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 Forty-One

Despite all the psychiatrists and the full array of nursing care, they had not realized that Shell Dockley was at her most dangerous when she appeared to be at her most cooperative. Even when she was doped up by the pills they were giving her, some corner of her mind was able to work unobserved, at cross-purpose to her outward appearance. Those large blue eyes and guileless smile still carried that power of deception and none of those screws ever understood this.

It all started that day when that rare event happened in her life, a letter from the outside world was placed into her hands. In a second, the feel of it sparked a sense of familiarity. The envelope just had to be prison issue even if the writing was unfamiliar, small regular script, clearly female. Her eyes opened wide when she pulled a piece of paper out of the envelope. A broad smile split her face. The single folded sheet of prison issue paper was scrawled over by Denny's large uneven childlike script, which virtually filled the page and, at the right hand margin had to be cramped up as she was in danger of overrunning the edge.

"I thought you'd want to see this. Got this out of an old paper. Don't think I've forgotten you, babe. Love you loads. Denny."

Instantly, another memory jumped into her mind of her last memory of an emotional and embarrassed Denny both edging away from her yet clearly wanting to stay where she was.

"I'll write to you Shell and I'll keep my promise."

Shell remembered that Denny had said those words and, yeah, she later laughed cynically to herself, she really meant it right then. Back then, she had waited for weeks on end for the letter that had never come till she had given up on her like she had given up on ever getting out despite what Miss Betts had told her. Now she had received the letter from Denny, she felt confused. She didn't know what to think, what to feel.

She pulled the newspaper cutting from the Sun. Out jumped an image of Miss Betts, mid stride, outside the gates of Larkhall. Her face darkened for a second. It couldn't be real. That must be Wade and Miss Rossi just behind her. What sort of frigging joke was this? She couldn't get her head round that that so her peripheral vision faded out whatever she didn't want to see and focused in on Miss Betts instead. She felt dead sorry for her. Anyone could see the shock in her eyes as the flashbulb exploded in her face. Shell could see that this wasn't the normally majestically in control Miss Betts she had known. She looked just like any other woman in the wing. She had her usual suit on but it looked sort of disarranged. She wasn't herself, any idiot could tell that one a mile away.

Her staring eyes took in the story. 'Junkie Son of Prison Governor Takes Own Life.' Her eyes open wider and wider. This ain't real, a voice inside her head told her. She was vaguely aware that Miss Betts had a son but had supposed that he would be, sort of like her, dead straight, sort of hardworking. She didn't need to read what the paper said about him. It told her between the lines that he was like any other junkie she had known on the outside and on the inside. Her eyes were riveted to what Miss Betts said right at the end." I'll get by the same way as any single mum does."

You're lying, she knew instinctively as she shook her head in disbelief. That sounded hard and cruel, nothing like the Miss Betts she knew. Then again, papers always make up stuff. Look what happened to her when she first got put away. They had a field day with her just like that judge who called her 'evil personified.' That wasn't true. Shell Dockley was fair, like. Do the crime and you do your time. That was why she resented being stuck here instead of with Larkhall with her mates. Somehow, she couldn't make friends with this lot. They didn't think the way she thought, talk the way she talked and you couldn't have a few laughs with them.

What was it that Miss Betts said, 'single mum' ,'single mum, 'single mum.'That stray thought dropped out of thin air and the words went round and round in her head and made it hurt. That's what she was, wasn't she? She had forgotten all about that. She shouldn't have done. She put her hands to her forehead and tears trickled down her face. She had once held her little baby Ronan in her arms before he was snatched from her. In her mind, he was still the baby and he had been frozen in time or so she had thought. How long ago was it that Hedges and that bastard Fenner between them had got her shipped out of Larkhall. She started counting on her fingers, little finger first as she thought deep and hard. Her headache got worse but with a big effort of her will, she counted somewhere in the space between her third and fourth finger.

"Frigging hell." She exclaimed out loud.

She turned her face to the wall so that nobody could see her thoughts, which were racing furiously out of control. She never realized she had been there so long. It frightened her that her life was ticking by, day after day after day. Ronan would be able to walk by now and he would be with another family. He would call some posh woman her mother, not her. Why should he know her, remember her? If she were walking down the street and called out his name, would he know her, run to her? Then again, his name might be changed for all she knew. There was so much that she ought to know about him. At least she remembered Dena and Kayley when they were little. Why should it happen to her every frigging time? Her thoughts only twisted the knife further into her heart. What would he know of her? Being born in a nick wasn't something he'd ever be told about, not even that brief time she was allowed to love him. Poor little mite, she whispered to herself. He hadn't lived with her, would know nothing about her, for what was worth knowing. Her lips twisted cynically in as much self harm as she was driven to. Why had she ever thought she was so big? What was she but an evil slut? The Julies told her that once. She could sense the sharp stare that shot at her from the couple of nurses nearby, especially from that tart with long fair curly hair and who swanned around in that nurses uniform, all stuck up and superior, looking down on all the other muppets in this muppet wing. She was different, of course. She had got something hidden away so deep that nobody else knew where it was, even herself in her off days.

She deliberately attached the suitable smile on her face, which was a masterpiece of counterfeit. All the time, she was shaking inside with bitter self-accusation and hurt. She had to get away somewhere she could think straight. It was frigging impossible in this huge ward, no room to herself, everything in the open for those who could see.

"It's OK, Miss," she called out. "I thought I saw a spider. Silly me. You know I'm dead scared of spiders."

"OK, Shell." Came the automatic reply. It reassured the nurse who always found that Shell Dockley was one of the easier patients to deal with, none of that schizoid paranoid reaction to her slightest words like some of the other patients she had to deal with.

Later on, Shell went to the toilet, about the only place she could get any privacy and she looked again at the letter and the press cutting. She lit a cigarette as an automatic gesture so she could think better. She reread everything and realized that she had got everything right first time around. Everything was slowly sinking into her brain like some kind of chill out drug. Somehow, she was starting to make sense of the mess she was in. It was obvious that she had to do something about her Ronan. It didn't matter what some posh bitch called him. In her mind, he was Ronan.

She was meditating vaguely when she looked at the back of the article that some handwriting caught her eye. Frigging hell, it was an address. The handwriting on the front of the envelope and on the back of the article was exactly the same. She couldn't think which dozy screw had written it on the back of the article and then posted it to her. Whose address could it be, she vaguely wondered, her mind temporarily fogged. It was a full minute later on that it came to her. Miss Betts address. It had to be. It couldn't be her writing but then again, she hadn't a clue what her writing looked like. All she knew was that if she got to see her again, maybe she would get her out and back with Ronan like she said she would. At least she said something like that. Nothing had happened and she was getting right down in the dumps. Very well then, it was up to her to get back with him and not wait for anyone to fix it for her. It was funny that it had not crossed her mind before. She might as well call in on Miss Betts herself. So she was in a secure hospital? She had escaped from Larkhall before. That was more like the old Shell talking, not some doped up bimbo who couldn't think her way out of a paper bag. That thought was a comforting one and a vague smile spread across her face.

A sudden rapping on the toilet door told her that some nutter wanted her toilet. Cigarette ash was hanging on precariously to the stub, which was held between her two fingers. She couldn't be bothered to argue with her so she dropped the cigarette in the loo, flushed it and got out. She went back onto the ward while a whole library of ideas and emotions floated in and out of her mind. It cheered her up that she was sure no one could see into her mind. They just weren't smart enough.

It wasn't until she was alone at night in the darkness of the ward when it all came to her

That nurse looked just like her from a distance. Whether you were a nurse or a screw, you could walk through bolts and bars and no one would ask questions. All she had to do was to wait for the right opportunity.

The psychiatrist wrote steadily in the gradually thickening file while, outside his window, the darkness spread all around.

"Michelle Dockley has become settled at Ashmoor almost to the point of institutionalization. She is cooperative with all those in authority. It is as well that she were not suddenly precipitated into the outside world as she would find it difficult to summon up the necessary amount of individualistic self-reliance and enterprise.

At the same time, she has difficulties in forming relationships with the other patients and her interactions are of the most formal and distanced. It is as if she has withdrawn into her own world. When asked about her children, she makes a show of indifference as if all that is in the past. She is content to passively accept whatever is around her. Considering her disturbed past, she has made the best possible adjustment that she could make in the circumstances and she is one of the lesser of the security risks of all the patients.

I recommend periodic counseling to monitor her progress and keep it at a steady state."

He put down his pen and laid it to rest just as Shell Dockley laid her plans to rest for the first chance to properly realize them. This felt like it was her last chance to change her life.

Part Forty-Two

On the Monday evening, John decided again to check on Karen. He had kept in phone contact with her over the last couple of weeks, trying to get her to talk, but not so far having much success. He was entirely at a loss as to how to help her, not something he was used to feeling. Self-harm wasn't something he'd come across before in a personal context, and not knowing how to get through to Karen was making him feel more and more useless every day. She hadn't told him that she'd cut herself again, but he highly suspected that she had. What he certainly did know was that it wasn't something she would simply be able to give up at the click of her fingers. He hadn't so far shared his knowledge or his concerns with either Jo or George, because in truth he really didn't know how to tell them. He knew that George would be bitterly upset, and that Jo would be immensely concerned. He could have done with their advice and their gentle sympathy, but he wasn't altogether sure that Karen would want either of them to know her secret.

Karen knew that she was going steadily down hill, but she really didn't know how to stop it getting any worse. Nikki was perpetually trying to keep an eye on her, doing her damnedest to persuade her to talk, whilst at the same time trying not to make it as obvious as it was. Karen desperately wanted to stop cutting, to halt that urge in her that would compel her to take any sharp edge to her once beautiful skin, but she couldn't. The feeling of panic would come upon her, and the need to exhume her pain and allow it to drip silently away was far too alluring. Only that release of her life force gave her the ability to cry. No more could she use her tears to let out the agony and frustration of her unresolved anger against her son. She hated herself for being so angry with him, alternating between anger that he had done this to her, and the guilt that she clearly hadn't been there for him. She wasn't entirely certain what had provoked this latest bout of self-mutilation, but something had yet again sparked her off into that terrifyingly downward spiral. Given what date it was, she thought she could probably hazard a guess. It was around this time of year, that she had plucked up the courage to inform her parents that she was pregnant with Ross. She'd been only seventeen, and had been pregnant for nearly three months. Her father's anger had petrified her that night, though she would never have admitted it to him. He had castigated her total lack of decency, her complete absence of a moral code of ethics, and told her that she was no longer good enough to be called his daughter. What on earth would he think of her now, Karen thought ruefully to herself? Her son was dead, she was single, and spending each and every working day locking up women for a living. He certainly wouldn't be remotely proud of her, she knew that much. Her thoughts of this time twenty-three years ago had almost taken her away from what she was actually doing, so that she had ended up cutting deeper than she usually did. But oh, to feel that sense of calm serenity once more, to really experience the sensation of all that pain simply flowing out of her. That was why she did it, to take back the Karen who could cope, the Karen who could continue as normal, the Karen who could almost fool everyone into believing that she was all right.

When the doorbell rang, Karen was holding a towel to her arm, trying to staunch the flow of any more of the crimson fluid. The wound was raw, tender where the material of the towel chafed against it. Wrapping it more securely around her arm, she took a glance out of the front window. Thank god for that, it was only John, and he did at least know about her new little habit. Running quickly downstairs, she opened the door, a half defiant, half ashamed expression on her face.

"Karen, I..." He began, and then caught sight of the towel around her arm.

"Please don't say it," Karen told him belligerently, turning from him to walk back up the stairs. "Because being told just how stupid this is, and how much I really don't need to do it, is honestly not going to help." Closing the door behind him and following her up to the living room, John was still trying to get his head around the fact that he'd clearly disturbed her in her cutting. When they reached the lounge, he laid an arresting hand on her shoulder.

"Let me see," He encouraged her gently, but she flinched away from him as though he'd slapped her.

"No," She replied, sounding almost terrified of doing such a thing. Then, calming down slightly, she added, "It's not something you want to see, John, believe me."

"No, you're right there," John said dryly. "I don't want to see it, but I think you should let me see it." There were two visible tear tracks on her cheeks, showing that she had previously been crying, but what really alarmed him, was the wild, almost primeval look in her enormous blue eyes. She reminded him of a bird whose territory had been penetrated, as though the distance she usually managed to maintain had been threatened. Glancing back down at where she was holding her arm protectively against her body, he saw that the blood had begun to soak through the towel. Without a second thought, John steered her by the shoulder into the bathroom, pushing her to sit down on the closed lid of the toilet. Holding her left arm over the washbasin, he gently unwrapped the now bloody towel, wincing as he saw the extent to the damage she had done to herself.

"That could probably do with a few stitches," John said quietly as he gazed at what one woman's pain could achieve in so little time.

"Tough," Karen said a little bitterly. "It'll have to go without." Dampening a corner of the towel under the cold tap, John washed away some of the blood, resisting the urge to tell her that she'd made a real mess of herself this time. Opening the door of the bathroom cabinet, John retrieved alcohol wipes and a sterile dressing.

"You're certainly well prepared," He said dryly, unwrapping one of the wipes and running it over the wound, causing her to suck in a breath through her teeth, in an attempt not to utter the most vile phrases she could think of. She bit furiously down on her bottom lip, the agony of having the alcohol in contact with her raw and bleeding flesh almost insurmountable.

"I used to be a nurse," She told him through gritted teeth. "What do you expect?"

"Which begs the question, of why you can do this in the first place," John replied a little bitterly, discarding the alcohol wipe and covering the wound with the dressing.

"Perhaps because I know just how far I can push it," Karen amazed him by saying. Still holding her arm between his hands, he stared at her.

"That doesn't mean that one day you won't go too far," He told her eventually, the thought of that day arriving utterly terrifying him.

Going back into the lounge, John poured himself a drink and Karen lit a cigarette.

"Are you going to tell me what brought this on?" He asked quietly, feeling that she did at the very least owe him an explanation.

"What do you want me to say?" Karen asked a little defiantly. "It was something I needed to do."

"I'd like you to tell me why," John replied evenly, resisting the urge to show her just how furious he really was with her.

"You tell me something first," Karen said on a whim. "When Charlie told you she was pregnant, what was your reaction? What did you do?"

"What's Charlie got to do with this?" John asked, entirely mystified as to where this was going.

"Just satisfy my curiosity," She replied, for the moment not giving him a reason for her slightly odd question.

"Erm, I suppose you could say I took it in my stride," John said after a moment's thought. "I certainly wasn't vastly opposed to the idea, and once I'd thought about it, I was really quite enthusiastic about it."

"So you definitely wanted her to keep it?" Karen asked him, wanting to get this point absolutely straight.

"Yes," John told her firmly. "Part of me was delighted at the thought of Charlie becoming a mother, but Charlie had other ideas. When she said that she wanted a termination, I wanted her to stay and discuss it, but she was adamant, and because I wouldn't immediately help her to get what she wanted, she went to George. I was pretty angry that she'd done something so drastic without even discussing it with me, but George and Jo managed to convince me that it was Charlie's decision. Why did you want to know?"

