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, Kate and Lyn 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.
SPOILERS: This story refers to many events in series 1-3, but from a different perspective. There are references to Helen having had past relationships with both Sean Parr and an OMC, but these are not explicit.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To estraven[at]hotmail.co.uk

Exit Wounds
By Estraven


Hollamby was pleased to see that Shell Dockley had lost her smirk by the time she came out of the Wing Governor's office. She had gone in, as cocky as ever, half an hour earlier. If Sylvia knew anything about how her tiny mind worked, the inmate had probably been planning to use her patented combination of charm and whining to try and manipulate the situation to her advantage. Judging by her glower, it hadn't worked.

The middle-aged officer mentally congratulated the new woman in charge. It just went to show that experience counted. Promoting an officer who'd done their time in the service, instead of one of these baby-faced graduate trainees, was the way to go. She was glad Area Management had finally had the sense to recognise it.

Of course, the decision hadn't gone down well with Jim Fenner; he had been disappointed that he hadn't got the job. With all the time he spent with the number one outside work, he'd assumed it was a foregone conclusion. Underprepared, the promotion board had come as a shock. Hollamby had heard through the grapevine that he'd made a pretty poor showing. She smirked, hoping that the new manager had the sense to watch her back. She'd made no friends there.

Putting her thoughts aside, she turned to the second inmate the new boss had decided to interview. As usual, the woman exuded an air of barely contained violence, her face set in a sullen mask of hatred and resentment. Sylvia raised her eyebrows at the burly officer who was escorting them, secretly glad he was there. Despite the con's relatively small frame, Sylvia had seen her in action and knew the kind of damage she was capable of inflicting when her temper was roused.

She'd dealt with the worst in her time, and they were all the same when you came down to it: wrongdoers who should stop whining and take the just punishment for their crimes.

This woman made her nervous, though. In Sylvia's opinion, her behaviour meant that she shouldn't be in the main population; she should be doped up to the eyeballs on the muppet wing with the other incorrigibles. Prison was never going to reform her. Helen Stewart didn't want to change. Her day-to-day actions demonstrated that.

"All right, you," Sylvia said harshly, "in you go."

"Another fucking farce."

"Language, Stewart. Do you want to go on report?"

"I don't give a shit. It's all the same bollocks, anyway."

"Just do as you're told and no more of your nonsense."

Sylvia swallowed as the con turned to look her up and down, sneering. Behind her, the other guard shifted warningly and stepped closer. Stewart turned to confront him.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt your girlfriend," she said.

Both officers relaxed slightly. Stewart stepped closer to Sylvia.

"I'll wait till you're not expecting it," she said quietly, her soft Scottish accent and matter of fact tone somehow making the words more menacing.

"That's it. You're on report!"

The governor's secretary chose that moment to come out.

"She'll see you now."

Hollamby nodded to the other PO and opened the door, pushing the inmate firmly through it.

"Stewart for you, ma'am."

"You scared, Bodybag?" Helen asked over her shoulder.

"Not of the likes of you. Get in the office!"

The tall, dark-haired woman behind the desk looked up, frowning. "What's going on, Sylvia?"

"She threatened me, ma'am. I've put her on report."

"I see."

She looked at Stewart and shrugged. "I might as well interview her while she's here. I've got a busy schedule. Sit down."

The Scot didn't move. The governor nodded to the officers. "You can go."

"But, ma'am ...."

"You can go. I don't need protection from the inmates."

The governor waited until the door had closed. "Sit down, please."

"I'll stand."

"No, you won't."

The smaller woman scowled and set her jaw, but she reluctantly did as she was told, folding her arms and staring at the Wing Governor.

"Are you the new commandant, then?"

"Yes. Interesting use of terminology."


"Don't play games, Helen. I've seen your probation reports. You were on course to take your Highers before you left home. Your records show you're intelligent enough for university."

"That's none of your business."

"Actually, it is."

"Yeah. Because you own my arse. As long as I'm in here."

"Not how I'd have put it."

The new governor studied Helen, taking in her shoulder-length dark hair, the olive skin and strong jaw, its set tautness currently emphasising the inmate's defiant glare. She met the hazel eyes that were focused on her, studying her as if she was a specimen in a lab. Though dressed in the usual drab jeans, top and trainers, the woman opposite her was neatly turned out and minimally, but carefully, made up. Her overall style seemed to be deliberately plain, compared to Dockley, whom the governor had just seen. She wore a signet ring on one thumb as her only piece of jewellery and had no visible piercings or tattoos. Her nails were short, with faint traces of dirt underneath them, but her hands were well-scrubbed, marked by the slight weathering and calluses that came from her daily manual labour. That accounted for her tan and the healthy glow of her skin, as well as the fact she was in good shape, despite her incarceration. Her file showed that she had a garden job, the sort of position usually reserved for the more mature, reliable, inmates.

Even so, her attitude showed that she wasn't a pushover. She displayed none of the signs of someone who had given up fighting the system. Inwardly, the governor shook her head. 'Might be easier for us if she had,' she thought.

"How would you put it, then?" the Scot demanded abruptly, obviously tired of waiting for the other woman to speak.

"That it's in your hands. The rules are designed to reward some kinds of behaviour and discourage others."

"Pavlov's dog, you mean."

"Careful. You just slipped up."


"You showed that there's a brain in there."

"I'm not as stupid as your screws."

"I don't accept comments like that about my officers. But I agree that they don't call you stupid."

The governor flipped open a file on her desk. "Incorrigible, a tough nut, trouble for trouble's sake, confrontational. But not stupid."

"Like I give a shit about what they think."

"Their reports affect your parole. You're in here for manslaughter. Don't you want to get out one day?"

"I killed a bobby. I'm not getting out of here until I'm ready for my pension. We both know that. So stop pissing me about and let me get back onto the wing. I've got things to do."

"Actually, you'll probably be on the block. I'd like you to use the time ...."

"What? To count my sins?"

The governor smiled, altering her rather severe expression. The change made her look suddenly younger.

"Where did that come from? Your childhood?"

"Don't fucking psychoanalyse me!"

"I'm not." Serious again, she leant forward, studying the other woman. Helen Stewart met her eyes, challenge in every line of her body. Her interviewer shrugged and got up from behind her desk, pacing the office. She was seemingly oblivious to the tension in the room, but never went out of the inmate's direct line of sight.

Helen took the opportunity to inventory the other woman's appearance, using the exercise as a way of steadying her nerves. Tall, she noted, much taller than the norm; dark hair in a short, layered style that emphasised the elegance of her features and brushed her neck in soft curls. Good skin, without the pallor that affected most of the prisoners and some of the guards. Slim and muscular, with controlled, fluid movements. She either did some sort of martial art or went to the gym a lot. This was a woman who was comfortable in her own body.

Her make up was restrained and subtle, accentuating her natural colouring. It had been expertly chosen and applied. She didn't wear a lot of jewellery - a platinum ring on the little finger of her left hand and a silver symbol that Helen vaguely recognised as Buddhist on a matching chain around her neck. Her nails looked like they'd been professionally manicured and painted. She was dressed in a well-tailored grey suit that Helen thought looked as if it had cost a lot of money and probably wasn't off the rack, paired with a fitted white shirt with pearl buttons and practical, black ankle boots. She had nothing on her wrists except a small, plain watch with the face turned inwards.

Finally, she stood against a filing cabinet, folding her arms and studying Helen's profile.

"OK, is this how it is for you? You're angry with the whole system and you fight it as hard as you can. Even when that means that you damage your chances for … parole, better conditions in here, an eventual transfer to an open prison. Instead, you confront what you're not happy with and end up losing every time. Because that is how things are organised to work. We both know that."


"Agreeing with me won't make me shut up."

Helen shrugged. The other woman waited for a second, then sat down behind the desk. "I can't stop you going onto segregation when you walk out of this office. If you're threatening my officers, then I think that's where you should be; for a while, till you calm down. However, I'd like you to take the time to think about whether we can find a different way of doing this. Your current tactics don't seem to be doing you much good."

Helen sneered. "Like what?"

"I don't know. It's up to you. You're the one that's going to have to change your behaviour."

"And if I don't?"

"Then you are going to be here until you draw your pension. Is that what you want?"

Helen shot the other woman a defiant look and shrugged. She waited until Hollamby came into the room before standing up. She knew where she was going; she'd been there often enough.

As she left the office, she glanced back assessingly. She couldn't quite work the new governor out. The woman was obviously educated, but at the same time, she had the body language of an experienced screw. This Wade was an enigma. Helen wondered what her regime would be like.

Sylvia looked up as the wing governor came into the POs' office, carrying an armful of inmates' files. She put the majority of them neatly away before crossing the room and handing over the most well-thumbed of the lot. The middle-aged screw recognised it. It was at least twice as thick as anyone else's, including Dockley's, and was secured with a sturdy piece of ribbon.

"For Stewart's report. If you can find room."

Hollamby nodded and accepted it with a small grimace. "I'll have to, won't I? It's not the last time I'll be adding a record. That one's in a mood to make trouble again. I can tell. It comes round like clockwork every few months. She gets bored."

"Whatever she throws at us, we'll handle."

"Well, she's tucked up safe in segregation for now. That'll calm her down."

Nikki shrugged and went to make herself a cup of coffee. While she waited for the kettle to boil and listened to Sylvia muttering aloud to herself as she laboured over a few simple forms, she thought about what she knew about the slipshod, uncaring woman currently sharing the office with her.

The taller woman had encountered her type from time to time during her service, but had mostly managed to steer clear of them: rule quoting drones with a deep contempt for the inmates, whose only interest was in the easiest life possible and counting down to their pension. Even her appearance was typical, from the pursed lips permanently set in a disapproving line to the obvious lack of fitness that prevented the older woman from doing her job effectively. The rest of it, like the short blonde hair and the middle-aged spread, was just details.

Nikki had an idea that the contents of Hollamby's head were a lot more unpleasant than her outward appearance - so far, she'd identified a deep vein of prejudice to go with the laziness and a willingness to cut corners that defined the other woman's character. She had no idea how Sylvia had acquired her nickname of 'Bodybag' amongst the cons, but suspected that the circumstances that lay behind it weren't pleasant.

Her mind drifted over the various prisons she had worked at during her career. Because of her willingness to take secondments like the Tornado Team and the DST to improve her prospects, she had been around most of the estate in the South East.

Larkhall wasn't one of the modern prisons; it was a multi-winged Victorian house of correction, typical of the grim, brick fortresses that had been constructed to control the teeming urban underclass created by the Industrial Revolution. Though parts of it had been retro-fitted with electricity and CCTV cameras, it was essentially the same as it had been back then; cold stone cells and metal bars, security that depended on antiquated gates and keys, and equally retrograde attitudes among the staff. Nikki sometimes wondered if the ghosts of the past lingered on in these old buildings, influencing the interactions of their modern day inhabitants. Still, she was prepared to work with whatever she had been given.

When she had prepared her drink, she sat down on one of the battered chairs, facing Sylvia. The dumpy PO looked at her, puzzled.


Nikki disregarded the tone of surprise. She'd get her information where she could.

"You've been here a while, haven't you?"


"Before Stewart?"

"I should hope so!"

"The file's a bit vague about why she was ghosted in here. I wondered if you could shed any light on it?"

Hollamby snorted. "That's easy enough. I don't, officially, but I had the story from a … reliable source."

The governor nodded and waited, sipping her drink. Sylvia put her pen down, far happier to spread gossip than to do paperwork.

"Apparently, at her last nick, Stewart made friends with another inmate. Anyway, this woman was … well, you know. One of them."

"You mean a lesbian."

Hollamby nodded. "It wasn't anything unnatural, but her other half, whatever you want to call it, got jealous and challenged Stewart to a fight in the gym. Stewart accepted. She couldn't not, I suppose."

"Not if she didn't want to go down as an easy target for the rest of her sentence."

"The way I heard it, nobody knew what to expect. Up till then, she'd been a bit of a dark horse. Kept herself to herself, not made any trouble. She wouldn't let people push her around, but she didn't make waves, either."

Sylvia leant forward, warming to her story. The governor watched her, hands clasped loosely around her mug. "At first it was all one way. It looked like Stewart might get seriously hurt, especially since she wouldn't give up and stop fighting. Then the other con said something to her. I don't know what. But whatever it was, it was the wrong thing. She came off the floor like a ballistic missile. The … lesbian didn't stand a chance. It got so bad in the end that her other half, the woman who'd been Stewart's friend, waded in. Didn't help. They were both injured by the time officers came to break it up. Broken bones. Nobody would talk, of course, but the feud carried on for months. Eventually, area decided to ghost Stewart. Easiest way of dealing with the problem."

"I see."

"She did her first six weeks here on the block, on and off. Leftover punishments from the last place. And then we got her on G wing. Where she's carried on making trouble and being violent. She doesn't seem to learn."

Nikki nodded thoughtfully. "Has she seen the shrink?"

"Yes. She gave him a load of abuse and a 'no comment' interview. She's not mad, just incorrigible and dangerous. Which means she's our problem."

"Lucky us," the governor said. "Thanks for that, Sylvia. It's always good to get some history on the lifers."

She stood up. "Anyway, I'm off. Places to be, tea to prepare."

Sylvia sighed and returned, reluctantly, to her paperwork. Even so, she felt a glow of satisfaction at the way she'd been able to put the new governor straight about Stewart. Forewarned was forearmed, after all.

Trisha let herself into the house and came into the kitchen, dropping her briefcase by the door. Nikki smiled a welcome from beside the hob, where she was stirring the pasta sauce. They hugged each other and kissed. Trisha savoured the familiar taste of her partner, feeling well-toned muscles responding to her touch. After a while, Nikki turned back to her cooking, her lips quirking in the way that made the blonde want to take her to bed. She restrained the impulse, knowing they didn't have time. Later, of course, would be a different matter.

"Good day at work?" Trisha asked, investigating the fridge and unearthing the milk before pouring herself a mug of coffee from the cafetiere on the side. She had noticed how the taller woman's embrace had lasted just a little bit longer than usual.

"OK," Nikki said noncommittally. "Got through most of what I wanted to do."

"You should pace yourself," Trisha scolded.

"It's a new job. I need to get on top of it."

"And the day after you work yourself into an early grave, that place'll still be there and so will all the prisoners."

"I know," Nikki confessed.

"So why are you still frowning?"

"It's just harder than I thought it was going to be."

"Really?" Trisha asked, leaning against the worktop. She watched as Nikki measured out the fresh pasta and began to prepare the salad. "I thought you'd done the hard bit. All those years of scrambling up the greasy pole."

"So did I," Nikki said quietly. She began to slice a cucumber with more force than was strictly necessary. "But I'm finding out I don't know as much as I thought I did."

"So that bloody degree course was for nothing? After all the work you put in?"

"That's not what I mean," Nikki said. She sighed. "It turns out that women's prisons have … complications. Or maybe it's just G wing."


"Pass the tomatoes, will you? Well, I knew it had a reputation, but some of the stuff I'm finding out ...."

"Like what?"

"You remember I told you about Hollamby and Fenner?"

"Yes. Lazy and like a quiet life."

"They've been fiddling the drugs tests."

"Fiddling them? What do you mean?"

"Certain people never get tested. The same people who I've heard, anecdotally, are using."

"Why would they do that?"

"Makes the figures look good. Nobody ever tests positive, we haven't got a problem, we don't have to do anything about it. Meanwhile, the place is awash in drugs. And Stubberfield made it very clear that my main job coming in was to sort that out."

"Oh," Trisha said. "Pity you can't get rid of them."

"This isn't the private sector. I can't just fire people. Much as I might like to."

"So how are you going to deal with it?"

"I'll work round them. A couple of the younger officers might shape up if they're given the right kind of leadership."

She smiled, visibly putting it aside, and reached for the extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to begin preparing the salad dressing. Trisha admired the lean length of Nikki's torso as she stretched, and sat down at the table.

"So what did you achieve today?"

"Spoke to the lifers."

"How did that go?"

"All right. Dockley tried to get round me and Stewart gave me a load of lip."


"She's a troublemaker. Occasionally violent, according to her file. Constantly challenging officers about one thing or another."

"Well, I'm sure you can handle her."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Nikki said. She hesitated, then turned away to reach for the heavy, copper-bottomed pan hanging on the rack. She took it down and put it on the side, moving to face Trisha.

The other woman caught her expression and frowned. "This looks serious."

"It is. Helen Stewart's in for manslaughter. Whole life tariff."


"The man she killed was a police officer."

"Why does that make a difference?"

"It was Gossard."

"Oh," Trisha said quietly. She smiled falsely. "What are the odds?"

"I don't know. There aren't that many women's prisons."

"Was it because he was trying to proposition her?"

"No. He was arguing with her boyfriend, and she came in, overreacted and stabbed him with a hedging knife."

"A what?"

"They were in a greenhouse."

Trisha fumbled in her bag and fetched out her cigarettes. Nikki handed her an ashtray. She watched as the blonde tried and failed to light her fag before silently doing it for her. Trisha nodded her thanks, blowing out a long plume of smoke. "I can't say I'm sorry he's dead. I still don't know what would have happened if you hadn't walked in."

Nikki hesitated, reaching out to touch her partner's shoulder. Trisha shivered and lightly rested her free hand on Nikki's. They intertwined their fingers from long habit, locking their grip together. The brunette reached out with her other hand and brushed the hair away from her lover's heart-shaped face, admiring her vivid blue eyes and the warm promise of her full lips.

She had fallen helplessly in lust with Trisha the first time she had seen her dancing in a club, the centre of attention as she moved her firm curves in time to the music. It was only later, after they had made slow, passionate love, that she had begun to talk to the woman in her bed and discovered a fierce realism and captivating, pragmatic intelligence that had intrigued her and formed the basis for both a deeper relationship and a lasting business partnership. It was what she loved about their life: that they could debate issues and laugh together, as well as satisfy each other physically. She spoke cautiously, not wanting to drag up old pain.

"Maybe we should have reported it."

"And say what? We both had a feeling he would have taken things too far if he hadn't decided that he'd rather sit and drink with you and exchange stories about being in law enforcement?" Trisha nudged the salt and pepper shakers restlessly with her free hand, then moved them back. "You know what he would have done then."

"I ...."

"No," the blonde said. She stood up abruptly and pressed two fingers to Nikki's lips, stilling her. "He backed off because he worked out we were partners. In his mind, that meant I belonged to you and I was off limits. If you'd reported him, he would have outed you at work. We made the right decision."

"Doesn't stop me feeling bad about it. Not now I know he carried on being violent, pushing people around. And worse."

Trisha stubbed out her cigarette and put her arms round Nikki. "Your social conscience is one of things I love about you, but now you're looking for things to feel guilty about. The jury called it manslaughter, not self defence, right?"


"So they must have decided that this Stewart woman used too much force. Attacking somebody like that, it's pretty extreme. It sounds to me like she deserves her sentence. Gossard was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why was he arguing with the boyfriend?"

"Something about him owing money to a friend of Gossard's."

"Right. So it was a business discussion. Nothing that should have provoked violence."

"No, I suppose not."

"Exactly. Helen Stewart obviously has a hair-trigger temper and trouble controlling her aggressive impulses. She's probably in the right place. The fact that the man she killed once made a move on me is neither here nor there."

"He was a scumbag, though."

"You don't have to tell me that," Trisha said. She flashed briefly back to the memory of how unreasonably frightened she'd been at the time. Of how Nikki had held her for the rest of the night once they'd made it to bed, kissing her and whispering soothing nonsense until she'd been able to sleep. Trisha was still unsure why Gossard had provoked that reaction in her - he'd done no more than stand a little too close when she fetched him a drink, make a few mildly suggestive remarks and move in a way that had made her aware that his body language was off, somehow, strange. Tense and deliberate at the same time. As though something was preoccupying him.

Then Nikki had walked in, still dressed in her uniform, and Gossard had blinked and looked swiftly from her to Trisha, evaluating the situation. Within a few seconds, his whole manner had changed. He had smiled broadly and shaken Nikki's hand, commenting that he hadn't realised that they played for the same team 'in a manner of speaking, right?' Trisha had been unsure if he was making a clumsy innuendo or simply referring to Nikki's job.

Three free drinks later, he had been gone, leaving Trisha to make a stumbling explanation of what had happened before Nikki arrived, trying to verbalise something she couldn't quite define herself. Her partner had been outraged and all for making a complaint, but Trisha, always the more level-headed of the two, had persuaded her to sleep on it and, finally, to drop the whole matter. She'd made sure that she was never alone with Gossard again, though, and she'd heaved a silent sigh of relief when he was transferred to another division.

She came back to the present and smiled up at Nikki. "Now, do I get to eat before we go off to work?"

"Sure. Do you want garlic bread?"

"Yes, but I won't. Got to watch my figure."

"Your figure's great. Anyway, watching it is my job."

"You just remember that," Trisha told her possessively. Nikki gave her a quick hug and started cooking again.

Later, as they were eating their meal, the blonde seemed preoccupied. Nikki reached out and touched her forearm. "Babe?"

Trisha put her fork down on her plate and frowned. Nikki recognised the hesitation and waited her out. She knew that Trisha liked to think out difficult statements before making them, and she had a sinking feeling that she knew what this was about. Sure enough, when the other woman spoke, the theme was familiar.

"Nikki … Have you thought about what I said. About expanding the club?"

"Not really. I've been a bit busy."

"Yes. Doing a job that pays peanuts by comparison."

"It kept us going when we were starting out."

"That was then. This is now," Trisha argued. "If you left the prison service and we concentrated on Chix, we could probably retire in our fifties. Never have to work again."

"Like you'd give up running the business," Nikki said sceptically. "I have a love rival and she's a nightclub."

"It's our bar. You've put just as much into it as I have. More, sometimes."

Nikki made a noncommittal noise and helped herself to more salad.

"Come on," Trisha said. "You only took the job as a guard because it was something you could get into by passing a written test, and because it was steady."

Nikki scowled slightly and didn't reply. Trisha pressed on regardless. She knew that her partner was sensitive about her performance at school. She didn't see why, personally; it was hardly the brunette's fault that the arguments with her parents about her sexuality had been so disruptive that they had ruined any chance she had of concentrating on her exams. Before that, Nikki had been predicted to get good grades and had been planning to go to university.

If anything, Trisha admired her for standing up for herself and refusing to give in to her father's not very subtle attempts at blackmailing her into conventionality by offering to pay for her retakes and support her while she studied - provided that she gave up dating other women. As far as Trisha was concerned, Nikki's more recent academic achievements said a lot more about her ability, since she'd successfully juggled her course work with a full-time day job and helping run Chix. There had been times when she had come into their living room and found her partner asleep, a book still in her hand. Trisha thought that paper qualifications were a bit of a waste of time, but she respected the brunette's need to prove her family wrong about what she could do and had been as proud as any of Nikki's other friends when she had finally achieved her degree.

What she didn't like was what her job as a prison officer was doing to Nikki. The impulsive, idealistic woman she remembered from the start of their relationship had gradually changed, replaced by a more hardened, cynical version of her partner. Trisha thought of herself as level-headed and pragmatic, someone who saw the world the way it was. But it bothered her how Nikki was rarely shocked by accounts of brutality or violence these days, and how she had become used to playing the system, no longer attempting to challenge rules that she saw as unjust or counterproductive. She still had ideals, and Trisha knew that she cared about the women she was employed to guard, but her growing acceptance of and willingness to compromise with the status quo worried Trisha more than she liked to admit. She sighed and tried again.

"All I'm saying is that you don't have to lock people up for a living any more. You can do better than that."

"So I should just give up everything I've worked for?" Nikki said, angrily stabbing her fork into a piece of tomato.

"There'd still be Chix. There are other jobs you can do. Why stay working in prisons when you've got so many options? You could set up your own business, consult as a venue designer. You're good at the personnel side - you could go into that."

"You make me sound like I can walk on water."

"You've got a lot of talents you're not using. And whatever you chose to do, you wouldn't be hanging around with criminals."

"I'd just be helping to provide places where people can pick each other up for sex."

Trisha stared at her, speechless. Nikki bowed her head and finally mumbled an apology.

"Is that what you really think? About what we do?"

"No. It isn't. Christ's sake, I remember what it was like as a teenager, heading off to scummy pubs in dodgy areas of town because that's the only place there was to meet other dykes. I'm proud of what we've achieved. But I'm also proud of my other career. I've worked bloody hard to get where I am, and in a funny sort of way, I get on better with the people inside than those outside the walls. At least you know where you are."

"I don't like what it's doing to you. It's changing the way you are, how you think."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you remember when you told me that you hoped that one day there'd be no more prisons? That society would find a better way of dealing with criminals?"

"I did?" Nikki said. She shook her head. "I must have been young."

"No, just idealistic," Trisha said.

"Or naive," Nikki said. "If I give up my job now, then I'm admitting I've wasted the last ten years of my life."

"No, you're not! It served a purpose. I just want you to think about moving on, that's all."

"Speaking of moving on," Nikki said, glancing at her watch. "We'll be late if we don't go now."

"Don't change the subject!"

"I'm not," Nikki said firmly. She stood up. "I'll think about what you've said. Come on, we haven't got time for this."

Reluctantly, Trisha shoved her plate across the table so that Nikki could get a start on loading the dishwasher, and went to get her coat. She knew her partner well enough to know that her promise wasn't just meant to fob her off - she would genuinely reflect on the points Trisha had made. But the argument was over for now. She kissed the other woman as they passed in the corridor.

"Love you," she said.

"Love you, too," Nikki replied, a smile banishing the frown from her face. Trisha felt a wave of affection fill her. This was her Nikki, the one who didn't belong to the prison service. This was the woman who took care of her when she was sick or upset, the one who had the power to see the remarkable in the most mundane things, the passionate warrior who never counted the cost and who always put her first. This was the woman she planned to spend the rest of her life with.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Out on the wing today for the first time - amongst the 'general population'. Strange - the block's supposed to be a punishment, but I was glad of it for once. Gave me time to heal up, get ready to face what I'll have to once I'm back in the game. I know what to expect - Salome's been stupid enough to threaten me every time she delivered a meal.

Let her be queen of all, I say. I don't care who rules in Hell so long as they leave me alone. Of course, I know it won't be that simple. To keep myself safe, I will have to convince her that I'm too dangerous to take on. I have one advantage - she'll expect me to be shakier than I am. Unlike most, I can cope with the solitude - I've had enough practice. Most women down there can't - I've heard them weeping as they face their demons. Because, of course, the best way to handle an emotionally distressed woman who has few personal or intellectual resources to cope with her pain and probably dreadful memories of being mistreated in the past is to stick her in a tomb. Guaranteed to make her feel better.

Helen walked down the wing, heading for her cell. As she passed the dormitory, she glanced in to see Dockley and Denny pressed together with their tongues down each other's throats. Without breaking her stride, she made a small sound of disgust and carried on. Seconds later, Shell erupted out of the cell with Denny following her.

"You got a problem?"

Helen turned back to face the provocatively dressed blonde. Denny hovered behind her girlfriend, her slight frame a sharp contrast to the lifer's overblown curves. She was dressed in a pair of long, baggy shorts and a sweatshirt, compared to Shell's short denim skirt and low-cut, tarty top. Her long Afro hair was tied back; as usual, she looked impossibly young and innocent to be inside for arson. But then, Helen reflected, for Blood it had been a case of transferring from one institution to another all her life, broken only by short spells in foster homes. Unlike Dockley, with her traditional South London working class background, Denny had never known anything but the care system. It partially explained why she let the older woman boss her around and was prepared to act as her lieutenant; she was used to the informal hierarchies that operated in places like this. The fact that she simply wasn't very bright had a lot to do with it as well.

She seemed oblivious to the deep seated viciousness that had led Dockley to torture and murder a woman for the perceived insult of 'stealing' her boyfriend, a character trait which led most of the other cons to steer well clear of her and to be careful to stay on the right side of the lifer in case she picked them as her next target.

It had taken a few bruising encounters in the first weeks after Helen had arrived at Larkhall to show Dockley that, even though she read books and was well-spoken, the Scot would not be bullied or intimidated. Not even when she got put on report by Fenner, Shell's personal officer.

It was an open secret amongst the inmates as to why the blonde had such influence over the burly PO, and Helen knew she hadn't helped her cause by treating Fenner's coded offers of a similar relationship with barely disguised contempt. It had got her the respect she needed on the wing, though, and considering that the idea of letting him touch her filled Helen with disgust, even if he hadn't been married with kids, it had been a necessary evil.

She had clashed with him from the first time they had met, when she had looked the tall, broad shouldered man up and down and sneered, her instant, gut reaction one of revulsion. Looking back, she wondered if she had somehow sensed what lay behind the ordinary face masked by the conventional appearance, the crew cut, self-indulgent mouth and slightly fleshy features revealing nothing about the depths of corruption that lay beneath.

Fenner and Hollamby, the other senior officer on G wing, left her mostly alone these days. Oh, they put her on report whenever they could, and she had guessed that their accounts of her behaviour were negative even before the new governor had shared some of them, but their idleness worked in her favour more than any desire not to be seen to be victimising a particular prisoner. Neither of them wanted the hassle of filling in paperwork if they didn't have to. That meant that so long as she chose her battles, she could get on with doing her sentence undisturbed. Most of the time, anyway.

Helen knew for a fact that there were occasions when Shell went whining to Fenner after one of their encounters and was turned away. She wondered why the other woman hadn't worked out yet that in his universe, she was a little more than a convenience, a warm mouth and a pair of skilled hands that he used to relieve his frustrations and satisfy his physical needs. When she thought about it, she put it down to the fact that Fenner was essentially a cunning, manipulative thug. Exactly the kind of man that Shell Dockley had grown up with and spent her life learning to please. The concept of self respect never came into it.

"Oi!" Shell said, interrupting her thoughts. "I asked you a question, bitch."

Helen put deliberate contempt into her tone.

"Whether I give a fuck about you muff diving? Not as long you do it in private and don't scare the horses."

"It's none of your bleeding business, Stewart."

"Piss off, Dockley. You're nothing but a nympho. You'd shag anything with a pulse. Doesn't mean I want to watch you."

"Nobody forced you to look in that cell."

"Isn't that why you two had the door wide open? So we could all get an eyeful, going past?"

Dockley scowled at her. Denny shrugged and slung an arm over her shoulders.

"Leave it, Shell. She's just jealous, innit?"

"Jealous? Of you two? No, thank you. I've got standards."

"Well, I bet they keep you warm at night," the blonde sneered.

"From what I hear, you have somebody else doing that," Helen replied matter of factly. Leaving the other inmate speechless, she went to her cell.

Once there, she sighed and looked around before selecting a book and sitting down to read. Mentally, she was shaking her head and taking herself to task for rising to Dockley's bait. God knows she'd got up to enough wild antics growing up and later when she'd left home and had been hanging out with all sorts of people. She'd had a high sex drive and had enjoyed satisfying it.

Once she'd moved in with Sean, she'd been faithful to him because she didn't believe in lying. She thought he'd probably done the same for her, more from inertia than anything else. Sean had been an average lover, and he'd been convenient, though the physical side had been tapering off towards the end as his other problems started to preoccupy him and she got involved in expanding the business, more to take her mind off their failing relationship than anything else.

Sometimes she wondered if her frustration at going without had contributed to her bad temper around that time and had helped lead to the incident that had landed her in prison.

After the trial, though, the overwhelming shock of Sean's betrayal and coming to terms with the possibility of being locked up for the rest of her life had caused her to shut down while she did so, destroying her interest in sex or even any kind of intimacy.

She still couldn't work out if she would have been seeing somebody by now if she'd been free. She only knew that she had looked around and decided that she wasn't ready to play the sort of power games that went with a relationship with another con, especially since she'd never had the desire to try women on the outside. If physical need overwhelmed her, she knew how to take care of herself, and that would have to be enough. She'd had offers; as a killer, she had status in the warped prison hierarchy, and some women made it clear that they found her defiance and rule breaking attractive. She turned them down, more or less politely, depending on the situation. After Sean, she wasn't ready to trust anyone again or let them that close to her heart.

There was a knock on the cell door frame and Helen looked up, smiling when she saw who it was.

"Carol. How are you?"

"Uncomfortable," Carol grumbled. She came in and sprawled on the bed next to Helen. The small mound of her pregnancy stretched her T shirt and she laid her hands protectively on her stomach. Helen touched the girl's shoulder gently.

"You'll be all right."

Carol made a non-committal noise, close to a grunt, and Helen was reminded again how much younger the other woman was. She wasn't sure why the teenager had latched onto her within days of being transferred into Larkhall, but she found she didn't mind it now she was used to it. Carol was pleasant, undemanding company. She seemed quite happy to prattle on about almost nothing while Helen sketched or tidied her cell or simply sat writing letters.

Sometimes that backfired - she would casually mention something that made Helen keenly aware that, whatever her own father's failings had been as a parent, he had at least put a roof over her head and clothes on her back. Carol's father had never been there at all, and her mother had been so busy feeding her habit that she had often not bothered to do either. It was Carol's matter of fact description of scavenging for her meals in the skips behind supermarkets as a child that had first made Helen stop telling the younger woman to go away.

"What're you reading?" Carol asked.

"Book about psychology."

"Is it good?"

"Not very."

Carol nodded happily, glad to have an answer, even though she probably didn't understand what psychology was. Like a lot of the inmates, she had trouble with more than basic reading and writing. Some of them had started coming to Helen for help with their correspondence. Helen didn't mind, though she was aware that the screws didn't approve, either because they thought she was running some kind of racket or because they couldn't work out why she was doing it for free. She was about to return to her book when a question from the other woman broke her concentration.

"Why did they put you down the block this time?"

"Threatening Hollamby."

"But you were only going to the governor's office!" Carol protested. "What happened?"

"Well, first of all, she took me out of my art class. And I know that was deliberate. I get two hours a week! She didn't have to choose that time to take me for interview. Then she started needling me on the way down. Crap about how the new governor had been a senior officer. She wasn't one of these liberal lefty walkovers. She'd make sure I didn't get away with any more of my nonsense."

Helen shook her head, recalling the monologue. She hadn't dignified any of Hollamby's comments with an answer. Her contemptuous silence had seemed to enrage the stupid, bigoted cow even more.

"She's got it in for you," Carol said.

"I know that," Helen said grimly. "I probably would have managed not to react if she hadn't started harping on about how clever she was. 'Mark my words, Stewart, other people may be fooled by your act, but I'm not. I see right through you.' Like she can think past the end of her shift or her next pay packet. That was when she started with theme number twenty three - 'I'll be there watching when they ship you out to one of the special behavioural units where you belong soon, or my name's not Sylvia Hollamby.' So I turned it round and pointed out that if I was going to have a bad name, I might as well earn it and did she want to give me a hand? See if I could be fast-tracked onto the SBU for assaulting an officer?"

Carol grinned. "Wish I'd seen her face."

"Just the usual slapped arse. She nearly crapped herself. Don't know why. Green was there."


"The big guy with the scowl. The one I kneed in the balls that time."

"Oh, yeah," Carol said, remembering. She sobered. "Wasn't that dangerous? What if he'd hit you?"

"I know he's looking for an excuse to return the favour, so I made sure I was standing well away from her when I said it, and I waited till we were just inside the entrance to the antechamber. If they'd jumped me, it would have brought the governor running."

Helen stood and shelved her book. The conversation was bringing the encounter back to her. She flexed her shoulders, trying to get rid of her tension, and winced as the arm Green had almost twisted out of its socket on the way down to the block reminded her that it hadn't properly healed yet.

Seeing Helen's frown deepen, Carol hastily changed the subject. "What's the new gov like, then?"

"Don't know," the Scot said thoughtfully. "I only met her for half an hour."

"Is she going to interview everyone?"

"Just the lifers and other long-term prisoners."

"I suppose the rest of us don't really matter," Carol said philosophically.

"Everybody matters," Helen said sharply. "You could ask to see her if you wanted to."

"What's the point? Won't change anything."

"I think you ought to try it," Helen commented.

She knew what was on the younger woman's mind. Carol had asked to be referred to an outside midwife because she'd had gynaecological problems in the past but the prison doctor Dr. Nicholson had vetoed the idea, telling her she was perfectly healthy and that there was no need to "take extra precautions." Implicit in his attitude was the opinion that there was no point wasting resources on a street prostitute and sometime drug user who'd given up her first child for adoption at birth. The fact that his physical condition and persistent problems turning up for work on time showed the extent of his own alcohol dependence apparently didn't occur to him. It wouldn't have mattered except that his slipshod decision making denied inmates the care they needed on the grounds of his prejudices.

That Carol hadn't touched drugs since she found out she was pregnant didn't seem to make any difference in his eyes. His decision had pushed the teenager further into the passive role she had adopted as soon as she came into Larkhall. It was one more piece of evidence telling her she wasn't important enough for anyone to make an effort on her behalf. Since that was a message she'd been hearing for the whole of her life, she simply accepted it. Helen found her attitude infuriating and frustrating; she tried not to take it out on the girl. The last thing Carol needed was another person turning their back on her.

She turned back to the other inmate. "Promise me you'll think about it?"


"You'd better get off to the penthouse suite. It's lock up time soon."

Carol smiled and accepted the hand Helen held out, boosting herself off the bed. As she moved, she winced, and Helen frowned. "You OK?"

"Just cramp."

"I told you about watching your salt intake."

"Stop it. You're not my mum."

"I've never given birth, so I can't be, can I?" Helen said. "Get out of my space, all right?"

"See you tomorrow."


Helen Stewart - Journal entry

The Centurion had been on holiday, so I didn't meet him before today. I knew who he was, of course; his reputation goes before him. Salome had been threatening me with him and some of the other women, the Twins mostly, had warned me to steer clear. It's obvious what he is. I saw him standing with Salome, then he came over and spoke to me. He was kindly enough, baiting the trap with honey. I'd hoped he wouldn't be interested; I'm not exactly the same physical type as her. His eyes crawled all over me just the same, undressing me, and I realised that that wouldn't save me. It's the power he likes, the control, not just the physical side of things. I wonder if that even goes very far. He can only risk so much, after all. I made a couple of comments that showed I understood how it was and that I wasn't interested in joining his household and he went off to speak to Salome. I have no doubt it was an interesting conversation; he's clever enough to understand the danger she can put him in if she doesn't keep her mouth shut. I doubt he knows she's dealing.

Helen was writing to Maria and struggling to find things to say when Bodybag bustled into her cell.

She was guiltily aware that she had left the reply for a while because her correspondent's last letter had breathed despair. The lifer didn't blame her. The Hispanic woman's appeal had been turned down, and she was that much closer to a lethal injection. Despite the strength of her evidence, despite the acknowledged incompetence of her attorney (who had spent most of the trial borderline drunk), the state wanted its pound of flesh. Every time Helen felt sorry for herself, she'd think about Maria's situation and realise how much worse it could have been.

Which meant writing a light, cheerful letter full of exaggerated stories that made slightly amusing incidents into comic set pieces in order to make her laugh. It was just that after another stint down the block, Helen was finding it hard to see the funny side of her situation. She sighed and looked out of the window, Perhaps she could use the weather. With enough exaggeration, even the perpetual rain could become a source of jokes.

"Come on. Let's be having you," Bodybag said loudly.

"What for?" Helen asked.

"Governor wants to see you."


"You'll find out when you get there. Move!"

Helen shrugged, put her letter writing kit away and picked up her sketch book and pencil. She caught Bodybag's sly sidewise glance and the twitch of her lips as she left the cell and chose to ignore them. The old cow wasn't worth the trouble. Besides, she hadn't actually expressed her opinion about 'all murderers sticking together, I see'. This time.

As she waited in the antechamber for her appointment, Helen became aware that she could hear the sound of a conversation in the governor's office. She concentrated, trying to make out the words, and realised that she was listening to an argument between Simon Stubberfield, the governing governor, and Wade. His oily, pompous voice was raised for once; he seemed to be trying to make a point against her vehement disagreement.

"I still think she'd be better off elsewhere."

"Forget it, Simon. I'm not shipping our problems to another nick. Besides, word's bound to get out. Nowhere else will take her."

"Well, it's your decision."

Yes, it is. And if you try and overrule me, I'll go to Area."

"There's no need to threaten me, Nikki."

"It wasn't a threat, just a promise. Do you want to sit in?"

"No, I'll leave you to handle this," Simon said.

He came out of the office and walked past Helen and Bodybag without acknowledging them, despite Hollamby's little smirk and murmur of "Sir."

Helen watched him leave the office, noting that he still needed to lose a couple of stone and get a better tailor, studying the way his greying hair was thinning at the crown. Normally, she tried not to judge by appearances, but she had come to realise in prison that some people were what they seemed to be. Stubberfield was exactly the complacent, overfed bureaucrat his appearance suggested, well-ensconced in the old boy's network and with no intention of doing anything to disturb his place in it. Hollamby was the same thing on a lower level, as lazy and uncaring as her extra pounds suggested, willing to do anything that would make her life easier, whether it was turning a blind eye to bullying and drug abuse on the wing or shipping an inconvenient con elsewhere. Her stolid, dumpy presence was the epitome of the bad screws that Helen had come to know were all too frequent in the system. Not actively malevolent, but often causing more chaos by their indifference and incompetence than those officers who were.

The lifer waited for her summons and then slouched deliberately into the office and sat down without being told. Wade turned away from the window where she was standing with her arms folded, looking out over the prison gardens. She was dressed in one of the well cut suits she seemed to favour, the crisp white shirt underneath open at the neck to show a jade pendant that matched her ear studs.

"Make yourself at home," the governor said quietly. She nodded to Bodybag. "You can go. I'll call you when I've finished."


The dark haired woman took a seat across the desk from Helen and sat back in her chair, studying her. "So. How are your classes going?"

Helen shrugged. "All right."

"Art and yoga, isn't it?"


"What made you choose those particular subjects?"

Helen smiled cynically. "Hollamby was supposed to have talked to me about it during my induction. She didn't bother. Then her appraisal came along and she visited my cell in a panic and threatened to put me on report unless I picked two. I chose the first and the last on the list. I'm lucky I'm not doing archaeology and zoology."

"But you've stuck with them."

"They help pass the time."

"What's the art teacher's name?"

"Andrea," Helen answered. "Look, what's this about? You doing a customer satisfaction survey?"

"In a way."

Her interrogator slid a photograph across the desk. "Know her?"

The Scot studied it; it seemed to be one of the staff likenesses the prison kept for security reasons. "She was an assistant in the art class for a while. She had an unusal name. Hattie."

"Did you talk to her a lot?"

"Not really. She was only a student doing some sort of work experience."

"And that's all?"

"What else is there? People come and go, even in this place."

Wade opened a file and took out a magazine, handing it to her. "This was published yesterday."

Helen flipped through it quickly. It was a thick, glossy women's weekly, filled with adverts for cosmetics and slimming products. Revealing photographs of soap stars falling drunkenly out of night clubs competed with heartfelt celebrity interviews discussing their various relationship traumas and pieces on how to achieve a designer look on a budget. Helen dropped the magazine back onto the desk and waited.

"What's that got to do with me? Not like I'm in any of the photos."

"Really? Check the features section."

Helen pulled the open magazine towards her, glanced at the index and frowned as she saw the title of one of the articles: 'Larkhall Prison: the inside story'. She shook her head.

"Nothing to do with me."

"Strange," the other woman said implacably. "It seems to be mostly about you."

"If somebody writes a load of lies, that's not my responsibility."

"Some of this can only have been done with your co operation. She's got details about your crime and sentence .... "

"My conviction is a matter of public record!" Helen interrupted.

"What about this?"

Wade took the magazine and began to read aloud: "Oh, yes, you can get any kind of drugs you want in here. Easier than the outside. They come in over the wall or through screws looking to make a bit of money on the side. The governor can't do anything about it, however much she tries."

"That's common knowledge. She didn't need to do much research to find that out."

"True. But this isn't. 'I got transferred from my last place for fighting. Broke someone's arm. They shouldn't have tried to jump me. I'm used to settling arguments with my fists. It's like a zoo in here. The screws don't protect you. You have to stand up for yourself.'"

"I never said any of that!"

"Did you know she was a journalist?"

"No. Like I'd talk to one of those bastards after the headlines during my trial."

"Did you receive any payment or inducement for talking to her?"

"I told you I didn't."

"She couldn't have known some of the things in this article unless you gave her the information," Wade said flatly.

"So that's it. Guilty till proven innocent."

"Look, if you come clean, I have a chance of reducing your punishment. The number one's had Area on the phone since eight o clock this morning. They'd like to transfer you to bloody Alcatraz."

"I'm not going to admit to something I didn't do to take the heat off your fucking boss!"

"All right. We'll start with a cell spin."

"What for? Am I supposed to have a printing press in there?"

"To search for evidence. And you're out of all classes until further notice."

"You can't do that!"

"I just did. Come on."

She led the way, disregarding Helen's glare. They walked down to the wing in stony silence. The place was deserted - most of the prisoners were out at work by now. Helen took a minute to be glad that Dockley and her friends weren't seeing this latest humiliation and then scowled as she saw Fenner and Dominic already waiting outside her cell.

Dominic was in his usual pose, hands in pockets, shoulders slumped, an unhappy expression on his pale features. Jim Fenner was standing opposite him, his folded arms emphasising his wider shoulders, his greater height and bulkier physique meaning that he loomed over the more slightly built, younger officer. Helen had always thought that Fenner tried to look like the warrant officer rank he would have liked to have achieved in the army. His haircut certainly matched the stereotype: a neat crew cut that threw his fleshy face and beaky nose into sharp contrast. His lips were fixed in their usual sneering smile, though he quickly changed it to a neutral expression as he saw the governor coming. As usual, the piercing blue eyes had missed nothing. He nudged Dominic, who looked round and straightened up, taking his hands out of his pockets and watching them approach with a troubled frown.

Helen wondered, once again, why McAllister was even working as a prison officer. He certainly didn't seem to enjoy the duties very much. She supposed that his approach was preferable to Fenner's, who actively relished ordering people around as part of his role.

The governor nodded to them. "OK. Get on with it."

"This is shit. You've no proof of anything."

"It's our job to act on our suspicions," the taller woman said implacably. "You're lucky I'm letting you watch this."

"Like I'm going to enjoy seeing those two pawing my underwear."

"Shut it, Stewart," Fenner said. He nodded to Dominic and the two men began to methodically tear the cell apart. Helen watched them, fists clenched by her sides, her jaw set.

"Tell me the truth and this can stop," Nikki said.

"I have told you the truth. But it doesn't matter, does it. I'm a con, so I don't get believed!"

"All right, if that's how you want to play it ...."

The governor stepped back and folded her arms, watching with seeming indifference as Helen's possessions were gone through. Helen felt close to tears. She knew she was overreacting - this was a routine violation, something she'd had to see happen again and again since she came into prison. It wasn't even the fact that it was entirely unfair - she was used to the petty injustices that the screws used to grind you down inside the walls. It was the fact that it was out of the ordinary, based on a false accusation. It seemed that there was a limit to how much she could take, after all. She wasn't as hardened as she'd believed. She thought about that, trying to distract herself by analysing why she felt this way, but she couldn't help watching as her stuff was tipped out onto her mattress and pulled apart.

Fenner showed his experience, handling things roughly, expertly homing in on the places where contraband was usually found. Dominic was slower and more careful, but equally thorough. At least, Helen reflected bitterly, her art supplies were fairly simple. Fenner couldn't wreck them. She flinched as he picked up her portfolio, carelessly dumping the drawings and paintings inside onto the floor so that he could examine the seams where she'd taped the panels of cardboard together to make something that she could carry her work in.

"Home-made. Very creative," Fenner said, before ripping the flimsy thing apart.


"Calm down," the governor said warningly beside her.

Finally, the cell spin was finished. The screws stood in the middle of the wreckage and had a last look around before they came out.

"Clean," Fenner reported. He sounded almost disappointed. As he turned to look back into the cell, his glance passed across Helen's face and his eyes narrowed as he caught the quickly hidden flash of relief.

"Or is it?" he said quietly to himself.

Helen tensed as he went back into her space and stood in the middle of the room, arms folded, looking around. She knew he was probably watching her body language out of the corner of his eye, but she couldn't help tensing as he got closer to the one thing she didn't want him to find.

"You know, you could make life a lot easier for yourself if you just showed me what I've missed," Fenner commented. He reached out towards the little pile of books and letters on the desk.

"That's legal correspondence. It's privileged!" Helen protested.

"Sure. And I've got the governor to witness that I'm not reading it. Just looking for .... this."

He gave her a triumphant grin as he found the journal tucked into one of the larger envelopes. "Doesn't look like something a solicitor would send you."

"That's private."

"Nothing's private in here. Get used to it. What is it? Your dream diary?"

He opened it and looked at the writing inside, then blinked, taken aback. If Helen hadn't been so wound up, she might almost have enjoyed the expression of shock on his face. "What the bloody hell?!"

"What is it?" Dominic asked.

"It's in a foreign language!"

"Which one?"

"I dunno," Fenner said. He handed the journal to the younger man, who scanned the contents and shook his head.

"Beats me."

"Maybe it is private after all," Helen said. "Pity. You could do with finding out how women's minds work, since you don't actually believe they have one."

The screw's face darkened. "In here? I'll tell you what the women think about ...."

"Mr Fenner," Nikki said quietly. Fenner blinked. He had apparently forgotten that his boss was there. She held out her hand and the PO mutely handed the journal over. The governor flipped through it and nodded to herself.

"Well?" Fenner asked.

"This is Latin," Nikki told him. "Seems Stewart paid attention in school."

"Well, that's us stuffed," Dominic said. "No one here'll be able to read it."

"Actually, I can," Nikki said. She smiled, apparently rather enjoying the expression of shock on their faces. Helen clenched her jaw as she suppressed her reaction. She watched as the taller women nodded to the officers and walked off, taking the journal with her.

"All right, Stewart, clear up your cell," Fenner ordered. Helen stalked through the door, looking around at the mess. As she sighed and started to pick things up, he came back. She glanced at him, looming over her, and ignored him. Fenner stepped closer to her and spoke quietly.

"I know what the women in here think about. Sex and food. Oh, and smack. Let's not forget drugs, shall we?"

"Piss off, Fenner."

"And another thing. Their brain isn't in their head. It's between their legs, like every other cheap little tart's."

"Go to hell," Helen snarled.

"Right," Fenner said cheerfully, "that's you on report."

He went out of the cell and was startled to find the governor waiting there. She'd apparently come back. "Problem, Jim?"

"Not really. Stewart gave me a bit of lip, that's all. I've put her on report."

"Better write it up, then," Nikki said.

She followed him into the office. "Jim?"


"What did you say to her?"

"Nothing important."

"From where I was standing, it looked like you were goading her. She's volatile enough without you making it worse. It isn't professional."

"I think I know how to do my job, ma'am. After all my years in the service."

"If she'd taken a swing at you, I might have had to overlook it," Nikki persisted. "I don't want to be put in that situation. Understand?"

"I'm not afraid of the cons."

"I didn't say you were. But we're supposed to be trying to control the levels of violence, not increase them."

"Yeah, yeah…I get it," Fenner said. "I'll bear it in mind."


He grinned unpleasantly. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have minded me slapping a con down. You used to be on the Tornado team, didn't you?"

"It's not exactly a secret."

"So you must be used to coming down heavy. Riots, cell extractions, hostage situations. You did the lot."

"Yeah," Nikki said, "and we were usually clearing up someone else's mess. Someone who'd tried to throw their weight around and pushed the cons too far. It's not how hard you go in. It's when and how."

They locked gazes. Fenner looked away first, picking up a blank form from the trays on the desk. He turned back, as though something had just occurred to him. "Oh, yes. Where did you learn Latin? I didn't know you went to a posh school."

"I didn't," Nikki lied calmly. "Just had a mad headmistress who thought everyone should know a dead language. Regardless of whether they wanted to or not."

She walked out of the office, passing Dominic in the doorway. He went to the kettle and then stopped as he saw the way Fenner was watching the governor.


"Make us a cup of coffee, will you, son?"

"What was all that about?"

"Just wondering if the best man did get the job after all."

Dominic frowned at the snide comment, but didn't challenge the older man, retreating into his usual resigned silence.

Nikki waited until class had finished and then let herself into the art room. The teacher, a short, slim, middle-aged white woman with dreadlocks and a pierced nose, glanced at her and carried on tidying up. She was casually dressed in worn jeans and a sweatshirt. A silver, spiral pendant glinted at her throat and Nikki noticed that she wore a pentagram ring on one finger.

"Nearly finished," the other woman said. "I just have to make sure the brushes have been properly cleaned or they'll be ruined."

Nikki took the opportunity to look at some of the paintings ranged on easels around the room. Though she was no art critic, most of them seemed pretty undistinguished, daubs of indifferent colour composed by people with a sketchy grasp of perspective and form. There were a few badly drawn still lifes, some landscapes and a couple of portraits done in pencil. Nikki mentally compared them to the sort of thing she remembered from sixth form - they were about the same standard. She wasn't impressed, but she supposed working on them was therapeutic for the women.

The art teacher finished her task, wiped her hands dry on a rag and smiled at her.

"I'm Andrea. I lead this group."

"Nikki Wade. The new governor on G wing."

Andrea responded instantly. "Helen's governor. Is she OK?"

Nikki didn't reply, slightly disconcerted by her obvious concern. She wondered how a volatile, aggressive woman like the Scot had managed to get the art teacher on her side. Then she smiled inwardly at her own naivety. The lifer was obviously manipulative, like all long term prisoners. An expert at playing whatever role she needed to get what she wanted. She'd found a way to win her tutor over, that was all. The governor hoped that didn't mean that Andrea had been drawn into Helen's rule breaking with the journalist. She had no particular desire for the woman to lose her job.

"She's fine, but I've removed her education privileges for now."


"Because of this," Nikki said, holding out the magazine. The tutor took it and then frowned at her. "I'm sorry, I'm mildly dyslexic. It'll be quicker if you tell me."

"All right. You had an assistant in your class. Hattie?"


"She was an undercover journalist. She wrote an article rubbishing Larkhall. Helen seems to have been the source."

"That's very unlikely."


"When Helen gets in here, all she wants to think about is her latest project. She hardly talks to anybody."

"Wouldn't a teaching assistant work with everyone in the class?"

"Not really. We concentrate on the women who need it."

"And she doesn't?"

Andrea frowned. "No. Helen comes to me for technical advice or sometimes uses me as somebody to bounce concepts off. Truthfully, she's got real talent. Huge potential. She's more like an art student than a hobbyist."

Inwardly, Nikki groaned. Stewart was obviously some sort of teacher's pet. She hoped that the con hadn't taken blatant advantage of the situation. "Did you see her talking to Hattie?"

"No. Hattie sought her out ...."


For the first time, Andrea looked worried. "I thought that was because of the painting. Maybe it wasn't, in retrospect. But Helen didn't encourage her. She was in her own little world. The one she goes to when she creates. She got quite rude sometimes. I had to have a word."

"How did she react to that?"

"Said the woman should leave her alone, then they'd be fine."

"So you don't believe there was anything going on?"


"And you didn't suspect anything?"

"Why would I? She was a good assistant. Did her job, was OK with the women. I don't get to pick my staff, any more than I get to choose who comes to the class. And Helen wasn't any different with her than she's been with any of the other auxilliary staff."


"We have a high turnover. The wages aren't wonderful and the environment isn't pleasant."

Nikki nodded slowly. She found that she believed what she was being told. Years in the prison service had honed her instincts and made her very good at spotting a lie. Andrea seemed genuinely concerned about and puzzled by what she was being told. Nikki smiled at her.

"OK. Thanks for your time."

"When are you going to let Helen back into the class?"

"That's the governing governor's decision."

"But you're her wing governor?"

"That's right. Why?"

Andrea bit her lip, then walked swiftly across to the other side of the art room and uncovered a small canvas that had been on a stand with a sheet over it. She brought it over and handed it to Nikki.

It was a close up picture of a hand and inner arm below the elbow. The razor blade, clutched loosely in slack fingers at the bottom edge of the image, seemed almost an irrelevance. The eye was not drawn to that, but to the vivid red of the opened vein above it, the vertical wound outlined in almost clinical detail. A crude prison tattoo of a bird taking flight decorated the side of the forearm. The blood trails staining the pale flesh of the arm and hand suggested the contrails the bird had left in the air.

Nikki frowned, studying the powerful image. Its very precision was disturbing, the acrylics that had been used to paint it lending a hard edged brightness to the scene. Careful attention had been paid to the placing of the different elements. It looked like the product of a great deal of thought, and yet, the rawness of the emotion behind it was unsettling.

"She calls this one 'Exit Wound'," Andrea said quietly. "She painted it after someone started self harming on the wing. I think it's her best work so far."

"Why are you showing me this?" Nikki asked. "You know I can't override Mr Stubberfield's decision and let her back into class."

"I want to enter the painting in a competition. I need a signature from a governor grade member of staff."

"Has Helen given permission?"

"In her own words, 'Do what you want. It's not like it matters anyway.'"

Nikki nodded. That sounded like the authentic voice of the con she'd met. She considered the advisability of giving permission. "When's the judging?"

"Three months."

Time enough for the current drama to die down, then. Nikki scanned the form the art teacher handed her, checking that Helen had signed it before adding her own name. Giving it back, she found her eyes unwillingly drawn back to the clean, definite lines of the composition.

"Are they all like this?"

"No," the other woman said. She hesitated and then went to a press at one side of the room, opening a wide, shallow drawer and pulling out several portfolios of work. She spread them out on a table and sifted quickly through, selecting a few drawings from each folder. Nikki picked up one of the pieces she had discarded and frowned at it. It looked like a child had painted it, the lines shaky and uncertain, the image, of trees on a riverbank, crude. Andrea glanced at the landscape and shrugged.

"She wasn't very good when she started. That's one of her early attempts. Her hands have got a lot steadier since then."


"She had a slight involuntary tremor when she first got here. I thought it might be brain damage, but she refused to see the doctor and it gradually improved. The drawing probably helped - it meant she had to concentrate on her fine motor control."

"It's not just that. This is … I wouldn't look at it twice. It's nothing like the other one."

"I know. The real turning point was when I gave Helen a book of Ronald Searle's prison camp drawings. It seemed to wake something up in her. It made her realise that she could use her art to comment on what was going on around her. Most of them never understand that."

"And since then?"

"Her themes vary. Sometimes she bases things on her childhood .…"

She pulled out a sheet of paper. Nikki studied it.

A portrait, done in pastels, of a man sitting at a kitchen table, staring with fixed intensity at the photograph in his hand. The chair on the other side of the table was tucked neatly in, and the remains of a meal for one sat in front of him - a single place setting, most of the food still on the plate. There were unwashed pots piled high in the sink behind him. The governor flipped the paper to glance at the title. 'Till death us do part.'

"Subtle," she commented.

"Her mother died when she was young. I think it bothers her more than she admits."

"Most of the women in here have had tough lives."

Andrea reached for another pile of drawings, done in pencil this time. Nikki looked through them, enjoying their liveliness. They were images of a variety of scenes, presumably reflecting places where Helen had spent time, all of people celebrating in various ways, dancing and drinking together, attending gigs, wandering through fairs and festivals. Nikki could see how the artist's skill and confidence was growing as she worked through the sequence, her compositions becoming more ambitious and her technique stronger.

"That was when she was resigning herself to the fact she'd never get out of here," Andrea said. "It was her way of fighting off depression. She could escape into her memories. I think it really helped her."

"And now?"

"Now she sketches what's around her. She's a good caricaturist. I enjoy her work, what I see of it."

"Doesn't she show it to you?"

"Sometimes. She's a very … contained person."

"She's never had any trouble sharing her opinions with me."

Trisha was woken up by movement downstairs. Blearily, she reached for the alarm clock and realised that it was mid morning, long after Nikki normally left for work. Wincing, she got up, used the bathroom, and then pulled on her dressing gown and went to investigate.

Nikki looked up as Trisha walked in, but didn't stop tapping away at her laptop. She had colonised most of their living room - the coffee table was covered with scribbled notes and printouts. A battered copy of what the blonde recognised as her partner's old Latin textbook was placed next to a newer dictionary and grammar, their pages marked with random bookmarks. Something that looked like a journal sat in the middle, held open by a ruler across the pages.

As Trisha watched, her partner frowned, dived for one of the reference books and looked something up, her face clearing as she found it. The club owner was irresistibly reminded of Nikki in essay writing mode. She frowned. The other woman had finished her degree last year.

"What's all this about?" she asked. "Are you doing a report on something?"

"In a way," Nikki said abstractedly. "One of the inmates got clever and decided to write her journal in Latin. I'm translating it."


"We found it when we spun her cell yesterday. She refuses to say what's in it."

Trisha stared at Nikki, not quite believing what she had heard. "So you're reading it anyway."

"Yes," the brunette said, slightly impatiently.

"It's her private journal. She doesn't want you to know what's in it, and you're looking at it without her permission."

"She's a con. I don't need her permission."

"That's disgusting. How can you justify that?"

"Security," Nikki said. She looked at Trisha, frowning. "You know all mail going into and out of the prison is liable to be read. Why is this different?"

"Because it's her fucking journal. Her personal thoughts that she never meant anyone else to see. Probably the only piece of privacy she's got in that place. And now you're casually reading it! You're violating her human rights!"

"Article eight is qualified," Nikki snapped.


"Article eight. The right to a private life. It's qualified. I am allowed to do this if it's for the purposes of ensuring the security of the prison."

"And that makes it all right?"

"Yes, it does," Nikki said. She stood up, putting the laptop to one side and crossed to stand by Trisha. She reached up to stroke her partner's cheek. Angrily, Trisha turned her face away. The taller woman put a hand on her shoulder instead.

"I thought we sorted this out the other day."

"No, we didn't. I told you my feelings and you didn't listen."

"Trish ...."

"Once, you would have been horrified at the idea of doing something like this. Prying into people's private lives. Does she know you've got this?"

"Yes, of course. We searched her cell in front of her. That's the rules."

"So she knows what you're doing."

"And why I'm doing it," Nikki said. "She had her choice. She could have told us what was in it."

"Maybe she didn't want to."


"Anyway, even if she had, you would have read it to make sure," Trisha said. "So she was screwed whatever she said."

"Don't be emotional about this."

"Why not? You're behaving like a bloody robot!"

"There are things I have to do for my job," Nikki said tightly, "things I don't enjoy. But someone has to do them."

"What, you're only obeying orders?"

"Cut the crap, Trisha. Society makes the rules, not me. And every time we get one more bullshit article in a down-market magazine about prisoners being tucked up in bed by soft prison officers or out of their face on drugs, there's another bloody panic at Area and another crackdown. Which means everybody suffers."

"Is that what this is about?" Trisha demanded.

"Yes. She talked to a journalist. She's denying it so I have to read her bloody diary. And if it's any consolation, it's not very exciting, OK?"

"So because your bosses are panicking about media coverage, some poor cow gets her room searched, her possessions handled and her journal read. That's not security; it's revenge."

"It's not a room. It's a cell. And she's in there for a reason. She lost some of her rights when she was convicted of her crime. That's how it is."

"Right. So she's committed a crime. She's still a human being."

"She stabbed a policeman, Trisha. We're not talking about a prisoner of conscience here!"

"Helen Stewart? It's Helen Stewart's diary?"


"Did it ever occur to you that if things had gone just a little bit differently with Gossard that you could be where she is now?"

"Don't talk bollocks," Nikki said dismissively.

"According to you, that's all I do. Maybe I should just shut up altogether," Trisha said.

Nikki saw with dismay that the shorter woman was fighting back tears. She sighed and went to her, wrapping her arms around her, holding on until she heard Trisha's breathing quieten and smooth itself out. She led her partner to the sofa and sat down close to her when Trisha huddled against the arm, legs drawn up, hugging a cushion. She put her hand on the blonde's knee, thumb drawing absent circles on the kneecap as she spoke.

"Look, there's a lot of things I don't enjoy about my job. Everything from taking women away from their children to holding them down while they get injected with tranquilisers because they've lost it. But what I do, I do because it needs doing."

Trisha stirred and Nikki knew she was listening. She continued speaking quietly.

"Yes, we have a lot of women who are in for shoplifting or benefit fraud or theft. Usually to feed their kids or their habit. But we also have some very nasty people. Women I wouldn't want to be down a dark alley with on my own. Women who've killed people, or tortured them or cut someone up, just for the hell of it. Because they could. Until society comes up with a better way of dealing with those offenders than prison, Larkhall is going to be there. And it needs staff. You may think I'm a robot, hard line, brutal even, but compared to some of the old school officers, I'm Mother Teresa. Believe me."

"I don't think you're brutal. I just hate what the job's doing to you," Trisha said.

"I know. But you're asking me to square the circle, babe. You're asking me to give up a job where I think I can do some good, at long last. I'm finally in a position to go up against the old boy's network, change things from the inside out. Make things better for the women. And you're telling me it's because I don't care anymore."

"I never said that!" her partner protested. "I just think it's changed you."

"It has," Nikki said. "It couldn't not. I am more right-wing than I used to be. I know that, and I know why. It's because I've seen that it's not all love and peace. I've seen what some people are capable of, and while I understand a lot of it is because they've had nothing but shit all their lives, society does have to be protected. Prison is the right place for some people. Sometimes for the rest of their lives. If I worked there and didn't believe that, I'd be nothing but a hypocrite. I'd be as bad as the officers who do it for the pay packet and try and get away with doing as little as possible, the 'lock them up twenty four hours a day and feed them bread and water' crowd."

"All right," Trisha said. "But that's only some of the prisoners. What about the rest?"

"What about them?"

"All the women in there who are in for fraud or whatever. They get treated the same way, don't they?"

"Yeah. But that's a different argument. That's about who we should put in prison in the first place. Once they're in, you can't have one rule for one and another for another. That really is a slippery slope."

"You've thought about this, haven't you?" the blonde said.

"After our argument the other day? Course I have," Nikki said. "I love you, Trisha. I want to make you happy. I want us to be having conversations about holiday destinations, not fighting about my bloody choice of career."

Trisha's raised legs had gradually lowered during their conversation and Nikki leaned across and kissed her. "I did listen to what you said. I'll never not listen to you. You're the most important thing in my world."

"Apart from your job," Trisha said tartly, but she hugged Nikki and kissed her back.

"Which I'd better get back to," Nikki said regretfully.

"Do you get a lunch break?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Early lunch break?"

"I can do that."

"Good," Trisha said and got off the sofa. She trailed her hand across Nikki's shoulder. "I'll make you something."

"You don't have to."

"I want to."

"OK, but go back to bed and have another couple of hours. You got in late this morning. I'll wake you with a coffee."

They smiled at each other, quarrel put to one side, before the blonde went back upstairs. Nikki watched her go with troubled eyes, then turned back to her task.

"I am telling you, Julie, I am in despair," Julie S said. She folded her arms grimly and looked up at her taller friend, who was shaking her head gently in sympathy.

"I don't blame you, love."

Julie J lowered her voice and looked across to where Denny Blood had shouldered her way into the group around the pool table and seized a cue from one of the bed and breakfast crew who was standing by, too intimidated to object as the other inmate racked up the balls and started a new game. "She isn't just stupid. She doesn't want to understand."

"You don't have to tell me, but it's us that'll be blamed when her cozzie isn't ready," Julie S hissed.

"You can't make bricks without straw, Ju."

"Tell Dockley that."

The two blondes exchanged identical looks of exasperation. Years of spending hours in each other's company had made their body language and mannerisms strikingly alike. Though they were completely dissimilar heights and builds, they had been partners for so long that their attitudes and reactions were almost identical, a likeness which their matching dress sense and London accents emphasised. Both seasoned prostitutes, they seemed content to let their partnership define them inside Larkhall in the same way as it had when they had been working together out on the streets, their friendship apparently unchanged by their new circumstances.

Right now, they were faced with the problem of trying to prepare Denny's costume for the upcoming fashion show in the face of her unwillingness or inability to describe her ideas about what it should actually look like. She wasn't the Julies' only customer; as the best seamstresses on the wing, they were in high demand from women who wanted to look their best in front of the great and the good who had been invited to attend. The difference with Denny was that if they couldn't get her costume right, they would face retaliation from Shell, something neither of them wanted.

Julie J shrugged. "Well, on the bright side," she said, "at least we can still use the sewing room. We could be stuck on the wing like Helen. She doesn't get to go to no classes now. Or move around. You ask me, it's only a matter of time before they take her garden job away from her. The new governor's enough of a bitch to do it."

Julie S glanced unobtrusively across to where the Scot was doing a crossword. As she watched, the lifer stood up abruptly, obviously exasperated by something. Since nothing had changed on the wing in the last five minutes, Julie S guessed that it was her own thoughts. Or maybe she'd simply had enough of the noise. Either way, she stalked off towards her cell, abandoning the newspaper on the table behind her. Julie S nudged her partner in crime.

"Come on," she said.


"I want to have a word with Stewart."

"What about?"

"I've had an idea. Come on!"

Julie J looked dubious, but, as usual, did as she was told. They made their way across the wing, weaving their way through the crowds. When they got there, Julie S walked straight in. The Scot was sitting on her bunk. She looked up, scowling.

"Wotcher, Helen. Mind if we have a word?"

"You already are, aren't you?" the lifer growled. The Julies looked at each other.

"We could come back," Julie J offered.

"Spit it out. It's not like I'm doing anything else, is it?"

"We wondered ...."

"Me and Ju ...."

"We thought ...."

"That is, I thought .... Can you draw clothes?"

"Clothes?" Helen questioned, frowning.

"Yeah, like, costumes."

"For the fashion show."

"You know ...."

"Dresses and things."



"All right, I get the idea! I thought you were designing the costumes."

"We are…"


"But ...."

"It's Denny Blood."

"What about her?"

"When she explains it …"

"It's like we can't …"

Helen sighed. "The fact she's thick as pig shit is a problem."

The two blondes looked at each, then nodded simultaneously.



"So how will me getting involved make a difference?"

"We thought if you could draw it."

"And show her."

"And she could change it ...."

"Before we cut it out ...."

"It'd save an awful lot of material," Helen said. She looked at them thoughtfully. "Do I get to keep any art supplies I don't use for the fashion show?"



"Paper, pencils, stuff like that?"

Julie J looked at Julie S, who shrugged. "Yeah."

"Of course."

"Course you can."

"And you provide the supplies in the first place."

"We can do that."


"Yeah, simple."

"Good. It's a deal."

"So when can you start?" Julie J asked.

"How about five minutes after Denny's finished her game of pool? If you can get me a pencil and paper."

The Julies looked at each other and scurried off, Julie S to talk to Denny and Julie J to gather the promised supplies. Helen smiled grimly. Well, it would pass the time.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Thinking about my lost husband today. Hard not to - the Boy did something that reminded me of him. Something about the way he spoke to one of the short-timers. I suddenly saw him as a person, not a screw. A young man. Gentle blue eyes, a nice way with the women. Seems a bit more intelligent than the others as well, more compassionate. Easy to forget he's one of the enemy, one of them. He might have a kind face, but he still carries keys at his belt and works for a system that locks up the sad and the sick. I'll have to harden my heart against him.

Helen was standing against the back wall of the gym, abstractedly watching the rehearsal, when she glanced across and saw a semi-familiar, tall, dark shape slip in through the door and position itself behind the group of supervising officers.

Intrigued, she looked around to see if any of the other cons had noticed the new governor, and realised they hadn't. They were too focused on the bright spectacle in front of them, enjoying the chance for a bit of sanctioned extra time out of their cells.

You had to hand it to Fenner, Helen thought; he might be a slimy bastard, but he knew how to keep the majority of the women sweet. The last governor had been a strictly nine-to-five bureaucrat, allowing the senior officer a free hand on the wing. Helen had a feeling that that was about to change. She smiled to herself, wondering how it would play out. She didn't much care - she had her routine well established by now. She had learned to manage with very little. This excursion, for example, was only to keep the two Julies happy. She had been peacefully reading earlier in the evening when they'd stuck their heads round the door of her cell and asked her to come along.

"You did all the drawings for the cozzies," Julie S had pointed out, her voice pleading.

"Yeah. Wouldn't be fair for you not to see how it turned out," Julie J had added.

"Not fair, no."

She had shrugged and given in. It meant nothing to her and it built up her credit with the women whose vague ideas she'd helped turn into reality. One more entry on the balance sheet, which would in turn help with the constant, unspoken power struggle between her and Dockley. Even Denny Blood had smiled as she walked in and greeted her with a: "Helen! Cool! What d'you think of my outfit?" That had put Shell's nose well out of joint.

She turned her attention away from the garish parade and waited to see what would happen next. Fenner had let it run over - not surprising since the show consisted of semi-naked women gyrating around to the pounding disco beat of the music, some of their moves leaving very little to the imagination. Helen was willing to bet that the perverted bastard was seriously enjoying himself. Now, however, he showed a sudden awareness of the time and switched the lights on, turning the music off and starting to marshal the inmates back to the wing, ignoring their protests. Helen realised that he must have seen Wade come in. He hadn't survived this long as a prison officer without the veteran screw's heightened awareness of his surroundings. She detached herself from the wall and joined the tail end of the queue, dropping in behind Dawn and the sullen figure of Rachel Hicks, who was as silent and miserable as usual.

As she waited by the door, Fenner went over to the new governor. "Ma'am."

"Letting them have a bit of extra time out of their cells, Jim?"

"They started late. Didn't seem fair not to let them rehearse the whole show."

"I see your point. Let's hope the tabloids don't get hold of it, eh? Simon wants this to be good publicity for the prison, not the other way around."

"Oh, I'm sure he'd approve if he was here."

"I'm sure he would. Anyway, I'd better get going."

On her way out, Nikki glanced at the worktable where the spare clothes were laid out and saw the stack of drawings. She picked them up and scanned them, eyebrows climbing in surprise.

"These are good. Who did them?"

"G wing's resident Picasso," Fenner said, smirking.

He gestured, catching Helen's eye. "Stewart! Over here!"

The lifer scowled and crossed over to the two screws. She waited, silent, keeping her face impassive as the wing governor flicked through her designs, lingering over some of the more classic outfits.

"Have you studied art?"

"Only in here," Helen said briefly.

"You'll have to let me see your other work some time."

"Not like she can stop you," Fenner commented, grinning.

Helen didn't dignify the comment with a reply. The more you let that bastard see he'd got to you, the nastier the needling was. Instead, she turned away and waited for the door to be unlocked so she could go back to her cell and get ready for bed.

As she filed down the grey corridors with the other women, stopping at the gates to be counted and marshalled through, it suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't seen Carol all evening. She worked her way up and down the line as it moved along with the skill of long practice, asking anyone else who might have bothered to pay attention to a sighting of the young inmate, and drew a blank.

She frowned as they made it back onto the wing and wondered if she was making a fuss about nothing - Carol sometimes daydreamed in her cell for hours on end and had already told Helen that she wasn't planning to attend the rehearsal for the fashion show because she didn't want to have to stand for that length of time. On the other hand, she was not lounging around on one of the chairs along the walls, absorbed in a magazine, as Helen would have expected. Mind made up, the Scot headed up the stairs to enhanced.

She was halfway to her destination when a strident voice bellowed out, "Where do you think you're going, Stewart?"

"I just wanted to say goodnight to Carol, miss."

"Well, you can turn around and go back down to basic. It's already past lock up and the end of my shift, thanks to Mr. Fenner's decision to indulge you lot. Come on! I've got a home to go to, even if you haven't. Move!"

If Bodybag hadn't been between her and where she was going, Helen would have ignored her and carried on. But with the middle-aged screw and Lorna Rose on the landing above her, she didn't stand a chance of getting to Carol; all she'd achieve would be to get herself put on report for no reason. Instead, she grinned insolently.

"Well, if you two want to tuck her up in bed, who am I to stop you?" she said, waiting until she saw Bodybag's exaggerated flinch of disgust before she moved away. She'd managed to get a reaction out of Lorna Rose as well; the younger woman didn't know where to look. Helen felt a sense of grim amusement. Working in a women's prison was not a good career choice if the idea of lesbian activities bothered you. Not that she believed it really upset Bodybag after so many years in the job; she suspected it was just another excuse to despise the people she had to lock up. After all, God forbid that she should feel any empathy for them.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Hippo on the post-reading rota today. Gave her a change to get her usual dig about 'all murderers sticking together' in while she was handing over my letter from Maria. Then she went bellowing off down the wing to bully someone else. All she cares about is her next meal and her pension. I wonder who taught her to do her job, whether anybody bothered or they just issued her a uniform and a set of keys and let her make it up as she went along. I shouldn't let it get to me - the world is full of people like her. Incompetent, slip-shod, indifferent. I just don't have to deal with them. Not that that doesn't make her a daily problem. Just like Bacchus. But I deal with that - I can deal with this.

"OK, what's been going on?" Helen said, stalking into the Julies' cell the following morning. The wing was still in uproar. Most of the women had seen Carol Byatt being taken out of her cell by the ambulance crew, and the normal routine had been totally disrupted. The inmates were still milling around in disorganised groups, gossiping and speculating, and the screws seemed to be too distracted by whatever had happened to try and stop them. Helen had picked her moment after breakfast and had slipped away to see the women she knew had been sent into Carol's cell to clean it up. If anyone could tell her what had happened, she guessed, it would be them.

The two prostitutes were huddled on the lower tier of their bunks, arms around each other. Helen caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye and looked at the sink, where one of the Julies' tabards was soaking, the vivid splash of blood on the front of it gradually clouding out into the clear water as it dissolved. She turned on the blondes, who shrank back when they saw the expression on her face.

"Is Carol OK? Answer me!"

"She had a miscarriage," Julie S said quietly. She suppressed a sob. "Lying there in her cell all alone, bleeding."

"She rang for help," Julie J said indignantly.

"Yeah, we heard her."

"Both of us."

"Nobody answered."

"The screws ignored her."

"All night."

Helen went grey and staggered forward slightly, gripping the edge of the top bunk tightly and resting her forehead against the cool metal of the frame. Concerned, Julie S got up and rested a hand on her shoulder.

"Are you all right? Helen?"

"No, I'm not. Get me a glass of water."

Abruptly, she turned and dropped to her knees in front of the toilet, gripping its sides as she lost the contents of her stomach. The Julies looked at each other, concerned. Then Julie S shrugged and wet a flannel while Julie J got the drink Helen had asked for. By the time the Scot had stood up and accepted the cloth with a nod of thanks, wiping her face and rinsing her mouth out before swallowing the rest of the water, they had controlled their reactions. Though Helen didn't lash out unless provoked, her chancy temper was legendary on G wing, and most cons were wary of upsetting her.

"Are you OK?" Julie J asked cautiously.

"Fine. Probably something I ate. Bastards! It's typical."

"Well, we can't do nothing about it."

"Can't we?"

"They won't listen to what we say," Julie S protested. "We're only cons."

"We're the people that keep this prison running," Helen retorted. "If we didn't co-operate and do most of the work on the wing, Larkhall would grind to a halt. They'd need three times the staff just to supervise us, never mind paying people to run the kitchen and clean the place."

"I don't know ...," Julie J said dubiously. "It's risky ...."

"So it's OK for Carol to lie there in a pool of her own blood wondering if she's going to die before she's found, so long as you two keep your red bands? I thought better of you than that. And there's the fashion show. They've got newspapers coming to that, a couple of MPs. Fucking Potemkin village crap."


"Making the people outside believe that being in here is somehow bearable, instead of a fucking living hell."

She seemed to come to a sudden decision. "I'm going to stop it."


"The fashion show."

"You can't do that," Julie S protested.

"Can't I?"

"People is really looking forward to it," Julie J muttered.

"Yeah, I know. But it would be easy to sabotage. The worst that can happen is that I get sent down the block again. You don't seem to understand! If they'll do that to one woman, they'll do it to anyone. What if one of the older ones has a heart attack or a stroke, or somebody ODs in their cell? Or burns to death behind the door? That happened in Holloway and they covered it up. It's not just Carol! None of us are safe if those idle bastards won't even do their jobs!"

"I hadn't thought of that," Julie S said slowly.

"I don't suppose anybody else will have. But they will once I've talked to them. If I can get enough women on side, we can force an enquiry. Maybe get Bodybag sacked, like she should have been years ago. At the very least, make sure it doesn't happen to someone else."

She turned to go. "Thanks for telling me what you saw. Make sure you spread the word."

The Julies nodded and looked apprehensively at each other. Helen was on one of her crusades. That nearly always led to trouble.

Nikki surveyed the officers clustered on the other side of her desk. Sylvia and Lorna Rose were visibly nervous, looking anywhere but at her, refusing to make eye contact. Fenner was more relaxed, almost impassive. But then he hadn't been in charge when the incident happened. He wasn't in the firing line.

"I'll give you my perspective on this, shall I?" Nikki said. She clasped her hands on top of the files she had been scanning since she got in and looked the officers up and down. Lorna Rose shuffled in her seat and Hollamby pursed her lips, obviously wishing she was somewhere else.

"Whenever an incident like this happens, I think about how bad it could have been. That's partially so I can try and get systems in place to prevent it happening again, and partially because I am the one who has to carry the can when it all goes pear-shaped. Potentially, we had a situation here where an inmate could have died. Game over. End of story. Coffin job. Except it would not have been 'end of story'. It would have been the inspectorate, an inquest, the papers, repercussions from Area. Loss of seniority, reprimands on people's records, potentially loss of career. Are we clear about this?"

"Yes, ma'am," Fenner confirmed. Sylvia muttered something and Lorna Rose just looked miserable. Nikki frowned. She wasn't going to let Hollamby get off that lightly.

"I can't hear you, Sylvia."

"Well, you can't blame us for not asking 'how high' when she said 'jump'," the middle-aged officer huffed. "She was always on the bell, that one. Usually about something trivial. She was a hypochondriac. Desperate for attention. She'd make stuff up just to have us running after her. We'd already been out to her several times that evening."

"And did she tell you she was bleeding?" Nikki asked implacably.

Sylvia hesitated and then shook her head emphatically. "No, she did not. Did she, Lorna?"

"No, no, nothing," the younger woman muttered quickly. She bit her lip.

"You're sure?"

"Course I am. I wouldn't overlook something like that!"

"Good. So now we move on to the next problem."

"Next problem?" Fenner asked, suddenly becoming more alert. Nikki was unsurprised. This was his area of responsibility, as well as Sylvia's. She tapped the files.

"When I go to the records, I find that they are sketchy to say the least. Normal, basic information is not being added. There is no audit trail. If Area came in now, I wouldn't be able to show them anything, except that my officers apparently don't know how to use a pen!"

"Hang on a minute, Nikki," Fenner said. "A girl has just nearly died and you're worried about a few boxes not being ticked?"

"Yes. Because if anything like this happens again, record-keeping is what will protect the officers involved." She turned on Hollamby. "You say that Carol Byatt was always on the bell, making trivial requests, wasting officers' time. Well, that isn't reflected in these logs. So either your memory of events is wrong, or you haven't been doing part of your job. Neither of those things would look very good in an enquiry."

Sylvia bristled and then subsided, probably aware that she didn't have a leg to stand on. Lorna just looked unhappy. Nikki didn't want to bring up the fact that she already had a reprimand on her record in front of the other officers, but she suspected that she wasn't telling the younger woman anything she didn't already know. It was a pity that she had allowed herself to copy the sloppy habits that the more senior members of staff had apparently developed.

Nikki didn't believe Sylvia for a minute; she was an experienced enough manager to be able to tell a liar when she saw one. But in the absence of independent evidence, there was no way that she was going to able to do what she wanted to do, which was to go down a formal disciplinary route with Hollamby. Especially since Simon wouldn't back her up. The only thing she could do was to try and use the incident to improve some of the slipshod practices around paperwork she had already identified as a problem on the wing. Though, she mentally promised herself, she would ensure that whatever recommendations the hospital made about Byatt were implemented. If necessary, by making Sylvia carry them out. She might not be able to bring her to book for her undoubted negligence, but there was no reason she couldn't make her suffer a bit.

"Based on what you and Lorna Rose have told me, this incident was the result of a tragic combination of circumstances. But that doesn't mean I want anything like this ever happening again. I'll be doing a report for Area, and I will want to see any recommendations I make implemented in full. And from now on, I want records completed when and how they're supposed to be, down to the last comma and full stop. Is that clear?"

The officers nodded. Nikki sighed. "Now what we have to do is try and move on. I'll be going to see Simon and then I've got to go to the hospital and check on Byatt. I know I can rely on you all to keep things under control on the wing, and hopefully the weekend should give the inmates time to calm down."

"I don't know about that," Fenner said. Nikki frowned.

"What are you saying, Jim?"

"Just that there's a couple of troublemakers winding the women up. I was there earlier and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. G wing's got a bit of a history of it. Unsurprising, with Stewart around."

"Helen Stewart?"

Sylvia snorted. "That one! Lives and breathes commotion, she does."

Fenner shrugged. "Yeah. She's on her usual. Painting the situation as black as it can be. To listen to her, Sylvia and Lorna knew Byatt was in trouble and left her to bleed to death for the hell of it."

"How long have you known about this?" Nikki demanded. "Why haven't you tackled it?"

"I had to come to this meeting, didn't I? Besides, if I'd put her on report or segregated her, she would have been a martyr. I had to make a judgement as to whether it would help or not. I decided it wouldn't." He shrugged. "If you want to overrule my decision ...."

"No," Nikki said firmly. "I back my officers up. Still, I'd better go and see what's happening before I report to Simon."

Walking down to G wing with Fenner, she frowned. "I didn't realise that Stewart had so much influence."

"Believe me, she does." The officer opened a gate and stood back to let her go first. "She's a lifer, she's convincing, she says things the other women want to hear. All that left wing crap about how they might be cons, but they're still human beings ...." He shook his head. "We should ship her out. I said it the day she arrived and I've never had a reason to change my opinion."

"It isn't left wing crap, Jim. They are human. I know it's hard to remember sometimes, the things they've done ...."

"Well, when you've dealt with as many tarts and druggies as I have ...."

Fenner fell silent and Nikki used the time to compose herself, wondering what she would find when she got onto the wing.

The wall of noise that greeted her when she walked into the main association area was an answer by itself. The women were gathered in agitated clumps, clustering on landings, talking to each other. The roar of conversation and argument dominated the echoing space, making it hard to think. Nikki looked around, assessing the situation. She was used to dealing with crowds, analysing their psychology and patterns, and she could tell that the focus of this gathering was the small group of women on the first floor landing. Helen Stewart was standing with the Julies, arms folded as she spoke to inmates who approached her, occasionally gesturing as she made her point. The rest of the mob varied.

There were some people who were there just to watch the spectacle. Mostly bed and breakfast, short-timers doing sentences for drugs or shoplifting, they didn't really believe that the protest was anything to do with them. But Nikki knew from bitter experience that given the right catalyst, they would join in and make even more trouble than the longer term inmates. In many ways, they had less to lose. Most of the other women were clearly angry about what had happened (or what they had been told had happened), but were aimlessly milling around, trying to work out which section of the horde to join. The thing that bothered her was the small clusters of cons who weren't taking part in the general discussion. They were poised, focused, waiting to see what would develop. They had already decided what their response would be, and Nikki suspected that it would be violent. She took a deep breath, controlling her nerves, and walked out onto the wing.

As soon as the women saw her, the roar of noise escalated as different individuals competed for her attention, calling out comments or insults in about equal measure. Nikki stood back and waited, scanning the faces above her on the landings. She knew that if she delayed, the hubbub would die down. They wanted to hear what she had to say. Fenner pre-empted matters by bellowing an order to be quiet. Nikki raised an eyebrow and let him. If he wanted to strain his voice, it was his decision. She pitched her voice to carry into the hush.

"You all know about the incident last night."

"Yeah," someone shouted. "They left Carol to die in her cell!"

"That's not true. I know you're all very upset about what happened but I have conducted a full investigation, and I believe that what happened was a tragic set of circumstances."

The crowd erupted again, and Nikki could see the screws who were standing around the edge of the area shifting nervously from foot to foot. Mentally, she willed them to be calm. The appearance of confidence was half the battle in situations like these. Luckily, they seemed to pick up on her unvoiced instruction and waited until the uproar had died down. She put the same certainty into her tone of voice.

"Carol Byatt is in hospital and being taken care of. Procedures have been reviewed to ensure they're fit for purpose. We all need to move on. It could have been a lot worse." She paused and looked around the women. "Get to your work."

She was leaving, satisfied with the crisis management she'd carried out, when a furious Scottish voice rang out. "She nearly bled to death because your fucking screws didn't give a shit! How do any of us know we're safe behind the doors? It's not like we can dial nine nine nine!"

Nikki turned back slowly, feeling outrage flare in her chest. It wasn't that she disagreed with the inmate; she knew that many of the officers on G wing didn't bother to do their jobs properly. It was the combination of the knowledge that her hands were tied if she wanted to do anything about it and the outright defiance that made her angry. She waited, apparently impassive, as the lifer came down the stairs towards her, obviously playing to her audience.

"There should be a full enquiry," the Scot accused, jabbing her finger at Nikki. "To establish what really happened. Some of your officers need sacking!"

"I'm not debating this with you. I run this wing. You do what you're told. That's how it is."

"Really?" Stewart said, standing back and folding her arms. "You run this wing? Your fucking crew of incompetents couldn't find their own arses with both hands and a map. The only way they keep things going is with our help. Well, you can stuff that right where the sun don't shine."

"Excuse me?"

"You can forget about your fashion show for a start. If we're not safe, then we're sure as hell not going to make you look good in front of your poncy guests!"

There was a subdued murmur of approval. Nikki thought about her response for approximately ten seconds, then took the only action she could. It was a direct challenge to her authority. She had no choice. Not that she particularly rated the fashion show as an idea anyway. She raised her voice.

"Fine. The fashion show is cancelled. And you are on rule forty three." She turned to the officers around the wing. "Lock them up. And take her down the block."

As she left, Fenner caught up with her. He seemed uncharacteristically flustered. "Ma'am, shouldn't we talk about this? A lot of the women have put a lot of work in ...."

"No, Jim. I've made a decision. I'll stick to it. They'll just have to take the consequences of electing a stroppy member of the awkward squad as their spokesperson. Let's see how they feel about Stewart now."

"But, Nikki ....."

"No! I'm off to hospital to see Byatt. You can catch me later if there's anything else."

Fenner scowled, but subsided, obviously aware that he wasn't going to get anywhere. Nikki thought that was the end of the matter. She discovered her error when she went to see Simon after her hospital visit to update him on Carol Byatt's condition.

The governing governor listened as Nikki gave him the edited version, concentrating mostly on the physical aspects and omitting the way that Carol, distraught over the loss of her child and under heavy sedation after her D and C, had hardly been able to string a sentence together. Finally, he nodded, folding his hands on the desk, his fleshy features serious.

"It could have been a lot worse."

"Yes, it could. Still, we can try and move on now."

Simon hesitated and cleared his throat. "Jim was telling me about the incident earlier."

"The mob, you mean? No problem. The staff did a good job containing it."

"Actually, I meant your unilateral decision to cancel G wing's participation in the fashion show."

"What about it?"

"It's a very high-profile event."

"And the guests won't even realise that one wing isn't participating." Nikki smiled. "Stewart handed me an easy win there."

"Well, yes ...."

"What, Simon? She directly challenged my authority in front of other inmates. I couldn't let it go."

"No, I suppose not. If you were still a uniformed officer."

Nikki shrugged, puzzled. "I don't understand."

"Well, this is part of the difference between being an operational grade and a governor grade. Sometimes you have to think ... take a wider perspective."

"In what way? Who do you want to run the wing? The prisoners or the staff?"

Simon shifted uncomfortably. "Well, in an ideal world, the staff." He held up a hand. "But we both know it doesn't work like that. And Area are looking to Larkhall to make this fashion show a bit of an event."

"So? It can still go ahead."

"Not really. Some of the most striking designs are from your wing. The combination of Helen Stewart's drafting talent and the two Julies' skill with a needle means that the women of G wing were the stars of the show, so to speak. And there is the inevitable boost to morale, which I think your girls probably need after the Carol Byatt incident .... All in all, I think it should be reinstated."

"Is that an order?"

"I wouldn't put it like that ...." Simon temporised, obviously uncomfortable.

"Which means 'yes'," Nikki said. She clamped down ruthlessly on her anger, knowing it wouldn't help. She resolved to have words with Jim later. He might argue that he had simply been keeping the number one in the loop, but Nikki could guess his real motive. He didn't want to deal with the fallout of denying the women their long-anticipated treat. Well, it was good to get a heads up this early in her new posting. At least she knew where she was with Fenner, now. She'd deal with him. It was only confirmation of what she already suspected, after all.

Deliberately, she relaxed. "Have the women already been told?" she asked.

Simon looked relieved that she wasn't going to make trouble. "No, I thought that would come best from you on Monday. Demonstrate that you had thought about it over the weekend, changed your mind. I felt you might prefer to come up with your own form of words."

"All right," Nikki said. "Have you at least left Stewart on the block?"

Simon looked shocked. "This isn't an attempt to undermine you, Nikki. It's just that, as a more experienced manager, it's part of my role to guide you."

Nikki smiled falsely. She knew exactly what Simon's agenda was, and it was all about making himself look good with his superiors. "Thanks for your input."

She went home seething and snapped at Trisha when the blonde asked her what was wrong. They had a big night at Chix, one of their regular theme evenings, and Nikki threw herself into it, making sure that it ran smoothly, concentrating on facilitating the crowd dynamics and setting the scene so that people had a good night. The cabaret was a roaring success, and by the time she had ushered the last of the patrons out into the dawn and made sure that all of the acts were off the premises, she was pleasantly exhausted, satisfied that she would sleep well. She was just loading glasses into the dishwasher when the solution came to her. She examined it from all sides, trying to find a flaw, and couldn't. She was mentally patting herself on the back as she got into the car and Trisha smiled at her.

"You've cheered up."

"It was a good show," Nikki said, planting a lingering kiss on her lips.

"Yeah. Another triumph for team Wade and Harris."

"Ummm. If I sleep with the boss, do you think I might get a pay rise?"

