Sunday 12th October
The grey sky was a looming presence as the small jet slowly descended into RAF Northolt, coming in over the A40 and landing on the tarmac before taxiing to a stop.
“Hello grey London,” Charlotte said as she looked out of the window, smiling to herself as Maisha looked out from the other side.
“It looks so gloomy,” she said as she looked over.
“It can be, but it can also be the most beautiful of countries," she said as the seatbelt light went off, and the captain came through. “Here we are ladies,” he said as he looked at them, “I trust you had a pleasant flight?”
“We at least slept, and for that I am grateful,” Madame said as she stood up and stretched. “Is the car waiting for us?”
“It is indeed – if you will just allow me to open the main doors?”
Madame nodded as Maisha slowly stood up. “At least it isn’t raining,” Penny said as the doors were opened, and some stairs brought over, while their luggage was removed from the hold.
“Well, shall we,” Madame said as Penny left the plane, followed by Madame, with Charlotte and Maisha bringing up the rear.
“Welcome back Madame,” the driver said as the luggage was placed in the boot of the car, “Where to?”
“The apartment, James – I think we all could do with a freshen up and a change of clothes before Charlotte and Penelope return home. Maisha, you will stay with me until we make more permanent arrangements – I have an idea, but I need to consult with someone first.”
“Thank you,” Maisha said as they made their way into the car, the driver closing the door on them before he made his way to the road into the city.
“Home sweet home,” Madame said as they pulled up outside a non-descript building.
“It is not very grand,” Maisha said as they stepped out.
“Appearances can be deceptive,” Penny said as the four women went inside, James unloading the car and placing cases on a trolley. As they walked in, a grey haired man sitting at a desk stood and walked towards them.
“Welcome home Madame,” he said as he took her hand. “We have missed you.”
“Thank you George,” Madame said quietly. “This is Maisha – she will be staying with me for some time. Make sure she is extended every courtesy.”
“Of course, Madame,” George said with a smile. “I presume she is the young lady you sent a message in advance about?”
“She is indeed – is Lillian here?”
“Awaiting the pleasure of all of you in the penthouse, Madame,” George said as he went behind the desk, and pressed a button, all four stepping into the lift and waiting as the doors closed. When they opened again, Maisha stepped out into a luxurious apartment, her eyes wide open.
“Come,” Madame said as she took her hand, “let me show you round. Penelope, Charlotte, if you would check in with Lillian?”
“Of course Madame,” Penny said as she and Charlotte went into the kitchen. A thin blonde haired woman was there, wearing a pale green jacket and skirt, and making coffee.
“Welcome back you two,” Lily said as she looked round, “How are you both feeling?”
“Drained – and how the hell did you get that blend?”
“I had a message yesterday, telling me to get to Whittards in Covent Garden and buy it,” Lily said as she found some mugs. “So where is Madame?”
“Showing our house guest round,” Charlotte said with a smile. “How have things been here?”
“Never mind that – you lot have done some amazing things,” Lily said as she leaned back and folded her arms. “Let me see if I have this right – you and others bring down a diamond smuggling and child slavery ring, Dominique turns out to be a daughter of a supermodel and is going to live in New York, Charlotte the IT geek is a crack shot and now our head IT geek, Madame just forked out over 20 million dollars on an apartment, you take part in a robbery at two banks that nest over 34 million dollars, and – and this is the bit I find hardest of all to believe – you actually get master planner Penny here in the field? Have I missed anything important out?”
“Several things actually, Lillian.”
Lily turned to see Madame standing in the doorway with Maisha. “That’s… That’s definitely a new look for you Madame – and I apologize if I offended.”
“No need to apologize Lillian – there has been, and will continue to be quite a few changes over the next few weeks, as we absorb all we have learned from each other over the last three months. However, today is about adjusting to being home again – on which note, this is Maisha. Maisha, this is Lillian.”
“Call me Lily – everyone else does,” Lily said as she smiled at Maisha. “So you are the latest recruit to our group?”
“Yes – and no,” Madame said, “For now, she is my guest, and will work with myself and Charlotte on some outstanding issues from this distasteful affair. Soon, however, we will need to find her a place to stay, and a school to attend once her English is a bit more proficient.
“Now, may I have that coffee? I find myself in need of a mug.”
“Of course,” Lily said as she poured the mugs. “Do you need somewhere to rest, Maisha?”
“Would you mind taking her to a guest room and making sure she is comfortable,” Madame said, “and then come back? There are a few things I wish to discuss with all of you.”
