DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Kathy and Kate, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them. I would also like to acknowledge the prompt from Berkyb which partially inspired the story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To estraven[at]hotmail.co.uk
Written on the Heart
As they approached the tattoo parlour, Claire put a warning hand on Helen's arm.
"Let me do the talking, OK?"
Helen nodded, uneasily aware that she was slightly nervous, and annoyed with herself because of it. She was a wing governor, for heaven's sake. She faced down hardened criminals, obstructive prison officers and supercilious civil servants on a daily basis. One stroppy lesbian shouldn't present her with a problem, even after a long, strenuous drive that had occupied most of Saturday afternoon after mandatory overtime on a nerve-shredding week at the back end of November.
She followed Claire into the shop. The tall, short-haired woman who was expertly taping a dressing onto the shoulder of a stocky biker looked up, frowning. When she saw who it was, her face cleared and she smiled. Judging by the lines on her forehead, it didn't look as though it was an expression she practiced often.
It was a pity, Helen thought critically, that she was so miserable, because she really was strikingly beautiful. Slim, with regular features and dark brown eyes that complemented her black hair and creamy skin, her casual outfit of jeans and a white wife-beater did little to disguise her spectacular figure and firm curves.
Given her job, Helen had expected her to be heavily decorated and possibly even pierced, but apart from conventional studs in her ears and a small design of three Japanese characters inked in black on one shoulder, she had no visible body art. Even her make-up was tasteful and restrained. Helen wouldn't have been surprised to see the tattooist managing the bar at one of the more upmarket London hotels. Despite her world-weary air and the leather wrist bands and heavy boots she wore, she didn't look shopworn or cheap. Just edgy and dangerous.
As the Scot assessed her, the woman they had come to meet spoke in a low, attractive voice, her tones disconcertingly cultured for someone who spent her time putting permanent designs into people's flesh.
"Claire! You're early."
"Brought someone you have to see," the solicitor explained. "We'll need longer this time."
The woman looked cautiously optimistic. "That sounds promising."
"It is," Claire assured her.
"Let me finish up here. Why don't you go upstairs? The door's open."
Helen frowned. She had always thought of tattoos as rather tacky, and the shop certainly lived down to her expectations. The usual array of designs, ranging from the sentimental to the gothic with side excursions into popular cartoon characters and an array of different alphabets, hung everywhere. The strip neon lighting that made the room almost unbearably bright showcased the grubby lino and slightly scuffed white paint on the walls, as well as the battered autoclave that stood to one side and the luminescent yellow sharps bin in the corner. The chair, which people presumably sat in while they were being worked on, looked a little like a dentist's chair; the resemblance was increased by the tray of equipment that lay on a metal table beside it - a handheld tattoo gun, its cable snaking away to a power unit underneath, and an array of needles in sterile bags, as well as some vials of colour that must be inks. Helen wondered what the living area would be like. She hoped it wasn't too bad, though she had to concede, looking around, that the shop was meticulously clean and that everything was in good repair.
She followed Claire through an unobtrusive door at the back of the room into a corridor and up a flight of stairs, then a second, more solid, door. As soon as they stepped through, it was as though they'd walked into another world. Helen came to a dead stop as she took in the decor.
They were in a small lobby area, with wrought iron coat hooks evenly spaced at head height on one wall. The shoe racks underneath were made out of solid, polished teak; a bench of the same material was placed opposite, somewhere to sit and remove outdoor garments. Wooden paneling covered three of the walls, its varnished natural grain a clean, uncluttered statement. The space was floored with practical, rubberised tiles.
Helen could see from the variety of boots and shoes already on the racks, as well as the coats on the hooks, that this was where Nikki Wade stored her weatherproof gear. She noticed a collection of well-worn running shoes and wondered how the shop owner managed to exercise locally with the town's proximity to the sea and the punishing hills that seemed to enclose it.
Helen put her speculations to one side and copied Claire, who was already toeing off her outdoor shoes and stowing them away before slipping her feet into the cloth slippers that seemed to have been placed for her use by the door. Claire spotted Helen's glance around and pointed at an untouched pair.
"What if they don't fit?" Helen asked.
"Then go barefoot. Just don't walk in there with outdoor shoes. Nikki spent a lot of time in Japan."
"OK," Helen said irritably, choosing to step through into the main room without trying the offered slippers. As she passed through the wide arch in the rough brick wall that formed one side of the lobby area, she found herself stopping again.
The large central room was decorated in a classical Japanese style, defined by the clean restrained lines of polished wood and plain colours. The floor area was covered with woven matting. Paper walls with sliding screen doors, open for now, blocked off the left hand side of the space. Looking through into the rooms behind the walls, Helen saw a study, a master bedroom and a guest bedroom.
All of them were floored with the same woven matting and simply furnished, though the books in the study threatened to overflow their shelves. That room also contained what looked like a state of the art computer system and a raised artist's drawing board, side by side on a functional desk set against the back wall. A wheeled office chair was obviously used interchangeably for both.
The guest bedroom had a Western-style three-quarter bed, but the king-sized metal frame in the main bedroom was low to the floor and seemed to be a futon. Both were covered with thick cream throws and had an array of deep pillows in matching cases. A cat dozed in the middle of the main bed, curled around itself in a puddle of grey fur. The rooms had smaller internal dimensions than the divisions between them suggested. Helen frowned, trying to work it out, before realising that they all had walk-in wardrobes to one side, separated off by the same sliding paper doors.
Another puzzle resolved itself when she saw that the cream blinds spaced at intervals around the exterior walls covered wide, deep windows, one for each of the smaller rooms on the left and a matching set of three on the right, which would let light flood into the living room when they were open.
The main room was uncluttered, a sofa and a futon standing to each side of a low coffee table in the center of the floor, diagonally within the square space. A TV and its associated video and DVD players, easily viewable from the sofa, stood on a low set of shelves filled with CDs and DVDs under the windows. A hi-fi was positioned next to it. There was nothing else.
Helen looked around. She found it hard to analyse her own reactions. A part of her was keen to get down to business, despite her earlier apprehension. But she felt unsettled by the environment she was in. She had deliberately not allowed herself to have expectations about Trisha Harris' ex-partner, but this decor spoke of someone who was different from anything Helen could reasonably have guessed from the inmate's file.
About to feel overwhelmed by the other woman's perceived sophistication, she caught herself suddenly, and mentally took a step back, realising that she was stereotyping. She was assigning a significance to the environment beyond what it could bear. For all she knew, Wade simply had the money to hire an interior designer who'd decided to recreate a minimalist look in Yorkshire.
Across the living area, another rough brick wall had been left uncovered, and Helen could see through an archway into a corridor. Curious, she ventured further, through the arch, and found herself in an internal passageway with a door at both ends.
"Where do they go?" she asked Claire, who had just finished dumping her bags in the guest bedroom and had come to join her.
"The left hand one goes down to the yard in the back and the right hand one comes out in the utility room and garage."
"What was this place?" Helen asked curiously.
"A chandler's shop. It was derelict when Nikki bought it. She remodeled this floor into living accommodation. It used to be the workshops and storage areas."
"She's done a good job," Helen said.
"She had money and time."
Helen nodded, looking at how the wooden sliding panels, hanging in frames on the opposite wall, blocked the entrances into the rooms on the other side of the corridor.
Unlike the rest of the apartment, there was no natural light. Helen strongly suspected that the corridor had been created as some sort of transition zone, separating the living areas from other parts of the house. The floor was tiled with more of the springy black rubber, the brick walls left bare and illuminated by a series of domed light fittings in the ceiling, providing a subdued, diffused glow.
She glanced back, confirming her suspicions. The same solid wooden screens, recessed into their frames, masked the walls behind her. If needed, they could be moved into place, blocking off access to the living area and its adjoining rooms. For now, she concentrated on working out the layout. She stepped across the corridor and slid one of the panels open, surprised by how smoothly and easily it moved under her palm. Whoever had done this had been a skilled joiner.
She explored the rooms beyond, starting at the center. All of them had the large windows she had seen on the other side of the corridor and, mostly, the same cream blinds. A functional kitchen with plain metal surfaces and an up to date oven and range that matched the steel-brushed appliances and contrasted with the retro fridge/freezer occupied one space. A sparse dining area, accessed through an arch from the kitchen, lay behind another panel.
The bathroom, different because of its frosted glass window, was unexpectedly luxurious and spacious, with fittings that wouldn't have looked out of place in a five-star hotel. Helen realised slowly that it was also a wet room. The last panel hid an immaculate toilet, with a matching bidet and sink. These rooms were floored in the same material as the corridor and lobby and tiled as opposed to paneled. The only exception was the dining area, whose plain furniture echoed the wood covering the walls and the varnished floorboards. Helen was unwillingly impressed by the practical fusion of eastern and western decor.
Wandering back out of the kitchen, Helen saw a montage of photographs set into a large clip frame on one of the places on the wall that would not be covered when the doors were fully slid back. She went to look at it, curious. She had already noticed the two Japanese ink drawings in the main room, one of a landscape and the other of a nude woman, her side turned to the artist, the sensuous curves of her half-revealed breast and long back echoing each other. This was something different - images of Trisha Harris, sometimes alone and sometimes with others, showing her at different times and places in her life, from gawky adolescence to poised, mature womanhood. She smiled warmly, on holiday, posing behind a bar, at various social events, walking arm in arm with another woman on what looked like a pride march. The vibrant, attractive Trisha in the collage was someone Helen hadn't met. The prisoner she knew had the same face, but Helen had never seen her behave like the person in the photographs - strong, confident, happy. She drew in a troubled breath, assessing the differences, not really wanting to accept what her eyes were telling her.
She felt a presence beside her and realised that Claire had joined her and was looking at the photographs as well.
"It's a shock when you see it for the first time," the solicitor said. "I remember...."
"Didn't you know her before her trial?"
"No. I only got involved after the verdict. I've only ever met her locked up."
"I knew the sentence was having a bad effect on her, but this...."
Nikki must have been nearby when she made the comment, within earshot anyway, because she immediately challenged Helen.
"How come you've seen Trisha inside? She's never mentioned you visiting her."
Helen moved slowly into the living room, facing Nikki's fierce scowl as she waited for a reply. Claire seemed to have forgotten that she had promised to do the talking and was hanging back, leaving Helen to it. The Scot hesitated, then took the bull by the horns.
"I've seen Trisha inside because I work in the prison. I'm on the staff."
"What!? Doing what?"
"I'm a wing governor. G Wing."
"What d'you mean? That wanker Grayling's in charge."
"Not since last month," Helen told her. "He's currently on sick leave. A heart condition. I was asked to come back from the policy team and fill in. I'm thinking of making it a permanent arrangement."
"Why? Because you like having power over people?" Nikki demanded. She turned to Claire. "I can't believe you brought a screw into my house without asking me!"
"I didn't ask you because I knew you'd say no. I know how you feel about anyone you think is part of 'the system'," Claire said. "I brought her here because she wants to help Trisha."
"How? Going to smuggle a file in a cake through security, is she?"
"No," Helen said, feeling that this particular boundary needed to be set early on. "One thing I will not do is break prison rules."
"Then what the hell use, exactly, are you going to be?" Nikki demanded.
"Nikki, calm down," Claire said. "Listen to her and she'll tell you."
Nikki took a deep breath and faced away from them, folding her arms, visibly fighting for control. When she turned back, she looked upset, almost in tears. Helen was shocked by how much younger and more vulnerable it made her seem, and understood for the first time the toll the situation was taking on the seemingly hard-core tattooist. She realised guiltily that she'd half-assumed that Nikki's efforts on Trisha's behalf were some sort of political campaign, designed to further an agenda. Now she realised that the woman in front of her still had feelings for her ex-partner. Might, in fact, still be in love with her on some level. She chose her words carefully, keeping her tone neutral.
"One of the things I did when I took over the wing was review the files and interview the longer-term inmates. I had my suspicions as soon as I saw Gossard's name. Trisha's account convinced me."
"What about Gossard?" Nikki asked.
"The prosecution argued that he was of previous good character, which helped discredit Trisha's story that he'd tried to rape her and she'd been forced to defend herself."
"Yeah, made out that she was a man-hating dyke who'd kill anyone with a dick who looked at her the wrong way," Nikki said belligerently, her fists clenching at the injustice.
"As it happened, I knew differently," Helen said calmly, disregarding the outburst.
"One of my previous pieces of research had been into women's refuges. I interviewed some of the women. One of them was DS Gossard's wife. She was in the process of divorcing him for mental and physical cruelty."
"Then why didn't you come forward at the trial? Give character evidence? Why didn't she?" Nikki demanded.
"I had no reason to make the connection. It wasn't till I did a bit of digging around that I confirmed it. Most of the women I spoke to during my research used their first names. It was only chance that I remembered her. As soon as I realised what I'd discovered, I did the next best thing. I got in touch with Claire."
"And I haven't been able to find her," the solicitor said. "I think she may not even be in the country anymore."
Nikki narrowed her eyes, considering. "OK, then I suppose I owe you an apology," she said to Helen.
The brunette turned to Claire. "But why bring her all the way here? You could have told me this over the phone."
"A couple of reasons," Helen said. "Firstly, I wanted to meet you face to face. We have to trust each other and everything has to be off the record. If it got out that I was doing this, I can say good-bye to my position at Larkhall. I won't be able to help anybody then."
Nikki nodded, conceding the point. "What else?"
"I'm pretty sure that someone like Gossard wouldn't have stopped at one rape attempt. There are probably other women out there who've had encounters with him. I began to wonder about his pathology - whether he was in the habit of targeting gay women in particular. I thought you could ask around. You'll have better links in that world than I do."
Nikki lost some of her tension, starting to pace as she thought. "What if he wasn't a member of the 'rape some sense into them' brigade? What if he targeted straight women? Or both?"
"Then I think he'll have gone for the vulnerable ones, people who wouldn't be believed. Sex workers, drug users, maybe even petty criminals. I've taken steps to cover that angle."
"Larkhall has a transient population doing short sentences alongside the longer-term inmates. The 'bed and breakfast' crew. I've asked a couple of women I trust to keep their ears open. I can hardly make a question about past contact with Gossard part of the standard induction interview. The Julies will let me know if they find anything useful, and they know how to keep their mouths shut in the meantime. Which, by the way, applies to you. You can't tell anyone about that, even Trisha. It might seriously endanger them if you do. Prisoners don't like informants."
Nikki nodded, conceding the point, and then frowned. "You're taking a hell of a risk for a woman you never met before you started at Larkhall. Why?"
"It's not much of a risk, really. I'm not exactly broadcasting my activities."
"Yeah, but getting inmates to spy for you, trying to find evidence to get somebody freed that can't be in your job description."
"No, it isn't. But I believe that Trisha shouldn't be in Larkhall, and given her crime and the judge's recommendations at her trial, this is the only way I have of doing something about it."
"Your interest is purely professional, right?"
Helen's jaw tightened. "For your information, I'm straight and engaged to be married. I'm not interested in women in that way."
"All right then, why?"
"You want the real reason?"
"Well, apart from the fact that I don't think Trisha is coping with the environment very well, Gossard had a friend named Jim Fenner."
"He's a senior prison officer on my wing. I have concerns about his behaviour. But I have to be careful. He has a lot of informal power. The old boy's network. Plays golf with the governing governor, that sort of thing. I'll have to be absolutely sure of my facts before taking him on."
"Shouldn't you take the risk, if he's bent?"
"No, because if I get it wrong, it's the women who'll suffer. And while I'm digging the dirt on him, I may as well be finding out about Gossard at the same time. It's connected anyway. They moved in the same circles."
"The floating world," Nikki murmured.
"It's what they call it in Japan. Clubs, brothels, prostitution."
"Somewhere you have an entry to that I don't," Helen said. "Do we have a deal?"
"I help you take down your bastard in return for you helping Trisha? Damn right. On one condition."
"You ring me, keep me updated on how she's doing."
"Doesn't she write to you?"
"Yes. And I visit as often as I'm allowed. But I know she doesn't tell me everything. She doesn't want me to worry. But what she doesn't realise is that sometimes not knowing is worse." Nikki made an eloquent gesture of frustration. "The more I find out about what goes on inside, the more concerned I get."
"I'll have to get Trisha's permission. I won't go behind her back," Helen warned.
"That's fine. I'd want her to know anyway."
"And I won't pass on messages, verbal or written."
"I get that. Just let me know how she is, what she's up to. Tell me about what's going on in the prison, if you can. It'll give us something to talk about on visits. She always says there's nothing to tell, but I bet there is."
Helen nodded. She knew that Trisha had been growing increasingly withdrawn and depressed over the last few weeks. It had concerned her for some time and had been one of the things that had spurred her to do her research on Gossard and get in touch with Claire. So long as she could keep her contact within the rules, she thought that the phone calls would be an excellent idea. Anything that encouraged Trisha to engage with the outside world again had to be good, and knowing that someone actually cared enough to take such a step had to boost her spirits.
Claire looked from one to the other of them and smiled. "Do I have to ask you to shake hands?"
"No need," Nikki said decisively. "Anyway, the original reason I came up here was to offer you a drink. Red or white?"
"White, as usual. Helen?"
"Actually, I wonder if I can ask for something else?" Helen said. "Do you have a local directory?"
"I need to book some accommodation."
"You didn't do that before you set off?" Nikki asked incredulously.
"I did. Unfortunately, when we got here, it turned out that I'd been speaking to the owner's teenage daughter and she forgot to write it down. My room was double-booked and I didn't fancy turning a pregnant woman out onto the streets. I got my deposit back. I'll just have to find somewhere else."
"On Goth weekend?" the tatooist demanded. "You'll be lucky. The town is full to the gills."
"It's the two days when every Goth in the entire country descends on Whitby," Nikki explained. "Live music, socialising, lots of black."
Helen thought back. She had vaguely noticed that there seemed to be a lot of black-clad figures with eccentric T-shirt slogans and slightly crumpled finery about on the streets, but she hadn't thought anything of it, assuming that that was what normally happened on Saturday in Whitby. She frowned.
"Well, I'll have to find somewhere or I'll be sleeping in the Peugot."
"Or you could stay here," Nikki said.
"Where? I don't see a spare bed, and I don't know either of you well enough to share."
"You don't have to. There's a futon in the living room."
Helen looked dubious, the memories of past sleepovers in shared houses rising up to ambush her. Still, she reflected, it had to be more comfortable than the back seat of her car. And the thought of taking a soak in Nikki's luxurious, well-appointed bathroom appealed strongly. A week at Larkhall always made her feel grubby. Her decision must have shown in her face because Nikki smiled.
"Go get your stuff. I'll pour us all some wine."
Helen did as she was told and took the opportunity to call Sean and let him know that she'd arrived safely. She was slightly irritated when the phone went to the answer machine, but left a message anyway, reasoning that Sean could get her on her mobile if he wanted to get in touch. She guessed that he wouldn't, though; she knew what he was like once he got together with his group of football fanatic mates. He was almost certainly already in a pub somewhere, downing lager and shouting encouragement at a giant screen. That, or discussing transfer fees and the merits of different managers.
Helen squashed the unwilling realisation that even if she'd been at home in London, she wouldn't have been with him. She'd long ago made a policy decision that she was not going to spend another evening nursing a glass of wine and being bored out of her skull by a conversation about sport when she could be doing better things with her time. It wasn't as though Sean really noticed whether she was there or not once he joined the group. He certainly hadn't seemed to care that her eyes were glazing over or that she was increasingly restless the few times she had accompanied him.
Helen found herself cheering up. Now that the serious business was out of way they could relax over a drink and talk about other things. Nikki Wade hadn't turned out to be nearly as fierce as Helen had feared, and she sounded as though she had at least led an interesting life. Helen looked forward to hearing about her experiences traveling in the Far East.
In the event, it didn't quite turn out like that. When she joined Claire and Nikki on the sofa for a glass of wine, her hostess suggested that she might like to change out of her work clothes. Helen, conscious of the way the power suit seemed to mentally keep her fixed in her Governor mindset, agreed and went into the guest bedroom to change. Once she'd put on her jeans and a comfortable old top, Claire took her place, emerging in her own casual gear of tailored trousers and a loose, flattering shirt. The different outfits put them all into a weekend frame of mind and they sat chatting until Nikki abruptly looked at her watch and stood up.
"Claire! You should have said. You must both be starving."
"We had a big lunch," Claire told her. "It's so rare to see you relax. I didn't want to spoil it."
Nikki's face darkened. "Well, I've got a lot on my mind."
"It wasn't a criticism," Claire told her gently. "You're among friends, remember?"
Nikki glanced at her cat, which had made itself at home on the sofa between her visitors and nodded. "I can see that. And who knows? Maybe with Helen's help, we can get Trisha out of that hellhole before she finally gives up."
"You need to stay realistic," Helen warned. "I can't wave a magic wand."
"I know. But just to have some hope is better than nothing," Nikki said.
Decisively, she finished the glass of wine she had been nursing since they sat down and handed Helen the still mostly full second bottle. "Come through and talk to me while I cook."
"OK," Helen said, getting up and following her while Claire lingered to give the cat one last stroke. "What are we having?"
"I didn't know if you'd like Japanese food so I just got salmon. Claire said you eat fish."
"Not exactly local," Helen teased, wondering a little at how easy she found it to talk to this woman.
Something to do with the previous couple of hours maybe, when Nikki's conversation had displayed a broad intelligence and a self-deprecating sense of humour, as well as a quick compassion and fierce hatred of injustice that intrigued Helen even as she realised its probable source. The shadows that her fight for Trisha cast across her life were occasionally visible; she would stop in the middle of saying something and a frown would cross her face as some comment or reference reminded her of her ex-partner's situation. She didn't labour the point, however. Helen was grateful. She knew Nikki could have taken the opportunity to snipe at her because of her job role. Instead, she seemed determined to make an ally out of her unexpected guest, paying her the compliment of behaving as if they had a clean slate.
"I'll get you Whitby kippers for breakfast, if you insist," Nikki said good-naturedly, leading the way into her kitchen. "For now it's grilled salmon, steamed broccoli and carrots, celeriac mash and wild rice. That OK?"
"Fine. Though when it comes to breakfast, I'm a bacon butty woman," Helen said and leaned back on a worktop, watching their hostess efficiently pulling the ingredients for dinner out of her fridge. Claire joined them and Nikki put a small bowl of light green beans out for her. The solicitor smiled and started snacking.
"What are those?"
"Edamame. Roasted and salted. They're great. Try them."
Helen did so, discovering to her surprise that she liked the slightly nutty, buttery taste. She and Claire nibbled and chatted while Nikki expertly prepared their food, refusing all offers of help. In what seemed like a surprisingly short space of time, it was ready and they enjoyed a relaxed, pleasant meal. Helen was just complimenting Nikki on it when she was caught unawares by a deep yawn. She blushed, covering her mouth.
"Sorry. Long week."
"I could do with an early night," Claire said.
"Why don't you both take a bath?" Nikki suggested. "I'll clean this lot up. Unless you want dessert? I've got some ice cream."
"No thanks, I'm stuffed," Helen said gratefully. "Claire, you want to take first turn in the bathroom?"
Left on her own with Nikki, Helen expected a slight awkwardness. After all, she hadn't met the woman before this evening. Instead, Nikki bustled round, clearing up, and made her feel as if her being there was a familiar part of her routine.
The question, when it came, was entirely unexpected. Helen was just finishing off her coffee and wondering vaguely if there were any bath salts she could use. Nikki was in the middle of washing up, apparently absorbed in the task, her back to Helen. Her voice startled the Scot out of her thoughts.
"How is Trisha doing? Really?"
Helen sighed. "I can't answer that question."
"Why? Because I'd worry? It's a bit late for that."
"No, because the information is confidential."
Nikki turned round to give Helen a challenging stare. "We're each other's next of kin, I hold power of attorney for her affairs and I'm named on her living will. I don't think there's much she wouldn't be comfortable with me knowing, do you?"
"Probably not. But I won't pass on any information without her explicit permission. You have to know that."
"Why, because it's against your fucking petty rules?"
"They're not petty," Helen snapped.
"What? Limits on the number of possessions someone's allowed in their cell? Having to make an application to change your appearance? Get real!"
"Both of those rules are there for a good reason."
"I'm sure. I used to go a boarding school. I know the game. It's all about infantilising people, isn't it? Setting them up so you can always get them on something if you need to come down on them hard. And if you can't find anything, you'll make something up."
"It's not like that!" Helen said fiercely. "Listen, you say there are too many rules. You may be right. But they're the framework I have to work inside. Anyway, that's beside the point. I have a personal, ethical responsibility not to disclose information inappropriately. I don't intend to do so."
"You're fucking high-minded all of a sudden."
"No. I've always believed in certain principles. And, I like to think, carried them out."
"Well, bully for you."
"I believe it's why the women respect me. Some of them. How would Trisha feel if she found out I'd been carrying tales out of school? She'd shut herself off entirely. At the moment, I'm the only member of staff she speaks to freely. I really believe that it helps her. But if she doesn't think she can trust me anymore ...."
Nikki studied Helen, her mind almost visibly working. "So it's something medical. Are you bastards drugging her?!"
"I can't tell you anything."
"I knew it. I knew it! Who authorised that?"
"Nikki, calm down. We don't use the chemical cosh. I won't allow that sort of thing on my wing."
"Then what is happening?"
Helen spread her hands. "You know my answer."
She ached to tell Nikki the truth about Trisha's state of mind; that she refused to take any medication because of her opinion of Dr. Nicholson's lack of skill. She even trembled on the verge of telling her that she agreed with Trisha's assessment of the middle-aged medical officer. She restrained herself. Once given, information could never be taken back, and confidentiality meant something.
"Well, I don't like your answer!"
"Some of my officers would agree with you. The old school ones. The ones who think that we can do what we want with the women once they've been sentenced, treat them as people without rights. I must admit I'm surprised to hear agreeing with the likes of Jim Fenner and Sylvia Hollamby."
"That's a cheap shot. Your fucking system is what deprives women of their rights."
"Is it? Surely you see that if I don't want to be like them, I have to maintain certain standards."
"Don't worry. You're not nearly stupid or bigoted enough to be mistaken for Bodybag."
"Nikki, this is not going to work if you're abusive about my staff to my face."
"I'm not being abusive. I'm being bloody factual!"
"In your opinion."
"In anyone's opinion!"
"No, I don't accept that."
"I'm hearing that, loud and clear," Nikki sneered.
"You have the luxury of sniping from the outside! I'm not saying that some of your comments are not partially justified. But what you forget is that I have to work with the system as it is if I want to change anything. That requires a little more diplomacy than you're displaying."
"So I'm supposed to feel fucking sorry for you now?"
"No. I don't care what you feel. I can't influence that anyway," Helen said furiously, finding that she had stepped forward and was suddenly in the other woman's personal space. She raised a forefinger to make her point, trembling with anger. "But I do ask that you treat me with a basic amount of respect."
"Or we won't be able to work together to help Trisha. Is that what you want? Because I certainly don't."
Nikki blinked, then seemed to decide to back down. "All right. You make sure you talk to her as soon as you can when you get back, let her know you've been to see me. Then we can start trying to help her properly."
"Those are my orders, are they?" Helen asked. Nikki scowled.
"If you like."
"I think you're making a basic mistake about how this is going to work. You seem to assume you're in charge. That's not the case," Helen snapped. She heard a movement and turned. Claire was standing framed in the doorway, a towel wound around her wet hair.
"Thanks," Helen said and stalked out.
She headed for the living room to get her sponge bag and dressing gown. As she began to fill the bath and investigated the various products on display, she could hear Claire talking to Nikki, a study in contrasts, though she couldn't make out the words. Nikki, apparently still angry, was loud and abrupt, her voice rising and falling in tones of frustration as she made her points. Claire was quieter, calmer, her responses providing a counterpoint as she gradually talked the other woman round. After a while, the conversation fell silent. By then, Helen had already climbed into the luxuriously soothing water that filled the deep tub and laid back, enjoying the feeling of the heat enfolding her and deliberately putting the memory of her conversation with Nikki out of her mind.
After a long soak, Helen padded out to the living room to discover that the furniture had been rearranged. Two folding paper screens had been moved to surround the area where she would be sleeping, blocking the direct lines of sight from the bedrooms and the dividing corridor that led to the kitchen and bathroom. Her overnight bag had been placed neatly at the foot of the futon, which had been unfolded and made up with sheets, pillows and a thick duvet. One of the square wood and paper floor lamps had been moved within easy reach, its soft glow throwing a calming light over the scene. A small clothes rail had been wheeled out to stand nearby. Nikki believed in taking care of guests, it seemed, even if she couldn't be polite to them.
Helen was relaxed, her muscles loose from the hot water and the herbal bath salts she had added. She tested the futon and was relieved to find that it felt quite comfortable. Someone cleared their throat behind her. Helen stepped out from behind the screens and discovered Nikki waiting, her hands shoved deep into the front pockets of her jeans.
"I'm sorry, OK. Sometimes my gob gets ahead of me. I do want Trisha to know what's going on and I understand that this situation puts you in a very difficult position. I appreciate the fact that you're willing to go out on a limb for us. I really do. I just ... it's hard not knowing."
"If it's any consolation," Helen said, "I don't think she'll have a problem with me talking to you about things. She speaks very highly of you."
"That's nice," Nikki said softly. "Well, I care about her. More than anyone."
"I know," Helen said.
"Got everything you need?"
"Yes, thank you."
With that, Nikki turned on her heel and went into her room.
Helen could tell from the lack of movement in the spare bedroom and its closed door that Claire had gone to bed. She draped her dressing gown over the end of the rail and slipped between the clean, soft sheets, already looking forward to a good night's sleep. As drowsiness claimed her, she wondered briefly if Sean was home from the pub yet and dismissed the thought as irrelevant.
She was startled out of unconsciousness, some indeterminate time later, by the sound of a screen sliding open and sudden, golden light on the other side of the paper walls that surrounded her. Blinking, she reached for her watch, and realised that it was three in the morning.
As she sat up in bed, whoever it was realised they'd woken her and swore softly to themselves. Helen frowned, identifying the voice.
"Sorry. I forgot you'd be out here. I'll go back to my room."
"No, don't! This is your house."
"And you're a guest," Nikki said firmly. Even so, Helen could tell she'd stopped moving.
"You did me a favour putting me up. I don't want you to be inconvenienced."
Nikki sighed heavily. "OK. I'll be as quiet as I can."
She was as good as her word, padding soft-footed across the mats as she went into the kitchen and not putting on any more lights. Even so, Helen found that she couldn't go back to sleep, possibly because she was in an unfamiliar place. She lay in the cocoon of her paper-walled space, warm in her nest of bedding, listening to the indistinct sound of Nikki Wade moving around the kitchen and then coming back into the living room. Helen could see the dark shadow of her long, elegant shape crossing the screen and realised that she was carrying some kind of tray with a squat pot and cups on it. As she set it down on the coffee table, Helen spoke, pitching her voice so as not to disturb Claire.
"What're you drinking?"
"Green tea," Nikki said. "Want some?"
Helen grew conscious that she was thirsty - probably because of all the wine she'd had with her meal. She nodded and then, remembering, spoke up quietly. "Please."
Seconds later, a long, slender arm appeared round the edge of the screen, placing the stoneware mug within easy reach of the head of the futon. Helen appreciated the consideration. As it happened, she was wearing her oldest and most comfortable pair of pyjamas because she hadn't known how well heated the guesthouse she'd been planning to stay in would be; but even if she had been naked on top of the covers, Nikki's action would have preserved her privacy. She sat up in bed, taking the cup and sipped the soothing liquid, only realising how thirsty she actually was when she finished it in one long, satisfying measure. Putting the mug down, she became aware of a stillness on the other side of the screen and realised that Nikki had not stirred from her original kneeling position, just out of sight.
"Please. But ... have some yourself."
Nikki chuckled. "Don't worry, I will."
Her arm appeared again, silk dressing gown sleeve sliding down the forearm as she took the mug back.
Listening carefully, Helen heard the sound of two teas being poured. This time, after the arm had appeared round the edge of the shoji with her second drink, she could see Nikki's posture changing as the other woman moved into a cross-legged pose on the other side of the screen, her mug cradled in her hands. Helen watched Nikki's shadow shifting on the opaque paper and marveled at how much she could tell from the indistinct silhouette.
She was suddenly conscious that Nikki could see her as well, but found it didn't bother her. Strangely, the concealment provided by the paper screens made the situation safe, even though she was in someone else's house. Part of that was the rapport they had built up earlier in the evening. Helen was aware that she was comfortable in the other woman's presence in a way that was rare for her, despite their confrontation in the kitchen. She normally took a while to warm up to new people.
Emboldened by the sense of connection, she asked the question on her mind. "Why couldn't you sleep?"
"Oh, I'm a real insomniac," Nikki said. Her words were confirmed by the sudden thud of a waking cat hitting the floor. Shortly afterwards, Helen saw the shape of Nikki's grey moggy leap up onto her lap and heard its contented purr as the taller woman began stroking it. This was obviously a regular nighttime routine.
"Bad dreams?" she asked sympathetically, all too familiar from Larkhall with how mental tension could translate into disturbed nights.
