THE FELONY AT FLINTWICK HALL
It was going to be a profitable month for Flintwick Hall. The owners of the stately home had put on a very prestigious exhibition. A long-deceased family member had made good, very good, in Canada in the early twentieth century. By way of spending his fortune he had amassed a sizeable collection of oil paintings of Scottish landscapes and the present owner was hoping that an exhibition of the paintings would help to boost the visitor numbers.
During the summer season the owners of Flintwick Hall employed a small number of temporary staff including the occasional expert who was there for a specific exhibition, and on this occasion that expert was Maggie Berry. A divorced blonde in her mid-fifties, she was well versed in historical records and museum administration. She was confident at meeting the public, at least the sort of public who came to see paintings. She had read up on the Canadian relative, the artists and the scenes shown. She was going to be based in the gallery room with the artworks, being proactive and greeting visitors, answering questions. Just the sort of thing that she was good at.
It should be easy, she thought, in fact it was probably going to be a dull week. The paintings were pleasant enough but to her they weren't very inspiring. Surely nobody needed that many Bens and Glens on the wall. But six of them were valuable, not for their beauty but because of the name of the artist in the bottom corner. There was a security issue of course but the place was patrolled at night and the paintings were too big for anyone to sneak away with unnoticed, so Maggie felt safe being alone with them. She had had another part time job working for a firm of probate lawyers, which she had always thought was very tame and unchallenging. She had been wrong about that, and recently she had spent a frightening day bound and gagged in a cellar, the prisoner of a madwoman who threatened to kill her. In future she intended to stick to assignments where she wasn't visiting strangers on her own.
The first four days went exactly as Maggie had expected. On the fifth day it was raining in the morning, and at 9.40 two people sat in the conservatory enjoying a cup of coffee. Two senior figures in the administrative hierarchy, if only because they were not temps. Even when there wasn't a special exhibition, Maggie usually worked there for two days a week. Her drinking partner was Paul Kirkland, the estate manager. Paul wore the management uniform of a white shirt, a Gordon tartan tie and waistcoat over black trousers and black leather shoes, and Maggie wore an outfit that was nearly identical except that she wore a knee-length black skirt, dark tights and black shoes with two-inch heels. Ideal for looking good when all her walking was going to be indoors, she thought. Paul was of the opinion that there might not be any visitors because of the weather and Maggie agreed, bemoaning the fact that she had to spend the day in the gallery seeing nobody. Both knew it wouldn't really be like that. There was always somebody who had nothing better to do. Like that bloke yesterday, she remembered. He had spent some time in the gallery looking around, on his own. He was strange; he seemed to spend as much time looking out of the windows as he did studying the pictures.
It was 9.50; the doors would soon be opening to admit the visitors, if any came. Paul Kirkland's role was to manage of course, but he did also wander around the hall's public and private areas to keep the staff on their toes. This morning however he was going to sit here and assess the CVs of some job applicants. Maggie finished her drink and got up. "Back to the grindstone" she said.
Watching her from behind as she walked away, Paul idly wondered if he could get to know her better. He was married, so he would have to tread carefully. He knew she was still unattached two years after her divorce, so maybe there were possibilities. She was a well-rounded lady, but he liked women who had something to get hold of, as they say. She had nice legs and she always wore a skirt, He liked to see that, these days so many women wore trousers. She wore glasses but she always chose a design that complemented her round face and collar-length bobbed hairstyle. He personally thought that she used too much eye make-up, but that was a minor thing compared to her good points. He would make an excuse to wander round to the gallery in an hour or so and see her again.
The first group of visitors to pass through the gallery included one man who was not paying much attention to the exhibits at all. Kenny noticed and took in all the things his mate Andy had seen yesterday. They had been commissioned to steal six of them, the six by the artist Robert Gordon, but not the others. At one side of the gallery, French doors opened to lead to lawns, and he knew that there was a pebbled path that came right up to the hall and passed the window. Andy had unlocked those doors when he was here yesterday. And today, when he gave a signal, his mate Andy would drive the Sprinter van along here to park by the window. It was handy that it was a wet day; his raincoat didn't seem out of place. In the pockets were the rolled-up laminated notices, the replica gun and the duct tape.
