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

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part Twenty One

From the top of the staircase, Crystal stared scornfully down at the tousle haired woman making her uncertain way across the large tiles of the foyer.

"So Miss Barker is still at Larkhall? You want to watch your back, Miss Betts. I know all about her, you is lied to and deceived by that forked tongue of hers."

"As a snake in the grass, I always thought she's hardly in the same league as Dockley or Fenner. She's a stupid cow but no more than that. Her version of life at Larkhall has just got to be the best work of fiction I've ever come across."

Nikki's disjointed answer failed to sum Di up as much as she wished but it covered up for Karen's silence as she tried to make sense of what Di Barker was playing at. She refused to think too closely of the way she might have appeared to others while she was under Fenner's spell and was not too eager to pass judgement on Di. Surely Crystal was being her usual simplistic self?

"She's not that bad," she answered slowly at last. "Sure, she's as thick as thieves with Sylvia now where at one time she drew the line at Sylvia's wonderfully enlightened 'lock them up, Alcatraz style' approach…………."

Helen could now smile as Karen's voice tailed off after making her sarcastic jibe at Sylvia. Time had healed some of the deep wounds of her first year as Wing Governor.

"…………but she's kind hearted, deep down, even if her taste in men is very strange."

"Only because she's desperate for It," cut in Nikki.

Helen said nothing either as disconnected fragments of that rather harmless looking mixed up PO floated past in her imagination.

"She was your personal officer once, Nikki, as I remember."

"Yeah, she was for a bit, but I never had much to do with her. I'd got over my martyr complex by then thanks to Helen…" and here she smiled, still grateful to Helen after all these years…….."and my life was back on track so I really didn't need her. We went our separate ways when Helen started her lifer's group."

"When I came back to Larkhall, I found out all about Miss Di Barker. She was all sweetness and honey like the apple Satan offered to Eve," Crystal declaimed.

"We'd better find a quiet room to talk and let Crystal tell us what she knows," Came Nikki's practical advice.

"So long as we don't get accidentally locked up in this place," Helen's native caution warned. The disbelieving looks the others exchanged showed them that George didn't hold the monopoly of putting her foot in it.

"Are you seriously meaning to tell me that Di Barker deliberately mixed up the drugs test to split you and Josh up?" Helen's shocked, angry tones could be heard the other side of the door.

"Josh forced that lying woman to tell the truth after she came round to our flat to take him out line dancing. Yeah, some line dancing, the way she was dressed."

"There must be some kind of a logical explanation," Helen's wishful thinking played off against Crystal's cynicism.

"Are you saying that as one time Wing Governor of Larkhall or as psychologist? Think about it, Helen. If you had never met Di Barker before and you saw her on the witness stand, just how much would you trust her? 'Fenner and Dockley had a falling out' she said. She said nothing on the stand about him kicking the shit out of Dockley and nothing to you at the time as to why she mixed up the drugs tests."

Helen remembered as if it was yesterday, Di's painful confession that looking after her disabled mother kept her up half the night and sensed her loathing of the life she was forced to live. As Acting Governing Governor, she told herself, she had a duty to be whiter than white and not let her natural sympathy show too much in her face and her voice. She had to go by the book and this incident had to go down on her personnel file, as it was only Charlotte Middleton's intervention that brought it to light. Now for the first time, she realised that she deserved to be sacked on the spot for abusing her position of trust for personal gain. That was as bad as Fenner. She ran the tip of her tongue round her lips to moisten them and then nodded her head at the point of decision.

"So she swapped the drugs test results for you and Charlotte Middleton and, just to cover her back, did the same for Shaz Wiley and Buki Lester," Her slow, stretched out syllables thought aloud.

"So when she shagged Mark Waddle in the toilets when Mark was going out with Gina Rossi, that was Di all over. Mark was not one for exactly sticking to the straight and narrow at that time but it was less Mark's doing than I thought," Came Karen's contribution.

"It seems as if Di's been operating behind the scenes more than I ever imagined," Came that uniquely expressive Scottish accent. "We need to push on from this as there is an end in sight somewhere. I feel it."

It was half an hour later when Karen led the way to a room where Jo was quietly working. She knew the rambling layout of the Old Bailey far better than the others by now as this was her second major trial she had been involved with and it had become second nature to her over the last few months to come here to see John.

"I'll leave you to it as there isn't anything more I can contribute."

Jo gestured to the three women to take a seat and Nikki acted as spokesman as usual.

"We've been putting our heads together and we've found out that there is a lot about Di Barker which it's taken us all to piece together and she is up to her neck in it in trying to paint the best possible picture of Fenner. If she is allowed to get away with it, then Fenner is a plaster saint, Lauren Atkins is some kind of dangerous criminal and she goes down for life."

"Go on," Came the prompt answer. Half way through the week, she was tired and she needed all the evening there was to mentally prepare for the next day. The enormous task of taking her major witness through the labyrinthine journey of the life of Lauren Atkins. Instinct told her that time spent with these three women would be time well spent, especially with this concise formulation.

"For a start, what's your impression of Di Barker?"

"She told the court less than half of what she knew," Jo said shortly.

"And what she did say was a load of……….Anyway, we're here to tell you the other half of what we know," Came Nikki's restrained reply.

"That woman is a liar and deceiver. There is something really weird about her and while I was at Larkhall, she made out that she was my best friend. All the time, she tried to split me up from Josh Mitchell, my partner and father of my children."

"That doesn't help me that much, I'm afraid."

"Even to the extent of deliberately switching the results of a random drugs test for Crystal and the other three women in her cell?"

Jo was brought up short as the banal character from some everyday soap now took on a darker hue of criminality and fraud, thanks to Helen's slow, deliberately chosen words.

"My partner, Josh Mitchell who was a Prison Officer looked up to me and trusted me as a godfearing, clean living Christian woman who believes that drugs are the work of the devil. I tested positive thanks to her and I nearly lost him."

"Drugs tests are strictly controlled and supervised," Added Helen. "I would have sworn blind as Karen did to Crystal that the test could not possibly be wrong.

Di Barker broke up another couple at Larkhall, so that she could get off with a prison officer that she fancied. We heard that from Karen."

"This still doesn't link her to Fenner though this shows her in a totally new light."

"When I had her up in my office about the drugs test, I questioned her as to how she could possibly have made such a mistake. That was what I thought it was at the time. I ought to explain that the tests are on a urine sample which are sent away to be tested in a laboratory. Some of Di's home background started to come out and she explained that she was under pressure and made a slip up. I had no reason to disbelieve her. She used to live at home with her disabled mother. The words she said, and I quote her words as they don't sound very nice are 'All my life is a stinking piss test. I spend half the night running upstairs and downstairs for my mum.' I gave her a written warning, which went on to her file but I felt at the time that she was perfectly genuine. Now I know different."

"I went on a hunger strike to prove my innocence and still that woman kept quiet. The other prisoner called Charlotte Middleton who was tested with me. She told the truth out loud and said that she should have tested positive, not negative. She told Di Barker when she was testing us. She even paid for the retest."

Jo turned white as a sheet when the impact of that hit home. It hit her hard that she had assumed that prison was one of the lowliest places in society, an underworld where dog ate dog. It now felt purer than the world some of the well-heeled people who she met in her walk of life trod. It made her feel humble and a bit ashamed of the unconscious baggage of ideas she carried around at the back of her mind for all her earnest liberalism.

"I bet you would never have thought that a con can have more morality than a screw?" Nikki's slightly hard tone and sharp expression enquired.

"Where does that take us now?" Jo asked, gaining trust that the three women would chip away between them and steer the conversation home to its conclusion, wherever it lay.

"It was soon after that incident when Di's mother was taken into care. I know now from Karen that she and Fenner saw her looking pretty shaken up one evening and he drove her home. It was that night that, in her words 'Fenner helped her out to cope with her problems.' The bastard always wants payback. I wouldn't be surprised if there was something that he helped cover up." Helen took up the tale in a style that she was at home with in its structured fashion.

"You admit that this is speculation. I'm playing devil's advocate as if you were in a witness stand as I need something which ties up and can be substantiated."

"Well, try this for size, Jo," Nikki concluded. "Helen and I had started our relationship while I was still an inmate and Helen, a prison officer. That was kept secret, as otherwise Helen would have been sacked for it. Both Helen and I hated Fenner's guts from day one. Helen finally got enough on the bastard that would stick. He had been getting a regular cut for running a string of brothels for a prisoner who owned them. Helen finally forced Fenner to hand in his resignation but gave him time to explain all this to Karen first as they were living together at the time. In the meantime, Fenner turned the place upside down and, unfortunately, found evidence of when I broke out of prison and we spent our one night together at Helen's flat. We'd both been foolish to keep souvenirs of that night, my bus ticket together with a previously autographed book as a present from Helen. She kept the nurses coat in her office that I wore that night. Fenner confronted Helen with everything and she resigned on the spot. This was right before my appeal court case which got me my freedom. You may have heard about the case?"

Jo Mills was frozen to the spot at the bald recitation of facts. Nikki got it absolutely right even to her hesitant supposition understating how well known the case was. That was a case that she and John often talked about and was a landmark case in their chambers.

"So where does Di Barker fit in with this?"

"When my cell was turned over, Fenner came clomping in with his big boots and Di Barker was right there with him as if they were joined at the hip. I was outside exchanging insults with him while she rifled through my cell and must have found my things, which he sprung on Helen later as evidence. Right after that, the two of them turned over Babs' cell. She kept a diary of her life at Larkhall and must have thought it was worth a shot to go after that and, sure enough, turned over the chapel and found it there, complete with her account of my breakout. Coincidence? That thing doesn't happen, certainly not in Larkhall. Is that evidence enough for you?"

"The bastard knew exactly where the coat was in my office and went straight towards the locker. I thought right away that he must have spotted it earlier but I now bet you a pound to a penny that Di did the dirty work for him in looking round the room earlier on. I don't think that is supposition, is it? Not where payback is concerned."

Jo had been gradually breathing in all the time she was listening, and that triumphant 'eureka' feeling lit her up from inside with that immensely satisfying feeling as Nikki and Helen came to the crescendo. The threads of a case which were tantalisingly out of her reach were suddenly drawn together and, together, made an unbreakable net. Right then, she resolved to herself that come what may, Di Barker would be dragged back to the witness box. She shook them all by the hand warmly and a huge smile spread across her face.

When she was finally left on her own and was gathering up her papers, she was sharp and alert and knew she could safely drift off to a dreamless sleep and be fighting fit for the next day when Lauren Atkins came to take the stand.

Part Twenty Two

As Karen drove towards the address George had given her, she found herself doing two things. The first was to realise that George lived only a few streets away from Yvonne, this telling Karen that George's house wouldn't be lacking in either size or style. All the houses were very similar in this area, very spacious, inside and out, as well as being incredibly expensive. The second was to switch on the car CD player, and to smile at the tentative stab of irony in the first line of the first song. It couldn't help but strike her as odd when she heard the words:

"If I'm not over you, by the time I get to Georgia..." She knew that the singer was undoubtedly referring to Georgia the place, but Karen found herself contemplating the words in terms of George the woman. To put it bluntly, if Karen wasn't over Yvonne by the time she got to George, tonight would be a total disaster. But the words, over Yvonne, weren't exactly appropriate, they just didn't describe the situation at all. Karen knew that a part of her would always love Yvonne, but that she wasn't actually in love with Yvonne any more. She and Yvonne had been denied both the time and the space to allow their relationship to develop, leaving them both stranded in limbo, each doing their best to pick up the pieces and emotionally move on. Karen had tried to accomplish this by immediately jumping into bed with John, using an incredibly satisfying one-night-stand to give herself some breathing space. Yvonne had achieved at least a temporary measure of breathing space by shooting off to Spain straight after a fairly miserable Christmas. Neither attempt had really worked because they had all then been plunged unceremoniously in to preparing for Lauren's trial. Karen knew that in concentrating on her job and very little else for the last year, she had managed to move on, and whilst she knew it was perhaps a little brutal to think like this, that's how it was. As far as she and George and this night were concerned, it mattered that Karen had moved on from her brief relationship with Yvonne, and that she was now emotionally ready to look for something new. Karen was all too aware that this was without doubt the first time George had contemplated going on a date, for want of a better word, with another woman. This had been borne out by George's extremely pretty blush at the utterance of her primary reason for being at court. This meant that if Karen made any move on George, and this was by no means a certainty, she would have to tread very, very carefully, giving George all the room in the world to retreat.

George on the other hand had been as tense as hell all afternoon. She'd dealt with two clients in her usual, professional manner, but with only half her mind on the job. Once she'd dispensed with her clients, she kept flashing a stupid grin at herself in the mirror on her office wall, then immediately asking herself what the hell she thought she was doing, going out on what could pass for a date, with a woman! Georgia Channing might like to try something new once in a while, but this was going just a bit too far. But she couldn't quite overcome the sense of tingling anticipation that crept along her nerve endings, leaving her as keyed up as the fourteen year old she'd once been, about to lose her virginity and wondering if she would look any different afterwards. Finally, after staring fruitlessly at her computer screen, she switched it off, drove home, and lay in a scented bath for half an hour. George was perfectly aware of how good she could look, but this time was different. Would a woman look at her in a different way? She wasn't sure. Standing in front of the full-length mirror on the outside of her wardrobe door, she examined every inch of her body that she could see, eventually coming to the conclusion that yes, good was certainly something of an understatement. Her hipbones were still slightly too prominent, but she knew herself well enough to know that this would probably never change. She slid her well-manicured hands over her silky, soft skin, tracing the curve of her hips, the span of her waist, and the heavy, ripe swell of her breasts. They might be small in comparison to Karen's, but they were right for her. They felt heavy in her hands, and even at forty-eight, she smiled to herself, they were still relatively firm. Was this what it would be like to touch another woman, she thought, circling her nipples between finger and thumb. For the first time in her life, George found herself nervous at the thought of possibly sleeping with someone, and couldn't help wondering if she would really be able to pull this off. Finally deciding that it was time to dress, she selected a charcoal grey trouser suit and a white silk blouse, knowing that it would allow her to retain her professional persona, but would at the same time give an impression of inner strength, inner poise. Not entirely believing this little piece of received wisdom, George applied her makeup and went downstairs to wait for Karen.

When Karen arrived, she walked up the steps and rang the doorbell. When George appeared and opened the door, they both took a moment to assess the other. Karen ran a practiced eye over the exquisite charcoal grey suit, seeing that it clung in all the right places, accentuating her small, pointed breasts and showing off the fact that most of her height was in her incredibly shapely legs. George, on being presented with a Karen not in one of her usual, professional power suits, thought that if she'd found Karen attractive before, now she was positively stunning. Her tall, slim frame, with the longest legs George had ever seen on a woman, was encased in a beautifully clinging dress in a rich burgundy, made of a supple, silky material that clung lightly to Karen's high, full breasts but which skimmed over her hips so as not to emphasise them. The rich red wine of Karen's dress was threaded through with various shades of this sultry, sexy colour, giving George the brief utterly wild thought that Karen looked as if she was ready to get drunk in more ways than one tonight. George couldn't for the life of her remember what they talked about in the car, just that whatever they did talk about seemed to make her relax by the time they reached the restaurant. Karen was very aware of George's almost palpable nervousness, feeling her eyes as if they were branding irons, travelling from her strong, slender hands on the steering wheel, to her long, slim legs that stretched forward to reach the pedals and back to her face. George picked up a CD cover that was lying on the dashboard, the case to the disc that was playing in the car stereo.

"Carolyn Dawn Johnson," She read. "I've never heard of her."

"She's almost country without actually being country," Said Karen. "Perfect for waking me up on the way to work."

"She's good," Observed George after listening to the music for a few minutes.

When they reached the restaurant, George definitely seemed to relax, perhaps on recognising a situation in which she knew exactly how to behave. As they were shown to the table Karen had booked for them earlier, George was forced to admit to herself that Karen definitely had taste when it came to restaurants. George ordered a glass of the driest Martini they had with lots of ice, and Karen ordered a glass of her favourite scotch. They talked about anything that wasn't either Lauren's case, or what they themselves were actually doing, until the waitress appeared to take their order for food.

"I'll have the grilled Brie with cranberries to start," Said George. "Followed by the sole. Karen took a moment or two longer to peruse her menu, and George suddenly realised that Karen was taking this opportunity to size up the waitress. But Karen soon decided on crab-filled filo parcels followed by duck.

"You're as outrageous as John," George said in an undertone once the waitress had gone.

"Sorry," Karen said, not looking particularly apologetic. Then she grinned. "It really threw John the first time he saw me do that." George laughed.

"He's not used to having competition from a woman. You should have seen his face on the day he lost his bet about you and Yvonne. It was priceless."

"So I was right," Said Karen with a broad smile. "I remember thinking at the time that we were being watched. Poor John," She said on a laugh.

"Yes, witnessing him discovering his first sexual anomaly was certainly a sight to behold. At the time, he made me and Jo both promise that we'd never shatter his illusions and do the same thing."

"So, what made you consider breaking your promise?" Karen asked, finally reaching the heart of the matter. George took a sip of her drink, trying to marshal her thoughts.

"You made me challenge my own assumptions about a lot of things," She began, hoping this was coming out the way she wanted it too. "When I heard about the kind of cross-examination Brian Cantwell had put you through, I found myself really despising one of my own profession. I hadn't seen you in action on the witness stand, so I naturally assumed you'd be something of a push over. But you weren't," She said quickly, not wanting Karen to take any offence at the bare, unvarnished truth. "When I questioned you, I knew I'd found an equal. You fought back, giving the rest of the people in court about as little thought as I did. You didn't care what you said to me, even though you were in court. Then, when you came to see me that first time about the case against Fenner, you put the way I'd tried to brow beat you in court aside, so that we could start again. It's not often someone does that with me, because I usually use it as an opportunity to stick the knife in. Even my total lack of sensitivity and sheer abundance of crass comments didn't frighten you off. I don't try to be like that, it's just how I am, but in an odd sort of way you seemed to prefer it." Karen didn't reply immediately because their starters arrived. As George reached to pick up her fork, Karen briefly touched her hand.

"Believe it or not," She said with a soft smile. "You weren't insensitive or crass, you simply didn't walk on eggshells around me, which too many other people did. The way you looked at that case was so fresh, so devoid of false hope that it gave me the reality check I needed."

"And then I go and totally ruin my facade of professionalism by holding the court in contempt," George said with a grin. "John really wasn't pleased with me that day."

"He was more worried about you than angry with you," Karen said gently. "He really didn't know what had got in to you, or what he could do about it."

"I was going through one of my phases of going a bit off the rails at the time," George explained evasively, thinking that this was the understatement of the century. Karen was again reminded of George's look of fear when told on her visit to Larkhall that all inmates were required to go through a psychiatric assessment.

"That visit to Larkhall really opened your eyes, didn't it," Said Karen.

"Yes, and it worked. Every time I know I'm in danger of forgetting my place in John's court, I think about the size of the Julies' cell and immediately bite my tongue." They ate for a while in silence.

"That second time I came to see you," Karen eventually added, "I wanted to tell you about Fenner so much. I'm told the need to confess is incredibly strong."

"Yes, I know," George said gently. "If I hadn't been so immersed in everything going on in my own head at the time, I'd have asked a lot more questions."

"John told me about what happened with Neil Haughton," Karen said slowly.

"Oh," George said dully, "I thought he might. I sometimes think that got to him more than it did to me."

"The night I," Karen searched for the right way to say it.

"Slept with John?" George tried.

"Yes," Karen agreed. "He talked a lot about you. That was when he told me about Neil."

"Just to satisfy my curiosity," said George dryly. "When was this?"

"The Friday after you gave me the third degree."

"Good god," Said George in half laughter half disgust. "He doesn't waste time, does he."

"No," Agreed Karen, "But then neither do I." The heat had suddenly been turned up a few notches.

"Yes, I can see that," Drawled George seductively. "The way you fought neck and neck with me the day after Fenner's body was found," She said contemplatively. "That was one of the sexiest things I've ever seen. You gave back just as good as you were getting from me. I think John felt like an umpire and Jo like a spare part. There's nothing more erotic than really sparring with someone, seeing what they're really made of. But then I remember once saying to John that fighting was a form of foreplay."

"If the situation hadn't been so serious," Replied Karen, "I'd have enjoyed it. Trying my hand at keeping up with someone used to verbally tying anyone in knots, it allowed me to take out some of the stress of the previous week on you. Until you started getting too close, it was a kind of release."

"I'm sorry I made you feel as vulnerable as you did," George said, finally able to do what she'd tried to do with the e-mail she'd sent to Karen fifteen months before.

"I know," Said Karen with a soft smile. "And having got to know John over the last year, I know that your warning was absolutely justified. It wasn't necessary in my case, because at the time I couldn't have become emotionally attached to anyone if I'd tried, but it was appreciated."

"I couldn't resist the opportunity of seeing you again," George found herself saying.

"It was certainly a pleasant surprise to see you," Admitted Karen. "Had I not been in the process of attempting to form the case against Fenner, trying to keep myself out of prison and finishing with Yvonne, I wouldn't have waited fifteen months before asking you out for dinner."

"Well, if it's any consolation," replied George. "October 2003 wouldn't have been the right time for me either. You weren't the only one trying to deal with a certain amount of guilt, though mine wasn't the legal kind or the unfounded kind." George suddenly stopped, thinking she'd said too much.

"Tell me something," Karen said, seeing that George desperately needed a lighter topic of conversation. "Just how did you find out about me and John?" George's face coloured.

"You really don't want to know," she said, slightly flustered.

"The more you blush," teased Karen, "The more intrigued I become."

"John once let his guard down long enough to fall in to the trap of not having an explanation as to how he knew about my warning you off." Karen simply raised an eyebrow, telling George in no uncertain terms to get on with it and finish the story. "I can't believe I'm telling you this," George said in half amazement half disgust. "One night when I was in bed with John, I persuaded him to tell me about you, about when he slept with you." Karen's eyebrows soared.

"That's a complement if ever I heard one," she said, a broad smile lighting up her face. "And was it worth it?" She couldn't help asking which made George laugh.

"Yes, it was," she drawled. "It was incredible." Just then, their main courses arrived. Karen found herself watching George's beautiful, skilful hands delicately manipulating her cutlery to remove the sole from the bone.

"Have I managed to chip my nail varnish or something?" George asked dryly, observing Karen's gaze on her. "Because whilst staring at my hands might be adding to your imagination, it won't help you to eat." Karen grinned sheepishly and began eating the wonderfully tender and juicy meat that she would never attempt to cook herself in a million years. After a little while of companionable silence, George said,

"Tell me about Yvonne." After finishing a mouthful of mange tout, Karen obliged.

"It's funny, but the first time I got physically close to Yvonne was in a fight. It was when she was accused of Virginia O'kane's murder and she tried to abscond. Me and Fenner caught her trying to get over the wall. She gave me the biggest shiner I think I've ever had. Other than that, we didn't really have cause to come into close contact with each other until I started seeing Ritchie, other than the odd little skirmish."

"I bet that wasn't an enjoyable discussion," said George dryly.

"No," Karen said with a rueful grin. "I think her words were, I ought to scratch your bloody eyes out. Then, Snowball set fire to the library and killed Shaz Wiley. Then Ritchie got shot, and I had to break the news to her that he'd never walk again. I took her to see him in hospital, and I broke every rule in the book by taking her for a drink or three afterwards."

"Is that when it started?"

"No, no, I'm no Helen Stewart. That was probably the first time I looked at Yvonne in that way, but it took another year before the attraction was reciprocated."

"Another year?" George said, trying to work this out. "So you and Yvonne started being more than friends around the time of the trial?"

"The very middle of the trial to be exact. It's one of the things that Lauren is using as an extenuating circumstance. So, yet again, all my officers are going to be privy to far too many details about my personal life. But then what's new?"

"This always happens to you, doesn't it?"

"Every bloody time," Karen said bitterly. "So, as soon as I'd given Lauren's name to Jo, I knew I had to end whatever semblance of a relationship there was between me and Yvonne. I couldn't go on sleeping with her knowing that I'd just landed her daughter behind bars. So far, Yvonne doesn't know it was me, and it needs to stay that way."

"Was she your first?"

"Yes. That was a first for both of us," Karen said with a soft smile. "I'd always previously worked under a look but don't touch policy."