"Yeah. I probably had too much wine."
Helen recognised the tact in the comment - she thought herself that her visit might have more to do with Nikki's sleeplessness. "You only had about a glass and a half."
"I don't drink normally. I need a steady hand for my job."
"Well, in that case...."
"I know, I'm a light weight."
"Not really. How long have you been a tattooist?"
"Since I was eighteen."
"Always in Whitby?"
"No. I moved here after Japan," Nikki said. Helen heard the shadows in her tone and decided not to comment. She didn't want to pry. Nikki took a long sip of tea and fell silent before speaking again. "I started on the South coast. Margate. I did the till from when I was sixteen, then picked up my first needle a couple of years later."
"Sixteen? Isn't that illegal?"
Helen could almost hear the shrug in Nikki's words. "Maybe. It was a job. I needed some way to finance my rent. Ray was willing to overlook my age. He was a decent bloke."
"So how did you come to be running a club with Trisha?"
"When Ray died, he left me the business. I was ready to move on, try and make it in London. I sold it, went into bar work. Met Trisha. We realised there was a gap in the market for a decent lesbian nightclub. The rest is history."
Helen sipped her tea, enjoying its cleansing, slightly bitter taste. She felt no need to speak and was slightly startled when Nikki did so.
"That was when it went wrong, really. Chix was our baby and we were working so hard on making it successful, we didn't really notice when we drifted apart."
"Oh," Helen said. She had wondered before about the paradox of a woman who was willing to move countries and rearrange her entire life to try and get her ex-lover out of prison not being with that lover while she endured a trial for murder. She suspected that she was about to find out.
"Yeah," Nikki said ruefully, "cliched, right? The successful businesswoman who gets so caught up in her work that she doesn't realise that her relationship's imploded. In the end, Trisha sat me down and we had a long talk. She'd been trying to tell me in a lot of different ways for a while, apparently. And I didn't want to hear what she was saying."
The longing and regret in her tone hung in the air. Helen saw the shadow of Nikki on the other side of the screen bow its head. "That must have been hard," she said softly.
"Oh, it wasn't too bad, once the shouting was over. We agreed that we still loved each other; we just weren't in love anymore."
Helen thought that had probably been true for Trisha. She wondered about the woman she was listening to. "So you went to Japan."
"I went traveling," Nikki corrected her. "Got to Japan, found I liked it, spent a couple of months sightseeing, then got bored. I've always worked, since I was a teenager. I'd made some friends by then and one of them got me a job in a tattoo parlour. The guy was glad of an assistant who was willing to learn and stayed sober. Enough to overlook the fact I was a Western woman and illegal." She snorted. "Tattooing isn't a respectable trade in Japan."
"How long were you there?"
"Nearly three years. I was even learning how to do irezumi. Then, out of the blue, I got a call. Our accountant. He was busy winding up the business because Trisha had been put inside. I flew back a week later."
"I'm surprised you didn't stay in London, carry on running Chix."
"Too many memories. Too much guilt. If I'd been there ... it might not have happened. She wouldn't be inside now."
"Nonsense," Helen said forcefully. "Gossard was a predator. If you'd been there, he would simply have changed his approach, waited until you weren't around to make his move. Once he'd decided Trisha was on his list, what happened next was pretty much inevitable."
"I suppose," Nikki said, but she didn't sound convinced. Helen changed the subject.
"Is that why you're not in London? The memories?"
"Yeah. I have friends I can stay with when I visit Trisha. Anything else, I can do over the phone, or by letter. And being a holiday town this is a good place for a tattooist, especially one who can offer stuff that's a bit different."
"Well, keeping busy is probably a good idea," Helen said. She began to feel the chill in the air and slipped back under the covers, putting her mug to one side.
"Yeah, and to do that I need my shuteye," Nikki said. She nudged the cat off her lap and stood up. "Thanks for listening."
"That's not a problem," Helen said sleepily. She watched the light go out on the other side of the screen and listened to Nikki crossing the living room to her bedroom. Her last conscious memory was of the sound of its door being slid across.
Trisha lay awake, listening to the night calls. The wing was noisier than usual; someone had been ghosted in the early hours and the sound of her fighting the squad of guards who'd been sent to do the job had woken most of the inmates nearby. That meant that a hard core of women were still awake, shouting comments and speculation to each other along the landings. Trisha felt close to tears as she realised that she probably wouldn't get to sleep before unlock and that she'd be like a zombie the next day because of tiredness. Although that might not be too bad; it could help her block out the reality of her situation, at least.
Trisha's mind turned unwillingly to an option she had been considering for some time. Pride and stubbornness had kept her from it before now, but they were nearly gone, eroded away by the sheer grimness and misery of her day to day existence. When you added Fenner's constant harassment, she had very little to stay alert for.
Annie, three doors down, started sobbing loudly as another inmate taunted her about her children being in care. Trisha came to her decision - she would go and see the woman she had had pointed out to her first thing in the morning.
Helen jerked out of a sound sleep as a blast of cold air hit her shoulders. Sometime during the night, she had pushed the covers aside and was lying on the futon with only her legs under the duvet. Blinking, she rolled over onto her side and looked towards the lobby, trying to work out where the draught was coming from.
Nikki was standing sideways on, framed in the doorway, as she braced herself against the wall and stretched out her hamstrings. She was dressed in a white top and body-hugging dark shorts, which clung to her toned form like a second skin. Her bare legs were splattered with mud, the white skin from mid-calf downwards where her socks had protected her forming a startling contrast. Her hair was heavy with a mixture of rain and sweat, plastered to her neck in damp strands. She had discarded her running shoes and socks; Helen could see them on the floor next to her. Her long, elegant feet flexed as she went through her routine. Satisfied, she turned and saw Helen watching her. She raised a hand in greeting and picked up a plastic bag from the bench next to her.
"I wasn't sure what newspaper you read, so I got a couple. Picked you up some bacon butties from the cafe as well. I'll leave them in the kitchen."
"Thanks," Helen said, slightly disconcerted. "Do you always run in the mornings?"
"Yes. It helps me relax."
Nikki wiped her feet and then headed determinedly for the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, the sound of the shower went on. Helen got up, stretched, and woke Claire before going into the kitchen, where the coffee machine was already percolating; their hostess must have done it just before going to wash. Helen cautiously investigated the sandwiches, which were wrapped in foil inside their paper bags and had retained most of their heat during the trip from the cafe.
When Nikki came back into the kitchen, showered and dressed, Claire and Helen had the papers spread out on the table between them and were looking through the lifestyle section and the international news, respectively. Nikki didn't interrupt; she made herself some food and sat down next to them, snagging a magazine. A moment later, she seemed to become conscious of Helen's fascinated gaze.
"What's that?" Helen asked.
Nikki shrugged. "Rice, pickled plum, roasted sea weed, bit of tofu I had in the fridge and a bowl of miso soup."
"You have that for breakfast?"
"I got used to it in Japan," Nikki said and proceeded to devour everything except the soup with chopsticks, seemingly oblivious to the disbelieving looks Helen was giving her.
Later, they had another strategy session at the kitchen table, agreeing roles and responsibilities in more detail before Helen and Claire left. Nikki saw them off in the grey light of the early afternoon. The weather had darkened, and Helen shivered as she felt the damp, clinging cold of the air. She looked back at the tall, slim figure standing on the pavement next to the car and caught the quickly masked look of grief and tension on her face. Impulsively, she put her hand on Nikki's arm. "I won't forget to call."
"Thanks," Nikki said. "Safe journey."
The last sight Helen had of the other woman was of her vanishing into the shop as they drove away to begin the long journey back to London.
Claire dropped her off outside her flat and Helen let herself in, slightly cheered by the familiar surroundings, even though she had a lot of chores to do because of her time away. She loaded up the washing machine and started it going before getting the Hoover out and beginning to methodically work her way through the rooms that needed doing. She deliberately disregarded the pile of washing up in the sink. Sean had generated that all by himself and he could deal with it, though by the looks of the plates, he'd mostly lived on takeaways - his standard strategy when she wasn't around. After she'd finished the hoovering, she emptied the bins, their contents confirming her suspicions, and took the rubbish out. As she dragged the ironing board out from the cupboard and began pressing a week's worth of work clothes, the front door opened and a hearty male voice shouted her name.
"In here!" she said, accepting a kiss from Sean when he appeared, flushed and convivial, obviously having spent the afternoon in the pub with his mates.
He slumped on the sofa, reaching for the TV remote, and frowned when Helen took it out of his hand. "What?" he asked.
"Go and do the washing up."
"You made the mess. You clear it up."
"But, Hels ...."
"No, Sean. I'm your partner, not your housekeeper or your mother. Do it."
He grumbled, but followed her instructions. Later, after they had eaten and made love, Helen lay in bed next to him, trying to work out why she felt unsatisfied. The sex had been good, as usual, and Sean had even made the right noises when she told him about her trip, though she had been aware that he was not that interested. That couldn't be the source of her dissatisfaction, though; she was used to him tuning her out whenever she tried to talk about her job, with the excuse that he found it depressing. Finally, she worked out that her discontent was based on seeing Nikki's reactions to Trisha's situation. 'Would he fight that hard for me?' she wondered, studying Sean as his side rose and fell in the steady patterns of sleep. Sighing, she dismissed the speculation. Comparing your relationship to other people's was ultimately juvenile and pointless, especially since the grass was always greener on the other side. She wasn't sure that she could cope with that kind of high intensity on a day to day basis, anyway. Comforted by the thought, Helen curled up and fell asleep.
Helen glanced over her paperwork and waited for the PO's to arrive for the Monday morning briefing. Despite the amount of traveling she'd done that weekend, she found herself unexpectedly refreshed, even with the rush to get things ready for work when she'd arrived back on Sunday afternoon. She could only assume that the fact she was finally getting somewhere with Trisha's case was responsible for her feeling of well being.
After half an hour they'd covered the latest Home Office directives and discussed the shift patterns, the premises and equipment shortcomings and the possible challenges of the next twenty-four hours. As there were no new prisoner intakes, that meant that they were on to any other business. Helen looked at Lorna Rose.
"I'll need to see Trisha Harris today. Can you arrange it, please, Lorna?"
The pallid woman flinched slightly and then spoke up. "Problem with that, ma'am. She's down the block."
"Why?" Helen asked, still preoccupied with her paperwork. Dominic and Lorna Rose glanced at each other and Helen realised that, as the most junior officers on the shift, they had probably done the weekend duty. "Well?" she asked.
"We did a cell spin Sunday night," Dominic said. "Thought they wouldn't be expecting it."
Or you were bored, Helen's inner voice supplied.
"We caught Harris with some pills."
Helen took a moment to compose herself, feeling shock roaring through her. She mentally flashed back to her first interview with Trisha, recalling the blonde's emphatic statement that she didn't do drugs because they were bad for business. She had honestly believed that the inmate was telling her the truth. She held her voice steady with the control born of long practice.
"OK. Do we think she's dealing?"
"Don't know," Dominic said. "She said it was for her own use, but it was a pretty heavy-duty stash." He shrugged. "She doesn't seem like the sort that walks around doped up, but ...."
"Some of them are very good at covering it," Helen finished for him. "This means I need to see her for an adjudication anyway. I've got a gap in my schedule at ... eleven o clock. Bring her to my office then. Anything else?"
She looked around her staff and stood up. "Right, let's start work."
Back in her office, she stared out of the window, trying to work out what was going on before putting it out of her mind and deciding that she had too much paperwork to do to worry about it.
Eleven o clock came round in a blur of reports and phone calls. Helen was busy signing off memos and hardly realised what time it was until she heard the knock on her door and looked up to see the silhouettes of two people through the frosted glass that separated her office from her secretary's.
"Come," she said. She sat back and studied Trisha critically as the inmate was brought in. The blonde wasn't pale or obviously sweating, though her normally immaculate appearance was a faint memory. Her make-up was a couple of days old, its effect blurred and cheapened by the passage of time. Helen indicated the chair in front of her desk.
"Sit down, please."
Trisha did as she was told, meeting her gaze with a challenging stare.
"Anything you want to tell me?" Helen asked.
"Not really," Trisha said, studying her nails.
"You said you didn't do drugs."
"I lied. I wasn't going to let the head screw know I was using, was I?"
"Is it a long-standing habit?"
"No. I never touched them outside."
"Then why have you started now?"
"You have to ask?" Trisha said. "Have you looked around lately?"
"Drugs are not the answer. You're intelligent enough to know that."
"What I am is trapped," Trisha said. "I'm locked up with thieves and tarts, stuck behind bars for at least the next ten years. And what's my crime? Oh yeah, I remember now. I wouldn't lie back and let some bastard rape me."
"You know what I think about your conviction. That does not change the fact that using drugs is not going to help."
"Yes, it does. It's the only way I have out of here. When I'm doped up, it's not so bad. I can forget where I am or not care so much. Jesus! I used to have a life. I was successful. I had money, choices, my own business. In here, I'm just existing."
Helen sighed and tried another tack. "Look, Trisha, you're not some stupid kid. You know as well as I do that everyone thinks they can control the habit at the beginning. But somewhere along the line, things change and the drugs start controlling them. Is that what you want to happen?"
"I think it doesn't matter," Trisha said. "Ten years is ten years. I'll still have money when I get out. I can go to a really good rehab facility if I have to."
"It is not an appropriate coping strategy!"
"It works for me."
Helen bit back her frustration, realising that she was not going to talk the other woman round. She wondered if Trisha had learned to be this pig-headed when she was with Nikki, or whether it was just a characteristic all lesbians shared. "You do realise that for consistency, I'll have to punish you."
Trisha shrugged. "Do what you have to do."
"I will. Anyway, there's something else I need to talk to you about."
"I went to see Nikki over the weekend."
"What? Why?" Trisha asked, looking properly involved in the conversation for the first time.
"Because I wanted to talk to her about your case."
"What the hell has it got to do with you?" Trisha demanded.
Helen took a deep breath. This was possibly the riskiest part of her plan. She didn't dare tell Trisha anything that she couldn't afford Fenner to know. She believed that the other woman would keep her mouth shut, out of self-protection, but she couldn't count on it. It was one of the reasons she'd been deliberately vague when she was talking to Nikki. Telling her what she had had been safe enough - it was no secret that she didn't see eye to eye with Fenner about a lot of things, and if the conversation got reported back to him somehow, he'd just put it down to Helen's wet, liberal thinking. His prejudices would actually work in her favour for once.
"You know I've always had doubts about your conviction."
"So it occurred to me that it made sense to offer Nikki some help."
"What? You're going to join the campaign? Sign the petition?"
"I am an employee of the Home Office. I am limited by that. But I see no reason why I can't help with information and advice where necessary."
Trisha studied her face. "You're serious. You really mean it."
"That's right. So do you see now why you might not be here for your full sentence and why it's important that you don't start behaving self-destructively?"
"OK," Trisha said. "I see that you believe what you're saying. Doesn't mean I agree that you're going to manage to get me out of here even one day early."
"Do you want me not to try?"
"Do what you want. It might work. Gossard might have signed a deathbed confession. The Queen might decide to give me a pardon. It's all possible. In the meantime, I'll carry on making it through. It's not like I've got a choice, is it?" She paused. "Speaking of choices, why didn't you ask me first? Before going to see my ex-girlfriend."
"I didn't know if she'd agree to my proposal ...."
Trisha raised an eyebrow. Helen frowned, exasperated. "You know what I mean!"
"Sorry. Bad joke."
"I didn't want to raise your hopes for nothing. In the circumstances, going behind your back was permissible."
"Nice to know you put it through the ethics committee. But you don't know Nikki. Once she's set her mind to something, she never gives up. She'd do a deal with the devil if she thought it'd get me out of here."
"I'll assume that's a metaphor."
"Yeah. Now if it was Fenner ...."
Helen shook her head, giving up for the moment. "Nikki asked for one thing."
"She asked me to phone her from time to time and update her on your situation. I said I would if you agreed."
"I imagine you won't want me to, with things being as they are."
"No," Trisha said, "Nikki's going out of her mind with worry. She manages to hold it together when she visits, but I know her. It would help her if you kept her in the loop."
"What about the drugs?"
"That's my one condition. You can tell her anything but that. Nikki's strong, stronger than me. She wouldn't start using if she had to do time. She wouldn't understand why I have."
"If it bothers you that Nikki might be disappointed in you if she knew, surely that's a reason not to take drugs."
Trisha smiled cynically. "Nice try. I'll promise you one thing."
"I won't deal."
"That's good of you."
"It is. I'm a business woman, unlike the idiots who operate in here. I could have this place sewn up inside a month. But I won't. I won't be responsible for anybody else's habit."
Helen shook her head. "Allright. Ten days loss of privileges and three days in segregation."
"On top of what I've done already?"
"No, that counts towards it."
"What'll you tell Nikki?"
"I don't have to phone her for a couple of days. She doesn't need to know. One condition we agreed - I will not pass on messages of any kind."
"Pity. I was going to ask you to tell her I miss her."
"I can't, Trisha. I'm going out on a limb as it is."
"Yeah, I get that."
"You have to keep trying, and not give up hope."
Trisha shrugged. "Easier said than done. Can I go now? I've got a blank stone wall I have to stare at for another forty-eight hours."
Helen nodded and the blonde stood and left her office, her face set and remote. The wing governor watched her go, troubled, and then turned back to her work.
When Helen picked up the phone to Nikki for the first time, she felt slightly nervous. She had something positive to report; Trisha had seemed cheered by the news that she had visited her ex-partner and was going to try and help with her campaign. In the week since the adjudication, that had translated into doing as she was told and 'keeping her nose clean', in Fenner's phrase.
Still, she wasn't sure how the conversation would go. She hoped that Nikki wouldn't try and push the limits she had set in their initial meeting. She was acutely aware of the possible ethical pitfalls in the route she had chosen, and how hard it would be to stay away from them. The worst was keeping her discovery about Trisha's drug use from her ex-partner. Nikki could legitimately argue that it was breaking the bargain they had made, and yet she couldn't pass the information on without Trisha's permission.
She reached out slowly and dialed the number, part of her hoping that it'd go to an answer machine. Instead, it was picked up after two rings and Nikki's voice snapped, "Yes?"
"Hi. It's Helen. Helen Stewart."
"Oh, right," Nikki said, suddenly more animated. "Wait a minute."
The music that had been playing in the background stopped and Helen could hear Nikki's voice more clearly. She could imagine the other woman frowning as she concentrated, intent on the call.
"If it's a bad time, I could ring back," Helen said, aware that she was taking the coward's route out.
"No, no, it's fine. I just ... I didn't think you'd call so soon."
"I said I would."
"I know. But I realised after you left that you never said when the first call would be, or how often."
"I'm sorry," Helen said, cursing herself. Of course Nikki would be anxious. "I never thought ..."
"Doesn't matter. Honestly. We can talk about that later. How's Trisha?"
"She's fine. That wasn't why I called."
"Well. More cheerful lately. She was pleased I'd come to see you."
"She was OK with it? Even though you didn't ask her beforehand?"
"She understood when I explained I didn't want to get her hopes up."
"OK. What did you mean?"
"More cheerful. What's caused that?"
"She's just generally better," Helen said. " I think it might be because she knows we're all working on her case. It gives her hope. I wanted to ask you ...."
"I wanted to take advantage of her improved mood. Suggest some activities that'll take her out of herself. One of Trisha's problems is that she hasn't got a lot in common with the other women and she tends to be a bit of a loner."
"Well, she isn't a criminal, is she."
"Sorry. What did you have in mind?"
"That's where you come in. What were her interests before?"
"Nothing that'd help you."
"Oh, come on. There must be something."
There was a silence at the other end of the phone line. Finally, Nikki sighed. "Trisha spent a lot of time at the club. We both did. It was our main focus. On our days off, we used to like the usual stuff. Art galleries, plays, concerts, seeing friends. Decent restaurants, shopping. Your typical urban lifestyle. Nothing you can give her in Larkhall."
"All that implies she's interested in culture. Surely an art class or maybe the drama group. Writing, even ...."
"No," Nikki said decisively. "If she wanted to do education, she'd already have signed up. Trisha doesn't hang around when she makes a decision. She hated school. Classrooms aren't her thing."
"Then what would you suggest?"
"If you had any decent sort of work, I'd suggest that. Trisha likes to keep busy. But gardening and sweeping up aren't really her style. From what she's said, that's pretty much it in there. Well, apart from making tea for the screws."
"OK," Helen said, conceding defeat for the moment, "I'll think about it."
"You don't give up, do you?"
"No, I don't."
There was another silence. Helen waited for a count of thirty seconds, then spoke. "Well?"
"I don't see why you're bothering. Nothing you can do is going to change the fact that she's stuck in there."
"That isn't what this is about. I'm responsible for the welfare of the women in my care. That means mentally and emotionally as well as physically. I know how hard it is for her. That's why I'm trying to find something to take her mind off it."
"Fat chance," Nikki said bitterly.
"OK. Have you got any further with finding out more about Gossard?"
"Yeah. I got in touch with a friend who's a DJ. She works at a lot of different clubs on the scene. One of those people who knows everyone. She's asking around, but ... it's not the sort of thing people want to broadcast. Might take a while. What about you?"
"I've found a drop-in center that caters to sex workers in London. In Gossard's old divisional area. I'll be volunteering for a couple of evenings a week. I'll see what I can find out."
"The more I think about this, the more it seems like we're just grasping at straws," Nikki said despairingly, "fooling ourselves that we're helping Trisha."
"These are long shots," Helen said forcefully, "but while we're doing this, Claire is working on her appeal. This isn't instead of. This is as well as."
"I guess so."
"You know so, if you get it in perspective."
"Yeah, you're right. It's just been a very long two years."
"Well, you're not on your own anymore," Helen said, unsure what kind of implied promise she was making and, for the moment, not caring.
"Thanks," Nikki said gratefully, sounding more cheerful. Helen smiled to herself.
"Listen. How about if I call you in ... ten days' time. I should have a better idea of how the drop-in center's going to work by then and your friend might have got back to you."
"Call anyway, even if you haven't got anything to report," Nikki said. "I'll be here."
"That's a promise," Helen said and ended the conversation, glad it had gone well.
Over the next few weeks, it got to be a regular routine. Helen would phone Nikki, never the other way around. They would talk about the campaign, about how Trisha was doing. Even about life in Larkhall generally. Although Helen was well aware that Nikki's interest in the set up there and its routines was part of her quest to understand what things were like for Trisha, it was surprisingly stress-relieving to be able to discuss her day with somebody, even a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone line. She found herself being more and more honest about how things really were in the prison. Nikki listened and didn't judge, though she made the occasional caustic, well-informed remark about the inadequacies of the system. When terrible things happened, Rachel's suicide, Spencer's death and the aftermath at his funeral, Helen found that not having to bottle it all up made a significant difference to her state of mind. She found that she could cope with her job and the up and downs of managing her disloyal, stroppy staff team much better knowing that she would be able to talk it over with Nikki at the end of the week.
Eventually, they started writing occasionally as well, just quick notes - it was an efficient way of getting information to each other between the phone calls. Helen was slightly concerned when the first letter arrived - she was worried that Nikki might be tempted to ask her to take a message to Trisha. The other woman was scrupulous about not asking Helen to do anything that might compromise her position, however. When the Scot commented on it, Nikki snorted with slightly inelegant amusement.
"Think about it, Stewart. I want you where you are. Do you think the next governor would give me this kind of access? With you in post, I get to find out how Trisha really is."
Helen saw the logic of the comment, but she still liked the way Nikki respected her principles and said so. She wasn't sure, but she thought that Nikki's reply sounded almost embarrassed. "Forget about it. We're both batting for the same team, apart from the obvious. Us good guys have to stick together, right?"
"I can't imagine you in a white hat. Wouldn't suit your image."
"Nah. I'd be the brooding anti-hero with a dubious past who's riding with the sheriff for her own reasons. Mean, dark and dangerous, that's me."
"Wade, you are so up yourself ..." Helen started and then paused abruptly as Sean appeared in the doorway of the living room. She had left him at the dining room table, working on a garden plan, and had thought he was set for the evening. One of the things she was careful about was not cutting into their free time with her phone calls to Nikki - she always chose a moment when Sean was occupied with something else, like work or a football match or out at the pub with his mates. "Hang on, please. Sean?"
"How long are you going to be on the phone?" he asked sulkily.
"Not much longer. Why?"
"I wondered if you wanted to come and watch TV with me."
"Oh, have you finished your plan?"
"I can do that tomorrow. I just wanted to spend some time with you."
"OK," Helen said, puzzled. She turned back to the phone call. "Nikki ...."
"I heard. Boy wonder getting lonely, is he?"
Helen tried to control her amusement, aware that Sean was still watching her possessively. "Something like that. Look, we can catch up in the week, OK? Or just send me a letter."
"I'll do that," Nikki said. Helen could hear the matching humour in her tone. "Go take care of your man."
Helen put the receiver down, glanced at the glass of vodka that sat warming on the side and took it to the kitchen, where she poured it down the sink. It was a waste of good quality spirits, but she wasn't in the mood anymore.
"Fancy a cup of tea?" she called through, and heard Sean's muffled agreement.
It was a good film. She enjoyed it. Not as much as she would have enjoyed finishing the conversation with Nikki. But it was still pleasant.
Fenner appeared beside Trisha as she leant on the railings of the upper landing, watching the women on the ground floor move around. She tensed slightly, but didn't react. If she ignored him he might get bored and go away. He grinned and Trisha gave an inward sigh. He was obviously in the mood to try and wind her up. She steeled herself for the inevitable comment.
"Checking them out, Harris? Must be like being a kid in a sweet shop for you, being in here. Lots and lots of available women. Do you get many offers?"
"Even if I did, it wouldn't be any of your business."
"Oh, but it would. It's my job to act on my suspicions and that sort of thing is against the rules."
"I know the rules," Trisha snapped.
"Glad to hear it. So you'll be sure to keep your nose clean and away from other women? Just so we're clear."
"I don't know how I'd cope, not getting any. Still, I suppose you can always take things into your own hands, so to speak. I hear you dykes are good at that. I expect you've had years of practice."
Trisha refused to give him the satisfaction of walking away. It was one of her personal rules, a way of ensuring that she kept fighting. She thought determinedly about the letter she was planning to write to Nikki and tried to ignore his insinuations. Fenner chuckled and strolled off, obviously well pleased with himself, and Trisha realised that her face must have betrayed some sort of reaction.
Shell Dockley appeared beside her and looked across. "Jim giving you an hard time?"
"What do you think?"
"You want something to help you cope?"
Trisha shook her head. She had her own sources of supply, and she wasn't about to let Shell Dockley have that sort of power over her. The other woman was as dangerous as a barracuda and Trisha had no intention of getting anywhere near her. Dockley shrugged.
"Suit yourself. You'll need me one of these days."
She shouted down to Denny and headed for the stairs, leaving Trisha to stare bleakly at the wall, contemplating her future. Or rather, the lack of it.
Helen stopped at the door to Claire's office and took a deep, strengthening, breath. She had had a hell of a day, and having to face Claire and Nikki after seeing Trisha's reaction to the news that her leave to appeal had been turned down was going to take the last of her remaining endurance. The blonde's blank despair had worried Helen enough that she had had her put on unofficial suicide watch, warning the night shift to keep an especially close eye on the former club owner. It was harder for the inmate to bear because the news had come on a Friday afternoon, meaning that Trisha would be left without the prospect of even a visit over the weekend. Her situation put Helen's own news into perspective; whatever else was happening in her life, Helen was free to go where she wanted and to see whom she chose. Trisha didn't have that luxury.
She opened the door and walked through, only to be confronted by an entirely unexpected sight: Nikki Wade, head cradled in her hands as she sobbed helplessly, tears trickling down her face. Claire had her arm around the other woman, offering her a tissue, and as Helen stopped in the doorway, she looked up from her position beside her on the sofa and glared. Helen stepped backwards quickly and headed for the small kitchen that lay at the end of the corridor. Once there, she propped herself up on the counter next to the microwave and the kettle and contemplated the office notices on the wall. She was just reading the health and safety poster for the third time when Claire came out to find her.
"Sorry about that."
"She knows about the leave to appeal, then?"
"Is she OK?"
"Yes. Just upset about the news."
Helen followed Claire back down the corridor to her office. When they went inside, Nikki was sitting at the desk, repairing her make-up with the aid of a small hand mirror. She glanced up as they came in.
"Sorry about that. Things get on top of me sometimes."
"Specially when you haven't had enough sleep," Claire pointed out.
"Shut up, Mum."
Helen frowned, puzzled. Nikki saw her expression.
"I've been in London all week, doing a tattooing session for a band. I designed an arm sleeve for the lead singer when he was doing session work in Tokyo, and now he wants all his musicians to have a version of it. Good money, but long hours. Potentially, great advertising."
"What about your shop?"
"I used the same guy who stands in for me when I'm visiting Trisha. We have a deal."
Helen nodded. "Well, I can't facilitate a visit till Monday, now."
"That's all right. I'll stay in town. A couple of extra days won't make any difference."
"What will you do with yourself?" Claire asked.
"I'll be all right. There's always art galleries, museums, clubbing, friends to see. I can occupy my time."
"From what you said about Niamh and Lesley, you might be better off out of the way."
"It's just stressful for them at the moment. IVF is bad enough, but when it's the second attempt .... It's expensive as well as nerve racking."
"The people she's staying with are trying to have a kid," Claire explained unnecessarily.
"Look," Helen said, "we've all had a bit of a rough afternoon. Shall we go for a glass of wine? Unless you have to get home to George?"
Claire looked momentarily uncomfortable. "That won't be a problem."
"Oh? Is he working?"
"We're not together anymore."
Helen blinked, shocked. Claire's relationship had been solid for as long as she had known her. She'd been half-expecting a wedding announcement soon. "When did that happen?"
"Don't be. I've realised I'm not interested in the sort of man my parents want me to marry."
Helen gathered her thoughts. "That announcement means you need a drink. And I think Nikki could do with one. Come on."
The other women allowed themselves to be persuaded without too much of an argument and half an hour later, they were sitting in a wine bar in the City, a bottle of a decent Italian white cooling in an ice bucket in front of them as they nibbled the complimentary peanuts and sticks of celery and carrot the management provided as standard. It was an eccentric, out of the way place that they had visited before, accessed by a narrow flight of steps that led down into a basement, the heavy, dark wooden tables matching the pew-like seating. Helen had always liked its Dickensian feel and had been told that it had an excellent selection of ports, though she always stuck to the wine. She took the first swallow and sighed as she savoured the crisp, slightly mineral taste of the grape on her tongue.
"Where's Sean?" Claire asked.
"He'll be on the ferry by now. Combined booze cruise and football trip with his mates."
Claire raised her eyebrows. "You're better off out of that. What are you going to do with yourself this weekend?"
"Don't know. Catch up on my sleep and some personal paperwork. Go for a couple of long walks. Maybe see a film."
"That doesn't sound very interesting," Nikki commented.
"It isn't. But somebody has to make sure the insurance is renewed and that we're up to date with our council tax."
"You should get Sean to hire a secretary."
"His business turnover doesn't justify it."
Claire met the comment with a diplomatic silence, taking a swallow of her wine. Helen knew exactly what she was thinking. She had worked with the other woman for long enough for their acquaintance to mature into a tentative friendship, and she knew that Claire didn't think much of Sean's business sense. If she was honest, she was forced to agree - she'd seen him miss enough opportunities because he treated his business more like a hobby than anything else to appreciate that he could have made far more of a success of it than he had. It was because he came from a family with money, she supposed. Whereas Helen had had to work hard for everything she'd ever achieved, Sean drifted through life, buffered by the sunny assurance that whatever he did, his parents would always bail him out. It didn't seem to bother him that he was implicitly conceding that he couldn't manage without their help. Helen had long ago given up worrying about it.
They were in the middle of a discussion about work life balance and how hard it was to achieve if you ran a small business or were a professional when Claire suddenly frowned. She put her hand on Helen's arm. "I forgot. How did your smear test turn out?"
Helen blushed, slightly embarrassed. She had had to tell Claire about the appointment because she had stupidly double-booked herself a couple of weeks earlier, but she didn't want to think about it, much less talk about it, especially when she was having such a pleasant time.
"I have to go for another test."
"It was abnormal?" Claire asked.
Helen nodded and then stood up abruptly. "Excuse me. I have to ...." She bolted in the direction of the toilets. Nikki watched her go, a puzzled frown on her face.
"What was all that about?"
"Helen's mother died of cervical cancer," Claire told her. Nikki's face fell as understanding dawned. "Jesus, that's tough."
"She doesn't like to talk about it, but I think she's really scared."
"And that wanker she lives with has gone off on a boy's night out? At a time like this?"
"He already had the tickets," Helen said, rejoining them. She felt compelled to defend Sean out of loyalty, even though secretly she agreed with Nikki. "He couldn't get a refund. Not at that sort of notice."
"Even so!" Nikki said, then frowned. "Are you saying he knew and that's why he wouldn't cancel the trip?"
