The Four Musketeers: Part Three

This is the third part of a fiction serial, in 880 words.

One afternoon, I was outside the corner shop chatting to a couple of girls I knew. We were close to turning fifteen, and the girls appreciated being chatted up at that age. But when there were two of them, it was tricky.

Which one do you try for? Pam was the cute one, and her friend Caron was chubby. But Caron was definitely the more interested of the two. Anyone knows that girls who are close friends are almost impossible to split up, especially at that age.

Luckily for me, Terry showed up. He was heading for the shop to buy some sweets, and the four of us got chatting. I didn’t really care which girl I ended up with, so suggested a walk to the local park. Okay, nothing life-changing was going to happen, but we might have got a snog, maybe even a feel. I lived in hope.

Terry dished out the sweets, and the girls agreed to see what was happening at the park. But we hadn’t gone a hundred yards before Terry bent down, grabbed his legs, and let out an enormous fart.

He thought it was funny. He actually thought he was entertaining those girls.

Pam pulled a face. “Come on, Caron. These boys need to grow up”. With that, they turned around and walked off. I shook my head at the grinning idiot. Terry was oblivious to the reason for my disgust. “What? It was only a fart. Don’t blame me if they haven’t got any sense of humour”. I crossed the road, waving my hand at him in a dismissive gesture. He was so thick, he shouted over, “We’re not going to the park then, Danny?”

I resolved to get him back for that, and the opportunity arose the following year.

It was the last summer school holidays before I started work. Keith was studying hard, Johnny was working on the market stalls by then, so I popped round to Terry’s house to see what he was doing. His mum let me in. “Sorry, Danny. He’s out working with his dad. He won’t be home until after six. Come in and have a cold drink, I could do with the company. Go through to the front room”.

By then, I was calling her Alice. Only Keith’s parents still wanted to be called Mr or Mrs Rainsford by his friends.

She seemed to me to be a bit upset, and when I heard little Tony bawling from another room, she put her head in her hands. “He never stops crying, Danny. I have been to the doctor’s with him, but they said there’s nothing wrong. I am up half the night with him, and I can’t get much done during the day. They say it is just teething, but he has almost all of his teeth through. I’m at my wit’s end, I really am.” She went next door to calm him down, and it was ages before she came back.

When she sat down next to me on the sofa, she looked worn out. Red-eyed, and at the end of her tether. She picked up the glass of Tizer she had poured for herself, and put it down again. “Don’t say anything to Terry please, Danny, but I just can’t cope. Terry was such a happy and easy baby, but little Tony has got me to the stage where I am starting to hate him, I really am”. I felt this conversation was both out of my league, and none of my business. I was regretting staying for the Tizer, but felt I had to do something. So I put my arm around her, and she put her head on my shoulder.

What happened next was both totally unexpected, and beyond my wildest dreams.

Ten seconds after her head rested on my shoulder, she started kissing me. My first real snog, serious stuff. Tongues and everything. Before I had time to react, she was undoing my trousers, and pulling off her underwear. I had uttered just one word, “Alice”, and she was astride me, and I knew exactly what was happening. My only regret was that it hadn’t lasted longer. Nothing was said during those few minutes, and I could feel the heat coming from her neck and face. It had all been over a long time for me before she stopped, and I was completely amazed that this woman I had known all my life was half-naked on my lap, panting.

The enormity of it all must have dawned on her. She grabbed her clothes and turned her back to me. “Sorry Danny, I don’t know what came over me. You had better go, and I beg you not to say anything to Terry. Please, I beg you”. I walked out of the house in a daze, but I felt ten feet tall.

By the time Terry spoke to me about his mum, I had started my job at the Insurance company. I bumped into him coming out of the shop, and he beckoned me over to speak quietly.

“My mum’s only gone and got herself pregnant. Dad’s furious, and he won’t speak to her. It’s bloody awful at home at the moment, I can tell you”.

I grinned all the way home.

The Four Musketeers: Part Two

This is the second part of a fiction serial, in 783 words.

Keith was undoubtedly the brainiest of the group. He found school-work easy, and once we were in Secondary School it was obvious he would outclass the rest of us. He helped us with our home-work, and though he tried to show us how to work things out for ourselves, we ususally ended up copying his answers without really understanding them. His parents were a bit older than mine, and his older sister Susan still lived at home. Susan was the main reason I used to like hanging around at his house. Seventeen years old and great to look at, the fact that she thought of us as kids was a real bonus.

That meant we got to be around her when she was completely relaxed. Sprawled on the sofa watching telly, completely unaware that I was looking up her skirt, or sitting close to smell her perfume. Susan was choosy too. Despite being asked out by almost every older boy who lived nearby, she never wanted to have a boyfriend. Keith said she was waiting for the right man. Someone to take her away to the suburbs, and get her out of her boring job in the typing pool at the local jam factory.

I remember the day Keith said he was going to go to university. We laughed at first, then realised he was serious. Kids from our area never went to university. You took the basic exams, and then got out of school to get a job. It was expected of you, and you were prepared for that at a young age.

Johnny was going to work with his dad on the street markets. Georgie Simpson had three stalls selling leather goods, and Johnny had been helping out on them during the holidays and at weekends since he was old enough to count money. My future was similarly cast in stone. Mum was obsessed with me having a ‘clean job’, working in an office. She had asked around some family friends, and one had promised to give me a start where he worked, in a big insurance company. I could get a bus there easily, and as long as I passed in Maths and English, it was guaranteed.

As for Terry, his dad was a plumber. So Terry would help him once he left school, and study for his trade qualification at night school. Terry’s dad was likeable, but always said the same things. Things like, “People always need toilets, son. Learn to fix them and you will always be in work”. Because Terry had a much younger brother, his mum Alice didn’t work. She stayed at home to look after little Tony, and seemed to love being a housewife.

A natural choice for a market trader, Johnny was full of chat, had the gift of the gab, and acted much older than he was. The customers on the stalls loved his cheeky banter, and he could sell a handbag by telling some dowdy lady that it made her look beautiful just holding it. Though he had an older brother, nobody ever talked much about Graham. Johnny said that Graham didn’t get on with his dad.

He had wanted to be a painter, a real one, like portraits and landscapes. So had left to go to Art School when we were much younger, and now lived in Brighton, on the coast. According to Johnny, he shared a flat there with another bloke who had been his best friend at college.

We didn’t know what that meant back then, but I found out later.

Not talking about an older brother was something I was also used to. My older brother was only a vague memory. Someone I shared a room with when I was too young to really work out who he was. A tall young man lifting me up until my head touched the lampshade. My last memory of him was when he came home on leave wearing his army uniform. He was being posted to Germany, I found out later. Not that there was a war then of course, just a barracks at a place called Paderborn.

My mum cried for two days after the men came to tell her that Kevin had been killed in an accident. His army lorry had turned over in icy weather. I had to go to the funeral when they brought him home. Mum bought me a suit for the occasion, and everyone was crying. Later on, they put a big framed photo of him over the mantlepiece, smiling in his uniform and beret. After that, we never talked about him at all.

But I was always aware that I lived in his shadow.

The Four Musketeers: Part One

This is the first part of a fiction serial, in 740 words.

We had all read the novel at school. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. But there were four of us, so we called ourselves the four musketeers. Childhood friendships don’t necessarily last a lifetime, but in our case they lasted until we became adults. Living in the same district, going to the same junior school. Always in each other’s houses, swapping toys and books, lending each other comics.

Despite the different living conditions, we formed a bond that endured.

If one of us had money for sweets, we all got sweets to eat. Our parents tolerated having all of us around in some kind of informal rota. We shared bottles of lemonade, went to see the kid’s films together, and played out in the local park, or rode around the streets on our bikes. Our four sets of initials were carved in the bark of the biggest tree at the park, and older boys left us alone, knowing we would defend each other, win or lose.

Each of our mums was like another mum to the rest. Cleaning up scraped knees and small cuts, giving us dinner if we were in the house at dinnertime. It was like each of them had another three unofficial sons.

So, who were we?

Me of course, Danny Wellman. Average height and build, sandy hair, and blue eyes. Not good looking like an actor or a film star, but attractive enough to some.
Keith Rainsford. A bit serious, lanky, skinny, and had to wear glasses from childhood.
Terry Wright. Always slightly overweight, a mop of brown hair, and the comedian of the group.
Then there was Johnny Simpson. He was the coolest one. Always wore the right clothes, even when he was 10. His dark hair was thick and cropped, and he had an easy confidence well beyond his years. Despite his very English name, he looked like an Italian, and was the popular one.

Unlike most groups of boys at the time, we didn’t have a natural leader. None of us were into fighting, and we couldn’t be bothered about being good at sport. There were occasional arguments of course, but we always worked things out. Keith and Terry spent the most time together outside of school. Keith thought Terry was hilarious, and even laughed at his worst jokes. And they lived on the same street, four doors apart.

When the four us us were not together, rare ocasions during the school holidays, I was usually at Johnny’s house. Truth be told, I liked to be around him, and hoped that some of his confidence and wide appeal would rub off on me. I watched him, and I learned from him. I might even have had a bit of a crush on him, if I am being honest. Keith and Terry were lost causes by the time we hit our teens, but we never let them down. They were always welcome in our company, even though they didn’t seem to understand that we had to grow up.

Looking back now, it was girls that changed everything. That is no surprise of course, but it was at the time. By the time we were fourteen, Johnny already had a girlfriend. Janice was sixteen, and seemed so much older. She had already left school, and Johnny took advantage of being told that she fancied him. So he had snogged a girl and felt her up, while the rest of us were still looking at some girlie mags we had bought under the counter from the man in the corner shop.

Was I jealous? You bet I was. The others didn’t seem to care. They were both afraid of girls anyway, and Terry put them off with a combination of his chubbiness, and his constant bad jokes. As for Keith, he looked like he would drop dead with fright if a girl even spoke to him. I asked Johnny if Janice had a friend who I could go out with. He was brutally honest, grinning at me as he replied.

“You will have to get better clothes, look older, and have more about you, Danny. All of her friends are sixteen or older, and they don’t want to be seen out with someone who looks like a schoolkid”.

That’s when I started to hate him.

But I didn’t let on. Not then. I would bide my time.

Bookbird: an Amazing Resource for Writers

Great tips and links from Nicholas for authors and writers. .

Nicholas C. Rossis

Bookbird Amazon KDP guides | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

I came across Bookbird when I was hired by Yves Lummer to work on the website’s content. Bookbird is rapidly becoming a top resource for authors looking for help with writing and self-publishing, with tons of excellent advice covering everything from name generators to calculating your KDP royalty.

So far, I have written 4 guides for him, with at least as many scheduled for December.

Bookbird | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Yves has also published a large number of amazing guides that all Indies should check out, such as Amazon KDP: The Definitive Beginner Guide For Authors (2022), How to Price Your Book, and Amazon Book Categories: The Secret Visibility Booster.

Its main offering, though, is its Amazon KDP Book Interior Templates. Perfect for low-content books such as activity, coloring, and even no-content books (think journals, notebooks…

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Serial Analysis: Four Lives

My recent serial Four Lives concluded yesterday with the 30th episode. As usual, I like to look at how it was received, and the stats it generated on my blog.

This serial was written mainly from the point of view of four very different women, not that easy for a 70 year-old man. It was inspired in part by those women who are badly served by the justice system, and others who befriend and marry prisoners, denying their crimes and background.

Although it contained themes of domestic violence, controlling behaviour, and sexual assault, I tried to make sure it was not graphic enough to upset readers. As usual, I had the ending in notes first, and worked back some years in the story timeline to get to that ending.

So far, it has achieved daily views averaging 50. So not one of the favourite serials with readers. Views for the later parts are still coming in, but if I take 50 views as the benchmark, then the story generated a total of 1,500 views.

Reader interaction and engagement was good; with regular comments, some involvement with the characters, and also guessing of the outcome. That is the most satisfying thing for me as the writer.

I would like to thank everyone who followed it all, and shared parts on social media.

The complete story is now available for those who like to wait to read the whole thing at once.

Four Lives: The Complete Story

This is all 30 episodes of my recent serial in one complete story. It is a long read, at 24,536 words.

Marian.

It was pouring all the way home, and the walk from the bus stop had soaked her feet. All she could think about was getting in, and putting on some cosy pyjamas. There was half a bottle of Chablis left in the fridge, and the Brie would have to do for dinner, with some of those nice sesame seed crackers.

Leaving a wet footprint on the pile of post behind the door she flipped off her shoes without bothering to bend, and took her wet tights off before she had even removed her coat. Her umbrella went into the bath to dry off, and she had the wine open less than three minutes after closing the door.

Once she was in the panda pyjamas and fluffy socks, Marian stretched out on the sofa and thumbed through the post as she sipped her wine. Credit card bill, phone bill, and a reminder to book a cervical smear test. She kept forgetting to go online and arrange paperless bills, and as for the smear test, that would have to wait. Work was much too busy, and the clinic didn’t do tests at weekends.

Feeling the dent in her finger where her wedding and engagement rings had sat for so long, she wondered for a second what Steve was doing at that moment.

Just for that second though. No point dwelling too long on the past.

The wine was going down too easily, and she knew that it was time to put another bottle in the fridge for later. It always had to be as cold as possible, for her to enjoy it. The cheese and crackers could wait though, as she wasn’t very hungry yet. The chicken pesto panini she had for lunch was repeating on her, but she knew that would calm down soon. The bottle of Chablis in the wine rack was her last one, so she stuck a post-it note on the fridge to remind her to buy more.

Forget switching on the TV, she had been looking at screens all day. But one screen was calling, and that was on her mobile phone.

No matches on the dating app, and nothing much going on with Facebook, except everyone complaining about the rain in London that evening. Just as well she didn’t take the tube, as some stations were closed because of flooding. She put the phone on charge, and rested her head back against the far too expensive cushion that had tempted her. It wasn’t even seven, and she was contemplating a very early night.

Her legs needed shaving, but she knew that was never going to happen tonight. She would wear her pinstripe trouser suit tomorrow, and nobody would be any the wiser about leg hair.

Music might help, and she had the new Ed Sheeran CD in the machine. Pressing play, she drifted away to his voice. Steve had never liked him, not even at the beginning of his fame when everyone thought he was great. He stuck to his shitty rock stuff, and she would watch TV in the bedroom when he played AC/DC and Def Leppard.

Sometimes, Marian wondered how they had ever got together. They didn’t like any of the same things, whether music, films, TV, or even food. He hated foreign food, and she detested fish and chips, his favourite. But when you had been school sweethearts people expected you to get engaged, then marry eventually.

Marian had gone along with it. Dad walked her down the aisle, and they had the full deal. A white Rolls-Royce, the huge reception at a nice hotel, and a honeymoon in Las Vegas so Steve could play on the machines while she sat bored watching him. By the time they got back from America, she knew it had all been a terrible mistake. But she stuck with it for the sake of both families, and because she felt she owed it to her dad after he had spent most of his redundancy money on the wedding.

And because you did all that, when you were a woman. You just did.

Perhaps it was the third glass of wine from the second bottle, or because she hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, but she was out cold on the sofa when the door buzzer sounded.It took her a while to come round, and her head was fuzzy. One good thing about her rented flat, it had a camera on the entryphone.

She could make out her younger sister, Ros. She wasn’t dressed for the rain and was soaked to the skin. If she had come from home, it would have taken her the best part of two hours. She was looking into the camera, her eyes swollen, hair lank from the rain, and a huge bruise visible on her cheek. Her loud voice on the intercom made Marian jump.

“Let me in, Mal. For christ’s sake, please let me in!”

Rosalind.

Being the youngest of three used to mean you got spoiled, at one time. But Ros had a lot to live up to. An older brother who was a military hero, killed in Afghanistan. His photos were everywhere around the house, and she could hardly remember what he was like.

Then there was the older sister. Not that much older, but enough to have done so well at university when she was still struggling with poor results in her ‘O’-levels. Her parents were proud of their dead son, equally proud of their academic daughter, but not so proud of the one who couldn’t concentrate at school, and wanted to spend time around boys when she was too young.

