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 Sixty-One

A detached observer of the inside of St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington might conclude it to be seasonless. Showers of rain might batter down at the scurrying insect like shapes scuttling towards the gaping swing doors in wintertime. Alternately, the summer humidity and burning sun might drag at the heels of the onward plod of those same shapes. Once through these doors, the hospital enfolded all comers in the same institutional grip. The paintwork was bright and neutral coloured and faded away everything belonging to the outside world. The atmosphere might be soporific for the patient resigned to a passive role but life or death demands meant that both consultant and nurse alike were aware that the situation could so easily switch to sudden emergency, to fevered demands to move very quickly should the situation demand. The patient that all and sundry pushed into theatre on the 'crash trolley' might have been placidly lying in bed only a minute or so earlier on. Even at the quietest times, no one working at St. Mary's Hospital could ever totally drop their guard. This was the unchanging pattern of life whether or not spring buds grew on the bare branches outside or whether discoloured leaves fluttered from them to the bare earth.

The only break in this uniformity of experience came at Christmas. By some common consent, the slot fell to Donna to organize putting up the Christmas tree up on Darwin Ward and to decorate it very artistically. That is to say, Chrissie with unusual good humour tolerantly let Donna direct her to do a lot of the donkey work while Donna fiddled about very artistically while talking nine to the dozen. With her winning smile and gift of the gab, she had already found it easy to blag the more demonstrative not to say show offish men to pin gaudy tinsel in hanging geometrical, diagonal lines in the main ward. Of course, there was the understanding that Christmas at St. Mary's wasn't the happiest thought among the patients. They could so easily have been doing what all people do at Christmas, trying to snatch that daydream of a better life, the candles casting their glow of a homelike home and a happy family gathered around the traditional hearth, or so the Christmas cards told them they wanted reality to be. Instead, they were stuck inside an institution and, no matter how kind hearted the carers were, the hospital wasn't home.

For the staff, it was a different matter for St Mary's was where they all belonged, for a larger slice of their waking lives than most of them would care to admit and the Christmas tree had a whole other meaning for them. This was the time of the year that pressed together the sometimes far-flung community of the working population into one arena, for good or ill. Then again, Christmas parties also meant the habitual casual affairs and sexual infidelities that tested the relationships between those who worked at St. Mary's and their partners on the outside, sometimes to destruction.

Ric had just come off his shift and was strolling through the ward when Donna greeted him with a dazzling smile.

"I really could do with someone tall like you, Mr. Griffin, to put the angel at the top of the tree. I get nervous wobbling on top of a chair and might fall off and break a leg. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

At the art of turning on the feminine charm, Ric reflected to himself, Donna might not be the past mistress as Connie is but he was prepared to be a sucker for it one more time. After all, what's there to lose in putting up a decoration on a Christmas tree? Ric graciously volunteered to bask in a bit of female attention, however spurious. It wasn't till he looked closer at the height of the tree that he realized that he might end up twisting either his back or his neck. Nevertheless, he resolved, in for a penny, in for a pound, a saying not in his ex-wife's grandmother's repertoire of proverbs.

"Handling angels again, Mr. Griffin?" Came the cool sultry amused voice from somewhere at the back of him. He didn't need to ask himself who the owner of that voice was. Ric said nothing while he stretched himself up to the very top of the tree and held the angel in his fingers.

"Well, naturally, Donna came to the expert," Came his outrageously smug reply.

"It's amazing what men will do if they're gently edged in the right direction," Connie retorted coolly and dismissively.

"I suppose you think that all men are weak willed and will sell out their principles, either here or in court," Broke in Zubin's earnest yet angry tones.

Ric groaned to himself. He had been unwillingly drawn into the cross cutting tensions between Zubin and Connie over the impending trial. They had behaved in an over civilized fashion to each other but he had known that it wouldn't take much to snap these these restraints and Zubin was clearly spoiling for a fight. He would have been grateful for a truce between the warring sides with a bit of Christmas spirit and, most of all that war wouldn't break out right now when he was physically least prepared to deal with it.

"Let's not go there, all of us. After all, it's nearly Christmas," Ric muttered quietly as he placed the angel securely on the top of the tree and turned round sideways. As he spoke, he knew that he was only talking about the cosy image of Christmas, not the downside that they all saw of the upsurge of admissions during and after Christmas, the alcohol related car accidents and the women rushed in to casualty, the grim aftermath of domestic discord, of Christmas dreams gone horribly wrong.

Connie had seen the flare up of black anger in Zubin's eyes and immediately realized she had overstepped the mark. With expert agility, she darted back from the precipice.

"Believe what you wish. It's not important anyway. Ric, I wanted to have a word with you about quite another matter altogether, the staff Christmas arrangements."

Connie had adroitly turned away from Zubin and faced Ric instead.

"Business or pleasure?"

"Definitely pleasure," Connie retorted with a hint of a smile on her lips, which made Ric shake his head.

"Please explain, Connie. I'm interested."

"There's a possible vacancy for a Santa Claus at the staff Christmas party and I wanted to sound you out about it."

"Oh no." Ric laughed. "all this ho ho ho, fake jollity isn't really me. Besides, I'd far sooner be one of the bystanders."

"Come on, Mr. Griffin, you'll love to have all those pretty nurses sitting on your knee."

Connie coaxed him, the full effect of her violet eyes being trained on him in one final attempt to change his mind for him.

Ric nearly weakened but smilingly shook his head. Connie wasn't put out in the slightest and shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly.

"So, I've got to decide instead which lucky man will be the elf."

"You're going to be Santa Claus instead." It was a statement of the obvious, not a question.

"Well, naturally since you're not playing."

Ric laughed as he could see what was coming up a mile away. There were times when Connie wasn't quite as enigmatic as she liked to think she was.

"If I'm in the audience, I can admire your very fetching Santa outfit and I can't do it if I'm the elf. Tell you what, I'll be the bouncer and I'll sling out anyone who is acting the idiot and getting out of hand."

He would far sooner be amongst the audience from what he remembered last year of Connie's very alluring Christmas outfit. Connie nodded briefly in appreciation of the offer of help, which, on reflection, was a sensible precaution.

"Well, it looks as if I'll have to look for a substitute. I'm sure Mubbs will be more malleable. Besides, it would do him good to shoulder some responsibility at an event like this."

With one flick of her eyes, she moved off and paced nonchalantly up to the unsuspecting Mubbs while Zubin edged his way up to Ric.

"I can't see just why you continue to sit on the fence where Connie is concerned. You have to learn that sooner or later you have to take sides." Zubin muttered reproachfully. "At least Tom has the right idea for a change."

"So, after years of bitching at Tom, he's a good guy at last." Ric retorted sarcastically.

"That's not the point." Came the sullen reply.

"Believe you me, it's very much the point. Anyway, I've found out that no one is entirely on my side, not you, not Connie. Friendship's one thing, Zubin. Blindly following someone like a sheep is quite another. Just you remember that."

They were too engrossed to see Connie stalk Mubbs and finally pounce on him.

"I've got a proposition for you to take up a little extra curricular position. You'll enjoy it."

Ric grinned in amusement as a fraction of his hearing picked up on the silky tones in which she addressed Mubbs, yanking his attention away from talking to Will and Lisa. Connie gestured imperceptibly to Mubbs to follow and he eagerly followed her to a corner of the room. Ric could almost see the way that part of Mubbs' anatomy rise to the delicately poised bait, dangled in front of him. A big grin of anticipation spread all over his face as he relished being picked out from all others for Connie's favour.

"That sounds great." Mubbs was heard to say without asking exactly what it was.

"I want you to help me out playing Santa Claus and, between you and me, you're the perfect man for the job."

"You mean?"

"I want you to be my helper. All those pretty nurses will be queuing up for you, I mean if you want them. Think it over, Mubbs. It will be one up to you on your CV. And afterwards, who knows?"

Ric had edged just far enough nearer to overhear Connie and Mubbs while talking shop with Zubin. He had to almost pity the weak minded man with big ideas about himself letting himself be so easily drawn by the combination of Connie's sexual allure and the chance of opportunistically furthering his own career. The calculated combination was irresistible.

Connie had delegated as little as she could to Mubbs in the run up to the party. She was just putting the finishing touches to her outfit in a dimly lit room when Mubbs walked in. To his astonished eyes, Connie sat cross-legged and pulling up a thin black sock up her elegant leg to just short of her knee and it made the Santa outfit ride up her thigh. In his fantasies, it looked like Connie was donning a pair of black leather high-heeled boots before his eyes could see more clearly. He remembered he'd seen some American film more than once on the telly about a good looking older woman who looked like her but after a promising start, it got boring and he ended up falling asleep on the sofa.

"Are you ready, Mubbs." She asked with a slight smile on his lips and noticed that Mubbs was more the size and build of an elf in his costume than Will was last year. As in every other situation she was in, she ended up on top and in charge.

"Yeah, Connie. The other half of the team's ready and waiting."

Nonchalantly, Connie made her grand entrance with that almost imperceptible sway of her hips in the figure-hugging outfit. The hem of the red outfit, edged with white fur pushed the limits of what she could get away with in drawing a horizontal line well above her knees, defying convention. Again, every other normal bulky Santa outfit but Connie's went up to the chin. It was, after all, supposedly to defy the winter elements of Greenland. Trust Connie to be different as her outfit was carefully unbuttoned at the top displaying her charms for all to see and her demonstration of power over them. Certainly all the men had a free present as their eyes were out on sticks as she smiled graciously at all around her. Everyone could look at her and confirm her queen bee status but it was down to her to decide who could touch.

Part Sixty-Two

"Well, it's down to you two to get the Christmas tree and put the bloody thing up. I'll help as I'll supervise." Gina decided firmly

"Couldn't we hang on and wait till the works department come back to us. They did say that they'd make an extra special effort to deliver it on time." Colin queried hopefully. He really didn't fancy getting prickled all over and do his back in. That tentative suggestion was promptly squashed flat by Gina's incredulous look of scorn at his pitiful naivety not to mention her acid reply

"Yeah, and Santa Claus slides down the chimney and parks his sleigh on the roof. Haven't you learnt by now, those muppets tell the same load of crap to every mug who phones up this time of the year. No, you and Dominic are going to take the transit and get a tree from the local market. Come on, chop chop."

"Oh, so you like Christmas after all, Gina?" Dominic retorted with a sly grin.Gina's only response was to stick her tongue out at him before he sauntered lazily away accompanied by Colin.

An hour later, a scraping slithering sound could be heard accompanied by muffled shouting and rattling sounds of metal announced the arrival of the tree at the gate from the exercise yard. Gina guessed what was happening and , after turning the key in the lock, a fir tree wobbled its way horizontally forwards pointing its way towards the main area. As it moved in, snatches of arms and legs could be spotted as Dominic manfully held the tree two thirds down its length while Colin looked distinctly weary as he manhandled the base of the trunk.

"Is that for the prison officers, miss?" Julie Johnson, spurred on by her insatiable curiosity, was first off the mark to ask questions. It looked a bit big for the prison officers and she didn't want to build her hopes up too high.

"Course it ain't, Julie. It's for all of you from the governor. Special delivery." Gina said with a broad smile while a sweating red-faced Dominic, pine needles prickling his face, lurched by and led the tree to its spot in the large container ready for it. He and Colin let the base slide sideways and the trunk was dropped a little heavily into the middle of it before they pushed the trunk into the air and leant it against the corner of the room.

"Hey , watch the pine needles." sang out Julie Johnson incautiously to Dominic who positively wagged his head vertically while the two action men rushed past with all the verve of an police emergency action squad. "They take ages to clear up."

"Later, Julies, later." Gina urged hastily, seeing the expression of desperation on Dominic's face. The poor guy's face was scratched by pine needles and she really hated to see his obliging nature taken advantage of, even if it was unintentional.

"Let them get it safe so it doesn't fall on somebody's head. I'd feel a right twat writing that one down in the accident book."

Like lightning, the two men rushed to pack in earth and stones round the base of the tree while all the prisoners stood round in a semi circle. Even Kris found it possible to let her disdainful expression soften and she showed unobtrusive respect for them by taking care to stand out of their way. Eventually, flushed and ties and shirts crumpled and awry, they pronounced the tree safe and secure to their satisfaction and they preened themselves noticeably while facing the crowd. Their manner was a distinct throwback to their ancient ancestor, the proud ancient caveman who, having battled to the death with a dangerous mammoth and having exhibited the trophy outside the cave to keep the family fed for the next whenever, silently sought a gesture of appreciation for their hard work and heroism. The massed female reaction, while appreciative of the generosity of effort for their behalf, also contained an undertone of archetypal reaction also going back to the stone age.

"Men, eh." Whispered one Julie to the other and Gina grinned in sympathetic agreement.

