DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part One

On Monday the twelfth of January 2004, exactly three months since the discovery of James Fenner's body in the middle of Epping Forest, Lauren Atkins received two visitors. They wore plain clothes, and announced themselves as Detective Inspector Sullivan and Detective Sergeant Greer. Lauren was alone when they arrived, and but for the presence of a self-important Trigger, they would have bundled her in to their unmarked police car without a moment's notice. But not even DI Sullivan was prepared to sacrifice his shirtsleeve to the jaws of an Alsatian. Before opening the door, Lauren had taken a good look at the two of them, not recognising either individual, but knowing with the sixth sense of an Atkins that they were members of the law. She'd known this day would come, but as the last three months had melted in to one another and Christmas had been and gone, she'd begun to think that she'd just about got away with it. But that had been foolish. Not even Charlie Atkins had managed to wriggle out of his misdemeanours thoroughly unscathed, so why should she. Finally deciding that she couldn't put it off any longer, she opened the door.

"Lauren Atkins?" Said the man, clearly looking down his nose at her.

"Who's asking?" Said Lauren, slipping in to Atkins jargon without a thought.

"Detective Inspector Sullivan, and this is Detective Sergeant Greer. Can we come in?"

"Sure," Lauren said lightly. "But I can't guarantee your safety with my dog. He's been known to have policemen for dinner."

"Are you threatening me, Miss?" Sullivan asked quietly.

"Of course not, Inspector," Replied Lauren, giving him as much disdain as he was giving her. "I'm just giving you a warning. Try any sudden movements and he'll have no choice but to protect me." Once she'd led them in to the lounge, Trigger lived up to her description of him by sitting resolutely in front of her, not taking his eyes off the two strangers for a moment.

"So, Inspector," Lauren began, "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

"Unexpected is it?" Queried Sullivan. "I'd have thought our visit was long overdue."

"The law never get anywhere in this house by talking in riddles," Said Lauren mildly, but letting him know she wouldn't be taking any of his crap.

"Oh, is that right," Drawled Sullivan, knowing he had the upper hand this time and willing to let her think she had, but only for so long. "You must have had, the law as you put it, through this house on a number of occasions."

"You can say that again," Said Lauren, "And they never seem to learn how to tidy up after themselves."

"What is it now," Mused Sullivan. "Three out of four of your family have been to prison. Isn't that right?" Lauren glared at him stonily.

"And what if it is?"

"Well, judging by the evidence I was looking at this morning," Replied Sullivan genially, "You'll soon have to revise that total to all four." Sensing Lauren's combined fear and loathing, Trigger let out a low growl, the hackles standing in a stripe along his back.

"Explain," Said Lauren, cutting to the chase and laying a reassuring hand on Trigger's head.

"Does the name James Fenner mean anything to you?"

"Of course it does," Said Lauren, knowing that she wouldn't be able to keep all recognition of that name out of her face. "Wasn't he the bloke who was found dead last October. He used to work at Larkhall, on the wing where mum was for a time."

"That isn't all you know about him, is it."

"Why, what else should I know about him?"

"Given that you killed him," Put in Greer, "I should say you know an awful lot about him."

"She actually speaks," Said Lauren in fake astonishment. "And I thought she was just your spare part," She said, glancing in Greer's direction.

"Now you listen dear," Sullivan cut in, all the nicety gone from his tone. "Don't get lippy with me, or I promise it'll only get harder for you. Now, I think it's about time you accompanied us back to the station, don't you?" Thinking that Trigger might just spring on this couple of mouthpieces of the justice system at any minute, Lauren laid a restraining hand on his collar.

"Seeing as I don't know what the hell you're talking about, inspector, I see no reason for me to accompany you," Lauren replied, almost spitting out his title.

"Oh, I think you know exactly what we're talking about," Said Sullivan silkily. "So, let go of that very well-trained member of the militia and let us drive you in true justice style to the police station." Realising that she had absolutely no choice but to go with them, Lauren said,

"Fine, but you'll have to wait while I make a couple of phone calls."

"You'll be allowed one call when you get to the station," Put in Greer.

"If you want co-operation and to leave this house with all your limbs in tact," Replied Lauren with a little nod in Trigger's direction. "Then you'll kindly wait while I inform my mother as to where you're taking me. Is that too much to ask?"

"Where is this famous mother of yours?" Asked Sullivan, remembering the time nearly three years ago when he'd interviewed the legendary Yvonne Atkins about the death of Renee Williams.

"She's in Spain," Lauren said curtly, moving towards the phone.

"Then you can definitely call her from here," Said Sullivan in disgust. "The commissioner would have my head on a platter if I allowed you to phone Spain from the police station."

When Lauren got through to her mother, Yvonne was lying on a sun lounger and sipping from a glass of chilled white wine. Christmas hadn't been much fun for either her or Lauren, both in their own ways missing Ritchie, and both worrying about what must surely be on the horizon for Lauren. So in early January, Yvonne had said to hell with everything and pushed off to their villa in Spain. They'd all come together over Christmas, Yvonne, Lauren, Cassie, Roisin and the children, and even Karen once she'd finished covering for two officers on G wing who had mysteriously gone off sick at the last moment. But Karen had admitted to liking being part of G wing over Christmas. She'd said that for some of the time it felt like she was the head of an enormous family. Yvonne couldn't fault how Karen had been towards her over the last couple of months. She knew it'd been hard for Karen to get her head round what both Yvonne and Lauren had done on the day of Fenner's death, but then maybe that was because she didn't really know the half of it. But Yvonne wasn't going to be the one to tell her all the details. Hopefully she would never have to know them, but Yvonne knew that this was as false as any of her hopes concerning either of her children. So, when Lauren's call came through on the cordless on the table next to her lounger, Yvonne could only say afterwards that it had been a matter of time, nothing more, nothing less.

"Mum, it's me," Said Lauren, and Yvonne could hear the tension thrumming down the wire.

"Lauren, what's happened?"

"I just thought you ought to know that the law has arrived, complete with sidekick," She said, with a sneer in Greer's direction. "And they want me to accompany them to the station. They seem to have this ridiculous idea in their heads that I killed Fenner. I can't think where they got that from."

"Just get on with it, Atkins," Sullivan cut in with a low rumble.

"All right, sweet heart," Said Yvonne, trying to give her daughter a feeling of safety and security, no matter how futile the gesture might be. "I'll get on the next plane and be back there tonight. Whatever you do, don't say a word. The less you say, the less they can hold over you later."

"But mum, what about Trigger," Said Lauren, "I can't just leave him." Yvonne knew that this was her daughter's way of asking who she should tell about this who was far closer than she was.

"Karen's got a key," Said Yvonne decisively. "Give her a call, ask her to come over and collect Trigger, and tell her I'll be back tonight. If they insist on questioning you, take whatever solicitor they offer you until I get back." Once she'd ended the call, Yvonne ran round the villa, pulling on clothes, putting things away and generally locking up. Then, for the moment saying goodbye to her little haven in the sun, she got in the car she'd hired a week ago, and drove hell for leather to the airport, praying that she could grab a last minute seat on the next flight to London.

A few hours later, Lauren had just about had her fill of bastard police officers and totally incompetent solicitors. She'd taken her mother's advice to the letter and even when she'd been presented with an empty cartridge case, Charlie's gun and the spade, supposedly bearing her fingerprints which Sullivan said had been retrieved in a bin liner from the bottom of the Thames, she said absolutely nothing. Sullivan had become more and more frustrated with her as the time dragged on, but eventually, seeing that he wasn't going to get anything out of her, even with the presence of the duty solicitor, he decided that enough was enough.

"You know we've got you over a barrel this time, Atkins," He finally said. "And you're not going to wriggle out of this one in a hurry. We've got your prints on the spade that was used to bury him. Don't you think it's about time you started talking."

"It'll never be time for me to start talking to you, Inspector," Was Lauren's emphatic reply. "I've got absolutely nothing to say."

"Fine," Said Sullivan decisively. "Lauren Atkins, I am charging you with the murder of Principal Officer James Fenner, on or about the fifth of October 2003. You do have the right to remain silent, but anything you do say may be taken down and used in evidence. Put her in a cell," He said to Greer, with all the satisfaction of a snake, which has finally cornered the prey it has been seeking for years.

Yvonne made it in to Heathrow airport at around nine that evening. Every time her passport was looked at, she got the stare that always accompanied the suspicious immigration and customs officials on discovering someone had a criminal record. But this didn't bother Yvonne. She'd done the crime, she'd done her time, and if the bastards were curious, that was their problem. They always gave her the once over with the scanner and x-ray machine, looking for any concealable metallic objects, and her suit case never quite looked the same after their hands had been well and truly through her belongings. Having finally battled her way through customs, she dug the mobile out of her handbag and called Karen.

"I wondered when I'd be hearing from you," Came Karen's greeting.

"Did Lauren call you?"

"Yes, she did," Came Karen's calm but slightly sombre reply. "She called me from home about lunchtime, just before they took her to the station, and she called me from there about half an hour ago. They're keeping her there over night. Trigger's here with me. Where are you?"

"Walking through terminal one. Could you come and pick me up?"

"Of course. Give me half an hour." Not wanting any more of the suffocatingly unnatural conditioned air of terminal one, Yvonne pushed the trolley containing her suit case and a couple of pieces of hand luggage outside to have a cigarette and wait for Karen.

When the green MG sports car drew up not far away from her, Yvonne felt such a wave of relief on seeing Karen. She didn't know why, but she always seemed to feel that everything would be all right if Karen was there. Considering everything that had gone on over the last few months, she knew this was ridiculous, but nothing accounted for human feelings. Karen got out of the car and moved towards her.

"How are you?" She said, kissing Yvonne on the cheek.

"I spent most of the flight trying to work out how I'm going to get her out of this mess," Said Yvonne, as they put her things in the boot.

"It's not going to be quite that simple, Yvonne," Said Karen, remembering for the hundredth time since she'd received Lauren's first phone call, just what she'd done in giving away Lauren's secret in the first place, and more importantly, if Yvonne would ever find out it was her who'd done it.

"I know," Said Yvonne, as they got in the car and Karen switched on the engine, "And there was only one sensible conclusion I could come up with."

"Which was?" Karen couldn't help asking in slight trepidation at the Atkins methods of solving a problem and just hoping Yvonne wasn't about to try anything stupid.

"The only person who's got a cat in hell's chance of getting her off," Said Yvonne matter-of-factly, "Is Jo Mills." Karen allowed a few moments to pass whilst she marshaled her thoughts, using the pulling out of the airport carpark as an excuse to stay quiet.

"You could do worse," She said eventually.

"More like I couldn't do better," Said Yvonne decisively. "She don't leave any stone unturned, that one." Karen couldn't fault the little touch of irony that rose up in her at Yvonne's affirmation. But would Jo do it, knowing that she had known of Lauren's guilt since mid October.

"So, what did Lauren say to you when you last spoke to her?" Yvonne asked, unaware of Karen's inner turmoil. Dragging herself away from her thoughts, Karen said,

"They've formally charged her, and she'll be taken to a magistrate's court in the morning, where I'm assuming she'll plead not guilty. As it's murder they've charged her with, there's absolutely no doubt that she'll be remanded in custody until her trial."

"That ain't just because it's murder," Said Yvonne with all the experience of such things. "It's mostly because she's an Atkins."

"Yeah, well, you might have something there," Replied Karen. "Did Lauren tell you who it was who came to pick her up? The two who investigated Renee Williams' death."

"Not that oily little wanker?" Said Yvonne in disgust.

"The very same," Said Karen, briefly smiling at Yvonne's description of him.

"But he's been itching to find something on me since he couldn't pin Renee Williams' death on me all that time ago. He must have some serious evidence if he's actually charged her."

"Reading between the lines, I think he has," Said Karen.

"Lauren sounded like all the stuffing had been knocked out of her. Oh, not literally," She said, seeing the look of fury on Yvonne's face. "She just sounded like it was much harder than she'd expected."

"Do you think she'll get sent to Larkhall?"

"Probably," Said Karen regretfully. "Apart from Holloway, it's the only other women's prison in the area, and Holloway's so overcrowded ever since they built their new drugs treatment and detox unit."

"Is there any chance you can get her put on G wing?" Said Yvonne quietly, well aware that she was asking far more than she should of Karen.

"I'll see what I can do," Said Karen gently. "But I can't make any promises."

"It's just, I know you'll look after her," Yvonne said, sudden tears rising to her eyes.

"Hey," Said Karen, taking one hand off the wheel and putting it over one of Yvonne's. "Whatever happens, you'll get through it, both of you." When they drew up in Yvonne's driveway, Karen let Trigger out of the car and watched as he virtually threw himself at Yvonne.

"Hey, hey, down boy," Yvonne said with pleasure.

"He's been fretting about you all afternoon," Said Karen with a smile.

"God, I forgot," Said Yvonne suddenly. "How did you get away with not being at work?"

"It's not the first time I've worked from home," Said Karen as she opened the boot to get Yvonne's things out. "Grayling just sees it as one of my eccentricities."

At nine the next morning, Yvonne watched as her daughter was led bleary eyed in to court.

"Lauren Atkins," Read the clerk. "You are charged that on or about the fifth of October 2003 you unlawfully killed James Fenner. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty," Came Lauren's voice, no longer filled with the strident confidence Yvonne was used to.

"I have no choice but to remand you in custody until your trial," Said the magistrate. "You will be transported to Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall. Take her down."

Part Two

Karen had driven to work with a curious feeling of dissociation, having woken up with the feeling that what had happened yesterday wasn't real. Yvonne was still out in Spain, soaking up the sun and Lauren was at home where she belonged, where she would always belong. Then it hit her like a stone to the back of the head in a way that chilled her soul all over. She had gone round to Yvonne's far too empty house to pick Trigger up. That way that the normally lively highly sociable dog had been suspiciously quiet and had kept to himself, shouted out the bad news far more eloquently than the monotone call of the newspaper seller.

Images of Lauren floated through her mind of Yvonne's house that golden summer moving in stately slow motion. She could still feel the sharp bracing feel of the cool still waters in Yvonne's extensive yet private back garden which embraced her while out there in the sun soaked world on dry land, Lauren chatted away inconsequentially to Cassie as they reclined lazily on sun loungers in a hot bygone summer. Well, there have been consequences enough since then, she thought grimly to herself as she looked out of the window as raindrops marked their way down her bedroom window. But Lauren belongs to Yvonne's house, the sleepier part of her mind reasoned to herself, but darker storm cloud memories told her otherwise as they moved relentlessly across the sky, cutting out the sunshine and the warmth. The hurt and the pain of what she had to do that day when she had to finish her relationship with Yvonne could be brusquely pushed on one side but it couldn't be obliterated, she knew full well. Hadn't that blind feeling of panic predated the here and now of Lauren's arrest by three months and been proved right now that the news had broken, as surely as if it had been announced on the ten o'clock news? That tough survival instinct that had served her so well over the years was a demanding mistress but it had kept her from….from sliding off the rails apart from the unwitting knowledge of the circumstances of how Jim Fenner came to die. She knew that, well enough when she acted as a sort of parent to the half worldly wise, half childlike Lauren who had lain in her bed in that darkened bedroom that, most of all is or was her home. Lauren had given her strange feelings, of talking about another person who looked like her who had committed the murder, not Lauren who could talk so strangely rationally about the matter and how she had conceived the whole idea in the first place. It shocked her to read Ritchie's last will and testament urging her to apparently do the one decent thing in his life to make up for what Fenner had done to her.

At that moment, she yanked the breaks on to the terrible slide in her thinking process, of the long string of consequences, of cause and effect that had signed Fenner's death warrant from the moment he raped her to his death at Lauren's hands. It spurred her to get out of bed and stop brooding over everything. That was going to do her no good and, besides, she had a prison wing to run.

