Sara and the Madame’s Mission









   Sometimes Carrington can be one lovely place to live. In the height of summer without a cloud in the sky, for example, when you can trek to the grassy green hill overlooking the small market town and stay till sunset. There are days, however, when I can’t stand living here. And one particular Sunday morning, as I walked along the high street with a thick canopy of grey clouds overhead and an icy cold wind whipping at my cheeks, I found myself particularly fed up with it.

    Yeah, it’s me. I know you’ve probably been wondering whether you’d get to hear another of my stories. As Rachel’s probably told you all I’d been seriously down in the dumps for a month. I’d spent most of my time slobbing around at home studying, playing video games and certainly not showing any interest in girl detective work. In fact, I was certain that the days of the CGDA were truly behind me.

   Little did I realise that the events of this Sunday would change that.

   Before I could load up another game of Borderlands I realised it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself. I knew on Sundays the girls would all be meeting at our favourite cafe, so I decided to surprise them. I ditched the scruffy jeans and dressed in a maroon cardigan over a white top, a short brown skirt, dark tights and a pair of brown flats I’d recently bought. I did my makeup, straightened my brown hair, wrapped a maroon scarf around my neck and then left my house before either my parents or my twin brother knew I was awake.

   As I caught sight of the café just down the road I quickened my pace, eager to quench my fledgling caffeine addiction. I quickly found myself clutching an extra-large, double shot cappuccino and walking upstairs to the secluded pair of leather sofas near the window where we usually met. I felt strangely contented as I reached the top floor, looking forward to having a good gossip.

   My mood soured instantly when I saw that only one of the gang had turned up so far. Sitting on the sofa with her back to me was Abigail, my blonde haired friend dressed glamorously in a long sleeved blue top, tight fitting dark jeans and dark high heeled pumps. What soured my mood was the sight of her with her arms flung around the neck of our dark haired college friend James, with his arms around her waist, pulling her close to him as they indulged in a lengthy, passionate snog.

   Boy where they going at it, their eyes tightly closed and oblivious to the world as they kissed like their lives depended on it. I pursed my lips, the sight of them causing stabs of pain around my chest as the heartache of the previous weeks resurfaced. Which was probably why I crept up on them, until my head was only inches away from their conjoined faces, before saying deliberately loudly, “Having fun?”

    They promptly broke apart with such speed that they possibly broke the sound barrier. Abigail’s face resembled a startled rabbit, until she realise it was me and her face lit up. “Oh my God Sara! I wasn’t expecting you,” Abigail announced brightly as she knelt on the sofa and flung her arms around me. “How you doing?” she said in my ear as I returned her hug as best I could with a cappuccino precariously balanced on a saucer.

   “Better thanks,” I answered simply, as I sat on the opposing sofa. Pointing at the pair of them I asked, “How long has this been going on for then?”

   “Had our first date a few weeks ago,” James replied, putting his arm around Abigail. “You OK with me going out with one of your best mates?”

   I answered that I was fine with it, but in reality I wasn’t. I could tell by the rosy glow in Abigail’s cheeks that she was smitten, but the normally shy girl had never been in a serious relationship before. James, comparatively, was a known serial flirt who jumped from girl to girl, most recently our close friend Kavita, until he got bored and moved on. Abigail was the sweetest girl I knew and if James did anything to hurt her I would personally hang him from a window by his toenails.

    I dunno. Maybe it was more down to me having lost my faith in men recently.

    After a few minutes of idle conversation I heard a voice proclaiming from the foot of the stairs, “That freaking ref robbed us! I’m telling you Rach it was as clear a penalty as I’ve ever seen it!” I found myself smirking at the sound of that familiar, undaunted voice. Harriet soon ascended the staircase, dressed in her replica Manchester United shirt, dark jogging bottoms and trainers, having just completed her morning football game. Her long red hair was held back in a ponytail, and her face was flushed red from the exercise. Rachel followed, her long raven hair loose and tumbling past her shoulders. She wore a blue tunic dress covered partly by a brown overcoat, navy blue tights and black flat pumps with ankle straps. My oldest and closest friend couldn’t have looked happier to see me sitting there, but her greeting was curtailed by Harriet’s enthusiastic cry of, “Hey it’s the boss! How you been holding up sexy?”

    “OK thanks,” I laughed as I hugged her. As we broke apart I asked her, “How are you and Eleanor?” This was the first time I’d seen Harriet since she and her girlfriend had been involved in an adventure of their own at a recent fancy dress party.

   Harriet simply gave me a smirk and answered, “You should know it takes more than a bunch of goons to keep me pinned down.”

  “Couldn’t resist the lure of caffeine and cake eh?” Rachel smiled as we embraced.

    As we took our seats James got up from his. “I think I’d best leave you ladies to catch up. See you later Abi.”

    “See you!” Abigail answered with a massive smile. They said goodbye with a quick peck as opposed to the full on snog I’d first witnessed, before James said his goodbyes and left us girls.

    Only then did Abigail register our incredulous looks in her direction. Rachel asked exactly what we were thinking. “OK, since when have you been Abi?”

   Never in her eighteen years of life had she been known as Abi. Her face flushing red the blonde girl squirmed in her sofa before replying, “It’s just…a bit of fun…that’s all.”

    “Whatever you say Abi,” Harriet winked. “What do you shorten James to? Ja? Makes him sound a little German, don’t you zink?” she added with a suitably silly accent which made Rachel and I laugh and Abigail blush the same colour as a ketchup bottle.

    After a few more jokes at Abigail’s expense the conversation drifted on to other matters. Coursework deadlines, last night’s TV, Olivia Hampton’s upcoming fancy dress pub crawl. But even as we joked and laughed I felt there was one issue which I needed to address. “Listen everyone, I need to apologise for being such a moody cow. But I want you to know that I’m feeling a lot better. I’m getting over what happened and I won’t let it interfere with my life any longer.”

    “You have nothing to be sorry for Sara,” Abigail told me reassuringly. “What happened was really unfair, and nobody can blame you for being upset.”

    “But glad to see you’re back on your feet,” Harriet told me. Then, strangely, she whispered something into Rachel’s ear at which the raven haired girl nodded, before she added, “In fact we’ve got a proposition for you.”

    Already something about the way she said that filled me with dread.

   Rachel confirmed my suspicions as she explained, “Recently Felicity’s been investigating some suspicious building activity in Herringford. Unmarked vans have been seen pulling into the construction site in the dead of night. Sounds intriguing, don’t you think?”

    I knew what Rachel wanted me to do. But all my optimism and contentment of the past few minutes disappeared in a flurry of frustration and anxiety. A scowl forming on my face I replied firmly, “Sorry, not interested.”

    “Oh come on boss, doesn’t it sound like fun?” Harriet said, maintaining her jokey, happy tone of voice. “Just imagine the thrill of sneaking around a dark construction yard, pitting our wits against some slack jawed builders…”

    “My answer is no!” I repeated, frustration welling up inside of me. “I’m giving up being a girl detective and I mean it!”

    “Come on Sara. Being a girl detective is all you’ve ever wanted. You can’t back out now!” Abigail told me.

   “Well I can. People give up on their dreams every day. Why can’t I?”

    I was beginning to raise my voice: I could hear it reverberating through the deserted upstairs. Rachel grabbed me gently by the arm as she made one last attempt to reason with me. “We just want to help you. You’re never happier when you are on a case, and you’re never more restless when you’re not. You don’t have to be afraid!”

    I’d had enough. I could feel blood pumping through my head as I stood up swiftly. “You want to help me? Then accept and support my decisions and stop trying to run my life! My days of being a girl detective are over, and nothing, and no-one, is going to change my mind!” With that I stormed off. I heard Abigail and Harriet calling after me as I descended the stairs but I didn’t even acknowledge them. ‘So much for getting over what happened,’ I thought glumly as I stomped out the café and back into the cold.

    I don’t know what had caused my temper to snap. Maybe it was the pent up rage I’d been storing up inside of me. I certainly had never blown up like that in front of my friends. But this was for their benefit as much as mine. How many times had they got themselves captured and imperilled on my account? How often had my blind arrogance put them all in serious danger? Chris had been right all along. We were taking on dangerous people and the consequences of this could potentially be dire. Only days ago Harriet and Eleanor had become inadvertently involved in a kidnapping attempt, only escaping thanks a strange woman who had left me a cryptic message. I hadn’t paid any attention to her. It was for mine and everyone’s benefit if I just stepped back from it all.

