, but they're no Julia Childs, y'know?"
With a sigh Nikki had to ask, "How're you holding up?"
"Better now I'm on G-Wing. It's amazing: women I had a hand in keeping locked up reaching out to me in friendship. It's humbling."
"Much as your screws might've accused you of being too much of a friend to the prisoners, the respect you always showed them seems to've earned you that." Nikki paused before adding quietly, "I heard about this morning's attack. And how Yvonne looked out for you."
"Shit. I'm sorry. I just didn't think you needed to know, Nikki. There's lots goes on inside prison walls you don't need to hear about; it'd only upset you," Helen justified weakly.
Hurt, Nikki answered back, "I'm imagining the worst as it is. Funnily, I might've felt better if you'd told me. I'd at least know that you've got someone watching over you. Though I'd rather it were me..."
"You're doing that on the outside, Sweetheart. You'll always be my champion. But speaking of Yvonne, take down this number. It's her daughter Lauren's." Helen recited a string of digits. "She's expecting your call. What about your end? Anything happening?"
"Claire will go through everything with you tomorrow, but I did want you to know that I spoke to your uncle and he's promised to do whatever he can to help you." Nikki was being deliberately vague. "And my friend Kay - the one I ran into volunteering? she's on board as well. I've got her looking into a couple of things."
"She's sure she doesn't mind?" Helen, of course, recognised that Nikki was talking about Karen. "I know how busy she is at work."
"Not too busy to help you out. She believes in you. We all do," Nikki said thickly.
Looking at the group of prisoners amassing behind her, Helen choked out, "I'm really sorry, Babes, but they're queuing up for the phone. I've gotta go." Tears swam in Helen's eyes.
Nikki nodded mutely into the phone, swallowing the lump in her throat. "I know. We're meeting here tomorrow night. Claire'll fill you in. I love you, Helen."
"I love you, Sweetheart. I'll see you on Wednesday." She reluctantly hung up the phone and barged through the impatient crowd back to her cell where she could allow her tears to fall away from the prying eyes of the other inmates.
Back in Knightsbridge Nikki screamed, "God damn it!" loudly enough to bring Claire back into the room. "Let's get to work, yeah?"
"While you were on the phone, an email came in from Martin. He's sent the photos of Helen's car." Claire had printed them off her computer. "You might be able to see the detail better on the monitor, but have a look." Nikki took them from her.
"Have you got the CCTV photos? Only, it might be easier if I could compare the two." Nikki nonetheless gave a hard look at the photos she had been handed. Digging through the pile on her coffee table, Claire came up with the CCTV prints. Nikki held up the photos side by side. Her face lit up. "That's it! Right here, look." She held up a comparison of the two, showing Claire, stabbing the image of the Peugeot's passenger side with a finger. "This," she pointed at the photo on the right, "is Helen's car. But this one... this one's not!" She indicated the second. "Look at the wing mirrors! Helen smashed up her car a year and a half ago, almost tore the mirror right off. The body shop never did get it right." Claire looked at the prints. "Look here!" Nikki continued. "Instead of being at a ninety degree angle, the mirror's tilted down, at, I dunno, a hundred and ten maybe. Dun matter: that," Nikki insisted pointing at the CCTV print, "is not Helen's car! I don't care what the number plate says."
Comparing the two images Claire thought she could vaguely discern an inconsistency between them, but the grainy quality of the CCTV photo prevented her from knowing it with absolute certainty. She worried that her eyes were as clouded with optimism as Nikki's, but nonetheless told the other woman, "All right, I think I see what you're seeing. Now I've only got Ben working on cleaning up the woman's face, but I'll go ring him now and let him know we need the whole car, or at least the passenger side." Claire's confidence in their mission was buoyed. This discovery, she felt, was certain to open a passage towards Helen's exculpation.
"I'll phone Lauren Atkins, set up a meet for tomorrow if I can, while you ring, what was he called? Ben?"
Claire gave her a nod, "Ben Adams, photo tech, he's a genius with digital manipulations. The police hire him on as a consultant." The women both reached for their phones.
An hour and a half later, feeling she and Claire had accomplished as much as they could do with the limited information they had at hand, Nikki arrived in Camden to a house that seemed not just empty without Helen's vital presence, but barren and as hollow as Nikki herself was feeling. Far from leading Nikki to despair, Helen's absence spurred her on, galvanised her to do whatever was necessary to get her out of Larkhall.
As she settled in on the couch to go through her copies of the CPS evidence - for about the twelfth or fifteenth time the telephone rang. Nikki glanced quickly at the display window: Private Caller, it announced. "Not again," she thought, ignoring its shrill tones.
The answerphone picked up. "Hiya, Nik. It's T. Sorry I missed you. Erm, I was hoping we could get together maybe tomorrow night or-"
"Sorry, T. I wasn't screening my calls, well, I suppose I was, but your number didn't come up," Nikki explained. "How's Helen?"
"No trouble, Nik. Your Helen seems to be settling in all right. Have you not talked to her?"
Nikki sighed. "Well, yeah, I did, but I'm worried she's still trying to protect me, not necessarily telling me everything."
"So, you available for a drink, maybe a good old-fashioned piss-up I reckon you could use it maybe tomorrow or Wednesday?" Teatra suggested.
The raven-haired woman answered quickly, "Tomorrow's no good; I've a meeting with Helen's solicitor, but, sure, Wednesday'll work. Where were you thinking?"
"I could come 'round to yours? Bring a bottle of wine and a takeaway? Sichuan?"
Though Nikki's mouth had scarcely recovered from the last fiery Sichuan Teatra had presented to her, that was not the reason she turned down the prison officer's offer; she thought it was probably poor form to receive a woman you had once dated into your home while your partner is in prison. She made her excuses, "No, look, the house is a mess. I've not even given a thought to straightening it up since Helen went inside. What about a pub?"
Teatra was amenable. "Sure, just nothing too close to the prison, yeah? Don't want to look like I'm playing favourites with an inmate, chumming with her partner." T thought a moment before suggesting, "Why don't we go to your local? I'll collect you from yours so you don't have to worry if you have an extra drink or two. Say seven o'clock?"
"Sounds good. Until Wednesday, then. G'night, T." No sooner had Nikki rung off than her telephone rang again. She recognised the number as the disposable mobile Karen had picked up. "Hello?"
"Hi, Nikki. How'd it go at Claire's tonight?" Karen asked.
"Brilliant!" the darker woman enthused. "We've got proof that the car in the CCTV photo isn't Helen's. Did you find out anything about the woman who attacked her?"
"Why I'm ringing, yeah. It's an odd story, no history of violence. She was at Larkhall, on E-Wing until about eight months ago, possession with intent. She was out on parole, doing well, so everyone said, until she stole all the money from the cash drawer at the shop where she was working. Funny part is, she didn't really need the money and she had to know she'd be found out. She was the only one it could have been that time of day." Karen had not stopped thinking about her since she read the inmate's file but still could not make sense of it.