Over a necessary cup of strong coffee, first thing, she slipped on the ball and chain of her daily duties and started to plan for the day ahead. She would have to sort out the administrative details of Lauren Atkins's cell allocation and that her induction would be handled fairly, the words didn't taste good in her mouth but it was the best that she could come up with first thing in the morning. She was not exactly a morning person but she could make the best of a bad job.

Once she was in her office first thing before her meeting, dressed in her habitual wing Governor suit and mode of thinking, she had one phone call to make to chase up when she would get the transfers she had been chasing up for weeks. A smile creased her face when she heard what was to her some good news. There were others who might have mixed feelings but that was, for once, their problem, not hers. She grabbed her folder and hurried off down the corridor. She was a little late but not bad considering.

"I don't know," Moaned Bodybag like a stuck record, her head turning in all directions to freely distribute her diatribe like a water sprinkler on a drought parched lawn. "We're rushed off our feet, day in day out. If I've told Madam once, I've told her a hundred times about how short handed we are. She expects each one of us to rush round in this madhouse and do her precious reports on time. It's just like the bad old days of Stewart."

Di intoned in sympathy as one of the 'old guard' and now Sylvia's 'best friend.'

"Well, that's it, I've written to the General Secretary and he'll have a thing or two to tell Betts how scandalously understaffed Larkhall is and that will be a blot on her copybook,"

She finished in a triumphantly malignant manner.

"Yeah, it's all from when Jim Fenner, well, you know. I'll miss him. The place isn't the same without him," Di's dreamy voice and vacant eyes conveyed the impression of happy days, alas in the past.

Selena's blank face admirably masked her bottled up anger at that sleazy man who offered her his words of friendly advice as an older experienced Prison Officer while the smile curving his lips drew attention to the way his eyes mentally undressed her. Urrgh. That was one of the periodic penalties of her decision to 'dress like a normal woman' so that her private life remained untouched and unknown to prying eyes. She envied Kris's swaggering gait and hands in her trousers stance which led even the thickest of guys to draw the obvious conclusion and leave her alone but she could not imagine herself behaving the same way. That was not her style.

Colin, too, was finding that the ominous black presence in the corner of his eye was fading with the months as were his fears. It was the sheer terror of being ground helplessly under Fenner's heel as 'Mr Fixit's mate' that was receding into the past now that the chair in the corner where he always used to sit was occupied by another human form. He could reduce him so easily to craven, undignified abject surrender to his schemes, in his actions and in his thoughts. He had a way of 'taking over' his mind with a few vicious threatening words and running rings round him. He had been scribbling furiously in his diary so as to avoid Di's eye. That woman gave him the creeps either as an unwanted sexual would be predator or as a spiteful prison officer but could not stop himself from snorting derisively at Di's remark.

"Oh, I suppose you're glad that Jim's no longer with us," Di turned on the dramatics. "You ought to be grateful that he took an interest in you as a brand new prison officer fresh out of training college.

"Leave it out, Di," Colin fended off the attack. "I don't want to talk about it."

At moments like this, he was glad to chat to Selena in the Social Club. She had a soothing sympathetic manner even though he didn't know much about her home life, sort of kept herself to herself that way.

"Here's Madam coming. Late as usual after skiving off yesterday. Work at home, my eye." Her practiced ear could pick out the measured tread of Karen's footsteps along the corridor and hoist her fake smile into position in a way that never fooled Karen for one instant.

Karen perched herself on her favourite spot in the PO's room, running her eyes round the crowd, the PO's who always kept their mouths shut, ran past the two hostile presences of Di Barker and Sylvia whose negativity could potentially infect a new generation of PO's with their brand of poisonous cynicism and looked at Paula, Selena and Colin who were beginning to find their feet.

"We will have a new inmate on remand before she stands trial whose name may be familiar to you all, Lauren Atkins," Karen started and paused while a gasp of mixed astonishment and pure venom rippled round the room.

"In case you don't know already as the press have been slow off the mark, she was picked up last night and is accused of the murder of Jim Fenner……"

"I might have known that that gangster's family was at the bottom of it. Didn't I tell you all," started Bodybag, crowing triumphantly.

"I seem to remember that you kept banging on about Yvonne Atkins being responsible till I was sick of hearing about it," Karen cut short what she knew was going to be a stream of verbal diarrhoea.

"I bet she put her up to it. No honour among thieves, that's what my mother says."

"Well, to get to the point," Karen cut back with visible disgust in her tones,

"She will be arriving shortly and she is to be treated as a normal prisoner. If I hear of any 'score settling' going on, any idea of taking it out of her as she is an Atkins, that person will be up before me facing a disciplinary charge and I don't mean just an aural warning."

She paused to let the full impact of her last words sink in.

"Any prisoners held on remand are, after all, innocent until proven guilty, and if they are sentenced according to the due process of law, they are treated fairly as a convicted criminal and not according to some lynch mob. Got that?" Karen glared at Bodybag.

"It's easy to see that palling up with that judge who came round here has had an effect on you, not to mention that toffee nosed barrister," Sniffed Bodybag.

"Oh, haven't they," Karen smiled mysteriously. Let them make of it what they like, she thought.

"If Jim Fenner could see what was going on, that the Red carpet was being rolled out for the daughter of that Gangster's Moll, he'd turn in his grave," Bodybag's venomous words echoed round the PO's room.

Instantly, she put her hand to her mouth, which was shaped like an O, as the impact of her words became clear. She was so used to uttering these proverbs without thinking that her 'died in the wool' attitudes tripped her up to fall headlong. Selena turned her head down to repress a smile while Colin suddenly had an explosion of coughing as something went down his throat the wrong way.

"Sorry, Ma'am," He muttered in a strangulated fashion.

"Let's move on to the next item which is some good news for us all," Karen continued briskly after her deadpan start and turning to look pointedly in Bodybag's direction. "Sylvia, can you remember your thirtieth wedding anniversary dance here when you were dancing very ardently with a certain young good looking prison officer?"

Sylvia blushed a pretty pink colour as how could she forget the feelings of shame and embarrassment the morning after, seeing the hidden grins amongst her fellow prison officers at her expense. She would have done the same if that sort of thing happened to someone else and she was the spectator.

"Dominic McAllister for the benefit of those who didn't know him. Well, he's coming back to us, date to be arranged and, as he's worked here before and earned a good reputation as a caring prison officer, Di," Karen spoke sharply, as the news had thrown her into total confusion, "I imagine he'll slot in with only a bit of refresher training to bring him up to speed."

"That's brilliant news," Selena chirped up.

"Don't you be getting any wrong ideas about him, Selena," Di broke in bitterly with undertones of possessiveness. As she had failed to snare him, she wasn't going to have a younger woman who thought she was God's gift to men swanning around and getting off with him. "Breaks all the women's hearts and never gives anything back."

"I promise to behave myself, Di," Selena said primly.

"And this brings me to the last item. We are at last getting a new Principal Officer on level transfer who, again, is no stranger to Larkhall. Gina Rossi. I am pleased with this appointment as she did a fine job when she was here last time and I've heard nothing but glowing reports from the men's prison where she's been working and deservedly got her promotion. Again, for the benefit of those who don't know her, she is friendly and outgoing and you know where you stand with her. I am sure that her honesty will be a real asset to the wing."

And, with that, Karen discreetly drew to a close a long chapter of darkness in Larkhall's past. Things would never be the same, all the prison officers agreed on that for entirely different reasons. Di's and Bodybag's glares and bad vibrations testified to that.

In the back yard of the magistrate's court, Lauren caught a glimpse of a square white van before she was led inside. The door slammed shut on Lauren's world, separating her from what in a sickening moment she realised was her past. She edged along into the tiny cell waiting for her and she felt her world judder sideways into slow motion to who knows where. There was no window and absolutely no sensation as to where her place was in the world, only whatever her sense of balance and movement told her which cut off one of her sources of perception in the world. She was cut off, disconnected and travelling not according to her own lazy grip of the steering wheel and right foot on the accelerator, but according to how some plod decided. She dared not think too much of the future. She was in suspended animation and sheer boredom was the only thing to cling to.

After what seemed an eternity, the van swung right and lurched to a halt but the engine was still running.

"What the frig is happening?" Lauren asked herself, her first taste of the feeling all prisoners experience when they know something is happening but they don't know what and nobody is telling them. In reality, the driver was checking in at the gatehouse and showing his ID. Lauren's world lurched sideways again and, when it came to an inelegant halt, she heard the engine switch off. Instantly, her heart was in her mouth though she talked to herself to rouse a little of the Atkins spirit. Like a wanderer in a bare desert, a wineglassful of water was precious.

A blinding square of light dazzled her eyes and paralysed her where she stood.

"Come on, move it," Growled a disembodied voice from somewhere out of the white nothingness and she could feel an unknown body pushing at her from behind. Instinctively, her feet found each step downwards and in front to the stone cobbled yard. At that moment, Lauren's eyesight returned to normal though her eyes hurt and opened up the illusion of the normal way to the visitor's block, which her feet were used to taking her to.

The other prisoners, shabby, down at heel who were to be her enforced companions, mutely indicated her way in the opposite direction up a short flight of steps and to the intake room.

"Your name please," Colin Hedges asked at reception.

"Well, I'm not Victoria Beckham though I'm better looking than her." a trace of insolence in Lauren flashed in retaliation.

"I'm sure you are but rules is rules. Your name, if you please," Came the polite reply.

Sighing, Lauren gave herself away to the inevitable bureaucratic process that dragged her along while Colin Hedges noted, like mother like daughter in terms of hard-edged wariness and spiky humour. She had lost heart to argue any further after all the knockbacks of the last twenty-four hours. Listlessly, she watched all the belongings of her past freedom being stripped from her to be packaged away, listed and signed away along with her rights that she never knew she had. A prison number was going to be substituted for her name. The voice of a woman who chatted to her could be heard as if a long distance away as they all sat on the hard plastic seat in their rough blue terry towel robes.

"In you come then, strip search, finger prints and then photo," A hated voice called out.

"You what?" Lauren bridled. Yvonne had not told her about this one.

"Causing trouble already, Atkins? I suppose you think you've booked yourself into a five star hotel. This is Her Majesty's Prison in case you hadn't noticed. We're only trying to do our job," Bodybag intoned for what must be the thousandth time in her life.

"So were the SS. I suppose you'll gas us in our cells later on," Lauren's fired up anger made a blind rush to escape.

"If you don't agree voluntarily, you can be forced," Bodybag's malicious smile and voice savoured every petty humiliation.

What Bodybag and the two other prison officers were not prepared for was the wiry strength in Lauren's slight frame as she struggled and squirmed for all she was worth and that they were sweating by the time they were done. With relief, Bodybag was only too pleased to click the camera on the three mug shots and dab the fingerprints and hope that the next prisoner was going to be more acquiescent.

It was a little later that Karen was patrolling the wing when a flush faced resentful Lauren glared at her with her black eyes.

"Lauren, I've placed you to share a cell with Denny Blood," Karen said politely. "It might help you settle in here."

"Settle in?" Lauren's angry incredulous tones exploded. "With Bodybag of all people strip-searching me? You must be joking."

Karen's face was impassive as she took this jolt to her system. Sylvia must have arranged to swap duties with Di Barker against her express instructions. She would have it out with the pair of them later.

"That was not my doing, Lauren. You must have heard before coming here that things don't necessarily go according to plan. I shall look into that later on. In the meantime, you must do your best to settle in and I shall see you later for a proper induction interview, as I would do for anyone else held here on remand," Karen's voice was pitched low but very emphatically hoping against hope that Lauren had Yvonne's genius for reading between the lines. This situation, as with handling a very lightly reined personal escort duty for Denny when she had home leave to visit Yvonne, demanded a delicacy of feel in walking a tightrope.

"All right then," Lauren's monosyllabic reply showed that she had looked and listened and she took her plastic sack full of permitted possessions into the cell.

"Hi Lauren. It's wicked to see you here. I mean that it's not good that you got caught but if you are going to end up here, it's great that we're sharing cells," Denny's wide grin and eager excitement burst in on Lauren as soon as she opened the cell door.

"I can look after myself, Denny," Lauren said.

"Look here, man. I've been here a long time and I've seen a lot of the girls come and go," Denny hesitated at this point as she had seen too many prisoners walk down that aisle being cheered on to the open gates at the other end, everyone but her. Then in a more confident vein as she acted as big sister to what stuck out a mile as a very confused, unsettled Lauren.

"Everyone thinks the same when they come here, Nikki, the Julies, your mum, everyone. First thing you got to understand is that you need the help of all the other girls and everyone else needs yours. We've got to stick together and even if you don't think you need my help, I know that you will need it. I got to say that it's been easier since that bastard screw Fenner is out of the way and that we've got one of the best screws around in charge of this wing."

Lauren sat down limply on her bunk, This was the first time that someone had actually spoken approvingly of what she had done in that insane period of madness and that she was seeing Karen in a new light.

Part Three

After watching her daughter being removed from court, Yvonne drove home without really knowing how she'd got there. She'd paced round the house, smoking too much and thinking, closely followed by Trigger's baleful gaze until three in the morning. For the life of her, Yvonne couldn't see how Lauren could possibly escape with anything les than the mandatory life sentence for murder. Lauren had killed Fenner, there was no getting away from that. A cold sweat ran over Yvonne every time she thought of that day, that Sunday afternoon when Lauren had come home carrying the tool of her trade, and with the earth from Fenner's grave all over her. She'd had that wild look of exultation in her eyes, the same look Charlie had always had after ending the life of some new enemy. Yvonne had drifted in and out of sleep for the last few hours that were left of Monday night, and had been up and out of the house in time to see her daughter plead not guilty. But now, back in the house they'd lived in since Lauren was three years old, Yvonne knew what she had to do.

"Jo Mills?" Came the husky confident voice on the end of the phone.

"Jo, it's Yvonne Atkins."

"Yvonne," Said Jo, not entirely surprised. "I wondered if I might be hearing from you."

"Jesus," Said Yvonne in disgust, "Bad news really does travel fast."

"Have you taken five minutes to read a newspaper this morning?" Jo asked gently.

"No, because they'll all be saying the same thing. Jo, I need your help."

"Do you want to come and see me so we can talk about this?"

"If you've got time," Said Yvonne, and Jo could hear the pain that Yvonne was clearly doing her damnedest to cover up.

"I had a client cancel for eleven this morning. Will that do?"

"Thank you," Yvonne replied with heartfelt gratitude, knowing that Jo would do everything she could to help them.

Jo hadn't been in the least surprised to hear from Yvonne. It might have been three months since she and George had questioned Karen about Fenner's murder, but to Jo that all seemed like yesterday. It had taken a lot for Karen to tell her that Lauren had killed Fenner, and now here they all were, once again about to be turned inside out by the wheels of justice. but so much had happened since then. Jo had been brought face to face with the fact that George suffered from Anorexia, which admittedly Jo had taken in her stride, persuading George to unburden some of her innermost feelings. Jo had then come up with the idea that even now, even after quite a short time, was changing all three of their lives, hers, George's and John's. She knew John had taken advantage of their new arrangement, not because he'd specifically told her, she just knew. Jo was also forced to admit that not only was her uncertainty over John gradually beginning to recede, but that she and George were slowly forming a close friendship, something that, this time last year, Jo would have thought quite impossible. When she'd opened the newspaper on arriving at work this morning, Jo had been hit full in the face with the headline:

"Lauren Atkins charged with the death of murdered prison officer James Fenner." She, like Karen, had also known this day would come, it had simply been a matter of time before she received the call from Yvonne Atkins.