"I was only seventeen when I discovered I was pregnant with Ross," She began a little hesitantly.

"Yes, I know," John replied gently, thinking that he may at last be able to see where this was going. "And one thing that you have never told me anything about, is your parents' reaction to that."

"If you want the details on my parents, ask George," Karen said bitterly. "She managed to break through my vow of silence some time in May, and that's not a conversation I'm particularly eager to repeat. Suffice it to say that my father wasn't amused. They never knew Ross, they never wanted to know him, or me after he was born. I just got to wondering what they would think of the complete mess I've made of everything. My father would probably tell me that it was all he could possibly have expected of his daughter. He always resented the fact that I wasn't a boy, and my son having killed himself would probably just reinforce everything he's ever believed about me."

"And that is not the way any man should treat his child," John said all too vehemently.

"Fathers aren't supposed to call their daughters some of the names he called me when he found out about Ross's future arrival, but that didn't stop him." Suddenly realising that she'd definitely said far too much, Karen went and stayed quiet.

"Karen, you did everything possible within your power to help your son," John told her gently but firmly.

"Did I?" Karen replied, bitter tears rising to her eyes. "Because it doesn't bloody look like it, does it." She turned her face away from him, not wanting him to see her cry, even though in the circumstances she knew this to be ridiculous. Laying a strong, warm hand on her cheek, John turned her face back towards him, his soft, blue eyes watching hers. When she could no longer maintain her control, he carefully slid his arms round her, holding her against his chest, and resting his cheek on her hair. No words needed to be said between them, as they were both deeply aware of her inner torment. Karen was almost silent as she cried, the slight trembling of her body the only thing to betray her grief.

After a while, when her tears had dried, she still leant against him, taking an enormous amount of comfort from simply being held in a pair of strong, male arms.

"Would you like me to stay with you tonight?" John asked eventually, knowing that he certainly didn't trust her to be left on her own.

"John, I don't have the right to ask that of you," She said a little regretfully, lifting her head from where it had lain against his shoulder.

"That wasn't what I asked you," He said with a smile. "Besides, as a friend, you have the perfect right to ask anything of me that I have it in my power to give. I can't always guarantee to deliver, but I can try. So, would you like me to stay?"

"Well, yes I would," Karen replied with a watery smile. "But I am at a loss as to know why you are offering such a thing."

"Two reasons really," John said a little evasively. "The first is that I think you need the company, and the second is because part of me doesn't trust you."

"That's honest, I suppose," She said ruefully. "And the thought is appreciated, really." But a good while later when they were lying in her large, comfortable bed, Karen couldn't help but to wonder whether this really was such a good idea. She was wearing a blue cotton nightie, and John his boxer-shorts, therefore all could definitely be said to be perfectly respectable, but she couldn't help being thoroughly, almost painfully aware of his body there behind her, lying tucked up against her as he was, with one arm around her waist. John could feel how tense she was as she nestled in his arms, so he took one of her hands in his, gently chafing at it until she began to relax.

"It isn't wrong, me being here," He told her softly.

"Who are you trying to convince," She asked him dryly, "me or yourself?"

"You," He said with a laugh. "Now go to sleep."

Part Forty-Three

Shell was in a confused state of excitement and tension as she drove the stolen car along the country roads out of Ashmoor. It was pitch black outside as there were no streetlights and only her headlights. She didn't want to have to get herself lost on some unlit country road. She was a city woman. Pubs, clubs and late night eating-places were what she knew, not some stinking farmyard and lumbering combine harvester blocking up the road. For all she knew, the police were on her tail and she needed to get away fast from here. A sense of crazy excitement flared up inside her fading down to a feeling of sheer relief as she spotted the sign she was looking for. She turned her car to cut right round the roundabout and drop down to the four lanes, wide reassurance of the motorway. This huge gash in the rolling countryside etched a hundred miles and more line from north to south and all routes headed to the London of her homeland.

She had flipped out a Guns and Roses CD and the pounding guitars and wailing vocals blasted out. She pushed her foot near to the bottom of the floorboard and the low slung car made her feel that the tarmac was whizzing past either side of her at an impossibly fast pace. She was free and on the run. She hadn't been behind the wheel of a car since she lived in Amsterdam but it had all come back to her. She felt incredibly sharp and alert. It was a shame Denny wasn't with her to share the fun and games, she thought with a pang of regret but a surge of excitement overtook her at the thought of her freedom. It was all so easy when she thought back on what had happened.

Cutting back on the pills had been the first step in getting to where she was now. She must be a kid at heart, she thought to herself, wanting something when some tosser told her no and getting bored with it when she was allowed it. When she was at Larkhall, drugs were banned so she wanted drugs, right? It was easy enough to get the other girls to smuggle them in at visiting time or lob a parcel over the wall. The rest was easy, as she had handled the distribution. It was jellies and valium most of the day to get out of it and either that or Denny's body made the nights go sweeter. When she got here, the screws were feeding her stuff so she would go through the day with a cabbage for a mind and not notice. Trouble was, she had woken up and once she had flushed the stuff away, she became more like the old Shell and she could plan what she wanted to do.

That nurse was the other part of the plan. She had made a special effort to be nice and cooperative. The dozy tart even offered her the key to her escape served up on a plate, the problem of which car in the car park was hers. From her previous experience of escaping from Larkhall, that bastard Fenner helped her to escape for his own selfish reasons, the only reason why she had trusted him. The other half of her scheme was that pathetic creep from the film crew who positively drooled all over her. That van of theirs was dead easy to spot in the car park. This time was different. She would have to do everything by herself like that shrink always kept banging on about. The one problem was the escape car. One car would look just like another and trying every car door would be a dead giveaway.

"A bright red Fiesta, dead nippy and goes like a bat out of hell. It's got a registration plate that really suits me. Means I don't have to put in for special ones." She droned on enthusiastically after subjecting Shell to an inordinately long description of the latest burn up along country roads with her mates.

"Oh and what's that?" Shell asked,

"ACE123T" she answered proudly." Says everything, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does say everything." Shell agreed with her politely and blandly. Inside, she gave a mental jump for joy. She had just been handed the way out of Ashmoor. All it took was to put her plan into operation.

"Time for your nighttime injection, Shell." The nurse called out. Shell was the last one she had to treat and the other patients in the ward were sliding off into nighttime's oblivion, which would take away their troubles. Everything was still and quiet while Shell lay in her nightie, apparently submissive. The nurse pulled the plunger back and approached the other woman, fully expecting her to hold her arm out meekly, as if she were at the local doctor's. Instead of that, steel hard hands gripped her and secured a hold on the terrified woman and she was pushed down into the bed.

"Oh no you don't, mush. It's your time for La La land. Just don't struggle and you'll be all right." Shell muttered fiercely but enough to keep her voice down and to persuade the terrified woman to cooperate. In an instant, she remembered just why Shell Dockley had ended up in prison. She nodded her head and made a gargling sound into the pillow.

Shell picked up the syringe off the floor and plunged the needle into the other woman's forearm. Within seconds, the woman's body went limp.

The rest of the business was easy. She undid the buttons of the nurse's uniform and eased off the outer clothing. To her immense satisfaction, it fitted on her surprisingly easily, just a bit on the tight side but nothing so much that anyone would notice. She rifled through her pockets and found her pass card in her uniform. She would need that.

"So now I'm Nurse Ford," muttered Shell to herself, enjoying the joke of a false identity.

She secured the nurse's small blue handbag, which lay on the floor and examined the contents. She opened the purse, which contained a couple of credit cards, and thirty pounds, which was what she, was hoping for. The make up, a mobile phone and a bunch of keys completed the escape kit. She worked swiftly and silently and when she was done, thoughtfully tucked the other woman in her bed with the blanket almost covering her face. Last of all, she reached in her bedside locker for the letter from Denny and slipped that carefully into the bag. It was important for practical reasons and because of the sort of sentimental urges that she only felt safe with in relation to her kids and hardly anyone else besides.

"Night night. Sweet dreams, mush. At least I know you won't grass on me," She couldn't help resist whispering.

Shell walked quietly down the wing, let herself out and went down the first corridor, the part of the wing that she knew. When she got beyond that, her heart was in her mouth as she had never been that way before except in the traumatic occasion when she was first dragged that way from Larkhall. Luck was with her as the hospital very thoughtfully provided comprehensive signs and amongst those, 'official car park' enabled her to walk straight out of the place. The cold and the dark was a bracing tonic of fresh air after the typical stale hospital air and, sure enough, the red Fiesta was the fourth one in the first row. At last, she was free.

At nighttime, Nikki and Helen lay asleep together in their double bed. The room was dark apart from moonlight shining faintly through the windows. Just before they settled down to sleep, the thought came to both of them that their days of living on the opposite hours of the day were behind them and they were truly free to be who they wanted to be. The demands of their daytime jobs were heavy and recent events had collided those professional spheres against each other but they had come through this one together. No matter what else happened in their lives, then unless a major crisis blew up at nighttime from Larkhall, they were free to share the same space together and the world could go its own sweet way and would not touch them.

"Wonder what Shell is doing now?" Denny asked the Julies just before lockup time." Course, she wasn't your friend so you wouldn't be interested."

"I'll be straight, Denny. She did some bloody evil things in her time, you know that. It ain't no wonder that we got to be mates with Yvonne and the two of them always hated each other's guts."

Julie Saunders removed her glasses and stared fairly severely at Denny. In her own mind, she had worked out her own allegiances and knew where she stood. She wasn't inclined to forget what had gone on although she was prepared to forgive where it was right to do so. Talking with Yvonne over the years had sharpened up her ideas so that she could take over where Yvonne had left off.

"That don't mean that we don't understand that you were both mates…."

"A bit more than mates….." Denny interjected. She could still remember of those months in Spain, the sun beating down on them both on the deck of that yacht and the brief coolness of the nights, which didn't stay cool for long. Not when she had her all to herself instead of with some dickhead who was bound to mess with her head. Shell had a dodgy taste in men and had never learnt from it, Denny thought pityingly.

"….but that don't mean that we don't think that what happened to Shell was disgusting. It was all that bastard Fenner's doing. It's a shame that something can't be done for her but once you get into one of them places, you'd need gelignite to get you out again."

There was a gloomy silence. Denny had accepted the grim truth behind that remark. Miss Betts may be the governor of this prison but she wasn't God. She never pretended that she was in the way that she was never afraid to show that very human side of her. She hadn't seen that much of her round the wing recently but she supposed she was kept very busy.

"I wonder what Shell's doing right now…….." Denny finished

The Julies didn't answer. What could they say but she's likely to be doing the same of them. One nick is the same as another except the bolts and bars on muppet wing were twice as secure and her chances of escape twice as hopeless.

Several hours later, Shell saw the outskirts of London after a long drive down the motorway. It was a long way to London and she had risked calling into a service station and filling up the tank and buying an A - Z map of London. She knew where she had grown up and bits and pieces of London but frigging dockland was totally new to her. She had to see Miss Betts and didn't want to be driving in circles all night. So what if she were seen with a road map driving uncertainly round London. Half the population were frigging tourists and foreigners so she wouldn't stand out.

At last, she came to the road on which new flats were situated. She had to hand it to Miss Betts for taste. It had a posh communal garage underneath it, a flight of steps, cut into the earth and leading from outside the sliding doors up to her posh looking bungalow, brand spanking new. It was in total darkness so Miss Betts would bound to be there. She drove up quietly to the flat and parked the car just outside. She fished round in the glove compartment and found what she was looking for, a long thin screwdriver which was nice and comfortable. She had done a bit of breaking and entering in her time and that, driving and sex was something, which, once you learned, you never forgot the knack. This gaffe looked dead easy, big wide windows, not some old terraced house with a front door and small windows four feet up, solid and secure. Delicately, she pressed the screwdriver against the door frame and, without too much effort, clicked it open.

The sound was loud to Shell's pent up emotions and must have roused Miss Betts. She paused a few minutes to see if there was any response and thankfully, everything was as quiet as the grave. Stupid expression that, she thought. She swore she could see her little Ronan inside the house as she waited. Don't worry, she soothed herself in her head, mummy's coming to find you. She stepped into the flat and stood in the front room. Fortunately, the moonlight gave her enough illumination to avoid knocking into anything. The room, what she could see of it, had class as Miss Betts had. She would always have class, not like Shell Dockley, she thought ruefully. She tiptoed to the landing, which led to the rest of the flat and, seeing the door at the end and guessing that this was the bedroom, tiptoes in and watched and waited.

Part Forty-Four

At first, Karen couldn't say what had woken her. She lay on her back, as still as a statue, all her senses immediately on red alert. John was lying on his side facing her, and she could hear his deep, regular breathing. But something had disturbed her slumber, something alien, something that certainly shouldn't have been there. It wasn't a sound, but a feeling, a sense that they were no longer alone in her flat. Reaching out for John's hand, she gave it a tentative squeeze. As John came to, he couldn't immediately understand why Karen had woken him, but when he took a breath to speak, she squeezed his hand again to tell him to keep quiet. When the overhead light snapped on, they were almost blinded until their eyes became accustomed to the brightness. As Karen stared at the figure in her bedroom doorway, she finally discovered what people meant by the phrase 'lost for words'. What on earth was Shell Dockley doing in her flat, in her bedroom? John on the other hand, not recognising Shell, simply lay there and stared at her.

"Shell," Karen said in aghast disbelief. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"Sorry, Miss," Shell said, moving a little way into the room. "I didn't know you'd have company."

"Company or not," Karen said dismissively. "I still want to know what you're doing here."

"Just wanted to see you," Shell said a little belligerently.

"Are you carrying anything I should be extra wary of?" Karen asked, not thinking for a moment that Shell would tell her, but using the question to buy her some thinking time.

"Miss, this ain't like the time I broke into Bodybag's house," Shell assured her. "I just want to talk, that's all."

"I believe you," Karen said unconvincingly. "Thousands wouldn't." Before Shell could reply, John tentatively cleared his throat.

"Does somebody mind telling me what on earth is going on?"

"John Deed," Karen said, gesturing to him. "Shell Dockley, current inmate of Ashmoor special psychiatric hospital, and I presume on the run."

"Like they'd let me out with a free pardon," Shell said disgustedly. John's eyebrows had risen so high that they were barely visible beneath his hairline.

"Any objections if I get out of bed?" Karen asked, gradually moving into a sitting position. "Because I'd really rather not have this conversation lying down."

"Like I said," Shell assured her. "I ain't here to hurt anyone."

"Well, I suppose that's nice to know," Karen replied, privately thinking that her tongue was entirely ignoring the signals from her still half dormant brain. John wasn't remotely sure as to what one did or didn't do in a situation such as this, so he stayed precisely where he was, waiting for a cue from Karen. But as Karen left the bed and moved to put some clothes on, Shell asked,

"Can I use your bathroom?"

"Why," Karen asked before she could think better of it. "Have you crutched a weapon that you might want at your disposal?"

