DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions, a division of Shed Media Group, plc. The author implies no ownership of these characters, and they are used in the stories without permission solely for entertainment and not for profit. Similarly this applies to any copyrighted fictional characters either from literature, broadcast media or film.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was originally posted on my old website, ZanWeb back in 2000-2001 (during the break between Series 2 and Series 3) so it might contain a few cultural references from that time. This story was originally named 'What If II' (after quite of bit of thought, I've come to the conclusion that 'What If 1' is way, way too bad every to see the light of day again) and is intrinsically the same story, minus most of the original grammatical errors and cringeworthy cliches ... I hope!!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To filbertfox.redux[at]gmail.com

What If (Redux)
By Filbertfox


Chapter Sixteen

Fifteen minutes before the nine o'clock shift was due to start and the canteen was at its busiest. The Julies were sitting towards the back of the room and sharing a bacon sandwich whilst poring over the horoscopes in the Daily Mirror. Both looked up when Zandra collapsed into a chair across the table, her face deathly white.

'Hangover, Zan?' Julie S asked.

Zandra shook her head and threw a scrap of paper onto the table. 'I found that in my locker this morning.'

Julie J picked the piece of paper up, frowned and passed it onto Julie S who put her glasses on to have a closer look. She gasped when she saw the words on the note.

'Filthy slut?' she exclaimed as she handed the note back to Zandra. 'Charmin'!'

'Any idea about who might've sent it, Zan?' Julie J asked.

'Yeah, that's why I'm sat here like a twat.' Zandra rolled her eyes. 'Of course I don't bloody know!' She glared at the Julies for a moment and then glanced up when Crystal sat down in the chair next to her. 'Have you seen this?' she asked.

Crystal picked up the note and sucked her teeth. 'It's retribution, innit?'

'Do what?'

'Sex before marriage is a sin in the eyes of the Lord.'

'Stroll on Crystal!' Julie S exclaimed. 'You telling us that you ain't never …'

Crystal shook her head. 'I'm saving myself for my husband.'

The Julies rolled their eyes at each other.

'That reminds me,' Zandra said as she screwed the note up and shoved it into her pocket. 'How are you and Josh getting on?'

Crystal shifted uncomfortably. 'Not that it's any business of yours but …' She paused, erupting into a radiant grin. 'He took me out for a meal last night, to the restaurant at Mal Maison.'

Zandra raised an eyebrow. 'Very nice.'

Julie S smiled mischievously. 'Don't Dominic ever take you anywhere like that?'

'He probably would if I let him out of bed for long enough,' Zandra replied. She winked at a disapproving Crystal. 'You don't know what you're missing.'

Julie J leaned across the table towards Zandra. 'What we wanna know is …'

'Whether Dominic's a jumbo sausage …' Julie S added.

'Or a chipolata.' Julie J finished the question with a sly grin.

'Let's just say that I've got no complaints,' Zandra replied smugly. 'Anyway, did no one ever tell you that it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it that counts. Believe me, Dominic knows what to do with it.'

Crystal sniffed haughtily. 'Lust is a tool of the Devil.'

Zandra rolled her eyes. 'Hark at the Virgin twatting Mary! You do realise that the only reason you're spewing out all this holy roller bollocks is because you're crapping yourself about the thought of getting down and dirty with Josh.'

'I'm not getting down and dirty with anyone until my honeymoon!'

'Well let's hope Josh proposes sooner rather than later,' Julie S commented sagely. 'Sexual frustration don't 'alf make you a pain in the jacksie!'

Helen sat in her office and stared mindlessly at her computer screen. She was acutely aware of the huge pile of personnel files sitting on the edge of her desk, not to mention the inbox full of e-mails she had yet to reply to, but she just couldn't seem to apply herself.

And we all know why that is, don't we, Helen?

She frowned at the internal thought and reached for her coffee mug, grimacing when she realised that the contents were stone cold. Putting the mug to one side, she leaned forward to put her head in her hands.

Admit it, you miss her.

It was true. In the week that had followed her argument with Nikki, Helen had been careful to avoid her, only initiating contact when it was absolutely necessary. When the running of the call centre did bring them together, Nikki was polite and genial but tired lines around her eyes and a sudden weight loss indicated just how much the whole situation was causing her to suffer. Helen herself found that she was unable to sleep and unable to concentrate. Consequently, she was tired and irritable. Only that morning, she'd bitten Monica's head off over something inconsequential and petty.

As the week went on, Helen began to regret her reaction to Nikki's revelation, especially after she was finally able to instigate negotiations with Sean about the house. Witnessing just how much the split had affected him brought back her own guilt with a vengeance and she began to understand why Nikki had pushed her away.

So swallow your pride and apologise.

Helen acknowledged the internal voice with a sigh. This whole thing would be so much easier to handle if she could only lose herself in work. However, being General Manager was proving much harder than she'd expected.

She had managed to ride the storm up until this morning when she'd received a concerned phone call from Tim Murray, the National Telesales Manager, who had heard reports indicating that she might be 'a bit out of her depth'. Helen had put on her most reassuring tone of voice and had managed to convince him otherwise, but when she'd finally put the phone down, she'd had to repress a sudden homicidal urge to strangle Jim Fenner. She didn't need to be Miss Marple to know that he was behind these 'reports'.

Yvonne was also proving to be an adversary. However, Helen was more or less certain that her hostility was a direct result of her concerns about Nikki.

Helen's train of thought was interrupted by the arrival of an email from Tim Murray. She read it twice and then, horrified, flew off to find Nikki.

Outside Nikki's office, Helen bumped into Nasser Al Borami, the National IT Manager … the man she'd once had a brief fling with before meeting Sean. Jordanian by birth, Nasser's darkly handsome looks had earned him the nickname Omar Sharif down at Head Office. Helen herself had succumbed after being seated next to him at a dinner party given by a colleague. The fling hadn't lasted long at all, and certainly hadn't meant anything, but even so, Helen found that she was blushing. Coming face to face with someone who'd once seen her naked and in the throes of passion was more than a little off-putting.

'Hi, Nas,' she said brightly. What are you doing up here?'

'Had a meeting at Manchester Airport,' he replied. 'So I thought I'd pop in and see Nikki while I was here.' Nas smiled, revealing perfect, white teeth. 'How are you getting on? I heard a few rumours down at Head Office that you were finding it hard going.'

'Not at all,' Helen said, returning the smile. 'You know me, I love a challenge.'

'Well that's good to hear, because you're on the verge of getting a huge one.'

Helen nodded. Tim's email had revealed that the cabin crew union had just turned down the latest pay offer, and were now planning on balloting for strike action.

'No doubt you'll be in receipt of a contingency plan in due course,' Nas continued. He squeezed Helen's elbow briefly. 'I'd love to stop and chat but I've got a shuttle to catch. Give me a call. We'll catch up over dinner some time.'

Helen watched Nas go and then turned to Nikki's door. She took a deep breath to compose herself before knocking. After receiving no response, she walked into the office to find Nikki sitting behind her desk with her back to the door. Leaning back in her chair with her feet up on the windowsill, she was staring off into space.


Nikki jumped in surprise and whirled around in her chair. 'Bloody hell, Helen!' she exclaimed, clutching her chest. 'You could've knocked.'

'I did.'

After a week of icily polite conversations, Nikki wasn't prepared for the warm smile on Helen's face. She caught a faint whiff of her perfume as she approached the desk, and was suddenly transported back to the hotel room. Gripped with desire, Nikki forced herself to look up into Helen's eyes. As she did so, she felt the last remains of her will draining away.

'What did Nas want?' Helen asked.

'Who, Omar? He wanted to make a deal.'

'What sort of deal?'

'Retract my resignation and get a promotion … Regional Airport IT Support Manager, covering Manchester, Belfast, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle.'

'They've been trying to fill that vacancy for ages.'

'That's because of the amount of travelling involved. They haven't been able to find anyone without a life …' Nikki pulled a face. 'Well, until now anyway.'

Helen looked down at the floor guiltily. 'Listen, Nikki, I'm sorry for the way I reacted last week.'

'It's understandable. I was thinking more about my own feelings than yours.'

'Whoever was in the wrong, do you think we can maybe forget that conversation took place?' Helen asked, struggling to keep her tone even. 'I know you still need time and … well, I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I'm prepared to give it to you.'

'Thank you,' Nikki said softly.

For a moment, they stared at each other and as Helen smiled, Nikki felt all of the tension of the last week leaving her body.

'So,' Helen said, sitting down opposite the desk. 'Are you going to take Nas up on his offer?'

Nikki shrugged. 'Probably. It does involve a huge kick up the pay scale, and I must admit, it's nice to be wanted.'

'When I was down at Head Office, Nas always had a lot of good things to say about you,' Helen commented.

'Yeah? Well, when he was here before he had a lot of good things to say about you.' Nikki grinned when Helen looked down at the floor, embarrassed. 'I spent a week with him on a course once. He's such a smooth operator. I'm surprised the women he got off with didn't have to tie him down to stop him sliding off the bed.'

'It was a long time ago,' Helen admitted in a small voice.

'I'm glad to hear it.'

'Did he tell you about the ballot tomorrow?' Helen asked, deciding to change the subject.

Nikki nodded. 'It'll be a huge pain in the arse if they do strike. Do you remember the last one?'

'Before my time.'

'I was at the airport then,' Nikki continued. 'The check-in concourse was like the first day of the Harrods sales, so I got roped in to help on the ticket desk. A whole week of fourteen hour days and constant ear-ache.' With a shake of her head, Nikki rose from her chair. She reached for her coffee mug and waved it at Helen. 'Can I get you one?'

'No thanks,' Helen replied. With a sigh, she stood. 'I'd better go and check my e-mail … oh, and I'm probably going to be calling a management meeting later. Can you make sure you're around?'

'No problem. Lorna and I are supposed to be sorting out the computer room later. It'll be a good excuse to get out of it.'

'Because of Lorna?' Helen asked, remembering the technician's crush on Nikki.

'No, because it's a bloody mess, God knows how long it'll take.' Nikki grinned, relenting when she saw Helen raise her eyebrows. 'To tell you the truth, I still feel a bit uncomfortable being alone with her but …' She shrugged dismissively. 'She'll get over it.'

'I hope so,' Helen said in a slow, deep voice. She regarded Nikki meaningfully, smiling slightly when the other woman blushed. 'However long it takes us to get back on track, you're mine … got that?' Leaving a spellbound Nikki in her wake, Helen headed over to the door. "See you later," she called.

By that lunchtime, Helen had received contingency plans, and after a lengthy conversation with Tim Murray, had asked Monica to gather the management team together in the conference room.

As she entered the room, Helen noticed the way that the others suddenly fell silent. Karen and Yvonne were clearly in the middle of some sort of argument. Fenner was flicking through a copy of Angler's Times and Nikki was pouring herself a cup of coffee from the hospitality coffee. Helen was grateful for her smile of support as she took her seat at the head of the table.

'I'm sure you're all aware by now that our cabin crew are being balloted for possible strike action tomorrow,' Helen began. 'I know that you all worked for the airline in one capacity or another during the last strike in 1995, and I'm sure that your experiences will prove invaluable if the strike does take place.' She paused, taking a deep breath. 'Whatever teething problems we've suffered during the past week, I need to ask you all to put your personal and professional opinions regarding my appointment to one side for the time being.' Helen leaned forward to emphasise her point. 'In order to get through this, I need your total dedication and support.'

Helen looked around the table. Nikki and Karen were quick to nod their assent, and Yvonne followed their lead after a brief moment of hesitation. Realising that he was outnumbered, Fenner grudgingly followed suit.

'Thank you,' Helen said, feeling awash with relief.

Nikki was still standing by the hospitality trolley. She raised the coffeepot in Helen's direction. 'Do you want one of these?'


'Did you bring her an apple as well, Wade?' Fenner sneered.

Nikki rolled her eyes but ignored the comment. She handed Helen a cup of coffee with a whispered, 'ignore him' before sitting down in the chair next to Yvonne's.

Pausing to fortify herself with a sip of coffee, Helen stood and began distributing A4 folders around the table. 'Tim Murray e-mailed me this contingency plan earlier. Basically, what we're talking about is every available body we have manning the phones. That means supervisors, managers … everyone we have with telesales training.' Helen glanced over at Fenner who was doodling on a notepad. 'Jim, you've got unlimited overtime to work with. Try and persuade as many people as you can to volunteer, but don't push for it, okay?'

Fenner nodded briskly. 'The girls … telephone agents,' he quickly corrected himself, 'are always pushing for more overtime. I can't see there being a problem.'

'Obviously, we're a twenty-four hour operation so we'll need to cover all of that,' Helen continued. 'Anyone who works after ten o'clock at night and then starts again before nine o'clock the following morning will be accommodated at the Post House.' Returning to her chair, Helen glanced over at Karen and Yvonne. 'You've both received telesales training, so I'll be expecting you to pitch in when we get busy. I'll be joining you,' Helen added quickly when she spotted Yvonne opening her mouth to object, 'which will be interesting, to say the least. It's been over three years since the last time I went anywhere near a telephone head-set.' She shifted her attention to Nikki who was smiling guardedly at the look of irritation on Yvonne's face. 'Nikki, I'm afraid that you and Josh will be the IT department through all of this. I'm going to need the rest of your team on the phones, so you'll have to split the hours as well as you can. I'm also going to need you ready to pull down the call servers at a moment's notice … we don't know whether they'll be able to cope with the huge volume of calls Head Office have predicted.'

Nikki nodded. 'No problem. I know Josh is saving up for a new bathroom suite so he'll be eager for all the overtime he can get. We'll split twelve and twelve if that's okay with you.'

'Okay, but when you're off-duty I'm going to need for you to make yourself contactable at all times.'

'The helpdesk have my pager and mobile number.'

Helen turned to Fenner. This was the part she was dreading. 'Jim, as Operations Manager you'll be in overall charge if the worst comes to the worst. The same goes for you as it does for Nikki, you need to be contactable at all times. Also, you're going to have to liaise closely with Nikki to make sure that everything runs smoothly. That okay with you?'

Fenner smiled smugly at Nikki who scowled back at him. 'Fine. As long as she does what she's told.'

'I'm not jumping to his tune for anyone,' Nikki snapped, outraged. 'He'll have me running around like a one-armed maid in a brothel.'

'What's the matter Wade? Upset because your girlfriend won't be in charge?'

Nikki raised a finger in Fenner's direction. 'Spin on it!'

'Better not waste your energy,' Fener countered. 'You might not be able to get it up for her later otherwise.'

Helen sighed with exasperation. 'Nikki, Jim … please. I know this isn't exactly the most ideal situation, but if the strike does go ahead, we'll all have to get through it the best we can.'

'Well let's just hope that it doesn't,' Nikki said, folding her arms as she continued to glare at Fenner. 'I don't exactly fancy the idea of being banged up for murder.'

It was past eight when Nikki left work, so as soon as she arrived back at Yvonne's, she disappeared upstairs and collapsed onto the single bed in the spare room.

This particular room had once been Lauren's and still bore all the conflicting hallmarks of a teenager's room … black wallpaper and carpet, a Forever Friends duvet cover and pillowcase, and a row of stuffed animals staring down from a shelf. Feeling more than a little ridiculous as she stared up at the George Clooney poster that Lauren had left pinned to the ceiling above her bed, Nikki reached for her cigarettes.