"Those were some of the reasons, yes," Helen said stiffly. Nikki raised her eyebrows, but didn't comment any further.
Their conversation flowed less easily after that, but they still managed to finish the bottle and a round of coffees before agreeing to call it a night. Helen was contemplating a solitary evening in, watching TV, when Nikki took hold of her arm. "Come on."
"The last thing you need is to be on your own, brooding. Let's grab a taxi to your place so you can get changed and then I'm taking you out."
"I'm meeting a group of friends. You can come along. They're really nice people. You won't feel awkward. I promise."
"Nikki ... I'm not really sure I'm up for a night of clubbing."
"Who said anything about clubbing? We're going for a meal and then we're going bowling."
"Come on. It's got to be better than sitting at home," Nikki urged. Helen came to a sudden decision and nodded.
"You're on," she said.
Later, eating the excellent food at the Mexican restaurant where they'd met the others, Helen decided that she had definitely made the right decision. The group included a cross section of women, some obviously together, and others who had come along on their own. They seemed to be from all walks of life, though there was a preponderance of media types and those who worked in the financial industries. None of them reacted in the usual way to her job title, and a couple of the women turned out to have a fairly serious interest in social policy. Helen was deep in a discussion about the link between poverty and drug use by the time the main course arrived, and she soon found that she'd been accepted. There was the occasional hitch when people referred to mutual friends she didn't know, but in general, she was able to manage very easily. The only dissonant note was struck by Nikki's friends, Niamh and Lesley, who were both in a bad temper, sniping at each other at every opportunity. Helen joined the rest of the group in tactfully ignoring their verbal guerilla warfare and concentrated on having a good time.
The evening continued with the promised bowling, which Helen was dreadful at, but since it didn't seem to be competitive, anyway, it hardly mattered. Nikki talked to her from time to time, discreetly checking that she was OK, but didn't make what she was doing obvious. Helen appreciated that and enjoyed watching her as part of the group, deftly negotiating her way through the various social interactions as she comprehensively demolished everyone else's score, knocking down rack after rack of targets, seemingly without even trying.
"You had a misspent youth," Helen accused her in the end. Nikki grinned, taking a quick swallow of her soft drink. "I worked in one of these places when I was a teenager. I got a lot of time to practice."
"Oh, now you tell me!"
"It isn't about the winning; it's about the taking part."
"You wouldn't say that if you were losing."
Nikki nodded. "Probably not," she agreed.
A sudden crash from the table next to them attracted their attention. As they watched, Niamh, who had knocked her chair over, stormed out, crying, followed by an angry Lesley. There was a short silence.
"Well, that's been coming all evening," one of the women said wryly.
"Yeah, and the way those two make up, they'll both be coming all night."
"Hey, Nikki, weren't you staying with them?"
"I'll find somewhere else," Nikki said cheerfully. "They're going to be busy."
The conversation turned to other things. Helen was disconcerted by how calm Nikki was, considering that she didn't know where she was going to sleep. As the group broke up for the evening, she took the opportunity to raise the subject. "Have you got a bed?"
"Yeah. It's just that it's in Whitby. It's all right. I've slept in my car before."
"You can't do that!"
"Watch me. I've got a sleeping bag. I'll be fine."
Helen opened her mouth, about to offer Nikki the spare room, and then closed it again as she remembered that the space was full of disassembled lawnmower. Something Sean had promised to sort out before he went to the continent and then not got round to. Her resolve hardened. She was not going to let Nikki sleep in her car like some vagrant.
"I've got a sofa. At least let me offer you that. Then you can get a shower and a cup of tea in the morning."
Nikki zipped her jacket and shrugged. "OK. My car's the other side of town, anyway. Outside Niamh's and Lesley's place."
"You're very calm about this."
"I knew someone'd offer me a bed. I always fall on my feet. Beside, I traveled for years, remember. You wouldn't believe some of places I've spent the night."
She kept Helen chuckling with tales of her various misadventures all the way home in the taxi, though the Scot suspected that some of them must have been pretty hair raising at the time. She found Nikki's casual reference to being thrown out of home as a teenager especially troubling, but noticed that the taller woman glossed over it quickly, as though she didn't like to dwell on it.
Once they got back to Helen's flat, she rummaged through the storage and found an old camping mat and a spare duvet and pillow, bringing them into the living room where Nikki was sitting on the sofa, flipping through a magazine. She'd even managed to find an unused toothbrush. Nikki smiled her thanks and laid out the mat while Helen bustled round, sorting out a duvet cover and pillowcase. Then she yawned and stretched, testing the mat with her bare foot before casually taking her jeans off. Helen hovered worriedly nearby, watching as Nikki crawled underneath the covers with a small groan of pleasure.
"I'm sorry," she apologised again. "I wish it was more comfortable."
"It's fine. After all, Trisha sleeps on something like this every night of the week."
Helen, who'd sat on more than one bunk in the course of her day job, winced. The thin foam mattresses that were Prison Service standard issue were notoriously unpleasant until you got used to them. The only worse alternative was the cell's cold floor. Nikki scowled, misunderstanding her reaction. "Sorry, that was rude."
"No, you were factual. Just one more thing I can't do anything about."
"Yeah. But at least you care."
There was a small, awkward silence. Helen hesitated. "Nikki, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Depends what it is," Nikki said, rolling onto her back.
"Your tattoo. Why only one?"
"I got it done before I left Japan. It was to remind myself what I'd need to get Trisha out. It means endurance, fortitude."
"You didn't answer my question."
Nikki smiled. "When you've worked in a parlour for a while, you start seeing people coming back in, getting tattoos covered over or changed. Sometimes more than once. Makes you realise how permanent they are. I decided a long time ago I wouldn't have any done. I've never regretted it."
"But this one ..."
"Was a promise."
She turned away. Helen could tell from the hunching of her shoulders that she was thinking about Trisha. "Good night, Helen."
In the morning, Helen was roused out of a sound sleep by an insistent banging on the front door. Bad temperedly, she pulled on her dressing gown and went to open it, only to find Nikki clutching the Saturday papers and wearing an apologetic look. She felt her irritation evaporating as she realised what had happened.
"Got locked out?"
"Yes. I thought this was the spare key." She held up a key ring she must have retrieved from the crap drawer in the kitchen.
Helen shook her head. "It was until three months ago when Sean lost his briefcase and we had to get the locks changed."
Nikki frowned. "Has it ever occurred to you that he's more trouble than he's worth?"
"Maybe. But I like the fringe benefits. Cup of tea?"
Twenty minutes later, Nikki finished the toast Helen had made for her and fixed her with an intense look. "Are you going to be all right? Till Sean gets back?"
"I'll be fine. I'd actually like some time on my own. It'll give me a chance to think. Last night was great. You were right. I needed to get out. But I have to process things now."
Nikki nodded, taking her word for it. She stood and stretched again. "Thanks for putting me up at short notice. I'll get moving. You can go back to bed then, if you want."
"No, I'm up now."
As she passed, Nikki put her hand comfortingly on Helen's shoulder. "Chin up, Stewart. They can do a lot these days, stuff they couldn't do twenty years ago."
"I know," Helen said. "I just can't help remembering what happened to my mother."
"News flash. Helen Stewart found to be human. Full story follows."
Helen smiled despite herself and let Nikki out, returning her wave as she strode off towards the end of the road, her long legs eating the distance. Then she went back into the living room, where the mat and duvet were neatly folded with the pillow on top, and decided to read the papers Nikki had brought before starting the rest of her day.
Helen looked up sharply as she glimpsed a movement out of the corner of her eye.
"I thought Harris had a visitor today," she said, frowning.
Lorna Rose, who was helping her update the files, glanced up and watched Trisha, who was walking past the wing office, her shoulders slumped as she trudged towards her cell.
"Oh, yeah. She must not have turned up."
Something about the con's demoralised air tugged at Helen. Impulsively, she stood up. "Carry on, Lorna. I'll be with you in a minute."
"Yes, ma'am," Lorna said, pulling out another file and frowning as she tried to work out what she had to do. Helen walked down the wing and paused in the door of Trisha's cell. The other woman was leaning against the back wall, staring blankly through the bars of the window at the clouds drifting past. She didn't turn when Helen cleared her throat, so the Scot came closer.
"What?" Trisha said fiercely. Helen realised that she was fighting tears.
"Are you OK?"
"No, I'm bloody not. Now leave me alone!"
"Are you sure you don't want to talk?"
"What about? She said she'd visit me. She promised!"
"Maybe she's just been delayed," Helen said. Trisha snorted.
"Forget it, miss. She was always unreliable. She's had a better offer, that's all."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. She was a good shag and not much else."
Helen glanced away, slightly embarrassed by the other woman's frankness. "Even so, it must be disappointing for you."
"Yeah," Trisha said, "visits mean a lot in this place. I shouldn't have wasted a VO on her. I just thought it was time to give Nikki a break."
"You weren't to know she'd let you down," Helen said comfortingly.
"Yes, I did. I just didn't want to admit it. She was always about the promises, never about the long term. She helped me ruin the strongest relationship I ever had, and at the end, she left without a second look. I should have known better ...."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
Trisha turned, obviously puzzled. "Didn't Nikki tell you why we broke up ?"
"She said you'd fallen out of love."
"So she left out the part where she walked in on me and Briony in bed together?"
Trisha shook her head ruefully. "Still covering for me, then. Even when she doesn't have to anymore."
"Is that what happened?"
"Yeah. I was stupid, arrogant. I thought I could handle anything, even flirting with a kid who was determined to get into my underwear. No one was more surprised than me when she got me into bed. I wish I could blame alcohol, but it was the middle of the day." She shook her head. "I'll never forget the look on Nikki's face ...."
"I'm sorry," Helen said.
"Don't be. It was my own fault."
"So ... how long were you and Briony together?"
"About another three months. Turns out she wanted the sex, but not the commitment - that's why she mostly had affairs with women who were already in relationships. I only found that out later. When she left me, it was all about 'this isn't working out because I can't deal with your guilt, but I'll always be there for you.'" She snorted. "So much for that."
"Is there anything we can do?"
"Change history? No. I'd like to be alone now."
Helen nodded and silently left the cell. Trisha sat down on the edge of the bunk and put her head in her hands, trying to pull herself together. While she didn't mind showing weakness in front of Stewart, she refused to do it in front of any of the other screws or inmates. She wasn't willing to let them know what she was thinking. Restlessly, she went to the sink and washed her face with cold water, studying her reflection in the smeared sheet of polished metal. Unsurprisingly, she looked like shit.
Trisha folded her arms around herself and tried to work out what to do for the rest of the afternoon. She couldn't face talking to anyone and there was nothing in her cell to distract her, nothing that didn't require a level of concentration she didn't currently have, that is. She sorted bleakly through her options, then hesitated as her thoughts turned to her stash. She'd been planning to leave it alone until the weekend - it was Friday and her contact on the works crew wasn't coming in until Monday. She'd thought the visit from Briony would lift her spirits - the one thing the other woman had always been able to do was make her laugh. It was partially a way to cheer herself up and partially a way to motivate herself to stay clean for a couple of days - her pride wouldn't let her look spaced out in front of someone who'd known her on the outside. Trisha was uneasily aware that her supplies weren't lasting for as long these days, and despite her flippant comments to Helen about going into detox when she got out, that scared her enough for her not to want to consider the implications too deeply.
She looked around and decided that she might as well see if she could get some laundry done while the wing was quieter. She was just gathering up her dirty clothes when Fenner stuck his head round the door, acting mock surprised to see her.
"What are you doing here, Harris? Thought you were seeing one of your little dyke pals today?"
"She didn't show," Trisha said curtly.
"Pity. You'll have missed out on your grope under the table, then. No wonder you're in a bad mood."
He favoured her with one of his oily grins and strolled off, mission achieved. Trisha thought about what she would have said to anyone who'd spoken to her like that on the outside, and suddenly, grief and despair rose like a tide in her throat, threatening to choke her. She dropped the bundle in her arms carelessly onto the floor and kicked it into a corner. Before she had time to talk herself out of it, she found the couple of pills she had left and dry swallowed them, collapsing onto her bunk. As she waited for the familiar numbness to fill her brain, a part of her wondered how she would manage over the weekend without drugs to get her through the hours. Trisha suppressed the thought and turned her face to the cell wall and her back to the world, closing it out.
Helen let herself into the flat with a tired sigh and dropped her keys on the side. It had been a rough night at the shelter. One of the women had come in after a beating by her pimp and, after refusing to press charges, had tried to dull the pain by taking drugs in the toilet. Helen had walked in on her and had had no choice but to follow policy, which meant sending a vulnerable and bruised teenager back out into the night where the predators were waiting for her. Then two of the other attendees had got into a dispute about something (Helen still wasn't sure what) and had had to be separated and calmed down before it escalated into a physical confrontation. Finally, they had been forced to call the police when a group of drunken office workers on a lad's night out had somehow conned their way past the security door and refused to leave. Helen had found herself facing down an aggressive twenty-year-old who seemed convinced that he was God's gift to women and that she should be prepared to give him whatever he wanted which seemed to include, as far as she could tell from the drunken mumbling, oral sex.
Helen had volunteered to go down to the police station and give a witness statement, and while it had given her a great deal of satisfaction to see the whole group being handcuffed and roughly bundled into a white van, the process had taken hours. She was home even later than usual and she was glumly aware that Sean wouldn't be pleased. Her voluntary work had begun to form a bigger and bigger theme in their rows over the last few weeks, and the arguments were increasing in intensity and becoming more frequent. Helen hoped that he'd already gone to bed. Then she could have a shower, grab a quick cup of tea and crawl in next to him. Tomorrow was Sunday - she ought to be able to get a lie in, at least.
She walked into the living room, surprised to find that the small lamp was still on. Seconds later, she saw the reason why: Sean was sitting, arms crossed, on the sofa, glaring at her. She frowned at him.
"Sean, it's after midnight. What are you doing up?"
"Waiting for you."
"Helen, you're four hours overdue!"
Though Helen could see that Sean was trying to seem concerned, she could accurately read his underlying emotions, which were petulance and anger. Helen sighed.
"Sean, I'm not in the mood for this. I'm tired."
"I was worried sick!"
"You knew where I was. You have a contact number."
"No, I didn't! It went to an answer machine."
Helen conceded mentally that he might have a point about that. She doubted that Amanda, the cheerful Londoner who ran the drop-in center, would have hung around after they got rid of their troublemakers. In fact, she might have closed early.
"I'm sorry. I should have phoned you. I didn't think. I was preoccupied."
"What with? Or did another whore OD?"
Helen frowned. "Please don't use language like that."
"Why not? That's what they are, isn't it?"
"They're women, Sean. Most of them have had horrific, abusive lives and very few choices about where they've ended up or what they do for a living."
"Oh, don't give me that politically correct crap! I know you have to spout it for work, but we can be honest with each other, surely."
"It's not crap, Sean. It's what I think. It's one of the reasons I chose to go into the prison service in the first place, to help people who have had less opportunities than me."
"Fine. That's your day job. I just don't see why you have to spend your evenings and weekends on it as well."
Because I want to catch Jim Fenner red-handed and see him sacked and, preferably, behind bars, Helen thought, but didn't say anything. She had no plans to discuss that with Sean. Ever.
"Sean, I spend one evening during the week helping with administration, and half a night at the weekend at the drop-in center. The weeknight is the night you have your football practice. I specifically chose it for that reason. You're not here anyway."
"That still means you're spending every Saturday night in the red light district, talking to whores."
Helen's temper flared. "Don't forget the rent boys, Sean. Let's be precise about this, shall we?"
"Like that makes it better."
"What is the problem?"
"I thought that was obvious. It's been three months, Helen! How long is this going to go on for?"
"Sean, a commitment like that is not something you can pick up and put down. We have enough problems with volunteers letting us down at the last minute as it is! I know. I do the rotas!"
"Well, perhaps they let you down because they've got relationships they care about."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I'm saying that I'm not happy about the woman I'm planning to marry spending her time with those sort of people when she doesn't have to. Or the fact you're hanging round the red light district at all. Anything could happen!"
"For God's sake, Sean, get some perspective. It's not like I'm waiting outside dodgy clubs taking car number plates. I'm in a building with a secure entrance and more panic alarms than a police station! And as for spending time with 'those sort of people', the only difference between most of the women at the drop-in center and the short-term inmates at Larkhall is a current conviction. I already know a lot of them."
"Exactly," Sean said. "So why waste your time? Leave the drop-in center to somebody else."
"It's not going to be forever. I'm there for a specific reason."
"Yeah, I know. Getting a dyke cop killer out of jail."
"So who elected you judge and jury as well as prison governor? She killed a man, Helen. Don't you think she belongs behind bars?"
"No, I don't. She was defending herself against a rapist. What choice did she have?"
"So she says."
"What, so a lifelong lesbian suddenly takes into her head to have casual sex with a passing man and then stabs him when she changes her mind?"
"Or decides to kill him for some reason and uses that as an excuse. He was a policeman, Helen! How likely is it that he'd decide to try and get into her knickers? There are plenty of willing women out there. Why pick a dyke club owner?"
"Rape is about power, Sean, not about sex. You know that or you should, at least."
"Why, because I'm a man and all men are rapists?"
"What?" Helen said, utterly confused. This argument was spiraling out of control. Their previous rows had always ended with Sean giving in with relative good humour. Like most things, he seemed to find it too much trouble to get worked up about. Tonight, however, he was behaving as if he was really angry for the first time, getting as emotional as Helen had ever seen him about anything. Almost as if something deeper was bothering him. Helen calmed herself with an effort.
"Sean, we talked about this before I started the voluntary work. I explained my reasons, including the fact that I believe Trisha Harris shouldn't have received a conviction for manslaughter and you agreed that...."
"I didn't agree," Sean interrupted. "I went along with it because I could see you wouldn't change your mind, whatever I said. Doesn't mean I was happy with it."
"OK," Helen said slowly. "Do you want to tell me what this is really about, Sean? Because I'll be honest. I'm tired. I've had a very long evening and it's beginning to sound to me as if we have a different memory of our conversation about this. I'd like to get this straightened out once and for all. If that's all right with you."
"It's fine with me. I've been meaning to talk to you about this for weeks."
Sean came over and hugged her, a standard move of his when he wanted to persuade her to do something. Helen returned his kiss and looked up into his face, wondering when he had become so transparent. She felt the familiar comfort of his arms and sighed as she rested her head against his shoulder. Physically, it was still very good between them. Sean was a skilled lover, considerate and attentive. It was just that the more she thought about it, the more she realised he was holding her back. While he supported her goals in theory, in fact, his main priority was their comfortable lives together and maintaining an existence that didn't include any variation from the safe, predictable routines he found reassuring.
Helen had always known that he was the spoilt only son of older parents. What she'd never fully realised before was how much more she wanted than a conventional marriage and career, and how he was stifling her ambition. She'd found working at the project energising, reawakening skills she'd forgotten she had in the risk averse atmosphere of the Prison Service. For the first time in years, she found herself looking forward to a task and enjoying the challenges it brought, whether it was managing the behaviour of some of the attendees or brainstorming ways of overcoming that week's funding crisis. Freed from the rules and regulations that defined her day job, she was finding levels of resourcefulness she'd forgotten she had. She knew she'd grown more confident since she'd started at the drop-in center and had seen the benefits at Larkhall.
What she hadn't bargained for was the way it would change her outlook on life. Well, that and the conversations with Nikki, who had provided a supportive audience as she worked out her thoughts over a number of weeks. She had been the sounding board for Helen's new experiences. Helen wondered, with a sudden twinge of guilt, whether she had been unconsciously excluding Sean, shutting him out because he was so plainly bored and uninterested when she started to tell him about her new insights, preferring, in fact, to talk about almost anything else.
She brought herself back to the present with an effort and waited to hear what Sean had to say. He was looking at her, troubled.
"Come on, Sean, I don't bite."
"You don't need to, do you. Your bark's bad enough."
Startled, Helen leant back and looked at him. "What brought that on?"
"Sorry, Hels. I'm just nervous."
"Because I'm so fierce?"
"Because you're so committed to this voluntary work. I know you don't want to give it up. And I know I agreed to it in the beginning. But I didn't understand how much time and effort it'd take. That, and talking to Harris' girlfriend."
"Ex-partner," Helen corrected automatically. "What do you mean? I call her maybe once a week."
"Yeah, but when you do, you're on the phone for hours."
"Don't exaggerate. I don't have time to do that."
"But you would if you could."
"You heard me."
"Sean, are you seriously telling me that you have a problem with me talking to Nikki?"
"Well ... since you mention it, yes."
Sean looked simultaneously embarrassed and determined. "I don't like you spending hours at a time talking to a lesbian."
"Why not? Jesus, Sean, it's not like we're having phone sex! She's an intelligent, friendly woman who happens to be gay. In case you've forgotten, I'm straight and in a relationship with you. We don't discuss our love lives. For all I know, she's seeing a different woman every night. If she is, it's none of my business, just like our relationship is none of hers. It never comes up. We're too busy talking about the campaign."
"Or what kind of day you've had or how you feel. Staffing issues, ways of helping the women. You talk to her about everything, Hels. How do you think that makes me feel, especially since you don't seem to want to spend time with me at the weekend? It's like you're with her more than you are with me."
"So you're jealous of a woman who lives halfway to Scotland, who I speak to for maybe an hour a week. Is that what you're saying?"
Sean hesitated, then counterattacked. "Yes, I am. It's all part of the same thing. Talking to her, working on the campaign, the voluntary work. It's like you'd rather do anything than be with me. And when you're not even talking to me about the things that are important to you ...."
"Where did you read that? In a women's magazine? I don't talk to you about the prison or the inmates because you've made it very clear in the past that you find my job boring and unpleasant. When I get depressed or upset because of something that's happened at Larkhall, you tell me I'm being 'moody' and change the subject. Nikki listens. Even to stuff that isn't about Trisha. Are you surprised I use her as a sounding board? It's no big deal. She does the same with me. I probably know more about the running of her business than anyone else except her bank manager."
"But you don't talk about her love life."
"No. Why should we? Why do you assume she's defined solely by what she does in bed? It's not like she's the only lesbian I know! Larkhall's full of them. I work with lesbians and I even know some socially."
"Who?" Sean demanded, momentarily distracted.
"That's irrelevant! The point is that I don't pigeonhole people in that way, even if you do."
"So it's unimportant, is it?"
"Yes! Obviously, it's how I know her, because she would never have come near Larkhall if she wasn't Trisha's ex-partner, but it honestly isn't an issue for us. She knows I'm straight and she respects that."
"How do you know? How do you know she isn't trying to recruit you?"
Helen looked at Sean, hardly believing her ears. "To what? Dykes United? I've heard of male paranoia, but that takes the biscuit. First, she's not interested in me. Second, I'm not interested in her in that way. Because I'm straight! Just because I'm not homophobic doesn't mean I'm available. Or fickle, for that matter!"
Sean seemed to realise that he'd gone too far. "I'm sorry, Hels. It's just, you know, if I was her, I'd be interested. You can see my point, can't you?"
"No. Because she isn't you. For one thing, she doesn't patronise me by assuming I'm easy."
"All right, so I got that wrong. But I'm right about how much time you're spending on the other thing."
"What other thing? Trying to get an unjustly convicted woman out of jail?"
"Yes! What's more important? That, or our relationship?"
"I don't understand you."
"Answer the question."
"They're both equally important to me," Helen said slowly. She suddenly had a nasty feeling that she knew exactly where this was going. It was as though the whole of the preceding conversation had been Sean's way of nerving himself up to talk about what he really wanted to say. Helen suspected she wasn't going to like it. His next sentence confirmed her hunch.
"I'm sorry, Helen, I'm not prepared to accept that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we've got a five-year relationship."
"Four and a half years," Helen corrected absently.
"I'm willing to fight for it, if you are. But if you won't spend time with me instead of hanging round with drug users and prostitutes, then I have to wonder how committed you are to our future."
"Sean, I pressured you to move in with me, remember?"
"Yeah, and it's been great. I really want it to work. I want to marry you, have children with you. But you have to want that as well, Hels. If your career and whatever crusade you're on comes first, then I don't see where I fit in."
Helen reminded herself that Sean's mother had never worked. "So what you're saying is that unless you're the center of my universe, you don't think this relationship has any future."
The comment visibly took Sean back . He frowned. "No, I'm just asking for equal priority."
Helen though about it, then nodded. It wasn't as though he was asking the impossible, after all. "Fine. We'll sit down and schedule the next month. I don't want you to feel neglected. We can arrange to spend time together, go on that long weekend we had planned. It has been a while since we just went on an outing. Maybe you're right and we do need to think about us more. Stop taking things for granted."
She crossed into the kitchen, where the calendar Sean used to jot his appointments on was and took it down. As she turned back with it in her hand, Sean cleared his throat.
"No, Helen, I need a bigger commitment than that. I want you to give up the voluntary work."
"And where does that leave Trisha?"
"Where she was before you got involved. Does it matter? She stabbed a man in the neck and left him to bleed to death. She doesn't even pretend she didn't do it."
"So she should rot inside for ten years?"
"If that's what the judge said, yes."
"Sean, she's depressed and near suicidal. She won't make ten years!"
"And why is that your problem? You can't save everyone."
"I know that. Remember Rachel Hicks? But I at least have to try."
"I don't see why."
"Because I'm a human being and she is as well. And in her place, I think I'd have committed the same crime."
"No you wouldn't. You're normal," Sean said confidently.
Helen shook her head at his naivety. The gulf between their worlds had never seemed so wide as during this conversation.
"None of us knows how we'd react if we were put in a situation like that until it happens, Sean. Believe me, I've done enough entrance interviews with perfectly 'normal' people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"That's not true," Sean said. "You just want it to be true. You're spending so much time with criminals and deviants that you're losing perspective. You're forgetting how it is for the law-abiding majority, the people who don't belong inside."
"The law-abiding majority? Like the people you invite to dinner, sometimes?"
"Yes! Our friends, actually."
"People like Roger and Steven. And, what's his name ... Richard."
"Roger, who's been convicted of drink driving twice; Steven, whose ex-wife has an injunction out against him. Richard, who boasts at dinner parties about how good he is at fiddling his taxes. Any of them could be inside if things had gone a bit differently."
"Helen! Those are my mates you're talking about!"
"I know. I'm just making the point that it isn't as clear-cut as you think."
"But it is," Sean said. "There are people who, granted, may make the odd mistake. Hey, nobody's perfect." He flashed her a boyish smile. Helen suspected it was meant to melt her resistance. Instead, she could feel her increasing anger constricting her chest. She focused on what Sean was saying, wondering if he realised how much he was parroting his father's most right-wing opinions. "But they're basically sound. They hold down jobs, have families, contribute to society. Then there are the others. The people who belong in places like Larkhall because they're dangerous. When they're out of prison, all they're doing is drawing the dole anyway. Which people like you and me are paying for."
"If you like."
Helen sighed wearily. "You know what the most ironic thing is?"
Slowly, she went into the kitchen and replaced the calendar on its hook. "Before she went to prison, Trisha Harris would probably have agreed with you."
She put the kettle on and stood next to it, staring blindly out into the night. She found that staying very still helped her deal with the grief and the muffled rage in her chest. Luckily, her weariness made it the easiest thing to do, anyway. She blinked back the tears that threatened to spill. She was determined not to cry in front of Sean; she knew that he would only see it as female weakness and use it as an excuse to disregard her opinions. She heard his footsteps behind her and then his concerned voice.
"Hels? Are you all right?"
He put his hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.
"What's the matter?"
"You've just told me that you regard me as the equivalent of a zoo keeper, Sean. How am I supposed to feel about that?"
"That wasn't what I said!"
"Yes, it was. I suppose it explains why you've never taken my job seriously."
The kettle boiled and Helen made a pot of tea, her movements mechanical. She could see Sean watching her, trying to work out what was going on. Internally, she shrugged. She supposed he'd figure it out, eventually. She poured herself a mug of tea and added milk, leaving the bottle on the table.
"I'm going to bed, Sean."
"Helen, we haven't sorted this out!"
"I know. I doubt we can."
He looked puzzled and tried to drop a kiss on her cheek as she passed him in the doorway. Helen turned her face away and he frowned.
Afterwards, Helen always felt that that was the moment their relationship ended. The actual death throes took another fortnight or so. They had more arguments about Helen's job and all the other issues she later realised they had been studiously ignoring as both of them worked on trying to find common ground. That wasn't so unusual; most couples concentrated on the things they agreed about, not their differences. It was just that, once they began to explore the fault lines between them, they turned out to be huge and unresolvable. Sometimes, sitting alone and awake late at night, resisting the call of the vodka bottle, Helen wondered bleakly how she and Sean had ever managed to find any kind of accommodation, given their differing views. When she came home one evening after a late meeting and found his possessions gone from the flat and the keys posted back through the letter box, the echoing silence of the emptied rooms was almost a comfort.
She rang Claire, who came round and listened as she told her what had been going on and then insisted on organising a workman to change the locks. Helen took some of her accumulated leave and went into a form of hibernation for the next week, alternating between sitting on the sofa, consuming endless cups of tea and watching TV programmes that she could not have described five minutes after she'd seen them, and spring cleaning as she removed every item and rearranged every piece of furniture that held memories of her time there with Sean. Sometimes, as she lay under the duvet and punched upwards at the resistant covering above her, venting her anger in the only safe way she knew, Helen wondered bleakly if this was all there was. Was solitude the only thing she had to look forward to now?
Six days AS (after Sean), as Helen was considering whether it was reasonable to get a takeaway for tea when there was frozen lasagna in the freezer, the phone rang. At first, Helen disregarded it; she'd had a number of hang ups that she suspected were Sean, trying to work up the courage to talk to her. Then, when she recognised the voice leaving the message, she moved quickly to the phone and grabbed it out of its cradle.
"Helen. Thank Christ!"
"I've been really worried."
"I don't understand."
"Helen, you haven't called for three weeks. I spoke to Trisha and she said you haven't been coming into work. The screws wouldn't tell her why." Nikki laughed weakly and Helen could visualise her eyebrows quirking as she strove to make light of her own feelings. "At least tell me that you've been doing the next Pirelli calendar, for fuck's sake. I thought ... I thought it might be bad news. About your smear test."
Helen remembered belatedly that the letter with the negative result had arrived four days ago and that in her distracted state she had not told the people who might be worrying about her. It had never even crossed her mind. She suppressed a twinge of guilt.
"No, it's not that. The follow up came back clear." Helen swallowed. "Sean's left me."
"Oh," Nikki said quietly, "that's a bastard."
"How are you?"
"Why'd it happen?"
"Oh, the usual. Turns out we'd been fooling ourselves that things were better than they were."
"Yeah, I know that one," Nikki said softly.
Helen didn't respond, absorbing the sympathy in the other woman's tone.
"Look, if this is too painful for you ...." Nikki added.
"No. No, I'd prefer to talk about it."
"OK. Tell me how you are."
"I ... it feels weird. Being here on my own."
"How long were you together?"
"Nearly five years."
"That's a long time."
"Not as long as you and Trisha."
"No, but ...."
"You know what they call a lesbian second date?"
"The housewarming party."
Helen stared at the phone, then snorted. "You're having me on."
"No," Nikki said. "Listen, I'm coming to visit Trisha the day after tomorrow. Do you want to meet for a late lunch?"
Helen looked around at the bleak expanse of the hallway. Part of her wanted to refuse and spend the time hugging her misery to herself, but objectively she knew that it would do her good to get out of the house and see someone. "I'd like that."
"Where would you recommend? I'm a bit out of touch."
In the end, they settled on a Chinese restaurant that Nikki knew in the center of town, on the grounds that there was very little chance of anyone from Larkhall stumbling across them. Nikki was waiting for Helen when she got there, absently drawing patterns on the tablecloth with her finger as she thought about something.
"Penny for them?" Helen asked, dropping into the seat opposite her and accepting a menu from the waitress with a nod of thanks. Nikki frowned.
"Trisha's not well. She's got some kind of stomach bug. She's white as a bloody sheet. She tried to cover it while I was there, but I could tell she was hurting."
"I'm sorry," Helen said, feeling as she said the words how useless the sentiment was. Especially given what she knew about the possible causes of Trisha's illness.
"I just hate this so fucking much," Nikki said with quiet vehemence. "We sit there and we both try and find things to say. Then she lies to me about how it's going and I lie to her about much longer she'll be in there, and when we've both run out of lies to tell each other, I leave. I come away feeling like shit and knowing that she's feeling worse, because at least I can see the sky without looking through bars." She shook her head angrily, visibly putting her emotions to one side.
"Anyway, that's not what this is for. How are you?"
"Better than I was a few days ago. I got rid of the last of his things yesterday."
"Sensible move," Nikki said. "No point holding on to old memories, is there?"
"When I left, Trisha put my stuff into storage. They sent it to me when I got back to the UK."
"That must have been weird for you."
"Yeah. I remembered the books and the clothes still fitted, but it was like ... I don't know, something from another life. One that only half-belonged to me."
"We all lose things over time."
"That's a cheerful thought. Do you want a glass of wine?"
