DISCLAIMER: I am a thief. Yes indeed, a character thief. What, we're surprised? They belong to Shed Productions. Ssh.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Playing With Fire
Karen gasped and grabbed two fistfuls of her lover's hair as Yvonne slipped two fingers gently inside her. Her head snapped back sharply, hitting the carpeted floor with a soft thud. A hiss of air escaped her clenched teeth.
Yvonne breathed deeply through her nose as she licked a trail along Karen's collarbone to her neck. Nibbling softly, she began to thrust her fingers harder. She felt the vibrations of Karen's answering groan against her lips as she kissed and licked her lover's throat.
"I love you," she whispered into Karen's ear, causing the other woman to shiver.
"Love you too," Karen managed to exhale, raising her hips to meet her lover's thrusting fingers. Their lips met in a fiery, passionate kiss - a kiss both of promise and of fulfilment.
When they parted, Yvonne licked her way down to Karen's nipples, savouring the salty taste of her lover's sweat along with something subtle, something unique. Something she couldn't get enough of.
Karen's moans were almost constant now as she succumbed to the dual assault of Yvonne's fingers and tongue. She opened her eyes and looked down, only to find Yvonne looking back at her with such profound adoration it took her breath away. Blue locked with green as Karen's hips and Yvonne's fingers found their rhythm.
"You are so beautiful," Yvonne whispered, moving up so their faces were level with each other.
"Yvonne..." Karen breathed in answer.
"So good," Yvonne continued. "So fucking good and beautiful." She kissed her lover's parted lips briefly, then moved her lips to her ear. "Come for me, darling."
A cry was torn from Karen's throat as every muscle in her body suddenly went taut. She kept her eyes open as the first wave rolled over her, Yvonne's loving face filling her field of vision. Then she threw her head back, yelling her pure, unadulterated joy into the empty room, squeezing her eyes shut so tightly that multicoloured stars danced behind her eyelids, exploding like her own personal fireworks display.
When she came back to Earth several minutes later Yvonne was wrapped around her like a blanket, whispering soothing nonsense into her ear. Karen brought her arms up around Yvonne's shoulders, pulling the other woman down so close she could feel the steady thud of her heartbeat against her chest. Her office suddenly felt very cold and she was glad of the warm weight of Yvonne's body on top of her.
It was about half an hour before evening lock up, the night before the much hyped Open Day. Karen had sent her secretary home for the night, collected Yvonne from the wing, then locked the doors and turned out the lights. To anyone who might happen to pass Karen would appear to have gone home. Not that she expected anyone to pass - most of the officers were too busy worrying about this Open Day business to bother her. The library was hive of activity these days.
Two weeks had passed since the two of them had admitted they loved each other - two weeks of nothing but longing looks and occasional stolen kisses. It was enough to drive anyone barmy. Yvonne still had a little more than a month of her sentence to go and Karen had finally admitted she just couldn't wait that long. The insanity surrounding the Open Day had provided the perfect opportunity for them to disappear for a few hours. Which was exactly what they'd done.
"Christ," Karen whispered against Yvonne's throat. "I hope no-one heard that."
Yvonne chuckled. "We'll be lucky if the whole of bloody London didn't hear it," she said. "I had no idea you were a screamer."
Karen grinned and suddenly poked Yvonne's ribs. Yvonne squirmed, laughing helplessly. "And I had no idea you were ticklish," she said. "It looks like we've still got lots to learn about each other."
"Mmm..." Yvonne agreed, kissing her gently. "Everything," she whispered. "I want to know everything."
Karen pulled her close, trailing her fingertips down the raised curve of her spine. She sighed. "I wish I could hold you all night." Yvonne nuzzled her throat, kissing gently.
"Me too, love," she breathed over Karen's earlobe. "Me too."
Unfortunately, they had more like ten minutes before Yvonne had to reluctantly prise herself from Karen's arms. They'd shared one last lingering kiss to see them both through the night before Karen had unlocked the gate, allowing Yvonne to sneak back onto the wing. Then she'd turned and sneaked out herself, hoping not to meet any of her colleagues. She was in luck - only dozy Ken at the gate stood between her and freedom. Once she was past him she slipped easily into the London traffic.
She turned on the radio, selecting a random station and turning the volume up full. She smiled when she recognised the song they were playing and even began to sing along, tunelessly. She was basically tone deaf but she was happy and just had to let it out somehow. Even the inevitable traffic jams couldn't dampen her spirits this evening. In fact, her good mood lasted all the way home - right up to the moment she pressed the play button on her answering machine and heard the voice on the tape.
The pleasant tingling she'd been enjoying since the last time Yvonne had touched her evaporated instantly, replaced by a cold, sickening numbness.
Hi, it's me. Pick up if you're there. For christ's sake Karen, why won't you just talk to me? I thought we had something good together, didn't you? Look, if you don't wanna know that's OK. At least have the decency to tell me to my face. Look, I just want to see you, Karen. Tonight. Call me - you know my number.
Karen bit her lip. Suddenly she felt absolutely awful about Ritchie. She'd basically used him and then dumped him without so much as a by-your-leave. Okay, so he was a bit of a creep but if there was one thing Karen hated it was users. She couldn't believe she'd become one herself.
It took a bit of hunting to locate the piece of paper on which she'd jotted down his number but once she did she immediately dialled and arranged to meet up, before she could change her mind.
When Karen arrived at the pub, still in her work clothes, Ritchie was already there. She spotted him immediately (the sunbed tan, whiter than white teeth and excessive gold jewellery were a dead giveaway) and went to join him. He stood up to greet her and Karen only just managed to divert the kiss intended for her lips to her cheek. Ritchie was nonplussed. "All right Karen?" he said hesitantly as they sat down.
"Hello, Ritchie," Karen replied, sitting as far away from him as she could while at the same table. A moment or two passed in awkward silence.