    If only I’d realised that before Matthew had got hurt.

   I hadn’t seen my now ex-boyfriend since we split up on the snow covered slopes of Bluebell Hill. I missed not having him around and simultaneously hated him for it. I hated how he had just left me high and dry after everything we’d been through. But I also felt overwhelmingly sorry for him and his family, afte3r I’d uncovered his uncle’s double life as a serial burglar and made him a fugitive. If I’d only stepped back from the CGDA then no-one would have got hurt. As I stomped up Carrington high street I was resolved to ensuring nothing like this could ever happen again, even if that meant admitting defeat to the masked twat who was really responsible for all this crap.

     I swallowed a lump of discontent in my throat as I walked along the currently deserted suburban road only a few streets away from my house. I didn’t notice the plain white van pulling up on the roadside ahead until out of it stepped a woman with dark hair tightly pinned back. “Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to be Sara Philips would you?” she asked me inquisitively.

    Now with my temper on a really short fuse I barked, “Yeah that’s me. What do you want? An autograph from the famous girl detective? Or are you a journalist trying to get the latest scoop on my life?”

   “Nothing of the sort,” this woman answered. “I just wanted to make sure it was you before I did this.” Then she darted forward with incredible speed, tightly grabbed hold of me and thrust a chloroform soaked rag over my mouth and nose.

    Wwwwttt ttthh hhhlll?” I cried out in shock as the familiar, sickly scent pervaded my nostrils and mouth. Before I could mount a sufficient defence the van door was hauled open, and at least two pairs of hands hauled my thrashing body inside. I was grappled to the floor, my hands pinned above my head and my feet held together, even as this woman continued to press the rag over half my face. I held out as long as I could, but eventually I succumbed to the inevitable. The last thing I heard before I sank into oblivion was the sound of the van’s engine starting.

      You know you’ve had a crazy year when you wake up to find your hands tied behind your back, your ankles bound together, a cleave gag in your mouth and a blindfold over your eyes, and your first thought is, ‘Oh for crying out loud!’

      My mouth was dry and my head numb. The after effects of chloroform alright. With the blindfold obscuring my sight effectively I had to rely on my other senses to take stock of the situation. I was lying on something very soft and bouncy, a bed most likely. But I could hear the drone of an engine, and suddenly I felt my body be dragged a little to the right by the inertia of a vehicle going around a corner. I was onboard a mobile home or caravan travelling at some speed.

   This was no case of me getting grabbed by goons while sneaking around abandoned warehouses. This time I’d been grabbed off the street, thrown into a strange vehicle, tied up and transported away from Carrington. This time I’d been properly kidnapped! I felt serious trepidation as I wondered which of my many enemies could have made such a bold move, wondering at the same time where I was being taken.

   I didn’t intend to hang around long to find out, and I set about trying to free myself. After some serious twists of my wrists and feet and a good amount of bouncing against the plush duvet I realised wriggling alone wasn’t going to work. But things were far from hopeless. No ropes had been wrapped around arms or upper body. This alone gave me an escape opportunity.

   Grunting through my gag I hauled myself up into a sitting position. Then pressing my feet against the bed I pulled my conjoined hands underneath me until they were nestled beneath my nylon clad knees. Phase one completed, I then lay back a little and tucked my upper and lower legs together, pulling them through the gap between my arms. I felt the soles of my new brown flats brush my hands as, after a couple of twists and jiggles, I managed to slip my feet through and therefore bring my hands around to my front. I quickly yanked my cleave gag so it hung around my neck and lifted away my blindfold.

   Breathing in deeply I examined my surroundings. I was indeed in the bedroom of a mobile home, small and confined yet surprisingly extravagant. Expensive wallpaper and curtains, a large pinewood dresser and wardrobe on either side of the surprisingly spacious double bed, and expensive paintings of English countryside scenes hung on the walls. Clearly this vehicle was owned by someone of considerable wealth. The drawn curtains kept the room dark, but not dark enough to stop me finishing my work.

   I held my bound wrists up to my face, found the knot securing them and began biting it, trying to pry the cord loose with my teeth. I had no idea how much time I had, so I was frustrated by my initial lack of progress. But after a few minutes of consistent gnawing I managed to loosen one strand, and that was all I needed. Once it was pulled completely through the knot seemed to dissolve, and I managed to pull my hands free easily. After rubbing my wrists to return circulation I made to free my feet, and within a minute I was kicking the ropes away from my ankles.

   I didn’t have time to dwell on my success. I realised suddenly that during my escape attempt that the engine had been turned off. That gave me another ray of hope. If the vehicle was now stationary it would make my escape easier still. First though I listened intently, trying to hear any noise or sound from my captors. I heard nothing, giving me confidence to slide off the bed and make for the door. I pulled away my brown hair from my ear to press it against the wood, and still heard nothing. My heart feeling like it was about to escape through my mouth, I quietly turned the handle and opened it just a crack. Peering outside I could see a corridor linking this bedroom with the rest of the mobile home, and the exit only a few steps away.

   I hesitated. The overwhelming silence was suspicious, but I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to escape than this. I had to take this chance. After a couple of deep breaths I opened the door, stepped out onto the corridor, tiptoed to the exit and grasped the handle with my hand…

    “I must say Sara; if you hadn’t managed to escape from those bonds then I’d have been very disappointed in you.”

    The voice that had just spoken was soft and syrupy, like butter melting on hot toast, yet was dignified and authoritative at the same time. And it didn’t make me half jump. I whirled around on the spot so I was looking in the direction of the mobile homes living area, and the woman sitting on the plush leather seats staring at me with great intent.

   I’d say she was roughly the same age as my parents, but her face had barely a wrinkle or blemish. She had long, jet black hair with no trace of grey, and her face defined and regal. She was taller than me only by a few inches, but the way she held her posture even as she sat with her legs crossed gave the impression she was much taller. She wore a dark suit with a cream blouse and a maroon neck scarf, the skirt very long and almost reaching the high heeled brogues on her feet. She certainly gave off the air of a lady who knew she was in charge.

    “There’s no point running,” she told me in her soft yet assured voice. “The moment you step outside my bodyguards will have you back in here before you’d know what’s hit you. I’d hate to conduct our business with your hands tied behind your back again. Won’t you take a seat and enjoy the hospitality of my mobile home? I don’t often get the chance to take it on the road.”

    This was a bizarre situation all right, but I didn’t want to test this woman’s patience. I complied and took a seat on the opposing leather sofa. She continued to stare at me, looking up and down at me with her piercing blue eyes. She then said, “I do like your choice of attire. The colouring suits your hair and skin tone perfectly. Though I must say, I’m not a fan of those ‘denim hotpants’ you and so many other girls your age are currently wearing.

   I finally found my tongue and muttered quietly, “Did you kidnap me just to pass judgement on my wardrobe, or is that an added bonus?”

    The woman merely smiled knowingly at my retort. “Yes I remember that feisty tongue of yours. But why do you look so surprised to see me? I’ve told you twice now that you were on my radar, such as on the night of your encounter with the Gentleman Robbers.”

   As she finished her sentence I realised where I had heard her voice before. “You’re the one who stole the painting Mr White was after,” I gasped. “The one who got there before Simon and…”

   “Saved his skin,” she finished for me. “You’re very welcome for that. How lovely he and his girlfriend just got engaged.”

And you got that Lily girl Harriet met to pass on that weird message.”

   “Again, you are welcome for me sending Lily to keep an eye on you all,” she smiled.

   This woman was now a bonafide mystery. Narrowing my eyes at her I asked bluntly, “Who are you?”

    “I’m not going to divulge my exact identity, because you’ll no doubt be putting all this into one of your fascinating stories when this is all over. All I will say is that I am a serious woman who runs a serious enterprise. And currently, we both have a common problem.”

     I had to swallow a laugh. “I doubt there’s any problem that you and I share…”

    “Mr White,” was all she said next.