Like yesterday, the gallery was staffed only by one woman. The same one Andy had described - a middle-aged blonde with glasses. Attractive, but older than him by a few years. She looked like a nice woman, he thought, very businesslike in her uniform. Nice legs, he noticed. She didn't know what was in store for her today. In a way he felt sorry for her, but she was going to be taken care of, silenced and kept out of their way. He had the roll of tape, some lengths already cut and pressed back on the roll to save time. And the big Jacobean trunk opposite the windows would come in useful. Their plan took advantage of the layout of the building. A visitor could take a right turn and go into the gallery, which was U-shaped, leave at the other end and come back into the main corridor at the other end, or if the door was closed, just go along that corridor to the next massive room full of antique furniture.
At the first opportunity, he had gone back along the corridor, and when no visitors were in the gallery, taped his laminated notice to the heavy door, the left hand one of a pair. GALLERY CLOSED FOR URGENT ELECTRICAL REPAIRS. APOLOGIES FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE. Convincing enough. They had thought about just shutting the doors and trusting to luck, but the use of official-looking notices had served them well in the past. He could hear voices, out of sight in the other part of the L-shaped room. It was the woman talking to the visitors. He closed the two doors and slipped the bolt into place, making no sound, and made his way to the corner. She had her back to him and seemed to be looking out of the window. He took the ski-mask from his pocket and pulled it down over his face. Time to go!
Once the couple had left the gallery, Maggie stopped at a particular piece of window in which she could see her reflection. As she straightened her tartan tie and patted a stray lock of hair into place, she spotted a reflection of a rapid movement behind her. She tried to move but it was too late. A big hand was clamped firmly over her mouth. Simultaneously an arm round her body pinned both arms to her sides. The hand squeezed her face roughly. "Keep quiet and keep still. Or you'll get hurt. Understand!".
She tried in vain to speak, and nodded her head as well. He relaxed his grip on her face slightly. "There are four of us. We just want the Gordons, that's all. Just got to keep you out of the way while we finish the job". She could see the man's reflection in the glass, and for a moment was horrified to see that he was masked. She wondered where the other three robbers could be. She couldn't see them anywhere. The arm around her body moved away suddenly and Maggie just for an instant thought about resisting. Until he flourished a handgun in front of her face. Small, black and frightening. He quickly withdrew it. It occurred to her it might not be real, but she knew she didn't dare put it to the test. She wasn't going to get herself killed for the sake of a few pictures. And she realised that meant submitting to being kept out of the way. Like the last time probably, with ropes and tapes, she thought with a sinking feeling. I'm going to be tied up again.
"We're going to move away from the window, over to face that wall. Then you just keep still and nobody gets hurt. Nobody in this instance being you. You got that?" The hand moved away from her mouth.
"Yes. There's no need to get rough with me, I don't believe in risking my life for the job". She knew she sounded panicky. He sensed her fear and his voice took a calmer tone.
"Don't you worry. We don't hurt anyone, especially women. I know you are scared but there's no need to be." The arm around her relaxed its grip. "Glad you're being co-operative".
"Couldn't stop you, could I? My bosses wouldn't expect it" she said, trying not to sound confrontational. "I'm only paid to show people round and tell them about the exhibits. She tried to turn toward him but a hand on her shoulder turned her back. "Are you going to tie me up?" she asked anxiously. She immediately wished she hadn't asked, it must have sounded like she wanted to be tied.