Nikki signaled the waitress and ordered drinks, adding an order for green tea and some prawn crackers. Helen nibbled at them when they came, surprised to find that she was actually quite hungry. She'd noticed that she was eating less over the last few days, but her appetite seemed to have returned in Nikki's presence. She excused herself to go to the toilet and blushed when she came back to find an assortment of dim sum already on the table.
"Was I that obvious?" she asked.
"You're hungry. Eat," Nikki said, picking up a dumpling and biting into it. Helen copied her and they ended up trading suggestions about what to order next, talking about flavors and ingredients as they swapped stories about restaurants they had visited. Helen was slightly embarrassed, feeling limited and parochial as she listened to Nikki's stories about beachfront fish restaurants in China and Thailand and eating street food from stalls all over the region. She smiled inwardly as Nikki switched the focus to London, quizzing her about the changes that had happened while she had been away in the Far East and then the 'frozen North', as she dubbed Yorkshire. The other woman seemed to have a real talent for putting her at her ease. Finally, she sat back from the table, conscious that she was on the verge of eating too much.
Nikki smiled at her. "Full?"
Nikki poured her a cup of tea and Helen sipped it, absently watching the play of light on the other woman's features as the late afternoon sunlight filled the restaurant with a golden glow. Nikki studied her before speaking.
"So, has he tried to get back in touch?"
"There've been a few hang ups."
"Probably just realising how he's messed up and trying to get the courage together to talk to you."
"I don't think I'm that much of a catch."
"I disagree," Nikki said. "But what do I know? I'm not a bloke."
Helen ducked her head, unwillingly pleased by the comment and then brought herself back to reality. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Don't mention it. You do know that women have higher standards, don't you?"
Helen fixed her with a stern gaze. "Nikki Wade, are you flirting with me?"
"Sorry, bad habit. I know you're straight. Can't blame me for trying to keep my hand in."
"No, but I think you should stop there."
Silence fell between them. Emboldened by the wine she had drunk, Helen dared to ask a question that had been nagging at her for while.
"Though there is one thing ...."
Nikki sat back and spread her hands. "Ask away."
"Are you planning to get back with Trisha when she's freed?"
Nikki sighed and poured them both more tea, a delaying tactic. Helen considered letting her answer the question without full disclosure. Then her conscience nudged her and she spoke. "Trisha told me why you broke up."
"Did she?" Nikki said, rotating her cup on the table.
"Yeah. But I get the feeling you still care about her. Even after what she did."
"OK," Nikki said, "have you ever heard the Spanish proverb that says 'in any relationship, there is always one who kisses and one who turns the cheek'?"
"With me and Trisha, she was the one who turned the cheek. The minute I saw her, I wanted her in my life. Don't get me wrong; we were partners. But I always needed her more than she needed me. Or thought I did. I was this ... kid from the provinces and she was ... God. Beautiful, experienced, sophisticated. Smart, organised. I thought I was lucky that she even considered sleeping with me, much less agreeing to live with me."
She reached out and poured the remainder of the wine into her glass, taking a deep swallow before she started to rotate it in her hands, studying the way the liquid moved and shifted as she turned it one way and another. "Things changed, gradually, as we worked together. I got more confident, started to trust in my own strengths, became more assertive."
She broke off as the waitress came by to take away some of the used dishes. "Looking back, I think Trisha must have felt threatened. I'd have reassured her, if she'd talked to me about it. As far as I was concerned, she was still the only woman I'd look twice at. Instead, she let her insecurities take over, took some young chancer to bed."
Helen made an inarticulate noise, trying to find the words that expressed her sympathy without sounding trite.
"Yeah," Nikki said ruefully, "cliched, right? The successful businesswoman who gets so caught up in her work that she doesn't notice that her partner's having an affair. I walked in on them in our bed. Sometimes, I wonder if Trisha wanted me to catch her."
"Why would she want that?"
"Because she'd been trying to tell me in a lot of different ways for a while, apparently. And I didn't want to hear what she was saying." She shrugged. "We could have gone back to how it had been, if I'd been willing to pretend I hadn't changed. But I couldn't anymore. So we came to an agreement. I signed over control of the business to her, and went traveling. Once I got away from the UK, from Trisha, I saw things a lot more clearly. Sometimes, distance gives perspective. I began to believe in myself."
"You still haven't answered my question," Helen said softly.
"No, we won't be together when she gets out. I've changed too much. It wouldn't work anymore. But I'll always love her. She helped me become myself. Does that make sense?"
Helen felt a warmth fill her. "Perfect sense," she said.
Trisha looked unenthusiastically at the selection of novels and finally went for a Hemingway, even though she'd read it before. As usual, she was in the library because it was a place Fenner didn't seem to visit often. Most of the cons avoided it as well, which meant that it was a refuge for Trisha, a place she could go and be left alone, with the added advantage that there were books to occupy her. Nowadays, she looked back with slight incredulity at her former self, the stressed, busy club owner who could sometimes be heard moaning that there weren't enough hours in the day to do everything she needed to do. Now, all she had was time, and she didn't much like it.
As she turned, she caught the look that the dumpy, middle-aged woman sitting at the table was giving her. Barbara, she remembered.
"What?" she asked.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to stare. Your tattoo ...."
Trisha realised that her top had ridden up when she reached for the book. She was wearing one of her low-cut pairs of jeans and the combination must have exposed her lower back. She touched the area to one side of her spine, slightly self-conscious, and shrugged.
"My ex is a professional tattooist. She did it."
"It's elegant. Not like the crude botches some of the others have."
"They're prison tattoos. Been done with sewing needles and biro ink, most of them." Trisha shuddered.
"Is it an actual illustration from the Book of Kells?" the older woman asked.
"I don't know," Trisha confessed. "It's a swan."
"Does it symbolise anything?"
"No," Trisha lied quickly.
Actually, she'd wanted Nikki's name, and had had to be persuaded to accept an image, on the grounds that the symbolism was more subtle. She remembered Nikki earnestly telling her that swans mated for life. She hadn't fully understood her ex-partner's caution until their relationship had ended and she'd been left with something she could still bear to look at rather than another ugly reminder of what she'd thrown away. It helped that the design was truly beautiful, a subtly shaded representation in blue and black done in Celtic knotwork, resting on her lower back just above her pelvic bone.
"Why did you have it there?" Barbara asked. "Most people have them on the arm or shoulder."
"I used to go to a lot of functions in my old job," Trisha told her. "I had to wear evening dresses. Nikki put it somewhere where only the people I wanted to would see it."
Barbara nodded, carefully not asking the obvious question. Trisha considered, then held out her hand. "Trisha Harris, ex-club owner. Manslaughter."
The older woman returned the gesture, shaking hands. "Barbara Hunt, ex-civil servant. The same."
"Maybe us killers should stick together," Trisha said lightly. Looking into the other woman's eyes, she could see an intelligence and humanity she didn't encounter very often in Larkhall, though she suspected the woman had a tendency to be a bit of a prude.
"Maybe we should. Most of the women in here terrify me, frankly."
"Can't help you with that. I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"It would be good to have someone to talk to. Someone who knows the ropes," Barbara said.
Trisha smiled, remembering how she'd felt when she'd first been locked up.
"Deal," she said.
"Again?" Helen said despairingly. "Exactly how is she getting hold of the drugs?"
"If we knew that, we could stop her," Dominic said gloomily. "She's getting better at hiding them, too."
"Well, that doesn't surprise me. She seems to be successfully working around all your efforts. Pretty impressive for someone who's doped up most of the time."
"She's a devious bitch," Fenner said. "I don't think you should blame Dominic. Most of the cons we get in here are brain dead. Easy enough to control. She's a cut above, that's all."
"I thought that was what your famed jail craft was supposed to be about, Jim? Stopping this sort of thing from happening?"
"It's not like it matters," Sylvia said. "That one's going nowhere for ten years anyway."
"It matters if she kills herself. Then she will be brain dead, as well as dead in every other sense of the word! Do you want the Inspectorate in? Especially with the acknowledged drugs problem on this wing? Do you want that kind of scrutiny?"
The officers looked at each other. Fenner shrugged. "Well, we could ship her out."
"Offload our problems onto someone else?"
"Not just that. If she's on the ghost train, she'll find it harder to get hold of her fix."
"Or, she'll simply establish a new network in whatever prison she's moved to. Or start injecting because it's more easily available," Helen retorted.
"We could set the DST on her," Lorna Rose suggested.
"We can't have them here permanently. If this goes on, potentially, we could be looking at closed visits. Simon's getting pretty sick of this."
"So what do we do?" Fenner asked. "You're the graduate. You tell us."
"I have one idea that may work," Helen said. "Where is she? Segregation?"
"Yeah," Dominic said.
"Right, I'll go and see her. In the meantime, you and Jim go over her cell with a fine-tooth comb. I want to be sure it's clean."
"That'll only work short term," Fenner objected.
"It only needs to be. I have a plan. When did you put her in seg?"
"So she should be clear-headed enough to understand me. Good. Anything else we need to discuss?"
Everyone shook their heads. Helen left them looking at each other, obviously speculating what she had in mind. She let them wonder and made her way down to the block. The officer in charge nodded in greeting and showed her to the right cell.
Helen let herself into the cheerless gray room and waited until the turnkey was out of earshot. She spent the time studying Trisha, who was lying on her side on the thin mattress, huddled around herself, unmoving. She continued to studiously ignore Helen, even when the Scot spoke.
"This is the third time this month. You're losing weight, your skin is in a terrible condition. You're becoming more withdrawn. I have to do something about this."
"Like what?" Trisha asked, not sounding very interested in the answer.
"I'm going to tell Nikki."
That got a reaction. Trisha sat slowly upright. Her voice was toneless. "You bitch."
"No. We've tried everything else. I cannot allow this situation to continue. I have a responsibility."
"I didn't ask for a fucking nursemaid!"
"I know that. I also know that you're not thinking straight right now."
"Straight's overrated," Trisha said, but the comment was automatic, lifeless. Her normally confident tone was subdued.
"But you are hurting."
"Yeah. So? Comedown's hell. Doesn't matter."
"It does if it's affecting your health."
"What's affecting my health is this fucking place. Crap food, no decent exercise, no fresh air, no choices about anything. Bastard idiot screws getting in my face all the time, watching me, treating me like a child. Spending time with women who can't read and write, never mind hold an intelligent conversation. I'm buried alive and nobody gives a shit."
"But she can't get me out of here."
"And thanks to your actions, neither can I, for the moment. Not even by way of a transfer to a lower security prison. This kind of behaviour will potentially affect your appeal."
"That's not going to happen anyway," Trisha said quietly. "You know what's worse than no hope? False hope."
Helen sighed. "I'm not going to stand here and debate with you. Once you're off the block, you're on cellular confinement. I will be arranging for officers to deliver your meals and you will be escorted everywhere outside your cell."
"What's that supposed to achieve?"
"It'll help you stay clean for Nikki's visit. After that, it's up to you."
"Yes. I think you two need to talk about this. Because, frankly, I don't know if there's any point continuing to try and help you if you've given up. That's a discussion you need to have with her. I'll arrange a private room. Then, if you honestly believe that we're wasting our time trying to get your sentence overturned, we'll obey your wishes and stop working on it."
Trisha looked at Helen, her underlying vulnerability plain on her face. "You'd give up on me?"
Helen hardened her heart. She could not afford to let Trisha see the very real concerns she had for her. She deliberately made her voice cold and detached. "If you've already given up on yourself, what is the point of all the work we're putting in?"
Trisha turned her face away. Helen could see that she was struggling to control her emotions. She kept her tone impersonal. "I'd like you to think about what I've said. If you feel you need to speak to me, talk to a member of staff."
She spent the rest of the day burying herself in paperwork to avoid thinking about the phone call she would have to make that evening. When she got home, she found herself reaching for the TV remote control and actually preparing to watch one of the soaps before she realised that she was engaging in displacement activity. Taking her courage in both hands, she hit the speed dial on the phone. As usual, Nikki picked up straight away.
"Helen! Is Trisha all right?"
"No, no, she's not," Helen said reluctantly.
"What? Is it serious?"
"She's fine for now. I need you to come to London to see her."
"Talk to me! What's going on?"
"This is not a conversation I want to have over the phone, even if I thought it was appropriate."
"Appropriate?" Nikki demanded. "You can't just leave me bloody hanging like that. Tell me what the matter is."
"If I do, will you promise to try and stay calm?"
"Depends on what you tell me," Nikki said grimly. Helen recognized her 'taking care of business' tone of voice and relaxed slightly. Besides, she told herself, that was supposed to be the best way to survive a crash.
"It's drugs. Trisha's been using."
There was a stunned silence at the other end of the line. Helen wished desperately that she could see Nikki's expression and work out how she was taking the news. The other woman's next comment told her. It was quietly furious and matter-of-fact.
"Since before I came to see you the first time."
"Yes. I didn't know when I came to see you. I only found out later."
"How much later?"
"The week after," Helen admitted.
"So why the fuck didn't you tell me then?"
"Because Trisha made me not telling you a condition of ringing you with updates."
"I see. And of course you couldn't compromise your bloody code of ethics, could you?"
"No, I couldn't. That is the point of having a code. You have to follow it. Be reasonable, Nikki, Trisha put me in a near impossible position. I couldn't break her confidence, but if I'd failed to ring you, you'd have wanted to know why. What explanation could I have given you that wouldn't have had you guessing the truth almost immediately? My only option was to hide it from you and try and persuade Trisha to seek treatment."
"So why have you suddenly changed your mind?" Nikki demanded. "Started injecting, has she? Caught some filthy disease?"
"No, but I fear that will be the next step. I hope that if you talk to her, you might be able to get through, somehow. Persuade her to seek treatment."
"You've been letting her get worse all this time," Nikki said. "Sitting in your bloody ivory tower while she got more addicted. How does that square with your code of ethics?"
"It wouldn't. But that is not what has been happening. I have been working with Trisha, trying to persuade her to at least try other coping strategies. She is not willing to meet me halfway. She's an adult, Nikki. There's only so much I can do without her co-operation. I can no more stop drugs coming on to G wing than I can stop the tide coming in. The question is whether Trisha continues to take them or not."
"Well, if you haven't managed, what the hell difference am I going to make? Trisha was always anti-drugs. She saw an old girlfriend kill herself with them. It's why they split up. If she's decided that she wants to be high all the time, why should anything I say change her mind?"
"Your opinion's important to her, Nikki. She didn't want you to know. You might be able to get through where I haven't."
"No pressure, then. What if it doesn't work?"
"No idea. But at least we will have tried."
There was a silence at the other end of the line. Helen waited. Finally, Nikki spoke decisively.
"OK. Give me a couple of hours to rearrange some appointments. I'll be on the road as soon as I've sorted somewhere to stay."
"What about your friends?"
"City break to Prague."
"Stay with me," Helen said impulsively. "The last thing you want to be worrying about is finding accommodation. You can have the spare room. That means I can drive you into Larkhall in the morning. You can see Trisha first thing."
Nikki hesitated. Helen frowned. "What? Sean's not here anymore. You don't have to worry about him being funny with you or knowing Trisha's business."
"That wasn't what I was worried about."
"Nothing. OK, I'll stay with you. Means we can talk if we need to."
"Phone me when you're getting close. I'm afraid I won't be cooking. I haven't got anything in."
"Takeaway 'll be fine," Nikki said indifferently. "Bye."
She rang off and Helen ran a hand through her hair, distracted. The conversation had gone better than she'd expected. Nikki was still speaking to her, for one thing, but she had a very short time to do a lot of housework when she got home from work.
Three intensive hours after her last meeting had run late, delaying her even more than the traffic, Helen was just putting away the Hoover when the doorbell rang. Frowning, she went to her door and saw a familiar tall, dark shape through the glass pane. Thanking her lucky stars that she'd started with the essentials, like the bathroom and clean bedding in the spare room, she opened the door for Nikki.
"You made good time."
"I had a motive," Nikki said. She hefted a battered holdall. "Can I dump this?"
"Yes. Would you like something to drink?"
"Have you got tea? A soft drink?"
"Lemonade?" Helen asked. Nikki nodded, then prowled after Helen as she headed for the kitchen, though she paused to take off her boots in the hall. She seemed unable to stay still, even more introspective than Helen remembered. Helen guessed that she was barely restraining her feelings about the situation with Trisha.
Helen made herself a cup of coffee and took it through into the living room. Nikki followed her and frowned at the pile of reports and box files on the coffee table.
"Have you got time for this right now?"
"Trisha has reached a crisis point. That's more important than budget forecasts or performance figures."
Nikki seemed to take that on board. She looked intently at Helen. "So, how do we do this?"
"I'll take you into Larkhall tomorrow. I've already arranged a private room. You can spend as long as you need to with Trisha, within reason."
"What about comeback for you?"
"I sold it to my boss as an experiment. You have clean hands - there's no suspicion that you've ever brought in drugs for her. The idea is that if she sees somebody from her past, before she started, it may make her realise how things have changed. What effect her habit's having." Helen shrugged. "It's pretty much the truth."
"So why the hell should Trisha listen to me if she's frog-marched into a room and I'm waiting there for her?"
"Can you think of a better way of doing it?" Helen challenged. Nikki fell silent.
"It is the only way I can think of ensuring she agrees to see you. The fact you've come all the way from Whitby ought to count for something!"
"Besides, you can't make her listen. But she can't stop you talking, can she?"
"No," Nikki agreed. She shook her head. "How did it get to this? This fucking system...."
"Trisha has to take some responsibility," Helen argued. "She had a choice at the beginning."
"Easy for us to say."
"Whatever you do, you mustn't blame yourself," Helen told her, well aware by now of how Nikki's mind worked. "No one could have given Trisha more support than you have. You have to remember that."
"Doesn't seem to have done her much good, does it?"
"You can't think like that," Helen argued, exasperated by Nikki's familiar stubbornness. "You don't know where she would have been without your support. She might have started using earlier. She might already have OD'd."
Nikki winced. "Don't, OK."
Helen saw how pale she was and wondered how much rest Nikki been getting lately.
"Do you want to get something to eat and an early night? You've had a long day."
"I'm not really hungry," Nikki said, "but I could do with some sleep."
"If you're sure...."
"Certain. My appetite always shuts down when I'm stressed."
"Is there anything else you need? A bath, maybe?"
"No. No thanks. I'll grab a shower in the morning."
"OK. I'll show you where everything is."
"There is one thing."
"Have you got any books? In case I can't sleep."
Helen thought back to the overflowing bookcases in Nikki's study and smiled to herself. It seemed strange to think of the passionate reader buried underneath the tough, hard-bitten facade. One more apparent paradox in the bundle of contradictions that was Nikki Wade.
"You're in luck. The spare bedroom is also where I keep my reading matter. You're already in the same room as the library. Help yourself."
Nikki grabbed her holdall and followed Helen down the corridor. In the spare room, she disregarded everything else and immediately went to the shelves that covered one wall, leaning down to survey all the titles on display. Helen waited in the doorway, feeling strangely nervous.
"Well, do I pass?"
Nikki looked round, startled, then pretended to think about the question.
"Well, if I was judging you, which I'm not, you'd definitely get points for the number of Virago and Women's Press paperbacks. Too many textbooks, though. You need to lighten up. Read a few more novels. Or are the Mills and Boone in your bedroom?"
Her grin was back. Helen could tell she was teasing. She pretended to be outraged. "I don't read that stuff. I'm a Catherine Cookson woman."
"Ah, but you have got the original," Nikki said, pulling out a copy of Jane Eyre. "Brooding Byronic antihero, passionate independent heroine with a brain. All good stuff. Pity he's a bloke, really."
"Speak for yourself. Some of us are straight."
"I wouldn't look good in crinolines," Nikki said offhandedly, and replaced the novel. "Thanks for putting me up, by the way; it was one less thing to worry about."
"Don't mention it. We're both here for the same thing."
"I know," Nikki said. The shadows were back in her voice, and Helen decided that the other woman probably needed some time on her own. She was slightly disappointed. She'd been looking forward to a couple of hours of conversation, but it wasn't fair to impose on Nikki when she was tired, especially after a long drive.
"I'll leave you to it. Unless there's anything you need?"
"No, no, I'll be fine." Nikki said. As if to prove her point, she unzipped her holdall and began to unpack, pulling out a pair of pyjamas and a sponge bag before pausing and looking over. Helen realised that she was hesitating in the doorway and cleared her throat to cover the awkward moment.
"I'll let you get on then," she said and retreated to her paperwork in the living room. She managed about an hour before she gave up, aware that her tiredness meant she wasn't absorbing information. Nikki was a very quiet guest. Helen heard her moving about from time to time and once caught a glimpse of her going to the kitchen for glass of water in the kimono she seemed to use as a dressing gown, but apart from that, she was able to work undisturbed.
Later, she moved around the flat in her accustomed nighttime routine, checking that all the doors and windows were locked and that everything was tidied away in its place. It was something that had become a lot easier since Sean had left; she no longer tripped over muddy boots or found half-finished garden plans on random surfaces. It almost made up for not having a warm body to snuggle up to at night. Almost.
Though, now Helen thought about it, she hadn't exactly been taking advantage of her opportunities. She'd had several offers of nights out or just plain dates as soon as the news had spread around their mutual circle of friends that she had split up with Sean. Somehow, Trisha's campaign and trying to get G Wing running right had seemed more important than her love life. Helen shook her head, exasperated with herself. It wasn't as though the prison wouldn't be there, complete with bastards like Fenner, after she was gone, and it was looking more and more like Trisha's campaign would have to be put on hold while they persuaded her not to press the self-destruct button and to learn to deal with the pressures of being imprisoned well enough to survive at all. Whatever happened, the campaign was a long-term commitment. Time to stop putting her life on hold, definitely.
Going down the corridor to her bedroom, she saw the line of light under the spare room door and realised that Nikki hadn't managed to fall asleep yet. She resisted the impulse to disturb her. The last thing her guest needed was something else keeping her awake.
They drove to the prison in strained silence. Helen concentrated on dealing with the traffic, leaving Nikki to brood in peace. She could sense the other woman's apprehension and knew she was wondering how Trisha would react to their meeting. Helen tried not to share it. She had known far more addicted prisoners than Nikki and had a better idea of how badly things could go for Trisha if she didn't stop using. She had no doubt, however, that the blonde wouldn't see it that way.
Nikki endured the routine search stoically, obviously used to it from her visits. She looked around curiously when Helen took her to the private visitor's room, however. She'd probably never been in this section of the prison before.
"Lovely decor," she commented.
"Institutional chic. OK, Trisha is being brought up now. She's been told she has a visitor, but not who it is, though she can probably guess. I'll leave you to it. I'll be outside. You can ring if you need me."
"I've got no idea what to say," Nikki confessed.
"It'll come to you."
"That or Trisha'll be too busy yelling at me to listen."
There was a knock on the door. Nikki tensed and crossed over to stand behind the table, her habitual frown reappearing. Helen gave her arm a reassuring squeeze and went to let Trisha in. Dominic was the escorting officer - he ducked his head and showed the blonde into the room. She came to a dead stop as she saw Nikki.
"Thanks, Dominic. You can go now. I'll manage it from here," Helen said.
Trisha waited until the door was closed and the young PO was out of earshot.
"So you did come? Didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"After you found out ... about.... Look, just get it over with."
"Whatever you've come to say. Must be a special occasion. Not everyone gets a private room."
"Helen organised that."
"I'd better go," Helen said. The simmering emotion between the women was making her feel awkward. Nikki and Trisha seemed unsure as to whether they were going to hug or fight and she didn't want to intrude anymore than she had to.
"You'll be outside?" Nikki asked.
"Of course," Trisha interrupted. "Can't leave the dangerous con alone with a normal human being, can they?"
Helen didn't dignify the comment with a reply. As she left the room, she saw Nikki glare at Trisha and wondered if they'd manage to talk at all.
In the event, they spent a couple of hours together before one of them rang the buzzer. Helen went in and found Nikki embracing her ex-partner, one hand stroking Trisha's hair. The smaller woman's face was nestled into her shoulder, her arms around Nikki's waist.
"Shhh, it'll be all right," Nikki said quietly, then looked at Helen. She had been crying - her mascara was smudged. Helen hesitated, wondering if she should leave.
Trisha pre-empted her, moving decisively out of Nikki's embrace, visibly collecting herself as she mopped her own eyes.
"I'd like to go back to the wing now," she said, her steady voice daring Helen to make a comment. Helen nodded and radioed for an escort. She waited until the inmate had been taken away and turned to Nikki.
"Come on. I'll take you back to my place."
"Don't you have a day's work to do?"
"I can take some time owing. I'm the governor, remember? They know how to get hold of me if anything happens."
"Thanks," Nikki said. She stayed subdued throughout the journey home. Helen waited until they were both inside before speaking.
"How did it go?"
"OK, I suppose. She was expecting me to give her some sort of ultimatum. Stop using or I'd give up on her."
"I take it you didn't?"
"Of course not! What do you think I am? She's only that paranoid because she's in there. She's not thinking straight anymore."
"I believe she's depressed," Helen agreed.
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Did she agree to stop using?"
"She agreed to try."
"Will she see Dr. Nicholson?"
"No. And I don't blame her."
"What if I could get someone else?"
"There's a doctor who's been recommended to me as someone who might be able to help some of the women on the acute wing. He's looking to get into that area of practice so he's willing to do some contract work. He has significantly more expertise than Dr. Nicholson in psychological medicine. I could add Trisha to his list."
"What good would that do her?"
"Anything they discussed would be confidential. He's not strictly part of the prison hierarchy. Having somebody qualified to talk to has got to help her, surely?"
"I suppose," Nikki said. "Why didn't you tell me about this before I went in there?"
"Because the first step had to come from her. She has to believe she can do it and that she's got your support. Otherwise we're setting her up to fail."
"You have some fucking Victorian attitudes sometimes."
"No. I just know how hard prison makes getting clean. Trisha's lucky - she's got you on her side."
Nikki winced. "Don't."
"What?" Helen asked, puzzled.
"I was honest with her. I'll be honest with you."
"Are you going to tell me that you have given up on her, after all?"
"No. But she might think so."
"Nikki, for God's sake, what did you tell her?"
"How can that hurt?"
Nikki moved away. She seemed, suddenly, to be very interested in the number of CDs in Helen's collection. "She was building up some fantasy about how we'd be together when she gets out. She's decided that the affair was a mistake, that we could make it work again, without the club to distract us. She sees things differently now, being put inside really shows you who your friends are, she wants to spend the rest of her life with me when she gets the chance. She's going to kick the drugs for me...."
"That's all good! It means she wants to stop and she's at least open to the possibility that the campaign might succeed."
Nikki's shoulders tensed. Helen remembered their conversation in the restaurant and frowned, realising how much the moral conflict must be upsetting Nikki.
"How did you deal with it?" she asked softly.
"I told her the truth. I softened it as much as I could, but ... she's not stupid."
"That must have been hard. For both of you."
Nikki looked round at her and Helen was shocked by the raw pain on her face.
"It's worse than that. I've fallen for another woman in the meantime."
Helen blinked, absorbing the information. Nikki's announcement had been made in a tone of voice that mingled anger and shame. Helen tried to understand why it was such bad news. Analysing her own reactions, she was startled to discover that she was feeling something very like jealousy. Confused, she hesitated. Nikki seemed to take her silence as permission to share more information.
"Yeah, just when Trisha needs me the most, I've had to turn round and tell her that there's no hope of a future for us and that when she does get out, she'll be on her own."
"You'll still be friends, surely? This woman you've fallen for shouldn't have a problem with you and Trisha still seeing each other socially. Unless they know each other and don't get on."
"I wish it was that simple," Nikki said. "No, I've made the classic dyke mistake of falling for a straight girl. Not only is she fucking oblivious, she's too honourable to do anything about it even if she did know, and even if she did, by some miracle, return my feelings."
"Honour? That's a bit old-fashioned, isn't it?"
"No. This woman actually has... a code of ethics. Whatever you want to call it. She'd think it was 'inappropriate' to do that to Trisha while she was inside."
"So she knows about Trisha?"
"I met her through the campaign, didn't I?" Nikki said impatiently. "Not that I'd lie to her if I hadn't."
"Of course not," Helen said. "You challenge me about my beliefs, but you're as bad."
Mentally, she was reviewing their common acquaintance, trying to work out who Nikki could have feelings for. She kept coming up blank and put the matter to one side until she had leisure to think about it properly.
"It's nice to know you think so," Nikki said. "Explains why I'm feeling like such a bitch."
"Don't," Helen said firmly. "You can't help who you fall in love with."
"Even when it's a new definition of pointless?"
"Well, are you sure she's straight?"
"Then, I'm sorry. For both of you. It sounds like a waste."
"And it doesn't help Trisha."
"Not everything can be about Trisha. You've already done more than most ex-partners would have. There comes a point where it's not healthy to do more."
Helen gave a snort of laughter. "I don't know why you're listening to me. I'm not exactly an example of how to run a relationship successfully. I don't even know if the dynamic is the same. "
"I'm listening, " Nikki said.
"If it was... no, that's not what I mean. What I mean is that if you told Trisha that there was a chance for you two when she got out, you'd be lying to her. No relationship built on lies can succeed. You had no choice but to tell her the truth. Otherwise, what would have happened if she'd got off the drugs believing that you two had a future? Once she was free, she'd have had to find out that she was mistaken. And that would involve you having lied to her for months, maybe years. How would that have made you both feel? It would destroy your friendship, never mind any chance of a romantic relationship. Right now, I think Trisha needs a friend more than a lover."
"I hope you're right. Will you do something for me?"
"I know you can't carry messages."
"Will you go and talk to her about this new doctor and see if she'll meet him? She might have changed her mind about trying to kick her habit."
"Did she agree before or after you told her about this other woman?"
"Both. But she's had time to think now. I need to know before I go back to Whitby. Please?"
Helen considered. One look at Nikki's face told her that the taller woman would get no rest until she knew the answer. Sighing, she realised that she needed to know as well. If Trisha had changed her mind, they would have to come up with a new strategy to reach her.
"Wait here. You know where everything is. I'll go and see her. I should be back by early evening. I'll phone if I'm going to be late."
Nikki nodded. Helen's last sight of her was her settling down with a book on the sofa, face preoccupied.
Back at the prison, she checked with her secretary to ensure she hadn't missed any important messages, and went down onto the wing. Lunch was just finishing as she came into the mess hall. She greeted the two Julies with a nod and found Fenner, who was supervising.
"Where's Trisha Harris? I need to speak to her."
"Again? Be my guest. She didn't like whatever you told her before. She's sulking in her cell. Wouldn't come out to eat."
Helen bit back the petty impulse to remind Fenner that she didn't need his permission to do anything and went down to Trisha's cell. Once there, she rapped on the frame of the door and went in. Trisha was lying on the bottom bunk, her back turned. She rolled over as Helen came in, and scowled.
"Nikki asked me to come and see how you were."
"Why? Scared I might do something stupid?"
"She was concerned about you, yes."
"Don't see why. She's got this new woman, hasn't she."
"She's still your friend. She cares about you."
"Yeah, I know. Pity that's not what I want."
"I'm sorry, Trisha. She couldn't not tell you."
"I suppose not. I blew it originally, not her. I've only got myself to blame."
Helen greeted the comment with diplomatic silence. Trisha sat up on the edge of the bunk and looked at Helen. Her gaze was calm and measured, entirely without self-pity. "Time to stop licking my wounds and get on with it, I suppose. Is that what you came to tell me?"
Helen glanced out of the cell and half closed the door. "I came to ask you if you intend to keep your promise to Nikki. About trying to get clean."
"I don't have to tell you that."
"No, you don't. But if you're still serious about it, I believe I can get you some help."
"There's a doctor...."
"I won't see that quack Nicholson!"
"Hear me out, will you? There's a new doctor who's going to be working with some of the women on their issues. If you're really committed to giving up the drugs, I can arrange an initial appointment. But I warn you now, you'll have to mean it. Dr. Waugh will be able to tell if you're just going through the motions, and I won't have you taking up a place that could benefit another woman who needs it. We only have limited funding for this scheme, and I don't want to waste it."
"Anything you tell him will be confidential," Helen said. "He doesn't report back to me or the prison hierarchy, except with a diagnosis and recommendations for treatment. That's the other thing. You'd have to agree to do what he said."
"What if I won't?"
"Then you lose your place and someone else takes it up. Oh, and he has to agree that he can help you before accepting you for treatment."
"So long as he knows he's on approval as well," Trisha said, some of her old self-assurance bleeding into her tone.
"I'll make sure he is aware of that," Helen agreed drily. "So, can I tell Nikki you're willing to see him?"
"Yeah, why not. Where is she, anyway?"
"Currently? Waiting to hear what you're going to say."
"Not on her way back to Whitby?"
"She'll go tomorrow. You can call her tomorrow evening."
Trisha frowned. "But...." She stopped suddenly. "Oh, OK. I'll do that."
Helen turned to go, glancing at the postcard from Prague on the desk. Trisha's next question stopped her as she was about to open the cell door.
"Did she tell you anything about the other woman?"
"Even if she had, I don't know that I can share that information with you."
