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 Fifty One

It was finally Friday the seventeenth of March, St. Patrick's Day, and time for George's first session of chemotherapy. She had been dreading this day, knowing that it was a necessary part of her treatment, but dreading it nonetheless. Her session would take the whole of Friday afternoon, giving her the weekend in which to recover from it. George had been working from home for the last week or so, trying to take her return to her normal duties one step at a time. She still didn't feel entirely comfortable with the thought of returning to her office, even though to look at her, no one could honestly tell that one of her breasts was false. She was also still experiencing great lapses of mental as well as physical energy, something which she supposed would continue until all this was finally over. Jo was coming with her to the hospital during her lunch break, as neither her nor John wanted George to have to go there alone. John would come to pick her up at around five, and George was heartily grateful for their ongoing support.

When they arrived at The Haddlington, they walked upstairs to the ward where George had stayed for those few interminable days.

"I hate coming back here," George said quietly to Jo as they walked towards the nurses' station.

"I know," Jo replied sympathetically. "But it's better than the NHS any day." George was forced to agree with this, knowing that if she'd had to share a room with anyone, she would have gone even more crazy than she already had. Tricia was there as usual, and she led them through to a room George hadn't seen before.

"All that's really going to happen today," She explained. "Is that I'll connect you up to a drip, which contains a combination of drugs that will fight the remaining cancer cells left in your body. You're going to get very bored, so I hope you've brought something to read."

"A fairly urgent case file as it happens," George replied with a self-deprecating smile.

"Well, that wasn't quite what I had in mind," Tricia said ruefully. "And you might find that it becomes harder and harder to concentrate on something so dull and tedious." As she began to assemble everything she would need, Tricia added, "Ric will pop in to see you some time this afternoon, and I'll keep looking in just to make sure you're all right."

"Just how dreadful am I going to feel after this?" George asked with some concern.

"The most likely outcome," Tricia said, trying to soften the blow slightly. "Is that it'll make you very sick, but if it does, we can give you something to help with that."

"Marvellous," George replied with a theatrical groan. "Just what I wanted at the end of a Friday afternoon." When Tricia had George all hooked up and had left her to it, Jo said that she would have to go.

"I'm before our lord and master this afternoon, so I'd better not be late."

"Oh well, if you do anything that should make him want to bang you up," George said with a smile, trying to cheer herself up if nothing else. "Tell him that he'll get no sex from me for a week." Jo grinned, briefly wondering if that threat would hold any significant weight with such a punishment. Putting her arms round George and kissing her gently, she said,

"I'll see you later."

"I'll look forward to it," George replied softly, meaning every word.

When Jo left the room, she found that Ric and Zubin had joined Tricia at the desk, and were going over some patient files.

"Jo," Zubin said with a smile. "It's good to see you."

"I'll look in on George in a little while," Ric told her. "Though while I think about it, there is something that we need to discuss with you."

"Of course," Jo said, glancing at her watch. "Though I do have to be back in court by two."

"It shouldn't take long," Ric assured her. "It's about some of the medication George may need following her sessions of chemo."

"Let me guess," Jo said in a manner of bleak remembrance. "Anti-sickness medication and possible pain relief, if it gets that far."

"Let's not cross that particular bridge till we come to it," Ric told her quietly.

"You sound as though you're talking from experience," Zubin said gently.

"I nursed my husband through the final stages of cancer nearly twenty years ago," Jo told them succinctly. "So yes, I have been here before in a manner of speaking."

"Well, it's about the anti-emetic that she may need to take if she finds it impossible to keep oral medication down, which believe me does happen. Either you or the Judge, needs to be able to administer an intra-muscular injection, should that become necessary, otherwise George will be forced to return to hospital, something I should imagine she would rather avoid."

"Well, I have done that before," Jo told them. "Though not for some considerable time."

"Would you be prepared to do it again?" Zubin asked, realising that this may resurrect some very painful memories for Jo.

"If it will help George get through this, then yes, of course I will," Jo said with nothing but absolute certainty in her tone.

"Then you must practice," Ric informed her.

"Do you still do it on oranges?" Jo asked with a slight smile at the incongruity of such an act.

"It's the best thing there is," Zubin said forthrightly. "An orange bears the closest resemblance to the tension of human skin."

"Tricia, as Zubin and I are due in theatre at least five minutes ago, please could you make sure that Mrs. Mills can still adequately administer an injection?"

"Leave it with me," Tricia replied, having until then been on the edge of the conversation. When Jo finally left to return to court a little while later, she knew without a doubt that should George require such a service from her, she would be more than capable of performing it.

When John came to pick her up later that afternoon, George felt exhausted, sick, and wanted to do nothing more than to go home and go straight to bed.

"How do you feel?" John asked her when Tricia showed him into the room. "Or is that a particularly stupid question?"

"I'll forgive you for it just this once," George said tiredly. As John tucked her arm through his and led the way towards the outside, Tricia stopped them and handed John a bag of medication.

"Everything you might need is in there," She informed George. "Including the injections you might find necessary and that we talked about earlier." When John raised his eyebrows at this, George said,

"I'll explain it to you later."

"The injections must be kept in the fridge," Tricia also told her. "Because they don't last for ever."

When they reached the car park, George said,

"I'm afraid that if you don't want me to throw up on the way home, I'm going to have to smoke in your car, which I know is against every principle you possess."

"I'm sure I can open the window," he said, opening the passenger door for her and putting the bag of medications on her lap. When he'd started the engine and she had lit up a cigarette, she asked,

"Would you mind if we went back to yours instead of mine? I feel as though I've seen far too much of that house in the last couple of weeks."

"Sure," He said, turning out into the stream of Friday night traffic. "I'll call Jo and let her know."

Part One Hundred and Fifty Two

It took Nikki only until Saturday lunchtime to get over the hard work of the previous week. It helped of course that, outside, it was a bright day and the first spring buds were starting to appear. Unfortunately, fierce cold blasts of winter wind refused to let go its grip on the world outside, and so Nikki was confined to looking out to the back of their flat to what was there of the garden outside. At least the look of the weather and the lengthening days had the effect of cheering her up. It would not be too long before she would get the chance on a quiet weekend, to put her previous experience of Larkhall to good use. The main difference here was that the garden was hers, Helen freely confessing that plants had a habit of dying on her if they were left in her sole charge.

"You look cheerful, Nikki."

"Ah well, it's the end of the week, and…."

"You know that Larkhall is in good hands." Put in Helen.

Nikki smiled freely. That was precisely the case. With one exception, whichever prison officer was on the weekend shift could be trusted to act within limits and that, if Nikki were called upon to get involved, it would be for a good reason.

"You know that it wasn't always that way, especially when half of them were only interested in covering their backs, not with acting for the best."

"I know that I've got you, Karen and Neil to thank for that. "

The day had that hushed feeling, of all's right with the world. After the winter darkness, drab grey skies and periodic wind and drizzle, everywhere looked new painted. Both women fell silent as they drank in the feeling of peace. Minutes later, this was interrupted by the irritating blemish of a solitary helicopter clattering its way across the sky. On such a perfect day, it had no reason to be there when the rest of London was taking life easy.

"So you've finished all your reports?"

"All done and dusted and in Karen's hands. Mind you, I may have two more to do next year."

Helen's raised enquiring eyebrows prompted Nikki to continue. She was obviously bursting with news, that she was dying to unload on Helen.

"Karen's just told me that I'm getting two more prison officers."

"I thought the prison service was clamping down tighter on staffing more than in my day. I would have been lucky to get an extra arm."

"Neil has fixed it so that I get two out of the extra prison officers for all the wings in Larkhall."

"You've got plans, Nikki. I can tell that a mile away."

"I've got an idea for Josh to come back to the prison service. He'd be ideal."

"Are you sure he'd be even interested, much less willing to go for the job?"

"Well, no," Nikki admitted. "But if I sounded him out, I'm sure he would go for it."

"Why Josh?" Helen probed in a somber mood.

"Why anyone? Because I want anyone who wants to come into the prison service to come in without having the jailer mentality. You know what mindset is like , getting their kicks from locking people up and throwing their weight around. There may be other good people coming in for the right reason, but at least if Josh applied, I know already that there's one with the right attitude."

"You aren't going to get him the inside track?" Helen pursued.

"Of course not." Snapped Nikki. "It's out of my hands. Area is running the recruitment board. The most that I can do is to steer him in the right direction."

A little voice at the back of Nikki's mind told her that Helen wasn't just being cautious and careful, or even putting a damper on the proceedings, but there was more than met the eye. Nikki started to come down off her enthusiasm trip and felt in her bones that Helen wasn't in the best of spirits.

"How are you getting on at work, Helen? You don't sound so cheerful."

"Not so good, Nikki. I've been seeing John for the past five months and, for the first time, I'm doubting my own abilities to deal with a patient. I think I'm losing his plot."

"As in the judge?"

"There is only one John, Nikki."

"If you want to tell me about one of your patients, you must really feel up against it."

"I am, Nikki." Helen sighed, "and I need to talk to you about him to work out where the hell to go next."

Nikki looped her arm round Helen's shoulders and drew her to the sofa. She could feel the tension in the other woman's body.

"Well, for a start, he's highly intelligent as you know well enough." Began Helen.

"Well, that's good. That means he must have some insight into himself."

"If only life were so easy…… Inside his profession, he is scrupulously and rigorously controlled in his very word and deed. Even in his battles with his establishment, there is a controlled recklessness in him in doing the right thing. Instinct tells him just how far he can push his luck and, no matter how much hot water he ends up in, at the end of the day, he's a survivor."

"That's the John I know." Pronounced Nikki in answer to Helen's tones of pride in him.

"So what's the downside?"

"The man has a divided soul. Basically, he has felt unloved ever since his adoptive mother committed suicide when he was ten. After that, his adoptive father withheld love from him…….."Helen continued in a more reflective tone, hesitating when she considered her own family background. How had she not spotted that before now, she wondered?" Because of this, he fears being deserted and being unloved by a woman in his adult life. The result is that he is a serial womanizer."

Nikki's eyes opened wide. This was hard for her to get her head round, so grounded was she in her own identity.

"Whatever he had done in his private life that he feels guilty for is guilty for, he basically feels that he has gone past the point of no return. Jo and George entered into a three-way relationship with him to keep him on the straight and level but for all that, he slept

with Connie Beauchamp, not knowing that George had breast cancer. Can you imagine the impact of that on his personality already corroded by guilt?"

"But why does he do it?" Nikki exclaimed.

"Why indeed? The only thing I can come up with is that he is addicted to sex as others might be to drink, or to drugs. Falling off the wagon only gives him that temporary lift in his spirits, that he is somehow worthwhile, yet are nowhere near the scale of the disaster that he brings down on himself when it comes out."

"Does he know what he's letting himself in for?"

"Aside from not knowing about George's cancer, I am sure he knows every time but the nature of addiction is that he can't find it in himself not to give way, sooner or later."

This made Nikki's head swim. She paused for reflection and, with an effort of will, pulled herself together to focus in on the positives.

"So what can you say he gets out of his close relationships? I mean in general."

"I would say that of late, he is more and more capable of friendships with women, Karen, Yvonne, even me and you to some extent. I can't put my finger on it but it goes against the grain for the normal public school educated man, whose hallmark is male bonding. Then again, he doesn't fit into any mould, only his own."