"I, eh, got you a drink," Ritchie offered eventually, sounding nervous. "Vodka tonic, right?" Karen nodded, not making any move towards the glass.
"I'm sorry I didn't answer your calls," she said, getting down to business. "I didn't realise you'd taken our night together so seriously." She sounded like a real bitch but she didn't know how else to do this. Cruel to be kind and all that.
Ritchie leaned forward in his seat. "I didn't at first," he said earnestly. "But I think we're pretty good together, don't you?" He tried to lay his hands on hers but she pulled them back. His face hardened imperceptibly. "Don't you?"
"No, Ritchie, I don't," she replied firmly.
"But-" Ritchie spluttered. "That's bollocks, Karen. You still fancy me - I can tell."
Karen nearly laughed. She wondered how he'd react if she told him the only thing she found attractive about him right now was a passing resemblance to his mother. Yvonne was another major reason she was here. If she managed to keep out of trouble Yvonne would be released in just over a month. And if Karen had her way they'd be seeing quite a lot of each other once Yvonne was a free woman. The last thing either of them needed was Ritchie still nosing around.
"I'm sorry, Ritchie," she said. "But I'd really rather not see you anymore. The truth is, I've met someone else." Well, she reasoned, it was almost true. She'd met Yvonne years before Ritchie of course but it was only recently she'd begun to see her in this wondrous new light.
"But-" Ritchie began before his face crumpled, tears appearing in the corner of his eyes.
"Christ!" Karen exclaimed. "Are you OK?" Ritchie nodded quickly, covering his eyes with his hand. Karen had no frame of reference for dealing with this situation. No-one had ever cried when she'd dumped them before. Recriminations and anger she could deal with but tears were a whole different animal. "I'll eh," she began, casting desperately around for a way to leave the table. Her eyes lit on his empty pint glass. "I'll get you another drink," she said with relief, grabbing his glass and practically running towards the bar.
She was away just long enough for Ritchie to wipe away his crocodile tears and slip a small gun into her handbag. With his mission accomplished he relaxed and it was a much more composed Ritchie Atkins who greeted Karen when she returned with his pint. He even managed one of his trademark whiter than white smiles.
The 15th dawned bright and clear, with no warning of what was to come evident in the pale sunshine. Yvonne woke up well before unlock thanks to that sunshine. It was times like these she really missed her curtains up on G3. She'd been having the most wonderful dream involving her, Karen and a family sized can of whipped cream. She made a mental note to add that to her 'things to do when I get out' list.
She looked at her watch. 6 am. Jesus. She wondered what Karen was doing. Sleeping probably, like I should be. Stupid spastic windows.
About ten miles away Karen jumped abruptly awake as her neighbour's car alarm went off for the sixth time that night.
"Aaargh!" she yelled, covering her ears. "Keith! No-one wants to steal your FUCKING FORD FIESTA!" Once that was out of her system, she pulled a pillow over her face and silently fumed.
This was all she needed. On top of the...overtime...she'd put in with Yvonne last night she'd been out pretty late with Ritchie. It was weird - he'd seemed so cut up about her rejection one minute and the next he was back to his old self. She supposed he must have been covering. It wasn't exactly macho for a grown man to be sitting crying his eyes out in a pub, after all. And then Keith's car alarm had started going off once every five bloody minutes. Now, if Karen's alarm had done that she'd have turned it off and she figured her sporty little number was a bit more attractive to potential car thieves than his beat up old Fiesta. But there you go - that was the difference between men and women. Or maybe not. Maybe Keith was just an arsehole. Karen sighed. It was going to take all her skill with a make-up brush to cover the bags under her eyes this morning.
She reached out and grabbed the calendar she kept beside her bed. She flipped automatically to June and traced the box set aside for the 17th with her fingertips. It was circled in red and had 'D-Day' written inside it. She looked at it for another minute or so before flipping back to May. On the entry for the 15th she had written: 'All hell breaks loose'.
"Oh shit," she groaned as the realisation hit her like a cold glass of water. "It's the bloody Open Day."
The calm of the early morning had given way to utter chaos by about 10 am as displays were organised and and guests were greeted. Yvonne had been chosen as one of the 'lucky' few who got to hand out nibbles to the visiting businessmen and dignitaries. Which meant she got a great view of the Three Julies and their rap Imprisonment.
As soon as Julie S started rapping 'Imprisonment is punishment' Yvonne knew Eminem's job was safe. She chewed her cheeks furiously as she desperately tried not to laugh. The look on the No 1's face was the crowning touch. He looked like he'd just swallowed a wasp. When the Julies had finished Yvonne was the first to give them their applause.
She wished she could join in the fun. Normally she'd like nothing better than to show up these bastard screws for what they were. A bit of bad publicity was the absolute worst thing you could do to them. That was all most of them cared about anyway - Bodybag had proved as much with the way she'd treated Maxi. Yeah, you can treat a human being like a piece of yesterday's trash and it's A-Okay - as long as the Inspectors don't see. Oh, what she wouldn't give to tell that little story, preferably in front of a couple of nuns, some toffy businessmen and a few journalists.
And then there was Jim 'my middle name is Bastard' Fenner. The taker of bribes; the runner of brothels; the abuser of women. A man of many and varied talents. Yvonne's one regret was that, with only a month to go till her release, she probably wouldn't get a chance to bring that bastard down.
Di Barker - a lunatic of the first degree. The Julies had told her all about her trying to bollocks things up for Crystal and Josh. Yeah, she was usually OK but once you were in her sights - watch out.
Then there was Mr Grayling, a man who spent his entire life running away from rumours. He'd even gone as far as marrying Di to take the attention away from his sexuality. Bent as a corkscrew of course. If it ever got out what maladjusted individuals Her Majesty's Prison Officers were there'd be an outcry. Yvonne wished she could take the lid off this place and show all these wonderful dignitaries the rotten interior.
