DISCLAIMER: All characters are not ours, we're simply playing with them. Characters are from the following fandoms: Bad Girls, Judge John Deed, Holby City, Silent Witness and the Kay Scarpetta novels.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Credits to Shed specifically in using dialogue from their episode 7, Series 2 Bad Girls as in the dialogue between Barbara and Nikki when she tells the story of her second husband Peter.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETA: by Hunca Munca and Jen.

Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and Forty One

Karen presented herself on George's doorstep, fully prepared for some tricky negotiation. This all depended on how George was feeling. Karen had calculated that as George had been out of hospital and off work for five days, she should be just starting to feel less tired and listless, and the boredom factor ought to be kicking in.

George opened the door to Karen and welcomed her in. The living room was strewn with assorted newspapers and a couple of discarded court files.

"In case you didn't know, darling, you've no idea how incredibly boring daytime television is." Came George's contemptuous reply. "Such inane, prattling overpaid nonentities ought to be arrested for degrading the nation's intelligence."

Karen was enormously relieved to hear George's tetchy tones. At least this meant that George was starting to come out fighting. The George of yesterday seemed helplessly defeated by life, which had shocked Karen badly. Even if she had been on the receiving end of George's mood, it would not have fazed Karen in the slightest.

"So that's what I pay my TV licence for," smiled Karen, as George reached tentatively for the remote control. The resident local network smoothie's face promptly disappeared into the void.

"Well, when you and John aren't around, there's not been much else I can do." Grumbled George. She was starting to wish with all her heart that she could return to the cut and thrust of court work, and the intense concentration of a new case which would absorb that unused brain capacity.

"Well, thereby hangs a story, George. I was wondering if it was too early to suggest what I had in mind and if you don't fancy it, I quite understand."

If there was one thing in life that George hated, it was an idea that was gradually doled out in small doses as an attempt to be tactful, carefully leaving the most important bit till the end. Her natural curiosity craved immediate gratification at the best of times and right now she was in the grip of an insatiable desire to hear the news immediately, if not five minutes previously.

"Spit it out, Karen. Don't think you are sparing my feelings by holding back on me. After all that has happened, I think I can cope with one of your surprises."

"All right, George. I think it might help you to talk to the one person you know that has something in common with you and that's Julie Saunders. She's been through exactly the same experiences you have and it might help you to feel less isolated, even from me, John and Jo."

The look on George's face was deeply unpromising as the light went out of her face. She frowned as she contemplated the idea. It felt as welcome as an invitation to a meeting of Anorexics Anonymous and conveyed some frightful idea of loudly confessing her emotional traumas. George's attitude was, no thank you very much, I'd sooner plod along on my own.

"You've met Julie before and I couldn't think of a kinder hearted woman. We all mean well but at the end of the day, we can only sympathise so far as we're not in your shoes."

"I suppose you're going to give me the benefit of your years of nursing, Karen." George retorted in acid tones.

"Exactly, George. I've seen this before in one shape or another. Believe you me, it helps. Just trust me."

Karen's swift rejoinder took George aback as the idea was thrown back in her face.

"Are you serious in what you're saying?"

" I don't want to come over as some kind of well meaning do-gooder who ends up making things worse than before. I've sounded out Julie and she's only too happy to help out. She's good at that sort of thing, she really is and she's had years of practice. The advantage she has over me is that she has gone through exactly the same reactions as you have. That has to make a difference."

Karen's fluent persuasive tones began to sooth and wear down that automatic blind panic that had risen up in George at the very mention of the idea. She remembered what Julie was like, and started to listen to the reality of the situation, not her fears about the situation.

"I suppose there might be something in what you say but I need time to think it over."

Karen's outward expression was composed but, inwardly, she was jumping for joy. She knew that she was taking a risk in broaching the matter and she knew how mulish George could be if the mood struck her. She was almost there, she thought, as George paced round the room in contemplation. When she came to face Karen again, the other woman added nonchalantly as if the words had no consequence for her.

"It can't be all bad. For a start, you'll escape all the horrors of daytime TV."

George pulled a face at the elaborately casual manner with which Karen delivered her line.

"I don't know which of the two of you are more devious and cunning, you or John. Very well, you stay right there while I get myself ready. If you are really at a loose end, you can do penance and watch Trisha. She's on very soon now."

Karen shrugged her shoulders and meekly obeyed George's steely glance, evil smile and determined tone. The other woman clicked the remote control and those dreadful adverts for extremely dodgy, extortionate home loans yelled discordantly at her. Karen sighed as it immediately grated on her nerves. It was totally mean of George but at least it showed that she was recovering her spirits and becoming a fighter again.

"Nikki, I'll be over at Larkhall with George as soon as. Make sure you've got Julie Saunders ready whenever I let you know. They'll be using my office."

Nikki's spirits lifted enormously at the sound of Karen's crisp, confident voice though she had to put her hand over the other ear due to some dreadful garbage daytime TV in the background, the sort of rubbish she used to flick on in bored moments in her club days. Wryly she smiled to herself that life in the prison services had its advantages.

As Karen drove George towards the gates of Larkhall prison, George's spirits lifted a fraction as she saw the outside world through the windows of Karen's green convertible. Driving along with Karen gave her a faint nostalgic warm feeling for the past, while respecting its place in their history.

George was surprised to find how she automatically positioned herself, as she passed through the bolts and bars with increasing familiarity for the place. She held herself upright, dressed immaculately and took comfort from the thought that appearance was everything today. She looked her normal self even if she still felt totally artificial.

"You're getting to be a regular here, George." Gina greeted her warmly as they crossed the wing,"I'll nip off and find Julie."

Gina's unselfconscious words and her warm smile lifted George's spirits at once. She was starting to feel part of the world again.

"Hey, posh bitch," called out Denny's voice cheerily with a big grin while Tina smiled freely. She remembered the time that this dead glamorous woman had kept her company that time ages ago when Buki cut herself up. George graciously responded in semi regal fashion as she passed them by.

"I seem to be popular round here."

"Prisoners have long memories. They remember you from when you've been here before. They know what you did for Barbara and they won't forget."

George accepted a cup of tea in the homely comfort of Karen's office and started to relax a little. The only thing that felt strange was that all through her career, she was the one to come to the assistance of others with the benefit and confidence of her accumulated knowledge of the law. She sat back in her chair with no clear feelings what she was going to say as she was with neither her briefcase nor a game plan, only herself.

"Wonder who she's here for this time? I ain't heard of any of the girls who need a decent brief." Denny commented to Tina who shrugged her shoulders as they queued up for fresh air outside on association.

"Search me."

"Hey, has anyone seen Ju around?" Julie Johnson asked." She was going to come down with me to the servery but Gina told her to see Miss Betts and she went off dead quick. I hope she ain't in trouble."

"She'll be all right. After all, she ain't done nothing."

Julie Johnson nodded her head at Denny's plain common sense. She knew how much Julie J got worried about things in general and how to settle her down.

At last, after desultory purposeless chat designed to fill in time, Gina's approaching tread announced the end of the preliminaries. Karen spotted that look of fear pass across George's face as she prepared to face the unknown and that events would be taken out of her own hands. A nervous fidgety Julie Saunders looked all round her. She delicately took a seat when Karen gestured to her and gave the preliminary explanations and introductions.

"I'll leave you two in private." Murmured Karen as she made a tactful exit, while Julie Saunders looked on open mouthed. In all her time at Larkhall, there had always been at least the Governing Governor present plus a prison officer in this room. Now she was alone, except for a high-class barrister, seeking her help of all people.

"Miss Betts told me what it's all about, something about me telling you what happened to me as you're going through the same as what I had. Course, I'd love to help you out but I just hope I'm up to it……."

Julie Saunders was horrified to see a look of total fear and horror flash across George's face. This was another woman in need of help, never mind the contrasts. George's clothes were dead posh in comparison with her own short cheap skirt and top and her makeup was elaborate in comparison with the traces of powder and lipstick Julie had coaxed out what was laughably described as her make up kit. She had to say something, and fast.

"Look, Miss," Julie said automatically. "I remember getting in a right old state when I first came under the knife but look at me now. I'm still the same woman as I ever was, where it matters."

"What does really matter?" George asked in despondent tones.

"That you have your mates and that they're around for you."

The simplicity of Julie's words made George sit up and take notice. Julie gained confidence and the words started to flood out of her mouth without her even trying.

"I'm not saying that it's easy. You get it into your mind that you're some kind of freak. It's not just how much you reckon the fellas will fancy you that you used to have two boobs ever since you grew up, not one. It's also all the punters over the years that have kept my son David at public school. My looks have been what's kept the money coming in, if you see what I mean. I tell you, there ain't any fashion magazines that have pictures of women who look like me. You remember watching the telly and you may have seen programmes on breast cancer but you switched over instead to watch Corrie on the other channel. It's something that happens to other women, never to you. Of course when you're young, you never think that you'll ever get old much less catch something like this……"

Julie Saunders was right, George concluded. That was exactly the way she had been all through her life. This plain speaking down to earth woman had suffered far more of life's knock backs and had come through the other side of one of the worst specifically female nightmares around.

"…..and you crawl inside some kind of shelter you try and find for yourself only there isn't one……"

"……..that sounds like me." Added George with a ghost of a smile.

"So how did you start to come to terms with it?" George pursued gently.

She felt more comfortable if the conversation was shifted away from her. Julie duly obliged.

"Like I told Miss Betts, no one can do it for you. You have to work it out in your head for yourself. One thing I got to tell you that you need those around you who can help if you let them. They can't take it away for you but you can't expect that anyway. They mean well. That's all you can ask them to do."

An uncomfortable silence fell on the room while Julie was temporarily stuck for words and George felt uncomfortable not to be at the directing end of conversations. It was so unlike her previous visits to Larkhall.

"So how did it all happen?"

"Oh, I was having a shower one day and I looked around and noticed this lump and, silly me, I got into a right panic, never said a thing, made out to everyone that everything was normal. I even pretended to myself that it didn't exist, after all what's in a lump, so I thought. The only problem was that Ju knew there was something up, and I went all round the houses before I had to spit it out to her. Of course I was scared, didn't admit it to myself and, what's worse, I was ashamed to tell anyone. The thing was, the longer I left it, the harder I found it to deal with and so on and so on. I had to deal with it in the end. There ain't much choice."

There it was for George, the magic formula placed in her hands by this very down to earth woman. This was the Larkhall women's support group she had first seen in action at Lauren's trial. For the first time today, George felt and looked happy.

"I ain't talked a load of rubbish?" Julie asked anxiously. The words had come right off the top of her head as if George were another woman she was having a right old natter to, not the elegant, classy barrister that she had talked to in the past.

"You've been more help to me than I ever dreamed you could. I'll even forgive Karen for suggesting this in the first place."

The total warmth and gratitude in George's tones both surprised and touched Julie. There was a meeting of minds between the two women from such totally different backgrounds and the silence that fell over them was one of peace and tranquility where no more need be said.

Part One Hundred and Forty-Two

There was no mistaking the twinkle in Karen's eye when she invited him out for a meal. In these liberated times, he was quite willing to go with the flow in this respect and to see where the current took him.

Ric carefully knotted his tie and looked at himself in the mirror. He had to admit that he did not look like the younger male model who he remembered looking back at him. It was Karen's turning up in his world that caused him to be in an unusually nostalgic mood. Normally, he was totally immersed in the daily grind of a busy hospital and the incessant demands on his time and his brain. He permitted himself this brief luxury as he went on to contemplate the younger fresh-faced Karen Betts. In his minds eye she was more real than the mature version who spoke with the younger woman's tone of voice. As he looked at himself closer in the mirror, the Ric Griffin of the present came into sharper focus. He was a little more lined, with a few grey flecks in his hair but he could swear that he was hardly wearier of life than he had ever been. The only decisive changes in his situation were his children and ex wives, and that he no longer had a car to drive thanks to the damages of his past financial recklessness. Otherwise, he should hardly be a stranger to Karen where it really mattered.

The crisp sounds of a sports car sounding down the street predicted that Karen's perfumed presence would be there to spirit Ric away in her green convertible sports car. This was the first tiny intimation that Karen had changed. She was no longer the penniless nurse, who slogged it to work on the number nine bus after dropping Ross off at the crèche. He could tell that what she once had dreamed of both in terms of spare time and money was now hers for the taking.

"I know a nice discreet restaurant where we can talk over dinner if that is fine with you unless you have any different plans." Karen announced with that casual assurance that was new to him.

"You choose. You've obviously got plans for this evening so why should I stand in your way?"

Presently, he opened the door of a discreet yet smart restaurant, that looked every bit as good as Karen had indicated. You could tell that from first glance and first feel. It seemed that a thousand subdued low lights blinked at him and the world suddenly felt good to him. This was more real yet more sedate than that more fevered certainty of winning that had once perched him right on top of the world. He felt suddenly refreshed especially as he wasn't on one of those cursed Saturday late night shifts. It was notorious for all the aggressive psychopaths, who piled into the pubs and indulged in what they laughably thought was a 'good night out.' Sure enough, their slashed and battered remnants were wheeled in on a stretcher for the likes of him to patch up. Alternatively, it was some innocent victim who was unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sheer pointlessness of it all got him both righteously angry from time to time, and pitied the human race for its follies.

"What are you thinking, Ric?" Karen's mellow voice asked him from underneath her blond fringe.

"Just that my pager's switched off and though I'm dedicated to my job, I'm not married to it."

Karen laughed gently at Ric's broad, relieved grin as he passed her the wine list to scrutinize.

