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 Thirty One

On the Monday morning, George felt serene, happy and thoroughly unable to keep the smile off her face that had been there since Friday. As she dressed and applied her perpetual layer of makeup, she couldn't wait to get to court to see Karen. Having not seen her since Saturday, George knew she would be getting withdrawal symptoms if she didn't see her soon. Once she looked like her usual immaculate self, she stood in front of the mirror and sternly told herself not to act like an adolescent, that behaving in any way inappropriately in public was not an option, and that hoping for any more than she was likely to get from Karen would only lead to disaster. As she went downstairs to make a cup of tea and to check her e-mails before going to court, too many of her appointments for this week having been postponed, the phone rang. It was Jo, asking if George would give her a lift to court because her car wouldn't start. Briefly rolling her eyes and deciding that her e-mails would have to wait till later because of rush hour traffic, George slammed her front door and throwing her handbag in to her car, backed out of her driveway. As she paused at the end of the road, waiting for a mother with two children to cross in front of her, she spied a red Ferrari in her rearview mirror, with what looked like Yvonne behind the wheel. Remembering that Karen had said Yvonne lived round here, George briefly waved, receiving a smile in return. As Yvonne followed George's sleek, black BMW, she couldn't help finding her driving funny. George was a nightmare to pedestrians and other motorists alike, always overtaking whenever she could, and using hand gestures that wouldn't have looked out of place in Larkhall to broadcast her displeasure to all and sundry. But when George turned off to collect Jo, and Yvonne did the same to fetch Crystal, Josh wanting the car to take the children out today, they parted company.

When she drew up in front of Jo's house, Jo dropped a bulging briefcase on to the backseat and got in beside her.

"Thanks for this," Jo said as she did up her seatbelt.

"Oh, my pleasure," George replied as she pulled out in to the stream of traffic. Having borrowed Karen's Carolyn Johnson CD from her on Saturday, George now had it playing on the car stereo, the cheerful rhythm and happy lyrics serving to enhance her current mood of relative euphoria. As she weaved her way through the slowly flowing London traffic, she occasionally found herself accompanying the singer on the CD, only stopping when she remembered Jo's presence beside her. But Jo didn't mind. It made a change to see George as happy and vibrant as she currently was, and she wasn't about to complain. After one song who's chorus ended with the words,

"Love is always worth the ache," Jo found her voice.

"You sound like you had a good weekend," She commented. George grinned wickedly.

"Oh, didn't I just," She couldn't help gloating. Then seeing the brief shadow that had crossed Jo's face, she strove to reassure her. "Don't look like that," She said gently. "It wasn't with John. You ought to know by now that whenever I do have a particularly good evening with John, I do my best not to flaunt it." Jo was forced to admit that this was true. George had always done her utmost to be discrete about the time she spent with John, knowing that even though this three-way relationship had been Jo's suggestion, that this didn't mean Jo was even now entirely happy with it sometimes.

"Anyone I know?" Jo asked, trying to lighten the mood.

"Well now," Said George with a smirk. "I'd say that was for me to know, wouldn't you?"

"As you wish," Jo replied, though not quite able to hide the fact that her curiosity was peaked.

"I know I should get some sleep, I'm at the beginning of another long week.

But I don't want you to go. No I don't want you to go," Sang George, sounding happier than Jo had ever heard her.

"If I didn't know better," Jo said, the realisation slowly dawning on her. "I'd think you were in love." George just smiled. "You are, aren't you?" Persisted Jo, a smile now lighting up her own face.

"In love is such an adolescent phrase," George said noncommittally. "But seeing as I feel like I'm fifteen again, yes, I suppose I am."

"And you won't tell me who?"

"I can't," Said George seriously. "Not yet."

"At least tell me if I know them?"

"Jo!" George complained with a laugh. "I'm itching to tell someone, anyone as it is, so yes, you would fit the bill nicely, but I can't."

"And with your urge to talk that must be horrendous," Jo commented dryly.

"Oh hilarious," Threw back George, the broad smile still lighting up her face. "You'll just have to be patient."

When George brought her car to a stop next to Yvonne's Ferrari, Yvonne and Crystal were just getting out.

"For someone who's supposed to be upholding the law," Yvonne said as George locked her car doors. "You're a bloody nightmare."

"Tell me about it," Jo said, seeing that Yvonne was only winding George up. "I wouldn't have asked for a lift if I wasn't desperate."

"I'm not that bad," George protested, but knowing she was.

"I'm amazed you haven't got a string of driving offences," Said Jo.

"How do you know I haven't?" Quipped back George.

"Go on," Said Yvonne with a grin. "How many points have you got on your licence?"

"Only three at the moment," George said, fishing it out of her handbag.

"That's what comes of having friends in high places," Yvonne said with a wry smile. As they walked towards the court building, Jo couldn't help wondering just who George's new beau might be.

Once inside, Jo and Yvonne separated from them and George and Crystal walked upstairs.

"I heard it didn't go too well on Friday," Crystal said quietly.

"No, not brilliantly," George replied. "I think Lauren will have needed the weekend to recover from that." When they reached the gallery, they saw that all the others were already there except Karen. As Crystal moved to sit down next to Barbara and George sat on the end beside Nikki, George found herself really feeling like one of these women. They greeted her like an old friend, making her feel far more welcome than she'd ever felt at all those social gatherings where sycophantic women talked about work and only work, in an endless effort to climb the professional ladder. When Karen arrived not long after and sat down next to George, she said,

"There was a bloody traffic jam not far from the prison, and I was so wound up by the time I got there, that I gave Sylvia a verbal warning." Then, lowering her voice so that only George could hear, she said, "If we weren't in present company, I'd kiss you."

"That's good to hear," Said George with a smile. "I thought I was going to get withdrawal symptoms if you didn't turn up this morning."

"That'll wear off," Said Karen with a laugh.

"It doesn't, believe me," Said Nikki on George's other side. George looked round at her with a slight blush. "When I first met Helen," Said Nikki quietly. "One smile from her would keep me going for an entire week." But before they could continue this conversation, the clerk called out "All rise," and the second week of the trial began.

When Meg Richards had sworn the oath, Jo moved forward to begin her questioning.

"Dr. Richards, what was your initial impression of Lauren Atkins?"

"When I first met Lauren Atkins," Meg began in that quiet, controlled, utterly self-confident voice Karen knew so well. "She was angry, confused and without doubt highly disturbed. For a while, she resented having to talk to me, clearly not wanting to admit that there was anything wrong with her. She seemed to think it made her less of a person to be suffering from a psychiatric illness than to be guilty of murder." George felt a brief moment of sympathy for Lauren.

"Dr. Richards, before we turn in detail to your report on Lauren Atkins, what, in short, was your eventual diagnosis of her state of mind?"

"Lauren Atkins is suffering from a type of psychosis that has made it impossible to come to terms with the fact that her brother and her father are dead. She cannot entirely escape from both her father's and her brother's encouragement."

"How does this manifest itself?" John asked.

"I will come to this, My Lord," Jo replied.

"It is not uncommon for Miss Atkins to either hear her father's or her brother's voices, or to actually se them as if they were in the room with her," Meg said, turning to look up at John. Having witnessed something of the kind on the previous Friday morning when Lauren was on the stand, John understood.

"Let us now turn to your report," Jo continued. "3B in your bundle, My Lord." Meg's psychiatric report on Lauren ran as follows:

Lauren Atkins: psychiatric report

Name: Lauren Atkins.

Case Number: 240073.

Date: 15/03/04.

Attending Psychiatrist: Dr. Margaret Richards.

I was invited, by council for the defence, Jo Mills QC, to examine Miss Lauren Atkins and to give evidence in the case of the Crown versus Atkins. Lauren Atkins has been charged with the brutal murder of Mr. James Fenner, a principal officer of Her Majesty's Prison Larkhall, on the fifth of October 2003. Whilst Miss Atkins is not denying that she committed this act, she is mounting a defence of diminished responsibility. With this in mind, my examination of Miss Lauren Atkins will take in to account the three following areas: Lauren Atkins' thoughts and feelings with regards to Mr. Fenner's murder; her severe distress and inability to allow herself to grieve following the suicide of her brother, Ritchie Atkins, on the 29th of August 2003; and her general attitude with reference to the breaking of the law.

To begin with, I have talked at length to Miss Lauren Atkins with regards to the death of Principle Officer James Fenner. Miss Atkins does not deny what she did, one might almost say she has been extremely co-operative about her involvement in this act. She has explained the course of her actions, beginning with stalking Mr. Fenner, progressing to abducting him and to eventually injuring and killing him. She has described her actions both to the police, to her barrister, and to myself with as much openness and amiability as could be expected in such a situation. Miss Atkins has stated that she felt high on Sunday the fifth of October 2003, to quote her specifically, "Higher than on any drug." Whilst she had clearly been planning this act for some time, it was on this particular Sunday that Miss Atkins felt a distinct need to fulfill her mission. When asked to provide an explanation as to why she deemed it necessary to kill James Fenner, Lauren Atkins replied that it simply needed to be done. When asked to elaborate, she would not at first disclose her motive. It was only after some further discussion, and on feeling that she could trust me, that Lauren Atkins began to explain her unlawful actions.

On the 29th of August 2003, Lauren Atkins suffered two tragedies within hours of each other. First, she was forced to watch as her brother, older than her by four years, was sentenced to ten years in custody. Only hours later, she was informed that her brother had committed suicide, by an overdose of barbiturates. The day after her brother's suicide, when her mother had returned home after identifying Ritchie Atkins' body and collecting his personal belongings, Lauren Atkins was given a letter addressed to her from her brother, which he had clearly written just before he took his overdose. I have attached a copy of this letter to my report, but its main purpose was to plead with Lauren to kill Mr. James Fenner. Lauren Atkins saw this as her brother's dying wish, a dying wish that she could not ignore. He told her that he was proud of her, gave her the kind of compliment she hadn't received since the death of her father, Charlie Atkins, two years before. Ritchie Atkins' letter instructed Lauren not to inform their mother of his request, as by his own words, she wouldn't understand. It is my professional opinion that Ritchie Atkins achieved his goal by playing on his sister's insecurities, by telling her precisely what she needed to hear at a time of deepest sorrow. He clearly and calculatingly took advantage of his sister's wavering loyalty towards their dead father and the principles of Atkins justice he and they had once stood for. Lauren Atkins saw it as her duty to fulfill her brother's dying wish, to regain some of her past life, seeing it through the rose-tinted spectacles through which we all see departed loved ones. During this time, it was a perfectly natural reaction for Lauren Atkins to emotionally cling to the life she'd once known. I believe that she wanted to recapture the days when her father was proud of her criminal achievements, and her brother still loved an respected her. In his letter, Ritchie Atkins reminded his sister that she was and is an Atkins by blood, not simply an Atkins by name as their mother is. His words persuaded Lauren in to thinking that it was her duty to uphold the Atkins family values, to commit one last act of Atkins-style justice in the name of her father and her brother.

Whilst this may all appear slightly fanciful to any cross-examining barrister, the effect these words and the feelings associated with them would have had on Lauren Atkins must in no circumstances be underestimated. Lauren Atkins is not denying that she undertook to kill James Fenner in such a brutal and inhumane fashion, but she is simply attempting to provide an explanation of why she chose to do this. The sense of duty Lauren Atkins felt towards her family and its values is clearly an area of deep-rooted thinking that cannot be undone overnight, simply by the choice her mother took on leaving prison to keep to the proverbial straight and narrow. This was far easier for Yvonne Atkins than it would ever have been for her daughter Lauren. Yvonne Atkins chose to marry in to the Atkins family, whereas Lauren Atkins was brought up surrounded by the family code of practice from the time of her birth. Lauren Atkins is the last of Charlie Atkins' bloodline, and she may have felt pressured by her brother's suicide letter in to, at least for this one act of retribution, continuing what her father had started many years before. This hypothesis can be strengthened further when questioning Miss Lauren Atkins on the subject of law breaking. Within a very short time, it became clear to me that Lauren Atkins sees absolutely nothing wrong in breaking the law to satisfy her own ends. She knows that in the grand scheme of things it is wrong to play a significant part in organised crime, but she cannot help but see this as a way of life. As Ritchie Atkins said in his last letter to his sister, she was Charlie Atkins' protege. This meant that he taught her to shoot at a very early age, and that whilst both Charlie and Yvonne Atkins were in prison, Lauren was able to take over the family business without any difficulty. Lauren Atkins must not be entirely blamed for this. Her father was a sadistic, ruthless individual who bent every person he met to his will. In other words, disobey or challenge Charlie Atkins, and you end up in an early grave. Ritchie Atkins had chosen to duck out of his father's life, to make his own way in the world, but Lauren didn't feel able to do this. Like her mother, Lauren Atkins knew that she either had the choice of staying and adopting Charlie Atkins' way of life, or of going in to hiding, being constantly on the run and in fear of her life.

My recommendations to the court are as follows:

1. That Lauren Atkins is not questioned too closely on the death of her brother, as she is inclined to extreme emotional outbursts if provoked, which would be neither productive nor appropriate in such a setting as a courtroom.

2. That Lauren Atkins needs psychiatric treatment, not a custodial sentence. She has a serious lack of closure with regards to her brother's death, and she currently cannot adequately cope with the legacy of Atkins family duty that both her father and her brother have left to her.

3. That the defence of innocent by virtue of diminished responsibility be upheld, as, in my professional opinion, Lauren Atkins had an enormous amount of pressure put on her, let us not forget from beyond the grave, to commit this act of violence. Lauren Atkins had no person with whom to plead her case, as both her father and her brother were dead. For her entire life, Lauren Atkins' feelings, judgments and opinions have been built on extreme loyalty, both to her father and to the values he upheld. Whether this loyalty was engendered by way of fear, rather than respect cannot be wholly estimated, but such levels of loyalty both to a person and to a way of life should not be ignored. Lauren Atkins requires treatment, rehabilitation and understanding, facets not usually present in the type of psychiatric treatment provided within Her Majesty's prisons.

"Dr. Richards, you have stated in your report that when Lauren Atkins was asked why it was necessary to kill James Fenner, she simply said that it was something that needed to be done. Please could you explain this?"

"My Lord," Said Neumann Mason-Alan, getting to his feet. "Surely it is for the defendant to explain her words, not her psychiatrist."

"Sit down," John said, sounding thoroughly bored with the man's antics. "If you'd wanted Miss Atkins to explain this particular sentiment, you should have asked her when you had the chance. Please continue," He said, turning his attention back to Meg.

"The way in which Lauren Atkins approached the killing of James Fenner was entirely single-minded. It occupied every minute of her day, resulting in the kind of unbending focus that many professionals apply to their work. I have come across surgeons, barristers and prison governors who do likewise, leaving themselves little time for a life outside their professional pursuits."

"That sounds familiar," Said Karen, exchanging knowing smiles with Helen and George who had the capacity to be as focused and single-minded as she did.

"It would be fair to say," Meg Richards went on. "That Lauren Atkins approached the task of removing James Fenner with the same kind of total dedication. For the six weeks between the death of her brother and the death of James Fenner, it was all she thought about, all that mattered to her. She would have maintained the appearance of a normal, day-to-day existence, but this would have only been on the surface. Every moment she was alone, she would have returned, mentally if not actually, to the matter in hand."

"And could you also offer any explanation as to why Lauren Atkins felt so euphoric immediately following her killing of James Fenner?"

"For some people, doing something as horrifically dangerous as killing someone, can give them an enormous rush of adrenalin, almost like a drug-induced high. It can even go as far as to be a sexual arousal for some of them, though I would hasten to add that this was definitely not the case with Lauren Atkins."

"Dr. Richards," John intervened again. "If, as you say, Lauren Atkins finds it impossible to escape from the sights and sounds of the two people who have influenced her so greatly, what would your reaction be to a suggestion to place Miss Atkins in a secure hospital, somewhere like Broadmoor for example."

"No!" Came the unguarded plea from Roisin, who knew only too well the fear and uncertainty that resulted from being confined in such an environment. All eyes turned upwards to the gallery, but John made no comment.

"Actually, I would agree with such a response," Meg said in to the resulting silence. "Lauren Atkins would definitely not benefit from being confined in any kind of closed environment alongside severely disturbed people."

"But why," Persisted John. "If her form of psychosis has been the cause of her committing a pretty brutal murder?"

"My Lord," Jo interrupted. "Might I draw your attention to what my client said when I questioned her? Lauren Atkins' words were: Charlie taught me to shoot with that gun, and it seemed fitting to commit my first and last murder with his weapon."

"Precisely," Agreed Meg. "I do not believe that Miss Atkins will ever again be in the position she was after her brother's suicide."

"But you cannot be certain of this?" Asked John.

"Nothing is certain, My Lord, least of all the random thoughts and electrical impulses that make us react in the ways we do."

"Dr. Richards," Jo continued, trying to regain the reins of her case. "You have also stated in your report that, it is your professional opinion that Ritchie Atkins achieved his goal by playing on his sister's insecurities, by telling her precisely what she needed to hear at a time of deepest sorrow. You have also said that Ritchie Atkins, clearly and calculatingly, took advantage of his sister's wavering loyalty towards their dead father, and the principles of Atkins justice he and they had once stood for. Please could you explain this in greater detail?"

"What the court needs to understand if Lauren Atkins is to receive a fair hearing, is that from day one, she was put under enormous pressure by her father to grow up an Atkins. Whilst Yvonne Atkins may have suffered at the hands of her husband, she did not have to deal with the same amount of expectation. Yvonne Atkins was only an Atkins by name, not an Atkins by blood as both Lauren and her brother were. The family, and their absolute loyalty to his way of life were the two most important facets of Charlie Atkins' character. Both of his children would have grown up believing that the family and loyalty to the family were all that mattered. As I wrote in my report, the extent to which Lauren's loyalty was bought by fear or respect, I couldn't possibly begin to estimate, though I suspect it was a mixture of both. When Ritchie Atkins wrote that last letter to his sister, pleading with her from beyond the grave to carry out his last wish, she had no one with whom to plead her case, no one to whom she could explain her feelings. Ritchie had specifically told his sister not to discuss what he'd asked her with their mother, thereby removing Lauren's one possible listener. As a result of the extreme loyalty she had for her father, despite the numerous things he had done to hurt her, it could never have been within Lauren Atkins' nature to disregard her brother's last wish. Ignoring what he had asked her to do, or discussing it with anyone simply wasn't an option for her."

"Dr. Richards," John interrupted yet again, dramatically raising Jo's blood pressure. "Precisely why does Lauren Atkins exhibit on the one hand, a level of loathing for who her father was, to rival that which I find myself occasionally feeling towards the establishment, and on the other, a strength of will and sincere loyalty that has influenced her into stalking, abducting and killing a man?"

"My Lord," Put in Jo, barely concealing the irritation in her tone. "If I might be allowed to question my own witness, I feel sure that these facts will be revealed." But knowing that it was the Judge who ruled and not either barrister, Meg answered him.

"This is possibly the most obvious symptom of the type of psychosis that Lauren Atkins is experiencing," Meg began. "She cannot align what would have been expected of her by her father and brother, with the hurt and anger she feels for both of them as a result of what both she and her mother have gone through over the years. If the expectation of her loyalty were nowhere near as strong, Lauren Atkins would never have had a problem in consigning any wish to please her father to the recesses of her mind. But as this emotional hold on her is still so strong, this need to fulfill both what her father had taught her to be and what her brother asked her to do, have remained well and truly on the surface of her consciousness, providing her with an internal battle from which she cannot escape."

"Finally, Dr. Richards," Continued Jo. "Please would you outline to the court, exactly what course of action you would recommend for Lauren Atkins?"

"I would unerringly stand by what I said in my report, that Lauren Atkins should not be given a custodial sentence, and that what she requires is psychiatric treatment, support and understanding. Lauren Atkins needs to be encouraged to grieve for the death of her brother, and to be helped, possibly via cognitive behavioral therapy, to detach herself from the stringent expectations placed on her by her father. Such in-depth psychiatric treatment as I would recommend for Lauren Atkins, is not routinely available or possible within Her Majesty's prisons. During the times when she is not receiving psychiatric treatment, Lauren Atkins needs to be at home, where she can benefit from the love and support given to her in unstinting quantities by her mother. At present, Yvonne Atkins cannot support and help her daughter as much as she would like, and it has become clear to me whilst examining Lauren Atkins that she will not begin to deal with her problems until her mother can give Lauren her full, undivided attention."

"No further questions, My Lord."

"As it is later than I thought," John decided. "I think it will be more convenient to adjourn till this afternoon." As they all rose to watch him depart through the door behind the Judge's bench, Karen said to George,

"He wouldn't really do that, would he?"

"What, commit her to a psychiatric hospital? I don't know. You never can tell with John. He has before and he will again, so who knows." When they reached the foyer, Karen's face broke in to a smile as she saw Meg walking towards them.

"Long time no see," Karen said, walking forward to give her a hug.

"And whose fault is that?" Meg asked seriously, briefly returning the hug.

"I know, I'm sorry," Karen said a little sheepishly. "I've been busy."

"Yes, so I've heard," Said Meg dryly. As the two women stood a little apart from the rest, clearly catching up, Nikki spoke discretely to George.

"You might want to wipe that gloriously self-satisfied smirk off your face before Yvonne appears, because it won't take her two minutes to work out who it's for." George blushed scarlet, hating the fact that she was so transparent.

"Is it that obvious?" She asked.

"Just a bit," Nikki replied with a broad smile. "Helen was always far better at discretion than I was, and I was the one who'd had the practice."

"Is it ridiculous, feeling so elated?"

"No, of course not," Said Nikki with a fond laugh. "Just make sure you enjoy every minute of it." Hearing the sheer sincerity in Nikki's words, George vowed to take her at her word. No matter how long this, whatever it was lasted, whether it be a few weeks, a few months or even longer, she would enjoy everything it had to offer. With this in mind, she walked over to Karen, only to hear Meg's last few words.

"Karen, when all this is over, you must come and see me."

"Are you saying that as a psychiatrist or as a friend?" Karen asked dryly.

"Both," Meg replied firmly. "I mean it. You haven't been to see me in either capacity for well over a year, and I think it's long overdue."

"I will, I promise," Karen said quietly.

"Well, don't just think about it, do it," Meg affirmed sternly. As she walked away, Karen turned to see that George was standing next to her.

"I guess that's me told," She said with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"Have you known her long?" George asked, privately thinking that Karen was far braver than she was for even thinking of seeing a psychiatrist, never mind having one as a friend.

"I've known Meg since I was a nurse," Karen said with a smile. "I've worked with her on and off for years, and she's right, I haven't been to see her in her professional guise for far too long." Then she grinned. "You know, I should recommend Meg to John. He'd never succeed in getting passed her like he did his previous therapist. Meg's been in the job too long to fall for his charms."

"Is someone taking my name in vain?" Came a voice from behind them. Turning round, Karen said,

"Yes, I think I've found you a new therapist."

"Not the woman who was in court this morning?" He asked looking slightly wary.

"The very same," Karen said with a broad smile. "You'd never pull your usual stunt on Meg Richards, though I have to admit, it would definitely be amusing to see you try."

"Trust you to know someone like her," John said ruefully. "She's the most powerful, down to earth psychiatrist I've ever seen in the witness box."

"And you've still got an afternoon to get even more acquainted with her," Said George, knowing that never in a million years would John take therapy from someone he wouldn't be able to seduce if things got too difficult for him.

Part Thirty-Two

The gallery was filling up early while the court was still fairly deserted so that they could all talk quietly together.

"Now it's the turn of that wanker to have a go," Sighed Nikki as she saw Meg Richards start to move towards the witness stand and Neumann Mason-Alan seated and rifling through his papers.

"Don't worry, Nikki. Meg is one of those utterly self-possessed women who you simply cannot shake, whatever the provocation. She stood up to Shell Dockley's trying to get one over on her and turned it straight back on her. The more he tries it on with her, the calmer she gets."

Nikki was deeply impressed by this statement and Helen looked down into the court expectantly. She always had an attraction to the cut and thrust of situations and it gave her a strange feeling that it was not her speaking, either as psychologist or Wing Governor, but someone else.

George turned round in her seat and looked up the staggered line of benches at Sir Ian and Lawrence James who sat with stony disdain. She gave them her widest insincere smile and fluttered her fingertips in mock greetings to them.

"Careful, George. From the looks of them, you'll end up being turned to stone."