"I think it's worth a try."

"Don't warn her though. I want it to be a surprise."

"Oh, you can be very surprising when you want to be."

Helen huddled inside the inadequate blanket, feeling the harsh surface of the concrete floor through its material. She was too cold to sleep, even though she was bitterly tired. She had long ago learned the best way to drape the cloth around herself to hold onto her body heat during her multiple trips to the block, but it wasn't enough. She dozed off every now and then, but whenever she relaxed, her grip on her only covering would slacken and it would gape open, letting in a blast of chilly air that woke her up. The thin, plastic covered mattress on the concrete rectangle that served as a bed was no help; its slippery surface didn't retain heat anyway. She had been left her underwear, but she was still shivering.

It didn't help that Dockley had deliberately deprived her of a hot meal on Friday night. Though she had eaten the chocolate and crisps that the Julies had arranged to be smuggled in for her, it wasn't the same as proper food. The ache of her hunger added to the misery of being frozen and the basic discomfort of her position. Right now, it didn't feel as though she would ever get warm again.

Helen gritted her teeth and tried to think about something other than the fact that she was almost certainly in here for the rest of the weekend and that Hollamby would have ordered her to be on strips for the entire time. She knew how the woman's mind worked - she would have arranged for the petty degradation to be inflicted for as long as possible.

The lifer expected that sometime in the early hours of Monday morning, the pathetically inadequate blue dress that was all the clothing provided on the block would be dropped on the end of her bed so that it could be claimed that it had been there throughout and that Helen had simply refused to wear it. Hollamby had been at Larkhall long enough to have friends amongst every group of screws, including those who ran segregation. She had more informal power and influence than the hierarchy realised. It was knowing that and the fact that there were no managers on site that made the Scot refuse to ask for her clothes. She didn't have the energy to kick up a fuss. Just one more indignity to add to the list. There were some battles there was no point in trying to fight.

She looked up out of the tiny, barred window at the grey light of the early dawn and told herself determinedly that it wouldn't get any colder. This was the lowest point of the day, and from now on there would be more light and more heat filtering into the basement, even through windows that were designed not to let in a view of the outside world. She tried to visualise the sunlight flooding the cell, bathing her in its radiance, caressing her skin and filling her with comfort. The mental image was almost enough to balance out the fact that it had begun to rain. Almost.

Nikki walked briskly through the gate, glancing at the puddles on the concrete and wondering if the predicted sunshine would turn up any time today. She smiled at the guard, handed in her ordinary keys and accepted the set that would give her access to all areas of the prison. She noted the faint flicker of surprise as John handed over the bundle, and smiled inwardly. She was in ahead of the early shift, well before most governor grades showed their faces, and she had no doubt that her presence was unexpected. It was a means to an end, though; she wanted to talk to Stewart and get her back onto the wing in time for breakfast. Assuming that is, that the inmate co-operated in making the announcement that Nikki wanted her to make. If not, she was just going to have to bite the bullet and do it herself. Simon had made it quite clear what his policy on the matter was going to be, and there were some battles there was no point in trying to fight.

She headed swiftly for segregation, her long strides eating up the distance. The officer who was in charge of the unit was doing handover paperwork and was just as startled as the gate guard had been to see her. Her reaction showed that.


"I need to see Stewart."

A flicker of alarm crossed the woman's face. Nikki frowned. "Is there a problem?"

"No, ma'am.... We weren't expecting her to be let out this early."

"Well, she's in luck. I'll escort her onto the wing myself."

"Is that safe? I could get her sent up later. If you wanted."

"No. I need a word with her first," Nikki said impatiently.

The officer responded to the tone of voice, hurriedly getting up to unlock the door to Stewart's cell. The moment Nikki walked in, she knew what the woman's reluctance had been about. She disregarded the dress folded neatly on the end of the concrete block that served as a bed; she'd been a screw long enough to know that old trick. Instead, she concentrated on the huddled figure against the wall, feeling anger fill her.

She turned, feeling the extra emphasis that came from her outrage sharpening her movements, making them more defined, quicker. "I didn't order this! How long has she been on strips?!"

"All weekend, ma'am."

"Get her something to wear! And get me the file! Now!"

The PO hustled out, obviously glad to be out of Nikki's sight and the line of fire. Nikki glared after her and then turned back to the inmate in front of her. She found herself confronted by Helen's implacable stare.

"What's the matter?" the Scot challenged hoarsely. "Don't like the way the system's run? It's a fuck sight worse when you're on the receiving end."

"I did not authorise this. I will get to the bottom of it."

"Authorise it?! Your officers do what they want and you turn a blind eye, like all senior staff. It's more convenient that way."

"That's not how I run things," Nikki said.

She took the file from the turnkey, who dropped a pile of clothes onto the bed and started to hurriedly leave the cell.

"Wait!" Nikki said, picking the T shirt on top up. She studied its ripped shoulder seam. "Did she fight you? When you took these?"


"Is she on report for that?"

The guard nodded reluctantly. Nikki took a long, calming breath.

"Tear it up."


"You heard me. It didn't happen."

She flipped rapidly through the file, frowning, then raised her eyebrows. "Who authorised this?"

The woman didn't try to pretend she hadn't understood the question. "Senior Officer Hollamby."

"So where's the documentation? It ought to be in here."

"I don't know, ma'am."

"Right. Get on the radio and tell Senior Officer Hollamby that I want her in my office in one hour's time with the log sheet giving a full account of why she made the decision to put Stewart on strips, and giving a rationale for ordering that she should be left that way for over twenty-four hours. I'm sure that it's already completed, and the fact that it's not where it should be is merely an oversight. Go."

The turnkey nodded and hustled out of the cell, obviously glad to be away from Nikki.

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" Helen challenged. "All you're doing is giving her time to get her story straight."

"That's up to you. Get dressed."

"What, and give you a free show?"

Nikki rolled her eyes, exasperated. "Listen, Stewart, I used to be on the Tornado team. Doing this job, I've seen more naked women than you've had hot meals. I doubt you've got anything nobody else has got."

Even so, she turned away. She heard the inmate getting up slowly and winced slightly. She could tell from the sound of her pained, awkward movements that she was suffering the after effects of her weekend. Nikki's exasperation and anger kicked up another notch. What Sylvia didn't seem to realise was that hypothermia was a real risk in this situation. Inwardly, she seethed. It would have been typical of Larkhall if she had come down and found the Scot unconscious. No doubt to the accompaniment of officers running round like headless chickens, trying to deal with the situation after it had happened.

"Why did you come and see me, anyway?" Helen asked. "Pastoral visit? Fancied a bit of a gloat?"

"It gives me no pleasure that you're here," Nikki snapped. "Come on, Helen, you've been inside long enough to know that if you challenge a governor grade in front of an entire wing of staff and inmates, there are going to be consequences. You left me nowhere to go."

"OK, so you're in charge. We've established that. Now what?"

"Actually, I'm not. Stubberfield is."


"He's ordered me to reinstate G wing's participation in the fashion show."

Helen chuckled, a low delighted sound. "Oh, dear."

"You finished dressing?"

"Yeah, why?"

Nikki turned around. "Easier to talk to you when I can make eye contact."

Helen shrugged. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have anything to say to me."

The governor studied her, glad to see that the lifer seemed to be getting some colour back. She had to be tough, Nikki supposed, to survive the things that tended to happen to her because of her attitude.

"I need your help."

"For what, and why should I?"

"The reason Simon has overturned my decision is because Jim Fenner went to him behind my back and made representations. The old boy's network in action."

Helen scowled, her quick mind obviously plotting the implications. "So score Fenner one, Wade zero."

"Exactly. Except that Simon's allowing me to make the announcement."

"All that does is rub your nose in it!"

"I won't listen to comments criticising the prison hierarchy."

"So you can say it and I can't?"

"Pretty much."

"It's still the truth."

"But if you were to let the women know ...."

"Why would I do that?"

"Because you can say we'd talked it through and come to an agreement. No more trouble in return for the fashion show being reinstated. Your word on it."

"Forget about what happened to Carol, you mean?" Helen said belligerently.

"Accept that what happened to her is done and can't be changed. She has been given the medical care she needs, and I'll ensure we do everything we can to help her get over her miscarriage. But it's about picking up the pieces now and making sure the old boy's network doesn't win. Again."

"Why should I believe you?"

"I want to change things round here. I can see things that need correcting. But I can't do it if my authority's undermined. That's your choice. Jim Fenner or me."

Helen bowed her head, thinking about it. "I'm not doing it for you," she said finally. "I'm doing it because Fenner's an arch bastard and Stubberfield lets him do whatever he wants."

"I'll overlook that comment."

"Fine. You've made it very clear that this doesn't make us friends and that suits me. You're still a screw at the end of the day. Nothing can change that."

Nikki smiled coldly. "Well, then. I'd better get you back onto the wing. You've got an announcement to make."

Nikki rapped on the door of Simon's office and went in, balancing the ever-present armful of folders as she made her way to the chair. The governing governor looked up from his reports, a welcoming smile on his jowly face.

"Ah, Nikki, glad you could make it," he said, as though she'd trekked across darkest Africa to get there, instead of walking down the corridor to attend their biweekly meeting. They went over the budget projections together and discussed the security arrangements for the upcoming show, concentrating on juggling the rotas so that they could provide the necessary bodies without reducing the staff presence on the main wings to unsafe levels. Luckily, Area had been persuaded to find a bit of extra money from another budget, which meant that they could cover the extra duties on overtime. After considering the sickness and absence levels for G wing, Simon offered her a cup of coffee.

As Nikki added milk, he cleared his throat. "How are you getting on with your investigations into the Stewart matter?"

"I've translated her journal and read it. Nothing there. I didn't bother with the prisoners - no one'll grass, even if they did know something. The art teacher denies anything untoward happened and I believe her. The staff would have acted on it at the time if they'd picked up on it. On all the evidence, Stewart's in the clear."

Simon pursed his lips. "I'm afraid Area will want something more solid than that if they're to allow her to return to classes."

"Like what?" Nikki asked, feeling familiar exasperation fill her. Simon could be such an old woman at times. "A signed confession from the journalist? I can't prove a negative!"

"That might be what's needed to satisfy Area. Let's wait till after the fashion show. We'll have a few more brownie points then. We might be able to get permission to restore Stewart's privileges."

"And what if she kicks off in the meantime?"

"Well, then she'll lose her chance. I'm certainly not rewarding bad behaviour. Is she acting up?"

"No, but she's a lifer! It's not like more days will make any difference to her sentence."

"Loss of privileges will. I never had you down as soft on the more difficult inmates, Nikki."

"That's exactly my point! We've already taken most of the things that make her sentence bearable away. If we push her to where she's got nothing to lose, she will make trouble."

Her boss smiled smugly. "And I'm sure that you'll handle the situation if it arises. No, I think we'd better wait until after the show. Just to be on the safe side."

"Under protest," Nikki said.

"Noted," Simon said, obviously forgetting all about it.

Nikki thought about the atmosphere on the wing, which was calm at the moment; the women were too giddy about the forthcoming fashion show to worry about their normal concerns, especially since Carol Byatt had been ghosted to another nick, removing one obvious reminder of the miscarriage incident. That would probably change once it was over, though. Boredom would begin to creep in, and while Stewart didn't strike Nikki as someone who stirred up trouble for the sake of it, unlike Dockley, say, at that point, she could potentially start. She made a mental note to have a word with Jim Fenner - he didn't want disputes on the wing any more than any other officer and he had Stubberfield's ear.

Nikki was helping escort the visitors out after the fashion event, listening to Simon's smooth politicking, when she noticed Helen heading towards her cell, obviously coming back from the shower. She'd missed the con during the spectacle itself and had wondered where she'd got to. Now she knew. She made her excuses and hurried over.

"Why didn't you come to the show? You did most of the designs."

"Not really. I didn't fancy watching Shell parading her assets."

"You two don't get on, do you?"

"No," Helen said. "Dockley likes to think she's something special. Swanning around as though she owns the place. Big fish, small pond syndrome."

Her eyes flicked over Nikki as she made the comment. The taller woman found her lips quirking into an involuntary smile. The insult had been very neatly delivered. It was all in Helen's expression and tone of voice, and Nikki couldn't pull her on it without sounding petty or insecure, even though the lifer had made her point perfectly clear.

"So you don't play those kind of games. It isn't a competition for top dog slot, for example."

"No. If wanted to do that sort of thing, I'd go join a troop of chimpanzees. Probably get more intelligent conversation as well."

"Well, thanks anyway."

"Don't thank me. I didn't do you any favours."

"Sure," Nikki said, smiling. "Maybe I should ask you to design some posters for me."

"Help a screw? I don't think so."

"Not even to persuade some of the women to give up drugs?"

"It'll take more than a few slogans to do that. Most of them haven't got anything else left in their lives."

"You sound as though you know what you're talking about."

"I've been in here for the last three years and I'm not stupid."

"No. Your journal demonstrates that."

Helen scowled and turned away. Mentally, Nikki kicked herself. Despite the slightly antagonistic tone of the conversation, it had been a connection, one she'd wanted to build on. She had a strong feeling that if she could get the lifer on her side, her job would become a lot easier. Rubbing the inmate's nose in the power she held over her was not the way to do that.

She was sitting at the bar, idly watching the crowd and the way the staff were managing things ('Never know where the good ideas are going to come from, babe' Trish said quietly in her head), when a husky, familiar voice broke into her thoughts.

"Want to talk about it?" Fiona said. She sat next to Nikki, allowing their shoulders to touch before she settled down and gestured for the bar staff to bring her a drink. Nikki waited till the server had moved out of earshot before she shook her head.

"Not really."

"Shit at work?"

"Yeah," Nikki said, raising her chin. Alarmingly, she felt tears prick at the back of her eyes. She dug her car keys out of her pocket and handed them to Fiona.

"Take care of these for me, will you?"

"Not planning on going home?"

"I'll get a taxi."

"You haven't had that much to drink."

"No. But I shouldn't be driving. I'm tired and ...." She broke off and took another swallow of her beer, grimacing.

"Emotionally exhausted," Fiona said knowingly.

She'd done twenty years in the prison service before retiring to run the pub. More than a decade ago, she'd been the one to sit the nineteen year old Nikki, who was working for her as a bar maid, down and point out that she should make longer term career plans now that she had finished travelling around Europe. It had been the nudge that the younger woman had needed, and it was partly Fiona's example that had led her to consider becoming an officer. Despite the difference in their ages, they had stayed firm friends. Nikki thought about it and realised that she had subconsciously been aware that she needed someone who understood to talk to. There was no other reason why she would have decided to drop in for a quick drink. She glanced quickly round to make sure no one was in earshot.

"There's a con who got accused of talking to the media. She says she didn't, and I believe her. But Area's got the governing gov so scared that he won't let her go back to classes. So she's being punished for something she didn't do."

"Happens all the time. We both know it shouldn't, but it does. What's the real problem?"

"Arguing about it is coming between me and Trisha."

"I see," Fiona said diplomatically. Nikki listened to the things she wasn't saying and winced.

"The worst thing is - the inmate's a lifer. She will kick off, sooner or later, and when she does that ...."

"You'll have to slap her down. And then it'll escalate."

Nikki nodded. This was why she could talk to Fiona about work in a way she couldn't with Trisha. The older woman had done the job herself and appreciated the delicate balance of formal and informal sanctions that kept the average nick running. In theory, the guards had all of the power and the cons had none, but in fact, the prison couldn't be run without their co operation and any officer with sense knew that.

Lifers presented an especial problem - with their long-term sentences, they could make a lot of trouble if they wanted to. They had time to build up alliances and gain influence and inevitably adjusted to the environment, which meant that the normal penalties had less power over them. If Nikki had explained that to Trisha, she knew that the other woman would have grown too indignant on the cons' behalf to talk to her about her dilemma, and an argument was the last thing she wanted in her present frame of mind.

"Why do you believe her?"

"I just do. One thing Stewart isn't is a liar. And we found her diary. It doesn't mention talking to the journalist."

"Would she have written about it?"

"She writes about everything else."

Fiona sipped her drink thoughtfully. "So what would force Stubberfield to listen to you?"

"I don't know. A signed confession from the hack? A recording of her admitting that Stewart didn't help her? That's about what it would take."

"You can get that."

"Oh, yes. Piece of cake."

"I'm assuming you aren't going to have the police pull her in and interview her about breaking the Prison Act?"

"No. Area have vetoed that. They don't want the 'bad publicity'."

Fiona considered. "Look, what do you know about this journalist?"

"Quite a lot. I've pulled her file ...."

"She worked at Larkhall?"

"In the art class, as an assistant."

"So you know where she lives, her career history, her date of birth. Lots of information, all of which you can use to find a way to nail her."

"If it's true."

"She wouldn't have dared to put too many lies in. She'd have failed the security check."

Nikki nodded, conceding the point. "So what do you suggest?"

"I'm not going to suggest anything. You're sneaky enough to work something out for yourself."

"It's nice when people have faith," Nikki deadpanned. She swallowed the last of her beer and stood. "I'd better get home."

"How's Trisha?"

"She's fine. Wants to expand the club."

"And for you to leave the service."


"Be careful, Nikki," Fiona said seriously. "There's a reason why prison officers mostly sleep with each other."

Nikki frowned, unsure of where the conversation was going. "What do you mean?"

"It broke my marriage up. Brian couldn't understand the pressures. Don't let that happen to you and Trisha."

"It won't! We're solid, we really are. We're just … disagreeing a lot about my job at the moment. I'm in a new role. It's hard for her, adjusting."

Fiona didn't comment. She dropped Nikki's keys on the table in front of her. "I'll order you a cab."

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Another empty day, full of wasted hours, broken up into sections by the monotony of routine. Unlock, work, association, free flow, meals, lock up.... We walk around and around in the same grooves, mental and physical, like clockwork toys. The only thing you can never get back is time, and prison's designed to take it from you. The yoga teacher congratulated me today on being committed enough to practice a full routine every day. I didn't tell him that it's just one more way of filling up the void. I'd do it, even if I didn't need it to help me stay sane and fit enough to protect myself. One more way of filling up the cracks so I don't fall through them into despair. I see the justice of it - I took all the time someone had left, so my future is taken from me. But a part of me cannot help hoping for mercy.

Helen was reading in her cell when the door slammed open. She'd been aware that something was probably going on; the noise on the wing had changed and the clatter of heavy boots was distinctive. She just hadn't realised that it involved her. She looked up as a large, scary-looking black woman thundered into her cell.


"On your feet."

Helen considered the order. Her visitor looked as though she was the kind of screw who enjoyed pushing people around. Helen stood up, slowly enough that it verged on insolence and watched the intruder's nostrils flare. She swallowed as the heavyset woman walked up to her and looked her up and down, her upper lip curled with scorn. Behind her, her squat, pallid sidekick lurked in the doorway of the cell, mirroring her boss's expression. Helen felt her stomach twist. Being looked at like that didn't bother her - it was standard procedure for most screws to study you as though you were something they'd scraped off the bottom of their shoe. It was the implied threat of force in their behaviour that was making her uneasy. She matched the woman glare for glare.

"Who the fuck are you?" she asked, though their dark blue overalls and spit-polished boots told her everything she needed to know.

"Carter. Dedicated Search Team. Have you got anything in this cell you shouldn't have?"

"Like what?"

"Answer the question!"

"No. No, I haven't. Well, apart from two too many people, that is."

Carter's expression deepened to one of utter contempt. She leant closer to Helen and spoke menacingly. "Strip."

Helen glanced at the toad-like assistant, whose eyes were crawling all over her. She could tell that the woman was wondering how she'd look without any clothes on. She didn't like it - it made her feel dirty and vulnerable despite still being dressed. On the other hand, if she fought, she had no doubt that they had reinforcements waiting. She swallowed her humiliation and anger, putting it away for later, and started to pull her shoes off, working quickly and efficiently.

She'd hoped it would be a standard strip search, being allowed to keep half of her clothes on at a time, especially since the cell door was standing wide open, which meant anyone who went past would get a chance to have a good look at her. She slowed down after she'd taken her top and bra off, waiting to see what would happen. Carter just looked bored and scowled.

"Get on with it."

Helen turned and discarded her things onto the bed, forcing herself not to hunch and cover up. She refused to move more quickly or show how much what was happening was bothering her. Finally, she stood naked in front of them, facing the open doorway, concentrating on not breaking eye contact. Carter surveyed her deliberately up and down and then took out a long, folding metal tool with a mirror at the end. Helen tensed involuntarily and Carter smiled slightly.

"Squat," she said, her tone matter of fact, and put the mirror between Helen's feet. Jim Fenner chose that moment to wander past. He glanced into the cell and then stopped, delight plain on his face, as he took the opportunity to take a good, long look at what was happening. The lifer put up with it silently - she had no doubt that any of the male screws would have done the same. The fact it was Fenner just worsened matters, that was all. She felt bile rise in her throat and concentrated on keeping control of her expression as she did as she had been told. Strangely, the little flare of outrage helped, focusing her mind and making her not care that she was exposed to the world. She waited until Carter had squatted level with her, grunting slightly as she got into position, then spoke quietly to the other woman.

"Do you and your girlfriend take turns at home? Playing prisoner and guard? Or is it the same one on top all the time?"

The screw looked at her with dark, unfathomable eyes, then stood up. Helen copied her movement, wary of a blow. It never happened. Carter spoke without breaking their eye contact.

"She's clean. Let's get her to a holding cell. Then we're going to give this place a really good search."

For a second, Helen feared that they would force her out onto the wing without giving her the opportunity to get dressed. Aggression was coming off the black woman in waves. Instead, she was given one of the track suits they used on the block sometimes and a pair of flip-flops. As she got dressed, Fenner gave her a jaunty little nod and walked away, his hands in his pockets, grinning from ear to ear.

"I'll take this one down," Carter said. "You start the spin. And I want it done by the book."

"Sure thing," the assistant said. She pulled on latex gloves and started to search the desk. Helen picked up her sketchbook, then flinched as Carter clamped her upper arm in a strong grip.

"You take nothing out of here. Move."

Helen pulled out of the other woman's hold, dropping her stuff onto the desk, and left the cell, conscious of an audience as she walked down the wing. Predictably, Dockley was positioned for a ringside seat. She leered at them as Helen walked past.

"Ooh! Been a naughty girl, have we?"

"Piss off, Dockley."

Carter looked at the blonde woman, her gaze suddenly calculating, and Shell subsided quickly, muttering an excuse and making herself scarce. Helen thought about the little interaction as she was escorted to the holding cell. She'd already had a shrewd idea of who'd caused her to be targeted. Now she was almost sure.

Later, when she came back, there was a feeling of sick inevitability about what she found. The cell hadn't been searched; it had been trashed. Her books and papers were scattered on the floor, the mattress and bedding from the bunk dumped against a wall. Her art supplies had been spilled into the sink, staining the grubby bowl with incongruously bright colours. The locker had been emptied and the drawers in her pathetically small cupboard had been dragged out and then carelessly shoved halfway back in, clothes spilling over the edges. Even the calendar and post cards on the notice board had been ripped off and discarded into the general mess.

Helen looked around helplessly and tried to work out where to start the clean up. In the end, she opted to wash the sink in an attempt to at least create a place she could rinse things if she had to. Then she could get some supplies from the Julies and make a proper job of it.

She was scrubbing the metal, her head down, when she sensed someone at the cell door and looked up to see the governor, who was looking around and frowning.

"Come to see what your trained apes have been up to?" she asked acidly.

"They were doing their job," the taller woman said impassively. "If they get a tipoff they have to act on it."

"Yeah, well, I know where that came from, and I know what to do about it as well."

"I hope you're not threatening another inmate, Helen. That wouldn't be a good idea."

"No, I forgot. Your screws have the monopoly on violence round here."

"They have the powers they need to keep order on the wing."

Suddenly exasperated, Helen threw the cloth she had been using down and rounded on Wade. "Do you want to tell me how I'm supposed to be hiding drugs in tubes of paint?" She gestured at the drift of books and letters on the floor. "Or inside sheets of paper? I don't do that shit, not even the stuff your useless quack keeps trying to force me to take!"

"You must be one of the few," Nikki said calmly. "Of course, if women like you came forward and identified the dealers, this sort of thing might not have to happen."

"After the little hearts and minds experience I've just been subjected to?" Helen spat. "Even if I was a grass, which I'm not, right now I wouldn't piss on one of yours if they were on fire. Now why don't you fuck off and give me the space I need to clear up this mess?"

"Well, it's going keep happening. I've been told to clean up G wing, and I intend to do it."

"Good for you. So more women get to stand stark naked being leered at by your 'officers'."

"What are you alleging?"

"Forget it."

The governor favoured her with a long, level stare, then nodded and left, looking thoughtful.

Helen took a deep breath and picked her sketchbook up from the floor, smoothing the crumpled pages, and resumed setting the place back into some sort of order. She did it carefully, losing herself in the activity, trying to not to give in to tears. She supposed this was how people felt when they'd been burgled on the outside. She didn't like it much.

Carter stopped inside the door of the Wing Governor's office, taking in the sight of Nikki behind the desk. Her contemptuous scowl deepened. "Well, well, look at it. How desperate were they to give you the job?"

Nikki grinned. "If the decent candidates decide to stay running the DST instead of applying, they have to settle for what they can get."

She smiled broadly at the other woman and moved from behind the desk to shake her hand. Carter laughed and slapped her on the shoulder. "I remember when you were as green as grass, Wade."

"Yeah," Nikki said easily. "But I had good teachers. Cup of tea?"


Nikki flicked the switch on the kettle and pulled a packet of her visitor's favourite biscuits out of the cupboard. The black woman groaned aloud. "I'm trying to lose weight!"

"Bollocks. It's all muscle."

"I wish that was true," Carter said ruefully, opening the packet and taking a couple. "Not as young as I used to be."

"Bet you're still kicking the crap out of everyone else in training."

The other woman shrugged. "Not every time. Still, when Andrew graduates, he'll have to keep his old Mum in luxury. I've already told him."

"He's at college? I remember him when he was a skinny thirteen year old with an attitude problem."

"Studying to be a doctor," Carter said proudly. "Top of his year."

"Give him my best."

"What about you? You look like you're staying in shape."

"I hit the gym every morning and swim at the weekends."

The team leader accepted a mug of tea from Nikki and looked shrewdly at her over the drink.

"You didn't bring me in here to talk about your exercise routine, Wade. Spit it out."

"It's the cell spin you did today."

"What about it?"

"Was she clean?"

"Yeah. That was obvious as soon as we walked in. The tipoff was somebody using us to settle a score. It happens."

"But you still checked her out."

"She could have been holding drugs for somebody else. Besides, we can't just go 'oops, we made a mistake' on no evidence. We have to justify ourselves to Area, like everyone."

"Is that why you wrecked her cell?"

Carter frowned, studying Nikki's face. "Oh?"

"Yeah. I saw it. Looked like the library in Alberton after that hostage extraction."

Her old boss whistled softly. "That bad? Thanks, Nikki. I said by the book, not trash the place. Some of the new ones are a bit keen, and Stewart did mouth off. I'll have a word."

"Can you let me know how it goes?"


"I told Stewart I'd check it out. I want her to know I kept my promise."

"Why? Not like you to do them any favours."

"She's a lifer. I want her on side, if possible."

Carter shrugged. "You'll be lucky."

"Worth a try. Anyway, how are things back at Broomhill? How's the anti-drugs campaign going? Get many call outs?"

Nikki frowned as the other woman abruptly stilled, her expression wary. "You haven't heard?"

"Heard what?"

""But then, why would you," Carter said, almost to herself. "They haven't exactly advertised it." She sighed.

"Why do I think I'm not going to like this?" Nikki asked warily.

"Because you aren't. They've closed it down."


"Oh, not officially, but they've wound down the random testing and they let that bastard Evans retire instead of pressing charges. They've stopped the locker checks and the unannounced searches."

"How the hell did they justify that? We were getting hits nearly every week!"

"Said they couldn't keep staff in Works. Kept getting transfer requests."

"Yeah, because they couldn't make money on the side any more."

"The dedicated team got cut and … they stopped calling the police when they do catch anyone. People get offered the choice of resigning."

"So they've dismantled it," Nikki said. "After all of the work, all of the planning ... all the unpaid overtime and shitty, bloody unpleasantness we had to go through. I nearly broke up with my partner because of it; I know of two people who had to transfer off the team because of stress, and now you're telling me they've thrown it all away! What did the governing gov say?"

"Nothing. He was sick of his prison getting labelled as having a bigger drug problem than anywhere else."

"It didn't," Nikki said flatly. "We were just catching the bastard dealers red-handed and offering the users treatment. I thought we had him on side."

"We did. But without you to fight the project's corner and make waves at Area if it got cut - I guess he got tired of arguing for the funding to be ring fenced. Thought the money would be better spent elsewhere."

Nikki rubbed her forehead wearily. "We were really winning, you know. We could have made a difference."

"Preaching to the choir, Wade. You want me to depress you some more?"

"Why not. How much worse can it get?"

"You got this job by committing to doing the same sort of thing in Larkhall, didn't you?"

"Yeah, so?"

"I go to a lot of different nicks. I know people. I hear stuff. Word is that Stubberfield was pleased enough to get you when the anti-drugs thing was flavour of the month. It made him look good, especially since Larkhall has such a dodgy reputation."

"I knew it was bad coming in," Nikki said. "One of the reasons I took the job."

"Yeah. But, from what I hear Stubberfield's all about 'fur coat, no knickers'. He wants to look good, but not if it takes any effort. He certainly doesn't want his cosy little set up disturbing. So if he can sabotage you, he will, especially if he can make it look like your fault."

Nikki frowned, a few things she had noticed, including Simon's foot dragging over changes, beginning to make more sense. Carter waited, letting her put it together, giving her time. Finally, when she looked up, the black woman leaned forward.

"You want my advice?"


"Make sure you document everything. I like memos, personally, specially memos confirming what's been agreed. That way you've got evidence. He can't wriggle out of something he's signed."

"He'd better not try," Nikki said. "I made a commitment when I took this job. I intend to stick to it."

Trisha was redoing her make up when Nikki walked into the bedroom; the outfit she had chosen for her shift at the club, a long, violet-blue dress, hung on the wardrobe door behind her. The matching shoes were placed neatly beneath it. Normally, Nikki would have commented on the ensemble; it was one of her favourites, but tonight she wasn't in the mood. She sat down on the bed and began to irritably remove her own footwear. Trisha looked at her in the mirror and stopped applying mascara.

"Someone's had a bad day at work," she commented. "Want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

"OK, but you know it'll make you feel better if you do."

"The drugs program at Broomhill has been wound down."

"The one you set up?"

"Yeah. Budget cuts. After all the work I put in!"

"I remember," her partner said wryly. "I was practically running the club on my own for a while there."

Nikki didn't dignify the comment with a response. Instead, she went to her side of the wardrobe to get a hanger for her suit. She was going to take a long, hot shower and try and loosen some of the tension in her shoulders and back. That was the trouble with working in the leisure industry - you couldn't scowl or sulk while the customers were around. Nikki knew she'd find it easier to plaster a false smile on her face if she was physically relaxed, that once she got started serving drinks and chatting to people, the smile would become real after a while.

It was one of the reasons she still juggled her day job with Chix, despite the pressures and extra work that it entailed. Being at the club meant being with people who were enjoying themselves and trying to have a good time. Facilitating that was a total contrast to her duties at the prison and much more enjoyable, even though she still gained real satisfaction from trying to help the inmates get their lives back on track. In a way, she mused, they were aspects of the same thing. In both cases, she was trying to help people to meet their goals. It was just that the cons had their own ideas about what they wanted to achieve, usually self-destructive ones.

That reminded her about the winding down of the drugs project and she scowled and went to have her shower. By the time she had finished and was laying out her business outfit of a smart Armani suit and plain ivory top, Trisha had finished her face and had progressed on to doing her nails, inserting wads of cotton in-between her toes in preparation for applying the polish. She looked at Nikki over her raised knee.

"Feeling better?"

"Yes, thanks. Have we got a big crowd in tonight?"

"On a Thursday? Medium sized. Oh, and someone has a birthday party booked, so we should sell plenty of champagne."

Nikki nodded and started selecting underwear.

"Are you going to be all right?" Trisha asked.

"I'll be fine," Nikki said darkly. "You know me. I rise to the occasion. I'll be charming the birthday girl and all of her friends as soon as they walk through the door."

"It is one of your talents," the blonde acknowledged with a grin. "Good job I'm not the jealous type."

The brunette winced slightly. The statement had an edge to it, since they both knew she was. It had been the cause of some of their more spectacular rows in the past, when Nikki had become convinced that Trisha was responding to another woman's attentions. Luckily, that aspect of things had died down as they had both grown more settled and secure in the relationship. Nikki rolled her eyes and crossed over to the other woman.

"You going to give a hard time tonight?" she asked, stroking her face. "Because I'm really not in the mood."

Trisha turned her head to kiss her on the wrist. "Don't worry. The only hard time I'll give you is the kind you like. After we get back."

"Promises, promises."

"Come on, get dressed. We have to get to work."

In the car, Nikki stared moodily out of the window at the rain-streaked darkness of early evening. Trisha glanced across as they got to the traffic lights. "Are you still thinking about that drugs program?"

"Yes," the brunette admitted. "It was doing so much good, Trisha. It was really helping some of the women."

"As well as harassing the others," her partner commented.

"What?" Nikki demanded. "What do you mean?"

"I saw the outline, remember. It did involve a lot of random testing and restricting physical contact during visits. I don't suppose that they enjoyed it much."

"That was in the early stages!" Nikki protested. "We eased off later on, when we could. And I'll tell you one thing: the inmates certainly appreciated seeing some of the corrupt bastards on the staff who were on the take being fired and disciplined."

"Almost as much as they enjoyed going cold turkey, I imagine."

"We offered treatment to anyone who came forward to request it!"

"And what was the waiting list for that like?"

Nikki scowled, aware that Trisha was recycling some of her complaints about the inefficiencies that the Prison Service's bureaucracy had imposed, hampering the success of the project. She had come home exhilarated most nights, but also frustrated, often venting her exasperation about the suits at Area and their lack of comprehension of what she was trying to do. The blonde had joked at the time that she ought to get a consultancy fee, since she was effectively helping to manage the implementation of the program, even if she was doing it at arm's length.

"All right," she said, reluctantly conceding the point. "I'm not saying it was perfect, but it was still worth doing, and it would have been worth carrying on with. They dropped the ball, Trisha, and people are going to suffer because of it. Not just staying addicted while in prison, but getting beaten up for drugs debts, going back out into society with a habit and committing crimes to pay for it, which will impact on their victims. Getting their children taken away from them, not being able to rebuild their lives or move on. It stinks!"

Her partner shrugged. "The whole system stinks, doesn't it?"

"What? Trisha, that's my career you're talking about!"

"They don't deserve you. You work your arse off most of the time, and you don't get any thanks for it. Not from the other staff, not from the inmates. I wonder why you do it sometimes."

"I do it because it's my job and I'm good at it."

"I know you are. But it's not the only thing you know how to do. You wouldn't starve if Larkhall vanished tomorrow. We'd get by. We'd do better, in fact!"

"I've never lied to you about what I do or how important it is to me. You knew what you were getting into when we moved in together."

"Oh sure, I knew in theory," Trisha said. "But the reality is a bit different. Sometimes I feel like I'm an afterthought in your life. Someone you come home to because that's where you live, not for any other reason."

"That's not fair. I think about you all the time!"

"Not enough to listen to me when I tell you how I feel about your bloody job."

"Well, I hardly need to," Nikki retorted. "It's not like you say anything different. I could bloody well repeat it word for word. Just like you could repeat my answers back to me."

"Yeah, and that's the problem, isn't it," the blonde said ruefully. She sighed and shrugged, visibly deciding not to take the argument any further. Nikki could see her point; they were five minutes away from the club and they would have to work together tonight. It wasn't like talking about it would resolve anything, anyway. They'd had the argument too many times already.

Trisha pulled into the car park at Chix and cut the engine when they got to their reserved space. "Look on the bright side. The project achieved one thing. It got you your promotion. And it will have helped some of the inmates."

Nikki stared at her, appalled. "I didn't do it for the promotion!"

"I know. It was one of your crusades." Her partner leant across and kissed her. She smoothed Nikki's hair affectionately back from her forehead. "I love that you care so much. But right now, I need you to care about our profit margin. Deal?"

"OK," the brunette said, reluctantly snapping into club-owner mode. "You open up. I'll go check the stock in the main bar and turn the music on."

Helen walked into the governor's outer office, wondering what it was all about. She was still barred from classes, but she hadn't allowed that to change her behaviour and she hadn't been put on report recently. Beside her, Di Barker made her usual string of meaningless, fatuous remarks and the Scot responded with non-committal noises in the right places. It was depressing how easy it was to convince almost everyone that you were paying attention to their conversation when, in fact, you were only going through the motions. Most people were too self-absorbed to even notice the odd slip. Not Wade, of course. She was one of the rare individuals who actually listened to the person she was talking to, engaging fully with them.

She took a seat when she was told to, back against the glass partition that divided the outer room from the governor's private office. Di moved across to gossip with the secretary. Helen ignored their conversation, spending her time looking around the antechamber, studying some of the new pictures that Works had put up since she had been here last.

Her attention was drawn to the sound of a phone ringing, and Nikki's voice as the governor answered it. She abruptly realised that sitting against the internal wall as she was, she could hear what was going on in the inner office. Prison Service construction budgets saw to that.

Glancing at her escort and the secretary, Helen saw that they were absorbed in their conversation and not paying any attention to her. They had no idea that she could eavesdrop on the governor. She smiled inwardly and decided to make the most of the opportunity. Information was power in a place like Larkhall. Keeping her expression casual, she bowed her head and listened.

"No, it's OK. I've always got time for you. You know that," Wade said. The lifer grinned to herself. Personal conversation, then. This could be really interesting.

When Nikki spoke again her voice was calm, reasonable. "Trisha, are we supposed not to have arguments because we're both women? I don't remember that being in the rules. We've had plenty in the last nine years."

The Scot couldn't help turning to look at the dark silhouette on the other side of the partition, shock roaring in her ears. Across the office, Di picked up on her movement and looked at her, frowning. Helen smiled falsely and settled down again, listening more carefully now, making sure she hadn't misunderstood. The governor was still speaking, though she'd probably missed a silence while she tried to process what she'd heard. Now she sounded tired, almost defeated.

"It's the same old debate, isn't it? My career against the club. I don't know if we're ever going to resolve it."

Across at the desk, the secretary took a phone call. Barker began to study her surroundings with more attention, and Helen hurriedly slapped a bored expression on her face. Behind the partition, Nikki spoke earnestly. "Look, can we talk about it tonight? I do have someone to see." She paused. "Babe, you know I couldn't do this if I didn't have you to come home to, don't you?"

There was a silence, then Nikki spoke again, her tone of voice softer this time. "I love you, too. Always. Bye."

Helen heard the sound of the phone going down and then silence as the other woman collected her thoughts. She considered what she had learnt. Though she knew that there were some lesbians in the prison service, she'd never subscribed to the usual con view that they were all there to lech after the inmates and fulfill their own twisted fantasies. There were good and bad amongst them, as with any group of people, and Helen didn't have a particular problem with them. She saved her contempt and hatred for the abusers, male and female, amongst the screws. While she would have thought Nikki Wade was attractive enough to have her pick of anyone, it seemed that her tastes ran to other women. Well, at least she was faithful. Nine years was a long time in anyone's book.

Di's voice jolted her out of her reverie. "Come on, Helen, stop wool-gathering. The governor's waiting."

She pushed herself to her feet. "Sorry, miss. I was thinking about something I should have done yesterday."

"You girls! You'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on."

"Expect not, miss."

"Come on. Miss Wade's a busy woman."

She showed Helen into the office, then looked enquiringly at Nikki as she stacked her paperwork. "Should I wait outside, ma'am?"

"Please. This isn't going to take long."

Nikki waited silently until the lifer took a seat, then steepled her hands in front of her. "About your cell spin ...."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Helen said, feeling anger blossom in her chest. "Not that again!"

The governor continued as though she hadn't said anything. "I've spoken to the leader of the DST. She agreed with me that the force used during the search of your cell was disproportionate. The member of staff responsible has been spoken to and will be more closely supervised in future."

"But that won't change the basic process. The whole pile of crap where cons get strip-searched and have their space trashed!"

"No. Not as long as we're trying to get rid of drugs. But at least it'll be done by the book."

Helen got to her feet. "I don't like your book, or the language it's written in."

"Understandable, I suppose."

"Can I go now?"


She stalked out of the office, ignoring Di's disapproving look. No doubt she should have been grateful for the crumbs she'd been offered. The fact that it didn't change the way her human rights had been casually trampled over was apparently irrelevant. Bleakly, Helen realised that she was going to have to work extra hard on her self-control for a while. The mood she was in, if anyone even looked at her the wrong way, she was likely to react badly and that would probably mean the block. The more self-aware part of her found it grimly funny that a screw's attempt to apologise, in itself almost unheard of, had actually made her feel worse. As to the other information she had learned today, she would have to think about that after lock up and absorb what it meant. If it meant anything. It wasn't as if Wade was looking inside the prison for her partners.

"OK," Nikki said, calling the meeting of officers to attention. This was the day shift; she'd already given the night shift an edited version of this speech because staff did rotate around, but these were the people she really had to convince. Dominic paid his usual close attention. The others managed to look as if they were at least listening. Nikki leaned forward.

"When I took this job, I made a commitment to try and get rid of drugs on the wing. Simon hasn't signed off my full strategy, but I want to try and get a few elements in place. Break them in gently."

"Emphasis on the break," Fenner commented. "They're not going to co-operate."

"I don't expect them to. But as I showed over the Carol Byatt incident, I think it's up to us to run this prison, not the inmates. This is not a democracy, and they don't get a choice about whether to be high. It should calm things down generally."

"What, with a whole load of cons going through withdrawal?" Fenner commented.

"They do that now when they can't get hold of their fix. And then there's the trouble that drug debts cause, women doing each other little favours, which usually involves breaking the rules .... All in all, this should work better."

"What about treatment?" Dominic asked. "Is any of that going to be available?"

"I've negotiated some ring fenced places with area and some extra medical resource."

The young officer nodded thoughtfully, obviously working the implications through.

"But what about the extra work?" Hollamby asked. "Are we going to get resources for that?"

"There won't be any. We're going to work smarter, not harder."

"Oh?" Fenner asked carefully.

"I've been looking at who gets tested, when and why," Nikki told them. "It's very haphazard. The new strategy is simple. We test anyone who appears to be high, we search people on the way back from their visits, before they get to their cells and have a chance to stash the drugs, and we introduce proper random testing. At the moment, the same names keep popping up. We concentrate on the longer term prisoners. There's no point bothering with the bed and breakfast crew. They're only going to go out and score the minute they leave these walls."

"Isn't that abdicating our responsibility?" Dominic asked.

"No. If we create a drugs-free environment on G wing, the suppliers will go elsewhere. And we will still be searching the short-term inmates and spinning their cells. Just not as much. They shouldn't feel too left out."

"It'll increase tension on the wing," Fenner commented.

"I know. But we can drift along just locking them up, or we can actually try and do our jobs and help these women. Every one who goes out of here still addicted will go back to crime eventually. And that's more neglected children, more grannies being knocked over the head for their pension, more street prostitutes and women dealing drugs to feed their own habit."

She looked around the room, sensing that she had the support of the meeting. She smiled inwardly. She was going to need it for the next part.

"One more thing. We're going to introduce random searches of staff, works and officers. Not just contractors. This is where I need you to police each other. If anyone's acting suspiciously, I want to know about it."

"What?!" Hollamby said. "Spy on our colleagues?"

"None of you are probationers. You know when something's not right. All I'm asking you to do is not to turn a blind eye to it." She shrugged. "Everyone knows that not every rule is followed to the letter. Fair enough. We're all human. Just be aware that if someone is found to be bringing drugs onto the wing, I will be taking a close look at how they managed it and who else should have spotted that something was wrong."

Nikki studied their faces, catching the number of sideways glances officers were exchanging. She knew that her announcement would inevitably cause a stir and that was how she wanted it; if the prison staff who were carrying drugs onto the wing heard about this, and they would with the number of people who had been told, they would inevitably be more careful for awhile. That in itself would be enough to cause a shortage, which, in turn, meant that the addicts would start suffering and might consider coming forward for help. The implied threat to the pensions of officers who turned a blind eye was probably enough to get their co-operation, but she decided to rack up the tension a bit.

"After all, someone who'll smuggle drugs onto the wing is probably prepared to bring other things in. Mobile phones. Weapons. I don't need to tell you how dangerous that could be. Any questions?"

There was a general silence. Nikki nodded and stood. "OK, hit the doors. Jim, Sylvia? My office, later. We can go over this in more detail."

Fenner nodded gloomily and held the door open for her. Nikki thought that showed a remarkable degree of self-control.

Denny nudged Shell as the new inmates came onto the wing, clutching their plastic bags of possessions, and followed Bodybag to the dormitory cell. The blonde looked over. She was momentarily interested by the respectable-looking, older woman in a business suit who formed part of the group and then shrugged, dismissing them.

"Shell!" the younger woman insisted.


"That's Zandra Plackett."

"Which one?"

"Her," Denny insisted, jerking her head at a thin woman in her twenties with dyed blonde hair, a mutinous expression and colourless skin.


"Major league smackhead. Couldn't punch her way out of a paper bag. Owes me money."

A predatory smile spread across Dockley's face. "Right," she said, drawing the word out. "We'd better go and have a word. I believe in people paying their debts."

Denny grinned and followed Shell down the wing, glancing around to see where the screws were.

Helen was preparing to go out when one of the new women, Monica, came into her cell. Well, if walking into an enclosed yard to work on a tiny vegetable patch with guards watching your every movement could be called going out. She looked up from tying her boots, frowning. The middle-aged woman seemed too respectable to be in prison. Her brown hair was short and neatly trimmed, and she wore a brooch at the neck of her pale shirt. In her business suit and plain, sturdy shoes, she looked like the headmistress of a small private school, not a convicted embezzler.

"What?" Helen asked impatiently.

"I need your help. Zandra's been hurt."

Her accent matched her appearance, instantly marking her out as more middle class and better educated than the other inmates. Helen reflected that she might have to tone it down a bit if she didn't want to be picked on.

"I'm not a bloody prefect. Go and talk to the sodding screws!"

"I don't trust the sodding screws," Monica said emphatically.

The Scot blinked at the unexpected swear word, studied her determined face and gave an inward sigh. The older woman obviously wasn't planning to give up. The quickest way of getting rid of her would be to do what she asked - then Helen could get out into the yard. Reluctantly, she followed Monica into the dormitory cell. Zandra was huddled on the upper bunk, folded around the pain in her abdomen. The lifer studied the scrapes and marks on her face and bit her lip. Gently, she put her hand on the younger woman's shoulder.

"Did they use anything sharp?"

In response, Zandra whimpered and pulled her legs closer to her body, refusing to answer the question.

"Look, I'll get you some salt," Helen told her matter of factly. "Monica 'll stay with you while you have a bath, OK?"

The younger woman nodded almost imperceptibly, and she took that as agreement. Monica followed her out of the cell.

"What's happened to her?" she asked.

"She's been decrutched. For her stash."


Exasperated, Helen rounded on her. "How exactly do you think that women get drugs into prison? When they're searched on the way in?"

Realisation dawned on Monica's face. "Oh."

"Go and take care of her. I'll get the salt."

"What if she's been injured?"

"It's up to her whether she wants to go and see Dr. No No. If she does, she'll have to answer questions as to how she got hurt. Not a good idea."

In the end, Helen went out into the garden, where she did her usual rounds visiting some of the other, less experienced inmates and stopping them from killing the plants they were taking care of. She deflected queries about where she'd been with the ease of long practice and looked in on Zandra when she came back onto the wing. The youngster was sleeping fitfully on her bunk, her hands with their close-bitten nails tucked under her chin, while Monica sat nearby, reading a Telegraph she'd found somewhere. Helen smiled cynically.

"Keeping vigil?"

"Just making sure that Blood leaves her alone," Monica said quietly.

"You can't protect her for the rest of her sentence."

"I know that."

The lifer shrugged. "I'll fetch you when it's tea time."

Dominic was finishing up some last-minute paperwork in the wing office when the governor came in. He looked up, acknowledging her, then frowned as she started looking him up and down assessingly. Finally, she spoke.

"I've got a job for you."

"Actually, ma'am, I was just going off duty," he said uneasily.

"I know. I need you this evening."

Dominic blinked and leant back in his chair. "What for?"

"I need a reasonably presentable man who doesn't look like a prison officer."

"Oh?" the young guard said, increasingly puzzled.

"Yeah." Nikki grinned at him and started to make herself a cup of coffee.

"Why me?"

"Jim Fenner might as well have 'property of HMP' stencilled on his forehead. I need someone who can blend in."

"Blend in where?"

"I've read Stewart's journal. It supports her story that she didn't co-operate with the hack who wrote that article."


"So I did a bit of research, made a few phone calls. She's a modern girl, our journalist. She's got a website."

"I'm still not getting what this is about," Dominic said cautiously.

"It's about getting Helen Stewart her privileges back."

Nikki turned away to pour boiling water into her mug. As she added milk, Dominic tried to work out a tactful way of asking the question that had immediately occurred to him. "Ma'am ...."


"Why do you care whether an inmate gets to do activities or not?"

"Because," Nikki said, "I may be hard, but I like to think I'm fair. If I believed Stewart had helped that journalist, she'd be doing the full forty-two days on seg and losing her gardening job. Since she didn't, I don't think she ought to be punished."

"That simple?"

"Pretty much. Are you going to help me?"

"Course. Helen really misses her art classes. You can tell."

"Good. Dress smart casual and meet me on Putney High Street at eight o' clock tonight."

He nodded agreement. As she got to the door, Nikki seemed to be struck by a thought and turned back.

"Oh, and Dominic ...."


"Wear shoes you can run in."

"OK," he said slowly.

"Just a precaution."

"Right," Dominic said to her retreating back, wondering what he had gotten himself into.

Three hours later, he found himself sheltering under a shop awning in Putney High Street, hands jammed into the pockets of his leather jacket as he scanned the traffic for signs of Nikki's battered Toyota. A quick blast of a horn attracted his attention and he spotted her, smartly dressed in a nearly identical outfit of leather jacket and jeans, at the wheel of a black, four-wheel drive Range Rover. She raised a hand and Dominic jogged across the road, jumping into the passenger seat and belting up. Nikki waved cheerily at the queue of traffic she had been holding up, indicated and pulled out into the stream of cars.

"This isn't yours, is it?" he asked.

"I don't earn enough to run a Chelsea tractor," she confirmed. "I borrowed it off a friend for the evening. Got to look the part."

"What part?" Dominic asked. He glanced at the governor's ankle boots, which contrasted with his own rather battered trainers. "And I thought you said something you could run in."

"Oh, don't worry, these are my clubbing boots. They've got me out of more tight situations than you've had cell spins," Nikki said cheerfully. "As to the part ... your mission, Mr. Bond, should you choose to accept it, is to watch my back while I get our journalist friend to admit she stitched Stewart up."

"How the hell are you going to do that?"

"The traditional way. I'm going to get her drunk."

"What? Why should she accept drinks from some woman she's never seen before?"

"Because it's her birthday."

As Dominic stared at her, Nikki swung the car into the parking area of a riverside pub. She parked neatly and killed the engine, then pointed at the building in front of them. "And that is her local. She's on home territory. She'll feel safe."

"I still don't see how you're going to get her to come clean," Dominic protested.

"I have my ways," the brunette said. "Because you're with me, she won't think I'm trying to pick her up. So don't jump a mile if I touch your arm, OK?"

"I guess so long as it's only my arm."

"Don't worry. I won't molest you. We have to work together tomorrow."

"Look, ma'am."


"Nikki. I'm not sure I can do this."

"Why not?"

"I'm not a bloody actor."

"Relax. If you look nervous, they'll just assume you're my toy boy and it's a first date."

"Why do you need a witness, anyway?"

"So that cow can't deny whatever she says to me tonight."

"It might not work."

"Maybe not. But what will we lose? An evening. There's a lot more at stake for Helen Stewart."

Dominic nodded slowly. "Yeah, you're right. You know, if this was any other con but her, I'd be heading for the nearest bus home."

"It's strange, isn't it? For a violent, uncooperative prisoner, she certainly has a way of making friends."

"She's not like that really," Dominic protested. "I know Jim and Sylvia slag her off every chance they get, but she's always been all right with me. To be honest, I think Sylvia winds her up sometimes. And her and Jim have just never hit it off from day one. Don't know why."

He looked honestly puzzled and Nikki kept her mouth shut about the reasons listed in Helen's journal. She didn't think the con would appreciate having her private memories discussed with other staff, however sympathetic. She made a note of Dominic's comments, however. Maybe the boy wasn't as much of a doormat as he seemed - there might be potential there that could be developed. She smiled at him.

"OK. Show time. You ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

"Just follow my lead. Keep your eyes and ears open. You'll be writing a report on this tomorrow morning for Area."

"Well, the edited highlights, anyway," Dominic said, with a twinge of humour in his voice.

Nikki smiled at him and led the way into the bar, slipping a pair of Armani sunglasses onto her head to complete the look she was going for. Behind her, Dominic followed, slightly diffident, despite his brave words. That was fine by Nikki - it meant they were projecting the image she wanted. Older, well-off woman with her younger boyfriend. Maybe married to someone else who was currently away on a business trip, or maybe just with a well-paid job and no one to answer to as to how she spent her money. She took Dominic's arm as they got to the bar and was pleased when he didn't flinch. First test passed, then.

As they waited to be served, she leant back against the bar and sized up the clientele. It was actually a type of crowd she was familiar with - young, casually dressed rugby-playing types with their bleached blond girlfriends. Braying loudly and exchanging in-jokes as they knocked back imported, bottled beer and talked about their status symbol holidays and jobs and cars. Of course, in the crowd Nikki had served drinks to, the rugby players hadn't been male, but the dynamics were essentially the same. Nikki smiled vaguely at the couple of people who had glanced over at her and turned back as the barman appeared.

"What's yours?" Dominic said, getting his wallet out. She made a mental note to repay him later.

"Just tonic water." She grinned ruefully at the barman. "Antibiotics," she said. He nodded, not really interested, and served them. As he handed over the change, Nikki caught his eye.

"Actually, we're a bit late. Is Hattie still here?"


"She's a friend of a friend. It's her birthday. I wanted to buy her a drink. Blonde girl. About this tall."

The barman frowned, then his face cleared. He pointed over at a table in the corner of the pub occupied by a group of young women in short dresses, handbags shoved next to their feet. They were clearly having a great time. Their raucous laughter echoed across the pub, and as Nikki watched, one of them dragged a wine bottle out of a bucket of melted ice and then made a mock-disappointed face when it turned out to be empty. She put it back into the bucket, neck down. Water splashed over the side and made a puddle on the table. The girl tried ineffectually to wipe it up with a beer mat and then gave up the attempt as one of her friends started to show her a stack of photos. That led to a round of handing the photos to each other and exclaiming over them amid much drunken laughter and many comments of "Oh my God, I don't believe it!" uttered in a variety of London and faux-Californian accents.

Nikki scanned the group, assessing its mood and identifying the woman who had to be Hattie. She had changed her hairstyle for something more elaborate since her prison staff photo or, more likely, changed it back to its real style, but the basic shape of the face was the same. It gave her away even without the concealing glasses she had adopted while working at the art class.

"Right," Nikki said. She attracted the barman's attention. "Can I get a couple of bottles of that wine, please? Chilled?"

"Sure," the barman said. "But get them to go steady, would you? They've been drinking since three, four o' clock this afternoon."

"I'll make sure they behave," Nikki said reassuringly and held out a couple of notes. The barman looked doubtful, but went to get the alcohol.

Dominic, who had been quietly sipping his pint, cleared his throat. "Nikki, do you think this is a good idea?"

"I don't generally bother with bad ones," Nikki said. "Besides, don't worry. They're so drunk that if they start chasing you round the table, they'll trip over their own feet." She accepted the ice bucket from the barman. "Carry my drink, will you?"

Sensing that he was about to lose his nerve, she forced the issue by leading the way over to the table and putting the wine down in front of Hattie. By some miracle, there were two empty seats and she hovered next to them, silently willing Dominic to play along.

Hattie, who had been talking to someone at the other end of the table, turned back and stilled as she registered the full bottles of wine in front of her.

"For the birthday girl," Nikki said.

"Oh, right," Hattie said, smiling vaguely. "Do I know you?"

"In a way. I'm a friend of a friend. Kate? She said you'd be here tonight. I was expecting to meet her here, to be honest. Has she been and gone?"

"No," the journalist said blearily. "But what the hell. Anyone who buys me wine on my birthday has to be OK. Sit down!"

"Are you sure?" Nikki said, letting uncertainty seep into her voice. "I don't want to impose."

"No probs. Specially when you've got a gorgeous bloke like that in tow," Hattie said with drunken candour. Dominic blushed and sat gingerly down on the edge of the chair next to his boss, feeling acutely uncomfortable. The attention of most of the women at both tables had now switched to him, and he was beginning to appreciate how the average entree in a restaurant felt. He smiled weakly and tried to sit with his legs together. It didn't help. Hattie leant across to Nikki and stage whispered, "Has he got a brother?"

Nikki grinned. "I don't know. I haven't been seeing him that long. I keep him around for decorative purposes. Don't I, Dominic?"

"Like the name," Hattie said.

"Mine's Nikki. If you're nice to him, you might get a birthday kiss."

"Wouldn't you mind?"

"Not my place to mind. Our arrangement isn't that … serious." Nikki quirked her eyebrows and took a drink of her tonic. "Anyway, I'd better keep my mouth shut about my living arrangements. Kate warned me you were a hotshot journalist. Don't want to end up on page ten."

"Don't worry," the blonde said, waving a casual hand. Nikki uncorked the wine and refilled her glass. "I do serious stuff. Reportage. Social issues." She took a long swallow of wine, half-emptying the glass. "My last piece was about a woman's prison."

Dominic tensed. Surely it couldn't be this easy. Then he looked at the number of empties scattered across the surface of the table and realised that, actually, it could. He had to hand it to his wing gov - she was displaying unguessed-at abilities in deception. Right now, she was sitting close to Hattie, apparently hanging on her every word, but with just enough disbelief in her face and posture to provoke the other woman into further comments.

"Blimey. How did you get permission?"

"I didn't," Hattie said, obviously well pleased at her own cleverness.

"Don't you need background checks and stuff before you can do something like that?" Nikki asked.

"Supposed to. And they have a special tour they save for journalists," the younger woman confided drunkenly. "It's all bullshit. Gives out the image they like to present." She shook her head. "Been done before. I knew I'd have to…" she cleared her throat, "do something different to get published."

"So what did you do?"

"Interviewed a few people, ex-cons. Got some dirt. Then I got lucky."


"Saw a job inside. Went for it. Easy."

"Christ," Nikki said, apparently impressed. "That was a big risk, wasn't it? What if they'd found out?"

"What if they had? Failed journalist trying to make an honest living. I used to be a teacher. Got the qualification. Good enough for an assistant any day."

She took another swallow of wine, sloshing the liquid in the glass slightly as she put it down. "Then I just … kept my eyes and ears open. They don't even search you properly after the first week. Took the Dictaphone in under their noses. Smuggled the tapes in and out after that."

"That must have taken a lot of nerve," Dominic said.

"Did. But it had to be done. Is there any more wine?"

"I think so. There," Nikki said easily, refilling the blonde's glass.

"Remind me how I know you again?"

"Friend of a friend."

"Oh, yeah. Where was I?"

"You were just telling us about the interviews you did," Nikki said.


"Did you get anybody good? Any murderers? Myra Hindley? Anybody like that?"

Hattie shook her head. "Nah."

"That must have been boring. Kate said your article was quite juicy."

"Well, I might have spiced it up a bit. Changed a few quotes."

"Made things up, you mean?" Dominic said cautiously. Nikki kicked him lightly under the table and he winced.

"Don't be stupid, Dominic," she said warningly. "I bet those women are only too glad to tell their stories. Everyone wants to be famous, right?"

"Yeah," Hattie agreed owlishly. "But I couldn't blow my cover, could I?"

"So how did you manage?"

"Talked to them and used the best bits." She shrugged. "It would have been good if I could have got some of the murderers to talk, but the one in the art class was a close-mouthed cow. Wouldn't give me the time of day."

Nikki took a sip of her tonic. "Wasn't she in your article?"

"Yeah. But ...." the journalist tapped the side of her nose, nearly missing it. Dominic was amazed that Nikki didn't seem to be having any problems understanding her. He was having trouble picking out the words by now. Hattie leant close, as though to share a confidence.

"Ghost-wrote her stuff."


"Asked around. The other women talked about her. Easy enough."

She had moved forward to make the confession, elbow propped on the table. Now, as Dominic watched, she almost slid onto the floor and just caught herself, gripping the arm of her chair. As she righted herself from her half-crouching position, her gaze fell on the side pocket of Nikki's leather handbag, from which the whirring of the Dictaphone was faintly audible. She turned a peculiar shade of green under her makeup. Before either of them could stop, her she fumbled the zip open, confirming her suspicions. She lifted her eyes to Nikki's face, as if mesmerised. "Shit," she said, suddenly sober. "You bitch."

"Got that right," Nikki said grimly, reaching down and switching off the recording device. Dominic noted that she both took a firm grip on her bag and moved it out of the blonde's reach. "But, of course, it takes one to know one."

"I didn't give my consent," Hattie slurred. "You can't use that in court."

"I know," Nikki said. "Pity. I think a stay in Larkhall might do you some good. Give you a chance to dry out, if nothing else, but that's not what it's for. Come on, Dominic. I think the fun just went out of the party. Let's go home."

She stood up quickly and Dominic followed suit, uneasily aware that Hattie's friends were not all as drunk as she was and that some of them were getting to their feet. The PO wasn't sure that he could fight off six or eight people, even if they were women. A couple of them seemed to have friends amongst the other clientele - he could see some of the rugby players on the other side of the bar beginning to take an interest. Unobtrusively, he tried to get between Nikki and the group as he scanned for the nearest exit.

"All right," he said, hands open and spread out. "No need for any trouble. We're going."

"Not with that Dictaphone, you're not," Hattie said. She seemed to have mostly sobered up in the last two minutes, and her speech had become much clearer. Dominic would have preferred her to stay drunk. He stepped back as the women surged forward and realised uneasily that he was now standing next to Nikki, who was very calm, but didn't seem to actually have planned a way out of their situation or to appreciate the need to leave quickly.

"Over to you, boss," he said quietly.

"Give me the tape and you can leave," the journalist said stridently. "You had no right to record me without my permission."

"It's what you did, isn't it?" Nikki asked.

"That's different! they're criminals. They deserve everything that happens to them."

Nikki looked around at her friends, most of whom were nodding agreement with the blonde's sentiments. She looked disgusted.

"You know," she said quietly, "compared to you, they're honest."

Hattie tensed with rage and the situation might have seriously escalated if two large men in black jackets and earpieces with very short haircuts hadn't appeared and moved to stand between Nikki and the journalist. They both looked easily capable of breaking anyone in the room in two with their bare hands if they so chose. the atmosphere suddenly calmed down as even the most worked up of the partygoers seemed to realise the fact.

The older man, who seemed to be in charge, looked Nikki up and down and raised his eyebrows. "Do we have a problem?"

"I wasn't causing any trouble. I just want to leave quietly."

"Good," the bouncer said. "That, I can arrange."

He waved the crowd aside with one ham-like hand and they parted, helped by the fact that his younger, more thuggish-looking friend was also making a pathway to the door. Dominic, who had come across more than a few heavies in his time in the prison service, watched the way the younger man was moving people aside and decided he was the hands-on type. The older one, by contrast, was probably more technical. He looked like a black-jack and knuckle-dusters kind of hard man to Dominic. The PO heaved an internal sigh of relief as Nikki apparently decided to go quietly and not make trouble. He had no illusions about how long he'd be likely to last in a fight with those two.

Hattie chose that moment to put a spanner in the works by shouting. "She's got my property. I want it back!"

"What property's that, miss?" the younger heavy asked.

"The tape in the Dictaphone. She was recording me without my permission!"

The hands-on thug turned his head towards Nikki. Dominic watched the creases form in the flesh on the back of his neck as he did so. "Is this true?"

"Yeah. Your point?"

"I think I need the tape, miss."

"Piss off," Nikki said contemptuously.

In response, the dominant one stepped into her space and stood over her. Dominic realised with horrified fascination that he wasn't just a foot taller than Nikki - he was also twice as wide. He held out a meaty hand, palm upwards, and the brunette looked at it with cool insolence, as though it was nothing to do with her.

"Less of your lip. Tape, now."

"Come on, miss," the younger one said. "We don't like hitting women."

"You leave her alone!" Dominic said, slightly surprised to hear himself speak aloud. The technical bone-breaker grinned lazily at him. "Brave boy. Now, miss, are you going to be sensible or do I take you both outside?"

Nikki glanced round at the watching crowd, shrugged and took the tape from the Dictaphone, placing it carefully in the bouncer's hand.

"Sure you don't want to check us for a wire?" she asked.

"Don't think so. Out."

"My pleasure," Nikki said, and left. She did it slowly enough for her exit to be a statement. Dominic followed with considerably less swagger, just glad it had ended peacefully.

Once in the car park, they got into the Range Rover under the impassive gaze of the bouncers. Nikki gave them a little wave as she drove off. A short while later, she parked up at the side of the road and sat, tapping the steering wheel, while Dominic tried to calm down.

"Well, that was a total waste of time," McAllister said bitterly.

"You think so?"

"I know so. We lost the tape!"

"You heard everything."

"You think those bastards at Area 'll take the risk on the say-so of a junior officer? Specially with the reputation Helen's got. They'll weasel out of it somehow. You watch."

"I think you're right," Nikki said thoughtfully. Strangely, she didn't sound upset. Dominic glanced across at her and realised that she was watching something in the rear view mirror. He glanced at it and stiffened in alarm. The two bouncers were coming up the pavement towards the car, their calm, purposeful stride more menacing than a run would have been,

"Jesus, boss! Drive!"

"Why?" Nikki said casually. "I'm waiting for them."


As Dominic watched, she opened her door and swung her legs out onto the pavement, grinning broadly. The heavies, who looked quite human now they were returning her smile, stopped and glanced down the road before the older one reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out the Dictaphone tape, which he handed to her.

"There you go, boss. Safe and sound."

"What the hell is going on?" the PO asked helplessly.

"Dominic, meet Steve and Richard, two gentlemen who sometimes work the door at a club owned by a friend of mine. The same one who lent me this car, in fact."

"Oh. Right. So that situation back there…"

"Was an exit strategy. Insurance."

"Bloody hell! You could have warned me!"

"I wasn't sure it'd happen that way," Nikki said calmly. "They were just in case."

"That whole thing took about six months off my life!" Dominic protested and then noticed that the older thug was looking at him with something like respect.

"He didn't know and he still squared up to me? Kid's got guts."

"Yeah, too many sometimes," Nikki said wryly. "Look, you up for dropping us back home?"

She turned to Dominic. "We can debrief in the morning."

"Sure," the PO said, still trying to take it all in. He put out a hand as something occurred to him. "How did you square it with the guy who normally runs security at that place? Didn't he mind you just waltzing in?"

"He might, except you're talking to him," Steve said. "I had a word with the owner, told him I needed to show a new member of staff the ropes on a quiet night and he agreed."

"Oh, right."

Nikki gave Steve the keys and Dominic sat next to him and gave directions to his address. When they got there, he glanced at the living room window and gave a small, inward sigh of relief when he saw that the house was in darkness. His parents hadn't waited up for him, as he half-feared they would. He got out, nodding his thanks to the burly, older man. He was reaching for his house keys when Nikki rolled her window down to speak to him.

"I couldn't have done it without you tonight. Thanks."

"Don't mention it. Anytime."

He thought about it and turned back to her. "One thing, though, boss ...."


"Next time you ask me out for a drink? I'm probably going to refuse."

Nikki walked onto the yard and headed over towards Dominic, who was supervising the exercise period. He greeted her with a nod, his eyes still roaming across the prisoners.

"How did it go?"

"You want to give her the good news, or shall I?"

"Really? That's brilliant!" he said with unforced pleasure, confirming Nikki's view of him as an essentially decent bloke. She was a bit giddy herself. Simon had planned to continue the embargo on Helen returning to her art classes 'until further notice', but faced with the evidence of the tape, he'd had no choice but to agree that that was an unreasonable attitude. He'd dressed it up with a lot of talk about not entirely approving of her methods and a semi-joking comment that when he'd said he needed a taped confession, he hadn't actually meant her to follow up on it, but they both knew Nikki had won.

"It should be you, shouldn't it?" Dominic said. "You organised it."

"Yeah, but I couldn't have done it without you. You have to work with Stewart every day. And you had to go through all the stress of not knowing what was going on."

The young PO nodded, conceding her point. "All right. Put like that ..... Thanks, boss."

"Don't mention it."

As she headed back into Larkhall, the governor glanced across and saw him walking determinedly towards Stewart's potting shed. She was just preparing to go inside when Monica detained her with a question about visiting privileges. By the time she'd explained it to the older woman's satisfaction, the lifer was standing nearby, outwardly perfectly polite, but radiating tension, with McAllister hovering in the background. Nikki sighed. It seemed that nothing was good enough news for this prisoner. When she spoke, the Scot's voice was low and dangerous.

"I want a word with you."

Dominic flinched and Nikki shook her head imperceptibly at him before gripping Stewart firmly by the elbow and moving her along to a quiet corner, out of earshot of the rest of the inmates, though she had no doubt that the encounter was being watched. As soon as they got to the lee of the wall, Stewart shook her arm free and faced her, scowling.

"What the fuck is going on?"

"You're off the hook and I'm restoring your privileges. That's good news, isn't it?"

"So the bitch that set me up is going to be in here soon?" Helen challenged.

"That's not how it works," the taller woman said wearily. "We got the evidence to clear you. Just be realistic, OK?"

"Oh, I'm very realistic. I understand that the only reason I have the things that shouldn't have been taken away in the first place is because you went outside the system. It's not because there's any fairness or justice involved!"

"Well, maybe not," Nikki retorted. "But we got the right outcome."

"So the end justifies the means?"

"Yes, it does."

"Typical fucking screw. Still, I suppose you couldn't work in here if you cared about doing what was right."

"OK," the brunette said, feeling her anger rise and controlling it with an effort. Somehow, her normal strategy of not letting the inmates get to her, whatever they said, didn't work with this woman. "You don't want your privileges? Have it your way. I'm putting you on report for insolence. That gives you another week to decide whether to go back to your classes or not. There are plenty of others who would be glad of the opportunity. Get to work."

Helen glared at her and then walked away, obviously deciding not to make things worse. The governor studied her clenched fists and taut shoulders, glad that she hadn't had to escalate the confrontation to make her point. She didn't actually like browbeating prisoners, though it was sometimes a necessary part of the job. She had seen too many situations get out of hand during her career. She glanced at Dominic, aware that he was staring after Stewart, a worried frown on his face.

"I think I should go and talk to her."

"You do that," Nikki said. "But I'm not taking her off report."

"Wouldn't expect you to. Why did she throw it in our faces like that?"

"Guess she believes in truth and righteousness," Nikki said. "Strange attitude for a con, but there you are."

She headed off to her office, where another pile of paperwork was waiting. As she left, she saw McAllister walking towards the potting shed and mentally wished him luck.

Helen looked up and scowled as Dominic came into her shed.

"What's this? Good cop, bad cop?"

"No, it's me asking you why you're taking the attitude you are. Miss Wade put herself on the line for you. With the governor as well. Why are you throwing it back in her face?"

"You really don't get it, do you?"

"So explain it to me."

"I don't know if I can."

"Sounds like there's nothing to explain, then."

The Scot sighed. "It's hard because you're not a con. You haven't been there. You don't know what it's like to be treated as a second-class citizen."

"What, you're going to refuse the chance of doing your classes again because of your pride?"

"It's not pride. It's ... wanting to be treated like a human being. With some respect!"

"I don't get it."

"That's obvious."

"Isn't the fact that Miss Wade put her safety on the line enough for you?"

"It's the fact she shouldn't have had to," Helen said tiredly. "Look, let's just leave it, OK?"

Dominic frowned, chewing his lip, then left the shed. The lifer folded her arms and tried to control her frustration. It was like trying to explain that water was wet to a fish and just about as pointless.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

They watch us constantly. How many times have I heard baby screws being told - 'Never take your eyes off the cons. You can't trust them.'

They're not far wrong, of course. But what they don't seem to realise is that they are the ones that make the pressure cooker simmer - their eyes are what make the women anxious and the temperature rise on the wing. For every petty rule they enforce, it gets worse. Until ...Until people can't take anymore and get hurt. It's the only thing I agree with the Centurion about. An easy regime is better for everyone. Not that I agree with his definition of "easy". I almost prefer the new governor's point of view to that. She's a harsh, rigid screw, but at least she plays by the rules and holds herself to them. It's the only definition of honesty there is in here.

Helen sat quietly in the row of plastic chairs at the back of the visitor's area, ignoring the glares she was getting from the DST, who were still a constant presence on the wing. Instead, she watched the interaction between the inmates and their families, talking to each other, leaning across tables to kiss, children playing, apparently oblivious to the tension between their parents. After a while, she glanced at her watch again and suppressed a small feeling of disappointment. It looked like the only visiting order she'd ever sent out of Larkhall wasn't going to be used. She wondered if she could ask to be taken back to her cell.


She looked up, startled, as Sean waved from by the door and stood slowly to cross the room and take a seat opposite him. He waited until she sat down before he joined her - his public school instilled manners coming out. Helen knew that if he'd been allowed to be on the same side of the table, he would have held the chair back for her. She took a deep breath, fighting her nerves, and studied him. He hadn't changed much.

Still slim and tanned, with an expression of cheerful assurance that looked out of place, considering the situation. His brown hair flopped over his forehead; he hadn't altered his style. Helen could imagine him bounding through a French window and asking if anyone wanted a game of tennis; he had that stereotyped look, tall and graceful, the privileged youth who'd never had to work hard for anything. He exuded effortless confidence, as usual. It had taken a while for her to see through it when they first met and realise how insecure he could be underneath that facade.

He was quite formally dressed for him, in a corduroy jacket over his open-necked shirt and jeans, but she noticed that he still wore tennis shoes. His default choice for everything except funerals and meetings with the bank manager. She could feel him looking at her in his turn. She wondered what he saw. What he thought of it.

"Sorry I'm late," he said. "The traffic was a bitch. I didn't expect all of the procedures you have to go through to get in here, either."

"They're fewer than the ones to get out. How have you been, Sean?"

"Good. You?"

Helen smiled ironically and he blushed and ducked his head. "I mean ...."

"Considering I'm banged up for manslaughter? Not bad."

"Christ, I feel like an idiot now."

"Don't worry. I'm used to it. How does the new woman get on with putting up with you?"

"Oh, Janet's great ...." He broke off, startled. "How do you know about her?"

"That shirt," Helen told him. "You'd never have chosen it for yourself. And I know your mother's taste, remember?"

"Oh, right ...."

Sean seemed to run out of steam and looked around the room. He leant towards her and pointed at the DST, covering the movement with his body. "Who the hell are those people?"

"Anti-drugs squad. Don't worry. I'll protect you."

Sean grinned and then sobered. "You always did, didn't you, Hels?"

"What d'you mean?" the lifer asked, genuinely puzzled.

"Gossard was threatening me."

"I know that. It's why I stabbed him."

"Why didn't your lawyer say that at the trial?"

"He didn't know. I never told him."

"But it might have helped your case," Sean said urgently "If you'd been able to show Gossard was corrupt, you might have got off."

"No." Helen shook her head. "That's not how the pigs work. They close ranks. All that would have done is landed you in prison as well. Why ruin two lives?"

"I still feel like I let you down."

"You did what your parents said. As usual," Helen said flatly. "They were never happy about us. I can see their point. I wasn't much of a catch."

Impulsively, Sean put out his hand and covered hers. "You were enough for me."

"Sean." The Scot paused, trying to find a kind way to say it. "You were smoking dope nearly every day. I was drinking too much. We weren't good for each other."

She caught his eyes, her face set in the expression that meant she expected the truth and he dropped his gaze, unable to contradict her. "I still loved you."

"I know. That's the pity of it."

He brightened. "And we were great in bed together. You have to admit that."

Helen looked away and then berated herself when she saw his face fall. Still the little boy in so many ways, looking for approval. It was why he'd gone along with his parents when they persuaded him to sell Helen out, appoint a separate legal team and put all the blame on her. It was what had enabled her to run their relationship, really, what had kept her with him even when things got bad. As long as she was in charge, she felt safe. Which meant she could ignore the ways the whole thing was spiralling out of control, his lies and dodgy friends turning into something toxic that would destroy both of them.

They would never see each other again; she could afford to be kind. She resolutely put the question of whether that meant it was morally right to lie to one side and smiled at him. "Sorry. Just thinking back."

He thought he understood her, and matched her smile. "Yeah. Good times, right?"

"They were, yes."

He cleared his throat. "You know, you're different than I expected."


"I was a bit nervous about coming. I remembered you as scarier."

"Maybe I was. Once you've done a few tours down the block, that gets knocked out of you."

"The block?"

"Solitary confinement. The punishment unit."

"That's barbaric!"

"It's prison, Sean. I prefer the block to the alternatives."

"Like what?" he asked.

"Nothing pleasant. Loss of privileges, that sort of thing," Helen said, glancing away to hide her amusement. She found that she was looking at the new governor, who had chosen that moment to come into the visitor's room, and pulled her gaze swiftly back to Sean. He picked up on the movement and stared openly, studying Wade's back as she went to the officer in charge and began discussing something in the paperwork.

"Who's that?"

"The new commandant. Governor of G wing. Mistress of my fate and captain of my soul."

"She's …erm."

"Not bad looking?"

"I was going to say, professional."

"Sure. Look, I won't tell Janet if you don't."

"OK," he said, relieved. Helen shook her head.

"Sean .…"


"I don't know her last name and address. D'you think a letter 'd reach her?"

"No, I guess not."

Carter was patrolling. She paused malevolently by the table, looming over them both.

"You enjoying your visit, Stewart? Telling your boyfriend about what goes on in here?"

"No, miss," Helen said tightly. "Just the highlights. And for your information? That doesn't include you."

"You watch it, Stewart. I've got my eye on you."

"I know," Helen said. "You're seeing less of me than at our last meeting, though, aren't you?"

Carter scowled and stalked off. Helen watched her go. Sean drew her attention by placing his hand on her arm.

"What was all that about?"

"Long story. It doesn't matter."

An awkward silence descended. Helen glanced unobtrusively at the clock, gauging how long they had left. She could tell that Sean was starting to find the situation difficult. She kept her tone light.

"So, how's the business going?"

"Oh, great. Janet's good with the customers. A bit like you used to be. All the contracts you put in place are still running, and she's managed to get a couple of new ones. We're probably going to have to hire more staff soon."

"You'll be on the cover of the business magazines before you know where you are."

"Yeah. Look, Helen, that's sort of what I came to talk to you about."


"You still own twenty per cent of the company. Remember?"


"So Janet thinks we ought to buy you out. Give us more control. Make things easier with the bank."

"Yes, I can imagine that must be an awkward conversation," Helen said lightly.

"We'd pay you a fair market value. Get an independent accountant to value the company. You can nominate them. But we do want to go ahead. Sooner rather than later."

"Why now, Sean?"

"Well, we're getting married, and Janet thinks it's time to tidy things up."

"I see. She's right."

Sean looked slightly hurt. "You're OK with it?"

"I can hardly expect you to wait for me," Helen said. Even if you hadn't sold me out, she added mentally. "I agree. Call it my wedding present to you both."

"That's … good of you."

"Simple enough decision. By the time I get out of here … well, I doubt I'll be young enough to do any heavy digging."

Sean flinched. "Hels .…"

"Don't," Helen told him. "Just leave it, OK. Get the papers drawn up and I'll sign them. I trust you not to rip me off."

She looked across the visiting area to where Monica was talking to a nun, her face worried as she questioned her about her son's welfare. The Scot could understand the older woman's concern. She hadn't realised that Spencer had Down's Syndrome before she saw him. She didn't like to think how worrying Monica must find it to be stuck in Larkhall, unable to take care of him or to explain to him why she had left him on his own. The nun seemed to be trying to reassure her, unsuccessfully, judging by the expression on Monica's face. Spencer, meanwhile, was looking around, clearly not really understanding what was going on.

Then the DST made their move and all hell broke loose. Helen jumped to her feet, sensitised by the prison environment to react quickly, as Carter sprinted past her to drag a black man with dreadlocks away from a table at the back of the room. She was vaguely aware of Sean swearing in shocked surprise as he watched events unfold. She saw how distressed Spencer was and watched as Monica clung to him, trying to calm him down and reassure him that everything was all right. Then the two Julies intervened, starting to clap as though it was all some sort of insane game. Helen joined in, nudging Sean to make him participate.

"Clap!" she hissed

He looked at her and did as he was told, looking worriedly on as the DST's target was dragged to his feet and frog-marched out of the visiting area, and the woman he had been seeing was taken, crying, back into the prison. Gradually, things calmed down and the clapping became ragged and stopped as Spencer joined in, beaming at everyone and, happy again, sitting back down. Helen watched as Monica managed to compose herself so as not to upset her son. She noticed that the new governor didn't seem to have turned a hair, even as she joined in the clapping and ordered the POs to do the same. Used to it, she supposed. She glanced back at Sean. He was still looking around him, trying to gauge if anything else was going to happen.

"It's all right. Show's over," she reassured him.

"Bloody hell! How often does this sort of thing go on? This place is a madhouse!"

"That was mild. Don't worry about it."

Sean bit his lip, visibly shaken.

"Look, Helen, my car's on a meter."

"Then go," she said. "I'll expect a letter."

They both stood. Sean was awkward, obviously unsure of how to end the meeting. Helen settled it by kissing him lightly on the cheek and walking away, not looking back as she stood by the door, waiting for the screw to let her through. She found herself curiously thoughtful as she went back to the wing. With some surprise, she identified her emotion as relief. Another piece of her outside life dealt with and packed away. One more unfinished item of business with a line drawn under it. Confirming, as though she didn't already know it, that this was all she was now. A convict.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Couldn't sleep last night; thinking about the trial and what Sean did. Going over and over it in my head until I was so worked up I'd counteracted the effects of my meditation. Began to want Bacchus again. So I stood and listened to the night calls to take my mind off it. We'd had a new intake and there was the usual cacophony - people shouting threats and promises, doing deals, reacquainting themselves with friends they'd been inside with before and lost touch with. And suddenly, as I leant against the wall, it came to me. I saw myself from the outside and wondered when did this get to be familiar, normal ... even comforting. When did it get to be routine?

Helen frowned as she watched the interaction between Dockley and Rachel, aware that it was passing under the screws' radar. The queue was moving, more or less, and that was all they cared about. Unless an actual riot broke out in the mess hall, they didn't really listen to what inmates said to each other, and to the uninformed, it sounded as though Shell was just doing her job by refusing to give the pale short timer the food she wanted on the grounds that she was on a special diet.

Like all of the other inmates watching, Helen knew the real reason for her behaviour. Shell had decided that Rachel was a threat to her, a rival for Fenner's affections, and was taking it out on the thin, miserable girl just because she could. The screws were oblivious, and none of the cons dared to make a stand. As she had the thought, Helen sighed. This was a situation where she had to be seen to intervene or lose face. Not that she would have let Dockley get away with tormenting the weaker woman in any event.

While she thought anybody who got involved with Fenner was basically stupid or naive, she didn't blame Hicks for her decision to seek what she saw as protection. The girl had been struggling ever since she got into Larkhall, sent there because the judge hadn't liked her responses in court, when she would have been far better suited to an open prison or somewhere with a mother and baby unit with a place for her and her child.

Helen had seen Rachel in the first few weeks, huddled in her cell, crying helplessly as she mourned her separation from her daughter. That grief had settled down to a listless depression. Helen had no doubt as to why Fenner had targeted her. Like all predators, he could sense vulnerability, and the young mother was a pretty good candidate for not making it through at all. Unless she was supported.

Helen slid her tray along, nodding to Dawn as the dark-haired, podgy inmate served her with a portion of the shepherd's pie, and took the opportunity to intervene.

"Dockley? What's going on?"

Shell glanced at her, aware she'd been caught out, and ostentatiously checked her list. "Oh, sorry! I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on. What am I like? There you go, Rachel. Pizza. Just like you asked for."

The lifer turned away. With her mind still on the encounter, she wasn't as careful as normal and cannoned into someone.

"Watch out, you idiot!" she said, steadying her tray before looking up and meeting the eyes of the wing governor.

Gritting her teeth, she gave in to the inevitable. "Sorry."

"No, my fault," Wade said easily. She nodded down at the sketchbook Helen had balanced beside her plate. "Still drawing, then?"

"Yeah. Can I go now? I'm hungry."

"Just wondered if you'd started classes again."

"Haven't made my mind up."

"Have it your way."

"Why not? I've got all the time in the world in here."

"That's one way of looking at it."

Helen slouched deliberately over to a table and sat down, turning the matter over in her mind as she worked her way through her meal. She did want to go back to her art class, but the whole thing still stuck in her throat. Her privileges had been arbitrarily taken away from her, and she'd only got them back because Wade had been prepared to take some insane risks that were well outside her job description.

Although part of her was grateful, another feared giving the other woman that sort of power over her. The Scot was uneasily aware that, given the chance, she could find herself giving in to the governor in a way that could destroy the whole survival strategy she'd worked out for herself when she'd been locked up. Ever since she'd made that decision, she'd kept every screw at arm's length - it was safer, not that she wanted to get friendly with pigs like Fenner or vindictive bitches like Bodybag. This one was different. Something about how she was spoke to a small, unwilling corner of Helen that wanted to trust another person again and take the risk that just for once, the system might work as it was supposed to. Inwardly, the lifer caught herself and shook her head. Why didn't she just start believing in the Tooth Fairy while she was about it?

Helen was waiting for her turn in the laundry room when Cheryl appeared beside her. The normally gloomy drug dealer was bubbling with excitement.

"Here, Stewart!"

"What?" Helen asked.

"My boy!"

"What about him?"

"He wrote to me. He bleeding wrote to me!"

"That's good news," the Scot said quietly.

Cheryl's son was in a young offender's institution halfway up the country, and the woman had been devastated when she found out, even more so when she had learned that he was being bullied. After seeing her silent withdrawal day after day, witnessing her cutting her arms, and finding out that the boy wouldn't respond to her letters, Helen had agreed to help by illustrating a story his mother had written for him. Personally, she hadn't believed it would achieve anything, but found she couldn't face the thought of the woman self-harming any more. Besides, the challenge of learning a new drawing style had been interesting, and the dealer had paid generously in art supplies and phone cards. In the end, it had become a comic book, complete with three-colour cover.

"He said it was the best birthday present he'd ever had," Cheryl announced, her voice breaking with pride. "He couldn't believe I'd done it for him."

She paused and then took a deep breath. "He's going to keep writing, and he says he can be strong now he knows I'm thinking of him. He's going to do his time and go straight when he gets out. He won't make the mistakes I made."

"I'm glad," Helen said.

"He's even going to classes. Anything you want, Stewart. Anything, any time. You just ask. You got it. That's a promise."

Personally, Helen doubted that she'd ever want anything more from Cheryl. She didn't do drugs and she'd been well paid for her work. Still, there was no point antagonising the other woman unnecessarily. "I'll bear it in mind. Thanks," she promised.

The Scot was coming out of the shower when she saw Dockley, counted the number of women she had with her, and realised there was going to be trouble. While Shell normally travelled with an entourage, she didn't usually bother bringing them along at bath time. Not unless she intended to make use of them.

Outwardly, Helen gave no sign that she'd realised that anything was wrong. She crossed the bathroom towards the mirrors, casually retying the belt on her dressing gown, seemingly making sure that the knot was secure. That gave her an excuse to put her sponge bag and towel down on the side and free up her hands. Leaning on the counter by the sinks, apparently checking her reflection, she used the movement to stretch out her shoulders while simultaneously checking out the positioning of the women in the room. She took a couple of deep breaths, centring herself. That meant that when Dockley grabbed her arm and tried to spin her round, it didn't work.

Instead, Helen converted the momentum into a hard, backward strike with her elbow, impacting squarely into Shell's solar plexus. The blonde staggered away and steadied herself with difficulty. Helen took the opportunity to turn round. The other woman was still bent over, fighting for breath. Beside her, Denny glared at the Scot, fists clenched.

"What d'you do that for? She only wanted to talk!"

"I don't let people lay hands on me. And we have nothing to talk about."

"Yes, you do," Denny said truculently.

Helen studied her and realised what the encounter was really about. Dockley wanted to cement Blood's loyalty to her after the stresses the fashion show had put on their relationship. And it seemed that the younger woman, uncomfortable at being out of Shell's orbit, with all the benefits it brought, was going to let it happen.

Which meant that Helen had two choices. Let herself be used like a punch bag as an object lesson to anyone who might dare to try and cross Shell Dockley, or fight. She kept her face impassive, even as she worked out who to hit first. Given the choice, the lifer preferred pain today to humiliation for the foreseeable future. The blonde had obviously forgotten what a good brawler she was. It was time to reinforce previous lessons.

"About what?" she asked, deliberately relaxed. She could see some of the women on the fringes of the group glancing uneasily at each other as her eyes roamed over them and smiled to herself. A remembered voice spoke in a Russian accent in her head: 'If they are untrained, separate them. You can do this with words, with blows, with how you behave. Your choice. Only recognise their division and exploit it.'

"Shell?" Denny asked uncertainly.

Dockley stood straighter and folded her arms. "I heard you had a visitor."

"Old news."

"Didn't think you hung out with drug dealers."

Helen was shocked by how much the blonde knew and realised that it had shown for an unguarded second. It was enough. Dockley stepped closer, pressing her advantage. "Thought you was too high and mighty for all that."

"Piss off! He was a small time-user who sold a bit of dope to friends on the side, mostly to fund his own habit. Nothing to do with me."

"Really? Then why is he visiting you in the nick? He bringing stuff in for you?"

"What?" Helen asked, genuinely incredulous. "Not everything is about drugs, and I don't have to discuss my business with you. So get lost."

"I think he is," Dockley said, apparently oblivious.

Around her, the other women shifted and drifted closer. The Scot watched their movements in her peripheral vision without seeming to. It was very close to the critical moment now. 'Strike first, strike hard, fight dirty. Cricket is game for English upper class. Fighting is for survival. Nothing else,' the voice said.

"You can think what you want. It's nothing to do with me."

"I run G wing," Shell announced. "You want to do deals, you have to give me a share of the action."

"Bollocks. Even if I was planning to set up in business, which I'm not, I've never needed your permission for anything. Anytime you've tried to make me do your bidding, you've regretted it. I'd back down if I were you."

"I'm not afraid of you!" the blonde announced. The bravado in her voice wasn't very convincing, and Helen was interested to note that some of her minions had picked up on the note of uncertainty and were shuffling their feet.

"OK, then. I have one question."

Dockley opened her mouth to respond and closed it involuntarily as Helen hit her with a palm strike to the chin, snapping her head back and knocking her sprawling. The Scot used the time she had bought with the shock her tactic had caused within the group to slam Denny viciously into the shower stall, noting the solid sound as her face impacted the tiles. Then, she set herself to fight, keeping her back to a wall so no one could sneak up on her. Her internal voice matched the rhythm of her blows, each one placed for as much effect as she could manage, given the melee of fists and feet she was fending off. 'Remember, one against many, attack, attack, attack. Take space and breathe where you can, but know you will fall. Only chance is to hurt as many as possible on way down. And booby trap clothes, so when they search body for wallet, they lose fingers.'

She never saw the blow that knocked her off her feet, but she'd expected that, accepting it stoically as she found herself on her hands and knees on a hard tile floor, shocks of pain and disorientation going through her as kicks thudded into her ribs and sides. Luckily, the group really was disorganised, and she was able to get back up and brace herself, swaying slightly as she turned her head and spat a mouthful of blood and saliva into the face of the strongest opponent left. The woman recoiled and Helen smiled, knowing that the blood streaking her teeth lent her a feral, unhinged, appearance.

"That all you got?" she asked, seemingly genuinely curious.

They looked at each other, uncertain. The situation hung trembling in the balance for a few seconds. Then a prisoner Helen didn't know, but resolved to remember, stuck her head round the door and hissed, "Screw."

They scattered, Denny loyally dragging the dazed Shell out. Helen managed to stay on her feet until they had all left before sliding slowly down the wall, wrapping one arm around her damaged ribs and clutching at the sinks for support with the other hand as she tried to stay upright. The last thing she heard as her vision greyed out was a concerned voice trying to talk to her, and the last she saw was a blurred pink oval above the black polyester of a prison uniform.

"All right," Nikki said. "I'll ask again. Did you see the women who attacked you?"

"No, miss," Helen said. "I don't remember anything. Must be concussion."

"Dr. Nicholson doesn't think you're suffering from concussion."

The lifer bowed her head, not bothering to hide her contempt. Slouched in the chair in front of the wing governor's desk, prison officers flanking her, she seemed indifferent to the vivid bruising that marred her face and the pain she must be in. Nikki, who had rushed to the infirmary when Di Barker had taken the con there for treatment, knew that the marks probably extended across most of her torso by now, and that it was only the Scot's inherent toughness or possibly simple luck that had prevented her internal organs being damaged in the fight.

As it was, the adjudication had had to wait until Stewart had undergone an observation period in the medical wing. She was officially fit enough to attend her hearing, but seemed determined not to give an inch to the system.

"OK," Nikki said abruptly. "I'm done playing games."