"Yes, so have I. John didn't even know. He dragged that out of me the night after I spent that day at Larkhall. Sometimes he just doesn't know when not to pursue something until he gets an answer. I had wanted to keep it from him, have just one little thing about myself that he didn't know. But it wasn't to be." In slightly touching on the last really bad time she'd had, George suddenly found her appetite had gone. "Do you mind if I smoke?" she said because Karen was still eating.

"No, of course not," Karen said, seeing that something had got to George, something had intruded on her enjoyment of this evening. "George, what happened to provoke Jo's slightly bizarre suggestion?" After lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag, George opened and shut her mouth a few times, totally stuck as to how to answer such a question. "I'm sorry," Karen said gently, "Forget I asked." Karen put her knife and fork together and lit her own cigarette. "John isn't the only one who sometimes asks too many questions," she said, trying to put George at her ease. George put a hand out and gently took one of Karen's.

"Much as it amazes me to say it, I would like to tell you. But not here."

"You don't have to," Said Karen, "I just wondered."

"I think it might actually do me good to tell you. But don't let John or Jo hear me say that or they'll both think they're having some success with me at last." Not having the slightest idea of what George was talking about, Karen simply let it pass. Neither of them feeling remotely like a sweet, Karen asked for the bill and they left soon after. In the car, some of George's tension seemed to have returned, though Karen thought this was due to whatever George was about to tell her.

When they re-entered her house, George said she'd make some coffee and told Karen to look around. Karen found that she couldn't fail to be impressed. It wasn't just the paintings and the piano, but the way everything was so classy, so stylish yet really quite understated.

"You know," She said to George, suddenly remembering, "You don't live very far from Yvonne." George appeared holding two mugs of fresh Brazilian.

"I might have known Yvonne Atkins would live somewhere like this," She said, putting them down on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

"Who plays?" Karen asked, getting the feeling that the piano wasn't a recent acquisition.

"I do, now and then," George said as she move to put some soft music on. "Daddy bought it for me as a wedding present when I got married to John. I think it was his way of making sure I didn't stop playing." Karen smiled when George said the word Daddy, hearing the immensely fond affection George clearly had for her father. They sat, one at each end of the sofa, talking, smoking, George gradually allowing herself to relax now that she was on her home territory. She wanted to tell Karen at least part of her story, knowing that it might almost make them quits. She knew perhaps far too much about Karen for Karen's liking, and maybe it was only fair to redress the balance. When George got to her feet and began walking round her lounge, picking things up and putting them down, Karen realised that she was working up to explaining what she'd said in the restaurant. George's eyes were like an open book to Karen, their large and seemingly endless depths appearing to hold many unanswered questions, many secrets at their centre. They became slightly narrowed in concentration, her brows knitted in a slight frown.

"Whatever it is," Karen said, "I'm not going to bite, you know." George laughed, some of the tension leaving her. "And if it's that difficult for you to tell me," Karen said, her tone becoming gentler. "Then don't." George had come to rest near the fireplace, her face slightly in shadow, which was obviously her intention.

"I occasionally go through phases of anorexia," She said, knowing that the fact that she'd actually put a name to it of her own accord meant that she was definitely making progress.

"Oh, I see," Karen said quietly.

"Do you?" George asked, moving back over to the sofa. But before she sat down, Karen reached out, took her hand and gently pulled George down to sit beside her.

"Why were you so afraid of telling me?" She asked, imprisoning George's hands in her own.

"I didn't want to give you any reason to go off me before this, whatever it is, even got off the ground." Putting her right arm round George, holding her not casually, not possessively, but providing comfort without pressure, Karen said,

"Let's not forget that you are well aware of more of my skeletons than I care to count."

"I know, I just, this is so new to me," She finished inadequately. "Not just the whole female thing, but letting someone in of my own free will. It's just going to take a bit of getting used to. Letting my guard down, it's not how I do things, or at least it didn't used to be."

"Until I did a deal with Denny, and started putting that case together against Fenner, I used to think like that. Even after that bloody trial, even after everything Ritchie said in court for whichever of my officers happened to be there to hear, I still used to think that I could keep up the tough bitch persona and still survive. Only it doesn't quite work like that."

"You didn't seem surprised," George observed.

"Not much surprises me these days," Said Karen, thinking that after years of dealing with both patients and prison inmates, she didn't think anything could surprise her ever again. "When you appeared in the gallery on Monday, I thought you looked different from the last time I'd seen you. I thought my memory had just altered what you looked like, but you were different, weren't you."

"Just a bit," George said ruefully. "I suppose it must have been a week or so after you slept with John, when I fainted in court. He wasn't amused to say the least when he discovered why. He'd known about my little addiction since a few months after our daughter was born, but he was naive enough to assume I'd grown out of it."

"I don't think you ever grow out of something like that. You can learn to deal with it, but it never really goes away." George simply stared at her. Here was someone who understood, not from her own experience of it, but nevertheless, someone to whom she didn't have to provide explanations. Karen hadn't even attempted to ask why George felt it necessary to starve herself sometimes, she'd just accepted it.

"Does Jo know about this?" Karen asked, thinking that with the close relationship George had with both John and to some extent Jo, she would be hard put not to.

"Jo drove me home after I fainted in court, so yes she does. That isn't a conversation I'd like to repeat any time soon," George said with a slight shudder. But again, Karen didn't ask why, for which George was exceedingly grateful. "I remember the day after, John cajoled me in to standing on the scales. I hadn't seen him look quite so shocked or angry in a very long time." Since the previous bout, Karen internally translated. "I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd slapped me when he realised I weighed only five stone ten."

"I suspect even John can be pushed to the limits of his control," Karen said dryly, in an attempt to cover up her shock at what George had said. But her reaction hadn't gone unnoticed. Whilst neither Karen's face nor her voice had revealed her inward wince at how thin George had allowed herself to become, her arm had reflexively tightened, just for a moment. George strove to reassure her.

"It's got to be really bad for me to get that thin," She said, "Most of the time I'm okay." About as okay as I am after a night filled with dreams of Fenner, Karen thought.

They sat there for a good while longer, the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece creeping towards ten thirty. They had drifted away from discussing anything difficult for either of them, and George was still within the cuckooning warmth of Karen's arm. She decided that she really could come to enjoy this closeness too much.

"Do you know what I've remembered about you most over the last year?" She asked.

"I dread to think," Karen said with a grin. George smiled.

"The day I came to Larkhall, when you whisked me out of the way of Alison McKenzie's fists. The feel of having your arms around me." Karen laughed softly.

"John was very cross with me for not keeping you out of harm's way."

"He always overreacts," George said in exasperation.

"Only because he loves you," Karen said with a soft smile.

"This is going to get very complicated, isn't it," She said slightly regretfully.

"I have no idea where this is going, and neither do you," Said Karen, turning George's face towards her. "So don't think about that now." As she looked in to George's endless blue eyes, Karen could almost see the cogs turning in George's brain. It was as if she could see the intangible force of courage being summoned up in all its glory. It therefore didn't surprise her in the least when George leaned slightly closer, gently pressing her soft, full lips on Karen's. George had no idea what had made her do it, what had given her that final boost of sheer guts, but she was glad she had. The silky pliability of Karen's lips amazed her. Both women had previously known they were excellent kissers, but now privately thought they'd met their match in the other. George found her left arm going round Karen's waist as if of its own accord, as though she needed something to hold on to, to prevent her from drowning in pure feeling. When they eventually came up for air, Karen smiled.

"I don't know what made me do that," George said, looking utterly shell-shocked.

"Do you wish you hadn't?" Karen asked, knowing what the answer would be.

"Not on your life," George said with total certainty, thinking that there really were some things in this world that she would never get enough of. They sat together for a good while longer, occasionally talking, mostly kissing, George possibly trying to make up for all the years she had looked but not touched.

"I could quite easily get hooked on this," George said after a while.

"Well now, I never would have thought you'd be so easily pleased," Karen said teasingly.

"Enjoy it while it lasts," George said dryly. Then, a little while later, she said tentatively, "Would you like to stay?" Karen examined her face thoughtfully.

"Do you want me too?" She said, turning the question back on George, because it was George who might be about to take that step in to the unknown, not her. Now it was George's turn for contemplation.

"I do and I don't," she said eventually.

"Well then, I won't," Karen said, giving her a reassuring smile. "It's something you should be absolutely one hundred percent sure about." George frowned.

"This isn't like me," She said in self-disgust.

"Calm down," Karen said gently. "It's not a problem." George did relax slightly, but certainly not to the extent that she had been before. She was incredibly grateful to Karen for being so understanding, but she inwardly cursed herself for being so fucking feeble! When Karen eventually left, she put her arms round George as they stood on the doorstep, George having to stretch up to kiss her goodnight.

"You're going to have to stop wearing high heels," George said with a smile. Finally detaching herself, Karen walked to her car.

"I wouldn't have missed tonight for anything," She said, the car key poised to unlock the door. George smiled broadly in the glow of the security light above her head.

"No, me neither," She replied, wishing she could have allowed Karen to stay. As she watched Karen drive away, George withdrew inside and closed the front door. She had loved every minute of this evening, but now she felt angry, frustrated and pathetic. Georgia Channing didn't ever back out of anything, and she certainly didn't back out of sleeping with someone. Had one woman managed to change all that? Walking back in to the lounge, she saw that it was only just after eleven. It had felt like a lifetime, being sat so close to Karen, but it had only been a matter of an hour or so. Pouring herself a glass of wine from an already opened bottle in the fridge, she walked upstairs, put on some soft music in her bedroom and removed all her clothes and every scrap of makeup. She thought she might just explode with all the sexual tension that was currently thrumming along her nerves, making her feel like she could sail in to orbit single handed. Taking a swig of the Frascati, and leaving the glass on the dressing-table, George walked in to the bathroom and turned on the shower.

John had been restless all evening. Jo wasn't speaking to him, and he had absolutely no idea why she was bringing up their relationship of all things. He couldn't think of anything specific he'd done in the last couple of weeks that might upset her, but he had long ago learnt that with women, you never knew until they spelled it out. Jo would sort herself out in her own time, not anyone else's. He hated it when Jo was cross with him, but he couldn't do anything about it when he didn't know what the problem was. But this didn't stop him worrying about her. It really wasn't like Jo to allow her emotions in to court, and that was exactly what she had been doing on Tuesday. It was as if the case had become her own personal battle, to secure the verdict she wanted at any cost. John was then reminded of the last time Jo had been like this. The Diana Hulsey case had affected her in a similar way. Why oh why did Jo manage to become far too emotionally involved with her cases. He hated being at odds with her, but there really wasn't anything he could do. The ball was in her court, not his. But he needed some soft, gentle female company tonight. He needed to feel that at least one of the women in his life wasn't angry with him. He had been going through the evidence Jo was likely to introduce tomorrow with the opening of her case, but by eleven o'clock he'd had enough. He wanted to put Lauren Atkins and all her unfortunate circumstances out of his mind, and focus his energy on doing the thing he did best. On an impulse, he thought he'd simply drive over and surprise George, assuming in his usual slightly arrogant manner that she would be pleased to see him. When he brought his car to a stop in her driveway, he could see a light on in her bedroom, meaning that she was probably on her way to bed but not asleep. He let himself quietly in to the house. George had never asked him to return Neil's key to her, sometimes liking the fact that he could just let himself in. As he walked along the hall, he sniffed. He could have sworn he could smell a different perfume to that which George had always worn ever since he'd known her. But blended with the aroma of cigarette smoke he couldn't be certain. Seeing that she certainly wasn't anywhere down here, he walked upstairs. When he reached the top, he became aware of the sound of the shower running in the en suite bathroom adjoining George's bedroom. There was some soft music playing, that and the noise of the shower having covered the sound of the front door. As he moved in to the bedroom, the song that was playing reached its end, and in the space between tracks, John heard the unmistakable sound of a gasp that George only ever uttered when she was aroused. His eyes widened when he realised that his thoroughly wicked, beautiful little minx was indulging in a little bit of self pleasure. This was just too hard for him to resist. Walking with the stealth and silence of a cat, he slowly approached the open bathroom door. As he crept closer, he could just make out her shape through the steam.

This had been George's only answer, to alleviate both her anger and frustration with a little erotic fantasy. As she let the warm, caressing droplets run over her skin, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. If she thought hard enough, the drops of water might almost be kisses, feather-light as only a woman's could be. She massaged the shower gel in to her skin, fondling her breasts, teasing her nipples to an almost painful hardness. Is this what Karen's hands would have felt like on her if she'd stayed? Keeping her left hand moving on her breast, she moved her right down between her legs. Her clitoris seemed extra sensitive tonight, possibly from all the fruitless hours of nervous anticipation. As her fingers moved so familiarly over her own body, her head was full of all the things Karen might have done to her. Had her eyes been open, she would have seen John standing staring at her, his pupils dilated with lust as he watched her wandering hands. But some feeling, some sixth sense told her that she was being watched. Snapping her eyes open and whipping her hand from between her legs, she stared right back at him.

"John!" She said in mortified outrage. "What the hell are you doing here?" Slowly coming back to his senses, he found that for the first time in his life, he really didn't have anything to say. He had absolutely no excuse for having intruded on her privacy in such a way, and if he had been in the habit of blushing, he'd have been scarlet by now.

"Well," George said, seeing that he didn't know what to say. "If you're staying, make yourself useful and get out of those utterly transparent clothes." This was accompanied by a gesture to the evidence of his arousal which was currently far too visible for even an attempt at modesty. Taking her at her word, and feeling that she'd landed him back on familiar ground, he returned to the bedroom, took a sip of her glass of wine, and swiftly removed his clothes.

When George emerged from the shower, she saw that he'd turned back the duvet and lay waiting for her. Smirking wickedly, she started drying her hair, making him wait as long as possible as punishment for watching her. She was standing sideways on, unconsciously giving him yet more of the show. Every time she reached up to brush her hair, her right breast jerked. He began to wonder if she was doing this on purpose just to tease him. When she eventually dropped the hairdryer back in the drawer and the brush back on the dressing-table, she approached the bed. When she was lying along his side with an arm across him, she said,

"So, tell me why you felt it necessary to do something so deliciously naughty?"

"I think you were the one doing that, not me," He said, finding the feel of her soft, warm curves almost more than he could stand. Slipping a leg between his, so that she was virtually draped over him, she pressed her thigh against his rock hard shaft.

"You liked that little display, didn't you," She said unnecessarily. His kissing her with an incredible amount of passion was answer enough for her. Leading his left hand to her breast, she showed him exactly how she wanted it tonight, but qualified her actions with,

"Don't even think about being remotely gentle with me tonight, because I'm utterly bloody furious and as an outlet for my anger, you might just do."

"Why so cross?" He asked, trying to take her at her word.

"None of your bloody business," She said between clenched teeth, it suddenly dawning on her that if he'd arrived half an hour earlier, Karen would still have been here.

"I was only asking," He said mildly, seeing that she needed no further provocation of any kind tonight. It didn't take her long to need John inside her, her intense self-disgust making her think that an orgasm was the only way she could release some of her pent up anger. but even as he moved inside her, she knew this was not where she wanted to be. Sure, she wanted to be in this bed, but not with John. She almost laughed when she thought of what would have happened had John appeared and caught her and Karen in bed together. But it would have been a pretty mirthless laugh. She inwardly cursed herself again and again for not having the guts to sleep with Karen, because that's all it had been. She, Georgia Channing who had never been afraid of trying anything sexual, had been frightened off of sleeping with a woman because she didn't know if she would be good enough.

When John became aware of the tears in her eyes, he swiftly withdrew from her, her distress immediately removing any desire he had previously felt.

"I'm sorry," She said, feeling all the worse because she hadn't been able to satisfy him.

"Where were you?" He asked softly, knowing that she had momentarily drifted away from what she'd actually been doing. When she didn't answer, he simply held her, not having the faintest idea what had upset her. Then he took a stab in the dark.

"Who were you thinking about when you were in the shower?"

"I can't tell you," She said, looking briefly frightened at the prospect.

"Why," He asked with a smile. "do I know them?"

"Yes, you do," She said, "Which is precisely why you're not getting any more details out of me. I went out for dinner with someone tonight, someone who I've been wanting to sleep with for a long time now. Yet when it came down to it I couldn't go through with it."

"I hope whoever it was didn't attempt to pressure you," He said sternly.

"No, of course not," She said defensively. "I just feel so ridiculous. When have I ever bottled out of sleeping with anyone. Never."

"And I suppose my appearance didn't exactly help," He said regretfully.

"Actually, it did," She said, the bitterness creeping in to her tone. "I'm just sorry I couldn't do this with you either." As he kissed away her tears, John couldn't help but be curious.

"I hope he was nice to you," He said, feeling that old familiar protectiveness that had always reared its ugly head whenever she'd gone out with anyone else, even in the days when they'd been barely speaking to each other, only communicating because of Charlie. George smiled at the irony.

"You could say that," She said evasively, wondering just what his reaction would be if he knew it was Karen she'd been out with, not a man but a woman.

Part Twenty Three

Karen had to admit to being slightly nervous of being in court on the Thursday morning, because she knew that Lauren would be on the stand, and that lots of unwelcome things could come out. This would almost certainly involve the discussion of Karen's relationship with Yvonne, which would no doubt be the topic of conversation in the PO's room before the end of the day. Karen was not looking forward to the time when Jo would question Lauren as to her exact course of action on the day of Fenner's death. When she arrived in the public gallery, Helen and Nikki were there waiting for her, the others not having arrived yet.

"So," Said Helen in greeting. "How did it go?"

"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies," Karen said with a wink.

"Good then," Nikki interpreted.

"You could say so," Karen replied, though determined not to give them any details. Roisin arrive soon after followed by Barbara. But when Karen caught a waft of a very familiar perfume, a perfume she'd had very close to her last night, she turned her head to see George walking towards them.

"Hello," George said, sitting down between Karen and Nikki.

"How are you this morning?" Karen asked quietly. George didn't immediately know what to say to this. She felt cheap for trying to sleep with John after saying no to Karen, and she felt ridiculous for not having been able to go through with it with John after all.

"I'm sorry about last night," She said equally quietly, briefly touching Karen's hand.

"You've got absolutely nothing to be sorry for," Karen said gently but firmly. Karen looked closely at the faint shadows under George's eyes, seeing that she hadn't slept particularly well last night. "Don't lose sleep over it," She added. Nikki had made an effort to engage Roisin in conversation, but this hadn't stopped her from overhearing this little exchange between Karen and George. Soon after this, Crystal arrived, sitting down on the other side of Karen.

"I thought I was going to be late," She said. "Daniel isn't sleeping very well and we all overslept this morning."

"How old is he now?" Karen asked with a smile, remembering when Ross had given her far too many sleepless nights.

"Nearly seven months," Said Crystal Proudly. "Josh weren't too happy about me leaving him to cope with Zandra and little Daniel, but it'll do him good." Karen laughed, and then remembered that George and Crystal hadn't met.

"George," She said. "This is Crystal Gordon, and Crystal, this is George Channing. Crystal's partner used to be one of my prison officers."

"And I used to be one of her inmates," Crystal added.

"Oh, I see," Said George.

"Hey Crystal, just try and remember to be quiet today," Said Nikki, grinning over at her. "We forgot to tell Crystal about the Judge's warning about audience participation," Nikki added for George's benefit.

"Yeah, well, the jury needed to know what a lying bitch Miss Barker was," Crystal said with no shame whatsoever.

"Do you mind," Karen said mildly. "I've got to work with her after this."

"I thought the Judge was going to put me in a cell," Said Crystal, almost proud of her outburst.

"Anything to keep him on his toes," George said, liking this new addition to the ranks more and more.

"How long can you stay?" Karen asked.

"Only till lunchtime," Said Crystal regretfully. "Josh is working this afternoon. He wanted to catch up on some sleep this morning but he's got no chance. With Zandra being nearly three, and Daniel nearly seven months, he's got his hands full. He reckons I'm better at looking after them than he is, but he loves it really." Karen smiled broadly. But George's thoughts had strayed to Charlie, and the many, many times she'd had it thrust upon her just how much better at parenting John was than her. Briefly looking at George, Nikki caught a split second of a frown marring George's very pretty face, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out why.

When Lauren had repeated the oath from the card, Jo moved to switch on the overhead projector.

"If I might have your leave, My Lord," She said, showing the bench some courtesy for the first time that week. "I would like to illustrate my client's defence as I believe this will make it easier for the jury to understand."

"By all means, Mrs. Mills, though before you begin, is there a satisfactory explanation as to why you have a chessboard complete with about half the pieces on the bench in front of you?"

"Purely for personal reference, My Lord." At these words, George leaned forward so that she could see what John was talking about. Sure enough, Jo did have a chessboard on the defence's end of the bench, but containing the weirdest game of chess George had ever seen. The sheet of acetate that Jo put under the light source was divided up in to a grid, with the squares arranged ten columns across and six rows deep. As Jo began to question Lauren, she gradually filled in the grid as follows:

Justice                 Atkins Family Values
  Karen Betts           Charlie's Gun Charlie Atkins  
    James Fenner       Yvonne's love for her children Yvonne Atkins    
      Corruption     Ritchie Atkins Snowball Merriman Letter to Yvonne  
        Lauren Atkins' Mind Lauren Atkins   Letter to Lauren    
        Cassie Tyler Daniella Blood        

First of all, Jo wrote Justice in the top left-hand corner and Atkins Family Values in the top right-hand corner.

"Miss Atkins," She began. "Please could you explain to the court, your father's family values, and in particular, his view of justice?"

"Charlie Atkins thought that because he could use a gun, he could do anything. To him, justice meant achieving what he wanted, what he thought should happen. If this meant killing off a rival, he did it. If it meant nobbling the jury, then he did that too. He saw the law as something to be bent and manipulated, as something to be used when it suited him and something to be avoided when it prevented him from achieving a goal. Gun laws and a man's right to life didn't mean anything to Charlie Atkins."

"Miss Atkins," John intervened. "Why do you refer to your father as Charlie Atkins?"

"Because he made me in to what I am," Lauren said succinctly. "And I can't ever forgive him for that.

"My Lord, if I might continue," Jo said, thinking that if he'd already started on his own questioning of her witness, today was going to be a very long day. "Please could you describe the type of influence Charlie Atkins had over his wife and his family?"

"If Charlie Atkins wanted something done, you did it. Before Ritchie left, dad was proud of his family. Mum had given him two children, one of each. But he made every decision, every choice when it came to where we went to school, where we went on holiday, and what he taught us of his way of life. We always did what he told us to do, even mum. You didn't ever disobey Charlie Atkins. Ritchie tried that once, but never again." Lauren stopped, as if realising she'd said too much too soon.

"Did your father ever threaten his wife or his children?"

"Charlie Atkins lived by threats. Ritchie left because dad threatened to nail him to the warehouse floor. That's the kind of guy he was. He once told me that if I ever betrayed the Atkins name like Ritchie had, it'd be the last thing I'd do."

"What form would these threats take?"

"Mostly they were just verbal, to me and Ritchie anyway. He was all mouth, Charlie Atkins, all talk and no action. He told us that if we ever told anyone at school about the things he did, he would be sent to prison and we'd lose everything we had. Let's face it, you don't mess with someone who has a pretty large arsenal at their disposal, do you." At this point, Jo wrote the words, Charlie Atkins, and Charlie Atkins' Gun, in to their allotted spaces on the grid.

"Miss Atkins," John said, again breaking in on Jo's concentration. "Did your father ever threaten your mother?"

"Yes, sir," Lauren said, briefly looking over at him. "He threatened her more than he did anyone else."

"I will get to this, My Lord," Jo added, wondering if she would be wanting to wring John's neck before they were through. "Miss Atkins," She continued. "How old were you when your father started teaching you to shoot?"

"I was twelve," Lauren replied. At the murmur of voices from the public gallery, Lauren realised that she might just have landed her mother with a few difficult questions to answer when her turn came.

"Was this something your mother agreed to?"

"Of course not," Said Lauren derisively. "But disagreeing with Charlie Atkins wasn't something anyone did more than once. Ask yourselves," She said, briefly looking over at the jury and immediately commanding their attention. "Would any of you be happy about your children being taught to shoot at the age of twelve?"

"Miss Atkins, I must ask you not to address the jury in this manner," John said though with only a hint of warning.

"I'm sorry, sir," Lauren replied, knowing that she would take over what Jo was there to do if she wasn't careful.

"What happened when your mother disagreed to your father's intention to teach you and your brother to shoot?"