There was a slight smile on Helen's lips as she uttered those last words. The same remark fits Nikki to a T and was one reason why she was attracted to her.

"So where do Jo and George fit into the picture?"

" George has her own cross to bear in her own guilt in not feeling naturally maternal to Charlie, while John by contrast was the perfect father. I am sure that while they have no illusions about him, they accept him for who he is within limits. They both love him deeply, despite the hurt that he has given them, but……"

Nikki's large brown eyes and raised eyebrows invited Helen to follow through the train of thought that had temporarily stalled.

"I don't think that he can make their love real to himself."

There was a long silence as Nikki digested everything Helen had said. She had offered her words of wisdom down the years to distressed souls of all kinds, but this felt out of her league.

"I'd have to think this over as I can't think of easy answers. There's some sort of crisis coming on. Out of it, John may find the right direction. I hope so for his sake."

Helen put her arms round Nikki and held her. She didn't have any magic answer but she felt better for sharing her worries. Her intense sympathy for John was so like her. They lay back in the settee on a lazy Saturday afternoon, glorying in the brightness of the day.

As usual, they put on Radio 5 which percolated its cultured influence into the flat. By contrast, the television only broadcast a mixture of sports, soaps and repeats. Suddenly, the soft tones of the radio broadcast prompted their attention.

"Thousands of anti-war protesters have turned out for a demonstration in central London, calling for UK troops to leave Iraq. Police put the number attending at 15,000, but organisers said between 80,000 and 100,000 were at the rally."

As a backdrop to the radio announcer were the sounds of chanting voices, interwoven in formless chaotic carnival sounds. It was made up of thousands of human voices and was punctuated by sporadic outbursts of drumming. This sounded like life to them, and felt intensely familiar to Nikki through every pore of her skin.

"Jesus." Nikki exclaimed. She looked out of the window, and by contrast their street was as quiet and as peaceful as any weekend permitted it to be.

"Wait, Nikki."

"Lindsey German, Convenor of Stop the War Coalition, said: 'We believe that a peaceful solution to the chaos, caused by the illegal war in Iraq will only be possible when the occupying foreign armies have all been removed, so that the Iraqi people will be free to decide on their own political future."

When the sounds trailed away and the next item took its place, their perfect world felt somehow incomplete.

"That sounds reasonable enough." Commented Helen to the radio.

"It must be on the five o clock news. I want to see more." Nikki answered as she reached for the TV remote control. Eagerly, they sat down in the settee. They were just in time.

"Come on, come on." Nikki muttered impatiently as some incongruously supposedly important news item usurped the rightful place.

"Wait a moment, there's the local news." Helen reassured Nikki.

"Yeah, like thousands of demonstrators in the centre of London are only just fill in material, until the really important business of some mindless soap."

Time ticked on with excruciating slowness, as the suntanned man without a hair out of place read from the autocue in front of him. Images of trivia played on as backdrop behind him to their disgust. Sure enough, the fanfare concluded the nation's briefing of all the news that was fit to hear.

"Here it is, Nikki." Helen yelled.

Amidst the irritating 'voice over', the camera's eye looked down on Trafalgar Square. The architectural austerity of Nelson's column was brightened by multicoloured banners of all descriptions, and the square was absolutely crowded out with masses of people. Nikki was fascinated by the passionate foursquare speech of the woman, speaking from somewhere in the crowd, until it was cut off by the sounds of a helicopter clattering away overhead.

"Just forty five seconds?" questioned Nikki scornfully.

"I can tell that you wish that you had been there."

"I might have done if I'd known but how would I go into some crowded room and say, hi there, I'm Nikki Wade, I'm only wing governor of the local nick, lead me to the demonstration. Let's face it, I know I do a good job, but I don't get much street credibility out of it."

"Do you need it, Nikki?" Pursued Helen softly. "I sense another cause coming on."

"Living with you doesn't help me to not pursue causes."

"Don't get me wrong, Nikki. I feel exactly the same as you. I've every reason to loathe the war as two of my recent patients have been discharged from the Army with severe psychological disturbance. I know that if it hadn't been for the war, they would never have needed to come anywhere near me. It's just that they have seen and done things over there that they can't live with themselves. They are the walking wounded, only you can't see their scars. I can see that my time will be cut out looking after them, and there will be more to come. My place now is to heal the individuals, and not fight the big causes. Let's face it, we haven't got much choice but stand on the sidelines on this one and silently cheer them on."

Nikki turned pale. This was another side of Helen's professional work that she hadn't known. She had more reason than ever to believe in Helen's sincerity, as this pencilled in tragedy was something that the impersonal news headlines never mentioned.

"You must know that you could be in a dangerous position if you were arrested. The Home Secretary stands at the top of the shit heap in the world where you work. This is the same Home Office that granted your appeal in the first place. You have to consider realities, and look after those who are in your charge and, through them, try and make a better world in the same way that the antiwar marchers are doing. As for myself, I've got a practice to keep going to heal the damaged souls, war victims included. Of course we are anti war. It's just that we aren't on the streets. That's all."

Nikki fell silent and her face clouded over. She knew that Helen's words made crystal sharp sense, every word of them. She just felt as if the best party had been arranged and she had somehow missed out on it. In the silence, the sounds of the helicopter invaded the peace of the evening with its discordant sounds. Now Nikki knew where and why it had come and gone. If she had only listened to the main news, she would have never known of the existence of the rally. Larkhall used to be like that in an inverted kind of way when she came to think of it, injustices and abuses behind locked doors. She fell silent while Helen clicked the TV off, its usefulness outgrown.

"Didn't you once say that John used to be a rebellious student in his younger days?" Nikki questioned, a random thought caught in passing before it could disappear.

"I can remember him talking of when Charlie was involved in a sit in over the siting of mobile phone masts. He said that his own protests and sit in days were over."

Nikki suddenly grinned. She could visualize a younger, even more reckless, headstrong man, much like herself. This was the reason why she related to him so much.

"Not him, or you or me, Helen. We just do it our way."

Part One Hundred and Fifty Three

Neil Haughton was eager with suppressed excitement, after receiving the phone call from the very anonymous but very powerful 'behind the scenes' political fixer. His behaviour was similar to the run up to a first date, even down to the febrile anticipation that his ultimate desires would be consummated.

There was a distinct pecking order in the various ministerial jobs. Of course, Chancellor of the Exchequer was at the top of the pile and a training ground for the ultimate political prize itself, combining the power of the purse strings with the prestige of high public profile. That position was permanently occupied. The position in the Foreign Office carried a certain old style aristocratic grandeur except that it had never truly got over the fact that the Americans called the shots these days. At one time, the minister for Northern Ireland used to be a well-known political graveyard where the coffin was borne by two sets of bitterly hostile pallbearers, of virtually indistinguishable groups of Irishmen with absurdly long historical grudges against each other. Now that peace had broken out, it had dwindled down to being on a par with Minister for Wales.

His own fiefdom in the Dept of Trade and Industry carried a nice line in modernizing flair, ideal for the go getting New Labour politician to exercise his mettle. It placed him in agreeable company with the 'movers and shakers' in industry, including his old friends in advertising. It provided a useful beachhead for further ministerial prizes to be acquired and now it was time to move on. It would mean that he would not have to worry about mobile phone masts as long as he lived, in terms of damaging his career of course. Besides, if any skeletons in the closet were rattling loudly enough to see the light of day, he would be long gone. He decided that he would be in real trouble if the job of Minister for the Department of Work and Pensions were dangled in front of him. The pale attractions of being tough on the idle and the feckless were more than counterbalanced by being in the position of spending the country's largesse on pampering the very kind of people that he and his cronies has sneered and jeered at. Besides, it stood to put him on bad terms with the Chancellor of the Exchequer almost by definition, hardly a career opportunity. What he really fancied was the Home Office. This was a job that was a nice step up in prestige and appealed to him personally. It gave him unlimited exercise of control, and meant that he could stamp his authority on all the groups that he had always had it in for, asylum seekers, terrorists and dangerous criminals of all kinds. It also made him effective overlord of the prison system and put him into a nice working partnership with the Lord Chancellor. Finally, it enabled him to expound on his views in the House of Commons and build himself up as the strong man in government.

Smilingly folding the latest copy of 'The Times' under his arm, he climbed into the back of the ministerial limousine to be taken to the black ornate gates at the entrance to Downing Street. The policeman saw who was coming and escorted him past the ranks of reporters, questioning him about the latest rumours of the cabinet reshuffle. He strolled down that curiously misshapen road and turned right and was naturally given admittance.

All at once, he was in the presence of his patron, the man to whom he owed his very existence, far more than the tame electorate who put him in parliament in the first place. They didn't count but He did.

"Ah, Neil, I'm glad you could drop by so soon." Came those smooth relaxed tones. Neil shot a glance at him. The other man's smile was broad and his gleaming teeth were exposed but then again, that was no guarantee of good news.

"As you know, you are one of my ministers who's future is under review in the forthcoming reshuffle." He said and stopped, offering him a glass of temperate mineral water.

Neil drank a mouthful out of sheer nervousness.

"On the whole, you have done an excellent job in the Department of Trade and Industry with only a few hiccups."

Don't mention the mobile phone masts, the thought hammered away in his fevered brain. Perhaps consummation of his desires would not be so easy.

"You know, PM, that I have done my best to instill some dynamism, some entrepreneurial spirit so that Our Country can prosper." Neil Houghton eagerly

"The mobile phone episode wasn't the easiest to sell to the cabinet as one of our success stories. Honestly, I do understand your situation and I know that you are a hard-working guy, totally committed to the future of this nation……….."

"Yes, yes, totally committed, day and night without stop." Houghton eagerly said, his head bobbing, like the toy bulldog in a car's back window.

"…..so we'll put the matter of One Way behind us, won't we, Neil"

'Yes, oh yes."

The other man paused and fixed Neil with his unwinking stare. It seemed like he was on Houghton's side but he wasn't quite sure of this. The pause in the conversation ratcheted up the contrasting desire for power and also abject fear. His nightmare was of being cast into the outer darkness of the back benches, and minus his ministerial limousine and driver. It had happened to so many before him, to have to reel out of the door and mouth the same tired platitudes to the cynical press of 'desiring to spend more time with his family and his constituents'

"You are about due for a move so I have in mind something of a challenge."

Houghton's feelings divided between elation and fear. The fact that the other man's grin had not altered in a couple of minutes meant very little. His future was suspended in mid air.

"Things aren't going on too well in the Home Office lately. We really haven't got a grip on immigration. No matter how many tough sounding statements are made, the Sun keep dragging up more scandals of illegals being hidden in the backs of juggernauts and popping up out of nowhere. When they are found, those dratted people seem to cling on and cause us endless trouble wherever they are. I'm sure they are behind all these terrorist conspiracies."

"You can be sure that I'd sweep them out of England with my broom personally…..That is, if you would happen to give me the chance." Exclaimed Neil Houghton, his tones of bombast, suddenly becoming obsequious when he saw the other man's grin broaden and that indefinable worrying look in his blue eyes.

"Then again, the house of lords are being far too obstructive for my liking. They have no concept of patriotic duty. I want solutions but every day I try and introduce legislation, they take some malicious pleasure when they find that not all the i's are dotted and all the t's crossed. They need to be brought into line."