"No wedding ring I see, Ric?"

"Make that plural, Karen. I'm not sure if I ever told you that I've been married four times, twice to the same woman and nearly a fifth."

"I've got to hand it to you, you're a trier. I soon gave up on the idea of walking down the aisle waiting to be 'given away', whatever that means."

"Since when did you become a cynic, Karen?"

"Realist, Ric." She corrected him. "If you want to know, I think that I gave up on hearts and roses when my marriage to Dennis went on the rocks."

"You've changed in some ways, Karen."

"So what do you see before your eyes?"

"I can see that same calm composure in your eyes just as when you were twenty."

"People change, Ric. Life changes them…….." Karen started to say until her roving eye alighted on her favourite dry wine and she indicated it as she passed the wine list back to Ric for his approval. The waiter softly padded away to fetch a bottle for both of them to sample.

"I'd sooner talk about you. Your life is bound to have been more interesting and probably scandal ridden than mine if I remember right."

Ric laughed freely. He only had sketchy fragments of Karen to make comparisons but it was true that he looked out for trouble as often as it stalked him. He let Karen adroitly shift the focus of the conversation back onto him. She found it safer, less perilous.

"Well, I know the safest corners of St Mary's where I can sneak off for a quiet smoke."

"Nicotine or cannabis?" threw back Karen as she took a sip of the wine offered to her.

"Oh, I'm always sober on duty. I am a surgeon and not some reckless young registrar."

"So you smoke dope in the safety of your own home these days." Threw back Karen with that spring-heeled logic. The wide smile in her eyes took her fondly back to the good old days. Ric threw up his hands, confessing his guilt.

"Well, apart from the time I got into an argument with a pushy policeman and was arrested for possession."

"Nothing changes in your life." Came Karen's half scolding, half playful mellow tones as the waiter came back at a pause in the conversation.

The two of them, successful in their professions, had that time to leisurely survey the menu at their leisure and opted for Ardennes pate as a starter. They sipped their wind as they sampled the starters and let the evening drift on leisurely. They were free from the manic fast paced life that they both knew too well that it could amount to.

"So how did you come to marry the same woman twice, Ric?"

"We are both strong minded people. It took time for us to realize that we couldn't live together and couldn't live apart from each other either."

"And nine children?" Karen bantered.

"Well, these things happen. I come from a long line of large families."Ric countered.

The main meal of steak was served with just the right quantity of potatoes and vegetables and French mustard. It was plain food and wholesome.

"Well done, Ric?" Karen enquired with eyebrows raised.

"Well, I see enough blood in my daily routine without wishing any more on me." Ric countered to Karen's faint automatic smile.

That magical connection between the two of them was not lost as the evening progressed and the background chatter of the other diners at the restaurant faded into a background murmur. Nothing mattered but the attractions of the mature, attractive woman in front of his eyes. The evening progressed to its inevitable conclusion as Karen paid the bill

"Do you want to come back for coffee, Ric?" Karen asked with just that hint of measured seductiveness.

"I thought that you would never ask." Ric responded, lying through his teeth with a debonair flair that John would admire as words spoken from the master book of seduction.

Part One Hundred And Forty Three

When Karen and Ric entered her flat, his expression was undoubtedly appreciative.

"Nice place," He said, his eyes sweeping round the extremely spacious lounge with the doors to the balcony at the far end.

"A governing governor's salary isn't bad when there's no one else to spend it on," Karen said philosophically. "Coffee, wine, or scotch?"

"Scotch always goes down nicely after a hard day's work," He said, watching her as she moved to the sideboard to pour their drinks.

"Consultants didn't believe in working at the weekend in my day," She said as she handed him his drink.

"That was before they only allowed us one or possibly two per department."

"Oh, you poor thing," Karen mocked him playfully. "It makes a nice change for consultants to actually be getting their hands dirty."

"I always did more than my fair share when you were working with me," He insisted, taking an appreciative sip of his Scotch.

"Ah, but you were a registrar in those days, not a consultant," Karen pointed out.

"And from what I can remember," He said, putting his glass down on the coffee table and then laying his hands on her shoulders. "It is the registrars who even now have all the fun."

"I'm sure consultants get the odd added bonus," Karen said silkily, her eyes locking with his. It had been years since they'd looked at each other like this, their combined passion just simmering below the surface, waiting to boil over at the merest suggestion.

When their lips met, a whole host of memories rose up in both their minds. They could both remember the furtive moments, the stolen kisses and caresses, the mind-blowing orgasms which had all been wrong because he was married. But his matrimonial commitment hadn't prevented their liaison, possibly making it all the more intense because it was so forbidden, their passion having to be snatched at every given opportunity. His arms had gone around her waist, and hers up around his neck, both of them clinging to the other as the last fifteen years simply melted away. But when they eventually came up for air, Karen's head seemed to emerge from the cloud it had obviously been sitting on.

"Ric," She said carefully, wondering how on earth she should phrase this. "Before either of us thinks about furthering this..." She waved her hand to encompass their closeness. "There are a lot of things you should probably know. I'm not quite the woman you used to know so well."

"Why, you're not going to tell me that you've had a sex change somewhere along the line, are you?" He asked, making her laugh, and immediately lightening the atmosphere.

"No, of course not," She said with a smile. "I just think that I ought to be honest with you. Considering the way I left, both you and the job, the least you deserve is knowing some of what's been happening to me all these years, though I'll warn you that most of it isn't nice."

"So tell me," he said, taking her hand and leading her to the sofa where he pulled her down beside him. Taking a swig of her Scotch and lighting a cigarette, something else he'd seen her do a thousand times before, she began to tell him her story.

After taking a long drag of her cigarette, almost to buy her time before she shattered all his allusions about her, she said,

"I was raped, nearly four years ago now, by someone who I knew was a total bastard, but who I thought loved me. Jim Fenner, was one of my officers, when I was still a wing governor. I lived with him for a while, even thought I loved him, which proved to be one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made."

"Karen, being raped doesn't make you a lesser person," Ric said carefully, trying to mask the shock that her words had given him. Even after all his years in the medical profession, of seeing every kind of violence that one human being could do to another, he would never have expected such a strong, emotionally together woman to have suffered something like this.

"No," She said, replying to his earlier statement. "But everything I did in the time leading up to that, does. I was completely under his influence. I wouldn't listen to a word against him, not even when the evidence was stronger than any misguided belief I might have had. I wasn't the only one he assaulted, but I was the only one who could quite easily take some of the blame."

"Karen, you can't blame yourself for someone else's actions," Ric tried to tell her.

"Oh, believe me, I can try," She said with a mirthless laugh. "But Fenner was only really the start of everything that went wrong. After Fenner... After that night, I picked up the criminally corrupt son of one of my inmates. I needed something normal, to prove I could still enjoy it. That was yet another huge cock up, pun unintended. Ritchie Atkins used me, without my knowledge I might add, to smuggle in a gun to his girlfriend, another of my inmates, who subsequently blew up part of the prison, killing a girl barely older than Jess would have been."

"You don't lead a quiet life, do you," Ric said ruefully.

"Oh, it gets far more interesting, I promise you," Karen replied, getting up to pour them another drink. "Because then came Yvonne Atkins, Ritchie Atkins' mother."

"Not the Yvonne Atkins?" Ric asked in astonishment.

"Do you know her?" Karen asked in surprise.

"Know her? I should say so. She used to own my favourite betting shop."

"Typical," Karen said with a smile. "Well, after her release, and during the trial of the woman who'd blown up the prison library, I began a very short, but very sweet affair with Yvonne. She was the first woman I'd ever become involved with."

"Why wait so long?" Ric asked with interest. "To become involved with a woman, I mean."

"I guess you could say that the right one just hadn't turned up," Karen replied with a smile. "But with Yvonne, well, it didn't last. When Ritchie killed himself at the end of his trial, he left a note for his sister, asking her to get rid of Fenner. Ritchie knew about Fenner, I'm not sure how but he did, and it was his way of trying to make up for using me as a gun smuggler. Lauren killed Fenner, barely six weeks after I'd started seeing Yvonne, something which was used as a mitigating circumstance during her trial. If you ever took the time to read more than the racing pages, you'd have learnt most of this at the time. The press had a field day with the finer details of my sex life."

"I've been trying to avoid even the racing pages for the last couple of years," Ric said ruefully. "So I don't go near a newspaper if I can help it." After taking and lighting one of her cigarettes, he asked, "Why did you want me to know all this?"

"Because it's part of who I am," She told him honestly. "Too much of it has shaped things that have happened since, including friendships I've made and the odd terrible thing that I've done."

"Where does the lovely George fit into all this?" Ric asked with a soft smile.

"I crossed swords with her at Ritchie's trial. She was defending him, though not by her own choice, but that's another story. When it was my turn to be cross-examined by her, it was as though there was only the two of us in the courtroom. John described it afterwards as a verbal tennis match, and I've never felt quite so exhilarated. But that little encounter was nothing compared to the day after Fenner's body was found in Epping Forest. You see, I was there when Lauren came home from committing that crime, an afternoon I don't think I'll ever forget. As a result of my relationship with Yvonne, John, Jo and George all guessed that I knew far more about Fenner's death than I ought to. Believe me, they put the Spanish inquisition to shame. John knew I hadn't killed Fenner, Jo wasn't sure either way, but George was absolutely certain that I had. If the situation hadn't been quite so serious, I'd have probably got a sexual high from that argument, because it was so fiery, so intense. Anyway, I didn't see her again until Lauren's trial, which was fifteen months later. George just turned up in the public gallery and sat down next to me. She had been planted there by Jo who was defending Lauren, because I was about to learn precisely how Fenner had died, which I can promise you isn't something you want to know, but George told me that she would have been there anyway, because she couldn't pass up the opportunity of seeing me again."

"What about the Judge?" Ric asked, thinking that she'd had it rougher than he could have thought possible.

"Oh, it certainly was complicated," Karen said with a rueful smile of remembrance. "I was seeing George, who I knew was also sleeping with John, who was also sleeping with Jo. The weird thing is that it really did work."

"Sounds even more complicated than me and Lola," Ric said with a laugh.

"And then Jo discovered that women could also be her thing. She and George was almost inevitable, with them both having such a close relationship with John. I knew that George was gradually slipping away from me, and in the end I worked out why. But in the middle of all that, Ross chose the easy way out. Well, easy for him anyway. I couldn't possibly have had more support from George, Jo, and everyone around that time, but it didn't help me to really deal with any of it. I threw myself into work, like I always have done in a crisis, and ended up having to talk one of my favourite inmates down from the hospital wing roof, where she was sitting fifty feet off the ground with a razor blade. I was immediately suspended, because I'd gone up there without any thought for my own safety whatsoever. I was furious with my boss at the time, but it eventually occurred to me that he was probably right. So, I borrowed Yvonne's villa in Spain, and stayed out there for three weeks. Part of me didn't want to come back, but that wasn't something I allowed myself to seriously consider. George and I had finally split up by then, and maybe only you would know what being alone is really like."

There was a thoughtful silence between them after she'd said this, because Ric was forced to agree with her.

"Just to fill in the odd piece of the jigsaw," he said eventually. "Have you ever slept with the Judge?"

"Twice," She told him after taking a drag of her cigarette. "Why?"

"He just strikes me as the type of person you would sleep with," Ric tried to explain.

"And do you know why that is?" Karen asked with a smile. "It's because he reminds me of you. Both you and he are one hundred percent dedicated to your profession, and you often break the rules and ignore the politics, so that the people you are trying to help can be given the best of your abilities. You both loathe and despise those who try to run your professional lives, and you will always go that extra mile to achieve either a medical miracle, or plain and simple justice. But when it comes to your private lives, you are both a complete and total disaster. Connie Beauchamp is a magnet for either one of you, and knowing that John certainly couldn't resist her charms, I doubt that you could either."

"Apart from my little habit of backing too many horses," Ric said philosophically. "He sounds like a carbon copy."

"Oh, he does have an addiction, just not one that involves casinos," Karen told him. "You might be addicted to gambling, but John is addicted to sex, something that can be and certainly has been far more of a problem."

"I didn't know that was really possible," Ric said almost in awe.

"Sadly, it is," Karen told him regretfully. "It causes those who love him far more heartache than your gambling ever could."

They talked for another couple of hours, drinking far too much Scotch and both smoking too many cigarettes.

"I ought to call a cab," Ric said eventually, thinking that his brain would surely implode with all the information it had received this night.

"You could always stay," Karen suggested quietly, realising that Ric's strong embrace was what she really needed. "Not for that," She said at his raised eyebrow. "Maybe I just want to remember how incredible the Griffin cuddle always was, and I must be far too drunk to have actually put that into words."

"It would be a pleasure," he told her honestly, the thought of not having to spend the night alone, far too tempting for him as well as for her.

Part One Hundred and Forty-Four

Sundays were one of John's favourite days of the week, especially on a sunny March day. It gave him the feeling of a new year approaching, new promises opening up to him after the grim slog through winter's life. Certainly, there were no rational grounds for these feelings, when he came to reflect on the central core of the problem. This puzzle was how to be strong enough and wise enough with words, in being supportive of George in the weeks to come. Nevertheless, his body told him that he felt unaccountably optimistic.

He jumped when his mobile sounded in his thoughts and he clicked off the CD player. He was more nervous of sudden phone calls from out of the blue ever since Jo dropped the bombshell on him about George.

"Dad, it's Charlie here." Sounded the fresh-faced voice in his ear to his measured surprise and pleasure. Charlie was less the sort of daughter to make random phone calls, but more to make random visits as the whim took her.

