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. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETAED: by Jen.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part Two Hundred and One

Grayling had to smile with satisfaction at the end of the day. He always said that he could make a living selling ice cream to Eskimos but this time, he had pulled off a real coup.

"And exactly who do you have in mind to attend the Howard League for Penal Reform?"

Came Alison Warner's searching question. "You have someone in mind, I assume. I know you far too well to think otherwise."

"As if I would," came his honeyed tones, broad grin and outstretched arms. "That makes me sound as if I have already crudely fixed matters behind the scenes."

Alison Warner's spectacles slid down her nose letting her glare over them straight into his eyes. He knew all her little mannerisms which were intended to intimidate, recognised them for what they were and remained cool and calm.

"And have you?"

"That would be improper as you know."

"Hmmm. You have spent quite a bit of your valuable time going backwards and forwards to that perpetual source of disruption and controversy, Larkhall prison. It's easy enough for me to put two and two together and make four."

"So, if you were in my place, rather than giving support and practical backup to a hard working, highly talented governing governor who has suffered from a bereavement, you would divert precious time for concerns for private schemes of your own? Is that what you are telling me?"

"That is absolutely not what I mean. You are being unusually difficult even by your standards." Alison Warner was ready to bristle with annoyance at the best of times but she was becoming especially threatening and Grayling felt he had to make a lightning tactical shift from his barely repressed cheek.

"I'm so sorry. I wouldn't ever want to be disrespectful but I wanted to share my pleasure with you that, except for one incident of a solitary prisoner on the rooftop, Larkhall has changed for the better. Karen Betts has been governing governor since March, that's nearly five months and the prison has been running remarkably smoothly, no riots, no escapes, no explosions, no suicides, no complaining letters to the Guardian from inmates, the sort of thing that must have given you no end of sleepless nights over the years …….."

Grayling ladled on the smooth talk in liberal proportions, his silky voice touching on the

events, which had made her, cringe so many times in embarrassment. She had imagined every time the bad news broke that the Home Secretary to be on the phone at any second if not down in reception. Each smoothly recounted incident made her twitch nervously to Grayling's intense amusement.

"………and since Nikki Wade, the new G wing governor was appointed, I hear that she had been a tower of strength. Again, aside from the incident I mentioned, she has slotted in effortlessly and has even taken a leading role in covering for Karen Betts when she has been away……."

"Enough of the sales pitch, Neil. You are being rather carried away. I suppose that you have these two in mind in attending this conference….."

"It is entirely up to them but since you raise their names, I would be very keen to see them as the embodiment of a radical caring spirit who would carry themselves admirably and would be a credit to the Home Office…"

"They would not be able to express wildly unbalanced personal opinions in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with some 'trendy leftie' lawyers."

Grayling grinned to himself. He had been immersed in the very pleasant company of the cream of the legal profession and knew far more than this woman with her blinkered views and lifestyle.

"They will be very much in demand, Nikki Wade would be especially welcome. Her court case years ago was a 'cause celebre' in the legal profession as far as I am aware."

"Well, I am deciding that you are going because I am holding you personally responsible for their good conduct should they express an interest in attending as I am sure they will. You may go now."

"Thank you, Mrs. Warner," Grayling said in his most restrained fashion though he was jubilant inside. He could not wait to get back to his room and then set things in motion.

Karen was working away with no great enthusiasm on the second Monday of her return to work feeling a sense of flat anticlimax to everything at work, including all the well wishers. She hears the words they said and the expressions on their faces but she could not make them real to her. She received no warm feeling of well being inside her and that only made things worse. She had dismissed the mysterious tone in Grayling's phone call when he announced his visit though chatting to him would be pleasant and would break up the monotony of the day. She smiled politely as he came striding in, a mischievous gleam in her eye like a naughty boy who wanted her assistance in an exquisitely amusing prank.

"So, how has it been being back at Larkhall since I last saw you?"

"I feel less like death warmed up as I was and everyone's been very nice to me…"

"So they ought to be."

Karen's shrewd gaze took in the barely suppressed grin that threatened to spread all over his face, a certain restlessness. It was all so reminiscent of John at his most 'bad boy.'

"Come on, Neil. I know that you've got some news. You didn't just drop by to enquire after my health."

"Well, as it happens, there was an ulterior reason……"

Karen smiled slightly and nodded slightly at Grayling's sly confession. She hoped there wouldn't be a long, sustained introduction, just please cut to the main theme.

"……..as I have received advance copy of the draft prospectus for the forthcoming annual conference for the Howard League for Penal Reform which I thought I would show you…….."

The paper was placed in Karen's hands and immediately, her interest was engaged. She had most certainly heard of the organisation but it had always been one of those august bodies up on high, which had been remote from her. It was as if she had read in the news of a particular female country rock performer whose CD she owned who was appearing at Madison Square Gardens. She might hear them in concert several months later if she was lucky but she would not think that she, Karen Betts, would be sitting in aisle 24, seat C36 and buy the T-shirt afterwards. That had always been impossible.

"It's always been Governing Governors who have gone to events like these…."she mouthed her thoughts aloud.

"Well, you're one now."

She was indeed. She had always been one to look at the practical daily drudge work of any activity she had been involved with from changing bed pans, changing babies nappies to snatching time to write up her personal officer's reports. She had never taken a starry eyed glamorous look at life. It was not her way of thinking.

"I used to hog all the conferences and jealously kept away others who could have gone too, from them. I used to love the limelight……"

"Still do, Neil," Karen grinned.

"Well, yes, you're right but I've learned to share it and to give a chance to those who deserve it. Besides, my choice in conferences used to leave something to be desired. I blush when I remember presenting my paper on part privatisation of the prison system and I sincerely hope that the audience forgot every single word of my ill-considered views…."

"You're going as well," It was a statement, not a question.

"Naturally but if you look at the prospectus, you'll see why. I want to learn from this event."

The paper was very attractive to Karen's eyes as it briefly encapsulated all her ideas of prison reform, which she had slaved away at all these years. The ideas had always been at the back of her head but had been subordinated to the daily grind. It might do her good to step back and immerse herself in the very spring source of all the ideas. She could do with something different in her life.

"OK, Neil. I might at that…I'm really interested."

Grayling was gratified to see that light ignite slowly in Karen's eyes, which had been so distressingly dull and downcast. He would have to edge his way very slowly to the more delicate proposition he had to make.

"That's excellent news. The danger of any conference is that far too many people are attracted to the shallow pleasures, conference has to offer, being away from home and the normal restrictions of daily life. An environment with plenty to drink is the least of the problems as too many come and the words go in one ear and out the other. The standards to the speeches can become pedestrian even with the most well motivated conference. I have the vision in my head that what this conference needs is someone fresh, someone dynamic, who has vivid recall to a wealth of life's experiences which can be shared with the most radical, most caring audience there could possibly be contained in one conference hall."

By the way he was talking, Grayling was totally revved up and passionate about the faraway vision that he could see so clearly. Karen was carried away by the generalities until a light was switched on in her mind as she could see the direction the conversation was heading.

"Oh, no, no, no, Neil. It's one thing for me to go to a high-powered conference but I was thinking in terms of what I might learn from others, not the other way round. I had it in mind to sit back and taking note of what others had to say, not that they have anything to learn of what I might know. You want me to be one of the speakers."

"You are right first time but you are being too modest about yourself, Karen."

"You are outrageous, Neil."

"Aren't I just as I'm going to ask Nikki as well"

At that point, Karen was reduced to utter speechlessness, Grayling very kindly reached over and passed her a tumbler full of water, which she eagerly drank from to loosen her throat muscles, which had become rigidly locked in total shock.

"I repeat myself, you really underestimate what you have to offer…….".

"You bastard, Neil."

"Think back to the rehearsals we had for the 'Creation,'" Grayling continued, spieling away at top speed, unruffled by Karen's interjection. "We were amongst the highest echelons of the legal profession but how many of them, even the best of them, know what you and I know about the realities about what life in prison really means. It's not that there weren't some very bright, very perceptive human beings. I can think of John and George and others who, regrettably, I did not find time to talk to, as much as I would have liked. Your speciality is a lifetime in the prison service from the bottom up. Their speciality is as judges, barristers and solicitors in arguing over the merits of the case from whose deliberations, those in the dock are set free or are received by us, yes even by the Sylvia Hollambys of the world. You know so much about the prison system that you find, in this closed in life we lead that others know so little apart from what they read in the papers."

Karen was moved for the first time in ages by the sheer passion in Grayling's voice. He meant every word that he said and, yes, she could recall odd snatches of conversation, unregarded at the time. In a weird kind of way, he made sense.

"But why me, Neil? There are other governors on hand who must have done that job before."

"Nobody as fresh and dynamic as you, Karen," Grayling finished earnestly.

There was something hypnotic about his ways, Karen reflected as she wearily started that slide in thought to the inevitable. She had more than a slight suspicion that she would be an emblem of his success but if it reinforced his position at area, was that such an ignoble ulterior motive? He must have faith in her dynamism though she frankly thought that she had never felt less dynamic in her life. Ah well, she could not even begin to think of how she would get on if Grayling's very indirect but caring presence wasn't around. She had no pressing purpose in her life right now so she might as well go with the flow.

"Only you could bamboozle me outrageously into such a mad idea but I suppose you have made your case. I might as well live dangerously. Chances like this don't come up often but I'll never forgive you if it turns out a complete disaster."

"So won't Alison Warner but hey, we'll prove her wrong."

I like the 'we' all of a sudden, snorted Karen inwardly. He is definitely as bad as John.

A silence reigned over the room as Karen's dull dreams of boring nonentity were banished forever by this reckless man. Her secretary appeared with a welcome cup of coffee for them both. She would have loved a cigarette but she was conscious of Grayling's solitary instance of Puritanism, which stuck up like a lonely milestone.

At that point, Nikki entered the room, totally unsuspecting.

"Ah Nikki, you came at the right time. We have an interesting proposition for you."

Count me out, Neil, from your mad enterprise, Karen thought through gritted teeth.

"Can't think what that might be. You told me the other day just to stick to the one job."

Nikki's mind was full of all kind of duties around Larkhall that were totally confined to the grey stone walls of Larkhall.

"As I was just saying to Karen, there's the upcoming conference of the Howard League for Penal Reform which I've had advance notice of. Karen has very kindly agreed to give a speech …….."

Nikki's face lit up in pleasure for her. She knew that Karen had a wealth of experience of the prison service and would be a splendid representative, not only for Larkhall but the whole prison service.

"…….and, guess what, Nikki, you're going to be our other speaker."

"If it wasn't you, Neil, I would tell you to piss off," Nikki said without thinking before she blushed in embarrassment while Karen grinned all over her face. Only Nikki could come out with something like that. "I'm ever so sorry. I didn't mean it to come out like that. That was very rude of me."

Grayling burst out in hearty laughter. Despite the unpromising reception of his idea, he couldn't help but give way to the humour of the situation.

"Do you know, I've been questioned , lectured at, stared at and glared at for months by Alison Warner and she has never had the fundamental honesty to tell me that one."

That broke the tension and the three of them laughed along with Nikki at her refreshing bluntness.

" 'Howard League for Penal Reform.' That rings a bell." Nikki said reflectively. "Helen's been there before and she was only talking about it the other day."

"Is she likely to be going?" Grayling enquired discreetly while Karen sat back and wondered just how Grayling would manoeuvre Nikki into acceptance. She stood back, taking no part in this which meant that he would be the fall guy if his plan misfired.

"She'll go, I'm sure," Nikki said thoughtfully. She had first heard from Helen about the conference when she was stuck with working in the club at all sort of unsocial hours, having perennial problems in negotiating any absence from the club.

"It would be obviously convenient if both of you went." Grayling pressed his case very discreetly and softly.

"Attending the conference, fine but not as speaker. I've never been to a conference like that before much less speak at it for the very first time. It's one thing for me to stick my hand up if I were fired up on the spur of the moment by something someone said but not to prepare something in advance. I wouldn't know if I were ex prisoner or wing governor or both."

"How many ex prisoners do you get speaking at conferences like this? Especially someone of your calibre?"

Karen could see the wheels revolving round in Nikki's mind as she turned over the matter in her mind. I can't believe it, she shook her head slightly in sheer wonder. How does he do it?

"You've got a point, Neil. But you haven't answered my question. Who do you see me as?"

"As Nikki Wade, first and foremost and in both roles. Don't forget, it is certain that your case will be one that any members of the legal profession will be keenly interested and sympathetic. By definition, they will be among the more enlightened members of the profession or they wouldn't be there."

Nikki found this point convincing. A shadow in the back of her mind had taken shape of the very first judge who had sent her to Larkhall in the first place. Her bitter memory of the 'pricks in wigs' had been softened over the years and especially by her experience of John. Now that would be an idea, she wondered.

"Are you going as well, Neil?" she pursued as she sought further facts to hang her ideas on.

"I am indeed. If you want it and you might not, I will keep you company and offer any help I can possibly give you in the preparation work for public speaking. If you do that properly, you're well away," Grayling urged in soothing tones.

"Does Alison Warner know about your little plan to infiltrate us into the Conference?" probed Nikki with a slight smile on her face.

"Her words in so many words were that she was detailing me to keep the pair of you on the straight and narrow." Smirked Grayling. "That is, if you were interested in going."

