The slight breeze was doing little to disturb the quiet conversations at the tables, which was just the way Jean liked to run her establishment. After all, she had a lifetime of experience in matters both legal and less so, and discretion had always been her watchword. It was the way she had managed the hostelry here for some years, and her customers liked it that way.
At this particular moment, she was carrying a tray with three pint glasses out to one of the tables, where three men were sitting. Two were casually dressed, in jeans and shirts, while the third seemed slightly out of place in his dark suit. Jean had already noted this, and as she placed the tray down she said “Do you want a little extra privacy, boys?”
“That would be helpful, Jean,” the taller of the two said with a smile as he handed a glass over to the well dressed guest. His friend, a good few inches smaller, handed a few notes over to the smiling woman, who turned to have a quiet word with nearby drinkers.
“So, Mister... Jones,” the taller of the two said as he turned back round, “Why did you ask to meet my partner and I at our favourite country pub?”
“Security, discretion – and the fact that the Ropanga is known for the atmosphere. I wanted to see if all I had heard about it is true.”
“I hope you are not disappointed,” the smaller man said. “So, what can we do for you?”
“I understand you have been known to take on commission from time to time?”
“It rather depends on the commission – the last one we did had some unexpected additional work. Perhaps you can provide us with some details.”
Mister Jones reached down and extracted from a briefcase a manila envelope, which he passed over the table. The smaller of the two men opened the envelope and drew a set of pictures out, placing one of a grey haired woman on the top.
“This is Annabelle Wright, the widow of Sir Desmond Wright, the industrialist. Since his death two years ago, she has maintained a private collection of objects d’art in her residence at Cleveland Hall. My client is interested in obtaining am item from that collection.”
“And what would be in it for us?”
Mister Jones turned to the taller of the two men. “Her collection of jewels – and the challenge of robbing what is reputed to be a tightly guarded establishment.”
“In what way – we tend to work alone in this, and more than a few people in residence can be problematic.”
“In this case, you may find it more intriguing – Wright will only employ females as guards, and insists on a particular uniform for them.”
Mister Jones picked a photograph out of the pile and showed it to the two men. They looked at each other, a bemused smile on their faces, and the smaller of the two started to laugh.
“Did I say something funny?”
“No, no – forgive us. I think we have a slot in the next few weeks when we can do something about this – our fee?”
“As we discussed earlier, it will be paid, and you are free to take anything else – just get us that one item.”
“Very well, Mister Jones,” the smaller man said as he picked up the envelope. “We’ll be in touch – in the meantime, your very good health.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Hazel looked from the mannequin, to the woman standing next to her, and back again to the costume that was hung over the dummy. “Not that I don’t like it, or that I don’t need the job, but this is...”
“Fashionable, practical, and something I insist my staff wear,” Annabelle Wright said as she inhaled through her cigarette holder. She had a slight smile on her face as she stood there, the lines of her Armani suit neatly lying down her arms and legs and the patterned Hermes scarf tied around her neck like a cravat. “Is there a problem with that?”
“No, of course not Mrs Wright. I just need a moment to change into the work uniform, if that is all right.”
“Of course, dear,” Annabelle said as she turned and began to work out of the room. “Press the button when you are ready, and Melanie will come and continue your induction.” She walked across the floor, the heels of her patent shoes clicking on the tiles, and smiled at Hazel before she closed the door on her.
“Oh well, it’s a living,” she said to herself as she started to take off her clothes, leaving them in a neat pile on the bench as she did so, and then unbuttoned the jacket and blouse so that she could take them off the dummy. The blouse was made of crisp white linen, ironed so that the creases were sharp as a razor, and buttoned the sleeves at the cuffs before fastening the front. Satisfied, she then turned and unzipped the knee length skirt before pulling it over her own legs. The leather creaked slightly as she pulled the fastening round, and she could tell it would take some time to getting used to walking, never mind working in the tight uniform.
She sat down on the bench, the leather creaking even more as it rose slightly up her legs, and pulled on the black knee length boots that were to the side of the mannequin. Standing up, she looked in the mirror as she pulled on the military style jacket, made of blue cotton with a white trim and piping, and fastened it up to the collar before putting the small cap on her head. She had to admit, she looked good in it, even if it was just to work as one of the assistants to the richest woman in the neighbourhood.
“She does look good in it, doesn’t she?”
