Portrait of a Lady - Chapter 3
If I am being honest with myself, I do not know who was the more shocked – Madeline and Sandra at the fact somebody had got in without noticing, John as he stood there watching us, or myself as I saw or the first time in years somebody I knew and trusted from my childhood.
I regret to say that fro possibly the first and only time in my life, I fainted, for the next thing I knew was opening my eyes to see John sitting next to me and Madeline carrying a tray of drinks in.
“It really is you, isn’t it Shirley? My god, we all thought you were dead.”
Shirley blinked as she saw the man she had called Uncle John all her life looking at her, the concern and wonder equally if impossibly visible in his eyes. Maddie placed the tray on the table.
“John introduced himself while Sandy took care of you,” she said as she sat next to her friend. “We knew him by reputation, but you never said you knew The Cat?”
“It – well, it never came up in conversation, did it?” Shirley said as she sat up. “Uncle John, how on earth did you find me?”
“I didn’t – it was pure luck I was passing on the street when you had that argument with the woman,” John said quietly. “I followed you here, not quite believing what I was seeing. After all, it has been five years – but never mind that now, I’m just relieved to see my eyes were not playing tricks on me. Come here, Shirley.”
As he said this, John stood up and held his arms out. Slowly, Shirley stood up and walked over, collapsing in his embrace as the tears started to flow. Nothing was said for a few minutes, until she raised her head and said “Mother? Father? How are they?”
A cloud crossed John’s face as he said “I need to tell you something, but first you need to tell me what happened. If you weren’t dead, where were you?”
“That is a long story,” Shirley said as she sat down, “but you need to hear it before you tell me your news. First, I obviously did not die in the car crash, but at times I was to wish I had...”
It was some time later when John stood up and went to the window, looking out over the setting sun as it illuminated the Paris skyline.
“My God,” he said quietly to himself, “I always knew he was a ruthless bastard, but to do this to him? And as for what it did to your mother, never mind you?”
“Uncle John, what happened?”
“There is no easy way to say this child,” John said a she took Shirley’s hands, “but your mother never recovered. She died two years ago.”
Shirley closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Another thing to thank him for if we meet again,” she said in her deep voice as she opened them again. “What about Father?”
“He’s not well,” John said quietly. “That’s why we need to get you back – he never forgave himself for what happened, but to see you would at least give him a measure of peace before...”
He closed his eyes and squeezed Shirley’s hands. “The problem is, you’re dead. Even under English law, we can’t get you back – and if we did, there is the small matter of what you were forced to do. This is going to take some planning.”
“I realise that,” Shirley said quietly. “Is there anything you can do to help?”
“There are some favours I can call in,” John said as he turned to Maddie and Sandy. “I have both of you to thank for looking after her – let me repay in a small way by getting you back as well. Is there anyone we can turn to over there?”
“Robert – he helped us get rid of Master, but we don’t know where he is.”
“I can take care of that,” John said as he collected his coat. “Pack your bags, girls, and stay here – I’ll be in touch.”
It took a few weeks, but eventually John was able to make some arrangements – a private airfield, a discrete pilot, and a moonlit flight over the Channel. A few hours later, I was finally able to see again my father – and I was glad it happened when it did.
The steady beep of the monitor was all that was heard n the room as the door quietly opened and John came in.
“How are you today,” he said to the man sitting in the bed as the nurse filled in the charts.
“The better for seeing you John. Did you enjoy your trip to Paris? I thought you were going for a few days, not six weeks.”
“A unique business opportunity presented itself,” John said as the nurse turned in the doorway. “I’m finishing my shift now, Sir” she said, “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No, thank you,” he said with a small smile. As she closed the door behind her, he turned to John. “Don’t tell me you robbed a few houses over there?”
“Not quite – listen, the agency have sent some new nurses to look after you tonight. Would you like to meet them – I know how you like to introduce yourself to them.”
He nodded, and John opened the door to allow the three girls to come in. All were dressed in regulation white dresses and flat shoes. The tallest had short blonde hair and a thin body, while the shortest had long dark hair pulled back under her cap. It was the middle one who intrigued him – shoulder length auburn hair, but there was something about her that seemed familiar to him.
“Good evening girls,” he said eventually, “Please, tell me your names.”
The blonde haired girl spoke first. “My name is Maddie, and this is Sandy. As for our friend...”
She fell silent as the third girl removed her cap and wig, and knelt by the bedside with tears streaming down her face. As she took the hand of the patient, he stared open-eyed and whispered “Shirley?” She nodded and kissed his hand before pressing it against her cheek as John quietly escorted the other two out.
What passed between us that night was quiet and personal, and not for these pages. Suffice to say I knew everything, and so did my father, by the time the sun rose. Over the next few days we sat and talked, for my part discovering all that my father did, for his part accepting what I had done and how I had acted.
Madeline and Sandra stayed with us – after all, they were persona non grata in our own country as well. Father was all for forcing people to accept I had returned, like the end of some Victorian detective novel, but I asked him not to. I had plans, both for revenge and for the future, which I explained to him, and he accepted them.