Then again, she admitted, there were good screws. Her screw, for instance. Yvonne knew that bad publicity on G-Wing basically meant bad news for Karen. She knew how these things worked. Some stupid idea comes down from above - an Open Day for instance - something that anyone who actually does the job could tell you was never going to work in the first place. Nevertheless, the middle managers have to somehow get it running smoothly. Then when it all, inevitably, goes wrong no-one blames the arseholes at the top who thought of the stupid idea. No, those poor middle managers were in charge of implementing it and 'the buck stops with them'.
All that basically meant that Yvonne wasn't going to be causing any trouble. Even if it was practically criminal to pass up this opportunity.
The things we do for love.
Snowball grinned evilly as she put the finishing touches to the piece of forgery she hoped would fix Yvonne for good - or at least long enough for her and Ritchie to disappear. Yvonne deserved it - taking Charlie's side over her Ritchie's like that. She felt bad about the other poor bastards in the library though. Still, it wasn't her fault the powers that be moved their Open Day to her diversion spot, was it? Anyway, she couldn't worry about all that now - she still had a plan to implement.
"Mr Fenner!" she called, jumping the last stair to G1. "Look at this," she said, holding out the card. "Off Atkins' wall."
Fenner took the card and shrugged. "So?"
Snowball rolled her eyes. "If I'm right today's the day - look!"
Fenner looked down at the card and squinted. "'Don't place your Bets till rod's in K's bag'," he read aloud, frowning.
"Bets, K - Karen Betts," Snowball spelled out when he showed no signs of getting the point. "Rod, int that another name for a gun?" Fenner still looked confused. Snowball rolled her eyes again. Jesus, this wasn't exactly rocket science was it? Why did she have to pick the thickest screw in the place? "It means," she said, "there's a gun hidden in Karen Betts' bag to help Atkins escape, dun't it?"
Snowball rejoiced as Mr Fenner finally joined the dots. "Where's Atkins now?"
"She'll be in the library, won't she?" Snowball said. "But you can't go till she makes a move."
Fenner was already leaving. "You just get wherever you should be, okay?"
Snowball smiled as she watched him hurry off. Well halle-bloody-lujah Mr Fenner. You need your hand held, but you get there in the end.
"Jim," Karen said coldly. "You are a cheating, lying, conniving scumbag. But this is by far the most pathetic low you've ever stooped to." She folded her arms across her chest, glad the desk was separating her from Fenner.
"Karen," Fenner said, exasperated. "Will you just listen to me, please!"
Karen shook her head in disgust, grabbing her bag. "I'm busy, Jim," she said. "I've got an Open Day to deal with, if you hadn't noticed."
"Not with that you haven't," he said, grabbing her arms, trying to wrestle the bag away.
"Jim!" she yelled, trying to get out of his clutches. "Let go!" He kept trying to get the bag from her. After just moments more she gave up and let him have it, just to get his hands off her. Her skin was crawling and she felt nauseous. "Don't you ever touch me again, you bastard," she spat. "You don't get to do that anymore."
Fenner shook his head. "I'm only trying to protect you, Karen."
Karen snorted. "What from, another of your pathetic lies?" Fenner's face hardened.
"Oh yeah? Well let's see then." With that he ripped open the bag and spilled its contents over the desk. The contemptuous look was still on Karen's face.
And then she saw it.
Karen felt the blood drain from her face as her whole body went numb. She closed her eyes and opened them again but the gun was still there. It was just sitting there on the desk; just sitting there as if it hadn't just ruined her life.
Oh please, she thought desperately. Please God, don't let this be happening.
She looked at the gun, then at the card, then back at the gun, trying to think of some other explanation. But there was none. Just the cold realisation that Ritchie and Yvonne had been playing her for a fool and she had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. She slumped back into her chair, feeling her heart shatter into a million tiny, sharp-edged pieces.
Yvonne! her mind was screaming. How could you do this to me? After everything I've been through, everything I've trusted you with? How could you look me in the eye and lie to me after all that?
She looked around the room, eyes glittering with unshed tears, and suddenly was transported back to the previous night when she and Yvonne had made love in this very room. She relived every touch, every whisper, every breath, a hard knot forming in the pit of her stomach.
It was all a lie, she realised slowly. She's just been using me all along. She doesn't love me. She's probably been laughing her head off for weeks. Her and her bastard son.
Karen blinked and shook her head minutely. Jim was talking but his voice seemed to be coming from very far away. She concentrated.
"...looks like you've been had, love," he was saying, grinning maliciously. "No pun intended."
Fucked and fucked up, Karen thought, feeling a hysterical laugh begin to rise in her throat. She swallowed hard, trying to get herself under some kind of control.
"Where is Atkins now?" she asked slowly.
"In the library but we can't- Karen! Karen, where the hell are you going?" He started to go after her but it was too late. She was already off and running.
Yvonne leaned back and grinned as she watched Cassie and Roisin steal the show in the library. Mr Grayling looked like he'd swallowed a whole bleedin' hive every time they handed out one of their leaflets.
"You're certainly making your point," Yvonne said as they finished speaking to a guest and made their way back to the stall.
"You think?" Roisin said.
"Yeah," Yvonne replied warmly, slipping her arm round Roisin's shoulders. "In fact - I think you two should get this to a wider audience."
Cassie frowned. "How d'you mean?"
Yvonne shrugged. "You're the internet whizz kid, not me."
Roisin and Cassie's eyes met and they smiled as Yvonne's meaning became clear. Yvonne grinned; a grin which became wider when she spotted Karen come through the door and start speaking to Grayling. Cassie saw her staring and followed her line of sight.
"You've really fallen for that one, haven't you?" she said as Grayling started ushering the guests out into the gardens.
