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

Love, Loyalty and Friendship
By Christie


Part Forty-One

After another busy afternoon – and hadn't they all been since Helen's arrest, she thought – Nikki found herself with a good two hours before Teatra was meant to call for her. She ventured into Kijuuki's flagship Oxford Street restaurant and looked around, easily picking out the woman she was seeking. Heart in her throat at the sight of her, Nikki approached. "Miriam," she said as directly as she could, causing the other woman to turn to her in stunned recognition of her voice. Miriam Byrd was as striking as she had been when Nikki was with her. Almost as tall as Nikki, a fact which served to belie the Japanese half of her heritage, she had a head of thick, black hair. Her alabaster skin showed scarcely more lines than it had nineteen years before and her almond shaped eyes were as bright as always as she took in the sight of her former lover.

Miriam turned away from the restaurant's manager with whom she had been in conversation. "Kim, give us a minute, won't you?" Unsure it was welcome, the restaurateur nonetheless pulled Nikki into a hug. "My, God, Nik, it's good to see you. C'mon back into my office, yeah?" Miriam's mother's parents had opened a restaurant in that location in 1958, catering mostly to London's relatively small Japanese community. A few years before meeting Nikki, Miriam had taken it over and had already secured two additional locations. In 1980 she travelled to New York City, learning that America had discovered the Japanese delicacy known as sushi. She immediately rebranded her own restaurants, renaming them; Kijuuki is the Japanese word for crane, a bird sacred in Japan as well as an obvious play on her own surname. She was the first to bring sushi across the pond. Twenty-one years later she was the CEO of one of the most successful independent restaurant groups in Britain with upwards of thirty locations. That she had chosen to maintain her office in the original came as no surprise to Nikki. The two women took their seats on a couch in the well-appointed office. Miriam poured them some green tea. "Nikki, what's happened?" Miriam was under no illusion that this was simply a social call.

Choosing to be her usual direct self, Nikki told her, "I saw your Inês today." Miriam grimaced appropriately, ever regretful of the pain she put Nikki through. "I need you to talk to her."

An hour later Nikki was home and getting ready for her evening out with Teatra. She rang Trisha for a spot of moral support. Though not having taken an active role in helping to formulate Helen's defense, Trisha and Alex had been a mainstay of support for which Nikki was grateful. Most important were Trisha's efforts in convincing a sometimes catty Chix crowd of Helen's innocence, which she did with all the enthusiasm of a zealot. Monies had even been raised for Helen's defense fund. As Claire was working for her friend pro bono, the cash collected was earmarked for the celebration of Helen's release. "So, what are you wearing on your date?" Trisha asked playfully once Nikki had filled her in on the latest.

"It's not a date. I mean, there's a chance that T wants to get back together with me, but I'm obviously with Helen. There's an equal chance that Teatra's a murderer, the one who's fitted Helen up." Nikki sounded much more casual about it all than she felt.

"Well, you'll have to dress for the ambiguity," Trish bandied in an effort to keep things light. "You should pop 'round the club later, let us know how everything went. Don't bring her, 'course; that'd get every tongue wagging."

"We'll see. Have a busy night. Make us loads of money, eh?" Nikki hung up the receiver and went to dress. At precisely seven o'clock Teatra turned up in her white Skoda Favorit. Nikki had been watching for her and did not allow the other woman the opportunity to even open her car door much less climb the steps to Nikki's house. "Hiya, T," the ebony haired woman offered by way of greeting. "Camden Brewing Company all right?"

Not sure if they would manage to secure a table in the pub's outdoor beer garden, Teatra nonetheless agreed. "I've just got to pick up a packet of fags along the way," T mentioned. A few blocks into their drive she spotted a news-stand and came to a screeching stop in front of it. "Back in a tick," she promised. Something had hit Nikki's foot as the car came to its hard stop. She looked down to see what it was. Despite never having actually seen one, it was blatantly apparent what the small object was: a spent bullet cartridge. Her blood pressure rising, she nevertheless had the good sense not to touch it with a hand, but gently placed her foot over it to prevent it from sliding back under her seat. She sat almost silently once Teatra had returned, unable as she was to form a coherent sentence.

Three minutes later they had succeeded in procuring one of the twenty-five or so tables on the patio. Not immediately taking her seat, Nikki apologised, a look of concern clouding her lovely features. "Sorry, T, I've got to scoot off to the toilet. Might have a bit of an emergency." She made an obvious point of taking her handbag. "Order me a bitter, yeah?" It was a rare London pub where you got table service.

No sooner out of earshot of her dinner companion than Nikki pressed her mobile phone to her ear, shoving a finger in the other to muffle the din inside the lively pub. "Mac, can you hear me?" Despite her best efforts she could not make him out. "Look, I can't hear you so just listen. I'm out with Teatra Kennedy. I found a bullet casing in her car. It's on the floor, front passenger side. You need to look for it. Get a search warrant for her car, whatever. It's a white Skoda Favorit." Nikki gave him its location and what she could remember of its number plate. "I'll ring you later." She prayed that he had been able to make out what she was saying and reluctantly made her way back outside. "Drinks not come yet?" she enquired, taking her seat.

"Things that bad, eh?" Teatra laughed. "The girl's just come. Shouldn't be long." Looking appraisingly at her ex, she could not stop herself asking, "How're you holding up, Nik?"

"It's a rough go, as you can imagine," Nikki answered truthfully. "Can't believe it's only been five days." She shook her head. "But, listen, T, I don't want to dwell on it tonight, yeah? It's all I've been thinking about, but I reckon I could use a bit of a distraction. Whyn't you catch me up on what you've been doing. East Surrey, wannit?"

Taking a sip of the drink their waitress had just put down in front of her, Teatra nodded over the rim of her glass, "Mm hmm, HMP Lewes, that's where Helen was able to transfer me to. That was dead lucky, actually closer to my family in Morden."

"And how'd you find them, all right?" Nikki knew she was making inane conversation; Teatra scarcely went more than a couple weeks without a quick visit to her parents'.

"Jamie's settling into married life, whatever that means. They'd been living together for almost two years before the wedding." T shrugged. "Ron's split with Sandi, but the kids are great. I can't believe Lori's just turned eight. Where's the time go, eh?"

"I know. I've been in contact with my brother," Nikki revealed. "I've a niece and a nephew as well." She could not believe how calmly she was handling her situation. Deep down she still saw Teatra as the woman she had known eight months before and had trouble reconciling that vision of her with her current suspicions.

"Oh, Nik, that's brilliant. You're getting on all right?"

"Really well. He's part of the team working on," Nikki was unsure how she ought to phrase it, "on Helen's case."

"Still think someone's stitched her up?" Teatra's curiosity was piqued.

Holding the other woman's gaze Nikki averred, "Without a doubt." T was the first to break eye contact. "So, did you come into the city much? From East Surrey?"

"Whenever I could. Still feels like home, y'know?" It was Nikki's turn to look away, uncomfortable. "I even popped into Chix one night in the spring, April or May, can't remember, thinking I might run into you." Nikki's mind immediately drifted to the break-in which restarted the hang-up phone calls. "But, look, Martin, that's what he was called, right?" Nikki nodded. "He and the rest of you? You're making some progress with Helen's case? Got a fix on the real killer yet?" Teatra got their waitress's attention, motioning for another round.

"Might have, yeah. Good leads anyway. We'll see how it pans out." Nikki decided to offer up a bit of what they knew, see if she could get Teatra to sweat. "We cleaned up some CCTV footage which showed a woman who looked like Helen driving a car just like hers outside Fenner's B&B. Turned out she was a tart, paid to drive the car 'round. I heard she was at Larkhall not too long ago, E-Wing. Now, wait, you were there before moving onto G-Wing weren't you?" T nodded. "Well, maybe you remember her: Candy Carrington?"

Teatra thought a moment. "Candy, sure. But she was blonde wan't she?"

"Wore a wig," he shrugged. "Actually E-Wing inmates and Helen aren't particularly getting on. Marcie Fischer's down the block, in't she? For attacking Helen with a sharpened toothbrush."

T nodded thoughtfully. "Yvonne's a good mate to have. Mighta saved Helen's life."

"Helen brings that out in people: loyalty, friendship. What goes around comes around, I reckon." Nikki looked at Teatra pointedly.

"She always treated the inmates well, that's for sure. And me as well which was fantastic, all things considered."

"She is a complete sociopath," Nikki thought to herself incredulously.

The two women remained at the pub, chatting almost amiably for another forty-five minutes or so, but when Teatra suggested another drink, Nikki stopped her. "T, you're my ride. You can't have another and drive home."