"Afraid so. Well, sort of, I'm going to tape you up. Then we take the paintings and we'll be gone. I'm going to start now, once we're away from the window". He took hold of her left arm and steered her over to the opposite wall, then relaxed his grip. That big oak chest or coffer or whatever it was called caught his eye. It was the right size and shape to conceal a trussed-up captive. "Remember there's four of us, and just do as I say" he tried to sound threatening. Maggie wondered where the other three were. She couldn't hear any unfamiliar sounds. He might be alone really, but once she was taped up it would be too late for her to stop him. But right now he was calm, and he had the gun. He would tape her up, take the paintings and go. She would probably be found in a few minutes. It wouldn't be like her last encounter with a criminal, where that crazy woman kept her trussed up and gagged in a cellar for hours, and threatened to execute her. And nobody would blame her for the robbery. Casting her mind back to that day, she remembered what she had learned from her captivity. Until then she had always assumed that what she saw on the screen, where bound and gagged people got free as soon as the bad guys left, was true. In reality getting loose had been impossible. I won't waste too much effort this time, she thought. No need, somebody will come quite soon
"Let's get you sorted then. Put your hands behind your back". She felt butterflies in her stomach, was it fear or something else? There was a certain guilty excitement in knowing that her freedom was going to be taken away. Part of her thought she shouldn't be letting it happen, but there was no point in resisting if three robbers were around somewhere. It was frustrating that she couldn't do more, but Maggie clasped her hands together as comfortably as she could. She heard him pulling tape from a reel, but to her surprise, the first strip was pressed across her lips horizontally. Two more strips quickly followed, in an "X" shape. He smoothed the tape down gently. She realised that the strips of tape must have already been cut. Then there was the sound of more tape-pulling. She felt it being wound round her wrists several times, then wrapped around her clasped hands, so that she wouldn't be able to use her fingers. The tape was cut, then she felt another length being passed around her arms, just above her elbows, pulling her arms back, and at the same time, she noticed, pushing her breasts forward. Her waistcoat wasn't buttoned up. She was sure she felt a blouse button pop open, but her tartan tie concealed it. How long for, she wondered.
She needn't have worried. He wasn't finished yet. His next move was to begin wrapping the tape round her, above and below her breasts, from waist to shoulders, pinning her arms tightly to her sides. This must be how it feels being mummified, she thought. Eventually he stopped, leaving just a few feet of tape on the roll. Their eyes met as he looked her up and down approvingly. She wasn't sure if he was admiring his handiwork or feasting his eyes on her body. She felt suddenly vulnerable, standing there with her arms strapped tightly behind her back, her mouth taped, very aware that she was wearing a skirt and her feet weren't tied. He could easily have his way with her. He must be able to smell her perfume. But though he was aware of the full-breasted lady who stood bound and gagged in front of him, he had work to do. He glanced toward the window. "Don't go away" he muttered. He crossed the room to the French doors and opened one of them, then waved a white pocket handkerchief outside.
He had a soft spot for this method of signalling because of a past success. He treated himself to a few moments reminiscing about that first time. Quite early in his career as a criminal, he had been involved in a wages robbery on a building site as the inside man. As soon as the cash had been delivered to the Portakabin where the wages clerks worked, he locked the door from the inside. For the next hour, the wages clerks, himself and two young women, would sort the cash into wage packets for the builders. His role was to open the door and wave a handkerchief, on the pretext of having caught a bee inside and then releasing it. Then, before he could lock the door properly, the gang would burst in. They would bind and gag the wages clerks, including him, and take the cash. He had found it a real test of his acting skills behaving normally that morning because he knew what the next few hours held. It wasn't fear that disconcerted him so much as the anticipation of seeing his young female workmates bound and gagged. Mary, a bespectacled brunette in her late thirties, was attractive in her way, dressed today in a long-sleeved roll-neck sweater with orange and brown horizontal stripes, a dark brown mini-skirt and brown knee-length boots. But she was ten years older than him and a mother of two, and it was her younger colleague Janice who was becoming an obsession to him. She thought she was too good for him of course. She was about his age but she was so well-spoken and kept going on about her boyfriend and his Jag and his apartment. And she always dressed like some business man's secretary, though she was just a clerk for a building firm. Today she was wearing a grey-and-black pinstripe skirt, patent leather stilettos and a pink high-necked button-down blouse, buttoned at collar and cuffs. The outfit enhanced her natural "tits-and-ass" physique and she knew it. All of her clothes did that. What she didn't know was that Kenny was visualising her as she would soon be, trussed up and gagged, reduced to the same status as him. He knew how they would be tied because of the dry run they had done previously. They had robbed enough places before, but there hadn't been anybody there, so they knew nothing about how to tie their victims up. As he was the youngest and least important of the team, the two robbers who would do the tying had practiced on him. They had got hold of an American bondage magazine and used it for guidance. Wrists bound tightly behind his back, ropes round his arms pinning them to his sides, legs tied at the knees and ankles, and finally a knotted bandage for a gag. He hadn't enjoyed it much, but it was very effective, he had to admit that. One of the things that made it worthwhile was the knowledge that Janice and Mary were going to get this treatment the next day, and he would be there to see every minute of it
As luck would have it, on the day there really was a wasp inside the Portakabin. Once he had pointed it out to Janice, she got really worried about it, as he knew she would. When she insisted that he got rid of it, he knew it wouldn't be just him that got the blame. Because he didn't have to pretend, and had a witness to the insect, his story was believed. And of course as a bonus, he had the company of two bound and gagged girls for the next hour. And being tied up himself, he couldn't do much else but feast his eyes on them. He would never forget that vision of Janice struggling on the floor of the Portakabin. Two of her blouse buttons had popped open between her breasts, where the ropes round her body pulled her arms behind her back. Her stilettos had fallen off and her now dusty pin-striped skirt had ridden up over her thighs. Until that day he hadn't realised that she wore stockings and suspenders. He normally only had eyes for her, but he couldn't help noticing that Mary, who had been trussed up just as thoroughly, was quite a pretty sight herself Later, he had collected his share of the proceeds, without ever being suspected of complicity. Ever since then he had thought of the wasp and handkerchief ruse as being sort of lucky for him. Not that there were many robberies where it could be used of course, this one was the first for some time. His mind was suddenly brought back to the present when he saw the van, concealed among the trees, move slowly forward.
