As she walked into the restaurant, she had a quiet word with the gentlemen manning the front desk. He nodded as she spoke, and escorted her to a curtained off area at the rear of the busy floor. Taking her coat, he bowed as he held the curtain and allowed her to pass through. Seated at the table behind was a young girl in her twenties, who looked up and smiled as the new arrival took her seat.
"You received an invite as well," she said as she held her hand out over the table. "My name's Claire – what's yours?"
"Anna," the blonde haired woman said as she took a seat. She was wearing a white silk blouse and cream skirt, while Claire was wearing a black sweater dress. "So," Claire said as Anna sat down, "I take it you received an invite for the same reason I did?"
"Possibly," Anna said as she poured herself a glass of wine. "It was a few years ago, but it still sits clear in my memory. You?"
Claire just nodded. "I can still remember that Saturday morning – if the accident had not happened, my mother and I would not have returned home, and then we would never have met them."
"I remember reading the reports – it was about the same time I had my own little adventure. What was it like actually at the time?"
Claire took a sip from her own glass. "Do you know, looking back I should have been terrified, but it all seemed so surreal at the time. The two men were gentle, kind but still tied both of us up so well we had no chance of getting free. The really surprising thing was hearing my mother tell me this was not the first time this had happened to her."
"Will she be joining us?"
"No – she wants to try and forget that day. At any rate, when she told me what had happened a few years before, I realised this was like a walk in the park to her. Anyway, after an hour we were left there, me with my wrists secured in front of me and my mother with them tied behind her back, gagged and unable to find a way to get each other loose. Oh we tried – when the police finally arrived, my mother was lying on my lap as I tried to pull the scarf out of her mouth so that she could undo the knot with my teeth."
"So they kept their word?"
"Oh yes – but it didn't hit me until much later just what had happened."
Anna nodded. "Yeah – I can understand that. In my case I had to get a friend of ours to pull the gag out of my mouth, before I could do the same to my sister and then get us all to help free each other."
"Where was this?"
"Nottingham – we were visited by the China Doll Gang. Have you heard of them?"
"Oh yes," Claire said as the curtain was lifted back and a third woman joined them. "Hi," she said as the waiter took her coat and she ran her fingers through her dark hair, "My name's Janet. I got this invitation and..."
"Don't worry, Janet," Claire said the new arrival sat down, "I think we all came for the same reason. Anna and I were just talking about our experiences – why don't you share yours?"
"I don't like thinking about that particular day – but talking about it helped before, so why not? It was about ten years ago, when I was living at home with my mother and sister. She had to go into the shop that she ran, for what she thought was going to be a tax audit later in the week. As it was, the whole thing was a set-up, planned by a very clever woman."
"Oh god – Cotton's Jewellery? Your mother was Dorothy Cotton?"
Janet nodded. "I see you've read about it as well. Yeah, that was us – held hostage in our home all morning, Gran, Helen and me, while Mum was forced to empty the shop and then drive them home so that she could be trussed up and gagged like the rest of us. There were five of them in all – two men and a woman with us, and then their elder and another one at the shop."
"My God – it was bad enough with two and being trussed up for an hour, but five and held hostage all morning?"
"All day – it was later that night before we actually managed to get one of us free enough to call the police. It took months to get over that day, and nearly a year before we could all talk about it. It was terrifying, I tell you – but I get the feeling you both know what that feeling is like."
Anna nodded as the curtain moved again and they were joined by another new arrival. She took a seat, poured herself a glass of wine, and looked around the table before saying "All of you as well?"
Claire looked at the new arrival, a smaller woman of full build with curly brown hair and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. "You? Who was your visitor?"
"George Simpson and my name's Rhona," she said as she took her glasses off and wiped them with a large handkerchief which she stuffed down the front of her peasant blouse. "He surprised me at home three years ago, and taped me to a chair while he ate something and stole some of my dad's clothing. He was about to leave when my mum walked in, and he taped her up as well before he left. I heard later he'd roamed the country for months, and then there was that bit in the news about how he had escaped overseas. Wasn't upset to see the back of him, I can tell you."
Taking the bottle, she poured herself a glass. "So – we all experienced some form of home invasion did we?"
