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.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: One of these lines is shamelessly borrowed from Henny's Handle With Care. So thanks to her for being a genius. Song lyrics come from Elton John's 'The One'. Betaed by Jen, Little Dorritt and Kaatje.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part Fifty One

When Karen drew up outside George's house after nine on the Friday evening, she was relieved to see that George's was the only car in the drive. Karen knew that tonight, what she really needed was some warm, sensitive, female company. She hadn't spoken to George since the revelation of those pictures yesterday, and she knew that this needed to be sorted out. Karen was absolutely not, going to let something she'd done in a moment of insanity, spoil anything she might have with this beautiful woman. She just hoped that George would want to see her.

George hadn't gone to court on the Friday, because she'd respected Karen's need for space, that had been expressed to Helen on the Thursday. George was very well aware that Karen would feel a certain amount of embarrassment and self-disgust, after having those pictures displayed to all and sundry, at the mere whim of Neumann Mason-Alan. George seethed whenever she thought of him, conveniently forgetting that not so long ago, she might have done something similar. So, she had worked solidly all day, trying to clear her desk of the work that had been piling up for most of the week. Apart from Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon, she had spent her time in court, and it was beginning to show. She'd stayed at the office until seven that evening, wanting to be able to go home, and not think about work for the whole weekend. If Karen didn't contact her by tomorrow, George knew that she would be the one to make the first move. What she'd seen in those pictures wasn't anything out of the ordinary, even John had once made some pictures of her that were pretty similar in content. George smiled, wondering if he still had them. On returning home, she poured herself a glass of wine, and began wading through the e-mails that had been sent to her home computer. Some of her regular clients often contacted her at home, knowing that they were more likely to get a rapid response that way. After dealing with those clients who were demanding her attention then and there, she stretched, feeling the ache in her back and shoulders from sitting at a computer all day. Refilling her glass, she went upstairs and filled the bath with hot scented water, the combined aroma of geranium and sandalwood soothing her senses and making her relax.

When she heard the ringing of the doorbell a little after nine, she groaned with irritation. Who could that be, disturbing her like this on a Friday evening, after a hard week's, or in her case, hard day's work? She had half a mind to leave whoever it was freezing on the doorstep, but as usual, George's curiosity won out. Dragging herself regretfully out of the far too inviting bath, she dried off, wrapped herself in a towel, and took a quick look out of the bedroom window to see who might be about to incur the Channing wrath. A broad smile spread over her face when she recognised Karen's car in the gleam of the street lamp. Running quickly down the stairs, she opened the front door to let her in.

"Do you always open your front door dressed like that?" Karen asked with a smile as she came into the hall.

"Not usually, no," George said dryly. "How are you?"

"All the better for seeing you," Karen replied quietly, almost testing the waters, to see just how much George really did want her to be there.

"Good," George said as she moved into Karen's outstretched arms. After they'd kissed each other long and hard, George said, "I didn't come to court today because I thought you would almost certainly want some space."

"That was probably a good idea," Karen admitted. "I wasn't sure if I'd be able to look you in the face after yesterday."

"Oh, come on, darling, give me some credit," George said a little scornfully. "Do you really think I'd think any less of you just because of a few dodgy pictures?"

"I wasn't sure," Karen said truthfully, showing George just how low her self-esteem really was. Standing wrapped in only a towel, George shivered. "You'll get cold," Karen said, noticing the goose flesh on George's arms.

"I'd only been in the bath about ten minutes," George said, the suggestion dancing in her eyes. "Would you like to join me?"

"I can't think of anything I'd like better," Karen replied, her sultry tone caressing George's senses. After pouring Karen a glass of wine, George led the way upstairs.

"I posed for John once," She said when they were in the bedroom. "If I know him, he's probably still got that extremely incriminating evidence somewhere in his possession." When George removed the towel and hung it back over the radiator, Karen stared at her. George's nipples were as hard as bullets.

"Was it cold downstairs, or are you pleased to see me?" Karen couldn't help asking.

"Both," George replied with a laugh. They made swift work of Karen's clothes, and when they were reclining deliciously in the hot, scented water, Karen sipping from the glass of white wine, they both privately thought they were in heaven.

"How did it go at court today?" George asked.

"Nothing unexpected. Jo gave the most almighty closing speech, really had the jury under her spell. I wouldn't be surprised if it's what she said that sways them. Then, after lunch, John gave his summing up. Jo doesn't think the jury will be back till at least Monday."

"I knew there hadn't been a verdict because if there had, I'd probably have heard from someone."

"Sorry I disappeared yesterday," Karen said a little sheepishly.

"I couldn't believe it when you walked out of court, though I didn't blame you. Neumann Mason-Alan always has been a spineless creep. Jo tore a strip off him afterwards. I thought at one point that she was going to slap him."

"Fenner's pictures are certainly not worth anyone getting into that kind of trouble over," Karen said sternly.

"Oh, I know, and I think I managed to calm her down. But she wasn't amused to say the least."

"Two years ago," Karen said slowly. "It would have been the other way round. You about to fly off the handle and Jo being the calming influence."

"Not at the same time it wouldn't," George said with a smile.

"I think this trial might be getting to her more than usual," Karen observed.

"Very occasionally, Jo does get far too emotionally involved with a case. Everything she's done, she's done for Yvonne, not for Lauren. I know that much." Karen looked astonished. "Yvonne's a mother, just like Jo is, and I think Jo thought about what it would be like to be in Yvonne's shoes. The last case I saw her throw herself into with so much zeal, was for another mother. Only that time, Jo's client died before the outcome of the case. I was leading the defence, and by the end, I found that I was working on the same side as Jo, something I would never have thought remotely possible." George looked a little wistful as she said this.

"Did you regret being on the side you were?"

"Yes, I did. Half way through the case, the CEO of the company I was representing, managed to put child pornography on John's computer, mainly because they knew he wasn't going to support their case in any way. He made it pretty obvious that he was not open to persuasion." Karen could see that this had greatly affected George when it had happened, and that George sincerely regretted representing anyone remotely connected with something like that. "So," Continued George after taking a swig of her wine. "When it came time for One Way to provide some compensation for Diana Hulsey's seven-year-old son, I did a little gentle persuasion of my own, and managed to get them to stump up over two-and-a-half million." Karen was extremely impressed, having thought that George's powers of persuasion would in all probability be the most ingenious she'd ever come across. "Where did you go yesterday?" George asked, clearly wanting to change the subject, except that this meant that now it was Karen's turn to be under the spotlight.

"I did something I should have done a long time ago," Karen replied, hoping this wouldn't make her sound completely insane. "I went to see two houses from my past, the one where I lived with Fenner, and the one where he raped me." George drew slightly back from her, examining her face in infinite detail. "Oh, I know," Said Karen, interpreting George's stare. "Sounds totally mental, doesn't it. But the last time I was unexpectedly faced by the B and B where Fenner had been staying, I might have got me and Yvonne killed. I think that after what happened yesterday, I decided that if there was ever a time for some choice where Fenner was concerned, it was now."

"You're very brave," George said, leaning forward to kiss her.

"Reckless and stupid you mean," Said Karen, kissing her back. They lay there for a while, the warm, fragrant water lapping around them, gently kissing each other, and tasting the wine on each other's lips.

"Do you know something," George said with a soft smile. "I was unequivocally warned off hurting you yesterday."

"Oh, no," Karen groaned in resigned acceptance. "Which one of them was it?"

"Helen," George replied, her smile growing wider.

"Really?" Karen was surprised.

"Yes. She told me that you would want to hide somewhere, get it out of your system, and then come back tougher and more emotionally closed off than you were before."

"That's what you get for having a psychologist as a friend," Karen said ruefully.

"And was she right?"

"Probably, though I wouldn't have put it quite as bluntly as that."

"I don't want you to have to hide from me," George found herself saying, much to her amazement.

"I'm not going to make you any promises I might not be able to keep," Karen said gently.

"I know, and I don't expect you to, and this is probably getting far too deep and meaningful for both of us," George responded, accepting the situation as it was, because she liked Karen far too much to push her away by needing more than she was prepared to give.

"Tell me something," Karen said, trying to move the conversation on to an entirely lighter footing. "What's the sexiest thing you've ever done, that you wouldn't mind repeating some time?" George grinned wickedly.

"I do occasionally enjoy being tied up."

"Oh, you should have said," Karen teased. "I could have brought my prison issue handcuffs."

"No way," George said with a laugh. "Silk scarves are fine. But handcuffs are definitely far too weird. Have you ever tried it?"

"No, being restrained, however flimsy the restraints, just isn't for me."

"Why?" George asked, thoroughly intrigued now, because she loved being treated like a recalcitrant schoolgirl.

"Not being able to fight against it once in my life was quite enough," Karen said simply.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," George said, feeling utterly stupid.

"It doesn't matter," Karen tried to reassure her with a soft smile.

"So, tell me what you do like?" George asked, wanting to get them back on safer ground.

"Ah, well, what I would really like, right this minute," Karen said, looking George straight in the eye. "Is to taste you."

"Oh, would you now," George drawled, her eyes widening with lust. "Is it really that good, giving it I mean?"

"Oh, yes," Karen replied with utter certainty. "It's wonderful."

"This will probably sound stupid, but did you ever think you might not like it?"

"The first time I did that was definitely an experience I'm not likely to forget, and it is without doubt an acquired taste that I suppose some like and some don't. But I approached it with the philosophy that it was certainly worth a try, and if I didn't like it, I would cross that bridge when I came to it. Just because I would love to do that to you," She added, having correctly interpreted George's question. "Does not mean I expect you to do the same. That decision has to be yours and yours alone."

"Would it bother you if I didn't?" George asked, wanting to get this hurdle out the way as soon as possible.

"Remembering what you were like last week," Karen replied, taking George's hand and running her thumb over the knuckles, "it wouldn't bother me in the slightest." When their lips met this time, they both discovered that the heat had been turned up somewhere along the line.

"Can we go to bed?" George asked, trying to hide how much she wanted what Karen wanted to give her, and failing spectacularly.

"It's your house," Karen said seductively. "We can do whatever you like."

"You should never, ever give me free rein with anything," George said with a smirk as they got out of the bath and dried off. "You never know what it might lead to." Karen laughed.

"Is that right," She murmured, running a finger over one of George's breasts and then following her into the bedroom.

They moved as if of one mind towards the bed, drawing back the duvet and meeting each other in the middle. Their hands were on each other, their mouths deliciously entangled, both enchanted with the other's body all over again. When Karen realised that their touching was about to take an altogether downwards turn, she gently pushed George onto her back, took her hands and carefully lifted her arms so that her fingers became entwined with the interlocking carvings of treble and bass clefs, that made up the head board.

"That's so you don't make me lose my concentration," She said with a smirk.

"You do like being in control, don't you," George drawled, loving every second of it.

"I want you to enjoy this," Karen replied. "And if you keep touching me, I'll forget what I'm supposed to be doing."

"I can behave, I promise," George said with a deceptively innocent smile.

"I'll believe that when I see it," Karen said dryly, having realised that George liked to be treated as the occasionally naughty schoolgirl that she'd probably been. When George capitulated to her request to keep her hands out of harm's way, Karen began kissing her again, and moving her hand so delicately over George's breasts that she was barely touching her. The more George would let herself be teased, the more explosive her orgasm would eventually be. Karen steadfastly avoided coming into direct contact with George's nipples, making her inwardly scream with frustration. George was torn. Her natural impatience making her want to urge Karen on to further endeavour, and her insatiable curiosity to see what Karen would do next, vying for dominance. When Karen faintly trailed the very tip of her finger across George's nipple, she gasped, having until then attempted to stay quiet. Karen laughed softly.

"As I said last time, there's no need for you to stay quiet if you don't want to," She said between kisses.

"Then please, will you stop teasing," George said with a grin. "It's driving me mad."

"Oh, you'd prefer this instead, would you?" Karen asked, making her caress of George's breasts a lot more assertive.

"Yes," George responded with alacrity. "You know patience isn't one of my virtues."

"Then perhaps it's one you should learn," Karen said, sounding almost serious.

"John tried that, and I can assure you it didn't work," George said through almost gritted teeth, Karen's touch inflaming her senses so that she was likely to give Karen far too much vocal encouragement if she wasn't careful. Relenting slightly, Karen detached her lips from George's, kissing her way down until she was firmly sucking on George's left nipple, sweeping her tongue across the tip, which made George cry out in total abandon.

"I'm not going to ask where you learnt to do that," George said, knowing that she was in serious danger of losing control altogether. Karen laughed.

"Think about why you managed to be very good at it when you'd certainly not done that before," Karen replied as she moved over to George's other breast. Karen took her time over this one, gradually encouraging the nipple to an almost painful hardness, soothing its rock hard surface with her soft warm tongue. Facing the fact that even if she felt self-conscious about being noisy, she wouldn't be able to restrain herself much longer, coupled with the realisation that Karen found the sounds she made extremely erotic, George decided that there really wasn't any point in trying to keep quiet. Karen seemed to feel a sudden change in George, a letting down of all her barriers, the total abandonment of herself to whatever Karen might do to her. The vocal restraint in George was gone, to be replaced with all manner of indecipherable sounds, which Karen found incredible. Taking slight pity on her, Karen detached her lips and began kissing her way down George's body. Obviously realising what was to come, a wicked smirk of anticipation spread over George's face.

"Do you have any idea just how delectable you look?" Karen said, briefly looking up at her.

"About as much as you do," George replied, no longer thrown by being caught expressing herself. As she moved down over George's waist and hips, Karen was briefly brought back to Earth by just how thin George was, when she wasn't even in the middle of an anorexic cycle. Trying to quash her feelings of stern protectiveness and to return to those of giving pleasure, she kissed and nibbled her way along George's left thigh, and back along the right. George's whole body was slightly quivering with surprised frustration, knowing she must wait for what she wanted, but finding the waiting increasingly difficult. As Karen kissed her way along the crease at the top of George's right thigh, she spared a thought to wonder if George would taste any different to Yvonne.

At the first touch of Karen's tongue on her clitoris, George let out a cry of sheer ecstasy. She couldn't believe how incredible this was, or how thoroughly naughty it felt to have another woman doing this to her. Karen was pleasantly surprised. Whilst George did taste certainly different to Yvonne, it wasn't so different that she didn't like it, it was just different. Now knowing that she was definitely going to thoroughly enjoy doing this to George, Karen settled down to try and make it her best yet. She hadn't done this since the break up with Yvonne, but this was another of those skills that really was just like riding a bike. She couldn't have forgotten how to do it if she'd tried. When Karen dipped her tongue into George's entrance, George was certain that if this wasn't heaven, she didn't know what was.

"God, you're incredible," She gasped out. Karen would have replied, but her mouth was otherwise engaged, taking George to heights she wouldn't really have expected with another woman. Karen reached up with her left hand, and began massaging one of George's breasts, giving her nipple some stimulation at the same time as sweeping her tongue across her clit. Using her other hand, she inched two fingers inside her, adding a third to increase George's feeling of being filled. She smiled when she felt George running her fingers through her hair. She might have known George couldn't keep her hands to herself for long. When she grazed George's G spot, her breathing quickened in earnest. George took her hand away from Karen's soft, blonde hair, remove Karen's hand from her breast and simply held on to it, needing something to keep her grounded, as she approached an orgasm that ever so slightly scared her. The feelings Karen was inducing in her were incredible, her tongue moving back and forth over her clit without forgetting any of the surrounding nerve endings, and her fingers moving to and fro inside her. When both Karen's hand and her tongue increased their speed, George gripped Karen's other hand, as if to prevent herself from becoming totally lost in sexual oblivion. Karen squeezed her hand back, letting George know that she was also still there. When George came, she internally clamped down on Karen's fingers, making a sound somewhere between a cry and a sob. Her whole body stiffened, every muscle stretching to its limit, afterwards leaving her twitching from the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

She lay afterwards, replete, satiated, and with her body glistening with perspiration. Karen moved back to lie beside her, just watching as George's breathing returned to normal. When George leaned over to kiss her, she could taste herself on Karen's lips.

"Now tell me what you were scared of," Karen said gently.

"Oh," George said, looking a little shame faced. "I wasn't really. It just felt as though I might not come back to Earth, that's all."

"I never knew I was that good," Karen said with a smile.

"You were incredible," George said seriously. "And don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise." As they moved back into each other's arms, Karen felt extremely touched by George's sincerity. They lay there for a while, softly kissing and occasionally talking, George seeming to need some down time to recover her energy.

"It's about time I returned the favour, isn't it," George said, dragging herself out of the relaxation that would send her to sleep if she wasn't careful.

"That's up to you," Karen replied, not wanting to put George under any pressure whatsoever.

"After what you just did for me, are you joking?" George said with a broad grin. She began touching Karen with greater confidence, her recent orgasm making her feel as though she could do almost anything. It gave her an enormous sense of power and achievement to know that she was hopefully making Karen feel as good as she'd felt earlier. What she'd said to Jo had been right. Turning on any man was easy every time because they all reacted in exactly the same way to pretty much the same kind of stimulation. But bringing a woman to a state of arousal was a challenge. After all, she knew that from herself, and with someone else, it was even harder. But Georgia Channing had always risen to a challenge. She just wondered if she could rise to this one. When she found herself suckling on one of Karen's nipples, it occurred to her just what Karen had meant earlier. Detaching her lips, she stared up at Karen in realisation. Karen raised an eyebrow at her.

"It's just dawned on me why we're both pretty good at this," She said, gesturing to the nipple she'd been mercilessly bringing to its peak.

"Yeah, I can see you giving a bloke oral," Karen said contemplatively. "And being very good at it too."

"You'd have to ask John about that," George said as she returned to her task. As she exchanged one breast for the other, she inched a hand between Karen's slightly spread legs. She'd done this left handed last time, and she was certain that she would be even better using the hand she normally used on herself. Karen sighed in utter contentment as George slid two fingers inside her, bringing them back up to massage her clit. She was a lot quieter than George, the luxurious feeling of George's soft, delicate touch giving her the sensation of floating on sheer pleasure. When George abandoned Karen's nipples in favour of kissing her way down her ribcage and across her stomach, Karen gently removed the chignon that had been keeping George's hair dry in the bath, running the silky strands through her fingers. When George reached the level of Karen's hip, she stopped. As she stared at her steadily wandering hand, and at what her hand was caressing, she wondered if she could really do this. Karen had said it was an acquired taste, and what if she, George, didn't like it. She'd hated it when Neil had refused to even contemplate doing this for her, but she knew she would have hated it more if he'd tried it and not liked how she tasted. Realising her dilemma, Karen gently detached George's wandering hand from its quest.

"Come here," She said gently, and when George again lay beside her, Karen put an arm round her. "Talk to me," She suggested.

"I'm probably worrying about something and nothing," George began, feeling more ridiculous with every word. "But I don't want to not like how you taste."

"Would it matter so much if you didn't?" Karen asked gently.

"Yes," George insisted. "I would feel terrible if someone attempted to do that to me, only to find that they loathed how I tasted."

"George," Karen said slowly, trying to reassure her. "I won't be offended, I promise."

"Are you sure?" George asked, not wanting to hurt her feelings in any way.