George grinned at Karen's witticism and the affectionate way that her melodic voice expressed it. She couldn't resist giving Karen's shapely hand a discreet squeeze.

Roisin looked closely at the mild mannered woman who was now in the witness box. There was something about her stance that suggested that she was relaxed and ready for anything. That woman had the same quiet strength as herself.

"Do you wish you were down there, George?" Babs enquired politely.

"The courtroom isn't big enough for me and Jo on the same bench. We'd only cramp each other's style and I am quite sure John wouldn't let us. I'm better in sitting this one out and helping out here."

"Dr. Richards, let us begin at the start of the matter, and that is, the trial and subsequent suicide of the defendant's brother. Can you explain to the court exactly what the defendant's attitude to her brother during that trial was?"

"She was hostile to her brother. She resented the fact that her brother had swindled her and her mother out of £50,000. She felt that he had betrayed her and her mother."

"Yet nowhere does this very interesting gem of information appear in the psychiatric report, Can you explain this omission? It casts doubt on the statement that the defendant took the life of James Fenner as a result of her brother's dying wish."

"It is perhaps an omission but it does actually add weight to my conclusion that the defendant should receive psychiatric help rather than a prison sentence."

"Does it? I suggest that you have inadvertently removed an essential plank of the defence that the defendant was hostile to her brother and therefore could not have acted as she did out of some supposed wish to respect the last dying request of her brother. Such a desire would imply that she had a close attachment to him, that she loved him."

Neumann Mason-Alan uttered these last words with all the confidence and conviction that he was seeing a way how he could unstitch the case of the defence by an unguarded admission which he could exploit to the utmost. Sir Ian permitted himself a thin smile of satisfaction.

"You are talking about someone with clear, unambiguous feelings of love and hate who rarely come within my professional field. If you have read my report as a whole, you will see that the defendant was subject to oscillating feelings of both love and hate for her brother Ritchie Atkins and her father Charlie Atkins. The feelings felt by the defendant during the trial that I have explained would have been violently reversed in exactly the way I have described. It emphasised just how vulnerable and guilty the defendant would have felt after her brother's suicide. I am grateful to you, Mr. Mason-Alan for reminding me of this essential fact."

Neumann Mason-Alan froze where he stood, taken aback by the way that the quiet, unhurried tones of this woman had neatly dropped him into a trap. He looked down at his papers and shuffled them and he was unable to see the nearly universal grin but he could sense it.

"You have given evidence in your report that her father was a 'sadistic bully who must be obeyed unless she wanted to end up in an early grave.' I grant you that the defendant may have felt that way while he was alive, but surely he was no longer able to influence the actions of his daughter because he was dead. Dead men do not control families from the grave."

"In normal situations, you are broadly right but what my report deals with is the defendant's highly abnormal situation because, without this, she would not be in the dock at this moment. In the defendant's mind, her father's presence was only too real at the time of her brother's suicide. It is highly likely that the existence of her father and brother are still very real to her to this day."

A chilly silence fell on the court as Meg Richards's measured academic tones took on a life of their own. Selena was instantly struck by the remote, rigid expression on Lauren's face as she stood next to her. She was immediately sorry for the woman who had never done her any harm, who was polite enough to her despite Bodybag's moanings about the Atkins family.

"Hey, Lauren, relax. I know what you're feeling but don't forget, you've got your friends in the gallery."

Her expression softened as she craned her head round to snatch a glance at familiar faces. Fortunately, Colin was the other PO and he got the message, as Sylvia would have had a silent fit and told her to stand up straight. She knew that they must have been there since the very start of the trial even if they could barely be seen. She could swear that the female barrister who had prosecuted her brother was there, though she couldn't be sure of that from her angle of vision. She had once been there up with them and the Atkins values could not even begin to blank off that feeling of hurt that she had somehow fallen to this level. Roisin leaned over the rail to catch her eye and, in a second, she was oblivious to everything except the need to heal with her love the raw wounds that she could see on the other woman. All Roisin's tenderness went out to the occasionally and curiously waif like Lauren no matter how hard she tried to act. In that moment, Lauren unfroze and her emotions flowed over like molten lava. She breathed deeply in and out as she scrambled perilously on the cliff's edge of her emotions for a handhold. Automatic Atkins habit made her blink tears out of her eyes, nothing else.

"I know, Miss Geeson but they're so far away. It's Ritchie and Charlie that I want to keep at arms length."

"I know."

That same cold blast that momentarily froze Lauren's spirits could be felt in the gallery. Jo looked down and shut her eyes briefly while Neumann Mason-Alan, in his mind, scornfully denied such a pathetic excuse dressed up in typical psychiatrist's long words. His inability to react back to that point had given all of them that instant's grace.

John measured the inadvertent pause with a practised eye and carefully overlooked the discreet activity surrounding Lauren. Eventually, he found his voice, sensing a way through this very fraught situation.

"Your theory, if I might say so, was proved to the hilt only the other day. The counsel for the prosecution, who was examining the defendant insisted that she pick up the very gun before you that is exhibited in evidence, and asked her to imagine that she was pointing the gun at James Fenner. I regret not intervening as I should have done in this matter. What is your professional opinion of the wisdom of such an action?"

"I would most certainly and forcibly have argued that on no account should the defendant be forced to pick up a gun. Such a foolhardy and reckless course of action could very easily have precipitated such a traumatic reaction that could trigger a psychotic breakdown in the defendant. It doesn't take a trained psychiatrist to work that one out from the first two conclusions of my report. I did not anticipate when I wrote my report, that the counsel would resort to these very crude and very dangerous theatrics."

For the first time in Karen's life, she saw Meg Richards speak with a mixture of real anger and passion and she could sense her fear for Lauren's precariously balanced mental stability.

Meg Richards has done wonders in arguing my case for me, Jo Mills thought in a mixture of wry amusement and deep satisfaction. Surely Neumann Mason-Alan would not dare to argue the point, but she was wrong.

"My lord, I protest at the accusation that the witness has levelled at me, quite apart from the fact that it is not her role in court proceedings. At no time have I ever placed undue pressure on the defendant - to merely hold a gun in her hand."

A collective sharp intake of breath ran round the court like lightning. Both Jo and George marvelled how crass even Neumann Mason-Alan could be and wondered if he had an unconscious death wish. Sir Ian and Lawrence James groaned inwardly and made a mental note to question whether he was such a safe pair of hands as was made out. The good intentions were there but the ability was lamentable. The boiling rage from the gallery was contained by their collective perception that John would pull the heavens down on him.

"Mr. Mason-Alan, perhaps you are handicapped by your view of the courtroom but mine is not. I can see quite clearly even from my distance, that the defendant is at the limit of what she is able to cope with of even the most sympathetic of court hearings. For the sake of justice, I do not wish there to be a repetition of last Friday's cross-examination which I was compelled to adjourn. You might not think that the defendant is on the witness stand, but even you ought to understand that her state of mind most assuredly is. I shall give you one last opportunity to redeem yourself in radically changing your approach in your examination. Or do I have to go to the extreme of doing what I have never done in my career."

John hesitated a second, a little out of breath for the first time in his life and also so that he could play his pause for maximum effect. The shock sank into the court as they wondered just how a judge with his colourful record could possibly be more extreme.

"If I am pushed, I will cut short the proceedings and direct the jury to acquit the defendant of the charges laid before her, on the basis that there is no case to answer."

Although John's tone of voice was pitched low, it had the impact of a double shotted broadside being fired at lethal range into the most vulnerable part of an ancient galleon. Even to the women in the gallery, who were no strangers to the art of verbal warfare, were deeply impressed by this thunderous display. In the dock, Lauren smiled warmly at the judge. Beneath his robes, Yvonne's daughter could sense how deeply stirred his very real human emotions were.

If the coloured barrister could have turned pale as chalk, he would have done. He grabbed for a glass of water and swallowed deeply before speaking.

"My Lord, can I have a few minutes to check my notes as I need to consider my position.

As Neumann Mason-Alan's strangled tones just about lasted out before petering out at the end, Meg Richards had the curious feeling as if the Red Sea had parted its waters before her, leaving a small inoffensive trickle of water to seep back.

"Dr. Richards, correct me if I am wrong, but you testified in the morning that you cannot be certain that the defendant will never revert to the same frame of mind in the period leading up to the taking of James Fenner's life. Is that not so?"

"Those were my very words. As I stated, nothing is certain in psychiatry."

"I don't understand. Are you telling me that the very definite conclusions you draw are founded on the possibility that you may be wrong? Surely a professional of many years standing would be able to plumb the hidden depths of the defendant?"

Jo could hardly conceal the deep disgust at the synthetic and crude way he manufactured incredulity when he had experience of trials to know better. After his apologetic start, he was reverting to type.

"Would that what you say is so. The profession has advanced as a whole over the decades but, despite all this, I cannot predict with absolute certainty a patient's future behaviour and his future actions."

"So, it is possible that you are wrong, in fact wrong in all your conclusions regarding the defendant, and you have built theoretical castles upon sand."

"I am as certain of my conclusions as to the defendant as you are that when you drive your car home, you will not be involved in a motor accident. You have equal faith in the level of probability that I describe, that you won't be afraid to drive your car."

"The merits or otherwise of my ability to drive a car is hardly the point. I put it to you that, despite your attempt to dodge the question, your whole report is a matter of conjecture and supposition masquerading as fact.

"If you look through my report, it picks up Dr. Waugh's report and explains what he was unable to understand. I am unable to make cast iron predictions about the future, but I am able to say with a high degree of certainty that Miss Atkins needs help, not punishment."

"Miss Atkins, I hope I am not disturbing you if the court appears to talk over your head as if you weren't here. I can absolutely assure you that my slowness to act when you were on the stand shall not be repeated. I don't make such mistakes twice."

This time, tears ran down Lauren's cheeks unashamedly and her warm smile utterly transferred her to the sort of woman who didn't really appear to belong in the dock of a criminal court. It was that other woman, not her.

"If you care to read through the report and, to spare the defendant more distress, I shall repeat briefly my conclusions, that her father was a sadistic, ruthless individual who bent every person he met to his will, that her late brother Ritchie clearly and calculatingly took advantage of his sister's wavering loyalty towards their dead father and the principles of Atkins justice he and they had once stood for, that she had a love hate relationship with both of them and that she was persuaded to act as she did when she was at her most emotionally vulnerable. There is nothing in my report, which is conjectural about the past. Everything fits together. As for her future, that is for the court, a psychiatrist and the defendant to determine and that I cannot predict."

Meg Richards mild reasonable tone of voice cut through Neumann Mason-Alan's bluster like a knife through soft butter, all the more deadly for it and with that open handed gesture which carried total clarity and candour. It left him speechless.

Lauren wept openly at Meg Richards description. Yes, it really did happen like that only she hadn't put it into words quite like that.

"Do you have any further questions to ask of the witness?"

"No,my Lord. I could not possibly add on what the witness has said."

Lauren's sharp eyes took in the way Jo's voice shook slightly with emotion. She breathed easily now. She had the strength to take anything the court could throw at her so long as she shied away from the prospect of the verdict. Take it a step at a time.

"Court is adjourned," Intoned John.

Neumann Mason-Alan, Sir Ian and Lawrence James cast their own dark shadow in their immediate neighbourhood as they slunk out of court. The rest of the players in the court started to file out slowly, feeling that their souls had been cleansed and that their sun shone on still waters after the maelstrom which time had taken them through.

Part Thirty Three

Uncharacteristically, John turned abruptly away to the back door of the courtroom, through the narrow corridor and into the sanctuary of his chambers. He made a beeline to the nearest armchair where he sank back, deep in contemplation when he could mentally free himself from his immediate past. Once his thoughts dissolved into nothingness, he was in another zone of experience. His almost Buddhist sense of detachment was his way of coping with the stresses and demands of his job where, unknown to his enemies, he could renew himself and none of them would know. He needed this form of buttress against the world as time went on. This time, it didn't quite work as the tearful grateful face of Miss Atkins hung suspended in a disembodied way, right in front of his eyes. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and the feelings that he had acted rightly and seen that a merciful justice had prevailed. After all, he had done everything that could have been expected of him and more than any judge would ever see fit to do. That warm feeling inside him detracted from the negative feelings of tiredness that weakened him. He wanted to rest alone, undisturbed. His very acute hearing warned him that this was not to be as a confused pattern light, precise footsteps could be heard. He groaned inwardly as it could only be the Lord Chancellor's Department's very own dynamic duo Thought Police. Through the crack in the door, the alien life forms intruded into his space. John had his back to them to begin with but he was highly conscious of them before they appeared in his peripheral vision.

"A private word, John? I trust we are not disturbing you after what we know must have been a very taxing day."

Sir Ian's soothing, overdone tones were as unconvincing as the tightness of his smile.

"Take a seat if you must," John sighed unenthusiastically. "This is just like old times. All we need is Neil Houghton and our numbers are complete."

"Neil Houghton and I are not on speaking terms ever since he tried to pressure me into involving myself in an official capacity in his private life."

"You did? I am intrigued. Pray tell me as I would be interested to hear more of the matter."

John had totally understated his curiosity, which, once roused, would never let him rest nor the unfortunate object of his curiosity. He had an ulterior motive in questioning Sir Ian so that he could be gently side-tracked but unfortunately, Sir Ian had a misguided sense of purpose, which sadly, was not harnessed to a better cause.

"We have not come to discuss my private business but yours…."

"Ah, I wondered when you would get to the point," Came the languid reply and he looked at his watch with an exaggerated gesture.

"A defendant is entitled to a fair trial…."

John could not believe his ears. They could not be turning over a new leaf after all these years. However, one glance at their hard, calculating eyes told him differently. They aren't going to change as they had sold their souls a long time ago and were irretrievably damned in his eyes. The morally dead do not come back to life.

"……just as Neumann Mason-Alan should be treated fairly by you."

"We could not help but notice, my lord, that you have been unduly generous to Mrs. Mills and rather harsh in your attitude to Mr. Mason-Alan," Lawrence James added.

"In what way? I treat them equally according to their just deserts."

"You might not notice it yourself, old man, as you are wrapped up in the trial but an impartial observer from the sidelines can't help but notice."

"Impartial? That will be the day."

"It's just the little things which you might be quite unconscious of," Sir Ian urged with a curious mixture of ingratiation and subtle threat. John's slightly acid one liners were bringing on the uncomfortable feelings of impotent rage that he always had when crossing swords with Deed.

"I shall take to heart what you are saying and I shall redouble my efforts to treat him no less than Mr. Mason-Alan deserves."

"Be that as it may, it is a matter which we shall closely scrutinise during the remainder of the trial."

Sir Ian's voice shook slightly as his anger became audible. The insufferable man was playing with him in offering meaningless promises.

"As always…." Yawned John.

"There are more pressing matters we want to talk to you about. The last time we came to visit you in your chambers, we had quite obviously disturbed you while you were clearly intimate with a woman called Karen Betts, who I clearly remember was a witness in the last trial involving an Atkins, and for some strange reason, is a visitor in the gallery and associated with former criminals who were prisoners in the very same prison that she works at."

"If you had asked me directly, I would have told you all the details."

"I am sure you know them very well from the conversation we observed you were having with them."

"Nothing wrong with that, surely."

"Have you taken leave of your senses, John? You stand to be dangerously compromised."

"By whom? By another over zealous amateur photographer?" John fired back. He was getting angry and realised that he could not lazily banish them from his world with a smart quip or two. He could not afford to use half measures if he really wanted some peace and quiet.

"Not necessarily by us, John. There's the matter of her reputation."

He smiled more openly at Sir Ian's guilt ridden use of the word 'necessarily' Their thin pretence that they were acting out of concern for his welfare blew away at the spiteful edge to their last word.

"In what way, Ian?"

"Well, consider what we know of both trials we were all at. This woman lived with James Fenner, leaves him for another man, and goes out of her way to call at his house late one night, from which this ridiculous story came of her being raped. I might have believed her if I didn't hear with my own ears the way she jumped into bed with the co-defendant in the last trial. He was jointly convicted of a terrible crime and is the very brother of the defendant in this trial, who is also on trial for a brutal murder. And only the other day we visit you and, quite by chance, we saw you with your arm round this woman. Come now, you must admit at the least that she has an unfortunate taste in men."

"Your supposed morality, Ian, is merely a product of your lack of attraction to the opposite sex. It is curiously at odds with your utter lack of moral scruples in doing what your lord and master tells you to do. Besides, Karen Betts is a decent, honourable woman and someone who I am proud to call a friend. I regard any slanderous remarks about her as addressed to me."

"You have a perverse and dangerous attraction for the disreputable," Sneered Sir Ian.

"Oh have I? You took back Lady Rochester after she escaped from a criminal conviction by the skin of her teeth, from embezzling funds from her aunt's printing firm together with that precious cousin of hers. You turned a very blind eye to her goings on when you should have known better."

"I repeat my question, John. Are you having an affair with Karen Betts?"

"And I repeat my answer and that is no."

"I am hardly likely to believe you, John."

"You've been in court all week, Ian. If you remember, you must have realised that men aren't always Karen Betts' preferred persuasion. Besides, you will really have to make up your mind just exactly which woman you suspect me of carrying on an affair with. If you persist in your deluded beliefs, then Jo Mills is in the clear, and also George for all I know. That is, if I dare follow the tortuous path of your squalid imaginings without it making me physically sick."

John was immensely satisfied to see that they did not know what to believe. He had faced them with possibilities which mutually excluded each other and this baffled and frustrated them. He could almost hear the creaking sounds coming from their clockwork minds which were jumping out of gear failing to mesh with other cogs. For the first time since they entered the room, they acted in a way, which suited his purposes, which was to shut up. It faced Sir Ian with the real poser as to how a clearly attractive woman like Karen Betts could be attracted to both men and women. There was nothing in his well ordered well-protected lifestyle that had prepared him for this possibility. His mind shut down at the mere thought of this. There were things in the modern world that he really didn't understand.

"By the way, what were you going to tell me about you and Neil Houghton?" John asked impishly.

"Never you mind about Neil Houghton. I insist that you tell me exactly why Mrs. Channing has devoted so much of her spare time in the gallery of a trial that doesn't remotely concern her professionally. I know of Mrs. Channing and she has a perfectly healthy respect for money, both for the wealth creators of this country and for her own large fees. So you explain to me why she is wasting valuable time and money?"

"Why ask me. I'm only her ex-husband. What she does with her time is entirely her own business. You would do better to ask her direct."

"I hardly think that is necessary."

"Are you scared, Ian? Mind you, I can quite understand that. She does have a very short fuse and a fierce temper. It's her way with words that you have to watch. It explains how she's risen to her position in the legal profession. Of course, you will have seen her in action in the previous trial you both dutifully followed."

Sir Ian's face was a picture, having turned white with fear and open mouthed at the thought of a verbal scorching from Mrs. Channing and with nothing to show for it. They would have to rethink their strategy on this point in the calm dignified air of the Lord Chancellor's Department. He grasped blindly for the last available ammunition to hurl at John.

"That reminds me, John. I was shocked, utterly shocked at the way you publicly attacked the legal system in open court. Your fellow judges have long disliked your perverse judgements which unsettles respect for the rule of law…."

"You mean, I'm right and they are wrong, Ian?"

"That is not the point, John. You are being deliberately awkward. You were being foolhardy in the extreme. In open court, any number of reporters could have been present and any sensation seeking hack journalist could have splashed your off the cuff remark all over the tabloids.

"I don't see why. Most of the newspaper proprietors are in the pocket of the government or vice versa."

"That is a scandalous remark which amounts to Bolshevik trouble making," Spluttered Sir Ian. He had a curious duality in his nature. In his day to day work, he knew very well that 'if he scratched someone else's back, someone else would scratch his' and that is how the inner circle functioned in the way they gently steered the path of this country for the common and greater good. Troublemakers were swiftly sidelined or rendered ineffective, all apart from the worst troublemaker of all. Yet he prided himself on the fact that the country acquiesced in the process and therefore agreed with it. The trouble with Deed was that he painted a picture in words in colours too brutal and tasteless for his liking.

"Still, I should not be surprised by you. To say that you 'loathed the establishment' is quite in keeping. Those were your very words."

"So now you know why I said it. Now, goodbye to the pair of you. I want my rest."

A slammed door and a violent rush of air marked the exasperated exit of the unwelcome guests.

John lay back, trying to capture the feelings of serenity that he had been striving for. He had all the peace in the world he could wish for and therefore, he should feel happier about himself. As soon as he posed the question that way, it made him feel uncomfortable. Surely, he had realised to perfection the project that he had fashioned for himself when first regained his freedom as a single, very available batchelor. Of course, he had Charlie who was always very dear to him even though she had grown her wings as she must and had flown the nest to a distant university. There was the sometimes sexual companionship of Jo who would always be close to him whatever their occasional rows. It was curious the way George had come into his life in her very individual fashion. A temporary flash of humour made him smile at the way the reputation of his tempestuous relationship with George round the professional circles they mixed in had grown an unexpectedly new, fresh dimension unknown to them. Life was better for him now with George as she had got over that not eating phase and was stronger and healthier, in fact he had never seen her so blooming as recently. Whoever George's mysterious new lover was, it was doing her good despite what she had said when he paid her a surprise call.

His mind fluttered over various possibilities that were open to him and, in that chance spin of a roulette wheel, his mind settled on George. He would phone her up as he could do with the sort of female company that was dearest to his heart. It was a vision that he had chased all his life in the way that a child pursued in his mind the zigzag trail of a kite aloft in the sunny, windy sky far above him.

He dismissed his gloomy thoughts with a shake of his head. This was the stage a long gruelling trial found him in before he came triumphantly to the climax with his judgement which cut to the core of the matter. He had worked so hard in his life to get to the position where he had this power and could see off the insignificant, yes men of the Lord Chancellor's Department who were utterly unable to fence him in. With a smile on his face, he picked up the phone. The numbers he dialled were of a pattern as familiar to him as George's body was. Last time he called was an aberration in their relationship. He was sure that tonight would be better.

Part Thirty Four

When they all descended the familiar marble stairs into the foyer, everyone left fairly quickly, leaving George and Karen standing outside on the steps smoking. George was waiting for Jo who would almost certainly want a lift home, and Karen was taking the opportunity of spending five minutes or so alone with George, not something they'd been able to do all day.

"She made an impressive witness, your friend," George commented.

"Meg did some group therapy sessions on G wing once. So, if she can handle Shell Dockley doing her best to throw a spanner in the works, then a couple of barristers and a judge is small fry."

"Group therapy with some of G Wing's inhabitants sounds like playing with fire to me." Karen laughed.

"You could say that," She said ruefully. "It was a bloody disaster. I was doing a Helen, trying to try something radical before I'd been in the job more than five minutes."

"I think I'm beginning to like radical," George said, her voice deepening slightly with meaning.

"So, you're not regretting it then?" Karen asked with a soft smile.

"Good god, no," George replied without the slightest hint of hesitation. "I just wish I hadn't spent so many years thinking about it and not doing it."

"I thought something similar when I first slept with Yvonne."

"It's been so hard," George said, feeling thoroughly stupid. "Keeping how I feel out of my face all day."

"So I noticed," Karen said fondly. "Your face is far more expressive than I think you realise sometimes."

"I know," George said slightly scathingly. "That's why John can usually read my thoughts far too accurately. It's infuriating."

"I like it," Said Karen, resting her left hand on George's shoulder and gently playing with a tendril of her hair. "Being able to decipher what you're thinking means that I'm far less likely to make any serious blunders." Once they'd both ditched their cigarettes, it felt almost instinctive for George to turn to face Karen, for her arms to reach up and go around Karen's neck, with Karen's fitting easily around George's waist. When their lips met, it felt like they'd been doing this all their lives. They had both taken a cursory look round to make sure they weren't being observed, but even George found herself not really caring if they were. They had been in each other's company all day, and they hadn't been able to touch once. But when the door opened not far from them, they instinctively sprang apart, George teetering on the edge of the top step for a fraction of a second until Karen reflexively flung an arm round her to stop her from falling. Their separating may have been fairly instantaneous, but it hadn't prevented Jo from witnessing the most gloriously gentle, though nonetheless passionate display of sexual attraction she'd seen in a long time. Not even Karen and Yvonne had ever looked like that. But then George had never ever been able to restrain her feelings in public, though Jo was used to a display of such feelings being one of anger, not one of happiness with a layer of lust only just below the surface. George and Jo simply stared at each other, Jo seeing the flushed guilt of discovery in George's face, and George the wide-eyed speechlessness of shock on Jo's. Eventually clearing her throat, Karen said to George,

"I need to check on my wing. So I'll see you tomorrow." As she walked down the steps and towards her car, she heard George's voice behind her.