    OK she’d officially got my attention. But I did my best to not reveal this, deciding to keep my cards close to my chest. “What about him?”

    The mysterious woman exhaled loudly as she began her explanation. “He has been a thorn in the side not just for you, but for me and countless others in my vocation. Recently he has been recruiting heavily, and his targets have become more high profile. It is a statement of intent. He is preparing to start an all-out gang war and make a bid to become the most powerful crime baron in the country.”

   “Which I’m guessing is bad for you,” I deduced with a raised eyebrow.

   “I am an advocate of the status quo. I only wish to preserve my many interests and seek out the finer things which, shall we say, are not often available through legitimate channels. But Mr White threatens my way of life. Already the politicians and press are screeching for his head, and I shudder to think what will happen should they cast their net wider…Also, I think the way he insists on tormenting you is thoroughly disagreeable.”

    After she finished I replied, “You didn’t have to kidnap me if you wanted to say this to my face.”

    “Oh but I did Sara,” she replied mysteriously. She beckoned out of the window with her hand and instructed, “Take a look outside!”

    I begrudgingly obliged, and peered out the raindrop speckled window. I was greeted by the sight of tall, rolling hills and a vast stretch of wild, untamed moorland in between them. The only thing breaking up the grasses and heather were the trickling, winding streams and rocky outcrops. I couldn’t say for certain where I had been taken, potentially somewhere deep within the Pennines, but I could say with all certainty that I was a long way from Carrington.

  There was little sign of civilization. Just the deserted road on which the mobile home had been parked, and across the moorland in the distance a vast, grey coloured manor house, with towering spires and large pine trees within its sprawling grounds. “That there is Slatewood Manor,” she informed me. “Originally built in the Victorian era for the Lord who owned much of this moorland, but he was forced to sell soon after it was built to pay his debts to the Norton Crime family.”

    I felt my stomach lurch. “You mean that house is owned by the Norton’s?”

    “It certainly is,” she told me knowingly. “What’s more, I can personally guarantee that occupying that manor right now is none other than their heir elect, young Emerald Norton.”

     My stomach gave another, bigger lurch. Emerald Norton, the psychotic cow not much older than myself who’d tormented me almost as much as Mr White. If what this woman said was true, then this was my chance to bring her to justice. Realising I no longer had possession of my phone I asked, “Give me my phone back, I have to tell my dad.”

    But the mysterious woman gave a hollow laugh. “What would your father do exactly? Sara dear, police and politicians alike have known about Slatewood Manor for decades, but the Norton’s have their fingers in many pies, and so many dirty secrets to divulge. No investigator or official is going to come anywhere near this place. Besides, I am not all that interested in dismantling the Norton’s. Having them around stealing the limelight allows me the flexibility to conduct my affairs in secret.”

     “So why are we here then? I guess not to admire the view?” I retorted.

    “Because Emerald Norton is the only one with any information regarding Mr White’s identity. There is some sort of unspoken history between them, a bond which gives Emerald immunity from him, and vice versa. But Emerald must be made to divulge his true identity. If we learn who Mr White is, then we know who we are fighting and we can find some leverage against him.”

   “What’s stopping you?” I asked. “Surely someone as connected and powerful as you claim to be can obtain this information yourself?”

   Suddenly, for the first time, the woman lost her composure. An expression of regret flashed across her face, before she gave a sigh and answered, “I am sorry to say I have already tried.”

   She then took hold of an envelope which had been on the seat beside her and handed it over. I hesitated for a moment, but realising this was the reason I was here, I opened it. I pulled out a photo of two women stood side by side, one with shortish chestnut coloured hair and a younger woman with long blonde hair. But the first thing which stood out to me were the multiple strips of tape plastered over their lips, and strong brown coloured ropes wound about their shoulders and waists. Both had defiant expressions on their faces, and they clearly were not amused by their plight.

   With this picture was a small piece of card, on which was written in impeccably neat handwriting, “Dear Madame. Look who I caught scurrying around my house going through my personal files. If you want them released then you will donate ten million pounds to the Norton’s and swear allegiance to our cause. Hugs and kisses. Emerald Norton.”

   As I examined the photograph the mysterious woman said, “You may find this hard to believe Sara, but I care very deeply for those who show me loyalty. I cannot abandon my associates in the picture, but I cannot give in to Emerald’s demands. Doing so would jeopardise my entire business. But this is where you come in. You are going to sneak into Slatewood Manor and rescue my associates.”

   …Well that had to be some kind of joke. Surely there was no way she thought I could ever do something so monumentally stupid. I echoed my thoughts by saying in a tone of utmost disbelief, “Why the hell would I do that?”

   “To save the lady who rescued your friends Harriet and Eleanor from those kidnappers recently.” the woman replied with her eyebrow arched. “You do owe Lily for her brave rescue.”

    I looked again at the photo and realised that the captive blonde girl did match the description of this ‘Lily.’ It didn’t change my mind however, and I remarked, “I doubt she was exactly visiting Emerald to collect charitable donations.”

   “Come now Sara. You have all the relevant experience for this task, and when have you ever been averse to a good old fashioned snoop around the properties of criminals and vagrants?”

    “Have you been reading my blog recently?”

    “But this is your chance to get even with Mr White and Emerald Norton,” she answered. “You should be honoured. I have an entire world of contacts at my disposal, but I have chosen you for this task to allow you a chance at revenge.”

    “I’m not interested in revenge!” I cried. “I don’t care what Emerald Norton or Mr White are getting up to. I just want to leave all this behind me. You’ve got the wrong girl here, and I won’t help you!”

    I rose to my feet, and took a couple of steps towards the exit. I didn’t care what would be waiting for me outside. I simply wanted to get out as fast as possible. But the woman had prepared for this eventuality, exclaiming loudly, “Is Rachel looking forward to going to Oxford?”

   I paused. Her tone was different: much more menacing. “What if she is?” I answered.

   “Well she’ll be very disappointed if this letter never made it through her letterbox tomorrow morning.”

   I whirled around and saw the woman now holding another envelope. This one was stamped with an Oxford Postmark and bore Rachel’s home address. I knew instantly that, somehow, she had got hold of Rachel’s letter confirming her place at Oxford University. “You can’t do that,” I growled at her.

    “I assure you that I can,” she replied firmly. “Arranging it so that one girl doesn’t get a place at the university she has always dreamed of attending is child’s play for me. Let’s not forget Abigail wanting to study design and fashion down in London, or Harriet’s hopes of studying physiology at Manchester. What about your brother, or Kavita, or Eleanor, or James. I could have it so the entire Carrington Sixth Form College doesn’t get into their first choice university with just a couple of mouse clicks.”

    Damn it. She was deadly serious about this, and was willing to sabotage the future of me and my friends to get me to comply. But what she was asking me to do was simply nuts. “Let’s be clear about this,” I snapped in frustration. “You want me to effectively break in to a house owned by one of the country’s most notorious criminal family’s, headed up by a girl who has tried to kidnap and kill me, to rescue a couple of women who aren’t exactly innocent victims, on my own with no…”

    “Oh I didn’t say you’d be going in alone,” the woman interrupted cryptically. She then reached for her expensive looking mobile phone and called up one of her subordinates. “Jasmine darling, would you be so kind as to bring in our other guest?”

   “At once Madame!” I heard this Jasmine answer. We waited in silence for a minute or so, before I heard a set of energetic but muffled squeals from outside. Suddenly the main door was flung open, and in was bundled a girl my age with shoulder length blonde hair held back by a black headband, a very freckly face, and wearing skinny dark jeans, black ankle boots and a purple long sleeved top. Ropes had been wound about her upper body and were binding her wrists behind her back, and a white cleave gag was muffling her speech.

    “Thought she might be able to provide some assistance to you Sara,” the woman remarked smugly.

     “You have got to be kidding me,” I breathed in disbelief.

     Yyyynn hhhvv gggttt ttt bbb kkkdddnnn mmmmgg!” Vicky Masterson snarled through her gag.

    “Do you agree that my stylists have quite the talent?” Madame asked me as I examined myself in the mirror of her bedroom (I’d decided to call this woman Madame because this was what her subordinates called her.)