"Yes," Karen said firmly. "Don't even think of trying it unless you're absolutely sure you want to. I'm not so naive to think that just because it's something I enjoy doing, anyone else I'm with will too. Your hand will do fine," She said with a sultry, sexy smile, touching the hand in question. When Karen began kissing her again, George returned to her former endeavour, allowing Karen's clear pleasure at what she was doing, to stop her from dwelling on what she wasn't. But as she moved her hand, now almost familiarly between Karen's legs, an idea occurred to her. Sliding out of Karen's arms, she sat up slightly, looking down on Karen's beautiful body, contemplating what she was about to do. Realising that George obviously had something in mind, Karen just watched her. Removing her hand, two fingers of which had been caressing Karen's internal walls; she ran a fingertip across her lips, flicking out a pink tongue to sample the result of her labours. Karen couldn't quite believe what she was seeing. It looked so exotically sexy that she gasped at the same time realising that this was as good a way as any for George to put an end to her concerns. The intense look of sheer relief that passed over George's face made Karen smile.

"Thank god for that," George said, the relief evident in her tone.

"That's as good a way as any, I suppose," Karen said with a smile as George lay back down beside her.

"John made me taste myself once," She admitted, feeling slightly silly that she'd worried about this.

"Typical," Karen said with a laugh. "But why?"

"It was the night he was telling me about you," George replied. "I asked him if he'd given you oral, and when he said he had, I wanted to know why he liked doing that so much. So, he thought that showing me was better than telling me."

"Actions speak louder than words and all that," Karen said dryly. When George's hand again returned to prolonging Karen's pleasure, she kissed her way down to join it with a lot more confidence. Yes, what she'd tasted had been a little odd, but it did bear a significant resemblance to what John had made her taste from herself all those months ago. It was a taste she could certainly get used to, unlike the sexual secretion produced by any man, which she could never, ever come to like. When Karen felt the sensation of George's tongue tentatively graze her clit, she groaned luxuriously. George was initially very cautious of doing this, but Karen didn't care. George's enthusiasm definitely made up for her lack of experience. With the knowledge that George had taken the plunge and tried something so new with her, combined with what she was actually doing to her, Karen's breathing quickened. The sweeps of George's tongue over Karen's clit became more erratic, her silky fingers persistently thrusting inside her, causing Karen to cry out when her G spot was discovered.

"George, please," Karen gasped out, not really knowing what she was pleading for. To add to Karen's pleasure, George reached up with her left hand to firmly stroke one of Karen's already erect nipples, this unexpected, additional stimulation serving to push Karen finally over the edge. George could feel Karen's internal muscles squeezing her fingers, her whole body momentarily stiffening. When she relaxed, her orgasm crashing over her in waves that seemed to rock her entire soul, she was vaguely aware of George gently removing her hand from inside her, and of her moving back to lie next to her, with such a self-satisfied smirk on her face that Karen smiled. When her breathing had returned to normal, she grinned.

"You have every right to look so smug."

"Well, hopefully I won't be quite so inept next time," George said with a slight amount of self-deprecation in her voice.

"Will you stop assuming you were terrible? I'm not very good at faking orgasms, so I can promise you that was as real as it gets."

"Really?" George couldn't prevent a fine blush from colouring her cheeks.

"Yes, really. So stop worrying." As if to add weight to her assertion, she kissed George long and hard, enfolding her in a cuddle that made her feel safe, happy, and above all wanted. They lay there for a long time, talking, laughing, finishing the wine they'd come upstairs with, and taking pleasure in the sheer softness of each other's company. That bedroom on that particular Friday evening, felt like a safe haven to both of them. Surely nothing could spoil what they had, for that night at least.

Part Fifty Two

The space all around her was pitch black, impenetrable and seemed to stretch far away from her on all sides. She strained her eyes in vain to pick out the slightest sign of her whereabouts but it gave nothing away. She couldn't remember how she got to this place. The sheer mystery sent that chill feeling of fear up and down her skin as a prelude of worse to come. Angrily, she fought that down, as falling to pieces wasn't her choice of lifestyle. Everything that she had ever achieved in her life, she had struggled and fought for and everything she had lost had been because of the men she had fallen for. At heart, she relied on nothing and no-one else than herself. She could hear the sounds of footsteps shuffling past her but the sounds were opaque and muffled. She pressed a forefinger against her skin near to her ears to clear her hearing. The only sense she had to rely on was her hearing, and she desperately wanted to gauge how far her enemies were away from her. She knew nothing of them except that they were enemies.

"Why don't you show yourselves for who you are?" she shouted out into the impenetrable blackness with her almost reckless brand of courage. She could have kept quiet and hoped that she was ignored but that was not her way.

"Is that you, Miss Betts?" asked the very humble, respectful tones of Ken.

Karen laughed quietly to herself. She had felt lost in this senseless dream and Ken was about as prosaic and ordinary as the pints of bitter he drank in that smoke ridden Prison Officers Social Club, complete with horrible seventies type swirly wallpaper.

"Who else but? It's nice to hear a friendly voice to kindly tell me what the hell is going on in this place."

"Why, it's the special feature film on in a minute……."

Karen looked sideways in her seat and could see the faint light of the disembodied torch held by what must be the usher, escorting latecomers to their seats. Clearly, the usher's torch wasn't working earlier on. The sinister threatening shadowy people shuffling their way in the darkness were reduced to ordinary cinemagoers who were a bit disorganised and late. That was why she was there first.

"….and the local paper said that you're starring in it."

Karen couldn't believe her ears. Surely the familiar adverts of forthcoming films were rolling up on the wide screen. Surely, Ken was talking gibberish but then again, he was never the sort of Prison Officer who could be accused of an over active imagination. That was what was starting to worry her.

"He's been playing you since day one, Karen. He's a misogynist bastard and I'm sick to the bloody back teeth trying to get you to see it. He's all yours."

That well remembered Scottish voice echoed round the auditorium and Helen's angry face could be seen in more of a close up than could ever be seen in real life. She was only on row three and this film, like any other film in the local Meteor Cinema complex thrust itself into her face.

All the other viewers cheered at Helen as she turned on her heel and stalked out.

"You can see right through me, can't you."

That well remembered face was blown up in cinemascope and his voice sounded edgy, uncertain to her but the scene switched to her smug, complacent expression.

"I hope I can."

She was sickened with disgust at this foolish stupid woman as she smiled lazily, lapping up the utterly fake compliment. God, how in hell can this woman fall for such an obvious line from this slimy bastard? She looked as if she did not have a care in the world.

"Well, you're right. I am after something. I want to marry you."

At this point, Fenner fumbled in his pocket and produced a ring box and, nestling inside, was a delicately wrought whitegold ring with a large blue sapphire tightly gripped in its clasp.

"It looks very expensive." This appalling woman simpered watching herself about to be as tightly clasped as the jewel was by the ring.

"Nothing's too expensive."

"It's a good job I like sapphires."

"Don't say it for God's sake, you stupid woman. Helen was right," Karen yelled out into the auditorium. Her skin felt clammy at this horror show. She was oblivious at the gasps of astonishment that ran round the auditorium. She was fighting for that other woman's future.

"Is that a yes?" Fenner murmured.

"Yes, that's a yes."

"That's fantastic, Karen. I've got some champagne. You stay right here."

Karen's horror and disgust was ratcheted up another notch as she saw this woman take a look at the red grid envelope on the table. She could sense what this woman was thinking as she instantly recognised Helen's angular script and with a horrifically casual gesture, toss the envelope into her waste paper basket.

"For God's sake, Karen, open the bloody envelope. It could change your life. I know."

"Excuse me, madam. We came here to watch a good drama. Your shouting and jumping around is spoiling the film for us."

Karen turned round and glared venomously into the eyes of this irritating woman. All this was to her was some soap she could watch, be smugly glad she was all right and talk about it at the office tomorrow. Some people have no sympathy or imagination but she didn't really want to get thrown out by the ushers. To all the others, this was just an evening at the pictures. To her, she was trying to save her soul. She had nowhere else to go.

"Do you want me to move or do you want to? I'm not in the mood to argue but if I stay here, I'll try and be quieter."

With enormous satisfaction, she pegged this woman as the kind who didn't want to be seen to get involved in a public row. What would all the others think, she could read her thoughts, they might be neighbours.

"All right but mind you keep quiet."

"Look here, they're getting married," A man four rows back exclaimed.

This is becoming nightmarish, Karen thought. There she stood her father behind her oblivious to all apart from the fact that his daughter was settling down at last. There Jim Fenner stood, resplendent in his dark suit and red cravat and smiling proudly and possessively on her. The ghastly organ chords blared out into the auditorium as the view panned backwards to a distant shot. She could take in all the regulars at Larkhall, Sylvia resplendent in her smartest pink suit.

"She looks beautiful, all in white, it's so romantic. She'll make Jim a good wife and look after him." She sniffed into her lace handkerchief, remembering the years that her poor departed Bobby was with her.

All the old guard were there, looking unfamiliar outside their prison uniforms, watching the leading lights of G Wing get hitched. What most horrified Karen was to see that simpering, insipid woman, dressed in flowing white wedding dress who looked a lot like her. She was handing over her independence and her pride in herself, not with a fierce struggle but with a stupid smile.

The two women lay together in the luxuriously large bed in the comfort of a sleeping peaceful room. The smaller woman woke up and turned over in bed to hear the words spoken near to her. Instinct told her that they were articulated in a voice subtly different from her normal voice.

"No no, this can't be happening."

"You can't see it, Karen. You're too close." A familiar softly articulated Scottish voice answered her. It was laden with all the care and concern in her warm hearted personality, even in a moment like this.

"There's a perfectly good explanation for everything I did. Not that a bastard like you would know it. You, Jim Fenner, who'll screw around with any woman with a short enough skirt," Karen's memory fired back at Fenner with all that knowledge of the darker, more real side of his twisted personality that she had bitterly acquired the hard way.

"…..Marriage according to the laws of this country is a joining together of one man and one woman, voluntarily entered into for life to the exclusion of all others…" droned the vicar in his relentless, bloodless fashion as he had done, hundreds of times beforehand.

"For God's sake, that bastard strolled up the aisle with his first wife Marilyn and look what happened to that marriage," Karen yelled scornfully.

The dread procession marched relentlessly onwards and Karen couldn't stand the film anymore. Her head was in her hands again as she crouched down, her hair falling round her face like a curtain. She felt sweaty and frozen with horror at the same time. She wished that she couldn't hear what was going on around her. Being doubled up in this uncomfortable posture cramped her breath but anything was better than the nightmare that was taking place on the screen.

The taller woman with long blond hair had stopped twisting and turning and only indecipherable murmuring sounds came from her slightly parted lips. She sounded safer in her own mind and drifting off into a deep sleep. The anxious watcher started to relax. She lay back in the bed and snuggled up close to her to protect her.

Karen could hardly sit through a film like this but she was stuck there on the third row with an audience who would hardly thank her for yet another of her interruptions. They were out to watch a good drama and would complain as she was putting them off. It seemed like ages that Karen was wedged in that highly uncomfortable posture which became more and more painful. At least all the bloody party music had shut up and the film might be safer to watch. She felt faint as she lay back in her seat and sucked in huge lungfuls of air. She stretched herself in her seat as far as she could to ease the crick in her neck and the pain in the small of her back.

The light was dim on the cinema screen as the long shot was set out in front of her. A faint glow illustrated lines in the darkness, making the merest suggestion of a deep pile, luxurious carpet, square shapes of darkness on the walls that must be paintings, the lines denoting rich velvet draped curtains hanging from the huge four poster bed.

"Nothing but the best," hung on the air like the faintest whisper in its most beguiling tone.

"Just watch him, Karen. He's a sly bastard," Came that infinitely wise voice of a friend who was very dear to her but was out of sight in the camera film. A tearing regret that the woman to whom that disembodied voice should have been joined to, wasn't there for her.

Gradually the camera crept forward and the horizontal camera angle changed so that it increasingly slanted downwards at the bed, the focus of attention, whether the audience wanted it or not. The folds in the curtains became more defined and the dark space between the curtains started to give up its secrets. To her horror, Karen saw the nude back and legs of a man who could only be Jim Fenner, as he thrust downwards in between the legs of the woman which were wrapped round him.

"Jim, Jim," The hoarse voice of the woman called out in a tone of voice, which was utterly ambiguous. The horror of it was that it was up to the listener to interpret what was going on.

"You know you have wanted this for weeks. You do, you do." the unmistakable voice of Fenner urged the woman while the unseen audience watched on, silently, giving no indication of approval or disapproval.

The film isn't telling everything, Karen shouted soundlessly to herself. I know what that woman is feeling better than she does, let alone any filmmaker. I know everything there is to know about Jim bloody Fenner.

Karen's anger was at boiling point as it swelled up inside her, spreading like fire invading throughout her as she lunged her way through the undergrowth in the darkness. She brushed aside stems, some with spiny shoots and she could sense that her long, loping stride cut down remorselessly, the lead that the man had over her. Her highly acute hearing pinpointed as if in an interior map inside her mind the relative movements of her and her quarry. She could hear the rustling sounds that the man ahead of her made as he trod through the grass and betrayed his every move. She drove herself faster through the forest faster than she knew that she could move as she closed in on him as she passed by each black gnarled ancient tree. The shadowy darkness of the film reminded Karen of the classic horror film, the sense of being miles off the beaten track with no sense of direction of where she was heading and how she could get herself out of the forest. Ordinarily, she should see herself as the innocent victim being stalked and that she should be afraid but the situation was reversed because she had the power to decide it her way. She was on fire for vengeance. Intuition told her that, at last, she had closed in on him and he was within her sight.

Suddenly a clearing opened out and there was Fenner in front of her. Earth was piled in untidy heaps all around him and the bottom half of him appeared to be chopped off at thigh level. That made it hard for her to distinguish what was going on. Well to one side of him, the dark shape of the trunk of an ancient oak tree spread its twisted branches wide open above them and the level grass under Karen's feet stretched all the way to Fenner as if rolled out in front of her like a red carpet.

"For God's sake, Karen, don't shoot," Fenner screamed at her, a look of sheer panic widening his eyes and his mouth open in an expression of horror.

She did not know how the weapon had appeared in her hand, but it gave her a huge feeling of satisfaction that in a wild deserted place like this, a gun was a great equaliser.

"Why shouldn't I shoot you, Fenner?" her words taunted him. She was asking herself that very same question as her forefinger rested gently against the trigger but he was not to know that.

"We'll forget about this, pretend that it never happened and we can go back to just the way it was," Babbled Fenner.

Your words are very badly chosen, Jim Fenner, she thought as she came up close to him and pointed the gun at him. She could see the deep pit that he stood at the bottom of which he had dug for himself with his own hands, every last shovelful of earth.

"That will never happen, Fenner."

Her hard implacable voice echoed in the empty space a second before she gently squeezed the trigger and two shots cracked the air, straight through Fenner's heart. As Fenner dropped down in a heap, she reflected on how easy it was to shoot someone and at last understood what led some of the prisoners to end up in her care. Still holding the smoking gun, she turned abruptly away and moved off the screen, stage left.

She saw herself in the second most frightening impossible place in the world that she could imagine, in the dock and the helpless subject of the machinery and full majesty of law as, cog by cog, it was set to roll over her. She dared not deal with the possibility of living the most frightening nightmare of her life, becoming a prisoner in the very prison that she had run as Wing Governor. She placed her hands on the metal rail of the dock as it fenced her in and felt as if it trapped her. She glanced around her and she felt uncomfortably exposed as if she were the focus of the court, as indeed she was. She glanced up at the judge but his throne was far above and away from her and she could not pick him out.

"This man, whom everyone believes raped you, was, until he was killed, haunting your every waking, or should I say working moment. I put it to you, Miss Betts that you were obsessed with James Fenner and something twisted in you to destroy what you had lost. You killed the deceased man so that no other woman would have him."

"You bastard!" Karen's softly spoken voice concealed the cold rage.

"What I am trying to ascertain is whether or not there is any actual proof that this crime, supposedly committed by James Fenner, ever took place. I believe the jury may find it interesting that after reporting this crime to the police, you then retracted your statement, just days before the CPS were to inform you that they weren't taking up the case. What I shall endeavour to prove," the man continued, now really getting in to his stride. "Is that this crime had never taken place, and that on the contrary, your relationship with James Fenner, your sexual relationship that is, was one of immense enjoyment to you both."

"That bastard raped me," Shouted Karen. "I'll show you what happened so that you can see it through your own eyes if that is what it takes for you all to believe me."

The other woman in the bed blinked her eyes half open as the desperate shout resounded through the stillness of the night. She had worked hard all the last two weeks and normally it was impossible to rouse her. This time she knew that she was not dreaming.

Karen saw again the inside of the bed and breakfast with the clutter of bottles of wine on the table. She had talked to him as the man 'who needed to get as many colleagues on side as possible', as the broken beaten man who needed her nursing.

"I don't know how much longer I can hang in there. I curse myself for losing you."

His broken tones came dejectedly from the man who appealed to her as the man who needed her. It was a side of him that had appealed to her when he cried on her shoulder when his wife and children left him.

"I'm with you, aren't I?"

These had been the fatal words that he had got the wrong end of the stick about and when she was lying in bed next to him, the feel of the man whom she had lived with and whom she thought she knew.

"Why fight it? You know you want me. You can't fake this."

There was something creepy, insistent in his tone that frightened her that Jim had changed into this man who was blind to everything but his own sexual pleasure. She was no longer Karen Betts, onetime lover, workmate who had come to comfort but only an anonymous passive piece of female flesh for him to dominate. He rolled on top of her and pinned one of her wrists down to the bed with his superior strength, with the other hand he feverishly groped about with her clothes with the blind singleminded drive to penetrate her no matter how she felt about it. There was nothing about him that remotely suggested that she was a woman and another human being. That frightening nightmare was upon her that she was trapped. She was living the worst nightmare that female folklore had passed down to her from generation to generation. The crazy thought flashed upon her that second that they say that many women know the man who raped them.

"I don't want to do this," Karen yelled with all her fear and all the force of protest within her. "There's your evidence for you, where it feels. That's what he did to me and that's why I shot him."

Karen's eyes opened wide at the distant ceiling above her and, wonder of wonders, George's deeply concerned face suspended above her.

Part Fifty Three

George had gradually become aware that Karen was tossing and turning, murmuring in her sleep, clearly in the middle of a dream. She didn't let it bother her, because she knew that on occasions, she did something similar herself. But when the edge of fear in Karen's voice reached George's ears, she became wide-awake. Karen was fighting some inner demon, desperately trying to free herself from some inner torture. But it was when Karen's words became more distinct, that George realised exactly what she was dreaming about.

"No, Jim, please stop!" Putting out a hand, George gently shook Karen's shoulder.

"Darling, wake up," She urged, wanting to break this nightmare as quickly as possible. When Karen's eyes eventually snapped open, the sheer terror in them made George almost recoil from her in shock. Karen stared at her, not immediately registering who she was in bed with.

"It's all right," George strove to soothe her. "It's me, George." The relief in Karen's eyes was almost imperceptible, her fear that Fenner was in fact there, somewhere, not yet assuaged. Her eyes flitted around the room, searching as far as she could see for any sign of her nocturnal tormentor.

"Darling, he's really not here, I promise you," George affirmed, knowing that however irrational Karen's distrust of his absence might be, it was very real to her at the moment. Karen slowly began to relax.

"Oh, I know," she said bitterly. "He's six feet under somewhere." Lying back down, George took Karen's hand and began gently chafing the fingers, compromising between giving her some comfort, and affording her as much physical space as she might need.

"I'm sorry I woke you," Karen said after a while.

"That's all right." George couldn't for the life of her come up with anything else to say. She had absolutely no idea what, if anything, she could do.