The two women staring at the monitor screen nodded as the buzzer went off. “I’ll be back in a minute, Kay,” Melanie said as she turned and left the room, leaving the blonde to keep an eye on the monitors. As she watched the screens, she failed to notice a movement in the shadows on one of the outside cameras, nor did she see the slight interference before it showed a perfectly calm scene outside.
“You must be Hazel – I’m Melanie.” Hazel turned and looked at the tall, red haired woman who had come in, dressed as she was and with her hand extended in greeting. “Welcome to the world of Annabelle Wright – I hope you like it here.”
“Thanks,” Hazel said as she shook Melanie’s hand. “So, what do we do here – watch the premises and the collection?”
“Mostly, yes, although we also answer calls and take deliveries. Think of it as a glorified butler come security guard job. Come on – I’ll show you the collection and then introduce you to Kay.”
As the two women left the room, Kay watched on the monitor, another smile playing on her lips. She was so intent on watching the two women walking down the corridor that she failed to hear the soft click of the door opening, or the footfall behind her. The first indication she had that she was not alone was the gloved hand that was pressed over her mouth, and the calm voice that whispered “Please, do nothing sudden or that you may regret, but sit quite still with your hands where I can see them while my colleague gets to work.”
She turned her head slightly as a man dressed in black, about five foot six and with a dark balaclava over his head, smile at her while placing a small laptop on the table.
“This day just gets weirder and weirder – I never knew that she was...”
“A collector or a certain strand of art?” Melanie locked the large double doors behind her and smiled at Hazel. “She is rich enough and discreet enough to be able to enjoy and share these pleasures with others as she requests. That’s actually a very valuable set of drawings and other items in there.”
“It kind of explains the uniforms as well.”
“Indeed – shall we go and meet Key then?”
As they walked down the corridors, Hazel noticed the cameras that seemed to be turning as they walked past. “You get used to them after a while,” Melanie said as they continued walking down the hallway. “As I said, Mrs Wright likes us to be punctual, polite and to do as she asks. She does not brook mistakes done stupidly, although honest errors are allowable.”
“How do you tell the difference?”
“You’ll find out – here we are at the control room. Kay, this is Hazel – she seems to be fascinated by...”
As Melanie opened the door and stepped into the room, she was stopped short by the fact that Kay was not sat at the desk watching the monitors. Instead, in the seat was a man of small stature, smiling through the mouth that was cut in his balaclava mask as his eyes twinkled, and a small handgun pointing directly at the two women.
“Please, come in,” he said as he looked at Melanie and Hazel. “Mister Tall, I believe we have Kay’s two colleagues with us now.”
“Excellent,” Hazel heard another male voice say. “Ladies, please come in and close the door behind you. I’m sure Kay is most anxious to know that you are with her now.”
“It seems you are going to have a more interesting first day than you suspected, Hazel,” Melanie said with an air of resignation. “You’d better come in – Mrs Wright has very specific instructions that in the event of something like this happening, we do as those who have intruded ask.”
“Oh my god – this day just gets more and more strange,” Hazel whispered as she put her hands in the air and walked into the room with Melanie. As the man stood up and closed the door behind them, she saw a taller man standing up from the floor. Where he had been kneeling she saw a third, blonde woman dressed as she was, but with bands of silver tape encircling her body and covering her mouth and eyes.
“You seem surprised,” the taller man said as he stood up. “Please, tell me this is not your first day in this position?”
Hazel merely nodded silently as Melanie said “Are you all right, Kay?” The third woman nodded, the leather of her skirt and boots creaking as she twisted slightly.
“I assure you, my dear ladies, we mean you no harm. I presume therefore that you are Melanie?”
“I am – do we get to know the name of our intruders as well?”
“Naturally – I am Mister Tall, and my colleague who is even now making sure your surveillance system does what we want is Mister Small. We are going to have a word with your employer in a little while, after we take care of one or two loose ends.”
“To be precise, you two. Now, I ask for your full co-operation, and in return we promise you will come to no harm. Does that seem to be a fair agreement?”
“Do we have a choice?”
“Frankly, no.” Mister Tall smiled as he looked at Hazel. “My dear Hazel, I am going to need your help. Come over here, please.”
“It’s all right, Hazel, do as he says. This is one of those allowable situations I described earlier.”
“Quite admirable,” Mister Tall said as the young girl walked over. “Melanie, please be so kind as to turn with your back to me and place your hands behind your back. Mister Small will keep an eye on you for a few moments. Hazel, I want you to take this roll of tape and secure Melanie’s wrists together, tightly, behind her back.”