On Christmas day, Karen woke up to feel nothing in particular. She rolled over in bed to take in the view of her flat, and nothing was much different from any other day except for the token baubles put up as an afterthought and the usual small silver Christmas tree in the corner of her room. Everything was so quiet and empty in her flat and the dim colourless light filtered in through cracks in the curtains. She had a dim ancestral memory of unwrapping Christmas presents down on the carpet with a laughing Ross at her side, slaving over an impossibly large dinner and the flow of alcohol later on in the precious time when Ross was asleep in bed but where was everything right now when she needed it? Perhaps Christmastime was so precious then as it was so hard won. This was for two reasons, once in terms of getting time off work as a relatively powerless nurse low down in the line of authority and twice in the way her monthly pay had been so tightly stretched for the run up to Christmas. These days, money came easy and she could afford to buy what she wanted and the only authority she had to answer to was her own sense of commitment. She had got a lot of what she had strived for so hard……except a family. That was what Christmas was about surely, underneath all the glossy adverts and cheap cards.

She had got up eventually, spent time desultorily eating a few token chocolates and switching on the television to cheer herself up. Instantly, she regretted her decision as what should come on the box but the Eastenders Christmas special. The only thing that stopped her switching the television off was that she had no idea what else she would do with her time. What appeared before her numbed consciousness was the brassy glare and overbright colours of the Queen Vic and an overdose of cheeriness. She let it play on even if, to her taste, the whole thing was tastelessly tacky and overdone. To her gloomy reveries, some part of the nation was indulging themselves in some such fashion and she wasn't. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she switched the television off and crushed out the stub of another cigarette. Christmas left some gaping void in her life and she desperately needed something to latch onto. Then the idea popped into her head from out of the blue to go to Larkhall instead. Her second instinct was to dismiss it as an utterly crazy idea. On reflection, she judged that she should look at the idea critically and not dismiss it out of hand. After all, she reasoned to herself, there was nothing else on offer. Her closest friends are bound to have retreated within the barricades of stocked up Christmas dinner, chocolates and lines of alcohol, not to emerge for several days. It was just that she had put Christmas to the back of her mind ironically just when she had most power and money to decide it for herself. If she has any family left now, it lies at Larkhall, prisoners and prison officers alike. Grabbing hold of a large Christmas cake, well seasoned in alcohol, she emerged from her bunker into the clear bright day.

At the other end of Karen's Gina and Selena were fiddling about with the artistic touches of putting up baubles, made obviously of plastic so that the likes of Natalie wouldn't be conveniently armed with a jagged glass weapon. Both worked wordlessly, the one instinctively passing the next Christmas decoration to the other and gradually the finished article had been taking place. The Julies were watching the whole process in appreciation before sliding off to their cell for their own purposes. All year was one continuous process of serving meals and cleaning bogs as opposed to the more humdrum activities that some of the other prisoners were detailed to do. Christmas day meant that their activities were reduced to the minimum outside mealtime and, in a modest way, the prisoners would be allowed to 'chill out' later on. Normally, they made do with the meager resources and the Julies' all-purpose skills in magicking something out of nothing. This year was shaping up to be different.

"We got to check the booze is stashed away so nobody will find it." Muttered Julie Johnson with an insistent edge to her voice.

"All right this one time but after that just leave it out till evening."

Sighing with inevitable acquiescence, Julie Saunders gave way and in the tone of words common to all those parents whose will to refuse has been gradually ground down. She led the way to check again that Yvonne's generosity would be carefully guarded. It really wasn't a good idea to overdo it as it only took that bitch Natalie Buxton to catch half a hint as to what was going on that she would throw a spanner in the works out of sheer spite. Besides, they had visiting time coming up to see their kids whom they hadn't seen for ages.

"What do you think about nipping into Larkhall? We've done the usual and bought more chocolates than we'll ever get to eat?" Nikki pronounced out of nowhere.

Helen felt lazy, replete and in the mood to let the morning pass by in a delicious comfortable haze but Nikki had one of her ideas pop into her mind.

"You don't have to go into Larkhall because you think you're indispensable. Don't fall for that one the way I used to."

"That's not the reason. I know by now that I can let anyone of my staff do what needs doing without having to worry if they're doing it right. It's not like in your day when you had to watch out for those backstabbing bastards. It only took a few of them and most of the rest of them holding back to make your life a misery. No, I just fancy going in as if I were a visitor and bring in a bit of a token present to those who won't have what the rest of us are getting on the outside. Except for the Julies and Denny, most of those I knew way back when are on the outside now. Not all of us are that lucky. Christmas dinner's prepared but I don't feel like eating till later. Come on, Helen. We've time to pop over for a quick visit."

Helen studied Nikki closely and could see how quickly she had relaxed after one night away from work. After six months, she had thoroughly established her presence. From what she had picked up from Nikki, it had slowly dawned on Helen that being wing governor of G wing need not be a traumatic experience. This Christmas was the first one when both of them could take well-deserved time off together for time together with each other. In contrast every year up till the last, Nikki's club just had to be open night after night for everyone else's Christmas revelry. Nikki could not pass up the business and felt compelled to do her share of the work. This burden was off her shoulders and she looked the fresher and more relaxed for it. What could be nicer for both of them if they chose to pop into Nikki's place of work at Larkhall, and not because they had to. That made all the difference and won her over as much by that as by Nikki's soft persuasive ways. They had enough time to take it easy later on and let life flow gently round them.

"All right, Nikki, you're on. It would be a bit of fun."

Nikki grabbed a big tin of Roses chocolates and as they made their way to the car, they both noticed how utterly deserted the streets were. It would be nice to gently motor over to Larkhall rather than fight their way through the traffic.

It was visiting time at Larkhall and Lauren and Yvonne crossed the courtyard along with David Saunders and Rhiannon Dawson but were oblivious of the intersecting paths of the apparently unrelated strangers. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, Lauren noticed a familiar face with sharp, chiseled features that was smiling at her. For the life of her she couldn't place this half remembered face. This was most unusual for Lauren who shared her mother's capacious memory for faces and names and the deeds, good or bad, which were written indelibly into their names.

"Don't you remember me? I'm Rhiannon Dawson. You took me and my brother to visit my mother. You know her as Julie Johnson."

Lauren opened her mouth and she was able to connect this tall, smartly dressed woman with what seemed like the little schoolgirl who was nervous of her, of the whole harsh unfamiliar world outside her limited experience. Lauren was the self-assured adult to whom Rhiannon had followed with blind trust. The other woman had changed not so much physically but in her manner, which had control and poise and made Lauren adjust her perspective smartly.

"Of course. My, how you've changed. You've grown up so much."

Lauren's spontaneous reaction made her feel a little foolish. It seemed only recently that her time spent inside here had made her the recipient of such comments.

"Sounds a lot better than being told I'm throwing my life away."

Lauren smiled vaguely in return as her gaze wavered away from her and took in the tall, handsome fair haired man standing next to Rhiannon as if he knew her. Some feeling told her that she ought to be able to place him.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" she hazarded a guess.

"I've not seen you before." He kindly reassured her." But I'm David Saunders. You'll know my mother Julie Saunders."

"Of course. Your mum was always talking about you. I'm Lauren Atkins in case you didn't know."

While this went on, Yvonne stood back from the conversation as Lauren was obviously dealing with the situation quite capably. Only later on, while they waited to go in did Yvonne start chatting to them. They filed in all feeling very strange that they ought to have known each other but didn't. There were very strong ties that bound these three strangers together even if they hadn't seen each other before today. It was the vivid pen pictures drawn for each of them by those who really did know each other and were bound by unbreakable ties, no matter where all of them were physically scattered now.

Denny caught sight of the Julies' children the moment they came into view. She was lost for words as she heard the brief introductions. She let big sister handle this one as she couldn't get her head round with the mental image of the Julies' kids who, in her mind, were still kids from the way the Julies talked of them. A little while later, Yvonne's gregarious nature merged the three geometrically separate sets of tables and chairs into one convivial crowd. Dominic was on duty and noticed this but turned a blind eye to this rather than adopt Sylvia's military approach of each to their own visitor.

A chorus of greetings from all sides greeted Karen as she set foot on the wing, which touched her. It warmed her heart as something that made her feel needed. The sight of the box under her arm attracted curiosity from the prisoners. She made her way to the canteen area, which was set out for the slight concession to Christmas dinner as opposed to the sausage and beans or regular meat pie and chips. The Julies were returning to the wing with big smiles all over their faces and were ready to set to with more of a will to get the dinner ready when Karen mouthed silently that she wanted their attention.

"Why Miss Betts. It's a surprise to see you here on Christmas day. I would have thought you'd have the week off and go out and enjoy yourself. Larkhall ain't exactly the place when everyone on the outside want to go out to enjoy themselves and let their hair down. I wouldn't have thought that you'd have wanted to bother coming in here."

"Do you really think I'd feel that way about you all?"

The Julies were totally taken aback by the wholly unexpected tenderness in Miss Betts voice, that most correct of governors. They vaguely knew that she cared about them in her way but that was because she was dead professional. Nothing personal ever entered the picture today, not even in that backhanded fashion. Their mouths remained open but, for once, they were stuck for words.

"I also want your help to slice this Christmas cake. I don't know off hand just how many there are to go round."

"Go round who?"

"Why, the two of you and all the rest on G Wing. Who else?"

"Let's have a butchers at how big it is." Julie S said after a long pause. This kindness was all the more welcome as it was so unexpected. They would enjoy even a small sliver better than some bored businessman with a slap up meal before him at the Ivy. Deftly, she unfolded the flap and gasped at the sight of the huge and sumptuous cake. She judged that she would need her extra long carving knife from the wall rack.

"It looks lovely, fantastic." She said at last. "I can't think what to say except that it looks dead tasty."

"It should do with the alcohol inside it…….."Karen commented dryly.

Julie J's smiled vaguely in response, concealing her concern at the coincidence of events. A slice of that and Yvonne's booze and she feared that they would all be off their trollies at lockup time.

"…….so I need your help in cutting the cake." Continued Karen briskly.

"How many pieces is that?" asked Julie Saunders as she tried to picture all the prisoners in G Wing and failed dismally.

There was a long pause while Karen looked blankly at Julie. For some obscure reason, it had slipped her mind. Eventually she found words to think and speak in answer.

"I'll check my records and I'll come and tell you."

Helen and Nikki arrived at the gates of Larkhall and Helen was taken aback to have to sign the visitor's book and turn her handbag inside out for Ken's attention. For a fraction of a second, she imagined that she would pass through on the nod in the way she used to do. She smiled to herself more than anyone else when she realized that she was just a visitor, nothing more and Larkhall had no demands on her apart from being the passive subject of another institution's rules and regulations. She snapped into place the 'visitor' clip on badge where once she had fastened the 'Governing Governor' badge. It made all that seem a long time ago. Helen checked herself in not leading the way to G Wing as once she did and followed Nikki's lead instead, carrying the tin of chocolates. As Nikki

opened the last set of gates and appeared in the wing,

"Why it's Nikki," the Julies gasped breathlessly, totally taken aback to see two unexpected but very welcome visitors. "And Miss Stewart an' all."

Helen broke into hearty laughter at being greeted in this fashion. The words conveyed a distant memory with a confused feel to it.

"I'm not your boss any more, everyone. I'm on Civvy Street now and you can call me Helen. Everyone else does. We've just popped in to bring you a tin of chocolates to make Christmas a bit brighter. I just hope we don't get under Karen's feet."

"I thought that you'd be sitting back, watching television, and taking it easy. I'm delighted to see you here." Barbara spoke in clear crisp tones, somehow in the same way that she had always talked to them when all of them were on the outside. They might as well all have been talking in the bar round the corner of the Old Bailey.

"I thought I was just coming in to bring in some chocolates to stop me eating them all and putting on weight……."

"That's a good one, Nikki. You know, pigs might fly." Gina's blunt rejoinder came as a disembodied voice through from the back of the semi circle of women gathered around them.

"Well, you've got to think of these things." Came Nikki uncharacteristically coy reply to the general laugh from all sides. An atmosphere of light hearted joviality had gently gathered them all up and made them all very talkative when Karen turned the corridor from returning from her very rapid check of the prisoner records. Her face lit up to hear two very distinctive voices in the middle of the hubbub. Coming closer to the crowd completed the process of coming in from the cold and dark to a clearing where the red flickering light of a blazing bonfire gradually banished the chill in her bones and bathed everything in warm friendly colours. She couldn't wait to join the crowd.

"What a lovely surprise to see you both."

"We thought we'd do our Mother Christmas bit with a few chocolates."came Nikki's self-effacing reply.

"I've just had the best but you can't beat real friendship at Christmastime. That's the best present of all."

"I hope that the rest of the day won't fall flat after this." Nikki asked solicitously in a gap in the general conversation.

"Now you come to mention it, some of the girls are thinking of carrying on this party to our cell if that's all right with you Miss." Julie J said with wide-eyed innocence.

"Yeah, there's a couple of the new girls come here just before Christmas and are really missing their nearest and dearest. It will help them settle in, like." Julie Saunders hastily jumped in with her interjection. She hadn't planned on Ju going and blurting it out like this, not before about the sharpest pair of eyes who looked sharply at her. Lucky for them, Miss Stewart was gabbing away to the governor or they would really have the Spanish Inquisition. Yvonne had arranged special delivery but that didn't mean Nikki knew about it or wanted to know about it.