Sheepishly Teatra admitted, "I thought if I'd had too much, you'd invite me to yours. I'm sure you've a spare bedroom..." At Nikki's admonishing look T relented. "Sorry. Inhibitions a bit lowered, I expect. It's just seeing you... I miss you Nik." She did not even endeavour to hide the fact that she was still smarting over their truncated relationship. "I sometimes wonder: what if Sort Of hadn't been in the picture? Where might we be?"

"Helen," Nikki corrected sharply. "Her name is Helen. And she is very much in the picture, T. So, we'll never know." Nikki took care of their bill, hastily throwing a few notes to their waitress. All semblance of friendliness had left her as she considered the lengths to which Teatra might go to separate Helen from her. "I've still got things to do tonight, a meeting. Could you drive me straight home?"

Not caring much for Nikki's change of temper, Teatra agreed. In an effort to dispel the other woman's tetchiness, she opted to explain, "Nik, I was having you on, about spending the night. I'm working at midnight, twelve to twelve. Give us a break, yeah?"

"What? 'Course, yeah. Sorry, T, I was getting ahead of myself, already thinking about this meeting," Nikki lied gracefully.

"So, we're okay?" Teatra's need for Nikki's approval was palpable.

"Sure we are, yeah." They had arrived at Nikki and Helen's. "Thanks for tonight." Nikki climbed out of the car having determined that the bullet cartridge had not moved.

"Maybe we can do it again?" Teatra did not want Nikki to leave without knowing when she might see her again.

"Give me a call." Nikki quickly shut the door and made her way into the house. The stress of the evening had finally taken its toll and she fought to keep her emotions in check, tears threatening. Knowing that would do Helen no good, she staved them off through some deep breathing and sheer determination of will. She picked up the phone and dialled Mac's number.


Part Forty-Two

"It's Nikki," she began without preamble. "Did you have a look at Teatra's car?"

Neither surprised nor offended by Nikki's brusque tone, Mac informed the eager woman, "I've secured a search warrant, found the bullet casing on the floor just as you'd said and managed to get a photo of it."

"Brilliant!" Nikki enthused. "When are you going to search it?"

Mac explained, "What we don't want to do is give her time to destroy any evidence that might be in her flat; I'm hopin' that whatever we get from the casing will give us enough to get a warrant to search it. We may have to wait 'til she's at work."

"I've got good news then," Nikki said. "She works at midnight, drives her car in."

"That's great, saved me a bit of bother you knowin' that. Just get some rest, Hen. I'll let ye know what we've found out first thing tomorrow."

"Sure, Mac, soon as, yeah?" Nikki hung up the phone feeling more optimistic than she had since Helen's arrest.

At precisely twelve AM Mac advanced on Teatra's banger, a couple uniformed constables in tow. They had watched T enter the prison and moved in immediately afterwards. Ordinarily Teatra would have been present for the search, but, as Mac had explained to Nikki, these were exigent circumstances. He looked up as he registered another person's approach. He shook his head, exasperated. "What are ye doing here?"

"Get some rest, Mac? Honestly? You really thought I didn't need to be a part of this?" Nikki stared at the Superintendent of Police like he had three heads. "Now carry on. Pretend I'm not here."

"Nikki, this is a police matter. Ye cannae be a part of it."

"Look, last thing I want to do is cock this up. I'll stand back, not interfere. But I've gotta know what you find."

Relenting, Mac said, "You can stand just there. Don't speak. Don't come in any closer." Nikki smiled acknowledging her compliance with his terms.

The bullet casing was collected, a three-eighty ACP just as Mac had thought when he got a cursory look at it through the window: the same calibre used to kill Fenner. The constables examined every square inch of the car looking for trace evidence, collecting hair samples and looking for blood under UV light. At a quarter to one they hit the jackpot: a SIG Sauer P238 Rosewood wrapped in the Guardian beneath the driver's seat. The newspaper was dated the day of Fenner's death. "That's gotta be enough for a warrant to search her flat," Nikki called out, all but forgetting her promise to be quiet.

Shooting her a scathing look Mac nonetheless spoke loudly enough for her to hear, "We won't know anything until we get the ballistics report back. Tomkins, bag the pistol and get it to the forensics laboratory along with the other trace. Keep at it. I'm going to speak with Miss Wade." The two constables continued their work. "Nikki, come sit wi' me in my car."

Once they were seated inside she was unable to contain herself, blurting, "You've done it, Mac! Helen could be home tomorrow." The look on the Superintendent's face suggested a dissenting opinion. "What is it? What's the matter?"

Looking up at Nikki, a woman he had grown to respect and care for during the short while he had known her, he said simply, "There's a chance that this could backfire." She looked at him with misunderstanding. "Suppose we get the warrant for Teatra's flat but find nothing." He paused to see if she knew where he was going. It was obvious that she did not. "You knew about the car's broken window. Your fingerprints will be all over the car. The Crown will argue that Helen told you where to find the pistol, that you planted it to fit Teatra up."

Had they not been in Mac's car, Nikki would have stood up in protest. As it was she almost banged her head as she bolted upright. "That's rubbish! I never…"

"'Course not, lass, but I just need you to be prepared. This isnae as cut and dried as we might like. Let's don't tell Helen or her solicitor until we've more concrete evidence." He patted her hand in a fatherly gesture. "Now there's truly nothing more ye can do here tonight. Ye know as much as we do until the laboratory's done their bit. Go home, get some sleep and be fresh for tomorrow. I'll let ye know what we learn soon as, okay?" Nikki nodded aware that her sleepless nights were catching up with her and happy to head off, confident that it would not be long before Helen was sharing their home again.

Despite her good intentions Nikki awoke at half past five the following morning, her excitement over the possibility that her partner would soon be free precluding her from sleeping any longer. She got up, making herself a carafe of coffee before heading into the living room to pore over her copies of Claire's evidence sheets, looking for other places T might have been culpable. She had already convinced herself that Teatra had been the one who broke into the Chix office to get their new phone number and that Mac would discover Nikki's Catcher in the Rye when he executed the search warrant of T's flat. If, she had to remind herself, for there was no guarantee that the warrant would be issued. When a reasonable hour had struck on the clock, Nikki telephoned her brother with the most recent news. Knowing his sister would not be able to stay away, he promised her he would sit anxiously with her outside Teatra's flat while the search was being conducted.

Heading out to his office early that morning, Arthur Ranks encountered a petite, dark-haired woman flanked by two - what could only be described as – behemoths, mountains that walked like men who served to eclipse the rising sun. "Got a minute for us, Mr Ranks?" Not allowing him the opportunity to respond to the woman's question, the no-necked giant to Arthur's left reached out a hand the size of a ham and easily plucked the house keys from Arthur's. He unlocked the door Arthur had just exited, opening it to allow his employer entry into the house. She gestured to Arthur with her head for him to join her. He followed her inside, closing the door on the heavies. Not wishing to draw too much attention, they made their way back to their car, a solidly built silver Mercedes M Class.

"Thanks for seeing me, Mr Ranks." They had taken up their posts in the kitchen. "I'm Lauren Atkins. I believe you knew my father." Both parties understood the implied threat in that statement.

"Of course, Miss Atkins, but I can't fathom what business you think you and I might have." Despite his air of indifference, Arthur had begun to sweat.

"I do hope your wife and two sons are having a good holiday with her parents. Liverpool, isn't it?" Lauren's small talk was anything but.

"Don't you dare-"

Lauren interrupted, "I don't appreciate your tone, Arthur. Just enquiring about your lovely family, wan't I?"

Arthur looked like he was going to be sick. "What do you want?"

"You are going to ring up Claire Walker to discuss Helen Stewart's case. The two of you will present yourselves before Judge Barcelos. Claire will ask for Helen to be released on bail. You will not oppose it. In actual fact, you will support her petition."

"Or, in the alternative, I will bring Miss Stewart and yourself up on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice," Arthur spoke with a confidence her did not feel.

A ferocious look took over Lauren's face. "Helen don't know anything about this little chat. You're gonna keep it that way! And only a real tosser would think that threatening me's a clever thing to do." She shook her head at his stupidity. "But I reckon you know all about perverting. Your wife knows about your little dalliances, does she?" She tossed a manila envelope onto the countertop. Arthur paled as he opened the packet. "Very photogenic young man," Lauren admitted. "Could see how you'd want that. Leather and bondage not really my thing, but… Be a shame if these photos were made public."

"How am I meant to explain to my bosses that I've allowed her to be released?"

Lauren shrugged, saying matter-of-factly, "Easier than explaining these." Not wanting to leave her fingerprints in the prosecutor's house, Lauren collected the scattered photos, replacing them in the envelope. She started for the front door. "I'll know your decision soon enough." She waited for him to open the door for her, sashaying out to her car without so much as a backwards look, leaving Arthur to go back inside to change his underwear.