"No," Shell said belligerently. "I just want a piss." Not dignifying this with a response, Karen jerked her head in the direction of the bathroom.

Once Shell had momentarily left them, John also rose from the bed and swiftly pulled on his clothes. But as he took a breath to speak, Karen held up a hand. Trying to pull on a skirt and T-shirt with one hand, she reached for a pen and a notepad that were on the dressing-table, and frantically scribbled John the following instructions:

"I've got the upper hand, so I'll try to keep it. Don't say anything that might upset her. I need to make her relax before I've any hope of getting the cuffs on her."

Going into the lounge, and after switching on some more lights, Karen gestured to John to sit on the sofa. Silently retrieving her spare set of handcuffs from the sideboard drawer, she hid them in the pocket of her skirt. When Shell emerged, Karen said,

"Do you want a cup of tea?"

"Please," Shell replied gratefully, sinking into a chair at the lounge table and watching Karen move about in the kitchen. Spying Karen's cigarettes and lighter on the table in front of her, Shell took one and lit up. As Karen waited for the kettle to boil, she stood in the kitchen doorway, scrutinising every inch of perhaps the one woman she wouldn't have expected to see in her flat in a million years.

"Shell," She said after a moment. "What is that you're wearing?"

"It's a nurse's uniform," Shell told her almost proudly. "The dozy tart who came to give me my medication, thought I was going to be all nice and co-operative, I think that's what they call it, only she was the one who ended up getting the needle instead of me, stupid cow. So, I nicked her uniform, and she's tucked up in my bed dozing away in La La land. I look quite a bit like her, and her pass card was in her uniform pocket. It was a piece of piss to walk out of there."

"You're getting more creative, I'll say that for you," Karen told her ruefully, unwilling to admit just how impressed she actually was.

"Yeah," Shell said with a mirthless laugh. "Even Fenner would have been proud of that one." Then, looking over at John, she asked, "So, who's this then?" Karen took a breath to answer, but John got in before her.

"I'm a high court judge," He told her, looking her straight in the eye, and clearly hoping to disconcert her.

"Blimey," Shell said with a broad smile. "You're going up in the world, in't you, Miss."

"So it would seem," Karen replied with a slight smile, thankful that John's statement hadn't rattled Shell in the way she'd thought it would.

"The only Judge I ever had the pleasure of," Shell told John stonily "Told me I was evil personified. I ain't ever forgotten that."

"What did you do?" John asked her, his curiosity outweighing his sense of caution. "For a judge to describe you in such a fashion."

"Not something I'm especially proud of," Shell told him evasively.

"Well, that's progress, I suppose," Karen said to no one in particular, returning to the kitchen to pour the tea. But as she moved to the table and put Shell's mug down in front of her, Shell caught at Karen's arm to hold her still, gazing awestruck at the dressing covering part of her left arm, together with the scars a little way above it.

"Bleedin' 'ell," She said with widening eyes. "Since when did you start cutting?"

"Since my son started thinking it was clever to kill himself," Karen told her quietly, the explanation slipping out of her treacherously unguarded mouth. To her astonishment, Shell's face softened.

"Yeah, Denny told me about that. I'm sorry."

"I thought she might," Karen replied, trying to sound unaffected by Shell's slight sense of propriety.

"Fenner wouldn't recognise you if he saw that," Shell said thoughtfully, still looking at the scars on Karen's arm.

"There's a lot that Fenner wouldn't recognise if he was still alive, and I'm not just talking about me."

"Do you ever still dream about him?" Shell asked, as Karen leant against the sideboard and lit herself a cigarette.

"I think we all do to some extent," Karen told her, wondering just where this had come from. "You, me, Helen, you name it."

"Little Hicksy probably would if she was still alive. You never knew her, did you?"

"No, she was before my time," Karen replied, taking a long drag and wondering just where this obscure little scenario was going.

"Shell, you didn't come here to talk about the past," She said eventually, hoping that John would take the hint and stay silent.

"When your son died," Shell said carefully, realising that she was treading on very thin ice with this one. "Denny sent me a piece out of the newspaper about it. She thought I'd want to see it, seeing as it was about you. It reminded me that I had a son out there somewhere, growing up knowing sod all about me, not that there is much to know. So, I started not taking the pills they gave me, because I can't think when I'm all doped up. I wanted to get out, because I thought you might be able to help me see him again." There was a stunned, awful silence. Karen just stared at her, all her feelings of hurt and grief over Ross rising to the surface. She couldn't believe what Shell was asking of her. Here she was, a psychopathic murderer, currently incarcerated in a special psychiatric hospital, asking her, Karen, to help this woman obtain access to her defenseless son. This was the professional part of Karen, the part that screamed no, no, never in a million years! But then there was the quieter, perhaps more insidious part of her, the area of her mind that was making her feel all the instinctive call of a mother blindly searching in the barren wilderness for her lost child. Karen could feel that tug, that sharp pain in her heart that entirely understood the tiny fragment of real maternal instinct that did reside within this woman sitting at her table.

John quietly observed the mental struggle going on within Karen's brain, the flickering expressions that crossed her face saying everything. He could see the battle between the professional and the grieving mother, the tormented, raging effort it was taking for the professional responsibility to take over once more.

"When did you last see him?" Karen asked, knowing this was a pretty pointless question, but badly needing to buy herself some time.

"You know when I last saw him," Shell said almost bitterly. "On the night that bastard Hedges thought he'd get more than his money's worth. Even Fenner knew better than to come looking for a shag just after I'd had a baby." John winced. "Only Fenner decided to get his wanker of a mate off the hook instead, and made out I tried to smother my own baby. You know I didn't do that, don't you, Miss."

"Yes," Karen said quietly without hesitation, never having doubted this for a moment. She didn't know why, except that she really couldn't believe that Shell would try to kill her own child. "What about the family he's living with? Haven't they ever written to you?"

"No, the social reckon they've asked them to write to me, maybe send me some pictures, but they haven't. Guess they don't want to know their little boy's psycho mother."

"Do you ever hear from Kayley and Dena?" Karen asked, referring to Shell's other two children.

"No, not since I got them taken into care," Shell replied dejectedly. "I know they're better off where they are, but at least when they was living with my mum I used to get photos and letters sometimes. I would never forgive myself if she'd got her hands on Kayley and Dena an' all."

"You still blame her for an awful lot, don't you," Karen said quietly, taking a little reprieve in having moved Shell away from the salient subject.

"Too right," Shell said disgustedly. "She took away some of the best years of my life by turning me into this." Then, glancing over at John, she said, "You know something, Judge, you wouldn't have thought that our Governor Betts here had it in her to rip someone's head off, would you. But on the day she met my mum, I think my mum got off lightly with just a look."

"Ripping people's heads off isn't usually part of the job description, Shell," Karen said with the faintest of smiles.

"Yeah? You didn't see the look on your face," Shell told her with a smirk. "But I didn't come here to talk about my tart of a mother. Miss, I really need you to help me see my kid again."

Mentally giving herself a shake, Karen dove in head first, knowing that she would be lucky to escape with a concussion.

"You know I can't do that, Shell," She said carefully, some inner sense of honesty forbidding her to lie.

"Why?" Shell demanded, sounding hurt, emotionally wounded and belligerent all in one go.

"Because I think we both know that it isn't going to happen," Karen told her quietly. "Not where you are now."

"So help me get out of there," Shell pleaded with her. "Get them to send me back to Larkhall."

"I might be Larkhall's governor," Karen said, desperately trying to keep her voice even. "But it doesn't give me a magic wand. Even if you were transferred back to Larkhall, which we both know is highly unlikely, social services would never let you anywhere near your son."

"So that's it?" Shell asked miserably, sounding as though the very life had gone out of her.

"Yes," Karen said, equally dejected, feeling a complete traitor for doing this, yet knowing that it had to be done. It wouldn't do Shell any good to be lied to, even if it might have made the immediate situation more palatable.

"No," Shell said, getting to her feet just as the tears rose to her eyes. "That can't be it. You can't just say no and leave it at that. You don't understand, I've got to see him. My kids are the only decent thing that ever happened to me."

"Yes, I do understand, believe me," Karen tried to calm her down, knowing that she really did feel Shell's maternal call.

"You can't," Shell insisted vehemently. "If you did, you wouldn't be doing this."

"Shell," Karen said, gradually moving towards her. "Don't you think I have those very same regrets every single day of my life? Because I can promise you that I most certainly do."

Standing in front of Shell now, Karen put her arms out to her, gently holding the taut, rigid body against her, allowing Shell to, just for a moment, think she was being comforted. Then, as fast as lightning, Karen turned Shell round, fished the handcuffs out of her skirt pocket, and had them snapped on Shell's wrists before she could blink. Shell struggled, trying to wrench herself out of Karen's grip, but Karen held fast to her hands, which were now tied, behind her back.

"Let, me, go!" Shell hissed through gritted teeth.

"Only if you calm down," Karen told her firmly. Seeing that Karen could use some help, John rose from the sofa to come to her assistance, but Karen waved him off. "Don't, John," She said, not wanting him to come within range of Shell's far too agile feet. "Though you might like to call the police," Karen added almost as an afterthought. As John moved to the phone and made the necessary call, Karen very gradually relinquished her hold on Shell's wrists, so that eventually she could turn to face Karen, the hurt and betrayal far too visible on her face.

"Why did you have to do that?" She asked, sounding just like the lost child, whose parent had just committed the most heinous of all crimes.

"I had to, Shell, you know I did," Karen told her quietly, eyeing her for the slightest movement. When John had replaced the receiver, informing them that the police were on their way, Karen said, "Right, now I think I'd better find out what you're carrying, don't you."

"I ain't carrying anything to hurt anyone," Shell insisted.

"Well, let's see, shall we," Karen said, clearly not believing her. But as she began to run her hands clinically over Shell's torso, giving her the usual once over that visitors received when entering Larkhall, Shell couldn't quite hold back the jibes.

"Denny said you were into touching up girls as well as men these days," Receiving a glare of monumental proportions for her trouble, plus a twitch in Karen's right hand that showed the extreme restraint she was being forced to exert, in order not to give in and slap Shell's face for her.

"Shut up," She said bitterly, her residual hurt over George rising to the surface with this remark.

"Tut, tut," Shell mocked. "A prison governor just itching to slap a prisoner. What a bloody surprise." Reaching the uniform skirt, Karen dug her hands into the pockets, coming out with a pass card for the nurse in question, a folded tissue, and a page of newsprint of all things. Smoothing it out, Karen saw that it was the clipping of what had been put in the press at the time of Ross's suicide.

"Is this what Denny sent you?" She asked, waving the paper in Shell's face.

"So?" Shell demanded, unwilling to be remotely helpful at this stage. But what caught Karen's eye was a small section of rogue writing at one corner of the page. In small, almost unobtrusive letters were the precise details of her home address.

"Who in god's name wrote this?" Karen asked in horror. "How the hell did you get your hands on my home address?"

"I don't know," Shell told her, and Karen could see that she was speaking the truth. "It ain't Denny's writing, I know that much, and not even the Julies could get their hands on a PO's address, so it wasn't a con who wrote it."

"I think I'll be keeping this," Karen said, slipping the paper into the drawer of the sideboard behind her. "And God help whoever it was when I find them." Karen then turned her attention to the small, blue handbag Shell had brought with her. "This yours?" She asked, picking it up from the table.

"No, it belongs to the silly cow whose clothes I'm wearing." Rifling through it, Karen found a purse, some make up, a mobile phone, and thrusting her hand to the bottom, she emerged with a bunch of keys.

"Don't tell me you actually drove here?" Karen said in complete astonishment.

"How else was I supposed to get here?" Shell asked disgustedly. "Ashmoor's right out in the sticks, isn't it. I ain't driven since Amsterdam, but it's like shagging some witless bloke, you never forget how."

Just then, they heard the approach of a police siren, the familiar wail causing Shell to look this way and that, obviously searching for somewhere to run, somewhere to hide.

"I wouldn't bother," Karen told her gently.

"I can't believe you did this to me," Shell said, turning on Karen and looking both angry and hurt.

"What possible choice did I have?" Karen asked her. "I couldn't just let you walk out of here as though nothing had happened." Shell was visibly crying when John let the police in, and Karen groaned when she saw who it was.

"Oh, great, not you two," Karen said, eyeing DI Sullivan and his sidekick Greer with disdain.

"Oh, good morning to you too, Miss Betts," Sullivan greeted her jovially. "I see you've got a lovely little escapee for me."

"None of your usual bullshit, please, Sullivan, it's too early in the morning," Karen told him dismissively.

"Well, well, well," Sullivan said, moving over to Shell and looking her up and down as Greer exchanged Karen's handcuffs for her own. "Michelle Dockley, wonders will never cease. I think we'd better be getting you back to your nice, warm, heavily sedated bed, don't you?"

"No, you ain't sending me back there," Shell pleaded, the horror of being force fed medication again all too real for her. "Miss, please, can't you at least get them to take me back to Larkhall."

"I don't think so, sweetheart," Sullivan said harshly, gesturing to Greer to take her downstairs. But before Shell gave into the Sergeant, she stopped beside Karen.

"I'm sorry, Miss," She said, the tears now running down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry too, Shell," Karen told her gently, really feeling as though she'd let her down. "And I promise, in a little while, I'll come and see you."

"And Miss," Shell said, ignoring Greer's attempts to get her to move. "Don't keep cutting, because it don't get you nowhere, I should know that, and you don't want to end up like me, burning yourself with fag ends because it's easier than dealing with what's going on in here," She gestured to her forehead. "You ain't like me, you're worth more than that, even if you can't help me get my kids back."

When Shell and the police had gone, Karen moved immediately to the sideboard, and taking no heed of the fact that it was almost five in the morning, poured herself an enormous scotch. As she took a hefty swig, John moved over to her, and after taking the glass from her, he tried to put his arms round her, but Karen moved away. She couldn't bear anyone else's touch right at this moment, almost feeling as though she didn't deserve it.

"You did the right thing, you know," John told her quietly, seeing the level of sheer torment in her face.

"Did I?" Karen asked dejectedly. "I'm not so sure. I swear that was one of the worst things I have ever had to do, tell someone that they will probably never see their children again. I was her last hope. That's why she came to me, because she knew that I was the only one who would give her so much as the time of day, and what did I do, but shatter every shred of trust she once had in me."

"Karen, you did your job," John told her gently but firmly. "You couldn't possibly do anything else."

"Then what does that say for my job?" Karen asked disgustedly. "What does that really say for all the professionalism in the whole bloody world? I'll tell you what it says, absolutely nothing. John, right at this moment, I despise my job and everything it stands for, because in spite of the fact that I know precisely what Shell Dockley has always been and probably always will be capable of, I totally understand what she's going through. I'm not saying it's rational, because I know it isn't, but that's how I feel. I once tried so hard to get her to trust me, and it worked, because she told me things that she never told anyone else, not in her entire time in Larkhall, and I've just gone and betrayed it." Seeming to run out of steam, Karen sank down onto the sofa and lit a cigarette. Sitting down next to her, John said,

"I was immensely proud of the way you handled her. I don't think I could have been so calm."