"It's a pleasant surprise and to hear from you so early in the morning."

"My lie in bed student days are over, dad. I have to be the responsible citizen."

"I'm glad to hear it, Charlie." John spoke with heartfelt emotion. He had vivid and uncomfortable memories of Charlie getting into a very dangerous scrape in her Animal Liberation Front activities, which could have landed her the wrong side of the law. Thank heavens, she had got through that period in her life and was safe in the orbit of the respectable legal profession. As his thoughts were scattered somewhere between past and present, the significant pause in the conversation passed him by.

"And talking about responsibility, dad………."

"I wasn't, Charlie but please continue."

"I was wondering if you could find a home for a poor stray that needs looking after."

The pause this time was very distinct and Charlie on the other end of the line could feel her father's mind racing to decide which verbal piece on the board to move and in what direction.

"In the generality, Charlie, compassion is a laudable sentiment. In the particular, I am careful about committing myself to any responsibility that I could not properly follow through."

"Well, that, all right, this one is not too big." Charlie wheedled in the tone of voice that a top salesman would respect.

"First of all, Charlie is the responsibility, animal, vegetable or mineral."

"Oh, definitely animal."

"Cut to the chase, Charlie, as I was in a good mood when I woke up this morning and don't think I have forgotten about that row you had with your mother."

"I'm sorry, dad for being horrible. That was days ago. In any case, it's only a cute dog that needs a home. It's been legally acquired, dad, so you don't have to worry on that score." Charlie hastily apologized about an event that was a whole week ago and slid effortlessly into her spiel. She sought to cut off the direction her father's ominous tone was leading them.

"How are you certain of this?"

"Just because, dad." Urged Charlie. "In any case, you'd love her so much that you'd want to find her a home."

"All right, Charlie, just to know what I'm dealing with. I'd better come to your flat before I make a final judgment." John pontificated in measured tones.

On the other end of the phone, Charlie grinned to herself in relief. Her father might be deluding himself that he was going to make a more detailed investigation as if he were in charge of a crime scene, but she knew of old that he had made the first step down the ladder that would see him conceding the argument completely to her. It worked better than stamping her foot and pouting in petulant anger. She smiled fondly at the foible in his wonderful intellect that allowed him to overlook something so obvious.

Yvonne was similarly looking forward to the New Year. Her swimming pool had remained out of her reach during the bitter winter weather, and she was feeling distinctly pale and out of shape. She longed for the glorious heat of the summer season when she could pretty well live outdoors in the open. There she could tone her body by slicing through the fresh cold water in innumerable lengths of the pool and bask in the heat offered up by the sun loungers. The bright sun outside and the lengthening days were that promise to come. The seasons delivered that promise infallibly.

It was in that frame of mind that a hesitant knock on the front door reached her ears. It was that unscheduled, unexpected nature of the mysterious caller that intrigued her. She made her way to the front door and there, before her eyes, appeared the judge. She could have dropped through the floor as he was furthest from her mind.

"Do you mind if I drop in or have you any other business?"

"Be my guest."

Yvonne was intrigued by John's uncharacteristically subdued manner, but led the way to her living room. As he followed Yvonne, he was surprised not to be greeted by the familiar shape of Trigger, who he remembered made his presence immediately felt.

She let him take his seat and just when he had made himself comfortable, popped the question that was uppermost on her mind.

"What interests me, judge, is the reason why you've called round after all these months. Mind you, it's a change from meeting in the park."

Yvonne's slight smile and knowing stare prompted John to lay all his cards on the table. He knew enough of this sharp-witted woman that it was useless to hide his thoughts.

"I'll come straight to the point, Yvonne. Charlie in her infinite wisdom has persuaded me to ask around if anyone would take on a dog she's found. I don't know that many dog lovers and you came immediately to mind when I agreed to Charlie's request."

"What sort of dog?"

"She's a one to two year black Labrador. She appears to be well trained and it shouldn't be hard to place her in a good home."

Yvonne's eyes twinkled as she sensed his rueful manner while she appreciated his candour. If this was a chat up line, she had to give John credit for originality. Getting back to the point, it suddenly felt right for another four-legged companion to come into her life. She was certainly up for something different and resolved to go with the flow of events.

"You don't have to look any further than me, John."

John raised his eyebrows in surprise, and started to put two and two together. It struck him now that Yvonne's house felt unnaturally quiet.

"If you are willing, I would be very grateful to you."

This snapshot scene cast John in a new light. Yvonne knew of old the righteous upholder of justice who had utterly dissolved away that hard cynical layer of prejudice against the profession as a whole. After all, he'd finally nailed that Snowball bitch, he'd seen right by her Lauren and had got Barbara off the hook. She was only too well aware of the other side of him, the suave, virile lover but this was yet a different John unfolding before her eyes.

"Trigger died of old age a while back, John. Now you mention it, I could do with company if it felt right."

"So what's the next move?"

"You fetch her and I'll see for myself and you're welcome to bring Charlie as well if she wants."

Time passed while Yvonne was waiting, she was intrigued to see what both the dog and Charlie were like. Eventually she heard the scrunching sound as John's car drew up on the front drive. Charlie stared around her wide-eyed with surprise but some streak of petulant annoyance drove her to open her mouth with the first thoughts to come to mind.

"Well, so they say that crime doesn't pay."

"For your information, Yvonne is one of the kindest, most loyal people whom I've ever met. You would do well to remember that, and also that she can see through any disguise at one hundred paces so don't underestimate her."

Charlie flushed red with embarrassment, and trailed after her father to the front door. As John strode purposefully forward, pulled along by the lithe bounding Labrador dog, he thought that fate had dealt him the chance for Charlie's eyes to be opened a bit.

As the door opened, Yvonne had only eyes for the bright-eyed bounding Labrador who immediately connected with her and, very exceptionally, her other guests were rather ignored. Yvonne was definitely a cynic about love at first sight when it came to other human beings, considering her track record of being let down and betrayed. Her affection for the four-legged species was constant and far less complicated. In the course of the flurry of activity, the Labrador briefly explored territory of the house, declared it safe and duly approved of it. John looked on fondly at Yvonne's simple pleasure as she followed the dog while Charlie felt sidelined. Eventually, even the dog's energy was exhausted and she plonked herself on the hearth.

"Well, Yvonne, I hardly need to ask you if you are willing to take on….."

"Call her Bell." Yvonne jumped in as the word materialized out of thin air. "For once, it's my choice to give a name."

"I like it."

It was only now that Yvonne took in the fresh-faced girl whose affection for her father was obvious for her and was poignant. In her experience, fathers imposed ruthless charm, plenty of riches, instant obedience but never the visible interaction of feelings that she saw with her own eyes.

"I'm sorry, Yvonne but I didn't get a chance to introduce you to my daughter Charlie."

"Charlie?" Yvonne frowned as old associations were raised by that name from their uncertain grave.

"Short for Charlotte but she has always hated being called that ever since she was a little girl."

"Yeah, Charlie Deed rolls off the tongue better."

"I would like to speak up for myself, dad, in case I get tagged as the daughter of the famous judge." Charlie struck up pertly and with spirit.

"And the famous barrister." Yvonne put in helpfully.

"Yeah, that goes without saying."

Yvonne's sharp eyes noticed the way that the expression on the younger girl's face brightened up at her mention of her father, and promptly clouded over at the mention of her mother.

"Well, Bell will need a bowl of water sooner or later. Do either of you want a drink and if so, name your poison?"

"Coffee for me." responded John and Charlie echoed him. Bell's ears pricked up in appreciation and she rolled around on the rug, splaying her legs in the air. She was at her new home.

"So where did she come from?"

"Charlie informed me she was legally acquired." Intoned John as his own mind started to have horrid suspicions.

"That ain't the question I asked, judge." Yvonne retorted, and Charlie felt the other woman's gaze shift abruptly in her direction. Instinctively, Charlie knew she was in for a grilling from this very powerful woman.

"I got the dog from a good friend of mine. She wasn't able to look after her properly as she has a demanding job in the city."

"So where did she get Bell from?"

Charlie coloured as she could see her father start to draw unpleasant conclusions.

"If I read this riddle right, one of your animal liberation friends stole her from a laboratory." John concluded.

The barely perceptible nod of Charlie's head told the truth. While the expression on John's face started to assume righteous parental authority, a wide grin split Yvonne's face.

"You mean, judge, that you've aided and abetted your daughter to break the law?"

"Unknowingly and only twice removed." Came his smooth as silk reply.

"Don't worry, judge, I'll put in a good word for you." laughed Yvonne at John's extreme discomfort until he hastily took command of the situation.

"Well, Charlie, for once in my life I think we ought to draw a veil over this incident. I assume that you knew very well where Bell came from. I must say, she's very well behaved, and no one would ever have any reason to consider that she came from anywhere else than a loving home. If Yvonne is happy with the matter, I think we ought to let sleeping dogs lie."

"I'll go along with that, judge." Yvonne slyly intervened, her glance at the hearthrug telling her how apt was John's remark. In her turn, Charlie felt incredibly grateful and incredibly gauche and unlearned in the ways of the world in comparison with this formidable but kindly woman.

After time had passed drinking coffee, Bell showed signs of coming back to life. Already, Yvonne's household routines were starting to be reorganized along the lines of canine needs.

"If you don't mind, Charlie and I'll take Bell for a walk round the garden. Get her used to the place."

John knew enough of Yvonne's solid common sense to let things be. Bell's lead slotted automatically into Yvonne's hand, and they headed for the door while John lay back and relaxed on a peaceful Sunday morning as he had originally intended to do.

As Yvonne and Charlie took Bell out into the fresh air, she realized that this would give her some purpose, and give her good reason to go out into the garden besides swimming and sunbathing.

"If I was left on my own with dad, he would have made a frightful scene."

"I ain't that soft, Charlie. My daughter Lauren will tell you that one. I just know when and where to draw the line and when not to. From what I hear, your dad is in danger of getting into quite enough trouble as it is. I just wanted to make sure it wouldn't sneak up on him when he least expects it."

Charlie smiled freely at Yvonne's kindly understanding of her father.

"You're very fond of my dad, aren't you?"

That very innocent question visibly embarrassed Yvonne for a moment. Charlie could sense Yvonne's feeling of pride emerge and take command of her in being bracketed with her dad. After all, she had the perfect right to claim his friendship.

"Yeah, you could say that. He's one of the good ones in his own way. You'll have known that I've done time. You get to see all walks of life."

"You make it sound like a finishing school." Laughed Charlie.

"Yeah, it is in a way only the room service could be better. Back to what you were saying, just understand that your dad just worries about you."

"I wish he wouldn't. I'm grown up."

"Parents do, you know. Give him time and you'll see what I mean."

They wandered along in a companionable silence while Yvonne gauged the distance that Charlie had gone in life's journey and how far she had yet to go. While they waited for Bell to relieve herself, Yvonne said out of the blue.

"You're luckier than you know, Charlie. If only my Lauren had a dad like yours." Came Yvonne's emotion choked words. Seeing another family at work brought it all back the enormity of damage that another Charlie had done to her and her own.

Part One Hundred and Forty-Five

For the first time in her life, Karen saw that Nikki was visibly uptight as she held a sheaf of impersonally printed Home Office annual report forms in her hand. The time would shortly come when Karen would have to do Nikki's appraisal amongst the other wing governors and that was never the easiest part of her job. Right now, she had to be quite as supportive of Nikki within the walls of Larkhall as she had to be for George outside them.

"You have to explain what is bothering you, Nikki, before I can help you." Karen said gently.

"The whole bloody thing."Nikki started to say and stopped dead as her feelings overpowered her. Karen said nothing but offered Nikki a cigarette, which she accepted gratefully and inhaled deeply while she fought to get her feelings under control.

"You may have had more experience of this sort of thing than you realize, Nikki. Didn't you have to advertise barmaid jobs and put out some kind of job description?"

"Yeah, I once had to work out a contract, when I started up the club. The difference was that no one thought about it a lot. The girls realized that the job had to be done my way. They would have to think of a bloody good reason to convince me any different."

"You know very well that things aren't the same here. I've allowed you enough slack for you to do things your way but there's only so far I can go." Reasoned Karen with raised eyebrow. Nikki coloured a little, took a drag of her cigarette and explained in more even, reminiscent tones.

"When I was running the club, I never had any of this rubbish about 'Officer Appraisal Notes'. I'd tell the girls that they'd been doing a great job and maybe tipped them a bottle of Moet or, if they'd been incompetent or dishonest, they'd be out depending on how bad they'd been."

"That's all very well but your system depended on two things, one that they'd work for you and two, how fair a boss you were. It's a whole lot different here, Nikki. Any one of them could be transferred to another prison. Whatever you do will be written all over their personnel file for a perfect stranger to deal with. Then again, you know very well that there simply has to be a system that works irrespective of bosses, that protects them from the bad ones. It goes the same for you as well. There has to be systems in place so that you would be treated equally as fairly if Stubberfield were your boss as much as I am."

Nikki shuddered at the very name. Since taking on the Wing Governor job, so many of Helen's stories came back to her of just how rough a ride she was given by that self important slime bag. She used to see him in the distance once or twice, going up to speak to Helen. She remembered feeling the way Helen's body would stiffen as she became aware of him. Thank God, he'd been packed off to the Sad Old Screws home and out of the prison service.

"All right, Karen, I suppose I'll go through the pantomime. I'll have to dig out the notes you sent me of the course you bullied me into going on." Grumbled Nikki with bad grace.