Thursday morning Helen sat pushing food around her blue plastic plate. If you could call the mess in front of her food, she thought: greasy sausage, powdered eggs, margarine-soaked white toast and weak, insipid tea. The only attempt at something marginally healthy was tinned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. Helen knew she would go mad if she did not soon escape Larkhall's clutches. It was not only the food, obviously, but the repetition and the boredom and kowtowing to the PO's… Perhaps if she were guilty of the charges against her, she would be more willing to accept her punishment, but as it stood she was growing more and more despondent. After washing up her breakfast dishes she headed up the green metal staircase to her second floor cell. That was where Karen found her an hour later. "Helen, good news: I've just heard from your solicitor; she's got you another bail appeal." The Wing Governor handed her a large plastic bag. "Let's be optimistic. Get your things packed up. You go in less than an hour. If all goes well, that'll be the last we see of you… in here, anyway. Would you like me to ring Nikki?"

"No. She'd be too disappointed if it were to fail. If we're successful, she'll know soon enough. But thanks." Karen nodded and smiled, stepping out, leaving Helen to her packing.

The lab was certainly taking its sweet time getting the results back on the gun found in Teatra's car, Nikki thought as she paced through the house anxiously. "Shouldn't've had that extra cup of coffee," she said aloud, though the shaking in her hands and stomach likely had little to do with excess caffeine intake. She almost jumped out of her skin when the phone did finally ring. "Mac!" she all but hollered into the receiver. "Tell me it's good news."

Having no desire to keep her in suspense, he told her, "Ballistics came back; it's definitely the pistol that killed Fenner. We've got a warrant to search Teatra's flat."

"Brilliant. Are you going straight away?" Nikki could scarcely contain her optimism. Today Helen would be exonerated.

"Ye cannae be a part of this, Nikki. How's it look for Helen if it's discovered I've been feeding you information?"

Not wishing to place Mac in a difficult situation, Nikki assured him, "It'll just look like I've popped by Teatra's – a friend I just had dinner with last night – and found you serving a warrant to search her flat. Curiosity kept me there. I won't interfere, won't even get out the car."

There was no way Mac could keep her away. He knew that and insisted, "No, you won't." No sooner had Nikki rung off with Mac than she picked up the receiver again and phoned her brother. Forty-five minutes later the Wade siblings were camped outside Teatra's flat waiting for Mac's team to arrive. This was it. Nikki could feel it…


Part Forty-Three

Shortly after eleven o'clock Teatra showed up in Helen's cell. "Ready to go, Helen?"

"You've no idea!" Helen smiled genuinely for the first time in what seemed like weeks, though it had only been six days since her arrest, a fact she could not quite believe. "Drew the short straw, did you?"

An indefinable look touched Teatra's face, but only for a split second before a smile replaced it. "I volunteered. My shift's done at noon, thought I'd get out of here a little early, perhaps see a happy ending." She looked down at Helen, "Nikki meeting you there?"

"Didn't want to get her hopes up," Helen admitted. "Now, lead me out o' here, would you? I've had about all I can take." Teatra escorted Helen downstairs and through the gauntlet of inmates who were waiting to say their goodbyes.

"Good gettin' ta know ya, Miss."

"Cheers for getting' Shaz brought back here, man."

"Could you send us in a cake with a file in it?"

The impression Helen had made on Larkhall's inmates was not surprising. Though she had only been one of them for six days, the respect and fairness she had always shown them when she was working for the Prison Service was not forgotten. Further, most of them knew about her newest program to improve Young Offenders' chances of not getting caught in the revolving door of Her Majesty's Prisons.

The last prisoner waiting to speak to her was Yvonne, the woman who had set the wheels of Helen's bail appeal in motion, a fact she would never divulge. "So, this is it. Get your arse through those gates and don't look back! This ain't a place for you."

"Still gotta win the court case," Helen reminded her.

Yvonne shook her head, "Ain't never gonna go to court, love."

"Thanks for everything, Yvonne." The older woman waved off Helen's gratitude. "And keep your nose clean, eh? Could be out of here yourself in a fortnight."

"That's enough!" Sylvia interrupted. "Stewart'll be back here for a good long stretch before you know it. Now, move along; this isn't the red carpet!" Helen hugged Yvonne goodbye and continued through the main gate leading out of G-Wing and into the prison's administrative wing. Her confiscated belongings were returned to her, the photo of Nikki and herself giving her the strength to face what was ahead and the conviction that she would be back in their home that very afternoon.

"I do hope that you are not going to prove yourself in the habit of wasting this court's time, Ms Walker, that you are coming to us with more compelling and well thought-out arguments," Judge Barcelos began coolly. "For the record you are petitioning this court to release your client, Helen Stewart, accused of the murder of James Fenner, on bail. Is that correct?"

Her mouth suddenly very dry as she recalled the judge's previous attitude towards her, Claire was nonetheless able to squeak out, "I am, My Lady."

Judge Barcelos addressed the Crown Prosecutor, "Mr Ranks, have you anything to say before we proceed?"

Arthur Ranks nodded, "I have, My Lady. New evidence which has come to light suggests that Ms Stewart is the victim of an elaborate and masterful conspiracy. The Crown Prosecution Service supports Ms Walker's petition."

"That is all very well, Mr Ranks, but as I am the judge presiding over this case, perhaps you could do me the courtesy of illuminating for me the nature of this evidence." Judge Barcelos had to appear to be behaving in typical fashion.

"Of course, My Lady. To begin with we had images which at first glance placed Ms Stewart in the vicinity of Mr Fenner's B&B in the days leading up to his death. It has been demonstrated to our satisfaction that the car did not belong to Ms Stewart; its matching number plate is obviously a forgery. Further, the woman behind the wheel, the same woman who had been seen with Mr Fenner at his local, has been proven to be a prostitute engaged for exactly those activities, activities which were intended to point us in Ms Stewart's direction. The prostitute was picked out of an identification parade by three people from Mr Fenner's local, two patrons and the barman." Arthur paused before explaining, "We do have other evidence, My Lady, which precludes us from agreeing to dismiss this case out of hand, but we will not oppose Ms Stewart's petition to be released on bail. We do ask, however, that at the very least she surrender her passport but would prefer that she be placed on an electronic tag."

"Ms Walker?"

"Ms Stewart accepts the condition of electronic tagging. We ask that bail be set at no more than one hundred thousand pounds."

Judge Barcelos could live with what she was doing, did not feel that her ethics were being compromised. "Bail is set at two hundred fifty thousand and the defendant will be monitored electronically, under curfew from half seven in the evening until half seven in the morning. We are adjourned."

Claire manoeuvred her way to Helen, pulling her friend into a hug. Though there was still much work to do, both women felt that they had accomplished step one. After her bail was posted – Rev Stewart had sent a blank cheque – there was a bit of paperwork to be done but before she knew it, Helen, fitted with her ankle monitor, was standing with Claire and Teatra, her escort, in the sunshine on the courthouse steps. "This is really fantastic, Helen," Teatra said for at least the third time.

"Thanks, Teatra. Appreciate your support."

Claire took a look at her watch. "Shit, Hel, I hate to run, but I've got a lunch. Sorry, but this appeal really sprung up out of nowhere…"

"Don't give it a thought, Claire."

"Have you got money for a cab?" the solicitor asked, concern clouding her features.

Interrupting, Teatra insisted, "I can get you home, Helen. Not a worry."

Thankful for the offer, an exhausted Helen did not have the strength to decline. "You're sure you don't mind? I imagine you're itching to get home yourself."

T waved her off, "It's on my way, really. Besides, Nikki'd have my guts if I let anything happen to you." Teatra's demeanour cracked again as she spoke, a dark shadow briefly crossing over her fair features. "C'mon, I'm in the car park just there." She indicated with her chin. They said their goodbyes to Claire who was feeling a huge surge of relief at having finally got her friend out of Larkhall. Arrangements were made for a meeting at Helen and Nikki's the following evening. Helen followed Teatra to her car.

As Helen was wading through the bureaucracy related to her being released from Larkhall, Nikki and her brother sat patiently outside Teatra's flat waiting for Mac to emerge with the metaphorical smoking gun. The literal one was in police storage in a plastic evidence bag. Nikki would have given anything for a cigarette. Martin occupied himself looking at his new mobile telephone, a prototype he had somehow got his hands on which allowed him access to his email account. "It's called a Blackberry," he explained to his sister. "It's going to be the next big thing in mobiles." The small phone was about to prove invaluable. "About time. I'd just about given up on this ever being found."

"Wha've you got?" Nikki enquired, straining to look at the mobile's small screen.

With a look that demanded patience Martin nonetheless informed her, "The photo of the wine glass with Helen's prints on it. It's coming through now."

"Wha'? On your phone?"

"Next big thing," he reiterated watching the digital photo download. "Looks like they've resent the photo of the bottle as well." He scrolled over them, showing them to a very interested Nikki. Everything fell into place for her when she saw the images.