"I agree with every word you say." Houghton said fervently, trying on a little of the requisite sanctimonious earnestly sincere verbal delivery. He had to admit to himself that it sounded pretty plausible.

"The post is a very responsible, high profile one and it will require considerable efforts not to seem too lackadaisical and half hearted. Our sympathetic press always take a very keen personal interest in the incumbent."

It was on the tip of Houghton's tongue to ask if he meant the Guardian when he realized that it was the Sun that the PM was mostly concerned about. That cosy deal had suited both parties just nicely.

"There were many promising candidates but, when I took everything into account, I decided that you are the correct person for the job."

The PM's tones of voice suddenly slowed down to a funereal pace before putting Houghton out of his misery in a politically correct fashion, bearing in mind the increasing number of ambitious, non gender discriminated, female MPs who were coming to the fore.

"I am absolutely thrilled at your expression of confidence in me. Believe me, I won't let you down." Houghton answered in a fervent, emotion choked voice. He couldn't believe what had happened to him and didn't seem quite real for a moment as the passions of satisfied emotions radiated through him. Suddenly, he felt like a bigger man than before.

"That wouldn't be a good idea…….. " the other man answered is a fractionally colder voice than before. The blast of icy air disappeared as he continuing in intimate tones that begged Houghton to conjoin with the PM's visions. "I want you to be one of my right hand men. You know the state of the party these days. All those unreconstructed left wing intellectuals are coming out of the closet now that things are getting a bit sticky. I need someone who is personally loyal to me. They are becoming more treacherous and dangerous every day. I sometimes think that they've got it in for me personally. Don't they remember that it was I that rallied them, that inspired them when we were wallowing in a state of confused backwardness?"

Houghton's sympathies rallied to the pained expression on the other man's face. It seemed that the PM was sitting on a branch and everyone was trying to saw the branch off that would finally drop him and the Party into ruination and election defeat.

A little while later, a clean cut press aide was busy drafting Neil Houghton's statement to the press. This was scheduled to be released in twelve days time when all the other ministers had been advised of their fate. Everything was signed and sealed behind closed doors, both promotions and demotions. He then looked out the press contacts to plant the first authorized press leak of 'sources close to Downing Street' so as to soften up public opinion in advance. It was how news was managed these days.

"I have been offered the position of Home Secretary. Naturally, this has come as a complete surprise to me but I will rise to the occasion and endeavour to show strength and resolution. I want to ensure that hard working people everywhere can sleep in their beds, feeling safe at night."

Neil Houghton slipped quietly through the metal gates tight lipped and solemn faced. However, in the security of his limousine, an evil smile split his face as he realized that he was in a strong position to put one over Deed and make him regret the day he had so impudently belittled him in public as the former Mr. George Channing.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Four

In the few weeks that Kay had been back in America, her thoughts had drifted several times to George and how she was getting on. She, Marino, Benton and Lucy had been caught up trying to drag the latest serial killer out into the open, finally succeeding in what was for her, a terrifying battle of wills with someone who resented her very existence and who was prepared to do anything to see her off this planet for good. But she was finally under lock and key, awaiting her trial, and the world was now just a little safer than it had been. But all this hadn't prevented Kay from intermittently worrying about her new friend. She had ordered some flowers to be sent to George whilst she was in hospital, and they had exchanged the occasional e-mail since George had returned home, but Kay couldn't help feeling a little guilty that she hadn't actually phoned her. Was this a little protection tactic, designed to keep her emotionally safe from becoming too entangled with someone who may soon leave this world for good? If it was, it was pathetic, she told herself sternly. She counted George as a friend, and friends did not under any circumstances treat each other like this, no matter how big an ocean might be between them.

Only two more days, she thought as she sat in her office in downtown Richmond, and it would be the beginning of April. Just where had the first three months of this year gone? She had hardly seen anything of Benton, but then what else was new, Marino being her companion on far more of a regular basis than her actual lover. It was around six on the Wednesday evening, and she was mindlessly collecting together all the forensic reports and evidence ready for her meeting with the commonwealth's attorney tomorrow morning, not an interview she was in any way looking forward to. When she heard the familiar, heavy-booted tread down the carpeted passage to her office, she couldn't help but smile. He always did this, she thought, Marino always turned up to drag her away from work when she was finding it less than enthralling to say the least. He didn't bother to knock on her open door, but strolled right in, dropping into one of her visitors' chairs without a by your leave.

"Can't you leave this joint for just one night?" He asked tiredly, running a hand over his rumpled face.

"I'm open to persuasion," She replied, not looking up as she sorted through autopsy photographs and body diagrams before placing them in order in the ever thickening case file.

"I figured you could probably do with a break," he said, being a lot more tactful than usual, because only he had really taken notice of just how much the recent case had gotten to her.

"I'm not about to disagree with you," She said, finally closing the file and locking it away in her desk. "One shot of Black bush and I could sleep for a week."

"Yeah, and with the kind of dreams that could make you one of Benton's patients for a month," Marino replied knowingly.

"You're being particularly intuitive this evening," She said with a slight smile. "What's wrong with you?"

"I don't always act like a red neck, Doc," He said, sounding a little hurt.

"I know," She replied, now apologetic.

"Come on," He said, getting to his feet and holding out her jacket for her to put on. "All the stiffs you got downstairs, they ain't going anywhere, and will all still be here tomorrow."

"Now that's something I certainly don't need," She said, getting up from her desk and slipping her arms into her cream suit jacket. "for one of the bodies in the fridge to get up and walk out of here without my consent."

"As if they'd dare even try," Marino said with a grin.

"I suppose you'd like me to cook," She said as she locked her office and they began walking towards the outside.

"I could always treat you to a pizza," he suggested, knowing that this was the precise way to persuade her to cook something from scratch.

"Absolutely not," She said in total disgust. "I refuse to have one of those things anywhere near my kitchen. Anyway, cooking might just help me to relax."

When they reached Kay's beautifully proportioned house in the gated neighbourhood where she had lived for the past ten years, Marino pulled his car up behind hers and followed her inside.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to bore you to death by playing some classical music," She said, walking into the lounge and towards her stereo that she didn't get to listen to half as much as she would have liked.

"So what else is new?" He quipped mildly, having long ago gotten used to her slightly eclectic tastes.

"Actually, there's something I would like you to listen to," She said, getting an idea that she simply couldn't resist. "You know the barrister I stayed with when I was over in England? She and several others took part in a performance of Haydn's 'Creation.' George made me a copy of the recording of it while I was there."

"Are you trying to educate me again?" Marino asked suspiciously.

"I would prefer you to regard it as an enlightening experience, rather than one of my rather persistent efforts to improve your appreciation of various forms of culture," She replied with a smile, removing the CD from the rack and placing it in the CD-player.

"Doc, you know that classical is far more Benton's thing than it is mine," He said, her continued efforts notwithstanding.

"I'm just trying to broaden your horizons, that's all," She tried to persuade him.

"Yeah?" He replied disbelievingly. "Just like the time you took me to see that play, what was it called?"

"Hamlet," She said, a little disgusted that he had forgotten such a renowned piece of Shakespeare so easily.

As the introductory chords began, she poured them both a Scotch on the rocks, automatically making his drink just the way he liked it, after many years of experience. They sat at the kitchen table, with the music playing in the lounge, and for the first time in weeks, Kay finally began to relax. They had both lit up cigarettes, and Marino couldn't help noticing that she absent-mindedly flicked her ash in time to the music.

"Come on then," Marino said, finally breaking the silence between them as she stood up to begin preparing their dinner. "Just who took part in this?"

"Barristers, judges, a prison governor, anyone from the legal profession who could be persuaded. George took the part of the female soloist, and she has a voice to die for. Why, are you perhaps the slightest bit curious?"

"Just showing a polite interest," He replied, avoiding her eyes. Kay laughed, the thought of Marino showing a polite anything wholly alien to her. Removing some rich, Italian sausage from the refrigerator, she began slicing it very thinly and evenly, Marino watching the movement of her graceful hands in appreciation.

"You know something," Marino said speculatively. "Whether you're holding a carving knife or a scalpel, you make it look like an art, not just a skill." Turning to look over at him, Kay just stared. She was incredibly touched by what he'd just said, and her eyes briefly misted over.

"Thank you," She said quietly. "I think that's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard you say."

"It's true," He insisted. "I wonder sometimes why you didn't take up an instrument."

"I never really had the time," she said, putting the pieces of Italian sausage in to slowly fry as she wiped the board clean, and began chopping onions, mushrooms and other vegetables to go into the pan.

"They might not do this for a day job," Marino said after a while. "But they're fucking good. I wouldn't know the difference between this and the real thing."

"Marino, they are the real thing," Kay insisted, retrieving some egg noodles from the cupboard and putting them onto boil. "The only difference is that they chose not to make money from their talents. It doesn't mean that they're any less skilled at what they do. It's something they all did partly for pleasure, and partly as the bar council's idea of a team building exercise."

"Kinda like me playing my guitar on the very rare occasions I get the chance," Marino said with a self-deprecating smile.

"Yes, something I wish you would let me hear," Kay replied with a smile of her own. Marino had always refused to showcase his talent to her, turning instantly bashful if she ever suggested it. "I will persuade you to let me hear you one day, you know," She promised him.

"In your dreams," Marino said firmly.

When 'The Lord is Great' began in all it's glory, Kay picked up the nearest knife that lay on the chopping board, and began conducting with it, the blade whistling through the air with all the precision of one who did such a thing for a profession.

"Now that really does make you look dangerous," Marino said as he watched her, seeing the love for what she was hearing shining out of her eyes. Kay didn't answer him, simply continuing to conduct to the very end of the chorus.

"That's almost better than a treble Scotch on the rocks," She said into the resulting silence.

"George," Marino said thoughtfully, having just listened to her reaching the top B-flat. "I bet she doesn't smoke."

"Oh, yes she does," Kay said with a laugh. "Almost as much as you do. God, I really wish I'd been able to see this live. The next thing they do, I'm definitely going over for it, I don't care what it takes."

"You know, you never did tell me much about what happened while you were over there." Marino's comment was innocuous enough, but as Kay changed the CD for the second one, she wondered what she should tell him.

"Well, one thing that will surprise you," She said, trying to avoid the feelings of worry over George that threatened to swamp her. "I wore my gun to court, and got, well, caught."

"No shit," Marino said in astonishment. "Doc, no offence, but that sounds like something I would do."

"Yes, yes, I know, very, very stupid," She replied with a shrug. "But I just forgot. I'm used to having my gun somewhere on me all the time in court over here, and seeing as I had permission to have my gun in the UK, I didn't see any problem with taking it into court like I always do."

"And how did the judge react to that?"

"I was summoned to his chambers after the adjournment, to explain myself."

"What a bastard," Marino said disgustedly.

"Actually, he was very nice about it once I'd explained the situation," Kay told him fairly. "For a judge, he was a pretty nice guy really."

"Don't let Benton hear you say that," Marino said with a shrug.

"If Benton can get so jealous over such a trifle," Kay said a little waspishly. "Then perhaps he ought to spend more time with me than he currently does."

"Doc, I don't want to hear it," Marino warned her. "You know what I think of you and Benton, so leave me out of it."