When Yvonne brought the Ferrari to a stop outside Jo's office with a little less of her usual style, she was reminded of when she'd last been here. It had been on the day that Karen had first talked to Jo about mounting a case against Fenner. The irony wasn't lost on her that now she was here because of Fenner's murder. Yvonne had driven here in the Ferrari almost to give herself courage. The Ferrari had always been hers, never Charlie's. She couldn't bring herself to go near his silver Jag right now, and she doubted she ever would again after this. Charlie Atkins had a lot to answer for, even from beyond the grave.

As Jo stood at the end of the corridor in the doorway of her office, and watched as Yvonne followed the receptionist upstairs, she was presented with two immediate realisations. The first being that Yvonne had clearly just returned from somewhere far warmer and dryer than England, and that she looked utterly exhausted, dark circles under her eyes and lines of worry marring her usually attractive face.

"Yvonne, come in," Jo said as they approached. She had been going to say that it was good to see her, but she bit her tongue just in time, realising that this certainly wasn't an appropriate form of greeting.

"thanks for seeing me so quickly," Yvonne said as Jo closed the door behind her.

"How are you?" Jo asked as they sat down, Yvonne in one of the chairs by the window and Jo in the one at her desk, turning it round to face Yvonne. "You look like you've been somewhere warm."

"I was giving my villa in Spain a bit of company till I got Lauren's phone call yesterday lunchtime. Ritchie hadn't been at home for Christmas for years before he died, but this one just felt wrong without him. Sorry," She said, as if just catching up with what she was saying, "It's Lauren I'm hear to talk about, not Ritchie."

"don't be," Jo said gently, realising just how thrown off course Yvonne must be feeling for her to talk about Ritchie, something Jo suspected Yvonne rarely did.

"Is that this morning's paper?" Yvonne asked, seeing it face down on Jo's desk and wanting a change of subject.

"Yes," Replied Jo carefully, "But I'm not sure you'll want to see it."

"I might as well know the worst," Yvonne said matter-of-factly. Jo handed it over. After making a quick scan of the article on the front page, details to be found on further pages inside, she said, "Why are all journalists bastards?"

"I think it comes with the job description," Jo said with a rye smile, remembering that time, not so long ago, when John had used the media to force the Lord Chancellor in to appealing against an obscenely light sentence in a case that had been bribed away from him.

"But they've made out like she's already been convicted."

"And you should know better than I do," Said Jo seriously, "That they'll have done that more because of who Lauren is rather than because of what she is accused of."

"I'm kind of used to seeing my name in the papers," Said Yvonne, "But not Lauren's."

"Tell me what happened yesterday," Prompted Jo, being reminded anew that she had to be extremely careful here not to betray the fact that she'd known for close on three months who Fenner's killer had been. Yvonne didn't know that Karen had given them Lauren's name, and Jo had to keep it that way.

"Lauren got a visit from two particularly thick members of the law yesterday lunchtime. As it happens, I know both of them from the time they came round Larkhall trying to pin a death by nut allergy on me. That's probably why Detective Inspector Sullivan," She laid an emphasis of sheer disgust on Sullivan's title, "Took on this case. Lauren phoned me before they took her to the station, and as far as I'm aware, she didn't say anything to incriminate her. I stood in court this morning and watched her plead not guilty before being put on remand."

"Yvonne, did she do it?" Jo asked, paying particular care to sound genuine.

"Yeah, she did," Replied Yvonne regretfully.

"I can't defend her knowing that."

"Jo, I'm never going to say she didn't kill Fenner, I don't even think Lauren would seriously try to do that, but what I need you to understand is that I don't think she was entirely sane when she did it. I'll never forget that Sunday for the rest of my life. She strolled in to the house, casual as you like, with one of Charlie's favourite guns in her hand. There was this weird look in her eye, like she was high on something."

"Was she?"

"No, but I'd know that look anywhere. It scared the living daylights out of me because she looked exactly like Charlie used to when he'd done something like that. She was proud of it. She even told me that if I was a real Atkins, I'd be proud of her. It hurts like hell to have to say it, but sometimes Lauren's her father through and through." Yvonne stopped, suddenly thinking that she was saying too much. Jo stood up and began pacing, eventually ending up standing before the window, looking down on to the rain washed street. She knew that she was being given a view of a kind of life she knew absolutely nothing about. Jo knew little of Charlie Atkins, except that he had met his end on the steps of the Old Bailey, supposedly after a trial in which his wife, the woman sitting before her, had given evidence against her husband, not for him.

"Yvonne," Jo said contemplatively. "Can you satisfy a point of curiosity for me. When you gave evidence in your husband's trial, why did you suddenly change your story at the last minute?" Jo had turned to face Yvonne when she said this, and now Yvonne just sat staring up at her.

"He deserved it," She said simply. "I don't guess you know what it's like being married to one of the mob since the age of eighteen, but that was my way of breaking free of everything he'd put me through over the years. Now tell me why you asked," She said, swiftly skirting round what she'd done to Renee Williams.

"Because I'm getting the distinct feeling that even though he's dead, Charlie Atkins has a lot to do with this."

"You're probably right," Yvonne conceded. "I just wish I'd had more of an influence over my own kids," She said bitterly. "Maybe if I had, Lauren wouldn't be in this mess." Sitting down in the other visitor's chair, Jo lit a cigarette and offered one to Yvonne.

"You're right," Jo said after taking a long drag. "I know absolutely nothing about being married to someone like Charlie Atkins, or what kind of an influence he probably had over you, as well as your children. So, enlighten me."

"Before I do, how come you know so much about Charlie's trial?"

"That trial prompted almost as much publicity as the Nikki Wade appeal, though for different reasons."

"I was only eighteen when I married Charlie. I had Ritchie when I was twenty, and Lauren when I was twenty four. Charlie wanted more, but it didn't happen. I walked in to that marriage as starry-eyed and gullible as a twelve-year-old might have done. It didn't take me long to find out what Charlie was really like." Jo didn't miss the closed expression that came over Yvonne's face as she said this, a look to lock out any unwanted observer. "But, when you marry someone like Charlie, you're in for life. The only way you get out is in a coffin." Jo winced at these last words. "I'm sorry," Said Yvonne, "But that's how it was. Lauren must have been twelve when Charlie started teaching her to shoot, and Ritchie the same." Jo's eyes widened at this. "Yeah, I know," Yvonne said, interpreting her expression. "And you're probably wondering why I allowed my kids to be brought up like that. I probably ask myself that question at least once every day, even now, even now that Charlie's dead and I've kept to the straight and narrow ever since I got out of prison. But disagreeing with Charlie Atkins, especially when it came to the raising of his children, wasn't something I was ever going to do twice." At these words, and at the raising of every barrier behind Yvonne's eyes, Jo found herself wondering just how much torment Yvonne had gone through over the years, watching her children being taught the rudimentary skills of committing serious crime. Then Jo gasped as a memory struck her. Getting up from her chair, she walked over to the filing cabinets in the corner and began rummaging through a drawer, eventually emerging with the transcript of the Merriman/Atkins trial. Flipping through the initial pages, she said,

"When you were on the stand last year, Brian Cantwell said something about Ritchie having once been threatened with being nailed to the warehouse floor."

"There you are," Replied Yvonne, "That was Charlie Atkins for you. When Ritchie came to visit me in prison, we were talking about Charlie, and Ritchie said that his dad could charm the birds off the trees and then wring their necks. Just a shame that was a pretty good description of Ritchie as well." Dropping the transcript back in the drawer, Jo returned to her chair.

"Once Ritchie left," Jo continued, "Did Charlie begin to treat Lauren as the son he no longer had?"

"Right in one," Said Yvonne, clearly impressed. "When Ritchie died, he left two letters, one for me and one for Lauren. In the one he wrote to Lauren, he referred to her as Charlie Atkins protégé, and much as I'm ashamed to admit it, that's exactly what she was. Also in that letter, Ritchie left Lauren his one dying wish. He asked his sister to get rid of Fenner, because of what Fenner had done to Karen. It was Ritchie's way of trying to put right some of the bad things he'd done, but especially what he'd done to Karen in using her as a way of getting the gun in to Larkhall." Jo sat, utterly gob smacked, finally beginning to see the pieces of this very complicated jigsaw fitting together.

"Jesus Christ," She slowly said, not a usual utterance for her.

"I know," Said Yvonne in appreciation of the magnitude of the situation. "He asked me to take care of Karen, and he asked Lauren to kill Fenner. Ritchie even went as far as to tell Lauren that he didn't ask me to do it because he knew I wouldn't, and because I'd never been what he called a real Atkins."

"I think you might consider that something to be proud of rather than something to regret."

"I know, and I do. I just wish she'd told me. Maybe then I might have been able to stop her doing it and landing herself in the one place I never wanted her to go."

"Yvonne, by the sounds of it, Lauren was determined to do this, and nothing you could have done would have stopped her."

"Oh, and you'd think that if it was one of yours, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't," Jo said quietly. "And I'd be doing everything in my power to help them."

"That's why I'm here," Said Yvonne, "Because even if you decide that you don't want to touch this case with a barge pole, you'll still be able to give me some idea of where to go next." this seemed to bring Jo back to just why they were there.

"Before I go any further," She said carefully. "Just how much are you implicated in this? Because the last thing Lauren needs is for you to be put on remand right next to her for destroying evidence and perverting the course of justice."

"My fingerprints aren't anywhere near the gun she used, but then neither are Lauren's. When she came home that Sunday afternoon, I made her put everything she was wearing in the washing machine. Then I cleaned the gun before I got rid of it. So yes, if they catch up with me, I'm as up to my neck in it as she is, but there is absolutely nothing to tie me to anything she used that day, not the gun, the car, or the spade she used to bury him." Yvonne shuddered at the mention of the spade and Jo began to entertain the suspicion that there was something about Lauren's crime that went far beyond what Yvonne might once have been used to dealing with, something that frightened her to her core.

"You said that you didn't think Lauren was entirely sane when she did this. Why?"

"You'll know exactly why I think that if you talk to her. Only she can tell you what she did to Fenner. I made her tell me, but I can no more sit here and tell you that than I can get Lauren out of Larkhall. I might have been more angry with Ritchie than I've ever been in my life for what he did last year, but everything I know about him will never give me the kind of nightmares that this has."

"Okay," Jo replied gently, thinking that this must be a first for Yvonne Atkins to admit she was afraid of something. "I'll go and see her. But I can't promise anything. If she really wasn't in her right mind when she killed Fenner, then the most I can do for you is to construct a defence of diminished responsibility, and that will take time and a very good psychiatrist."

"Thank you," Yvonne said sincerely. "But if after talking to Lauren you can't continue with this case, I will totally understand. I'm not sure I'd want to take it on."

"I've never yet been frightened away from a case, no matter how difficult it looked."

On the Tuesday afternoon, Yvonne drove in through the gates of Larkhall. All remand and unsentenced prisoners are entitled to a visit every day, unlike convicted and sentenced prisoners who are lucky if they get one a week. It wasn't ever supposed to be like this, Yvonne thought as she made her way to the visitor's centre. Lauren had always come to see her, and it should never have been the other way round.

"I see you've been in the papers again, Atkins," Said Sylvia in greeting.

"One word like that to my daughter and you'll be out on your arse," Yvonne said in an undertone, as Sylvia patted her down. "Is that clear?"

"You want to watch your step, Atkins," Sylvia replied, "Or you'll end up banged up alongside your daughter."

"Sylvia, cut it out, now," Came Karen's firm, not to be messed with voice, clearly having had quite enough of Sylvia's antics for one day. When Yvonne's old nemesis had moved on to someone else, Yvonne said dryly,

"I see she's taken over where Fenner left off."

"She's been itching to put the boot in all day," Said Karen as they walked over to the visiting room.

"Has Lauren been acting up?"

"You know how it is," Said Karen, trying to make light of it. "Everyone regresses slightly for the first few days."

"If I thought it would make any difference, I'd apologise for her, but I don't think that's the last time I'll be apologizing for my daughter."

"She's twenty four, Yvonne," Said Karen matter-of-factly. "Whatever Lauren's done is one hundred percent her responsibility, not yours."

When Yvonne sat down across the table from Lauren, she couldn't quite believe they were here like this, Lauren sitting in the chair usually reserved for the con. Lauren looked tired and out of sorts.

"Hi Mum," She said as Yvonne leaned over to kiss her cheek. "When did you get back?"

"Last night. Karen picked me up from the airport and I saw you in court this morning."

"I did what you said. I didn't tell that wanker anything."

"Good. Listen, I went to see a barrister about you this morning, Jo Mills. Do you remember her?"

"The barrister who got Ritchie sent down?"

"Yes, and if anyone can get you off, she can. She knows the basics, but you've got to fill her in on the details because I can't do that for you. She's going to come and see you some time this week, and you've got to tell her everything, and I mean everything. The only way to get the right help from someone like her is to co-operate. Are you listening to me, Lauren?"

"Mum, I'm not fifteen, of course I'm listening. But if she knows I did it, how the hell is she going to get me off?"

"Jo reckons that the only defence you might have is one of diminished responsibility."

"Make out I'm soft in the head? You must be the one who's barking if you think I'm doing that."

"Just grow up for five minutes," Yvonne said fiercely but quietly. "You are on remand for the most serious crime possible. If you don't co-operate with Jo Mills and do exactly as she says, you're going down for a very long time. There is absolutely no denying that you did this, Lauren, so you're only hope is to plead diminished responsibility. What you did, Lauren, it's not normal, it's mad stuff. If you wake up and smell the coffee, you'll know that as well as I do. Do you really want to go down for life? Is that what you want?"

"No, of course not," Said Lauren in disgust.

"Then start acting your age and for god's sake realise what a bloody mess you're in. You're on remand for murder, which means there isn't a hope in hell of getting you out on bail. If I know anything, it'll take something like a year before you get back in to court, so you're going to have to knuckle down and behave while you're in here."

"Jesus," Said Lauren in quiet outrage, "That's rich coming from you."

"You're not me, Lauren. You're a hurt, angry and confused young woman who right this minute is acting like she's twelve years old again. I mean it, just keep your nose clean and stay out of Bodybag's way. Who've they put you in with?"

"I'm in a double cell on basic with Denny," Said Lauren miserably.

"Well, that's good," Said Yvonne, sending up a silent word of thanks to Karen for doing this. "Denny will look after you."

"As I told her this morning," Lauren hissed, "I don't need looking after."

"Lauren, you might be an Atkins, and I wish with all my heart that you weren't, and you might be more capable than most of looking after yourself, but one thing you don't do in here is to throw an offer of help back in someone's face. You'll need every bit of support you can get."

"All right," Said Lauren in adolescent defeat. "So, when's this barrister coming to see me?"

"She said it would probably be in a couple of days. Lauren, when she does come to see you, you will be nice to her, won't you."

"I don't believe I'm hearing this, Mum."

"I mean it," Yvonne insisted. "Jo is going to do everything she can to help you, and I don't want you ruining the only opportunity you might have."

Part Four

Selena ignored the venomous glare from Di Barker as she headed for Denny's and Lauren's cell. She knocked quietly and turned the keys and the huddled form of Lauren could be seen under the blankets. From years of institutional living at Larkhall, Denny was dressed according to the mental clock.

"Your brief's due in early this morning, Lauren. I'll take you down right after breakfast, when you're ready."

Lauren turned over in her narrow bunk, already having adjusted from the spacious double bed at what is or was home.

"What's the point? I ain't never going to get out of here," Lauren's despondent mumble filtered its way through the blankets.

"You're saying this after two days?" Denny's question was edged with controlled amazement. "You can't give up already, man, even if you feel like shit."