"Marty," she began, distress suffusing her tone, "we've got a problem."


Part Forty-Four

The exhaustion born of time spent incarcerated at Larkhall diminished as Helen mounted the steps to the house she shared with Nikki. Though her partner's presence would have been more than welcome, Helen was nonetheless excited at the notion of surprising her. But first a long soak in a steaming lavender and vanilla scented tub, she thought, inserting her key in the lock, seeing the interior of her home for the first time in almost three weeks. Before she had even shut the door behind her, however, she was stricken by a blinding pain just below her left ear while the rest of her body felt like it was being pierced by a million fish hooks. She fell to the floor in the foetal position, unable to move or cry out. She sensed rather than saw someone approach her from behind. Hands lacking in any great strength lifted her awkwardly, scarcely managing to drag her into the living room where she was deposited unceremoniously onto a kitchen chair. An angry voice cried, "How in hell could they let you out of nick?" Helen saw the Taser, this time raised in anger, come closer. She screamed silently at her useless limbs to put up some sort of defense. To no avail. Hit by another blast until no charge remained in the weapon, every muscle in her body contracted until, mercifully, she blacked out.

Sitting outside Nikki's house, "Nikki and Helen's house," Teatra corrected herself, her heart broke a little bit more as she remembered that she had just delivered the petite Scot back into the arms of the winsome Nikki Wade. The Larkhall PO sat simply staring at the charming Victorian house, knowing that something was off but unable to pinpoint what it might be. She refused to depart with that thought niggling. After a full ten minutes' consideration she had it worked out at last: the curtains were drawn. Because of the half seven curfew under which Nikki had lived for the better part of three years, she always insisted on allowing as much natural light as possible enter her house through the day. Teatra could not believe that that had changed. An eerie sense propelled her from her car and towards the house.

A look of concern clouding his handsome features, Martin demanded of Nikki, "What do you mean 'a problem'? D'you recognise the glass?"

Taking his mobile from him Nikki insisted, "Give us another look, just to be sure." She looked over the phone, front and back, frustrated. "How the hell..." Taking his mobile back from his anxious sister, Martin thumbed right-side scroll wheel, facing the on-screen image towards her. Seeing the photo anew, Nikki's mind was transported back in time almost ten years. She and Trisha had just opened the club. After a very successful first weekend Nikki had wanted to create a small celebration of sorts for just the two of them. She planned an elaborate dinner and picked out a bottle of mid-range champagne, surprising Trish with both on the Monday evening; in the beginning Chix was only open Wednesday through Sunday. Unfortunately, previously having neither cause nor the disposable income for much in the way of celebration, the women had no champagne glasses, were forced to drink their tribute from tumblers. Nikki had gone out next day and bought them four inexpensive – and very likely toxic – crystal flutes. Looking at the image on Martin's mobile, Nikki knew that it was one of those flutes. She quickly explained the story to her brother.

He made the logical leap. "So, you think that it's your ex, Trisha, who's fit Helen up?"

She shook her head vigorously. "No, don't you see, I got the glasses in the 'divorce,' left them behind for..."

"Tony," Helen croaked when the power of speech had returned to her, "why are you doing this?"

The small parole officer looked down at Helen with disdain. "Do you honestly think you deserve someone as extraordinary as Nikki? I mean, just look at yourself, sitting there in your own piss." Helen realised that her bladder must have let go when she succumbed to the Taser blitz. "You're disgusting. And you've never appreciated 'er, not like I do: acceptin' Parr's proposal, runnin' scared all over Britain, takin' 'er for granted." He paused, a sheen of nervous perspiration moistening his upper lip. "When we're finally together she'll know what it's like to be treated like she deserves, put on a pedestal, yeah? Treated like a queen."

"You're mad! She's not the slightest bit interested-" Helen's protestations were met with a swift clip across the chin. Her head snapped back and she became aware of a coppery taste in her mouth.

Fury blazed in Tony's eyes. "You're wrong! I seen the way she looks at me, smiles just for me. We been together almost three and a half years." It became obvious to Helen that he was off his nut. She recognised that goading him further would serve no useful purpose. "Gave me 'er 'ouse, din't she? And once you're out the way, she's movin' back in. Kept it just the way she likes it." Helen heard a groan from off to her left. Turning her head she realised that Teatra was with them, bound by the arms to a kitchen chair with gaffer tape just as Helen herself was. Blood seeped from a gash at Teatra's temple and she seemed barely conscious.

"The phone calls? You were our phantom caller?" Helen asked.

Tony gave her a condescending smile. "Not wrong there. Nikki always knew it was me. I'd ring just so she'd know I's thinkin' 'bout 'er."

Avoiding any semblance of antagonism Helen asked in an even voice, "And you killed Fenner?"

"Just cottoning on to that, are you? Yeah, I done Fenner, and what you should be sayin' is 'thanks.' Right bastard he was and after what all he done to you?" Where Tony had got all his information was a mystery to Helen. What she did not know was that he had taken a very keen interest in all of Nikki's goings on since the day they met. "Is it any wonder the police believe you'd want to waste 'im?"

Incredulous, Helen asked, "So all this was just an elaborate scheme to get me out the way? Why kill Fenner? Why not just kill me and be done with it?"

Shaking his head almost pityingly, Tony questioned, "Dunno what all she sees in you… You're attractive enough but obviously none too bright: if I kill you, you become a victim; she'd never let you go, not like she will when you get done for murder. She'll blame herself for never having really known you at all and I'll be there. To pick up the pieces."

A groggy voice broke into the dialogue. "What 'bout me?" When Teatra had reached the top of Helen's front steps, she found the door to the house ajar and had ventured warily inside. Her intention had been to cautiously investigate each room on the main floor before tackling the upstairs. Her plan was rather abruptly thwarted, however, just inside the kitchen door when, a moment too late, she espied the butt-end of a gun descending in a fast-moving arc towards her head. "How do I figure into your genius plan?" T continued, her head throbbing, her thoughts more than a little fuzzy.

"Ah, thought you were going to sleep the afternoon away." Approaching the blonde PO, Tony went on to explain, "You, m'love, are what we call 'Plan B'. Gotta have a redundancy plan in place in case things go tits up."

"Which they obviously have." Teatra, it seemed, had no trouble antagonising the man. "You'll never get away with this."

With a cruel smile masking his features he asked, "Any idea where the police are right now, T?" At her lack of response he informed her, "They're at your flat, going through your things. While you were working last night they searched your car, found the gun that was used to kill Fenner. Should've got that window fixed... What? No sarky comments now?" He began to pace. "I need to think. I just got to set the scene here, stage a scenario that somehow ends with you two killing each other."


Part Forty-Five

"Tony Russo, the parole officer who monitored my electronic tag," Nikki explained to Martin. "It's been him all along. I just don't understand why."

"So, what? He fits Helen up for Fenner's murder then, once we're close to proving the fit up, puts the blame on Teatra? A crafty one, him." Martin could not suppress a grudging respect for Tony's intelligence. "Where're you going, Nik?" She had crossed to the police tape surrounding Teatra's flat, speaking to a constable stationed there. Two minutes later Mac emerged. Glancing around quickly his eyes alighted on Nikki. He found his way over to her. Martin watched them engage in a brief conversation, anger darkening Mac's visage, before Nikki ventured back to the car, her gait measured.

"He is not pleased," she stated the obvious. "Strange to say, it could be a good thing Helen's safely tucked away at Larkhall." Martin understood; a man as disturbed as this Tony Russo must be to have staged such an elaborate plot, to frame not just one but two other people for a crime he himself committed, would be a formidable foe. "I'd better ring Claire, let her know." Nikki picked up her mobile but was unable to reach the solicitor who was at a lunch engagement. She left a message outlining what they had learnt. "Mac's going to finish up here. He's not expecting to find anything but wants to be thorough. He wants you to email him the photo of the glass, hopes he can convince a judge to get him a warrant for Tony's house. He's lost a little credibility thanks to me..." She paused, thinking. "I've met Tony's mum a couple times. She might let me have a look 'round her house, see if Tony's left anything incriminating there."

"Probably best not to put it to her in those terms," Martin tried a little levity. "D'you want me to come with?"

"No, if you need to get back to work, I can take my car," she assured him.

"Let me know if you learn something, yeah?" Nikki promised she would. "And, Nancy, don't go doing anything stupid, right?"

"You know me..."

