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 Fifty-One

When the next Tuesday came round, and John arrived at his fourth therapy session with Helen, he was forced to admit that he was now almost becoming used to the feeling of being examined so closely. Helen wouldn't let him get away with anything, which he supposed was the point of the exercise. She was almost ruthless in her verbal scrutiny of him, forcing and cajoling him into answering her questions and forming new ones of his own. Had she been like this with Ross, he wondered to himself? Had she pinned him with that firm, unwavering gaze of hers, making him unable to avoid her for the merest second.

"Well, you had an interesting night last week, didn't you," Helen said, after closing the door of the consulting room behind them.

"That's one way of putting it," John told her ruefully as he sat down in his usual chair, and thinking that Shell Dockley's visit must have done the rounds of the Larkhall women long before now.

"So, how would you describe it then?" Helen asked, sitting down opposite him.

"Erm," He tried to think of precisely the right word, "Enlightening," He replied eventually.

"Why enlightening?" Helen asked, a little bemused by his choice of phrase.

"I've observed Karen in action on a number of occasions," He explained to her. "But never has it been quite so important to my continued existence. She quite literally had my life in her hands, not something I think I've ever really experienced before."

"Which I should imagine goes against every instinct you have to be in control," Helen said thoughtfully.

"Yes," John agreed with her heavily. "There was absolutely nothing I could do to improve the situation. In fact at one point, I almost made it worse."

"Don't tell me," Helen said with a rueful smile. "You told Shell you were a high court Judge, didn't you."

"I seemed to think it would frighten her into giving up," John said self-deprecatingly. "But all it achieved was to make her tell me what a judge had once said to her. It wasn't the brightest thing I've ever done by any means."

"Did you think that by doing that, you would be able to regain the reins so to speak?"

"Possibly," John admitted. "It sounds stupid, but I don't think I entirely trusted Karen to be able to deal with the situation satisfactorily, even though I know she's been doing it for years."

"Where Shell Dockley was concerned, Karen always was the best at handling her. I don't know why, but Karen always managed to get through to her where the rest of us only served to alienate her even more."

"Karen talked to her just as she might to anyone else, as though she could completely forget everything Shell had previously done. I've always believed that criminals are human beings just like the rest of us, but to see Karen talk to an extremely dangerous woman like that was quite, odd, perhaps even a little unnerving."

"Why?" Helen asked, truly mystified by this.

"I suppose it was because even though Karen's space had been thoroughly invaded, even though Shell had broken into her home and was figuratively if not actually holding the pair of us hostage, Karen simply accepted it as almost normal. She made her a cup of tea, and they sat there smoking, just like two people who had a lot of catching up to do, which I suppose in a way they did. I felt pretty surplus to requirements."

"Believe me, Judge," Helen told him ruefully," you ought to be very glad that Shell didn't take more notice of you than she did. Men in particular can wind her up very quickly."

"Oh, I know," John replied, trying to make her see that he thoroughly understood her. "I just wish I'd been able to do something, to make that decision easier on Karen. Did she tell you what Shell wanted from her?"

"Yes, she did," Helen said regretfully. "And I don't think anything could have made that easier for Karen to deal with, because in the end, the decision to help or not to help Dockley had to be Karen's and no one else's."

Then, after a moment's thought, Helen said,

"Tell me, when you informed Shell that you're a judge, was that something you thought about doing, or was it a spur of the moment piece of recklessness?"

"Probably the latter," John admitted fairly. "Though I'm not sure that I'd agree with your assessment that it was reckless."

"Judge, no one, without a little due care and consideration, tells a con of any kind that they are in a position of high authority, especially someone like a high court judge. Let's face it, all prisoners are far too aware that it was one of your brethren who sent them down in the first place."

"Point taken," John conceded ruefully, unwilling to admit that this hadn't really crossed his mind with Shell.

"So, would it be fair to suggest, that behaving a little recklessly with women, in whatever situation, is something you do as a rule?"

"Certainly not," John replied fervently.

"You're protesting a bit too much there, Judge," Helen told him with a smile.

"All right, I do occasionally behave recklessly where women are concerned, but no, I definitely wouldn't say I do it all the time."

"Just as a little exercise," Helen encouraged him. "Try and think of the time you behaved most recklessly with a woman."

John had to think about this for a while, because he was forced to admit that he couldn't quite decide between a few likely candidates. There was obviously Karen, and Angela, the woman who had given them all Chlamydia, and Yvonne, and Carol, that waitress friend of Charlie's. It did offend him slightly that the list went on so long, with more names and faces than he really cared to remember. Then he hit on her, the one woman who had almost managed to cause him no end of trouble, purely and simply because he'd refused to see beyond her body and her silky, treacherous voice.

"Francesca Rochester," He said into the expectant silence. "She played the oboe in the performance of 'The Creation' that we did back in June. She's Sir Ian Rochester's wife. I first became involved with her, not long after I rose to the heights of the high court. I loathed her husband on sight, and part of me probably thought it would be amusing to seduce her right under his nose, which I am a little ashamed to say it was. I was in the middle of two pretty nasty rape trials at the time, so chasing her proved to be a very welcome distraction. I took her out for dinner, and I found her interesting to talk to as well as stunningly attractive. We went back to my chambers, because there was something in one of my books there that she wanted to look up, though I can't for the life of me remember what it was now." He stopped, clearly a little embarrassed by what was to come next. "I can't possibly say that I made love to her, because that's blatantly not what it was."

"You had sex with her. Will that do?"

"Yes, I suppose so," He agreed reluctantly, though not thinking this entirely adequate to describe the furious and frantic way he had swept all objects from his desk with one hand, and pushed up her skirt and removed her knickers with the other as he'd leant over her. There had been nothing sensual in that coupling, just a hard, fast, animalistic meeting of bodies in a fraught attempt to achieve instant gratification. "Having sex with Francesca Rochester in my chambers, was definitely not the most sensible thing I've ever done," He admitted sheepishly, and I thought the art room was bad, Helen inwardly smiled. "I discovered just how reckless that had been," John continued, "When the next day it was revealed that we had been caught on camera." Putting a hand quickly to her mouth, Helen tried to stifle a smirk.

"It's all right," John told her with a smile. "You can laugh, I find it quite funny myself sometimes. I had to persuade my clerk to get rid of the tape. You could say that put paid to any possibility of an actual relationship with Francesca, which was probably no bad thing. But a year or so later, I met up with her again, and this time she managed to hook me under her spell. She was running a soft porn empire with her cousin, whom she was also sleeping with, both of which I obviously knew nothing about. Jo could see that she wasn't all she pretended to be, but I refused to even consider it. When I found out what she was up to, I also discovered that she had set up an off shore account in my name, presumably filling it with the proceeds from a number of lap dancing clubs and other such enterprises."

When he had come to the end of his story, Helen sat and regarded him thoughtfully.

"After that little fiasco, did you ever think differently about the women you became involved with? I mean, did it make you more cautious, more wary of who you slept with?"

"For a little while perhaps, but not to any great extent."

"Why?" Helen asked in astonishment. "Because I would have thought that protecting your reputation would have been uppermost in your mind after something like that."

"I don't see my private and public lives as being even remotely connected," John told her simply. "When I'm a judge, I stick to the rules, most of the time, and only break them when I consider that keeping to them doesn't allow justice to follow its natural course. What I do outside of court, has absolutely no bearing on what I do in court."

"Let's try and put this another way," Helen said speculatively. "When you're sitting on that throne, doing your best to achieve justice for every ordinary average citizen who comes into your domain, you are inhabiting the highest level of moral integrity possible in this life. You are upholding what is right, as opposed to what is wrong, something that most people would be immensely proud to be able to do. Therefore, when it comes to what you do when you're not in that coveted position of power, all those restraints, all those instincts that keep you within that moral high ground, are somewhat relaxed, enabling you to perhaps behave more recklessly and more unwisely as a result." John was extremely quiet at this pronouncement, because he didn't want to tell her that she was right. Her description of what he tried to do every day of his working life had made him briefly uplifted, something he'd never previously felt during one of these sessions. But her assertion that he allowed his moral restraints to disappear as soon as he left the courtroom, that made him feel more than a little uneasy. "That worries you, doesn't it," She said, breaking in on his thoughts. "Because you don't want to admit that you might just be capable of behaving in a manner that might not always be desirable to those around you."

"I need to think about that," John told her, needing to buy himself a little time. Glancing at her watch, Helen replied with,

"Well, you can have a fortnight to think about it, because we're out of time."

"Good," John said with an obvious sigh of relief. "Though I can't come to see you a fortnight today, because it's my birthday, and no way am I going through any form of mental torture on my birthday." Helen smiled.

"All right then, but in that case it'll have to be just before Christmas, because I can't fit you in before then. This time of year gets very stressful for some, so I'm in great demand. Do think about what I've said in the meantime though, because I would like you to have a response to it the next time I see you."

Part Fifty-Two

Getting dressed in the morning in a leisurely fashion was the one occasion in his life when John could let his mind run free and away from the immediate day-to-day preoccupations of his life. He had that tidy minded grip of time that allowed him to move quietly around in an apparently unflappable manner. He had recently taken to allotting himself time to contemplate where he stood in the world, not his work and not his nearest and dearest but himself. For that reason, his birthday seemed to be as an appropriate occasion as any. He could not guess what impulse put that into his mind but his lifestyle tended him to give way to it. Surprisingly, he did not look too closely at the birthday cards as he had decided that this could wait till later.

As he fastidiously shaved to achieve that state of perfection, his face stared back at him. Thankfully, it did not look any different to last year as fortune allowed his face not to get appreciably more lined and only made him look more distinguished and attractive to the eye. His hair, though graying, was still as thick as before with that obstinate grip on him as he had on life itself. Everything was in order. It was only that his life had changed inwardly. He assembled the facts in his mind like laying out a set of playing cards and dealt himself his hand, straight off the top of the pack in no particular order.

He remembered that by then he had a date set for the Atkins trial, one which he had viewed with a certain amount of trepidation, more so than any other trial. The reason, as he asked himself at the time, was because he, George and Jo knew too much about the case even before the news of the killing had become public property. Nevertheless, in his considered judgment, he had handled the case with all the care and compassion, which he knew he was capable of. Of considerable satisfaction to himself was his prominent part in the rehearsals for and the triumphant performance of 'The Creation." He was surely not being immodest in describing how he had gently steered that individual array of surprising talents that went into that masterpiece.

There was more to last year than these very public events, he had to admit to himself. Stray thoughts had a habit of popping up out of the blue much more frequently than they used to, like burglars into his conscious mind. He knew more than ever that he had to let them in, for good or ill. Before, the question would never have arisen. His mouth shaped the first proposition as his shaver made sure of the smoothness of skin over his cheekbone. If it had not been for this last year, George and Karen would not have become lovers, that in the aftermath of the breakup of that relationship, he would not have looked on helplessly while Karen, with reckless abandon, rescued Denny from off the rooftop of Larkhall prison and in some circuitous fashion, he had come to sleep with her at that disastrous night at a conference. That had started out no differently than any other conference he had been to where both he and some available woman acted with the full knowledge of exactly what they were doing and what the consequences would be. This time, he ruefully admitted, he really had not known exactly what he had been getting into, in the one area he had felt safe. So many women had entered and reentered his life that year, he reflected, sheering away from those uncomfortable memories. Amongst that extraordinarily steadfast group of women from both sides of the prison bars was Helen, that strong resolute woman, who held the cards of his destiny here in her shapely hands, who was here both to rescue him and to test his sense of identity to the limit.

His head swam with the changes that had taken place in his life. He finally concluded that he knew more about his place in the world and was less confident of it than before, a double-edged gift but one, which he was destined to carry. The only thing he was sure of was that he could hardly discard it as casually as he used to discard any number of his former conquests.

As if to the rescue, the memory of the conversations he's exchanged with George the previous night. That cheered up his rather flagging spirits.

"Jo and I are determined that we shall give you a birthday present I promise that you won't forget in a hurry. Nor will Jo if I can help it. You're both coming round to my house. We've got everything arranged."

"It's good to hear such dedication and enthusiasm." John had smiled, as this very enticing fantasy was promising to be very delightfully consummated in flesh and blood.

"That's one way of describing it." George answered in her most arch drawl before becoming more businesslike. "Anyway, Jo is coming round to help me cook the dinner but you come round at eight and not before."

John permitted himself a nostalgic smile as George's voice brought back fond memories. This was always her style during their marriage in organising their social life. His drifting thought then recalled that Jo was also in the relationship and, with an act of conscious unselfishness, considered that George's relationship with Jo was as important as his relationship was with Jo and George. He had to admit that this was not the way he had always felt. It felt a long time ago when he and Jo and George and Karen were supposedly watching TV together while Joe Channing had gone out leaving the not so young ones together. They had promptly paired off but not quite oblivious of each other. The extra special sexual spicing was John's voyeuristic interest in Karen's and George's sexual foreplay and supposedly being supposedly the sexual sophisticate in comparison with Jo. That scenario had been spun around so that John had to deal with the pangs of

incipient abandonment as, surely, neither of them needed him any more. It had taken him a long time to be convinced of their love for him.

He was barely conscious of the razor buzzing in his hand. John wasn't really here in his flat on Tuesday December 6th 2005. In reality, he had been somewhere up to a year back in time if not longer. As his vision sharpened, he saw his face and, yes, he would still just about be ready in time for the next court case.

"Just remember, John." Jo called out. "You come round at eight and we'll be ready for you."

"So George told me." Came the patient reply.

"…..and happy birthday." John strained his ears to pick out the words as Jo's voice trailed off as she revved up her car and to shoot off into the distance.