"And you're both in charge of this?" Nikki said at last after an agonizingly long pause for reflection.

"Oh yeah, miss." They both said for the first time in their lives at the same time. Inwardly, Nikki grinned to herself as she suspected that this was a load of flannel but keeping the straightest face she could summon up, she delivered her verdict.

"Then I trust that everything is in safe hands." Came her clipped reply with a distinct emphasis on the word 'trust' before continuing in a softer gentler tone. "I really hope you all enjoy yourselves and everyone gets looked after."

The Julies nodded eagerly at Nikki and were conscious of a sharp draft of cold air, which seemed to come from down the staircase. The atmosphere suddenly seemed to turn strange for no accountable reason. They dismissed it as some kind of reaction to the stress of the last few minutes and Julie S explained to Nikki.

"It's got bloody cold. I've just had a funny feeling as if somebody's stepped on my grave if you know what I mean. I don't need to read my tea leaves to reckon that one out."

From the top of the threes, a pair of disembodied haunted eyes stared disbelievingly down on them. He was no stranger to Larkhall but it was not the Larkhall that he knew. The panoramic view below him seemed totally familiar yet nightmarish in its total distortion. His eyes refused to believe what was in front of him yet it seemed as real as he was. He longed to shout out the words that used to come so easily to him," shut it, you bitches","Everyone, back to your cells or you'll all be banged up" but the words refused to come out of his mouth. He reached out for his mobile to call for back up but it wasn't there, nothing that he was used to being around him was there. Both hands gripped at the top of the staircase rails but there was no feel in his hands anymore. He felt frighteningly powerless and unable to impose his presence on all around him as he was always used to doing. He gazed despairingly round at someone who would help him but even Sylvia and Di were no longer there. He refused to look at his enemies and his eyes burnt beseechingly at Karen. Surely to God, the stupid cow could see him but she carried on, laughing and joking with Stewart who had returned from God knows where. He thought he has seen her off years ago but even she had crawled back from under the woodwork. This couldn't be real, surely.

He gripped his head in his hands and slumped to the floor and reached out for something real to cling onto while this nightmare refused to go away from in front of his eyes. He even punched desperately at the nearest vertical bars of the metal staircase which ought to have cracked his knuckles with frightful pain but that didn't happen either. His fist seemed to travel through the bar without connecting with it. He didn't connect with anything and now he began to feel really afraid. As if to get away from the horrid suspicion in his mind, he looked again at the wing laid out below him from a position, which gave him far too good a view of the madness. In the corner was a Christmas tree, a bloody Christmas tree with decorations. Stewart was laughing and handing out sweeties to Blood and Hunt while Wade looked as if she owned the place. Those two daft women

were passing out Christmas cake from some liberal prisoner lover. Everyone was bloody laughing- were they laughing at him, he wondered? There's only one thing he could think of as the scenery was sickeningly happy and lovey dovey sodding sisterhood bonding. They wouldn't have Jim Fenner to kick around any more, pension or no pension.

He really missed Sylvia and Di Barker as they were the only friends of his. No one else really appreciated him and could remember the good old days. Why hadn't they come round to see him recently? It was ages since he'd seen them. He started to feel maudlin and depressed and isolated at the thought of it.

"Scrooge ..became sensible of confused voices in the air; sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory .The spectre joined in the mournful dirge and floated out on the bleak dark night.

Scrooge looked out of the window, desperate in his curiosity. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost ….Many had been known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant whom it saw upon a doorstep. The misery of them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere for good in human matters and had lost the power forever………"

"At least we won't have Fenner putting the mockers on all the fun. He's dead and gone." He heard Blood shout out. He was too angry at that dyke bitch cheeking him to realize the horrible significance of the remark for a few moments. But that surely can't be. He must be alive. There's so much more he could do in this nick and he hadn't even got to be a permanent suit, only some stand in for those he was most jealous of, first Stewart, then Betts and now…….

"We aint't never had a wing governor come in over Christmas day before……" Julie Johnson said

"What else could I do, Julie. After all, behind all the uniform, I'm only Nikki."

That quiet exchange was a bombshell to Fenner. He couldn't believe his ears and realized at last that he must really be cracking up. That bitch Wade who's stood on the steps of that lousy Court of Appeal and had the cheek to accuse him on daytime TV of being some kind of rapist was one bloody nightmare for him. He had worried for weeks what would all the neighbours think of him. It choked him to think that she, of all people, had waltzed in to wear the suit that he had thirsted for for years and had worked so hard in sucking up to all the bosses over him. He had to find one single thing he could cling onto. As his mind raced furiously and frantically, he thought that he had found the answer.

He looked down at himself as his last chance to reassure himself of his own normality, even if the rest of the world was a bloody madhouse. He was wearing a check lumberjack shirt and casual trousers and they looked superficially the same as normal except that he looked like he'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. He must have been out on the piss, taken a wander round some park and fallen flat on his face. He couldn't remember any of it. Then, when he looked closer, there was far too much earth that had stuck to him and had become embedded in his clothes. He started to worry. It was when he went to straighten his clothes when he noticed a round tear in the shirt material. He sighed in exasperation that they'll have to go to the menders as well as the launderette. As he peered closer and felt at it, he realized that the hole extended right into his body. He started to scream soundlessly to himself while, only a couple of staircases below, the revelries of Christmas went on, oblivious to him…..

"………The Ghost Of Christmas Yet to Come conveyed him, as before, not into the resorts of businessmen, but went straight on until they reached a churchyard…. Walled in by houses, overrun by grass and weeds; choked up with too much dying. A worthy place! The Spirit stood among the graves and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The phantom was exactly as it had been but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape. Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went and, following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name: EBEBEZER SCROOGE………"

…….and Fenner was gradually being drawn in helplessly and moving ever closer despite his own will to resist and back away, He witnessed the square carved words on the rectangular slab become clearer every second and imprint the words on his mind: JAMES FENNER. He carried on screaming wordlessly as, at last he realized that now there was no redemption, no chance of ever getting back into the game of life and that somewhere out there he lay under the earth. Sylvia and Di Barker would not return to him. His life was finished whereas their lives would carry on and would pull away from where he was.

"You don't have to stay round here, Nikki.You need a rest and to take Helen home with you. We'll be all right now." Julie Johnson's very tender words and big blue eyes that touched Nikki's heart also froze Fenner's ghost with the tormented realization of that last diabolical pain of reality inflicted on him, far worse than the flames of hell. His sight darkened as even his sight failed him and he was slowly swallowed up into the nothingness where he had come from.

Nikki's eyes flickered indecisively as Julie J had read her thoughts but what else should she expect. There was a gentle warm glow amongst all those present. There was something else that Nikki ought to do and it came to her at last.

"Hey Karen, do you want to come over with us for Christmas?"

Helen was chatting to Barbara but heard Nikki's suggestion. She turned her head and nodded approval of the idea. In turn Karen's ears pricked up as she stood next to Gina, looking on approvingly in general and gently basking in the good spirits.

"Well, if I'm not putting you out……."

"Don't tell me that you've got work to do on Christmas day. Don't forget, I've had a spell doing your job. The place won't fall apart without you. Of course, if you've got alternative arrangements……"

Karen's mind shifted decisively to the answer to her needs. The memory of her morose gloomy start to the day wanted her to have some colour and light in her life.

"Well, if you're putting it this way….."

"We are."

"Then," continued Karen, grinning at Helen's determined retort, "I can't keep you waiting but I'd just like to wish you all a happy Christmas before I go." Even while she was talking about leaving, she was shuffling her feet and procrastinating

"Don't worry, we will." Muttered Julie Saunders under her breath.

"Go on, Miss Betts. You go on and enjoy yourself. You deserve it." Yelled out Denny.

Karen's mind was blurred as it gradually struck her that, with Nikki and Helen flanking her on either side and Gina and Dominic bringing up the rear, it was as if she were a long term prisoner being given off a right royal send off by prisoners and prison officers alike. Just for once in her life, she hadn't got her overstuffed briefcase with her, which made her feel a little naked. She couldn't work out afterwards how she found herself outside the prison walls and, just once, she was glad to hand over her responsibility.

She was on a different track from her already very familiar track from flat to work and back and this was a welcome break for her. The roads were quiet and she felt at peace with herself as she lazily steered her car with the winter sunshine slanting into her eyes. In no time at all, she pulled up outside Helen and Nikki's flat in the quiet side street and into the basement flat. Instantly, she lay back in the armchair and let a lazy feeling float her away down the river. There was a cosy lived in feeling that relaxed her straightaway. Despite the grudging corner of the bookcase where Nikki kept some of her work files, the majority of it was rows of well-thumbed paperbacks, which expansively spanned decades of reflective thinking of all kinds. Helen's neat rows of psychology books and journals started from the bottom of the bookcase and merged into her choice of books which were not easily distinguishable from Nikki's

"You take it easy, Karen, stick a CD on or whatever while we get Christmas dinner ready."

As Nikki's voice died on the air, Karen took up the invitation and slipped on a "Pretenders Greatest Hits" CD and a perfect carillon of chiming bell like guitar notes resonated and repeated itself from the speakers wrapping her up in a feeling of old time Christmas cheer while over the top a very sultry sexy female voice unreeled the feelings

of vast distances across the winter wastelands and of a coming reunion.

"He's gone 200 miles

It's very far

The snow is falling down

Gets colder day by day

I miss you

The children will sing

He'll be back at Christmastime

In these frozen and silent nights

Sometimes in a dream you appear

Outside under the purple sky

Diamonds in the snow sparkle

Our hearts were singing

It feels like Christmastime…."

The song was joyful, not painful as she might have thought from the words and, yes, while the song wasn't about her, she would let it cheer her up and put aside any self defensive shield of cynicism at least for the moment. Time passed slowly as she could dream awhile in this haven. The front room had that easy familiarity and comfort about it.

"Dinner's ready, Karen," she was hailed by Helen at perhaps unnecessary volume through the side door to the kitchen. "Like your taste in music. At least you didn't put on a Cliff Richard CD."

"What Cliff Richard CD?" demanded Nikki in sharp incredulity.

"The CD we haven't got." Came Helen's joking reply. "Anyway, it's time to eat."

Before Karen's wide open eyes, the trio of candles in the centre of the dining table left their friendly glow and the corners of the room faded out into intimate semi darkness. Nikki and Helen served plates of sliced turkey and serving dishes with vegetables, roast potatoes, chipolata sausages , two sets of stuffings, gravy and bread sauce. Two bottles of chilled white wine gave the promise of the perfect accompaniment. This was an absolute feast of rarity of experience for Karen, the working sometimes single parent upon whose shoulders, past Christmases were burdened. The smell of the dinner to be served blended with two pairs of kindly eyes who only meant their disinterested best for Karen's peace of mind. She could rightly feel that she could make way for uncomplicated guilt free pleasure and that once of her choices in life was the right one.

Part Sixty-Three

Christmas Day might have started at Larkhall at the usual time for unlock but the other side of the prison walls, it sometimes started much earlier.

Josh and Crystal had collapsed into bed late last night and were dead to the world very soon after a frantic burst of last minute activity. They had battled their way through the slow moving packed in crowds round the supermarkets, dealt with the very excited children. Crystal's time was really cut out these days as Daniel had learnt to walk by now and while he didn't know what Christmas was, he picked up on the atmosphere of excitement. They did their best to do the normal chores until they cajoled them to go to bed. Finally, they removed the presents from where they had stashed them in a large top cupboard and crouched on the floor to feverishly wrap the assortment of presents in garishly coloured wrapping paper.

"I'm sure we've forgotten to get something, Josh. I know it."

"Well, what is it?" Josh enquired, his forehead crinkled up with lack of comprehension.

"If I knew what it was, I wouldn't be asking you."

"This don't make any sense, Crystal. If you remember tomorrow, I'll find somewhere open and I'll get it."

Crystal looked blankly through Josh. Maybe it was nothing, only that nagging desire to make Christmas as perfect as possible because of the fact that there wasn't that much to go round the rest of the year. She mentally pictured everything that had been gathered in from Brussel sprouts to more garlands for the front room. She shrugged her shoulders and gave up and wearily trudged up the steep flight of steps to their bedroom. At five in the morning, all was black and quiet in Josh and Crystal's upstairs bedroom.

"Mummy, daddy, it's Christmas Day" piped an excited little voice from out of nowhere and clicked on the bedroom light. The effect of the light alone on two zombies, feeling dead to the world, felt equivalent to being very painfully mugged. The light was dazzling and stripped away what was left of their senses and neither could move off the bed as much as fly.

"Father Christmas has come. I heard him sliding down the chimney and leaving us all our presents. That shows we've all been good or else he wouldn't have come. It's exciting."

"What about Daniel?" Crystal mumbled sleepily, a flicker of reasoning power coming back to her.

"I'll wake him up."

"No don't, Zandra." Crystal replied hurriedly." He's only little and we must let him sleep. Let's just keep the secret to ourselves till when he wakes."