Maggie stood facing the wall, wondering what he was doing. Her feet weren't bound yet, though she guessed they soon would be. Could she run away while he wasn't looking? Where were the other men he had talked about? She was about to turn round when she heard his footsteps returning.
"Better finish wrapping you up" he said jovially. Oh, please no, she thought. She felt as if she had been wrapped up well enough already. She heard the sound of more tape being pulled from the roll, then she was aware of him squatting by her feet. He wrapped more of the tape tightly round her nylon-clad ankles and calves several times before cutting it and standing up. As he stood in front of her he cut another long strip, stuck it lightly against his sleeve and spoke again. "Sorry about the next bit, but I can't keep this mask on while I'm going in and out. But this will make it less painful. He took a black sleep mask from his pocket and carefully removed her glasses. Maggie realised with dismay that she was going to be blindfolded. She wouldn't be able to see a thing. She was momentarily scared, she thought she could handle being immobilised, but being rendered sightless would be just too much. She tried to plead through the tape, and tried to look him in the eye, but he wouldn't make eye contact. And her tearful "please don't do that. Why do you need to do that" just came out as muffled moans. She imagined he understood perfectly but didn't care. She told herself it wouldn't be for long, he would be gone as soon as he could. He placed the mask over her eyes and pulled the Velcro strap tight. That was followed by the tape being wound round her head twice and smoothed down firmly. "I'll put your specs on the ledge" he said.
Now she heard more footsteps and another voice, too low for her to make out the words. Firm hands forced her into a sitting position on the chest. "Would you mind waiting here for a moment, madam? The manager will see you in a moment!" His tone told her that he thought he was funny, but she found it strangely reassuring. He didn't seem the sort to hurt her. What about the others though, the ones she hadn't seen. What were they doing? Did they even exist? She wasn't going to push her luck though. No struggling or trying to move. It had occurred to her that they might put her in the trunk, but they must think it wasn't necessary. She sat still, listening to what she knew were the sounds of paintings being taken down, wrapped up and taken out of the room.
After a few minutes that seemed like hours to Maggie, there was a sudden loud rapping on the door. The robbers stopped suddenly.
Paul Kirkland's voice came impatiently from the other side. "Maggie, why's the door locked?"
One of the gang, not the one who had tied her up, spoke up. "Electricians, mate. Emergency, can't let the public in yet. Someone could get electrocuted".
"Is Mrs Berry there?"
"She was, but she's gone to phone someone. Just a minute ago" the robber shouted back. Top marks for quick thinking, Maggie thought. She was half expecting him to say "she's a bit tied up at the moment".
"Okay, thanks" came the reply.
Maggie was listening intently. Help was at hand by the sound of things, Paul would soon be back and she would be rescued, quite soon perhaps. Her hopes were soon dashed. "He'll be back soon enough, we got no time to waste" said one of her captors.
"Right. Harry and Dave are in the transit already, let's join them" There was a silence, then "Oh, right, let’s do it". Maggie was already doubtful about the existence of robbers 3 and 4, Harry and Dave and the tone of the reply didn't convince her. The man's voice sounded as if he was going to ask who they were, only remembering them at the last minute.