"No history with Helen?"
"Helen doesn't remember her and she wasn't a lifer. She did suggest that you pay a visit to Monica Lindsay's halfway house. That's where the woman was staying when all this happened. Helen said she'd ring Monica first thing, let her know to expect your call." Karen was amazed at how little guilt she felt acting as the go-between in Helen's inner circle. She gave Nikki the number.
"I'll stop 'round tomorrow after I've seen Lauren Atkins, but I've really got to find the time to get into the shop for a few hours." Her work ethic strong as ever, Nikki felt guilty for the additional work she had been heaping onto the lap of her young shop manager. "Thanks for this, Karen. I've a feeling this'll give us another piece of a very odd puzzle."
"Well, good luck. I'll let you know if I uncover anything else." The women rang off and Nikki, feeling good about the forward momentum their research seemed to be generating, went back to sorting through the evidence against Helen.
Understandably, Nikki was not sleeping well. Fed up with her own tossing and turning, she finally got out of bed just before five o'clock. After a quick shower and breakfast she arrived at the Potting Shed at a quarter to six. She went directly into her office to see what had been going on over the previous two and a half weeks. Alex had given Nikki a brief rundown of how the shop had fared while she was in America, but, not surprisingly given her current situation, the Potting Shed owner had taken in very little of it; she wanted to see for herself.
After about an hour spent poring over the numbers sales, staff hours, new contracts for Thea's team Nikki was beginning to think that her time would have been better spent staying in bed. Alex seemed to have everything well in hand. Allowing herself a small smile of satisfaction, Nikki decided to check the shop's inventory and prepare an order for her supplier. She had barely begun her task when the front door opened. "Jesus! Alex, you scared the shit outta me! Wha're you doing here?"
"I work here, mate, manage the shop in fact," Alex answered playfully before growing serious. "Question is: what in hell are you doin' here? Helen's in prison, for God's sake. That's where your focus should be, right?"
Choosing her favourite weapon Nikki responded, "Oh, is she? I'd nearly forgotten." After a pause she reminded Alex, "I've still got a shop to run. Tell me: what are you doing here? It's not even seven o'clock."
"No, I've got a shop to run. You got more pressing matters. Like gettin' your lady outta nick. I've got the shop sorted."
"So I've noticed," Nikki admitted. "I just thought I'd make a Jackson's order."
"It's done. If you want to run through it with me, make sure I ain't forgotten anything..."
Impressed by the initiative shown by her young protégé, Nikki declined, "No, I'll be happy to see how you've done. Have you bothered to tell me why you here at this absurd hour?"
Alex shrugged, "Well, I reckoned our customers'll be comin' in for annuals, so I thought I'd create a display, put the autumn bulbs by the plants, make them stand out a bit more, boost sales."
With a nod Nikki acknowledged, "Brilliant, really. Well thought out. Give you a hand with that, then, can I?"
Alex turned her down. "No, I'll get it started. You're still going to be bogged down workin' to get Helen out, so go get a leg up on the payroll. Staff still needs their dosh, innit? But whyn't you pop out, give me your opinion on the display when you're done, yeah?" Feeling somewhat like the roles of employee/employer were blurring, Nikki nonetheless agreed. All she knew for certain was that the efforts that Alex was putting in boded very well for the future success of the planned Potting Shed in Fulham. Nikki skulked back into her office where she stayed until a quarter past nine at which time she emerged to take a critical look at the new Autumn Colours display. She was duly impressed, telling Alex as much, and knew she was leaving the shop in good hands as she headed out the front door, off to her meeting with the daughter of one London's most notorious gangsters. "When did this become my life?" she wondered...
A few minutes early, Nikki arrived at Lauren's Chelsea home, a huge, detached house on a quiet road. Confident that the sprawling structure was worth well over five million pounds sterling, she chose not to be intimidated as she strode up the walk to the large carved oak door which was opened before she had even reached it. From behind long, dark lashes wary eyes gave her the once over. "Nikki?" the woman asked, tilting her head quizzically.
Shocked at how young the heiress to the Atkins fortune was, Nikki nonetheless recovered quickly, nodding, "Lauren? Pleasure." The women shook hands.
Drawn into the expansive foyer, Nikki could not help but look around. In fact the Atkins residence was designed to impress, to remind visitors that the house's owners had money. In direct contrast to Helen's childhood home, this one exemplified the crass overindulgence of the nouveau riche. To Nikki's eyes everything was too large, too bright, too ostentatious. Apparently class was one thing Charlie Atkins could not buy. Nikki did not spend any time dwelling on it, was not judging just observing. The women took up their seats in the sunny living room. Accepting her hostess's offer of tea, Nikki opened, "Thank you so much for meeting with me."
Lauren acknowledged, "There's not a lot of screws Mum'd throw her lot in with, and I'm honestly not all that keen on it myself, but I trust her so here we are." Nikki could see that Lauren was still feeling very cautious. "I had been working with your Helen, before Fenner's murder? You know that, right?" Though she had only learnt about it after the fact, Nikki nodded. "Right, well, I had one of my best guys following him, may even have given his room at the B&B a spin..." Lauren looked for signs of shock on Nikki's face. There were none, just an eagerness to hear Lauren's full report. "Bloke had more porn than socks. Anyway, didn't find too much on him. No use goin' back to the knockin' shops after the old madam was done in. But a few days, maybe five, before he got wasted he got picked up by a tart. Dunno if he even knew it, but she was definitely a working girl. After that they were spotted out together a couple more times."
Seeing how things might have been coming together, Nikki got very excited. "What do you know about her? Can you tell me what she looked like?"
"Do you one better, mate." Lauren reached into a manila envelope and pulled out several photos of a woman who looked a lot like Helen though with close-set eyes and a longer face. She was even dressed up to look like Helen: dress trousers, tight tee shirts and a leather jacket.
In one photo she was driving a pillar-box red Peugeot 306.
No sooner had she climbed into her Shogun than Nikki flipped open her mobile and put in a call to Claire. Without preamble she asked, "What time are you visiting Helen? We have to meet."
"Not 'til one o'clock. What's going on?" the inquisitive solicitor wanted to know.
"I can meet you outside Larkhall at a quarter to. There's something I have to show you," Nikki said cryptically.
"I can make that, no problem, but you've got me curious," Claire admitted.
"You'll find out soon enough. For now I'm off to Monica Lindsay's to see what else I can learn. See you in a while." The women hung up and Nikki fired up her four-by-four. She was expected at Spencer House in Holland Park between eleven o'clock and half past. She pulled up to the beautiful Victorian home which had, she found it almost inconceivable, been turned into a halfway house almost two years before. It had been named for Monica's thirty year old son who died tragically while Monica was serving a sentence at Larkhall. Her conviction was overturned on appeal but not before her son, who had Down's syndrome, succumbed to pneumonia complications. Nikki rang the bell just as the clock struck eleven. "Mrs Lindsay?" she asked of the well-dressed older woman who opened the door.