Denny had never seen Lauren like this, hair unkempt, no makeup and sunk into a deep depression. This was a million miles from the sophisticated, totally in control woman who had made her feel down at heel, even in her best clothes on her day out. The last day or so had worried her so much after she had heard Lauren talk so positively after Yvonne had bent her ear during what must have been a real mother/daughter argument. Denny had grinned as she could so easily fill in the blanks. To her horror, Lauren's self-confidence had plunged downwards like an express lift. She knew the signs as she'd seen it before in others and herself as well.

"Denny's right, Lauren. You have to be positive and make the effort," Selena said in her crisp but kindly voice.

It's all bloody words, Lauren fumed to herself. She was being shown up as being a right wimp and this was not her style. She shot out of bed like a cork out of a bottle and turned her back on everyone as she slung on her smartest clothes, and pulled her hairbrush fiercely through her long tangled hair and, in true female Atkins style, started on her makeup.

"She'll be fine, Miss," Denny muttered out of the corner of her mouth to Selena who nodded in agreement. That only made Lauren more angry as she was being talked about as if she couldn't hear. It would have been futile to point out that had anyone spoken to her, she would have bitten that person's head off. It was the tendency of any prisoner, no matter how old, to revert to adolescence in the first few days of imprisonment.

Selena smiled briefly at Denny, closed the door and walked up the metal stairs to Kris's cell.

Jo presented herself at the first of the series of bolts and bars that needed the presence of help to get her through.

"Oh yes, we're expecting you. You'd better come this way to Miss Betts' office. Governor's orders. She insisted that she see you first though I don't know why," Bodybag greeted her with the minimum of politeness and a suspicious glance in her direction while Jo nodded and her long legged easy stride kept pace just slightly behind the rapid self-important fussy steps of the smaller woman. She deposited Jo at her destination with the barest civilities and shot off down the corridor.

"It's good to see you again, Karen," Jo greeted her with a natural sense of diplomacy as her mind went back to the time when she was here previously and Karen was the helpful wing governor helping to assemble the case against Fenner and on a second occasion when she and George had subjected Karen to the cut and thrust grilling of her as a possible murder suspect outside and inside any court of law. However, thought Jo, time had separated them and had distanced that period of high drama in all their lives last autumn with the day to day bustle in their lives.

"Not for a social call regrettably. Still, I know from personal experience that she is in safe hands. I wanted to talk to you first to give you a bit of advice as to how she's likely to be. Is this the first time you've defended a client?"

"I've done defence work quite often before, though my normal work is as a prosecuting barrister where my clients are the CPS. I've visited clients in prison on remand before but this feels somehow like a new experience for me."

"You need to understand that most prisoners, no matter how old they are, revert to adolescence. You understand what I mean?"

Jo raised her fingers to her temple in reaction to a sympathetic headache, remembering days in the summer holidays before her younger son Mark left to go to university to either grow up or sink and counting the days. She remembered his tendency to grunt in an inaudible mumble at her and, when asked politely to talk louder, to turn up the volume control in his voice to the aggressively deafening. There were times when being in court was more relaxing and predictable than being at home.

"What advice would you give, Karen, in talking to Lauren from what you've seen."

"From initial reports, Lauren Atkins has alternated between depression and aggression," Karen's measured tones unreeled the report. "It's anyone's guess as to which Lauren Atkins you'll find but my advice is to get her to talk and go easy on her - easier than you did with me at any rate," Karen added at the end with a little nervous laugh.

"I'll try," Jo answered with a little smile. The reference put a strange twist on both their past and present.

"How's George? I did mean to ask earlier," Karen said suddenly, the words bursting out of her without premeditation.

"She's doing fine," Jo answered with a warm smile. "I know as I've got to know her better than I used too."

She found herself escorted by a polite young female prison officer along the maze of corridors past a short middle aged uniformed woman staring in disapproval of the world in general and into one of the visiting rooms for 'brief's as she heard herself described. The room reminded her of her early days in one of the more decrepit out of the way courts in the outbacks and painted in drab institutional colours to match the mood of the place. Nothing but a small battered wooden desk and a couple of hard chairs. She settled her papers out on the limited space and waited for Lauren to appear.

"So, you're the brief who's the miracle worker who can get me off this rap?" Lauren's slouch in her chair and eyes like black orbs pegged her, in Jo's eyes, as the archetypal adolescent.

"I'm the brief who made mincemeat of your brother if you remember, but I'm here to help you," Jo's low voice was pitched in very hard tones, which was the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face. It was all too unsettling as only her mother had that rarely used knack of getting through to her when she could be free to speak her mind, not someone else's. Charlie had relied on a mixture of charm and fear of the very tangible aura of that violent side of his personality, which dispensed with words beyond a certain level of frustration.

"Are you sure you're not my mum in disguise?" Lauren asked incredulously, instinctively straightening herself in her chair and leaning forward, her arms folded in front of her. Her attention was instantly sharpened and focussed on what this very strong woman had to say. Her mild exterior was a surface front and, like her mother, she related to what lay behind that person.

"Where do you want me to start?" Lauren offered, half fearfully, half eager for deliverance. She bit the bullet and placed her destiny wholly in the hands of someone else and that came hard to an Atkins.

Jo reached in to her handbag and fished out a packet of cigarettes and Lauren gratefully helped herself and angled her cigarette into the lighter flame offered by Jo who lit up, quietly demonstrating one thing the two women had in common.

"How's it been, since you've been here?" came the first approach on a safe and impersonal topic.

"Could be worse. I've got Big sister Denny to look after me and tell me if I'm talking a load of crap. The rest of the girls are great. Karen Betts, I mean Miss Betts, is playing it straight down the line and I can handle Bodybag now that……"

"Meaning?" Jo asked softly not deceived by Lauren's nonchalant manner and abrupt stop in dragging up the presence of the absent Fenner.

"Sylvia Hollamby, whose disapproval you're bound to meet. All us girls call her that as she's the resident Nazi. All prisons have one."

Jo grinned.

"Having your movements controlled 24 7 takes a lot of getting used to but I know what I miss most though it may sound stupid."

"I know enough, Lauren, to understand that sometimes the little things in life matter most."

"I miss my dog, Trigger. Sounds soft but it's true."

Her faint blush and the way she fidgeted showed her embarrassment at her making such a daft confession, but her slight smile signaled to Jo that she felt all the better for it and Jo's soothing reassuring manner was working.

"There's a lot of family background I need to know before I can even begin to understand the case. Perhaps you can help me out with this?"

Lauren exhaled cigarette smoke deeply into the air while isolated random memories shuffled themselves as if her mind was dealing them off the top of the pack. In her troubled life, she shrank back in time to when all was small scale, safe and innocent, well, as innocent as growing up an Atkins could ever be.

"I grew up with everything that money could buy, well Ritchie and I. We never took the number seven bus from Stepney Green like mum did when she was little. Mum drove us to school, all dressed up, me with my ribbons in my hair. It was always some flash motor that she changed fairly often as Charlie wanted to show off to the locals how much money we had, 'nothing was too good for my princess' Charlie told me with that proud possessive smile on his face which I thought meant how much he loved me, that I would do anything for him. Ritchie was the same and he was the first born, the man of the family after Charlie, Mum's little angel," at which point Lauren grimaced and stopped.

"He had a way with words which made you want to believe him and he used it on Mum, Ritchie and me all the time."

"Used it?" Queried Jo. "You make it sound not quite real."

"It felt real when I was growing up." Past blind instincts grappled for control in the tones of semi approval in Lauren's voice before being pushed back. "The Atkins business was a man's world, just like all Charlie's friends. Women were an adornment, something and someone to show off and know their place. You see, there was the other side of Charlie."

"If you don't mind me asking, why do you call him Charlie as opposed to Mum for Yvonne?" Jo's curiosity got the better of her.

"Because that's his name," Lauren's tones suddenly hardened and turned abrupt. "What the bleeding hell do you think I'd call him, Daddy?"

That was precisely what George's ultra sophisticated, ultra cool outward persona called Joe Channing without a shred of embarrassment, Jo's lightning flash of thought told herself before hastening to pour oil on troubled waters. Jumping into Lauren's memory came the image of her as the Black Angel of Death standing on the front steps of another court as the pizza delivery man whipped out a pistol. The one crack shot splattered Charlie's blood all over his latest piece of skirt and he dropped flat on the ground. Charlie had died months before as her father as he had totally betrayed and stitched up Mum before his sudden physical death.

"You're quite right, it doesn't matter and we're getting off track. I'm sorry."

"Mum was always around for me," Lauren thought fondly, a smile softening her steel hard persona. "When I was alone with her, she was a different woman, softer and gentler and was only harder and tougher when Charlie was around. She loved him but she needed him too much. I'll never forget the one time I answered him back. I could see the fear in her eyes, everything went quiet for a second and he started sounding off, just as if everything was normal, like close families are supposed to be. Ritchie never said a thing."

"And what happened next?"

"I saw the bruises on her arms later and she made some excuse. I knew Mum was covering up as I overheard Charlie shouting at Mum, complaining that she hadn't got enough discipline over us and she was being too soft. He said that she would regret it later on and that his own mother ruled the house with a rod of iron while his father was working hard to get the money to support the family. She had all the time in the world as she was at home all day. That was before she got a job in the betting shop when we got older but Charlie thought of that as pin money compared to the money his businesses was raking in.

"Can you explain to me what growing up as an Atkins is about."

'the Atkins values', 'the Atkins values' those words were what were spinning round in her mind but they were the words that caused her to be as she was and talking about it was her lifeline to understanding herself but had brought her to where she was in life.

"If you get hit, you hit back harder," Lauren intoned the litany. "Everything's fair in love and war and you need outside muscle, like the hit man Mum hired because Charlie Williams was moving in on the Atkins's turf. You need guns around you or someone's going to finish you off when you're not looking. The Atkins world is a man's world. There's no place for softness in life, that's for losers."

A gentle dismissive smile spread slowly across Lauren's face as she saw the daydream in front of her eyes that was so real, the softness of Roisin's and Cassie's bodies as they gently made love together. She didn't need to be an Atkins when she was in bed with them. Then or when they comforted her after Ritchie's suicide.

"What was it like when you got older?" Jo gently asked.

"Like anyone does when they realise that their cosy little world doesn't fit anymore," Lauren addressed her idealised version of childhood in that hard Atkins voice and stared right through Jo into her past. "Mine was never that cosy. It just meant that I got to see that the car hire company which I thought that Charlie brought in the readies, was a front for a drugs baron. Half the drugs, which went through the East end of London, went through Charlie and that bought the villa in Spain where I went on holidays. It meant that when I discovered men, I never wanted any soft, pathetic, dick brained man to faun over like in the soaps. I only knew hard men like Charlie but I was always harder than them, in bed and out of it. I needed to be tough so that…so that …nothing would hurt me ever again like when I was little."

Lauren fumbled for an extra large sized tissue and blew hard into it while corners of it covered her eyes and concealed her tears. A part of Lauren hated herself for feeling that way as Atkins didn't do tears or being scared. Right now, she did both.

"And do you still feel that you need to be tough and hard?" Jo gently asked, feeling a mixture of horror and sympathy at what was being unveiled before her eyes.

"Not any more, but the Lauren Atkins that killed Fenner felt differently."

"Do you want a break, Lauren?" Jo asked as she offered another cigarette. In truth, she needed a break as much as anyone while all the details of this case were funneling into her mind. This was a case like nothing she had handled before.

Lauren smiled gratefully at this little touch of consideration from the other woman who had that sureness of touch in engaging with her. At the best of times, she knew that she could be prickly and abrasive but the circumstances of that crazy period in her life would be bound to make her feel dangerously aggressive or suicidally guilt ridden or both together.

"So, tell me how you felt when you were up in the gallery and I was in court prosecuting Snowball Merriman and your brother."

"I wanted that evil tart to be banged up in prison for life for stinging Mum and me out of fifty grand and for what she did to those women who were nearly burnt to death and for Shaz Wiley who was killed. Denny's told me a lot about it since I've been here," Lauren snapped furiously, pleased to feel that her anger could be directed at a target that deserved it.

"Have you resented me for prosecuting Ritchie and getting him sent down?"

"Not at all," Lauren blew out the answer with a cloud of cigarette smoke. "You did what you had to do. He had that coming to him for being stupid enough to let Merriman take over what brains he ever had. He let down the Atkins family by robbing us blind, swanning in from Spain, giving Mum all that hearts and flowers stuff when he knew that mum would feel as guilty as hell from the last time she saw him. All this 'my little angel' shit. Besides, to get at her, you had to get at him, also You heard what mum and Karen said in the trial about Ritchie and I know that you remember it right."

A flood of memories came into Jo's mind of that trial but the level headed way that Lauren looked her in the eye and talked to her as adult to adult showed her mother's strength and gave her hope that, in this seriously disturbed woman, there was the strength in her for what she had to face. Jo smiled in recognition and it did not need Lauren a great stretch of her imagination to see that her point had got home.

"I have to ask you, Lauren, and please bear with me but can you explain how you felt when Ritchie committed suicide?"

That brought Lauren up short. For a second, her anger glared out at Jo in a way that made her feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, stuck in a room where no outside sounds could be heard. Then Lauren was pulled into the centre of a swirl of confused feelings and she could not keep up the tough act any more. She looked down at the table and grabbed at a lock of long black hair that straggled down at the side of her face. There was a palpable feeling of grief fighting with pride in the way that she huddled up into herself that didn't want a comforting hand on her shoulder. She had to be allowed her own time before she could carry on and her half smoked cigarette end smouldered away in the ashtray where it was roughly stubbed out.

"I felt that I had let him down. Bastard though he was, he was still my brother. Naturally, being an Atkins, I took it out on the nearest person to hand, Karen, I mean Miss Betts. I acted like a cow that night, and blamed her for being there when Snowball fired her gun and Ritchie got shot and not her. Pathetic isn't it?" Lauren grimaced.

"I remember when my husband died many years ago, and the way I behaved wasn't exactly rational," Jo's soft tones gently comforted as if it were a helping hand stretched out. Impersonal comfort wasn't her thing, perhaps a weakness or a strength. "Was there any special reason why you behaved that way to Karen except for her being there?"

She knew this one was coming, Lauren sighed to herself but having come so far she might as well go the whole hog. She was in the hands of this gentle considerate woman who she had seen as a force of nature in a court of law.

"I had found out half way through the trial that my mum and Karen were an item. They made it pretty bloody obvious when we were all in the gallery, holding hands. I was jealous of them and, besides, Atkins women didn't behave that way or so I used to think."

Jo was silent as she smoked her cigarette which gave her time to think as she came to grips with the complexities of what she would have to put over in a court of law.

"Let's get to the point," Lauren grabbed a hold on the conversation as Ritchie's last words and testament demanded to be heard.and propelled the conversation onwards. "Ritchie wrote a letter to me which says everything as to why I killed Fenner….."

"I haven't got the letter with me, Lauren," Jo mildly interjected.

"……doesn't matter," Cut in Lauren abruptly. "I can remember the letter word for word and this is what he told me.

'Dear Lauren,

You're probably more furious with me than Mum is right now. But you know me, I don't do a hard life. I never have, and now I never will. You probably think all this is my own fault, and yeah, I suppose most of it is. But that's another thing isn't it, us, the Atkins family, we don't do blame. Only, it ain't quite worked out like that. I can't ask Mum for what I need you to do, because she won't do it. She never was a real Atkins, only in name. But you and me, Lauren, we've got Charlie Atkins' blood in us all the way. Lauren, I need you to get rid of Fenner for me. Don't throw this away until you've read what I have to say. You were there through the whole of the trial like Mum was, so you heard that stupid wanker of a barrister we had first, trying to pull Karen Betts' evidence to shreds because of what I think he was told by Fenner. Lauren, Fenner did rape Karen, I know he did. You don't sleep with as many women as I have, without knowing when something just isn't right. Lauren, a bit of me loved her. I know that's not how it was supposed to be, but I did, probably still do. She didn't deserve what I did to her. But I can't put any of that right now. This is why I'm asking you to get Fenner out of the picture for good. I can't put right the things I've done, but if you'll do this one thing for me, I can take away one of the worst things that's ever happened to her. You know that Fenner deserves a dose of the Atkins justice as well as I do. Please do this for me, Lauren, please. Don't tell Mum I've asked you. She's stayed on the straight and narrow since she got out, and we both know she won't be in favour of doing what's right. But you're still my sister, and you weren't Charlie Atkins' protégé for nothing. The best shooter in the East End is my little sister.