"Yeah, you're all about what's right, aren't you?"
"I try to be."
"Nikki said she was out of reach. Do you know why?"
For some reason, the conversation was getting on Helen's nerves. She answered more sharply than she had intended. "I told you, I can't discuss it!"
Trisha raised her eyebrows. "Just thought you might know ... with Nikki meeting her through the campaign."
"Well, I don't. And I refuse to speculate. Ask Claire, next time you see her. Maybe she'll have some idea."
"Maybe she will."
Helen turned and left, unwilling to continue with the discussion. She stalked down the wing, hardly aware that both officers and inmates were giving her a wide berth, and headed for her office, where she buried herself in the familiar tedium of performance reporting until it was time to go home. For once, the traffic wasn't too bad and Helen got back in good time.
She let herself quietly into the flat, dumping her briefcase in the hall. Puzzled, she realised that she couldn't hear any movement and wondered where Nikki was. She walked into the living room and stopped just inside the door, not wanting to disturb her guest.
Sometime during the afternoon, sleep had overcome her visitor. She lay on her side on the sofa, her tall frame curled around itself to fit into the limited space available, arms folded next to the cushion under her head. The book she'd been reading was neatly closed on the coffee table. At rest, her face was open and vulnerable. In the relaxation of sleep, she didn't have her usual barriers up. For once, Helen was able to take the time to fully appreciate her looks instead of stealing glances or imagining her expression as she made some comment over the phone. She was particularly attractive today, the relaxed pose showing off her long, slender body. Her thick, tousled hair curled over her forehead - Helen resisted the impulse to smooth it back from the curve of her ears. She wondered absently what it would be like to kiss Nikki awake, imagining her soft lips opening in a startled gasp before she came to full consciousness. Helen visualised her realising what was happening, and reciprocating, brown eyes full of sleepy pleasure as she brought her hands round to run them along Helen's sides, skilled fingers slipping under Helen's shirt to caress the warm flesh there before moving to unbutton her clothes....
Helen gasped and stepped hastily out of the living room doorway, retreating to the kitchen. She felt her cheeks burn as she acknowledged her own thoughts and the physical effect they were having on her. She was uncomfortably aroused, with a distinct throbbing between her legs. Her breasts felt tight and heavy and her breathing was unsteady. As she collapsed on to a chair in the kitchen, her perception of certain events shifted and came into a new focus. For the first time, she fully acknowledged the feelings that been growing for months, and even felt a twinge of sympathy for Sean, remembering her own angry denial of his accusations. Accusations, she now realised, that been true on some level all along.
Mechanically, she reached for the kettle and filled it, staring out of the kitchen window as she tried to organise her thoughts. One thing was certain. Whatever she felt for Nikki, she wasn't going to act on it. Even if Nikki hadn't already told her that she had feelings for another woman, there was the question of Trisha. There was no way that she could continue to do her job if she were seeing Nikki in any capacity other than as part of the campaign. Even if Trisha never found out, Helen's conscience wouldn't let her even consider it as an option. In a way, she was pleased that Nikki had acknowledged her feelings for... Claire. It had to be Claire. Otherwise, working with her would simply have been too hard. Helen closed her eyes and switched off the tap, absently noticing that the kettle was now overflowing. She emptied out some water and put the lid back on, setting it to boil. She was still considering, trying to work out if she thought she could do this. Sitting over a cup of tea, she decided she could, if only for Trisha's sake. Of course it would be painful seeing Nikki eventually going off with someone else, as was inevitable. But at least she'd have the satisfaction of knowing she'd done the right thing.
A voice from the doorway interrupted her musings. "You should've woken me up."
"Why? You looked like you needed it. Cup of tea?" Helen was quite proud of how steady her voice was. Nikki seemed to take the comment at face value. She nodded and came to sit at the table, accepting the mug that Helen handed to her.
"Maybe you're right. I remember shutting my eyes for just a minute about two o'clock. The next thing is hearing you in the kitchen. How's Trisha?"
"She's agreed to see Dr. Waugh and to try and give up drugs."
"That's great news !"
"Yeah, it is. It means we can go on with the campaign without worrying...."
"Worrying about whether she'll make it," Nikki said somberly. "Is this guy up to it, though? You make it sound as though he can walk on water."
"He's a senior house officer at one of the London teaching hospitals. Good enough?"
"Impressive. So why does he want to work with cons?"
"He's interested in - well, untreated mental illness, to be blunt. In his words, it was the former Eastern Europe or the prison system, and he doesn't like the cold."
"So how does Trisha fit his criteria? She doesn't have an undiagnosed mental illness."
"No, but she does have depression, which she is refusing to acknowledge. That's enough to get Thomas interested. And once he takes her on, I know him well enough to think he won't give up on her."
"Just how closely have you worked with this guy?" Nikki asked.
"We drafted the funding proposal for the project together. He did the medical jargon; I advised on the internal politics. I trust him with the women's welfare."
"OK, that's good enough for me."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Impulsively, Nikki put her hand on Helen's where it rested on the table. Helen flinched without meaning to - newly sensitised to Nikki as she was, the touch seemed to go straight to her groin. Nikki scowled, obviously misunderstanding her reaction, and took her hand back.
"It's not catching, you know."
"You startled me, that's all," Helen said, cringing inwardly at the irony of the situation. "Come on, Nikki, be fair. Have I ever given any indication that I'm homophobic?"
"No, you haven't. Sorry. I get defensive when I get tired."
"As well as bad tempered? I'll remember that."
"Oh, piss off, why don't you?"
"I will, since you ask. As far as the drawer with the takeaway menus."
Nikki opened her mouth to protest and Helen held up an admonishing forefinger. "No. You haven't eaten since breakfast. You need to get something in your stomach, even if it's only a portion of boiled rice."
"OK, OK," Nikki said, conceding defeat.
After she had ordered, Helen went to get changed. By the time she had put on casual clothes and come back into the kitchen, the takeaway had been delivered and she found Nikki unpacking cartons of curry. They ate a leisurely meal, sharing the different dishes and talking about their plans for the next month.
Without any sort of formal agreement, they stayed away from the more difficult topics like the campaign or Trisha and finally, towards the end of the meal, found themselves talking about holidays.
Helen was pleased to find that she was able to carry a conversation with Nikki. Though she could not stop herself finding the other woman attractive, she could maintain enough of a facade to behave as though she felt nothing more than normal friendship. That was a relief - it meant they could spend a relaxed evening together, just enjoying each other's company. Given Nikki's declared feelings for someone else, Helen was realistic enough to take what she could get.
"I was supposed to go to Goa with Sean in the autumn," Helen said. "That's not going to happen now."
"It's a tourist trap anyway," Nikki said dismissively.
"So? We can't all be sophisticated globetrotters like you. I don't have time to go and live in another country for six months."
"Too busy building your career?"
"Something like that. Not that it'll get me anywhere in the prison service. I lack two essential qualifications."
"A pair of testicles and a good golf handicap."
"What about going back into policy? That could be a way into an academic career. You'd get long holidays then."
"True. But it would involve swapping one set of politics for another."
"I think you'd be good."
"I wish I had your faith."
"Come on, Helen, you could do if you set your mind to it. You must have some ideas about how to reform the system."
"One or two."
"Well, if your bosses won't let you put them into practice, write a book about where they're going wrong. Show them up. Blow the whole mess wide open!"
"Sabotaging my career as a way of advancing it. That's something I never considered doing."
"You're too cautious. That's your trouble."
"I'm a civil servant. Comes with the job description."
"Sure. How many civil servants would help a cop-killing dyke?"
"More than you might think, if it was the right thing to do."
"Well, based on the experiences Trisha's had, I'd disagree with you."
Helen looked round at the empty takeaway cartons. "I'd better clear up."
"I am grateful, you know. So is Trisha, even if she doesn't show it."
Helen ducked her head, embarrassed by the intensity and sincerity of Nikki's tone. She wondered bleakly if Nikki spoke to Claire in that tone of voice, if that would be how she would tell someone she had feelings for them. Uncomfortable, she retreated into practicality. "Let's save the thanks for when Trisha gets out. Then we can all give ourselves a pat on the back."
Nikki nodded soberly. "Good point."
Helen was surprised as she heard her own voice, apparently uncensored by her brain. "Maybe you can tell this straight woman of yours how you feel then. You might get a pleasant surprise."
Inwardly, she groaned. Discussing the subject was like probing a wound, but she didn't seem to be able to stop herself. Nikki looked briefly thoughtful and then shrugged. "Maybe I will."
Helen looked round as she heard the raised voices and blinked as she took in the scene. Yvonne Atkins and Barbara Hunt were facing off against Fenner and Hollamby in front of Trisha's cell. Behind them, a woman in DST overalls was standing just inside the open door, watching what was going on inside the cell and ignoring the confrontation on the landing. Distantly, Helen could hear the sounds of things being dumped on the floor.
"It simply isn't fair!" Barbara said. "Everyone knows she's trying her best to get clean. This doesn't help!"
"Yeah! Sending them animals in is going to make things worse, not better. Push her right over the edge," Yvonne added.
"I've told you both," Hollamby said stridently, "this is none of your business and you're to get back to your cells or go on report."
"What if I want to make it my business?" Yvonne said in her most menacing tones.
"Why would you, Atkins?" Fenner asked. "Sticking your neck out for a dyke. Thinking of changing teams, are you?"
Yvonne's face twisted with disgust.
"She's a human being!" Barbara said.
"She's a cop killer," Fenner spat back.
Helen had heard enough. Her rapid, anger-fueled stride took her to the little group in seconds. "What is this, a three ring circus? What's going on?"
"DST spinning a cell, ma'am," Hollamby told her. "These two decided to object."
"I'll deal with this," Helen said to Atkins. The gangster's wife folded her arms, considering, then nodded and walked off. Barbara went more slowly, studying Helen intently before apparently deciding she was serious and looking back as she walked away.
Helen turned to the two POs. "Who authorised this?"
"I did," Fenner said calmly. "Thought we should check if Harris really is getting clean."
"I see. So the fact that she's being constantly monitored by Doctor Waugh as part of her treatment isn't good enough?"
Fenner hesitated, apparently realising for the first time that he had made a tactical error. "Well ... they're cunning, cons. They can pull the wool over almost anybody's eyes."
"So she can fool strictly controlled daily drugs tests, can she?" Helen snapped, fighting to keep the outrage out of her tone.
"I just thought ...."
Helen waited, giving him time to hang himself. There was a crash as the cell door flew open and Trisha was shoved out of her cell by a large black woman. She was dressed in a version of the untearable suit prisoners were sometimes given on the block and was pale with suppressed humiliation and rage. Helen didn't like the way she was breathing or the high, hectic spots of colour on her cheekbones. She felt her fury rise as the black woman's pallid assistant took a firm grip of Trisha's upper arm, especially when she saw the blonde wince with pain.
"Stop that now," she said.
"We're taking her to a secure area," the black woman, whose name badge read 'Carter', said. "We're DST. We don't take orders from you."
"Not usually, but if you mess up a cell search to the extent that you incite the women to object and compromise the good order of my wing, then I can take it up with your line manager. And I will. Let her go! She's going nowhere but the medical center."
Carter's sidekick hesitated. "Don't make me push this," Helen warned in a low, dangerous voice. Carter nodded infinitesimally and the woman let Trisha go. Helen glanced round and spotted Dominic hovering nearby.
"Dominic. Take Harris to Dr. Waugh for a check-up. She's to remain there for as long as she needs to compose herself. And afterwards, I want you to escort her for a hot bath. Do you understand?"
The young screw nodded and moved quickly forward, putting a gentle hand on the con's shoulder. "Come on, Trisha," he said, urging her away from the group. Helen watched her go and then turned to Hollamby. "Sylvia, get that cell clean and tidy before she comes back."
"I'm sure Atkins and Hunt will help you if you ask them politely. Jim. My office. Half an hour."
She stalked away, fuming. As she passed Atkins, who had been standing at the bottom of the stairs next to Barbara Hunt, watching the whole thing, she was startled to hear a noise and realised that the woman was clapping softly, the movement of her hands out of Fenner's line of sight because of her position.
"Nice to see somebody standing up for the cons for a change, miss," Atkins said.
"Well, if you want to show your appreciation, would you mind getting Trisha's things sorted out before she comes back?"
Yvonne nodded. "Sure. Barbara 'll help, won't you?"
Helen was on the phone to Thomas Waugh when Fenner came in. She waved him to a seat and finished her conversation before turning her attention to him.
"Checking up on Harris?" Fenner asked, his tone full of apparent concern.
"As it happens, yes. Thomas has decided that she should be on the medical wing for tonight. We'll have to keep an eye on her when she gets back. She's very shaken. This is exactly the kind of thing that could start her using again."
"Maybe I made a mistake ...." Fenner started. Helen cut across him.
"Don't give me that bullshit, Jim. I know exactly why you did what you did, and it had nothing to do with anything but harassing Harris because she killed a friend of yours."
Fenner paled. He obviously hadn't realised that Helen knew that. She continued relentlessly. "I've been aware for some time that you've being making life unpleasant for Harris, and given your declared commitment to running things with a light hand and being relaxed with the women, there is only one interpretation I can put on that. Namely, that you're being petty and vindictive because of personal motives. As a senior officer, I expect you to behave with professionalism, and if I hear so much as a whisper that you are continuing to treat her differently, I will take it through a formal disciplinary process."
"What, treat a dyke cop killer with kid gloves?!" Fenner said, outraged.
"That is exactly the kind of inappropriate attitude I mean. If you can't leave your emotions outside the gate, then don't bother coming through it. Is that clear?"
Fenner scowled but nodded sullenly when Helen fixed him with a challenging stare. "Is that all, Ma'am?"
Helen watched him leave and resolved to have a quiet word with the Julies. She could do with extra eyes and ears on the wing for a while.
Helen was doing her mandated weekly food tasting when it happened. She had been aware that Trisha was having a hard time withdrawing from drugs. One look at her would have told anyone that, even without Thomas Waugh's updates on her progress. The blonde stood listlessly in the queue, pale and drawn, arms wrapped around herself. Despite wearing what looked like all the layers she had, she was shaking slightly. She hadn't bothered to pick up a tray. When she got to the front of the queue, she shook her head when Shell Dockley spoke to her.
"What d'you want?"
Shell, being her usual, charming self, decided to push it. "Oh, come on, Trish, you didn't eat hardly anything at breakfast. Not like you've got any spare meat on your bones, is it? Have a piece of pizza. It's lovely and warm. Few chips?"
"You heard me," Trisha snapped.
"No need to be like that. I'm just trying to be friendly. Doesn't hurt to be friendly, does it? Not like we can get away from each other in here."
"Look, just give me the tea, all right? I don't want anything else."
"You not feeling well? Shouldn't you go and see Dr. Nicholson? You might be sickening for something."
Trisha was gripping the edge of the counter so hard that her knuckles were white. She looked as though she might be having trouble staying on her feet. Helen stood up, prepared to intervene. Suddenly, a lean, well-built woman with closely cropped brown hair stepped out of the queue further down. She walked calmly up to Dockley and favoured her with a hard stare.
She didn't bother to raise her voice. Helen noticed something else interesting. No one was objecting to this woman jumping the queue, or was commenting on the fact she had taken control of the situation. They appeared to know something Shell didn't. Either that or the brassy blonde felt obliged to try and assert her position as top dog. She favoured the woman with a contemptuous look.
"Who died and made you God?"
"Nobody. Give her the tea and leave her alone. She's off limits."
Helen decided that the situation was in danger of escalating out of control and started to head towards the confrontation, aware of Fenner and a couple of the other officers moving at the same time. The stranger glanced round and, before any of them had time to react, acted. Her hand shot out with lightning speed, fingers digging into Dockley's neck as she took hold of her Adam's apple and pulled her down until their faces were level. Dockley struggled helplessly, clawing at the hand that was holding her prisoner, then stilled as the woman said something quietly into her ear. She went pale, her eyes bulging unattractively with fear and shock, then staggered backwards with a gasp as the woman released her grip on her throat and stepped away.
It had all happened so fast that Fenner's bellowed instruction to break it up had only just died away. The new inmate raised her hands as officers converged on her from all over the mess hall, holding them loosely away from her body. Her weight shifted as she assumed a fighting stance. Not only was she totally calm, she wasn't even breathing hard. Everyone, including Trisha, was looking at her with shock and a mixture of respect and fear. Helen could see the apprehension in the face of her officers and acted without thinking, going on some gut instinct she didn't know she possessed.
"That's enough," she barked. "Relax. Don't fight and you won't be hurt."
The woman turned to look at her with something like admiration in her expression. She did as she was told, dropping her hands to her sides. Fenner and one of the other officers approached her warily. She didn't resist as they took her arms.
"What's your name?" Helen asked, looking up into the taller woman's face, realising that she was only a couple of inches shorter than Nikki. The woman met her eyes calmly. She had steady brown eyes over wide, Slavic cheekbones and an ironic twist to her lips. Helen felt herself being weighed up.
"Jane Howard, miss."
"Aren't I supposed to be meeting you for your induction interview later?"
"OK, I'll see you then. Mr. Fenner?"
Helen turned to Di Barker. "Can you take Shell Dockley to the medical wing, please? I think she ought to be checked out."
"I'm all right, miss," Shell objected instantly, obviously not wanting to lose face. "She didn't hurt me."
"Still, better safe than sorry."
Helen watched Shell being led away and then took charge of Trisha, who was still standing by the counter, apparently unsure of what to do next. She put a gentle hand on her arm and led her to a table, unobtrusively steadying her as she walked. Trisha dropped heavily into the chair and began to trace patterns on the tabletop. Helen frowned, taking in the shadows under her eyes and her pallor. Even her lips seemed pale, drained and bloodless. "Are you OK?"
"No, I'm not. You know why."
Helen glanced round, making sure they weren't being eavesdropped on. "When are you next due to see Dr. Waugh?"
"Can't he give you anything to make you feel better?"
"He's offered. I said no."
"I figure if it hurts enough, I won't forget."
"Is that medically safe?"
"Doctor says so." She fumbled a cigarette out of a packet in her cardigan pocket and lit it shakily. She sniffed and Helen silently handed her a clean tissue. Trisha nodded her thanks. A cup of tea appeared on the table between them. Helen looked up, startled, and realised that one of the Julies had brought it over. They had apparently taken over serving the meal.
"There you go, love," Julie S said sympathetically. "Drink that. I put some extra sugar in it for you. Help you stay warm."
Trisha nodded and picked up the mug, hunching over it and taking small, cautious sips. She caught Helen watching her and flushed. "I'm having trouble keeping stuff down at the moment," she said quietly.
"Maybe you should be in the medical wing."
"Lying there with nothing to think about except how ill I feel? No thanks."
Impulsively, Helen put her hand on the other woman's arm. "Nikki would be proud of you."
"I know," Trisha said, smiling bleakly. "Pity it's all for nothing."
She interrupted as Helen started to say something. "Look, can I go now?"
Helen realised that Trisha was telling her, in as coded a way as she could, that it wouldn't do her reputation any good to be seen hanging out with the wing governor. As she stood to leave, a thought came to her.
"Do you know that woman? The one who attacked Shell Dockley?"
"No. Never spoken to her in my life."
"As I can be. I used to run a club. You meet a lot of people doing that. I might just not remember. Especially right now."
Helen nodded. "OK. Thanks."
She went back to her office, where she pulled Howard's file, raising her eyebrows at its contents. Howard was in for assaulting a police officer. That was the headline news, but a look at her probation report revealed a more interesting story. Howard's employment history was as a doorwoman with the kind of firms who didn't mind if their employees had a criminal record, and as a personal trainer.
She was a fitness fanatic with black belts in three separate martial arts who had acted as a sparring partner to some quite high-profile women on the underground boxing and cage fighting scene. There was a suggestion that she might be involved as a competitor herself, but as her standard response when pulled in by the police was to give a 'no comment' interview, no one had ever managed to prove anything against her. She'd done stints in prison before and, remarkably, was usually a model prisoner. She kept her nose clean, did as she was told and didn't start fights or get involved in them when they happened around her. The incident in the queue was totally out of character for her. Helen frowned, trying to work out what her motivation might be, then gave it up, deciding to ask the inmate when she saw her.
A couple of hours later, she looked up as Howard was brought in. There were three officers escorting her and she was restrained in a body belt, her arms immobilised by her sides. Helen scowled. "Take that off her. Now."
"But, ma'am ...."
"She's got a black belt in karate. She doesn't need her hands free to fight!" Helen said, exasperated.
Howard bowed her head to hide her amusement and stood quietly as she was released from the cuffs and the leather belt was removed from around her waist. She rubbed her wrists and flexed her shoulders, rotating them fluidly.
"Take a seat, please."
Howard nodded and took her place in front of the desk, palms placed neatly on her knees. Behind her, the POs withdrew, slowly enough to make it obvious they were going under protest. Helen shook her head and turned her attention back to the inmate.
"OK, you've been inside before. You know the ropes, right?"
"Any concerns? Questions? Anything you want to discuss?"
"No, miss. I know what to do."
"Really? Then why did you assault Shell Dockley? You must be aware that's against the rules."
"I ... didn't like the way she spoke to Harris."
"So you decided to attack her."
"People like that only understand one thing."
"Really? I'm puzzled. Looking at your file, you don't get involved in fights, ever. What brought it on this time?"
Howard shrugged. "I had my reasons."
"And they are?"
"Don't give up, do you?"
"Not usually. Especially when Trisha tells me that she doesn't even know you. I don't understand why you decided to take her side."
Howard frowned. "It was a snap decision."
"One that you knew would end with days on the block."
"The block's all right, if you know how to deal with it."
"You still haven't answered my question."
"No, miss, I haven't."
Helen shook her head, acknowledging defeat. "OK. Let's talk about your sentence plan."
Twenty minutes later, she showed the other woman out, aware that she had not made the slightest impression on her. Apart from a request for extra gym time, which she had agreed to consider later on condition that the inmate avoided fighting in future, Howard had remained impassive throughout their interview, letting Helen take the lead and giving very little away.
Trisha huddled against the yard wall, feeling the sunlight on her face and wondering why it wasn't helping her get warm. The thing she hated most about going through withdrawal was how hard it was to stay calm. She could deal with the upset stomach and the pounding headaches, but she found the anxiety and confusion threatening. She'd always prided herself on her self-control, on knowing her own mind. Nikki had been the one who tended to rush in without thinking. Trisha had always been more contained. Reminding herself that she was only feeling the way she was because she was clearing the drugs out of her system simply didn't help. The knowledge that she could stop all of it by just scoring some pills was a constant, gnawing awareness at the back of her mind. Trisha bowed her head and considered whether she should ask to see Helen Stewart. She might be able to arrange an extra visit. If Nikki would be willing to travel from Whitby .... she gave a weary sigh, knowing that that was her anxiety talking. Nikki would drop everything for her. She had in the past.
A shadow fell across her and Trisha looked up, apprehensive. Shell Dockley was quite capable of taking what had happened in the queue last week out on her, and she was in no condition for any sort of confrontation, verbal or otherwise. She relaxed as she saw it was the new woman.
"Mind if I join you?" Howard asked.
"Go ahead," Trisha said. "Free country."
"Not in here." The woman settled down across from her, cross-legged, and folded her hands in her lap, the back of one hand resting in the palm of the other. It looked like a well-practiced pose.
"Do you meditate?" Trisha asked curiously, trying to make conversation to take her mind off the chaos in her head.
"Only for focus," Howard said tersely. She obviously saw herself as the strong and silent type. The blonde wondered why she had started the conversation in the first place. Howard glanced around, seemingly checking on the location of the guards. Trisha suppressed a surge of paranoia. If this woman wanted to hurt her, there wasn't much she could do about it.
"You suffering?" Howard asked.
"Why are you trying to kick it? Makes you vulnerable. Not good, in here."
"I promised my ex-partner."
Howard nodded and returned to her thoughtful silence. Trisha gritted her teeth against another wave of anxiety. "Why did you do that? Stand up for me?"
"I owe you."
"I've never met you before in my life!"
Howard looked at her. "The Japanese have a saying. If you wait by a river long enough, the body of your enemy will float down it one day."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"You killed someone for me. I owe you a debt. I pay my debts."
"The only person I ever killed was Gossard," Trisha said faintly.
"What was he to you?"
"Let's just say we have something in common. I was fifteen." Howard looked impassively into the distance. Trisha studied her unnaturally calm face and felt sick. "Didn't you report him?"
"My father came over here after the war. He thinks this country's wonderful. Loves the queen, loves the flag, respects the police force. He accused me of making it up. I left home three months later. Changed my name. I decided no one was ever going to be able to force me to do anything I didn't want to do again. So here I am."
"That's what started you on the self defence?"
"Yeah." She smiled grimly. "And I know how fucked up that makes me."
"Don't be. I'm good at what I do. When I get out of here, I'll have enough money to start my own gym. Then I'm going to teach other people."
"That makes you sound like a survivor, not someone who's 'fucked up'."
"Maybe. There are four of us. We should form a club. Meet for drinks."
"You. Me. Gossard's wife. I heard a whisper he'd attacked a colleague as well. There's probably others I don't know about."
"I don't understand."
""Didn't you know? Gossard was a predator. He liked what he did. He was good at it and he enjoyed it."
Trisha frowned and tried to concentrate. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you should remember that some people need killing. What you did was a good thing."
"But ... a colleague? Another police officer?"
"So I heard."
Trisha tried to suppress a surge of hope. "Do you know her name?"
"No. I asked around, but I never found out. If I knew, I'd tell you."
"But if I could get her witness statement ...." Trisha trailed off, suppressing another wave of anxiety as the hurting, paranoid part of her pointed out exactly how unlikely that was. She jumped as a strong, cool hand was laid on her shoulder.
"Breathe. Into your stomach."
"Get lost! I'm not one of your students."
"No. Then I'd be telling you to drop and give me twenty five. Try it. It'll help."
More to shut the other woman up than anything else, Trisha tried the technique. Strangely, she found that having to concentrate on filling her lungs did help. Jane held her eyes and worked with her, moving her free hand up and down in front of her body, flat palmed, to indicate when Trisha should inhale and exhale. When the former club owner had settled into a rhythm, Jane took her hand from Trisha's shoulder, but didn't move away. Instead, she returned to her former posture. Her brown eyes caught and held Trisha's gaze. Trisha swallowed, feeling how dry her mouth was.
"Your shoulders are stiff," Howard said calmly.
"You offering me a massage?" Trisha said, surprised to find that she seemed to have the energy to flirt.
"Yeah, if you want. Can't do the scented oil or the candles in here. But I could relax you, help you sleep."
Trisha snorted, reality reasserting itself. For all of thirty seconds, she had almost forgotten where she was, too absorbed in studying the other woman's face.
"I'm sure Mr. Fenner 'll agree to that."
"There's ways. Let me try and arrange it."
"Why would you bother?"
"I told you. I owe you."
She stood up without using her hands and stretched, pushing her clasped fingers above her head. "Another thing. Don't worry about Dockley. I've warned her off."
Trisha tried to get to her feet. She stumbled slightly; her legs were cramped from huddling in one position for too long. A competent hand caught her upper arm and steadied her, giving her time to find her feet.
"You can't watch me all the time."
"I don't have to. Just promise payback."
"Is this part of paying your debt?"
"Yeah. But it's something I want to do." She looked around. "Maybe your solicitor can find that name. Worth a try."
She bowed her head slightly and strolled off, moving easily through the spaces between the groups of women, her gaze flicking continuously around, as though even out in the yard, monitored by officers, she expected an attack.
Trisha looked up as Helen walked past and called out. "Miss!"
Helen turned round, a preoccupied look on her face. "What?"
"I have to talk to you."
"Trisha, I'm late for a meeting as it is."
"Five minutes, please."
"OK. But no more."
Helen frowned and then nodded, following Trisha and partially closing the door. Quickly, Trisha told her what Jane had said. Helen thought about it and then shook her head. "I'll make sure the information's passed on to Claire. But I'll be honest, Trisha. That's very vague. Not much to go on."
"It's something, though. Anything's better than nothing."
Helen studied her carefully. "How are you doing? Generally?"
"Like shit," Trisha said bluntly. "But I'll deal with it. I've dealt with worse."
"When is Nikki visiting next?"
"Another two weeks." She caught Helen's expression. "No, that's good. It gives me a bit longer to get the crap out of my system. And it's something to look forward to."
"OK. If there's anything I can do, let me know."
"Unescorted outing?" Trisha said. Helen smiled and shook her head.
"You can't blame a girl for trying," Trisha said and went back out onto the wing.
Trisha lay on her bunk, wearily trying to close out the incessant noise of Larkhall during free association. Women talking, arguing, shouting across the landings to each other, the heavy tread of the screws as they patrolled the wing, the crashing of cell doors. Now that she didn't have anything to block it all out, she found it nerve-shreddingly raw and immediate. Worse than when she had first come in - then she had had the numbness of shock supplementing a thick layer of denial and disbelief, insulating her from the reality of her situation. Two years on, she could no longer pretend on any level that this was all some insane mistake, and because she didn't have the blessed chemical indifference she was used to, coping with the situation was even harder. Trisha shifted on the thin mattress, trying to find a position where her aching muscles didn't protest quite so much.
Jane stepped into the cell, glancing behind her as she always did to make sure she wasn't being followed. She sat down on the chair. Trisha acknowledged her with a movement of her head, but didn't speak. That was one of the things she really appreciated about the other woman, especially at times like these. She was comfortable with silence. The two of them had spent long periods sitting together before now, Trisha lost in her own thoughts, Jane seemingly content to wait nearby until she started a conversation.
She jumped slightly as the other woman broke her normal pattern by speaking first. "You're hurting, right?"
"Yeah. How d'you know?" Trisha asked, hating how weak and uncertain her voice sounded.
"Been watching you move today."
"We can't all be as fit as you."
"Would a massage help?"
"Of course it would. So would a Caribbean holiday or even a really hot bath. I'm not going to get those either. So why ask?"
"I can do the massage," Jane said calmly, disregarding her outburst.
Trisha half sat up and looked at the other woman. "What?"
"I learned how to deal with injuries, help people train harder. I'm supposed to have good hands."
Trisha looked at them where they lay resting on the other woman's thighs and wondered how they'd feel on her skin. It wasn't the first time she'd had the thought. Jane had the slightly raised knuckles of the serious martial artist on her index and middle fingers, but the digits themselves were long and dexterous looking, her sinewy, flexible hands oddly delicate for someone who spent her professional life hitting people. Trisha knew from experience that Jane's palms were warm and slightly roughened, with pads of callous from years of holding weapons or striking punch bags, the muscles and tendons well-defined over the sturdy framework of the bones. For a second, Trisha allowed herself to hope, then gave in to reality and lay back down.
"Like they'd let you. They'd have us both down the block."
"Not if they don't see."
"You know anywhere private round here?"
"Yes. And I've got lookouts."
"I don't understand," Trisha said. "Why are you doing this?"
"You've been hurting all day. I want to help."
"What's in it for you?"
Jane shrugged. "Spitting in the screws' eyes? Keeping my skills up."
Trisha thought about it. Jane waited for a second, then stood up. "You want a proper massage, we have to move now. Your choice."
Trisha reached inside herself and gathered the resources to swing her legs off the bunk. She didn't miss the flash of approval that crossed Jane's face. It gave her the strength to carry on.
"Do I have to bring anything?" she asked.
"Just yourself. Head for the chapel. I'll follow."
"There's a linen cupboard nearby. Trust me."
Trisha nodded and started out, glancing around to see where the screws were. She saw nothing out of the ordinary and relaxed slightly, blending into the normal patterns of movement with the ease of long practice. She was anonymous here, just another con amongst the rest. It was one of the things she hated about being inside, but on this one occasion, she welcomed it, taking advantage of the camouflage it offered.
Moving down the institutional corridors that led to the chapel, she tensed as she recognised Denny Blood, slouched against a wall near a junction, for once not smoking. The last thing she wanted was for Shell Dockley to know her business. She prepared to present a hard facade that would deflect the younger woman's questions, then blinked, startled, as Denny whistled softly and Jane appeared from round the corner.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Oh, Denny here reckons she can beat an old woman in a straight fight. I offered to give her the chance to try," Jane said. She and Denny bumped knuckles. Trisha paused, unsure, then started moving when Jane put a hand on her lower back, gently nudging her to start walking again. Trisha glanced apprehensively at her guide as they moved through the empty corridors, unable to shake the feeling that there was a screw behind every corner, waiting their moment to jump out and put them both on report.
"Can we trust her?"
"Jane," Trisha said desperately, "I can't do more time down the block. I just can't."
Jane looked across at her and nodded. "If anyone asks, I threatened you and you were afraid. I'll back you."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry about me."
She turned a calm gaze on Trisha. "I want you to feel better after this. Not worse."
"OK," Trisha said, resolutely suppressing her fears and giving herself in to the other woman's hands. Her determination received another test when they got close to the linen cupboard and ran into the Julies, who were hovering in what was probably meant to be an unobtrusive way. Their broad grins and murmurs of delight when they saw Trisha shattered that illusion. Trisha found it all distinctly nerve-racking, but Jane took it in her stride, accepting a plastic bottle of clear liquid from the two women without turning a hair.