'Hello, Nik.'

Trish stood in the doorway, looking pale and vulnerable, her eyes filming over with tears.

'Trish, what …?' Nikki stammered, rising from the bed.

'Dad died this morning.'

Nikki reacted in a way that was a result of the close bond that she and Trish had shared. Crossing the room, she took her ex into her arms, holding her tightly as she wept. Gently, she guided Trish over to the bed and sat her down.

'I'm sorry.' Trish whispered eventually. 'I just needed to be with you.'

'It's okay.'

'I'm sorry for what I said. I was angry.' Pulling away from Nikki, Trish wiped eyes on the sleeves of her sweater. 'I suppose I already knew that the end was coming but I … I can't pretend that there's a part of me that doesn't hate you for what you've done. I keep lying there at night, picturing the two of you together and …' Trish took a deep breath, trying to compose herself. 'With what happened to Dad I …' She paused fighting more tears. 'Mum's really torn up about it. Matthew and Sarah have taken her home to stay with them and I … I didn't know who else to turn to.'

'I know,' Nikki said, placing a hesitant hand on Trish's shoulder. 'I'm glad you came,' she added, meaning it.

'Really?' Trish smiled slightly through her tears. 'Well, whatever,' she said, voice breaking again as she buried her face into Nikki's shirt. 'I need you, Nik.'

A while later, Trish fell into an exhausted sleep in Nikki's arms. Gently, Nikki eased them both back onto the narrow bed and then quickly joined Trish in slumber.

Nikki woke with a start, wondering why she was still fully clothed until the events of the night before came back to her. That was a point. Where the hell was Trish? Motivated by this thought, she jumped out of bed and ran downstairs.

Yvonne was chatting with Yvonne in the kitchen. Both women looked up when Nikki ran into the room.

'My God!' Yvonne exclaimed, taking in Nikki's crumpled clothes and vertical hair. 'Sid Vicious lives!' She looked up when the doorbell rang. 'Who the fuck is that at this time of the morning?'

Nikki headed over to the kettle, stopping in her tracks when Trish reached out and grabbed her hand.

'Thanks for last night.'

'Anytime.' Nikki smiled and returned the pressure of Trish's hand. 'Are you okay?'

'I'll do,' Trish replied.

Both women looked up they heard Yvonne returning. She wasn't alone.

The warm smile of greeting on Helen's face disappeared the moment she spotted Trish. Immediately swivelling on her heel, she retraced her steps back to the front door.

Nikki glanced down at Trish who stared back at her, her expression one of hurt resignation. After a brief moment of hesitation, Nikki turned away and then sprinted off after Helen who was now striding down the driveway towards her car.

'Helen! Wait!'

Helen whirled around furiously. 'Is there anything left to say Nikki?' she snapped. 'Obviously not after that little display in the kitchen.'

Nikki felt her own temper erupt … Helen had tried and convicted her without a second thought. 'Her Dad died yesterday, Helen.'

'Shit, I'm sorry.' Helen mumbled, deflated.

'She came round last night and ended up crying herself to sleep.'

'In your bed?'

'She needed comfort … someone to care about her.'

Helen took a deep breath, feeling her anger return with a vengeance. 'And just what did comforting her involve?'

'For God's sake! I lived with the woman for ten years, Helen. I care about her. What the fuck else was I supposed to do?'

'Well, if it helps to ease your conscience …'

'If that's your bloody attitude then you can think what you like!'


Helen glared at Nikki for a moment before resuming her path to her car. Climbing in, she slammed the driver's door behind her and then revved the engine, leaving an inch of tyre rubber behind her as she peeled away.

Nikki jumped slightly as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around to see Trish standing there, a look of concern on her face.

'Is she okay?' Trish asked.

Nikki sighed and ran an agitated hand through her tousled hair. 'Obviously not.'

'She'll come round.'

Besieged by guilt, Nikki looked down at the ground. She kicked at a weed growing up between two paving slabs. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'You didn't need to see that.'

'No I didn't,' Trish agreed. 'But I know the score and I'm adult enough to deal with it.' With a sad smile, she placed a hand on Nikki's elbow. 'Last night proved that I still need you in my life, Nik. As a friend if nothing else.'

'I do still love you, Trish,' Nikki said softly.

'I know,' Trish said with a long sigh. 'But you love her too, don't you?'

Nikki nodded. 'I'm sorry.'

'I'm not saying it doesn't hurt, but … anyway, I should go,' Trish said with a shrug. 'I've got to drive down to London and help Matthew with the arrangements for the funeral.'

'Do you want me to come with you?'

Trish shook her head. 'Thanks for the offer, but I'll be okay.' She reached up to kiss Nikki on the cheek. 'Goodbye, Nik.'

Yvonne joined Nikki in the driveway as Trish's Lamborghini pulled away.

'You okay, Nik?' she asked.

'Apart from the fact that I feel like the biggest shit in existence you mean?'

Yvonne smiled and clapped her hand on Nikki's back. 'Come on, Don Juanita. You look like you need a coffee.'


Chapter Seventeen

Helen spent most of the morning kicking herself behind her desk. What on earth had possessed her to act that way? Trish had just lost her father, for God's sake. Who would she turn to but the woman who had shared her life for the past ten years?

After a moment's consideration, Helen decided to swallow her pride and set off to see if she could repair the damage. She eventually tracked Nikki down to the computer room. The IT Manager was sitting cross-legged on the floor, trying to unravel a tangle of network cables.


Nikki looked up momentarily. 'Go away, Helen,' she said coldly before returning to her task. 'I'm not interested.'

'Nikki, please, just give me a chance to explain.'

'Explain what?'

'That I reacted badly.'

'Too bloody right you did!' Nikki threw the tangle of wires across the room and then shot to her feet. 'You had no right to go off half-cocked like that!'

'I know, and I'm sorry, it's just …' Helen paused, looking down at the floor. 'I just saw you and Trish together and thought …'

'That we'd got back together?' Nikki deduced, thawing slightly.

Helen nodded. 'I'm sorry, I just reacted.'

'Meaning you were jealous?'

Helen looked up and sighed angrily. 'If it makes you feel any better then yes I was. Happy now?' she added, backing away towards the door.

Nikki quickly stepped into Helen's path. 'I'm sorry,' she said, placing her hands on the smaller woman's shoulders. 'But you've got to understand. I can't just forget everything that Trish and I had. Let's put it this way … if it had been Sean's father who'd just died, wouldn't you have done the same?'

Helen raised her eyebrows. 'And how would you have reacted?'

'Probably in exactly the same way,' Nikki replied truthfully. 'Maybe we're just destined to drive each other completely round the twist.'

'Maybe you're right.' Helen smiled, reaching up to squeeze one of Nikki's hands. 'How's Trish now?'

'She left the house shortly after you did.' Nikki paused, a determined expression on her face. 'She's going through hell at the moment and there are going to be times when she's going to need me to be there for her.

'Don't worry,' Helen said quickly. 'I understand.'

'Thanks, that means a lot.' Lifting one of her hands, Nikki reached up to push a stray lock of hair away from Helen's face. 'Do you fancy going out for dinner tonight?' she asked. 'If this strike goes ahead, we won't get a proper chance to talk for ages.'

Helen nodded. 'I'd like that.'

With a smile, Helen reached up and took Nikki's face in her hands, not caring that this was the middle of the working day, and that someone might stumble across them. Just as their lips were about to meet, someone did. Helen nearly screamed out loud in frustration when Monica poked her head around the door.

'Oh, sorry to interrupt,' Monica said, hurriedly averting her eyes as Nikki and Helen jumped apart. 'I've just had a call from Head Office,' she told Helen. 'The result of the ballot has just come back.'


'A three day strike starting the day after tomorrow,' Monica replied. 'Tim wants you to contact him as soon as possible.'

'Okay, thanks, Monica.' Helen sighed and looked up at Nikki.

'Bollocks!' Nikki exclaimed.

'Looks like we might have to shelve those plans for dinner.'

'It's a conspiracy,' Nikki said. 'It's got to be. The whole bloody airline's in on it.'

Helen smiled. 'Can we at least finish what we started before we were so rudely interrupted?'

Once again, Helen reached up to take Nikki's face in her hands. They kissed, lips barely touching as they moved together in a slow dance … tasting, teasing, but not allowing passion to take over. Both realising that this was all about reaffirming their feelings for one another.

'Are you okay?' Helen asked, pulling away.

'Never been better.' Nikki replied, leaning forward to rest her forehead against Helen's. 'I'm just sorry it took me so long to realise that there's nothing more important to me than being with you.'

'No apologies.' Helen pulled away and looked deeply into Nikki's eyes. 'The important thing is that we both move on from here and …' She paused, feeling her phone vibrating in her jacket pocket. She fumbled it out and frowned, recognising the number as Tim Murray's. 'Shit! It's Tim,' she told Nikki. 'I'd better go.'

'Go on.' Nikki said, nodding towards the door. 'I'll see you later.'

Nikki was vaguely aware of the wide grin on her face as she set off to retrieve her tangle of cables.

After the official announcement of the result of the ballot, passengers and travel agents began to panic. The phone lines immediately went crazy. The situation worsened once the strike started and by the third day, everyone was feeling the strain.

'This is frigging ridiculous!' Zandra exclaimed after yet another angry phone call from a ticket holder. 'It's not my fault some twat got himself stranded in the back of bloody beyond!'

Meanwhile, Sylvia Hollamby, the only supervisor not to have been called back onto the phones was flapping up and down the sales floor in a panic. 'You!' she snapped when she saw Zandra was unoccupied. 'You're not paid to sit there staring into space like Dolly Daydream!'

'Might as well transfer to cabin crew then and be paid to sit there doing fuck all!' Zandra retorted, aiming a 'V' sign at Hollamby's retreating back. 'Stupid fat cow!'

Julie S cut off the furious travel agent on the other end of the line when she noticed that Zandra was knocking her head up and down on her desk. 'You okay, Zan?' she asked.

'No I'm not. I'm bloody knackered,' Zandra replied. She leaned back into her chair and yawned, not bothering to cover her mouth. 'I've been sat here since six o'clock this morning.'

'Serves you right for offering to do overtime.'

'Yeah, well I know that now don't I?'

'What time you on 'til tonight?'

'Eleven o'clock … then back on at six tomorrow,' Zandra paused and reconsidered, 'unless of course I'm dead by then.' Collapsing forwards again, she rested her head on her arms. 'I wonder if Shell's still got some of that whizz,' she mused in a muffled voice.

Fifteen minutes later, Zandra headed outside for a cigarette and encountered Shell in the car park.

Shell was in her usual congenial mood. 'What do you want, loser?'

'You got any of that whizz left?'

Shell took a long drag on her cigarette, considering Zandra through the smoke. 'Might 'ave. Who's asking?'

'I am.'

'What do you want it for?'

'I'm gonna stick it up my arse and fart the 'William Tell Overture'!' Zandra snapped. 'What the twatting hell do you think I want it for?'

Shell looked around shiftily and then pulled Zandra over to one side. 'It's your lucky day, Zan,' she said, taking a brown pill bottle out of her pocket. 'I've got two left. You can 'ave 'em both for a tenner.'

Zandra took the bottle and peered closely at the label. 'Diet pills!' she exclaimed. 'Hold on, this is Felicity's prescription.'

'Ain't no wonder she's so friggin' fat then, is it?'

'Are you sure they've got speed in them?' Zandra asked suspiciously. 'I don't wanna end up with the squits or something.'

'Nah, they're kosher all right,' Shell replied. 'Took a couple meself on Sunday night.'

Zandra thought for a moment and then nodded her head. 'Go on then.' She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tattered five-pound note and a handful of change. 'Shit! I've only got nine pounds fifty.'

'That'll do.' Shell snatched the money from Zandra's hand and then threw her cigarette end onto the bonnet of a nearby car. 'Laters.'

Shell wasn't pleased when she ran into Helen just outside the lift.

'Bit too early for your break isn't it, Shell?' Helen commented.

'Just popped out for a fag, Miss.' Shell replied in her sweetest tone of voice. 'Been on since seven this morning.'

Helen found herself sympathising. She herself had only knocked off at midnight, arriving back at six o'clock that morning. Deciding to let it slide this time, Helen accompanied Shell up to the top floor in silence.

As well as feeling exhausted, Helen was also battling depression. During the past three days, she'd only managed to snatch the odd five minutes with Nikki who was working similarly punishing hours. With this thought in her mind, Helen decided to head straight for the IT department.

The main office was empty but for Josh who was dozing at his desk. Helen stared at him for a few moments before walking over, shaking his shoulder gently.

Josh opened his eyes and then shot out of his chair when he recognised Helen. 'Shit! I mean sorry … I just closed my eyes for a second and …'

'It's okay, Josh,' Helen said reassuringly. 'I just popped by to see if Nikki was around.'

'She disappeared into the computer room about an hour ago,' Josh explained, reaching up to rub his eyes. 'I haven't seen her since …' He looked around when the walkie-talkie on his desk suddenly crackled into life.

'Hello …? This is Rubber Duck,' Hollamby said. 'Are you there, Big Boy? Over.'

'Rubber Duck and Big Boy?' Helen exclaimed.

'It was Nikki's idea,' Josh explained. 'Thought she'd wind the old Body … er I mean Mrs Hollamby up a bit.' He pointed over to the door, flustered. 'I better go and …'

'Okay, thanks, Josh.' Helen watched him walk over to the door and let out a snort of laughter. 'See you later, Big Boy.'

Now crying with hysterical laughter, Helen staggered out of the office and across the corridor to the computer room. Wiping her eyes, she keyed the entry code into the keypad and stepped inside, shivering violently in response to the air-conditioned atmosphere. At a first glance, the room was empty. Then, Helen heard someone mutter something softly and set off to investigate. She eventually found Nikki curled up on the floor behind a patch cabinet. Smiling, Helen crouched down and touched Nikki's cheek.

'What the …' Nikki flew into a sitting position, relaxing slightly when her bloodshot eyes focussed on Helen. 'Shit! Talk about being caught red-handed!'

'You're busted alright.' Helen said, standing up. 'How long have you been working for?'

Nikki looked down at her watch, stifling a yawn against the back of her hand as she did so. 'Fifteen and a half hours now. Bloody hell! Just goes to show that time flies when you're having fun.'

'Right, well consider yourself off-duty,' Helen said firmly. 'Josh is here now and you shouldn't be.'

'I'm all right,' Nikki said around another yawn. She flapped a hand dismissively.

'And that's why I've just found you flat out in here is it?' Helen shook her head. 'Nikki, go back to the hotel and get some sleep.'

'It's not worth it,' Nikki replied. 'Every time I put my head down on the pillow, Fenner pages me.' She raised an eyebrow when Helen's eyes immediately narrowed with anger. 'I did try to warn you.'

'Just go back to the hotel, Nikki,' Helen snapped.

'What are you going to do?' Nikki asked. Leaning forward, she placed her hands on the floor and then forced herself onto her knees. Every part of her body seemed to be aching.