George had only just got in from court and had just started to look round her kitchen to organise the meal when the doorbell rang which signaled Jo's arrival. She sighed to herself at Jo's punctuality when what she wanted was time to prepare herself for the invasion of her kitchen. The distinct prospect of not one but two extra bodies in her bed fazed George not at all. The danger of an intrusion into the private space of her kitchen was something that was already making her twitchy. The order in which she placed the

Spice jars in its rack were hers to decide, not some well meaning blundering intruder even if you did sleep with her. She greeted Jo with her biggest smile and a hug and a kiss and gritted her teeth for what she must endure.

"I'm ready to help out, George. You show me the way to the kitchen."

"Of course, darling."

Jo ran her eyes over George's immaculate kitchen. Except for what had been set out already, it was obviously kept in spotless order and made her own kitchen look decidedly informal, not to say cluttered and disorganised. It was her way and it worked, so she defended herself from the invisible critic. Everyone had been fed over the years, including two temperamental teenage boys. This was clearly not George's approach and she became a little apprehensive.

"How can I help out, George?"

The other woman took a deep breath, wondering which part of the operation that she jealously kept to herself could be safely delegated. Her need to control tussled for battle with the need to spread the load before the appointed hour when John called.

"Well………if you don't mind giving me a hand with preparing the potatoes and the spinach."

"Sure." Jo said with aplomb before leaving it that fatal three seconds before asking a follow up question.

"Er, George, I don't suppose you could tell me where you keep the potato peeler."

Jo was quite willing to be dogsbody and look for it herself if George told her where but, instead, the other woman made a surprisingly rapid lunge for the top drawer, rattled about in the drawer and passed it to her.

"Thanks, George."

While George attacked the preparation of the duck in spirited fashion, Jo quietly prepared her part of the meal in an unhurried fashion. Eventually, George put the duck in the oven and the saucepanful of potatoes to part boil. While everything was cooking, Jo plucked up her courage to make her next helpful suggestion.

"What else are we having, George?"

"My favourite orange sauce, which I'll make myself." George said very decidedly.

"I might as well set the table if you tell me where everything is." Jo asked with elaborate casualness.

George was caught up in a real dilemma that was clearly visible on her face. Jo could clearly tell how nervous she was of anyone daring to go five yards of the holies of holies and she could imagine the utter precision with which they were stored. If she hadn't picked up on the tension that was radiating off her in waves, the way she fidgeted with her hands indecisively was an obvious giveaway.

"I suppose that two pairs of hands are better than one. You'll find the best plates in the second shelf from the top left hand of the cupboard and all the cutlery is in……….."

George rattled out the instructions at express speed and at great length that made Jo's head spin. She coped as best she could and, even after a day's work. Jo managed to bluff her way through by reasoning backwards as to where George would keep certain items so that she could pretend that she'd remembered everything George had told her. Even then, she was highly conscious that George kept shooting glances out of the corner of her eye to check how Jo was getting on. After a while, the oven started to announce delicious cooking smells while George hovered intently over the cooker. The sink started to collect what would have been the advance guard of the monstrous wave of pots, pans, plates and cutlery to be washed up if it weren't for her dishwasher.

They worked together silently for what seemed a long while until Jo broke the silence.

"Shall I make the pudding?"

George stretched her back and smiled more comfortably. They had accomplished what she set out for them to do in very short order and it was clear that they would have time on their hands before John arrived.

"No problem, Jo. I made it last night and kept it the fridge to set. All it needs is whipped cream on top."

Intrigued, Jo walked over to the fridge and, in a cut glass bowl, saw some delicious homemade decorated chocolate mousse. She stuck out a finger to pinch a taste of it only George slapped her hand away from it very playfully.

"Don't touch, Jo, not for the moment anyway. If you're very patient, who knows what we could do with it later."

"Is that a promise, George?" Jo questioned with a slight smirk on her face, suddenly acting her age again.

"I always keep my promises, Jo." George responded with her best sensual drawl.

John had spent his time in a leisurely fashion and had carefully pondered which of his smart suits he should wear and the precise selection of white shirts. He had carefully studied all his birthday cards. His only family who sent a card was his sister in Coventry, which was an unpleasant reminder that, on his fifty sixth birthday, the ranks of uncles and aunts had thinned out drastically over the years and any distant cousins were, well, conspicuous by their distance especially on his birthday. Every other card was from friends and acquaintances but the cards from George and Jo were the most precious to him. In a contemplative mood, he presented himself on George's doorstep and was gratified to be greeted, not by one pair of female arms and a kiss but with two.

"I'm not too early, am I?" He asked.

Jo had to hand it to George that her reply sounded as utterly convincing as was her dazzling smile of greeting.

"Why, John darling, your sense of timing is immaculate."

"Happy birthday, John." Came Jo's simple response. "I think I might have said that before but you might not have heard me."

John stood hesitating for a second but George, the mistress of ceremonies, gestured to John to take his place in the dining room.

"I just about heard you as you drove away."

George shut the door behind her and her eyes swiveled to what she could visualise was happening in the kitchen and drifted over to the dining table where she discreetly and minutely adjusted the positions of the nearest knives and forks. She surveyed her territory with an all seeing eye and declared it perfect in her mind.

"How does your birthday feel to you, John?"

"I was just thinking over the changes since this time last year, one year older and hopefully wiser but knowing there's so much more to know in a year than I ever thought possible." John's ruminative tone proceeded slowly. A flavour of his thoughts first thing in the morning came back to haunt him.

"That sounds unusually humble and philosophical for you."

"I just know that I know a lot less about life than I thought I did."

"All this philosophising about life may be frightfully interesting but we're serving dinner in ten minutes time, Jo." George's voice hailed Jo clearly through the dining room wall with that authentic dominance. "You're to sit down, John, unless you want to uncork the champagne."

Smilingly, Jo retired discreetly and, while John popped the cork of the bottle, George and Jo brought in the dinner on silver platters.

It was now that George became expansive in her manner as the pressure was off her. The plates were served with neatly cut slivers of roast duck, little fried potatoes and artistically arranged spinach with an old favourite of his, orange sauce which John remembered nostalgically from the happier days of their marriage. The mellow atmosphere was helped by the way that the December evening had drawn in quickly. George had lit three candles in their gleaming silver holders and the warm glow cast a feeling of intimacy on the three of them. Truly, George arranged social affairs to perfection and after her initial bout of nerves, the other side of her came out, utterly charming and magnetic.

"To John." George toasted them, clinking her champagne glass musically against John and Jo's.

"To all of us." John neatly corrected them.

"Yes, that's right." Smiled George with a long sideways glance at Jo.

The meal passed off in that easy companionable manner which made John feel utterly at home, and it was fitting that Jo was with him as George was. Sometimes one or the other had shared birthdays but never both at the same time. As for George and Jo, the warm feeling of pleasure in each other's company cast an enchantment over the occasion. George had relaxed so much that she was content to leave the pile of washing up in the kitchen. That could be sorted out whenever. Nothing mattered than that feeling of intimacy between the three of them and all three of them knew full well that none of them were going anywhere else, not tonight, as the three of them cuddled up on the settee, sipping the last of the champagne.

A good while later when they eventually went up to bed, George couldn't help but wonder if she really was in the mood for this.

"As it's your birthday, darling," She said, solicitously removing his tie. "Your wish is our command."

"And given the infrequency of your saying that to me," He teased her gently. "I must of course make full use of it."

"As if we'd expect any different from you," Jo told him blithely.

"Then in that case," John said silkily. "I would give anything to see you two together."

"How did I guess," George said with a fond smile. Flicking the small stereo on the dressing table onto some softly haunting though utterly romantic music, John sat down in the armchair in the corner of the room. As he relaxed back in the chair, watching both of his beautifully proportioned women beginning to dance, he thought that he couldn't possibly be happier. As they moved languorously in time to the subtly flowing music, they began slowly removing each other's clothes, making John briefly wonder if they'd choreographed this in advance. Only when they were both entirely naked did they move over to the bed, hands languidly wandering, both of them trying to keep John's lingering gaze in mind. George immediately took the guiding role, gently pushing Jo onto her back, her hands moving over her skin as she kissed her. John couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. They hadn't made love all three of them together very often, but he had always been previously involved, whereas now he was being given the most erotic display imaginable. George's hands were everywhere, expertly teasing every erogenous zone she could find. Having had her hands on his own body far more times than he could ever remember, John felt that he could probably estimate just how good that was for Jo. George nibbled her way down until she was suckling on Jo's right nipple, making John's eyes widen in response. Should that really look as incredible as it did, he wondered? He shifted his position slightly, his trousers becoming noticeably tighter the more he saw. George's right hand was moving between Jo's slightly spread legs now, with John alternating between loving his side-on view, and wanting to be part of it. But when George began kissing her way down Jo's body, John waited in almost unbearable anticipation for what he knew must be coming. Jo gasped as George's tongue swept over her sensitive flesh, finally beginning to lose her cool in this slightly odd situation. She would never have thought of herself as one to enjoy an audience, but knowing that John was sitting literally feet from her, watching them do this, gave her a feeling of supreme naughtiness that she knew she'd never felt before. She could feel that her nipples were painfully hard by now, and that George was hungrily taking in every morsel of sexual secretion she had to offer. When Jo came, her whole body spasmed, as she gripped a handful of pillow, digging her nails into the material to prevent herself from screaming. George's lips removed everything Jo had to give, after which she balanced upright on her knees, and beckoned John towards her.

Neither of them wanted to ruin the mood of Jo's clearly powerful orgasm, so neither of them spoke. When John rose from the chair and approached his wayward little minx, she pulled him down towards her, kissing him with a fervour that almost tumbled him down onto the bed with them. God, to taste Jo's essence on George's lips, it was amazing. Of all the weird and wonderful sexual acts he had taken part in, this was by far the most erotic. Jo's taste on George's soft, sensual, undoubtedly female lips made him want to thrust himself inside either one or both of them right now. George laughed huskily as she tenderly cupped his erection through his trousers.

"I think you're wearing a little too much, darling. Don't you?" Taking the very last of Jo's familiar taste from her, John swiftly began removing his clothes.

"It always amazed me how you manage to do that so quickly," Jo said a little drowsily.

"He's had plenty of practice," George replied mockingly, as John moved round to her side of the bed, making her alter her position so that she could keep track of his movements. The look in his eye was entirely predatory, the gleam of intention clear for her to see. Had she not known John as well as she did, she might in that fleeting moment of expectation have been ever so slightly frightened of him. He was as firmly raised for the down beat as her baton had been back in April. Moving to the other side of the bed to encourage his claiming of her, she exchanged a look with Jo, asking if this was all right, and receiving a smile in return. When John slid onto the bed and took her in his arms, she could feel the need in him as though it was being exuded through every one of his pores. When he began touching her, Jo turned onto her side to join in, both of them touching her everywhere in order to arouse her thoroughly. When John finally sank his length deep inside her with a groan, he also slid a gently seeking hand between Jo's legs, wanting her to enjoy this as much as he was going to. Jo's hand crept between their writhing bodies, seeking out George's clitoris, wanting to maximise her pleasure. Perhaps this was when George realised that her earlier misgivings had been justified. Her body was to some extent aroused, but her mind simply couldn't accompany it on the path towards pleasure's peak. She writhed expertly underneath John, wanting to make this the best birthday he'd ever had. She kept her face slightly turned away from him, knowing that her eyes were always her downfall in revealing her true feelings. She began to gasp most realistically when she felt that John was nearing his climax, crying out at his point of completion as though she had joined him in their quest for release.

A good while later when they were settling down to sleep, George was in the middle, with Jo on her left and John on her right. She turned onto her side to face John, and seeming to know that she wished to hide, he cuddled her against his chest. She could feel in this one, simple gesture that he knew what she'd done, but then she didn't really expect anything else. She had faked her orgasm mainly for Jo's benefit, because this was all still so new to her, and what she didn't need was any uncertainty about George's feeling towards the situation. She felt Jo cuddle up behind her, and suddenly began to feel very safe, and incredibly cared for lying between them like this.

"Happy birthday," George said sleepily to John.

"I love you both," He said in reply, dropping a gentle kiss onto George's lips, and giving Jo's hand a squeeze.

Part Fifty-Three

Jo could not help smirking at George as she entered her office. The events of John's birthday party were strongly embedded in her mind and the sexual feast that all three of them had indulged in was a red letter day in Jo's life. Jo could not help thinking how absurdly prim and proper she felt in her favourite demure pin stripe suit, her skirt ending just on her knee. It showed her that appearances could be deceptive. In turn, George read her thoughts and smiled. It was appropriate that George's very office was situated in the land of temptation as it was right in the heart of Knightsbridge, the very centre of expensive shopping territory. If she had had some spare time on her hands, she could so very easily drift past the second or third shop and be swallowed up for a few hours as would be a chunk of her bank balance.

"I wonder if we can both keep a straight face in court in future if we are appearing before John."

"That depends on what sort of appearance you have in mind, darling." Drawled George. Jo's sunny mood had rubbed off on George who could see the humour of the situation. It was obvious to her that the expansions of her relationships had taught Jo to loosen up. George glanced out of the window and the weather outside looked surprisingly bright and cheerful for December. The sun shone at a low angle, through the large windows, straight into George's large, spacious room, and illuminated the soft pastel colours in a gentle glow. It reflected the way that Jo felt inside, lazy and replete and not really in the mood to hurl herself into her car to pursue her next case. She sprawled out in her chair and ,in a leisurely fashion sipped her cup of tea. George felt pretty relaxed and was sat facing the clock, which ticked away the minutes in a remorseless fashion.

"Come on, Jo, we simply have to be going or we'll be frightfully late, the way London traffic is."

"And here's you acting as the unexpected voice of conscience and duty."

George smiled broadly but briskly gathered the files and slid them in a large briefcase. Life presented such ironies. If they had ever worked together in the past as a twosome, she would have guaranteed that Jo would have been the brisk, efficient clock-watching one of the partnership. This time, Jo followed George down the staircase and got into George's car. It would help both of them to limber up for the interview with Barbara to exchange ideas as George drove.