Helen waited. Nikki studied her.

"You're doing seven days on the block for fighting."

The Scot didn't flinch. Nikki expected a reaction to her next statement and was slightly puzzled when she didn't get it. "You're also doing another fourteen days for your opponents. If you won't tell me who they are, you can do their punishment. That's not negotiable after you walk out of this room. If I find out their identities from other sources, they'll be down there with you. But you'll still do your full stint. I will not have violence on this wing. Do you understand?"

"Yes, miss," Helen said, her voice a monotone.

"And that means that if you get involved in any more fights after you're back from seg, you'll get the same again."

"I understand."

For the first time, she looked up, meeting Nikki's gaze. "Can't risk bullying, after all."

"Take her away," Nikki said disgustedly.

As the door closed behind the inmate, she sighed and wondered how the hell the compact Scot managed to push her buttons so easily. Putting the puzzle to one side, she started to fill out the inevitable paperwork.

Nikki was dropping some duty schedules off in the wing office when the phone rang. Hollamby heaved herself out of her chair and huffed her way across the room.

"G wing," she barked. As she listened, her expression became, if possible, even more disapproving. "Oh, not again! Listen, I've told you, there's no need to worry. She'll snap out of it when she feels ready to. Not before. No, there is no need to get the medical officer!" She rolled her eyes and spoke in long-suffering tones. "Don't do anything. I'm on my way. She'll be talking inside ten minutes. I guarantee it."

She put the phone down and sighed loudly.

"Problem, Sylvia?" Nikki asked.

"Not really. You'd think that I'd get a bit of peace and quiet while Stewart was on the block, at least. But no such luck. She manages to make trouble, even when she's down there."

"Oh?" the governor asked, intrigued.

"Come and see. You might as well," Hollamby said, pursing her lips and storming out of the wing office. Nikki followed her to the punishment unit in the basement, where a worried-looking PO who introduced herself as Travers was waiting for them. One of the new intake, Nikki realised, the graduate trainees. They tended to be less cynical than the experienced officers, but that meant they sometimes picked up on things others had missed. She smiled kindly at the young woman and tried to remember her background. It came to her as she saw the unobtrusive crucifix gleaming on her throat. Ah. The seriously Christian one. Though, to be fair, she was putting her religion into practice by choosing the career she had.

"Right," Hollamby said. "Let's get this over with. Where is she?"

Travers led the way to one of the cells and opened it up before stepping back and letting them precede her. Nikki stopped inside the door as she assessed the scene.

Helen Stewart had folded the flimsy mattress into a makeshift cushion. She was kneeling astride the improvised support. The thin blanket cons were allowed in segregation was wrapped around her hips and across her lap, tucked in so that it wouldn't slip off. Her hands rested on it, the back of one cradled into the other's palm, her forefingers and thumbs pressed lightly together. She didn't react as they came into the cell. Her breathing was so shallow that the rise and fall of her chest was barely visible. Her eyes were closed, and her face was smooth of all expression, peaceful, distant.

Nikki watched her for a while longer, holding up her hand when Sylvia tried to say something, then stepped outside and closed the door. "How long has she been like this?"

"Since after breakfast," Travers said. "That's what worried me. When I came back to get her lunch tray, she'd drunk the tea and left the rest. I thought she might be on some sort of hunger strike."

"She's meditating," Nikki said. "I've seen it when I went on holiday to Thailand. The monks there do it. She'll be fine."

"What, we just leave her?" Travers said.

"If it lasts longer than twenty-four hours, then call me. Otherwise, don't worry. It looks like she knows what she's doing. And if we did interfere, she could argue that we were interrupting her spiritual practice." Nikki frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder what her heart beat is?"

"She's down as an atheist on her paperwork," Hollamby said dismissively. "Spiritual practice! Meditation? Meditation, my bunions. Daydreaming, I call it."

"You can call it anything you want, Sylvia," Nikki said cheerfully. "It's probably the best use she could make of her time on the block."

"But, ma'am…," Travers said anxiously.


"Mrs. Hollamby says she can be violent when she's woken from this state."

"Really? Is that based on experience?"

"Bitter experience," the middle-aged officer said, folding her arms. "She punched me. Not much love and peace there."

"And what were you doing?"

"Shaking her, of course! I needed her to move, and she was ignoring me. Insolence! I should just have put her on report."

"She might not have heard you," Nikki commented. "OK, let's try something."

She reopened the door and stepped into the cell, crossing to stand in front of the inmate. Gently, she reached out and put a hand on Helen's shoulder. She deliberately made her voice harsh and impersonal, the sort of tone a random, passing screw might use. "OK, Stewart, wake up. Let's be having you. I need you talking to me inside the next minute."

She stepped back and looked at her watch, timing the response. At thirty seconds, Helen's breathing deepened. At forty-five, her posture changed, her shoulders shifting slightly as she returned to full awareness of her body. At fifty-five seconds, her eyes opened slowly and she caught the governor in her intent gaze before raising a hand and running it across her face, seemingly reacquainting herself with her features. The Scot spoke, her voice full of irony.

"You called, miss?"

"I did. Nice to know you were paying attention."

"Part of me was. What time is it?"

"Mid afternoon."

"OK," Helen said.

She loosened the blanket from around her waist and began to move, groaning slightly as she flexed her leg muscles. Nikki watched her. "If it hurts so much, why do you do it?"

That got her a glare. "If I wasn't doing it on cold concrete in an unheated basement, it might be better. Especially if I could get a proper meditation cushion. I'll stretch. I'll be fine."

Hollamby snorted loudly from the door. "I don't doubt it. You always land on your feet, don't you, Stewart?"

When she didn't get a response she challenged the con again. "Well?"

"Sorry, miss. I thought that was a rhetorical question. No, not usually. Usually, it's my arse."


"What you going to do? Put me down the block?"

"All right, Sylvia, you can go. I'll deal with this," Nikki said, short-circuiting the growing confrontation. Hollamby stamped off, followed by the junior officer when Nikki nodded permission for her to go. The taller woman leant against the open doorway and watched Helen stretch out her hamstrings and loosen her hips with a series of practised movements.

"Why do you meditate?" she asked curiously.

"This place is poison. Meditation is an antitoxin." The lifer flexed her shoulders. "If I didn't do it, I'd become the psycho they say I am."

"Oh? For a pacifist, you get into a hell of a lot of fights."

"No," Helen corrected. "Other people start fights. I just finish them."

"Then how do you explain hitting senior officer Hollamby, just after meditation?"

"I didn't. The silly cow was shaking me so hard that she pushed me over. I put my hand out to support myself against the wall and her shoulder was in the way. I caught her a glancing blow. Of course, by the time it got to adjudication, I'd punched her in the face. Helped justify the two weeks sick leave she took. What with the bruising and the trauma."

Nikki suppressed her involuntary smile, bowing her head. When she looked up, Helen was watching her. The governor realised that the other woman knew exactly what she was thinking. Casually, she walked over and sat down on the concrete block that served as a bed.

"What about this latest punch up?"

"I've said all I'm going to about that."

"So you admit you were fighting?"

"I admit I was defending myself. And if you repeat that, I'll deny I said it."

"I hadn't planned to. You've had your adjudication. I won't be revisiting the decision."

"Not much point, is there? Easier to just leave me down the block."

"You seem to be pretty good at 'defending' yourself. Have you ever had any training?"

The Scot shrugged. "The kind of people I hung around with before I came in here, I had to be able to take care of myself. When I was with the travellers, there was a guy. Sergei. He was a bullshitter. Reckoned he was ex-spetznaz. But he was a good teacher."

She smiled, remembering the wiry little man with his Cyrillic tattoos and bad teeth. His real talent had been as a mechanic, so he had coached her with engine oil ground into the scarred, cracked skin of his hands. He had insisted on them training in their normal clothes. 'No time to change before real fight.' On the days when he was teaching her to fall safely or how to fight her way out if she was pinned on the ground, she would be covered in mud and dirt by the end of the session. He had done it all in return for a few haircuts and trays of shortbread, and she had developed a deep and lasting affection for him before he had become restless and left the convoy to join a biker gang.

"New age travellers?" Nikki asked, intrigued.


"How did you hook up with them?"

"Some of them came to visit at the commune where I was staying. I was bored, so I went with them when they left."

"You seem to have lived in some interesting places."

"I lived anywhere where people knew not to pry into other people's business." Her sharp, steady gaze challenged Nikki.

"OK, I get the message."

"First screw I ever met who does."

"I am genuinely interested," the brunette protested.

"Why? Because you want to know how I went from being a daughter of the manse to a murderer?"

"No. Because you're different from most of the women in here."

"Course I am," Helen said dismissively. "Not different enough to trust a screw, though. Not even one in a suit."

Helen looked up from her crossword as Zandra shuffled past, arms folded around herself, huddled into the large cardigan she had taken to wearing to try and combat the chills she was getting as she worked on kicking the smack. The girl was even paler than usual, her skin practically grey. It probably didn't help that she wasn't eating very much, her stomach unable to cope with anything more substantial than liquids. The lifer had to admire her determination; she had seen her turning down at least one offer of drugs from Denny Blood, and she knew how hard getting clean was inside. She had seen enough women try and fail. She just wished that Zandra was doing it for herself, not for some boyfriend who, from what she'd heard, was a waste of space. Still, if it gave her the motivation she needed, Helen didn't suppose she should criticise.

Further down the wing, she could see Fenner talking to Dockley, hidden by the partially closed door to the kitchens. Unless you chose this particular seat, which Helen had long ago worked out gave her good sight lines to most of the places where things tended to happen. It was why she often settled there to scan her morning paper. She grinned - it looked as if Shell was arguing with the burly screw, or at least trying to give him a hard time about something. Probably Rachel - the Scot had been watching that situation develop for a while now. She had tried warning the withdrawn girl about the dangers of getting involved with Fenner and had been rebuffed. Now, she was leaving well alone. Hicks was an adult, and if she chose to disregard good advice, she would have to cope with the consequences by herself. Helen could only protect her from Dockley for so long.

Helen saw Fenner turn abruptly away from Shell. Instead of objecting or trying to hold him back, the blonde lifer turned back to her duties in the kitchen. That was unlike her; normally she'd have objected to being ignored. The reason for their actions became clear a moment later as Wade walked towards the servery. The expression on her face suggested that she'd caught sight of the conversation and was wondering about it.

The lifer glanced at her watch - it was nearly time to get out into the garden and do the weeding she had planned, see if planting the marigolds had actually helped keep the insects away from the other plants. She speculated briefly as to whether the dynamics were the same in gay relationships as in straight ones. Were lesbians more or less likely to be unfaithful, or did it vary from person to person? She shrugged mentally as she caught her own train of thought. Not that it was ever likely to be anything she had to worry about or even any of her business. Even though she did have the feeling that Wade would be the reliable, honourable type. It fitted the rest of her character. Too by the book to run her life any other way.

Nikki strolled down the wing to the office. She was in an excellent mood. It had been their anniversary and she had managed to arrange time off with Trisha for once. They had spent most of the first morning making love until they were both pleasantly tired, going on to a long pamper session at a local health spa after their nap and finishing up with a romantic meal at their favourite restaurant. The next day had been spent visiting friends and wandering hand in hand through London, enjoying time together away from the club, which they didn't often get the chance to do. It had been a very rewarding break. Despite the slight ache of a mild hangover behind her forehead, Nikki was well content with how she had used the time. She thought back to her wake-up call that morning and tried hard not to smile too broadly. Trisha could be very inventive when she chose ….

She frowned as she spotted Helen Stewart, sitting at one of the side tables and watching the latest game of pool with obvious boredom. That wasn't like her. Normally, she'd already be sketching the encounter that was developing between two of the inmates, a bleached blonde and her lover, a darker, more intense Scouser who hated to lose. She moved to stand next to the Scot.

"What's the matter?"


"You're not drawing."

The lifer shrugged tiredly. "My book's full. I had to buy a lot of stamps this week. Didn't have the spends to get another one."

"What about the art tutor? She seems to keep you in supplies."

"Class got cancelled. She had flu."

Seeing her grim expression, Nikki gave in to a sudden impulse. She took her new notebook from under her arm, ripped out the couple of pages she'd already used and handed it to the con. Helen looked up, shock making her appear suddenly younger.

"What's this for?"

"Drawing in. Don't worry, it's plain paper."


Nikki grinned. "Well, when you get bored, you get stroppy. Then you make trouble. Let's call it a contribution towards the welfare of my officers."

The Scot picked up the notebook and looked at her. "Is this a bribe?"

"I haven't asked you to do anything for it, have I?"


"Then you know the answer."

She turned away, stopping briefly when she heard the soft "thanks" from the inmate before continuing down the wing.

In the wing office, Sylvia snorted as she turned away from witnessing the encounter. "Special treatment," she said ominously. "It'll lead to trouble, mark my words."

Dominic, who had been standing beside her watching the interchange, frowned.

"How much trouble is it going to cause if someone tries to treat Helen Stewart like a human being for a change? It's not like the governor's gone soft."

"Specially not today," Fenner commented, sipping his coffee as he watched Nikki walking towards the office, a small smile still lighting her face. "She's had a good seeing to while she's been away, hasn't she. That's why she's cutting the cons a bit of slack. The ice queen's been melted."

"Jim!" Dominic protested.

"You mark my words. There's a man out there somewhere eating steak to get his strength up for the second round," the burly officer commented. He turned as Nikki walked into the office.

"Good break, ma'am?"

"Very enjoyable, thank you. Let's get on. We've got a lot to cover."

Nikki frowned as she hurried down to the art room. She was already late for a meeting and didn't really have time to see Andrea, but the message had said it was about Stewart. For some reason, that had motivated her to find a gap in her schedule. She had timed her visit for between classes. As she'd expected, the room was deserted. The tutor was setting up for the next session, placing brushes and paints on tables. She looked round as the taller woman came in.

"You wanted to see me?"

"Yes. When are going to let Helen come back to class?"

"She already is," Nikki said, puzzled.

"No, she isn't."

The governor sighed, exasperated. "I arranged for her privileges to be restored weeks ago. It wasn't easy, either. She gave me the impression she was attending again the other day."

Andrea looked crestfallen. "Maybe she's decided not to bother anymore."

"Haven't you spoken to her about it?"

"I haven't got access to G wing."

Nikki glanced at her watch. "I've got a meeting with the governor. I'll arrange for one of my officers to bring Helen to see you. Then you can talk to her."

Andrea nodded. "There's something you need to know."


"That competition. She won a prize."

"The art competition?" Nikki thought back. "Wasn't it sponsored by some newspaper?"


"So there'll be publicity."


The two women exchanged a look. They both knew what that meant, given Simon's habit of muscling in on any available bit of limelight. Nikki could imagine the inmate's reaction if he started patronising her and groaned inwardly.

"Does Helen know?"

"I don't think so. The letter came to me."

"Well, I'm already late for my meeting ...."

Nikki found the nearest phone and rang the wing. One advantage of the prison's set routine was that she knew where to find inmates at almost any time of day. She got through to the staff office and frowned as she spoke to Lorna Rose. The art tutor waited until she had put the receiver down and then looked at her expectantly.


"Too late. He must have had a message from Area. She's already been taken to see him." The brunette thought quickly and then turned decisively to go.

"What are you going to do?"

"My best. Just pray Helen doesn't sabotage herself again."

When she got to Simon's office, Nikki took a few seconds to stop and count down from five in her head. It was a technique Carter had taught her years ago. "Five isn't going to make any difference to anyone but you," the woman had said after a particularly tough training exercise. Smiling slightly at the memory, Nikki knocked on Stubberfield's door and let herself in when he responded. As she had expected, Helen was standing in front of his desk, scowling.

"Sorry, I'm late. The art tutor wanted to see me."

"So you've already heard Helen's news?"


"It looks like I made the right decision in allowing her back into her class," Simon said expansively. "It's not often we find an unrecognised talent like this in our midst."

Nikki could see the lifer's shoulders tense as she clenched her fists and moved smoothly to get between her and the desk. She could sense a Stewart diatribe brewing and gave the Scot a warning look as she dropped her file on its corner.

"The education staff have to take some credit. Do you think we could use this as a way of getting the budgets increased?"

"Possible," Simon agreed thoughtfully. "It's good publicity for G wing and for Larkhall. Area always likes that sort of thing."

"Well, it's nice to know I've been of use," Helen said sarcastically. "Can I go now?"

"Helen, it's more than that!" Stubberfield protested. He beamed at her in what he presumably thought was a friendly way. "One of our objectives in the prison service is to help you develop your potential. When we get tangible evidence that's happened, we like to celebrate it."

"What did you have in mind?"

"Nothing very dramatic. A small ceremony, a couple of photographs. I believe a condition of entering the competition was that you agreed to take part in publicity, if necessary. You've already signed up for this."

"So I'm to be put on show."

Simon frowned, obviously unhappy with the flat, angry tone of her voice. "I'm unsure as to why you're reacting in this way, Helen. Isn't winning something to be proud of?"

"Not really. Just means that my work caught someone's eye. You're not telling me it's any better or worse than anyone else's."

"I couldn't comment. I'm no critic. But someone thought an award was justified. That's worth celebrating."

Helen folded her arms. "And I suppose you want me to mention how I've learnt everything I know in the art classes at Larkhall."

"Well, it's up to you what you say," Simon blustered. "But obviously …"

He was smiling, clearly believing that he had convinced the lifer to co-operate. His smile faded as she interrupted him.

"Fine, so long as you don't mind me telling them that you've had me excluded from them for weeks. Have to give the whole picture, after all."

Simon stared at her, dumbfounded, before turning on Nikki. "Is this true?"


"I gave permission for her to be returned to classes. What happened?"

"She's been in segregation. For fighting," the wing governor said, choosing to gloss over Helen's initial refusal to take advantage of her restored privileges.

"For more than a month?"

"For a lot of it. She wouldn't tell me who the other women were. You had my report at the time."

"And how do you know she wasn't simply too frightened to tell you?" Stubberfield demanded.

"Because Stewart knows how to take care of herself. It's the prison code. I don't have to spell it out."

Her boss scowled. "So what you're saying is that this has the potential to be a bad news story?"

"Yes," Nikki said. "But I have to enforce the rules. It's my job."

"Even so …" Simon said, and then broke off. He turned to Helen. "Wait outside."

The inmate nodded, then seemed to remember something. "Miss?"


"That sketchbook you gave me. Where did you buy it?"

"It was a notebook. Smiths. Why?"

Helen shrugged. "It was better quality than the kind I normally use. Nice paper. I might see if I can get hold of some."

"Wait a minute," Simon said. "You gave her supplies?"

"I'd run out," the Scot said casually. "She said it was to stop me getting bored. I won't need another one. Now I'm going back to class. Will I?"

Simon studied her face, then nodded slowly. "I suppose not. It was a kind gesture, though."

"Oh, yes. Very thoughtful."

Stubberfield waited until Helen had left the room, then sat down behind his desk. "Not like you to bend the rules, Nikki."

"It kept her quiet for days. Well worth it, if you ask me."

"It's an example of good decision making. I like my staff to show initiative. Do you think she'll say the right things if we do let her speak to the press?"

"She won't deliberately make trouble, but she does have a mind of her own. On the other hand, she's not going anywhere and she knows that."

"Maybe you should have a quiet word. You obviously have some influence on her."

"I'm not sure about that," Nikki said. "But I'll discuss what we expect of her. Do you mind if we reschedule our meeting? That way I can take her back down to the wing."

Her boss nodded. "I have to talk to Area anyway, organise a photographer and list of suitable journalists. We don't want the wrong kind of questions, now do we?"

"No," Nikki said, smiling inwardly. As she left the office, Simon was already picking up the phone.

She nodded to the officer who was waiting with Helen. "I'll take Stewart back."

The lifer frowned, but went along quietly. Nikki waited till they were out of earshot before speaking.

"Helping me out is getting to be a habit. First the fashion show, now this."

"It isn't about helping you. It's about him being a pompous idiot who couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag."

"You know about managing staff, do you?"

"Course I do. I did all the hiring and firing for Sean's company. We used to have lots of casuals on short term contracts when we had big projects on."

"Anyway. Thank you."

Helen snorted. "Well done."


"You managed to say the words without choking on them."

"I'm a woman of many talents. What are you going to tell the press?"

"Oh, don't worry. I'm not stupid enough to make big speeches while I'm still locked up in here. If I make waves, I'll get slapped down. I know that."

"Doesn't stop you most of the time."

"That's about things that matter, not an article that's going to be wrapped around somebody's fish and chips next week."

"You're out of touch. They use plain paper now."

"It'll probably have changed again by the time I get out of here. If they have newspapers by then."

Unlike the last time they had met, Sean was waiting for Helen when she arrived. She stopped at the door to the visitor's room, frowning as she took in his appearance. She recognised this version of her ex: dishevelled, twitching, on some sort of drugs comedown. He hadn't shaved for a couple of days and he could hardly keep it together. The lifer glanced at the POs in the room and reminded herself that they had no real power over visitors. Still, if any of them were on the ball, seeing Sean like this would probably lead to a drugs test in her near future. No one who observed him and recognised the signs could doubt he was using, and the fact he was visiting her would automatically mean that the suspicion was passed on.

Helen swallowed her anger and crossed the room to sit across from Sean. She let him kiss her on the cheek, feeling the dry heat of his lips, and looked again to see where the patrolling guards were. She didn't know when Sean had last had a fix. She couldn't rely on him to keep his eyes open. Instead, she waited until all of the screws were out of earshot.

"How the hell do you dare come in here high?" she hissed.

He blinked, confused, and then leant in closer to her, reaching out to take her hand. Helen recognised an attempt to charm her and rebuffed it, focusing her glare. Her visitor flinched.

"Hels. Please ...."

"Please, what? If they think you're bringing drugs in here, I'll lose every fucking privilege I've got!"

"No, love, you don't understand."

"I understand you're strung out. You've been using, and now you're coming down. I don't need this, Sean! Why couldn't you wait until you were straight to visit me? It's not like the paperwork has to be signed today."

"That's … not what this is about."


"Look, Hels, I've got a problem."

"Tell me about it," the Scot said bitterly. "I thought you'd been to rehab."

"I did. But … shit, this is hard."

"We've got half an hour. Spit it out."

"I smoked some dope, OK!"

Helen made a small, impatient gesture, looking around to ensure that none of the prison officers were in earshot.

"I thought you were supposed to have given that up!"

"I had. I swear!"

"Which is why you're in the state you're in."

"I'm like this because I took some speed. I needed to be alert when I saw you."

"Jesus, Sean!"

"No, listen. I smoked the dope because I had a visit. From James Butler's men."


"They're a crime family, OK. We did some business. Before," Parr said desperately. He pushed his hands through his hair, disarranging his fringe. Helen became aware `that he had not washed recently. She frowned. From her knowledge of Sean, that was not a good sign.

"What sort of business?" she demanded, putting her concern for him to the back of her mind. They only had a limited time to work this out, and Helen was very conscious of her ex's old habit of ignoring things he found too unpleasant to think about. Which was fine, except that anyone who was involved in major crime on the outside could arrange for anything they wanted to happen inside prison walls. The lifer had seen enough to have no illusions on that score. Whether he realised it or not, Sean had put her in danger by involving himself with gangsters. She was probably more at risk than he was. She had nowhere to run.

"Drugs business," Sean said quietly. He glanced round and leaned closer to her. "I grew dope for them."

"You stupid bastard!" the Scot said. "We had a legitimate income. You didn't need to go doing things like that."

"Helen," the gardener said desperately, "there was stuff you never knew about. Gambling debts…"

"You mean that fucking poker school. I told you not to play if you were stoned."

"Yeah. But … you know how it is ...."

"No, I don't," Helen said firmly. She sat back in her seat. "Tell me the worst. Get it over with."

"OK, look. They gave me a package to take care of. Years ago."


"So I gave it to you."

"You did?"

"Helen, I forgot to put it away. Remember?"


"The weekend those Dutch guys came round. You cooked ...." He ran out of steam, looking to her for inspiration. The inmate frowned, a vague memory surfacing.

She cast her mind back, trying to remember what had gone on. She'd believed that the visitors were connected with the business. Sean had introduced them as bulb suppliers, and she had made an effort, prepared them a roast dinner with all the trimmings. They'd been excellent guests, she recalled, insisting on helping her with the clearing up, unlike Sean, who had done his usual trick of slumping in front of the TV, seemingly convinced that his presence was enough contribution to the afternoon. Afterwards, he had suggested they go out to a pub by the river, and Helen had taken them because the men had begun smoking dope with their after dinner coffee and she knew how bad her partner's driving was when he'd had a joint.

The fact that she'd drunk a couple of glasses of wine hadn't stopped her, she remembered grimly. That was about enough to take the edge off, back then. It didn't really affect her driving. Or at least that's what she'd always told herself. Now, she wondered bleakly if it had been true, or if she'd been risking killing someone every time she'd climbed behind the wheel during those years.

Still, that day her luck had held and there hadn't been any problems. She had driven along, enjoying the sunshine, listening to the men giggling and joking with each other in the back seat. Something about football and super models, she remembered. When they'd arrived at the pub, Sean had gone into the boot to look for something. His eyes had widened and he'd pulled out a black sports bag that Helen didn't recognise. He had looked hastily round before waving casually to the Dutch guys, who were standing a little way away, chatting. He came round the car, apparently to kiss her, carrying the bag and shielding it from them with his body.

"Hels, I need a favour.."

"What?" she'd asked, more annoyed than anything.

"There's a package in here."


"It's seeds. I was supposed to store them somewhere safe."

"Do it when you get back. I've all the washing up to do."

"I can't. I told Pieter and the guys that I put it into the safe deposit box at the bank on Friday."

"Any reason why you didn't?"

"I forgot. Just slipped my mind."

"And now it's Saturday and the bank's closed."

"Right. Can you find somewhere to keep it? Somewhere dry and dark. Oh, and not at the house or the business."

"Well, that doesn't leave me many places."

"Couldn't you get one of your friends to hold on to it for you?"

"No, I couldn't!" Helen had snapped. She had looked over at their visitors, seeing the beginnings of uneasiness in their reactions, and smiled at them. Her old habit of covering up for his mistakes kicked in. She gave him a little impatient push.

"Go and have a drink. I'll sort it out. Jesus, Sean, you'd forget your head if it wasn't fixed on!"

"Thanks, babe. I owe you," he'd said gratefully and left, not a care in the world, leaving the holdall resting in her lap.

She'd waited until they'd gone inside the pub, driven to a secluded corner of the car park and investigated, finding a plastic-wrapped paper sack secured with duct tape, about the size of a bag of flour. It had the same, slightly yielding texture when she prodded it. Helen remembered wondering uneasily what the package contained and then relaxing as she saw that one corner of the inner layer was slightly ripped and that it wasn't full of the white powder she'd half feared. Instead, it held seeds, just as Sean had said.

Racking her brains, the Scot had tried to think where she could hide the parcel. She had wanted to get rid of it quickly, before their guests noticed her absence, and the only reason she'd known the neighbourhood at all was the clearing up job the firm had recently done .... She frowned, remembering cutting back endless swathes of overgrown grass and struggling with thickets of brambles. Her eyes narrowed as she realised that she had the answer.

When she got back, Sean's relief at her empty hands had been discreet, but obvious. She'd told him where she'd hidden the holdall when they got home and left it to him to retrieve it, busy with more important things. It seemed he had not only not got round to doing so, but had forgotten what she'd told him about the location . Thinking back, she had an idea he might have smoked even more dope before their company left. That would account for the memory loss.

Now, watching him in the prison visiting room, she realised what kind of plant would be grown from those seeds and felt like kicking herself.

"So why's this package so valuable?" she asked.

"It's a good strain, very potent, disease-resistant, fast-growing," Sean said, squirming in his seat.

"Cannabis, right?"

"Yeah. The thing is, they had more, but the police got it in a raid. Which makes that parcel incredibly valuable. It represents months, years of cross-breeding work. They want it back."

"Who says I can remember where I put it?" Helen asked. "Getting arrested for manslaughter does tend to occupy your mind. I'm not sure I can recall what I did with it. Gossard was only two days later."

"Don't play games, Helen! These are serious people. They use fucking pliers and blow torches to negotiate. They'll hurt me if I don't give them what they want."

He was sweating freely now, running his tongue over his lips and rubbing his face as he got stressed about what might happen to him. Helen thought about some of the stories the younger women told, thought about Carol describing her older sister smoking dope in the bus to school, dropping out because she couldn't concentrate in class, going on the streets like her mother. And just like that, her mind was made up.


"You're joking. Tell me you're having me on."

"No. I'm deadly serious. Go to the police, Sean. Tell them the story. I'm sure they'll be very interested."

"Helen, if I sell these people out, I will end up dead."

"You should have thought about that when you got involved with them."

"I never planned to …"

"No, you never do. That's always been your problem. Well, you're dealing with the consequences of this one on your own, Sean. I'm not bailing you out this time."

"But they won't take no for an answer!"

"And I won't put more drugs on the streets. I've seen what they do. Go to the police. They're the only people who can help you now."

Sean's face twisted and darkened. He stared at her. "Is this some sort of revenge thing?"

"What?" Helen asked. She couldn't quite work out where the conversation was going.

"Because you're stuck in here, you want me to be as well," Sean demanded. "You can't stand the thought I'm fine, can you? Finally making something of my life while you rot in here. You want to drag me down with you. You couldn't during the trial, thanks to my parents, so now you're having another go, and I've handed you the perfect way to do it. You vindictive bitch!"

His voice had become louder as he spoke, and Helen saw an officer starting towards them. She spoke normally, making sure she kept her tone level.

"Small point, Sean. Pissing off the person you want to help you - not good tactics. And another thing. I don't care what you think about why I've decided not to tell you where the package is. It doesn't really matter, because whatever you say, I'm not going to change my mind. So deal with it."

She got to her feet and looked coldly at the hand he laid on her arm. She turned to the screw. "Can I go back to the wing now, please? I don't think we've got anything else to say to each other."

"Helen, if can't return the package, I can't afford to buy out your part of the business!" Sean said desperately.

Helen looked back at him and then around at the institutional room they were in. "Yeah, because I'd have so much to spend the money on," she said, and walked away.

Back on the wing, she bumped into Monica.

"Good visit?" the older woman asked brightly.

"Just brilliant," Helen said bitterly. "One thing missing, though."


"Normally when you get fucked, you get an orgasm out of it."

She headed back towards her cell and its flimsy illusion of privacy, feeling Monica's startled gaze on her back as she did so.

She was half-expecting what happened next; one look at Bodybag's pursed lips had clued her in. She didn't flinch when the screw's strident voice cut across the space between them. "Right, Stewart. Drugs test! Follow me."

She didn't obey at once. "Why, miss? On what grounds?"

"None. It's random. New regime, you know that. Come on. I haven't got time for any nonsense."

"I don't suppose I could have a drink of tea or something, could I?" Helen asked, deliberately pushing it. "I went just before my visit. I'm not sure I can piss on command."

"Then you'll be there until the impulse takes you. Move it!"

The lifer shrugged and followed Bodybag. They both knew she was clean; Helen had been one of the favourite test subjects under the old regime, partially for that reason and partially as a form of low-level harassment. She didn't have a single positive piss test to her name. All of which made this doubly ridiculous and they both knew it. Still, Helen supposed, it meant that Hollamby would be able to meet her targets without choosing the people like Zandra, who might actually turn out to be using. The Scot didn't mind going through a bit of inconvenience if it meant that other women didn't have days added to their sentence or did time down the block, being punished instead of getting the treatment they needed.

Outside Larkhall, Sean waited for a moment or two by the main gate and then walked rapidly away. Fifteen minutes later, he was nursing a takeaway coffee in a nearby park when a woman walked up. She glanced around, making sure they weren't being observed, then sat down on the bench next to him. She lit a cigarette and passed it over. He took a deep drag and carried on morosely sipping his drink. Finally, she broke the silence.


"No good. She won't tell me." He laughed bitterly. "She told me to come clean. Go to the police. Ironic, huh?"

"You're not laughing," the woman commented.

"I'm fucking terrified, that's why," Sean spat. "How dare she come over all bloody moral? I'm the one who's going to be having his balls crushed in a vice. She's a murderer, for God's sake! She killed a man! What's growing a bit of dope compared to that?"

"Look, I've got to get back and check with my guv'nor," the woman said. "Maybe we can think of something. Who knows, she might open up if we went in there flashing our warrant cards."

"You can't do that," Sean said, appalled. "Then it'd be obvious I'm working with you. You promised me you'd keep me safe if I co-operated."

"And we will," the woman reassured him. "We've never lost an informant yet. We're not going to start now."

Sean nodded, calming down slightly. He finished the coffee and looked round for somewhere to dump the cup. The woman nudged him, catching his attention. "Did she say why she wouldn't tell you?"

"Some bollocks about not putting more drugs on the streets. Christ, it's only dope! Anyone would think I was planning to deal heroin to school kids."

"She never took drugs, did she?" DS Groves said thoughtfully.

"No. Just liked a drink. Her good luck it's legal."

"Yeah. Look, are you going to be OK getting home?"

"I'll be fine," Sean said. "I might have a takeaway. Why not? Last hearty meal of the condemned man."

"When are they going to get in touch?"

The gardener went pale. "I hadn't thought about that. Soon. What do I do?"

"Stall them," the policewoman said, slightly impatiently. "Phone us on the mobile as soon as you've talked to them and we'll debrief you."

"They know the visit was today."

"Then tell them she was sick, or she wanted time to think about it or that a guard stood so close you couldn't raise the subject for fear of being overheard."

"Helen won't send me out another visiting order. Not now she knows what it's about."

"That doesn't matter. It's probably better if she isn't involved anyway. One less person to worry about."

"I'm sure it makes everything nice and tidy for you," Sean retorted. "But where does it leave me?"

"No worse off than you were before," DS Groves said firmly. "Maybe better off because you know what sort of hand you're playing with now, and we've got less people to watch."

"What if they decide that the business with Helen stashing it for me is just a story ... that I'm holding out on them? What then?"

"I'm not going to talk about 'what if'," the policewoman said. "It'll just make you more paranoid than you already are. You need to cut back on the weed, calm down, get some sleep that doesn't come out of a bottle and just react to things as they happen. You know what to do - we've talked about it. You do your part and we'll do ours and the Butler family will end up behind bars. You'll be public hero number one, and we can forget about your little difficulty at customs."

"And then I spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder," Sean said bitterly.

"If the public interest immunity certificate doesn't work out, we'll get you into witness protection. Just calm down, Sean. You won't be looking over your shoulder if you drop dead of a bloody heart attack, will you?"

"No, I suppose not."

He took a deep breath and stood up. "Can I have another fag?"

"Sure," the woman said, offering him the packet and handing over her lighter. After she had accepted them back, she sat on the bench, watching him thoughtfully as he walked away, shoulders hunched as if in anticipation of a blow, hands jammed into the pockets of his jacket. After a while, she got up, looked around again, and left the park by a different exit. She glanced at the black car parked to the side of the gate and climbed into the passenger seat, belting up as the vehicle slipped smoothly into the early evening rush hour traffic. The heavyset man driving the car looked at her. "How'd it go?"

The woman sighed, running her hands through her mousy brown hair. "All right. He's panicking, though. Stewart wouldn't tell him where the seeds are."

"Then I'd say he's in deep shit," DI Chatsworth commented. "He's playing with the big boys now. They tend to have short fuses. Especially the older brother. He's already killed one man to my knowledge. We just couldn't pin it on him."

"I could almost feel sorry for the little weasel," his DS said. "He is in a bad situation."

"His choice. He could have taken the rap for that cocaine. Or not tried to smuggle it into the country in the first place. There was fifty thousand quid's worth there. Bit much for personal use."

"I know, guv. I just hope he can hold it together. If he falls apart under pressure, we could lose the whole case. He was convinced that this Stewart woman was going to tell him what he needed to know and solve all his problems. I think that's why he's so shaky, to be honest. He never in a million years thought she wouldn't help him out. Typical bloke, excepting a woman to get him out of trouble."

"Less of the sexism, Groves."

"It's his pattern. He's always had someone to wipe his nose. Now this Helen Stewart's suddenly grown a backbone while she's been in prison, and he doesn't know what to do about it."

"Do you think he used to knock her around?"

"No. More subtle than that. Emotional blackmail and a bit of the little boy lost. Women are such fucking suckers most of the time. He didn't need anything else."

She pulled a face. "All the time he was whining about what might happen to him. There wasn't a word about how it might be for her if people find out she's been selling a family like the Butlers out. Doesn't he know what happens to grasses in prison?"

"It's not as if she's talking to us direct."

"That's not going to matter," DS Groves said. "Gangsters don't care if it was intentional, unintentional or an accident. They just punish the poor bastard responsible. Neater that way, and it reminds everyone else to keep their mouth shut in future."

"You starting to have doubts?" DI Chatsworth asked.

"No. The Butlers need stopping, and if that means collateral damage, so be it. I just hope it's him, not her."

"Even though she killed one of ours?"

"She's paying for that. Last time I checked, we'd abolished the death penalty in this country."

DI Chatsworth nodded and switched on the radio for the traffic news, effectively ending the conversation. The rest of the drive was conducted in silence.

After the test, Helen went to get her lunch. Julie S gave her an extra large slice of mushroom quiche and beamed sympathetically at her.

"You all right?"

"Fine, thanks.

"You sure?" Julie J chimed in from beside her. "We saw what happened to you."

"Don't worry about it, Julies. It's part of the routine around here. At least Hollamby isn't interested in my arse. Now if it had been Fenner ...."

"Oh, yeah."

"We know .... "

"Bad news, Ju," they chorused.

"Even so," Julie S said, "it ain't right."

"All this testing."

"It's not fair."

"We got pulled the other day."

"Like we take drugs!"


"I know, Julies, but it's not about how things really are. You know that."

"Nah, it's just a way of giving us a hard time," Julie S said. "Like it isn't bad enough already in here."

"Well, if it's any consolation, the screws aren't enjoying it either," Helen said. "You should have heard Bodybag huffing and puffing about how she doesn't want to look at women's bits and she never signed up for this. And the other screws were joining in. They don't like the extra work. You know what lazy bastards they are."

"Doesn't help us, does it?" Julie J said gloomily. "Chips?"

"Go on. A half portion."

As she settled down to her lunch, something occurred to Helen. She turned it over in her mind as she ate, examining the idea from all angles. Finally, satisfied that it might actually be a viable plan, she dumped her plate and went out to do an afternoon's pottering in her vegetable patch, her preferred space when she wanted to think something through.

Three days afterwards, she called a discreet con's meeting in the dormitory cell during evening association. It was marginally more private than the open wing, and she knew that Denny would tell Dockley about it, which meant that the other lifer could attend without losing face. Sure enough, five minutes after everyone else had arrived, she slouched in, arm round Blood's shoulder, and pretended to be surprised at the number of people in the cell.

"Christ! What is this? A bleeding meeting of the escape committee?"

"Not quite," Helen said. "Just a few people who've decided to listen to what I have to say about the anti-drugs strategy our new governor's pursuing."

"Yeah, right. Like you can do anything about that! Unless you're planning to bump her off in the garden one day."

"No. If I was going to do that, there's other people ahead of her on the list."

Shell bridled slightly, but didn't rise to the bait. Helen took that as a good sign. She looked around the assembled women. She didn't think Zandra would agree to what she was about to propose, but she believed that the older women like the Julies would go along with her suggestion. Once they said yes, the bed and breakfast crowd should fall into place. Her own prestige as a lifer played a part as well, and Helen wasn't naive enough to think it didn't. Still, she might as well get some mileage out of it.

She went to the cell door to check that the blonde hadn't brought any uniformed guests with her and then looked the other women over. Monica and the Julies were sitting to one side, slightly away from the younger element. Dawn was hovering beside them, shoulder to shoulder with Zandra, who was chewing at one fingernail, a sulky expression plastered on her face. It was enough to start with; the jungle telegraph ought to do the rest.

"Am I the only one who's sick of peeing into a bottle or is it all of us?"

She looked around the group and caught the murmur of agreement. "I thought so. This idea will work if we all do it. Not otherwise. So unless I get the agreement of everyone in this room, and your commitment to talk to the other women on G wing about it, I'm walking away."

"Isn't that like .... conspiracy?" Julie S asked uncertainly.

"Yeah. Cold feet?"

"I dunno. Reckon I'll stay and listen. Can't do any harm, can it, Ju?"

Julie J looked less convinced, but as usual followed the smaller woman's lead. "Suppose not."

Helen decided to break all of the bad news at once. "Oh, and you have to be prepared to take the risk of more days on your sentence."

"What?!" Denny exploded. "That's bollocks, man. I don't care what your plan is. It's crap, innit."

"Maybe. But it's the only way I can see to get the drugs testers off our backs."

"What's your idea?" Dockley asked. Helen was pretty sure that the blonde had only asked her so that she could ridicule the answer, but it gave her the opening she needed.

"Simple. This new regime is winding everybody up. More and more people are getting put on report for various things. Some of it's the drugs testing; some of it's the fact that everyone's more on edge."

"So?" Shell said. "Tell us something we don't bleeding know."

"So, we take advantage of it."

"How can we?"

"We don't go out of our way to be put on report, but every time we are, we appeal. Up to the governing governor. We demand our full rights under the rules. Which leads to more paperwork, more adjudications, a jump in the statistics Stubberfield has to submit to his boss. Not only will he not be getting away on time for his golf game, but he'll have whoever he reports to on the phone demanding to know what the hell is happening on G wing."

"I see," Monica said thoughtfully. "Overload the system."

"Exactly. One things screws hate is paperwork, and we'll be generating a shed load. But we all have to do it. It doesn't matter so much for me and Dockley. We're lifers. A few more days here and there is nothing to us. But if only a few of you take part, you'll just get jumped on. It has to be all of us, or no one."

"What about the short-timers?" Denny asked.

"They're out of it. There's no way we can ask someone doing twenty-eight days for soliciting or shoplifting to take that sort of chance. But that could help. If the screws notice that they don't get as much hassle when they test them, they'll probably start to concentrate their efforts there anyway. Leave us alone."

"What if it doesn't work?" Zandra demanded.

"Then we forget about it and go back to keeping our heads down. But I suggest that if we're going to do it, we're going to have to give it at least two weeks to get into full swing. Maybe longer."

There was a thoughtful silence. Then Julie J folded her arms and squared her shoulders. "Me and Ju are going to do it," she announced. "I'm sick of being pulled over when we haven't done nothing. It was disgraceful, what happened the other day. I won't stand for it no more."

Monica nodded. "I agree. Animals are treated more humanely than we are. I'm game."

Her firm statement actually meant very little, because she didn't tend to get put on report, but it seemed to change the mood of the meeting. Zandra shrugged.

"Why not. It'll pass the pigging time, won't it? Not like I got anything else to do."

"Yeah," Denny said. "I'm in. Shell?"

"I not doing nothing that'll get me put on report more often," Dockley said stubbornly.

"I'm not asking you to. Just change how you react when it happens," Helen told her.

Slowly, the blonde nodded. "All right," she said reluctantly. It wasn't the strongest agreement Helen had ever heard, but she supposed that she'd have to take what she could get.

"Anyway, let's go. Otherwise, they'll think we're plotting a riot."

One by one, the women slipped out of the cell, leaving in ones and twos so as not to attract attention. As Monica accompanied Helen down the wing, she looked thoughtful.

"May I ask you a question?"


"Have you ever led any sort of protest before?"

"No. And I'm not now. I'm just suggesting a response to being put on report."

"The authorities wouldn't see it that way."

"That's their problem."

"They would prosecute you for conspiracy, even if they didn't bother with the other women, because you're a lifer. You know that, don't you?"

"Course I do."

"Then why take the risk?"

"Because of the hypocrisy. The first thing Stubberfield does when he gets home in the evening is pour himself a stiff double. All the screws smoke like chimneys. You can hardly see through the window on the wing office sometimes!"

"You don't seriously mean that the women should be allowed to take drugs in here?"

"No. Too many of them have had their lives wrecked. I just think they should be treated, not punished. I also think no account is taken of the fact that being in here is so awful that if you've got any kind of habit, staying off drugs is practically impossible."

"I see," Monica said quietly.

Nikki reviewed her incident report and sighed. Even though she still thought she'd made the right decision by bringing Robin in to meet Zandra after Monica had discovered that he was engaged to someone else, the aftermath had taken some explaining away. Luckily, Robin hadn't wanted to press charges. The wing governor supposed that on some level, he was probably ashamed of the way he'd behaved. Dumping your girlfriend when she was carrying your child and getting engaged to another woman just to keep your family happy wasn't very noble, even if Robin had the excuse that she was part of the life that he had given up along with drugs.

It helped that when Zandra had reacted to his announcement by lashing out with a pen she had snatched off the desk, Nikki's old training had kicked in, and she had been able to restrain the inmate before she could do more than cut Robin's face.

Since then, Zandra had been slouching sullenly around the wing, alternating between baffled rage and bouts of weeping, in-between ingesting every substance she could get her hands on. She was going to present a significant risk for a while, until she settled down again. Nikki was realistic enough to know that she would probably concentrate on feeding her addiction from now on. The girl had been willing to try and kick her habit when she had the hope of a future. Now that had been taken away from her, she would see no reason at all to get clean. Even though she was pregnant.

Nikki wondered how the inmate could justify that to herself. Her own experience of conception was based on watching other dykes trying to start a family. It was such an effort for them, whatever method they chose to use, that they were usually fiercely committed to the resulting children. It was one of the reasons she and Trisha had agreed to wait a bit. Though neither of them were getting any younger, they knew that they couldn't combine her job and Chix with the commitment that bringing up another human being would entail. They had even dismissed fostering for the same reason. Nikki shrugged. Maybe it was different for breeders. You didn't value what you didn't have to work for. Having seen the lack of interest that Robin was displaying in the life he had helped create, Nikki was once again glad that she wasn't into men. They were just not as reliable as women. All they thought about was getting laid and having an easy existence.

For some reason, that made her think of Fenner and she frowned. There was something about the way that he and Dockley interacted that she didn't like. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something off about their reactions to each other. More body language and tone of voice than anything they actually said. Inwardly, she shrugged. It was pointless to speculate without evidence. She'd just have to keep an eye on the situation. The last thing G wing needed was any more incidents.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

I dreamed about my mother again last night. About something that never happened in real life. Us walking together as adults, talking. Even though I know she would forgive me for what I have done, because mothers always do, not like fathers, I am glad she never lived to feel the shame of me being here, to know what her daughter is capable of. And it's facile to say that any of us would be capable of doing what I did in those circumstances. The truth is that I chose my actions, whatever emotions drove me to them. If we take no responsibility for the bad, then how can we own the good things that we do?

Helen watched Dominic McAllister walking down the wing towards her. He looked even more hangdog than usual, she realised. She went back to her crossword, then glanced up as he came to a stop beside her.

"Come on, Helen. The governor wants to see you."

"What for?"

"I don't know, do I?"


The lifer got to her feet, following him into the administration block. When she got into Wade's office, she came to a halt, puzzled. There was a vaguely familiar, middle-aged man in a clerical collar waiting beside the desk. The governor was there as well, her face serious. Helen looked between them, trying to work out how she knew the tall, lean stranger, wondering if she'd encountered him during one of her periods of eating at soup kitchens. The nagging sense of recognition would not go away. She looked at his slightly florid complexion and dark green eyes and tried to work out what his colouring had been before his hair had gone grey, struggling to identify him from the line of his beaky nose and thin jaw, masked as it was by the softening of age. It didn't help and she abandoned the effort.

"Why am I here?"

"Sit down, please," Nikki said quietly. Helen obeyed slowly, trying to work out what was going on.

"Do you not know me?" the man asked. He had a Scottish accent.

The lifer frowned. She didn't like the undercurrents in this conversation, or the feeling she had that she was being treated with kid gloves.

"No. Should I?"

"I suppose I deserve that," the man said thoughtfully. "I'm Colin Mcrae. I'm your godfather. Do you remember now?"

"Why would I want to? I haven't been home in over fifteen years."

"Helen, I didn't come here for an argument."

"Then get to the point."

Some silent message passed between her godfather and the governor. He cleared his throat.

"There's no good way to say this. Your father's dead."

Helen scowled and looked down, hiding her reaction. She studied her hands, uneasily aware of the way they had begun to tremble. She hardly recognised her own voice when she spoke.

"When's the funeral?"

She looked up sharply when Colin Mcrae didn't answer her. She saw the look on his face and she knew. Her expression hardened.

"Let me guess. They didn't want the papers there."

"Helen, it wasn't your father's choice."

"When was it?" She heard her voice rising and stopped, getting it under control.

"Two weeks ago," the minister said softly, seemingly ashamed.

Helen disregarded his hypocrisy and decided to concentrate on getting the facts. She had an overwhelming need to be out of the room, away from false sympathy and back in her cell, where she could think about how she felt without her every reaction being watched and analysed.

"What killed him?"

"Cancer. He was buried next to your mother. It was a beautiful service."

"I'm sure it was. When did he find out?"

"Six months ago. He was in the hospice, towards the end."

"You get good drugs there, I hear."

"I don't really know."

The lifer stood up. "I'll go back to my cell now."

"Wait!" Colin said urgently. "Do you not want to know why I'm here?"

"Does it matter? It's your job, isn't it, breaking bad news?"

"Helen, child ...."

"Don't!" the Scot spat. "Both my parents are dead. I'd say that makes me an adult, don't you?"

"You're still a child of God."

"He doesn't exist in here."

Colin Mcrae flushed. "God is everywhere."

"You believe that if it keeps you warm at night," Helen said. She turned to the wing governor. "Can I go?"

"He sent you a letter," her godfather said desperately. "Don't you want to read it?"

"Not if it means I have to believe in your deity."

"It was the last thing he did for you."

"It was the only thing he's done since my mother died."

"Helen! Show some respect! He brought you up the best he could."
"Well, he didn't do a very good job," Helen retorted, welcoming the familiar anger, feeling it obliterate her self-control. She took a step forward, her fists clenching involuntarily. "Anyway, you'll have to give it to the governor first. Our post gets read in here."

"Stewart," Nikki said. "Your godfather has travelled all the way down from Scotland to give you this news."


"So why don't you calm down and listen to him?"

"Why? My father's rotting in the ground, and I'm rotting in here. It's not like I can visit him, and by the sounds of it, he didn't want me to, anyway. I don't see why I have to stay here and listen to this old fool preach at me!"

"All right," Nikki said abruptly. She went to the door and opened it. "An officer will take you back to the wing."

Helen started to walk out and then stopped as the governor put a hand on her arm. She held out a sealed envelope. "Here. I don't think I need to check this."

"I'll be sure and tell you if there's a key in there," the lifer said, snatching the envelope from her hand.

Nikki watched her go and then closed her office door quietly. She turned back to Colin Mcrae. He had taken his glasses off and was staring blindly at the painting on her wall. Nikki thought that he might be on the verge of tears. She moved behind her desk, trying to find something positive to say.

"I'm sorry about that. She tends to be very direct."

"What happened to her?"

"I'm sorry?"

"I remember a wee small girl who used to like to build sand castles. Told the worst jokes in the world and laughed at them when no one else did. What happened to her? How did she turn into … that?"

"Helen has anger management problems and issues with authority. Prison's not a good place for someone like that. But we're trying to work with her."

"And is there any hope? Any chance that she'll learn to get along? Be sent somewhere better than this?"

The brunette masked her thoughts and reached for her repertoire of comforting lies. "I've seen prisoners turn themselves around quite suddenly. Sometimes when you least expect it. As though they've decided that they want to change their lives. Helen's only been in here for three years. It can take that long to sink in. If she co-operates with us, there is the possibility that she will be moved to an open prison and eventually released."

"But it's not very likely, is it?"

"That's up to her."

"I see."

"How long are you in London for?"

"I had my accommodation booked for the rest of the week, but there doesn't seem much point in staying now."

"Do you have a contact number where I can reach you?"


"I'll talk to her again, when she's had a chance to calm down. If she agrees to see you, I'll phone you and arrange for a private room where you can meet."

"Thank you."

They shook hands and Nikki arranged for him to be shown out before going back to her paperwork. He moved more slowly as he left her office, as though his thoughts were weighing him down. The governor felt briefly sorry for the bewildered old man who'd travelled so far to find such an unexpected reception.

Later she went onto the wing to brief the staff. They were taking their afternoon tea break when she walked in, Sylvia in mid-complaint about some new dictat from Area Management and how much work it was going to cause, with Lorna Rose nodding as she brewed up. Dominic was slumped in a chair, staring gloomily into the middle distance. Fenner was flicking through the paper, apparently checking the details of the night's TV programmes. They all looked round as she closed the door.

"I expect you've heard the news about Helen Stewart's father by now."

There was a chorus of nods and murmurs.

"Have you been to speak to her yet, Sylvia?"

"Me, ma'am? No. Why?"

"You are her personal officer."

"Yes, I know, but .... I don't like to intrude." She stiffened as she caught Nikki's look and straightened in her chair. "I'll do it as soon as I've finished my tea."

"It might be a good thing that you haven't. There's something you don't know."

"Oh?" Fenner asked, frowning.

"The family have already held the funeral without her. I don't need to tell you how upsetting she'll find that. I think we can expect her to be significantly more difficult over the next few days."

"She didn't get on with her family, did she?" Lorna Rose asked.

"No, but that doesn't mean she didn't want to see her father buried. I want her treated with kid gloves for a while. As far as you can, cut her some slack. If she's aggressive or insolent, give her a chance to back off and calm down before dealing with it. Understood?"

Everybody nodded. Hollamby looked around, pursing her lips. "Mind you, I can understand why her family did that. A murderer in handcuffs at the graveside. Imagine the embarrassment!"

Nikki frowned and came to a decision. "Sylvia, Dominic, can I have a word?"

Fenner picked up on her tone of voice and got up. "Come on, Lorna. Bit of bolts, bars and locks won't do us any harm."

Nikki waited till she was alone with the other two, then looked them over. The middle-aged officer had the tight-lipped expression that meant she realised that she'd overstepped the mark, and Dominic looked like he was anticipating that she'd take it out on him once Nikki had said her piece and gone on her way.

"Sylvia, you and Stewart aren't exactly friendly at the moment, are you?"

"No, ma'am."

"Was it last week she threatened you again?"


"OK. I know it's the informal policy on this wing that lifers have a senior PO as their personal officer, but I'd like Dominic to take her for now. As a development opportunity."

"Are you sure?" McAllister said, frowning.

"I think you can do it. If you're not comfortable with the extra responsibility, then of course I'll reconsider the idea."

'But whatever I do, I'll find a way to get Stewart away from that bigoted, self righteous bitch. At least while she's vulnerable' she thought to herself.

"Sylvia? Your views?" She watched Hollamby considering the matter, her desire to lose the chore battling against her keen awareness of status.

"It could work. If I kept an eye on things."

"It's good of you to offer. Dominic? Need more time to think about it?"

"No. No. It's a sensible idea. I think."

The governor smiled, glad to see him hold his shoulders a little straighter; it looked as though the self-doubt that seemed to eat away at him had been put to one side for the moment.

"It's agreed, then."

"Shall I go and tell her?" the young officer asked.

"No. I want to check on her myself. I need to talk to her about letting her godfather visit her tomorrow."

Helen stood in her cell, back to the half-closed door. She had walked through the normal routine of her afternoon, disregarding the whispers as the news spread on the grapevine. No one had spoken directly to her about it. She knew that she was exuding a simmering aura of hostility. It was an old pose to cover her feelings of pain and anger, and judging by the way people had been avoiding her on the wing, it was working.

Now, though, she was tired and her resistance was beginning to fray. She'd had to come back to her cell in a futile attempt to pull herself together. However much she tried not to, she couldn't help thinking about the last argument with her father. The one where they had shouted at each other until they were both hoarse.

The lifer looked at the bulky envelope, which she had dumped on the desk earlier, and ran her hand slowly through her hair. She felt tears building in her throat and battled to hold them back. She was determined not to allow herself to cry until after lockup, when no one could see her. She shivered, suddenly cold, and went to get a top. Squatting down to reach into her locker, she heard the cell door open and looked round, standing as she saw the wing governor.



"I came to see how you were."

"Fine. I'm fine."

"Really?" Wade glanced at the desk. "You haven't opened your letter."

"Maybe I'm waiting till I get a bit of privacy. Not that I will in this place."

Nikki accepted that with a nod. "Do you want to see the nurse?"


"In the circumstances, I can arrange for you to be given something to help you sleep."

Panic flared briefly in Helen's face. It was gone almost as quickly as it had arrived, the con's mask slamming into place. Nikki frowned, puzzled.

"No. I don't want bloody pills. I'll deal with this in my own way."

"You're not on your own. We will help if we can. But you have to let us."

"Oh, you're all heart," the inmate said bitterly. "Wouldn't be something to do with avoiding an incident on the wing, would it? Don't worry, I'm not going to cut myself up or start any fights."

"That isn't what this is about."

"No? Cause screws are well known for being compassionate and caring, aren't they?"

"I might not be a bleeding heart liberal, but I am a human being," Nikki retorted. "Just accept the help when it's offered, will you?"


Nikki took a deep calming breath, wondering again how the other woman managed to push her buttons so easily.

"All right. You're obviously not ready for this conversation. I'll speak to you in the morning."

"It's not like I can stop you."

The governor turned to leave and then stopped, remembering why she had originally come onto the wing. "Your godfather wants to come and see you tomorrow."

"What for?" Helen demanded.

"Probably to make sure you're OK."

"Well, you can tell him that he's out of luck. You've checked up on me. I don't have to talk to him again."

"Maybe you'd like to, when you've had a chance to think about it."

"What, so he can lie to me about how much my father cared? I don't think so."

"You don't know how your father felt about you! You said yourself that you left home fifteen years ago."

"Oh, I've seen him since then. And I know how he felt the last time I darkened his door. Actions speak louder than words, after all."

Helen's face twisted, as though she was tasting something unpleasant. Nikki waited quietly, sure she'd get an explanation if she held her tongue. She found out how wrong she was when the Scot turned away and lay down on her bunk, her back to the cell, effectively terminating the conversation.

Back in her office, Nikki hesitated and then rang Colin Mcrae. He picked the phone up almost at once. She wondered if he had been waiting for the call.

"Colin Mcrae."

"This is Nikki Wade. I'm sorry ...."

There was a heavy silence from the other end of the phone. The tall woman trailed off, unsure of how to break the news.

"I see. Did she say why she wouldn't agree to a meeting?"

"It wasn't very clear. She seemed afraid that you would discuss her father with her."

"I expect so. They didn't part on good terms."

"Did they quarrel? Helen contradicted herself. I thought she hadn't been home for more than fifteen years, but she said something about going back and actions speaking louder than words ...."

"Oh, that," the Scotsman said softly. "I warned Alan that she would never forgive him. The tragedy is that he knew it, but was obliged to do what he did anyway."

"I don't understand."

"My goddaughter last came home after she'd killed that policeman. She went to her mother's grave. Alan found her there, weeping. He visited Moira every day, until he grew too ill to make the walk."

Colin Mcrae paused and then continued. "He went back to the manse and called the police."

Nikki felt something in her throat constrict. "I see."

"She'd been on the run for a month. They'd already visited us. We knew she was accused, not just of a killing, but of murder. She had broken the sixth commandment. And Alan … he decided that he must render unto Caesar what was due unto Caesar. Knowing that she would not forgive him. Knowing the likely outcome."

"Did they meet after that?"

"No. She refused all contact."

The older man hesitated. Nikki could hear his breathing on the line. Finally, he began to speak. "What I'm about to tell you is private. It was shown to me because I was with her father during the trial. He was relieved of his duties because he could not carry them out. He could hardly eat or sleep or think of anything else. I stayed with him and I watched him pray. Constantly. I have never seen prayer like that. He supplicated for mercy on her behalf; he berated himself for his own failings towards his daughter. He prayed for the soul of the dead man. He was in anguish. I truly believe that it was then that his illness took hold."

Colin Mcrae took a deep, shuddering breath. "And when the verdict came, as was inevitable, he bowed his head and said, 'I failed her.' Nothing else."

"Why are you telling me this?" Nikki asked.

"Because I believe that there is a possibility that you may be able to help my godchild. She will not speak to me. I see that. I must accept it. I have my own work to do and I cannot stay here on the chance she relents. But I beg you, do not give up on Alan and Moira's child. If you can, please, help her."

"I'll do my best," Nikki said quietly.

"Thank you."

"I have to warn you, though. I haven't got a magic wand. Helen thinks of me as part of the system."

"Has she read the letter yet?"

"I don't think so."

"It will change her mind," the minister said confidently.

"You know what's in it?"

"Her father was too ill to hold a pen at the end. He dictated it to me."

"You seem very sure, but one thing Helen is is determined," Nikki warned. "She might just throw it away."

"I suppose so. She takes after Moira like that. Very stubborn."

"Why should she read it?"

"It will tell her something she needs to know."

"What?" Nikki asked bluntly, tired of fencing. She heard him hesitate and then listened as the Scotsman told her what was in the letter. Afterwards, she went back to her paperwork, but found herself unable to concentrate.

After an hour's internal struggle, she put her pen down and went back onto the wing. She hoped that the lifer would be willing to listen to her. She didn't want to take this home with her. Trish didn't like it when she was so distracted about work that they couldn't hold a conversation, and Nikki vaguely remembered that there was some sort of event at the club; she would be expected to be charming and witty, not brooding in a corner. She couldn't do that if she was thinking about Helen.

As she walked onto the wing, Monica intercepted her. "Miss Wade?"


"Is Helen all right?"

"That's what I'm going to check."


The middle-aged inmate quickly covered her surprise. Nikki pretended not to notice it.

"I heard the news. She's been in her cell for most of the afternoon. I didn't want to intrude, but …"

"I think she'd welcome a visit. Maybe tomorrow? When it really hits her. She'll need a friend, then. Someone who can listen."

"Of course. I'd like to support her, if I can. She helped Zandra and I on our first day on the wing."

"Good," Nikki said and went towards Helen's cell. She rapped on the doorframe with her keys and then stepped inside. The Scot was still lying on the bunk, her face to the wall, unresponsive. She shifted slightly when the governor came closer, but didn't move.

"I came to see how you were."

That did get a reaction. The lifer rolled onto her back and looked at her. "Don't you have a home to go to?"

"Eventually, yes. Thought I'd do this first."

"Yeah. Because you get to choose when you come and go."

"That's right," Nikki said. "You want to push this? End up on report? Or are we going to have a conversation like civilised adults?"

Helen surged upright and faced off against the taller woman, her jaw clenched. "We don't have anything to have a conversation about! My father is dead. I don't want to see my godfather. You can come down on me as hard as you want. I won't agree to another meeting. So why don't you leave me alone and get back to whatever you do when you're not harassing the cons?"

"I've already spoken to your godfather. He doesn't expect to visit you again. He respects your wishes."

"In that case, what part of 'fuck off' don't you understand?!"

Nikki glanced involuntarily at the door, checking that she'd pulled it mostly closed. If the inmate's outburst had been overheard, she would have to do something about it, or face accusations of favouritism or worse. She listened to the murmur of voices on the wing and then, satisfied that there had been no change in their rhythm, turned to face the other woman.

"He did tell me something you ought to know. That's why I'm here."

"What? I'm the secret love child of Bonnie Prince Charlie? Whatever he told you, it was bollocks and I don't need to hear it."

"You might want to."

"Yeah. Sure!"

Dominic McAllister chose that moment to come into the cell. "Helen, you ought to try and eat something …"

He stopped abruptly as he took in the developing confrontation. "Ma'am?"

"I'll take care of this," Nikki said tightly. "Go and supervise the meal."

"Yes, ma'am."

Once outside, the young officer hesitated, biting his lip. He'd heard enough stories about Nikki Wade to know this might not go well for the inmate. He was still hesitating when Fenner strolled over.


"I don't know. Stewart's facing off against the wing gov in there."

"Ooh," Fenner said. He smiled broadly. "That's going to hurt."

"What d'you mean?"

"Last time Wade had a cell confrontation with someone, it was a triple rapist at her last nick but one. Thought he was something special, apparently. Nobody knows what she did, but after about five minutes, you could hear him screaming across most of the wing. After another ten, it went quiet and she walked out without a mark on her. But he was always very respectful after that, especially to female officers. So I've heard."

"Christ!" Dominic said, and moved towards Helen's cell. Fenner put a solid hand on his chest, preventing him from moving.

"Forget about it, son. It's not your fight. The wing gov'll be fine."

"What about Helen?"

"She's a stroppy cow. Needs to be taken down a peg or two. After Wade's finished with her, she'll know not to try it again. Guaranteed. Come on. I need your help over there."


"Do as you're told. OK?"

Reluctantly, Dominic followed the more senior officer back to the mess hall.

In the cell, Nikki turned back to Helen. "Do you want to go and get some food?"

"I'm not afraid of you."

"That wasn't the question."

"I'm not hungry."

"Fine. I need you to do one thing for me, and I'll leave you alone."

"What's that?"

"Read your father's message."

"Fuck you."

The taller woman bit back the response she would have made at the club and maintained her professional facade. "Watch what you say to me, Stewart."

"What about it?"

"It's getting a bit tedious, don't you think? All the swearing?"

"It serves a purpose."

"Why don't you change how you talk to people and see what happens? The best definition of stupidity I ever heard was doing the same thing and expecting a different result."

"No. The best definition of stupidity you ever heard was this one: 'Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them …'"


"… with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.'"

There was a charged silence. Nikki stepped closer to the smaller woman and spoke slowly and clearly, biting off each word. "You will treat me and speak to me with the proper respect. Because if you don't, I will find a way to teach you some. Now read the bloody letter. Then I can go home."

"I'll show you what I'm going to do with that!"

Furious, Helen spun round and snatched up the envelope from the desk where she had left it. She began to tear it in half. Nikki sensed what she was going to do and lunged at her, catching her forearms. They struggled, the inmate helpless against the other woman's greater strength.

"Let go of me, you bitch!"

"Drop the letter. Drop it!"

They ended up close to each other, breathing heavily, both flushed with exertion. Nikki didn't loosen her hold and the Scotswoman glared at her.

"It's my property," Helen hissed. "I can do what I want with it!"

"You're forgetting something," the governor said implacably.


"Rule 39."

"What? You said ...."

Preoccupied, the lifer's hold on the envelope had loosened and Nikki plucked it neatly out of her hands. "I changed my mind."

Without breaking eye contact, she peeled back the flap and shook the contents out onto the desk. First, two closely written pages of text, then some photographs. A varied collection of them, taken at different times, some black and white, some the slightly muddy palette of colour snaps taken on cheap cameras.

All of the same subject - a young woman, smiling or serious, against different backdrops. A mixture of scenes, mostly the dark green of the Scottish landscape or the garden of a grey, undistinguished house with a church in the background. In some of the images, she had a small girl with her, the two of them generally close or touching. Playing together, making daisy chains or sitting reading, their heads bent over a battered picture book. In one of the photographs, the child had fallen asleep on the woman's lap and she was smiling at the camera, arms linked loosely around the small shoulders as she sat comfortably in the sunshine.

Helen stared, open-mouthed, at the drift of memories. "Those… that's my mother. After she died, I thought he destroyed all the pictures… I thought ...."
"Read the letter, Helen. It hasn't been bad so far."

Nikki held out the sheets of paper and the lifer reflexively took them. She looked at the opening phrase and sat down abruptly, as though her ability to stand had been taken away. Concerned, Nikki moved forward, worried that the other woman might be about to faint. She watched as the Scot's eyes began to move across the pages, a quick scan at first and then more slowly as she began to read, taking it in, lingering over certain phrases. Gradually, her face changed, becoming more open and vulnerable. Feeling as though she was intruding, the brunette turned away, looking out of the barred window. She moved back when she heard the first sob and put her hand on Helen's shoulder, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket.


The inmate took the piece of cloth without comment, absorbed in the letter. After a while, she re-read it for the last time and put it down, turning to the photographs. Nikki watched as she laid them out on the desk, picking individual images up to examine them more closely. She seemed almost unaware of the tears running down her face, and Nikki saw her jump when a single drop hit the surface of the desk, staining the battered, institutional wood. Slowly, she touched her cheek with her fingertips and blushed, frowning.

"It's OK," the taller woman said gently. She took the handkerchief from the bed where Helen had left it and carefully dried her face. "There."

The Scot caught her hand. "And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth…."


"It's the Bible. 'There shall be a new heaven and a new earth. And there shall be no more weeping, nor any sorrow. And the tears shall be wiped from their eyes.'" Her voice got quieter. Nikki strained to hear her next words. "He forgave me. He called me his beloved daughter. He asked for my forgiveness and said that his grief for my mother had made him a bad father. He said he realised that now."

She began to cry again, great, tearing sobs that shook her whole body. Nikki guided her to the bed and sat down with her, her arm round the Scot's shoulders as she wept. After a moment, the lifer turned her face into Nikki's side, blindly seeking comfort. The brunette held her while she cried herself to sleep and then coaxed the other woman into lying down, taking her shoes off and covering her with a blanket. She straightened up, avoiding the top bunk with the familiarity of long practice, then glanced at her watch, frowning as she realised that she was going to be late and probably catch hell from Trisha. She shrugged mentally. It couldn't be helped.

Before she left the cell, she folded the message, managing to avoid reading it, and tidied it back into the envelope with the photographs. She paused over one particular snap: a small girl in a swimming costume, squatting in the slightly ungainly way that children have as she busily wielded a bucket and spade, absorbed in making the perfect sand castle. Nikki smiled and tucked the photo away. Quietly, she let herself out.

She ran into Fenner as she handed in her keys at the main gate. He nodded at her.

"All right?" he asked cheerfully.

"Fine, thanks," Nikki said, puzzled.

"Stewart OK, is she? Sort her out, did you?"

"Yes, thanks."

"How are the knuckles?"

"You're not making any sense, Jim."

"Fine. Have it your own way. Time for a pint?"

"Sorry. Got to dash. Another engagement."

"See you tomorrow, ma'am."

Shaking her head, Nikki got into her car and drove off. She tried hard not to think about the implications of what he had said. Unfortunately, they were fairly obvious.

Helen woke up, momentarily disorientated, and then realised where she was. She felt drained, but at peace, in a way she hadn't been for a long time. She was thirsty and got out of bed, expertly navigating in the half-light of the cell, then stopped as she saw an unexpected shape on the desk. A flask. Someone had brought one in for her. The envelope was lying next to it. The lifer picked it up, quickly establishing by feel that everything seemed to be there. She poured herself a drink of the weak tea and sat back down on the bed, turning matters over in her mind as she slung the blanket around her shoulders to keep warm. She realised that she felt fragile, vulnerable, even a little frightened.

Part of it was the absence of the usual background noise. In the small hours of the morning, only the most persistent insomniacs and the women with the worst nightmares were moving about. Everyone else was asleep, and the prison seemed almost peaceful, only the occasional crash or scream disturbing the silence. The Scot couldn't even hear anyone crying. The light hiss of rain from outside masked the footsteps of the patrolling guards.

She examined the knowledge that her father was dead, trying to make sense of it, thinking back to the contents of the letter. It had been in her godfather's familiar handwriting, which, unlike the man himself, had not changed in all of the years since they'd seen each other. Helen realised that her father must have dictated it very close to the end. He was too private a man to have done it that way otherwise. Especially given the sentiments he had put in his last message.

"I pray that you will be brought safe out of that terrible place," she said quietly, repeating one of the sections that was burnt into her memory. "And that you may find it in your heart to forgive me for the choice which I was obliged to make. No decision of my life has ever been harder or caused me more regret. I know, my beloved child, that what you did was done in haste and anger and that the good in your life will eventually outweigh it. For even as I am sure that I will see your mother again very soon, I know that you are a strong and loving person and that you have it in you to mend what is wrong and to return to the straight path where you naturally belong."

It was an entirely unexpected vote of confidence and faith. It had been so long since anyone had shown her anything but contempt that she found it hard to take the sentiments in. She put her arms around herself and found herself remembering the last time she had had physical contact with another person. She shivered as she recalled the sensations. Gentle, strong hands wiping away her tears, holding her as she wept. Comforting her. Restraining her as she tried to destroy her father's final gift. At the time, she had been too angry to notice it, but she thought that Wade had probably been holding back, trying not to hurt her.

Helen glanced at the window, where the first signs of dawn were beginning to make themselves felt, and decided to see if she could get some more sleep.

Monica found Helen in the queue for breakfast and, with a nod to the people behind them, joined her.

"Good morning. How are you feeling?"

"OK, considering."

"Did you sleep all right?"

"Not bad. For this place, anyway."

"Yes," the older woman said thoughtfully. "You know, I think I miss silence most of all the things I had outside. And it's one of those things you take for granted until you don't have it any more."

"I don't really remember what it's like the other side of the wall," the Scot said, "but I'll take your word for it."

"You must recall some things, surely."

"I prefer to live in the present. You can't change the past."

They got to the front of the queue, to be greeted by the sympathetic faces of the Julies. Helen handed over the flask.

"Thanks for that," she said, slightly embarrassed to be making the statement.

"What for?" Julie S asked, accepting it.

"For putting it in my cell before lock up."

"Oh no," the other woman said. "We didn't put it in your cell, did we, Ju?"

"No, not us. We was busy with serving."

"Yeah, serving. It was the governor what came and got that."

"Interrupted us, she did."

"Yeah, interrupted. Dawn had to cover."

"We asked if you wanted some food," Julie J added. "She said no."

"You was sleeping and wasn't to be disturbed."

"We was worried."

"Yeah, worried. You know. With her reputation."


The two Julies shivered and looked at each other. Julie J leaned forward confidentially.

"You are all right, aren't you? No bruises?"

"I'm fine. Just for the record, I wasn't beaten up, OK?"

"That's good," Julie S said. "Mr. McAllister was awfully worried."

"We could tell," Julie J added, then turned back into the kitchen, all business again.

"We saved you some nice bacon," Julie S said quietly. "Extra. Thought you might be hungry after missing your tea last night."

"Thanks, Julies."

"Oh, and some mushrooms," Julie J added as she handed the breakfast over.

Monica rejoined Helen as she was looking at her heaped plate. As well as extra bacon and mushrooms, the Julies had made her fresh toast and added some tinned tomatoes and scrambled eggs beside the usual beans. There was even orange juice.

"I'd offer you some, but I don't want to offend the Julies," Helen said, reaching for the salt.

"They're obviously believers in the value of a good, square meal," Monica said, raising her eyebrows.

"Trying to build me up."

"You should try and keep your strength up. You've had dreadful news, and that business with the funeral … I don't know what your family were thinking of."

"No secrets in this place. Was it Hollamby shooting her mouth off or Fenner?"

"The usual suspect."

"No surprises there," the Scot said cynically

She was just clearing the last of her breakfast and wondering just how bad her indigestion was going to be when a shadow fell across the table. Helen glanced up. It was Dominic McAllister. He looked her over carefully.

"How are you?"

"Everyone's asking me that. Don't know why."

"Maybe they want to know."

"I'm fine."

"Well, if you need anything ...."

"I'll be sure to ask."

He hesitated and then spoke quietly. "Helen, you know it's part of my job to ensure your safety."

"I didn't, no. I thought you were here to lock me up, so I couldn't get out and murder more innocent people in their beds."

"If anyone hurts you. Like other inmates … or, anyone, I wouldn't ignore it. That's all I'm saying."

"Thanks. I'll bear it in mind."

Dominic gave her one of his mournful looks and walked away. Helen shrugged and went to her cell. She was walking out to the garden when the governor joined her, dropping in beside her as though they were old friends. The lifer glanced at the other woman; she was obviously on her way to a meeting, given her formal suit and briefcase. The Scot didn't feel like making life easy for her. She deliberately kept quiet, letting Wade start the conversation. Strangely, the taller woman seemed to be able to deal with her silent challenge. She waited until they were almost at the garden, then turned to the inmate.

"How are you?" she asked gently.

"Fine. Considering."

"Glad to hear it."

"Thanks for last night, by the way. Not that you had the right to manhandle me."

"I was trying to stop you ripping the letter up," Nikki pointed out. "Next time, I'll let you, shall I?"

Helen scowled defensively.

"I only did that because you'd provoked me."

"That's your excuse for everything. Had you noticed?"

"You were the one getting in my face."

"Well, I'm sorry, but it's my job."

"Which part? Deciding what's best for me or forcing me to do it?"


"Because it would be too much to expect for you to treat me like an adult."

"When you're behaving like a child, yes."

She had the half-smile she wore when she believed her argument to be unanswerable. Helen let out a long sigh of exasperation.

"Strange. You expect us to behave like adults. Then you insist we call screws half our age 'miss' and 'sir', force us to follow petty rules that have no purpose and send us to our rooms, sorry, the block, without any tea when we misbehave."
"The rules are there for a reason."

"Mixed messages. That's all I'm saying."

Nikki grinned. "You don't stop pushing, do you?"

"Why should I? It passes the time. And that's all I've fucking got in here."

"That and the chip on your shoulder."

"Oh, piss off," the lifer said disgustedly. "Don't lock me up and then expect me to be all sweetness and light."

"Were you ever?"

"None of your business."

"No, it isn't. I was just curious. Never mind. I brought you something."


Nikki held out Helen's journal. The Scot hesitated, then took it from her.

"Read it all, have you?"



"It shows a different side of you."

"I expect it does. I suppose you had a good laugh over it with the other staff. Did you read bits out or just photocopy it?"

"Neither. Nobody knows what's in there except you and me. You can trust me."

"Trust a screw? I don't think so!"

"Try it. You might surprise yourself."

"Well, I won't be writing any more diaries, anyway. Not until I've learnt Esperanto."

"Make it Ancient Greek. I like a bit of a challenge."

She smiled and turned away, leaving the inmate staring after her. Their exchange had been surprisingly amicable, considering that Wade was the enemy. Helen was aware that though she'd been sniping, there'd been no real heat in their exchanges and that the familiar frustration and anger had been strangely absent. Not only had the other woman failed to rise to her comments, the Scot's heart hadn't really been in it. She looked at the journal. It had been carefully handled; the spine wasn't broken and the pages weren't scuffed or turned back. Thoughtfully, the lifer put it in the pocket of her donkey jacket and turned back to her digging. She felt like doing something that would tire her out.

Helen squinted at the sheet of paper, concentrating on getting the jaw line right. This was the first time she'd had the desire to pick up a pencil since she'd heard the news about her father. She'd expected to want to sketch landscapes, maybe of the scenery she remembered from her childhood, but that had been too painful to contemplate, as was the idea of drawing her father as she remembered him. She'd spent a few minutes aimlessly sorting through the photographs of her mother, taking out especial favourites to study them, and briefly considered copying one before dismissing the idea. Then a thought had come to her, and she had found it curiously compelling. She hadn't analysed her impulse, just settled down to draw the person she was thinking of.

Now she sat back and assessed her work critically, comparing it to her memory of Wade as she had seen her today, relaxed and focused, fully absorbed in their conversation, the slight breeze ruffling her hair and disturbing its neat order. She had managed to catch the other woman's refined bone structure and her full, attractive lips, quirked with one of her rare, brief flashes of humour. She was less sure about the eyes; though she had accurately captured their intensity, she wasn't confident that she had managed to convey the intelligence that defined the governor's expression. The hairline was right, as was the set of the ears, their regular shapes easy to draw. She had managed to convey Nikki's taut strength and slim build by including her slender neck and wide shoulders in the portrait, emphasising the alert tilt of her head to show her awareness of her surroundings. All in all she was quite pleased with it for a first attempt.

Helen looked at the drawing for a little while longer. She glanced at her watch and realised that it was five minutes to lights out. Sighing, she tore the sheet carefully into multiple pieces and flushed them away. There was no way that she was going to leave something like that in her portfolio, not with people like Fenner and Hollamby around. She didn't care about the fact that they would disapprove of it on principle; it was the sneering comments she wasn't prepared to put up with. She would just have to carry the image in her head.

Nikki stretched and groaned, feeling her vertebrae pop as her body protested the uses she had been putting it to. She had seen Trisha off to the Junior Chamber of Commerce do earlier in the evening and since then, she had been hunched over her laptop, putting the finishing touches to her definitive anti-drugs strategy.

She had worked on this more intensively than anything since her thesis, and there was a reason for that. Every assertion was buttressed with backing evidence and facts, and the report quoted the latest research. There was no way that Simon was going to be able to argue that any of it was fanciful or based on untested ideas. Which, in turn, would make it harder for him to cherry-pick the easier action points and not implement the full thing. Nikki had made sure that the way in which different parts of the strategy supported each other, including the more difficult aspects, like searching staff and their property, was explicit and clearly explained. It wasn't quite an idiot's guide, but it was close.

The brunette looked at the clock and reluctantly faced the fact that she ought to check in on Chix and make sure everything was running smoothly. Still, she had done the majority of the work now. All that remained was polishing the final version.

Cheerfully, she grabbed her car keys and headed out, a small smile on her face.

Rachel huddled under the covers, fighting back tears. She had deliberately trashed her cell to get put on the block because she was so terrified of Shell and what the psychotic blonde might do to her. Instead Wade had assigned her to the dormitory room with Dockley's most loyal sidekick. Kick being the relevant word. Rachel's side still ached where Denny had lashed out with her boot, landing a solid blow on her ribs. That incident had shown her that she was on her own. Crystal and Zandra had watched it happen, and neither of them had made a move to defend her, staying true to the prison code of not getting involved. She was helpless. Fenner wouldn't protect her, despite being willing to use her to satisfy his urges, and she couldn't tell anyone what was going on without the risk of being called a grass.

Bleakly, her thoughts turned to Maddie, her daughter. The news that her mother had put the baby into care had been a shattering blow. She had known that her mother had become increasingly disapproving of her lifestyle and the company she had been keeping before being sent to prison for possession of ecstasy, but she had had no idea that the older woman would do something like that. She had trusted that blood would be thicker than water.

Now, she faced the prospect of never getting her child back at all. She had no illusions about what would happen when she came out of prison with a record for drugs if they had managed to find a stable foster placement for Maddie. It would probably be a prelude to adoption. As a healthy baby, Maddie was a prime candidate for being sent to a 'good' home and being taken away from her for ever.

Rachel suppressed her tears, unwilling to take the risk of waking Denny up and getting hit again. Anguish tore through her and she wondered how she would manage to survive more days like this, never mind more weeks and months of it. Especially since she had no idea what Shell might come up with to keep herself amused. She had already dumped boiling tea on Rachel and threatened her with serious injury, as well as the thousand small indignities from stealing her stuff to harassing her in the lunch queue that she managed to inflict day-to-day right under the screws' noses. Life was bad enough already, but once Dockley really got into her stride, it would become nothing short of unbearable. And if she didn't even have getting Maddie back to look forward to once she got out of Larkhall .....

It was very cold and very lonely in the cell, despite the soft breathing of the other women as they slept. She had never felt as despairing and hopeless as she did now. Trembling, Rachel looked at the possibilities that filled her dark future and began to tear the sheets on the bed, careful to make as little noise as possible. It was OK. She had hours before the others would wake. Plenty of time to make sure she did it properly.

Nikki looked at the three inmates in front of her and they met her eyes with varying degrees of discomfort and avoidance. She knew that they were probably more worried about the possible consequences of Rachel's suicide for themselves than anything else. Nikki sighed. Them and the screws. The wing meeting that morning had been a babble of recriminations and excuses as everyone scrambled to distance themselves from the messy tragedy of the girl's death. Sylvia had loudly reminded her that they had been told to keep an eye on Helen after the news about her father, as though monitoring one prisoner's welfare meant that you didn't have the capacity to do anything else. Luckily, the fiasco with Carol at least meant that the records were up to date.

The governor knew who she thought might have bullied Rachel, out of the three of them. Crystal Gordon was too self-righteous to get involved in what she saw as sinful activity and wouldn't have lowered herself to harass Hicks; Zandra Placket was only interested in her next fix. She was already loudly declaring to anyone who would listen that she needed medication to cope with the alleged trauma of seeing the body, apparently not caring what effect it might have on the foetus she was carrying.

Denny Blood was another story. She was ready with her fists at the best of times and she was easily led. That meant that she could potentially have been bullying Rachel, on her own account or on someone else's behalf. She had been in the system too long to have any abstract morality that told her preying on the weak was wrong or immoral. The law of 'dog eat dog' was the only one she knew. Now it was just a case of proving it.

Nikki kept her voice impersonal. "You all know what happened here last night."

"Yeah," Zandra said. "Can't get it out of my head. I'm going to have nightmares for weeks. I need to see the doctor. Get some sedation to help me sleep."

"All in good time. Were you asleep when it happened?"

"Yeah," the women chorused.

"How about earlier in the evening? How did she seem?"

"She was miserable," Denny said. "Whining on. Crying. Her little Maddie's been taken into care. The usual."

She sounded bored, not compassionate, but Nikki hadn't expected anything else. She looked at the others. "Is that what you saw?"

Everybody nodded. The governor frowned. There was something here that she wasn't getting. She decided to dig a bit more. "So would you describe her as depressed?"

"Suppose," Zandra said.

Blood shrugged. "Dunno."

Nikki probed slightly, carefully watching their body language. "Upset, grieving. Afraid?"

That got a flinch from all of them. A-hah. "I've been a screw for a long time and when someone does something like this, this far into their sentence, it's usually because it's all got too much for some reason. Something pushes someone who's been coping over the edge. The ones who just can't handle life inside do it the first week. Rachel had got past that. So what happened?"

"She'd just lost her kid, man!" Denny said furiously. "Isn't that enough?"

Nikki, who'd had to sit through an interview with Rachel's mother, still in denial about the part putting her grandchild into care had played in her daughter's death, and perfectly willing to put the whole blame onto the Prison Service, winced. "Maybe. Maybe not."

"Oh, in God's name," Crystal said abruptly. "Tell the truth, Denny. You kicked her."

"What!?" Nikki asked.

"You fucking grass," Blood said furiously. She lunged at Crystal, who didn't react, her air of calm triumph intact. Nikki put a firm hand on the girl's shoulder, a warning. Denny subsided and stood, her fists clenched, as the governor went to the door of the cell.

"Di! Dominic!"

She waited till the officers she had summoned appeared and then pointed at the inmate. "Take her down the block. And the rest of you? Keep your mouths shut till the police arrive."

"Police?" Zandra said disbelievingly. "For a con topping herself?"

"For a woman who couldn't take it anymore and a kid who'll never see her mother when she grows up," Nikki said viciously. She turned to the POs.

"You heard me. Take her down."

"I don't understand why you've involved the police," Simon said, exasperated.

"Because my initial investigations reveal physical bullying amounting to assault," Nikki said calmly. "If Denny Blood drove Rachel Hicks to a place where she decided to kill herself, then I think there should be criminal consequences."

"And what will that achieve?" her boss demanded. "Blood's already looking at a long stretch for arson. They'll run any new sentence concurrently, so it'll make no difference. All it will do is to ensure Larkhall's dirty linen is washed in public!"

"What if it's more than assault?" Nikki demanded. "What then?"

"How can it be? Every indication is that she hung herself. We don't know what drove her to it, but it could be any number of things. I incline to Jim's theory that it was losing her child that tipped her over the edge."

"She hadn't lost her. She'd just been put into care."

"You're not a mother, are you, Nikki?"


"I suspect neither of us can fully appreciate the emotions she was feeling," Simon said sanctimoniously.

"I expect not."

There was a knock at the door and the burly DS who was running the investigation into Rachel's death came in. He nodded to Nikki and sat down in front of Simon's desk without waiting for an invitation. Stubberfield bristled a little and then relaxed as the man launched into his account.

"I'll get straight to the point, sir. We're not going to be able to progress this investigation. My report will state that it's a simple suicide. We have a few final points to tidy up, but I already know how this is going to go."

He hesitated. "Do you mind if I speak freely?"

"Go ahead," Simon said graciously. He had started to smile in a way Nikki didn't entirely trust.

"Frankly, I think Miss Wade here might have made an error calling us in. It's possible some of the inmates might have talked to members of prison staff, but the minute they see a warrant card, they just clam up. Denny Blood won't cough and we have no independent evidence. Crystal Gordon stands by her original statement, but a kick isn't enough to generate an assault charge by itself. CPS will throw it out before it even gets to that stage."

"Why?" Nikki demanded.

""Because why go to the expense of a full dress trial when the matter can be dealt with by the internal prison discipline system? It's not in the public interest. I appreciate you had to be seen to take the incident seriously and make sure the investigation was rigorous, but we can't get anywhere without devoting more resources than, frankly, my guv'nor's willing to."

"And what if it is something else?" Nikki challenged.

"There's nothing to stop you looking into it and getting in touch if anything else turns up. But, to be honest, I think we're talking about a girl who, for whatever reason, decided she didn't want to go on living any more. She was banged up in here, away from her family, away from her kid. All information indicates she was out of her depth. It's not unexpected that something like this might happen. Trying to analyse what, in particular, made her decide to do the deed .... It's like trying to predict the weather. You'll never really get to the bottom of it."

He stood up, obviously keen to get off now he'd said his piece. Simon stood as well and shook the man's hand, beaming now that matters had turned out as he would have wanted. Once he had shown the detective out, he came back to his desk and sat down, folding his hands. "Well, I must say that's a good result, Nikki. Maybe I was wrong to disagree with your decision about calling the police. We have the best possible outcome: an independent investigator saying that we couldn't have prevented her death. This will really help with Area."

"And what about Rachel Hicks?" Nikki asked, fighting hard to keep her burning disgust out of her voice.

"Well, it's tragic, obviously, when any of the inmates dies. Especially like that. But when you've been in the job as long as I have, you'll learn to accept that there are some girls you simply can't help, however hard you try."

"I suppose so," Nikki said tightly. "Is that all?"

"Yes. We both have a lot to do. I'll let you get on."

"Thank you. Among other things, I have a funeral to arrange."

Helen looked up as someone rapped politely at the door of her cell. Recognising Monica, she waved her in and put her book down.

"Prison visiting?" she asked ironically. The older woman smiled faintly, acknowledging the joke, but sobered almost immediately. The lifer didn't blame her. The entire wing, staff and inmates, was on edge at the moment. Watching the police crawl all over the dormitory cell was bad enough, but wondering if they were going to start interviewing all and sundry was raising the tension to dangerous heights. Part of Helen was glad that Wade had called the pigs in - it signalled that the investigation would be fair and open and might even result in something more than the usual whitewash. Even so, she was keeping her head down. She had seen a couple of the coppers react in a way that indicated that they recognised her, and she guessed that of all the prisoners on the wing, she was most likely to be called in for an interrogation, with the sole purpose of giving her a hard time.

"Where did you go after breakfast?" Monica asked.

"Went and did a bit of repotting, cleared my shed out, that kind of thing."

The older woman frowned and then her face cleared as she worked out Helen's motives. "Do you think they might target you?"

"They haven't pulled me yet. But if I stay out of sight, they won't get any ideas."

"Rachel committed suicide. She wasn't murdered!" her friend protested. "You're no more likely to have anything to do with it than .... Bodybag!"

"Won't stop them giving me the third degree. Just for old times' sake. I killed one of theirs. Bobbies stick together. It's how it is."

Monica hesitated. "Was that why your father quarrelled with you? I know you hadn't been in touch for a while before ...."

"Before he died?" the Scot challenged. Monica nodded silently. Helen sighed. It wasn't fair to take her tension and irritation out on the other woman, even if she was asking awkward questions. She had no way of knowing why the subject was an especially sensitive one.

"Sit down," she said, finally. Monica nodded and did as she was told. Helen went to the door and glanced up and down the wing, partially checking who was about and partially nerving herself to give the accurate version of this story. It had been too painful to talk about for years, but the lifer had an idea that to start healing the past, she had to be prepared to let go of it. She sat down on the bed, staring straight ahead, conscious of the other woman's steady gaze on the side of her face.

"We never got on after my mother died. The fights just got more bitter as I got older. I left home when I was fifteen and I hung out with the worst people I could find. Anyone who'd give an adolescent girl houseroom and not ask too many questions about why she wasn't at school. Oh, and cover for me with the authorities when they came calling, of course."

"Helen!" Monica protested. "The dangers …"

"Don't worry. I learned how to take care of myself pretty fast. I never had to earn my living on my back, unlike a lot of the women in here. And some of the things I saw put me right off drugs."

She shrugged. "I travelled all over the country in the next few years. I was rootless. I had no reason to even think about home. Then after Gossard's death, when I was on the run, I felt the need to go somewhere where I could name the rivers. To see my mother one last time. I had no illusions. I knew they'd catch up with me sooner or later and I knew I deserved whatever they did to me then. I hitchhiked home along the A roads, took buses where I could, stayed under the radar." She took a deep breath, reliving the scene.

"And one morning, I walked into the churchyard and made my way to where she was buried. I couldn't get over how small her grave was. It had always seemed huge to me. And the trees had grown, gotten taller. It was like elements of the picture had changed places. I was exhausted, starving, disorientated .... I sat down by her grave and I wept."

The older woman made a small, inarticulate noise of sympathy, putting her hand on Helen's arm. The Scot shifted, huddling in on herself, Monica thought. Reliving the cold and the desolation of that long-ago, bleak morning.

"I heard a noise and I looked up. I recognised them at once. Constable MacKensie was almost the same. My father was greyer. I remember his hands were shaking where he was holding his Bible. I thought it was from shame, at the time. Now, I wonder."

"You were his child," Monica said. "You never stop loving your children."

Helen bowed her head, acknowledging the point. "The constable put his hand on me and said, 'Come wi' me lass. You know where you're going.' And I said, 'Yes. To hell.'" She paused. "My father turned away from me. He left me with the polis. I've never forgotten that."

The older woman felt pity fill her. She turned to put her hand on the Scot's shoulder and Helen shifted away. "Don't. It was a long time ago. I'm over it."

Monica doubted that the lifer was telling the truth, but knew enough not to press her further. Instead, she drew back, giving her the space she needed. "What happened then?" she questioned softly.