"That's what we all have to do." Came the patient reply. "Think of it this way, as a device, however wrapped around in bullshit as it is, so that everyone gets treated equally fairly. It focuses the mind. I get to countersign your reports, but don't be too proud to ask for my help before then. I mean it."

The tenseness began to flow out of Nikki's body. The mixture of fear and aggression was the way Nikki operated under severe pressure, when she felt vulnerable. It was strange that she had sailed into covering for Karen's job within a very short time of her arrival. It never ceased to puzzle Karen how what was easy for one person was a nightmare for another. The foibles of human nature always stopped Karen from becoming complacent. This was a resolution she had adopted ever since she had become a nurse. It gave her a grounding in learning to deal with people, as the root part of her calling.

"Why don't you start off with the easier PO's like Gina and Dominic? I know how sharp your memory is. Even if you haven't made all the notes that you should have done as you've gone along, it'll all come flooding back to you. Have faith."

A small smile appeared on Nikki's face as she started to relax a little. It was the part of the job that was always a pain but she clung to her trust in Nikki in delivering the goods. Within the constraints Karen had delicately alluded, she felt safe in letting Nikki do it her way. In Karen's eyes, she reverted to being the willing packhorse who could shoulder any responsibility with that dash of initiative and flair that so marked her style.

"Helen, I really could do with your help on this appraisal interview bollocks. You must have done it in your time."

"What's the problem, sweetheart?"

"I've been reading all this paperwork on it and I think I can make some sort of sense of it but…….."

Helen's bright eyes and smile gave Nikki all the encouragement to continue

"I feel a total prat in talking all this bollocks."

"Let me have a look."

Nikki held out the offending material. Jesus, Helen thought, the prison service had certainly borrowed the services of some lousy psychologists in terms of the introduction. However, she zeroed in on the core of what it was asking for in terms of what the interviewee had done positively and what might be improved. The objectives had been taken off some dusty blueprint and padded out in the latest jargon and buzzwords. All Nikki need do is to paraphrase the whole thing in her words. She knew the bloody job backwards by now from both sides of the bars. She was just getting hung up on the bureaucracy of it all.

"I've got an idea." Helen said suddenly out of the long silence, a broad smile spreading across her face. "Why not try a role-play. I'll be the prison officer and you play yourself. That way, it'll make it easier."

"Oh no." moaned Nikki. "I can't ever imagine you as some meek and mild prison officer. You're too bossy for a start. If you start talking like a prison officer, all I can see in front of my eyes is that twin piece suit you used to wear."

"Don't remind me," Helen shuddered. "That was me making a gesture towards official dress."

"With that short skirt?"

"Let's get back to business and relax," Helen commanded her with just that mixture of bossiness and persuasion that Nikki loved about her. "Don't worry, it won't be painful. Just trust me."

Nikki nodded mutely. She was trapped.

"Do you know that you are the first prison officer I've ever done an appraisal interview on, Dominic?" Nikki led off the interview in as breezy a fashion as she could conjure up. "I've been reading up how I'm supposed to do it but if I end up doing it my way, I hope you don't have any problems."

Dominic wasn't fooled by Nikki's manner. He had come to the meeting feeling pretty relaxed as he felt that, on the whole, he'd had a pretty good year. He could tell how uncharacteristically nervous Nikki was.

"Sounds fine to me, gov."

Nikki smiled at the very unusual title. It had connotations of the traditional male bonding 'old boys' network of cops on the beat. She knew that Dominic's cheery delivery of the word never intended it that way.

"That has to be first in my life, to be called 'gov.'"

"You're the same as Karen was and Helen used to be before her. It means that you're in charge and you deserve to be in charge."

The words achieved exactly what Dominic had set out to do. He could tell by the confidence with which she led into the interview.

"I'd better kick off with the formal bit, Dominic. You'll probably know at the start of the reporting cycle, Gina was your acting boss for a couple of months. I talked with her to make sure there wasn't anything I missed. One thing I've got to say is how impressed Gina was at that case conference last May after she seriously lost it and attacked Al McKenzie and Karen. You helped her through the detox to get her off the speed."

"It was nothing, Nikki. It was something any decent prison officer would have done………..."

Nikki's words started to come out more freely as her hand scrawled down rough notes from what was said. Besides the specifics of how Dominic had accompanied Barbara back and forth to court, the general flavour came over as to how rock solid, loyal and unassuming the man was. He had that knack of working in with all of the prison officers and that they picked up from his style, little ways of dealing with situations. He operated a natural double act with Gina and, above all, he was totally reassuring. So far, Nikki was pretty sure that she could reel off the top of her head and from her notes enough to pad out the report.

Nikki was aware that she had talked away quite freely and only glanced down at the last minute at the report itself. Slowly she read out the words in an unnatural tone as if they were detached strangers from her voice and brain. It made Dominic smile fondly at that supremely individual boss of his.

"Just to go back to the report, it says that I have to mark how well you have done the following throughout the year, 'carrying out security checks and searching procedures……….supervising prisoners, keeping account of prisoners in your charge and maintaining order …employing authorised physical control and restraint procedures where appropriate…..taking care of prisoners and their property, taking account of their rights and dignity…providing appropriate care and support for prisoners at risk of self harm….promoting anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies………..taking an active part in rehabilitation programmes for prisoners………..assessing and advising prisoners, using your own experiences and integrity…………and writing fair and perceptive reports on prisoners……………"

Nikki paused as her thought pulled together that image of Dominic that summed him up.

"From what we've talked about up till now, I'd say that everything you've done this year tells me that you've done everything you could possibly have done."

Suddenly Nikki's eyes glazed over as these words spoke back to her in tones that were an official but not unkind trace of Helen's voice. Her mind went back to when she was a prisoner and the question popped out into the open.

"You were here from way back when I was a prisoner. Tell me something. Was this annual report around back then? Fenner would have been hung out to dry on this job description….."

"You're forgetting just how much Jim Fenner got away with Shell Dockley and for how long. Fiddling a report is dead easy to anyone bent enough to do it. In any case Stubberfield did Fenner's report when Helen was off sick…….."

Nikki's mouth fell open. Like Helen before her, she had not imagined how much could be bent, twisted and covered up. It showed how much Nikki had carried on the work of her predecessors in turning Larkhall into its opposite.

"…so he let that bastard off the hook and stuck her knife into Helen.'Apt to hysterical overreaction, cold and aloof with colleagues; poor judge of character…; averse to constructive criticism….' Quoted Nikki in choked tones of that report long ago."

She had been told that by Helen a long time ago but it was only now that she was doing an appraisal interview that the full force of that hatchet job came home to her.

"That was a long time ago, Nikki," Dominic reminded her simply, dragging Nikki back to the present.

When Gina came through the door, Nikki was much more relaxed and perky. Gina picked up on it straightaway.

"I suppose you picked me and Dominic first before you get to beat the crap out of Sylvia."

Nikki's grin widened at Gina's inimitable bluntness. She had learned immediately that you had to take Gina as she was or not at all.

"Hey, Gina, you know that I have to get down to business especially as it's my first time."

"So long as I got Dominic to make you less bloody nervous."

Nikki hesitated before continuing. She might have known.

"Anyway, there are quite a few things that come to mind, starting off with getting stoned on hash cookies along with Karen."

"It was all her fault." Gina said promptly, belying that with a large grin at the memory.

"You mean you were led astray?"

"Something like that."

Nikki suddenly realized that in her idiosyncratic way, she had rather strayed off the script that Helen had patiently tried to instill into her. She coughed, drank from a glass of water and tried to speak in appropriately serious tones.

"What I was going to say that, unless there's anything I've missed, you couldn't have done a better job in preparing the ground for when I first came here as wing governor. I tried to kid everyone differently but it was a big step for me coming into this job."

Gina shrugged her shoulders in a self deprecating fashion. .

"I wouldn't want to leave a bloody mess behind in any job I've done, specially not for you to pick up."

Nikki knew that Gina was understating her real affection for her.

"You've also done a fine job in keeping things ticking over when I was covering for Karen when she was off work over Ross and whenever I've been on holiday. I take it that you are up for doing it for the future?"

"Fine by me. I'm OK for a bit of short term responsibility and the extra pay comes in handy." Gina reassured her with a bright smile.

Nikki relaxed more visibly and she steered the conversation effortlessly through the last year, including supervising Bodybag's punishment regime. Her scrawled notes and her agile mind brought into place Gina's impeccable presence on the wing and her visible strength. She had the knack of taking new nervous prison officers under her wing

"How are you getting on as Natalie Buxton's personal officer?"

"I thought at first I'd done something to piss you off to land up with her."

"You know it's not like that."

"Well, she knows that I won't give her an inch though the crafty bitch tries it on every way. It's funny as I can talk to anyone but I know that I'll never get to work out what makes her tick…….."

The words gave Nikki a funny feeling as they might have said about her a long time ago. Then she blinked and remembered her own encounters with her. She knew how right Gina was.

"The most we can all do is to keep her contained. You know that I hate to write off any prisoner but I don't trust her an inch either. In case you didn't know, I gave you as her personal officer as I know that you're best placed to deal with her."

The interview rambled on in a leisurely fashion, Nikki picking through the threads of Gina's past year.

"I'm lucky, Gina." Nikki suddenly added with a flutter of emotion in her voice in a reflective silence. "I have a set of prison officers who almost without exception have backed me all the way. You don't know how that feels.

"You've worked for it, Nikki. Everyone, well nearly everyone, will give it back to you."

Nikki smiled in a self deprecating fashion. She knew she had done well but not that well. It always had needed someone else to say it for her.

Part One Hundred and Forty-Six

Chance had allowed Helen a little time for her thoughts to free float by themselves, before preparing to see her first patient. Naturally, her thought took her to Nikki and she imagined how she might be getting on. That little bit of role-play had recalled her long ago past, when she had been wing governor at Larkhall. She could feel Nikki's feelings as hers, with the sympathetic anxiety of someone who knew what her soul mate was going to go through, partly because of her own previous experience. For one second, she inhabited the skin of her former identity and all those dormant instincts rose to the surface.

"…….but you aren't wing governor any more…" she mouthed to herself in reply. "Nikki is. Let it pass on to her who must shoulder the burden on her own at the end of the day….."

Instinct pulled her back from her worries, as confidence rose up inside her that Nikki would definitely hack it, one way or another. She told herself that she had to detach herself and come back to the here and now of being a psychologist. Her present preoccupations came back to her into sharp focus. As she sat in her chair, she pulled into her mind everything that she needed to engage with John's high intelligence and supple mind. She acknowledged that this forced her to exert her wits to the maximum. Her starting point was comparatively easy, as she had heard that George had breast cancer. What wasn't going to be easy was how to edge the conversation to that point.

She ran a sharp glance over him as he quietly made his way towards her. He certainly looked as if he had been in the wars. He looked distinctly careworn, without that spring in his step that she had noticed on other occasions.

"Well, judge, it's not been so long since we last met." Helen greeted him with a broad smile. John's smile was wan and subdued in response.

"It seems like longer." He frankly confessed. Such a lot of water had gone under the bridge since he had set foot in this room.

"We talked last time about your feelings of guilt and how you had difficulty in handling them."

She noted that John did not respond immediately with his usual prompt precision of manner. There was a disquieting vagueness in his blue eyes, as he paused to search his memory.

"Do you mean actual guilt or feelings of guilt?" He answered in an unsteady voice, as the functioning fragment of John's reasoning ability came to his rescue. Helen's instinct told her to temporarily back away from that one.

"You felt that there was something that George was hiding from you." Helen

pursued in gentle, even tones.

"Well, I found out about that one all right."

It jarred Helen's instincts to hear the mirthless laugh that was not a laugh being expelled from John's mouth, and to see the smile that was really a grimace. She allowed a pause before edging her agenda onwards.

"Can you explain, John?"

"George has been diagnosed as suffering from breast cancer since last Christmas and never told a soul about it, not me, not Jo, not anyone until Karen found out about it. She left it too late for the hospital to do anything but operate on her. In the immortal words, she is now 'as well as could be expected.'"

Helen could feel the waves of hurt and pain radiate off John, which the cold, clinical tones with which John delivered his lines failed to belie or cover up. Her hesitation attracted a sharp penetrating look from John right into her eyes and a flat statement, not a question.

"You knew about it from what you told me about the 'old girl's network.'"

Helen coloured a little. He sensed his suspicion as to how many others had known of this shattering event before he had.

"I'm going to go 'off topic' for a bit and tell you, John, that I had not the slightest suspicion of this until Friday March 3rd 2006 when Karen arranged what I thought was an 'old girls reunion' at the pub across the way from the Old Bailey and told me, Nikki, Yvonne, Cassie and Roisin what had happened. What I want to ask you what's been happening in your life since then."

To Helen's relief, John relaxed a little in his chair as he accepted her sincerity and her spring heeled gambit.

"Well," he said in contemplative tones with a faraway look in his eyes. "I've been doing more caring for other people than I ever knew that I could do…"

"In your personal life as opposed to being on your judge's throne." Put in Helen.

"Just so." John responding, with an appreciative nod. That insight had literally not occurred to him till now.

"I had to be strong for George and deal with her feelings... I had to get Charlie to deal with the fact that even if she had been distanced from George all her life, life is limited…I had if anything a worse job in telling Joe Channing. At one point, I could swear that he was going to die of a heart attack. The only way I could get through to him was by convincing him that George's sheer bloody obstinacy of will would see her through…. you can see how it felt a long time since I'd last seen you."