'I'm going to …' Helen's words trailed off when she realised that she could see straight down the front of Nikki's blouse. 'Jesus, Nikki!' she gasped, realising that Nikki wasn't wearing a bra.

Nikki looked down and grinned. 'I'd just stepped out of the shower last time I was paged. Fenner said it was urgent and I couldn't find my bra.' She shrugged. 'What's the problem?'

'You mean to tell me that you've been walking around like that for fifteen hours?'

'I shouldn't think anyone's noticed.'

'You're sure about that are you?' Helen asked, feeling slightly light-headed as she pointed out the very obvious effect the air-conditioning was having on Nikki.

Nikki laughed. 'I was wondering why Bodybag's eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head when I saw her earlier.'

'Talking about Sylvia, what's all this Rubber Duck business?'

Nikki grinned mischievously. 'Well I had to keep myself amused somehow.' With a wink, she picked up her own walkie-talkie and depressed the 'Talk' button. 'You there, Fenner?'

A few moments of silence followed until Fenner's gruff voice crackled out of the walkie-talkie. 'What do you want Wade?'

'Josh is here now, so I'm going back to the hotel to get some shut-eye.'

'Don't get too comfy, we might need you back here.'

Helen snatched the radio from Nikki's hand. 'Well you can just make sure we don't, Jim. Over and out!' She handed the walkie-talkie back to Nikki and then reached up to fasten two of the buttons of her shirt. 'Do me a favour and don't run anywhere.'

'Bleedin' pile of arseholes!'

Karen raised an eyebrow as a copy of the airline's fare tariffs flew past her and then hit a nearby window. She pressed the 'Hold' button on her telephone and turned to Yvonne who was staring sulkily at her computer screen.

'Are you okay?'

'No I'm not!' Yvonne snapped. 'Who writes these fare rules? Secret friggin' Squirrel?'

Karen stood and walked around to Yvonne's desk. 'Let me have a look.' She leaned over her shoulder to study the reservation she was working on. 'All you need to do is telex British Midland and ask them if they'll accept a V class ticket to …' Leaning closer, she blinked with surprise when Yvonne cringed away from her. 'Are you okay?'

'Do you have to stand so close?'

'Pardon me?'

Yvonne swore under her breath. 'Your perfume's giving me a headache,' she said. 'What's it called? Eau de Cheap?'

'I'll have you know that this stuff costs fifty pounds a bottle.'

'Fifty quid to smell like a tart's bedroom? Talk about more money than sense.'

'At least I don't buy mine from the Avon catalogue.'

A passing Jim Fenner heard this argument and decided to throw fuel onto the flames.

'Oh dear, lover's tiff?'

Both women glared up at Fenner as he perched himself on the edge of Karen's desk.

'What do you want, fish-face?' Yvonne snapped.

'Just here to check how you're getting on,' he replied, leaning over to pick up the tariff that Yvonne had discarded. 'Having problems?'

'The only problem we've got at the moment is sitting on the edge of my desk,' Karen said.

'The only problem we've got? Ain't love grand?' He leaned further over the desk, smiling appreciatively at Karen's legs. 'Such a shame to think of those legs wrapped around your face, Atkins.'

Karen reached out to place a restraining hand on Yvonne's arm and then leaned forward, affording Fenner a clear view down her blouse. 'You know, Jim, Yvonne and I were talking.' She let her hand stray briefly over Fenner's thigh and smiled seductively. 'How about you joining us at the hotel later? I've got a king-sized bed in my room. Plenty of room for three.'

'What the frig?' Yvonne gasped in disbelief.

'Oh come on, darling.' Karen said silkily, her eyes not moving from Fenner's. 'You were only saying last night that you missed being with a man.'

Yvonne noticed that Karen was gesturing frantically with her other hand and realised that she was planning something. 'Yeah, that's right,' she said at quickly, softening her expression as she gazed up at Fenner. 'Come on, Jim, what do you say?'

Karen made a show of moistening her lips with her tongue, smiling inwardly when she saw Fenner's eyes glaze over. 'Marilyn need never know.'

Fenner shifted uncomfortably, aware of the rising problem in his trousers, but still, his naturally suspicious nature got the better of him. 'You two must think I was born yesterday.'

'What's the matter, Jim? Afraid you won't come up to scratch?' Karen turned to Yvonne and winked surreptitiously. 'Sorry, darling looks like it's just the two of us again.'

Yvonne composed her features into an expression of regret as she allowed her fingers to entwine with Karen's. 'Never mind, we've always got Wesley.'

Fenner frowned. 'Wesley?'

'Karen's vibrator,' Yvonne explained, swallowing over a burst of laughter as Karen flashed an incredulous look in her direction. 'It's a pity though. I was hoping to have the real thing.'

Fenner looked down and noticed that Karen's thumb was gently caressing the underside of Yvonne's wrist. Gripped by a sudden rush of lust, he nearly fell off the desk. 'So … er …' he stammered, pausing to clear his throat. 'What time are you going back to the hotel?'

'Just come to room 324 at midnight,' Karen replied. 'We'll be waiting for you.' She grinned when Fenner limped away and turned to Yvonne. 'Don't worry. I've got a plan to wipe the smug smile off that bastard's face.'

'Well whatever it is, it better be good!'

Both women looked down simultaneously, realised that they were still holding hands, and jumped apart immediately.

After a few uncomfortable moments, Karen cleared her throat. 'Yvonne, can I ask you a question?'

'Depends what sort of question.'

'Who's Wesley?'

Yvonne grinned as she replaced her headset. 'Who needs a bloke when you've got a Rampant Rabbit?'

Di Barker arrived on duty and was immediately ordered by Jim to 'get on the bloody phones, woman'. It was unfortunate that the only spare desk on the sales floor was right next to Zandra's.

Zandra was pacing up and down like a woman possessed, rattling out instructions to a travel agent like an out of control machine-gun.

'Is she okay?' Di asked Julie J who'd just arrived with a tray full of coffee mugs.

'She's just had too much coffee,' Julie J replied quickly.

'Well don't give her another one. She'll probably shoot off into orbit,' Di said, reaching out to take the mug that Julie J placed on Zandra's desk. 'I think I'd better have this.'

Just then, Zandra howled in frustration and threw her headset onto the floor.

Di looked up in surprise, not for the first time wondering what Dominic saw in such a silly girl. 'Zandra, pick that up please.'

'You can pick my arse!' Zandra screeched in reply.

'Zandra!' Di said reprovingly.

'I hate this place! It's piss and crap!'

Luckily for Zandra, Crystal arrived back from a trip to the toilet and quickly assessed the situation.

'She's just a bit stressed out,' she explained to Di, bending down to retrieve Zandra's headset. 'Been working fifteen hour shifts for the past three days, innit?' She turned to Zandra and handed her the headseat. 'You okay, Zan?'

'I'm fine, frigging marvellous,' Zandra replied, hopping from one foot to the other. 'In fact, I'm so bloody happy I might break into a song and twatting dance routine any minute!'

'What's going on here?'

All of the women turned around to see Sylvia Hollamby standing there.

'What's gotten into you, you silly girl?' She barked at Zandra. 'Stop bouncing around like Zebedee and get back on that phone!'

Unfortunately for Hollamby, Josh chose that particular moment to contact her over the radio.

'Big Boy to Rubber Duck, come in … over.'

Hollamby was acutely aware of the women around the spur of desks shaking with ill-concealed laughter as she raised her walkie-talkie to her mouth. 'What is it?' she barked.

'I've fixed that problem with the call servers. you should be alright now … Big Boy out.'

Hollamby's humiliation was complete when Zandra started to sing the 'Rubber Ducky' song from Sesame Street.

''Ere, Crystal!' Julie S piped up. 'What do you reckon to Mrs H calling your Josh Big Boy?'

'And more importantly, how does she know?' Zandra added.

Hollamby glared at the women around the table before storming off, mumbling to herself furiously.

Di allowed the hysterics to continue for a few moments longer before intervening. 'Come on now, ladies, back to work please.'

Crystal rolled her eyes at Zandra who shrugged. 'I'm going out for a fag.'

'Zandra, it's not time for your break yet.' Di protested.

'Try and bloody stop me!'

The Julies exchanged a worried glance when Zandra river-danced her way off the sales floor.

'Piece missing.'

'Big piece.'

Jim Fenner sat in the hotel bar and checked his watch for the hundredth time in ten minutes. He sighed with relief when he saw that it was two minutes to midnight. Pausing to knock back the remains of the Scotch he'd been nursing for the past half an hour, he stood up and strolled nonchalantly over to the lift. He pressed the button to call it, checking his teeth in a nearby mirror as he waited. He wasn't exactly pleased when the lift doors opened and Nikki stepped out, but he wasn't going to let her spoil his good mood.

'What's up with your face?' Nikki asked, frowning suspiciously at the smug grin on Fenner's face. 'You do know that if the wind changes you'll stay like that, don't you?'

'Going back into work are you, Wade?' Fenner sneered. 'Well, have fun.'

'No I'm not actually.' Nikki replied. 'I called in before and the calls have dropped off. Lorna's been taken off the phones to cover for Josh and me.'

Fenner reached out to stop the lift-door closing. 'Nobody consulted me.'

'Why should they? I should think they're all sick to the back teeth of hearing your bloody voice.'

Fenner glanced down at his watch, his mind misting over at the thought of Karen and Yvonne waiting for him. 'Okay, well, we'll talk about this tomorrow.'

Nikki shook her head when the lift-doors closed and strolled over to the bar to wait for Helen.

Helen had woken her about half an hour ago by calling her on her mobile. Although she hadn't admitted it directly, Nikki knew that she'd engineered Lorna's reprieve from the phones. Helen had also announced her intention to join Nikki at the hotel.

Nikki attracted the barman's eye and ordered the vodka that Helen had requested along with a gin and tonic for herself and settled down on a barstool to wait. She was halfway down her drink when she was enveloped in a cloud of the Dolce & Gabbana perfume that Helen always wore.

Nikki was glad that she was sitting down. Helen had changed into a white cotton dress that was low-cut at the front and hugged her upper body in all the right places. 'That's not fair. You cheated.'

Helen smiled as she reached for her drink. 'What's the point in having a flat within walking distance when you can't take advantage of it?' She took a long swallow of vodka and gestured at Nikki's T-shirt. 'I see you didn't follow my advice.'

'I seem to have misplaced my clean bra,' Nikki replied. 'Typical display of fuckwittery on my part I'm afraid. Must've forgot to pack it.'

'I'm not complaining.'

Helen's voice was low and husky, her eyes brimming over with desire, and in that moment Nikki felt all of her reservations disappear as her heart slipped away.

'I'm sorry, Helen, I can't do this.'

Helen's face dropped as she stared up at Nikki in disbelief. 'What?'

Nikki replied by leaning closer until her breath was hot in Helen's ear. 'I meant that I can't sit here a moment longer. I need to take you upstairs right now.'

Helen leaned against the bar to hide the unsteadiness of her legs and looked up to regard Nikki with mock puzzlement. 'And what's so interesting upstairs?'

Nikki sighed and shook her head, turning away to signal for the barman. 'Might as well order another drink then.'

Helen put a restraining hand on Nikki's arm. 'Don't you dare!'

'Why not?'

The words that Helen whispered into Nikki's ear took her breath away and it was a good few seconds before she managed to recover her voice. 'Well why didn't you say so in the first place?' Hopping down off her barstool, she propelled Helen towards the lift.

'What's the rush?' Helen protested.

'Well you're the one who said you were about to explode,' Nikki replied. 'I really don't think they'd appreciate the mess in the foyer.'

Fenner took a deep breath before knocking on the door of room 324.

'Hold on a minute!' a muffled voice called out. 'Okay, you can come in now.'

Fenner opened the door and nearly fainted when he saw that Yvonne and Karen were both sitting on the bed, each holding a glass of champagne.

'You came,' Yvonne said.

'Don't pre-empt him, darling.' Karen smiled. She reached out to place her hand on Yvonne's thigh and stroked it slowly. 'Come on then, Jim, let's see what you've got.'



'What … well can't you two …?'

'No,' Karen replied. 'We want to watch you.'

Both women watched in silence as Fenner stripped at a lightning speed. A matter of seconds later, he was standing at the foot of his bed wearing only his Y-fronts.

'Well, well.' Yvonne raised an eyebrow as she surveyed the bulge in Fenner's underwear. 'Looks like something's up.'

Fenner looked down and grinned. 'So how about one of you two coming over here to help me with it.'

Karen leaned forward, smiling expectantly. 'Come on, Jim, drop them.'

Fenner complied and then stood upright, his grin and his erection both disappearing when both women leapt off the bed.

'What the …?'

Severely hampered by the underpants tangled around his ankles, Fenner was unable to fight the combined strength of the two women as they propelled him towards the door.

'What the fuck are you doing?' he screamed.

'Teaching you a friggin' lesson,' Yvonne replied, pushing him out into the corridor at the exact moment that Karen opened the door.

Fenner was so imbued by rage that he forgot all about the fact that he was standing in a hotel corridor stark naked. He turned and began hammering on the door, incensed by the muffled and hysterical laughter that greeted him.

'You're going to pay for this! Both of you!'

He heard the lift door opening with a ping behind him and turned, concealing his modesty with his hands.

Helen, already shell-shocked by the passionate kiss she'd shared with Nikki in the lift, was completely dumbfounded as she came face-to-face with a naked Jim Fenner.

'Shit!' Fenner hissed, revealing himself momentarily as he struggled to pull his Y-fronts up.

'You got that right,' Nikki said, shoulders shaking barely suppressed laughter. 'Oh well, I suppose that's answered one question.'

Helen, convinced that the world had gone well and truly mad, looked up at Nikki with confusion. 'What's that?'

'What I see in women.' She spared Fenner one final glance before leading Helen over to the door of her room. 'The sight of that's enough to turn Anne Widdecombe into a rampant lesbian.'

Fenner watched in disbelief as Nikki opened her door and shepherded Helen inside. 'Aren't you going to help me?'

Nikki stuck her head around the door and shook her head. 'Word of advice, Fenner, Y-fronts belong in the 80s!'


Chapter Eighteen

Nikki awoke to the insistent beeping of her pager and groaned. She was lying sprawled across Helen's warm body and the last thing she wanted to do was move. After a few more seconds, she opened one eye and then the other, reaching over Helen in order to locate the pager, which she vaguely remembered leaving on top of the bedside cabinet.

No, it wasn't there … ah! That was it. She'd left it clipped to the belt of her jeans, which if she remembered, were lying on the floor next to the bed. Now, if she could just …

'Oh shit!'

Helen woke with a start to see Nikki's disappearing off the edge of the bed.

'If this is that bastard, Fenner I'll …' Nikki growled. She looked up and pulled a face when she saw that Helen was grinning down at her. 'I don't know what the bloody hell you're laughing at!'

'I thought you were actually supposed to get out of bed feet first, not head first.'

'God save me from bloody comedians!' Nikki mumbled under her breath as she silenced the pager. It was then she realised that it was the alarm function that had woken her. 'It's five o'clock. I'd better get a move on.'

'Five o'clock!' Helen exclaimed. 'Jesus, Nikki!'

'Yeah, well I've got to get back to relieve Lorna. Poor girl must be cursing me. There's no reason why you have to get up.'