I'm proud of you Sis,


Lauren stumbled to a halt as Ritchie's final words to her died on the wind and in that moment, she said her last final painful goodbye to Ritchie. She put her hands to her eyes and quietly cried to herself, forgetting Jo's presence, as all the hurt in her was painfully forced out. Her body shook in spasms for all the pain she had ever felt in her life, which she had never let out and had remained trapped within her skin. Jo felt helpless, being an onlooker to Lauren's feelings as if her hands were tied and she was condemned to just being an onlooker. It horrified her to hear the spoken words of how much real love there was between brother and sister however much they had both denied it. Even she could see that the big mouthed man whom she had verbally shredded in that trial had some sense of human decency in his own way. Everything to her mind was making sense in a twisted way and that even to her detached mind, how certain words were written in flames of vengeance and guilt. It was clear how the Atkins family values acted as a powerful undertow like that of a huge rolling Atlantic breaking wave and pulled Lauren into acting as she did. There was only one thing that she needed to know, her relationship with Fenner.

"That letter explains a lot to me. The only thing I need to know is why you came to hate Fenner and how you came to kill him. He was asked to give evidence as, believe it or not, that slimy untrustworthy man was pretty central to the case. As for George Channing, she cut him to shreds partly out of sheer pleasure. I have to demonstrate to the court that not only did you act as you did for the last wishes of your brother, but that you had reason to hate Fenner."

"It goes back a long way," Lauren's ice cold voice dripped with a hatred that she was not ashamed of. "I used to visit mum in prison and always, that pig was his usual sneering vicious self. I know from mum that he was responsible for every rotten thing that happened at Larkhall. Everyone hated him, all the women who were watching the trial. I know that he tried to blackmail Karen Betts to cover up for the way he let that tart Merriman string him along by his dick. But….that doesn't explain why I went as far as to kill him," Lauren slowed down and relaxed back in her chair for the first time during the interview.

"I swear to God that after I got that note from Ritchie, I wasn't in my right mind, Jo. Early on in the trial, Mum had told me that she wanted him out of the picture for good, same as Ritchie did and threatened him that if he either laid another finger on Miss Betts, or if he kept his promise to discredit Karen's evidence, she would have him nailed."

"Oh?" Jo asked out of interest.

"But I don't want you thinking that mum put me up to that," Lauren hurriedly and almost aggressively explained. "She wanted to go straight after she came out of Larkhall and I mean straight. She would not have heard of anyone doing anything like what I did to Fenner but her words and Ritchie's letter nagged at me till something in me went kind of funny."

Lauren shook her head in a dazed fashion as she tried to recall for herself how she had acted and felt in that crazed period of her life before making one final push.

"I was in some sort of invisible tunnel that told me how to stalk Fenner for weeks on end, what time he came and went, what pubs he went too, everything about his movements and carried it all round in my head like some detailed blueprint. If people aren't expecting to be followed, they won't be on the lookout. Mum never knew a thing as I was working, I wasn't a child that she had to ask where I was coming and going any more. It was some huge obsession that swallowed up everything in my life. The only break I got from that was seeing Roisin and Cassie and their kids and I could be Auntie Lauren, that other person." And here Lauren smiled in a surprisingly innocent fashion, which transformed her whole personality before resuming her grim self imposed task.

"As luck would have it, I caught him on a Sunday afternoon when he was just going to let himself in to his house when he least expected trouble. After that everything was easy. All you've got to do is to work out your moves in advance and what he might do to break loose. We drove all the way to Epping Forest with me pointing a gun at him, scared shitless. Once I'd got him off the beaten track, I got him to do just what I wanted. He knew better than to argue with an Atkins with a gun pointed at him. He dug his own grave or rather, the grave I'd dug for him and covered up, got him to stand in the grave, shot him and gradually covered him with earth and buried him alive. I felt as high as a kite all this time. Doesn't bear thinking about," Lauren finished in a tone of voice that was as if she were an incredulous spectator to her own crime rather than the flat recital of the events as if a crime reporter might relate.

Jo finished smoking her cigarette. She would have no problem in remembering every word Lauren had said even if it might give her nightmares. She was doing it for Yvonne's sake and she knew now why Yvonne could never tell her what had happened. In a weird way, it seemed possible to Jo that Lauren killed Fenner to regain her mother's attention. Ordinarily, that would seem a crazy, out of the way idea but then again, everything she had seen, heard and read was totally unusual. It was bizarre that just one prison was the source of two such enormously complicated trials.

"You've not asked me for any details of what I did to Fenner," Lauren asked, half fearfully and thinking that a brief would probe over every detail of the crime. That was what she had expected and most feared.

"I wanted to find out not what you did but why," Jo gently told her. "That is far more important than anything."

"What chance do you think I have? Tell it to me straight," Lauren replied to her huge relief, her appealing eyes stared up at Jo now that she could relinquish the strain of reliving the person that she used to be.

"I can't make any promises but I will promise to do my very best to help you Lauren."

"That is good enough for me," smiled Lauren, hugely relieved to have so slight a promise in contrast to so many meaningless extravagant promises she had received and wouldn't be let down.

A silence fell on the room while two mentally exhausted women collected their wits till there was a polite knock on the door. Karen entered the room followed by Selena.

"Have you finished, Jo?"

"Just done. You'll hear from me in future and Karen Betts will arrange any further meetings as things crop up."

While Selena led Lauren back to her cell to crash out on her bunk as she had mentally purged herself, Karen led Jo back out into the sunshine. She looked at her watch and it was only an hour since she had come to the first of the bolts and bars. It seemed that an eternity had passed since she had last crossed the threshold. Karen seemed at ease with herself but, as she said goodbye, the one thought that was at the top of all that was buzzing round in her mind was that Karen didn't know the half of how Fenner had come to die. Jo prided herself in being able to face any awkward moment but her mind shrank from even contemplating just how Karen would hear all the clinical details in court such as her rapidly growing file held in its depths.

Part Five

On the evening of Saturday the eighth of January 2005, Jo Mills knew that there was one last thing she had to do before the start of the Lauren Atkins trial on Monday. Jo had spent the last year getting to grips with Lauren's defence of diminished responsibility, obtaining reports from psychiatrists and witness statements from Lauren's mother, Lauren's closest friend and her cell mate Denny Blood. It had taken a lot for Jo to really get her head round what Lauren had done on the fifth of October 2003, and she couldn't be said to have taken up this case lightly. But she had come to the realisation a long time ago that she wasn't doing this for Lauren, her client, she was doing this for Yvonne. At the end of the day, Yvonne was a mother, just like Jo, and Yvonne was only doing the best she could for her daughter. But there was still one link in the network of communication, which had led to this crime that still hadn't been satisfactorily prepared for the upcoming trial. This pinnacle of all Jo's current worries was Karen Betts. As far as Jo was aware, Yvonne, Cassie Tyler, Denny Blood and Dr. Margaret Richards, were all acquainted with exactly what Lauren had done to James Fenner. These were Jo's four witnesses other than Lauren herself, Dr. Richards being a psychiatrist friend of Karen's. But Jo knew that Karen would without doubt be present at this trial, and that she didn't know just how Fenner had died. The first few times Jo had thought about what Lauren had actually done, she'd been unable to suppress a shudder, but she'd had a year to gradually become accustomed to the idea that she was defending someone who had not only shot a man to paralyze him, but who had buried said man alive. Jo had tentatively suggested that Yvonne put Karen in the picture before the trial, but Yvonne perfectly understandably had been unable to do it. Fenner had been Karen's one time lover, and even though he had raped Karen, one reason for which he had eventually been killed, the way in which he had died would still come as an enormous shock to Karen. But, as Jo wasn't about to break the rules governing client confidentiality, the only option left open to her was to make sure that there would be someone in the public gallery who could offer Karen some moral support. Jo would be utterly incapable of doing this as she would be in full flow defending her client, but she couldn't simply leave it to chance as to how Karen might react. She knew too much of what Karen had gone through at the hands of Fenner to simply allow her to find out how he had died without putting someone there who could try to do what Jo couldn't. Her thoughts naturally would have veered towards John, but as he would hopefully be presiding over the trial, if he could prize it away from Monty Everard, this was impossible. The only person left to her was George.

The last time George and Karen had been in the same room together, their meeting had been anything but amicable. George had been in the process of ruthlessly questioning Karen as to her own culpability in Fenner's murder. But this had been fifteen months ago, and they had all moved on a long way from then. With her visits to see Lauren over the last year, Jo had come in to contact with Karen on a number of occasions, the two women always making time to catch up with each other. Jo was also aware that Karen had seen quite a lot of John over this time. Quite when and how their friendship had begun, Jo didn't always like to contemplate. But she had no doubts that what friendship did exist between Karen and John was purely platonic. Jo privately thought that Karen was good for John, someone who would always give him nothing but the absolute unvarnished truth, no matter how much he might not want to hear it. Jo had no doubt that Karen was aware of Jo, John's and George's thruway relationship, but this didn't bother her. Karen knew how to be discrete having had too much of her private life brought out for all to see during the Merriman/Atkins trial. It was an odd thing, Jo thought to herself, that Karen usually asked after George when she saw Jo, and George occasionally asked after Karen, yet neither having had contact with the other for over a year. But Jo knew that if Karen reacted badly to hearing how Fenner had died, George would be able to handle the situation tactfully and sensitively. Good God, she thought, that really did show just how much things had changed between them all. Before the Merriman/Atkins trial, Jo would rather have spent an hour in the company of a poisonous snake than an hour with George. But since George had begun to remove some of her outer layers of scorn, pride and bitterness, and they'd begun on this arrangement by which John could continue to have a relationship of sorts with both she and George, though meaning that he was banned from chasing other women, Jo and George had slipped in to a closeness that Jo suspected neither of them had ever had in a friend before. The legal profession, especially in the days when they'd both entered it, hadn't allowed for female friends, it being a world of either domineering males or equally backstabbing females, all eager to reach the top by the fastest route. But here they were, fifteen months on, and all three of them were relaxed with this new arrangement. It had taken both Jo and George some time to get used to the idea, but they'd eventually overcome the awkwardness and could now freely talk about John, it no longer being taboo to mention and occasionally discuss the evenings they spent with John. Each in their own way had crossed a line, removed a barrier. Jo's being the hurdle of jealousy that John did sometimes sleep with George instead of her, and George's the burden of guilt that she was making John cheat on Jo, no matter how much it might have been Jo's idea in the first place. But they had gradually dispensed with these negative feelings, both having made a concerted effort not to tread on the other's toes, learning pretty quickly that communication was the way to avoid problems. For the first time in her life, Jo really was happy with the relationship she had with John, and the friendship she had with George. She was now able to feel that she could rely on John not to stray, not to wander off and pick up some nameless stranger. Jo had been right, on that Halloween evening when she had initially suggested this new arrangement. She did feel far more secure in the knowledge that although John might still sleep with George on a regular basis, he would never entirely go back to George, and that George would never try to persuade him to go back. This meant that Jo was finally beginning to trust him, which was still something of a novelty in her relationship with John. But this wasn't the only advantage of their little triangle. Both Jo and George were getting a great deal out of having a female friend, something neither of them would ever relinquish for anyone.

So, knowing that John was at the digs reading through the papers for the coming trial, still hopeful of getting it away from Monty Everard, Jo drove over to George's, wondering how she would take her request. In personality, George had changed quite a lot since this new arrangement with John and Jo had begun. She was altogether softer, a few of her sharper edges having been sanded down by a regular dose of expert loving from John, and by her gradually allowing Jo to get that bit closer to her. This didn't by any stroke of the imagination mean that George didn't still have the capacity to make verbal mincemeat of any opponent, it simply meant that she was able to drop this harsh facade behind closed doors. She had managed to regain most of the weight lost during that extremely serious bout of Anorexia that had so irrevocably removed any lasting barrier between her and Jo. She hadn't found this easy to do, but with the support and encouragement coming from both sides, she had at last managed to regain a size that whilst not ideal, was certainly no longer life threatening. It had surprised George more than a little that beginning the process of unburdening herself with Jo had been so good for her, and that even now, if she thought she was drifting back in to the cycle of depression and starvation that had almost killed her, Jo would be there to pull her out again. After the initial session of verbal purging Jo had put her through after she'd fainted in court, George had been reluctant to go through anything similar a second or a third time, but Jo had usually managed to coax her to do so.

George hadn't been unduly surprised to see Jo on the Saturday evening. The Lauren Atkins trial in which Jo was defending was starting on Monday, and George figured that Jo would likely want to talk about it.

"You look incredibly stressed," Said George, after pouring Jo a Scotch and a Martini for herself.

"I've got a problem," Jo said without preamble.

"Well, that much is obvious," Said George, receiving a brief roll of the eyes from Jo.

"How busy are you this week?"

"That sounds like a loaded question," Replied George carefully. "It depends how much of my week you want to appropriate."

"Certainly the first couple of days of it. After that, I'm not sure."

"Start at the beginning," George said, having absolutely no idea what Jo wanted from her.

"I could really do with you in court for the start of the Atkins trial."

"Jo, I know I've been doing more and more criminal work recently, but you're still by far the better criminal QC out of both of us."

"I don't mean on the defence bench," Said Jo with a smile. "I need you to be in the public gallery."

"What on earth for?" Asked George, clearly intrigued.

"Against my continuous advice, Karen Betts hasn't been brought up to speed with the exact details of how Fenner met his end. As far as I'm aware, everyone else who needs to know in advance of Monday does. But Karen doesn't."

"And why is it so absolutely necessary that she be informed prematurely?"

"Well, there's now no hope of her being told beforehand, but I think it's going to come as quite a shock to her. After having prized snippets of information out of John, I'm pretty sure that at the time, Karen couldn't entirely support what Lauren had done because Fenner had previously been her lover. You know how it is, George, when someone is suddenly removed from our lives, we initially remember only what was good about them, no matter how much we might have been hurt by them."

"And you're guessing that's what Karen did when Fenner was killed?"

"Yes. She'd never admit it, not to anyone, except perhaps John, but I think part of her missed what she'd once had with Fenner, even though it led to one of the worst experiences of her life."

"Do you think this is why Yvonne hasn't put Karen in the picture?"

"Possibly, but I think it's got more to do with what actually happened."

"If I'm going to be in the public gallery supposedly for moral support, you'd better fill me in, though quite why you think Karen will take any offer of help from me, I can't imagine."

"Whenever I've seen her over the last year, she's almost always asked after you," Jo said quietly, knowing that George deeply regretted questioning Karen so ruthlessly on that mid October day, even though George had never said so.

"I don't know what for," George said with a frown, but Jo wasn't fooled. This was George's way of hiding how touched she was.

"The first witness that Neumann Mason-Alan is going to put on the stand on Monday afternoon," Said Jo, returning to safer ground, "Will be the pathologist who did Fenner's postmortem. I think it's then that Karen will find out what Lauren actually did to Fenner. I don't think even Neumann would put something like that in his opening speech."

"What exactly do I need to be prepared to deal with?"

"I really shouldn't be doing this, George."