So they came down hard on her, making her take a weekend job, and stopping her coming home late after school. By the time she turned seventeen, she had started to feel old before her time. However, she had to admit that working in the shoe shop at the shopping mall in Watford had turned out okay. She seemed to have a flair for convincing people to buy shoes, and even the full-time older staff liked her being around.

Exam results were worse than expected, even by her standards. It wasn’t that she didn’t get a pass grade in any of them, just that the grades were the lowest acceptable for a pass. Most of the teachers didn’t even try to encourage her to stay on at school, so when the shoe shop offered her a full-time position, she decided to leave school that summer, and start the job in September.

Hoping to make the post of the summer break, she soon discovered mum and dad were not going to let that happen. They were so pissed off that she wasn’t going to university, they said she might as well start her job straight away.

Ros walked out of school on that Friday, and was working full-time the following Monday.

At least Marian didn’t judge her, and she didn’t seem to resent that she was better-looking, either. Besides, she was doing so well in her finance job at the insurance company, putting her Maths degree to good use. But as Ros started her new job, Marian moved out of the family home, leaving her alone to face the moans of her parents. Then there was talk of her marrying Steve, the strange guy she had been with since she was fifteen. Ros understood. When you looked like someone had hit you with the ugly stick, you took the first solid offer.

Over the next few years, Ros drifted further away from her parents, and hardly spoke at home. Then when the company asked her if she wanted to take over as manager of the shop at Hatfield Galleria, she jumped at the chance. That would mean moving away, but rents near Hatfield were just about affordable, and she relished the prospect of living alone.

At the age of twenty-three, and with no current boyfriend, she signed an agreement to rent a smart one-bed furnished, pleased that the bus stop she needed for work was right outside on the street. Mum and dad helped her move, seemingly keen to get rid of her.

They sneered at the flat of course. Dad said it was “On a busy road”. Mum sniffed at the sight of a mixed-race neighbour and said, “I don’t like the look of the others living here”.

The freedom was wonderful though, and the icing on the cake was that she took to her managerial role like a duck to water, her young team of staff all warming to her immediately. Meanwhile, things were not going so good for Marian, who always looked depressed and fed up whenever they met. “Steve doesn’t want kids, apparently. First I knew about that. And I will be thirty soon. Might just as well try for the promotion in my job, if I’m never going to be a mother”.

She always saw the same guy on the bus on her way to work. Ros knew he was a security guard by his uniform, and he was already on the bus when it got to her stop. He used to chat her up, get flirty with her. Tell her she looked sexy, and he liked her hair. The first time he asked her for a date, Ros checked his ring finger. No wedding ring, but he seemed to be a lot older, maybe forty. She said no thanks, but that didn’t put him off.

Being honest with herself, she did find him attractive, but the age diference worried her. Then one day when she was shopping in town, someone called out to her as she left a supermarket. It was Lee, the bus guy. “Want a lift?” He was standing next to a big car, electric blue in colour. Ros smiled back. “Okay”.

On the way back to her flat, he asked her out again. She was cagey. “You married, Lee?” He grinned. “Was once, not now”. As she got out of the car, she said yes to the date.

It was okay, as dates go. A nice burger place, followed by drinks in the pub. But Ros didn’t feel a spark, and when he tried to kiss her in the car, she ducked away. “Thanks, Lee. I had a nice time, but I don’t think I want to take it any further, or see you again”. He had mumbled “Your loss”, then driven off as she closed the door. And she hadn’t seen him again.

Not until last night.

Lyndsey.

Heading for the pub on the corner after leaving the Crown Court, Lyndsey had a large gin and tonic in her sights. Yet again, the witness statement had been withdrawn at the last minute, and the victim had refused to give evidence. She wondered what the point was any longer. All those years of training to become a barrister, and half the cases she specialised in never got to court in the first place. Even when they did, the accused either got the benefit of the doubt, or the victim failed to show up.

Small wonder that the police were so cynical.

The defence barrister had shrugged, then smiled. To make her feel better, he had offered to buy her a drink, but she had shaken her head. She couldn’t stand the oily bastard, and she had put her head in her hands when she heard he was defending.

After ordering her drink and a ploughman’s lunch at the bar, she sat alone at a table at the back. The others at chambers would no doubt make the right noises when she saw them, but she knew they all pretty much regarded her to be a failure. If the partners kept her on next year, it would be a miracle.

Tom Alfriston had never been that happy about her taking on so many domestic abuse prosecutions in the first place. He liked his team to defend. Then you could string out the cases by questioning witnesses’ authenticity, and the quality of evidence. More days in court, more extra money on the brief.

Tom couldn’t care less whether or not they had actually committed the crime.

After eating the tired-looking ploughman’s, she had another large gin to finish off the tonic and decided not to bother to go back into the city that afternoon. Better to go home and look through the papers on the case she was prosecuting next week. Crown v Fowler, in St Albans.

Denise Fowler had been badly beaten by her husband, Lee. And not for the first time. As it had been outside a pub in Hatfield, there were some witnesses. And Denise must have finally had enough, as she had made a statement and agreed to give evidence. Ex-soldier Lee Fowler had been dishonourably discharged from the army after beating up a prostitute in Germany. He served time for that in Military Prison before being thrown out of his regiment. Returning to Hatfield, he had taken up with his former girlfriend Denise, and found work as a security guard. They married the following year, when she was pregnant with their daughter, Daisy.

After that, he had come to notice on many occasions. A driving ban for drink-drive, emergency calls to the house after Denise had been punched and kicked. But it was always the same outcome. She either refused to make a statement, or retracted one before the case proceeded. This time, he had put her in hospital for three days, as she had to have her broken jaw wired. The Magistrate’s Court had sent him for trial because they considered he needed a custodial sentence. He had gone back to live with his mother, and been told not to approach his wife, or any of the witnesses.

Lyndsey already had a sinking feeling. The defence would undoubtedly try for PTSD, considering his service in Afghanistan. But that could only be in mitigation, as four witnesses to the attack on his wife would make the assault irrefutable. It all depended on Denise holding firm, and actually showing up. During the meeting with her at the solicitor’s Lyndsey had been hard on her. Anyone who had retracted five previous accusations could not be relied upon. And she had been worried about Lee’s family. He had three brothers who had something of a reputation in the town. If they got to work on the witnesses from the local pub, it could all fall apart.

And just as she feared, that was more or less what happened. The CCTV of the pub car park showing the attack failed to adequately cover the corner where the incident took place, and the two main witnesses who had previously been certain that they saw him punching her had now decided that she may have fallen against a concrete post, and Lee was probably trying to help her up and calm her down. The worn-out looking casualty doctor who treated her said she told him she had been punched by her husband, but the judge threw that out.

Admittedly, Denise stood up well though. Until the defence questioned her morals by suggesting a sexual affair that had never happened, and asked her about money she spent on scratchcards instead of buying adequate food for the family. Lee was portrayed as a caring father who had contacted social services with worries over her treatment of Daisy, and she had to admit he had done that. Then it all went downhill when she admitted that she had left Daisy with a casual friend so she could go out drinking with Lee. When pressed, she admitted to being very drunk that evening, but she was adamant that she had been punched, not fallen over.

A majority verdict of ten to two had got the bastard off. Not guilty.

Again.

Amanda.

There was a time when Amanda liked to be called Mandy.
A time when she used to enjoy going out with friends for drinks, or a meal.
A time when she liked the company of men, and having a regular boyfriend.
A time when she had a great job, and actually enjoyed going to work.

But not any longer. Not since Lee.

He had seemed so nice at first.
Older by a few years, but not too old.
Confident without being cocky.
Good looking without being vain.
Tough and manly without too many muscles or tattoos.

That sort of man rarely looked twice at her, let alone ask her out.

Okay, so he didn’t have a car. Some issue with his licence after leaving the army, so he said. But she had her car, and was happy to drive them around. His job sounded mysterious too. Security Consultant. Being ex-army that probably meant he worked for the Secret Service or something. He didn’t take her to any grand or fancy places, saying he had to be careful where he was seen. But country pubs were nice enough, and he always paid for both of them. So when he suggested an overnight stay in a rural location, she booked the small hotel, and paid for the room in advance.

Her treat.

She couldn’t tell anyone she was seeing him, as he had warned her not to. Her friends started to call him ‘Mandy’s Mystery Man’, and that added to the sense of fun. No photos or selfies either, confirming her excited suspicions that he was doing some cloak and dagger work.

After the weekend away, she knew she was in love with him. He had been a wonderful lover, and attentive and caring all the time. The difference between him and the last man in her life, Richard, was incredible. After work on the Monday, she bought him an expensive watch as a gift. But when she gave it to him that Friday evening, he just closed the box, kissed her, and said he couldn’t wear it at the moment.

On the way back to her flat after drinks, she had become niggled about that, and started to ask him why. As they got out of the car in the underground garage, he suddenly turned and pushed her violently, shouting as he did so. “Stop going on about the shitty watch!”. She fell hard enough to graze her elbow, and tears filled her eyes at the shock of the sudden change in him.

There were apologies of course, but she wasn’t convinced. “You can come in and phone a taxi, but I don’t want you to stay over tonight”. He had sat quietly waiting for the taxi, and left without incident. Flowers were delivered in the post for her, and a card with butterflies on it contained one word. “Sorry”. When he rang her for the tenth time, she answered. He explained about the stress of his job, the danger, constantly feeling on edge. He was sorry he had taken it out on her, but it would never happen again. He sounded sincere, so she accepted his offer of a meal the following night.

Mandy met him outisde the pub, and was upset to find him already drunk at seven in the evening, slurring his words. Alarm bells went off in her head. “Sorry, but I am going to go home. Contact me when you are sober, and I will decide if I am going to see you again”. She headed back to her car parked in a side street, confused and angry. As she got into the driver’s seat, a rough hand grabbed her. She looked up and saw Lee, a horrible smirk on his face. Then he pulled her into the gap of the open door and slammed it against her head.

Three times.

When the dizziness went away, she wiped her eyes and nose on a tissue then drove straight to the police station. They took a statement, and arranged for a police doctor to come to see her there. Photographs of her head were taken, and dressings put on the two cuts caused by the edge of the door. Then two policewomen drove her home, telling her to leave her car where it was and collect it when she felt better. They said they were going to arrest Lee at his house that night, and charge him with assault. She would be hearing about the court case in due course.

But after three days off sick at home, she rang the police and withdrew her statement. They pressed her, even mentioning wasting police time, but she stuck to it. There was no way she could face him in court and have all her past life dragged up by the defence. Another policeman phoned her later, and when she convinced him that she was not going to give evidence under any circumstances, he told her they would have to drop the charges.

After that, she just stopped going out anywhere.

“Come in and get out of those wet things, Ros. What the hell happened?” Marian went into the bathroom to get clean towels as her sister stripped off the saturated clothes in the hallway. When she still hadn’t answered the question, she asked it again. “What happened? How did you end up here, bruised, bleeding, and soaked?” But with her bottom lip quivering, and tears still streaming down her face, Ros was unable to say anything.

Marian rubbed the sobbing woman’s hair with a separate towel, and softened her tone. “Okay, love. It’s alright, you’re here now. Go and get warm in the living room, and I will bring you a drink”. She picked up the wet things and took them into the bathroom, draping them over the wire airer. The she went into the kitchen , returning with a glass of Brandy. “Get this down you and calm down, then tell me in your own time”.

Since splitting up with Steve and moving into London, Marian had not seen so much of her sister. Neither of them had a car, and it was a mission to get up to Hatfield, or for Ros to visit her in Hackney. Keeping in touch on Facebook seemed a better option, and they had drifted apart gradually. When they met up again at dad’s funeral, the mood was tense for everyone. He had died suddenly and unexpectedly, and mum had seemed almost happy about that. When she announced her intention to marry one of dad’s best friends less than six months after his death, both the sisters had more or less cut her off.

It was almost thirty minutes before Ros felt okay to talk about it. She told Marian about the date with Lee that had happened ages ago, and how she had told him she didn’t want to see him after. When the Brandy was topped up, she relaxed and explained why she was there that night.

“The rain was awful today, and when I finished work I couldn’t face the walk to the bus stop to get the bus home. I hadn’t taken an umbrella, as it had looked fine this morning. So I rang for a taxi, and they said it was a fifteen-minute wait. I walked to the main entrance of the shopping mall, and stood under the canopy out of the rain. When a car pulled into the drop-off area instead of taking the exit for the main car park, I ran across to it, sure it must be my taxi. It was raining so hard, I didn’t even stop to check.”

She picked up her glass and swigged down some more of the warm spirit.

“As I closed the car door, it drove off really fast, and I looked at the driver only to realise it was Lee. I screamed at him to stop and let me out, but he had taken the turning onto the A1 and was driving fast in heavy traffic, heading south. I tried to reason with him, saying I wouldn’t tell anyone if he just dropped me off and left me alone. But he just laughed at me, saying I had got in his car willingly, and he hadn’t done anything to me. So I asked him to get off the motorway at the next junction, and at least take me home to Hatfield. He shook his head and said he was taking me for a nice meal, and I would enjoy it”.

Placing the now empty glass on the coffeee table, she turned back to her sister.

“I was really scared, Mal. I took my seat belt off, ready to try to jump out of the car when he slowed down, and when I did that he suddenly slammed on the brakes. My head went forward and smacked onto the dashboard. That really hurt, my eyes were watering and I had terrible pain in my nose. I was half-unconscious, and he pushed me back in my seat and told me to put the belt back on”.

Shaking her head in disbelief at what had happened to her sister, she went to get them both another drink. “I have some cheese and crackers, but I can ring up for a delivery, pizza or something, you should eat”. Ros shook her head. “I couldn’t face eating anything, I’ll tell you the rest”. Marian sat down again, and held Rosalind’s hand.

“Once we hit the traffic around North London, Lee had to slow down a lot. A couple of times I thought I might have a chance to jump out, but he accelerated into a different lane. Then there was a big traffic jam on the roundabout at Millhill, so I got my phone and bag and opened the door. He grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled me back, that’s when I cracked the back of my head against the door frame and cut myself. But I managed to get out and run, though as I ran along the pavement I dropped the phone, and smashed the screen. So I couldn’t ring anyone to help me. Then I was walking along the main road for ages until I saw a London Taxi with it’s light on and waved him down. I don’t know how I remembered your address, but I did”.

Marian sat up straight. “Right then. Now you have calmed down, I’m going to ring the police”.

The police told Marian that they couldn’t send anyone for up to three hours, and suggested she take her sister into the nearest police station to make a statement. But she was in no mood to be messed about, and insisted they come to her when they were available. Both her and Ros had already written off being able to go into work the next day, so it didn’t matter how long they sat up that night. She made a pot of strong coffee, and gave her sister some thick pyjamas to wear so she looked decent when they showed up.

It was well after midnight when two cops arrived. One was a stern-looking woman, the other a boyish-looking young policeman who didn’t really seem to know what to do. The stern woman took charge.

“So, have I got this right? You got into the car of an ex-boyfriend who wanted to take you for a meal in London. Then you took off your seat belt as he was braking hard in traffic on the A1 and hit your face on the dash? Later on, you jumped out of the car in North London and took a taxi to your sister’s flat here. Is that about it?”

Marian jumped in, raising her voice.

“No, that’s not right. She got in a car thinking it was a taxi, and when it turned out to be some bloke she had been on one date with ages ago, she wanted to get out. But he drove off fast, and when she was finally able to get out of the car, he grabbed her so hard she cut her head. You should be sending people to arrest the bastard, not mocking my sister”. Ros started crying again, and the young policeman stared out of the window of the flat, looking awkward. The stern woman sighed.

“Someone will go and get his side of it, I assure you. But see it from my point of view, if you can. What had he actually done, other than to pick her up from work and try to take her to dinner? He didn’t take off her seatbelt, and he may well have grabbed her to stop her getting out of the car, but that was at a busy junction where she could have been run over. That’s going to be his side of it, I promise you”. Marian was furious, and Ros carried on crying.

“If that’s the best you can do, then you might as well fuck off!”

The policewoman stood up, and wrote something on a pad. “I will ring you tomorrow with a crime reference number, then update you once someone has spoken to this Fowler bloke. If I were you, I would take photos of the injuries, and take your sister to see a doctor tomorrow”.

With that, they took their leave. Marian looked at her sister, who was shaking and crying on the sofa.