"Coward," George called after her, a broad grin lighting up her face.

"Oh," Said Karen, turning round to look up at her. "And who do you suppose is going to have to bear the brunt of John's combined disapproval and protective zeal? I am."

"Ah, yes, point taken," George said hurriedly, realising that she definitely had the easier end of the deal.

When Karen's car had gone, George turned back to Jo, realising that she was about to have a conversation that she'd wanted to prepare for. But here she was, and it was up to her to make the first move. Lighting two cigarettes, she handed one to Jo who still couldn't take her eyes off the spot where George and Karen had been standing. When George handed her the cigarette, Jo took a grateful drag, the brief, very disturbing thought occurring to her that George's lips had touched the end of the cigarette for her to light it, and that she had seen those lips connecting so caressingly with Karen's. Jo shied away from this moment of introspection that was just too weird to contemplate. George knew she ought to say something, but for the life of her she couldn't find even the beginnings of a sentence.

"You look incredibly guilty," Jo said quietly, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth.

"I feel like I'm fifteen again and have been caught doing something utterly unspeakable," George said, a slight stammer revealing her nervousness.

"And I'm being forcefully reminded of the saying that you learn something new every day. I'm assuming Karen is who you were talking about in the car this morning?"

"Yes," George replied, keeping her gaze averted from Jo, feeling extremely uncomfortable.

"And from what Karen said, I'll assume that John doesn't know either."

"No, he doesn't, and I'd like it to stay that way, at least for a little while. Jo, you can't tell him," She added, looking suddenly horrified. "Please, you mustn't."

"Calm down," Jo said soothingly, laying a hand on George's shoulder. "This isn't my story to tell. I'm staying well out of this one. But you will have to tell him."

"I know. I just need some time to get my head around it first. I think I want to find out where it's going, if it's going anywhere, before I blow the top off that volcano of endless, thoroughly irritating curiosity."

"What I actually came out here to find you for," Said Jo, seeing that George needed to return to safer ground. "Was because I need you to tap your ex-client who works for area management."

"What on earth for?" George asked, grateful for the temporary reprieve.

"I could do with laying my hands on a copy of Di Barker's personnel file."

"Why?" Asked George, never one to give up the fight too easily.

"After Di Barker was on the stand, Nikki, Helen and Crystal came to see me, and filled in an awful lot of gaps that I could have done with knowing about beforehand. I'm thinking of trying to recall her to the witness box. From everything they said, it's pretty clear that she had a reason for making Fenner out to be a model officer and for standing for the prosecution of his killer. Let's just say that I think she owed him one." Looking thoughtful, George smoked the rest of her cigarette in silence.

"A hunch is all well and good," George said eventually. "But I'd need a fairly concrete reason for calling in that particular favour." George was only goading Jo. She knew that she would get her the file, no matter what it took, but she wanted to make Jo justify her request by spelling out her plan of attack, to give it an airing that might uncover any possible holes. But she hadn't banked on Jo's response.

"How's this for concrete?" Jo said, an utterly wicked grin creasing her face. "Your making use of your dubious contacts, might just buy my silence on your most recent acquisition." For the briefest of moments, George looked completely stunned. But recovering her composure like lightning, she said,

"I'm impressed, Mrs. Mills. That might almost have come from me. It seems my influence is at last having some effect. I will be only too pleased to commit blackmail on your behalf."

When they were in the car and George had started the engine, the CD she'd been listening too that morning began automatically. Remembering the sheer romantic quality of some of the lyrics she'd been singing with such abandon that morning, George blushed scarlet and switched it off in disgust. Realising what she'd been thinking, Jo just smiled. As George pulled out in to the stream of rush hour traffic, she dug her address book out of the glove compartment and asked Jo to find Alison Warner's number. When Jo had read it out to her, and George had put the number into her mobile, they waited as George was rerouted through the vast internal workings of area management. George drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as the disembodied voice of Mrs. Warner's secretary asked her to hold. With George having the phone on hands free because she was driving, Jo felt like a fly on the wall, a mere observer of one of George's most ruthless tactics. When Mrs. Warner finally put in an appearance, George engaged her in some initial small talk, clearly to lull her into a false sense of security.

"So what can I do for you, George?" Alison Warner's suspicious voice finally asked. "Making light conversation with ex-clients isn't something I suspect you go in for just on a whim."

"I need a favour," George replied cutting to the chase.

"Does this concern Larkhall Prison again?"

"The very same," George drawled, briefly wondering if she'd underestimated this woman. "I need the personnel file of one Diane Barker. I believe she is one of Larkhall's prison officers."

"And is there a remotely good reason why I should exceed to your request?" Mrs. Warner asked icily. "It wasn't so long ago that you wanted not just the personnel files of three of Larkhall's officers, including the governing governor's no less, but the prison files of three of its inmates."

"That was eighteen months ago," George said mildly, keeping her cool whilst Mrs. Warner was clearly riled. "And I'm hardly asking you to commit a major indiscretion."

"George, you are asking me to illegally copy a private personnel file of one of Larkhall's officers. You are further asking me to either fax or e-mail a copy of this file to, I'm assuming, your home address. If it's that important to you, why not just get a court order?" Thirty fifteen to Mrs. Warner, George thought in slight admiration, but she hadn't finished yet.

"A court order means that the prosecution will know about it, and that isn't something I'm prepared to put up with," George said, the ice now creeping back into her tone. "Let me put this another way. Not long after the last trial involving Larkhall prison, I was presented with the makings of a case against area management, a civil case that would have cost the prison service half a million in costs alone, to say nothing of eventual compensation. For reasons I choose not to reveal to you, this case was put on hold. If Diane Barker's complete and untampered with personnel file is not waiting either on my fax or in my e-mail box when I get home, I may be forced to resurrect this case. A calamity I feel you can hardly afford, seeing as your personal handling of a few specific events left a lot to be desired. Does that make my position clear?" There was a long, sonorous silence.

"Can we get one thing straight?" Alison Warner eventually asked.

"By all means," George replied, sounding genial again.

"If I send you a copy of this file, are we quits? Or are you going to use the threat of this case you say you have, every time you want something involving the prison service?"

"Well now, I can't possibly know if I'll need to resort to such methods again, now can I."

"Can you give me some proof that you do actually have the makings of a case against us?"

"How does the escape of three inmates, and the fact that I have enough evidence to prove that you didn't investigate it thoroughly do you, together with the fact that you were well and truly fooled by the very officer who orchestrated the escape of Michelle Dockley, Daniella Blood and Sharon Wiley. Is that enough to satisfy your curiosity?"

"Plenty," Alison Warner replied dully. "Why are you doing this George? Why the sudden interest in Larkhall Prison and one of its officers?"

"Suffice it to say that it's for a good cause. Let me have this file, and you might for once see some justice done." After another long silence, Mrs. Warner said,

"Fine. Diane Barker's personnel file will be faxed to you forthwith." Not waiting for a response, Mrs. Warner terminated the call.

"Game, set and match to me, I think," George said, glancing quickly over at Jo to gage her response.

"Yes," Jo said, looking slightly flabbergasted. "So I see."

"I do realise that blackmail is ever so slightly unprofessional, but very occasionally it does get results that couldn't otherwise be achieved so successfully."

"Oh, I'm not complaining," Jo said in an effort to reassure George. "I just know that I couldn't do it, that's all." George grinned wickedly.

"Yes, well, that's probably because I am perfectly capable of behaving like a complete and total bitch when it suits me. You wouldn't be you, Jo, if you could do what I just did. It's not in your nature, and that isn't a bad thing." They were silent for a while as George weaved her way in and out of the endless stream of rain-spattered cars. Now that George had done what Jo had asked, George found herself returning to the feeling of nervous anticipation of the difficult conversation that was looming on the horizon as a source of embarrassment and stress.

"I'm sorry, Jo," She said suddenly, knowing she had to get this out of the way before anything else. "I didn't mean you to find out like that." Realising that George had returned to the subject of Karen, mainly by the uncomfortable look on her face, Jo briefly laid a hand over George's, which was resting on the gear stick and said reassuringly,

"George, you've got absolutely nothing to be sorry for. I won't deny that it was a shock, but that's mainly because I didn't know you were that way inclined. It surprised me that you were kissing a woman, not that the woman was Karen, if that makes any sense."

"Why?" George asked, her nervousness immediately abating in favour of curiosity.

"Let's just say that a few little details have now been explained."

"Like what?" George asked as they turned in to her street.

"Over the last year, you've felt incredibly guilty about the way you verbally ripped in to Karen when we thought she might have killed Fenner." George was surprised.

"Was it really that obvious?"

"Yes," Jo said quietly. "You almost always asked after Karen when you knew I'd been to Larkhall, and Karen usually asked after you, yet the two of you hadn't had any communication with each other, at least none that I knew of. When I asked you to be in court, and you said that it would be quite odd, seeing Karen again, you had a wistful little smile on your face that I couldn't explain at the time."

"I can see I'm going to have to watch myself around you," George said ruefully as they got out of the car. "You're far too observant for your own good."

As they entered the house, they could hear the fax machine in George's office churning out page after page of Di Barker's employment history. Jo put her briefcase down in the hall, and George went to make them a cup of tea.

"That psychiatrist friend of Karen's did very well today," George commented as she poured boiling water over teabags and retrieved milk from the fridge.

"Yes, she did. But I wish John would stop taking over. I swear he asked almost as many questions as I did this morning. If he misses the cut and thrust of questioning witnesses, then he should go back to being a barrister." Handing Jo a mug of tea, George led the way to her office, on the opposite side of the hall to the lounge. Switching on the overhead light, George said,

"Jo, you should know by now that John has always liked to have his cake and eat it." George moved over to the fax machine and began collecting the sheets of paper together. They sat down on the sofa under the window, where John and George had begun their evening of loving, on the night after George's enforced visit to Larkhall. As the fax machine produced yet more and more paper, Jo and George began leafing through what they already had. Jo liked this room, its cluttered and well-lived in appearance making some of the tension begin to seep out of her. George clearly spent a considerable amount of her time in here, and Jo found herself briefly thinking that in spite of George's rise in professional status over the years, this room had probably always been a replica of the one George must have had as a law student. Most of what they had was fairly normal, fairly unhelpful, but when the fax machine had tired itself out, throwing out the last page to flutter on to the top of George's enormous antique desk, Jo glanced at it and knew she'd found what she was looking for.

"Look at this," She said to George, directing her to a transcript of the conversation Helen had attached to Di's written warning over the mislabeled drugs tests. "This is how she referred to her mother." George's response to Di's brutal and to the point words that "All her life was a stinking piss test," were,

"Get her to say something like that in court and you're home and dry."

"Not long after she was given that written warning by Helen," Jo filled in. "Her mother supposedly had a bad fall at home, one which, funnily enough, Fenner helped her to sort out." George's eyes became round with comprehension.

"So," She said, the pieces slotting nicely together. "You think she might have beaten up her mother, that Fenner helped her cover it up, and that this trial was Di Barker's way of repaying the debt."

"Going by the record of the conversation that resulted in her being given a written warning by Helen, coupled with everything else I was told about her, yes, I'd say that's pretty much what happened."

"You're going to have to be careful with this, Jo," George said seriously. "Go in all guns blazing, and you'll have a civil action hanging over you quicker than I can say slander."

"Oh, no," Jo said earnestly. "I'm going to reel her in with the softly softly approach."

"That's if you can get her back in to the witness box, and you do realise that if you're successful in getting Neumann Mason-Alan to agree with you, that he's going to want his own crack of the whip."

"Well, fine. He's got to come up with a reason for recalling any of my witnesses, which he can't."

"No, but he would have every reason in the book for calling Karen to the stand. If I were him, that's exactly what I would do. There's been far too much said about Karen during this trial one way and another, and if he's got an ounce of sense in that thick head of his, he'll have been biding his time, keeping the possibility of calling Karen in reserve if things weren't going too well for him. As it is, I'll bet you this year's salary that if you don't try to recall Di Barker, Neumann will ask to call Karen, and if you do ask to recall Di Barker, then he'll use Karen's appearance as a bargaining tool."

"You've really thought this out, haven't you," Jo said in slight wonderment.

"I've so far had six days in the gallery, watching you pull off a bloody miracle, to come up with thoughts like that. Being up there, it means that you can see both sides of the battle. All I've needed to do is to watch Neumann's face when you're questioning either his or your own witnesses. His facial expressions are as transparent as mine. If something's going in his favour, then you can tell, and if it's going the other way, it's even easier. Everything Lauren said about Karen on Thursday, I could see him mentally chalking it up as something he wanted to remember. That's when his wanting to call her as a witness occurred to me." Jo was about to comment on this, when the phone rang. Picking up the cordless from the desk, George saw that it was John's number and when she answered, switched the phone on to hands free so that Jo could speak to him too if she wanted. But whilst John and George chatted amiably enough for a little while, Jo stayed silent, so that John remained unaware of her presence.

"George," he said eventually as she'd thought he might. "Can I see you tonight?"

"No, darling, I'm sorry, but I'm busy this evening."

"Is whatever it is so important?"

"Yes!" George said in mock outrage.

"Are you seeing this new lover you wouldn't tell me about last week?" George couldn't help blushing.

"No, as it happens, I'm not, but the answer's still no."

"Please, George," He attempted to cajole which made Jo smile.

"John, don't sulk, it's frightfully unattractive." Sitting next to her, Jo was shaking with silent laughter, her teeth clamped down on her lower lip so as not to let out a sound.

"But Jo isn't speaking to me," John said, still blissfully unaware of Jo's presence.

"And have you asked yourself why?" George asked.

"Jo's cross with me for supposedly always having the upper hand. I don't mean too, that's just how it's always been." George suddenly felt like this was something she shouldn't be hearing.

"You shouldn't really be telling me this, John. But I think you need to look at why Jo thinks you always have the upper hand, whether that's in bed or out of it." When John said,

"Perhaps you're right," George could feel Jo relax, clearly relieved that they'd stopped talking about her.

"So, are you sure I can't persuade you to postpone the ever so important thing you seem bent upon doing tonight?" John asked, returning to his former endeavour.

"John," George said slightly regretfully. "I'm not particularly eager to repeat the disaster that was last week. I just need some space, that's all." When John had gone, George put the cordless back on the desk and said,

"I'm sorry about that. I didn't know John would start talking about you."

"Oh, no need," Jo said lightly. "He didn't say anything I don't already know."

"Jo, what's happening with you two?" George asked gently.

"We've slipped in to a bit of a rut, that's all. It'll sort itself out with some straight talking. I'm sick of John always having the professional, or sexual, upper hand, and he doesn't know any other way to be."

They left this topic of conversation for some time, whilst they cooked and ate a light meal, both women at ease in the other's company, a state of being that couldn't have even been suggested two years previously. After George had put the plates in the dishwasher, she opened a bottle of white wine and poured them both a glass. When they had taken their accustomed seats in the lounge, George at the right hand end of the sofa, and Jo in the armchair at right angles to the fireplace, Jo lit a cigarette and said,

"So, tell me about Karen." Lighting her own cigarette, George began.

"It really begins before Karen. I've always known that I found other women attractive, I'd just never done anything about it before. I don't really know why, other than the fact that Daddy would have a fit and probably disown me. John didn't even know about it, well, not until fairly recently, the night after my imposed visit to Larkhall to be exact. You know what he's like, if he wants an answer to a question, he gets it at any cost. I didn't want him to know, but he virtually dragged it out of me. I wanted to have just one thing about myself that he didn't know, but that wasn't to be. When I clashed swords with Karen in court, it was incredible. She didn't give a damn that I was a barrister, she just gave as good as she got. You've got no idea just how erotic sparring with someone really is. When I accused Karen of killing Fenner, the way she fought back was wonderful. But, as usual, I took that too far. I felt terrible for the way I'd intruded on her personal space, and for accusing her of doing something so horrific. So, I sent her an e-mail to apologise. I didn't hear from her again until I saw her in court last Monday. I would have been there even if you hadn't asked me to be. It was too good an opportunity to miss. Karen, also being far too observant for her own good, asked me why I'd really been at court. So, I told her. She was surprised, but seemed to like it. I went out for dinner with her last Wednesday, which was possibly the most enlightening meal I've ever had in my life. Karen said that if she hadn't been trying to keep herself out of prison, forming the case against Fenner and finishing with Yvonne, she wouldn't have waited until now to ask me out for dinner. So, there you are."

"What happened with John last week that was so disastrous?" Jo had unknowingly put two and two together and had well and truly made four. George took a sip of her wine.

"After Karen left on Wednesday night, John came to see me." George looked slightly away from Jo at this point. "I wasn't sure if I wanted Karen to stay, so she didn't, and whilst she couldn't possibly have been nicer to me about that, I was furious with myself."

"George," Jo said quietly. "Being afraid of trying something new isn't anything to be angry about."

"I know that really, I'm just not used to it. I wasn't expecting John to put in an appearance, and if he'd arrived half an hour earlier, Karen would still have been here. I thought sleeping with him might get rid of some of my anger, but it didn't. It dawned on me half way through that I didn't want to be in bed with John, but that I wanted to be in bed with Karen, and that sort of took any possible enjoyment out of it. I'm sorry," She said, thinking that she'd definitely said too much. "You didn't want to hear all that."

"I think what you said to John is right," Jo replied. "You do need some space, space to find out where this is going with Karen."

"Right," George said decisively. "Enough about me. What are we going to do about you and John?"

"I don't think there's anything to be done about me and John," Jo said miserably. "He's never going to change, and I certainly can't make him."

"Jo, tell me to sod off and mind my own business if this is too personal, but what is it really about John that you're unhappy with?" Jo tried to find a satisfactory way of saying how she did feel, but it seemed that only the basic facts would suffice.

"I've always been professionally inferior to John, and there isn't really anything I can do about that at the moment, and that only occasionally gets in the way. But I'm sick of also feeling sexually inferior."

"Who says you are?" George asked gently.

"It's obvious," Jo insisted. "I will never be remotely sexually equal to John, or you, and I'm reminded of that every time I sleep with him." To George's dismay, tears rose to Jo's eyes and began flowing down her cheeks, clearly showing that this was not a recent concern, and that the stress of the trial had brought it to the fore.

"Oh, Jo," George said, feeling the pain and the abundant lack of self-confidence that had prompted the tears. Getting to her feet, George walked over to Jo, and sat snugly down in the armchair next to her. This slightly incongruous piece of furniture could comfortably though somewhat intimately seat both herself and John, so it could easily accommodate her and Jo.

"I'm sorry," Jo said as George put her arms round her. "I feel so stupid, and you're so happy, which is wonderful to see, believe me. But I just wish I had it in me to be a better lover." Jo's body was rigid and tense in George's arms. She tried to choose her words carefully.

"Jo, this is more to do with how you feel about yourself than how you feel about John, isn't it."

"I hate it, George, I hate feeling so, so sexually inadequate."

"Jo, listen to me," George said, trying to calm her down. "It isn't always good with me and John, you know. I'm not quite the sexual success you seem to think I am, and whatever does take place between me and John isn't anywhere near as unconventional as you might think." Jo looked unconvinced. "Jo, you need to stop assuming that I always enjoy everything John does for me, because it isn't all that unusual for me not too. Yes, I might like to try something new once in a while, though that's part of my sex life I seem to have left behind in recent years. You could say that finally getting around to sleeping with Karen this weekend was partly to do with that. What you need to understand about John, is that the majority of the pleasure he receives from making love, isn't necessarily what a woman can or does do for him, but what he can do for her. If you enjoy it, and he knows you enjoy it, that can often be all that matters to John. You know what he's like, John's philosophy has always been to bring a woman to shuddering submission as many times as possible before he thinks about himself. John has an enormous amount of love for you, and giving pleasure is the only way he really knows how to show it."

"So you don't think he's likely to get bored of me?" Jo asked, her tears having mostly dried.

"No," George said firmly. "Darling, if John was bored of you, he wouldn't still be sleeping with you, I know that much. After Charlie was born, and any time after that when I went through my periodic phases of self-loathing, I wouldn't have enjoyed bed even if I'd had the most skilful lover on the planet. That's why John went looking elsewhere, not because he didn't enjoy what I did for him, but because I wasn't enjoying whatever he did for me. It didn't occur to me to even think of faking it in those days, though sometimes I wish I had. So, whilst you might think your sex life with John is pretty conventional, at least you don't disappoint him on a fairly regular basis."

"You don't disappoint him," Said Jo in astonishment. "Yes, he worries about you, but that's because he loves you and because he doesn't ever want you to become as low and as thin as you were a year ago. We both worry about you when you occasionally stop eating, which we are both usually aware of, though you don't always know it, and John will be happy for you, when he gets over the shock."

"Jo, no matter what happens with Karen, I don't want to put a stop to what I have with John. I won't ever stop loving him, and I don't think I could do without him. Does that sound terrible?"

"No, of course not," Jo said gently. "I don't ever want to go back to the way things were before we began living the way we are. I really don't think I could live with that level of uncertainty again. George, I need you to help me love John, because we both know that one woman will never be enough for him." They sat still and silent for some time, George with her arms around Jo, and Jo with an arm around George's shoulders. They were both deeply touched by what the other had said, and both needed a little time to digest it. Eventually, George gave Jo one last squeeze and detached herself, moving back to sit on the sofa and taking a mouthful of wine.

"So," Jo said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. "Come on then, satisfy my curiosity. What's it like, sleeping with a woman?" George broke in to a soft, sexy smile.

"It's utterly incredible," Was all she could say at first. "It feels so emotionally intimate that if it didn't work, it would be a disaster. Turning a man on is really quite simple when you think about it, but doing the same for a woman is a challenge. If you know what you like yourself, and are prepared to contemplate giving what you normally receive, you're half way there. You should try it some time."

"I don't think you'll ever find me doing that," Jo said with a broad grin.

An hour or so later when a cab arrived for Jo, they stood on the doorstep, Jo's arms going around George, and George fondly returning the hug.

"I wouldn't have given you away to John, you know," Jo said as they briefly held each other close.

"And I would have got you that file," George responded, the two remarks seeming to affirm the friendship that had been built up over the months, and which was growing ever deeper. What they had was too important to both of them, it was something worth maintaining at almost any cost.

Part Thirty Five

On the Tuesday morning, Yvonne couldn't sit still. She couldn't escape from the fact that her daughter's freedom or imprisonment could depend on the evidence she was about to give. It was different from last time, because Lauren's possible acquittal or conviction held so much more importance for her. She knew she shouldn't think like this, because Ritchie had been her child as well, but she knew that's how it was. When everyone else went upstairs to the gallery, both Karen and Nikki asked her if she wanted them to stay with her until the last minute, but she didn't. Yvonne needed a moment's reflection before she took her place in the ring. Even though Jo was defending Lauren, Yvonne couldn't quite decide whether it was she, or the pathetic-looking prosecuting barrister who more successfully represented the lion she was being thrown to. She needed a last cigarette, a last moment's peace before she went in there and put up the sort of fight she should have done against Charlie all those years ago. She was standing on the steps, blowing smoke rings at passing pigeons, when the door opened behind her and John walked up to her.

"Do you think I can do this, Judge?" She asked, the words coming out before she could think better of them.

"Of course," He said in quiet surprise. But he could see that she needed some further convincing. "Do you remember how you dealt with Brian Cantwell when he was defending your son?" Yvonne's lips quirked in to a brief smile.

"Yeah, I made him look a bit of a prat."

"Quite. So, do the same with Neumann Mason-Alan and you'll be fine. The more you antagonise him, the more outrageous his questions will become, and the more I can object to them."

"You shouldn't be telling me things like that, Judge."

"And your daughter shouldn't have ever reached a courtroom. I can do nothing to help her now, except to hope that justice prevails. But this jury are doing their job, they are taking notice of every word, and I don't think they will entirely let you down."

"Why did you take on this trial?" Yvonne asked, genuinely interested.

"Because I wanted your daughter to receive a fair hearing, which no matter how I might feel about what she has done, she will certainly get from me. She might not have done if the case had been heard by the likes of Monty Everard, because his primary concern is always to please the establishment."

"Which the conviction of an Atkins would no doubt achieve," Yvonne said dryly.

"You're learning," John said approvingly.