"Why I said it, yeah," he responded dryly. Nikki got out of his Lexus and clambered into her Shogun which was parked directly across the road. Firing up the motor she pulled her car out, pointing it in the direction of Clerkenwell, hoping she still remembered how to find Mrs Russo's flat, a flat Nikki had only visited once when dropping off some specifics about the Crouch End house to Tony. Helen had not been with her. Nikki found herself thinking about how insistent Mrs Russo had been in her attempts to have Nikki join them for tea, though Nikki had never ventured past the threshold. At the time Nikki chalked it up to the older woman's Italian heritage, but now, as she made the twenty minute commute from Kilburn, she wondered if there weren't more to it. Having found a parking spot close by, Nikki alighted from her car and climbed the steps to knock on a weathered oak door. A short, rotund woman dressed top to tail in black answered, a wary look in her eye.

"Afternoon, Mrs Russo," Nikki began. "Dunno if you remember me-"

A huge smile split the older woman's features. "Nikki!" She reached up to grip the tall woman in a tight hug. "It's so good to see you! And you, you call me Angela; we're almost family!" Nikki thought she had fallen through the looking glass. Family? Her clever nature won out, however, and she believed she had begun to make sense of what was happening. Mrs Russo asked, "Is Tony with you? I rang him. They told me he's taken the day off."

"No, no he's, erm, not with me. I was hoping he might be here. I've not seen him today." She did her best not to lie to the older woman.

Angela Russo had had Tony later in life. Once upon a time she might have been five feet tall, but she was stooped with age and the lines on her face were more than enough to lend it character. But her smile was genuine and she held all the guilelessness of a child. Nikki felt contrite for her willingness to take advantage of that. "Did he not tell you we were coming up to see you today, Angela?" She feigned an exasperated posture.

The women shared a smile. "Oh, that boy! Never tells his mama anything. You come on in, I'll make us some tea."

They entered into a small foyer. "A lovely house," Nikki gushed sweetly, if falsely. "This where Tony grew up, is it?"

"Born and raised. Myself I've lived here since 1960. Couldn't bring myself to leave when Tony's papa passed in eighty-eight. Can't believe you haven't visited us before now. Look, I'll put the kettle on and give you a quick tour." The main floor took less than seven minutes to cover. Including anecdotes. "My hips aren't what they used to be, can't get up and down the stairs, but if you want to go see Tony's room, it's in the basement."

"I would love that!" This time Nikki's tone could not have been more sincere; she desperately wanted to see Tony's domain. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her mobile rang. It was Claire returning her call. As she listened to the solicitor reluctantly divulge Helen's secret, that she was home, released on bail that very day, Nikki sought out a light switch with which to dispel the gloom of the subterranean room. What she discovered shed a lot of light on their current situation. And it almost stopped her heart.


Part Forty-Six

As part of her training and preparation for her position as Wing Governor, Helen had been given a rudimentary course in hostage negotiation. It had served her well on the roof of Larkhall two years previously when she had been called upon to talk Zandra Plackett out of jumping and killing herself and her newborn son. Though, Helen admitted to herself, she had not gone strictly by the book in that case, had relied on her instincts more than any official training, but that was different because she knew Zandra, had a connection with and the ability to reach the young inmate. She had not done the most brilliant job, she knew, and had it not been for PO Dominic McAllister, Helen would only have succeeded in saving the baby. Zandra had attempted to jump despite all of Helen's efforts. She realised that she would have to go by the book with Tony. The most important thing for her to do was to keep the parole officer talking. The reason for that was twofold: to keep him from working on his plan to stage the deaths of his two captives and to buy Helen and Teatra time to escape his clutches. She was further thankful for her training because it allowed her to remain calm and clear-headed in the face of her almost overwhelming fear. Giving into her panic would be the surest way to set Tony off and get Teatra and herself killed.

"Tony," she began, "the amount of work you've put into this... you must have been planning it for ages." Helen affected a fervent look of awe, hoping to draw him out.

"Thought I was home free when you split with 'er, didn't I? Then she goes and picks up with this slag," he gestured to Teatra with his chin.

Trying to rise up in her chair, almost mindless of their predicament, Teatra spat, "You bastard!"

He raised the pistol, the Lady version of the Sig Sauer he used to kill Fenner, which was still in his right hand. He did not point it at Teatra, but the look in his eye told her that he was not above clocking her with it again. She was cowed into silence. "Didn't much care for the bloke, but I told Fenner about your husband, the kiddie-diddler. He made like he knew already, but couldn't've been a coincidence you leavin' town right after." T looked like she was about to contradict him but a look from Helen silenced her. "Thought I was on me own, right? No way she could be interested in me..."

"She's a dyke, you bleedin' nutter!" Teatra shouted, trying to drive her point home, eliciting another non-verbal threat from Tony's pistol and another glare from Helen. The PO decided to let the other woman take the reins, for she herself had no idea how to deal with a delusional madman who had his sights set on killing them.

"But then when I was takin' off her ankle monitor, our eyes met and I knew: she wanted me." His eyes drifted to half mast as he savoured his warped memory of the event. He paused after a moment to adjust the front of his trousers. "And after she's acquitted, she stood on the Old Bailey steps and spoke to me, thanked me for what all I done for 'er, told me she loved me." He walked over to the television and played a video cassette which he had obviously queued up either before Helen had arrived or while she was unconscious. Up until that point she had been so focused on what Tony was doing – and on the gun in his hand – that, remarkably, she had failed to take in the sight of her living room. There were dozens of candles and several rather uninspired bouquets of flowers spread throughout. Finally understanding the tableau, Helen swallowed down the bile which had surged up into her throat; Tony had come to their house to wait for Nikki.

Her rich-timbred voice began to play out through the television's speakers:

"Anyway, I know I was one of the lucky ones able to garner this information from the outside, through my volunteer work at HMP Larkhall and through friends I've made within the justice system, some of the good ones who understand the need for prison reform. I'm not sure how I would have been able to make it through my sentence if it hadn't been for one of those people. You always believed in me. I owe you a debt, not just for my acquittal here today but also for my sanity. You gave me back my life. Thank you."

The same scene then played out again. And again. And again. Believing himself to be the person to whom Nikki had been reaching out, Tony had created a video loop which became the soundtrack for Helen and Teatra's afternoon in hell. The determined Scot would not be distracted from her mission, however, and brought their captor back into the present. "Tony," Helen knew the importance of using names in a situation such as theirs, to remind him that she was not a stranger, to make killing her more of a guilt-inducing prospect. "But that was November. What happened next?"

"You did!" he sputtered. "Nikki was gutted that afternoon when I couldn't go in to Trisha's for a drink – I had an appointment – but I swore I'd meet 'er at Chix later. Got there half past seven an' saw you goin' inside. Broke my heart right off, but then you were back out before I even knew... I was all set to go inside when she came rushin' out, lookin' so beautiful. Felt sorry for you, didn't she? But then you handed 'er summink, looked like a small box... Well, you know. Worked your Scottish witchcraft voodoo thing on 'er, din't ya? Must've done. I 'ad to figure out a way to save 'er. From you."

Helen was beginning to despair that she would never find a way to reach the lunatic in front of her. It was only her own overwhelming need to protect Nikki which compelled her to press forward. "That's when you cooked up your plan, was it, Tony? To get me away from her, locked up for Fenner's murder?"

He smiled thinking about his own ingenuity and was delighted to have a captive audience. He felt like having a good boast. "Had it all worked out, assembled my team..."

"Wait, Tony, what do you mean your 'team'?" Helen asked in an effort to drag the story out longer.

His self-satisfaction continued. "A bit of cunning, that. Candy – the tart who looks like you? – she was easy enough, just had to pay 'er. Never knew who I was, so couldn't come back on me. The others, well, put the fear of God into them, din't I?" Helen looked at him quizzically, enticing him to go on. "They was all my parolees, threatened to land 'em back in nick. I've the power to do that y'know," he added proudly.

Helen nodded. "Now let me think about who you needed on your team: the tart, a number plate forger, computer hacker, and, yeah, did you engage a hitman to kill Fenner or did you do that yourself?"

"All of the above, but wait. You've missed the most cunning bit: Candy'd been at Larkhall, on E-Wing when Teatra was a PO there, the forger was at HMP Lewes, just released and moved to the city, and my computer hacker was her husband's cellmate at Wandsworth." Tony looked at Teatra. "All roads lead back to you, love."

Appalled by what she was hearing, T nonetheless did her level best to maintain her composure and work with Helen. Deciding to play bad prisoner to the other woman's good prisoner, Teatra interjected, "Jesus Christ, Helen! The man's holding us at gunpoint and you're chatting him up like you're old mates? Fix him up a cup of tea next, will you, you mad cow?" The more information Tony gave up, she knew, the less likely the chances he would let them live.

Speaking to Tony through Teatra, Helen explained, "Look, T, I never knew that I was standing in the way of Tony and Nikki's relationship. It's obvious how much he loves her. Maybe he would be better for her than I am, the way we keep hurting each other." She turned to him. "I know you'll never hurt her like that."

