Sara and the Missing Portrait

"Today is going to be great!" Abigail announced, after taking a big sip of her hot chocolate with whipped cream. "I'm with one of my best mates and my big sis, the weather is amazing, I finally get to see the Romantic Painters exhibition and we're here on an investigation aren't we?"

     "Yeah," Felicity and I replied simultaneously, knowing now was the time to come clean.

     Abigail's mood changed instantly. She rummaged through her designer handbag, pulled out a mirror and examined herself in it. "Just checking what a gullible moron looks like," she told us glumly.

    "Don't worry sis, the gallery is the reason we're here as well," Felicity explained, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head in order to read the information leaflet provided for us by the man in the ticket office.

   "We might not get a chance if my cappuccino doesn't turn up!" I muttered, while rubbing sun cream into my already tanned arms and shoulders. The weather recently had been blisteringly hot, and I was damn well going to make the most of it. I had dressed accordingly, wearing a plain white camisole top, jean mini shorts and flip flops. My brown hair brushed my shoulders, with my fringe held back by my own pair of sunglasses resting on my forehead.

     Abigail, dressed in a yellow, floral print summer dress and flat white pumps, gave an angry swish of her long blonde hair. "Now I know why Rachel and Harriet didn't come," she moaned. I didn't point out that Harriet was participating in a football tournament, or that Rachel was visiting her own big sister who was currently at uni.

    Twenty five year old Felicity, who ran a private investigation firm where I was gaining work experience, sipped her elderflower presse while reading the leaflet. The glamorous blonde haired investigator wore a white sleeveless shirt, a flowing white skirt and wedge heel sandals. "You'll like this case. It involves family betrayal, rivalling aristocracies and million pound art theft."

    "And there's a reward," I added, shooting Felicity a knowing look.

     The way Abigail reacted you'd have thought several car alarms had gone off inside her head. "A reward?" she repeated.

     "Yep. Worth 10,000."

     Trying to conceal her new found interest Abigail said, "Well, I guess a little snooping wouldn't hurt."

     "We aren't going anywhere until I get my coffee!" I barked. "God how long does a cappuccino take...?"

     "Sorry Sara, it's right here!"

     "Well it's about..."

      I trailed off when I saw who had brought my drink to where we were sitting on an outside decking area. His name was Matthew Cook, a boy my age who went to my college. He was a keen actor and planned to go to drama school. We were in the same history class, and recently I'd caught him glancing at me quite a lot during lessons.

     Only because I'd been glancing at him quite a lot during lessons.

     Today his unkempt, mousy blond hair was ruffled with wax and his face tanned from weekends of serving coffees in the sunshine. He wore a white t-shirt, blue jeans, black loafers and a black apron around his waist and legs.

     Suddenly very aware of how much of an impatient gasbag I'd been, I said quietly, "Thanks Matthew."

     "Consider the cappuccino on the house. We misplaced the order," he told me. As he placed the coffee in front of me I caught him staring at me with a grin on his face. "You up to anything exciting?"

     "You know me," I replied. "Snooping around, going undercover, dealing with villains. All in a day's work!"

      "Actually was just wondering why you came to Leavington Manor today?" he said.

     "Oh right," I murmured, my face going pinker than any exposure to the sun could ever achieve.

     Abigail, sensing my embarrassment, came to my rescue. "We're just going to look round the gallery. Might even bump into your boss."

    Matthew gave a snort. "I wouldn't worry. He'll come running the instant he realises there are three pretty young ladies in his house. Two weeks ago he made a pass at a girl working at a banquet. She ignored him. A week later he called her into his office and fired her on the spot."

     'Sounds like a right gentleman,' I thought, noting how bitter Matthew sounded. It was obviously a sore point for him.

     "Anyway got to get back to work," he said, stepping back from the table with his eyes still fixed on me. "Come for another coffee later and I promise it won't be late. See you around Sara!"

    "Yeah, see you," I replied, watching as he returned into the cafe interior.

     With all the subtlety of a steamroller Abigail then said, "You should so ask him out!"


      "I mean he obviously has the hots for you, so why not?"

     "I'm a girl detective, and girl detectives don't work well when they have boyfriends in tow."

     "He doesn't have to be in tow. He can be your dashing hero who comes to rescue you at the last second."

     "Yeah don't make me sick Abigail."