“Of course, Madame,” Lily said as she took Maisha by the arm, and led her from the kitchen.
“Let’s go into the main area,” Madame said as they went into the lounge, Lily joining them a few minutes later.
“She’s fast asleep,” Lily said as she sat down. “So it really was her who killed one of the ringleaders?”
“It was,” Madame said, “hence her staying with us, so that we can offer asylum for her. But for now, I need to bring you up to speed on a few things that were discussed on the plane over between myself and Penelope – starting with you Lillian. I am highly impressed with the way you have managed the office in our absence, and I feel that needs rewarding. Congratulations on your new position.”
“My… My new position?”
“You’re going to be my number two,” Penny said quietly, “with responsibility for management of training and backing me up from time to time. It’s part of Shirley’s plan for changes in the organization.”
“Shirley? Who’s Shirley?”
“I am,” Madame said with a smile, “but outside senior management, it goes no further. You see, I have decided to, as you younger people put it, loosen up a little.”
“Hence the new look – which I approve of, by the way,” Lily said. “So what other changes are we talking about?”
“Try me going out into the field more,” Penny said, “and even Mad… Sorry, Shirley on occasion.”
“Also, our firearm training program is going to have to change,” Charlotte said, “it’s all in Penny’s report.”
“I’ll circulate my report for comment tomorrow,” Penny said, “but we won’t tell staff of the changes for a few days.”
“So will you be in tomorrow, Shirley?”
“No,” she said with a smile, “I intend to give a very old friend a surprise. Now, what do you have to tell us?”
Monday 13th October
As the car drew up in the quiet town street, Charlotte looked up at the sign, “JACOBS ANTIQUES” inscribed in gold lettering.
“I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never met him,” she said as she looked at her passenger. “What is he like?”
“One of my oldest and dearest friends,” Shirley said as she stepped out of the car. For the trip, she was wearing a cream coloured jacket and skirt with a roll neck sweater underneath, while Charlotte was wearing a black leather jacket over a red open necked dress.
“Shall we?” Charlotte nodded as she opened the door and the two women walked in, the bell above the door ringing as she closed the door behind them.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” a male voice called from somewhere at the recesses of the store, the two women nodding as they walked in different direction around the store. Charlotte stopped to look at a pair of gold bracelets, with diamonds embedded in the metalwork.
“They’re Victorian – the hallmark says 1884,” the male voice said from behind her. Charlotte turned to see a tall, broad shouldered man with graying hair standing behind her. His hair was neat, and he wore a military style dark blazer over a white shirt and striped tie, with neatly pressed dark grey trousers.
“I agree,” Charlotte said as she looked at the gold, “but these gems were added later. The cut is wrong – it’s round brilliant, not cushion, which places them early 20th Century at the latest.”
“You know your gems,” the man said with a smile, “I’m John Jacobs, and this little place is my domain. May I know your name?”
“Charlotte – Charlotte Gordon,” she said as she shook his hand.
“So do you work for one of the houses?”
“No – not in that sense. I’m actually an IT specialist, but I know a few things about diamonds.”
“Oh – who do you work for then?”
“Me, Uncle John.”
The deep, mellow voice took John by surprise, as he turned to see the tall brunette standing behind him.
“Madame? What on earth…”
“Please, Uncle John,” she said as she smiled, “I don’t mind if you call me Shirley in public. Not anymore.”
“Forgive me,” he said as he stepped forward and embraced her, “it’s just been so long since I’ve seen you anywhere except the apartment. You look fantastic – what happened?”
“Let us say I had some revelations during my stay in New York,” Shirley said with a smile. “I wonder if we can buy you lunch? I want to tell you what happened in my last trip, and what I wanted to ask you about.”
“Lunch? I don’t think there are any five star restaurants around here…”
“A good country pub will do – discrete of course.”
“Of course,” John said, “just let me talk to my assistant, and then if you follow me, I know just the place.”
“My god, girl – you did a good thing there, you and your friends,” John said as they sat in a quiet corner of the inn. “I know you abhor violence, but in this case, I would be tempted to use it as well.”
“Indeed – but as a result, I’ve decided it was time for Shirley Xavier to emerge a little more. If Dominique can do it, so can I?”
“That was one of the biggest surprises – she’s adopting a teenager? Her courage never ceases to amaze me.”
“Still, Uncle John, telling you what happened is only one of the reasons I came to see you. I need your help – yours and Sandra’s actually.”