"Thank you," Yvonne said as she ditched her cigarette. "No matter what sentence you end up giving her, I know my Lauren's safe in your hands."

"Mrs. Atkins," Jo began once Yvonne had sworn the oath. "We have heard from your daughter how much of an influence her late father, your late husband had on both you and his children. In your own words, please could you explain to the court exactly what effect this influence had on you?" Glancing up to the gallery, Yvonne saw them sitting there, all supporting her.

"Charlie Atkins was a control freak," She began. "If he wanted something done, it was done. If he thought something should happen, then it usually did. This extreme need for control didn't ease off when it came to either his wife or his children. Charlie badly wanted a son, so you might say that it was sheer force of will that made his first child a boy. Charlie got where he did because he was ruthless, and because he wouldn't let anything get in the way of what he wanted. In some ways, Charlie was a little boy who never quite grew up. He always had to have his own way, no matter what anyone else thought. So, when it came time for Ritchie to follow in his father's footsteps, he had his way over that as well."

"Since I know the prosecution will ask you if I don't," Said Jo, throwing a satisfied smile over at Neumann Mason-Alan. "Did you attempt to dissuade your husband from this highly illegal course of action?"

"Of course I did," Yvonne said slightly scornfully. "But you don't disagree with Charlie Atkins for long." Yvonne's face suddenly darkened, and it wasn't lost on anyone that she'd slipped momentarily in to the present tense. "What mother would want her child being taught to shoot at the age of twelve," She continued bitterly. "I used to call Ritchie my little angel, and up until the time his father started making a model criminal out of him, that's exactly what he was." Yvonne was thoroughly ashamed to find that tears had risen to her eyes.

"Would you like a moment to recover yourself?" John asked gently, feeling the pain coming off Yvonne in waves.

"No, I'm fine," Yvonne replied, striving to keep going at any cost. "So, when it came time for Lauren to be taught the same things, I knew there wasn't any point in objecting."

"Mrs. Atkins," John intervened. "Exactly what happened to you when you disagreed with your son being taught to shoot?"

"I believe you know the answer to that, My Lord," Yvonne replied, giving him his proper title. "As I understand it, my daughter described that event to you in as much detail as was necessary. I would ask you to consider whether my giving the court details of that painful event, would in actual fact be remotely relevant to my daughter's eventual verdict." Up in the gallery, George stared open mouthed whilst Karen, Nikki and Helen just grinned at each other. Jo just prayed that John wasn't about to flip his lid.

"You'll be surplus to requirements if you're not careful, Jo," George murmured to herself.

"Point taken, Mrs. Atkins," John replied, admiring Yvonne's spirit in the face of adversity. "Though I would urge you not to make a habit of directing the Judge." Knowing John's stubborn nature only too well, both Karen and George couldn't help laughing at this, causing Yvonne to look up at them, lessening the tension for her.

"Mrs. Atkins," Jo continued. "Did you ever prejudice your daughter against James Fenner?"

"I probably whinged about him every time Lauren came to visit me, and I certainly didn't hide the fact that Fenner was a complete and total bastard."

"Those sound like my words," Nikki murmured which made George smile.

"Mrs. Atkins, please remember where you are," John said slightly reprovingly.

"But did you ever actually say to your daughter, that you wanted James Fenner killed?"

"No, I didn't," Yvonne replied, knowing she was treading on the edge of perjury.

"What was your initial impression when Karen Betts told you that she had been raped by James Fenner?"

"I was angry, and hurt and upset, the way any woman feels when they hear something like that. Karen had always appeared so strong to me, that to see her so vulnerable and so afraid of talking about something that wasn't her fault, it hurt like hell." Having witnessed Karen like this when they had begun work on the case against Fenner, Jo knew exactly what Yvonne was talking about.

"And how did you deal with your daughter's reaction to your relationship with Karen Betts?"

"I didn't understand it at first, I thought it was only children who would object so much to someone new on the scene. But I was wrong. My relationship with Karen made Lauren very unhappy, something I will always regret. What she felt about Karen was totally irrational, but no less real because of that. Lauren had only just got me back eight months before, and I think she thought I was going to be taken away from her again. Karen would never have tried to do that, but like most fears, Lauren's was very real to her whilst being incomprehensible to everyone else. Lauren said some horrible things to Karen over the last few days of the trial, and when she received Ritchie's letter and read everything he said about Karen, I think Lauren felt incredibly guilty for the way she'd treated her."

"What can you remember about the night Ritchie died?"

"Not much," Yvonne said matter-of-factly. "I think I was in shock. We were all sat in the garden, when Karen got this call on her mobile. I'm assuming it was the governor, Neil Grayling, to tell her that Snowball and Ritchie were dead. I think that was the worst thing Karen's ever had to do, to tell me and Lauren that Ritchie had killed himself. I was holding a glass of wine, and I think I must have squeezed it. The only thing I really remember is how much it hurt to have glass imbedded in my hand. The physical pain was easier to deal with than the emotional. From then on, until Karen came back from the prison, I didn't speak. I think I was in shock. I remember," Yvonne stopped, not sure that what she wanted to say was either relevant or appropriate.

"Go on," John encouraged.

"I was in bed when Karen came back, Lauren still downstairs with Cassie and Roisin. Karen got in to bed beside me and just held me, not letting herself go to sleep because she knew I was still awake and still in shock. When I finally started talking, I kept saying that I should have been able to stop Ritchie from doing it, that he was my son and I should have known if he would feel like that. What Karen said to me is probably what I remember most about that night. She said that killing yourself, it's like having the last word, the final fuck you. I'm sorry, Judge, but that's what she said. Karen was right about Ritchie, because he hated not getting his own way, a bit like his father really. From the time he'd come to visit me in prison, Ritchie had wanted to get one over on me, and killing himself was his last ditch attempt to prove he could always win."

"What did you feel when you received your son's letter?" Jo asked, feeling as though she was intruding on Yvonne's grief.

"I had to go and identify Ritchie's body the next day, and when I went to the prison where he'd been held, I was given a bag of all his belongings. In the bag were two letters, one for me and one for Lauren. I was obviously curious about what Lauren's letter said, but it was addressed to her, not to me. You've got no idea just how many times I've wished I'd opened it before I gave it to her. Maybe if I had, none of this would have happened." There was a short silence, Yvonne clearly battling with far too many unwelcome thoughts.

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

"In view of its content, I would prefer not to, My Lord. I would simply like to submit it as evidence."

"May I see the letter?" John asked, and Jo picked it up and walked over to give it to him. After reading it through, John said, "In view of one particular line, I do think the court needs to hear this."

"But my Lord," Jo protested, knowing just how much damage this was going to do to Karen's already shrinking reputation. "So much of that letter might be considered prejudicial, to..." Jo didn't quite know how to say what she wanted to say.

"...To one particular member of the public gallery, yes, I know, Mrs. Mills. Might I take this opportunity to apologise to Karen Betts for the damage this might well do to her professional reputation, and to suggest that she may not want to stay to hear this."

"I have seen that letter on a previous occasion, My Lord," Karen said from the gallery.

"Then you will be aware of its contents, and you may also be aware of why I consider it necessary for the court to hear it, in spite of its prejudicial language. But feel free to leave if this becomes too humiliating for you." George became curious to hear just what Ritchie had written that might make Karen want to sink through the floor. "Please could you read the letter, Mrs. Atkins?" When Yvonne had been handed the letter in its transparent, plastic cover, she began.

"Dear Mum,

You know why I'm writing this, because I'm too much of a coward to say it in person. Dad would be thoroughly ashamed of me, wouldn't he? No Atkins is supposed to take the easy way out, and all that. But I can't do it, Mum, I can't go on day in and day out like this. It's not prison, it's being like I am. So, I guess this is the first in a long list of things I'm supposed to be sorry for. The second being that you didn't deserve what I did. I am sorry I put you and Lauren through all that, but I had to do it. Snowball was the craziest girl I've ever met, but I loved her. I don't expect you to understand that, but there it is. I know I haven't been the kind of son you really wanted, but then I never could live up to everything you and dad brought me up to believe. Sure, I inherited all the shit parts of dad's nature, and not enough of yours, but Atkins family values just weren't for me.

I've written this letter, not only to try and put the record straight once and for all, but to ask you to do something for me. You remember on the second day of the trial, when Karen Betts was in the witness box, that stupid git who was representing us, tried to question Karen about a supposedly fake rape allegation. Mum, there wasn't nothing fake about that allegation. Fenner did rape her, I'm certain of it. There's things you learn about women, like what's normal, and what isn't, and the way she was with me that first night really wasn't normal, in any sense of the word. A woman asking you to be rough with her, that's nothing new, but this was different. I asked her afterwards what it had all been about, and she said she was laying a few ghosts. Mum, she was trying to punish herself for what had happened with Fenner. I'm guessing she thought it was her fault, but he's the biggest shit going and deserves nothing but a dose of the Atkins justice. You're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this. I've got to say it now, because after tonight, I won't ever get another chance. She was sat in the public gallery with you all through the trial. Mum, please take care of her for me. She's still hurting after what that bastard Fenner did to her, and she needs looking after. I ain't asking you to finish Fenner off, because I know you won't. But I need you to keep an eye on Karen for me. I hate what I did to her and to you, and I can't ever put any of that right. But if somehow, you can see that she's all right, I'll feel like I've at least tried to put something right.

I'm sorry I wouldn't see you when you asked to see me today, but I was angry. I couldn't handle the fact that you'd stood up against one of your own. But then, you never were a true Atkins. You were always above all that. Even though you did all that stuff for dad and brought me and Lauren up to follow in his footsteps, it wasn't really you. I've been losing control of everything in my life, probably ever since I met Snowball, and I guess this was my way of having a bit of control again. I'm sorry you didn't get to say whatever it was you wanted to say, and I'm sorry for every other bad thing I've ever done to you.

I love you Mum,


There was a long, awful pause once the letter reached its end. George had become more and more aware of Karen's humiliation beside her, the need to escape and to hide atypically strong. But Karen didn't move. It might almost have been a testament to her inner strength that she didn't take up John's offer and leave. George didn't know what she could possibly say or do to make Karen feel better. Helen was sitting on Karen's other side this time, and considering what Fenner had done to Helen, Karen would have preferred her to be almost anyone else.

"Do you think Ritchie knew about your relationship with Karen Betts?" John asked into the silence.

"I don't know," Yvonne replied. "I don't think he did, but things like that get round prisons quicker than the school playground."

"Finally," Jo cut in before John could ask any more questions. "Did you have any idea that Lauren was planning to kill James Fenner?"

"None whatsoever," Yvonne said firmly. "I wanted Karen to nail Fenner the legal way, because like her, I wanted to see him suffer for a very long time. Ritchie said in his letter to me that he wasn't asking me to finish Fenner off, because he knew I wouldn't, and he was right. No way would I have flirted with the probability of going back inside. I wouldn't have wanted either myself or anyone I know and love to do time just for killing that worthless, spineless, good for nothing bigot who thought it was perfectly okay to force himself on defenseless women as long as he didn't get found out. If I'd had the slightest inkling that Lauren was thinking of doing anything of the sort, I'd have done everything in my power to prevent her. I'm not going to say that the world isn't a better place without Fenner, but I would far rather he be still alive than to see my daughter going through what she is now." After another short silence, Jo said,

"No further questions, my Lord."

When Neumann Mason-Alan rose to his feet, he looked almost gleeful.

"Mrs. Atkins," He began. "Just how many guns were in either yours or your daughter's possession?"

"Does it matter?" Yvonne asked, John's warning about the prosecutor clear in her mind.

"Considering that your daughter clearly used one of your late husband's guns, which means that you hadn't attempted to dispose of his collection, yes, it most certainly is relevant."

"I'm not entirely sure just how many guns Charlie left behind. When I found out what Lauren had done, I made her get rid of the lot of them."

"Did you not ever think it wise to dispose of your late husband's weapons, after he'd been killed and after you were released from prison?"

"Not at the time, no," Yvonne replied curtly. "Since you've asked such a badly informed question, I'll assume that you've never considered what it might mean for the family of someone as powerful as Charlie Atkins to be left behind once he was either dead or in prison."

"Would you care to enlighten us?" John asked mildly, before Neumann Mason-Alan blew a gasket.

"Charlie Atkins had more enemies than your average paedophile. He trod on people left, right and centre in order to get what he wanted, me included. There were any number of people out there who would happily have finished Charlie off in order to get a cut of the market. I didn't ever like or agree with most of what Charlie did, but that doesn't stop me from saying that he was extremely clever about what he did. What you need to understand, is that even though Charlie's dead, I'm not, and Lauren isn't. It would still give an enormous amount of Charlie's old rivals immense satisfaction to permanently remove what's left of the Atkins family. So, when I got out of prison, my biggest concern was protecting myself and my daughter from any possible come back."

"So," Mason-Alan said smugly. "You are openly admitting in a court of law that you kept hold of Charlie Atkins weapons as a form of protection?" He sounded incredulous. "Even though this was clearly illegal, and meant that you were committing a crime for which an automatic prison sentence of five years is now mandatory?"

"I would have preferred to end up in a cell rather than a coffin, sir," Yvonne replied, putting a certain amount of steel and scorn in to the sir.

"I see," Mason-Alan said, clearly flustered. "Why didn't you ever question what your daughter was up to during the six weeks after your son died?" Yvonne looked scathingly at him.

"My daughter is twenty five years old," She said derisively. "She doesn't have to explain her movements to me. Before I got out of prison, Lauren was living on her own in that house, keeping Charlie's business going in case he got out after his trial, and generally living her own life. What Lauren did or didn't do in the course of her daily activities wasn't for me to begin questioning."

"Mrs. Atkins, why did you never attempt to remove your children from the influence of their father?"

"You really haven't got any idea, have you?" Yvonne asked incredulously. "Charlie Atkins was a bully, a single-minded, ruthless bully. If I had survived long enough to take his children far enough away from him that he couldn't follow us, we'd have been constantly on the run for the rest of our lives. Staying in hiding from the police would be simple compared to the threat Charlie's continued existence would have posed. If the police catch up with you, they're not actually allowed to kill you, unless you're carrying a gun. But Charlie wouldn't have thought twice about putting a bullet in me had he caught up with us. That is no way to bring up two young children. Yes, whilst we stayed at home, they might have been learning the finer points of using and maintaining a firearm, but they were relatively safe. If I'd gone on the run from Charlie and taken my kids with me, we'd never have been safe again."

"You seem to have thought primarily about your own safety," Mason-Alan said quietly. "Could that be because your own safety was your first concern, your safety over your children's?" Before John could object, Yvonne beat him to it.

"Do you have children, sir?"

"Yes," Mason-Alan replied. John thought about objecting again but he could see that Yvonne could handle this man.

"Then you'll know how it feels to be prepared to do anything for your children, to put your own safety in jeopardy if it will stop them from being hurt. Charlie raised his hand to Lauren only once, and he never did it again. In order to prevent him from doing to his children what he did to me all too often, I threatened him with one of his own guns. I told him that if he ever laid a finger on either Lauren or Ritchie, it'd be the last thing he did. So don't tell me that I wasn't concerned with the safety of my children."

"But you did stand by and watch as your husband threatened to nail Ritchie to the warehouse floor, didn't you?"

"Yes, to my everlasting regret, I did. I knew that the safest thing for Ritchie was for him to go away and make his own way in the world. He was trying to compete with Charlie, not something anyone should try to do if they value their life."

"So, what this comes down to," Mason-Alan continued, looking smugger and more supercilious than ever. "Is that as long as your own best interests were carefully looked after, it mattered little to you that your son was forced to have absolutely no contact with either you or his sister until after Charlie Atkins was dead."

"No!" Yvonne shouted. "Do you know what it's like not to have contact with one of your children for almost four years? Four years I didn't hear a word from Ritchie, not one single, bloody word. I'd have given anything during that time to know what he was up to, to know that he was all right. But the first I heard from him was when he came to see me in prison. He reminded me of how I used to call him my little angel, as if I'd ever forget, and like the desperate, stupid cow I was, I believed him because I wanted to. I needed to know that I hadn't screwed up, that I hadn't been the terrible mother I thought I was. I needed to know that I'd done my best by my children. I did everything I possibly could to keep them safe, and to keep them from falling too much under Charlie's spell, but I failed." When her tirade had come to an end, and everyone could see that there wasn't any fight left in her, John said,

"I do hope you don't have any further questions, Mr. Mason-Alan."

"No, my Lord," Came the solemn reply.

"Until after lunch," John said, rising to his feet almost before the Clerk could call out, all rise.

As they all made their way out of the gallery and towards the stairs, Helen caught up with Karen.

"I think you and me need to have a talk," She said quietly.

"Not about Fenner, we're not," Karen said, just managing to keep her tone civil. She knew now that she ought to have taken John's invitation and left whilst the letter was being read, because now she felt almost as open and exposed as she had done when Fenner had raped her.

"Karen, you cannot keep on punishing yourself for what he did to you," Helen insisted in a stage whisper. This was just too much for Karen, the final straw in a morning full of more guilt and sympathetically-felt pain for Yvonne than she'd experienced in a long time.

"Do you have any idea what popped so conveniently into my head when Fenner raped me?" She asked, turning to face Helen and bringing them to a stop, but still trying to keep her voice at a quiet, though nonetheless furious level. "Your words, your very bloody words. Do you remember that day when you told me that Fenner was a misogynist bastard, and when I disagreed, you told me that I was too close and that I couldn't see it? Well, you'll be pleased to know you were absolutely right. I lay there after he'd fallen asleep, and all I could hear was your voice and those words going round and round in my head. So anything you want to say on the subject of Fenner, I really don't want to hear it." Stalking off down the stairs, she left them all gazing after her, all a little stunned both by her words and by her momentary loss of control.

"It's going to be one of those days," Nikki said dryly, immediately lessening the tension. When they reached the foyer, they saw a haggard-looking Yvonne, and Karen stood talking to her. But when Neumann Mason-Alan attempted to walk passed their little group, it was Yvonne's turn to lose her rag. John and Jo had been walking towards the little knot of women, mainly to see if Yvonne was all right, when they were greeted to the sight of Yvonne striding purposefully towards Neumann Mason-Alan with a look of sheer loathing and anger in her eyes. Recognising this for exactly what it was, both Karen and Nikki reacted like lightening. Shouting a mixture of Yvonne's name, no and don't, they ran up to Yvonne, and each grabbing one of her arms, held on to her tightly.

"Yvonne, it's not worth it," Nikki said as she struggled to keep hold of an equally struggling Yvonne, who looked to only have one thing in mind, murder. "Yvonne, I know what he said to you was unforgivable, but kicking the shit out of him isn't going to do you or Lauren any good," Nikki insisted. When Yvonne didn't look any closer to calming down, Karen thought it was her turn to put in a word.

"Yvonne, don't you dare make me repay that shiner you gave me when I caught you trying to get over the wall," She said, tightening her grip on Yvonne's arm in the old prison officer style.

"You heard what he said," Yvonne ground out as she persisted in trying to free herself from the competent holds of Nikki and Karen. "He said I didn't care about my kids. He said I didn't look after them in the way a mother should. But hey, I'm beginning to think he might be right." Unaware of George's quiet approach, Nikki and Karen were surprised to see her come to stand in front of Yvonne, well within kicking distance if Yvonne managed to free herself.

"Yvonne, listen to me," George said firmly but calmly. "We know you did your best for your children, and if you look passed what that imbecile said to you, you'll know it too. In spite of everything, Yvonne, you've been a far better mother to your children than I ever have. No matter what happens either to you or to her, your daughter will always love you. At least you'll never have to hear your daughter describing you as an ice maiden." George suddenly stopped, as if only just aware of what she'd said. But her words had done the trick. Nikki and Karen became immediately aware that Yvonne had relaxed, and that tears were running unheeded down her face. Loosening the hold on her arms, Nikki and Karen simply put their arms round her, holding her upright as her body shook. Cassie appeared then, followed closely by Roisin and Barbara. Getting the distinct feeling that this was a privilege only bestowed on fellow ex-cons, Karen moved away slightly to allow the others to guide Yvonne over to one of the padded benches. John and Jo had stood stunned as the scene had unfolded, both watching with slight admiration as Karen and Nikki had successfully restrained Yvonne from doing anything stupid. But they had both been thoroughly shocked by George's words.

"I didn't know she knew about that," John said, his voice deep with half concealed pain.

"Knew about what?" Jo asked, seeing that something had struck him to the core.

"Charlie's nickname for George, the ice maiden. I hate it every time she says it, and I didn't ever want George to know about it."

"Well, it seems that somehow, she does."

"I ought to go and see if she's all right," John said, feeling an enormous amount of regret that George had overheard that little snippet of Charlie's occasional vindictiveness towards her mother.

"I'll go in a minute," Jo said, seeing that Karen was walking towards the doors that led outside, correctly assuming that this was where George would have gone.

When Karen went outside, George was standing smoking, looking as if her thoughts were anywhere else but here. Walking over and putting an arm round her, Karen said gently,

"What was all that about?"

"It's my daughter's oh so charming little nick name for me, when she's talking about me instead of to me. The sad thing is that I can't blame her really. But I wish I hadn't said it. Saying a thing instead of just knowing it makes it all too real, doesn't it." George's voice was flat and almost without feeling, which told Karen that the feelings were only being kept under the surface by sheer force of will. Before Karen could respond, the door opened and Jo appeared. Karen hadn't removed her arm from around George, so she was relieved to see it was only Jo.

"Are you all right?" Jo asked, laying a brief hand on George's shoulder.

"No, not really," George replied, never capable of keeping anything from Jo for long any more, and finding herself feeling suddenly safe stood between the two women closest to her.

"Is Yvonne all right?" Karen asked.

"She's surrounded by four of her friends, so I'm sure she'll be fine. But I could wring Neumann Mason-Alan's neck."

"Did you see Helen in there?" Karen asked, now feeling thoroughly guilty for her outburst.

"I think she went to get everyone some coffee. Why?"

"Because she caught me at a low ebb and I said some pretty harsh things to her."

"Yes, what was all that about?" George asked, recovering slightly now that she had someone else to think about.

"I'll tell you some other time," Karen replied. "But I really shouldn't have said what I did."

"From what I heard of it, Helen will get over it."

"It seems to be the day for fraught words," Jo observed. "And John's worried about you," She said to George.

"He'll live," George said dismissively to cover her feelings. "It's only because he didn't think I knew that that's how Charlie refers to me. But if no one objects, I don't think I'm going to stay for this afternoon. I think I need some of the sheer dull monotony of civil law to lose myself in." When Jo had returned inside and they were alone again, George said, "I feel awfully stupid asking you this, but can I see you tonight?"

"Yes, of course," Karen replied, realising that after what she'd come out with this morning, George might want to talk.

"The thing is, I don't know if.." George stopped, looking incredibly uncomfortable. Realising what she was trying to say, Karen smiled.

"George, if all you want from me is a cuddle and a chat, that's absolutely fine." George laughed, her nervousness abating. Then, ditching her cigarette, she put her arms round Karen, feeling Karen's arms go round her, making her feel briefly taken away from this world where her daughter didn't love her. Holding her close for a moment, Karen said,

"I think I'm going to follow your example and do some work of my own this afternoon."

"After what I heard you say to Helen," George said in to Karen's shoulder. "I think you should."

"My gob's getting as unpredictable as yours," Karen said, a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth.

"Yes, so I noticed," George said dryly, though knowing that there was far more to what Karen had said to Helen than a simple outburst. When George had driven away and Karen went back inside, Yvonne was looking a little happier and they were all waiting for her.

"Is she all right?" Nikki asked about George.

"She's not staying for this afternoon because she's got an appointment she can't get out of," Karen replied, the little white lie coming off her tongue quicker than little white lies really ought to. "And though you'll probably all think me terrible for saying it, I think I might do the same." They could all see that the stress of this morning was getting to Karen, and that it was becoming harder and harder to hide it.

"Oh, no," Cassie said in pretended hurt. "You'll miss my moment of glory. That prosecuting arse-hole won't know what's hit him when I get in there." Cassie, ever the mischief-maker, had successfully lightened the tense atmosphere.

"Just make sure you give Bodybag some grief from all of us," Yvonne said, knowing that this morning's revelations and recollections would have been almost as painful to Karen as they were to herself. As they all began deciding where to go for a very large drink, Karen took Helen aside.

"Can I apologise?" Karen asked quietly, feeling awful for the way she'd spoken to Helen.