"You've been very quiet about the interview. I thought I was supposed to be the junior partner and to be guided by you."

Jo laughed at the arch way that George delivered her smiling rebuke.

"I keep everything in my head, George. I'll be ready for Barbara when the time comes."

"But there's two of us on this case. You needn't think that you have to hold the world up on your shoulders alone. It's not my style just to sit back and watch. I like a more 'hands on' approach."

"Just what are you talking about, George? The trial?"

"Of course." Came George's sweetly reasonable reply. "What else might I be talking about?……………………..Look, Jo, it's the first time that both of us are working at the same time on this case rather than me just doing the donkeywork for you. We're in for a tough trial which will be very wearing, on you especially. Remember what I told you when you first agreed for me to help. I said that you'd be likely to take this case too personally for your own good, like the Diana Hulsey case. Let's face it, as barristers, we're self willed individualists but we both need to practice fitting round each other, professionally speaking. We need to be able to get the best out of both of us when we get to court. Therefore, darling, I'll take no denial that we start our first rehearsal today. You think about it and you have to admit that I'm right."

She can wrap me round her little finger, grinned Jo to herself as she reflected on the curious way that her voice arched its way between the flirtatious and the practical. She's right, of course, both of them will have to get used to changing their approach to handling casework.

"There's one question that I'm not sure of the answer and that is whether or not we ask for a psychological assessment to be prepared for Barbara. What do you think?"

"Your points being, Jo?"

Jo reflected awhile to allow her thoughts to take shape while George drove at a leisurely pace through the London streets.

"On the face of it, Barbara is likely to come over in court as a sensible, stable woman. However, it is easily arguable that the situation of her husband dying put extraordinary pressures on her and not for the first time. The prosecution could argue that she decided to end Henry's life prematurely as a rational decision to save him any more suffering or alternatively that she acted while the balance of her mind was disturbed….…the matter could cut both ways. "

"While we would counter argue that , because she was imprisoned over the assisted death of her second husband, she would never dare risk placing herself in the same situation again or, alternatively, her state of her mind was too disturbed to even contemplate such an action." George capped Jo's proposition.

"……so we ought to have the assessment carried out to have a better idea as to how the cards will fall. You're right, George. We need the answers to this question before the trial even starts."

"……so therefore, we need the services of a reliable psychiatrist. Meg Richards, my first choice, is unavailable so the resident psychiatrist at Larkhall comes to mind, Dr Waugh…."

"………as long as he has learnt his lesson from his performance at the Atkins trial. An intelligent man and sincere, but under prepared and over confident."

Both women briefly looked at each other for a fraction of a second. That meshing together of styles was starting to happen. After years of fighting each other tooth and nail in and out of court, they were starting to glimpse the possibilities of a style opening up. Then George slammed on the brakes as she saw a lorry suddenly stop in the queue for the next set of traffic lights that turned red on them.

"I'm sorry, Jo, but I simply have to drive a little faster as we're be running late."

George was right again. They were cutting it fine for their appointment with Barbara.

Screeching to a halt on the loose gravel, George triumphantly switched off the engine and beamed triumphantly at Jo.

"I told you we would get here on time, darling. I'm never late for a client."

Jo didn't answer for a bit. She felt a little queasy and her left ankle ached a bit from pressing an imaginary brake pedal while George had cut a glorious swathe through the London traffic. She ruefully reflected that she might abstractly admire the skill of a champion rally driver but she would prefer to watch it on TV. She certainly wouldn't want to be a passenger in that car. She kept shutting her eyes at George's cornering technique and her ability to overtake through the most perilous of gaps.

"Well, I did say we were running late, darling."

"I should congratulate you on your attention to duty, George."Jo answered a little stiffly.

"Let's have a cigarette before we go in." George kindly suggested as she saw that Jo was looking a little pale.

A gentle winter wind very lightly ruffled their hair as they looked far away into the gentle rays of the sun as they smoked their cigarettes at their leisure. For those very few minutes, the relentless call of their internal clocks was quietly switched off. They let the peace and tranquility run through their hands for those precious minutes before Jo took the initiative and stubbed her cigarette out.

"Come on, George, I'm ready."

Assuming their businesslike air, they passed through the security cordon, both human and physical and Gina walked with them to the brief's room. They strode confidently onwards as by now, they were used to the intricate pattern of corridors.

"You'll find Babs in fine spirits. We've been looking after her. Give us a shout when you're done," came Gina's parting words and a smile on her face.

Barbara smiled and stood up as Jo and George entered the small poky room.

"There must be a reason why both of you are here." She observed, looking sharply at them over her spectacles though she was obviously pleased to see them both.

"There is indeed, Barbara. For a start, we have a date set for the trial and that is Monday February 6th, Barbara." Jo advised her gently."We needed to see you to run through with you the witnesses that we would like to call to give evidence in your support."

"Good heavens. That's only two months time. I hadn't thought that far ahead."

Both women could sense that Barbara had deliberately floated along in limbo, not thinking of the impending trial which could decide her freedom or otherwise and, least of all, of the tragic events that led up to her arrest. It was probably for the best that she had not racked her brains as to what she might say at her trial and what might be said to her and about her. That attitude of mind had served its purpose but could not last forever.

"We've come here together also as the two of us have to get used to working together as a team on the same side. As you know, if barristers have a fault, we tend to be prima donnas with overpowering dramatic compulsions to upstage the other partner."

Barbara smiled slightly at George's humour and her delicate reference to the rehearsals for "The Creation" without making that comparison too explicit.

"Perhaps we ought to get down to business." Suggested Barbara mildly.

"The trial is going to depend to a great degree on medical evidence as to what could and could not have happened to Henry. The two obvious witnesses as to what would have happened are Tom Campbell-Gore and Zubin Khan covering the medical and the anaesthetist aspects. Between them, they will cover the medical fields that we need to testify what could and could not have happened on the night in question."

"Very good."

"You will remember Dr.Kay Scarpetta visiting you a couple of months ago. Her specialist knowledge is essential to the trial as only she has the knowledge to directly reason backwards as to what actually did happen on the afternoon in question."

"I remember her vividly," Barbara reminisced. "She is a charming woman with a bewildering wide array of knowledge in her field and I have every confidence in her."

"We were talking after we took you to see her."George replied, deftly inserting herself into the conversation just as Jo opened her mouth. "There was something she said which impressed me deeply, that , and I quote 'I'm in court to give the victims of crime a voice, because I am the only way that the dead can speak to a jury. They need me to interpret whatever has happened to them, something which can't always be put into words.'"

Barbara smiled brightly at those words. She had faith that her dear Henry had the will to speak up in court to defend her and that this very educated and highly talented American woman had the means to translate that will into words.

"That gives me immense comfort. I have sometimes felt that my dear Henry is watching over me. Your words tell me that I have more tangible reason for this hope."

"We are going to ask Nikki Wade to give evidence as a character witness for you. I don't think that there is anyone more capable than her and she can give evidence in an official capacity if you see what I mean."

Barbara nodded. Nikki was naturally one of the most steadfast women she had ever known. She had noticed at a distance that her role as wing governor had only amplified and refined those qualities and never in a million years had she used her official persona as a substitute for natural authority.

"Of course, I had plenty of opportunity to chat to Nikki to our heart's content during the Atkins trial while you were busy ensconced with your evidence and lawbooks,"added George irrepressibly to Jo's semi-audible sigh under her breath of 'typical.'.

"That leaves us one matter which we wanted to bring up."Jo weighed in with slow deliberation."It was a matter that George and I only discussed on the way over…" After George had eagerly nodded agreement, Jo was very conveniently left to carry on with

broaching a delicate topic.

"We were wondering if you could consider being medically assessed so that we are forearmed against anything the prosecution can throw against us."

Barbara took her spectacles off and carefully polished them while she looked uncomprehendingly at the two women in turn.

"Nonsense. I'm as fit as a fiddle."

"We weren't exactly specifically of that but more in terms of a psychological profile in mind as well."

"Are you suggesting that I'm mad or at the least that I was mad at the time?" came Barbara's rejoinder, sharper than before.

"George and I can foresee that questions about your state of mind are very likely to arise in the course of the trial and I know that if you have the bad fortune that who is nearest and dearest is slowly and painfully dying, the emotional pressures on you have to be lived through to be believed. It can rock the foundations of the strongest and the pressure never gives up from morning to night for months on……It is never safe to assume that just because you are known to act in a particular way and not in other ways, that this will hold good while you're going through this particular form of hell……"

Jo stopped as Barbara had obviously picked up on the incredible intensity in Jo's voice. She judged that there was something going on here that there was more than met the eye.It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Jo just how did she come to know and describe human tragedy so intimately and insightfully. She held back just in time.

"But is it necessary? I assume the prosecution will seek to blacken my name as a serial murderer of loved husbands?"

"George and I have considered the variety of approaches that the prosecution might try. For a start, they will almost certainly seek to obtain their own medical experts and use them to make all sorts of suggestions about what you may have felt or what you might have felt and, generally, lay it on with a trowel. We need to have something solid to refute their arguments."

Barbara paused for reflection. She could see the force of the arguments but she felt in fine fettle right now. She was torn between dismissing this as utterly redundant and a sneaking fear of what might be brought up into the light of day that she didn't know of.

"I can see your point but I'm not very happy about the idea. I know my own mind and I don't think that some stranger will know it any better than I do."

"Good. There's nothing for you to be afraid of." George replied lightly but with perfect aplomb.

"Have you anyone in mind, if and only if I agree to this scheme?"

Both Jo and George glanced sideways at each other and hesitated, knowing full well what Barbara's reaction would be. She had witnessed him giving evidence for the prosecution in the Atkins trial and was pretty scathing in her opinions of him .Finally George, after giving up on any way of sugaring the pill, opted for the direct approach.

"We were thinking of asking Dr. Thomas Waugh."

"That man? I saw him at Lauren's trial and his performance was shambolic and his morals in giving evidence for the prosecution, questionable in the very extreme. I'm surprised that you could even contemplate such a suggestion. "

"We did think very carefully about the idea and there are a number of reasons to pick him. For one, Meg Richards is simply far too busy to take on the work. Another reason was that Dr Waugh was handicapped from the start as Lauren wasn't in a mood to talk to him. Once Jo knocked him off his perch ,he's bound to do an excellent job for us. He'll learn as he has the two of us to reckon with. Together, we can scare the living daylights out of him if we chose to do and he knows it."

Barbara's severe expression gradually softened as she gauged that these two very forceful women might have a chance of keeping him up to the mark. It was tempting but one thought popped into her mind as a way of resolving the matter.

"Have you asked Nikki for her opinion of him? After all, she saw him at Lauren's trial and probably has dealt with him more than anyone else."

Both Jo and George looked as if they were illuminated from within. This was an excellent suggestion and they knew they should run with this.

"We haven't asked Nikki but we ought to. Tell you what, would you agree to him being our final witness if Nikki thinks it's a good idea and Dr Waugh's willing and able?"

George's silky persuasive tones whittled away at the last of her reservations. Barbara felt confident that Nikki's judgement could be relied upon.

"We'll go off when time's up and if we can clear up these points, then we assume that you'll agree to it and we'll ask Nikki to pass you the word."

"Yeah, Dr Waugh's the man for you," Nikki assured the very relieved George and Jo over a cup of tea in her office after visiting time had ended. "He knows what an idiot he made of himself and how wrong he was about Lauren. He's bright and articulate enough and, besides that, as SMO he's got the background knowledge on Barbara before everything blew up that he never had on Lauren. He was dropped in at the deep end in that trial and he won't do that again. I've got on with him fine since I've been wing governor and he has a lot of the same ideas on inmates that I have. It's funny," reflected Nikki in slower, more reflective tones, "I could never find it in me to despise or hate him, even when he was going out with Helen, when Helen and I had had a bust up. He did go down in my estimation at Lauren's trial but he's made good since then."

"Do you want to ask him if he'll be a witness or should we do so."

"You leave it to me. It's the least I can do to help Barbara. I owe her so much from way back and I don't forget."

Part Fifty-Four

All day Wednesday, John couldn't take his mind off what had happened the night before. Both his and Jo's pleasure had been almost incomprehensible, but he knew without a shadow of a doubt that George had faked the orgasm Jo thought they'd given her. Those simulated gasps and that final cry of ecstasy, that had fooled Jo perfectly, had been nothing more than a very good act. His George was incredibly complicated he knew that, but he really couldn't find a satisfactory reason for her latest bout of sexual disinterest. It wasn't anything he had done, at least he didn't think it was, but anything he did in bed for her lately just didn't seem to work. The night after the visit from Shell Dockley hadn't been all that successful either, he seemed to remember. Then a thought struck him. It was a very long time since he and George had done anything out of the ordinary. Well, maybe that was it, George was hankering after something different, but was too reticent to ask for it because of Jo. Well, Jo didn't have to know, now did she?

As he drove over to George's that evening, he wondered what she might be in the mood for. His thoughts strayed back to that night, so many years ago now, when she had finally plucked up the courage to tell him what was for her, her most shameful sexual wish. She had been drinking more than usual, which had told him that she was very nervous about something. It was a Saturday night, and with Charlie not yet even thought about, they had been languishing in front of the fire with some romantic music on the stereo, gently and sensually making love. Every kiss, every caress was lingered over, as they had all the time in the world to reach their peak. But George hadn't quite been able to achieve her release. When he had gently withdrawn from her, she had cried bitter tears over her failure to be moved by his touch, when he had been so tender with her all evening. John had simply held her, trying to soothe away all the self-reproach that was coming from her. She had kept telling him how sorry she was, and how much she loved him, as though her lack of orgasm was her fault. They'd been in the bath upstairs when she'd finally told him. He'd cajoled her into talking to him about what was bothering her, and she had tentatively explained that it was something she really shouldn't want him to do to her. She'd said that she didn't want to tell him because she didn't want him to go off her altogether. John had laughed at this, and told her that no matter what she appeared to find sexually arousing, he would definitely still love her, but she wasn't convinced.