“Oh – and how can we help?”
“Dominique is not the only one who has taken charge of a teenager.” Shirley took a photograph of Maisha out and showed it to John.
“You? I never saw you as a mother type.”
“More a guardian – but this is the girl who killed Kimba, and she is under my protection. I need to find a private tutor to help her to learn English and assess her ability, and ultimately we need to find somewhere where she can be educated at the same time as she learns from us.”
“Well, there is a place that comes immediately to mind – St Blazius.”
“The girl’s school? She is not ready to be a boarder.”
“They take day pupils as well – but the first need is a tutor. I’ll ask around, I know a few retired teachers who may like the challenge.”
“I ask no more than that – and thank you again Uncle John.”
“So Charlotte,” John said as he turned to look at the redhead, “how did you learn about gems?”
“From my late father – I go soon to visit his grave, and explore ways of getting those girls who wish to return home.”
“I wish you good luck with that.” John sat back and said “so, does this mean Shirley Xavier may be seen more in public?”
“It does – actually, I go to Ordford Palace next weekend.”
“Oh? I have visited there – a magnificent place. But where do you know Lord and Lady Ordford from?”
“Mutual friends,” Shirley said with a smile.
“So this is the famous farm,” Lily said as she and Penny walked round the outhouses. “I heard the story of how Dom saved your brother using this place.”
“Yeah but it’s never really being used before now for much else,” Penny said quietly, “I think it still holds some painful memories for Madame.”
“Now, we need to convert it to a training facility, complete with firing range in one of the barns. We also need to improve the security, and get someone in to build a training course in the grounds.”
“What sort of training course?”
“Know any ex-marines?”
“You are kidding me?” Lily looked at her boss, and then said “No, you’re not kidding me. Who are these American Associates anyway?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Anyway, think we can do it?”
“If she releases the funds, yes?”
“Consider them released. Talk to Sandy about relevant contacts, and we’ll discuss further at the office.”
Tuesday 14th October
“Thank you all for coming in so early,” Madame said as she addressed the staff meeting. “Firstly, my thanks to you all for the sterling work you have undertaken during the extended absence of myself and Penelope. You will have seen the reports of what happened, and be assured it was necessary for us to be there for that to happen.”
The group nodded as Madame said “As a result of this and other considerations, a few changes are going to be made. Firstly, I am pleased to announce that Lillian will be taking a new position as Penelope’s assistant, and also that Charlotte is now the head of out IT division. As such, she will supervise an upgrade to our systems with the assistance of a woman known to many of you as The Hand.”
That caused a murmur amongst Charlotte’s staff as Madame said “she is to be trusted, and Charlotte will be in charge. Secondly, I am extending the shop floor scheme to all staff, and a new training regime will be introduced for all staff in both firearms and skill training.”
“Before I hear any complaints,” Penny said, “I can personally vouch for the efficacy of such a plan. It may hurt at first, but it will be worth it.”
“Thirdly, as you will by now be aware Dominique has decided to make her base of operations in New York. She is still the head of security, however, and is to accorded all due honours when she visits.”
As the room nodded, Madame softened a little and said “Finally, I wish to introduce you to Maisha.”
The African girl blushed as the room looked at her.
“She will be staying with me for the foreseeable future, and seeks to join our organization in due course. I may ask some of you from time to time to help with her training and classes. Please, do this for me.”
“All right everyone, back to work,” Lilly said as Penny whispered “Sandra is here” into Madame’s ear. She nodded and followed Penny to her office.
“Sandy,” she said as she embraced the old friend and kissed her on both cheeks, “it is so good to see you again.”
“You too,” Sandy said as she looked at Madame. “So the rumours are true – you are a different person.”
“Not really,” Madame said as she gave her rich, deep laugh, “I just needed to unbend a little.”
“A little? Shirley, how long has it been since you called me Sandy?”
“As long as it has been since you called me Shirley I suspect,” she said as she sat in a leather armchair.
“Whatever happened to her out there, keep it going,” Sandy said as she and Penny sat down. “So what can I do for you?”
“I presume John has spoken to you?”
“He has,” Sandy said as she handed some files over to Shirley. “These are a few tutors that have been recommended to me. Discretion guaranteed. May I meet the young lady?”
“She will join us for lunch,” Shirley said. “Sandy, are you busy tonight?”
“Not particularly – why?”