They didn't talk for a little while, simply allowing the music to wash over them. Marino would never tell her this, but he was forced to admit to himself that it was beautiful. It certainly wasn't something he would ordinarily listen to out of choice, but he couldn't deny their clear, unadulterated talent.

"So, how was sharing a house with someone for two weeks?" He asked after some time had passed. "Let's face it, you like your solitude."

"It was somewhat enlightening," She said, spooning the noodles, meat and vegetables onto two heated up plates. "I made a new friend in George, something I certainly didn't expect to do." Taking note of the sad expression that crossed her face at George's name, Marino said,

"There's something you're not telling me. You've been very maudlin since you got back from England."

"Are you surprised, what with the case we've been dealing with?" She replied caustically, though knowing that he was right.

"No," He said mildly. "You're just usually better at hiding it, that's all."

"George has breast cancer," Kay told him simply. "And I suppose it's just getting to me that I might be about to lose a friend whom I've only just begun to get to know, and I feel a little guilty that I haven't actually spoken to her since I came back."

"Can I make a suggestion?" Marino asked carefully. "When you go over to Ireland in a few weeks' time, take a little detour through London and go and see her." Kay's face instantly brightened.

"You know something, Marino, that's the best idea you've had in a long time. With everything that's been going on recently, that simply hadn't occurred to me." As they ate their meal and took comfort from each other's friendship, Kay found herself briefly wondering just what she would ever do without him. Marino for all his faults, usually managed to keep her on the straight and narrow, never allowing her to work too hard when he could persuade her out of the office, and always providing her with a certain amount of much needed perspective. She would go and see George, come hell or high water she would do it.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Five

As Neil Grayling pulled into the car park of the Old Bailey, he wondered precisely what he was doing here. Sure, the information that he had to impart was certainly necessary, but why was he doing it? The answer came to him as he pushed open the heavy swing doors and walked into the tiled foyer. During the lead up to the performance of 'The Creation' last year, he had made a number of new friends, George and John being just two of them. He could all too clearly remember the days when he had passed information to the likes of Sir Ian Rochester, memories that made him squirm with mortification. But now here he was, thankfully taking what he had learnt to the right side for a change. Neil occasionally marvelled at how much he had altered over the last couple of years, and definitely for the better.

He didn't have the first idea of where to begin looking for the Judge, so he asked a passing clerk, who turned out to be Mrs. Cooper, John Deed's clerk.

"If possible," He said once ascertaining who she was. "I would like a few words with Mr. Justice Deed."

"May I have your name?" Coope asked, leading the way towards the stairs.

"Neil Grayling," he told her.

John was more than a little surprised when Coope told him just who was here to see him, and he asked Coope to show Neil in with rising curiosity.

"Neil," He said when he appeared. "This is an unexpected surprise."

"I have recently become aware of something that I thought you would wish to know," Neil said as Coope retreated, closing the door behind her.

"Would you like some coffee?" John asked, gesturing to the steaming pot on the table.

"Please," Neil replied as he sat down in one of the comfortable armchairs. Once John had poured them both a cup of the fortifying liquid and taken the chair opposite Neil, he said,

"So, what have you to tell me?" Taking a grateful swig of the coffee, Neil began to explain.

"My immediate superior, Alison Warner, called an unexpected meeting this morning, saying that she had something particularly important to tell us. It seems that we are to get a new Home Secretary, something that, because of who it is, will no doubt impact on the judiciary as well as the prison service."

"I don't like where my thoughts are taking me," John said with an expression of approaching gloom.

"No, you shouldn't," Neil replied with a sardonic smile. "It's Neil Haughton." Had John not been in someone else's company, he would very likely have sworn violently at this revelation.

"How on earth did he manage that?" he asked in utter disgust.

"I've no idea," Neil said darkly. "But I would suspect that he now owes a particularly large favour to someone."

"That is all I need," John said bitterly. "For Lover boy to start sticking his nose into things that don't concern him." Neil raised his eyebrows at John's angrily thrown out accolade. "It's a name I gave him when he began sleeping with George," John explained. "And it somehow seemed to stick."

"George told me what happened with him," Neil said quietly, remembering that day, just before their performance of 'The Creation', when George had told him precisely why she didn't want Neil Haughton anywhere in the audience.

"Yes," John said in bitter contemplation. "Jo had to physically prevent me from beating him to a pulp for doing that to George. He's nothing more than a dishonest, greedy thug, but then I suppose that could be said for too many of the current government."

"What is his appointment likely to mean for the prison service?" Neil asked.

"Lower budgets, tougher sentences, even less consideration of the conditions that prison inmates are forced to endure, possibly job cuts on the ground, and more and more red tape as he thinks up government and media friendly policies that haven't got a cat in hell's chance of working in practice."

"All sweetness and light, then," Neil said disgustedly.

"And be warned," John continued. "He will personally hand pick those within the service who will be working for him first, and the service second. Neil Haughton is as corrupt as they come, and your job is about to become as fraught with internal and external politics as mine will undoubtedly be. When is his appointment to be announced?"

"April the first," Neil informed him. "Which is probably why Alison Warner left it till now to let us know as to the identity of our new boss, so that there are only two days for anyone to leak the story."

"That's a very bad April fool if it is one," John said sarcastically.

"It would be distasteful in the extreme," Neil agreed with him. "But I don't somehow think we're about to be quite that lucky."

"I wonder what he's promised in order to secure this new position," John speculated thoughtfully. "Because he royally failed with the Department for Trade and Industry, One Way PLC being the case in point."

"I'm sure we'll find out in due course," Neil replied darkly, wondering just how much harder his job was about to become.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Six

John was up earlier than normal on a Saturday morning, and took his way to a nearby newsagent. He walked with a slow leaden tread, as he knew the bad news that there was waiting for him yet duty forced him to see the worst. This was the day when the news would break of the appointment of the new Commissar for Home Affairs. Certainly Mimi was far keener on the early morning Saturday walk than her master and she pulled strongly at her lead to hurry him up.

Flicking through the newsstands, the sight of them hurt his eyes. Sure enough, the Sun that trashy and viciously right wing paper screamed its approval of the dreadful news.

"Neil sweeps clean." It said in large block capitals. Furtively, John scanned the front page. He felt more embarrassed in even glancing at the rag than if it were an adult magazine. At least it was honest." Illegal immigrants, dangerous criminals had better beware. There is a prison cell awaiting for each and every one of you." As expected, what there was of the article carried onto page 2 and, flicking a casual gaze at the nubile woman posing on the opposite page, he slid the paper into the rack. There was nothing there that he hadn't seen before, he reflected in lordly disdain.

He picked out the Times as more up market but as supportive of the government. It was more likely to fill in the blanks that he needed to see. A key phrase caught his eye as he ran his eye over the article.

"This country demands that those guilty of crimes are banged to rights. I have no time for fuzzy minded liberals, wherever they are, whose sympathies are more for the criminals than the victims of crime. The permissive society and those who have encouraged it has been partly responsible for half the crime on our streets. I shall sweep away the obstacles of outdated bureaucracy to secure a zero tolerance attitude to crime. Institutions of law and order need to be modernized, to be dragged into the twenty first century quite as much as the welfare state."

"That means us." John murmured. This was an open declaration of war against him, first and foremost but it boded no good news either for Joe Channing, Neil Grayling, George, Jo and ultimately Karen and Nikki. He paid for the paper, rolled it under his arm and chose to take a longer walk than was normal. Mimi was overjoyed that the human who was her master went away from his accustomed path. It suited John as well, as he needed that fresh air to clear his head.

When John returned to his flat, he switched on the TV. He stuck only a couple of minutes of it to switch it off. If only Houghton could be switched off as easily as his image on the screen, he groaned inwardly, seeing that self satisfied political nobody spout forth. The man struck him as even more obnoxious on the screen than when he had seen him last, possibly because the sycophantic interviewer fawned on him, instead of challenging him as he had done on many an occasion.

It took half an hour of lying on the settee, listening to a classical CD until duty called on him to reach for the phone to call George.

"John. This is a welcome surprise." That very aristocratic drawl greeted him as he nervously phoned her. He wasn't sure if George would have heard the news and so he had to be prepared either way. By the sound of her cheerful mood, she definitely hadn't.

"I just thought I'd phone you up on the off chance, just to see how you're getting on."

"Darling, nothing you ever do in life is ever on the off chance."

"It's just that I've been very busy and not seen you awhile. I've been very remiss in not asking how you're going on."

"Well, thank heaven, I'm back in the comfort of my own home and getting down to some work as best as I can. I'm even getting used to getting dressed in the morning so long as I don't look too closely."

"I'm so very glad about that." John said fervently.

It was now that she thought there was something odd about John's manner, and she chose to pursue the first obvious possibility.

"Have you done anything in the last week that is very reckless and foolhardy, even by your standards?" George asked in razor sharp inquisitive tones.

"No no, George. I am completely and totally innocent this time."

"Then what is it?"

The irritated tone in George's voice signalled to John that he should let her have the bad news straight.

"George, I think you ought to sit down before I tell you why I'm really phoning you. Don't argue with me, just do it."

Somehow he sensed that she had obeyed that urgent tone in his voice.

"There's no easy way to tell you. The news has broken that there's been a cabinet reshuffle and Houghton is the new Home Secretary."

"Is this supposed to be an April fool, John?" George said at last. She wondered if her own hearing was also playing her similar tricks.

"I don't think that the government, the BBC, the Sun and the Times are joking, George. I really wish that they were."

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, but John deduced that, as the line was still connected, George was still holding the phone and was still upright.

"But they can't, they mustn't…….That man is the most idiotic choice of Home Secretary you could possibly hope to find."

"No doubt that is the reason they choose him. I mean, it makes no sense by their standards to pick a capable candidate." Came John's dry reply.

"He'll be positively drooling at the thought of all that power. Let's face it, there isn't anything else that gets him going as far as I can remember."

"Well, that sounds par for the course."

The phone line fell silent again, as the full implications started to crowd into George's fevered mind.

"This just makes me feel ill." George's slightly shaky voice responded." It puts him far too close to my orbit. As far as I'm concerned, he can go ahead with his grubby little money making schemes to massage his pathetic ego, but I just want to let him go his way and I'll go mine."

"No such luck for all of us. I've just read the papers. He's the authentic Hanging Judge and he feels that there are too many liberals gumming up the wheels of justice."

"No, no, no, John. I mean personally. I quite see that he will stick his ill informed nose into things of which he is totally ignorant, but there's more to it than that. I just don't want him anywhere near my life."

"It's on the news, George if you wish to watch it."

"No fear. I can imagine what he'll say and that's enough for me. You promise me one thing, John. You must resist the temptation to punch him on the nose or I'll never forgive you. Right now, I'm going to lie down in a darkened room for an hour."

John knew what lay behind her domineering style. This was her way of expressing her desire to protect him, and was her way of dealing with the situation."

John held the phone in his hand and dialed Joe Channing. His role as the bearer of bad news was getting to be a familiar experience.

"Ah John, I was going to phone you but you beat me to it. I've just picked up the Telegraph and I couldn't believe what I've read. The fools, the imbeciles in letting such

a weasel like him in charge of the Home Office. They must want their brains examining."

John was immensely relieved that Joe had gone for his constitutional and for his long established habit in immersing himself in the paper on a Saturday morning. He had phoned up, just at the point when the other man's incandescent rage has subsided to manageable proportions.

