A meeting room, empty save for the tables and leather chairs that surrounded it, was what David Maxwell walked into as he was pushed through the doorway, the lock turning as the door was closed behind him. He pulled down the sleeves of his jacket, adjusted his tie and tried to make sense of what had happened over the previous hour.
He had returned home from the latest meeting, looking forward to just one night with his wife, but on entering the main room of his house he had quickly discovered that was not going to be possible. Anneka was looking up at him from where she was sitting on the floor, the fear plainly visible in her eyes as he dropped his suitcase on the floor in shock. Coils of rope were fastened at various places around her bodies, starting at her ankles and moving up her stockinged legs, then holding her arms tightly to the side of her chest and encircling her breasts. The front of her white blouse had been pulled open to reveal the white lace bra she was wearing, and the coils cinched tightly around them to make them more prominent, more obvious, more – alluring if David was being honest with himself.
A white cloth was pulled between her red lips, and her mousey blonde hair was falling in a bedraggled fashion as she tried to speak to him. He barely had time to take in the full picture, however, even the fact her shoes were kicked off to one side, before some sort of cloth hood was thrown over his head and he felt two people hustling him back out of the hose and into some vehicle. He could still hear her muffled screams as the door to their house was closed quickly, followed by the door of the vehicle as he was forced to sit down.
Now here he was, in a strange room, wondering what the hell was going on. He looked round, walking slowly past the chairs and table as he approached a window, but the shutters were locked shut. He had time to say “What the hell is going on,” before the door was opened again and a second man pushed in. This was a tall, thin man with greying hair and dressed in a dark blue suit, and Derek recognised him instantly.
“Sir Alan? What the hell are we doing here,” he said as he walked forward, his hand outstretched. The new arrival blinked, as his eyes adjusted to the light, before saying “Oh God,” shaking Derek’s hand and sinking into one of the armchairs. He placed his head in his hands and just kept saying “Oh God, not again...”
Sir Alan Davies looked up at Derek, and he could see the tracks of tears in his eyes. “This is your first time in the area, isn’t it?” he said with a sad smile on his face, “Jones never told you about what could happen?”
“No – what has happened?”
Sir Alan sat up. “Last time, I was brought here as well, but I thought, I prayed we would escape it this time.”
“I was at home with Hilary, my wife, when about an hour or so ago there was a knock on the door. She stood up and went to answer it, and the next thing I knew two masked women had brought her back into the house and were telling me to get my shoes on.
“Hilary was wearing a white blouse and a blue knee length skirt – we had just come back from a rally, you see – and looked at me with her eyes as if to say, well, what I just said. One of the women pulled her hands behind her back and started to tie them together as the other one watched me bent down and start to tie my shoelaces up. Anyway, once they had finished securing her wrists she was taken out of the room, and I had a chance to talk to the other person.
“’I take it this is the same as last time,’ I asked, and she just nodded as I heard Hilary crying upstairs. ‘Well then, for god’s sake be gentle with her – she’s been unwell since last time.’
“’In what way?’ the woman asked, and I explained she had had treatment for breast cancer. She looked at me, and I could swear there had been a look of pity in her eyes, before she went out of the room for a minute and called up the stairs. As she came back in, I picked up my coat and asked to see Hilary before we left.
“She took me up to our bedroom, and Hilary looked up as I came in. Her ankles had been tied with white rope, as had her legs above her knees and her mouth was covered in tape. The intruder had opened her blouse, but thankfully had not secured her around the arms any more this time. I went over, kissed her on the forehead and promised everything would be all right- then they brought me here.”
“Yes,” David said as he sat down, “but where is here?”
“All in good time,” Sir Alan said as the door was opened again and a young, auburn haired woman was pushed in. Dressed in a cream coloured jacket and skirt, with buff suede heeled shoes, she blinked as she looked round and recognised the two men.