"Well, I didn't just have my safety to worry about, did I," Karen said almost dismissively. "Shell would never have hurt me, but she could easily have hurt you. I am well acquainted with every little thing she's ever done, remember, and I also had the far too vivid memories of what she and Denny did, the time they escaped and broke into Sylvia's house. So believe me, staying calm, and lulling her into a false sense of security was the only option. Yes, I managed to keep you safe, which at the end of the day is what really matters, but that doesn't mean I can feel especially proud of it. I have a horrible feeling that Shell will eventually have the last word on this, and Shell's last words are always pretty deadly."

Part Forty-Five

The police station was alive with the usual morning hubbub of people coming and going, the early morning regulars in the waiting room awaiting the bored police sergeant to work his way through the two drivers who had been asked to produce their driving documents and the third man who was asking after his brother who was in the cells after having been arrested. Upstairs, the superintendent strolled into the cramped office where the eager beaver investigators were either hunched up over their computers or rifling through various crime files. They all snapped to attention

"DI Sullivan, can you take yourself with DC Greer to Larkhall prison. We need a statement taken from Karen Betts seeing as you arrested Michelle Dockley in her house."

His expression fell a mile and DC Greer looked hardly more enthusiastic.

"Can't somebody else go instead of me? I've got a number of more important cases to chase up," He stammered, shuffling desperately with his papers.

"You go where I send you and finish the job off properly. I'm not having you take all the glory on operations and leave others to do the clearing up. Seeing as you're our local expert on Larkhall, you'll know that she's the governing governor now."

D I Sullivan's expression twisted as if he's swallowed a bone. He remembered the way that her subtle sarcasm had always rubbed him up the wrong way and yesterday was no exception, even at the most unfavourable circumstances.

"She can't be. I thought she was a snotty wing governor still."

"The very same."

"There isn't any possibility that the statement will be needed as testimony in court?" he hazarded a question very tentatively." Court cases can take up so much of our time in hanging round courtrooms when there's all the villains in this patch that need to be banged to rights."

"If an escaped prisoner has been apprehended and there's no major crime involved, then you probably won't be needed. Still, from the basic details we have, you and she will be on the same side. You've got the ideal opportunity with your natural Scottish charm to cement good relationships between us and the governor of the local nick. With your previous experience of prison investigations history, that's why I'm insisting that you do the job and nobody else."

DI Sullivan smiled wanly as the other man's insufferably breezy manner was starting to grate on him. His limp fingers reluctantly accepted the file thrust in his direction as if it were leprous. With longing looks at his dull as ditchwater post, he hauled himself to his feet, looked meaningfully at DS Greer and made his way to the door. Sometime, the path of duty was strewn with rocks and snares. Someone said that a policeman's lot was not a happy one and he was too bloody right.

Inside the neat new file in his briefcase, the envelope that had been addressed to Shell was secure inside its polythene sleeve. DI Sullivan slouched up to the nice bright white squad car with aggressive red flashes on the side and prominent blue light on top. He gunned the engine aggressively and the car shot out of the car park with a slightly nervous DS Greer in the passenger seat. She wasn't looking forward to the journey far less the visit but she figured that if she kept a low profile, then the better off she would be. Let him take the glory of this investigation or otherwise as the case may be.

DI Sullivan was more superior in his manner than normal from the moment he passed through the gates of Larkhall. As soon as the man had started to cross the yard, Ken muttered to himself about the jumped up young copper who thought he was God. Ken was getting to the age when there were an increasingly large number of policemen around who looked wet behind the ears.

"Hi, I'm Nikki Wade, wing governor of G Wing." The smart suited woman greeted him with hand outstretched and let him know that yet another upstart woman was wearing the trousers in a profession that he thought was run by the lads. The name tripwired his mind into searching past distant associations. With a job like this, it paid to have a sharp memory. Then he made that explosive connection between her and his old mate, DS Gossard, one of the legends of his time, a man's man and someone who set him on the right path when he joined the police force. He was the one all the others looked up to in the way he got results with single-minded determination.

"Haven't I heard of your name before? It rings a very loud bell. I have a good memory for names." He declared in a meaning tone.

Nikki's normally friendly smile became frozen, icy. Her hackles rose immediately and adrenaline started to pump through her body. She knew exactly what this copper was getting at. This was the first time ever since she had killed Gossard that it had ever been mentioned in any capacity. Ancient feelings of blind anger started to well to the surface but she had been just about long enough in her job to bottle them down. He was, after all, entering her home territory and, like it or not, he was in her charge until she handed him over to someone else.

"You flatter me, DI Sullivan. I'm not as famous as all that."

The policeman scowled in frustration as this bloody woman refused to rise to the bait. Never mind, he thought, his chance would come.

"You had better come this way as I understand you're here to interview my governor, Karen Betts." Nikki said quietly, delicately pressing home her advantage.

She got out her keys and led the way. She let them through the first set of gates and walked on ahead. To her shock and horror, he walked up behind her and grabbed her by the wrist.

"Trying to be smart and clever? I know you. You were the murdering dyke who killed DI Gossard. You got banged to rights and deserved everything you got only some lily livered liberals let you get out on a technicality. You're remembered at my station all right."

Nikki shook herself free and turned round squarely to face him. She ignored his sidekick, DS Greer who stood there like a dummy.

"Except Sally Ann Howe…….." Nikki said with surprisingly icy calm even though she was boiling with anger. The last man who laid a hand on her arm was that bastard Fenner.

"Never mind, she doesn't count." He said sullenly.

"You know, inspector, I get to look through the files of all the female inmates on my wing." Nikki started to retort in clipped official tones. This sudden borrowing of Helen's wing governor style instantly made her feel strong and good about herself. Instinctively, she realized that this was a far stronger card to play than blind anger. Why lower herself to his level, a calm voice reasoned inside her head.

" We get women who have been through the due process of law on a whole range of offences, you name it, we get them. Did you know that there is a remarkably high incidence of sexual abuse in the files something that should really shock you as it does me? Like you, we get to see the underside of society but that's because a lot of the women have never had a proper chance in life. It might surprise you that while Karen and I have used prison as an opportunity to educate inmates, we're getting better results in reducing reoffending because we show them that there are alternatives in life. The problem is that we are fighting a difficult uphill battle to put right the damage done to them from an early age by some men whose sexual morality leaves just a little bit to be desired. Then again, the thought crosses my mind that rape happens at all levels of society, including the guilty ones in positions of power who are never brought to justice but should have been. They don't even get hauled up for internal disciplinary action. I can think of one institution that has been lax to the point of being criminally negligent. Ring any bells, does it?"

DC Greer stared down at her feet while Nikki shriveled her boss with scathing words and eyes that burned into him before she saw her turn to address her in quiet friendly tones.

"By the way, DS Greer, you ought to be very careful in putting yourself in a dangerous position in just the same way that my staff have to. Only in your case, the risk might come from your side. It's happened before."

Those ominous words made DI Sullivan blush and feel uncomfortable. His heavy-handed approach in insinuation during interrogations had been turned back on him in double measure. It made him squirm.

Nonchalantly, Nikki calmly turned her way to open the second set of gates and escorted them to Karen's office. Just before knocking on the door, she turned to him.

"I'm going to think very seriously about lodging an official complaint at your unprofessional behaviour. At the very least, don't you dare cross me again. It isn't safe. I would strongly advise you two to be at your most professional and respectful to Karen Betts. She won't be in a mood to tolerate anything less than this. You ring me when you're done and I'll see you off the premises."

Her withering look of contempt finishing off with that crack of almost military authority pierced clean through the man's defences. He was visibly nervous and sweating at the dressing down he had been apologetic. Vengeance is mine, saieth the Lord, Nikki thought, as she walked away with a lighter heart. She had rerun her victory over Gossard in terms that were personally satisfying, as she had beaten him at his own game.

"Come in." Karen called out wearily to the very polite knock on the door. She thought she had heard some raised voices far away but decided that in her fogged state of mind, she must have been mistaken.

"Oh, its you two, is it? Very well, you can take a seat."

She had lost a fair chunk of her normal night's sleep and that alone had made her feel totally wretched. It was for this reason that she had agreed to the interview to just get everything out of the way so she could dismiss it after it was committed to paper.

As she was slower off the mark than usual, it took her a little while to realize that the truculent Scot was visibly ingratiating himself, in his general manner and that he had scuttled in. Most unusually, a smile appeared on his lips in response to her weary greeting

She didn't get it. Last night, he had been his usual bumptious, aggressive self, and heard all he needed to hear about the row of scars that lined and shamed her forearms. It ought to have put her at an immediate disadvantage in being hardly better, in his oh so superior eyes, than the woman on whose wrists he had gleefully snapped his handcuffs. It was as if the nasty, aggressive scalp hunter had been spirited away and his doppelganger had inherited his suit, his skin but an entirely different personality had taken him over. DS Greer walked in, as meek as a lamb but that was nothing new. She was always the passive part of his double act, to be there to bounce his sarcasm off at his chosen victim.

"I hope that you are feeling up to being interviewed. If it's too much for you and you want us to come back another day, You've only got to say and we'll work round you."

Karen was more puzzled than ever and flipped out a cigarette. Wordlessly, she offered the pack to the other two who politely declined. She needed that intake of nicotine to ready herself for what lay ahead of her.

"So can you tell me in your words what happened to you that night that Shell Dockley broke in. Take your time."

A caring sharing DI Sullivan, I just don't get it, she thought.

"Just before I start, I ought to say how pleased I am that your attitude has changed for the better since you were last here…."

"I understood from your wing governor that I might have been a little bit tactless. I'm always willing to improve customer relations." He gushed forth, remembering in the nick of time, the instruction to "cement good relationships." It might earn him a few brownie points to lay it on thick, as he wouldn't put it past that dangerous woman to grass him up to his boss. She scared the shit out of him.

"Oh, and who was that?" Karen asked vaguely.

"Nikki Wade."

A light bulb was switched on in her head and she had to fight down that irresistible urge for a huge grin to spread across her face from ear to ear. She made a mental note to ask Nikki for her side of the story.

"I'm sure I can rely on your good will. Anyway, back to business." She added more briskly than usual. Her spirits had been uplifted but she was pessimistic just how long this feeling of well being would last, probably the day if she were lucky. She certainly had a nasty taste in her mouth last night at the way she had lured Shell into a false sense of security.

More surprisingly, her mind drifted freely back to when she was chatting away to Shell Dockley, almost as if they were old friends and she talked freely of what had happened. She verbalised these recollections straight off mental images of what she saw and words that she somehow remembered. DI Sullivan listened intently and scrawled a few notes in his notebook ready for when he would cast it into statement form. She talked about her ultimate in flat, factual, throwaway phrases. When she was done, she searched for something to lose her thought processes until inspiration finally came to the rescue.

"Tell me, inspector, I have the newspaper cutting that Shell showed me with my home address on it. Was there an envelope to go with it?"

She slid the news cutting across to DI Sullivan to scrutinize. He scanned the article and also the writing on it. This answered the question that had been in his mind from the word go. Ordinarily, he would have grilled Karen for an explanation at the very first opportunity but Nikki had scared him into holding back. It did not occur to him that, by doing so, the missing evidence had come to hand of its own volition without him using his normal bullyboy tactics.

"There might have been." He answered evasively. In his mind's eye was the blistering fury of those brown eyes, which had pierced through him. He really didn't want to blot his copybook. Better by far that the information slipped out, no names, no pack drill.

"I know that this writing wasn't Shell Dockley's. What about the writing on the envelope?"

"I couldn't possibly comment, Miss." He answered a little defensively.

That means that I'm right, she clicked her thoughts together with the last reserves of mental strength. It prompted the next question.

"Have you got the envelope to hand? I might help both of us to see it."

He sighed to himself as he gave way to the inevitable. Wordlessly, he slid the envelope from his file and laid it on the table. The evidence was plain to see.

"Tell me, DI Sullivan," Karen pursued. "Don't you think that the writing on the envelope is exactly the same as the writing on the newspaper cutting?"

"I'm not a handwriting expert, Miss but you could say so." DI Sullivan replied, shrugging his shoulders non committally. He felt as if he were once again on the witness stand with a powerful female barrister pinning him relentlessly down with razor sharp questions. All he needed was the memory of that judge whose thunderous anger had reverberated round that court building and made him only too willing to get out of it while the going was good. While her eyelids threatened to droop down over her eyes, Karen smiled faintly with satisfaction. She was sure that the answer to the puzzle was in her hands.

"Might I keep the envelope? I think that I have need of it for an internal investigation as to how come Shell Dockley received the letter in the first place?"

This threw the inspector into a state of confusion. He was by no means sure if Shell Dockley would end up being charged with an offence more than breaking and entering, especially as she was already locked up at Ashmoor. He was less sure that the business of the letter was a police matter at all.

"I tell you what, Miss. I'll keep the envelope for now until I am sure if it is needed but you are at liberty to keep the article while you conduct your investigations. If there's a change of plan, I'll phone you or you'll phone me. We ought to work together on this one."

Karen was totally dazed by what she had heard. The interview was becoming more surreal by the moment. Eventually, she nodded her agreement before he proceeded to finally wrap up the interview.

"Erm. Miss Betts, I'll just write out the statement for a few minutes based on what you've just told me. If I've got anything wrong, just tell me."

Karen's mind threatened to drift into dreamland while DI Sullivan scribbled down furiously. Eventually, he stopped and passed the statement pad to her. She ran her eye over it. It met the facts accurately but left out what was most important to her, her frantic desire to protect John from a very unpredictable Shell Dockley, her curious conversation with her, her very real desire to help her and comfort her and her guilty knowledge that she must betray her and Shell's last minute act of generosity to her which made her feel ashamed and disgusted with herself. Apart from that, it was an accurate statement.

She picked up her pen and scrawled her signature at the bottom while DI Sullivan countersigned it. He had got what he wanted.

"If you don't mind me, I'll be off to the station. If there's any need for further action, you'll be hearing from us."

"Sure," she answered. "I'll ask Nikki Wade to escort you back to the gatehouse."

She was too tired and drained by now to react to the way he flinched at the name. She was past caring.

Part Forty-Six

When Jo and George arrived at John's flat on the Tuesday evening, they were both bursting with unanswered questions. John had phoned both of them earlier in the day, just to briefly fill them in on what had happened. He didn't know whether Shell Dockley's escape and recapture would be on the news, and if so, just how many of the salient details would be mentioned. He didn't want either Jo or George to hear anything about it from anyone else. They had both been horrified, wanting to know that he was all right, both of them wanting to abandon whatever they were doing in order to come and see him. John had managed to put them off until the evening, saying that a heavy trial was just the thing to keep his mind off everything for the rest of the day. He badly needed a little time to sort out his own thoughts, before he attempted to put any of their jumbled contents into words. He knew that they would both bombard him with questions just as soon as they saw him, something that he certainly needed time to prepare for. He definitely did have some explaining to do, as to why he had spent the night with Karen. Finally coming to the conclusion that the only way he could begin to explain his actions was to tell them of her cutting, John tried to put the whole thing to the back of his mind.