"Yeah, that's right." Mumbled Josh from underneath the duvet.

"But it's so exciting."

"Tell you what. You lie in bed with us till Daniel wakes up. He'll be much happier that way and so will Father Christmas. He'll be looking down on us. Believe me."

"All right." Zandra conceded to Crystal's hasty improvising. Crystal reasoned to herself that the Lord God would overlook this bit of creative thinking as after all, it was in a good cause. Zandra slipped sideways into the bed but she was still turning and twisting with suppressed excitement. Crystal and Josh reflected ruefully and blearily that innocent childlike belief in Santa Claus was a double-edged gift.

The run up to Christmas had been a totally different affair at Cassie and Roisin's house. This had all started from the increasingly difficult process of advance negotiation as to what presents would be appropriate and affordable for their children.

"Mum," came that suspiciously casual aside from Michael one day." If you were wondering what you're buying me for Christmas, I'd love to have a mobile phone. "

Roisin drew in a sharp intake of breath and paused before she committed herself to any course of action. Instinct taught her that she needed more information. Cassie' sharp ears had picked up on the conversation and she slid into the room from the hall.

"Why a mobile phone, Michael? You've never mentioned this before."

"That doesn't mean I've never wanted one."

"There's more to this one than meets the eye." Roisin demanded with an edge of sternness behind her outwardly reasonable manner. She didn't mind Michael coming up with a suggestion for Christmas as he was getting to the age when it was becoming increasingly hard to keep up with what he liked and disliked. A series of warning bells were ringing in her ears of the implications of this idea.

"All my friends are getting them and we can keep in touch with each other and you can do all sorts of things with them."

"Like running up big phone bills." Cut in Cassie from behind Michael, making him jump.

"I would have thought that you would have kept up with fashion when you were growing up, Cassie." Came Michael's lightning quick response to her.

"You're right, Michael. I did." Cassie cut back in deliberate tones." There are quite a few things I've done in my life that if I had the chance to do differently, I would. For a start, you don't have to follow what everyone else does. You have to decide things for yourself."

"All my friends' parents are buying mobile phones for them this year but I suppose I'll have to go on being the odd one out."

"Listen, Michael, you haven't given us any good reason why you should have a mobile phone and if you can't even think what's going to happen about the bills, what if you're out somewhere and it gets lost or stolen, then we can't think that there's any good reason why you should have one. Cassie and I are not going to be pushed into doing something against our better judgement just because other parents are being foolish enough into being talked into handing out money for something which you don't need and, in our opinion, is not appropriate. We do things differently around here."

"Yeah, everything about this family is different. I've learnt that much."

Don't rise to it, Roisin, Cassie silently urged Roisin. Michael's dying for you to mention the one thing that's really bothering him these days, that he is getting more and more self conscious that he has two mums bringing him up. Why else does he go out to his friends' houses but they never come back here? There is a time to deal with this one properly but now is not the time.

"Well, since we're agreed on at least one thing, Michael, what about having a music system for Christmas."

"I don't want a music system, mum. If you don't mind, I'm going out."

With that sulky retort, Michael slunk out of the house and was gone, leaving Roisin open mouthed.

"That boy is becoming impossible. Well, thank heaven, Niamh is sensible."Roisin exclaimed passionately.

"Don't kid yourself, Roash, we may run into the same thing with Niamh in a few years time, Roash and it may be harder. Girls can think quicker than boys and have more of the gift of the gab. I know because I used to lead my parents a right dance when I was in my teens."

"As you know, I was well behaved when I was young. Sometimes, I find it hard to deal with Michael when he's badly behaved. I talk to him about what I was like when I was his age and I sound like something out of the last century. At least the children might be able to relate to you rather than me sometimes….except they'll be rapidly ceasing to be children."

"That's true,"Cassie answered thoughtfully, slipping her arm round Roisin to reassure both of them." but there is a downside. I can see myself more and more telling the kids to do what we say, not as I did. We just have to stick to our guns, that's all."

The process of negotiating with Michael and Niamh carried on and eventually, Michael was grudgingly reconciled to the situation and, as chance would have it, teenage fashion of the moment suddenly veered sharply towards music systems and Michael found his street credibility vastly enhanced without having to do anything. Then a curious process happened where, on Christmas Eve, he was temporarily removed from the peer pressure of his friends inside and outside school. Suddenly he became something like the cheerful boy that he used to be and actively asking for all the favourite children's cartoons like Wallace and Gromit. He had at least temporarily stopped being simultaneously self-conscious, over sensitive, like a fish out of water. He looked around him and his sister, Niamh, was suddenly there around him, just like she always had been. He smiled and chatted away to her without thinking all the time what others might think of him. All four of them were gathered together in the front room in peace and tranquillity, Cassie and Roisin having broken up for work and temporarily casting loose the cares of work on the other side of the twenty four hour shift of their daytime jobs.

"You won't wake up too soon in the morning, children." Roisin asked unthinkingly. Michael was hardly a child these days.

"Don't worry, mum. The chocolates and presents will wait for Niamh and me and you don't have to tiptoe into our bedrooms any more and pretend to be Father Christmas or something." Came Michael's cheerful reply. It touched Roisin deeply that Michael was making an extra special effort to be nice.

Cassie and Roisin lay naked in bed under the duvet, curled up against each other. The run up to Christmas had so focussed them onto others that, so that it was only when they had finally got to bed when Cassie turned towards Roisin and ran her fingertips gently down the side of her face that Roisin remembered that that fair haired tower of strength was also her lover. There was no daily grind of getting the children to school and off to work. They were free to show their love for each other. They exchanged long lingering kisses while they shed their nighties and explored each other's bodies for hours in the heat of the night. It was then that their bedroom belonged exclusively for their own pleasure before they drifted peacefully off to sleep. In the morning, the bright winter sunshine gradually woke them up satisfied, reborn. They lay where they were and silently let the time drift past until they were ready to make a move.

"OK children, time to get up for Christmas." Roisin proclaimed from the landing, dressed in her respectable mum like nightie and dressing gown.

"Must we?" came two moaning childish voices from different corners of the upstairs landing."It's not time for The Jungle Book."

"Kids. No stamina." Laughed Cassie, leaning up in bed and smirking through the crack in the bedroom door through to a self satisfied Roisin. Trust the kids to have mapped out Christmas television.

"It could be worse. Remember when the kids used to wake us up at four in the morning telling us that Father Christmas had come, yes even Michael." Roisin commented cheerfully, turning to Cassie.

The other woman's faint smile was frozen on her face as she was taken aback for a second. What Roisin was talking about was before her time but a split second later, her smile broadened. No, she wasn't there at the time but she might as well have been there and some imaginary memory told her she very nearly was.

Part Sixty-Four

George had spent Christmas Day with John, Charlie and her father. It was the one time of the year that all four of them came together, well, nowadays anyway. Jo had spent the day with her two sons, both of whom had left in the evening, saying they were off to some party or other. Charlie having done the same, and Joe Channing having been given a lift home, this meant that now the three of them could be together. When Jo arrived, George got the distinct feeling that she and John had something planned, something they weren't as yet telling her about. They sat on the sofa for a while, drinking champagne and listening to music. But when John put his glass down on the coffee table and stood up, George took note of the smirk playing lightly over his lips.

"Come on," He invited innocently to George. "We've got to give you your Christmas present."

"And precisely why does that involve me moving?" George asked, a little tired and thoroughly relaxed.

"You'll see," John promised her evasively. "I've been looking forward to this all day."

"Yes, so have I, in a manner of speaking," Jo said as she too rose from the sofa.

"You know just how to press all my buttons, don't you," George told John as she got up and began following them towards the stairs.

"I should hope so, after all these years," John replied over his shoulder.

When they reached the bedroom, Jo put on George's favourite classical CD, and John put the remains of the bottle of champagne down on the dressing-table. They both began sensuously removing George's clothes, the two sets of hands wandering over her body. Beginning to relax even more, George simply let them get on with their task. It was perfectly clear to her that they had discussed what they were going to do beforehand, and George realised that she must be in for the time of her life. When she stood before them, her skin richly glowing from the alcohol in her veins, and the light from the numerous candles John had lit around the room, John gazed at her with such love in his eyes that it made her shiver.

"You look beautiful," he told her, reaching out a hand to gently caress her breast.

"That's the champagne talking," George replied fondly, never entirely believing him when he said something like this. When he guided her over to the bed, Jo folded back the duvet.

"Precisely what do you have in store for me?" She asked, her curiosity now thoroughly peaked.

"Would these give you any idea?" Jo replied, having retrieved something from one of the dresser drawers. Dangling from her hand, was a pair of silk scarves. When George caught sight of them, she gasped, her whole face lighting up with pleasure.

"It's years since I was tied up," She said in anticipation.

"Which is why we thought you would enjoy it this evening," John told her, encouraging her to lie down on her back, and gently lifting each arm in turn. As Jo passed him the scarves, he tied first one hand and then the other to the fabulously carved headboard, making it completely impossible for her to touch anything but the wood under her fingers.

As she watched, Jo and John slowly began to dance, occasionally kissing, and their hands gradually removing each other's clothes. The sight in front of her was so sensuously beautiful, that it made her speechless. When they were naked, they still danced, hands still wandering, mouths still deliciously entwined. When they eventually moved towards the bed, Jo lay down beside her. George turned her head to gaze at Jo, currently all she was capable of doing. Taking slight pity on her predicament, Jo leaned over to kiss her, their mouths dancing as lingeringly as Jo's and John's had moments before.

When John joined them, he began kissing Jo again, his left hand wandering first over her breasts, and then reaching over to trace teasingly over George's. She gasped when he did this, as she hadn't been expecting it, simply thinking that they would make love in front of her, making her watch without being able to participate. She hadn't been in the least disappointed at this thought, as she knew it would be almost unbearably sexy. John's hand didn't linger on George's skin, not wanting to give her too much pleasure too soon. His mouth and hands were moving skillfully over Jo's body by this time, his lips encircling one of her nipples and making her groan with delight. George's gaze was fixed on them, unable to tear itself away. She longed to be able to join in, or at the very least to be able to give herself pleasure at the same time as watching the two of them, but she couldn't. This would, she knew, increase her eventual orgasm by a thousand fold.

When John briefly left the bed, George wondered what on earth he was doing. But when he returned with the glass of champagne in his hand, she was presented with memories of the time Karen had once used champagne on her, after finding out that she had been given the job of Governing Governor. Dipping a finger in the glass, John trailed a line of glistening bubbles across Jo's nipples, making her gasp at the sensation of them bursting upon her skin. George knew only too well just how stimulating that was, and it made her smile.

"I suppose you've done this before," Jo said, glancing over at George's smirking face.

"Oh, yes," George told her without hesitation. John began kissing his way over Jo's champagne covered skin, licking away every trace of the frosty bubbles. Infinitely jealous of him, George simply gazed on with rapt attention. Dipping his finger again in the glass, John began moving it gently over Jo's clitoris, without any warning whatsoever. George grinned at Jo's cry of delight, as the ice cold tingling met her most sensitive flesh. Having left the glass on the bedside table, John kissed his way down until he was sampling the divine combination of an excellent vintage and Jo's unique taste. George ached to touch herself as she watched him do this, feeling her own body instinctively react. Her nipples were hardening to an almost painful quality, and she could feel her own juices rising and bubbling away like Vesuvius. But all she could do was watch, as John brought Jo nearer and nearer to the edge, eventually taking in everything Jo's body had to offer.

As Jo lay gasping for breath, John moved carefully between them, leaning over George, and kissing her long and hard. George savoured every drop of Jo's taste that she could find on him, her pulse now racing at the thought of what was still to come. Trailing his hand down over her almost hypersensitive skin, he discovered just how thoroughly aroused she already was.

"Good god," He said in surprise. "You're practically dripping."

"That's your fault," She said with a smirk. "Both of you." But as his fingers sought out her hidden depths, she cried out at finally feeling someone's touch on her.

"Now, what does my lady feel in the mood for this evening?" He asked, sounding so prim and proper that Jo laughed huskily.

"You, now," George told him succinctly.

"No preamble?" He asked in surprise, ready to give her whatever she wanted.

"No," George replied, breathing hard. "I want you, inside me, right now."

"And what the lady wants, tonight the lady gets," John said silkily, moving over her and sliding easily inside her boiling, bubbling cauldron of desire. As she still had her hands tied to the headboard behind her, she couldn't wrap her arms round him, so she made do with her legs. John was so fired up by having them both in his bed and at his disposal, that he almost crushed her to him, feeling every contour of her body aligning itself with his. George's body shook as she came, a cry of pure, undiluted pleasure sweeping through her.

As John slumped down between them, Jo sat up, and reached over to untie George's bonds. George carefully eased her arms back into their normal position, and turned on her side to drape one of them over John.

"My Christmas present was fabulous," She said, her voice sounding drowsy and full of contentment.