"Nikki," the former inmate began, "I think that the woman to whom I owe my life ought to be able to call me Monica, don't you?" It was down to Nikki that Monica was prevented from ingesting a fistful of sedatives in the aftermath of Spencer's death. Upon hearing Monica's story, Nikki had convinced Helen to keep the bereaved mother on suicide watch. Obviously Helen had relayed the part that Nikki played in that favourable resolution along to her former charge.
Uncomfortable with Monica's interpretation, Nikki said nothing as she allowed herself to be led through the tastefully decorated foyer and into the lounge where the older woman had tea waiting. Wanting to get stuck right in she began, "Thank you for taking the time. Helen and I would really appreciate your help in figuring out why Marcene Fischer attacked her."
"No, do not thank me, Nikki. I won't hear of it. I owe both of you a debt I could never hope to repay. I'll gladly tell you Marcie's story, but I'm unsure if it will help. She always seemed the gentlest soul, and the care she takes of her twin sister... But I suppose one never can predict." Monica shook her head as though the relapse of one of her 'kids', as she called them, caused her a physical ache.
In an effort to move the other woman along, Nikki asked, "How long had she been here?"
Recognising that her mind had drifted, Monica brought herself back around. "What? Oh, I am so sorry, Nikki. She had been here for approximately six months, only three to go on parole. I just cannot conceive what came over her. She and Elise had been assigned to E-Wing, sentenced to eighteen months on a drugs charge, possession with intent though they were scarcely carrying enough to distribute. At any rate just after they landed at Larkhall, Elise was on the receiving end of a rather severe beating which ended with her falling down a set of metal stairs. She was in a coma for over a month and was left with permanent brain damage. She had only just recovered enough to join her sister in here about three months before this latest incident. The way Marcie dotes over Elise... She is so protective. I just cannot fathom what might have driven her to do what she did, knowing that she would have to leave her again if she went back inside."
Knowing full well the lengths one might go to to protect a loved one, Nikki wondered if that instinct had provided the impetus behind Marcene's actions. She filed that speculation away for later examination, asking instead, "Will she be serving time for the theft?"
Shaking her head, Monica replied, "The shop chose not to bring her up on a charge. They were very fond of her. But she's violated her parole so she will have to serve out the rest of her sentence at Larkhall."
"And she knew Elise would be safe here with you while she did," Nikki pointed out astutely.
Ponderously, Monica agreed, "I suppose she did at that." The women chatted a while longer with Nikki making her regrets at a quarter past twelve. Before her next meeting of the day, she needed to locate a Snappy Snaps where she could make some copies of the photos Lauren had given her. As she made the commute to Larkhall to meet with Claire, a loose picture was beginning to form in her mind. A disquieting and ugly picture.
At twenty to one Nikki invited Claire to join her in her vehicle. The solicitor was anxious to hear what Nikki had learnt. "All right, why I didn't want to say over the phone: have a look at these." She handed Claire the photos, watching her face for a reaction.
The blonde woman went through each of the dozen candid shots of a woman who could have been Helen's sister. In some she was alone but most saw her with Fenner: at his local, in his car, entering his B&B. "Nikki, this is fantastic! We've got to find this woman."
Nodding enthusiastically Nikki suggested, "Helen's allowed to have photos, right? I thought you might give her a copy of this one," she found the clearest photo in the mix, "and she could show it to some of the prostitutes inside. A long shot, but there's a chance someone might know who she is..."
"Worth a shot, absolutely. Did you get anything from Monica Lindsay?"
"I had an interesting chat with her, but I don't want to say anything just yet. There's something I want to look into. I might have more tonight," Nikki hoped. "Look, Claire, would you mind giving Helen this too?" She handed over a copy of the photo of the two of them from the night of Nikki's appeal. She hoped it would give Helen strength.
"'Course I will. Now I'd best get inside to see our girl. I'll let you know tonight how I found her. See you at six." Claire climbed out of the Shogun and ambled over to the main gate.
Nikki flipped open her mobile. "Karen, I need you to do me a favour..."
Buoyed following her meeting with Claire, Helen arrived back on G-Wing escorted by Teatra to whom the solicitor had handed the photos meant for Helen; for obvious reasons items cannot be given over to a prisoner without first being inspected by an officer. Arriving at Helen's cell, T took a quick look at the photos. She removed one of the two. "Sorry, m'love, no self photos. You know that." She handed the other over to Helen who was gutted.
Forced to relinquish the photo of herself and Nikki, Helen railed, "Exceptions are made all the time, Miss. Please."
With a shrug Teatra pressed, "Maybe that's the way things used to be, but... Look, just ring Nikki and she can bring you a new photo at visiting. I'll give this one back to her tomorrow night. She and I are having dinner." Helen looked at T to see if she was having her on, and was surprised to see a cold look in the other woman's eyes. It was fleeting, replaced instantly by a friendly visage. Nonetheless, in that moment she came to understand that the prison officer might not have been an ally after all. Helen would have to watch herself in future.
Teatra turned on her heel and left the stunned inmate standing at the threshold of her prison cell. The PO meandered down to the officers' locker room, taking the time to examine the photo she had appropriated. A deep sigh emitted from her as she took in the sight of Nikki Wade, stunning in her black Armani suit. Ordinarily Teatra would have immediately turned the photo over to Karen who would then make sure that it made its way into Helen's possessions, those that prison officials had confiscated when the woman first arrived at Larkhall. Despite having offered to personally deliver it to Nikki an offer she had made with the sole purpose of getting a rise out of the incarcerated Scot T planned to go through proper channels and have it placed in Helen's belongings. Though not before making a copy for herself, of course...
Refusing to wallow in self pity over her loss of the photo, Helen went off in search of the two Julies whom she found sitting with Yvonne and Denny at a table in the association hall. "Good meetin' with your brief?" Yvonne asked.
"Very good, actually. Nikki met up with your Lauren this morning. Her associates got some shots of the woman Fenner was seen with." Helen presented the photo. "Julies, probably a small chance, but I was hoping you'd take a look see if you might know her."
"We ain't been on the game in years," Julie S warned.
"Been banged up in 'ere more'n a couple," Julie J agreed. "But wait, Ju. When Miss Stewart first come to Larkhall, didn't you say she reminded you of someone? Remember?"
The smaller Julie nodded emphatically. "I did, Ju. Now what was she called? Here, Miss, give us the snap. Maybe it'll help me remember." Helen had given up trying to get the Julies to call her Helen. She passed over the photo. Julie frowned over it for several minutes before eventually placing it back on the table, allowing one hand to hover over it while closing her eyes. Julie Saunders fancied herself a medium and reckoned if she concentrated hard enough, the name would be revealed to her. Helen though it more likely that a state of relaxation would enhance her memory. Either way, she thought, as long as it worked. "It's comin' to me ... Starts with a 'C'... Cherry... Cinnamon... No, it's Candy, Candy Floss!" Julie cried, beaming proudly.