"What for?" Helen asked gently, though she knew very well what for.

"I shouldn't have said what I did to you. This trial is going far deeper than I ever thought it would, and this morning was just a bit too much, but that's no excuse."

"Listen, Karen," Helen said quietly. "What you said today has been waiting to be said for a very long time now, and the stress of this morning just brought it out. Okay? So no need to apologise. Just take care," She said, giving Karen a quick impulsive hug. "And make sure you give Sylvia hell." As Karen left, her car sloshing through the endless stream of puddles, she thought that sooner or later, someone, probably that wanker of a prosecutor, was going to say something to fire the whole lot of them up, her, Helen and George included. If that happened, the Old Bailey wouldn't know what had hit it.

Part Thirty Six

Yvonne greeted the others with a broad smile of welcome.

"Am I glad to be up here in the gallery with the rest of you. It's seemed bleeding ages that Cassie and I have been stuck in some dump of a waiting room. The worst part of it is wondering what the bloody hell is going on and fearing the worst. Cassie's been great though." And here her voice softened. "I owe her a lot for talking sense into me and keeping me on the level all last week."

"She'll need to watch out for that wanker of a lawyer of theirs. Cassie's the sort of woman who'll get right up his nose," Came Nikki's slightly amused reflection.

"For being…." Questioned Babs.

"The woman she is. She doesn't even have to say anything, she just is."

"I can tell that she's confident," Laughed Roisin. "She was up at the crack of dawn and spent twice as long putting her makeup on as usual."

"You really love her, don't you."

The look in Roisin's eyes told Helen clearer than words she might have said "that's my woman out there."

"I said a prayer for her this morning, not that she'll need much help as she'll run rings round that fool," Babs precise voice broke in to the proceedings.

"Come on, we'd better get into our places," Yvonne's terse tones revealed her edginess.

This was the first time she had been up in the gallery since the trial of that bitch Merriman and her Ritchie. Last time around, she and all the others had willed Jo Mills to nail Merriman. Her Ritchie had made his bed with her and stabbed her and Lauren in the back, so the hard surface side of her reckoned that he stood to take what was coming to him. At the end of the trial, she had rejoiced that justice was done. She had expected him to go down and that was that. The last thing she had expected was that he had done himself in. It made her feelings of what had gone on before seem horribly wrong and she hadn't really got her head round that. What right had she got to switch sides and passionately want her daughter defended? They are both Atkins, brother and sister, after all.

"Hey, Yvonne, we're with you as well as for Lauren." A light hand on her shoulder and that friendly, well-modulated voice came up from behind and a few teardrops were squeezed out of Yvonne in total gratitude for those few kind words.

Nikki could see from behind her, that decisive nod as Yvonne squared her shoulders and climbed the last few steps at a steady, assured pace and not in a frenetic hurry. Her Lauren needed her and this time around, the issues were simple. Whatever the emotional fallout of Lauren killing that bastard Fenner, she needed to be here for her own and she had the best of friends to help her. What cheered her up most of all as she looked down from the top of the gallery, was Cassie's casual relaxed manner as she made her way to the witness stand. Even at the distance and angle below her, she could see that quick reassuring smile at her.

Cassie made her leisurely, unhurried way to the witness stand. A lot of water had flowed under her bridge since she had stood in the place where Lauren was standing now. At that time, her fall from grace seemed overwhelming as it had stripped from her that certainty of her place in the world and of all the luxuries that money could buy. The sheer paralysing shock of her discovery and the cold figures of the discrepancies in the accounts had unnerved her at the time and made it hard for her to argue the toss. Her love had been hatefully distanced away from her singles flat to that cosy domesticated, husband, wife and two children suburban cosiness. She thought that she had despised that lifestyle but in her own unique way, she now shared it with her love and had become stronger because of it. Roisin's own inner certainty had rubbed off on her and life with their children had taught her flexibility and agility in thinking.

Above all else, she was entitled to her rights as much as anyone and that black guy's disdain for her wouldn't put her off. She would wipe that look off his face once she got stuck in. Jo Mills on the other wing of the bench, was a woman who she had admired from afar last time around. This time, she adjusted the focus on her thoughts and memories to sharp precision to go out there and do her stuff. Above and behind her, the powerful and benevolent presence of the judge made her take heart, one guy she really respected. In his way, he was as much of an individual as she was conscious of being. It could be a lot worse, she concluded, she could have had that narrow minded nobbing judge who sent her down along with Roash. He made it pointedly clear how repulsed he was by everything she and Roisin represented in his prim Old Etonian stunted lifestyle. A glance at Lauren in the dock took in that slight smile directed to a dear friend who she knew would do her best for her.

She grinned broadly at her audience in that expansive, infectious way and took the oath. In turn, Jo's spirits were lifted by Cassie's grin and sailed straight into questioning her. Witnesses were not normally as confident as this.

"Miss Tyler, can you explain to the court how and when you came to know the defendant?"

"It was through her mother, Yvonne Atkins. She was there already when I first came to Larkhall. That was about 3 years ago."

"Were you and Mrs. Atkins close?"

"Pretty close, yeah. She acted as a sort of mother to all the younger women who first came to Larkhall when they were nervous and hadn't found their feet. I was different as I was brash and big mouthed but she put me through a number of growing up lessons which I needed. She saw through my act straight off and tipped me in the right direction with my girlfriend, my present partner when we were having problems."

Cassie was immediately conscious of Neumann Mason-Alan's wooden expression and saw the instant disapproval, something that was not lost on the gallery. Jo smiled inwardly at Cassie's rapid concise command of the facts. All she had to do was to lob the right questions at her and she would get the sort of answers that would leave a clear implant in the minds of those who mattered, the jury of twelve average citizens.

"Under what circumstances were you and your girlfriend released from prison?"

"Lauren's brother and his girlfriend set off an explosion as cover for getting her out of prison. Some cover……Roisin Connor, that's my partner, and some more of us were trapped in the library by a fire, which was set off by the explosion. Mr. Grayling, the Governing Governor was lying unconscious on the floor and ….."

"I fail to see where this rambling story is leading this trial. Probably nowhere in particular," Neumann Mason-Alan's disdainful voice cut across Cassie's.

"If you let me finish, Mr. Whatshisname, you'll hear that Roisin and I pushed Mr. Grayling through a wall of flames and we got him to a doctor who was able to save his life. When he was better, Mr. Grayling put us up for a free pardon."

Niamh and Michael would have recognised the way that Cassie effortlessly swatted

down any childish bickering. Others not used to Cassie, sat open mouthed with shock

and a variety of accompanying emotions.

"Jesus, Cassie would make a bloody good bouncer at my club," Nikki muttered to an equally impressed Helen.

"For future reference, Miss Tyler, the counsel opposite you is called Mr. Mason-Alan. I feel the court have been given a clear explanation, which is relevant to the case in hand. Proceed, Mrs. Mills."

John concealed a brief smile behind his hand and hesitated slightly before remembering to shift his direction to Jo to direct the questioning to continue. To his mind, his growing opinion that Larkhall prison made women very tough, both sides of the prison bars had been confirmed by practical demonstration.

"Miss Tyler, can you relate to the court the defendant's reactions throughout the trial of her brother?"

"My learned friend has not established that the witness was present throughout the trial of the defendant's late brother and was therefore privy to the defendant's feelings," jumped in Neumann Mason-Alan.

"Mr. Mason-Alan, you might not know this, but both Mrs. Mills and myself were made highly aware of the witness's presence in the gallery as one of my more amusing hecklers. I remember her presence very well. She, along with the defendant were present in the gallery for long stretches of that trial and I direct the jury to accept as fact that the witness was well placed to gauge the defendant's reaction. I shall let this matter pass this time. I would advise you, Mrs. Mills, as a general observation, not to ask questions that leap ahead of themselves. Mr. Mason-Alan's objection is reasonable in principle."

Oh God, I get recognised whatever I do, Cassie worried. I'm getting Jo Mills into trouble like others before her. This sort of situation had happened before going back to when she was at school. She did her best to assume a contrite expression of innocence which all of those who knew her smiled to themselves as a big act. They marvelled at her unique facility in not being diminished, whoever she was up against.

"The children are sure to ask us how Cassie got on today. What do I say?" A random impulse worried away at Roisin, much though Cassie's antics had her in stitches.

"The truth."

Babs's simple words with Christian authority cut a line through the tangle of Roisin's

parental worries.

"Miss Tyler, can you explain where the defendant enters the picture?" Jo added hastily to capitalise on the sharp rebuff to Neumann.

"I've seen Lauren around when she came to visit Yvonne, I mean Mrs. Atkins. As soon as we were released, Roisin and I had got custody of our, I mean her children and we'd had six, seven months to get settled. When she got out around Christmas 2002, we looked her up straight away."

"Can you explain to the court why you chose to look up someone you'd never known before you went to Larkhall?"

"When you're inside, you live your lives twenty four seven right up against those you hate and those you love. You stand by your mates and they stand by you far more than anyone you've only known on the outside ever does. I could never pretend that someone who I really looked up to had never existed once I'd got free."

Cassie stumbled slightly in her delivery as her memories and the close fitting space of the witness box gave her claustrophobic, shut in flashbacks and that intense mixture of feelings that a few seconds ago were only spoken words. It worried her that, up till then, the sort of fevered dreams that occasionally haunted both Cassie's and Roisin's sleep were brought to life before her eyes. Defiantly, Cassie shook a lock of fair hair out of her eyes as she got a grip on herself. In turn, the quiet words spoken by that very modern woman in the witness box struck a chord with the judge who was placed above and behind her. There were ancient ideas of loyalty, which stretched far back into the distant past over generations. These were ingrained into the very fabric of his being and he was highly sensitive to pick up on it, no matter what guise it might appear in.

"What did you make of the defendant when you first met her?"

"A great friend," Cassie grinned, answering Jo's soft spoken words at her usual carrying volume. "An ordinary happy go lucky woman to go out clubbing with. Mind you, you want to watch out for her as she can drink anyone under the table. She had to carry me home as I got legless trying to keep up with her."

"Can you tell the court if her behaviour changed over time and how different she seemed to you?"

"It was during the trial of her brother Ritchie. She was with us in the gallery up there."

Cassie pointed dramatically upwards to emphasise the point and the distance now separating Lauren from the dock to where she once sat.

"We were all together, Lauren included, in wanting to see you nail that brother of hers and Snowball Merriman. You'll remember it, I'm sure."

Cassie's reflective tones made the whole experience very real to herself and her blue eyes brought a jolt of recognition to Jo. Yes she was here before and she was forcibly reminded of this by this articulate woman who changed from the gleaming sunlight shining on the water to the shadowed reflective depths.

"It all changed one day in the middle of the trial when Yvonne arrived home and caught Lauren smoking dope. Probably because I'm nearer to Lauren's age, she asked me to talk to Lauren about why smoking dope really wasn't a good idea. The thought of that scared me rigid."

"Why was that, Miss Tyler?"

"It wasn't that she was stoned out of her mind, it was that she was acting as if she was somehow disconnected from herself, from her family, from responsibility, from the woman I knew. I've seen friends of mine go like that and it scared me. That's how they all start on drugs. My partner was the last person ever to go near drugs, but she was separated from her children when she went to prison, and the pain of it drove her to some kind of release, anything, so that she ended up on heroin. It all started from something she wanted so she could get to sleep. That's what prisons can do for mothers. I laid it on the line with Lauren, and found out what was really bothering her."

"And what was that, Miss Tyler?"

"She was jealous of Denny Blood who Yvonne treated like she was her daughter, and that made her insecure. She admitted to that one. What was really screwing her up, was that she had found out that Yvonne was having a relationship with Karen Betts. I asked her about that one and she stopped me and told me to 'shut the fuck up.' When an Atkins talks that way to you, you listen."

Jo was feeling on top of the world, as Cassie Tyler was moving the story effortlessly along. Her words needed next to no clarification to ensure the jury heard matters right. Her touches of humour went down well with an English jury who might have been prejudiced against the implications in her lifestyle.

"What else gave you reason for concern about the defendant's state of mind?"

"It was the night that Lauren's brother committed suicide, when we got the phone call. You may have heard this all before, but the thing I can remember most was the way Yvonne's glass of wine shattered which she was holding in her hand. What I noticed while Karen saw to Yvonne's hand and after Yvonne went to bed, was the way Lauren took to the bottle. Karen went out later to identify Snowball's …body and, when she returned, Lauren changed in a flash."

"In what way?"

Cassie shivered inside as she started to recount the events of a night she wanted to forget. Having to refer to Ritchie in the cold impersonal way the trial required her to, went clean against her nature. To her, Ritchie was a guy she had never seen but was stupid or evil enough to nearly get her and Roisin and others burnt to death. He was Lauren's brother and despite everything she knew how much that meant to her. The poor kid had little enough in her family outside her mum.

"She blamed Karen for being around to be kidnapped by Snowball Merriman and that he stopped the bullet that was meant for her. If he hadn't been in a wheelchair as a result of the bullet, he might not have taken his life. She spoke in terms of both loving and hating her brother and was all over the place. Maybe Lauren knew even then that she was blaming the wrong person but she couldn't admit it to herself, much less to me. That's why what I'm saying sounds crazy and not logical. It's no use trying to get someone who was so much in pieces to accept the calm logical truth, so I didn't even try. I just let Lauren run with it. When Karen went up to bed, only then did Lauren let herself cry her eyes out. I made her a cup of coffee and Roisin and I went upstairs with Lauren, to be there for her and give her some comfort. Yvonne would have done that, believe you me, but she was totally out of it so we took her place."

"Would you say, Miss Tyler, that only when Miss Betts was out of the room did she let herself cry? If I understand what I am hearing from you correctly, the defendant was switching between grief and anger until the object of her anger was removed from the situation."

"Yes, that's exactly it," Cassie said with all the certainty in the world. At that point, the very large heart within her was melted by a glance from Lauren, which conveyed all the thanks she was able to give. Cassie had spent a lifetime appearing to be cool and devil may care in the same way Lauren tried to appear hard. Neither of them could sustain their acts and they both knew it.

"No further questions, my lord."

Neumann jumped up to his feet as if his back were spring loaded. He had been chafing at the bit while the whole pathetic sob story was being unreeled by that bleeding heart liberal on the opposite side of the bench. The verbal sparring match earlier on had stung him and he was eager for revenge against this woman who brazened out her differences from what was normal and proper.

"Miss Tyler, can I establish a few facts about yourself and your …partner. I understand that you live with a woman, a Roisin Connor in an intimate relationship."

I can tell that nobbing waste of space is secretly fantasising about Roash and me in bed even if he can't admit it to himself, Cassie thought while she kept a straight face.

"Yeah, while we were in Larkhall and ever since we got out."

"You describe the children of the association as both yours and also solely your partner's. Can you explain this discrepancy."

"That's easy. Roisin was married when we met, before we went to prison. The biological father of our two children is Roisin's ex husband, Aiden Connor. When we got out, Roisin got custody of the children and I became a second mum. I love them as if they are my own flesh and blood, and that's why I talk as if the children are ours. That's the way they see me and that's all that matters."

Nikki could not restrain herself any more and broke into a spontaneous round of clapping which fizzled out when she saw the judge's eye on her. Jesus, she'd never met a guy who had this force of personality to shut her up this way. Some of the more pathetic screws who were around in her time at Larkhall could take a few lessons from him in keeping order.

"So you broke up Mrs. Connor's marriage."

"It was broken up before I met her. I gave Roisin and our children an exit to a better life. I ought to say that the love I feel for Michael and Niamh is as much as an adoptive parent feels for his or her child. It's just that there are two women bringing them up, that's all."

Jo looked at the floor so that her grin wouldn't be obvious. She might have known that Cassie Tyler could give back at least as good as she got. Because of this, she couldn't see the universal grin on the first row of the gallery and black scowls from the back row.

"Let us turn to another matter," Neumann said ponderously to reestablish his sense of dignity. "Can you tell the court why you and Mrs. Connor ended up in prison."

"For being fool enough to embezzle money from the firm I used to work for where Roisin worked as my P.A. It isn't something that I'm proud of, as I let a lot of people down, myself included. I - I mean Roisin and I - have far too much to lose and too much to live for to dream of doing anything like that again. We hope we're living a life to make up for all that."

"Miss Tyler, I was questioning you and not your partner as well," Neumann snapped spitefully.

"Roisin and I are a 'we' in the same way as you and your wife, assuming that you are married. Anyway, you'd better get on with your questions," Cassie finished, theatrically suppressing a yawn to teach the moron a lesson for harping on about 'Mrs. Connor' and plugging away at her alternative preferred title.

"Miss Tyler, I would gently remind you that it is my role to give directions to the conduct of court proceedings. Nevertheless, the point is well made as the questions about Miss Tyler's background seem to me of doubtful relevance. I expect you to get to the point."

Cassie turned round and looked upwards at John who was trying to look sternly down at her, except the twinkle in his eye gave him away. This woman's unique brazen sharp wit was too dangerously and appealingly akin to his own regular teasing of the apparachtiks of the Lord Chancellor's Department. Keeping a straight face was becoming a real strain as the trial went on.

"You explained in very touching terms of the tragic experiences of Mrs. Connor with hard drugs and of the defendant who was partaking of a similar illegal substance, as if you are quite an authority on drugs. Have you ever taken drugs yourself?"

A very faint blush crept its way over Cassie's face. She couldn't help but tell the truth. Instinct told her that if she tried to lie her way out of this situation, she was potentially setting herself up to lose her own credibility later and, worse still, damage Lauren's case.

"Yeah. I used to take cocaine occasionally."

"How occasional is occasional? Can you be precise upon the matter."

"It was a weekend thing and certainly not every weekend."

"Are you sure it was not more often than that?"

"Quite sure. I had a job to do."

"And can you enlighten the court as to how a woman who is somehow involved with the care of two children, came to be involved with a sordid criminal activity involving taking a class 'A' drug."

"You've got the sequence of events back to front. In another lifetime before I met Roisin, I was young, single, footloose and fancy free in a high-pressure job that paid me a fortune. Many like me in the crowd I used to hang out with, bought into the idea that living the high life to unwind at weekends included taking a so called 'clean drug' would only give you a recreational high. All the celebrities take it so all the magazines tell you or so I believed when I was young and impressionable. I saw a close friend of mine get into a mess over that stuff and I started to wise up. I started to realise the downside of that sort of life and I backed away from all that scene. When I went to prison, it made everything simpler. I know from what Roisin went through, that the sort of drugs that get brought in are uppers and downers and heroin, but I've never heard of coke. That's because prisoners only have a limited weekly spends, enough to buy phone cards and shampoo. No one could possibly afford street price coke, believe you me."

Her voice trailed away as she hoped against hope that the squalid little man wouldn't ask her if her and Roisin had ever taken coke together. That inner fear was transformed into a real anger, which propelled her into a much more combative style. She wanted to hit back as hard as she could at this man. He was the sort of ignorant moraliser who she had hated and despised all her life. This trial had become personal for her, both for herself and for those she loved.

"That's the reason why drugs give me the horrors. I saw what happened to Roisin with drugs as I know much better than some innocent Miss Middle England how dangerous the stuff is and I'll fight like hell to ensure that our kids stay away from it."

John inwardly applauded this woman's very courageous stand and fired his anger in a very cold, cutting precise tone to cut short this man who he increasingly despised. He felt that he had been given a generous length of rope with which to hang him and could justify himself to any legal authority to take the step that he did.

"You do not appear to have any remotely relevant questions to ask, Mr. Mason-Alan or else you would have asked them by now. I have held back and given you every chance to ask such questions. I am therefore determined to curtail your attempts at character assassination. You will sit down this very minute."

The force of this delivery made Neumann's legs move of their own accord to sit in his place despite himself.

"Do you have any questions to ask the witness?" John asked softly, turning to Jo.

"No, my lord," She felt that between Cassie Tyler and Neumann Mason-Alan, her case was making rapid progress.

"Court is adjourned."

Cassie made her way out of the box feeling as if she had run a marathon, seething with anger, glaring at the barrister whose expression was po faced and removed. She received a soulful smile from Lauren and that dissipated her anger as that was the clearest sign that she had done right by her mate. She emerged into the open air to be warmly hugged by the others and finally to be greeted by Roisin's shining eyes and look of total admiration. She wanted to get the hell out of here.

Cassie, Roisin and the children were all snuggled together on the big sofa in that comforting slice of time between dinner and bedtime. The light was on dimly but unaccountably, the children said they were bored with watching television. Since that cut across their favourite programmes, both Roisin's and Cassie's sharp antennae were on the alert.

"Cassie," Michael piped up. "If I ask you something, will you tell me the answer like you always do."

"What's the problem?" Cassie gently smiled. Her mind ran over the possible questions the boy's enquiring mind might want to know. God help her when he wants to know about the birds and the bees, Roisin would be better at that one.

"We were wondering if there was anything wrong with you and mum," Niamh's greater facility with words came into play.

"No, nothing could be better with both of us."

"It's just that mum said something about court and we wondered……." Niamp started to speak and stopped dead, a worried expression written all over her face and Michael's.

"It's all right, children. We've been going to court but it's not that we've done anything wrong," Roisin broke in eagerly.

"You're sure?" Michael's big wide eyes looked doubtfully at her. They were growing up to be pretty well adjusted and happier than Neumann Mason-Alan dreamed possible but there was one shared memory, which disturbed them. It all started the day when, for the first time in their lives, their father had collected them from school instead of mum. She had always swept them up in her arms and chatted awhile to the other mothers while their father impatiently took them back to the car. Instead of mum's infectious chatter, their father was silently angry about something. They could tell. When they stepped into the hall, their very grey haired and stern grandmother was there to say the usual grownup things but where was mum? Nobody would say. For months afterwards when they were stiffly told, there was a hole in the house where their mother had been and something had taken her away which they could not understand. They used to call out to their mother at nights into the pillow and make believe she was there but make believe didn't work.

"I've been what they call a witness in a trial. I chose to go. Nobody made me and mum and all our friends were watching."

"What's a witness?" Michael urged. He didn't understand but if Cassie chose to go, it wasn't as bad as they first feared.

"If a teacher punished a friend of yours for something he thought he'd done wrong, but you knew something the teacher didn't, you'd go up and talk to the teacher, wouldn't you?"

"Depends on the teacher," Michael answered. Cassie wasn't afraid of anyone but he knew some teachers listened and some didn't. Cassie was relieved to hear that she made more sense than she feared, feeling brain dead after that day in court.

"We know doing the right thing isn't easy, but this is what you should do."

"Well a witness in the trial is the same thing, only bigger with two people taking turns to ask you questions."

"Who have you been witnessing for?"

"Auntie Lauren. We told you why you haven't seen her recently and that she is where we were."

The children took everything in warily. They had not known to begin with why she had stopped calling and why Yvonne who always laughed and joked when she called was so sad though she pretended she wasn't.

"Well, I've been in court putting in a good word for her."

"Were the men nice to you?"

"The man in charge is very nice even if he was dressed up in funny clothes which I'll draw for you later. The woman who was on Lauren's side was lovely," Enthused Roisin. "But the man who was against Lauren was horrible and Cassie made him out to be the idiot that he is."

The children grinned more easily. They knew what Cassie was like and they wished they had seen the fun.

"Cassie, can you tell me what the word 'nobbing' is. I've heard you say it when you didn't think we were there. I asked Miss Jackson, the English teacher only she looked up in the dictionary and couldn't find it."

Cassie spilt the cup of tea slightly on the arm of the sofa and looked horrified. Jesus, she was now in danger of getting the kids into trouble.

"It's only a made up word of mine. It doesn't mean anything. You'd be too young to understand. I'll tell you when you get older."

Michael and Niamh smiled smugly to each other. So they were right. They could picture this court and while it was sad about auntie Lauren, at least Cassie and mum were safe and so were they. They were bored and, besides, they wanted to watch TV before they went to bed.

"So what's it like in the gallery, Roash. At last, I get to go up in the gallery for future."

"Well, there's one interesting thing," grinned Roisin. "I think that Karen is attracted to that very attractive blond barrister, George Channing, who was on the other side last time and the feeling is mutual."

"She's a dark horse. She kept everything quiet about her private life when we were inside. I must admit, she's got good taste. They've both changed sides in more ways than one," Cassie grinned broadly. It would add a spice of interest to when she took her place in the gallery at last.