Hazel took hold of the roll of silver tape, and looked into Mister Tall’s eyes as tears started to form in hers. “Don’t be afraid, Hazel,” the man said as he brushed her face with his gloved hand, “As I say, if you do as we ask you won’t be hurt.”
“It’s all right,” Melanie said as she looked over her shoulder, “It’s not the first time this has happened. Just wrap the tape around my wrists, and don’t worry about me.”
“All.... All right,” Hazel said as she pressed the end of the roll against the cuff of Melanie’s jacket and started to pull the tape off, sticking it to her arms as she did so. Tearing the length off and smoothing it down, she then looked to the masked man standing next to her.
“Very good, Hazel – now, pass it around her waist so that her wrists are held nice and firmly in the small of her back, and then around her arms so that they are held against her chest. Carry on.”
As Hazel passed the tape around her waist, she saw that Melanie was offering no resistance. “Our lives are more important than some stuff Mrs Wright owns,” she said in answer to the unasked question, “She understands that, and would have told you herself if thing shad not turned out this way tonight. Don’t worry about the uniform – that can be replaced. Just do it tightly as they ask.”
There followed a few more minutes of silent tearing and taping, until Melanie had three silver bands around her jacket, securing her arms firmly in place. Mister Tall examined the bindings before saying “Very nice work, Hazel. Now, help Melanie to sit on the floor, with her back to the console, and we can move on the next part.”
“You’ve been robbed before?” Hazel said quietly as he helped her new workmate to sit on the floor. As she did so, she could hear Kay mutely struggling against her taped bonds.
“Long time ago, at home, and it’s a story for another time. I’ve heard of you – you’re the Gentlemen Robbers, aren’t you?”
“Our fame precedes us yet again, Mister Tall.”
“Indeed, Mister Small,” the taller man said as he passed Hazel the tape. “Now, around her ankles, thighs and claves, nice and tightly if you please. As she said, don’t worry about the material – it can be replaced, but I need you to be nice and snug.”
As Hazel pulled the tape away from the roll and pressed it against the leather of Melanie’s boots, she saw Mister Small replacing the DVDs for the security cameras with blank ones, filing the original disks in a clear plastic bag and sealing them before placing them in his rucksack. “I thought you specialised in suburban raids,” Melanie said as she felt the tape pulling on her stockings as it was wrapped around her calves.”
“Well, this is a suburban house of sorts,” Mister Tall said as he watched Hazel wrapping the tape over Melanie’s skirt. “Anyway, I would not worry about it too much – you will soon be looking at things slightly differently.”
“What do you mean – oh,” Melanie said quietly as she looked over at Kay.
“Precisely,” Mister Small said as he checked the tape Hazel had put into place. “Open wide, please, and then Hazel will make sure this little cloth stays in place with a few more strips.” Melanie offered no resistance as Mister Small pushed the folded up handkerchief in place, and Hazel very gently placed several strips of tape over her rouged lips.
“Please tear off one more strip,” Mister Tall said as he stood up, “and then you can smooth it over Melanie’s eyes – once she closes them, of course.”
Melanie flashed an angry look at the two men, before looking at Hazel and nodding while she closed her eyes. “Splendid,” Mister Tall said as he picked up the rucksack. “Hazel, I leave you in the capable hands of Mister Small while I seek out the admirable Annabelle Wright. Mister Small?”
“Hands behind your back, please,” the smaller man said as Hazel watched Mister Tall leaving the room, closing the door behind him.
The last sip of her cocktail was resting on her shining lips as Annabelle looked at her magazine. It had been a long day- an interesting and busy one, culminating in the arrival of young Hazel to join the night shift team. She wondered how Melanie and Kay were treating her, and just how much they had revealed of what might be expected of her. A few days, perhaps, and then...
The knock on the door raised her from her deep thought. “Come in,” she called out, expecting Melanie to come through the door. To her surprise, the person who came in was not dressed in the regulation uniform, but rather in dark trousers and jumper, with a black leather jacket and gloves. Instead of the peaked cap, there was a balaclava covering his head, showing only his clear blue eyes and smiling mouth. Finally, instead of a status report, a knife was clearly visible in his gloved hand.
“Good evening, Mrs Wright,” he said with a pleasant tone as he closed the door behind him, “I am afraid your assistants are – indisposed at the moment, but I wanted to introduce myself. You may call me Mister Tall – and please do not press the emergency alarm button you are reaching for now. It would not be a wise thing for you to do.”