"This happened the first time, when dad wanted to teach Ritchie to shoot," Lauren said, knowing her mum would kill her for telling this to a court. "Ritchie was twelve and I was eight. I remember mum and dad arguing. It wasn't something they often did in front of us, because both of them wanted to keep their rows away from me and Ritchie." George briefly found herself thinking of the many times she and John had waited until Charlie was asleep before beginning their arguments. "Mum said that she didn't want Ritchie going bad just like his father. She said that Ritchie was just a child, and that he was far too young to be thinking about following in anyone's footsteps and especially not that kind. Dad said that it was never too early to teach his children how to look after themselves. I remember," She said, her voice slightly faltering. "He said, "They've got to learn what it means to be an Atkins, Yvie." That's what he used to call her, Yvie, and he wanted both of his children to fulfill their role in the Atkins family."

"What did he do to your mother when she challenged him?" John asked quietly.

"My Lord, is this really relevant?" Neumann Mason-Alan asked after standing up.

"Sit down and shut up," John said curtly. "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't think it was relevant."

"My mum wouldn't like me to tell that to a court, sir," Lauren said, remembering what Denny had said, and seeing that this man was doing his damnedest to get at the truth.

"Well, your mother isn't here to stop you," John said persuasively. "And I wish to know."

"I don't know exactly what happened," Lauren replied. "Dad told us to take the dog for a walk, which we did." Tears rose to her eyes as she could remember every little detail of that day, even though it was seventeen years ago. "When we came back," She continued. "Dad was on his own in the lounge, reading the paper and smoking." The tears were now raining down her cheeks. "When I went upstairs to find her, there was blood on the banister. Mum, was in their bedroom, looking at herself in the mirror. Her face was covered in bruises, and her nose had been bleeding. She moved really stiffly, like as if a couple of her ribs were cracked. When she saw me, she said that she didn't want me to see her like that." There was silence as Lauren attempted to dry her tears, and Karen found herself reflecting on the odd occasions when Yvonne had stumbled in to the territory of talking about her marriage to Charlie, and of how she'd always changed the subject as soon as possible. Now she knew why. When Lauren had wiped her eyes with some tissues Jo had handed to her, John said,

"Did this ever happen again?"

"Just once, that I know of," Lauren replied. "The night Ritchie left. Mum had to support Charlie because she knew what might happen to her and her children if she didn't. Charlie would have beaten mum up if she'd stood up to him about Ritchie, yet that's what he did to her anyway. His son, his pride and joy had betrayed him. What you need to understand about Charlie Atkins is that nothing was ever his fault. So, because what Ritchie did couldn't possibly have anything to do with the way dad had brought us up, it had to be mum's fault."

"How did your mother usually act towards you and your brother?" Jo asked, walking over to write Yvonne Atkins in to the grid.

"When dad was there, he kind of took over, took all the limelight. But when he wasn't, she was just like a normal mum. She loved me and Ritchie, and even after everything I've put her through, I know she still loves me. She risked Charlie Atkins' fists because she loved her children and didn't want us growing up like our father, and she believed Ritchie's story when he came back and visited her in Larkhall because she still loved him. Ritchie had been the cause of another beating from Charlie, but that didn't stop her from loving her son." Still being stood by the projector, Jo wrote the words, Yvonne's Love for Her Children, as a connection between Yvonne and what would come next.

"How did your father treat you after your brother left?"

"He made me his protégé. He taught me everything he knew, everything he'd previously taught Ritchie. He treated me like the son he didn't have. He took me in to the family business, made me in to what he'd always wanted Ritchie to be."

"How did he treat your mother after Ritchie left?" John asked.

"For quite a long time, she couldn't do anything right in his eyes. He blamed her for Ritchie's betrayal." Jo filled in Ritchie's and Lauren's names on the grid, showing how both Charlie's threats and Yvonne's love had ended up with Ritchie and Lauren being in their current situations.

"How did your father react to your mother's imprisonment?" Jo asked.

"He seemed shocked, angry, even more determined to get past the law. He went to visit her as often as I did."

"Might I remind you that you are under oath, Miss Atkins," John intoned, having seen a slight shift in her facial expression, a sure sign that a witness was bending the truth.

"Please could you explain to the court what you were made responsible for once your father was put on remand?" Jo asked, ignoring John.

"I had to look after the family business, sort out all the business deals dad had screwed up. Charlie Atkins was a dinosaur when it came to dealing with anyone, from drug smugglers to the law. Mum always hated most of what Charlie did for a living, usually refusing to have anything to do with it. But when they were both inside, I had to carry on, keep it going till either one of them got out."

"What did you feel when your mother told you that she would be giving evidence at your father's trial?"

"I was angry with her. Dad had given her nothing but grief for too much of her life, and I thought it was time for her to make a clean break. She told me that more went on in a marriage than I knew, and that I couldn't change the fact that he was her husband and my father. I tried telling her about everything he'd been up too while she was inside, but all she could say was, "He says he's sorry." Charlie used to say he was sorry after he'd beaten her up, but somehow she thought this time would be different. Charlie made mum emotionally reliant on him, made it so that even after everything he'd put her through, she still loved him and still needed him in her life." There was a short silence as the court and everyone in it took in all that Lauren had said. John was surprised to find himself deeply pitying Yvonne Atkins. He wasn't used to feeling anything but contempt for someone who'd lived a life of crime but this time he was. He felt pity for her, and deep loathing and disgust for the man who had beaten his wife for not wanting her children to grow up to be criminals.

"What did you feel when your father was killed?"

"Relieved," Lauren said succinctly. "No more could he hurt my mum, no more could he treat her like something he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe. Mum deserved to have the rest of her life free from fear, free from pain. But all I've done is to give her more of the same." Lauren sounded so defeated that John thought it was time to adjourn. Looking up at the old clock whose hands were edging towards twelve thirty, he said,

"I think this might be a convenient moment." As the court rose collectively to its feet, they all knew that this was only the interval in a complex and horrific play, which would continue that afternoon with possibly far more frightening revelations to come.

They were all fairly silent as they left the public gallery, none of them knowing what to say. When Yvonne and Cassie joined them in the foyer, Yvonne got the distinct feeling that they all knew something, something about her that she wouldn't have wanted them to know.

"How did it go?" Yvonne asked Karen.

"Fine so far," Karen said, keeping her voice as normal as possible. "Apart from Lauren trying to address the jury, she was fine." Yvonne smiled. But before she could reply, John appeared walking alongside Jo.

"I thought I'd come and be formally introduced to my principle hecklers," He said in greeting. This seemed to break the ice.

"We've all been fairly quiet so far," Replied Karen. "Especially George," She added with a wink.

"There's time for good intentions to break down, I'm sure," He said with a wry smile. "Though I have to admit to being impressed at your level of self-control, Ms Channing."

"Well, My Lord," She said dryly. "Your will to me is law and all that." Recognising this as a slightly altered line from Haydn's Creation, Barbara laughed.

"I'm glad to hear it, Ms Channing," Said John, not in the least fooled by George's innocent expression.

"This is Crystal Gordon," Karen began. "To whom we forgot to impart your warning."

"I'm sorry, Sir," Crystal said, not looking entirely apologetic.

"And Roisin Connor, Barbara Mills, Helen Wade and Nikki Wade." At this last name John's eyes widened.

"Yeah, I'm that Nikki Wade," Nikki said, correctly interpreting his expression.

"Then I must congratulate you on your recent appeal. I'd have given my right arm to have been on the bench," John said, holding out his hand, which Nikki shook.

"And Cassie Tyler," Continued Karen.

"I remember you from last time," John said, giving Cassie a broad smile.

"That's me," Said Cassie with a hint of satisfaction. "Always the one with the biggest mouth."

"And you know Yvonne Atkins," Karen said, wondering how John would act towards her after what they'd just heard in court.

"Yes, of course," John said quietly, looking anew at this woman whom he'd only previously thought of as someone Karen had briefly had a relationship with, someone he could well remember who had been prepared to support Karen as far as possible with the case against Fenner. Apart from the last day of Ritchie's trial when he'd seen a split second hint of pain in her eyes, he'd always thought of Yvonne Atkins as strong, possibly one of the strongest women he'd ever come in to contact with. But half of this was her way of not letting anyone find out what Charlie Atkins had put her through year after year. When John looked straight in to Yvonne's eyes, he knew he'd totally failed to keep some of his reaction to Lauren's story out of his expression. Yvonne looked right back at him, though she was well aware that he was looking at her differently from how he had in the past. Just what had Lauren said in court this morning.

When they reconvened at two o'clock, Jo continued right from where she'd left off.

"What was your initial feeling when your brother returned to this country and made contact with your mother?"

"I didn't trust him. He'd betrayed us, and I thought he'd just come back to have a share in dad's money. But mum fell for it. He sent her some flowers, told her he loved her and she believed him. Atkins men have always had a way of making people believe every word they say."

"How did you feel when you heard that your brother had been shot?"

"I was confused," Replied Lauren. "Part of me thought he deserved it after trying to fit mum up for Snowball's bomb, and the rest of me was furious that he'd been shot and not Snowball Merriman or Karen Betts. At the time, I thought it was Karen Betts' fault that Ritchie had been shot, because Snowball had used her to get out of Larkhall. I hated Karen for falling in to Ritchie's trap, for being so easily seduced by the same Atkins charm that Charlie always used on mum. Part of me despised Ritchie for having saved her life." In the gallery, George took in a breath to respond to this, but Karen put a calming hand over one of George's.

"It's nothing I haven't heard before," She said very quietly so that only George could hear. With Crystal having left at lunchtime, George was now seated on the end, with Karen next to her, followed by Nikki, Helen, Roisin and Barbara.

"As you were in the public gallery throughout the whole of your brother's and Snowball Merriman's trial, did you feel angry during this time, or did you feel some sympathy for what your brother was going through?"

"Ritchie made his bed, so he had to lie in it. He was a bit like dad in that he could talk his way out of anything."

"You can say that again," Murmured Karen.

"But Ritchie was weak. He'd let himself be taken in by one of Snowball's sob stories. She had him wound round her little finger, and yet that's exactly what he did to Karen. Everything would have gone all right for Ritchie if he hadn't ended up feeling more for her than he'd meant too. Funny how easy it is for people to fall under her spell."

"Thank you very much," Karen said dryly.

"Please confine yourself to facts, Miss Atkins," John intoned.

"I couldn't decide whether Ritchie deserved to be where he was," Lauren said, trying to regain her former calm composure. "Or whether I should feel sorry for him. Mum was standing for the prosecution against her own son, probably one of the hardest things she's ever had to do, and I suppose all the support I had it in me to give went to her."

"During the course of your brother's trial, did you learn anything you hadn't previously known?"

"Yeah, probably too much. When Karen Betts was on the stand, it came out that she'd been raped by Fenner." George felt Karen inwardly flinch at the word raped. "I asked mum about it and she said it was true." John could see that there was a lot more that Lauren was holding back, but he didn't press her on it.

"When did you first become aware of the relationship between your mother and Karen Betts, and how did this make you feel?"

"Doesn't mince her words, does she," Said Karen dryly.

"Ever since mum had got out of prison, she and Karen had become really good friends. But I think the first time I realised they were sleeping together was on the weekend in the middle of Ritchie's trial." Jo moved forward and wrote Karen Betts in to the grid. "Mum didn't tell me as such, it was just obvious."

"Exactly how did you become aware of this?" John asked.

"So much for friendly loyalty," Said Karen quietly, shooting a glare in John's direction.

"I'd been out on the Saturday night," Lauren continued. "Both mum and Karen had been at home when I left, and when I got back on the Sunday morning, Karen was gone. I went in to my mum's bedroom to borrow some hairspray and the bed was unmade on both sides. I can't really explain it, I just knew." Remembering their game of spin the bottle that had preceded this, Karen couldn't help blushing.

"We've all made tits of ourselves," Said Nikki reassuringly. "And we'll all do it again, so don't worry about it."

"And even I've been guilty of not tidying up afterwards," Said George, receiving a smile in return from Karen.

"How did you feel about this turn of events?" Jo persisted.

"It was quite a shock," Lauren replied. "I used to think Atkins women just didn't do that. But like Ritchie said in his letter to me, mum never was a real Atkins, she only married one. I know I shouldn't have said it, but I remember asking her if a lack of decent dick had turned her in to an instant dyke." There was a collective wince from the front row of the gallery.

"Charming," George said a little too loudly.

"I didn't want Karen to get her claws in to mum like she had with Ritchie. I thought she was nothing but trouble." When Karen took an enraged breath to respond, George put out a hand to stop her.

"What was your initial reaction to your brother's conviction and custodial sentence?" Jo asked, desperately wanting Lauren to get off the topic of Karen and away from resentful recrimination, as she added Snowball Merriman in to the grid.

"I didn't really know what to think. I knew he deserved it. Let's face it, what he did helped Snowball Merriman kill someone, someone who he didn't even know. But I think I was just numb."

"Now, please would you describe to the court the evening on which your brother killed himself, and what both yours and your mother's reactions were to receiving this news?" Lauren took a deep breath and the court went silent.

"We were at home, sitting in the garden. Me, mum, Karen, Cassie and Roisin. Karen got a call on her mobile. It was Grayling, to tell her that Snowball had killed herself and that Ritchie had too. I might have hated everything about Karen that night, but I don't envy her having to tell us that Ritchie had killed himself. I was so angry. I couldn't understand how Ritchie could have done that to his own mother. Mum was stunned. She was holding a glass of wine when Karen told us, and she squeezed it so hard it shattered and cut her. Mum didn't say a word. I opened a bottle of vodka and started drinking. Karen had to go to Larkhall because of Snowball, but when she came back, I took out all my anger on her." Lauren began to look a little guilty. "I told Karen it was her fault that Ritchie had killed himself." When George again looked like she might be about to argue, Karen said,

"Don't. It's really not worth it."

"I think Karen was just a convenient target for my anger. I told her that if she'd been shot instead of Ritchie, Ritchie wouldn't have killed himself and mum wouldn't be going through the worst night of her life. To give Karen her due, she didn't try to argue with me, she just let me get it out of my system. I think that's because she knew I was plastered and knew that there was no point trying to reason with me." As Lauren took a moment to recover herself, Roisin stood up and began squeezing past them along the row.

"I'm sorry," She said as she moved passed Karen. "I've got to pick the kids up from school." Jo took this opportunity to write, Lauren Atkins' Mind and Cassie Tyler, on the grid. Jo then moved to the evidence bench and picked up a document enclosed in a protective transparent cover.

"Now would you tell the court about the letter you received from your brother? 3F in your bundle, My Lord." Before Lauren could reply, John held up a hand.

"Were you planning to ask your client to read the letter, Mrs. Mills?"

"I wasn't planning to, My Lord, but I'm sure Miss Atkins will do so if you wish."

"I'm much obliged, Mrs. Mills."

"I got this letter the day after Ritchie killed himself," Lauren said. "Mum went to the prison to formally identify him and was given all his belongings which included two letters, one for me and one for mum." Jo wrote the existence of these two documents in to the grid. "This is the letter I got from Ritchie," Lauren added, taking the enclosed sheet of paper from Jo.

"Dear Lauren,

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

I'm proud of you Sis,


There was a long, awful pause after Lauren finished reading the letter. George had grinned broadly when Lauren had read out Ritchie's description of Brian Cantwell, but she was now forced to accept that what Karen had said on Monday just might be true. Ritchie had in his own twisted way wanted to atone for his sins, or at least some of them. George hadn't spent too much time with Ritchie Atkins when she'd been defending him, but the conversations she'd had with him had told her in no uncertain terms that part of him really had loved Karen.

"Please could you explain to the court why you chose to act on your brother's wishes?" Jo asked quietly.

"Just that, because they were his last wishes. No matter what Ritchie might have said and done over the years, he was still my brother, still part of my family. Perhaps the only good thing Charlie Atkins taught me was to value my family. He taught me that family means everything. Ritchie's letter put a lot of things in perspective for me. He knew he'd done wrong, and he wanted to put some of it right. I'm not sure why, but a bit of him really did love Karen. He got in way too deep, and he wanted to put things right with her. Maybe part of me felt guilty for not having supported Ritchie during his trial, maybe part of me felt guilty for the way I'd accused Karen of being the cause of Ritchie killing himself. I think why I killed Fenner was a combination of the two, but mostly because it was what Ritchie had asked me to do. My brother's dying wish was for me to get rid of one of the most loathsome individuals I've ever met. I wasn't going to deny my brother his last wish."

"Did the reasoning behind your stalking of James Fenner have any effect on how you did this?"

"Possibly. For those few weeks between when Ritchie died and when I killed Fenner, Ritchie's last wish was the only thing I could think about. It occupied every bit of my time. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep. I was so focussed that even Charlie would have been proud of me."

"Whilst you were carrying out the initial stages of your brother's last wish, do you think you were following in your father's footsteps?" To everyone's horror, Lauren smiled, a wide, hard, soul deep smile.

"Yeah, I think I was," She said, and her tone of voice and facial expression left everybody in no doubt that she couldn't possibly be entirely sane. "My dad taught me to shoot, he taught me to never miss, and he taught me to kill people. He taught me how to follow someone and never be seen. He taught me how to cherish my weapons more than I did a lover. He taught me how to cover my tracks. The eleventh commandment, thou shalt not be found out, that was dad's motto. When I stalked Fenner, I kept thinking, this is what dad would do, or this is what dad would tell me to do. I was Charlie Atkins' protégé and it was my duty to live up to that." Lauren had adopted a slightly different tone of voice when talking about Charlie, and her switch between despising Charlie and loving her dad showed everyone present just how ingrained Charlie Atkins' values were in her mind. Whilst Lauren had been speaking, Jo added, James Fenner and corruption in to the grid.

"Is this why you chose to use your father's gun?"

"Yes. Charlie taught me to shoot with that gun, and it seemed fitting to commit my first and last murder with his weapon."

"Precisely how much do you remember of the day James Fenner died?"

"Only bits and pieces. I don't remember how I got to his house, or how we got to Epping Forest, but I remember telling him that there were six bullets in my gun and that if necessary, I would use all of them on him with pleasure." Karen briefly found herself remembering the day on which Snowball had taken her hostage, saying something very similar to get her co-operation. "He was so sure of himself," Lauren continued. "He told me that he wasn't going anywhere because he had the football to watch on telly."

"Did he recognise you?"

"Yeah, straight away. He looked terrified when he heard the central locking on the car doors, as if he'd never put the fear of God in to anyone by the slamming of a cell door." Helen was reminded of the night Nikki had escaped and she had used the same trick on her. "He was very good, did exactly what he was told, made it quite easy for me really. He was so angry when he realised I'd been stalking him for weeks. He doesn't like someone else having the upper hand. But then maybe that's why he liked forcing himself on defenseless women." Turning her gaze momentarily away from Lauren, George could see Karen gripping the rail in front of her with both hands. Reaching forward, George gently but persistently detached Karen's fingers from the metal bar and held on to the right hand whilst Nikki took the left. Karen couldn't take her eyes off Lauren. She was almost transfixed by the gradually emerging story. "I told him to walk ahead of me which he did. Fenner wasn't going to argue with an Atkins and a loaded gun. We walked to the spot I'd previously decided on. I stood and watched while he dug his own grave. He kept asking me questions, bloody stupid questions that weren't going to get him anywhere. He wanted to know why I was doing this to him. I asked him if he could remember the night he raped Karen. I asked him if he could remember the way he'd lied to her, probably lied to everyone he'd ever known. I taunted him. I gave him a big long list of the reasons why he was going to die. I think I was saying everything Ritchie would have said to him if he'd been able to do it himself. I reminded Fenner of how he'd threatened Karen during Ritchie's trial, threatened to blacken her name if she didn't cover up for the cock up he'd made with Snowball. I told him that if it weren't for him, Ritchie might still be alive now. I don't think Fenner had ever been that frightened, except perhaps on the night Dockley stabbed him." Having a gentle hold on Karen's hand with her right, Nikki found her left being taken by Helen, both women remembering the times they'd been fooled by Fenner, and how in their different ways they'd fought to save Fenner on the night of Sylvia's party. Lauren's voice began to falter, as if she couldn't quite bear to relive and describe the things she'd been capable of on that fateful day. "I told him to stand in the grave he'd dug for himself. I shot him where I did, because I wanted him to be as helpless as Ritchie had been before he died. I wanted Fenner to know what it was like to not be able to move unless someone else helped him, only he didn't have anyone to help him. I let some of the earth land on his face and he screamed. I kept pouring the earth over his face. He tried to move but he couldn't."

"What was the last thing he said to you?"

"The last thing I heard him cry out, was Karen's name." Karen recoiled as if she'd been slapped. Her face had gone completely white, her hands grasping at George's and Nikki's to keep herself from making any sound.

"What were your feelings on completing your task?"

"I felt high, as if I'd had one hell of a hit of coke. I remember, as I walked through the trees back to my car, I threw the spade in the air a few times and caught it. I kept thinking that dad would be so proud of me, totally forgetting that he wasn't around any more to be proud of me. I don't really remember how I got home or what I did when I got there."

"What do you most regret about your actions involving James Fenner?"

"I regret the pain and worry I've put my mum through. She had enough of that with my dad, and she didn't deserve the same from me. Mum said to me once that the name Atkins didn't automatically mean bad any more. I just wish that she was right. I remember once telling my mum that if she was a real Atkins, she'd be proud of me, but that was my dad talking not me." After an almost endless pause, Jo said in to the silence,

"No further questions, My Lord." After taking a moment to marshal his thoughts, John said,

"Before the court adjourns, Mrs. Mills, would you be so good as to hand me your chessboard for a moment?" Wondering why on earth he should want to see it, Jo picked it up, walked up to the Judge's bench and put it down in front of him. Taking a moment to study it, John was at first bemused by her arrangement, until he aligned it with the grid on the overhead projector. He then realised that Jo had used the black king to represent Charlie Atkins, the black queen Yvonne, the white queen Karen, the white king Fenner, and that Lauren herself was represented by a knight. Everything else Jo had added to the grid was there in one shape or another, and John was forced to admit that it was an ingenious way of having a reference point that wasn't immediately obvious to the opposition. Handing it back to her, he said,

"Court will reconvene at ten in the morning."

Part Twenty Four

The room was small and cramped, akin to the servants quarters in comparison to the huge dining room of a stately mansion which was the ancient and high majesty of law of the Old Bailey. Cassie's small frame and strong presence absorbed Yvonne's attention, focussed it in on her and cancelled out the room with her real solid dependability and a caring heart behind that brash exterior. Yvonne needed, more than anything else, a sympathetic presence and Cassie fitted the bill perfectly.

"Lauren's been on the stand and I know that she's going to 'fess up to everything in her life, for being an Atkins, for being my daughter and doing what she did. It scares me to death."

"Yvonne, Jo Mills is the best brief you could ever find and, instead of nailing that evil cow Merriman, she'll fight like hell to defend Lauren. The judge is a really good guy, one of the best and this is me, Cassie Tyler talking."

Cassie's large blue eyes looked deeply into Yvonne's watery eyes. Her choked tones could not be remotely camouflaged by her normal hard confident exterior but she smiled faintly at the little joke at the end.

"I know that you want to fight Lauren's battle for her or to somehow be there for her. That's what being a mum is all about. You know you can't or shouldn't do it but that doesn't stop you wanting to protect your own from all the shit there is in the world. I get secretly worried if Michael or Niamh get picked on at school….because of me and Roisin being who we are. They aren't at secondary school yet but the time may come. It's so far, so good but sometimes I worry for their future….."

A shadow crept over Cassie's sunshine features as if from an overcast cloud. Her real maternal feelings came closest to the surface for the children that had happened into her life like a miracle. Who else but a nurturer would know what a mother goes through? Cassie was painfully aware how her empathy fell short as at least her children hadn't reached the perilous rapids of teenage years but were still moving in the calmer waters of childhood.

"Your kids are younger, Cassie. They are innocent at that age. You feel that nothing can spoil them. You don't find out till later what went wrong and you could have stopped it but didn't."

Yvonne's face was rigid and remote and suddenly, tears forced themselves out from underneath her tight shut eyelids that wanted to conceal her grief and fears. Visions of 'her little angel' with wide open smiling eyes and Lauren's bright laughing face and innocent smile were so real in her mind's eye. Invisibly the deliverance of two soft arms gently folded themselves round her to her huge relief. She was conscious that they belonged to Cassie as her voice soothed her and comforted her. Time passed in their forgotten part of the world before Yvonne moved away and could trust herself to speak.