"You don't have to look quite so worried," Karen said with a smile. "Though I wish you hadn't seen that."

"Do you often have dreams like that?"

"Not really, and it's probably my own fault I had that one. The effect of visiting one of Fenner's crime scenes on Thursday, obviously hung around longer than I thought it would. But then, when you're trying to excise any kind of disease, it's going to get worse before it gets better."

"And who told you that little piece of received wisdom?" George asked with a smile, letting Karen stay on the surface for the moment, allowing her to talk about only what she felt comfortable discussing. This didn't mean, however, that George was about to lose sight of the real problem, of how to persuade Karen to talk about what had been haunting her.

"It's just something I've learnt over the years."

"Darling, what did you dream?" Immediately she'd voiced this question, George could feel an instant retreat in her. There was no physical change in Karen, no drawing back, no removing her hand from where it still lay in one of George's, no actual attempt to run from the fear-laden words that would pour out of her if she wasn't careful. But George could feel the erecting of all Karen's most formidable barriers, betrayed only by the switching of her gaze between the picture above the bed, and the lamp on the bedside table.

"Please don't ask questions that, I can assure you, you really don't want answers to."

"Karen, you need to get this out," George insisted vehemently. "If you don't, it'll come back to haunt you again and again, and slowly drive you mad."

"I said no," Karen replied firmly, the bitter edge of steel providing the underlying force in her tone.

"All right," George said gently, seeing in an instant that she needed to tread extremely carefully, if she didn't want to push Karen away completely. After a moment's silence, Karen gave George's hand a squeeze.

"I'm sorry. It's just, dealing with my own reaction to a dream like that is hard enough, without having to explain it to someone else as well."

"If you were on your own at home, what would you do now?"

"That's easy, get up and do some work, or watch TV, anything to stop me from going back to sleep."

"So, as you're not at home, what would make you feel better?"

"Would a cuddle be too much to ask?"

"No, of course not. I just thought you might need some space, that's all."

"I know, and it is appreciated, believe me." But when George moved to put her arms round her, Karen said, "It probably sounds stupid, but do you have something I can wear?" George stopped and thought for a moment.

"Nothing of mine will fit you, but I can probably find you an old T-shirt of John's. Will that do?"

"Yes. It's not that I..." George held up a hand.

"Darling, after the kind of dream I'm fairly certain you had, not wanting to be naked in bed with anyone, is perfectly understandable." Slipping out of bed, George put on a pale blue, cotton nightie, and after digging in the bottom of her chest of drawers, she handed Karen a worn but clean T-shirt that had clearly, at one time, belonged to John. When Karen slipped it over her head, she could smell a comforting mixture of John's aftershave and George's perfume. When George returned to bed, they moved instinctively together, Karen desperately needing the sort of comfort and reassurance that only another's arms can provide.

"What did I say before you woke me up?" Karen asked, wanting to know just how much of the situation she'd given away.

Enough," George replied quietly, not wanting to make her feel more weak and vulnerable than she already did. They held each other close for a time, George gently running her fingers through Karen's hair.

"What time is it?" Karen asked into the silence.

"Nearly quarter past five," George said, glancing over at the bedside clock. Then, hitting on the inspirational British answer to any crisis, she said, "Would you like a cup of tea?" Karen gave her a ghost of a smile.

"Yes please." Giving her one last affectionate squeeze, George got out of bed and walked out of the room. Glancing back, just before going downstairs, she saw that Karen had switched on the bedside lamp, clearly not wanting to be left alone in the dark.

Whilst George was downstairs, Karen briefly huddled under the goose feather duvet. She wasn't sure if George was aware of it, but that dream had frightened the bloody life out of her. She had become used to occasional dreams of Fenner, ever since the night he'd raped her. If she'd been at home, in her own flat, when she'd woken up from that dream, she could have cried, or thrown up, or allowed herself to react in any other perfectly normal way. But not here, not with George. She quailed at the thought of revealing any of her vulnerabilities to this sensitive, beautiful woman. But hadn't she already done that, by letting George in on the case against Fenner? Partially, perhaps, but George really didn't know the half of it. It was stupid, she knew, but she couldn't prevent her eyes from continuously flitting about the room, as if to make sure that Fenner really wasn't hiding in a corner somewhere. That's why she'd put the bedside light on, to stop the darkness smothering her, to stop the dream from taking over her again, just as Fenner himself had done.

When George returned, she was carrying two mugs of tea, a packet of cigarettes balanced on top of one of the mugs, and a lighter clamped between her teeth. Karen gave her a warm smile.

"Talk about initiative," She said, taking one of the mugs. After putting the other mug and the cigarettes down, and retrieving the lighter, George picked up the clean ashtray from the dressing table, and slid back under the duvet.

"Do you mind being asked a very odd question?" Karen asked, after taking a swig of the hot, sweet tea.

"Everything at this time of the morning is odd," George replied matter-of-factly. "So feel free."

"Have you ever held a gun?" Ignoring the possible implications of the question, George answered immediately.

"When I was a child, one of Daddy's favourite pastimes was shooting. So yes, I probably have at some point, though I don't remember it. Why?" She asked, realising that there had to be more to this than a mere enquiry.

"I dreamt that I shot Fenner."

"I see." Then, after lighting a cigarette, she asked, "Will you tell me something?" At Karen's raised eyebrow, she clarified. "Tell me about the day he died." A brief look of scorn crossed Karen's face.

"Do I need to remind you that you're a barrister, and as such, I really oughtn't to give you any details of the one and only time I perverted the course of justice, and witnessed someone else aiding an abetting a criminal?"

"You'll make me think I'm in bed with John in a minute," George said with a small smile, after which she became serious. "Karen, I've known for an awfully long time that you and Yvonne and god knows who else were guilty of either one or the other of those crimes, all three of us have, myself, Jo and even the Deed. Yet we've never even considered having the matter investigated or pursued in any way."

"Why?" The question seemed to take George by surprise.

"Why? I'd have thought that was obvious. What would have been the point in landing you and Yvonne, plus any number of the rest of you, behind bars? That would have caused far more problems than it would have solved. But to get back to you specifically, you didn't ask to be put into that situation. Whatever happened on that Sunday afternoon, was not by any design or intention of yours, do I make myself clear?"

"Now who's talking like John," Karen quipped mildly, to cover up how touched she was, at the way the three of them had thought their way round such a complex web of facts and hidden secrets.

"Well, then, would it be such a bad thing to tell me?"

"No, I suppose not. But let it be understood that I'm definitely going against my better judgment."

After lighting a cigarette of her own, Karen tentatively began.

"It's very odd how, just before something so horrific happens, you can be doing the most normal thing imaginable. I remember Yvonne going through a load of videos, looking for something we were going to watch, and getting more frustrated by the minute, because none of them were labelled." George smiled. "When Lauren returned from, from what she'd been doing, she was filthy. She was carrying the gun with the sort of casual familiarity with which someone might hold their favourite cricket bat. But the thing that really shocked me about her, was that the look in her eyes reminded me far too much of Shell Dockley. I've never seen someone blatantly high from committing murder, not in nearly fourteen years in the prison service. But that's exactly what she was. I remember wondering if she'd taken a hit of crack or speed, but that was no artificial high. She was proud of what she'd done, and told Yvonne that if she was a real Atkins, she'd be proud of it too. The way she held the gun, you could see that she'd been familiar with one for years. When she removed the bullets before dropping it on the coffee table, as though it was an empty fag packet, Yvonne made her hand them over. It was when Yvonne realised that one was missing, that Lauren told us what she'd done with it. She didn't provide any details, just said that she'd killed him. But she was quite happy to tell me why. Yvonne made her put everything she was wearing in the washing machine, and then sent her up for a shower. I think I remember Lauren demanding to know if Yvonne was putting her under house arrest, which I suppose, in a way, she did for a while. When Yvonne actually took notice of what type of gun Lauren had used, she realised that Lauren had forgotten to pick up the empty cartridge case, which I'm told, is always left behind when a pistol is used. Jesus, I've learned more about guns over the last fortnight than I ever wanted to know. That seemed to bring Lauren down to Earth. It was only after this realisation, that Yvonne seemed to remember I was still there. She said that she'd have to clean the gun, and I stupidly said I'd stay, if she wanted me to. She warned me that getting rid of evidence wasn't nice, as if I couldn't have worked that out for myself. I'll never forget that smell, that almost overpowering aroma of gun-cleaning solvent. Yvonne cleaned that gun on a sheet of newspaper on the kitchen table, as if it was the most normal thing in the world." George couldn't help smiling at this.

"That's exactly what my father used to do," She said, momentarily breaking in on Karen's story. "I remember once, I think I was seven, Daddy and my mother having an argument, because he'd come back from a day's shooting, and had started cleaning his gun at the kitchen table, just when she wanted to cook dinner. That smell always brings back fond memories for me, though I expect it wouldn't for you."

"No, but they'd be surreal memories rather than just bad ones. Yvonne was utterly committed to her task of eradicating as much of the evidence as she possibly could. I think what really shocked me, was the way she could so easily slip back into who she'd been before Larkhall."

When they'd both stubbed out their cigarettes, George put the ashtray down on the bedside table, and they slid back down under the duvet. When they came together this time, George seemed to wrap herself round Karen, almost as if to protect her from what she was determined to get her to talk about.

"Someone had to put Cassie and Roisin in the picture," Karen continued. "So I left soon after Yvonne had finished cleaning the gun."

"Call me a nosy old cow if you must, but is there slightly more to what Lauren has with those two than just close friendship?"

"I think so," Karen said with a smile. "What made you ask?"

"Just a feeling, that's all."

"The odd thing is, I think it started a few weeks before Fenner was killed."

"Will you tell me something?" George asked with deceptive innocence.

"That depends," Karen replied, not trusting her an inch.

"How did you feel when you found out he'd died?" Karen's whole body immediately stiffened, as though to prevent the words from escaping.

"I think my most pressing concern was the crime itself, not the actual victim." George saw this for exactly what it was, the avoidance of anything remotely personal.

"Is it such a bad thing," George said with extreme care. "To say that at the very least, you didn't know how to feel?"

"No, under normal circumstances, it wouldn't be. But we both know that you have an ulterior motive in setting me on that very slippery slope."

"I suppose I deserved that," George said with a rueful laugh. "But it might actually do you good to talk about it."

"And I suppose when John tried to make you face your demons, you just gave in and let him drag it out of you, bit by bloody painful bit."

"No, of course not," George said patiently. "I fought like hell, and in the end I made a deal with him, because there was no way I was going down on my own." This brought a brief smile to Karen's face.

"Then you'll understand why the last thing I want to do, is to show you just how weak and stupid I can be sometimes."

"Of course I do. But do you know what John is always telling me? He says that you can't help the things you feel."

"He would come out with something like that," Karen said dryly.

"Oh, I know, and I took it with a pinch of salt for a very long time. But I'm slowly beginning to think he might just be right, and don't you dare tell him I said that."

"I didn't understand why I couldn't feel relieved that he was gone," Karen said, without any further prompting. "I should have been so relieved that the biggest torment of my life was finally out of the picture, but I couldn't." Karen turned onto her back, with George's arms still round her, because she wanted to be able to turn her eyes away from George's gaze if the need arose. "Roisin said that it was perfectly normal to grieve for the time I was happy with him."

"And did you?"

"I'm not sure even now, what I felt during those few weeks after his death. I loathe the person I was when I loved and lived with Fenner, and it's maybe that, rather than what he did to me, that tainted anything I felt about him when he died."

"On Tuesday, when we came out of court and Helen tried to talk to you, was what you said to her really true?"

"Oh, yes," Karen replied with grim certainty. "Marvellous, isn't it. The first thing I should think about as I waited for him to fall asleep, were the words of the one person I'd refused to listen to all along. "He's been playing you since day one, Karen," and oh, how right she was. I can remember it as if it were yesterday, the two of us standing in the number one's office, because Helen was acting number one until they found Simon's replacement. She said those exact words with that firm, Scottish inflection of hers, which can crush your illusions with the force of a crowbar. Only, I didn't listen to a word she said, not until it was too late. I remember, when I was getting dressed and he woke up, I told him that Helen Stewart was right. Jesus! Why did I do it? Why did I listen to every bloody word he said, and take it as if it was gospel."

"Because just occasionally, it's the lesser of two evils," George said quietly. "Entirely different situation, I know, but I used to do exactly the same thing when I was married to John. I didn't want to acknowledge the fact that he was playing away at every possible opportunity, because that would mean having to ask myself why, when deep down I knew it was my fault. So, I ignored it. Well, until Jo."

"But John isn't anything like Fenner."

"No, not in the vast majority of cases, he isn't. But when you first took Jo through the events of what happened with Fenner, and when I read the transcript of that conversation, something you said came a little too close to home for both of us. You described your initial impression of James Fenner, as 'Charm personified.' It occurred to both of us, that this was really quite a perfect description of John."

After a short silence, Karen turned the conversation back on George.

"Why did you think his playing away was your fault?" George was taken by surprise, but after a thought or two, she answered.

"I didn't really enjoy bed for quite a long time after Charlie was born. All the guilt I had inside me about her, made me feel that I didn't deserve to be happy, and that John was loving me under false pretences. He didn't understand why I didn't want him near me, or if I did, why I couldn't enjoy it. So, he played away to make himself feel better. It never even occurred to me to pretend to John in those days, but sometimes I wish I had. I couldn't tell him why I was so unhappy, and because I knew I was hurting him, it piled the guilt on even more."

"Which is why you ate less and less," Karen finished quietly.

"Yes, wonderfully vicious little circle, isn't it. The day he finally realised what I was up to, and when he dragged the reason for it out of me, that was definitely the worst day of my life. I didn't think it was possible to feel worse than I already did, but it was. John would hardly let me out of his sight for over a week. I think he thought that if he did, it would be the last he'd ever see of me." They held each other close for a while, both thinking that they'd definitely met their match when it came to hidden demons.

"Do you often have dreams of what Fenner did to you?" George asked into the silence, finally reaching the heart of why they were awake, and discussing such deep and hurtful things in the early morning, with the sun not yet risen.

"Was it that obvious?" Karen asked quietly.

"Very," George replied softly.

"It depends how stressed I am. But I've had more of them in the last fortnight than I've had for quite a while."

"The trial was bound to bring out a few unwelcome things you thought you'd buried."

"Not quite the right word in the circumstances," Karen said with a small smile.

"I keep doing that," George replied in half disgust, half-nervous laughter.

"I noticed that, the first time you came to the pub with us."

"It's an odd thing," George mused. "But I've never felt quite so at home, than I have this last couple of weeks, with a group of ex-cons, for want of a better word." Karen smiled.

"And two governors if you please."

"Those with a clean criminal record, taken as read."

"I know what you mean, though. When Yvonne was released and we started spending a lot of time together, I got to really know Cassie and Roisin as well, plus Barbara and Crystal, and whoever else came along, and it's always felt right. I've never questioned it, not even once. Every single one of them were as legally crooked as you can get when they were inside, but there's nothing they wouldn't do for each other, or anyone they think of as one of them."

"When you do dream about Fenner," George said, getting back to the matter in hand. "How vivid is it?"

"A bit too vivid," Karen replied unsteadily, having been taken off her guard. "It's as though he's really there, really... George, I can't do this," She ended desperately, turning her face away in hope that George wouldn't see the tears that had risen to her eyes, and which she was having great difficulty restraining.

"Yes, you can," George gently encouraged, taking the hand she'd been softly stroking.

"No, please," Karen persisted, making an attempt to get out of bed, to flee from the thing that scared her most.

"Am I really so frightening?" George asked quietly, realising exactly what the problem was, but wanting to get Karen to voice it herself.

"No," Karen said bitterly. "But letting go, dropping all my barriers, is. I don't want you to see that."

"Why?" George persistently probed.

"Because I don't want to frighten you off," Said Karen, some of her control visibly slipping. "Because I don't want you to regret getting to know me. What Fenner did to me, it makes me feel as though he's left me with a mental version of HIV, or something else equally destructive. But instead of being in my body, it's in here," She tapped her forehead. "And it's not something I can get rid of. The only positive about his being dead, is that he'll never again be able to do to anyone else the kind of thing he did to me, to Helen, to countless others. But that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. I'm sorry," She added, suddenly noticing the tears that were, despite her best efforts, coursing down her cheeks.

"You don't need to be sorry," George said, tears in her own eyes for the corrosive torture she could see emanating from Karen's every pore. "But you need to let it out, because the longer you keep it hidden away inside, the more damage it will eventually do."

"But this isn't me. Letting someone in just isn't what I do."

"Then maybe it's about time you did," George insisted gently. "I used to be like you, never revealing who I really was to anyone, and do you know where it got me? Twice in my life, it's almost been the death of me. The only reason I came out of my last seriously downward spiral, was because both John and Jo pulled me out. If Jo hadn't all but forced me to start opening up, that day I fainted in court, I probably wouldn't be here now. So I am not letting you do the same. Is that clear?"

"You're a stubborn cow sometimes, aren't you," Karen said affectionately through her tears.

"Yes," George said firmly. "John will testify to nine years of my stubbornness, and my father to even more." After some time of just holding each other, their tears dried. They were safe and warm in their little haven, wrapped in each other's arms and huddled under the soft, thick duvet.

"You know," George said into the silence. "There's one thing I really ought to do this weekend, I ought to tell John about us."

"Are you sure you're ready for that?"

"The longer I leave it, the harder it'll be, and it's something I really ought to do on my own, though I'm sure he'll have plenty to say to you at some point."

"Oh, how I will look forward to that little exchange of words," Karen said dryly.

"Is that all right, if I put him in the picture?"

"Of course. I've no wish to keep him in the dark longer than necessary. Has Jo been okay about it?"

"Oh, she's fine," George said with a broad grin. "She wanted to know what it was like, sleeping with a woman, so I told her to try it."

"Poor Jo," Karen said with a soft, fond laugh. "We got talking about her and John last week, and I told her to have an affair with a woman, because that was a sure way of keeping him on his toes." George laughed.

"Oh, dear. I don't think she'll take our advice though. It's a pity, because that really would give him something to think about."

Part Fifty Four

As George drove in to the car park of the digs, late on the Saturday evening, she couldn't help but feel nervous. If there was one thing that might irrevocably rock the boat of this three-way relationship, it was her and Karen. A slow, sexy smile crossed her face as she remembered the previous evening. It turned her on, just to think about what they'd done. But that wasn't what she was here for. After talking about a lot of things in the early morning, they'd come to the conclusion that the sooner John knew how things were, the better. The longer they left him in the dark, the more awkward things would be. With this resolve in mind, George got out of the car and walked towards the Judge's lodgings.

John was sitting in his room, papers from the Lauren Atkins trial spread the length and breadth of the dining table, trying to work out exactly what sentence he would give her, depending on what verdict the jury brought in. If she was found guilty of murder, he would have no choice but to give her a life sentence, but that wouldn't prevent him from making a recommendation or two. If she was found not guilty, then she would obviously be free to go, but John didn't think this was very likely. The real quandary would arise if she were found guilty of manslaughter by definition of diminished responsibility. So, he was getting ahead of the game, reading and rereading the two psychiatric reports, as well as the transcript of the entire trial to date. When he received the knock on his door and Mr. Johnson showed in George, he looked up with mixed feelings. He hadn't spoken to George for a good few days, and by the look of her, she'd come to tell him about her and Karen.

"You look busy," She said as he got to his feet. "I can come back some other time."