"Hook, line and sinker, mate," Yvonne replied, continuing to stare at her girlfriend. Her girlfriend. Hers. She could still barely believe it. This beautiful, intelligent woman had actually chosen her. Yvonne didn't know how she'd got so lucky. She was just thankful.
Once Grayling and the guests were safely away Karen made straight for Yvonne. "Well, good morning Miss Betts," Yvonne said as she approached. Karen was stony faced.
"Connor, Tyler," she barked. "Make yourselves scarce." Roisin and Cassie obeyed hesitantly, seeing Yvonne's confused frown.
"Karen?" Yvonne said as soon as the others were gone. "What-"
Karen silenced her with a wave of her hand. "Quiet," she hissed. "I don't want to hear a thing you have to say."
Yvonne shook her head in disbelief. "Karen, what the hell's the matter with you?"
"Oh, like you don't know," Karen scoffed.
Karen's face hardened. "I'm talking about you and your shit of a son. We know all about your little plan."
Yvonne threw back her head and took a deep breath in an attempt to reign in a sudden flash of temper. She exhaled carefully. "Karen," she said. "You may as well be speaking bloody Swahili. I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Then let me remind you," Karen replied acidly. "You and your son both get involved with the same prison officer - me. He plants a gun in my handbag knowing that you can get close enough to me to retrieve it. You use it to escape leaving me to face the music. Ring any bells now?" Yvonne shook her head, utterly speechless. "The one thing I don't understand," Karen continued. "Was why you had to pretend to be in love with me? Did Ritchie come up with that? Or was that little twist of the knife your idea?" She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, tears filling her eyes. "You might be many things Yvonne," she said softly. "But I never thought you were cruel. I never imagined you were capable of something like this."
Yvonne was barely holding back tears herself now. "Karen," she whispered. "Darling. Please think about this. It doesn't make any sense, sweetheart."
"Don't call me that," Karen demanded roughly. "And it makes perfect bloody sense. It just means two more people in my life have used me. What else is new?"
"No, Karen. Not me. Please..." Yvonne pleaded, shaking her head.
Karen looked up at her, eyes glinting dangerously. "Shut it! Mr Grayling and Mr Fenner are waiting to interview you in a nice little cell on the punishment block. Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Your choice."
Yvonne searched Karen's face desperately, trying to think of something she could say to convince Karen that this was a load of bollocks. Nothing sprang to mind. Even if it had Yvonne doubted Karen would listen. She was too upset right now. Nothing Yvonne said was going to reach her.
"All right," Yvonne said softly. "This whole thing stinks something awful. But I won't fight you, darling. Because whether you believe it or not I do love you. And I'll do whatever it takes to convince you of that."
The two of them stared at each other, eyes locked for a few endless seconds.
"Follow me then," Karen said eventually, turning her back on her. They moved in silence to the door, reaching it at the stroke of 11 am.
And all hell, as Karen herself had predicted, broke loose.
A harsh ringing finally pierced the fog of unconsciousness, forcing Yvonne to open her eyes. Everything felt muffled, like someone had put a layer of tissue paper inside her skull. Where am I? she thought groggily. Her eyes focused, revealing the library. It was in total disarray. Tables, papers and people were strewn all over the place. Yvonne tried to move and felt her stomach lurch. Her head was pounding, like someone was beating it with a sledgehammer. And the piercing sound of the alarm wasn't helping with her headache.
From somewhere far away she heard Julie S wake up and call out to Julie J. Yvonne shook her head. A horrible buzzing kept interrupting her hearing, like she had a swarm of bees flying around inside her ears.
Snatches of events started coming back to her, fragmented and out of sequence. Flashes passed before her eyes - Lauren speaking to her sometime this morning; Karen coming down to the library; the Julies rapping; Cassie and Roisin smiling at each other; Karen crying...
"Karen!" Yvonne screamed as everything came flooding back to her at once. "Karen!"
"She's here," came a voice. It was Roisin. Yvonne began to gingerly crawl towards her, concentrating on the flash of blonde hair she could see behind an overturned table. Everything else was a blur and she felt sick if she closed her eyes.
"Karen," Yvonne whispered, reaching out a trembling hand to the top of her lover's head. It came away wet with blood.
"Oh, Christ," she heard Roisin say, dimly. "Cassie! Fetch me that cloth, quick!"
Yvonne stared blankly at her bloody hand. She started to shake uncontrollably, then vaguely felt someone's hands land on her shoulders. Cassie's voice came from far away.
"Yvonne? Snap out of it, please!" Her voice sounded, tight, desperate. "Karen needs you to be focused." Yvonne blinked once.
"I don't know how you're bothering about her," Al said contemptuously. Roisin and Cassie turned to lay into her but Yvonne got there first. It was as if Al's voice had been an alarm clock going off inside her head, waking her up.
"Shut your mouth, you murdering bitch," Yvonne spat. "She's worth a hundred of you." Al glared daggers at her but kept quiet. Roisin eyed Yvonne warily.
"Are you all right?" she said. Yvonne shook her head.
"No," she replied. "But I'll be a lot worse if anything happens to her." Roisin nodded.
"You're bleeding." She gestured to a wound just over Yvonne's temple.
"Never mind about me."
Roisin nodded again and turned her attention to Karen. She seemed to have taken the force of the blast. The head wound looked worse than it was but Roisin was worried about the dark patch spreading over her back. "We've got to get her out of here," she said, almost to herself. "Cassie! You see that trolley over there, will you get it?"
Yvonne dragged herself to her feet and joined Julie S and Buki who were going for help. They were barely out of the door when they recoiled from the heat. All the books that had been stacked in the narrow corridor were in the process of burning themselves into an inferno.
"Oh, shit!" someone shouted.
Yvonne couldn't have said it better herself.