     "Could we discuss Sara's love life later?" Felicity asked as she stood up. "The morning tour begins in fifteen minutes, and we've got a missing painting to find!"

      Leavington Manor was a fifteen minute drive from Carrington. The house itself was massive, containing over a hundred rooms with an estate well over three hundred acres in size. Built in the seventeenth century it was the biggest tourist attraction around. I had many childhood memories of running through its gardens and scraping my knees on its adventure playground.

    The family who owned it were among the wealthiest landowners in the country. While their largest property, the spectacular Leavington Castle fifty miles north from here, was run by the 17th Earl of Kirkshire, Leavington Manor was run by his younger brother Geoff.

     Geoff Leavington had invested heaps of cash into the local economy, and regularly held concerts and festivals that brought tourists flocking to the area. To some he was a local hero, but nothing changed the fact he wasn't a nice bloke. He was a notorious womanizer, with a particular interest in those between sixteen and twenty one. He had a well documented drinking problem, narrowly escaping prison on drink driving charges on two separate occasions. He was a demanding employer, with high up staff rarely lasting more than a year. Topping this off he was a bit of a recluse, rarely venturing out of his private wing to interact with the general public.

    The same private wing Abigail and I were currently creeping around.    

    "You ever wonder whether all this snooping is why we get into so much trouble?" Abigail hissed under her breath.

     "Detective work without the snooping is like scones without the clotted cream," I replied, for want of a better comparison.

     "I get that, but I'd like one case where we aren't technically trespassing on other people's property."

      "Even when there's a reward?"

     "Especially when there's a reward!"

     We were walking down a corridor built out of highly polished stone, flanked by expensive vases resting on pedestals and countless oil paintings, mostly of Geoff Leavington. The only sound piercing the silence was that of my flip flops slapping the stone floor as I walked.

    So far no-one had been around to stop us, but we had found nothing. I wondered if Felicity was having any more luck on the bottom floor. We had separated from the guided tour at different points, so as not to arouse suspicion and to cover more ground.

     We came to a large oak door, which I found was unlocked. It swung open to reveal a master bedroom, decorated with dark red wallpaper and matching curtains, with a grand four poster bed in the centre. The wooden floorboards creaked underfoot as we crept inside, until we stepped onto a massive, circular Kashmir rug covering the floor like a carpet.

     Realising we were now in Geoff's bedroom, I said, "I'll bet he's keeping it in here."

     "What's he keeping? What's this about?" Abigail asked impatiently.   

     As I pulled out a drawer and began rummaging through piles of neatly ironed shirts I explained, "You must have heard about the theft of that painting from Leavington Castle?"

      Abigail shot me a disdainful look. "You really think I wouldn't have heard about the theft of a painting worth over a million pounds?"

     "Yeah, but did you know that the 17th Earl of Kirkshire and good old Geoff have been arguing over who actually owns it for years?" I asked as I continued to rummage. "They've been to court three times over it, and Geoff has lost every time. The last case was only a month ago, and then two weeks later 'A Celestial View' is stolen from Leavington Castle."

    "And that's enough to give you and my sister permission to search through his socks?"

     "Come on, he's suspect number one. So are you going to stand there or are you going to help me look?"

     Abigail folded her arms and leant against a wooden post of his bed. "This is why you get into trouble Sara. You rush into things without thinking things through. What do you think will happen if he finds BLOODY HELL!"

     I whirled around and saw the post she had leant against had snapped in half. Abigails hands were over her mouth, obviously fearing that she was responsible for breaking a wealthy landowner's expensive bed. But on closer inspection I saw this wasn't the case.

    The place where the post had separated hadn't splintered, but had been neatly sawed in half. Another surprise was how the inside of the post had been hollowed out. But most surprising of all was the rolled up piece of paper inside it.

    Despite being 99.9% certain what it was before I pulled it out, I held my breath as I unrolled it. My gaze fell on a lush oil painting depicting a very romantic scene involving scantily clad men and women, surrounded by oak trees, waterfalls and flying cherubs. It was without a doubt 'A Celestial View', the painting stolen only two weeks ago.

       Peering over my shoulder Abigail gazed at the painting, her eyes glinting with excitement. "Tell you what Sara. You have a really annoying habit of being right most of the time."

      Rolling the picture back up I said, "We need to find Felicity and get out of here, before the lord of the manor finds us."