"In that case," laughed Nikki, "You're on, both for me going and also giving a speech as well. I owe it to the women on G wing, past and present."

"We ought to drink in celebration to this," enthused Grayling before hesitatingly added, "except that the drinks aren't mine."

"Typical," Karen scoffed in mock annoyance, intercepting his glance at her drinks cabinet. "He cons us into speaking at a conference and then he steals his drink off me."

A little while later, Nikki and Karen compared notes after Grayling had made his way back to area. Somehow, he had livened up the atmosphere.

"So how did you agree so easily to speaking at the conference? I mean, I'm sure you'll do fine but it was your agreement that helped sway me into agreeing as well."

"Don't you know Neil better than that?" Karen retorted crossly to Nikki. "That cunning man blagged his way into me doing it. I'm nervous at the thought of speaking to a huge hall full of people and he knew it. I've never done that sort of thing before."

The light dawned upon Nikki. She might have known better.

"Too late to back out now……..well, there's a first time for everything or so they say."

Part Two Hundred and Two

On the Tuesday afternoon, when she knew that court would have finished for the day, Karen drove over to call on John in chambers. She hadn't been here in far too long, not since before Ross had died. It had always been a comfortable part of hers and John's friendship, for them both to occasionally drop in on each other at their place of work, as if sharing their professional lives as much as their personal ones. She missed that normal acceptability that their friendship seemed to have lost in the last couple of months, and it was something she wanted to regain if at all possible. It was the twentieth of September now, and already there were dry, curled up leaves scattering the car park of the Old Bailey, the plain trees that surrounded it beginning to shed their load. God, she thought as she got out of the car, was it really autumn already? Had the summer passed her by completely? That was how it felt sometimes, even though she had taken in a good deal of its sun whenever possible. As she walked in through the heavy familiar doors, it struck her that this was where so much of her life had begun. Here was where she'd first met John, here was where she'd first met George, and here was where she'd been catapulted so spectacularly into their lives. The cool, slightly austere inner confines of the court building greeted her, smelling faintly of the numerous ancient tomes that inhabited every courtroom, combined with the aroma of the fairly cheap coffee from the court canteen. Her heels sounded almost too loud as she cross the marble tiled floor and began walking up the stairs, and she found herself wondering if the steps of all the resident ghosts made half as much noise.

John was only a little surprised to hear the knock on his door, as he'd thought he could recognise her approaching footsteps. He'd wondered if she might come at the end of the working day, seeking him out in the place where he'd first had actual personal contact with her. It was over two years since that fateful day now, and he couldn't help but marvel at how much he now knew about her. They'd become sincere and firm friends after that one night they'd spent together, never letting that encounter get in the way of their blossoming friendship. They'd talked, laughed, even argued from time to time, but they'd come through it all still friends. He'd hurt her terribly by not letting her know what was happening to her son, he knew that, but he thought that now they might just be able to move on from that. No matter how guilty she might feel about what she'd said whilst under the influence on Friday night, it had needed to be said, not just for Karen, but for him as well. He'd held her until she'd fallen asleep, cradling her beautiful body against him, to try and take away some of the pain that was slowly eating away at her insides. There hadn't been any sexual motive attached to that whatsoever, it was just something he'd done because he knew he could. He was forced to admit that their familiarity with each other perhaps did go a little further than ordinary friends might, because of the one night they'd spent together nearly two years ago, but so what. He also knew that it might have been playing with fire to do that with her on Friday night, especially since that highly sensual kiss he'd shared with her before she'd gone on holiday, but even that hadn't stopped him from comforting her in the only way he knew how.

So, when her knock roused him from his thoughts, he called to her to come in. When she appeared, Mimi leapt out of her basket, and began running in circles round Karen's feet.

"I think someone's certainly missed me," She said with a smile, walking towards him, and trying not to trip over the still circling Mimi.

"She hasn't seen you for quite a while," He said, putting his arms round her and kissing her cheek.

"I haven't been here in far too long, have I," Karen observed, sitting down on the sofa.

"The old place doesn't change," He said dryly, thinking that it was certainly very nice to see her back here again, perhaps a sign that their lives were beginning to get back to normal. "Tea, or scotch?" He offered, raising a slightly comical eyebrow at her.

"Tea, definitely," She said with a self-deprecating smile. "I'm not touching scotch again for at least a fortnight."

"How did you feel, when you eventually woke up on Saturday?" He asked, pouring them both a cup of tea from the pot on the sideboard.

"No worse than I deserved," She said, wishing she could light up in here but knowing she couldn't. "John, thank you for being there," She added, taking the cup from him and briefly touching his hand.

"Oh, any time," He said, sitting down beside her.

"I mean it," Karen continued. "I was a complete wreck on Friday, and it's probably a good job you were there."

"Then I'm glad I was," He said, taking a sip from his cup and putting it down on the table.

"What I said to you," She continued a little hesitantly. "It was possibly the most unforgivable thing I've ever said to anyone, and I am really, truly sorry for saying it."

"I know," He said gently, realising that this was why she'd come to see him. "And as stupid as this may sound, I think it needed to be said."

"That doesn't mean it should have been said," Karen replied, not wanting him to try to excuse her action in the slightest.

"It's something you've thought, ever since he died," John said matter-of-factly. "Perhaps not constantly, but certainly enough for me to see it, nearly every time I've clapped eyes on you, and if getting it out of your system can allow you to move past it, and to begin putting that need to blame behind you, then that's all that matters." God, he was so good to her, Karen thought to herself. What on earth had she done to deserve a friend such as him?

They sat there talking for a good while longer, John with his arm casually around her shoulders. It was intensely comforting for both of them to return to the way they'd been before Ross had died, the simple pleasure of each other's company providing a sense of normality that neither had experienced in far too long.

"I had a visit from Neil yesterday," She told him at one point. "He wants me to speak at the annual conference that the Howard League of Penal Reform are having at the beginning of October. As the most recent female Governing Governor, I think he wants to show off the product of his success. He's asked Nikki to speak too, so the press will probably be there in droves." As she'd been speaking, a delighted smile had begun spreading across John's face.

"Ah, well, it seems then that you will have the pleasure of my company," He said with a completely straight face.

"They've asked you too?" She asked, thinking that this certainly would be fun if he were going as well.

"Yes. That particular charity has a liking for maverick judges who insist on pushing at the boundaries."

"I don't know," Karen said in mock concern. "You and me away together for three days in Manchester, that sounds positively sinful."

"The thoughts behind it might be," He admitted with a smirk. "But I should imagine we can both behave ourselves."

"You might have to," She said, clearly flirting with him. "But I don't."

"Oh, well, if you are determined to seduce someone new," He said in resigned acceptance. "At least I'll have someone intelligent to talk to."

"Helen will probably be going as well. Her part in starting up the home office project for women lifers, always guarantees her invites to things like this, so no, I don't think you'll get bored somehow."

"As long as I can trust to your discretion, if I should choose to avail myself of the numerous attractive women who may be there."

"Jesus, how many do you need?" Asked Karen with a laugh.

"Hey, I'm getting to like the idea of more than one," He said, clearly playing along with her.

"Yeah, well, if you do, I don't want to know about it," She told him firmly. "It might not be my business any more, but it doesn't mean I still don't have divided loyalties. Though what I would say is try and choose your conquest, or conquests, with a little more care this time."

"Do you have any idea just how like a fourteen-year-old you made me feel that night?" He asked in remembered humiliation, still unable to forget the lecture she'd given him over the Chlamydia.

"It was for your own good," She told him with a smile. "Besides, the blush might help you not to do the same thing again."

"I wouldn't bet on it," He replied, thinking that just for once, he didn't really have the urge to play away at this conference, when in the past, it would have provided him with the perfect opportunity. Perfect strangers simply didn't appeal to him at the moment. Were George and Jo beginning to have an effect on him after all?

Part Two Hundred and Three

Ten days later, on the last day of September, Karen was due to drive up to the annual conference that the Howard League of Penal Reform was holding in Manchester. Helen and Nikki were driving up in one car, and she and John would be going up in another. They had planned to drive up in John's car, but he had phoned Karen that morning, and asked if they could take hers instead.

"I'd forgotten mine was due for its MOT today," He told her.

"Fine," She replied. "As long as you let me do the driving. I hate anyone else being behind the wheel of my car, and there's to be absolutely no criticism of my driving."

"I will attempt not to do one of the things that drives George insane," He promised, though she didn't entirely believe him. This was John after all, and if he couldn't have direct control of a process such as driving, he would no doubt exert every ounce of stealth to obtain it in some other way.

Accordingly, Karen picked him up outside the judges' digs at around five o'clock, meaning that they would be driving to Manchester through the interminable rush hour traffic.

"I suppose I must put up with your taste in music for the entire journey," He said, after putting his belongings in the boot and sinking into the passenger seat.

"Of course," She told him with a smile. "Though I might allow you some Vivaldi if I get bored."

"I've got to write my speech for tomorrow," John said, digging a pad and a pen out of his briefcase that he'd put on the backseat so that he could reach it.

"I thought you'd just adlib," Karen said, pulling into the stream of traffic, and heading out of the city centre.

"That would be dreadfully discourteous," He said with a completely straight face. "Besides, I doubt you'll be telling me that you are anywhere near as unprepared."

"No, but then I'm not used to the limelight like you are."

"It's just like giving a lecture to a group of students," He said contemplatively. "It doesn't matter how important some of them might think they are, because they're all just human beings, and they all have just as many quirks and hang ups as the rest of us."

"And I used to think it was prison that was the great social leveler," Karen said with a laugh. "Yet now I find out that it's really all down to just one Judge."

As Karen negotiated her way onto the motorway, she set her Carolyn Johnson CD in motion, and watched as John began making some notes on his forthcoming speech. Having only ever seen John speak to a tightly packed courtroom, Karen was looking forward to seeing what he would come up with during his slot on the following day. John might have put up a mild protest at having to listen to Karen's music, but he was forced to admit that this particular singer didn't actually bother him too much. Her voice was unintrusive, even if the words were somewhat pathetically trivial. When they came to one particular song, he asked,

"Did you ever lend this to George? It sounds vaguely familiar."

"It was the first CD I ever lent her," Karen said fondly. "So yes, you probably have heard it from time to time. How is she? I haven't seen or heard from her since we got back from Spain."

"Oh, she's all right," John said carefully, thinking that George really ought to have maintained better contact with Karen than this. "She was a little wound up for a while, but nothing out of the ordinary."

"John, knowing George as well as I do," Karen said with a fond smile. "I suspect that's something of an understatement."

"Perhaps," He admitted eventually. "She's just finding it a bit difficult to adjust, that's all. Don't misunderstand me, she couldn't be happier with things the way they are now, but I think she's finding it harder to get over you than she thought she would."

"I'm not sure whether to be pleased or worried about her," Karen said dryly, and secretly feeling a little bit of both.

"She'll sort herself out eventually," John told her, not in the least concerned by George's phase of uncertainty.

The car seemed to cruise under Karen's firm but gentle hands, the wheel requiring just as much sensitivity as she might bestow on a lover. She usually kept just below the speed limit, the needle hovering just under seventy, though it felt to John as if they were barely moving at all. One hand rested lightly on the wheel, and the other on the gear stick, with her long, very attractive legs stretched forward to the pedals. John tried to work on his speech, and he did manage to note down a few ideas for things he must mention without fail. But the graceful movement of the car, combined with the mental exhaustion at the end of a hard week's work, eventually lulled him to sleep. He was vaguely aware of the music changing at the edge of his conscience, and found himself puzzling over how Karen could change CD's whilst driving. He was only just aware of her gently removing the notepad and pen from his hand, which rested atop them on his knee, before his brain gave into the lure of sleep. Karen had become aware that his eyes were gradually closing, and had removed the writing implements from his hand before he could drop them, placing them on the dashboard. She had changed the CD, having learnt to do this with one hand some time ago. John looked so innocent as he slept, his face losing all the carefully controlled restraint of his profession, and assuming the softer countenance of the man who simply wanted to be loved. It made her smile that he could be so relaxed in her presence, to hand over the responsibility for his continuing existence so freely. His legs were stretched out in front of him, and his head leant back on the headrest, showing that just for once, he didn't have a care in the world. It was a Faith Hill CD that Karen had put on and, after casting a glance at John to make sure he was still asleep, she began to sing. She wasn't stupid enough to think she was very good, and she knew she could entirely blame the cigarettes for this, but as her deep, slightly husky voice gathered confidence, she found it easier and easier to continue. She often found herself dropping an octave to keep the melody in tune with her contralto voice, sincerely hoping that John would stay asleep until she gave up this pointless pastime.

John had slept soundly for almost an hour, but then he gradually began to emerge, slowly becoming aware of her voice. He'd never heard Karen sing before, and it softened his heart to hear her. When she came to the end of a song, he broke the silence.

"I didn't know you could sing," He said, finally opening his eyes.

"And I thought you, were asleep," She said sternly, wishing he hadn't heard her.

"Mmm, I was," He said, lifting a hand to cover a yawn. They drove in silence for a while, listening to the music, and both submerged in their thoughts.

"Jo told me she came to see you," John said eventually, slightly surprising Karen at the turn of the conversation.

"Yes, she did. I don't want either Jo or George, to feel in any way guilty for this, but they both seem determined to do so."

"They both care about you," He said by way of explanation.