"They handed me over to the Met and I was put on remand. I'd proved I was an escape risk. Sean got bail. That was the first sign that we'd be treated differently."

"Did he do a deal with the prosecution?"

"Not exactly. His parents hired a separate legal team and they concentrated on making him look good. Which involved blackening my character as much as they could." She shrugged. "It wasn't hard."

Monica hesitated. "I don't really understand why the authorities even considered charging him. He was a witness, wasn't he?"

"To the killing, yes. But he covered for me, afterwards. He gave me a few hours before he called the police. That made him an accessory after the fact. Even though I didn't ask him to do it."

"Then why ...."

"He felt grateful. He really believed that Gossard was about to seriously hurt him."

"None of this makes sense," Monica said. "If he was willing to cover for you, why did he call the police?"

"It does if you remember what a coward Sean is," Helen said dismissively. "He managed to control himself for a while, probably as long as it took him to smoke a joint, then lost his nerve and telephoned his parents. To get him off the accessory charge, they had to make the jury believe that he did it because he was terrified of me."

Her jaw clenched. "I was a 'violent, abusive, drunk of whom my client is not ashamed to say he was frequently wary and sometimes frightened'. They even downplayed the argument between him and Gossard to make me look more volatile and unreasonable."

"Why didn't you tell them how it really was?"

"I did. They didn't believe me. He had the best representation money could buy. I had a legal aid solicitor."

She fell silent as a screw walked past the door of the cell, glancing in. Monica waited her out. When it became clear that Helen wasn't planning to say anything more, the other inmate did risk putting a hand on her arm. "There's no evidence that your father believed what was said at the trial."

"I know that now," the lifer said. "But at the time ...."

Helen was waiting in the queue, happy that the police had apparently decided to take the day off and were nowhere to be seen. Everyone was subdued and there was none of the usual banter. Rachel's suicide still threw a heavy shadow across the wing. She was restless and bad tempered, partly because of the atmosphere and partly because she had been half-expecting to feel a heavy hand on her collar and it hadn't happened yet. At least when the police had given her the third degree, it would be over with. She had passed a bad night, haunted by dreams about her parents. Not that any night behind bars was good.

She studied Fenner, who was standing gloomily in the middle of the mess hall, his usual swagger absent. "Bastard," she said under her breath.

"Sorry?" Monica said from behind her.

"Look at him, standing there as though nothing's happened. Makes me sick."

"I'm sure he's upset," the older woman protested.

"Yeah. After all, a man has needs," Helen said between her teeth.

Fenner couldn't have heard the comment, but he picked up on the interaction. "Oi, Stewart, keep it moving," he said.

The lifer sneered at him. "What's the matter? Missing one on the head count? Is that why you're looking so preoccupied? Worried you're going to have to explain why one of us is in the morgue instead of the queue?"

"Shut it, Stewart, or I'll shut it for you."

Dockley chose that moment to intervene. "Come on," she said. "It's not all bad. There's an extra portion for someone. Ey, Denny?"

"You callous bitch!"

Helen hadn't realised how wound up she actually was until she found herself hurtling towards the blonde, fists clenched. A screw tried to get in her way and went down as she slammed her tray into his face. Then she was over the counter and at Dockley's throat, propelled by anger, her vision going red as she grappled with her, determined to do her serious harm. All of her technique deserted her, lost in the desire to just damage the other woman. Shell shrieked and fought back, but she stood little chance of deflecting the attack.

Distantly, Helen could hear the cheering and clapping from the queue as she made a determined attempt to slam Dockley's head against the wall. The blonde managed to use her greater height and reach to throw her off. The Scot snarled and tackled her again, aiming to force her face into the hot food this time, or failing that, to get her down so that she could inflict some injuries to the other woman's ribs.

She was so focused that she hardly felt the grip on her arms as the screws dragged her off. She fought blindly to get back and land more blows, hardly realising that the low growling sound she could hear was coming from her own throat. Watching Lorna Rose awkwardly comforting a weeping Shell seemed like the last straw and she struggled vigorously, not aware of anything now except the roaring of the blood in her ears. Even the pain coming from her shoulders as holds were applied seemed irrelevant. She didn't start to come back to herself until she was through the gate and being half dragged, half marched down the corridor to the block.

They hustled her into the nearest cell, the turnkey fumbling with his keys because of the short notice. Helen stumbled as she hit the wall hard and then spun round, knuckles white, feeling the pull of her own ragged breathing dragging at her chest. Fenner loomed in the doorway and they faced off against each other.

"Behave, or we'll cut the clothes off your back and put you on strips!" he barked.

There were a couple of second's charged silence, then the lifer turned away from him. Now the adrenaline surge had gone, she was starting to feel her aches and the tender places that would become bruises; she was sick and empty with reaction. She crossed to the corner and sat on the floor, refusing to make eye contact with Fenner.

"Adjudication for you and with any luck the governor 'll be shipping you out. I'm tired of this crap," he said.

Helen watched the door slam behind him and bowed her head, trying not to shed the tears that burned behind her eyes.

"All right," Nikki said. "So what caused it?"

"Stewart's a psychotic bitch. What more reason does she need?" Fenner asked.

"And Dockley isn't? That wasn't a very nice remark."

"There's a difference between making a stupid comment and physically attacking another inmate. It took two men to pull her off!"

Nikki tapped Fenner's incident report, absently noting a couple of spelling mistakes.

"What do you think we ought to do with her?"

"Ship her out," the PO said instantly. "I'm sick of her. Ghost her and let some other place deal with her."

"That'd be fine if anywhere would take her."

"Well, then. Call in some favours. Send her on twenty-eight day layover."

"I know all the tricks, Jim. How's Price?"

"Black eye. Dr. Nicholson says his cheekbone doesn't seem to be broken, but he's gone off for an X ray to be sure." Fenner sighed heavily. "All because he tried to do his job."

"I'll make sure I see him when he's back in tomorrow."

"In the meantime, what are you planning to do about Stewart?"

"I'll talk to her."

"Talk to her? Let her think she's got away with it?"

"Her father died, Jim, remember? Everyone's tense anyway because of the suicide. Dockley's remark tipped her over the edge."

"So because her old man's croaked, she's got a license to attack officers, has she?"

"No. I'll make it clear that if anything like this happens again, she'll be in serious trouble. But just this once, I'm going to overlook it."

"I think that's a mistake."

"Noted. Send her along this afternoon. Three o' clock. I'll talk to her then."

Fenner nodded gloomily and left, face set in disapproving lines. Nikki sighed. She had no doubt that Stubberfield would hear about this, probably sooner rather than later. Well, she'd worry about that when she had to.

She was deep in paperwork by the time three o' clock came around. She looked up as Lorna Rose rapped at the door and then opened it, showing a subdued-looking Helen in. Nikki gathered the forms on her desk up and gestured to the chair in front of it, putting the half-finished work into a drawer. Then she sat back and surveyed the prisoner in front of her.

The lifer looked rough: mascara smudged, hair tousled, pale under her make up. More to the point, she seemed listless and tired, her normal brooding, contained sense of energy absent. Nikki guessed that she was probably physically worn out from the incident earlier, but could see that there was an emotional component as well. This was a woman at rock bottom. Maybe one whom she could reach.

"Well, you have been making waves."

"Just fu.... Yes, miss."



"Why did you attack Shell Dockley?"

"I'm sure it's all in Mr Fenner's report."

"What happened is in the report. Not your reasons for doing what you did."

Helen looked faintly incredulous. "I'm a 'violent, unstable, aggressive murderer'. I don't need a reason, according to you lot."

"Except you're not," Nikki said. "I reviewed your file when I started here and that's the picture the reports give. But there's also the artist, the woman who meditates when she's on the block. The woman who wrote her journal in Latin."

The Scot shrugged. "So?"

"So who are you really, Helen Stewart?"

"Look, if you're trying to psychoanalyse me, you can ...." She stopped abruptly.

"I can fuck off?"

"I didn't say that."

"No, you just thought it."

"Can't stop me thinking."

"No. Or feeling. What was it?" Nikki pulled some scribbled notes out of a folder and read aloud.

"'I'm writing this in the glow from the dawn outside. Rosy fingered dawn. I'm doing it because I can't sleep. I can't sleep because I had the nightmare again. Him. Standing at the foot of my bunk. Blood pouring out of him. The vengeful ghost of the man I killed. How shall I send him away? Should I want to? Have I the right?

When I woke, I vomited. Staggered to the vile-smelling toilet and clutched its cold sides while I emptied my stomach. It brought more sweat to my brow. Cold, to replace the hot sweat of the nightmare. I am glad that the women who tremble because they believe I am a dead-eyed murderer cannot see me now. Their fear would be no protection if they understood that the harpy they dread spends most of her nights unable to sleep because she is in anguish, regretting the life she took. It shouldn't be so - he was a selfish, stupid man, a commonplace monster. An abuser of power. Yet I cannot believe, now I am sober, that killing him did not taint me in some way. The pollution is on my hands. How shall I wash it off? How shall I find redemption? Does it exist, for the likes of me?

Oh God, I am so alone.'"

Helen stared at her, shocked. "Have you got some sort of photographic memory?"

"I had to translate it. It made it stick in my mind. That, and it being one of the first entries."

"How many people have you shown it to?"

"No one. I made you a promise."

"Did you?"

"Yes, implicitly."

"As if I can trust the word of a screw."

"Let's not do that."

"Do what?"

"Us and them. The Helen in the journal is intelligent and compassionate. She's a woman I could really get to like. And again and again, she returns to the same themes; she regrets her crime and she's lonely. She has no one to turn to, not about the things that matter."

The lifer sneered. "So what you're saying is that you feel sorry for me."

"No, I don't. You nearly put one of my officers in hospital. It's hard to feel sorry for a woman who does something like that, even if I think I know what drove you to it. And the Helen in the journal? I don't feel sorry for her, either. She doesn't do self pity, so I don't think she'd accept anyone else's. I do admire her. I admire her refusal to excuse her crime, even though I think she's too hard on herself most of the time. I admire ...."

"Don't!" Helen said vehemently.

"Don't what? Treat you like a human being and try and reach out to you? You have to trust someone sometime, Helen. Otherwise you'll always be alone."

"Everyone's alone in here," the Scot said quietly. Nikki waited, sensing something more was coming. Helen bowed her head, shading her eyes with her hand.

"And trusting ... that's hard."

"All I'm asking is that you try."

The inmate looked at her, back under control, the cynicism obvious in her expression.

"And then what? You start asking me to do you favours? Make me a screw's pet? Head prefect?"

"No. I ask you to talk to me as if I'm a human being. As if I've got feelings."

Helen blinked, then shrugged. "I suppose I can manage that. But don't expect anything more. Or for me to change how I am in here."

"Hey. Miracles we do at once. The impossible takes a little longer. Right?"

"I suppose."

"I'm not expecting you to tell me who the code names stand for, for example. I'd love to know. Hippo, the Centurion, Bacchus ...."

Helen shrugged. "I won't deprive you of the fun of working it out yourself. You've done OK with everything else. How many days?"


"On the block. How long do I get this time?""You don't."


"I'm overlooking this incident. Make sure it doesn't happen again. If you lose it like that in future, I'll have you off your garden job and scrubbing toilets for the next six months. My promise on it. But today was because you were

upset about Rachel and still grieving for your father. In the circumstances, I'm prepared to let it go. OK?"

"I suppose so."

"Are you ready to go back on the wing? And not make trouble?"

"Yeah. Yeah, sure," Helen said. She seemed bewildered by the new turn of events. Nikki imagined that it was a lot for her to process. She could see Lorna Rose's silhouette in her outer office and went to the door, opening it. The PO looked round, startled.


"Take Stewart back onto the wing, please," Nikki said.

The younger woman looked briefly confused. "The wing?"

"That's what I said."

"Er .... Yes, ma'am."

Nikki watched the Scot walking slowly out of her office and noted how thoughtful she was. Smiling, she turned back to her paperwork.

Nikki picked her moment carefully, waiting until the end of the meeting so that Simon couldn't change the subject, and making sure to leave enough time that he couldn't put it off. She deliberately kept her voice casual.

"I wondered if you'd made your mind up about my report?"

"Which one?"

"The anti-drugs strategy? For G wing? I need your sign off before I can go ahead."

"Ah," Stubberfield said. He laid the papers he was holding on his desk and carefully folded his hands. What she thought of as his Pontius Pilate gesture. "The thing is, Nikki ..."

"Why do I think I'm not going to like this?"

"The women are very unsettled at the moment. The whole wing is grieving, in a sense. I don't think it's the right time to come down hard. We need to let things get back to normal before we introduce something as difficult as the strategy you've proposed."

"It isn't difficult," Nikki pointed out. "It's based on officers doing their jobs properly, and it'll reduce trouble, because a lot of that comes from drug use and the associated issues."

"Your report is very clear, and the research you've cited is impressive," her boss conceded.

"And I've done it before," the brunette reminded him. "At Broomhill. It worked there."

"I know all this. I'm just saying that now is not the right time."

"When will be?" Nikki asked. "It's why you hired me, remember?"

"Yes. And your commitment is admirable. But I have to take a wider view. I think we need to get a proper suicide prevention strategy in place first. We have to be seen to be responding to Rachel Hicks' death before we do anything else. I want you to draft that for me. The work you did on the anti-drugs strategy was very thorough. Area liked it. They'd be open to you doing that sort of planning for the whole estate. It would look very good on your CV and make proper use of your qualification."

"And how long before we implement what I've already worked on?"

"I think we should leave it at least three months. Maybe as long as six. Rachel Hicks will be old history by then. We can review the situation at that point."

"In six months, we'll be at a different place in the budget cycle, Area's priorities will have shifted, the population will be different. I'll have to redo the whole thing!"

"That's not a problem. You're more than capable," Simon said. He favoured her with one of his unctuous smiles. "We both want to get this right. That means picking our battles."

Nikki bit her lip. "How about fighting them in the first place?"

"Look, I know the delay is frustrating for you, and I admire your willingness to tackle things head on. But sometimes that can be counterproductive. This is one of those times."

"So it's business as usual," Nikki said bitterly. "We sit on our hands while more women get high and kill themselves slowly. The only difference between them and Rachel Hicks is that she did it in a more eye-catching way."

"That comment's a bit overdramatic, don't you think?"

"No, I don't."

"I'm sorry you feel that way, but my mind is made up. I want you to put the anti-drugs strategy aside and concentrate on suicide prevention and anti-bullying. Once we have that safety net in place, it'll be possible to revisit your plan. Not before."

"Yes, sir," Nikki said grimly.

Trisha looked up, startled, as Nikki slammed into the office at Chix. "Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

"Yeah. I took the afternoon off. Couldn't stand being there for another minute."

"What's happened? Not another suicide?!"

"No. Bastard!"

The blonde got up and came round the desk. She put a hand on her partner's arm. "Come on, calm down. It can't be that bad."

"Can't it? Simon's mothballing the anti-drugs strategy. The whole reason I took the job and they're throwing it out of the window! I'll be back to bloody paperwork and counting heads. I might as well not have bothered to go for the promotion!"

"Did he say why?"

"Oh, he's using Hicks' suicide as an excuse, but that's not the real reason. He just doesn't want to do it in case it makes more work for his bloody mates, like Jim Fenner, or makes his life harder. He doesn't want to be proactive. He just wants to keep on running a warehouse!"

Trisha stared at her. Her silence finally penetrated Nikki's anger. "What?"

"I don't believe you, sometimes," Trisha said unsteadily. "A girl has died and you're dismissing it like it doesn't matter because it interferes with your plans. Can you hear yourself?"

"Yes, I can. I've had dead prisoners before. It's never nice. But life goes on, and all I want to do is help the ones who are still in Larkhall. Hicks chose to hang herself. We don't know why, but I called the police in, against Simon's opposition, to make sure it was properly investigated. I've done all I could."

"Well, bully for you!" Trisha said. "So you can pack it away and forget about it, now, can you? Get on with business and not worry about the fact that somebody was driven to do that by the system you work for!"

"Her being in Larkhall had nothing to do with her bloody suicide," Nikki said brusquely. "Her kid had been taken into care; she was looking at potentially losing her permanently."

"And that happened because she was sent to prison. Can't you see, Nikki? It's all connected!"

"She chose to use drugs."

"And the judge chose to send her to prison, even though she had a child. Not just any prison, either! One where the mother and baby unit was full!"

"She had care arrangements for the child," the brunette said. "She probably wouldn't have got a place anyway."

"Exactly! So she was really screwed, wasn't she?"

"What do you want me to say?" Nikki asked. "That anyone with a kid under school age gets free license to commit whatever crime they want because they know they won't be jailed?"

"How about, if they're going to lock up women with babies, they should make provision for them."

"That's down to budgets. I'll remind you about that comment the next time you're moaning that your taxes are too high."

Trisha's face twisted with disgust. "There's enough money for better security and pay rises for the civil servants who run the whole system."

"I don't need this crap," Nikki said. "I'm going for a walk."

"That's right, run away," the blonde said. "It's easier than facing me, isn't it?"

"Right now? Yes," Nikki said, and stormed out, seething.

It took half an hour of fast walking before she had calmed down enough to think straight. It was as though she was trying to outrace her anger - at times, she was almost running, outpacing the slower joggers as she tore along the pavement, her long stride eating up the distance. Finally, she found a small park and sat down on one of the benches, distracting herself by watching the dog walkers and children on the nearby swings, abstractedly glad that it wasn't raining. After a while, she sighed and ran a hand through her hair, accepting her own disappointment about what had happened as she gently flexed her tense shoulder muscles. At least now she knew how Simon planned to divert her from the job he'd hired her to do.

She had no doubt that after she'd designed a suicide prevention strategy there would be another initiative that needed research and which had to be looked at before the drugs issue could be tackled. Eventually there'd be no point in doing anything new at all, and everyone would be able to go back to business as normal. She would probably have moved on by then; Stubberfield had to know that if he blocked her from putting her plans into practice, she'd start looking elsewhere. In fact, that was probably a good idea anyway. If she couldn't work with her direct line manager, then she would find it hard to get anything above the ordinary achieved, and Nikki wasn't ready to start doing the minimum just yet.

She stood up, stretching, and thought about the next order of business, which was talking to Trisha. She knew that her exasperation about Simon had made her come over like the worst sort of uncaring bureaucrat when her partner had been upset about Rachel's suicide. She also knew that in her job, it was necessary to develop a certain detachment. It was either that or crack up totally. Nikki was still determined to get to the bottom of the inmate's death and, if necessary, punish anyone who had had a hand in it. Doing that and trying to ensure that no one else got desperate enough to try the same escape route was, in her opinion, the best amends she could make to the dead girl.

Walking slowly back to the club, she passed a couple of friends, pushing their toddlers in buggies in front of them as they strolled along the pavement, chatting. She wondered how much of that sort of time Rachel had managed to spend with her daughter before she was locked up. She wondered if the child would even remember her mother when she grew up.

She let herself into the bar and frowned as she saw Trisha sitting at one of the tables with Joanne, their accountant. Nikki didn't particularly like Joanne; she was good at her job and very professional, but there was something about her behaviour that had always seemed a little off to Nikki, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was exactly.

She knew that some of her feelings were probably due to the fact that the woman had once got drunk at the club's Xmas party and enthusiastically snogged Trisha under the mistletoe. Nikki had had to work very hard on her self control that particular evening. She was aware of her own jealous nature and tried to keep it in check whenever she could. Right now, for example, she was trying not to attach too much significance to the fact that the two women were holding hands, or that Trisha had obviously been crying and had used Joanne's handkerchief to mop her eyes.

The accountant looked up as she came in and rose, her face wary. Her tone was barely polite.

"You're back, then."

"Yeah. I came to talk to Trisha. If you don't mind?"

"Maybe she doesn't want to talk to you."

Nikki frowned. "I think that's up to her, don't you?"

"Oh, forget it, Joanne," her partner said wearily. "We have to sort this out."

"OK. But I'm in the office if you need me."

"I'll be fine. Go on."

The blonde watched the other woman leave and leaned back, her shoulders slumped. Nikki joined her, pulling a chair out and straddling it. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes and then Trisha shrugged. "Well?" she said, her voice still ragged with emotion.

"How are you?" Nikki asked softly. She covered Trisha's hand with her own.

"Upset. Tired. We just ... we go round and round in circles, don't we? We're never going to sort it out."

"Maybe not. But I don't want to stop trying."

"I just don't understand why this anti-drugs thing is so important to you. It was such hard work last time. You did insane amounts of unpaid overtime; you used to come home exhausted, or high as a kite because you'd been running on nothing but adrenaline for hours. You couldn't talk about anything else; you couldn't think about anything else. It was like you were a different person. Someone I didn't know. I don't want to go through that again!"

"It's important to me because it's my chance to make a difference," Nikki said. "If I can interrupt that cycle of drugs and crime for just one woman, help her to turn her life around and do something productive, then it will all have been worth it. The fact that I can probably take down a couple of corrupt screws along the way, the kind who shouldn't be in the job, is a bonus."

"So it's a crusade."

"I suppose so." Nikki reached out and gently cupped Trisha's face. "I didn't know that's how it was for you, though. You should have told me."

"I tried. But sometimes .... it was as though we were speaking different languages."

Nikki felt a spasm of guilt. She tightened her fingers on her partner's hand. "I promise, I won't let it happen again. Not to us. I'll make sure it doesn't."

"Can you, though?"

"I can give it my best shot. Will that be good enough?"

Trisha laughed weakly. "I guess it's going to have to be."

She leaned over and brushed her lips against Nikki's. "I'd better go and tell Joanne I'm OK."

"What am I supposed to have done? Knocked you over the head with my club and dragged you back to my cave?"

"Something like that."

Nikki watched the blonde go and then decided that she needed a cup of tea. She was thirsty after her walk and the emotional conversation she'd just had. Swiftly, she went to the tiny kitchenette next to the office and pulled a mug out of the cupboard. As she did so, she heard raised voices from the other side of the wall and stopped, frowning. It sounded almost as if Joanne and Trisha were having some kind of argument. Concerned, the brunette put the mug down and went to check everything was all right. She pushed the door open just as Joanne really started to shout.

"It's always the same! She says 'jump' and you say 'how high'. It's not good enough, Trisha. She doesn't respect you, she doesn't value you and she's not worthy of you. You're always making excuses for her, even when she's upsetting you. When are you going to wake up and realise that you can do better than that?"

"What the hell is going on?" Nikki interrupted. Both women looked at her, startled; they had been so caught up in their confrontation that they hadn't realised she was nearby.

Joanne stalked furiously up to Nikki, forcing her way into the taller woman's personal space. "I'll tell you," she stated flatly. Strangely, Trisha seemed to be apprehensive about what she might say.

"Joanne, don't ..."

"No, I'm going to say it! Someone needs to! Trisha didn't just hate it when you were doing that project. She was scared as well. You used to come home with scraped, bruised knuckles; your temper was foul most of the time and you spent hours hanging out with people who were violent thugs in uniform. She said it was like living with a soldier. You never asked her how she was or how she felt; you were too busy fighting your bloody war. When she found out you were leaving Broomhill, she cried; she was so relieved!"

"Cried ...." Nikki said slowly. She turned to her partner. "I never saw you cry ...."

"She didn't do it in front of you because she didn't want to upset you. That's her problem. She always puts you first, even when she shouldn't. Where did you think she was all those days when you hardly came home? Who do you think was keeping her company?"

Something about Joanne's tone of voice, her expression, triggered a sudden realisation. "Shit," Nikki said softly. One look at Trisha's stricken face confirmed it; she had been with the blonde for years. You learned to read someone's features in that length of time. Nikki felt rage start to build.

"I bet you enjoyed every minute of it as well. Some more than others, right?" she spat.

Joanne seemed to suddenly realise what she had given away. She stepped back involuntarily, then her jaw set and she straightened. "Yeah," she said. "Someone had to take care of her."

"You bitch," Nikki said quietly. She could feel anger constricting her breathing and her blood pressure rising. She clenched her fists, struggling for control. "I ought to ...."

"Nikki, it was twice," Trisha said desperately. "I was lonely. I was scared. Don't ...."

"Don't what? Don't blame you? For bloody sleeping with someone else when my back was turned? Christ, I thought our relationship meant more than that. Seems I was wrong."

She took a step away from Joanne, uneasily aware that she was very close to actually hitting the other woman. The last thing she wanted to do was act like the thug the accountant seemed to believe she was. Her shin impacted the low coffee table they kept next to the sofa and she swore and kicked it into the wall with one swift, anger-fuelled movement. The crash echoed round the room. Trisha went white and Joanne jumped back, obviously scared.

"Don't worry," Nikki said through her teeth. "I know how to control myself, unlike some people." She turned to Trisha. "I'm going now. The lawyers 'll be in touch."


"No, Trisha. This was always going to finish us if I found out about it. You knew that. That's why you didn't want me to."

She was careful to close the door quietly behind her as she left. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her car keys. She had packing to do. The tears she could feel rising could wait till later.

"OK," Claire said, gesturing at the room in front of her. "Here you are."

Nikki hefted her suitcase and glanced around, checking out the amount of storage space. Not that she intended to be here for very long. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to collapse onto the bed and sleep. She still felt fragile after the argument with Trisha and her partner's ... ex-partner's revelation about her affair. She'd assumed that the other woman had been faithful, just as Nikki had always been. She'd assumed that their relationship had meant more than that, that they'd always be able to talk things through when they had issues. It seemed she'd assumed a lot of things that weren't true.

"I'm going to make a cup of tea," Claire said. "Do you want one?"

"Yes, please," Nikki said. Of course. Tea, the British answer to everything.

"Why don't you get unpacked?"

"I'll do that."

"Come through when you're ready."

She left and Nikki cautiously tested the mattress on the bed before opening her suitcase and loading the contents into the battered chest of drawers on one side of the room and then putting the suitcase itself away in the built-in wardrobes that covered one wall. Judging from the assortment of empty boxes and miscellaneous stuff that already filled them, Claire used this room as a dumping ground for all the things she was going to get round to sorting out sometime. Reassured by the evidence that even her methodical friend had blind spots, Nikki headed for the kitchen and gratefully accepted the cup of tea the solicitor offered her.

"I appreciate you putting me up," she said. "I've taken a fortnight off work. That'll give me time to organise something else."

"No rush. I'll enjoy the company," Claire said, smiling. "Besides, you're going to have to sort the financial side of things out, aren't you?"

"That'll take a while. We co-own a business, as well as the house."

"Did you draw up a proper agreement when you started out?"

"Yes. I wasn't bothered, but Trisha insisted on it."

"Well, that should make things easier. It's when the only documentation is on the back of a cereal packet that the problems start."

"There speaks a solicitor."

Nikki rubbed her face tiredly and sighed, falling silent as she sipped her tea. She had a lot to organise, and it wasn't made any easier by the fact that she knew that their various friends would feel forced to take sides. Given the circumstances of the break up, that was inevitable. She was just lucky that she knew Claire, who'd been a visiting lecturer during one term of her degree and had helped her with some aspects of her thesis. The other woman was a good enough mate that she'd felt able to ask to stay in her spare room. Otherwise, she'd have been in a soulless hotel somewhere, staring at the wall.

Now, she studied the surface of the table, wondering how the brown haired woman opposite her would feel if she burst into tears. Embarrassed, probably. One thing Nikki had come to realise was that while Claire was both competent and compassionate and entirely committed to the minutiae of her legal work, her private life was rather empty. She was unsure if that was because the solicitor simply put most of her energy into her career, or if it indicated some sort of difficulty with romantic relationships. Even if that was true, however, the neatly presented woman opposite her had shown herself capable of genuine friendship and empathy. That was all she needed at the moment.

"Nikki?" Claire said gently.

Nikki jumped, aware that she'd missed something. "What?"

"I said, is stew OK for tea, and did you know that you can stay here for as long as you need to? Up to a couple of months if necessary."

"Er ... Stew's fine and thanks, I'll try to be out of your hair before then."

"I'm sure you will."

"Stewart for you, sir," Fenner said, holding the door of Stubberfield's office open.

Helen obeyed the implicit instruction and went to stand in front of the governor's desk. She flashed back to the last time she had been in this office, answering questions from journalists about how the Prison Service had enabled her to explore her love of art and given her the opportunity to develop her skills. She'd behaved herself, aware of the combined scrutiny of Simon and the Area press officer. She'd done well - they hadn't had to intervene once, even when a journalist had asked her what her general experience of life in prison was. She'd smiled falsely and avoided the question by muttering some platitude before turning the conversation back to a discussion of the art facilities. Luckily, he hadn't pushed, possibly sensing that he might get her into trouble if he did.

"Ah, Helen, how's the art going? Produced any more masterpieces recently?"

"I don't know that I'm at that standard, sir."

"Well, I'm sure that whatever you're doing, it's productive. Take a seat. You can go, Jim."

Stubberfield waited till they were alone and then tapped a printout on his desk. "I've been checking the figures." He smiled. "Occupational hazard in my job, figures."

"I wouldn't know, sir."

"I suppose not. It was just to confirm something I'd already noted. After all, I'm bound to notice when my workload goes through the roof because every time there's an adjudication on G wing, it gets appealed to me."

His voice hardened. "At first, I thought it was just because of Ms Wade's new regime. More testing means more positive results, more cell spins means more contraband gets found, that sort of thing. But then I really looked at the numbers and I noticed a pattern. There are two groups of people getting put on report - the bed and breakfast crew and people on longer sentences. Only the people with longer sentences are appealing their decisions. And they're doing it consistently. Every time, in fact. Almost as though there's a conspiracy of some kind going on."

"We're allowed an appeal right," Helen said robustly. "It's in the rules."

"Oh, it is," Stubberfield said smoothly. "As a lifer, you know the rules pretty well, I'd imagine."

"Yes, sir. I got issued with a prisoner's handbook when I came in here, just like everyone else."

"And unlike most of the women, you've actually read and understood it."

He clasped his hands in front of him, looking a little like a benign headmaster as he did so. The Scot waited for the next comment, feeling her heart sink. She had no doubt that she wasn't going to like whatever it was he had to say next. Her suspicions were confirmed.

"I'm a busy man, Helen. I have pressures on me that, frankly, you can't possibly imagine. I'm not prepared to let some half baked attempt at resistance gain hold in my prison. I could start shipping people out or conducting some sort of witch hunt. We both know that there is always someone prepared to talk if enough pressure is applied. But that would lead to a possible criminal charge of conspiracy, which is disproportionate. I'd like you to do me a favour."


"Yes. People listen to you, don't they?"

"I couldn't say."

"You're a lifer. Of course they do. I want you to spread the word. From now on, any woman from G wing I find in front of me will have whatever penalty has been imposed increased. I will not have prisoners trying to undermine the authority of my staff. Do you understand?"

"Hard not to. You're making yourself very clear."

"Good. I'm sure you can convince the other women to be sensible from now on."

'And you can get back to improving your golf handicap', Helen thought grimly. "Is that all, sir?"

"For now. Keep painting, Helen. I'd like to see more of your work."

"I'll be sure to let you know when I have my next exhibition," the Scot said and got up to leave.

Back on the wing, she made her way to the Julies' cell, making sure that none of the screws were watching her too closely. The blondes listened intently as she explained what had happened, identical expressions of dismay on their faces.

"Spread the word," Helen said. "I'm going to be avoiding people for a while, just in case they are taking names."

"Thanks for nothing," Julie J said. "Has our card been marked, then?"

"That ain't fair, Ju," Julie S said firmly. "She couldn't not tell someone."

"You two can get round twice as many people as anyone else. And you talk to everybody anyway."

"We'll take care of it," Julie S said. "Don't worry."

"And make sure people know that if they get questioned, it's in their own interests to keep their mouth shut. He mentioned conspiracy charges. Potentially, we're talking more years, not more days."

"Bleeding hell. That is bad news."

"Exactly. Well, at least we tried."

She nodded to the two women and went back to her cell. It looked like it was time to keep her head down for a bit.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

Another year in. Another twelve months since they locked me up in Hades. And here I wander amongst the other voiceless ghosts, forgotten and not even mourned. It's easy to feel self pity, and I've spent today reminding myself of the part I played in my own downfall. Of course, my desire for Bacchus is whispering in my ear, tempting me to all sorts of foolish thoughts. It would be so easy to give in and reach for him and it would destroy everything I've managed to build. It's been bad recently - I've been working myself to exhaustion in the gardens, exercising in the gym, learning new asanas. Anything to keep my mind off it. All I can do is grit my teeth and hope it'll pass eventually. This is only a more intense version of what I put up with every day. I am the mistress of my desire, not it of me. That's the thought I have to hold on to. Otherwise, I will be lost.

Helen had taken an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine in the yard for once, shrugging the upper half of her overalls off and tying the arms around her waist to make sure the cloth didn't get in her way. She had to be careful; as a Scot, she had a tendency to burn even on mild days, but she didn't want to miss out on the feeling of the warmth on her skin. She was sitting on the grass, thinking about her latest painting, when Wade walked through the gate and stopped to talk to an inmate who had buttonholed her.

Helen studied the taller woman, recognising the signs of tiredness and strain on her face. She'd lost weight as well. She didn't look like somebody who'd enjoyed her two weeks away from the prison, even though her professional facade was intact. As Nikki gestured, making a point, the lifer realised something. The platinum ring that had decorated the little finger of the governor's left hand since she'd been on G wing was gone. It was a recent thing; Helen could see the paler area of skin where the band of metal had been. She frowned, wondering what that was about. The brunette felt Helen's attention on her and hesitated. Instead of walking off, however, she came over. Helen stood up. Nikki looked down at the con, her expression unreadable.

"Catching some rays?"

"Well, it's not California, but ..."

"It's a change from the rain."

"Did you go anywhere warm? On your holiday?"

"I went cycling in Holland. That was quite sunny. And a week in Wales, walking. That wasn't."

"Explains why you've lost weight then. All that exercise."

"Have I?" Nikki said distractedly.

Helen frowned. Something was definitely wrong. Before the conversation they'd had after her fight with Dockley, she would have shrugged and dismissed it. After all, what was it to her if a screw was upset? Now, however .... She glanced around to check they weren't being watched and stepped closer.

"Miss, are you OK? You seem ... preoccupied."

"Just got a lot going on outside of here," Nikki said. "But thanks for asking."

The lifer nodded and turned away. While she hadn't been given the brush-off, it was clear that the other woman didn't particularly want to talk about it, and Helen didn't really blame her. In the governor's position, she wouldn't have shared her private business with a con. Even one she was trying to get closer to.


"What?" she said, turning back.

"Has your godfather been writing to you?"


"And have you been replying?"

"Yes, miss, like a good little girl."

Nikki snorted. "Like a stroppy con who feels like it, you mean." Her voice softened. "I'm glad you're back in touch. Connections are important. It's easy to lose contact with your family when you're locked up."

"I lost touch with them before that," Helen reminded her, her innate honesty unable to let the statement go unchallenged.

"So you've got a lot to talk about."

"Yes, miss."

The brunette smiled at the expression on Helen's face. "Something tells me I should leave before I have to put you on report for insolence."

"Didn't say a word."

"Seventy percent of communication is visual, Stewart. And you're communicating loud and clear right now."

The lifer shrugged and Nikki walked off, aware that she was feeling more cheerful, though she couldn't work out why. Making a connection with someone, she supposed, even if it was a prisoner. She'd done a lot of thinking during her holiday. She knew that it would be hard to rebuild her life because, as she'd predicted, her and Trisha's friends had started taking sides. She was choosing to see it as an opportunity to make a fresh start, but she didn't underestimate the effort that would be required. Nikki sighed. One thing she hadn't done was address the practical issues, and as cosignatory on the club's accounts, she owed it to Trisha to sort that out sooner rather than later. She supposed that was what some of the voice messages she had deleted without listening to over the last two weeks had been about. Frowning, she glanced at her watch. She'd address it after her meeting with Simon.

Two hours later, she picked up her phone and ordered that Helen Stewart be brought to her office. It had been half an hour since she'd finished talking to Stubberfield, but she'd taken the extra time to calm down. Losing her temper with the lifer would not help this situation, especially since she had no valid reason for feeling hurt by the other woman's actions. She was a screw; Helen was a con. Any connection between them was a chancy thing at best, and in a lot of ways, she'd been naive to think that she could reach out to the other woman. The journal had made her see Stewart as a person, that was all. She had forgotten the other side of the coin: the months and days of prison life that would have conditioned the Scot to hate and despise anyone wearing a uniform.

Thirty minutes after she had put the phone down, it rang again. Nikki picked it up, assuming that it was an internal call, then didn't answer as she recognised the voice. Trisha sounded tentative, almost scared. Nikki wondered bitterly why that was. It wasn't as though she could physically get at the other woman in any way.

"Nikki. Don't put the phone down."

"I won't. We have to talk. About the business."

"That isn't why I called."

"Isn't it?"

"No! I was worried about you! You went off and you haven't been answering your phone for days. Nobody's seen you. I didn't know what to think."

"How about I was sorting myself out after I found out that my long term partner, the woman who I thought loved me, had slept with someone else?" Nikki said through gritted teeth.

"That's not fair!"

"No? It's true. We were going to retire together, remember? Except you traded me in for a younger model!"

"That isn't how it happened!"

"Maybe not, but that's the reason."

"No, it isn't!" Trisha said. She sounded near tears.

Abruptly, Nikki realised that the conversation was going nowhere. She had been aware of dark shapes against the glass between her office and the waiting room for some time, probably since the beginning of the conversation. Thankfully, she seized on the excuse.

"Look, I've got appointments. Tell Howard to get in touch with me once you've decided whether you can afford to buy me out or not. If you can't, then I suppose we're talking me as a sleeping partner, but the agreement will have to be watertight. Oh, and we'll have to decide what to do with the house."

"What about your stuff?" Trisha asked, seemingly accepting that Nikki was serious.

"Just box it up, put it in the spare room. I'll come and collect it once I've got somewhere to stay. If you don't want it around, let me know and I'll rent a storage unit."

"No, it's fine. I'll ... make sure it's safe."


"I didn't want it to be this way," Trisha said awkwardly.

"Me neither," Nikki said bleakly. "But you know what? It is. So let's try not to mess this up any more than it is already."

"OK," Trisha said. "Bye, Nikki ....."

For a surreal instant, the brunette thought that her ex-partner was planning to close the conversation with her habitual "love you." Then Trisha seemed to recall their new circumstances and rang off. Nikki sat, staring at the phone. A knock at the door broke into her thoughts and she looked up as it opened.

Stewart walked into the room. She looked curious and Nikki realised that the Scot had no idea why she'd been sent for. The thought did nothing to improve her temper.

"Sit down," she instructed curtly.

"Why am I here?"

"So we can discuss the conspiracy you organised."


"Yes. The one about taking every adjudication to Simon?"

"He can't prove that," Helen said.

"How do you know?"

"Because if he could, I wouldn't have my garden job anymore. I'd be stuffing envelopes or cleaning the bogs. Or ghosted."

"He might not be able to prove it," Nikki said tautly. "But we both know that's what happened."

"Like I'd admit it to a screw if I had."

"Yeah, and that's all I am to you, isn't it? Just another screw. One of the enemy."

Nikki heard her own voice rising. On some level, she acknowledged to herself that now might not be the time to have this conversation. Still, it was too late to back out.

Helen frowned. "Why the fuck are you getting so upset with me?"

"Because I tried to reach out to you. And you've let me down. That's ... disappointing."

"Let you down?" the lifer said, anger creeping into her voice. "At least I keep my promises."


"When you talked to me before, you told me that you wouldn't make me into a screw's pet, ask me to do things for you. What's this, then?"

"There's a difference between doing things for me and not actively trying to sabotage my management of the wing!"

"It wasn't about that!"

"Then what was it about?"

"About getting the screws who were throwing their weight around to back off."

"It's their job to run the wing, under my direction. That includes carrying out the testing regime!"

"And that would be fine. I don't like drugs. I've seen what they do. But some of them don't care about the anti-drugs program. They're using it as a way to fucking intimidate the prisoners. Because they know you'll back them up. There aren't any checks or balances! You want to stop cons using. Some of the screws just want to send people down the block!"


"To settle scores or make us suffer."

Nikki sat back thoughtfully. "Like who?"

"I'm not a grass."

"Which means you don't have to give specific instances. How do I know you're telling the truth?"

"You don't. But you could try trusting my word," Helen said angrily. "Or just trusting me."

"To be trusted, you have to be trustworthy," Nikki fired back. "That means not constantly fighting the system just for the hell of it."

"Become a womble, you mean. Go along with everything you bastards throw at us."

"No. Act with the intelligence I know you've got. Stop making things harder for everyone."

"I already do that."

"It doesn't sound like it!"

"I could have made life a lot harder for you, for one."

"What the hell do you mean?"

"I know you're gay. Have for weeks. But I didn't use it to make trouble, did I?"

"Spreading false rumours won't get you anywhere," Nikki said calmly, ignoring the cold clench of fear in her chest.

"Her name's Trisha. You've been together for nine years and you've just split up," Helen said. "She slept with another woman and you co-own some sort of business together. A club, I think."

Nikki stared at the lifer, feeling shock roar in her ears. "How ...?"

"You need to move the chair away from the partition. Anyone with decent hearing can eavesdrop on your phone conversations. I've got good ears. It's a survival strategy in here." She shrugged. "One word to one of the bed and breakfast crew before they went out and they'd have been on the phone to out you to the tabloids faster than you can say 'money to score'."

Nikki absorbed the comment. She knew the con was right. In fact, some of her colleagues would have been happy to use the information against her. Fenner sprang instantly to mind.

"So why didn't you tell anyone?" she asked.

"Because it's nobody's business but yours. And you don't abuse your position."

"That's right," Nikki said. "And I won't allow anything to compromise it either. I'll resign before that happens."

Helen nodded. "I know. Can I go, please?"

"Unless you've got anything else to say."

"Not really."

"I'll bear what you said about some officers being heavy handed in mind. I'll keep an eye on the situation. Next time, don't assume I won't listen to you."

The remark seemed to startle the Scot, possibly because of its non confrontational tone. She spoke reluctantly.

"You're the first screw who ever has. It's hard to get used to."

"I expect so. Just .... Get back to the wing, OK?"

Helen nodded and stood up. She hesitated. "She's stupid."


"Trisha. I wouldn't have thrown what you had away."

Nikki frowned, unsure if she had understood the other woman, then shook her head. "You're a prisoner and my responsibility. Not a choice either of us get to make."

"Isn't it?" Helen said.

She waited and then when Nikki chose not to respond, turned and left.

Helen stalked onto G wing, still annoyed by her conversation with the governor. She couldn't believe the arrogance of the woman, trying to use their relationship to manipulate her.

Bad temperedly, she joined the lunch queue, registering abstractedly that the latest batch of new inmates had been processed onto the wing while she'd been seeing Wade. There were a few familiar faces there, short timers back in for another stint, and she nodded to them as she picked up her tray.

Brooding, she slouched against the wall and stared at the back of the con ahead of her. In retrospect, she found it sharply amusing that she'd actually cheered up when she'd been summoned to Nikki's office. There had even been a pleasant fantasy that said that the taller woman might have wanted to talk to her about whatever had been bothering her that morning out in the garden, maybe even been willing to open up and share her emotions. The lifer snorted. Fat chance. All she'd wanted to do was drag Helen across the coals for not living up to some impossible standard she had decided to set for her behaviour.

Ruthlessly, she ignored the part of her that had been mulling over the governor's earlier kindness the whole time the taller woman had been away, tentatively considering if she could trust her. Maybe start building some sort of working relationship. Even talk to her honestly about her reactions to things. Treat her like a human being, not the enemy. The bitterness in Nikki's tone of voice during their last meeting resonated in her memory, and she scowled more deeply. It didn't help that part of her seemed unable to hold on to her anger; instead, she was almost feeling guilty about letting the other woman down.

Helen bit her lip and shook her head fiercely, as though she could dislodge the confusing feelings that swirled through her. She was still unsure as to why she had made her last, ambiguous comment to Nikki about Trisha's actions. She was used to experiencing simple emotions towards the screws and prison staff who ran her life, hatred and resentment for the ones who ordered her around, contempt for the incompetent medical staff, unforced gratitude for the patient teachers from whom she took classes.

It was one of the reasons she found her thoughts returning again and again to the brunette at the oddest times. When she was working on her vegetable plot, or sketching or drifting towards sleep after lock up. The tall woman didn't fit into the worldview the lifer had developed since she'd been convicted. Wade had, at first - her reaction to Helen's defiance over Carol's miscarriage had been textbook, worthy of Fenner. But her anger when she realised that the Scot had been brutalised on the block, and her actions in reaching out after Alan Stewart's death didn't fit.

While Nikki Wade could easily be mistaken for a rule bound drone, and Helen knew that most inmates saw her that way, she was aware that there was more to her than that. The other woman seemed to want to play a different game, to transcend the limitations their situation was putting on them, and Helen was uneasily aware that, more and more, she wanted to respond, to step outside the sterile opposition that defined prison life. To meet her halfway .... Even her rigid code of behaviour was attractive. Unlike most of the screws the Scot had had dealings with, the brunette held herself to a standard that was at least as rigorous as the rules the cons were required to follow. Part of Helen was a little afraid of how attractive she found that honourable worldview.

She became aware that a gap had opened up in front of her and stepped forward to close it. Glancing at the head of the queue, she realised why it was moving so slowly. One of the new entrants, an obvious alcohol casualty, was standing numbly in front of Dockley, trembling as she tried to co-ordinate her thoughts. The woman was middle-aged and dressed in a prison issued tracksuit, probably because her own clothes weren't fit to wear. She was olive skinned with wild black hair and some sort of injury to one arm, the puffy bulge of the deformed limb reinforcing the impression that she hadn't had adequate health care for a long time. Probably a rough sleeper, Helen guessed. As the Scot watched, Shell got tired of waiting for her to make sense and dumped a portion of chips and some tired looking sausages onto her plate.

"Go on, then, piss off."

The short-timer mumbled something and shuffled away, hardly able to hold her tray because of the shaking of her hands. She slumped at a table, well away from everyone else, and stabbed awkwardly at the food, knocking some of the chips off the edge of her plate and onto the floor. Hollamby reacted immediately, her harsh tones echoing across the mess hall.

"You! Jesse Devlin! Pick them up at once!"

The newcomer stared at her with vacant brown eyes, obviously bewildered. Bodybag stalked closer, her lips pursed. "That's an order. This place isn't a barnyard, you know. We keep it clean. Or do you want to go back to solitary on your first day?"

Jesse jerked, fear twisting her face. "No, no. Not back there again, on my own .... Please...."

"Then clear that mess up," Sylvia said, folding her arms. The inmate tried to obey her, leaning down to try and grab the spilt food, but either her balance or her strength let her down and she slid off the plastic chair, landing in an awkward heap on the floor. She grunted softly at the impact and didn't move, seemingly unable to cope with the situation. Bodybag scowled and looked round for more junior officers - it was obvious that she was planning to have the short-timer hauled off to the block. Helen watched disgustedly. Just another day in Larkhall.

She blinked as Nikki appeared out of nowhere and knelt down, putting her arm round Jesse, supporting her. Her tone was impersonal and businesslike.

"Come on, let's get you up. On your knees. On three."

Seeing the governor involved, a couple of screws rushed to help and between them they supported the inmate back onto the chair. She sat, surrounded by uniforms and shrank into herself, obviously intimidated by the attention. Nikki dismissed the others with a movement of her head and turned to Hollamby.

"Cup of tea for Mrs Devlin, please, Sylvia."

"Me!?" Bodybag asked.

"Yes," the governor said implacably. The officer huffed and stamped over to the counter, where Dockley was hastily filling a mug, obviously not wanting to be noticed. The screw snatched the plastic container up and put it forcefully on the table in front of Devlin, slopping some of the liquid in it over the side.

"Anything else, ma'am?"

"No, that's fine, thank you," Nikki said easily. "But I'd better see the welfare report on this prisoner."

"Of course."

Helen felt warmth bloom in her chest and turned deliberately away from the interaction, making sure that nothing of what she was feeling was showing in her face. She ate her lunch quickly and went out to the garden as soon as she could, avoiding conversation. Once there, she headed for her potting shed and settled down to think as she propagated her latest batch of seedlings. She was aware of a clear sense of happiness and other, deeper, emotions. The puzzle that had been bothering her for weeks had been solved, and she finally understood where all of her encounters with Nikki had been leading. She couldn't help stop what she was doing from time to time, to experience the delight that was filling her with unaccustomed contentment.

Stepping out of the shed when she was finished, she turned her face up to the sky, enjoying the brightness of the colours in the afternoon light and the sense of well being she felt. It was as though a veil had been dropped from in front of her eyes, and she was sensing things in their raw immediacy for the first time in years. She realised that she was slightly giddy with emotion and carefully started to rein it in. While she now realised how she felt, the pragmatic knowledge that it would never go anywhere acted as a damper on her euphoria. She was a con and Nikki was a screw, and a by-the-book screw at that. The governor wouldn't ever take advantage. A relationship between them fitted in the category of wonderful things that were nearly impossible, like Maria being reprieved from death row or her winning an appeal.

Involuntarily, Helen smiled. While she would never see either herself or Maria free, the emotion she felt was real, and no one could take it away from her. She knew that it would probably cause her pain and frustration in the future because of what she couldn't have, but the joy she was experiencing at the moment made any amount of later grief worthwhile. Smiling cheerfully at nothing in particular, she headed for her vegetable patch.

Claire let herself into the flat, dropped her yoga bag on her bed and went through for a shower. She wandered into the kitchen, hair still damp, to find the now familiar scene of her lodger preparing tea. It wasn't her turn, and while Claire knew that the taller woman enjoyed unwinding by cooking for them both, she couldn't help feeling that she was taking advantage.

"Shouldn't I be doing that?" she asked mildly, reaching for the herbal tea bags.

"You can take over if you want, but it's nearly finished," Nikki responded abstractedly. For the first time, Claire noticed the half empty glass of wine on the worktop and frowned as Nikki took a sip. The other woman rarely drank and never on a weekday evening.

"Bad day at work?" she asked, cradling the warmth of the mug in her hands and breathing in the citrus ginger smell of her tea.

"You could say that. Someone's worked out I'm gay. She's known for a while."

"Oh. Who?"

"A con."

Claire thought about it. She knew that Nikki wasn't out at work, and she had encountered the casual homophobia that was endemic in the prison service since becoming a solicitor. She knew that if the other woman was outed, her authority and credibility would be gone, even if no-one said anything to her face. The fact that she'd been a prison officer for years and clearly knew how to do her job would be forgotten. The assumption would be made that she'd got where she was because she'd used underhanded methods, taken favours from other lesbians or bullied junior officers into supporting her. Some people would say she couldn't be trusted because she'd lied about her sexuality, overlooking the fact that it was their attitudes which meant that she'd had to in the first place. Claire, who knew a little about how hard Nikki had had to work to overcome the disadvantage of being a baby screw with an accent that was posher than the rest of the intake, as well as the minimum age and a woman, was surprised that her friend was so calm.

She thought about it, analysing the risks. "What evidence has she got?"

"Nothing concrete. Stuff she overheard. She's cleverer than most of them."

"How will she prove anything, then?"

"People will believe her because of who she is. She's a lifer. She's got status on the wing."

"What are your options?"

Nikki stirred the sauce and then poured it over the grilled chicken pieces, sauteed onions and garlic she had set aside in a casserole dish before putting the whole thing in the oven. Claire waited her out. The taller woman sat down opposite her and shrugged.

"I always promised myself that if it ever came out, I'd just resign. Before I could be compromised."

"But you don't want to."

"That's right. It's a great theory till you actually have to do it."

"Has she tried to blackmail you?"

"No. She says she won't tell anyone."

"Do you believe her?"

"That's the problem."


"My reaction. Part of me wants to trust her."

"Why is that so terrible?"

"Because as a prison officer, one of the things that keeps you safe is your knowledge that you can't trust the cons. Not for one moment. If you do that, you'll land yourself and your colleagues in the shit. I want her to be trustworthy. And I can't afford to!"

"She's really got to you, hasn't she?"

"Yeah." Nikki seemed to hear what she had said and shook her head, exasperated. "I should know better. Prisoners are good at mind games. But I thought I was getting through to her. That I could help her."

"Are you sure this is a mind game?"

"I've told you! I don't think I can trust my own judgement where this woman is concerned!" Nikki swirled the wine in her glass, watching the patterns it left. "If your emotions get engaged, you're supposed to back off. That's how it works."

"But you're the governor. How do you back off?"

"I ship her out."

"That seems a bit harsh," Claire said neutrally.

"It's how it is. Inmates don't get to choose where they're sent. Then, if she says anything, it'll sound like sour grapes. No one will believe her."

The brunette swallowed the rest of the wine and hesitated, glancing at the bottle. Finally, she crossed to the sink and poured herself a glass of water instead. Claire watched as she returned to the table and started gloomily tracing patterns on the outside of the tumbler.

"When do you have to make a decision?"

Nikki shrugged. "Depends. Soon as I can, I suppose. I'll have to get onto allocations, and I can't give them the real reason."

"Isn't that going to be a problem?"

"Not with her record. I can easily justify it on the grounds of being sick of her rule breaking."

"If she's like that, why do you think she's trustworthy? The two don't seem to go together."

"Well, Helen's like Jekyll and Hyde. One side is the dangerous, confrontational con who attacked a policeman with a bloody hedging knife and still settles most of her problems with her fists. The other ...."

"Wait a minute," Claire interrupted. "You've got Helen Stewart on your wing? That's who we're talking about?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Don't you read your own statistics?"

"What statistics? I lock them up, Claire. I don't study them."

"She's the only woman in England on a whole life tariff for manslaughter."

"So? She killed a police officer."

"And there are significant issues regarding her trial. Have you ever read the transcript?"

"No. I stick to probation reports. Have you?"

"Just what I saw in the legal press at the time. I had a friend who was a bit obsessed with the case. Journalist. Crusader type. You know. He used to go on about it."

Nikki rolled her eyes. "And what did he say?"

"That she was totally misrepresented. She wouldn't have been convicted if she'd had a better legal team."

Nikki shrugged. "Almost any con could say that. It doesn't change anything."

"It might if she appealed."

"On what grounds? She admitted the crime!"

"Probably not her conviction, but she could appeal her sentence. If she could show that there were circumstances that led her to act in the way she did, she could argue that it was excessive, get it reduced. Maybe get out while she's still got a chance to contribute something to society."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. I suspect Helen doesn't either. She's never really been given the chance to find out. You seem to think there might be something, though."

The brunette frowned and crossed the kitchen to check on the food, then poured herself another glass of wine. She leant against the worktop, sipping thoughtfully.

"I read her journal ...," she said slowly. "It isn't just that she's intelligent and perceptive. She's compassionate and principled as well. The comments she makes about life on the wing ... it's obvious that the things that really upset her, apart from what she sees as the petty injustices, are the situations where she has to sink to other people's level, act like a con just to survive. She gets punished for insolence because she won't tell a lie and just keep quiet. She never goes back on her word once she's given it."

Nikki bowed her head. "I did a deal with her when I first took the job. She helped me keep Fenner in line, undermine something he did with Simon about the fashion show. At the time, I thought it was just her taking the opportunity to stick two fingers up at the governing governor. Now I'm not so sure. I wonder if it was because I reached out to her. Treated her like a human being instead of a number."

"Trusted her."


"Well, if it worked once, maybe it'll work again."

"It's taking a big chance. My whole career."

"From what you say, she could have dropped you in it at any time during the last few weeks. Has she?"


"Well, then."

Nikki shook her head tiredly. "I've had too much wine to think about this properly."

"Then sleep on it. You'll wake up knowing the answer."

"You're probably right. Anyway, I'd better get the vegetables on."

"Listen," Claire said. "Do you want me to get in touch with my friend? Get hold of some of his material? It might give you a better handle on what actually happened during the trial. Help you make your mind up."

"Would it be a lot of trouble?"

"No. In fact, he'd be delighted if someone showed an interest."

"Go ahead, then. It can't do any harm."

"There is one other thing."

"What's that?"

"Does she like it at Larkhall?"

"It's prison, Claire."

"But would a different prison be worse for her?"

"Probably. She's got a decent job, she knows the cons and staff. She definitely enjoys her art classes. She'd have to start again if she was transferred."

"And she knows you've got the power to ship her out."


"Then she's taking a big risk even telling you what she knows. You could just ghost her and even if you don't and someone else finds out and starts some rumours, you'll suspect her, even if it has nothing to do with her. She's giving you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you should do the same."

"Helen," Julie S said enthusiastically. The lifer looked up from her digging and frowned. The two friends were advancing on her with an evangelical gleam in their eye, and since she didn't think they'd found Jesus since she'd seen them at breakfast, she strongly suspected that they were after something. Julie S beamed and produced a packet of fags, apparently forgetting that she didn't smoke.

Warily, the Scot glanced around, ensuring that there were no screws in earshot and accepted the packet, blinking as she registered the sterilising tablets tucked away next to the cigarettes. She shook her head and returned it with a nod. She'd seen what the Julies wanted her to see.

"What's all this about, then?" she asked.

"Well, we wanted ..."

"That is, we thought ..."

"We wondered if we could use your watering can?"

"What for?" Helen asked. "You're not allowed flowers in your cell."

"Naah, not for that," Julie S said dismissively. "The thing is that we want to try a bit of fermentation."

"Yeah, you know, booze?"

"For my birthday."

"Her birthday."

"And we thought ...."

"You could use my watering can as a demijohn? Forget it."

"You must have more than one," Julie S protested. "You've got all sorts in that shed."

"All sorts."

"So what? What if I don't approve of illicit booze?"

"Come off it, Helen! We know you don't like drugs, but this is different."

"Not the same at all. It's just a bit of hooch. You know ... help the party go with a swing."

"What if you get busted?"

"What if we do?"

"Yeah," Julie J said. "It'll be worth it for the chance to get off our faces and forget about being in this dump for a while."

"You could have a share. You know, for contributing ..."

Helen sighed and gave in. "No thanks. It's hardly going to be Chardonnay, is it."


"Don't worry. Look, have you thought about a source of heat? It gets cold out here at nights."

The faces of the two blonde women fell. Helen waited and then shrugged. "Neither of you are gardeners, are you?"

"No, why?" Julie S asked.

"You've obviously never maintained a compost heap. They get pretty warm. It's the decomposition."

The two Julies beamed at each other. "Oh. Well, you learn something new and interesting every day. That's what I say."

The lifer smiled at them. "That you do."

Nikki looked up as she heard the tentative knock on the door, then frowned as she recognised the silhouette behind the frosted glass.

"Come in, Dominic."

The PO did as he was told, ducking his head as he did so. Nikki waited. Things had been quiet in the couple of weeks since her meeting with Helen and the con's revelation that she knew about Nikki's sexuality. Nikki had been hyper-alert for the first couple of days, but nothing else had happened and she had gradually calmed down, deciding to take Claire's advice and accept the Scot's statement that she had no plans to blow her cover at face value. She had settled for deliberately avoiding the other woman after that, unwilling to risk a dangerous conversation. Now, however, she could tell that something was bothering McAllister; since she knew he was on the rota to open the post and she could see that the bulky envelope in his hand was addressed to Helen, she had a feeling that she was going to have to talk to the lifer again before too long.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's this letter. I think you need to look at it."

The governor took it from him, glancing at the stamps, which were foreign, and read the hand-written letter inside. Her eyebrows climbed her forehead as she did so.

"Did you know about this?"

"No. I knew she was writing to someone in the States, but I didn't know the circumstances."

"Why don't you want to give her the letter?"

Dominic looked embarrassed. "She's going to get emotional."

"You must be used to women crying on you by now."

"Yeah, but mostly it's crocodile tears. This'll be for real."

'And since you actually like Helen, that'll make you uncomfortable' Nikki supplied mentally. She decided to push the younger officer a bit, the way she could remember Carter doing with her when she didn't quite live up to the potential the other woman had seen in her. "So? That's part of your job description."

"I suppose. You're just better with her. She listens to you. If anyone can calm her down after this, you will. It's going to make being in here worse for her, isn't it? Harder to cope with."

Nikki nodded, pleased at the insight he had shown. "Where is she?"

Dominic glanced at his watch. "Out gardening."

"OK. Leave it with me. But I expect you to deal with any fallout. You're her personal officer."

"Sure. I'll make sure I see her before the end of my shift."


Nikki took the letter and went out into the yard. She glanced around and couldn't see Helen. After a moment's thought, she tried the potting shed. The Scot was there, preparing a propagator tray for seedlings. She looked up as the governor came in and then turned away, her face set.

"I've got some questions for you," Nikki said.

"Oh, so we're talking now, are we?"

"I never stopped."

"Bollocks. You've been avoiding me for days."

"I've got a wing to run, Helen. I'm not your personal officer."

"No, of course not. Doesn't mean you have to ignore me."

Nikki concentrated on breathing evenly. "The universe doesn't revolve around you, Stewart. Get used to it."

She didn't bother to deny her behaviour. She'd avoided eye contact with the Scot enough times while walking through the wing since their last meeting to know that she wouldn't be believed. Instead, she changed the subject.

"Who's Maria Gomez?"

"She's a woman I write to in the States. Not that it's any of your business."

"Why do you write to her?"

"She's on Death Row in Texas. A cell over here is bad enough. I can't imagine what it must be like facing that."

"A murderer, then."

"She's supposed to have killed an old woman."

"You don't believe she did it?"



Helen scowled at the taller woman. "What the hell difference does it make to you, anyway?" she challenged.

"I'm interested. Are you going to tell me or shall I find out some other way?"

The lifer threw her trowel down onto the bench. "Partially because I got her name from a charity that works with victims of miscarriages of justice. Secondly, because both of her confessors are now campaigning for her release, and while I believe that she might lie to man, I don't believe she would lie to God. Satisfied?"

"What about the circumstances? Come on, Helen, you're too smart not to have looked into that before you committed yourself."

"You are fucking unreal, you know that?"

"I'm just cynical. Maybe I've been in the prison system too long. Cons lie. Fact."

"Some of them tell the truth. Fact," the Scot fired back.

"So tell me."

Helen rolled her eyes. "Maria was working as a carer for an elderly woman in Texas. She was rich. Old money. Oil, cattle, that sort of thing. Maria was an illegal immigrant, sending her wages back to her children. According to her, the family didn't bother much, mostly left her to it. Came by occasionally to check that the old lady was OK, wheeled her out on birthdays and holidays, ignored her the rest of the time. It was easy work, considering. She even got a couple of afternoons off every month."

Nikki listened, watching the play of expression on the other woman's face, absently enjoying the sound of her voice as she relaxed into telling the story.

"On one of her afternoons off, someone broke into the house. The old woman didn't trust banks. She kept cash on the premises. The police said that she probably disturbed the burglar. They found her in a pool of her own blood with the knife still in her. The cops decided that Maria had done it. They questioned her for eight hours. She only had a lawyer for two of them."

"Didn't she have an alibi?"

Helen scowled. "That was the problem. Maria was having an affair with a married man. A teacher. She lied about where she'd been, at first. She didn't want to get him into trouble. So, of course, when she changed her story, it wasn't very convincing. Even though he confirmed her alibi. They always went to a motel; Maria booked in using a false name and then her lover came in separately and sneaked into the room. Nobody saw him, so there was no proof that she'd spent the whole afternoon there. That left her time to drive back to the house and commit the murder."

"Did they find the money?"

"No. They said Maria must have sent it home. Her daughter had just lost her job."

"So what do you think's going to happen to her?"

"I think she's a poor Hispanic who's been accused of murdering a white woman in a state where most people don't like illegal immigrants. The family she worked for practically bankrolled the governor's reelection campaign. I think she'll end up executed."

Nikki smiled.

"Why is that funny?" Helen demanded roughly.

"Because you're wrong."

Nikki held out the envelope. "This is from Maria."

"Bollocks! That's not from Mountain View. The stamp's wrong."

"No, it's from Mexico. She was released last month. She's at home with her family."


"Read the letter."

The lifer took it from Nikki. Her hand was shaking slightly. She looked at the handwriting of the address and studied the post code before pulling out the sheets of paper from inside and scanning them rapidly. When she had finished, she dropped them on the bench beside her and folded her arms, visibly struggling to control her emotions. Tears stood in her eyes, threatening to spill down her face. She looked both profoundly shocked and yet exalted, as though she had seen an impossibly good thing come true.

Nikki reached out and cautiously touched the con's shoulder. "Are you OK?"

"Better than OK," Helen said hoarsely. "I thought ... I thought I'd have to find out she was dead, one of these days. I never believed she'd get off!"

She frowned. "I'll have to read it again. I didn't take it all in."

"Well, according to the letter, that charity you support had a volunteer who took an interest in Maria's case. He found a witness who could alibi her."

"Who? They asked the motel staff before the trial!"

"This guy was a contract gardener. He always took his coffee break in the car park. He recognised Maria because he was used to seeing her there on her days off. And he remembered the date because it was his wife's birthday. The time he saw her arrive made it impossible for her to have driven back to the house to commit the murder."

The Scot shook her head slowly, still visibly struggling to take it in.

"This is the best news I've had for months."

"It just goes to show you should never give up hope."

"Well, if Maria could keep strong in that situation ... I suppose I can as well."

"She says in the letter that it was her faith and her correspondence with you that kept her going. I think you should give yourself a pat on the back."

"For being human?"

"Well, you're certainly not a robot." She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket. "Here. Wipe your eyes."

Helen nodded and did as she was told. She started to hand the handkerchief back and then hesitated. "I never properly thanked you for what you did. After my father died. You didn't have to."

"I thought it was the right thing to do at the time," Nikki said easily. "And you're thanking me now."

Helen looked away and bit her lip. Nikki waited her out, puzzled. She couldn't see where this conversation was going.

"What if I wanted to thank you another way?"

"You could try being a bit more co-operative with the staff."

"No. I didn't mean that. I meant this."

Nikki stared at the con, paralysed as the lifer moved deliberately into her space and put her hands on either side of Nikki's face, obviously intending to draw her into a kiss. Violently, she jerked away and stepped back, fending the shorter woman off with an outstretched hand of her own.

"Back off, now! That's an order!"

"Are you telling me you don't want to?"

"First of all, Stewart, dykes aren't predatory monsters looking to convert straight women, whatever the stereotype says. Secondly, you're an inmate. How dare you try and compromise me in this way!"

"So you're saying you're not interested?"

"I'm saying I'm not an abuser. I've never crossed that line in all of my service, and I never will."

"It goes on."

"Yes. And it's wrong!"

"Even if I want it?"

"Don't ask stupid questions!"

"Do you think I'm making this up?" Helen asked quietly. "Using it to get one over on you? I kept quiet about the fact you were gay, didn't I? You know you can trust me."

Nikki bit back the obvious answer, which was that the con could just be playing the long game. She was a lifer - the one thing she had was plenty of time. It wasn't helped by the fact that Helen Stewart was undoubtedly attractive, physically and mentally. Nikki might have standards, but she wasn't blind. She found it harder to overlook the other woman's physical appearance now she had gained an insight into her mind from the journal.

It had always been that way for Nikki. A woman could be stunningly beautiful and she'd go to bed with them easily enough; she knew she wasn't bad looking herself and she'd always been able to more or less have the pick of anyone she wanted. But what she needed for a longer term relationship was the spark of interest that came from finding someone intellectually attractive, from liking their personality and the way they looked at the world. She'd encountered more than enough damaged, dysfunctional women in her job and found them depressingly common in the world outside. When she had read Helen's journal, she had found herself reluctantly admiring the other woman's intelligence and viewpoint, laughing aloud at some of her observations and being forced to agree with her insights about Larkhall and the personalities inside it. Some things the other woman wrote made her quietly angry, but she could recognise their accuracy.

Now, for the first time, she faced the knowledge that the lifer was someone she could have serious romantic feelings for. The Scot was different to the other women in Larkhall, and Nikki knew how easy it would be to give in to temptation. Then she thought about something she'd read in the journal and her resolve hardened.

"If I let it happen, I'd be no better than the 'Centurion' you talk about. You don't seem to think much of him."

"It's not the same."

"Yes, it is. If you mention this again, I'll consider putting you on report."

"What for? Threatening to kiss the governor?"

"Inappropriate behaviour. If you persist with this, I can't do my job. I won't endanger my career."

"So you don't care at all?"

"Not in the way you want me to. Look ... If you feel this way, then find someone. Another inmate. Nobody 'll turn a hair."

"Are you telling me to break the rules about fraternisation, miss?"

"It goes on. Everybody knows that. Find somebody else. Just accept that I'm off limits. OK?"

Helen leant back against the bench and folded her arms. "There's a problem with that. I have standards. I don't just want anyone. I want you."

"Wanting what you can't have is a recipe for unhappiness."

"That's a pity. Because no one else will do."

Nikki frowned. "This conversation is over. I've told you how it is. Learn to live with it."

"You know, the fact you have principles makes you more attractive, not less."

"Helen, even if I didn't think it was an abuse of power, it can't possibly go anywhere. Not while you're in here. Maybe if we'd met on the outside .... Never mind. Get on with your work."

She left the potting shed and stopped outside to gather her thoughts before going back to her office. She realised her hands were shaking slightly and shoved them into her pockets. She fingered her bundle of keys as she walked back towards the main building, absently returning the greetings of the couple of officers she passed on the way. What she really needed was a strong whisky, but she'd have to make do with performance reports. Just as numbing, but far less pleasant.

When she got back to the flat much later that night after a meeting that had overrun, and using the late finish as an opportunity to check on the night shift, Nikki found Claire reading through a collection of lever arch files and bundles of paper, a cup of coffee cooling by her side. She picked up the clear plastic folder on top of one of the piles and frowned as she caught sight of the screaming headlines that dominated the newspaper clippings inside.

"Hero cop's dying words. Cop killer's convent upbringing," she read out. She shook her head. "Talk about trial by media!"

"Oh, the papers loved it," her landlady told her. "A vicar's daughter who'd run away from home, hung out with the most anti establishment types she could find and then murdered a policeman. Modern morality tale. The right wing press lapped it up. A couple of the Sundays did an editorial after the verdict."

"By itself, this wouldn't be enough to trigger a retrial. The jury won't have seen it."

"No. But it gives you an idea of the atmosphere at the time."

Nikki frowned as she picked up a sheaf of what seemed to be leaflets for Sean Parr's business. The photograph on the front showed Helen and Sean side by side, both leaning on shovels, smiling into the camera. They looked healthy and competent, slightly windswept; the young, fit gardening team, ready for anything, facing the world together. "Has he got the kitchen sink in here?"

"There is a lot of stuff. I was going to order a takeaway. Chinese or Indian?"

"Thai, for preference."

Claire raised her eyebrows. Nikki grinned as she settled down on the sofa and started to seriously read as opposed to just scanning. "Chinese. You know my usual order."

"OK. Coming right up."

Several hours later, she glanced at her scribbled notes, aware that Claire was watching her, waiting for questions. "Call me thick, but I still don't see that you have a basis for a retrial here. Your mate spent a lot of time on this, but interviews with a few friends saying that Helen wasn't the violent woman she was portrayed as in court or her solicitor saying that she wouldn't talk to him and that he never felt that he got to the bottom of why she hit Gossard doesn't really help. If I remember one of my courses correctly ..."

She ducked as the other woman pretended to throw a cushion at her and carried on talking. "It has to be new evidence that the accused couldn't reasonably have brought forward at the time of the original trial. The facts aren't in dispute. Helen did stab Gossard, and she admitted to that under oath."

"She didn't do herself any favours during her testimony."

"Slipping and calling the police 'pigs' and 'the filth', you mean? Not good." Nikki frowned. "True, but I meant the rest of it, actually. She answered with as little information as she could get away with, even when her own solicitor pushed her to explain why she'd done it. She was more forthcoming with Sean's brief on the stand! No wonder she was found guilty. Her answers made her sound like a ...."

"Violent, cold blooded killer who wasn't too bothered about what she'd done," Claire said. "I know. That's exactly my point."

"Which I'm not getting."

"All right. You have other murderers on your wing, right?"



"Michelle Dockley."

The solicitor winced. "OK. I remember the case. I thought she'd be in a psychiatric unit."

"No. She's sane. Just vicious."

"How was she at her trial? And with probation?"

"Full of excuses as to why her victim deserved it and as to how it was her ex-boyfriend's fault for putting her in that position. The way she tells it, she didn't have a choice. Not when she was buying the torture kit, tracking the other woman down, kidnapping her at knifepoint or hurting her repeatedly over the course of several days."

"I didn't know it had been that bad."

"Not all of the details came out publicly. Shell is one of the ones that should be locked up."

"So if Dockley had been accused of killing Gossard ...."

"She'd have been the same. And Helen wasn't."

"Right. There are two possible explanations, as I see it. One is that Helen is more of a psychopath than Dockley. More dangerous and more in control of herself because she's more intelligent. The other is that she was genuinely appalled by what she'd done. She didn't bother to properly defend herself, even when Sean tried to get off by blackening her character. It all got too much and she retreated, withdrew from the whole process. Probably not really thinking that she would go to prison for life, at that stage."

Nikki nodded. She'd met enough dazed first timers at reception or on their induction interview to know that the average citizen often didn't really appreciate that they could end up behind bars until it actually happened. Shock and disbelief were powerful forces, especially when faced with the overwhelming machinery of the legal system. Claire leant forward, her face intent.

"So, which version of Helen do you believe in?" she asked.

The brunette frowned, thinking about what she knew about the lifer, trying to synthesise everything she'd seen and read into a coherent whole. Difficult, when Helen had so many masks, so many different ways of interacting. All part of the facade she had constructed to survive in Larkhall. She had never been simple, Nikki realised abruptly, and maybe it had been that which had roused the first spark of her attraction for the Scot: the challenge of a mystery. Nikki groaned and rubbed her forehead. She spoke aloud, trying to order her thoughts.

"Well, based on her behaviour on the wing, she is violent enough to have killed Gossard. She does fight if she has to, and while she doesn't start trouble, the attack could be seen as self defence, or defence of her partner, anyway. That's consistent with the con I know."

"So that's how she is? Violent all the time?"

"No! Once I read her journal, I realised that was simply her coping mechanism."

"A journal?"

"We confiscated it a while ago. Long story."

"I'm surprised you trust that."

"She wasn't expecting it to be read. That makes it an accurate reflection of her character, as far I'm concerned."

Her landlady nodded. "And what does it show?"

"That she's intelligent, compassionate, hates injustice .... It proves that she deeply regrets her crime."

Nikki fell silent as a sudden memory came to her. Of holding Helen while she wept for the death of her father. She had seen many women in tears over the course of her prison career and she could tell when someone was crying out of anger or self pity. Helen's emotion hadn't been like that. It had been unforced, genuine, tears of sorrow and regret for the parent she would never see again. She remembered the warmth of the smaller woman's body, the sounds she had made, the feel of her as she shuddered against Nikki's chest, all masks abandoned as she grieved. At the time, she had been too caught up in comforting the Scot to analyse the situation, but she must have been observing her more closely than she had thought. Now the image rose up to ambush her, telling her that she could trust the picture the diary presented, trust that Helen was the woman it showed.

Another piece fell into place. The brunette snapped her fingers. "She was afraid of Gossard because of something that had happened before."

Claire looked puzzled. "How do you know?"

"When she writes about him, she calls him a murderer at least once."

"And you didn't think to mention this?" her landlady asked. "That never came out at the trial."

"The journal's complicated," Nikki defended herself. "It's oblique; it uses code names, jumps around. A lot of the time, it's Helen talking to herself. She never expected anyone else to read it and it shows."

"Would it be useful? For her case?"

"It's private. You'd have to ask her permission to see it." Nikki considered. "I don't think so, frankly. It's like one of those pictures that only comes into focus if you look at it a certain way. If you put it together with other facts, it can confirm them, but I wouldn't like to try and deduce stuff from it."

Claire nodded. "OK. I suppose we're lucky that it's already given us one important piece of information."

"I could ask Helen direct."

"Are you saying that you'll talk to her? About appealing?"

Nikki nodded. "Yes. I don't know where I'm going to find her legal representation if she agrees, though. It's not like she's got a lot of money."

"You could ask me," her friend said. "I'd do it pro bono."

Nikki stared at her. "Why?"

"It's a high profile case. Helen Stewart is the only woman serving life for the death of a police officer in the English prison system. Getting her out would look really good on my CV." She shrugged. "Call it an investment in my future career. I could get at least one paper out of it as well."

"I see. So, actually she'd be doing you a favour?"

"Something like that."

"And all you have to do to make it work is overturn a guilty verdict in the case of a dangerous, violent woman who stabbed a police officer because she overreacted to him being in her boyfriend's personal space. I'd say you've got the easy job."


"I'm the one who's going to have to persuade Helen Stewart to give the legal system another chance."

Nikki straightened her aching back and wondered how she had managed to accumulate so many possessions. The flat, which had seemed pleasantly spacious when she bought it, now looked like a junk yard, with cardboard boxes and disassembled furniture everywhere. The tall woman smiled ironically. She'd never make it as a con - too much stuff.

She turned as Fiona's burly teenage sons and several of their friends from the rugby team carried the last of the final vanload in and pulled out her wallet.

"Right," she said, counting out the agreed fee and handing it to Tony. "Thanks for your help."

The dark haired six footer smiled and shrugged. "It's OK. You're paying. We can stay and do a bit more if you want. We could unpack the pots and pans and load up the fridge."

"No that's fine. I want to clean the surfaces before I put anything away."

Tony looked mystified. The concept of germs was apparently as foreign to him as it was to most men his age. Nikki expected he would wise up once he got his own place and had to fend for himself. She glanced at her watch. "Isn't the match starting in half an hour?" she asked.

The teenagers hurriedly made their excuses, leaving before she could find them anything else to do. Left to herself, Nikki unpacked the crate with the cleaning supplies and the tea brewing equipment in it and made herself a mug of Earl Grey before filling a bucket with hot, soapy water, finding the disposable cloths and her bicarbonate of soda and opening the first cupboard. Like most of the people who had to work with inmates whose concept of personal hygiene was sketchy at best (not that the lack of opportunities to shower gave them much choice), she was meticulous about keeping her surroundings spotless at home.

Several hours later, she wiped the sweat off her face and decided that she deserved a cold beer. The kitchen, bathroom and all of the floors and skirting boards were gleaming, and she'd unpacked the 'starter kit' she'd bought from a department store, obviously designed for when little Johnny was sent off to university by his doting parents, but more than enough for her purposes. Ironically, though she had always tended to do most of the cooking, Trisha had ended up with the contents of their kitchen by default. Mentally, Nikki shrugged - she was sure she'd build up replacements over time, though she did mourn the loss of her really good knife set. In fact, she admitted to herself, she didn't have to finish the job tonight. She'd erected all of her new bookshelves, built and made the bed and unpacked enough work clothes and toiletries to keep her going for a couple of days. Even if she called it a night and just slumped over a takeaway with a novel before collapsing under the duvet, she'd be fine.

The thought of her library tugged at her and she impulsively decided to get out a few of her favourites after she had had a beer and something to eat. The flat was in a converted Victorian semi, bigger than most of the properties she'd seen when she was house hunting. That meant there were plenty of alcoves to fit bookcases into, and she wouldn't have to worry about leaving the tops clear for Trisha's ornaments.

Nikki listened to the quiet inside the high-ceilinged space, automatically tuning out the distant noises of urban London. It sank in for the first time that she could make this wholly her home, have everything the way she wanted it without having to consult anyone. The thought was simultaneously liberating and sad. She shook her head, dismissing her melancholy mood, and went to investigate the local off license.

Back in Larkhall a couple of days later, she caught up on all of the outstanding reports and memos, scribbled herself a note about light bulbs while she was thinking about it, and headed down to the wing meeting.

She paged rapidly down the agenda, carefully working her way through all of the routine items before getting to the one she knew was going to cause trouble.

The idea had come to her while she had been allowing herself a long, luxurious soak in the bath the evening before, the place finally as tidy as she liked to keep it. Her mind had drifted to work and the problems she would probably face when she got back to the wing. She had been surprised by how obvious at least one solution had seemed when she thought about it properly. Though she had issues about the way Helen Stewart related to her personally, there was no disputing the fact that the lifer had been more pleasant and co-operative lately, not making nearly as many waves and even managing not to be put on report. Nikki had no doubt that she might slip back if she wasn't encouraged and now she had decided to persuade the other woman to appeal, she didn't want that to happen. Time to reinforce the virtuous spiral, then. It would work for the lifer and for the wing because one of their most troublesome cons would be defused. Nobody lost, as far as the brunette could see. The only problem would be convincing her staff.

"OK," she said. "Moves. I think we ought to put Helen Stewart in an enhanced cell. Any comments?"

There was a charged silence as officers looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes, nobody wanting to be the first to speak. Finally, Fenner cleared his throat.

"Stewart?" he asked disbelievingly.

"That's what I said."

"Enhanced is supposed to be a privilege. One they have to earn!"

"Well, hasn't she? Can anyone think of a single incident since she attacked Dockley?"

"That's only because we haven't caught her," Sylvia said, rolling her eyes. Nikki looked at Dominic who was gloomily studying the floor, apparently lost in his own thoughts. He felt her attention on him and looked up with a jerk.

"What? Oh. Yeah. She's more co-operative, doing her work, even being polite sometimes."

"Besides which it'll free up a two person cell," the governor pointed out. "Which will help with the influx we anticipate next week when the courts are sitting again. We'll get our usual group of short-timers, then."

"We could just put somebody in with her," Fenner commented.

"You know as well as I do that lifers don't two up. Unless you want to get her and Dockley to share a cell?"

That brought a collective wince as everybody contemplated the trouble the suggestion would cause. "We'd be mopping blood off the floor inside a week," Hollamby said ominously. For once, she seemed to be expressing everyone's thoughts.

"It's agreed, then. Dominic, can you arrange the move?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Any other business?"

There was a general negative murmur and Nikki left them to it, her mind already on the next piece of work. She left it a few hours before she went back on the wing to talk to Helen, because she had a feeling that persuading her to do anything would take time.

When she got up onto the landing, Stewart was leaning against the railing, watching the women on the ground floor. She glanced round as Nikki approached.

"Afternoon, miss."

"Enjoying the view?" the governor asked.

"Yeah. Very .... Light's better up here. I was thinking that a painting of the wing from this perspective might be quite interesting. Like a panorama."

"So you're planning on behaving well enough to stay here?"

Helen scowled. "I've already had the lecture about how this is a privilege and I have to earn it twice. Everybody seems to think I'm going to react to a duvet and curtains by going berserk."

"You and Dockley getting along?"

"For now. She wasn't pleased to see me up here."

"Well, keep it that way." Nikki hesitated. "Look, can I have a word? Somewhere more private?"

The lifer smiled, her tongue appearing briefly behind her teeth. Nikki tried not to think about how charming the mannerism was and gestured towards Helen's cell.

"Sure," the Scot said. "You're welcome."

She led the way. Her smile widened when Nikki closed the door.

"Is this where you make your move?"


"I wouldn't object."

"Keep your mind on the conversation, please, Helen."

"You've put me in a better cell, up on the threes. Anyone would think you were interested."

"I'm doing my job. Nothing else."

"Well, you can come and see me anytime. Day or night. As part of your job. And I'll try and keep you amused while you're here."


The lifer tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "Sorry. I'll behave. If that's what you really want." She sounded totally unrepentant.

"What I want is for you to go for your appeal."

"On what grounds?"

"On the grounds that not all of the evidence was looked at during the first trial. That you were misrepresented as more violent and dangerous than you are."

"Which would be great. If it was true," Helen said. Her air of relaxation had vanished and she was frowning, shoulders tensing as she stared at the floor, refusing to make eye contact.

"Isn't it?"

"Have you seen my file recently?"

"That's in here. Did you have any convictions for violence before Gossard?" Nikki challenged. The Scot looked at her, chewing her lip. They both knew it was a rhetorical question. Nikki had access to the con's records and knew exactly what convictions she had - a couple of juvenile shoplifting charges and an arrest for being drunk in public as a teenager. Helen moved restlessly to the desk and started rearranging the pile of books on its surface.

"So it was OK to murder someone?"

"I'm not saying there shouldn't have been consequences. A man is dead. I just don't think you should be in here on a whole life tariff." The taller woman hesitated. "I think your sentence should be reviewed, and as a lifer, it's going to be a long time before you get to your first parole board."

"If I ever do."

"Exactly. That leaves an appeal. Look, I don't normally do this. I don't think about whether the prisoners in here should be locked up. That's the court's job. But you're different."

"Why?" Helen challenged.

"The woman in the journal isn't a cold blooded, violent murderer. And she's you, even though you don't let her out day to day."

"I can't afford to, not in here. You know that."

"Exactly. So why not try and get out? Go somewhere where you can be yourself. Not be looking over your shoulder all the time."

"Like the judicial system will give me that chance!"

"You don't know until you try! At the very least, you might get your sentence reduced. Wouldn't that be worth it?"

"Fine. Where am I going to get a lawyer from?"

"I know a solicitor. Claire. She's willing to take your case pro bono."

"You've got this all worked out, haven't you?"

"I wasn't going to raise your hopes and then let you down, was I?"

"Why does it matter to you how I feel? Why does it matter how long my sentence is?"

"I told you. You shouldn't be in here."

"Is that all?" Helen challenged.

"Yes. I care whether you get out or not. I want to help you. But I don't care the way you want me to. Be very clear about that."

"So I'm this week's charity case," the lifer said bitterly. "OK, I get it."

"Will you think about appealing?"

The Scot shrugged. "Why not."

She moved closer, into Nikki's space. "For you. Because you might not care about me, but I know what I want from you. And it's not platonic."

The brunette swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. "Can I set up an appointment?" she asked.

"Anytime you want. It's not like I'm going anywhere."

Helen glanced at the clock and wondered whether she should have brought her sketchbook. Not that she supposed it would go down very well if the wing governor walked in on her doing the drawing that she wanted to. Her dreams were getting more explicit and she was glad that, as a lifer, she didn't share a cell. She would have been worried about giving herself away by talking in her sleep if she did.

Even today, when she should really have been thinking about her appeal, she was looking forward to seeing Nikki. While the other woman didn't go out of her way to avoid her (in fact, she varied her routine slightly to ensure she saw her most days, as far as the Scot could tell - Helen was unsure if it was a conscious decision or not), the few encounters they did have weren't nearly enough. Of course, the lifer reflected ruefully, what she actually wanted was to spend hours with the governor, preferably on their own and in a room with a comfortable bed in it.

She looked up as the door opened and Nikki showed a slim, smartly dressed woman in a business suit in. The solicitor was carrying a briefcase and had long, light-brown hair pulled back into a pony tail framing a thin, calm face. Helen stood, noting that the other woman, like most people, was taller than she was. Claire smiled and made eye contact as she shook her hand, and the Scot got an impression of focused intelligence. She realised, based on first impressions, that she could probably work with this woman.

"Right," Nikki said. "I'll leave you to it. You've got a couple of hours."

"It'll be fine," Claire said. The governor nodded and left the room. Helen watched her go and then turned back to the solicitor, finding the other woman watching her curiously, obviously trying to weigh her up. She sat down and waited for the conversation to start. After a moment, Claire covered the silence by taking some papers from her briefcase and sliding them and a pen across the table between them.

"First things first. I need you to authorise these to give me permission to act for you. Then I can get hold of the original defence files and start talking to people."

The Scot signed in the indicated places, then sat back. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. "It's not like you'll get a big fee."

"No. But it's a high profile case. It'll look good on my CV. You're the only woman in the country serving a whole life tariff for manslaughter."

"I'm the only female cop killer," Helen said bluntly.

"Like I said, high profile," Claire told her calmly. Helen reminded herself that this woman was actually on her side and tried to rein in her automatic defensiveness. She always reacted this way when her crime was mentioned. It was one of the reasons that the prison psychologist had her down as an incorrigible.

"What now?"

"We go over the case together. I'm sorry, I know that will be difficult for you. I'll try and keep it brief, but I need your perspective on some of the evidence that was given during the trial."

Helen stared at her, astonished. Unlike her first lawyer, this woman seemed to be prepared to listen and not to assume that she already knew it all. Claire looked at her. "Is that OK?"

"Yes, yes .... Fine."

An hour and a half later, she was slumped in her chair, exhausted. The solicitor's questions had been gentle but relentless, and if Helen tried to evade them or try and give less than a full picture, she would simply ask for the information in a different way. The Scot had found herself close to tears a couple of times, the probing forcing memories of her offence and trial back to the forefront of her mind. Claire was skilled enough to back off when that happened, covering less sensitive material before, inevitably, returning to the points that Helen found most painful. Just as Helen thought she couldn't take any more, the solicitor put down her pen, signalling that she was done for now. She pulled a bottle of water out of her briefcase and offered it to the con.

Helen took it with a nod of thanks and drank gratefully. She could feel the slight stickiness of her armpits and knew that she would want to wash when she got back to her cell. It had been a gruelling experience.

"We've made a good start today," Claire said. "I know it wasn't easy. Thank you."

"You are trying to get me out of here."

"I'm not the only one. Think of it as a conspiracy."

"Who else knows about this?" Helen asked, wary.

"Your godfather, your old lawyer and Nikki Wade, of course."

"She can't get too involved."

"No, but she can carry messages and paperwork backwards and forwards where necessary. That'll speed things up."

"How long have you been planning this?"

"For about a week, since I convinced her to try and persuade you to appeal and you said yes."

"You don't hang around, do you?"

"This is going to be a long process. We might as well get it started."

The lifer nodded. "Don't worry. I'm not expecting to be out of here anytime soon."

"It's good that you're realistic. But by the same token, don't give up hope."

"I'll try not to. How do you know Miss Wade, anyway?"

"I taught a module on a course she took and gave her some advice on her thesis."

"I see. I thought you might be someone she knows from the club."

Claire smiled and shook her head. "No. I'm not ... that sort of friend."

"Oh, right," Helen said. She had the feeling she'd been seen through and it made her uncomfortable, but she found it impossible not to check the situation out. She liked to think that she would have taken it gracefully if Claire and Nikki had been an item, especially since, realistically, the solicitor was a better prospect for Nikki than she was, but she couldn't deny that she felt more cheerful now that she knew it wasn't the case. She forced her mind back to the business at hand.

"So what happens now?"

"Nothing for a couple of weeks. I have to go away and read all of the evidence and papers and interview your original legal team. After that, we can start thinking about drawing up a skeleton argument for the appeal."

"That's where you tell the court why I should be released?"

"That's right. But I'll probably have to see you again to clarify any points I'm unsure about, and we may have to dig into Gossard's background a little more."


"He wasn't as squeaky clean as he was painted, was he?"

"No," the inmate said, uncomfortable with the line Claire's questioning was taking. "Why does that matter?"

"It'll support your argument that you honestly believed he was going to hurt Sean."

"Who'll even remember him?" Helen asked. She felt the hope that had begun to grow ebbing away.

"You'd be surprised how willing people are to speak ill of the dead," Claire said confidently. "No comeback, you see."

There was a soft rap at the door. After a pause, Nikki let herself in.

"Do you need more time?" she asked.

"Not today," Claire told her. "Helen's been very helpful."

"Good," the brunette said. "OK, Stewart, Mr McAllister will take you back to the wing."

Helen nodded and stood up. She shook the solicitor's hand.

"Thank you again," she said.

"Don't mention it."

The two women watched her go. Claire busied herself with gathering her papers. As she snapped her briefcase shut, she glanced round to make sure the door was closed.

"You know she's interested in you, don't you?"

"Yes," Nikki said uncomfortably. "And I've told her it's going nowhere. It wouldn't be ethical. I can't even be her friend. I'd be crossing the line."

"I hate to break this to you. When it comes to being a friend, you already have."

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

A bad day today. I couldn't banish the past, even with meditation. I didn't feel like getting out of bed, but I didn't want the Quack's hands on me so I forced myself. Hid in the library for a while, then went out to do some work in the garden. Anything to keep my mind off things. How many people had Gossard murdered, I wonder, before he took them away from me. And how many more did he kill or brutalise before I put a stop to him once and for all? Pointless to speculate. I'll never know. Counting down to lights out, now. Then maybe I can mourn in peace.

Nikki paid off the taxi, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. It had been a very long time since she'd been out clubbing, and she was uncomfortably aware that she was at an age that her younger self would have dismissed as 'past it'. On the other hand, she had no intention of spending the rest of her life single, and that meant building up new social networks. This trip to a gig was the first step in that direction. It helped that she had heard good reports about the Quarter Tone. An unpretentious jazz club in an unfashionable area of town, it was supposed to be a welcoming space for LGBT patrons as well as the hard core enthusiasts who came for the music.

Glancing at herself in the large, ornate mirror on one wall as she waited for her cloakroom ticket, she checked her make-up. She knew that she looked good; the tailored suit she was wearing was both stylish and comfortable, and its restrained grey colour accentuated the light blue silk blouse she had on underneath, which in turn brought out the elegance of her pearl necklace and dark gold bracelet watch. She had gone with a simple black clutch bag that matched her low heeled boots and chosen a natural, subtle look for her make up that she hoped didn't make her look like mutton dressed as lamb. Quelling her nerves, she reminded herself that though she was out of practice, she had done this before. She hoped it was like riding a bike and that she hadn't forgotten the knack. The approving look the cloakroom attendant gave her as he handed her ticket over seemed to indicate that she hadn't.

Nikki found her way through the lobby and took the stairs down into the low ceilinged basement room, absently noting the mix of straight and gay couples. It seemed that the reports she'd heard were accurate. Propping herself on the edge of the bar, she surveyed the crowd, already aware of the odd person sizing her up. That didn't surprise her; she was effectively fresh meat. She enjoyed the mellow, melodic saxophone trio on the stage for awhile before one of the servers attracted her attention with a tap on the shoulder. She smiled as she recognised a familiar face.

"Rhiannon! What are you doing here?"

"Earning a living," the stocky woman opposite said, her face creasing in an easy grin. Without being asked, she poured Nikki a lime and soda, apparently remembering her preferences from when she had been at Chix. "What about you?"