Denny, who had been sitting quietly through the whole thing, finally piped up, "What kind of bleedin' name's that?" She was laughing openly.
"Likely not the one her mum and dad gave 'er," Yvonne suggested dryly.
"I ain't never seen her dressed up like that before, Miss, and she had blonde hair last I seen her." Julie S turned and nodded to Julie J. "Punters like us blonde, don't they Ju?"
Thrilled enough to be able to put a name to her doppelgänger's face, Helen nevertheless pushed the envelope, "Any idea where she was working? Last you heard?"
The Julies considered the question. "Dunno where she was workin', but last I knew she'd got 'erself banged up in 'ere. E-Wing, wannit? She was only in a couple of months. Never did see 'er, did we Ju?" Julie S asked.
"No, never. I reckon I 'eard 'er once, though, out in the gardens," Julie J added.
Julie S smiled, remembering. "She 'ad a voice could shatter glass, didn't she, Ju?"
"Could shatter glass," Julie J agreed.
Looking at the Julies and Yvonne Helen was overwhelmed at the friendship and support the women had been showing her. "Ladies, I can't even tell you how much I appreciate-"
"Shaz!" Denny had jumped up from the table almost upending it had it not been bolted to the floor, she assuredly would have and sprinted over to the main atrium gates where a very displeased-looking Sylvia Hollamby was leading Shaz Wylie onto the wing.
"Go sit back down, Blood!" Bodybag insisted. "We've got to get Wylie sorted into her cell."
"Can she come back into the four bed dorm, Miss? Please!"
"She'll go where she's put!" Sylvia responded all the while knowing that the dorm was exactly where the returning prisoner had been assigned. "Now go sit back down. The two of you will have plenty of time for your disgustin' kissing and cuddling over the next few years."
"Come find me as soon as you're sorted, Babes!" Denny insisted to her girlfriend, her hurt at not having heard from her since she left all but forgotten.
"'Course I will, Den!" the elfin prisoner replied. "Hey, what we havin' for tea?" Denny gave her a shrug then returned to Yvonne's table where the older woman was looking at Helen in awe.
"Can't believe you got that done."
"Said I'd try, didn't I?" Helen smiled. "But you've got Karen to thank, especially for how quickly she managed it." Helen was no less astounded, but Karen would have told her that it had been a rather easy task; it seemed that the historically carefree inmate had been making quite a name for herself at HMP Downview, spending more time down the block for fighting than in her own cell. Downview's governor was just as happy to see the back of her, signing the transfer papers even as Karen was explaining that Wylie was wanted back at Larkhall to answer a charge of menacing pursuant to the suicide of Maxi Purvis.
"Truly, thank you again, Julies, and you, Yvonne, for your help in sussing out this woman's identity. I've got to go call Nikki, put her to work finding her."
"Anythin' for you, Miss." The Julies remembered how good they had had it while Miss Stewart was at the helm. Their loyalty to her would follow them to their graves. Even Yvonne had relegated Helen to the 'Us' side. She would not soon forget what the small Scot had done for Denny and Shaz.
Helen stood and headed for the bank of phones. She had to fight to hold back her tears when she heard Nikki's rich-timbered tones. "Hiya," Helen began simply.
Not having looked at the LCD screen of her mobile before answering, Nikki was surprised and delighted to her Helen's soft Scottish lilt. "Helen!" The word came out as a sigh. "Everything all right?"
At ten p per minute Helen tried to keep their conversation brief. "Fine, Sweetheart, but I've got some news, gonna make you earn your keep." Helen smiled knowing how much Nikki was already doing to get her home. "The Julies recognised the woman in the photo. Her street name is Candy Floss."
"Seriously?" Nikki deadpanned.
Ignoring her Helen went on. "Can you get her name t'Uncle Mac? See what he can find out?"
"'Course, Babes. I'm on it. How was your meeting with Claire?"
"Really feels like we're onto something, like it's all coming together, but, Nikki, Teatra took the other photo you sent in," Helen said softly.
Exasperation imbued Nikki's tone, "Why would she do that?"
Swallowing back a bitter laugh Helen explained, "No self photos. Prison rule. Wouldn't do to have a prisoner able to forge an officer's badge, now would it? And I'm sure I was mistaken, but felt like she almost took pleasure in confiscating it from me." Helen paused. "Is it true you're having dinner tomorrow night?"
The hurt in Helen's voice pierced through Nikki. "Darling, everything, everything I do is to clear up these charges and get you home, you must know that. And that includes this dinner tomorrow, but if you don't want me to go, I won't. It's just T's promised to keep her ear to the ground inside for me, but..."
"She fancies you," Helen affirmed matter-of-factly.
Not really one to be coy, Nikki did not bother to dispute Helen's claim. Instead she countered, "Tough luck for her then, innit?"
With a smile Helen nonetheless cautioned, "Just be careful. I'm not sure I trust her."
Again Nikki could not disagree. "I will. I can hardly wait to see you tomorrow, let you know how the meeting goes tonight. Hopefully there'll be more good news." The women hung up with Nikki promising to ring Mac directly and Helen vowing she would do her best to stay out of Teatra's way.
By the stroke of six a small group comprised of Nikki, Claire, Martin, Mac and even Karen, despite the ethical concerns, had amassed at Claire's Knightsbridge flat. The solicitor had fastened their worksheets to a wall. "I think the most efficient way to approach this is to go back over each piece of evidence individually and see what new information we've got," Claire proposed. With the rest of the group in agreement, she looked to the first page. "We've nothing new on the blood in Helen's car. The DNA results won't be back for at least another week or ten days, but I thought that leading off with the car would allow us to segue into some very good news. Nikki?"
The tall woman took the floor. "As you all remember I knew there was something off about the CCTV photo of Helen's car. Take a look. See if you can't see it..."
Reaching into a file folder Claire interrupted, "Oh, Nikki, hang on. Ben's got us an enhanced photo, just preliminary. He still wants to clean it up a little more, but, it's much better than the grainy one." She placed it on the coffee table.
"Brilliant," Nikki enthused giving it a good inspection, "much more obvious here, innit?" She placed two pictures side by side. "Marty, this is the one of the shots you took at the police yard. Can you see the difference?"
With a wide smile he nodded, "The wing mirror's all wrong. On the passenger side." Everyone else bobbed their heads in agreement. Claire wrote furiously on the page titled CCTV Vehicle.
"While we've got Ben's enhancements out, let's move on with that." Claire extracted the best photo of the lot from her file and laid it unceremoniously on the table. Karen was the first to see it. "That's not Helen," she beamed, looking up at the other four.
Even Martin, who had known Helen for the least amount of time, could see the obvious differences. He broke into an unrestrained grin. "No, it's not," he agreed, "But who is it?"
Removing yet more photos from the folder, Claire allowed Nikki to do the honours. "She's a prostitute called Candy Floss. We assume she was hired by 'Stitch'," that was the name the group had given to the person who had fitted Helen up, "for exactly this reason: to place Helen at the scene of Fenner's murder."