“Good evening, Miss Roberts,” Sir Alan said as he stood up, “Please, take a seat and tell us your story.”
“Sir Alan, David – can you two tell me why I’ve been kidnapped and brought here?”
“Sir Alan was about to explain to me, Janet,” David said as the young woman sat down, “but first, was it Amy?”
Janet Roberts nodded as she sat back in the chair. “I didn’t even get home – I was about to leave the office when this woman walked in. She had striking red hair, dressed in a black knee length skirt with a bag slung over her shoulder, and said she had something vitally important to tell me.”
Sir Alan smiled wearily. “Let me guess – she showed you a picture that caught your interest?”
Janet looked over at the older man. “Yes – she sat down, took out a photo and passed it to me. It was Amy, still wearing the purple blouse and short grey skirt she had on when I kissed her goodbye this morning, sat sideways to the back of a wooden chair. Unlike then, she was encircled at various places in bands of silver tape, making it impossible for her to move or even speak. Her blonde hair looked bedraggled, as if she had been struggling, and her eyes full of fear as she looked at the camera.
“The top buttons of her blouse must have come undone, for I could see the top of her bra as she looked out of the page. I stared from the picture to the mystery woman, who simply produced a small handgun and said I had to go with her now if I wanted to see Amy again, and not to say a word to anyone else.
“Well, what else could I do? I got my coat, followed her out to a waiting car, allowed her to blindfold me, and now I find myself here with you two, my respected rivals. Sir Alan, what is going on?”
“A moment more, dear lady,” he said as he listened to the door being unlocked, “If I am right, we have one more person to join us, and this must be them now.”
The door opened and a young, earnest looking man was pushed in, swearing as the door closed behind him. He looked round, recognised the other three people in the room and walked over to them.
“Good evening, Robert,” David said as the young man sat down. “Sir Alan was about to tell us what’s going on.”
“I hope so – after all, leaving my girlfriend in our house, her wrists tied in front of her with two masked women is not my idea of a fun night.”
Sir Alan looked at the young man, dressed in a casual shirt and jeans with several buttons undone, and smiled. “I guess they caught you in a – private moment,” he said as Janet looked over.
“Well, yes – you could say that. It certainly ruined the moment, I can tell you. So, what the hell is going on here?”
Sir Alan stood up and walked to the top of the table. “I’m not surprised your predecessors failed to warn you about this – It may just have scared you off. Don’t be afraid – your various partners will be well cared for, I promise you, but the person who has brought us together...”
“Yes?” David was sitting up straight, as were the other two, looking at the elder statesman.
“Let’s just say she moves in different circles. When we get home, we need to report a robbery at our houses – unfortunate coincidences they all happened at the same night, but that happens anywhere. Your partner swill have been told this, and things will be missing. At least this time they – well, forgive the phrase, but they cut Hilary some slack.”
Janet stood up and stared at Sir Alan. “Are you saying this has happened before?”
“Every time,” he said with a sigh as the door opened and two women came in. Janet recognised one as the woman who had forced her to come here, but to all save Sir Alan the other woman was a complete stranger. Tall, thin, with long black hair and dressed in a crimson red velvet gown, she took a seat at the head of the table as the other woman sat next to her.
“Good evening, Sir Alan – I trust you have explained to the others why they are here?” the woman said, in a voice deep and rich like the velvet of the gown she was wearing.
“I have explained what must happen after, but not why or the reason for the events of tonight, Madame. If I may?”
The woman nodded, and Sir Alan returned to the other end of the table. “David Maxwell, candidate for the Labour Party; Janet Roberts, candidate for the Liberal Democratic party; Robert Webb, candidate for the UK Independence Party, may I present Madame X.”
“Thank you, Sir Alan,” the woman said with a smile, “Of course, you all know Sir Alan Davies, the candidate for the Conservative Party in this constituency and our former member of parliament. Please, forgive the way you have been brought here, but my location must remain a secret.”