"I'm back on the market," Nikki said quietly. "Trisha and me didn't work out."

Rhiannon nodded, taking it in without passing judgement. "I thought you two were solid."

"So did I. I was wrong."

"Right. I'd better keep the drinks coming, then."

"Sure. Make them non alcoholic for a while."

"You driving?"

"No. I want to keep a clear head."

Rhiannon nodded and drifted off to serve another customer, occasionally moving back to refresh Nikki's drink while she lost herself in the music. She was applauding the guitar and piano duo that had followed the saxophonists when she became aware of a presence beside her. She turned, suddenly realising that a spectacularly beautiful woman had decided to join her at the bar while she hadn't been looking.

The newcomer was blonde, slightly shorter than Nikki, with pale skin and a firm, curved body. Her long hair fell loose in glossy waves over her shoulders, its liquid drape provoking the desire to plunge her fingers into it. Nikki looked into deep blue eyes and fought the invitation to lose herself in them, even as part of her studied the other woman's strong, full lips and wondered how her shapely breasts would feel when cradled and kissed. She was wearing an exotic, musky perfume and Nikki breathed it in, glancing down to where the blunt fingered, capable hands were resting loosely around a tall glass filled with a pale liquid, condensation beading its outside. The stranger turned towards her and Nikki appreciated the way her simple, teal halter-neck dress showed off her strong shoulders and deep cleavage. It was fastened by a twist of cloth behind her neck, and Nikki wondered if the dress would fall to the floor if she unloosened the knot.

The woman reached across and extended her hand. Nikki took it.

"Hi. I'm Sandra."


"You come here often?"

"First time."

"I've got a seat, over there. Would you like to join me?"

Nikki looked at the discreet booth she was indicating and smiled. "Why not. Can I buy you a drink?"

"White wine spritzer, please."


Rhiannon took care of the order with her usual efficiency, then spoiled the pretence that she didn't know what was going on by grinning broadly. "Christ, you don't waste any time, do you?"

"Actually, she made the first move," Nikki said firmly, putting a note on the bar and waving the change away.

"I'll bet she did. She knows what she likes, that one."

"And what does she like?"

"Beautiful women. No strings."

"Not sure how I feel about that."

"Don't get me wrong; she's OK. She isn't a user. I've seen a couple of her ...."


"Dates. Come back after a few months and spend another night with her. I've never seen anybody making a scene. She's honest about what she's offering and she makes sure her partners understand before she takes them home."

"Is she safe?" Nikki asked.

"Never heard any differently, and I would have by now."

"Thanks for the information."

"You were a good boss while I was at Chix. Why would I want to stitch you up?"

Nikki crossed over to the booth with their drinks and took a seat. Sandra looked at her, her eyebrows quirking and a smile on her full lips. The expression suited her, the brunette decided.

"So, am I a serial killer?" she asked. She inclined her head towards the bar. "I saw you getting the grisly details."

"I don't think so. But you should know I've just come out of a long term relationship."

"Ah, honesty. I like honesty," the blonde said. She leaned forward and spoke softly, her voice caressing Nikki's ear. Nikki felt arousal tingle across her skin. "I also like variety."

Nikki had slung her jacket over the back of her chair when she had sat down and Sandra ran her hand lightly along her bare forearm, her short nails scraping the skin, pleasurably teasing. Nikki drew in a quick breath, feeling herself respond. "What I don't do is relationships," the blonde said. "Affairs maybe, but not relationships. Can you deal with that?"

Nikki opened her mouth to reply and Sandra laid a gentle finger on her lips. "Think before you speak. I'll hold you to it."

"I don't know," Nikki said, already drowning in the other woman's eyes. "Give me till the end of the evening?"

"I've got that much time."

"Unless a better offer comes along?" Nikki challenged gently.

"Oh, I doubt that's going to happen," Sandra said. She sipped her wine and captured Nikki's hand. "Tell me about yourself."

They spent the next couple of hours talking, kissing and dancing. Sandra seemed perfectly ready to let Nikki set the pace, though the brunette was aware of her companion's interest when newcomers walked into the club. It appeared that she had told nothing more or less than the truth - she was simply looking for a short term fling. Nikki was buying the third round of drinks when she faced up to the fact that it was going nowhere. Sandra was powerfully attractive and a witty conversationalist; there was an undeniable spark between them and Nikki was aware that if she put her misgivings to one side, they would both have a very fulfilling night. Somehow, though, it wasn't enough, however much Nikki tried to rationalise that she wouldn't be doing any harm and that they were both consenting adults.

The blonde studied her face as she came back to their table and looked regretful. "Oh, dear," she said.

Nikki opened her mouth to apologise. Sandra prevented her speaking by the simple expedient of standing and kissing her. The brunette felt arousal flare and wondered dazedly why she wasn't taking what was on offer. Sandra smoothed her hand along Nikki's bicep, squeezing gently. "Whoever she is, she's a very lucky woman," she said philosophically.

"I don't know what you mean. There isn't anyone."

"Yes, there is. You just don't want to face up to it."

Sandra stepped back and turned, gesturing at the shawl she had draped over the back of her chair. "Help me?"

Nikki hurried to place the sheer cloth on the other woman's shoulders, feeling firm muscles under her palms. "I'm sorry," she said helplessly into Sandra's ear. Her date looked kindly at her.

"Don't be. If she doesn't work out, come back. We can console each other. I think I'd like that."

She pressed a chaste kiss to Nikki's cheek and left, the focus of attention. Nikki gave her five minutes to get away and then left herself, battling to understand what had happened for the whole journey home.

"All right," Nikki said to the morning meeting. "I think you all know by now that Monica's son Spencer died in his sleep last night. Monica is currently sedated, but when she comes round, I want all reasonable requests granted immediately. If she wants to use the phone, talk to the chaplain, anything like that ... arrange it."

"It's such a pity," Di Barker said, "she'll never see him again."

"No. Well, it happens."

The governor looked round her subdued staff team and realised with some surprise that a few of them were actually upset on Monica's behalf. Not the old hands, of course. Hollamby had rolled her eyes when the younger woman had made her comment, obviously believing that anyone who was in Larkhall deserved anything that happened to them. Up to and including the death of their entire family. But most of the rest of the officers liked Monica. Her quiet reserve and unassuming exterior hid a ready intelligence, and not only did she not make trouble, she seemed to actively work to defuse it on occasion. No one who saw the photographs in her cell or heard how she talked about Spencer could doubt her devotion to her son, and it was easy to respect the hard decision she must have made to bring him up herself when the overwhelming social pressure after he was born would have been to put him into an institution and forget he existed. Nikki had sometimes wondered if that choice was why Monica didn't seem to have much contact with her family.

She looked around the small group. "Any comments, questions? OK, that's all. Let's start unlock."

She lingered on the wing to assess the mood. The news had obviously spread through the prison grapevine and everyone was affected. Women huddled together, speaking quietly. One or two had broken down and were being comforted by their friends. Nikki saw Helen heading determinedly towards her and groaned inwardly. She recognised that particular expression. Swiftly, she held up her hand, pre-empting the Scot's outburst, and led her out of earshot of the rest of the cons. Today, of all days, she didn't want to have to put the lifer on report.


"What kind of fucking crap is this?" Helen demanded, her face working. With a shock, Nikki realised that Helen was really upset. This wasn't her usual rage against the system. Monica's loss had hit her on some personal level that she was struggling with. She put her hand on the inmate's shoulder.

"It's crap that happens, inside and outside the walls."

"So that makes it all right? She never spent a night apart from him and now you're justifying the fact that she's rotting in here while he rots in a morgue somewhere. You stole the last months they would have had together from them. Or your fucking system did, anyway."

Nikki sighed. This sounded far too much like the argument that she had regularly had with Trisha for her to be comfortable with it. "We can't exclude women from the criminal justice system just because they're mothers. I'm not disputing it isn't tragic. It's how it is, that's all."

"Life sucks, get a football helmet, is that what you're saying?" Helen rasped.

"No. I'm saying we can light a candle before we curse the darkness."


"I'm going to be taking Monica to Spencer's funeral. There's no way I can make it easy, but I'll do my best to stop it being any grimmer than it has to be. I'll try to help." Nikki hesitated. "But I'm here nine to five Monday to Friday and I have a job to do. She's going to need someone around who can listen to her. Someone she believes in. Someone who cares. Can you do that for her?"

"Why should I?"

"Don't you think you can do it?" the governor asked.

"Fuck off!"

"Like it or not, Helen, you're one of the few women in this place I'd trust to help Monica. She respects you. You're her friend and you're a lifer. Where you lead, the others will follow. You know that. So how about you use it?"

"I don't understand."

"Yes, you do. Right now, everyone's very sympathetic. But there are some cons around who'll go after Monica because she's vulnerable. It's all they know. And unless someone stands up to them, they'll set the tone. Probably only comments. A few tasteless jokes. Do you think she needs that at the moment?"

The inmate bowed her head, anger visible in every line of her body. "This is shit."

"Shit happens," Nikki said implacably. "Are you going to try and take care of Monica?"

"You know I will."

"Right. If I can support you with that ..."

Helen smiled humourlessly. "You said it yourself. You're not here most of the time. Don't worry. I'll cope."

"Are you sure?"

"It's the flip side of being institutionalised. I can manage this environment. Just not myself."

Nikki nodded, controlling her reactions. It wasn't the first time that she had seen the Helen from the journal emerge in the reactions of the lifer, like a dolphin cresting the waves. It was just that she had never been as conscious before of how much it could cost the Scot, trapped in the unforgiving environment of Larkhall. Whenever she acted ethically, she risked a backlash from other inmates who followed the twisted prison code. The governor frowned and then came to a sudden decision. Helen was an adult and had been making hard choices for most of her life. If she wanted to try and do the right thing, she would let her. Treating her like a child, like a con, was to disrespect the innate strength and resourcefulness of the woman in front of her. Nikki wasn't prepared to do that.

"OK. Your call."

The Scot looked at her, startled, then nodded. "This doesn't mean I'm on your side," she warned.

"I'm aware of that," Nikki said. "Just do your best for her."

Helen scowled and turned away, refusing to dignify the request with a response. Nikki watched her go and then turned back to her duties, hoping that the smaller woman's presence would help Monica make it through her grief. Even given her compassion for her bereavement, it was the only support Nikki could arrange for her, short of a visit from the chaplain. It would have to be enough.

Helen was waiting by the cell door at teatime when the other inmate came out, looking pale and shaky despite her long sleep. She had already witnessed Dominic's clumsy attempt at comforting the older woman earlier that day and had grinned cynically as she heard Monica send him away, giving his platitudes the short shrift they deserved. She dropped into step beside her, not speaking. Monica looked across, seemingly bewildered that anyone was escorting her, and then placed her hand briefly on Helen's arm when she realised who it was.

They walked silently towards the queue. Monica took the tray that the Scot handed her and stood with it protectively across her chest, arms crossed over the flimsy rectangle. When she spoke, her voice was soft and uncertain.

"I'm not really hungry," she admitted.

"Just have a cup of tea, then. You need to get something in your system," Helen said matter of factly.

"I suppose so."

"You know so. Spencer wouldn't want you to neglect yourself."

"I ... just feel numb."


"Is it? I'm glad you think so. Nothing seems to make sense any more."

"It won't right now. You just have to keep on moving till it does."

Monica looked at her, frowning. "You talk as though you know how I feel."

"No, I can't. But I have lost people. Never a son."

"Oh, you're too young for that. Though I suppose ...." she trailed off, then frowned, visibly trying to control an upsurge of grief. The lifer nudged her gently forward, keeping the queue moving. She was aware that, though no one was overtly making allowances for Monica, the older woman was moving in a bubble of defined space. None of the other inmates was jostling her, and conversation around her was noticeably more subdued and less raucous than normal. Helen doubted that her companion had even recognised the difference; she was too sealed in her own world of misery and regret to observe much.

They got their meals and headed towards the nearest table, which had magically emptied as soon as they chose it. Helen supposed that some of it was superstitious fear, not wanting the bad luck to rub off, though a lot of it was consideration. She sat down opposite Monica and offered her the salt, trying to pull the other woman, who was staring into the middle distance, back into engagement with the here and now. Monica took the shaker with a distracted smile and added some to her food before picking up her fork and drifting off again. The Scot shrugged and started on her stew; she wasn't going to insist.

She was a few bites in when she heard Denny Blood. "Don't know why everyone's tip toeing round her, just cause her kid died. At least she had him for a few years. Some of us never had a mum in the first place!"

Though not loud, the girl's voice carried and a number of inmates looked at her, obviously shocked by the comment. She looked around. "What?! I'm just saying."

Helen stopped eating, glad that Monica didn't seem to have registered the remark, and pushed her chair back.

"Excuse me," she said, and walked over to Denny. She carefully didn't put a hand on her, not even on her throat, which was suggesting itself as the logical target. She could see other cons shifting away and sense the suddenly increased awareness of the officers around the perimeter of the mess hall. She kept her tone level and her voice quiet.

"I accept you've got shit for brains, Blood, so I know you won't understand what she's going through. But you are smart enough to keep your mouth shut. You do that when Monica's around. Or we're going to have a meeting somewhere where there aren't any screws present and we're going to discuss it. And if I have to break a couple of bones to get you to learn how to behave, I will."

"You can't take me," Denny said, her inherent aggression flaring.

"Can't I? Want to bet?"

Di Barker appeared at Helen's elbow. "What's all this about?"

"Just discussing yoga, miss."


"I bet Blood here she couldn't do one of the postures."

"Anything you can do, I can do," Denny said immediately, unwilling to lose face.


"Now, you know that's not fair, Helen," Di said. "You've been practising for months."

The lifer pretended to think. "Years, actually. But she's younger and fitter. How about something simple, like standing on one leg?"

Denny sneered. "Easy, innit."

"OK," Helen said, and fixed her attention on a spot on the floor in front of her. She tensed the appropriate core muscles and lifted her foot, placing its sole onto her opposite thigh. She moved her hands into the prayer position in front of her chest and held the posture, watching Denny with calm challenge. While this asana wasn't advanced, it was surprisingly difficult until you learned the particular trick of balance it involved. Helen hoped that Blood would be stupid enough to try and do the full movement instead of placing her foot on the calf or knee of her opposite leg, which were the easier versions of the stance.

The younger woman hesitated. There was an outbreak of derisive clapping and cheering from the spectators, which appeared to be enough to make her mind up. She scowled, glanced around, and then clumsily tried to imitate Helen, who still hadn't shifted position. She began to wobble as soon as she moved her foot off the floor, lurched to one side, over-corrected to try and keep her balance and ended up falling against Di Barker, who grabbed her.

"Stop that! This isn't the place. Blood, get moving!"

Helen stayed in the posture till the other inmate had slouched off, muttering resentfully, just to make a point and then lowered her foot, feeling the muscles in her legs protesting. She stretched them unobtrusively as she walked back to her cooling meal, sitting down with a small smile on her face. Monica didn't even seem to have noticed she had been away - she was too busy pushing her food around her plate, taking the odd, listless bite, her head bowed. After a while, the lifer took pity on her and reached out to touch her unmoving hand, which lay on the table between them.

"You want to go back to your cell?"

"I'd prefer that, yes," Monica said quietly.

"Come on. I'll take you."

Helen made eye contact with Julie J over the older woman's head and saw the blonde nod, acknowledging the silent message. Satisfied that their plates would be cleared for them, she concentrated on steering the other inmate safely across the wing. Monica was easy to manoeuvre, operating on automatic pilot. Helen led her to her bed and gently lifted her legs onto the mattress when she slumped listlessly down onto it. She covered the bereaved woman with a blanket and waited to see if she wanted company, but Monica closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, signalling that she didn't want to talk. The lifer murmured a goodbye and left her to it.

Monica was staring out of the window at the high grey sky, her face abstracted and distant, when Nikki came in to her cell. She was holding the jersey she had been knitting for Spencer when she had received the news of his death, her fingers plucking restlessly at the collar. She looked round as she sensed someone else in the cell with her and then looked down.

"Miss Wade."

"How are you doing?"

"I'm managing."

"Is the medication helping?"

"Oh, yes, the pills are very effective. They help me feel nicely numb."

Nikki ignored the undercurrent of sarcasm and bitterness in the older woman's tone of voice. As a representative of the system, she had to expect Monica to take a few pot-shots, and in the circumstances, she was prepared to overlook it. In some ways, it was even justified. Spencer had served the sentence right alongside his mother and he had never done anything wrong; indeed, he had been incapable of committing a crime.

"I'm here to tell you about the funeral arrangements."

"I see," Monica said. Nikki noted that she instantly became more alert and took that as a good sign.

"Your sister's taken care of everything. She's chosen St. Peter and St. Paul's ...."

"Where he was baptised," the inmate said softly. "After they let me take him home from the hospital."

"His friends are coming. The nuns are bringing them."

"That's good."

"The only thing left is to ask if you need anything."

"I don't understand."

"Do you want any particular clothing sent in?"

"No, no, I don't need anything, except maybe my son returned to me."

As Nikki turned to leave the cell, Monica seemed to think of something. "Who's the escort?"

"I am."

"But you're a governor grade!"

"It can be hard enough to organise the shift patterns on a weekend as it is."

"Do you mean you're giving up your free time?"

The taller woman shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Just concentrate on your appeal. Then you won't need a guard to go anywhere."

"Oh, that .... I'm not bothering with that anymore."

"What?!" Nikki said, appalled. "I've seen your file. You stand a good chance."

"I was getting out for Spencer, not for me. Now he's gone, I have no reason to leave this place at all. I might as well stay in prison and rot. Being in here makes it easier to forget my life outside, with him. That's what I want to do."

"But ...."

Monica held up her hand. "My mind's made up, miss. I'd prefer not to talk about it."

To Nikki, that said that the other woman wasn't at all sure about her decision, but she knew enough about psychology not to make a confrontation out of it. "I'll arrange for you to be let out early on Saturday so that you can shower in peace and get ready. You can have your breakfast in your cell if you want. OK?"

"Thank you, miss."

The funeral was about as grim as the governor had expected. She tried to make it easier for Monica, ignoring regulations to take off the handcuffs that linked them together, a decision that backfired when the bereaved woman physically leapt into the grave, calling out to her dead son. It took both escorts and several of the mourners to lift her out, and she was dazed and unresponsive for the whole journey back to Larkhall.

On the way out, Nikki stopped outside Stewart's cell, moved by some impulse she couldn't identify. She heard the Scot's low voice on the other side of the iron barrier between them.

"How is she?"

"Not good. Let her get some sleep now. No night calls."

"Like she'd even hear them," Helen said disgustedly.

Nikki stopped by the wing office, where the late shift were settling down for the long haul. "Any problems?" she asked, glancing over the reports.

Sylvia shook her head. "No, ma'am. They had some sort of prayer service for Lindsay's son, so we left them to it. The two Julies organised it."

"Did it help?"

"They were all very quiet afterwards, didn't make any trouble. We had to put Plackett on report, though."


"She was off her face on something. Don't know what," the officer said indifferently.

"No change there, then," the governor said wearily. While she was normally alert to any mention of drug taking, she was exhausted after the long journey to the funeral and back and the emotionally draining events of the afternoon. She pinched the bridge of her nose and decided to think about it in the morning, when she was more awake.

In their cell, Julie J burped and covered her mouth with her hand. "Sorry," she said apologetically.

The smaller woman looked up at her from where she was smearing face cream into her neck with the deft movements of long practice. "Don't worry, Ju. It was a bit acid. Bound to affect your stomach."

"Yeah, but it was bloody great to be able to get even a bit drunk, wasn't it? Forget we were in this rotten place for a while."

Julie S nodded thoughtfully. "It was risky, though. I thought Bodybag was going to guess when Zandra couldn't stop giggling."

"Naah. She doesn't see what's in front of her nose. You know that."

"Still, maybe leave it a while before we do it again, Ju? It's not like we can trust Denny or Dockley to keep their mouth shut, and they're bound to find out if we start collecting fruit and sugar."

"Maybe we should wait till your birthday next year," the taller woman said agreeably. "Special occasion, like."

Julie S frowned, handing over the jar of unguent to her friend. "Why do you think Helen didn't want to join in? She was the one taking the biggest risk the whole time. They'd never have believed she didn't know what was in her compost heap if they'd found the watering can. And Fenner did search her shed at least once. Knew what he was looking for, as well"

"That was Dockley," Julie J said indignantly, beginning her own beauty routine. "She's a grass when it suits her." She shrugged. "I don't know, Ju. Maybe she doesn't like the taste of apples."

"Maybe not."

Julie S snuggled down under her blankets, enjoying the lingering tipsiness from the hooch they had brewed. "It was the best birthday present I've had since I've been in this place. From the best friend a woman could have."

Julie J beamed and climbed into her own bunk. "No more than you deserve. Night, Ju."

"Night, Ju. Sleep tight."

Nikki tapped the newspaper in front of her. Crystal shifted uneasily in her chair on the other side of the desk, then lifted her chin defiantly, refusing to look away. Nikki studied the inmate, taking in her serious expression. She'd asked around and had heard the shoplifter characterised by different screws as self-righteous, humourless and noisy (the last from Bodybag, said in an outraged tone that Nikki didn't understand and didn't have time to get into). The woman was neatly dressed, her crucifix ostentatiously visible, tidy dreadlocks concealed under a headscarf. The governor knew that the black inmate was a committed Christian and that she had a clean disciplinary record since she'd been brought to Larkhall. Nikki sighed. It seemed that the woman in front of her was going to cause trouble in other ways. Well, at least it was a change.

"If you had concerns about the availability of drugs on the wing, why didn't you talk to the staff about it instead of writing to the papers?" Nikki asked calmly.

"Because they don't care, innit," Crystal said. "They see what's going on and they turn a blind eye. Anything that makes their job easier."

"Some of us do care," Nikki said. Inwardly, she was seething, but she didn't allow her annoyance to be reflected in her face or manner.

"Well, you're in a minority, then. And it's not like you've managed to stop the dealers."

"I'm aware of that," Nikki said. "Anyway, you can spread the word. We're implementing closed visits with immediate effect. People can talk to their families from behind a screen from now on."

Crystal looked faintly triumphant. Nikki wondered how long that reaction would last when she started to get the backlash from the women who wouldn't be allowed to hold their kids or kiss their boyfriends during their few chances to see their loved ones. She wondered if it was christian to inflict that much suffering for the sake of a principle, then dismissed the question. It wasn't as if Crystal had left her much choice.

Helen was lying on her bunk, reading, when Nikki came in. She looked at her visitor across the top of the page. "Come to confiscate more stuff?"

"I don't know. Have you done any pictures recently?"

The Scot nodded at the sketchpad lying on the desk. "Be my guest."

Nikki picked it up and leafed through, finding nothing remarkable until she got to the back page, where Helen had drawn a picture of her talking to a group of POs. Nikki recognised the scene as an impromptu wing meeting she'd called the week before. She looked at the picture and frowned. Helen had caught the moment when she'd been answering a question from one of the newer officers. Her hand was outstretched, gesturing, and her expression was focused and alert. To one side, Bodybag slumped in a chair, a familiar expression of contempt on her face, hands wrapped defensively round a mug of tea. Fenner lounged in the background, hands in his pockets, impassive as he listened. Only Dominic seemed interested, leaning forward as he waited to make a point.

The brunette frowned. "I'm not sure you should be drawing my officers."

"Why not?" Helen said. "It's not like I've shown any of them nude." She grinned with lazy promise. "Though if you wanted to pose for me …"

"Enough," Nikki said firmly. "You know that's inappropriate."

"I can't help where my mind goes," the lifer told her, closing her book.

"Just watch what you say."

"I prefer to watch what you say. Gives me an excuse to study your face. No rule against that, is there?"

Nikki looked at the open invitation in the other woman's expression and cleared her throat, cursing her uncooperative body. "Helen, I need your help."


"I need you to speak to Monica Lindsay. She's talking about giving up on her appeal."

"Are you surprised?" the inmate asked, suddenly confrontational. "She had one reason to get out of here and he's in a wooden box."

"I was at the funeral. You don't have to remind me."

"So, if she wants to stay, why not let her?"

"Because she doesn't deserve to be in here?"

"Deserve doesn't get you anything," Helen said. "Ask Spencer. He didn't deserve to lose his mother. But he did anyway."

"I can't change that," Nikki said. "But I can try and change things for Monica, if she'll help herself."

"Maybe she just doesn't care any more."

"I expect not. She's grieving and in shock. She said she wanted to forget about a life outside. That's fine. But I doubt she'll feel that way in six months' time. And by then, an appeal will be a lot more difficult, if not impossible."

"So you want me to persuade her to carry on."

"Yes. It won't make any real difference right now, but it means she'll have options when the anti-depressants kick in."

"That's typical!" Helen spat. "She's got a good reason to feel like shit. So, of course, you lot dope her up to the eyeballs. Better she walks around like a zombie than you take the chance of another suicide making you look bad."

"Do you think Spencer'd want his mother to spend more time in here?" Nikki asked quietly. Their eyes caught, held.

The Scot looked away, biting her lip, then nodded. "OK, I'll talk to her."

She stood up and moved closer to Nikki so that she could speak quietly. "Don't know why I keep doing things for you. It's not like I get anything in return."

"Helen, the things that you want, I can't give you."

"Pity. We'd both enjoy it."

"I'd better go."

"I'll be sure to tell you how it went with Monica," Helen said. "Maybe in your office? Later?"

Nikki shook her head and turned to leave just as Lorna Rose stuck her head round the door. "Message from the number one, ma'am. He needs to see Stewart."


"Didn't say," Lorna said indifferently. "It's urgent, though. I'd better take her up."

"No, stay on the wing," Nikki instructed. "I'm going back to my office anyway. I'll escort her."

With a look that warned Helen against commenting, Nikki led the way. She was relieved to see that the Scot was too busy trying to work out what was going on to come up with any more suggestive remarks. She caught a brief flash of disappointment in Lorna Rose's face as she left the cell and realised that the officer genuinely didn't know why the lifer had been called to Stubberfield's office.

There were two strangers waiting in front of the desk, a man and a woman. The governor realised that they were probably police even before they flashed their warrant cards. Helen obviously came to the same conclusion. She stopped dead as soon as the office door closed behind her and bent her head to hide her expression, shoulders stiff with tension.

"Doing escort duty these days, Nikki?" Simon asked.

"It was on my way."

Her boss nodded and indicated his visitors. "This is DI Chatsworth and DS Groves. They need to speak to Stewart."

"I'm not saying anything without a solicitor present," Helen said immediately.

"That won't be necessary," Simon told her. "They're just here to ask a few questions."

"Sure. No solicitor, no comment."

"Calm down," Nikki murmured.

"I am calm."

"Helen, we need your help," the woman said.


The Detective Sergeant carried on as if she hadn't heard Helen's response. "Otherwise something very bad is going to happen to Sean Parr."

"You do remember Sean?" the man chimed in. "Your ex-lover?"

"The bastard who sold me out at my trial and left me to rot in here. Till he wanted something," Helen countered.

DI Chatsworth seemed to gather his thoughts before he spoke again. "All right, so you hate his guts. Enough to want him tortured to death?"

"Guv…," the woman said warningly. The Detective Inspector held up his hand.

"No, we don't have time to mess around. Sean doesn't have time. If the answer is that Miss Stewart here doesn't give a shit, we might as well leave now. So do you?"

"Care?" Helen said.


"I don't know."

There was a moment's silence, then Helen shook her head and ran her hand through her hair. "What do you mean 'tortured to death'?"

DI Chatsworth leant against the filing cabinet behind him, folding his arms, making himself more comfortable. "Nothing I say goes outside this room. Sean has been working for us for the last nine months as a covert informant. He's been reporting back on the activities of James Butler."

Nikki whistled softly. Courtesy of a very high profile trial that had collapsed amongst allegations of witness intimidation a few years ago, she knew the name. The Butler family were notorious gangsters and allegedly untouchable, with a good chunk of the Met in their pockets. Or so rumour said.

"Bollocks," Helen challenged. "Sean hasn't got the brains to spy on those kind of people and stay alive."

"Up till yesterday I would have disagreed with you," DI Chatsworth said calmly "We told him what to say and how to behave and he was doing quite well."

"So he was your puppet."

"More or less. Then last night, on his way to a meeting with us, he was snatched off the street. Bundled into a car and taken before we could do anything about it."

"So he's dead anyway."

"No. We have other CHIS sources close to the gang. One of them got in touch. Sean is still alive, because they think he has information they want. Specifically the location of some valuable plant seeds. They want him to take them to the hiding place. For that, they need him breathing."

"Which is where you come in," the female copper said.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Come on, Helen. Sean told us the whole story. Do you really think we're here to do you for possession with intent to supply?"

"I don't know why you're here."

"OK, I'll spell it out, since you want me to say it. We know that Sean gave you the seeds to hide and that he doesn't remember where you've put them."

"Years of smoking dope," Helen said dismissively.

"Right. Now, if you told him and he's just forgotten, he might stand a chance. Because I'm willing to bet that, given enough incentive, he'll remember. And if he does that and we know where the Butlers are taking him, we can have an Armed Response Unit standing by. He might not make it out in one piece, but we will save his life."

"If…," DI Chatsworth said, picking up seamlessly where his Detective Sergeant had left off, "on the other hand, he doesn't know or you won't tell us so we can get a unit in place, we can kiss any chance of saving him goodbye. We might as well head to the pub and start the wake early."

"You don't need me for this," Helen said.

"So you didn't tell him?" DS Groves asked.

"You know I did," the Scot said. "He just got stoned and forgot."

"Or thought the information would be a useful bargaining chip," DI Chatsworth commented. "I was never sure."

"It doesn't matter now," DS Groves said. "Will you help us set an ambush?"

"No! There must be another way of finding Sean. Known locations. Safe houses," Helen said desperately.

"'Fraid not," DI Chatsworth said. "Even if we could get the warrants we need to go kicking down doors all over London, we don't have the resources or the time to get organised."

"This is Sean's only chance," DS Groves said. "It's not much, but it's the best we can do."

"Frankly, I don't know why you're hesitating," Simon pontificated. "There's a man's life at stake here."

"You don't know they'll keep him alive once they have the location," Helen said. "He could already be dead."

"Course they will," DS Groves said. "They'll want to check it's all there before they kill him."

"No, I can't ...."

"You're right that time matters," DI Chatsworth said. "He could be telling them right now. Leave it too long and we could get there and find a dead body and the seeds already gone."


"Them or us?" DS Groves asked. "How does Sean cope with pain, Helen? Not very well, I imagine."

"He's the world's biggest coward. Cries if he stubs his toe."

"So are you going to help us?"


"You'll let a man go to his death because he took the witness stand against you? That's cold."

"Shut up," the lifer said. She looked around the room. "That's not what this is about and you know it."

"I don't know anything," DI Chatsworth said. "Enlighten me."

"Fuck you. Can I go now?"

"Not till you've given a reason," Simon said. "Frankly, Helen, I'm disappointed. I thought more of you than this."

"You don't think about me from one day to the next," Helen said fiercely. "You don't know I exist, except when I'm getting your picture into the papers!"

"Stewart," Nikki said warningly. The con rounded on her.

"Stick me down the block for saying it. It's still the truth!"

"You will show the proper respect," Nikki told her.

"Oh, of course. And in return, you'll keep us safe and well. Safe from drugs and abusive screws and out of harm's way. Because you can really promise that."

"Nobody would know that you were the informant," DS Groves said urgently.

"There aren't any secrets in here. If I talk to you, people will find out. Then I'll be a grass. Someone who sold out the Butlers, who are powerful enough to have people killed on the streets of London, never mind in Larkhall. My life wouldn't be worth anything and you know it!"

"We can arrange protective custody," Simon interrupted. Helen looked at him with deep contempt.

"So I get to spend my few remaining days on a version of the block. No classes, no garden, no association. Nothing except maybe a chance to meet the nonces up close and personal. And they'd still get to me. You can't protect me anywhere in Larkhall. You can't stop drugs getting in or beatings or people being decrutched. You don't even know the half of what goes on in here."

"Helen, I realise you're upset," Simon said angrily. "But this kind of outburst doesn't help!"

He studied her set jaw and turned away, apparently having exhausted his powers of persuasion.

"Don't misunderstand me," the inmate said wearily. "I want to help you. But not if it means signing my own death warrant."

"I think we all know where you stand," Simon said dismissively.

"Look, Helen, I know you're scared," DS Groves said.

"Try fucking terrified."

"And I know he sold you out at the trial. But can you live with yourself if you send him to that kind of death? I've seen people after the Butlers have finished with them. It's not pretty."

"I can imagine," Helen crossed her arms. "I'd die just as hard. They'd make sure of that."

"You don't know that," Nikki said.

"Yes, I do. My existence isn't much, but I'm not prepared to give it up just yet."

Nikki opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. She found that she didn't have it in her to dispute Helen's analysis or to waste breath trying to argue her away from the truth. She'd worked in prisons long enough to know that everyone had a price and that the lifer was right. If she grassed, someone would find out and it would be her death warrant. One the prison authorities could do nothing to stay.

"We'd make probation aware," DI Chatsworth said. "It would help you get out earlier."

"Not if I don't make it to the board. I'm not due one for years, anyway."

"We're not leaving here without the information."

"The answer is no. Whatever you say, it's no."

Silently DS Groves pulled an envelope out of her briefcase and laid the photographs it contained out on the desk. Simon glanced at them and winced, turning away. Nikki could see his point. The men in the photographs had been so badly beaten that their swollen features looked barely human. In most cases, they had been burned and cut as well, the stark wounds a contrast to the bruising. One man had been castrated, the pulped mess between his legs an oozing mass of red and purple. The last photograph was of Parr, probably taken after his arrest. He looked pale and defiant as he looked at the camera, mouth set in a taut line. DS Groves tapped the photo.

"Sean, Helen. Like them. Very soon."

The inmate's jaw set. "I have to go to the toilet."

"You can stay here until you tell us what we need to know."

"Look, if you want me to prove I do need it by pissing on the floor, I will," Helen said furiously.

"Let her go," Simon said hastily. Nikki grinned inwardly - there'd been some speculation in the staff room as to how much Stubberfield's posh new carpet had cost. It looked like the higher estimates were probably accurate.

"But I want her back here. Straight away," he added, reasserting his authority.

Nikki took Helen's arm and escorted her along the corridor to the nearest toilet. They went in, but instead of going to the cubicle, the inmate crossed to the sink and ran a bowlful of cold water, washing her face and the back of her neck. Afterwards, she dried herself with a paper towel and stood, staring into the mirror, her hands on the taps. Nikki held back and gave her time to collect her thoughts.

"Aren't you supposed to be hurrying me up?" Helen asked bitterly.

"They can wait."

Helen considered her reflection one last time, stepped across the space between them and took Nikki's hand. The taller woman tensed, but allowed it as the Scot began to study her prize, turning it over and running work roughened fingertips across its contours, examining the shape of the palm and knuckles, stroking it as though she'd never seen a hand before. Nikki's breath shuddered in her chest as she became aware that there seemed to be a direct connection between the caress and her groin.

She cleared her throat and prepared to pull away as arousal flared at the base of her belly, heavy and fierce, warm in the coil of its intensity. Helen anticipated her and tightened her grip. She looked at Nikki with deep hazel eyes and the taller woman looked back, mesmerised, unable to tear her gaze away.

"I know what the right thing to do is, and I know I'm going to do it. I just wanted to be sure I was doing it because I choose to, not because they were bullying me into it."

Nikki was abruptly aware that she hadn't wanted the lifer to come to this decision. As far as she was concerned, Sean was a waste of breath. The idea of the other woman risking her life to save his was infuriating. She realised that Helen had moved closer to her, stepping into her personal space. The Scot spoke, her voice low and compelling, and Nikki heard her words like a soundtrack to the sight of her beloved, beautiful face, the soft accent turning them into music.

"In here, they try and turn you into an animal. Make it so all you think about is looking after yourself. Ever since I got to Larkhall, I've been trying to teach myself to be a human being. Because I am a human being. Aren't I?"

Nikki nodded. Helen was so close that she could feel her warmth, see the slight flush to her cheeks as she moved, smell the scent of her body. Nikki glanced down at their paired hands, realising that Helen's grip had changed, that she was no longer holding her captive. Their fingers were intertwined and Nikki's grasp was as strong as the Scot's, holding her safe.

"In fact, I'm a woman," the lifer said, and kissed her.

Nikki groaned as soft lips closed on her own, feeling Helen's breath mingling with hers. She felt arms go around her as they pressed against each other. All other thoughts were put aside as their lips met and lingered, gentle and slightly rough, before the other woman touched Nikki with her tongue, silently asking for more. Nikki drew back for a second, then gave in, carefully taking the back of the inmate's neck and pressing them together, giving herself wholly to the sensation of the Scot's mouth, the heat of her need growing as she stretched the contact as far as it would go, learning the shape and taste of this hidden place, memorising it for later.

They ended up with their bodies moulded together, both of them breathing heavily. Carefully, Nikki put her hands on Helen's shoulders and pushed her away.

"I have to take you back. This can't happen again. Not ever."

"It doesn't have to. You know how I feel about you. But you can't pretend you haven't got feelings for me. Not any more. Not even to yourself."

Nikki shook her head helplessly. "It's an abuse of power."

"Even if it's my idea?"

"Especially then."

"OK," Helen said. "But it's not just a schoolgirl crush. That's all I'm saying."

Nikki glanced into the mirror to check her makeup wasn't smudged. She jumped as the door opened and DS Groves came in. The policewoman looked at them both curiously.

"You've been gone a while. My guv'nor was getting worried."

"She lost it," Nikki said, gesturing at the sink and the damp paper towel. "Had to wash her face."

DS Groves nodded. "Let's hope you talked some sense into her."

"I expect those photographs have done the job," Nikki said, smiling falsely.

When they got back to Simon's office, DI Chatsworth greeted them with raised eyebrows. "Well?"

"Give me an A to Z," Helen said. DS Groves pulled one out of her briefcase and gave it to the Scotswoman. She took it and flipped through the index before selecting a page and showing it to them. "Here. The graveyard."

Without asking, she pulled a pad of paper that was on the desk towards her and began to sketch rapidly with a biro. "There are two gates, here and here. This is the main gate. Near the other one, there's an old tomb, shaped like this, with a plinth. There used to be an urn on top of it and the base is still there. Move that and there's a cavity. The seeds are in there."

The pen flew across the surface, diagramming paths, landmarks, quick outlines of the things she was describing. "It has two mature oak trees next to it and the dedication is to a 'beloved wife'."

"And Sean knows about this place."

"Yes. We did a contract to tidy it up just after I started with the firm. It was the first job I arranged. We did it at cost as a way in with the diocese. He should remember." She shrugged. "I've told you what I know. It's up to you now."

DI Chatsworth glanced at Simon for permission and then got onto the phone, dialling rapidly.

"There's one thing I don't understand," DS Groves said. "Why didn't you ever pick up the seeds?"

"Gossard happened two days later. We had other things on our minds."

She placed the pen back on the desk and stepped back towards the centre of the room. The adjudication position, where prisoners stood when they came to plead their case. "Can I go back to my cell now?"

DS Groves nodded. "Unless the governor needs you."

"No," Simon said. "You've done the right thing, Helen. I'll ensure it's noted."

He looked a bit put out when the Scot didn't thank him, just turned on her heel and left. Nikki started to follow her, then stopped as her boss called her back.


"Wait outside," Nikki told Helen.

"Yes, miss."

Simon delayed till the door had closed behind the inmate, then nodded approvingly. "I know it was almost certainly your powers of persuasion that changed Stewart's mind. Well done."

"Thank you," Nikki said. "I should make sure she gets back. It'll be better if she isn't missed."

Outside, she took Helen to the first gate and swore inwardly as Fenner appeared round the corner. He saw the lifer and immediately looked interested; he knew that her visiting Stubberfield wasn't routine.

"Hello, ma'am. What's Stewart doing here?"

"Governing governor wanted to see her."

"What about?"

"Something to do with her case, I think. Look, Jim, can you take her back down onto the wing? I've got reports to write."

"Sure," Fenner said easily, pulling out his keys.

Nikki deliberately ignored the Scot's body language, which clearly showed that she would prefer the governor to escort her. She wanted to accompany Helen, prolong their time together, and that was why she had deliberately handed her over, as she would have done with any other prisoner. Her body still sang with the memory of their earlier closeness and their passionate, absorbing kiss. If she wanted to keep her professionalism intact, she had to stay as far away from Helen Stewart as possible, especially since she was aware of the danger the lifer was now in and was powerless to do anything about it. Pointedly, she turned and left without a backward glance.

Helen watched as the taller woman walked away, then scowled as Fenner shoved her. "Come on, Stewart, I haven't got all day."

"No, you have to do some work, don't you," the inmate said. "Oh, sorry, escorting me is work."

"Any more lip out of you, Stewart, and you're on report," the PO said. "Move it."

Helen followed him through the corridors. She should have been happy after what had happened with Nikki. Instead, she was filled with fear and depression. She wondered gloomily how long she had left and whether it made it better or worse that she would be in Larkhall. As much as she hated being a prisoner, in some ways it made things easier. There was less in her life to give up.

"So why did the Gov decide to see you, Stewart?" Fenner asked her, breaking into her thoughts.

"None of your business."

"Oi! It's my job to ask questions."

"Why don't you ask Stubberfield? I'm sure he'll tell you if you're meant to know," Helen said.

The burly PO smirked. "You know, I might just do that."

Helen greeted Yvonne Atkins' arrival with mixed feelings. While watching her dismiss Dockley's misconceived attempt to intimidate her was a pleasure, she was less sure about how she felt when the red haired woman decided to talk to her a couple of days later. Given the underworld's attitude to grasses, she wanted to have as little to do with her as possible.

She was over the worst of her fear by now; prison taught you to accept what you couldn't change. The Scot thought it was probably worse for the governor. She'd noticed that Nikki seemed to be making more excuses to talk to her and check on her well-being since the meeting in Simon's office, and she did her best to reassure her that she was coping. It was a delicate balance - she didn't want the dark haired woman to worry, even as the knowledge that she was concerned about Helen brought its own warm sense of connection.

The lifer was gathering her laundry together when the mobster's wife appeared in her cell doorway. Her visitor was as glamorously dressed as usual, if you liked that kind of overstated style, in jeans and a t-shirt that looked as if they were designer brands, accessorised with a pair of shoes that definitely were. The Scot breathed in, trying to identify her perfume before deciding it was probably Chanel. Expensive, anyway. She had no doubt that Yvonne Atkins was used to the best of everything. At least she had the figure for it; her tight jeans demonstrated that. She obviously had leisure to attend the gym regularly, in-between helping her husband run his criminal empire. When she spoke, her strong London accent completed the picture.

"You Helen Stewart?"

"Yeah. Who wants to know?"

"You're friendly."

"I'm busy."

"What, getting ready for that special rinse cycle?"

"As you see."

"We're not going to have a problem, are we?" Yvonne asked challengingly.

"Not as far as I'm concerned."

"Then why are you coming it with the attitude?"

Helen hesitated. If she let her paranoia about what she had had to do for Sean get the better of her, she would end up making an enemy and probably worsening her day to day life on the wing. She could already see that Yvonne was going to be a leader amongst the other women and that it would pay to keep on the right side of her. It wasn't as if she was as objectionable as Dockley, after all. Sighing, she reached for the all purpose excuse.

"Sorry. Time of the month. Let's start again."

"Sure. You know, I can't help feeling that I know your name from somewhere."

"I doubt it. My crime was years ago."

"Give us a clue, then."


"But you're in for life ...." Yvonne snapped her fingers. "Gossard. You killed DS Gossard! I knew I knew your name." She considered Helen. "You're shorter than I imagined."

"I'm the same height I've always been."

"Well, you did the world a favour getting rid of that bastard."

"Unfortunately, the judicial system doesn't agree with you," the lifer said drily.

"Course they don't. If they let people start killing coppers for being scum, there wouldn't be no force left."

"Guess not."

"Well, now I know you're OK. Thought you probably were because that wanker Dockley hates your guts. You looking to knock her off her perch anytime soon?"

"I don't play those kind of games," Helen said quickly. "So long as I'm left alone, I don't care."

"Right," Yvonne said. She smiled. "See you around, Stewart."

"Count on it."

"Maybe we can do lunch."

Helen smiled back, deciding that she might as well get into the spirit of the conversation. "Tell you what, I'll get my people to call your people."


After Yvonne had left, the Scot sobered as she considered their exchange. She suspected that she was about to get a ringside seat to a power struggle, but at least neither of the contestants would try and involve her. Which was exactly how she liked it.

Nikki studied Dockley's serious expression, trying to work out her angle. It wasn't that Lorna Rose was a particularly effective officer, but the governor had always believed in her honesty. Apart from anything else, she was too stupid to get away with being on the take. Nikki was willing to believe that smuggling drugs onto the wing was a recent development and that the blonde knew more than she was telling. Still, she couldn't overlook a tipoff like this.

"Are you sure about this, Shell? Because if you're lying ...."

"I'm not, miss. Honest! I didn't know what to do and then it came to me in prayer. I know God will protect me because I'm telling the truth."

"And she's bringing the next batch in tonight?"

"That's what she said. Course, it's not up to me, but ...."

"She's got no reason to lie to you. All right. Go back to your cell. I'll take care of this."

"You won't tell no one I grassed, will you? I don't want no one calling me names or nothing."

"They won't hear it from me. Though I'd have thought you'll be a hero on the wing if you drop a screw in it."

"I'm not doing it for that, miss. I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do," Dockley said piously.

'And to get your enhanced cell back' Nikki thought. She was aware of how keenly the lifer felt her loss of privileges, despite the fact that she had been demoted to basic after being caught dealing drugs and had thus brought it on herself. She had a shrewd idea of what lengths the con would go to to reclaim them.

She did paperwork in her office until just after lockup and then went down to G wing, officially to do a snap inspection of the night shift. As soon as she'd shown her face there, she went up onto the landings and positioned herself where she could see the entrance to Dockley's cell. She frowned as she watched Fenner let himself in and then leave seconds later. What was he doing visiting the lifer? She filed the puzzle away for future reference and then waited, patient as a cat, her senses extended. While she had done more than her share of assaults while on the DST, she was also good at this kind of surveillance. She had the self control to wait without getting restless.

Below her, Lorna Rose appeared, looking furtive. Even if the governor hadn't known she was bringing contraband in, she would have been suspicious. Every line of the other woman's body language proclaimed her guilt. Nikki made sure that she wasn't moving and that her attention wasn't fully on the PO, so that she didn't alert her that she was being watched. Lorna Rose vanished inside the cell, and Nikki moved swiftly and quietly down the stairs, stepping through the door just as her quarry handed over a small box to Dockley.

"I'll take that," she said, plucking it out of the dark haired woman's hand. Lorna Rose flinched.

"It isn't what it looks like, honest!" she said, almost in tears. "It's only perfume."

"So it is what it looks like; you bringing in contraband for a prisoner. Wing office, now."

"It isn't ..."

"You'd better stay quiet till you've got an Association rep present," Nikki told her.

The other woman nodded numbly and followed her out of the cell, turning automatically to lock the door. Nikki checked that it was secure and then held out her hand. Lorna Rose looked stricken.

"Please, don't ..."

"It's for your own protection. Come on."

Taking the keys from her, Nikki led the younger woman to the wing office and sat her down before calling her contact on the DST, whom she had standing by. She passed the time before the tester arrived making Lorna Rose a cup of strong, sweet coffee. She couldn't help feeling sorry for her in the face of her utter devastation at events, but she didn't let that change her actions.

"Miss Wade," the PO said. "What's going to happen to me?"

"Let's cross that bridge when we come to it," Nikki said firmly. "It's not really up to me. The governing governor's going to have to get involved."

Lorna Rose blanched. Nikki hadn't thought she could get any paler and looked at her, concerned. She wondered if the other woman was going to faint. The silence between them stretched, thick and uneasy. The governor listened to the nighttime noises on the wing, relieved that the inmates didn't seem to have worked out that there was anything going on. The last thing Lorna Rose needed was to be escorted off to a chorus of jeers. Watching her shake and suppress tears, Nikki was pretty sure that that was how this was going to end.

Once they found the bag of heroin in the packaging, of course, Nikki had to call the police. She managed to ensure their car was parked out of sight of the cell windows, but she doubted that Lorna Rose appreciated the gesture, not when she was led out under arrest in front of her former colleagues.

Simon shook his head, a disapproving look on his face.

"I knew she wasn't one of our most competent officers, but I had no idea she was corrupt," he said.

"Well, we've caught her now. That means we can look at going back to open visits."

"I'd have thought that a die-hard like you would have wanted to delay that for a bit longer," Stubberfield commented.

"There's no point doing things piecemeal," Nikki said. She caught her boss's small scowl and shrugged inwardly. If the pompous idiot didn't want her to do the job she'd been brought in to do, she certainly wasn't going to flatter his ego or let him pretend that they were working towards the same goals.

"How did the other officers take it?" Simon asked.

"About as you'd expect. It was a shock, but I think they'll deal with it. Nobody tried to stick up for her."

"That's one thing, anyway."

"Yes. Anyway, I should get back to the shop floor. I'm an officer down."

"What about the inmate who told us about Lorna Rose?"

Nikki shrugged. "What about her?"

"Well, won't she be expecting some reward?"

"Possibly. But I decide what goes on on my wing, not the inmates. She has a long record of disciplinary problems. She can stay on basic for a little bit longer."

"Well, it's your decision, of course ....."

"Exactly," Nikki said.

Helen exited the shower, nodding to Yvonne, who was waiting for her turn.

"Water's lovely," she said ironically. The older woman stopped slouching against the sinks and gave her a quick one fingered salute before reaching for her sponge bag. The Scot snorted with amusement and crossed over to the mirrors. Since she had decided to stop worrying about Atkins finding out she had been an informant for the police, she had managed to relax around her, discovering that she was surprisingly good company.

Helen suspected that the fact she was locked up for the next few years hadn't fully sunk in for the brassy Londoner; Yvonne was still fighting the system as though she might win. She also knew that Atkins wouldn't thank her for pointing it out. The lifer, who had seen the same process in dozens of women, was prepared to offer a sympathetic ear if it was needed, but she was experienced enough to know that she wouldn't be thanked if she tried to help without being asked. For now, she was biding her time. It was the most sensible thing to do. Despite what Nikki Wade thought, Helen could do the sensible thing if she had to.

The door into the bathroom opened and Renee Williams walked in, her wide jawed face intent and predatory. Helen looked at her in the mirror, frowning. It was an open secret on the wing that the gangster's wife and Yvonne had issues with each other, their 'business rivalry' outside the walls still as fierce even though they were both locked up. The fact that Renee had boasted about sleeping with Charlie, Yvonne's husband, in front of most of the wing had only fuelled their animosity.

The other woman felt her gaze and scowled at her.

"Piss off," she said, her London accent bleeding through every syllable.

The Scot shrugged. "I missed the memo where you got put in charge," she said. "Just for future reference? I don't take orders from you."

"I told you to leave," Williams said, stalking closer. Helen studied her body language and saw the way that one hand stayed in her pocket at all times, concealing what she held. Some sort of weapon, then. Probably a makeshift knife. She flexed her shoulders and turned to face the taller woman.

Renee looked at her and sneered. "You want to get hurt?"

"I want you to fuck off before I get seriously annoyed with you," the lifer said calmly. Breathing. That was the trick. Yoga taught you to regulate your breathing, and she'd found it made it much easier to control her voice in situations like this.

The Londoner frowned, obviously well schooled in intimidation tactics. "Listen, love, you're just the entree as far as I'm concerned. Now why don't you get lost and leave me to do what I came here to do?"

"Or what?"

"Or I'll use you for a dry run."

"Big words. Not seeing anything to back them up, so far."

The razor blade came out then, gleaming dully in the stark light of the fluorescents. Helen looked at it and raised her eyebrows. "What? Am I supposed to be impressed?"

"I'll carve your fucking face up. Will that impress you, bitch?"

"Still waiting," the Scot said. She knew what was stopping the other woman. Williams understood that Yvonne wouldn't go down without a fight and she wanted to conserve her strength. Unfortunately for her, that meant successfully intimidating Helen. And after several years in the prison system, and given the life she'd led since she'd left home, Helen had one cardinal rule: no bastard was going to make her back down when she didn't want to. Live or die.

The taller woman scowled, apparently accepting the inevitable and lunged, swinging the razor at Helen in a downwards slashing motion. It was obviously meant to be a kind of warning, something that would send her opponent running for cover. It might have worked if she hadn't been facing someone who had had the fear of blades rigorously schooled out of her by a ruthlessly practical teacher. Sergei had identified Helen's weakness and had trained his pupil against it, teaching her to combat knifes by using marker pens as a proxy until she could hold him off with getting a single black line on her skin. Then he had switched to the real thing.

The Scot let Renee overextend herself and moved in, grabbing her wrist and jamming the gangster's arm against her body, wary of the weapon's sharp edge. She got a good grip on the other woman's forearm and went in a direction the Londoner wasn't expecting, stepping closer as she drove an elbow into her jaw. Helen cursed softly as pain radiated through her shoulder, disregarding it as she kept moving.

Pain means you are alive. Is friend, her memory of Sergei reminded her.

She slammed her knuckles into her attacker's face and watched her drop to her knees, kicking the razor blade clear as the other woman retched and tried to get to her feet.

"Stand up and I'll knock you down again," Helen warned.

Renee choked in a pained breath. "You're fucking dead," she announced.

"I'm not the one on the floor," the lifer told her flatly.

Yvonne came barrelling out of the shower and then stopped, her eyes widening as she took in the scene in front of her.

"What the hell's going on?"

"I think our Ms. Williams had plans for you," Helen said. She reached down and picked up the razor blade before stilling abruptly, aware of familiar voices getting closer. Barker and Hollamby.

"Shit! Yvonne, get in the shower."


"You had water in your ears. You didn't hear anything."

"Like hell I will!"

"Listen. No point both of us going down the block. Move!"

"What about your appeal?"

"What about it? I'm not a grass."

Helen flicked the contraband into a corner of the room, safely away from any of them, and stepped back as Williams struggled to her feet, staggering over to the sinks to bathe her face with cold water. The door opened and Barker and Hollamby walked in, both halting as they realised that something was wrong.

"What's going on?" Di asked.

"Don't look at me. I was in the shower," Yvonne said. Her wet hair and the condensation on the walls backed her statement up. Both screws dismissed Renee, who was still clutching the sink, glowering.

"Well, Stewart?"

Helen shrugged. "Didn't see anything, miss."

"Expect you were too busy beating her up," Hollamby said ominously. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the razor blade, and she crossed the room swiftly to pick it up, puffing slightly as she bent over. She held it out.

"Where did this come from?"

"Don't know, miss. Must have been here already."

"And if I believe that, you've got a bridge you want to sell me," Barker said contemptuously. "That is an offensive weapon."

"It's not mine."

"Really? Well, let's start with a trip to the block to give you a chance to remember who it might belong to."

"I've got an appointment with my solicitor today!" Helen protested. "An important one!"

"You should have thought of that before you started waving this around."

"I told you, it's not mine!"

"Then whose is it?"

Helen's jaw set and she folded her arms. "Come on, back to your cell," Barker said. "You'll need to be dressed."

"Yes, miss," the Scot said disgustedly.

"And it'll be a governor's adjudication for you after that."

"You can't prove it's mine."

"Well, you're keeping awfully quiet if it isn't."

Hollamby glanced at her watch and then frowned. "Forget it, Di."

"What?" Barker said.

"She won't say a word however long you leave her down there, and we'll have enough paperwork to fill in as it is. We can't prove who it belongs to anyway. I want to get off on time today. I've got a hair appointment."

The younger screw hesitated and then settled for a warning frown. "I suppose you're right. I can overlook it this time. But, think on! I'm watching all of you. If anything like this happens again, there'll be a full investigation."

None of the cons dignified the comment with a reply.

Helen was reading that evening when a familiar figure appeared in the doorway of her cell. She rested her book on her lap, waiting. Atkins glanced around, making sure no one could overhear them.

"You saved me from a right kicking. You know that, don't you?"

"You'd have fought her off," the Scot said dismissively.

"Would I? Bar of soap against a razor blade? I don't think so."

"Believe what you want."

"I will." Yvonne hesitated. "Listen, you need anything? Outside? I got friends ...."

"No, thank you. Just call it a favour."


"And watch yourself. She's not going to give up."

"I know that. Don't worry. I can sort that bitch out with one hand tied behind my back."

Helen nodded. The gangster gave her a long, considering look before going back onto the wing. It was no surprise when someone found out about Williams' nut allergy a few days later and took steps to make sure she got a dose in her food that would stop her breathing. The lifer watched events impassively and didn't say a word. As far as she was concerned, Renee Williams had started the fight. Yvonne had merely settled it in the most unambiguous manner possible. It was the law of the jungle on the wing. You had to take care of yourself when the screws wouldn't. Outside standards didn't apply, even if Helen wouldn't have done what Atkins had in her situation. Most specifically, you didn't grass, however much your conscience regretted it.

She was sitting down to eat her lunch a few days later when Yvonne joined her. Helen nodded silently. She was tired after the couple of days the police had spent interrogating her, and didn't particularly want to talk. Not that she had a lot of company at the moment. Most of the other cons were staying well clear, unwilling to be tainted by association. The Londoner sneered at Di Barker, who was glaring at them both from the edge of the mess hall, before sitting down.

"They're really giving you a hard time, aren't they?"

"Bodybag told them about the fight in the shower and I have got form. Even if they weren't targeting me for old times' sake."

"One thing the filth are is predictable."

"I killed a bobbie. It's to be expected."

"You got a solicitor?"

"I'm just going 'no comment'. Repeatedly."

"You could tell them it was her razor blade. She don't care no more."

"Better not. You start answering questions, you don't know where it's going to end. Besides, what can they do to me? Give me extra days?"

"Have they finished with you?"

"Back in this afternoon. But you can tell they're losing patience. I just have to last a while longer."

She didn't tell Yvonne that her hardest test had been withstanding the session with Nikki before the police had ever come near her. The wing governor had been totally professional and had not presumed on Helen's feelings for her, even though it had been the elephant in the room, something they both knew about but wouldn't acknowledge. However, the brunette hadn't held back with her questioning, and her pre-existing knowledge of relationships within the prison had meant she had come dangerously close to the truth. The Scot had had to fight hard to remain impassive at times.

Neither of them had found it easy; Helen had an idea that it had actually been harder for Nikki than her. Not only did she have the option of retreating back behind the familiar sullen facade and refusing to speak, but the taller woman was inherently more emotional, despite her professional veneer. Helen wondered if that was why she was so emphatic about refusing her advances. The suspicion almost gave her hope that she stood a chance.

She stabbed a slice of carrot and chewed the overcooked vegetable, trying to enjoy the meal. Yvonne looked at her thoughtfully.

"I heard some stuff about you ....."

"Oh? What?" the lifer asked, feeling fear prickle across her skin.

"Doesn't matter. It looks like it was all bollocks anyway. You wouldn't tell the filth nothing, whatever they did to you. I seen that while I've been in here."

"Sometimes you have to talk to them," Helen said.

"Yeah. Suppose so. Anyway, you heard about this new screw we're getting? Bit of all right, by all accounts."

"You're a married woman!"

"Yeah. But you can look at the menu so long as you don't eat in the restaurant. I might be married, but I'm not bleeding dead!"

Helen was in her cell one evening a couple of weeks later when the door opened without warning. She tensed as Fenner walked in. He wasn't normally on the night shift and she hadn't expected to have to deal with him again till breakfast.

"Wrong cell," she said, going on to the offensive. "Dockley's is that way."

"Shut it, Stewart. You've got a visitor."

"Bollocks! It's after lock up."

"Yeah, and I should already be on my way home, so don't push it. On your feet."

The Scot scowled and did as she was told. She wasn't sure she believed Fenner, but going head to head with him would only result in being put on report. Again.

Following the burly officer through the prison, she took the opportunity to observe the routine at this time of day. It was the only chance she'd ever had - by now she was normally secured behind a locked door, listening to the sound of the screws going through their evening routine and the nightly conversations between the cells before everyone settled down. It was a surreal experience walking along deserted corridors, especially when they got to the visiting area, which she'd only seen when it was thronged with other inmates in their red bibs, queuing patiently as they waited for their names to be called. Fenner unlocked the door and waved her through, following her as she cautiously obeyed him. Without saying anything further, he went to stand at the side of the room and watch.

Helen halted as she saw who was there. The colourful bruising on Sean's face hadn't properly faded, especially around the places where whatever they had done to him had broken the skin. He sat hunched around himself as though he was in pain and when he stood up to greet her, he moved slowly and reluctantly. She saw that several of his fingers were still splinted, and from the careful way he smiled, she thought he might have lost a couple of teeth. He took in her reaction and flinched.

"I know it isn't pretty."

"Is there any long term damage?"

"Probably not."

He started to reach for her and then glanced at Fenner and thought better of it. Grimacing slightly, he sat down as though even standing for that length of time had tired him. Helen took a chair opposite and waited for him to say whatever it was he'd come to tell her. Sean looked at the surface of the table, seemingly unsure how to express himself. Finally, he cleared his throat.

"You saved my life, Hels."

"Not really."

"No, you did. If you hadn't told the police where the seeds were? They wouldn't have been waiting at the graveyard." His voice started to shake. "That was where the Butlers were going to execute me. They were talking about it on the way there. Laughing about it. I could hear them from inside the boot."

His hands were trembling and Helen frowned. "Why are you here, Sean? You're not well enough to be here."

"I had to see you."


"To thank you. I needed to apologise for what I did at your trial. My testimony. I came to say goodbye."

"Where are you going?"

"They're putting me into witness protection."

"How does Janet feel about that?"

Sean shook his head. "We're not together anymore. When she found out what had been going on .... she wasn't pleased."

There were tears standing in his eyes now. "I've messed everything up. If I could go back and change .…"

"But you can't," Helen interrupted. She could sense the self pity that lay behind his remorse and it was starting to get on her nerves. "Unless you tell the whole truth about your relationship with Gossard, why he was threatening you. And the police won't let you do that because it'll make you look like an unreliable witness, which they can't afford if your evidence against the Butlers is to have any weight."

Sean stared at her, silenced. Helen sighed. "What do you want from me? Do you want my forgiveness? For me to tell you that I don't mind that you condemned me to this place for the rest of my useful life because you decided to sell me out? It doesn't work like that."

She stood up abruptly and turned to Fenner. "I'd like to go back to my cell, please."

"You've still got twenty minutes."

"I don't have anything else to say."

"All right," the PO said indifferently. "Your decision."

Sean stumbled to his feet. "Helen. I'm sorry!"

"Have a good life, Sean," Helen said tiredly. "Try and stay out of trouble."

Her last sight of him as she turned away was of the utter devastation on his face as he watched her go.

Escorting Stewart through the corridors, Jim's mind worked quickly behind his impassive face. He couldn't believe that the answer to the mystery that had been niggling him for weeks had just been handed to him on a plate. More to the point, the information was potentially valuable, and if he played his cards right, might just give him the opportunity to both make some money and get some payback from the insolent bitch in front of him. All without getting his hands dirty. He smiled inwardly to himself. It was time to make some phone calls.

Monica was sitting on her bed when Helen came to check on her, staring abstractedly at a photograph of Spencer. The Scot had seen her leave the mess hall early after half finishing her meal and had made a mental note to check that she was all right. Despite the goings on with Sean, she had kept her promise to Nikki and persuaded Monica to go on with her appeal, well aware that Larkhall was the kind of place that would only reinforce the older woman's despair once she came out of the first shock of her grief. Not that Helen thought most of the inmates ought to be locked up (she was undecided about lifers like herself and Dockley), but a woman whose major crime, as far as she could see, had been to trust her conniving boss while he used her as a cover for his career as an embezzler and fraudster definitely shouldn't.

The lifer looked around the cell, frowning. Monica hadn't packed her things ready for court. By now, based on her knowledge of the other woman's habits, she would have expected everything to be ready, with the suit for the appeal neatly laid out, polished shoes lined up beneath it and all of her other possessions in the prison issue plastic bag. Instead, the cell was untouched. She studied the waxy paleness of the older woman's face and listened to her laboured breathing. Sudden apprehension gripped her, but she kept her question non-committal.

"You're not ready for court. Why not?"

"I won't be going," Monica said dazedly. She blinked, obviously having difficulty focusing on the image of Spencer that she held in her hand. That seemed to interest her far more than their conversation, and she brought the picture closer to her face, squinting. Helen had been inside long enough to recognise the symptoms. She glanced at the half-empty tube of toothpaste on the quilt, seeing how its base had been used as a primitive stash.

"You silly cow. You've taken something, haven't you!"

"It's already too late," Monica slurred, folding down onto the bed. Frantically, Helen tried to work out how long it could have been since the older woman had ingested the pills. Her lips tightened. There was still a chance.

She darted out of the cell and by some miracle or act of the gods that looked after desperate women, Dawn was passing the door. Helen seized her arm. "Go and get the Julies!" she hissed. "Tell them to bring salt and any coffee they can get their hands on. And don't let the screws see you! Move!"

The short timer looked at her, wide-eyed, and scuttled off without saying a word. Helen went back in, half closed the door and pulled Monica roughly to her feet. The older woman tried to fight her, but she was too sedated to co-ordinate her limbs into any sort of effective resistance.

The Scot dragged her over to the sink and turned on the cold tap, glad for once of the freezing temperature of the rusty water that ran through the ancient plumbing system. She filled a plastic mug and dumped it onto Monica's hair, uncaring that it soaked her collar as well. Monica choked and spluttered, but was powerless against Helen's adrenaline driven strength. Her feeble struggles didn't stop the lifer repeating the treatment a couple more times.

"Cold ...," she protested softly.

"Good! Come on, on your feet. Walk!"

The Julies came in and stopped, aghast at the scene in front of them. "What the bleeding hell ...," Julie S said.

"She's taken something. Julie S, help me keep her moving. Julie J, make a salt solution. We have to get it out of her system."

"Do we know them anti depressants is fatal?" Julie S asked dubiously, even as she did as she was told and joined Helen on the older woman's other side. They started to march her up and down the limited space inside the cell, ignoring her muttered protests and the way her knees kept folding.

"Not sure. But I'm not taking the chance, and I bet Monica's done her research, so my guess would be yes. Julie, better put some instant coffee in it as well."

Julie J, who had been watching the scene with horrified fascination, jerked into alertness and began to hastily mix something at the sink. "I don't know if this'll work," she said dubiously. Helen took the mug from her and stopped dragooning Monica along for long enough to force the liquid between her lips. Julie S pulled a face as their victim choked and spluttered.

"Helen, shouldn't we call a screw?"

"Make another one," the Scot commanded, and handed the mug back to Julie J. "Help me. She's a dead weight." As they walked, she managed to get a look at her watch and frowned. "This is exactly the sort of thing that could derail her appeal. Whether she's dead or too ill to be there, she can't be in court. Do you trust those dozy bastards to do the right thing fast enough to keep her out of hospital?"

"I guess not," Julie S said thoughtfully.

"We'll give it fifteen minutes. That won't make any difference. If we haven't sorted her out by then, we'll send for help. Deal?"

The small woman nodded determinedly. "Deal. Come on Monica, keep going. For Spencer. Come on."

"Want to be with him ...."

"You will be soon enough," Helen said grimly. "My father used to say there's no time in heaven. It's an eternity, so our loved ones who are waiting for us wait for no time at all. That's what makes it a sin to cut our years here short, however much we might want to. God has a plan. Julie, how are you coming along with the next mugful?"

"Here you go."

Monica gagged as the smell of the drink hit her nostrils, and Julie J looked worried. "No," Helen said. "That's a good sign. Means she might be on the verge of throwing up. Then we can let her rest a bit."

"I hope so. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up," Julie S said as she watched the Scot force the second dose of the emetic down the older woman's throat.

"As long as you have to," Helen said in tones that brooked no argument. The Julies looked at each other over her head and exchanged resigned looks. They knew what the lifer was like when she got the bit between her teeth.

In the event, it was the fourth mug that did the trick, just as the Julies' expressions were getting increasingly worried and even Helen looked as though she was on the verge of admitting defeat. Monica stopped dead in her tracks, put a hand to her pale lips and lurched towards the toilet where she emptied the contents of her stomach. She stayed on her knees, retching, for some time. Helen wiped the sweat from her own forehead and then reached decisively for a flannel, filling the sink with cold water. Monica got up and then sat down on the bed, obviously exhausted.

"Tired," she murmured and tried to lie down. Helen propped her up and applied the soaking cloth to the nape of her neck. The older woman's shocked gasp echoed round the cell.

"No," the Scot said. "You don't sleep. Not for an hour at least. I need to make sure your system's clear."

"Need to rest ...."

"Sorry, Monica. Not going to happen."

Monica groaned softly, but didn't protest, obviously sensing that Helen wasn't going to take no for an answer. Instead, she struggled back upright, leaning on one hand.

"I think I can take it from here," the lifer said. "Thanks for your help."

"That's all right," Julie J said uncertainly. "We wouldn't want you to have to do it on your own. Right, Ju?"

"Yeah, Ju. Course."

"Really, I won't forget."

The two women nodded and, hiding various things in their pinnies, prepared to go out onto the wing. Helen looked up as they got to the door and recoiled.



"Which one?"

"Miss Wade. Looks like she's coming to see Monica."

"Shit! Of all the times for her to decide to be concerned."

"What we going to do?"

"Keep quiet and let me do the talking."

By the time Nikki made it into the cell, Helen had managed to get Monica propped up in the corner with her legs across the bed, but the combination of the older woman's colouring and the smell of sour sweat and vomit that lingered in the confined space made it obvious that something had been going on. The governor walked in, took one look at the two Julies and their crestfallen expressions and frowned, glancing around as she put the pieces together. Helen cursed inwardly as the tall woman glanced at the toilet, which they hadn't had time to flush, and touched the scatter of salt on the edge of the sink. The final piece of the puzzle was provided by the discarded coffee packets in the bin, which she picked up and studied.

She stood back and folded her arms. "Well?" she asked.

"It weren't nothing, miss," Julie J said nervously, apparently oblivious to Julie S's swift elbow into her side. Nikki's eyes narrowed as she caught the movement.

"You can tell me or I can ask Monica. Except she doesn't seem to be well enough to talk at the moment."

"That's it," Helen said. "She got sick. We were trying to take care of her."

"She was fine at tea time. I've just checked with the staff on my way here. What are you ...."

Her gaze fell on the split toothpaste tube on the bed and her expression darkened with fury. "You stupid, bloody idiots. Don't you know how dangerous that could have been?! An overdose is no laughing matter! You could have killed her! Give me one reason I shouldn't put you on report?!"

"It wasn't the Julies," Helen said quickly. "It was my idea."

"What, they just went along with you and that's all right?"

Her expression of contempt deepened. "You two, get out. Send Mr McAllister over. I think Monica could do with some actual qualified help. I'll be talking to you in the morning. Now go!"

The Julies left, obviously glad to be out of the firing line. Nikki held up her hand, forestalling Helen's next comment. "Back to your cell, Stewart. Now!"

Helen hadn't been expecting another visitor that night. She was just thinking things over at her desk when the door opened and Nikki walked in. The Scot looked up, startled. It was well after lock up.

"How's Monica?"

"Resting in the medical wing."

"Will she be well enough to attend her appeal tomorrow?"



"Now. Do you want to tell me why you really did it? All that 'she needs to be able to attend her appeal tomorrow' might wash with the Julies because they're too ignorant to think it through, but you and I both know that the court will adjourn for illness. It's about the only justification they look favourably on. What the hell were you thinking of?!"

"You trust the courts more than I do."

"I've had more to do with them. Well?"

"I had my reasons."

"Yes, because you like trying to run this wing. Why don't you share them with me?"

Helen tried to wait out the other woman's implacable silence and realised with a sinking feeling that Wade wasn't going to walk out of the cell until she got an answer she was satisfied with. Finally, she settled on the truth.

"I did it for you."

"What?! You endangered another inmate's heath and damn near drowned her 'for me'? How do you work that out?"

"You can't afford another suicide on this wing. Questions are being asked as it is. If Monica had killed herself, the court would have had to be told. Area would have found out, and Stubberfield would have suspended you and put Fenner in charge. Then we'd have all have been in the shit. You not least of all."

Nikki looked at her. It was obvious that that explanation hadn't occurred to her. She blinked and shook her head, speechless. Helen took the opportunity to ask a question.

"Can I see Monica before she goes to court?"

"No. I want her under medical supervision until then. I'm not taking any chances. You can find out what happens to her by watching the news tomorrow with the rest of the wing."

"Is that it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing else. No being put on report? No write-up on my file?"

"No. Not this time. But I want you to reflect on your actions. If you ever pull a stunt like this again, your feet won't touch the floor. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, I get it."

Nikki let herself out of the cell and groaned inwardly as she locked the door on the silent lifer. If she hadn't already thought the situation was getting out of hand, this latest incident confirmed it.

Next day, she watched the wild merriment on the landings as the women celebrated Monica's release and didn't grudge them their joy. After all, the old saying that when anyone got out, they got out for everyone was especially true when it happened on appeal.

Fenner sat at the bar of the private club he'd been told to attend and sipped the excellent vintage brandy he'd been given free of charge. He felt underdressed - most of the members wore tuxedos or at the very least smart business suits. His golfing sweater and casual slacks made him stand out, marking him as a stranger.

Luckily, everyone seemed to understand the meaning of discretion. The quiet murmur of conversation hadn't faltered when he'd walked in, and the predominantly male crowd at the various tables seemed content to concentrate on their games and ignore him.

He looked around, taking in the plush carpets and comfortable, leather covered furniture. With its discreet, subdued lighting and the traditional landscapes hung on the walls, the place looked like a cross between a high end bordello from a film and a gentleman's club. The card tables dotted everywhere made it very clear what kind of establishment this really was. The people around the tables were a surprisingly multi racial group, obviously united by their love of gambling and apparently indifferent to anything else about their opponents. Judging by the jewellery they wore and the size of the stakes being played for, they all had the money to feed their habit.

Fenner studied the few women in the room. They were all expensively dressed, mostly much younger than the men they were accompanying, their elaborate hairstyles and makeup complementing their expensive jewellery and clothes. There were a couple of middle-aged women present, but they were sitting at the tables with the men, playing cards, the piles of gaming chips in front of them showing why they were there.

He turned back to his drink and glanced at his watch. The man he was supposed to meet was late. Inwardly, he shrugged. While he didn't appreciate being sent on a wild goose chase, he'd learnt about this place, which might be useful, and he could always try and sell his information elsewhere.

He was just draining the last of the spirits when a short, dapper, sandy haired man in his forties slid onto the barstool next to him and nodded to the barman, who poured him a whisky and soda and brought the PO another brandy without being asked before making himself scarce. Fenner looked across as the newcomer stuck out his hand. He had a surprisingly cultured voice, like a public schoolboy, but with the rough edges of someone who occasionally had to shout at people. Either that, or a heavy smoker.

"Carter. Sorry I'm late. The traffic was dire."

"No problem," Fenner said, shaking his hand. "I appreciate you're a busy man."

"Thank you. Not many people do. Now, I believe you have information for me?"

"Depends on what I might get for it."

The man nodded. "That's a reasonable point. Mr …?"

"Smith. John Smith."

Carter pulled a steel case out of an inside pocket and opened it, revealing a row of small cigars. He offered them to Fenner, who shook his head.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked.

"Go ahead."

"Thank you."

Fenner waited while his companion lit his cigar and sipped at his whisky. Now that he knew he hadn't been stood up, he could afford to relax. He had nothing to lose in this situation. Finally, Carter spoke. "My understanding is that you know the whereabouts of Sean Parr."

"No," Fenner said.

"Then I'm sorry; we've wasted each other's time," the information broker said. Fenner caught a glimpse of his face and suppressed a chill. He suddenly understood that this man would kill him without a second thought, or order it done. He controlled himself and took a drink of brandy, willing himself not to show fear. He was proud of how steady his voice was when he spoke.

"I've got something more valuable than that."


"The name of the person who actually sold the Butlers out."

"But …"

"Think about it. Parr couldn't have got to the coppers. Not once he'd been ...."

"Seized," the man said easily.

"Someone else told them where he'd be."

Carter considered, then nodded. "I see. The girlfriend. Which makes you ...."

Fenner put a warning hand on his arm. "No need to broadcast it."

"I wasn't going to. Don't grab me, please."

He waited till Jim had moved his hand, then reached inside his coat and pulled out a bulging envelope, which he slid along the bar. "The sum we agreed. If anyone asks, you played cards and you got lucky."

"Is it all there?" Fenner asked.

"Oh, yes. I'd never have thought of the woman if you hadn't set me right. It's well worth it from my point of view."

"What next?"

"Nothing you need be concerned about. It won't be traced back to you." He shrugged and drained his glass.

"She's a dead woman walking, isn't she?" Jim said smugly.

Carter shrugged. "I couldn't possibly comment. Goodbye, Mr Fenner."

The prison officer gaped at him, feeling his stomach clench with shock. Carter smiled. "I deal in information. Never forget that."

He turned to the barman. "Put this on my tab, please. My guest will show himself out. You may want to give him another drink first."

He inclined his head and left quietly. The only signs he had been there were the burning stub of the cigar in the ashtray and the smudged glass he had drunk from.

"Brandy," Fenner said hoarsely. "Make it a double."

Nikki stopped as she crossed the yard, heading for her next meeting. Helen was weeding her vegetable patch, head bent as she carefully worked around the base of the plants, deftly tossing the discarded greenery into a bucket. She looked absorbed and relaxed, a slight smile on her face. Her face had a healthy glow, and the activity showed off the smooth ease with which she moved, not a single wasted motion as she twisted and reached. She didn't seem to feel the chill breeze. Nikki supposed she must be used to it, working outside as often as she did. After a couple of seconds, the lifer's prison generated second sense obviously kicked in and she looked round to see who was watching her. She stood up and brushed the soil off her hands.

"Miss Wade."

"Hiya, Helen. How's it going?"


"You seem cheerful."

"Something finally went right for someone in here." She glanced at her watch. "I imagine Monica's about on the lifestyle section by now. Either that or heading out for a bit of shopping and an early lunch somewhere nice."

Privately, Nikki thought that the older woman was probably too busy coming to terms with everything that had happened to her to be doing anything that frivolous, but she stayed quiet, letting the inmate have her pleasant fantasy. If it helped Helen get through her day, what harm did it do?

Monica had already been in touch with her to ask her about using her knowledge of the voluntary sector to find someone who would be sympathetic to help arrange some fundraising for the new charity she was working on setting up. A halfway house for women who'd just got out of prison, in Spencer's memory. She'd been tactful enough not to ask for Nikki's direct involvement, probably understanding the potential conflicts of interest. The governor had appreciated the considerate gesture, even as she pointed the older woman in the right direction and made a couple of discreet phone calls afterwards to ensure she would be heard out and not taken advantage of.

Bringing her attention back to the situation at hand, she was startled to discover that the Scot had taken the opportunity to move much closer to her. She shifted away, uneasily aware that they could be seen from any of the windows overlooking the courtyard.

"What's the matter?" Helen asked, a small grin on her face.

"You know exactly what the matter is. Back off."

"You always say that to me, even while you're making opportunities to be near me. I'm not sure you're aware of it, Miss Wade, but you're giving out mixed messages."

"I was going from a meeting in that wing to another one. And I don't have to justify myself to you."

"Oh, definitely not. Everything you do looks good from where I'm standing."



"I've told you, I'm your jailor. This is not appropriate."

"Feels right to me."

"Yeah, but you're not exactly thinking straight, are you," Nikki said, then groaned inwardly as Helen smiled broadly at the inadvertent innuendo.

"See? Mixed messages."

"I'm not having this conversation."

"Can't you stay a bit longer?"

"No. I've got work to do."

"Well, maybe you should schedule me some time. All work and no play ...."

Nikki turned on her heel and left. She would have been more comfortable with her own refusal to engage with the inmate if she hadn't known that she did take opportunities to be near the other woman, almost unconsciously altering her routine to be around her. The truth was that her growing feelings for Helen Stewart were increasingly robbing her of her peace of mind and she didn't know what to do about it and keep to the standards she had always set for herself.

"So, to what do I owe the honour?" Karen Betts asked, putting the glasses of white wine down on the table and getting her cigarettes out. Nikki pushed the ashtray slightly closer to her and the blonde nodded her thanks as she lit up. She was still dressed in her uniform trousers, having only just come off duty, but had changed the distinctive white shirt and epaulettes for a casual blouse. The uniform showed off her trim, athletic figure. As usual, when she was working, her shoulder-length hair was pulled into a functional French plait, but the practicality of the style did nothing to disguise her regular, attractive features.

Nikki glanced round at the out-of-the-way pub they had agreed to meet in. It was near the university and right now was half empty, though in a couple of hours' time it would be heaving with students getting tanked up before going on to parties and gigs. The governor was dressed in her work clothes - the smart jacket, blouse and tailored trousers she was wearing didn't scream 'prison service' once she removed the name badge, though she would have dressed less conservatively if she was going out for the evening. As it was, this appointment had an ulterior motive.

"Are you still looking to use your degree?" she asked. Karen gave an exasperated sigh and took a long swallow of her drink.

"I'd love to, if I was given the chance. Instead, it's back to bolts, locks and bars and doing rotas. I might as well have spent three years going shopping on my day release. My boss seems to think that's what I was doing anyway."

"I've been keeping my ears open at Area. I heard about a new post."

"Oh?" the other woman asked, the familiar, questioning expression Nikki remembered from the seminars they had taken together appearing on her face.

"Lifer's liaison officer. Area wide responsibility. Based at Larkhall. You'll be setting up specialist accommodation units, researching their needs, looking at ways of keeping them out of trouble in the early part of their sentences, before they become eligible for the usual pre-release stuff."

"And why would they give me this job?"

"They won't give it to you. You'll have to apply."

"All right, then. Why am I even in with a chance?"

"You took those extra psychology modules, didn't you?"

"Yes. So did half the people on the course, including you."

"That gives you the research experience. Then there's your unique selling point."

"Which is?"

"You're an experienced officer who's also degree qualified. Most of the old school screws won't even look at this because they're not comfortable with anything that goes beyond locking the cons up. That rules them out. Any graduates who apply from outside won't have your hands-on experience."

"What about the other people from our course?"

"I asked around. Most of them are doing what I did and going for wing governor positions. This post is new. It's a bit different. I think that'll put a lot of people off."

Karen considered. "Don't see why."

"Because our job is all about following rules, and whoever gets this one will have to think outside the box. Define the role. That's risky."

"But interesting," the blonde said thoughtfully.

"If you want a challenge, yes. A lot of people don't. Whoever it is 'll need good negotiation skills. Probably some medical knowledge. You were a State Enrolled Nurse, weren't you?"

"All right," Betts said, smiling, "message received and understood."

She studied Nikki. "If I do apply for this and get it, what's the payback? Are you going to want my firstborn?"

"No. I'm just trying to set up an old girl's network to match the old boy's network."

"If you can't beat them, join them."

"Something like that."

The blonde nodded and stubbed out her cigarette. "Thanks for the information. I'll watch out for the advert."

"He can't stop you applying. It's a promotion," Nikki said. Quietly, she took an envelope out of her inside pocket and slid it across the table. "Outline job description. Just to give you an idea."

"How the hell did you get your hands on this?"

"If I told you that, I'd have to kill you. It might change, but I thought it'd help you make your mind up."

Karen favoured her with a long, level stare, then put the information into her handbag. "Jim Fenner works at Larkhall, doesn't he?" she asked, apparently at random.

"He's on my staff. How do you know him?"

"Conferences, mostly. Is he still married?"

"Yes. Two kids. Why?"

Karen shrugged. "Just wondered how he was getting on. Anyway. Never mind about me. How's your love life?"

"Non existent," Nikki said ruefully.

Helen was taking a wheelbarrow with a tray of flowers in it across the gardens when the noise attracted her attention. A crowd of people, but not fighting or rioting, horrified, dismayed, calling out. She dropped the handles of the cart and went to see what was going on, tucking her work gloves into the pockets of her donkey jacket. She made her way past the guards and blended unobtrusively into the mob of inmates clustered in the courtyard. It was easy to do because they were all looking up. The lifer copied them and, suddenly, she was terrified.

Zandra Plackett was on the roof, teetering near the edge, clutching a bundle that was almost certainly her baby son. She didn't look too steady on her feet and she was obviously distraught. That didn't concern Helen. She had heard about Zandra's troubles through the prison grapevine. While she felt deeply sorry for anyone who had to cope with a drug addicted baby, even if they'd been the one to take the drugs, it was easy to judge when you hadn't been in that position, especially when the father was trying to get custody of the child; however, she didn't have any particular emotional connection to the short timer. Her feelings for the woman who had just gone out to try and retrieve her were another matter.

Helen found her heart leaping into her mouth as Nikki stepped carefully onto the slates and started to talk to Zandra. There obviously hadn't been time to get anything organised, and the tall brunette didn't even have a rope around her waist. The Scot willed the idiots who were shouting random phrases at the unfolding drama to shut up - didn't they realise that all they would do was distract Zandra and make it more likely that both women would fall? Her stomach clenched at the thought.

She could see Fenner, lurking at the entrance to the tower, staying well away from danger. Dominic Mc Allister had found another way onto the roof and was edging up behind the inmate, obviously terrified, shuffling gingerly along. Helen watched grimly, praying that he wouldn't make the situation worse.

"Nikki," she whispered between her teeth. She felt a sudden pain in her palms and realised with surprise that she was clenching her fists so hard that her nails had bitten into her skin, even though she kept them short. Deliberately, she flexed her fingers, craning her neck to try and see what was happening. Nikki seemed to be trying to reason with Zandra, talking about how she could keep her child, though most of the words were carried away by the breeze because of the distance between the ground and the conversation. Helen surveyed the clouds and hoped desperately that the rain which had been threatening earlier would hold off for a little while longer. The dangers of trying to negotiate that surface if it was slippery didn't bear thinking about.

It was as though her efforts to control her fears had improved her hearing. Or maybe the wind had changed. She wasn't sure. In any event, suddenly she could make out Nikki's voice, steady and matter of fact.

"The way I see, living well is the best revenge. You want Robin to be remembered as a tabloid headline? 'Junkie mum kills son in roof plunge horror?' Do you want them to pity him and condemn you?"

Helen could see Zandra staring at the taller woman, her throat working. Nikki stepped closer to the inmate, sparing a careful glance at the drop beside her, assessing its closeness and the state of the footing. She reached out. "Give me Robin, Zandra. He'll be cold and wanting his feed. You don't want him to be hungry, do you?"

"How do I know I can trust you?" the girl demanded, but she was already half way to tears, on the verge of giving in.

"I told you. No comeback and I'll get you help to keep him. You know me, Plackett, I'm a hard screw, but I'm a woman of my word. What I say I'm going to do, I do."

Zandra nodded shakily and reached out, handing the bundle over. Nikki took the child carefully and turned back to make her way along the tiles, her attention already on the route back to safety. Which is when the other woman gave a sudden, wild cry of despair and flung herself at the edge of the roof.

Afterwards, Helen was never sure how Dominic McAllister had done it; she would have sworn that simple physics made it impossible for him to hold on to the inmate and keep his own balance. Maybe it was because he was bigger than her, but somehow, he managed to grab Zandra and stop them both plummeting down onto the flagstones. After her initial moment of madness, Zandra seemed to abruptly realise what was at stake. She huddled inside the PO's grip and went meekly back to safety, shoulders bowed, not making eye contact as she was helped down off the slates.

The lifer stood numbly until a guard told her to get moving, only now aware of how frightened she had been. It would have been easier to be up on the roof than having to watch Nikki endanger herself. She lost herself in setting out a flower bed for most of the afternoon, refusing to think about it, avoiding the small groups of women who were standing around, discussing what had happened in hushed tones. She was used to disregarding the occasional nine days' wonder that made up the common subject for gossip in the jail, and the habit stood her in good stead now.

She was just finishing up when she saw Nikki heading towards the gate house, briefcase in hand, obviously having decided to leave early. Helen didn't blame her after the day she'd had. Impulsively, she jogged over to the taller woman and stopped her, hand on her arm.

"Miss Wade ...."

Nikki glared at her hand, tight lipped, and Helen moved it, belatedly glancing round to make sure no one was in earshot or watching them. They were safe enough; all of the screws in sight were counting tools in after the day's work or searching inmates before they came off the yard.


"I just wanted to say .... That was something amazing you did there."

"All part of the job," Nikki said. Her bravado didn't quite reach her eyes.

"I can't help it. I'm totally in love with you."

"I know you can't help it. That means I may have to," the governor said cryptically and walked off, leaving the Scot staring thoughtfully after her until a bellow of "Stewart!" from Bodybag reminded her that she was supposed to be finishing her task and going back on the wing.

After the drama, everything calmed down for a while. Everyone was subdued by the knowledge of how close matters had come to another tragedy. Zandra seemed embarrassed by her actions and there was an unspoken agreement among the inmates not to talk about it. Even Dockley refrained from her usual crude taunting. Life returned to what passed for normal on G wing.

Helen looked up from the book of postures she was studying as she heard the rattle of the key in her cell door. One good thing about yoga - it didn't matter that most of the stock in the library was years old. As a discipline, it had been around for longer than the prison system. She blinked as Karen Betts let herself in. The blonde was looking at her, frowning. Carefully, Helen kept her face neutral. She had been interviewed by the other woman when she took up her post and had attended a couple of her lifer's groups, but she didn't really know her yet. Better safe than sorry. That was her motto where screws were concerned.


Karen sighed and locked the door behind her. "Your godfather's been taken ill. He's going to be all right," she said, holding out a reassuring hand as Helen stood up quickly.

"But ... how, when?"

"He's in hospital. He's being well taken care of."

"Can I go and see him?"

"Yes. Miss Wade has volunteered to escort you."

"What was it? His heart?"

"Sit down, please."

Clenching her fists, the inmate obeyed and waited for more information.

"He was due to visit you, wasn't he?" Betts asked.

"Yeah. He's in London. Helping with a homeless project."

A horrible possibility occurred to her.

"He wasn't attacked, was he?" Helen asked. The look on the other woman's face gave her the answer.

"Bastards! I told him to be careful. I told him ..."

"No, Helen, the people he was working with didn't do anything to him. In fact, they drove his attackers off. He was mugged. A couple of teenage girls, apparently. They got away, but the police are looking for them. The descriptions we have are vague, though. They're not hopeful."

"Was he badly hurt?"

"No. They were interrupted. He's got some nasty bruising and he's very shaken, but he'll be fine. They're keeping him in for observation. I spoke to the ward sister. He's in the best possible place. They're taking good care of him."

Reluctantly, the inmate nodded. Karen relaxed slightly as she saw that she'd managed to get through. It was rare to see the self contained Scot show this much concern for anybody, but she knew from talking to Nikki that the lifer had been back in contact with Colin Mcrae for a while. She raised her eyebrows as she wondered how hard the night ahead would be for Helen, locked up and unable to go and see her godfather, however much she might want to.

"I know you must be concerned. Do you want something to help you sleep?"

The shorter woman shook her head. "No, I've other ways of calming myself down."

"We've organised your escort for straight after breakfast. We've agreed your visit with the hospital. Your godfather knows you're coming."

"OK. Thanks, miss."

"Try not to worry," Karen said, forcing conviction into her voice. "He'll be fine." As it happened, she was telling the truth, but she could understand why the Scot might not believe her. As she let herself out of the cell, she glanced back, studying the other woman's taut, strained expression. She doubted that Helen Stewart would get much rest at all tonight.

In the morning, Helen picked at her breakfast, unable to concentrate. She found herself repeatedly glancing at the wing gates, wondering when Nikki was going to appear and take her to the hospital. She looked up as Dominic stopped beside her table, wondering if he was there to escort her to the car. Her face fell as he shook his head, obviously reading her thoughts.

"Miss Wade's on the way, Helen. I just wanted to say I was sorry to hear about your godfather."

"Thanks," Helen said numbly. Bodybag, who was walking past, sneered.

"Well, I don't suppose you've ever thought about how the victims feel before. Maybe it'll do you good."

The lifer gritted her teeth and didn't reply. The last thing she needed was to react to the screw's crude taunts and throw away her only chance to visit her godfather. Dominic put a steadying hand on her shoulder and she nodded silently, indicating that she had herself under control.

"I'd better get on," he said, giving her a final warning glance. As she drained the last dregs of her lukewarm tea and chewed her soggy toast, Yvonne Atkins took the seat opposite her. She put out a hand and briefly covered Helen's.

"Sorry to hear about what happened."

"He's going to be all right," the lifer said briefly. She didn't bother to ask how the other woman knew her business. She was used to how quickly information travelled around Larkhall by now, and the East Ender had better contacts than most.

"Bloody animals," Yvonne said fiercely. Helen looked at her and she scowled. "Yeah, I know I'm a gangster, but there's things you don't do. Mugging an old geezer for his pension is one of them. Anyone who got up to anything like that on my manor used to get a right good kicking if I ever caught 'em. I bet he fought in the war, right?"

"Burmese Railroad," Helen said briefly.

"That's what I mean. No respect. That's the problem these days. People don't know how to behave."

Hollamby, who was on the return leg of her patrol, loomed over them both. "Atkins, leave Stewart alone. She'll be going in five minutes and she's got to clear up after herself. I'm not doing it."

Yvonne gave her a contemptuous stare and waited until the middle aged PO was just out of earshot before muttering, "Tinpot bloody Hitler," under her breath. She turned back to Helen.

"Anyway, I'd better let you get on. Stay strong, OK? And if you find out anything about who did this, let me know, all right? I'll see what I can sort out."