'And there's no reason why you can't come back to bed for another five minutes,' Helen said, stifling a huge yawn against the back of her hand. 'Please?'

Nikki sighed and wearily pulled herself to her feet. 'Five minutes.'

'Five minutes.' Helen smiled as Nikki collapsed back onto the bed and rolled over into her arms. 'It was the last day of the strike yesterday. Things'll start easing up soon.'

'Not bloody likely,' Nikki replied. 'It'll be at least a week before they manage to sort out all of those planes that were stranded God knows where without any cabin crew.' Nikki decided she was bored with conversation and gently began to nibble Helen's earlobe.

'Nikki, if you don't stop that there is no way on earth I'm going to let you out of bed in five hours' time … let alone five minutes.'

'I can't help it.' Nikki protested, voice muffled against Helen's neck. 'It's your own fault for being so bloody irresistible.'

With an effort, Helen managed to squirm away. She prevented any further assault by pushing Nikki onto her back and climbing on top of her.

'I was only …' Nikki lost the capacity to speak as she felt the full length of Helen's body pressing down against hers.

'You were only what?' Helen asked. She re-positioned her body so that her thigh was pressing tight between Nikki's legs and smiled mischievously when this action elicited a low groan. 'Well come on. I'm waiting.'


Helen responded to this by reaching down to take advantage of Nikki's weak-spot – incredibly ticklish sides.

A few seconds later, the positions were reversed. Nikki utilised weight advantage to roll Helen over before pinning her to the bed. 'Funny,' she said. 'Here's me thinking you asked me to come back to bed for a cuddle, not a bout of all-in wrestling.'

'I think we did enough of that last night, don't you?'

'You know what it is, don't you?' Nikki said. 'We always take one step forward and then two steps back. Just as we manage to get together, something always goes wrong … hence an incredible build-up of sexual tension.'

'Pity,' Helen said as she draped her arms around Nikki's neck. 'I was hoping that last night would prove to be a regular thing.'

'We'd both be dead from exhaustion in a week.'

'Yeah, but what a way to go!'

'True.' Nikki smiled. 'I love you.'

'How much?'

Nikki frowned suspiciously. 'What do you mean?'

'Enough to spend the weekend with me? I checked the IT rosters and you're off-duty.'

'Helen, as much as I'd love to spend a whole weekend with you, I was sort of under the impression that this week's rosters were null and void.'

'They would be if you weren't shagging the boss.'

'Oh charming!'

Helen laughed, squirming away when Nikki punched her lightly on the arm. 'No, seriously. I'm going to have a word with Jim when I get in … ask him to pull your team off the phones this weekend.'

'And you can honestly see Fenner agreeing to that?' Nikki said sceptically. 'No chance.'

'Well if I manage to persuade him, are you up for it?'

'Most definitely. Aren't I always?'

'Even if it means helping me when my new furniture arrives?'

'Oh hello,' Nikki said, raising an eyebrow. 'So you mean to tell me that while the rest of us were running around like headless chickens, you managed to find the time to order furniture?'

Helen responded by nuzzling into Nikki's neck. 'Please? I just thought you'd like to help me christen the new bed.'

'Help you? Planning on doing it on your own anyway were you?'

'If you want me to,' Helen whispered. 'You could always watch.'

Nikki rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. The mental picture that she'd just conjured up in her head caused her to let out a muffled moan.

Helen smiled triumphantly. 'I take it that idea meets with your approval.'


'Pardon me?'

Nikki lifted her head off the pillow slightly. 'It's no good. I'm going to have to get up. I won't be responsible for my actions if I stay in this bed any longer.'


Nikki replied by blowing a raspberry. She jumped out of the bed, unfortunately landing on top of one of her discarded trainers.

Helen, between bouts of hysterical laughter, crawled over to the foot of the bed. She peered over the edge and encountered Nikki, lying flat on her back with a look of mock truculence on her face.

'Go on, laugh,' Nikki snapped. 'You won't be when I can't help you move your furniture this weekend because I've crippled myself.'

Yvonne looked up from the Financial Times when Nikki limped into the dining room for breakfast. She raised her eyebrows when her friend eased herself gingerly into the seat opposite.

'Stone me, Nik!' She exclaimed as she put the newspaper to one side. 'Did Helen have you jumping off the friggin' wardrobes last night or what?'

Nikki grimaced as she reached for the breakfast menu. 'I'v just had an argument with one of my trainers. Ended up going arse over tit.'

'Yeah, whatever you say,' Yvonne said, smiling knowingly. ''Ere, you seen the phantom flasher of Larkair yet this morning?'

'Who, Fenner? Hardly,' Nikki said with a snort. 'I should imagine he'll wait until the coast is clear before crawling out from under his stone, anyway.' Nikki laughed, suddenly realising. 'It was you wasn't it?'

'Me and Karen, yeah.'

'How on earth did the pair of you manage to strip him down to his smalls and lock him out in the corridor?'

'It was Karen's idea. We pretended to be up for a threesome and the stupid git fell for it,' Yvonne explained. 'So, we waited for him in bed and then when he turned up. we made him strip. Before he realised what was happening, we'd pushed the daft bleeder out into the corridor. Christ, Nik! You shoulda seen the look on his boat-race!'

'I saw enough out in the corridor thank you very much,' Nikki said with a shudder. 'In fact, it'll be a miracle if I don't end up having nightmares about it.' She considered Yvonne for a second and then smiled as a thought occurred to her. 'Hold on. You and Karen must've had to put on a particularly convincing act to make him think that he was on a promise.'

'Well we …' Yvonne's eyes narrowed as she saw that Nikki's shoulders were shaking with laughter. 'I ain't no dyke,' she snapped.

Nikki leaned across the table conspiratorially. 'So come on, tell me,' she whispered. 'Did getting rid of Fenner manage to put you and Karen in a party mood?'

'I'll give you a friggin' party mood in a minute!' Yvonne growled menacingly, picking up a knife. 'You see this? I'll stick it so far up your arse it'll give you a lobotomy!'

Nikki and Yvonne looked up when someone cleared their throat.

Yvonne sighed with irritation when she saw a waiter standing there with a horrified look on his face. 'What's your problem, mush?'

'I just came to see if you were ready to order breakfast,' the waiter replied, eyes darting down to the knife Yvonne was still brandishing.

'Don't worry about her,' Nikki said, smiling up at him reassuringly. 'She's like a crocodile. You don't feed her and she'll bite your bits off. So, if I was you, I'd toddle off into the kitchen and sort us out a couple of full English breakfasts.'

Yvonne laughed when the waiter fled for the kitchen. 'And make it bleedin' snappy!' she called after him.

Oblivious to the No Smoking sign on the table they were sitting at, Nikki lit a cigarette and offered the packet to Yvonne who took one. 'I'm going to be staying over at Helen's this weekend,' she announced. 'That alright with you?'

'Nikki, I might shout at you to turn that bloody racket you call music down but I ain't your mum. You're big enough and ugly enough to do whatever the hell you want.'

'I just didn't want you to think that I was taking the piss.'

'If I thought that I'd tell you,' Yvonne countered.

'I know.' Nikki sighed and took a long drag on her cigarette. 'Listen, I really appreciate the way you've put me up. But I think it's probably about time I sorted out a place of my own.'

'Well let's face it, Nik, we've hardly been playing ideal homes for the past fortnight, have we?' Yvonne smiled, relenting. 'So where you gonna be looking? Round 'ere I suppose?'

'More than likely. Hiring the Noddy-mobile is costing me a fortune, and I don't really fancy the idea of chancing public transport while I wait for my company car to come through.'

Yvonne raised her eyebrows. 'Playing with the big boys now, eh?'

'Senior Management Grade two no less … brand spanking new Vectra and an automatic upgrade on my staff travel tickets.'

'And what's Helen think about the prospect of you being two grades above her?'

'Nothing, why?'

'Don't matter.' Yvonne dismissed the topic of conversation with a shake of her head, Nikki was obviously in a good mood and she didn't want to spoil it by informing her of the trouble she could see ahead. Then she noticed Zandra approaching the table. 'Morning, Zan love.'

'That's a matter of opinion,' Zandra replied, gesturing to one of the spare seats at the table. 'Do you mind?'

'Nah, park yourself before you fall down,' Yvonne said, regarding Zandra's deathly white complexion with concern. 'You know, if you're finding it hard keeping up with Biker Boy I don't mind standing in for you from time to time.' She paused to wink at Nikki who rolled her eyes in reply. ''Ave you seen his arse? Like two satsumas in a bag.'

Nikki laughed, shaking her head. 'I can't say I've ever looked.' She turned her attention to Zandra who was lighting a cigarette with shaky hands. 'Zandra, are you okay?'

'Not really no.' Zandra took a long pull on her cigarette and considered the other two women in silence for a moment. 'I've got a major problem.'

'Go on,' Nikki said softly. 'Whatever it is, it'll stay at this table.'

'Okay, well it's like this … ever since I started seeing Dominic, some twat's been leaving notes in my locker.'

'What sort of notes?' Nikki asked.

Zandra reached into her bag and produced a pile of rumpled scraps of paper. 'Have a look.'

Nikki and Yvonne reached over and took a couple of the notes each.

Filthy Slut. Nikki read, grimacing at the contents of the other note she'd selected. 'I'm not even gonna read this one out loud.' She glanced up at Yvonne, seeing her own distaste mirrored in the older woman's face. 'What about yours?'

Yvonne shook her head as she reached for the remaining scraps of paper. 'You don't need to be Carol Vorderman to work out that whoever's sent these is a couple of cans short of a six-pack.'

'And you think this is something to do with you and Dominic?' Nikki asked Zandra.

'It's gotta be,' Zandra replied. She reached into her bag again and took out a mobile phone with a Pink Panther cover. 'It doesn't end there.'

'You've been getting obscene phone calls as well?'

Zandra shook her head as she handed Nikki her phone. 'Text messages. I've saved them all.'

Nikki quickly scanned through the messages, each one worse than the proceeding one until she saw the last – Youre gonna die U dirty slut! - before passing the phone to Yvonne. 'Do you have any idea about who might be doing this?'

'It's got to be someone at work,' Zandra replied. 'How else would they be able to leave the notes in my locker?'

'She has got a point, Nik.' Yvonne said, as she returned the phone to Zandra. 'Who do we all know who's sick enough to pull a stunt like this?'

'Dockley?' Nikki shook her head. 'She wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire unless there was something in it for her.'

'Well maybe she's got a thing for Dominic. He's a good looking bloke.'

'He's a bit on the young side for her don't you think?' Nikki turned back to Zandra. 'If I were you, I'd take the notes and the phone straight down the nearest cop-shop. Let them sort it out.'

'Nah, I've got a better idea,' Yvonne interjected.

'Yvonne, this is the sort of thing that the Police should be sorting out!' Nikki protested. 'Whoever's sending these notes is sick in the bloody head!'

'Well seeing as this is Zandra's problem, I think she should have the final word.' Yvonne raised her eyebrows when Nikki shook her head disapprovingly. 'Come on, Nik. The dibbles ain't got a snowball's chance in hell of finding out who this is and you know it. As soon as they start sticking their size-tens into it, whoever's behind it is just gonna stop, or worse.'

Nikki leaned back in her chair and raised her hands, defeated. 'Zan, it's up to you.'

'What have you got planned?' Zandra asked Yvonne.

'Let's just say that I've got one or two ideas …' Yvonne stopped talking when the waiter arrived with their breakfast order. 'Leave it with us, Zan. Nikki and me'll sort it out.'

Zandra nodded, seemingly reassured, and rose from the table. 'Thanks.'

Nikki waited until Zandra had gone before leaning across the table towards Yvonne. 'What the fuck are you thinking?'

Yvonne had been in the process of lifting a forkful of fried egg to her mouth, she let it drop back down to the plate with a clatter. 'What if Helen was the one getting the notes? What would you do then?'

'That's completely different and you know it!'

'Zandra's one of ours, Nikki.'

'We work for an airline, Yvonne, not the bloody mafia!' Nikki glared at Yvonne for a moment and then relented. 'Okay, so how about we fill Helen in on this? See what she says?'

'Do me a bleedin' favour, Nik! She'd have the filth in quicker than shit off a hot shovel.'

'Okay, okay,' Nikki conceded Yvonne's point. 'So, what have you got planned?'

Yvonne smiled slowly and popped a piece of bacon into her mouth. 'Two words, Big Brother.'

Unfortunately for Jim Fenner, Marie had also been staying in the hotel that night. Awoken by the racket in the corridor, she'd peered through the spyhole of her door – conveniently located across the corridor from Karen's – and had witnessed the whole thing. Even more unfortunately for Helen and Nikki, she'd also seen them disappearing into Nikki's room together.

Two such incredibly juicy pieces of gossip flew round the building with the speed of an out of control forest fire. Predictably, the Julies were only too happy to fan the flames.

Later that morning, they were filling Dawn in on the gossip when Zandra walked into the canteen.

''Ere, Zan!' Julie J called out. 'We know somefing you don't know!'

Zandra rolled her eyes at Dawn who giggled. 'Go on, who's Nikki shagging this week? Snow White and the Seven twatting Dwarves?'

'Well, we got it off Marie …' Julie J began.

'Yeah, 'cause what happened was, she got woken up by a racket in the hotel corridor,' Julie S continued. 'So she gets up and looks through her peephole …'

'And you'll never guess who she saw standing there, completely stark bollock naked …'

'Lloyd Grossman?' Zandra guessed.

Julie J raised her eyes to heaven. 'Do you wanna hear this or not?'

'Go on.'

'Well anyway,' Julie S continued. 'She only saw Fenner standing there in the buff!'

'And then …' Julie J began.

'Hold on!' Zandra interrupted. 'You're telling me that she saw Fenner doing a flash in the corridor?' Zandra shook her head in disbelief. 'Do me a twatting favour! Marie's usually got more bloody chemicals floating around her system than a portaloo! I'm just surprised that she hallucinated a boring twat like Fenner. Last time it was Anne Robinson operating the bacon slicer at Baguley Tesco's!'

'I suppose she hallucinated Nikki and that Miss Stewart n'all, didn't she?' Julie S snapped.

'And what were they doing in the corridor?' Zandra asked. 'Let me guess, a Lancashire clog-dance?'

'No!' Julie J squealed, hopping from foot to foot excitedly. 'They were only …'

'Holding hands, and then …'

'They both disappeared into Nikki's room.'

Zandra sighed dismissively. 'Well I could've told you that they were shagging ages ago, I …' Her words trailed off when she noticed a stricken expression on Dawn's face. 'What's up with you? You've got a face like a smacked arse!'

'Oh don't, Zan.' Julie S chided. 'Dawn's 'eart-broken, ain't ya, love?'

Dawn snivelled in reply and then retreated to sob silently by the beef mincer.

''Ere, what's up wiv Dawn?'

All three women looked around to see Shell Dockley, resplendent in a skin-tight yellow T-shirt and a black micro-mini-skirt.

'Bloody hell Shell!' Zandra exclaimed. 'Is that a skirt, or a belt?'

'Shut it, loser!' Shell hissed, returning her attention to Dawn. 'I said, what's up wiv Dawn?'