But as they waited for John to answer the door, Jo found herself voicing the thought that had been uppermost in George's mind all day.

"Do you think he's been sleeping with Karen again?"

"I don't know," George told her quietly. "I don't want to think so, but anything's possible." She had far more reason than Jo did for thinking such a thing, though she didn't say so. John had slept with Karen at that blasted conference, so it didn't take Einstein to work out that it could have happened again. Well, if it had, she would kill him. When he let them in, they stood in the lounge, holding each other as tightly as possible. John couldn't quite believe how incredible it felt to have them both in his arms again.

"You look exhausted," Jo said after gently kissing him.

"I was up most of the night," Jon explained, lifting a hand to cover a yawn.

"John, what exactly happened?" George asked him carefully. "Your phone call was a bit garbled to say the least." Moving slightly back from her, John scrutinised her face. He could see the question lurking in her eyes, her far too obvious suspicion kept for the moment to herself purely because of Jo's presence.

"Come on," He said, suddenly having an idea. "Let's go to bed, because I'd really rather be as relaxed as possible for this conversation." It was only just after eight, but neither George nor Jo argued with him. This was John's way of saying that what he really needed was a cuddle, something for which he would rather die than ask for.

"Shall I make you a cup of tea?" Jo asked him. "Or would you prefer something stronger?"

"Tea would be great," He said appreciatively. "Anything stronger will send me straight to sleep."

As Jo moved into the kitchen to make them all some tea, John and George went into the bedroom.

"Don't say it," John told her quietly, using the sound of the kettle to cover up his voice.

"Well, did you?" George demanded acidly, as they both swiftly removed their clothes and slid under the thick duvet.

"No, I didn't," He replied with just as little tenderness.

"And after your performance at that bloody conference," George threw back in a stage whisper. "Do you seriously expect me to believe you?"

"I don't want to hear a single word about that conference, not with Jo in the vicinity," He told her stonily.

"You'd better hope you're telling me the truth," She replied, leaning over him as a cat might examine its prey, the anger flashing in her eyes.

"Hey, where's all this anger come from?" He asked her mildly, wanting to calm her down before Jo returned with the tea.

"Don't you realise what Shell Dockley could have done to you, you stupid man?" She retorted violently, tears of sheer relief rising to her eyes. "Don't forget, that when we were working on the case against Fenner, both myself and Jo read the entirety of Michelle Dockley's file, including everything she's ever done to unsuspecting men. I don't know why you stayed with Karen last night, and in truth I probably don't want to know, but in doing so, you risked being in an even worse state than Fenner was after being trapped in a room with Dockley."

"George," He said softly, pulling her against him, and realising that her scorching wrath was far more about relief that he was still alive, rather than irritation that he might have slept with Karen again. It reminded him fleetingly of the day they'd thought Charlie was dead, and of the sheer rush of anger she had greeted Charlie with when they'd finally caught up with her.

When Jo appeared with the tea, she undressed and slid into bed in her underwear. John was lying in the middle of his enormous bed, with Jo on his left and George on his right.

"A couple of weeks ago," He began, after taking a swig of the tea. "I discovered something about Karen, something that I probably ought to have told both of you, but which I couldn't find the right words to tell you. Karen, for reasons certainly best known to herself, has started cutting." There was a stunned awful silence.

"No!" George protested shrilly, this being something she definitely hadn't expected.

"Yes," John told her quietly. "She says that she's been doing it since the day of Henry's funeral. What's truly horrific about it is that she will happily try to justify it, as though there could possibly be some perfectly rational explanation for it."

"Just like I did, when you first discovered that I wasn't eating," George said sadly, feeling an internal pain for what Karen must be going through.

"Actually, she did put me in mind of you when I first saw what she'd been doing to herself," John admitted carefully. "Because she said that it was simply her way of coping."

"That isn't a satisfactory way for anyone to cope," Jo put in, finally voicing her own opinion on the matter. "Though I never would have thought Karen capable of anything quite so self-destructive." George laughed mirthlessly.

"Oh, believe me, darling, she's capable of it all right. Some of the dreams she used to have, well, they showed just where all her feelings end up. Karen has the ability to be as self-destructive as the rest of us, except that she might even be better at it. She's always had this way of keeping herself going, no matter what's going on inside her head. As long as she can stay on top of her job, everything's fine as far as she's concerned. What she does behind closed doors when there's nobody there to see, is an entirely different matter altogether. Though I can't help wondering just how much of this is my fault."

"Don't be stupid," John admonished her sternly. "Karen carving patterns into her skin with broken glass, or whatever else she happens to have to hand, has got absolutely nothing to do with you, or you leaving her for Jo, or anything remotely akin to that." Then, seeing Jo's wince at his far too graphic description, he said, "I'm sorry, but when I called round to see her last night, I virtually caught her in the act. She'd made a real mess of her arm, and if I'd had my way, I would have taken her to the hospital, but you know Karen, she's even more stubborn than the pair of you put together."

"Is that why you stayed with her?" Jo asked him quietly, seeing just how much this was all finally getting to him.

"Yes," He replied, calming down slightly. "I didn't entirely trust her not to finish the job off, and I think she badly needed some company, and no, I definitely didn't sleep with her, at least not in the way you mean."

"I'm sorry," George told him. "I just..."

"...Didn't trust me, I know," John finished for her. "Forget it."

"What can I do about Karen?" George asked. "Because I can't just do nothing."

"You could try talking to her," John suggested a little despairingly. "Though I'm sure she's not about to thank me for telling either of you. It's funny, because I know that Shell Dockley suddenly turning up was a little bizarre to say the least, but what Karen is doing to herself makes that appear somewhat insignificant. We woke up at about two am, and she was just there. I obviously didn't know who she was, but Karen recognised her instantly. Karen was amazing, she just dealt with it as though it was the most normal thing in the world, to wake up and find a psychopathic killer in her bedroom. She got her talking, really lulled her into a false sense of security, and then when Shell was at her most vulnerable, Karen snapped the cuffs on."

"What on earth did she do it for?" Jo asked, thinking that this was definitely one question that needed answering.

"She wanted Karen to help her get her son back." In the resulting silence, both Jo and George took in just how difficult such a request would have been for Karen. "You could tell that she was really thinking about it," John continued. "I mean really considering helping Shell to see her child again. I don't think I've ever seen such a devious use of applied psychology from someone quite so insane. She knew about Ross, because Denny of all people had sent her a cutting out of the paper about it, so she used every tactic in the book to appeal to the mother in Karen to help her. But, eventually Karen said no, which is when she managed to subdue her."

"You certainly did have something of an enlightening evening," George said dryly, thinking that Karen had performed an internal miracle to get over that particular hurdle.

They lay contentedly talking for a while, both with their arms around him, trying to make him feel relaxed after his ordeal.

"Will you make love to me?" John asked into their gentle silence, provoking a fond smile from both of them.

"I don't see why not," George teased him, kissing him lingeringly.

"I am loath to admit it," John said a little sheepishly. "But I really don't think I've got it in me to make love to both of you."

"Well, as that is well and truly off the cards for me this week, you've no need to worry," Jo told him, as he exchanged George's lips for hers.

"It's about time we christened this bed, isn't it," George said dryly, running a softly seeking hand along his thigh. George smiled broadly as she felt Jo's hand joining hers, both of them moving to arouse John in their old familiar way. As Jo's hand rhythmically moved on him, bringing him gradually to full hardness, George gently fondled his testicles, John groaning in delight at the feeling of both their hands on him. George tried to use her other hand to prepare herself for his eventual invasion, though in truth she wasn't really in the mood for making love with anyone. The revelation about Karen had wound her up too much, leaving her tense, uptight and as dry as a bone.

"Are you touching yourself?" John asked her in astonishment.

"Well, if you want to have any chance of getting inside me, I'll have to, won't I," She told him with a smirk, knowing he loved the idea of her doing that.

"Turn over," Jo told her, suddenly having an idea, and perhaps sensing that George wasn't having much success. When George was lying on her back next to John, Jo continued to stimulate him with her right hand, and reached over with her left, to take over from George's own hand.

"That's nice," George said affectionately, beginning to relax at least a little, the feeling of Jo's soft fingers utterly luxurious. Jo could feel just how dry she was, and realised that if it had been possible, George would far rather Jo make love to John instead.

When George decided that she was aroused enough for John's penetration not to hurt, she gently detached Jo's hand from her, and removed her other hand from John's rock hard length.

"Are you sure you want this?" John asked her, perhaps seeing something in her face that told him otherwise.

"Yes," She assured him firmly. "Just don't be offended if I don't come."

"I would really rather you did," He said mildly, as she moved over him, eventually sinking down onto him, and realising that she definitely wasn't aroused anywhere near enough. John pulled her down to lie against his chest, gently moving in and out of her, and feeling her body's slight resistance to his thrusts. Putting out her right arm, George drew Jo as close to them as possible. Jo inched a hand between them, to keep on stroking George's clitoris, wanting to make her enjoy this as much as she could. Turning her face to meet Jo's, George kissed her softly, pouring a lifetime's worth of feeling behind it. Jo could see in George's face that she wasn't enjoying this, but she could also feel her determination to see this through for John. George did her best to give him pleasure, because she knew that this was what he needed, but she didn't attempt to hide her own lack of enjoyment from him. She'd only faked it with him once, and he'd seen right through her, not a humiliation she was very eager to repeat.

When he came, John clung to both of them, just for that moment revealing his desperate need to have them close to him. When George gently detached herself from him and moved to lie back at his side, he put an arm round her and said,

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," George told him matter-of-factly. "I don't think I'm capable of it tonight, that's all."

"So why do it?" John asked her, hating it when he couldn't bring her to orgasm.

"Because you wanted me to," She replied simply, showing both he and Jo just how much she would do for him if only he would ask.

Part Forty-Seven

Towards the end of the working day, Karen knew she was flagging. She'd only had a couple of hours sleep last night, and now sleep was really the only thing she wanted. It was far too tempting for her to just lay her head down on the desk, and allow the exhaustion to completely take her over. When Nikki's knock came on her office door, Karen was heartily grateful for the distraction.

"You look knackered," Nikki said gently, seeing just how much everything had finally caught up with Karen.

"Mmm," Karen yawned.

"It's only a thought," Nikki said carefully. "But would you like to stay with me and Helen for a couple of days, just until your flat is made secure again? I've asked Helen, and she says it's fine if that's what you want to do." Karen was almost unbearably touched by the kindness in Nikki's eyes, the true, sincere friendship shining out of them.

"Are you sure?" Karen asked, suddenly feeling the urge to cry her eyes out.

"Of course we are," Nikki assured her with a smile. "Come on, you need a huge drink and an evening of doing absolutely nothing." Switching off her computer and locking her office door, Karen couldn't help but agree with her.

They called in at Karen's flat on the way home, so that she could pick up some clothes and other necessities. When they arrived, Helen was already there, opening a bottle of wine after putting clean sheets on the spare bed.

"You look tired," She said when Karen and Nikki appeared in the lounge.

"I feel as though I've been awake for a month," Karen said dryly, sinking down into the depths of a large armchair. Helen poured them all a glass of wine, and Nikki put on some soft, undemanding music.

"So, how is Shell?" Helen asked, lighting a cigarette.

"Still the same as ever," Karen told them, taking a drag of her own. "Though the way she snuck out of Ashmoor was really quite ingenious." When she'd filled them in as to the details, Nikki said,

"Jesus, that's even better than the way she escaped when she broke into Bodybag's house." Karen smiled, hearing the slip of the tongue, presumably brought on by Nikki talking of a time when she'd still been an inmate.

"John thought he could frighten her by telling her that he was a high court judge," Karen told them, receiving a raised eyebrow from Helen.

"The judge was there?" Helen asked in astonishment, not having been aware of this.

"Yes," Karen replied, realising too late that she probably oughtn't to have revealed this. "Please don't look at me like that, Helen," She added, seeing the seeds of suspicion growing behind Helen's eyes. "He stayed as a friend, nothing more."

"Why did she do it?" Nikki asked, wanting to change the subject slightly.

"She wanted me to help her get her son back."

"God, Karen," Helen said with feeling, knowing how difficult this would have been.

"Yeah, not quite what I was expecting early this morning, I must admit. I knew that I had to keep her talking, because I kept having visions of her doing to John what she'd done to Fenner."

"Karen," Helen asked her carefully. "Why was the judge there?"

"Why is that important?" Karen asked in return, not really knowing of any vaguely believable answer.

"I'm not sure," Helen said indecisively. "I just get the feeling that it is."

"How about I go and make us some dinner?" Nikki put in, seeing all too clearly what Helen was doing, and suddenly not wanting to be a part of it.

"I'm not desperately hungry," Karen told her, as Nikki moved towards the kitchen.

"You're hiding something, Karen," Helen continued gently, fixing Karen with a soft but penetrating gaze. "I think you have been for a while now." Sending a glare of monumental proportions towards the kitchen, in the knowledge that Nikki must have shared her concerns with Helen, Karen desperately tried to maintain her control.

"Please don't go there, Helen," Karen said quietly, knowing that Helen would have a fit if she found out her secret.

"And just how much good do you think keeping it all inside is really doing you?" Helen asked just as seriously.

"Helen, please," Karen almost begged her. "It's quite bad enough that John knows about this, without you and Nikki, someone I work with, knowing about this as well." Feeling that Helen really was going a bit over the top with this line of enquiry, Nikki moved into the kitchen doorway to speak to her. She could hear the note of panic in Karen's voice, and couldn't help but think that she'd been wrong to tell Helen of her concerns in the first place. If Karen didn't want to talk, then she should be accorded the same right to privacy as anyone else.

"Helen, leave it, yeah?" She put in quietly, bringing Helen's gaze briefly on her.

"Interestingly sound advice from one usually so persistent," Karen replied dryly, seeing that Nikki was beginning to regret her previous inquisitiveness.

"Karen, I can't help being worried about you," Helen told her, for the moment ignoring Nikki's tentative request.

"I know," Karen answered resignedly. "But believe me, you really don't want to know why I've barely been able to keep it together lately."

"Why not try me?" Helen persisted gently, making Karen want to roll her eyes at Helen's drive to succeed.

"Are you that determined to make me tell you?" Karen demanded, now really beginning to lose her cool. "Do you really want to know so badly?"

"No, I probably don't," Helen admitted ruefully. "But the longer you keep it to yourself, the less chance you have of dealing with it."

"Fine," Karen replied a little exasperatedly. "But don't you dare even think of being angry with me for this, and don't say I didn't warn you." Unbuttoning her left sleeve, she rolled it up, and held her arm out for Helen to see. A dressing still covered the most recent cut from the day before, but the old scars were far too evident. Helen might have known that Karen had been doing this to herself, but it was still a shock to see it in the flesh. Seeing the look of combined grief and horror in Helen's face, Karen turned her eyes away, suddenly unable to look at either of them. She felt broken, shattered, as though the tiniest fragments of her self-esteem were now scattered over a wide area, unable to reassemble. She could feel the tears of exhaustion and bitter resignation begin coursing down her cheeks, and this made her feel even less of her old self than she had before.