“There is a small matter Lily brought to my attention that needs to be dealt with – a problem with a supplier, if you like. One thing I have learned – sorry, rediscovered during my time away is the delight to be had in doing something in the field myself – care to join me in sorting this out?”
“The problem came to light last week,” Lily said as they sat round the coffee table, “when I was checking the monthly balance sheet. I noticed that there were some unusual payments going to a firm called Caltron Tech.”
“Yeah – they supply some of the payroll software we use,” Charlotte said, “what sort of payments?”
“Large ones – here are the details. I am not a hundred per cent sure I understand the details, but apparently it has to do with rounding of receipts to multiples of 5 pennies, and how the discrepancies are handled?”
“Oh my goodness,” Charlotte said as she looked at the figures, “they weren’t pulling the one cent scam, were they?”
Shirley looked round the room and then started laughing. “That old chestnut? Someone programs the system to take the odd pennies and rounding errors, accumulates them and then makes them as legitimate payments? There was a case at IBM in the eighties where someone nearly made a million dollars before they were caught.”
“Exactly Ma… Shirley. We have stopped all payments to the firm, citing an audit finding, but we should take steps to retrieve the cash somehow. This is the managing director of the firm – Emma Caltron.” Lily handed round a picture of a dark skinned woman.
“So are you suggesting a team pay her a visit?”
“That was going to be my original suggestion Shirley – but I am curious to see how you would handle it now.”
“Why don’t we find out,” Shirley said with a smile. “Meet here at seven, dressed for a visit. I’ll let you know the plan on the way…”
Clara Moulton was in the kitchen, making the final preparations for the meal she had prepared for her employer and her two guests. She had just shown them into the front room before retiring to the kitchen.
Clara was casually dressed, wearing a green cardigan over a grey top, dark trousers and black worker’s boots. A round pendant hung around her neck and her chestnut brown hair was held back behind her by a scrunchie.
As she added the final touches to the dishes, she heard a slight noise behind her, and turned to see two women walk in the back door. They were both quite small, but the sawnoff shotguns in their hands and the balaclavas that only showed their eyes and mouths more than made up for the lack of stature.
“If I was you,” one of the women said in a South African accent, “I would very slowly pull that chair away from the table and sit down in it, with your arms by your side.”
“Oooooofff Of course,” Clara said as she sat down, watching as the second woman took a bag from her shoulder and opened it, taking out two rolls of silver tape. She handed one to the South African girl, before walking behind Clara and pulling the end of the tape free from the roll.
She then used it to secure her arms and body to the chair back, while the second woman set her gun down, and started to tape her legs to the legs of the chair, and then her lap to the seat. Before long, she was enclosed in a silver sheath, and there was no way she could move from the chair.
She then saw the girl hold a sponge ball compressed in her gloved hand, and heard her say “Open wide.”
“Please, I’ll be quiet…”
“I do not believe you were offered a choice,” the second woman said, “open wide.”
Clara slowly opened her mouth, allowing the masked woman to push the sponge in, and then she felt the tape sticking to her head as it was wrapped round her head. “Right,” the South African woman said, “guard her while I go and let the others in.”
“I am so glad you could both come tonight,” Emma Caltron said as she handed drinks round. The dark skinned beauty was wearing a black sheath dress with silver embroidery on the front, and a pair of over the knee black suede boots with the cuffs turned back.
“hey, I never turn down a dinner invitation,” Rita Carr said. The strawberry blonde was wearing a red woolen jersey dress, the rolled collar under her chin and a wide brown leather belt around her waist. Her outfit was completed by dark tights and knee length dark brown leather boots.
“Yeah, I know you don’t” Gail Reeves said in reply. She had her dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wore a black cardigan over a lumberjack shirt, a long camel coloured skirt and baggy black leather boots.
“Anyway, I wanted to celebrate a wonderful…” Emma was stopped as the room door was suddenyl flugn open and three tall women walked in, lierally dressed in black from the balaclavas on their heads to their knee length leather boots. Only their eyes and mouths showed, their lips ruby red as one of them said in a deep commanding voice “I suggest you put your glasses down and your hands on your head – this is a robbery, and we need you to do exactly what we say.”
“Who the hell are you to order me around,” Emma said as she stared at them.
“Me? I am the women holding the shotgun aimed at your midriff, and contemplating if I should shoot you and save myself so much bother. Questions?”
Emma swallowed as she placed her hands on her head.
“Any complaints from either of you?”