"No, stay," He said, putting his arms round her and kissing her cheek. "I've probably had more than enough of this lot anyway."

"Is that from the Lauren Atkins trial?" She asked, catching sight of the name on a piece of paper.

"Yes. I'm trying to work out what sentence I might give her when the time comes." As John began stacking the papers together, George couldn't keep still. She started helping him at one point, just to give her hands something to do.

"If I didn't know better," He commented quietly. "I'd think you were incredibly nervous about something." George stopped in horror that he'd noticed.

"Yes, I am," She said, handing the final report to him to put in the folder. "I've got something to tell you."

"And is it so bad, that you're positively afraid of telling me?"

"I've got absolutely no idea how you're going to react, so yes, in one sense I suppose it is bad."

"Would you like a drink?" He asked, seeing that she really wasn't looking forward to the conversation she thought they were about to have.

When he'd poured her a martini, he sat in his favourite armchair, watching her as she prowled round the room, looking at pictures, picking up the odd ornament, and stopping by a chair on which sat his open violin case. When she ran her gentle hand along the beautifully carved neck of the violin, and delicately plucked the strings, it seemed as though she was bestowing such affection on something which was so much a part of his soul, that it gave him an incredible surge of protectiveness for his instrument. John didn't try to find out what was bothering her, partly because he knew, and partly because she had to be allowed to tell him in her own time. Jo had been right about that. The worst thing he could do now was to rush her. But George seemed incapable of speaking. Her mouth felt dry, and her throat clogged with the words that she just couldn't force out.

"Would you like me to make it easier for you?" He asked into the silence.

"You don't know what I'm about to say, so I don't see how you can."

"Ah," He said slowly. "But I do."

"What! How can you?" Her face was a mixture of shock, hurt and anger. "How long have you known?" She demanded, feeling slightly betrayed that he'd let her go through the tortuous anticipation of his reaction.

"I've only known since Thursday," He said mildly, trying to calm her down. George couldn't look at him. Her eyes flitted from one object to another, not meeting his for fear of what she might see.

"You didn't need to be quite so frightened, you know," He said, feeling the uncertainty coming off her in waves. "I might have been initially hurt that you hadn't told me, but I'm not angry with you."

"So why wait for me to tell you? I've been psyching myself up all day for this."

"Jo said that you needed to do this in your own time, and much as I disagreed with her, I think she was right." George looked furious.

"Did Jo tell you?"

"No, of course not," John said defensively. "Jo was more than a little loyal to you. I virtually had to drag it out of her." George found herself feeling a flash of sympathy for Jo, having had experience of John's persistent questioning on previous occasions.

"But how did you find out?" She asked, looking a little perplexed.

"I worked it out," He said, with a twinkle in his eye because he knew how this would infuriate her.

"How?" She asked scornfully.

"Sit down, and then I'll tell you. You're making the room look untidy." With a roll of her eyes in slight exasperation, she sat in an armchair not far from his.

"When I came to see you a week last Wednesday, I knew I could smell a different perfume in your house. You've always worn the same perfume all the time I've known you. But, I didn't think anything of it, because the sight that greeted me when I got upstairs drove everything else from my mind." George blushed slightly when she remembered what he had seen. "Anyway, when Karen came back to court on Thursday to apologise for walking out, I gave her a hug, and after she'd gone, I remembered where I'd last been aware of that perfume. After that it was easy."

"You've always wanted to play Sherlock Holmes, haven't you," She said with a rueful smile.

"Why were you so worried about telling me? It's not as if you're attraction to other women is unknown to me. I think you gave Jo a bit of a shock, though."

"I wanted to tell you myself," She said quietly, brief tears rising to her eyes because she'd wanted to prepare him for it, not have it thrust upon him at a moment's notice. "But, best laid plans and all that," She added, trying to get herself under control.

"Come here," He said softly, and when she approached him, he took her hand and pulled her down on to his knee, enclosing her in the arms that would now be competing for her. "Why so frightened of telling me?" He asked, gently kissing her.

"Because I didn't want to hurt you, hurting you is the last thing I would ever want to do. When we last, when you last came to see me, I'd been out for dinner with Karen, and I'd wanted her to stay and not wanted her to stay, so she didn't. I couldn't come up with the goods for you, because what I'd not long before been doing felt so new."

"You don't have to explain," He said softly.

"John, why are you being so nice to me?" She asked in total despair, knowing that finding out like that must have hurt him deeply.

"Because Jo told me to be," He said with a completely straight face. George couldn't help smiling.

"Did she really?"

"Yes. I kept badgering her to tell me who your new lover was, because it became obvious she knew."

"Oh, poor Jo," George said in slight admonishment.

"She knocked some sense in to me on Thursday night. When it dawned on me exactly who your new lover was, I was cross, bewildered and hurt all in one."

"Oh, darling, I'm sorry," She said, putting her arms round him.

"I think I was mostly cross because Jo had known and not told me."

"Yes, and I shouldn't have put her in that position," George said regretfully.

"I'm sure she'll forgive you," John said dryly. "Jo gave me a bit of a talking too. She said that this relationship wasn't just about me any more, and she said that allowing you to get used to this in your own time was far more important than satisfying my curiosity."

"Oh, dear," George interjected, wholly unable to keep the slight smile off her face.

"She made me realise that all you're really doing is what I've been doing for the last fifteen months."

"John, what really got to you about all this? Because it isn't just the fact that I kept you in the dark for a few days."

"Erm," He suddenly looked a little uncomfortable, turning his face away from her to avoid her unflinching gaze. "I think I thought I was going to lose you."

"Oh, John," George said, feeling truly guilty for making him think this. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Aren't you?" He asked slightly petulantly.

"No," She reassured him gently. "I love you, John, and I'm not about to say goodbye to what I have with you, just because of someone new on the scene. I've got no idea how long this thing with Karen might last, but she will never, ever take me away from you."

"You don't know that, George."

"Yes, I do," She said gently. "And Karen knows it too."

"I can't believe I talked to her on Thursday and she didn't tell me either."

"John, think about it," George said seriously. "After what happened on Thursday afternoon, that was probably the last thing on her mind."

"How is she now? Because she didn't seem particularly good when I saw her."

"She's fine, or at least she was last night," George said, the soft, sleepy smile of sexual contentment brightening up her face.

"I can't believe you've finally got round to it after all these years," He said with a slight leer.

"If you hadn't already slept with more women than I care to count, I would highly recommend it," She said, her broad grin matching his.

"Oh, you like it that much, do you?" He asked, now playing along with her.

"It's incredible," She replied, drawing out the word incredible, to give it maximum emphasis. She kissed him lingeringly. "I now know why you like giving oral so much." He laughed deep in his throat.

"The thought of you doing that to Karen will keep me quiet for weeks."

"You were the one who told me to do it after all," She said with a wink.

"Did I?" He said in surprise, thinking this must have been the result of a moment's insanity.

"Yes, that night you told me about you and Karen. You said you thought that I ought to sleep with a woman."

"And when did you ever do anything I told you to do?"

"Well, darling," She said between kisses. "There has to be a first time for everything."

"So I see," He replied, allowing her nearness to temporarily take away any residual hurt or confusion he'd been feeling about George and Karen.

After some of this simple closeness punctuated by some fragmented conversation, George said,

"I want to make love to you."

"So you haven't entirely gone off the idea then?" He said dryly, though with a hint of real concern in there somewhere.

"John," George said firmly. "This is me you're talking too. I will never, ever, get bored of sleeping with you, I promise." She punctuated this statement with yet more kisses, steadily trying to persuade him that she was here, that she loved him, and that she wanted him.

"Are you turning my usual trick back on me?" He asked in amusement as he recognised what she was up too. Grinning wickedly she said,

"Well, I did learn from the best after all."

"So you did," He said, his voice deepening slightly. When his hand came in to contact with her blouse-covered breast, her kisses became deeper.

"I love you," He said, and she could hear the desperate need he felt for her.

"I know you do," She replied, leading his hand to the buttons of her blouse. When the buttons were undone, he was presented with the glorious sight of her beautiful, pointed breasts, with no bra impeding his view. He took a moment to just stare at her loveliness, the cream silk framing her extremely pretty breasts to perfection.

"You're so beautiful," He said in slight wonderment.

"You sound as though you've only just noticed," She said with a smile. Putting out a finger, he ran it caressingly over the skin that surrounded her right nipple, eliciting a gasp of sheer eroticism from her. It seemed to her that he was taking in every inch of her figure, in an attempt to preserve the memory of her forever. So as to distract him from this moment of contemplation, she moved her thigh so that it rubbed up against his steadily growing erection. Then, she detached his arms from around her and slid from his lap onto her knees on the carpet in front of him. Observing the slightly predatory gleam in her eye, he realised exactly what she had planned. As she reached for the zip of his fly, he said,

"Much as I couldn't think of a better way to spend the evening, you don't have to do that."

"I want to," She said simply. Gently removing his length from his trousers, she smiled when she saw how ready he was for this. As her lips deftly encircled the head, he reached for the remote control on the side table and flicked on the stereo, filling the room with some soft music to accompany their dance where for once, she was leading. As the pressure of her lips increased, drawing him in and out of her mouth, swiping her tongue over the surface as she might an ice lolly, he gently removed the chignon from her hair, running his fingers again and again through the blonde, silky strands. He breathed a deep sigh of contentment as she relaxed her throat muscles enough to take him into its soft and hollow depths. Then she would withdraw to the tip again, just faintly teasing him, never quite allowing him to predict what she might do next. She had an arm round his waist to steady herself, and at one point tangled the fingers of her other hand with one of his. She could do this to him with her mouth and mouth alone, no hands necessary, and he loved it. Not once did her teeth accidentally come into contact with his skin, George having quickly learnt the art of damage limitation. At one particularly hard and luxurious squeeze from those enchantingly pouting lips of hers, he made a sound deep in his throat that made her smile. She loved doing this to him, utterly revelling in making him temporarily submit to her ministrations. But as her rhythm took on a particular pattern and speed, he knew that it was time to gently detach her from him, and to finish this off in some other way.

"George," He said, his throat almost dry with lust, but she ignored him. Laying his free hand on her face, he tried to gently push her away from him. Knowing exactly what he was up to, she took his free hand in hers that had been around his waist, and holding both his hands to the arms of the chair, she continued. A broad, thoroughly wicked smile spread across his face. It wasn't often George took him the whole way like this, but when she did, it was fantastic. Increasing her speed, George attempted to relax her throat even more, trying to keep all her senses away from what was coming. His breathing quickened, any control he might previously have had, leaving him in an instant. It was incredible, being under her spell like this, being almost held down, so that she could take what she wanted from him, though he would never tell her this. When his release crashed over him, she swallowed every drop he had to give, using her tongue to remove all traces from him as she accepted his offering. When she knew he was spent, she reached for her glass of martini and downed it in one. When she looked back at him, he'd refastened his fly and was watching her. Pulling her back in to his arms, he said,

"If you detest the taste so much, why do it?"

"Because I know you like it, and because it makes me feel incredibly naughty. Besides," She added with a mischievous grin. "There's nothing quite as erotic as making you completely lose control."

"You're one in a million, you are," He said as he kissed her.

"Hmm, well, I'll make you taste it one of these days," She replied with a wicked little smirk that left him in no doubt that she might just follow through with her threat.

A little while later when they moved up the stairs in the corner of the lounge to his bedroom above, his hands were feverishly removing the rest of her clothes.

"You're very eager," She commented, undoing his belt and attacking the buttons of his shirt.

"Well, having not made love to you for over a fortnight, I intend to make up for lost time."

"Oh, do you now?" She drawled.

"Yes," He said firmly, drawing back the duvet and gently pushing her down on to the bed. "Two weeks of not giving this body all the pleasure it was made for is far too long." As he immediately latched on to one of her nipples and slipped a hand between her legs, she said,

"It feels like you're putting your claim on me."

"Perhaps I am," He murmured through a mouthful of exquisitely female flesh.

"You don't need to be quite so territorial, you know," She said with a smile, and then gasped as he slid two fingers inside her. On discovering just how wet she already was, he said,

"You really do get something out of doing that for me, don't you."

"Yes," She said, her breathing quickening as he massaged her clit with a well-lubricated finger. When his teeth grazed her skin, she gave a small yelp.

"I'm sorry," He said, though not sounding especially apologetic.

"Oh, you be just as rough as you like," She said through gritted teeth. "I think that today, I just might be in the mood for it." Taking her at her word, he moved over to the other nipple, all the time keeping his hand moving lower down. Not long after, she said,

"Please, John, I need you inside me, now." Loving it when she virtually begged him like this, and her slightly vocal reactions to him having made him once again rise to the occasion, he hovered over her and slid inside her with one long thrust. She immediately wrapped her arms and legs round him, pulling him as close to her as possible. Now she really did discover that he was putting his mark on her, saying that no matter who else she might sleep with in her spare time, she would always be his. His arms wrapped around her shoulders, he slammed into her again and again, grazing her G spot every time and bringing her closer and closer to the edge. Her gasps became more frantic, she clung to John still harder, and finally soared over her peak with one loud cry of abandon. She almost squeezed the life out of him as she came, which meant that he followed soon after.

When he gently withdrew from her and they lay slightly apart, their breathing slowly returning to normal, she said,

"What on earth got into you?" He looked a little sheepish.

"I don't know. I think I was just reasserting myself. Sorry if it was a bit much."

"Who's complaining," George said turning onto her side and kissing his shoulder. "I'm not saying I'd like it like that every day of the week, but it was pretty bloody explosive." As they took a shower together a short while later, George reflected that with both Karen and John taking care of her every sexual fantasy, she wouldn't feel deprived ever again. But when they were back in bed, and slowly drifting to sleep in each other's arms, John said softly,

"You won't ever leave me, will you?"

"No," She said, gently kissing him. "If there's one thing I've learnt and learnt well over the last fifteen months, it's that not having you in my life would finish me off altogether. So no, I'm not going anywhere, I promise."

When George slowly rose in to consciousness early on the Sunday morning, she was at first puzzled as to what had woken her. But then she realised that one of John's hands was delicately playing over her breasts, occasionally brushing her nipples, which is what had attracted the attention of her fog filled brain. Breathing in through her nose, she groaned in half asleep, half-aroused interest. When John realised that she was not opposed to his attentions, he kept his right hand moving over her cleavage, and trailed his left hand downwards. George had turned over in her sleep, and so was now lying with her back to him. She stretched luxuriously as his hand crept between her legs, the gentle, incredibly sexy awakening serving to heighten her senses. When she let out a deep moan of utter contentment, he began dropping feather-light kisses over her shoulder. When she finally turned over to face him, she could feel his hardness against her thigh. Without a single word between them, their legs entwined, and still on their sides, he slid gently inside her. This was the sort of sleepy, lazy, Sunday morning type of sex that George found she didn't get nearly enough of these days. Weekends were made for this sort of long, slow screw, and with John usually dividing his weekends up between her and Jo, it wasn't something either woman had in anything like a substantial amount. They rocked gently to and fro, their legs and arms wrapped around each other, occasionally kissing and still not saying anything. Nothing needed to be said, they loved each other, they felt that drowsy, early morning type of horny, so why not make use of it. The position they were in meant that the base of his shaft continuously rubbed against her clitoris, causing every nerve ending in her to be set alight. George loved this position because he could keep going for ages like this, occasionally causing her to have her own orgasm half way through, and be ready for the second in which he joined her. When they gently rocked themselves to completion, he kissed her long and hard, again laying a claim on one of his alpha females.

As they lay afterwards, George said,

"Good morning," In that deeper, husky voice that he'd always found sexy.

"We haven't done that for a while," He observed.

"No, and I think it's a tradition that needs resurrecting," She said with a soft, sleepy smile.

"Has Karen ever woken you up like that?" He couldn't help asking, a sheepish little smile turning up the corners of his mouth.

"Sort of, the first time I slept with her," She yawned. "And you don't need to look quite so guilty and curious all in one go," She added with a smirk.

"I can't help being curious," He said, his smile becoming broader. "But I thought you might not want me to ask."

"And when has that ever stopped you?" George asked in mock disgust.

"So you don't mind then?"

"No, of course not. Besides, there isn't much I can tell you about Karen that you don't know already."

"Yes, talking of just how much I know about Karen, Jo worked out that I'd slept with her. It seems the way I defended her character in court on Thursday brought a spark of enlightenment to something Jo had always wondered."

"Ah, yes, I thought it might," George said resignedly. "Darling, to people who know you, it was a bit obvious. Was she cross with you?"

"Not really. I don't think either of us could really be bothered to go into it."

"Because you were trying to browbeat her over what she knew about me."

"I didn't browbeat her," He said defensively. "I just probed and prodded until I got the answers I was looking for." George grinned wryly at him.

"John, I know what you're like when you get in to full prosecution mode, there's no stopping you."

"Just, next time," He said seriously. "Don't keep me in the dark and don't be afraid to tell me."

An hour or so later when John let her quietly out of the digs so that no one would know she'd stayed the night, George felt that, despite the short period of slightly choppy waters, her life might be about to tread an even keel for a while, the balancing forces of John and Karen on either side, with Jo always either in front or behind her, to keep her firmly on course, and to prevent her from sinking below the surface as she'd almost done all those months ago.

Part Fifty Five

Right at the end of the Friday afternoon, Jo had nipped back into the courtroom once the initial surge of people heading for home and hearth had expended itself. She sought permission to extract from the bundle of original documents, Ritchie's letters to Yvonne and Lauren. They belonged to Yvonne, so Jo's sense of doing justice argued, and it was only the necessity of court proceedings that had held them from her for as long as was necessary. Despite her brave words to Yvonne, her hopes were like a blind step in the dark to keep Yvonne's spirits up and, by extension, her own.

She leafed her way through the very familiar order of the evidence in the box files and found the right polythene enclosure and slid out the two very ordinary notes of scribblings on prison issue paper. Yet these had gone to the heart of the tragedy that had overtaken the lives of so many. They had even drawn in herself, George and John himself in knowledge of actions, which all three knew they should never have possessed in advance of public knowledge. She realised that all of them had reacted to that primal fear of being caught on the wrong side of the wire, and that logic and reason had nothing to do with it.

Jo carefully folded them up inside the polythene wrapping and tucked them in the safest part of her handbag for safe keeping. She stared round the empty court and smiled fondly at the vacant space in the gallery once occupied by that very remarkable female support group. She had glimpsed them from afar for the last two weeks and had been privileged to spend lunchtime being among them. It was a very new experience to her. She couldn't define it but it felt good.

A feeling of sheer exhaustion overtook her as she made her way to her car and she battled her weary way homewards through the bumper to bumper traffic gridlocks of London.

One of Jo's few lotus-eating indulgences was lying in bed on a Saturday morning after a long hard trial which this one had been. Life was easier as she got older as in past years, she was 'mum' from the moment her two lively little boys woke up in the morning and somehow she summoned the energy to rouse herself out of bed and that other Jo Mills took over from her. The hundred and one activities that children will demand of the parent was something that the relentlessly and conventionally minded colleagues in the chambers would never understand. In every unguarded syllable was the dimly sensed shape of the female nestmaker who ensured that every perfectly turned out male barrister could singlemindedly devote himself to his career with the occasional reference to the family outings which 'he' had taken the wife and children to. That kind of smugness about them irritated her as much as she solidly disapproved of the professional ethics of two of their kind like Neumann Mason-Alan and Brian Cantwell. True, she had once been like one of those consorts when she was younger, when she had married. He had been a good man and had been all the world to her. Sharing his bed, going everywhere with him and the natural physical intimacy that marriage brings had been natural, part of her life, as had been the physical flowering of motherhood. She had taken to both like a duck had to water with no thoughts that life could map out anything different.

