Readers may wish to peruse “Interview” in the “On My Own” folder before reading this story.
“Bonham’s Art Gallery is proud to announce the first new show by modern master painter Gregory Townsend, as well as a selection of new works by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. Viewing is possible between 10 am and 6 pm, or by private appointment.”
Helena Bonham was enjoying the success of the latest viewing at her gallery – attendance was at a record level, and the works of Townsend in particular were attracting a great deal of attention. Granted, the disappearance of her personal assistant two weeks ago had been a slight diversion, but Penelope had proven to be an excellent replacement for her in the short term.
Penelope was sat in the office, typing up a number of letters for Helena as she walked in.
“Good Morning, Miss Bonham.”
“Good morning, Penelope. Are there any messages?”
“Only one to confirm the private viewing this evening – a Miss Xavier. I have asked for the cleaners to come an hour early so that the place is ready for her.”
Helena looked at the booking form. “Have you heard of this Miss Xavier?”
“No, but I did ask some clients of yours, and she is apparently a known collector of fine art.”
“Very well then – can you make sure that all the preparations are in place for her arrival?”
“It will be my pleasure Miss Bonham.”
As Helena left the room, Penelope lifted the receiver on her desk phone and dialled a number that was unlisted.
“Everything is in place – execute the first part of the plan.”
Discrete Cleaning Services were a firm used by places such as Bonham’s to ensure their places of work were clean without compromising security. Every person who worked there was cleared on both police and security channels, and absolute discretion was called for.
On this particular day, the owner of the firm was entertaining some unexpected guests. She and her staff of three were in the storeroom of the office, bound back to back with tape and their mouths stuffed with cleaning cloths held in with tape wrapped around their heads.
They watched as the four women dressed in the spare work uniforms from the cupboard, while a fifth stood over them armed and looking extremely dangerous.
“We will call when the job is completed,” the leader of the gang said as she pulled a brown wig over her blonde hair and put on a pair of glasses. “Keep them quiet until then.”
The masked woman nodded and turned to face the four frightened women.
“Good evening ladies,” Penelope said as the cleaning crew arrived at the gallery. “Please be as quick as you can, as we are expecting a guest shortly.”
The four cleaners nodded as they unloaded the work trolleys from the van, and as the last customers set to work they began the job of cleaning the floors.
“Penelope,” Helena said, “I need to go and prepare for the private guest. May I suggest you also change?”
“Of course, Miss Bonham,” Penelope replied. It was a tradition of Helena Bonham that, if a private viewing was to be held, she and her assistant were more formally attired than was the norm for the normal visitors. Helena let herself into the flat above the gallery to prepare, while Penelope collected a dress bag and made her won way into the ladies room.
Security at the gallery was discrete – strategically placed cameras, all monitored in a central location with one person no duty at all times. On this particular evening, a young lady guard by the name of Judy Grayson was watching the screens. A discrete knock on the door caught her attention, and when she checked on the camera covering the entrance she saw one of the cleaners, brown hared and wearing glasses, waiting to get entry,
“Come in,” she called out, and the cleaner opened the door, pulling her trolley behind her.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” Judy asked.
“Just started today,” the cleaner said as she began to sweep the floor.
Judy turned her attention back to the monitors, only to be surprised a few minutes later when a wet, sweet smelling cloth was clamped over her nose and mouth. She reached up to try and pull it away, but the grip was too strong, and she slowly began to lose consciousness. The last thing she saw in a reflection on a monitor screen was the face of the cleaner, smiling as she held the cloth in place.
“Silly girl,” the cleaner muttered as she opened a drawer on her trolley and removed some clean white rope. Taking a short length, she pulled Judy’s wrists behind her back and expertly tied them together before securing them to the backrest of her chair. She then knelt down with a further length and placed her booted ankles together.
Penelope emerged from the ladies room, and smoothed down the red silk of her evening gown. She was wearing for the occasion a low cut gown, with short cap sleeves, and red heels on her feet. She checked her make-up in a small compact mirror, before returning to the office.
As she reached the door, Helena returned from the upstairs flat. She was wearing a black strapless evening dress which reached the floor, with black opera gloves and a long matching scarf around her neck, reaching down the back of her gown. A pearl necklace was around her neck, and a matching bracelet on her left wrist.
“When are we expecting Miss Xavier, Penelope?” she asked.
“Any moment now, Miss Bonham. The cleaners have already left the building.”