"I'd never chuck her over. Not like you both did." Tears welled in his eyes for only a moment, almost immediately replaced by fury. "How could you? You of all people who know how her family turned their back on 'er." He composed himself. "And, to answer your question, I did have a hitman on my team, but you've forgotten a couple people. C'mon, Helen, you can work it out."

"You arranged the attacks on me: my cellmate on D-Wing and Marcie Fischer. You tried to have me killed!"

"I'm beginnin' to think, though, that it is true, what they say; you want a job done right, you really do have to do it yourself." He levelled the Sig at Helen's head, pulling back the slide mechanism to load a round into the chamber.


Part Forty-Seven

Nikki tore up the A1, mobile in her hand. Steering with her knees, cursing her fellow drivers for their dawdling pace, she dialled Mac's number. His voicemail picked up. "Mac, it's Nikki," she spoke quickly. "You won't find anything at Tony's. It's all at his mum's. I've seen it and I'm terrified; he's completely mad. Helen was released on bail today and Tony's not at work. I'm sure I'm overreacting, but I rang nine-nine-nine. They wouldn't do anything without a direct threat. I'm heading home now, should be there inside of ten minutes. Phone me back!" Nikki was frantic. What she had discovered in Tony's room went beyond disturbing. A shrine – to her! – took up eighty percent of the space. She saw the forged number plate, S534 NLR. On a small desk was a driving licence with Tony's photo in the name of Nicky Wade. Her copy of Catcher in the Rye sat beside it. The Nikki gnome was wearing a jumper that had somehow gone missing from her locker at the gym several months before. The lotion and crumpled tissues on the floor beside it did not bear contemplation. But most alarming were the hundreds of photos, mostly candid shots obviously taken from a distance, but a few she recognised from the night of her appeal, the ones that had gone missing from the photo packets. In all of the photos in which both women appeared, Helen's face had been violently scratched out with a red marker pen. Nikki was out of the Russo house like a shot, calling out her apologies to Tony's mother even as she slammed the front door. Shaking the disturbing images from her mind, she dialled her brother's number. She was still a mile and a half from home.

Filled with a disquiet which was rapidly morphing into dread Martin listened to Nikki's account. Promising her he was on his way, he flipped his mobile closed. He was a good five miles away from the Camden Town house and reckoned he might as well be on the moon. He had to think. Nine-nine-nine would not respond unless danger was imminent. Fine, he thought, opening his mobile while he grabbed his jacket. He fled through his office door, cradling the small phone to his ear.

"Emergency, which service?" the voice down the line enquired.

"Police and ambulance. I've heard a gunshot..." He gave the dispatcher Nikki and Helen's address. "My telephone battery's dying. I can't stay on the line. But please hurry!" Hanging up anew, he raced out to his car. He would gladly welcome a fine for mischief for intentionally making a false call to nine-nine-nine as long as it meant Helen was safe. He hoped that his unwillingness to give his name would not delay the responders.

"So here's the way I see it having played out, right?" Tony began to pace, weaving his tale. "Teatra gives Helen a lift home from the courthouse, either follows her inside or, daft cow that Helen is – and, to be fair, no one told you T was suspected – gets invited into the house. Teatra pulls a gun. There's a struggle. T somehow gets shot but not fatally. Helen clocks her over the head with the gun, thinks she's unconscious, goes to the phone to ring the police. T hauls herself up, wrests the gun from a complacent Helen and shoots her point blank in the head before collapsing in a heap on the floor and bleeding out herself." He looked up at his audience, either failing to discern or simply unmoved by the look of horror on their faces. "Scene!" he finished, bowing slightly.

All of Helen's efforts to talk her way out of their terrifying predicament had accomplished nothing. Tony was determined to let nothing derail his painstakingly thought out plan, a plan which had been six months in the making. He had invested far too much time and effort into it to see it unravel now, when he was so close to having it all, the life he had envisioned with Nikki. No way these two bitches...

"What about the tape?" Helen interrupted his thought processes.

"You wha'?"

Struggling against her restraints she explained, "There's bound to be some residue left from the tape. The police'll know we were both bound. And that I was hit with a Taser."

He could not bear to think he had missed something that obvious. His nerves beginning to fray, Tony made a move to strike her with his gun. "That's enough from you!"

"More to explain away, if you do that," Teatra cried out, effectively stopping his assault.

"Just shut up and let me think." A fresh round of pacing had begun. Helen had bought a little more time for Teatra and herself, but would it be enough? "All right, Teatra follows behind you. Just as you get the door open she hits you with the Taser. You fall just inside the door-"

"That's no good," Helen interrupted. "Teatra's right handed; no way she's going to Taser me on my left side from behind."

Head reeling, Tony nonetheless manages to make a revision. "She pushes you in from behind. You spin around and zap. She tapes you to a kitchen chair while she tries to work out her plan." The circles he had been pacing were getting tighter and tighter. "Just as she's about to shoot you in the 'ead, you start goin' off like you're doin' now. But the blood spatter'll show that you was shot in the chair, you tell 'er. She unties you. You struggle, clock 'er in the head with the pistol and then tape her to the chair."

"Both chairs have tape on them," Helen pointed out.

"Your chair got smashed in the struggle so you brought in another one." He looked at her, pleased with himself. "You start to ring the police but Teatra's got a blade stashed. Cuts 'erself out the tape, gets the gun, shoots you in the 'ead."

"Then how does she get shot?"

Helen had got on Tony's very last nerve and he hollered, "ENOUGH!" As he levelled the pistol at her head, the look in his eye told her that there would be no more reprieves.

People always say that as we face death our lives flash before our eyes. All Helen saw was Nikki. The day they met at the Potting Shed. Their first wine tasting. Their first kiss. The first time they made love. The last time they made love. Their hot air balloon ride over the Napa valley. It was as though Helen's life had only begun when she met Nikki. Though she could not bear the thought of never seeing her again, she was more terrified of abandoning her to the clutches of the madman in front of her. Just as he was pulling the trigger she fixed him with a steely gaze. "You've just made a victim out of me."


Part Forty-Eight

Somehow Teatra succeeded in propelling herself and the bulky kitchen chair into a position in between Helen and Tony's gun. She collapsed to the floor in a heap, blood beginning to pool beneath her. Tony was pleased to see that one of the chair's legs had snapped off, saving him the trouble of having to do it later. "Well, that's 'alf the job done, then." He looked at Teatra coldly, before raising the weapon back up.

Having arrived at the house, Nikki was alarmed to see the curtains drawn. Surely Helen would have relished the warmth of the summer sun's rays even after only six days inside. Someone else must have closed them. Nikki had also clocked Teatra's car sitting out front. "What in hell am I walking into," she thought, about to move to the back of the house where there were no curtains to impede her view. Her plans were stymied, however, when she heard the sharp metallic clap of a gunshot. "Helen!" The name came out almost as a sob. Nikki threw the front door open and followed the sound of a man's voice into the living room. She made no effort to dampen the sound of her entry. During her seemingly interminable drive from Clerkenwell, she had given a lot of thought as to how she should handle Tony. The spectacle which greeted her in her own living room made her stomach lurch. Teatra lay unmoving in an expanding pool of her own blood while Helen, bound to a kitchen chair, had a gun levelled at her head. Despite her heightened emotional state, Nikki vowed to adhere to her stratagem. Her opening gambit was met with great confusion. "Tony, there you are! I tried to ring you at work, even went over to your mum's..." She pretended to just be seeing the scene in front of her. "What's happening here?"

Quick on his feet Tony had a story ready. "I just popped by, heard Helen had been released on bail, wanted to offer up my congratulations. Door was open but no one answered my knock. Thought summink was off, so I come in, found Helen here with this woman about to kill her. I tried to get the pistol from 'er, and it accidentally went off." Tony thumbed the gun's safety on.

Helen stared open-mouthed as he spoke. Finally finding her voice, she tried to contradict him, "No, Nikki-"

"S'okay, Helen," Nikki interrupted raising a hand to quell her. "No, Tony, don't." She looked at him. "I think we all know what's really happened here." She crouched down over Teatra, her eyes, clouded with pain for what the other women had been forced to endure, seeking out her partner's; they held both promise and reassurance for what was to come. Placing her fingertips over Teatra's carotid artery, Nikki felt a weak, thready pulse. Her bleeding seemed to have slowed, but Nikki did not know if that was a good or a bad thing. "She needs medical attention, Tony."

"But she's already killed once, Jim Fenner. And she came 'ere to off Helen."

In a voice as calm as she could make it, Nikki argued, "No, Tony. She didn't. You did." Swallowing her own revulsion she gazed deeply into his eyes. "I saw your tribute," she whispered emotionally. "Wish you'd've told me sooner. Could've avoided all this."

Tony had lowered the gun, "You mean..."

Looking at Helen Nikki asked, "Didn't I tell you, if ever there were a man I was gonna go off with, it'd be Tony? Right?"