      As I adjusted the wig which now covered my bunched up brown locks, I found myself agreeing with her. The wig consisted of shoulder length, dyed bright red hair with a straight fringe like Hayley Williams. I was also wearing a pair of thick black, yet fake, glasses, and had stuck a jewel stud to the left side of my nose, giving the impression that I’d had it pierced. Finally, a large amount of makeup had been applied to my face to tan me. I don’t exactly have a pasty complexion anyway, but it was a further change to my appearance which might make all the difference. I doubted I would be protected if Emerald or Smithe got a good, lingering look, but at a glance I would be unrecognisable.  

     My disguise was completed by the outfit I was wearing: A white blouse with a black neck tie, short black pencil skirt covered by a dark apron, dark tights and black flats. It completed the illusion that I was a member of a catering agency, not a girl detective who the hostess had tried to kidnap multiple times.

    Vicky adjusted her black necktie as she changed into an identical uniform to my own, her freckled nose wrinkling in displeasure. “Where the hell is my disguise?”

    “If I’m not mistaken you have never met Emerald Norton before, so she should not recognise you,” Madame pointed out. The she summoned her subordinate with a click of her fingers, at which the woman ran over with two forms of fake ID, a passport and driving licence. I analysed my picture, obviously stolen from my Facebook page and photoshopped to match my current appearance. My cover name was Patricia Pearce, a twenty one year old from Leeds. Vicky was now to be known as Josephine Smith, also from Leeds.

     “So this is the plan,” Madame instructed. “Tonight, Emerald Norton is hosting a party for high ranking gang members and some of their business partners. They have organised an external catering company to provide them with refreshments. We have provided you with a vehicle with which you can drive to the back gate of Slatewood Manor. They will be expecting you, and once you present them your ID they will let you in through the staff entrance. Once inside you will pose as catering staff, and find out as much as you can regarding the location of my captive associates. Any questions?”

Yeah, why am I here?” Vicky snapped. “Philips is the one who has serious issues with the criminal underworld, not me.”

    “You are here because you and Sara are the best girl sleuths in the business, regardless of your feelings for each other, and I only recruit the best,” Madame smiled. “Oh, and you are quite the dead ringer for the real Josephine Smith.”

     Only then did we realise this Madame hadn’t devised original identities for us. But what we didn’t realise was that very evening the real Patricia Pearce and Josephine Smith. They were recent recruits of this catering company, and this was supposed to be their first day on the job. But at that current moment they were being held prisoner in their student flat in Leeds by masked invaders, along with their other two housemates. They would spend that night in captivity until the invaders left them unharmed in the small hours. Quite the co-incidence right?

    I was far from convinced that this was going to work. “What happens if they find out who we are?”  

     “You won’t be completely unarmed. I have one last gift for you.” Madame then opened a drawer and handed me a small plastic case. I opened it and saw inside a medical needle, and a small bottle of what appeared to be insulin. “Patricia Pearce is highly diabetic,” she told me as I stuffed it in my apron pouch. “So security should have no issue with you taking in your medication. But that bottle actually contains chloroform, which you can use if you find yourself in a tight spot. Besides if you both stick together I’m sure you’ll be fine. Now I think it’s time you both got going, otherwise you’ll be late. Best of luck ladies.”

     We were directed out of the door by one of the girl subordinates. But before leaving I couldn’t resist one last snarky comment. “Do you have any issue at all with sending two teenagers into extreme danger?”

   But this Madame simply chortled at me and replied, “You could look at it that way Sara. Or you could look at it from the perspective that I have complete faith in your capabilities.”

   She said nothing after that, instead turning away from us with a swish of her long dark hair and immersing herself in some paperwork on her dresser. So I let myself be led outside to find Vicky already at the wheel of a dark blue hatchback. I got into the passenger seat and slammed the door angrily. As Vicky turned the ignition one of the subordinates, the same dark haired woman who had grabbed me back in Carrington, knocked on the window indicating we should wind it down. “Madame has placed a lot of faith in you two. Do not let her down,” she said through the open window.

    “Why should we care about letting down a woman who kidnapped us off the street, and who doesn’t care about placing us in serious danger?” Vicky barked.

    The woman was momentarily silent, before answering, “I can assure you girls that if you find yourself in danger, Madame will do everything in her power to help you. And that is the best form of protection available to anyone.” With that she stepped aside to let us drive off.

    Night was falling fast, and I could barely see from one side of the moor to the other as the dark enveloped the hilltops. Vicky and I sat in awkward silence as she steered capably around the winding mountain road. I made tiny adjustments to my wig to take my mind off of my concerns, hoping it would be enough to conceal my true identity. The windscreen began to steam up from our nervous, deep breaths. It was as Vicky turned on the heater to clear the glass that she said, “I thought you’d quit Philips.”

    “You think I’m doing this for fun?” I retorted angrily.

    Vicky gave a shrug and grunted, “It’s never stopped you before. Placing yourself in ridiculous dangers without adequate preparation. Confronting dangerous men and women with no thought…”

    “For God’s sake, do we really have to do this right now?” I barked, resting my head on the window so as not to look at her.

     After a few moments of silence Vicky added, “I don’t get you Philips. You’ve been stubbornly devoted to being a girl detective since we were kids. You’ve never let anything get in the way of it before. I’ve certainly never been able to stop you. But now you’ve magically decided to quit just because it cost you your relationship with Matthew.”

    “Shut up Vicky, you have no idea what that felt like!” I roared, staring at her feeling like sparks could fly from my eyes.

    “Actually, I do. Seems you’ve forgotten that Matthew dumped me out of the blue so he could come chasing after you. You have any idea how much that hurt? But you know what Philips? Thousands of people break up every single day, and very few of them give up on their dreams because of a failed romance. And if you want to pack in the thing that makes you happiest because of one break-up, then you’re even more pig headed than I thought.”

    I should have been furious at her. But instead, with an uncomfortable knot forming in my stomach, I realised she had a point.

    God when Vicky Masterson starts making sense you know you’ve screwed up.

   The road turned sharply to the left across the moor, and we could see the bright lights of Slatewood Manor glinting at us through the gloom. As we drove closer and closer Vicky, out of the blue, looked at me and said, “And Philips, I want you to know that…what Mr White did was beyond horrible…and I’m sorry that you and Matthew split up.”

   That, ladies and gentlemen, was the most bizarre thing I had heard that entire day. What’s more, I could tell from Vicky’s sombre expression that she meant it.

    I took a deep breath and said, “Look, whatever has gone on between us, none of that matters right now. We’re about to put ourselves in a really dangerous position, and we’re going to have to work together. So…truce?”

    As we drove through the huge, iron gates leading onto the rear driveway of Slatewood Manor, Vicky shot me something which looked suspiciously like a smirk. “Truce. Now, let’s gatecrash this Emerald bimbo’s party, shall we?”


  Slatewood Manor was an impressive building. Even the staff entrance which Vicky and I passed through was bigger than my front door. The kitchen was massive, with arched, stone walls and a red tiled floor. Countless chefs ran to and fro as they prepared the canapés, loudly barking orders to each other. We and the other catering staff were greeted by a dumpy woman called Margaret Tweed, a right battleaxe who pompously boasted about the history of Slatewood Manor (she conveniently omitted any mention of its owner’s business activities). But she outlined our roles for that evening: to circle the room offering canapés and champagne top ups, while picking up any plates and glasses to be washed up. And on no account were we to go into any room other than the main entrance hall and kitchen.

    I decided to pretend I hadn’t heard that bit.

    Vicky and I stayed close, each of us collecting a platter of smoked salmon slices on toast, before entering the already packed entrance hall. Filled with men in black tie dress and glamorous women in expensive frocks, they talked animatedly in drawling, posh voices as Vicky and I fought our way through the crowds. They plucked canapés from our trays without so much as acknowledging our presence. I guess chatting with staff was below these toffee nosed twats. Blimey, Rachel’s beginning to rub off on me.

   Vicky sidled up to me before hissing, “Seen her yet?”