“I’m sorry,” Robert shouted, “but who the hell do you think you are, kidnapping my girlfriend and bringing me here like this!”
“Robert, be calm,” Sir Alan said as he looked over at him, “How much do you know of the black economy in this area? The crime rate – and why it is so low in certain categories? You are in the presence of a major reason why!”
“Your manners do you credit, Sir Alan – please, all of you, sit down. Penelope?” Madame X turned to the woman sat next to her, who stood and turned on a monitor at the side of the room. “I have asked you here to discuss your views on major areas of policy, so that I may decide which way I will vote come the day. It also provides an opportunity for you to see that, contrary to what you may think, some of what we do does benefit the community.”
“Hang on – are you some sort of master criminal?” David said as the monitor flickered into life.
“I prefer to think of myself as the chief executive of a company,” Madame X said. “So, shall we begin? Perhaps you can outline your positions to me on defence? For example, do you support the maintenance of strong and well equipped armed forces?”
David looked at the woman at the end of the table. “Well, of course I do, but we need to find way to make efficiency savings and do more with what we have.”
“Oh come on, David,” Janet said with a laugh. “We barely equip our forces to fight two wars as it is, and you say we have to find savings? Get rid of our nuclear deterrent and use the money from that!”
“Get real, Janet,” David said laughing, “We need an independent nuclear capability to be strong.”
“What of you, Mister Webb?” the woman Madame X had called Penelope said. “Do you believe in a stern forces provision?”
“I believe in a strong United Kingdom, free from influence by European pen pushers. I’m with Sir Alan on that one.”
The Conservative candidate smiled. “I believe in a strong forces provision as well – but properly focused on what needs to be done.”
“I see,” Madame X replied. “Let me give you a situation to discuss amongst yourselves.”
The monitor showed a picture of a young dark haired woman sat in the back of a large car, the rear access raised. She was wearing the uniform of a naval ensign, her hat placed on the floor of the car beside her, but she was in no position to argue or talk. Her legs were drawn up to her chest, and encircled with white rope that bound them together at the ankles, thighs and calves. Her arms were held tightly to her side, with smaller length passed between her arms and chest to tighten the loops so that she was unable to move. A thick cloth was pulled between her teeth, her heavily rouged lips closed over the material as she stared at the assembled group.
“This young lady was – shall we say apprehended by one of my specialist teams as she left a naval base.” Madame X stood up and walked over to the monitor. “Does the sight of this disturb you?”
“It disturbs me,” Sir Alan said as he sat down, “but I’m sure you’re going to tell us why this was done.”
“Well, I could say we were going to take this young lady home and strip her house of anything valuable,” Madame X said with her smooth tones, “but, for the sake of argument, suppose she was a spy. A very well known, extremely efficient spy, who so far had evaded the authorities, and said authorities asked us if we could ‘take care of things’. In the defence of the realm, often things are done which stretch the concept of what is legal and lawful – but is it justified if the alternative is the security of our country being fatally compromised?”
David sat back in his seat. “Is that what really happened in this case?”
“I will not say one way or the other – but if it were, would that change your opinion of what had been done?”
Janet looked over at the two women. “You’re talking about shades of grey – where there may be no straight decision?”
“An intelligent assessment, young lady. Often we do not see what is done to protect us – Sir Alan would confirm that for you.”
The three other people looked at Sir Alan, who nodded. “If you’re going to get into this job, be prepared to realise that sometimes you have to compromise – fixed ideals have to learn to be flexible.”
“Well said, Sir Alan,” Madame X said. “Let us move on to education - do you support a right for education for anyone who seeks it?”
“Of course I do,” Sir Alan said in response, “but I also support the right for parents to take action if a school is failing, and step in if necessary to take over.”
“As if they have the training to do the job,” Robert said with a sneer. “Surely the first thing to do is make sure the schools have enough funding to take care of themselves, without interference from central government.”