Grateful at not having to lie – it was never her strong suit – Helen agreed, addressing Tony, "The night we went over to yours." His head was spinning with what he was hearing.

"We could've been together all this time," Nikki told him. "But you've gone and killed Fenner. I'm not sorry he's dead; he was a first class bastard. You might not serve too much time for that. I could wait for you. But if Teatra dies and you kill Helen ... well that's mad stuff. They might never let you out; we might never have the chance. But you have to release Helen and let Teatra get some help."

It was even better than the fantasies that had kept him going all these months. He had expected Nikki to put up some resistance. To hear her tell him that she wanted to be with him as well went beyond anything he could have dreamt. He savoured Nikki's words. For a few seconds anyway. A stupid man would never have been able to come as far as he had with his plan to be with her. Never wanting him to be anyone's fool, his mother had instilled in him the old adage, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

He trained his gun on Nikki, only three feet from her head. "No, sorry, Nik. Not the way it's gonna work, m'love."

It was with great relief that Martin greeted the sight of Nikki and Helen's empty street: no police, no ambulance. It had to mean that they had been wrong, he decided, that Jim Fenner's murderer had not gone after the women after all. He pulled up outside the house, idly noticing that the curtains were drawn. What Martin did not understand was the extent of the police presence at the Old Bailey that afternoon; closing arguments in the case against Jeffrey Archer, accused of perjury and perverting the course of justice, were being heard. What the public's reaction would be remained uncertain and precautions – which obviously precluded a timely response to the report of shots fired in Camden Town – had been taken. Martin climbed the front steps.

Having exhausted all reasonable attempts to communicate with Tony, Nikki was almost relieved to be given the opportunity to act. There was no way that she could allow him to tie her up, leaving both Helen and herself at his mercy. She would die before she let anything else happen to Helen. Still kneeling over Teatra she said angrily, "Don't much care for having a gun shoved in my face." She grabbed the broken chair leg and swung it with as much force as she could muster at Tony's head, connecting with his temple. He dropped down to one knee but his pistol hand was steady as he raised the weapon again. Nikki's next blow shattered his right wrist and the gun got away from him, spinning towards her. She lifted it, turning the tables so it was he who was staring down its barrel. He cowered, lowering his eyes and cradling his right arm. "You bastard!" she screamed. "Everything you've done! And now you come into our home, try to kill Helen?" Nikki could not control her fury. "You're a piece of shit, Tony. Give Fenner my regards!" She thumbed off the gun's safety.

"Nikki, no!" Helen cried. Wrenched from her single-minded pursuit by Helen's voice, the tall woman relented, snapping into the reality of what she had been prepared to do. "He's not worth it." Knowing her partner was correct, Nikki lowered the gun a hair and had Tony lie on his stomach. She did take some measure of enjoyment out of lashing his hands together with his own belt, pulling back mercilessly on his broken wrist. When he was adequately restrained she finally went to Helen and released her wrists. While Nikki watched over Tony, Helen, having a fair amount of first aid training, went to Teatra. She did what she could to stanch the bleeding, the wound from a bullet that had been meant for her.

That was the scene Martin discovered as he entered Nikki and Helen's living room seconds later. "Jesus!" he exclaimed pulling his mobile from his pocket, hoping that this time nine-nine-nine would expedite police and ambulance. He made sure to give them his full name and cooperated fully, staying on the line while awaiting the police and paramedics. Nikki had collected Helen's prison-issue handcuffs from their home office and shackled Tony to the radiator, disappointed that it was not mid-February. As best they could they tended to Teatra whose breathing had grown shallow and waited for the medical attention she so desperately needed, praying it would reach her in time.


Part Forty-Nine

Less than thirty minutes later Helen sat anxiously in the hospital waiting room. The paramedics made good time to their house and, though Teatra had lost a lot of blood and gone into shock, managed to get her stabilised and into the ambulance in short order. Helen looked up when she sensed Nikki's approach. "Did you reach her parents?" she asked.

The tall woman nodded, blinking and hoping that her partner was too distracted to notice the tell-tale red rings around her eyes which announced that she had been crying. Nikki had taken Teatra's mobile and exited the hospital to make that very difficult phone call to Morden. Wanting to be strong in front of Helen, she had slipped into the toilet on her way back and wept uncontrollably. Her tears were shed partially in sympathy for what Helen and Teatra had been forced to endure that afternoon, partially out of concern for the PO's uncertain prognosis, but mostly the racking sobs were born of the knowledge of how easily Helen could have been taken from her, of her sheer relief that Helen was still alive. Her relief was tempered with guilt, however, as she forced herself to remember that T's life was hanging in the balance. It was that thought that pulled her to her feet and compelled her to push on. She had splashed some cold water on her face and exited the toilet, making her way back through the labyrinthine hospital corridors to Helen.

"Her brother Jamie's going to drive them up. Her older brother Ron's in the city. Should be here directly." She took Helen's smaller hand in hers and held it in a firm grip, as though never willing to let it go again.

Staring at nothing the agonised Scot told Nikki, for the third or fourth time, "She saved my life. He was going to shoot me in the head."

Tears threatening anew, Nikki swallowed them back. Taking care of Helen was her first priority. She soothed, "I know, Darling. She's strong. This hospital has the best critical care unit in Britain. She's going to be fine."

"The paramedics seemed optimistic," Helen agreed.

"'Course. Didn't think the bullet had hit a major artery." The women sat quietly for some time, each lost in her own thoughts. "Wish they'd tell us something. Anything!" Nikki was growing restless. Twenty minutes later a house officer who, to Helen's eyes, appeared to be about sixteen years old approached them.

"Are you the women who brought in Teatra Kennedy?" she asked.

Nikki and Helen stood. "We are. How is she?"

"Are you family?"

A tall man with sandy blond hair looking rather harried in spite of his expensive bespoke suit approached quickly. "I'm her brother," he announced, out of breath, clearly having almost sprinted from the bank of elevators.

"Very good," the house officer addressed the newcomer. "Mr Kennedy, your sister's going to be fine. She lost a fair amount of blood, but her major organs were spared, though we did have to remove her spleen. We were able to stop the bleeding and remove the bullet. She's in recovery, probably won't wake for at least another hour. We'll let you know when you can see her."

"Thank you," he breathed, his voice cracking. He bent at the waist, placing his hands on his knees, getting as close to a foetal position as he could while still standing. He sobbed his relief openly. Nikki placed a soothing hand on his shoulder. Having regained his composure, he stood upright, wiping his eyes and taking in the women in front of him.

"Ron, isn't it?" Nikki asked. "I'm Nikki Wade and this is Helen Stewart." The three shook hands. "Go, ring your parents. Give them the news then we'll fill you in, yeah?" He agreed and headed back towards the elevators. Crisis resolved, Nikki could finally give in to her own emotions. She pulled Helen in tightly and allowed the tears to come, both of their bodies almost convulsing as she bawled.

"Shhh, s'all right, Swee'heart," Helen cooed. "I'm here."



Teatra's recovery was not as immediate as the doctors might have hoped. Though the bullet had missed all her vital organs, it turned out that it had lodged quite close to her spinal cord. While the surgery to remove it had been successful, it had resulted in some unsurprising inflammation. It was touch and go as to whether her paraesthesia would resolve but, fortunately, full function was restored and she was able to go home having spent an entire week in hospital. Nikki and Helen had visited every day, bringing food, playing cards and that week's publication of Hello!. Both women had reason to feel guilty for the state Teatra was in, Helen because T had thrown herself in front of Tony's gun and Nikki for ever believing that Teatra could have been responsible for what turned out to be Tony's opprobrious actions.

Hosted by Chix, the commemoration of Helen's release – all charges against her had been dropped following the incident with Tony and the discovery of his Nikki shrine and souvenirs – was therefore postponed until after Teatra had fully recovered. Two weeks after their ordeal Nikki accompanied the guest of honour through the club's doors to face an eager crowd.

Though clearly not a surprise party – Nikki speculated that her partner would hardly relish the prospect of people jumping out at her in the dark – the guests had been asked to arrive well before Helen whom Nikki was expected to be escorting in at six o'clock. First to greet them as they arrived was Helen's father who had been standing closest to the front door talking to Margaret and Mac. Rev Stewart had respected Helen's wishes and stayed away over the course of her brief – and the use of that word was arguable, she thought – incarceration, but had driven down immediately following the half past ten service on the Sunday after her nightmare with Tony. He left the evening sermon in the very capable hands of the church's reader. In fact, understanding the circumstances surrounding the reverend's rapid departure, the reader insisted that he take as long a leave of absence as necessary, promising to deliver the sermons as earnestly as the reverend himself would have. It had been almost a fortnight and Helen's father was finally set to leave the following day. As controlling as the daughter he raised, he had been emailing sermons to the reader and phoning him almost daily but, assured that Helen was safe, was eager to get back to his post and his congregation. If there were anything positive to be taken from Helen's ordeal, it was the dramatic improvement in her relationship with her father. While Nikki would be inclined to point out the taxing nature of having one's father-in-law visit for a two-week stretch, she was quietly delighted that his acceptance of her relationship with Helen seemed to have been expedited by how close he had come to having his daughter taken from him; his concerns over her sexual orientation disappeared in the wake of that near-tragedy. Though grateful for his change of heart, both women were fervently eager for him to get out of their house to allow them to get on with their own carnal celebration of Helen's release. Though not impossible, intimacy was made difficult and certainly constrained by the knowledge that Helen's father was in the next room.