"It can't be that bad," He tried to persuade her. "You never know, I might have tried it before." She'd done a deal with him, against her better judgment, and told him that if he began making love to her again, here, now, she would tell him. In the end, she had shown him, not told him, because the up and coming barrister, George Channing, simply couldn't put it into words.

"Is that all," John had said in fond realisation. "There's nothing wrong with that. Sure, it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I certainly don't have a problem with it. I would with a perfect stranger, but not with someone whose body I know inside out already."

"You would tell me if you loathed the idea, wouldn't you?" she needed that reassurance.

"Yes," He told her honestly. But as his hands had moved over her as she internally gripped him, with her legs wrapped round him in the warm, scented water, he found a certain curiosity in doing what she wanted. He had done this for her, taking her to a height of almost shameful ecstasy that he hadn't seen in her for some time. When she had collapsed against him utterly exhausted, he'd gently kissed her.

"Don't ever be afraid to tell me anything," He told her seriously. "I love everything about you, even the bits of you that routinely drive me to distraction, so promise me that if you ever want to try something that you think is a little odd, just remember that I will at the very least give it due consideration."

When he arrived, George was lying on the sofa, wearing just a thin, black nightie and listening to some soft though depressing music on the stereo. She wasn't surprised to hear him let himself in, thankful that she didn't have to move from in front of the fire.

"This is a nice surprise," She said as he appeared, though in truth she would rather he had stayed away. The lights were low, casting a subtle glow on her body, with her face in shadow.

"I wanted to see you," He said, joining her on the sofa.

"Any special reason?" She asked as he kissed her. "Or is it just my body you're after." John winced at this, because it was to discuss her body that he had come to see her in the first place.

"I want to talk about last night," He told her gently.

"What about last night?" She asked, slightly stiffening. "It was fabulous."

"George," He said almost disappointedly. "Did you really think I wouldn't realise that you were putting on the best act I've ever seen from anyone?" Turning her face away from him, George remained quiet. She didn't know what to say, because he was right. She had faked it last night, more to appease Jo than to fool John, because she knew the latter was virtually impossible. "George, look at me," He gently encouraged.

"I'm sorry," she said bitterly, turning back to face him. "I wanted to enjoy it, really I did. To tell you the truth, I really don't know what's wrong with me at the moment." He could see the tears shining in her eyes, and the struggle it was taking her not to let them fall.

"I think you're depressed," He said seriously. "I'm not sure why, but I think that might be part of the problem."

"So then, master of all philosophy," She fondly teased him. "What do you suppose the rest of it is?" John looked very pensive at this question, because he wasn't entirely sure how to broach the subject of her out of the way sexuality.

"It occurred to me," He began carefully. "That it's been a considerably long time since we did anything out of the ordinary. It also occurred to me, that something a little different might be what you are currently looking for, but are hesitant to ask for it because of Jo." Her eyes widened as he said this, because she hadn't in actual fact thought anything of the sort.

"It's not something I'd really thought about," She said with a slight smile. "Though I suppose anything's worth a try."

"Is there anything in particular that grabs your interest?"

"I don't know," She said thoughtfully. "It's so long since I ventured into the unknown so to speak."

"I wondered," John said slowly. "If you might like me to do for you, the thing that it took you so long to tell me about." Instantly, her body went rigid with mortification. She knew exactly to what he was referring, and it almost frightened her that he had voluntarily raised this subject.

"I didn't think you'd still do that for me," She said quietly. "Not after all this time."

"George, if you still want it, if you still find the idea of it a turn on, then I am perfectly happy to give it to you."

"Why are you so good to me?" She asked, the tears finally trickling down her cheeks.

"Because I love you," He told her simply, gently kissing away the few stray tears that speckled her face.

As they went up the stairs, George's body slightly tingled with anticipation. What John was about to do for her, at the same time as one of their usual activities, wasn't something she'd had done to her for more years than she cared to remember. She half wondered if she would still like it as much as she had done back in the early days of their marriage. Their hands feverishly removed each other's clothes as they waited for the water in the shower to warm up, John being almost as excited about this as George herself. This wasn't something he'd ever done to anyone else, though there had been the odd woman who'd asked it of him. When they stepped under the shower, their hands were everywhere.

"Are you absolutely sure about this?" George asked him breathlessly between kisses.

"One hundred percent," He assured her, sinking to his knees and kissing his way along her beautifully toned thighs. Knowing precisely where he was heading, George leaned against the wall for support, a hand resting on his shoulder to steady herself under his onslaught. Why did she always taste quite so divine, he wondered, his mouth fastened over her feminine flesh. She groaned luxuriously as his tongue alternately dove inside her and swiped across her clitoris. He had his hands on her hips to steady her, but as her pleasure mounted, he reached behind her for the bottle of shower gel on the side of the bath. Squeezing a large blob into his hands, he thoroughly lubricated his fingers. Keeping his left arm round her waist to hold her in place, he delicately ran the tip of his right index finger down the cleft of her buttocks, eventually circling her puckered entrance.

"Mmm," She groaned as he did this, all the shameful enjoyment of this act sweeping over her. When he gently inched his lubricated finger inside her, she cried out, the sensation of it feeling incredible though at the same time foreign to her. As his lips nibbled on her clitoris, his tongue stimulating the surrounding nerve endings, he silkily moved his finger in and out of her, feeling her reflexively clenching around it. As his movements sped up, her breath came in quicker and quicker gasps, finally pouring out of her in a cry of sheer pleasure.

When her legs gave way under her, he caught her in his arms, laying her against his chest. Her whole body was shuddering from the force of her emotional release, the tears pouring over his bare chest, mingling with the spray from the shower. He softly stroked her shoulders, trying to soothe away some of the torrent that seemed to be never ending. Eventually she calmed down, yet she still hadn't said a word to him. This wasn't unlike the first time he had done this for her, he thought with a smile. She had been so overwhelmed by it, that she had remained utterly silent for some time afterwards. Gently helping her to her feet, he switched off the shower and reached for a soft, thick towel. There was something so tender in the way he carefully dried her, that it almost provoked a further surge of tears from her. Not long after when they were in bed, she finally spoke.

"Thank you," She said quietly, not knowing what else to say.

"My pleasure," He told her with a smile, which reminded her that he hadn't achieved any kind of release this evening.

"I ought to have returned the favour," she said apologetically.

"I wanted tonight to be about you, not me," He told her seriously. "So don't think any more about it."

"I love you," She said drowsily as she drifted towards sleep, meaning these three simple words more than she had any others of her entire life.

Part Fifty-Five

Karen remembered her feelings so vividly the instant that she had moved back to her flat ,only three short weeks ago. That was why she had wanted to leave, to move on. After all, this had been a consistent pattern in her life in so many different ways.

She had blinked her eyes as soon as she had shut the door behind her in that supposed moment of fulfillment of reclaiming that blessed familiarity of her own home. She had stood rooted to the spot as she started to take in all the familiar surroundings. Every object had been in its rightful place to her, every piece of furniture, the draped curtains at the back and front of her large living room, the low table where she had often done her work, every ornament, even a bottle of wine that she'd forgotten to put away in the rush to get packed to stay over at Nikki and Helen's flat. Everything had been in place, everything ……except her. This painful confession had been wrenched out of her despite her most rigid determination not to give way to it, to try and push that thought right down to the uttermost depths of herself. That way, she could have pretended not to hear that traitorous voice within her describing that she had felt ripped out and away from her rightful place and had been badly grafted back into place. Just this one time, that familiar tactic of hers hadn't worked and feelings of panic had spiraled up inside her, making it difficult to breathe. She had started to inhale and exhale in short rapid blasts of air and she had looked wildly round the room. The room had started to swim and tilt before her eyes.Eventually, she had more collapsed than sat down into a nearby chair and lay there spread-eagled in the chair. Time passed before by some unaccountable miracle, the beginnings of calming sensations had started to seep through her. She had put her hand to her forehead and it felt sweaty.

Now that her mind had fully burst open like a long suppressed volcano, the memories of the night that Shell had broken in came back to haunt her. If she really wanted to get back to belonging back in the flat where she had lived, logic had told her that this experience belonged inescapably to the flat. The thought had made her feel cold inside yet that spark of resolution inside her had come to her rescue as it always had done. She had no choice but to allow herself to replay the horror movie and watch from the front row, wide screen. Everything was starting to take shape in her mind and she had let herself reflect on how she felt, how she should see herself as others saw her. Somehow she had reached for that capacity for perspective and her fingers had stretched out for it with just enough of a firm grip.

It was funny the way she had chatted away to Shell almost as if it was the old days, even though Shell was technically the criminal burglar. She had felt curiously detached from the interesting fact that they were talking together in her flat, that she let her quite naturally borrow her toilet as much as any other welcome guest. They'd reminisced about the old days. Shell had even noticed the scars on her arm and, yes she was genuinely sorry for her. She'd meant her absolutely no harm as she'd simply and truthfully asked that Karen could help her be reunited with her son, hardly the act of a woman who was evil personified. Shell had been totally open and trusting to her and she had cruelly betrayed her. Yes, she had to say it, Shell had felt as betrayed and as lost as she had been when her own son Ross took her life, someone whom she would have given as much to be reunited with him as Shell would have given to be reunited with her son. Both dreams were as hopeless and futile as each other that self punishingly honest side of Karen had concluded so bitterly. She had always had that link with Shell that she could never explain to herself, let alone to anyone else. Now it was all too plain and obvious. So why did she do it, she demanded of herself? Because Shell Dockley was an escaped inmate of a secure hospital and it was her duty not to let her stroll out of her flat to go elsewhere and she was highly conscious of the very real threat that Shell Dockley had posed to John. She wondered why he ever imagined that his stature as a high court judge would pacify Shell of all people. For a man whose manner spoke so obviously as the sophisticated man of the world, John could be dangerously naïve in the same way when he had slept with her at that very ill-starred conference, the flavour of which promised so much for others and which had turned to ashes in her mouth. Tears had streamed down her face as she had sat in the dimly lit cozy feel of what was, after all, her own home when she had never felt more estranged from herself and her home , in all her life.

Practical instinct had driven her to prize open the cork from the bottle of wine, pour herself a drink and reach for a cigarette. It was then that she had tried to get a grip on the situation and had taken a leaf out of John's book in starting to assimilate scattered facts and put them together in some logical order and separate out the essential from the incidental, if not totally irrelevant. She had to admit that the taste of the wine and the soothing nicotine, a totally un John approach, had helped at that moment. She had only been away for a day while the workmen had made good the damage and had pronounced the flat safe and secure. They had done work for her before and had been thoroughly competent so, logically speaking, there was nothing to worry about but that was not what her still raw nerves had been still beseeching her to understand.

As she had taken a swig from the stray bottle of wine, her mind was made up in a flash. To her delight, it reconciled the more imaginative side of her, which she distrusted, and the practical, sensible side of her, which didn't always deliver the goods. She would have to move to another flat. It was nothing earthshaking, she had comforted herself, she had done it before from when she had split up with Fenner. Therefore, logically thinking, she could do that again. After all, hadn't she always tended to be a 'moving on' kind of woman, whether it was houses or relationships. Her flat had been what she had wanted for these past few years but if being comfortable with herself again meant going elsewhere, then so be it. Looking round the flat, it had seemed not so much that she had suddenly become hypersensitive and neurotic but rather, that she had been blind to the obvious dangers. It was so flimsily built so that even an amateur burglar like Shell Dockley had been able to break in so easily while she and John had slept through it, oblivious.

That resolution brought her where she was at lunchtime on Wednesday December 7th 2005, to reach for her phone to mark the first step in a new beginning.

"Helen, it's Karen here."

"Hi Karen," that sprightly, unmistakably accented voice called back at her and immediately lightened her spirits. "It's nice to here from you. How's it felt like, settling back in?"

"Everything's physically fine, no passing stray vandals have trashed the place. It's just that….."

"…….it doesn't feel the same, Karen, as if your most private, most intimate part of yourself had been intruded on."

"Violated would be a more exact word to describe how I'm feeling."

Helen smiled to herself. Karen had made the exact connection for herself, one in which direction she had edged her gently.

"Do you never give up being the psychologist, Helen? I ought to be careful in my choice of friends." Karen retorted in a half joking tone.

"No more than you give up being governing governor, Karen. I had a brief taste of that, the feeling of power, of world domination."

Fifteen love to Helen, Karen conceded with a wry smile at Helen's laughing reply. That bit of verbal jousting had cheered her up, however. Taking that thought further, she judged that this was precisely what Helen had been aiming at. This had the makings of an over the phone, 'mini therapy' session. In turn, the thought that Karen might be the sort of person who, one day, would need her professional help had never crossed Helen's mind but then again, she would have once said the same about that august presence on the judge's throne that was her first experience of seeing John Deed from afar.

"What I was going to ask you was much more practical than to ask you to muck around with my psyche." She proceeded dryly. "I wondered if you could come round with me tonight to give a second opinion on a flat I'd spotted as I want to move house, put everything behind me and move on."

Helen thought matters over. Nikki had announced that she was having an evening in to plough through some paperwork at home while Helen was at a loose end. It would do both of them good though she wondered if Karen genuinely wanted her advice or merely to confirm what she really wanted to decide. Ah well, mine is not to reason why, she

finally decided.

"I'd be delighted to give you the benefit of my none too expert opinion." Helen joked.

Karen grinned down the phone. That humour was what she wanted to hear right now.