Moving to perch on the arm of the chair, Helen put her arms round her, wanting to in some way apologise for how she had cajoled Karen into sharing her secret. Seeing that Helen had finally broken through Karen's defences, Nikki moved to her other side to do the same.

"I'm sorry," Karen told them, trying to stem the flow of her tears.

"I didn't want to have to do that," Helen tried to explain, her own throat feeling full of emotion. "But I had to persuade you to talk to me."

"John would be proud of you," Karen said a little shakily, causing Helen to go momentarily still. "You can be just as persistent as he is when you try." Breathing an inward sigh of relief, Helen reflected that John would probably have her guts for garters for doing this to Karen if he knew. "I tried to explain to him, that sometimes, it's just something I need to do, something that helps me to stay sane."

"Only it isn't really working, is it," Nikki said quietly, gently taking Karen's left hand in hers.

"I knew you were picking up on it," Karen said ruefully. "But it wasn't something I could just come out and tell you. Sometimes, the feeling of panic becomes so strong that I feel as though I'm suffocating. The first time I did it, certainly wasn't a conscious decision, but after that, it became far too easy."

"Sweetheart, you can't keep on doing this," Helen told her seriously. "Because we both know it'll only get worse."

"I don't think I know how to stop," Karen admitted bleakly, feeling more weak and pathetic every minute.

"Whenever you feel like doing this again," Nikki said firmly. "You call me, or Helen, or even the judge, and instead of cutting, you talk. I might not know much about this, but I do know that that's the only way you can even think about stopping."

"Nikki's absolutely right, you know," Helen said with pride in her voice. "It doesn't matter what time of the day or night it is, you just do it."

They were all fairly quiet as they ate, each of them lost in their own thoughts, though it couldn't be said that these thoughts were very different. Karen was feeling extremely brittle, inwardly trying to gather the tattered shreds of her self-respect. Helen was wondering just how to go about helping one of her closest friends, and Nikki couldn't help wondering if Helen really had done the right thing in persuading Karen to talk to them. But when Karen had eaten half of her serving of pasta smothered in Dolmio sauce, her mobile rang. Balancing her plate on her knee, Helen and Nikki's flat not possessing a dining table, she dug her phone out of her handbag.

"Karen, it's Neil," Came the familiar deep voice.

"You've got that tone of voice that says you're bearing bad news," Karen answered him immediately. "What's happened?"

"I've just had a call from someone I know who works at Ashmoor. He called me, because he couldn't track you down at Larkhall. It's about Shell."

"Neil, please, just get on with it," Karen urged him, feeling that terrible ice-cold suspicion crawling up her spine.

"She's killed herself," Neil told her bleakly, really not knowing how to break this particular piece of news gently. After a long, thoughtful silence, Karen surprised him with,

"I wish I could say that came as a shock, but it doesn't. How did she do it?"

"She hung herself. Ashmoor will be having an enquiry to find out how."

"Well, I can certainly tell them why," Karen told him resignedly. "She threatened to do exactly that not long after I became governor of G wing, but I won't go into that now. Thank you for telling me."

"Karen, are you all right?" Neil asked in concern, hearing the brittle edge of bitter resignation in her voice.

"Oh, I'm absolutely bloody marvelous," Karen told him dryly. "I'll see you tomorrow."

When she'd switched off the phone, Helen and Nikki stared at her, waiting for her to explain.

"Was that about Dockley?" Nikki asked, stating the obvious.

"Yes," Karen said regretfully. "She's dead. She hung herself earlier this evening."

"Jesus," Nikki replied in shock.

"Karen, you told Grayling that you weren't surprised," Helen said, not immediately reacting to the news itself.

"I'm not," Karen told her bleakly. "I was Shell's last hope, the last person whom she thought might be in a position to help her. After I'd said no, I think she thought she had nothing else left. I remember when she once threatened to do it. She was stood up on the 3s, calling Fenner to come and string her up like Rachel Hicks."

"That wasn't long after I came back, was it," Helen said in realisation.

"No, not really," Karen agreed with her.

"Did she leave a note?" Nikki asked.

"Not that I'm aware of," Karen told her. "And to be honest, I wouldn't want to see it even if she had. Right now, I can just about cling onto the possibility that I didn't cause her to do this, but to see her blame me in writing would be a bit much."

A good while later when Karen had gone for a long soak in the bath, wanting some space to sort out her thoughts, Helen lit a cigarette and took a long drag.

"I wish this was a joint," She said with a slight smile.

"Since when did you smoke dope?" Nikki asked in astonishment.

"Only once," Helen told her with a laugh at her expression. "With Thomas."

"So, I wasn't the only one to lead you astray," Nikki said, putting an arm round her.

"You've led me far more astray than anyone I've ever known," Helen told her seriously, her eyes briefly betraying all the love she felt for Nikki.

"Helen, what you did to Karen," Nikki said slowly, not wanting to break the mood but knowing that she had to say this. "It was pretty brutal."

"I know," Helen said regretfully. "But I had to do it. I couldn't just let her carry on cutting when I knew precisely what she was up to, without at least trying to find out why."

"It was the Judge who told you, wasn't it," Nikki said, finally putting the pieces together.

"Yeah, he did," Helen admitted quietly.

"And you said that you found out about this during a session," Nikki continued. "Which therefore tells me that you've been seeing the Judge as a patient."

"Well done, Miss Marple," Helen said with a smile, leaning forward to gently kiss her. "But you must keep it to yourself, because he definitely wouldn't want you or anyone else to know, and I can do without losing my job, because of breaking patient confidentiality. He's been to see me three times now, and I'm learning more about some of our friends that I really want to know."

"But why, Helen?" Nikki asked again, the issue of John's being a patient hardly important. "Why did you have to go at her so ruthlessly? You could see it was tearing her to shreds, yet you still kept on at her."

"Nikki," Helen said a little exasperatedly. "I am not letting someone else die, just because I didn't do what was right all along."

Part Forty-Eight

Karen had mixed emotions of staying with Nikki and Helen. A fragment of her felt exiled from her rightful habitat and this cut two ways. She liked her own surroundings and her flat was part of her person, and this had been taken away from her by the invasion of her sanctum. Another piece of her liked being elsewhere, on a mini holiday, of being taken out of herself and that was no bad thing. Yet another side of her wanted to just go with the flow and not fight against her destiny. However, her front door was due to be mended today and she would soon be back home, whatever it was that home felt like. The soothing therapy of staying here was transient and all things like this had to pass. She was doubtful that she had been much company for the other two women but both grateful and guilty at the same time to receive theirs. One-sided agreements went against the grain, to take but not give back in equal measure. Deep down, she felt that she had had little choice in the matter.

Helen had already shot out the door in her very conspicuously bright and breezy manner, leaving a whirling draught behind the firmly shut front door. The revving engine announced that she was ready to head off to her practice.

"Is Helen always like this in the morning?" Karen winced at this display of energy. Even

In her slightly more tranquil frame of mind, she found such enthusiasm wearing, first thing in the morning.

Nikki was sipping the last of her early morning cup of coffee. She nodded agreement while she swallowed down the hot liquid and was then able to speak.

"Need you ask? Still, it helps get me moving. It used to be worse when I was having a lie in from working late at night at the club."

"I was wondering," Karen mused aloud. "Did you have words with DI Sullivan just before he saw me? It was as if he had decided to turn over a new leaf and become a reformed character."

"We did have a frank exchange of views," Began Nikki, her lips slightly upturned at the edges in suppressed amusement. "No, I tell a lie. He tried to get smart with me being an old friend of Gossard and I read him the riot act. I did remonstrate with him that he needed to watch his language before talking to you."

Nikki's misleading expression of cherubic innocence did not fool Karen one bit. She was deeply touched by her incredible loyalty.

"There's more here than meets the eye, Nikki," Karen responded with a faint echo of her normal humour and her twinkle in her eye before she continued. "I suppose we'd better get going."

She was content to follow Nikki's car in her unusual angle of journey from their flat to Larkhall. It made life easier that way. As she concentrated on keeping up with Nikki and following her indicators and brake lights, her mind started to formulate what she had to do. She knew how devious Di was and, when cornered, that she was at her most dangerous. Above all else, she knew how she could blur and fudge issues and turn on the dramatics. She knew all this because she had seen her in action in the witness stand at Lauren's trial. She had crossed swords with her so many times over the years and rage swelled inside her as she remembered that most despicable stroke, her underhand dealings in having her holiday photos exhibited in court. It only struck her how long she had endured her as a nagging nuisance verging on a threat when she grasped in her mind the opportunity to kick her out once and for all. This time, Di had gone too far and however drained she had felt, she was summoning up the energy from within herself. It was surprising what long suppressed anger could be harnessed to accomplish.

"I thought I knew just how screwed up Di Barker can get. I married her, for God's sake but this beats anything she's ever done before."

"Do I have your approval to interview her and depending on what she says, sack her or at the very least suspend her pending an investigation."

Grayling drew a deep breath.

"I will do more than that, Karen. If you don't mind, I'll come and sit in on the interview……."

"That would be very kind of you, Neil, but….." Karen started to say in a hesitant tone.

"….but you think that my past association with Di would be dragged up into some tasteless domestic row that would disrupt the whole proceedings."

Karen paused. That was indeed what was at the back of her mind only she didn't want to spurn Neil's well-meant offer and to hurt his feelings.

"She might try that one but then again, we both know that she would drag in any irrelevance under the sun. We just have to fence her in, that's all."

Karen exhaled air in sheer relief. A huge weight was taken off her shoulders, that of sole responsibility for what she feared would be a bruising interview just when she was doubting her capacity for endurance. It would be just like the old days.

'In this case, I would love it if you came over, Neil. I could do with your help."

Neil pricked up his ears. There was an undertone in her voice that he could not put his finger on. He let it pass as more pressing business awaited him.

"Be over in half an hour, Karen."

True to his word, Neil presented himself at the gatehouse to be enthusiastically greeted by Ken who told him they didn't see enough of him. Grayling chatted briefly and with a confident stride, presented himself at Karen's door.

"This underhanded scheme has Di Barker's fingerprints all over it, literally," Grayling observed as he had been thoroughly familiarized with the whole story. It helped him gain a clearer understanding and he could see that recounting her story would clear Karen's mind. He noticed with some concern, how drained and washed out looking Karen looked but put it down to the shock of the recent event and the after effects of Ross's death. He was not into families himself but made what he supposed were the necessary mental adjustments to allow for the shock.

"All right, let's wheel her in."

Karen lit up a cigarette while they waited for the knock on the door and Grayling refrained from comment. His strong views on smoking were well known to her and she wouldn't act with apparent disrespect unless there was some strong driving force. He ruled out nicotine addiction - that was too obvious an explanation.

"Come in." Karen called out.

Instantly, Di appeared through the door and her placid blank expression transformed itself into a glare of anger. She loathed and hated her ex husband and it spelt big trouble that a Home Office official was present at the interview. In one lightning flash moment, she put two and two together and knew that she would be fighting for her life.

"I have called you in for a fact finding meeting on a strictly informal basis. Your name has cropped up in connection with the fact that Shell Dockley broke into my house last Monday…….."

"What's your secretary taking notes for? I'm not on trial here," Di snapped as her head swiveled round and saw Karen's secretary starting to scribble away frantically.

"I was about to explain that my secretary takes no part in the proceedings. She is merely here to provide an accurate written transcript of the conversation which will be made available to both of us and you will have the right to check its accuracy. I am acting strictly within the provisions in the handbook of your conditions of service, which was designed for this purpose. Having been in the Prison Service a long time, you probably know this already. Now can we continue?"

Di glared at Karen's firm reply which showed not the slightest trace of weakness and, yes, she had to admit that Karen was within her rights.

"…….now as it happens, I came to no harm but that was only because the situation was handled delicately and professionally. Police involvement in the case is no more than a breaking and entering charge. Nevertheless, what is disturbing is how Shell came to know my home address and was able to locate me…."

"Amazing what people can find out these days, someone as cunning as Shell. She and Denny Blood broke into Sylvia's house and tortured Sylvia and nearly burnt her Bobby alive. No one pointed the finger to anyone then as I remember. You were wing governor, then as well."

It's amazing how slippery that woman is, Grayling reflected, as she slid her way into the conversation when Karen paused briefly.

"Ah, but this is different, Di. Sylvia was easily traceable through the yellow pages, through her husband's business as an undertaker. I am a lot harder to trace by any random search."

"What about all the press publicity at the time your son died so tragically. That gives anyone an obvious lead. Shell could have got it from them."

"Don't be ridiculous. As if an escaped inmate would contact the press who would be bound to pass on any details of her to the police," Grayling broke in sharply. "That aside, what you say is simply not possible. Part of my job at area involves contact with the press. I know that they are eager to receive news stories, not to give it out except on the printed page and certainly not their sources of information."

"We have something more tangible to point the finger of suspicion to an inside job, not some talkative overeager newspaper hack," Karen followed up, a tight smile on her face.

"Inside job? I don't know what you're talking about?"

"Perhaps I'll refresh your memory," Came the cold response as adrenaline started to seep into Karen's tired system and she reached for the article. "Take a look at this news cutting and tell me who wrote my address on the back."

Karen slid the news cutting across the desk and Di picked it up. She made an elaborate show of reading the article from top to bottom and an intensely scrutinising the handwriting.

"Sorry, Miss, nothing to do with me."

"Don't try to lie to me, Di Barker," Karen stormed, her hand trembling with anger at the brazen nerve of this twisted woman. "I know your writing from all the reports you've completed.

"I agree that the writing looks very much like mine but it doesn't mean it is mine. I mean, there's nothing special about my writing is it. There's plenty of women who write like me."

Karen restrained an all but irresistible urge to slap her across the face. The nearly convincing air of injured innocence infuriated her as she knew that this twisted woman was as guilty as sin but the cold look in her blue eyes betrayed her cunning calculation that, if she faced this out with enough determination, she would walk.

"Ah, but this can be narrowed down a bit. I have talked to Nikki Wade and she distinctly remembers you drawing the letter from Denny Blood to her attention and she left it in your hands to send on to Shell Dockley. What have you to say about that?"

"Ah but you said there was only a newspaper cutting. Was the letter from Denny sent on another occasion? Perhaps Nikki got things a bit mixed up?"

"Don't prevaricate, Di," Grayling said sternly, his face hard and stony with anger. "There was one letter and one only, the letter Denny Blood sent complete with newspaper cutting and her letter, the one that you showed Nikki."

"I get plenty of letters passing through me." She shrugged her shoulders. "Why should I remember this one especially?"

Grayling laid his hand on Karen's. He was as certain as anything that Di had acted in this malicious underhand fashion but they would need the envelope that was in the hands of the police. Above all else, they should not forewarn her of this.