"I know, but these things happen." Then, far more earnestly, she added, "I don't want to lose either of them as a friend, John."

"You won't," He tried to reassure her. "They both just need some time, to get used to the situation."

"And what about you?"

"Erm..." He stopped, not entirely sure how to express what he was feeling. "I suppose I'm a little afraid of becoming surplus to requirements."

"In bed, or just generally?" She asked, not remotely thrown by the direction their conversation was taking.

"There as much as anywhere else," He was forced to admit, relieved that her eyes were firmly fixed on the road instead of on him.

"John," Karen said with a kind smile. "For some, like me and George, sleeping with a woman, could never completely replace the feeling of sleeping with a man, no matter how good the woman in question might be, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't occasionally get given equal importance. For others, like Yvonne and possibly Jo, altering their preferences could only really happen with one woman. I would be incredibly happy for Yvonne if she could find herself another woman, but I'm pretty sure it will never happen. I think Jo might be the same, in that her attraction for women will only go as far as George. You know how it is, when you first start sleeping with someone new, you can't seem to get enough of it, but that won't stop either of them from needing their time with you."

When they eventually arrived at the hotel where the conference was being held, it was just after nine o'clock. Helen and Nikki were already there, and had left a message for Karen at the desk, to let them know they would meet them in the bar. Karen's room was on the eighth floor, John's on the tenth, and when they'd dropped their bags off in their rooms, they went in search of Helen and Nikki.

"Hey, you're looking better," Helen said as they arrived at their table, getting up to give Karen a hug, not having seen her since the day she'd gone up on the roof.

"I'm missing Yvonne's villa already," Karen told her, glancing at the miserable rainy evening outside the windows of the bar. "Seen anyone else we know?"

"Grayling's here somewhere," Nikki said as they sat down, and Helen went to get them some drinks. "And we've seen Clare in passing."

"Clare who played the flute in The Creation?'" He asked, the smile of anticipation touching his lips.

"The very same," Nikki said knowingly, as Helen put a glass of red wine down in front of John, and a large scotch in front of Karen.

"So much for your pledge of not wanting to touch scotch for a fortnight," John said, clearly amused.

"Howard League conferences clearly providing the one exception," She replied without missing a beat.

"Have you told them about Clare being here too?" Helen asked, trying to catch up with the conversation.

"Yeah," Nikki said, seeing that John's interest was immediately renewed.

"Is she attached?" He asked, causing Nikki to break into a quiet little laugh.

"Not as far as I know," Helen told him, taking sincere amusement at his expression of excitement.

"Jesus," Karen said in mild disgust. "You look like a Labrador that's been let off the leash for the weekend."

"Well, I have," He said without a flicker.

"You're outrageous," Karen told him, and Nikki couldn't quite escape the feeling that she was observing an old married couple. "I don't suppose I can smoke in here?" Karen said, clearly not expecting such a luxury.

"No, the whole place is non-smoking, apart from the balconies and the car park," Nikki said with a grimace.

"Bloody clean air brigade," Karen said reproachfully, purposefully trying to wind up John, whilst giving Helen and Nikki a sly wink.

"Well, some of us might appreciate the lack of carcinogens," John replied, playing along with her for the moment.

"And I thought you liked taking risks," Helen said, flashing a smirk across the table at him.

"Now, whatever gave you that impression?" John wanted to know, clearly enjoying the company of three delightfully attractive and intelligent women.

"Well now," Nikki said grinning wickedly at him. "The things George has told us about you, really shouldn't be mentioned in polite society." After a moment's silence, both Helen and Karen burst into laughter.

"You should see the look on your face," Karen said, wishing Jo and George could have seen it too.

"I knew that introducing George to the idea of having female friends, was a particularly stupid thing to do," He said in resigned acceptance.

Much later that night, when Helen and Nikki were lying in bed, and on the verge of going to sleep, Helen said,

"Did they look like an old married couple to you?"

"Yeah," Nikki replied, turning over to face her. "Why?"

"Because I don't think he'd be any good for her," Helen surprised Nikki by saying.

"I haven't thought that closely about it," Nikki was forced to admit. "But yeah, it's not as if Karen would do herself much good, falling for someone who's shacked up with two other women, one being as good as her ex."

"She's bored, you can see it a mile off."

"Bored's a bit too simplistic," Nikki clarified. "More like miserable, and lonely, and in need of a bit of temporary, uncomplicated comfort."

"What would you think, if I were to suggest that we give her some?" Helen asked into the darkness, feeling her cheeks flame with embarrassment. "Actually, no, please just forget I said that." But Nikki was smiling.

"You've been working up to that all evening, haven't you," Nikki said, giving Helen a gentle kiss.

"Is that completely outrageous?" Helen asked, hoping Nikki wasn't about to tell her she was weird for suggesting such a thing.

"Oh yeah," Nikki replied huskily. "It's incredibly outrageous, quite sexy too though." After a few moments' silence, punctuated by some fairly languorous kissing, Helen tentatively asked,

"What do you reckon though?"

"Erm, interesting," Nikki said thoughtfully. "If I didn't work with her, then yeah, I'd say definitely, as a one off, because I think you and me could probably teach her a thing or two. But I do work with her, which is why she might say no, and which is why it might not be such a good idea. Let me sleep on it, and who knows."

Part Two Hundred and Four

A crick in her neck woke Nikki up ridiculously early in their bedroom, which looked weird. It must have secretly mutated in the night. It had all their possessions strewn around the room but the walls were painted an impersonal white and the room had shrunk and she could only see a couple of her books. At least she could see that the sleeping shape that was under the quilt was Helen, or at least that straight lock of hair looked like hers. What in hell was wrong? Then she remembered. She was in a hotel where she had agreed in a fit of madness to spout on at a hall full of perfect strangers. Her head hit the pillow. Oh brilliant. She glanced at the time and it was ridiculously early. She needed to get some more shuteye as she had a long day ahead.

"Nikki, Nikki, it's time for breakfast." That urgent Scottish brogue broke in on her dreams.

"Whatsamatter?" Nikki mumbled, half in a dream. "You get the breakfast today and I'll do it tomorrow."

"I mean the hotel breakfast. Come on, we'll be late."

Nikki groaned. She had not had to get up according to anyone's routine for nearly four years since someone else held the keys to her room. In that case, what in hell had Helen been doing, lying in bed next to her? It was then that the penny not so much dropped but meandered its erratic fluttering path down to earth. She rubbed her eyes and stuck a reluctant leg out from the side of her bed. Why in hell was Helen such an early morning bird?

Finally, she tottered her way downstairs, desperate for a cup of strong black coffee amongst the 'continental breakfast' on offer. She was infinitely grateful for waiter service as she felt far too uncoordinated to select the toast, jam, and butter, decide what cereal to choose from and serve herself coffee. She wasn't in a talking mood and fortunately, her sole participation was to smile periodically at passing strangers in that very British way. Before Helen whisked her away to the lounge, she managed to scrounge a second cup of coffee. She felt she was going to need it.

Once she could collapse into an easy chair, she fished out the crumpled conference prospectus and wearily willed her eyes to focus on it. The bottom part of the form swam into view.

"From the Bench to the Bars - A Dual Approach"


Karen Betts, The Governor, HMP Larkhall.

His Honour Judge John Deed QC, High Court Judge.

Nikki Wade, Wing Governor and former inmate, HMP Larkhall.

Course structure:
Plenary sessions with keynote speakers, questions and debate; breakout sessions to discuss and identify objectives as targets for change, agree actions and create networks for further communications and support.

Who should attend?
Prison and probation practitioners, sentencers, Youth Offending Teams, lawyers, voluntary sector organisations, academics and anyone working in the criminal justice system and concerned about reform.

Email network
Even if you cannot attend the event, fill in your contact details and send the form back to the Howard League for Penal Reform and we will include you in an email network for further actions and exchange of ideas.

The conference is accredited for the purposes of the Law Society and the Bar Council CPD.

Registration and refreshments:
Registration with tea/coffee at 10am. All participants will receive a comprehensive conference pack, guide for the conference and a valuable reference resource. Buffet lunch will be provided."

"Jesus, that's me, isn't it?"

"That sure is," Beamed Helen with pride.

"Guess I've got time to get into the swing of things before I have to spout."

"Not necessarily," Helen contradicted her to her total horror. "We must register and check out the timetable. That will tell you when you're on. Come on."

Meekly, Nikki let herself be led by Helen who followed the notices to a side area in the foyer where, thanks for Helen's 'early bird' syndrome, they were at the front of the queue and they shuffled their way to pick up clip on IDs, conference packs and printed materials and, most vital of all, the timetable.

"Your slot is second thing tomorrow morning. You're before Karen. That's good news. That will give everyone time to wake up from their hangovers and that they'll be listening properly. You'll also have time to see everyone else first and maybe pick up one or two things to refer to. The judge is on today."

"He'll be dead confident," Nikki muttered mournfully. She wasn't sure that focused attention to her words of wisdom was an unmixed blessing especially as an impeccably dressed, utterly composed John came into view. "He's used to this sort of thing. He'll have them eating out of his hands."

"Hi, judge," Helen broke off, her carrying voice grabbing his attention. "Can you help settle a few of Nikki's pre conference nerves? She's worried about her speech."

"You may have a lot of advice given to you but my tip is never to try and be like anyone else but to ultimately be yourself," John urged in his most soothing tones. He had seen what was going on and had already turned to approach them. His heart was touched by this woman's very evident nerves."Do it in the way that comes natural to you. By all means, pick up any quotes from any speakers that go before you go on but don't let them ever take over your style, least of all mine."

Nikki nodded gratefully. The words made sense to her. A sneaking feeling at the back of her mind was that she had to be like someone else. She was still unsure how she was going to set about her speech but this was a start.

"One very powerful reason for me coming to this conference was for me to sit down in the audience and hear what you have to say," John said with great solemnity and conviction. That confused Nikki even more as she struggled to make that real in her mind.

"And me as well, John, I trust?" broke in Karen's amused tones as she walked in alongside Grayling.

"Neil's the reason why I came here in the first place," Nikki added darkly. "He's got to be the most persuasive man I've ever come across in my life.

"He must have been taking a few lessons from John. You have got to hear how he got George to play Eve in 'the Creation'," Came Karen's friendly reply in a barbed fashion while John pretended to studiously recheck the position of his tie for perfection.

"Ladies, ladies. You ought to suspend judgment till the conference has finished. I freely admit to the very slight flanker in persuading you both to attend this conference but I am positive that you'll thank me afterwards. You will both get so much out of this conference. I acted for all for the best reasons."

"I quite agree, Neil. I have the utmost faith in both of you. You should not be too hasty. Now if you excuse me, I must give my speech a last minute polish as I rather fancy that the conference will be starting shortly."

"Hmmm. Grayling's girls, we aren't. You might think they've cooked this one up between the two of them. However, like John says, we're due to start shortly. Seeing that this place is bound to be non-smoking, why don't you join me in a quick drag outside? It's going to be a long long time before we get another chance."

As the autumn wind whipped past them as they stood outside the door, all the worldly philosophizing from John and Neil, though well meant, was as nothing compared to the nicotine fix. The fact that they might have looked like two naughty schoolgirls smoking behind the bike sheds mattered far less than their peace of mind. When they had stubbed their cigarettes out, they stared through Grayling's mild disapproval, grabbed their papers and headed for the swing doors.

Immediately, Nikki was overwhelmed by the sight of a huge room, the size of a function suite, set out with two blocks of rows of chairs and a walkway down the middle. On a raised area were podiums, left and right with a microphone each and a table in the middle where the chairman sat. This was on a vaster scale than her old club and much more luxurious than the prison she worked in. This was another world altogether.

"Let's find a seat and get settled down." A Scottish voice whispered in her ear.

Nikki became conscious that she had stood still and was holding up the crowd of people who were funneling into the hall from behind her. Automatically, Karen, Grayling and John had caught up with her and they led an uncertain way to row four on the extreme left hand side where they occupied part of the block. There was an expectant air and eventually, the chairman tested the microphone briefly and opened the meeting.

"……Just a few domestics. According to the fire instructions, a continuous ringing sound will require the evacuation of the building by the doors at the back and that we should all assemble in the car park to the right of the building as you go out, fifty yards down the road and that you take all your personal belongings with you……."

Karen shuddered. That flat bland description off a standardized instruction bore no resemblance to the panic and confusion, the smell of smoke and the feeling of desperation of missing persons, of waiting for the fire brigade. She had never been the same that way since that experience over three years ago. To Grayling, that day included a hole in his experience where he was oblivious to everything.

The conference finally got into gear where a journalist from the 'Guardian' opened the proceedings and gripped attention straightaway.

"Chair, conference, it's fallen to me to draw the short straw to open the proceedings. Whether that is a positive advantage or a cross to bear, you and I will shortly find out. I must start off, as a member of the press in pointing out my awareness of the insidious process of narrowing the public consciousness in the name of law and order and the consequent attack on the liberal culture I have grown up in as a young man. I confess with some embarrassment and shame the way that some of my colleagues from some of the more disreputable, newspapers fan the flames of prejudice by writing what they think as easy to write, populist safe topics. At heart, I sense that there is a genuine public bewilderment at a society that increasingly feels that government fails to deliver the primary requirements of government in terms of public safety and turn to blind retribution. It is an attitude that in an odd kind of way I can understand. What they don't see is that they help skew the political debate into reaching out for instant headline solutions which governments adopt and the professionals in the field are then left holding the baby. I speak of the range of punishments such as on the spot fines, anti-social behaviour orders, more and longer prison sentences, tagging, testing, "alcohol-free zones." But my perception, for what it is worth is that these are no real answers. But what is this 'public opinion' of which we so glibly speak and of what I spoke of just a second ago?" he asked in searching tones. "How many times have we all uttered those words….?"