The house was as silent as the grave where they knew that outside the soft world of their bedroom, their children were in a deep and dreamless sleep. Cassie was dead beat but with that warm satisfaction of something well done and Roisin was proud of the woman who stuck up so strongly for them. Everything felt peaceful and secure around them as they dropped straight down into a deep sleep.

Part Thirty-Seven

Later on the Tuesday evening, John was still worrying about George, whilst trying to do some reading for a civil case that was on the list for him just after the Lauren Atkins trial. He really felt for Yvonne Atkins, having to watch her daughter go through so much and being virtually powerless to do anything about it. Yvonne intrigued him. Before he'd begun talking to her during this trial, he'd simply thought of her as a former criminal, whom Karen had been briefly involved with, no more no less. But throughout the course of this case, he was learning, learning to see the human being under the outer facade of bitter control. He was being given glimpses of the mother in her, the woman who had been forced to decide that the lesser evil was to stay with her bully of a husband and to allow her children to be taught the rudiments of committing serious crime. He couldn't even begin to estimate what it must have been like for her to have to make such a decision. Yvonne's love for her children was clear to see, even Neumann Mason-Alan wouldn't be able to deny that. John smiled as he thought of how Yvonne had handled the barrister with so little backbone it was a wonder he could stand up. She had a way with words about her that would cut anyone down to size. He was heartily relieved, however, that she hadn't succeeded in giving Neumann Mason-Alan a black eye, because he was certain that this is what she would have done had Nikki and Karen not reached her in time. Both Karen and Nikki Wade had reacted like lightning, Karen because it was in her training and Nikki possibly because she had lived in the prison environment for three years, and knew just how quickly a fight could kick off. But this brought him right back to George. It hurt him almost with a physical pain whenever he heard Charlie refer to George as the ice maiden. He knew why Charlie had picked on this particular name, but it didn't make him dislike it any less. Like most teenagers, Charlie had lighted on this name for her mother, and had flogged it to death at first, possibly trying to get some sort of response out of him. But John had never acknowledged Charlie's use of this name, knowing that the more attention he gave it, the more she would say it. The only possible way in which George could have heard this name was if Charlie had been talking on the phone to one of her friends, and had temporarily forgotten that George was in the next room and might be able to hear what she said. He wondered how long George had been aware of the ice maiden, because it was a name Charlie had been using for her since before she went to university.

His musings were cut short just after eight o'clock, when there came a knock on his door, and Mr. Johnson, who might be termed the warden to keep all badly behaved judges in order, appeared with Jo at his side.

"Mrs. Mills to see you, My Lord," He said, discretely leaving and closing the door.

"You'll get yourself a reputation coming to see me like this," John said as he walked over to her.

"Considering how long I've known you John, I've probably got one already." It felt good to go back into his arms, to feel that old familiar combination of exasperation for herself, that she was giving in, and the love for him, that had not abated over all those years they'd spent apart.

"It's good to see you, Jo," John said after kissing her. They'd both felt unhappy after what had happened the previous Tuesday, both wanting to make up for the argument, and both being too stubborn to make the first move.

"I'm sorry about last week," Jo said, knowing that even though John might irritate her to distraction sometimes, she would always forgive him.

"If I knew what I'd done," John replied. "I'm sure I would be too."

"And we still have some talking to do about that, but not now." When she said this, John could see that the intensity of the Atkins trial was getting to her, and that what she really needed was some simple TLC. Taking her hand, he walked back over to the armchair he'd been sitting in, and drew her down on to his knee.

"I'm too old for this, John," Jo said though not putting up any physical protest.

"No one, is ever too old for this," He said between kisses. "And as I don't possess a sofa, and I want to be close to you, this is how it has to be." Jo was a good deal taller than George, with much longer legs and generally of a more substantial frame, but he loved having her draped over his lap as she was now.

"I hope there aren't any hidden cameras in here," John said as their kisses became more passionate.

"John, that isn't remotely funny," Jo scolded. He laughed.

"Well, even if there are, right now I couldn't care less." This was his ideal world, she thought dreamily, having her and only her, held safe in his arms. Well, partly his ideal world, because she knew she couldn't quite fill the rest of it.

"I shouldn't have come here," Jo said after a while, moving her face away from John's, and trying to get her rapidly flowing senses under control. John's "Why?" was thoroughly mystified.

"Because I badly want to sleep with you, but as we're here, I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I loathe having to get up and leave afterwards, and I'm not staying here to be caught leaving tomorrow morning and going through another round with the Professional Conduct Committee."

"That's a shame," He said trying to provoke her in to changing her mind. "Because I thought you were trying to seduce me."

"I doubt any woman could, or would have to," Jo replied knowingly. A brief hint of memory flashed over John's face, a remembered occasion with George taking place behind his eyes.

"You're thinking about George," Jo deduced. John's eyes widened slightly.

"Now I know you're spending too much time with me if you're learning the art of reading facial expressions as well as that. But yes, I was thinking of George. That night she came to see me just before her few hours behind bars. You don't mind me talking about her?" He felt it necessary to ask this so as not to hurt her.

"And you think we don't talk about you?" Jo asked, though appreciating his consideration.

"I try not to," He said ruefully. "The possible outcomes are far too frightening." Jo laughed.

"There isn't much I don't know about you and George, and there isn't much she doesn't know about you and me. As neither of us is supposed to be sleeping with you, we only have each other to talk to about you. So talk away."

"Did she tell you what happened that night?"

"Amongst other things, on that day she fainted in court. That was one of the oddest days I think I've ever had."

"She came here, looking incredible, and though she's pretty good at hiding it, I could tell she'd been drinking. She said she felt like some company. That's the lamest excuse in the book. Much as I know it will surprise you, I did have to be persuaded." Jo just quirked an eyebrow at him. "But in the end she didn't even enjoy it, and whilst that wasn't ever that unusual for George, especially after Charlie was born, she'd never attempted to fake it before. She'd clearly had far too much practice at that with lover boy, but when you've lived with someone for nine years, there's nothing you don't know about how they react or how their body works. She was so angry with me for realizing she'd tried to fool me, and angrier still when I tried to make her talk about it."

"Sex isn't always wonderful, John, and when it's not, it can be humiliating. For women, it's absolutely vital to be vaguely happy and relaxed to start with, otherwise it's just not worth contemplating. George probably didn't enjoy it because she had to be extremely unhappy to come looking for it from you in the first place."

"Oh, thanks a lot," John said putting on a hurt expression.

"That's not what I meant and you know it," Jo said sternly.

"When she woke up in the morning, she saw your picture, and when I asked where she was going, she asked me if I'd even vaguely thought about you the night before." John suddenly looked very uncomfortable.

"John, I would be far more hurt if you had thought about me and still gone ahead and slept with her," Jo said to reassure him.

"I pointed out that she hadn't either, and she just said I know, and left. I should have realised then that something was badly wrong. Let's face it, when, before that time did George ever feel guilty about cuckolding anyone..."

"Especially me," Jo completed his sentence for him when he couldn't find a diplomatic way of saying it. "John, when George stopped eating after Charlie was born, it took you long enough to notice it then because when you're living with someone day in day out, it's very difficult to notice a gradual change like that. But when you're not living with them, and certainly don't see them on a daily basis, it's even easier for someone to hide something like that. George was living on her own in those days, so there was no one to whom she had to justify her eating, or not eating habits. You're not the only one who knew something was wrong, but who totally underestimated just how bad it was."

"I wish George hadn't heard what Charlie calls her," John said regretfully, returning them to the current matter in hand. "I was going to go and see her tonight, just to make sure she was all right. But then you turned up and made me forget everything except how beautiful you are." Recognising the come on for what it was, Jo grinned.

"I think you'll find that George will be well taken care of," She said mischievously. John looked briefly baffled.

"Oh, you mean her new lover," He said in dawning comprehension. "So, you know about him too, do you?" The novelty of knowing something that John didn't, and the sheer incongruity of his unknowingly referring to Karen as a him, made Jo laugh.

"What's so funny?" He said with a smile, always enjoying the total freedom in her laughter.

"Nothing," She said, finally calming down, but she couldn't prevent herself from occasionally breaking in to a broad grin which John found infuriating.

"You know who it is, don't you?" He said, getting the distinct feeling that the joke was on him.

"I might," She said, knowing that she would have to be extremely careful not to reveal the lover's name.

"And you won't put me out of my misery?"

"Absolutely not," Jo said in offended dignity. "I've been politely asked not to, so you'll just have to be patient, won't you."

"Well, I know I know them," He said, trying to work it out. "She told me that much last week."

"George does feel quite bad about last week," Jo said seriously.

"She's not the only one," John replied, still feeling some sense of guilt for trying to sleep with George when she'd clearly been occupied with someone else. "It's crazy, whenever she doesn't enjoy it, she thinks it's her fault."

"Just give her some space," Jo said gently. "And when she does tell you who her new lover is, please be nice to her."

"Now you've really got me worried," He replied. "Do I dislike them that much?"

"No, but it will be something of a shock, and that's all I can tell you," She finished firmly. John began looking pensive, his brows knitting together in concentration. As close as she was, Jo could have sworn she could see the cogs turning in his brain. "Don't try to work it out, John," She pleaded. "Because if you think about it, it is actually quite obvious. Let George tell you in her own time."

"Okay," He said, but during their ensuing conversation, Jo could see his mind returning again and again to the possible candidates.

"What we do need to talk about," Jo insisted, doing her damnedest to get him off the topic of George and her lover. "Is why you made me angry last week." She had his full attention now.

"Jo, I can't help currently being professionally above you, but it won't always be like that."

"I know, and it's not the professional bit that really bothers me. You've always been my professional superior, and there'll be something not quite right about it if I'm ever your equal. It's how you use it that annoys me. I know you don't do it purposefully, but you always allow your professional superiority to drift over in to your personal life."

"I do not!" He protested.

"Yes, you do, John," Jo replied calmly. "You like being superior to me, in bed and out of it."

"And I can't help that either," He said, immediately regretting it when he saw the brief flash of hurt on Jo's face.

"I know you can't," She said quietly. "But maybe I can. Maybe it's up to me to do something to make myself feel slightly less inferior to you in that way." Thinking he could see where this was leading, he said,

"You really don't have to do that for me, Jo."

"I feel sexually inadequate, John, and whilst I know that's not anyone's fault, it's not something I want to go on feeling."

"Don't ever, ever assume that that's what I think you are," He said vehemently, holding her tightly to him. "I love you just the way you are, so don't ever try to change just to please me."

"I know," Jo said, gently kissing him. "But this is something I need to do for me."

After a while, he said,

"Well, whilst I have no idea what this form of self-improvement might involve, feel free to use me as a learning curve whenever you like."

"I've been doing that all my life, John. So what makes you think I'll stop now?"

"Will you stay with me tonight?" He said, suddenly wanting to make her feel as loved and as cherished as possible.

"No," She said firmly. "But if you come to see me tomorrow evening, you might just get what you're looking for, if you're lucky," She finished merely to tease him, just occasionally enjoying the power of making him wait for what he wanted so badly.

Karen had worked through her enormous stack of paperwork all afternoon, using the sheer monotony of allocating cell space, funding and shifts, as a welcome distraction from the trial. She wished she could have stayed, but she knew that taking a break was the only way to calm herself down. George wanted to see her this evening, and Karen had the distinct impression that George wanted to talk about her daughter Charlie. In saying what she had to Yvonne that morning, George had obviously resurrected things that she hadn't intended to. It was plain to see that George's hold on her feelings was a brittle one, liable to crack and give way at the slightest provocation. Karen didn't know why George clearly didn't get on with her daughter, or why she had so much guilt festering inside her, though it was possibly the cause of her anorexia. John had never told her because he knew it was George's story to tell. So, if George wanted to talk about Charlie, Karen knew that she would listen, and most important of all, she would allow George to tell it in her own way. After all, she, Karen, knew only too well how hard it was to discuss certainly one particular event in her life, so she should know how George would probably feel about admitting to something she felt incredibly self-conscious about. George was an unknown quantity in many respects. When Karen had first had sight of her, she had been constructed mainly of scorn, derision, and every caustic remark under the sun. But then she'd changed. Somewhere between the end of the Merriman/Atkins trial and when Karen had first gone to see her about the case against Fenner, she had altered. Some of the hardness had gone, to be replaced with an emerging vulnerability, which had at the time, intrigued Karen. She could remember George's imposed visit to Larkhall as though it was yesterday, and now, the way George had reacted to every inmate having to have a psychiatric assessment was no longer a mystery. It was odd, Karen thought as she switched off her computer some time after eight that evening, but that if she had to be strong for someone else, it made her feel stronger in herself. It was when she was given the space and encouragement to lean on someone else that she crumbled. Karen had absolutely no doubt that if this trial became any more invasive of her emotional space than it already had been, then her resolve to stay calm and unruffled would be sorely tested. She had come pretty close to cracking that morning, and she just hoped that she could manage to keep it together until it was all over, one way or the other.

As she drove out of the prison gates, she smiled. Sylvia had appeared in her office earlier that afternoon, wanting to know if she knew anything about the water pistol that had mysteriously appeared on the wing, in the hands of Denny Blood as usual. Karen had lifted a hand to cover her smile, and because she wasn't in the mood for any of Sylvia's whining, she'd asked her to try and think about when the water pistol usually made its presence felt. To give Sylvia her due, she'd arrived at the answer almost immediately.

"Usually when I've had to have time off for one reason or another," She said, an unhealthy blush staining her cheeks because she knew these occasions had been skiving, not backed up by actual, official reasons.

"Precisely," Karen had said, totally unabashed. "Which ought to further tell you that I will not put up with being left in the lurch just because of your niece's wedding. If you'd been up front about your reason for taking this weekend off, I'm sure something could have been arranged. But you tried to pull a fast one, and you should know by now that it doesn't work on me. When I first took on this job, I remember telling all of you, but you in particular, that I don't like liars and I don't like skivers. If you are prepared to use underhand methods to take time off, Sylvia, then I will use underhand methods to dissuade you from doing it in the future. Is that clear?" Unable to come up with a suitably cutting reply, Sylvia had turned and stalked out of the office, banging the door none too gently.

Karen couldn't help grinning to herself about this as she drove across London to George's. She always managed to cut Sylvia down to size. If Neil found out about her persuasive tactics, she would probably have some explaining to do, but if it worked, she would keep on doing it. When she pulled into George's driveway, she could see a light on in the lounge. Walking up the steps to the front door, Karen became further aware of the sound of a piano being played. Realising this must be George herself, Karen stood for a moment and listened. She wasn't sure who the music was by, but the crashing chords and rapid runs of notes in between, told her in no uncertain terms that George really could play. Loath to interrupt her, Karen waited another couple of minutes until the piece drew to an end before ringing the doorbell. When George appeared, she looked tired, irritable and thoroughly on edge. But when she registered that it was Karen, and not some utterly unwelcome other being on her doorstep, she smiled.

"That was some piece," Karen said as she moved into the hall.

"Oh, no," George said in dismay. "You heard it."

"And very impressed I was too," Karen said kissing her. "I don't know what it was, but it sounded incredible."

"Beethoven, the Apassionata Sonata. It's wonderful for taking everything out on."

"I tend to use Sylvia for that purpose, at least when she deserves it," Karen said with a grin.

"Has the penny dropped yet?" George asked, with a broad smile.

"Oh, the water pistol you mean, yes, it has finally. So maybe we'll see some improvement."

"Would you like a glass of wine?" George offered, finally detaching herself from the far too comforting embrace.

"Yes please," Karen replied as she followed George into the kitchen. "But what I would really like is for you to play something for me." George turned and sized her up.

"Are you sure?" She asked tentatively. "I mean, I'm not all that good really." Karen grinned.

"Modesty really doesn't suit you, George. You play like an angel. So yes, I would like it very much if you would play for me. It's pretty rare that I listen to classical music, but whenever I do, it always seems to make me unwind."

"Okay," George acquiesced, pouring Karen a glass of wine and refilling her own, and walking back into the lounge. Putting her glass down on the coffee table and taking her seat at the piano, she began flipping through the book that had been on the music stand.

"Will the Pathetique do you?" She asked. "Because I know I can play that."

"Fine," Karen said as she settled in to the left hand corner of the sofa, glass of wine in hand, and ready to have her nerves untangled by the swiftly flowing dimensions of one of Beethoven's most famous creations.

The first movement started gently enough, with brief, sudden crescendos through the various modulations of C minor. But when the piece began to traverse the rapid chords and progressions of its main theme, Karen closed her eyes, the music flowing over her like so many gentle and skilful fingers. The bass thundered up and down, whilst the right hand executed such full bodied chords and incredibly fast runs, that Karen wouldn't have been the first to wonder just how Beethoven had expected anyone to play it. During the quieter moments, Karen's thoughts drifted unheeded to the haunted soul currently playing this fabulous work of genius. George probably didn't know it herself, but her innermost feelings were being portrayed through the music she was playing. It was as if her soul was crying out for some sort of understanding, maybe even a form of deliverance from the pain that could all too easily swamp her. Karen couldn't see George's face from where she was, George being to the right but with her back to the sofa, but Karen thought that her face would probably be devoid of all expression, the feelings coming from inside. The notes trickled away from her like tears pouring from those enormous blue eyes. Karen briefly entertained the thought that this first movement of the Pathetique represented George particularly accurately. It had its quieter moments, when the notes portrayed a false serenity, a brief period of calm, but with the storm waiting to break just around the corner. The first movement ended with a few short, sharp chords, possibly to illustrate how George used to show herself to the outside world.

The second movement began in the subtle, romantic tones of A flat, the gentle chords rocking to and fro, as lovers might initially begin caressing each other. Was this movement showing Karen the George who wanted to be loved, who wanted to be held safe in a pair of arms for as long as this pleasure might be granted to her? But then it drifted into a more unsettled pattern of flitting between the major and minor keys, and the beat moving to three instead of two. Was this meant to depict George's fear of the unknown, her fear that those who meant so much to her might one day leave her? Then, the original melody in A flat had returned, the music remaining in the three beat style, the waltz of many lovers around the world. Was this when George might abandon her fears, simply allowing herself to live her moment of glory with whichever lover this outpouring of emotions concerned.

The third movement had switched back to the more unpredictable tempo and flow of notes as the first, the music swinging through all possible connotations of C minor, but always returning to one particular theme in the right hand, George's fingers moving through the trills and runs with the familiarity of thorough learning. With some extremely flashy alternating broken chords, George was able to well and truly show off her skill, to put her mark on the piece, to say, this is how I play it, take it or leave it. Also in a similar way to the first movement, this was George seeing herself alone, not in the company of any real or imagined lover, but herself saying love me or hate me, but this is who I am. This movement portrayed the erecting of her emotional walls, the constructing of the barriers of scorn and loathing that would keep everyone at bay. Whilst the first movement had been a tormented soul looking for some kind of reprieve, and the second a brief interlude with a chosen lover, the third and final depiction of her personality was trying to block everyone out, possibly to stop them from seeing the vulnerable, hurting woman on the inside.

When she reached the end, there was silence, except for the faint crackling from the logs in the hearth. Opening her eyes, Karen said,

"You've just told me an awful lot about yourself without even opening your mouth." George turned swiftly round to face her, a look of brief horror on her face. "Don't worry," Karen said gently. "The way you played that didn't tell me anything I either didn't know already, or hadn't at least suspected."

"I've never thought of playing as being quite so revealing," George said lightly.

"Everyone, no matter what their creative art, whether it be painting, writing or music, if they have the kind of skill that you do, they always put over what's inside them, whether they mean to or not."

"That's a little worrying," George said with a self-deprecating smile.

"And it's probably why I don't play very often," Karen agreed. "And it's definitely why I never let anyone hear me."

"So," George said, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. "What did my playing tell you about me?"

"Well, I might be wrong, but I think you wanted to see me tonight because what you said about Charlie has reopened some old wounds, and because you want to talk about that in order to cauterise them before they can close up again. But when you started playing, you might say that each movement told me something different. The first told me just how volatile you are, as if I didn't know already," She said with a small grin. "But what it really told me was that you wanted to be listened to, and if that's what you want, then you will be. The second movement suggested that you love just being close to someone, and that you're afraid of losing whoever it is you want to be close to, as a result of whatever happened to make you feel so guilty. Whether that was me or someone else you were thinking about, I couldn't tell you. The third one was mainly a re-strengthening of all your barriers. It felt as though you were trying to resurrect all the things that had kept you emotionally safe." When Karen stopped speaking, George simply sat and stared at her. She was loathed to admit it, but Karen had been absolutely right. She must remind John never to play his violin in front of her if he didn't want the entirety of his soul to be broadcast at the same time. But maybe Karen's understanding of her playing would make what she had to do next a lot easier. Karen had said she would listen, and George didn't doubt that she would listen, but would she stay once she'd heard how terrible a mother George had been.

"Jo would be proud of you," She said eventually. "That's the first time in a long time that someone has made me well and truly speechless."

"And that wasn't my intention," Karen said quietly.

"Oh, I know," George replied, showing Karen that she wasn't remotely offended, just surprised. "And you're right. I do want to tell you about Charlie, because I think I need to emotionally do what Buki actually did last Friday. But I don't want to tell you about Charlie, because I don't want to lose you as a friend, never mind anything else."

"And what makes you think you might?"

"You love your son, I could see that so clearly when you got that birthday card from him." George turned her face slightly so that she was looking up at the Monet above the fireplace, her profile the only thing Karen could see clearly. "From the moment I knew of my daughter's existence inside me, I was terrified. I hated everything that was happening to me, because I didn't have control over it. I barely looked in a mirror in the last three months before Charlie was born. John didn't know how I felt at the time, because a child was the one thing he'd always wanted and I couldn't ever take that away from him. I wanted to love Charlie, I really did," She said, the tears rising to her eyes, making her feel even more ashamed. "But I couldn't. I couldn't love my own daughter." The tears were running down her cheeks now, making her unable to say any more.

George was only vaguely aware of Karen approaching her, but when she felt Karen's arms go around her, she returned the embrace, hiding her face against Karen's body. Karen simply stood and held her, occasionally running her fingers through her hair. She had wondered if it was something like this, and the anorexia now made sense.

"Did you stop eating because you felt guilty for not loving her?" Karen asked after a while. George looked up at her.

"Yes," She said. "Which is how John found out. I tried so hard to love her, but even now I can't put a name to what I do feel for her. So, when I heard the name she'd created for me, I couldn't blame her. After John and I divorced, keeping every feeling I had well and truly locked away was the only way I could survive. An ice maiden is exactly how I must have appeared to Charlie, even though I tried not to. I'm sorry," She said after a short silence. Taking George's hand, Karen led her over to the sofa where they could sit close together and so that she could look at George.

"No one," She said gently but firmly. "Can ever predict how they will feel when their child is born, and no matter how much you want to love someone, that doesn't always mean that you can. So just occasionally, you will need to do this, to re-open the wounds that will probably never heal. But you haven't frightened me off, and I don't think any less of you for telling me. On the contrary, you've got far more guts about you when it comes to talking, than I will ever have, and as long as you don't want me too, I'm not going anywhere."

They sat for a long time after George's tears had dried, their arms around each other and with George's head on Karen's shoulder. The fire crackled and bathed them in its warm, rosy glow, gradually making George feel safe and at least calmer than she had earlier.

"Please will you stay?" George asked quietly.

"Of course," Karen said, gently kissing her. "I think we both need a decent night's sleep after today."

"I think Jo was going to see John this evening."

"I wonder if she'll take the advice I gave her last week," Karen said with a small smile.

"Oh?" George looked thoroughly intrigued.

"I told her to surprise him, make him feel that she has the upper hand for a change." George laughed.

"There isn't anything John would enjoy more. When you're in bed with John, you sometimes feel like you're still in court." Now it was Karen's turn to laugh. "I'm not joking," George insisted. "As you know, John can be a wonderful lover, but he sometimes forgets that he isn't ultimately in charge. I've never let it bother me because I'm certainly not remotely inferior to him in that way."

"Oh, really," Karen said dryly, quirking an eyebrow at George which made her smile.

"Give me some time, and I'm sure I could come up to the same standard with you," She said, smirking wickedly at Karen. "But Jo has always felt that she isn't good enough for John, which is ridiculous. So your advice might just do the trick."

A while later when they went up to bed, George slipped on a plain cotton nightie, her way of making it clear that she didn't want to do anything but sleep. Karen privately thought that she probably wouldn't have been up for anything other than a cuddle tonight either, so this was fine with her.