“Let’s get some sleep, you can share my bed tonight. I’m going to take the photos in the morning. Give me a number for your work, and I will ring them early to say you can’t come in. I have to get up anyway, to call my boss”.

Although she had set an alarm for seven, the phone rang thirty minutes before that, waking her up. Ros was still fast asleep next to her.

“Mrs Davidson? It’s Constable Hall here, I spoke to you last night in your flat. I have heard back from the county police, five minutes ago. As I suspected, they are not prepared to charge Fowler with anything. He says he had arranged to pick your sister up after work and take her out, but she became angry and aggressive on the way, took her seatbelt off and tried to get out of his car on a busy road. He braked in a panic, and she hit her face. So he wanted to take her to a hospital to get her looked at, but she jumped out of the car at Millhill Circus. He tried to stop her because it was so dangerous, and she caught the back of her head on the door frame”.

Trying to talk over her got Marian nowhere, and she carried on.

“He says he tried to find her, but couldn’t stop anywhere on that main road. He rang her mobile number numerous times to see if she was okay, the local police confirm they saw the dialled calls on his phone list. But he couldn’t get through to her. Now I know what your sister told you, but it will just be his word against hers, and any CCTV from the shopping mall will show her getting into the car of her own volition. Sorry, but that’s the real world. He won’t be arrested on this occasion. If you have a pen handy, I can give you the reference number”.

Too angry to reply, Marian hung up.

By the time Ros woke up just after eight, Marian had already phoned in to both jobs. She explained that her sister had suffered a bad fall, and could not come in for a few days. Where her own boss was concerned, she laid it on thick, suggesting the injuries were much worse and she would need time off to care for her sister. He was very understanding, and immediately gave her three days of compassionate paid leave, saying she could have the whole week off if she took the extra two days as holiday time..

The sisters were both shocked at the state of Rosalind’s face. The bruising had come out, giving her two black eyes and a swollen nose. After they had prodded and wiggled the nose, it was agreed that it was not broken. Marian told her what the policewoman had said early that morning, and Ros nodded. “I’m not completely surprised, but no way am I going back to work while Lee is free to terrorise me whenever he wants. He knows where I live too”. Marian said she would hire a car and go and get some things from her sister’s flat later. “You can stay here for a while, until you feel better. Meanwhile, I am going to see what we can do about Lee”.

After breakfast, Marian got on her laptop and started Googling everything she could find about Lee Fowler. She got plenty of hits, mostly court appearances reported in local newspapers. Digging deeper by using other search engines, she even found a reference to the case in Germany, and a newspaper report about Denise being charged with being drunk and disorderly, assaulting a police officer when she was arrested. She showed the laptop screen to Ros. “They seem like a right pair”.

One hit interested her. The prosecuting barrister, Lyndsey Buller. Checking her out, it seemed that she had a thing for prosecuting domestic violence. She was also on a couple of committees, and there was a video clip of her being interviewed about Police leniency on the local news show, London Tonight. It was easy enough to get the details of her chambers, as well as an email address and contact number. When Marian phoned and asked to speak to her she was told she was in court, and asked to leave a message. Marian left her mobile number and said she would tell Miss Buller what it was about when she phoned back.

It was easy to hire a car over the phone, and they said they would deliver it to her address a couple of hours later. So they both got showered and dressed, as Ros was insistent on accompanying her sister to Hatfield. Before they left, Marian took photos of the injuries on her phone, and tried to make a doctor’s appointment for that evening. But the first they offered was the same day next week, so she told them not to bother. Before the car was delivered, Marian took the smashed phone to a local shop and had the screen changed. Once that was done it worked well, and they were able to see the missed calls from Lee’s number.

The car was very nice, and much bigger than she really needed. But she could afford it, and it felt good to be driving again. She had left their old car with Steve, intending to buy one once she was settled. But she discovered that she didn’t really need one in Hackney, so hadn’t bothered. On the way out to Hatfield, she stopped at the council offices and bought daily car park permits for a week. The parking in the street outside her flat was Residents Only, and she didn’t want to get the hire car towed away.

Ros packed a suitcase with enough clothes and things for a week. She was edgy in her own flat, feeling nervous and keen to get back to Hackney. Ros also took all of her private papers and her passport, placing them in a vanity case. “I am not leaving anything here he might use to find me if he breaks in”. Marian hadn’t though of Lee actually breaking into her sister’s flat, but that could not be discounted.

As they were putting the things into the back of the car, Marian’s phone rang.

“Hello, this is Lyndsey Buller, returning your call. I am not actually working at the moment, as I decided to take a much needed break. But I can recommend someone very good to help you. What’s the name of your solicitor?” Marian explained that there was no court case, but she wanted to know more about Lee Fowler. She told the barrister she was prepared to pay for her time. The phone went silent for a moment, and Marian asked, “Hello, are you still there?” Lyndsey’s voice came back on the line.

“Lee Fowler you say? Well, there will be no charge for my time, and I will be happy to help. Come and see me tomorrow, but don’t tell anyone else you are seeing me. I will text you the address”.

Lyndsey Buller forced herself to eat some breakfast before smartening herself up. The women were coming to see her this morning, and she needed to look the part. It was going to take them a while to get from Hackney to Wimbledon Park, so she might have time to tidy the place up and run the hoover around too.

For the last few days she had been in a funk, during her self-imposed absence from work. Chambers had told her they would say she was in court if anyone phoned, and as she was essentially self-employed, it didn’t matter how much time off she took. But she knew better than to take too long. The Head of Chambers, Tom, would be happy to see her go, and he would not need too much excuse to suggest she went elsewhere. Ever since the scandal of her affair with Hugo, she had often considered herself to be on borrowed time.

So many years wasted on Hugo Fentiman. How could she have been so blind? But she was newly-qualified, excited to be accepted at a Chambers with a great reputation, and Hugo had been so helpful and charming. She knew he was married, and she also knew he had three children. But he had promised to leave his wife and kids as soon as they started at senior school, which meant only four years to wait.

And she had waited.

Lonely nights imagining him in bed with his wife. Feeling wretched when he took his family holiday to the villa in Tuscany for four weeks. Then elated when he came to see her on his first day back. More promises, more gifts. Then a suggestion she bought the Wimbledon Park house. Why not? It was near a tube station, not far from Hugo’s house in Putney, and she could afford it. That left her with a huge mortgage, and a three-bedroom house she didn’t need.

But oh, those nights when Hugo visited. It was as if they were actually living together. Drinks in the small garden, eating and laughing around the dining table, then the bliss of going upstairs to bed. Okay, he had to be home by eleven, but those four hours felt like a week to Lyndsey.

Then, that day. The terrible news. Hugo had accepted a corporate job in Dubai. The children were still too young, so he couldn’t possibly leave yet. But he would be back, he assured her of that. Sealing the deal with a huge gold chain and heart locket, he told her she was his only love, and he would be returning to claim her. She believed him completely, and swore lifetime devotion to him.

But that was the last time she had ever seen him.

Everyone at Chambers seemed to know. How could that be? They had been so discreet. It took her a very long time to realise that Hugo had been boasting about his young conquest, bailing out to Dubai when it became too awkward. The looks, the sniggers, but worst of all, the pity.

Throwing herself into work was the only option, short of suicide.

Campaigning for abused women, joining organisations, speaking out on television and in newspapers. Hugo may not have been violent, but he had abused her nonetheless. Emotionally scarred, she dedicated her life to getting justice for other women.

Then she failed to do that. So what was the point of her at all?

Fingering the heart locket for the thousandth time, she put it back in the drawer, and plugged in the hoover.

The noise and routine of housework failed to divert her thoughts. What use was she to anyone? The women coming to see her later offered an opportunity, as long as they were sensible enough to do exactly what she told them. But who was she taking revenge for? Denise, Rosalind, or herself? Hugo would still be living in Dubai earning a million dolars a year, whatever happened to Lee Fowler. And Hugo wouldn’t even know what she had done, let alone be thinking about her.

For the first time since she had gone to university to study law, Lyndsey was considering a change of career. Maybe she could retrain to become a social worker? Or work at a Law Centre, giving advice to poor people who could never afford her fees. Give something back to society, after failing at prosecuting violent offenders. As long as she could cover her mortgage and bills, she no longer cared what her job title was.

She was winding the cord back around the clips on the hoover when the doorbell rang.

Once her guests were seated around the table drinking coffee, Lyndsey got to work. Using a large notepad, she wrote down as much detail as Ros could remember, going right back to the time she had first encountered Lee on a bus. She also noted everything Marian could remember about the night when her sister showed up, soaked to the skin and in a panic. Then she got Marian to send her the photos of Rosalind’s injuries from her phone. Once she was satisfied she knew all the details, she addressed the sisters in what sounded very much like a prepared speech.

“First things first, you haven’t met me. You haven’t been to my house or spoken to me about this case. You rang my chambers and left a message, which I did not return. Is that clear to both of you?” They nodded in agreement, and Lyndsey continued.

“As you know, I prosecuted Fowler after he was charged with assaulting his wife. I am aware of at least three other cases where he was prosecuted by other barristers and got off scot-free. Police contacts also made me aware of many women who had made statements alleging he had attacked them, and later withdrew them. This man is undoubtedly a serial offender since his youth, and you probably know from online research about his only conviction for beating up a woman in Germany?” Marian nodded again.

“Well I am going to suggest some things that are far from conventional. To start with, I think you should go and talk to his ex-wife, Denise. She may well be a mine of information about the man. Between us, I have no confidence in her police statements in the past, but I reckon she will be very happy to gossip. You have to assure her that she will not have to make a statement, or appear in court. And it wouldn’t hurt to bribe her, I suggest you be ready to give her two hundred for any useful information, as that is enough to get her attention. I can supply you with her address, and it might be best to doorstep her, catch her unawares. But you did not get that address from me, is that clear?. I also have the details of another woman you can go and see, but as she is now a shut-in, that might be harder”.

Marian finished her coffee, and put down the cup.

“How does any of that help us press charges against Lee though? Denise will do nothing, and presumably this other woman didn’t proceed with her charges either. We were hoping that you could tell us a way to get Lee to court for attacking Ros. Maybe a private prosecution, something like that?”

Lyndsey reached into her bag and produced a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. After not smoking for over ten years, recent events had got her back into that bad habit. She lit one, turning her head to blow the smoke away from the women.

“Far be it from me to burst your balloon, but that is unlikely to happen. Even if you got it to court, it could cost you both every penny you have. Then if he counter-sued for defamation and won, you would be facing a huge amount in damages. For one thing, the police evidence would not be helpful. It seems to me that the policewoman just didn’t believe a word of what happened to Rosalind. I suspect she gave the county police the nod too. Told them how to ask the questions, if you get my drift. And unfortunately they were on the right track. If it came to both versions of the events, his story is just as believable as yours, as far as Joe Public juror is concerned. If only he had forced you into the car, and that was on CCTV, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, ladies”.

Ros hadn’t said a word since the lawyer had started talking. Now she had her say.

“As I see it, women who have been attacked like me have no recourse in law. Not unless they have completely independent witnesses, or the whole thing has been recorded on a CCTV camera somewhere. Lee can literally do something like this every week, and just walk away laughing. If I thought I could get away with it, I would just kill him. Stab him, or something. Then plead trauma, or diminished responsibility”.

Shaking her head, Lyndsey smiled.

“If you did that, you would either serve long prison time, or find yourself detained in a mental hospital, believe me. Besides, it would all be over for him in moments, and that’s not really punishment. Keep listening to me, and I can arrange something much more satisfying”. She took a long drag on the cigarette, and the sisters could hear the paper burning as the red tip got longer.

“We can completely ruin his life”.

Having nothing in for lunch, Lyndsey phoned a local Indian restaurant and had some food delivered. There was still a lot to go through, and the two sisters were happy to stay for as long as it took. Once they had eaten, she started to lay it out for them.

Handing over a pair of rubber kitchen gloves, she spoke first to Marian. “Over there is a plastic folder, new in the box. Next to that is a box of large brown envelopes. I want you to carefully pick up all the press cuttings concerning Lee Fowler, place them inside the plastic, then put that into the envelope. When you find out from Denise where he is working at the moment, send the envelope to his employer with no covering letter or note. I haven’t touched any of them without gloves, and you can keep the ones I just gave you. Use a post office a long way from both Hatfield and Hackney. Maybe drive into Essex, and post it from there”.

As Marian started to do what she asked, Lyndsey continued speaking.

“First off, we need to lose him his job. Without a regular income, he won’t be able to make the payments for Daisy, or run whatever car he is driving at the moment. This is going to take time, and also involve some personal sacrifice. Over the next week, I want you to discuss which one of you is prepared to make that sacrifice. Believe me, it will be a big deal, but there is no other way to make it work. If he gets another job in the meantime, we repeat the process, and make sure he doesn’t stay employed. You are going to need a camera too, not just a phone. We will need photos”.

Rosalind was confused.

“What do you mean, ‘sacrifice’?” Lyndsey lit a cigarette.

“One of you is going to have sex with him, apparently willingly.” Ros stood up, and picked up her handbag.

“Then we might as well stop this now, because that is not going to happen. Is that really the best you can come up with, Lyndsey?” But Marian held her arm, to stop her leaving.

“Let her speak, Ros. I think I know where she is going here”. Ros sat down again, and Lyndsey went to get a bottle of wine from the fridge.

For the next hour, the overall plan was discussed. They would not only get in touch with Denise, but also the shut-in, who was called Amanda O’Neill. She could potentially offer accommodation, and she had every reason to help them get the man who had destroyed her confidence, and ruined her life. Lyndsey seemed to know a lot about her.

“She comes from money, and now lives in a nice house on the edge of Welwyn Garden City that once belonged to her parents. That’s close to Hatfield, but not too close. Her recent inheritance enables her to not bother with working, and she does nothing all day except to sit behind her numerous door-locks and alarms, being terrified of Lee Fowler. I suggest you put a letter through her door outlining the case with Rosalind, then wait and see if she agrees to meet you. I think you should do that tomorrow, before contacting Denise another day”.

Marian seemed to be completely on board, but Ros remained unconvinced.

“How does this help anything, Lyndsey? That woman refused to press charges all that time ago, so what makes you think she will help us now?” It was her sister who answered her question.

“Because she doesn’t have to do anything. Only give us some kind of base of operations. We will do all the hard work, and she will never have to see or contact Lee again. By helping us she gets some justice, and satisfaction by proxy. I agree with Lyndsey, and I reckon Amanda will go for it”. Ros slurped down half her glass of wine, and held it out for a refill. Then she nodded at the cigarettes. “Can I have one of those, please?”

Watching her sister light the cigarette, then smoke it as if she had always been a smoker, Marian was surprised.

“What, you’re smoking now? When did that happen?” Ros laughed.

“Since I was sixteen. But everyone around me was always so disapproving of anything I did, I never told anyone, not even you”. I was the shit daughter. There was the beloved son who got a medal for being killed in Afghanistan, then the wonderful older daughter who did so well in her studies. Then there was me. Shoe-shop girl who had boyfriends, and couldn’t give a stuff about qualifications. So I smoked, and I liked a drink too. Even now I am just a bloody hindrance, leaving you to sort out the problems in my life. And this woman wants me to become some kind of sacrifice, to solve what happened with Lee. What’s the point of me?

Reaching out to hold her sister’s free hand, Marian sounded very serious.

“You are my sister, and I love you. I am going to be the sacrifice, Ros”.

On the long drive back to Hackney, Marian and Ros hardly spoke. It had been a long day, and so much had already been said. But as they crossed the river, Ros broke her silence.

“I can’t let you do it, Mal. I just can’t. There must be a better way than you having to have sex with him and pretend you like it”. They had stopped earlier so Ros could buy cigarettes and a disposable lighter, and ignoring the No Smoking sign in the hire car, she opened the window fully, and lit a cigarette. Marian didn’t bother to complain.

“The thing is, Ros, it means nothing. I can shag a stranger to get justice for my sister, and I think Lyndsey’s plan is solid. In fact, I think it’s a great plan. It really won’t bother me, I promise you that. I will be thinking of the revenge, for as long as it lasts. And I doubt that will be long. Just one moment in my life, then it’s the beginning of the end for Lee Fowler”.