Helen nodded, though she doubted she'd be taking Yvonne up on her offer. She hoped she'd have the self control not to hurt her godfather's attackers if she ever encountered them; it was the kind of behaviour she was trying to learn to let go. She definitely couldn't square setting them up for the kind of beating Yvonne's men would hand out with her conscience.

She stood up as Nikki appeared at the gate, quickly clearing her tray and grabbing her coat, which she had slung over the back of her chair. It was the donkey jacket she gardened in, the only coat she owned. Without bothering to wait for her name to be called, she crossed the floor to the other woman, who already had her own, rather smarter, waterproof on. She put out her arms without being asked and submitted to being professionally searched before hurrying after the governor, for once having no trouble in keeping up with her longer stride.

"He's OK, Helen," Nikki said as they headed for the car. "I phoned this morning to check."

"Thanks," the Scot muttered. She slowed her pace slightly and Nikki smiled. The brunette pulled a card out of her pocket, still in its clear plastic wrapping. Her lips quirked as she took in the lifer's startled expression.

"It's nothing much, just what my local supermarket had. But I knew they wouldn't have anything in the canteen, even if it was open. I got some grapes as well."

"I can't afford this."

"Don't worry about it. My treat. I knew you wouldn't want to arrive empty handed."

"You didn't have to do this."

"I decided to anyway. You don't have to take it if you don't want to."

"No!" Helen said hastily. "That's fine."

"You can sign it before we leave."

As they walked down the hospital corridor, Helen drew a deep breath. Nikki put a reassuring hand on her arm. "Calm down, Stewart. You'll just upset him if you're too worried. He's used to taking care of other people."

The inmate nodded, acknowledging the truth of the remark, and worked on steadying her emotions as they approached her godfather's room. He had been put in a small side ward on his own. Helen didn't know if that was a bad sign or not, but she had been reassured by the nurses' reactions when they had realised that she was his goddaughter. He seemed to be popular amongst the staff, and she thought he was probably getting better than average care, even though everyone was rushed off their feet, as was normal for the NHS. The doctors hadn't been around when they arrived, but Nikki had spoken to the ward sister and had promised the Scot that they wouldn't leave before at least trying to get an update on his condition from someone medically qualified.

The lifer braced herself as she turned into the four bedded room where her godfather was lying and was glad that she'd done so. Colin Mcrae was lying under institutional covers dressed in a hospital issue gown, connected to a drip and a bewildering number of machines. He looked small and diminished, as though someone had put him in an oversized bed as a joke. His wrist was splinted, and his face was colourful with vivid, puffy bruising. Helen noticed grey stubble on his chin and realised with a pang that he hadn't been able to have a shave. Knowing her godfather, that indignity would distress him more than anything else. He was drifting in and out of sleep; as they walked in he looked blurrily across at the sound and his face brightened.

"Helen ...," he said slowly. "You came."

"Try and keep me away," the Scot said, pulling a chair up to the bed and leaning over to kiss him before sitting down.

Nikki crossed to the window, apparently to give her charge some privacy, but actually to check that it was locked. She glanced around, checking that there were no other exits, then put a hand on the lifer's shoulder.

"I'll wait outside. Give you a chance to talk," she said. Helen smiled automatically at her, attention already back with the frail man in the bed. The brunette found a chair in the corridor and positioned herself outside the door. She let her mind drift off towards the decorating scheme for her living room, the kind of thing she could think about and still stay alert and aware of her surroundings. Occasionally, she stood up and glanced through the window in the door, making sure that she could still see the inmate she was responsible for. Every look showed the same thing: Helen with her godfather's free hand gripped in her own, leaning in close as she talked to him earnestly. Once, she was giving him a drink when Nikki checked, gently cradling his head as she carefully fed him sips of water.

After about three quarters of an hour, Nikki's review revealed that the old man was starting to fade, his eyelids drifting shut as he shifted in the bed, his body demanding sleep. Quietly, she opened the door. Helen looked round as she stood silently just inside the entrance. The lifer nodded in acknowledgement and turned to her godfather.

"I have to go. I'll ask them if I can come and visit you again, OK?"

"That's good," the old man mumbled. "It's wonderful to see you, child ....."

"I'll think of you."

"I know."

"Sleep now," Helen said softly, kissing his forehead. Colin Mcrae reached up and stroked her face tenderly before lying back and letting his hand fall. The Scot stood and watched him for a second. Nikki put her hand on the inmate's shoulder, tugging gently. Helen looked up at her and nodded slightly, following her out into the corridor. She let out a deep breath and folded her arms across her chest, face determinedly impassive. Nikki glanced at her watch and came to a sudden decision.

"Come on. I'll buy you a coffee."

They ended up in the hospital canteen, sipping bad coffee out of paper cups. Nikki grimaced when she tasted it, and Helen hesitated before visibly deciding to persevere. No one gave them a second glance - the visitors were varied enough that the contrast in their appearances didn't raise any eyebrows. Helen seemed preoccupied, tracing patterns on the tabletop with her fingertip. Nikki sat back and left her in peace. Finally, the lifer looked up.

"I need to use the toilet."

"OK," Nikki said. "There's one down the corridor."

Helen nodded and led the way, her hands in the pockets of her donkey jacket, her shoulders hunched. Nikki went into the small room with her, quickly checking the cubicles and making sure there weren't any windows. Satisfied, she glanced across at Helen.

"I'll wait outside."

"Sure," Helen said. It was hard to keep her voice steady. She was sick with nervousness, her mind on the note she had found wedged under the water jug on her godfather's bedside table. She was still unsure about whether she planned to follow the instructions it contained. She half-believed it was a hoax. That was why she had asked to use this particular toilet, which the message had identified as the place where her package was waiting. Second cubicle from the left.

Once she was alone, she went to the sinks and deliberately washed her hands, buying time. Finally, she gathered her courage and went to the cubicle, immediately seeing the plastic bag the letter had promised would be there. Carefully, she opened it, making sure to use a fold of her coat to do it so she wouldn't leave fingerprints. It had all of the things on the list. Car keys, a map showing where the getaway car was, pepper spray and a slim, deadly looking knife. There was an envelope full of money and a mobile phone, which she could use to get directions to the safe house.

Helen swallowed, feeling bile surge in her throat, thinking about spending that night somewhere that wasn't Larkhall, hemmed in by grim walls, full of the endless stench and the seething emotions of the inmates, the random brutality of the guards, more vicious because restrained by the rules. She imagined getting away from stinking confinement, living in a place where she could feel the fresh air on her face and know something better than the stale regularity of prison life, experience something other than interactions born of boredom, cruelty and resentment.

A sudden voice startled her out of her thoughts.

"What you waiting for?"

Warily, Helen stepped out of the cubicle to face the slim, dark haired girl who had spoken to her. Her guard was down because she was away from the wing and she hadn't heard the stranger come in.

"I'm wondering why you're doing this for me," she said bluntly, studying the teenager's thin, intelligent face. The younger woman was dressed in jeans and a denim jacket, hands shoved carelessly into her pockets. She wore a pair of scuffed, sturdy boots. Her body language was casual and relaxed, but the intent look on her face said that she was someone to be wary of. Her keen, streetwise gaze raked over Helen, assessing what it saw. She seemed totally unflustered by the fact that she was talking to a killer, and the Scot could tell it wasn't just a pose. The woman facing her was either naturally fearless or had an advantage she didn't know about.

"Simple," the girl said, shrugging. "I'm just the messenger. Lauren Atkins pays her debts and you saved her Mum's life."

"Yvonne doesn't know anything about this."

"What she doesn't know she can't be made to tell. You know all the phone calls are monitored."

"What about my escort?"

"You'll have to take care of that. I can't do everything for you. There's a knife, isn't there? You done it before, haven't you?"

"What if I don't want to kill anybody else?"

"Then use the pepper spray. Look, we haven't got all day. I'm starting to think you don't want to get out of that place."

She glanced at her watch. "I'll be waiting in the car park. See you there."

Helen watched the girl casually stroll out and pursed her lips, torn. Finally, she went to the door.


"What?" Nikki asked, coming in.

"I need to show you something."

Silently, she led the taller woman to the cubicle and pointed at the bag. Nikki gave her a quick glance and frowned as she inspected the contents, her face darkening. She straightened quickly and turned to face the Scot.

"You knew this would be here?"

"There was a note in my godfather's room."

"Jesus! OK, give me your wrist."


"Helen, someone is trying to help you escape. I have to follow regulations now."

The lifer hesitated. Nikki put an urgent hand on her shoulder. "We're supposed to have been cuffed together since you got here. You know that."

"Yeah, sure," Helen said.

Looking away, she held out her arm and felt the cold metal of the steel bracelet snap closed around her wrist. She tried not to meet anyone's eyes as she accompanied Nikki down the corridor, but she couldn't help feeling the surprised reactions of the people they met as they registered the presence of the handcuffs. Once they got to the main security office, Nikki fastened her to a chair. Helen sat gazing at the floor while the brunette made a series of phone calls to the police and Larkhall. One of the security guards silently brought her a cup of tea, and she sipped it for something to do as she waited to find out what would happen next. The default state when you were a prisoner; not being in control.

Finally, after the police had interviewed her and she had stubbornly refused to give them any new information (she took especial care not to mention the girl who'd accosted her in the toilet), it was time to go back to G wing. She half heard the conversation between Nikki and the young constable who had tried to question her.

"I could have told you she wouldn't co-operate," Nikki commented. The dark haired copper shrugged and glanced at Helen.

"I knew that, but I had to try. We'll check the CCTV. We'll probably be able to spot anyone who shouldn't be in the room and work out who left the note that way."

As soon as he'd gone, leaving them alone in the office, Nikki hesitated and then unlocked the cuffs, slipping them into her pocket.

"What happened to regulations?" Helen asked.

"You trusted me. I'm trusting you. Come on."

"Where are we going now?"

"Just do as you're told."

Numbly, Helen followed the taller woman through the main entrance and walked beside her on automatic pilot. She felt drained after the intense emotions of the afternoon and grimly apprehensive about what would happen once the news got round Larkhall that she'd not only turned down an opportunity to escape, but indirectly betrayed her rescuer to the filth. She'd have to be extra careful for a while.

"Listen," Nikki said. "Just so our stories match. I went into the toilet first and checked the cubicle. I found the bag. You didn't show it to me."

"What?" Helen said, confused.

"That's what I told the police. You're not going to make me out to be a liar, are you? I said I was suspicious because I'd spotted the note in your godfather's room when I was checking the windows. I left it there because I wanted to work out what you knew about the escape. OK?"

"Sure. But why ...."

"I told you. You trusted me. I know how hard that must have been. Especially when you saw a chance to be free."

Helen nodded. She could feel tears catching at the back of her throat and fought silently to stay in control of herself. It was all becoming real now. The option she'd thrown away, the fact she was going back to a place she hated. She ducked her head, clenching her fists inside the pockets of her donkey jacket, and struggled to keep her expression calm.

"Come on," Nikki said. "It's not that bad."

"Yes, it is. You get to go home tonight. All I have to look forward to is a cell."

"Look around you," her companion instructed.

Helen did as she was told, expecting to see the hospital car park. She'd been so caught up with her emotions that she hadn't been paying attention to where they were going. Her eyes widened as she realised that they had walked to the edge of the hospital grounds and were about to cross the main road that separated it from the parade of shops on the other side. She looked around, taking in the busy lunch time crowds, office workers hurrying to make the most of their break, mothers taking their children shopping or home for a nap, a couple of nurses chatting as they headed for the small newsagent in the middle of the row.

"I wondered if you wanted to go for a stroll. There's a park just round the corner," Nikki said.

"But .... you're supposed to be taking me straight back."

"I know. But I want to stretch my legs. Executive decision. Are you up for it?"


"Come on, then."

Helen glanced up at the taller woman and then followed her towards the open space. She couldn't help noticing that Nikki was acting as if she really did trust her. She was more focused on the traffic than whether the Scot was keeping up and didn't constantly watch her. After years in Larkhall, the lack of scrutiny helped the lifer relax, easing something inside that she hadn't known was clenched tight.

As they crossed the grass towards the small duck pond that was the area's main feature, skirting around the various office workers taking the opportunity to bask in the sunshine, Helen tilted her face back, enjoying the scent of flowers that the breeze was carrying towards her.

She hadn't realised how distracted she'd become until she almost stumbled over a small girl who was siting cross legged on the ground, making daisy chains. Only Nikki's fast reactions saved her; the brunette grabbed her and stopped her from tripping and falling on top of the child. For a second they stood, gazing into each other's eyes, the grip of her jailor's hands gentle on her upper arms. Finally, the other woman stood back, letting go, and bent down to talk to the little girl.

"Are you OK, sweetheart?"

"Fine," the child said unconcernedly, with the complete assurance of a well loved and protected daughter. She was still absorbed in braiding flowers together and did no more than glance up from her task.
"Where's your mum?" Helen asked. The girl pointed at a young, dark haired woman who was watching them from her comfortable sprawl on a nearby blanket, the paperback she had been reading held open with one finger. Nikki smiled at her.

"Sorry. Accident."

The woman smiled back and shrugged, wordlessly indicating that no harm had been done. Her daughter got up and ran towards her, obviously deciding to continue her cottage industry beside her mother. Nikki turned to go, only then catching the lifer's expression; a wistful, intent concentration on the incident, as though she was trying to memorise how the youngster had moved and behaved. She put her hand on the Scot's arm.


"Nothing," the inmate said abruptly, her face hardening. The taller woman debated pushing it and then decided not to bother. This was supposed to be a reward, not an interrogation. Abruptly, she realised that part of her wanted to simply walk away and leave Helen, free and happy, basking in the experience of spending unsupervised time in a London park. Maybe even help her on her way to somewhere where she could have the chance to escape bars and locks forever, fully realise the potential that Nikki had glimpsed in her during the time she had known her. Unlock the real person who lay underneath the hard prison facade.

Deliberately, she reached for self control, banishing the pleasant fantasy. She had responsibilities and had made an implicit promise when she had taken her job. She'd always managed to live by the principle that she wasn't there to judge the cons; the courts did that. She was only there to take care of them while they were inside. And right now, taking care of Helen Stewart meant getting her back to Larkhall before she was missed. Glancing across, she recognised the familiar silhouette of an ice cream van. She smiled inwardly. Maybe not just yet.

"Oi, Stewart? Want a choc ice?"

Helen followed her gaze and grinned, tongue appearing between her teeth. "Prefer a cone with a flake and raspberry syrup."

Nikki smiled, masking her real feelings. "Deal. Then we head back."

Involuntarily, the inmate's shoulders slumped, but she didn't object. "You're the boss."

They were eating their ice creams, sitting quietly side by side on a park bench before the Scot spoke again.

"I wanted to say ....."


"Thanks for this. You didn't have to do it."

"Officially, it didn't happen."

"I know. But it's good to know that ....."

"That some of us are human?"

"I already knew that about you. More ... that sometimes, things can be different."

Nikki sighed. "I wish things like this could happen more often."

"So do I."

When Helen's reacquaintance with the realities of prison life came, it was a harsh one. She looked up as Fenner crashed into her cell. "What's the matter?"

"You tell me. Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"You know what I want," he said, beginning to pull her books off the shelf. The lifer leapt to her feet, her fists clenched.

"No, I don't! What's all this about?"

Fenner stepped closer to her, his face thrust into hers. "Been having any cosy chats recently?"


"Give it up, Stewart, and this can stop."

Helen stared at him, totally confused. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Fine," the officer said implacably. "Hard way, then."

He pushed past the Scot and reached for her locker. Helen felt anger rise inside her as old memories resurfaced. 'Not bloody again' she thought, but was too cautious to say it aloud. The thing that was really puzzling and enraging her was Fenner's behaviour. This obviously wasn't just a standard 'let's harass the con' cell search. Fenner genuinely believed that she was hiding something from him, but Helen didn't know what he was looking for. If he would just calm down enough to tell her what it was, she might be able to negotiate with him and persuade him that she didn't have whatever it was in her cell. Stop her privacy being violated one more time. As it was, because of his attitude, she didn't stand a chance. She raised her voice and stepped closer, trying to get through to him.

"Mr Fenner. Sir!"

The burly screw spun round. He was slightly flushed with anger, and Helen could tell that he was close to really losing control. "What?!" he growled. The lifer tried one more time.

"Just think about this ...."

Fenner sneered. Helen staggered backwards as he gave her a firm push and turned back to his search. It was enough to send her over the edge, so when she felt a hand on her arm, she didn't think, just lashed out. Her fist connected with Dominic McAllister's jaw with a satisfying crunch. Helen felt the jolt all the way up into her shoulder even as she heard Fenner's emphatic, "Right, that's it ...." and saw him press the call button. She barely had time to brace herself before the cell was full of uniformed figures. Green, who was in the lead, smiled unpleasantly when he realised who he'd been called to deal with.

The next few minutes passed in a flurry of futile struggling as she was hustled down to the basement. The screws took no chances; they moved her quickly along, relying on speed and pain holds to keep her disorientated and off balance. Helen fought them as hard as she could, but had to admit defeat after being slammed into a couple of walls on the way. She gave up then and concentrated on protecting her head and face, going as limp as she could to minimise the strain on her joints.

When she'd been thrown into a cell, she paced for a while, burning off her rage, stopping to kick the door occasionally. Once she was calm enough, she started gently stretching, undoing as much of the damage as she could, wincing slightly from time to time as her abused body reminded her that she was really a bit too old to be putting up with this kind of treatment. That didn't make her feel any better, so when Wade finally appeared, she was spoiling for a fight.

The governor locked the door carefully behind her and stalked over to the corner where Helen had been sitting on what was laughingly called a bed, brooding. The Scot grinned insolently. It looked as though she wasn't the only one having a bad day. The bitter, destructive part of her was glad of it. Even her memories of their walk in the park the week before seemed faded and irrelevant compared to her bubbling sense of outrage and anger.

"What the hell do you think you're playing at?!" Nikki demanded. "I get back from a meeting with area only to be told you've gone berserk and attacked an officer in your cell! In front of witnesses!"

"So which is worse? The hitting people or the witnesses?"

"Don't take that attitude with me."

"Why not? All I am is a fucking con, after all. So whatever I say, it doesn't matter!"


"You haven't once asked me what happened. You've just taken their word for it!"

The taller woman stepped back and folded her arms. Her jaw was still set. "Fine. I'm listening. What happened?"

"Fenner came into my cell and started tearing it apart for no reason. He was asking me about something that wasn't there and he wouldn't stop and explain."

"In other words, he was doing something he was allowed to do as part of his job, and you objected, so you chose to react by hitting an officer."

"No! That was because McAllister came up behind me. He was on my blind side. I wasn't expecting him. I just lost it, OK!"

"No, it isn't OK! If you're not fighting other inmates, you're attacking staff. I've told you before. You have to learn to control yourself!"

"What, so you get an easier life?"

"You enjoy being down here, do you?"

"I shouldn't be here. Fenner just felt like throwing his weight around!"

"Well, if he did, you walked straight into it, didn't you? This can't go on, Helen."

"What, the part where I get into trouble or the part where you can't deal with it?"

"Either. Both."

Nikki rubbed a hand tiredly over her face. "Do you know what it feels like, seeing you locked up down here? Lying in bed at night, imagining you on a thin mattress staring at a blank wall? Knowing if I try and improve things for you, you'll just sabotage yourself?"

"So prison's shit. Preaching to the choir."

"Yeah," the governor said bleakly. "But your behaviour has an effect. That's what I've been telling you since the day we met, and you're refusing to recognise."

"Don't see why I should. It's not like you listen to me anyway."


"You know what I want. If I got it, I might even have an incentive to co-operate a bit. Instead, I sit in here getting more and more frustrated. About the situation, about us. It doesn't improve my temper."

"I'm not part of the earned incentives scheme, Helen. Deal with it." She sighed. "You're going to lose your enhanced cell over this."

"So what?! Blankets instead of a duvet? They're warmer anyway. And it's a shorter walk to breakfast."

"It'll cut down on your stamp money," Nikki pointed out, trying to get through to the stubborn Scot. She was aware that Helen had started writing to another death row inmate now that Maria had been freed.

"Then I'll economise. I have before."

Nikki shook her head, giving up and let herself out of the cell, leaving the brooding figure of the lifer behind. It bothered her all morning. Finally, she rang Karen and asked her to drop by her office. The blonde agreed. She came in just as Nikki was pouring their coffee. She accepted a mug with a nod of thanks and sat down, getting out her cigarettes and lighting up gratefully.

"God, I need this. What's the problem?"

"Helen Stewart."

Karen raised her eyebrows. "Yes, I heard about this morning's incident. How's Dominic?"

"He's fine. He's got some bruising, but nothing serious. Stewart's back on basic once she's off the block. She didn't dispute what had happened, so I just handed out the standard punishment."

"So why do you need my input on this? Sounds like you've already dealt with it."

Nikki hesitated. It was the fact that she'd been turning the matter over in her mind since the meeting with Helen and the recognition that she had lost all objectivity when it came to the lifer that had led her to call Karen in. She had analysed the disappointment and anger that Helen's actions had caused her and realised that she would not have felt them this intensely if any other inmate had done what the Scot had. Luckily, though she couldn't share the exact reason why she felt close to her, she could talk about it generally and get advice from Karen. She was grateful that there was at least one other person whom she could trust at Larkhall. She crossed to sit opposite her colleague.

"The thing is .... you know I've been trying to work with Helen. Help with her appeal, that kind of thing. Persuade her to calm down a bit, co-operate with the regime."

"Until today, I'd have said you've been succeeding. Especially after last week."

"But now this has happened, and I'm wondering if I've just been fooling myself. Whether we should ship her out and let someone else have a go. Her behaviour's getting worse, not the other way around."

Karen blew out a long plume of smoke. "And you'd like my input?"

"You are the lifer liaison. You should have a say. Besides, you're not as close to the situation."

"Thanks. You sound as though you think you might be over-involved."

"I'm beginning to wonder," Nikki confessed.

"You are the first person who's given Helen a chance in a very long time. That doesn't mean you're compromised. Despite ... some of your methods. Just that you're doing your job. Trying to rehabilitate her."

"Even so."

Karen thought about it. Nikki waited her out, sipping her coffee. Finally, the blonde stubbed out her cigarette and sat forward. "I think we should keep her here. Apart from anything else, there's her appeal. I wouldn't want to derail that."

"She doesn't have to be in Larkhall to appeal."

"No, but if they send her out of London, which is what allocations are likely to do to make space where it's needed, it'll be a lot more difficult for her solicitor to get to see her."

The governor nodded, acknowledging the truth of the comment. "What about me getting too involved?"

"Well, just back off. She's one inmate out of nearly a hundred. It shouldn't be too hard to avoid her."

"Good advice," Nikki said thoughtfully. "Thanks. I just needed to talk it over with someone."

"Don't mention it. I'm sure you'll be returning the favour one day," Karen said wryly.

They chatted for a little longer before the blonde excused herself to go and do some paperwork. Nikki let her go, pensive as she turned options over in her mind. There were things happening at area that she had been aware of for some time. The advantages of having a few years in and being a good networker. Karen's suggestion had made her look at things in a new light, and she could feel the beginning of a plan as to the way forward forming in her mind. One that would deal with her ethical dilemma about Helen Stewart as well as hoisting Simon with his own petard .....

"Back from your holidays?" Yvonne enquired ironically. Helen snorted and took her place in the queue behind her.

"Oh, yeah. All mod cons. No running water, no toilet, concrete to lie on and all the time I needed to think about exactly what I'd like to do to Fenner for putting me there."

"Join the orderly queue, darling," the East Ender said. "That bastard must have eyes in the back of his head. Or someone would have finished him off already."

"Well, if you get the chance, don't let giving me my turn first stop you."

"Not going to happen," the other inmate said regretfully. "It'd be a hit and I'd be suspect number one. Not worth it."

"They surely don't think you can organise anything like that from in here?"

"Course I could. You think I came down in the last shower? What do you think me and Lauren talk about when I phone her? I got a business to run!"

"All the phone calls are bugged," Helen pointed out reasonably.

"I know that. I also know that the screws who listen in are too stupid and too fucking lazy to think outside the box. I can have a whole conversation about .... import-export with Lauren without them sussing a thing."

"I didn't realise."

"Well, I don't exactly broadcast it. I'm going to keep my nose clean and get out of here and I want something to go back to when I do."

"So Fenner gets away scot free. No pun intended," the lifer said.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that. Someone who pisses off as many people as he does is going to meet somebody who decides it's worth it, sooner or later. And if not ..... they do say revenge is a dish best eaten cold."

As they waited to be counted out to the gardens, a sudden thought seemed to strike Yvonne. "Oh, yeah, what hospital is your godfather in?"


"I wanted to send some flowers via my Lauren. Need to know where to send them."

"She already knows, doesn't she?"

"Course not! I only told her about what happened last night. First she'd heard of it."

Helen swallowed, feeling fear blossom in her stomach. "So she wouldn't have been doing anything for me?"

"Like what?" the older woman asked, her expression sharpening as she heard the tremor in the Scot's voice.

"Like help me with a get out of jail free card."

"No way," Yvonne said, glancing round to make sure they weren't being listened to. "Don't get me wrong, you're a mate. But a lifer, a cop killer? Trying to get you out of the country 'd be like trying to smuggle out Ronnie Kray. We can't do bleeding miracles."

Helen nodded. Things were starting to fall into place. It explained a lot, like the attempt to hustle her into making a decision and the fact that whoever had set up the escape hadn't been specific about how they would hide her or get away. As though they knew it wouldn't be a long term problem.

"You all right?" Yvonne asked. "You've gone white as a sheet."

"I'll be fine," Helen said quietly. "Nothing's changed, really. I've just had something brought home to me."

Carter stood as James Butler walked up to the table, showing his mentor the only respect he was allowed to in this place. He disregarded the incongruity of the tacky red vest over his employer's expensive, casual clothes, making sure he sat down only after the other man had made himself comfortable and slipping the packet of cigarettes unobtrusively across the table. Courtesy of a fairly substantial bribe, the carton contained a couple of high value phone cards as well.

Butler nodded his thanks and pocketed the gift, moving straight on to business. They discussed some of the more lucrative extortion rackets the firm had going in the usual coded terms before reviewing the family's upcoming property deals and discussing the direction they wanted the money laundering and drugs businesses to go over the next month.

It was hard, taxing work, memorising the instructions and making sure he'd understood the gangster's intentions. With his boss out of contact for a lot of the time, Carter had to be sure that he had a good enough handle on the business to react to unexpected situations as they arose. By twenty minutes in, they were both sweating slightly, the intense concentration taking its toll.

Finally, Butler sat back, signalling that the most important part of the meeting was over. Carter quickly reviewed what he had been told, ensuring that he had no last minute questions or points he needed to review, and relaxed. He felt a slight ache behind his eyes and thought wistfully about the cigar he would smoke as soon as he got outside the prison. He braced himself. There was no merit in holding back bad news.

"That surprise party," he said. "Didn't work out."

The old man's voice was sharp. "Why not?"

"Guest of honour pulled out at the last minute. You know how some people are about celebrations."

"What about the organisers?"

"They did their part, but they couldn't risk a scene."

"I see. They know not to talk to the press, right?"

"Yes. They know they won't get any repeat business if they do that."

"Are they reliable?"

Carter timed it so there were no guards nearby. "Maxine Purvis and her crew. No names. No pack drill."

Butler scowled. "OK. It's disappointing, but ...."

"I could arrange a home delivery."

"No. Not a good idea right now with the trial getting so close. Cancel the party."

"Until further notice?"

"Yeah. Unless, that is, you see an opportunity. If she ever leaves home. Makes her own way in the world."

"How expensive should I make the gift in that event?"

"Oh, don't go to town. Get one of those Eastern European imports. But make sure it gets done right. We're sending a message, after all."

Carter nodded and glanced at his watch. "I'll be along next time with an update."

"Well, I'm not going anywhere."

"You'll be out of here before you know it," Carter said firmly.

"Maybe. Even if I'm not, it's not the first time I've done a long stretch. I can hack this in my bleeding sleep if I have to. Remember. If she leaves home."

Carter nodded, standing to go. "I'll arrange it before the end of the week. My word on it."

"Good man."

Stubberfield looked at the letter on his desk and frowned. "I won't say I'm not disappointed," he commented. "I thought it would be a bit longer before you wanted to move on."

"I didn't plan it," Nikki lied. "But it's a promotion and a chance to put some of my ideas into practice across the area. I'd have been stupid not to go for the secondment."

"We both know it'll become your job within six months," Simon said. He stood up and extended his hand. His smile was almost convincing. "Congratulations, Nikki. I'm sure you'll make an excellent anti-drugs co-ordinator. Just be sure to come and visit us from time to time, won't you?"

"Oh, I'll do that," Nikki assured him. "After all, Larkhall is one of my responsibilities. That hasn't changed."

Simon looked up as there was a knock at the door. "And here's your replacement," he said.

"Karen's agreed to take the post?"


"What about the lifers?"

"She says she can manage both roles, and with a bit of help from Jim Fenner, I believe she can."

"They do work well together," Nikki said non-committally. Simon shot her a sharp look as Karen came into the office, but the brunette had already schooled her face so that it showed nothing. Betts smiled ironically at her.

"I hear congratulations are in order," she said.


"I'm not complaining. Gives me a crack at governor grade a couple of years sooner than I anticipated. You keep getting promoted - I'll just ride on your coattails."

"You would have made it without me," Nikki said easily. "It was just a matter of time."

"Well, I imagine you two would like to schedule your handover," Simon said. The women glanced at each other, acknowledging the implicit instruction and took their leave. As they walked back to G wing, Karen cleared her throat. Nikki glanced at her, curious.

"Just tell me one thing," Karen said. "Did you plan this all along?"

"Plan what?"

"The fact that Simon can't cite operational necessity for refusing to release you for your new job because he's got a suitably qualified officer in place."

Nikki smiled. "I wish I was that Machiavellian. No. I fully intended to stay as governor of G wing until I sorted the drugs problem out. I only started looking around when I realised that I wasn't going to be given the chance to do that."

"I see," Karen said thoughtfully. "But it's still a hell of an opportunity for me."

"Do you mind?"

"Hardly. I get the chance to show what I can do, I've already got Jim on side, so there won't be any trouble with the staff. I'm looking forward to it."

Nikki frowned. "Karen ...."


"I'd be careful of Jim Fenner if I were you."

"Why? The man saved my life not so long ago!"

"Yes, and I'm not disputing that he's very experienced and a good officer. I just think he's got his own agenda. Don't assume he's always going to be your loyal sidekick. That's all I'm saying."

"Of course not," the blonde said dismissively. "He's intelligent and has his own ideas. I'm not interested in a deputy who's a yes man."

"So long as it works for you," Nikki said.

"I'll make sure it does. I have been round the block a few times, you know. And not the one in here."

She looked at her watch. "I've actually got to interview the new intake. Can we do the handover this afternoon?"

"Fine by me," Nikki said. "There are a couple of people I want to drop in on before I go, anyway."

"Two o' clock?"

"I'll see you in your new office."

They smiled at each other and parted. Nikki waited till the other woman was out of sight and then headed for the wing.

She found Helen in her cell on basic, as she'd expected, reading a book. The Scot glanced up as she came through the door and then folded her arms. She waited for her visitor to speak first.

"Have you got a minute?" Nikki asked.

"Rest of my life."

"Look, I've got some news."


Carefully, Nikki closed the door. That got Helen's attention and she frowned. Her frown grew deeper as the taller woman leaned on the edge of the desk and studied her face.

"What?" the lifer said finally.

"I'm leaving Larkhall."

"What do you mean? I don't understand."

"Yes, you do."

"Nikki, why the hell ....? Are you so scared of your own feelings that you'd do this to me?"

Nikki reached out and brushed the back of her fingers against the other woman's cheek. "All we do is hurt each other, Helen. I can't stand being here and watching the woman I love locked up. Not when I ...."

"What did you call me?"

"You heard me."

"But if you feel that way, why are you leaving me here alone?"

"I'm not."

"I don't understand," the Scot said, confused.

"I've accepted a job as the area anti-drugs co-ordinator. That means I'm no longer directly responsible for locking anyone up. Including you. I'm a prison service professional, not your jailor."

"But if it means you leave G wing ...."

"I'll be based at Larkhall. I won't spend all my time here, but we can still see each other."

"How often?"

"As often as my duties allow."

"Every day, every week ....?"

"Not as often as every day, but more often than once a week. I'll make sure of it."

"Will you?" Helen said. She stood up, moving close to Nikki, into her personal space. She seemed slightly confused when the taller woman didn't step away.

"I promise. It might be better. But you have to calm down. Not make yourself a target like you have been doing."

"Not let Fenner get to me, you mean."


Helen studied her with troubled hazel eyes and then leant in hesitantly, obviously expecting to be refused. Nikki smiled and brought her hands to rest on the other woman's hips, drawing them together.

"Yes," she said. "I'm not your jailor anymore."

The lifer gasped softly and kissed her, a series of intense, almost desperate contacts before stepping closer and slipping her tongue into Nikki's mouth. The taller woman groaned, savouring the taste of her lover, wishing that they could prolong their intimacy and finish it properly. She could already feel her nipples hardening, the flush of arousal in her body. But she also knew that the longer they stayed pressed against each other like this the greater the risk of discovery was.

Firmly, she pushed back on Helen's shoulders, moving the inmate away. The Scot broke off with a small sigh of disappointment, but she didn't resist - she knew as well as Nikki what the risks were. She did take the other woman's hand, shifting her stance so that the contact wouldn't be visible from the cell door.

"When you get out of here?" Nikki said. "I'm going to take you to a room with a king size bed and an ensuite bathroom, and I'm not going to let you go till I've made love to you every way I know how."

"I'll hold you to that," Helen said hoarsely. "But in the meantime? Come and see me often?"

"As often as I can," Nikki said and straightened, signalling that the encounter was over.

The inmate scowled but stepped away. She had just picked up her book and was smiling at Nikki again when the cell door flew open and Hollamby bustled in.

"Stewart! Who gave you permission to close this door? Oh .... Hello, ma'am."

"I was having a private word," Nikki said. "Remember what I said, Helen."

"Yes, miss."

"Right, well, tidy your stuff," Bodybag said. "You've got a roommate."

"What?! I'm a lifer. I don't two up!"

"You do now. Mrs. Hunt apparently suffers from claustrophobia," Sylvia said disapprovingly through pursed lips, disbelief engraved in every line of her face. "They think it might help her to share a cell, and you've been chosen for the honour."

"And what if I don't want to?"

"Last time I checked, you weren't in charge," the officer snapped.

"Helen," Nikki said warningly. The lifer scowled but subsided as Hollamby looked along the wing and bellowed. "Come on, I haven't got all day!" to an unseen person.

Nikki left, nodding to her. Helen watched as a short, middle-aged woman walked in, carrying her possessions in the familiar clear plastic sack. She was the image of suburban respectability, conservatively dressed, with a neat, well-kept hairstyle. A pair of glasses dangled from a chain around her neck, and she seemed rather lost in her new environment. She looked like she might have been a teacher or a librarian. Helen studied her grimly and lay down on the lower berth, getting out of the way. Her new cellmate looked at the bed and rested her things on the floor.

"Do I have to have the upper bunk?" she asked hesitantly. "It is rather high."

Helen had already noticed that the woman would probably have difficulty climbing up. If Hollamby hadn't been there, she might even have offered to swop, but she was dammed if she was going to co-operate when one of her few privileges had been taken away for no reason.

"First come, first served. If you didn't want to end up in here, you shouldn't have killed your husband," Bodybag said grimly.

"I helped him to die," the middle-aged woman protested. "You don't know what it's like, watching someone you love go through agony."

"Everyone's got an excuse. Get on with unpacking and then come out for your lunch. I want this cell tidy, and no bickering about what gets put where, or you're both on report. Move it."

She gave them both a final disgusted look and hurried out, her keys jangling. Helen watched her go and scowled.

"Bitch," she said under her breath.

The new inmate cleared her throat, attracting the Scot's attention. "My name's Barbara Hunt. Um, I need to put my stuff away?" she said uncertainly. The lifer shrugged.

"Do what you want. Just don't disturb anything of mine."

She shouldered out of the cell, already feeling the pressure of having to share a space she was used to having as her own. She ate her lunch quickly and headed out to the sanctuary of her garden. At least there she could be away from other people.

Barbara finished storing her possessions and hesitantly joined the queue for food. It didn't look very appetising, but she was hungry, the stress of the last few days' events and the inadequate rations on the block taking their toll. As she got to the front of the queue, the brassy blonde who was serving grinned at her, the cheerful smile somehow not reaching her flat, blank eyes, and ostentatiously gave her a larger portion of shepherd's pie.

"Thank you," Barbara said, slightly startled. She had already worked out that how much food you got depended on a combination of where you stood in the pecking order and whether the kitchen staff liked you. She didn't know this woman at all.

"Last hearty meal of the condemned woman, innit," the server said. "I'll sing at your funeral and all, if you want."


"Didn't you know? The lifer you're in with? Stewart? She's a right psycho. I'm the last person she attacked. No reason. Just flew off the handle one day. She's in here for stabbing a pig cause he looked at her the wrong way. She's got a really nasty temper. Ought to be down on the muppet wing, really."

Barbara stared fearfully at the blonde and then went to one of the tables, hearing her raucous laughter ring out across the mess hall as she turned to serve the next meal.

Nikki stopped in the entry to the art room, drinking in the sight of Helen Stewart sketching. The inmate was dressed in her usual jeans and t-shirt, the clothes showing off the curve of her hips and breasts and slim torso, the firm contour of her back. She was relaxed enough to have let her guard down, and her expression was intent and intelligent as she concentrated on her work, frowning as she rubbed a pencil line out and replaced it with one she was happier with, glancing at the spray of flowers on the table in front of her. Nikki could already see a couple of discarded attempts and realised that Helen was experimenting with different styles, drawing the same image repeatedly. She smiled indulgently, admiring the Scot's focus and then went back to watching her work.

It wasn't that she hadn't seen the lifer drawing before. It was the knowledge that they were alone together behind a door with no peephole in it and that because of the time of day, they were very unlikely to be disturbed. Quietly, she turned the key in the lock behind her. Helen looked up quickly at the sound and brightened as she saw who it was. She put the sketchbook down and tucked her hair behind one ear. Nikki dropped her briefcase and took hold of the Scot, kissing her assertively, gasping slightly as Helen responded and started to undo the buttons on her shirt. Reluctantly, she put her hand on the other woman's, stopping her from continuing.

"What?" the lifer asked, the hunger in her face evident. "You don't want to?"

"Of course I want to! It's not safe."

"Nobody comes here at this time of day. You've locked the door."

"And there are other people with keys. Come on, Helen, you know we have to be careful."

"I suppose so."

"Don't sulk. It doesn't suit you."

"I find that sexual fulfilment is what suits me best. Don't suppose you can help?"

"No, I can't."

"Thought dykes were supposed to be better than any man."

"We are. But that means I'm not up for a quick fumble where we might be disturbed. I told you; when we get together, I'm going to take care of you properly."

"Oh," Helen said. She looked up at Nikki through heavy lidded eyes. "What will that involve?"

The brunette cleared her throat. "Helen, we can't ...."

"Indulge me. Please? I promise not to take it too far."

"I'm not worried about you. I'm worried about me. I want you so much it hurts."

"So what would you do about it, if you had the chance?" Helen asked playfully. She drew the taller woman down to sit beside her, nestling into her side. Nikki put an arm around the Scot's shoulder, feeling soft lips beginning to trace a path along her jaw line and neck. She shifted restlessly as her body began to react.

"Go on," her companion urged. "Tell me. Make me believe it."

Nikki closed her eyes, feeling her face heat up. She was never normally embarrassed talking about lovemaking; her attitude was that if you couldn't talk about it, you probably shouldn't be doing it. But this was different; the edge of suppressed fear and the fact she was talking to Helen ramped the intensity of the situation up, made her acutely aware of how aroused she already was from a few kisses and a little flirtation. Her partner shifted closer and put a hand on her leg. Nikki gave in, speaking softly.

"Well, for a start, we wouldn't be dressed. We'd ... both be naked. So we could see each other properly."

"Isn't that a bit unsubtle?"

"No, because we would have undressed each other first. Slowly. Button by button. I might ... I might have stopped to kiss you here and there. On the lips. On your neck. On your skin."

"Uh huh?"

"I would have tasted your sweat ...."

"I'd be sweating, would I?" Helen asked.

"Yes. Because we'd both be warm. From the candles. From the things we'd be doing to each other. From anticipation."

"There'd be candles?"

"All around the room. So I could study you properly. Appreciate you. So you could see me."

Helen smiled languorously. "And would I like what I saw?"

"I hope so. Not as much as I would enjoy looking at you. Touching you. Running my hands across your body. Tasting you and smelling you. Getting to know you properly. All the places you like to be touched. All the places that make you sigh and whimper and call out."

"So you wouldn't just be looking?"

"No. I'd use my hands and my mouth on you. I'd lie you down ...."

"On the bed?"

"Yes. I'd find out what you wanted and I'd do it with you. All the things you've ever dreamed about trying with another woman. All the acts that would drive you insane with pleasure."

"Jesus," Helen said. The soft, provocative movement of her lips on Nikki's skin had stopped. The grip on Nikki's thigh was growing tighter. The brunette bowed her head, consumed with the image of her and Helen, naked together, bodies writhing with delight and release as they brought each other to peak after peak of sensation. She turned and brushed the hair from the Scot's forehead. "Then I'd keep doing them till you couldn't take any more. Till you begged me to stop."

Helen trembled. She put her hand on Nikki's breast and smiled when she felt the hard peak of the other woman's nipple against her palm.

"Helen ...." Nikki said warningly.

"I promised. Don't worry. But all those things you say you're going to do? Don't think I'll let you get away without doing them."

"When you're free," the short haired woman said hoarsely. Helen nodded. Nikki felt the movement under her chin and turned to fully embrace the Scot. They sat quietly together, holding hands, their breathing slowing.

Finally, the lifer chuckled. Nikki looked down at her, curious. "What?"

"Can we do this again?"

"We shouldn't."

"Don't see why not. Makes for more interesting dreams."

"I dream about you already," Nikki told her honestly.

"Me too, sweetheart. But, I've never been with a woman. I don't really know what I'm dreaming about."

Nikki frowned. Helen looked up at her and sat back. "Is that a problem for you?"

"No. We've all had a first time, after all."

Helen chose to disregard the uncertainty in her tone. "Well, at least I'll have a good teacher. Right?"

"Right," Nikki said. She shifted restlessly and Helen moved away slightly, responding to the tension in the taller woman's body language. Nikki stood and glanced at her watch.

"I ought to go. How's Fenner behaving at the moment, anyway?"

"How d'you think? He's an arsehole and a bastard. He has a go whenever he can."

"Do you want me to have a word with the governor?"

"She won't listen to you."

"If I tell her one of her officers is bullying inmates ...."

"No," Helen said. "That'd make me a grass. I'm nobody's nark. Besides, she likes him."

"What do you mean?"

"What do you think I mean? It's understandable. He saved her life."

"I'm not happy about you being harassed," Nikki said.

"I'm not keen on it. But I'm being treated no worse than any other inmate in here. Leave it alone." Tenderly, she took Nikki's hands and pulled the other woman's arms around her waist. "I don't want to think about Fenner or any of them when I'm with you. I want to think about us. About this."

The brunette's expression softened. She bent her head, kissing Helen. The Scot responded, taking the opportunity to let her hands slip under the taller woman's clothing, feeling soft, warm flesh under her palms as she tasted the familiar contours of her mouth. Finally, they broke away from each other. Helen smiled at the expression on her lover's face.

"I know. You have to go."

"I'd stay if I could."

"Just come back soon."

Nikki glanced down at herself, checking her outfit, and then pressed a quick kiss to Helen's cheek before leaving. Helen listened to the key turning in the lock behind her and then turned resolutely back to her drawing. She would have to wait until after lock up to take care of the after-effects of their encounter. The Scot smiled. She anticipated pleasant dreams, even if sharing a cell did mean she'd have to keep her thoughts to herself.

Helen Stewart - Journal entry

I had a robin following me around this morning. Greedy little beggar was after the worms, of course. He perched on my spade and waited for them to come to the surface. He wasn't expecting the bonus bread I fed him, but he ate it anyway. Then the sparrows joined in. Good to see that some of the creatures inside these walls can get out again. Pity us humans can't manage it. Or know we'll be safe if we do. I might enjoy the irony in other circumstances.

On her first morning in her cell in Larkhall, Barbara woke up, unsure of where she was. She remembered, of course, as soon as she'd opened her eyes and seen the vaulted ceiling over her head, but she'd noticed before that some part of her mind seemed to try and protect her from the knowledge of her situation by imposing this momentary confusion at the beginning of every day. As though ignorance might somehow change the reality of what she had to face for the next three years or make dealing with it easier. She closed her eyes again, trying to summon the strength to make it through another twelve hours of this grim new life and became aware of a noise. Someone nearby was breathing softly in deep, controlled patterns - if Barbara hadn't been so keyed up by her own apprehension, she would never have heard it.

She rolled quietly over and looked across. Her cellmate was just arching backwards into the first part of a yoga asana, which Barbara recognised as the sun salutation, hands in a prayer position over her head. As she watched, the Scot moved fluidly through the sequence, bending to place her palms flat on the floor beside her feet, moving each leg backwards in turn so that she was in a full press-up position before dipping her chest slowly to the floor and pushing her body upwards into an inverted triangle. Finally, she brought her legs forward without shifting her hands from their original position to stand upright again. It was obviously something she was familiar with. She did it with controlled strength, moving evenly through the whole sequence and making it look easy. There was a thin sheen of sweat on her forehead, and the sports bra and knickers she wore clung to her skin. Barbara could tell that it was not the first round the lifer had performed.

As Barbara watched from her bunk, Helen glanced briefly at her and, face impassive, repeated the sun salutation opposite leg first, finishing the sequence. She flexed her shoulders and without acknowledging her audience, turned to the sink and washed her face and neck with a wet flannel. What bothered Barbara was not the strength and co-ordination which the other woman had displayed - it was the way she'd carried out the exercise in near silence. Dockley's warnings echoed in the middle- aged woman's head. She wondered uneasily if she'd ever wake up in time if Helen attacked her after lock up.

She decided to be assertive and cleared her throat.

"What?" the Scot asked over her shoulder.

"I'd really prefer it if you didn't do that in the morning."


"It … disturbs my sleep."

The lifer grinned. "Bollocks. You only woke up on the twelfth round."

"I was awake before then. I just wasn't moving."

"Really? The pretend snoring was very impressive."

Barbara blushed and tried again. "Look, we're stuck with this situation ...."

She jumped slightly as Helen turned, scowling, and stepped closer.

"OK, I guess it's time to get a few ground rules clear. There's a hierarchy in here. As a murderer, I'm at the top of it. I'm not saying I agree with the pecking order, but I'd be stupid not to take advantage. I didn't ask to share; as a lifer I'm not supposed to have to two up. So as far as I'm concerned, this is my cell and you can learn to work round me. That includes not asking me to change my routine. And if you don't like it, I'm not interested."

"I'll speak to my personal officer," Barbara protested.

"Go ahead," Helen said. "Because the only thing lower than a grass in here is a nonce."

"That's the ethics of the playground!"

"True. But think about it. Petty rules, being forced to call authority figures 'sir' or 'miss', the stronger preying on the weak, the stodgy, institutional food. You're intelligent enough. I'd have thought you'd have noticed that you're back at school by now."

"A good school doesn't let the strong prey on the weak," the older woman retorted, forgetting her fear as indignation got the better of her. The Scot smiled bitterly. "Well, unfortunately for you, G Wing is one of those sink comprehensives on special measures."

"And you're the class bully."

"No. That's more Dockley. If you haven't worked that out yet, you're not as clever as I thought. I'm the fucker you don't mess with."

"Or what?" Barbara asked, feeling fear coil in her stomach.

"Try and find out," the lifer said, turning away and pulling her bra off so that she could wash. The older woman swallowed and looked away. Though no prude, she found the casual acceptance of nudity amongst inmates who had been here for any length of time disconcerting. She supposed that they didn't have much choice with the situation as it was.

Helen ignored her while they both got dressed and immediately afterwards, seemingly absorbed in a book about drawing. Barbara made her bed, which was difficult as it was so high up, and then waited for unlock, holding her breakfast things.

The key rattled in the lock and the heavy iron door opened, revealing Hollamby's sour face. "Come on, you two, get moving. I haven't got all day."

She looked across the cell at Helen, her lips pursed disapprovingly and turned to Barbara. "How was your first night sharing with the resident psychopath, then?"

"That's a bit harsh, miss," the lifer interrupted. "Just because she's in for manslaughter."

"I wasn't talking to you, Stewart. You can take care of yourself," the screw said disapprovingly.

She turned back to Barbara. "Remember, any problems, I want to know about them."

The ex-civil servant hesitated and then shook her head. She was acutely aware of Helen's gaze on her and the fact that, even in her short time inside, she had learned that what the Scot had said about people who 'grassed' on their fellow inmates to staff was true. They got short shrift from everybody. Hollamby looked disappointed that she wasn't going to have a chance to punish the lifer and shuffled unwillingly off to the next cell.

Barbara went out to breakfast, debating it internally as she chewed cold toast and drank the stewed, lukewarm tea. On the one hand, Helen Stewart's air of brooding violence intimidated her. She wasn't ashamed to say that she was frightened of her. On the other, she was in here for at least another eighteen months, even with time off for good behaviour. She considered carefully. Was she prepared to tiptoe around starting at shadows for the rest of her sentence? She had no doubt that word would spread. Things like that always did in prison. If she was labelled a victim, then she could expect other inmates to start trying to bully her, women far lower down the hierarchy than Helen and Dockley. Her life could become worse than it already was, if that was possible. Barbara realised with a sinking feeling that she had three choices : protective custody, facing off against her cellmate or talking to an officer. None of them were a good option. She just had to decide which one was least unpleasant.

Twenty minutes later, she knocked on the door of the wing office, relieved to see that it was Mr Fenner on duty. Though she was slightly put off by the way he obviously thought of G Wing as his personal fiefdom, he seemed efficient, unlike Hollamby, who Barbara had already realised was a bad combination of lazy and uncaring.

The PO looked up as she came in and closed the door behind her.

"What is it?"

"I've got a problem," Barbara said diffidently.

"You'll have to go through channels," Fenner said indifferently. "I haven't got time to sort it out. Who's your personal officer?"

"It's about Helen Stewart."

Fenner's attitude changed instantly. He leaned against the desk, crossing his arms. "In that case, we'd better talk about it."

Helen was preparing to go out to the gardens when Fenner walked in after lunch. She took one look at the smirk on his face and mentally braced herself. It was obviously her turn to be dumped on, and she knew the burly officer was going to love every minute of it. She glanced at Barbara, who was sitting apprehensively on her bunk, and wondered why she was looking so worried. The moment Fenner opened his mouth she realised why.

"I hear you've been misbehaving, Stewart," he said, standing close to loom over her. "Throwing your weight around. Threatening people."

He grinned as Helen's jaw set taut, seeing his words affect her. "Now, I know you're a psychotic little bitch, but you won't get away with it in here. I'm watching you, and if you try and intimidate anyone else, especially anyone who's a first-timer, I'll have you down the block so fast your head 'll spin. Got that?"

"Yes, Mr Fenner," Helen gritted.

"Just so we're clear. The only reason you're not on your way down there already is because Hunt didn't want to make an official complaint. But any more trouble out of you, and I'll take action without one."

"I'm sure you will," the Scot said.

"And I don't have to tell you that if that happens, you can kiss goodbye to your appeal," Fenner said.

With a final smile in Barbara's direction, he left the cell. Helen waited till he was out of earshot, then rounded on her cell mate.

"You want to tell me why you dropped me in the shit? I didn't threaten you!"

"No. I didn't say you did."


"I said I found you threatening. That's different! Helen, I spoke to Mr Fenner in confidence."

"Well, the first thing you have to realise is that Fenner, like most of the fucking screws, is sub-literate. He won't understand fine distinctions like that. The second thing is that even if he had understood you, he wouldn't care. Not when it gives him a chance to have a go at me!"

"I didn't know he was going to do that," the older woman protested. "I thought he'd just… keep an eye on things."

"Right. Because he's so fucking subtle. Listen, if I had been the mad bitch you thought, right now you'd be picking up your teeth. And have you noticed how he left us alone so I could if I wanted to? Christ, Barbara you need to learn to think before you act in here. Otherwise, you're going to get yourself in a lot of trouble. With way nastier people than me."

She picked up her body warmer. "And just in case you had any illusions, Fenner won't be there to save you when it happens."

She headed out to the garden and spent an angry couple of hours pulling up weeds, only stopping when her aching back warned her she was close to overdoing it.

Helen looked up as Dominic came into the art room and bit her lip. Though the bruising along his jaw had faded, and he had demonstrated his professionalism by not acting any differently towards her, not like Bodybag, who would have harped on endlessly about the incident, she still felt awkward in his presence.

"Hiya," the young officer said cheerfully. "How's it going? How's the art?"

"Just at the planning stage at the moment. Don't really know what I'm trying to get to."

"I'm sure it'll come," Dominic said. "Another prison based picture?"

"Sort of. It's hard to explain. I want to do something more ambitious, but ...." Helen shrugged.

"Well, the tutor says you've got a lot of talent. I'm sure you'll be fine."

He turned to go. Helen spoke, moved by a sudden impulse. "Mr McAllister ..."


"I'm sorry. That I hit you."

"What brought that on? I won't stop being your personal officer, if that's what you're worried about."

"I know. I would have been told by now if that was going to happen."

The lifer shuffled her feet, trying to control her embarrassment. It was McAllister's forgiving reaction to her lashing out at him that had really brought home how reckless she had been and how close she had come to disrupting one of the few bearable relationships she had with a member of staff.

"I just ... I lost my temper. I shouldn't have punched you. It was stupid."

"Oh, so when you assault a screw, you prefer to mean it?"

"Well, actually, yes."

Dominic shook his head ruefully, then chuckled. "Well, at least you're honest. Apology accepted. Anything else?"

"Do you know what Mr Fenner was looking for? When he spun my cell?"

"Oh." The young officer hesitated. "This goes no further, OK?" he warned. Helen nodded.

"Someone in here got hold of a mobile phone and was calling his wife, winding her up about stuff. You can imagine that Mr Fenner wasn't very pleased. Some of the things this woman said were pretty nasty."

"And he thought that was me?"

"He did then. I think it's been sorted out now."

Helen nodded. She had a shrewd idea of what had probably happened, especially given Fenner's recent suspension and reinstatement. It sounded like Dockley had bitten off more than she could chew for once. Helen didn't have much sympathy. She glanced at the portrait of Rachel Hicks she had done months ago, soon after the younger woman had died. Dominic followed her gaze and his face darkened. He caught her watching his reaction and took the portrait down to study it.

"She never stood much of a chance really, did she?" he commented softly.


"I didn't know you were friends. When did you do this?"

"We weren't. I did it after she died. Based on some sketches I had."


"You've seen me sitting there with a pad and pencil often enough."

"Never really thought about it," Dominic confessed. He glanced at her workbook, then at her, implicitly asking permission. Helen nodded. "Go ahead."

He paged through the pad, pausing over some of the images. When he got to one section, he stopped, frowning.

"What?" Helen asked.

"Why have you drawn all these hands?"

The lifer looked at the relevant pages and smiled. She had been trying to improve her figure sketching and had decided to concentrate on particular parts of the body. That section of the sketchbook was filled with image after image of a pair of hands. Folded together, cradling a mug of tea, a pen, a clipboard. Pointing, moving, at rest and active. Helen chuckled inwardly, glad she hadn't committed some of her mental images to paper and that Dominic hadn't recognised whose hands in particular she had chosen to draw.

"They're hard. If you're not careful, everyone ends up looking like they've got bunches of bananas instead of fingers. Gestures are difficult to catch as well."

"I suppose."

"It would help if we could get some models in, but that's not going to happen."

"Surely there's enough people to draw in here?"

"Yeah, but they're mostly women."


"Well, see," Helen said, impulsively catching his shirt cuff as he put the sketchbook down. "Men have different hands. Look at yours compared to mine." She turned his arm over. "You've got a broader palm, longer fingers, more hair. The wrist is more angular, wider. It's like necks and jaws."

"You're losing me here."

Helen pointed at McAllister's face. "Men have different jaw lines, more bone, an Adam's apple, stubble ...."

"More bone?"

"Yeah. You know that thing that boys do when they're going through puberty and they grow a whole new shape to their skull because they put on more bone mass somehow."

They both became suddenly aware of how close they were standing to each other.

"Er ...," Dominic said.

As bad luck would have it, Nikki walked into the art room just as he started to move away. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene in front of her. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded.

The lifer hurriedly let go of the young officer's hand and flashed Nikki a look, silently beseeching her to understand. Dominic blushed violently.

"Nothing! Helen was just ...."

"Showing you her etchings?"

"No!" McAllister protested. "She was telling me about art."

"And that involved holding your hand and stroking your face?"

"I wasn't touching his face. I was pointing!" Helen protested.

Nikki turned on her, her voice low and dangerous. "Be quiet, Stewart. I'll get to you in a minute."

The Scot started to speak and then subsided, conscious they weren't alone. Bitter experience of not being listened to kicked in. Helen found herself starting to react as if it were Fenner ordering her around. She tried to unclench her fists as the other woman turned back to Dominic. He flushed and studied his boots, hands in his pockets. The brunette waited, arms folded, until he had made reluctant eye contact before she spoke.

"I don't have to tell you what that looked like or how it could have been interpreted. Especially after the recent events, male officers have to be careful. I want your assurance it won't happen again."

"I can explain ...."

"You don't have to."

"Miss Wade ...."

"If you lie to me, I will have to take it further. Do you want that?"

"I didn't do anything!" McAllister protested. Nikki raised her eyebrows and he sighed and bowed his head. "But I'll be more careful in future."

"I'll hold you to that. Get about your duties. I'll see you later about this."


Nikki waited until the door had closed behind him and then turned on Helen. "Well?"

"Well, what?" the inmate said sullenly. "Nothing happened."

"It didn't look that way from where I was standing."

"Don't call me a fucking liar. You, more than anyone, should know that it wasn't what it seemed."

"Watch your language. I need a better explanation than you've just given me."

"Or what? You'll put me on report?!"

"You are still my responsibility, even if I'm not directly in charge of you. That includes protecting you from abuse."

"Unless it's you doing it."

"That remark is out of line!"

"Is it? You gave up the high moral ground a while ago, in case you hadn't noticed!"

Nikki stared at her, aghast. Helen sneered. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?"

"What is your problem, exactly? I'm trying to protect you."

"The fact you don't trust me. How fickle do you think I am?"

"Am I supposed to ignore the evidence of my own eyes?"

"You didn't have any evidence. You just jumped to conclusions. In case you hadn't noticed, he's a man and I'm gay."

"Bi," Nikki said tiredly. "You've slept with men in the past. And I've had affairs with straight women who wanted to experiment. It happens."

"So you think you're an experiment? Is that the problem? You don't believe what I feel for you?"

"Don't put words into my mouth!"

"OK. But don't jump to conclusions about me! Have I ever given any indication that I wasn't completely serious about us? Show me one thing, apart from this misunderstanding, that supports your suspicions!"

Nikki scowled, unable to answer. Helen stepped into her personal space and stroked her cheek. "It's you. You and no one else. Don't you know that? Haven't I shown you?"

The taller woman looked at her. Her expression softened and she reached up to take Helen's hand. Then, suddenly, her face changed.

"Nikki, are you allright?!"

Nikki stepped away. "Don't touch me," she grated.


"Bacchus. In your journal you talk about Bacchus. About how much you need him, want him. How you can't have him. How it's not safe. You mention it nearly every day. That's Dominic, isn't it? You've played me for a bloody fool. I should have known. It was too good to be true."

"No!" Helen said. "It isn't what you think. I can explain .... I ...." She stopped suddenly.

They stared at each other, their strong emotions reflected on their faces. Finally, Nikki took a deep breath, visibly putting her doubt and jealousy aside.

"I'm listening," she said.

Blindly, Helen shook her head. "I can't."

The taller woman made an abortive gesture and then turned away, picking up Helen's sketchbook. She handed it to the lifer, face impassive. "You should go back to your cell now.

"Can't you just trust me?" Helen asked.

"No. I think you can see why."

"That's not fair!"

"It's how it is," Nikki said. "There are reasons for the rules. They protect officers as well as inmates. I let myself forget that. I shouldn't have."

"I wasn't playing games with you!"

"Neither was I."

"This is so fucking unfair!"

"Really? Last chance. Explain your journal to me."

Helen shook her head. "I can't."

"Then I'm sorry. It's better if we don't ...."

"Say it," the Scot said. "If I have to live it, you can say it!"

"It's better if we call this off now. It's over, Helen."

"Nikki ...."

"Get back onto the wing."


"You heard me. Do as you're told. Now!"

Nikki bowed her head, disregarding the anguished look the other woman gave her as she left the room. It was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Unsteadily, she went to the door and locked it from the inside, then sat down at one of the tables, rested her head in her hands and wept quietly, uncaring as to who might overhear.

Through the nausea that filled her, her well trained mind repeated the entries in which Helen debated with herself, mentioning Bacchus nearly every day at the beginning. Repeating her need for him, grimly detailing how she had laid awake thinking about him, the distraction strategies she used to keep her mind off him. Recording her relief when the obsession retreated for short periods, only to return with renewed strength when she thought she'd finally beaten it. Nikki supposed numbly that she'd made the situation worse by assigning Dominic to Helen as her personal officer, rekindled the old infatuation. She wondered bleakly if Helen's declared affection for her had been some sort of attempt to hold it off a while longer or simply a cynical ploy to safeguard her position until she made her move on the younger man. She hoped it was the former. Even now, she found that she didn't want to think badly of the lifer unless she had to.

Barbara woke up and frowned. She could tell from the light filtering through the cell window that it was shortly before unlock, but there was something different about the morning. Nestling down under the thin blankets, she suddenly realised what it was. For the third day on a row, Helen wasn't doing her twelve rounds of sun salutation. Barbara could believe that she might miss it for one or even two days, but not three.

Unobtrusively, she turned over so that she could look down at the lower bunk, trying to make it seem as though she was trying to get more comfortable. She didn't think her cellmate would appreciate being spied on.

The lifer was lying unmoving on her back, arms by her sides, staring bleakly at nothing. Barbara half remembered her pacing in the small hours and muttering an instruction to go back to sleep when she had partially woken and groggily asked what the problem was. She must have made some noise at the memory because Helen looked sharply at her and got up, crossing to the sink to wash. Barbara lay back and thought about her brief glimpse of the Scot's face; it had been drawn with tiredness and something more. Grief and a fixed, hopeless misery that tore at her heart. It almost looked as though her cellmate had had tears in her eyes. Now she thought about it, Helen had been acting strangely for a few days. Barbara had put her listlessness and indifference down to simple moodiness or possibly bad news from home, but it seemed that it was something more.

"Helen ....?"


"Are you OK?"

"I'm fine. I'm just great. Locked up in this dump like an animal, treated worse than shit, and now you want to play twenty questions. Leave me the fuck alone."

Barbara subsided. She didn't dare push Helen any further, but now she'd been in Larkhall long enough to know who to trust amongst the screws, she thought she could find someone who could safely challenge her behaviour and make sure she was all right. Looking back, her naivety in believing Dockley's slanders made her ashamed. Helen was a grim presence and often brooding, but she never initiated violence and wouldn't allow bullying to happen near her. Barbara had gradually come to realise that, though the Scot would never voluntarily let her get close, she was probably safer in her company than almost anywhere else on the wing. Shell certainly didn't dare to take her on and her presence kept any number of the lesser thugs and troublemakers in check.

After she'd dressed, she turned to Helen, who was still lying on her bunk despite being fully clothed.

"Are you coming out to breakfast?"

"Not hungry."

Barbara nodded and went to find Mr McAllister. When she brought him back, five minutes later, he crouched down by the lower bunk and spoke to the Scot's unmoving back.

"Come on, Helen. You've got to go out to breakfast. You can't stay in your cell all day."

"I'm not hungry."

"Then have a cup of tea. Come on. You know I'm right. You'll get put on report."

"Who by? You?"


Dominic glanced at Barbara, who was still hovering nearby, and lowered his voice, unwilling for too many people to know what had happened in the art room the week before. Barbara, who had spent every anguished second of her last few months of freedom straining to hear the weakened sound of her terminally ill husband's breathing, didn't miss a word.

"Look, I know you're upset about what Miss Wade said, but you have to get over it. She was within her rights. She could have put you on report and me on a disciplinary after what she saw. She didn't even stop me being your personal officer."

"We weren't doing anything."

"No, but that's not how it looked. Someone else would have been straight to the governing governor and had you ghosted by now, just in case. We both need to keep our heads down for a while. That's all."

"Doesn't it bother you that you were accused of doing something you're innocent of?"

Dominic sighed. "Helen, I really need this job. And if you carry on moping around, she will think there was something going on. You have to let this go now. For both our sakes."

"Behave like a good little girl?"

"Nobody could accuse you of that," McAllister said. "Come on, how about it?" He hesitated. "Please?"

The inmate rolled onto her back and looked up at him. She shook her head wearily.

"'Please'? Are you going to start bringing me a cup of tea next?"

"No. You have to go to the mess hall for that."

He stood up, giving her room to move off the bunk. Helen waited another few seconds and then swung her legs over, reaching for her trainers. Barbara decided that it might be wise to retreat in case the Scot had a problem with her fetching an officer and went to get her breakfast.

She was eating porridge when Helen, who had been leaning against the wall, waiting for her food, looked across at the end of the wing, where the staff office was, and turned quickly away. A remarkable flurry of emotions crossed her face: sorrow, regret and something very like acute pain. Barbara was facing the right direction to see who she was watching.

As soon as the older woman saw the way in which Nikki Wade was deliberately ignoring the Scot, and put it together with the body language she had witnessed as she had first walked towards the cell she would be sharing with Helen, it all made sense. Then, the tall, dark haired member of staff had been relaxed, slightly unguarded, a tender smile on her face before she had visibly pulled herself together and got back to her schedule. Now she was stiff with the effort of not turning to look at the lifer, even though every line of her body screamed that she knew the other woman was there and was desperate to make eye contact with her.

Barbara bowed her head and unobtrusively surveyed the other cons, unable to believe that no one else could see it. She carried on thinking about what she had discovered as she donned her pinafore and started her cleaning duties in the wing office. Finally she realised that the sheer unlikelihood of the relationship as well as the fact that they were both women was what was protecting Nikki and Helen from discovery. Nobody even considered that the famously by-the-book staff member and the bitter, defiant prisoner could see anything in each other, let alone fall in love. And because they couldn't imagine it, they didn't notice it.

Polishing a desk, Barbara wondered absently how strong the attraction must have been to overcome those barriers and how much Helen must be suffering now that it was over. Her recent moodiness began to make more sense. Barbara imagined herself and Peter in the same situation and shuddered. Whatever else she was, Helen Stewart had stoicism down to a fine art.

Helen was concentrating so hard that she didn't realise anyone else was in the art room with her at first. She looked up sharply as she heard the sound of footsteps and then relaxed when she saw it wasn't Dockley or any of her cohorts. Or worse, Nikki. The unknown, middle-aged woman just inside the door was conservatively dressed in a summer frock with a cardigan slung across her shoulders. Her greying bob was fastened back with an Alice band, and she had a string of pearls around her neck.

Inwardly, Helen rolled her eyes. She was sick of being shown off to the great and good just because she'd won a competition. Realistically, it was a condition of her enhanced access to the art facilities, so she was prepared to put up with it. It was inconvenient right now because she wanted to focus on her thoughts. She was on the edge of something, she could tell. The insight that would enable her to make this painting meaningful, give it the reality that would stop it being trite.

The stranger cleared her throat and came into the room. "Are you Helen Stewart?"

"Yes," the lifer said brusquely, resigning herself to the fact she wouldn't be left alone until she'd spoken to the woman. She just hoped she'd go away after a while. With any luck, she'd leave to attend the board of visitors' meeting before too long and Helen would get a bit of peace.

"I'm Claudia," the visitor said, holding out her hand. Helen shook it. This was obviously one of the ones who didn't like to be too 'formal' with the inmates. She probably told all her dinner party acquaintances about how she had a real rapport with the prisoners and how they weren't as bad as they were painted. Just misunderstood, really. Helen controlled her face, hiding her contempt. She almost preferred the 'lock them up and throw away the key' brigade. At least you knew where you were with them.

"I thought I'd come and find you. They told me you liked art."

The lifer shrugged. "It passes the time. I've got lots of that."

"So what are you working on at the moment?"

Helen gestured at her preliminary studies. "As you see."

The woman looked at the sheets of paper that Helen had spread out on the scuffed deal table, but didn't touch them. She frowned, obviously trying to work it out. Her face cleared and she turned to the Scot.

"Is it a triptych?"

"Yeah," Helen said, unwillingly impressed. "The harrowing of Hell. With Larkhall as Hell, obviously."

Claudia turned back to the drawings, taking in the distorted, teetering perspective of the bleak cityscapes that Helen had started to outline. The first panel was the most detailed, almost fully completed, its colours in place. The Scot had depicted a vista of tormented humanity, thronging the grey streets with images of the suffering souls of the damned, their freedom limited by tall, looming buildings hemmed in within high walls, topped with razor wire.

Screws patrolled constantly among them, armed with truncheons, some dressed in riot gear, their faces dark with malevolence. Here and there, they pressed a prisoner against a wall, surrounding their target in threatening groups as they beat or searched them.

A con lay bleeding to death in the foreground, curled around her wounds, while passersby looked on incuriously. Near her, a jailor accepted a light from a policewoman, head tilted back as he laughed at something she had said. He seemed oblivious to the thin tendril of blood that was creeping across the scarred tarmac towards his highly polished boots. Discarded syringes and torn paperwork lay in drifts at the base of the grimy buildings, ignored by the inmates and officers alike.

Harsh red light boiled through the arched, church-like windows set into the perimeter wall. They offered the only sight of the world beyond Hell. Here and there, prisoners' families pressed against the bars that blocked passage from the outside, the small hands of the children reaching beseechingly towards loved ones they could see but not touch. The landscape the visitors stood in was a barren, dun wasteland, stretching to an indistinct horizon, but it still seemed preferable to the pitiless cruelty of the interactions within the prison. There were no gates, no apparent means of escape. To one side, coffins were being carried into a furnace, identity numbers burnt into the wood. The belching smoke of its chimneys plumed blackly across the dirty clouds of the sky.

Claudia swallowed. "It's very powerful," she commented, leaning over to try and make out more detail.

Helen studied the visitor as she surveyed the layouts. She looked like an art critic; she had a long, aristocratic face and her cut glass accent fitted the part as well. The Scot could imagine her opening the local fete before going on to judge the fancy dress competition. When she spoke, her gestures were languidly graceful and her elegant clothes were immaculately turned out. Helen caught the flash of an expensive wedding ring on her hand and wondered what her husband did. Investment banker, maybe, or surgeon. Something well paid, anyway.

"Which version of the legend are you using?" Claudia asked.

"The one where Christ opens the gates of Hell after his resurrection to let out the damned souls. I prefer it to the other one. Though I might include a robin."

"That's a different story, though."

"I can put what I want in. I'm the artist. I have that freedom."

Claudia smiled. "Yes. And redemption is one of your themes, after all."

"What d'you mean?"

"I went to the exhibition of prisoner's art that featured your work. I was impressed."

The lifer turned away, unwilling to be patronised. Claudia carried on speaking as though she hadn't noticed the movement. "I actually bought a small canvas."

"Did you?"

"Yes. Didn't you see a list of buyers?"

"No. All the money went to charity anyway. Nothing to do with me. I wasn't interested"

"Not at all?"

"I knew Andrea wouldn't rip me off. That was good enough."

"Strange to find somebody who trusts other people in here."

Helen bit her lip, holding back the retort she would have made to another inmate. This woman was really starting to get on her nerves. Ostentatiously, she picked up a pencil. Claudia seemed about to say something else when Di Barker stuck her head around the door.

"James! Come on. You've got your induction appointment with the governor."

Claudia sighed. "Yes, miss."

"Wait a minute," Helen said. "You're a con?"

"Yes," the other woman said, as though it was obvious. "What did you think I was?"

"A prison visitor. What the fuck did you do? Embezzle the Women's Institute tea fund?"

"No," Claudia said quietly. "I'm a lifer. Murder. That's why I sought you out. We're in the same boat. It made sense to make common cause."

"Then what the hell was all that bullshit about buying my painting?"

"It wasn't bullshit. I've been out on licence for years. I got recalled ...."

"James," Di said warningly. "The governor doesn't like to be kept waiting. Come on."

"I'll find you later and tell you about it," the older woman said. She walked out, following the PO. Helen stared after her for a minute and then shrugged and went back to her art.

She was digging some manure into her vegetable patch a couple of days later when she sensed someone watching her and straightened to see that it was Claudia. She leant on her spade and wiped the sweat off her face; it was a warm day and the exercise had raised her temperature. Her donkey jacket was already slung over the handles of her wheelbarrow. The older woman scanned the plants appreciatively.

"Do you get to keep any of the produce?"

"Goes to a local hospice," Helen said briefly. "I'm not saying I don't test the odd tomato for flavour. And the raspberries always go as soon as they appear."

"Why don't you net them?"

"No point. It isn't the birds that eat them."

Claudia glanced round, checking who was in earshot. "I wanted to explain about the other day."

"No need. You didn't try and deceive me. I jumped to conclusions."

"It never occurred to me that you wouldn't realise ...."

"You're a bit different from most of the women in here."

"So are you."

"No, I'm not. Apart from my crime, which is more serious, and my sentence, which reflects that."

"I don't agree. I've seen your paintings."

"Listen, Claudia, stop building me up to be something I'm not. I killed a man. I nearly severed his spine. That will never change, even if I get out of here someday."

Angrily, she pulled the spade out of the soil. The other woman's next words brought her up short.

"So you bear the mark of Cain. Is that it?"

"I'm not religious, but you could put it like that."

"What about me, then?"

"What about you?"

"Does the same thing apply to me?"

"I don't know. Your … life is your own business."

"You were going to say soul, weren't you."

"I don't believe in the existence of the soul or of God or of Hell, for that matter. Which is good, because if Hell existed, I'd be heading for it."

"Then what reason is there to change? For anyone?"

"We work out our redemption in this life. Nowhere else."

Claudia nodded. "I see your logic. A pity you're in here, really. This place is stopping you doing anything positive."

"The public has to be protected," Helen said bitterly. "And I'm a dangerous, violent criminal. That's what the judge said at my trial. Now, can I get on?"

"Why are you so despairing?"

"Look around you," the Scot said. Deliberately, she started digging, keeping her head down until the other woman went away.

Helen was shifting stew around her plate, trying to make it look more appetising, when a voice called her name. She looked up, glad of the distraction. Wondering if everything tasting like cardboard was an advantage or not given the standard of the food was probably not a good use of her time. She frowned as she recognised Cheryl. The other woman took a seat across from her.

"Stewart. You OK, mate?"

"Not really."

"Thought so. You looked a bit down. Things getting to you?"

"A bit. Never mind. How's your boy?"

"Doing great. He's on this mechanics course. He'll get an NVQ and they've got some sort of deal going with a company. When he gets out, if he keeps his nose clean inside, he'll get a proper apprenticeship. He's going to be working on sports cars. Top of the range!"

"That's wonderful news," the lifer said gently. "You must be really proud."

Cheryl beamed. "Yeah. And I've decided, when I get out of here, doesn't matter if I have to scrub toilets. I'm not doing nothing that'll make him ashamed of me anymore. I'm going straight."

"Even better. Spit in their eye."

The other woman put a hand on her arm. Helen bowed her head, fighting the impulse to cry. Hesitantly, Cheryl cleared her throat. "Look, I know you don't do drugs. But … you seem really down. Do you want me to get you something to take the edge off? No charge, nothing. You helped me out when I needed it. I just want to return the favour. I don't like seeing you this way."

The Scot hesitated. Cheryl leant closer, her voice confidential. "Sometimes, we all need a little holiday, specially in here. You wouldn't be the first or the last."

"No," Helen said, aware that her voice was hesitant. "It wouldn't be a good idea for me. Thank you anyway."

She stood up, taking her untouched meal to the disposal area and went back to her cell. Once there, she looked restlessly around. She should be writing letters or thinking about her art. Anything to make the time pass. It was a pity she couldn't settle, really. Sighing, she picked up a book. Maybe she could get lost in the story.

She looked up a while later and frowned as she realised that Cheryl had come back.


"Here," the other woman said, holding out a couple of pills. "Take them. On the house."

"I told you no!"

"Maybe you did, but that isn't what you wanted to say."

"No, it isn't, but Cheryl, I'm a lifer. I'm never getting out of here. I can't afford to develop that sort of habit. Especially ...." She broke off. Cheryl frowned.

"I didn't think of that. Sorry. No hard feelings?"

"No reason you should," Helen said. "No hard feelings."

Cheryl looked down at the pills in her hand. "I better get rid of these."

"You can flush them in here, if you want."

"No way. I can get phone cards for them. Talk to Darren."

"Where d'you get them, anyway?"


"Be careful with her."

"I know."

She turned to leave the cell and then recoiled as she got to the door, swearing under her breath. "Screws! Quick! Hide it!"

"I'm not holding drugs for anyone," Helen said implacably.



"My parole hearing! It's next month! They'll stop me seeing my kids!"

"Jesus! You took a risk like that with a parole hearing coming up? You stupid cow!"

Helen glanced around quickly. Like all cons, she had a few hiding places, but she wasn't used to concealing drugs. There was also the consideration that she didn't particularly want Barbara to be blamed for anything that might be found. That limited her options. She could tell from Cheryl's increasing panic that the screws were very close now. Finally, she simply held out her hand, put the pills in her pocket and sat down, hoping for the best.

"Right," she said as Hollamby bustled in, followed by Di Barker. "About the villain for the sequel."

"What are you talking about, Stewart?" Bodybag demanded. Helen avoided looking at Cheryl, who was shuffling nervously from foot to foot and sweating visibly.

"Just another story I was going to illustrate."

"Very artistic, I'm sure. Anyway, that's not what I'm here for."


"We've had a tipoff that there are drugs in this cell."

She turned to Cheryl. "You can go."

The other woman gave Helen a stricken look and did as she was told. The lifer sighed. It looked as though her day was about to get very much worse. The best she could hope for was that one of them might somehow miss the blue capsules, and as they were actually on her person, the chances of that were vanishingly small. Whatever Bodybag's other failings, she knew her jail craft. Helen had a shrewd idea where the tipoff had come from, which meant they would know exactly what they were looking for. She waited till Cheryl was well clear and took the pills out of her pocket.

"I expect you want these?"

Hollamby grinned triumphantly, folding her arms. "Well, well, looks like you've blotted your copybook, Stewart. What's brought that on?"

"Fancied a little holiday," Helen lied. "And since you lot won't let me out to go to Marbella ...."

"Enough of your lip! You're down the block till the governor has time to see you. Let's see what she says when she finds out what you've gone and done. Move it!"

Nikki was working on the latest paperwork for Area when she heard the knock on the door of the office she had commandeered at Larkhall. She glanced at her watch and realised that it was already six o' clock in the evening. A moment later, Karen poked her head into the room.

"I wondered if I'd catch you."

The taller woman sat back and gestured at the files scattered across the desk. "I'm trying to decide what to put in my latest progress report."

"Why, isn't it going well?"

"Very well. Just, nothing spectacular. And that's what they want. Miracles."

She shared an amused look with the blonde, well aware that she knew the territory from years of working in the Prison Service. Abruptly, Karen sobered and Nikki tilted her head, questioning.


"I have one thing that may help you."


"You remember the intervention idea?"

Nikki snorted. "Yes, but that was just to make the bid look good. It's never going to happen. The women who come in here with drug habits aren't first time users and the ones who get hooked inside manage to hide what's going on until they're addicted and start losing it enough to show the signs. You know that."

She spread her hands. "The idea that I'll ever get a verified first timer to practice on doesn't make sense."

"That's where you'd be wrong. We caught somebody literally about to take her first jellies yesterday."

"How do you know she isn't already a user?"

"She's always tested clean. Besides, there's her reputation."

"Who is it?"

"Helen Stewart."

"What? She doesn't do drugs!"

"Like I said. Perfect test case."

Karen took a seat at the other side of the desk, watching as Nikki thought about it. Finally, the dark haired woman looked up. Karen was disconcerted to see that she seemed visibly shaken, not just concerned, but upset.

"Are we sure of our facts?"

"Very. Sylvia and Di walked in on her after a tipoff from a source."

Nikki absorbed that with a nod. "Do we know where she got them?"

"She's refusing to tell us. But she has admitted that she was planning to use."

"Where is she now?"

"On the block."

"Did she say why she chose to do it?"

"Not a word. I did try and get it out of her. It's worrying when someone who's been coping suddenly feels she needs chemical assistance."

"Yes," Nikki said distractedly.

Karen frowned, trying to work out what was going through her mind. "When will you see her?"

"Might as well make it tomorrow. Mid-morning all right with you?"

"Fine. It'll give them time to get breakfasts and cell checks out of the way."

Nikki stood up abruptly and started gathering up the files on the desk. "I need to get home."

"Oh, so you have got a home to go to."

"I wonder myself, sometimes."

She spent the night pacing around her living room, trying to understand, half watching the kind of bad films they only put out on cable. A lot of her distress came from the knowledge that she could guess what might have driven Helen to it. Not for the first time she ached to talk to the other woman freely, to be able to just call her and discuss things, to see each other without the constricting barriers of bars and other people and secrets, without having to snatch minutes here and there, always fearful of discovery, unable to resolve their disagreements.

In the morning, Nikki waited until the PO closed the iron door to the cell, listened to his footsteps leaving the area, then gave herself thirty seconds to try and calm down. It didn't work.

"Is it true?"


"What the fuck were you thinking of? You want to tell me that?"

Over on the concrete block that served as a bed, Helen lifted her head and looked at Nikki. Caught by the emptiness of her face, the brunette studied her posture. The other woman was sitting huddled into a corner of the cell, blanket round her shoulders, her arms folded on her raised knees. She looked as if she'd spent a bad night as well.

"None of your business."

"What do you mean? Helen, I care what happens to you. I don't want to see ...."

"No," the lifer said, holding up her hand. "You don't get to do that. You don't get to presume on what there was between us."

"I need to know why you pulled that stunt with the drugs," Nikki repeated, fighting for control. Her emotion seemed to touch something in the other woman. Helen shrugged.

"It wasn't … quite as it appeared."

"What, did someone set you up?"

"No, and it doesn't matter if they did. I'm not a grass."

"It wasn't Hunt, was it?"

"Mrs. Middle England? Hardly."

"So you were planning to take the pills?"

The Scot bowed her head. Nikki took a calming breath. "I'm not asking as a screw. Please."

"I wanted to," Helen admitted.


"You know why! Because I was unhappy and depressed and upset after our argument. You accused me of something that wasn't even real!" the lifer said fiercely.

"I don't believe you," Nikki said.

"Why not?"

"Because you have no history of using! You wouldn't even accept medication from Dr. Nicholson when your dad died!"

Nikki felt the irrational fear that she was being manipulated rise inside her again and suppressed it. If that was true, everything they were together was meaningless and she knew, deep down, that Helen wasn't like that. Despite the pressures of her hard existence in the prison system, the inmate wasn't calculating or a liar. Indeed, it was usually her innate honesty that got her into trouble.

A few sleepless nights, once she had got over the stupid initial flare of jealousy about Dominic, re-examining every minute they had spent together, had finally convinced Nikki that the Scot's candour extended to their relationship. It was only the lack of an explanation that had kept her away from Helen until now. When she was truthful with herself, she admitted that it was because she was afraid of what might cause the other woman to keep secrets from her. The lifer was undoubtedly hiding something. In her code, silence wasn't deceit; the existence of the journal showed that. Nikki pressed on.

"I don't believe that me being jealous would make you do something that stupid. It's totally out of character."

"It's not, though. One of the things that landed me in here in the first place was doing foolish things in response to my emotions. It's a habit I've learnt to control. I won't let you destroy the progress I've made."

"I'd never do anything to hurt you!"

"You don't mean to, but the way I feel about you drives me to ...." She stopped abruptly.

"What?" Nikki asked. The other woman had shrunk into herself, pulling the blanket around her shoulders. "Are you all right?"

"No. I haven't been for a long time. And I probably never really will be again."

"Helen, you're scaring me!"

Nikki felt a chill go down her back. Helen's face was calm, but the slight trembling of her lips gave her away. She didn't want to speak the words she had planned. Nikki took a step towards her, then stopped. Helen folded her arms around herself.

The Scot bowed her head. "I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone. I've never even said it out loud to myself."


"God, this is hard."

Nikki bit her lip, waiting as the lifer struggled to voice the words she wanted to share. Helen was almost physically grappling with her next sentence, knuckles white as she gripped the blanket. Finally, she cleared her throat and spoke.

"I have a problem with alcohol. A big problem. I'm an alcoholic."

"What? That's bollocks! It'd be in your records!"

"Not everything is in those files," Helen said quietly. Stunned, Nikki went and sat beside her, frowning as she thought.

"What about your journal? It's not in there."

"Yes, it is," the lifer said. She choked out a bitter laugh. "That's why it was so ridiculous, you jumping to conclusions."

"I don't understand."

"'Bacchus' isn't Dominic. It's my habit. When I'm talking about wanting or needing Bacchus, I meant alcohol."

Nikki fell silent, mentally replaying the frequent references in the journal, remembering how they had dwindled over time. Helen's account rang true. She thought about how much the Scot must have been drinking to make it that omnipresent in her thoughts once she got into prison. Another question occurred to her.

"Was it a factor in your crime?"

"Not really. The morning I killed Gossard, I'd had a couple of glasses of vodka. Normal for me back then. I needed it to keep going. I wasn't thinking clearly during the act, but that was because it was Gossard, not for any other reason."

"Why ... I mean, when did you start drinking?"

"In my late teens. A lot of the people I was hanging round with drank. It was social then, under control. In my twenties … my boyfriend died. Some other stuff happened. That was when it got serious."

"I don't understand why it's not in your records."

"Simple. I lied every time I was asked the question."

"But if you were that dependent, you'd have shown symptoms when you were arrested. You'd have been withdrawing from alcohol. There's no way you could have hidden it!"

"Not from anyone who was looking for the signs. But by the time I was in custody, I'd been on the run for a month. I didn't dare drink too much in case it made me less alert. I was determined to see my mother one last time. So I'd already partially dried out. When the Metropolitan Police came and collected me from Scotland, I was left in the cells, more or less by myself. I did my detox on a concrete floor in a London police station. I didn't even have a blanket."

"Jesus, Helen, you could have died! Why didn't you tell them?"

"Easy. I wanted to die."

Nikki ached at the matter of fact statement. Impulsively, she put her arms around the other woman, comforting her. Helen sighed and nestled into her. "I'd killed a man. I didn't think I deserved to live. Then I woke up covered in my own vomit, and realised it wasn't going to be that straightforward."

She shifted away from Nikki and stroked her cheek. "So you see why I have to be careful. Because the decision not to drink or take drugs is much harder in here, and it's one I have to make every day. I can't afford to have anything in my life that might cause me to start again."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I was ashamed. Because it made me feel unworthy of you. Because, before our argument, I thought I'd left it behind."

"You had," Nikki said quietly. "Three years is a long time."

"It never lets you go. Not really."

"I can't imagine how tough it must have been, specially inside. But I can respect what it must have cost you. It doesn't make any difference," Nikki said. "We're in this together. I can support you."

"Try to, anyway."

"I know you want to," Helen said. "But … I can't afford to take the chance."

"What chance? You think I'd sell you out?"

"No. Never."

"Then what?"

"The chance that the way I feel about you will lead me into … I told you. I can deal with any of it, Nikki. Fenner, Bodybag, the block. All of it. What I can't deal with is us. What I feel, what I need. It's too strong."

"I don't understand."

"You make me believe in hope. In a world full of possibilities and happiness, where I have the freedom to be the person I should have been, the person who's worthy of you. I can't be that in here. You have to let me go."

"You're 'worthy' as you are now!" Nikki said fiercely. "Don't fucking do yourself down!"

"You say that because you love me, not because of who I really am."

"Helen," Nikki warned.

She stood, beginning to pace. "We've both got failings, OK? You're right. I was in the wrong and I did go off half cocked. I should know better than be jealous or accuse you of things that aren't true. It's just … it's so hard being apart from you. Not being able to touch you or see you .... Worrying that if we get found out you'll be punished, I'll lose my career, we'll be separated. It drives me insane."

"Exactly," Helen said. "And it's just as hard for me. Harder, because I'm locked up in here and I have to follow petty, meaningless rules and cope with the crap that comes with being inside."

"But you won't be here forever!"

"Maybe not. But the fact remains that while I can deal with the feelings that being in here causes, I can't deal with the ones that come with our relationship. So I'm ending it."

"You're not willing to take a chance?" Nikki demanded angrily. "You'll just give up when it gets difficult?"

Helen smiled sadly. "It's my decision, not yours."

"Please, darling ...."

"No. We're done."

"Listen to me!"

"Why? So you can tell me some soothing lie that you need to hear more than I do? If you won't agree with me, then at least pay me the respect of silence."

"Helen …," Nikki said helplessly. "I can't give you up."

"It's over. I need things to be simpler, and that means we can't carry on as we have been."

"It is simple," Nikki said fiercely. "I love you and you love me. I'm working to get you out of here. One day soon .…"

"No," Helen said. Tears had begun to well in her eyes and she shook her head angrily, dislodging them. "I know you're trying your best, and so is Claire. But I killed a bobby. I'm going to be here for years. Not even in an open."

"You don't know that!"

"But I do. You need to look elsewhere. Neither of us can stop loving who we love, but we can control what we do about it."

"Maybe … maybe it's because it's the first time you've had feelings for a woman," Nikki said. "Maybe that's what's making it hard. We can work through it ...."

Helen shook her head. "You know, that was the most ironic thing about you being jealous, thinking I might go back to men. You're not the first woman I've had feelings for."


"I came to terms with a couple of truths about myself while I was on remand. One was that my drinking was a problem. The other, once I'd sobered up enough to recognise my own feelings, was that I'm gay. Probably always have been. Looking back, there were signs. I wasn't prepared to admit it before. What is it they say? 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'"

"So you've … had relationships?"

"No. I shared a cell with a lesbian for a couple of months. She was the one who taught me how to meditate. Sometimes, when I was having a really bad night, she would climb down and hold me, but it never went any further. She was with someone and faithful."

Helen shivered, remembering how much she had wanted her cellmate to kiss the tears from her face, the guilt and violence from her skin. How hard it had been when she was cleared and unexpectedly released. "It was enough to confirm that what I felt for other women was real."

"Then why didn't you act on it? Before me?"

"I did. A woman made it clear that she was interested, in my last nick. It didn't go much past the odd kiss."

"What happened?" Nikki asked, fighting back jealousy.

"She was only using me to get back at her existing girlfriend. They'd quarrelled. I found out when the girlfriend called me out for a fight."

Helen shrugged. "I thought about it in the meat wagon during my transfer. I decided that I wasn't prepared to play those kind of power games. So I stopped looking at other cons in that way. Then you came along. And all bets were off."

"Isn't that a sign that we should stay together?"

"In any other place, I would say yes. But I'm not strong enough to do what I would have to do to make it possible in here. I'll die loving you. But I can't live this life and have those feelings. The kindest thing you can do is accept it."

Silence fell. Distantly, gates crashed as staff and inmates moved around the prison.

Nikki bowed her head. "I won't stop working on your appeal."

"That's your choice."

"You won't give up on it either?"

"No. Why not? It passes the time."

"I love you."

"I know. That isn't the problem."

"I ...."

Helen silenced her with a kiss, drawing it out, before moving away, into the corner. Reluctantly, Nikki let her go, then swallowed her tears and tried to concentrate on the practicalities. She was going to do this right, if only for Helen's sake. She rubbed her face and tried to gather her scattered thoughts.

"OK, so what did we say to each other? I asked you about taking the drugs, I suppose."

"And I gave you a no comment interview in reply. But I did confirm I realised how stupid I'd been and that I had no plans to start using."

"All right. What you really told me. It'll go no further."

"I know, but thank you."

She stretched out on the thin mattress, covering herself with the blanket, her voice muffled. "I'm very tired. Can I get some sleep now?"

"Sure," Nikki said, touching her shoulder. "I'll go and report back."

She walked down the corridor on unsteady legs, rebuilding her professional facade as she went. Mentally, she reviewed the situation. She knew that Helen wouldn't change her mind. Nikki made her a silent promise that nothing would stop her progressing the appeal. Whatever else she did, she was determined to get the woman she loved out of Larkhall, even if she had to watch Helen walk away from her after that.

Nikki stopped short in the entrance to the medical room, taking in the thick bandages on Claire's wrist.

"What the hell happened?"

"It's OK," the solicitor hurried to reassure her. "It's only sprained."

"Good, but that doesn't answer my question. Hollamby gave me some incoherent story about pulling Helen off you. She made it sound like she was trying to kill you!"

Claire's face darkened. "She's covering her back. She must suspect I'm planning to make a formal complaint."

"Well, what did happen?"

"We were going over the evidence from the original trial. Helen got upset about some of it. She finally said something about having met Gossard years before the argument with Sean."

"You've been fishing for that for weeks."

"I know. It's a real breakthrough. What she was remembering distressed her and she started to cry. I calmed her down, gave her a handkerchief and a drink of water. Then I asked her to tell me about her first encounter with Gossard."

"Is this the new evidence we hoped for?"

"Yes." Claire came to an abrupt halt. "Not that I can talk to you about it."

Nikki nodded impatiently. "I understand. What happened then?"