"You've got to trust in Lauren's strength, brains and quick thinking. You know she gets that from you and somehow she'll pull the rabbit out of the hat. If it was the other way round, I know what you would say to me, don't you? Look at it logically. You've got twelve men and women of a jury who only know the name of Atkins from the diet that's in the magazines. It's not like you're always on the front page of OK magazine like Posh and Becks - I really hate that pair after all, what is there for me? Just don't keep thinking that you're guilty before you even start."

Yvonne laughed even while the last trace of a tear ran down her cheek as Cassie's unique mixture of humour and common sense finally got through to her.

"We've got the judge going for us, I know that he's a human being and dead straight. He will make a difference to what's said and done. He'll keep that prat of a prosecuting barrister in line for a start. I haven't known any caring men - men haven't exactly figured much in my life - but he's one of the good ones."

"It'll take a bleeding miracle for anyone to dig Lauren out of this hole," Yvonne said unthinkingly.

"Well, miracles do happen, Yvonne…….Come on, Yvonne, I think they've finished."

The faint creak of doors swinging back and echoing footsteps shuffling their way out was the prelude for the first of the crowd to pour out of the court among whom was Lauren, looking straight ahead with a prison officer either side of her.

For once, she wasn't in the mood for a verbal sparring match with Bodybag but let herself be led limply along back to the large black car and be sat, handcuffed between Selena and Bodybag. A kaleidoscope of images of streetlife flashed dizzyingly past her as she was driven away.

"Don't get your hopes up too high, Atkins. Your sort are bound to end up in prison sooner or later."

"Why don't you just give her a break?" Selena's soothing voice brushed up against Bodybag's tetchiness. "Or at least let someone else take over on prison escort duty."

"Hummph," Bodybag's grunt and pursed lips closed off the conversation. She had a mule-like genius in being awkward for awkward's sake and refusing to get involved in any solution to an argument. Others were there to put up with her. Lauren shrank into herself in an introspective gloom. It shut her in as effectively as iron bars did and carried her on through the journey and into the familiar claustrophobia and the certain routine of her prison life.

Bodybag and Selena made an ill assorted pair with only the prison uniform and a desire for a nice cup of tea in common. Happily, Beverly Tull, complete with flapping ears for random gossip, was pouring out a mug of tea or two. They were both parched.

"How's Lauren Atkins getting on today?" Dominic asked out of kindly interest after Bev

finally left the room.

"Better than she'll be tomorrow when the prosecution barrister gets to work on her. they'll tear her to pieces," Bodybag gloated openly. "I'd love to be on prisoner escort tomorrow."

"That will be for me to decide, Sylvia," Gina's carrying voice broke through the Heat magazine she was holding up high.

"You're really looking forward to caring for Lauren Atkins for a ten to fifteen year stretch right up to when you retire. Never mind, the rest of us will be going strong by then."

Colin grinned at Dominic's joking reply, which made Bodybag go red in the face. Before Dominic came to Larkhall, he had felt harassed as Di Barker, Fenner and Bodybag had ruled the roost.

"This dump has gone to the dogs. What this place needs is proper experience and there's too little of it. You need years on this job to get to know what you are doing and you know what you're talking about," She moaned apparently of noone in particular but in reality everyone knew who she was venting her spleen on.

"Experience of becoming a racist and a bigot?"

"And how long does it take to get experience round here?" chimed in Selena a fraction after Paula's quiet retort.

"No use bitching about the trial or each other. Besides, I've been told that, as an older man, the judge is dead tasty. Perhaps I ought to check him out tomorrow for myself."

"You've not changed, Gina, since you came to G Wing."

"I don't think you'd be disappointed, Gina."

After Selena's non-answer to Bodybag, the desultory conversation that had spluttered like a badly lit firework finally fizzled out leaving into a chilly silence.

"How long is Di Barker off the wing, Gina?"

"Too long," grumped Bodybag. "It's only temporary, they say. One day the powers that be will tell her that as she's settled down so well, they've made the move permanent. It's a plot, you mark my words."

A collective sigh ran round the room. They could easily handle Bodybag while she was on her own, as she was stupid and ineffective. When Di Barker was around, her narrow minded but highly devious, manipulative ways set them on edge and made them permanently wary of every little thing. They were gradually letting down their collective guard and realising how wearing it had been before Di moved off the wing. They egged each other on to bitch about everything that didn't suit them and sniped at any hint of disagreement.

"I won't be sorry to see the back of Di Barker. She messed things up between me and my fella and I lost my baby thanks to her," Gina proclaimed loudly.

"You never know, she may want to stay on H wing permanently. She came from there in the first place and might catch up with old friends. We won't stand in her way out of this wing after all," Dominic's annoyingly reasonable tone of voice was belied by his faint grin and sent a spasm of fear running up and down Bodybag's spine.

"Now then, Dominic, you shouldn't mock your fellow officers. Don't give me that 'butter wouldn't melt in your mouth' look. It's the quiet ones you have to watch."

Gina's broad grin gave off that sexual allure which was her very unconventional but highly effective way of handling the bickering that went on.

"It's not like the old days. Everyone stuck together and had the right ideas."

"Turn the record off, Sylv, before someone comes along and breaks it for you."

"I'm perfectly entitled to my views," Huffed and puffed Sylvia. "Or do we all have to be 'politically correct' these days?"

"You got it, Sylv."

"It's all very well for you, Dominic McAllister to swan in and out of Larkhall as it pleases you but some of us have dedicated years of our lives to the service. Some of us have standards we believe in."

"You mean, people like Jim Fenner running to the Governing Governor whenever something didn't suit him. Or take the way that a Wing Governor like Helen Stewart had her life made a misery. She really believed in trying to get the best out of prisoners and you and Jim Fenner ganged up on her and stabbed her in the back all the time. Spare me the memories."

Dominic rolled up the copy of the Daily Mirror he had been reading and flung it down on the table in disgust.

"Your problem, Sylvia, is that you've never got over not having someone around that you can moan about."

"And, while we're talking about you, do you really have to speculate about everyone's sex life? What's missing in your life that you have to go on about it?"

Bodybag's mouth stayed frozen open in an 'O' shape and she flushed with embarrassment as first Dominic and then Selena laid into her. These upstart young kids who had the nerve to disagree with one of the longest serving prison officers on G wing. Now that poor Jim was no longer around, she had thought that his mantle would fall naturally on her shoulders and she would be the one to uphold the old ways. You didn't need to talk about them except in an understood aside. As her Bobby first told her when she started, you watched your back, all prisoners were cons, if they misbehaved you simply banged them up and there was none of that namby pamby liberal eyewash. In her head, there was a faintly echoing chorus of voices of prison officers, long since retired who were impotent to help her right now. The 'good old days' were just out of reach. Then, the nostalgic haze in front of her eyes vanished as her world suddenly sharpened cruelly and the critical faces of the interloping newcomers sat in the chairs where the ghostly presence of her old friends once sat. They had taken over her world and they had all the youthful energy and drive on their side. The trouble was that she was getting old and tired and she hadn't got the strength to fight them. Her only form of resistance was in being too old and set in her ways to accept change in her life but, then again, had she ever really been willing to accept change? When she grew up, she had been equipped with an inexhaustible supply of homilies and platitudes by her mother, which she had absorbed without questioning. If only the world had stayed the same way as when she had grown up, she would be comfortable enough in it.

"You should try and fit in, Sylv. The good old days were never as good as they made out. You shouldn't treat prisoners like crap like some of us used to. Nikki Wade was fine once you gave it to her straight and didn't piss her about. The trouble with you is that you bring half your problems on yourself."

Gina spoke more gently to Bodybag to invite her to clear away the obstacles that she had barricaded round herself. But she would never do that as her pride got in her way.

Part Twenty Five

Karen sat stunned as the gallery emptied around her.

"Are you all right?" Helen asked as she moved passed her.

"Fine," Karen replied, but they could all see that she wasn't. Seeing that George was staying with Karen, the three of them walked up the steps and away. When the court was empty, George simply waited. She had absolutely no idea what might be going through Karen's head, or how to help her. But Karen eventually answered the second question for her.

"I'd better go and see how Lauren is after that," She said, finally seeming to come out of her inner contemplation.

"Not right now you're not," George said firmly but quietly. They were still for a while longer until Karen broke the silence.

"Do you know something," She said bitterly. "The one story he never changed was that he loved me. Every bloody time something happened, like him being caught with Maxi's knickers, or after Dockley alleged he was trying to rape her on the night he was stabbed, every time he used the old line of, you know I love you, don't you Karen. Jesus," She suddenly said in disgust. "I knew he'd beaten up Shell Dockley, I remember telling him that when his suspension was lifted. I knew he'd done that to her and I still ended up sleeping with him a few months later. He even came out with that after the night you and Jo were trying to prosecute him for."

"You can't actually say it, can you," George said in realisation.

"I loathe the word rape," Karen said matter-of-factly. "It's a very ugly word, but it just isn't big enough to describe what it actually means. So no, I never know how to describe what Fenner did."

"Do you think he really did love you?"

"Yes, I've no doubt about that. Fenner had a way of detaching himself from everything he'd done that he wouldn't really like to admit to. He didn't want to think himself capable of assaulting anyone in whatever form, so he would simply block it from his mind, making him able to deny any resulting accusations with total plausibility. The night Fenner, raped me," she said, recoiling from her own words. "He said that the one regret he had was that he'd lost me. From what Lauren said today, it sounds like he regretted that right to the end. I really wish I didn't know that. It's almost as if he was determined to keep just a bit of me for ever, and I hate to say it, but he's probably achieved his goal because that isn't something I'm ever likely to forget."

"When did you first know about Ritchie's letter to Lauren?" George asked.

"The day after Fenner was killed," Karen replied. "On the day I came to your office, on the day I almost told you everything. Lauren was right in what she said to me that day. She said that I didn't want to know how, just why."

"And how did the why make you feel?"

"I don't think I knew what to feel. For the whole of that week it was all I could do to keep it to myself. John came to see me on the Thursday, supposedly to find out how your day's punishment had gone. But you know John, he only needs the slightest excuse to begin a conquest. I was so scared of seeing him. Hiding what I knew from you was difficult, but I knew that hiding anything from John would be all but impossible. Everything was fine, until he asked how it was going, working with Fenner and constructing a case against him."

"Yes, I can see how that must have been awkward."

"I felt so guilty for betraying everything the three of you were doing for me."

"Darling, listen to me," George said firmly, the term of endearment coming to her as naturally as Karen's name. "There wasn't anything else you could have done. If you had told me or John, you'd have very likely landed yourself and Yvonne and Lauren behind bars, and that wouldn't have helped anyone. You didn't ask Ritchie Atkins to write that letter and you didn't ask Lauren to follow it through. Just because Fenner realised too late what he'd lost, does not make you guilty of anything. You had absolutely no idea that Lauren was going to do what she did. James Fenner's murder is not your fault, and blaming yourself for not being able to prevent it won't do you or anyone else any good. Lauren got herself in to this mess, and you couldn't have done anything to stop her." After a moment's silence, Karen said,

"I'm sorry. I think you got more than you bargained for by being here this week, didn't you."

"Apart from the obvious, I'm glad I was. When you get to know someone, you take the rough with the smooth. It just so happens that this is one of the roughest weeks you've probably ever had. That doesn't make me regret being here in the slightest." A little while later when they got up to go, George started up the steps ahead of Karen, but when she was standing on the first step, Karen turned George to face her.

"Thank you," She said, putting her arms round George. "I don't know if I could have dealt with this without you."

"Yes, you could," George said as she returned the hug. "I don't think you're aware of it, but you're far stronger than anyone I know, even John, and I used to think his emotional armour was made of steal." Standing so close, and with George slightly higher than normal, it seemed only natural for her to gently place her lips on Karen's. It seemed far longer since they'd done this than only the previous night, but it was something they both knew they needed. Eventually detaching her lips from Karen's and looking slightly flushed, George said,

"Are you busy tomorrow evening?"

"I doubt it," Said Karen with a small smile, suddenly remembering just what tomorrow was.

"Then can I return the offer of dinner?"

"I expect so," Replied Karen, giving George one last kiss. As they walked up the rest of the steps towards the door at the back of the gallery, they both knew that they wanted to get to know the other far better than they already did, innermost skeletons and all.

As soon as Jo emerged from court, Yvonne came up to her.

"Have you got a minute?" She asked. "Because I think we need to talk." Thinking she just might know what was coming, Jo led the way back to the witness room where Yvonne and Cassie had spent the last four days waiting for their turn to go on the stand. When Jo had closed the door, she moved over to the window, pushing up the old wooden sash and digging for her cigarettes.

"I thought we couldn't smoke in here," Yvonne said joining her.

"Tough," Jo said succinctly. "Judging by the conversation I think we're about to have, nicotine is essential."

"Precisely what did Lauren come out with in court today, that made everyone, including the judge, look at me oddly at lunchtime?" Yvonne asked as she lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out of the open window.

"Lauren alluded to something when I first spoke to her a year ago, something that I didn't probe into too deeply, because it was entirely your business and I knew that if either of you thought it was important to Lauren's defence, you'd have told me. So, I wasn't expecting her to tell the story she did in court today."

"Jo, you've got me really worried now," Yvonne said firmly. "Just tell me what she said."

"Lauren told the court about the argument you had with Charlie when he started teaching Ritchie to shoot." Yvonne strove to keep her face as blank as possible, but Jo didn't miss the brief flash of pain and humiliation.

"I wish she hadn't done that," Yvonne said eventually.

"I know," Jo said gently. "And I know that if you'd had a choice about this, that you wouldn't have wanted anyone to know about that. But it really isn't a reflection on you or anything you did or didn't do."

"Jesus," Said Yvonne in disgust. "You really are bloody naive at times. Have you got any idea how a jury will react to what Charlie did to me and the way he insisted on bringing up his children? They'll see that Lauren didn't have any alternative but to turn out like she has. Charlie insisted on bringing his children up in a culture of violence, and I couldn't do a bloody thing about it. About the only thing Lauren does have in her defence is that she had a rotten mother who totally failed to keep her on the straight and narrow."

"Yvonne," Jo said, trying to calm her down. "You have done everything possible to help your daughter, and it is absolutely not your fault that she has ended up where she is." Tears were raining down Yvonne's cheeks by this time and she was having great difficulty in preventing herself from completely letting go. But on taking a breath to disagree with Jo, she was interrupted by the door quietly opening behind them.

"Actually, I quite agree," John said quietly as he entered the room, having heard Jo's words as he approached. Both women turned to face him, combined looks of annoyance and irritation on their faces, telling him in no uncertain terms that they would both rather not have been disturbed. "Mrs. Atkins," John said, walking over to them, but Yvonne held up a hand.

"Yvonne'll do," She said, trying to stem her flow of tears. "I don't especially like being reminded that I was once married to that bastard."

"After what I heard in court today," John replied amiably. "I'm not surprised."

"Why did you have to pursue that?" Yvonne asked, turning back to Jo. "Why did you have to let her say that to all and sundry?"

"To give Jo credit," John put in before Jo could answer. "It was I who persisted in getting to the truth. Your daughter didn't want to tell the court about what your husband did to you. I think her words were, my mother wouldn't like me to tell that to a court. But I insisted."

"Why?" Yvonne asked in quite a small voice.

"Because the jury needed to know," John insisted gently.

"But how can knowing what Charlie did whenever things didn't go his way help the jury to make their decision?"

"It will help them to see why it was impossible for you to do more than you did to keep your children away from crime."

"Yvonne," Jo suddenly said, remembering something from her conversation with Yvonne a year ago. "Do you remember what you said to me on the day you asked me to defend Lauren? You told me that once you marry someone like Charlie Atkins, you're in for life, and that the only way you get out is in a coffin." John winced.

"Sounds like something I'd come out with," Yvonne said with a rueful smile.

"I want you to tell that to the jury," Jo said quietly.

"Now that, I can see the point of," Yvonne replied. "I just wish Lauren hadn't said what she did today, that's all."

"It isn't your fault that Charlie Atkins treated you the way he did," John said firmly but gently.

"I do hope that isn't pity I can see in your eyes, Judge," Yvonne said, unconsciously adopting the name Coope always gave him.

"Not entirely," John said, thinking that it was more sympathy than pity but knowing she wouldn't like it.

"Well, I don't want to see it," Yvonne said firmly. "I should have tried harder to stop Charlie raising his children the way he did, and I suppose the way both Ritchie and Lauren turned out is the result."

"You cannot blame yourself for where your children have ended up," John insisted.

"Oh, and you'd say that if it was your daughter in this mess, would you?"

"George routinely blames my liberal attitude of bringing up our daughter for why she has occasionally taken the law in to her own hands, but I don't agree. We can only do our best for our children, no more, no less. What they do as a result is up to them, and if they end up on the wrong side of the law because of their actions, we do everything possible to help them, which is exactly what you've been doing ever since this happened." Yvonne was touched. She'd always known there was something different about this judge, ever since he'd been prepared to allow her to see her son on the day of his sentencing, and by the way he'd supported Karen both before and after Fenner's death. But here he was, talking to her about the highs and lows of parenting of all things. Laying a hand on Yvonne's shoulder, John briefly rubbed it, in an attempt to offer some sort of comfort for what she was going through. After a moment's silence, John fixed Jo with a mocking frown and said,

"The thing that attracted me to your discussion, Mrs. Mills, was your clear disobedience of the no smoking rule which I know you are aware of in this building."

"And as I said to Yvonne when she very kindly reminded me of it," Said Jo, also trying to lighten the communal mood. "Tough."

"I'd like to see you say that to Lawrence James," John said with a laugh.

"He's not one of those two pathetic little wankers who were in the gallery at Ritchie's trial, is he?"

"A perfect description," John said with a smile. "though I really shouldn't be seen to be encouraging the use of such vocabulary when discussing the circuit administrator." When they left the witness room not long after, they met George and Karen in the foyer.

"Are you all right?" Karen asked in concern.

"I probably look about as well as you do," Yvonne said, taking in Karen's still pale expression. As Yvonne and Karen moved off together, clearly in search of a large scotch, the other three stood watching them.

"Was Karen all right?" Jo asked.

"She will be," Said George, wondering if her deeper involvement with Karen showed. Putting an arm around each of them, John said,

"Can I have the pleasure of someone's company tonight? Preferably both of you?"

"Forget it," Said George firmly, remembering the debacle of last night.

"And I'm still not speaking to you after Tuesday," Jo said, though the little smile, combined with a wink that she gave George, told both of them she didn't really mean it.

"You know," Said George in pretended disgust. "That's not the first time you've suggested having both our company at once."

"It'd be fun," John said cajolingly.

"Not a chance," Jo said firmly. "I'm not that way inclined." As they all walked out towards their cars, and Jo and John continued fondly bickering, George wondered what her blossoming fling with Karen would do to this three-way thing she had going with Jo and John. Above all, just how would Jo react to knowing that George definitely was that way inclined.

Part Twenty Six

Lauren's nerves were strung wire taut as she was escorted into the old bailey and took her place in the witness box.

"Don't let that bastard pull you down, man." Denny's shining, trusting eyes and wide smile proclaimed her faith in her and did her best to reassure her. "You'll be fine once you get going. You're stronger than I am."

I wish I had her confidence in me, she thought to herself. She can't see how scared I really am as she's thinking of me in the same way as mum, and I'm not her. While she took her place, these words of comfort felt painfully far away and hollow. She glanced up at the friendly faces in the gallery who were more tangible support. Who was that young man with that familiar smile, dressed in his habitual leather jacket and black trousers? She knew him from somewhere, her mind made the woozy half connection…..

"But you're still my sister, and you weren't Charlie Atkins' protégé for nothing. The best shooter in the East End is my little sister."

Those faint words were breathed across the empty space in those familiar tones, which she could not get out of her head.

"But I don't want to be an Atkins, Ritchie," her voice answered him back. It cut through the still air and a row of bemused faces stared back at her in uncomprehending confusion. A spasm of panic ran through her like leaping fire as she fought for control.

Karen's head abruptly turned ninety degrees to look sideways through George's body. For a split second, she too believed that Ritchie was present, being sure that he sat at the end of the row of women in the gallery. A young man was smiling at her with all his charms and of those men in her past and it was very real.

"Whenever you are ready, Miss Atkins," John's sonorous voice from somewhere far above steadied her seesawing self-confidence with a sure and steady grip. At the same minute, John's very real voice unlocked her from her own mental prison cell. She ran her hand through a lock of hair to the side of her head and felt weak and clammy. Her own past had tried to briefly reclaim her before it faded and it was gone. George missed nothing of this and she squeezed Karen's hand as the real concern in her eyes failed to lock hold with Karen's distant stare. It was only after she drew breath that Karen felt slightly foolish and that next to her was her real world.

Without any preamble, Neumann Mason-Alan launched into his attack.

"Miss Atkins, how many times did your father smack you?"

"Smacking? He lifted his hand to hit me but mum stepped in the way…."

Lauren's sudden rush of words after her dazed first response barged her way through to partly refute Neumann Mason-Alan's crude reductionist approach. It fuelled to fury Karen, George and Roisin who, in common, knew the whole ghastly difference between Charlie Atkins' discipline and the way the average loving mother would react when driven to distraction.

"No buts, Miss Atkins. So a reasonable person could conclude from that that your father, as a family man, was very sparing in his exercise of discipline and, within the narrow confines of the family setting, was no more physically aggressive to you than any other parent."

"Objection, my lord," Jo stood up straight away. "The counsel for the prosecution is not so much attempting to lead the witness, as hijacking her testimony."

"I agree. I direct the jury to totally disregard the last statement as so shall I in my deliberations."

"I apologise, my lord. Let me put it a different way. From what you have said, would you say that from the one occasion when your father disciplined you, can you really say that he was more severe than any other parent?"

"No, that's not true," Burst out Lauren.

"Your direct testimony indicates otherwise. I leave it to the jury to decide." Neumann Mason-Alan smiled smugly.

Jo seethed in silent anger. She might have known that an insensitive clod like him would pursue that line of argument. She hoped to god that the jury would see matters the same way.

"We shall pass on to another matter. How old were you when you were first taught to shoot?"

"Twelve," Came the sullen reply.

"And how did you feel when your father first taught you to shoot?"

A glazed expression passed over Lauren's face to Nikki's horrified and heartfelt sympathy. Her mouth slightly opened but her voice refused to speak. Her mind had gone blank.

"Miss Atkins, you must answer the question."

Neumann Mason-Alan was secretly overjoyed that the daughter of the notorious Eastend gangland family was starting to crack. It fuelled him on to keep pushing at her.

"Are you well, Miss Atkins?" came that lifesaving, almost paternal voice. "Do you want a glass of water or a short break?"

She nodded vigorously and a grateful smile slowly spread across her face giving her a curiously childlike appearance. A glass of water was placed in her hand by an usher and she swallowed a mouthful. Her arms rested against the rail and she stared at her feet for a few moments. Her two curtains of hair fell across her face for a few moments until her strength returned to her.

"We have heard much in testimony about how you came to brutally murder James Fenner in cold blood…….."

"Mr. Mason-Alan, it is incumbent upon you to prove to my satisfaction that you can sustain a line of questioning that does not transgress what I expect of a council in my court of law. Believe me, you shall most certainly see the inside of a remand cell if you continue to push your luck."

George nodded approvingly of John's strong, masterful manner in court which, for once, wasn't directed at her. Only a cheap blundering fool like Neumann Mason-Alan could come out with such a crass, unfeeling outrageous line of questioning and expect to get away with it. Nikki judicially appraised the firmness of John's grip on the court and hand it to the guy. His very real compassion which fuelled his blistering anger spoke of someone after her own heart. On the other hand, Mr. Neumann Mason-Alan could hear the clanging cell door slam and he swallowed and sweated as John's eyes burnt with anger and contempt as much as his stinging words had done.

"I am sorry, my lord, if I have offended you……Miss Atkins, I shall turn to a different matter. Can you tell me the name of the dog that Detective Inspector Sullivan referred to in evidence previously submitted when he came to arrest you."

"His name is Trigger."

"Ah, and might I ask you where the name came from? It strikes me as a very unusual name for a dog."

"It was Charlie's choice. He got it from watching 'Only Fools and Horses' on TV. Where else did you think it came from."

A ripple of laughter ran round the gallery as the absurdity of the scene before their eyes took away from the repressed anger that had been building up inside them. Most of them marvelled at Lauren's quick wittedness and smiled at the way that the truth was rather stretched. John's eyes and slightly amused smile glanced up at them as it appealed to his own impish sense of humour. If she had been crudely disrespectful, he would have taken her to task. He always had a weakness for style. "A dangerous name for a dangerous dog as DI Sullivan testified. Your explanation sounds rather implausible, does it not?"