One thing he did do for me, after a few months had passed, was agree to take Robert as his personal bodyguard. By this time I knew how ill he was, and how much longer he had left, and I had determined to remain in the background. Outside of the five of us and John, only one other person knew who I was and that I was still alive – and some day there would be a reckoning. There were was one other person – a matter I discussed with my father, and resolved to deal with when the time came.
For six months we stayed with him, until the final day came.
The raindrops fell on the window pane as Maddie looked out onto the grounds. Sandy came and joined her as they looked out on the bleak landscape.
“How is she this morning?”
“Not good,” Maddie said without turning her head. “I don’t think...”
The sound of the door opening silenced her as Shirley came in. She was wearing a black jumper and trousers, and one look at her face was enough to tell them the news.
“It was peaceful and strangely comforting,” Shirley said as she closed the door behind her. “Robert is helping the nurse with the preparations, and the doctor is contacting the funeral directors. I was with him for the last moments.”
The two women looked at their friend as she sat down, her face a strange mask of sadness and relief. “Madeline, Sandra, I know you have been a support and a pillar of strength for me these last few years. Now that Father has passed on, it is time for me to begin anew, to start building my own life, my own future. I would understand if...”
Sandy came over and sat beside her, taking Shirley’s hand. “Look, Shirley, you have been there for us as well. Maddie and I – we’re staying, and we’ll be here for you no matter what. Right, Maddie?”
“Right,” Maddie said as she sat beside her. “The Three Caballeros, whatever happens.”
Shirley nodded. “Thank you – thank you both. If you do not mind, I need a few moments. After all, I cannot exactly go to the funeral and...” The sobs started to come, and the three sat silently.
“So, what happens next?”
John Jacobs released Shirley from the hug he had given her and sat on the other side of the desk from the tall, dark haired woman he had known since childhood. She was wearing a black jacket and skirt, while on the desk was the blonde wig she had worn for the gathering after the funeral. She had served as a waitress, taking note of all who had attended.
“Now,” Shirley said in her deep voice, “We begin anew. Father’s estate has been divided amongst the various charities, according to his wishes, and this house will soon become the rest home he desired it to be. He has left me one of his properties, under a shell company, and I will operate from there. Sandra, Madeline and Robert will join me there, as will the person you mentioned to me.”
John smiled. “I wanted to thank you for that. George is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and since his fall he has been looking for a new job. He also knows people – good and bad.”
“Yes – I have had a long talk with him, and he is indeed exactly right for the position I have in mind. John – I need to ask two favours of you?”
“Firstly, I need to thank you for all your help these last months, but it is important that I do not lean on you any further. Whatever happens from now on must be of my own doing.”
“I expected nothing less. The second favour?”
“John, I am dead to the world at large, and my family is now gone. I need, with the new start, to take on a new name, a new persona. Shirley is in my past – I need to go forward.”
“I understand – but bear in mind, you will always be the little girl I bounced on my knee.”
Shirley laughed – the first time she had for some days, a deep and warm laugh that filled the room. “So,” John continued, “If not Shirley, what am I to call you?”
“Come with me,” Shirley said as she stood up, “I will explain to all of you.”
John opened the door and accompanied her to another room, where Maddie, Sandy and Robert were sitting. They stood up as the two of them entered.
“Thank you all for being here,” Shirley said as they all sat down. “As you know all too well, six years ago I was taken from my family and introduced to a new life – one I, indeed all three of us, were forced to take part in. I think the time has come to put the skills we learned, the things we had to do, to use for ourselves.
“John, for your help I again thank you, but the rest of you need to know that he will play no part in what comes next. I hope, and pray, he will remain a friend to all of us, but we must go forward together without him. I hope you all understand.”
Robert stood up and walked forward, his hand outstretched. “I will be staying on to watch all three of them, so be assured of their safety,” he said as he shook John’s hand.
“Now, to my proposal, but first I have to ask one favour of all of you. As you know, I am dead as far as society is concerned, and I intend for it to remain that way. If my plans come to fruition, I will become a guide, a mentor, but an anonymous one. Until then, it is important that when we talk, when we speak, you call me by the name that I have chosen, so that Shirley becomes what she truly is now – a person who no longer exists.”
Sandy stood up. “I can understand that is your wish, but what then will we call you?”
Shirley smiled. “You are all my friends, and my saviours, and for that I will always be grateful. Having said that, if I am to lead I must do so as a leader, and as a woman who is not known save for a few. So, and as a reminder of what I have gone through, I have decided to have no name, but a title.
“From now on, I want to be referred to only as Madame – Madame X.”
The car drew up in the early dawn outside the large grey building. Robert got out and opened the door, allowing the three women inside to exit. Maddie drew her grey greatcoat around her to keep out the early morning chill.
“Not much to look at, is it?”
“No,” the dark haired thin woman said in her voice like warm treacle, “but it is perfect for our needs. Come.”