……John on the end of the row gave a start and immediately scribbled a few notes in the margin of his neatly typewritten notes that he had just finished on his laptop computer. This very penetrating analysis from the journalist who was a cut above other members of his profession, jolted his sense of certainty that he had had, up till now. The situation was not as clear-cut as he had supposed and he might have to improvise his way through, after all…….

"……how many times do we think we know what is going on in society and how utterly dependent are we on opinion polls, the like which my colleagues in the press and on TV quote so readily? In reality, it is not public opinion leading the policy shapers but in reality, at best, policy makers act out what they project from their own ideas and attempt to drag the public along with them. At worst, they cynically manipulate the public for their own ends. There had to be proper alternatives to the increasingly untenable position of 'lock 'em up.' At this point, I wish to wind up and hand over to the professionals in the field and I can sit back and hope to learn from others what those answers might be."

"I remember when the Guardian printed that letter from Crystal," Muttered the still dormant wing governor in Helen as the speaker concluded. "Nice idea but a bit out of focus."

"They meant well," Nikki whispered back, her hurt at the knife in the back delivered by Shell against Helen having been healed by the passage of time.

Gradually, they were drawn into a discourse from many fields, the next at a rarefied level of academia, which stretched the empathetic skills from the diverse members in the audience and eased them into the conference proper. John was due to be on next and Karen, Nikki, Helen and Grayling had that slight feeling of being a fan watching the local legend appear on stage. He was theirs and they were all batting for him in their minds even if it was going to be their turn later on. The room fell quiet for the chairman's introduction and John firmly held his notes and strode purposefully down the room.

Grayling watched him with intense interest as a fellow professional now under the same roof. He adjusted the position of his notes on the sloping surface and began to speak.

"It is with some humility that I outline what I see as the judiciary's role in the eloquently reasoned dilemma of public opinion. Before I continue, I ought to emphasise that the views expressed may, or may not be representative of how the Lord Chancellor's Department would have me speak. Judges are individual, after all, and jealous of their independent powers. The first speaker very eloquently explored, if not attacked, the mythology of public opinion and, in my profession, how often have I mistakenly reasoned that the fitting sentence should be such that it maintains public confidence in the judiciary system. I have erred in also seeing the prison system as an abstract receptacle into which the convicted prisoner is placed for a varying period of sentence, the details of which I have been signally unaware of and the work of the prison officers I have been ignorant of. I have seen my remit at the point of passing sentence without having thought to the consequences. There has been an age old formula of separation of powers, that the police aided by the criminal prosecution service investigate alleged crimes, juries selected from the citizenship at large pass judgment as to guilt or otherwise, the judge passes the appropriate sentence and the prison service rehabilitates the prisoner. In recent years had been bolted on, a whole host of agencies in the community, psychiatrists…….."

You mean, Lauren Atkins, thought Nikki fondly of him.

"…………….probation officers and the like, all designed to cut down on reoffending so that I am not faced with the unhappy spectacle of the same person appearing before me on a fresh charge. Such specialization of function is all very well but the danger is that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing……"

As John spoke so eloquently, he felt constrained by the microphone in being unable to casually pace around and the physical movement to call forth the ideas, which sprang to mind. This time, he was forcibly required to angle his comments to a much wider community and as he went along, he could see that his set speech was all very fine for a judge's seminar but was too inward looking. He conjured up the words as if he were playing an improvisation on his beloved Strad.

Karen's mind was taken back to the three occasions when John had visited Larkhall, when he first dipped his toe into foreign waters to be amused at the connection between Monty Everard and the Two Trudies and touched by their innocence, hardly hardened criminals. The second occasion was more traumatic than that as he had come to abjectly apologise for his harsh words to Karen. Truly, he now realized that his own conception of justice left something to be desired. He had changed somewhat since then, or so he would like to think as other words floated into his mind even as he held forth. "What would you know?" Denny had stormed at him furiously. "You're just a bloke who thinks he knows best, because he's one of the pricks in wigs who gets to say yes or no, to someone like my Shaz ending up in a shit hole like this!" On the third occasion, yet again Denny Blood had crossed his path as she was on top of the hospital roof. He closed his eyes briefly. He did not care to think of that traumatic day more than he could help but the combined imagery and memories made the mental crossover so easy to accomplish with words from felt experience as he rounded into the verbal coda of his speech.

"…….each profession has its set of misconceptions from observers from the outside. In mine, there is the perception that the system of law is monolithic, set in rock, tension free. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have long considered my role as doing my level best to resist the steady encroachment of the executive upon the judiciary. The British establishment has grown greedy for power, highly sensitive if not paranoid to level minded criticism. It behoves the judiciary to gauge the real felt needs in society, to set both lead and example, in how justice is maintained but to be mindful of the traditions of ancient freedoms as well as inventing modern ones. It is a battle that is well fought for those who are bold and of firm will."

At the finale, Nikki was fractionally ahead of the others in leading a round of applause. He was not the judge adorned with a wig and red robes but an ordinary man, who had reached towards that common conundrum that the other professionals recognized from their individual perspectives. Karen felt proud of him and was deeply fascinated by the body language of the man, active in his own profession and transmitting it with sensitivity and insight in crystal clear words. Helen reflected that while Thomas was the most gorgeous man she had known, John was good competition for that abstract prize.

It was coffee break time before an open forum for questions and answers and they all filed out on an emotional high. After they had all queued up for liquid refreshments, Nikki and Karen made a dive for the exit to light up a much-needed cigarette. As they returned, Grayling intercepted them.

"I meant what I said about giving you a hand with your speeches. I would not dream of censoring in the least what you are intending to say but if you want me to play the role of 'audience', I will gladly help you sharpen them up so that you will feel as confident as you can for the next day."

"You're not all bad," joked Karen. "What are you smiling about? I can see that Cheshire Cat look on your face."

"Oh, nothing much," Grayling lied as he felt the copy of the Guardian article in his inside jacket pocket. It was patently clear to her that Grayling had been behaving in a mysterious furtive fashion as if he had something hidden up his sleeve.

All was revealed as the chair threw the meeting open to questions of the speakers or comments from the floor and Grayling confidently put his arm up and, typically, grabbed attention sufficiently to be called for first question.

"I'm Neil Grayling of the Home Office with the responsibility for women's prisons. At the risk of stealing the thunder from what I am sure will be positive and inspiring speeches from the prison service…….."

You bastard, thought Nikki and Karen in unison.

"…………..I thought I would illustrate a point that, from the point of view of an insider

even press reporting from as reputable a paper as the Guardian can lead to mixed messages where it is not entirely clear what causes in the reported deficiencies in a particular prison. Like John earlier on, I speak neither as propogandist nor apologist for the system but to simply set out the truth, wherever it points. I refer to the Guardian article of Wednesday March 30 2005 about the recent staff inspection of Holloway prison. In the middle of the article it gets to the heart of the issue where, and I quote. "Designed in the 19th century as a mixed prison, Holloway has been plagued with problems ever since the 1970s when it began admitting increasing numbers of women. On the positive side, it quotes the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers as saying that she praised the prison's management team for making significant improvements since her last inspection, to Holloway's healthcare system and the amount of time inmates were spending out of their cells. Welcoming the chief inspector's findings, Phil Wheatley, the director of prisons, pointed out that Holloway had just opened a new mother and baby unit and a refurbished healthcare centre was due to be completed in April. On the negative side, are that girls continue to be kept at Holloway, of "unacceptable" standards of cleanliness, that minority ethnic and foreign national prisoners were particularly vulnerable and of an extremely unsafe practice" of locking young women in bathrooms while showering and that staff are having to manage a "very high level of distress".

It concluded that Holloway has undoubtedly progressed since the last inspection but not to the extent that managers had hoped and we had expected and that the previous management team have tackled some of the acute problems with enthusiasm but aspects of the underlying culture remained unaddressed. In addition to this, it quotes from various prison reformers in the field that Holloway officers were cutting down as many as five women a day from nooses and of concerns about levels of drug abuse, self-harm and suicide. Although Ms Owers recognised that pressures on staff and management should ease following the opening last year of HMP Bronzefield, a new women's prison in Ashford, Middlesex, she recommended that Holloway should rework its anti-bullying strategy, comprehensively review its procedures for managing women at risk of self-harm and suicide and ensure that under-18s were no longer held."

My point is that, while the article makes a serious attempt to analyse a very complex situation, it remains hard even for the intelligent outsider to establish from this article whether the faults are with an individual prison officer, a group of them, the local organisation or simply that, with the best will in the world the prison system as a whole is simply overstretched."

All of his past experience of Larkhall flashed before his eyes as he concluded his address.

"Well, I did promise Alison Warner that I would keep you two on the straight and narrow," Grayling said with a sheepish smile after the controversy had died down and the conference had broken off late for the buffet lunch. His first warning of the repercussions to follow was his sight of three women converging on him with determined expressions on their faces while John sauntered along behind them.

"Yes, Neil, but you did not say exactly what you would be doing at this conference and that you had sneakily kept quiet from us your plans to steal the thunder of the next set of questions, the afternoon speaker and probably me and Nikki tomorrow," Chided Karen while Nikki and Helen visibly ganged up around him. For once John was not in the firing line and was mightily relieved that Neil would take the heat, not him.

Part Two Hundred and Five

On the Saturday evening, Nikki eventually arrived at her decision. She hadn't just slept on it, but had given herself the entire day to mull it over on and off, to make sure she was honestly happy with Helen propositioning Karen on their behalf. She wasn't so sure that Karen would say yes, but she finally figured that if she did take up their offer for a little light company, it might just be fun. She and Helen had never before considered inviting anyone to join them, but this was different. Karen was a friend, a friend who was still desperately trying to find a way to cope, to get through every single day of her existence. If they could make her feel a little happier, for even just a couple of hours, then it was worth it.

When she and Helen went upstairs to get changed before dinner, the clothes they'd been wearing being unbearably creased from hours of sitting and listening to speeches, Nikki told her.

"If you wanted to put your suggestion into action," She said, as Helen stood at the mirror applying her make up. "I'd be happy to be part of it." Turning round, with her mascara wand in hand, Helen said,

"Are you sure?" Nikki smiled at her.

"Yeah, of course I'm sure. I wouldn't say it if I wasn't."

"Shall I ask her tonight?" Helen said, making Nikki grin at the eagerness in her voice.

"Yeah, why not, though she mightn't say yes, you know."

"No, I know, but it's worth a try, because Karen ending up in bed with the Judge would be a disaster."

Later that evening after they'd eaten dinner and were sitting drinking in the bar, Helen thought it might be time to raise the subject. John was submerged with a group of people they didn't know on the other side of the room, and Nikki had tracked down Clare for a catch up. Knowing that she had to take the bull by the horns, whilst they were temporarily alone in their little corner, Helen cursed yet again the no-smoking policy of the hotel.

"You're looking very pensive," Karen said, taking a sip of her wine, not a bad vintage for a hotel chain.

"I've got something to ask, well, to suggest to you," Helen said carefully, already thinking this a particularly bad idea. "And that sounds ridiculously formal."

"I'm intrigued," Karen told her, seeing that Helen was having a certain amount of difficulty.

"This is going to sound incredibly stupid," Helen continued, her Scottish accent becoming a little more pronounced with the rise of her tension. "But I'll kick myself for ever if I don't say it. You're looking quite tense this weekend, as if you're trying to pick someone up for a good night or two."

"That's very perceptive of you," Karen observed with a smile, wondering what on earth Helen was leading up to. "And is that a bad thing?"

"No, of course it isn't," Helen said with a laugh. "But, I suppose what I'm trying to say, is that you don't need to look so hard. After a moment's astonished silence, Karen said,

"Helen, are you saying what I think you're saying?" Thinking that she must be dreaming for even entertaining such an idea.

"That depends on what you think I'm saying," Helen replied flirtatiously.

"Are you propositioning me?" Karen asked her plainly, her face now completely serious.

"Yeah, I am," Helen said with a soft smile.

"Is this just coming from you, or is it on behalf of Nikki as well?" Karen asked, still not quite able to believe what she was hearing.

"Both of us," Helen said without hesitation. "I wouldn't do this without her."

"Erm, why, if it's not a stupid question?"

"Where do you want me to start?" Helen asked with a light laugh, now that the really hard part was over. "You're incredibly attractive, it might be fun, and because, we both think you need it." Karen just stared at her, completely stunned. Here she was, being offered a night or two of deliciously hedonistic pleasure, with two extremely attractive women, because they thought she needed it. They must be the two most caring, wonderful, incredible friends she had in the world, to offer her something like this, which wouldn't normally have been within the sphere of their relationship. Helen was right, she did need it, but that didn't mean she should accept it. She could feel the faint prickling behind her eyelids, the brief constriction in her throat that heralded tears.

"Sweetheart, don't cry," Helen urged her gently, laying one of her hands over Karen's.