Neil was pacing. Behind him a group of POs were attempting to fight the blaze with a couple of puny fire extinguishers. The prison had fire hoses of course. However, the genius who installed them clearly hadn't considered the possibility of there being a fire in the library because the nearest one wouldn't reach.
"Here's a list of all those trapped," said Fenner, approaching from the wing. "Karen and Atkins are both in there."
Neil shook his head and frowned, continuing to pace. "I don't understand it, Jim."
"I know," Fenner replied. "What the hell was Karen thinking, rushing down there like that?"
Neil stopped pacing and looked at him. "I'm talking about Atkins, Jim." Fenner frowned. "Why would she set a bomb in a place she was going to be? And why would she do something this desperate when she's only a month away from release? It doesn't make any sense."
Fenner shook his head. "You don't know Atkins like I do, sir," he said. "Trust me. I wouldn't put anything past her."
Neil shook his head and started to pace again, looking decidedly unconvinced.
"What do you think?" Roisin said. "Any chance?" Cassie shook her head and shrugged pitifully.
"I don't know."
"Well, I'd sooner try than watch her die." Roisin held up a sheet. "What if we wet her down, then push her through?" Cassie shrugged again, helplessly.
"What's to lose?"
Yvonne came back from the door where she'd been attempting to keep one eye on the attempt to rescue Shaz and Denny and the other on Karen. "I keep seeing books and stuff falling out there. What if something falls on her?"
Roisin looked from Yvonne to Cassie and back again, taking in Cassie's injured arm which she was holding protectively against her side. "All right," she said. "Yvonne. Can you hold yourself up?" Yvonne nodded. "Okay. You can lie over her while we're pushing her through. You mustn't put any weight on her though - you'll have to hold yourself up all the way through. Okay?"
Yvonne nodded. "Anything," she said. "I'll do anything."
Roisin understood. "Okay," she said. "Let's move her outside then we can start wetting you both down."
When their makeshift trolley was in position Yvonne hopped on top of it, making sure not to lean on Karen. She concentrated on her lover's face as the blankets covered them. "I love you darling," she whispered. "Christ, I hope you can hear me." She leaned down and kissed her gently. Dimly she heard Roisin counting (1, 2 ,3!) and Julie S's incredulous voice (you're going through?!) "Here we go," Yvonne said through gritted teeth as she felt the trolley begin to move.
The heat was sudden and intense, almost unbearably intense. Her arms almost gave way immediately and it was only the sheer force of her will which kept her up. She could hear Cassie and Roisin's screams even over the roaring of the flames. Her skin began to bubble with blisters, even though she had the protection of the damp sheets. There was no air. She started to cough uncontrollably, only just managing to avoid keeling over on top of Karen. The smell of burning human flesh filled her nostrils and her stomach lurched horribly. She felt like she was going to be sick the minute she stopped choking. And then, suddenly, they were out. The trolley stopped moving and she could hear what sounded like a million screws all talking at once.
"Help," Yvonne croaked, slumping off the trolley onto the floor. "The governor...help her..." She heard someone scream, saw Cassie and Roisin writhing in pain. Suddenly a screw grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, turning her so her back was facing another screw.
It wasn't until she felt the discharge from the extinguisher hit her that she realised she'd been on fire. The pain came seconds after the realisation and she began to scream.
Her screams attracted Fenner. This was unsurprising. It was like a law of nature - wherever you find people in pain you'll also find Jim Fenner and more often than not you'll find him smiling. He was smiling now as he watched some nurses remove Yvonne's ruined shirt and frantically try to cool down her burnt flesh.
"You've done it now Atkins," he taunted. "You're going to be here for a very long time." He sounded positively delighted by he prospect.
Yvonne was in too much pain to control her response. "I didn't do this you stupid prick!" She screwed her eyes shut, clenched her fists and curled her toes in an effort to keep from screaming. Cassie and Roisin were each being treated nearby. She could hear them both whimpering softly.
Fenner was unphased. "That's not what it looks like to me, love," he said, still grinning. "And Miss Betts agreed with me."
A new wave of pain flashed over Yvonne and she grimaced. "Ritchie planted a gun on her," she said. "But I swear to God I didn't know!"
Fenner shook his head. He still had that same jubilant grin on his face. "That's funny," he said. "Because we've got a card he wrote to you saying otherwise. Give it up, Atkins."
The card and the gun. Yvonne turned them both over in her mind, pain dulling her normally sharp wits. The card and the gun...
The nurse who was treating her broke into her thoughts. "I need you to move a little. We have to cover your burns in this special plastic. It's important to minimize the wound's contact with air to reduce the risk of infection." Yvonne did as she was told, feeling that the last thing she needed right now was a detailed medical explanation. Her mind returned to the gun. And the card...
"Someone's fitting me up," Yvonne thought out loud. Fenner scoffed but Yvonne ignored him. It would have to be someone on G-Wing...someone who knew Ritchie. But he'd been abroad for years, how could any of the girls possibly know him? Then it hit her. Who had come onto G-Wing literally days after Ritchie had first visited her? Whose Personal Officer had got her a job in the library? Who spent hours in the chaplain's office on a private line to her boyfriend? And, most importantly, who had been conspicuously absent all bloody day?
"Merriman," she spat as if the word itself was poisonous.
Fenner laughed. "Oh, that is priceless!"
"She and Ritchie are fitting me up, I'm telling you! She's why he got in touch after all these years. So he could sting me for fifty grand for the getaway plan. And fit me up for this..." She trailed off as a nurse tried to give her an oxygen mask. She twisted her head to avoid it.
Fenner leaned down so their eyes were level. He looked positively gleeful. "You sound desperate love."
Yvonne shook her head. She should have known better than to try to convince Fenner.. She spotted Cassie and Roisin not far away, sitting up on chairs now. They looked...well, bloody awful but Yvonne supposed she looked just as bad herself. Then she saw Grayling heading over to them.