   So far I had not caught sight of Emerald or her hulking butler/guardian/bodyguard Smithe. As for the other party goers I recognised no-one. I wondered how many were actual members of the Nortons, or just their esteemed guests. As I sidled past a portly man in a military uniform I found my path blocked by a dark haired lady wearing a little black dress with a single shoulder strap, dark tights and black high heels. “Ooh, smoked salmon. Don’t mind if I do,” she remarked as she helped herself. She smacked her lips afterwards before telling me, “That was delicious. Make sure you keep bringing them over dear. I’m starving.”

   I thought nothing of her comment. Instead as I turned around to return for another platter I spotted a bright head of strawberry blonde hair. I felt my insides freeze over; it was the exact same shade and length as Emerald’s. But I noticed that she was wearing a deep blue party dress, and Emerald would never wear blue. Then she turned, and I saw that this woman was older, in her late forties I’d guess, but still very beautiful. But her resemblance to Emerald was uncanny.

   There was no doubt about it. This woman was Emerald’s mother, and the widow of Nathan Norton.

   She saw me passing by with, and beckoned me over with a flick of her wrist. At first I experienced a gnawing sense of unease as I trooped over, wondering if she’d somehow recognised me. But my fear was misplaced. All she wanted was to sample the canapés.

    “Mmm gorgeous,” she said after taking a bite. “Tell Cyril in the kitchen e’s outdone himself this time.”

      “Er, I will,” I answered as she helped herself to the last piece.

     “Oh you are a dear,” she smiled at me. “Please don’t let me keep you!”

     As I walked away from her I felt slightly stunned. I’d never anticipated that Emerald’s mother might be…nice. And yet, as I looked back through the crowd, she seemed to be doing her very best to disguise how upset she actually was. I noticed how she was standing apart from all the other guests, and they were barely talking to her.

    I returned to the kitchen and passed on her message to Cyril, the head chef. “Aw Ruby’s a sweetheart. Here, take this extra-large goat’s cheese tartlet to her on me,” he instructed cheerfully.

     As I exited the kitchen pondering through this strange encounter with the mother of one of my arch enemies Vicky re-appeared at my side. In a hushed voice she whispered into my ear, “I just overheard that Tweed woman give another caterer a hard time for accidentally going down the corridor to the billiard room. Almost like there’s something down there they don’t want people knowing about, right?”

   I didn’t get a chance to answer as suddenly at the top of the stairs appeared a man I was all too familiar with: about six foot seven, completely bald with dark eyes and with an incredibly posh accent. Smithe! I found myself tugging on my wig as if trying to conceal my face, but he was busy getting the attention of the guests.

    “Ahem, Ladies and Gentlemen! Allow me to introduce to you the hostess of the evening’s proceedings. Miss Emerald Norton!” Smithe then wheeled away as at the top of the sweeping staircase appeared one of the most influential, and dangerous, nineteen year olds in the country.

    Emerald Norton was wearing an (you guessed it) emerald coloured strapless ballgown which hugged her slim figure to perfection, the hem reaching the green suede ankle strap high heels on her feet. She wore long green opera gloves reaching past her elbows, and a sparkling necklace of five large emeralds encased in silver (yes she is that predictable). Her long strawberry blonde hair was crafted into an elegant bun.

    She gave a broad smile and waved at her guests as they all applauded. It was the sort of smile of someone faking humility but secret loving all the attention. “Thank you all,” she drawled in the insufferable accent of spoilt posh brat. “Welcome to my humble abode for this evenings soirée. Please, help yourself to as much food and drink as you desire. I look forward to discussing future business arrangements with you all as the evening goes on. So enjoy, enjoy!” Her brief speech drew another round of applause. But one thing caught my eye. Emerald’s mother wasn’t among those applauding.

   I didn’t have time to dwell on this, because not only did I have to get out the way of Emerald as she descended the stairs to join her guests, but also because Vicky grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me to one side to outline her plan. “OK, I’m going to snoop around that ‘forbidden corridor.’ If anyone asks where I am, cover for me.”

     I was far from convinced by her plan. “I still think we should stick together.”

    “We’ll attract far more attention if we both disappear. Seriously, have you ever considered the reason you and your gang are always getting captured is because you travel as a pack?”

    “You considered the reason you always getting captured is you work alone?” I retorted.

    Vicky responded by wrinkling her nose at me, before retorting, “Just keep an eye open Philips.” Then she spun around and made for the corridor. I intended to follow, but I was called over by the lady in the black dress for more canapés, and by the time I’d delivered her a platter of goats cheese tartlets Vicky had disappeared from sight.

    As I continued serving all of Emerald’s mates, Vicky managed sneak onto the deserted back corridor. At first glance she saw nothing out of the ordinary. The bright red carpets matched with the oak panelled walls perfectly. The oil paintings were expertly hung without one out of place. Even the old fashioned suits of armour were welded firmly in position. Vicky scoured every inch of the corridor nonetheless, determined to find something, anything, which would yield a clue.

   Suddenly, out the corner of her eye, she spotted something. Scuff marks in the carpet by a glass cabinet containing books. It resembled scuff marks left by a door scraping over the fabric. But there was no door in sight. Intrigued, Vicky moved to the glass cabinet and started running her hands over it. It was well polished and immaculately tidy, with no book out of place. But as she tried jiggling it forward she found that the entire cabinet was bolted to the wall. Her interest piqued, Vicky turned her attention to the lamp atop the cabinet, and she decided to flick it on to give her more light. But doing so gave her the shock of her life.

   The instant her fingers flicked the switch there was the sound of mechanical whirring from within the wall. Vicky stepped back in astonishment as suddenly an entire panel of the oak panelled walls, with the cabinet still attached, swung outwards into the corridor, brushing the bright red carpet. This secret doorway now revealed a stone staircase leading into the basement. Vicky hesitated for a moment. She wondered whether she should go fetch me for us to investigate together, but decided against it. There were no guarantees we would get another chance to investigate this. After checking the coast was clear, she took a deep breath and stepped through.

    It was pitch black on the staircase, and Vicky had to wait a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. The stairs went on for a surprisingly long time, and she moved steadily. But as she neared the bottom she was greeted by the dim glow of old fashioned gaslamps, illuminating a basement with thick wood beams, numerous wine racks and cobwebbed wooden furniture.

   But these were not the only things stashed away down here, and Vicky was made aware of their presence when a series of gentle, “Mmmmpphhss” were directed at her.

   Vicky gave an excited gasp when she saw the two captives we’d been sent in to locate. Closest was the lady in her mid-thirties with short cut black hair, wearing a grey long sleeved top, black leather skirt, dark stockings and black, leather, knee high boots. Just beyond her was the woman in her twenties with long blonde hair, wearing a black trouser suit over a blue blouse and black high heeled pumps. Emerald had also provided their outfits with extra accessories in the form of grey duct tape over their mouths and brown ropes about their bodies.

   Both prisoners were propped against separate wooden beams. Their hands had been bound together and affixed to metal rungs so their hands were held above their heads. Ropes enveloped their upper bodies keeping their backs pressed against the wood. They were sitting on the cold stone floor with ropes wound about their knees, ankles and underneath their high heels. Extra ropes were attached to their ankle bonds and fixed around the support beam, forcing them to sit at an angle with their knees jutting out.

   Upon seeing a young waitress walking down the staircase both women began to frantically strain against their bonds. The blonde haired captive rattled the metal rung as the dark haired woman said to Vicky through her gag, “Llllkkk tttt. Ssss bbbnnnddd yyymmm!”

   Vicky ignored her muffled protestations and darted over to them. Ssssh. It’s OK. I’ve been sent here to rescue you!”

   But even as Vicky said those words she noticed how frantic these women looked. How their eyes were staring at a point just over Vicky’s shoulder. As if there was someone directly behind her.

    Sure enough, before Vicky could get out the way a hand clamped over her mouth and another arm wrapped around her waist. She squealed in astonishment as she was picked up and hauled away from the other captives. As she struggled against his grip, with her blonde hair whipping about her frantically, a menacing voice whispered in her ear, “I don’t think you’re going to be doing much rescuing tonight sweetheart.”

   Emerald lifted up the hem of her green dress as she descended into the basement. As the sound of her high heels echoed off the stone walls she gave an indignant tut. “You’d better have a good reason for bringing me down here Stan!” she shouted.