"So you deny having anything to do with deliberately supplying Karen Betts' home address to a one time inmate of this prison enabling the serious and potentially dangerous far reaching consequences of her breaking into her flat? How would you think if, say Natalie Buxton broke into your house?"

Instantly, she switched her mask to one of concerned sympathy.

"Oh, I'm ever so sorry, Karen. I wasn't thinking straight. I remember that you and Shell used to get on so well. I never thought more than that. I guess I've been very silly in being so thoughtless. But I do deny doing what you're saying. I wouldn't be professional if I made little notes on prisoner's letters."

"I think we have gained all the facts about the matter that we can get at this stage. You will understand that your side of the story will need to be checked out. You are free to go about your normal duties but you should be prepared to be available at any time to be recalled," Grayling concluded coldly. "Interview terminated."

As soon as Di was out the door, Grayling sprang into action after being frozen in his seat, body and features immobile while the battle was being thrashed out.

"We have to get onto DI Sullivan and get a copy of the envelope faxed over as soon as. Do you think he'll cooperate?"

"Oh, I'm certain he'll be more amenable right now than he has been in the past." Karen responded with a hint of a smile on her face.

"Then let's get onto this one."

"Whatever's the matter, Di? You look as white as a sheet. Has Madam got it in for you again? I don't know why we keep going, the long hours we work. We might as well stick a sleeping bag in the corner of the PO's room and have done with it."

"It's all right, Sylv. Nothing I can't cope with. It's a problem over some file but I'll sort it."

"Well, you're a long standing member of the POA and if you want representation, you've only to say so. What's the point of paying your subs if you can't get anything out of it from time to time?"

Di smiled faintly. She was uneasy as she suspected that she wasn't out of the wood yet.

The pair of them turned and walked rapidly the other way when Nikki briefly appeared far away in the distance.

The phone lines were buzzing with activity and to Karen's huge satisfaction, the machinery of the local police force snapped into action and the clicking and beeping sounds of Karen's fax machine gave up, bit by bit, a copy of the clearly opened envelope. Fortunately, the reproduction was sharp and clear with good contrast and came very close to being a perfect reproduction of the original. The return fax click clicked its way towards the police station with a copy, back and front, of the newspaper article and a sample of Di Barker's writing and a quick cross check at the police station produced a written opinion of a positive match of all three writing samples. It was amazing how quickly the police were ready to act. The plan had paid off and they were ready to spring the trap snap shut.

"So soon already?" Di asked nervously.

"For the purpose of this interview, this is an extension of the previous fact finding interview which I terminated at 10.34 am and this interview is being minuted," Began Grayling with a confident ring in his voice, which unsettled her immediately.

"You were asked earlier on if you were involved in any way with that newspaper cutting which told Shell Dockley of Karen's address."


"We have located the envelope in which the cutting was sent to her of which I have a copy. We have had this envelope, a sample of your writing and the writing on the newspaper cutting professionally analysed and they match. It proves beyond doubt that it is your writing on the cutting and on the envelope addressed to Shell, which is standard prison issue. You are the culprit in this utterly shameful episode."

Grayling seemed to tower in his chair and his presence filled the room. Di's face abruptly dissolved into uncontrollable rage and her blue eyes glared at Grayling. For once. Karen was ignored by Di as the mask was ripped off her face and all the pent up hatreds boiled to the surface and blew the top off her surface manner.

"You bastard!" She almost screamed at him with a venom that shook Grayling even as he had prepared for just that moment.

"You've just been waiting for this chance to get rid of me. This is a personal vendetta, nothing to do with some scrappy pieces of paper. I gave you the chance of companionship in our marriage and offered to care for you, to look after you and all you did was to throw in my face your casual pick ups to take to bed with you. God knows how I suffered during our marriage. You behaved absolutely despicably towards me and now you're using some pretext to get back at me. This is a stitch up…"

"That is enough," Roared Grayling as he stood up and pressed his hands on the table.

"You have behaved exactly as I predicted you would. When you're confronted with your misdeeds, what do you do? Every time, you launch into a load of dramatics, poor hard done by Di Barker, everybody's victim. You very conveniently ignore the cold blooded way you conspired to take advantage of Nikki's good will, being ever so conscientious in bringing a matter of concern to her attention and, when entrusted with dealing with the matter in hand, you betray that trust and sneak off to exact your private act of vengeance against Karen. Shell Dockley has a reputation for sudden unpredictable acts of violence. Do you remember the way she stabbed Jim Fenner? Something like that could so easily have happened to Karen or any other prison officer………."

Di's face turned white at the mention of Fenner's name and Karen winced at the mention. The comparison was rightly made but Grayling was skating on very thin ice, as this seemed likely to set Di off into a further attack of hysterical anger.

"Jim Fenner. Oh yes, I remember Jim Fenner. Nobody else remembers him only you…" and here she turned her blazing eyes on Karen and jabbed in her direction with her forefinger,"…..helped that murdering woman get off virtually Scot free, only a year in prison when she should have been locked up for life…."

"……..so in order to 'stand up' for Jim Fenner, you sneaked in those photos of Karen to the prosecution without anyone knowing and tried to smear her reputation, to discredit and humiliate her because you get off on stabbing people in the back. Is that how it happened? It's becoming quite a pattern in your life, isn't it?"

"So what if I did? It would mean that she would have a taste of the misery that other people have to go through. You just get the cream out of life, looks, a child, promotion, a career. Everything falls into your lap while others have to slave on, day after day……."

Is this how she sees my life, wondered Karen in utter bewilderment? She was rendered utterly speechless by the totally bizarre way that this woman was ranting on at her. It didn't hurt her but just made her feel totally removed from reality. By some process, which she could not afterwards describe, her out of focus observation of the row between the one time married couple, suddenly sharpened and she put herself centre stage in the unfolding drama.

"As Mr. Grayling said earlier, this has gone on far enough. We've gone round the houses in any and every grudge that you've had against me but the facts of the matter that you have been found guilty of gross misconduct that was calculated to endanger the life of a fellow prison officer. The fact that the prison officer was me is beside the point.

I am informing you that….."

In a curiously detached way, Karen's firmly pitched tone of voice cut through the uproar like a sharp knife sliced through melted butter. Di Barker was almost hyperventilating, paralysed in voice, mind functioning and physical movements as the moment of destiny

marched closer. At this second, Karen glanced sidewise at Grayling who nodded in agreement. She paused for a second before she dropped the bombshell that was poised and waiting.

"……..you're sacked. You're going to be escorted to your locker room, all your things cleared out and you with them out of Larkhall. Oh yes, you can rely on me not to give you a good reference. You can be sure of that."

Di broke down in hysterical sobbing, every muscle in her face contorted and her curly brown hair awry. Both of them looked down in distaste at her and a tiny twinge of guilt that she had so lowered herself and it was somehow their fault. Karen picked up the phone and called Nikki who had been waiting anxiously in her office, chain-smoking in anxiety for Grayling and Karen.

Nikki took one look at the frozen tableau and guessed what had happened.

"Nikki, I am asking you as Di Barker's wing governor to escort her to collect her possessions from the locker room and off the premises. You know what it's about."

Nikki gravely nodded, earning herself a glare from Di. So she was in the conspiracy as well.

"Come on. You have to come with me."

She was almost tempted to put her arm round the heaving shoulders of the sobbing woman but checked herself in time. It would have done no good. Nikki held the door open for her and led her away to her locker room while Karen collapsed back in her chair and Grayling drew a huge breath of relief. Both of them felt as if they had been through a wringer and were utterly drained.

Nikki stood back for her, watching Di's every move. She knew that she was in a potentially dangerous situation, just the two of them in the locker room. The sounds of the wing were far away as was any assistance but then again, hadn't she been in a club late at night with the occasional rowdy drunk?

"I must ask you to clear out your locker, Di, surrender your ID and change out of your uniform." Nikki said gently.

"That's right," Di raged. "An ex con who might have been locked up for life tells me, a prison officer of many years standing." She had not got used to the fact that her had stopped dead in its tracks and would soon be relegated to the past."

"You know, Di, you just don't get me. I'm in my late thirties, left school at sixteen and have worked all my life. I've had my own business, well half of it and the only gap is the three years I did time here. Yet you can only see me as an ex con."

After a flash of cold dismissive contempt, Nikki resumed her conversational manner.

"I've sacked barmaids before from the club I ran. Some of them thought they were smart for dipping their hands in the till. I don't like anyone who breaks my trust in them and what's happened to you isn't that different, it's just that there are more formal procedures."

"One of these days, I'll get even with you, Nikki Wade. You had better watch your back in future, every minute of the day."

The taller woman laughed slightly. The words were absurd.

"So what else is new? The only difference is that you'll be on the outside. Now, I must ask you to carry out one last order, if you please."

Di turned her back and wearily slung her clothes into her hold all and handed over her ID to Nikki. She changed her clothes and looked wearily at the door. All the fight had been beaten out of her.

The two of them walked quietly across the wing. Bodybag saw them and was rooted to her feet, her mouth the shape of a nought. She did not expect to see this sight. Politely, she let Di through the sets of gates. She felt naked without her habitual passport to access all parts of the prison. She shuffled out to the gate where a bewildered Ken looked astonished at the two of them. Nikki gestured to him to stay silent and they passed through. She averted her eyes while Di glanced wildly up at the prison walls that she surely can't be leaving. Her car was waiting with a clearer idea of where to go than she had.

Part Forty-Nine

On the Friday evening, George thought it was about time she went to see Karen. She had been putting it off for the last few days, because in truth she really didn't know how to approach her. Karen almost certainly wouldn't want any of them to know what she'd been doing to herself, but George couldn't just leave things as they were. She owed it to Karen to check up on her, to let her know that she George was still there if Karen ever needed her. But as she drew her car up in front of Karen's flat, George was forced to admit that she also still held some slight residual anger for what Karen had done with John at that conference. She knew that now probably wasn't the time to let that out, but it definitely was something that ought to be discussed between them.

Karen had only stayed one night with Helen and Nikki, as her front door had been mended the very next day, making her home once again secure. She had wanted to regain her privacy as quickly as possible, though she had appreciated both Helen and Nikki's kindness towards her. The last few days hadn't exactly been easy for her, with Sullivan's enquiries and Di's dismissal being only two of the hurdles she'd had to get over. She'd had to force herself to meet Nikki's eyes, and not to avoid them, as she would have preferred to do. She didn't like the fact that Nikki now knew her secret, but to give Nikki her due, she hadn't once referred to it.

But when she opened the door, to see George standing on her doorstep, she couldn't help but wonder what had brought her.

"Come in," she said, looking neither pleased nor irritated to see her.

"How are you?" George asked as Karen closed the door behind her.

"Oh, all right," Karen said evasively, leading the way back to the sitting room.

"Really?" George asked her, "Because you honestly don't look it." Her eyes strayed from Karen's face down to her left arm, instantly betraying the reason why she was here.

"He told you, didn't he," Karen said resignedly, sitting down and lighting a cigarette.

"Darling, did you seriously expect him to keep it to himself?" George asked her, sitting down at the other end of the sofa and regarding Karen thoughtfully.

"I didn't want him to tell you," Karen said regretfully.

"Why?" George wanted to know, hating the fact that Karen wanted to hide so much from her.

"I'd have thought that was obvious," Karen said after taking a long drag. "I'm ashamed of it. I know how utterly self-destructive it is, and I know that it doesn't solve anything, but I can't stop doing it. Cutting yourself, it's hardly something to be proud of, is it?"

"Neither is starving oneself to the point of virtual extinction," George replied matter-of-factly. "But that doesn't prevent me from doing it every now and again. One thing that you really mustn't feel is ashamed, I mean that."

"John was furious with me when he found out," Karen said quietly, feeling a slight sense of relief that George was dealing with this so calmly. "He didn't show it, but I could see it in his face."

"Yes, well, that's because he doesn't and never will understand what drives some of us to do things like that to ourselves."

"You do though, don't you," Karen asked her, needing that extra bit of reassurance from her.

"Of course I do," George told her seriously. "It might terrify me that you've finally reached this point, but I do understand how you've arrived here. Though I can't help wondering what provoked you into this in the first place."

"I think it was seeing Henry's coffin," Karen told her, not having any other explanation for why she'd started doing it on that particular day.

"Was it?" George asked her knowingly. "Or would it be fair to suggest, that this was more about what happened at that conference."

Karen went very quiet, her cigarette suspended halfway to her mouth. Eventually stubbing it out in the ashtray, she said,

"You're still angry with me about that, aren't you."

"Yes, very," George told her firmly. "And no, not because you rather successfully made John go back on his promise."

"How much did he tell you?" Karen asked, though knowing that George's anger had to have something to do with what they'd actually done, or more accurately, what she, Karen, had done to John.

"Everything there was to tell," George informed her blithely. "I'd have thought that once like that with Ritchie Atkins might have been enough for you, or did he simply give you the taste for it?" Karen winced, this being one of the cheapest shots she'd ever heard from George.

"You can do better than that," Karen told her, not betraying her hurt at George's words. "Because throwing insults at me isn't your style these days, or are we choosing to regress to our former battle lines in order to prove a point?"

"Do you have any idea what that did to him?" George demanded acidly, ignoring Karen's jibe because she knew Karen was right.

"Yes," Karen replied bitterly. "And believe me, I've never felt more guilty about sleeping with anyone than I do about that. I know he felt out of control, and I know he thought that he'd forced himself on me. George, that is the last thing I would ever want to do to anyone."

"You haven't really got any idea, have you," George threw back at her. "John didn't just feel as though he'd raped you, he was terrified that he would end up doing the same to me. He was so scared of repeating what he'd done with you, without in the least meaning to do so, that for a little while, he couldn't sleep with anyone, not me, not Jo, not anyone. It wasn't that he didn't want to make love with either of us, he quite literally couldn't." All the colour drained from Karen's face, as she realised just how cataclysmic this would have been for John. Out of all the men she'd ever known, he was the one man who relied on making love to keep him going, to convince him of his own existence.

"I'm sorry," Karen said quietly, the tears of regret finally rising to her eyes. It hurt her immensely that she'd done this to John of all people.

"I can't help being bitterly angry with you for that," George told her, tears rising to her own eyes as all her unresolved feelings of anger rose up in her. "John didn't know what to do with himself for a few weeks, because he was terrified of never being able to make love to anyone again. I knew it would come back in time, and so did Jo, but he didn't. As far as I know, that hasn't ever happened to John, and he didn't know what he could possibly do to cure it."

"Does Jo know I slept with him at the conference?" Karen asked, thinking that she would have seen Jo before now if she did.

"No," George told her. "Because I wasn't stupid enough to tell her about it. She knows that John couldn't sleep with either of us for a while, but she doesn't know why. She thinks it was just one of those things. I couldn't be cross with John, because he had his punishment, a far bigger punishment than he really deserved. I want to be angry with you, but at the same time I know why you did it. If I'd been in your situation, I suspect I might have gone looking for some company too, though John did tell me that it was he who did all the running."