"Sir!" she shouted, jumping to her feet, much to the consternation of the nurse who was trying to treat her. "Mr Grayling!"
Neil turned to face her, his eyes widening as he caught sight of this half-naked woman barrelling towards him. "Mrs Atkins, I-" he began but Yvonne cut him off.
"Snowball Merriman's trying to escape," she said, getting right down to business. "Have the guests left yet?"
"The guests? Well, eh, no - that's to say they should be heading to the gate but what's all this about Merriman?"
Yvonne rolled her eyes, exasperated. Was everyone in this place terminally thick? "She'll be trying to sneak out with the guests while everyone's busy up her," she explained. "Merriman works in the library. She's had plenty of opportunity to set this up - opportunities I didn't have." Grayling still looked undecided. Yvonne lowered her voice and took another step towards him. "Come on sir," she said. "Why would I be hanging around in the library if I'd set a bomb there? Why would I even be trying to escape anyway when I'm getting out in a month? This stinks sir, and you know it."
Grayling hesitated for another fraction of a second then nodded, realising she'd just voiced all of his own doubts. "Jim," he said. "Come with me to the front gates." Fenner's face was a picture as he followed his boss.
Yvonne almost forgot the pain as relief spread over her. The nurse who'd been trying to treat her approached again. "Have you got a minute now?" she said. "Because I'd quite like to help you."
"Help away," Yvonne replied distractedly. "Help away." She slumped down to the floor as her legs suddenly gave way. She started coughing uncontrollably and the nurse finally managed to make her accept an oxygen mask.
"Stay here," she said. "I'll go and scare up a trolley to take you to the hospital wing."
I'm not exactly going anywhere, Yvonne thought with bad grace. Roisin and Cassie were just behind her now, their burns also covered in plastic. Yvonne removed her mask momentarily.
"Did you see Karen before they took her away?" she asked, replacing the mask when she was overtaken by another round of coughing.
Cassie and Roisin shook their heads in unison. "They got her out really quickly. I'm sure she'll be all right, now she's getting treatment," Roisin said. Yvonne nodded, not bothering to remove the mask this time.
"Okay love," the nurse said as she returned with a trolley. Yvonne shrugged off her offers of help, managing to lift herself onto the trolley with some effort. She lay down on her stomach, trying to avoid flexing the muscles in her back. The nurse caught her grimace of pain and leaned down so their faces were level. "I know it hurts," she said softly. "But believe it or not, you're very lucky."
Yvonne scoffed. "Yeah, dead lucky - Yvonne Atkins, the human barbecue!"
The nurse shrugged. "Put it this way," she said. "I'd rather be you out here than one of those poor sods still trapped in there."
Yvonne sobered immediately, thinking of the Julies, Barbara, Denny, Shaz, Buki, even Al. The nurse was right. She was bloody lucky. "'Ere, love," Yvonne said, more gently now. "What's your name?"
The nurse smiled. "Amelia."
"Amelia," Yvonne repeated. "The governor we brought out. Do you know how she is?"
Amelia's smile widened. "She needs a blood transfusion and treatment for her burns. But she'll be fine. Thanks to you three." Yvonne sighed in relief, leaning her forehead against the trolley. She thought of Karen, safely on her way to recover in hospital, and of Lauren who'd decided to spend the day in her cell rather than schmoozing with businessmen. Then she took a moment to thank Jesus, Allah, Buddha and whoever the hell else was up there that they were both alive and safe. "You know," Amelia was saying. "I'm sure I heard a couple of POs saying you all deserved pardons for what you did."
Yvonne didn't reply. The relief that Karen was okay, the emotional and physical exhaustion of the past hour and the pain of her injuries had finally overcome her. She had passed out.
Yvonne became aware of her surroundings some time she properly woke up. Halfway between dream and reality she felt a touch on the back of her hand and heard a soft humming voice. She wanted to move but her muscles weren't co-operating. She couldn't even open her eyes. Panic would have overtaken her if it weren't for the calming voice and familiar touch. So she relaxed and concentrated on the voice. The next time she tried to open her eyes she managed it.
Yvonne blinked furiously. The room wasn't very bright but her eyes had to work hard to adjust. When she focused again her daughter's concerned face filled her vision.
"Lauren," she croaked, then coughed to clear her throat. Lauren let go of her mother's hand long enough to fetch her a cup of water.
"Drink it slowly now," she said, knowing Yvonne's instinct would probably be to gulp it straight down. Yvonne did her best to follow this advice.
"Where am I?" she said when the cup was empty. Lauren went to refill it.
"Hospital Wing," she replied.
"Christ!" Yvonne exclaimed. "What do you have to do to get moved to an outside hospital in this place?" She smiled wanly.
Lauren returned the smile briefly but it was gone just as quickly. Yvonne's own smile evaporated as she remembered there was something she had to ask.
"What happened to the others?" she asked, even though she was afraid of the answer. Lauren was deathly pale as she answered.
"They all got out," she said softly. "All but one." Yvonne squeezed her eyes shut.
"Who?" she said, her voice tight. Lauren hesitated briefly.
Yvonne allowed the words to wash over her. Shaz. Shaz was dead. Stinging hot tears formed behind her eyelids. Shaz was just a kid. This was wrong. This was so fucking wrong, wrong, wrong!
"Did they get her?" Yvonne asked, eyes still screwed shut, fists clenched. "Ritchie's little tart, I mean."
"Yeah." Lauren nodded nervously, recognising the murderous look on her mother's face. "She's down the block. I heard she'd met with a few 'accidents' down there, if you know what I mean."
Yvonne smiled grimly. She knew what she meant all right. Merriman didn't know how lucky she was to be segregated. If she'd been in the same room as Yvonne at that moment Yvonne thought she might well have killed her with her bare hands.
"Ah! You're awake!"