      "What will you do if he's already found you?" said a posh, male voice from behind us.

     We turned and came face to face with a man in his early fifties, dressed in an old tweed suit complete with handkerchief tucked into his front pocket. He was tall and spindly, and his hair was greying in the areas it hadn't already thinned out.

     "Local celebrity Sara Philips," Geoff Leavington drawled. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"

     "Well you know. I was in the area, and I found myself wondering if you might have any stolen million pound paintings knocking about," I replied, doing away with the pleasantries.

     Geoff's gaze flickered between me and Abigail. "You are an oddity Sara. I was expecting someone with your reputation to be a little..."

    "Older?" I ventured.

     "Actually I was going to say uglier," he replied while he continued to examine me.

     Obviously creeped out by Lord Lecherous as much as I was, Abigail said, "OK we'll just put your painting back where we found it and be on our way. That sound good?"

      "I'm afraid it won't be that simple blondie," said Geoff. "I can't allow that painting to return to my brother's possession."

     "Despite it being his property?" I snapped.

     "Don't act like my brother is a saint. He evades taxes, siphons millions into offshore bank accounts and has slept with a cast of thousands. I'm simply serving him justice in my own particular way."

     "This isn't justice," I told him. "Justice is about maintaining the balance of society. You've just stolen a painting to inflate your over-sized ego."

     "I suppose there is some truth in what you say, but that doesn't change how immensely satisfying it is seeing my dear brother flap around wondering what has happened to his prize painting," Geoff replied, a sinister smirk forming on his lips. "It also doesn't change how I can't allow three snooping girls to spoil my fun."

     "Who says there are three of us?" said Abigail, hoping to protect her sister.

     Geoff clicked his fingers, at which we heard the sound of scuffled footsteps from outside. He stepped out the way in time for a tall man, dressed in a tweed suit of his own, to bundle Felicity inside. A silk scarf had been pulled between her teeth and tied underneath her hair, and her hands had been handcuffed behind her back. She grunted frantically through her gag when she saw Abigail and myself cornered. She kicked out at her captor with her wedge heels but failed to loosen his hold on her shoulders.

    You know how in cartoons the characters visibly gulp when they realise they are in trouble? That's how I felt at that exact moment. Particularly when two more men walked in, and began to slowly approach the two eighteen year old intruders.

       His smirk now as wide as his face Geoff said, "It seems our guests want a more personal tour of the house chaps. I suggest we start and end the tour down in the dungeon."  

      I rubbed my legs against each other to restore some heat to them. The damp and dirty dungeon was a far cry from the roasting temperatures of outside, and I was freezing. I was particularly cold where my skin was touching the stone wall I was standing against. To make matters worse I had lost my flip flops when I was being forcibly escorted down here, so I was stood on the dusty floor in only my bare feet. I tried standing on my tiptoes to see if that kept the cold from biting at my heels, but it didn't do much.

   The chamber in which I currently resided had the look and feel of an old medieval dungeon. It even had suitable restraints to go with it. My hands had been encased in iron manacles and hoisted over my head, the chains connecting them pulled through a rung in the wall. It was taught enough to keep me standing upright, but not enough to prevent me from moving my arms about. Not that it was doing me much good. I had tried to pry the padlocks apart with my ever numbing fingers, but I quickly realised the only way I was getting out of these things was with the key which dear old Geoff had pocketed after locking them around my wrists.

      Then there was my gag. I'd seen loads of movies in which the characters were subjected to ball gags, and each time I'd counted my blessings that so far I hadn't been subjected to one myself. Well now my luck had run out. I was currently chewing on a bright red one, forcing my jaw wide open and held in place by leather straps that dug into the sides of my face, fixed tightly behind my head underneath my hair. I'd been testing its efficiency, and came to the conclusion that it worked really well. My mouth filled with the taste of rubber, I tried to stop myself wondering who else Geoff had used this thing on.

     And of course, I wasn't alone down here. Felicity was on my left, and along from her Abigail, and they were restrained and gagged identically to myself. Felicity wasn't giving up just yet, and continued to rattle the chains holding her hands. The sound of her heels clopping off the stone floor echoed about us, her flowing blonde locks flicking about her as she struggled. She saw me watching and said through her own red ball gag, "Dddddnn wwwwrrrmmmm sssssrrrr. Wwwwwlll gggggggttttt nnnnn ffffff hhhrrrrrr!"