"We thought you would enjoy it," Jo said fondly. Gradually regaining her energy, George slid down the bed, until her cheek was resting on John's right thigh. Putting out the tip of a pink tongue, she began cleaning away what was left of their encounter. Even though he was currently as soft and flaccid as the day he was born, John groaned in real authentic pleasure as her tongue moved over him. She could taste a combination of him and herself, and though this wasn't something she would choose to do every day, she enjoyed doing it for him now. He gradually rose to full hardness again under her ministrations, so she kept on going, now introducing her powerfully sucking lips into the equation. At the same time, she reached over with her right hand, and slipped it between Jo's legs, encountering the gloriously soft and silky flesh. Never one to pass up the opportunity of having George's delicate fingers moving on her, Jo lay there and basked in the feeling of it. Doing her best to arouse both of them at the same time, this was George's way of trying to repay the enormous amount of pleasure they'd given her.

When George concluded that both John and Jo were again significantly aroused, she moved away from both of them, making it clear what she wanted them to do. As Jo put out her arms to John, he moved into them, slipping easily inside her. George lay and watched them as they moved in perfect synchrony, as a direct result of her handiwork. George couldn't resist touching herself as they made love beside her, knowing that with these two people, she couldn't possibly be happier. They were all three of them capable of causing pleasure in either or both of the remaining two, and tonight seemed to signify the real breaking down of any lingering sexual barriers between them.

Part Sixty-Five

Boxing Day morning dawned bright and clear, with the frost glinting on every car down the street. When George had slipped carefully and quietly from the bed, she stood in front of the large window and opened the curtains enough to look out on the glittering world outside. Frost made everything so pretty, she thought to herself as she yawned languidly, giving everything in sight a beauty that was only usually depicted inside a fairy tale. She glanced back over her shoulder at John and Jo, both still sound asleep in her bed, a fact that lit her from within more strongly than anything had in her life before. George felt serene on this cold and frosty morning, with the sun carving jewelled patterns in the half melted ice that dripped from the branches of the trees. After gazing out on this scene of nature's tranquility for a few minutes, George went to take a shower, leaving the other two occupants of the bed to carry on sleeping.

Standing under the hot, powerful spray of the shower, George's thoughts strayed back to the previous evening. She'd had no idea about what Jo and John had planned for her, and it had been an incredible surprise. She would never have thought Jo quite so open-minded, but she guessed that anything was possible. She only just prevented herself from groaning in real, authentic pleasure at the memory of what they had both done to her, but she didn't want to wake them up. She ran her hands over her body, feeling the slight stiffness in her shoulders from having her arms tied behind her for so long. But it was a pleasant stiffness, a physical reminder of being tied up, of being at both their mercies. She ran her hands over her breasts, smoothing in the shower gel as she went. But as her right hand languidly swept over her left breast, her fingers gently caressing every inch, she stopped in astonishment, her fingers retracing their steps so as to be sure. There it was again, that hard, unfamiliar little lump under the skin. In a state of complete and utter shock, George again and again ran her fingers over the surrounding area, but the lump was still there, still under the skin, still indisputably wrong.

After leaving Helen and Nikki's late the night before, Karen had taken a taxi home and left her car there. She'd had far too much drink to drive, so went back to retrieve her car in the morning. She didn't disturb them, seeing that all the curtains were closed with absolutely no sign of life. Karen had something else to do that day, something that required a long drive. She was going to visit the place where she'd scattered Ross's ashes at the beginning of August. The roads were quiet in the early morning, and she drove down the M3 with nothing but purpose in her hands and under her wheels. This was her day to try and make peace with her dead son, to try and lay some of the past finally to rest. She had enjoyed yesterday, a realisation that surprised her. She'd needed to go into Larkhall, to visit those who were the only family she had left now, and to give them the best time within her capability. She hadn't been sure about spending the rest of the day with Helen and Nikki, but she was glad now that she had agreed to it. They'd eaten dinner, mostly cooked by Nikki, consumed a fair amount of wine, and above all relaxed. It had been an undemanding day, precisely what they all had needed.

But now, in the cold but sunny morning, Karen was driving further and further away from any possibility of a peaceful haven. She needed to visit her son's last resting place, almost to make sure that he was happy where she'd left him. She drove along all the familiar roads, eventually ending up in the small fishing village that at this time of the year was empty of any hint of tourists. The streets were absolutely devoid of people, all the houses shut tight against the bitterly cold wind that tore at her clothes as she got out of the car.

As Karen began to walk up the cliff path, she briefly wondered at the sense of doing something like this on a day like today. The wind whistled round her, blowing her hair into a wild nest of fronds that resembled one of the windblown plants that grew along her path. But the sun was bright, and there was no hint of rain, and Karen was determined to reach the top. The path was entirely empty of walkers, it not being a day for even the most committed of people. She fastened her coat up round her to try and keep out some of the cold, and breathed in the intoxicating smell of the sea. The tang of the salt settled in her nose, bringing back a whole host of memories of when she used to bring Ross here as a child. The wind only became wilder the higher she climbed, and she spared a thought to wonder at the wisdom of coming up here on a day like this.

When she eventually reached the plateau, the little space at the very end of the cliff, where the rocks tapered out into thin air, she sat down on the low wall and looked out to sea. Here was where she had left him, here was where she had scattered his ashes, and watched them float out on the breeze, ever to be swallowed up by the waves. She could feel the salty spray on her face, and knew that if she were to stand on the very edge of this rocky point, the wind would very likely take her away. She sat there for quite some time, thinking of Ross, and feeling an enormous amount of regret for what she hadn't been able to do for him. When she'd been there for a good while, she said into the wind,

"I hope you're happier now, wherever you are." She couldn't have meant any sentiment more than this one, because she needed to know that for him at least, his suicide hadn't been in vain.

When she returned to the car, she felt a little cleansed, as though the first major hurdle in her grieving process had been circumnavigated successfully. The weight of grief and guilt whenever she thought about him seemed ever so slightly less, something for which she could only be thankful. The first three years were the worst, or so the saying went, and she had managed to get through nearly five months so far. No, it hadn't been easy by any means. She had been very low on several occasions, low enough to take a blade to her skin, but for now, she seemed to have come through it and out the other side. It was mid afternoon when the phone call came, and she was driving along the M3.

"Karen, it's George," Said the voice over the hands free phone, that voice she knew so well.

"Hello," Karen replied, realising that she had barely spoken to anyone all day. "How was your Christmas?"

"Oh, all right," George said a little distractedly. "I saw Charlie, I saw Daddy, and I spent last night with Jo and John."

"That sounds good," Karen said with a smile.

"It was," George replied with a slight smirk in her voice. "John dug out the silk scarves without telling me beforehand."

"Lucky John," Karen said with a laugh, George's references to the three of them no longer painful to her.

"Darling, are you in the car?" George asked, wondering where on earth Karen had been. "I tried to get you at home but there was no answer."

"Yes," Karen replied succinctly. "I've been to the place where I scattered Ross's ashes. It was just something I needed to do today."

"Are you all right?" George asked in concern, wishing that Karen hadn't chosen to go there alone.

"Yes, as odd as it sounds, I'm okay," Karen told her. "You'll think me a complete loony, but I asked him if he was happy."

"I take it you didn't get an answer?" George asked with a smile.

"I'd know that I'd really lost it if I had," Karen replied. "Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Oh, I just wanted a chat, that's all," George said evasively, the weight of her discovery pressing down on her like a twenty-pound necklace. But as they talked some more, Karen couldn't help but think that George was keeping something from her, something that was clearly worrying her but which she couldn't talk about. George on the other hand knew that she should tell someone, anyone about what she'd found, and she also knew that Karen would be better than anyone, but the words simply refused to come. Give it some time, she told herself, let it settle in before confiding in anyone else.

Part Sixty-Six

Wednesday February 1st 2006 seemed a long time since Christmas, at Larkhall and everywhere else on earth. It was the time of the year where only grim perseverance enabled humanity as a whole to get through to brighter summer times. It was this prospect of hope that Barbara was most hard put to sustain as the seasons and the timings of the machinery of justice threatened to drag her down. The Christmas tree had been removed and so had the tinsel and grey skies swirled low over the tops of the prison complex and intermittent rain beat down on it. It made her increasingly reluctant to come out of her cell when she didn't have to.

It was something that was not lost on those who cared for her. They all hovered around as the days passed but felt helpless to talk to her.

"Nikki, we wanted to have a quick word with you about Babs. We're dead worried about her being so near to the trial."

"You and me both……..and Denny and Karen as well for sure." Nikki admitted frankly as they spoke in a corner of the canteen. The names fell out of her mind in no particular order no matter their respective positions in the prison system. It was stating the obvious to say that they all felt the same but the Julies crystallized into words the thoughts

that had whirled around at the back of Nikki's mind. With a trial date set for Monday February 6th 2006, she dared not think of the possibility that Barbara might not get her freedom at the end of it.

"What can we do to help her?" they chorused.

"I don't know. Any one of us could talk to her but I don't know what good it would do her….we're all held back because we've been there before and we know how it feels….let me think."

The Julies kept quiet as they knew full well that Nikki worked best when she was left to herself to think the matter through. Then a light dawned across her face much to the Julies' relief.

"I've got it. I think that Yvonne's coming to visit her this Saturday but I need to check up and make sure I'm right."

"You'll let us know for sure, Nikki."

"Give me ten minutes and I'll come and tell you." Nikki said firmly. The Julies cheered up slightly at her words. There was a difference between five isolated individuals worrying alone and talking with each other and getting Yvonne on the case.

One look at Barbara and Yvonne was immediately concerned for her. She could sense the dark circles of worry under her eyes and the tension that was rising off her in the noisy cluttered echoing space that was the visitor's room.

"If there's anything we can do for you, Barbara, just let me know."

"I'm perfectly well aware of what you can and can't do for me. I should know by well from all the time I've ever spent here." Snapped Barbara at the well-meaning Dominic. He glanced sideways at Yvonne to ask for her help before making a tactful retreat back to his desk.

"I can tell that you're wound up but don't worry, Babs, everything will work out in the end." Yvonne said with all the warmth and reassurance that she could conjure up.

"'It's all very well you saying 'don't worry, but you know very well that it's one thing to know you're not guilty and quite another matter when you're in the dock. My own past experience hasn't given me a lot of faith in British justice."

The choice of words and the bitterness with which she had expressed them were like an arrow to Yvonne's large heart. She knew that she had fared better than Dominic's more circumspect attempt to help, as Barbara knew full well that Yvonne had shared her experience three times over, her own experience and, in differing ways, for Lauren and for Ritchie. Yvonne knew that it was fruitless for her to mention this to Barbara as such comparisons, though well meant and the truth, wasn't going to help.

"Ah, that's because you hadn't exactly had the backup that you've got going for you now. Last time, you were up against those stepchildren……"

"Pooh, don't remind me of them." Interrupted Barbara testily." I bet they'll be queuing up to get a ringside seat in the gallery. They're all I need right now."

"Relax, Babs. All they can do is to glare at you from the sidelines. They can't do any damage….."

"…….how do I know they won't be called as witnesses." Barbara interrupted.

"How can they?" Yvonne reasoned with her.

"Are you some kind of legal expert?"

"Of course I'm not, Babs. The way I remember it, they were witnesses last time because they knew how Peter's will was made up and they were snooping around all the time he was poorly. But we're talking about Henry. They didn't know him from Adam or anything about him. They haven't seen you in five years give or take a bit except for that time you gave one of them a cracker of a slap across the face right here. I was very impressed with the style of it, professionally speaking, though I say it myself."

The faintest smile flickered across Barbara's face and then it was gone but Yvonne knew that some contact had been made.

"Look, Babs, I'm going to a case conference tonight with George and Jo, Nikki and Helen, two top consultants and a top American pathologist."

"A pity I won't be there." Came the dry response.

"They'll all be there for you," emphasized Yvonne." That's a hell of a lot better than one of Charlie's dodgy briefs and the mob who were great at using brute force but not in the same league as the combined talent we've got."

"I still think that I'll get sent down at the end of the day."

"I don't get you, Babs. All the time I've ever known you, you've been the one who's been strong with your Christian faith while I've gone up and down depending on how I've felt and how good or bad my life's been going on, me and all my nearest and dearest. I ain't going to come on like some preaching vicar but you've just got to have faith. It ain't like you not to have faith."

"What do you know about Christian faith?" Barbara queried in a slightly irritated fashion. Yvonne's constant repetition of the word, which encapsulated her whole belief system, was nagging away at her. Even at a moment like this, she could not be oblivious to her faith.

"I know absolutely sod all but I know that you have to have faith in those who are working for you and for yourself. I know what lack of faith in myself can do to me. I've been there and you know it."

Somehow the words sank in and Yvonne could see the faintest light of hope in Barbara's eyes. She dared not hope too much and she knew that she had pushed the matter as far as she could. They chattered awhile on trivial matters but Yvonne's sharp eyes told her that Barbara was fractionally closer to her old self. Yvonne breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that the case conference would live up to her gut instinct and whatever brains she was given.

At night when Barbara went to bed while others debated her destiny, a prayer popped into her mind that she first heard as a child. She kneeled on the bare floor while she mouthed the following words and prayed for the strength to face this next life's challenge.

"Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul does keep

And, if I die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Instantly, they triggered a further memory. Crystal had told her of that simple heartfelt prayer that another Zandra, Zandra Plackett, had recited just before she had died. Zandra had everything to live for but a brain tumour had taken her life away from her as did lung cancer did for Henry. Both of them would gently reproach Barbara for giving way to despair for both of them had to deal with the dying while all Barbara had to do was to deal with the living. It made her feel ashamed but, yes God would forgive her and she had time to make amends in apologizing to those she had pushed away and to face the trial with as much spirit as she could summon up. It was not beyond her, she muttered to herself while her finger traced out the shape of the cross. She could do more than utter these words. It came down to faith, the point where she had started out in her life.

Part Sixty-Seven

As Dr. Kay Scarpetta moved around her Richmond Virginia home, packing all the belongings she might need for her trip to the UK, Captain Pete Marino watched her stonily. He hated it whenever she went away from him, for work or for any other reason, though he was forced to admit that this time, it might not be such a bad thing. They were in the middle of a very dangerous case, and it wouldn't do the Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief any harm to get out of the limelight for a while. Bodies kept turning up, all women, and all women who looked like Scarpetta. They couldn't find any real pattern apart from this, and the fact that they kept turning up wherever Kay appeared to have been last. This meant anywhere from near to the FBI academy in Quantico, to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta Georgia, or the FBI headquarters in Washington DC. So, all in all, Marino was quietly relieved that she was getting out of the country for a while. He didn't know what he would do if anything ever happened to her, and there had been numerous occasions when that fear had almost been realised.

"Where're you gonna be staying over the next two weeks?" Marino asked as Kay began spreading the contents of her medical bag over the kitchen table, making sure she had everything it ought to contain.

"I'm staying with one of the barristers presenting the case," She told him distractedly. "Why?"

"Just wanna make sure you're safe, that's all."

"Marino, I will be perfectly safe," She told him affectionately. "Why else would Senator Lord have got me permission to take my gun into the UK. I'm told someone owed him a favour."

"Some favour," Marino commented dryly. "I ain't ever been to the UK, but I sure as hell know I wouldn't get permission to take my piece there."

"You've never been to the UK?" Kay looked up at him in surprise.

"Nope, not in all my sixty-two years have I been there. Hey, maybe you could take me there some day."

"Maybe I will," Kay replied with a fond smile.

After repacking the medical bag, Kay put a CD on the stereo. It was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, something which she found soothing as she prepared to leave her comfortably familiar home for a fortnight. Marino grimaced, classical music clearly not being his preferred form of listening.

"Why do you like this stuff?" Marino asked, watching her as she began packing a scene case to take with her.

"Because it's the kind of music that fills your soul with peace and energy."

"What kind of oxymoron is that?" Marino said in disgust, clearly surprising her because she hadn't thought he would know a word like oxymoron. "Didn't think I'd know a word like that, did you," He said when she momentarily stared at him. "Yeah, well, maybe I've been listening to you all these years."

"Marino, I'm delighted that you know a word like oxymoron," Kay told him, trying not to laugh. "And yes, peace and energy are two very different things. The music gives me energy because it's so vibrant, so full of passion and imagery. I suppose it also gives me a sense of peace, because of its fluidity, the way it conjures up visions of animals and birds, all living through the ebb and flow of each season of the year." She'd looked almost wistful as she'd said all this, making Marino smile fondly at her.

"You're getting very poetic in your old age, Doc," He said, her words having flowed over him like honey.

"Less of the old," Kay said miserably. "March the twenty-third is coming far too quickly this year."

Leaving him sitting at the kitchen table drinking the coffee she'd made him, Kay went through to her bedroom, bringing her suitcase back into the lounge, leaving just another bag of essentials for the morning. Glancing through the lounge door at her, Marino saw that just for a moment, she was standing perfectly still, really taking in every note of the music. Moving quietly to join her, Marino simply watched the dreamy look on her face, making her features as soft and open as he had ever seen them.

"This part is supposed to be summer," She told him quietly. "But it sounds more like autumn." She was right, Marino thought, as the cellos thundered away under the violas and violins, giving the impression of an approaching storm. "Doesn't it make you think of a large animal?" She asked him in ever so slight wonder. "A stag, or a wolf, something with thundering hooves, galloping through some great forest."

"You'd play the violin if you were part of this lot, wouldn't you," Marino said, trying to visualise the prospect.

"No, definitely not," she said without rancour. "The violin's too much in the limelight for my liking."

"Doc, you've been in the limelight ever since I met you."

"Which is precisely why I wouldn't do it for pleasure," She explained. "If I were to play any instrument, I think it would be the cello."

"Now that just ain't natural," Marino said in total disgust.

"What isn't?"

"Women playing the cello, it ain't right."

"Don't be ridiculous," Kay said with a laugh. "Women can play the cello with just as much dignity as men. The cello is so elegant, it's sound so rich and sexy, that it has far more soul to it than the violin any day."

"If you say so," Marino said noncommittally, knowing neither one way nor the other. As the music moved into a furious tattoo of rhythm, illustrating the sudden august rain and any animal's rush for shelter, Kay absent mindedly began to conduct with her right hand, moving it fluidly between the beats. "That's really what you'd like to do, isn't it," Marino said knowingly. "To have all those players at your beck and call, kind of like the way you run your office."

"Perhaps," Kay admitted not looking at him because she knew he was right.

"How're you getting to New York tomorrow?" He asked a good while later, knowing that she was flying to England from JFK airport this time.

"Lucy's coming to pick me up in the whirly bird," Kay told him as she prepared them some dinner. "She says her flying hands need some exercise, which probably means I'll get a lesson en route."

"Want me to come along for the ride?"

"You can if you like," Kay said noncommittally.

"I just want to make sure you get on that plane without anyone putting in an appearance."

"Marino, whoever this killer is, isn't going to confront me in broad daylight, especially not in the middle of a busy airport with you and Lucy covering my back."

"And you will keep in touch while you're over there, won't you, just to let me know you're safe."

"Yes, I will, I promise," Kay told him seriously, knowing just what he felt for her, and that it would finish him off altogether if anything happened to her.

Part Sixty-Eight

On the evening of Saturday February the fourth, George stood and surveyed her lounge. Yes, it was spotless, and yes, it did look ready for a case conference come dinner party. She hadn't cooked for ten people including herself for quite some time, but she knew she had risen to the challenge admirably. It had been virtually impossible to gather together all the witnesses and other people concerned with Barbara's case in one go, seeing as both Tom and Zubin were almost always in theatre, and Nikki and Thomas were submerged in their duties at Larkhall. It had originally been Jo's idea to have everyone round for dinner, and George had agreed immediately. They had also decided to have this unorthodox case conference on the evening that Kay was due to arrive so that she also could be included. Going upstairs, George made sure that everything was as it should be in the room she had allocated to Kay for the next fortnight. The double bed was made with fresh linen, and George had removed any of her own clothes that were taking up space in the wardrobe. The radiator was on, taking the edge off the icy February chill. This room looked out onto the back garden, though there was precious little to see at this time of year. It was also over the kitchen, and George breathed in the rising aroma of the beef roasting in the oven. As she heard the doorbell ring, signifying the arrival of either Jo or the first guest, George went back downstairs, fervently praying that tonight's mixture of people would gel as successfully as at all the other gatherings she had hosted in the past.

Standing at the door, holding a bag containing several bottles of wine was Yvonne. Not seeing a car in the drive behind her, George assumed that Yvonne must have walked, her house only being two or three streets away. Yvonne followed her into the kitchen, where George put some of the wine she'd brought in the fridge.

"So, who else is coming?" Yvonne asked when George had poured them both a drink.

"Jo, obviously, Nikki and Helen, Karen, Thomas Waugh, Tom Campbell-Gore our resident heart surgeon, Kay Scarpetta and Zubin Khan our consultant anaesthetist. Zubin is picking Kay up from the airport."

"Zubin Khan," Yvonne said meditatively. "He was the one whose prostitute I tracked down and had a nice little chat with, wasn't he."

"Yes," George replied with a smile. "But try not to give him any reason to suspect you of doing anything of the sort. He's very touchy about that subject, so I'm praying that Brian Cantwell really doesn't bring it up in court, though without her to corroborate the allegation, he hasn't got much chance of making it stick."

"I went to visit Barbara today," Yvonne said, lighting a cigarette and glancing casually around George's tastefully decorated lounge. "She was like a junky waiting for a fix, could hardly sit still and was snapping at everyone."

"And she'll probably remain like that throughout the entire trial," George said sympathetically. "Having a defendant's life quite literally in your hands, it makes nearly everyone around you expect you to perform miracles out of thin air."

"As long as you and Jo do your best for Barbara," Yvonne told her gently. "Which I know you will, that's all that matters."

Jo arrived next, followed by Helen and Nikki, and then Karen followed closely by Thomas. George had put the roast potatoes in the oven, slightly basting the meat in all its richly flavoured juices. Tom arrived next, and sniffed appreciatively as he walked into the house.

"Zubin and Kay not here yet?" He asked, not seeing Zubin's car in the drive.

"No, not yet," George told him leading him into the lounge. "Her flight must be delayed or something." Introducing Tom to the assembled company, she asked him what he would like to drink.

"An orange juice if you've got one," He said, making George feel momentarily guilty that everyone else was drinking alcohol. When she handed him the glass, she saw with a little relief that he'd got into conversation with Helen, and that she was explaining to him precisely who everyone was.

When Kay and Zubin finally arrived, George was busy putting the Yorkshire puddings in the oven, and putting the vegetables onto boil, so she asked Jo to let them in.

"Kay, this is Jo Mills," Zubin said when Jo opened the front door. "And Jo, this is Dr. Kay Scarpetta."

"Pleased to finally meet you," Jo said with a smile. As Kay and Zubin moved into the hall, George emerged from the kitchen drying her hands on a tea towel.

"Kay, good to see you," She said, holding out her hand. "How was your flight?"

"Long and tiring," Kay replied with feeling. "Though the prospect of having dinner cooked for me is very much appreciated."

"As long as you can handle the thought of a simultaneous case conference," George told her, leading the way up the stairs, carrying one of Kay's bags.

"I've worked over lunch before now," Kay replied as she followed George up the stairs with the rest of her luggage. "So I guess that taking part in one over dinner isn't so far removed." As Kay put the rest of her belongings down on the floor by the bed, she took a look round the comfortable room.

"Will this suffice for a fortnight?" George asked her with a smile.

"Definitely, thank you," Kay told her.

"The main bathroom is right next door, and as I have an en suite, you'll be the only one using it. I'll leave you to get sorted. Come down when you're ready."

When they all eventually sat round George's dining table and she brought in the food with help from Jo, a very sincere comment came from Tom.

"You can't beat a really juicy piece of Aberdeen Angus." When everyone had been served and the wine had been poured, Jo began, between bites of food, to explain their position.

"For the first time since we began this case," She said, her gaze encompassing every person at the table. "We have all our witnesses in the one place. You are all aware of the salient facts of the case, and of the particular issues that each of you must focus on when on the stand. What I want to do tonight is to go through this all for one last time, so that you can all see how the different testimonies will interconnect. Well, that's the plan anyway." Jo paused to take a sip of wine.

"Apart from what happened on the day Henry died," Nikki broke in. "What else are you going to be looking at with Barbara?"

"As you know, Barbara kept a diary through the entirety of Henry's illness, so we've decided to use various extracts from her diary that show beyond the smallest of reasonable doubts, that no way was Barbara planning to kill her husband. In fact they show the exact opposite. She was dreading having to make that kind of decision, and she was extremely afraid of not being able to go through with what he might want her to do. Next to go on the stand is Kay, who will present various forms of photographic evidence to show that Barbara couldn't have been the one to give Henry that final injection."

"I'm going to need a slide projector in court," Kay put in. "Will that be possible?"

"No problem," George said, making a mental note to arrange it at the earliest opportunity.

"Jo used a combination of an overhead projector and a chess board last year," Nikki said with a smile.

"A chess board?" Tom queried with obvious interest.

"More as an aid to memory than an exhibit," Jo told him with a smile.

"Then we have Tom," George took over. "Primarily because when the prosecution is having its crack of the whip, they will be using another cardio thoracic surgeon to explain why Henry Mills could not possibly have died from natural causes, which still remains as a possibility if not a probability. As we do not have such a narrow minded approach to Barbara's case, Tom will be explaining just why death by natural causes still remains as a possible explanation."

"But I thought that Kay could prove that Henry did give himself that last injection," Yvonne put in, clearly trying to understand.

"I can prove that Barbara certainly didn't give him the injection," Kay explained to her. "And I can prove that the injection could only have been given by Henry Mills himself, but I cannot prove precisely what killed him. It could have been the overdose of morphine, it could also have been as a result of his body simply giving up, or a combination of the two. His cancer was so far advanced, that it really could have gone either way. I can make suggestions that are backed up by pathological evidence, but no more."