"Trigger? That dog's as stupid as the average policeman, and he's totally soft and harmless and that's why I miss him."

Helen's full throated laugh led the chorus which cracked through the air for a few seconds before she fell into a coughing fit as she tried to restrain herself as did the others. It was ironical that the more disreputable part of the gallery comprised one wing governor, a one time acting governing governor, a club owner, a queen's council, a vicar's wife and a mother, all long used to setting a good example. Down in the court, Jo Mills grinned as Lauren Atkins was making a bigger fool of Neumann Mason-Alan than nature made him and Lauren Atkins was starting to hold her own.

"The court has heard a variety of testimony, all telling the same story, about the way you approached the taking ……of James Fenner's life…" It was something that needed to be done."… "Lauren Atkins does not, in my professional opinion, feel a single ounce of guilt for what she has done", your brother's testimony that "you weren't Charlie Atkins' protégé for nothing. The best shooter in the East End is my little sister." DI Sullivan testifying that you "told him that you couldn't guarantee my safety with your Alsatian dog." the ample evidence that you single-mindedly stalked James Fenner over a prolonged period of time before taking his life. And finally, in your own words, you told the court how you deliberately set out single-handedly to abduct an experienced prison officer and deliberately set out to kill him. It all tells the same story. Can you deny this?"

Lauren seemed to shrink inside herself as the barrister, with practiced theatrics, gradually wound himself up with synthetic anger.

"Only, I wasn't myself when I did it."

"Well, let the court see how you did do it, My lord, have I your permission to remove exhibit 1B, the gun that killed James Fenner, from its plastic bag?"

At the nod of assent from John, the usher placed the gun in Lauren's hand, which wanted to shrink away from the slightest touch of a weapon, which she was all too familiar with. This lump of metal was something that, since then, had formed no part of her life. It caused a really chill feeling of fear to run round the gallery. Nikki was frozen with horror as a nightmare vision seared its way through her mind as if she were in the witness box and the broken glass bottle with which she had killed DS Gossard was to be placed into her own hand. George looked sideways and felt inexpressible sympathy for the way that Helen comforted Nikki with all the strength of her heart as she had comforted Karen.

"Now, Miss Atkins, I assure you that the gun is not loaded, but can you demonstrate for the court, exactly what you did with the gun at the moment that you shot James Fenner."

Lauren hesitated as her fingers tentatively touched the gun and seemed to extend themselves round it. The audience was expecting the gun to shake in the grip of such a nervous highly-strung woman but, curiously, her arm was steady and her eyes cold and hard. The aura emanating from her could be felt of cold rage. She lifted it and pointed the gun in a perfect line from her shoulder, down the length of her arm and the line of her gun pointed, not at Fenner's stomach, but directly at the head of the man who was facing her. She turned automatically sideways on and anyone with the slightest idea of body language could see that an assassin was in the witness box.

"Now, Miss Atkins, aim the gun at my stomach, not my head. That wasn't how James Fenner was killed." The barrister spoke with a slightly shaking voice. He had long dealt with the circumstances of murder but this was the first time he had been on the receiving end, even in pretence.

Lauren was stock still and her arm stayed utterly rigid. She made no outward response, even when the question was repeated. Roisin was utterly horrified that within that many-sided woman that she and Cassie knew and loved, this side of Lauren had come to the surface. She longed to rush over and fold her in her arms but the majesty of the law forbade her. Someone help her please, the massed thoughts screamed out.

"Miss Atkins, can you describe just exactly who you are looking at?" John's melodious voice spoke at his gentlest.

"Miss Atkins, who is in front of you? Please, I want to help you." He again spoke with all the power of his voice, shortening his sentences. Other times, his voice was a musical instrument, which he used consciously to entice a young and attractive woman into bed. On this occasion, only his voice and his alone could seep through the nightmare walls of Lauren's mind that had locked her in. He knew instinctively that he had to talk her down and the trial came second.

"Charlie," came the slurred response.

"You mean your father?"

"You can call him that if you want," Came the icy response.

"Where are you right now, Lauren?"

"I'm in my mum's back garden."

"How old are you?" John asked to Neumann Mason-Alan's bemusement. It was obvious where she was and how old she was. The women in the gallery were on emotional tenterhooks as thank God, the one man with the power had all the wisdom in the world that they respected.

"I'm thirteen. Mum's out. I wish she would come home as it's my birthday treat today." A curiously childlike voice, higher in the register, spoke through the body of the slim woman.

"Is there anyone with you, Lauren?"

"Dad. He's teaching me something all Atkins kids have to learn," Intoned the words of Charlie in her childlike pitch of voice while her gun was trained on Neumann Mason-Alan's head. He was visibly sweating even though he knew that there was no bullet in the gun as he felt himself taken hostage.

"What is your father telling you to do next?" John's melodious voice asked. Inwardly, he was horrified as, there but for fortune, his own Charlie might be that tortured woman.

"He want's me to shoot Fenner."

There was a loud click as she pressed the trigger. In an instant horrified moment, she could hear Fenner scream as she shot him in the stomach. She dropped the gun as if it were red hot and slumped sideways in the witness stand.

"For God's sake, someone get help," John shouted in a state of real horrified compassion. "Court is adjourned."

There was a total melee as Gina and Dominic rushed to help Lauren while the women in the gallery looked on helplessly in anguish. John put his head in his hands while tears ran down Jo's face.

Part Twenty Seven

When they all filed out of court, Roisin had tears running down her face and George and Nikki simply looked shell-shocked. When they reached the outside, Karen lit Roisin a cigarette and gave it to her with a slightly shaking hand.

"Will she be all right?" Roisin asked, trying to stifle her tears.

"I don't know," Karen was forced to answer. Barbara put a comforting arm round Roisin's shoulders, for a moment playing the mother she'd never actually been.

"She'll be looked after when she gets back to Larkhall," Barbara said gently.

"Oh, what, like I was?" Asked Roisin in disgust. "I hope your officers take better care of Lauren than they ever did of me," She added, shooting a momentarily venomous glance in Karen's direction.

"Don't do this, Roisin," Barbara pleaded.

"You remember what happened to me?" Roisin asked Karen.

"Yes, I do," Karen replied regretfully, remembering the tormented mother whose only answer had been to blot it all out with any narcotic substance she could lay her hands on.

"It was Cassie who got me off the heroin, not anyone who worked on your bloody wing. Just please, don't let Lauren end up like that." George was slightly stunned on hearing that this pretty, vivacious mother of two had once been addicted to heroin, but she just about managed to keep her astonishment out of her face. Cassie soon appeared, catching the tail-end of Roisin's words.

"Come on, Babe," She said cajolingly. "Karen will do her best for Lauren, like all of us are."

"I'm sorry," Roisin said, looking aghast at the words that had poured from her moments earlier.

"Come on," Said Cassie, taking Roisin's hand. "I'll take you home. We're not wanted again until Monday." As they walked towards their car, Nikki said,

"Don't take what she said too much to heart."

"True though, isn't it," Said Karen bitterly. "Me and my officers achieved absolutely sod all with Roisin. Cassie virtually did our job for us."

"Karen will you listen to yourself for a minute," Helen said emphatically. "You know as well as I do that sometimes there's very little you can do. You remember Zandra, I lost count of the amount of times Dominic persuaded her to go in to detox, and every bloody time she gave up on it and us. The only thing that made her give up was when she had her baby, and because of the bloody system, she lost him as well."

"And what was even more ridiculous about Zandra," Put in Barbara scornfully. "Was that when she did need drugs, when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, she couldn't get them for love nor money. The only chance she had of not suffering day in day out was for Crystal to get some decent painkillers smuggled in." Nikki briefly smiled.

"Yeah, and you growing cannabis in with the tomato plants."

"Did you really?" Karen asked, a nervous grin breaking through.

"Now I've heard everything," Said George, thinking that never again would she be surprised by anything she was told by these women. Middle-class, Mrs. Middle England herself growing cannabis so that an inmate with a brain tumour could have some decent pain relief. They were then approached by Dominic, jogging towards them from around the other side of the building.

"Karen," He said, loping up the steps. "We've got a problem."

"What's new eh, Dominic?" Helen asked, which brought a smile to his boyish features.

"Helen," He said, "How're you doing?"

"I hear you're keeping Sylvia in line these days," Helen said with a broad smile.

"When she lets me," Dominic said ruefully. "But Sylvia's what we need to talk about," He said, turning to Karen. "Gina's with Lauren, and Yvonne's with her at the moment. The defence barrister came and found her as soon as they got out of court."

"Is Lauren all right?" Asked Karen.

"She will be. But we've got a problem back at the wing. Selena's on duty with Paula and Sylvia, but Sylvia's just gone off sick."

"Any special reason?" Karen asked knowingly.

"It is her niece's wedding this weekend," Dominic added with the faintest hint of a smile.

"Bloody Sylvia!" Karen exclaimed.

"Old Bodybag on the skive again," Said Nikki with a laugh.

"If I had the time," Karen said meaningfully. "I'd give her a written warning. It's not the first time she's done this."

"Why don't you just sack her?" Asked Nikki without preamble.

"Because I don't want the POA on my back for unfair dismissal." Karen turned back to Dominic. "Sylvia was supposed to be on duty tomorrow, wasn't she?"

"Yeah, with Collin. But who's going to do the night shift?" Then, seeing the look on Karen's face, he said, "I don't believe this. You've had three out of four of my weekends already this month," But it was said in the sort of friendly resignation that told Karen he didn't hold her personally responsible.

"Take Lauren back to Larkhall now, then you and Gina go home and get some sleep and be back for ten tonight. Tell Paula to go home and that she'll be working the day shift with Collin this weekend."

"But that'll mean Selena's on her own till ten tonight."

"Then yours truly will have to step in, won't I? You're not the only one missing out on things they'd rather be doing, Dominic," Karen said, with a sideways look at George.

"But Selena's got to go at eight, she told me when I spoke to her just now."

"Well then, they'll have to have lock up early. I think I can manage two hours single handed if the entire wing's already locked up. But be even five minutes late and I'll wipe the floor with you." Flashing Karen a wide smile, Dominic retreated inside to make arrangements for transporting Lauren back to Larkhall.

"Friday night on G wing all on your own," Said Nikki in amazement. "Are you mad?"

"Almost certainly," Replied Karen tartly. "My level of insanity is without doubt Sylvia's fault." Then Yvonne appeared.

"How's Lauren?" Karen asked her. Yvonne lit a much-needed cigarette.

"I think she's all right now. But I wish I was going back with her. Gina's all right but I don't trust her to look after Lauren."

"Well, Gina won't be," Said Karen, "I will."

"Well, I know I don't need to tell you how to do your job," Said Yvonne looking slightly more at ease. "But will you put Lauren on fifteen minute watch. I don't trust her not to do something stupid, and I'm not putting the responsibility for keeping her out of harm's way on Denny."

"Don't worry," Said Karen, knowing how feeble it sounded. "I'll make sure someone keeps an eye on her, probably me."

"Thanks, sweetheart," Yvonne said, giving Karen a quick kiss on the cheek. When Yvonne, Barbara, Nikki and Helen had walked away towards their cars, Karen said,

"I'm sorry, but as you heard, I'm not going to be able to see you this evening."

"And it sounds as though you could do with a break from that place," George said, slipping her hand in to Karen's and giving it a quick squeeze.

"Sylvia ought to be the one getting the break," Said Karen furiously. "Preferably to her nose."

"Now that really would get you some action from her union," George said with a laugh. Then turning serious, she said, "As mental as it sounds, would you like some company during your two hour solo stint this evening?" Karen stared at her totally gobsmacked.

"Are you serious?" She said.

"Perfectly," George replied.

"Grayling will have my guts for garters if he finds out."

"So don't tell him," Was George's clipped reply. Karen's smile broadened.

"I do hope you know what you've let yourself in for," She said, taking a quick look round to make sure they weren't being observed and giving George a quick kiss on the mouth.

"It can't be any worse than my last visit," George said, making the fatal of all errors to assume that a Friday night on G wing couldn't possibly be anything other than mundane.

They began lock up at seven thirty that evening, half an hour earlier than usual. Karen had tried to spend some time with Lauren during the afternoon, but with only her and Selena on duty, this hadn't been as successful as she would have liked. The inmates weren't happy at being banged up half an hour early, but Karen promised them they could have an extra half-hour at association tomorrow.

"But Miss, it's a Friday," Julie J protested.

"Which is exactly why Sylvia's gone on the skive," Karen told them without a second thought.

"So this is Bodybag's fault?" Denny wanted to make sure.

"Well and truly," Said Karen, not feeling the slightest bit of remorse that Sylvia would be in for a lot of flack when she did return. Once all the inmates were finally behind their doors, Karen and Selena breathed a sigh of relief.

"Am I glad that's over," Karen said as they retreated to the officers' room.

"They aren't happy with being banged up early," Selena said ruefully.

"They'll get over it," Said Karen matter-of-factly. "Let them take it out on Sylvia when she gets back on Monday."

"Are you going to be all right on your own for two hours?" Selena asked in genuine concern.

"I won't be," Said Karen, "Someone is coming to keep me company." She couldn't help smiling as she said this. Selena's eyes widened.

"Oh," She said knowingly. "That sort of company."

"Who knows," Karen replied. "Is it only Lauren Atkins who's on fifteen minute watch?"

"Yes," Said Selena, turning serious. "Darlene's still down the block till tomorrow, so you shouldn't have any problems with her." Just then, the phone rang.

"G wing," Karen said as she answered. It was Ken at the gate-lodge.

"I've got someone here for you Ma'am," He said. "Says her name's George Channing."

"Give me two minutes, Ken, and I'll be right down," Karen said, dropping the receiver back in its cradle and walking towards the door. "I won't be long," She said over her shoulder to Selina who was filling in the report book.

George had a feeling of anticipation as she drove towards Larkhall. What the hell was she doing in volunteering to spend two hours on G wing? But having offered, there was no way that she was going to back out now. As she drew up in front of the gate-lodge, she was reminded of how her handbag had been searched last time she'd been here. Blushing slightly at the contents she knew it now held, she left it safely in her car. Not for anything in the world was she about to have anyone discover that she had concealed a toothbrush and a spare pair of knickers in one of its many pockets in the hope that she might be able to go through with what she had avoided on Wednesday. When Karen appeared, she looked calm, collected and not at all frazzled.

"Don't let the number one see you looking like that," Said Ken with a grin when he saw her. "Or he'll think you can run G wing single handed all the time."

"Well, it's about time he tried it," Karen said as she walked up to George. "Are you ready for this?" She asked in lieu of a more affectionate greeting. "Because the natives are very restless tonight."

"When did I ever refuse a challenge?" George asked with a wide smile as they walked through the first set of gates.

"We need to make a slight detour," Karen said as they made their way towards her office rather than directly to the wing. "I've run out of cigarettes, and if need be, I will resort to bribery and corruption to keep them quiet tonight."

"That seems to be a common addiction with nearly everyone I've met this week."

"If they don't when they first arrive, they very soon start," Said Karen matter-of-factly. "All except Barbara. I think she only resisted it out of sheer stubbornness." As Karen let them in to her office and switched on the light, George grinned.

"This might be a stupid question," She said, her grin becoming broader. "But is there a vaguely sensible reason why you've got a water pistol displayed to perfection on the top of your filing cabinet?" Karen laughed.

"Not long after your imposed visit, Denny somehow got this smuggled in, very likely with the help of Yvonne. Halloween that year was Sylvia's idea of hell. When she's becoming particularly infuriating, I do occasionally allow it to find its way back on to the wing."

"So after her performance today it'll be back on the wing some time next week then?"

"Good idea," Karen said, retrieving a couple of packets of cigarettes from her desk drawer and picking up the water pistol. "I'll give it to Denny some time tonight." As they walked towards the wing, they could hear the unmistakable sounds of the women calling to each other, giving declarations of love, shouting words of consolation to each other or exchanging insults. As Karen opened and then relocked the final gate leading on to G wing, George felt a sincere rush of gratitude that this time, Alison McKenzie was well and truly locked behind a cell door somewhere. When they walked in to the officers' room, Selena looked up.

"George Channing, Selena Geeson," Karen said, introducing them.

"I see Sylvia's in line for another dose of mayhem," Selena said, nodding at the water pistol, which Karen put down on the coffee table.

"She couldn't have chosen a worse time to leave us in the lurch," Said Karen in disgust. "If this could find its way in to either the Julies' or Denny's cell some time over the weekend, it might just teach her a lesson when she comes back on Monday."

"There's one other thing you might want to check on," Said Selena. "I think Al McKenzie's dealing again. When I went to check on Lauren Atkins just now, Al was shouting to Denny to send up the swinger, and Al's been acting far too pleased with life ever since Darlene was sent down the block. I think she might have got hold of whatever Darlene had stashed."

"Oh, bloody marvelous," Karen said raising her eyes to the ceiling.

"Otherwise, all's quiet, or at least as quiet as it ever is on a Friday night."

"Well, wherever you're off to, I'm sure it'll be more fun than here." As they watched Selena walk out of the office and heard her go through the first set of gates, Karen said, "So, that's a Friday night on G wing for you, all fairly run of the mill." George came towards her, seeing that whilst Karen might be making light of it on the surface, the strain of having to do several peoples jobs was getting to her. George didn't need to say anything, she just put her arms round Karen and kissed her.

"Do you have any idea how much I've needed that all day?" Karen said when they eventually broke apart.

"About as much as I have," Said George with a smile.

"I need to check on Lauren," Said Karen, glancing at the clock. "She's on fifteen minute watch. Only one tonight, thank god." As they walked across the wing, George said,

"How was Lauren when she got back here?"

"Quiet, didn't really want to talk to anyone. Thomas gave her something to make her sleep, so checking on her every fifteen minutes is probably just a formality, but it still has to be done." They reached the door of Denny and Lauren's cell, and Karen gestured for George to stay where she was. On opening the door, Karen was greeted to the sight of Denny leaning out of the cell window, trying to throw the swinger up on to the upper landing. At the sound of the door opening, Denny looked round.

"Hand it over," Karen said without any preamble.

"Hand what over, Miss?" Denny asked, trying to look as innocent as possible.

"The swinger," Karen said firmly. "Now," She added in the tone that only Shell had ever ignored. Denny reluctantly drew it in through the tiny window and handed it over.

"Who was this going up to?" Denny didn't answer. "Alison McKenzie by any chance?"

"Miss," Denny complained, "She only wanted to borrow it. She wasn't sending anything down to me."

"Is she dealing?"

"Miss, I ain't no grass, you know that."

"Do you want to spend the weekend down the block?"


"Then start talking."

"Al wound Darlene up so that she'd end up down the block, and then Al nicked her stash."

"So why involve you?"

"I'm king of the swing, innit," Said Denny almost proudly.

"Well not tonight you're not," Karen said, tucking the makeshift swinger under her arm. "How long's Lauren been asleep?" She asked, looking over at where the black hair fell over the pillow as Lauren slept soundly in the bottom bunk.

"For about half an hour. The doc gave her something to make her sleep."

"I'll see you later," Karen said as she closed the cell door behind her.

"Why are drugs such a problem?" George asked as they crossed the empty association area.

"Mainly because we can no longer internally search the inmates, thank god. But it means that it's far too easy for them to smuggle drugs in on admission." George stayed quiet until they were back in the office and Karen had put the kettle on for some coffee.

"What happened to Roisin?" She asked, lighting a cigarette.

"A mother kept separated from her children because her husband refused to bring them to see her, almost forced to confront her sexuality because she was sharing a cell with her lover, couldn't handle it and blotted out the pain with whatever she could lay her hands on."

"Is that why a lot of the women end up on drugs?"

"It's a common enough factor, but a substantial amount of them are already addicted when they come in here, and getting them to even contemplate the idea of going through detox is probably one of the hardest jobs we do." They sat talking, smoking and drinking their coffee, Karen slipping out twice more to check on Lauren, at eight fifteen and eight thirty. On her second visit she took the water pistol with her, leaving it with Denny and asking her to leave using it until Sylvia was back.

But at about twenty to nine, the sky fell in. When the alarm began bleeping in the officers' room, Karen looked at the screen, which displayed the cell from which the call was coming from. Flicking the alarm off, Karen could hear the unmistakable sound of Tina crying out for anyone to help. There was no mistaking Tina's words, even from this distance.

"Miss! Miss!" She was calling, "It's Buki, she's cut up again."

"Oh, Buki, no!" Karen groaned in fear of what she might have to deal with, and her being the only officer on the wing.

"What?" Asked George, not at first taking in the sheer enormity of what had happened. Grabbing an overall from the back of the door and shrugging in to it, Karen grabbed the first aid box and made for the door.

"If I'm not very much mistaken," She said to George over her shoulder. "Buki Lester's chosen this of all nights to take a razor to herself again." Looking aghast, George followed her as she sprinted across the wing, simultaneously trying to keep hold of the first aid box and pull on a pair of surgical gloves. Reaching the door to the four-bed dorm, she dropped the first aid box on the floor and unwrapped a second pair of surgical gloves.

"Why two pairs?" George asked, appearing next to her.

"Because I can't remember what Buki's HIV status is," Karen said as she unlocked the door. Standing on the threshhold, she surveyed the scene. Buki was lying on the top bunk on the left, her arms on top of the bedclothes, and a stream of blood was spurting in an arc up at the ceiling and across the wall. Its steady, rhythmical beat told Karen that Buki had this time hit an artery.

"Jesus Christ," She said quietly. Then, thrusting out an arm to prevent George from getting any closer, she moved to stand next to the bunk beds and clamped a hand over the gash in Buki's left wrist. Looking back at George she said, "Go back to the office, ring Dr. Waugh and tell him to get down here. Tell him Buki Lester's cut up again, but badly this time. Tell him he's going to need to deal with her here because I don't think she can be moved before something's done about her wrist, and tell him to bring a defibrillator just in case, and when you've done that, find Buki Lester's file because we'll need to know her blood group and HIV status." It was only after saying all this that Karen noticed Tina, standing in the corner of the cell, crying her eyes out and just staring at the blood still coming, though much slower, from Buki's arm. "And get her out of here," Karen said, gesturing to Tina. Moving forward and taking Tina's arm, George led her out of the cell and back to the office.

Once there, she ran her eyes down the list of extension numbers pinned to the wall above the phone, and rang Thomas, telling him that Karen Betts required his presence on G wing, and filling him in as to everything Karen had asked her to tell him. Thomas didn't recognise the cultured, clearly upper-class voice but he paid it no mind as he said he was on his way. Tina was sitting in one of the armchairs, her tears gradually decreasing. George tugged at the top drawer of the filing cabinet, but it was locked. Hoping Tina would be all right for a moment, George ran back across the wing, now finding out why high heels weren't a recommended part of the dress code, and poked her head round the door of the four-bed dorm.

"Dr. Waugh's on his way," She said, seeing that Karen was trying to wrap a sheet around the wound in Buki's arm as a temporary measure. "But I can't find the file without the keys to the filing cabinet." Unclipping the keys from her belt, Karen threw them to George who caught them and left. Back in the office, she unlocked the filing cabinet and began flipping through the files. Atkins, Blood, Buxton, Cake, Johnston, then finally she hit on Lester. Quickly finding the information she was after, she walked out of the office, only to see Thomas Waugh accompanied by a couple of nurses unlocking the gate on to the wing. Walking up to her, Thomas said,

"Is Buki still in the four bed dorm?"

"Yes," Replied George. "And can you tell Karen that Buki's blood group is A- and that her HIV status is recorded as negative." Thomas gave her a brief smile and made his way toward the open cell door.

When George returned to the office, Tina was helping herself to the box of tissues on the coffee table.

"Will Buki be all right?" She asked, believing that George had all the answers.

"I don't know," Said George truthfully.

"Buki's done this loads of times before," Said Tina, wrapping her dressing-gown more tightly round herself. "But it ain't ever been this bad."

"Would you like a cup of tea?" George asked, feeling as useless as it's possible to feel. She didn't know the first thing about comforting anyone.

"Yes please," Tina said, liking this beautiful woman who she'd never seen before. "What's your name?"

"George," Said George, filling the kettle and hunting for teabags.

"I'm Tina."

"Yes, I know," Said George, remembering the last time she'd seen Tina, on the last day she'd visited Larkhall. "You're Maxi Purvis's sister, aren't you."