     Abigail stood very still and barely emitted a moan. She always seemed to quieten down when she was held prisoner. It was like she entered a Zen like state, whereby she was oblivious to what was going on around her and could only focus on how she was restrained. I saw her shiver, obviously feeling the cold as much as I was.

      I gave an angry tug on my chains. With ropes and tape there's always the possibility of escape. Not with these manacles. We were only getting out when Geoff said so, which meant all we could do was wait for his return. The wait was made even more interminable by what he had said before he abandoned us down here.

      "I got some help when I was stealing the painting you know, from an old friend of yours actually," he had said while fixing the ball gag straps behind my head. "He's been away a while, but he's just come back to Carrington for a visit. You remember Mr White?" Seeing my eyes widen he laughed and continued, "Well he's not very happy to see you still making a nuisance of yourself Sara. Hopefully if I hand you over to him he may wave some of the debt I owe him. Perhaps I should invite him over for dinner this evening, with you as the guest of honour. In the meantime, you ladies make yourselves comfortable."

    I had no idea how long ago that one way conversation had been, but it felt like hours. I'd been a bound and gagged prisoner before but I'd never known helplessness like this. Even if by some miracle we could get free from our restraints, we still had a locked cell door to get past, and then had to negotiate our captors huge mansion without being spotted.

    'Get a hold of yourself Philips!' I told myself. 'There's always a way out!'

    I began scanning the area for anything that might help us. Our cell was lit by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling, giving me a decent view of our surroundings. I was positioned against the corner, and nestling against it was an old, antique spear. Fat lot of good that was. I couldn't use the blade to cut myself loose and there was no point using it to defend myself. In the opposite corner lay a pile of rusted chains, again no use. Then I glanced up to the ceiling, and suddenly had a glimmer of hope.        

    I saw a round hole in the ceiling, the top of which was covered by a plate of metal resembling a manhole cover. I later learnt in the past it was used for lowering food down to the inmates. At that moment however, I deduced that directly above us was a passageway. Only a few feet away people were going about their business as normal. If we could get their attention then perhaps there was a way out of this.

     When I looked at the spear next to me again, it suddenly looked a lot more inviting.

     I couldn't reach it with my chained up hands, so instead I twisted about and began reaching for it with my right foot. I managed to brush its wooden handle with my toes, but I needed to bring it closer to me. I grunted as I extended my leg as far as I possibly could, though it was just enough to get my foot behind it. Slowly as I dared I began to pull the spear towards me. I pulled it up so it was standing on its end, where it tottered about agonisingly before...

     "DDDDDMMMMMTTTTT!" I swore as the spear clattered to the floor at Felicity's feet.

      Felicity and Abigail had been watching me the whole time, and I pointed up at the ceiling to give them an idea of what I was trying to do. They realised my objective very quickly, and both sisters sprung into action.

    Abigail positioned her left foot underneath the rusted point of the spear, while Felicity her right foot underneath its handle. Working together they began to lift the spear up, using only their feet to balance it. It was fortunate Abigail was a yoga and gymnastics enthusiast. It meant she could lift up her leg very high so the spears point faced diagonally upwards. She held it in place while Felicity wriggled about so her right knee was underneath the spear, allowing them to lift it even higher. But they still had to get it to me, as I was the closest to the hole.

     "Ggggttt rrrrdddd ttttttmmmm ccccchhhhh sssssrrr," Abigail told me, though I already knew what they were going to attempt. I readied myself, knowing we potentially had one shot at this.

     "Nnnnn thhhhrrrrmmm. Nnnnnn, tttttwwwwm, thhhhhrrrrrmm!" Felicity shouted, before she and Abigail kicked the spear upwards. It flicked onto its end so it was stood upright, but before it fell to the earth again I managed to grasp the handle with my right hand.

      "Wllll dddddn ggggggggssssss!" Abigail breathed, as I shuffled my hands along the spears handle so I was holding it off the floor. It was damn heavy, but if we were to escape I had no choice but to put up with it.

       I aimed it at the hole in the ceiling. It was easily long enough to reach it, and soon I began to rhythmically jab at the metal cover. I had hoped to make enough noise to get someone's attention, but I got an even better result. The cover was slightly loose, and as I poked it lifted up slightly. Now there was no way someone walking past wouldn't notice.