"I... I think that's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me," Karen told her quietly, trying to rein in her emotions. "And if I was looking for female company, I would take you up on your offer like a shot, but I think I need a break from women. At the moment, I need to have as few reminders of what it was like to be with George as possible. So please, don't take any offence when I say no."

"Okay," Helen said gently. "Just remember that the offer's always there."

Excusing herself by saying that she needed some air, Karen escaped upstairs to her room, knowing that she needed to be alone, completely away from the threat of being disturbed. When she stepped out onto her balcony, the tears were already cascading down her cheeks, and her hands slightly trembled as she lit a cigarette. God, she really was fragile if such a usually tempting offer could knock her for six like this. The truth was that she simply felt empty, hollow, as if all the positive feelings had been thoroughly drained from her. When she'd finished her cigarette, she flicked the end over the side of the balcony, and went back indoors, immediately shedding her clothes and snuggling under the thick hotel duvet. Her body shook as she cried into her pillow, the longing for a pair of arms uncommonly strong. But they weren't female arms she wanted, but strong, warm, masculine arms, to hold her down, to take the only thing she had left to give, to treat her body as the empty shell it was. This was what she needed, she realised in the dark, the sort of treatment she'd received that first time with Ritchie Atkins. He had given her back some of the feeling after Fenner, and now she needed someone else to do the same. In having her body forcefully, yet permissibly taken, she might be able to tear herself out of the grasp of her depression, to re-emerge into the land of the living, to once again be a fully functioning human being.

Part Two Hundred and Six

" 'I'm speaking in a capacity'…scratch that…'I'm speaking in a dual capacity, both as ex-prisoner and as current wing governor," Nikki rabbited away to a half asleep Helen at an insanely ungodly hour. "That's a load of shit. The Julies would fall about laughing if they heard me talking this pile of bollocks. I'm supposed to be speaking up for them, not sound like the suit I would have once taken the piss out of."

"You did, Nikki," Mumbled Helen as the thick fog of sleep swirled around her brain, coaxing her to surrender to the nice cosy feel of the bed. The staccato sounds emanating from some other dimension kept her from totally drifting off.

"Eh….I did? I'm sorry, Helen. I've apologised a million times since our second night together. It's just that this speech sounded great when I looked at this last night and now in the cold light of morning, I really don't like it or myself as I sound."

Helen groaned and her sense of realism prompted her to open a sleepy eye. She dare not think what the time might be but it felt very early. The spirit was willing to be the caring partner but the spirit felt very weak.

"Yes, Nikki, but we'd had more than a few to drink at the bar last night by the time we finally looked over your speech."

"So what in hell do I do now?"

"Could you just ad lib it, Nikki?"

"Yeah, that's what I normally do for everything. I work it out in my mind and rely on all the right words to fall out of my brain."

"So what's wrong this time?"

"I'm really nervous about speaking and I'm scared that my mind will just freeze over."

By then, Helen's mind had cleared and she was just able to slide out of bed and collapse into a chair.

"OK Nikki, imagine I'm the audience and you're doing the speech. I've got a copy of it You do your speech and when you come to a bit that doesn't sound right, shout out the alterations of what comes first to your mind and we'll rewrite the bloody thing."

A dawn's awakening look stole across Nikki's expressive features. This was mingbogglingly simple. This was pure genius and her stress levels started to drop dramatically. She could see that narrow pathway opening out before her clear of disaster on either side. All she had to do was to hold to nerve and trust to fate…..and Helen. That look was succeeded by one of wonder as she shook her head incredulously and her words framed her thoughts.

"Why in hell didn't I think of that before?"

Helen's smile was utterly smug but she refrained from comment.

As the second day of the conference started, there was a criss crossing of people converging on the double doors and Helen could not help noticing the physical proximity of John and Karen and, as she had said and thought to Nikki, there was a distinct resemblance to a married couple about them. John looked relaxed and wide-awake while Karen looked tense but she put that down to nerves before her speech. However, she could not let her attention stray as she had her hands full in being supportive of Nikki. A faint memory came back to her of doing the like for Thomas many years ago but he had that sort of earnest self confidence and experience whereas this was all new to Nikki. She sat at the end of the row, clutching and rustling a sheaf of papers and wondering if she was best off being early on or having to wait till later on as Karen would have to do. Looking backwards on the day, Nikki's memory was utterly blank in the period up till the chairman called on her next to speak.

'Who? Me? He must mean someone else,' Nikki thought for a confused second before her legs took her stiffly up the central aisle, crossing over to the podium. To her intense relief, the wooden structure was a solid affair that she could cling tightly onto. The time before she launched into her speech was an infinity and the first words that came out of her mind came out of her mouth.

"Well, I suppose I'm just the new kid on the block," she confessed frankly. "I'm used to saying my piece as some have found out to their cost but this one really scares me."

A slight murmur of sympathy ran through the hall at Nikki's hesitant start and triggered her sheer nerves to veer into keyed up excitement, which unfroze her mind so that her delivery gradually gained both talk rapidity and fluency.

"I shouldn't suppose that everyone's heard of me round here, I'm not that famous. I'm Nikki Wade and I've done every kind of job you care to name in pubs, clubs until I got to set my own with my then partner. I hadn't the faintest experience of what it was to end up on the wrong side of the law till I went through the front door of my club and ended up taking out the policeman who was threatening to rape Trish, that's her name. I don't want to go into the gory details and I freely admit that there were plenty of them. I finally got to see what really happened at the time of my appeal, after three years inside and after I was first tried. An 'old boys' organisation' in the police force stuck together to cover up the man's previous form in raping a female police officer who was another one of his victims…..Sally Anne Howe, her name was. The CPS deliberately withheld this material evidence and, on top of that, I have to conclude that the original trial judge was prejudiced in his handling of the trial. For proof of that are the two court hearings, one which freed me and the other which wiped my record clean not just because the truth came out but the way the case was conducted. Before all that, I was blisteringly and permanently angry, at what I saw as an injustice and being imprisoned in an institution, infected as it was from top to bottom by cronyism in its worst forms was just the final straw. Whether a prison officer favoured you or not meant the difference between being locked up in a solitary cell in my case or whether another prisoner who worked the system was covered up for. In the same way, a particular prison officer who remains nameless was protected by the then governing governor who turned a deaf ear despite his long record of abusing vulnerable prisoners. I must pay tribute to the wing governor who first tried to make prisons a better and fairer place was continually stabbed in the back and victimized by those who worked for her and also by her boss for 'stepping out of line.' I got out because of her, that she believed in me when all the other prison officers painted me as a troublemaker. She got me access to some real education without which I wouldn't be speaking to you now."

Nikki's voice had been carried by the forceful rhythmic intensity of her feelings, which contrasted with the rather detached academic tone of the conference. As her emotions flowed freely into her words ,she came very close to say to the audience that 'as it happens, she's in the audience right now ' but she somehow noticed Helen sitting in the fourth row and slightly shaking her head. This was Nikki's day, not Helen's she was saying and she somehow stopped herself in time. In her turn, Helen felt the tears in her eyes as she heard words that she had last heard years ago, coming out of a TV screen in some nameless pub.

Nikki's vision went into wide focus as she looked out into the audience. Even the audience, who didn't know her, was gripped by the immediacy of her experience, some of whom had heard of her case. John sat up rigid in his seat as his sensitivities were opened up by the intensity of her words that occasionally borrowed from his vocabulary. She recalled injustices that tapped directly into her memories that would never really die. Yes, thought John, she was another woman who would make a first class barrister who he would be proud to see appear before him. This time, he was in the visitor's gallery and she was speaking from on high from the podium. Karen was torn between her own nervousness and general tension and unselfish admiration and consequently her perception of the speech was if seen through a dense fog. Eventually, Nikki looked around, a bit dazed and realised that she had strayed a little way from her script. Thank heaven for Helen's last minute inspiration or she would have been really struggling between the conventional demands of formal exposition and how her heart spoke for her. She paused, focussed her eyes for the place and poised herself to resume her speech.

"What I was coming on to say is that it mainly comes down to legitimacy. You might ask me why I am personalising everything, as my experience was untypical of most prisoners' experience in so many ways, including the trial that got me free and a retrial, which wiped out my conviction. The point is, that I am speaking as a one time prisoner who went through the mill and I need that before I can understand myself as a wing governor , let alone explain what I've come to believe and why."

For the first time, Nikki noticed the tumbler of water by the side of the podium, Her mouth was dry and she duly helped herself to it.

"Legitimacy, that's a good word. If you're in charge, anywhere, and whoever you're in charge of, accept what you do and why, you're half way there. Without it, you're nowhere.

I listened with great interest to the very good question posed by Neil Grayling yesterday and, even from my patch, I wouldn't be able to answer for sure the series of questions asked. When I stood up for someone's rights and started off a demonstration as a black prisoner called Femi was beaten up, I was really fighting for the rights without knowing it that would be eventually be mine for the granting when I went into my present job. I could get to really have the clout to try and change things so that there is one rule for all."

The expression on Grayling's face was one of immense satisfaction. She had backed to the hilt, every reason in his mind why he had backed her as wing governor in the first place. He had sat through more turgid conference speeches than he cared to think of but this was so fresh, so riveting. Thank God Nikki took it into her head to join the prison service. His gain was someone else's loss.

"Even if the prison is properly run, then a prisoner will be subject to constraints in their lives or they wouldn't remain there. At best, mothers will be separated from their children and will see them if they're lucky every so often. Your whole way of life, going out when you want, seeing a film if you want, getting up in the morning and going to bed are someone else's decision. That is what prison is about and I have been interested in what the probation officer, I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name, had to say yesterday and that's where I learned that there's only so much I can do while prisoners are in my charge. I am firmly of the opinion that we must improve on one in two prison inmates in this country who cannot read or write properly and end up drifting back into crime, such as shoplifting, prostitution, all types of theft and drug dealing. This isn't an academic treatise as they are the women I knew when I was a prisoner and another whom I can think of who I took on to work in my club for her mother's sake. So we all need each other and at this point, I think I'll stop spouting and finish."

A round of applause broke out, John, Helen and Karen at their most fervent. This was pure Nikki. Karen temporarily banished from her mind the fact that she would have to scribble out odd chunks from her own speech as Nikki had said it first. She would have to banish herself elsewhere in the lunch break.

"I'm sorry," Nikki apologized to the secretary at the table below the podium. "I think I went a bit away from my speech." In her nervousness, she hadn't realized that these would be needed for the conference report. "If I can remember what I said different, I'll tell you."

They went out to where the buffet lunch was set and Nikki felt as if she were floating down from on high and had finished some immense journey. All these feelings flowed through her body, making her more talkative than normal.

"How did it go? Did it make any sense?" jabbered Nikki, anxious for somebody to say that she had said it right. The only regret at the back of her mind was that the Julies, Denny who were still inside weren't there to hear her and others whom she knew who were on the outside. She wanted to do right by them as well as her friends who were with her.

Helen was overflowing with emotions and wrapped her arms round her in a huge hug. Nikki limply clung on to her, a huge feeling of satisfaction welling through her.

"You'll be fine, Karen. You've spoken at conferences before…." Started Nikki, awash with adrenaline, thinking that nothing was impossible

"Correction, Nikki," Karen retorted. "I've been to many conferences but I've been in the audience listening to someone else. I've never spoken before. The thought of it really worries me. I'm not exactly feeling at my best and I need help with my speech."

A handsome lecturer with dark curly wavy hair overheard the conversation and inserted himself into the conversation.

"Can I help you? Your first time can be rather nerve wracking."

"Thank you for your kind offer but I think I can help, Karen," John cut in protectively. Nikki had Helen to help her so the least he could do was to look after Karen. In John's eyes, she was definitely giving off very indefinable vibrations.

"Perhaps it would be a good idea if you two find a room where you can work. Nikki and I will bring you over a range of sandwiches."

Karen nodded gratefully and slid off with John while Nikki went to queue up at the bar. She needed that drink.

In the afternoon session, Karen took the bit between her teeth and went for it. With short, rapid strides, she headed for the podium. She dare not even look at the audience. She had her notes to hand and launched straight into her speech.

"I'm in a predicament in matching the excellent speeches of everyone who has gone before so I will pick up on what seems to be left in the neck of the woods that I know. I am lucky in my position as a governing governor as the battles that have taken place for a progressive humane view of running prisons appear to be largely won, at least where I work. Other prisons may not be so fortunate. At Larkhall, the pioneering credit lies with Helen Stewart, my one time boss, the same wing governor who gave Nikki her chance and whose example I have tried to follow. Though she no longer works for the prison service and her career paths have gone separate ways, we're good friends still and would like to think that she has influenced me even today in my ideas as to how to run a prison."

Karen's curiously conversational style nevertheless made her tribute as words of high praise and Helen blinked her eyes. Spoken that way and in public, she couldn't really have done what she did all those years ago. She could remember the nervous strain, the private tears and that stubborn battle of wills. She couldn't be superwoman, surely, in her private psychologist's office and her London flat.

Karen casually held forth on her experiences of different points in her career ladder to show where different degrees of power lay over the prisoners in her charge. As she did so, John was able to relax his concentration and his mind was able to run free and reflect on how attractive Karen was. There was something about a conference, which enabled him to slip free from the harness of his responsibilities, such as they were. He really ought to consider that Jo and George were approximately in the area of his life that was home but he was practically free, single, without responsibilities, at least for these few days. The world did not exist outside the goldfish bowl of conference and only Karen of any fancyable women was within it. Besides, Karen needed looking after or so he reasoned. The temptations were irresistible especially to hear her melodious voice from her throne. Roles were reversed for a change.