Robert walked forward and held the door open as they entered a lobby area. A stout man in a guard’s uniform looked up as he heard the click of heels on the marbled floor, and immediately stood up.
“Madame, ladies,” he said as Robert closed the door, “Welcome. All is readiness upstairs. If you will allow me?”
“Thank you, George,” Madame said as the party walked to a lift door at the far end of the lobby. The door opened silently, allowing the party of five to enter and ride to the top floor. They stepped out into an open plan apartment, their heels clicking on the bare floor as they exited.
“Very IKEA,” Sandy said as she took her coat off. She was wearing a dark brown trouser suit that complemented her hair, while Maddie was wearing a red jumper and trousers to match her dyed hair.
“Functional, but perfect for us at the moment,” Madame said as she looked round. “Robert?”
“Rooms have been prepared for each of you,” the young man said as he directed them to a seating area. “I have a room next to you, Madame, and George is the only person who can let people in and out except for us four. An office area and planning room is through there.”
“Excellent,” Madame said as she sat down, crossing her legs as she did so. ”Now, we begin, but there is one thing I need to first – and that is tonight.”
“Oh – a little petty larceny,” Maddie said as she sat as well.
“That – and a little revenge. You see, there was one question that nagged at me during the years we served – him.”
“Oh,” Sandy said, “What was that?”
“How he knew when I was leaving home – my parents were fiercely protective of my privacy. Before he died, Father shared his suspicions, and tonight I need to satisfy them.”
The detached house was set back from the street, and as the grey haired woman stirred in her bed she felt the breeze from the open window against her face. It took a few minutes for her to register this, and to realise an important fact,
She had not left the window open. She opened her eyes, only to widen them as she was grabbed and a gloved hand clamped over her mouth. It took a few moments for her to register the two women, dressed in grey with stockings over their heads, but that was all the time they needed for one of them to pull her hands over her head and tie them to the metal headstand with a length of parachute cord.
She was wearing a large blue t-shirt, but as her arms were pulled up the lower hem was lifted to reveal her white bloomers. The gloved hand stayed over her mouth as she watched the other intruder grab her ankles and tie them tightly together. As she stood back, she saw a third woman come into view, dressed in a white t-shirt with “Relax” written in big black letters on the front and faded jeans. She was tall, thin with shoulder length black hair, and as she came closer the captive woman recognised her, her eyes widening still further.
“Shrlee?” she mumbled under the gloved hand.
“No, not Shirley, not anymore,” the woman said in her deep melodious voice as the woman was held firm. “Shirley died in a car crash, remember? After all, that is the world believes. You may remove your hand.”
As the gloved hand was taken away, the older woman spoke. “I...” “Say nothing,” the woman continued as she came closer. “After all, you must have lived with so much guilt over the years, knowing that if you had said nothing, then Shirley would still be alive – as may her mother and father.”
“Please, you cannot hold me responsible for them, all I did was...”
“All you did,” Madame continued as one of the masked woman pushed a scarf into the captive’s mouth, “was tell a rival of my father when I was leaving and what route I would take. That is right, isn’t it?” The gagged woman nodded as Madame sat down, mumbling through the cloth as she tried to move away.
“Hush, hush,” Madame said as she stroked the side of the woman’s face. “I am not going to hurt you, but know this. You made me the woman I am, so when you hear of me in the future remember that – and that I could visit you at any time of my choosing to discuss what you did further.” She stood up and walked away. “Take whatever you can find,” she said as she walked into the shadows. The two masked women nodded to each other and started to search the bedroom, their captive screaming mutely as they did so.
It was the following morning that found Maddie and Sandy eating breakfast as Madame X joined them, Robert following behind.
“Thank you both,” she said as she sat down, “I feel that we are now ready to begin.”
“So, where do we start?” Maddie asked as Robert poured a coffee.
“First, you and Sandy need to come with me and talk to someone at the Burglar’s Association,” he said as he sat down. “We need to make sure they know what’s coming – after all, they control the main business around here. Madame can talk to them at a later date, but they like to be kept in touch with new players.”
“As for myself,” Madame said as she took a sip, “I need to consider possible places for us to call on.”
With that visit, the name of Shirley Xavier became a memory, save for – well, those occasions came later. Over the next two years, a series of rather large and daring robberies took place at intervals.
Firstly, there was a break-in at the home of a noted industrialist, where he and his wife were held hostage for twelve hours as funds were transferred from certain secret accounts to others and a number of paintings were taken.
Then there was a trio of bank robberies over a year, in each case the family of the manager been held hostage overnight.
Other occurrences took place, but all had one thing in common – the gang were both male and female, and all witnesses spoke of the woman leading the group having a deep, melodious voice. They were spaced out at irregular intervals, in different parts of the country, and at that time there was no country-wide police body that could spot the pattern.
The more twilight fraternity noticed, however, and knew a new leader was in operation. In time, others came to join, but this was only the beginning.
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