Unable to suppress a laugh Martin sneered, "Candy Floss?"
It was Mac's turn to offer information. "Given name Candace Marie Carrington, small time tart, been in and out of nick, including Larkhall, for solicitation since she was seventeen. Last inside eight months ago."
"How ever did you find her?" Karen was incredulous. There were tens of thousands of prostitutes in London so to discover the identity of a single one would belong to the needle in a haystack paradigm.
Claire jumped in, "Helen showed the photo to some of your inmates, Karen, the two Julies, I believe?" Nikki nodded her confirmation. "They recognised her right off." She turned to Helen's 'uncle'. "Any idea where we can find her?"
"I've got her home address and learnt she's workin' out of a brothel in King's Cross. Martin, perhaps ye could find her, chat her up?" Mac suggested.
"Me?!" Nikki's brother was nonplussed. "Why can't you do it?" he demanded of Mac.
The Superintendent smiled wryly, "Because I look very much like an old copper. Ye look more like a, erm, well a..."
"A punter? Is that the word you're looking for?"
"I cannae say. Is that more or less offensive than 'lawyer'?" Mac was busy amusing himself.
Accepting the banter good-naturedly, Martin fired back, "That's enough piss-taking from you, old man! You're probably worried they'd hand you a little blue tablet as a welcoming gift."
Holding up her hands in mock desperation, Claire insisted, "That's enough, lads. Let's put them away and stay on point."
Nikki, however, was forced to admit, "Mac does have a point; we need to find out who hired her. If she's working out of a brothel, we could use this as leverage, threaten to tell her employer about her picking up a bit of business on the side."
"And then no one needs to pose as a client," Karen submitted.
Nodding her head, Nikki volunteered, "Fine, I'll do it tonight, sit outside the brothel until her work night's done, just, can we please move it along now. I hate to feel we're wasting time." Appropriately chastised the others offered their sincere apologies. "No, I'm sorry. Only, I'm a little on edge as you can imagine. I just need to get her home." Claire had stood to make notes on the Doppelgänger page, including Nikki's role as interrogator. She moved over to the next sheet of paper.
"All right, Martin, a little more show-and-tell. What have you learnt about the wine bottle and glass?" Claire asked.
Martin added a photo to the pile. "The bottle was champagne, a Lucas-Carton brut. Does that mean anything to you, Nik?"
His sister shook her head. "Unfortunately, that's Helen's house champagne. Good price point, nice and fruity. She probably opens one a month. What about the glass?"
"That's been odd. I don't know if they've lost the photo or only took the close-up, but no one's been able to get me an image of the whole glass. I've still got someone working on it." Martin could not help but feel he had let the team down.
"Helen appreciates you pitching in, Marty. And this is a group effort." Nikki covered her brother's hand with her own. "'Course if you want to feel more productive, you could go to the brothel!"
"All right!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands and patently ignoring Nikki. "What else have we got?"
Claire answered, "Only a couple last things: I've a friend who's a forensic accountant, a genius with computers. He's looked into the ten thousand pounds that's gone missing from your account, Nikki. I'm not that au fait with computers so bear with me, but what he's said is that ordinarily a transaction like that would be easy enough to trace from your computer to the bank's and then out, but with this one he says that he followed it through over a dozen relays before it got good and lost. Not incriminating in itself, but it lends credence to the theory that Helen's been fit up." She had already made note of that on the £10 000 page. "And, Mac, still no further ahead finding out who our hacker might've been?"
"I've still got feelers out, lookin' for the hacker and the forger. Can be a slow go not havin' a place tae start," he admitted.
"That's all right. Keep plugging away. And, Karen, what can you tell us?" Claire probed.
"I feel like I've not got anything done; you've all got so much to show for your work," Karen looked dejected.
Nikki was the first to object, "No way, Karen. You've got the most important job of all: getting her through this ordeal in one piece. I will never be able to repay my debt to you." The sincerity in the other woman's eyes was not lost on Karen.
"Thanks for saying that, Nikki. And Helen has not had a great go of it, but things are looking up. I've got her transferred to G-Wing where she's got a lot of support. I have managed to gain her some good will with Yvonne Atkins by getting a former inmate transferred back to Larkhall from Downview. As for the woman who went after Helen with sharpened toothbrush, I had her adjudication today, but she wouldn't say a word. I'd say someone's really put the wind up her."
Nikki added, "I spoke to Monica Lindsay today and she mentioned that Marcene had been at Larkhall before, on E-Wing, with her sister. There was a fight and the sister was thrown down a flight of stairs sustaining a brain injury."
"I remember hearing that story. Twins aren't they?" Karen asked rhetorically.
"What if someone threatened the sister, Elise, with something? Physical harm or a return to prison? That would be incentive enough, wouldn't it? I mean, Marcene didn't do anything to get any extra time, just enough to get thrown back in Larkhall. She'll be out same time her sister's meant to be leaving Monica's?" Nikki had been thinking about the Fischer sisters all afternoon.
"Worth looking into, but scared as she is, she'll likely have nothing to say. If we could guarantee her sister's safety..." Karen looked at Mac.
"Me efforts here have to be off the books, Karen, same's yers. I wish I could make that promise, but I cannae."
Again quick to intervene, Nikki assured him, "We all know the line you're walking here, Mac, and no one's asking for more than you can comfortably give. Keep working Marcene, Karen, as much as you are comfortable doing." Nikki looked at her watch. "I suppose we should leave it at that?" She looked around at Helen's loyal team to see if anyone had anything to add. No one did. As the visitors were all gathered around Claire's front door, Nikki said quietly to Karen, "And that small bit of business you were going to look into for us?"
Karen handed her a couple sheets of paper. "I've printed you off a copy of what I found. Have fun at the brothel," She added with a smile as she pulled Nikki in for a hug. "Things really seem to be coming together, Nikki. Stay positive."
"I'm trying, Karen. Seeing her tomorrow'll help. Thanks for everything."
The small group had made their way down to the pavement with kisses and hugs all around; nothing brings people together quite like the incarceration of a loved one, Nikki thought caustically. Karen and Martin got into their respective cars, but Nikki held Mac back. She had not wanted to say anything prematurely in front of the group but conspiratorially she told him, "I may be able to help narrow down your search."
Though having been able to get home for a nap before staking out the brothel the previous night, Nikki was nevertheless exhausted when she forced herself out of bed that morning. The meeting she had with Candy had not been as illuminating as Nikki might have hoped, thus leading to another difficult night's sleep. After slipping her a few notes Nikki found the prostitute to be rather forthcoming. Unfortunately, as helpful as she was willing to be, she had very little information to offer. 'Stitch' had made initial contact with her over the phone. She claimed that she could not even tell if the caller was a man or a woman which led Nikki to wonder if Stitch had used a voice changer. As for payment, envelopes of cash were slid through the letter box at Candy's Brixton flat. Disappointed as she was, Nikki could not help but also be impressed. Stitch was certainly covering his tracks. Or hers, as Nikki was beginning to speculate.