Helen could hear in every syllable every tone of justifiable pride in himself as John told his story and rounded it off with that lapse into introspection as he brought himself up to the present.

"Have you ever done this sort of thing before?" asked Helen. "If you haven't, then you have done marvelously well for a beginner.."

John visibly swelled up inside to hear that high compliment paid to him. After all, in this field, he acknowledged that he was the rank inexperienced amateur, while Helen was the accomplished professional.

"But what you haven't told me is how you felt about it, first of all about George's illness."

John smiled wryly to himself that he might have expected her gambit. He had begun to relax and, in a flash of irritation, his emotions rushed to the fore.

"Why do you build me up only to knock me down?" the words jumped out of his mouth.

"You misunderstand me, judge. You've just told me that you have done a brilliant job of telling your daughter and father in law the terrible news of George's illness and doing your best to get them to deal with it. I have every reason to believe that you are telling the absolute truth."

"So what are you getting at?"

"Simply that you have never allowed yourself to reflect about how you feel about it."

"There wasn't time." John rapped out.

"At the time, maybe but there is time afterwards. You have to make time for yourself even in your busy life."

John paused as Helen had deftly preempted the argument that he was going to lob back at her.

"'Who cares for the carers?' is a phrase that comes constantly to my mind. My experience is that this is a constant thread that runs through patients of mine that I have seen in the past. Believe me, you are not alone in your predicament even if you think you might be."

"Why should I think that way?"

"Because it is highly probable that none of your circle of acquaintances in the legal profession have had the remotest experience of being a carer, or am I wrong?"

John ran his mind's eye over Monty, Brian Cantwell, Neumann Mason-Alan and the rest of the massed ranks of the legal profession and not one of them fitted the bill until Jo came into his vision. No, they were all very comfortably placed with domestic circumstances, which ran like well-oiled machines. He had been long conscious that both his turbulent love life, and his politically combative nature set him out as the odd man out. It dawned upon him that he was set apart from his brethren more than he had realized.

"So how did you manage in all these years when you were separated from George and bringing up Charlie on your own?"

"That was comparatively easy. I have always had a rapport with Charlie. Looking after her came easy to me."

"What did that mean to you, judge? Just taking her for Sunday morning treats and an open wallet." Helen teased.

"There's more to it than that. You almost have to go through a second childhood yourself and take yourself down to her level, even to the execrable child's TV programmes she used to watch." Came John's leisurely reply in obvious fond nostalgic tones to Helen's fascination. "You have to entertain and guide a child with not too much of the traditional heavy father routine. You have to invent your own rules."

"So what about when you were at work and Charlie was on holiday?"

"I was teaching law at the time and Charlie attended the local comprehensive. When she came home from school, I looked after her, simple as that. I needed some backup childcare arrangements when Charlie was on holiday and I was at work. It also enabled me to go out when I was free to live my life. It all comes down to being organized."

Helen didn't pursue the last point with John. It was patently clear to her that he had neatly explained how he had managed to be a serial philanderer and how he came to juggle both his personal and professional responsibilities.

"So when you had to deal with Charlie's and Joe's feelings, it was the first time you had to deal with the situation on your own and one that didn't come naturally to you."

"You could put it that way."

"Let's come back to the main reason we are here to talk. How did you feel when you found out about George's illness after you had slept with Connie?"

Helen's softly spoken words came like a bolt out of the blue. John's expression of fear and self loathing was etched into the expression on his face and

"I ..I.I can't talk about it."

"You have to, John." Helen's forceful determined tones insisted. "When we talked last time, it was established that you were carrying around a real burden of guilt about your marriage to George. It's hardly likely to have lessened with your discovery of George's illness."

"Do you consider I'm guilty?" flashed John, suddenly flailing out at random.

"That's not for me to say," she shot back, unconsciously echoing Coope's favourite words of understated criticism, much to John's discomfiture. "I need you to talk about how you feel. We've already heard about what you did."

"I can swear by everything that I hold dear that I never had the slightest suspicion of George's illness when I behaved so recklessly, so foolishly with Connie Beauchamp." John's broken tones were phrased so slowly, so deliberately, with such stressed emphases that this was a million miles away from the smooth talking debonair John in other surroundings.

"But that's not what your feelings are telling you."

Instantly, John rose to his feet, turned away promptly and paced round the room, not once but twice, with short jerky footsteps, not his normal relaxed stride somewhere out in the country.

"But how do I deal with these feelings?" he burst out at last from behind Helen's back.

"What are your feelings?" came the relentless answer.

"I feel that I've been guilty of the worst form of betrayal and that I must be the most loathsome creature on this planet and I don't know what I can do about it." Muttered John, driven out from all his defences.

"So why are two very caring, very strong minded women who have seen you at your best and your worst staying with you, John?"

"I don't know. Why, indeed?" John said in the most desolate of tones that made Helen's blood turn cold.

Half an hour later, Helen started to type up the notes from her previous therapy session in a leisurely fashion. This was her way of clearing her mind before her next patient. For once in her life, the intensity of John's feelings made that very hard to accomplish. It took an effort of will to distill the exchanges of words down into concrete form and make a few notes as to where to proceed next. It was one thing for John's tenacious defences to be laid bare, but it was quite another matter for John to achieve reintegration. The room was very still as Helen tapped away on her keyboard.

"So how did my role-play work yesterday?" Helen enquired over her shoulder at Nikki as she attended to the steaks under the grille. It was Monday night.

"I kind of used it, but in places I ended up doing my own thing in the end."

"I might have known it." Grinned Helen. She glanced at Nikki who looked as weary as Helen felt.

John was worn out at the end of the day. He made his way straight home to his enormous bed and crashed out early. He lay in bed listening to the quietest, most soothing music that he found and in a bleary haze, clicked off the music and shut out the light.

It was later on, that some childhood freak of memory saw him as the driver of a steam train. He remembered how intense some of his boyhood friends were about keeping details of famous trains. He remembered that he was not that inclined but being on a real live train was different. He was childishly pleased to be able to pull the chord, and make that unmistakeable low pitched but raucous throaty whistle. The train pulled away from the station in a cloud of steam, which only partially obscured the bright sun shining down on them. Even though he realised that he was the mature, supposedly adult John, it made no difference. He could indulge that childlike side of him in perfect safety. They were off and away, and were travelling away to some great adventure. John was not sure what it would be but just knew how good it would feel.

It was only as time went on that he noticed that the train had picked up speed. He hadn't thought that steam trains sped along as fast as it was. It was all appearances and perspective, he supposed, and so he was not too perturbed. He looked at the firebox and there was a steady red-hot glow from the flames from the coal that propelled the train along. Everything was in hand, or so he thought until he gradually noticed that dark lowering clouds started to invade and eat up the blue hemisphere far above his head. Everything was changing and was not going according to schedule.

John started to get worried when the view outside turned to blackness, illuminated only by the fiery flames behind him. The train slowly gathered momentum until it was a metallic force of nature, thundering along the rails. He suddenly became aware that he was the only man that was in control of the train, if control it was. His feelings pitched up the scale of intensity, when he felt as if the train had a life all its own. As he looked around, he realised to his utter horror that the train was driving him, not the other way round. What had happened to the bright morning that promised so much for him? It was as surely turning to the ashes that the firebox so greedily consumed and left behind.

As he looked round desperately, he saw the distant lights of friendly homesteads before they were rapidly left behind. They were hopelessly lost to him, a sign of safety that was as lost to him as he felt, lost and alone. All was impenetrably dark except the lurid red flames that were stoking the speed of the train to the point of insanity.

When else had he felt so out of control, he shouted wordlessly to the fates around him? It was that night he's slept with Connie. 'Slept with'- what a horribly hideous irony those words conjured up to his precise moment, even at a moment of psychic crisis as this??? .

Part One Hundred And Forty Seven

As John rode in the lift up to the fifth floor and Keller ward, he couldn't help but wonder if he was really doing the right thing. He had called Ric that morning on Helen's advice of yesterday, and asked if Ric had time to see him, to which Ric had said yes, suggesting that John call in at lunchtime. Ric hadn't asked why John wanted to see him, which now John came to think about it was a little odd, perhaps suggesting that he at least partially guessed the reason. Would Ric think him stupid for having the concerns that he did? John sincerely hoped not. His worries over his reactions at seeing George's scar might seem pointless and insignificant to most people, but to him they seemed like enormous bridges that he just didn't know how to cross. So, now here he was, entering this highly charged atmosphere, all in an attempt to seek the professional advice of a man far busier than himself. Whether it was the right or the wrong course of action, he would very soon find out.

When he emerged into the hustle and bustle of the space between Keller and Darwin, he walked towards the nurses' station, seeing there someone he knew. Connie was arguing with a man who had the archetypal Eton look about him, with dark hair and a gaunt face, and who was currently very angry with the woman before him.

"Mr. Justice Deed," Connie said as she turned to face him, having caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye.

"Mrs. Beauchamp," he replied, walking up to her. "Please could you tell me where I might find Mr. Griffin's office?"

"Of course," She said, leaving Will in mid strop. "If you'd like to follow me this way," She said with a smile, leading the way down the corridor into Keller territory.

"Here for anything special?" Connie asked without thinking. "I'm sorry," She said, her face reddening slightly. "That was unspeakably rude of me."

"Just a little advice, that's all," John said, trying to put her at her ease.

"John," Connie said as she laid a hand on his arm, temporarily stopping him in his tracks. "The next few months aren't exactly going to be very easy for you."

"And they're hardly going to be very easy for George," He countered back.

"I know," Connie replied, trying to remain calm under John's obviously volatile emotions. "But if you should ever need someone to listen, you know where to find me. All right?"

"Thank you," He said, laying a hand over hers where it still rested on his arm. "That offer is very much appreciated."

Knocking on Ric's office door, Connie opened it before Ric could tell her to do so.

"A visitor for you, Mr. Griffin," She said with a smile, holding the door open for John to enter. Ric was sitting behind his desk, sorting through patient records and eating a sandwich.

"Judge, come in," He said, pushing the remains of his sandwich away from him. As Connie closed the door, leaving them to it, John's nerve almost failed him. "Sit down," Ric invited, gesturing to the slightly battered sofa. "Would you like some coffee?" Agreeing that he would, John took the offered seat. Putting his head out of his office door, Ric called to Donna to please make two coffees and bring them to his office. When she did, pushing the door open with a foot and putting the two mugs down on his cluttered desk, she said,

"It's about time you got yourself a PA."

"Tell that to Connie," Ric told her. "She's the one who controls the budget around here."

"I think I'll leave her to you, if you don't mind," Donna said hurriedly as she backed out of the office, closing the door behind her.

"So," Ric said, taking a swig of the scalding hot coffee. "What can I do for you?"

"I hope I'm not taking up too much of your time," John replied, realising that he was stalling.

"No, of course not," Ric tried to reassure him, seeing that John was finding this extremely difficult. "Am I to assume that this is about George?"

"Yes," John said with a heavy sigh. "And part of me feels as though I'm betraying her trust in even being here."

"Where George's breast cancer is concerned, there isn't anything I don't know, so you aren't breaking any trust," Ric said quietly. "I also might have more of an idea than you think about why you're here."

"George originally chose to conceal the existence of her lump from me, because she was terrified of how she would look after any possible surgery, and how her physical attractiveness, or lack of it, would reflect on the relationship I have with her. I am not known for my ability to be faithful to both George and Jo, and George thinks that as soon as I see what she now looks like, I will have even more cause to stray."

"With the likes of Connie for instance?" Ric put in quietly, just to see what reaction he would get from this man.

"Did Connie tell you about that?" John asked in mild surprise.

"She felt incredibly guilty," Ric told him.

"She wasn't the only one," John confessed regretfully. "But Connie isn't the issue at hand. George won't allow me to see her scar, because she is still terrified of my possible reaction. Not having the faintest idea of how I will react, I don't know how to reassure her that no matter what she looks like, I will always love her."

"What George has been left with," Ric began carefully. "Is a flat expanse of chest, where her left breast used to be. She also has a scar, running diagonally across this portion of chest from here," He put his finger in the centre of his chest. "To under her arm. Even though I do say it myself, it is a very neat scar, and will fade with time. You may initially find it a somewhat unusual sight to behold, because nothing can be more obviously missing than one of a pair of breasts. If you love her as much as I think you do, then you are extremely unlikely to find it anywhere near as disturbing as George seems to assume you will. I appreciate that this may not have been entirely helpful, but I'm not sure what else I can tell you."

"It has helped," John assured him. "Because I do now have some idea of what she's determined to hide from me."

"As to how successful you may be in convincing George that you do still love her, and that you do still want to make love to her, I couldn't possibly comment."

"I can but try," John said somewhat ruefully.

After a slightly thoughtful silence, Ric raised an entirely different subject.

"I had dinner with Karen on Saturday night," He told John. "And managed to catch up on a potted version of the last fifteen years of her history."

"That was ambitious for one evening," John commented dryly. "How well did you know her all those years ago?"

"Far too well," Ric admitted with a rueful smile. "She was only twenty when I first met her, and Ross was just two. I was a general surgical registrar in those days, and Karen worked with me for the better part of six years. If anyone could keep their head in a crisis it was always Karen. She eventually left nursing to follow in the steps of a prison officer called Steve, and I didn't hear a word either from or about her until she turned up at the Hadlington with George the other week."

"So it wasn't James Fenner who lured her away from nursing then?" John asked a little darkly.

"No, and yes, she did tell me about him, and about all the strife he managed to cause both before and after his death."