"We set it up," Julie J said.
"Just the way you wanted," Julie S added. They both beamed at Trisha, who tried not to look as embarrassed as she felt. Julie J seemed to pick up on it anyway. She put a reassuring hand on Trisha's arm.
"Don't worry, love, we understand."
"Yeah," Julie S said, cocking her head. "People 'll find a way. They always do, don't they, Julie?"
"Goes without saying."
"You keeping watch?" Jane interrupted.
The Julies nodded in tandem, and Jane, seemingly satisfied, pushed the door of the linen cupboard open and waved Trisha in. Reluctantly, Trisha did as she was told. Her muscles were aching fiercely after the walk and she was seriously doubting whether this was a good idea. Then she saw how the cupboard was set up and understood for the first time how much trouble Jane had taken.
Someone had taken several mats from the gym to form a base for the nest of sheets that lay on the floor, offering a comfortable place to lie prone. There was a chair nearby for discarded clothes, with a dressing gown laid ready over it. Candles, some of them scented, lit the enclosed space with a warm, welcoming glow. A small pile of folded blankets to one side was obviously intended to ensure that the person being massaged would be warm enough. A pillow at the head of the mats provided the final touch.
"Is it OK?" Jane asked uncertainly.
"No fruit or mineral water?" Trisha asked ironically, then saw the other woman's face and regretted teasing her. "It's great," she said quickly. "Better than I could have expected."
Jane nodded. "You want me to wait outside? While you change."
"No, it's OK," Trisha said. "I trust you."
Jane looked away and then deliberately turned her back. She stood, facing the door, while Trisha took off her clothes and placed them on the chair. Slowly, Trisha lowered herself down onto the floor and waited, her head on her folded arms. She heard the shift of air as Jane moved and then felt a blanket being placed over her legs and buttocks.
"You warm enough?" Jane asked.
"Bit chilly," Trisha admitted.
"OK, give me a minute."
What seemed to be immediately afterwards, Trisha felt strong, warm hands rest on her shoulders before they began to knead the tension out of her back muscles. She groaned aloud as she felt oil-coated fingers move across the surface of her skin, expertly finding the knots and underlying tensions within her, working on all of the long held stresses until she was boneless with relaxation, euphoric from the renewed warmth in her body as blood flowed freely, unimpeded by the taint of the locked-in memories she carried. Just when she thought that it was over, she felt Jane move and lay a blanket gently over her back and arms before uncovering her body below the waist. Involuntarily, she stiffened, despite the fact that she had left her knickers on.
"OK?" Jane asked. "I can stop."
"No," Trisha choked. "Go on."
"You don't sound ...."
"I ... good to feel a woman's hands on me. OK?"
There was a pause and Trisha wondered if she'd ruined her chance for more massage. Then she felt a gentle touch at her waist, a warning, before Jane began to give her stressed legs and buttocks the same attention she had paid to her back. By the time the other woman had finished, Trisha was barely conscious and she didn't object when Jane rolled her over and worked on the front of her legs and feet before moving to her arms and her shoulders, scrupulously avoiding any area that might be construed as provocative. Trisha had time for a vague regret that the other woman hadn't touched her breasts before the physical comfort of being so relaxed tapped into her long-standing tiredness and she found herself falling asleep. As she drifted off, she felt a blanket being carefully pulled over her.
She slept dreamlessly for a while, but then the nightmares came, as they often did when her guard was down. Helplessly, she relived the scene in the club. Gossard staggering around, clutching at the wound in his throat as he tried to hold in his life's blood. His legs giving way as his strength went, his wide, startled gaze as he felt himself failing and tried to fight the blackness closing in on him. The stillness of his body. The sudden stench as his bowels released in death.
She cried out and sat bolt upright, feeling the familiar tears on her face and knew that she had been groaning and struggling her way out of sleep for a while. Jane knelt nearby, one hand on her shoulder, as though she was trying to reassure Trisha without touching her too much.
"Why didn't you hold me?" Trisha asked, hearing the anger in her voice and knowing that she was being unfair even as she said it. She had no right to ask for that kind of support from the other woman, and she was simply finding a way to vent her distress by attacking her because she was safe. Even so, she was disappointed. She would have welcomed the comfort.
"I didn't have your permission," Jane said quietly.
Trisha clumsily wiped the tears from her face. "I give you permission," she said.
Jane drew herself up, then reached for her top and handed it to her. "Put that on. You'll get cold."
Trisha frowned. "What? What did I say?"
"Just because I'm a dyke doesn't mean I'll try and jump you, you know. It's not like I could make you do anything anyway."
"You could," Jane said."That's the problem."
Trisha looked at her, confused. They were interrupted by an urgent rapping on the door and a hissed message.
"Oi, Bruce Lee, incoming!"
"Get dressed," Jane said tersely and began quickly and efficiently packing things away, hiding the mats under some shelving and the blankets and pillow in a laundry bag. She snuffed the candles out and hid them as Trisha fumbled her clothes on, feeling like a teenager who'd been caught doing something she shouldn't. When she was ready, Jane looked her up and down and nodded before opening the door. Denny and the two Julies were waiting in an anxious gaggle outside.
"Which way's he coming from?" Jane asked, handing the extinguished candles and the half-empty bottle of massage oil to the Julies, who made them vanish into their pinafores.
"Her. Di Barker. That way," Denny said, pointing. "We've left it too late, man. We'll all get caught!"
"No, we won't." Jane gave Trisha a gentle push in the direction of the youngster. "Get her back safe, or I'll want to know why." She turned to the Julies. "You two, get lost."
"What about you?" Denny asked.
"I'm going to run interference. Go!"
To Trisha's shock, she turned and began to stroll in the direction Denny had indicated, hands in her pockets, seemingly without a care in the world. As she reached the bend in the corridor, she looked back and gave them a small wave before turning the corner and vanishing. Denny didn't waste any time.
"Come on," she hissed, grabbing Trisha's arm and hustling her along. The two Julies were already long gone. Trisha let herself be frog marched back to the wing, where she retreated back to her cell. Though she felt better for the massage and could sense that she would sleep tonight, she was desperately confused and needed to speak to Jane. It would be a week before she got the chance.
Jane was efficiently working the heavy punch bag in the gym when Trisha found her, the dampness of her T-shirt showing that she'd been at it for a while. She glanced across as the blonde came in and finished her set with a percussive flurry of precisely placed blows before stepping back and nodding to the woman who'd been bracing the bag for her.
"Five minutes?" she said. The other woman nodded and began shadow boxing, warming up. Jane came over to Trisha and leant against the wall, waiting.
"How are you?" Trisha asked.
"You've just been on the block for a week."
"Told you. It's OK."
"What happened back there? What did you mean when you said ...."
She stopped abruptly as Jane shook her head and walked over to another corner of the gym. One well away from any listening ears. Trisha followed and waited to hear what she had to say. Jane stood for a second, then looked at her, deep unhappiness in her gaze.
"You know what happened to me."
"Yeah, you told me."
"Right. Don't tell many people." Absently, Jane started flexing her wrist, putting pressure on her hand with the opposite palm in one of the aikido stretches she did sometimes. "I've tried, since then. With men. Women. It doesn't work."
"I don't understand."
"When people get too close, I don't feel safe. I hit out. I hurt people."
"Sometimes. I'm better on my own."
"But you've let me get close," Trisha said, confused.
"I know. Didn't mean to. At first, it was because I owed you."
Trisha frowned. "What?!"
"Later .... It's better if we stay away from each other."
"Damn right!" Trisha said furiously. "Because let me tell you, I'm not a charity case. Or a pity fuck!"
"I know that."
"Do you? You should get some help."
Jane shrugged. "Therapy?"
"Doesn't work." She gestured towards the punch bag with her thumb. "This does." She bowed her head. "I'm sorry ...."
"Don't," Trisha warned her. "'It's not you, it's me' doesn't work. Not between adults anyway."
Jane nodded silently and went back to where the other woman was waiting to start her session, bracing herself against the punch bag with a wide, solid stance. Trisha watched her for a few seconds before turning on her heel and leaving.
Later, as she was sitting brooding over her lunch, Denny Blood stopped by her table and sat down without being invited. Trisha looked up sharply.
"Jane asked me to tell you that Shell's still warned off."
"Maybe I want to fight my own battles."
Denny shrugged. "Up to you. I'm just the messenger, innit."
"Why are you running her errands anyway?"
"I don't mind. After the fight, she'll be running mine."
"Don't be so sure," Trisha said. "She's wound up pretty tight at the moment. You might get a shock."
"Nah. She's an old woman, isn't she. And she might have all that Hong Kong Phooey bullshit; but me, I'm a street fighter. I can take her."
"Your funeral," Trisha said.
In the event, it wasn't a funeral, but Denny did spend a considerable time in the hospital wing, and it was only her stubborn silence that prevented Jane from being shipped out to another prison.
"What the hell happened?" Helen demanded as she hurried into the visitor's area.
The room was empty now, but the scattered tables and chairs that lay everywhere gave an idea of the chaos that had erupted there within the last half hour. Dominic looked up from where he was righting furniture and started to answer. Sylvia, who was standing over him, 'supervising', interrupted.
"One of the cons had a domestic with her visitor. Bates, that one."
"Didn't you see it coming?"
"No. Someone else had fainted and we were taking care of that. First thing we knew about it was when they jumped up and started fighting. He pushed her and she went straight into the next table, where Harris was seeing her ... friend."
"Is she all right?"
Sylvia pursed her lips, looking as if she'd like to blame Nikki for her involvement. "She went flying. Hit her head. We've got her in the corridor."
"What does the doctor say?"
Sylvia shuffled her feet and then, probably aware of Helen's sharpening glare, reluctantly spoke. "Malcolm isn't here. We're trying to find out why."
"It's half past three! He's contracted to work till five. What if we'd had a medical emergency on the wing?"
"I'll go and see if I can find him," Sylvia said, obviously glad to have an excuse to end the conversation.
"No," Helen told her firmly. "Help Dominic clear up here."
She went to the telephone at the front of the room and dialed Thomas Waugh's office. She wasn't sure if he was in or not - he only worked part time. Luckily, he was, and agreed to help as soon as she explained the situation.
Stepping outside into the corridor, Helen was confronted with the sight of Nikki, her long torso folded over as she sat forward on one of the plastic chairs. She seemed dazed and was holding a cloth to her temple, where a nasty-looking cut slowly oozed blood. The evidence that it had been bleeding for a while was splattered all over her white shirt. Her other arm lay awkwardly on her lap.
Trisha crouched next to her, looking desperately worried. Fenner loomed over them both, hands in his pockets, a contemptuous sneer on his face. He looked up as Helen joined them.
"Afternoon, ma'am. I'll get Harris back to the wing, shall I?"
"No," Helen said firmly. "She can come with us. I'll need help moving Ms Wade anyway. In fact, you can do it. You're taller and stronger than me."
Nikki mumbled something and then pushed herself upright, bracing herself against the wall with the hand that was holding the handkerchief. "I can manage."
She swayed and Trisha jumped to support her weight.
"Come on," Helen said. "Be sensible. We have to get you to a doctor."
"I can walk," Nikki insisted through clenched teeth. She glanced at Fenner and gestured Helen closer. Helen frowned and did as she'd been asked. Nikki spoke quietly so that Fenner wouldn't overhear. "Don't want his hands on me. Please."
Helen nodded, giving in. "Can you do it if we both help?"
"I'll be fine," Trisha said, trying for light-hearted and almost managing it. "Ex club owner, remember? I'm used to carrying drunk punters around."
"OK. We're heading for the medical wing. Dr. Waugh's going to have a look at that cut. Jim, take care of the gates, will you?"
Fenner scowled and muttered something that Helen chose not to hear, but did as he was told. He was surprisingly co-operative, even matching his speed to Nikki's stumbling pace. Helen supposed that, realistically, they were looking at a possible complaint. Getting a member of the public injured because the visiting area wasn't being properly supervised was exactly the sort of thing that could bring Area Management down on Larkhall like a ton of bricks. It wouldn't look good on anybody's file.
By the time they got to the treatment room, both Helen and Trisha were starting to struggle. Nikki was doing her best to help, but her movements were uncoordinated and slightly random. They maneuvered her to a sitting position on the examination couch with Dr. Waugh's help. Trisha immediately took a seat next to her ex-partner and peered up into her face, slipping an arm around her waist as she touched her cheek. Nikki smiled blearily and patted Trisha's knee.
"Going to be fine."
"Got to be the hero, haven't you," Trisha said affectionately, obviously close to tears. "Big butch dyke. Can't show pain."
"Hard core, that's me. Diesel," Nikki agreed. "Now if I could just see straight ...."
"Come on, Harris," Fenner interrupted irritably. "Put her down; you don't know where's she's been. Over here. Let the doctor work."
Trisha scowled, but did as she was told, folding her arms as she watched, her shoulders tense. Thomas, who had been standing to one side, immediately stepped in and started to treat Nikki, checking her vision and reflexes and performing a careful examination of her skull and neck. After confirming that she wasn't concussed, he cleaned the cut on her forehead and taped it shut with butterfly plasters, holding the flesh firmly in place as Nikki sat impassively, lips pressed together, her right-handed grip on the edge of the couch so strong that her knuckles showed white under the skin, her other arm still across her lap.
Thomas finished working on the cut and frowned, moving to put his hand on his patient's left shoulder. The dark-haired woman immediately shifted away, hunching defensively.
"Don't touch me!"
"Old injury?" Thomas asked.
"Dislocated collar bone."
"How did it happen?"
"I see. How long ago?"
"About seven years."
"Does it give you much trouble?"
"Only when I get in the middle of a domestic."
Thomas nodded and raised his hands apologetically. "You know I'm going to have to manipulate your shoulder to make sure it's all right, don't you?"
"And it's going to hurt like hell. Yeah," Nikki said. "Get on with it."
"Would you like some privacy?"
Nikki shrugged. "I don't care. Just get it over with."
"OK," Thomas said soothingly. "Helen, can you and your officer wait outside?" He anticipated Fenner's immediate objection. "My patient will be more relaxed and suffer less pain if you're not there."
"You're not the one who has to carry the can if something happens!" Fenner objected.
"No, I am," Helen said. "Outside, Jim. That's an order." She held up her hand. "I already know it's under protest, so you don't have to tell me."
She had barely closed the door when Fenner confronted her. "Why are you cutting Harris this amount of slack? She should be back in her cell!"
"That's my decision, Jim."
"And it's my job as one of your senior officers to give you the benefit of my experience. She's a murderer!"
"I know that." Helen took a deep breath. "Jim, I know you have a problem with my way of doing things. Just one observation - when you start arguing that Trisha Harris is a cross between Myra Hindley and Reggie Kray? You don't sound experienced. You sound stupid."
"Are you saying that she's not going to try and pull a fast one?"
"Yes. She has too much to lose. Her place on Thomas' program, her appeal, her privileges...."
Fenner snorted. "Like she'll ever get out of here."
"We'll see," Helen said implacably.
A loud "Fuck!" echoed through the door. Fenner dived for the handle and flinched when Helen moved quickly in front of him, her back to the door. "That's Nikki Wade's voice. Calm down."
Fenner's lips thinned, but he did as he was told, folding his arms and moving to the other side of the corridor, shoulders rigid. About five minutes later, the door opened and Thomas stepped out.
"How is she?" Helen asked.
"OK. No concussion and her shoulder will be fine if she rests it. Seems she did her physio after the original injury."
"Good. How's Trisha?"
"A lot better because she knows what's happening. Thanks for that."
"It's all right. We'd better go in."
Thomas nodded and knocked on the door. Helen and Fenner followed him in. Nikki was sitting, her left arm in a sling. Thomas went to his medicine cabinet and unlocked it, returning with a bottle of tablets.
"Here," he said, giving Nikki a couple. Nikki looked at them disbelievingly.
"Now, I get a pain killer?"
"I had to check your pupils first. In case of concussion."
"It's all right; you're clear. But you shouldn't drive until your shoulder injury calms down. Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere. I was going to head home."
Thomas shook his head emphatically. "No. Not until you've had a chance to rest and given the joint a chance to stabilise."
"Well, I don't have a place in London, so you're out of luck," Nikki said robustly.
"What about Claire?" Helen asked.
"She's Trisha's solicitor, not my bloody nursemaid! I'll be all right!"
"As a doctor, I can't really let you go until I know you're going to have some sort of appropriate care," Thomas said, frowning.
"I will have. I'll take care of myself."
"Nikki, please, be sensible," Trisha said abruptly. The tattooist looked at her ex-partner and her face softened.
"OK, I'll find somewhere," she said. "Get my little black book out." She started to shake her head and then stopped abruptly.
"Still got the 'me-shaped' groove round your little finger," she commented.
"Damn right," Trisha said affectionately. "Don't you forget it."
"Are you finished?" Fenner interrupted, obviously keen to move on. His distaste was plain on his face. "I'll take Harris back to the wing."
"No need," Thomas said easily. "Since she's here, we might as well have our next appointment now. If that's all right with you, Trisha?"
"I'll see Ms Wade out myself," Helen said.
"Well, I'll just go and finish my shift, shall I?" Fenner said.
"You do that. And, Jim?"
"I want officers to do their reports while the incident in the visiting room is still fresh in their minds. Tell everyone who was involved that I expect to see accounts on my desk by first thing tomorrow morning."
"Of course," Fenner said. "Anything else?"
"No, that'll do for now."
He left the room. Trisha took the opportunity to go and sit by Nikki again. The taller woman put an arm around her and they moved closer together, their intimacy obvious. Helen cleared her throat and turned away, giving them some privacy. Thomas was tidying his supplies, probably with the same intention. He glanced at the pair and smiled at her.
"Makes you wonder what you're missing, doesn't it," he said quietly.
"How are you these days? After Sean?"
"OK. I manage. The job keeps me busy. Jesus, that sounds sad, doesn't it?"
"Not really. We all do it - fill in the gaps in our life with what's already there. Especially when the work's important." He closed a cupboard and locked it. "Maybe we should talk about it over dinner sometime."
Helen blinked, startled, and realised that Thomas was watching her carefully, his face focused and serious.
"Is that an offer of a professional discussion?"
"You know it isn't."
"OK, let me ... think about it."
"What, not convinced by my devastating charm?"
"Just ... workplace relationships, you know. Complicated."
"I'm not one of your staff, Governor Stewart. I don't think the ethics committee would have a problem."
"I'll get back to you," Helen said firmly. "Right now, I have to get Nikki Wade off the premises. I've probably already missed several phone calls from Simon."
"OK, I'll hold you to that."
Helen smiled weakly and wondered if now was the time to invent a reclusive but jealous boyfriend. It wasn't as if she could be honest about who she really wanted. She crossed the room to where Nikki was already standing up, though she kept hold of Trisha's hand.
"She has to go now," she said to Trisha. The blonde inmate nodded bleakly and kissed Nikki quickly on the cheek before letting go of her ex's hand and going to sit in front of Dr. Waugh's desk.
Helen waited a second and then, seeing that the taller woman was not going to start moving by herself, took her good elbow and steered her out of the room. Nikki went along passively, following Helen to the visitor's locker room, where she retrieved her bag. As she escorted her charge to the main gate, Helen replayed Trisha's expression in her mind and decided to try and help. "If you tell me where you're going to stay, then I can let her know. That means she'll be able to phone you tonight."
Nikki sighed. "I'm out of ideas. I'm not sure how far I can drive, to be honest. I'm feeling a bit shit."
"I could phone the people you're planning to stay with. See if they're able to come and pick you up," Helen offered as she escorted Nikki outside the walls and into the car park. Nikki paused next to an up-to-date Japanese car that seemed to be hers, and leant wearily against its side.
"I was going to check into a hotel," she confessed quietly.
Helen felt the familiar exasperation flare. "And what were you going to do if you felt ill? Call room service?!"
"I can take care of myself!"
"Normally, yes, but you have a head injury and a bad arm. Nikki, be sensible!"
"You're not my keeper," Nikki said furiously. "You're the screw who locks up my ex-girlfriend. Stick to taking care of her!"
Helen was so taken aback that she almost took a physical step backwards. It didn't help that over the months she had come to value Nikki's friendship. It was a poor substitute for what she really wanted, but she was willing to accept it if it was all she could get. Nikki had never lashed out at her like this, not even during the arguments that they had had during their initial meeting.
Nikki seemed distressed and angry, burning with an emotion that Helen couldn't identify. Helen took a deep breath, reminding herself that she wasn't exactly calm. It had been hard seeing Nikki and Trisha together and watching the easy way they fell into their old habits of intimacy. Helen had had to keep a tight hold on her emotions, and having to do that had reminded her again why a relationship with Nikki was not possible while Trisha was her responsibility, even if the dark-haired woman hadn't set her sights on Claire.
She opened her mouth to tell Nikki exactly how she felt about being spoken to like that, injuries or no injuries, and then closed it abruptly as Simon came bustling over from his reserved space on the other side of the car park.
"Helen! I hoped I'd manage to catch you. Is this the young lady who was hurt?"
"Yes," Helen said. "Nikki Wade. Simon, my boss. Simon, Nikki Wade, Trisha Harris' partner."
"Oh, you were in business together?" Simon said brightly. Helen winced inwardly and waited to see if Nikki would take her bad temper out on him. For once, however, Nikki seemed to appreciate that discretion had its place. She rolled her eyes, but didn't correct the number one.
"Something like that."
"I can only apologise for the deeply regrettable incident," Simon said. "We will, of course, be holding a full enquiry. I'm sure Helen's already got it in hand."
"The reports are due on my desk in the morning," Helen confirmed. "Mr Fenner's coordinating that."
"Good. Good. And in the meantime, you're taking care of Miss Wade."
"I'm ensuring she's safely off the premises, yes," Helen confirmed.
"Good. I'll leave it in your capable hands, then," Simon said cheerfully and strolled off, an obvious spring in his step. His mind was clearly already focused on his evening, now that he had successfully dumped the problem onto Helen.
Nikki waited till he was out of earshot and snorted. "I bet he's a joy to work for."
"I couldn't possibly comment," Helen said. "Especially since we haven't sorted out where you're going."
"I told you. A hotel."
"No," Helen said. "My place or A and E. Your choice."
"What?!" Nikki said, then groaned and leant tiredly on the roof of her car.
"You are in no fit state to be on your own. I don't want it on my conscience. You've already stayed at my house. It's not like it's an issue." Helen watched the taller woman hesitate and pressed her advantage. "Come on. You can safely have a bath. I'll make you something nice for your tea."
"What are you, my Mum?"
"No, I'm a friend," Helen said. Ruthlessly, she played her trump card. "I'll be able to go in tomorrow morning and reassure Trisha about how you are. She'll worry otherwise. You know she will."
Nikki looked across at Helen without changing her slumped posture. "That's fighting dirty," she accused.
"OK. I'll stay with you. Let me get my stuff."
"You've got a change of clothes?"
"I always keep an overnight bag packed," Nikki said. "In case I have to make a fast trip to see Trisha." She gestured at her shirt. "Good thing."
Helen nodded and handed Nikki the keys to her car. "I'll go and have a word with the duty officer, make sure you don't get clamped."
Nikki nodded wearily and activated the locks on her own car. By the time Helen had finished giving instructions to the gate staff, the taller woman had already taken her place on the passenger side of the Peugeot and belted up across her sling, head tilted back and her eyes closed. Helen noted with a twinge of concern that Nikki had not even tried to adjust the legroom to allow for her height, instead turning slightly and folding herself so that she could fit into the available space.
Climbing behind the steering wheel, she reached down and pulled at the metal bar that controlled the positioning of the passenger seat. Nikki opened her eyes and, realising what Helen was doing, helped by pushing herself backwards.
"Thanks," she said quietly, and watched passively as Helen put the car into gear and drove off.
She didn't speak again till they were on the South Circular, seemingly content to switch her attention between the surrounding traffic and Helen's face. She was so silent that Helen was starting to worry slightly, but when she spoke, it was vintage Nikki Wade - direct and to the point.
"So. You and the doctor? You kept that quiet."
"What?" Helen asked distractedly, busy concentrating on the other road users. She glanced at Nikki at the next traffic lights. "There is no 'me and the doctor'."
"Really? He seemed to think so."
"I'm not responsible for his assumptions."
"So why not?" Nikki demanded. "Trisha says he's a decent bloke. He's got a good job, he's interested. Not bad looking. Seems pleasant enough. I'd go there, if I was you."
"He's ... not my type," Helen said weakly.
"Then who is?"
Helen bit her lip. The temptation to say 'you are' was very strong. Determinedly, she concentrated on driving.
"Well?" Nikki asked, seemingly unwilling to let it go.
"Frankly, Nikki, that is none of your business, especially when you're taking that tone with me. I don't pry into your private life. I'd ask you to respect mine!"
She must have let more of her irritation into her voice than she had realised, because Nikki fell silent for the next ten minutes. Helen had pulled into her driveway and was wondering bleakly how the rest of the evening would go when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Startled, she looked across, meeting Nikki's regretful brown gaze.
"Look, I'm being an arsehole. Can we just blame it on today and start again?"
"OK," Helen said. "You must be aching all over. That probably isn't helping. Why don't you take a hot bath."
"Prefer a shower."
"Not with that cut."
Nikki scowled, conceding the point, then followed Helen into the house and headed straight for the bathroom. Helen took the opportunity to get changed and to investigate the contents of her fridge. Luckily, she'd just been shopping and had the ingredients for a decent meal. By the time the other woman had returned from her soak, she had pulled together a plain but satisfying menu.
She was scraping carrots when a noise made her look up, to discover Nikki in a pair of worn jeans and a polo shirt, lounging against the kitchen door and watching her, face impassive. Helen smiled at her.
"Not bad. You want a hand with that?"
"No. You're a guest."
"I'm not an invalid."
"No, but you are supposed to rest that arm."
"Bloody hell! Are you always this bossy?"
"Only when someone's being stupid," Helen retorted. "Sit down and talk to me. That's your job for the evening. You can't chop vegetables with one hand."
Nikki scowled, but did as she was told. Helen suspected from her body language that the other woman was far more tired than she wanted to admit and actually quite grateful that she didn't have to help.
"We're having roast vegetables and grilled chicken with couscous," Helen said. "Is that allright?"
Helen peeled and chopped the vegetables as she talked to Nikki. The Scot found herself relaxing as they chatted easily, falling into an effortless rhythm as their conversation roamed across different topics in a way that seemed instinctive and natural. Eventually, Nikki got round to asking about the voluntary work Helen was still doing at the drop-in center. Helen gave her a quick update on the center's recent projects and Nikki listened attentively.
Turning back from the bin, where she had been discarding peelings, Helen caught her preoccupied expression and paused. "What?"
"Why are you still doing that? We worked out that the women who might have known Gossard weren't around any more months ago."
"It feels like I'm making a difference, not just locking people up. If I can intervene before the women get their first custodial sentence, that's a victory."
Nikki stole a piece of carrot, nodding thoughtfully. "I forget sometimes. For me, it's all about Trisha. You're more ... compassionate, I suppose."
Helen snorted. "You make me sound like a bloody heroine in a Victorian novel. I just hate waste. Most of these women could do a lot of good if someone just gave them the chance. Besides, it's not like I've got anything else to do with my time."
"Why not?" Nikki asked curiously, nibbling at a slice of pepper. "You must have had offers."
"None I wanted to entertain," Helen said firmly. Swiftly, she changed the subject. "Are you going to leave me anything to roast?"
"Told you to give me something to do."
Helen raised an eyebrow, handed Nikki a baking tray and started on the marinade for the chicken as Nikki obeyed the implicit instruction and arranged the vegetables in layers.
Adjusting the heat of the oven as Nikki drizzled oil over the vegetables in their tray Helen was caught by a sudden intense longing. 'This is how it would be,' she thought, 'if we were together.' She must have made some involuntary sound because Nikki frowned at her.
"Sorry. Ghost walked over my grave."
Nikki looked at her thoughtfully before shrugging and sitting down again.
After Helen had cleaned up, she found herself standing, slightly awkwardly, in the middle of the kitchen.
"It'll be a while," she said. "Do you want to rest?"
"No," Nikki said. "I couldn't anyway."
"My scalp's itching. I don't feel clean. I hate having dirty hair!"
"Didn't you use the shower attachment when you had a bath?"
"Couldn't figure out a way of doing it without soaking my plasters," Nikki admitted.
"You must have washed it this morning," Helen argued.
"Yeah. But ...." Nikki ducked her head.
Finally, the taller woman looked up. "I need to wash the smell off me. Completely."
"What smell?" Helen asked, mystified.
"That prison taint."
In the face of Helen's incomprehension, Nikki shuffled her feet and then straightened her shoulders, defiant. "I know it's just in my head. But Larkhall stinks of ... despair. It reeks of fear and hate and just ... sheer bloody hopelessness. Institutional. I hate it. I always feel dirty after I've been there. You could deep clean the place with an industrial pressure hose and it'd be the same."
Chilled, Helen nodded. She knew exactly what Nikki meant. It was just that, working there, she was habituated to the feelings the grim walls evoked. Once again, she was impressed by the taller woman's dedication to her ex-partner. She hesitated, then took the plunge. "I could help you. It'll be a while before the food's going to be ready, anyway."
"What?" Nikki asked.
"If you leant back over the sink in the bathroom and held a towel to the cut, I could wash your hair. If you didn't mind."
Nikki paused, then nodded emphatically. "Yeah, I'd like that."
"OK. Why don't you go and get the bathroom ready," Helen suggested. Nikki turned without another word and headed out of the kitchen. Left to herself, Helen put their meal in the oven and then leant against the countertop, arms crossed, wondering if she should have kept quiet. She knew exactly why she'd made the offer - the impulse to protect and take care of the woman she loved was almost instinctive at this point. What she wasn't sure about was whether she could avoid betraying her feelings. Finally, she reassured herself that she had successfully managed to keep the other woman oblivious thus far and went to do what she'd promised.
Nikki was already waiting in the bathroom, testing the temperature of the water she'd run with the back of her hand. She'd dragged in a chair from the spare room and positioned it in front of the sink so that she'd have somewhere to sit. She smiled at Helen as the Scot came in and nodded at the towels and hair dryer she was holding.
"It's good of you to do this."
Helen shrugged, unable to muster her normal polite response.
Awkwardly, Nikki removed her sling, pulled off her polo short and sat down, revealing a lean physique that reflected her active lifestyle. The tattoo on her shoulder stood out against her creamy skin. She was wearing a sheer black under-wired bra that showed off her cleavage. There was a faint tan line at the back of her neck where she had caught the sun. She seemed unselfconscious about being partially undressed even though Helen was fully clothed. Helen swallowed and quickly handed Nikki a hand towel.
"Hold that against your forehead. It'll keep your plasters dry."
Nikki nodded and sat back, pressing the cloth over her cut, and closed her eyes. Helen said a silent prayer of thanks for the fact she wouldn't have to control her face and stepped closer, taking a jug from the side and carefully beginning to pour water over Nikki's head. She placed one hand on the other woman's forehead, using it as a barrier to stop water spilling down toward her wound. When she'd got the hair wet enough, she put a little shampoo in one palm and started to massage it into Nikki's scalp. The other woman made a soft sound and Helen stopped. She'd become lost in the feeling of touching the tattooist and worried that she might have been too rough.
"I'm not hurting you, am I?"
"No," Nikki said, smiling quietly. "Feels nice, actually. Decadent."
"Getting your hair washed for you. I normally just duck in the shower."
"What about when you go to the hairdresser's?"
Nikki grinned. "Dyke, remember. I get it cut at a barber's."
"Leave no stereotype unfulfilled," Helen said dryly. Nikki chuckled.
"I use a hairdresser sometimes."
Helen swatted her shoulder playfully and carried on lathering, making sure she wasn't missing anything, going more slowly and carefully near Nikki's forehead. The other woman's hair was thicker than her own, springy and dense. Its shortness meant that when she brushed her hand across Nikki's scalp the ends of the hairs whispered across her palm, the sensation making her palm tingle. She could feel the heat of Nikki's skin and the elegant contours of her skull underneath. Glancing down, she could see the shadowed valley between Nikki's breasts and smell the pleasant aroma of her body under the familiar fragrance of soap, watch how her broad, toned shoulders widened as she relaxed, study the way her free hand laid lax in her lap, the long elegant fingers loose on her thigh.
There were a couple of matted patches where Nikki had bled into her hair, and Helen worked carefully at them, wetting them thoroughly and using a wide-toothed comb to tease the strands apart. She managed to get them clean enough for the shampoo to be of some use. Glancing down to check that she hadn't been too rough, she was surprised to see an expression of relaxed contentment on the tattooist's face.
"You OK?" she asked.
"Fine. Really," Nikki said lazily. Helen shrugged and carried on.