Back at her flat, Marian sat composing the letter to Amanda. They had agreed it should be handwritten, as that was more personal. And the surnames were left off, but she used their real first names. No point lying to the woman, she was already traumatised enough, judging by what they had been told. There was no need to wear gloves either, as Amanda had zero confidence in the police, and she would be asked to burn the letter after reading it.

The sisters both read through it before Marian added the last line.

‘We are outside, sitting in a grey car. We will wait for one hour for your decision. I hope you make the right one.’

Then they went to bed. Not bothering with more food, as the Indian meal had filled them up.

Waiting until the rush hour had subsided, they left for Welwyn Garden City just before ten the next morning. On the way, they discussed how they would approach Lyndsey’s plan when they outlined it to Amanda. Essentially, her only involvement was to provide a spare room for them to stay in, and tell them everything she could remember about Lee. They could mention a barrister was involved, but were under strict instructions not to give her name or contact details.

Just in case Amanda flipped out.

The house was nice. Built before the new town, and probably ninteen-thirties. The white painted stucco was fresh, and the metal frames in the windows looked original, or sympathetically restored. Marian did not take the car into the semi-circular driveway, choosing to park on the street outside. It was a private road containing only six detached houses, three on each side. Ros was almost chain-smoking by now, and Marian opened her driver’s side window as she got out of the car to walk up to the front door.

Turning back, she spoke through the window to her sister.

“Don’t forget, you stay in the car until we have some sign that she is interested. If the door doesn’t open in an hour, I will take you for lunch at that place we saw on the A1, and we can have a rethink before contacting Lyndsey.”

The letter fell into a cage behind the door, and Marian retreated to the car, not wanting to appear to be intimidating.

Staring at the front door soon became boring, so they chatted about how they were going to get more time off work until this was all sorted. Ros was adamant that she was not going back until it was all over, and Marian decided she would ask for her five weeks of holiday time, unpaid if necessary.

The time dragged, and then seemed to have gone in a flash. Marian was just about to turn the key in the ignition, when the door opened.

In the doorway stood an overweight woman wearing a dress that looked more like a nightie. Her hair was all over the place, and she was barefoot on the doormat. But she was holding the letter, and gently waved to the car. Then her hand turned over, and changed to a beckoning gesture.

Marian operated both electric windows, then grabbed her handbag. Turning to Ros, she smiled.

“Come on sis, we’re in”.

After closing the door behind them, Amanda slid two large bolts across it before double locking the expensive Banham latch. Marian looked at her sister, and Ros raised her eyebrows. This was a woman who took her home security seriously. When they were shown through into the large living room, that was further confirmed by the image on the huge TV screen. It was divided into squares, each one representing a CCTV camera. Amanda had twelve to choose from, covering everything from the approach to her front door, to the view over the back fence of the large garden.

She noticed them looking.

“There are also internal cameras. When I go to bed at night I can check every room from my bedroom computer, just in case”. Marian nodded, realising just how damaged this poor woman was. After asking them to sit down, Amanda excused herself, reappearing wearing a thick dressing gown and some matching slippers. “I don’t usually bother to get dressed after my shower. When you are not going anywhere, there seems to be no point. Now, let me offer you some tea”.

When she returned with a fancy teapot and some matching cups on a nice tray, she chatted to them as she began to pour. “You must be aware that there is little I can do to help you physically. But one of you is welcome to stay here while you go ahead with your plan. I cannot allow both of you to stay though, sorry. I don’t really enjoy being around other people any longer, even women. So just one of you, I don’t mind which one”. Marian jumped in before Ros could speak.

“That will be me then, Amanda. I promise not to make a nuisance of myself. I can eat out, and keep to my room, if that suits you. It just makes life easier for me not to have to drive back and forth from Hackney, and it should only be for a few days”.

Amanda looked at Ros, and the bruising on her face.

“It was you then, the one Lee attacked? I can tell from your face. I still have two small scars on the back of my head from when he slammed it in my car door, so I know what he is capable of. The strange thing is that I really liked him. If he hadn’t been drunk that night, I would have happily stayed with him. I bought him a beautiful watch, and we had a fabulous weekend away in the Cotswolds. I thought he was the one, and I expected it to last. He wouldn’t even wear the watch, and called it shitty”.

Ros could tell the events were imprinted on her mind, and as she spoke, it was obvious she was reliving them. She tried to reassure her.

“The reason he wouldn’t wear the watch is because he was still married then. His wife Denise would have asked where it had come from, knowing he couldn’t afford it. The bastard probably sold it, and spent the money on the next girl he picked up”. That failed to comfort Amanda, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I feel so stupid. I was actually in love with him, can you believe that? Not long after I sold my flat and moved here. I spent a lot of money on making it as secure as I could. I have everything delivered, the gardener is only allowed through the side gate, and I pay him by direct debit, same with the window cleaner. I have only ever spoken to him through an intercom, and he must be at least sixty-five. I sold my car too, no need to have a car when you have no intention of going out. My life now is cleaning the house and watching SKY TV. I have the full package, every channel available”.

She stopped to get a tissue to wipe her eyes.

“When the man came to install the satellite TV system and the CCTV cameras, I locked myself in one of the bathrooms while he worked. He must have thought I was barking mad. Regaining her composure, she sat forward on the armchair and spoke directly to Marian.

“I don’t want to know what you do, but I will help you do it. I will burn the letter as you asked, and you can stay here for as long as it takes. But you have to promise not to touch me, to hug me, or anything like that. And you cannot have any keys. You won’t need them anyway, as I am always home. If that is acceptable then you can come back alone tomorrow, in the afternoon. Don’t worry about eating out, I have enough food for both of us”.

Marian looked her in the eye. “Agreed”.

Before going to stay with Amanda, Marian decided to pay Denise Fowler a visit. Lyndsey had suggested doorstepping her, and provided the address on a council estate in Hatfield.

The estate was not that bad, but when Marian stopped the car outside the right door number, the condition of the small house left a lot to be desired. Unwashed net curtains hung adrift in the main window. The front door showed evidence of having been kicked in and patch-repaired, and a wheelie bin near where there should have been a gate from the street was overflowing with rubbish. Her first try on the tarnished chrome door-knocker was a no-show, so she went back to the car and sat waiting.

Scanning the street behind using her wing mirrors, there was no sign of anyone for the first thirty minutes. At that time of day, most people who had a job would be at work. Maybe Denise had a job now? In which case, it was going to be a very long wait. But the last information, obviously out of date now, was that Denise was unemployed.

The woman she spotted was coming in the other direction, carrying a plastic shopping bag bulging with something. She was wearing grey marl leggings, cheap trainers, and a T-shirt under a stained purple short puffa jacket. Her hair was dyed blonde, and put up in a clump on top of her head. Despite not wanting to jump to conclusions based on lifelong class prejudice, Marian was willing to bet all she had that this was Denise approaching. That was confirmed as the woman turned into the gateway, without so much as a glance at the car parked outside her house, pulling a set of keys from the pocket of her jacket.

Marian was out of the car before Denise had the key in the lock.

“Hello. Are you Denise Fowler? I wondered if I could have a word with you?”

Denise turned and looked the woman up and down. A tailored trouser suit in dark grey, expensive shoes and handbag, and a car too smart for her estate.

“You a cop? Police?”

Shaking her head, Marian tried a reassuring smile.

“No, nothing like that. I just wanted to speak to you about your ex-husband, Lee. It might be best if we go inside”.

Denise made no attempt to open the door.

“Who are you then, his new bird or somefink?” Marian was walking closer, still shaking her head.

“Absolutely not. He attacked my sister, and got away with it. Sound familiar? I need some information,and I am willing to pay for it”.

A wide grin spread across Denise’s face, and she put the key into the lock.

“Pay, you say? In that case, come on in.”

Inside, the place was as filthy as Marian had imagined it would be. Reluctant to sit down, she did so when asked to, thinking about putting her trouser suit into a dry cleaner’s tomorrow. Denise rummaged in her jacket pocket and produced a packet of cigarettes. She lit one, and then discovered her manners.

“Sorry, did you want one?”

Sticking with a head shake, Marian got to the point.

“What can you tell me about Lee? Do you know where he works? Does he even have a job? Is he paying for your daughter, Daisy? How are you coping?”

Ignoring the barrage of questions, Denise extended her left hand.

“You mentioned money. No answers until I see the readies”.

Opening her bag, Marian produced four fifty-pound notes, and leaned across to place them into Denise’s hand. Lyndsey had been correct in her assumption. two hundred had got her attention. Folding them and placing them in her bra under the T-shirt, she started talking like a trained parrot.

“He’s got a security job working at a call-centre. Don’t know where though, but I know it’s run by Group Four. He came here to pick up Daisy, and was wearing that uniform. Is he paying me for her? You must be fucking joking. I got a court order for his payments, but he is always pleading poverty, and paying me in arrears. I reckon he spends all his money on his car, told me it was a Subaru Impreza. He finks I know nuffink about cars, but I know those ones cost a lot. Your sister went with him? She must have been desperate, or mad. He’s poison, I tell you straight”.

With that, Denise opened the shopping bag, and pulled out a can of cheap lager.

“You want one? I ain’t got tea or coffee, so it’s this or nuffink”.

She glugged down several mouthfuls of the beer as Marian replied.

“No, I’m good thanks. Let’s talk some more. There is even more money in it for you, for the right answers”.

By the time Denise was halfway down the third can of lager, Marian was well and truly stuck to the seat of the greasy sofa. But she had found out quite a lot.

Lee was working on a no-hours contract for a security firm that was contracting men out to Group Four for static security work. He was mainly working day shifts, guarding supplies at building sites. Occasionally, he would get an extra night shift sitting on the gate of a distribution depot or empty warehouse, and when that extra money came in, he would pay off some of what he owed her for child support. But there was no holiday pay or sick pay, and if he took any days off he didn’t get paid either. Denise swigged down the last of the beer in that can, then held her chest as she burped up the gas.

“The most recent job I heard him talk about was on a site near Welwyn. He lives there now, you know. A Housing Trust bedsit is all he’s got, and Daisy hates having to stay there because she has to share his bed when it is his weekend to have her. She said he farts and snores all night, keeps her awake. And he only ever buys her fish and chips to eat after taking her to the cinema before that. He has a crap telly. No SKY, just Freeview, and he has no Internet. Well you can imagine, no Internet drives Daisy mad. That girl lives on her phone”. Marian produced a small notebook from her shoulder bag.

“Can you give me his address and current mobile number please?”

As Marian jotted down the details, she couldn’t help but wonder how an unemployed woman could afford SKY TV, Internet, phones for herself and her daughter, cigarettes, and beer. Small wonder Lee had once complained about the way his daughter was being brought up. Not that he was doing a better job of course. At this rate, Daisy would grow up to be a carbon copy of Denise.

She decided to plant a seed.

“I’m not sure how to put this, but does Daisy ever mention that Lee touches her? I mean inappropriately, sexually. After all, it’s not normal for a father to share a bed with his daughter, at least not in my experience. And Daisy is growing up. She’s not a baby any longer”. Denise lit a cigarette and opened the fourth can of the eight in the shopping bag.

“Well, nothing definite. But when the weather was warm, he did tell her she didn’t need to wear her pyjamas. And she said he slept in the nude, and she saw his willy. But he was also drunk, so that’s nothing unusual for him”. Marian was excited, but stayed calm.

“So it would be fair to say that he expected his daughter to sleep just in her panties, and got in bed next to her naked?” Denise shrugged. “S’pose so”. Marian tried to sound casual as she replied.

“Would you be prepared to make a statement to that effect? There would be payment for your time, a generous payment. And the statement would be to the Social Services, not the Police”. By now, Denise was the worse for four cans of beer, and she nodded vigorously.

“Absolutely. If you show me the cash first”.

Marian could feel she needed to pee, but was reluctant to use the toilet in that house.

“Is it alright if I come and see you again? If you give me your phone number, I will ring beforehand, and you can tell me a convenient time”. Denise sat back, blowing smoke up to the ceiling.

“As long as Daisy is at school, and you bring some more cash, you can come as often as you like”.

Marian took her leave, saying she would be back soon. She had not given Denise her name, or anyone else’s name. And Denise had not bothered to ask her.

This time, she drove the hire car onto the driveway, sure that Amanda would be monitoring the CCTV. As expected, the door opened with a click before she could press the bell.

“Come in. Have you got your stuff, everything you need? I don’t want you going out again once I lock up”. She seemed to be just as manic as she had been the day before, worse if anything. She was wearing the same dressing gown and slippers, and her overgrown hair hadn’t seen a brush or comb.

“I will make us a big lunch, then you can stay in your room if that’s okay. I have my TV shows to watch, and I cannot be doing with chat, or distraction”.

The food was surprisingly good. Home-made Lasagna, and plenty of it.

Over the phone that evening, Marian told Ros what had happened with Denise.

“To be honest, I’m excited. Once I find out where Lee is working, I can send the stuff to his boss, then get Denise to complain to the Social Services about him and Daisy sleeping together. It will hit him with two things at the same time, before I put the main part of the plan into operation”.

Ros wanted to know what it was like staying with Amanda.

“A bit weird. She made a delicous lunch, then asked me to stay in my room. Luckily, there is an en-suite, and I bought some bottled water on the way here. But she hardly spoke during the meal, and stopped me saying anything about my trip to see Denise. I pushed her on that, and she held up her hand before speaking. She said we were taking a big chance by tackling Lee. He had always got away with everything, and she feared that would happen again. I told her straight, he was dealing with some very angry and capable women now. Then I realised that sounded bad, as she hadn’t agreed to his arrest when he attacked her, and withdrew her statement”.

When her sister made no comment, she continued.

“I’m getting up very early in the morning, so I can get to Lee’s bedsit before he leaves for work. He doesn’t know me, or the car, so I am hoping to be able to follow him. Then I can try to see a company name or something, somewhere to send the press cuttings. After that I will get some more cash out, buy some lager, and go back to see Denise. I will be wearing some jeans though, her place is absolutely filthy”.

The blue Subaru was still parked outside the house when Marian arrived just after six. That was possibly a good sign that Lee hadn’t left yet. Parking a few cars back, she sipped a coffee that she had bought in a petrol station, and nibbled the too-dry croissant that had to serve as breakfast. Amanda had still been in her room when she left, so she had to find the key to the Banham lock before she could get out. Luckily, she had noticed it hanging on a hook in the hallway the previous day, and remembered that just in time, before she was about to try to wake Amanda up.

He looked exactly the same as he emerged from the front door twenty minutes later. She had seen his photo on papers shown to her by Lyndsey, and the press cuttings. There was little sign that he aged since, and the blue security uniform fitted him well. If not for what she already knew about him, she could agree that he had a certain attraction.

Keeping up with his car was not as easy as she had expected. On more than one occasion she lost sight of him, and was relieved to catch up by staying on the main road. It wasn’t like that in the police films. When he indicated to turn into a large building site she carried on straight, taking the next left and parking the car. It looked like a big development was in progress, and the signs around the perimeter boasted of ‘new luxury homes’.

Trying not to be spotted, and not looking remotely like a builder or workman, Marian walked the entire perimeter. But the only sign she could see mentioning security was for Group 4. Whoever Lee was sub-contracting with did not get a mention. No point hanging around then. She would send the cuttings to the head office of Group 4, and mention the address of the site. It would get to someone, sooner or later.

Too early to call Denise yet, she drove into Hatfield and found a MacDonald’s located in a branch of an ASDA supermarket. Inside, she sat eating a breakfast and drinking a coffee, making notes. When she rang Denise over an hour later, the woman sounded fuzzy. “What’s the time? Christ, I’m still asleep. Leave it another hour and then come round”.

Marian concluded that Daisy had to get her own breakfast, and walk to school alone. She found a cashpoint at the front of ASDA and got some money out, then she went into the shop and bought twelve cans of lager that were on special offer.

By the time she found her way back to Denise’s house, it was still well off the hour she had asked for.

But she knocked on the door anyway.

Denise was only wearing a vest and panties when she opened the door, and her hair was completely flat on one side. Marian could smell alcohol on her from last night, and noticed that she was already smoking a cigarette, despite having just opened her eyes.