"This is definitely the most decadent bedroom I've ever seen," Karen commented as she cleaned her teeth in the en suite.

"And it's one of my favourite rooms in the house," Replied George. As Karen slid under the wonderfully soft duvet, she reflected that with both George and Yvonne, she had encountered the same slight incompatibility as regards bed sharing. Both she and Yvonne had always preferred to sleep on the right side of the bed, and it seemed that she had found the same little quirk in George. With Yvonne, they had simply decided that whoever's house they were at, that person slept where they normally did, and Karen found herself adopting the same policy with George. When George slipped in beside her, they moved with growing familiarity in to each other's arms.

"I've missed this," Karen said in to George's hair.

"Missed what?"

"Just being in bed with someone, and not being expected to actually sleep with them." George laughed softly.

"You're not the only one. Putting pressure on someone in that way is something John would never ever do, but when he's here I always feel as though I have to make the most of it, for him usually. I'm sorry," She said, suddenly drawing her face back to look in to Karen's. "I shouldn't be talking about John whilst I'm in bed with you."

"Why not?" Karen said reasonably. "I know you sleep with John, and I also know that you're not about to stop sleeping with John just because of whatever might happen between us. So it's really not a problem." For the second time that evening, George simply stared at her. "You need each other too much to suddenly give it up," Karen explained. "And as anything remotely heavily committed is absolutely not what I'm looking for, I don't see any difficulty in your continuing to sleep with John. Besides," She said, trying to put George at her ease. "I don't think Jo would ever forgive me for rocking the boat so to speak." As George settled down again and cuddled up to Karen, the thought occurred to her that she couldn't possibly be luckier. As she drifted to sleep in Karen's soft, warm arms, she vowed to hold on to this woman who had come in to her life after all those months of them being incommunicado with each other. She vowed never ever to hurt Karen, because she was far too special, and far too precious to even consider causing any pain.

Part Thirty Eight

Normally, George was not a morning person and resented any external intrusions. Left to herself, she craved the gradual process of coming to life until the moment of decision was right for her first cigarette and to climb out of bed. Unfortunately, this desire clashed with the relentless move of the clock hands round the dial and her desire to face the world only at her best, and the result was her bad temper.

Today, George's eyelid opened a fraction of an inch and an intense pure white sensation dazzled her. The bed seemed strangely different and so she rolled over to investigate. Both eyes blinked open and shut several times and she found the difference. Leaning elegantly on her hand was the full-breasted shapeliness of a wondrous vision, which was Karen. It quite took her breath away.

"Tired, sweetheart?" That uniquely husky voice insinuated its way into George's appetite for sensuous pleasure in all its little ways. She had never woken up next to another woman before last weekend, and this sensation was excitingly different. She stretched out her arms to receive Karen's good morning kiss and the feel of her arms round her cotton-covered shoulders.

"I'm much worse than this as a rule. I don't know which is worse," mumbled George sleepily, "That wretched alarm clock or John being disgustingly cheerful in the morning."

The irritating bleeping of the bedside alarm clock made George's point and she leaned over Karen, stretched out an arm and blindly pressed the general area at the top of the clock with an assortment of fingers. Mercifully, the sound was killed. As George's energy was spent, she lay sprawled across Karen incapable of moving but not wanting to anyway.

"Please tell me it's the weekend, Karen, and we can lie in bed?" George called out, hoping against hope but knowing that Karen was going to shake her head. She felt different today as her thoughts started to take shape, somehow cleansed after opening herself up to telling the unmentionable about Charlie, and removed by the night from that experience.

"I've got to go into Larkhall, nip in to give Denny Blood a pep talk and head on to court. Still, if you get up now, you can always join me in the shower," Karen's seductive voice dispelled the last of the cotton wool in George's thoughts. That definitely made it easier to get moving out of bed.

"So you've called me in to tell me that you're coming to court as well, Miss Betts?"

"Yes, Denny. You'll see me in the visitor's gallery along with a lot of familiar faces."

She knew that she was due in court today but was worried by the last minute call to see Miss Betts. In her experience, such last minute messages with no apparent reasons for them meant bad news. That fear that what she really wanted out of life was suddenly going to be taken away. Instead, Karen smiled benevolently as she faced the suddenly excited girl, whose grin lit up her face with innocence. It transformed Denny's whole appearance, as much on other occasions when her scowl threatened anger and possible violence.

"I'll tell it like it is for Lauren's sake, and if that wanker of a brief gives me any grief, I'll give it back twice over. He'd better watch out for me."

Karen dare not let herself be swept along by Denny's fresh faced enthusiasm. By now, she had been immersed in the process of law operated, in and out of court, and didn't want to see Denny walking into the sort of trap that Neumann Mason-Alan was capable of setting for her.

"Make sure you stick to the facts, Denny. Make perfectly sure of what you know and take your time when you speak. I've been up on the stand when Snowball Merriman and Ritchie Atkins were on trial and, believe you me, it's no picnic."

Denny listened to the concerned tone of the Wing Governor sitting on the opposite side of her desk. This wasn't some screw being stuck up and superior, treating her like some sort of an idiot. This was an older woman's voice of experience telling her very kindly for her own good.

"Which screws are taking me and Lauren?" she said at last.

"I've allocated Mr. McAllister and Miss Geeson to do escort duty for you and Lauren. That suit you?"

"Wicked," Denny grinned. She couldn't have done better if she had a chance to pick the screws to go with her. They were dead fair and straight up. That removed the last little niggling worry from her mind.

"You've not been out since I took you to Yvonne's house. Just don't let it go to your head."

Karen's final advice was softened by the memory of that far off day when the handcuffs of her trade were loosely carried that day and everything was soft and golden. Her life was more complicated these days but, at least, she had her work to keep her focussed and on track.

Denny lounged in the back seat of the car, grinning widely as if she were going on a Sunday treat. It was so long ago since she had seen the other side of the high wooden gates that Denny's impressions of her visit to Yvonne's house didn't seem real. They were like a disconnected series of images out of a celebrity magazine. Only the memory of Yvonne's voice, sometimes tender, sometimes joking, stayed with her for always. Memories could fade but not that indefinable feel of Yvonne's maternal care. If it weren't for her, she would still be that vicious bitch who thought she was so hard and who delighted in hurting other women.

As they set off outside the gates, she looked all around her. The world raced past her windows at a frenetic pace. Everything seemed unbearably vivid and cars rushed dangerously close to her. Everyone must be bleeding Superman or Catwoman to survive in this madhouse. Only the inside of the car seemed to stay in one place and she felt anchored down by it.

Lauren was tired out and, even waiting interminably while Karen checked them through the gatehouse security, her head lolled sideways against Dominic's shoulder. After months of relative nothingness, Lauren had endured day after day of all out mental concentration, which had ground her down. She didn't know what was worse, standing impassively as an observer while her past was laid out for all to see, or the traumatic confrontation where she fought for her idea of who she was and, therefore, her sanity. Now she was numb to everything, content to be led where others saw fit. In the cuckoon like shell of the car, the outside world moved lazily along in a disconnected way and she felt temporarily safe with those who were with her.

Denny took her place in the witness box and, flanked by Dominic, she glanced up at the gallery. A huge smile split her face. Jesus, the best of the screws and all the old lags from Larkhall were lined up in a row, Nikki, Miss Stewart, Crystal, Yvonne, Roisin, Cassie, Babs, Miss Betts as promised and that new bird of hers, George or better known to me as Posh Bitch. All of them smiled at her as if she were at a birthday treat. That was something she didn't get every day and made her feel better. She remembered the day when this nice lady who she'd seen before, talked to her about the trial. She'd introduced herself as Jo, shaken her firmly by her hand and put her at her ease. Anyone else would have pissed her off, banging on about one thing after another as if she was a liar or an idiot.

"Miss Blood, when did you first meet Mrs. Atkins, and how did you come to know her?"

Jo asked her.

"Yvonne?" she questioned, momentarily puzzled. "It was soon after she first came to Larkhall….."

"…..and when was this?"

Denny's forehead was furrowed by a series of frown lines as she racked her memory in an environment when days, weeks, months and years all flowed into each other. Finally, she remembered all that bollocks about the millennium and could pinpoint it that Yvonne had arrived just before Halloween. That made it October 1999. Jesus, she first knew Yvonne Atkins in the last bleeding century.

"I think it was October 1999, Miss," Denny said at last.

"Can you describe for the benefit of the court, exactly what your relationship with Mrs. Atkins was like?"

"She was my second mother. There wasn't anyone closer to me than her when I first knew her."

"Can you explain for the benefit of the jury, a bit about your background and, in particular, why you call Mrs. Atkins your second mother?"

"My real mother was an alki. I got taken into care when I was eight when my mother was out somewhere, getting drunk. I ended up in a children's home. You have to be hard and tough going through all that. Larkhall is only the next stage up…….."

"What sort of contact did you have with your real mother after that?" Jo asked softly.

"She was too busy getting drunk for me or anything else. I never heard nothing from her till she got taken in for being drunk and disorderly and even then, she didn't recognise me. 'Too much trouble, having kids", that's what she told me once. She'd forgotten that she'd even had a kid. I had to push my face right up close and hold a knife to her throat before she remembered me….."

The zigzag tattoo that ran round Denny's neck was as jagged and razor edged as the words she came out with. Nikki and Helen felt highly uncomfortable as their negative family experiences were nothing in comparison. It also hit them hard that Denny's father was this terrifying hole in her existence.

"……….She let me down time and time again while she was in prison, all big promises and doing nothing about them."

"So how different was Yvonne?"

Denny's face suddenly smiled openly.

"Yvonne was a good laugh and dead generous from the word go. Everyone noticed her. First thing she did was to get a load of guitars shipped in and we did this thing, right, all of us singing this song called "Kumbaya". The head screw had stopped visits to all the women on G Wing, and we wanted to put pressure on them to change their minds. She didn't do this for herself, she did it for all the girls. That's Yvonne all over………… I always knew she was there to have a shoulder that I could cry on. She was someone who'd tell me things straight without telling me a load of bollocks, sorry sir. She could make me laugh and that ain't easy sometimes. She never let me down. Sounds like a mother, doesn't it?"

A sudden rush of raw emotion suddenly swept through Jo, so that she took deep breaths in and out. Yes, that sounds exactly like what mothers do.

"It wasn't just me, but she did the same for other women like my girlfriend, Shaz Wiley. I was the closest to her of all those in Larkhall………"

"If I might be allowed to put in a word here. I am also waiting to see if the witness is going to give evidence directly about the defendant. I am also asking if my learned friend intends to subject the court to a multitude of anecdotes of good deeds that the mother of the defendant is alleged to have done? If so, I would most certainly raise a point of law, for the simple reason that such 'evidence' would be third hand and the validity of such 'evidence' would be impossible to test, apart from simply calling the witness a liar."

Neumann Mason-Alan's heavy-duty sarcasm was aimed to crush what he saw as this ill educated, inarticulate, not very attractive witness, dressed in outlandish clothes.

"I thank you for your advice, Mr. Mason-Alan. It does seem a reasonable point, Mrs, Mills."

"I was not intending to question the witness in the way described, for the reasons my learned friend outlines. I would argue most forcibly that the witness's own direct experience of Mrs. Atkins is highly relevant, if for no other reason than the supposed bad character of Mrs. Atkins is an important plank of my learned friend's case."

Jo could see Denny mouth the word 'why' and raise her eyebrows and she stared sharply at Denny to shut her up. Jo disguised her passing moment of anxiety when she answered the court in her easy relaxed manner.

"I am prepared to allow the line of questioning by Mrs. Mills, subject to the limits that I have set out, but I do expect the witness to go on to give evidence of the defendant herself."

"You have explained everything very clearly, Miss Blood. I want to ask you if there was any event before the death of James Fenner, where you spent any appreciable amount of time with the defendant."

"That's easy," jumped in Denny confidently. "It was the time that Miss Betts took me out for the day to Yvonne's house." Suddenly, all the memories of that glorious day came flooding vividly back so that the film unreeled before her eyes and the courtroom faded.

"Miss Betts let me buy some flowers on the way for Yvonne. Her house is brilliant, out of this world, just the sort of cool place she would have and her dog, Trigger is friendly and soft as a brush………."

Jo was content to let Denny carry on without guidance and smiled to herself that Denny's throwaway comments were doing her job just nicely.

"………All right, I could go on about it all day, sir, but there's one thing that I can remember about Lauren. I don't know how to say it as she's my best mate, as good as sisters like the two Julies are, but she did get a bit aggressive once when she took Yvonne away to talk to her. She and Yvonne disappeared for ages. Miss Betts kept me company so everything was cool. When she did come back, Lauren tried to be nice to me but she kept giving Yvonne the evil eye."

"When did this happen?"

"It was dead hot that day and well into summer. August I would say, miss."

"What struck you about Lauren's manner?"

Denny looked thoughtful as she mulled over the question. The court did not exist for her as she took her time to deliver her judgement.

"I thought that Lauren was jealous of me and took it out on Yvonne. She was scared that I was closer to Yvonne than she was, but I didn't get it then. When Yvonne was at Larkhall, all she would talk about to do with her family was her Lauren, how proud she was of her. You could tell it in her face. Lauren's different now with me as we've shared a cell for the past year since she came to Larkhall. There's never been any trouble between the two of us. You've got to get on bloody well sharing a cell, as you're locked in night after night."

Tears were streaming down Lauren's face in a totally unashamed fashion. She loved Denny for her kindness and understanding. She could not for the life of her work out why she ever thought Denny was a threat to her. There was a lot she couldn't understand about herself, why she had grown up the way she had and how disconnected her past felt from her. Above her, the women in the gallery were incredibly touched by the simple unaffected words, which told the truth.

"No further questions, my lord."

Denny gulped in nervousness as she saw the black guy in his fancy clothes stand up and prepare to speak. She could tell straight away she wasn't going to like him.

"Miss Blood, have you known Mrs. Atkins to be violent?"

"Objection, my lord. Surely my learned friend cannot ask the witness to tell the court what she has heard persons unnamed describe Mrs. Atkins' character any more than I stopped short of asking similar questions from the opposite perspective."

"The objection is sustained for the reasons stated."

Denny was hugely relieved by Jo's intervention. That wanker was really hassling her and on her own would have made her lose it. She really needed Jo's posh talk giving him a bit of legal and shutting him up. As for the judge, he was a real gent.

"I apologise. Miss Blood, have you seen Mrs. Atkins act in a violent manner."

"No, Sir."

"What? Are you seriously telling me that in all the years both you and Mrs. Atkins have been in prison, you have never seen Mrs. Atkins so much as smack another prisoner? I find that very hard to believe."

"Have you got a problem, man?"

"No, Miss Blood, I have no 'problem' as you say. I don't see why a jury should believe a word you say."

"I'll tell you why she didn't need to hit anyone. If she was angry, then one look from her and you didn't want to start any trouble."

"So you are saying that other prisoners were so intimidated by her that they were in fear of their lives?"

"Is that some kind of crime, just looking at someone? She never did anything about it. Most of us respected her too much," Denny shouted scornfully.

"Mr. Mason-Alan, this line of questioning is patently fruitless and unproductive. Unless you provide arguments to refute what the witness is saying, then your approach to cross-examination is questionable in the extreme. To me, you are seeking to wear down the witness in a war of attrition until she says what you want her to say. For this reason, I am putting a halt to this line of questioning."

"I have one last question to ask the witness. Why, Miss Blood, were you let out of prison to spend the day at Mrs. Atkins house?"

"That's easy," Denny beamed. "It was because of Yvonne's birthday, as a treat for both of us. I like answering questions. Do you want to ask me another one?"

To the women in the gallery, Denny was priceless. Only she could transform the majesty of a court of law and the formality of giving evidence into a child's party game.

"I have no further questions, my lord," Neumann Mason-Alan spat out in a disgusted fashion.

"Do you wish to ask any questions, Mrs Mills?"

"I hate to disappoint the witness but I cannot see that anything can possibly be added to what she has already said."

There was a big grin on Jo Mills face. She had been secretly worried about Denny as her heart was in the right place but she had come through in her own way.

As court was adjourned for lunch, Jo gathered up her papers under her arm and caught up with them in the foyer where Dominic was escorting Denny back to Larkhall.

"Did I do all right, Miss?"

"Well done, Denny. You did far better than I ever dreamed you could."

"You're a bloody star, Denny," Cassie called out. "You made that guy Mason-Alan look as big an arsehole as I did."

"You've come a long way since I first knew you, Denny, and definitely for the better," Helen's full intensity of feeling washed over Denny and made her feel good about herself. If Miss Stewart and Miss Betts gave her the time of day, she must be worth something. A soppy feeling inside her made her feel like that bird in the film who was walking round the ballroom of the Titanic, and everyone clapped her and that guy with her in a dinner jacket. She would feel dead stupid in a dress like that and that guy wouldn't be her first choice but it felt right to her. She would never outgrow the need of that feeling of being made special. It hadn't always been that way in her life.

"Why, fancy seeing you once again wearing a prison officer's uniform, Dominic. Remember me?" Yvonne's surface mockery was only a token of old times sake.

"As if I could ever forget. We'll make sure Lauren gets looked after, but I hope it won't be for long."

Automatic instinct made Dominic's reply sound slightly sheepish to begin with. In turn, Yvonne grinned and patted his shoulder in gratitude as he passed along.

"See you when you get out, Denny. Don't forget us whatever you do."

Tears came to Denny's eyes. As if she ever could forget every last one of them.

Part Thirty Nine

When the court reconvened at two that afternoon, Jo just managed to beat Neumann Mason-Alan in rising to her feet.

"My Lord," She said, addressing the bench. "There is a matter that requires your attention, and that should not be discussed in the hearing of the jury."

"What is the basis of this matter, Mrs. Mills?"

"My Lord, I wish to recall a witness."

"Very well, Mrs. Mills, and as I am well aware of the extreme probability that this will turn in to nothing more than a verbal brawl, I think this discussion should take place in my chambers, behind closed doors. If everyone connected with this case would have the courtesy to remain within the vicinity of the court whilst this matter is being settled, I would be much obliged." As Jo and Neumann exited side by side, and made their way up to John's chambers, they stonily avoided each other's gaze, clearly ready to resume hostilities at the earliest possible moment.

In the gallery, Cassie said,

"Oh, well, that's us let off the leash for a while." They all made their way downstairs, not entirely sure where to go next, the pub being out of bounds as it wasn't in the vicinity of the court. But before Karen could offer up any suggestion, she was approached by Marilyn.

"Have you got a minute?" She asked, looking quite nervous. "I think we could do with a chat."

"Yes, of course," Karen replied, knowing that this had to happen sooner or later. There was a cafeteria at the back of the court building on the ground floor, and they all made their way there, Karen and Marilyn splitting off to find a quiet corner.

"Would you like a coffee or something?" Karen offered, trying to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.

"No thanks," Marilyn replied, sounding as nervous as Karen felt. Sitting down, Karen reached for her cigarettes, and then remembered the policy excluding all addicts.

"I've learnt more about Jim over the last ten days, than I ever did when I lived with him," Marilyn said, finally breaking the silence. Inwardly cursing her lack of nicotine, Karen said,

"He was a very complicated man, one way and another."

"The night he was stabbed, I knew it was Dockley," Marilyn continued. "I remember saying that to you when you phoned me, but I don't think you were in a fit state for taking it in."

"Probably not," Karen agreed. "But how did you know who had stabbed him?"

"Do you remember the time he got suspended because Dockley claimed he'd beaten her up?"

"Yes, that wasn't long after I'd arrived at Larkhall."

"He beat her up, because he found out she'd been writing anonymous letters and making phone calls to me. She had a mobile phone in her cell, and one day she phoned me, and left it on while her and Jim were..." Marilyn didn't seem to be able to find an adequate description for what Fenner and Dockley had been doing. "I think it was her way of proving her point."

"Jesus Christ," Karen said in sympathy. "He somehow managed to get her to drop that allegation. I've got no idea how, but I know he did, possibly with the help of one of my other officers."

"Sylvia Hollamby," Marilyn filled in. "She came to see Jim, and he asked her to smuggle in a letter for him." Karen's face grew suddenly angry. "It was a very long time ago," Marilyn said, trying to calm her down. "Besides, that wasn't the worst thing he ever did, was it."

"No," Karen said quietly. It was only now hitting her that Marilyn would have heard every word of the evidence that had been cajoled out of various people, Lauren and Yvonne included.

"I had absolutely no idea he'd done that to you," Marilyn said gently.

"There's no reason why you would," Karen replied matter-of-factly. "He always did manage to cover his tracks a little too successfully."

"I think his only redeeming feature was that he loved his children."

"Yes," Karen said with a small smile. "He did."

"I know that talking to me is probably the last thing you wanted to do," Marilyn said finally. "But I just needed to clear the air. I think I needed to finally put everything to do with Jim to rest, if that isn't the wrong word to use."

"I wish it were that easy," Karen said, thinking that she would probably never be able to do this.

"I know," Marilyn replied, feeling an intense wave of sympathy for Karen. "And there are some things about him that you probably won't ever forget. But after this trial, I need to move on, for the kids' sake more than anything else. I've tried to keep Tom away from what's happened, but he's twelve now, and I can't keep stopping him from reading the newspapers or seeing the news on the telly. I don't want my kids to grow up knowing their dad did all those terrible things. I can't ever condone what Lauren Atkins did, but having heard what I have during this trial, I know that if he hadn't been killed, he'd one day have done something bad enough to put him behind bars. If that had happened, my kids would have known just what an evil man their dad was, and I wouldn't have wanted that." Karen could all too easily see where Marilyn was coming from. She had her two young children to protect, and that was her primary concern. Karen just wondered how Marilyn would feel should Lauren be found not guilty.

When Jo and Neumann entered John's chambers, he was sitting behind his desk, mentally preparing for the battle, which would commence as soon as Coope left them to it.

"So," Neumann asked when he and Jo had taken seats opposite each other. "Just which one of my witnesses do you want to recall, and why?"

"Diane Barker," Jo replied without a pause. "Because I have since learnt an awful lot about her that I didn't know prior to questioning her."

"I'm listening," Neumann prompted, knowing Jo of old, having worked in the same chambers as her for many years, and knowing that she would have a cast iron reason for doing this.

"Diane Barker," Jo said slowly. "Very likely owed James Fenner a favour, which is why I think she might have made him out to be far more of a model officer than he ever was." She said these last few words with such loathing that Neumann blinked. Could everything that had been said about James Fenner, everything concerning Karen Betts, possibly be true?

"How much actual proof do you have of this, Jo?" John asked, wondering just how Jo had come across these new facts.

"Let me get her back into the witness box, and I'll give you all the proof you like," Jo said with total certainty.

"Ah, but we need some proof in order to get that far," Neumann said smugly.

"Oh, it wouldn't be the first time you've built a case on the flimsiest of evidence, now would it?" Jo said tartly, her professional hackles rising.

"Let's try and keep this amicable, shall we," John said reasonably.

"So, come on then, Jo," Neumann goaded. "Spill."

"In Diane Barker's personnel file," Jo said, removing it from her briefcase. "There is logged a written warning, together with a transcript of the conversation that preceded this warning." Jo handed it over to John. After he'd perused it, he said,

"First of all, where did you get this?"

"Is that entirely relevant, My Lord," Jo asked, giving him his correct title because she knew she was treading on thin ice. "Surely the existence of such evidence is really the point, not how I managed to lay my hands on it. Shortly after this written warning was issued, Miss Barker's mother suffered a bad, fall, at home, one which James Fenner apparently helped her to deal with." Jo allowed the resulting silence to make her point for her.

"If you're wrong," Neumann said quietly. "My witness will have you in court quicker than the police did your client."

"Oh, I realise I'm taking a frightful risk," Jo said icily, giving him the same amount of contempt as he was giving her. "But I am prepared to take that risk in order to see justice done."

"I will allow you to recall Diane Barker," John said slowly, feeling that he wasn't really part of this conversation. "But just be careful Jo."

"So, what is it you want in return?" Jo asked Neumann smugly. "For Karen Betts to be called?"

"How did you guess?" Neumann drawled, trying to cover up his surprise.

"Oh, a little bird led me to believe that you wanted her on the stand, whatever it would take. Am I right?" Neumann couldn't prevent the clear evidence of shock appearing on his face, confirming George's suspicion of a few days ago.

"I'd be very interested to know which little bird, gave you such sensitive information."