   The man with greying, slipped back hair with teeth stained from cigar tobacco turned to face the young heiress and answered. “Oh I think this young lady is worth your time. What do you think blondie?”

   Vicky didn’t give the man the satisfaction of a reply, though with the rag stuffed in her mouth and grey tape slapped over her lips it would have been difficult anyway. She instead gave a defiant jiggle against the ropes binding her wrists to the armrests of the chair she had been forced into. Extra ropes were wound about her waist and lap to keep her body pressed into the seats, more were encircled her knees and ankles, and her feet were bound to the chair’s crosspiece.

    Emerald didn’t seem all that impressed with her subordinates catch. “Any reason you’ve taken to kidnapping the catering staff?” she snorted.

     “She found her way down here, and was about to untie these ladies when I caught her,” replied Stan, giving a satisfied smirk in the direction of the wriggling women tied to the pillars. “She said she’d been sent to rescue them.”

    That soured Emerald’s mood even further. She strode forward and ripped the tape from Vicky’s lips. As Vicky winced from the pain while trying to spit out the rag Emerald snarled, “OK then you meddling bimbo, what do you have to say for yourself?”

  Vicky took in a couple of deep breaths, before her lips curled into a smirk of her own. “Does this mean I won’t get paid?”

    “Don’t get smart with me missy,” Emerald warned. “You’re in real trouble here.”

    “Clearly,” Vicky retorted. “I doubt there are many teenagers holding a pair of ladies prisoner in their basement.”

    “Did Madame send you in?”

      But Vicky wasn’t going along with Emerald’s scheme. “Haven’t you got a party to host, instead of asking me stupid questions?”

    Emerald’s expression stretched into a sneer, then before Vicky could react she shoved the rag back into her mouth. “Let this snooty mare stew in her own juices for a while,” Emerald instructed as she reapplied the tape gag.

     “You sure you don’t want me to extract more information out of her?” her yellow toothed subordinate asked, his eyes glistening with intent.

    “Leave her for now Uncle Stan, we’ve got bigger issues to deal,” Emerald’s words intrigued not just Vicky, but the two other captive women. Uncle Stan? Was this yellow toothed man not some lowly subordinate after all, but a family member of the Nortons?

   They didn’t get a definite answer, as Stan looked to the three writhing, struggling women one last time and remarked, “Be seeing you three later. Count on it.” Then he followed Emerald upstairs, and when he reached the corridor he flicked the switch, sealing the three bound and gagged prisoners behind the concealed doorway.

    Emerald turned to her uncle when she was sure they were alone, “If Madame managed to sneak that freckly cow in then we can’t take any chances. Investigate the staff and check for irregularities. If there’s anyone else she’s sent in here I want them found.”

   Uncle Stan nodded. “And what will you do?”

   “I’m going to tell Madame that the ransom for her friends has tripled. If she thinks that she can outsmart the Norton’s then she’s more arrogant then I first thought.”

   How did I know of their conversation? Because I was hiding just down the corridor, crouching behind a suit of armour. When Vicky had failed to return I had set my canapé serving duties aside and gone off to find her. Having heard Emerald reference a freckly cow I quickly assumed that she’d taken Vicky captive.

     The situation had changed dramatically. Now I had Vicky to rescue too, and without getting myself caught. It seemed like an almost impossible task. But wrestling my nerves under control I crept out from behind my shelter. Both Emerald and her uncle were in deep conversation, and failed to notice the girl with bright red hair following them.

   I was hatching a plan. A mad plan. A truly ludicrous idea. Going back in and trying to rescue Vicky straight away would in all likelihood end up with me getting nabbed as well, and I was in no mood for that to happen tonight. What I needed was a diversion, something to turn everyone’s attention away from the three prisoners in the basement.

    What I needed was to take Emerald out of the equation.

    Soon they arrived at another flight of stairs, smaller than the elegant staircase in the entrance hall. I hung back as they ascended, listening to them talk in raised voices. “I’m going to contact that Madame and tell her of the new ransom demands. You go back to the party and keep my guests entertained. Then when the party is over we’ll find out just what that alleged caterer knows.”

    I listened to the sound of a door slamming shut, and heard heavy footsteps on the floor above as Uncle Stan returned to entertain the guests. I couldn’t believe my luck. Had Emerald really just left herself completely unguarded? Hardly daring to believe I slowly moved upstairs, and indeed discovered the corridor was deserted. Straight ahead of me was an oak doorway, presumably the one Emerald had just gone through.

   Realising I would never get a better opportunity than this, I pulled out the case Madame had given me and a cleaning rag I’d grabbed from the kitchen from my apron pouch. I took the little bottle which was supposed to contain insulin, unscrewed the top and gave the rag a good dousing. I caught a whiff of a sickly sweet smelling liquid, which I recognised all too well. Then, without taking a moment to rethink my decision, I turned the door handle.

   Emerald’s bedroom was the size of mine, my brother’s and my parent’s put together, with Kashmir rugs over the bare floorboards, a huge HDTV and a walk in wardrobe. At the centre was a huge four poster bed with a plush green duvet and velvet drapes. And perched on the edge was Emerald herself, an electronic tablet which she was tapping on intently. She didn’t notice me until I shut the door with an audible clunk. “What the hell!” she barked, thinking I was just a part of the catering staff. “You have some nerve coming in here! Who the hell do you think you are?”

You know me Emerald. I’m just a girl who can’t resist sticking her nose into other people’s business,” I retorted, anticipation freezing my insides.

    I could tell she recognised my voice, but with my new hairdo and glasses Emerald couldn’t quite place me. Then, I could see the realisation sweep across her face as her hazel eyes stared into mine. “…Philips…” she breathed in astonishment, the colour seeming to drain from her face. “Oh my God how the hell did yoummmmggggg!”

    Before she could say another word I dashed forward, tackled Emerald to her bed, and with my knees pressing on her waist to pin her into the duvet I shoved the chloroform soaked rag over her mouth and nose. Boy did she put up a hell of a fight. I grunted and groaned as I fought to keep the rag in position, even as Emerald bucked and twisted underneath me and clawed at my hands with her gloved fingertips. Emerald and I are very similar with regards to strength, physique and size, but tonight I had the element of surprise coupled with the fact Emerald was wearing a constricting dress. It gave me the advantage as I managed to keep the wrestling Emerald underneath me.

    Eventually the fight began to drain out of the crime heiress.  I stared into her eyes as they rolled into their sockets. She then gave one defiant moan, before her eyelids fluttered to a close and she fell still underneath me. ‘Serves you right bitch,’ I remember thinking as she drifted into a chloroform induced sleep.

     I didn’t linger for long. All this effort would be for nothing if Emerald woke up in ten minutes and raised the alarm. I looked about her bedroom for inspiration, and when I clapped my eyes on her walk in wardrobe and large chest of drawers, I knew just what I could do with her.

   I started rifling through her drawers, shifting through tanktops, T-shirts and skirts (all coloured green), until I came across a drawer full of nylons (again all coloured green. Noticing a theme here?) I grabbed a handful and then darted back to the unconscious Emerald. Shifting her inert form so she was lying on her front, I then pulled her hands behind her back and crossed them over. I hesitated, trying to recall the binding technique which had been used on me countless times.

   First I pulled off Emerald’s opera gloves; I wanted to leave her as little slack as possible. I then wrapped the tights around her wrists, fed the ends through a loop, made as many circuits as the stretchy material would allow, then fed the tights between her wrists to cinch the bonds before knotting them. I decided to repeat the process on her wrists with another pair. I wasn’t taking any chances.

    I bound her ankles together with another two pairs of nylons, pulled back her dress to bind her knees together, and I wound another couple about her waist to pin her arms into her body. I felt overwhelmingly nervous as I worked, sure at any moment Smithe would be burst through the door. But as it was I was left to bind my captive in peace.

   My captive…wow it’s weird for me to be using that word.

   When I was certain Emerald was snugly bound I then picked her up under the arms and dragged her inert form to the walk in wardrobe. This is a lot harder than movies indicate I’ll have you know. As I plonked her underneath her rack of party dresses she gave a soft moan, and realised she was coming around. Knowing she needed to be kept quiet, I saw her gloves lying on her bed. I grabbed them, balled one up and I shoved it into her mouth. I then wound the other around her head as a cleave gag.