At that age, the modern Jo ruefully reflected, you never know the twists and turns life can take and when you are young, you are more confident and less aware of the pitfalls that you can step into.

She stretched out for her cigarette packet and her lighter for her first thing in the morning cigarette. That was one of her indulgences, which she sacrificed when she slept with John. Well, John Deed, you are not here to silently disapprove of me, she smiled to herself as she blew smoke into the air. She had as much unfettered space to stretch out in her double bed as to feel unconstrained in what she did on a sunny Saturday morning, to read a newspaper if she wanted to, and to get up whenever she liked.

She knew Mark was asleep in his bedroom next to hers, but he had reached the teenage years when he would respond to any friendly move into his space by that suspicious grunt of annoyance and the sort of inarticulate frozen atmosphere by which he hoped that his mother would get the point. At that age, he was defiantly and insecurely trying to establish himself as other than the son of the famous barrister. There was an unspoken agreement that he would go his way and she would go hers so long as he kept up with his studies and she wouldn't interfere. Therefore, on a Saturday morning, both of them blissfully whiled away the morning with a whole weekend to unwind before them.

Sunday morning for Jo was a different matter, as she bustled round the house early to make way for what she had in mind to do.

"Hello Yvonne, it's Jo Mills."

"To what do I owe the phone call, Jo?" her faintly mocking tones could be heard with an underlay of real pleasure of friendly and welcome human contact.

"Is it all right if I call round and see you? I was going to return Ritchie's letters to you if you want them.

"Well," came the dragged out response, "Victoria Beckham has just phoned me up and said that she's ever so sorry, she's jet setting off to the Algarve for a photo shoot and my extensive social life is a bit thin on the ground. Yeah, of course you can, so long as you're not just going to act as postman. You don't get away as easily as that."

"I wouldn't expect any less, Yvonne."

Jo's warm tones cheered Yvonne up as she had paced about the house like a caged tigress all morning.

Yvonne had literally sweated out the longest weekend in her life by unbearable second after second of the clock, which had ticked away. When you have a daughter who could be banged up for life and your existence feels suspended, helpless, by the dangerously random fate of a jury and a judge, however sympathetic the guy might be. She liked the judge but she knew only too well that he has a job to do. Helen Stewart had taught her that one, both seen from afar at Larkhall and recently, from the steady drip by drip of conversations over the last two weeks. Of course, she wasn't the only authority figure who she knew but she firmly slammed the door on the train of thought on that one. She had quite enough on her bleeding plate.

At that point, she'd ground out her cigarette and jumped to her feet. She had proceeded to hoover and dust the house from top to bottom all Saturday to keep herself busy so she wouldn't brood. When the terrifying prospect of that loomed up close, she went round the house and bagged up a lot of superfluous junk which she'd always meant to get rid of but never got round to it. That night, the house was immaculate and she was physically tired out but for a long time, her brain refused to shut down when it ought to. She had taken a long time to settle to sleep, even with more alcohol inside her than she normally drank. As she lay in bed that night, she thought bitterly that none of Charlie's old friends had found time to phone her up today and why should they act any different tomorrow? Even if it had been a long time since they'd spoken to her, surely they would have the guts to get past that one. What appealed to her least of all was the way they paraded around with guns in their pockets bragging to each other how tough and hard they were. It was a men's club and all they did was compete with each other. Women were just decorative adornments in their lives. When it came down to it, they were little boys, poncing around with their toys and they just didn't have what it took, not compared to the women she had known from Larkhall.

As she woke up in the dark very early on the Sunday morning, half of her wished that she could transport herself in time to the Monday which would determine her life and the other half was more frightened to the marrow of her bones than she would ever let on to anyone, no matter how close she was to them. No one could take that fear away from her or could shoulder that burden.

It was at that moment that Jo Mills had phoned and her unconscious prayer for something to get her way through the day was answered. She couldn't bleeding well untidy the house and tidy it up, that would be mad stuff.

Like others before her, Jo marvelled at the sheer expanse of Yvonne's house and the obviously large garden that lay at the back of it. All the trees were bare and winter's leaves lay scattered on the drive outside but Jo could see that summertime at Yvonne's would be a different affair. She knocked at the door and Jo was touched at the huge smile with which Yvonne greeted her. She could see the dark shadows under her eyes that even the expert touch of her makeup could not quite conceal. On her part, propriety held her back from giving Jo a big hug to express her gratitude at human company. You didn't do that sort of thing with female briefs.

"Come in, Jo," Yvonne offered expansively.

Jo followed, wide eyed to see how much of a luxurious lifestyle was built on crime. She knew that phrase as one that she had used in court. It was just that she had never come across the reality of it.

"It's nice and quiet round here," Jo remarked conversationally.

"Too bloody quiet," Came the throaty answer putting a different spin on the word.

"I know what you said, Jo about if the jury is out for a long time, that's a good sign. But a sign of what? How many years does that mean, that's what's hammering at my brain. I'm more scared of this than anything else I've ever faced in my life."

"Because it's your daughter and not you," Jo gently interposed. "…and because you can't do anything about it."

A warm smile spread slowly across Yvonne's drawn features and she blinked back a few tears out of her eyes. This quiet woman dressed in a simple open necked blouse and a pair of casual trousers was a mile away from the court dignitary. That battling woman dressed in her formal gown and wig pitching it strong to that weasel of a brief should have been another woman altogether, yet there was no sense of artificial distinction.

"I'm a mother too, and it doesn't take rocket science to work out how you're feeling."

Yvonne warmed to this unpretentious woman who was turning out to be very relaxing company.

They both heard a soft padding sound and a large black Alsatian trotted eagerly up to them. All day yesterday, he had been vaguely disconsolate as he sensed his mistress was upset and was bustling about. He had managed as best as he could till some kind fate provided him with a new visitor.

"This is the famous Trigger," Yvonne introduced him with a grin as was his due.

Jo immediately made friends with this large black soppy dog who clearly didn't have an ounce of harm in him.

"So this is the dog who supposedly terrified the life out of that idiot policeman?" Jo laughed.

"Yeah well, frightening the life out of policemen was part of his training," Yvonne grinned.

Yvonne nipped off to make two cups of steaming hot coffee in her pristine kitchen. Sometime yesterday, she must have blitzed her way through it though she could not remember when.

Presently, they sat at ease facing each other and chatting away more comfortably. The thought that she was deviating away from her normal professional custom in socialising with clients drifted past her like a gust of cold wind outside the living room window as of no significance. With a huge feeling of relief, Yvonne grasped in turn at the company she was being offered and she kept the conversation light.

"You're pretty close to the judge, Jo."

"Only so far. It's complicated."

"Try me."

"There's the matter of professional ethics of a barrister appearing before a judge. Ex-wives and ex-partners are fine. Current wives and current partners are a definite no no. They think there's a risk of pillow talk."

Jo's studied distancing of herself from the code of conduct was not lost on Yvonne. This was a new world to her but she's never too late to learn.

"So that hasn't stopped you any more than you came close to doing over that brief of theirs, after he tried to ruin Karen."

In turn, the repressed anger with which Yvonne spoke conveyed a peculiar flavour to Jo. It was half directed at Karen and half protective of her.

"You're still very fond of Karen, aren't you."

"She's with George now," Yvonne said non-committally. "That's been bleeding obvious through the trial, but she's been there when all Charlie's friends have done bugger all."

"I found that out when I spotted a very indiscreet George, who blushed a very delicate shade of pink when she noticed me."

Yvonne couldn't help a faint smile at Jo's delicately drawn mental portrait. When she lost her sense of humour, that's a sign that she's really down and out, mentally and physically. The way they had drifted into this conversation brought the barriers down on something she'd turned over at the back of her mind since the trial started. Until now, the fierce rush of events had prevented her from properly thinking about it apart from that one conversation with Karen when she had tried her best not to appear a jealous cow.

"Karen's got the right to see who she wants. It's not as if she's handcuffed to me, it's just that…….."

"I know."

Jo's simple words might have seemed banal from anyone else but not her. Yvonne could see that Jo spoke from her heart quite as much as she spoke from her head. More than ever, Yvonne could tell that Jo was way beyond that offhand description of a brief. In her past life, talking to a brief and having your collar felt by the Old Bill went together like fish and chips. Not any more.

"You're as loyal to Karen, admit it, in the same way that John and I are loyal to each other in our fashion, despite outward appearances."

"Tell me more, Jo."

"I don't know if it helps, but John and I have loved each other despite the many times he has strayed."

"Like with Karen."

"How did you know?"

"No man blows up like a landmine over a woman even over what that bastard of a brief did to Karen."

Jo smiled to herself. So, Yvonne had spotted that one too and with far less knowledge of john than she had. Yvonne certainly spotted things that her pompous colleagues in chambers would have missed by a mile.

"You're right, but don't underestimate that very real, very chivalrous side of John. That was the very first thing that attracted me when I first knew him, attracted me at a time when I was comfortably married to a good man. I was happy and settled up till then. I might have married him if only……."

Yvonne couldn't get her head round this one. The judge clearly played away from home when he had the chance, acted just the same way as Charlie did in this respect. Yet her regard for him was not that of her attraction despite herself for the 'all men are bastards' club. This bloke was different, decent in his way and stood between her Lauren getting a long stretch.

She carried on chatting to this friendly woman who, in turn, resolved to give Yvonne the letters from Ritchie later in the day. That was the reason she had come to see her, after all.

Part Fifty Six

When they arrived at court on the Monday morning, they had been rejoined by George and Crystal, all nine of them waiting for the verdict. Tempers were frayed, with Yvonne and Cassie continuously bickering, sniping at each other because it gave them something else to focus on. They knew that the jury would reconvene at ten o'clock, so from that time onwards, one or another of them kept glancing at their watch. They took over a couple of tables in the corner of the cafeteria, but often slipping outside for a nicotine top up. When Jo appeared, George rose and went to meet her.

"Do you have a minute?" She asked.

"As many as you like, until the jury come back," She said, thinking that this was as good a time as any for the conversation they needed to have. George scanned their surroundings, looking for the slightest modicum of privacy, and finding none.

"Let's try the barristers' lounge upstairs," Jo suggested. "Everyone else should be in court at this time of the morning."

The lounge only ever frequented by barristers and other court personnel, was on the second floor of the Old Bailey, and was absolutely out of bounds to anyone who wasn't part of the old boys' network of the legal profession. It was a long, high-ceilinged room, with a long mahogany sideboard, and groups of comfortable armchairs and low coffee tables. The entire back wall of the lounge was made up of windows, and a sliding door that led out onto a spacious balcony. Jo had been right, they were entirely alone, with everyone else either in court or dealing with clients. She poured them both a coffee from the elegant pot on the sideboard, and they moved as if of one mind out onto the balcony.

"This is the only place we can smoke these days," Grumbled George.

"If John had his way, we wouldn't even have this luxury," Jo commented dryly. "How was your weekend?" She added, after lighting a cigarette and taking a grateful drag.

"I told John on Saturday," George replied, lighting her own cigarette.

"Ah," Jo simply said, thinking she might just know what was coming, but she couldn't have been more wrong.

"Jo, I'm so sorry that I put you in such a difficult position," George eventually said, feeling very uncomfortable. "I shouldn't have expected you to keep something like that from him."

"George," Jo said slowly but firmly. "When to tell him, or when not to tell him, had to be your decision. Neither of us could have predicted that he would work it out in the way he did. How was he?"

"Oh, all right, after a substantial amount of his favourite form of persuasion, and a lot of reassurance that I wasn't about to leave him altogether." Jo smirked. "Oh, you know what he's like," George said affectionately. "That's his answer to everything."

"He was quite hurt that I'd known and not told him. But he'll get over it. He'll have to, at least that's what I told him. I tried to make him understand that all you're doing, is exactly what he's been doing for the last year and a bit."

"Jo," George said carefully, trying to find the right way to phrase what she wanted to say. "I think you might find that John is a little more, assertive than usual."

"Oh, you mean that to reclaim his position as leader of the pack as it were, he'll probably want to sleep with both of us more than usual." George laughed.

"Yes, something like that. It's funny, but the main difference about sleeping with a woman, apart from the obvious, is that it's totally equal. Maybe that's why I like it." Jo smiled.

"Did you see Karen this weekend?"

"Yes, on Friday," George replied, wholly unable to prevent the soft, sultry smile spreading over her face. But remembering what had happened early on the Saturday morning, she became serious again. "Have you ever seen anyone in the throws of an extremely vivid nightmare?"

"John, once or twice. Why?"

"Karen dreamt about Fenner, about what he did to her."

"That's hardly surprising, after the last couple of weeks."

"Oh, I know. It just scared the bloody life out of me, that's all."

"It probably did her, too."

"And she's so bloody, infuriatingly stubborn!" George said in sheer exasperation.

"George," Jo said with a laugh. "You are the last person who can accuse anyone of being stubborn."

"Yes, I suppose I had that coming. But she just won't talk, not really talk, without an enormous amount of cajoling. It's as though she's terrified of admitting to what's going on in her head. She said that she didn't want me to see her like that, because she didn't want to frighten me off."

"Do you remember the day you fainted in court?" Jo asked quietly.

"As if I'll ever forget it," George replied bitterly.

"Once you started talking, you couldn't stop, but it took a good deal of encouragement to persuade you to open up. The only reason it didn't take as long as I thought it would, is because you were physically weak and emotionally vulnerable." George recoiled from this far too accurate description.

"I know. I just wish she would let me help her."

"Give her time," Jo said gently, seeing in this simple, little remark that George had altered immeasurably over the last year and finding the change in her, perhaps the most positive thing to come out of everything that had happened between them all.

Not long after George and Jo left the others, they were approached by Coope.

"Miss Betts, the judge would like to see you in chambers."

"Thank you," Karen said politely, though her distinct lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming conversation wasn't lost on Coope. "Tell him I'm on my way." When Coope had gone, Yvonne said,

"Is he going to slap your wrist for sleeping with his ex?"

"More than likely," Said Karen, getting to her feet. "If you don't see me by the end of the day, send up a search party." As she walked away, she felt as nervous as if she was being called up before the headmaster. But this wasn't some authority figure who just happened to have a connection with the woman Karen was sleeping with, this was John, one of her dearest friends. Hurting him was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, but she had a feeling that this was what she'd already done. Before knocking on the door of his chambers, she took a deep breath, and steeled herself for what was coming. She'd known John long enough to realise that if he did feel any anger about this, it would be saved for her and her alone. When bidden to enter, she held her head high, showing the world that she'd done nothing wrong.

When the door closed behind her, they stood and looked at each other.

"It's not often I see you stuck for words," Karen said into the silence when he didn't appear to be forthcoming.

"And it isn't often that I discover I'm the last to know something," He replied stonily.

"John," Karen said gently. "When to put you in the picture, had to be George's decision. It would have been extremely wrong of me to ask her to do it before she was ready."

"And I used to think that it was wrong, to keep something so important from a friend."

"You know me better than that," Karen replied, stung by his words. "If it had been entirely up to me, then I probably would have talked to you about it, before even making any kind of an approach with George. But this is all new to her, so it has to work at her pace. Not mine, not yours, but hers," She finished firmly.

"So why do it?" He demanded. "If our friendship means as much to you as you say it does, why make things ten times as complicated, by moving in on someone who means far more to me than she ever could to you?"

"Do you have any objection, to not making me out to be some sort of predatory dyke?" Karen asked tartly, realising that both their voices was slowly rising. "It's really about time you bloody grew up, John Deed, because everything will not always remain exactly the way you want it. Oh, I get it, it's perfectly acceptable for you to divide your sex life between two people, but not all right for Jo or George to do the same?"

"What relationships I do or don't have, are absolutely none of your business."

"That's where you're quite wrong. Your relationship with George is my business. I'm not going away, John, for as long as George wants me around, I'm staying. So you'd better get off your high horse and get used to it."

"Just one thing," John said almost casually. "I don't want to have to pick up the pieces, when you get bored of playing instructor. Is that clear?" Karen was stunned, well and truly speechless. This, coming from the man whose cast-offs must have hit triple figures by the time he was forty. It hurt her enormously to hear him say such a thing to her. Never usually being one to give up a fight, she was ashamed to feel a prickling behind her eyelids. Turning on her heel, she flung open the door and stalked down the corridor.

As soon as he'd said that, he'd known he'd gone too far. He didn't want to hurt Karen any more than she wanted to hurt him, but the immense jealousy and deep insecurity he felt about the situation, had made him act abominably towards her. Swiftly making to catch her up, he called after her.

"Karen, come back, I'm sorry." Turning to face him, she held up a hand.

"Don't," She said bitterly. "Don't you dare assume that just because you've had more women than you've had hot dinners, that I'm the same." Walking up to him so that she could lower her voice, she continued. "Let's not forget, that with your track record, you are far more likely to hurt George, or Jo, or any other woman you care to lay your hands on, than I am. For now, George likes what she has with me, because it's different. She will never, ever leave you for anyone, no matter how much I may in future want her to. So will you please, put the hackles down, and let her spread her wings for a while." It was now John's turn to be speechless. Karen was right, he knew it, but never would she get him to admit it.

"I'm sorry," He said again, quietly this time.

"I hope so," She said coolly, not quite able to forgive the harsh words he'd thrown at her with so little thought. "Where do you think they might be?" She asked with half a smile, trying to find anything remotely innocuous to say.

"Aren't they downstairs?"

"No, they disappeared off somewhere before you summoned me."

"Ah, that'll be the barristers' prerogative kicking in," He said as he led the way down the corridor. "You're not strictly permitted up here," He said as they mounted the stairs to the second floor. "But if anyone saw the argument we've just had, they'll be in no doubt that you're a barrister." Smiling at the tentative stab at humour, Karen followed him along yet another corridor, and through a pair of elegant double doors.

When George and Jo heard the doors of the lounge opening, they turned to see John and Karen. But as they were going inside, John heard his name being called from further down the corridor.

"I'll be with you in a minute," He said as he left her to it.

"Have you two kissed and made up?" George asked, as Karen came out onto the balcony, immediately kicking herself when she saw the briefly closed expression on Jo's face.

"We've shouted at each other, if that's what you mean," Karen said dryly, digging for her cigarettes.

"What did he say?" George asked, not liking the sound of this.

"Oh, nothing I didn't expect," Karen said lightly, not fooling either of them. "Well, at least nothing I won't get over."

"He's probably just being overprotective," Jo said quietly.

"Yeah," Karen replied with a shrug, and they could both see that whatever he'd said had hurt. George put an arm round Karen's waist and gave her a quick, affectionate squeeze.

"He'll calm down soon enough," She said, just praying that he really would. Karen put an arm around her shoulders, taking brief comfort in having George close to her. Jo broke into a soft smile.

"You look good together," She said, which brought a warm smile to Karen's face.

"Try convincing John of that," Karen said dismissively, not really knowing how to take such a compliment.

"Darling, what did he say to you?" George asked again, looking up into Karen's face.

"Forget it," Karen said bitterly, and when George took a breath to persist, she said, "Believe me, it's best left forgotten. I just wish he could get it into his head, that I didn't intend to rock the boat."

"Karen," Jo said firmly. "You know as well as I do, that John is the last person who should criticise anyone for sleeping with someone else. He'll get over it. Just give him time." Just then, Coope put her head through the lounge door and called to Jo.