"I've occasionally found myself wondering how she's managed to keep on going," John said sadly. "Especially since Ross died last year."

"My eldest son Leo, he got into drugs, but I managed to get him back on the straight and narrow," Ric said, finding it so easy to share confidences with this man who probably knew far more than he now did about his old lover and friend.

"And Karen would have tried to do the same for Ross, except for the fact that he insisted that she shouldn't be told about his condition," John filled in. "So, she had no idea until he was dead."

"For those six years that she was working for me," Ric continued thoughtfully. "Her entire life was centred around her son, with the exception of the occasional tryst with one of her colleagues, every thought and every action went into that child's welfare."

When they'd been talking for a good half an hour, there came the sound of running feet along the corridor, followed by the thrusting open of Ric's office door. It was Diane, looking slightly dishevelled and out of breath.

"Ric," She said, skidding to a stop in front of his desk. "We've got an RTA on the way up from the ED, with a massive abdominal trauma, possibly involving liver, spleen, and god knows what else. It's way too complex for me and Jac to attempt on our own."

"And where is Mr. Jordan?" Ric asked.

"He's at the new keyhole procedure conference in Manchester, remember?"

"Ah yes, I'd forgotten he'd gone up there for the day. Go and join Jac and get this boy racer patient of ours anaesthetised and opened up and I'll be with you in a minute."

"Actually," Diane put in as she moved to the door. "It's a woman, so less of the boy racer quips, please." Then, seeing John, she said, "Sorry for disturbing you."

"Oh, don't mind me," John replied with a smile. When Diane had gone, Ric said,

"I'll have to go, but I hope I've been able to be of some help to you."

"Yes, and thank you," John assured him.

"What I suggest you do," Ric said with a last minute thought. "Is to try and make her feel as wanted and aroused as possible. You never know your luck."

Part One Hundred And Forty Eight

As John drove away from the hospital, he knew precisely what he must do. He had informed Coope that he would be taking the afternoon off, and as he wasn't in the middle of a trial and was up to date with all his papers, she didn't protest. He needed to go to see George, to spend the afternoon with her, and to possibly try and break down some of her barriers. He wondered just how she might receive his attempts to uncover her scar. He prayed that she would eventually let him see it, because only when she did, could he begin to sincerely reassure her as to the depth of his love for her.

When he arrived, he could see that the curtains in the lounge were closed against the wind and rain that were pounding against the windows. As he stood on the step waiting for her to answer his ring at the doorbell, he could feel the occasional droplets of rain running down the back of his neck. When George let him in, she smiled.

"You look like a drowned rat," She said on seeing him.

"I thought I would take the afternoon off and spend some time with you," He said, removing his jacket and hanging it up in the hall above the radiator to dry.

"Mr. Justice Deed on the skive," She mused thoughtfully. "I like it. So, what plans does My Lord have for me then?"

"What plans would you like me to have?" He countered back, putting his arms round her and kissing her deeply.

"That's a pretty good start," She replied with a smirk, feeling vaguely in the mood for some of his particular type of seduction.

Going into the lounge, they moved towards the large armchair that sat at right angles to the blazing open fire. Sitting down in the armchair, John pulled her down onto his knee. He loved having her close to him like this, and he momentarily buried his face in her hair, taking in the combination of shampoo, perfume and cigarette smoke that was undoubtedly George.

"I do hope that you're not postponing anything important to be here," She said, snuggling her face into his neck.

"No," He assured her. "I'm not due in court until tomorrow, and I'm up to date with all the reading for it. So, at least for the next few hours, I am entirely at your disposal," he added, softly kissing her and making her whole body shiver at the possibility of what was to come. They sat, snugly close in front of the fire, intermittently kissing and talking, George really beginning to relax in his arms. The only sounds within the room were the crackling of the logs in the grate, and the occasional howling of the wind down the chimney. This contented silence was punctuated by their deepening kisses, and the soft and gentle words that passed between them.

"I want so much to touch you," John said after some considerable time, his words leaping out as if of their own accord.

"There's no one here telling you not to," George said silkily, leading his hand to her one and only breast.

"I don't want to do anything that you might not be ready for," John told her sincerely, cupping her breast in his hand, and tenderly massaging the fleshy softness he knew so well.

"I think that I am ready for it," She said quietly. "As well as that other thing I know you would like to accomplish at some point today," She added knowingly.

"Am I quite so transparent?" He asked, not having expected her to see through his plan quite so easily.

"In matters of the female body, John, your motives are always transparent," She told him with a mocking smile. "But I love you for it."

"Then, shall we move somewhere a little more comfortable?" He suggested, wanting nothing more than to further her pleasure.

"Yes," She agreed immediately. "But let's stay down here in front of the fire."

As she rose from his knee, he unfastened the zip at the side of her skirt, allowing it to pool at her feet as she stepped out of it. Drawing her to stand in between his parted thighs, he began unbuttoning her blouse, eventually casting it over the back of the chair he was sitting in. When he joined her on the rug in front of the blazing fire, he laid his cheek on the soft, warm skin of her midriff, leaving gentle, butterfly kisses with every touch of his lips. He wanted to make love to her, really make love to her, to give her every ounce of pleasure he could think of. He kissed his way up until he was nuzzling at her bra-covered breast, eventually taking the material covered nipple between his lips and grazing it with his teeth. She gasped as he did this, and he gently sucked on her nipple through the material, eliciting a groan of developing lust from her. Abandoning her breast for the time being, he kissed his way down to the top of her thighs, using the tip of his nose to slightly push aside the scrap of fabric she called underwear. His nose gently traced the smooth skin of her mound, with his tongue flickering briefly over her exposed clitoris. But to George's infinite frustration, he didn't pursue his oral endeavours, but began kissing his way down her left leg, and returning ever so slowly up the length of her right.

"John, please," she all but begged him. Reaching the waistband of her knickers, he took the elastic deftly between his teeth, drawing it away from her body only to let it ping back into place. "You are a bigger tease," She told him with a frown of frustration. "Than a vibrator whose batteries have run out half way through." John laughed, never before having been compared to a sex toy of any kind.

"I didn't know you had one of those," He said, enchanted by the idea.

"And you still don't," She said a little hurriedly, telling him that she did but that she wanted to hide it from him at all costs.

"Tell me how wet I make you," He said, still playing teasingly with the waistband of her knickers.

"Remove those and you can find out for yourself," She quipped back.

"Ah, but maybe I want you to tell me."

"Don't tell me that My Lord actually wishes me to talk dirty to him after all these years of avoiding such a shameful activity?"

"Mmm perhaps," He replied noncommittally. She was right in that he had never outrightly asked her to talk in such a way to him, as he had always avoided doing the same for her. But maybe now it was time he tried something entirely new with her.

"You make me as hot and wet as the heart of a rainforest," She told him without any further delay. "And if you keep on teasing me in the way you are, I suspect my underwear will no longer be a suitable barrier between you and my ever rising level of arousal." Her words, uttered in that sultry, sexy drawl he knew so well, were making him as hard as a rock, and his trousers distinctly uncomfortable. "Am I making My Lord all hard and ready for action down there?" She asked, now doing some teasing of her own.

"You're not kidding," John admitted ruefully. Deciding that enough playing had gone on, he swiftly removed her knickers and buried his face between her slightly spread thighs. Oh god, her taste, her exquisite sweetness, it was like a nectar from the all mighty.

"Do you have any idea how long it's been since I tasted you?" He asked, briefly lifting his face from her centre. "It feels like it's been far too long." His lips gently nibbling at her smooth but swollen labia, he breathed in her scent as though it were a matter of life and death. Running the tip of his tongue down between her labia, he encountered the overflow flood of her arousal, her juices running over his tongue and his lips like the finest of wines and the rays of the sun all rolled into one. He thrust his tongue into her entrance, the tip of his nose massaging the engorged bud of her clitoris. Becoming aware of the frequent whimpers that were emanating from her, he lifted his face from her fountain of deliciousness, slipping three fingers inside her supple, silky warmth as he did so.

"Don't feel you need to be quiet on my account," He told her a little unsteadily. "If you want to shout, then shout, I don't mind."

"You might come to regret that," She told him a little breathlessly. As his fingers relentlessly stabbed in and out of her, he deftly nibbled on her clitoris, causing her to cry out at the sensation. "God, John," She said as her pleasure mounted. "You'll be the death of me at this rate."

"And that isn't something to joke about," he told her sternly.

"Just a turn of phrase, darling, not an actual prediction," She tried to reassure him, gently running her fingers through his hair. "Though I can't help thinking that it would be a wonderful way to die." She would have said more, but as he curled his fingers in order to seek out her G spot, she really did almost shout with the intensity of the feeling. Reaching up with his spare hand, he began rolling her nipple between finger and thumb, maximising every possible sensation until she was a quivering, pulsating collection of want and need. When she finally crested her peak, she definitely did shout, all but screaming at the level of sheer ecstasy that almost made her black out.

As he gently removed his fingers from inside her, and lay down next to her, her breathing began to return to normal.

"Was that up to My Lady's wishes?" He enquired silkily, softly kissing her cheek.

"I think that was the most intense orgasm I've had since Christmas," She told him honestly.

"Certainly sounded like it," He replied with a rather wicked smile.

"You were the one who told me to let go," She reminded him.

"And I haven't heard such a glorious expression of pleasure in a very long time. You weren't holding anything back, and that's what I wanted, for you to be as thoroughly sated and relaxed as possible."

"So that you can now persuade me into letting you uncover the rest of my less than desirable body." This was a statement not a question, because she realised that this was what he'd been working up to since he'd arrived on her doorstep.

"George, if you really don't want me to see it, then say so, because I'm not about to pressure you into doing what I realise you are still very much afraid of."

"Yes, I am still afraid of your reaction to me," She told him quietly. "But I know that my fear will only increase the longer I leave it." Putting his arms round her, John just held her for a while, allowing her to come down from her very intense orgasm, gently running his hand up and down her back. On one of these journeys along her spine, he lingered on the fastening of her bra, deftly unhooking it as he had a thousand times before. Using both hands now, he carefully removed this one remaining article of clothing, taking with it the soft, breast-shaped padding that now filled the left side of her bra. Putting her bra and its insert to one side, he gazed down at her chest. Her right breast was just as he remembered it, its rosy-pink nipple just begging to be caressed. But to the left of this, was the flat expanse of chest that Ric had described, with the livid scar running diagonally across it. Seeing the look of sheer sadness in his eyes, and the moisture that threatened to spill over at any moment, she asked,

"Do I look quite so repulsive to you?"

"No, no, of course you don't," he said hurriedly, striving to reassure her as much as was humanly possible. "It just saddens me that this had to happen to you, but it doesn't make you any less beautiful in my eyes, not in the slightest. I still want to make love to you, I still want to touch and kiss you as much as I ever did. You are George, my George, my George who can make me experience a level of sexual desire that can be rivalled by no other, except for that which I feel for Jo. So please, don't ever think that I don't love you or want you just because of this." Lowering his face to her chest, he kissed a delicate pattern along the angle of her scar, briefly laying his cheek on the flat portion of her chest. As she stroked his cheek as he did this, she knew that any worries she might have had about John, were entirely unnecessary. He did still love her and he did still want her, as was clearly testified by the hardness she could feel digging into her thigh, even through his trousers.

"You're wearing far too much, you know," She said, her voice a little unsteady, full of emotion as it currently was.

"Is that an invitation to further our afternoon of sincerely hedonistic pleasure?" He asked, sitting up to remove his shirt and toss it aside, as she worked on his belt and flies.

"Without a doubt," She replied, pressing her hand against the throbbing hardness of his manhood which was clearly itching to escape from its confinement. "Oh, no," She said in honest distress. "We can't, at least not in the normal way, as I'm still in danger of conceiving, which is something neither of us needs."

"Good job I dropped in at the chemist on the way here then, isn't it," He said with a smirk of triumph, getting up and going out into the hall to retrieve the little packet from his jacket pocket. When he returned and dropped the packet on the floor beside her and began removing the rest of his clothes, she gazed up at him with a playful smirk on her face.

"I haven't had sex with one of these for years," She said, holding up the packet of condoms and closely examining it. "I do admire your ingenuity though, darling, well done." As he rejoined her on the floor, she gently pushed him to lie on his back, and with one hand she tore off the wrapping to the packet, and with the other she began testing his hardness, running her hand expertly along his length, making him suck in a breath of sheer pleasure as he felt her firm but gentle touch. When she had extracted one of the awkwardly wrapped condoms from the packet, she realised that it would require both her hands to remove the condom itself. So, moving down his body, she temporarily engulfed his straining erection between her pouting lips, causing him to groan in delight.

"I love you," He said a little unsteadily, causing her to laugh with her mouth full. He always loved her when she did this for him. Casting the wrapper of the condom aside, and removing her mouth from his engorged shaft, she applied the barrier between his sexual fluids and hers, and immediately sat astride him, taking him fully into her slick and moist heat. As she gripped his hips with her thighs, slowly moving up and down as he grasped her waist between his hands, she knew what it was to feel whole again. There was always something missing from her life when she wasn't sleeping with him for some reason, whether that be an argument, or trying to hide such as her lump from his usually observant gaze. Pulling her down to lie against his chest, he thrust in and out of her, not minding as much as he thought he would that there was a thin, latex barrier between their interconnected centres. As they writhed in that age old way, they both felt that no matter what came next, the two of them, plus Jo when they could all three be together, could at least try to weather any storm, their united love and affection for each other providing the strength and support that they all would need.