The other two women shook their heads and placed their hands on them as the other two women pulled three chairs from the dining table and set them facing each other.
“Search the house,” the leader said to a fourth woman who appeared at the door. She nodded and left as she said “All three of you, sit in a chair, and put your hands behind the chair backs.”
The three looked at each other, and slowly moved over, taking their seats as two of the women moved over, the third covering them with her shotgun as one by one their wrists were crossed, secured together with rope, and then tied to the chair backs.
“Why the hell are you doing this,” Emma said as she wriggled round, trying to stop the woman behind her from binding her arms and chest to the back of the chair. The masked intruder was too strong however, pulling the ropes tight as she felt the wood pressing on her shoulder blades.
“It is remarkable simple Miss Caltron,” the deep voiced woman said, “your firm has stolen some funds from me, and I would like it back.”
“Stole from you? How the hell did we still from you,” she said as she looked over at Rita and Gail. Both women had their bodies tied back to the chair now, the rope pressing firmly on their tops, as she watched the two masked women tie their ankles together, and then pull them under the chair, securing them to their wrists.
“The software you sold to my staff had a hidden subroutine,” the fourth woman said as she came in, Emma seeing the bag that jingled as she put it down. “It collected loose change, amassed it and then sent it to you as a seemingly legitimate payment. Unfortunately for you, an internal audit found out.”
“Doubly unfortunately for you,” the deep voiced woman said, “I do not like been stolen from, and I suspect I am not the only one that you have stolen from. So I am here to obtain recompense and warn you.”
“Steal from you? How would I do that – I don’t even know how to turn a laptop on without help. Software is…” Emma suddenly looked over at Gail. “Is Gail’s department. Have you any idea what the hell they are talking about?”
Gail tried to struggle as the masked woman tied her legs together below her knees, gathering her skirt around her knees, but then looked, her eyes filled with guilt.
“Sorry, Emma,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders, “but I guess I robbed you as well.”
“Ingenious – but too late for you,” the woman said as a sponge ball was pushed into Gail’s mouth, and then silver tape wrapped round her head, her hair lifted out of the way as her mouth was sealed. “What you do with her is your business.”
As Rita was gagged, the South African woman said “The safe in your office – I would like the combination, or else I will be forced to blow the door off. That could be – messy.”
“I’ll tell you,” she said, reading off a sequence of numbers and directions.
Emma repeated the sequence, the woman nodding before Emma felt the sponge ball pushing her tongue down, and the tape pressing onto her face as it was wound tightly round her head.
“Our apologies that your dinner will be cold,” the deep honey voiced woman said, “but your cook has been unfortunately delayed as well.”
“Hgrrttt” Rita mumbled as she looked at the other two, feeling like the innocent bystander she was.
A few moments later, the fourth woman returned and said “we have the contents of the safe. In my opinion, we have adequate compensation.”
“Excellent – enjoy your evening ladies,” the leader said as the four women walked out of the room and through the kitchen. Clara watched as the five women then walked out of the back door, before she started to struggle, trying to break the tape.
The gang walked quickly to the waiting black SUV, four getting into the back as the fifth got behind the wheel. Pulling her balaclava off, Lily looked over her shoulder and said “How did we do?”
“Very well indeed,” Charlotte said as she ruffled her red head.
“You are a real natural,” Sandy said as she pulled her mask off, “and as for you Shirley, by the lord you haven’t lost your touch.”
“Nice to know, but trust me, I enjoyed it immensely,” Shirley said as they headed off down the road.
“Welcome home,” Maisha said as the five women walked in. “I hope you do not mind that I did not sleep.”
“Of course not Maisha,” Shirley said as they came in.
“A man called and left a message on the box. He said he will come and see you tomorrow, and called himself John.”
“Ah – good, I want you to meet him as well,” Shirley said. “Penelope, will you take care of the takings please?”
“Help me please, Lily?”
“Pleasure,” Lily said as the two women left the room.
“If you will excuse me Shirley, I need to head home. I have to sort out my travel arrangements tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Shirley said as Charlotte departed, leaving Shirley and Sandy alone.
“Just like the old days, wasn’t it,” Sandy said as Shirley poured two drinks.
“Except I can’t do it all the time,” Shirley said as she handed Sandy the glass. “But occasionally, yes. A toast – to the future.”
“The future,” Sandy said as they raised their glasses.
“By the way, what plans do you have for Christmas?”
“None yet – why?”
“Good – you can come to New York with me. I’m having a little reunion…”