"I get the feeling that the government have got us in their sights. It's not just the matter any more of crossing swords with the Attorney General and small fry like Sir Ian and Lawrence James." John said calmly.

"They might as well have nominated Genghis Khan for a posthumous award for the Nobel Peace prize" Joe rumbled on loudly.

"We're all in for a rough ride from what the papers are saying."

There was a long pause as Joe's sharp mind was closely studying John's manner. It was John who had pitilessly dissected Houghton's many character shortcomings long before he and George has seen through the bounder. While he was letting rip and cursing the man with every expression that came to hand, John was being the calm, philosophical one. It was almost as if John had had longer time to digest the full implications. A light dawned in his mind as he revised his original statement and concluded that John definitely had been tipped off in advance.

"You seem pretty cool and calm about the matter. Have you had advance information on this?"

Joe could almost hear John faintly smile down the line at him.

"Let's say that we live in an age when the apparatchiks have their network of spies, informants and petty agents to do their dirty work. I cannot continue to play the rules of cricket in not having friends in a wide walk of life who can give me advance warning. I was told of this on Thursday, and got my anger and rage out of the system by kicking the waste bin round my chambers, and imagining that it was Houghton's head."

John could hear Joe's chuckle of laughter down the line. There was something about John's cool and calm frame of mind that steadied his own impetuous, fiery nature.

"At least we can talk freely on the phone. You never know, he'll add us to the list of dangerous subversives and have our phones tapped. I'll be first on the list." John joked lightly.

"Good God, it had better not come to that. This is Britain, the land of traditional freedoms."

"While we have them." Came Joe's laconic reply.

There was another pause while Joe digested this possibility. John wasn't being as witty as he thought he was.

"Have you talked to anyone else about this, John?"

"I told George of this. I'm not sure if she took it particularly well." John said doubtfully.

"I shall go over to George and visit her. She needs cheering up." Joe promptly decided. Both men knew that this was Joe's way of repaying the way that John had performed so nobly in breaking the news of George's cancer. Besides, he grinned impishly to himself, the news about that frightful man had brought out a stubborn, combative streak in him. He may be getting old but his brain was as sharp as ever and, besides, there was nothing he liked better than a good fight.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Seven

Nikki called round late at night after a hard day's work, and knocked on the front door of Josh and Crystal's modest house. She felt a little guilty that she had not called earlier. She valued her friendships, and hated to neglect them no matter how busy she might be. Still, she was here now even if she did have an ulterior motive.

"Hey, Nikki. Come in, sister. We ain't seen you for months." Crystal greeted her with a wide smile of friendship. Instantly, she turned to grab at a very mobile Daniel who was all set to shoot out of the door. Nikki found herself almost propelled through onto the sofa when a very intense Zandra grabbed Nikki's attention to show her a little story that she had written in her very large, rounded script. Nikki focussed her mind and let herself be immersed in Zandra's child like perspective and it fascinated her. All her life, Nikki had had an enquiring mind and she had been brought up in a world of books, and the written world was sacred to her. The little girl was noticeably taller and more developed than when she and Helen had been round, last May. The experience resonated with Nikki as it told her the point in life where the love of the written word starts to flower. It had happened to her many years ago. She was touched at the innocence in the little girl's eyes and was drawn into her world.

"Sorry I haven't called earlier." Nikki replied, virtually out of the corner of her mouth to the other woman, whose voice spoke out of her range of vision.

"Well, you're here now, Nikki. Want a drink?"

"I'd love one."

Nikki crouched forward, splitting her concentration between all concerned and making idle chitchat. The evening carried on in this disjointed fashion, until Crystal indicated that both children were ready for bed. Nikki lay back in the armchair, while she stayed out of the way from the family routine. She noticed that this time, she felt fresher and sharper than when she was here last time. Eventually, Crystal and Josh padded down the stairs and they were able to talk.

"You're right. I did have a reason to call round. I didn't come round just for a casual chat. I was wondering, Josh if you were happy in your job or if you fancied a change."

"It ain't so good," Josh answered wearily." I don't know how long they'll keep me, on the way things are going."

"What's the problem?"

"Not with me. Just the firm. Some of my mates have been laid off already."

"They treat Josh like a slave. He has to work weekends at that sweatshop, and we're still struggling on the wages." Put in Crystal to Josh's embarrassment at bringing their closed in worries out into the open.

"There ain't no choice." Butted in Josh." I ain't going to win the national lottery." Already his eyelids were being dragged down by the accumulated tiredness.

"You're looking better, Nikki. Last time we saw you round here, you were going after Helen's old job at Larkhall."

Was it that long ago that she had started her job, Nikki thought in a confused fashion? She could remember that she felt like Josh looked right now. Of course, she had been working those stupid hours in the evenings and they had worn her out. She still remembered that perpetually tired feeling round her eyes.

'Yeah, that's right. I remember asking you what the prison officer training course was like."

"So how does it feel to have all that power, sister? You had better be doing right."

"Surprisingly enough, pretty good. It's not like it used to be. Fenner's gone before I came back and Di Barker's been recently given the push, Sylvia's the only trouble and she can't do any damage on her own."

Both Josh and Crystal opened their eyes wide. Their memories of Larkhall were about four years old. They both sensed that Nikki's brief account had only scratched the surface.

"Sylvia as in Bodybag." Crystal said incredulously.

'That's a small price I had to pay to call her that." Came Nikki's embarrassed laugh." I can't make her a laughing stock in front of everyone."

"She don't need to. She'll do it to herself."

"At least she hasn't got anyone to moan to anymore, and she hasn't got anyone not so stupid as her and devious enough to get up to any dirty tricks. I can handle her. As for the rest of the job, I manage to be all things to everyone and still be myself."

"You'll never change, not you……." Crystal said fondly, memories drawing her back in time. "So what's with Josh? You've got something to ask him, haven't you?" questioned Crystal sharply.

Nikki swallowed nervously and paused before she spoke. She had waffled her way round the subject quite long enough.

"Everything's pretty good right now, except that I'm been short staffed. You might not know it but that makes it hard to fix up for prisoners to get what they need, education classes, visiting days, association, you name it, you need a prison officer for it. The PO's who work for me are a good bunch and they'll swap their shifts around if it will help everyone out. Like I say, it's not as it used to be."

"So what are you getting at, Nikki?"

"There are openings for two prison officers coming up and, I wanted to sound you out to ask if you are interested. I don't want anyone conning through the interview panel who's fancies locking up prisoners for the sake of it, not after all the trouble G wing have had over the years."

Nikki did her best with her determined tones and heartfelt sincerity and it flattered Josh , but old associations made him feel that he was not up to the mark.

"And you think Miss Betts would let me back? Not after last time."

"No, no," Nikki started to explain."I talked about Karen about it, and you can take it from me that it won't go against you. Believe me, Josh, you'll get a fair crack of the whip at the interview. Karen gave me a definite promise on that."

"So do I just fill in an application form and wait to hear like what Di Barker did for me last time?" Josh eventually asked with a puzzled expression on his face, being very wary of what he was letting himself in for.

"Is that how you did it then?" counter questioned Nikki. She had thought that at least things like that were done."I don't know how she got away with that. It sounds the sort of thing that I would have done when I needed to take on another barmaid in my club days. It has to go by the book and there's a proper interview………." Nikki started to say.

Josh's face fell at this bit of news. Nikki realised that in her eagerness to express how things would go by the book, she had unknowingly exposed his weak point.

"I ain't got a chance. I mess up at interviews."

"The good news is that the whole wing are taking on extra prison officers. With more people wanted, that means you have a much better chance at getting in. It might feel a long time ago, but you'll know the job when you get half a chance to do it. Crystal might help you to prepare for the interview.….."

Nikki turned her face in Crystal's direction and Crystal mouthed 'yes' while Nikki was talking. Crystal's interest was grabbed immediately.

Josh was silent, his forehead covered with wrinkles. He had settled down to years of drudgery at the factory and it made him feel uncertain that there was an option. He had accustomed himself to a life of endless drudgery, if it meant bringing up a family.

"OK, so who's on your wing that I might know?"

"There's Gina for a start. She's rock solid and she covers for me when I'm off. In fact, she'll look after any new PO that's new and uncertain. If you don't piss her about, then she'll see you all right. Then there's Dominic…."

"Oh great, has he come back to Larkhall? You remember him, Josh and everything he did for Zandra. There wasn't any other screw, I mean prison officer, that was dead kind like him. It is the same Dominic?"

"The very same Dominic."

"You got nothing to lose, Josh. I'll help you. Why wait till to get pushed out of your job?

"And of course there's me." Nikki murmured modestly.

"Oh yeah," Crystal exclaimed, with a look of dawning surprise and pleasure spreading over her face." In that case, you have to apply, Josh. You'll get paid better, a job that I know that you can do, some weekends together with the kids, everything we dreamed of."

"You only have to do one Saturday or Sunday on every four at the most." Added Nikki rapidly.

"OK, OK." Josh surrendered as two determined women bulldozed him into agreeing. His head was swimming at what had walked through the door. His memory of Larkhall was one of a very dangerous place that was nothing but trouble. He supposed that it must be all right as Nikki had got back there. In fact she hadn't just survived but she looked so well. After all, he shrugged his shoulders, she was dead brainy and sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. He had nothing to lose anyway.

"You don't have to thank me for getting you this job." Nikki protested , as Crystal thanked Nikki profusely for being a miracle worker with their family."It was Neil Grayling who fixed up these vacancies. All I've done is to just let you know about them."

She felt strongly that this chance of a better future for Crystal and Josh and their growing children was only a demonstration in flesh and blood, of Neil's courage and ingenuity in creating the jobs in the first place. Just for that moment, the prison service was releasing its hard grip on those who worked for it.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Eight

When John arrived at the clinic for his session with Helen on the Tuesday evening, he found himself wondering just how long he would go on seeing her. He knew that these sessions were undoubtedly doing him good, but what would happen when Helen finally managed to break down the barriers that had been constructed over the last forty odd years. He was under no illusions that this would one day happen, because Helen was far too skilled at her job to allow him to dissuade her from such a course of action. She would keep chipping away at his psyche just as she had been doing all these months, and one day she would remove the most heavily guarded section of all his mental and emotional armour.

"You're looking better than you did when I last saw you," Helen observed as he took his usual chair opposite to her.

"Things are, a little more settled," He said evasively, wondering whether or not this really was the word to describe everything that was currently happening.

"I'm not sure if you remember," John continued. "But you once suggested that I should talk to George about a lot of the unresolved issues surrounding our marriage."

"I remember saying something to that effect," Helen agreed with him. "Why?"

"I did," He told her simply. "The day after she came out of hospital. I wouldn't have raised such an emotionally volatile issue at that time, but George had a pretty bad argument with Charlie, which seemed to bring a lot of things to the fore."

"Does she often argue with Charlie?" Helen asked.

"No, they usually remain in something of a stalemate, but when they do argue, it's almost always bad. Charlie still can't forgive George for not being the mother she always wanted. If you think I hold a lot of guilt about my marriage to George, George herself holds even more."

"I can imagine," Helen said ruefully.

"Well, I finally took the opportunity to apologise for some of the things I said and did during that time, as did George."