Though certain she was misreading the signs, likely because they had no other viable suspects, Nikki had begun to entertain the notion that Teatra had had a hand in fitting Helen up. All of her supporting evidence was circumstantial: the timing of T's return to London, the fact that Candy and Marcene had both been inmates at Larkhall on E-Wing. Nikki was even beginning to consider that Teatra, with her ex-directory phone number, was their long-standing phantom caller. The packet Nikki had received the previous night from Karen was a copy of T's CV detailing the prisons where the officer had worked since completing her training. The information Nikki had found the most interesting was the date of her application to transfer back to Larkhall: January 6, a full five months before Fenner's death. Nikki had given Mac a copy of the CV, confident that she was sending him on a wild goose chase but unwilling to leave any rock unturned in her efforts to get Helen home where she belonged.
Looking at the clock on the wall of the sunshine yellow kitchen she was beginning see as a little too cheerful, the lonely homeowner decided it was a reasonable enough time to ring Claire, let her know what she had learnt from Candy the night before. The lawyer was long up and already working with their newest information, disseminated at the meeting the previous evening. She was very pleased to hear that the prostitute had not denied her involvement with Fenner. Fifteen minutes before Nikki's call, Claire had spoken with the Crown Prosecutor to make arrangements to do an identification parade later that morning. The barman as well as a couple patrons from Fenner's local had picked Helen out of a video identification. Claire believed that through a proper parade Candy would be revealed to be Fenner's companion. She had a pair of police officers on stand-by prepared to bring her in but remained hopeful that the prostitute would come quietly once she realised she was not a suspect in the murder.
At eleven o'clock Helen was standing at a police station with a group of women waiting for a line-up. Helen was number three. Almost immediately the women entered slowly through a door and turned to face a mirror. One by one they were asked to come forward, to turn to the side, to face front and finally to say the phrase, "I'll have a glass of red wine." Two minutes later they were asked to do it all over again. And then for a third time. The whole process was still finished inside of twenty minutes.
Once the parade had played out Claire requested a meeting with the Crown Prosecutor which he felt compelled to take. "Look, Arthur, I know this is a big case and that you're trying to make a name for yourself, but your evidence is disintegrating. And now the witnesses have picked out someone other than my client as Fenner's companion." None of the eyewitnesses would have been able to say for certain whether it was Helen or Candy based on appearance alone, but their responses were identical and immediate as soon as Candy spoke; there was no mistaking her high-pitched, grating voice.
Claire pulled out the enhanced CCTV photos. "Take a good look through these as well. I had Ben Adams clean them up. You know his reputation: brilliant at his job and unshakeable on the stand. Favourite son of the CPS. Do you want us to make the jury wonder why he's working with the defence?"
"Do you think I've just floated up the Thames in a bubble, Claire? What about my blood evidence? Hair? Fingerprints? And when the DNA comes back in, it'll be all over. I've got an altercation between your client and the victim less than a month before his murder where she threatened to kill him, no alibi. Then there's the phone calls to Lauren Atkins along with the ten thousand pounds," the ambitious prosecutor was determined not to back down.
"Rubbish. Your blood evidence is from that altercation. Hair is not difficult to collect from a jumper, a car's headrest... And fingerprints on a glass and a bottle of wine, the photo of which has gone missing? My client puts at least one a week out with her recycling. But explain your scenario to me." Claire looked to be thinking hard. "Miss Stewart goes to Lauren Atkins to hire a hitman to murder James Fenner. She pays her ten thousand pounds and then guarantees that she herself will implicated in the murder by going to his B&B and taking a glass of wine with the victim? Does that sound accurate?" Claire demanded expecting no response. "Now tell me: does it even sound plausible? The jury will have a field day with it and you'll end up looking foolish. Even more so when the actual perpetrator is discovered."
That was a threat that hit a little close to home; Arthur Ranks had his eyes on a position as Chief Crown Prosecutor and knew that the murder of James Fenner was one which could make or break his career. "If you manage to do that, do be sure to let me know, won't you?" he finally offered snidely.
Just before she was to enter Larkhall to visit Helen, Nikki received a disquieting phone call from Mac; it seemed that the concerns she had proposed to him were well-warranted. When Teatra had asked for a transfer out of Larkhall, Helen had found her a position at HMP Lewes, East Surrey. Mac's investigation discovered that a Lewes inmate who had been serving a sentence on several charges including the forging of number plates had been released on parole and moved to London in May. Further, Teatra's ex-husband's former cellmate at HMP Wandsworth was an accomplished computer hacker. He had been living in London since his release three months earlier. Though these were yet more examples of circumstantial evidence, the abstract image which had been forming in Nikki's mind was growing undeniably, and alarmingly, clearer. "I'm going to the pub with her tonight," she told Mac.
"I don't think that's a good idea, lass, not with these suspicions," Mac cautioned.
"Don't you see, maybe I could learn something that would help us."
Mac was adamant. "Ye're no Miss Marple and I'll not have you riskin' yerself - or this investigation," he added knowing that Nikki would never jeopardise Helen's case. "If this Teatra has fit Helen up for this, she's already killed once that we know of. Not someone you want to cross."
Nikki tried to placate him, "I'm not mad, Mac. I'm not going to confront her, just talk to her, see if she cocks up, gives something away. It'd be more suspicious if I cancel."
"Look, I've gotta go. They're letting us into the prison. Have your mobile handy tonight, yeah?" She flipped her phone closed and stepped out of her Shogun, her gait heavy with this new knowledge.
After a quick pat down and what seemed an interminable length of time in the queue, Nikki finally reached the visiting room, her eyes scanning the pink-pinnied prisoners sitting quietly at their small tables. She found Helen and hurried over to her, drawing her in for a hug and kiss, almost pushing the envelope of what the prison would allow. "Hiya, Babes. Thought we weren't meant to be spending any more nights apart. You're gonna owe me when you get home." She smiled tightly.
"Get me out of here today and you can have anything you want," Helen promised. "How was the meeting last night?"
Because Helen was an inmate in Teatra's care, Nikki did not want to give too much away regarding their suspicions about the officer. The women had already decided that Helen should keep her distance from Teatra, so any other information Helen got would just serve to make her time at Larkhall more daunting. Further, there was always the possibility that Helen would inadvertently give up the game before Nikki had the chance to put the screws to Teatra. Having weighed all this out, the tall woman finally answered, "We've got leads on the forger and the hacker. Claire's contact came through with the enhanced photos. I spoke to Candy last night. Now you're not the only one who can say she's staked out a brothel." Nikki's smile had grown more earnest.
"Speak to me when you've done it every night for a fortnight." Helen paused. "Was that why I was brought in for an identity parade today? I was whisked away before I could speak to Claire."