"That isn't important," Karen told her gently, not wanting to hurt her further by confirming John's assertion.

"I'm sorry," George said in horrified realisation. "I came here to talk to you, and to find out why you've been cutting, not to shout at you."

"It was definitely very well deserved," Karen told her. "And not all that unexpected. I just wish I'd known what sleeping with John would do to him. I wouldn't wish that on any man, but especially not him. I didn't mean to hurt you, or Jo, or John, or anyone, but that's all I seem capable of doing at the moment. Nikki's been doing her damnedest to find out what's wrong with me for the last couple of weeks, and all I've done is ignore and avoid her concern, and you should have seen Helen's face when she finally achieved her goal the other night, and made me tell her about this," She said, briefly touching her left arm. "She looked as though it really hurt her to see it, which I suppose it did. Why do I do it, George? Why do I keep on hurting everyone who means so much to me?" The tears were streaming down her face by this time, something George hadn't seen in Karen for months. She hadn't even cried like this when her son had died, that grief being somehow restrained, whereas this came straight from the heart, straight from the well of anger, hurt and confusion that so clearly raged in Karen's mind. Purely on instinct, George moved along the sofa, putting her arms round this woman she'd once held so frequently.

"I think you're doing this, because you've so much hurt inside you that needs to come out," She said a little hesitantly, the tears running down her own cheeks at seeing Karen's almost unmanageable distress.

"I don't want to be like this," Karen said through her tears. "How I feel does not give me the right to hurt anyone else. It's not something I mean to do, I promise."

"I know," George told her, softly rubbing her shoulders. "But it's something we all do when we're struggling to cope with something as monumental as losing a son. That's why you've been hurting yourself, isn't it," She said in realisation. "You've been cutting yourself, because you want to avoid hurting those of us who mean something to you, because you think that somehow you deserve it whereas the rest of us don't."

"Possibly," Karen admitted grudgingly, unable to fault George's assessment of her actions.

"Darling, you don't deserve any of it," George insisted vehemently. "Really you don't."

"I'm so angry with him, George," Karen told her, the bitter admission slipping from her without any further prompting. "I'm so furious with him for doing this to me. I tried my best to be what he wanted me to be, but it still wasn't good enough. Nothing I ever did was ever good enough. Part of me wants to shout at him for doing something so bloody stupid, and the rest of me wants to hold him so tightly, that he can't ever do anything like that in the first place."

After a while of simply being held by George, her crying decreased enough for her to remember just who was sitting so close to her.

"I'm sorry," She said, moving slightly away from George and reaching for the box of tissues on the coffee table.

"Darling, you don't need to be sorry," George assured her, her own brief tears having long since dried. "You need to do this, as often as possible. It's the only way you're going to get through everything you're feeling, to let everything out once in a while. It'll do you far more good than cutting yourself any day. Promise me never to feel guilty for crying or being angry with me, with John, with Helen, with anybody."

"I'm not used to doing this," Karen admitted sheepishly.

"No, I know you're not," George said ruefully. "You're used to being there for everyone else, and surviving entirely on your own. But do you know something, that isn't going to work this time. So when you feel that cutting is the only answer, or whenever you want to get everything out of that incredible mind of yours, you come and see me, or any one of us, because I'm not going anywhere, and neither is anyone else. I will be keeping an eye on you, because I'm not having you become as much of an endangered species as I have in the past. Is that understood?"

Part Fifty

As the evening wore on, Yvonne was highly conscious of how quiet Lauren was, almost monosyllabic she was. Of course, it was understandable, being a Friday night when Lauren had worked all week that she wasn't at her most talkative but she was certain that there was at least one other reason that was closer to home. Lauren looked closed off, tired and Yvonne judged that it wasn't the best moment to ask Lauren what the matter was. It was unusually quiet that night and the silence hung heavy on them both. Yvonne judged that it was no good suggesting sticking the television on- there were fifty bleeding channels and they all said the same.

"Mum," Lauren said abruptly first thing on Saturday morning, "I'm sorry that I've been a right moody cow recently. Fact is, I had a lot on my mind."

"Want to talk about it?" came Yvonne's casual reply but Lauren felt her mother's eyes on her and that she had her complete attention.

The younger woman hunched her shoulders, reached out for the cigarette that was offered her and lit up.

"I really must give up or cut down on my smoking."

"That's what I said to myself last week only my cunning plan to give it up didn't quite work."

"That will be the day, mum." Lauren laughed. Already she felt more relaxed and able to talk. It was as if a vice had been laid on her mind, squeezing her thoughts inside her so tight that no matter how intensely she felt, she couldn't speak. She thought briefly and fondly of the past and, yes, this cross talk banter had existed between them both, like some secret code that no one else could crack.

"You could be doing worse, Lauren. I got really worried about you when you took Fenner out. You're coming on just fine right now. If you're smoking too much, I can live with that one."

Lauren grinned at Yvonne's deadpan humour, the way she said it with such a straight face.

"Anyway, it's about time I got ready to visit Denny. I can't be late."

"You mean it?" Yvonne enquired with raised eyebrows. She kept her voice toneless but she was as jumpy as she could ever remember in her life. Everything seemed to hang on how delicately she handled the situation.

It had been nearly a month ago that Lauren had so bravely agreed to come with her to visit Denny. If that had been arranged in short order, everything would have been well but Lauren had a busy patch at work so that she couldn't tear herself away even for a day. Despite the best of intentions, practical matters relentlessly intruded themselves and deflected them from following up the resolve. In the middle of all that came the one incident which had a destabilizing effect on all of them but on Lauren most of all.

"Remember, we're going to visit Denny next week," Yvonne had found herself saying for the second time one day.

"How could I bloody forget about it, mum? You keep banging on about her. You can't keep bossing me around. I'm not a kid any more. After all, I'm only running a business all hours of the day." She had shouted at Yvonne." You keep nagging me about it and you can go on your own. I know you love her more than you love your own flesh and blood."
"Lauren, that's not true," Protested Yvonne strongly.

"Isn't it just?" Lauren fired back with a sneer on her face. "Just turn the record off."

At that, Lauren shot out of the room and clumped off heavily upstairs to her bedroom leaving Yvonne much more on her own than she could remember. Those sarcastic jabs cut her like a knife. She could remember how positively Lauren had reacted those weeks ago when she had first broached the idea.

'Look, Lauren, what say I phone up Nikki and ask her to pass on a message to Denny? I wouldn't want to bother her but if it would help Denny, she'd do it.'

She had been so proud of Lauren then and she hated the very idea of only being proud of her if she did well. That's not what mothers were about, she vowed to herself fiercely. The trouble was, she could understand how Lauren felt. It was the little things round the house that explained why both of them were affected. Neither of them could get away from it. After that confrontation, she just buttoned it and never said another word, even when the time and the days crawled along up to the evening before the visit. It was a real strain and she felt as if she were walking on eggshells all the time.

"Of course we're going to visit Denny, Mum. We had better not be late with you redoing your makeup for the fifth time." Lauren answered her mother in a determined fashion.

It was Yvonne's turn to shrug her shoulders. Children eh, what would you do with them, she asked herself? Sometimes, she couldn't figure out which way Lauren would jump but this time, luck was on her side. She wasn't going to ask any questions that were for sure.

"Strange, isn't it." Observed Lauren." You look round every time for the lead and glance back at the door to make sure that ……..he's with us."

Yvonne nodded as she opened the passenger door for Lauren. They needed each other's company for the drive.

Denny's armwaving was unmistakable as Lauren and Yvonne threaded their way through the crowds and approached her. She had moved forward to make sure of her claim on a nearby table. Lauren and Yvonne took turns to hug Denny briefly and squeezed themselves on chairs to face her.

"It's great to see you guys. I was getting dead scared that I'd been dreaming about the visit and I kept bugging the shit out of Babs to make me believe it was real. Course, I knew all along that you two would make it."

Lauren and Yvonne exchanged meaning glances. It was more than they had cared to believe a few short hours ago. Still, they both mentally concluded, they were both here and that was all that mattered right now.

"I nearly forgot, Babs she sends you her love and she knows she'll catch up with you. I gotta thank her for getting my arse out of gear since I haven't got you to shout at me, man."

Lauren's emotions churned around inside her at Denny's incredibly kind words and her lopsided grin. She was really as together as all that, she wondered. She could not help but

remember the totally broken apart woman who spent her time collapsed in her bunk in their cell and it was Denny who played big sister. Mum was right. It had been too long since she had seen Denny. She did her good to see her right now and that was ironical. She was supposed to be the visitor from the Land of Freedom, Money and Perfection to visit a prisoner who had none of these gifts. She tried to listen as Denny rattled away and stared abstractly at Denny. Her presence was once so familiar, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.

"There's something wrong with you. I can tell it and here's me talking my head off. I'm dead sorry."

"Not really." Began Yvonne when Denny cut her short.

"Come on, spit it out." Denny commanded, borrowing one of Yvonne's phrases. "I know you both too well."

"I've got to say it, Denny. Trigger died just a week ago."

"Shit, that's terrible, man." Denny exclaimed. Denny knew Yvonne far to well to be deceived by Yvonne's curt, short tones." I remember Trigger so well that day I came to visit. He was dead friendly and cool."

"You can?"

"Course I can. I can remember every moment of that visit. When I'm in my bunk at night and I'm feeling like shit, I can always feel better by picturing everything, as if I was on the front row at the cinema and watching everything. Just once or twice, they took us out from that children's home to the pictures and I could almost pretend I was with my mum and everything was normal….I can remember the songs Miss Betts played me on her CD when we were in her car, sitting down in your sitting room, out by the swimming pool. Miss Betts, Karen, was dead friendly then. She seemed really happy and I could forget that I'd been taken there from this dump. She could be a family friend……but Trigger, that ain't fair. He's part of the family…."

The hearts of both women were melted and made whole again by Denny's sincere sympathy for them and for their dog whom she had met just one that one day. She talked like anyone did who was decent who was locked up there. One person's pain became another's, to be comforted in an automatic gesture of humanity. It just wasn't possible to watch human tragedy from afar, the other side of a city pavement and to hurry on, uncaring, to pursue your own needs and agenda. Thank god, they weren't like that but they saw it everywhere when they were out in town. The streets of London just didn't allow time or space for that sort of thing.

"I heard about what happened to Shell." Denny suddenly said as she rapidly shifted the conversation back and forth. "It ain't right that she topped herself that way. She wouldn't have done it if she hadn't had her kid took off her and was shunted out to some muppet hospital. She ain't mad, or at least not that way."

" I know, Denny." Yvonne said softly and tenderly. "I wouldn't ever say she was my best buddy, you know that but no mother deserves to have her baby taken away that way."

"I wasn't exactly all there when I killed Fenner, Denny. Maybe I was lucky, luckier than Shell was." Put in Lauren. She had only really heard of Shell through her mother but never seen her. Nevertheless, Shell was very real to her and could gauge just how totally screwed up she herself had been at one time. The differences weren't that great. Denny very kindly didn't get defensively angry with them but stared at them through the tears in her eyes. Her loss was still a raw open wound in her.

"If Fenner were still around she'd end up haunting this place to piss him off." Yvonne suddenly broke in on her thoughts.

"You never know, she might still do it to piss off Bodybag." Came Denny's reply, laughing very shakily. It was a curious comfort to her that something of Shell's spirit might linger in the rambling structure that was Larkhall.

"Miss Betts don't look too good these days," Denny said at last as her thoughts drifted about, rudderless.

"I heard that Shell had broke into her house. I couldn't believe that one. I recognized that poxy cutting I sent her. I just thought she'd be interested, like she knew her when she was here. I didn't think I'd start all this shit, like write her frigging address on the back and say, come and visit me. It was different when we was on the run and she thought up that mad plan to gatecrash Bodybag's house."

"Tell me about it." Yvonne asked out of sudden interest. It was one part of Denny's past that she had never heard about it in any detail and instinct told her that it mattered to know that part of Denny who would still have ties to Shell, dead or alive.

"Don't ask," Denny answered, screwing up her face. "I was out of my brain on the coke that an old mate of mine left us. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to go somewhere the cops would never think of. I broke the window and we ambushed them and…."

"Go on, Denny. It's all right."

"We got Bodybag dressed up as a French maid, serving us coke off a silver platter. Don't laugh…….."She broke off as Yvonne's mouth curved into an irrepressible grin. "Shell was dressed up as a screw, dead sexy she was…..:" Denny reminisced as she remembered having sex with Shell up there in Bodybag's bed, one time when she could get Shell's sexual interest directed entirely on her instead of some wanker of a man.

"There was a lot of bad shit later on. Her Bobby was made to lie in a coffin, for Bodybag to seal him up and then she torched it. We did a runner when we heard the cops outside, oh yes, Shell stuck a knife into the tyre of that cop car while we made off with their hearse…."

"What?" Yvonne asked, her mind trying to cope with the surreal and very dangerous images that jumped out of her mind. Mind you, her Lauren kidnapping Fenner, making him dig his own coffin, shooting him and burying him alive wasn't much better except that he was a total and utter bastard.

"I don't want to talk any more about that stuff, it's in the past and I was different then." Continued Denny hastily, trying to distance herself from the memories to both Yvonne's and Lauren's intense relief.

"Tell me what happened to Karen. You must know. You usually do."

"Nikki filled me in on a few of the details. Shell got in, very delicate like when Karen was asleep with the judge, didn't even wake them up….."

"Got to admit, she's got taste…."

"…….anyway," nodded Yvonne, smiling reminiscently. "Karen saw her at the bedroom door, just standing there. The judge nearly screwed up by saying he was a high court judge…."

"Jesus, he can't have known Shell. That was either very brave or very stupid or…"

"Both. Anyway, Karen got her calmed down and chatting like old friends, about her kids, about what Fenner did to get her sent out to Ashmoor. She came to see Karen because she thought she could get her back with her baby. The judge got smart and stayed out of it. When she got Shell calmed down, she slipped the handcuffs on her….."

"…The bitch." Denny exclaimed.

"You're wrong there, Denny."

"You would say that wouldn't you. After all she's your ex."

"That's only to say that we're still friends and I know her, probably better than you do. She must have been feeling like shit after losing Ross………if I know Karen, she felt she had to protect the judge. She knows that, deep down, Shell's dead funny about men and she ain't exactly on friendly terms with judges like she would choose them to have to tea with at bleeding Buckingham Palace. She would think she had to protect him and, afterwards, she'd hate herself for betraying Shell. You must know that, Denny."

Denny's face softened as Yvonne's patient persuasive tones gently insinuated her way through Denny's instantly raised defences. Jesus, first Lauren and now Denny, she reflected to herself. It never rains but it pours. Too many people have lost what's dearest to them.

"Tell you what, Denny. I've been doing the talking and I ain't let Lauren get a word in edgeways here. I'll pop in and see Karen while you two catch up with each other."

Both Lauren and Denny grinned with pleasure at this. It was something that their sometimes difficult personalities could get simple, uncomplicated pleasure out of. It would do both of them good.

Part 51

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