"Oh, I'm sure you would," Jo said with complete satisfaction.

"What evidence do you have for calling Karen Betts at this late stage?" John asked Neumann.

"I'm surprised you need to ask, My Lord," Neumann said slightly scornfully. "So much has been said about her during this case, that her presence is absolutely vital if a complete picture of events is to be gained." Jo looked pensive.

"Is calling Karen Betts absolutely necessary?"

"Say no to my calling Karen Betts, and I will retract my permission for your calling Di Barker," Neumann said silkily.

"Just what have you got up your sleeve?" She asked contemplatively.

"Perhaps you should ask Karen Betts that," He replied defiantly.

"Oh, I will, because I'm not going into this one as blind as I was with Di Barker."

"That'll do," John said mildly, and then sat quiet for a moment, mulling over everything that had been said. Having read both Helen's transcript of the conversation she'd had with Di Barker, plus the report a social worker had written when it had been decided that Miss Barker's mother should spend the rest of her days in a nursing home, he really thought that Jo might just have something. As for what Neumann clearly had on Karen, he didn't like to contemplate.

"I can't argue with you," He finally said. "But I would urge you also to be careful. I will not have witnesses intimidated in any way in my court, and from what I've seen out of you during this trial, I would be obliged if you would bear that in mind. So, Diane Barker and Karen Betts are to be called. Mr. Mason-Alan, I trust that you will contact Miss Barker, and Jo, will you do the same with Karen Betts, and inform her that she will not be permitted in the gallery until she has given evidence." As Neumann Mason-Alan left John's chambers, he reflected that it was astounding that he had received a fair hearing from this judge. John Deed was renowned for having an on-going relationship with Jo Mills, and maybe there really was some truth in that.

When Neumann had left and they were quite alone, John walked over to her.

"You're going to have a battle on your hands," He said quietly, drawing her up out of the chair so he could kiss her.

"Don't you think I've got that already?" Jo asked, leaning her cheek on his.

"Make sure you find out from Karen exactly what Neumann might have on her. With her past it could be anything." Jo stood slightly back from him, looking cross.

"Don't you think that's a little of the pot calling the kettle black?"

"Okay, okay, but you know what I mean. Forewarned is forearmed, and that's what you need to be."

"I'd better go and tell her what's happened." She moved back in to his arms, never able to get quite enough of kissing this man she'd known longer than she cared to remember. As of one mind they moved over to the sofa, sitting down with their arms around each other, mouths and hands taking up the familiar pursuit of passion. When John's hand came in to contact with Jo's breast, she said,

"John, we shouldn't be doing this here."

"Why not?" He said between kisses. "That argument took far less time than I thought it would." His hand moved to the buttons of her blouse, and when she felt his fingers against her skin, all thought of protest was gone. She hadn't been like this with John for a fortnight, and he wasn't the only one who could feel the need for fulfillment. He was caressing her through her bra, the silky material making his touch agonising though at the same time incredible, when there came a brief knock on the door, followed by the appearance of Coope.

"Judge, the court officer wants to know..." She stopped when she saw the position John and Jo were in. "I'll come back in a while," She said, retreating and closing the door.

"I said we shouldn't be doing this here," Jo insisted, moving out of his arms and doing her blouse back up. "I won't be able to look her in the face again."

"You won't be the first," John said with a broad grin.

"I don't doubt it," Jo replied curtly, still sitting next to him and straightening her clothes.

"Help me think of something truly awful," John said, looking a little uncomfortable.

"Why?" Jo asked, though thinking she could guess. Taking her hand, John placed it over the bulge in his trousers. Grinning broadly, Jo removed her hand and searched for a thought to help John out of his predicament. "How about Legover in a sarong?"

"Yes, that'll do nicely," John said with a grimace. Jo leaned over to give him one last kiss.

"Come over at about eight?"

"I'll be there," He said, kissing her back.

When Jo had gone and Coope had returned, John said,

"I'm sorry about that, Coope."

"Oh, it's nothing I haven't seen before, Judge, but you were lucky it was only me."

"Yes, I suppose we were. Please could you let the court officer know that we won't be resuming this afternoon?"

"Of course, Judge."

When Jo left John's chambers, she walked down the stairs and towards the cafeteria, thinking that this was where everyone would be. Before she got there, she caught sight of the red haired officer who had been accompanying Lauren today.

"Excuse me," She said, "Selena, isn't it?"

"Yes," Selena replied.

"Court won't be resuming this afternoon, so Lauren can be taken back to prison."

"Okay. Thank you for telling me." Then Jo saw Karen and the others walking towards them.

"Is everything all right?" Karen asked.

"Court won't be resuming till the morning," Jo said. "And we need to talk."

"That sounds ominous," Yvonne said, coming up to them.

"You're being called as a witness," Jo said bluntly, her usual abundence of tact having temporarily left her.

"Why?" Karen asked, feeling a sense of dread creeping over her.

"Because I'm recalling Di Barker, and Neumann Mason-Alan used you as a bargaining tool, and this is not the place to discuss it." As they moved away from the others, Karen said,

"If you're recalling Di Barker, would you like to get some background on her first?"

"What would that involve?"

"Come back to Larkhall with me, and I'll introduce you to Gina and Dominic. They can tell you far more about Di Barker than I can."

"Then, yes, that would be useful. However, you are my most pressing concern. Neumann was far too smug about calling you as a witness. I think he's been itching to get you on the stand from the beginning. Is there anything, anything at all that I don't know about you that he might be able to use on you tomorrow?" Karen looked wary.

"At first glance, no," She said matter-of-factly. "But then my past is almost as checkered as John's." When Jo faintly blushed, Karen asked, "Is that what John said as well?"

"Something to that effect, yes."

"Oh, don't worry, it's nothing I haven't heard before. I'll give your question some thought on the way to Larkhall."

Part Forty

Jo followed Karen's car through the heavy London traffic. She knew that Karen's had been a good idea, to meet a couple of Di Barker's colleagues, to really get the low down on her. If she'd known that Di's testimony wasn't to be trusted, Jo would have done this in the first place. But Jo couldn't help worrying about Karen. Neumann quite obviously knew something about her, something big that would cast serious doubt on her professional and sexual reputation. Then her thoughts turned to what had happened that afternoon. She and John had been caught almost in flagrante, and if it had been anyone but Coope, Jo might have been facing another round with the Professional Conduct Committee. Why did John have this effect on her? Why, every time she was with him these days, did she feel an almost irrepressible need to be as physically close to him as possible? She knew she had felt like this in the old days, but before they had embarked on this almost three-way relationship, she had been able to keep her impulses under control. Then the answer came to her. She could feel secure in showing her love for John, because she was no longer haunted by the certainty that he would tire of her in favour of someone younger and more sexually precocious.

When they drew up in the prison car park, Karen gestured to her handbag and said,

"If you don't want that searched by whoever's on the gate, I'd leave it in your car. You've never been down on the wing before, but today you will, and I can't vouch for the safety of its contents if you take it with you. I am in the business of locking up criminals after all." Locking the bag in her car, Jo followed Karen through the endless maze of dull, winding corridors.

"I must admit to a certain curiosity in seeing your wing," Jo said as they walked.

"Well, you've been here a good few times to see Lauren, so I'm not surprised. Plus, both John and George have seen it, but you haven't. But be warned, you could see or hear absolutely anything, and I'm not going to apologise for any of it. Her Majesty's Prisons aren't very nice places."

"Warning received and understood," Jo replied, thinking that after twenty years in the business of defending criminals, she had seen and heard every bad thing imaginable. But as they approached G wing, Jo became aware of the mingled sounds of women's voices, with insults, laughter and words of affection blending together to form an endless stream of noise.

As Karen unlocked the gate and Jo followed her on to the wing, both sets of eyes made a rapid assessment of the surroundings. For Karen this was because she wanted an immediate view of how things were going on her wing, and for Jo, it was because she'd never seen such a sight before. It was clearly the time for association, the period in the day when the inmates were allowed to mingle, to take some time out from the never-ending monotony of being locked up. A few were watching TV, several were simply sitting around smoking and chatting, and a couple was playing pool. As they walked across the wing, Jo took in the thorough mixture of ages, skin colours and temperaments. But before they could reach the officers' room, their attention was drawn to Al McKenzie and Denny Blood.

"Why the hell did they want you in the witness box, Denny?" Al called, a sadistic glint in her eye. "Is it because you're screwing that cell mate of yours? Giving her more than just a legal helping hand?"

"You sick bitch!" Denny shouted, launching herself at Al, the rage clearly visible in her face. Reacting like lightning, Karen leapt forward, wrapping her arms round Denny, keeping Denny's arms fast to her sides.

"Do you want to stay down the block till the weekend?" Denny tried to struggle.

"No, Miss," She said, all the time fighting Karen's hold.

"Well, bloody grow up then!" Karen said, tightening her grip on Denny so as not to let her go.

"But you heard what she said," Denny said in offended dignity.

"And you know she's only doing it to wind you up," Karen said gently, trying to calm Denny down.

"Evil bitch! I'll friggin kill her for saying that. Lauren's like my sister, innit."

"Denny, I mean it," Karen warned. "Either give this up now, or you really are going down the block for a couple of days, because I've had just about as much as I'm going to put up with this week. Now, you did really well in court this morning, so don't screw it up."

"I only did it 'cos I want her to get off," Denny insisted, the tears now running down her cheeks.

"I know," Karen said, loosening her hold on Denny but not entirely letting her go. "Now, go and have a cigarette, and take a few minutes to calm down."

"One pissing morning," Denny continued. "That's all I got out for in 18 months. I'll have forgotten what the outside world looks like by the time I get out, if I get out." Realising that the stress and adrenaline of appearing in court had really got to Denny, Karen simply held her, not knowing what else she could possibly do.

"Denny, listen to me," She said eventually. "I'm going to look at your sentence, and find out when you're next up before the parole board. I'm not making any promises, but we'll see what we can do. You've been pretty good over the last year or so, and that's got to go in your favour."

"That's all you ever bloody say," Denny replied, the anger battling with the tears. "You always try to help me, but we all know it's the pricks in wigs who make the decisions." Swiftly detaching herself from Karen's grasp, Denny stalked off towards her cell.

"That's right," Al jeered. "Go and get yourself a piece of the consolation prize."

"One more word like that, McKenzie, and you'll be down the block even before your adjudication for dealing. Is that what you want?" Al looked enraged.

"You what?" She shouted in disgust.

"You heard, McKenzie," Came the powerful voice of Gina who had appeared to join the verbal fray. "So shut it. It's been like this all day," Gina added, coming over to Karen. "Little spats breaking out all over the place. The nearer Lauren's verdict gets, the more fired up they are."

"Gina, this is Jo Mills," Karen said, introducing the two women. "Jo, this is Gina Rossi, my principal officer." The two women shook hands.

"Aren't you Lauren's brief?" Gina asked in her usual succinct manner.

"Yes," Jo replied, immediately liking the down to earth, no nonsense approach that was the first thing about Gina's personality to make itself plain.

"Jo would like to talk to you and Dominic about Di Barker," Karen said, lowering her voice slightly. "Though it was me who suggested it in the first place. Di is being recalled, and Jo would like to learn everything about her that she didn't know the first time round."

"Be my guest," Gina said with a grim smile. "I could bitch about her till the cows come home."

"Well, it's facts I'm looking for," Jo said with a broad smile.

"Well, Selena and Colin are quite capable of keeping this lot in order," Gina said, turning and walking towards the PO's room. "And the last time I saw Dominic, he was writing up the day's reports." As Karen and Jo entered the officers' room, Dominic looked up from the report book.

"Has court finished early?" He said, giving Karen a smile.

"Yes," Karen replied, and then introduced Jo.

"It seems that Mrs. Mills would like us to give her the low down on Di Barker," Gina said with a certain amount of relish. "Di's going to get a second dose of the third degree, and not before time."

"Jo will do," Jo said with a smile.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" Dominic offered, getting to his feet. When he'd filled the kettle and retrieved a bottle of milk from the fridge, the three women lit up cigarettes.

"I'm not quite sure what you think we can tell you about Di Barker," Dominic said carefully.

"Oh, come on, Dominic," Gina put in scornfully. "She reeled you in just as much as the rest of us. I bet she had a thing for you, didn't she. I remember, she couldn't sing your praises high enough when you left." Dominic blushed slightly under the scrutiny of the three women.

"She was a bit obsessed with me," He said eventually.

"Yeah, like she was with every bloke in this place," Gina filled in. "I don't know what the opposite is of a serial womaniser, but that's what she was. She'd hit on a bloke, and wouldn't let him out of her grip until she'd forced him away from whatever woman he happened to be with at the time."

"Dominic," Karen said, suddenly remembering something. "Why exactly did you quit the service so suddenly and go to Greece of all places?"

"Jesus, you don't hang about, do you," Dominic replied, realizing what Karen was getting at. "It wasn't just Di," He said, beginning to look a little uncomfortable. I had a bit of a thing for Helen at the time."

"Yes, I remember," Karen said with a fond smile, sometimes seeing Dominic as the son she'd wanted Ross to be. "And I think you found out about Helen and Nikki's relationship, didn't you."

"Yeah," Dominic said, a little relieved to get this off his chest after all this time. "But even if Helen hadn't been with Nikki, what Di was doing wouldn't have helped. I'd never be able to prove it, but I'm fairly certain she took passport photos from my locker, and you saw what she was like at Sylvia's party, she was all over me."

"Like she was with every other bloke round here," Gina said in disgust.

"Would you say she threw herself at you?" Jo asked.

"Yeah," Dominic laughed. "I was sick of all the attention she was giving me and I couldn't stay here and stay quiet about Helen and Nikki, so I quit."

"And we're all bloody glad you came back," Karen said, trying to put him at ease once more.

"What was she like after Dominic left?" Jo asked in to the silence.

"Like a bitch constantly on heat," Said Gina matter-of-factly. "First Josh, then Mark, then god knows who else." Jo held up a hand.

"Mark?" She questioned, thinking she might have heard that name before in relation to Larkhall.

"Mark Waddle," Clarified Gina. "He was my bloke at the time." Jo thought for a moment.

"Mark Waddle as in..." She stopped, but Karen had understood.

"Yes, as in the Mark Waddle I was once involved with."

"Let's go back to Josh," Jo said, trying to relieve some of the tension caused by the mention of Mark's name. "This would be the Josh that Crystal Gordon is now living with?"

"Yeah, Josh Mitchell," Replied Gina. "Di tried to split them up by throwing herself at Josh. We obviously didn't know about Crystal and Josh, or Josh wouldn't have been allowed to stay in the service. But it was around the time that Di mislabelled the drugs tests. Crystal knew hers couldn't have been positive, so she went on hunger strike until she was proved right."

"I know all about that," Jo said. "So, at the same time, Di was throwing herself at Josh. In what way?"

"Making out they had some really hot date, plastering on the make up, making out she had this lover who couldn't leave her alone. I walked in on them once having a row, and Josh asked me if Di had been saying all this stuff about the two of them, and when I said yes, he made it pretty bloody clear that they weren't. I think that might be why she went after Mark, to prove she could get herself a bloke."

"What happened with Mark?" Jo asked, seeing a brief glimmer of pain in Gina's eyes, which was suddenly hidden under the bitter, hardened outer shell.

"I was pregnant," Gina said reluctantly. "And Di took advantage of the fact that me and Mark weren't getting on so well. She wanted to get one over on me because I knew what a tit of herself she'd made with Josh. So, one night when I was doing something else, she got him drunk, and got what she wanted. All that spite and vindictiveness just for a quick screw in the club toilets. Then, the next day, she kept rubbing it in. I didn't know who the hell she was talking about, but she kept saying how the bloke she'd been with couldn't get enough of her. Anyway, I found out I was pregnant, just before she dropped him in it. So, with no bloke on the scene any longer, I thought about having a termination. Di tried to give me this really pathetic apology, so I told her that there wouldn't be no baby, problem solved, and she tried to give me the old line about making a rash decision. Like she'd ever want a baby. It would cramp her style too much. Over the next few days, I found out from the Julies that she'd been telling all and sundry that I wasn't really pregnant and forcing Mark to come back to me by telling him I was having his baby. So, I did what Karen knows I'm famous for, I went looking for Di to punch her lights out. We got in to a fight in the locker room, and she pushed me over onto the bench. The fall I had made me lose the baby, when I'd only the day before decided to keep it." Brief tears rose to Gina's eyes, making her feel stupid and vulnerable. "I'm sorry," She stammered slightly.

"Is that when you left Larkhall?" Jo asked gently, feeling and empathising with Gina's pain all too easily.

"Yeah," Gina replied, lighting another cigarette. "I'm not the only one who Karen persuaded to come back." There was another short silence.

"Any more men I should know about?" Jo asked, thinking that Gina would prefer the focus to be taken away from her.

"Only Barry Pearce, but I think she got more than she bargained for with him, and Neil Grayling," Karen filled in, grinning when she saw Jo's raised eyebrows.

"But I thought Neil Grayling was..."

"Gay," Finished Karen. "Yes, he is, and I think it might have been Di that persuaded Neil to reveal himself."

"Yeah," Said Gina with a grin. "It was probably the only way he could get a bit of peace."

"So," Dominic said, finally getting a word in. "What's the other end of the bargain? I've sat through enough trials to know that when one side recalls a witness, the other side usually wants something in return." Jo looked extremely impressed.

"I'm being called," Karen told him. "Actually, Gina, you can get your head round this one. You've got the most suspicious mind of all my officers so I'm sure you'll find an answer."

"Oh, cheers," Gina said dryly and with good humour.

"Jo is fairly certain that the prosecution has something big on me, only I can't for the life of me work out what it is." Dominic hurriedly rose to his feet.

"I'm staying out of this one," He said. "I don't want to end up with the sack."

"Sit down," Karen said good-naturedly.

"Well, I'd have thought it was bloody obvious," Gina said matter-of-factly. "Work it out. Who was Fenner sleeping with before he died? Who, therefore, probably had instant access to all his stuff, including any memorabilia Fenner might have had from his relationship with you." Karen began putting the pieces together. When it dawned on her exactly what Fenner had kept in his possession, and therefore what Di would subsequently have had in hers, a look of shock passed across her face.

"Oh, no," She groaned, putting a hand to her mouth.

"Oh, come on, it can't be that bad," Gina said with a smile.

"Thanks for the blind optimism, Gina, but it's pretty unfounded in this case."

"What the bloody hell did you do?" Gina asked, looking very interested.

"That's absolutely none of your business," Karen said.

"Well," Gina said, glancing over at the rota. "If you're in the witness box tomorrow, it'll be Sylvia's business, and that's the last thing you want."

"Not bloody likely," Karen said firmly, taking a pen from the desk and slashing a red line through Sylvia's name. "You can go in her place. At least you know how to keep your mouth shut."

"So, come on then, tell me what I'm in for," Gina cajoled.

"If I'm right," Karen said tightly. "You'll find out soon enough anyway." Seeing something in her face, Gina said,

"Come on, Dominic, we've got work to do."

When they'd left, Jo said,

"So, what might the prosecution have on you that I need to know about?" Karen began to look very uncomfortable. She stood up and began walking round the room, stacking papers, putting things away and generally avoiding Jo's gaze.

"Do you remember, I told you that Fenner tried to blackmail me into dropping the rape allegation, by showing Grayling some pictures of me?"

"Yes," Jo said slowly, fully understanding now.

"Well, I'm fairly sure that as Grayling wouldn't have had any use for them, he'd have given them back to Fenner. Knowing now how he definitely felt about me all that time, there's no way he'd have got rid of them, and going by what we now know of Di Barker, she'd love to use them to get back at me for always being the one he loved."

"Precisely what was in the pictures?"

"Trust me, you really don't want to know," Karen said, a blush staining her cheeks.

"Karen, the whole court is going to know this time tomorrow, and that includes George. So tell me."

"Why?" Karen said in enraged despair. "Why does this always happened to me? Every bloody time, something new has to come out about my past. Soon there'll be nothing left."

"Karen," Jo said gently. "Whatever you did that Fenner had pictures of, it won't be anything I haven't heard before, you know."

"I know," Said Karen uncomfortably. "I'm just quite ashamed that I did it, that's all. John's going to get a shock, that's for sure." Jo grinned.

"Now I really am intrigued."

"The pictures Fenner had," Karen began slowly. "Were of me either just wearing nothing at all, or of me doing various things that wouldn't look out of place in the Kama Sutra."

"Okay," Jo said quietly. "I don't need to tell you that the prosecution is going to have a field day with this." Karen could see it like it was yesterday. Her standing in front of Neil's desk, of him showing her the photo that said "Enjoy," on it, and of him saying,

"I enjoyed the ones of you in the shower too."

"What are you thinking?" Jo asked, seeing that some memory had invaded Karen's mind.

"I've just remembered exactly what is in some of those pictures, Fenner's favourite ones. Tell me this, Jo. Why do I always seem to do such stupid things without a care in the world when I'm doing them?"

"I'm told it's part of being human," Jo said gently. "If I know the worst, I can prepare for the worst."

"In a few of them," Karen said, standing in front of the window that looked out on to the exercise yard, so that she couldn't see Jo's face. "I was touching myself." She could feel the colour suffuse her cheeks.

"That isn't anything to be ashamed of," Jo said quietly, having herself partaken of that particular delicacy in the sometimes lengthy period when she'd had no other lover, and had been keeping herself away from John's all too tempting bed.

"It is, when it'll be on display for all to see," Karen said miserably.

"Neumann will have to have a very good reason for showing that sort of picture," Jo said firmly. "And now that I know what to expect, I can object hopefully before he shows it."

A little while later when they walked out of the officers' room and across the wing, they were stopped by Denny, looking a good deal happier than she had done earlier.

"Oy, Miss," She called as Karen and Jo walked passed her. "When's Posh Bitch coming back?" Standing stock still in her tracks, Karen briefly thought she could strangle Denny. Jo might be okay about Karen and George on the surface, but Karen didn't especially want it broadcast to all and sundry that George had been with her at Larkhall last Friday. Having seen something of this in her face, Denny came over and said, "Shit! Have I dropped you in it, Miss?"

"Not really," Karen said fondly. "But it seems to be one of those days." When she and Jo had walked through the gate and down the corridor, Jo said,

"I'm assuming that's Denny's name for George?"

"Yes," Karen said, briefly wondering if she was destined to look sheepish for the rest of her life. "I unexpectedly had to do two hours here on my own last Friday evening, and George offered her company. I don't know what made her do it, but I'm heartily glad she did. If George hadn't been here to be my runner and to look after a very distressed Tina Purvis, one of the other inmates, Buki Lester would have died." Abandoning any thought of worry for George's safety in a place like this, Jo asked,

"What happened?" And Karen could see nothing but concern for her in Jo's face.

"Buki is one of G wing's regular cutters. Whether she picked last Friday night because she knew I would be on my own, or because everything had suddenly got too bad for her, I don't know. But she took a razor blade to the main artery in her wrist. Not something I'm going to forget in a hurry." Jo could clearly see that whilst Karen might view this as an occasional part of the job, it had still greatly affected her.

"I don't really know how to say it," She said eventually. "But from what I've seen and heard today, I know that yours must be one of the hardest and probably the least rewarding jobs anyone ever has to do, yet you put your heart and soul in to it. The way you looked round your wing when we first arrived, it was as if you were checking up on your flock, as though they were an enormous family who were all under your wing, including your officers. In your own way, and for different reasons, each and every one of them matters to you." Karen stopped in the corridor and stared at her.

"No one's ever seen it like that before," She said, greatly touched by what Jo had said. "But yes, I suppose that's how I do see them sometimes. You can't help but be fond of some of them. Some, like Denny, or the Julies, or Buki, or even Cassie, Barbara and Nikki when they were here, and Roisin, and even Shell Dockley on a non-violent day. You get to know so much about them, especially the ones who are here for a long stretch, that you can't help but look upon them as meaning more to you than a job. I expect you feel like that about some of your clients."

"Yes, occasionally there'll be one whose case I get far too emotionally involved with."

"And I probably do the same with countless of my inmates," Karen said ruefully. "Though a good proportion of the time is spent thanking any remotely higher being that they aren't members of my family." Jo grinned as they kept on walking, but it wasn't lost on her that a large part of Karen resided within these walls, that a significant proportion of her psyche belonged to these women whom she showed so much maternal fondness for, in spite of their causing her no end of hassle on a daily basis.

Part 41

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