"Yeah, that's right," Said Tina, a slight frown of concentration knitting her brows. "Hang on," She said, "I have seen you before. Ain't you the barrister who defended Snowball, the one Al tried to start a fight with?" George stood perfectly still, the bottle of milk poised in mid air.

"Yes, that's right," She said, wondering just what can of worms this might open.

"Don't worry," Tina said, seeing George's look of slight trepidation. "I ain't going to finish what Al started. I'm not really the fighting type. Al just likes any excuse to take her anger out on someone. It was stupid her doing that because you defended Snowball. I remember the Julies telling her at the time that we all have to do things we don't like to make a living sometimes. Let's face it, the Julies wouldn't have worked in one of Virginia's knocking shops if they didn't have to, now would they." Tina didn't seem to expect an answer, and George began to wonder if Tina's constant chatter was a sign of delayed shock or whether this was normal for her. Putting a steaming mug of tea down in front of her, George offered her a cigarette. "Thanks," Tina said with something approaching a smile. "How did you know about Maxi?" She asked after taking a long drag.

"She cropped up in a case I was working on for a time," George said evasively. "When you said Virginia," She continued, trying to draw Tina away from discussing her sister. "Did you mean Virginia O'Kane?" Tina allowed a soft smile to touch her face.

"Yeah. Virginia was beautiful, nowhere near as beautiful as you are, but lovely. But she lied to all of us, and that ain't something that gets forgiven very easily in here. She was in a wheelchair when she first came here, but then we found out that there was nothing wrong with her. She did it to get a lighter sentence. Then Al and Maxi killed her, and that split me and Maxi up for good. Virginia might have lied to everyone, but she didn't deserve to die, and not like that. Only I left it too late didn't I. I only decided to make things up with Maxi when she was already dead. Maxi killed herself, and I just don't want Buki to do the same," She said, her face crumpling once more in to tears.

"You don't know she will," George said, putting a hand over Tina's and giving it a squeeze.

"Ever since Maxi died, in here's all the family I've got," Said Tina, grabbing another handful of tissues from the box. "So if you think they're going to leave you, it's like there might one day be no one left."

"What about your parents?" George asked tentatively.

"When I went to Maxi's funeral, my dad said he didn't want anything more to do with me. I think he thought it was my fault that Maxi had killed herself. Maxi was the beautiful one, the clever one, and I was the fat and stupid one. He never used to come to visit me, just Maxi, and I know he wishes I was dead instead of her. I ain't seen him since she died." George really didn't know what to say. A combined feeling of anger and pain rose up in her for how this clearly vulnerable young girl had been treated by her father and by the system. Glancing over at the clock, she saw that the hands were pointing to nine o'clock. This reminded her of something.

"Will you be all right, just for a few minutes?" She asked. "I've got to check on someone."

"Lauren?" Tina asked. "Yeah, I'm okay."

"Don't move," George said gently but firmly. "Or Karen, Miss Betts, will have me demoted."

Picking up the bunch of keys, George walked across the wing, and stopped outside the door to Denny and Lauren's cell. Sending up a silent prayer that nothing terrible was about to happen to her, she fitted the key in the lock and opened the door. Lauren still looked to be sound asleep, but Denny was sitting up in the corner of the top bunk reading a magazine. When the door opened, Denny looked over, expecting to see Karen, but was confronted by the most beautiful blond she'd ever seen.

"I've come to check on Lauren," George said, moving in to the cell.

"She's still zonked out, innit," Denny said. "What's going on with Buki?"

"I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you," George said, immediately giving the game away that she wasn't any bona fide prison officer though Denny had managed to work this out from the lack of uniform. Denny took a moment to look this fancy piece up and down, thinking she'd seen her somewhere before. That was it, she was the one who'd been here that day when Al started kicking off.

"Has Buki been cutting up again?" Denny asked.

"I think so," George said evasively.

"Jesus," Said Denny in disgust. "She'll have no friggin arms left if she ain't careful. Is that why you're filling in for the Gov?" George smiled.

"Yes. What are you reading?" She asked, gesturing to the magazine.

"Anything I can get my hands on," Replied Denny. "I'm trying to learn to read proper, innit, doing a course for learning what they call basic skills. Only I run out of stuff to practice on and we're not allowed up to the library again till Monday."

"I think I saw a newspaper in the office," Said George. "Will that do you?"

"Yeah, cheers, man," Said Denny with a wide smile. As George retreated through the door and made to close it, Denny said, "Oy, posh bitch," And when George poked her head round the door, Denny said, "You're all right, man." As George walked across the wing she couldn't help but smile. That was probably the most genuine compliment she'd received in a long time.

When George re-entered the office, she saw that Tina was calmly eating her way through a packet of chocolate fingers. Finishing the one she was eating, Tina said,

"They're only Bodybag's, Miss Betts wouldn't mind." Rolling her eyes, George began filling in the report book on Lauren's nine o'clock visit. Noticing that both Karen and Selena had simply added their initials after doing the same thing, she found herself appending the letters GC at the end of her note. When the time came for her to do the next fifteen-minute check on Lauren, George picked up the newspaper she'd seen earlier, and took it along to Denny.

"Cheers, man," Denny said as George handed her the paper. "Should keep me going for about a week."

"Would you like a cigarette?" George asked, retrieving them from her pocket. Denny accepted one gratefully. After lighting it, Denny asked,

"So, are you the Gov's new bird then?"

"You'll have to ask her that," Replied George with a secretive little smile.

"Have you seen any of Lauren's trial?" This was an easier question to answer.

"Yes, I've seen most of it so far."

"Is she going to get off?"

"I've got absolutely no idea," George said gently. "One thing I've learnt in my time as a barrister, is that you can never rely on a jury to do the right thing. There's almost more certainty in tossing a coin than there is in trying to predict what a jury will do." George then heard what sounded like one of the Julies shouting out of the window from the cell above. This was easily heard as the cell windows were rarely shut tight, providing ventilation and a means of communicating.

"You got company down there, Den?" Shouted Julie Saunders. Swinging herself down from the bunk, Denny stuck her head out of the window.

"Yeah," She shouted back.

"What's going on down there, Den?"

"Buki's cut up again."

"So who've you got with you? 'Cos that ain't Lauren you was talking too."

"Posh bitch," Denny replied, flashing a quick grin over her shoulder at George.


"Posh Bitch," Denny annunciated clearly. "The best looking bird I've seen in here in years." Leaving her in mid flow, George retreated and locked the door. Just as she reached the office, Thomas, Karen and the two nurses appeared, the nurses wheeling Buki on a trolley.

"As soon as you get there hook her up to a pint of A- blood," Thomas was saying. "I'll be down as soon as I've dealt with the paperwork." The nurses wheeled Buki away through the wing gates and Karen and Thomas came towards her, both liberally spattered in blood and pulling off their gloves and overalls, the latter not having provided much in the way of protection for their clothes.

"Good god," Said George when Karen came up to her. "The pair of you look like something out of Phantom of the Opera." They thrust their gloves and overalls in to a bin liner for biologically hazardous waste that Thomas had obviously brought with him.

"George, this is Dr. Thomas Waugh," Karen said, "and Thomas, this is George Channing."

"Aha," Said Thomas in dawning realisation. "So, you're the owner of the wonderfully cultured voice who phoned me." George smiled.

"Yes," She said. "Will Buki be all right?"

"After a couple of pints of the right blood type and a while for the cuts to heal, yes, she should be." Then he turned to Karen. "But this can't be allowed to happen again. We've got to persuade her in to some sort of therapy."

"Rather you than me," Karen said. "I've tried a dozen times but she just won't have any of it."

"Then it's time we both tried harder," Said Thomas with utter conviction. Tina was sitting quietly listening to all this. But when Karen suddenly said,

"Shit, I forgot about Lauren. But then I suppose even Grayling couldn't expect me to be in two places at once." George was about to tell Karen what she'd done, but Tina got there before her.

"George did it," She said, immediately drawing everyone's attention to her.

"Did you really?" Asked Thomas, clearly impressed.

"That's Miss Channing to you, Tina," Said Karen, but with a smile.

"Oh, no," Tina said in complete assurance. "She said I could call her George."

"My wing seems to be running itself quite happily without me," Karen said giving George a broad smile.

"I missed the eight forty-five visit, but I've filled in the nine and nine fifteen slots," George said, gesturing to the report book. "And Denny was running out of reading material so I gave her the newspaper that was in here."

"Dominic will love you," Karen said dryly. "But thank you," She added seriously. Whilst Karen went to the ladies' to try to clean herself up a bit and to do what she could to remove the blood spatters from the front of her blouse, Thomas left on his way to the hospital wing, and George went to do the nine thirty check on Lauren, who was still sound asleep, having been totally unaware of anything going on around her. When she returned, Karen looked as clean as possible under the circumstances, except for the front of her clothes.

"Is Buki going to be all right, Miss?" Tina asked.

"I hope so," Replied Karen, always going with the philosophy that as much truth as possible avoided problems later. Not long after this, they heard the unmistakable sound of two people letting themselves through the gate on to the wing. A moment later, Gina and Dominic appeared in the office doorway.

"Jesus," Said Gina, her eyes widening when she saw Karen. "What happened to you?"

"Buki Lester happened to me," Replied Karen. "She's in the hospital wing for the next few days."

"You look like something out of Silence of the Lambs," Said Gina thoughtfully.

"Yeah, well, that is quite enough of the theatrical analogy for one night," Karen said tartly.

"I don't believe we've met," Gina said, looking straight at George.

"George Channing," Said Karen, looking between the three of them. "Gina Rossi and Dominic McAllister."

"Do I detect a little bit of unauthorised company?" Asked Gina with a broad smile.

"Well, be bloody glad I did have some unauthorised company as you put it," Replied Karen. "If I hadn't, Buki might very well be dead now." At a gasp from Tina, Karen turned an apologetic gaze on her. "Oh, Tina, I'm sorry," She said, the tiredness creeping in to her voice. Then something seemed to occur to her. Turning to the enormous notice board that showed at a glance where every inmate on the wing was housed, there being a printed chart of cell numbers with the inmates' names on cards that could be moved about and repined in new places, Karen began to look thoughtful.

"Are you trying to work out where to put me?" Asked Tina.

"Yes, and it's going to be something of a problem," Karen mused. "The entire wing's full tonight. We're lucky Darlene's down the block."

"It's a good job Darlene wasn't here tonight," Said Dominic with a rueful shrug.

"Why?" This came from George who had no idea who they were talking about.

"Darlene's one of the most obnoxious cons I have ever had to deal with," Said Gina bluntly. Then looking at George, she added, "She's got more muscle than Mike Tyson and is about a foot taller than you." George couldn't help her eyes widening, and wholeheartedly agreed with Dominic that yes, it was a very good thing Darlene had been down the block this evening.

"Is the four bed dorm really that bad?" Asked Dominic.

"You were on holiday the night Jim was stabbed," Karen said matter-of-factly. "So you won't remember what Dockley's cell looked like afterwards, but the four bed dorm does hold a certain resemblance to it." As if only just realising what she'd said, Karen looked aghast. "Sorry," She said mildly. "Not the best similarity to draw under the circumstances."

"I think you need to go home, have a very large drink and go to bed," Gina said gently, but with a little wink in George's direction. Karen privately agreed. "Why don't we dig out the spare mattress and put Tina in with one of the lifer's up on G3?"

"I would like Tina to be with someone who'll look after her, not someone who'll give her a hit of crack the moment the door's locked," Said Karen disgustedly.

"What about Natalie Buxton?" Said Dominic. "She doesn't do drugs."

"I am not putting Tina in with Natalie Bloody Buxton," Said Karen firmly.

"Why not?" George asked, feeling like the proverbial five-year-old who can't say anything else.

"Because they all think she's a nonce," Replied Tina quietly, reminding them all she was still there.

"Oy, sex offender if you don't mind," Gina said reprovingly.

"You know what she's in for, Tina," Karen said wearily.

"That don't mean she's guilty though, does it," Put in Tina.

"I am not having this discussion with you now," Said Karen decisively. "I'll ask the Julies if you can kip in with them tonight. At least they aren't likely to introduce you to anything more addictive than smoking." Picking up an unopened packet of cigarettes, Karen escorted Tina out of the office and up on to the 2's and in to the comforting harmony of the Julies' cell.

Back downstairs, Dominic began looking through the report book.

"GC," He queried, "Is that you?" He said, looking at George.

"Yes," She replied. "Karen was otherwise engaged with Buki and Dr. Waugh, so I did Lauren Atkins' fifteen minute watch for her."

"Do you want to take up this job full time?" Asked Dominic with a smile. "At least your writing's readable, not like Sylvia's." George laughed.

"It doesn't pay as well as my day job," She admitted sheepishly.

"Oh, and what is your day job?" Asked Gina, lighting a cigarette.

"I'm a barrister," George replied, definitely liking these two of Karen's colleagues.

"Oh, so that's why you were at court today," Said Dominic, suddenly remembering where he'd seen her before.

"Sort of," Said George, not quite knowing how to explain her presence in the Lauren Atkins trial.

"You known our feisty wing governor long then?" Asked Gina, a wicked little smirk turning up the corners of her mouth. George looked slightly flustered.

"A while," She answered lamely. Just then Karen appeared.

"Apart from Buki making mincemeat of herself again," Asked Gina in her tactless, ever to the point manner. "Is there anything else we ought to know."

"Yes," Said Karen. "Alison McKenzie's dealing again. I want her given a drugs test at first unlock, as well as a thorough cell spin. You'll need to get someone in to professionally clean the four bed dorm, and whoever's on duty tomorrow needs to give it a thorough going over before we let anyone back in there. I don't want Buki Lester coming back on to the wing only to use a razor we didn't find because we didn't bother to look. Keep Darlene down the block until the cell's fit for habitation again, and Tina can stay in with the Julies for tonight. But I want that cell sorted tomorrow. Lauren Atkins as you know is on fifteen minute watch, and as irritating as I know this will be, I don't want her coming off fifteen minute watch until after the trial is over."

"You'll be bloody lucky," Said Gina. "Sylvia will have a fit."

"Good," Said Karen curtly. "Let her get off her arse and do some bloody work for a change, when she's back that is. I'll be back in on Sunday because we've got quite a few inmates down for visits this weekend so we'll need the extra help. I was planning to go to court on Monday, but I want to talk to Buki, if she's up to it by then, and I want to read Sylvia the riot act."

"Will you sell tickets?" Asked Gina with a laugh. Karen grinned.

"She does this again and I just might."

As Karen and George walked through the long, endless corridors, George said,

"Well, not quite the Friday night I had planned, but it was certainly anything but dull."

"I'm sorry you had to be flung in to the middle of it," Karen said, stopping and turning to face her. "But I did appreciate you being there, and if I didn't look like I ought to be on trial for murder, I'd give you a hug right here and now." George smiled.

"That would give your staff something to talk about."

"They've been discussing my private life ever since I became their wing governor. I'm told it's part of a PO's job description." As they carried on walking, Karen attempted to formulate what she wanted to ask.

"However I say this," She said eventually. "It's going to come out all wrong, but would you like to come home with me? I can't promise there's much resembling dinner in my fridge, but I'm sure I could rustle something up." Slipping a hand briefly in to Karen's, George smiled up at her.

"Of course I would like to come home with you," She said, pulling Karen to a stop, and in the darkness of the corridor, she reached up to plant a quick kiss on Karen's lips. When they reached the gate-lodge and Karen handed over her keys, Ken said,

"I heard about Buki. Did they manage to save her?"

"Yes, we did," Said Karen, suddenly feeling an urge to sleep for a week. "But she might be going to the nearest hospital if she gets any worse."

"Yeah, that's what the doc told me," Said Ken as he let them out in to the January darkness. As George followed Karen's tail-lights out of the prison car park, she was forced to acknowledge that never in her whole life had she learnt quite so much about human nature in such a short time. Having seen what one girl and a razor blade could do, having been accorded the title of Posh Bitch, and having comforted a vulnerable young woman who's father despised her for not being her sister, George reflected that never again would she judge anyone on face value. She had learnt more tonight than any of her father's books could teach her, than any of John's utterly self-righteous lectures or any of Charlie's belief/driven protests could teach her. In these last couple of hours, she had learnt what it was to have an enormous amount of respect for someone. Karen had helped to save someone's life tonight, and she appeared to accept it as just another, thankfully rare part of the job. When had John and all his endless philosophising ever done anything like that? Never.

Part Twenty Eight

A panicky 'get me out of here' compulsion propelled Yvonne to turn her back on the Old Bailey, leaving Karen who was still chatting to George. She took short rapid strides along the pavement at a breakneck speed to put as much distance between her and the trial to get back to her car. In doing so, she started to easily outpace the others who were with her.

"Hey, slow down, Yvonne, and wait for the rest of us. I'm not as young as I used to be."

The inimitable humour in Nikki's carrying voice broke the spell that Yvonne was under, walled in by her fears for how Lauren was coping. She turned round and stopped in her tracks until Nikki, then Helen and finally Babs caught up with her. It all took time as they were further away than she had first thought from Nikki's carrying voice.

"I've not been young for years. I'm smaller than the rest of you," Babs puffed, her face flushed.

Yvonne's face split into a wide grin at the three out of breath women.

"We wouldn't think of leaving you to go off on your own. Old friends like us are here for you anytime you want."

Tears sprang into Yvonne's eyes at Helen's simple touching words from her heart. These days, feelings came easily enough to the surface, maybe making up for lost time when her point of pride was never to let anyone see her cry, no matter how hard things got. When she was with Charlie and was bringing up her kids, there was never the time somehow and it was her pride and strength that had got her through the rough times. It only stopped making sense when she first realised that she had friends to go to who were only a cell block or two away.

"It's up to you, Yvonne. We don't want to impose if you've got other plans or if you're not up to it but Helen and I were wondering if you wanted company tonight," Nikki asked hesitantly accompanied by Helen's emphatic nod of agreement.

"There's nothing I want more. What say you all come round to my gaff and I'll cook for you all."

Yvonne's spirits soared as this unexpected good news would fill the house with those whom she was fondest of and would chase away the threatening winter shadows.

"I'd love to come, Yvonne, but Henry's not very well today. Some sort of three day wonder flu bug. I feel guilty if I'm leaving him on his own for too long. Another time, certainly."

"Give my love to the Reverend and hope he gets better."

Just then, Yvonne's mobile bleeped and her fingers fumbled their way through the contents of her handbag to her phone at the bottom and fished it out. The others were all cheered up and listened to the conversation.

"Hey, Crystal……..Yeah, Lauren's finished on the stand for today….she survived, that's the best you can say but I'd sooner not talk about it too much…….I don't suppose you and Josh are up for a bit of company tonight, my place ….you mean you're getting a bit stircrazy of being stuck at home with the kids, tell me about it…….we've got Helen and Nikki to help look after the kids and I can rustle up some spare beds….oh, yeah, one's small enough for Zandra and you've got Daniel's carrycot…….bleeding hell, sounds like you're organising a trip to the Himalayas…….so long as we don't talk about the trial and have a few laughs, that's fine….see you at seven."

Nikki looked a little doubtful at the idea Yvonne mapped out but Helen was pleased.

The trial had swallowed up all of them in its intensity and close concentration. Everything was riding on Lauren's future. They blinked at the thin sunshine and biting wind of a winter's day and told them they had half a day to kill. They all felt as if they were bunking off school, unaccustomed as they all were to be around on the streets of London in this time of the day. It was time to move on from there.

Josh drove their grey Audi onto the front drive outside Yvonne's house and stared at it open mouthed and next at the red Ferrari parked nearby. This place was out of this world compared with which the clutter of their possessions felt downmarket. Crystal was the bolder of the two as the Lord had given her the pride in herself to hold her head up high. Besides, Yvonne was Yvonne wherever she was and would no more change than Jesus's disciples. It was on a more practical level that the clutter that accompanied a family outing such a formidable matter of organisation. First Crystal edged Daniel out of the rear side door, still asleep in his carrycot and placed it on the ground while Josh unclipped Zandra from out of her little self enclosed car seat from which she had proudly looked around at the passing scenery. Even after that, the many soft toys, teddy bears and the one hundred things that accompany babies and small children needed scooping together in all the holdalls.

"Want a hand?" a very familiar pleasant Scottish voice right behind Josh made him jump a mile. "Yeah, but I don't know where to start, Miss Stewart," His uniform reaction to her and his nerves took over.

"It's Helen now," Came her friendly reply accompanied by her strong handshake.

"Do you want us just to dive in and pack whatever there is in these holdalls?" Nikki's tactful contribution mentally sorted through the clutter. "Have you brought your guitar by any chance, Crystal?"

"Yeah and it's in the boot," Crystal's shorthand reply spoke of the busy mother who wished that she only had one pair of hands to sort out all the demands on her.

Josh led Zandra by the hand leaning over so that the little toddler didn't have to reach to high up for him and crystal took Daniel inside in his carrycot and two willing pack mules carted the rest of the belongings inside, including Crystal's guitar.

Yvonne's eyes lighted first on the wide brown innocent eyes in the centre of the tangle of black curls that belonged to Zandra as her form, dressed in dungarees and a cardigan tottered in ahead of the others. A more perfect mix of Josh's good looks and Crystal's African Queen persona could not be imagined. When Crystal appeared with her carrycot, this was a double treat.

Long ago instincts were sharply revived that saw Zandra balenced on Yvonne's knee and, likewise, the little game with her fingers of "here is the church, here is the steeple," that caused the little girl to giggle happily. Trigger was not one to miss out on fresh human company and padded in gently, tail wagging. He concluded that this tiny human was some sort of puppy equivalent so he knew to be at his most consciously reassuring and let the excited little girl gently stroke him. Josh, understandably unaware of all this, looked worried at such a big boisterous looking dog with his little child.

"Don't worry, Josh. He's as soft and gentle as can be."

Just then, Daniel woke up after a long sleep and indicated that he wanted to make his bid for freedom.

"Can I hold him for a little while, Crystal? I'll be very careful," Helen asked, something within her moved by the tiny helpless thing. There was an appealing look in her that Crystal could not say no to even if she had wanted.

Helen's hands and fingers were secretly nervous as they gingerly picked up the baby. A sudden warmth flowed through her as she held the baby in her arms and a sudden rush of confidence told her as she gently rocked him in her arms with the feeling of what came right to her. She stretched out her little finger to Daniel and his tiny fingers latched on with surprising strength. She was lost in a new world…..

Nikki discreetly observed Crystal's children from a distance. This experience was all strange to her but her heart warmed to Josh and Crystal's glowing pride and obvious love for their children.

……..'I wanted kids one day.' 'You can still have them, Helen.There are ways.'….

A much polished brightly glowing jewel in Nikki's memory was every gentle kiss exchanged, every word exchanged between them in that rare snatched moment when they were alone in the Art room at Larkhall. It shone all the brightly from too many lonely nights in her cell when she relived that precious memory. It was only right now that silhouetted that fragment of the conversation in sharp profile and asked her a question that she was far too honest to duck. There was nothing in principle against the idea and maybe if they could live their lives together at the same part of the day. One day, the time may come……

These thoughts gently drifted round in Nikki's head while the gentle soothing sounds of crystal's children conveyed distant feelings of summer days. For Crystal and josh, on the other hand, they could take a break from their continual tiredness and expenditure of frenetic energy that they poured out on their children. The practised half eye of attention was enough but in Josh's case, the luxurious armchair helped him to drift halfway towards a dreamlike state.

"I'll finish off the food. No Crystal," Yvonne insisted firmly, stopping her from rising automatically to her feet. "I remember being up to my armpits in nappies and trying to be the perfect mother and wife for His lordship like the magazines tell you to, so I'm going to make sure you and Josh get totally spoiled. You both bleeding need it."

Josh jerked himself properly awake hearing old associations in Yvonne's imperious tones and he and Crystal sank back, basking in the sheer luxury of half their normal routine being firmly and lovingly taken off their shoulders.

Yvonne deftly served them dinner which they all tucked into and Crystal had enough hands spare to pick at her dinner while Zandra intermittently clamoured for attention for her dinner to be cut up for her. Helen and Nikki gradually got used to the snatched conversations in such a child oriented environment and admired how capably Crystal coped.

"Hey, Crystal, why don't you sing us a few songs for old times sake, open the windows wide and imagine Old Bodybag being pissed………I mean driven mad by the singing."