As if on cue, a black Rolls Royce pulled up outside the front door, and an immaculately dressed chauffer stepped out of the driver’s side. Walking round, he opened the passenger door and helped the woman he was bringing out.
A tall, dark haired woman walked into the store, dressed in a dark blue evening gown with a fur coat over the top, as the chauffer returned to sit in the car.
“Good evening, Miss Bonham,” she said in a voice that sounded like dark velvet and chocolate, “I am Miss Xavier. Thank you for allowing me to have this private viewing – it is so difficult with my schedule to find time to visit during normal hours.”
“It is my pleasure, Miss Xavier,” Helena replied. “May I introduce my assistant, Penelope?”
“Charmed,” Miss Xavier said as Penelope shook her gloved hand. “Now, Miss Bonham, please show me your fine artworks.”
Judy shook her head to try and clear the fuzzy feeling she had. She remembered someone holding a wet cloth over her mouth, and then….. Why couldn’t she move her hands, and why did her mouth feel as if something was pulling at it?
Slowly she regained consciousness, only to realise with a start that she not only could not move her hands – she couldn’t move any part of her body, including her mouth! Looking down on her lap, she could see white rope tightly holding her to the chair, and she suddenly realised what might be happening. She tried to call out, but then realised that if she was tied so tightly, then some sort of gag was over her mouth as well, and that was why she felt something pulling at her jaw. Silently, she was forced to sit and watch what was happening on the monitor screens, unable to help or to raise the alarm.
“So tell me, Miss Xavier, are you a collector of any particular period or artist?”
“Oh no, Miss Bonham, I have a very catholic set of tastes in art. In fact, you could say that I only collect the very best, and will do anything to make sure I obtain those works.”
The two women were walking around the gallery, as Helena showed her visitor the works and explained the story behind some of them. The two were chatting quietly as Penelope walked behind making notes on the conversation and the pictures they talked about.
“So, what do you think of our little show, Miss Xavier?”
“I find it fascinating and quite collectable, Miss Bonham. In fact, I think I will take a few of the pieces with me.”
“Well, that is wonderful news, Miss Xavier. Penelope, would you please go and fetch the order forms for me?”
“I think you misunderstand me slightly, Miss Bonham,” Miss Xavier said as a smile appeared on her face. “I said I would take a few pieces home with me, I did not say I was going to pay for them.”
Helena frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand…”
“Allow me, Miss Bonham,” Penelope said as she put her notebook down on the table. “What Miss Xavier is saying is that she is going to take those pieces she likes and you will not be able to stop her.”
Helena’s frown deepened. “Are you trying to tell me that this is a robbery? That’s preposterous – my security cameras have been watching the whole time – there’s no way……”
“My dear Miss Bonham,” Miss Xavier coolly said, “I have been planning this visit for some time. Just who do you think I am?”
“You’re Miss X….. Oh no, you’re not Madame X are you?”
Madame X nodded as the cleaners came out of the office, one of whom handed a small pistol to their leader. She weighed it in her hand, and then pointed it squarely at Helena’s chest.
“Normally, I leave these visits to my associates, such as Penelope here.” Helena shot a look at her assistant, who smiled in return. “However, on this occasion I had to satisfy myself that what your previous assistant told us was indeed the truth.”
“Annette? You’re the one behind her disappearance? Why I should….”
“Hush now, Helena,” Penelope said as she removed the silk scarf from around Helena’s shoulders. “I think you need to be quiet and listen to what Madame has to say”.
“No, don’t dommmrtgr”. Helena was silenced by the scarf that Penelope pulled between her rouged lips, wrapped twice around and in her mouth, and then knotted tightly at the base of her neck.
“Thank you, Penelope,” Madame X said. “Now, my associates here are going to take the pieces that I identified to Penelope, pack them with all due care and take them to my museum. Penelope, would you make sure that Helena is made comfortable in her office?”
“Of course, Madame,” Penelope said as she took the gagged owner by the arm and led her to the rear of the gallery. Helena could only watch as she walked past the cleaning crew, carefully taking a number of artworks from the wall and wrapping them carefully in clean blankets.
“I would not feel so bad about this, Miss Bonham” Penelope said as she led the gagged woman into her office, “I found you quite an accommodating boss. It almost pains me to have to make sure you cannot raise the alarm.
As you will have gathered, the cleaners work for Madame X as well – it is fortunate that you use such an exclusive firm. We also took care of your security guard earlier, and ensured not only that your recording equipment was disabled, but that the direct feed to the local police station was hooked up to a continuous feed of this place closed. Doesn’t it make you feel better to know we care so much about our work?”