"I must make a personal mention in the discussion yesterday afternoon about the impact of drug addiction, I don't want to use this for any dramatic effect but this is something that can come home to any professional working in the field but, tragically, my son Ross died at his own hand after being hopelessly addicted to drugs. There is a real danger in supposing that human tragedies never happen to professionals in the field but that isn't so. The person sitting next to you might be more of an authority on a particular issue than you suppose. It happens this way in life…."

A pang of instinctive sympathy went through John as he saw her try and objectify what he knew was a traumatic incident in her life and to bravely carry on regardless. There was a distinct hush of instinctive human sympathy before that not quite perfectly suppressed edge faded out of Karen's voice and she approached the finishing post of her speech.

"I can't really add any more as to what Nikki and I have said so what I really want to talk about is the way my life has changed. I've appeared in court as a witness in the stand many a time, giving evidence as to character but somehow, I never got round to thinking of barristers and judges as real people, strange though it might seem. I have been fortunate in appearing in court on a couple of occasions when the machinery of justice has impinged on me in connection with my job and it has given me a real insight into the whole theatre of justice. On a practical level, it has given me an insight to see that how that operates will make a very real difference as to whether someone brought before a court of law will be set free or found guilty and if so, what form of sentence he or she will receive. On a more personal level, I have had a relationship with a member of the legal profession and I would like to claim that John Deed who spoke so admirably to us the other day is a personal friend of mine. To finish, I would be more than happy to be part of a contact list for any similar events of this kind. We cannot leave these matters behind at the end of conference but to carry on the good work afterwards."

At that, Karen neatly ducked down to floor level with a breath of relief at the applause. She really hadn't done that badly, had she? The conference dispersed at the end of the day and Nikki, Helen, Grayling, Karen and John were fired up by the way the conference had gone and formed a huddle round a round table. The round of drinks were bought in though, regrettably, the bar was no smoking. For a while, that was not noticed by the smokers in the group. John and Grayling naturally took the 'smoke free' zone as their right.

"So you won't be grassed on to Alison Warner for letting us off the leash and open our gobs," Grinned Nikki.

"What the ear doesn't hear, the heart won't grieve over," Grayling retorted. Word would go round on the grapevine but the way Nikki and Karen had made their name would be a sure shield against any criticism. He was happy and let the evening flow.

"Want another drink, Karen?" Grayling jovially asked but Karen politely declined.

"I've hardly had a smoke all day and I know it is a terrible habit but I must find the one permitted place that I can indulge. I'll join you later, Neil."

The sidelong glance at John was not lost on him but Nikki was still on an adrenaline high and totally forgot her nicotine craving. Meanwhile the party carried on with loud voices, the crowd round the bar and the emotional release of the ideas unleashed by intellectual discourse.

Part Two Hundred and Seven

At around half past eight on the Sunday evening, Karen was standing out on the balcony that led from the lounge come bar, that had been set aside for the conference delegates. Balconies were the only places in this extremely expensive hotel in the centre of Manchester, where an addict like herself could partake of their vice. She had her back to the closed sliding doors, and was leaning on the rail that surrounded the balcony. She was quite alone out here, blowing elegant smoke rings up at the early October sky. Her whole body resonated with tension, every single one of her nerve endings being on red alert, for the merest signal from anyone, who might be interested in helping her relieve some of this outbreak of lust and frustration, that appeared to have taken over her this weekend. She wasn't quite sure why she was in so much need of some sexual release, except that she knew that intense physical feelings, might just go some way to temporarily stop her from dwelling on everything that had happened over the last couple of months. But wasn't that what she'd done with Ritchie, using the almost violent fucking he'd given her to blot out all the hurt she couldn't seem to exorcise after what Fenner had done to her, and what she'd in turn done to Mark? Yes, Karen was perfectly well aware that this was what she wanted, what she was intent on doing, but that didn't stop her from needing the type of explosive screw Ritchie had given her.

John had been watching Karen all weekend. He'd seen the gradual rise in tension, her entire body giving off a heightened lust that couldn't fail to attract him. She hadn't gone out of her way to broadcast the fact, because Karen wasn't one to make a fool of herself in public, if she could help it. But if any man had looked like he was about to approach her, John had only needed to give them one of his warning looks, for them to back off. He couldn't help it. Karen might want to sleep with some nameless stranger, possibly to let out some of the pain of the last couple of months, but he wasn't going to let her. Anything might happen to her if she entrusted that kind of emotional release to a stranger's hands. If anyone was going to aid her in this quest for emotional release, it was him. She needed looking after, if she really wanted to do this, not to be taken advantage of by some young, rutting stud who thought she was fair game.

He'd seen her walk out onto the balcony, and so as not to make it obvious to the surrounding company, he gave her a little while before following her. She was still alone when he joined her, standing with her back to him, clearly smoking. He closed the sliding door behind him, not wanting or inviting anyone to join them. His long, measured stride told her exactly who it was who had come to disturb her peace. She didn't say anything as he walked up behind her, knowing that he had far more to lose than she did, by initiating a conversation that could only lead to one, inevitable conclusion. She remained with her back to him, not giving him the slightest sign that she was aware of his presence. When he slid his arms round her waist from behind, and rested his chin on her shoulder, she took one last drag of her cigarette and discarded its still glowing end over the side of the balcony. He could smell a combination of her cigarette smoke, the perfume she always wore, and the shampoo she'd used on her hair that morning.

"What are you doing here?" She asked with a soft smile, thinking she already knew.

"Well, someone had to ensure that you didn't end up in bed with any one of those men who've been after you all weekend. I don't know whether or not you're aware of it, but you're exuding sexual arousal and frustration, with enough force to call even the Pope out of celibacy." Karen laughed softly.

"And just why would you have a problem with my taking my frustration out on some random stranger?"

"Because I think you need looking after."

"Oh, that's a first," Karen said with a hint of sarcasm. "For you to think a woman needs looking after. I thought it was your usual practice, when playing away from home so to speak, to thoroughly enjoy the chase, sleep with them, and then be gone before they wake up in the morning."

"And that, isn't fair," John said slowly, seeing her sniping as just another sign of how much she needed some kind of release.

"So, Mr. Wise Guy," Karen said challengingly. "Precisely what do you intend to do about it?"

"What would you like me to do about it?" He said into her ear, in that deep, incredibly erotic tone that had her senses reeling.

"You're the one with a choice to make here," She said, laying her hands over his, which were still resting at her waist. "I've got absolutely nothing to lose, but you have."

"The first rule of adultery," He said almost matter-of-factly. "Is that the woman one is attempting to seduce, should never, ever, remind one of their responsibilities. It just isn't done."

"Oh, a little piece of seduction etiquette known the world over, I suppose," She said dryly.

"Of course. So, I reiterate, how would you like me to relieve your little case of, frustration?" He hesitated over the word, his lips grazing her neck, and then her ear lobe. She had to fight down the urge to turn round then and there and to take what he had to offer, right here and now, right on this very balcony.
Taking his hands in hers, she led them up to her magnificent breasts. He hadn't expected such a forward approach from her, but he had to admit that it made things an awful lot simpler. As he gently caressed these two finest of her assets, she breathed in slowly through her nose, so as to prevent herself from groaning at the pleasure of his touch. But when two fingertips simultaneously grazed over both her nipples, he could feel the shiver that ran the length of her entire body. When she turned to face him, his left arm slid back around her waist, and his right hand remained with its former pursuit. He could see the burning fire of passionate need in her eyes, the smouldering touch paper of his hands, having set her inner cauldron of pure lust well and truly alight. When their lips met, it briefly felt to both of them as if they were coming home. It had been almost two years since their first and last encounter, but that didn't stop either of them from remembering what it had been like that time. They couldn't possibly forget that occasion, it having been so explosively satisfying. They'd exchanged a kiss in all that time, just before Karen had gone on holiday, but that was almost insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They moved somewhat haphazardly over to a wrought iron bench to one side of the balcony, dropping onto it in a tangle of pliable lips and wandering hands.

"We shouldn't be doing this, John," Karen said a little breathlessly.

"Do you want to stop?" He asked between kisses.

"No," She answered almost desperately, thinking that she might just internally combust, if John were to pull out now.

"Well, then, leave any regret, if there really needs to be any, until tomorrow."

"But you've so much to lose by doing this."

"And you haven't?" He challenged her.

"Well, yes, but…"

"Then don't think about it," He said, undoing the top two buttons of her blouse. "Jo and George, and your self-respect, will all still be here tomorrow."

"I suppose so," She acquiesced, taking his hand in hers, to prevent it from undoing more of her buttons. "But before this goes any further, there's something I need to ask you."

"Ask away," He said, putting his arms round her, because he could see that this was something serious that definitely required his full attention. But once prompted, Karen didn't know what to say. She just couldn't find the right words to tell him what she wanted.

"It can't be that bad," He said with a fond smile, but this didn't make Karen feel any better.

"What I would very much like you to do for me, and which would do me all the good in the world, is for you to be rough with me." John drew slightly back from her, so that he could look her in the eye.

"Precisely why," He said very slowly and deliberately. "Do you want me to treat you, in the same way that Ritchie Atkins did?" Karen's eyes widened with the realisation that she'd been found out.

"Alcohol certainly doesn't dull your brain," She said dryly, to cover up her nervousness.

"Did you really expect me not to make the connection?"

"I hoped you wouldn't," Karen said quietly.

"Well, I did. So, tell me why, and I might just think about it." Karen tried to turn her gaze away from him, but laying a hand on her cheek served to keep her still looking at him.

"In spite of the endless stream of horrific events that my sleeping with Ritchie initiated, I badly needed what he gave me. Just for a brief amount of time, it allowed me to forget about the feelings I didn't know how to deal with. The sheer physical intensity of it made me able to temporarily forget about Fenner, and about Mark and about the hell I was putting Mark through at the time. In his own way, Ritchie gave me some emotional respite, simply by giving me the most intense, most violent, and at the same time optional, screw I'd ever had in my life. Does that make sense?"

"Yes, but that doesn't tell me why you want that from me."

"I need a break from everything that's going on in here," She said, gesturing to her forehead. "And I think, that if my body is engaged in something as physically intense as some fairly rough sex, it might take me away from everything for a while." It pained John immeasurably to hear her say this, to admit that the only way she could find release, was through being treated, let's face it, as one of the whores who graced King's Cross. But here she was, asking him to treat her roughly, to hold her down, and to take what she was offering, as vigorously as possible. He refused to accord the words forcefully or violently to what she wanted, because if he did, he wouldn't even be able to consider it. After mulling the concept over for a few minutes, he gently tilted her face up to his, and kissed her.

"What was that for?" She asked softly.

"It's not a yes, at least not so far it's not, but it means I'm considering it."

"I will understand if it's not something you want to contemplate."

"If an explosive orgasm is what you're after, then that can be achieved just as easily by gentler means."

"I know, but being gentle takes time, and time isn't something I want to have any of. I don't want to not enjoy this, just because I end up drifting away to far darker recesses, just when you're trying to get me going. If this is going to be successful, I need it to be as fast and as furious as possible." He wanted to help her, he really did, but John couldn't be certain that he could go through with this. He thought far too much of Karen, to risk their entire friendship on one night's success or failure. Detaching himself from her, he walked to the other end of the balcony. He knew that Karen would never hold it against him if he couldn't go through with this, but his pride was putting in an appearance. He had never, ever refused to sleep with a woman, on the grounds of something she wanted him to do for her. There wasn't much he hadn't tried in all his years of philandering, most of his new experiences having been with George, though not all of them. He could remember the time George had confessed to wanting to be tied up. He hadn't entirely understood it, but he'd known that if she wanted to be freed, she would either tell him immediately, or undo the bonds herself, as he never fastened them very tightly. But this was different. Karen hadn't spelt it out like this, but she was asking him to treat her body as an object, not as the outer shell of a woman whom he cared deeply for. Walking slowly back towards her, John knew that he had to do it. This was Karen, his dearest, closest friend, and she was crying out to him, to help her blot out her grief and her pain, for just a little while. Yes, he could say no, if he really wanted to, but he didn't. If this was her way of obtaining a few moment's respite from her inner torture, then who was he to deny her that. Stopping in front of her, he reached down, took her hand, and gently pulled her up towards him. When his arms went about her and his lips descended on hers, she could tell immediately what his decision was. But her feeling was confirmed, when he said between kisses,

"Your place or mine?" Her lips curving up into a smile, she took his hand, and led him back inside, and up to her room on the eighth floor.

He kissed her as they rode up in the lift, wholly unable to keep his hands off her now that the permission had been given. As soon as the door of her room closed behind them, they were almost tearing at each other's clothes, desperate to be skin to skin as quickly as possible.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" She asked, as the duvet was cast aside with a practised flick and they fell onto the bed.

"Shouldn't it be me asking you that?" He said with a laugh, touching her nipples which were already painfully hard.

"I've done this before," She said succinctly, reaching down to wrap a skilful hand around him.

"If it's still what you want, then yes, I'm sure," He told her, his voice a little unsteady from her ministrations. When he slipped his hand between her legs, he could feel how wet and responsive she already was. "You're just about ready to explode," He said with a smile.