"Mrs. Mills, the jury's back with a verdict."

"Thanks, Coope," Jo called back.

"Well, this is the moment we've all been waiting for," George said, as they made their way towards the courtroom.

"I almost don't want to know," Karen admitted. When they arrived in the gallery, everyone was there waiting for them, and Karen slipped in beside Yvonne, wanting to be able to give her some moral support, now that the moment had come.

When the jury filed back in, Yvonne's hand slipped into Karen's. She couldn't help it, she needed to know that someone was there with her. Karen gave Yvonne's hand a squeeze. The clerk of the court asked the foreman of the jury to stand. The atmosphere was electric, the silence heavy with the weight of the tension in every muscle.

"On the charge of murder, do you find Miss Lauren Atkins, guilty or not guilty?"

"Not, guilty," The foreman's words were clearly spaced. Karen felt her hand being forcefully gripped, with the moment of truth finally here.

"On the reduced charge of manslaughter, by virtue of diminished responsibility, do you find Miss Lauren Atkins, guilty or not guilty?" The foreman seemed to hold his breath, as if not wanting to pass the verdict.

"Guilty." The word echoed round the courtroom like a pistol shot. A murmuring of voices ran round the gallery, but Yvonne stayed deadly silent, not an ounce of colour in her face. She knew only too well that for manslaughter, any sentence up to and including life could be given.

"Miss Atkins," John's voice resonated round the court. "Would you please stand up?" When she did so, he fixed his gaze on her. "Throughout this trial, I have heard many reasons why you chose to commit the act you did, of brutally killing another human being. Now, whilst you are undoubtedly a very mentally troubled young woman, I cannot condone your actions, and must therefore pass a sentence which befits both the crime, and your particular situation. It is incumbent upon me to impose a sentence that the general public can take seriously, yet at the same time, to ensure that you are provided with the psychiatric treatment that you clearly need. You have been in custody on remand for just over a year now, and I sentence you to one further year in custody. Your custodial sentence is as light as this, because I do not believe that you will receive adequate psychiatric care whilst you are serving your sentence, Her Majesty's prisons being as over-populated as they are. Once you are released from prison, I am ordering that you must receive whatever psychiatric treatment that may be recommended for you. However, to ensure that you sufficiently learn your lesson, the day of your release, will be the start of a five year suspended sentence. This means, that if, at any point during the ensuing five years, you commit any crime, you can be recalled to prison immediately, and this will be non-negotiable. This is in an attempt to first of all, punish you in a satisfactory manner, to secondly, ensure that you receive the psychiatric treatment you require, and to thirdly, guarantee that you do not appear in court again. In committing this crime, you have caused your mother, and those others who deeply care for you, an inestimable amount of pain and suffering, and I hope that your custodial sentence will give you ample opportunity to reflect on this. Miss Atkins, I do not expect to see you appear before me again. Take her down."

There was a brief, stunned silence from the gallery as Lauren was led away. They stood automatically when the clerk called out "All rise," and like preprogrammed robots, began to make their way downstairs. Nobody said a word, none of them knowing what to say. But when they reached the foyer, Yvonne turned to George.

"Why did he do that?" She asked, her face still expressionless.

"Yvonne, I gave up trying to fathom the workings of John's mind years ago," George said gently. "So please don't ask me to start now." When Jo came up to them, she looked sad, guilty, and worn out all in one.

"Yvonne, I'm so sorry," She said, really feeling as though she'd lost, no matter how much she'd thought this might be the outcome all along.

"Hey, don't be," Yvonne said, touched by the feeling in Jo's face. "You did your best for Lauren, and we both know it could have turned out a hell of a lot worse. So don't beat yourself up about it. You worked a bloody miracle in there, and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise." Jo was incredibly touched by Yvonne's words, but it didn't stop her feeling as though she'd failed. Yvonne's eyes shifted away from her suddenly, to take in the form of John, slowly walking towards them. Before any of them could stop her, Yvonne had broken free of them, and was striding purposefully towards him. When she stood in front of him, they simply looked at each other.

"Thank you," Yvonne said quietly, as the tears began streaming down her face. "Thank you so much for what you did." John was speechless. If he'd expected any personal reaction from Yvonne Atkins, it wasn't this. Acting instinctively, he put out his arms and drew her firmly to him. He held Yvonne as she sobbed into his shoulder, feeling all the tension that had been building up in her, ever since Lauren had plunged her into a mixture of fear and despair.

"I can't ever thank you enough, for not writing off my daughter's life."

"All I want you to do," He said, his own voice a little unsteady with the emotion he could feel pouring over him. "Is to make sure that your daughter is never in my court, or any court again. When she comes out of prison, make sure she gets the care and treatment she needs. You are perhaps, one of the most loyal, caring, utterly devoted mothers I have ever had the pleasure to meet, so I know you can do that. Now, go home, gather all your friends around you, and get on with your life."

Part Fifty Seven

"…..Take her down…….." Those words had a finality similar to that of a coffin lid slammed shut. It was not the first time she had heard them. It had happened many years ago when she had been sentenced to four years imprisonment and later when that tart Merriman and her son Ritchie got what was coming to them. But now?

'You are perhaps, one of the most loyal, caring, utterly devoted mothers I have ever had the pleasure to meet, so I know you can do that.' That was the judge's own verdict on her and after sweating out the last weekend and all those months, he had bloody acquitted her. The year that her Lauren got sounded as near to bleeding freedom as she dared hope for.

Roisin and Cassie flanked her on either side. Both exchanged anxious glances at her and, together with Babs, knew full well from their experience in the Merriman Atkins trial that Yvonne would have to run the gauntlet of the press. Helen and Nikki had more distant memories to draw on, Nikki with her own trials and Helen who had accompanied Monica Spencer when she was released all those years ago. All of them sharpened their minds to be ready for anything. Karen trailed alongside George as players in the scene who were forced to remain low profile.

Yvonne's legs felt like rubber as she walked through the foyer and her mouth was dry. She had no sense of where she was heading. A dazzling white rectangle of light opened up in front of her and a confused hubbub of noise confused her.

"Steady, Yvonne. You're going to have to get clear in your mind what you're going to say to those sharks out there," Helen advised her in her own practical and forward thinking style.

"I got to say something to you all now."

A wave of emotions engulfed Yvonne as her throaty voice was choked off after the first few words. She was speechless for a minute or two and oblivious to everything round her.

"I may not get a chance to say it later on, but I want to say it now. I wouldn't have made it through till today and neither would my Lauren if it hadn't been for all of you standing by us - yeah and Denny back there in Larkhall, and Jo Mills and the judge. You're all family to me and anytime you want to call round to my place, you've only got to ask."

Yvonne dissolved into tears as the full weight of the emotions broke over her.

"Come on, Yvonne Atkins. The press want to get your story for the news headlines."

"Give us five minutes and we'll be out," Helen's very carrying voice shut the man up.

"We wouldn't have missed this for the world, Yvonne."

"There's no way we would have sat back and not been there for you."

"We'll take you up on your offer. Besides, I want to top up my suntan this summer, and your place is the only place private enough so I don't get strap marks with nosy neighbours around. Here, you borrow my mirror so you can fix your makeup."

It was a combination of Nikki and Helen's heartfelt words and Cassie's typical mixture of light heartedness. Yvonne hugged the three women in turn and attended to her makeup with her usual skill.

"Are you going to be all right now?" Babs asked anxiously.

Yvonne grinned, her confidence restored. She would have them eating out of her hands and make mincemeat of any young upstart that ran up against her.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Karen," and here, for the first time, Yvonne looked directly at the other woman. "Can you make sure that Lauren is looked after when she gets back to Larkhall."

"You have my word on it." The way that Karen looked at her straight in the eye and her solid dependability removed her last doubts as to what she knew she must do.

"Mrs. Atkins, don't you think that the absurdly soft sentence that your daughter got would cause the British Public to lose confidence in the legal system?"

"Well, Mr. Pressman, it all depends on what sort of tall stories you care to tell them. I wouldn't blame the public for thinking the worst of me if they don't get told what really happened."

"Who are all those women with you?"

"My friends. They've put themselves out to watch the trial from the visitor's gallery these last two weeks. I can't remember seeing you around."

"So how do you explain why an ordinary prison officer is brutally murdered and your daughter is virtually let off?"

"I don't want to slag off Mr. Fenner, but if he had been an ordinary Prison Officer, my Lauren would never have laid a finger on him."

"That's right. I was once Mr. Fenner's boss," Helen's clear tones rang out and stopped the baying press in its tracks.

"Your son Ritchie Atkins got ten years for merely helping his girlfriend set off an explosion in Larkhall prison, when one person was killed. Your daughter Lauren Atkins who murdered a Prison Officer, gets one year. She was quoted at the time her brother was sent down as saying that he 'got what was coming to him.' Does she feel the same about herself?"

Yvonne stared down in contempt at this more dangerous man who had leafed through a pile of press clippings. The other reporters were crude thugs armed with a reporter's notebook but this guy was clever and vindictive. They were as bad as the worst screws she had known.

"Yeah, she does. She has got a five year suspended sentence and has to see a psychiatrist. That's to make sure she stays on the straight and narrow and to sort her out because of the way her father, Charlie Atkins messed with her mind. He's the one who was guilty of murder and not Lauren."

"That's what they all say," the hard-boiled press reporter said.

"Look here, I want to make a statement about what I feel, not what you are trying to make me say. My Lauren is a good woman who I'm proud to call my daughter. If it hadn't been for a number of things, her father's upbringing, my son who wrote to my daughter just before he committed suicide and, unknown to me, put this plan to kill Mr. Fenner in her head and, most of that Mr. Fenner has a record as long as your arm for abusing women, my Lauren wouldn't have done what she did. I'm not trying to cover up for her, she'll do her time and she'll come out and you'll never hear from any of us again. Now, you go and print that. I have nothing more to say."

Helen and Nikki moved in from behind and forcibly cleared a way through the press, which blasted off flashbulbs and yammered for Mrs. Atkins. Cassie and Roisin flanked her either side while Crystal and Babs, the smallest of them all, brought up the rear.

Yvonne stared straight ahead of her while Nikki, Helen, Cassie and Roisin repeated the same mantra until they were sick of it and of the whole disgusting nightmare. "Move out of the way," "Give us space," "No, Mrs. Atkins isn't talking," "She's got nothing more to say," were hurled at the baying pack of pressmen who were scuffling for the exclusive quote. Nikki, the tallest of them, steered their progress in the direction of their car and was alarmed that some of the pressmen whom they had passed were running full pelt along the other side of the road parallel to the directing they were pushing towards.

"Want to come to our place, Yvonne?"

An exhausted nod answered Nikki. She had an overwhelming urge to be kept safe from the mindlessly intruding mob and what better minders could she get than them?

Helen opened the back passenger door and pushed Yvonne inside. Nikki slid sideways into the car while Helen took the wheel and revved the engine in urgent warning. To her horror, even then they refused to give way.

"Back off, back off," Cassie yelled in desperation, glaring at the crowd and led the others to push and shove the press back. For the first time in her life, Cassie could not care less as picture after picture that was blasted off at her. Gradually, Helen's car edged forward and gained momentum as she periodically tooted the horn. She seized the chance of a sudden break in the crowd, rammed the gears into second, trod hard on the accelerator and the car roared its way off down the road.

"This makes me feel like a bleeding prisoner on the run," Yvonne's muffled voice sounded from the back.

"Yeah, and you wouldn't be the first one I've ever driven."

Back at Larkhall, the smoke-ridden air on G Wing carried a more electric excitement and anticipation than the usual bored indifference of slumping before a flickering screen.

Denny was treated pride of place on the front row next to the Two Julies and they had sat through Trisha's problem programme and a rerun of some hard luck soap called 'Family affairs.' To them, it was agonising waiting for those sun-tanned spoiled argumentative brats to disappear off the TV screen and the opening credit to roll for the one o'clock national news.

"Shut up everyone, the news is on," Shouted Denny at the more self-centred childish prisoners who were oblivious of everything.

Suddenly, a camera shot of the front of the Old Bailey appeared on the TV screen and a surging crowd of pressmen. The familiar hawklike profile came into view, surrounded by all the finest of Larkhall. They could see Yvonne speaking but she was drowned out by the irritatingly smug and authoritative tones of the 'voice over.'

"The daughter of gangland boss, Charlie Atkins, was given a surprisingly light sentence of one year for the killing of James Fenner, prison officer from Larkhall Prison, whose body was discovered buried in Epping Forest. When asked for her reaction, Mrs. Atkins promised that her daughter would go straight and blamed the crime on her father. An official spokesman declined to comment at this stage."

A brief five second shot of a milling crowd outside cut away to the next item that the latest monthly crime figures had shown an upward trend and the Home Secretary's face appeared on the TV screen.

"That's bollocks, man," Denny shouted. "Yvonne would never have come out with stuff like that."

"Well, it's on the news. They were there and you weren't," came the vacant credulous tones on the new girl who really got on her tits by just existing, let alone talking.

"We'll find out more when Lauren gets back. We know more about Yvonne and Lauren than John bleeding Snow, pompous git."

"He's a man, ain't he. He don't know what it's like," Julie Saunders echoed Julie Johnson's more determined tones.

Far from the fuss and fanfare of the press, John had retired to the peace and quiet of his chambers. It was at moments like this that he wished he could take his beloved Stradivarius violin out of its black case but he kept that in the safety of his digs. Very well, he would have to find another way to cut himself off from the world. He groaned to himself as the sound of approaching footsteps told him that either option was not to be. This time, the determined, almost military tramp warned him of impending danger and he was sure as to its nature.

"John, in all my time in the LCD, I have never seen such a perversely lenient sentence as that which you passed on that Atkins woman. Not only will the right wing press crucify you in print for your sentence and hang you in effigy, they will bay for the blood of all the brethren. They and we, will be dragged down together and publicly ruined."

The door had been flung open and they marched over, cutting out any pretence at pleasantries. John sprang up from his sofa, cold anger propelling him to move with more agility than he thought he was then capable of and turned to face his enemies.

"You have followed the proceedings from the very start of the trial, and you have heard my reasons for the short sentence I passed. You will have heard me explain the strings I attached to it and exactly why I decided on them. You know very well the wide scope I am permitted in the case of manslaughter. Exactly what problem do you have with it?"

"Even Peter Mandelson couldn't sell this to the public, John."

Sir Ian's sneering laugh answered John's low tones with a very precise emphasis on the consonants, indicative of cold rage.

"Why do you talk of 'buying' and 'selling', Ian? Lauren Atkins is not a commodity, she's a human being who has been failed by the system."

"You think you can continue to thumb your nose at the LCD and the government? Someday, the government will devise ways to curb the actions of maverick judges

Who bring the legal system into disrepute," Snarled Sir Ian, frustrated by John's defiance and his very pointed questions.

" Neil Houghton tried that one time if you remember. 'Curb', as take away such freedoms that still remain in this country by fair means or foul. 'Maverick' as in standing up for the values that you and I were taught in school which you abandoned for self-advancement. Selling your soul for thirty pieces of silver. I am tired and I am ready for a rest. Now get out."

John's ominous opening retort brought back memories of how the fanatical and ruthless CEO of One Way mobile phones had dragged the establishment into the criminal and immoral, by planting child pornography in John's laptop computer to force his resignation. It showed that the significance of his acquiescence in such an appalling deed had not been forgotten by John, much less forgiven. Driven, as they were to exert the maximum pressure on John, they slunk out of the door.

John stared for ages at the accumulated library of learning contained in the history of legal judgements. He fumed at the sheer impertinence at the way that, over a glass of sherry, the establishment discreetly operated. He did not know that from the inside but intuitively sensed it from the way that he continually ran up against it. It had lightly determined that Lauren Atkins was this week's sacrificial victim to be cast into prison for many years. Monty Everard would surely have sealed her fate despite the sincere efforts of so many helpers. His blood boiled over at such injustice before sinking into the warm comforting feeling that it had not come to pass. It was not in any vainglorious spirit that he acted as he knelt at the feet of justice as a disinterested servant. He sank into a meditative trance of his most private moment. Completely unbidden, Karen's hurt expression appeared in his mind's eye, and his cold words telling her 'I don't want to have to pick up the pieces when you get bored of playing instructor' after 'moving in on someone who means far more to me than she ever could to you.'

His still simmering anger turned against his cursed imagination, which ran away with itself at moments of weakness at the end of an exhausting trial. Karen just looked at him silently, reproachfully and disagreeable pangs of conscience started to nag at him. Such cold dismissiveness was the preserve of Sir Ian, Lawrence James and their kind. It disturbed him that his quest for knowledge had such disturbing side effects and would not let him rest even when he felt that he was most deserving of reward.

Lauren passed back through the iron gates, hands clutching the plastic bags with all her belongings. They were packed last night in the unreal hope that she would not be coming back to Larkhall. Her feelings were confusion of pleasure at seeing her friends and depression at returning to drabnesss of the same bolts and bars regime when one day is just like another. It seemed like a dream that her sentence had been reduced to one year and that she had imagined the trial.

"You ought to get some rest, Lauren. You look a bit peaky. Only natural for what you've been through. We'll make sure that none of the girls start asking you questions till you're good and ready. Denny'll look after you."

The honeyed words of Julie Johnson made Lauren feel looked after and protected when she needed it most. It was as if they were an extension of Yvonne's maternal care and was a tiny moment in her drive to go straight just like the judge told her to. Impulsively, she hugged these two thoughtful and sensitive women. Denny put an arm round her and led her to their cell.

It all looked bare when she looked inside. The board her side was bare of all the pictures and photos she had pinned up and her side of the wardrobe was empty.

"Do you want a hand to put everything away? Make it look nicer," Denny softly offered, wondering if that was the right note to strike.

Lauren nodded and both of them set to work.

Much later on, Yvonne was tucked up in a strange bed at Helen and Nikki's. She was in the cosy, homely spare room where shadows from the bookcases created strange shapes.

Her bed was a narrow single one furthest away from the front basement window. The street lamp cast a friendly glow through the basement window leaving the foreground dark. The door was open so that she was within easy earshot and speaking distance of Helen's bedroom.

"It's nice here, Helen, nice and friendly and off the beaten track from headcases with cameras."

"Once we'd thrown those bastards off the track, everything's fine. They'd better not turn up on my doorstep or they'll have me to reckon with, and all the worse for them if Nikki's back from the club."

Yvonne had that same comfortable feeling when she used to have a late night friendly chat to a friend in the next door cell at Larkhall. After two weeks of Helen's company, it didn't feel as if there was any difference.

"We meant it when I said we'd keep in touch, Yvonne."

"I know that, Helen."

The casual, drifting words of conversation were no polite meaningless offer. Yvonne knew enough about Helen to realise that that wasn't her style, never had been.

The front door was opened by the key, turned by the other woman who belonged there who was no intruder.

"Hi, Yvonne. Has Helen been looking after you?"

"She couldn't have done better."

The spare bed wasn't very wide but it felt comfortable. She felt that she was safely barricaded in by Nikki and Helen and everything was secure. This was a small scale, intimate continuation of the female support group that had sustained her. In any case, her house felt too big and empty tonight after everything that had happened.

"Hey, Helen. I just wanted to say that I'm really sorry I got all those guitars shipped in to cause all that trouble with that Larkhall Tabernackle choir. I wasn't trying to take the piss out of you."