"Well, because of … some of the content, Helen started to get angry. She wasn't shouting, exactly, but she was agitated. Her voice was raised. She was trying to control herself, but she was having difficulty. Anyway … she kicked a chair over. What neither of us knew was that the PO outside had got worried and sent for Hollamby. When they heard the crash, they didn't ask any questions - they just rushed in. That's when this happened. They knocked me into the table."

"And Helen?"

"She lost it. She was already upset. Looking for an excuse for a fight, really. I think she'd have been all right if she'd been given a chance to calm down. As it was, she just … launched into them. Somebody hit a panic button and even more officers arrived. They literally carried her out of there in the end, fighting them all the way."

"I see."

"Nikki, they overreacted. If they'd left her alone, it wouldn't have escalated to that degree. She certainly wouldn't have hurt me."

"They couldn't take that risk. Especially with a potential hostage situation."

"Are you condoning what they did? They assaulted my client while she was in a state of distress!"

"No, I'm just giving you the official line. I think you should make a complaint. It might achieve something."

They both looked up as the door opened and Karen Betts came in. She looked tired and strained and didn't waste time.

"Miss Walker. Are you planning to press charges?"

"Possibly," Claire said.

Karen sighed. "I really hope you'll reconsider that. You know what it'd do to Helen's appeal ...."

Claire's face tightened. "I meant against your officers."

"Excuse me?"

"They came piling in there like a lynch mob," the solicitor told her flatly. "Boots first. They didn't even stop to see what was going on. They were too focused on hitting my client. I want to make a formal complaint, and I want it properly investigated. Preferably by somebody independent."

"Do you really think that's necessary?"

"Yes. There was no threat assessment, no attempt to work out what was really going on. Just a total overreaction."

"They had to ensure your safety," Karen argued. "And if we're going to start making threats of legal action .... Some of the officers could bring counter charges against Stewart. That would derail her appeal."

"And you'll allow that?"

"I can't stop them. The Prison Officer's Association will back them to the hilt."

She held out a placating hand. "Helen's off the block. I've ordered that she be let back on the wing now she's calmer. I'll arrange for her to have a full medical and there will be no further consequences for her. I guarantee it."

"If I drop my complaint?" Claire said, obviously forgetting about her bandaged wrist and wincing as she started to fold her arms and was reminded of it.


"Are you happy with that?"

"I think it's better for everyone if we draw a line under today's incident. I will be having a word with some of the officers, especially Senior Officer Hollamby. Her judgement today was … questionable."

"That woman isn't fit to wear the uniform, never mind be in charge of other staff," Claire said bluntly. Karen's lips tightened.

"Do you need anything else? A taxi?"

"I need to see Helen tomorrow. We didn't finish our meeting, and I want to make sure she's all right."

Karen nodded tightly. "I can arrange that."

"I'll drive you," Nikki said. "I've got the afternoon off, anyway."


"More preparation for your board?" Betts asked. Nikki nodded. "That's right."

"Do you think you stand a chance?"

"Not really, but you've got to show willing, and it's all interview practice."

"Well, good luck."

"Thanks," the brunette said.

Karen waited until Claire had gathered up her papers, then showed them both out. The blonde excused herself at the first gate. "I'll go and check on Helen."

"I didn't know you were going for another promotion," the solicitor commented as she followed Nikki through the corridors.

"I saw the notice and decided to have a go. It's only an outside chance, but if I got it, I'd be a good position to accept a job somewhere else, out of London."

"But all your friends are here!" Claire protested.

"And most of them know Trisha as well. Time for a clean break. I want to get away from Larkhall."

Claire frowned, sensing an undercurrent in the taller woman's voice, and then put it out of her mind, resolving to think about it later when she'd had a chance to take some more effective pain killers and done some checking through the paperwork from the first trial to find the piece of paper she thought she remembered seeing. If she was right, she might just have found the angle that would lead to Helen Stewart's appeal succeeding.

Two days later, tired but triumphant, she picked up the phone and called Nikki. It was answered after a few rings.


Claire blinked. The other woman sounded distracted. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, no, it's fine. Why have you called?"

"I need a favour."


"My wrist is still playing me up and I have to make a long drive to see a witness. I don't suppose you're free tomorrow, are you?"

"You need a chauffeur?"

"I wouldn't ask, but it's quite urgent. It's for Helen's case. The firm can't really spare anyone else."

There was a silence and then some shuffling of papers. Claire could imagine Nikki doing two things at once as usual, sorting through files while coming to a decision. Finally, after another couple of minutes, she spoke. "OK, no problem. I'll need to know where we're going."

"Thanks," Claire said gratefully.

"How's Helen, by the way?"

"Fine. Don't you know?"

"It's a big prison. I don't have a lot of direct contact with her. What time do you want me to pick you up?"

"We'd better get off before the rush hour. Seven?"

"I'll be there."

Nikki rang off and stared at the materials scattered across her desk, taking in the annotated job description, the nearly finished presentation, the examples of her work that demonstrated her skills and competencies. Then, with a sigh, she gathered it all up and put it firmly away in the file labelled 'Promotion Board.' Picking up the letter with her appointment time, she dialled the number at the top and waited for it to be answered.

"Hello. HR? I've got a family emergency. I'm not going to be able to make my interview tomorrow. No, I really can't. Or rearrange, either. I'll be away all day." She listened briefly to the woman on the other end of the phone and smiled. "There'll be other chances. I can use the stuff I've prepared next time. I'll have a bit more experience by then, anyway. Yes. Yes. Thanks. Bye."

Shrugging, she went to make herself a cup of coffee before starting back in on her day to day paperwork.

As they drove up the long approach to the house, Nikki whistled.

"These people must have more money than God!"

"I think they might," Claire agreed.

"So how does Helen know them?"

"Strange bedfellows, literally. We're going to be seeing the son of the family."

"We? I thought I was driving you around?"

"I need someone to take notes."

"You could use a Dictaphone for that."

The solicitor shrugged, uncomfortable, and looked out of the car window. Once they got to the house, Nikki parked outside the double garage and turned to her friend. "Give. What's this really about?"

Claire sighed. "I haven't been strictly honest with you."


"Helen wants to discontinue her appeal."

"What!? Why?"
"There are things she'd have to disclose. Things she doesn't like to think about, never mind talk about. She can't face standing up in court and going over those events again."

Claire nodded towards the house. Nikki squinted at the frontage. The sunlight was reflecting off the bay windows, but she thought she could see movement inside, the shifting of shadows as whoever it was turned and went deeper into the room. "The young man we're going to see was Helen's partner. Before Sean. He knows what happened. He was there. If we can get a witness statement from him, she might not have to testify."

"You still don't need me."

"Not for that. But remember when I asked you what your relationship with Helen was?"

Nikki shifted uncomfortably. She was still unhappy at lying to Claire, even by omission. "Yeah."

"Whatever else you are, you're her friend. If you tell her that she ought to think about continuing her appeal, she'll listen to you in a way she wouldn't with me."

The brunette snorted. "If you think I can get bloody pig-headed Helen Stewart to change her mind about anything, then you're severely overestimating my powers of persuasion. That woman was born saying 'No.'"

"But less to you than anyone else. Will you try? When we get back?"

"Since it means getting her out of that hellhole, yes. Of course."

Claire blinked and Nikki frowned at her. "What?"

"I've never heard you talk about a prison that way before."

"I guess not. Helen's rubbing off on me. See what I mean? She persuades me, not the other way around."

"I think you're underestimating yourself."


They stepped out of the car and Nikki got the briefcase off the back seat before activating the key fob to lock the doors. Turning, she studied the immaculate lawn and manicured flower beds, realising suddenly that it made her uncomfortable because it reminded her of some of the places where she had been taken as girl for garden parties. An echo of her childhood she didn't want. She'd lay odds that this family had a gardener and maybe live-in staff. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to Claire. "Ready to go?"

On the walk up to the front door the solicitor cleared her throat. "Nikki …"


"Some of the things you're going to learn today will be hard to hear. I need you to control yourself."

"Not punch anybody, in other words?"


"You've got it. Does Helen know I'm finding out about this stuff?"

"Why does that matter?"

"Because I'm her friend. Which means that I don't want to pry into her secrets. Not without her permission."

"She knows you're with me."

"That's not the same thing."

"She told me she trusts you. She's never said that about anybody else."

"So I'm supposed to betray that trust?"

"I'm acting for her. I wouldn't do anything that would damage her interests," Claire said quietly.

Nikki fell silent, turning it over in her own mind. She desperately wanted to know about Helen's past. It wasn't a morbid curiosity. It was born out of a desire to know what troubled the woman she loved so that she could help her lay some of her overactive demons to rest. On the other hand, she wasn't sure she had the right to learn these things unless the Scot told her herself. Then she thought back to the aftermath of the con's last interview with Claire and felt a chill run through her. Helen could be her own worst enemy at times. Nikki felt the solicitor's hand on her arm and realised that she had come to a stop in the middle of the path.

"What is it?"

She shook her head. "Nothing. When Helen kicks off, I'm going to blame you."

"I'd expect nothing less," Claire said lightly. "Nikki, these are facts you need to hear. Seriously. I'm not doing this for fun."

"Neither am I."

The front door opened before they had a chance to knock. The middle-aged man behind it fitted the house. Tall and slim, his straight back suggested some kind of military training. Nikki sensed that he would normally be immaculately turned out. Today, however, seemed to be different. Their host hadn't had a shave and his shirt was crumpled, open at the collar. His sandy, receding hair was slightly tousled, as though he'd been running his hands through it. He assessed them with a quick flick of his faded blue eyes and stood back.

"My son's guests. Please come in."

"Thank you," Claire said.

They walked through into a well kept, spacious hallway, filled with old, heavy furniture. The few modern elements, like the telephone, looked incongruous against the dark wood of the sideboard and the faded Persian carpets that covered the floor. Oil paintings that seemed to be family portraits covered the walls. One more modern work stood out. It showed a younger version of the man in front of them, dressed as a barrister. He glanced at it and almost shrugged before leading them to a door and stopping outside it.

"Theo is in here. I would ask you not to tire him."

"We only have a few questions," Claire said reassuringly.

"Still. He had a bad accident a few years ago, and he has to husband his strength. He didn't sleep well last night."

"After my phone call?"

"I believe that had something to do with it."

He led them into what must, in other times, be a family room. Comfortable easy chairs and sofas were scattered around; a half completed jigsaw covered a side table. The TV was discreetly tucked away near the bookcases that covered one wall; a drift of newspapers were untidily stacked on the floor next to an armchair by the window.

At first, Nikki thought that the seated figure was an elderly relative. The man had his face turned away from them and she saw the grey hair and the cane before anything else. As he moved slowly and painfully to stand, she realised that he was relatively young, possibly in his early thirties, just badly marked by some past accident that had left him with a legacy of serious injuries. By the time the frail invalid waiting for them had got to his feet and balanced himself so that he could hold out his hand to shake hers, she had adjusted to the situation. She shook his hand. Close to, she could see that the man was exhausted and that he'd recently experienced some strong emotion. The tiredness that set his face into a mask and the red rims of his eyes told her that.

"Nikki Wade."

"Welcome. I'm Theo."

He shook Claire's hand and nodded at a coffee-pot ranged next to a tea service and plate of biscuits on another table. "Help yourselves. I'm sorry I can't be mother, but my grip isn't good today."

"Are you well enough to see us?" Claire asked.

"I'll be fine. Better to get this over with. I've just had to take a lot in over the last couple of days."

He paused and then spoke deliberately. "You can go now, father."

Behind Nikki, the man who'd let them into the house cleared his throat. "Your mother would like to see you, when you have time."

"No doubt. But we don't always get what we want, do we?" He smiled bitterly. "I'd like you to leave now. What I have to say won't be pleasant to hear."

"I trust that you will show your mother the appropriate respect."

"Oh, I can promise that," Theo said. His knuckles were white on his cane.

The older man nodded, his shoulders slumped, and turned to go. Theo waited until the loud click of the door closing had faded and then limped back to his chair, lowering himself carefully onto the high seat. He gestured at two other chairs that had been placed facing it and then glanced at his watch, frowning.

"Could you fetch me those bottles from the side, please?" he asked Nikki. She nodded, going over to the selection of plastic medicine tubs that were ranged on the table next to the tray of coffee. Theo accepted them from her without comment and shook himself out a tablet from each container, swallowing them dry with a practised movement of his throat.

"Sorry about that. It's a bore, but I have to take them at a particular time."

Nikki wondered if any of the medication was to control his mood. She sensed a simmering tension below the surface, a barely contained rage. She supposed that it must be hard for someone who'd been young and fit to be reduced to this. She thought back to when she'd been laid up with a broken ankle and shivered, imagining being trapped, as this man was, in a barely functioning body.

"The worst part," Theo said conversationally, "is seeing that reaction. I used to be quite successful with women before all this. Not that it matters now."

"No offence, but you're not my type," Nikki said bluntly, reacting badly because of her embarrassment. Theo smiled at her.

"I might have been, once."

He looked at Claire. "We should get on. My stamina isn't what it was. How do we do this?"

"Why don't you start at the beginning? How did you meet Helen Stewart?"

"Stewart?" Theo frowned. "She went by Helen Duncan when I knew her."

"That's her mother's maiden name," Nikki said.

"Is it? Do you have a photograph?"

"There's no chance of a mistake," Claire said quickly.

"I'd like to see one anyway."

"I didn't bring one," the solicitor said, disconcerted.

Reacting without thinking to the disappointment on Theo's face, Nikki pulled out her wallet and took out the article she'd kept from 'Prison Talk' when Helen had won the art competition. She handed it over, then went cold as she felt Claire's eyes on her and realised what she'd just given away. The moment passed as Theo studied the photograph and then handed it back.

"That's her," he said quietly. "I'd know that smile anywhere. So the other things you told me are true." He paused. "'Lifer' Helen Stewart. It doesn't sound right."

"She pleaded guilty at her trial. There's no doubt that she did it."

"I'm sure she did," Theo said. "But then, if I'd ever met Gossard again, I would have tried to kill him. After what he did, to both of us ...."

"What did he do, Theo?" Claire asked. Unobtrusively, Nikki switched on the Dictaphone, but the man opposite picked up on it anyway. He looked at the little machine, then reached out and moved it closer.

"He beat me half to death. Left me like this. I'll never walk unaided again. I may never work."

"Your father said an accident," Claire probed. Nikki recognised the voice her friend used in cross examination. Testing the evidence. Their host shrugged.

"My father's in denial. He doesn't want to acknowledge that a serving police officer could have done something like that. He's quite right wing. Always has been. It's one of the reasons we never got on."

He looked out of the window, studying the movements of the birds at the feeder. "I never worked out whether I embezzled the money because it was his friend's firm where I'd been found a job or because I wanted to show, once and for all, that I wasn't my father's son."

"Is that when you met Gossard?"

"No. That was much later, after I'd run away from the mess I'd made and ended up in London. My father repaid the money, and his friend never went to the police, but I didn't know that. I drifted around on the edges of society, using a false name, doing cash in hand work, living rough or in squats. That's where I met Helen. We were both evicted from the same building. We liked each other enough to spend time together, and one thing led to another."

"How long did this go on for?"

"A couple of years. It's easier when there are two of you. Us against the world, that's how it was." He paused and took a drink of water from a glass by his chair. Thoughtfully, he resumed.

"Helen was good for me. She made me grow up, lose the chip on my shoulder. I think I helped her as well. It was the first long term, stable relationship she'd ever had."

"Sounds idyllic."

"Except when we were cold or hungry or fighting. Is she still bad tempered?"

"Yeah," Nikki said.

Theo smiled, then continued talking. "Whether it was because of us or because she was just ready to move on, Helen was getting tired of that world. The drugs, the illegality, the insecurity. She had a couple of jobs, working in a cafe and helping out in this little bookshop. She had a bank account and she was saving for a deposit on a flat."

"So what went wrong?"

"Nothing between us. We were squatting in a big old house with a lot of other people. It had been empty for years. Something about a family dispute. It would have fallen down if it wasn't for the running repairs we'd all done. Anyway, it was sold at auction to a developer and then the trouble started. Threats, harassment, men with baseball bats.

One of the people there was a law student and he started fighting them through the courts. Made the development company back off. I was ready to leave by then but Helen got fired up about the injustice of it all. She wanted to be involved in the campaign. So we stayed."

He shifted in his seat and stretched his arms carefully out in front of him, flexing his shoulders. "Sorry. Cramp."

He fell silent. The whirr of the Dictaphone seemed very loud in the room. Claire got up to refill her coffee cup. Slowly, Theo began to speak.

"They hit us with a drugs raid the night before the court hearing. 'Hit' being the operative word. Doors kicked down, dogs, people dragged out by their hair. I think they might have had a firearms team on standby. By the time they let us go, it was three in the morning. I found Helen. She'd been waiting for me. We went back to the house to try and get our stuff. It was boarded up and I decided to prise a window open. That's when Gossard came out of the night and arrested me for breaking and entering and Helen as an accessory.

I think I knew straight away that something was wrong. He was in an unmarked car and he didn't take us back to the station. He just drove around for a while and smoked and drank whisky. Told us to shut up when we tried to protest. Then he took us to a piece of waste ground on an industrial estate somewhere. Near a wrecker's yard. I could hear the dogs barking. He took Helen from the car, handcuffed her to something and let her watch while he beat me. He had knuckle dusters. He made it last."

He fell silent again. Nikki reached out and shut down the recorder. "Do you want to stop for a while?"

"No. Let's get it over with."

Theo waited until she had turned the Dictaphone back on and began to speak. "Where he miscalculated was Helen. I think the fence he'd chained her to was rusty. Anyway, she got free and she flew at him. I honestly believe he might not have stopped if she hadn't. She paid for it, of course. He started hitting her instead. I was going in and out of consciousness by then ...."

Theo's voice trailed off and he hunched forward on his chair, unsuccessfully trying to suppress his tears. Finally, he wiped his face and carried on.

"So I don't know how long she fought him for. He must have been tired. He stopped before he did more than hit her a few times .... Look, do I have to talk about this anymore?"

"Just one or two more questions," Claire said gently. "Painful ones, I'm afraid."

"Why not? Go ahead."

"Did he rape her?"

Nikki's head snapped round and she stared at the solicitor, open-mouthed. Claire didn't meet her eyes and Nikki got the feeling that she was being deliberately ignored. Then she looked at Theo and lost all interest in her friend's reactions. He was studying them intently. His colour had ebbed away except for two red spots high on his cheekbones. He looked as though he was trying not to be sick.

"You ask that as though you have a reason to," he said slowly.

"Gossard has raped other women. It would fit."

"There are things…," Theo said, then shook his head and began again. "No, he didn't. He started to, but he never carried it through."

"Why not?"

"Because he'd punched her in the stomach, and by the time he pulled her clothes off she was already miscarrying. He didn't seem to like the blood. Even though he was covered with mine."

He sat back and stared out of the window. His voice was almost toneless. "I never found out whether it would have been a boy or a girl. I wonder sometimes." He frowned. "I suppose Helen might know."

"Haven't you spoken to her since then?" Claire asked.

"No. After we were hospitalised, my parents came and took me away. I was extremely ill for a long time. A coma and then convalescence, operations, other treatment. It's kept me busy."

"But surely you were well enough to testify at her trial?" Nikki demanded. "She might still have gone down for manslaughter, but she wouldn't have had a whole life tariff! Not with mitigation like that!"

"I didn't know about the trial. I was in Cuba, undergoing intensive physiotherapy. They didn't have English language newspapers, and the local radio didn't exactly cover legal proceedings on a rain swept island halfway round the world." He shrugged. "I don't regret it - it got me out of a wheelchair. Most of the time, anyway."

"Why didn't Helen bring this evidence forward?" Nikki demanded, turning to Claire. "I know her. She's a fighter. Why didn't she try and find him?"

"She says she never mentioned it because she didn't think she'd be believed without a witness," the solicitor said slowly. "But she's never discussed why she didn't call him to testify. She only gave me Theo's name as an afterthought, as someone who was present. She didn't seem to think it was important. That's when she got upset and the guards came in. You know the rest. I didn't have a chance to ask her any more questions."

"What did she say about me?" Theo asked.

"She said, 'Oh, him. He's gone.' I didn't understand her."

"I think I can explain that comment. You see, Helen did come looking for me after the assault, just as I started asking my parents to find her once I regained consciousness. She left because they gave her a version of the story they told me. They told each of us that the other one had died."

"What!?" Nikki demanded. "And you believed them?"

"Naively, I didn't realise that my parents would lie to me if they thought it was for my own good. Helen came while I was still in the hospital. She wouldn't go away until they told her that I'd succumbed to my injuries. It might have been true. It was touch and go for a while."

"What did they tell you about her?"

"They said she'd died of a drug overdose, been buried in a pauper's grave. It made sense, after what had happened, that she might have started using. I didn't blame her in the circumstances. So, you see, there was no point in looking for her. I believed that I had to mourn her and get on with my life. What was left of it."

"Until I phoned you," Claire said. "No wonder you sounded so shocked."

"Yes. It's been an enlightening couple of days."

"I didn't realise that you thought she was dead," Claire said. "Otherwise, I would have broken it to you more gently."

"Why should you? It's almost inconceivable that one's parents would do a thing like that. It certainly never crossed my mind."

Nikki noticed that Theo's speech had started to slur and stood up. "We should let you rest."

"Thank you. I want to ask you something."


"I have to see her. Can that be arranged? Soon?"

"Yes. In the circumstances, I'm sure that Karen will authorise it on compassionate grounds."

"Betts?" Claire asked doubtfully.

"You might not like her, but she's actually a very fair woman," Nikki said. Seeing Theo's puzzled look, she elaborated. "She's the wing governor at Larkhall."

"How do you know her?"

"I work there, some of the time. I'm the Area Drugs Project co-ordinator."

"How do you know Helen, then? She's never touched drugs."

"No. I was her wing governor before I specialised."

"So you're one of the people who's in charge of locking her up," Theo said grimly.

"I used to be. Now I'm trying to get her out. Otherwise, why do you think Claire would have me along?" Nikki asked. "I'll be outside."

She turned on her heel and left them to it. Once she got into the garden, she found a quiet spot and looked out across the South Downs, wishing she still smoked. Every time she started thinking about what had happened to Helen, she found black rage boiling up inside her. The intensity of it frightened her - she hadn't realised that she could feel that angry about anything. This wasn't the channelled aggression of her time on the DST. It was a formless, hard-edged emotion that made her want to start hitting out at the nearest target and to carry on until she was too exhausted to raise her fists. She found herself muttering under her breath, the emotion constricting her chest.

"Bastard, bastard, bastard!!!"

She heard Claire come up behind her and turned around.

"Are you OK?" her friend asked.

"Just angry."

"You love her, don't you."


"Isn't that ...."

"A conflict of interest? I know. It would be if she hadn't broken it off a few weeks ago."


"I got jealous and I got stupid. It was my fault. Not that it matters."


Nikki glanced away and took a deep breath. "She'll get out and when she does she'll want something better than a washed up screw with commitment issues. Christ, Claire, she won't need me. She's intelligent, beautiful. She's got her whole life in front of her. I wish her well."

"Is this why you split up with Trisha?" the solicitor asked warily.

"No. I had that much integrity. Helen did all the chasing."

"So she does care about you?"

"Look, can we talk about something else?"

"All right. Theo's asked if he can come back to London with us."

"Fine," Nikki said. "One more passenger doesn't make any difference. Where's he staying in London?"

"His aunt in Chelsea."


Claudia came into the cell and held out a paperback.

"Your turn," she said. Barbara nodded and took the novel from her. The two women had quickly worked out that as they shared the same tastes in literature, they could get round the restrictions on the amount of books they were allowed to have from the prison library at any one time by pooling their allowance. Helen looked across from her bunk, where she was sitting cross legged with a sketchpad resting on her knees and a book on Alisdair Gray's art by her side, and started to pack up.

"Please, don't on my account," Claudia said quickly.

"It's OK. I need better light anyway," Helen said, her tone barely civil. She walked quickly out of the cell. Barbara turned to Claudia.

"Is there a problem between you and Helen?"

"Not as far as I'm concerned," the lifer said. "We got off on the wrong foot and then I challenged something she said. She didn't like it."

Barbara frowned. "She does know her own mind."

"How is it? Sharing a cell with her?"

"OK, once I realised that she's mostly bark, not bite. At least where other inmates are concerned."

Claudia looked thoughtful. "I wouldn't want you to betray her confidence, but … she seems lost, somehow. As though she's given up hope."

"I think she has. She loved … someone and it went wrong. For a while, she was as happy as I've ever seen her. Since the break up, well .... She's just existing, really."

"It's a pity. She has a lot to offer."

Barbara nodded and then chuckled. "You know, if you'd told me before I came in here that I'd be agreeing that a murderess has a lot to offer, I wouldn't have believed you. Any more than I would have believed that I could take a life."

"I'm a murderess," Claudia reminded her quietly. "A real one. My crime was premeditated and had no mitigation, unlike yours."

"Oh, I'm sorry ...." Barbara said, her hand flying to her face as she realised what she'd said.

"It doesn't matter. Unlike most of the rest of the people in here, you're old enough to know the details of what I did."

The ex-civil servant blushed. "I also know that you can't rely on the papers to get it right. I'm sure the reports were exaggerated."

"Not in my case," Claudia said. Her voice was quite steady. "I spent three months poisoning my stepfather. I've spent all the years since trying to make up for it. That's why I worry about Helen now. I think this place might finally be on the verge of destroying her capacity to redeem herself. No one can exist forever without hope."

"I'm sorry," Barbara said. "If you're implying that Helen could ever turn into a thug like Dockley, then I simply don't believe you.

"No," Claudia said. "She could become worse."

Helen Stewart's journal

I have two old women fussing over me, trying to make me into someone I'm not. Trying to persuade me that I am something other than a rabid, vicious animal. What they don't understand is that when I rose above myself I was rewarded, but that only made it harder when I was cast down. The darkness is deeper when you have seen the light. And it shone so very warm and gentle. It's just that the walls of Larkhall blocked it out, after a while. Inevitable as breathing. Nothing good lasts here. If I think I can change that, then I'm fooling myself .

Somebody jostled me in a queue the other day and I turned without thinking, ready to punch them. It was some sad little girl, hardly adult. A shoplifter. She nearly crapped herself and I saw myself reflected in her fear. Once the memories of the light have worn thin, I'll be no better than Dockley. The worst part is that by then I won't care anymore.

Helen slammed into the governor's office, still dressed in her gardening overalls, and came to a dead stop when she saw Nikki and Claire waiting for her. Her eyes swept across their faces, trying to assess the situation. She scowled.

"What the hell do you want?!"

In the doorway, Dominic hesitated, glancing at Karen. She waved him away and he did as he was told, face doubtful. The lifer folded her arms and glared at them all.

"Well? Because if this is about my appeal ...."

"No," Claire said. "No, it's not. Not directly."

"Not directly? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just shut up and listen, please," Karen said impatiently.

"What if I don't want to?"

"Well, if you're as opposed to carrying on with your appeal as you say, then nothing your solicitor can tell you will make any difference," the blonde commented. "You might as well let her say her piece, then you can go."

"OK," Helen said. "I'm listening."

"You ought to sit down," Claire said.

"How long is this going to take?"

"That's not why," Nikki interrupted. She turned around, moving from her stance by the window, where she had been studying the view of the exercise yard. Helen's eyes went unwillingly to her; Claire saw the hand closest to her, furthest away from the governor, tense as the lifer gripped her own bicep, shoulders stiffening inside the coarse green cloth of her overalls.

Even so, after a pause, Helen shrugged and sat in the chair in front of the desk. She waited, scowling. There was an awkward silence.

"Well, what is it?" the inmate demanded after a moment. "Because I do have better things to do."

"Christ," Nikki said suddenly, "learn a new line, why don't you?"

The outburst was so unexpected that it silenced everyone else. Helen, in particular, seemed unsure of how to react, staring at the brunette before her temper visibly flared and she shot to her feet.

"Listen, you. You might be a screw, and I might be nothing but a con, but if you think ...."

"Theo's alive," Nikki interrupted. She cleared her throat and spoke into the silence she had made. "Theo's alive. "

"Bollocks," the Scot said robustly.

"No, it's true," Claire said. "We found him. I've spoken to him. He's at his aunt's, here in London."

"As sick jokes go, this is a good one," Helen said. She sounded close to tears.

"Where do you get the right to go poking around in my past and then telling me fucking lies? What's that about? Did rattling my cage become the new game when I wasn't looking?"

In response, Nikki silently pulled a Dictaphone out of her pocket and switched it on. Theo's voice came clearly out of the speaker. "I think I knew straight away that something was wrong. He was in an unmarked car and he didn't take us back to the station…." She clicked the machine off.

The Scot sat down again, collapsing into the chair as her legs gave way beneath her. She swayed, going slightly grey. Karen swore under her breath, hesitated, then pulled a bottle of whisky out of the bottom desk drawer.

"No," Nikki said, putting a hand on her arm. "Make it water."

"I think we can forget prison rules for once," Karen said and poured an inch of the spirit into a glass. She passed it to Helen, but the other woman shook her head and put the tumbler back onto the desk, her hand shaking so hard that it rattled loudly against the surface of the wood.

"No," Helen said. "I can't start that now."

"You're going into shock," the governor told her.

"Then get me some hot tea or something," the lifer asked in a small, lost voice,

"but not anything alcoholic. Please."

"All right," Karen said, picking up the phone. She put the bottle away and, after a moment's hesitation, knocked back the whisky herself. She shuddered. "Christ."

Helen reached out and picked up the Dictaphone, her hand still trembling. She switched it on again, fast-forwarded slightly, and listened to Theo's voice. "He took Helen from the car, handcuffed her to something and let her watch while he beat me. He had knuckle dusters. He made it last."

The con turned the machine off abruptly and dropped it back on the table, staring at it as though it was dangerous. She was wiping her palms on the thighs of her overalls, Nikki saw, the gesture almost involuntary. Nikki glanced at Claire and then went to Helen, putting her hand on her shoulder. "If you want to listen to that in private, we can copy it or do a transcript. Your choice."

"No," the lifer said quickly, shaking her head. Her whole body was trembling with suppressed emotion. "I don't need to hear it. I was there. I remember."

After Karen's secretary had brought in tea and biscuits, they all sat watching Helen as she slowly sipped the hot, sweet liquid, visibly fighting for control of herself. Finally she put the mug down and turned to Claire.

"How did you find him?"

"I knew when you'd been arrested. The duty solicitor took his aunt's name and address as contact details. I was trying to find out if there were any other witnesses to confirm your story. It was a bit of a shock when she told me he was still alive."

"Where has he been, all of this time?"

"In and out of hospital. Out of the country for a lot of it. Gossard ...."

Helen put up her hand, the gesture almost a flinch. "I know what Gossard did. I saw it."

She put her face in her hands. "Theo's alive," she repeated softly.

The other women in the room looked at each other across her bowed head. It was impossible not to feel pity at the mix of wonder and sorrow in her tone. When she looked at them, her eyes were glittering with unshed tears. She wiped her face roughly with the palm of a hand and sat up straight.

"His parents lied to me?"

"Yes. And him," the solicitor told her. "They said you'd overdosed. Heroin."


She ran out of words, then. There was another silence. Suddenly Helen looked at Claire. "You said he was in London. Why?"

"As soon as he found out, he left his parents' house," Nikki told her. "He travelled down with us. He wants to see you."

"What for?" the inmate asked, honestly puzzled.

"Because he's never stopped having feelings for you!" Nikki snapped. "He doesn't just want to testify in your trial. I think he'd like to pick up where you left off."

"I suppose," Helen said calmly. She looked thoughtful. "It wasn't the romance of the century or anything, but it was good, what we had."

Karen frowned at the almost clinical tone the Scot was adopting. "It must have been more than good for him to travel halfway across the country to meet you."

"Wait till he does," Helen said dismissively. "Things were different then. We were both young. I wasn't a washed-up lifer with most of my sentence left to serve."

"With his evidence you're almost certain to get out on appeal," Claire said. "You stabbing Gossard goes from an unprovoked, unexplained attack to a justifiable reaction when faced with a man, who you'd already seen beat someone you loved half to death before assaulting and attempting to rape you, threatening Sean."

"Or it becomes retaliation against a man I had cause to hate, proving I shouldn't be let out," Helen said flatly. She bowed her head. "Can I go now?"

"I think you ought to go back to the wing," Karen said. "Get some rest."

"Will you agree to see Theo?" Claire asked.

"Yes, sure."

"In the circumstances, I'll arrange for a private room," Karen said.

"Do you have one that's wheelchair accessible?" the solicitor asked.

"I'll see what I can do."

Nikki took Helen's arm. "Come on. I'll take you down onto the wing. Claire, do you mind waiting in the car?"

"Of course not," her friend said.

Once they were out of Bett's office, Helen walked passively beside Nikki, seemingly deep in thought. She was so withdrawn that a couple of staff they passed in the corridor looked at her before silently querying what the matter was. Nikki shrugged and shook her head in response, pretending ignorance.

She waited until they passed a classroom she knew would be free and put her hand on the lifer's arm. Helen stopped immediately, as though she knew what was coming, and followed her into the room. The Scot crossed to the window and stared at the sky, hugging herself, her back turned towards Nikki as the taller woman locked the door, ensuring their privacy.

Nikki thought about it, trying to get her phrasing right. "Do you need help to deal with this?"

"Like what?" Helen asked hoarsely. "Someone telling me that what happened was in the past. That I ought to get over it?"

Nikki ran a hand through her hair, trying to formulate her thoughts. "Jesus, Helen, let's try not to give each other a hard time, OK? I'm asking you if you need support."

"Exactly what support can you give me?" the smaller woman demanded. "Can you make it so it didn't happen? So I don't remember feeling my child being battered out of my body after I watched a gentle boy being beaten half to death for trying to do the right thing? A young man who would have walked away from the danger if I hadn't persuaded him to stay? A helpless, small person who was deprived of their right to live by a brutal, destructive ...."

She choked on her own words and drew a deep, shuddering breath. "By a monster. Because I chose to stay. It can never be made right."

"And that's why you killed him," Nikki said.


"And do you regret his death?"

The Scot bowed her head. "Yes. Even though when I do, it feels like I'm betraying them both."

Nikki nodded. Carefully, she approached the inmate and took one of her hands. "You meditate, right?"


"And you study religion?"

"Some of the time."

"OK. Try this for size. Could you have anticipated what was going to happen? And were you responsible for it?"

Helen looked up at her. Carefully, the brunette brushed away the tears on the other woman's cheeks with her thumb. "I could have anticipated that being gay would upset my parents, but I'm still not responsible for their reaction. They made that choice, not me. You decided to stay and fight for what you thought was a good cause. You're not responsible for Gossard's brutality even though the innocent suffered. You couldn't have known what a psychopath he was. You were entitled to expect that he would behave properly."

She risked a brief hug. "It wasn't your fault. None of what happened was your fault. Mourn what happened. Grieve for your child and how Theo used to be. Don't, for a minute, blame yourself. I'm used to people trying to deny their responsibility for crimes. You're not one of them."

She felt the tension in the Scot's shoulders and moved away. "Ready to head back?"

"Yes, please."

They walked back to the wing. Neither of them said anything more during the journey.

Nikki let Helen back into her cell before half closing the door and putting a hand on her shoulder. "Are you going to be all right?"

"Have to be, won't I?"

Nikki could sense the seething turmoil that the matter-of-fact tone of voice was hiding, but didn't want to intrude. Silently, she gave up on it as a bad job, turning to leave the other woman in peace with her thoughts. The Scot's next question was unexpected and she stopped in her tracks, momentarily taken aback.

"What does he look like, now?"

"Ill," Nikki said succinctly. She hesitated and pulled a photograph out of her pocket, handing it over. "He told me to give you this if you asked. He said you don't have to see him. He'll testify whatever you decide, but he'll understand if he's changed too much."

Helen looked up from the image, a recent snapshot of Theo and his parents on some sort of outing. It clearly showed his cane and didn't disguise his frailty or the way they hovered anxiously close to him. The invalid was smiling for the camera, but he'd braced himself against a railing and the knuckles of the hand holding the walking stick were white on the handle.

"He's still Theo," the lifer said. "I owe him a meeting at least."

"He doesn't care about you being a con."

"That's because he doesn't know what being inside means. How it changes you."

"That's a bit harsh, isn't it?"

"No. I killed a man. I deserve to be locked up. Fair enough. It's not like I was making anything of my life before that. What I didn't deserve was all of the things that have been done to me in here. But then, look at this. Shit happens to everyone. Inside and outside the walls."

"Helen ...."

"I think Betts is right. I think I need to rest."

"I'll let the office know you're on the wing."

"OK. Nikki!"

Nikki stopped. To her shock, Helen put her hand on her arm and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Thank you for finding Theo. Even if I don't get out of here, I'm glad he's alive. At least there's one thing that Gossard didn't take away from me."

She sat at the desk and began studying the photograph again. Nikki let herself quietly out of the cell.

"Barbara, can I ask you for a favour?" Claudia said. She sat down at the table where Helen and her cellmate were eating lunch. Her tone of voice was unusual enough to make the Scot look up from her pasta bake and study the older woman. Claudia was as composed as ever, but she looked happier than Helen had seen her for a while.

"Of course," Barbara said.

"I need to borrow some make up."


"John's managed to get a visiting order. I don't want him and the girls to see me not looking at my best. They'll worry and …"

She trailed off. Barbara put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Whatever you need. I don't know if we're the same colouring, though."

"You're not," Helen said bluntly. Both women looked at her, startled. The lifer supposed that she had been fairly quiet recently. It tended to happen when she was working through the first stages of a major project. Her cellmate had actually been very reasonable about it, putting up with her silences and monosyllabic answers, even when they visibly frustrated her. Helen gave in to the inevitable.

"I'll have a word with the Julies. See what they can do."

"Thank you," Claudia said softly.

"You might have to do a favour in return," the Scot warned.

"For you?"
"For them."

Claudia nodded. "It's worth it."

"Who is John, anyway?"

"My husband. He's bringing Gail and Violet in."


"My daughters. I've been missing them so much," the older woman said fervently.

"Expect you have," Helen said. She stood up abruptly. "I'd better see what I can sort out."

As she walked stiffly away from the table, a voice called her name. The lifer turned to see the last person she wanted to talk to walking towards her. Even though she'd told Nikki that it was over between them, her feelings were still as strong, maybe stronger because she couldn't express them. That made being around the tall staff member very difficult at times, especially in front of witnesses, when she had to be careful not to give too much away. She set her jaw, aware that most of the other people in the mess hall were watching them with undisguised curiosity.


Wade smiled a greeting. She seemed unaware of the undercurrents in their conversation or how many people were watching them.

"Helen. How are you?"

"I'm doing fine. Thank you for asking, miss."

"Good. I wanted to check you were all right after the other day."

"I've dealt with worse."

"OK. You know where I am, if you need me."

"Thank you, miss. But I do have a personal officer."

"Noted," Nikki said. She smiled tightly. "Just to let you know I haven't stopped working on your behalf."

Helen nodded. "Thank you for the information. Can I go now?"

The taller woman nodded and the Scot retreated to the safe space of her vegetable patch after speaking to the Julies. She would have gone to the art room, but it had too many memories.

She was turning the compost heap over, wondering if she was overdoing the proportion of grass cuttings to vegetable matter, when Claudia came to find her. Helen looked up at the older woman.

"Get your make up in time?"

"Yes, thank you. It was a lovely visit. Not enough, but ...."

"You'll have to get used to that. Two a month. That's the ration."

"Well, at least I looked OK. He commented on it."

"Good for you."

"Does anyone visit you, Helen?"

"No. No one has any reason to."

"That must be lonely for you."

"I'm used to it. Besides, we're never alone in here, are we."

"That's not the same."

Abruptly, Helen jammed the garden fork into the compost heap and turned round. "Look, Claudia, when did I become your personal project? And how do I get you to stop?"

"I just think you're taking the wrong attitude to things. You act as if you're irredeemable, as though you'll never have a life even when you do get out. That's not true! Look at me. I have a husband who loves me and two beautiful daughters. I killed a man in cold blood because I was a spoilt, selfish adolescent who didn't like being given boundaries. My stepfather didn't do anything except forbid me from seeing an older boy who was using alcohol and drugs to seduce me."

"And I stabbed a man."

"All I'm saying is that I built a life when I got out. You can, too. You will find someone who understands."

"Your John knew about you, did he?"

"I told him as soon as I realised it was becoming serious. He went away for a week to think about it and then he came back."

"And he'll stand by you now that you're in here?"

"He's already campaigning to get me out."

"Well, if he's taking on the Home Office, good luck."

"My original point still holds. You mustn't give up."

"So does mine. Leave me alone. I get along fine with Dockley because we stay away from each other. You can do the same."

"Very well. But please, think about what I've said."

"Nothing else to do in here."

Claudia went back into the prison and headed for the library. Barbara was already there, carefully selecting a book. Claudia glanced at the title she was considering.

"I've read that one. It's dreadful. Don't bother. Sort of sub Steinbeck."

"How did your visit go?"

"It was wonderful to see them. The girls were very brave. John's looking tired. I told him off about not taking care of himself."

The ex-civil servant smiled. "I hope you weren't too stern."

"No. I couldn't be, really. It was kind of Helen to do me that favour."

"Well, in prison, it's not what you know, it's who you know."

"That hasn't changed," Claudia agreed. "Who was the tall woman talking to her? In the mess hall?"

"Miss Wade. Runs the anti-drugs initiative for the Area. Used to be wing governor here, I believe."

"Oh," the lifer said thoughtfully. "Was she? That's interesting."

Theo visited Larkhall a couple of days later. Now that Area had finally given permission, it was easy enough to make the arrangements with Karen onside, but Nikki volunteered to take him to the prison and drive him home. She was well aware of how ill he was, and she knew that the emotional strain of the situation was beginning to tell on him. She tried not to think about how Helen must be feeling, stuck in Larkhall with nothing else to distract her. Between that and Fenner's brooding, malevolent presence, she half feared that she'd get Theo to his appointment and then discover the Scot had been sent down the block for fighting or talking back to the staff.

She made a quick phone call as she waited outside Theo's aunt's house in Chelsea and gave an inward sigh of relief when Dominic answered the wing office's number and told her that everything had gone peacefully at breakfast and that Helen was in her cell, reading. She thanked him and rang off, glancing up at the front door where Theo had appeared, a carrier bag filled with a large bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates in his free hand. Nikki got out of the car and shook her head.

"Sorry, you can't take those in."


"No flowers allowed in cells. Food from outside's banned as well."


"It can be used to smuggle drugs, other things."

He looked at her, incredulous. Nikki spread her hands. "It's a category A prison. Sorry. No point even bringing them."

Theo nodded and handed the carrier bag silently to his aunt. After he had settled himself in the car and put his seat belt on, he turned to her.

"Anything else I need to know?"

"You'll be searched. Oh, and they won't let you bring a mobile phone or a camera in. Do you have any medication with you?"

"I have anti-seizure pills. Just in case."

"They'll take that off you. I'll arrange for the supervising officer to hold it, not the gate. That way you can get to them if you have to."

"I'll try not to need it," Theo said calmly.

He was mostly silent as they drove through the London traffic. As they came in sight of the walls, he spoke abruptly. "What does she do with her time?"

Nikki bit back her first answer to settle for a neutral reply. "She works in the garden, reads, writes letters. She draws a lot."

"Is that all?" Theo asked.

"Not all. But it's how she spends her days. She's not due for a sentence review for years. Not much point doing employment related courses at the moment."

"But Helen's intelligent! She was going to go to college, study business and accounting."

"She could still do that when she gets out."

"And in the meantime, she can waste her life pruning flowers and pulling up weeds? My aunt lives that life, but she's retired."

Nikki caught the hectic colour in his face as his blood rose and noticed that the hand closest to her had begun to tremble. She waited until the next red traffic light and put a matter-of-fact tone into her voice.

"If you're ill, they won't let you in to see her. You have to calm down. OK?"

Theo nodded shortly, controlling his breathing with a visible effort. "OK."

Nikki had arranged special permission to park near the prison because of her passenger's disability. Karen was waiting for them, standing with the gate guard to make sure there were no problems. Nikki noticed Bodybag lurking off to one side, lips pursed in familiar disapproval and was glad the governor was there. She suspected that some members of staff would have followed her lead and given them a hard time otherwise. As it was, Theo was led to the head of the queue. A couple of people looked as though they might object, but when they saw how he was limping, the muttering subsided. Theo seemed wearily indifferent to their reaction. Nikki suspected that he was used to it.

Karen walked next to him, matching her pace to his. "Dominic McAllister has volunteered to work through his lunch break, so you'll get an hour together. You're in luck. No other member of staff has gone sick, so I can let him make the gesture."

"Decent of him," Nikki commented.

"An hour?" Theo questioned. "I thought we might get longer."

"Sorry, no," the blonde said. "Rules, I'm afraid. I'm bending them as it is."

They got inside. The prison officer doing the searching barked, "Arms out!" without looking up, then frowned as he took in the sight of the crippled man in front of him. He hesitated before visibly deciding to brazen it out. "You're going to have to hold your arms out, sir. I have to do a body search."

"If I let go of this cane, I'll fall over," Theo told him calmly.

"Oh." The guard looked confused. Nikki rolled her eyes, then led Theo to a nearby table. "Lean on this to support yourself. He'll do one arm and one leg at a time." She stood close, within grabbing distance, as the member of staff ran his hands across the outside surface of Theo's clothes and then nodded for him to empty his pockets. Theo did so, impassively handing him the bottle of pills without being asked.

"What's this?"

"Prescription medication. I need to keep it near me."

Karen took the bottle and ran a professional eye over the label. "That's a high dose. Grand mal?"

"No. It's just my body can't cope with even small fits. If I seize, I tend to pass out for a couple of days."

"OK," Karen said, nodding to the guard. "Nikki, will you take these down for him?"

"Sure," Nikki said.

"You get any warning signs?" the governor asked.

"I get an aura. Don't worry. I know not to tough it out."

"Make sure you tell Dominic," Karen instructed. As she turned to go, a thought seemed to strike her and she turned back to Nikki.

"I heard you missed your promotion board last week. What happened?"

"Something came up," Nikki said. "There'll be other chances."

The blonde raised her eyebrows but didn't comment. Nikki cleared her throat and glanced at Theo, who was sizing up the exchange. She started towards the main building, and after a moment's hesitation, he followed her.

The invalid looked around curiously as they walked through the prison, studying the barred gates, the mirrors at the corners of the corridors, the occasional prisoner and escort they passed. Outwardly, he betrayed no reaction, but Nikki noticed he was gripping his cane more and more tightly as they moved deeper in. She got him into the interview room, showed him the location of the panic button and gave him time to settle into one of the chairs.

"Ready?" she asked him, then radioed McAllister. They both waited in tense silence for the next five minutes. Then the door opened and Helen walked in, Dominic behind and to her left. Nikki had time to notice how apprehensive the Scot was looking before a noise beside her distracted her attention.

Theo had used the table to lever himself to his feet. Now, as his visitor came in, one of his ankles seemed to collapse under him and he fell gracelessly back into the chair, the tip of his cane hitting the leg of the table with a loud rattle. He blushed bright red and swore under his breath. Helen stepped forward and touched Theo's shoulder, stilling his words.

"Oh, sweetheart, what did they do to you?" she whispered softly. She ran a careful hand across his face, her palm lingering on his cheek. "Oh, God ...."

Slowly, her ex-partner reached out and put his arms around her, resting his head on her middle, just below her breasts. The Scot looked down and began to stroke his hair gently, smoothing the thin grey strands away from his forehead. Theo closed his eyes and tears began to slip out from beneath his eyelids.

Nikki turned to go. Dominic ducked his head and joined her. She waited as he locked the door on the couple and turned to tell him about the anti-seizure drug. He was staring into the middle distance. He looked slightly stunned by what he had just witnessed. The brunette touched his arm.

"Are you OK?"

"What? Yeah. Sorry. What?"

"He takes medication. Listen for the bell. Don't hesitate to radio for help if you need it."

"Jim said I was an idiot to give up my lunch break for a con," the young PO said.

"Do you feel like an idiot?" Nikki asked.


"Listen, I need to go check a couple of things," Nikki said. "I'll be back to pick Theo up. Do you want me to bring you a sandwich?"

"No, I had a big breakfast," Dominic said as he sat down on the chair outside the door. "I'll see you back here in forty."

Nikki glanced at her watch. "Deal." Silently, she handed him the bottle of pills.

In the event, she timed it for thirty-five minutes. For herself, she would have left Helen and Theo alone together all day, especially now she had seen them greet one another, but she knew that Karen could only disregard the rules so far and McAllister had to get the inmate back onto the wing. At least at this time of day, most women would have already finished their meal and would be being counted back out to their work. Helen's past would stay private that little bit longer. Nikki had no illusions that once Bodybag got to hear about the visit, it would be all over the prison by shift change. And what she didn't know, she would undoubtedly make up.

Dominic stood when he saw Nikki coming and handed her Theo's medication. He rapped lightly on the door before unlocking it, going up another notch in the brunette's estimation.

"Watch out, McAllister. Never mind bleeding heart liberal, you might have a shot at decent human being," she commented.

"Leave it out," the officer said. "You'll ruin my reputation on the wing."

They stepped into the room. Nikki wasn't sure what she'd expected to find, but she'd thought the two of them would at least be holding hands. Instead, Helen was standing by the window, gazing out over the exercise yard and Theo was sitting by the table, cane flat on the floor next to him. He was turning Helen's signet ring over and over in his hands, seeming to find it fascinating. The lifer looked round quickly when she heard the door open, and Nikki saw that her eyes were reddened.

"You've got five minutes before you have to be back on the wing," Dominic said. "I can probably give you another couple if you hurry."

"No, it's all right. I've said all I came to say," Helen told him. As she walked past Theo, he reached out and grasped her sleeve. The Scot stopped and waited, her face turned away from her ex.

"Can I at least write to you?" he asked

"Of course. Remember, all the letters get checked."

"I don't care."

"I'll look forward to reading them," Helen said kindly.

Theo opened his fingers and let his hand fall, limp, onto the table. The gesture meant he dropped the signet ring he was holding onto the wooden surface with a soft rattle of metal. The noise attracted Dominic's attention and he looked sharply at Helen.

"Come-on, Stewart, you know that's not allowed. That ring's your property - it's on your list. You can't give it to anyone without doing a transfer form."

The Scot didn't make eye contact. "Actually, it's his. Always has been. His parents gave it to him on his eighteenth birthday. I've just been holding it for a while. It's the first chance I've had to return it."

The PO looked at Theo. "Is that true?"

The invalid shook his head. "No. I gave it to her, a long time ago, as an engagement ring. Now she's handing it back. But if she doesn't want it, I suppose it is mine."

Dominic looked uncertainly at Nikki, who measured the swirling emotions filling the room and came to a swift decision.

"Take her back to the wing. I'll sort it out."

"Thank you," Helen said. She gave Theo one last intent look, memorising him, then walked quietly out of the room. Nikki went to the window and took the bottle of pills out of her pocket, giving Theo time to compose himself and the Scot the opportunity to get clear. She listened to the crashing of gates being unlocked, opened and re-locked after they had been closed, gauging the lifer's location with the familiarity of long practice. When she estimated that there was little or no chance of bumping into Helen on the way out, she turned to Theo, intending to offer him his medication.

She was disconcerted to find him studying her, hands tight on his cane, which he had picked up again and was holding like a barrier across his knees. The signet ring lay, disregarded, on the table between them. The invalid's face had settled into a kind of aloof resignation that chilled Nikki slightly even as she admired the self-control that underlay it.

Theo cleared his throat.

"She told me she loves someone else," he said quietly. "When I threatened to find out which male guard had taken advantage of her and have him sacked, she told me it was a woman."

He reached out and traced a circle around the ring on the table with one fingertip. "She tried to make me believe it was another prisoner, but I think we both know that's not true, don't we?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Nikki said, going cold.

"Oh? How many prison staff would give up a promotion board to go halfway across the country on the off-chance of getting a character witness for a lifer? Not even proof that she's innocent. Just mitigation."

"Claire believes that Helen shouldn't be in here. She thinks that her original trial was a miscarriage of justice. I happen to agree."

"Of course," Theo said. "Silly of me to think otherwise."

He pushed the ring across the table towards Nikki. "Yours, I think."

"No," the brunette said. "Helen is unattached. She's made that quite clear to me."

"Has she?" Theo said. "That's not what her eyes were saying."

"I think you're wrong."

"But you hope I'm right."

Nikki took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair. "I wish her nothing but the best. I won't lie to you. I think she's an attractive woman. Helen Stewart shouldn't be in here and she's had a very raw deal. Not that she's helped herself in the past with some of her behaviour. But whatever else I am, I'm a professional and I would never take advantage of a prisoner."

"Once she's on the outside?" Theo asked.

"That's different. But she's not there yet. I think that once she is, she'll get a whole new perspective on things. She'll have options and she's too intelligent not to take advantage of them. Especially given where she's been for the last few years."

"So you believe there's hope, even for me?"

"I think it's up to Helen. You're a big part of her past. She still has feelings for you."

"Just not the right ones," Theo said. He picked the signet ring up and slipped it onto his finger. He bowed his head, studying it, and then fixed Nikki with a sharp, assessing gaze. The brunette was suddenly reminded of the clever, analytical mind trapped in the wasted body.

"Helen is very loyal," he said. "If she still loved me, this wrecked shell wouldn't matter. Neither would these bars and walls. But she won't lie either. Not for pity or convenience. The only reason she will lie is to protect those she loves. Remember that."

Nikki studied him. He smiled at her. "You'll understand what I mean when you think about it."

Nikki frowned. She was about to ask him to explain when there was a knock at the door and Karen came in. "Ah, there you both are. I was getting worried."

"I was resting," Theo said easily. "That was… harder… than I expected."

"Are you OK? We can get the medical officer to check you over."

"No, I'm well. I promise. Just tired. Emotional. It was difficult seeing Helen again."

Betts nodded. "Well, I expect she's changed since you knew her," she said carefully.

"In some ways," Theo said. "In others, not at all."

Helen glanced up as a shadow crossed her cell door and then looked quickly away as Nikki walked in with a selection of plastic bags labeled with the logos of various high street stores. She took a deep breath, composing herself, then scowled at the other woman.

"What's this?"

"For your appeal."


"Claire thinks you'll make a better impression in a suit. I agree."

"I've never worn a suit in my life!"

"Think of it as a job interview," Nikki said implacably, turning to dump the bags on the bunk. "Try these on. If they don't fit, we'll change them. You should probably practice walking in the shoes. It isn't much of a heel, but you wear trainers day to day."

"Hang on a minute!" the lifer said. "Who's paid for these?"

"Your godfather. I gave him an idea on sizing. Claire picked the style."

"Why do I need this shit?"

"Because a lot of people have worked very hard to get you this chance, and we don't want to risk buggering it up over something as trivial as the way you look."

"This is bollocks!"

"Maybe. Will you wear them?"

"I …"

Helen came to an abrupt halt as Fenner appeared at the cell door. He favoured Nikki with his usual insinuating smile. "You causing problems for Miss Wade, Stewart?"

"We're fine, Jim, thank you," Nikki said.

"Sorry. Thought I heard swearing. Wondered if someone needed to be on report."

"I can deal with this."

The PO nodded, then paused as he saw the bags on the bunk. "What's that?"

"Clothes for court."

"Has Karen OK'd it?"

"Yes," Nikki said. "Thought it was a good idea, in fact."

Fenner raised his eyebrows. "Really? I can see why she wants to get Stewart off the wing, but I'm not sure letting her loose on society is the way to do it. Shipping her out 'd be easier."

"Maybe. But it's the governor's decision."

"She must have a soft spot. Like you."

"I expect so," Nikki said calmly.

"Don't see why, but ...."

"Mysteries of female psychology, Jim. Maybe you can ask her at Sylvia's party."

Fenner grinned. "I might just do that."

He turned and left. Helen watched him go, then turned on Nikki.

"How do you work with a slimy piece of shit like that?" she demanded

"I treat him as a colleague. Which means I won't listen to inmates calling him names."

"He's a bastard!"

"And if I'd gone toe to toe with him, you'd have been on report for something before the end of his shift. Is that what you want? So close to your hearing?"

The Scot scowled, folding her arms. Nikki leant close to the other woman. "You need to learn to keep it under control. At least in here. Otherwise, you'll mess up your appeal, and people like Fenner will be in charge of you for years. You make it easy for them."


"You let them push your buttons. Learn some self control. Choose your battles. You'll do better that way."

"What, you still want me to become a womble? Follow the routine, don't make trouble, do as I'm told?"

"Just keep your head down."

"You sound like you don't think I'm going to get out."

"Hope for the best, plan for the worst. I've got to go now. I'll see you after lunch. If you can let me know whether the clothes fit, that would be helpful."

Helen slouched in her chair and let the other woman go without bothering to respond. She worked on her correspondence for about a quarter of an hour before giving in, unwillingly aware that she wasn't concentrating. She was too interested in her new outfit. It wasn't that she thought it'd be high fashion, but anything that improved her chances at appeal had her vote. Despite her defiant attitude, she knew the outcome she'd prefer, given the choice.

Crossing to the cell door, she looked out, trying to locate Fenner, and saw that he was supervising lunch. Cautiously, she moved to the bags, emptying their contents onto the bed, then held her breath as she took in the outfit. She hadn't exactly lied to Nikki - back when she had been trying for a full time office job, she had had a jacket and pair of trousers that she'd found in different charity shops that almost matched, but she had never had anything this smart bought for her. The price tags of the charcoal grey suit and burgundy shirt had been removed, but the lifer could tell from the tailoring and material that they hadn't been cheap.

She tried on the jacket, squinting at herself in the inadequate reflection of the polished metal square over the sink and then, giving into an impulse, partially closed the door and quickly changed into the trousers and shirt as well. They fit as though she'd chosen them personally and Helen smiled. Trust Nikki to know what would look good on her. She was just enjoying the way the jacket sat on her shoulders when a noise attracted her attention. She spun round so that she was facing the cell door and found the brunette standing there, watching her admiringly.

"I knew those would suit you," she said.

Helen ducked her head, embarrassed, and then frowned as she processed what Nikki had said. A suspicion began to grow in her mind and she stepped closer to the taller woman. "Who did pay for these?" she asked quietly.

"I told you. Your godfather."

The Scot raised her eyebrows and Nikki shuffled uncomfortably. "I … put some money in as well."

"Why would you do that?"

"You know why."

"I'm not for sale!"

"I know. I just want you to have the best chance, OK. So sue me! You can pay me back."

The lifer opened her mouth to make a retort, then the humour of the situation suddenly struck her. "What? Out of my spends?"

"You'll be earning your own money soon. When you get out."

"You hope. Just so long as you know you can't take it in kind."

"That I could hope for."

"In your dreams, Wade."

They smiled at each other and Nikki turned to go. Helen spoke softly. "Thanks."

"De nada."

"Oi, Picasso!"

Helen looked up from her sketchbook to see Yvonne Atkins standing over her. The East Ender dropped into the seat opposite her. "Nice bit of schmutter you got hung up in your cell."

"It's for my appeal."

The Scot's voice sharpened. "Though what you were doing in my pad when I wasn't there ....."

"Calm down. I'm not a peter thief. Where d'you get the suit anyway?"

"My godfather bought it. For the hearing."

Yvonne looked surprised. "He's got good taste. For a bloke."

"I think he had advice."

"Yeah. Wade bring it in for you?"

"That's right," Helen said briefly. Atkins smiled and glanced at her drawing. "What's that, then?"

"Bloody hell, you're like a kid today. You're going to be asking me why the sky's blue next."

"Just curious, that's all. I haven't seen anything like that before."

"It's a preparatory study. Part of a series. A triptych."

"A what?"

"A three part painting that would usually stand in front of an altar in a church."

"Never realised you were the religious type."

"I'm not. Francis Bacon used to do a lot of triptychs. I'm sort of taking inspiration from that."

"Why bother with three, though? Why not just do one big painting? Less work that way."

"Doing it in three parts means that you can work to a theme but have different images. This one's going to be chronological as well."


"Telling a story. Like a strip cartoon. This is the second panel. The first sets the scene, this one shows what happens next and the third will show how it all ends."

Dockley, who was strolling past with her arm around Denny's neck, took the time to pause and sneer. "Bleeding hell. Listen to her. Anyone would think she was an artist, not just a con."

"Piss off," Helen said wearily. Yvonne fixed the blonde with a challenging stare. "You heard her. Get lost."

Shell rolled her eyes, but did as she was told. As usual, she didn't actually dare take the gangster on, though she sniped whenever she got the chance.

"All mouth, no trousers, that one," Atkins commented, her fierce stare following the younger woman as she retreated down the wing. She squinted at the lifer's drawing.

"Looks like a city."

"In a way, it is."

"Wait a minute, that's screws."

Helen waited as the woman in front of her studied the image, her brows drawing together as she puzzled out what it was about. Though Helen doubted that Yvonne had had the best education, she also didn't underestimate the other woman's innate intelligence. Finally, the redhead understood. Her face cleared. "It's a prison break. Outside job. Nice one!"

"That's right."

"Surprised they let you draw that."

"They can't stop me. It's allegorical."


"I'm telling the story another way. This is the harrowing of hell. When all the damned souls get to be free."

The older woman raised her eyebrows and handed the sketchpad back. "Right .... Thanks for that. Too bleeding complicated for me, though."

"It isn't, once it's out on paper."

"Don't know if I'd want that stuff in my head. It's a bit horror movie, innit."

"Like you haven't seen worse happen in here? I'll do you a picture of kittens, next, if you want."

"Cheeky cow!" Yvonne said, then sobered. "Mind you, it kinda puts hooks in your brain, dunnit? Your picture."

"Thanks," the Scot said, genuinely touched.

She looked at the drawing, visualising it with the paints she intended to add. She had outlined the dark cityscape of the first panel, hemmed in by the same grim, high walls, but the inhabitants were grouped differently. Now the screws were drawn up on one side, in battle lines, facing the viewer. Molotov cocktails and rocks thudded against their shields. The air was filled with smoke and the light of swingers being deployed from the upper windows of the buildings. The cons on the other side of the square were armed with a makeshift assortment of improvised weapons: chair legs, rusty pieces of chain and fetters, garden tools. Only their backs and an occasional half-turned face were visible. Dead inmates were slumped in the cobbled space between the opposing forces, their broken limbs and gaping wounds showing how they had been beaten back from the breach in the walls the screws were defending. A bloody mass of cloud brooded over the scene.

The only radiance came from the figure leading the escape: androgynous, beautiful, dressed in combats and a white t-shirt, its short, dark hair curling softly over a well-shaped skull. It had suffered as well; there was a dirty bandage fastened round its head, forming a sort of implied halo, but the powerful electric torch it held up was still lit, glowing with clear white light, the beam bisecting the picture and vanishing into the infinite sky. Beyond the wall, families cheered and wept, urging the revolt on. The furnace had been torched and was burning to the ground. A crucified screw, face twisted with agony, hung in his barbed wire bonds on its shattered door.

"Any other questions? Next week's weather, capitals of Europe?"

"Ha bloody ha. I wanted to know if you was serving at the screw's party."

"No way. Watching Fenner and Bodybag get drunk? Besides, that's a red band sort of job. Not for the likes of me."

Helen didn't mention her other reason, which was that she preferred to stay as far away from alcohol as possible. Even now, she didn't really trust herself.

Nikki yawned as she let herself into her flat. While she had shown up at Sylvia's party because it felt rude not to do so, she really hadn't enjoyed herself very much. She'd far rather have been out clubbing, or even curled up with a good book, than watching the usual little cliques swapping gossip about other people at the gathering, observing the flirtations that went on when spouses weren't there and alcohol had been consumed, some of which would go nowhere and some of which would lead to affairs and divorces further down the line. She'd chatted to Karen before Shell Dockley, who was one of the prisoners serving the drinks, had drawn the wing governor aside to ask her about something or other and had ignored Jim when he had tried to needle her about Helen's appeal. All in all, it had been a wasted evening. Sighing, she decided to run herself a hot bath, have a long soak, and see if she could at least get a good night's sleep.

Her phone rang. Frowning, the brunette wondered who it could be at this time of night. She almost ignored it, but then her curiosity got the better of her and she answered the call.

"Nikki here. This had better be good."

"How about very, very bad," Karen's voice said.


"We have a hostage situation. I need your experience. How soon can you get to Larkhall?"

"Thirty minutes," Nikki said tersely, grabbing for her keys and mentally reviewing the quickest route. Luckily, she'd been casually dressed for Sylvia's do and wouldn't have to change her clothes. That would speed matters up. Hurrying into the bedroom, she unearthed her old steel toe capped boots from their spot and changed, propping the phone between her chin and shoulder and continuing to speak as she laced them up.

"Who's the hostage?"

"Jim Fenner. He's been stabbed."

"And the perp?"

"Shell Dockley."

"What's the weapon?"

"Broken bottle."

"Where was he stabbed?"

"In the guts."

"OK, I'm on my way. Can you ring round and get as many officers as possible back on site? Get them kitted up in riot gear."

"Already done. Di Barker's acting as a runner."

"Good. Where's Simon?"

"Practising his hands-off management style," Betts said ironically.

"OK," Nikki said disgustedly. "I'll have my mobile switched on. Karen ...."


"What was Jim doing in an inmate's cell after lock up?"

Silence stretched out at the other end of the phone. When she spoke, Karen's voice was hesitant. "I don't know. I'm hoping he stays alive long enough for us to ask him."

"We should probably get the paramedics involved."

"Dr. Nicholson's here, but I've called them."

"Good. See you as soon as I can."

Nikki was waved through the gate and hurried onto the wing, threading her way through the groups of POs who were standing around aimlessly, obviously feeling that they should be helping, but unsure of what they needed to do. She frowned and located the senior officer on shift.


He snapped to attention at her decisive tone, obviously glad that someone had decided to take charge.

"Miss Wade."

"Can you get the perimeter patrols working? Just warn them not to get too close to the windows. The cons 'll be in a mood to drop any amount of shit on their heads."


"Any sign of reporters?"


"If they turn up, 'no comment'."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good to know you've got my back. Now let's sort this situation out."

Nikki strode on to the wing, feeling the familiar adrenaline burn in her stomach. She glanced over the officers waiting to be deployed, noting with relief that they were at least wearing the right kit, though she wondered how fit most of them were for duty, given that they'd been tipping alcohol down their necks earlier that evening. Mentally, she shrugged. They'd have to manage; judging by the amount of moaning she was doing, Sylvia at least had plenty of breath to spare.

She took the stairs two at a time and joined Karen up on the threes, where she was hovering near the entrance to Dockley's cell. The other woman greeted her with a relieved expression.

"God, I'm pleased to see you."

"Two heads are better than one in this sort of situation. Are the Tornado team on the way?"

"No. Simon's vetoed it. He wants to deal with this in-house, and he says they can't get here soon enough anyway."

Nikki nodded. The decision made sense given the time of night. She rapidly reviewed the resources they had available. "We can't use the hose. Jim won't be able to get out of the way. I don't want hurt him worse than he already is. What does the blood loss look like?"

"Not too bad, considering," Karen said and Nikki was abruptly reminded that the other woman had worked as a nurse. "Bleeding always looks horrific, anyway. It spreads everywhere."



"It'll keep Dockley happy if she thinks he's seriously hurt. Hopefully, that means that she won't take another dig ... at his throat, for example."

Betts looked thoughtful. "Shell's a very troubled woman."

"Look, Karen, I know you worked with her when you were the lifer's officer, but my priority right now is pulling Jim out of trouble. We can do the touchy-feely stuff after that."

Nikki glanced around, noting Di Barker hovering nearby. "Who should talk to her? You or me?"

"I know her better and I am wing gov."

"Right. I'll check everything else is running smoothly."

"Like what?"

"The security on the wing. We've got the rest to keep an eye on. I want to make sure the officers in riot gear are resting. They'll be making the standard rookie mistake of letting themselves get tense. They need to save their energy in case you do use them. And I'll get them organised so they can be here quickly if they need to."

The blonde nodded. "Thanks."

"What tack are you going to take?"

"I'll talk to her, see if I can make a connection, persuade her to let Jim out of there."

"She's intelligent enough to know he's the only reason we haven't gone in already."

"Yes. But if he dies ... she's got to know what that will mean."

Nikki nodded and headed off on her rounds. By the time she had briefed the various people she needed to talk to and made sure everything was in place, including showing the paramedics who'd turned up where to wait, ten or fifteen minutes had passed. She ran back up the iron stairs and found Karen slumped tiredly against the wall, defeat in every line of her body. She risked a quick glance through the cell peephole and frowned as she saw how pale and ill Jim was looking and the way Dockley was pacing maniacally up and down, muttering threats and waving the broken bottle around, obviously high on power and being the centre of attention. She turned to her colleague.

"No good?"

"No. I tried to reason with her, but she's ranting about rapist screws and nothing changing. About how she might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb."

"She's feeling in control and important," Nikki said. "She isn't thinking about consequences."

"There are going to be consequences for Jim if we don't get him out of there," Karen snapped, then frowned. "Sorry."

"It's all right. We're all under strain."

Betts stood up wearily. "I'm going to try again."

"What would keep him alive longer?"

"If she stopped the bleeding."

"Think she'd listen if you suggested it?"

"Maybe. It's worth a try."

Nikki considered. "Karen ...."


"Dockley's an old hand. She probably knows that they won't scramble the Tornado team. She feels safe right now."

"I'm glad of it!" Karen said. "If she feels threatened, she might hurt Jim!"

"Yeah, but in this sort of situation, it never hurts to have someone who's the bad cop. Or just remind the hostage taker of the realities of things."

"What if it pushes her over the edge?"

"That would involve her being willing to go out in a blaze of glory and take Jim with her. I don't read Dockley's character that way. I think it could help if she's reminded that you're her best chance to get out of this in one piece."

"Oh? And how will you convince her of that?"

"Simple. In a minute, I'm going to do something. When I do, I want you to pull me up in a loud voice. Nothing like a bit of theatre to get a con's attention."

Karen hesitated, then nodded. Nikki took several deep breaths, psyching herself up, then took a long stride towards the door of cell and kicked it, hard, the steel toe cap of her boot producing an almighty crash. She heard Shell's involuntary scream and nodded. Exactly the effect she wanted.

"Don't leave it too long, Dockley," she said, deliberately pitching her tone to carry. "Or it's playtime. And Betts won't be able to stop me."

"Nikki!" Karen snapped, her voice flavoured with genuine shock. "Back off!"

"If you say so," Nikki said, her voice and its resentful tone still loud enough to be heard inside the cell. Karen's reaction had been exactly right; one of the reasons Nikki hadn't warned her about what she was about to do. She kept the scowl on her face until she was out of the limited field of view the spyhole gave. Better safe than sorry.

Karen raised her eyebrows, exasperated, but didn't say anything, even though she was obviously seething about the ploy. Her expression changed as a high, frightened request came from inside the cell. "Miss Betts, miss .... Can I talk to you, miss?"

Nikki gave her a small, restrained thumbs up and Karen nodded, gesturing that the taller woman should stand back before going to the cell door.

"It's all right, Michelle, I'm here. What do you want?"

The hostage situation dragged on a while longer and Nikki busied herself with keeping the officers on standby alert. When the command to go in was given, she supervised the aftermath and got things back to normal, ensuring that Karen could manage the situation with Jim Fenner. It was only as she bedded down on a chair in the office for a nap that she realised that she hadn't thought of Helen once. Groaning, she flexed aching muscles and decided that was a problem for the morning.

Karen put the phone down and slumped tiredly behind her desk. She could see the grey dawn light beginning to seep through the glass of her office window, barely able to drive away the shadows. It matched her mood. She fumbled in her desk for a packet of cigarettes, then looked up as someone knocked on her door.

"Come in."

She frowned as Nikki walked in, carrying a grease-stained paper bag and two steaming polystyrene beakers of coffee.

"What the hell?"

"Someone did a sarnie run at the all night greasy spoon. Bacon or sausage and egg?"

The blonde hesitated. Nikki placed the beakers on the desk and emptied sugar into one before picking it up. Enticing smells came out of the bag. "Come on, Karen, today is not the time to think about your diet."

"All right," the wing governor conceded, running her hand wearily through her hair. She pulled out the two foil-wrapped sandwiches, picking the bacon. Nikki took the other one and began to unselfconsciously tear into it, obviously very hungry.

"Slow down! You'll get indigestion," Karen said.

"Sorry. Too many years of eating on the run," the brunette said, doing as she was told.

"We're entitled to a meal break."

They sat together in silence and Karen felt herself gradually relax. She had been hungry and was still tired, but the food and indecently strong coffee was helping. She waited until Nikki had finished her meal and lit a cigarette.

"How is it on the wing?"

"OK. The women are restless. They know more or less what's going on."

"They'll have to wait. I'm not letting them out until the police have finished."

"Things are going to be tense for a while."

"I know. I've already spoken to Simon about drafting in some staff from the other wings to help. Damn!"


Karen made an impatient gesture. "Stewart's trial. How the hell am I going to manage that? I had Jim down for it. I can't spare anyone else. Not with things the way they are. I need all the bodies I can get. "

"Well, you can't not send her. Not unless you want to get cited for contempt."

"She has to have the regulation escort. Especially after last night. I can just imagine what the tabloids would make of a dangerous murderer being let out without two officers to keep an eye on her."

"There is a way," Nikki said calmly.

"Oh? What, exactly?"

"Send me."

Karen stared at her. "As what?"

"As her guard. It hasn't been too long since I was in uniform. I can remember what to do."

"You've been promoted since then."

"So I'll drop a couple of grades for the duration. Won't bother me."

"What will Area say?"

"If the alternative is a contempt ruling or bad publicity, they'll probably offer me a bonus. Or you, for thinking of it."

Karen looked at Nikki, narrowing her eyes. "Why are you so concerned that Stewart gets her day in court?"

"Simple. It's no secret that I've been working on her appeal." The taller woman shifted restlessly in her seat. "You know what we found. I don't think she should be in here. Not as a lifer, anyway."

"We don't make the rules, Nikki. We just lock them up."

"I know. And if the court disagrees with me, I'll bring her back to serve the rest of her sentence. Hell, she wouldn't be the first miscarriage of justice I've come across. I just think her case ought to be looked at again. By the proper authorities. If her trial's halted now, it could take three months, minimum, to be relisted. All the work and preparation will have been for nothing. Potentially, she could lose it and spoil her chances of another appeal. We both know she's volatile."

"Tell me about it," Karen said.

"It'd be like having a ticking hand grenade on the wing. Just what you don't need."

"That's true enough. All right, I'll put it to Area. You can tell her if they agree."

Helen looked up as she heard the rattle of a key in the lock. Barbara had been let out earlier that morning to make the screws' tea, and she had been sitting on her own, trying to avoid thinking about her trial. She knew, objectively, that there was a reasonable chance. She trusted Claire, and the solicitor seemed confident, but she found that now there was a chance of getting out of prison or getting a reduced sentence, the time she had to spend inside the walls was harder to bear. She didn't even want to think about the possibility that her appeal would be turned down. In a way, it had been easier when she believed that she was going to be inside for the rest of her life. She had come to terms with living without hope. Having it back again was surprisingly painful.

The door opened and Wade came in, closing it behind her. She crossed the cell to look out of the window before leaning on the bunk.

"How's it going?"

"OK," Helen said. "Waiting."

"That's what I came to talk to you about."


"The wing's on lock down…"

"Is that why they wouldn't let me out this morning? I wasn't sure."

"Very funny."

"You know, I quite forgot to ask. How is Mr Fenner? Is there a card going round?"

"He's serious, but stable. Now shut up and listen."

"Yes, miss."

"Jim was down to take you to court tomorrow, along with Di Barker."

The lifer frowned. "You mean that bastard is going to ruin my chances at an appeal from his hospital bed? That's typical!"

"I don't think he planned to get stabbed," Nikki snapped.

"No. But if he decided to play hide the sausage with that psycho bitch, he must have known he was taking a big risk. Unless he's even more stupid than I thought."

"Are you saying that's what was going on?" Nikki demanded.

Helen folded her arms. "I'm saying nothing."

"All right," Nikki said, storing the information away for later consideration. "This is how it's going to be. I'm taking Fenner's place."


"Because a lot of work has gone into setting this trial up. I think it needs to go ahead."

"I'm not sure how I feel about you being the escort."

"You don't have a choice in the matter. Or would you prefer to be handcuffed to Fenner for days?"

"I'd prefer not to be handcuffed to anyone."

"Sorry. I suggested giving you a travel pass and a tube map, but for some reason they wouldn't go for it."

"That's right. Can't let dangerous criminals out on their own," the Scot said bitterly.

"Like it or not, that's how people see you."

"Fair enough, I suppose. I am a con."

"For now. If everything goes to plan, you'll be a free woman."

"If, if ...."

Helen took a deep breath. Nikki moved closer and put a hand on her shoulder.

"What is it?"

"It's just hard, you know? There's so much riding on this. The rest of my life .... I don't even know if I'm going to able to bring myself to talk about what Gossard did … when I lost the child. She would have been seven now."

"Do you know it was a girl?"

"No. But in my mind, she was. Does that make sense?"

Nikki frowned, then sat on the edge of the bunk next to Helen. She put her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "I think it doesn't matter."

The inmate gave a sigh and leaned into her. After a moment, she pulled away slightly and Nikki loosened her grip and let her hand drop back onto the rough blanket that covered the bunk. She stood up, hiding her feelings.

"So remember, you'll need to have your things packed up and ready to take with you, just in case they come to a verdict on the first day. Claire thinks that's unlikely - she says that it'll probably be two or three days at least. Don't get your hopes up for a fast outcome."

"I won't."

"I know it might be hard to sleep, but try. Make sure you have a decent breakfast as well. You'll have a chance to see Claire privately at the court before the appeal - she'll talk you through the process."

"Sure," Helen said. As the other woman turned to leave, she cleared her throat.

"Why are you doing this? Really?"

"Because you don't deserve to be in here," Nikki said.

"I killed a man, remember?"

"I know."

Nikki hesitated, then turned back to Helen. "We all get pushed into situations where we do stupid things. Yours was worse than most, but at least you've accepted the need to change. Me, on the other hand … I spoiled my chance at the best thing that ever happened to me because I was jealous and paranoid. There's no coming back from that."

As Helen stared at her, unable to come up with a suitable response, Nikki let herself out of the cell. The noise of the door closing echoed in the Scot's mind till the small hours of the morning.

Barbara watched as Helen fumbled with the buttons on her blouse, getting them lined up on her third attempt. Her cellmate had taken a long time to get ready for court, partially because she was taking care over her appearance, and partially because her nervousness was making her clumsy. Barbara ached to help, but knew that the little rituals of getting ready were helping Helen to keep calm and focused. She stayed on her bunk, flicking through a magazine and trying to make light conversation, which the lifer answered in monosyllables.

There was a tap on the doorframe as Helen was shrugging her new jacket on, and Nikki came in, also dressed for court in a smart black suit and grey shirt. Helen glanced at her and her face tightened. Nikki glanced at Barbara before turning to the Scot.

"Relax. We're not going yet. I just came to see if you needed anything."

"No. I'm fine."

"Have you managed to eat any breakfast?"

Helen shook her head. "Too nervous."

"Thought so."

Nikki glanced out of the door and pulled a plastic bottle out of her pocket. She handed it to Helen. "Drink that."

"What is it?"

"A fruit smoothie. Easy to digest."

"I don't know if I can manage this."

"You can swallow, can't you?"

"All right," the inmate said mutinously, "but if I throw up all over your shoes, I'm not cleaning them."

"I wouldn't expect you to."

Nikki leant against the bunk as Helen drank slowly, waiting with no sign of impatience for her to finish. Barbara cleared her throat.



"Isn't that against the rules?"

"Yes. You going to tell anybody?"

"No. No, of course not. I just wondered why."

"Because I don't want her fainting in court. I'm the one who'd have to pick her up."

"I see," the older woman said, hiding a smile. "It all makes sense now."

Nikki nodded as she accepted the empty bottle from Helen. "Right. Di Barker will be with you in about twenty minutes. She'll bring you down to the yard. I'm off to check the car."

"You're not staying around?"

"We're together all day. I expect you'll be sick of the sight of me by this evening."

"OK," the lifer said, tight-lipped.

Nikki glanced at Barbara and then put a hand on Helen's shoulder. "It'll be fine," she said. The Scot nodded, unable to speak.

Helen sat numbly in the holding cell underneath the courthouse and tried to focus. The trial was proving more of an ordeal than she had anticipated. In Larkhall, she had managed to shut out the grim reality of what she had done. The petty injustices she had to endure made it easy to concentrate on the system and the people who operated it - she could afford to lose herself in resentment and not think about her crime. Now, faced with the horror of the act as described in the evidence, she was revisiting emotions she'd long ago put aside. Regret, grief, the bitter wish that things had turned out differently. While no part of her disowned her actions against Gossard, and she truly believed that she had done the right thing in killing him before he hurt Sean, the lessons of her childhood went deep. The knowledge that she had chosen to destroy another human being weighed heavily on her, and that abstract guilt went a long way to overcome the knowledge that the policeman had been a human predator who needed stopping.

She looked up as the door opened and one of the detention officers came in, carrying a tray with what she recognised as a microwave meal on it. He put it down on the table in front of her and frowned as she pushed it away. His voice was unexpectedly kind.

"You should eat while it's hot, love. It's not the nicest to start with."

"I'm not hungry."

He studied her without speaking and left. Minutes later, he was back with Nikki in tow. He gestured at the untouched food. "See what I mean?"

"Thanks. I'll take care of it. How long have we got?"

"Another forty-five minutes. I'll come and get you. Knock if you want to get out before then."

Nikki waited until he had closed and locked the door behind him and then sat down opposite Helen.

"You need to eat."

"Why is everybody suddenly so concerned about my diet?"

"Well, what are you going to do instead? Sit here and worry about this afternoon?"

"Like food in my stomach 'll change that."

"Probably not. But low blood sugar will make you less able to think when you're in the witness box. You need to be on top of your game for this one, Helen, not just going through the motions."

"It doesn't matter anyway."

"Yes, it bloody does!" Abruptly, the brunette moved to crouch beside Helen, her intent expression unmistakable this close up. She put a hand on the Scot's shoulder. "A lot of people have put time and effort into making this happen. The least you can do is not sabotage it! Come on, snap out of it! Where's the con who looks every bastard screw in the eye and tells them to fuck off? What happened to her?"

"She was reminded of what she did to become a con. I'm sorry, Nikki. I can't … get past the guilt."

The other woman's expression gentled. "Do you really mean that?"

"It's like I'm at war inside. I don't regret killing Gossard, but I regret taking a life. Does that make sense?"

"I think so. Look, what would help you deal with it?"

"I don't understand."

"Would it help if Claire asked for the trial to be halted for a couple of days?"

"No. It'd just give me more time to worry. Besides, I don't think that's even possible."

"So what do you need to do to calm down?"

"It might help if I could meditate. But ...."

"So meditate. Nothing's stopping you."

"Sure. When anyone can walk through that door any minute."

Nikki bowed her head, thinking. "Could you meditate in here if you weren't disturbed?"

Helen considered it. "I think so."

"All right. I'll stand guard. Outside. No one will walk in. I promise. I'll come and get you five minutes before you have to go back up."

"OK," the Scot said, the tightness inside her chest beginning to ease.

"Will you do something in return?"


"Try and eat half of what's on that plate?"

Helen nodded. Nikki squeezed her shoulder, a brief, emphatic press of her fingers, then went to the door and rapped sharply to be let out.

The lifer straightened her back, folded her hands in her lap, mentally checked her posture and began to watch her breathing, feeling the familiar calm descend over her as her mind stilled and centred. She had a bit of trouble at first; the environment was unfamiliar, but she was used to coping with a certain level of external noise. As she focused on the steady point that was her awareness, the flickering stillness of concentration on the breath that was at the heart of this practice, she gradually felt herself fall wholly into it, mirroring its detachment and peace. By the time she became aware of another presence near her and opened her eyes to see her guardian waiting patiently for her to come back to herself, she had regained the equilibrium she needed to face the afternoon. Nikki handed her a can of pop and she took it, nodding her thanks and drinking thirstily.

"Better?" the tall woman asked.

"Yes, thank you. I got so upset, I forgot the most important thing."

"What's that?"

"I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to stop him hurting Sean." She held up a hand as Nikki started to say something. "That doesn't change the fact he's dead, or that I can never bring him back. Or that I do not have the right to make decisions about life and death. But it means I'm not a murderer."

"I always knew that," Nikki said gently. "Come on. I'll take you to the Ladies. You can wash your face."

"Look good for the judge?"

"It's got to help your chances."

Helen nodded and stood up. She put her hand on Nikki's arm. "Thank you."

"I didn't expect to see you here," Claudia commented as she came into the art room at Larkhall. "I thought your appeal was being heard."

"It is," Helen told her abstractedly. She was frowning at her sketch plan for the third panel of the triptych, totally absorbed. Claudia studied the detail over the other lifer's shoulder. She felt her heart lift a little as she recognised the hope that had finally begun to seep into the image. The screws had been defeated and were nowhere to be seen. Cons streamed through the breach in the walls to freedom. Some had been reunited with their families and stood weeping with happiness and relief. The landscape outside the prison was still bleak, but now it was dotted with women, alone and in groups, walking away from their place of confinement. The Scot had dabbed a few paint samples onto the paper, and Claudia could see what she intended to do with the colours. The whole lightscape had changed.

The dominant red and grey had been banished by a morning radiance that streamed across the cityscape, its clear translucence simultaneously showing the tawdriness of the stained brickwork, and at the same time seeming to cleanse the grim buildings, allowing the possibility of renewal. The sky was blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. The landscape beyond the walls was still harsh, but finally there was the suggestion of new growth. The only remaining image of sorrow lay in the foreground of the picture, where the figure who had led the escape stood within the shattered walls, a bandage still around its head. The crucified screw and the murdered con from the first panel lay at its feet, and it seemed to mourn them both equally, head bowed, shoulders slumped as it gave in to grief.

"It looks like your painting's nearly finished. It's impressive work."

"I could even get on with it if I was left alone."

Claudia ignored the Scot's response and pressed on.

"So why aren't you at court?"

"Don't you have more important things to worry about?"


Helen put her pencil down, visibly controlling herself. "They're arguing about some legal point. They don't need me there for that. Now piss off and leave me alone."

"Is that what you want?"

"Yeah. I told you. I'm nobody's personal project."

"I don't believe you."

Slowly, the Scot stood up. "OK, this is where I don't give a shit about how this affects my appeal or how much time on the block it gets me. You just crossed a line."

"You're going to have to learn new ways of dealing with situations when you get out of here, you know."

"You, of all people, are going to give me an anti-violence speech? And you're making an assumption that's not justified by the facts. There's no way those bastards are going to release me back into society."

"I know that's what you need to believe to keep it together," Claudia told her. "But you really need to start planning for the future. Now you have one."

"I'm a washed-up lifer with an attitude problem. That's my future. Now piss off or I will hurt you."

"Why is it so difficult to believe that you're worth something? Or that someone might love you enough to want to make a life with you?"

Helen flinched. "I don't have to listen to you."

"How many other murderers who've got out and built a life on the outside do you know?"

"None. But it doesn't matter because it's not going to happen."

She clenched her fists, then seemed to think better of it and sat down. Claudia opened her mouth to say something and then closed it as Nikki Wade came into the room, carrying a couple of folded plastic bags. Both of the women recognised them. They were standard Prison Service issue - clear, strong sacks with the crown and name of the organisation on the front in blue print, designed to be big enough for an inmate to transport their few permitted possessions in.

"Helen, I've had a phone call from the administration office at the courts. They recommend you take your belongings with you tomorrow. You're on the stand mid-morning. I think the judges have made their mind up."

"Does that mean she's going to be let go, miss?" Claudia asked.

"I don't know, but it's got to be a good sign."

"Sure it's not just a plan to ghost me?" the Scot asked cynically.

"No," Nikki said. "Karen wouldn't do that to you."

"It might not be her decision. Stubberfield might have decided to get rid of me."

"Don't think like that. Don't wind yourself up."

"Yes, because it's not as if I have any control over it."

Nikki dropped the bags onto a chair. "Start packing tonight, OK? You might want to say some goodbyes as well."

She turned to go.

"Who's escorting me?" Helen asked suddenly. She was staring at the surface of her desk.

"Me and Di Barker. Same as yesterday and the day before."


"It'll be fine, Helen. Try not to worry."

The lifer nodded and rested her forehead on one hand, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the taller woman. Nikki waited a few seconds then, when it was obvious she wasn't going to say anything else, left. Claudia watched her go.

"She's right, you know."


"You have to dare to hope. It can be hard, but it's worth it."

"What should I hope for then, Pollyanna?"

"A life with decent, worthwhile work. Someone who loves you. A chance to make up for your crime."

She put a hand on the Scot's shoulder. "It's good to see that you have people who care for you already. Hopefully, it will help you believe that you can achieve the rest."

Claudia could see the other lifer deliberately not responding to her comment. After a moment, Helen spoke.

"Why did you get sent back in here? I never found out."

The older woman smiled. "I volunteer with a project that helps young women who've been in care adjust to independent living. One of my girls was having trouble with an ex-boyfriend who wouldn't take no for an answer. Nasty piece of work. He was a dealer, and I think he was trying to get her to go on the streets."

"So what happened?"

"I met him coming from her flat. We talked about things and he fell down some stairs."

"Really?" Helen said, grinning. "All by himself?"

"What do you think? He stayed away from her after that, but unfortunately, the local paper ran a sensational story that made me sound like Rambo. And here I am."

"I'd be angry, if I were you."

"Anger hasn't served me well in the past," Claudia said calmly. "John's already campaigning on my behalf and so is my MP. I will be home before the end of the year. But before then, you'll get out and it'll be for all of us."

Helen stood abruptly. "I'd better pack."

"Of course. I'll leave you to it."

Once they got to court, Helen put out her arms, stoically enduring the pat down search, even though she had already been through the same thing when they left Larkhall. Di finished and stepped back, nodding to indicate that the inmate was clean. Nikki hesitated before refastening the other bracelet of the handcuffs that dangled from her wrist onto the Scot.

"Do you need the Ladies?"

"No," the lifer said briefly. She seemed to have decided to deal with the situation by operating on automatic pilot. She was barely making eye contact and was answering questions in monosyllables.

"OK," Nikki said, and linked them together. "Di, will you make sure we're in the same court? I'll take her down to the cells. Let her solicitor know where she is, please. Just in case she needs to brief Stewart about something."

They walked to the prisoner's waiting area in silence. Nikki unfastened the handcuffs and Helen glanced around the airless basement room, rubbing her wrist. The pitiless light of the fluorescent ceiling fittings threw the shadows under her eyes into stark relief and showed the strain that was tightening her jaw into an unforgiving line.

"It'll be OK," the taller woman said softly.

"Bit like being in the condemned cell," Helen said grimly.

"Try not to think like that."

The door opened and Claire came in, smiling.

"Do you need me to wait outside?" Nikki asked.

"Not for this." She turned to the Scot. "How are you holding up?"

Helen shrugged. "Feel sick."

"Try and stay calm. We will get a verdict today as soon as you're taken in."

"At least it'll be over with, one way or another."

"Your godfather's in court. He told me to tell you he's praying for you."


"There are also a lot of journalists."


"You just need to be prepared for it. They're doing their job."

"OK. I'll behave."

Claire put a reassuring hand on her arm. "Not long now. Look, I have to be in court."

She turned to her friend. "Take care of her."

Nikki nodded. She didn't try and distract the lifer with conversation, sensing that the other woman preferred to be left alone. Finally, an usher came to get them. Helen walked quietly into court between her escorts.

Glancing up at the public gallery, Nikki saw Theo sitting next to a middle-aged woman who was presumably his aunt, and Colin Mcrae, whose hands were folded around a small crucifix. His lips were moving silently. She nudged Helen, who was staring straight ahead, her lips pursed, and jerked her chin towards them. The Scot looked up quickly and then returned to the study of her clasped hands. Unwittingly, she was mirroring her godfather's posture, but Nikki was sure she wasn't praying.

The usher came in and nodded to the prison officers. Nikki got to her feet, giving Helen's elbow a small tug to remind her to stand. The Scot obeyed the unspoken instruction. She was trembling slightly. As the judges took their seats, she visibly steeled herself and faced them, gaze level. The senior judge cleared his throat.

"Miss Stewart, this has been a difficult case on a number of levels. It is the opinion of this court that you did not best serve your own interests by your behaviour during your original trial. However, it is accepted that at that time you were a much more troubled individual than you are now. In that sense, the prison system has served its purpose, and the positive reports which you have had from Larkhall, in particular those of wing governor Betts, are noted. It is also clear that, while the state can never condone an individual taking the law into their own hands, you had what must have seemed to you at the time, valid reasons for both fearing the deceased and for believing that he might harm Sean Parr. In the circumstances, this court finds that the original sentence imposed upon you was unduly harsh. Your sentence is reduced to three years, the time you have already served, and you are free to go."

Helen blinked. "Free?" she asked.

"Yes," the judge said. "Free."

He and his colleagues stood up. Nikki glanced at the public gallery. Theo was sitting, bowed over his cane, shaking with relief and exhaustion. Colin Mcrae was already on his feet, heading down to the dock. Quietly, Nikki put a hand under Helen's elbow, supporting her. The other woman, who had been swaying, steadied and looked up at her.


"It's OK. Welcome to your future."

The Scot nodded silently, turning to her godfather, who had just made it to the dock.

"God be thanked," he said fervently. "Helen ...."

"I'm all right. Please, just give me a minute."

The clergyman nodded. "Of course. It must be a lot to take in."

"It is. Look, can I go?"

"I've got a car waiting outside," Claire said. "It'll take you to a guesthouse in Essex I know. The owners are very discreet."