Finally, she washed her hands and rinsed the foam out of the dark mop in front of her, feeling the warmth where Nikki's bare shoulder was pressed against her stomach. She gently towel-dried the taller woman's hair and finished the job with a hair dryer, leaving it damp so Nikki could style it if she wanted to. She realised as she put the appliance down that it had become quite hot in the bathroom. She wiped condensation from the mirror and pulled the plug on the sink. She saw Nikki open her eyes slowly and drop the hand towel, touching her forehead gently with careful fingertips. Their eyes met in the mirror, caught, held.
Swiftly, Helen turned away. "I need to go and check the food."
"OK, I'll clean up in here," Nikki said.
Fifteen minutes later, she came back into the kitchen, holding a pile of damp towels.
"I didn't know where you wanted these."
Helen took them to the laundry basket. She returned to find that Nikki had set the table and was standing in the open doorway, gazing out at the garden.
"It's a bit overgrown."
"That was Sean's department. I'll have to get a book or something."
"I always wanted to learn how to garden."
"Yeah. Never got round to it. One of those 'nice to have' things."
"There's still time."
"Come on," Helen said firmly. "Let's eat."
Nikki was yawning by the end of the meal and didn't argue when Helen wouldn't let her help with the washing up. She accepted another couple of pain killers and a cup of cocoa and then shuffled off towards the spare room. When Helen looked in on her half an hour later, she was sound asleep, curled around her pillow. She didn't wake even when Helen spent twenty minutes studying her before rediscovering her self control and heading off to her own lonely double bed.
Helen walked onto the wing, her glance flicking over the assembled inmates in the meal queue. When she didn't see Trisha, she headed for the blonde's cell, absently acknowledging the POs' greetings as she passed them. She was a bit disconcerted to find that someone was already there.
Barbara Hunt stood just inside the door, arguing with Trisha, who was sitting at the desk. "Come on, Trisha. You need to eat something. You picked at your meal last night!"
"It's hardly fresh fruit salad and mimosas, is it?" Trisha said. "I'll pass, thanks. I'm sure lunch 'll be stodgy enough to keep me going."
"That doesn't replace a good breakfast."
"What about a crap one?"
Helen couldn't resist a joke. "Complaints about the standard of the catering, Harris? Whatever next? You'll be moaning about the accommodation."
Privately, she acknowledged that some of her good humour was based on the chaste kiss Nikki had pressed onto her cheek that morning as she left. If she concentrated, Helen could still feel the other woman's lips on her skin. Intellectually, she knew it didn't mean anything. Still, she would take what she could get.
Barbara flinched. "I'm sure she didn't mean anything derogatory, Miss Stewart."
"I know that," Helen said. "Can I speak to Trisha privately?"
Barbara hesitated and looked at the ex-club owner, who nodded. Reluctantly, the older woman left the cell.
Helen waited till she had gone.
"I spoke to Nikki this morning."
"She's fine. Her shoulder's OK and she's driving home."
Trisha looked skeptical and Helen spread her hands, acknowledging the con's reaction. "Well, actually, she said it hurts like a bastard, but she'll manage."
Trisha nodded. "That sounds like Nikki. She stayed at yours last night, then?"
Helen glanced out of the cell to make sure no one was in earshot, then nodded. "Made more sense than paying for a hotel. You can call her anytime after mid-afternoon. She says she'll be by the phone."
"Don't mention it," Helen said, turning to go.
"You really don't get it, do you?" Trisha said.
Helen frowned. "What?"
The inmate looked at her, her expression reflecting her cynical, realistic awareness of her situation. "Nikki is the only person who's stayed around since I got sentenced."
Helen nodded, waiting.
Trisha took a deep breath and stared at the wood beneath her splayed fingers. "I talk to Claire. I know what my chances of a successful appeal are. Nikki shouldn't put her life on hold. You ought to tell her that. It's all I'm saying."
Abruptly, she stood up. "I should get some breakfast."
As Trisha paused in front of her, Helen belatedly realised that she was blocking the way out of the cell and stood aside. As the blonde passed her, she caught her arm.
"Don't give up hope."
"Too late," Trisha said softly. "But thanks for your support."
Heading back to her office Helen heard a call and looked back. Thomas slowed his fast walk and matched his pace to hers as he caught up with her.
"How are you this morning?"
"Fine, thank you."
"Have you thought about my offer?"
Helen hesitated and stopped, putting her hand on Thomas' arm. He bowed his head, obviously sensing what was coming.
"Is there a reason?" he asked calmly.
"I have feelings for someone else."
Thomas nodded. "Lucky man."
Helen glanced up and down the corridor, checking they were alone. "It's not a man. It's a woman."
She watched Thomas's eyes widen.
"Nobody in here," she added quickly. "I'd prefer you not to tell anyone else about it. I don't want to be the latest nine day wonder."
"Are you sure?" Thomas asked.
Helen thought back to how she'd felt last night, being near Nikki.
"Very sure," she said.
"Then she's a lucky woman."
He took a deep breath. "It won't go any further."
Thomas shrugged. "Don't mention it."
Helen nodded and was about to go when she was struck by a thought.
"When are you next due to speak to Trisha Harris?"
"A couple of days. She's clean now. One of our successes."
"She seems a bit down, that's all."
"She's been withdrawn since Jane Howard was released," Thomas said thoughtfully.
"I'll make an excuse to see her this afternoon."
"Do you think she had feelings for the woman?"
"I don't know. They were friends."
"Being a lifer means saying goodbye all the time," Helen commented.
"True enough. Helen ."
"Let's still have that drink. As friends?"
Helen nodded. "It's a deal."
Dr. Nicholson looked up blearily as Helen came into his office. He didn't look very pleased to see her. He was in his usual disheveled state, face puffy from lack of sleep and whatever excesses he'd indulged in the night before. Helen suspected that he was hiding in order to avoid having to do any work. Though he had started doing his contracted hours since the reprimand Simon had been forced to give him after the incident in the visiting area, his definition of being 'fit to practice' was still flexible.
She reflected, not for the first time, that the man's one skill was in picking conscientious, experienced nurses who were good at covering up his shortcomings and doing a lot of his job for him. Otherwise, there would have been more incidents than even the Prison Service could tolerate.
"Helen! What can I do for you?" he asked with mock cheerfulness.
Helen closed the door behind her and crossed over to the desk. "I've got a matter that needs to be treated extremely confidentially."
"I am a medical practitioner," Nicholson said, as though that was the last word on the subject.
'A piss poor one,' Helen thought and smiled falsely. "This is unusually delicate. One of the prisoners is alleging that she's pregnant by one of the guards."
"Not that old chestnut! Trying to get special privileges, is she?"
"Dr. Nicholson, she's been in here for eight months and she's only five months gone. That's why I interviewed her originally. It must be a member of staff. That, or a medical miracle."
"Oh," Nicholson said. He frowned. "Sophia? That one?"
"Yes. Now the last thing I want is for the rumour mill to get going before I've worked out how to manage the situation. It's not fair to the officer concerned to have his reputation ruined over what may be a made up story. I'm telling you about it because I think it's quite likely Sophia may confide in you, as her doctor. And since the alleged father is a friend of yours, I appreciate that you might feel awkward about the situation. I wanted you to know that I'm aware of it and that I have it under review. As soon as the baby's born, we can do a paternity test and that will clear matters up."
"What about the officer?"
"Reluctantly, he will have to be suspended until this is sorted out. It'll be difficult, losing a senior officer at short notice, but we'll just have to manage."
"You mean Jim? Jim Fenner?"
"Yes," Helen said. She stood up. "I know I can rely on your discretion, Doctor."
She left the office and paused around the corner. As she'd expected, the door opened and Nicholson hurried off in the opposite direction towards the wing about a minute after she'd left. Helen smiled coldly, though part of her was appalled by what she'd done; it was a dirty trick worthy of Fenner. She mentally reviewed the protections she'd put in place around Sophia, both formal and informal. When Fenner got onto the wing, he'd find that Sophia was already gone, shipped out to another prison where her wing governor was a personal friend of Helen's and was aware of the background, and where she was near her fiercely protective extended family. While Helen didn't underestimate Fenner's influence, she doubted it stretched much outside London. If this episode enabled her to get rid of Nicholson and replace him with somebody competent on the grounds he'd breached confidentiality, as well as finally bring Fenner down, it would be a good day's work as far as Helen was concerned.
She was writing a report in her office when the door opened and Fenner came in. He looked worried and shifty, not his usual confident, sneering self. Helen looked up and raised her eyebrows, keeping her face impassive.
"Jim? I thought our appointment was this afternoon?"
"It is. Look, Helen, can we talk?"
"Of course. Take a seat."
Fenner sat down and started fidgeting. He didn't seem to be able to look her in the eye. Helen waited him out. Finally, he spoke.
"I've heard a rumour."
"Don't mess me around, Helen. I deserve better than that."
Helen sat back and tried not to enjoy the moment too much. "Jim, I don't want to put you in a difficult position. You're obviously worried ...."
"By some tart's accusation? I don't think so."
"What particular tart would that be?"
"You know who. Sophia whatever her name is. Who seems to have been mysteriously ghosted last night."
"Sophia was sentenced for fraud, not prostitution, so to be honest, I find your description a bit puzzling, Jim."
"You know what I mean."
"No, I don't. Are you saying that because she accuses you of inappropriate behaviour, she must be morally suspect?"
"I'm saying that if this gets out now, I might lose my kids!" Fenner burst out. For a second, Helen saw a flash of real vulnerability and felt pity for him. Then she thought of all the things he'd done and been too clever to be nailed for and hardened her heart. She assumed a detached tone.
"I'm sorry, Jim, but I can't take that into account where the safety of the women is concerned. A serious allegation has been made against you. Which means I have to suspend you. On full pay. Until the matter's been sorted out. I'm sure you will be reinstated without a stain on your character. In the meantime, you won't be working, so you'll be able to spend more time with your children. Not less."
"You don't understand," Fenner said. "There's a hearing. Next week. After Marilyn left me, she took up with another PO."
"I don't see the relevance of this."
"Word gets around. If I'm suspended, he'll hear about it. You can imagine what they'll make of that in court. Especially given the reason. They'll say I can't see my own kids because I'm some sort of abuser."
Fenner dropped his face into his hands. "I couldn't deal with that. They're mine. I held them when they were babies. I changed their nappies...." He took a deep, hitching breath. "You probably can't understand because you're not a parent, but ...."
Helen winced inwardly at the crass statement and sat back in her chair. "Maybe you'll have to explain it to me."
Fenner seemed to realise he'd made a gaffe. He looked warily at her. "This isn't a formal disciplinary meeting, right?"
"No," Helen said, "but be careful what you say, Jim. I can't ignore my responsibilities. Whatever the situation."
"All right," Fenner said. "Would you let me go sick? Stress?"
"Why would I do that?"
"It'll help me see my kids."
"I've already told you what I can and can't do."
"What if I gave you something in return?"
"I very much doubt you have anything to offer me. Especially when I set it against the safety of the women under my care."
"Not even the name of the female copper that Gossard shagged? The one who cried rape afterwards?"
"You heard me. We used to drink together. You'd be surprised what Alec said when he was pissed."
"And why is that relevant to me?"
"Because of your pet dyke. The one who says Alec raped her. It's got to help her case, right?"
"I won't endanger the women," Helen said. Fenner favoured her with a look of deep contempt. "I won't be on the wing. I can't do anything if I'm not here."
Helen met him glare for glare. Fenner looked away, then bit his lip and faced her. "I'll come back for the hearing, and I won't fight the suspension. All I'm asking is that you delay holding it till after I've sorted my access out."
"Give me the name. Then I'll decide."
Fenner hesitated and then bowed his head, seemingly accepting the inevitable. "Sally Anne Howe."
"OK," Helen said, "why don't you go and see Dr. Nicholson? You can probably get a sick note from him. Faster than seeing your own GP."
Fenner stood up. "Thanks," he said grudgingly.
"Don't be sick for too long, Jim. I'll suspend you in your absence if I have to. And I will be calling in the police if necessary."
"I know exactly how it's going to go," Fenner sneered. "Congratulations, Helen. You finally worked out how to play the game. But then, you did learn from the best."
Helen watched him go, trying to wipe the taunt from her mind. The fairest part of her acknowledged that it was true - she had just made the sort of underhanded deal that she despised. But the outcome was that Fenner wouldn't be able to come back into the prison without her finding out about it, and that meant that his power over the women was over. She could justify her actions if she held onto that awareness. Just about, anyway.
Picking up the phone, she dialed Claire's number.
Standing on the steps of the appeal court, Trisha frowned at the TV cameras and microphones that were being thrust into her face. She glanced to one side, where Helen was standing next to Di Barker, away from the limelight, and then up at Nikki, who had taken up position slightly behind her. Watching her back. She cleared her throat and then shook her head.
"I'd like to thank the people who helped me make it through my sentence; mostly, they're women who are still inside. The others know who they are. The one thing this whole experience has taught me is that the system doesn't work, and once I've had time to recover from what happened to me, I intend to try and change it."
She ran out of words then, feeling eyes on her and looked across the street, where a familiar figure stood beside a phone box, out of the flow of pedestrian traffic, watching her. As they made eye contact, Jane bowed her head in a brief, formal movement, before turning and walking away. Trisha watched her, her mouth dry, then came back to the present as Nikki unobtrusively nudged her, reminding her that the journalists were still waiting.
"Thank you very much. No more comments."
She ignored the babble of shouted questions and headed resolutely for the car that would take her to the rest of her life, Nikki slightly ahead of her now and running interference, using her greater height and reach to make sure Trisha reached the vehicle in one piece.
Helen drew up outside the tattoo parlour and sounded her horn as they'd agreed. A moment later, Nikki appeared, a welcoming smile on her face. Helen wound down the window as she came to the kerb.
"Do you want me to put your car into the garage?"
"Take your stuff in. I'll see you upstairs."
Helen nodded and parked, taking her bag off the back seat and handing the keys over. As she crossed the pavement, she took the opportunity to breathe in the warm spring air, colder here than London, but freighted with the tang of the sea and the breeze off the moors. Perhaps because she was close to Nikki, it smelt like freedom. Slowly, Helen climbed the stairs to the flat, steeling herself for who she would find there.
Trisha was sitting on the sofa, watching a film. She looked up as Helen paused in the lobby and shed her shoes, then stood and came forward, smiling.
"Sorry. Old habits."
There was an awkward silence. Trisha looked away, obviously trying to find something to say. She pressed a button on the remote control she was holding and the TV died abruptly.
"Please, don't let me disturb your film," Helen said, reflex politeness taking over.
"It's all right," Trisha said. "I was only killing time."
"OK. I'll put my stuff in the spare room," Helen said, heading for the bedroom she had seen Claire use the last time she was here. When she got to the doorway, she paused, disconcerted. There were clear signs of occupancy, from the nightclothes on the end of the bed to the pile of magazines on the floor beside it. Behind her, Trisha cleared her throat.
"Sorry, you're on the futon. This is mine."
"OK," Helen said, moving to put her bag in the living room. The grey cat, who had been sleeping on the sofa, chose that moment to wake up and demand affection. Helen picked it up and cradled the animal, trying to work out what the set up was and not quite knowing how to ask. Trisha answered her unspoken questions.
"I suppose you thought we'd be sharing a bed."
"It's really none of my business."
"Maybe not. Just so you're clear. I've been in the guest bedroom since I got here. What we had ... it's over. I'm not saying she doesn't hold me sometimes when I have nightmares. But we're friends. No more."
Helen felt her face heating up and cursed her own embarrassment. "Really, Trisha...."
"I'm not stupid, you know," Trisha said.
"Trisha, you've got it all wrong," Helen started, her voice dying abruptly as Nikki came into the living room, a slightly wary expression on her face.
"You two OK?" she asked.
"Fine, thank you," Helen said stiffly. Nikki glanced swiftly between her and Trisha, but didn't challenge her statement. She handed Helen her car keys. "Do you want a glass of wine?"
Nikki looked questioningly at Trisha, who shook her head. "No thanks, babe. Better not."
"OK," Nikki said and vanished into the kitchen, returning with a chilled bottle of white wine, a bottle of sparkling water and three glasses. She smiled at them and expertly opened both the bottles, pouring wine for herself and Helen and a glass of water for Trisha. They sat down around the coffee table.
Nikki looked expectantly at Helen. "Tell us about Fenner."
Trisha frowned. "You didn't mention this."
"Early birthday present."
"OK," Helen said. "He was picked up on an international arrest warrant in the Netherlands fifteen days ago. He waived his right to contest extradition. He's in the vulnerable prisoner's unit at Brixton."
"Well, he's got balls, I'll give him that," Nikki said.
"Apparently, his time in a Dutch prison wouldn't count towards his sentence."
"Is it that certain he'll go down?" Trisha asked. Helen nodded.
"The police investigation has uncovered a large amount of evidence. Sophia's baby has been paternity tested and it was positive, though all you had to do was look at him to see it was Fenner's child. As soon as he was suspended, women started coming forward, as well as staff who'd been too junior or too intimidated to talk when he was in post. So far, we've had one more child confirmed and a possible abortion."
"Bastard," Nikki said.
Helen nodded. "We're talking a rape charge as a minimum. Sophia is insistent that he forced himself on her and there is supporting evidence from a letter she wrote at the time. The Crown Prosecution Service are also planning to charge him with misconduct in a public office and anything else they can find, I think."
"They're really going to town on him," Trisha said wonderingly. "Why?"
"Short answer? It's not very good publicity for the Prison Service when it becomes apparent that a rogue officer has managed to get away with abusing the inmates in the worse way possible for years. There is talk of calling the Inspectorate in."
"All that for Fenner," Trisha said thoughtfully. "It means he's finished."
"So what about you?" Nikki asked.
"What about me?"
"Do you get a pat on the back, a promotion?"
"Hardly. I'm finished as well."
"What?!" Nikki exploded. "What the hell ...."
Helen took a deep swallow of wine. Nikki sensed she was struggling to maintain her composure. She glanced at Trisha and found her ex-partner watching the other woman with a wise, tired expression, as though she already knew what Helen was going to say. The Scot put her glass down on the table.
"Simon called me into the office two days ago to talk to me about 'damage limitation'. His words. When I said that I was going to tell the truth to anyone who'd listen, he pulled out a dossier on my 'activities'. Accused me of conducting a witch hunt against a colleague and being more interested in my own 'petty vendettas' than the good of the service. He practically accused me of framing Fenner and told me that Area Management didn't believe I was suited to an operational role. Then I was offered another position in policy. A promotion."
"So why didn't you take it?" Nikki asked.
"Because the terms and conditions included a gagging agreement. It's standard for some policy jobs. Management would have had to approve anything I said externally. Everything I published, in any form."
"They can't stop you testifying in court," Nikki said, mystified.
"No. But my account is a minor strand in Fenner's trial. What they would have been able to do is prevent me from giving meaningful evidence at any independent, public enquiry. Including the one that's on the cards when Parliament sits again. I'd have been micro-managed, stopped from saying anything controversial."
"Did they offer you an option?" Trisha asked.
"No. As of two days ago, I'm officially unemployed. Though Claire is looking at the possibility of an Employment Tribunal."
"What are you going to do with yourself?" Nikki asked.
"I'm not sure. I may write that book you suggested once. Otherwise, it'll be some sort of NGO work, or an academic post. I don't really care. I'm just glad to be out of the prison service."
"It's a pity," Trisha said. "You were a decent screw."
"Maybe," Helen said, "but I was fighting the system all the time. I'd like to work on changing it now."
Trisha smiled ironically. "Good luck. You'll need it."
"We'll need it," Helen corrected. Trisha looked startled.
"You've just been enrolled in my brains trust. I need your input, Trisha Harris. All the women in there do."
"From a bar owner?"
"From an intelligent woman with a good business brain who knows the effects of imprisonment and can suggest ways of stopping people from repeatedly going back inside."
"What if I don't want to help you?" Trisha demanded.
"Too late. You've just been drafted."
Trisha looked at Helen, non-plussed, and then shook her head disbelievingly. "You've got more front than Brighton. You know that?"
"Welcome to the team."
Helen maintained eye contact until Trisha nodded slowly, conceding defeat. She smiled broadly and looked at Nikki. "I'm starving. Are we eating in or out?"
"There's a new Mexican place I wanted to try," Nikki said, still a bit disconcerted by the exchange she had witnessed between the two women.
"Sounds good. Trisha?"
"Yeah. Why not."
They were coming back from the restaurant when it happened.
The meal had gone surprisingly easily, conversation ranging across everything from favourite books to past foreign holidays, though there had been a tacit agreement to avoid discussing the recent past. Helen had appreciated seeing a side of Trisha she had never observed in Larkhall emerge. The blonde and Nikki were easy with each other, and Trisha, relaxed in the taller woman's company, had shown a shrewd intelligence and an acute grasp of human nature that must have been invaluable in her old job as a club owner. Watching them together, Helen could see how they complemented each other, Trisha's cool pragmatism reining in Nikki's impulsiveness and Nikki's compassion softening the other woman's occasionally hard edges and slightly more cynical view of human nature.
They had much in common as well, both intelligent and well read, though Nikki was slightly more adept at spotting patterns and themes, and Trisha had the gift of cutting to the pith of a matter. Helen could imagine them as partners, and part of her regretted that their relationship was over. She could see how Trisha would have made Nikki happy, and even though she acknowledged that some essential spark must have faded for Trisha to have embarked on an affair, she found herself speculating as to what had gone wrong for the partnership to sour. It made her wonder if any relationship could last, and she was indulging in slightly melancholy thoughts on the walk home when a figure detached itself from the shadows in front of the tattooist's shop and spoke.
Helen stopped, feeling Nikki almost run into her. She was still trying to work out what was going on when Trisha stepped forward.
"Yeah," the figure said, moving into the glare of a street lamp and becoming someone Helen recognised. "I came to find you."
"Why?" Trisha asked.
"I had to."
"Don't give me that bullshit," Trisha said harshly. "We don't have anything to say to each other."
The martial artist seemed to shrink in on herself. "Please."
"You heard her," Nikki said, moving forward. "Get lost, and don't come back."
The contempt in her tone seemed to galvanise Howard. She moved towards Nikki. Helen could see her shoulders dropping and the relaxed rhythm that was beginning to come into her movements. Quickly, Helen stepped between them.
"We can talk about this, but I want your promise that there'll be no violence."
She took advantage of the fighter's hesitation, moving closer to her. Behind her, she heard Nikki shifting to follow her and sensed rather than saw Trisha restraining her from getting involved. She leaned in and spoke to the ex-con, studying her still, contained face.
"If you hurt Nikki, do you think Trisha will be pleased?"
Howard looked at her, a sideways flick of the eyes, and Helen pressed her advantage. "I think you can do this without raising your fists. I think Trisha would prefer that. What do you think?"
Jane considered, then nodded. "No trouble. You have my word," she said. She had spoken in a slightly louder tone of voice, and Helen realised that she had pitched it to reach both Trisha and Nikki. They looked at each other, then Trisha nodded slightly and Nikki stepped back, though her body language showed that she was still unhappy. The martial artist looked at Trisha. "Where do you want to do this?" she asked.
Wordlessly, Trisha led the way to the tattoo parlour; the other women followed her upstairs. As they got to the top landing, Nikki reached out and grasped Jane's elbow.
"If you hurt her again, I'll ..."
Jane shook her head and slipped her arm out of Nikki's grasp, seemingly without effort. "I'll go when I'm done."
"So long as you do."
"Nikki," Helen said quietly. Nikki scowled and walked into the lobby area, where Trisha was waiting.
She put her hand on the blonde's arm. "Do you want us here?" she asked.
"All right. We'll stay."
"Go into the kitchen," Trisha instructed. Nikki nodded.
Everyone took their shoes off and went into the living room. Jane looked around, visibly impressed. "Nice place. You lived there?"
Nikki jerked her thumb towards the corridor. "Come on, Helen."
Helen looked doubtful, but followed Nikki's lead. Trisha watched them go, then crossed to the sofa and sat down. She moved the glasses on the coffee table out of the way and cleared her throat. "Well?"
Jane went to her and knelt on the floor in front of her in a single, practiced movement, knees apart, palms flat on her thighs. Her back straight, she looked Trisha in the eyes.
"I missed you."
"Maybe," Trisha said harshly, "but it doesn't mean anything."
"What the hell are you saying to me? Why are you following me? Does it give you some kind of thrill, making me miserable? It's never going to happen for us. You explained why."
Jane bowed her head. "What I said in the gym.... it was the truth."
"OK. So why rub it in? I'm not anybody's pity fuck!"
"No. You don't understand. I want to try. I can't promise ...." She bowed her head, struggling for words. "For you, I want to try."
Trisha looked at her. She felt sudden, unguarded delight spread through her chest. "You mean it? This isn't more of your duty crap?"
"No. I swear. This is ... I can't forget you. I can breathe near you. You're the key to my prison."
She shook her head, seemingly frustrated with her own halting words, and looked at the floor. Gently, Trisha reached out and touched her face. Jane turned her cheek into her palm, an involuntary reaction to the caress.
"I'm a real bitch, you know," Trisha told her. "Unreasonable, high maintenance, get stroppy at the drop of a hat. I'm bad news, me."
Jane shook her head. She made eye contact. Trisha swallowed as she looked at the sincerity on the other woman's face, overwhelming the fear that informed the tension in her muscles. As the raw emotion of her surprise was gradually replaced by something else, joy and hope mingled together, she saw Jane react with the same emotions. It made the dark haired woman look absurdly young. Jane spoke, her voice shaking with uncertainty.
"Can I come back tomorrow?"
"Yes," Trisha said. "Yes, of course."
"I thought, maybe, we could walk along the beach. Unless you'll be cold?"
"I'm tougher than I look," Trisha told her affectionately. "I swear, if you try and wrap me in cotton wool or put me on a pedestal, I'll kick your arse."
"I know how tough you are," Jane said. She stood in one lithe movement. "Till the morning?"
"Yes. Let me see you out."
Jane nodded. "Thank you," she said formally. Her face had changed since their encounter in the street. Though she had it under tight control, there was a fire in her eyes, a lightness to her movements that hadn't been there before. When she looked at Trisha, her gaze smouldered with unspoken desire and a sense of unfeigned wonder that sat strangely on her normally contained features. Trisha bit her lip. It was almost embarrassing to be in the presence of such feeling, especially when it was directed at her. Its proximity felt dangerous. Then Jane leaned hesitantly in and Trisha found out just how dangerous the other woman could be.
She kissed like a desert traveler drinking at a spring of clear water, like someone who had finally found the answer to a question that had been troubling her for months. Trisha gasped as strong, controlled hands seized her shoulders, pressing them together, cementing the contact between their bodies. She pulled back and Jane immediately released her hold, dropping her hands to her sides. She looked shocked and exalted, all at the same time. Trisha could feel her own chest heaving and realised that the kiss had had an equally strong effect on her.
"You been practicing?" she asked, trying for humour.
"Just thinking about it."
"Keep thinking. I like the results."
Jane smiled shyly. "Good," she said.
Trisha saw her out and went into the kitchen where Nikki and Helen were chatting, their conversation slightly stilted. Nikki turned to her as soon as she walked in.
"Are you OK?"
"Fine," Trisha said. "We're meeting tomorrow."
"I want to talk to her properly." She smiled. "It's going to be all right. It really is."
"Is this you dumping me?"
"Not as a friend. I'll never forget what you did for me. Both of you. But it's time to move on."
Trisha went to the sink and got a glass of water, giving herself time to choose her words. She turned back to Nikki and kissed her on the cheek. "I'm going to bed."
"Eventful evening," Helen commented.
"Yeah," Trisha said. "Nikki?"
"You have to tell her."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
She glanced across at Helen, who was watching the exchange and frowning slightly as she tried to work out what was going on, and smiled. "It'll be all right. I'm not blind. I know how you both feel about each other. So stop being stupid and do something about it. Good night."
Helen watched Trisha leave the kitchen. She smiled slightly - the nonplussed expression on Nikki's face was quite funny if you overlooked what had caused it. She worked to keep her tone reasonable.
"She's got a point. You're going to have to tell Claire sooner or later. After all, what's the worst thing that can happen?"
"Claire?" Nikki said. "You think ...."
"It's obvious. You told me. A straight woman who you know through the campaign."
"And would you be happy? If I asked Claire?"
Helen chose her words carefully. "I don't think it's any of my business. But I'd be happy for you, yes. If it's what you want."
"Trisha thinks it's your business."
"Wrong?" Nikki asked. She looked at Helen intently. Helen dropped her eyes, unable to meet her gaze. She heard Nikki move, felt her face tilted up, looked into concerned brown eyes.
"Is she wrong?"
Helplessly, Helen shook her head. "No. But if you don't want ...."
"What I want is for you to shut up and kiss me," Nikki said, and bent her head so that their lips met in a tentative, gentle contact that quickly turned intense and passionate. Helen gasped into Nikki's mouth, feeling her body tense as she finally took the step she'd been dreaming about for months. She was vaguely aware that she was backed up against a countertop, that Nikki was holding her as though she never intended to let go, that the urgent need for contact was making her press herself against the soft, strong body in front of her, moulding herself to it as though every inch of closeness was precious. She felt Nikki slip a thigh between her legs and groaned as the hard line of muscle intensified her sensation of arousal. She took hold of herself with difficulty.
"No, stop ...."
Nikki drew back. She looked devastatingly beautiful, hair tousled and lips swollen from their encounter. Her eyes were dark with desire and she frowned. "Why?"
"I don't feel right doing this with Trisha here."
"Helen! She's fine. And since she practically threw us at each other, I don't think she's going to mind if we act on our feelings."
"I know. It just seems ... disrespectful."
Nikki sighed. "You and your bloody code of ethics. OK. I can wait. I've waited months already."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. When we make love, I want all of you." She traced a finger along Helen's cheek, eyes tender. "That's worth waiting for."
Helen drew back. "I'd better get changed."
"I'll set the futon up."
By the time Helen emerged from the bathroom, Nikki had already made her bed up and was placing the screen to give her extra privacy. Helen paused in the doorway and watched her, trying to absorb the knowledge that somehow, her deepest hopes had come true, and this strong, beautiful woman cared for her. As Nikki became aware of her gaze, she stopped and looked across.
"How the hell do you manage to make pyjamas look sexy?" she asked.
"Just a gift, I suppose," Helen said lightly. Actually, she was startled. It had been years since anybody had been so openly appreciative of the way she looked. Sean had given up on compliments long before their relationship ended. "Unless you have a thing for flannel?"
"I have a thing for anything you're wearing," Nikki said. "Especially if I get to take it off."
"Nikki. We can't ..."
"I know. But I can't help where my mind goes, can I?"
Helen became aware that they were drifting closer together and stepped resolutely back. "Nikki ..."
"What? I don't get a goodnight kiss?"
"You're not making this any easier," Helen warned. Nikki smiled down at her, quite unrepentant.
Helen bowed her head and confessed her deepest fear. "I don't know if I could stop. Not a second time."
Nikki folded her arms and, finally, nodded. "OK, but I reserve the right to dream about you. That's allowed, isn't it?"
"Like you need my permission for that," Helen said playfully, "anymore than I need yours."
They were distracted from their conversation by the sound of the guest bedroom door sliding open. Helen blinked as Trisha walked out and confronted them.
"I don't believe I'm hearing this. What is the problem?"
"I think you've just demonstrated it," Helen said stiffly.
Trisha frowned, deeply unimpressed. "For your information, I've been in prison recently. There isn't much people do in there that you can't overhear, one way or another. And they do a lot. Including fucking!"
"I know," Helen said, "but we're not going to ...."
"What? Rub my nose in it? I've got eyes. You two care about each other. Do you know how rare that is in this bastard world we live in?" She folded her arms, looking like nothing so much as the world's blondest, angriest relationship counsellor.
"Look, I'm not saying swing from the bloody chandeliers - I want a good night's sleep as well. I'm just asking what harm it will do if you share a bed."
Nikki hesitated. Trisha saw her opportunity and took it.
"You know me well enough to know I'm not bullshitting you. Take her to your room, for God's sake!"
Nikki glanced at Helen and saw the raw desire in her face. She held out her hand. "Will you?"
Helen studied Trisha and bowed her head. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"More certain than I've ever been of anything," Trisha said. "Including how much I hate Jim Fenner."
As they both frowned at her, her expression softened and she stepped forward into their mutual space. She took their hands and joined them together. "Just ... see how it goes," she said.
Nikki put her free arm around Trisha's shoulders. "Always love you, babe," she said quietly.
Helen never forgot the moment when Nikki turned away from her ex-partner. Suddenly, she was the focus of the most intense, loving attention she had ever experienced. She felt Nikki's hand tightening on her own and found herself gazing helplessly into the other woman's eyes.
"Yes," she said involuntarily. Nikki drew her towards the sanctuary of her bedroom, the grip of her fingers gentle and tentative. When they got to the doorway, she slid the panel open and stood aside, wordlessly inviting Helen into her space. Helen stepped inside and waited, looking at the wide futon in the center of the room. She heard Nikki close the flimsy door and turned to look at her.
The taller woman stepped close and bent to speak into Helen's ear. So she wouldn't be overheard, Helen realised.
"Are you really OK with this?"
Helen shivered as she felt warm breath on her cheek.