'She's just 'eard about Nikki and that Miss Stewart,' Julie J replied. 'Think she thought she might be the next on Nikki's shag-list.'

'Yeah right!' Zandra scoffed. 'Bodybag's probably higher on the list than she is!'

Shell turned a stony glare onto Zandra. 'I'll crutch you wiv a bleedin' boat-'ook if you don't shut yer 'ole!' Satisfied when Zandra blanched at the threat, she looked down at the Julies. 'Right, what's all this bollocks I've been 'earing about Fenner gettin' his knob out? I fort I'd sorted that Rachel Hicks!'

Hurriedly, the Julies explained what Marie had seen the night before.

'Only she's not sure whose door 'e was bangin' on,' Julie S explained. 'Coulda been Bettsy's, Yvonne's or Nikki's.'

'It can't have been, Nikki,' Julie J deduced. 'Marie said she didn't see 'er and Miss Stewart arrive 'til after Fenner was in the corridor.'

'Jesus Christ all-friggin'-mighty!' Shell exclaimed, rolling her eyes. 'When you've finished, Agatha fucking Christie! If it's bleedin' obvious to a pair of spanners like you that it weren't nuffing to do wiv Wade, don't you think that thought might've occurred to me? The name's Shell, not spazzer, right?'

'There's no way Yvonne would touch Fenner with a barge-pole,' Zandra speculated. 'It's gotta be Cruella.'

'Smarty suit Betts, eh?' Shell hissed. 'Just you wait 'til I get me hands on 'im!'

The Julies exchanged a worried look when Shell stalked away.

'Tears before bedtime, Jue?'

'Definitely, Jue.'

'Well.' Zandra said, folding her arms. 'It's probably a good job that Fenner got a chance to waggle his todger about in public last night. I should imagine that Shell's got him in line for the Bobbit treatment this morning.'

Helen had been on her way to see Nikki when she'd overheard some disturbing gossip in the corridor. A few seconds later, she erupted into Nikki's office without knocking. The woman in question was poring over a copy of the Manchester Evening News while she worked her way down a packet of chocolate Digestives, and totally oblivious to the crisis.

'Nikki, I think we've got a problem.'

Nikki looked up in concern, not realising that she was letting her biscuit dissolve into her coffee until she moved to retrieve it. 'Shit!' she exclaimed when the biscuit flopped into her mug. 'Don't you just hate it when that happens?'

'Nikki, everyone knows that we spent the night together last night.'

'Well it was bound to happen sooner or later,' Nikki replied calmly, reaching for a teaspoon to fish the blobs of biscuit out of her mug. 'The whole bloody call centre saw us holding hands at the conference. Come on, you know how fast gossip flies round a place like this.' She looked up, eyes narrowing. 'Is this a problem for you?'


'People knowing.'

'I … er … I suppose not,' Helen replied with a shrug. 'What about you?'

'Why should it be a problem for me?' Nikki countered. She looked down into her mug and frowned. 'The only problem I've got at the moment is this bloody biscuit!'

'I was actually thinking more along the lines of how all this is going to affect your promotion.'

'I shouldn't worry about that,' Nikki said dismissively. 'Omar was so desperate for me to retract my resignation I don't think he would've cared if I'd stripped naked, stuck a radish up my arse and run around the car park singing 'Hit Me Baby One More Time'. Anyway, everyone knows he's a complete trollop. It doesn't seem to have affected his career.' Nikki looked up, suddenly concerned. 'What about you? This isn't going to screw things up for you is it?'

'This is a stroll in the park compared to Sean's little outburst,' Helen replied with a reassuring smile. 'Anyway, whatever happens out of the building is our business, no one else's.'

'So a quickie under the desk is out of the question then?' Nikki grinned when Helen shook her head disapprovingly. 'Sorry, couldn't resist.'

Helen sighed. 'Nikki, I'm not saying that this isn't going to be difficult for me to come to terms with, it's just …' She paused, looking down at the floor. 'There's just no signposts anymore. I don't know what to expect from one minute to the next, apart from the fact that it won't be normal.'

'So what's normal?' Nikki asked. 'A husband? Two-point-four kids? You had that on a plate, Helen but you decided you wanted me instead.'

'I also wanted kids one day.'

Nikki crossed over to the other side of the desk and crouched down in front of Helen's chair. 'You can still have them, there are ways,' she said soothingly. 'But don't you think you might be trying to run before you can walk? I mean, we've only just managed to sort out the basis for a relationship. I think it's a little too early to start planning a semi-detached full of little Helens and Nikkis.'

Helen smiled at this image. 'You're right, I'm sorry.'

'There's nothing to apologise for. I was just worried that you were beginning to take this badly.'

Helen looked up, surprised. 'Why?'

'To all intents and purposes you've just been outed.'

'I think Sean did that, don't you?'

'But this time it's official.'

'Oh really? And do I get a badge and a certificate?' Helen asked acidly.

Nikki returned the smile briefly before leaning over to take Helen's hands. 'Please don't think for a second that I don't understand how difficult this is for you. But, Helen, you must know that this is what you really want. Look at all the shit you've been through … we've been through to get here. Don't start doubting it now.'

'I'm not.' Helen squeezed Nikki's hands and then leaned forward to kiss her. 'Honestly I'm not.'

'That's okay then.' Nikki studied Helen for a moment longer and then stood. She returned to the other side of the desk. 'Well, Ms Stewart, we're going to see just how serious you are this weekend.'

'Why? What have you got planned?'

'You're going to help me choose a flat. I've made some appointments with a letting agency on Saturday afternoon.'

'But that's when the furniture's due to arrive.'

Nikki looked up and frowned. 'The bed?' She reached for the phone when Helen nodded. 'I do hope you realise that after all the trouble you've put me to, I'm expecting nothing less than a king-sized waterbed with satin sheets and a built in vibration feature.'

'Uncanny!' Helen replied, standing up. 'Only thing is, you forgot about the trapeze.'

'Tra …' Helen's face had been so serious that for the briefest of seconds, Nikki had fallen for it. 'Very funny.'

'But am I?' Helen winked and then walked over to the door, pausing just before she reached it 'Oh, I meant to tell you, the new IT Manager will be starting next week.'

'Next week?' Nikki looked up indignantly, slamming the phone down. 'And what the hell am I? Scotch bloody mist?'

'You're only going to be here for another fortnight,' Helen replied. 'And anyway, he's just been promoted up, used to be a senior technician down at Heathrow.'

'Well that's all I bloody need! Two weeks spoon-feeding some bloke who doesn't know the first thing about how a call-centre's run.'

'Well neither did you when you first came here.'

'That's not the point.' Nikki replied. She rolled her eyes and then let out a long-suffering sigh. 'Leave it with me. I'll stick him with Lorna. She can show him the ropes.'

'No, you'll do it yourself,' Helen said firmly. 'If I've got to lose you, I at least want your replacement to have your knowledge.'

Nikki leaned back into her chair and grinned. 'What … all of it?

'Think you're special do you? If I recall I ended up teaching you a thing or two last night.'

'I'm not …' Nikki, paused, feeling her stomach flip. 'I'm not sure I like the idea of leaving now. You don't have the best reputation where IT Managers are concerned do you?'

'Nikki, I've seen his personnel file.'

'Ugly is he?' Nikki asked hopefully.

'No, but he does look like he was around when they invented the punch-card.'

'Oh great, so he's going to spend the entire two weeks boring the tits off me,' Nikki grumbled. 'Believe me, Helen, you don't know what real boredom is until you meet someone who can claim to remember the time when computers were large enough to take up the entire floor of a building.'

'Just do your best will you?' Helen asked. 'For me?'

'I'd do anything for you, you know that.'

'That's okay then.' Helen flashed a quick look towards the door before retracing her steps. She leaned across Nikki's desk as if to kiss her.

Nikki had been looking up at Helen expectantly. The last thing she expected was the hand that reached out of nowhere to whip one of the biscuits off the top of the packet. 'Oi!' she shouted.


Yvonne walked into the office just as Helen was walking out with a wide grin on her face. 'What's gotten into her?' she asked, closing the door behind her. 'On second thoughts, don't answer that.'

'What can I do for you, Yvonne?'

'Time to put Operation Big Brother into effect. Where's Shaz?'

'In the other office,' Nikki replied. 'Bodybag caught her running a book out on the sales floor and chucked her off the phones.'

'Running a book on what?'

'On who locked Fenner out in the corridor last night,' Nikki explained. 'Karen's odds on favourite at the moment. The story is now that it was a lover's tiff.'

'Stuck up cow's gonna love that!' Yvonne laughed and walked over to open the door that separated Nikki's office from the rest of the department. Opening it, she poked her head into the main office. 'Oi, Flash 'Arry! Get your bleedin' arse in 'ere, pronto!'

Shaz strolled over to Nikki's office with the air of a cocky schoolboy approaching the headmaster for six of the best.

'Shut the door behind you,' Yvonne said, holding out a chair for Shaz to sit down in. 'We've got a little job for you.'

'Oh yeah? And what's in it for me?' Shaz swallowed heavily when Yvonne shot a murderous glance in her direction. 'Yeah, right … sorted.'

'It had better be, sunshine, because if one word of what we're about to ask you to do gets out, Nikki'll be holding you down while I give you a good slapping, goddit?'

Shaz nodded immediately.

'Good, I'm glad we understand each other.'

'So what do you want me to do?' Shaz asked, now sitting attentively in her seat.

Yvonne leaned back against Nikki's desk, her face serious. 'I was just coming to that.'

After checking that the coast was clear, Shell Dockley locked herself into a toilet cubicle and took Rachel Hick's mobile phone out of her bra. It hadn't taken much for the terrified teenager to give it up, but Shell had slapped her anyway … she always believed in taking her pleasure before settling down to business.

Shell reached into her bra again and took out a crumpled piece of paper. On it was written a telephone number she'd copied out of a file in the HR office. She rolled her eyes as she keyed the number into the phone. That stupid Scottish slag, Stewart, was probably too busy dipping her dykey fingers into Wade's knickers to realise that she'd left the door unlocked.

After only two rings, the phone was picked up.


'Hullo? Is that Mrs Fenner?' Shell asked, putting on a gruff voice.

'Yes, who's this?'

'That ain't important.'

'What do you want?'

'I just want a little word in your shell-like. Word is your hubby's been playing away from home.'

'Who is this? Is this some sort of joke?'

'It ain't no joke. Ask Shell Dockley. He's been shaggin' her for ages.'


'Just ask 'im, he'll know what you're talking about.'

Shell grinned as she cut the call off. It was time for Jim Fenner to learn that nobody got away with treating Shell Dockley like an idiot.


Chapter Nineteen

After a day spent enduring wise-cracks and amused looks over the hotel corridor incident, Jim Fenner was in dire need of a lazy night in front of the TV with a can of beer. The fact that people knew was embarrassing, but the thought that he'd fallen for such an obvious set up was even worse. As he drove home from work, his stupidity began to eat away at him, stoking up his anger against Yvonne and Karen.

As he opened his front door, the last thing he expected was to find his wife, Marilyn, sitting at the base of the stairs with a face like thunder.

'What's up with your face?' Fenner barked as he placed his briefcase on the hall table. He experienced a sinking sensation in his stomach as he wondered if someone might have spilt the beans to her about the hotel incident.

'Who the bloody hell is Shell Dockley?' Marilyn snapped, rising up off the stairs to confront him.

For a moment, Fenner stared at her, struggling to keep his composure as his brain ground to a halt. 'What?'

'Shell Dockley.' Marilyn repeated the name through gritted teeth. 'How long have you been shagging her?'

Fenner felt all of the blood in his body rush to his head as his body was gripped with blind panic. 'Marilyn, what on earth are you talking about?' he eventually stammered.

'Some bloody woman called me up this afternoon and told me,' Marilyn explained, grabbing her husband's arm. 'How the hell do you think it made me feel?'

Finally, Fenner felt his capacity for logical thought returning. 'Oh come on, Marilyn! It's one of the girls having a laugh. You know what they're like at my place.'

'Well she sounded pretty bloody convincing to me!'

'And you believe some stupid tart over your own husband do you?'

'Well I don't know. You spend so much time working late these days,' Marilyn countered, placing her hands on her hips. 'How do I know you're not up to something?'

'Oh I've had enough of this!' Fenner pushed past Marilyn and stormed into the kitchen. 'I get enough ear-ache from stupid bloody women at work, the last thing I need is you going on too!'

By the time Marilyn arrived in the kitchen, Fenner had taken a can of Carlsberg out of the fridge. He was holding it against his forehead, grimacing with pain. She walked over to him, concern overriding her suspicions.

'Are you okay, Jim?'

'Crap day,' Fenner replied, smiling inwardly at his ability to defuse the situation. 'I've got one hell of a headache.' He sighed and cracked open the can of beer, taking a long swallow. 'Look, darling, this is just a stupid prank and I promise you, when I find out who made that phone call I'm gonna have her kicked out so quick her head'll spin.'

'So who's this Shell Dockley?' Marilyn asked.

'One of the girls on the phones.'

'And have you been seeing her?'

'Bloody hell, Marilyn!' Fenner exclaimed in disbelief 'Do you honestly think I'd jeopardise fifteen years of marriage to shag some stupid bleached-blonde slapper?'

Marilyn frowned and folded her arms. 'Well, I'll tell you something, Jim. If I find out that you have been playing away from home I'll castrate you.'

'Oh for Christ's sake! What do you want me to do? Swear on a bloody bible or something?'

'I'm sorry,' Marilyn relented. 'It's not like I don't trust you, but I know what sort of distractions there are at your place.'

Fenner crossed the room and placed his hands on Marilyn's shoulders. He'd managed to squirm his way out of the corner she'd pushed him in but he needed to make sure he was beyond suspicion.

'It really hurts when you don't trust me,' he said, looking directly into her eyes. 'Why would I want to mess around when I've got you?'

'I'm sorry, Jim.' Marilyn sighed, allowing him to pull her into his arms.

Jim held Marilyn close and smiled.


Sometimes it seemed like there wasn't a woman on earth he couldn't handle. And with that thought, he put his mind to work on how to get even with Yvonne and Karen.

The vast numbers of phone calls that the call-centre had received during the strike were finally beginning to return to acceptable levels now that things were getting back to normal. The general level of tired hysteria that had gripped the sales floor over the past few days was also beginning to recede, and as the urgency to take calls disappeared, the majority of the telephone agents returned to their usual working practices … namely, avoiding doing more than they could get away with.

One of the agents in question was Shell Dockley who was wasting a few minutes by pretending to study the latest copy of the fare tariffs while she gossiped with Marie. She had another motive for this though. Marie's desk was only a few feet away from the glass partition separating Fenner's office from the rest of the sales floor. As she pretended to listen to Marie's account of the party she'd been through the night before, she was aware of him staring at her.

Fenner wandered out of his office and placed a hand on Shell's elbow. 'Can I have a word in private, please?'

Shell winked at Marie and then turned to face Fenner, smiling sweetly. 'Something I can do for you, Sir?'

'I want a word about your call stats,' Fenner replied, increasing the pressure on her arm. 'In my office.'

'Whatever you say, Sir.'

Shell was unable to keep the grin from her face as she followed Fenner into his office.