Delighted to be able to impart good news, Nikki beamed, "All three witnesses from Fenner's local picked out Candy. It's really looking positive, innit?"
Helen agreed, "It certainly is. Did you hear what Kay did?" She still did not want to use Karen's full name if they could help it, not wanting the Wing Governor's questionable ethics to be found out. Nikki nodded. "Yvonne was pleased. Any future help we might need from her daughter will be available, no questions asked."
"I'll remember that. But enough about your case. We've only got a few minutes left. Tell me how you're getting on. Everyone still looking out for you?"
"There was one, another of Fenner's prize slags, a woman called Snowball Merriman-"
"Nice name. Friend of Candy's, is she?"
Helen chuckled along with Nikki. "No, an American porn star. Rather she starred in American porno movies, but she's from Wigan. Anyway, Fenner had extended her some privileges, but once he was gone, she lost her clout, lost her job in the library, got bumped down to a basic regime. Thinking I'd killed Fenner, she blamed me for the lot of it. When she tried it on with one of the other officers, though, Karen'd finally had enough. Had her ghosted out Monday night. I'd barely met her. Why there was room for Shaz to come back, actually."
"But your inner circle, Yvonne, the Julies, they're all right?"
"No, not especially. The Julies got sentenced this week, for their attack on Julie Johnston's daughter's 'boyfriend'." Helen could not help but add the inverted commas. "They got eight more years."
"Oh, that's shit. Can't take the law into your own hands, I suppose." Nikki looked at Helen critically asking, "Are you sleeping?"
"As well as can be expected. At least I'm in a cell on my own, but those mattresses: dreadful."
"Well, I'm keeping ours warm for you. Soon, Darling. Soon," Nikki vowed.
"All right, everyone, that's time. Wrap it up," Sylvia's less than dulcet tones called out.
Reluctantly, Nikki and Helen stood, embracing again, clinging tightly to each other. "Soon," Helen repeated. "Don't have too much fun on your date tonight." She smiled at her partner who was amazed that the wrongly imprisoned woman could find it in her to be playful.
"Home by eleven," Nikki promised. "I'll see you Friday, yeah?"
"If not sooner." Helen's optimism would not be quashed.
"If not sooner." With a quick kiss - which elicited a mild bollocking from Bodybag Nikki was off and hurrying towards the door so as to not let Helen see the tears pricking her eyes. Her resolve to get her partner out of Larkhall was strengthened tenfold.
Following immediately on the heels of her visit to Helen at Larkhall, Nikki headed to Pinner. Chris had arrived home on her summer holidays the day before and was anxious to catch up with her one aunt and to find out how her other, her Auntie Helen, was holding up. Nikki rang the bell shortly after three o'clock, Chris greeting her at the door. "Auntie Nik, c'mon in," the girl insisted. The two made their way into the Pinner Wade's living room. "I've made a pot of tea," Chris offered.
"Lovely. Cheers," Nikki responded, pouring herself a cup before settling in on the couch.
Kendra entered the room moments later. "Sorry, Nikki, I was just in the loo," she offered to explain her absence. "How's Helen doing?"
"Hiya, Ken, nice to see you've not yet left for Portugal. Helen's holding up quite well, thank you, but she'll be a damn sight better once we get her out of there." Nikki paused. "You know she's innocent, right?" The question was posed to both of the teens.
"'Course we do," they exclaimed in unison.
"Much as she'll appreciate your support, she'll have my guts if I don't ask: how'd your exams go?" Nikki was reluctant to force the girls to dwell on Helen's condition.
Chris laughed, "You know us, Auntie Nik. We did great, eh, Ken?"
"As always!" Kendra agreed.
"So, Ken, I hate to bring it up, but when're you off," Nikki enquired.
"Tuesday. But, really, thanks for booking Chris on that flight in a few weeks. Wasn't sure how I would have made it through the summer without seeing her." Kendra looked over at the other girl.
"We were glad to do it," Nikki assured her. "What about your trip home? Did your dad get it sorted?" Nikki asked.
Kendra shrugged. "The dates he gave Mum, well, she wasn't going to be in the city and she didn't feel right asking Chris's parents if I could stay here."
"But you're almost seventeen, you could stay home alone," Nikki suggested.
"That's what I said but she wasn't comfortable with that either," Kendra lamented.
Thinking it over Nikki offered, "Well, if it's a question of adult supervision, you're welcome to stay at ours. Any time and I mean that." As though speaking of the woman summoned her, Kendra's mother was soon banging on the Wade's front door. Chris stood to answer it.
From her post in the living room all Nikki could hear was grumbling voices. "I know she's here," Kendra's mother stated plainly.
Chris explained, "We were just having a catch up with my aunt."
Kendra had arrived in the foyer. "It's all right, Chris. I'll go," the teen groused.
"But we've only got a few more days!" Chris bemoaned.
As though she had not even registered the complaints, Kendra's mother insisted, "I won't ask you a second time; get in the car!"
Appalled by what she was hearing, Nikki ambled out to the foyer, in time only to get a cursory look at the departing woman, a woman she would nonetheless have recognised anywhere. She turned to her niece asking incredulously, "That was Ken's mum?" When Chris nodded, Nikki added thoughtfully, "She's the judge who turned down Helen's bail application." Considering the way the woman had reacted to Kendra being at Chris's house and her behaviour at Helen's bail appeal, the pieces fell into place for Nikki. She hurried out the door. "Your Honour? Have you got a minute?" she called to a retreating back. Kendra was already slouched down in the passenger seat of her mother's silver Audi TT coupe, headphones covering her ears.
"Miss Wade, that would be highly irregular," the judge protested.
Nikki assured her, "This isn't about Helen or her trial. Please, a minute?"
Accepting that there was no way to graciously avoid the other woman, Judge Barcelos acquiesced, nevertheless insisting, "I haven't much time."
"Then I'll be brief. I think I've just realised why you dismissed Helen's application for bail so quickly."
"Miss Wade," the judge cautioned.
Holding up a hand to stifle any protests, Nikki continued, "Let me finish. You knew who we were before she even walked into your court, maybe you even went out of your way to ensure her case was brought before you." She paused. "You don't like us very much, do you?"
"I don't even know you," the older woman stated flatly.
"But you think you do." Nikki looked pointedly at Kendra. "It's not catching you know. You can't punish Helen for it and you can't stop those girls from being friends." Nikki looked back towards the house. "Ken's going to be what she's going to be."
Scarcely able to keep her temper in check Judge Barcelos spat, "But it's not your place to thrust them together."
"They were really close well before we even knew Chris existed. All we're doing is letting them find themselves," Nikki reasoned. "Gay or straight shouldn't matter."
"Don't be ridiculous; of course it matters! Do you think I want my daughter limited by her sexuality?"
"'Course not. No one knows better than I do. If you think that I would encourage the girls to be gay, well, you're mad. I'd rather they have an easier go. It's not my choice, not theirs either, but I'll support them whatever," Nikki insisted. "Look, Your Honour, I don't know how this will all work out, but I do know what it's like to be rejected by your family. Don't ask Ken to choose between you and who she is."