Helen looked at Nikki and Di Barker, her face full of doubt. Nikki stepped back, making way, ignoring the pain in her chest. "No one can stop you going anywhere now."

The ex-con nodded and then suddenly frowned. "My things. Where are they?"

"They're in the boot of the car. I'll get them for you."

"I'd better go with you. Make sure they're all there."

"I hope they are. It's not like they're going to let you back into Larkhall to retrieve anything you've missed."

"I get that," Helen said distractedly. Claire and Nikki frowned at each other over her head, trying to work out what was going on in the ex-lifer's mind. Helen looked at Nikki.

"Well, are we going?"

"Sure," the brunette said, deciding to humour the other woman. She thought she might still be in a slight state of shock.

She nodded to Claire and led Helen down the corridor towards the car park. The Scot waited till they had gone through some fire doors then put her hand on Nikki's arm. The brunette stopped, suddenly conscious that they had true privacy for the first time in days.

"Nikki…," Helen said.


"Feels like I should still be calling you 'miss'."

"I told you. That's over."

"It is, isn't it? Everything you've done for me the last few weeks. Finding Theo ...."

"Claire did that."

"But you helped. And these last couple of days .... Taking care of me. Making sure I didn't lose it ...."

"I wanted to."

"What I'm saying is that I'd like to see you again. Later. When we can be properly alone. Talk to each other with no interruptions."

She sighed. "I want to see if we can try again. Now there's no bars. I told you that I couldn't deal with my feelings while I was in there. I'm not anymore and I want to start living again. With you as part of that, if possible."

Nikki ducked her head, feeling warmth fill her. She reached out a gentle hand and touched the other woman's upper arm. "Helen, I … look, it's not going to be plain sailing now you're out, you know. You've still got a lot of things to process, a lot of emotion to work through. It's going to take a while."

"I know that. I'm not stupid. But I want you to be in my life. If you'll have me. I want to try."

"Oh, darling .... I'll be wherever you want me to be, for as long as you want," the brunette told her tenderly.

Helen smiled. "That's all right, then," she said. She glanced up and down the corridor and kissed Nikki quickly on the lips. The taller woman frowned, puzzled.

"What was that?"

"Just reminding myself what you tasted like."

She started walking and Nikki fell into step beside her, the backs of their hands brushing and occasionally touching as they negotiated the route to the car park. Once there, the brunette transferred Helen's possessions into the car Claire had waiting for her. The ex-lifer squared her shoulders and looked around.

"Do I have to leave by this exit?"


"Good. I'm going out of the front door of this place."

"What about the reporters?"

"What about them? They reported my guilt. Let them report my acquittal."

Nikki shrugged, acquiescing. She was aware that the Scot was growing slightly giddy as the truth sank in and she realised that she was finally free. She was probably in the best place she could be, mentally, to cope with the barrage of flashbulbs and questioning that would inevitably confront her at some stage. Best to get it over with.

She led Helen through the maze of corridors towards the front door, then stopped her with a touch to her elbow as they approached the exit. She could see Colin Mcrae and Theo waiting for them, standing side by side, deliberately serious.


"As I'll ever be."

"Love you."

"Me, too."

Helen frowned momentarily. "What?" Nikki asked.

"Just ... wish my father was here to see this."

"He would have said that he is."

"That's true," the ex-inmate said thoughtfully. "Will you always do this for me? Remind me about the other side of the coin?"


Nikki dropped back, flanking Helen and one pace behind. She didn't particularly want her face splashed all over the tabloids, but she did want to see this moment, when the Scot's freedom became real to her; when she finally realised that there were no more restrictions under the sheltering sky.

The ex-lifer blinked as they walked into the sunlight, then looked across at the barrage of flashbulbs from the reporters and photographers who were corralled to one side of the entrance, shouting her name and pressing forward as they tried to get close enough to make her pay attention to their questions. For a second, it seemed to overwhelm her and she faltered, almost retreating. Then she straightened her back and raised her chin in exactly the same way as she had faced the judges in the courtroom, regarding them with cool detachment, as though the emotion of the moment was none of their business. Nikki grinned inwardly, proud that she was handling it so well.

She looked round and saw Colin Mcrae, tears standing in his eyes as he watched his goddaughter take her first free steps, Theo silent and isolated at the edge of the terrace, leaning heavily on his cane. She had time to see the small, insignificant details; the way the older man had missed a patch of stubble on his chin when he was shaving that morning; the way that Theo was stroking his signet ring with his thumb; the impassive gaze of the police officer who was standing to one side, feet braced, thumbs hooked in his stab vest. The traffic in the street beyond faded away as Nikki focused on the foreground and Helen.

There was a small, low thud. In front of her the smaller woman frowned and jerked slightly, shaking her head as though an insect had brushed past her face. Then she turned and Nikki saw the widening patch of red on her jacket, shocking against the grey charcoal of the suit. She was barely aware, as she was rushing forward, that she was shouting her partner's name. She got to the Scot just as the ex-con's legs started to give way, failing abruptly as if her will to stand had been taken from her. Nikki followed her down, a confused impulse to catch the other woman and cradle her head flooding through. She had to make sure there was no head trauma; otherwise, Helen'd wake up with a terrible concussion …

She snapped into greater coherence as her training started to take over. Blood was fountaining out of her partner now, a dreadful wrong, the fluid that should have been sustaining her life spilling wastefully out onto the uncaring stone. Nikki was barely aware that she was repeating, "Don't die, don't die, don't die…" through her teeth as she fought to manage the situation, to hold Helen safe, to stop the bleeding, to comfort her, the pain and fear in the Scot's wide, hazel eyes adding another element of anguish to the already surreal situation. Everything faded into a single focused point of attention, the light around Helen's face and chest thickening and brightening as she closed everything else out. Even the concussions of the flash bulbs and the constant, shouted conversations as journalists got on their phones to their newsrooms to report the event meant nothing.

Nothing next to the grayness of her love's skin, the flutter of her eyelids as consciousness faded and died, the slick, growing puddle of blood around them, her own hands' increasingly frantic efforts to hold the wound closed, to stop the Scot from going away again. To steal one last moment, even if it was a memory of pain and futility. The knowledge that she had finally and irrevocably lost her now.

Nikki snarled as hands touched her shoulders and stood up, ready to fight. She wondered afterwards if it was the fact that it was a much shorter policewoman rather than the officer she had been watching earlier that had stopped her from lashing out. She had brown eyes and a rather ordinary face, and Nikki started dazedly at her as she spoke clearly and carefully.

"You need to come away now. Let the paramedics try."

Without quite understanding how it had happened, the brunette found herself sitting in the doorway of a white van, staring numbly at the crowd of reporters being corralled by the police and a scratch force of staff from the courts on the other side of the cordon, the flashes of the cameras making her blink. Someone put a blanket round her shoulders as she began to shiver. She saw the policewoman who had led her away from the scene talking to other officers. Then she came over and crouched down, looking into Nikki's face.

"We need to get you checked over. Then we're going to organise someone to take you home. OK?"

"Helen ...," Nikki said.

She read the answer in the officer's face before she spoke. Everything stopped. She shook her head, fighting back the shock, feeling her mind begin to shut down as she tried not to hear the answer. She swayed, and the copper looked concerned and braced her, hands on her upper arms. Nikki swallowed the nausea back down her throat and focused. She was aware of being watched as the shorter woman holding her up tried to decide if she was going to lose it or not. She summoned her last reserves of will and steadied herself, using the compassionate brown eyes as an anchor.

Regretfully, the police officer shook her head. "I'm sorry. You did everything anyone could have."

"She …."

"She's been declared dead. There's nothing you can do for her now. We'll make sure she's not touched. Don't worry. We'll catch the bastard who did this."

Claire opened the door at Nikki's. She didn't react as she recognised Trisha, silently standing back to let the other woman into the flat. The club owner sympathised. Too much had happened today for the solicitor not to be exhausted. Even watching the news reports with their limited information, Trisha had found herself passing through a kaleidoscope of wrenching emotions, unable to disassociate herself from the drama playing out around her ex-partner. When Claire had phoned, begging her to come and help take care of Nikki, it had been a relief.

The blonde walked into the living room, glancing round and recognising a few familiar pieces from their life together, seeing more that was new. She pulled her coat off and dropped it onto the sofa.

"Where is she?" she asked bluntly.

A mousy haired woman who had been standing at the window, staring out into the rain-soaked dark, turned sharply and crossed the room to stand in front of Trisha. Seemingly realising she wouldn't get anywhere without it, she pulled out a warrant card and showed it to her.

"DS Groves. Who are you?"

"Trisha Harris. Nikki's ex-partner. Why?"

The police officer's shoulders slumped slightly. "I'm the liaison officer. I have to keep track of who's who."

"Are you all there is making sure Nikki's safe? On your own?"

"She wasn't the target. Helen Stewart was."

"You're certain?" Trisha demanded.



The other woman flinched and Trisha realised suddenly that the day's events had taken their toll on her as well. She was almost grey with fatigue, and her suit was crumpled and stained. The smell of hospitals and stale coffee clung to her like a taint, and the taut, shadowed skin around her eyes spoke of hours of relentless strain. When she spoke, the bitterness of someone who was reproaching herself bled through her voice.

"Because Stewart was the one who grassed the Butlers up. It was a professional hit. The MO shows that. People in that line of business don't make mistakes."

"I don't understand ...."

"Preliminary ballistics show the gun was a Dragonov, so the assassin will be from Eastern Europe. The former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, probably. We've recovered his wind marker and found the sniping post. He will have had an accomplice in the courtroom. When the verdict came through, the spotter walked out, made a phone call and probably headed for the getaway vehicle. Our killer did the hit from the church, bagged his rifle and walked away from the scene. He's already back home spending his fee, and the gun is either buried in a field somewhere or slag in a blast furnace."

"So why didn't you protect her?" Trisha asked, chilled by her contact with a world she had never thought she would encounter outside of TV dramas.

"We didn't realise anybody knew. We thought she could just walk into a new life where she'd be safe. Our mistake." DS Groves sighed tiredly. "There'll be a major incident review next week. The security breach ...."

"Which she paid for," the blonde said tightly. She didn't know Helen Stewart, had never even met the woman, but she found the idea that her safety had not even been a consideration deeply offensive. "Was it because she killed a copper? Was that why you didn't care?"

"No," DS Groves said. She seemed to be forcing the words out. "There are only so many resources. Sad, but true. We didn't believe she was at risk. We were wrong."

"You think?"

The club owner turned to Claire, suddenly unwilling to continue what felt like a post mortem. She could see the policewoman's pain, but she wasn't really interested. Her main priority remained her ex-lover's welfare. The rest could wait.

"Where's Nikki?"

"Through there." The solicitor hesitated. "Be careful. She's still in shock. I've tried, but ...."

Trisha nodded and headed in the direction that the other woman had indicated. When she got to the main bedroom, she stopped in the doorway, taking in the scene in front of her.

The room was illuminated by a single anglepoise lamp, standing to one side on a desk. Nikki was sitting on the floor, her back against the wall, knees drawn against her body, arms folded around her legs, staring into the distance. The light, shining across the room, showed the tension in her body; the way her face was a rigid mask of grief. She was still wearing her clothes from court, stiff with blood and dirt. One leg of the trousers was torn where she had knelt on granite flags, desperately trying to keep Helen alive. Her make up was smeared where she had wept and wiped at her face with careless hands. Trisha saw with a pang that her knuckles were scraped raw from contact with the unforgiving stone.

The blonde walked into the room and spoke softly. "Nikki?"


"What are you doing?"


"I don't understand."

Nikki turned to Trisha. Her eyes were brimming with tears. "If I breathe, I can survive."

Trisha suppressed the wave of sympathy that caught at her throat and nodded. She hated to see the dark haired woman in this amount of pain. Crossing the room, she knelt down in front of her and put her hands on Nikki's knees.



"You need to get out of those clothes. They're ....."

"They remind me of her."

Her ex-partner tried to phrase it gently. "No. Just the last time you were with her."

Nikki made a wounded, grieving sound in her throat and laid her face on the back of Trisha's hands. "Don't."

"I have to. You have to get clean. You have to sleep."

There was a pause. The blonde swallowed and bit the bullet. "You have to go on."

"Don't want to."

Gently, Trisha cupped Nikki's cheek. "I know. Just … start with a wash. OK? For me?"

Nikki looked at her, face working. The dam was very close to breaking now, Trisha could tell. She stood up and found the bathroom, half filling the bath with warm water. She heard a sound and turned. The taller woman was in the doorway, already fumbling at the buttons of her shirt with clumsy fingers. Trisha went to her, led her inside and then closed the door, starting to ease her out of her clothes. It was hard work because Nikki was uncoordinated, physically and mentally exhausted, getting in the way as Trisha helped her to undress. By the time she was naked, she was moving so slowly that she was almost sleepwalking.

The blonde guided her into the warm water and, wetting a flannel, started to carefully clean the blood and grime off her skin, paying especial attention to the grazing and bruises on her hands and knees. After she had washed Nikki's hair, she drained the bath and refilled it, urging her to lie back.

By then, tears were trickling down Nikki's cheeks, and as the blonde left to give her some privacy, she could hear her sobbing increasing in intensity and the splashing sounds as she began to hit out at the water, her palms producing miniature waterspouts as she broke the surface. Trisha let her get on with it; the worst thing she would have to do as a result would be to mop the floor, and she knew that the other woman needed the release and a private place to vent it in. Retracing her steps, she rummaged through the drawers till she found a pair of comfortable pyjamas that she recognised as being in the style that her ex-partner preferred and went back, rapping softly on the door before going in.

Nikki was already out of the bath, standing in the middle of the floor as she towelled herself dry. She took the pyjamas with an awkward nod of thanks and pulled the trousers on, staggering slightly as she tried to balance on unsteady legs, her normal poise eroded. Carefully, Trisha avoided reacting to the sight. She knew how hard the dark haired woman was fighting to hold it together. Nikki pulled the top over her head instead of unfastening the buttons and doing them up again. Then she looked round, seemingly at a loss, her momentum gone.

"Do you need anything?" Trisha asked.


"How about a cup of tea? Some water?"

"Yeah. I suppose."

The smaller woman reached out and took her hand, leading the way to the bedroom. Nikki followed passively, apparently at the end of her reserves. She watched as Trisha drew the duvet down and then climbed into bed without being told, lying on her back. She put an arm out as the club owner covered her, measuring the empty space on the other side of the double mattress, then abruptly turned onto her side, back to the door. Trisha put a hand on Nikki's shoulder and squeezed it.

"I'll see about getting you something to drink."

She waited for a reaction, didn't get one, and headed back out into the living room. DS Groves was just bringing through a tray of tea. The policewoman put it down on the coffee table and shrugged as she saw Trisha's reaction.

"You wouldn't believe how many kettles I've boiled in my time," she said matter of factly. "Think she'll be able to keep it down?"

"It's worth a try."

The detective nodded and poured a mug of tea, adding milk and a generous amount of sugar. She shook her head when Trisha tried to stop her. "If she's in shock, she needs the energy. Trust me."

Rather than argue, Trisha took the drink through, leaving it on the bedside table. Nikki didn't respond when she spoke to her - she had retreated into her own, untouchable world. Her face was still impassive, but she had begun to shiver, a slight continuous trembling. Her body seemed to be trying to shake itself apart, as though it no longer wanted to be in existence. Trisha thought about staying with her and then realised tiredly that it was late and that she had no idea how long Claire or DS Groves were staying, or what the arrangements for tomorrow were. She contented herself with pressing a kiss onto Nikki's forehead and whispering a promise to be back soon before she left the room. The brunette didn't react - she was too bound up in her own private horrors.

The solicitor was slumped on the sofa, cradling a mug of tea, but DS Groves was pacing the room, speaking rapidly on her mobile. As Trisha watched, she terminated the call and headed for her coat, which was slung carelessly over the back of an armchair.

"You off, then?" she asked, rather enjoying the other woman's small flinch of guilt.

DS Groves nodded, pulling her coat on.

"When are you back tomorrow?"

The policewoman stilled, then squared her shoulders. "I'm not," she said.


"We have a major murder enquiry on our hands. That means I'm needed elsewhere. My guvnor only let me spend the evening here in case your mate saw something useful. We'll send a couple of uniforms round to take a statement when she's ready to talk."

"What about her safety?"

"I told you. She's not at risk. I've made the local station aware of the situation. If anything happens, then this address is flagged with a marker on the PNC. So is she. The patrols will swing past here a couple of times a day for a while. Just to make sure. That's all I can do."

"There are only 'so many' resources."

"Exactly. I'm sorry."

"What for? According to you, we can't expect any more."

DS Groves pulled a business card out of her pocket and handed it to Claire. "If you need me, you can get me on this mobile number. The office number has an answering machine."

She looked Trisha straight in the eye. "What Wade needs now is support from her friends."

"Lucky for her she's got some."

There was an awkward silence. Claire took the initiative, showing the policewoman out and then returned to the living room. She cleared her throat. Trisha spoke first.

"Thank you for calling me. You're right. She needs someone here."

Claire hesitated. "I wasn't sure you'd come," she confessed.

The blonde smiled knowingly. "Because we parted on bad terms?"

The other woman nodded awkwardly.

"We still have a history together. That doesn't change."

"I'll ring tomorrow to see how she is."

Trisha showed her out, cleaned up the bathroom and then padded round the unfamiliar flat, working out where things were and tidying up. Not that there was a lot of that to do, given Nikki's near military habits of order. One thing did catch her attention. There was a corkboard over the desk in the study with a photograph pinned in each bottom corner. One was from what the blonde identified as 'Prison Talk' and showed Stewart, smiling unwillingly as she held a painting up for inspection. The caption said something about a winning entry in a national competition. The clipping was old and yellowing, and a tear in one corner had been mended with sellotape. The other photograph was on glossy paper and was of a much younger version of Helen, dressed in jeans, t-shirt and a denim jacket, leaning on a spade, laughing at the camera. It had once been a picture of her standing next to someone else, but the image had been neatly clipped in half, leaving the Scot as the main focus. Trisha looked at the pictures, feeling her chest tighten, before going to clean her teeth and find something to sleep in.

When she was ready, she went to Nikki's room and quietly opened the door. She could tell from the other woman's breathing that she was awake. She crossed over to the bed, seeing with relief that Nikki had at least drunk some of the tea, and put her hand on the taller woman's shoulder. Her ex-partner stirred briefly and then lay still, waiting.

"You want me on the sofa or with you?" Trisha asked quietly.

In response, the taller woman shifted across so there was room in front of her and dragged the duvet back. Trisha lay down and moulded herself against the familiar contours, pulling the cover over them both. She felt an arm go around her as Nikki sought the warmth and comfort she needed. The blonde settled in her loose grip, habit taking over, spooning into the well remembered curves of her ex-lover's body.

Absently, she kissed the bicep that was laid across her side and closed her eyes, still holding the other woman's hand lightly in her own.

Nikki was restless at first, too overtired to fully relax. When she gave into sleep properly, though, she surrendered to it, not moving when Trisha woke in the night because she was in an unfamiliar space. She didn't stir when the blonde was roused by the morning light streaming in through a gap in the curtains and slipped out from under her arm. The club owner sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the taller woman, seeing how even in sleep, her fists were clenched tight, as though she was trying to hold on to something that had already been lost. Quietly, Trisha went and showered before getting dressed. She didn't try and wake Nikki. Right now, oblivion was a mercy.

She was making toast and coffee when the doorbell rang. Trisha went to see who it was, warily making sure the chain was on before she opened the front door. An attractive blonde woman in a business suit frowned at her from the top step and then identified herself.

"Karen Betts. Wing governor at Larkhall."

Trisha nodded and let the visitor into the flat before preceding her into the living room. The stranger looked at her, eyebrows raised.

"And you are …"

"I'm Trisha Harris, an old friend of Nikki's. I volunteered to come over and take care of her."

"I see," Betts said. She pulled a packet of cigarettes out of her handbag and then looked exasperated, obviously remembering where she was. She started to put them away again. Trisha held out her hand.

"It's OK. Nikki lets people smoke around her. I'll get you an ashtray. Do you want coffee? I've just made a cafetiere."

"The real stuff? Definitely," the woman said. By the time Trisha had returned from the kitchen with their drinks, she had made herself at home on the sofa and was turning the cardboard packet over and over in one hand, grimacing slightly at the health warning. She smiled thanks as her hostess handed her the ashtray and lit up, taking a deep, comforting drag of her cigarette before she asked the next question.

"How is Nikki?"

"Asleep," Trisha said bluntly.

Betts nodded. "Unsurprising. She's had a lot to deal with. We all have."

The club owner made a non committal noise. She was unsure exactly why the other woman was here and didn't want to give too much away. Betts looked shrewdly at her over the rim of her mug and ground out her cigarette in the blue glass dish. With a pang, Trisha remembered when Nikki had bought it - on their first holiday together, at a tacky little souvenir shop in Cornwall while they were doing the South West Coast walk.

Karen hesitated. "Look, Trisha, I know that we should have sent someone round last night to make sure she was all right. But it's been mayhem on the wing. The woman who died, Helen Stewart, was a lifer and well respected. We've had trouble keeping a lid on things. Several women are down the block for fighting, including some who haven't made trouble for years, and it's possible that at least one inmate will have to be transferred to the vulnerable prisoner's unit or shipped out for her own protection."


"Some of the others objected to her comments," the wing governor said tiredly. "What I'm saying is that I'm here to help, if I can. Better late than never. What does she need?"

"I'm not sure. Time. Space ...." Trisha shrugged. "I'm waiting to see."

"Can you organise a sick note for her?"

"I'll take care of it."

"Thank you. I'll keep in touch. Our governing governor thinks I'm best qualified."

"Because he doesn't want to do it himself," a voice said from the doorway. Trisha and Karen looked up in shock as Nikki crossed the room and sat down. She was still dressed in her pyjamas; her hair was tousled and uncombed.

"How are you?" Karen asked.

The brunette shrugged, fell silent. "Unreal," she said finally. "Where are they shipping Dockley off to?"

"It's finding somewhere that'll take her."

"You don't say."

Nikki drew a deep breath and forced the next question out. Alarmed, Trisha realised that she was shaking. "When's Stewart's funeral?"

"They're not sure. There has to be an autopsy, and her godfather collapsed with a suspected heart attack last night."

"Who identified the body?"

"DI Chatsworth. It was a formality."

"I expect so. Not like it could be anybody else, could it?"

Karen frowned. "Look, Nikki .... You mustn't blame yourself. You couldn't have protected her. It was something to do with that dodgy ex-boyfriend of hers. No one could have stopped it. It was a hit."

"It was a set up."


"The only people who knew she'd given that information to Chatsworth and Groves were police officers and prison staff. Someone sold her life for an envelope of greasy tenners."

"You don't know that."

Nikki smiled mirthlessly. "Don't I?"

She rubbed at her forehead. "I'll always wonder who it was. And I'll probably never find out."

The wing governor glanced at Trisha and then stood up. "I have to get back to Larkhall. I'll come by tomorrow evening, if that's all right?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Nikki said.

Karen frowned at her colleague, but didn't say anything else. She followed Trisha into the hall, then put a hand on her arm and spoke quietly. "I think she needs to see a doctor. She's acting very strangely."

The club owner nodded, glad that the other woman didn't seem to be thinking too deeply about the causes of Nikki's behaviour. "I know. I'll get in touch with her GP today. I'll probably take her home for a while."

Karen raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"

"She stayed with me before she bought the flat," Trisha said easily. "It might be better for her to be somewhere she remembers from before Larkhall. Less associations."

The wing governor nodded and scribbled a couple of phone numbers on a piece of paper she pulled out of her handbag. She handed it to Trisha.

"Work and home. Anything I can do."

Trisha nodded. "I'll bear it in mind."

When Betts had gone, she stood in the hallway for a moment, thinking, then went back into the living room. Nikki hadn't moved.

"Did you love her?" Trisha asked.


"Did she love you?"


"Were you going to be together when she got out?"

"She told me it was over a few weeks ago."

"But you still worked on her appeal."

"She changed her mind. Just before .... but even if she hadn't. Feelings don't just stop. You know that"

'Especially not yours,' Trisha thought. Aloud she said, "I think you should come and stay at the house for a while."


"I don't want to leave you on your own."

Nikki fixed her with a painfully intense gaze. "And how will Joanne react?"

"Don't worry about her."

"I'm not going to be the cause of a bloody domestic!"

"You won't be. You're not the only one who got dumped."


"Yeah," Trisha said tiredly. "I'll do a deal with you. If it gets awkward, you can come back here. No questions."

Nikki studied her and finally nodded. "OK. Agreed."

Trisha made some phone calls while her ex-partner packed a bag, booking a doctor's appointment and arranging some cover for her shifts at the club. She had the feeling that once what had happened fully sank in, the other woman might need a lot more support. She was right.

Over the next fortnight, she watched as Nikki battled through her days, racked with grief and anger as she tried to accept what had happened. She didn't cry in front of anyone else, not even the club owner, but Trisha could hear her sobbing late at night and early in the morning, when she didn't know she could be overheard.

Outwardly, she was coping well, maintaining her facade when people came to visit. It was Trisha who saw how she hardly ate or slept and recognised the toll her stoicism was taking on her. When Nikki finally broke down in public after the funeral, it was a relief, even though it worried Colin Mcrae, who had sought her out to thank her for everything she had done for his goddaughter. Trisha got the dark haired woman into the car and reassured him that she'd be all right, even though she wasn't sure she believed it herself.

Nikki insisted on going back to work a week later instead of getting another sick note. Trisha was unhappy with the idea, but recognised that ultimately it was her ex-partner's choice.

She let herself back into the house mid-afternoon and went to the kitchen to make a drink before tackling a stack of invoices that needed taking care of. She was startled to find Nikki at the kitchen table, still dressed in her work clothes. The other woman looked up as she walked in and nodded a silent greeting before returning to her study of the cutlery rack. Trisha sat down opposite her.

"You're back early. Did you get tired?"

"No. I didn't want to stay there anymore. It got too much."

"It's going to take a while," the club owner soothed, reaching for Nikki's hand. The brunette accepted the grip briefly, squeezing her fingers, and then let go.

"I've resigned."

"What? Why?"

"Says the woman who's been wanting me to do it for years."

"So you could concentrate on other things! I thought you'd made your decision."

"So did I. Turns out I was wrong." Nikki shifted restlessly in her chair. "The walls started closing in on me. Everywhere I looked, there were memories. And then I got to the wing office and nothing had changed. Sylvia was complaining about some new overtime form, Dominic looked like his dog had died. Di Barker was trying to cheer everyone up. And Fenner - he was back at work, smirking at me like he knew something I didn't."

"Fenner?" Trisha said, puzzled. "He's still there? What about the investigation you told me about?"

Nikki scowled. "That was the final straw. He made sure to let me know while he was making me coffee. Area Management believed him. He didn't even get a reprimand."

"For being in a woman's room without permission, after hours?"

"For being in a con's cell, after lock up," the brunette said bitterly. "He told them that he was worried about Shell Dockley. Some of her behaviour during the party. As her personal officer, he went to talk to her. He didn't realise how upset she was. He recognises it was a reckless thing to do, now, but at the time he was only thinking about her welfare."


"Yeah. Helen always said he was cunning."

"They believed him?"

"Yeah. It didn't help that Shell had smuggled a weapon into her room. That put her in the wrong straight away."

"It was probably the only defence she had!"

"Well, she's gone now. Wherever they shipped her, at least she's away from Fenner. It's over. All of it."

"What are you going to do instead?"

"Travel. America. I've been promising myself a trip to San Francisco forever. And I've learnt the hard way that you never know how long you've got."

"What about your flat?"

"There are letting agencies."

She frowned. "I'm just tired, Trisha. Tired of it all. I have to get away and think about things."

"You'll be careful? You won't do anything silly?"

Nikki smiled. "No. You don't have to worry about that. I want to … I want her … Oh, God, I don't know."

She stood up. "I'd better get changed."

"You have already."


"I just wish it hadn't taken this to make it happen."

"Funny," Nikki said dismissively, then walked out of the kitchen without looking back.

Nikki huddled deeper into her coat and quickened her pace, enjoying the crisp tang of the air. The colours of the trees were as spectacular as the brochure had promised, and the small town looked like something out of a film set, the clapboard New England houses neat in their pale coats of paint, offset by the red brick that was part of their construction. This far from the city, there was minimal traffic and she had spent the day hiking in the hills around the town, letting the peace soak into her. The exercise had wakened her appetite, and she was looking forward to the promised meal of lobster.

Beside her, Frances, her hostess, reached out and caught her arm. "Wait up, will ya? Some of us have normal size legs."

"Sorry," Nikki said and slowed down again. "Chilly."

"Ayuh. Wait ten minutes and it'll change," Frances told her. They strolled next to each other in silence for a while, and Nikki wondered briefly how Trisha and Claire were doing. She had found herself thinking about London more and more recently, even as she navigated the bustle of New York, her last stopover before her trip to Maine.

She had been planning to carry on to Canada, but she was starting to think it might be time to head home. The intense sadness and rage that had consumed her and made California little more than a blur in her memory had faded with time, but the pervasive sorrow that had replaced it seemed to be here to stay. She could enjoy herself for hours or days at a time, forget what had happened. Then something would remind her, a phrase, an image, even a person, and she would be filled with powerful emotions of loss and regret that she knew would never entirely go away.

There had been other women, but Nikki was aware, even as she made love to them and tried hard to focus on the person she was with that part of her was whispering again and again, 'not Helen, not Helen'. In the end, intimacy had begun to feel like hypocrisy, and she had chosen celibacy as the more honest option.

"You loved her, this woman," her companion said quietly.


"What was her name?"



"She was shot. It was … very sudden."

Frances nodded and Nikki looked down at her grey-streaked hair, aware that the older woman had lost her partner five years earlier. It had been the emotion in the sculptor's pieces that had originally drawn Nikki to visit her small gallery, which in turn had led to an invitation to stay.

"He shouldn't have died," her hostess said thoughtfully. "But a man has to work, and the only work was on the boats. Was it a hold up?"

"A hit," Nikki said, hearing as she said them how melodramatic the words sounded. She ducked her head, embarrassed. The American studied her with sharp blue eyes.

"It's OK. I knew."
"The Internet."

"Ayuh. Got curious about some of things you weren't saying. Bad way to lose someone."

"There isn't a good way."

"No. But you always want more time. Must be worse for you."

"I don't know," Nikki said. "I've never lost anyone before."

She drew a deep breath, feeling the crisp air tightening her skin. "I think it might be time to go back. I can't hide for the rest of my life."

"True enough," Frances said. "Go back and pretend to live till it's real."

They got to the small restaurant, its lights cheery in the swiftly gathering twilight. Nikki climbed onto the small veranda and held the door open for her hostess. That moment, if any could be defined, marked the point at which she made the decision to return to her normal life.

"Hi, are you ready to order?"

"Yes, we'll have …." Monica Lindsay looked up and did a double-take. "Miss Wade?!"

"It's Nikki," the brunette said easily, indicating the name badge on her shirt. She raised her pad. "Are you ready to order?"

"Yes, but what are you doing here?"

"Waiting tables at my age, you mean? I co-own the place. We had a staffing crisis. So here I am."

"I see," Monica said. She smiled at her companion, an expensively dressed, middle-aged man, then turned back. "Would you … join us for a drink later? If you're free. I may have a proposition for you."

"Sounds intriguing," their waitress said lightly. "Now, I can recommend the sea bass tonight, or if you prefer meat, the lamb is very good ...."

"Nikki," the ex-con interrupted, reaching up and laying a hand on her arm. "Please come and see me, either later or tomorrow, at my office. I really do have a job for you. One that no one else can do. Helping prisoners."

Nikki studied her silently. Finally, she sighed and shook her head. "That's someone else. Someone I used to be. Sorry. I'm not that person anymore. I'll get another member of staff to take care of you."

She started to move away, only to find her arm caught again. She frowned, snatching it back.

"What the …," she said, then glanced around to make sure none of the rest of the customers had heard. Monica looked determinedly at her. "The woman I remember would never have stopped caring about the cons. Whatever happened."

"You see, that's where you're wrong," Nikki said, blinking back tears, "when your world falls apart, you tend to come out of it a different person. I can't be what you need. Not now."

"I don't believe that."

"You should."

"Well, maybe you taught me about rising to the occasion," Monica said. Before Nikki could quite process the comment, the older woman had taken the opportunity to stand up and slip a business card into the pocket of the black apron she had tied around her waist. She laid a hand on the brunette's upper arm.

"Please. For Spencer? For Helen?"

"That's not fair!" Nikki said fiercely.

"Things rarely are, I find," Monica said. "But sometimes, people of good will can make a difference about that if they try hard enough."

The tall woman smiled emptily and walked away, sending someone else over. Later, Merle found her in the empty dining area, ignored by the staff as they moved around, prepping the restaurant for the next day's efforts, turning Monica's business card round in her hand.

"Hi, partner," Merle said, moving to lean on the bar next to her. Nikki glanced over at her co-owner and curved her lips in what might, in a kinder light, have been a smile.


"Rough night?"

"Not really."

"Heard you had an encounter from your past."


"You going to do anything about it?"


"Why not?"

"Because, in case you hadn't noticed, we have a restaurant to run."

"Sure. Like that matters to you."

That got her a full strength Nikki Wade glare. "Are you questioning my commitment?"

"No. You do everything you have to do, and you do it well. I can't complain about that."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I didn't realise till we were at Trisha's, watching those old home movies of you and her."

"'Chix - the early years', you mean?"


"What about them?"

"You're different in those. You smile. All the time. You laugh."

"I do those things now. Don't get dramatic on me," Nikki said uncomfortably.

"No, you don't. I've heard you chuckle and I've seen you move your mouth like someone was taking a photograph and told you say cheese. That's different."

"What is this, a fucking intervention?"

"It's me saying you should do something about the past. You can't move on till you lay Helen Stewart to rest. And you won't do that until you forgive yourself for your part in her death."

Nikki bit her lip and glared mutinously at the other woman. "I didn't have any part in her death!" she hissed.

"That's what you tell people. It's not what you believe."

Nikki let herself into her office, not expecting anyone to be there. She jerked in shock as Monica's voice greeted her.

"So, how did it go with the select committee?"

The brunette dumped her briefcase before turning to face the older woman. She leant back on the edge of the desk. Monica was reclining on the leather sofa underneath the office window, her shoes on the floor beside it. Nikki had insisted on the large, comfortable piece of furniture as a condition of working for the campaign group. Monica had objected at the time, but seemed to spend a lot of her late nights there recently, feet up as she worked on strategy with her headstrong executive assistant and proxy. Now, as the older woman lay framed by the cityscape of London, highlighted by the light visible through the window behind her, Nikki realised for the first time how tired she was looking these days. She bowed her head, suddenly understanding why her boss had been so insistent about handing over responsibility in the last few months.

"Pretty good. I don't think I did us any favours, though."


"A couple of the more right wing members went for my throat. I retaliated."

"How did you do that?"

"Showed them up by quoting statistics that proved they were talking bollocks. Didn't make me very popular."

"But you're back late. They didn't send you away."

"They did. But the minister invited me to tea at the Commons via his PPS. So I stayed."

"How did that go?"

"OK. I've got another appointment next week with some of the back room policy wonks. If we can pull the research together ...."

"I'm sure your team will be up to it," Monica said. Nikki nodded. The small group she had recruited, a mixture of ex-cons with unrecognised skills and recent graduates, were fearsomely dedicated. The ex-governor was slightly uncomfortable with the way their work ethic was based around personal loyalty to her, but she rationalised it by telling herself that she merely served as a convenient focus for their passion for reform. She shrugged.

"They'll come through. This is the chance we've been waiting for."

"Don't get your hopes up," Monica warned.

Nikki smiled. "I know not to do that. But we have to try. Or what's the point?"

Monica nodded and looked at the framed painting that dominated the wall above the small bookcase where her deputy kept publications and reports. Colin Mcrae had been glad to sell it to the woman whom he saw as responsible for having his goddaughter freed. He had wanted to give it to Nikki, but she had insisted on making a substantial donation to a charity of his choice. The amount didn't really matter; though unfinished, the triptych was priceless as far as the ex-screw was concerned. It was the only piece of artwork still in existence that showed Helen's fully mature style. Having the grim vision of redemption in her everyday space helped her focus, reminded her what and who she was fighting for.

The brunette glanced at the artwork and looked at her boss, her lips quirking in reluctant acknowledgement.

"Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, right?"

Monica nodded silently. They shared an instant of memory before moving on to a discussion of tactics.

Nikki let herself out of the service stairwell and into the underground car park. It was late - she had sat up with Monica considering options for another hour or so, the session only coming to an end when the older woman's energy had visibly begun to fail. Nikki promised herself that the next time she had the opportunity, she would sit down with her boss and discuss their schedule. She knew the other woman wouldn't take it the wrong way - the work they were doing was too important to be endangered by one person's ill health.

She walked towards her car, only peripherally aware of her surroundings. She was tired and her back was aching. She needed a long soak in a hot bath and about nine hours' sleep. Luckily, she'd put in so much extra time preparing for the committee meeting that she knew she could follow Monica's firm instruction not to be in before early afternoon with a clear conscience for once.

Nikki was aware that she worked insanely long hours; Claire pointed it out to her on a regular basis, as did Trisha now that they were friends again. What neither of them seemed to realise was that it was the only way she could begin to keep the guilt and regret at bay, to compensate for the gaping hole that still existed in the centre of her life. She'd tried again when she came back to England; she'd conscientiously gone on dates and socialised, and even had a few affairs. But it had always ended the same way, with arguments and recriminations as her latest girlfriend realised that they couldn't compete with the ever present memory of Helen, a woman who she'd never even slept with. Nikki snorted to herself as she activated the locking system on her car, the high pitched noise loud in the silence of the concrete space. How sad was that?

"Are you trying to get mugged?" a voice asked as she put her hand out to open the driver's door.

The brunette looked up quickly, adrenaline cutting through her tiredness as she cursed herself. She would never normally let her guard down to this extent - there were enough people who had grudges against her to have cause to seek her out, and some of them were mad enough to try. Maybe she really did need a holiday.

She looked across the car park and frowned as she recognised the slim, elegant figure of Lauren Atkins, dressed in a long, dark coat over a tailored suit, each of which had probably cost the equivalent of about two months of Nikki's salary. The expensive, understated jewellery, immaculate makeup and leather gloves, together with the designer Italian shoes completed the image of the modern crime boss. That, and the two burly men dressed in raincoats who were flanking her. Nikki stepped away from the car and shrugged, deciding that a calm approach was best.

"This place is supposed to have security."

"Unfortunately, the camera's not working and the guard's on his rounds," Lauren said. "We're on our own."

A quick glance revealed that the light on top of the security camera was off. Nikki looked back at the other woman, wary but not frightened yet. It was unlikely that Lauren Atkins would be anywhere near the site of a planned hit or beating. She had staff for that sort of thing.

The proof of that had been in the papers for the last few weeks. It was an open secret that the Butler and Atkins families were at war. James Butler had been running things from prison, but the inevitable delays that imposed, as well as his increasing ill health, had seriously disadvantaged his family when it came to keeping control of their criminal empire. They had been losing ground to Lauren for years.

Recently, the power struggle had escalated. The screaming tabloid headlines as known gangsters were gunned down in orchestrated hits or simply vanished, their bodies occasionally turning up later in the river or dumped in various spots within a morning's drive of the capital told their own story. Atkins had been pulled in for questioning more than once. She could afford the best legal representation, and the papers had stopped reporting her visits to one or another police station because she was always released without charge. Nikki had only heard about it because of the circles she moved in.

"Here to settle a score?" she challenged.

The younger woman nodded, apparently impressed by her coolness under pressure, and stepped forward. "Not with you. Not that way. I've got something for you."

That confirmed Nikki's hunch that this wasn't personal, which was the one factor that might have persuaded Lauren to break her 'hands off' rule. There was a reason why Yvonne Atkins's daughter had been the most successful and most untouchable gangster in London for years. The brunette folded her arms and waited to be told what was going on.

"The charity won't take your money," she said. "You know that."

"Don't see why not. It was a decent amount you handed back."

"Well for some reason, accepting donations from known criminals, sorry, entrepreneurs, doesn't go down too well with the politicians or the Charities Commission. We're working in prison reform. We have to be seen to have clean hands."

The other reason, which was their shared knowledge of the probable source of the money, profits made from exploiting the women the charity was there to help, lay unspoken between them.

"You and your oppos are doing a good job," Lauren acknowledged. "I think you might actually manage to change things one of these days."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence. Now, I'm tired. I'd like to go home."

"I'm not finished," the crime boss said.

"Then get on with it," Nikki said, feeling her self control beginning to fray as she reached the end of her reserves.

One of the thugs behind Lauren, the younger of the pair, stepped forward and then stilled as she held up a black-gloved forefinger. "Relax. She's had a long day."

The man bristled, but backed down. Atkins smiled at him, totally in control, then turned back to the conversation as if nothing had happened.

"What I've got for you. It's information. Not money."

"So tell me and go."

"You have to prepare for a shock," Lauren said, almost kindly.


The gangster shrugged and then, unexpectedly, changed the subject. "You prefer women, don't you? In bed."

"I don't sleep with men, no. Not my flavour. Not that it's anything to do with you."

"Sometimes I wonder if you have the right idea. Personally, keeping my love life and my business affairs separate works best for me. Not something you managed, was it?"

"I never took advantage of a prisoner while I was an officer," Nikki said wearily.

"No, you never did," Lauren agreed. "Unlike some. I had it checked out. You were hard, but you were honest. That's what everyone says. Doesn't mean you didn't fall in love. I saw how you reacted when Stewart was shot. That wasn't no screw worried about a con. That was someone seeing her girlfriend being gunned down in front of her."

Nikki looked into the younger woman's strangely sympathetic face and felt past grief rise up to claim her. "Look, if you know who killed Helen, don't tell me, tell the police."

"The filth know who pulled the trigger. Course they do! They just can't prove it."

The brunette nodded weary acknowledgement. She was streetwise enough to have worked that out for herself and to have come to terms with the fact that the Met wasn't going to put too many resources into tracking down the hitman who'd taken out an admitted cop-killer. Not unless they wanted him for their own reasons. Atkins' next words brought her up short.

"More to the point, they don't want to."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"You know James Butler died of coronary heart disease in prison last month?" Lauren said calmly.

Nikki tried to focus and make sense of the conversation. She nodded.

"Butler was a man who didn't let go of grudges easily. If he'd have found out that the grass who caused his first arrest, which was the beginning of the end for him because once he was inside, people started to come forward and they could build a case against him, was still alive, he'd have organised another hit. His sons are a different proposition. By the time I've finished with them, they'll have bigger things to worry about than one woman who should be dead, but isn't."

"What do you mean, the police don't want to prove who killed Helen?" Nikki said, desperately trying to understand.

Lauren smiled. "You see, in British law, for a murder charge, there has to be a death."

Nikki blinked, distantly aware of the pain in her kneecaps where they had impacted on the hard, grimy concrete of the floor. She swayed, conscious from the roaring in her ears and the way her vision was greying out that she was very close to fainting. She felt something around her shoulders, supporting her, and a metallic rim was put to her lips and tilted, tipping a pungent liquid into her mouth. She swallowed, feeling some of it spill out of the corners of her lips, and coughed as the brandy burned its way down her throat.

Strong hands gripped her upper arms and lifted her to her feet. When she came back to full awareness, she was sitting on the edge of a back seat in a top of the range Bentley, sinking into the leather upholstery, legs out of the car, the rear door open next to her. One of Atkins' heavies was kneeling in front of her, looking worriedly at her. He was older and had a lived in, well-worn face, the melancholy of the eyes going some way to dispel the menace of the broken nose and shaven head. Nikki focused blurrily on his fingers, which he was snapping slowly in front of her eyes. As she did, he stopped and moved his forefinger across. She tracked it blearily. He smiled, revealing teeth that were more metal than enamel. Nikki realised that he had a bird tattooed on one side of his neck in faded blue and a vicious scar under his chin, probably an old knife wound. He patted her face gently and stood up.

"She's OK. Bleeding hell, boss, I thought we had an ambulance job there for a while."

"She'll be all right. She's tougher than she looks," Lauren said calmly.

"Even so," the thug said.

He spoke kindly to Nikki. "Better stay sitting down for a little while, girl. You don't have to be standing to talk, do you?"

"I'm a woman, not a girl," she rasped.

"That you are," the man said. He stepped back and Lauren took his place.

"Why now?" Nikki asked.

"I have my reasons."

"Are you telling me your gang war's getting serious?"

"No, course not. Nothing I can't handle. I'm staging a take-over." Atkins glanced at her watch. "Tonight, as it happens. But you don't need to worry about that. I have some other business to conclude. Something personal."

"I don't understand."

The crime boss shrugged.

"I've been talking to the Julies, and I found something out about how my mum died. I might have to go to Spain or Cyprus for a little while, just till things calm down again. I wanted to do this before I went."

"Gangsters don't normally like informers," Nikki said. "How do I know this isn't just a way of setting her up so you can get to her?"

"Please," Lauren said. She gestured and one of her henchmen handed her a thick wallet of photographs. She held them out. Nikki took them involuntarily and started leafing rapidly through them, her throat closing as she recognised the beloved, familiar face in a variety of rural settings. Helen had a smile these days, she realised. The grim, taut expression was gone.

"If I wanted her dead, she'd already be in the morgue. Easy to take a shot as take a photograph, specially when someone lives alone, like she does. She saved my Mum's life once, in Larkhall. She never grassed an Atkins; she never grassed at all before she was forced to. Even the filth knew what they'd done. You think most informers get another identity? They knew the only way they could keep her safe from James Butler was if she was dead. So when they got their chance, they took it. Only time I've heard of a copper doing a decent thing."

"I'm not sure I believe you," Nikki said.

"Fair enough. But here's another thought. In a way, I owe her. I'd never have done as well against James Butler. He was old school and he was cunning. I can take his sons but I couldn't have taken him. Helen Stewart is one of the reasons I am where I am. I believe in paying my debts. Whatever they are. Bottom line? You've got the knowledge now. What you do with it is up to you. The address is in the wallet with the photographs." She paused. "You have my word, as an Atkins, that I won't harm her or let any of mine harm her."

She nodded decisively and Nikki staggered to her feet, recognising that the strange meeting had come to an end. The older thug escorted her back to her car, one hand carefully under her elbow, supporting her. He made sure she had her handbag and keys, opened her car door for her and left her leaning against the steering wheel, trying to absorb what had happened. When she thought she was finally safe to drive, she started the engine and made her way home.

The news about Fenner broke two weeks later. The papers had a field day, imagining in grisly detail what it must have been like for him, locked into a shipping container on one of the bleak, industrial estates that lined the Thames estuary, dying slowly of thirst and hunger, screaming his throat raw with no one to hear him. When they found him, he had stripped his fingernails clawing against the rough metal interior of the steel box he had been trapped in. He had shredded his hands in his last agonies, and his dehydrated shell was barely recognisable as the man he had been. Nikki had a couple of bad nights wondering if she would be the next one targeted and then dismissed it when she realised that if Lauren had wanted her dead, she would already be under the ground.

By the time a month had passed, the brunette had faced the fact that she simply couldn't stay away any longer. It would have been different if she had believed that going would endanger Helen. Then, she would have put the knowledge that her soul mate was alive to the back of her mind and learned to bear one more grief. But, strangely, she trusted Lauren's word and her old school villain's sense of honour. She had come across it often enough during her career in the prison service to know that, once given, such a promise was incorruptible. She hedged her bets, all the same. She left a full account of the meeting and most of the photographs with Claire in a sealed envelope before she set off.

As she came up the rutted track, driving carefully to protect the suspension, Nikki could see across the vista of the smallholding to either side of her. It was well maintained, the rows of vegetables in weed-free, neatly kept beds. The greenhouses to one side were newly painted, their glass clean, and the polytunnels at the other edge of the plot were tidy and well anchored. Further back, the cottage stood on the brow of the hill, looking out across the sweep of moorland, its small, recessed windows buried in rough-mortared stone walls. Moss and lichen patches dotted the slate roof; a lean-to sheltered a pile of timber with a tarpaulin over it and a battered looking truck. A modern extension in matching stone was attached to one side of the original building, but the place was still tiny.

Nikki pulled her vehicle into the yard at the back and got out, feeling the breeze on her face as she listened to the echoing silence of her surroundings. When the wind was in the right direction, she could hear the noises of cows from down the valley. Otherwise, apart from bird song, the whole world seemed deserted. The brunette shivered, pushing her sunglasses back onto her head, and walked over to the back door. She knocked and then hesitated as it gave under the pressure of her hand - she hadn't realised it was ajar.

"Hello? Is anybody home?" she called, then waited. She thought she heard the murmur of voices deeper in the house and, unwilling to just leave after making the effort to get this far, pushed the door open and stepped into the cottage.

She found herself in a kitchen that looked like it had come out of a time warp. A single cold tap fed the old pot sink under the window, and the place still had an open fire with a cast iron range surrounding it. The sideboard and cupboards were battered and restored, solid wood pieces that looked as though they had been built from offcuts to fit the spaces available. A drying rack with a few clothes slung on it hung from the ceiling. Nikki recognised the sizing and suppressed a surge of hope.

The only concessions to modernity were the neat fridge and washing machine visible through an archway in what looked like a small utility room. Nikki realised that it was the extension she had seen from the outside. A half-sized chest freezer sat against the other wall.

A compact table with a couple of chairs occupied the middle of the kitchen floor; across from a lounger with a knitted blanket draped across it. A book had been left there, a marker halfway along showing how far its reader had got. There was a door through into the rest of the cottage, but Nikki got the impression that the inhabitant of this house spent a lot of their time in this room.

As she looked around the cat, who had been sleeping on the lounger, raised its head and made an interrogative noise.

Nikki let it sniff her hand as she tried to work out what to do next. The voices she had heard turned out to be from a wind-up radio sitting on the sideboard. She wondered if the householder had gone out for an errand and then realised something. There was a half-finished pile of invoices on the table next to a ledger. The teapot next to them was still warm, and the milk bottle to one side was cool. Someone had been here, not too long ago.

The drawers on the sideboard had white china handles. The top one moved smoothly out as she opened it a bare few inches and then pushed it in again. It had a wooden cutlery tray, obviously home made. She could see an eclectic selection of slightly battered cutlery and kitchen utensils inside that had probably come from various second hand shops. She supposed that plates and pots and pans would be in the sideboard, stored away until they needed to be brought out for use.

Something else caught her attention. There was a sketchbook on the sideboard, next to the radio and some cookbooks, and a collection of pencils in an old jam jar. Nikki walked over and opened it, smiling as she recognised the technique. Most of the pieces were landscapes or half-completed pencil studies. Several were of the cat that was now purring and rubbing against her legs, meowing as it demanded attention.

One towards the middle brought her to a dead stop. It was a portrait of her, as she had been during her time at Larkhall, standing in a prison cell. The bunk to one side and the bars behind her were suggested by a few lines and shadows, but the main focus of the picture was on her posture, shown from the shoulders upwards. She had been drawn with her head bowed and half-turned towards the artist. One hand curled loosely round a window bar, as if she was testing it to see if it would give. She was frowning, her eyes questioning and a little abstracted, as though she were deep in thought. It was a good likeness, but Nikki thought it made her more attractive than she really was. There was a brooding compassion in the face and a contained strength hinted at in the set of the shoulders that had come from Helen's perception, not reality.

Behind her, a familiar voice said, "Still walking into people's space without asking permission, I see."

The sunlight on the polished surface of the sideboard showcased the surface beside the array of cook books, gleaming off the grain. She took a deep breath, feeling matching warmth bloom inside her chest

Nikki put the sketchbook down. Without turning around, she spoke to the faded wallpaper. "I didn't dare hope."

"What for?"

"I thought you were dead."

"That's how it needs to be. Do you want a cup of tea?"

There was a pause. When she didn't answer, Helen said, matter of factly, "I'll make a fresh pot."

Nikki took a seat at the table and studied its surface. She glanced up, watching Helen with her peripheral vision. Then, when she was fairly sure the other woman had turned away, busy getting a mug from the cupboard, she looked at her properly.

The Scot was wearing a pair of battered boots and distressed jeans, marked here and there with paint and soil stains. There was a hole in the elbow of the old sweatshirt she had on; Nikki could see an off-white shirt at the neck of it as Helen made the tea. Her hair was in the same style, but longer and caught back in a rough ponytail. The brunette would not have been surprised to see her in that outfit in Larkhall.

Where the other woman had changed was in the way she moved. The defensiveness had left her posture, and she stretched fluidly to reach for the things she needed. It was as if she had lost an invisible weight and several years off her age. She looked like someone who had recovered from a long illness and was well again. Part of it was the change in her physical condition; it was obvious from her shape that she had toned up and that she was far fitter. When she turned her head to glance out of the window, Nikki could see that the ex-inmate now had a light tan and that her skin was clear and glowed with health.

Helen stepped to the table to tidy away her interrupted paperwork and smiled at Nikki. "Like what you see?"

"You seem well," the taller woman said weakly.

"It's all about lifestyle. I get a lot of fresh air and exercise these days. Means I sleep better."

She put the invoices down on the side, poured them both a mug of tea and sat down opposite Nikki. When it became obvious that her visitor wasn't going to re-start the conversation, she took the lead.

"How did you find me?"

"Lauren Atkins."

The ex-lifer tensed. "What?"

"I have her word she won't harm you."

"Like I can trust that."

Silently, Nikki took the photographs from the inside pocket of her jacket and spread them out on the table. They were the really telling ones. They showed the Scot working alone on her small holding at various times of the day, driving along the local country lanes or walking out on the moors, silhouetted against the landscape. She was alone in all of them.

"It could have been a gun, not a camera," Nikki said.

Helen touched a couple of the snaps lightly with her fingertips before gathering them up into a neat pile and turning it over, erasing the images.

"Point taken. How did you know I was still here? That I hadn't spotted this guy and moved on?"

"Your caricature of the bookshop owner. In the cafe? I recognised the style when I stopped for coffee. After that, I did a bit of asking around."

"Lisa's supposed to keep her mouth shut."

"She did. But she mentioned the small holding and your organic veg box business. That confirmed what Atkins said."

"I'll have to have a word," Helen said firmly.

"She didn't mean any harm. It would have been more suspicious if she'd gone quiet."

"You could have been somebody else." The Scot shrugged. "I suppose it's not all bad. Meant I got to test my early warning systems."


"Why d'you think I wasn't here when you came in? I had a phone call from the village. I was watching you from the hill over there."

"Do they know?"

"They think I'm running from an abusive ex-husband. I've told them he uses private detectives."

Nikki nodded. Tentatively, her eyes on the ex-inmate's, she reached out and took her hand. She held it, feeling the calluses on the palm and running her thumb over the back of it, again and again. Helen didn't pull away. Her eyes, fixed on Nikki's, were full of a hopeless yearning. Nikki felt the need rise in her and knew the other woman was feeling it as well.

"I'm not your jailor anymore," the brunette said. "We can be equal ...."

"Yes. But we can't be together."

"What? What do you mean?"

Helen pulled her hand away. She bowed her head.

"Is there someone else?" Nikki asked.

"Then why?" Nikki demanded, feeling her voice thicken with anticipated loss.

The Scot looked out of the open door and then stood to close it. She ended up leaning against the sideboard, her posture tense. She looked more like the woman Nikki remembered from Larkhall now.

"When I started on the witness protection program, the man who gave me my new identity sat me down and had a talk with me. I've never forgotten what he told me. He said that the people who make it, who stay alive, are the ones who remember that it's forever and it's final. To be secure, you have to understand that you can never go back, whatever the temptation. However safe you feel. If you try and pick up any piece of your former life, then you are putting yourself in danger. It can't work. It's like trying to turn back time."

"But that's not how it is! You didn't find me. I found you."


"So there's no danger."

"When you go back to London, how are you going to explain the fact that you've suddenly acquired a partner, who nobody knows and nobody gets to meet? People will get curious. They'll gossip. And sooner or later, they'll talk about it in front of the wrong person."

"I'll keep quiet about you. Bloody hell, I was in the closet at work for over a decade and nobody suspected. I can do it."

"But you're not now, are you? And everybody saw you with me after I was shot. They showed me the footage. It was very dramatic."

"Well, if you saw that, you know how I feel about you. You can't expect me just to walk away!"

"It's not like that. I'll be the one who's leaving."


"I have a phone number. I'll call them and they'll come and move me."

"From here? But this is ...."

"Everything I ever wanted, right down to the person I'm sharing it with just now. It's beautiful here, Nikki. Peaceful, free. Nobody tells me what to do. I haven't locked a door since I moved in. I eat what I want when I want. I go walking for hours sometimes. I do my art, I garden. I have hobbies that keep me busy and content. A business to run. Friends. I'm at peace in a way I haven't been for years. The only thing that was missing was you. And now, because you've found me, I'll have to go. Start again."


"Don't know yet. Somewhere like this, probably. I've proved I can make it work."

Blindly, Nikki stood up, trying to get to the door. She felt her hip impact on the table. It was the last straw - she collapsed to one knee on the floor, distress flooding through her, then struggled upright and turned away from Helen. Unexpectedly, she felt arms go around her waist and heard a voice against her back.

"Don't. Don't ever turn away from me."

"But all I do is hurt you! You said it yourself. This place is everything you've ever wanted, and you'll have to leave it because of me!"

"Not because of you. Because of Sean, or James Butler, or Lauren Atkins. All of those people are on the list ahead of you. All you ever did to me was fall in love with me when I thought that nobody ever would again and make me believe that I deserved it. You persuaded me to go ahead with my appeal despite myself and you supported me at the worst time of my life ... in Larkhall."

Nikki turned round inside Helen's grip and put her own arms round the smaller woman. "I don't know if I can go on without you."

"You already have."

"That was when you were dead. I can't imagine what it'll be like, knowing you're alive somewhere and that I can't see you or talk to you. Be with you."

"I hope the thought that I'm safe will help."

"Yes, of course, but ...."

"At least this way, we got a chance to say goodbye properly," the Scot said, obviously trying to make light of it. "I was a bit preoccupied the last time you were holding me. Didn't get a chance to enjoy it."

She rested her head against the taller woman's shoulder. Nikki listened to her quiet breathing for a moment, then cleared her throat.

"Helen …?"


"Do you have to call them today?"

The ex-inmate pulled back, looking into her face. "What do you mean?"

"Could you call them tomorrow morning?"


"I want to spend the night with you."

Helen made a small, startled noise.

"No, listen. We can just sleep, or hold each other." Nikki leant down and gently pressed her lips to the other woman's. They both shivered involuntarily. "If you'll let me, I'll make love to you till we're both too exhausted to move. But I need something to take away. Whether it's the memory of you sleeping next to me or that we've finally been able to show each other the way we feel."

Helen considered, her face grave. "It'll make things harder. Knowing we can never have it again. Like knowing you can never take another drink."

"I know your drinking hurt you," Nikki said. "This wouldn't hurt you."

She ran her hands across the smaller woman's hair, gently loosening it out of its ponytail, discarding the tie. "I would never risk that."

"I know you wouldn't choose to."

"Tell me you don't want it," Nikki said quietly. "Tell me to stop."

"Don't! I can't think when you do that."

Helen moved restlessly away and Nikki let her go. She sat down at the kitchen table. The cat leapt onto her lap and she occupied herself with stroking the smooth, furred back, listening to its rumbling purr as her beloved washed the breakfast dishes she had left in the sink. After a while, the Scot finished her task and stood, motionless, hands braced on the edge of the draining board, staring through the window at the scudding clouds that crossed the afternoon sky. Nikki watched her and saw the moment when her shoulders straightened. She turned around, her face set, and Nikki stood up quickly, spilling the cat into the floor where it meowed indignantly.

"All right. I'll go ...."

She crossed the distance to the door in a couple of swift strides, her throat tightening, then stopped as Helen put her hand on her wrist as she reached for the handle.


"But I thought ...."

"No. I want this ... with you."

"Then why don't you look happy?"

"Because this is all I'll ever get," Helen said, breaking down.

"Oh, darling ...."

Nikki took the other woman in her arms and kissed her. The Scot responded fiercely. They moved awkwardly for a moment, absorbed with trying to press as much of their bodies against each other as they could until they found a rhythm that worked for them both. The brunette groaned as Helen began to kiss her neck, hesitantly at first and then with focused attention as she gained confidence. Nikki smiled at her eagerness and concentrated on running her hands over the Scot's sides, reaching under the battered sweatshirt and shirt to caress the warm, soft skin. She breathed out as lips moved along her collarbone, feeling need begin to overwhelm her. She bent her head and caught Helen's mouth, slipping her tongue gently in.

The shorter woman gave a moan of pleasure. Her pupils were dilated, her face flushed. Nikki deepened the kiss, feeling the need to taste her partner, to experience her more fully. She was losing herself in the other woman, drowning in sensation, and she didn't care. She had been waiting so long for this. The only thing restraining her was the need to be careful, not to frighten Helen with her intensity. She was acutely aware that she was taller and stronger than the ex-con and that before this, the Scot had never even touched another woman with the intention of making love to her, despite their encounters in Larkhall. A few fumbled kisses didn't count.

She ached to show Helen the full extent of her passion, but she forced herself to go slowly, to pay attention to the other woman's body language and behaviour. It would nearly kill her to stop now, but she was determined not to push her partner to move faster than she was comfortable with. Cautiously, she put her hands on the hem of the sweatshirt and tugged at it, silently asking permission. Helen looked at her with burning eyes and stepped away, pulling the garment over her head and dropping it to the floor.

Nikki followed her. She slipped her hand inside the other woman's shirt, aching to feel more bare skin. She cradled the warm weight of Helen's breast, running her fingertips lightly across its surface, slipping under the edge of Helen's bra.

"Nikki ...."

"You're beautiful," the brunette said sincerely. She began to unbutton Helen's shirt, anxious to see more of the lightly tanned body. The Scot gasped and, suddenly, put her hands over Nikki's, stopping her. Nikki looked at the other woman's face, aware that her jaw had set itself in taut, unhappy lines.

"What? Helen, what is it?"

"I don't want you to see me."

"What? Why? Darling, you don't need to be afraid. You're gorgeous."

Helen swallowed. "I'm scarred."

"What do you mean?"

"After the shooting. They had to operate on me. It isn't pretty."

"It doesn't matter!"

"It does to me. I'm ashamed."

"What of? It shows you survived."

"No. I've seen them. You haven't. You don't know how ugly they are."

Nikki took a deep breath and tried to ignore the blood drumming in her veins. Helen was upset and frightened. That was more important than her frustration. She kept her tone of voice reasonable.

"Do you think I'll turn away?"

"I don't want you to be repulsed."

The brunette slipped her arms round the other woman's waist and pulled her closer. "We can just hold each other."

"I suppose."

"Do you want to make love?"

"Yes," Helen said helplessly "I think so. Yes."

"Do you trust me?"


"OK. We'll find a way." She glanced around and thought briefly about a blindfold, then dismissed the idea. She wanted to experience Helen properly, and seeing as much of her as she was willing to show was part of that.

"Do you want to go to bed? I'll give you ten minutes to get undressed and under the covers. Is that OK?"

"Yes," the smaller woman said unhappily.

Softly, Nikki kissed the corner of Helen's mouth, her lips lingering as she traced a path down to her neck.

"It'll be all right. I promise."

"I hope so," the Scot said, and went upstairs.

Left to her own devices, the brunette raked a hand through her hair and watched the minutes tick slowly away on the clock. She determinedly did not think about the nightmare moment when the other woman had fallen outside the court, blood erupting from her abdomen and shoulder as the bullet tore through her. She focused instead on what she intended to do when she got upstairs. She imagined kissing her way up Helen's smooth, toned legs; showing her without words how beautiful she found her; breathing in the Scot's rich, enticing scent as she brought her to her first orgasm .... Nikki shivered and saw that enough time had passed for her to be able to follow her partner to the bedroom. She took a deep breath, wiped her palms on her jeans and found her way to the top of the stairs.

Helen was huddled under the duvet on the double bed in the main bedroom, only one arm and her head and neck showing in the light of the single bedside lamp she'd left on. The curtains were drawn tight, shutting out the daylight. Nikki closed the door and sat down on the edge of the bed to take her shoes off. She felt the warm press of a hand on her back and reached without looking to take Helen's arm and press a single kiss to her wrist. She was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath that made her want to turn round but she controlled herself, standing to pull off her t shirt and undo her jeans. Behind her, the Scot made a small, involuntary sound of astonishment.

"Your side …"

"What about it?"

"That scar."

"Oh, that … ," Nikki said. She reached down to the place on the right hand side of her body where the curving blemish just above her kidney marked the skin. It had been part of her life for so long that she had forgotten about it until her partner had noticed it.

Unexpectedly, Helen touched her, fingers ghosting along the mark. Nikki sensed that she must be kneeling up on the bed to do so - she had heard the rustle of the duvet as the other woman moved.

"How did you get it?"

"You know I used to be on the Tornado Team?"

"You've mentioned it."

"Prison riot squad. This was an inmate in a cell with a knife and a hostage." She turned her other side to her partner, showing her the lumpiness high on one bicep. "That was a rioter with a screwdriver. Came over the top of my shield." She reached across and guided the Scot's hand to the irregularity on her scalp. "That was a chair from one of the landings. Glancing blow."


Helen pressed against Nikki and then the brunette felt her lips, softly touching the marks on her arm, then her side, before she traced her fingers along them. Sudden cold told Nikki that the other woman had retreated under the covers and she bent, taking off her jeans and underwear, giving the Scot plenty of time to hide herself before turning around.

Lying near Nikki, listening to her undress, Helen was torn by conflicting emotions. Part of her wanted to simply relax and throw off the duvet, step up to the taller woman and press naked flesh against naked flesh, revelling in the touch without fear or shame. The other part, born on the day she first saw the full nature of the disfigurement the surgeon had left her with and had reacted to with shock and horrified revulsion, held her in a grip of fear she couldn't fight. The thought of her partner's face twisting with disgust, however quickly masked, was simply too powerful.

She felt the mattress dip and the covers move as Nikki climbed in behind her. A second later, skilled lips began to trace a path across her neck and the top of her shoulders, a combination of feather light kisses and gentle, teasing nips, sensitising her skin as a hand reached around to caress her breast. Helen closed her eyes, feeling heat begin to build in her core. She bent her head forward, allowing her lover greater access and shivered as the hand fastened itself on her nipple, rousing it with gentle, rhythmic pressure.

"You have," Nikki said, her heated breath soft on Helen's shoulder blade, "the most beautiful neck."

Another kiss. "Shoulders."

Another. "Back."

The hand on her breast left it and began to travel downwards, gentle fingers moving across her front. Helen caught it quickly and put it firmly on her hip, avoiding the danger area of her stomach. The hand tightened briefly and reassuringly and then shifted, tracing the crease between her thigh and her body. The Scot looked down and saw Nikki's long, slender fingers combing through the thatch of hair at the top of her legs, tips vanishing between the folds of her flesh. She tensed as the touch found the centre of her aching need. Nikki stilled her hand until she relaxed. Helen heard her voice, soft with concern.


"Yes," Helen said. She swallowed. "Don't stop."

"Got no intention of doing that."

Nikki began to slowly caress her, moving her hand in a rhythm that built her pleasure in strong, regular waves, continuing to kiss her neck, to tease her breasts with the other hand. Involuntarily, she reached back and pulled Nikki's leg over her thigh. She lost herself in the feeling of being touched, held, enfolded. Of naked flesh against her back, the soft weight of breasts pressed hard against her as the other woman moved closer, their sweat pooling between them as they both breathed more heavily, heartbeats accelerating, the music of their own sighs and murmured endearments, the soundtrack to the constantly increasing sensation filling her. Helen began to tremble as the tension of her desire wound itself more tightly, her muscles flexing as she felt herself hovering on the edge of her orgasm. She gasped, smelling the combined scent of their bodies, feeling sweat spring out on her forehead as the knot unloosened and she was free to surrender to the pleasure that flooded through her, so that for a time she was unsure where it ended and she began.

Gradually, she came back to herself, finding that she was still being held, though Nikki had moved so that she could lie fully against her back, spooned into her from behind. Helen took the hand that was now resting loosely on her leg and kissed it. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Nikki said lazily. She sounded slightly hoarse and the Scot rolled onto her front so that she could look at her, puzzled.

Startled, she traced the tears that were drying on the other woman's face with her fingertips. "Are you OK?"

"Never better."

"Then why ...."

"I never thought I'd get the chance to do this. To show you how much I love you. Make you believe that it wasn't a game. How much you mean to me."

She reached out and brushed a thumb along Helen's lips, her hand cradling her face. The tenderness of the gesture made the Scot's head ache. Suddenly, her doubts and fears seemed stupid, pointless. She could tell that Nikki was still carefully looking at nowhere but her face. Determinedly, she suppressed her fear and took the taller woman's hand. She shifted and put it on the white, puckered indentation on the top of her right shoulder. Nikki flinched and then waited, looking to her for guidance.

"Entry wound," Helen said.

The brunette moved her fingers across the blemish, a brief, soothing, brush of skin and then stilled. Helen rolled onto her side and guided the hand to the place on her stomach that looked like a second, larger belly button, the ragged edges lumpy with scar tissue.

"Exit wound."

Nikki laid a gentle palm across the damage and then, moving slowly so as not to startle her, bent and kissed her stomach just beside the scar, her lips warm and accepting. The smaller woman closed her eyes and put her hand on Nikki's head, threading fingers through her hair. She gently urged the other woman level with her then lay back, opening herself fully to the brunette's gaze.

She saw her reach out, her hand hovering briefly as her eyes asked permission. Helen nodded and Nikki traced gentle fingers down the thin white track with its flanking stitch marks that ran from between her breasts to halfway down her stomach. Her face held no pity or revulsion, only a terrible, profound sadness. She looked back at Helen and shook her head.

"Why is there so much of it?"

"They had to go in and fix the damage. They didn't have time to mess around."

Nikki nodded. "Better to be alive ...."

"Of course. But you can see why I'm self-conscious."

"I guess."

"You don't have to carry them on your skin."

"No. Helen ...."


"I don't understand. Why didn't he finish the job?" Nikki asked.

"He couldn't get a clear shot. Somebody was leaning over me, trying to stop the bleeding."

Nikki bowed her head.

"What?" Helen asked.

"I'm just glad you're here. When I thought you'd died …"

She stopped abruptly, jaw clenched, fighting back tears. The Scot reached for her and Nikki came willingly to the shelter of her arms, lying with her. After a while she stilled and began to stroke Helen's stomach. She stopped suddenly, frowning.

"Does anywhere hurt?"

"No," Helen said, "there are a couple of numb spots, but nothing too bad."

"Oh. Do you know where they are?"

"Course I do. There's one ...."

Nikki laid a finger on her lips. Her gaze roamed over Helen's body and the Scot became suddenly aware that it was openly admiring. Her dark eyes were full of desire. It was as though she didn't see the scars or didn't care. Helen felt something inside her loosen and fade as she recognised the hunger in the other woman's face.

"I've got a better idea," Nikki said. "How about I try and find them, and you tell me when I do."

Her eyes never leaving Helen's, she moved closer and lowered her mouth to Helen's breast.

"Think I'll start here," she murmured.

Whenever the ex-lifer remembered that time afterwards, her strongest feeling was of wonder. Nikki moved over her as though she was a lesson to be learned, touching her with rapt concentration, seemingly trying to memorise her body and take the knowledge away with her. She found all of the spots where Helen was most sensitive, some instinct guiding her to the places that made the other woman catch her breath with pleasure and need, skilfully returning to them again and again. She varied her touches and slow, focused kisses, taking the Scot by surprise, building the intensity of her arousal until Helen found herself whimpering deep in her throat, unable to not express the sensations playing through her body. This was a level of rapture she'd never imagined. She hadn't realised that it could exist, that she could reach this place because of the actions of another human being.

After a while, Helen blindly threw out her hand and Nikki caught it in her own, intertwining their fingers. She looked up at her partner, her dark eyes wanton, and smiled with a certain amused satisfaction, a familiar quirk of the lips. Helen realised that the brunette knew precisely what effect she was having and was revelling in it.

"All right?" Nikki asked. The Scot nodded wordlessly and the taller woman bent over her again, seemingly quite happy to carry on for as long as Helen was willing to let her. Helen concentrated with difficulty, steadying her breathing with an effort. She realised that her lover was focusing her attention on her thighs, her intentions clear as she started to kiss them, moving slowly towards the apex of her legs.

"No," the Scot said. Nikki stopped immediately and looked up at her again.

"You don't want me to?"

"Don't ask stupid questions," her partner said hoarsely. "No. It's your turn, that's all."

Nikki abandoned what she'd been doing and lay beside Helen, her face intent. Helen groaned, trying to think clearly as the other woman's heated skin pressed against her own, body to body.

"It's not about keeping a score, sweetheart. I'm enjoying myself here."

She guided her lover's hand to the dark thatch of hair between her legs. Helen felt the moisture seeping out and blushed.

"You do that to me," Nikki said. "Making love to you does that to me. It's not a hardship."

She brushed Helen's hair away from her face and kissed her forehead. "Touching you. Having you here. Seeing you lose control and knowing I've taken you there, made you feel that good. It's the biggest turn on in the world. I'd carry on all night if I could."

Helen hugged her tightly, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of breasts against her own. She found that it didn't startle her as much as she thought it should. It was a new experience, but she had passed through several new experiences since she had nervously climbed the stairs to this room. She'd finally touched the woman she loved and found a delight in it that had been wholly unexpected, found heights of joy and pleasure that she never felt with Sean or any of her other lovers. She'd broken through the barrier of her own fear and shame about how she looked. Maybe it was greedy, but she realised she wanted more. She wanted to show the brunette how she felt. It might not be about taking turns, but Helen wanted her chance.

She loosened her grip and pushed Nikki gently onto her back. "I want to," she said quietly. "Will you let me?"

Nikki smiled at her, the delighted grin that always transformed her face when she was truly happy, making her emotion seem somehow innocent in its spontaneity and openness. The contrast with the mature woman's body, the signs of arousal very evident in her erect nipples and flushed skin, was powerfully erotic, and Helen gasped as a fresh wave of desire flooded through her. The brunette lay back and spread her arms deliberately wide, opening herself to Helen's gaze.

"All yours. Anything you want."

The Scot swallowed and reached out a tentative hand to touch her lover's arm, stroking the smooth skin there, feeling the softness of the flesh over the firm muscle underneath. It was strange to be touching a body that was a mirror image of her own. Nikki was different from the men that Helen had been to bed with, taller than some of them, but with a slighter build, more neatly put together. Helen traced Nikki's shape, feeling the similarities and differences through her touch. Some things were the same - the sturdy architecture of the rib cage and collar bone, the strong, broad shoulders. Others were enticingly new: the flare of the hips from the small waist, the slender hands, their fine bone structure transcending the fact that they were larger than her own, the full breasts that rose and fell rapidly as she continued her exploration.

Nikki lay unmoving, only holding her breath at times as though to savour what Helen was doing. The Scot looked at her slightly parted lips, sensing the other woman's struggle to stay still, and smiled, her hands skimming across Nikki's thighs as she laid her head on the taut, muscled stomach, feeling the downy softness of the skin against her face. From there, she could smell the powerful musk of the brunette's arousal. Another difference.

Tentatively, Helen put her hand between Nikki's legs and the other woman gasped, her hips arching off the bed. Encouraged, Helen continued to stroke her, changing the angle and speed as she experimented, trying to find what brought Nikki the most pleasure. She finally settled on a steady rhythm that worked for both of them, drawing on the memories of how she had felt as Nikki had loved her and the knowledge of how she liked to touch herself. She shifted closer to the brunette, fascinated by the responses she was getting from her partner.

Nikki was totally open about the extent of her enjoyment, head thrown back, face turned to one side, clutching at the bedding as her body tensed and moved, crying out softly as she travelled the internal path towards her goal. Helen found it one of the most arousing sights she'd ever seen. The knowledge that she could do this to the woman she loved, bring her this amount of joy, was a heady aphrodisiac, a revelation she had not expected, but was glad to receive.

Wanting to make it more intense, Helen carefully slid her fingers inside the brunette, never letting up on the rhythm she had already started, adding more sensation to the experience. She felt herself enfolded by welcoming heat as she continued to drive Nikki closer and closer to her climax, more forceful now as her confidence grew, encouraged by the expression on her lover's face.

Nikki's eyes had snapped open as Helen had entered her for the first time, but the profound surprise and joy on her face had not shown anything except a desire for Helen to continue what she was doing. The Scot took the non-verbal cue to heart and experimented with different pressures and speeds, feeling herself responding to the signals that her lover's body was giving her, learning what she needed to do as she did it. It helped that she seemed to be profoundly sensitive to Nikki's needs and desires, the low noises her partner was making more than enough information to show her that what she was doing was the right thing.

Suddenly, the taller woman cried out loudly, all of the tension in her gathering in a long, frozen moment before she relaxed, shuddering. Helen felt the walls around her fingers trembling as the orgasm washed through her lover's body, going on for what seemed like a very long time. She stilled her hand, withdrew it, and moved up to hold Nikki, gently kissing her as she let out a deep breath, profound enough to empty her lungs.

"You've been practising," Nikki accused her weakly, and chuckled. Helen joined in with her laughter, feeling contentment radiate through her.

"So I wasn't too bad for a beginner, then?" she questioned playfully.

"You can definitely tear up the L plates."

"What if I don't want to? What if I want to learn some other stuff?"

"I'll be glad to teach you. Once I get my strength back."

They lay together for a while, talking quietly. Helen discovered that she really liked this part of it. She was familiar with the male tendency to go to sleep as soon as the act was over. She had always disliked that, hating the way the connection between herself and her past partners had seemed to fade as soon as they had both achieved physical release. It was one of the things she had appreciated about Theo, she remembered with a pang. He would try to stay awake and always fail in the end. Now, with another woman, they were both still alert, though pleasantly drowsy. She lay back and enjoyed the sensation of sharing the bed with someone else, the simple non-sexual feeling of touching another body soothing away a need she hadn't known she had.

She had fallen quiet as she mused, and Nikki, apparently getting tired of just watching the play of expressions on her face, nudged her. "Penny for them."

"I'm just … comparing."

"Oh?" Nikki ran a finger lightly across her breast and Helen shivered. The brunette smiled. "What's the verdict?"

"Is it always this good? This intense?"

"You talk as though I've slept around."

"Well, you've sure as hell had more women than me."

Nikki chuckled. "Fair point. No, it's not always like this." She sobered. "I think the circumstances are doing that. Though I've had intense sex before."

"Answer the question," Helen said firmly.

Her partner turned to her. Her face was deadly serious. "No, it has never been this good before. Not ever .... That's because of who I'm with. What it means."

"Oh, God," Helen said. "How will I ever give you up?"

"You'll do it because you deserve to live," Nikki said, "a long, happy life with friends and useful work and good experiences. To make up for the shit you went through at Larkhall, all the bad times you've had up till now." She looked away, desperately fighting her emotions. Her voice cracked, but she got it under control. "I'll go about my life and I'll think of you every day. I'll imagine what you're doing ...."

"Nikki, don't ...."

"No, let me. I'll imagine you happy, free. Free, Helen! To do what you want, go where you want." She paused. "Be with who you want, if that's what you choose."

Helen made a small, protesting sound and Nikki fixed her with a level stare.

"I mean it. Don't be lonely because of me. Do whatever you need to do to make a life for yourself, to live the best life you can. Promise me?"

The Scot shook her head. "Some of that, yes. But not all of it. I will live, like you say. I won't waste a single day of it. But I can't promise to find someone else. Not with you in the world. Not with this between us."

Nikki smiled weakly and Helen smoothed her hand over the other woman's hair, feeling its soft, springy texture under her fingers. "I won't regret it," she said. "Having this .... You're right ... it's more than I could have imagined. It's complete, perfect in itself. It needs nothing else."

"Don't you wish we could have it for longer?"

"Yes, of course. But if we think about that, we'll spoil now. I don't want the memory spoilt, Nikki." She concentrated, trying to say it right.

"I want to remember being with you without regrets because there is nothing to regret about it, except that we can't have the rest of our lives together. And that would be the only amount of time that would be enough for all the experiences I want to share, all the things I want to explore, find out about you."

"I feel the same way. I just … didn't have the words," Nikki said. She took a deep breath. "Smart and beautiful. I suppose it shows I know how to pick 'em."

"As I recall, I picked you," Helen said. She smiled at the other woman. "Now come on; dry your tears and help me make some more memories, Let's show each other how we feel."

"I can do that," Nikki said, bending to kiss her again.

They made love repeatedly until exhaustion forced them both into a rest so deep it was almost drugged. Helen woke first after their peaceful slumber and felt a powerful twinge in her chest as she noticed the time. She got out of bed, ignoring her lover's drowsy protest, and stroked the other woman's shoulder.

"Go back to sleep. I'm going for a shower," she murmured.

Nikki smiled without really waking up and rolled over, her breathing growing deeper as she relaxed back into her dreams.

Helen stood under the stream of water and cried for twenty minutes, knowing Nikki wouldn't be able to hear her above its sound. Then she soaped and washed herself efficiently, moving on autopilot, erasing the brunette's scent from her skin and hair before drying off, dressing quietly and going downstairs to the kitchen. She took a cheap, pay-as-you-go mobile phone out of a drawer and stood, looking at it, before finally sitting down at the kitchen table and hitting the pre-programmed number on the speed dial. As she waited for a connection and the call to be answered, she felt a powerful desire for an alcoholic drink come over her. She forced it back with the grim competence of long practice.

The ringing stopped and she heard a young man's voice on the line. "Duty officer."

"This is Helen Stewart. I've been blown."

"What?! How?" the voice at the other end said. The Scot could almost hear the thump as his boots hit the floor. If matters hadn't been so serious, she would have found it funny. Some poor junior member of staff rota'd for the weekend because that was in his job description. She could see him, sitting reading the paper, bored out of his skull. And now suddenly, the phone had rung and the event his entire training had been focussed on had actually happened. Helen imagined the boy wrestling with his excitement and apprehension as he struggled to remember what he was supposed to do next.

She listened to him gabble questions and then cut him short. "Listen, son. I'm not telling you anything else. Make your mind up to it. I've been interrogated by bigger bastards than you, and they never managed to break me. Just get on to your bosses and tell them I need instructions. I'll stay by the phone."

She listened for a little longer and frowned impatiently. "No. The person who blew my cover is long gone and totally reliable in any event. Their name is none of your business. Goodbye."

She terminated the call and stood, staring hard at the surface of the table. A noise from the stairs attracted her attention and she looked round. Nikki was standing there, dressed in a t-shirt and knickers. Even in this situation, the image was powerfully erotic and Helen swallowed, keeping a tight hold on herself.

"How much did you hear?" she asked.

"Enough. How long?"

"About four hours if they get their act together. Depends on what else is going on. You need to be gone before then."

"No," Nikki said. "If I'm not here, they'll give you a hard time."

"You think I can't keep a secret?"

"I know you can. But I haven't got anything to hide."

"Except where you got the information from."

"I'll tell them that. If I don't, it might put you in danger. Look, Helen, one thing about being an ex-prison governor - it doesn't get much more solid than that. Not in the eyes of the police. It'll be fine." Her voice grew more hesitant. "Unless you want a clean break? I can go."

"No," Helen said. They crossed the kitchen towards each other, drawn irresistibly together. Helen hugged Nikki and laid her head briefly against the other woman's shoulder. "Tell you what. You go and shower and I'll cook something. We can eat."

"More memories?" Nikki asked softly. The Scot nodded. The brunette held her tightly for a moment and then went to do as she'd been told. Helen watched her walk up the stairs and then turned to begin preparing their food.

They were waiting and holding hands when they heard the sound of car tyres outside. The meal had been surprisingly comfortable - they had eaten together and then cleaned up, Helen washing and Nikki drying the pots. If the conversation sometimes stalled or one of them had to go and look out of the kitchen door from time to time 'to check on the weather,' neither of them acknowledged it.

Now Nikki looked at Helen, swallowed convulsively and suddenly took her in her arms.

"I love you," she said fiercely. "I will never stop loving you. I will find a way to be with you that doesn't endanger you. Believe it!"


"Tell me you believe it."

Helen looked at the other woman and felt her heart contract with a mixture of grief and love. She could hear the sound of the police car drawing up on the other side of the kitchen door. She bit back the tears that were threatening to spill and told her partner what she needed to hear.

"I believe it."

"Wherever you go, I will find you. Wait for me. However long it takes, we will be together. I promise."

"I know," Helen said. Hopelessness filled her, but she went willingly to Nikki when she pulled her into a kiss, feeling the salt of her tears mingle with the taste of her woman, familiar from their earlier lovemaking, on their lips.

She watched them take Nikki away before she broke down completely.

As they trudged down the lane, the steady rain stopped. Roger's client smiled to herself and pushed her hood back, turning her face up into the weak sunshine. She was dressed for the weather in hiking boots and a waterproof over her combats and casual top. In one way, very different from the business suit she had been wearing when he first met her, but in another, similar. Everything she wore was still designer label. Maybe because of that, she exuded a seemingly effortless sophistication and elegance that made Roger uneasily aware of the small area on his chin he had missed when he had been shaving that morning. Luckily, Nikki Wade's natural warmth had worked its usual magic and put him at his ease.

Acting as her agent when she bought the restaurant could have been fraught; he'd never handled a transaction of that size before, but she had made it easy, charming her way through all of the obstacles and proving extremely hard headed when it came to business negotiations. She was the complete package, brains and beauty, and he was glad that he'd picked up on the appreciative look she'd given his secretary before he had had a chance to make a serious fool of himself. Since then, they'd settled into an easy working relationship. He'd enjoyed introducing her around the local business community and when she'd asked him to help her sort out this problem with her supplies, he'd been glad to oblige, even though it did mean a trip to the back of beyond.

Now she stood at the top of the hill, looking across the vista of dun brown farmland and yellow-green vegetation, ignoring the biting wind that was bringing a glow to her cheeks and carrying the scent of manure and burning wood towards them. The agent joined her and pointed at the cottage in front of them.

"There's the house. You see the shape of the smallholding? It's bounded by that stream and the field edges there and across to the right. She's made it pay; I'll give her that. She knows how to graft, that one. Does nothing but work. Keeps herself to herself and makes no trouble for anybody."

Nikki grinned at him. "I'm glad to hear it. But I didn't need a character reference. Just someone to grow my vegetables."

"She won't be certified organic for another two years. She's still in the changeover period."

"So I'll go with 'locally sourced', 'fresh' and 'seasonal' on the menu," Nikki said. "I'm here to stay, Roger. This is about building up long-term relationships. Part of that means supporting other local businesses. And from my point of view, I get stuff that's as near to organic as it can be at below market rate. It's a no brainer. Especially if I can persuade her to help me bring the kitchen gardens on my land back into use. If she does that, James might just turn straight for the night and sleep with her."

Roger cleared his throat and the brunette shot him an amused glance. "Sorry. Didn't mean to embarrass you."

"No. No. It takes all sorts, doesn't it," the estate agent said, a mental image of Nikki's talented and very flamboyant chef during one of his tantrums crossing his mind. He'd found he actually liked the man, even if he did flirt shamelessly and insist that Roger needed 'feeding up' every time he visited the new gastropub. He was, as he said himself, a divine cook; Roger had taken to skipping lunch, just in case. "Anyway, let's get on."

"She is expecting us, isn't she?" Nikki said.

"Oh, yes. It's not right to drop in on people unannounced. We're early, but I expect we can wait if she's not in."

They carried on trudging down the lane and Roger noticed something strange; his companion was slowing down. Normally, she kept pace with him, her long legs effortlessly matching his stride. It was one of the things he liked about her. But as they approached the house, she was positively dawdling.

"Are you OK?" he asked.

"Yes, fine," Nikki said abstractedly. She seemed to be scrutinising everything, her head turning as she looked at the smallholding. Roger supposed that was only reasonable, given that she was going to be doing business with the owner. He slowed down and then got caught by surprise as the tall woman speeded up again.

"Best get it over with," she said, her nervousness apparent.

Roger blinked. He had never heard her this concerned over a simple business negotiation. Normally, she was so calm that she could sound uninvolved, right until the point where she had the other person where she wanted them.

"She won't bite," he said. "She's a nice enough woman. Just likes her own company. You'll charm her."

"Expect I will," Nikki said.

They walked into the yard, where the subject of their conversation was unloading a truck, moving with economical strength from the tailgate to the shed. Her eyes flicked across them before she turned quickly away to reach for the last of the load. It seemed to be giving her trouble; she took a little longer over it, her back to them, before wrestling the sack into place and dumping it on the pile with the others. She turned to face them, brushing her palms on her jeans.

"This is Nikki Wade," Roger said.

"Helen McKie," the smallholder said, shaking hands with the taller woman. "What brings you to these parts?"

"I've opened a new gastropub down the valley. I need a source of local produce. Roger mentioned that you were starting up, and I thought we could do business."

"I've been here nearly a year already," McKie corrected her. "It's just, getting a new market garden like this running properly .... It takes time."

"So I'm in at the ground floor. Good."

Roger frowned. There was some undercurrent to this conversation that he couldn't put his finger on, a simmering tension. He hoped the deal would go through. He liked both women and wished them well. He decided to help things along.

"Ms Wade's from down South. She used to work in … prison reform, was it?"

"So what are you doing buying a pub round here?" Helen asked, her Scottish accent suddenly very apparent.

"My background's in catering," Nikki said. "I decided it was time for a new direction. I've done my stint in the salt mines. I wanted to run my own business."

"That's a big life change."

"Yes. I'll probably never see most of my ex-colleagues again. But you can't hold on to the past. Not when it's getting in the way of your future."

"Interesting philosophy."

"Glad you think so."

Roger looked at his watch. "Nikki, you know I said I had another appointment …"

"That's fine. I'll make my own way home. Thanks for introducing us."

"Don't mention it. You'll have to pay me in kind."

"I think I can do that. James is still working on improving his steak pie. Says it needs a 'real man' to appreciate it."

"Well, I don't mind being a guinea pig for that."

He said his goodbyes and left, turning back at the end of the lane to wave. The two women were watching him go, standing a little apart from each other, their posture formal. Roger smiled. He was sure that the Wade magic would work, given time. As he watched, they turned and went into the house.

Nikki gasped as she was pushed against the inside of the kitchen door the minute she had closed it. She shrugged her shoulders, helping Helen peel off the waterproof, and then caught the other woman's hands, planting a gentle kiss on one palm and following it up with a series of kisses that progressed gradually up the Scot's arm, breathing in the familiar scent. Her lover shuddered, but let her take her time before capturing her head and nuzzling at her neck, biting it lightly, careful not to mark the skin.

"So, you didn't miss me at all, then," Nikki managed. She was fighting for control, finding it hard to co-ordinate her sentences, but she wanted this to be more than the frantic lovemaking she knew they could both easily give in to. She wanted it to last, to do their feelings justice.

In response, Helen kissed Nikki fiercely, claiming possession. The taller woman groaned as she felt the heat and taste of the Scot's mouth.

"How long have you got?" Helen asked, her voice thickened with arousal. "Don't say an hour. That won't be long enough."

"All afternoon. Ah!"

"It'll do for a start."

"Love it when you take control .…" Nikki said, and yawned.

The smallholder drew back and looked at her. "When did you last get a proper night's sleep?"

"I've known about this appointment for the last two days," Nikki defended herself. "I couldn't. I was too wound up."

Helen smiled. "Come to bed. I changed the sheets. You can have a nap. I'll wake you up in an hour or so."

"I don't want to waste any time!" the brunette protested.

"Don't worry. I won't let you out of here without making love to you."

Nikki followed Helen upstairs to the main bedroom and sat down on the edge of the double bed. She yawned again and stretched, feeling her muscles relax. Her lover smiled indulgently and knelt to take her shoes off, then frowned as she chuckled.


"Can you imagine what you'd have said, back in Larkhall, if I'd asked you to do that?"

"I'd have told you to fuck off," Helen said matter of factly.

"Good job I never did, then."

The ex-lifer stood up. "I still would. The difference now is I'm choosing to do it."

The brunette wrapped her arms around Helen's body, resting her face against the other woman's torso, sighing as she felt her warmth. The Scot stroked her hair gently and nudged her. "Lie down."

They settled on the bed together. Nikki threw an arm and a leg across her partner and snuggled into her side. She drifted off to sleep, comforted by the feel of the compact curves next to her, her hand loosely clasping the other woman's bicep.

A couple of hours later, they lay together in the tangled sheets, sated. Nikki could tell that they would be making love again later, but for now, they were both content to hold each other and talk, resting for the efforts ahead.

The brunette tightened her arms around her soul mate and wondered again how she had managed to survive slightly more than a year without this physical contact, especially since she had been engaged in one of the most demanding acting jobs of her life, having to watch each word and action in a way that hadn't been necessary since she started in the Prison Service and had been establishing her work persona. Letters and the occasional snatched phone call on a disposable mobile had been all the witness protection squad had allowed, especially before they had tracked down their mole. They had sometimes made things harder, reminding Nikki of what she was missing. She nuzzled into Helen's hair. Whatever it had taken, it had been worth it.

"Do you think we can make this work?" the Scot asked without moving her attention from the patterns she was tracing on Nikki's skin.

"Don't see why not. It's no secret I'm gay - I've been dropping comments about past girlfriends into conversations."

"Have people started locking up their daughters yet?"

"No. I've had offers from a couple of bi-curious women."


"Which I turned down. Too busy setting up my new business to think about romance. Until I meet the local smallholder and we fall head over heels for each other."

"The difficulty 'll be staying away from each other at the start."

"We can do it. We managed in Larkhall."

"That was a different situation."

"Yeah. So we take it slow."

"Oh, yes," Helen said, leaning in to claim a kiss. "Dead slow."

The End

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