  It was as I was knotting this gag behind her head that Emerald’s eyes fluttered open.

   At first she looked about groggily. When she realised that she couldn’t move, and why she couldn’t, her eyes opened incredibly wide and her nostrils started flaring as she began struggling against her improvised bonds. When she saw the person kneeling over her responsible for her predicament, her furious struggles only increased.

   And, can I tell you, seeing her all tied up and helpless after everything she’d done to me was immensely satisfying. I could barely control my grin as I said, “Not so fun when it happens to you right?”

   “LLLTTTT MMMMGGG GGGMMM NNNNMMM YYYYWWWWMMM BBBBCCCHHH!” Emerald cried at me as much as her gag would allow.

   I saw her writhing and twisting, her face flushing red from her fury and her exertions. And before I knew it I was laughing. “You’ve had this coming to you for a long time,” I giggled. “You going to give me some pompous speech about being cleverer than me in every way? Not looking all that smart right now though.”

   “SSSSCCCRRR YYYYMMMM FFFLLLPPPSSS!” Emerald roared, trying to kick me with the point of her high heels, but I easily dodged her attack. All she could do was moan and stare as I grabbed her phone from her bedside table. “LLLLLLVVV TTHHHTT LLLNNN!” roared Emerald, angrily stamping the floor as I found her contacts list. I quickly came across the number for Smithe, and typed in the following message. ‘I contacted Madame, and she’s agreed to pay up. Get to the car and drive off. I’ll send you directions when she confirms the drop off point.’ Once I finished my message I couldn’t resist showing it to Emerald, who read it wide eyed before increasing her wriggling activity, desperate to stop me.

    But feeling truly smug I hit send, before remarking, “Well if you’re stupid enough to not passcode protect your phone, who’s to stop someone like me accessing your contacts? Anyway, as much as I’d love to stick around and torment you a bit more, I’ll be off to your basement to rescue Vicky and others. Sorry for gatecrashing your party, but it can’t hurt to have an early night now and then.”

   Emerald angrily wriggled on the spot and cried, “YYYYY WWWNNNTTT GGGGTT WWWWWWNNN FFFLLLPPSSS!” as her strawberry blonde hair tumbled out of its bun. But I gave the furious girl a sarcastic wave goodbye before I slammed the door. I could hear her squealing repeatedly in anger and bouncing about on the spot as I propped a chair against the handle.

     I knew my plan wouldn’t give me unlimited time. Someone would notice Emerald was missing, and her bonds wouldn’t hold her forever. Moving as swiftly as I dared I exited the bedroom and returned to the downstairs corridor. I could hear the party was still in full swing, so security would still be occupied. Once again I encountered no-one as I flicked the concealed switch in the lampshade. The secret doorway swung open like before, giving me access to the darkened basement.

    Vicky hadn’t made much headway since the door had last been opened. Her bonds remained tightly fixed and all she’d accomplished was to scrape her chair a few inches forward. But when she saw me descend the stairs she gave an excitable cry through her tapegag, waggling her fingers and feet expectantly.

    “Don’t I usually make some smart comment about how stupid you’ve been for getting caught at this point?” I asked as I peeled away her gag.

    “Time and a place Philips,” Vicky grunted while I hastily untied her right hand. As we both worked together to remove her remaining bonds the other two captive women watched keenly, hoping that this time we would be getting escaping before we were discovered.

    We weren’t. I’d just pulled a liberated Vicky to her feet when the sound of high heels clicking off the stone stairs reverberated through the basement. We froze, my gut instinct telling me it was Emerald after freeing herself. But our visitor was not the Norton I expected. Instead we found ourselves staring into the piercing eyes of Ruby Norton, her mother.

  But instead of calling for security, the strawberry blonde haired woman stared straight at me and said, “You should have at least turned off the security cameras Sara. You’re just lucky it was me watching you in the security wing.” So she knew who I was. Yet what she said next left us all stunned. “We’d best hurry. I turned the cameras off but it won’t be long until either Smithe or my brother Stan realise what’s really going on.” With that she knelt down beside the dark haired woman, and started untying the knots binding her hands above her head.

    Vicky, the two captives and I were equally astonished. “Wait, you’re helping us escape?” Vicky gasped.

    “We don’t have time to chat,” Ruby Norton ordered.

    When I got my amazement back under control I nodded, and knelt down to peel away the blonde captive’s tapegag while Vicky worked on untying her hands. Once her mouth was liberated the blonde woman said to me, “I was wondering who Madame would send to rescue us. I wasn’t expecting it to be the famous Sara Philips.”

   “Consider it repayment for you rescuing Harriet and Eleanor…Lily,” I answered, using her real name.

   Lily rubbed her wrists after Vicky freed them, and said, “Well thank you for returning the favour.” Then looking over at her colleague she asked, “How are you doing Penelope?”

    “I’ve had worse,” The dark haired Penelope replied as she worked with Ruby to untie her feet. “But I’m struggling to think of another mission which has been quite this bizarre.”

     But the evening took one more bizarre twist. We were helping Penelope and Lily to their feet when Ruby announced, “Wait, you have to tie me up and make it look like I was overpowered, otherwise suspicion will fall onto me. I’ve opened the main gate for you, so you should be able to drive straight through.”

   The four of us hesitated as she sat down in the chair which Vicky had been tied to. I felt bad about just leaving her down here when it was clear, from her expression, that she would rather be anywhere than Slatewood manor. “You could escape with us you know,” I told her.

   “Madame could provide you with the best protection available,” Penelope seconded.

    But Ruby shook her head. “This is my home, and my family. I cannot just abandon them…”

    I could tell that her mind was made up. Swallowing a lump in my throat I stepped forward, but Lily’s hand on my shoulder stopped me. “We’ll take care of this. Penelope and I can tie her up effectively but keep her comfortable.” And so Vicky and I watched as the two women bound Ruby to the chair, hands to the armrests and her feet affixed to the crosspiece.

    As Lily wound ropes around the blue silk of her party dress to further weld her into the seat Ruby looked straight at me and said sorrowfully, “Sara, I want you to know how sorry I am, for how my family constantly torment you and those you love. Believe me, I never wished harm on any of you.”

    Feeling an almost overwhelming wave of sympathy for her I said, “None of that is your fault.”

    Ruby simply sighed and answered, “Oh Sara, if you knew of my past mistakes and learned what secrets I can never impart, I doubt you’d be so forgiving.”

    With her now bound effectively to the chair, Penelope peeled off several strips of tape, and as she smoothed them down over Ruby’s lips she told her, “Madame will remember this.” Ruby simply nodded at us, and then bowed her head.

    Now it was really time for us to go. I led the way up the staircase, Vicky, Lily and Penelope following right behind. Once we were all out Vicky flipped the concealed switch. I gave one last sorrowful look at Ruby before the secret door closed, concealing here from view. Then I looked to the others and said, “We need to get back to our car, it’s this way!”

   But as we rounded a corner leading to the staff entrance somebody grabbed hold of my fake hair. “Got you!” a familiar voice snarled, but he didn’t expect to lift the hair clean off my head, allowing me to dart away, backing into Vicky, Lily and Penelope to stop them running into him.

   Smithe realised he was only carrying a red coloured wig, and threw it to the floor in disgust. “Philips!” he roared, recognising me now my hair had reverted to its normal brown colour. “I should have known you’d have something to do with that silly message. Tell me what you’ve done to Emerald or I’ll tie you up so tight that it’ll take you weeks to feel your hands aggggggnAAARRRRGGGHH!”

    Smithe’s threat was cut off by the sound of an electronic buzzing, after which his body started to convulse violently. He cried out in pain as his face flushed red, then he dropped to the floor and sank into unconsciousness. Only then did we see the needles of a long distance electronic Taser embedded into his jacket. The shooter was the dark haired woman in the black dress who had been constantly badgering me for canapés earlier. “I was about to say just how shocking this party has been,” she joked as we ran to join her.

    “Nice of you to show up Dominique,” Penelope said to our rescuer, evidently knowing who she was.