She sat there, looking at the tall masked intruder. “You say they are indisposed? I hope you have not caused them any physical harm – good help is so hard to find these days.”
“My colleague, Mister Small, is taking very good care of them. He will join us shortly, but I wanted to have the opportunity to meet you first, and to ask a favour.”
“A favour, if you will. We will be relieving you of your valuables, but I would love to have a chance to see your famed collection. Would that be possible?”
“An unusual request – tell me, are you not afraid you will be caught on camera?”
“Well, given your security cameras are currently switched off, and the disks have been replaced with various fine recent movies, I think we will be safe enough. So, may I possibly view the famed collection of Mister Alexander Wright?”
“Well, given you have the place secured; I see no reason why not.” Annabelle stood up and smoothed the lines on her trouser suit. “If you will come with me?”
The two people walked down the corridor, Mister Tall holding the arm of Annabelle, as they approached the set of heavy double doors. “If I may?” Annabelle asked, and as he released his grasp she unlocked the doors and pressed down on the door handles, swinging them wide open as she did so. Mister Tall smiled as he escorted Annabelle in, closing the doors behind him.
“Most impressive,” Mister Tall said as he looked round. “Your late husband had very fine taste in art.”
“Many are my choice, but I accept the compliment – here, for example, is an original Saudelli. Over here some photographs from the archive of Irving Klaw. Allow me to show you around.”
“Why, thank you,” Mister Tall said as he followed Annabelle around the room, looking at the exhibits. One particular case caught his eye, but he merely noted the position as he walked round. Eventually, Annabelle led him back to the door, where a smaller masked man was standing watching.
“Mrs Wright, may I introduce my partner, Mister Small? Mister Small, this is Mrs Annabelle Wright.”
“I’m sure. So, you intend to rob me of my valuables, do you?”
“That is our plan – I apologise if you have any objections, but they will be useless.”
“Oh, I won’t object, but I do wonder if you will indulge me in return for showing you where I keep my jewellery.”
“I see,” Mister Small said, “and what would that indulgence be.”
Annabelle began talking, and a smile crossed the face of both men as they listened.
Hazel was lying on her side, listening to the silence and the occasional muffled moan and rustle of leather as she squirmed round. The man called Mister Small had done to her exactly what had been done to the other two women, but before he had taped over her eyes he had seen him turn Melanie on her stomach and push Kay further into the corner of the room. Now she lay there, wondering how long it would be before one of them tried to do something. She had heard the door open and close, but she was unsure as to whether anyone actually was still in there with them. For now, she lay there, waiting and thinking.
“I must say, it is most hospitable of you to help us in this way, Mrs Wright.”
“Please, call me Annabelle, and it is you who are helping me. It has been so long since I have had the opportunity for this to happen.”
Annabelle was talking from behind a large Chinese screen, as Mister Tall was emptying a number of jewellery cases into a black velvet bag. Mister Small was standing by the side of a large bed in the centre of the room, sorting and preparing a number of lengths of soft white rope. “By the way, I compliment you on your manners. I don’t believe I have ever been robbed by two more polite gentlemen – well, maybe once, but that was a long time ago when I was an actress.”
“I was unaware you once acted,” Mister Small said as he looked up. “What name did you appear under?”
“I was known on the British Screen as Debbie Sweetlove – before a name like that had such unfortunate connotations,” Annabelle said as she walked round from behind the screen. “So, are we ready?”
The two masked men looked at Annabelle as she stood there, her head slightly to one side. She was wearing a long dressing gown made of sheer black cotton and a fur-like trim, thin enough to be able to see the black baby doll nightdress underneath, and pair of heeled black slippers on her feet. Her grey hair was held back by a thin clack chiffon scarf which was folded into a band and tied in place.
“A very faithful outfit, Annabelle,” Mister Tall said as he took her by the hand and led her over to the bed. “If you would make yourself comfortable?”
“Thank you,” Annabelle said as she lay on her back on the bed, her head resting on clean white pillows as she looked up and smiled. “Well, Gentlemen, I guess you should be about your business. Which of you fine young men will do the honours?”
“Allow me,” Mister Small said, “Please; put your hands in front of you as if you are praying.”
“Like this,” she said as she put her hands together, palm to palm, the sleeves of her dressing gown falling down to her elbows as she did so. “Excellent,” Mister Small said as he passed a doubled length of rope around her wrists, feeding the ends through the loop and gently pulling it tightly around them as he did so. More loops round followed, before he passed the loose ends between her wrists to cinch the ropes tightly around her wrists before knotting them together and tucking the ends into the coils.