"Then we have Zubin," George continued. "Who will do his best to establish both the state of play between Barbara and Henry in the last weeks of his life, and will give a direct account of the pain relief Henry was receiving, together with an estimation of how far the metabolites from the morphine may have collected within Henry's major organs. As the prosecution have not availed themselves of a pain relief expert, I am assuming that they don't have any alternative argument to offer."

"Then we have Nikki as Barbara's character witness," Jo said, taking back the reins of the explanation. "And as Nikki has known Barbara for some years, she can give an accurate estimation of the likelihood of Barbara being indisputably innocent."

"I shared a cell with Barbara for nine months, so there isn't much I don't know about her." The resulting slightly stunned silence that followed Nikki's assertion, seemed to thicken the atmosphere around them. Raising her eyes to heaven, George gave Nikki a look that quite clearly said, "I will kill you when the opportunity allows."

"I thought that you were Barbara's Wing Governor," Zubin said carefully, putting down his knife and fork to look over at Nikki.

"I am," She said simply, not really knowing how to explain this slight anomaly.

"So," Tom said in dawning realisation. "You're that Nikki Wade."

"The one and only," Nikki told him dryly, giving him a slight smile of thanks for saving her from no end of difficult explanations.

"The last but certainly not least witness we have," continued Jo, wanting to move right away from this moment of awkwardness. "Is Thomas, who will present a psychiatric report on Barbara, which will hopefully establish her extreme desire to avoid ever having to go back to prison, including not being capable of killing her husband because of this." At this point, George, with help from Nikki, collected all the plates together and took them into the kitchen.

"I'm sorry for being the world's most successful conversation stopper," Nikki said sheepishly. "But it just didn't occur to me that anyone wouldn't know."

"Don't worry about it," George told her fondly. "I should have informed those of our witnesses who couldn't have known. I'm sorry that you were put in such a difficult position."

"I've been in worse," Nikki said dryly. "Just make sure Yvonne doesn't get onto 'Babes Behind Bars.' Though who knows, I suppose it might always liven things up a bit."

"After the trouble we had looking for Zubin's prostitute," George said quietly. "I don't want any mention of telephone sexlines."

When they were all sitting in the lounge drinking coffee, George sank gratefully into a chair beside Tom, both of them not far from the piano. Lighting a cigarette, she took a long and satisfying drag.

"You look as though you needed that," Tom commented dryly.

"After cooking dinner for ten people, you're absolutely right," George told him with a tired smile.

"How long have you been playing the piano?" He asked her. "Or is it simply there for the sake of ornament?"

"I've been playing since I was a child, which is far too long ago for me to contemplate. I only usually play now when I'm either angry or miserable, and rarely when there is anyone in the vicinity to hear me."

"I usually end up playing when I'm trying my damnedest to resist the urge to drink," Tom told her, thinking of the ornate baby grand in the large house he had inherited from his parents.

"How do you do it, Tom?" George asked him, bringing his eyes back on her.

"Do what?"

"Get through an occasion such as this, without either drinking or smoking?"

"I don't drink," He explained to her. "Because it would be catastrophic for me to even consider it, and I don't smoke, because I definitely know better. Tell me, do you have any idea what the insides of your lungs must look like?"

"No," George told him firmly. "And I have no desire to find out."

"Ask Kay," Tom said, clearly trying to goad her. "She sees the lungs of numerous smokers nearly every day of her working life."

"And that isn't a thought I'm going to linger on," George said with a slight shudder.

"Tell me about Yvonne Atkins," Tom invited without any warning.

"Your question suggests that you already know a fair amount about her," George replied noncommittally.

"I do read the newspapers, George," Tom informed her with a wry smile. "Wasn't her daughter on trial for killing a prison officer this time last year?"

"Yes, she was, in January."

"So why, just out of pure, uncomplicated interest, is Yvonne Atkins involved with this case?"

"When Yvonne herself was in prison," George explained to him quietly. "She also became very close friends with Barbara. Yvonne is financing this case, which with mine and Jo's fees, and the fees and expenses of all our witnesses where applicable, is no small amount. I think it's Yvonne's way of trying to make up for some of the things her late husband managed to accomplish."

A good while later when everybody had left, Kay asked George if she wanted any help with the washing up.

"Luckily most of it can go in the dish-washer," George told her, so Kay stood in the kitchen doorway watching her stack the many dishes inside that most wonderful of all kitchen appliances. "You look a little shell-shocked," George commented, glancing over at her.

"It's probably jet lag," Kay explained with a yawn. Then, returning them to the subject of Nikki that Jo had tactfully manoeuvred them all away from earlier, Kay said, "I hadn't realised that Nikki Wade was The Nikki Wade."

"She's been in the job of Wing Governor for quite a while now," George filled in. "So it didn't seem important to tell any of you who didn't know."

"She might not know it," Kay continued. "But her case was all over the American press as well as the British. It slightly amazed me just how many of tonight's gathering are or were connected with Larkhall prison."

"Yes, I know what you mean," George said with a smile, as she switched on the dishwasher. "Yvonne was also an inmate there at one time."

"I did wonder," Kay said thoughtfully. "Just the occasional thing she said to either Karen or Nikki."

"Something I've learnt whilst working this case and being an onlooker in a previous trial, is that just because a person may have the label of ex-con attached to them in some way, doesn't mean that they are any less human. Perhaps you could call it part of my education in learning that nobody is either perfect or lives by the same rules as anyone else. Yvonne, Nikki, and even Barbara have taught me a lot one way and another."

Part Sixty-Nine

Sunday dawned dull and grey, with both occupants of the house sleeping till late in the morning. When George rose into consciousness, she felt thoroughly rested and content. She was as prepared for the upcoming trial as she possibly could be, and her relationship with John and Jo was still going strong. She tried to ignore the fact that she still hadn't done anything about the lump she had discovered on Boxing Day, and the niggling little qualm that she hadn't told anyone about it. But these were things that could be dealt with at a later date. She needed, in fact they all needed, to concentrate solely on Barbara's trial and nothing else.

Going downstairs, George made herself a cup of tea, and as an afterthought also made one for Kay. As it was just after ten when she lightly tapped on Kay's door, she received a mumbled answer in reply.

"I thought I'd bring you a cup of tea," George said quietly, moving towards the bedside table.

"Thank you," Kay yawned. "What time is it?"

"Just after ten," George told her.

"I haven't slept this late in a long time," Kay said in surprise, dragging herself out of the warm nest of goose feather duvet. As George moved to put the cup down on the bedside table, Kay unthinkingly switched on the bedside lamp, casting a soft glow on the items beside it. As George's gaze fell on the Luger .38 staring up at her, her whole body froze with shock, leaving only her mouth in full working order.

"Precisely what is that doing in my house?" Coming to full alertness, Kay glanced from the gun on the bedside table, to the look on George's face, and finally to the slightly shaking cup in her hand.

"Why not put that down first?" Kay told her, thinking that this was something they really ought to have discussed before she arrived. Putting the cup down, George backed away and perched on the edge of the bed, wholly unable to take her eyes away from the gun. "It won't hurt you, you know," Kay told her gently. "Touch it," She encouraged. "It won't bite, I promise." Putting out a slightly nervous hand, George picked up the Luger. The butt of the gun fit snugly into the palm of her hand, and as she glanced down at its metallic markings, she wondered precisely what this weapon had been used for.

"Has, erm, has this ever been used to kill someone?" She found herself asking.

"Would it make any difference if it had?" Kay replied quietly.

"No, I suppose not, seeing as I think I know you well enough to trust your judgment in bringing it here."

"I used it to shoot Denesa Steiner," Kay said quietly. "However, what is important now, is that I do have permission to bring it over here. I wouldn't have made it through customs if I hadn't."

"And just how did you manage to lay your hands on that?"

"Senator Frank Lord, the Justice Senator, head of the Department of Justice, managed to secure me permission to be armed over here, as a result of the case my team and I are in the middle of back home. I've had a licence to carry a concealed weapon for years, and believe me, I've been taking it everywhere with me for the last few weeks, even to the bathroom."

"Do you always sleep with it on the bedside table?" George asked, thinking that she knew nothing about living under constant pressure as Kay did. Kay smiled wryly.

"I frequently sleep with it under my pillow. One of the first cases I had when I moved to Richmond, twenty-three years ago now was a serial strangler. I woke up one night to find him in my bedroom, not knowing whether or not he'd gotten to my ten-year-old niece who was sleeping down the hall. So yes, I do usually sleep with my gun somewhere nearby."

"Kay, I'm sorry," George told her, replacing the gun back on the bedside table. "It just shocked me to see it, that's all. Though at some point later today, I wouldn't mind seeing the proof of your permission to be armed in this country."

"Of course," Kay replied amicably. "I'd probably want to do the same if I was in your position."

Later that afternoon, when Kay had unpacked all her belongings, she dug out the letter of permission from the department of justice, and took it downstairs for George to read. After taking in every word, George handed it thoughtfully back and said,

"And I thought I had friends in high places." Kay smiled.

"I've known Senator Frank Lord for years. We both grew up in the same part of Miami, though he is a few years older than me. He managed to obtain this for me because he said that someone owed him a favour. I dread to think what sort of favour it must have been for him to get me permission to bring my gun over here."

"Is there really a possibility of you being in danger whilst you're over here?" George asked, though doubting it considerably.

"One thing I have learnt in the many years I've been fighting crime," Kay said philosophically. "Is that anything's possible. The women who are currently being picked off one by one in America, all look as similar to me as possible, and all are found in places where I have recently been. So, you can see why I want to be a little careful at the moment."

"Yes," George said ruefully, thinking this to be the understatement of the century.

Not long afterward, the doorbell rang. When George answered it, she saw her daughter standing on the doorstep.

"Charlie," She said with a welcoming smile. "This is a nice surprise."

"Well, I've hardly seen you since Christmas, have I," Charlie said a little shame facedly, knowing only too well that she only sought out her mother's company when she wanted something.

"We've all been very busy," George said, clearly excusing her. When they went into the lounge, George introduced her to Kay, and poured her a mug of coffee from the steaming pot on the coffee table.

"How's work going?" George asked, as she and Charlie sat on the sofa.

"Hectic," Charlie replied dismally.

"What do you do?" Kay asked, sitting in the big armchair at right angles to the blazing log fire.

"This is my first year as a junior barrister," Charlie told her.

"Following in your mother's footsteps," Kay said with a smile.

"More in her father's than mine," George said ruefully. "Though I don't think he spent his youth breaking the law, all in the name of animal rights."

"He went on enough protests," Charlie said, ignoring her mother's dislike of her favourite pastime. "I just carried on the tradition, that's all."

"Well, as long as you're not still doing it," George told her a little sternly. "Because it won't do much for your career if you're caught." Charlie bit back the urge to comment on her mother's utter devotion to her career at the expense of everything else, because of the presence of a stranger, but George could see it reflected in her eyes.

"Have you met my dad?" Charlie asked Kay, wanting to get George off the topic of her imperfections.

"No," Kay replied, sensing an undercurrent between Charlie and her mother.

"He's the judge who'll be presiding over the trial that you've come over here for. Well, one of the judges anyway."

"Oh, really," Kay said with interest. Then, looking at George, she added, "That must be difficult on occasions."

"You could say that," George said with a rueful smile.

"Dad once banged her up in a cell for contempt," Charlie told Kay with a wicked little smirk.

"Oh dear," Kay replied, trying not to laugh.

"Thank you, Charlie," George said, a slight flush staining her cheeks. "And it wasn't funny," She told Kay firmly.

"Mum, even Granddad thought it was hilarious," Charlie reminded her.

"Yes, I've no doubt," George said with a slight smile. "Now, did you come here for a reason, or are you simply bored?"

"I wondered if I could borrow some money," Charlie said seriously. "Please, Mum, just till the end of the week."

"Am I to assume that you're asking me because you can't ask your father?" George asked her knowingly.

"Something like that," Charlie admitted sheepishly.

"What have you been arguing about this time?" George asked resignedly, going into her office across the hall to find her purse.

"The law," Charlie replied disgustedly. "What else?"

"Will that do you?" George asked, returning and handing her daughter thirty pounds. "It's all the cash I have on me at the moment."

"That's great, Mum, thanks," Charlie replied, pocketing it quickly.

A little while later when Charlie had left, George returned to the lounge and lit a cigarette.

"Forgive me for commenting on something that is absolutely none of my business," Kay said a little hesitantly. "But you look like you don't get on with your daughter all that well."

"I don't," George said simply. "That's how it's always been. When John and I split up, Charlie was only six, and when he moved out, Charlie went with him. I've never been what you might call the archetypal mother, and Charlie's never quite forgiven me for it. I was only just twenty-four when I had her, and I wasn't anywhere near ready for all it entailed."

"In spite of that," Kay said gently. "I can tell that you've tried your best with her." George was about to respond, though with what reply she couldn't begin to imagine, when the phone rang. Gratefully getting up from the sofa to go and look for the cordless phone, she tried to resculpture her face back into the mask of indifference she usually wore.

When she answered the phone, a clearly American, very unfamiliar female voice greeted her.