Part One Hundred and Forty-Nine

Nikki lit an early morning cigarette, and sipped at a cup of strong black coffee. She didn't normally resort to caffeine to prop up her energy level, as it was normally up to any demands that she cared to put on it. She had to admit to herself that she was dog tired. She had worked through one appraisal interview after another, with machine driven force of will, with just enough time to allow her natural manner to prevent her sound as if she were doing it by rote. She had written up the last report at home into the small hours of last night. Everything was nearly done apart from the last interviewee, and that was Sylvia Hollamby.

She groaned inwardly as she thought of the prospect. She could anticipate nothing else but a ding-dong battle with that monument to prejudice and narrow-mindedness. She was certain most of all, that she would face that immovable malignant resentment of Nikki's very existence of being set in authority over her.

"Take a seat, Sylvia." Nikki offered her in as positive a tone that she could summon up.

The other woman only scowled and moved forward to occupy the chair with as bad grace as possible. "As you know, it's time for your annual appraisal when your performance over the year is assessed against your job description."

"Hmmh, I suppose you've made up your mind already."

"No, Sylvia, I'll hear anything any one of my staff want to say that's relevant and that includes you."

Nikki's smooth response promptly headed off the other woman's line of reasoning, and pressed her own authority down on the scowling woman, who had still not come to terms with Nikki's presence in Larkhall.

"We'd better get on and talk about what you've done in this last year. Perhaps you'd care to speak?"

"Well, I've done as I've always done. No con, I mean prisoner, has escaped while they've been in my charge. I've shown them who's boss, and I have maintained good order and discipline to the best of my ability."

"…..And you've acted with perfect integrity and fairness all the time?"

"Hmmh. Well, they've all got everything that was coming to them."

"Including Barbara Mills. I would say that your treatment of her has shown how bigoted you are. This is a particular instance of how you have let your personal feelings get in the way of your job."

"You would say that, wouldn't you? After all, you're her friend and you've bent over backward in your treatment of her." Shot back Bodybag with a malicious smile.

A wave of weariness spread through Nikki. She had been halfway expecting that retort , but it did hit a vulnerable spot in her. Where the Julies, Denny and Barbara were concerned, she felt that the boundaries might be in danger of getting blurred. Right now, her own rule of questioning her own actions was shading into self-doubt. She reached out for an answer and suddenly, the mental fog was blown away by the wind.

"Friendship has nothing to do with it, Sylvia. I expect all my prison officers to treat prisoners fairly, whether they are the Julies or Natalie Buxton."

Bodybag scowled at Nikki's firm response, and slouched back into her chair. Instinct told her to keep her head down if she was on the losing side of an argument.

"Have you anything more to say about your last year, Sylvia?"

"There's nothing I can say that will be of any use."

"Shall we proceed….'carrying out security checks and searching procedures'……I can say that you have met this to my satisfaction ……'supervising prisoners, keeping account of prisoners in your charge and maintaining order employing authorised physical control and restraint procedures where appropriate'……..well, nothing that has come to my ears to say that you haven't acted improperly in this respect……."

"Don't strain yourself in thanking me." Came the ungracious reply. Nikki refused to rise to the bait.

"When it comes to 'taking care of prisoners and their property, taking account of their rights and dignity, providing appropriate care and support for prisoners at risk of self harm,' I cannot mark you as fitted on this count. I have touched on your attitude to Barbara Mills. You have acted the same with other prisoners and the truth of the matter is that your behavior hasn't changed. You allow your bigoted set of values to take over and you simply have no respect from your fellow prison officers, from prisoners and from me. The only change that has taken place is that you are marginalized and you have to be more discreet about it. You just nurse your grudges and don't let them or your past go."

"You're speaking tommyrot." Bodybag burst out.

"I have it on the best authority, Sylvia, that this is what you said about Barbara.' You'll never change her. You should know that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.' Do I make my point?"

Sylvia just glowered in silence, as Nikki severely indicted her with her own words.

When it comes to 'promoting anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies', 'taking an active part in rehabilitation programmes for prisoners', I have to say that you have simply skived out of any opportunity to show that you are up to the job…."

"It wasn't what I was trained to do when I started this job many years ago." Snorted Bodybag.

"This is part of the job now, Sylvia." Nikki retorted with a hard edge to her voice. "Times have changed and not before time. Once again you are not up to the mark. So let's come onto the final matter of 'assessing and advising prisoners, using your own experiences and integrity and writing fair and perceptive reports on prisoners……………' My judgment about your lack of fairness flows into this area. As well as this,your reports are slipshod and scanty."

"I was taught many years ago how to write a report. They've done the job well enough down the years." Snapped Sylvia.

"What kind of job, Sylvia? To my mind, the only function they achieve is to keep your back covered so that if any real trouble breaks loose, nothing can be laid at your door. As you know, I'm not a fan of the prison system as it was and I have to ask myself that if I choose to trawl through your reports down the years to check out for any of the abuses that have taken place, would I find any enlightenment in your reports? I think not."

Nikki's cold hard tones only betrayed the faintest tremor of anger as, despite her best efforts, her own words recalled many bitter memories of injustices not brought to book. Bodybag knew very well what Nikki was alluding to and clammed up tight.

"Before I move on, I have to put to you your scandalously incompetent and malicious behaviour in giving evidence in court as a prosecution witness at Barbara Mills' trial…" Nikki began when she was interrupted.

"It's not in the job description, so you can't mark me down on this. If you do, my union will have something to say about it. You can expect your first grievance in your in tray and this will blot your copy book." Bodybag beamed with poisonous relish. She had been waiting for this moment and enjoyed every moment of telling Madam where to get off.

"If you care to look at your annual report in its entirety, Sylvia, you will see that your objectives all come under a general description of 'acting in a professional manner." Nikki explained in a tone of strained politeness. "After all, only your main duties are covered. It does not, it cannot include every single activity that is undertaken throughout the year, especially when it does not fall to every prison officer to give evidence in court. That gives me leeway to include this black mark on your record for the purpose of your appraisal."

"So if you don't get me one way, you'll get me another, miss."

"You mean when you connived with Dr Nicholson to ship Shell Dockley out to the muppet wing after Fenner was stabbed and she got beaten up in the showers?" shot back Nikki in icy tones. She let the silence hang in the air for a couple of minutes before carrying on.

"If I come back to your appearance in court, the best thing I can say is that it is am embarrassment to the prison service. If I take a hard line on you, your remarks totally prejudiced the opportunity of a fair trial, which was only rescued by the skin of the teeth. Your very worst action that day was to bring up Barbara's previous conviction……"

"I thought it right that the jury should know the nature of the woman they were dealing with."

"Do you really not understand, Sylvia? There are rules of evidence of what can and cannot be admitted in court." Stormed Nikki, losing all patience with the stupid woman." When we enter court to give evidence, we are on their turf, not ours. Like it or not, that is the way it goes and for this reason, the judge has rightly banned you permanently from ever giving evidence in court, something that I shall rigorously uphold so you can kiss goodbye to your expenses as well."

"That was the way I was trained to give evidence."

"And for this reason, I shall give every prison officer a training course in how to give evidence in court in a proper fashion so that your fiasco will never, ever be repeated while I'm wing governor."


"Why not? I'm well qualified." Cut back Nikki with absolute assurance.

"I suppose that you plan to push me out of my job in the same way that Di Barker was got rid of."

"What makes you say that, Sylvia?"

"Oh, come on, it's as plain as a pikestaff."

"On the contrary, it is not. Di Barker very deliberately sneaked out a news cutting of Karen's address to Shell Dockley, and abused the trust of me and her fellow officers. She knew very well that it would give Shell a focus on how to escape from Ashmore, a reason to escape and that sooner or later, with her track record she would do it. Her scheming resulted in Karen's life being put seriously at risk, and could have had further repercussions into the bargain. It turned out that there were no serious consequences but there could have been. Your mischief was more limited in its possible consequences, but don't think that I have forgotten it, especially not when I have to review your probation this August."

"What do you mean? I'll be back without anyone snooping on my every move."

'I wouldn't bet on it." Came Nikki's dry response.

She helped herself to a glass of water as her throat was dry and on the point of packing up on her. She would have loved to smoke a cigarette, but she was duty bound to respect the wishes of a non-smoker, even Sylvia.

"I suppose you'll enjoy the next bit, tearing my reputation to pieces in print and blackening my name."

"You'll get a report that will reflect last years performance." Nikki answered cautiously. She didn't dare think of the very difficult job she had of keeping her own prejudices out of putting pen to paper. "What's always interested me is how you once got to be a Senior Officer. On the face of it, the appraisal system won't have changed. You certainly aren't any different than you used to be years ago so how did it happen?"

Bodybag was silent. She wasn't going to let on how she had got her promotion. It all seemed so much easier in those days as they were all in the same club.

"No explanation? Well, I can assume the worst. Have you anything else to say?"

Nikki's last technical courtesy was brushed aside.

"I'm going. Off to the club."

The sudden quiet was almost deafening to Nikki, as she smoked that much craved cigarette and looked down at her scrawled notes. Wearily, she turned to her computer to tap out the familiar phrases and to seek the dry, unemotional words that would pin that evil bigoted woman down as effectively as a butterfly under a glass case. It was sheer will power that drove her on. It was an hour or so when she had done and briefly announced to a concerned Gina that she was taking the rest of the afternoon off.

Helen was immediately concerned how weary and listless Nikki was when she got home. The other woman lay full length on the sofa, her eyes closed. A half empty glass of water and a clean ashtray lay at her side.

"Sweetheart, you look dreadful. Come on, let me look after you."

There were moments like these that Nikki loved in Helen, especially that melting soft tone in her voice that made her feel loved. Despite her reluctance to be fussed over, she let Helen tuck a duvet round her and slide a pillow under her head. She basked in the attention, while Helen prepared an evening snack. She lay there immobile while soft relaxing music was played from her CD to ease a little of the stress out of the day. The sidelights left dim circles of light on the living room wall while the rest of the room was left in comforting gloom. The world was at peace, at least temporarily so.

Even though it was early, Helen encouraged Nikki to have an early night. As soon as Nikki's head hit the pillow, she fell fast asleep. Behind her, Helen lay protectively next to her and all was comforting blackness.

Nikki couldn't remember how she ever found herself back in her office and the personnel file of none other than Jim Fenner before her. She supposed that she had become punch drunk, after cutting a swathe through the appraisal interviews and feverishly committing them to paper before her memory was blurred. She must have forgotten about him but it didn't matter. He was there before her and no matter how tired she felt, he was far more uncomfortable than she was.

"Ah, Jim Fenner, grab a seat. You are last but not least in how much attention I shall devote to you."

"I suppose you left me till last to wind me up, or else that you think I'm the most trouble to you," growled the man, intense anger radiating off him in waves. His features were settled in their familiar scowl but Nikki's force of personality held him in her power. She was surprised to see that the pips on his uniform were absent. She supposed that he had been demoted.

"Now why should you ever think that way, Jim?" Nikki answered in bright tones with an unconscious suggestion of George's aristocratic drawl. From seeing George in action, she had sponged up on that particularly effective verbal ploy. The intense glare of anger told Nikki that it had worked.

"You and I have never got on. You've always had it in for me, so spare me this pantomime."

"You know very well that I'll treat all my staff, including you, straight down the line, no favouritism….But don't ever think that you can use that against me."

Nikki's bright firm opening response shifted like lightning to a much quieter, deadlier whiplash threat. She gathered into herself all the force of personality that she had learned over the years. She could feel her eyes burn into the man on the other side of her desk. Fenner was the first to look away.

"You were bang out of order in demoting me." Growled Fenner, his number one grievance to the fore."You're lucky I didn't take you to the union as a grievance, for harassment."

"Not sexual harassment, I trust?" Nikki shot back a barbed response." Save that for Rachel Hicks, Shell Dockley…….and Helen Wade."

"Come again?"

"Better known to you as Helen Stewart. You have a bad reputation for going way, way over the mark in rooms where there aren't any witnesses. This time around, I'm not taking any chances. Walls have ears and eyes."

"I've got my pension to think of. It isn't worth screwing up over you."

"So long as you're around long enough to get it." Cut back Nikki dryly.

Suddenly a crack of thunder jumped out of nowhere, and rolled round Nikki's office. A fierce blast of wind splattered the first onslaught of a torrential downpour against the window panes. She glanced sideways at the window, and saw that dark, lowering clouds had rapidly overshadowed her view of the exercise yard. Fenner didn't blink an eye as if these elemental forces were no stranger to him. As he said nothing, she went to offer him a cigarette, as she reached for one herself. She was not surprised that he curtly refused it.

"What am I doing here in any case?" Fenner muttered, shaking his head as if trying to clear his thoughts." Simon's done my review. ……What are you doing here, Wade?"

He added more aggressively.

"Nikki Wade, if you please. Let's get the courtesies right. You should know that I'm your new wing governor in case you hadn't forgotten. Stubberfield is long gone and I'm here to……….."

"Really piss me off?"

"No, Jim. To sit in judgment over you, if you like. You know that this has been a long , long time coming."

Nikki's steely tones beat down Fenner's anger. In his eyes, that dyke Wade had the knack of looking at him with thinly veiled contempt, and could see his every thought. She was beyond his control, and deep down that both angered and scared him.Added to this was that tone of command, which had dominated him through his Army days, no matter how hard he had tried to imitate it. Even all the years he had climbed up the greasy pole of success didn't protect him. He fell silent.

"Let's get down to business, Jim and see how you've performed according to the guidelines that you'll have signed up to last year. As you have said often enough round the PO's room, you've been around a long time so the whole process should be familiar to you."