'Someone phoned Marilyn yesterday afternoon' Fenner anounced as he closed the office door. 'Someone who told her that we were having an affair.'

Shell gasped, her expression one of disbelief. 'But who? Who'd do that Jim?'

'What? You can't think? It's obvious isn't it?' Fenner was staring out of the glass partition, gritting his teeth as his eyes came to settle on Yvonne. 'Atkins.'

Shell hid a smile as she crossed to join Fenner by the window. 'The evil psycho bitch! So what did your wife say, Jim?'

'She just thinks that some sicko's playing games. That's what I told her anyway.'

'She's not giving you a hard time then?'

Fenner turned from the window, frowning at Shell suspiciously. 'Course not,' he replied. 'She trusts me.'

Shell was careful to keep her face expressionless over the rising frustration she felt. 'So what you gonna do about Atkins?'

'Don't you worry. I've got plans for her,' Fenner said, turning back to the window. He smirked as he watched Yvonne chatting with Nikki. 'She won't know what's hit her.'

'Yeah, well be careful, she's a psycho,' Shell warned.

Fenner raised an eyebrow. 'You know her better than me do you?'

Shell shook her head. 'Course not, Jim.'

Fenner nodded and returned to his desk 'Go on then, hop it.'

Shell sauntered out of Fenner's office and headed straight for the toilets. So Mrs Fenner trusted her bastard husband did she? Shell began to see it as her duty to put the poor, misguided cow right.

Fenner was sitting with his feet up on his desk, staring into a mug of tea as he pondered the Yvonne problem, when the door to his office flew open and Helen walked in.

'Not interrupting anything am I, Jim?' Helen asked, raising her eyebrows as he swung his feet off the desk, spilling his tea down the front of his shirt in the process.

'Shit!' Fenner snapped, brushing at the wet patch on his shirt. 'That was clean on this morning!' He looked up at Helen, scowling. 'What do you want anyway?'

'I want you to take the IT team off the phones this weekend,' Helen replied as she closed the office door behind her. 'The volume of calls is getting back to normal now, so there's no reason why people can't get back to doing their usual jobs.'

Fenner's scowl transformed itself into an oily smirk. 'I don't suppose this is anything to do with the fact that your girlfriend is supposed to be rostered off this weekend, is it?'

Helen disarmed Fenner by returning his smile. 'Nikki and I were hoping to spend the weekend together, yes,' she said confidently. 'Do you have a problem with that?'

'I don't have a problem with it,' Fenner replied, turning his attention to the rosters. 'Head Office might though.'

'Jim, whoever I chose to have a relationship with is my business, no one else's,' Helen stated firmly.

'Not even when you're using your influence to change that person's shifts?' Fenner observed. 'Smacks of favouritism to me,' he added smugly.

'Oh really? Well I wonder what Head Office would have to say about the fact that you forced Nikki into a position where she was having to work fifteen hour shifts.' Helen took a step closer to the desk, leaning towards Fenner. 'And then there's your antics in that hotel corridor.'

'That wasn't my fault!'

'Did you hear about that incident in Johannesburg, Jim? Two members of cabin staff discovered having sex under a grand piano in the Hilton … both were dismissed immediately for bringing the airline into disrepute.'

'Are you threatening me?'

'Just playing you at your own game,' Helen replied. She reached out and picked up the rosters Fenner had been referring to. 'Right, so we're agreed. The IT staff can return to their normal duties this weekend.'

Fenner sat back in his chair and watched her making the necessary amendments to the rosters. 'You know, I always thought there was something dykey about you. So bloody ambitious that you can't stand a man on top of you in or out of bed. Only thing is, how are you going to cope when it's a woman?'

Helen looked up from the rosters and rolled her eyes. 'Meaning?'

'Wade's promotion,' Fenner replied, relishing the slight waver on Helen's face. 'Mind you, the word around Head Office is that you've got quite a reputation for opening your legs for senior IT managers.'

Helen's initial reaction was to slap the smug expression off Fenner's face, but she was determined not to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he'd angered her. 'It's about time Nikki got some recognition for all her hard work,' she said calmly.

'And I suppose you'll be giving her your own personal recognition this weekend,' Fenner continued. 'I know I knock her, but she must be something else in bed if you're prepared to stoop to any level to have her to yourself,' he added, folding his arms as he leaned back into his chair.

Again, Helen stunned Fenner by smiling. 'You want to know the truth?' She leaned across the desk, aware that she was providing him with a clear view down the front of her blouse. 'You really want to know how she makes me feel?'

Fenner was so transfixed by Helen's cleavage that he didn't notice her reach out with her hand toward his mug of tea until it was too late. She swept the mug off the desk so it landed in his lap and took a step back when he shot out of his chair with a strangled yelp.

'You stupid bitch!' Fenner howled as he pulled at the front of his trousers, forced in the end to unzip them to prevent the hot tea from scalding him any further. 'What the bloody hell did you do that for?'

'I didn't see how else I could explain hot, wet and burning with desire to a man of your limited intellect.' Helen grinned and opened the door. 'Watch it, Jim. You're getting quite a reputation for flashing in front of the staff.' She stepped through the open door and closed it behind her.

Fenner experienced extreme humiliation for the second time in two days when he received a standing ovation from the women on the sales floor.

Yvonne Atkins stood in the ladies locker room on the ground floor and watched Shaz as she clambered up on top of the row of lockers that lined the back wall. Zandra's locker was located in the top right hand corner of the T-shaped room and the plan was to place the webcam on top of the locker directly opposite. Shaz would then activate the motion sensor and record the comings and goings.

'This is gonna work isn't it?' Yvonne asked as Shaz taped the camera down on top of the locker.

'It'll work,' Shaz replied confidently. 'We even got a shot of Fenner picking his nose once!'

Yvonne was too distracted to smile. She'd been convinced that operation Big Brother was going to be a success, but as she got her first look at the webcam – more like an oversized golf ball than the sophisticated piece of equipment she'd been expecting – she began to experience doubts.

'Don't look much like a camera to me,' Yvonne observed.

'For God's sake!' Shaz exclaimed, momentarily forgetting who she was speaking to. 'It'll bloody work. Now stop battering me head!'

'Watch your bleedin' mouth, smart arse,' Yvonne countered menacingly. 'Otherwise that camera will be recording a view of your lower intestines.'

The door to the locker room banged open. Shaz almost fell off the locker in surprise when Shell and Denny breezed into the room.

'What the fuck do you two want?' Yvonne snapped. 'Piss off!'

'I don't fink so,' Shell replied, propelling Denny ahead of her as she walked towards Yvonne. 'You see, Den's been telling me all about your little plan … ain't ya, Denny me darlin'?'

Denny nodded guiltily. 'Sorry, Shaz.'

'I don't fucking believe this!' Yvonne howled. 'What do you want, Dockley?'

'Personally, I think the sick bastard who's sendin' Zan those notes deserves everyfing they get. The only thing is, I don't reckon Stewart would see it like that.' Shell smiled at Yvonne. 'You see, I've got this idea about doin' a bit of amateur film-makin' meself. So, if you 'elp me out wiv that, I'll make sure Stewart don't get to find out.'

'Sorry, Dockley, no deal,' Yvonne replied. 'You see, if you mention one word of this to anyone, I'll rip your lungs out and make you wear 'em as earmuffs!'

'So you're not interested in gettin' one over on that bastard Fenner then?'

Yvonne considered this for a second. 'Why?' she asked suspiciously. 'What have you got planned?'

Shell grinned as she leaned back against a nearby locker. 'I was just coming to that.'

Nikki slammed the phone down and swore extensively. Why was it that just when things had started to go right with Helen, that the whole world decided to conspire against her?

Five minutes ago, she had been scanning through the Property to Let section of the Sale and Altrincham Messenger, when Nasser Al Borami rang from Head Office. It turned out that Jim McIvor, the IT Manager over in the Belfast office had burst his appendix. Unfortunately, Jim's predicament coincided with a major systems upgrade that was due to take place that coming weekend. Nasser wanted Nikki to fly over there and fill in.

Shit, Nikki thought to herself, Helen's going to go completely up the wall!

Just as she resolved to go and see Helen, fate decreed that the woman herself should choose that exact moment to walk through the door of her office. She was smiling and Nikki felt a sinking sensation in her stomach.

'It's good news,' Helen said, sitting down on the edge of Nikki's desk. 'I've just managed to get Jim to agree to pull your team off the phones this weekend, which means …' Her words trailed off when she saw the uncomfortable look on Nikki's face. 'What? What's the matter?'

'I … er …' Nikki sighed and pushed herself out of her chair. She walked out from behind her desk and approached Helen. 'The thing is … I've got to work this weekend.'

Helen smiled, assuming that Nikki had misunderstood. 'No, Nikki, you don't understand. You're definitely not working this weekend. I've just amended the rosters myself.'

'Okay, I'm just gonna come out with this, okay?' Nikki took a deep breath. 'Nas just phoned. He needs me to cover a systems upgrade in Belfast this weekend.'

Helen gasped in total disbelief. 'What?'

'Their IT Manager's in hospital with a burst appendix.'

'Yeah, but why you?' Helen asked, raising a hand to her forehead. 'Why can't Nas go over there himself?'

'Because he's asked me to go,' Nikki replied. 'He seems to think – and I agree with him – that going over there will be good for me. You know, to give me a taste of what I can expect from my new role.'

Helen's jawline tightened in anger. 'So what you're telling me is that you'd rather spend a weekend working in Belfast than with me?'

'No, Helen I'm not saying that at all!'


'Oh come on!' Nikki snapped, struggling to hold on to her temper. 'Don't tell me you've never had to put off your plans because something came up at work.

'This is different,' Helen countered.

'Yeah, I thought it might be.'


'Meaning, it's different when it's someone else who won't jump to your tune isn't it?' The words were out of Nikki's mouth before she could stop them and she regretted them almost immediately. 'Oh shit … Helen, I'm sorry.'

'So you should be!' Helen said angrily. 'Did you stop to think that the reason I'm upset is because I was looking forward to this weekend? Of course you didn't, you just did what you always do … open your mouth and think afterwards.'

'I'm upset about it too you know.' Nikki reinforced her words by walking over to Helen, placing her hands on her shoulders. 'This job is really important to me, Helen. I thought you understood that. The last thing I want is another relationship with someone who's going to get pissed off every time I have to work late.'

Helen remembered the way Sean used to sulk when she got caught late at work and nodded, showing that she understood. 'When's your flight?'

'This evening,' Nikki replied, gently moving her hands across Helen's shoulders.

'And when will you be back?'

'Some time on Sunday most probably.' Nikki smiled, realising that Helen's anger was abating. 'I'll make it up to you, I promise.'


'That's completely up to you. I could always come straight over to yours from the airport.'

Helen smiled in reply. 'I'd like that.'

'I am really sorry.'

'I know.'

Nikki looked around to check that the blinds separating her office from the rest of the department were down before leaning in to kiss Helen briefly. However, just as she did so, the door leading to the corridor flew open and Shaz flew into the room. Immediately stopping in her tracks, she blanched at the murderous look on Nikki's face.

'Shit! I mean sorry … er …' Shaz stammered.

'What is it, Shaz?' Nikki asked tersely as she stepped away from Helen.

'Er … I need to have a word, Nikki.' Shaz answered, unable to resist a sly smirk when she saw that Helen was blushing. 'Didn't realise that you were busy.'

'Well obviously not, otherwise you would've knocked!' Nikki snapped. 'Don't just stand there gawping. What do you want?'

'Yvonne sent me to get you.'

'She knows where I am. Why the bloody hell can't she come and see me herself?'

'It's about her brother,' Shaz replied, dropping a very obvious wink.

Nikki was aware of the questioning look that Helen shot in her direction as she nodded at Shaz. 'Okay, where is she?'

'The ladies locker room.'

'Tell her I'll be there in five minutes.' Nikki watched Shaz go and then turned back to Helen. 'I suppose I'd better go and see what she wants.'

Helen frowned suspiciously. 'What are you up to Nikki?'

'Nothing,' Nikki protested. 'Honestly!'

'I suppose I'll just have to give you the benefit of the doubt then, won't I?' Helen said, not convinced. 'What time's your flight?'

'Six o'clock, but I've got to pick up some stuff from Yvonne's first, so I'll probably leave here about three.'

'Stop by to say goodbye before you go.'


Nikki waited thirty seconds before heading off in the direction of the back stairs.

Nikki arrived on the ground floor just as Shell Dockley and Denny were stepping into the lift. Shell flashed a smug smile in her direction but she ignored it and headed straight past reception. Heading through the door that led her past Helen's old office, she proceeded down the corridor until she reached the locker room. The door was locked. Rolling her eyes, Nikki rapped on it sharply.

'Open the bloody door!' she shouted. 'It's Nikki.'

Yvonne opened the door, quickly scanned the corridor and then motioned Nikki inside.

'What did you lock the door for?' Nikki asked. 'More importantly, how come I'm down here in the first place?'

'I wanted to make sure that you're up to speed with what's happening.'

Nikki sighed with exasperation. 'So why didn't you come upstairs and fill me in?'

'Because I never know who I'm gonna find lurking around your office these days,' Yvonne replied. 'Just humour me yeah?' She stared at Nikki for a moment longer before looking up at Shaz. 'Now, that camera is working isn't it, Shaz?'

Shaz waved her hands in front of the lens and then reached into her trouser pocket, producing a grubby looking handkerchief. She draped it over the webcam to disguise it, before climbing down off the locker.

'It's working.'

Yvonne nodded. 'Okay, now, what are you gonna do first thing on Monday morning?'

'I'm gonna check what's been recorded and go straight to Nikki if I see anything.' Shaz repeated Yvonne's instructions in a bored voice. 'Then I go and get Zandra and bring her back to the office.'

Yvonne turned her attention to Nikki. 'What about you?'

'I give you a call and then take Zandra along to see Helen.'

'And you know what to say when you get there?'

Nikki sighed. 'I should do, we've only been through this about a hundred times.' She regarded Yvonne impatiently. 'But what I don't understand is what you're going to be doing while we're in with Helen.'

Yvonne smiled but it didn't quite reach her eyes and Nikki felt an involuntary shiver travel the length of her spine.

'Go on, you. Hop it!' Yvonne said to Shaz who didn't need telling twice.

Nikki waited until the terrified teenager had closed the door behind her before turning back to Yvonne. 'What are you gonna do?'

'Less you know the better,' Yvonne replied.

'But, Yvonne, I thought the whole point of this was for us to get video evidence that Helen can turn over to the Police. If you go after whoever's doing it, you're the one who's going to end up going down.'

'Don't worry, Nik.' Yvonne said, reinforcing her words with another smile. 'Trust me. I know what I'm doing.'

Karen sat behind her desk, smoking an illicit cigarette as she stared down at the duty travel authorisation form awaiting her signature. As far as she was aware, Nikki wasn't due to start her new job for a fortnight, yet here was a form requesting a return ticket to Belfast and a corresponding request for a hotel reservation. After a moment's further consideration, she stubbed out her cigarette, picked up the forms and set off in search of Helen.

The General Manager's office was situated just across the corridor from hers, and after a brief knock on the outer office door, she opened it.

Monica was rummaging around in one of the drawers of the filing cabinet behind her desk. She looked up impatiently.