"I know," George said softly. "Breaking client confidentiality just isn't you, which means that you obviously think there's a necessity for doing it. You've never discussed one little detail of this case, something which you probably ought to be proud of if it's that bad."

"Lauren Atkins abducted Fenner at gunpoint, drove him to Epping Forest and made him dig his own grave." Here Jo stopped, and didn't continue until she'd lit herself a cigarette and taken a long drag. "She shot him, not to kill him but to stop him from defending himself. I'm certain Neumann will show the photographs, which might be what Karen will react to."

"If the shot didn't kill him, what did?"

"She buried him alive." George recoiled like she'd been slapped.

"Jo, are you absolutely sure you know what you're doing in defending this case?"

"There's no way Lauren Atkins was completely sane when she did it."

"Well, I'll take that as read," George said in disgust.

"I'm not doing this for Lauren Atkins," Jo explained, "I'm doing this for Yvonne."

"I don't believe you," George announced, her voice rising with anger fuelled by her concern for Jo. "You're doing exactly what you did when you attempted to prosecute that case for Karen. You've got emotionally involved up to your neck in something that let's face it, is a bit peculiar to say the least. Karen's case did at least have merit behind it."

"In case you've forgotten, George, all three of us, you, me and John, were all up to our necks in this case long before Yvonne arrived at my door. We knew precisely who had killed Fenner even before the police did. If any other barrister had taken on this defence, they'd likely have asked enough questions to find out that it was Karen who gave us Lauren's name. Yvonne still doesn't, and if I've got anything to do with it, she never will know that. Don't you remember just how much of your prosecution-style questioning it took to drag that all important piece of information out of Karen?"

"You don't have to remind me of that day," Said George, self-recrimination dripping from every syllable.

"No, I know I don't," Said Jo, calming down slightly. "But you have to understand that that's partly why I'm doing this. After having read Fenner's forensic report, there is absolutely no way that Karen could ever have entertained the possibility of doing what Lauren did, and you and me owe it to her to somehow support her through this trial. Not John, because in his infinitely bloody minded wisdom he believed her from the start. Not John, but you and me both thought Karen Betts if not actually guilty then at least possibly guilty of Fenner's murder. I can't be with her when she discovers how her once lover was killed, but you can. As for the reasoning behind what happened, if you come to court, you'll find out, and then maybe you'll understand why I'm doing this for Yvonne as much as for Karen."

"Okay," George said quietly. "I haven't got much on this week, at least not on Monday and Tuesday, so I'll be there. It'll be quite odd, seeing Karen again," She ended somewhat meditatively, also thinking that Jo had just given her the perfect excuse she needed for having cleared much of this week of appointments in the first place. George knew full well that she would have been at court on Monday whether or not Jo had asked her to be. Karen would undoubtedly be there, and to see her again was an opportunity George just couldn't bring herself to miss. It gave her a nervous sense of adolescent excitement somewhere deep inside her when she thought of what it would be like to see Karen again after all this time, after the many times George had dreamt of her over the last year. When Jo left an hour or so later, George gave her a tight, half-impulsive hug.

"Just be careful," She said in to Jo's hair. It was very rare that they touched like this and the contact was nearly always initiated by George, but Jo was nevertheless grateful for it and for George's sentiment.

"Just promise me one thing," She said with a broad smile. "I don't want any audience participation from you if I screw up."

"Well, there's an easy answer to that," George said with a mischievous grin. "Don't screw up. Though I might not be able to forego the pleasure of commenting on Neumann Mason-Alan's cross-examination. It'll be an interesting exercise being in the public gallery instead of on the bench for a change. But I mean it," She said, again turning serious. "Please be careful."

Part Six

The house was too still and quiet for Yvonne, these days now that she rattled around on her own in contrast to years ago when the place was full of life, for good or bad. Another Christmas had passed and, this time, Lauren wasn't at home to share it with her nor Karen either. Even Trigger clearly missed one of his mistresses being around as his tail hung low and his big round doggy eyes looked up at Yvonne asking questions. Once more, she was to drive the familiar route to Larkhall from the date of the visiting order that she had been sent. It helped give her some purpose in life.

Aside from Cassie and Roisin whom she was going to pick up from home, Yvonne met up with Karen from time to time as in the old days for a drink in a nearby pub. The pleasant flow of conversation suited both their purposes as intelligent women who wanted more out of life than wondering what was going to happen in Corrie and talking about Changing Rooms and the normal dull suburban commonplaces. It might have been expected by the casual observer in the pub with ears for casual talk but not eyes to see but both their lives had defied normal expectations in the way that they had intertwined. The bread and butter of their conversation was about the way Lauren was bearing up over the months. Yvonne knew that Karen would keep a discreet yet searching lookout for what was going on at Larkhall. Outside of that, they let the conversation drift in whatever way it cared to blow.

It was a relief to be out of the house to go, with Cassie and Roisin to visit Denny and Lauren, as Yvonne coupled the two names with a gulp. She was used to Denny being a fixture in Larkhall, having come from the children's home that she had torched but Lauren being there, even if on remand, it had hit her hard. She had got used to saying to herself to have faith in the one brief and the one judge who would give them the time of day and not as a client to make their money out of. At heart, she feared for Lauren and a sinking feeling in her stomach told her that Lauren could be put away for a very long time.

She couldn't wait to be out into the cold, sharp winter sunshine with the sun barely peeking through the trees and casting long shadows and she powered her red Ferrari round to the sanctuary of Cassie and Roisin's. For once, they were on their own as on no account would they dream of taking the children to Larkhall prison after the dreadful experiences of Aiden hurling abuse at their mother and later, being stopped at the last minute from seeing them.

Roisin greeted Yvonne effusively with open arms and a big warm hug that was almost motherly, as she knew all too well what it was like being separated from your children. This time, Yvonne's situation was reversed from her own experience of being in Larkhall. The fact that Lauren was twenty-four made no difference in Roisin's eyes as, in her mind, you never leave your children. Yvonne felt warmed through and through equally by Cassie's light hearted joking and her companionship. They looked so well together with each other that she could never be jealous of them but bathe in a soothing undemanding loyal friendship.

They had half an hour to kill and, while Cassie checked herself over in the mirror to ensure that she looked her best, Roisin poured out cups of coffee and chatted away to her.

Yvonne lay back in the comfiest armchair, which seemed to swallow her up.

"We'd better go, girls. Can't be late for Old Bodybag," Yvonne smiled faintly.

"To think that we'd see the day that we would ever set foot in that place again," Roisin's intense Irish spirit was awash with loathing for the place and said the same thing each time they went.

"We'll be all right, babe, but Bodybag will be sicker of seeing us than we will of seeing her," Cassie grinned mischievously. The balance of power had shifted in their favour as her impotence to boss them about aggravated her temper every time.

Yvonne smiled broadly, enormously grateful for their company. She could do with a few laughs in her life. She drove the car steadily down leafy roads, in her mirror seeing Cassie and Roisin cuddling up together. For once, the radio was off as the casual friendly chat was a version of when they met up but carried along on four wheels.

Pretty soon, the city streets closed in and the familiar signposts directed them in to their destination and all three of them felt that familiar sick feeling as if they were forced against their wills to pass through the solid wooden gates and let those high stone walls, topped with curled barbed wire, surround them. No matter how many times they visited, they never lost that initial feeling.

Yvonne swung her car to a halt and they made their way to the gatehouse, inside the massive open wooden door which was swung back.

"VO for Denny Blood and Lauren Atkins," Yvonne insisted with the firmness of an ordinary member of the public who could reasonably expect proper treatment as of right.

"You know which way to go," came the response that did not look their way.

Instantly, they trooped into the room where Bodybag's hectoring voice lectured the audience that the prisoners were to stay in their seats and did not move until they were told to.

"Oh you again," Came the hostile tones. "Thought we'd get a holiday from you three."

"Aaah Sylvia," Emphasised Yvonne in parody, "we thought you'd miss us if we stopped coming. Give you something to look forward to, Miss."

"No backchat then, Atkins…"

"Yvonne Atkins, if you please. I'm a free woman remember."

Bodybag pointedly ignored them to hector prisoners who would put up with her ways. Close the prisoners in their kennels and no home visits, that's the answer to a smoothly running prison. If she'd told Stewart and then Betts, she'd told them a thousand times but would they listen? So Jo Soap had to struggle on, and noone thanked her for the way she struggled on.

Gina Rossi entered the visiting room and felt the invisible backwash of bad atmosphere between Sylvia and Yvonne and tut tutted under her breath. Why does the silly cow try to get one over Yvonne Atkins as she loses every time. She's as much chance as being 'made over' as Britney Spears in "Stars in your Eyes."

"Hi, Yvonne," She greeted her with a broad smile much to Bodybag's annoyance as she had to put down her magazine. "Make yourself at home. Is that Cassie Tyler and Roisin Connor? Haven't seen you for months."

"Why thank you," Roisin flashed her brilliant smile while Bodybag scowled impotently at that Irish druggie.

"It's nice to meet a decent screw," Yvonne smiled.

"More than she gets," Gina muttered cryptically, jerking a thumb in Bodybag's direction who was staring vacantly around.

Yvonne grinned and Denny and Lauren came forward, Denny with a big grin and Lauren following with an uncertain smile. This was not the confident Lauren that Yvonne had seen before.

"We're really sorry, babe, that we haven't seen you for a while," Cassie ventured apologetically.

Tears sprang into Lauren's eyes and she hugged the other woman tightly.

"Here, none of that," Bodybag sounded off, her eyes alert for only one thing at visiting time.

Gina let that one pass, as, technically, she was right to restrict the amount of human contact, which was a very effective way of smuggling in drugs. It's just because the cow wasn't getting it that she enforced the rule so rigidly.

"I'm really glad you could come here just before the trial as I'm really scared," Lauren frankly confessed as Jo's last visit had made her all too acutely aware of what she was up against. The five of them comandeered a couple of tables and chairs which Gina's warning eye told Bodybag not to do her jobsworth routine and object to.

"Hey, I thought Atkins didn't do scared."

"Mum and I are just better at hiding it, that's all, Denny."

The other woman puzzled over this one, her forehead furrowed in deep thought, trying to get her head round this one. She had seen that Lauren had got over her initial shock of being locked up for the first time in her life and she had slipped effortlessly into Yvonne's old shoes as 'top dog.' with that mixture of diamond hard confidence, sharp intelligence and the sense of invisible feelers for what went on in Larkhall. The difference between Lauren and Yvonne was that there was far less to battle against with some decent screws coming back to Larkhall and Miss Betts's firm but fair regime. Lauren had achieved a balance of sorts, which was helped out by the personal officer that she was allocated.

"I'm Dominic McAllister and I'm to be your personal officer. Any problems you have around here then give us a shout and I will see what I can do to help," Were the first words from the polite knock on the door first thing and a fairly shy, pleasant good looking man appeared round the door.

"Why, thank you," Lauren started in with a slightly mocking and seductive stare. "I'll be hanging on your every word."

"So long as you don't buy me a new Harley Davidson like your mum did. I had a great burn up the Old Kent road but I wasn't allowed to keep it. I have to stick by the rules, same as you do."

Lauren did a double take, sensing the traces of humour, which coloured but did not soften the very serious way he took his job and remembered Mum talking about him with affection. Things were starting to look up.

"Look, I know it will be a week max before you take over the running of G wing but just don't give us a hard time as there's been a few changes amongst the prison officers since your mum was here."

"I promise you faithfully that I'll behave myself," Came the half flippant reply which she softened up. "You were fond of mum, weren't you."

"It's weird, when I first came here and I was new and inexperienced that I was told to watch out for your Mum and Nikki Wade as the troublemakers and there was no harm in either of them when you got to know them, yet the one prisoner who did give me trouble, Shell Dockley, was one that I was never warned about. I make my own mind up but I'm a good listener And yes, I'm fond of her."

"Suits me fine," Lauren's casual reply told him that he had passed the Atkins test with flying colours.

So Denny reasoned to herself that Lauren had felt she was only here temporarily but the days had relentlessly crossed themselves off the wall till the date of the trial until the one-day's mark remained. The days of decision were on her.

"I just think that it's such an open and shut case no matter what Jo Mills has been telling me. I can sort of believe it myself when she's talking but a day after she's gone out the door and I'm back the same way of thinking before she comes."

"You've got one of the best barristers and the best judge that I've ever seen," Yvonne's respect evident in her choice of words to describe Jo Mills and John Deed. "If there's a way of doing the best for you, she'll do it and the judge ain't likely to put on the black hat for you. You've seen them both."

"Mum, that's when I was looking on and wanting them both to send Ritchie and that Merriman cow down for a long stretch. It seems different when you're in the dock."

"We've all been there, Lauren, don't forget," Came Roisin's gentle reminder.

Lauren coloured a little at that remark. She had forgotten that both Cassie and Roisin had stood in that same dock charged with embezzling funds from the company they had worked for. Her mum and Charlie likewise had had their collars felt by the Old Bill and had stood up in court though ironically, Charlie had got off by bribery and corruption until he had faced a much sterner justice arranged by herself.

"I'm sorry, I've forgotten."

"Doesn't matter, babes. We're all here for you today and we'll be in the gallery in court."

Lauren smiled nostalgically at the feelings they had when they were all together in that mutual comfort zone, even if they were perched up on high sitting endlessly on those hard benches. She would give anything to be there right now, not stuck there in the dock, the focus of attention. She remembered the feelings of dark jealousy when mum was holding hands with Karen as she was then. If she only knew then what she knows now, her life would be so different.

"You've got to go for it, kid. It ain't going to be easy. I ain't going to tell you to go out there as an Atkins as you have got to go out there with whatever strength you have. Just don't do the same as Ritchie did and mouth off as that didn't work. You're stronger than that, you've got to keep your cool whatever happens and you'll help Jo Mills to do her bit."

It was that occasional soft and gentle and infinitely caring voice of her mother which had been that thin tracery of a golden path which had led her through the darkness of what had been the story of her life. She had to cling on to that feeling to pull her through. Lauren lay back in her chair staring at the ceiling and took a number of deep breaths in and out as she let the words sink in. Mum was right and so were Roisin and Cassie. Her mind stopped racing as she could do no more right now.

"Time's up. All the visitors, go back to the other end of the room and make your way to the gates and sign out. And don't leave anything accidentally on purpose behind or it will be immediately confiscated."

Spare us, Gina thought, she never gets any better.

Lauren and Denny kissed the other three women gratefully as their messengers of good from the other side, the place where who knows, they may go to in time.

"Two of us will be with Lauren over the next few days. If it can't be me, I'll choose a couple who won't be a pain in the arse. See you."

The three women diminished in size and mingled with the crowds, which queued out of the far door. Denny gestured to Lauren to follow her back to their cell while Bodybag stomped self importantly behind them.

Part Seven

On the Monday morning, John arrived at court early. He still hadn't quite managed to prize the Atkins case away from Monty Everard, but Coope being the wonder that she was, had made an unauthorised photocopy of the papers which he'd been ploughing his way through all weekend. But John did have one last card up his sleeve. He hadn't wanted to use it, but nothing else had so far worked. But he wouldn't play his last hand until just before the trial was due to start, to give Monty as little time as possible to wriggle out of handing over the case. But this wasn't his immediate concern. Having been brought up to speed over the weekend as to the exact details of Lauren Atkins crime, he knew that he would more than likely have a hurt and betrayed Karen at his door before too long. He knew that Jo's ongoing concern over the last year had been that Karen wasn't fully aware of how Fenner had died, and after having acquainted himself with the facts of the case, John knew perfectly well why nobody had wanted to tell her. Jo had said that she would put George in the picture and ask her to be in the public gallery, but John felt slightly guilty for not being able to be there himself. Ever since he'd slept with Karen that night nearly fifteen months ago, they had formed an unusual though extremely strong friendship. Other than Jo, John had never had a close female friend before, the women in his life being reserved for purely sexual purposes. But Karen was different. Once they'd got the inevitable sexual attraction to each other well and truly out of the way, they had got to know each other as friends rather than lovers. They had not repeated their one sexual experience, and John was forced to admit that their friendship was far less complicated because of that. No other woman he knew, apart from Jo or George, had ever been at times more brutally honest with him, had ever listened when he needed to rant about the judiciary or his still strong urge to chase random strangers. There wasn't anything he couldn't say to Karen, nor anything she couldn't say to him, and neither would have given up the other's company for the world.