Karen drove them both in her sports car round the winding streets, away from the dockland and by various circuitous directions, to a slightly less starkly urban setting with its jumble of smart new developments book ending the claustrophobic, tight packed Victorian working class cluster of terraced streets. Helen gave up wondering where they were going and let Karen do the navigating. She seemed sure of herself, in fact determined to arrive at their destination.

She had to admit that the flat that Karen had selected looked pretty good to her. It reminded her of a smaller scale version of the flat she had once shared with Sean. It was an older building, set a little back from the road with two large imposing windows standing sentinel on the street outside. That was probably the very point and an unconscious reason why she had chosen it. One glance at them showed that heavy sash windows were not the kind to be so easily jemmied open by a screwdriver though she wondered if that was in Karen's conscious or unconscious thoughts.

Karen rapped smartly on the door which swung silently on its hinges and let a middle aged man come into view.

"Glad you could make it. So you want to have another look around?"

"I've brought a friend round with me to help make up my mind."

The man was obviously the landlord and he gestured to them to pass through into the front living room. The room was imposing with a high ceiling and a rich carpet. It looked somewhat sparsely furnished and the feel of it wasn't entirely welcoming.

"It feels a bit empty and bare," Karen said doubtfully to herself.

"That's what an unlet flat is like, Karen. Picture all your belongings in it and you can soon make it feel like home. You need a bit of imagination."

Helen was enthusiastic and joking straightaway as, after all, it wasn't her decision and this mentally freed her up.

"Do you get many problems with the neighbours?"

What Karen was really getting at, thought Helen, was is the area safe and, in particular, was there a risk from burglars.

"I haven't heard any of the previous tenants complain. If they had, I'd be the first to hear. It's a quiet place where everybody keeps themselves to themselves. It's off the beaten track for late night clubbers or Saturday night drunks. There's a newsagent and an Indian shop open all hours who have been here for years, no trouble."

"What about the next door neighbours?" Karen asked, of the other half of the house which was joined together and which shared the steps up to the flat.

"They're professionals." The man replied. "They've been here years and they want somewhere nice and respectable. Besides, this house has thick walls in the days when they built houses to last, not the sort of flimsy, cut price plasterboard efforts they run up these days."

Karen started to look at the possibilities of the house more closely, imagining in her mind's eye, her own furniture in new surroundings, working from past experience. She walked slowly to the window, noting the secure lock on the bottom of the sash window and that it would take gelignite to shift it. She had always had fairly modern tastes in her surroundings and it bothered her if what she took with her could be grafted into this much more traditional style of building. She didn't much care for traditional styles any more than she did in the way that she worked and that had been her unconscious sticking point so that she needed a second opinion. Helen's obvious enthusiasm for the flat was starting to whittle away at these reservations.

"Let's look at the rest of the flat," Karen replied non committally.

They went out by the hallway which really did seem to symmetrically anchor the flat together. Helen strode enthusiastically after the landlord while Karen paced her steps a little behind her. The bedroom opened out to a little garden at the back, which was charming, and, to Karen's eye, conveniently low maintenance.

"Fancy getting green fingers?" joked Helen.

"Well, it looks very private and nice to sit out in at the weekend. If I have any botanical problems, I'm sure Nikki would be only too happy to help. After all, she works for me," came Karen's droll reply.

"At a price."

Karen's eye started to check the position of sockets, storage space, the look of her own bed in the middle of the room and noticing that the colour of the walls was pleasing. This flat was starting to look like a white canvas onto which she could paint her own ideas of home. When they went into the kitchen, Karen was much more active, poring over every part of it, a place where some of her life would be spent and it started to meet her approval.

"You look like the lady of the manor surveying her domains," teased Helen.

"Hardly manor," commented Karen dryly." Just somewhere nice and comfortable to live the part of my life that the prison service doesn't own."

"Exactly why did the last tenant leave?" Karen asked the final question to which she got a prompt reply.

"He'd lived here for a few years and, when he retired, moved to a villa in Spain. He was dead reliable, the ideal tenant."

To Karen, the last piece of the jigsaw had finally fallen into place. This flat would be as easy to travel to work as what she now considered as her old flat. Visions of time off, removal vans and packing everything into boxes came into her mind.

"I could do with a drink,"

"There's the leftovers in a bottle and a glass on the windowsill." offered the landlord, helpfully. Karen strode over to the window and on the wide sill behind the curtain was a shapely cut glass goblet and enough of an expensive wine for just one person, herself.

"What about me?" teased Helen who was ready for a drink at any time.

"You're not the one making a life or death decision, Helen." Smirked Karen at the other woman's less than convincing crestfallen look.

Karen drained the glass in one gulp. The final decision was made.

"All right, I'll go for it. Where do I sign the contract?"

It was just this sort of moment of history that had prompted Karen Betts, a disillusioned nurse who was sick and tired of too many patients dying on her, to seek a new career, and new horizons, and become a basic grade prison officer so many years ago.

Part Fifty-Six

On the Saturday evening, George went over to see Jo uninvited. But then neither she nor John ever needed an invitation. Jo was a little surprised to see her, and George seemed unable to find the right words to explain why she was there. Jo could see that something was clearly eating away at George, but she made no comment, knowing that George had to be allowed to raise whatever it was in her own time. Jo had been out most of the day, visiting friends, having lunch with Yvonne, where they barely mentioned Barbara's case, and generally catching up with people with whom she hadn't spent any time for far too long. She had also managed to fit in a supermarket shop on the way home. Spending an evening in with George, therefore, seemed like the perfect end to a perfect day. But George was miserable, clearly bitterly upset about something. But Jo had no idea what. Unless this was about last Tuesday, the night of John's birthday. Jo had been entirely aware that George had faked her orgasm, and she thought it very likely that John had as well. Jo had put some music on, a Tori Amos CD that she'd borrowed from George some time ago.

"I can't seem to find my way out of your hunting ground."

As Jo glanced over at George on hearing these words, she saw that George had silent tears running down her cheeks.

"I wish you could talk to me," Jo said softly, taking George's hand in hers, wanting to comfort but not to crowd.

"I wish I could too," George said miserably.

"What makes you think you can't?" Jo asked her gently. George opened her mouth to reply, but being unable to think of any suitable response, she closed it again. "I might not understand," Jo tried to persuade her, "but I will listen."

George looked utterly terrified on hearing Jo's suggestion, and her assertion of,

"No, you can't," also bore evidence of her fear.

"Why can't I?" Jo asked fondly.

"Jo, please, I really can't discuss this, not even with you."

"All right," Jo said resignedly. "But I am here any time you change your mind."

They cuddled on the sofa for the rest of the evening, barely speaking, though not needing to. They found it inexplicably easy to be in one another's company, without constantly feeling the need to break the surface tranquillity of their silent thoughts. When they eventually went up to bed at around eleven-thirty, George said,

"Are you sure you don't mind me staying?"

"Of course not," Jo replied with a fond smile, wondering whether or not George might be persuaded to talk in the warmth and darkness of their bed.

"Jo, do you mind if we don't... I mean..."

"George," Jo said with a reassuring smile. "I'm not expecting anything of you just because you're here."

"That's all right then," George said sounding thoroughly relieved. After pulling a thin, cotton nightie over her head, Jo thoughtfully handed one to George. She had looked so small, so unsure of herself when she'd asked Jo this question, and it made Jo's heart ache at her far too evident distress. When they were lying in Jo's soft, warm bed, George sought out Jo's comforting embrace as almost a haven, a refuge from her shattered thoughts. Jo held her for a long, long time, neither of them falling asleep, simply playing with a few strands of George's hair, trying to get her to relax.

"I think you're fretting about last Tuesday," Jo eventually said into the silence. George's whole body stiffened.

"He told you then," She replied almost resignedly, thinking that she would quite likely kill John when she saw him.

"No, he didn't," Jo slightly admonished her. "I'm not entirely inept at picking up on feelings, George."

"No, I know you're not," George said bleakly. "But I didn't want you to know."

"That was obvious," Jo said matter-of-factly. "Why did you do it?"

"Jo, John's birthday was supposed to be special, not just for him, but for all of us. I knew you'd enjoyed it, as I knew he was, and the last thing I wanted was for anything to spoil it. But then I suppose faking it isn't something you've ever had to do, is it," She added almost bitterly.

"No, it isn't," Jo insisted vehemently. "Because I wouldn't ever give anyone the satisfaction of thinking they'd given me pleasure when they clearly hadn't." George's lips twitched upwards into half a smile. "And I certainly don't want you to fake an orgasm with me, not ever. If it really isn't what you want, you should say so, not put up with it because it makes either John or me feel better."

"Not something you've ever thought you'd hear, is it," George said miserably, "that Georgia Channing has gone right off sex."

"It happens," Jo said matter-of-factly. "To all of us. Wasn't that what you said to John only a couple of months ago?"

"That's different," George said dismissively.

"Don't be ridiculous," Jo told her fondly. "You'll get over it, just as John did, and the more you fret about it, the worse it will become." As they cuddled even closer to drift towards sleep, George wondered where half of herself had gone in these last few weeks. She felt cut asunder from her fully-fledged soul, as though the part of her that was capable of feeling happiness had been parted from her forever. In the kitchen, the light on the answering machine flickered, something Jo had completely failed to notice.

On the Sunday morning, Jo felt well rested and peaceful. As she went to make them both a cup of tea, she saw a coat and a pair of discarded shoes in the hall that she ought to have recognised as not having been there the night before. But in her sleepy, slightly befuddled state, she dismissed this as completely normal. But when she entered the kitchen, she found her eldest son Tom, sitting at the table eating a bowl of cornflakes.

"What are you doing here?" Jo asked in astonishment.

"Good morning to you too, Mum," He said with a slightly pained grin in her direction.

"I didn't know you were coming home," Jo said, moving to fill the kettle.

"A little thing called an answering machine?" Tom suggested, gesturing at the flickering unit in the corner of the kitchen worktop. Staring at it blearily, Jo realised that she hadn't checked its contents the night before. "A load of us got invited to a Christmas party down here, so I thought I'd save myself the hotel bill."

Having heard voices, George dragged herself out of bed to see who it was. When she appeared in the kitchen, Tom stared at her, a spoon of cornflakes half way to his mouth. George looked sleepy, tousled, and thoroughly adorable in Jo's eyes, but she would have preferred to keep this particular part of her life from her sons.

"Wow," He said in awe. "And who was it who said that one always knows what one's mother gets up to on the quiet." Blushing furiously, Jo said,

"George, this is my eldest son Tom, who neglected to let me know that he would be staying here after a party last night."

"Mum, it isn't my fault that you don't listen to your answer phone," Tom insisted, returning to his cornflakes after giving George the visual once over.

"Tom, this is George Channing..."

"...Your new girlfriend," Tom finished for her.

"Something like that," Jo admitted sheepishly. Tom looked thoughtful.

"George Channing," He said, the name clearly having sparked off some memory. "But didn't you always use to..."

"...Hate my guts," George finished for him. "Yes, she did. Funny how things change."

"Oh, well," Tom said as he rose to put his bowl in the dishwasher. "As long as you're happy, Mum."

"Thank you," Jo said, giving him a soft smile, this brief word of approval meaning so much to her.

"Hey, does this mean that you've finally given the judge the elbow?" Tom asked, clearly hoping this to be the case.

"It's complicated," Jo told him evasively.

"Mum," Tom said smiling broadly. "Even I know not to run two people at the same time."

"And why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay," Tom replied with a shrug. "Just one thing though, Mum, I wouldn't tell Mark about this. He's not likely to be so open-minded about it."

"I had absolutely no intention of mentioning this to your brother," Jo told him, entirely agreeing with his assessment of his brother's probable attitude. "I've had quite enough arguments with Mark to last me a lifetime." As Tom walked towards the kitchen door, he stopped next to George.

"You know something, there's one very distinct bonus about you being here this morning," He told her with a conspiratorial smile. "It's prevented my mother from giving me the usual lecture about treating this house like a hotel."

"I could soon start," Jo warned him as he departed and went back to his room. When there was silence in the kitchen once more, George said,

"Well, that was a little unexpected."

"Yes," Jo agreed dryly.

"He's a credit to you, Jo," George told her sincerely. "I wouldn't have expected any offspring to be quite so accommodating."

Part Fifty-Seven

"I've nearly finished my Christmas shopping." Declared Bodybag proudly. "Only a present for Constance's oldest child and I'm done."

"Oh yeah." Gina yawned in extreme disinterest. "It's that time of the year, I suppose. Anytime now, there'll be the new bloody God squad Cliff Richard single pissing the hell out of me. I bet you he's bought all his Christmas presents and his bloody "Mistletoe and Wine', god help us."

It was a typical morning get together in the PO's room when idle conversation turned this way and that before Nikki was due to appear.

"I can't understand you, Gina, sneering at Cliff Richard. He sets such a good example, he's so clean living and so handsome, just like my Bobby Darin." protested Bodybag vigorously. Her tone of voice melted briefly into a girlish simper, revealing her as a True Believer before continuing to stoutly defend the traditions she was brought up to believe.

"Christmas is the time of goodwill to all men, watching the Queen's speech, remembering that we're British and…."

"….opening your presents, getting pissed down the local pub, swearing at the usual crap there is on the box."

"Anyone would think you didn't like Christmas, Gina." intervened Dominic to a general laugh.

"The day's fine if I fix it right. Trouble is I've got to now start mooching round the shops and join all the other Muppets."

A chorus of sympathy from the other prison officers revealed that, not only did they commiserate with Gina with the ordeal that was facing her but that they were in the same state of unpreparedness.

It was at this point that Nikki strolled in, smiling at the snatch of conversation that she overheard and she promptly got roped into the conversation.

"Hey, Nikki, what do you think of all this Christmas bollocks and present buying rip-off?"