Penelope waved at the camera in Helena’s office, and in the security room Judy screamed in silent frustration. She was able to see everything, and not do a damn thing about it!
“Now, Miss Bonham,” Penelope said as she opened her own bag and produced several lengths of coiled white rope, “please be so good as to put your hands behind your back.”
Doubling a shorter length of rope up, Penelope looped it around Helena’s crossed wrists and pulled it tightly over the fabric of her gloves. Wrapping it around twice more, and pulling tighter each time, she passed the rope between her wrists and cinched the binding more tightly before knotting it out of the reach of Helena’s long fingers.
“If you don’t mind, Miss Bonham, I will take care of your jewellery for you,” Penelope added as she unclasped the pearl necklace and bracelet and placed it gently in a small velvet sack. Helena tried to scream in protest, but the scarf wrapped tightly into her mouth was preventing any intelligible sounds escaping.
Penelope then took a length of rope longer than anything Helena had ever seen, and doubled it up. She passed the rope around the captive’s arms and chest, and pulled it tightly below her breasts before repeating the same operation above, making her chest stand out more prominently than usual. Helena had to stand as Penelope repeated this operation twice more, and then passed the rope around the wrappings at the centre of her back. Passing the loose ends over her shoulder, she fed the rope through the bottom loops between her breasts before passing it over Helena’s other shoulder and finally knotting it at the back. She tried to squirm around, but the ropes held firm.
The door was opened, and Helena looked over her shoulder to see two of the cleaners frog marching a young blonds haired woman into the office. She was dressed in a blouse and two piece suit, but she was also trussed up like a sausage and gagged with white tape. It took a few minutes for Helena to recognise her.
The new arrival raised her head, and her eyes opened with shock when she saw Helena standing there. The two cleaners took Annette over to a wall, and made her sit down on the floor before leaving the room.
“We have had your assistant as our guest fro the last week or so,” Penelope said as she led Helena over to a chaise lounge in the room and sat her down on it. “She was very helpful in telling us what was in your new show, but don’t blame her for telling us. Our interview techniques can be very…… persuasive.”
Annette started to cry, and the tears flowed down her cheeks as she watched Penelope crossing and tying Helena’s ankles, having folded back the hem of her dress to do so. Replacing the hem, she then took some more lengths of rope and tied Helena’s legs together above and below her knees, pulling the dress tightly around her legs each time. She then helped the gallery owner to lie on the chaise lounge, even placing a pillow under her head as she did so.
“There now – at least you will be more comfortable that way,” Penelope said as the door opened and Madame X entered the room.
“Thank you Penelope, you have done a wonderful job here.”
“If I may, Madame?”
Penelope left the room for a moment, and then returned with a roll of wide white tape. Tearing a strip off, she approached Helena, who tried to turn her head out of the way but failed to stop Penelope smoothing the tape over her already gagged mouth.
“Just to make you the little bit more quiet,” she said as she stepped back. “I regret that I must hand in my notice, but don’t worry – with any luck, we will never see each other again.”
“They have finished loading the items I want in the van now Penelope. Please leave us alone for a few minutes.”
Penelope left the room, closing the door behind her, and Madame X looked down on the bound and gagged gallery owner.
“I want to hank you for a fascinating evening, Miss Bonham, and I am only sorry that we have to leave it this way. You and your staff have been most helpful to us. Au revoir.”
Madame X turned and walked silently out of the room, leaving the two women struggling but unable to get free of their bindings.
In the security room, Judy was still screaming in silent frustration, and trying desperately to free herself from the ropes that were holding her to the chair. She kicked out, but that only had the effect of pushing her against the wall, and the jolt to her back made her scream even more in frustration.
It was early morning before the new shift arriving at Discrete Cleaning Services discovered the four bound and gagged women, asleep after exhausting themselves in their efforts to escape. At the gallery itself, the new security guards came in at a similar time to find Judy also asleep, and Helena and Annette in the office.
In a discrete penthouse in the city, Penelope and Madame X were watching as a new Townsend was hung on the wall by the maintenance man.
“Thank you, Gerald, that will be all for now,” Madame X said as he collected his tools and left the room.
“Yes, Penelope, quite exquisite,” Madame replied as she looked at it. “A find addition to my collection, I believe.
Now, what is next on the agenda?”