“Nice and snug,” Annabelle said as she looked at her bound arms before raising them above her head. “If you will take care of her ankles, Mister Small,” Mister Tall said as he passed a further length of rope around her wrists and took the ends up to the ornate iron headboard at the top of the bed.
“So how long have you had this particular fantasy?” Mister Small asked as he crossed her ankles and passed rope around her stocking clad legs. “Oh, for many years – my late husband had a talent for binding, but he never liked doing it to me if I was dressed in nightwear. You have given me the chance to fulfil a lifetime ambition.”
“We aim to leave those we visit at least reasonably happy,” Mister Tall said as he knotted the rope around the headboard, the sleeves of her dressing gown falling down to her shoulders. As Mister Small raised Annabelle’s legs and passed more rope around her legs above her knees, pulling the gown around her legs as he secured them together, she watched with an interested eye.
“Well, I believe it was you who forced me to be bound to the bed when you surprised me as I retired for the night,” Annabelle said as she allowed her legs to fall back onto the mattress. “You swear the three girls are unharmed?”
“We merely restrained them, nothing more,” Mister Small said as he dropped some lengths of rope on the floor. “Is there anything else, Mister Tall?”
“Only the additional matter we discussed, Mister Small. If you would do the honours?”
“Where is he going?” Annabelle asked as Mister Small left the room. “Oh, just checking on a couple of things,” Mister Tall replied as he turned back to the bed. “Are we ready, Annabelle?”
“Thank you,” was her only reply as she smiled in return. Mister Tall leaned over and smoothed the strip of white adhesive plaster over her lips, pressing it down so that the shape could clearly be seen under the form fitting material.
“The Gentlemen Robbers bid you adieu,” he said as he dropped the roll of tape on the bed next to her and picked up his bag, which rattled slightly as he walked. “May we never meet again!”
“gdb” was her mumbled reply as she watched him turn the light off and close the door. Looking from side to side, she relaxed and settled back to enjoy the night.
Hazel listened as the door opened to the room. “We’ll be going now, ladies,” she heard a male voice that she recognised as that of Mister Tall saying. “Enjoy your night – oh, did you get it?”
“I have it.”
“Excellent – well, good night ladies.”
She heard the door close, and the sound of footsteps retreating into the distance. Grunting, she began again to shuffle herself along the floor, until she heard a second grunt and her hands came into contact with someone. She felt cloth at first, so she shuffled down a bit, keeping in contact with whoever it was until the feel changed from cloth to leather. Realising her mistake, she moved in the opposite direction until her fingers felt skin and the cold tape.
“Kp stl” she grunted as she found the edge of the tape, and started to tease at it with her fingers...
The beer garden at the Ropanga was quiet as Mister Jones walked in and approached the table where the two gentlemen were sitting. “Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” he said as he sat down, “I trust you have something for me?”
“We have,” Mister Tall said as he took a sip from his glass. “I take it you have read the newspaper?”
“I have – a most unusual story, how she was surprised by two masked men, who forced her to tell her house staff to cooperate with her and then bound them in a room, and her to her bed. Tell me, is she everything I have heard?”
“All that and more,” Mister Small said as he placed a bag on the table. “I believe this is what you are after?”
“Ah yes,” Mister Jones said as he looked inside. “A signed copy of Bizarre issue 1, with the original photos, signed by the publisher himself. Most satisfactory. This is for you.”
He left an envelope on the table, which Mister Tall slipped into his jacket pocket. “So,” he said, “you never revealed who your client was.”
“An anonymous collector, nothing more. Good day gentlemen.”
Mister Jones stood up, but was stopped by Mister Small as he said “We were wondering if you could do us a favour in return, Mister Jones?”
“Oh,” he said as he looked at the two men sat there, “and what would that be?”
“Tell your client next time he wants something done by us, tell him to ask us himself.”
“As you wish, Gentlemen. Good Day.” Mister Jones bowed slightly and left Mister Tall and Mister Small sitting there, unsure of what had just happened. Leaving the bar, he stepped into a waiting car and waited for the driver to set off.
“Do you think they suspect anything,” the driver said as he made his way down the road.
“Possibly – but what can they do,” Mister Jones said as he sat back, looking at the book that he had extracted from the bag. “After all, I’m officially dead, aren’t I?”
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