"Well, Gina, my situation is simpler than others round here. My family has disowned me long ago and Helen's father is one of those fire and brimstone Bible bashers so naturally he doesn't exactly approve of me or my living with Helen. I like buying presents for those who are close friends of mine and receiving in return but I'm always so bloody late starting….."
"I bet Helen would be the organized one," ventured Dominic.

"Got it in one." Agreed Nikki with a nod in his direction. "She runs things like a military campaign. Up till this year, I've always had a failsafe excuse for being scatty and disorganized as I used to work ridiculously long hours in the club in the run up to Christmas. Now that excuse has been blown right out of the water."

"Still, you'll have more time with Helen this year." Selena offered, helpfully.

"I will indeed." Nikki said slowly. The trouble was that, in the past, everyone else's desire to go out and party meant that the demands on the club were insatiable and bore heavier than normal on Nikki, Trisha and the overworked barmaids. While Helen went out of her way to be especially considerate and supportive of her, her pride didn't really like being cosseted in this way. Hopefully, that sort of pressure would be off her." I'm looking forward to that. Anyway, time for the meeting, if you please………."

Sylvia was in a quandary as the discussion faded into the background. She had leapt at the prospect of being a witness for the prosecution to see that Mills woman behind bars. The woman was as guilty as sin and anyone with eyes in their head could see it a mile away, anyone but her one time accomplice, that the Home Office in a fit of madness made wing governor. It had galled her enough that some lily livered wet liberal judges had conspired to let her sneak her way out of the prison where she should have been banged up for life. Then again, she had Madam ruling the roost and depriving her of the support that she and all the die-hard old stagers were entitled to. It had been so easy at one time but so many of the old school had fallen by the wayside. The writing was on the wall when Stubberfield was framed for Dockley and Blood's escape. What really had made her sit up and take notice was Jim Fenner's tragic death. Even after all this time, she missed his reassuring tones, shared points of view and ability to fix any problems. What really shook her confidence was Di Barker getting the sack. She had lost her main confidant and she really missed her. On the one hand, she burned with the desire to get back at the scheming women who had wrecked the prison service and made it the kindergarten that it now was. On the other hand, the trouble was that her chief enemies were far too dangerous and she didn't want to risk losing her pension, which was still far too many years out of reach. It was then that the opportunity presented itself when she agreed to be prosecution witness against Hunt who was still within her power. That would get back at Wade and settle a double score, to see her pal permanently behind bars. To her way of thinking, that was a form of safe retribution. What she hadn't bargained for was that the barrister would want to interview her so far in advance of the trial. She hadn't been prepared for it. The wretched appointment date meant that she would have to lay on the charm to whoever she could get to swap shifts with. She considered who of the other prison officers who would be amenable to swapping shifts and was disturbed to face the possibility that she might not be everyone's favourite prison officer. Eventually after much heart searching, she settled on the most amenable prison officer of the lot, someone who she had known the longest, Dominic McAllister.

"Dominic," she called after him as the prison officers started to file out of the room. She attached her most ingratiating smile to her face and her most hopefully honeyed tone of voice. "I wonder if you would be able to do me a favour. I'd do the same for you in return some time. It's terribly important and something that has only blown up at the last minute……."

"Go on, what is it?" Dominic asked without enthusiasm.

Unknown to her, Nikki's sharp ears had picked up the train of conversation. She had had many years of keeping a sharp eye on what was going on in her noisy club that made her more acute to far away conversations than Bodybag had expected. She studiously stood where she was and examined the checklist handed to her at her leisure.

"I would be so grateful if you could cover my shift this afternoon, Dominic. I've got a last minute pressing engagement."

Dominic's mind started to cut his way through the waffle as he smelled a rat. He was naturally obliging but he drew the line at helping Sylvia out, after she had ostentatiously ignored him for weeks.

"Last minute, as in, you've suddenly had this dropped on you or last minute as in, I'd forgotten all about it until I suddenly remembered it this morning. I need a better reason than that, Sylv."

"It's terribly important, Dominic. Of course, I would love to change the engagement but it's not possible. Come on, Dominic, just between friends."

"Look here, Sylv, I'm not willing to put myself out, especially when I'm tired and was looking to put my feet up and having a night in. You're only making it more difficult for yourself as you're keeping schtum about something and I don't like that." Dominic's voice became harder edged on the matter as clearly Sylvia was clearly up to something.

"Oh come on, Dominic. I'd swap with you any time in future." Bodybag pleaded with a note of desperation in her voice and barely concealed anger

"Sylv, I'm not having any of this. I'm not changing shifts with you off my own bat. You put the whole thing in Nikki's hands and let her decide if your rota gets swapped and if so, who with."

"Quite right, Dominic." Nikki's voice chimed in from behind both of them making them jump. "There's definitely something you're not saying. Come on, spit it out."

Nikki's eyes penetrated deep into Bodybag, unsettling her.

"Err, Miss Wade, it's something private and confidential. It's something I don't want to talk about with every Tom, Dick and Harry eavesdropping." Bodybag stammered trying to vaguely buy time.

"You're quite right, Sylvia. Both of you, to my room and fast."

Dominic and Bodybag trotted after Nikki's rapids strides till they reached her room.

"And now, Sylvia. An explanation if you please."

Bodybag immediately fumbled inside her bag and drew out a letter with the stamp of a solicitor's name and address. Nikki glanced at the date on the letter and, as she had expected, it was two weeks ago. The contents of the letter caused her face to harden. It was to ask her to see a solicitor to make a statement in the 'Crown versus Mills' trial. Nikki knew enough to conclude that she was a witness for the prosecution. She had to admit that everything else about the letter was authentic and it explained Bodybag's desperation.

"There's nothing in the rules and regulations to stop me giving evidence against your friend, is there?"

"No, Sylvia. As you say, I can't stop you giving evidence against Barbara Mills or any other inmate in Larkhall……."

Dominic was impressed by how Nikki's visible burst of anger was so quickly bottled up and how even her voice was. If she knew anything about her, he suspected that she felt duty bound to avoid personal favouritism.

"……..in fact, I'll take responsibility for the duty roster to ensure that you have time off to attend this meeting and it goes without saying that this will apply for any further meetings…..."

"…….why thank you, Miss Wade….." Bodybag was about to say in ingratiating tones. Anything to ensure she got her time off, no matter how demeaning.

"……..but I'm not pleased that you've left it to the last minute……"

"……I'm ever so sorry, Miss Wade, it must have slipped my mind……."

"…….but there's a much more important matter than this, Sylvia. I'm not happy with the idea of you staying on G Wing while you're giving evidence against Barbara Mills. I'm going to have words with Karen about temporarily transferring you to another wing."

"That's blackmail, Miss." Bodybag snapped, her mask of obsequiousness dropping in a flash.

"Sylvia, just use your brains for once in your life."Nikki urged with supreme patience. "I cannot be sure that word won't get out about your role in the trial, not by me, I assure you. You know how popular Barbara is on the wing while you aren't exactly the best-loved prison officer on G Wing. I don't want anything kicking off over this trial. It won't help you, or the prison officers, or Barbara or the other prisoners and it certainly won't help me. There's another matter I need to think of. You are prickly, lazy, always moaning about every little thing. If I'd set out to transfer you at the first possible opportunity, I'd only be landing the problems you always cause onto another wing governor and it would be no help to Karen. I might as well be the one to line manage you because I know you of old and at least, you know the other prison officers even if you don't see eye to eye to them. What you've done is to put the tin lid on this matter. I give you my word that, as soon as Barbara's trial is over, whichever way it goes, you have a right to get a transfer back to this wing. Only thing you'd need to do is positively tell Karen via your new wing governor that you want the transfer back. I can't say fairer than this."

"Humph." Bodybag snorted. "I suppose I should be grateful."

"You should but you won't be. Anyway, I need some space so leave it to me to organize your relief and I'll let you know which wing you're moving to and when."

Dominic gestured to Bodybag to start sidling out. For once, she took the hint.

"Of course, Sylvia has to be moved." Karen said decisively before adding slightly sternly, noticing Nikki's look of relief. "Don't look too pleased with yourself."

"Of course not, Karen." Nikki replied meekly, straightening out her features.

"I felt the same when Di Barker was moved off my wing during Lauren's trial. I've just got to find a wing governor that has your patience and intelligence in handling her. That isn't going to be easy as her reputation is well known."

Karen spoke in such a weary tone of voice that Nikki was worried about her. She was going to say something to that effect but Karen interrupted her.

"Leave me to it, Nikki. It will give me something so that I can keep my mind occupied with. You've almost done me a favour."

Nikki made a quiet exit. The room was dimly lit and Karen clearly wanted to be on her own. She wasn't sure if that was good for her but only Karen could decide that one.

Unusually, Gina made rapid strides out of the gates of Larkhall in the direction of the shops. She wanted to break the ice gently by at least having as gentle a stroll round them as the increasing crowds of shoppers permitted. She really wasn't looking forward to it as the fiery temperament which she kept bottled up at work, was apt to boil over

She gained the High Street and firstly, the traditional Marks and Sparks came into view but this was somewhere she really wanted to pass by. Further ahead, she could pick out Boots and their gift counter was more promising. Just before it was the deeply unpromising sight of the tacky yellow and green logo of the local Jobcentre. She scowled at the sight of it. She had remembered it years ago when she had been there for a job. It had found her the first barmaid job. That would have been fine except that it was so lousy that only after she'd jacked it in that she'd found out that it had a high turnover of staff. Nikki had told her a few stories about barmaids that she had hired who'd worked there. The only difference was that some colour-blind moron had given it some kind of makeover. She was just on the point of speeding up to walk past it when she became aware of a woman who was standing disconsolately outside, virtually standing on the kerbstone. Gina noted dispassionately that she was obviously unemployed, nowhere to go and looking down at heel. Couldn't be arsed to go in the bloody Jobcentre and get a job, quite obviously. The penny only dropped when she could see her more clearly in profile, short, scruffily dressed and with hair tousled and not by the wind. The line of her straight nose and her down turned mouth were unmistakeable. Surely it can't be Di Barker?

Gina had just enough presence of mind to move out of the way of the increasing stream of passers by, eager to shop till they drop even on their lunch breaks. She leaned against the corner of the front entrance of Marks and Spencers, her eyes transfixed on Di. She wondered if she was even aware of her presence. It only took her two seconds to conclude that Di would never acknowledge the presence of one of her bitterest enemies who had 'put one over her' again by simply having a job when she hadn't. It was typical of the twisted woman to think that way. She obviously hasn't two pennies to rub together, nowhere to go and no company to keep. At least all of us at work have the means to go Christmas shopping, whether happy or reluctant. Di Barker hasn't got that choice. Still, she wasn't going to waste any sympathy on her as she had her chances and blew the lot. There were so many different choices she could have made in her life but she had that dogged determination to mess up her own life and anyone else she could ensnare for her own purposes.

When she thought about, a quick look round Marks and Spencers didn't sound such a bad idea. She could leave that cow to fester outside and slide off back to work while the coast was clear. All the same, she knew that in her mind, Di Barker would be forever rooted to that piece of tarmac and curbstone, right outside the local Jobcentre.

Part Fifty-Eight

On the Monday lunchtime, Karen decided to drive over to tell George about Sylvia's involvement in Barbara's case. Karen was still incensed by this turn of events, almost unable to believe that the need for vengeance had taken over Sylvia so completely. But then Sylvia's capacity for vindictiveness always had outweighed that of any other prison officer, except perhaps Di Barker. Why was it, Karen thought meditatively to herself as she drove, that some people's innate desire for retribution could lead them to do the most stupid and drastic of things? Just like Sylvia's desire to be part of Barbara's trial and possible return to custody, for example. So, here Karen was, on her way to George's office, with a fairly thick folder on the passenger seat beside her.

George was intrigued. All Karen had said when she'd phoned, was that she had some important news concerning Barbara's case, and that she thought George ought to be made aware of it without delay. George had replied by asking her to come in time for lunch, something she usually didn't bother to eat. She couldn't begin to wonder what it was that Karen had to tell her, which was why George hadn't yet contacted Jo.

When Karen arrived, they both thought that the other looked tired, fraught, and wearing away at the edges.

"You look like I feel," Karen said when she entered George's office.

"It's nothing that won't pass," George said dismissively. Laying a brief hand on George's shoulder, Karen said,

"Any time you want it, I am capable of listening. I can't always guarantee to offer you an intelligent solution, but I can try."

"Thank you," George said sincerely, thinking that she was really very lucky where Karen was concerned. She had hurt Karen at the worst possible time, yet here Karen was, still prepared to work with her, and still prepared to be there for her if necessary. "Now then," George said, wanting to get back to the matter in hand. "What's this piece of dynamite you have for me?"

"I have been made aware, this morning no less, that Sylvia Hollamby will be standing for the prosecution in Barbara's trial."

"Is there a remotely good reason for it?" George asked, as they moved over to the coffee table that George's secretary had laid with lunch.

"Barbara was the indirect cause of Sylvia's first ever written warning, and I think she wants a little payback."

"You know something, the first time I saw her, on that imposed visit to Larkhall, I could tell that she was a pretty loathsome waste of space."

"I couldn't have put that better myself," Karen said with a smile. "So, I've done something for you that should it come out, will get me sacked."

"It won't," George promised her.

"This," Karen said with a momentous pause. "Is a copy of Sylvia's personnel file, detailing every instance in which her reliability as an officer has been questioned, and believe me, they are many and varied."

"You darling," George said, greedily taking the file up from where Karen had laid it on the desk. Alternating between sips of coffee and bites of sandwich, George began flipping through the file's contents.

"Who's Carol Byatt?" George asked, catching sight of Sylvia's first recorded verbal warning.

"Before my time," Karen said succinctly. "Ask Helen about that one." Making a note to call Helen later that afternoon, George moved through the file.

"Aha," She said, clearly having found something that caught her interest. "Tessa Spall."