But what would she say to him when she discovered that he had been all too aware of the horrific way in which her one time lover had met his death. John could still vividly remember that day when she'd come to see him in chambers, when he asked her to explain why she hadn't reported her knowledge of Fenner's death. On that one occasion, it hadn't been the fact that Fenner had raped her that had hurt her, but the fact that she had once loved him. She had never again spoken of those feelings, but John knew they would only have been in hiding somewhere, waiting for some complete imbecile of a prosecuting barrister to force them out in to the open for cross-examination. All her feelings had been so confused with regards to Fenner, that John knew the discovery that Fenner had been buried alive would come as an enormous emotional shock to her. So, if even his last persuasive tactic didn't work on Monty Everard, he would be in the public gallery instead of or as well as George.

When Karen pulled in to the carpark in the green MG sports car, she could see that she was lucky to find a space. Half the world's press had clearly been marking out their territory since dawn, and Karen was forced to wonder from where they'd managed to dig up a jury who hadn't previously heard of this case. Yvonne's Ferrari soon slid in next to her, followed by Cassie and Roisin's car, an Audi she recognised as Nikki's, and numerous cars that she didn't.

"I thought I might see you here," Karen said as Nikki walked towards her.

"I think it's called poetic justice," Said Nikki in reply. "The very last person Fenner would have wanted at the trial of his killer is me, so maybe that's why I'm here, just to piss him off." Karen couldn't help seeing a sense of black humour in this, because she knew that Nikki was also there to support Yvonne.

"I don't know how I'm going to stand this," Said Yvonne, coming over. "I'll probably not be wanted until next week, but because I'm a witness, they won't let me anywhere near the public gallery, and like I can support my daughter if I can't even see what they'll be putting her through." Remembering Yvonne's performance from the public gallery during Ritchie's trial, Karen privately thought this was a good idea.

"You'll have me to keep you company," Put in Cassie as they all walked towards the court building.

"I know," Said Yvonne. "And I'm grateful, I'd just like to actually be there." When they walked inside the Old Bailey, Cassie and Yvonne detached themselves from the group and walked towards the witness room where they'd been asked to wait until they were called, and Nikki, Karen and Roisin walked upstairs to the public gallery.

As they took their seats in the front row, Karen was reminded of when they'd all last been in court. After receiving her appeal some years before, Nikki's conviction for murder had been reduced to manslaughter, enabling her to leave prison and to make something of her life. But that hadn't been the end of it. Nikki's solicitor, who had since qualified as a barrister, had persuaded her to reappeal for her conviction to be completely removed. After much fighting with the criminal cases review commission and the home office, Nikki's conviction for manslaughter had been finally overturned, leaving her a completely free woman with not a sniff of a criminal record.

"Yvonne better get used to seeing her name in print," Nikki observed as they watched the reporters battling for space at the press bench.

"I think she already was," Said Karen dryly. "Every time there's been anything in the papers about Lauren's case, they always use it as an excuse to bring out Yvonne's trial, Charlie's trial and Charlie's death. She had to take out an injunction last year to keep them from surrounding her house."

"I hope Cassie behaves herself when she gets in the witness box next week," Said Roisin hopefully.

"I wouldn't bank on it," Said Karen. "You remember what she was like at Snowball and Ritchie's trial, and that was only from the gallery." Almost from force of habit, Nikki was scanning the faces which were assembling around them, a habit she'd clearly not relinquished since her Larkhall days.

"If you turn round," She said in an undertone to Karen. "Standing by the door, you'll see a ravishingly sensational blonde who can't seem to take her eyes off you." Whipping her head in the direction of the door that led in to the gallery, Karen was more than a little surprised to see George standing as Nikki had said, her eyes fixed on Karen. Their eyes met, and locked. Karen felt a tingling along all her nerve endings, a chord that seemed to resonate throughout her entire being. The last time Karen had seen George was on the day she had accused Karen of Fenner's murder. The last time she'd had any form of communication with George was via the couple of e-mails that had been sent between them a few days after that well remembered exchange of words. Whilst Karen had usually asked after George when she'd seen Jo over the last year, she had gained far more of an insight in to what George had been up to through John. Karen had not been unduly surprised when John had explained his relationship with the two women to her. She personally thought that no man had ever had it better, and if he ever showed any signs of going back to his old ways, Karen was quick to remind him of just what he did have. Karen had long since come to the realisation that had that last battle of wills with George not been about something so serious, she almost certainly would have enjoyed it, finding an equal with whom she could exercise her verbal dexterity. John often talked to her about Jo and George, and Karen knew that it had taken a monumental change for John and George to put aside there differences long enough to realise that they still loved each other. But John had never told her what this was and Karen had never asked. Karen was forced to admit a certain curiosity where George was concerned. She had absolutely no doubt that someone as verbally ferocious as George would almost certainly transfer their fiery energy to their sex life, and knowing what she knew about John made this all the more probable. Karen wasn't sure if her memory had simply dulled the mental picture she'd had of George, but George certainly looked better today than when Karen had seen her last. George had been no less smartly dressed or well made up on that occasion, but today she seemed to have more life about her, the clear blue eyes seeming to hold a new energy, maybe even a hint of excitement. But when George became aware that Karen was looking at her, she blinked, as if to hide away that sense of nervous anticipation. Karen lifted a hand and waved.

"I didn't think this was one of your usual haunts?" Karen said in greeting.

"No, it's not," George said as she sat down on Karen's right. "I thought I'd come and see Jo in action," She explained, privately thinking that this must be the lamest excuse she'd ever heard and conveniently glossing over the fact that she'd seen Jo in action many times.

"So, you don't still think me guilty then?" Said Karen keeping her face devoid of expression. George opened her mouth to reply, but for once not being able to think of anything to say she shut it again.

"I'm only joking," Said Karen, relenting and giving George a broad smile.

"Oh," George said with a slight stammer, relief washing over her. "I cringe every time I think of that day." Karen strove to reassure her.

"You shouldn't," She said kindly. "I'd probably have done exactly the same had I been in your shoes." Then, turning to Nikki and Roisin who were sitting on her left, she said, "This is Nikki Wade and Roisin Connor, and this is George Channing."

"How did you know I was here?" George asked, after receiving a polite smile of greeting from Nikki and Roisin. Karen grinned and gestured to Nikki.

"I was informed that a ravishingly sensational blonde couldn't take her eyes off me."

"Oh, I see," Said George, half laughing half blushing, and it was duly noted how flustered this made her.

"How are you?" Karen asked, trying to change the subject.

"Oh, I'm all right. Just about managing to keep myself out of trouble, escaping from a conviction for contempt of court by the skin of my teeth, still seeing John, but then I think you know that."

"I think we've both been keeping tabs on each other through John," Said Karen with a soft smile.

"Yes," Admitted George. "He told me you've got a promotion board coming up soon."

"I've been a wing governor for long enough," Replied Karen. "I want to spread my wings."

"I don't see any reason why you shouldn't be able too."

"Nothing's certain when it comes to area management," Said Karen cynically. "They're as bad as the judiciary." A distraction was then provided by the arrival of Barbara who moved along to sit between Nikki and Roisin. Her eyes ran quickly over George's face.

"Nice to see you're on the right side this time," Barbara said, looking straight at George.

"It is possible to live and learn," Said George, immediately putting an end to any impending argument.

"Do you two know each other?" Asked Nikki.

"In a manner of speaking," Replied Barbara.

"Barbara had the dubious pleasure of being cross-examined by me during the Merriman/Atkins trial," Explained George. This was followed by a widening of Nikki's eyes, no doubt as a result of the many things Yvonne had said about Ritchie's barrister when they'd talked about his trial.

"Oh, absolutely bloody marvelous," Karen said quietly, looking over at a woman sitting in one of the front row seats on the other side of the gallery, far enough away from them not to hear their conversation, but near enough to possibly recognise her.

"Who is she?" George asked, glancing at the woman Karen was staring at.

"She," Karen said slowly and deliberately. "Is Marilyn Fenner, Fenner's ex-wife. The last time I saw her was after Dockley stabbed him. It stands to reason that she's come to watch the last act so to speak." They were prevented from discussing Marilyn's appearance further by the clerk of the court calling "All rise," and by the appearance of John through the door behind the judge's bench.

"His last ditch attempt must have worked," George murmured to Karen. Karen simply raised a questioning eyebrow at her. "He said that if he hadn't managed to get the case away from Monty Everard by this morning, he'd use blackmail to get the case. Whatever he had on Monty Everard must have been successful."

"At least we now know that Lauren will get a fair hearing," Said Karen in relieved response. She wouldn't have trusted another Judge to be fair to an Atkins, but she knew that John would. No matter the background or the circumstances of the crime, she could always trust John to conduct a fair and open-minded trial.

Part Eight

John's mind was finally made up. Theoretically he could demean himself by ingratiating himself to Monty Everard and grossly flatter his non-existent good qualities but he instinctively ruled that one out. Practically, he had as much chance of succeeding as Osama Bin Laden had of knocking at the door of the White House and taking tea with President Bush and discussing Christian theology as to the creation. For another, his blood boiled at such a gross moral indecency and a violation of his basic moral principles. So blackmail it would have to be.

With the most casual demeanour he could summon up, he knocked at the door of Monty's chambers.

"Oh, It's you, John," Monty growled, glaring up at him as he stood before him. True to form, his chambers were that bit more luxurious than his own, the three-piece suite straight out of Harrods, the pictures on the wall original Constables. So it has come to it that a part of a life's work of a famous British artist had been destined to decorate the walls of such an utter philistine. Petty one upmanship, not appreciation of the finer things in life was one force that drove his mediocre personality.

"I was wondering if you had had second thoughts about releasing the Crown versus Atkins case to me," He opened the argument perfectly mildly, sitting down, uninvited in the chair opposite him. "I ought to explain that I was perfectly sincere in reciprocating in any of the cases that I have similarly reserved to myself, or any other one case that you fancy."

"Well, you wondered wrong, Deed," Monty's childish vein in his personality was uppermost."

"Might I ask exactly why you are declining a perfectly reasonable request?"

"Ever since I had the displeasure of making your acquaintance, you have made great play of obstinately holding onto any and every case which you have reserved to yourself. The boot is on the other foot, Deed. I will be damned if I will release a case of mine which I have properly reserved to myself and your presence in my chambers, sir, is an unwarrantable intrusion," Monty Everard stormed and blustered.

"I was merely concerned that a certain private matter did not become public knowledge," John's mild mannered voice belied the force with which he was disinclined to be dislodged from his chair in the same way that a limpet at the seaside merely holds on tighter the more an attempt is made to detach it from its native rock.

"I had always thought that you were, at the very least, eccentric but now you, sir, have finally gone over the top," Monty snorted.

"You are aware that the trial will centre very much on inmates in Larkhall prison, past and present as well as prison officers," John replied languidly, infuriating Monty with his elliptical approach to what he vaguely suspected was some kind of threat against himself.

"What has some crumbling Victorian prison possibly got to do with me besides witnesses who will be called before me in court? What happens to anyone who comes before me on the bench becomes the matter of the Prison service and not myself. Now, if you will excuse me…….."

"I happened to make a visit to Larkhall some time ago out of natural curiosity. I happened to chat to two personable, very amusing women there who were very informative." John's maddeningly reasonable tones emphasised the last word but one in the sentence which started to worry Monty.

"Why the devil are you staying around in my chambers, inflicting these ridiculous reminiscences. You are gibbering."

"I mention these points to you because if you do not exchange cases in the way I propose, I shall resume my acquaintance with the very attractive female Times law correspondant to whom I shall make direct references on the best of all possible authority the way that you paid for the sexual services of the 'Two Trudies.' Every Thursday at eight. The press would be so very interested in the private life of someone who has gone on record in the interminable pompous moralising outpourings that has been inflicted on the poor suffering public. Do you know, the "two Trudies" are the very same women who I engaged in recent conversation with at Larkhall. They have excellent memories. If I remember rightly, 'he used to say his wife wasn't attractive enough to get him going, but then they all say that.' Legover Everard, that's what they know you as. Don't you think that the popular press's interest that there will be in one of the Atkins family appearing in court may spill over if by some chance, you sat in judgement in a case where Larkhall Prison will loom rather large."

The way that John suddenly switched his tone of voice that was heavy on the consonants and made a very deadly use of sarcasm took Monty Everard aback. He remembered only too well what effective use he had made of the press in forcing the hand of the attorney General and, by implication, the entire government. It appalled his sense of proper order that such a maverick could wield such power. However, fear undercut his anger and the very possibility that the gossip, which had only circulated within the cloistered world of the bar, could become the stuff of public gossip. He imagined that the matter could spill out such that some wretched comedian like Rory Bremner does a 'Legover Everard' impersonation. His wife would not stand for it and never would the respectable circles in which he mingled in his native town by adoption of Henley, that bastion of conservatism.

"It's only one favour that I am asking of you and I am willing to exchange one case in return. What could be fairer than that?" John persisted teasingly.

Something snapped in him, partly that intense desire to be rid of the one man that he couldn't stand over an issue that he had made in his pig headed way.

"You'll find the case with my clerk. Her room is right next to mine. I shall write a note to authorise you to pick up the case if you wish," Monty's muffled voice uttered the words of surrender very jerkily.

He scribbled a quick note, thrust it into John's hands and feebly poked with his forefinger in the general direction of the exit door.

"I'm so glad to have relieved you of a burden," John's parting words turned Monty's face from red to purple as his blood pressure rose.

John clutched the note firmly and strode eagerly out the door while Monty mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and reached for a decanter, half filled with whisky.

John smiled at the unfortunate careworn woman who had the onerous job of being nursemaid to Monty. She and Coope had often confided in each other and both had concluded that while John's turbulent private life had extended Coope's role in directions outside the traditional duties, John at least had a certain precision in the way that he worked and a natural consideration and kindliness which more than compensated for it. Life, for Coope, working for John was never dull. In contrast, Monty Everard's personal assistant was the overworked drudge for a spoilt little boy who treated her with a cavalier lack of consideration at best and with petulant tantrums at worst combined with a slipshod treatment of the papers, which passed through him.

"Oh yes, Coope advised me that you may be requiring the Crown versus Atkins file. It's at the top of my in tray ready for you to pick up if you want. You do want to collect it personally?"

How the devil did she guess, John thought to himself, bemused at Coope's mysterious far-flung personal network that worked so impeccably for him. She popped it in his briefcase for him in a motherly way and they exchanged polite words before John excused himself.

That John Deed, such a delight to work for and such a charmer and not at all like the way that that tiresome man vilified him. Coope is a lucky woman, she thought as she adjusted her spectacles to focus on Monty Everard's spidery scrawl.

"Why on earth did you let Deed get his hands on the Crown versus Atkins case, Monty? After all the time you have lectured us about getting tough with him, you let yourself get walked over in this fashion. Above all else, this is a case demanding sound judgement and Deed is capable of acting in some outlandish fashion. I shall have to spend two weeks sitting on the hard benches in the gallery instead of doing the work I am paid to do," Sir Ian's somewhat amplified and irritated tones reverberated in Monty's left ear.