“Come in. D’you want tea?”

Marian declined the tea, not wanting to trust either the freshness of the milk, or the cleanlness of the mug. She waited until the woman was sipping her tea, and appeared to be fully awake.

“I have the number of the local Social Services office, which is the main one in Welwyn. When you have finished your tea, I want you to phone them and report that you think your ex-husband is sexually molesting Daisy. Tell them why, about him sleeping naked, and suggesting Daisy doesn’t wear her pyjamas. If you make it convincing, I will give you another two hundred before I leave”. She opened her bag, showing Denise the money.

“He’s not actually me ex, you know. We never did get divorced, not on paper, like. Legally separated, I think we are, I have some papers somewhere, but don’t ask me to try and find them. I spoke to Daisy last night. She said sometimes her dad’s willy touches her when he turns over in bed. But not in her privates, just her leg, or arm. I’m not sure she is gonna tell the sort of story you’re looking for, but give me the number, and I’ll ring ’em now”.

Listening to her on the phone, Marian had to admit she was surprisingly convincing. After sounding genuinely concerned about the situation, she told the real truth, not wanting to rely on Daisy to confirm any exaggerations. She concluded with something very plausible.

“You know it’s not that I know for sure that he touches her. But showing himself naked and allowing his bits to come into contact with her in bed, well I mean, that can’t be right, can it? I want her to stop seeing him, right now. And Daisy wants that too”.

Whoever was on the other end obviously agreed, and told Denise someone would be visiting her at two that afternoon.

Standing up and handing over the two hundred pounds, Marian smiled.

“Well done, Denise. I am going to ring you this evening, about six. Try to remember everything that is said later, I will want to take notes”.

With that she left, and telephoned Amanda from her car. “I won’t be back at your place tonight, I’m going home to see my sister. I will let you know when I want to stop over again”. That was left as a message on the answerphone of course. Amanda never answered her phone.

Back at the Hackney flat, Marian told Ros what had happened as she typed out a document on her laptop. It was a simple covering letter to go with the press cuttings, containing no name or contact details of who had written it.

‘I think you should be aware that your sub-contracted security employee, Lee Fowler, is a convicted offender, and historical abuser of women. He is working at a new housing development under construction in Welwyn Garden City. The enclosed press cuttings will show you what sort of man he is. He is also being investigated currently for suspected sexual abuse of his own schoolgirl daughter, and if charged, your company will be named in court as his employer. I suggest you dispense with his services before your company name is tarnished by association with him’.

After printing off the document, Marian put on the rubber gloves and placed everything into the large envelope, which had a pre-glued seal. She then addressed it in block capitals, using her left hand. It was for the attention of the head of the personnel department, at the registered head office of Group 4. She turned to her sister.

“Amanda knows I am not staying there tonight. I am going to drive up to Loughton in Essex now, and post it there in the first Post Office I find. I will wear those brown leather gloves you bought me one Christmas, so no prints will be on anything. When I get back, we can wait to find out what happened with Denise and the Social Services, then I will phone up and order some Chinese food, okay?”

The Post Office was inside a Spar Shop. It would certainly have CCTV, but who would be looking? Marian handed the envelope to the Indian lady behind the screen, said “First Class please”, and paid in cash. On the way home, she stopped at a big Tesco and bought two bottles of wine and some Maltesers. Her and Ros could have a drink and some chocolates later, after dinner.

Denise answered the phone at exactly six-o-one after just two rings. Marian didn’t waste time on pleasantries.

“So tell me, how did it go?”

Denise sounded excited.

“Two women came. They seemed really concerned when I told them about Lee’s history and what Daisy had said. They want to talk to her too, but we have to go to a special room in some place in Welwyn for that. I can go with her, but I’m not allowed to be in the room while they speak to her. It will be on Friday, and they are going to contact the school to tell them why she won’t be in. One of them is coming to pick us up in a car at nine. The other one was a bit of a cow. She asked me about Lee’s complaint that I didn’t look after Daisy, and that I was always drunk. I told her that was years ago, and I only have the occasional lager these days. Hang on”.

Marian smiled at the irony as she heard the ring-pull pop on the beer can that Denise was opening.

“Anyway, I gave them all the details like you said, and they wrote it all down on one of those little laptops. The cow said I would get a printed copy and have to sign that it was all true. They are giving it to me on Friday when they speak to Daisy. They had been here for almost an hour when the nicer one went outside to make a phone call. When she came back, she said they had been compelled to inform the police. I asked her who compelled them, it seemed a funny word to use. And she just said it was the circumstances that compelled them”.

There was a pause as a lighter clicked several times, then she came back on the line.

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened next. Only about a half hour later, her phone rings and she tells me the police have arrested Lee where he works, and taken him to Welwyn Police Station. If they let him out tonight he will be after me, sure as shit”.

Knowing she needed to keep her calm, Marian spoke with some authority.

“Why would he do that? It will only make things worse for him, and he knows that. It will scare Daisy as well, so that won’t help him. Keep the door locked, don’t drink too much beer, and if he shows up, call the police. My guess is he will be told not to approach you or Daisy, so he will be in breach of that if he turns up at your place in a temper. On the plus side, him being arrested at work is good news. They will definitely not keep him on in that job now, especially once they get the information I sent tomorrow. Okay, stay strong, and I will call you in the morning, Denise”.

After hanging up, Marian rang Lyndsey, and went over everything that had happened. The lawyer was non-commital.

“Yes, he is likely to lose his job, I agree. But they will have to give him bail, and he is certain to deny anything ever happened with his daughter. I’m surprised they arrested him on the say-so of Social Services, to be honest. But where chld sex allegations are concerned, things are changing here for the better. In short, there is really nothing to charge him with, unless Daisy speaks up on Friday, which seems unlikely. No doubt they are hoping against hope for a confession of some sort. But knowing Lee, they will have to wait until Hell freezes over. And Denise is going to be investigated too, that’s certain. Daisy may well be taken into care until this is resolved, but if you want to keep Denise on side, best not to mention that”.

Disappointed with that conversation, Marian stood up.

“Time to open the wine, Ros. You can phone for the Chinese, my bank card is in my bag, and the phone number is on the menu I showed you”.

Once the food had been delivered, they had already gone through the first bottle of wine, and Marian was opening the screw-top on the second bottle. Munching Maltesers later, she spoke to her sister, who had been unusually quiet all evening.

“What is that with taking Daisy into care? Denise hasn’t done anything, besides being a useless mum. And there are millions of those in this country. If she finds out that might happen, she will withdraw her statement to Social Services and Lee will have no case to answer”.

Ros took a handful of Maltesers from the big box.

“Too late now though, Mal. The wheels are in motion. Best thing you can do is to offer Denise more money. A lot more money. Otherwise she will shit herself, and bail on us. Do you have that sort of money, Mal?” Marian looked determined.

“As much as it takes, believe me.”

At eight the next morning, Marian answered the phone to Denise. She found it hard to believe the woman was up so early.

“They let him out. I got a phone call late last night, and they want me to go in and make a statement, ’cause he won’t admit nuffink. I told them Daisy ain’t well, so I can’t go yet. But you said no police, now I’ve gotta deal with them too. I ain’t slept a wink all night, I was sure that Lee would come round raging. I can speak to Daisy, tell her what to say, like. And I will go in and give the statement. But you’re gonna have to come up with more money, and I mean a grand”.

Thinking fast, Marian stayed firm.

“Okay, you need to calm down. You are going to have to keep Daisy off school now you have said she is ill. Don’t do anything else today, just stay in. I’m coming up there this afternoon, and I will bring your money”.

The thought of getting a thousand pounds did the trick for Denise, and she agreed.

Marian’s next call was to Amanda’s answerphone.

“Hi, I will be at your place this afternoon and possibly stopping over, just so you know in advance. Don’t worry about food, I will sort myself out for dinner”. She thought of phoning Lyndsey for advice, but couldn’t face the I-told-you-so that would inevitably happen.

After telling Ros what she was doing, Marian got busy. She had a bath, and did her make-up party style. Then she put on a nice dress, short and low-cut, the kind she would wear to an evening out, or on a hot date. Ros whistled when she saw her sister emerge from the bedroom.

But Marian wasn’t smiling.

“If you want to catch a fish, you have to use the right bait on the hook”.

Before Ros could process what she had said, she was out the door, holding an overnight bag.

Marian’s next stop was at the bank, where she drew out the money Denise had asked for. She had to admit to herself that she had got off lightly, having expected to be asked for five times that amount. Then she headed off to Amanda’s house, where she would wait until the evening.

It was time to implement her original plan, the one she had shelved when Denise had mentioned about Daisy and Lee sleeping together. She wasn’t sure that Denise would hold up, so decided to go with both belt and braces to make sure Lee got what he deserved.

On the way to Amanda’s, she diverted to see Denise and drop off the cash. But she didn’t go inside, not wanting Daisy to see her. She told her to wait until the meeting with Social Services on Friday before making any statement to the police, then added that she was to wait until she was contacted, not ring without warning. The sight of the money made her agreeable, and she nodded vigorously.

Amanda was her usual self, making no remark about Marian’s smart outfit, and asking her to stay in her room. “And if you are going to be very late tonight, please make sure I know. Or I will bolt the door and be asleep”. Already fed up with the woman, Marian just smiled nicely and nodded.

It was an offchance she knew that. But surely Lee would go out at some stage? Marian had little alternative but to sit and wait in the hire car close to his house. She had parked blocking his Subaru, so he would have to say something to her if he wanted to get past. She had got there at just after five-thirty, after filling up with petrol at a nearby service station. Making sure she was seen on CCTV as she bought some bottled water, she also asked the cashier for a receipt.

Her backstory was flimsy at best, and based on a casual acquaintance that she knew lived in Hertfordshire, but had not been in contact with for years. A check on an online map showed that Penny lived about five miles from Lee, at least at the last address she had for her. It would have to do, as she had no other reason for being there.

It was well after seven when the door opened, and he walked out dressed casually. He wandered over to her car.

“You can’t park there, love. I need to get my car out”.

She was all smiles.

“I got a bit confused on the way to my friend’s place. I stopped to fill up the car, and ended up here, totally lost. Now it won’t start”.

He shook his head and smiled.

“Jump out, I’ll have a look”.

Marian stood by the car as he moved the gear selector, then turned the key. He shook his head again.

“It was in Drive. You have to be in Neutral or Park to start it, didn’t you know that?”

“Sorry, it’s a hire car. I forgot. Thank you so much. Can I give you something for your trouble?” She opened her handbag.

He was confident, she had to give him that.

“How about you just take me for a drink? That’s where I was going, I can show you the way”.

On the short drive to the pub, Marian had to marvel at how Lee had such relaxed confidence around a stranger. Surely that was something you had to be born with? He was so completely different to Steve, in every way. Yet knowing about his ability to control women, and his violence when it didn’t go his way, she was relieved that she had not chosen someone like him for a husband.

In the pub, she made sure to appear awkward, and to show no outward affection to Lee. He knew quite a few of the others drinking in there, and they all seemed to assume that he was with his new girlfriend. She stuck to bottled water too, citing the fact she had to drive home. But she gave him her real first name, as that wouldn’t matter tomorrow. He was drinking quite quickly, gulping his beers rather than sipping them. And she didn’t need to make conversation, as he was happy to do all the talking.

Unsurprisingly, he talked about being a security consultant, adding that he couldn’t tell her much more because it was ‘hush-hush’. How he expected to carry that off when he was dressed in cheap clothes, drove an outlandishly flash car, and lived in a shared house, God only knows.

But enough women had fallen for it before.

The party dress seemed to be working. His eyes kept wandering to her ample cleavage, and each time she crossed her legs, his gaze followed. But she kept her cool, twisting to one side when he tried to put his hand on her thigh, and leaning forward when he attempted to slip his left arm around her shoulders.

His vanity continued when he asked her nothing at all about herself. She had some white lies ready, but didn’t need them. Other than asking her name, he was not remotely interested in anything else about her. After she had carefully sipped one glass of mineral water, and Lee had almost polished off three pints of lager, she made noises about having to leave.

“I live in London, and it will take me a long time to get back. I don’t want to be out too late, driving alone”. He made no argument about that, and lifting the glass to drain the last of the beer, gave her a very friendly smile. “You can drop me home on the way, I can show you a short cut to get back onto the main road to London”.

Alcohol had made him bolder, and as she drove along he stroked her leg. “I hope you are going to come in for a coffee? Fifteen minutes won’t make much of a difference”. This time she didn’t shy away, or move his hand. It was time to try her plan.

“I’m not keen on going inside a flat with someone I don’t know that well, but I will be okay in the car. You must know somewhere nearby where we can park unobserved for a while?” Most men would not have been able to believe their luck, but he took it all in his stride.

“That suits me. Drive past my place, then take the next on the right. There’s an old closed down shop there, with a car park behind”. Marian had guessed right. Somewhere he had brought other women.

When she stopped the car and switched off the lights, Lee casually opened the door and got out. “More room in the back”. She took off her shoes and got in the other side and he was immediately all over her, hands down her dress and up inside it too, slobbering, beery kisses. Foreplay was not in his dictionary, obviously.

Fumbling with the belt on his canvas trousers, he spoke without looking across at her. “Take your tights off, we can’t do anything with them on”. Marian acted as if she was turned on. “Just rip them, I’m not wasting time”.

As he was grunting away on top of her, she reached down and placed his hands around her neck. He spluttered saliva as he spoke. “Oh you like it rough do you?”, squeezing her throat as he carried on. She waited a while then brought her left hand up and dug her nails into the back of his hand, and along his wrist. He soon finished, and sat back grinning at her.

“Well you were a surprise and no mistake, a real tiger”. Fixing his shirt and trousers, He sat back against the door. “What now? You coming in for that coffee?” Marian shook her head. “I want to get home. You go, I will clean myself up and then drive home. Who knows? I might see you again one of these days.” He didn’t complain. He had got what he wanted, and his ego took over. “Then again, you might not. You weren’t that good, love”.

With that, he got out of the car and walked back in the direction of his flat.

Marian gave it less than ten minutes before she picked up her phone and dialled 999. She hyperventilated for a few moments before speaking.

“I need the police. Please help me, I have just been attacked and raped”.

Two police cars arrived quite quickly. Marian had given the name of the road she had seen on the sign, and said she was parked behind the closed-down shop. By the time they got there, her dress was torn at the cleavage and back pleat, and she had rubbed her eyes to smear the make-up.

After messing up her hair when she saw the blue lights flashing, she jumped out of the car and ran toward them before they could get out of their vehicles. Suitably hysterical, she fell into the arms of the first policeman to emerge, and sank to her knees on the ground.

A policewoman walked over and lifted her gently, taking her over to the second car and helping her sit in the back. After a brief barrage of questions, Marian pointed to the end of the road. “He lives on the left, just past the junction. A big house, with a Subaru car parked outside. He told me his name was Lee Fowler”. The policewoman shone a torch over her, checking for injuries. She spoke quietly, her tone gentle.

“We are going to take you to a special place, it’s called a rape victim’s suite. You are safe now, and will be looked after. Trust me”. Pointing at her car, Marian let some tears flow. “He dragged me over the driving seat. My shoes fell off, and they are still in there. My handbag too, and the car keys”.

The policewoman nodded. “I know, but your car is a crime scene now. We are getting experts to come and inspect everything and take photographs. All your things will be returned to you”. Another policeman got into the driving seat and started the car.

As the police car turned around behind the shop a third car arrived, and two more officers got out and stood by the hire car. The second car that had come to the scene drove away in the direction of Lee’s flat.

For a while, it was all a blur. The crackling of the police radios, numerous acronyms of letters that meant nothing to her, code numbers being called over handsets, and the bumping of the car as it drove fast to wherever they were going. The policewoman was saying something. “Do you want anyone notified? A partner? Husband? relative?” Marian shook her head. “No, I live alone”.

The special room she was taken to was laid out like a living room, with sofas, a coffee table, and even side lamps. Everything was explained to her in detail. All of her clothing would have to be taken as evidence. She would be provided with a tracksuit to wear, and some disposable slippers. She was given water, after decining tea or coffee, and then told that a female doctor and nurse would be coming to take photographs and swabs. “Don’t worry, you will be alone with them, and somewhere private”.