“In which case, we’re back to a two tier system as we had in the bad old days,” David shouted out. “Surely it’s better for everyone to have common targets to work towards?”
“Gentlemen,” Janet shouted out. “One moment. Madame X – if that is what you want us to call you – why do you ask about education.”
On the screen came a picture of a girl barely out of her teens, sat in a gymnasium on a stool. She had been stripped to the waist, and her tracksuit bottoms pulled down slightly to reveal her white panties, while her mouth was covered from ear to ear in silver tape. Her wrists were taped together behind her back, and they could see a band of tape around her legs above her knees.
“Tell me,” Madame X said, “are you all familiar with St Blazius’ School for young ladies? It’s a private college on the south coast, renowned for their educational standards and their after-school activities.
“For a couple of years now, one of the activities they have carried out for sixth form girls has been how to cope if you are kidnapped. This young lady was recently in a lesson there when a real gang of kidnappers called in, stripped her tops off using a large knife, and took these photographs before removing her from the establishment, having first secured her friends. Sir Alan, would you explain who the young lady is?”
The MP looked at the picture, the girl staring back through her brown hair. “That’s the PM’s younger daughter,” he said through a frown. “IO knew she disappeared for a few days – what happened?”
“What happened is he called me in to rescue her.“ Madame X looked at the four candidates staring back at her. “Again, sometimes those of us who work in the blacker economies can be of use when required. There is no black and white, to quote a certain pop group, only shades of grey.”
“Let us move on to other areas. For example, health – I presume you all wish to preserve the National Health Service?”
“Of course I do,” Janet said, “but there are massive inefficiencies that have to be dealt with. Cut targets, cut management, cut administration?”
“Tell me, Ms Roberts,” Penelope said, “Are you familiar with the Appleby Principle?”
David smiled. “She’s talking about Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the Yes Minister television series. The Appleby Principle is that the more changes you make in the name of efficiency, the greater the number of civil servants you need to manage those changes.”
Robert burst out laughing, “Surely that can’t be true?” That brought a withering look from Sir Alan. “Robert, if you’re going to get into this work then do the training. Watching that series will tell you more about how Whitehall works than you will learn in a lifetime of debating.”
Janet looked at her three rivals for the election. “All right – but there is a massive amount of waste in the health service. So how do we tackle that?”
“Again,” Madame X said quietly, “sometimes we have to use the quiet approach. Penelope?”
A new image came up on the monitor. Five women, dressed in white, were sitting on the floor in a narrow corridor. One was dressed in what could only be described as some sort of fantasy nurse outfit, made of white PVC with a cap saying “Hello Nurse” on the front on her blonde hair. Three others were wearing white dresses that buttoned up the front, while the third was wearing a white lab coat and had a stethoscope hung around her neck.
They were sat on the floor, alternating the way they were facing with the doctor looking straight at the camera, but all had their wrists pinioned behind them in the small of their back and their ankles bound together with rope, as well as duct tape gags covering their mouths. They were staring at the camera, a look in their eyes that suggested anger but also...
“Guilt?” Janet spoke up. “Let me guess – they ran a baby farm and you stopped them on a matter of principle?”
“Not these ladies, no,” Madame X said in reply, “that was another time. No, they were running a fake medical clinic, and using the prescription forms to get drugs to sell on the open market.
“Despite what you may believe about me and those who work for me, there are some areas we will not touch in terms of involvement, and indeed actively fight against. Drug selling is one of them – there are enough evils in the world without peddling that one.”
“So you deny what you do is evil – tell that to my girlfriend,” Robert said angrily.
“Shades of grey, Mister Webb, shades of grey. That is why we brought you here today, as we did with Sir Alan and the other candidates last time, and the time before that, and the time before that – to impress upon you that not all we do is bad in the way you see the world.”
David looked at Sir Alan, who simply nodded. “Even if I accept what you say,” he then said directly to Madame X, “You are still a criminal. You rob people and steal their money and valuables.”