"That's where I think all of this stems from," Karen replied. "When Tessa and Barbara were transferred to Larkhall at the same time, Sylvia mixed them up, with almost fatal consequences. This was primarily because Barbara was struggling with the officers, because she was claustrophobic, and had been shut up in a prison van for god knows how long." George winced in sympathy for Barbara's plight. "Tessa on the other hand, was quiet, polite, everything you would expect Barbara to be. It was an easy assumption to make, but Sylvia should have checked. Dominic was appalled when he found out that the woman being held under sedation down the block was Barbara, not Tessa as everyone thought. Sylvia's lapse in the usual bureaucracy of admission, led to both myself and then Fenner being held hostage by a very angry woman who had both an axe to grind and a syringe of her own HIV-infected blood. She knew me, because I'd worked at her previous prison, and she was furious with me because I had moved someone out of her reach to ensure her safety. I gave Sylvia a written warning as her immediate superior of Wing Governor, because her failure to actually check that the prisoner was who she said she was, led to a serious lapse in security."

"As this is documented evidence as opposed to being mere speculation," George said thoughtfully. "We can almost certainly use it."

Flipping further through the bulky folder, George stopped in astonishment.

"You demoted her? What on earth for?"

"You might ask Denny about that little fiasco," Karen said with the barest hint of a smile. "She and Shaz Wiley, in one of their more childish moments, duped Sylvia inside their cell, and unceremoniously banged the door on her, with her on the inside, and them on the outside. This was after lock up, you understand, so Sylvia had no choice but to hand over her keys, if she didn't want her fellow officers to know how she'd let her guard down. With the keys in their hands, Shaz and Denny skipped off to the servery, and left Sylvia furiously champing at the bit till they came back and let her out." At this point, George burst into a helpless fit of giggles. "I'm supposed to take an entirely different view," Karen said dryly. "It only came out later because Renee Williams died the next day, which began a full scale murder enquiry. Fenner of all people got the truth out of Sylvia about what happened that night, and thankfully persuaded her to tell me. So, I forced her to hand over her pips, and made her endure the worst humiliation you can ever give anyone like Sylvia, that of being demoted."

"But I see that she was reinstated, not long after being demoted," George replied, glancing down at the file.

"Simon Stubberfield, one of my previous bosses, did a deal with her. A load of them went on strike after Shell stabbed Fenner and was put back on the wing, and with Sylvia being the union rep, it was her whom Simon had to negotiate with. So, he gave her back her pips, and she called off the strike. Disgustingly neat and tidy when you think about it."

"Is there any other major incident I should know about?" George asked, seeing this as by far the quicker option.

"It wasn't a major incident in that no prisoner or officer's life was put at risk, but it is an incident that will no doubt hit home with the jury."

"It sounds as though you've learnt something from me after all," George said with a smile.

"Racial discrimination and intolerance, reported to me by one of Sylvia's fellow officers, Paula Miles."

"Ah, I see," George said succinctly. "And you're absolutely right, anything remotely PC-related is almost better than evidence itself these days, but you didn't hear me say that."

"Jinan Hamad wasn't in Larkhall for long, because her case was reassessed. She was another one who went in for rooftop protests. That's becoming something of a habit with G wing's women. Sylvia made several racially motivated comments to her both on admission and whilst she was an inmate on the wing. As you will see, I sent her on a cultural awareness course, though how much good it did is anyone's guess."

"Oh, well, it's all good jury fodder," George said matter-of-factly. "They'll love it, or rather they'll love us for raising it, which is after all the point of the exercise. Now, I don't need to declare how I laid my hands on this, because unlike medical records, personnel files aren't classified information, though at times I think they should be, so you've no need to worry. Your job is perfectly safe as long as you don't obtain a conscience between now and the trial."

"A conscience where Sylvia's concerned, you must be joking," Karen said bitterly. "She's been a thorn in my side since my very first day at Larkhall. Even then I could see how spiteful she was towards the inmates. So, if Sylvia wants to start a war over the issue of Barbara, then she'll get one right back, just not in the way she might be expecting it."

After putting all the documents back into the file, George laid it on her desk and regarded Karen thoughtfully.

"How are you, really?" She asked into the resulting silence.

"I'm surviving," Karen said quietly.

"And how much are you working?"

"Probably too much," Karen admitted freely. "But at the moment, that's something I need to do."

"Hence your assistance with Barbara's case."

"There's no way Barbara killed Henry," Karen said with feeling. "But I can't be seen to be leaning either way, you know that. As her prison governor, I have to remain entirely impartial, which is precisely why you've received that file off the record. But yes, you're right, it probably is giving me just something else to focus on."

"Let me see your arms," George said, her voice both firm and gentle. Opening her mouth to protest, Karen simply decided that it would be quicker just to do as George asked. Unbuttoning both her cuffs, she rolled up her sleeves and bared her forearms for George's inspection. The right was still perfectly smooth, the unmarred skin no longer the twin to that on the left. This arm, though unadorned with any new cuts, was scattered with old, healed scars, the like of which George didn't think she had ever seen. Putting out a finger, she ran it over the longest scar visible, the ridged tissue in stark contrast to the smooth perfection of the other arm.

"When did you last cut?" She asked, as Karen refastened her sleeves.

"Not since the night Shell appeared in my bedroom. It sounds so ridiculous, but the last thing she ever said to me, was to stop cutting, because I didn't want to end up like her." George recoiled in shock.

"But you wouldn't, you couldn't," She protested vehemently.

"Not in that way," Karen said with a fond smile. "I won't ever end up behind bars if I can help it. What Shell meant, was that I didn't want to end up like her, doing everything possible to harm myself in an effort to escape from everything going on in my head. Shell used to routinely burn herself with cigarette ends, and I think she wanted to make sure that I didn't get that bad. I'm not sure why I haven't cut since then, but it almost seems disrespectful, if that doesn't make me sound completely barking."

"No, it actually makes some kind of sense," George replied thoughtfully. "You've always had some sort of affinity with Shell Dockley. She was never just another inmate to you, no matter how much you don't want to admit it. You had a connection with her as a result of Fenner, because he did precisely the same thing to her as he did to you, though under different circumstances. Another similarity you have shared with her is that of being a mother. Shell Dockley might have been termed psychopathic in her time, but you have more than once asserted to me that she loved her children, just as you did," She added a little more softly. "So, if respecting a dead woman's memory is what's keeping you from cutting yourself, I'm hardly going to criticise you for that."

"I can't promise that I won't ever do it again," Karen told her, wanting to get this point absolutely clear.

"I know you can't," George replied without argument. "Because I can't promise that I will never again starve myself into dangerous territory. But if this appears to be Dockley's little legacy, so be it."

Later that afternoon, long after Karen had left, George picked up the phone to call Helen.

"This is a nice surprise," Helen said when George had been put through to her office. "You've just caught me having a coffee between patients."

"Ah, well, this is really business rather than pleasure," George said with a smile. "What can you tell me about Carol Byatt?" There was a long, almost sonorous pause.

"Well, there's a name I haven't heard for a while," Helen said meditatively. "What do you want to know about her?"

"Why it was that you gave Sylvia Hollamby a verbal warning. There isn't much about it in her personnel file, and as I may be cross-examining her when she appears as a prosecution witness, I would dearly like to get my facts straight."

"The vicious, old cow," Helen replied with feeling. "Does Nikki know about this?"

"I assume so, as it was Karen who informed me. It all came out this morning, so you'll probably hear all the gory details when Nikki gets home tonight."

"And Karen lifted you a copy of Sylvia's personnel file?" Helen asked with a knowing laugh.

"That is classified information," George said with a smile in her voice.

"Yeah, about as classified as when I lifted a copy of Nikki's file to start illicit work on her appeal," Helen filled in. "I'm glad to see others following in my footsteps. Anyway, you wanted to know about Carol. She was twenty-two, and serving time for assaulting a police officer whilst being arrested for prostitution. She was pregnant, though to give the officers their due, she hadn't informed anyone of this. She might not have known herself. It was very soon after I became Wing Governor, something that hadn't gone down well with either Fenner or Sylvia, because they both highly disapproved of some university graduate who'd been fast tracked through the system. They thought that only prison officers who had worked their way up from the bottom were worth their weight in gold. One night, when Sylvia was doing lock up on the 3s, Carol told her that she wanted to see the doctor. Sylvia told her to wait till the morning, though probably not in so many words, and Carol told Sylvia that she was bleeding. Assuming this was simply a time of the month issue, Sylvia left her to it, even though Carol kept calling out that she needed the doctor. Whether she knew what was really happening to her or not, I don't know. Anyway, when Dominic went to unlock first thing the next morning, he found Carol unconscious, and the cell looking like an abattoir."

"Good god," George said in quiet horror.

"I went to see Carol in hospital, where she told me what had happened the night before, and when I confronted Sylvia about it, she protested that Carol hadn't told her anything of the sort. I gave her a verbal warning because as a result of her clear negligence in ensuring that the inmate was safe and well, said inmate nearly bled to death in her cell, not something the home office would want to have made public."

"That's four times so far when Sylvia Hollamby's reliability has been called into severe question," George thought out loud. "All incidents that the jury will look at most unfavourably. I haven't had chance to go through the rest of the file yet, and when I do, I'm sure I'll find even more. Whatever prompted Brian Cantwell to use her as a witness, I couldn't possibly imagine, but then I don't suppose he knows about any of this. If he did, he wouldn't touch her with a barge pole."

Part Fifty-Nine

Cassie was painfully conscious that she had not got round to visiting Barbara who had been over two months in Larkhall by their reckoning. Soon after Barbara had been admitted, Roisin had gone with Yvonne to make arrangements for the funeral but time had flown by in their busy lives since then. At isolated moments when they were both hard at work the stray thought crossed their minds but time passed and they let time slip through their fingers yet again. It wasn't until school decided on an 'inset day' for teacher training coincided with Roisin's mother volunteering out of the blue to look after Niamh and Michael that that vague desire to see Barbara was crystallized into action. Fortunately, Michael would be plucked clean away from his circle of school friends so that he could safely ditch the awkward adolescent routine that betrayed his fear of losing his street credibility. Amazingly, Roisin's mother came at the crack of dawn and both children were surprisingly receptive to being up at such an early hour especially when they didn't have school to get up for. They both waved back as two hands waved out of the back window, slowly diminishing in size with Roisin's mother confident at the wheel.

They duly passed through the lodge where Ken did a 'double take' and belatedly recognized both of them, especially when they signed their names in the guest list.

"I remember you both." He hailed them." Didn't you both pull our old governing governor out of that terrible fire in the library a few years back?"

"Believe it or not, that was us. Sometimes we wonder ourselves that we did it when we think about it."

This was a first time in Roisin's experience that Cassie was so modest and unassuming. It did feel like another era and they were different people even though their house held the papers, which had granted them their free pardon, which made their present life possible.

"You see that door over to the left. Go through there and you can see the sign to the visitor's room. There'll be someone to show you the way and help you out if you need it."

Cassie grinned at the remark. There was a distinct flavour of 'if you want to know the time, ask a policeman' about it all. When they were inmates here, there were some screws that they wouldn't have wanted to catch a cold off far less polite ask for assistance. To their surprise, it was Selena who was present to frisk the visitors before the door was opened up at the appointed time. She performed her duties in as correct, businesslike fashion and Cassie couldn't help noticing how young she looked. It must be creeping middle age that had prompted the thought, Cassie reflected ruefully, despite her refusal to admit such a possibility.

"No Bodybag today? I'm sorry, I mean Sylvia Hollamby." Roisin casually asked Selena without thinking before amending her question in a prim and proper manner, which made Cassie smile.

"She's been transferred off G Wing until Barbara Mills' trial." Selena said shortly.

"Bet you're missing her already?"

Cassie's lighthearted joke got a response from Selena who permitted herself the luxury of a slight smile. She could not believe that she had a glorious holiday from her sulphurous muttering in the PO room. Sometimes. she could have sworn that she used to make homophobic remarks under her breath, sparked by Nikki's very tangible presence. It was a huge personal encouragement to have as a boss this mature and sensitive and very 'out gay' wing governor.

"Not altogether, Cassie but, hey, life goes on."

The door opened and the crowd of visitors poured in. Sure enough, it was Dominic on duty in the visiting room and both he and Nikki greeted them with broad smile of welcome.

"Our luck's in today, babe. No Di and no Bodybag. Couldn't be better."

They threaded their way through the crowd and finally spotted Barbara, sitting at a table near the back of the hall. They both noticed that Barbara looked pale and drawn and her welcoming smile was a bit forced.

"What's worrying you?" Cassie asked in her direct way after the introductions.

"I've been told when the date is for the trial." Barbara confessed," Jo and George have been to see me and it's Monday February 6th 2006."

"At least someone's got things moving and chance to get you out of this dump."

"That's if the jury believe me. All this time, I've been trying not to think about the trial and now the date's come up, I'm not so sure I'll actually get out."

Barbara's low depressed tones made a vivid contrast to Cassie's radiant positivism.

"You might get that judge who was so kind to Lauren. Have faith."

"I wish I did. I might get the sort of hanging judge who gave me three years inside for Peter's death and he might be especially severe on me for what he might see as a second offence."

Roisin's heart went out to Barbara. She could not imagine that she could doubt her faith in God's protection but if she was talking in these terms, she must be seriously worried.

"I heard that Bodybag's been booted off G wing until your trial comes up. That's got to be a good sign for the future."

Barbara's face brightened at that. It was a huge relief not to see her scowling face around the wing and the residual gloom of the building had instantly lightened. All the other prisoners had been in more of a laughing and joking mood and the prison officers had noticeably mellowed. She had got to think that the intangible atmosphere that periodically got prisoners down from time to time might be the product of the accumulated bad vibrations, caused by all the generations of Fenners and Bodybags. Evil begets evil, as a well-remembered phrase told her and she realized that it might take a more long lasting, intangible form.