     “Wait, you work for this Madame too?” I asked.

     This Dominique’s smile broadened and she said, “You honestly thought Madame was going to send you in without any back-up? My car is just down this corridor. Hurry!”

   So with Dominque leading the way the five of us tore through Slatewood Manor, eventually throwing open a door, bringing us to the rear driveway where the guests cars were parked. Dominque directed us to a jet black 4X4. As I clasped my hand on the door I heard a woman hollering at us. Vicky and I looked over to see Mrs Tweed standing in the doorway, incandescent with rage. “Get back here you two. You don’t finish until midnight!” she bellowed.

    Vicky gave me a smirk as she yelled in reply, “Sorry, we quit!”

     I barely had time to put on my seatbelt before the car surged forward, the wheels spinning against the yellow tinted stones of the driveway, Dominique driving much faster than would be recommended within the grounds of a Victorian manor house. The main gates were open as Ruby had told us, but blocking our path were four members of security, waving to slow us down. Dominique however increased speed, saying, “I hope these guys aren’t interested in playing a game of chicken.”

    The guards evidently weren’t, and they scurried out of the way as the 4X4 screamed past. Soon we had passed through the main gates and slid onto the tarmacked road. I looked through the rear window and saw the security guards talking animatedly into walkie talkies, but they weren’t pursuing us. As they grew more and more distant I suddenly recognised Emerald’s Uncle Stan stood in the middle of the road, looking utterly furious but knowing full well he wouldn’t catch us now.

   I found myself looking at Vicky as we started laughing in relief. We’d done it. Against all the odds we’d done it.

   And hell did it feel good.

    “I do believe this calls for a celebratory drink,” Madame announced as she poured the frothing, bubbly drink, as her mobile home wound its way along the mountain road. “An excellent vintage this champagne. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion, and the safe return of you all absolutely counts as one.”

    Vicky and I had changed back into our own clothes, and I was gasping for something strong to drink. After she handed Vicky a glass I did something I thought I’d never do. I chinked glasses with her and said, “Cheers.”

    We both took a hearty gulp of champagne, after which Vicky raised her eyebrow at me and said, “You do know going after Emerald and tying her up, before sending that text blindly hoping it would distract everyone while you came to our rescue, was a seriously reckless and idiotic plan even by your standards.”

    “Worked though,” I pointed out before taking another sip.

   Suddenly looking quite downcast Vicky said, “Yeah it did. You were certainly a lot more useful today then I was…thank you for rescuing me.”

    “Well you did the same for me once,” I pointed out, which seemed to cheer Vicky up a little.

    “She’s not the only one who has to say thank you,” remarked Penelope, from where she was sat on the opposing lounger being checked over for injuries by Dominque, Lily perched beside her. “There aren’t many people who would have the courage to do what you both did tonight.”

    “Yeah, you were both amazing,” Lily seconded.

    “You did good girls,” said Dominique, before adding cheekily, “Though let’s not forget who tasered the bodyguard and drove the getaway vehicle, right?”

      I looked to the Madame as she handed out more champagne to her reunited colleagues, and asked, “If you had Dominique in there all along why did you send Vicky and I in?”

   The Madame smiled knowingly before answering in her buttery smooth voice, “I’ve always prided myself on my ability to appreciate talent. You are both remarkable young women, as are your many friends in Carrington and beyond. You’ve encountered the China Dolls, the Gentleman Robbers and myself now, and all of us can attest to your courage and determination. I felt that, after your recent trials, for you to throw away such promising talent would have been a terrible shame.”

    “So…this was all about getting me back into the game?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

    “I merely felt that all you needed to rekindle your love of sleuthing was…a little push in the right direction.”

    “We didn’t find out anything about Mr White though,” Vicky pointed out.

     “True,” Madame answered. “But he will undoubtedly hear of tonight’s events, and will know that we are on to him. While this will probably only antagonise him it will hopefully drive him into the open; then we can find out his secret once and for all. But know this. Whatever he is planning, whatever happens from now on, you have allies.”

       She was right. I did have allies. Three allies in particular who I had acted like a complete cow to. I stared at the ceiling as I said, “I owe Rach and the girls the biggest apology ever.”

     “You may want to rescue her beforehand. My sources tell me she, Abigail and Harriet have got themselves into a little bit of trouble down at the Herringford construction site.”

    It took me a few moments to realise what she was talking about, after which I sat bolt upright in shock. The case the girls had been talking about, investigating the supposedly crooked builders. “We have to get back. How long will it take?”

    “Three or four hours or so,” Madame answered.

     “It’s going to take us that long?” Vicky exclaimed.

    “Actually, it’ll take you that long to wake up from the drugs I slipped into your champagne,” Madame replied.

    Vicky and I looked at each other in alarm, then tried to get to our feet, only for the room to start spinning and the strength to leave our legs. We both helplessly flopped back into the seats, our bodies numb and eyelids heavy. Madame stood over us, as if to ensure we drifted off without a hitch. “We’ll leave you somewhere close to your friends, so you can leap to their rescue straight away.”

   “Oh that’s just…thanks…” I murmured, my speech already slurred.  

    As I felt my head flop against Vicky’s, Madame said to me, “It was a pleasure meeting you in person Sara. Should you ever decide to try your hand at something a little more… morally ambiguous, then you would be more than welcome to join me. I could absolutely use someone as talented and courageous as you within my organisation.”

   I just had enough strength left to answer, “Think I’ll pass thanks…who knows…maybe one day we’ll meet again…and I can bring you to justice…”

   Before everything went dark I heard Madame laugh softly, “Oh Sara Philips my dear, I’d love to see you try.”

    “Sssss nnnyyyynnnn ttthhhhrrr?” Rachel moaned through the knotted cleave gag pulled between her teeth, shaking her head trying to remove the cloth blindfolding her as she picked at the ropes binding her hands behind the metal girder with her numbing fingers. She couldn’t move her body away from the support girder in the construction site she’d been investigating, with ropes wound about her body and legs keeping her in a standing position. She twisted her feet, stamping her ankle strap flat pumps against the cold floor, trying to keep warm.

   She could hear the night wind rattling the surrounding tarpaulin, in addition to the grunts and mewls of her fellow captives. Abigail was on her left, Harriet on her right, the three of them still dressed in the same clothes they’d worn in the café earlier, and the three of them bound to the metal girders, gagged and blindfolded identically, captured by builders having found out that the rumours of their corrupt smuggling operation were all too true.
   At first they’d been tied up as a temporary measure, while the builders figured out just what to do with them. But then they suddenly heard the sound of raised, panicked voices, like there was an almighty struggle on the building site. And then, they heard nothing, as if the builders had all disappeared.

   But, as Rachel began to shiver from the cold, it didn’t do her, Abigail or Harriet any good. They remained helplessly bound and abandoned. Rachel could do nothing but hope they would be found, and listen to the sound of Abigail’s high heels clopping on the concrete and of Harriet’s gagged swearing.

   But when she heard footsteps approaching her position fear suddenly pinpricked her heart. Was it the crooks? Had they come back to finish them off? She fought back the overwhelming despair growing inside of her as her blindfold was lifted away.

   “See what happens when I don’t tag along?” I grinned at her.

    “SSSRRRRR!” Rachel squealed in a mixture of relief and delight as she realised it was me. Abigail and Harriet made noises of happiness at the sound of my voice, even as Vicky made started untying Harriet from the girder. We’d woken up from our enforced slumber on a park bench no more than a couple minutes’ walk away from the construction site.

    After I yanked out her gag Rachel asked me, “What happened to the builders? Are they still about?”

    “Sure are, but they’re all unconscious and tied up themselves with zip ties,” Vicky informed her. “Looks like you three have a guardian angel,” she added, giving me a knowing look.

    Rachel let her raven hair flop against the girder in relief as I set to work trying to release her. As she watched me work she remarked, “I thought you weren’t interested in coming here. That nothing was going to change your mind.”

    I gave her a nonchalant shrug and then replied, “Let’s just say it’s been an interesting day.”

    “Does this mean Sara Philips is back?” Rachel asked as I freed her hands.

     Yep. It most certainly did mean Sara Philips was back.







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