"Good," Helen replied with a soft smile.

"It doesn't mean that the guilt is gone, from either of us, but we've begun being a little more honest with each other, which is perhaps a start."

"Honesty is always a good start, Judge," Helen said quietly. "It's a very valuable lesson that we all have to learn eventually," She added, thinking of the initial months of hers and Nikki's relationship. Nikki had always been honest with her about her feelings, but Helen hadn't always managed to do the same, something she had always regretted.

"I'm not sure what you have on the agenda for today," John continued carefully. "But there is something that I think we should discuss."

"Oh?" Helen replied with a certain amount of curiosity.

"It is an extension of the guilt theme that we don't seem to have left alone for the last couple of sessions, and it's something that needs putting to rest for both of us, not just me."

"You're talking about Ross," Helen finished for him.

"Yes," John replied quietly. Helen had known that they would one day reach this point, because it was as much an unresolved set of circumstances for her as it was for him, just as he'd said, but that didn't mean she was looking forward to reopening that particular poisoned chalice.

"This is pushing at the extreme edges of professional boundaries, Judge," Helen told him solemnly.

"Which is something you've been doing since the very first time I came here to see you," John replied just as seriously.

"I suppose you're right," Helen conceded. "Well, go on then, if you think it's something we ought to discuss, you tell me where to start." Helen found herself praying that no matter what questions he might throw at her, she would be able to remain in control. She was the professional here, not him, and she would not allow him to make her feel as vulnerable as he had undoubtedly felt on previous occasions.

"What was your immediate reaction, when Ross first came to you as a patient?"

"I was horrified," Helen replied, feeling a certain amount of confidence that she could answer his questions honestly enough to then get him back on track to answering hers. "This was Karen's son, my friend's son, and I couldn't help but wish that I didn't know what I did about him. It was plain that Karen had no idea about what was happening to him, and it became clear over the time that I saw him, that he had absolutely no intentions of telling her."

"Did you try to persuade him to tell her?" John asked, slipping far too easily into the role of inquisitor.

"Of course I did," Helen insisted vehemently. "Every bloody time I saw him I tried, but he didn't want to know. Something that occurred to me at the time, was that he was just as stubborn as his mother, because Karen reacted just like he did, when I tried to tell her about Fenner. She didn't want to know about Fenner, and Ross didn't want to know about her." There was a long, awful silence after Helen had uttered these words, with both of them trying to take in what she'd just said. "I didn't mean that," she said eventually, refusing to look John in the eye.

"Yes, you did," He replied quietly. "You meant every word of it."

"It just was sometimes far too obvious that she'd passed that particular trait onto him," Helen tried to explain. "Ross always thought he knew best, and when Karen was living with Fenner, so did she. That's why I originally thought of coming to you, because Ross wouldn't even consider speaking to her."

"You were clutching at straws," John stated with a slight smile.

"You know I was," She said, accepting his assessment of the situation. "Because anything was worth a try if it meant I could bypass the old adage of patient confidentiality. After what you said on that day I came to see you, I even tried coming up with a way to get him sectioned, just so that Karen would have to be told, but it was a bit of a non-starter."

"After you'd gone," John said, continuing to refer to the time Helen had come to see him in chambers the year before. "I sat there for hours, going over and over everything I knew about the law of patient confidentiality, trying to find the slightest loophole. In the end, when I realised that I was going round and round in circles, I decided to seek advice from a higher authority. It's funny, but even after George and I divorced, I still sought out Joe Channing whenever I needed legal advice, or advice of any kind. I told him everything that you'd told me, but he came up with precisely the same answer as I had. I persisted, telling him that the law was wrong and that it ought to be changed, something I know I'd said on previous occasions. But this wasn't just any normal legal argument, this was suddenly far more real, because it concerned a woman who ranked highly in my affections. I knew something that she didn't about her own son, a state of affairs that felt despicably, indisputably wrong. Every time I saw Karen after that, I was forced to beat down the urge to ignore the consequences and simply tell her where her son was and what was happening to him. On the night he died, you accused me of doing only what was legally right, instead of what was morally right, and I entirely agreed with you. If I had done what was morally right, Karen would have been in a position to try and help her son, and he might still have been alive today."

"That wasn't just the case for you, judge," Helen told him quietly. "It was for me too. I was so angry with you, myself, and the whole bloody system. Another life had been pointlessly wasted, just because neither you nor I had been legally able to tell a friend what she needed to know. That night was one of the worst nights of my life. She sounded so happy when I phoned her, so alive, with not a care in the world at that particular moment. She was in the car with George, and I had to shout at her to persuade her to get off the road. I tried to explain to her that Ross had been coming to see me, and what for, and she said that it made his behaviour over the last few months make some kind of sense. When I finally told her that Ross had killed himself, all she could ask was how. Having to put that into words, having to tell a mother that her son had taken the most difficult, most traumatic and painful of ways out, that was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do. She couldn't say a word after I'd told her what he'd done, and all I could think was that I'd just completely obliterated everything Karen had ever worked for."

In the resulting silence, John watched as the tears poured down Helen's cheeks. He shouldn't have done this, he couldn't help but think, he shouldn't have put her through this, because it really wasn't his place to do so. He had unwittingly put Helen into the far too vulnerable position that he had occasionally inhabited in previous sessions, which certainly wasn't the prerogative of any patient, no matter how well he might know her outside of the consulting room. Getting up from his chair, John handed Helen the box of tissues that usually resided on the coffee table between them, and sat down in a chair next to her.

"I'm sorry," He told her quietly. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"It doesn't matter," Helen said as she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "If I'd thought about it long enough when you first asked to become my patient, I might have known we'd get to this point one day."

"One thing you said to me a couple of sessions ago," John continued carefully. "Was that holding onto the guilt I feel couldn't possibly do me any good. I think that you need to consider taking your own advice. You acted within the constraints of your profession, as did I, as did my ex-father-in-law. As individuals we cannot change the laws that currently exist to protect a person's right to confidentiality, no matter how much we might disagree with them. Karen certainly doesn't blame you for what you did, and I'm fairly sure that she doesn't still blame me for it either. You need to stop blaming yourself, and so do I." As she listened to his calm, measured, thoroughly thought out words, Helen knew that he was right. It didn't mean that she could let go so easily of the guilt she had tried to bury about Karen, but his words had given her a reason to try.

Part One Hundred and Fifty Nine

It was something that all three of them needed , to be wrapped around each other in John's huge bed. The stresses and strains of the last few months had taken it out of all of them. The pleasure trail laid Jo on her back and both John and George ran their expert touches on her from either side. Their tongues lazily and sensually caressed her nipples, and a surge of desire for both of them coursed through her. They were stranded on a coral island , all of their own.

A fleeting trail of thought flashed through her mind that at one time, she would not have given way to such unbridled sensual pleasure, thinking it was somehow sinful. The idea trailed away as she felt George's tongue leave her right nipple with regret and start to lazily lick her path all down her body. The delicate touch of fingers grazing her nipple immediately replaced it but she wasn't sure of the sex of those fingers. Gloriously, she decided that it didn't matter. Sensations of uncomplicated pleasure rose up in her, as George weaved a zig zag downward trail. Her thighs opened eagerly in anticipation of her entry into her. As John moved up to kiss her deeply, her gratitude to him led her own sensitive touch to enfold John's shaft and delicately massage him, touching him on the very spot that he was most sensitive to. As her own climax rose in her, she was equally thrilled to hear John's own sounds of pleasure. At one time, this had been her only glimpse into what was once his only direct expression of love, and the reciprocal sexual pleasure that he could bring to a woman.

Presently, they lay together all in a heap, exhausted and content with each other on that perfect day.

"I could do with a cigarette." Mumbled George into John's chest.

"Me too," Jo said sleepily

"Think of it, you'll be all the healthier from refraining." John teased them. He could never pass up that chance to wind George and Jo up.

"How frightfully smug and oh so politically correct you are, John." George reproved him."Let's see how courageous you are if someone told you to give up sex for a week. You'd soon be a gibbering wreck."

"You can't contract lung cancer from sex." John argued back with irrefutable but tactless logic. If Jo and George weren't so languorously content from love making, both of them could have pointed out what unpleasant health hazards that sex did pose. Neither of them could be bothered to argue. The quilt that lay on their bed was crumpled and halfway off the bed, letting the night air gently cool their damp skin. All three of them rejoiced in their nakedness.

"I suppose that we'll have to suffer the whims of our lord and master." Jo tactfully replied.

John lay back content in the very large sized bed that accommodated them so perfectly.

Charlie had gone out with a crowd of her friends, but was feeling tired and out of sorts. A junior barrister had taken this irritatingly intense interest in her, and was boring her to death with flatteries that she had heard many times before. Some perverse instinct in her made her want to duck out of an evening clubbing. Besides, she could hear her father's sonorous voice, sternly advising her of the path of duty, to get home not too late so that she would be in reasonable shape the next day for court. She didn't really want to struggle with this voice of conscience, especially as the desire to be 'going out' was artificial and unreal. As she set out from the pub with the others, she regained her bearings and realized that she was close to her father's flat. She fumbled in her handbag , and found the key that he had left her and a smile split her face. How pleased he would be with her dropping in for some impromptu quality time, especially as he was such a good conversationalist.

"I'm dreadfully sorry but I'm dropping out of this. I'm not very well and I'm going to crash at my father's flat. See you guys another time."

The barrister's face fell but, at the critical moment, opted to tag along with the others , rather than to drop out of the party. After the farewells had faded into obscurity, Charlie's heels clicked their way round the corner. As all the windows were dark, she carefully opened the lock quietly and let herself in. She glanced round the lounge and the room was deserted, everything neatly put away in their rightful place as she might expect. Dad was very methodical in that way.

"Are you in, dad?" Charlie called out unthinkingly from the hallway.

The three bodies in the bed were frozen like marble in total horror. They were derailed from their dormant parental roles. The three of them realized in a flash that there was not a hope in hell of any of them even gathering their own clothes from the tangle of clothes strewn round the room. To whip them in record time was utterly impossible in the few seconds left before Charlie walked towards the bedroom. In an incongruous flash of memory, John recalled Charlie's youth when he had come home at an unexpected hour to the flat that he and Charlie shared. He had stared suspiciously and protectively in true parental manner at a slightly dishevelled looking Charlie, smiling bright eyed at him with false innocence while some adolescent boy lounged insolently on his settee. There was nothing in the unwritten parental code to deal with a situation like this. At least Charlie had all her clothes on in the first place with which to look disheveled.

"Keep quiet everyone, and maybe Charlie will just go into the spare bedroom."

"As if, Jo," whispered George in despair at Jo's foolish optimism.

Carelessly, Charlie automatically flung open the door. It was only five minutes ago that she and the carefree crowd she was with had been laughing and drinking at a noisy singles bar. It was probably as well that her eyes look a few seconds to adjust to the darkness of the room, but her mind took a lot longer to assimilate what lay before her eyes. At first, Charlie's mindset simply assumed that her father had been merely caught out with one of his stray flings that her supposedly sophisticated mind had had to get used to. She hadn't ever seen anything , that's all. Then her mouth opened wide as she realized that the blond haired woman, her father's typical sort was in fact her own mother. Her eyes opened as wide as her mouth, as she took in the sight of a taller shape with tousled hair was, in fact, her mentor at the law firm and her sort of mother substitute, Jo.