"Please may I speak to Dr. Scarpetta?"

"Yes, of course," George replied. "Who's calling, please?"

"Her niece, Lucy Farinelli." Going back into the lounge and handing Kay the phone, George said, "It's your niece for you."

"Lucy," Kay said, a wide, soul deep smile spreading over her face. "This is a nice surprise."

"Just thought I'd make sure you got there safely," Lucy told her. "How's the jet lag?"

"The jet lag is virtually nonexistent, thank god," Kay told her. "Did you get the whirly bird back to New Jersey in one piece?"

"Of course I did," Lucy replied, resigned to her aunt's concern about her flying. "Marino said that he'd take a real plane back to Richmond from LaGuardia, damned cheek." Kay laughed.

"How is he?" She asked, always having a fond need to check up on him.

"Oh, he's fine, though my guess is that he'll be back up here some time today, with Benton." These last few words were uttered with a very guarded seriousness.

"Why, what's happened?" Kay asked, though the chill that crept up her spine told her precisely what before Lucy could say it.

"We've got another body," Lucy told her. "It was found last night, looks just like you, even with the same tone of ash blonde hair, or so I'm told. It's a woman in her late forties, and she was found in the car park at JFK airport, which is guess what, precisely where you were last."

"Oh, god," Kay said quietly. "That's the fifth now, and we're still no further on in finding anything out about who's doing it."

"Marino phoned me," Lucy told her. "And told me to ring and check up on you, seeing as he'll be travelling for most of today getting back up here."

"Well, I'm perfectly safe tell him, and I even managed to get through customs with my .38 intact, but yes, before you say it, I will be careful, I promise."

When she'd finished her conversation to Lucy, she gazed into the fire, a whole host of thoughts whizzing around her brain.

"That didn't sound like good news," George said quietly.

"It almost never is," Kay told her dully. "But that's the price you pay for everyone who means something to you working in law enforcement."

"What does Lucy do?" George asked, wondering at this sudden exchange of information on daughters, or the equivalent of daughters.

"Lucy was an FBI agent, until they decided that they didn't want someone who actively participated in a lesbian relationship."

"Ouch," George said sympathetically.

"Then she moved to ATF, the bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Then, when she got mixed up in a very bad take down in Miami, they were going to put her on admin leave, which is the equivalent to someone being suspended. So, she quit, and with a friend who had also worked for ATF as the head of fire investigation, she set up an investigative agency, which they call The Last Precinct. Where do you go when there's nowhere left to go? If you want the answer to a problem that the usual channels can't find out, you go to The Last Precinct. The FBI have been closely guarding their territory on this current case, but I suspect Lucy and her partner Teun will have more success. They usually do."

"She sounds like a niece to be extremely proud of," George said with a wistful glimmer of envy in her face.

"Oh, she is," Kay, said fondly. "But that doesn't prevent me from worrying about her nearly every minute of every day. My sister Dorothy, Lucy's mother, has never wanted to be part of Lucy's world, to understand why she does the things she does on a daily basis. Marino often tells me that it was me who brought Lucy up and not Dorothy, and in some respects he's probably right, but I would have done anything to stop her from going into law enforcement. I wasn't the only surrogate parent Lucy had along the way, because Marino did his fair share by first of all teaching her to drive his truck, and then by teaching her to shoot when she was seventeen, much to my temporary disgust." George smiled.

"I don't think I've ever been able to teach Charlie anything," She said almost regretfully. "The only time she comes to me, is when she wants something that John won't give her, as you clearly saw."

"As real parents or as stand-in parents," Kay said seriously. "All we can ever do is our best."

Part Seventy

She would wake up early, muttered Barbara to herself when she woke and looked at her watch. It was six o'clock and total blackness looked outside her window. She had had a restless night and really needed all the sleep she could get for such a testing day. She had recovered her nerve to some extent but not enough to not fear the prospect of standing in the dock. It was freezing cold in her cell which made her try and huddle up and retain as much of her body heat as the thin prison blankets permitted while her thoughts flitted all over the place in an incoherent mush. Everywhere in the prison was as quiet as the grave at this hour, not the most fortunate expression but appropriate enough.

As time crawled onwards, Barbara realized that she was getting no more relaxation than if she were dressed so that she did just that. Pride within her made her dress immaculately and, as Dominic made the early morning call, Barbara was ready. She glanced at her latest volume of her diary but dared not write anything in it, right now but though it better to leave it for tonight, if she could face it. The slight advantage of being up early was that she was first in the queue for breakfast and the Julies smiled kindly at her.

"Sausage and eggs, today, Babs."

"Just one sausage, Julies please. I'm not very hungry today." Replied Barbara with a wan smile. She could not stomach the sort of generous portions that the Julies had in mind.

"A cup of tea?"

"I would love one." Barbara said with real feeling and a broader smile. A nice cup of tea was the one thing that Barbara found set her up for the day, even in the most trying moments. In that, she hadn't forgotten her Middle England roots.

After a slow and thoughtful breakfast, Nikki approached Barbara and addressed her in her soft sympathetic tones.

"I wanted to tell you that Gina and Dominic are going to be your escorts today. I thought, first day on, you certainly could do with escorts who will look after you."

"Thank you ever so much for your kindness, Nikki."

"It's nothing,"Nikki said self deprecatingly and uncomfortably. "You did the same for me once." While Barbara's mind was vague and confused, Nikki remembered vividly how Barbara had looked after her at her first trial and was there for her. If only she could be with her, she sighed to herself. Reason told her that she had a wing to run so she had selected the two next best alternatives.

At another house, vengeful puritanical audience justice was taking shape in the forms of Greg and Amanda Hunt. They sat stiffly upright in their carved mahogany dining chairs and Amanda poured a cup of tea into the finest chinaware instead of the institutional prison mug.

"It's fortunate that my partner will cover me so that we can witness the comeuppance of that gold digging ex stepmother. God has watched over her and will ensure that justice will be visited on her at last." He pronounced his cold piety in authoritative tones.

"It will make up for the chunk of money she salted away before we secured it. It drives me mad the way our father worked so hard all his life to provide a roof over our head. Accidents don't happen twice no matter what she might try and say. It's only a pity that you couldn't give evidence as a character witness, Greg, from what we know about that woman." Amanda added venomously.

"Come on, we'd better get going." Greg replied, looking precisely and officiously at his watch, as a man of business should. "We need to set off in precisely, eleven minutes."

As Barbara was driven to the entrance of the Old Bailey, Barbara dared not reflect on the fact that she had last seen the inside of the old Bailey from the visitor's gallery and her memory of the elegant flight of steps and the chequer board design black and white flagstones that led down from it. This time, her entrance was in a much more workmanlike part of the massive complex. She waited patiently while the security matters were completed and for Dominic and Gina to escort her into court at the appointed hour.

John and Monty had met up at the Old Bailey earlier than was their habit. They had punctiliously arranged for each other to have reasonable time to examine the trial papers and Monty had hospitably invited John to his own chambers. This was going to be a new experience for them however much they had talked in theory of Monty being 'the winger.' The practice was not new to either of them but in previous experiences, the 'winger' was clearly in the position of being more senior, more learned, the fount of wisdom. In this situation, both of them could not help but feel that the role of the 'the winger' was very problematical. The possibilities spanned the spectrum of the menial assistant functioning as a cardboard cut out on the one extreme or, on the other, the power behind the throne the occupant of which repeated the words whispered to him.

"I don't mind admitting, John that this trial is making me damned nervous." Confided Monty who sipped his coffee the offer of which John had politely declined.

"Is it the prospect of trying Barbara Mills or is it the two of us trying the case together?" John politely enquired with raised eyebrow.

"Both, John. I'm glad that you have come to the point so quickly."

"I feel pretty well the same as you, Monty." John confessed.

"You do?" asked Monty in amazement. While he was conscious that the anger that periodically boiled up inside him could be the reaction to nerves, he had always thought that John was positively Buddha like in his serenity unless his passions were inflamed.

"You don't believe me? Well, let it pass. As to the second, it is easily dealt with in theory. We sink or swim together and I will do my utmost to allow you the space that you are entitled to and work with you. It will be a new experience but I'm prepared to learn as we go along. As for the first, we must put our faith in fortune or whatever we believe in to give us the wisdom….and now, shall we refresh our memories by having a last look at the papers, Monty?"

Monty was touched by John's civility and sensitivity, which cleared his thoughts and calmed him down. Their robes of office were hung up, ready for them to assume their respective judicial personas.

In another part of the court, Yvonne and Roisin trod the flagstones of the building whose grip on their consciousnesses was assuming the grip and intensity of Larkhall. Once they were swallowed up in the huge bowels of the Old Bailey, it claimed them for its own. They were on the lookout for Jo and George amidst the scurrying figures of witnesses, barristers and solicitors criss-crossing through the ancient foyer until George's sharp eyes and the wave of her hand attracted Yvonne's attention. Yvonne's face split into a broad grin and Jo led the way to a convenient side room.

"I ought to have asked you before but, just out of interest like, which bastard are you up against?"

"Brian Cantwell." commented George shortly. "From what I hear, he'll pick up a fat fee so that's salved his conscience. Still, we'll have fun with him."

"I remember crossing swords with him at the time we were getting Merriman banged to rights." Yvonne said reminiscently." Jesus, that was a few years ago. Well, at least he's an honest bastard. If there's one thing I can't stand it's hypocrites who'll smile to your face and stab you in the back."

At a moment like this Jo was getting into pre trial thinking mode, focusing her thoughts tightly as senior partner on the trial and nothing else. The memory of Yvonne's swift riposte made her smile at the way she had achieved the unusual feat of taking the wind out of Brian Cantwell's sails.

"Getting to know all of us, Yvonne."Jo grinned.

"Are you the only one who will be in the gallery? John will be so relieved," put in George

"That reminds me, Roisin said she'll be coming now. She said she'd be here a bit late. I ought to be on the lookout for her."

"What about those two creeps that give the judge a load of grief, you know, those clowns who haunt the place from the top row of the visitor's gallery?" Yvonne demanded.

George grinned at that apt description. Since the temporary display of unity at the performance of "The Creation," they had reverted to type in their sniffish disapproval and, once news had got out that George had become close to Jo and were working on the case together, she expected to be tarred with the same brush as them in social gatherings. It amused George that her very aristocratic manners and opulent lifestyle would yet enable her to be bracketed with dangerous mavericks like Jo and John who were threatening the very fabric of society.

"Sir Ian and Lawrence James are bound to be there, Yvonne. They have their orders."

Sir Ian and Lawrence James were nothing, if not predictable. By now, they were used to long hours sitting on hard painful benches in the course of duty but this trial was different from their vain attempts to browbeat, bully, patronize and persuade John to at least try and to be sound, remember the Old School Tie, now there's a good fellow. Curiously enough, that while such entreaties had succeeded with his brethren, John had always been singularly impervious. It wasn't as if he were some uncouth outsider, beyond the pale but while he could melt so easily into the cultish ways that their schooldays had first engendered, he had that perverse obstinate streak in him that his extreme maverick views only hardened. This time, Monty was with him and they felt constrained to hold a watching brief. To present an unusual twist to the situation was their acquaintance with the accused. In another area of life, past acquaintances could be dropped when convenient but the peculiar calling of fellow musicians made that more embarrassing. Sir Ian's emotional solution to these difficulties was to become more prickly with Lawrence James than normal and he, likewise with his subordinates, yet at the same time they were forced to occupy some dark corner of the foyer to deliberate and keep well out of the way.

Eventually, Roisin clattered her way across the flagstones to be hugged by Yvonne just in time as the court session was about to commence. The important players in the theatrical display funnelled into the entrance. George swept on ahead into the chamber next to Jo and she glanced at Brian Cantwell in a mocking way as if to say that "we can do better than you." From the back door to the court, John and Monty entered and were up on high, resplendent in crimson robes and took their places at the bench, John in the centre and Monty asymmetrically to the side. At that second, as Yvonne stared down from the visitor's gallery at the back she saw in a split second flash image not the august personage but a very different John immediately above her, naked and sexually ecstatic at the point of orgasm, incredibly capable in bed and with as much self possession there as in his throne.

"Yvonne, take a look to the right. Who the hell are they?" Roisin whispered in Yvonne's ear.

"Tell you later, Roisin." She whispered back out of the side of her mouth.

With a shock, Yvonne concluded that they must be Babs's hated stepchildren Greg and Amanda Hunt. They must be, from that stony glare of disapproval downwards in Babs's general direction. Thank God that she can't see them and that she's got decent screws like Dominic and Gina to look after her was her first thankful thought. To counterpoint that was the reflection that they had better have learnt their lesson from Babs' right hander and the anonymous phone calls from Larkhall threatening violence and torture if they didn't let up on Babs. She had the sinking feeling that they hadn't and, in comparison, those two legal type creeps behind them weren't all bad.

With a characteristic sound half way between a shuffle and a low rumble, everyone stood to their feet, unified in that gesture if totally splintered in their attitudes. The trial was about to commence.

Part 71

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