"Yes," she said.
"Then I'm overdressed."
She stepped back and pulled off her top, revealing an expanse of tanned skin and a lacy bra that Helen wanted to remove as soon as she saw it. Any fear that what she felt for Nikki was an infatuation vanished in that surge of emotion.
As she hesitated, soft classical music started in the next room. Helen chuckled as understanding dawned. "Is that her way of giving us some privacy?"
"Yes," Nikki said, "and getting to sleep. It's on a timer."
Helen nodded and then found she literally couldn't speak as she contemplated the woman in front of her. Nikki seemed to understand her hesitation. She moved closer, her body language asking for permission, and put her hands on Helen's shoulders, drawing her down to the bed. Once there, she leant back and put her palms flat on the duvet. Helen watched, entranced, as Nikki showed herself to her. She reached out tentatively, then snatched her hand back. Nikki smiled, slow and lazy. Her eyes were amused and accepting.
"Go on, then," she said softly.
"I've never ... with a woman."
"It's OK. It's always different and it's always new. Every time."
Helen glanced involuntarily at the wall between them and the next room. "I'll be quiet," Nikki promised. Helen turned troubled eyes on her. Nikki stilled briefly, then slid over to sit next to Helen. She put her arms around the other woman.
"This is about ... being comfortable with each other. OK? Nothing happens if you don't want it to."
"I know that."
"Your head knows it," Nikki said. "Not so sure about the rest of you."
She took Helen's hand and laid it on her own side. Not her breast or anywhere else that might be threatening, Helen noticed. Only on her skin, for now. Helen drew in her breath, intrigued by the sensation of warm, toned flesh underneath her palm. She rested her forehead on Nikki's shoulder, feeling slightly foolish as she absorbed the reality of where she was and who she was with, centering herself. Then she moved her hand lower, drawing her fingers across to rest on Nikki's stomach, feeling the taut, yielding play of her muscles as the other woman reacted to the touch.
"That's good," Nikki said, dipping her head to kiss Helen.
They kissed for a long, sweet time, then Nikki left one arm reassuringly round Helen's shoulders and began to unfasten the buttons on her pyjama top. Helen turned slightly to give her better access and reached round to undo the other woman's bra.
Nikki made a soft, approving sound in her throat and shrugged her shoulders, helping Helen get the garment loose so that the Scot could draw it down her arms. She had finished opening Helen's pyjamas and lay back, pulling the smaller woman on top of her. Helen tensed slightly and then relaxed as she realised that Nikki had stopped moving and was simply holding her, cradling her weight so that their torsos touched along their length, legs falling naturally together. She felt her nipples harden as Nikki caressed the nape of her neck and stroked her back, the bloom of arousal in her body as she absorbed the feel of the other woman.
Sight and smell joined with the sensation of skin on skin; Nikki smelt slightly of perfume and her own unique scent, rich and intoxicating. The music wound through its patterned melody in the next room, a disregarded backdrop.
She began to touch the other woman in earnest, hands roaming over her, feeling warm and safe in her arms. Nikki reciprocated and after a while, they were both breathing more deeply. Helen could see the flush of arousal on Nikki's face and chest, the way that her nipples were puckering in hard, rosy peaks. She slid lower and started to kiss them, flicking her tongue over them, relishing the feel of them in her mouth.
Nikki gasped aloud and held her more tightly, shifting restlessly under Helen as the smaller woman cradled the weight of her breasts, moving her focus from one to the other. Finally, she urged Helen upwards and rolled them onto their sides, reaching down between them to unfasten her jeans. She was exuding heat and Helen realised that her own temperature had climbed. She shrugged off her pyjama top and removed her bra before putting her hands on Nikki's belt loops, a silent command. Nikki smiled and lifted her hips off the bed, allowing Helen to draw her jeans and underwear off and discard them to one side.
Helen stared, entranced, at the dark curls between Nikki's legs and reached a tentative hand out to touch her, feeling the moisture that had gathered there, the slightly wiry texture of the hair, the warm softness of Nikki's folds.
"Yes, like that," Nikki said hoarsely. Helen stilled herself and looked up the other woman's body, seeing her own desire echoed in her lover's face, then stripped off her trousers before crawling up the bed to join her. She moved her hand back to Nikki's center and began to stroke her, slightly tentative at first and then gaining confidence as she saw her reaction. By the time Nikki had passed through her climax, crying out softly through clenched teeth, Helen was trembling in a dizzy flood of her own need. Nikki smiled as their bodies stilled and reached out to her.
Helen obeyed, feeling her breath catch as Nikki looked at her with open appreciation and then bent over her, beginning to kiss her way down her body. By the time she had reached her goal, Helen was so aroused that she thought she might explode at the first touch of Nikki's mouth on her. Instead, the other woman demonstrated her experience, skillfully bringing Helen to the brink again and again until finally taking her over edge into what felt the best orgasm she'd ever had.
Afterwards, Helen lay passively, exhausted, as Nikki held her, murmuring endearments and kissing her. Finally, she rolled over, putting herself on top, and gazed into her eyes.
"Thank you," she said quietly.
"No. Thank you. Been dreaming about that for a long time."
Helen felt a rush of affection. She stroked the other woman's face, tracing its curves.
"Don't know why I ever hesitated."
Nikki glanced at the wall between the bedrooms. "Yes, you do. Do you want to go back outside?"
"Not unless you come with me."
"Why don't we just stay here?"
Helen nodded her agreement and shifted sleepily as Nikki tugged at the covers, somehow maneuvering them both so that they were under the duvet. She drifted off listening to the steady sound of Nikki's breathing beside her and feeling her reassuring warmth all along one side of her body.
In the morning, she woke up to find her lover gone and, puzzled, got up to investigate. She walked through the flat, finding it empty until she got to the kitchen and found Trisha there, reading the paper and sipping coffee. Helen drew back slightly, embarrassed. The other woman looked up and smiled.
"Nikki's gone out for her run. She'll be back soon. Coffee?"
"Please," Helen said, taking a seat. Trisha poured the drink and handed it to her.
"She looked happy this morning."
"Yes." Trisha frowned. "Are you OK?"
"You're just being ... really calm about this."
Trisha looked thoughtful, then sat down opposite Helen. "Look," she said earnestly, "Nikki isn't just my ex-lover and business partner, she's one of my best friends. She put most of her life on hold for me during the campaign. I want her to be with somebody who'll be good for her."
"You make me sound like a patent medicine," Helen objected.
"I know a lot more about you than you think. When you're in prison, you haven't got anything to do but watch the other people there. I was out of it a lot of the time, but I saw enough. You two are right for each other." She grinned. "Though you've probably worked that out after last night."
"Sorry," Trisha said unrepentantly.
"Oi," Nikki said from the doorway. "You leave her alone. Pick on someone your own size."
"Just getting a bit of my own back."
"Go hassle your new girlfriend instead. She's waiting across the street for you."
"Is she?" Trisha said, brightening visibly. "She's early."
"She must be keen, then."
Trisha touched her hair, checking it and Nikki smiled. "You look great. Go."
She watched indulgently as Trisha hurried away and then turned to Helen. "That looked like a heavy conversation."
"It wasn't really. Just a bit strange."
"Come and shower with me?"
Helen blinked, then nodded her agreement. Hand in hand, they wandered to the bathroom. Nikki closed the door behind them and then turned to Helen, pressing her against the door as she kissed her. Helen returned the favour, smelling the clean scent of the open air on the taller woman's skin, the slight chill a contrast to the warmth of her mouth. Finally, she broke off, hugging her and sighing happily.
"That feels so right."
"Good," Nikki said tenderly, "because I'm going to keep doing it."
Wandering around the ruins of the abbey, Trisha shivered and huddled into her coat. Up here on the headland, the wind was relentless, a tide of cold air that scoured the weathered grey stone of the gravestones and ruffled the grass in patterns that echoed the movement of the sea below. Jane put an arm around her shoulder and drew her into the lee of a column, out of the worst of the breeze. She took the opportunity to stand close to the other woman, slipping her hands inside her coat, appreciating her warmth and solidity. Jane looked down at her. She touched Trisha's face.
"Want to go find a pub?"
"No, Trisha said. "This is great. Fresh air, the sky, the sea. No walls."
Jane looked over her shoulder at the turbulent water that was pounding against the cliffs.
"Love the sea. So powerful."
"Do you surf?"
"I'll have to teach you."
She smiled at Jane's raised eyebrows and leant further into the shelter of her arms. "What? There has to be a sport I'm better at than you are."
"Got an idea for something else you can teach me."
"Indoor sport. Good for stamina, flexibility, cardio vascular."
Trisha thought about it, then blinked as she realised what the other woman was saying. "Was that a joke? You, with a sense of humour?"
Jane ducked her head. "Want to, round you. Smile, laugh, make jokes."
Her uncertain expression made Trisha's throat close with tenderness. She ran her hand along Jane's bicep. "Good. Because you make me happy, too."
"Make you happier, if you give me the chance."
"Is that a proposition?"
Jane nodded. "I hired a cottage. In the town. Just us. If you want."
Trisha leant against her and thought about it. They were both adults and they both knew where this was going. In a way, they'd had months of emotional foreplay, growing slowly closer in Larkhall, testing the boundaries. She had a feeling, however, that Jane wasn't quite prepared for the reality of going further. Still, it was a first step. She nodded.
Jane smiled and led her down the impossibly long stone staircase into the old town, then to one of the clap boarded cottages near the harbour. Pulling out a set of keys, she let them into the tiny house, revealing a battered sofa facing an old fashioned TV across from a fireplace, stairs in one corner of the living room leading upstairs. A small kitchen was visible through an open archway. Trisha glanced around, taking in the pile of martial arts magazines on the corner of the sideboard, the hand weights stacked behind the door to the kitchen. Trisha found she liked it. Though it was cramped and shabby, the place had a welcoming, cosy feel to it.
She looked at the stairs as Jane took her coat and hung it up, and thought about what climbing them might imply before putting her concerns to one side and doing it. Jane followed her up, close behind. When they got to the landing, she put a hand on Trisha's back, guiding her unobtrusively into the main bedroom. It had a sloping roof and was decorated in a casual, slightly alternative style with a nest of large floor cushions in one corner. The rest of the furniture was a miscellany of assorted pieces, obviously sourced from various second hand shops. The old brass bedstead that dominated the room had a patchwork quilt covering it, turned down to show crisp white sheets and deep, luxurious pillows.
Trisha crossed over to the window and looked out at the view, watching the sea approach and retreat towards the land in its timeless, repeating sequence, the blue waves flecked with white as the wind added its own theme to the endless dance. She wondered how many lovers had stood in this place, seeing the rhythmic surge, absorbing the knowledge that they were only part of the whole, their interaction a small piece of the pattern, no more or less important than the turning of the world or the beat of their individual hearts. She felt Jane's hands on her shoulders and shivered.
"What were you thinking?"
"I've got it bad," Trisha said. "You're driving me to philosophy."
"Prefer biology," Jane said, and went to sit on the bed. She bent to take her shoes and socks off and Trisha went to sit next to her and mirror the action, amused by the way that the practicalities of life always dragged the mind back to the mundane.
As she stripped off her socks, Jane took them from her and reached down to move her feet up into her lap, beginning to massage them with strong, expert fingers. Trisha sighed and lay back, gazing up at the ceiling, concentrating on the sensations Jane's hands were producing. She turned her head to one side and felt the sheets against her cheek, suddenly becoming aware that the bedding was both new and clearly expensive, its soft surface a million miles away from the worn, artificial fibers of the threadbare blankets in Larkhall.
"Jane, the sheets ... are they new?"
"Wanted you to be comfortable. Your skin's beautiful. So soft."
Trisha smiled involuntarily, touched by the gesture. "You're spoiling me. No putting me on a pedestal, remember?"
"Wanted you to know how I feel," Jane said.
"I already do," Trisha told her affectionately. She sat up and held out her hand. Jane took it and then stilled as Trisha used the leverage to urge her to stand up and away from the bed before pulling her down to sit on the nest of floor cushions in one corner of the room, pushing her gently back until her spine was resting against the wall. She frowned.
Trisha paid no attention. She could already see the slight, suppressed tremor in the other woman's hands and hear how ragged her breathing had become.
"Yes," Jane said.
"Good. Take off your shirt."
Jane frowned and then did as she was told, stripping off her top with the practiced efficiency of someone who had spent half her life in changing rooms. Her eyes widened as Trisha copied her, moving more slowly, letting her see what she was doing. She put her hands on the belt of her trousers and Trisha reached out, stopping her.
"No. Not yet."
"Lie down with me?"
Jane nodded and lay back on the cushions. Trisha stood and took the quilt from the bed, snuggling against the other woman's torso and covering them both. She made sure to leave her hands where Jane could see them and reached up to stroke her face.
Jane was tense, unsure. She relaxed a little when Trisha kissed her, swiftly moving her whole attention into that. Trisha gauged her partner's level of ease and realised that she had almost certainly tried kissing before. More importantly, it was something she didn't associate with Gossard.
She concentrated on enjoying the sensation of Jane's mouth on hers, not pushing to do anything else or forcing the pace. Jane was restless at first, seeming to feel that she should intensify matters, but after the second time Trisha firmly took her hands and moved them away from her breasts, she relaxed into just kissing, apparently content to accept that as an end in itself. Trisha broke away from time to time to murmur encouragement, using the opportunity to gauge the other woman's level of anxiety. Every time she felt Jane begin to move more awkwardly or think too hard about was happening, she concentrated on stroking her back and sides, silently reassuring her that everything was OK.
Finally, Jane made a small noise of frustration and, sitting up again, hesitantly pulled off her bra. Trisha caught her wrist as she moved to discard it. "Are you sure?"
Jane nodded and Trisha turned her back on her. "Unhook me?"
There was a pause and Trisha looked over her shoulder at her. "You have my permission."
She felt Jane fumbling gently at the clasps, then the sensation as the garment came loose and her breasts fell free, her hardened nipples tingling as they came into contact with the quilt, Trisha sighed as she felt Jane's mouth brush the skin at the top of her spine. She reached back and put a gentle hand on her face. "OK?"
Jane nodded jerkily. "Want to .... God! Want to taste you, feel you. Be inside you."
"I know," Trisha said.
She turned and settled them both into the cushions, pulling the quilt around the other woman's back as she laid down again, guiding Jane's head onto her shoulder. Jane hesitated, then turned her face so that she could nuzzle at Trisha's neck. Trisha smiled and stroked her hair, allowing the contact.
"How d'you feel?"
Jane thought about it. "Yes," she said finally, "but..."
"Like I'm breaking to pieces at the same time."
"This is going to take a while," Trisha told her. "Probably weeks. But when it happens, it's going to be worth it."
"What if you can't wait? What if ... I'm not good enough?"
She slipped her arms around Trisha, all her assurance gone. Trisha could feel the tautness of her muscles as she waited for the answer.
"For meaningless sex, I can go to a club. I'm here. You're not the only one who wants to try. Give me a chance?"
Jane nodded slowly. Trisha felt dampness on her skin and realised that the other woman was crying soundlessly, her emotions breaching her habitual reserve. A wave of protectiveness filled the blonde; she held the taller woman as she wept, finally following her into a brief, satisfying doze that culminated in them waking in each other's arms and, by unspoken agreement, going out for a slow walk back along the beachfront after they had dressed.
Nikki was sitting on the sofa, copying designs from a book on Buddhist art into her sketchpad when Trisha walked in. The taller woman looked up. "Thought you were seeing Jane this evening?"
"I am, later. She's teaching a class, so I did a stint at the switchboard sorting out their grant application."
"How did it go?"
"It went. Now I've got a headache."
Nikki smiled. Trisha crossed over to the sofa and sat next to Nikki. She began stretching her shoulders.
"How much coffee did you drink?" Nikki asked. The look Trisha gave her was answer enough. Nikki rolled her eyes. Trisha always overdosed on caffeine when she was concentrating. Nikki had never been able to break her of the habit, and it looked as though Jane hadn't been any more successful.
Nikki got up and went out to the kitchen, returning with a glass of the Italian spring water they both liked. Trisha accepted it from her with a nod of thanks and took a deep swallow. She relaxed back onto the sofa.
"I was thirsty," she admitted.
Nikki grinned knowingly and Trisha changed the subject. "How's Helen?"
"Fine. Enjoying her break in the smoke. Claire's new boyfriend is really nice, apparently. Works as a joiner."
"Yes. She wanted Helen's support to tell her parents."
"None of their business," Trisha said robustly.
Diplomatically, Nikki changed the subject. Trisha's gratitude to Claire for taking her case made her protective of the solicitor. "So what have you got planned for the rest of the evening?"
"Jane's bringing a takeaway home."
"Is she staying over?"
"No. She's got an early start tomorrow. We might have an hour."
"What happened to Trisha Harris, party girl?" Nikki teased.
"She went to a bad place and learned some valuable lessons."
Nikki nodded. She was packing her stuff away when Trisha's next question stopped her in her tracks.
"Do you regret it?"
"Everything. Working on my appeal. Putting your life on hold to do it. Coming back from Japan." Trisha shrugged in response to Nikki's expression. "Don't get me wrong; I'm glad you did, but most people wouldn't have done that for someone who'd cheated on them."
"No," she said finally. "I met Helen through the campaign. And even though it was tough sometimes, it was the right thing to do. It was worse for you, in there. You did the hardest part."
Trisha bowed her head. "It's good you feel that way. I wouldn't want you to think it was wasted time."
"It helped get you out. How could it be wasted?"
"See, now you're being noble again."
"No," Nikki said, "you were always worth fighting for."
She pointed at the half-full glass. "Go on, finish it. The last thing you want to have when she gets here is a headache."
Trisha looked up from the business plan as Jane gave a familiar growl of frustration. Nikki had obviously won the latest game in their marathon Go tournament. Innately competitive, Jane hated to lose at anything, even a friendly match. It might have been off-putting if it hadn't been part of her need to prove herself, which was born in turn of well hidden insecurity. Trisha had admitted to herself that she was seriously falling for the other woman when she had started to find the competitiveness endearing, not irritating. Now she got up and crossed to the area in front of the sofa where they had set up the board. Jane was straight backed as usual, cross legged as she considered her moves. Nikki, more relaxed, leant against the sofa where Helen sat, the Scot's free hand occasionally drifting over to rest on her lover's shoulder or neck as she read and annotated the latest proofs of her book.
Nikki smiled up at Trisha. "D'you think you can stop your girlfriend from killing me?"
"I expect so. If you show her how you won."
"No," Jane said instantly. "I'll work it out."
She would, Trisha knew. She had discovered a lot about Jane in the last few months. She was fearsomely disciplined, capable of great focus when engaged on a new task and a believer in reading everything she could about a subject she was trying to master.
She was gradually learning to relax around them all, though the first time she had come across Nikki and Helen in one of their passionate clinches, she had stopped dead and almost run out of the flat to take a long walk. Nowadays, she took it in her stride, and Trisha was glad that the martial artist did spend time around another couple. It enabled her to see the behaviours from the outside and, occasionally, to pose questions she didn't want to ask Trisha directly.
Sometimes, in her own mind, Trisha compared it to rehabilitating an abused child or a girl brought up by beasts. Not very often, though. The more time she spent with Jane and the more she learnt about her, the more she found to respect in her honesty and courage, her innate code of conduct.
The other woman was intriguing as well; she had secret passions for things, based on an unforced intellectual curiosity. She liked foreign art films, especially those from Korea and Japan, but not martial arts movies, which she found boring and over choreographed. She had once had them all in stitches of laughter by analysing a film Trisha had brought for her to watch, giving an acerbic commentary on exactly why the moves wouldn't work and how the martial arts involved had been bastardised. She liked traditional jazz, enjoying the way the patterns worked through the music, and she would listen entranced for hours as Nikki told tales about her travels.
Mostly, however, she liked to spend her free time with Trisha. At first, Trisha had been slightly paranoid, wondering if Jane's focus was entirely healthy. Her fears had been calmed by the international tournament Jane had attended a couple of months after she had settled in Whitby. As well as going away for the tournament itself, she had prepared for her bouts by training with meticulous intensity, changing her entire routine. Trisha had gradually come to realise that Jane treated everything important in her life with that same focus and that she was only one aspect of that pattern. The knowledge had been strangely reassuring, and she had been able to greet the other woman with unreserved pleasure when she returned from her long three weeks away.
Afterwards, Jane had laid in Trisha's arms and confided that another fear had been disproved for her - that success in relationships might remove her fighting edge. In fact, she had been better than she ever had before, moving up the rankings. She had turned to Trisha in the lamp light and traced a gentle thumb across her lips.
"I thought of you. Gave me strength."
It was the first time they had slept together for a whole night in what had become Trisha's room at Nikki's. Jane had her own place, where she and Trisha spent a lot of time together, but Trisha held on to her independence. The arrangement worked because all parties exercised a Japanese level of diplomacy, mentioning undramatically when they would be going and returning.
It helped that Trisha and Jane had both found work locally, Jane as a personal trainer and martial arts teacher and Trisha doing the marketing and accounts, as well as drafting business plans and providing advice for any number of the local small businesses. Trisha knew it couldn't last; if she wanted it to work long term, she would have to raise her profile and start engaging seriously with government agencies and the council, building up her power base and contacts.
For now, she was content to operate under the radar as a freelance, using her expertise and accepting ad hoc payments, often in kind or as favours. Meanwhile, Jane drove all over the region to spend time coaching stressed executives towards fitness or to inspire small groups of students to learn new skills and in-between, she and Trisha went to see films or walked along the beach or on the moors, listened to music together, shared meals and laughter. Bathed together, were naked in front of each other, massaged and touched each other, learned every aspect of each other's bodies.
Their unspoken, shared project moved slowly forward, taking months, not weeks as Trisha had first thought. Often, she had to restrain the other woman. Jane's reckless courage outstripped her ability to cope at times, and Trisha had to manage the fighter's desire to press on as well as her frustration when she couldn't. In return, Jane gave Trisha support as she slowly processed the toxic residue of her prison sentence, holding her as she suffered through nightmares, both waking and asleep.
Afterwards, Trisha always saw her conversation with Helen as a turning point. She had given in to her doubts about the relationship, had quarreled with Jane and had returned late to her room to spend the rest of the night tossing and turning, haunted by her memories without the familiar strong arms to buffer her. When she shuffled out into the living room in the late morning, Helen had been working on her laptop and had indicated the tray of coffee in front of her.
"Please," Trisha had croaked.
"You had a bad night," Helen observed matter of factly as Trisha curled up on the sofa and Helen poured her a mug of coffee.
"No shit, Sherlock," Trisha said, taking the proffered drink and sipping it slowly.
"Yes. And Gossard."
Helen nodded. "I thought Jane usually helped you with that?"
"Yeah, all emotional cripples together. Really healthy," Trisha grated out.
Helen frowned and looked at the screen of her laptop. "You want to know my opinion?"
"'Seriously', why not," Trisha responded, deliberately confrontational. Helen frowned and Trisha had a sudden flashback to the wing. She bowed her head and then started as she felt the other woman move towards her and take her hand.
"Trisha, I'm aware of our history. That's why I haven't said anything so far. But I want to help."
"OK," Trisha said.
"Are you sure?"
"Right now, I'll take help from anybody."
Helen nodded. "Firstly, I don't think you're any kind of cripple. What bothers you more? Larkhall, or Gossard?"
"Gossard. Killing someone."
"I think that's being human, not emotionally compromised."
Trisha nodded, wearily conceding the point.
"Can I ask you something about Jane?"
"Depends what it is."
"She was raped, wasn't she."
"How do you know that?" Trisha demanded, coffee slopping over her hand as she sat forward.
"The way she acts. Her behaviour's quite typical, sometimes. I got good at recognising that particular body language when I was doing my research."
"What difference does it make?"
"It means that what you and Jane are doing together shows a level of commitment that an emotional cripple wouldn't be able to achieve. If she'd gone down that route, closed herself off? She wouldn't be trying so hard."
Trisha stared at Helen, hoping that she could believe her. The Scot frowned. "I saw the reports on her when she was inside, and I observed her as an inmate, especially after the incident with Denny Blood. I see the difference in her. In both of you. You're nearly there. Don't give up on her."
"Why does this matter to you?"
"I suppose because ... I know how happy I am with Nikki. I want other people to be happy as well."
"I want that," Trisha confessed. "I just don't know if I'm ... if ...." She stared at her hands, frustrated at her inability to express what she felt.
"I think you're the best chance she's ever had," Helen said. "Why don't you go and have a shower? I'll call Jane and tell her you want to go for brunch. Give you a reason to talk."
They had had their first proper argument that afternoon, their voices carried away by the steady wind that scoured the abbey. Yet even as they shouted at each other and wept, and eventually reconciled their differences and ended the afternoon in each other's arms, watching the sea gulls, Trisha was aware of one thing. The pull that held them together was stronger than all of the things forcing them apart. At the end of the day, when Jane insisted on walking her home with her familiar, stubborn protectiveness, Trisha realised that their commitment to each other was based on their love and respect for each other, not the damage that life had chosen to inflict on them. Things got a lot easier after that.
Trisha was changing the sheets on her bed when Nikki stuck her head round the door of her room.
"Right, we're off."
Trisha smiled and gave her a quick hug. "Has Helen stopped fussing yet?"
"No," Nikki said indulgently, "she'll be all right when she sees the holiday let and realises we're not camping in a field somewhere."
"I heard that!" an indignant Scottish voice said from the living room. Trisha and Nikki smiled at each other. When Helen had discovered that there would be bikers attending the heavy metal festival where Nikki habitually spent the bank holiday weekend selling some of her more expensive designs, she had insisted on going along. However, she seemed to believe that they would be wading through a sea of mud and that there would be nothing other than burgers to eat.
Trisha saw them off before heading for the kitchen to prepare the evening meal. Since she had been in Whitby, she had started to teach herself how to cook. The food in Larkhall had been classic institutional stodge, and she had gained a new appreciation for fresh ingredients and interesting flavours by being denied them. She liked preparing meals for Jane; making them tasty while keeping to the martial artist's strict nutritional routine added another dimension to menu planning.
She was just stirring the soup when Jane came in and immediately started stealing vegetables from the salad. Trisha frowned at her.
"Stop that. Set the table and we can eat like civilised people."
She took the sting out of her words by kissing Jane when she came within reach. The taller woman took her free hand.
"What if I'm not civilised?"
"I'll just have to tame you, won't I?"
"Nikki and Helen gone?"
"Yeah. They'll be halfway there by now."
Jane nodded. She ran her thumb across the back of Trisha's hand.
"Tonight," she said quietly.
Trisha turned the heat off under the soup as the meaning of the words filtered through. "Are you sure? I mean ..."
"I'm sure," Jane said and went to lay out the cutlery. They ate in companionable silence for the most part, concentrating on the food. When they'd finished, Jane washed up and then turned to Trisha, drying her hands. The blonde had been watching her, enjoying the view and assessing the other woman's mood. She was struck by how relaxed Jane was tonight, how focused.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I was sparring, trying out a new move. And I knew. I was the technique. I was there. Nothing else existed. And it was because of how you've changed me. Made me ... be, live. Happy."
"I don't understand."
She held out her hand. "Nothing else matters. You have my permission."
Trisha nodded. The message was clear enough. The specifics didn't really matter. She felt a sudden wave of shyness and gathered her courage. This was Jane, who knew her almost better than she did herself. Had seen her at her absolute worst and still loved her. She stood and quietly led the way into the guest room, turning on the floor lamp to give them low, diffuse lighting.
Jane bent to kiss her neck, fastening on the spots she knew Trisha liked as her hands began a leisurely exploration of her body, stroking along Trisha's sides before moving down to her buttocks. Trisha put her arms round the other woman, feeling her contained strength, and rested her head on Jane's shoulder. She slid a thigh between her parted legs and Jane gasped softly as she felt it against her. She drew back to look into Trisha's eyes and began to slowly unbutton her shirt, pausing to bend and kiss the areas of skin she was exposing as she progressed. Trisha ran her hands across Jane's head, enjoying the texture of her short hair, the warmth of her scalp. She leant to kiss the nape of the other woman's neck, running her hands under the collar of her top, feeling the softness of her skin and the sculpted, well-defined muscles of her upper arms.
"I'm going to take this off," she told her. Jane made a small noise of agreement, too focused on unfastening Trisha's trousers and stroking her waist to speak. Trisha groaned slightly as strong fingers found the spots in the small of her back where tension lurked, pressing with expert knowledge, releasing the blood flow in her muscles. She pulled at the polo shirt, chuckling as it bunched around the other woman's torso, and got it off as Jane obligingly took hold of the hem and pulled it over her own arms and head.
Now that they had separated, they were both a little calmer and they rapidly shed the rest of their clothes. Trisha could feel Jane watching her with familiar intensity as she slipped her knickers off. The fighter's dark nipples were already pebbled with arousal and she was trembling with anticipation.
They sat down on the bed, where their height difference didn't matter so much, and went back to kissing each other. Trisha sighed as Jane began to move her attention to her neck and ears, feeling the familiar pleasure moving through her. The move brought Jane's breasts within reach and she began to stroke them, paying special attention to their sensitive underside and avoiding the nipples. After a while, Jane gasped and drew back, capturing Trisha's wrists and moving her hands away. Her lips were swollen and Trisha touched them instead. Jane sucked the exploring finger into her mouth and smiled as Trisha pulled it out and lay back, drawing the taller woman down to cover her.
Jane braced herself easily and they kissed before she lowered herself fully onto Trisha and rested her hands on her hips, fingers digging pleasurably into her buttocks.
"OK?" she asked.
Trisha nodded, feeling anchored by the familiar weight. Jane smiled tenderly at her and reached down to comb her fingers through the thatch of hair between Trisha's legs. The blonde bit back a gasp as she felt the first lingering touch. They had done this before, but her lover had never been so assured, so confident. Her hands were gentle and sure as she stroked Trisha, lifting her to heights that were resolved when she slipped three fingers inside her, filling her. Trisha cried out as Jane's rapid movements completed her fulfillment, a crest of sensation gripping her body as she came to orgasm. The other woman gentled her through the aftershocks and brushed damp hair off her forehead.
"Good work out?"
Trisha laughed and slapped her side playfully. "You bloody well know it was."
"You hit me," Jane pointed out. Trisha flexed her hips and threw the taller woman off. They both knew she could only do it because Jane was co-operating, but the one thing neither had ever feared from the other was coercion. Their memories prevented that.
Trisha sat up and straddled Jane. "Well, I'll have to make it up to you then, won't I?"
Trisha pretended to think. "Not sure."
She ran her hands lightly across Jane's breasts and stomach, watching her heavy lidded pleasure at the action and slowly began to move backwards, caressing and touching as she went. When she was positioned between her legs, she reached up and took her lover's hand, squeezing it reassuringly. Jane smiled, a little uncertain, and then raised one knee, giving Trisha better access. Trisha bent and kissed her inner thighs, getting her used to the idea that this was happening, then leant to put her mouth on the delicate pink folds that were waiting for her. She could taste Jane's arousal and need, feel the stutter of her pulse against her ear. Warmth surrounded her and she put her hands on Jane's hips, lightly, giving her leeway to move and began to show her how much she cared about her.
It was an intense, timeless process; responding to the sounds the other woman was making, varying the pressure and intensity of the touch, wordlessly granting her permission to experience the full range of her emotions and the pleasure Trisha was giving her. They were communicating by mime, showing each other what their nights could become. As she reached the edge of her resistance and let go of her apprehension, Jane began to pant like a runner nearing the end of a race. She cried out when she came, sounding shocked as her body tensed in response to her climax. She didn't relax until the intense sensations had stopped, turning to Trisha as her breathing steadied. She looked bewildered by what she had experienced. She bit her lip and Trisha saw that she was fighting tears.
Trisha moved to hold her. "OK?"
Jane nodded silently, then hugged Trisha tightly. They lay wordlessly together before drifting off into a contented sleep.
Jane and Nikki were on the cool down section of their usual circuit when Jane casually mentioned something that indicated that Nikki's life had irrevocably changed. They often chatted while they jogged the last few lengths, a technique to ensure that they didn't unconsciously speed up again. It was too easy to do since they spent the rest of the run using each other as pace setters, neither of them willing to slow down before the other.
"Trisha's going to take the job in London," Jane said in response to a question about future plans.
"What about you?"
"Going with her."
Nikki nodded, keeping her eyes focused on the route ahead as she considered the news. It wasn't that Trisha was moving out, but that she had told Jane first that marked the real seismic change. It brought home the fact that they really were nothing more than friends now. Nikki tasted the knowledge, trying to work out how she felt about it, then realised it didn't matter. She had Helen and that she was still friends with Trisha was a bonus. Jane as well; she and the taciturn woman running easily next to her had grown to like each other, and Nikki had no fears for Trisha as long as she was with the fighter.
Rounding the corner, she saw her business come into view and speeded up slightly, feeling Jane do the same. They both had a woman waiting for them, and neither of them wanted to miss out on spending time with them. Nikki smiled broadly, unaware that her expression was mirrored on Jane's face. Life was good and about to get better.
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