"I could say the same for you," Karen replied, running her thumb over the drop of moisture that welled up from him.

"Are you sure you don't want me to give you some particularly good oral to start with?" He asked, not sure how long he would last at this rate.

"No," She said, her breathing noticeably quickening as he manipulated her clitoris. "I need you, inside me, now," She pleaded. Taking her at her word, he moved between her eagerly spread legs, and with one last questioning glance at her, he launched himself inside her. It having been two years since she'd had John inside her, Karen felt his entry far more than she normally would have done. It didn't exactly hurt, but she could feel the slight protesting of her delicate female flesh, telling her that if he really was rough with her, she was going to feel it in the morning. Immediately he was sheathed within her, John clung to her shoulders, driving himself into her as forcefully as he could. Karen couldn't believe it, he was incredible! Of course, she'd known that from the last time she'd had sex with this man, but she'd never thought he would be quite so good at giving her exactly what she needed. She could feel every thrust, every stab of his manhood deep inside her, branding her internal walls with the fire that existed between them. John could feel it just as much as she could, her insides gripping him every time he slammed into her. At one point, he found himself gripping her upper arms, actually holding her down to the bed, though she didn't seem to mind. He didn't entirely know what had taken over him, except that his body was acting of its own accord. He couldn't have stopped now if he'd tried. It was the registering of this thought in his brain that caused a feeling of total horror to well up inside him. But even this couldn't make him stop what he was doing. As her arms were held down, she wrapped her legs around him, urging him on to further endeavour, and as his thrusts sped up, he unconsciously squeezed her arms even tighter, digging his fingers into her flesh, holding her still to take what he had to give her. As their mutual orgasm approached, Karen looked up into his face, seeing there a pain so acute, that she almost cried out from the force of it. Her body squeezed around him as she came, her abused flesh screaming at the contraction of her muscles.

As John gently eased himself out of her, Karen realised that he'd definitely bruised if not slightly torn her down there. He slumped to one side of her, his arms going round her to comfort himself more than her, she could sense immediately. He laid his cheek on her breast, and they were silent. Karen could feel a heavy weight begin to settle on her, as if there hadn't been one there already, but this was different. She really shouldn't have done that with John, because he clearly hadn't known what he was getting into. She'd seen the pain and the shock, and yes, even the horror in his face as he'd climaxed, all his feelings having been laid bare for her to see. When their breathing quietened, they lay still, neither of them knowing what to say. But when she felt the trickle of a tear on her skin, she tilted his face up to hers. It brought tears to her own eyes to see them in his, not a sight she'd previously witnessed.

"Don't cry," She told him hoarsely, wiping away a tear with her finger.

"I can't believe I just did that to you," He said brokenly. "Do you have any idea what that makes me?"

"John, it doesn't make you anything," She tried to persuade him, hearing the utter self-loathing in his voice.

"Just look at you," he said almost in anger, sitting up so that he could survey the wreckage of her body. "Never, not in my entire life, have I ever given a woman a bruise. Your arms are covered in them! And god knows what else I've done to you," He added, gesturing at the lower half of her body.

"Nothing that won't heal," She said quietly. "John, listen to me," She cajoled, pulling him back down to lie beside her. "You haven't done anything wrong, I promise you."

"Karen, I virtually raped you," He said, stunning himself into silence at his own accusation.

"No, you didn't, John," She told him firmly but gently. "I know what being raped feels like, and believe me, this isn't it. If anything, it's the other way round. I shouldn't have asked you to do this, and I certainly shouldn't have accepted your assurances that you knew what you were doing. If there is any guilt to be felt with this, it is mine and mine alone. I am so sorry for putting you in this situation," She added, the tears now running down her own cheeks. They simply held each other, both feeling an immense surge of regret that they'd done this to each other.

"Come on," Karen said a little while later. "We've got a lot of talking to do, and we may as well do it in that enormous tub next door," She said, referring to the decadently furnished en suite of her hotel room. But as they made to get up, Karen gasped from the soreness that the movement accorded her. As she filled the huge, marble bathtub, and critically examined herself in the full-length mirror, John poured them both a glass of chilled Chablis from the minibar. He was outraged with himself for doing something so despicable to one of his closest friends, but he had to agree that talking it out now, rather than leaving it to fester, would possibly be better for both of them.

When they were lying in the warm water, two glasses of wine within easy reach, neither of them knew where to begin. Karen was reclining in the crook of his right arm, and he was playing with a lock of her hair.

"Did this achieve what you wanted it to achieve?" He asked eventually, feeling that this was as good a place as any to start.

"Yes," She said quietly. "It did. It stopped me thinking, because all I could focus on was the feeling..." She couldn't quite put a name to it.

"...The feeling of being hurt?" He supplied.

"That isn't how I'd really describe it, but yes, if you like. You could say that the physical sensation took over everything else."

"It's only a short term solution though, isn't it."

"Yes, but I thought it would be a bloody good one. I knew that if you took your time about it, did your usual thing of actually making me feel sexy, it wouldn't work."

"Why so sure?" He asked, assuming that given the opportunity, he could have made Karen forget in a far more gentle and satisfying way.

"John, for a woman to really enjoy sex, they have to be mentally aroused as well as physically, which I'm not sure I'm capable of being at the moment. I needed you then and there, because just for a short while, I did feel aroused and I didn't want to lose it."

"Did you orgasm through that?"

"Yes, though from what I could see in your face at the time, I wish I hadn't."

"It might sound ridiculous," He said carefully. "But I felt as though my body had taken over. I wasn't in control any more, and I couldn't have stopped, even if you'd begged me to stop. It made me feel, well, feel a bit like Fenner."

"John, listen to me," Karen said firmly. "I don't ever want you to feel like that. Fenner was an evil, sadistic bastard who took whatever he wanted from whoever he wanted. I couldn't ever say any of those things about you, not ever."

"But I hurt you," He protested.

"John, I asked you to do this to me. That means that no, you certainly didn't take it by force. Tell me, when I asked you to do this for me, what did you think you were getting into?" He took a moment to mull this over, taking a sip from his glass of wine.

"I knew what you wanted," He said slowly. "You wanted some very hard, straight sex, to stop you from dwelling on everything that's happened over the last few months. If you'd asked me to be violent with you, I never would have agreed to it, because being remotely violent towards a woman just isn't in my nature. You remember that pretty bad row I had with George, back in April? Well, during that, I almost slapped her. But I didn't, I managed to restrain myself. The point is, when I was doing that to you tonight, I couldn't stop, I didn't have any control over what my body was doing to yours. That's what frightened me, that I didn't have any control over my own actions."

"I'm sorry," She said quietly. "I'm sorry that I asked you to do that. I didn't ever want to hurt you, that's the last thing I'd want to do. I asked you on the spur of the moment, because I suppose I thought that at least you wouldn't think any less of me for suggesting it. I thought that if you really weren't sure about it, you'd say no, and that would be the end of it. I really wouldn't have blamed you for saying no, because I know it's something you have to be absolutely certain about."

"I don't think I was expecting my body to take over in the way it did," He told her, thinking that they both should have discussed it some more before actually embarking on it.

They lapsed into silence for a while, occasionally sipping from their wine, and both away with their thoughts. When Karen slipped her arms round him, his gaze focussed back on her.

"The fact that you think you hurt me, isn't all that's bothering you, is it?" She asked, thinking that she might have worked out what his real problem was with what they'd done, but knowing that he had to say it.

"No," He said, not entirely meeting her eyes.

"You need to be honest with me, John," She gently coaxed.

"Oh, do I," He said bitterly.

"Yes," She said simply, placing a feather-light kiss on his slightly parted lips.

"I shouldn't have enjoyed it," He said eventually, now looking completely away from her. Turning his face back to hers, Karen said,

"John, just because you realised that you loathed what you were doing, yet you couldn't prevent yourself from reaching orgasm, is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," He said acidly. "If I disliked it that much, that should have been prohibitive enough in itself."

"The human body doesn't always work like that, John," Karen said fondly. "Especially the male one. It's not all that uncommon for someone to climax, even when they're being raped."

"Did you?" He asked her, fairly sure of the answer he would get.

"No," She replied. "John, if a tiny part of you did enjoy it, you shouldn't feel guilty about it."

"George asked me to be rough with her once," He said, not knowing just where this had come from.

"Did she?"

"Yes, and I refused, because I couldn't do that to her."

"So why did you say yes to doing it for me?"

"Because you had possibly the most valid of all reasons for wanting such a thing." His answer was clear, unequivocal, and so John, that it made Karen smile.

"That sounds like the John I know," She said softly, leaning forward to kiss him again. He kissed her back for a while, needing to feel a little like his old self once more.

It seemed perfectly natural for them to gently soap each other's bodies, their hands trying to soothe away some of the hurt they both felt they'd caused. As his hands smoothed the shower gel into the soft swell of her breasts, she bit her lip in an attempt to withhold her reaction from him.

"You're so beautiful," He said between their gentle kisses. "Which makes my marking you all the more reprehensible."

"What would make you feel better?" She asked, though thinking she might just know the answer. "What would stop you from feeling so out of control?"

"I'd like to make love to you," He said, his thumb and forefinger coaxing her nipple to full hardness. "I think it might make me feel like myself again."

"Is that why you slept with your therapist?" She asked wryly.

"Possibly," He said evasively, sliding a softly seeking hand between her slightly parted legs. But as his finger delicately probed her entrance, possibly to assess the damage he'd done, she winced. "My god," He said in shock. "I really did hurt you, didn't I."

"Shh," She said reassuringly. "It doesn't matter. It just means that ordinary, average sex really isn't on the cards, that's all." Moving his finger up to begin teasing her clitoris, he asked,

"Would you like me to kiss it better?" Karen couldn't help but laugh.

"That's one way of putting it," She said, gently removing his hand from where it still moved between her legs. "And whilst it would be incredibly soothing, I wouldn't want you to be offended if it didn't work. I can't promise that I'll get aroused by it, at least not as quickly as I did last time." He knew she was referring to the time they'd slept together after Fenner was killed, both of them able to remember how responsive she'd been.

"I can last as long as you need," He told her softly, the sincere, fond expression in his eyes, putting her at her ease.

They kept touching as they got out of the bath, hands sliding familiarly over previously explored skin, reacquainting them with the textures and feelings they'd both done their damnedest to forget for the last two years. When they returned to the bed, they simply lay there holding each other for a while, allowing their deepening kisses to make them both relax. But when John detached his lips from hers, Karen briefly wondered if she should let him continue in his quest. She could already feel her thoughts drifting away to other, darker recesses, where sexual arousal certainly wasn't welcome. John seemed to sense something of this in her, as he kissed his way down to suckle on one of her nipples. He resolved to be as gentle as he knew how, to gradually allow her lust to build, or not as the case may be. He lingered over her nipples, sucking and soothing them until they could have cut diamond. He kissed his way down over her stomach, over her left hip, and slipped his tongue into the place he'd so ruthlessly abused an hour or so earlier. The subtle probings and swipings of his tongue, didn't at first make any impression on Karen, her body feeling almost detached from the thoughts steadily circling in her brain, as if they were determined to keep her from the release she so badly needed. He reached his hands up to continue stroking her breasts, and she took one of them in hers. She almost needed the reassurance that if she couldn't enjoy what he was doing for her, it wouldn't matter. He ran his thumb over her knuckles from time to time, as if to tell her that whatever she wanted, was perfectly all right with him. When his tongue probed her entrance, she found that yes, it was a little soothing to her slightly battered flesh, to be caressed by such delicate softness. It may have been the way he swept his tongue relentlessly over her clitoris, it may have been how he continuously thumbed her nipple, she didn't know, but something was gradually having an effect on her. When John heard her low groan of pleasure, he smiled. He knew that he could have gone on doing this to her for as long as she wanted it, her sweet, musky flavour being delightful to him, but it was nice to know he was doing something right. Her breathing quickened as those soft, full lips of his gently nibbled on her clitoris, the spark of pleasure lancing through her, like the electric shock she used to use to restart a patient's heart. When he quietly hummed around the flesh in his mouth, she half laughed, half cried out at the sensation. He kept alternating between nibbling and gently soothing her bud with his tongue, taking her higher and higher, until eventually, her release crashed over her, leaving her trembling from the aftershock, and with sobs of sheer emotional outpouring racking her body.

Moving back to lie beside her, he cradled her against his chest, letting her cry away some of the hurt that had been building up in her for far too long. He occasionally ran his fingers through her hair, trying to gradually calm her down. What they'd done earlier in the evening had rocked them both, knocked them temporarily off their previously chosen rails, off which she had been straying for quite some time. He kissed away some of her tears, wishing he had the freedom to cry as she was doing now. Shed a few tears he might, but never for him would come the torrent of grief that she was displaying now. Reaching for the duvet, he pulled it up over them, wrapping his body round hers, in an effort to keep them both safe until morning, to try to keep away the nightmares that could so easily haunt them both in the late night hours.