Helen laughed loudly and heartily accompanied by Nikki's faint top harmony.

"You bring that up after all these years? Stubberfield ordered closed visits against my wishes. It wasn't my problem that you were serenading Sylvia."

Yvonne chuckled at Helen's witty description of one of her fondest memories.

"Night night, Yvonne."

"Sweet dreams, you two," Yvonne called back.

The only things missing that peaceful night were the swingers outside.

Part Fifty Eight

"Did I really dream I'd been up before the judge and only got one year?" mumbled Lauren's voice through the scrunched up quilt, which lay over her face. Her eyes were barely open as her lids felt as if lead weights were dragging them down.

"If it was a dream, man, you got all the press and the Old Bailey to help you out," Denny's very down to earth tones greeted yet another day in Larkhall.

A few hours later, Lauren felt as if the sun shining down into the canteen area was especially sunny and everything was fresh. She was beginning to feel that this day was the first day in her new life, except it was sausage, beans and mash for the third day running and she'd left half the food as it tasted disgusting. Denny cheerfully helped herself to the leftovers being the woman who was dead skinny and could shovel food down her without thinking. She was enjoying her morning cigarette which was going to have to last till teatime and that would carry her through to the weekly spends tomorrow.

Dominic looked round the canteen area till his eyes lighted on her and he came over to speak to her.

"Miss Betts would like a word with you in her office."

She stubbed out the freshly lit cigarette to save till later and followed him. He was one of her favourite prison officers, who politely asked rather than demanded in a hectoring, stentorian manner like Bodybag did. She was twice as willing to accommodate him as a result and followed his easy walk to Karen's office.

"Miss Betts, Lauren Atkins to see you."

Lauren walked warily into the Wing Governor's office, born of the ingrained habits from school. She was never the best-behaved pupil and summonses to the headmaster's office were the forerunner of bad news.

A beaming smile spread all over Karen's face as she greeted her and the warmth of the woman took her back to that other person who looked like her when she used to come round to Mum's. She saw past the familiar smart suit, which were the superficial trappings of office.

"I thought I'd give you a chance to settle down after yesterday."

"I've been pinching myself to persuade myself that what happened is real. I still can't believe that I'm not here for the rest of my life."

"Believe me, it happened and even if I ever doubted what we've seen, I'll have it in writing soon enough. I want to congratulate you as you've held your head up high."

"I can't thank you enough for getting up there on the stand for me, and Denny and Cassie and everyone who stood by me. I owe everyone so much."

"It was nothing," Karen said, self-deprecatingly. Two professions had instilled that sense of duty that would not let her seem boastful of what she felt was what must be done. "Still, if there's anything I've done which has helped, I am glad."

"I wanted to talk to you about your future ….."

"My future? I've got the best reason to be positive and make the most of everything but there's just one thing……."

"And what's that?"

"It's Miss Barker. She's not going to be very happy with me for the way the trial went, and what happens when she gets back on the wing? Also Mrs. Hollamby."

"There are certain things that you have to concern yourself with about how you get on. Miss Barker's situation is my concern and you work on the basis that she is not here at the present time, and only concern yourself if and when she returns. As for Mrs. Hollamby, you leave her to me. What I want you to start thinking about, is how you get on now and the psychiatric help you will get which is built into your sentence."

"I'll go along with it, though I'm feeling much better than I used to. I'm not the same woman as the Lauren Atkins who landed herself up here in the first place."

"You'll do more than that, Lauren. You've got a long way to go and you'll work at it when you do see the psychiatrist. You owe it to your mother. I agree that you've come a long way. I can tell. I just don't want you to be too complacent."

Karen's determined tones were softened as she carried on with the smile of recognition of the woman she had known on the outside.

"All right, Miss Betts," Lauren conceded The words of caution steadied her sudden rush of over optimism. She knew the advice was meant for her best. "Can I ask for a VO for Mum to see me."

"I'll do better than that. I've got to see her and explain a few things and I'll take it to her."

Karen's smile faded after Lauren had left the room, her jaunty step expressing the mature resolve for her future plans being given a realistic slant by Karen. Her smile reflected the solid fact that she had turned the corner on the worst of her life. For Karen, no such elation was possible as she had the feeling that talking to Yvonne wasn't going to be as easy as she had made out. Her orderly mind filed that away to be taken care of by the Karen that wasn't dressed in her familiar smart suits. She turned her thoughts to a matter she had left in abeyance while the trial was on, the matter of Sylvia leaving them all in the lurch the night Buki cut up. Both as manager of the wing and as one time prison officer who had to muck in at short notice, she found it hard to forgive, far less forget. So what if giving her an almighty bollocking was right after the result of the trial? Since when had Sylvia had any regard for her feelings? A tight smile of anticipation spread across her face as she reached out for her phone.

"What can madam want now?" grumbled Bodybag. "As if I hadn't got better things to do with my time."

"Then you'd better go and find out, Sylvia. Put yourself out of your misery." Gina's blunt unsympathetic tone concealed her pleasure at what she knew was to come as Bodybag went off in a huff.

"Come in, Sylvia. Shut the door behind you."

Her curt tones and hard look in her eye made the memory of her 'sickie' weekend jump back into her mind. She had started to believe that there was an end to the matter after she had handed in her self certificate with 'backache', her usual alibi, and the Monday morning of screw baiting.

"It's about time I had a talk with you about your sick record in general and about your so called 'backache' the weekend before last."

"So called, ma'am? I was in agony all weekend and laid up and unable to move. It's not easy, a single woman on your own trying to look after yourself."

"Nothing to do with your niece's wedding," Karen cut in. "That one's all round the wing."

"The very idea," exploded Sylvia. She was a past master at simulating outraged indignation. "You check with my doctor as I saw him later on last week."

"The same doctor you've always had all the time I've known you," Karen observed dryly.

"He's always been understanding, has Dr. Nicholson. I've had him for the last twenty years.

"Indeed. I've looked at your sick record over the past four years. It's funny that there's the same pattern. It always strikes you down on weekends that you would be on cover at Larkhall not to say Mondays and Fridays. Have you anything to say?"

"I can't help it," Sniffled Sylvia in full martyr mode. "I've never been the same as… as ..the time some of the worst troublemakers pushed me down a flight of stairs and……"

"…..You wore that bloody neckbrace, you said that that bloody doctor of yours said that you were at death's door so you talked me into putting you on light duties. Too bad he didn't know that you were winning dance championships," Stormed Karen.

Bodybag looked very sheepish and looked in every direction except directly at Karen. She said nothing.

"You let down your colleagues, you let down the prison service, No thanks to you, everyone else had to put themselves out and in my stint, Buki Lester cut herself and nearly died. Oh yes, you let her down also. I would be very interested in seeing another photo which gives you away again, your niece's wedding pictures……"

Karen paused for a minute as her attack from an unexpected direction took the wind out of Sylvia's sails and left her floundering.

"It's not good enough, Sylvia. You can take this as a written warning to go down on your record and you can think yourself lucky that you don't lose your pips - this time. Perhaps you ought to think if you really have a future in the prison service, if you are as ill as you make out and you aren't retired on medical grounds. I'll be watching you anyway. Now get out."

It was a few days later when Karen had just about slaved her way through all the backlog of work, which had piled up in the two weeks of the trial. She had buried herself in work as her one surefire way of preparing herself for what wasn't promising to be the easiest errand.

Late in the afternoon, she told Gina that she was going to take some work home. She carefully folded Lauren's 'visiting order' away, packed some of the more routine paperwork into her briefcase and, while it was still daylight, handed in her keys at the gatelodge. She set off towards the one time familiar route to Yvonne's house where a memory told her which way to go. The nearer she got, the more uncomfortable she felt. She'd phoned Yvonne first and while she was friendly enough, she realised that the reaction was skin deep, non-committal.

As her car ate up the miles, fears inside her grew that she was driving backwards into her past. When she got nearer to her house, it grew on her that the slow passage of time had moved everything on around. Where once green leaves of summer covered the trees, now they were stripped bare and were fading into the gathering darkness.

Yvonne had been sitting in the deathly hush of home when the phone had rung.

"Hi, Yvonne, I was wondering if it would be convenient to pop out and see you and chat properly for a change."

"I ain't exactly running a busy schedule, Karen. Give me a time and I'll be here."

"I'll be over at four if that's OK."

She could tell by Karen's manner that she was busy which was more than could be said for her. She had the sense not to talk bollocks about 'the old days' but that was Karen all over.

She stuck a CD on as she was waiting. She had pulled it out from the bottom of the rack, out of sight, out of mind.

"I saw you dancing out the ocean.
Running fast along the sand.
A spirit born of earth and water.
Fire flying from your hands .

In the instant that you love someone.
In the second that the hammer hits.
Reality runs up your spine.
And the pieces finally fit.

And all I ever needed was the one.
Like freedom fields where wild horses run.
When stars collide like you and I.
No shadows block the sun.
You're all I've ever needed.
Baby you're the …….."

That was a bleeding mistake, Yvonne decided as she clicked off the remote control. She wasn't listening to too much music these days. Any sentimental crap made her feel jealous that they were getting what she wasn't and tears and heartbreak stuff just depressed the hell out of her.

A little later when she thought she was the invulnerable Yvonne Atkins of old, she tried to ignore that little jump in her heart inside of her when a timid knock at the door announced Karen's presence. Immediately, she saw a nervous look in her eye and she figured that Karen was as nervous as she was. It was somehow different when they were in court with the rest of the gang round them.

"Come in. It's nice to have some company, especially yours."

The warmth and friendliness in Yvonne's voice was more than she felt but it eased Karen's peace of mind. Just at the right time, Trigger came bounding up to greet her, just as he had always done.

"To what do I owe this visit, Karen?"

"Well, partly to give you a VO so you can visit Lauren whenever you want…."

"….that's nice."

"….and partly because I wondered if we ought to talk about the two of us and, just, chat."

Karen cursed inwardly at her own awkwardness after handing the slip of paper to Yvonne.

"There's no problem, Karen. Like I said, I know you've moved on from me. I shouldn't have expected any different.

To Karen, the rigid expression on Yvonne's face was a painfully obvious attempt to cover herself up as much as her unusually elaborate makeup did.

"You have every right to expect something better out of life than the shit you've taken over the years. I meant it when I said I'd be here for you, for always if you want it. There are some things that don't change."

The determination and obvious sincerity in Karen's voice, eased Yvonne a little as she found herself making a coffee for more than one. Presently, they sipped their drinks and smoked as props to hold onto while they made strained polite conversation. Eventually, Yvonne stubbed her cigarette hard into the ashtray as words came into her mind that she had been searching for.

"Look here, Karen, I've got to get it off my chest. I'm angry deep down. I can't be angry with you as I can see it from your point of view, and I understand why you broke it off between the two of us. I can't feel angry with myself or with Lauren about what's happened as that's going to do no good. So what the hell can I do?"

"You have to find something or someone to fill up your life with," Karen protested and the hollow feebleness of her words hung on the air.

Here she was, on more than nodding terms with a judge, a barrister or two and the skilled equaliser between governing governors prison officers and prisoners and she struggled for words to help Yvonne of all people.

So the afternoon stretched into early evening, both women being sincere, trying their stumbling best for each other.

"Come in," Grayling greeted the polite knock on the door and Karen strode confidently in on the Friday morning. She noted that his office was much larger and more luxurious than her own.

"What can I do for you?"

Karen hesitated for a second. Grayling could turn unfathomability into an art form and, in the past, she had found him slippery and treacherous. Grayling always had his own selfish agenda but that didn't mean he couldn't be bargained with.

"It's about Di Barker. I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to her future?"

"You mean, am I considering moving her back to G Wing and, if so, when?"

"That's about the size of it," Conceded Karen.

Grayling watched her from behind narrowed, watchful eyes and his expression was inscrutable and neutral.

"I told her that she was moved off the wing and that it was for the duration of the trial for her own protection as there are plenty of prisoners who have heard her talk as if the sun shone out of Fenner's backside, more fool her."

"So wouldn't it be a good idea to make the temporary move permanent if she's settled down?"

"That's just the problem, she hasn't. Your opposite number has asked me at regular intervals when he can unload her back to where she came from. His words, not mine."

"And you think that I'm going to welcome her back with open arms? I wanted to make my views plain that she comes back onto my wing over my dead body."

"Karen," Grayling urged, a trace of panic in his voice. "You're my best wing governor and only you have the ability to manage a difficult prison officer like her and keep her within bounds. She walks over everyone else."

"Now, that's the oldest trick in the book," began Karen and then she stopped. She could see Grayling start to bristle and become visibly irritated. A confrontation was in the offing and that would do nobody any good, least of all her.

"Neil, you were in court that day and you know full well that Di Barker was at the back of that horrible detestable barrister trying to smear my reputation with those photographs. We both know her well enough and I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't suggest it to him in the first place. Would you like candid photos of you and your private life being exhibited for all to see, even possibly on the front page of the gutter press? Let's face it, I was bloody lucky. Before the trial, I could just about handle the devious, spiteful, manipulative cow but no way could I bring myself now to even look her in the eye without spitting in it."

One look at Grayling and there was a subtle change in his manner. The anger was wiped from his face but so was every other trace of expression.

"Go on, Karen."

"If you don't mind me asking, is one of the problems you have with Di Barker that she will pole in on you at the drop of the hat if something gets her back up."

"There's something in that."

"You have to set boundaries with Di Barker. She won't say it in so many words, but she makes you behave as if you're a quarrelling husband and wife when it suits her purpose. You have to shift the boundaries and don't give her any special favours."

'Physician, heal yourself' popped into her mind. Here she is, being fluent and expressive with words to a gay man who has been more her enemy than, at best, work colleague, never friend. When it comes closer to home, she struggled for words to speak to Yvonne who'll always have a place in her heart even if Yvonne didn't believe it. Her boundaries with Yvonne are anything but defined. With an effort, she dragged herself back to the here and now.

Grayling was listening attentively, she felt, but in his heart, he lacked conviction to act on her plain words.

"Look at it another way, Neil. Sylvia Hollamby and Di Barker are the biggest problems amongst the PO's in Larkhall. They know how to work the system but if you split them up, they might be more manageable. Leave them together and they'll feed off each other and make each other worse."

"But how can I sell the idea of a permanent move? It will look as if I've pulled a fast one on her from the very start?"

Karen smiled cynically. Grayling wasn't shy in the past of pulling a fast one. Nevertheless, she had to persevere.

"You'll have to bite the bullet and tell her the blunt truth, about the disgraceful way she behaved in court. It's not as if you're relying on third party evidence that she can deny. You saw for yourself what she did. You've got to seize this chance as you'll never get a better one."

Karen's calm persuasive manner was not unlike the nurse/mother figure reassuring a scared parent/child. He hated to admit any vulnerability and it was that which transformed him into the actor. His lines had been written for him, be it management speak or his pretensions to strength. In reality he had pursued the genuine article in the man of his dreams. It was strange that this woman, whose blunt outspokenness which he had so long ago felt threatened by, had come to his salvation. This chance placed in his hands would suit his own purposes in finally distancing him from that dangerous woman whom he had once married in a moment of utter madness.

"Let me think about it. It's simple and radical and I like the way you talk, Karen."

Karen left the room, a faint smile on her face that at least one of the knotty problems in her life was being solved. If only dealing with problems at home was as easy.

Grayling felt on top of the world after he had fixed up surprisingly easily with Di's present Wing Governor that she would become a fixture on that wing so long as he took on the job of breaking the news to Di and to tell her a few home truths. The look in Grayling's eye was enough persuasion that he meant business and not some smooth sales talk. It was surprising the way that success bred success. He was keyed up and ready for action when Di's footsteps outside heralded her arrival.

"Ah, Di. Take a seat."

"It's nice to be able to talk to each other as friends even after everything that has happened between us."

Why does the woman talk like someone who has escaped from a cheap romance story, he wondered?

"I wanted to see you on business, not pleasure. I'll keep it short and to the point. You are staying in your present duties, as a permanent transfer on H Wing and not moving back to G Wing."

Di's expression froze and changed rapidly to one of rage and anger.

"You promised, Neil, that I would only be moved temporarily until the Atkins trial was over. But then again, why should I expect any better from you?"

"I know exactly what I promised. I did not allow for the devious and malicious way that you let that barrister have access to those photographs that were exhibited in court. I can't prove conclusively that you did it but if I could, you would be up on disciplinary charges, POA or no POA."

"I know why you are doing this. It's Karen Betts that's gone crawling to you. She's the blue eyed girl around here. It's out and out favouritism."

"You mean, as a gay man, I fancy her."

Grayling kept the tone of his voice low and was all the more deadly in shutting up the tide of hysterical anger that had always wound him up. For once, he had reduced Di to silence and seized the chance to pile on the pressure. A tiny part of him noticed with satisfaction that Di had not denied the charges he had laid at her door.

"You have to accept that this decision is not up for negotiation and you will have to learn to live with it."

"Aren't you even going to discussing it with me? I do feel that I am entitled to a proper explanation. You know that I had my heart set on going back to my friends on G Wing."

"Friend," Grayling curtly cut in. "I have considered the good of Larkhall as a whole and it demands that you and Sylvia are split up. That's my decision and it is final."

Di seethed with rage which distorted her face as the impact of the short and sharp execution hit home. It enraged her further that, unlike before, he didn't get dragged into a long explanation.

"You'll regret this. I'll find ways of making you feel sorry you ever did this along with every other hurtful, hateful thing you have ever done in your life since we were first married."

"Well, we're not now so I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. No chance of getting into your good books now. In any case, I have advised your Wing Governor of your thoroughly predictable reaction and both of us are clear that you had better watch your step. Oh, by the way, since we are divorced, you will get no special favours in terms of access to me at work so there will be none of this charging into my office as the mood takes you. You take your turn with the others in my appointment book. Now will you leave the room."

He was faintly surprised when Di actually stalked out of the room, slammed the door and left. He was prepared for a long war of attrition over the matter and noted that, as with other matters, Karen was proved right.

A/N: Betaed by Jen, Little Dorritt and Kaatje.

Part Fifty Nine

As Neil parked his car, and strolled purposefully through the doors of Cleland House, the home of the headquarters of the prison service, he couldn't help but reflect on the conversation he'd had with Di. He still marveled at the underhand way she'd given those pictures of Karen to the prosecution in the Lauren Atkins case. But then, why was he really quite so surprised? Di Barker always had been a treacherous, malicious, narcissistic bitch. Why he'd ever become involved with her, never mind married her, he didn't know. He faintly smiled as he thought of how Karen had insisted that she wasn't having Di back on her wing. "Over her dead body", were the words she'd used. Neil was forced to admit that he'd been wrong about Karen. Right from the start, he'd dismissed Karen as a colleague, as a very competent wing governor, and most of all, as a friend. He'd behaved abominably towards her, if he was honest with himself, and all because of Jim bloody Fenner. Well, if he could fancy someone as corrupt as Jim Fenner, then he could hardly castigate Karen for having slept with an Atkins or two. He had to admire her most recent acquisition though. The female species might not excite him sexually, but he could still appreciate their finer points, as he might a painting or a piece of music. Ms Channing was not only beautiful, highly intelligent, and with a PhD in fighting her corner, but she had absolutely no connection with Karen's job. Neil had once warned Fenner that "Shagging the staff," really wasn't a good idea, but then he'd been caught out by that one himself. This meant that he could well appreciate why Karen might finally have opted for an affair with someone wholly unconnected to Larkhall. He'd heard on the grapevine, that Ms Channing had been giving Karen some unofficial company on the night Buki Lester had tried to kill herself, but he hadn't seen any point in raising the issue. Her presence hadn't prevented Karen from doing her job in a professional and satisfactory manner. In fact, in this case, it had been of inestimable help. If Karen really had been on her own, Buki Lester would have died. So, here he was, about to make up for all the times he'd backed Fenner over Karen. He was also here, to make sure that Larkhall would be left in safe, secure, and above all, sensitive hands after he was gone, because leave he would. He had been offered a job with area management, and in a very short time, would be moving on to pastures new.