Crystal smiled broadly at Nikki's hastily modified invitation and Yvonne and Helen came to the rescue while Crystal unzipped her guitar case without little fingers in the way. Daniel could not be distracted for very long before he started to crawl his way along the soft carpet in Crystal's direction.

"Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya.

Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya……"

Crystal's powerful singing and stately guitar strumming added musical life and colour to a house which had known much company and was far too quiet for it's good and Yvonne's also. The singing of the others wrapped harmonies around Crystal's lead and they remembered the repeated complaints about that 'flaming Kumbaya' that only made Crystal sing to the Lord all the more. Helen had been on the fringes of the singing at the time but she remembered keeping to the fringes so that she could avoid being dragged in officially into a matter by the woman whom she owed no favours to. The song fizzled out as Crystal's guitar playing suddenly stopped when Zandra claimed Crystal's attention.

"We'd better put the kids to bed."

Crystal nodded, seeing that Zandra had already had a busy day earlier on and she would only start getting ratty. Daniel had only come briefly to life recently and instinct told both of them that that wouldn't last.

"I'll help Crystal. You two, just take it easy," Yvonne ordered.

Helen and Nikki snuggled gratefully up together, blissfully conscious that they could detach themselves away from their daily routines. However traumatic it had been to see Lauren appear on the witness stand, at least they could face it together. Nikki had enough trust in Trisha's utter loathing of Fenner that she would uncomplainingly shoulder the burden of running the club while the trial was on, even though after the trial was over, she foresaw the kickback of more petty bickering as payback. She had a forward thinking mind which rarely let her to relax in the present without a part of her forever planning for the future. Right now, she suppressed that side of herself and linked hands with Helen's, running her fingertips along Helen's palm. The light was as gentle as the kiss they exchanged while the welcoming sounds of the house kept them company along with Trigger who sprawled himself contentedly asleep on his favourite spot, having basked in all the very welcome human attention. They gently and lovingly caressed each other as the soft armchair drew them together and the healing powers of the touch of their fingertips eased the tensions of the day from each other in a similar way that the companionship of the rest of them did for them. This evening had that blissful end of the week feeling where, for the moment, they only had each other in the world.

"Is everything all right, Crystal?" Helen asked as Nikki's sharp ears picked up the light sounds of returning footsteps.

"After Zandra heard me read her favourite story three times over, she settled asleep. Daniel's only just over his teething problems, thank goodness and he's out like a light," Crystal's weary voice explained.

"She sounds like she likes books already," Nikki said brightly.

"Don't you believe it. She just says it to keep me longer," Crystal's grinning reply made Nikki blush faintly that she had not thought of this obvious explanation. She wondered briefly just what she was like at Zandra's age.

"This is the life. Good company, the end of the day…." sighed Nikki contentedly.

"and a drink between friends.".

"You cheeky sod, Helen. Well, since you've offered to fetch the drinks, the drinks cabinet is there in the corner," Yvonne grinningly retorted.

After sticking her tongue out, Helen cheerfully acted as barmaid for them all and fetched a can of lager for Josh and went to serve four drinks from the well stocked cabinet. This was the first time that she took in the sheer luxury and space of Yvonne's house which took her by surprise. It seemed to say something about her that while it had all the luxuries of life, it had that comfortable lived in welcoming feeling. The memory of what she had once told Sylvia that she had 'twenty three boxes of Chanel perfume' seemed very real to her now. The last thing she had ever expected when she was a Wing Governor was hanging out at Yvonne's house but here she was now and everything felt comfortable. Years of living with Nikki had influenced her to depend on gut instinct more than she ever had before and go with where it directed her. After she poured out the drinks, she found herself a tray and served the drinks with the grace of a one time barmaid in her student days.

"Can't get good service these days."

The light hearted banter was exchanged in fairly soft voices between people whose roots went back a long way yet their roles were mysteriously changed. All of them were secretly united in their total avoidance of talking about the trial. In different ways, they had a strength of purpose but none of this would help when Lauren's fate was as if she were a ball on a spinning roulette wheel and her ultimate destination was so much in the balance. This trial had showed that nothing could be taken for granted and, Josh aside, all of them had previous experiences of the uncertainty of how a court of law operated. So they put on their best smiles, luxuriated in the brief period of peace and tranquillity before the next battle to be fought.

Josh was only tired out from a backbreaking week at work, working long hours to bring up a growing family. With good grace, he had exchanged the welcoming haven and sanctuary of home for tearing out into the night to meet a diverse range of strong forceful women, from ex prisoners and his one time Governor that he had not seen for years. Crystal was overjoyed at the thought of the idea and she was stuck at home and deserved a treat. She needed to have the sort of company and the break that you didn't have to pay expensively for. In any case, he liked being surrounded by beautiful women, even if, right now, he couldn't get a word in edgeways. The chair he was sitting in was comfortable and the soft voices eased him back into dreamland.

"Is it OK for you to play us some more songs, Crystal. I remember missing your singing once you'd got out."

Crystal looked sideways at Josh slumped sideways in the corner of the settee and felt sorry for him. He looked so tired.

"We'll have to be quiet because of the kids ….and for Josh. He'll sleep like a log but I'm still nervous in case Daniel wakes up. You have a number of bad nights, then you thank the Lord when you wake up in the morning without hearing your baby crying in the night."

Yvonne nodded sympathetically. She'd been there before.

Crystal picked up her guitar from where it had leant against the wall and, very softly, her fingers strummed the chords of a song which none of them had heard before. The need to keep quiet for the children's sake softened the melody and let the words speak with more force than it otherwise would. It spoke sweet benedictions to them in a way that flowed easily between religion and a modern prayer for all of them whoever they may be. Nikki had always respected Crystal's fighting spirit but had always found her fundamentalist religion hard to take to. This song carried her emotions gently along and made sense to her and gave her the peace of mind that she craved. Helen, for her part, was happily drawn along without a care in the world as if she was made for this sort of occasion. Yvonne raised her glass to her lips and the taste of her liquor never tasted so sweet than when she had the human company to wrap around her and the house was as full of good people as it was always meant to be.

Part Twenty Nine

When they reached Karen's flat, not far from Canary Warf, George drew her car to a stop behind Karen's.

"What made you decide to live here?" George asked as she locked her car door.

"I chose it fairly at random," Karen said as they walked to the front door. "I moved here just before I started seeing Ritchie. At the time I wanted anywhere that Fenner hadn't been in." Unlocking the front door, Karen bent to pick up some post from the mat. On top of the Mastercard bill, a copy of the day's Guardian and a bank statement, was something that looked suspiciously like a birthday card. Breaking in to a broad smile, Karen began opening it as they walked up the stairs. Once inside her flat, she put the post that could be dealt with some other time down on the coffee table and began reading the card. On the front was a picture of a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne. Inside, Ross had written:

"Sorry I couldn't get you these for real.

Happy Birthday.

I love you Mum,


Seeing that Karen's smile had gone soul deep, George's curiosity was roused.

"Anyone I know?" She asked.

"It's from Ross," Karen said, and then clarified, "My son." When Karen stood the card in pride of place on the sideboard, George picked it up and read it. George began putting two and two together.

"When is your birthday?" She asked slightly suspiciously.

"Today," Karen said nonchalantly, quickly running her eyes over the other items of post.

"And you didn't tell anyone?" George asked in astonishment.

"It hasn't really been quite the right sort of week for birthdays," Said Karen matter-of-factly. "Besides, it's one that I'm not all that eager to acknowledge." George laughed.

"I thought only I did things like that," She said with a smile. "Which birthday is it?"

"My fortieth," Muttered Karen, still scanning her credit card bill.

"Oh, that's nothing," George said, trying to make Karen feel better. "I was forty eight last June."

"Really?" Karen said, looking up and staring at George. "You don't look it." Putting the bills back on the coffee table, Karen said, "After my little foray back in to nursing this evening, I'm going to have a shower and then I'll see what I can find us for dinner."

"You take as long as you like," Said George, at last realising something she could do. "And I'll see what I can find us for dinner."

"Okay," Karen said as she walked towards her bedroom after putting on some music. "Though I can't promise you'll find anything edible in my fridge."

Once Karen had locked herself in the bathroom, George investigated the tiny kitchen. The thing that had immediately struck her about Karen's flat was that it felt as though Karen really had bought it on a whim. It didn't have the feeling of someone wanting to settle here, but someone wanting to escape from the place they'd lived in previously. The lounge was light, airy and long, but the kitchen was definitely the smallest George had ever seen, meant for only the essentials of survival. George could feel that this flat was simply a place for Karen to sleep in, a place for her to grab a quick meal in between far too many hours spent at work. It certainly bore Karen's touch, her personal mark, but it didn't feel as though she had made it her home, simply using it as somewhere to lay her possessions whilst she didn't have time to find anywhere better. George didn't know the singer on the CD Karen had put on, but she liked her, a soft, sultry southern drawl accompanied by guitars. Assessing what the kitchen possessed in the way of food didn't take her long. Karen definitely needed to go shopping in the near future, but George managed to come up with the rudiments of tagliatelle in the form of ham, mushrooms, pasta, eggs and cream, plus some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Putting the pasta on to boil, she began chopping the ham and the mushrooms, gradually becoming aware that a violin had now joined the guitars on the CD. The jazzy persistent double-stopping of the violin combined with the rapid plucking of the steel strings, served to raise her spirits, making her feel suddenly relaxed and happy in this unfamiliar setting. Here she was, cooking dinner for another woman, another woman whom she hoped to possibly sleep with some time tonight, and she was loving every minute of it. Blending the eggs and the cream together with a metal whisk in a large, steadily heating saucepan, and adding a dash of salt and pepper, she reflected that it was really quite a shame that she rarely enjoyed the food she was so proficient at preparing. Having attended an extremely expensive girls' boarding school at her father's insistence, learning to cook had been an integral part of her education. George had even occasionally wondered if that was why John had married her, that and for what she was like in bed. She was nervous at the thought of possibly sleeping with Karen, there was no point denying this. But she knew that the more she thought about it, the more nervous she would get. If it happened, it happened, if it didn't, it didn't. After the stress and adrenalin rush of this evening, bed might be the last thing Karen wanted. On the other hand, it might be the very thing to relax both of them. This would be a novel experience in more ways than one for George. Not only would she be trying something sexually new, which she hadn't done since she was married to John, but she would be putting herself completely in Karen's hands. She laughed softly when she thought of this. After all, wasn't that the object of the exercise? But she would have absolutely no idea what she was doing, and when it came to bed, George was used to always being in control, always being aware that what she was doing would inevitably bring maximum pleasure to whoever she was with, even Neil, damn him. Why on earth was she thinking of Neil of all people? He had always made her feel sexually maladjusted. He would never consider doing some of the things she thought of as perfectly normal, saying that whatever she suggested didn't strike him as remotely pleasurable. God, what would he think if he could see her now. He'd think she'd finally stepped over that boundary into total sexual depravity. Screw him, she thought. Screw him and his lower middle-class, narrow-minded idealism, that had never given her an orgasm in the whole time she'd been with him. No wonder she'd become so adept at faking it. She remembered once saying to John that she would have had more fun with a church minister than her cabinet minister. But no more, no more would she feel guilty for being turned on by the things she was. No more would she operate a look but don't touch attitude to women, and especially this woman in particular. So she might make a complete mess of it, she might be absolutely terrible at giving Karen pleasure, but she could learn, she could improve. Everyone had to start somewhere. Even if a person discovered that they had a natural inclination for giving pleasure, that the skills necessary came entirely with ease, everyone, even she had at some point had to go through the adolescent phase of discovery.

When Karen emerged from the hot shower, thoroughly scrubbed of any reminders of Buki Lester's form of emotional self-defence, she felt mentally cleansed as well as physically. It was her birthday after all, and by rights she ought to be allowed to enjoy some of it. George caught a brief glimpse of Karen wrapped only in a towel as she walked from bathroom to bedroom, after which she couldn't quite stop her thoughts from wandering beneath the only thing that stood between her and Karen's body. Stop it, she told herself inwardly as she transferred the sauce and the pasta to a serving dish and put it in the oven to keep warm. Opening a bottle of chilled Chablis she had found in the fridge, she poured them both a glass and handed one to Karen when she appeared in the lounge.

"Now this is definitely one thing I have been looking forward too all day," Karen said, after taking a grateful mouthful. Leaning forward, she kissed George lingeringly, the sharp, cool taste of the wine on her lips. Then she sniffed. "What did you find worth eating?"

"Wait and see," George said with a smile as she finally detached herself from Karen.

"I like a woman of mystery," Karen said, sitting down at the table which George had tentatively cleared of papers, knowing that moving anything remotely connected with work was a surefire way of irritating her, so it might do the same to Karen. But Karen didn't seem to mind. When George put the plates of tagliatelle down on the table, Karen noticed that George had given herself a good deal less than her, but she made no comment on this. Taking a forkful, she smiled and said,

"I hereby give you permission to cook for me any time you like."

"I've always enjoyed cooking," George said, picking up her own cutlery. "Funny really. I like preparing food, I just don't always enjoy eating it." George's eyes widened when she realised that she'd stumbled in to the territory of talking about one of her specifically banned topics of conversation, but Karen simply let it pass. It was becoming clear to her that although it had been George's policy to avoid discussing her problem with food for far too long, she did want to be able to talk about it, and this was manifesting itself in her doing it without prior thought. They ate in companionable silence, Alison Krauss on the stereo and the Chablis making a perfect accompaniment to the food. Afterwards, Karen washed up while George smoked a cigarette and relaxed in the depths of Karen's sofa. The soft, sheer purity of the singer's voice floated above her, almost bathing her in its reflective glow. When Karen refilled their glasses and sat down next to George, she said,

"That's the first time I've ever seen you look peaceful."

"It doesn't happen very often," George said languidly. "So make the most of it." George moved along the sofa so that she could put an arm round Karen and lean against her. Lifting her right arm to put it round George, Karen said,

"So, do you regret offering to spend two hours behind bars this evening?"

"No," George said which was almost a surprise to herself. "I don't. I learnt quite a lot tonight one way and another. Tina Purvis can say an awful lot in a very short time."

"Talking or eating is Tina's usual response to stress."

"When I returned from checking on Lauren, she was eating Sylvia's chocolate fingers."

"Serve her right for leaving me in the lurch this weekend," Said Karen with a rueful smile. "How did you get on with Denny?"

"Well, apart from being given the slightly dubious title of posh bitch, absolutely fine." Karen laughed.

"And I think Dominic and Gina were impressed with you."

"What will you do if Grayling finds out I was there?"

"If he's got any sense," Said Karen firmly. "He won't even dare to mention it. If you hadn't been there to be my runner and to look after Tina, Buki almost certainly would have died. Grayling would probably give you a medal for saving him from any more bad publicity."

"Is he really so shallow?"

"Not quite," Karen said, attempting to be fair. "He's nowhere near as bad as my previous boss. All Simon could say when Fenner was stabbed was that he wanted to hear those two little words, incident resolved. No more, no less. At least Grayling has some sense of humanity in there somewhere. It's hard to find sometimes, but it does exist."

"You said the other day that you'd been wing governor for long enough and that you wanted to spread your wings. Spread them how?"

"I'd quite like to run my own prison one day, and if they promote me to governor three, I can."

"What are you now?"

"Grade four. The lowest rank is grade five, grades five and four usually being wing governors. Grayling's a governor one, but he's been in the business a lot longer than me. I'm not sure how high a rank somewhere like Larkhall would require."

"You've got your eye on it, haven't you," George said with a knowing smile.

"Grayling isn't going to be there forever. He said so himself when he arrived. So when he does eventually go, who knows." They sat talking for a good while longer, listening to music and drinking the rest of the wine. Karen had at one point changed the music to the haunting tones of Tori Amos. On hearing the highly skilled piano playing which could only be the result of many years spent at a conservatoire, George's hands began to twitch. The piano music made a far deeper impression on her than the words, and like all musicians when they hear their instrument pushed to the bounds of its capability, she had a sudden urge to exercise her own fingers. But she wasn't at home and she didn't have her piano, so her wish was futile. Perhaps it was the wine she had consumed, perhaps it was the sudden urge to do something with her hands. But something had enhanced all George's senses, making her almost painfully aware of how close she was to Karen. When George began kissing her, Karen could feel that there was something different this time. George was more confident, more sure of herself. George's hand was lying in her lap but she had to restrain herself from allowing it to wander at will. Karen's fabulously constructed cleavage was luring her hand like a magnet, but she just about managed to stop herself from acting on it.

"You're frowning," Karen said, seeing the lines of sheer concentration etched across George's forehead.

"I have an almost overwhelming urge to touch you," George admitted. Karen laughed softly. After a little while longer of this, George said, "Please take me to bed." Karen could hear the clear underlying tone of arousal in George's voice, but she still asked,

"Are you sure?" In answer, George took Karen's other hand and led it to the buttons of her blouse. Smiling softly, Karen took George's hand and led her towards the bedroom.

Karen attempted to take her time in removing George's clothes, paying particular attention to every inch of revealed skin, but this was too frustrating for George. When her hands joined Karen's in undoing her clothes, Karen said between kisses,

"Calm down. We have all the time in the world."

"Patience has never been one of my virtues."

"Oh, I don't doubt it," Karen said with a broad smile. But she made fast work of the rest of George's clothes. When she finally surveyed what she'd only previously suspected was hiding under what George had been wearing, she just stared. This beautiful, ravishing, utterly gorgeous woman with the tiniest waist, perfectly sculptured hips and thighs and with small, heavy breasts that simply begged to be caressed, this woman was standing here, all for her.

"What?" George asked, a wickedly sinful grin turning up the corners of her mouth.

"You're beautiful," Was all Karen could find to say.

"Why does every person who has designs on my body always say that," She said almost dismissively. Gently taking hold of George's shoulder, Karen turned her to face the full-length mirror in the wardrobe door.

"Have you looked at yourself in a mirror recently?" Karen asked in total amazement.

"I look at myself everyday. What of it?"

"Then it's about time you realised how stunning you are."

"I used too," George said slightly regretfully. "Self appreciation seemed to go out of the window when I stopped eating last year." Putting her arms round George's waist from behind, Karen began kissing a trail across her shoulders and along her neck.

"You are beautiful," She asserted as she continued. "You have without doubt the most stunningly sexy body I've ever seen, and whilst I know its easier said than done, I would like you to believe that one day." Making sure George was still watching the mirror, Karen trailed her fingers upwards to let them flicker over George's breasts, gently teasing at the nipples and feeling their heavy ripeness. The combination of the feel of Karen's soft, delicate fingers, together with the sight of Karen's extremely female hands moving over her skin made her forget about everything but what was immediately happening to her.

"I think you've got an unfair advantage," George said, her voice deepened with arousal as she turned her lips to meet Karen's and began undoing the buttons of her blouse. It didn't take long for the rest of Karen's clothes to be discarded.

"John was absolutely right about you," George said as they moved towards the bed.

"Should I take that as a compliment?" Karen asked with a smile.

"You know you should," George replied as they met under the duvet, hands wandering at will and mouths interlocking to make further discussion almost impossible. When Karen's hand began moving in earnest on George's breast, she discovered that George certainly wasn't reticent in doing the same to her. There was something initially odd for George as she fondled Karen's extremely well constructed figure. The soft, heavy breasts that were a good deal larger than her own, rising to nipples as hard as bullets, but the other thing that astounded her, was just how gentle yet how sexually electrifying Karen's touch was. The only man George had ever slept with who had ever known how to be gentle enough whilst still maintaining a satisfactory level of contact was John. But this was almost certainly derived from his endless supply of conquests with which to perfect his technique. But Karen's soft, silky fingers needed no suggested adjustment in what they were doing to her. Karen liked George's boldness in touching her, liked the way George was mimicking what she was doing in order to try and get it right. George gasped as Karen stroked her thumb over an already sensitized nipple. When Karen regretfully detached her lips from George's and kissed her way down to soothe the tender pleasure point with her tongue and to gently encircle it between her lips, George couldn't decide which was sexier, the languorously sweeping tongue or the relentless pressure of Karen's lips. When George uttered a sound that in any other situation would have meant she was in pain, Karen looked up to see George furiously biting down on her lower lip. Kissing her way back up, Karen kissed George's lips until she parted them.

"You're not in court now," Karen said with a wicked little smirk. "Nobody's telling you you've got to stay quiet." George grinned back at her.

"You might change your mind about that."

"Tell me what you like," Karen asked between kisses, still moving her hand over George's breasts. George was finding Karen's movements almost too distracting.

"As I'm very new to this," She said eventually. "I think it's up to you to enlighten me."

"Wow," Said Karen, her smile turning predatory for a moment. "I've never been given unlimited licence before." Then, her smile turning soft again she said, "Don't say you're going shy on me, Ms Channing." George laughed.

"Never," She said in that courtroom tone that could cut throats with a single syllable. "I'd ruin my reputation if I did. But to answer your question, what you were doing wasn't a bad start." Returning to her former endeavour, Karen this time turned her attention to the other breast, alternately nibbling and soothing the sensitive skin until George was almost ready to plead for more stimulation elsewhere. Sensing George's need, Karen rested a gentle hand on her thigh, almost asking permission. When this was granted by the parting of George's legs, Karen inched her hand between them. It was no surprise to her that George was as shaved as she was. She didn't know why, but George just struck her as someone who would. At the first stroke of Karen's finger over her clit, George sucked in a breath and let out a moan of sheer ecstasy. If this hadn't been confirmation enough, Karen would have been assured of George's enjoyment at what they were doing when she slipped a long, tapered finger inside her. Withdrawing it somewhat more lubricated, she moved it back up and around George's clit. Detaching her lips from George's nipple, Karen began moving down, kissing each slightly too prominent rib in turn, fully intent on replacing her wandering hand with her mouth, but George stopped her.

"Please don't," She said, "I'd like to see you." Taking her at her word, Karen kissed her way back up until she was suckling on her other nipple. Sliding two fingers in to George's cavern of heat and wetness, she used her thumb to lazily and then more determinedly graze back and forth over George's clit, making her breath come in quicker and sharper gasps. When Karen sensed that George was close, she increased the speed in her hand and swiped her tongue again and again across her nipple. When George finally came, she couldn't help crying out, her internal muscles clamping down on Karen's fingers, her whole body going momentarily rigid. When she lay afterwards, her breathing gradually returning to normal, Karen simply lay holding her, gently kissing away a few stray tears that had appeared on George's cheeks. Reaching over to the bedside table, Karen took a few tissues from the box that always resided there and handed them to George to wipe her eyes.

"I might be out of practice," Karen said with a soft smile. "But I didn't know I was that bad." George half laughed as she dried her tears.

"Don't be ridiculous," She said. "You were incredible. I just feel, I don't know, like I've just lost my virginity all over again." Karen smiled.

"You have in a way," She said, remembering the emotional reaction she'd had the first time Yvonne had made love to her.

"It's funny," George said, putting her arms round Karen. "But it felt so much more," She searched for the right word. "So much more intimate."

"I know what you mean," Karen said, kissing her. "And I can assure you, you've seen nothing yet," She added lasciviously.

"Oh, really," Drawled George. "Well, whatever else I'm missing I'm sure can wait till another time," She said between kisses. "Because I really ought to return the favour."

"You don't have too," Karen said, not minding in the least if this was something George wasn't quite ready for.

"Of course I do," Said George. "Besides, it's your birthday, and you deserve to feel thoroughly sated." Karen glanced at the clock.

"Not any more it's not, thank god," She said. "But if you're insistent, I'm not about to say no." George began to look slightly nervous.

"I might be terrible at this," She said, drawing her face slightly back from Karen's.

"Only do this if you really want to do it. If you're not sure you want to, then don't."

"I do," George insisted. "I just can't promise I'll be as good as you were."

"Don't worry about that," Karen said, beginning to kiss her again. George found it easier simply to go by what she knew she liked. She allowed her left hand to wander at will, to trace the swell of Karen's breasts, the pinpoint nipples and the curve of her hips. Slipping a leg in between Karen's, George found herself half draped over her, which Karen found wholly delicious. Detaching her lips from Karen's, George let them trail down over Karen's collarbone, to tentatively go round one of her nipples. As George's tongue grazed her sensitive skin, Karen made a sound deep in her throat that George found incredibly erotic. It was halfway between a low, husky groan and something approaching a growl. Taking this as a good sign, George continued, trying to induce in Karen the kind of feelings she herself had experienced earlier. When her hand eventually reached between Karen's slightly spread legs, it took George completely by surprise. It was as if her hand had possessed a mind of its own. She smiled when she remembered how John had described Karen to her, and now here she was, actually putting that fantasy in to action. George wouldn't normally have used her left hand on herself, but using her left hand on someone else only required a slight adjustment. The gloriously wet and enticing heat that greeted her was almost intoxicating. She, George, was causing this level of sexual arousal in Karen, no one else. It gave her an amazing sense of confidence and satisfaction to know that Karen was this turned on by her.