'Is Helen about?' Karen asked

'Yes, she's got Nikki in there at the moment.' Monica replied, colouring slightly as she closed the filing cabinet drawer. 'It might be wise for you to wait until they're finished.'

Karen nodded, smiling slightly as Monica turned her attention to her in-tray, flicking through the pile of papers there. 'What are you looking for?'

'The authorisation forms for Nikki's flights to Belfast,' Monica replied. Shaking her head, she let out a long sigh. 'It's no good. I can't find them anywhere.'

'That's because I've got them,' Karen said, holding up the forms in question. 'Denny was late bringing the post round this afternoon. I only got them myself about ten minutes ago.'

Monica frowned with disapproval. 'I'll have to ask Barbara to have another word with Denny. Not that it'll do any good.'

Just then the door leading to Helen's office opened and Nikki emerged, followed almost immediately by Helen. Karen raised her eyebrows when she noticed that both women seemed rather flustered. Helen in particular blushed deeply when she saw the Finance Manager.

'Were you waiting to see me, Karen?' Helen asked. 'I'm sorry, Nikki and I were just …'

'Discussing the weather?' Nikki offered, winking at Karen and receiving a swift nudge in the ribs from Helen's elbow. 'Ow! What was that for?'

Ignoring Nikki, Helen turned her attention to Monica. 'Have you found Nikki's travel forms yet, Monica?' She asked, trying to hide her obvious embarrassment behind briskness. 'She's got to leave now.'

'I've got them,' Karen said, holding the forms out to Nikki. 'This trip is a bit short notice isn't it?'

'Yeah, only heard about it this morning,' Nikki replied. Folding the forms, she stuffed them into her shirt pocket. 'Right, I'd better get off.' She turned to Helen and smiled. 'I'll give you a ring when I get there.'

Helen seemed to visibly deflate when Nikki closed the door behind her. Karen saw this and exchanged a concerned look with Monica.

'Are you okay?' Karen asked.

Helen nodded distractedly still looking at the door. 'I'm fine.' She shook herself and then smiled over at Karen. 'Do you want to come through?'

Inside the office, Helen gestured for Karen to sit down in the chair opposite her desk, before settling down in her own chair.

'What can I do for you?' she asked.

'I was surprised when I saw those forms of Nikki's,' Karen replied. 'I thought you two were spending the weekend together.'

Helen sighed and stood up to stand by the window. 'So did I.'

'So what happened, if you don't mind me asking?'

'My ex seems to have put a spanner in the works.'

Karen's eyes widened in surprise. 'Who? Sean?'

'No, Nasser Al Borami.' Helen replied. She turned away from the window and smiled at the look of total astonishment on Karen's face. 'We had a bit of a fling just before I met Sean. He was up here a while ago to try to persuade Nikki to retract her resignation. We bumped into each other in the corridor. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but then one of my friends down at Head Office phoned this morning.' She frowned and returned to her chair. 'Turns out he's been asking all sorts of questions about who I'm seeing now that I've split up with Sean.'

'And you think he might have sent Nikki to Belfast on purpose?'

'Not at first,' Helen replied. 'Well, not until he phoned me about an hour ago. He's at a conference up here this weekend,' she explained. 'Wanted to know if I fancied meeting up for dinner.'

'And what did you say?'

'No of course,' Helen said sharply. 'I told him I was seeing someone else.'

'Let me guess, he didn't sound that surprised?'

'Asked me to give his regards to Nikki.'

Karen raised an eyebrow. 'This could prove difficult,' she commented. 'Now that Nikki's working directly under him, he can send her all over the country … cause trouble between the two of you and then move in himself.'

'That's exactly what I thought … at first.' Helen said. 'No, I think this was a one time only thing. He's intelligent enough to recognise a lost cause when he sees one. Anyway, he didn't exactly have to order Nikki over there.'

'She wanted to go?'

'She's really excited about this new job.'

'But still …' Karen paused when she observed Helen slumping in her chair. 'Are things okay between the two of you?'

'I was really proud of her when she was offered this promotion. I'm just starting to realise that it also means her spending a lot of time away.'

'And then there's the fact that she'll be on a higher grade than you,' Karen said shrewdly. 'Especially when Simon returns, and you're back on the same crappy pay as the rest of us.'

'I'm that obvious am I?' Helen asked, turning back to the window. 'I don't know. It just annoys me a bit that I can be stuck in the same position for four years and then when I finally do get a chance like this, Tim Murray's on my back all of the time. Whereas …'

'Nikki just has to threaten to resign to be offered a plum job?' Karen deduced. 'Helen, I can see where you're coming from, but if anyone deserves that job, Nikki does.'

'I know she does, and I'm really pleased for her, honestly I am.' Helen turned from the window and smiled. 'God! I sound like a real bitch, don't I?'

'No, I'd probably feel the same way,' Karen replied, returning the smile. 'Now, seeing as you're at a loose end this weekend how about we hit the town tomorrow night? Dinner … bar … maybe a club afterwards?'

Helen thought for a moment and then nodded. 'Yeah, why not? It'll serve Nikki right for abandoning me.'

Karen smiled and rose from her seat. 'Saturday?'

'How does Wetherspoons sound? Eight o'clock?'

'Fine by me. See you there.'

Karen left the room and Helen returned to her chair. Just as she did so, her mobile phone beeped, signalling a message. The phone was sitting on top of a pile of personnel files and she picked it up, smiling when she saw that the message was from Nikki.

Missing you already … will call later … love you. N xx

Helen felt a stab of guilt as she recalled her conversation with Karen. The way she felt baffled her slightly. She'd never felt this level of resentment about Sean's hugely inflated salary, or his private income. Although, she had always found it more than a little annoying that he'd never had to work hard for the things he had, had never really shown any ambition. Nikki was like that too. She was hard working, but Helen knew that deep down, she would probably be happy to stay in the same job for the rest of her life. Doing the job well was what mattered to her, not advancement.

The more Helen thought about it, the more she realised how childish she was being. She loved Nikki, and she was determined that she wasn't going to let this come between them … not after everything they'd been through to get this far.

Retrieving her phone, Helen quickly keyed in a reply.

missing u 2. safe flight. love u. h x

Jim Fenner was not having a good day. After Helen had drenched him in tea, he'd received a right royal ear bashing over the phone from Tim Murray for being late with his monthly report for the fourth time in a row. The report in question was still incomplete on the computer screen in front of him … taunting him.

He looked up at the clock on his office wall and saw that it was just after four o'clock. Officially, he was supposed to work until five but an early finish and the prospect of crashing out on the settee at home greatly outweighed the miniscule risk of being caught. Anyway, he'd learnt a long time ago that being on the management team had its privileges – namely, people assuming that you were in a meeting when you weren't around.

Decision made, Fenner pulled on his suit jacket and reached for his briefcase. He debated taking the report with him to finish at home, but then quickly decided against it. It was darts night down the local pub on Friday.

A couple of minutes later, Fenner was standing in the corridor and waiting for the lift. Just as the door opened, Shell Dockley sauntered through the sales room door. She smiled sweetly at him as she walked into the lift, folding her arms as she leaned back against the far wall.

'Going down, Mr Fenner?' she asked.

Fenner ignored the double-entendre and stepped into the lift. He pressed the button to the ground floor and then turned to stand with his back to Shell, determined to get through the entire journey without acknowledging her. The last thing he needed right now was another bloody argument about Rachel Hicks.

He could see Shell's reflection in the mirrored doors … mini-skirted legs and a tight T-shirt cut low enough to reveal awe-inspiring cleavage. He felt his face beginning to burn and realised that his body was beginning to rebel against the orders his head was giving.

'I know you're looking at me,' Shell said softly.

Fenner could almost feel the steam coming out of his ears as he watched her run a hand down the front of her body, lingering over her breasts, down over her stomach and …

He closed his eyes. 'Stop it, Shell.'

'Why? You look like you're enjoying it.'

'Just leave it out will you?' Fenner took a deep breath feeling as she moved closer. He felt her breasts pushing into his back. 'What do you want, Shell?'

'I want you.' Shell replied. She reached around Fenner and ran her hand down over his stomach. She grinned when she discovered that she had his full attention. 'Come on, Jim. It's been ages. It's driving me mad.'

Fenner grabbed Shell's hand, preventing any further assault. 'Not here.'

'The locker room's always empty at this time,' Shell suggested, hiding a grin by burying her face into his back. 'There's a lock on the door too.'

The lift had reached the ground floor and Shell pushed past Fenner when the doors opened.

'I'll see you in there.' She whispered.

Fenner nodded, he waited until she disappeared through the door on the other end of the foyer before stepping out of the lift.

Bobby Hollamby was watching Esther on his portable TV behind the security desk. He looked up and nodded at Fenner who ambled over.

'Men that dress up as women,' Bobby explained, pointing at the TV. 'Don't know what the world's coming to!'

'Bloody sick isn't it?' Fenner agreed, pretending to be interested in the programme.

He looked round the deserted foyer. Whatever part of his mind that was still thinking rationally told him to make a run for it now before it was too late. Then he thought of Shell waiting for him in the locker room and felt his legs nearly give way.

Decision made, he left Bobby tutting at the transvestites and sidled over to the door, relieved to find that the corridor was totally deserted. He made his way to the locker room and hesitated briefly before pushing open the door. Once inside, he locked it behind him.


'Back here.'

Fenner followed the line of lockers up to the far wall and found Shell leaning against the furthest locker on the right hand side. He dropped his briefcase and removed his jacket and tie. She responded by holding up her knickers before balling them up and throwing them at him.

He looked down as the knickers hit him in the chest before falling to the floor, his smile widening as she hitched up her skirt.

'Come and get it, Mr Fenner,' she called.

The receiver for the webcam had been moved from Shaz's computer and was now fitted to one of Nikki's. Following the recent breach in security, Yvonne had decided that it would be best to run the remainder of operation from the privacy of her office.

Shaz was sitting in Nikki's chair and Yvonne was leaning against the windowsill when Shell entered the locker room.

'Here she is,' Shaz announced. 'Hope the bastard falls for it.'

Yvonne was amazed by the quality of the picture and moved over from the window to lean over Shaz's shoulder. 'Nice one, Shaz,' she said with approval. 'You done well.'

Shaz accepted the compliment with a grin before returning her attention to the screen. She laughed when she saw that Shell was pulling faces at the camera.

'Careful, Dockley,' Yvonne whispered. 'Don't blow it.'

Almost as if she heard Yvonne, Shell stopped fooling around and leaned back against Zandra's locker. She calmly began removing her knickers.

Yvonne and Shaz watched as Shell threw her knickers in the direction of someone still out of the range of the camera and began to hitch up her skirt.

'Ha!' Shaz exclaimed. 'So she's not a natural blonde then!'

'Woulda thought that Denny could've told you that,' Yvonne replied slyly.

Shaz mumbled something and folded her arms, scowling at the screen.

'That's him,' Yvonne said as Fenner moved into view. 'Are you sure this thing's recording?'

Shaz nodded, distracted as she watched Shell wrap her legs around Fenner's waist. 'Bet you he doesn't keep it up for longer than thirty seconds.'

Yvonne ignored Shaz. She was too busy watching Shell. She was obviously urging Fenner on because her lips were moving, however, her face was expressionless as she stared up into the camera.


Chapter Twenty

The pub was crowded, and as Helen stood at the bar and tried to attract the attention of the barman, she was aware of the scrutiny of the man standing to her immediate right. A quick glance told her that he was tall, slim and dark haired but the approach of the barman put pay to a more detailed appraisal. However, before Helen could open her mouth to speak, the barman dismissed her and immediately turned to the man standing beside her.

'Ladies first,' he said, gesturing towards Helen.

Helen suppressed a flash of irritation as she gave the barman her order. It was the 21st century and yet still, women were still second-class citizens when it came to getting service in a pub. As the barman reached for a pint glass, she turned to look up at her Good Samaritan.

'Thanks for that,' she said with a smile.

'No problem,' He replied in an East London accent. 'Fair's fair. You'd been waiting longer.'

Helen looked at him properly for the first time and saw that he was about her age. His black, slightly curly hair, olive-toned skin and dark brown eyes gave him a Mediterranean appearance. He smiled, revealing even, white teeth.

'I'm new around here,' he announced, allowing his eyes to look deeply into hers. 'Where's the best place to go on a Saturday night?'

'It all depends what you're looking for,' Helen replied, turning to hand a ten-pound note to the barman who had placed two pints of lager in front of her.

'And if I was looking for pint drinking Scottish women?' he asked, raising an eyebrow.

'I'd try Scotland,' Helen said coolly. She took her change from the barman and then picked up her drinks. 'Nice to meet you.'

Helen was aware of his eyes following her as she pushed her way back through the crowd to the table she was sharing with Karen.

Di Barker had been sitting in her car and looking up at the upstairs window of the house directly across the road for three hours now. The light had gone on shortly after Dominic had arrived on his motorbike and ever since, Di had sat there trembling with anger and jealousy as she pictured what was happening up there.

For months she'd been trying to attract Dominic's eye, and just as she thought that she might be on the verge of getting through to him, Zandra had come along and placed him under her spell. Di had tried warning the evil slut off with notes and text messages but she'd paid no attention. It was now time for more direct action.

The light in the upstairs window went off and Di climbed out of the car. Walking around to the boot, she opened it. Under a tartan blanket lay a milk crate. Inside the crate were three bottles, each filled with petrol. Reaching into her coat pocket, Di took out the pair of leather motorcycle gloves she'd stolen from Dominic's locker and pulled them on. That done, she picked up the crate and carried it over the road, setting it down on top of the wall that surrounded Zandra's front garden.

Taking a cheap plastic lighter out of her pocket, Di carefully lifted one of the bottles out of the crate. 'See if this sets you and your little whore's hearts on fire, Dominic,' she whispered as she held the lighter flame against the makeshift wick she'd stuffed into the bottle.

The sound of the petrol bomb flying through the downstairs front window was louder than Di expected. As it exploded into flame she saw the light come back on in the upstairs room. Quickly, she reached for the remaining bottles and threw them through the window without lighting them. The flames inside the front room were enough to ignite the petrol they contained.

Di desperately wanted to stay and watch the fire, but curtains were already twitching up and down the street. With a grin, she made her way around the side of Zandra's house and slipped down the alleyway that ran alongside it.

Five minutes later, Di emerged from the alleyway and nonchalantly returned to her car. The flames had now reached the upper storey of Zandra's house and the wailing sound of fire engines could be heard in the distance. The crowd of nosy neighbours who had gathered in the street were too preoccupied to notice her as she climbed into her car and drove away.

The trouble began when Yvonne and her daughter, Lauren turned up unexpectedly at the pub. Almost immediately, she and Karen began sniping at each other and, when Yvonne mentioned Karen's tequila binge at the conference, it was the last straw. A few minutes later, Helen found herself exchanging an anxious look with Lauren as Karen and Yvonne tried to stare each other out across the table. Both women now had a row of five tequila shots lined up in front of them.

'You know the rules,' Karen said to Yvonne. 'Last one to down all five buys the drinks for the rest of the night.'

Yvonne smiled, never breaking eye contact with Karen. 'Hope you're flush tonight, Karen, 'cause you're gonna be buying me champagne.'