"This can't be happening." Breathed Charlie.

John grabbed the duvet to cover his own modesty, not sparing a thought to Jo or George. After all, he reasoned, there are certain functions in life, best performed naked and others where being fully clothed was a definite necessity. For the first time in life, he found himself utterly stuck for words. Neither Jo nor George was helping him out, he thought ruefully. After all wasn't it the case that women were on average more verbally fluent with words? By default, he was the first one to eventually speak.

"Can you give us a minute, Charlie?"

It had the incongruity of tone as if he were seeking an adjournment in court, before sentence was passed.

Charlie's feet felt as if they were riveted to the floor and her legs felt frozen. John's words did her that one favour, enabling her to beat a retreat. She needed some fresh air fast and, still being unable to form a coherent sentence, she headed out to John's balcony. On the way, she spotted a packet of cigarettes on the coffee table and her fingers reached out to take them with her. It must have been a memory of her mother, which prompted her to light one of them up when she was outside. As the taste of the smoke hit her airwaves, she started coughing. This seemed the last of her worries. It puzzled her that people could voluntarily clog up their lungs for pleasure, far less to alleviate stress. She stared round at the normality of the balcony trying to reassure herself with familiar surroundings.

Charlie's exit galvanized the three of them into frantic action. John clicked on the bedside light and all three of them scrabbled round for their own clothes. John was luckier than the other two women in this respect. All three of them were prompted by the irrational thought that the quicker they dressed, it might go some way towards remedying the situation. It escaped their attention that Charlie was hardly likely to make a reappearance. As John buttoned up his shirt and achieved respectability by the time his last button but one was fastened, he was dismayed to see that both Jo and George were reaching for their coats. He might have been the progressive minded single parent bringing up Charlie but it struck him that there were limits to pride and independence. He needed them. Surely they weren't planning on deserting him in his hour of need?

"Aren't either of you staying?" He asked almost desperately.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with me, John," Jo informed him firmly.

"George?" He asked, feeling that she at least owed him some support in this matter.

"I had to tell her about sex the first time round," George replied as she picked up her handbag and fished out her car keys. "Now, I do believe, it's your turn. Good luck, darling."

Oh great, he muttered under his breath as he straightened his clothes as best as he could. Life was so unfair, he moaned to himself. He had more or less got away with it all those years when he had been a sexual reprobate but had somehow avoided the direct consequences being visited on Charlie. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should express his love towards the two women who were dearest to him in the world and, in turn, they to him and to each other. Intellectually, he had gone through that journey in his mind to not just accept but rejoice in their love for each other. It had never crossed his mind that Charlie had not been on the same journey, being physically away from his life. Still less had he anticipated being caught in flagrente. That had never happened before with the exception of the over zealous spy who had photographed him and Jo at the digs. He had always escaped being caught by the skin of his teeth. Right now, he felt uncomfortably naked and exposed as he heard Jo and George open the door and escape into the night air.

In his mind, the three of them were virtuous enough if unconventional. It was quite another matter to convince Charlie of this.

John made a supreme effort to set foot towards the balcony. This was much harder than walking into the courtroom to face the most difficult trial ever. At least his line of law books were the visual equivalent as his incisive memory were props to give him form and structure. Right now, he had nothing except what he might conjure out of the situation. John paced to the drinks cabinet and poured both him and Charlie a drink. He wasn't sure who would need it most. He strolled out onto his balcony, where unaccountably he smelt tobacco. Automatically, he raised an eyebrow at her smoking but refrained from commenting at her blatant disregard of his upbringing and especially that she was smoking in his flat. He crushed the automatic thought down. In view of what he was going to face, it hardly seemed to matter.

Charlie stared out towards the street, refusing to look in his direction. John gulped nervously as he realized that, intentionally or otherwise, because Charlie wasn't going to make this easy for him. How could he talk to her when she wasn't making any eye contact, or any human contact of any kind? By definition, his normal pose of adult sophistication was one that was impossible for him to assume. The only problem was that all his other poses failed spectacularly to support him. He was driven to somehow invent a new method of coping but exactly what that was felt utterly beyond his imaginings.

There was a long and very awkward silence between them. It felt that there was a huge chasm between them, as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon, even though Charlie was only three feet away from him in physical distance. He was haunted by the ancestral instinct that parents weren't supposed to act like this which made his modern liberal values seem terrifyingly skin deep. Words struggled within him for articulation but his feelings felt too intense and articulate for words. It was only eventually that the simple truth of his situation was forced out of him, without a clue as to how the conversation might be directed.

"I really don't know what to say, Charlie," he admitted. This was a real first for him.

"How long has this been going on between the three of you? I assume that this was not a first night."

It struck John that Charlie's lack of name for their relationship betrayed her own intense awkwardness.

"You're right."

"But why, dad?"

"Would you rather that Jo and George were trying to scratch each other's eyes out, both eaten up by jealousy of each other as they have done for so many years?"

"So does that make things right?"

"Would you rather that I betray the trust of both of them, sleeping with any casual woman that took my fancy as I used to?"

Charlie's eyes flitted every way but at John. Her fidgety body language betrayed the fact that Charlie was as awkward as he felt. Somehow, he had overlooked that, seeing Charlie only as a relentless force for judgment over him. He might have consoled himself with the pretence that children were infinitely adaptable but didn't . It hadn't worked for him so why should it work for Charlie?

"You're forgetting that at least I knew where I stood. As I was brought up on all the women in your life, why should you expect me to be stable and understanding? You have a nerve, dad."

For once, Charlie's blue eyes locked with him, and it was his turn to look away. The shaft of mingled reproach and accusation diminished him in her eyes. No matter how dysfunctional his upbringing, he had never had to deal with what Charlie was having to deal with. At least this was the case as far as he knew though in those days, parents didn't talk to children in the same way that he talked to Charlie. Desperately, he blindly reached out for an answer, and by chance, he found it.

"You can't clutch onto the scars of your upbringing, Charlie. There is so much I have reason for feeling guilty in my life, but my love of both George and Jo and their love for each other is not one of them."

Although John's words were pitched low, their understated manner acted as a bucket of water thrown over Charlie. She stood open mouthed. This was a father that she had never known before. His total candour was both embarrassing and poignant for her. She simply couldn't get her head round it.

"I just don't get it, dad. Whatever can Jo and the Ice Maiden have in common?"

"Because they both have a capacity for love only George had more problems in showing it. Because they both realized that they were wasting their time in fighting each other and over me. They couldn't rub each other out of history. Once they learned to share their love for me unselfishly, they could learn to properly love themselves and each other. Because, both of them forced me to devote myself only to them, and no one else. At least each of them knew where I was when we weren't all together. You might get to realize how much that is worth if you settle down….."

"Settle down?" echoed Charlie with something of her mother's capacity for heavy-handed sarcasm. Bad move there, John noted, but this is not irretrievable.

"Well, we are settled, more or less. You must admit, it has to be better than the anarchy of my past life."

Even as he spoke, he realized that the simple formulation of present and past meant that a sea change had taken place and that for once in his life, he was talking simply and plainly. Helen might be proud of him when he came to think of it.

"That's very convenient for the three of you," Charlie said at last with something of a sneer," but where do I fit into the picture?"

"Both of them are fond of you in their different ways." Explained John patiently.

"Jo, perhaps," admitted Charlie, "but mum?"

"There's a lot that you know of this world, but you don't know her as much as you might. It's easily done to not see what is right under your nose."

John drew a breath of relief that Charlie had accepted his delicately phrased point. Nothing had riled the teenage Charlie more than his air of intellectual superiority in the ways of the world.

The conversation tailed off as Charlie reflected on what John had patiently and tentatively explained to her. Her cigarette end smouldered away between her fingertips, ash dropping off it and onto the floor. Neither John nor Charlie was aware of this.

"It's going to take me a while to get my head round the fact that mum likes women, never mind Jo."

"She would say the same if you talked to her. The only explanation that I can come up with is that what was a lingering temptation over the years finally came to the surface. Ask yourself something, do you really choose who you will fall in love with? What I am truly and genuinely sorry about is that you had the reality of our situation thrust on you in the way that it was. That should not have happened."

There was a look of genuine contrition on John's face, that was a revelation to Charlie as it was totally novel. Usually, John had always kept a mask on both his face and feelings when he felt uncomfortable. She had only got to know how he really felt with the sharp eyes of a child, who sees more than an adult normally gives credit for. This time, John's candour was so obvious that it almost hurt Charlie's eyes to look at. Finally, one last question in Charlie's mind rose to the surface.

"What I really don't understand, is how you can still find her attractive, looking the way she does."

The irritation on John's face was plain to Charlie and testified to his growing confidence. He had also expected better from her than this superficial glamorized view of the world.

"I admit that thirty years ago, something like that may have mattered to me, but not any more. I love George, and I love Jo, and nothing is ever going to change that, no matter how they look or what happens to any of us."

"You must have really changed, dad." Charlie asked quizzically, slightly feeling embarrassed and gauche. "How did that happen?"

"I don't honestly know, Charlie." He confessed frankly. At the moment when a change in thinking comes to take place, exactly when is it that the penny finally drops. He couldn't remember.

Charlie finally noticed the cigarette end in her fingers. She stubbed it out and looked thoughtfully at the ashtray. She didn't need it anymore. She was finally starting to make sense of her surroundings.

"So that's why George and Jo have been getting on better than before." It was a flat statement, not a question.

"Partly that, and partly finally becoming friends after all these years."

"You did look ridiculous, trying to preserve your modesty with that quilt." Charlie suddenly giggled. "At least I've been smart enough to know when you were coming back to the flat when I've had a boyfriend round."

John came the nearest to blushing that he ever had in his life.

"This has had to be one of the most mortifying experiences in my life. I'll never live it down and George and Jo cleared off to let me face the music."

Charlie laughed for the first time in what felt like a very long time.

"It could have been worse, dad. Want a refill?"

The gratitude in John's eyes touched Charlie. He really looked as if he needed a drink as well.

"I've never needed a drink so much in all my life."

He meant it.

Part One Hundred and Sixty

But three days later, George found herself wondering just how she had managed to feel so sensuously ecstatic as she had with John and Jo on the Wednesday evening. It was Saturday, and she had been for another session of chemo the day before. She had felt a little lightheaded on returning home on the Friday evening, but it wasn't anything she couldn't handle. But by Saturday evening, she would have wholeheartedly given up the fight for life if she had so much as been given the option to do so. Nothing, not even water would stay down any longer, and she couldn't help but question as to why her stomach was still in tact. She had tried taking some of the anti-sickness medication in tablet form earlier in the day, but that like everything else in the past twenty-four hours had returned with a vengeance. John was with her, but he could do very little to make her feel better, and if George had been honest, she would far rather that he didn't witness this side to her cure. Had Jo been available, she would have done what Ric and Zubin had asked of her, and given George the medication by injection which had resided at the back of the fridge since George's chemo had begun some weeks ago. But Jo wasn't anywhere near. She was in York, spending the weekend with her two sons who were at university there. Having felt comparatively okay the night before, George had assumed that she would remain so for the entire time that Jo would be away, telling her to go and see her children, and not to worry about her. She wouldn't be making that mistake again, George thought to herself as she tried to curtail the pain and misery associated with persistent vomiting. But John couldn't simply let her suffer, when a possible solution had just occurred to him.