Yvonne opened her eyes to find the No 1 standing in the doorframe, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"It would certainly appear that way," she replied, each word dripping with sarcasm.
"Excellent," Grayling said, apparently oblivious to her tone. He turned to Lauren. "Well Ms. Atkins, I think it's time you went back to the wind, don't you? I'd rather like to speak to your mother in private." Lauren began to object.
"It's all right, love," Yvonne said, cutting her off. "I'm sure Mr. Grayling will let you come back to see me tomorrow. Won't you sir?" Grayling smiled, obsequiously.
"Of course," he said. Lauren hesitated but eventually complied, kissing her mother on the cheek before she was escorted back to the wing. "Now," said Grayling, sitting on Lauren's vacated chair. "How are you, Mrs Atkins?"
Yvonne shrugged, or at least tried to. Halfway through the motion her back decided to remind her that it had recently been quite badly burnt and sent a wave of pain coursing through her body. "I s'pose I can't complain," she said through gritted teeth.
Grayling smiled. "I'm glad to hear it," he said. "And I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that Miss Betts is well on her way to a full recovery." Yvonne closed her eyes, trying not to make her relief too obvious.
"That's nice," she said. "I hear Shaz Wylie wasn't so lucky."
Grayling lost his smile. He shifted in his seat, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "Yes, well..." He coughed. "A most unfortunate occurrence." Yvonne snorted. "However, I'm sure you'll take some small comfort in knowing that you helped to apprehend the one responsible."
"I hope you sent that slag straight back to the electric chair," Yvonne spat venomously. Grayling smiled.
"Quite," he said. There was a pause. "However, I didn't come here to discuss Ms. Merriman. I came here to talk about you. Now, in the three days you've been here-"
"Three days!" Yvonne exclaimed, interrupting him.
"Yes, three day," Grayling confirmed. "In that time there's been a great deal of talk going on about you and your friends, Mrs. Connor and Ms. Tyler. The long and the short of it is the tabloids have got a hold of the story and, well, the word pardon is being used. A lot."
Yvonne raised an eyebrow. She understood what he was saying. "Ah," she said. "So, the papers have turned the three of us into brave, self-sacrificing heroines, have they? And they're painting you as some kind of heartless monster for keeping us all locked up. And it's all terrible PR." Grayling looked uncomfortable so Yvonne knew she was right on the money. "Well, don't worry," she continued. "I'm sure Cassie and Roisin wouldn't say no to a pardon but I'm not that bothered. I'm getting out in a month anyway."
Grayling was smiling again. "I thought you might say that," he began. "And you're quite right. I could get you a pardon of course, if I leant on the right people, but the process would take weeks, if not months. Your friends Mrs. Connor and Ms. Tyler are prepared to wait that long. However, since you are so close to release, I have something different to offer you."
Yvonne turned her head sharply towards him. "I'm listening."
Grayling leaned forward slightly. "You don't have the best prison record, Mrs. Atkins," he began. "There are three particular points - a couple of escape attempts and the small matter of Mrs. Hollamby's broken nose.
Yvonne snorted. "Somehow I don't think Bod- Mrs. Hollamby sees it as a small matter."
Grayling let slip a small smile. "Well, quite," he said. "In any case, those incidents have earned you a number of additional days in punishment. And that's a punishment I have the authority to rescind. Immediately."
Yvonne didn't speak for a long moment as that sank in. Does that mean," she said slowly, "what I think it means?" Grayling nodded brightly. Yvonne's eyes narrowed. "And the catch?"
"Mrs. Atkins! What do you take me for?" Yvonne, wisely, chose not to answer. "Well," Grayling then said. "I suppose, if any newspapers were interested in your story you might remember this little favour."
Yvonne thought for a fraction of a second. "Done," she said.
Grayling's face split in a grin. "Excellent," he said, shaking her hand. "Congratulations, Mrs. Atkins. As of tomorrow morning, you're a free woman." He got up to leave while Yvonne was digesting this but stopped in the doorway. "Oh," he said, producing an envelope from his inside pocket. "Mrs. Grayling went to see Miss. Betts last night. She asked that this, and her personal thanks, be passed along to you, Mrs. Connor and Ms. Tyler." He handed her a sealed white envelope, labelled Yvonne. With a final obsequious grin, he left.
Yvonne was glad he was gone because she seemed to have lost the power of speech. Free. Free. She looked at the word from all angles, feeling an unmistakable surge of giddiness well up inside her. In the morning she was going to walk out of those gates a free woman. A laugh bubbled up in her throat. Free!
Gradually she became aware of the envelope still clutched in her right hand. She tore it open greedily and began to read.
I don't know any other way to start this letter than to say I'm sorry. So, so, so sorry. I was stupid and mistrustful and stupid a few more times. When I woke up in hospital and they told me what really happened I felt like such an idiot. They told me that you and Cassie and Roisin were hurt getting me out but they won't say how badly. I'm so worried about you, darling. I hope I can still call you that. I know I haven't exactly been showing it recently but I do love you, Yvonne. When I thought you'd just been using me all along it was like my brain just went numb. I couldn't think straight, I just reacted blindly. I'm not trying to make excuses for the things I said but I hope you can understand. I was angry and hurt - desperately hurt. It felt like my worst nightmare was coming true.
I wish I could speak to you - I know I'd make more sense face to face than I do in this monologue. I'll be waiting for you on the 17th. I won't be able to see you until then. I have to stay in St Luke's till the end of the week and then, I'm afraid, my bosses at Area have stuck me on enforced leave to help me 'come to terms with my ordeal.' I won't be back in Larkhall for a month, at least.
I'm going to send this letter in with Di. It'll be too risky to write like this again so I'll have to wait and hope that when I see you next month you'll have found it in your heart to forgive me.