"I didn't know you were left-handed," Karen said, arousal evident in her voice.

"I'm not," George said, grinning broadly. "But playing the piano means that both hands can be persuaded in to any remotely possible position."

"You're telling me," Karen agreed, her breath noticeably quickening. A moment later, George felt Karen's right-hand insinuate itself between her legs which were slightly spread, one being curled round one of Karen's. George had been half aroused by the whole naughtiness of what she was doing, the sheer newness and almost forbidden quality of it. But when Karen's hand began moving over and inside her again, she kissed her way back up to Karen's face to be eye to eye with her when they came. Their hands increasing in speed, their breath coming in faster and faster gasps, their unoccupied arms clinging to the other, they soared over their sexual peak almost simultaneously, kissing each other long and hard.

They lay close afterwards, holding each other, occasionally kissing and with no need for words. Karen was perfectly well aware that George had gone through a vast new set of experiences tonight, and George just lay, cocooned within Karen's arms, allowing herself to float on feeling alone. The sense of exultation she felt at having finally fulfilled one of the things she'd wanted to do ever since she'd discovered what sexually interested her was enormous. Some of the things she and John had tried when they were married had been sensational, and she knew that she could never be one of those women who gave up men altogether. But this had been incredible. She now had an insatiable curiosity to discover every new delight of this new avenue of sexual pleasure, to sample a taste of everything it had to offer. But what of Karen? George had suggested on Wednesday that this was all about to get very complicated, and she knew now that she'd been absolutely right. Karen might have said that as neither of them knew where it was going, there was no point in thinking about that, but George couldn't help thinking about it. But she loved John, she would always love John and she certainly wasn't about to stop sleeping with John. So, what did that mean for herself and Karen? Maybe Karen was right, maybe this didn't need to be gone in to now, even in her own head. On Wednesday, Karen had said just to see what happened, see where it went. That meant no strings, no pressure for either of them, which, if this were still the case in the morning, would suit her just fine. As they lay listening to the CD in the lounge slowly fading away to nothing, they gradually drifted to sleep, their bodies nestled against each other covered by the soft goose-feather duvet.

They slept, soundly and without dreams until just after half past eight the next morning. When the ringing of the phone in the lounge eventually penetrated Karen's fog-filled brain, she was half tempted to let the answer phone deal with it, but it was almost certainly either Gina or Dominic wanting to give her an update on the night's events. George had turned on to her left side some time in the night, still lying in Karen's arms but with her back to her. Gently disentangling herself, Karen got out of bed and went in to the lounge. Picking up the phone, she greeted Gina with,

"This better be good," in a voice filled with sleep.

"Oh, good morning to you too," Gina said far too cheerfully. "Good job it wasn't Grayling."

"Only you would dare phone me at this time on a Saturday morning after the week we've just had."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Said Gina, her face and voice suffused with a broad grin. "Get to bed late did we?"

"No, not especially," Replied Karen, utterly failing to hide the smile in her own voice.

"Just not alone then," Concluded Gina triumphantly. "It's about Alison McKenzie," She said, returning to the matter in hand. "You were right, she has been dealing again and we've had her tested so we'll see if she's using as well. Buki made it through the night, but only just. Thomas is going to keep her on the hospital wing till at least Monday. Tina's all right after last night, and we've got the usual contract firm coming in to clean the four-bed dorm this morning. Otherwise, all's quiet, for now. Paula and Colin will be in at ten."

"Well done," Karen said, relieved that there'd been no more mishaps overnight.

"And tell George I'm sorry for dragging you away," Gina added mischievously.

"Goodbye Gina," Karen said, but with a broad smile as she switched the phone off.

George had heard the phone ring, and had felt Karen slip out of bed. She'd drifted in and out of sleep, only vaguely aware of Karen quietly talking in the next room, and of the sound of running water and of Karen cleaning her teeth coming from the bathroom. When Karen returned to bed, George stayed exactly where she was, but Karen wasn't fooled. She hadn't spent all those years bringing up Ross not to be able to recognise when someone wasn't asleep. Gently putting her arms round George who was still lying with her back to her, Karen just lay for a while, holding this beautiful, soft warm body against her. The last time she'd been this close to someone was the night she'd slept with John. Those few short weeks with Yvonne had taught her to enjoy being physically close to someone again and she had missed this far more than anything else. When she felt George's fingers lacing themselves through hers, Karen said softly,

"I didn't think you were asleep."

"Not quite how I wanted to wake up," George replied, and Karen found she liked the slightly deeper, huskier sounding George.

"And how did you want to wake up?" Karen asked, thinking she might have an idea. In Answer, George took Karen's right hand and led it to her breast, where Karen needed no prompting as to what George obviously wanted. To George, Karen's incredibly sensual touch combined with her own still half-asleep brain felt luxurious. George simply allowed the feeling to spread over her like honey, gradually trickling in to every corner of her being. When George let out a deep moan of contentment, Karen said with a smile in her voice,

"So, this is your ideal way to be woken up, is it?"

"You can say that again," George replied. "It's extremely rare I get this particular wish granted though." A short while later, she turned over to face Karen and said, "Just let me clean my teeth, and I'll be back."

"I'll hold you to that," Karen said as George got out of bed. "I think there's a spare toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet."

"I brought one with me," George said, going in to the lounge to find her handbag.

"Aha," Karen replied, a broad grin lighting up her face. "So that's why you left your handbag in the car."

"Quite right," Said George, returning with the item in question. "I was not about to have your gateman search my bag like he did last time, and discover a toothbrush and a spare pair of knickers. It would have made his day." Karen laughed.

When George returned to the bedroom, she caught sight of something leaning against the wall that she hadn't observed the night before. She briefly stared at it in astonishment.

"I didn't know you played the viola," She said, correctly identifying the elongated, curved case.

"I haven't played it in far too long," Karen replied as George slid back under the duvet.

"And why not?" George asked, sounding for a brief moment exactly like her father.

"Ever since I took over G wing, time of my own has been somewhat lacking."

"Yes, I noticed that," George said dryly. "Do your staff always wake you up at some ungodly hour?"

"Invariably," Karen replied grimly. "Gina did ask me to pass on her apologies," She added with a smile.

"So that's why this hand is so incredibly good at what it does best," George said with a smirk, touching the fingers of Karen's right hand and glancing over at the viola case. "It's your bowing hand." When they began kissing, it felt good, it felt right to both of them. It might still be relatively new to George, but it didn't prevent her from knowing that this was where she wanted to be. Their hands moved in complete harmony this time, first on each other's breasts, then progressing lower. They needed each other desperately, they needed to repeat their fulfillment of the night before, almost as if this pleasure would never fall their way again.

"I could get addicted to this," George said as she neared her peak.

"That's because it's a novelty," Karen replied between kisses.

"Maybe," George agreed. "I always did get a kick out of trying anything new." As George came for the third time in eight hours, she thought that she could never get bored of this, not even taking her usual short attention span in to consideration. There was something utterly earth shattering, something so erotic about bringing someone of her own sex to orgasm that she thought the feeling would consume her entire soul. George had drifted back to sleep for a short while afterwards, and Karen lay there watching her. George really was beautiful, still too thin than was really good for her, but nevertheless stunning. Karen knew she was slowly, gradually being given glimpses of the inner George, the George who stopped eating in order to cope, who for some reason couldn't acknowledge or recognise how beautiful she was. But this didn't put Karen off in any way. After all, she was the last person who should see skeletons as obstacles in getting to know someone. Pressing a quick kiss to George's cheek, Karen slipped out of bed and took a shower, knowing that whatever came in the following days, weeks or months, she wouldn't ever regret making love to George, not even if George were to suddenly change her mind and stay away. George might be happy in the slightly odd relationship she had with John, but Karen thought she needed something more, not necessarily something more committed, but simply something different. But what about her, what about Karen. She had slept with George because George had wanted it and because she, Karen, had needed that feeling of letting go, combined with the feeling of comfort that only another's arms can provide. Just see where it goes, Karen told herself as she washed her hair, and if and when the time comes, say exactly the same to George.

Part Thirty

A bright shaft of sunlight gleamed through the curtains and into the cell which the Julie's shared. Julie Johnson was curled up like a ball in the top bunk sound asleep but her left eye flickered half open and she thought she saw the ample shape of Tina O'Kane hovering on the floor below her. This can't be real so she dismissed it from her mind.

"You're dreaming, Ju," Her mumble to herself was taken the wrong way.

"No you're not, Julie. It's me, Tina. I came here in the middle of the night, remember?"

"Go back to sleep, Teen, it's ages till the screws come knocking," Her voice slurred an answer, engaging a quarter of her waking mind at the most.

Peace and quiet settled down on the cell in common with the other sleeping bodies. When there was no choice but being woken at someone else's request, every prisoner bar none was not eager to face the morning before its time.

"Just how come you was allowed to kip down here for the night?"

"Buki cut up bad last night. It was horrible, Julies. There was blood everywhere, worse than she's ever been. It's always the same with Buki, I never saw it coming, she doesn't look, like sad and miserable like anyone else until it happens. I didn't know what to do till Miss Betts come in and bundled me out of the cell. After Buki was looked after, it was too bad for me to sleep in so I come here. There wasn't anywhere else to put me except share a cell with Natalie Buxton. Urrgh. I'd sooner sleep on the floor with me mates than a luxury bed with her."

"What's happened to Buki? God, it sound's terrible."

"I don't know. I think she's got taken to the hospital wing. I was out of the way in the PO's room scoffing Bodybag's chocolate fingers and chatting to George."

"George?" chorused the Julies. Had their prayers been answered and a good looking fella been parachuted into Larkhall sometime in the night. "How come there's a fella on the wing and we never spotted him?"

"Naah. She's a woman. She's dead beautiful and friendly, more beautiful than Virginia. Makes a lovely cup of tea."

"Who is this George?" Julie Johnson asked suspiciously.

"She's a top barrister. She's the one what defended Snowball Merriman."

"Oh yeah. And is that supposed to make us like her?"

Gina was in first thing and job number one was to look in on the Julies. There was no telling how Tina would be feeling after the trauma of the night before. She was a nice simple kid who seemed younger than her years and this wasn't the first time that she was in a cell when Buki had cut up. The Julies were great at giving the sort of mothering some of the girls needed but it wasn't fair to take them for granted. She knocked on the door and carefully opened it. One glance told her that the three women were fine and that Tina was comfortably snuggled up in the improvised bed and was smiling up at the Julies.

"You've not got a sore arse from sleeping on the floor, Tina. That's the best we could come up with last night."

"It's been like old times with the Julies. They've been dead good to me. I've been fine but never knew the floor could be so hard. I started counting sheep but that only made me more awake."

"We'll get your cell cleaned up and you'll be back in your own bed."

"Have you heard how Buki's going on. Truth is, that's one reason I didn't sleep so well what with worrying about her and I woke up dead early too."

Gina could tell that there were bags under Tina's eyes though she seemed superficially cheerful.

"I'm going to the hospital wing soon as. I know that you'll all be worried about her so right after breakfast, I'll tell all the women on the wing so you'll all hear. You all deserve it."

"Thanks, Gina," They smiled. They all liked this woman who was straight up, no nonsense so you knew where you were with her. You didn't want to cross her as she had a right temper but she got it out of her system straight away. She had a lot of common sense and a good heart. The Julies were very forgiving of her for that last quality alone. Everything was straight up and there wasn't that weird sense of something not quite right which had gone ever since……. Instead, when Gina breezed onto the wing, they felt cheered up straight away.

Lauren moved onto the wing with stiff limbs like an automaton, looking drained and feeling like death warmed up. The tablets Dr Waugh had given her last night had knocked her into oblivion, out so that she couldn't remember her head hitting the pillow. When she had got out from her bunk the next day, she stumbled around, feeling as if lead weights were attached to her and her normally sharp, alert mind felt foggy and vague, as if it were wrapped in cotton wool. She felt disconnected from time, from the day before and wanted to stay that way for safety's sake.

By contrast, Denny's feelings bubbled to the surface in the same way as an underground spring and were easy to put into words.

"Bodybag not here? She'll catch it when she gets back."

Julie Johnson grinned all over her face, having given the wing a ridiculously cursory once over.

"Aye? You're talking a load of pish."

Al's puzzled Glaswegian accent was dismissive only because she couldn't understand what Julie was banging on about. The evidence before her eyes was only that the screw she hated most wasn't there to open her cell door and she couldn't see her around. Right from when she was little, smarter, quicker witted women came out with all kinds of stuff. It made her brain hurt to work out where they got it from and after a while she gave up. It was easier to follow someone else who knew what she was doing. She felt safer when she met up with a woman who told her what to do, even if she was as straight as a plank like Maxi. It scared her to be on her own and growing up in Peckham round some lousy, flea ridden estate like Peckham made her scared. When she was part of a gang, she could do over any bitch that got in her way. The mere look of her bulk, her scowling face and close-cropped hair scared the shit out of them.

"We heard last night that she's skived off. I tell you, man, she'll be here next week trying to blag everyone that she's sick," Denny insisted in gleeful tones.

"Sick in the head, you mean," Al grunted.

After Al's automatic reply, she started feeling out for thoughts, which drifted overhead, until she started putting words to them. How did Denny know in advance that Bodybag was skiving when everyone was locked up for the night? When everything kicked off last night, Lauren must have been out for the count by the way she looks this morning, doped up to the eyeballs, and she wouldn't have noticed a thing. So how come Denny's reading the Larkhall Prison nine o clock news?

"How come you all know so much about Bodybag? We were all locked up together half an hour early by those bastard screws. They must have wanted an early tea break."

"Ah, Miss Betts came to lock us up and she told us straight." The Julies told Al in chorus form while Denny folded her arms across her chest, smiling to herself that there was something she knew that no one did.

"They're mental," Al shrugged her shoulders and moved off elsewhere. She had enough worries on her mind for herself after being hustled away by the screws for an unexpected drugs test. She knew what the results were going to be but something about today told her that the screws were holding back temporarily from the inevitable.

"That's not all that I got to know last night, Julies."

Their curiosity was immediately aroused because they were naturally inquisitive, because the day to day life at Larkhall could be crushingly boring and because of the knowing smile on Denny's face.

"So what's the big secret?"

"I know who Miss Betts' new bird is."

"Get away, Denny. As if she'd tell you."

"You'll never guess. Never in a million years."

The Julies tried to narrow down the name of a woman who Denny could have come across or heard about that was around Larkhall. It couldn't be Yvonne surely or Denny would have said so. It was a real surprise to them when they first heard about her and Yvonne. They both screwed up their eyes and gave up in despair.

"Can I have your attention. Hey, that means you two in the corner, stop gabbing."

Gina's foghorn voice cut through the wing all the way to the back and echoed its way up to the dizzy heights of the 3's and bounced off the curved perspex roof. She was standing half way up the first flight of stairs and she shut up the only two women who were gossiping away to each other.

"I don't keep back any secrets so everyone hears it from me straight. If you don't know, Buki Lester got taken into the hospital wing as she cut herself. She hurt herself worse than she's ever done but she was lucky, Miss Betts was on hand to see to her. I've just been over to the hospital wing and she's doing 'as well as can be expected.'"

"What does that mean, Miss Rossi?" Julie Johnson called out. That's the lying phrase too many doctors tell the likes of her, treat her like a child and they don't know she knows that some poor cow is on the way out.

"They're the words the doctor told me, Julie," Gina softened her tone. "Look, you know how it goes and you know the doctor's dead decent and will get up off his arse and work his socks off for her. It's out of our hands. The main thing is that she's being looked after properly. Me, Miss Betts and Dr Waugh will find out what set her off. If there's anything new, either me or Miss Betts will tell you, OK."

Right at the end, Gina softened the short sharp delivery of her words. The crowd nodded their understanding, She had only acted that way as she had seen the unconscious Buki attached to a drip feed and god knows what machinery and could only sense the huge cut on her wrist that nearly ended her life. She had to hand it to Karen for getting in there and saving Buki's life. Her old Wing Governor would have wrung his hands and done sod all and blamed her for letting that con die on her - and blamed her for it afterwards. She did admire Karen for her tasty piece of crumpet who was there on the wing last night and that she was prepared to muck in and help. That was her instant litmus test for anyone she came up against.

"You're also going to get a half an hour extra association today. Seeing that lock up was half an hour early last night, it's only fair to give it back to you."

There were smiles and a few cheers that brightened up the wing. It was only a tiny thing to look forward to in strolling casually round the exercise yard and chatting with your friends and see something of the outside world. Even the sight of high walls was a little treat that none of them in the far off days of freedom would have thought twice about.

Right now, Gina had a phone call to make to her Wing Gov and, grinning to herself, she wondered how long it would take her to answer the phone. Bloody ages, she guessed, from what she was like after a night with her fella. Her grin faded when she decided on the timing of when Al McKenzie should be nicked for dealing. It would hold off for the present till the wing had a chance to quieten down.

Karen battled between duty and pleasure as she felt the pleasures of last night were slipping away as the day wore on and that it was only a matter of time when she had to go in to Larkhall to make sure that everything was fine. She knew Gina well enough that she would deal with anything that she felt she could do but wouldn't shy away from phoning her up if need be. It gave her a warm feeling of security to know that there was that solid rock of dependability that was backing her up. Gina had changed out of all proportion to the bolshy woman who had barged her way into her office when she had other business to deal with and tried to con her into believing that she had put in a transfer to her wing as she 'wanted a challenge.' How times change, both for Gina and herself as she looked around her.

"I know you, darling. You want to spend the rest of the day with me but you feel duty bound to go into Larkhall."

"How did you guess?"

That was her guarded way of asking how could she be that transparent, she reflected as George smiled and carried on brushing her hair upwards into a chignon which accentuated the angles of her face. The view of George from this angle, feeling totally at home with her was part of a sequence of mental images of George that enraptured her and which she would treasure.

"Don't forget, I've got work to catch up with. There's a frightful amount of paperwork that I pushed into my briefcase that I really have to look at. After being up half the night with you one way and another, I feel guilty if I let my work slide too far."

The mantra of the professional woman, Karen nodded sympathetically. The magazines will tell you that all women's rights are won, from equal pay to the way that women are storming the barricades of the long entrenched fortresses of traditionally male dominated

Professions, herself in the prison service especially if she made Governing Governor and George, like Jo, in the legal profession. You were supposed to have the ideal figure, perfect skin, perfect clothes, raise a family, have the house that "Changing Rooms" would admire and hold down a top job to the point that men were starting to feel that they were the second class citizens. Just try telling that to area management with Alison Warner as the token high flyer. At the end of the day, it meant the right to the executive stomach ulcer and feel forever harried that you weren't on top of everything. Their mothers wouldn't understand as they didn't have to go through the same set of expectations that they either set themselves or somehow ended up with.

She was settled in the path which she chose for herself but why did she feel so weird being stuck half way between the passionate night she had spent with George and what she was destined to do. The crumpled shape of the snow-white quilt marked the space where they had lain together and should not be straightened with a quick swish as she usually did first thing. Mechanically, she slipped into her Wing Governor clothes and the intrusive habits of thoughts that went with it. It took an exchange of glances for both to realise that they were thinking the same things.

George smiled slightly as her bare feet diminished the space between the two of them and stood upon tiptoe as Karen was wearing medium high heels. She slipped her arms round Karen so easily and so naturally. Her soft lips searched out for the other woman's to draw them together for one last time before they went their separate ways.

"I'll be waiting for you in the gallery on Monday. I won't be late, darling," she whispered as her finger delicately traced a pattern on Karen's cheek.

It sounded from the description that as if they were making a date with each other at a romantic rendezvous and not as onlookers in the Old Bailey where the court battle was to be fought to the bitter end.

As Karen drove through the city streets, a few hardier souls ventured forth for some fresh air, as it was a cold sunny winter's day. She stuck one of her favourite CDs on that she had carried round with her for weeks and the woman's voice kept the workaday thoughts that were crowding into her mind from invading too early. She owed last night as much as that. This was the same feeling as much as when she was a nurse or a prison officer. At least things on the home front were stable as she smiled fondly of the birthday card from Ross. At one point in his disturbed life, he had thought of her enough to choose the birthday card, to write the card and to post it. It was more than she thought she would get. And then there was George who was singing the love songs to her that she never thought were meant for her.

"All right, Julie, I'll let you have a clue. The woman was a gorgeous blond, very tasty, someone I might fancy if I thought she was in my league."

"This is getting hopeless," Julie Johnson sighed at the way Denny teased her with this tortuous brain teaser. She's not getting any younger.

"That was George, that barrister I was talking about earlier on. It must be. Can't you remember?" Tina's voice chirped away to them from behind as they stood around, the wind whipping through their thin clothes.

"Aaaaah," Came the two-part harmony answer and dawning smiles of recognition as they made the connections at last. They hated it if they couldn't work out these puzzles.

"I'm off, Julies. I've got my shooter back."

From out of nowhere, there jumped into the Julie's mind a horrifying mental image of a sinister black gun which had been the curse of the Atkins and had dragged Lauren down

And threatened to take away her freedom. Surely not?

"No, it's my water pistol. I've got it back. I'll splat her right in the face. It's wicked."

The Julies grinned, watching Denny run around the exercise yard like the kid she still was.

Karen entered the wing as normal and her finely tuned instincts told her that the atmosphere seemed more normal than she had dared to think. It must be partly down to the prisoners and partly the officers. Karen nodded to Gina who was chatting to a new prison officer who she had taken under her wing to get her to find her feet.

"You needn't have dragged yourself in on a Saturday as you could have had a lie in. I wouldn't have done if I were in your shoes. Everything's under control."

She greeted Karen with a broad smile and a knowing twinkle in her eyes which expressed real respect that Karen took a real interest in everyone who she felt responsible for. They weren't all like that, she knew that well.

"I only thought I should see for myself. Everything looks fine to me. You fill me in on the latest, I'll pop in on a few of the prisoners later and catch up on my paperwork after being away for the trial."

"I've given them an extra half hour association to make up for last night," Gina mentioned casually to which Karen nodded agreement.

"I've had Al McKenzie tested this morning but do you reckon we should hold off a day before we bang her up. I know she's been dealing."

Even after all this time, Karen remained grateful that the wing could still run as smoothly as it did even after such a major trauma and she never forgot that she was enjoying the good fortune that Helen had never had when she was wing governor.

Tina seemed to make permanent occupation of her improvised bed on the floor while her own cell was being cleaned up. She knew it couldn't last but was torn between the comfort of her own cell which would be very quiet while Buki was away and the matey feeling of sharing with the Julies. One more night wouldn't do her back any good so she made the best of what time there was.

Just then, there was a polite tap at the door and Karen Betts poked her head round the corner. She smiled benevolently at them all as she had trusted that the Julies would calm down a possibly very distraught Tina.

"Did you get a good night, Tina. I'm sorry it's been a bit basic. You'll have heard from Miss Rossi that Buki's condition is stable but she'll be on the hospital wing till her arm heals. Dr. Waugh and I will try and persuade her to get the help that she really needs."

"Until she starts cutting up again, Miss Betts."

"Look here, Julie, you ought to know as much as anyone that you can't help anyone who refuses to be helped. I've tried. This time, well, we're going to try a lot harder, that's all."

Julie J felt immediately sorry for the woman who was making an effort to be controlled and patient in her reply. You could tell by the tiredness in her eyes. She was right. It was no one's fault.

"I'm sorry, Miss. That was bang out of order."

Karen smiled briefly until Julie Johnson's curiosity finally got the better.

"Is it all right if I ask you a question. It's like a bit personal."

"Go on."

This was a run up to being questioned about the mysterious blond who was miraculously there last night. She would give facts but definitely not figures. If she didn't tell them the basics, all sort of wild rumours would start circulating.

"Just who was the woman who was here last night and helped us all out last night?"

"Georgia Channing. You may remember her as the barrister who came round a while back to look round your cell."

"Oh, so that's who she was, that barrister. Yeah, she is good looking. You're lucky Miss."

Karen nodded and a slow foolish smile spread all over her face as she knew and felt how lucky she was.

Part 31

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