"Not these guidelines, they're not. They're the sort of thing that soppy Stewart has dreamed up."

"Well, like it or lump it, they are standards against which your performance is to be judged. You can't plead ignorance…..Let me see, we'll go through them in order and consider how far you've met them, or not as the case may be."

Nikki's level formal tones had the knack of getting under Fenner's skin more that he would have thought possible. They conveyed the power that she had over him.

"Well, let's see…….carrying out security checks and searching procedures……..I've got nothing particular one way or another….except that you've always been a bit lax where Dockley's concerned. Remember her?"

"You're lying. I'm her personal officer, that's all."

"Very personal, I'm sure. It's funny that Dominic busts her for dealing drugs and you with all your experience never so much as found an aspirin on her. Then there's 'supervising prisoners, keeping account of prisoners in your charge and maintaining order employing authorised physical control and restraint procedures where appropriate.' Well, I have to admit that you like the sound of your own shouting but it's funny how Shell Dockley keeps headbutting the prison wall. A bit suspicious, don't you think? Is it any wonder that you were suspended, at least until you somehow wormed your way out of trouble. If I hear of one more incident of this type…and I will hear of it, trust me, then I'll make sure you're out of the prison service without your pension."

"Is that all?" glowered Fenner."Nothing nice to say as usual?"

"Why should I? How can I find anything positive to say about you when I look at how you have 'taken care of prisoners and their property, taking account of their rights and dignity, providing appropriate care and support for prisoners at risk of self harm' and 'promoting anti-bullying and suicide prevention policies.' That has to be the biggest joke of all. Oh yeah, you have 'taken care of some of them all right if they are young, vulnerable, and don't know enough about how to say no. To you, prisoners have no rights at all. They are only to be played with if they take your fancy and easily disposable if they turn awkward. As for 'prisoners at risk of self harm' I have only two words to say to you. Rachel Hicks. You are a sexist, homophobic monstrosity and the worst bully anyone could hope to meet outside of a horror movie. If I could give you minus ten for your report, I would do."

Fenner just sat back woodenly, while Nikki built up her systematic denunciation into a storming crescendo. She had bottled up her feelings for so long, and now it all came out in a stream of controlled fury. She could hear very clearly that little voice at the back of her head that had taught her discretion, just how far to push a situation without it blowing back in her face. She paused as she took a large drink of water as her throat was getting dry. When she continued, it was in much quieter tones as she summed up.

"So, Jim Fenner, just what sort of prison officer are you? I cannot mark you as having satisfied any of your personal objectives that you signed up for. It's a wonder that you weren't given the push years ago."

"You think you're so smart with all those long words, you interfering dyke. You're missing out one thing that's right under your bloody nose. It's called jail craft, something that you don't pick up in fancy books. You get to learn it by doing the job, by breaking up trouble before it has a chance to start. You use your eyes and your ears. I've worked longer at this nick longer than anyone. If you push me too far, I'll make sure that you'll regret that you ever crossed my path…….."

"Oh, Jim, I have had such a lot of ideas of what I would do to you if I had the chance." Nikki cut in, in a surprisingly reflective almost sing song tone of voice. It caught Fenner off balance, anticipation that Nikki would be drawn into a full-scale row. "One time, I might have stabbed you with a smashed milk bottle if Helen hadn't stepped in. I could never think of a punishment big enough for you. Then, one day, I found the answer. You are very deeply pathologically disturbed, Jim Fenner so the answer is to cure you. I'm going to sign you up to a course of counselling that a friend of mine will oversee. You have no choice on the matter. He has a background as a psychiatrist who will be better suited than the alternative I had in mind……."

Nikki had thought originally of Helen but had ruled out the idea. There was too much dangerous history between the two of them, so that she could not think of exposing Helen to such a dangerous risk.

"Thomas, please come in." she called out in a louder tone of voice." It's time to introduce you to your next client……..."

As she spoke, Thomas promptly slid in through the door from her secretary's room where he had observed and heard everything that had gone on through a spy hole.

"No, no, anything but that." Fenner burst out, his eyes bulging, sweat pouring down his face.

"Well, Jim, we are going to get to know each other very well." Thomas said heartily, extending his hand to shake Fenner's limp grip in a firm handshake, before adding in a confiding whisper. "I promise not to take a swing at you this time."

"Take him away, Thomas. You know, Fenner, that you cannot escape your destiny. You get an unsatisfactory marking from me this year but, who knows, with caring counselling you might make the grade next year?"

"You lay one finger on me, Mr Shrink and I'll…." Fenner snarled, pulling away from the handshake.

"Come on, Jim," Dominic intervened from out of nowhere," You know it is all for the best. You need from really caring professional help to straighten you out, someone really able to really get inside your head. Don't worry, Thomas will be really kind and understanding."

Nikki watched in a curiously detached frame of mind how Dominic's soothing words contrasted with the steely grip with which he grasped Fenner's shoulder. Thomas seized the opportunity to frog march him away from her from his other side. It was as if all her power of command radiated outwards to these two very able work colleagues of like mind. She sat in a curiously contented frame of mind as Fenner's shrieks of anguish resonated in her office, and how the two determined men wheeled him out of her door and away. She knew for certain that Fenner would never come back……………….

Nikki stretched out her legs and lay back in her chair, exhausted ……and couldn't work out how her naked foot suddenly connected with soft flesh.

"Jesus, Nikki." An unexpected Scottish voice invaded her office out of nowhere without opening the door first.

"Where am I?" she heard her muffled voice say to yourself.

"In bed next to me, Nikki."

Nikki became aware that she was lying horizontal rather than lying back in her chair, feeling zonked out. She also realized that she was wearing a nightie, not her suit and that a crumpled duvet lay over them both. It comforted her that she was living with Helen, after all and didn't have to look out on the wing for any more trouble from that bastard.

"I was dreaming that I was doing Fenner's appraisal." Nikki replied with a shaky laugh.

"And what sort of mark did you give him?" Helen asked lightly. She refrained from making any comment about Nikki letting work get in the way of her sleep, let alone her homelife. She'd been there or something similar to it.

"Even worse than Sylvia's. I'd demoted him as well."

"Well, you won't have to write out the report and hand it to him, as he's saved you the trouble by being dead." Helen retorted, suppressing a grin. By all accounts, even Nikki's dreams were so typical of her.

"Oh, that's good." Mumbled Nikki unthinkingly.

"You know, Nikki, I ought to take you out for some kind of treat, either an expensive meal or the best musical experience or anything you want." Pronounced Helen in her most determined forceful tones.

"Did I ever tell you that I love it when you're bossy," Nikki said weakly and lay limply while Helen cuddled her closely. She hadn't the physical energy to move much less argue.

Part One Hundred and Fifty

The next day, Nikki entered Larkhall with a lighter heart than she had had for the last few weeks. She still felt pretty bleary eyed from last night's disturbed sleep, but she was sure that she could manage to get through another day.

"Morning, Nikki." Selena addressed her with new respect as she headed for her office while Nikki smiled vaguely in reply. She was too tired to register the fact that Selena viewed Nikki with new respect, because of her sharp-eyed sympathetic insight into her last year's work. It was akin to Karen's own brisk and businesslike style of previous years, yet with her own subtly different colorations.

She picked up all her typed up reports, which were nicely sealed up in envelopes. She resolved to commit them to Karen's care and see them off her hands. She had got to the point that they weren't going to be any better than they were and, with almost maternal pride, popped them under her arm and headed for Karen's office. Without any preamble, she strolled in and spoke before Karen had focused her full attention on her.

"I've done the lot, Karen."

"I'm impressed. I can see by the lines under your eyes that you've worked really hard on them. Did you have any problems?"

"Nothing I couldn't solve… with a bit of help with Helen in practicing one of her experiments in forcing me into a role-play."

Karen grinned at the vision it conjured up. She predicted that, for all the training and her advice, Nikki would have stamped her own individualist twist on them.

"Well, I'll study them with great care and I must congratulate you. The first time is always the hardest."

"Isn't it always?"

Karen laughed at Nikki's humour and the general good mood. It did her good to experience the lighter side of life, rather than be an unintentional player in a heavy drama. A ray of sunlight played over her face. She didn't want to talk business but an early morning phone call made it convenient to broach the matter with one of her wing governors.

"Well, now you're here," Karen continued in a more serious tone of voice. "I want to let you know that the go ahead has been given to recruit a limited number of prison officers. Area will be organizing it through the local paper and the Jobcentre."

"I can't believe it, Karen. I thought those tight-fisted bastards in the Home Office were turning the screws on us, at the same time as expecting us to lock up more prisoners…..or am I missing something?"

The faintest smile curved the corners of the other woman's lips in reply and Nikki got the message.

"How did you hear of this, Karen?"

"Neil phoned me just now to give me advance warning. He smuggled it through the budgets under Alison Warner's very nose. He knows how we're struggling for staff."

Not for the first time in Nikki's life, she immediately felt acutely embarrassed by her occasional tendency to launch into impulsive generalizations.

"I'm sorry, Karen, for bad mouthing the one honest guy along with everyone else. I should have known better."

"You're ninety per cent right, Nikki. Neil would say that himself."

Nikki smiled fondly and warmly at this very remarkable man who had aided her own entry into her job and whose unique Machiavellian skills were deployed so protectively around them. She couldn't help thinking that while she was a club owner, her environment was virtually all female, and that her change of job had steered some strong male friends in her direction.

"Well, tell us the news, Karen. How many new POs do we get?"

"Not as much as Neil would have liked. I've has a preliminary look at the needs of the wing as a whole and you get two more prison officers. You must know that all the other wings are similarly stretched. "

Karen mentally noted favourably to herself that while the other woman's face fell, she accepted Karen's word that this was her fair share of what she had to offer. Another wing governor might have asked questions and pushed for more prison officers, pleading some spurious special case. Instead, Nikki lit a cigarette and thoughtfully contemplated how her rosters could be best helped. It wasn't much but it would ease the pressure.

"What gets to me is how much the bloody politicians mouth on about being tough on crime and locking up criminals and when it comes down to it, they want the job done on the cheap. We don't exist in their world unless anything kicks off."

"It's not all bad, Nikki. It's just the prison service. You'd better get used to it. It will take the heat off your staffing problems, especially during the summer. You found out all about that one, as soon as you started last year."

Nikki fell silent, as her fingers let her cigarette end smoulder away by itself. Her frame of thinking drifted back to her past, when she was on the lookout of a barmaid at her club. It made her start to think of whom she wanted to see on her wing. In a flash of inspiration, Josh Mitchell jumped immediately into her mind.

"I guess that the vacancies have got to be advertised openly, but does it stop us touting for custom?"

"Plans are being made for the advert to go out in the local paper and Jobcentre as we speak. We can't pull strings directly to get someone into the job."

"Does it stop us asking anyone we know who might be suitable to apply for the job?"

"Of course not……" Karen started to say automatically, until the penny dropped. She looked sharply at Nikki and could sense her train of thought.

"You have someone in mind, Nikki. I can tell by the look on your face."

"I know one guy who would be ideal for the job. He is just the sort of caring human being that we need."

"….and his name is……"

"Josh Mitchell." Pronounced Nikki confidently.

It was Karen's turn to fall silent. The name of Josh Mitchell had mixed memories for her. Karen had been much closer than Nikki to the events that had seen his unfortunate exit from Larkhall. Her mind was invaded by images of Crystal, proudly declaring that while she was pregnant, she was a virgin. She remembered Josh's initial keenness to be prison officer, when Di Barker of all people had put him up to it and also that he had cooled off fast, when Crystal had become pregnant. He could have stuck it out and have faced the consequences with a reprimand, but he had chosen to resign for no clear or good reason. She might be accused of being a bit old fashioned, but she was not keen on any prison officer who hadn't got staying power for the job.

"What's the problem, Karen?" Nikki enquired gently.

"Aren't you jumping the gun a bit? Have you talked to him about the matter?"

"Well, no. Until you mentioned the vacancy I had no reason to." Admitted Nikki.

"Exactly. You're assuming for a start that Josh wants to come back to the prison service. For all we know, he might be happy where he is."

"The last I saw of him, he and Crystal could do with the extra money."

"You know that that's nowhere near a good enough reason."

"I know that but there's more to this one than you're letting on. For some reason, you have a problem with Josh coming back here." Nikki suggested gently.

Karen sighed and told the story of what had happened to Josh last time. It was strange hearing of this fragment of the past through Karen's eyes as, for once, Helen hadn't been at the center of the matter and Nikki had had no eyes for the matter as she had her own fish to fry.

"One look at Josh and you can tell he's the faithful type. The only problem last time around was that he and Crystal were opposite sides of the bars. Things are different now and he's bound to be more settled. History doesn't have to repeat itself, Karen. What happened with Crystal won't happen with another inmate. There's no reason why it should."

"Nikki, you are such a romantic with an impossibly positive view of life." Chided Karen.

"Even after three years on the inside?" countered Nikki. "It's not that we're giving him the inside track to get the job. You never know, there are a limited number of places and there could be candidates that are better suited for the job than Josh somewhere out there."

"You think that there are loads of people queuing up, who are also cut out for the job? They don't grow on trees. Think carefully, Nikki." Warned Karen.

"Ok, let's agree that, if Josh is willing, he takes his chances in open competition. You can't say fairer than that."

Karen reluctantly nodded in agreement. When she came to think of it, she might be overcompensating in being fearful in case bad experiences repeat themselves.

Part 151

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