The first man spoke again, to her this time “We can't leave you here, we have to take you along now and dump you later. Leave you somewhere where they'll find you easy. You can tell them all about us in a few hours, but not just yet. We don't make it too easy for them". She froze. Where would they take her? Strong hands took her by the shoulders and knees, lifting her from the chest. "Don't struggle, you might make me drop you" said one of them. She felt herself being laid down on the rug, then suddenly she was being rolled up in it. There was an overpowering smell of dust, disturbed as the rug was moved for the first time in months. It was all she could do to prevent herself sneezing. She soon felt herself being lifted again, carried by both of them as if she was a log, one at each end. She realised that an onlooker would just think they were moving a rug, and not realise that a trussed and gagged woman was inside it. She was taken a short distance then lifted and put down again. Unknown to her, she was on the floor of the van, in the company of some valuable works of art. She heard the sound of the van's doors being closed, followed by the sound of the engine starting up. One of the men was moving about in the back of the van. Suddenly she was being rolled over unceremoniously, the rug pulled away. She flopped over helplessly, face down, but the man was squatting next to her, his hand on her shoulder turning her on her side.
"What are we going to do with you? At least you haven't seen us without masks".
It wasn't the man who had taped her up. He must be driving. Maggie wanted to shout, you said you'd let me go, but she knew the three strips of tape across her lips would make anything she said unintelligible. He would just laugh at her.
"We'll think of something" he said quietly. "Perhaps we'll leave you tied to a tree in the woods". He ran his hand gently over the contours of her bottom. The van went over a series of bumps, which she guessed were the speed humps at the exit. Now they were out on the main road, the van swinging to the left. "My mate's not a careful driver. But don't worry, I'll make sure you don't roll about too much". Both hands were roving over her bottom now, caressing and slapping alternately. Maggie was trying to make mental notes of the van's movements, but the smacks were getting harder and the stroking more intimate. It wasn't easy to concentrate on the vehicle's movements while blindfolded, without the additional distraction of a hand lifting her skirt. This shouldn't be happening, she thought, he sounded as if he was half her age.
But before many minutes had passed, the van swung to the left and stopped. The man withdrew his hand, she heard him getting to his feet. The back doors of the van were opened and she felt a cold breeze. It occurred to her that it was a big van, because the man had stood up and walked to the rear doors. And where were the other two, Harry and Dave was it? She realised that they probably didn't exist. The man who had captured her had mentioned them to intimidate her, and it had worked. If she had thought that there was only one robber with her, instead of three, she might have resisted.
Now suddenly there was activity all around her. They were removing the paintings from the van, moving them to another vehicle, presumably a van. They must be in a lay-by, she thought. Were they going to leave her in this van? She desperately hoped so, in a lay-by at the roadside she would surely soon be found. She thought she could hear rain on the roof of the van, and hoped that remark about leaving her tied to a tree had been a joke.
It was not long before the works of art had all been moved, leaving Maggie lying face down on the rub in an empty van. Unable to see anything, she was suddenly aware of one of the men leaning inside the van, just as he spoke to her. "You're on your own now. We'll phone the cops in half an hour and tell them where you are. We'll be thirty miles away by then".
Oh, please don't leave it for half an hour, she wanted to shout through the tape. She grunted and squealed frantically and wriggled ineffectually in the tape bonds, hoping he would take pity. To her surprise, he responded. "Can you breathe, you aren't suffocating are you?" Maggie squealed loudly, nodding her head. The man climbed inside the van. "I'm going to take the tape off your mouth. You better not scream for help, do you get that?" She winced as one after the other, the three strips of tape were pulled away from her lips.
"I couldn’t breathe. Please don't gag me again, I won't shout". Maggie hadn't really been suffocating but her ploy had worked. She guessed it was the only concession she would get, but it was enough. "Do I still need to be tied up now?" she asked. "You got what you came for".
"Don't push your luck" he laughed. With your hands untied, you could take the blindfold off and see us, couldn’t you".
The next thing she heard was the rear doors closing. Half an hour! It was going to be a long half-hour. She strained against the tapes, knowing that it was completely futile. There was nothing for it but lie there calmly, to wait until she heard the police sirens.