When he was sitting in Alison Warner's office, sipping from a cup of really quite excellent espresso coffee, he vowed never to be stuck working for area management as long as this woman had been. For him, area management was merely a stepping stone, a necessary causeway to lead him on to bigger and better things.

"So, Mr. Grayling," Mrs. Warner began in the rich, cultured tones that had slightly quailed under George's threat of two weeks before. "I hear that you will be joining us very soon."

"Yes, if everything goes to plan," Grayling answered politely. It would never do to antagonise his future boss, and he loathed small talk, but in the game of onwards and upwards, it was becoming a recognised skill. The day would come when no government department would employ you, if you weren't proficient in this little necessity.

"This does, however, leave us with the problem of your successor. You haven't left us much of a window, to find a suitable replacement."

"It was this department, and therefore you, who decided that I should leave Larkhall and transfer here by the beginning of April," Grayling said silkily.

"Point taken," Alison Warner conceded. "But what we need to discuss, is who we might approach with a view to taking over Larkhall. Both of your predecessors weren't exactly successful. Simon Stubberfield's disgraceful lack of control over the running of his own prison, followed by Helen Stewart's inexplicable departure, after only a matter of months. I must make it clear, that I do not wish Larkhall to descend into the organisational chaos it was in prior to your appointment."

"Mrs. Warner," Neil cut in, wanting to stem the rant before she really got going. "If you take up my recommendation, Larkhall couldn't possibly be in safer hands."

"I'm listening," she replied, not committing herself until she'd heard his suggestion.

"Karen Betts, the current governor of G wing."

"Quite out of the question," Alison Warner answered tartly. "Might I remind you, that Karen Betts was supposedly in charge of G wing, when three inmates successfully escaped? To say nothing of the murder of Virginia O'Kane, or Snowball Merriman's bomb."

"They were a tragic set of circumstances, quite beyond her control."

"Mr. Grayling, Karen Betts has equal responsibility for the running of her wing, as you do for the running of Larkhall. If Karen Betts is the best you can come up with, then I can see I shall have to look elsewhere." Taking a deep breath to bring his frustration with this uncommonly thick woman under control, he spoke slowly and carefully.

"In the matter of the three escapees, was it not area management who, in the interests of keeping your nose clean with the press, quickly and quietly removed Simon Stubberfield, making him the most dispensable scapegoat, and therefore failing utterly to investigate the incident in a satisfactory manner?" Alison Warner recoiled as if she'd been slapped. Only two weeks prior to this meeting, she had yet again been reminded of the bungled investigation, that had taken place after the escape of three of Larkhall's most dangerous inmates. Neil Grayling and George Channing couldn't possibly have any connection, could they? It just wasn't possible.

"That being so," She continued in a far more conciliatory fashion, "I uphold the opinion that she would not be a suitable governing governor. She would have to sit a promotion board for a start, and you know how long they take."

"So, you've got the power to speed up the process, and you can take my word for it that you won't find anyone as willing to take on Larkhall as Karen Betts would be. There you have a very competent, grade four governor, just waiting for the promotion and the opportunity to show the entire prison service exactly what she's made of. Karen Betts has been itching to spread her wings for months now. Ignore my recommendation, and you'll lose her for good one of these days, and with the prison service being in the state it is, that's hardly something you can afford."

"What about the other Wing Governors at Larkhall?" She asked, not in the least willing to give up the fight until all other avenues had been explored.

"No," Neil replied firmly. "They just don't have what it takes. Believe me," He said earnestly, "Karen Betts has the potential to go far in the service. Give her the freedom and the opportunity, and she'll make Larkhall a prison the service could be proud of. I've done my best to keep Larkhall on an even keel, but Karen Betts has the drive, the vision, and the energy to make Larkhall a better place for all concerned, inmates and officers alike."

"You're not going to give in, until you've at least achieved her a promotion board, are you?" Alison Warner couldn't help saying with a thin smile. She could remember when this man had been applying for the job of governor of Larkhall. He had possessed a vision, and had exuded an energy to transform Larkhall into a model prison, to bring it forward into the twenty first century. She briefly wondered where all that had gone.

"Karen Betts has brought G wing through some of the most taxing and tragic events ever witnessed in women's prisons," He continued, persistently pressing at the chink in her armour. "And the service owes it to her, to give her the opportunity to realise her full potential."

On the Monday evening, Jo and John were spending some time together, not having seen each other alone since the end of the Lauren Atkins trial. Jo had cooked them dinner, and now they were lying contentedly on the sofa, listening to some soft music, just enjoying the simple pleasure of being in each other's arms. No conversation was necessary when they were like this, both of them appreciating some quiet time, a space in their busy lives for some 'Them' time. But John couldn't entirely relax. What he'd so rashly said to Karen last Monday wasn't giving him any respite. He knew he'd been wrong, and he was sorry for it, really he was. But John Deed found it inexplicably hard to admit that he was wrong, and, even more impossible to say he was sorry. Jo could sense that his thoughts were somewhere else. She hadn't known him all these years, not to be able to tell when something wasn't quite right.

"You're very quiet tonight," She said softly, wanting him to share what was bothering him.

"It'll sort itself out in time," He said, not really wanting to tell her what he'd done.

"Is this about the argument you had with Karen last week?" John could have cursed her intuition on occasions such as this.

"How do you know we argued?" He asked, but Jo wasn't fooled by his attempt at a diversion.

"George asked her if you two had, 'kissed and made up', I think she put it. She looked like she could have kicked herself when she said that," Jo added with a fond smile. "And Karen said that you'd shouted at each other. I don't know what you said to her John, but I think you hurt her."

"Yeah, you could say that," He said regretfully. "You know me Jo, say or do something first, and regret it afterwards." Jo looked concerned.

"What on earth did you say to her? George tried to find out, but Karen told her it was best left forgotten." John was touched. Even in her anger at him, Karen refused to share his misdeed with anyone else.

"You don't really want to know," He said evasively, only serving to make Jo all the more curious.

"Tell me," She persisted gently, seeing that he needed to confess it to someone.

"I said that I didn't want to have to pick up the pieces, when she got bored of playing instructor."

"Oh, John!" Jo said angrily, half sitting up.

"You wanted to know," He protested, pulling her back down to lie in his arms.

"John, even for you, that's unfair. No, I'll rephrase that, especially for you, that's unfair. You do realise that such a description might have been attributed to you not so long ago?"

"Yes, yes, I know," He said sulkily. "I know it was wrong, and I know it was utterly unforgivable."

"Did you apologise to her?"

"Of course I did."

"But did you mean it? Or did you say it, to stop her walking away, just as you've often done with me?"

"Of course I meant it," He said indignantly. "Well, I did later on, when I'd thought about it."

"Do you see what I mean?" Jo said in total disgust. "John, your apologies are about as meaningful as all the flings you used to have. You can't say something like that, and expect to be immediately forgiven, just because you say the right words. You need to mean it for it to be believed."

"So, what do you suggest I do about it?" He asked, refusing to see the answer that was under his very nose.

"Go and see her, and really, seriously apologise. It's the very least you can do. John, you accused Karen of being exactly what you used to be, which she isn't."

"How do you know?" He niggled away like the proverbial adolescent, determined to have the last word.

"John, you can't act like this, just because you feel jealous and insecure," Jo insisted, her tone a lot gentler now.

"I'm not jealous!" He protested, hating the way she could see right through him.

"Yes, you are," Jo said with a soft smile. "And feeling like that is perfectly understandable. But saying the first rash thing that comes into your head, isn't," she finished more sternly. "So, when you have a moment in your busy schedule, go and see her, and apologise. It's really not that difficult, I promise you."

"Yes, I will," He said, wanting to shut her up on this. "Soon, I promise."

"I mean it, John," She insisted, knowing of old how much most of his promises were really worth.

"Yes, all right, I will," He affirmed, though not looking forward to it in the slightest.

Part Sixty

Grayling looked round at his comfortable office, soon to be cleared of his personal effects for another governor to take over. It gave him a peculiar feeling of halfway regretting that he was moving on and the long suppressed desire to move onwards and upwards being realised at last. He liked the look and the feel of the office he was going to work in. It brought home to him how drab his environment had been all his working life. He would be working in a more aesthetically pleasing environment, which appealed to his sensitivities. It was strange that only recently did he have the feeling that he was really on top of what was going on as opposed to his fantasies. 'Bloody G Wing' was a single epithet he hurled in disgust throughout all the turbulence and traumas of, yes he was beginning to call it 'his time at Larkhall.' Throughout all this time, he never knew that it would be Karen Betts who would end up being his salvation, his potential successor and his friend. His abiding memory of her was of her intense blue eyes, sparking with anger under a blond fringe and her mouth twisted in contempt. A lot of the past dissolved into an untidy mess but if he thought hard enough about it, he suspected that she was right all along and he was wrong.

Well, it was never too late to put things right, he thought, and it reinforced his belief that his recommendation to area was the right thing to do. He reached for his phone.

Karen entered Grayling's office with more of a relaxed frame of mind than she ever had. With his formal courtesy, he gestured to the chair.

"Ah, Karen, I've got some good news for both of us."

Karen looked questioningly at Grayling's broad smile. She had no idea of what he could be getting at but, in view of the way he seemed to be changing for the better before her eyes, this was possibly the real thing and no trickery.

"My good news is that I have been appointed to a job in area management at a release date to be arranged."

Karen was stunned by the news and genuinely regretful. Life at Larkhall Prison had smoothed down after all the bad times. Grayling had become a permanent fact of life in her job.

"You're sorry to see me go, Karen?"

"I am now. I'm used to you and I find working with you comfortable. I'd have to get used to a new Governing Governor."

Grayling was touched by Karen's obvious sincerity. He had come to feel all the safer for her solid presence in charge of G Wing but he had news for her that would change her perspective.

"Well, the good news for you is that I've recommended to Area that you are the next governing governor. I move to Area when, hopefully, you take my place."


"Are you telling me that you're not up to the job? I've been going head to toe with Alison Warner that you're the woman for the job," Grayling asked Karen with a breezy, cheery confidence in her.

For once, Karen was speechless. Total surprise and an element of fear battled with the feeling of excitement creeping in on her that she could rise to the challenge in the way she had risen to so many before. Grayling let time pass for Karen to deal with this bombshell and not to rush her.

"It's a big surprise and a real compliment and maybe you're right, Neil. I need a little time to take this all in. But I want to ask you why have you done this for me?"

"What you're getting at is, what's in it for me. You've never really trusted me from the word go," Grayling countered with a crafty smile.

"It isn't easy to build up trust once you lose it for someone."

"I don't blame you one bit, so I'm going to lay all my cards on the table why I've picked you out of all people."

Grayling paused and he took a careful sip of water from the glass tumbler. It enabled him to collect his thoughts together, not that he was thirsty. He was coming to the difficult moment where his past secretive inclinations battled with his newfound strength of character.

"I've got to admit that I've got you seriously wrong ever since I first started here. I've been blind to see who you are, what you stand for and what you've been trying to do for this prison. I don't need to spell it out in detail do I?"

To his great relief, Karen nodded at him to continue.

"I did you a disservice when I gave testimony at the Atkins Merriman trial. If I helped at all, it was dragged out of me by that same very tenacious woman who I saw in court recently when Di Barker was on the stand. But most of all, I let you down when you came to me for help after that terrible business you had with Jim Fenner. I believed what you said but I used what I knew for my own purposes. I hardly occupied the moral high ground that time."

"I believe everything you say, Neil," Came Karen's soft, compassionate reply. "You haven't explained your reasons for your recommendation in terms of my suitability."

"It is as I told you the other day, Karen. You are the best Wing Governor in Larkhall. I couldn't think of it being left in safer hands than yours."

"I thought you said that to butter me up to get me to change my mind about transferring Di," Grinned Karen.

"So I was, just a little," Grayling admitted in a way that Karen would once have thought was him being slippery. "But most of it was meant. About eighty-five percent."

"After all you've said," Karen breathed as a surge of confidence ran through her, "I'll go for the job if I can get it."

"If it will help you," confided Grayling. "Part of my responsibility is for a cluster of prisons, one of which is Larkhall. So if you do get the job and you get a phone call from area, it will be me. You don't get rid of me that easily."

Karen stood up and shook Grayling's hand heartily in thanks. This was a prize beyond belief, which she would always be grateful to Neil for. In turn, this was a first for him, as his fastidious nature didn't normally like having his hand shaken.

In the PO's room, the matter of the outcome of Lauren's trial continued to grumble on. Sylvia had been in a permanently bad, cantankerous mood, worse since she had been summoned to see Karen. Karen's brief announcement that Di Barker was staying on in her new wing only made her worse.

The others had struggled to keep the peace until she bitched one time too many when Colin, Selena and Dominic were present.

She had glowered into her mug of tea while the others had attempted to be inconspicuous for yet another wearisome tea break.

"It's criminal. Jim Fenner was the longest serving prison officer on G wing and was brutally murdered by that woman. But what happens? That 'do gooder' judge gives her a piffling sentence, and mamby pamby sort of therapy. It's us that need the therapy dealing with the shock when we heard about that cold-blooded murder. All the time I've had dealings with her, she's known exactly what she was doing. It runs in the family."

"That scooter of yours looks a nippy machine, Selena, and dead smart. Mind you, you need to watch it if you put too much bank on going round corners or you'll slide sideways straight into the ditch," Dominic interjected.

"Thanks, but if I did come off, my scooter has got more protection than your bike. Your machine isn't really my style."

"Doesn't anyone hear what I'm saying?" exclaimed Bodybag at a louder volume.

"We heard, Sylvia. That's why we're not bothering to answer," Came Colin's laconic reply.

"To think that G wing has sunk to the depths that no one will talk about the injustice done to a long serving officer. It gives signals that we're all fair game for any gun-wielding maniac who bears a grudge. Jim Fenner would help anyone out. If Di were here, she'd say the same."

"Ah yes, but she's not, Sylv," Dominic interjected.

"Flaming management. It gets worse and worse around here. I'm tempted to make a complaint to the POA. That would make them sit up and take notice."

Dominic exchanged a lightning glance with Selena and Colin. It was getting harder work to not have a row than to have a hammer and tongs row with Sylvia and settle it, for once and for all.

"What would you complain about, Sylvia?" Dominic asked with a distinct edge to his tone.

"A lot of things which I don't want to talk about with you, Dominic."

"Fair enough but don't make out that you're the voice of the people and lead the POA up the garden path. Don't have them believe that we're unhappy with the way things are going on around here when we're not. As far as I'm concerned, G Wing couldn't be happier."

"Me too."

"Am I the only one of us with two working ears in our heads?" questioned Bodybag loudly, her mouth agape. "If one of us gets murdered in cold blood and the con gets a slap on the wrist, it opens the floodgates to all the murdering psychos out there. We've got to stand together as no one else will stand up for us, certainly not Joe Public."

"Sylv, It was a shock when I first heard what happened to Jim, but at the end of the day, it was the jury who agreed that Lauren Atkins killed Jim Fenner but let her off the murder charge because of the state of her mind."

"Poppycock. I saw her in court and her sob story didn't convince me one bit, especially with the way her barrister put her up to it. I don't know who was worse, that gangster's moll's daughter or that stuck up barrister. There was something about her that was too good to be true, something shifty about her."

"Lauren Atkins or Jo Mills?" Selena teased in her best innocent tone.

"That barrister of course," Snapped Sylvia.

"Well, I saw Lauren Atkins when that other barrister was trying to pull her to pieces, like you predicted Sylvia," Dominic replied with strained patience, throwing back at her one of her more unpleasant comments. "There's something seriously wrong with her and she needs all the help she can get on the outside, better than we can do for her. That stupid barrister of theirs forced her to pick up the gun and point it at him, as if it was Jim. She freaked out at that. It was just as well that there wasn't a bullet in the gun."

"That makes my point," Bodynag shot back smugly. "Once a murderer, always a murderer."

There was a long poisoned silence that hung on the air. It was as if Bodybag really did not know that times had changed and that there was no longer an automatic response to her hard boiled, bilious proverbs with which she had lived her life. They couldn't really make up their mind if she really want a full-blown standup row with no holds barred.

"You know, Selena, Noreen Biggs told me once that Sylvia wasn't a fat Nazi like all the other prisoners said. I could have told her different if she wasn't so ill."

"It's because Di Barker isn't coming back to G Wing," Selena answered Colin's low-pitched voice in the background.

"More than we are."

"That's right, Selena, run her down when she isn't here to defend herself. Madam had her shipped out to another wing and no one lifts a finger."

"That's enough, Sylvia," Dominic's patience snapped at last. "Selena and I saw the way that Di Barker behaved in court, the way she was Jim Fenner in absence. I used to have time for her when I was here before, not like you and Jim Fenner. Oh yeah, I remember the old times like you keep banging on about. I was nervous, new and unsure of myself and what did I get for an example to look up to? When Helen Stewart was at Larkhall, you two did the best to pull her down and make her life a misery for her when all she did was to try to get the best out of the prisoners. It was open warfare between the prisoners and us when I started and it was all down to you and Jim Fenner. You've brought all your trouble down on us and we lost a fine Wing governor when Helen left. Don't you let Sylvia tell you any different," Dominic broke off to look at Colin and Selena. "I was there in the good old days.This place is a kindergarten in comparison to the way it was and it's the likes of Helen and Karen who made it that way."

"You cheeky young pup," Bodybag started to splutter back.

"Just leave it out. I don't say that much normally so I'm going to make up for it now. You really can't see that I'm not the new prison officer that I used to be. Di Barker has become just as bad as you and Jim Fenner always were. Karen did the right thing in breaking up the pair of you."

Bodybag looked round speechlessly. All she could see were the hard eyes of the three prison officers around her.

"You want to step into Jim Fenner's shoes and rule the roost. You can't because we won't let you."

The silence was one, which you could cut with a knife. Unknown to her, Bodybag had been on borrowed time. The others had tolerated her mouthing off and had put up with it as they had quietly gone their way. This was a complete overthrow of her position and everything was now out in the open. It had to come to this.

"Morning everyone" a fresh voice broke in on the meeting and Gina's broad smile.

"We were having a talk about the good old days," Selena put in helpfully.

"Good old days, my arse," Gina exclaimed loudly, neatly summarising the discussion in her absence. "Not with Di Barker on the wing. I was going to say that Karen has told me to tell you that it may be some time before we get a replacement prison officer. With Di on loan, we couldn't recruit to replace her but she'll get on the case now as soon as. Will you guys be able to muck in and cover for a while."

"I'm sure we'll manage, won't we Sylvia," Dominic responded, his quiet tones having a steely undertone to it.

Gina grinned broadly, taking in Sylvia's red face and the casual reaction, consigning Di along with Fenner to the past. Impotent ghosts of the 'old boys club' would gnash their teeth but would be powerless to change the present. Sylvia was just a leftover relic. She didn't need to intervene as events had resolved themselves naturally.

Part 61

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