Part Two Hundred and Eight

When Karen woke on the Monday morning, John was still sleeping soundly beside her. As it was still quite early, she got out of bed without waking him, wrapped herself in a thin dressing gown, and went out onto the balcony. The third of October was a little cold for being outside and wearing so little, but she didn't notice it. She lit a cigarette, gradually accounting for all the bruises she could feel this morning. Her spirit felt unbearably heavy today, even heavier than it had done recently. She should never have done that with John last night, because it had hurt him immeasurably to know that he was capable of doing something like that to her. The fact that she'd enabled him to cheat yet again on Jo and George barely registered with her, as it bore far less significance than what she'd put him through.

When John emerged into consciousness, he realised that it was the aroma of Karen's cigarette smoke that had woken him. The door to the balcony wasn't entirely shut, and he could hear the occasional passing car, down in the otherwise deserted street. Getting out of bed, he pulled on his clothes from the day before, and went to join her.

"You're up early," He said quietly, bringing her slightly startled gaze on him.

"I didn't mean to wake you," She said, taking a last drag from her cigarette and ditching the glowing end over the side of the balcony. They were silent for a while, neither quite knowing what to say.

"John, I..." She said eventually, but he lifted a hand to stop her.

"Don't try and apologise for something, that was both our responsibility," He said gently, brushing a tousled strand of hair back from her face. "I don't think any less of you, so don't think any less of yourself." She stared at him, feeling a rush of combined affection and regret that made her speechless. Leaving her with her thoughts, John went back to his own room to take a shower, knowing deep inside himself that this hadn't been dealt with, not by a long way.

They got through the last morning of the conference, with both John and Karen studiously avoiding each other, though this wasn't remotely difficult. After eating a lunch that Karen really didn't feel in the mood for, they began on the long drive back to London, both of them managing to maintain a thoughtful silence for the first part of the journey. Karen had put on Tori Amos this time, the mournful, haunting melodies fitting her mood entirely. John badly wanted to reach out to her in some way, to try to assuage the guilt he could feel coming off her in waves. But this would have meant breeching her personal space, either by actions or by words, neither of which he had any desire to do. Every single one of her barriers was up, as firmly in place as the walls and battlements that surrounded a castle, and it would have taken an army to break through them, not one solitary general without a hope in hell of succeeding. But as they were driving through Manchester city centre, Karen spied a chemist, and remembered something she ought to take care of before it escaped her memory. Pulling into the curb, she told John she would only be a minute, quickly returning and dropping a small packet on the dashboard. As she moved back into the stream of traffic, John picked up the packet, and read the label, which told him it contained the morning after pill. Catching sight of some of the thoughts that were spinning behind his eyes, Karen took the packet from him and put it in the glove compartment, removing it from their immediate vicinity. John felt a myriad of conflicting feelings, from an urge to persuade her not to take it, to an overwhelming relief that she would.

"Don't look like that," She told him gently. "It won't be the first time I've taken it."

"And was the last time also because of me?" He felt it necessary to ask, receiving a slight nod from her in return.

"John, I thought about that last night just as much as you did, in other words, not in the slightest."

"I guess that doesn't make me all bad then," He said, trying to lighten the mood a little, and finally getting a small smile of agreement from her.

In the other car, Helen and Nikki were also fairly quiet.

"She slept with him, didn't she," Helen said after a while, as she watched Nikki navigate her way through the traffic.

"Yeah, I think so," Nikki agreed.

"Why does she always do this?" Helen said in resigned disgust. "Karen always gets involved with men who give her nothing but complications."

"From the looks of it," Nikki replied as they approached the motorway, "They both regret whatever happened, so as long as they can stay friends, it shouldn't be too much of a problem."

"Let's hope so," Helen said thoughtfully, though privately thinking that there was more to it than that.

Karen and John had lapsed into an almost contented silence, the music the only thing to break the quiet. He could see that she was submerged in her thoughts, her eyes remaining rigidly on the road ahead of her, almost as if she was staring into space. When her mobile rang at about half past three, she came out of her reverie long enough to answer it, leaving it on hands free because she was driving.

"Karen Betts," She said tonelessly, with barely any emotion in her voice.

"Karen, it's Yvonne," Came the voice they both knew so well. "Have you got me on hands free?"

"Yvonne, I'm driving with a high court judge in the car, so no, I'm not about to break the law if at all possible," Karen replied, a lot more sharply than she'd really intended, Yvonne's question seeming pretty stupid.

"Don't talk to me like I'm still one of your bloody inmates," Yvonne responded hotly, in no mood for one of Karen's displays of distain.

"Sorry," Karen said, feeling completely mollified. "What's happened?"

"I don't really think you should be behind the wheel for this," Yvonne said carefully.

"And that's precisely what Helen said to me, the night Ross died," Karen said bleakly. "So please, just get on with it."

"Did you know that Henry was ill?" Yvonne asked, feeling a mental kick at what Karen had said.

"Yes, I did," Karen told her, getting a horribly familiar feeling that she knew what was coming.

"He died, yesterday." There was a long, awful silence in the car, as both John and Karen took in the news. John watched as Karen's hands reflexively gripped the wheel even tighter, and as her face contorted itself into a whole host of expressions, eventually settling on sadness.

"How's Barbara?" Karen finally asked, her voice a little unsteady with the effort it was taking her to stay in control.

"Not good," Yvonne replied, hearing just how difficult Karen was finding this. "The thing is, that's not the only problem. The bastards in uniform, in their oh so infinite wisdom, think she did what she did with her previous husband."

"Oh, for god's sake!" Karen said in rising anger. "Do they have even so much as a shred of evidence?"

"Evidence or not," Yvonne said bitterly. "They arrested her this afternoon. She's due up in court tomorrow morning, and because of her previous conviction, will probably be exiled to Larkhall, until they get their heads out of their arses long enough to realise she's innocent."

"This really shouldn't be happening," Karen said disgustedly.

"Tell me about it," Yvonne said, and they could hear her lighting a cigarette. "But you know the law, they'd sooner bang someone up before their feet hit the ground, rather than admit they might just be wrong. Far better to let the CPS make a complete tit of itself." Karen couldn't prevent her lips from twitching into the faintest of smiles at Yvonne's blunt assessment of the situation, thinking that it wouldn't do John any harm whatsoever to hear it.

"Do you think she did it?" Karen asked after a moment's silence.

"I doubt it," Yvonne said glibly. "But you never know, do you."

"That's it," John's voice broke in on their conversation. "Drop this pointless speculation right now, the pair of you."

"Why?" Yvonne asked him without taking any heed of his tone. "The topic under discussion just a little bit too unsavory for you, is it?"

"Yvonne," Karen warned, not wanting them to get into an argument, and use her as an umpire.

"Because if this goes as far as a trial," John tried to explain, as if they both should have realised this. "I may have to be on the bench." There was another short pause, where they all tried to calm down.

"Have you told Helen and Nikki?" Karen asked, wanting to prevent Yvonne from making matters worse.

"Yeah, and I think you're going to have a hard time trying to persuade Nikki to stay on the screws' side of the wire."

Not long after she'd finished talking to Yvonne, Karen pulled off the motorway into the car park of a conveniently placed service station.

"Sorry," She said by way of explanation. "But I need a cigarette."

"Are you all right?" He asked as she lit up, Yvonne's news having somehow put them back onto their former friendly footing.

"I'm singing with nervous tension," She admitted ruefully. "And I need to talk to Nikki, because if Barbara gets transferred to Larkhall, we need to sort out what we're going to do. As for whether she did or didn't do what they've accused her of, that's not something I can think about at the moment."

"If it wouldn't be unduly inquisitive," John asked carefully. "What was Barbara convicted of last time?"

"I forget that you, and Jo and George, don't automatically know everything there is to know about most of us. Barbara did three years for manslaughter, because she helped her terminally ill husband to die. On the day we performed 'The Creation', she told me that Henry had lung cancer. So, you can almost see the police's point."

"Do you really think she would do that again?" He asked, seeing the problem clearly enough.

"I don't know her well enough to say yes or no," Karen said matter-of-factly. "But for her sake, I hope not." When she'd finished her cigarette, she asked, "Can you drive, while I talk to Nikki?"

"Sure," He replied, feeling the heady relief at finding at least one thing he could do to help her.

Once back on the motorway, Karen called Nikki in the car somewhere on the road ahead of her, still leaving it on hands free.

"Helen Stewart," Came the authoritative Scottish burgh.

"Are you still saying that instead of Wade?" Karen asked in lieu of a greeting.

"Yeah," Came Nikki's voice. "It's amazing how often she forgets."

"Force of habit," Helen said by way of apology, though knowing that Nikki wasn't in the least offended.

"Can you talk, Nikki, or are you driving?" Karen asked, getting back to the issue in hand.

"No, I'm all yours," Nikki replied. "I take it you've heard about Barbara."

"Nikki, I know you know her better than I do, and I also know that you'll want to do everything you can for her, but we must try to stay vaguely professional about this."

"Fine," Nikki said a little belligerently. "But I am not going to let her go to any other prison, where I can't keep an eye on her. I owe Barbara better than that. It's not everyone who could put up with me banging on about me and Helen night after night."

"Jesus," Karen said with a wry smile. "She must have written an entire book about it. Fenner didn't call her Barbara Cartland for nothing."

"She did," Helen put in with a smile. "That's partly what got Di and Fenner on our case before I left."

"The point is," Nikki put in. "She didn't cope very well with prison last time, so if it's going to happen again, she needs looking after."

"Well, having Sylvia mistake you for Tessa Spall, isn't exactly a good start for anyone," Karen said ruefully.

"Can you pull any strings," Nikki asked carefully. "To at least make sure she ends up at Larkhall? Because I'm assuming that with her record, they'll definitely put her on remand."

"It's not a certainty," John added into the conversation. "Though it is the most likely outcome."

"I do know Holloway's Governor," Karen said thoughtfully. "So yes, if necessary, I probably could, but we have to be careful, Nikki. Pulling the odd string here or there is fine, but it needs to be accomplished with at least a modicum of finesse."

"I do hope," John said firmly. "That I'm not about to witness, another Sir Ian Rochester in the making. Doing things without being seen to do them, is precisely his style."

"I'll forget I heard that," Karen told him seriously, not appreciating his words one bit.

"That's hardly fair, Judge," Helen told him without hesitation. "Karen's just trying to do her job, and help to take care of a friend, two things that aren't usually simultaneously possible. I bet even you've pulled the odd string in your time, and not always for someone else's benefit."

"Perhaps," John admitted quietly, thinking of the time he'd been caught on camera, screwing the life out of Francesca, on his desk in chambers for all the security staff to see.

"Hey, do you mind not speeding while you're driving my car," Karen suddenly said, catching a glimpse of the speedometer, and vowing to make him pay the fine if she was caught.

"There aren't any cameras along this stretch," He said, trying to mollify her, and looking far too innocent about it.

"Tut, tut," Helen said disapprovingly. "And I thought Judges were supposed to stick to the rules."

"George would no doubt tell you, that I was declared irredeemable years ago," John replied dryly.

"The best thing we can do," Karen said, trying to get the conversation back onto slightly safer ground. "Is to wait and see what happens tomorrow. If Barbara is remanded in custody, then I'll try to make sure she ends up at Larkhall. I don't want her going anywhere else any more than you do, Nikki. However, if she does end up with us, and if she does end up on G wing, you must, must, must, remain professional. There will be a pretty major conflict of interest, but we dealt with it with Lauren, so we can do it again. You've managed to keep the required distance so far, so I fully expect that you can keep on doing it. Sylvia and Di etc might be a different matter."

"Jesus, Sylvia's going to love this," Nikki said bitterly.

"Yeah, well, just keep reminding her of her year's probation, and that ought to keep her in line," Karen said firmly, entirely ready to rap Sylvia over the knuckles if she gave Barbara any more hell than usual.

When at last they drew up outside the Judge's digs, they both sat there in silence, both knowing that there was still an awful lot that had been left unsaid, yet neither knowing how to rectify this. Undoing his seat belt, John turned his body towards her.

"I don't want what happened last night to come between us," He said, taking her hands in his.

"Neither do I," She said regretfully. "But I'm not entirely sure how it can't."

"Are you cross with me?" He asked, though thinking he would have known about it if she really was.

"With myself, John, not you," She said quietly. "I shouldn't have asked you to do that, and I shouldn't have accepted your assurances that you knew what you were doing. I loathe myself for making you feel the way you did, but I don't know how to put it right. All I can do is to tell you how sorry I am, something that I don't seem to be able to find the right words to do." He didn't want her to be sorry, but he could see in her eyes just how sorry she was, the pain of what she thought she'd done to him cutting her soul. Tentatively putting his arms out, he drew her unresisting body against him, feeling the tension in every muscle as she strove to maintain control.

"Just promise me one thing," He said into her hair as she returned his embrace. "Don't stay away from me, not because of this. I do not want to lose you, just because of something we will both in time get over. What we did last night took the two of us, which means that the blame, if there really needs to be any, is equally shared."

"What would I do without you?" She said, brief tears of mental and emotional exhaustion rising to her eyes.

"Probably have a very quiet and a very boring life," He said with a smile, dropping a quick kiss on her cheek. But as he got out of the car, retrieved his belongings and walked towards the door of the digs, Karen watched him through her tears, wondering just how much guilt one person could hold. She'd thought her guilt had somewhat diminished with Lauren's release, but here was another type just waiting to take its place. As she walked round to the driver's seat, and put the car in gear and slowly drove away, she couldn't help but wonder whose guilt or innocence would be called into question next. Would it be Barbara's, or would it be hers.

The End

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