Karen was at home on the Saturday evening, doing nothing more exciting than tidying up her flat after a hard week's work, and sorting through the mountain of post she had received, most of it junk mail. When the phone call came, she far too readily put down the bank statement, thinking that she definitely needed to get herself a life if the simple ringing of the phone could make her smile.

"Karen, its John," Came the familiar voice over the wire. "I need your help."

"What's happened?" Karen asked, her brain immediately switching back onto red alert. When John had explained the situation to her, Karen simply said, "I'm on my way," Before switching off the phone and picking up her car keys.

When she arrived a short while later, John opened the door to her in a state of utter relief. Karen would be able to help George where he couldn't, that was something he could be infinitely sure of.

"How is she?" Karen asked as she moved into the hall.

"Still the same," John replied, and Karen could see just what a toll the worry for George was having on him.

"What did Ric give you for this?" Karen asked, her former professional role coming back so easily that John briefly wondered why she'd left that profession in the first place.

"I'll show you," He said, leading her into the kitchen, where he'd retrieved two separate bags of medication from the fridge, one quite obviously containing more than injections. Picking up this particular pharmacy bag, Karen read the words, "Only to be administered by a qualified professional," On the label.

"Okay," She said, putting the bag back down on the table. "We'll come to that one if necessary." Opening the other bag, she found several pre-packed syringes of Cyclozine, and briefly reading the instructions, she asked, "Is this what Jo was taught to give her?"

"I think so," John replied, not having been there when this had taken place.

"Well, this is easy enough to give her," Karen told him, moving towards the stairs.

When she walked into George's en suite bathroom, Karen was more than a little alarmed to see just how ill George actually was.

"You don't look too good," She said by way of greeting.

"Bloody, understatement of the, century," George said with difficulty.

"The Cyclozine has to go in the top of your thigh," Karen told her as she undid the packet. "Is that all right?"

"As long as it works," George answered miserably. "I really don't care." Kneeling down beside her, Karen lifted the corner of the nightie George was wearing, and without any hesitation whatsoever, pierced her skin with the hypodermic needle, depressing the plunger of the syringe, allowing the medication to enter George's musculatory system. After laying the syringe and its empty packet aside, Karen gently began rubbing circles on George's back.

"The only way you're going to stop heaving," She tried to explain. "Is if you try to relax."

"Easy, for you, to say," George replied bitterly.

"I know," Karen told her reasonably, not remotely phased by George's temper. "But try to take slow, deep breaths, and I promise you it will happen."

When George had eventually calmed down, enough to stagger unsteadily to her feet, Karen rose with her and put out an arm to steady her as she swayed.

"Just take it slowly," Karen persuaded her. "Your blood sugar and blood pressure have probably gone through the floor." George leaned against the sink as she cleaned her teeth, trying to keep her eyes off the mirror image of her far too unhealthy features. But as Karen put out an arm to help her back to bed, George said,

"I've got to have a shower. I feel disgusting."

"Absolutely not," Karen replied firmly. "I give you five minutes before you're flat on your back because you've fainted, and that's probably being uncommonly generous."

"What do you suggest I do then?" George demanded acidly, finding it far easier to take out her frustrations on Karen than she had on John, though she didn't know why. Looking over at where John stood in the bedroom doorway regarding her thoughtfully, Karen had an idea.

"John, please could you fetch me a bowl of warm water and a glass of ice?"

"Sure," he said, feeling at last that there was something he could do to help. As John went downstairs to fetch the required items, George moved back over to the bed, perching on the edge, trying to summon up a little more strength than she currently had.

"Lie down before you fall down," Karen told her affectionately.

"Actually, that's not a bad idea," George said as she slumped back onto the pillows, admitting a certain amount of defeat if not conceding to it fully. When John returned, he handed the washing-up bowl full of warm water to Karen, who placed it on the flat expanse of duvet on George's left. As she took the glass of ice cubes that he'd been holding, she thanked John and gave him a look that quite clearly asked him to leave them to it.

When John had retreated downstairs, Karen said,

"Sucking ice is the quickest way to get at least some fluid back inside you."

"I'll take your word for it," George replied dismally. But as she watched Karen retrieve a soft sponge and some shower gel from the bathroom, she felt all her defences rise up in protest of her situation. "You can't be serious?" She said as Karen squirted some of the shower gel into the bowl of water.

"Perfectly," Karen replied matter-of-factly. "Because I am not giving you any opportunity to black out and crack your skull on the edge of the bath. Okay?"

"No, it's not okay," George responded bitterly, the tears running helplessly down her cheeks. "I feel so feeble and pathetic."

"I know," Karen said, reaching forward to remove George's nightie. "And just because you need looking after at the moment, you are not feeble, and you are not pathetic, I promise you."

"You wouldn't just sit back and let someone do this, would you?" George asked, determined to get her argument across if nothing else.

"Not in a million years," Karen said with a smile, beginning to run the moistened sponge over George's face. "I'd probably be the most cantankerous patient going."

"Well, there you are then," George insisted, admitting only to herself that the scented water did feel wonderfully refreshing on her boiling hot body.

"Would you prefer that John were doing this?" Karen asked, beginning to run the sponge all over George's feverish skin.

"Good god, no," George replied in horror.

"What about Jo?"

"Even if she had it in her mind to attempt such a thing, I wouldn't let her," George replied confidently.

"So why let me?" Karen asked with a certain amount of real curiosity.

"Because whilst I can win most battles," George replied without a shred of hesitation. "This one, much to my sincere irritation, I can't."

"That's honest, I suppose," Karen said dryly.

When George reached for the glass of ice cubes on the bedside cabinet, and Karen yet again squeezed the water from the sponge, Karen raised the subject of George's alternative medication.

"John showed me another bag of injections, with a label on it saying that it should only be administered by a fully trained professional. What's that all about?"

"Ric told me that there may come a time when I would need something far stronger than the Cyclozine. He gave me something that could if necessary be administered by my GP. Why?"

"I just wondered," Karen replied, reaching for the bath towel that she'd laid on the bed beside her, gently drying George's freshened body before retrieving a clean night-dress from the chest of drawers. "Do you mind if I talk to Ric about this?" Karen asked, after pulling the nightie down over George's head.

"No, I don't mind," George replied with a yawn. "Just don't let him persuade you that I need to be in hospital."

"Well, I'll try," Karen said, not promising anything. "But I might be tempted to agree with him. Now, go to sleep, and I'll come and check on you later."

When Karen appeared downstairs and poured the bowl of water down the kitchen sink, John came into talk to her.

"Is she all right?" He asked, putting the kettle on for some coffee.

"She will be," Karen replied, thoughtfully looking at the other pharmacy bag on the kitchen table. "But I need to talk to Ric about her."

"Karen, thank you for being here," John told her earnestly. "I wouldn't have known how to help her."

"I'd do anything for George, you know that," Karen told him quietly. "Besides, you forget that it used to be my job, many moons ago." Picking up the cordless phone, Karen sat down at the kitchen table as John began to make them some coffee.

"Ric, it's Karen," She said when she got him on the line. As she began to explain what had happened and what she had done, leaving out nothing of George's present condition, John put a mug of coffee down in front of her together with an ashtray, receiving a smile in return. As he listened to Karen, he couldn't help but realise that she had excelled at the nursing profession just as much as she had done and was still doing in her current one.

"Okay," Ric said when he'd heard all that Karen had to say. "For a start, the Cyclozine probably won't be enough to keep the sickness at bay. So, tell me what I put in that second bag, and we'll go from there." Taking a swig of her coffee, Karen began laying the contents of the bag out on the table.

"There's a bottle of saline, several 14 gauge canulas, clean syringes, clean needles, surgical tape, alcohol wipes and several pre-packed syringes of something called Granisetron, which is a new one on me."

"We use it a lot nowadays for chemotherapy patients, because it's a hell of a lot stronger than either Cyclozine or Metaclopromide. It's the best thing since sliced bread as far as anti-sickness medication is concerned."

"Okay, but now you've finished extolling its virtues," Karen said with a smile. "What do you want me to do?"

"We always start off with Cyclozine," Ric explained. "Because any friend or relative can be trained to give it as it's intra-muscular, and because no normal friend or relative can be given the responsibility of giving something via intra-venous access. However, you do appear to be the exception to the rule."

"Aren't I always?" Karen commented dryly. "But are you sure I would be permitted to administer this?"

"You're still a fully qualified nurse," Ric said succinctly. "So yes, without a doubt, though I would have trusted you to do it in any case."

"Well, thankfully neither of us will get hung for breaking the rules. Is there anything I need to know about Granisetron?"

"Other than that it can only be given once every twelve hours, no. Don't forget to flush the canula with saline before you inject the drug, and if she's still throwing up by tomorrow, I'm afraid that she'll have no choice, because I will want her in hospital right away. Let me know if you have any problems."

"Thanks, I will," Karen replied, switching the phone off and lighting herself a cigarette.

As John sat across from her, listening as she talked to Ric and watching as she put the phone down and thoughtfully smoked her cigarette, one question rose plaintively in his mind, refusing to be banished from his conscience.

"Would it be extremely uncharitable of me," He began carefully. "To ask whether you really know what you're doing?"

"No, not really," Karen replied, a little surprised by his enquiry. "But I can promise you that if Ric didn't think I did know what I was doing, he wouldn't let me anywhere near what I'm about to do. I took my last refresher course a few months ago, so you have nothing to worry about."

"I'm sorry," John said, feeling thoroughly contrite.

"Don't be," Karen assured him softly. "You're worried about her, just like I am."

When they went upstairs a good while later, George was sound asleep. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Karen gently shook her shoulder.

"George, I need you to wake up," She coaxed her quietly. Sluggishly turning over, George tried to surface from the fog in her brain. "I need to put a needle in the back of your hand, so that I can give you something far better than the Cyclozine," Karen explained.

"Okay," George replied exhaustedly, not giving a damn what was done to her at this precise moment. Removing George's right arm from under the duvet, Karen first of all wiped the back of her hand with one of the alcohol wipes, sterilising the skin. After asking George to make a fist for her, she located the most prominent vein before swiftly and accurately inserting the needle of one of the canulas. Then, filling a clean syringe with clear saline, she flushed the canula, ensuring that it was in the correct place.

"Why did you do that?" John asked, from where he stood watching her in the bedroom doorway.

"To make sure there aren't any blockages before injecting the medication," Karen told him. Removing one of the syringes of Granisetron from its packet, Karen fitted the end of the syringe to the canula, and injected the drug that might keep George's stomach in an entirely peristaltic fashion for at least the next twelve hours. After replacing the cap on the end of the canula, she put a piece of surgical tape over the needle to keep it in place.

"I'm going to give that half an hour to kick in," She told George after putting her hand carefully back under the duvet. "And then I want you to try having just a few sips of water."

"That might take some persuasion," George said tiredly, not wanting to risk throwing up again any time soon. "But I suppose that nurses' training taught you how to do that too."

"You can bet on it," Karen replied with a soft smile, brushing some hair back from George's face, and thinking that maybe she did still have what it took, maybe she did still possess that quality that had long ago seemed to come to her so naturally.

Part 161

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