All my love,
Yvonne read the letter through three times in a row. The handwriting looked rushed, like she'd just been letting her thoughts stream out onto the paper. Yvonne's eye was drawn in particular to the part where Karen had promised to be waiting for her on her release, the 17th. That meant...that meant that Karen didn't know she was getting out early. Yvonne's face lit up in a smile. She knew where she'd be going first as a free woman.
Karen rearranged her pillows for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. The staff had moved her into a private room the previous day, no doubt due to complaints from the rest of her ward. There had been mutterings, mostly concerning Karen's restlessness in the night which was, apparently, keeping some of her closer neighbours awake. Well, Karen thought, it wasn't her fault she'd taken the brunt of a bomb blast so she couldn't really be blamed for being unable to find a comfortable position in which to sleep. And it also wasn't her fault that no-one would tell her how Yvonne was. Not only was she in pain, she was worried into the bargain. 'Recovering' was the best answer she'd been able to wheedle out of the nurses when she asked about Yvonne. 'Recovering from what?' was the question she was dying to ask but she had managed to bite her tongue. Despite her worry, she still knew the meaning of the word 'discretion'. It wouldn't do to be seen to be too worried about Yvonne. But still, if she didn't know how badly Yvonne had been injured, how was she supposed to know what 'recovering' really meant?
Karen closed her eyes and tried to relax. That was easier said than done. She wondered if Yvonne had read her letter yet. Di had promised her that she'd deliver it - and the ones addressed to Cassie and Roisin - as soon as she could which meant Yvonne should have received it yesterday. At least she knew Di hadn't read them - she'd have had a visit from someone at Area by now if she had. That was one thing to be thankful for, she supposed. Actually, it was about the only good thing in this whole mess.
She halted that train of thought as soon as it began. She couldn't start going over all that again - the self-recrimination, the should-halves, the hard knot that formed in her stomach every time she let her mind wander back to the library. That way madness lay.
Karen shifted slightly and tried to clear her mind. Her doctors had told her to get as much sleep as possible, to aid in the healing process. Karen doubted whether she had even an hour last night so she was looking forward to slipping into unconsciousness as soon as possible.
Karen wasn't sure how long she slept but when she woke up there was someone else in the room with her. She kept her eyes closed, assuming it was a nurse and not wanting to be fussed over. Gradually though, she realised the other presence in the room was much too quiet to be a nurse. They usually bustled about their business, not particularly caring if their patient was asleep or not. This person - whoever they were - was making an effort to keep quiet.
"Oh, hello sleepyhead," Yvonne said with a small smile when Karen finally opened he eyes. Karen didn't reply - she seemed to have lost the power of speech. "Don't worry," Yvonne added, grinning widely. "I haven't done a runner."
Karen's eyes widened. "But," she spluttered. "What? How?"
"Ssh, calm down will you?" said Yvonne, grabbing Karen's hand. "It's all perfectly legit. Grayling fixed it for me to get early release."
Karen shook her head. "But...what? Why?" Yvonne laughed.
"Why? Why d'you think, dozy?" Karen was speechless for another moment or two and then suddenly she was laughing. "Okay, okay, it's not that funny."
"No," Karen said, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. "I'm laughing because I'm happy! I thought I wouldn't see you for a month."
Yvonne smiled. "Couldn't have that. Your letter made it sound like you were half crazy already."
Karen sobered immediately. "You got it then?"
Yvonne nodded. "Yes," she said. "And before you ask - yes, I forgive you."
Karen turned her face away, unable to meet Yvonne's eyes. "How can you say that?" she asked in a small voice. "The things I said - that I accused you of!"
Yvonne reached out and turned Karen's face towards her. "It's Ritchie I blame, not you," she said firmly. Karen shook her head and tried to turn away. Yvonne stopped her with a firm hand, forcing Karen to meet her eyes. "Karen," she began gain, her voice impossibly gentle. "I love you. The things you said that day haven't changed that." Karen's eyes filled with tears which she blinked away. "From what you've told me about your past," Yvonne continued. "It seems like you have a history of being abused and betrayed by the people who claimed to love you. Maybe that's happened to you so often you've learned to expect it. But don't expect it from me. I'm going to do whatever it takes to earn your trust - and when I've got it, I'll never betray it. That's a promise."
Karen was crying now, but smiling at the same time. She reached up a hand to dab at her eyes. "God, I don't deserve you..." she said softly.
"That's the first thing that needs to change," Yvonne said firmly. "I'm going to say this to you every day until you start to believe it. You are a good person. You deserve good things. You deserve to be loved. Got that?"
Karen nodded, tears flowing freely. Yvonne reached out and wiped those tears away and then, cupping Karen's face in her hands, leaned down and kissed her.
"I was so scared," Yvonne whispered against Karen's lips when they parted. "For a while I thought we were all going to die in that fire."
Karen reached out and pulled Yvonne close to her. "I know," she said. "I've been so worried about you, darling. No-one would tell me what happened to you while you were getting me out. They just told me you were 'recovering', as if that means anything."
Yvonne pulled back a little. "My back got burned pretty badly. They say something fell on me while we were pushing you through. But it could have been worse. They say I'll scar a little but, all things considered, I've been lucky."
Karen closed her eyes and leaned her head back on the pillow. "I think we all have," she said softly.
Except Shaz, Yvonne thought sadly. She'd been to see Denny the day before - the poor girl was practically catatonic. Yvonne shook her head imperceptibly, trying not to think about the prison she had just left behind. Denny would be looked after and Shaz...well, Yvonne could see to it that Shaz's memory was honoured when the time for her newspaper interview came around. Grayling would definitely come to regret releasing Yvonne and her overactive mouth.
"What are you thinking about?" Karen said sleepily.
Yvonne smiled. "Just thinking about what I'm going to do with my new life."
"And what are your thoughts?"
Yvonne's smile widened into an evil grin. "You'll see."
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