Seemingly unmoved Judge Barcelos pronounced, "Her name is Kendra."
Nikki shook her head. "Shows what you know," she said. Almost giving up on trying to reason with the older woman, Nikki wrung her hands. "Whatever happens with Helen, just promise me that you'll not allow yourself to lose your daughter."
"That's really none of your concern," the judge proclaimed endeavouring to make her way back to her car.
"Shows what you know..." Nikki repeated, worrying that Kendra's future might mirror Nikki's own history. As she looked again at the judge, an all but repressed memory flooded back into Nikki's consciousness. Quietly she said, "I know who you are."
With a voice dripping with disdain Inês Barcelos warned, "I am the judge presiding over your partner's case. Not a person you want to get on the wrong side of."
Nikki would not be stopped. "You're her, the woman I found in bed with Miriam."
"Don't think so. I know it's been almost twenty years, but... Your hair's not quite as big and, y'know, you're not naked, but I remember you. You ruined what I had with her." Obviously time had done little to stanch Nikki's bitterness over the infidelity. "I loved her."
"You were a child!" Inês snapped, no longer denying the truth. "What did you know about love?" Recognising that her new knowledge placed Nikki in a position of power over her, Judge Barcelos did her best to quash it. "If you breathe a word of this..." She allowed the threat to remain implicit. Much as she wanted justice for her partner, Nikki would never have considered stooping to the level of blackmail the judge was suggesting. After a pregnant pause the judge added softly, "You couldn't possibly know what I went through."
Believing she had pieced together the other woman's story, Nikki volunteered, "You work hard, diligently building your career, making a blinding success of yourself, dating but never finding the right man. Miriam comes along, treats you like a queen, makes you feel good about yourself, makes you fall in love with her. You panic, break it off with her, go off with the first available man, convince yourself you love him. How'm I doing so far?"
"A little too well," the judge admitted.
"Then something happens you get pregnant or married..." Nikki speculated.
"Engaged," Inês offered
"Engaged," Nikki repeated. "And you need to see her, to be with her one last time, just to get some closure. Her young lover, home early from work, has the misfortune of walking in on this little tableau, shattering her heart and delivering her into lifetime of cynicism."
Chagrined and duly chastised, the older woman submitted, "I am sorry, Nikki."
"I don't give a toss, Inês." Nikki spat the name contemptuously, acutely disliking the other woman's foray into familiarity.
"Sorry: Miss Wade. What do you want from me?"
Still steadfastly unwilling to use the judge's prior relationship with Nikki's ex or her feelings of guilt over the same - to force the other woman's hand, Nikki said simply, "I don't know whether you are truly trying to protect Ken from the judgements of the outside world or you're bitter that she still has the chance to follow her heart, to live the life you wish you'd lived. I don't know and I honestly don't care. I'm fond of your daughter, so what I want from you is the same as ever; I want you to stand behind her and let her be happy, whatever that looks like." Nikki turned and walked away from Kendra's mother, leaving the other woman with much to consider.
After dropping Kendra off at their Hammersmith home Inês had to fight the traffic and get back to her office. As she was climbing the courthouse steps a face she recognised - despite never having met the man face to face - came into view. "Christ! If I could've got through the rest of this week without seeing another one," she breathed.
"Afternoon, Your Honour," Martin began. "Spare me a minute, could you?"
Becoming familiar with the tenacity of the Wade clan, the judge gave in, "You can walk me to my office, talk along the way."
Shaking his head, Martin informed her, "I've just heard some interesting information about you. Not sure you want our conversation overheard."
Inês was angry yet unsurprised to learn that Nikki had gone to her brother, telling him everything despite her tacit promise to not use her newfound knowledge. "She had no business reporting to you. None if it is relevant," she opined once they were secure in the privacy afforded to them by her office.
Incredulous, Martin jeered, "Not relevant? You're talking about a woman's life. Are you really that cold?"
"Spare me the histrionics, Mr Wade! It seems to me she's bearing up quite nicely."
Unable to wrap his head around what he was hearing, he snapped, "She's in prison, for God's sake!" Judge Barcelos realised that she had made a mistake, that Martin had heard only that Kendra was her daughter. She let him bluster on as her thoughts turned to formulating a defence of her actions. "And you left her there. Claire Walker's arguments would have compelled any other judge to grant her bail, but you wanted to take Helen to task for being in Kendra's life, for letting your daughter believe that it's all right to be gay."
"That's absurd! Helen Stewart took a man's life in cold blood. She is a danger to society and I could not in good conscience put her back out on the street. It was the evidence which was compelling, Mr Wade." The judge hoped that she sounded convinced. She did not.
Narrowing his eyes, Martin offered her a proposition, "Here's what's going to happen. We are extremely close to finding Jim Fenner's real killer. Very soon Claire Walker will repetition for bail for Helen and when she does, you will grant it, that is, if you don't want your personal stake in this case to be discovered." Apparently Martin was much more willing to play the game than his sister had been. "Should you not do so, I will hand matters over for judicial review. It will be established that you presided over Helen's bail hearing with prejudice. A decision will be taken to scrutinise all of your cases, every judgement you've ever handed down, looking for a pattern of bias against homosexuals. If it is determined that you are more punitive in your sentencing practices against gays and lesbians... Well, I expect that would be cause for disciplinary action." Martin felt guilty for levying such a threat against a judge whose reputation for professional ethics was well-established, but he was overwhelmed by a need to protect his family: Helen and Nikki, of course, but Chris was caught in the middle of this scenario as well.
Knowing that she had committed a grave error in not removing herself from Helen's case, Judge Barcelos nevertheless considered herself fair and impartial and was unafraid of what an official review might find. She was concerned, however, with how such a review would look on her record and how it might be interpreted by her colleagues and superiors. She countered, "I will allow Ms Walker to stand before me to petition for bail for Ms Stewart, but I will not grant it out of hand. That being said, if I do not feel she has met her burden, I will suddenly discover a conflict of interest and recuse myself." Martin nodded his acceptance of the compromise. "Off the record, Mr Wade-" she began earnestly.
"It's all been off the record, Your Honour," he assured her graciously.
"Thank you. But allow me to add: I know that my decision not to grant Ms Stewart bail was influenced by factors external to her case, but you're a parent, you know the lengths to which one will go to protect one's child. I still do not like this friendship between our daughters, nor do I like the influence your sister and Ms Stewart have over the girls." Her stance seemed not to have changed. "But I will not allow those things to impact my future findings in her case," she vowed.
"Inês," Martin began, endeavouring to speak to the woman and not the judge, "I have seen firsthand the damage that can be done to a family when parents try to exert control over their children. The way I intend to protect my daughter is to support her and to allow her to be true to herself." He looked into her eyes for the smallest hint that he had got through to her.
"If there's nothing else?" Martin was being dismissed. He vacated her office without fanfare.
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