"Not all of us," a voice with a Southern US accent said, and the assembled party turned to see a tall, red haired woman standing there, in a jacket and skirt. "I was attacked in a robbery at the Sorority house I was a member of – the gang took nearly twenty of us captive in two hours, stripping the entire building out before they left us all trying to get free. Mind you, that wasn't the worst bit."
"The fact they tipped off a local fraternity of our predicament. I mean, we appreciated the swift arrival, but it took them the longest time to get us free. I rather think they were enjoying watching our predicament too much. So, this is quite an exclusive gathering, isn't it?"
"It appears we all have tales to tell – I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"
"Delores – may I have a drink?"
"Can I ask something," Claire said as she took another sip from her glass?
"We all got an invitation in the post, I presume – did our mystery host pay to fly you over?"
"Nope – I'm here on a business trip, and the invite was pushed under the door of my hotel room. Free food and drink – it saves on company expenses, and it said I would meet 'an interesting group of people.'"
As the party sat behind the curtain, a new arrival walked into the restaurant. She looked nervously around, slowly unbuttoning her coat as she did so, until the head waiter came over and had a quiet word. Showing him a card, he took her by the arm and escorted her to the curtain, holding it to one side as she went through.
"Oh look," Delores said in her loud voice, "Another member of the Bound Over group has arrived."
"Ignore her," Anna said as she stood up and took the slim, dark haired girl by the arm, "Come and sit here. What's your name?"
"Suzie – I'm not sure why I came tonight, but the invitation said I would meet others who had...who had..."
Suzie sat down and started to cry, burying her face in her hands as she did so. Anna held her for a few minutes, saying nothing until Suzie raised her head. "It's all right, Suzie," she said quietly, "Everyone here has had a similar experience. Why don't you tell us about yours?"
"I've only ever told the police – and one other person," Suzie said as she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dried her eyes. "It goes back to my birthday two years ago, when my father was forced by a gang to open his office up, and all of us – my mother, my granny and I, were held hostage at home. It was awful – all three of us trussed up like chickens, unable to talk or move, eventually..."
She started to sob again, so Anna continued to hold her until the tears subsided. "Don't worry, Suzie," she said, "You're among friends here. Just let it out, let it all out..."
The group sat quietly, not noticing the curtain move as one more person came in. A tall, dark skinned woman, dressed in a floral dress, she stood there for a moment before saying "I know how you feel, sister – when my gran and I were tied up and gagged by those two punks, it was the worst feeling in the world."
"Welcome," Claire said as she pulled a seat out. "You a member of this exclusive little club as well?"
"Oh yeah – I got this card, and it said I'd meet people who had similar experiences. Mind you, when I found out just my gran had done when she was younger, it came in mighty handy. I'm Celeste – glad to meet you all."
"Well," Rhona said as she looked round, "Eight chairs, and there are seven of us here. I wonder who the last person is going to be."
In answer to the question, the curtain moved once more, and a grey haired woman walked in. "Good evening, ladies," she said as she handed her greatcoat to the waiter, who bowed before retreating from the alcove. "I see I get to play the role of mother here."
"I'm sorry – are you our host," Delores said as she picked up her glass again.
"No, I'm afraid not. My name is Penny Jones – Penny Carrick as was. I got an invite because our host was kind enough to hear my tale of the time I was bound and tape gagged when I worked with my sister at our mother's boutique – oh, nearly forty years ago now. I presume all of you have done much the same thing, although I suspect your experiences are more recent."
Anna and Claire looked at each other. "You were contacted by that writer as well?" Claire said, and Anna slowly nodded her head. "That's the only other person I've told," Suzie said as the others looked at each other.
"Well now," Janet said as she sat back, "It seems we have more than one connection. Does this mean we finally get to meet the man we've all talked to?"
"I regret not, ladies," the waiter said as he came back in. "I have been asked to read you the following message.
"My dear ladies,
"Please forgive me for not been there with you tonight, but I prefer to keep my anonymity, as I am sure you all do as well. Having said that, I wanted you to know that in sharing your stories with me, you have helped many other women to deal with similar experiences, and for that you have their thanks and mine.
"I invited you all here tonight to both thank you and offer you the chance to meet each other, to discuss your experiences and most importantly of all, to show you you are not alone. Please, enjoy your evening, and again my thanks.
"I will be in to take your order shortly," the waiter said as he bowed and left the eight women looking at each other. Eventually Rhona spoke.
"So, tell me, what's worse – a cloth in the mouth or tape over the lips?"
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