Swabs were taken between her legs, inside her mouth, on her neck, on her hands, and under her fingernails. Each one was put into a tube and marked with some numbers, her name, and date of birth. Her clothing went into large brown paper bags marked ‘Evidence’, and her name and different numbers were written on them.

Wearing the tracksuit and oversized slippers, Marian turned to the policewoman. “Can I have a shower, or at least a wash?” The woman patted her hand. “Once everything has been recorded, we can allow you to have a shower. It just has to be checked by CID first”.

Over an hour later, a young Indian woman came in, accompanied by an older woman with a kindly face.

“My name is Detective Inspector Banerjee, and this is Detective Sergeant Scott. We will be looking after you, Marian. You can go with the uniformed officer and have your shower now, but then we will need to ask you a lot of questions, okay?”

When she got back in the room, the detectives had set up a video camera on a tripod, and placed a laptop on the coffee table. They also had a voice-recording device next to the laptop. Inspector Banerjee motioned for her to sit on the sofa opposite.

“Just to let you know, the man you named has been arrested at his flat, and taken to a different police station. We are going to need a full statement, the best you can manage. I appreciate it has been a very difficult time for you, but I want you to tell me everything you can remember, from the first moment you met him this evening”. Marian sat down and took a deep breath

It was going to be a long night.

At no time did Marian feel she was not being believed, but the questioning was no less intrusive.

“Why did you go to the pub with a stranger?
“Why did you give him a lift home?”
“What were you doing outside his house in the first place?”
“Why did you get dressed up and drive all the way to Hertfordshire to visit a friend at an address you were not sure she still lived at?”

There were many more, but she was prepared with plausible answers, and stood her ground. The best thing was that there was no mention of Ros, Lyndsey, or Amanda. Retaining her married name had been useful on this occasion. It seemed that not one of the police officers had made any connection with her sister, or the barrister. When the same questions were repeated, she gave the same answers, unflinchingly.

“He seemed like a nice guy, and I felt bad about blocking his drive. I also felt stupid for forgetting the hire car would not start in Drive”.
“It seemed only right to give him a lift home when he had been so helpful”.
“I was outside his house because I took a wrong turning after filling up the car. I stopped to look at my phone, and then the car wouldn’t start”.
“I wanted to connect with my old friend again because I missed her, and the phone number I had for her wasn’t working. I had the hire car, some time off work, and that was how I decided to spend it”.

Inspector Banerjee tried to be kind.

“If I don’t ask you these questions now, the defence barrister is going to spring them on you, be aware of that, Marian. So why did you drive past his house and park behind the old shop?” Marian gave the same reply.

“Because he suddenly grabbed my throat, and said ‘Keep going, take the next right’. I could have tried stopping the car, but there was nobody around and I had never been in that situation before”. The police detective continued.

“So why did you get into the back with him”. Marian was firm.

“As I told you, I didn’t. He got into the back still holding my neck, and then dragged me over the seat. I guessed I was going to be raped, but that was better than being murdered. Have you ever been in that situation, Inspector? No? Then tell me what you would do. I tried to get his hands off my neck as he was doing it. I’m sure you will find scratches on him, if you bother to look”.

Marian kept her responses just the right side of outright anger at the questions.

That went on for almost another hour, then Banerjee turned off the voice recorder, and Sergeant Scott switched off the video camera.

“Okay, Marian. I have asked the CPS to charge Fowler with forced abduction and rape. The evidence is overwhelming, but is only as good as your statement holding up in court under cross-examination. Please don’t let me down, this could take weeks to come to trial. Can I count on you?” Marian nodded.

“Absolutely, one hundred percent”.

The women sat back, apparently convinced, and Sergeant Scott took over the conversation.

“Your hire car has been impounded for forensics. I will let them know, so you won’t be charged for the hire after tonight. I will get someone to drive you home soon. You can have your handbag and phone back, but the clothes and shoes will have to stay with us pending a trial and any subsequent appeal. It is called ‘Chain of evidence’, and is crucial. You must not speak to anyone about this case, especially any reporters or casual friends. Once Fowler appears to be remanded in custody, your name will be witheld until the trial. If you need more time off work, you can explain what happened to your doctor, and get a certificate. But you must not mention Fowler’s name, or any details that we might rely on in court”.

Amanda O’Neill had bolted the door as soon as it was dark. If the woman couldn’t be bothered to let her know if she was staying over, then she could bloody well sit in her car all night. Despite telling her she didn’t want to know what was going on, she really did want to know.

Perhaps more than she had ever wanted to know anything.

After the police car had brought her home to Hackney, Marian was unable to get any sleep until she had told Ros everything that had happened. After sleeping through most of the day the first call she made was to Amanda, to apologise for not turning up the night before. She gave her a rough idea of what was happening, and was surprised by her reply.

“When he is found guilty, I want to be there. Please let me know the date, and I will be in court”.

The next call was to Lyndsey, who was not as excited by the news as Marian had hoped she would be.

“He will appear at Magistrates Court this morning, and be held on remand awaiting trial. Given the severity of the charges, there is no way he will get bail. The police will prosecute, and if I am approached I will turn it down. It would seem far too obvious if I prosecuted him again. They will give you a hard time in court, so as soon as you have a trial date and witness warning, I want you to contact me. You can come over to mine and we will go through all the possible variations of his defence”.

Her third call was to her boss. She told him what had happened, and he immediately told her to take as much time off as she needed. At the same time, Ros was calling the shoe shop company, telling them she would be back to work on Monday. With Lee off the streets, she felt much more relaxed about returning to her own flat.

Marian then rang the car hire company, and arranged delivery of a replacement car. If they knew why the previous car had been impounded, that wasn’t mentioned.

Ros was packing up her personal things, when she suddenly turned to her sister. “You should let Denise know Lee is in prison. That might help her case with Social Services on Friday”. But Denise didn’t answer her phone. Not that first time, or on the next four times Marian tried during the evening. Once the hire car had been delivered, Marian got changed and drove Ros home. They ordered a takeaway pizza and ate it in Ros’s flat before she drove back to Hackney.

Alone in her flat that evening, she sat drinking white wine, and thinking about the last twenty-four hours. The one saving grace was that Lee could not have got her pregnant, as she had stayed on the pill after splitting up with Steve. Now that she had taken her revenge, it all started to overwhelm her, and she broke down in tears.

By late Friday afternoon, she had heard nothing from Denise, and had stopped trying to contact her. She was not about to leave an answerphone message, and didn’t want her number to appear so many times on the phone records, just in case anything went wrong later. But by Saturday morning, she had lost all patience, and drove over to Denise’s house. Wearing a beanie hat covering her hair, and an old scruffy raincoat she had not got around to throwing away, she walked up to the front door.

“She’s gone, love. Ireland, she told me. Staying with a cousin, I think. Cork maybe, somwehere like that anyway. She got a taxi to the station on Thursday morning with Daisy. They had a case and bags. I asked her what was up, and she said a cousin was ill in Ireland. If you ask me, I reckon she’s skipped on the rent”.

The loud voice startled her, and she looked around to find it was coming from the house next door. A woman about sixty was leaning out of an upstairs window, partially obscured by a curtain. Not wanting to engage with her, Marian nodded, waved, and walked back to her car.

Driving away from the woman’s sight, Marian stopped at the end of the street to compose herself. She was furious with Denise, but also with herself. She should have known. Once she had the thousand pounds, Denise had fled to Ireland, rather than face the questioning from Social Services. She was also probably terrified that Lee would come after her.

Oh well, she had her abduction and rape case. The child molestation would have been the icing on the cake, but that was not to be. No doubt the Social Services would be after her, and eventually find her in Ireland. But that was no longer her problem.

She would run with what she had, and be the most convincing witness in legal history.

Inspector Banerjee contacted Marian a couple of weeks later. She wanted her to meet with a police appointed solicitor who was to instruct a prosecution barrister, but only once they had a trial date. To make life convenient, the meeting would be held in a London office, so she wouldn’t have to travel to Hertfordshire. She warned Marian that a trial date could take months to be arranged, but would be in the Crown Court at St Alban’s. Accommodation would be arranged if she wanted it, as the trial was expected to last at least a week, if not longer.

“You will have to pay for it yourself, I’m afraid, but it has to be better than travelling up from London every day. But if you prefer to do that, it is your choice. Of course, he might plead guilty, in which case you will not have to appear at all. But given his history, I think you should expect a not guilty plea, and a defence of consensual sex”.

Marian realised that life had to return to normal, in as much as it could. It was unacceptable not to go into work for months, and Ros had already started to carry on as if not much had happened. That included very little contact with her sister, who started to feel rather resentful that she had done all this to try to get justice for Ros, who had quickly slipped back into her normal routine of life before Lee attacked her.

That resentment came with doubts. Had it really been that bad for Ros? She had hit her face in the car because she removed her seat belt. Then the cuts on her head because she jumped out of the car in a dangerous location. Was her anger really directed at the police? After all, it was the original policewoman who had written off any chance of Lee being charged that night.

But when she was thinking straight, she was resolute. Men like Lee could not continue to treat women like that, and she felt a responsibility to protect her younger sister, even if she hadn’t seemed to be very grateful since. Then there was Amanda. Her life ruined by contact with Lee, a man she foolishly believed she was in love with. Lyndsey had tried her best for years to get justice for victims, only to be foiled by the fear of the victims themselves, or the inadequacies of the investigating police officers.

She would make a difference. She would be the one to put Lee behind bars, and hopefully send out a message to other victims. Be strong. Make them pay.

The next Monday, she went back to work. Her boss called her in and asked if she needed anything, before thanking her for coming back. She warned him that once there was a trial date she might need to be absent again, for up to three weeks. He waved that away.

“Whatever we can do to help. That man needs to be in prison. How about we arrange a car to take you to and from St Albans? I am sure the company can spare one of the chauffeurs”. That solved the issue of staying in a hotel, or using trains. Marian accepted gracefully, and assured him she would work hard up to the trial, and even harder after it was all over.

For the next month, she lived in a strange kind of limbo. Other than her boss, nobody at work mentioned anything about the rape. But she saw the faces, and heard the soft tones in their voices. They all knew, and she was certain of that. Ros rarely phoned her, Amanda was completely silent, and there was no point contacting Lyndsey until she had a definite date. As for her friends outside of work, none of them were aware what had happened. When they got in touch, invited her over, or out for drinks, she pleaded being too busy at work, and too tired.

She didn’t want anyone knowing until it was actually happening. She could make her apologies later, tell them that the police had forbidden her to speak to anyone about the case.

Evenings in the flat settled into a routine. Drinking a little too much wine, eating easy ready-meals instead of cooking, and watching mindless crap on TV, to stop her thinking about standing in a witness box. Seven weeks after that night in her hire car, her phone rang one evening on her way home from work. It was Inspector Banerjee.

“Eight weeks from today, Monday the fourth. We were lucky, getting an early trial date. I will arrange the meeting with the solictor for next week.”

Hanging up, she swallowed hard. Now it was real.

The meeting at an office in London was not only with the solicitor, but also the prosecuting barrister. Both men were upbeat about the chances of a conviction, but after the usual pleasantries, they were also adamant that it all depended on Marian staying strong in the witness box. The barrister was an elderly man named Pettifer, and he didn’t mince his words.

“We have one prosecution witness who matters, and that is you, Marian. The others are police officers and forensic experts, and juries tend to gloss over what they say, as it is usually too technical. You have to take those jurors inside that car with you, make them feel the fear, let them know that you could not fight off a stronger man, and that there was no point screaming for help in a remote location. Don’t be afraid to look at them as you give your evidence, and if the defence ask you anything unacceptable, don’t answer it. Leave it to me to object”.

The solicitor added a few tips.

“You do not have to explain why you went for a drink with a stranger. It is perfectly acceptable to do that, if the man appeared to have been agreeable, and you felt you owed him some company for helping you start the car. It was also perfectly okay for you to give him a lift home, as he had said he would show you a quick route onto the motorway. You were not intoxicated, had given him no encouragement, and had he not forced you to drive to the spot behind the abandoned garage, you could fully have expected the evening to have ended on a friendly farewell”.

There was a lot of other legal stuff of course, most of which went over Marian’s head. She had never appeared in a court, never been convicted of any crime, not even a motoring offence. Even her uncontested divorce had not required going to court, as everything had been done by a family solicitor, and she had just had to sign a lot of paperwork. If she had hoped the meeting would reassure her, she had been wrong. Everything was on her to be convincing. Or Lee Fowler would get off, and it would have all have been for nothing.

After what seemed an eternity, the men appeared to be happy that she would be strong in court, and said they would see her on the day. There were handshakes, then a belated mention that she should dress appropriately, and then she was on the street, her mind a blur. After a large gin and tonic in a nearby pub, she travelled back to Hackney and telephoned Lyndsey.

“That’s good. They have picked an older man to prosecute, not a woman. That will get the jury onside. He will have some gravitas, and they will not presume he is fighting a cause, as they so often did with me. Don’t worry about the legal stuff, that will all be done in your absence. But you can expect at least two days in the witness box, possibly three. Come and see me this week, and I will talk you through it, act like the defence, and see how well you answer my questions. Don’t tell anyone you are coming to see me, and keep phone calls to a minimum”.

Marian agreed to visit Lyndsey the next day, while it was all fresh in her mind.

Back at her flat, she rang Ros to tell her what had happened.

“You will be fine, sis. I have complete confidence that you will put that animal away where he belongs”.

That wasn’t really the answer Marian had hoped for.

Her next call was to Amanda, leaving a message on her answerphone. To her surprise, Amanda picked up before the recording kicked in.

“Hello. I don’t know how to thank you. I could not possibly go to the trial, but I am determined to go to the sentencing once he is convicted. If he is”. That was not the answer Marian had been hoping for.

That night, a bottle of Chablis slipped down too easily. After a very small dinner of cheese and crackers, she went looking for more wine and only found some Soave left over from last Christmas.

But she drank all of that, and went to bed early.

Marian was up early to drive to Lyndsey’s house on the other side of London. A nagging headache reminded her she had drunk two bottles of wine the night before, so she took two paracetamol along with three cups of espresso.

Typical London traffic did not improve her mood, and it took her a ridiculously long time to traverse the twelve miles across the city.

Lyndsey was still wearing a dressing gown when she answered the door, but other than not bothering about her appearance, she was well-prepared for the business in hand.

“Come in, I have a pot of coffee going, and there are some croissants from yesterday. I will warm them up, they will be fine, I promise”.

What followed was three solid hours of interrogation. It was so intense, there were times when Marian actually forgot Lyndsey was on her side. At times, the questioning was so personal, so rude, she had to reach into her bag for tissues when she felt tears forming. Lyndsey was relentless. “If you think I’m bad, wait until you get into the witness box. You may not realise it now, but you will thank me once the defence barrister starts grilling you”.

There was a break for lunch, paninis served with bacon and brie that were very welcome.

After that, Lyndsey went through procedure in court. “Don’t expect to be called for a few days. I am presuming he is pleading not guilty, so that will involve a lot of legal arguments. The jury will be removed for that, and no witnesses -that’s you- will be called. Then there will be the police officers, the technicians talking about forensics, the evidence from the swabs, DNA and such, You could be there for days before being called. But your solicitor and barrister will be around to hold your hand between arguments”.

By four in the afternoon, Lyndsey concluded that she had no more to say. Marian declined her offer of more coffee, and promised to ring her if there were any questions during the trial. She was back in her car and on her way back to Hackney before five, feeling totally drained.

On the day of the trial, her boss came good. The chauffeur collected her early, and gave her his mobile number. “I will have to find somewhere to park, get lunch and that. So whenever you are ready to be picked up, just let me know”. On the way to St Albans he made no comment about the trial, keeping his occasional conversation to traffic issues, and what had been on TV the previous night.

Somewhat overwhelmed by the busy court building, Marian was relieved to see the solicitor in the lobby. He took her to a small room where she met the barrister again. What he said then made her question why she even needed to be there.