'After five shots of tequila, I don't think either of you will be fit to drink anything else,' Helen commented.

'You two keep an eye on this,' Yvonne said, looking from Lauren to Helen. 'You're the referees, okay?'

'Actually, I object to that,' Karen protested, nodding towards Lauren. 'I doubt that she's going to be impartial.'

'You chickening out, Betts?'

'Not on your life,' Karen replied. With one final glare in Yvonne's direction, she picked up her first shot of tequila and then glanced over at Lauren. 'Can you count us in, please?'

Helen saw that people were drifting over to watch the encounter. She found that she was blushing slightly when she spotted the man she'd spoken to earlier. He was very handsome, she realised, looking away quickly when he smiled at her.

'Okay you two,' Lauren said, sitting forward in her chair. 'I want a nice clean fight. No low blows and no dribbling down the side of your glasses. After downing each shot, you will place the empty glass upside down on the table before moving onto the next. The first to place the final glass upside down on the table will be the winner.'

'Christ, Lauren!' Yvonne exclaimed. 'Will you just get on with it?'

Lauren grinned. 'Now now, Mum, the referee's decision is final. Any more from you and I'll disqualify you, okay?' Lauren raised her eyebrow expectantly and received a grudging nod in response. 'Right! After the count of three … one, two, three … go!'

Up until the third shot, there was nothing to separate the two women. Then, Yvonne wavered slightly and Karen gained the upper hand. By the time Yvonne downed her third shot, Karen had already started on her fourth. Realising that her rival was on the ropes, Karen redoubled her efforts, banging down her final glass just as Yvonne was knocking back her fourth shot.

'Looks like the drinks are on you,' Karen said triumphantly as she watched Yvonne down her final shot. 'Mine's a double Scotch.'

Helen rose from her chair. She didn't rate the prospect of Yvonne making it to the bar without falling over. 'I'll get them,' she offered.

'I'll have another Bacardi and coke,' Lauren said, handing Helen her empty glass. 'Mum'll have a vodka and tonic.'

'And I'll be having a nervous breakdown at this rate,' Helen mumbled under her breath as she set off for the bar.

This time, she managed to get served relatively quickly. However, just as she was about to hand the barman a twenty-pound note, someone touched her wrist. Helen looked up into a pair of dark brown eyes. Recognising her admirer, she quickly jerked her hand away.

'I'll get them,' he said 'If you won't talk to me, at least let me buy you and your friends a drink.'

'Thanks, but I'm quite capable of buying them myself,' Helen replied sharply, thrusting her money towards the barman. Glancing up at her admirer, she saw that he was now looking rather flustered and uncomfortable. Now feeling a bit sorry for him, Helen risked a smile. 'You really are persistent, aren't you?'

Immediately, he brightened. 'Something tells me that if I persist a little further, you might agree to have a drink with me.'

'Sorry, but I'm spoken for.'

'Oh well,' he said with a disappointed shrug. 'Can't blame a man for trying.'

Helen took her change from the barman. Stuffing it into her purse, she closed it and then tucked it under her arm before reaching for the drinks. 'Good bye,' she said to her admirer, who saluted her with his pint.

'Who was that bloke?' Yvonne asked when Helen returned with the drinks. 'I'd be careful if I were you. Nikki'll go postal if she finds out you've been chatting up blokes.'

'I wasn't chatting him up,' Helen protested. She rolled her eyes when Yvonne continued to regard her accusingly, despite the fact that her eyes were crossing hopelessly. 'He tried it on, and I told him to get lost.' She banged the drinks down on the table. 'Not that it's any of your business,' she snapped before storming off to the toilets.

Yvonne watched as Helen disappeared through the door of the ladies. 'Who pissed on 'er chips?' she slurred, beginning to sway slightly in her chair.

'You did,' Karen replied around the cigarette she was trying to light. Her hand wasn't obeying the instructions her brain was relaying and no matter how hard she concentrated, the flame from her lighter flickered an inch out of reach. 'Just because she used to be into men, it doesn't mean she's going to start shagging them again the minute Nikki's back is turned.'

Lauren frowned slightly as she sipped her Bacardi and Coke. 'Yeah, but if she's going out with Nikki, isn't it the women in here you should be worrying about?'

'She ain't a lesbian is she?' Yvonne said as she reached forward to pluck the cigarette that Karen had finally managed to light out of her hand. 'She's one of them whatsits, you know … bifocals.'

Karen laughed as she leaned over the table to retrieve her cigarette from Yvonne's mouth. 'I think you mean bisexual, Yvonne, and she isn't.'

'Then what's she doing shagging Nikki?' Yvonne's face clouded with drunken confusion.

'I think Karen means that she's one of those women who aren't necessarily gay or bisexual, but who just … er … sleep with a woman,' Lauren tried to explain. 'You know, they fall for the person rather than the gender.'

'What a pile of bollocks!' Yvonne scoffed as she reached for her cigarettes.

'Well, whatever.' Lauren shrugged and reached behind her for her leather jacket.

'Where you off to?' Yvonne asked around the cigarette she was lighting.

'Town,' Lauren replied as she rose from her chair. 'You oldies are cramping my style. Somewhere out there, there's a fit bloke with a six-pack and a tight arse who's just waiting for me to take him home.'

Karen laughed. 'The apple doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to you two, does it?'

'If the apple knows what's good for her, she'll give me a call first thing tomorrow morning to let me know she's not dead in a ditch,' Yvonne said, looking up at Lauren pointedly. 'You got condoms?'

'Fucking hell, Mum!' Lauren exclaimed, embarrassed.

'Lauren?' Yvonne lowered her tone as she continued to look up at her daughter sternly.

'Yes … I have, alright?' Lauren rolled her eyes. 'Jesus. Anyone would think I was twelve, not twenty-two.'

Helen arrived back from the ladies. 'Where are you going?' she asked, alarmed when she spotted Lauren pulling her jacket on. 'You're not going to leave me alone with these two, are you?'

'Fraid so,' Lauren replied as she reached for her glass and drained it. Placing it back down on the table, she leaned over and kissed Yvonne on the cheek. 'I'll call you tomorrow.'

Yvonne watched her daughter leave and then glanced over at Karen. 'You up for a session?'

Karen nodded. 'I think a club's out of the question now. Although I have got a nice bottle of single malt at home if you're interested?' Picking up her glass, she drained its contents in a couple of long swallows. 'A couple more here and then back to my place?'

'Sounds like a plan.' Yvonne stood up, swayed dangerously and was forced to grab hold of the back of Helen's chair to steady herself. 'I'll go and get 'em in. Who's for a flaming Sambuca?'

Dominic was woken by the sound of breaking glass downstairs. Shooting up into a sitting position, he switched the bedside lamp on and reached for his boxer shorts.

'Wazzup?' Zandra mumbled, shielding her eyes against the light.

'Sounded like someone just smashed a window,' Dominic replied as he rose from the bed. 'You stay there. I'll go and see what's happening.'

Shivering, Dominic crept across the landing to the stairs. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Jo, Zandra's housemate, popped her head around her bedroom door.

'Go back inside,' Dominic whispered. 'I think someone's downstairs.'

Jo nodded nervously and retreated into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Dominic headed downstairs, eyes widening when he spotted smoke pouring out from under the living-room door. He hesitated briefly and then sprinted down the last few steps. Crossing the hallway, he gingerly reached out to touch the door handle and immediately jerked his hand back. It was red hot. He could now feel the heat radiating through the door. The smoke was beginning to infiltrate his lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

'Shit!' he exclaimed, turning away. 'Zandra! Jo!' he yelled. 'FIRE!'

Seconds later, the two women appeared at the top of the stairs.

'What?' Zandra shouted.

Dominic took a deep breath, forcing himself to remain calm. 'There's a fire in the living room. We're going to have to go out the back.'

Zandra and Jo looked at each other in horror before sprinting down the stairs.

'My fucking hi-fi's in there!' Zandra screeched trying to push past Dominic who held her back. 'Five hundred twatting quid that cost!'

'Sod the hi-fi!' Dominic snapped. 'Back door, NOW!'

Dominic herded the women down the hall and through the kitchen. He managed to close the door behind them just as they heard something explode.

After a round of flaming Sambucas followed by several more shots of tequila, Karen and Yvonne were both pissed out of their skulls. Being outside in the fresh air only seemed to make them worse, and Helen despaired that she would ever be able to get them both into the taxi she'd ordered. Just as she managed to propel one woman towards the back door, the other would reel off down the road, trying to make a break for the nearby kebab shop.

'Oh for fuck's sake!' Helen snapped as she struggled to push a giggling Karen into the back seat. She was acutely aware of the taxi driver laughing his head off, although he was making absolutely no effort to help her. 'That's it! I've had enough!'

'Excuse me, but does this belong to you?' a now familiar voice said.

Helen turned around to see Yvonne in the firm grip of the man who had been plaguing her all evening. 'Thanks,' she said. 'I'm trying to get them in the taxi.'

'And not having much success by the looks of it,' he deduced, smiling as Yvonne tried to pull away. 'Come on, let's get you home.'

Yvonne looked around, leering drunkenly when she encountered a handsome face. 'You're a bit of alright,' she slurred, wrapping her arms around the stranger's neck. 'How about you come home with me and give me a good seeing to, eh?'

'Thanks for the offer, but I'll take a rain check if you don't mind.' He winked at Helen before helping her to bundle a loudly protesting Yvonne into the back of the taxi.

'Can you take them to number fifteen Woodheys Drive?' Helen was forced to shout at the taxi driver above Yvonne and Karen's rendition of 'I Will Always Love You'. It sounded to her like a chorus of cats being strangled by knicker elastic. 'It's just off Washway Road.'

'I know where it is thanks, love!' The taxi-driver said gruffly.

Helen slammed the back door of the taxi and took a step back as it pulled away. 'I hope they throw up over your upholstery!' she shouted after it as an afterthought. Turning to walk home, she started slightly when she saw that her admirer was still standing there.

'You're heading that way, are you?' he asked, nodding down the road in the direction of Helen's flat. 'Me too.' He frowned when he noticed Helen shifting uncomfortably. 'It's okay, I'm not a mad axe man, I promise,' he said, holding his hands up.

Helen smiled slightly. 'You do know I'm not interested, don't you?'

'Of course. I just thought that if you're going that way, and I'm going that way, you might feel a bit safer if you've got some company.'

'Thanks, yes I would.'

An uncomfortable silence set in as they set off down the road.

'I'm …'

'I was …'

Helen laughed. 'Go on, you first.'

'I was just going to say, my name's Yiannis,' he said, holding out his hand. 'And you are?'

'Helen, nice to meet you.' She shook his hand briefly and smiled. 'Yiannis, that's Greek isn't it?'

'Guilty as charged,' he replied. 'Well, I'm half Greek anyway. My Dad's from Athens. I'm a Londoner myself, born and bred in Stoke Newington.'

'So what brings you up here?'

'I fancied a change of scenery,' Yiannis replied with a shrug. 'Luckily, the company I work for had a vacancy in their Manchester office.'

Helen looked around. 'What do you do?'

'I fix computers.' He stifled a yawn against the back of his hand. 'See, it's so boring that it even makes me yawn.'

'Nikki, my g … er … my partner works with computers,' Helen said. She smiled slightly – she was about to say girlfriend! The smile faded immediately. And what the hell was wrong with that? Nikki was her girlfriend. Helen sighed to herself. She had fought so hard to be with Nikki but now that she was, the realities of the situation were sometimes a bit unsettling. What was she? Was she gay? Bisexual? What? And then there was the prospect of having to break the news to her parents. She had a feeling that the intense disapproval that had accompanied her decision to study psychology instead of law at University would be a walk in the park in comparison.

'So, I take it that a coffee's out of the question?' Yiannis asked.

Helen shook her head, smiling slightly. 'You don't give up, do you?'

'Not often,' he replied. 'Tenacity is something you need in my job.'

They had reached Helen's apartment building and another uncomfortable silence set in as they lingered by the entrance to the driveway.

'Anyway …' Helen said at length. 'I'd better …'

'Yeah, I suppose you'd better had.'

He took a step closer to her and as she looked up into his eyes, Helen thought about how easier things would be if she succumbed. No more internal debates about how to label herself or worries about how she was going to break the news about Nikki to her parents … no more whispering behind hands as she walked onto the sales floor. He was only inches away now, so close that she could smell his aftershave and see the faint shadow of stubble on his chin and she wondered if it would feel strange to feel bristles against her skin again. That was one of the things she adored about kissing Nikki, just how smooth her skin was, the faint taste of her lipstick and …

The spell broke and Helen stepped back, aghast at what she'd almost allowed to happen. She stared up at Yiannis in horror for a few seconds before she backed through the entrance to the driveway, turning and fleeing towards the safety of the light shining through the front door.

As she reached the front step and began to fumble in her handbag for her keys, she heard the faint beep of a message arriving on her mobile phone.

Am lying in a king-sized bed in Belfast & wishing u were here 2 help me fill it. Love u darling & am missing u like crazy. Sweet dreams. N xxxx

Helen smiled, feeling tears appearing in her eyes as she allowed her thumb to caress the phone display. All of a sudden, all she wanted was to climb into bed and into Nikki's arms and stay there until the morning. With a sigh, Helen dropped the phone back into her bag and grabbed her keys. As she unlocked the front door, she realised that it didn't matter who, or what she was … being with Nikki was all that counted.

Yvonne opened her eyes and then immediately closed them again when she realised that she was lying directly in a shaft of bright sunlight. Her head was pounding, her mouth felt dry, and her throat had that raw, scratchy feel that was a direct result of too many cigarettes and shots of whisky the night before. With a groan, she rolled over and pressed her face into the pillow. As she did so, she became aware of two things … first, that she was naked and second, that she was lying next to someone else in a similar state of undress.

'Oh no … not the taxi driver … please,' Yvonne muttered as she raised her head from the pillow. Then, she saw long blonde hair trailing over the pillow next to hers.

Karen opened her eyes. Her initial confusion turned into abject horror as soon as she spotted Yvonne.

Simultaneously, both women made an attempt to leap out of the bed. In their urge to get away from each other and to protect whatever dignity they had left, they grabbed the same sheet to cover themselves. A tug-of-war followed until Karen let go and made a lunge for a nearby dressing gown.

'Jesus fucking Christ!' Yvonne howled, averting her eyes as Karen belted the dressing gown shut. 'I have no idea what happened last night and I don't give a shit how it happened. All I know is, it ain't gonna happen again … got me?'

'Oh please!' Karen snapped, backing away from the bed. 'As if I'd ever want to repeat that! My one consolation is that the alcohol blocked out the memories!'

'I ain't no dyke!' Yvonne stated firmly. 'And if I hear that you've told anyone about this, I'll disembowel you and strangle you with your innards!'

'Tell anyone? I'd rather flash my backside in the middle of St Peter's Square!' Karen retorted before storming over to the bedroom door. She opened it and then turned back to Yvonne as an afterthought. 'I'm going for a shower now and I'm going to scrub every inch of my body. I don't want to find you here when I come out!'

'Oh don't worry, wild horses couldn't drag me away fast enough!' Yvonne shouted at the departing figure.

Part 21

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