"Lawrence," he could hear a quieter voice directed away from the phone, "stop what you're doing. We are going to the Old Bailey."

"Is there some kind of trouble, sir?" Lawrence James's head jerked sideways, yanked out of his concentration on the report he had in hand. He loved the peace and serenity of these moments contemplating his life's work.

"Deed is the trouble," Sir Ian said cryptically. "Come on."

And Monty heard the phone slammed down on him.

Newmann Mason-Allen heard with utter alarm his worst nightmare come true. Instead of the amenable Monty Everard who let him and Jo Mills slug it out without interruption, he faced a second unpredictable antagonist in the name of John Deed situated up in the Gods whose notorious tendency to intervene without warning at a moment's notice and his brilliance at the law made him feel threatened and inferior. It was just his luck, he thought to himself.

John's impatient stride propelled himself across the large polished stone tiles of the Old Bailey.

"I've got the case," he spoke in low but triumphant tones.

Jo smiled warmly, pleased that he was the one judge who would at least hear Lauren Atkins without putting the pretried Atkins family reputation first before the court and to twist the trial to suit the herd prejudices of the judiciary.

"Do you know what you are taking on in handling the case, Jo?" he added in mistimed and misdirected concern for her.

Jo was always subject to pre trial nerves that, its most directed, shaped it in an adrenaline flow which sharpened her mind to razor edged cutting form. The downside of that mood came out when her temper snapped.

"Seeing that we were up to our necks in what we knew about the case long before any arrest was made, we owe it to Karen Betts for the way we put her on trial and got it wrong," She snapped and then in softer vein she added, "I have to see it through to the end no matter what it takes. You know that, John."

Expressionlessly, he nodded. The die was cast and it was time they all took their stands.

Part Nine

When John emerged through the door behind the Judge's bench, he took a moment to look round at his court. There was Jo, stood at the defence's end of the bench, Neumann Mason-Alan at the prosecution's end of the bench, and Lauren Atkins in the dock opposite him. The press bench was packed to overflowing, and the gallery looked likewise. He could see Karen sitting next to George in the front row, next to two women he didn't recognise. He could also pick out his two antibiotic-resistant followers from the LCD, Sir Ian Rochester and Lawrence James. He might have known they'd be here. After he was seated, and everyone else followed, he waited as the jury were sworn in and the charge read out, followed by Lauren Atkins plea of not guilty. But before Neumann Mason-Alan could begin his opening speech for the prosecution, John decided that a word or two wouldn't go amiss.

"Before council for the prosecution makes his opening speech," He began. "I would like to say a few words. This trial has attracted and will continue to attract an enormous amount of media attention and speculation from the general public. As a result of this, it has been extremely difficult to find a jury who have not previously formed opinions as to the guilt or innocence of the defendent. I must therefore demand, that there be no unauthorised interruption of the proceedings, so as to enable the jury to reach a conclusion by the facts and the facts alone. I will not tolerate any form of audience participation from the public gallery, especially from any barristers who may be present. Those who choose to infringe this demand will find themselves before me on a charge for contempt of court. I hope I have made myself clear." In the gallery, George quietly scowled, knowing that this warning had been meant almost entirely for her benefit. Further thought was then postponed when Neumann Mason-Alan rose from the prosecution bench and turned to face the jury.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, throughout the course of this trial, you will see and hear many things I'm sure you'll wish you hadn't. Defence council would have you believe that this is an extremely complex case, but I can assure you it most certainly is not. The defendant you see before you, is without doubt, reasonable or otherwise, guilty of the crime with which she is charged, that on the fifth of October 2003, she did, with an enormous amount of premeditation, murder James Fenner, a law-abiding citizen who, until his untimely death, was a principle officer of Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall. Lauren Atkins did, for six weeks, stalk James Fenner, Lauren Atkins did abduct James Fenner at gunpoint from outside his own house, and Lauren Atkins did kill James Fenner in a most inhumane and brutal fashion. These unquestionable facts will be borne out by the four witnesses I will bring before you. The witnesses for the prosecution will run as follows: The first being Professor Samantha Ryan, the pathologist who conducted James Fenner's postmortem. She will make it abundantly clear to you exactly what Lauren Atkins did to James Fenner, the details of which will no doubt haunt you for some time to come. My second witness will be Dr. Thomas Waugh, a qualified and practicing psychiatrist who currently holds the position of senior medical officer at Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall. He has thoroughly examined Lauren Atkins, and can determine no possible, or plausible, psychiatric or psychological cause for her actions during the autumn of 2003. My third witness will be Detective Inspector Sullivan, the senior police officer in charge of Lauren Atkins' arrest. My fourth and final witness, will be Diane Barker, a close colleague of James Fenner's and who was, for some time before his death, James Fenner's lover. I shall endeavour to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, that Lauren Atkins is nothing less than a cold blooded killer, who should be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure for the foreseeable future. She is not in any way mentally disturbed, no matter how much defence council may attempt to convince you of this. Lauren Atkins carried out her actions with sincere malice of forethought, perhaps finally showing the true colours of those who have raised her. I simply ask you, members of the jury, to listen to the facts of the case, and to find Lauren Atkins guilty of the charge of murder."

As Neumann Mason-Alan sat down, Nikki took a breath to object to the not so subtle insult that had surely been aimed at Yvonne, but Karen gave her a warning look which quelled her for the moment. Mentally putting her hands to her head, Karen realised with a feeling of half dread half resignation, that Nikki was going to be as difficult to verbally restrain as Yvonne and Cassie put together. Nikki had been prepared for it, but she still couldn't prevent herself scowling at the utterance of Dr. Waugh's name. Thomas had come back to work at Larkhall almost a year ago, and being the resident shrink, had been asked to perform a psychiatric assessment on Lauren by an order of the court. George, on the other hand, relaxed. Far too many times during that opening speech, she'd thought that Neumann Mason-Alan was about to deliver the shocking details of Fenner's death there and then. But thankfully, he had done exactly what Jo had thought he would. But whilst knowing that Jo wasn't about to discuss the details of Fenner's death either, George was all too aware that they would be brought out for all and sundry to examine some time that afternoon. Having virtually never seen Karen react to any kind of enormously emotional shock, George had absolutely no idea what Karen might do. But this was what Jo had put her there for, to deal with any eventuality that might arise.

Part Ten

Jo had travelled through her ritual journey that preceded every court case that she had ever conducted, the sort of keyed up anticipation that sharpened and focussed her thinking without sliding into that pit of fear that could envelop any barrister. She knew of no barrister who was as totally calm and controlled as he or she appeared to be. That was all part of the act. So focussed was she that the final slur on Yvonne that angered the gallery was passed by her unnoticed at the time. She shuffled through her papers while Neuman Mason-Alan spoke, pulling in like lightning, the key phrases which indicated his line of attack. Going in second did have that advantage.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am asking that you consider two vital and very separate questions, how James Fenner came to meet his end, and more importantly, why. If you hear the forensic evidence that will be placed before you as well as witness evidence, you may well conclude that the defendant, Lauren Atkins, took the life of James Fenner on the fifth of October 2003. The defendant has never denied the substance of the charge put to her. That is not, however, the end of the matter if you should so conclude.

My first witness will be the defendant herself, Lauren Atkins, who will relate what she knew of the circumstances of the death of James Fenner. I intend to demonstrate from her testimony of the very powerful and dangerous personality of her father, Charlie Atkins, who was suddenly and brutally murdered two years ago. You will hear evidence that the taking of James Fenner's life was predated by two very traumatic events in the life of Lauren Atkins, one was the trial and conviction of her brother Ritchie Atkins whose crime included the betrayal of the tight knit family which Lauren Atkins was born into, a matter about which she felt very deeply. The other, only a matter of hours after sentencing, was her brother's tragic suicide and her receipt of the last communications that she would ever receive from him. This was a letter from him, begging her to take the life of the deceased, which I shall produce in evidence. My second and expert witness as to the state of the defendant's mental health is the consultant psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Richards, whose report is submitted in evidence. I shall attempt to demonstrate that there is clear clinical evidence that up to and including the time of the tragic events in question, the defendant was "not in her right mind." My third witness, her mother and only surviving close relative, Yvonne Atkins, will give evidence of the tragic events, including corroberation of what I have outlined and establishing a cogent connection between the defendant and James Fenner. A close friend of the defendant, Cassie Tyler, witnessed and will give evidence as to the defendant's state of mind immediately after Ritchie Atkins's death. The last witness I will call upon is Daniella Blood, her cellmate in the prison where the defendant has been held on remand this last year. She will give evidence of Lauren Atkins's deep and profound feelings of remorse as to the terrible consequences of her actions.

After hearing all the evidence, you will be able to conclude as to whether or not Lauren Atkins did, indeed, take the life of one James Fenner but, if so, you will also have a clear picture of the state of Lauren Atkins' mind in those critical weeks and that a plea of diminished responsibility will be the fit and proper construction of the events."

Jo sat down with a feeling of relief that her opening presentation had delicately weaved its way through the tangled clutter of events and gave notice to Neumann Mason-Alan and hopefully the jury that the matter was not as clear cut as he made out.

In the gallery, the women on the front row went through a whole spectrum of emotions. George was clearly given first prize in the "Badgirls of the Old Bailey" gallery of infamy which related to spectators rather than the accused but John's searching eye had been trained like a spotlight on the rest of the women and was a warning that could not be overlooked. None of them had any great desire to see the inside of a barred cell.

That feeling was minor when Neumann Mason-Alan's ponderous voice indicted Lauren in terms which brought a sinking feeling to their stomachs and his parting touch in indicting her upbringing roused them to protective anger on Yvonne's behalf.

In contrast, Jo's ice calm perfectly controlled performance rolled back the suffocating layer of that sneaking feeling of guilt. All of them were doing their best to fight that feeling down and be positive. After the masterly way that Jo opened the case, hope struggled through into their light.

"Not bad, Jo," George said in that considered fashion that one professional feels to a nicety the texture of the counter arguments used by another. "I couldn't have put it better myself."

"Coming for a drink with us, George?" Karen asked.

Her idea slotted in naturally to the others from their previous experience of the Atkins/Merriman trial. They could not help being conscious that, previously, Lauren had been with them in the gallery but this time, she was held in captivity. To Karen and Yvonne, the other change was that last time this overbearing female defence barrister had been the scourge of the witnesses but she had gone and George who looked a lot like her was there in her place but they were both highly aware that others might not feel the same way.

"Going somewhere for a drink and a smoke. Sounds like heaven to me." George's Heartfelt words made them all smile.

"I thoroughly approve of a smoking ban in public buildings. I had a real problem in Larkhall with constantly inhaling nicotine by passive smoking from the rest of you. Going for a drink sounds fine, though," Babs added more mildly.

"Do you know, Barbara, you sound exactly like John. John Deed, the judge," George explained as an aside. "He's my ex-husband and such an infuriating non smoker."

It was George's unique accentuated drawl lightened by her playfulness rather than darkened by sarcasm, which made all the others laugh along with her and showed her how far she had come. This started to break the ice. Up till then, they had seemed like a random collection of people thrown together in a crowded scene, some of whom knew each other and Babs, especially, who was wary of this woman who she had last seen in verbal attack mode when she was on the witness stand and George was batting for the other side.

"Which pub are we going to? I've not been round here for years," Nikki enquired after Cassie and Yvonne had joined them downstairs and they had clattered outside only for a piercing cold blast of winter air to cut its way through their clothes.

"The one we went to, left round the corner. It's the nearest and it's freezing."

"I know the pub and it's changed hands," George chimed in. "It's a frightful place now. I wouldn't even sentence Neumann Mason-Alan to a lunchtime drink there, standing room only and you can't hear yourself think. I know a nice place, if we turn right instead of left."

George found herself at the head of the crowd without needing to elbow her way to the front and fight for dominance, the other women formed in behind her. She felt she could relax and let life flow. Nearer to the pub, Karen's longer stride drew her level with George and Nikki who was chatting away to Yvonne nine to the dozen couldn't help noticing how good Karen and George looked together.

"Haven't we been here before?" Yvonne asked as memories stirred within her and she trod in the footsteps of where she had been that time with Karen. The other woman's tremulous smile reminded them of the flowering of their love.

Once the room had opened out for them to fill, the first move was to sort out what everyone was drinking. George's instinct while she smiled and chatted was a need to know where the others fitted in with each other so that she could position herself rightly in the constellation, She was always good at social occasions but the rules of etiquette rigidly buttressed her in. Here she had to invent new rules and to fit in.

"Could someone explain where you've known each other from as I feel a bit like the new girl at school," George stammered in her naked honesty.

Nikki's heart warmed to this normally sophisticated woman who was clearly feeling her way, as if learning a foreign language, but trying so hard.

"I'll do the guided tour, George. You'll know Karen and Yvonne. I'm Nikki and Yvonne and me were both at Larkhall. Babs here shared a cell with me and put up with my smoking." Nikki's even white teeth showed in her wide smile smoothing out George's suddenly recalled memory of this personification of middle England. "Cassie and Roisin are a couple and have two children. They were at Larkhall after my time but I got to know them through the club I run with my ex."

It came naturally to a socialite like George to clip together names, faces and potted biographies to then make polite conversation. She felt that she ought to have been thrown out of joint by the interesting cross section of strong women, only Karen of whom had not done time. She picked up on Nikki's trailing off lack of enthusiasm for her current situation.

"My ex, a loathsome Cabinet Minister called Neil Houghton, pushed me into defending Ritchie Atkins and Snowball Merriman, not for any good reasons. It was the worst mistake of my life. When I became a free woman, I was working with Jo Mills to put Fenner behind bars, the one man who deserved to be there."

George felt intensely the way that the polite formality melted into the warmth and positive glow of welcoming approval.

"I'm no hero, George. I work opposite shifts to Trish so we hardly meet, just enough to meet occasionally to sort out business and try to be polite with each other. If you've investigated Fenner, you must have come across my present partner, Helen Wade, better known to you as Helen Stewart. Helen, a lot of good friends and a degree is what I got out of Larkhall. I want to do something better with my life than the club but I'm not sure what."

George was utterly bowled over by the strength and sensitivity of the feelings which flowed so naturally out of Nikki making the confidence she used to display seem brittle in comparison. The understated intensity expressed what was most precious in this world that no amount of money could ever buy, and made her feel inexpressibly humble and that there was no other place in the world that she would rather be at this moment while time hung suspended.

"Hey, babe. I remember you getting banged up last time by the judge for contempt," Cassie said with a grin. "You're as bad as the rest of us."

George smiled foolishly at Cassie's greeting changing her mood from the sublime to the attractively outrageous. It must have been years since she had been called 'babe' but she wasn't complaining.

"The only way I could purge my third removal for contempt was the not exactly marvellous tour of Larkhall with Karen acting as parole officer. It wasn't the nicest day of my life." George shuddered at the memory as her tongue ran loose in the spontaneity of the moment. A split second later, she blushed at the enormity of the situation and Karen rolled her eyes at the way that George's words ran away with her.

"I remember how firm the judge can be. As you are his ex wife, I can understand that this made any arguments more complicated than it would be for the rest of us. I remember how unpleasant it was with the son of my second husband who accused me of being a gold digger and I hit him on the side of his face with a jolly good back-hander."

Babs came to the rescue to George's inexpressible relief and utter open mouthed astonishment at the story. Life at Larkhall had taught them hard lessons that there was worse in life than the unintentional gaffe when that person's intentions were good. It was lucky with so many good people around that George did not need to speak.

"At least you didn't ever have to call Karen Miss," Put in Yvonne, going even further to make George feel part of the group, something she hadn't felt in far too long.

Part 11

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