     But the real question was who would notice it first? Would it be an innocent passerby, or one of Geoff Leavingtons little cronies? I couldn't let myself think of that. If we were to escape to snoop another day I had no choice but to continue. My arm began to ache from cramp but a surge of adrenaline kept me jabbing. My two fellow prisoners watched me in silence, as we waited to see what the result of our labours would be.

    After five minutes or so I got a result. There was a loud groaning sound as the metal plate was lifted away. Our dingy cell was flooded with light, dazzling us. Blinking I gazed through the hole as a familiar face appeared looking down at us.

     "Holy hell, Sara!" Matthew gasped in astonishment.

    "Next time you take me for a day out, can we go to Alton Towers?" Abigail asked after the paramedic had finished checking her over.

    Laughing Felicity said, "Suits me. Queuing for the log ride would be a lot better than going through that again."

    "Still, at least we get that reward," Abigail said, dollar signs in her eyes.

    Felicity and I looked at each other, before she said, "Yeah...about that..."

     It didn't take Abigail long to realise she'd been had again. "You're going to tell me you made that reward up so I would tag along with your little plan, aren't you?"

    We both nodded.

     Giving an exasperated sigh Abigail said, "I hate you sometimes Felicity. I really, really..." She suddenly trailed off, and then gave her older sister a big hug. Felicity returned it, both thoroughly relieved that their ordeal was over.

    I smiled at the happy siblings, but for some reason it was an insincere one. Yes we'd escaped and Geoff Leavington was now in police custody, but it felt like a hollow victory. Maybe it was how chaffed my wrists were from the manacles, or how my arms ached from being held over my head for hours, or how my bare feet were still half frozen. But I suspected it was because I knew Mr White was back for round two. I want to say I felt ready for him, but truth was the thought made me very uneasy.

    "Hey Sara, I brought you these," said someone from beside me. I looked up and saw Matthew outstretching a pair of trainers towards me. "I use them to cycle to work. But I guess cycling in my work shoes for once won't hurt."

    I beamed up at him as I accepted his gift. They were dirty and far too big for me, but I couldn't have cared less as I slipped them on, giving my soles some much needed relief. "Thanks Matthew," I said.

     "For the trainers or for rescuing you?" he asked.

     "Both," I laughed, before quickly adding, "But especially for rescuing me."

     Matthew had been a real hero. Funny to think he'd only been walking down that corridor to hand his notice in. After seeing the metal plate bobbing up and down he decided to investigate. Discovering how much trouble we were in he sprung into action, and alerted the rest of the estate to our predicament.

    What followed was like something out of the French Revolution. Most of the staff at Leavington Manor had little time for their employer, and hearing that he had three young women bound and gagged in his dungeon proved to be the last straw. Soon Geoff Leavington was cornered by an angry mob that included gardeners, builders, chefs and one office worker who participated in iron man competitions. Needless to say, he quickly coughed up the key, and we were presently rescued as the police arrived.

    "So what's your next case going to be?" Matthew asked.

    "Actually I don't have much planned for this week," I replied.

    "Oh good. Er, what I meant to say was, if you don't have anything planned...would you like to meet up for a drink or..."

    Funny isn't it, how a girl can face terrible danger at the hands of a madman and can be more nervous of being asked out for a drink by an equally nervous boy? "Well... I guess so," I stammered.

    "Yeah ok, where would you like to meet?" he asked.

     "You can pick her up from my office at 5:30 on Saturday after she finishes her work placement," Felicity butted in.

     "And to give you some ideas, she has a secret love of cheesy action films, her favourite restaurant is Floriono's in Carrington, and if you really want to impress her buy her a big box of chocolate," Abigail piped in.

     My friend's behaviour left me mortified, but Matthew simply found it funny. "Sounds like they've got it all planned out for us. Shall I see you then Sara?"

     Noticing he was about to leave I thought, 'Quick, think of something clever to say. Something that proves you're an intelligent, independent woman and not some airheaded damsel.'

    "I'll bring your shoes with me!" I blurted.

    Laughing he said, "Sounds great, see you there."

    He gave me a wave as he turned to leave. I waved back, but by that point he had already turned and was walking back to the car park. Only then did I see Abigail and Felicity grinning madly at me.

    "What?" I exclaimed, at which they both burst into hysterical laughter.






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