“I doubt much will happen today. We have jury selection, some small legal arguments, and he has pled not guilty, as expected. From what I can gather from mutual disclosure, he is going with a standard defence of consensual sex, followed by regret. The DNA is not contested, as he admits to having sex with you. As for the rest, he is claiming you asked him for rough sex, and he went along with that. Don’t worry, we have overwhelming evidence, including CCTV from the pub. Just stay strong, my dear”.

It went more or less as expected. Marian sat around in different parts of the courtroom until it was suggested she go for lunch, then shortly after the solicitor appeared to tell her to come back tomorrow. He was strangely upbeat.

“This could be a short trial after all. The other witnesses are called to appear tomorrow, so you could well be on in a couple of days”.

If that was supposed to make her feel better, it had the opposite effect.

Back at her flat that night, she microwaved a lasagna, and drunk a bottle of Prosecco in twenty-five minutes. Her mind was whirring with possibilites. What if the jury believed Lee? What would his legal team ask her? Would she stand up to the questions in a packed courtroom? It could now be reported by the press. How would they deal with that? Would it go national, or only be relevant to Hertfordshire?

Sleep was not easy to come by, and she was grateful for the oblivion provided by the wine.

By Thursday afternoon, Marian was on edge. Nerves mixed with boredom, four days spent sitting around in court and wondering what was happening. Both the solicitor and the barrister were occupied in the courtroom, and one or other of them would appear during the lunch break to reassure her. But they could not really explain what was happening, other than to placate her with phrases like, “It’s going well”.

All week she had avoided drinking any alcohol. Not good to have to give evidence with a hangover, no matter how much she felt she needed a drink to relax her in the evenings.And she had heard nothing from Ros or Amanda. Nor from Lyndsey, but that was to be expected as she was keeping a low profile.

Friday started off much the same, then just before lunch, the solicitor appeared. “Be ready for the call after lunch. The preliminaries are over it seems, and you will be called this afternoon”.

Marian headed straight for the toilets, and stood by the sinks with butterflies filling her stomach. She could not face eating anything, sure it would make her feel sick. She settled for a strong coffee, and stood outside the court in the fresh air for a while to gather her thoughts.

When the clerk of the court shouted her name over an hour later, it made her jump.

Inside, the courtroom was more modern than she had expected. It felt nothing like the old films she had watched as a child, and was strangely quiet as she went into the witness box to take the oath in front of a curved microphone. Lee was sitting in the dock dressed in a suit and tie, flanked by two prison officers or court officers, she wasn’t sure which.

And he was staring straight at her, with a wide grin on his face. She looked across at the jury, quickly counting seven women and five men. They seemed distracted, making notes on paper pads, or looking across at the judge in her robes as she invited Mister Pettifer to begin questioning. So it was a female judge, and more women than men in the jury. That seemed positive to Marian, and she stood up straight, ready for the first question.

The question did not come. No sooner had the barrister stood up, when the other barrister, the one defending Lee, also stood up. Pettifer sat down as the younger man asked the judge for time to discuss some legal mumbo-jumbo. Both barristers walked over to the judge’s chair and spoke very quietly. She eventually nodded her head, and delcared an adjournment until Monday morning.

Outside in the lobby area, the solicitor came and took Marian to one side. He was smiling. “I cannot say for sure, but it appears we might have a change of plea. Come back on Monday, and we will know for sure”. Feeling dazed and confused by it all, she went outside and phoned the chauffeur.

With no court for two days, Marian allowed herself a bottle of wine to accompany a delivered pizza. There was no way she could concentrate enough to cook a meal. The wine made her bold, and she telephoned Ros, spoiling for an argument. When she got her sister’s answerphone, she left a scathing message.

“Please don’t worry about me. Don’t bother to contact me to see how I am. After all, I am only doing all this for you, because of what happened. To be honest, I don’t know why I bothered, I really don’t”.

Just after eleven that night, the ringing of her phone woke her up from a hazy sleep on the sofa. It was Ros, who seemed to be in an equally shitty mood. She also sounded drunk.

“I didn’t ask you to do anything. I just came to see you because I was upset and injured, but you took over, took over like you always did. The wonderful older sister, the clever one, the one in charge. You made the plans, you contacted the others, I was happy to leave it as it was, but you had to make the big sacrifice. What were you trying to prove? I already knew that you thought you were better than me, thought I was an embarrassment. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered, because you are exactly the same as you have always been, the big I Am”.

Not wanting to listen to more of the same, and too tired to argue, Marian hung up.

As soon as she arrived at court the following Monday, Marian was met by the solicitor, who was waiting outside.

“It’s good news. Fowler has changed his plea to guilty. As well as the defence being sure that you would be a convincing witness, the forensic evidence was overwhelming. If they had continued with a not guilty plea and lost, the sentencing would have been far more severe”.

Marian did not feel she should be pleased to hear that Lee might get a lighter sentence. “So I don’t get to say what happened? Take the jury inside the car, and all that other stuff? Why did the court accept the change of plea? Pettifer should have pressed for the trial to continue”. The man seemed a little peeved by her attitude.

“Take it from me, you have been spared something of an ordeal in the witness box. Besides, it is the law of the land to be allowed to change your plea to guilty. It saves court time, and also a great deal of money. Mister Pettifer is in court now, asking for the maximum sentence for Fowler. There will be reports to be considered before sentencing, which will be two weeks from today. You can go home now, and try to put this all behind you”.

Her first call was to Lyndsey, who confirmed what the solicitor had told her. “He has no previous convictions for sexual offences or rape, so don’t expect too much. If he stayed not guilty and was convicted, he might have got fifteen years, even more. This way, it will definitely be less than that. But he will go away for a long time, be on the sexual offender’s register, and you can all go back to your normal lives. As for me, I have had enough. I am going to open an advice centre for victims of domestic violence. I have applied for funding from a charity to get started, then there are grants that I can explore”.

With no interest in Lyndsey’s future career, Marian had already tuned out of the conversation. So she finished the call and rang the chauffeur to collect her. Waiting until she was home, she called Amanda. As soon as she heard the voice on her machine, Amanda picked up.

“Okay, so he changed to guilty, and will be going to prison. That’s good. I will come to the court by taxi on that Monday, and watch him get sentenced. That way I will know he won’t be around. Hopefully I can relax after that. Don’t approach me around the court though, nobody must be aware that we know each other”.

By late afternoon, Marian decided to call her boss and update him. He was so nice to her, it made her tearful.

“Take the two weeks. Go in for the sentencing and see it through. Then you can come back to work and have a fresh start. No need to come back full-time to start with, ease back into your routine gently. Please ring me if there is anything else I can do, you have my home number, and my mobile too. The driver will collect you on the Monday, and wait to bring you back”.

The hire car was no longer going to be needed. She didn’t have to go back to see Amanda or Lyndsey, and as far as Ros was concerned, she was on her own from now on. After arranging to send it back, and a time for collection, she realised just how much she had been spending on it. What with that, and using up an entire year of holiday, pursuing this plan had cost her a lot.

It had also cost her much more, psychologically.

The pressure was off though. No more coutroom drama, or worries about being caught out by cross-examination. She stopped drinking every night, got back into cooking, and even telephoned some of her old friends. The case had made the local TV news in Hertfordshire, but luckily had not warranted national coverage, as far as the media was concerned. Once life got back to something resembling normal, she would tell her friends what had happened.

On the day of sentencing, she had to sit in the public gallery. Amanda was already there when she arrived, and despite wearing sunglasses inside, it was so obviously her. Marian sat at the other end of the row, and didn’t glance at her. There was some legal stuff at first, but she wasn’t really listening to that. She was staring at Lee, as he stood in the dock with his head bowed. Presumably trying to look repentant.

Raising her voice, the judge made some remarks about a ‘heinous attack’, ‘abuse of an innocent woman’, and having to ‘set an example’.

Then she gave him nine years.

Lee fowler considered himself to be a tough guy, but he soon found out that life in prison was tougher than he had ever imagined. For one thing, the other inmates were not women, and Lee had only ever brutalised and intimidated women. For another, he was a sex offender, a convicted rapist guilty by his own admission. Neither the guards nor the other prisoners cared what happened to him, and he would have no friends inside, not one.

His only option was to apply for Rule 45. That would mean he would be confined in segregation with other sex offenders. Those even worse than him. The paedophiles, those who had committed incest with their own children, the baby rapists, and assorted other nut-jobs and crazies. If he didn’t do that his food would be spat in, or worse, and he could be attacked at will, or raped, with the guards turning a blind eye. If he wanted to get out unscathed, and alive, he had to apply.

He was told that he had to show good behaviour. Being involved in any trouble in prison would say goodbye to being paroled, and he would have to serve the full nine. As well as that, he could be charged for additional offences committed in prison, and get more time added on.

So he set about being a model prisoner.

A surprising benefit of being in segregation was that he quickly learned a great deal. The Stalkers told him how to stalk someone. Other more accomplished serial rapists told him how to find good targets once he was on the outside. Those who had been out before and were back in for repeat offences told him how to behave on the outside, and how to avoid attracting the attention of the police once he was released.

It was a veritable college for perverts.

And despite not being allowed Internet access or mobile phones, the prison was full of them, hidden in the most ingenious places. Lee received lessons in how to track people from their Facebook posts, or photos publshed on Twitter and Instagram. He discovered how to do basic hacking to find mobile phone numbers that had been changed, even names that had been changed. You could find out when a house or flat had been sold, and how much it had sold for.

Social media was a marvellous tool, because people were so careless.

Online Friends and contacts were like skeleton keys into a life. Find the friends, look at the lists of contacts, and sooner or later you would find the person. Photos of parties at work, photos of weekend breaks and holidays. They put it all out there, seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers. Lee was like a greedy child in a sweet shop, eager to take it all in, and learning fast.

There were more lessons to learn. How to avoid leaving behind any DNA evidence. What kind of clothing did not shed fibres easily, get your hair cropped or shave your head so there would be less chance of hair samples. Use plastic shoe-covers that left no footprints. Not only was Lee becoming a trouble-free, model prisoner, he was also one of the best students. He studied at the feet of the masters, conveniently overlooking the fact that those self-styled experts had all been caught and convicted.

—————————————————————————————–

Marian’s boss Michael had been good to his word. She settled back into work slowly, eventually finding her old self in a mind jumbled by trauma. After almost a year, he told her to call him Michael, and then invited her out for dinner. She knew he was divorced, and had never thought of him that way, but she accepted graciously.

Away from work, Michael was a revelation. He was funny, great company, well-travelled, and generous to a fault.

The dinner date led to a few more dates, and six months later, a weekend away in Dublin. He had been to the city many times, and showed her the sights like a native. In the office, they had maintained the working relationship, but everyone knew they had become an item.

Biding his time, Michael left it another year before suggesting they move in together. They could pool their resources and buy a nice flat, maybe even a small house. Despite paying for the upkeep of his sixteen year-old son, that wouldn’t last forever, and dividing time between her Hackney flat and his place in Barnet seemed pointless.

When she agreed to discuss that plan, he told her he was in love with her.

As Lee aproached the end of his fourth year of imprisonment, Marian was preparing for her wedding. Once her and Michael had bought an attractive two-bedroom cottage in Arkley, not far from where Michael had been living, he didn’t wait that long before proposing. His son was at university now, and they had been getting on so well that Marian accepted without hesitation.

They were of an age where children would not feature, so once they had settled into married life they could travel, and just enjoy the companionship.

Things with Ros had remained shaky for a year after the trial, but she had eventually come round. Once the wedding was in the planning stage, she was keen to be a bridesmaid and to trek around with her sister choosing a wedding dress. It was going to be a small affair, held at the Country Club north of Barnet. Marian had gone so far as to issue invitations to both Lyndsey and Amanda, but neither had replied. Their loss then.

Although they still worked together, Michael had suggested a move for Marian. He had recommended her for a better job at the company of one of his university friends. She was excited to be starting in her new post following the honeymoon in Italy.

Ros was still managing the same shop. Most of her team were still there, sales were good, and she was well thought-of. There had been some talk of her moving to head office to train as a buyer, but she was happy where she was, and still enjoyed living in her flat. She didn’t want to contemplate a move to Northampton.

Still living behind closed doors and rarely venturing out, Lee’s imprisonment had not provided the closure that Amanda had hoped for. Feeling ever-growing guilt about her involvement in framing him, she was conflicted. How had lying about a crime that never happened been fair? Whatever Lee had done in the past could not justify that in her mind. Even though she knew he was in a prison a long way from where she lived, she was unable to relax. What if he escaped? What would happen once he was let out on parole? So she stuck to her old routine, checking her cameras and not answering the phone.

Lyndsey was running a legal advice centre for abused women in West London. She was often featured on the TV news, and made it her priority to speak out for battered wives and girlfriends whenever possible. Her public profile was large, very active, and well-known. As for the Lee Fowler case, and Marian and Ros, she barely remembered that period in her life.

Denise Fowler was in prison in Ireland for fraud. She had taken work as a carer, befriended an old man she looked after, and used his bank card to steal over eight thousand euros from his bank account. There was some implication in the court that she had given him sexual favours to avoid suspicion, and she received two years.

She had not been intelligent enough to realise that bank cash machines had cameras in them, and that evidence had convicted her easily. Her defence that he had willingly given her the money because he was in love with her had not been accepted by the jury. Daisy had been taken into care, and was living in a children’s home just outside Dublin.

—————————————————————————————-

Lee had a new cellmate. Duncan was originally from Scotland, but had committed his crimes around North London. He was a woman-hater, and a serial rapist. On their first night in a cell together, he planted a seed in Lee’s mind that grew and grew. He had not raped that woman Marian. She had suggested sex in the car, and he had only changed his plea to guilty to avoid a much longer sentence because of the forensic evidence.

Up to then, he had put that from his mind. He knew he had got away with similar crimes, and worse, so had accepted he could do nothing when faced with Marian’s determination to put him away. But why she did that had remained a mystery for four years.

As the weeks went on, Lee became obsessed. He wanted to know why. Why had that woman ruined his life? But then something happened on the prison wing that caused disruption. Duncan killed someone after an argument about using the pool table, so Lee was moved. The prison he was moved to had no suitable segregation place, and suddenly he was plunged into the horror of the general population.

He soon realised that everyone knew his story, and seemed to be out to get him.

Despite doing his best to claim he had been framed, and avoiding the various tough guys in the new prison, he was finally ‘kettled’ one afternoon. A kettle full of boiling water, mixed with a large amount of sugar, was thrown over his face by John Murphy, the top con on the wing. Lucky not to lose his sight, Lee spent two weeks under guard in hospital, followed by various trips to the Regional Burns Unit. When it was all over, he was badly scarred, and full of hatred for the woman that had put him in there.

The authorities quickly transferred him to a segregation unit, and on his second week there, he received a letter. It was a personal letter, hand-written on nice paper.

After reading it, he smiled. Then he read it again.

After serving five years and one month of his nine-year sentence, Lee Fowler was given parole. There were the usual restrictions. He had to report to the local police station, and attend meetings with his probation officer. If he failed to do that, or got into any trouble, he would be returned to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.

He no longer had his small flat, as he had been unable to pay the rent in prison. His car had also been impounded, as it had not been taxed or insured. Naturally, he had no money to get the car back, and had to accept accommodation at a probation hostel until he could find somewhere to live. He had to leave prison with the clothes he had arrived in, the few pounds on him when he was arrested, and a small prisoner discharge grant to get him started.

The future was potentially bleak. Now having to disclose he was on the Sex Offender’s Register meant there were many jobs he could not apply for. Finding a place of his own with no job would not be easy, and being away for those years meant much had changed out in the real world.

But Lee was remarkably upbeat, and smiling as he walked through the gates to freedom.

—————————————————————————————

Marriage to Michael had been better than Marian had expected. They had both experienced failed marriages in the past, and had learned lessons about compromise, and living with someone else. The honeymoon in Tuscany had been memorable, and her new job was everything she had hoped it would be. Being in charge of her own department allowed her to implement new ideas and changes, and all were well-received by a team of staff who seemed to be delighted to work for her. On their first wedding anniversary, Michael had surpised her with a long weekend in New York, and it had been a thrilling experience.