As part of his transformation, Rev Stewart had taken to greeting them both with ardent hugs. Releasing Nikki he looked them both over appraisingly. "Ye look as though ye've finally caught up on yer rest," he stated, eliciting a small laugh, more of a groan, truth be told, from Nikki who was counting the hours until his departure.

"I'll be gettin' him out yer hair first thing tomorrow," Margaret, who had taken the train down the previous day, promised. "Let yer life get back to normal."

"Can't tell you how much your being here means to me, Margaret," Helen told her genuinely.

Tears welled up in the older woman's eyes, "Can't tell you..." Emotion choked off her effort to repeat Helen's words back to her as she thought about how close they had all come to losing her. The celebration, which had been intended as a tribute to Helen's exculpation in the Fenner murder, had become so much more and emotions were running extremely high. Brushing away a few errant tears the old housekeeper insisted, "Now go off; there's more people 'n us wantin' tae slap ye on the back. Get."

More hugs to Rev Stewart and Margaret, and with repeated thanks to Mac for all he had done to uncover Fenner's true killer, and Helen acquiesced, "Fine, but I'll see you inside for dinner." She motioned towards the alcove where the catered meal was going to be set out. "Seven thirty." She took Nikki's hand and moved away from the small group.

As the women moved away from Helen's family, the small Scot noticed a pair of women approaching. "What in hell is she doing here?" she implored. "I mean, I don't hold anything against her personally, I know she was doing what she thought was best, but what about you, Sweetheart? Are you all right seeing them?" She turned to her partner.

Nikki squeezed Helen's hand, assuring her, "At the moment I am as happy as I've ever been in my life. And I likely wouldn't be where I am, we wouldn't, if it weren't for her, so, yeah, I'm fine." Wrapping her arm around the smaller woman she added, "But if you want me to ask them to leave..."

"My hero," Helen teased. "No, they're welcome. It's just a bit of a shock, I suppose." They approached the others. "Judge Barcelos, good of you to come," Helen offered graciously.

"Please, call me Inês. And I'm not here to intrude on your night. I was dropping Kendra off and thought it would be rude to not pay my respects." The woman responsible for Helen's incarceration paused. "I am very sorry. For the part I played in putting you in Larkhall," she stammered.

Letting the other woman off the hook, Helen joked - as much as she was able, "It seems I'd've been safer if you'd kept me in." She turned to the judge's companion. "Sorry, I don't think we've met."

Nikki did the honours. "Helen, this is Miriam Byrd. Miriam, Helen." The women shook hands. "Thanks for stopping by, ladies, but..."

"No, Nikki," Helen interrupted, "they're more than welcome." She turned to Inês. "Please, enjoy the evening. Now, where're the girls?"

With a bob of her head Inês gestured, "Already in the dining area, waiting for their tea." She continued begrudgingly, "Thank you for flying her home. I know I've not been overly supportive of their friendship, but maybe I'm coming around."

"I hope so," Nikki responded with less of the animosity than Helen would have expected. "We'll see you later, yeah?" she added dismissively before leading Helen away from the duo.

Next on their tour were the Atkinses, Lauren and Yvonne who, with the help of Helen's testimony at her parole hearing – as promised – had been released from Larkhall. The guest of honour greeted her with a hug. "Yvonne, great to see you on the outside!"

"After all what you done for me, nowhere else I'd be," the ex-con assured her. "Glad you're not dead and all."

"You and me both," Helen's partner interjected, holding her hand out. "Nikki Wade and you must be Yvonne Atkins." The women shook hands. "Lauren, good to see you. Thanks again for everything you did. Even though the real murderer tried to kill her, the CPS would probably still have Helen in custody." The women offered up a caustic laugh at the truth of that.

Lauren said, "Yeah, Helen, nice to finally meet you." Understanding the symbiotic relationship between her mother and the emancipated Scot, she proposed, "If ever you need anything..."

"I think you've done plenty, thank you." Helen turned to Yvonne. "Got a drink, then, have you? Larkhall's pretty dry, though not quite as dry as I had previously believed." The two former inmates shared a knowing smile. "Means a lot you've come."

"'Course I didn't know you was invitin' me to a dyke bar; I was kinda after a shag," the older woman admitted. "Couldn't introduce me to anyone, could you? Or let us know where the straight blokes are hiding, right?"

"On your own there, I'm afraid. Not really our priority. But have a good night," Helen urged. "We should move on, leave you to your mission." She smiled at her guests.

Helen and Nikki worked the room, meeting up with all of Helen's supporters: Claire, Martin and his family, Karen, who had brought a Larkhall contingent, though Bodybag had begged off citing other commitments, Teatra and her brother, Ron. Thea and a group from the Potting Shed rounded out the group. Even Kate, whom Tony had dated a few times, using her to garner information, had shown up despite her embarrassment over the part she had played in his desperate plan. At half past seven everyone headed into the alcove where dinner had been laid out. It was a smaller room off the main dance hall where, on any given night, Chix patrons looking for a little respite from the din of the crowd could sit, might almost be able to make a half-hearted attempt at a meaningful conversation. Before everyone settled in with their meals, Helen stood to speak. "I know you all thought you'd be here tonight in celebration of my exoneration in the matter of Jim Fenner's murder. Who knew that things could get madder than that?" She waited for an appreciative laugh. "Tonight is a celebration of my good fortune, and it is as I look around this room that I realise just how fortunate I am to have had all of you on my side. Thank you doesn't seem strong enough for all that you did for me, all your hard work, the effort you put into unraveling the schemes of a madman bent on destroying me, but thank you all. Finally I must acknowledge the person among you without whom I would not even be standing here today. For those of you who've not met her, this is the face of the woman who jumped in front of a bullet meant for me. T, stand up." The PO did so, looking uncomfortable at having been called out. "Everyone, this is Teatra Kennedy, the woman who saved my life." Great applause and cheers rang out. With a wave of her hand, T sat down, modestly eschewing all of it. Helen went on, "So tonight is not about me; I celebrate all of you and toast my great good fortune in having you in my life. So enjoy the food, get another drink, 'cause tonight's all about you!" She raised her glass to the group, managing to make eye contact with each person.

Helen and Nikki ate quickly. Not having succeeded in greeting everyone over cocktails, Helen wanted to be sure to speak to all of her well-wishers before Chix doors were thrown open to the public. On top of the dinner for friends and family, Trisha was using the funds raised within the community to offer subsidised drinks to her patrons all night, one pound off everything, at both locations. It took another good hour for Helen and Nikki just to make their way over to Trisha and Alex who were milling about, organising the cleanup of the catering.

"Thank you again for hosting this tonight," Helen said giving them each a hug in turn. "Any chance we could use the office," Helen asked. "Only, I'm having some trouble with the crowd," she explained.

"'Course, Helen, whatever you need. Door's locked. Nik, you've got your key?" Trisha asked.

With a nod Nikki affirmed, "I do. We shouldn't be too long." Once they were safely ensconced in the office she asked her partner, "You all right, Darling? A bit overwhelmed"

Shutting off the overhead light Nikki had illuminated, Helen felt her way, remembering the layout of the room. She turned on the stand up lamp before making her way back to Nikki. "Just needed a little time alone with you," she admitted vulnerably. She very deliberately locked the office door. "And a little privacy."

"You can't be serious. Now? With all these people here?" Nikki was incredulous. "Not that I'm complaining..." She welcomed an intense kiss, opening her mouth to accept Helen's probing tongue. Turning the tables on her partner, Nikki pushed the smaller woman up against the wall, giving her hands free reign. She swatted the other woman's small hands away, "No. Contrary to what you said, tonight is all about you." She paused a minute before asking, "Just swear one thing to me?" Helen shrugged non-committally. "That next year we'll keep things boring, that we won't do a single thing that warrants a huge celebratory party at the club?" Helen simply allowed herself to be directed backwards towards the inviting couch.

Divesting her partner of her obtrusive clothing, Helen could only offer, "No promises, Sweetheart," before drawing her in for a protracted kiss.

The End

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