“Oh, I do not deny that, Mister Maxwell,” Madame X replied with a smile, “Whatever else I may be, I am not a hypocrite. What I need to impress on all of you is that sometimes that is necessary.”
“Name one time recently when that was necessary!”
A new image flickered on the screen. “Allow me to introduce you to the daughter of the Earl of Wessex, the chairman of one of our major high street banks. You may remember they were in some difficulty recently, and were going to get government support before they suddenly decided to seek help elsewhere?”
The woman in the picture was dressed in a white top with thin spaghetti straps, and matching jeans. She was standing next to a black pillar, and secured to it around her waist and upper body with long coils of rope that encircled both her and the pillar, tightened with shorter coils that ran between her and the metal that pulled her body closer to the support. Her wrists were tightly bound together in front of her and secured to the rope around her waist, her fists clenched into tight balls as she looked at the camera over the blue tape gag that covered her lower jaw.
“What none of you, not even Sir Alan here, knew was that the bank in question had also been holding some of our accounts, and when we heard that the bank was about to close we could not risk the activities they carried out for us being discovered. So, we ‘invited’ the daughter to stay with us for a little while until her father completed some negotiations with us to take over the bank as a majority shareholder. In the process, we saved the government of the day not only millions fob pounds, but a potentially embarrassing situation when it did go bust.”
Sir Alan looked over and slowly nodded. “Look, this woman, whether or not we like it, is a massive supporter of this country. The point she is trying to make is, if you are elected, you have to learn to let her do what she does for the good of the country.”
Robert stood up, shouting “No way – she’s a common criminal and deserves to be arrested. Surely you two are not going to fall for this?”
“Mister Webb, anyone would think you have something to hide. Why are you so determined not to listen to reason on this. Has it something to do, perhaps, with Brussels?”
Robert turned and stared at Penelope. “Why would I want anything to do with Brussels,” he stammered, “I want Britain to be free of European influence...”
“I’m sure you do, Mister Webb, but what does Mrs Webb have to say about this?”
The other three turned and looked at Robert as he stood there, staring back at them. “What on earth are you talking about,” he said nervously, his eyes flitting across the room. “You had my girlfriend hostage when you brought me here.”
“Oh dear, Mister Webb,” Madame X said as one further image flicked on the screen. David, Janet and Sir Alan looked at the woman sitting on the bathroom floor, the buttons of her red blouse popped upon and her sleeves pulled down to reveal her patterned red bra. Her arms had been tied behind her back, rope around her wrists and forearms, while the loops above and below her breasts both held her arms to her side and forced them to be more prominent up front. Her ankles were crossed and lashed together as she sat there, staring at them through her unkempt black hair, her mouth covered in black tape with obvious stuffing behind them as he cheeks puffed out.
Robert sat down with a groan and looked at the other candidates. “Consuela – how did you find out?”
“That you had a Spanish wife in Belgium? Mister Webb, we have done background checks on all of you – very thorough checks – and unluckily for you, we found out your little secret. If you were foolish enough to talk to anyone about tonight’s meeting – well, everyone else would know.”
“And these three?”
“Come on Robert – you’re not the first politician to have a secret,” Sir Alan said as he walked round and put a hand on his shoulder. “Listen, all of you – we can say nothing of this, but whichever of us wins has to work with this lady sometimes. What do you say?”
Janet nodded slowly. “All right – it’s obvious to me we don’t know half of what is going on. I’m in.”
“Me too,” David said, “So long as they never hurt my wife again.”
“So long as you give us no reason to,” Madame X said as Robert looked up at the others.
“Just stop this getting out,” he said as the two ladies made for the door.
“We will return you home soon – be persuasive with your spouses, and Mister Webb?”
“Make a choice – secrets will come out,” Madame X said as the door closed behind her, leaving her four guests alone.