Nikki strolled round the room talking to various groups of prisoners and their visitors. She thought it was a good idea to 'show the flag' a bit from time to time as her low-key way of inspecting what was done in her name on G Wing. Her foreknowledge of the VO for Barbara coincided just nicely with this duty.

"Did I hear the news correctly that Di Barker has left the prison service?" Barbara asked Nikki as she passed. She had been really down in the dumps since she had heard about her trial date that everything from which she might draw emotional sustenance was blighted. She had heard the news correctly as it had inevitably gone round G Wing like lightning. She wanted someone else to convince her that it was real.

"Neil gave her the boot for writing Karen's address on a back of a news cutting that Denny sent to Shell. Let's just say that Karen got a midnight visitor though nothing bad happened but that was no thanks to Di." Nikki said tersely. This was as much as she had cared to tell anyone, even her old friends, as it was a matter, which impinged on her job.

"I wouldn't wish ill will on anyone but she's got more and more bitter and twisted and a public danger, especially to you, Nikki. It was the best thing for her to go." Came Barbara charitably delivered verdict while Cassie and Roisin grinned broadly in unmistakable delight.

The taller woman shrugged her shoulders self deprecatingly at their response. She sensed Di Barker as an evil spider, hatching up plans in the corner and making Sylvia Hollamby even worse than she was. Nikki had survived all these months due to a thick skin and the ever present mantra that went round in her head that Di Barker hated so many other prison officers that there was only so much scheming she could direct at her. In that way she had not let that woman get to her.

"Sounds as if you're in for a pretty comfortable time of it now Nikki."

"Yeah,"grinned Nikki smugly back at Cassie. She was obviously on top of the world. "The other prison officers are fine and I've only got one prisoner who really needs watching."

"Who've you got as witnesses for the trial?" Cassie pursued.

"Well, Nikki's coming as a character reference for a start….."

"..so I'll have to be on my best behaviour." Slid in Nikki with her most misleadingly innocent expression on her face.

"As if." Retorted Cassie. Wing governor or no wing governor, she knew that Nikki would be true to herself and could imagine Nikki giving as good as she gets to any of the pompous barristers she had ever seen in action.

"…anyway, there's also a surgeon, an anaesthetist and a red hot American pathologist with legal qualifications."

"Whew." Cassie gasped, her blue eyes opened wide." Why don't you wheel in Magnus Magnusson, Albert Einstein and…….."

"Albert Einstein is dead, Cassie." Put in Roisin helpfully.

"As if I didn't know. Just testing you, Roash."

The other three women burst into laughter at Cassie's inimitable banter, which raised everyone's spirits. They weren't sure whether Cassie was bluffing or not but, either way, she responded with such style.

"So long as you haven't told that to the kids."

"As if I'd lead them up the garden path to look complete idiots in class. Anyway they're too smart to get conned."

"Thomas Waugh has agreed to do a physical and psychological assessment of you Barbara," Nikki added quietly." He knows that he made a tit of himself when he gave evidence for the prosecution in Lauren Atkins' trial. I've got on with just fine since I've been here. If I've had any problem that I've taken to him, he's run with it. He's got strong principles and I can now see why Helen got on with him……"

The other three women pricked up their ears at Nikki's generosity to him. They knew the heartbreak Nikki had gone through when she was an inmate at Larkhall and she'd split up with Helen and Dr Thomas supplanted her in Helen's affections. That was a long time ago to Nikki and, since she had become wing governor, she had come to fully understand Dr Thomas's virtues as another professional. Her statement wasn't made out of any nobility or charity, it was merely giving credit where credit was due.

"And I've got Jo and George to represent me." Barbara followed up, her confidence boosted by the support from the others around her.

." I can see now that the brief I had when I was first in court just isn't in their league when we saw Jo in action. In your situation, you never feel that you have guarantees, Barbara. I've been there. " Added Nikki helpfully.

She glanced at her watch and could see that there wasn't that much left of visiting time. Bang went her good intention of doing the rounds at visiting time.

"I'm sorry as I've gotta go and mingle with the others."

There was a silence amongst the three women as they paused for reflection. The background chatter between the other prisoners and their visitors went unheard.

"How are your kids getting on?" Barbara asked politely.

"Well, Michael is in danger of becoming a teenager though Niamh's not got there yet."

"It will come, Cassie."

"How about you, Barbara? What sort of teenager were you?"

"Well," thought Barbara as she searched her mind." The Christian upbringing I had extended out into my social life. I suppose I was very much protected or else the world was very innocent. It feels impossible to convey how straight laced everything was, everything in its order, everything secure. It was another world where you didn't ask any questions, not like today. Of course I learnt to question things when I was here before and it did me a lot of good. Prison's somewhere to shake your ideas up a bit so long as you don't make a profession of it."

"We understand, Barbara." Roisin answered with all her heart. The drastic changes in her life had been very much helped along its way by prison though she was very much aware of the horrors of it all as well.

Part Sixty

As Helen waited for John to arrive for his last session before Christmas, she tried to plan out what they would discuss this time. This was always a pretty fruitless task, because what they would talk about always depended on how John was feeling, and what answers he would give to the occasional salient question. These were both things that from her point of view were entirely unpredictable. But one thing was clear in her mind. John had seemed fairly relaxed in the last session, as though he was becoming used to the situation, not a state of being that would probably lead to any major confessions. It was always in the unexpected, the unintended, the slips of the tongue and the words that rushed forth with no more planning than a river hurtles down a mountainside, that Helen was able to pierce his iron hard exterior. John was extremely adept at maintaining his outer facade, and the more relaxed he was, the more likely he was to be able to do this. But if she rattled him, got him either on the defensive or simply afraid of her probing, he would almost always give away some little titbit of information that she could use to tease away at his armour. She wasn't especially proud of this mode of attack, but it always guaranteed her a modicum of success with someone like John.

When he was yet again sitting in the chair opposite her, she regarded him thoughtfully.

"Last time you were here," She began carefully. "We were talking about the differences between the persona you hold in court, and the one you fulfil out of it. You said that you needed some time to think about that, which is perfectly understandable, and which is why we left the session where we did."

"I did think about what you said," He told her tentatively. "And I am utterly loath to admit that you were right in your assessment of the situation."

"I suppose there has to be a first time, Judge," She said with a smile, trying to put him at his ease.

"It's not something I consciously think about, the difference between my in court and out of court personas, I merely behave in the manner I think befits the occasion. I have never stayed within recommended, conventional guidelines where my personal life is concerned, not since my days of protests and sit-ins at university."

"I can just see you on a sit-in," Helen said with a smile. "It would entirely fit with your current striving for social and actual justice. The way you won't automatically fall in with the views of the rest of your brethren, the way you'll fight and fight to achieve what you think is right and proper, that part of you is something for the ordinary, mere mortal to admire."

"Thank you," John said in sincere appreciation.

"So, now that I've thoroughly flattered your ego," Helen said with the weight of an approaching storm. "I want you to take it apart. I would like you to give me your explanation of your usual behaviour with women."

Needing to think about this very carefully, John sat perfectly still for a while, but then rose to his feet, beginning to pace the length of the room between the window and the door.

"I am aware," He began eventually, "that some of my actions where women are concerned are thoroughly reprehensible."

"What makes you say that?" Helen asked him quietly.

"I have hurt Jo, and George, far more times than I could ever count. George to some extent managed to get used to it, but Jo never did. Every time I do it, it hurts her almost as much as if it were the first time it had happened. When I was married to George, she got into the habit of completely ignoring the fact that I was picking up other women on a regular basis. She knew I was doing it, but chose to act as though she didn't."

"Why do you think that was?" Helen wanted to know, marvelling at the different reactions of two women to the same problem.

"George initially thought that my straying was her fault," John said regretfully, standing now with his face to the window and his back to Helen. "She thought that I couldn't possibly still love her if I knew how she felt about Charlie, which also made her think that she didn't deserve my love. That was partly why she kept her distance from me."

"So," Helen said meditatively, trying to put the fractured pieces together. "You began picking up other women, because George wouldn't sleep with you after Charlie was born?" Her voice was flat, clinical, utterly devoid of emotion, but John could feel the vibes of disapproval as though it was a struggle for her to suppress them.

"Yes," He confirmed bitterly. "Sounds pretty unfeeling and pathetic, doesn't it."

"I didn't say that, Judge."

"You thought it though, didn't you," He replied a little cynically.

"What I think is neither important nor relevant," Helen told him firmly. "Tell me, how did this situation resolve itself, if it did, that is?"

"George began sleeping with me again, because she didn't want me to go away from her altogether, not that I ever would have done. Then, after I discovered what she was doing to herself and why, I tried so hard to show her that I still loved her, to tell her that I didn't think her the terrible mother she thought she was. But I never again quite managed to make her believe that she deserved to be loved, not while we were married, and I'm not even sure that she believes it now. However, in spite of my protestations that I loved her, I couldn't quite abandon the chase."

"You'd become hooked, just like any other addict," Helen starkly spelt out for him.

"Yes," He said, still with his back to her, and she could hear just how difficult it was for him to maintain control over his feelings.

"Why did you keep doing it?" She asked. "Was it some form of escapism, or was it simply a need to fulfil what you weren't getting so often at home?" Turning on his heel to face her, John looked momentarily furious.

"Do you have to discuss my complete lack of virtue as though I am some kind of loathsome individual who betrayed his wife just when she needed him most?"

"Is that how you see yourself?" Helen asked him calmly, not remotely put off by his anger. This question seemed to deflate his ire, removing all the wind from his sails.

"I don't know," He said very quietly.

"Is that because you don't want to admit that you might be that man you've just described, or is that because you're really not sure?"

"George didn't deserve what I did to her, on so many occasions," John said, moving back to sit in his chair. "She did her absolute best to care for Charlie, in spite of how she felt about her. That wasn't George's fault, just as it wasn't Charlie's."

"It wasn't yours either, Judge," Helen told him gently. "You couldn't have predicted that George wouldn't love the child you'd given her."

"Perhaps not," He replied dismissively. "But neither did she deserve to be betrayed time and time again, just because I thought she didn't love me."

"You made that problem about you, when it wasn't really connected to you at all," Helen clarified.

"Yes, I suppose I did. But isn't that the prerogative of men the world over?" He added a little morosely.

"A few too many of you, yes, it does appear to be," Helen said with a wan smile. "Men sometimes have this way of assuming that everything is about them," She continued in a meditative voice that made him think she was looking inwards, not across the room at him. "They think that if a problem with a relationship doesn't concern them, then it's not important, when in actual fact, it can be the most important thing in the world."

"Is that what happened with Nikki?" John asked gently, seeing that Helen had strayed into a memory of her own. But this seemed to bring her out of her introspection.

"I'm sorry," She said, her eyes widening for a moment. "I shouldn't have said any of that."

"It doesn't matter," John told her quietly, seeing that this was to Helen a severe professional blunder.

"Back to you," Helen said decisively. "And you might be able to pluck this immediately out of the air, though it could of course take some time to work out. What was the worst thing you ever said to George during the time of your marriage?"

John stared at her, having been thrown a little off course by her sudden return to normality. But he didn't have to waver for long. He knew what the worst thing was that he'd ever said, and it wasn't something he'd ever forget.

"It was the day George found out about Jo," He said into the silence. "She had come to court after picking Charlie up from school as a surprise. But when she pulled into the car park, she saw me kissing Jo on the front steps. I didn't know any of this until I got home. I didn't know it then, but Jo was the final straw for George, because according to her, we looked so right together. She told me years afterwards that it had finally hit home that she could no longer make me happy, and that some other woman would be far better at it. I've seen George's displays of anger on many occasions, most of them in court, but nothing has ever come close to how she was that night. She was so furious with me to cover up the hurt, but that was something I refused to see. George worships her expensive possessions, so it astonished me when she purposefully smashed a Ming vase, not something she would ever do under normal circumstances. When she asked me why Jo, why that particular woman, I said something to her that I will regret for the rest of my life. I told George that I was in love with Jo, because she had a heart." There was a long, awful pause after these words were uttered, and Helen couldn't prevent the wince that made her suck in a sharp breath. "The awful thing was," John continued, "that she didn't disagree with me. Those words seemed to shatter any anger George had left. Neither of us slept very much that night because I think we knew that our marriage was finally, irretrievably over. She took Charlie to school the next day, but then turned up to see me during the court adjournment. I apologised for what I'd said to her the night before, because I really hadn't meant it to come out the way it had, but she dismissed it as though it had meant nothing to her. That was just another sign of how much it really had hurt her. George went away for a week, taking her car with her, but I still don't know where she went. In truth, I was terrified that she would never come back, that some day soon there would be a story in the paper of an abandoned car by the top of a cliff. But she came back, as she said she would, and told me that she wanted a divorce. There was no question that George could look after Charlie fulltime on her own, so I found somewhere for the two of us and eventually moved out. George locked all her feelings away inside her, so that she appeared to have no feelings at all from that day forth. That was why Charlie gave her the name of The Ice Maiden. I hated it whenever I heard Charlie use that name, because I knew that George had the capacity to be as vibrant and loving as any woman I'd ever known."

He stopped, seeming to have completely run out of words. Helen remained silent, giving him a few minutes to compose himself and to calm his thoughts, before saying,

"You still carry an awful lot of guilt about your marriage to George, don't you."

"Believe me, it is well deserved," He told her bitterly.

"Guilt feeds on itself, Judge," She told him matter-of-factly. "So that the longer you feel it, the more deep-seated it becomes. At some point in the next few months, there's something I'd like you to do for me. Try talking to George, try talking about your marriage and the things that went wrong with it. You can bet that she's still got as much guilt and hurt inside her about it as you have. You both need to let it go and move on with the relationship you have now, but neither of you will be able to do this with any meaning until you've got every bad feeling finally out in the open."

Part 61

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