Ros had to admit that her sister had changed. She liked Michael too, he was really good for Marian. She seemed younger, eager to try new things, and their relationship had blossomed into what Ros had always hoped it could have been. And she had a new man too, the man in charge of all the property at the shopping centre. He oversaw the maintenance of the building, the cleaning, the escalators, and everything to do with the smooth running of a large shopping mall. Nick was a go-getter, and not yet forty. After nine months together, he was talking children in the future, and a nice house in Hatfeld once they had saved the deposit.

The legal advice centre had been such a success, Lyndsey had opened two more offices; one in Manchester, the other in Birmingham. Council grants, donations from concerned individuals, and charitable appeals had made it all possible. There had been no shortage of lawyers wanting to work in them either. So many were disillusioned with the current legal process, she had more applications than vacancies. And volunteers ran the ancillary roles, answering helplines, arranging interviews, anything that was needed. She finally felt that she had discovered her purpose in life.

—————————————————————————————-

Amanda had a car now. Nothing fancy, just a little Smart Car. But it was brand new, and she used it to run around to the shops, or anywhere she neded to go locally. The past year had changed her outlook on life completely. Although she still had the cameras, she no longer set the alarms at night, and used just one lock on her door. The fear had not gone completely, but she felt sure it would soon.

No more spending all day in her pyjamas either. Her new short bobbed hairstyle suited her, she thought. The outfits she had bought after losing weight at the gym set off her figure, and she felt whole again, an attractive woman in her prime.

Using the built-in Satnav, she found the prison easily and waited by the gate, staying in the car. She had got up early to get ready, wanting to look her best. When he walked through the gates he looked heavier. Prison food, probably, and lack of exercise. She had known about the scarred face of course, but it was a shock to see the twisted skin on the left side. He smiled as he saw the car, and quickened his pace.

Sending the letters had been cathartic for her. She had washed away the guilt, then rediscovered the love she had felt for him before that fateful night. Looking back, what had been that terrible? Yes, he had pushed her over in the garage, but he had been upset about the watch. Yes, he had hit her head in the car door, but only because he had been drunk. Why not give him a second chance? She had never lost those intiial feelings for him, even during the years when she lived as a shut-in.

As she drove off with him by her side where he belonged, she was already chatting happily.

“I know where they are, all three of them. I will help you make them pay for what they did to you”.

The End.

Four Lives: Part Twenty-Nine

This is the twenty-ninth part of a fiction serial, in 917 words.

As Lee aproached the end of his fourth year of imprisonment, Marian was preparing for her wedding. Once her and Michael had bought an attractive two-bedroom cottage in Arkley, not far from where Michael had been living, he didn’t wait that long before proposing. His son was at university now, and they had been getting on so well that Marian accepted without hesitation.

They were of an age where children would not feature, so once they had settled into married life they could travel, and just enjoy the companionship.

Things with Ros had remained shaky for a year after the trial, but she had eventually come round. Once the wedding was in the planning stage, she was keen to be a bridesmaid and to trek around with her sister choosing a wedding dress. It was going to be a small affair, held at the Country Club north of Barnet. Marian had gone so far as to issue invitations to both Lyndsey and Amanda, but neither had replied. Their loss then.

Although they still worked together, Michael had suggested a move for Marian. He had recommended her for a better job at the company of one of his university friends. She was excited to be starting in her new post following the honeymoon in Italy.

Ros was still managing the same shop. Most of her team were still there, sales were good, and she was well thought-of. There had been some talk of her moving to head office to train as a buyer, but she was happy where she was, and still enjoyed living in her flat. She didn’t want to contemplate a move to Northampton.

Still living behind closed doors and rarely venturing out, Lee’s imprisonment had not provided the closure that Amanda had hoped for. Feeling ever-growing guilt about her involvement in framing him, she was conflicted. How had lying about a crime that never happened been fair? Whatever Lee had done in the past could not justify that in her mind. Even though she knew he was in a prison a long way from where she lived, she was unable to relax. What if he escaped? What would happen once he was let out on parole? So she stuck to her old routine, checking her cameras and not answering the phone.

Lyndsey was running a legal advice centre for abused women in West London. She was often featured on the TV news, and made it her priority to speak out for battered wives and girlfriends whenever possible. Her public profile was large, very active, and well-known. As for the Lee Fowler case, and Marian and Ros, she barely remembered that period in her life.

Denise Fowler was in prison in Ireland for fraud. She had taken work as a carer, befriended an old man she looked after, and used his bank card to steal over eight thousand euros from his bank account. There was some implication in the court that she had given him sexual favours to avoid suspicion, and she received two years.

She had not been intelligent enough to realise that bank cash machines had cameras in them, and that evidence had convicted her easily. Her defence that he had willingly given her the money because he was in love with her had not been accepted by the jury. Daisy had been taken into care, and was living in a children’s home just outside Dublin.

—————————————————————————————-

Lee had a new cellmate. Duncan was originally from Scotland, but had committed his crimes around North London. He was a woman-hater, and a serial rapist. On their first night in a cell together, he planted a seed in Lee’s mind that grew and grew. He had not raped that woman Marian. She had suggested sex in the car, and he had only changed his plea to guilty to avoid a much longer sentence because of the forensic evidence.

Up to then, he had put that from his mind. He knew he had got away with similar crimes, and worse, so had accepted he could do nothing when faced with Marian’s determination to put him away. But why she did that had remained a mystery for four years.

As the weeks went on, Lee became obsessed. He wanted to know why. Why had that woman ruined his life? But then something happened on the prison wing that caused disruption. Duncan killed someone after an argument about using the pool table, so Lee was moved. The prison he was moved to had no suitable segregation place, and suddenly he was plunged into the horror of the general population.

He soon realised that everyone knew his story, and seemed to be out to get him.

Despite doing his best to claim he had been framed, and avoiding the various tough guys in the new prison, he was finally ‘kettled’ one afternoon. A kettle full of boiling water, mixed with a large amount of sugar, was thrown over his face by John Murphy, the top con on the wing. Lucky not to lose his sight, Lee spent two weeks under guard in hospital, followed by various trips to the Regional Burns Unit. When it was all over, he was badly scarred, and full of hatred for the woman that had put him in there.

The authorities quickly transferred him to a segregation unit, and on his second week there, he received a letter. It was a personal letter, hand-written on nice paper.

After reading it, he smiled. Then he read it again.

Four Lives: Part Twenty-Eight

This is the twenty-eighth part of a fiction serial, in 762 words.

Lee fowler considered himself to be a tough guy, but he soon found out that life in prison was tougher than he had ever imagined. For one thing, the other inmates were not women, and Lee had only ever brutalised and intimidated women. For another, he was a sex offender, a convicted rapist guilty by his own admission. Neither the guards nor the other prisoners cared what happened to him, and he would have no friends inside, not one.

His only option was to apply for Rule 45. That would mean he would be confined in segregation with other sex offenders. Those even worse than him. The paedophiles, those who had committed incest with their own children, the baby rapists, and assorted other nut-jobs and crazies. If he didn’t do that his food would be spat in, or worse, and he could be attacked at will, or raped, with the guards turning a blind eye. If he wanted to get out unscathed, and alive, he had to apply.

He was told that he had to show good behaviour. Being involved in any trouble in prison would say goodbye to being paroled, and he would have to serve the full nine. As well as that, he could be charged for additional offences committed in prison, and get more time added on.

So he set about being a model prisoner.

A surprising benefit of being in segregation was that he quickly learned a great deal. The Stalkers told him how to stalk someone. Other more accomplished serial rapists told him how to find good targets once he was on the outside. Those who had been out before and were back in for repeat offences told him how to behave on the outside, and how to avoid attracting the attention of the police once he was released.

It was a veritable college for perverts.

And despite not being allowed Internet access or mobile phones, the prison was full of them, hidden in the most ingenious places. Lee received lessons in how to track people from their Facebook posts, or photos publshed on Twitter and Instagram. He discovered how to do basic hacking to find mobile phone numbers that had been changed, even names that had been changed. You could find out when a house or flat had been sold, and how much it had sold for.

Social media was a marvellous tool, because people were so careless.

Online Friends and contacts were like skeleton keys into a life. Find the friends, look at the lists of contacts, and sooner or later you would find the person. Photos of parties at work, photos of weekend breaks and holidays. They put it all out there, seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers. Lee was like a greedy child in a sweet shop, eager to take it all in, and learning fast.

There were more lessons to learn. How to avoid leaving behind any DNA evidence. What kind of clothing did not shed fibres easily, get your hair cropped or shave your head so there would be less chance of hair samples. Use plastic shoe-covers that left no footprints. Not only was Lee becoming a trouble-free, model prisoner, he was also one of the best students. He studied at the feet of the masters, conveniently overlooking the fact that those self-styled experts had all been caught and convicted.

—————————————————————————————–

Marian’s boss Michael had been good to his word. She settled back into work slowly, eventually finding her old self in a mind jumbled by trauma. After almost a year, he told her to call him Michael, and then invited her out for dinner. She knew he was divorced, and had never thought of him that way, but she accepted graciously.

Away from work, Michael was a revelation. He was funny, great company, well-travelled, and generous to a fault.

The dinner date led to a few more dates, and six months later, a weekend away in Dublin. He had been to the city many times, and showed her the sights like a native. In the office, they had maintained the working relationship, but everyone knew they had become an item.

Biding his time, Michael left it another year before suggesting they move in together. They could pool their resources and buy a nice flat, maybe even a small house. Despite paying for the upkeep of his sixteen year-old son, that wouldn’t last forever, and dividing time between her Hackney flat and his place in Barnet seemed pointless.

When she agreed to discuss that plan, he told her he was in love with her.

Four Lives: Part Twenty-Seven

This is the twenty-seventh part of a fiction serial, in 805 words.

As soon as she arrived at court the following Monday, Marian was met by the solicitor, who was waiting outside.

“It’s good news. Fowler has changed his plea to guilty. As well as the defence being sure that you would be a convincing witness, the forensic evidence was overwhelming. If they had continued with a not guilty plea and lost, the sentencing would have been far more severe”.

Marian did not feel she should be pleased to hear that Lee might get a lighter sentence. “So I don’t get to say what happened? Take the jury inside the car, and all that other stuff? Why did the court accept the change of plea? Pettifer should have pressed for the trial to continue”. The man seemed a little peeved by her attitude.

“Take it from me, you have been spared something of an ordeal in the witness box. Besides, it is the law of the land to be allowed to change your plea to guilty. It saves court time, and also a great deal of money. Mister Pettifer is in court now, asking for the maximum sentence for Fowler. There will be reports to be considered before sentencing, which will be two weeks from today. You can go home now, and try to put this all behind you”.

Her first call was to Lyndsey, who confirmed what the solicitor had told her. “He has no previous convictions for sexual offences or rape, so don’t expect too much. If he stayed not guilty and was convicted, he might have got fifteen years, even more. This way, it will definitely be less than that. But he will go away for a long time, be on the sexual offender’s register, and you can all go back to your normal lives. As for me, I have had enough. I am going to open an advice centre for victims of domestic violence. I have applied for funding from a charity to get started, then there are grants that I can explore”.

With no interest in Lyndsey’s future career, Marian had already tuned out of the conversation. So she finished the call and rang the chauffeur to collect her. Waiting until she was home, she called Amanda. As soon as she heard the voice on her machine, Amanda picked up.

“Okay, so he changed to guilty, and will be going to prison. That’s good. I will come to the court by taxi on that Monday, and watch him get sentenced. That way I will know he won’t be around. Hopefully I can relax after that. Don’t approach me around the court though, nobody must be aware that we know each other”.

By late afternoon, Marian decided to call her boss and update him. He was so nice to her, it made her tearful.

“Take the two weeks. Go in for the sentencing and see it through. Then you can come back to work and have a fresh start. No need to come back full-time to start with, ease back into your routine gently. Please ring me if there is anything else I can do, you have my home number, and my mobile too. The driver will collect you on the Monday, and wait to bring you back”.

The hire car was no longer going to be needed. She didn’t have to go back to see Amanda or Lyndsey, and as far as Ros was concerned, she was on her own from now on. After arranging to send it back, and a time for collection, she realised just how much she had been spending on it. What with that, and using up an entire year of holiday, pursuing this plan had cost her a lot.

It had also cost her much more, psychologically.

The pressure was off though. No more coutroom drama, or worries about being caught out by cross-examination. She stopped drinking every night, got back into cooking, and even telephoned some of her old friends. The case had made the local TV news in Hertfordshire, but luckily had not warranted national coverage, as far as the media was concerned. Once life got back to something resembling normal, she would tell her friends what had happened.

On the day of sentencing, she had to sit in the public gallery. Amanda was already there when she arrived, and despite wearing sunglasses inside, it was so obviously her. Marian sat at the other end of the row, and didn’t glance at her. There was some legal stuff at first, but she wasn’t really listening to that. She was staring at Lee, as he stood in the dock with his head bowed. Presumably trying to look repentant.

Raising her voice, the judge made some remarks about a ‘heinous attack’, ‘abuse of an innocent woman’, and having to ‘set an example’.

Then she gave him nine years.

Four Lives: Part Twenty-Six

This is the twenty-sixth part of a fiction serial, in 752 words.

By Thursday afternoon, Marian was on edge. Nerves mixed with boredom, four days spent sitting around in court and wondering what was happening. Both the solicitor and the barrister were occupied in the courtroom, and one or other of them would appear during the lunch break to reassure her. But they could not really explain what was happening, other than to placate her with phrases like, “It’s going well”.

All week she had avoided drinking any alcohol. Not good to have to give evidence with a hangover, no matter how much she felt she needed a drink to relax her in the evenings.And she had heard nothing from Ros or Amanda. Nor from Lyndsey, but that was to be expected as she was keeping a low profile.

Friday started off much the same, then just before lunch, the solicitor appeared. “Be ready for the call after lunch. The preliminaries are over it seems, and you will be called this afternoon”.

Marian headed straight for the toilets, and stood by the sinks with butterflies filling her stomach. She could not face eating anything, sure it would make her feel sick. She settled for a strong coffee, and stood outside the court in the fresh air for a while to gather her thoughts.

When the clerk of the court shouted her name over an hour later, it made her jump.

Inside, the courtroom was more modern than she had expected. It felt nothing like the old films she had watched as a child, and was strangely quiet as she went into the witness box to take the oath in front of a curved microphone. Lee was sitting in the dock dressed in a suit and tie, flanked by two prison officers or court officers, she wasn’t sure which.

And he was staring straight at her, with a wide grin on his face. She looked across at the jury, quickly counting seven women and five men. They seemed distracted, making notes on paper pads, or looking across at the judge in her robes as she invited Mister Pettifer to begin questioning. So it was a female judge, and more women than men in the jury. That seemed positive to Marian, and she stood up straight, ready for the first question.

The question did not come. No sooner had the barrister stood up, when the other barrister, the one defending Lee, also stood up. Pettifer sat down as the younger man asked the judge for time to discuss some legal mumbo-jumbo. Both barristers walked over to the judge’s chair and spoke very quietly. She eventually nodded her head, and delcared an adjournment until Monday morning.

Outside in the lobby area, the solicitor came and took Marian to one side. He was smiling. “I cannot say for sure, but it appears we might have a change of plea. Come back on Monday, and we will know for sure”. Feeling dazed and confused by it all, she went outside and phoned the chauffeur.

With no court for two days, Marian allowed herself a bottle of wine to accompany a delivered pizza. There was no way she could concentrate enough to cook a meal. The wine made her bold, and she telephoned Ros, spoiling for an argument. When she got her sister’s answerphone, she left a scathing message.

“Please don’t worry about me. Don’t bother to contact me to see how I am. After all, I am only doing all this for you, because of what happened. To be honest, I don’t know why I bothered, I really don’t”.

Just after eleven that night, the ringing of her phone woke her up from a hazy sleep on the sofa. It was Ros, who seemed to be in an equally shitty mood. She also sounded drunk.

“I didn’t ask you to do anything. I just came to see you because I was upset and injured, but you took over, took over like you always did. The wonderful older sister, the clever one, the one in charge. You made the plans, you contacted the others, I was happy to leave it as it was, but you had to make the big sacrifice. What were you trying to prove? I already knew that you thought you were better than me, thought I was an embarrassment. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered, because you are exactly the same as you have always been, the big I Am”.

Not wanting to listen to more of the same, and too tired to argue, Marian hung up.