The author of this damsel in distress story can be contacted at email@example.com and would greatly welcome all comments and feedback. Martin Drake, October 2010.
There were still three minutes left until the kidnapper’s arbitrary time limit expired. Olivia pulled up outside a wire mesh fence, comparing the readout on her car’s navigation system against the coordinates specified by Victoria’s sinister video. She was definitely in the right place, a sprawling waste ground filled with stacked wooden pallets, steel freight canisters and rusted oil drums. Getting out of her vehicle, she flipped open the mobile phone which had been left behind at the safehouse. Presumably the next ‘breadcrumb’ would also be delivered via a message sent to that device. Now that she was here, there was nothing to do but keep calm and wait for the call.
A reasonable assumption, but one which didn’t factor in Victoria’s unending capacity for convoluted malevolence. With sixty seconds to go a phone did begin to ring, but it wasn’t the one in Olivia’s hand. The chirping tones were coming from somewhere behind the fence, somewhere inside the chaotic labyrinth of junk. It took a few moments for Olivia to catch on, but then she was on her feet and racing towards the sound. If that call was indeed from Victoria then it was her only lifeline to Cristina and Ally. She had to reach it! She couldn’t allow herself to falter, not with the finish line so close.
The gate half-way along the fence wasn’t locked. Flinging it to one side, the dogged analyst scrambled inside and pushed her way past a makeshift barricade of rotted planks. In the night’s stillness it was easy to pinpoint the source of the ringing. Peeping through a gap between pallets, she could see the new phone lying on muddy ground in the middle of a rare space clear from debris. It was unnervingly reminiscent of bait set out in a hunter’s trap, but getting to it was going to be another matter. Pallets and containers seemed to block her path at every turn. Olivia cursed, swearing with unaccustomed vehemence. Why did that evil bitch have to make things so difficult? Twice she had to double back in search of alternate routes, finally hurdling a mound of burnt-out tyres and diving the last few yards like some desperate baseball player stealing third. Something sharp ripped through her jacket. Dirty water splashed across her face, but she stretched out and wrapped her hands around the device, snatching it off the ground before her capricious foe could have a change of mind and hang up.
Olivia was fed up with this stupid game. Panting from her run and wiping filth from her sleeve, she struggled to maintain any semblance of civility as she answered the call, "I’m here. I’ve followed your clues. Now where are Cristina and Ally?"
"Oh! It’s such a shame!" The voice on the other end, Victoria’s voice, dripped with insincerity. "Three seconds quicker and you could have claimed your prize. Sorry, dear, but time ran out. You lose."
"No! That’s not fair! I was here when you said to be. It’s not my fault you made the damn phone so hard to reach."
Victoria’s laughter grated with callous heartlessness, "Don’t blame me, darling. The rules were quite simple. You missed the deadline so now a forfeit must be paid. Too bad for Cristina. But since it’s only round one, maybe I won’t go too hard ... just enough of a caning to put a rosy glow on her pert little rump."
"Leave her alone!" Olivia couldn’t believe that her friend would be made to pay such an ignominious price for something so trivial as a few seconds of unavoidable tardiness, "You’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars if you hurt one of our agents."
"Ha! Save your energy for the game, little Owl. The next directions are on their way. And I recommend that you don’t dawdle again. I won’t be so lenient with Ally if you fail for a second time."
The call was cut off, but as before a video message was being uploaded. It was an excerpt from a vintage black and white movie. "The bells! The bells!" Olivia rolled her eyes, recognising the iconic quote of the hunchback Quasimodo. This breadcrumb obviously led to Notre Dame cathedral, right in the heart of the city, and, unsurprisingly, the time imposed was barely sufficient to cover the journey. As she had expected, this was a wild goose chase which could go on forever. Enough was enough. It was time to stop all this nonsense and regain the initiative.
Returning to the car, the petite analyst opened her agency laptop and established a secure connection back to base. A stylised representation of an antiquated blacksmith’s anvil filled the screen, soon replaced by the live image of a slim brunette wearing safety goggles and white lab coat. It was Chloe Smith, one of the smartest engineers at the Forge of Hephaestus, the technological research department which worked in tandem with the Athena Agency. Seeing Olivia’s face pop up on her own computer, Chloe removed the plastic goggles and replaced them with a clip-on head mic.
"Hey, Olivia. Are you okay? I’ve already been briefed on what’s going on."
"I’m fine, just about, but I really need your help with this." Olivia spoke into her laptop’s built-in camera, "Not to overstate the seriousness, but lives may depend on us. Can your gadgets track where the last calls made to these phones came from? I need to tie them down to a physical location. The originating number has been blocked, but the caller has to be somewhere in Paris."
The tech specialist nodded, "I should have some software for the job. Hook the handsets up to your USB ports. Good. Now if I can access the data from their SIM cards ... cross-reference to a slice of the network carrier’s database ... give it a minute ... okay, got it." With fingers whizzing across her keyboard, Chloe called upon powerful algorithms to crunch the complex numbers. When she was done, the chances of staging a rescue had been given their first faint glimmer of hope. "All right, Olivia, these are the cellular masts which relayed the calls and this is the root node they have in common. It’s not a precise fix, but it should narrow your search to a single city block. Is there anything else you need?"
"Yes, there is. Paris has a modern infrastructure, right? I need you to hack or patch me in to whatever you can access connected to that block. Every closed-circuit camera, every blue-print, the power grid, security alarms, traffic lights, anything and everything." Olivia cleaned the mud from her glasses, setting them back on her nose with an air of grim determination. People always teased her with the nickname owl. What most of them never considered was that owls could make very dangerous predators; scoping out the landscape, gliding down in silence then swooping out of darkness to make their final kill. Victoria McDonald would soon be taught that very important lesson.
Athena had served her country in one role or another for the best part of twenty years. She had seen a lot of different things and dealt with many forms of treachery over that period, but this was the first time she had faced a possible betrayal by someone so close to home. She hadn’t said anything over the phone, but the last update from Olivia had only confirmed her growing suspicions. There was a traitor somewhere in the Athena Agency.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. It had been quite a few years since she had done anything more than collate reports and issue orders, but direct action was called for now. She was going to need help to unearth the turncoat and the best place to start was right at the top. The director was pacing the outer office belonging to senior commander Zeus, the high heels of her elegant pumps threatening to wear a hole in the fibres of a luxuriant rug. The impatient steps were the only outward concession to her consternation. Even as her mind replayed conversations and projected worst case scenarios, she was careful to maintain disciplined control over her mental poise. The fair hairs which brushed the collar of her suit were highlighted by enough grey streaks already. She had no desire to allow stress and worry to encourage further signs of aging. Many things had been sacrificed to the advancement of her illustrious career; vanity wasn’t one of them.
"I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting so long." The door to the inner office was pushed open, held ajar by Zeus’ personal assistant. The girl who served at the gates of heaven smiled apologetically as she gestured for Athena to come forward, "The commander is ready to see you now."
With a quick nod of acknowledgement, Athena marched past the assistant and entered the heart of Zeus’ domain. Finished in polished marble and with floor to ceiling windows offering views over half the city, the commander’s penthouse office really did resonate with mythological Olympus. The man who oversaw the entire pantheon of agencies was seated behind a massive desk of dark mahogany. He was something of an enigma to his underlings, a distant figure who kept his personal history and past achievements very much to himself. However there was one thing that couldn’t be denied. For somebody with even more experience under his belt than she, Zeus was a man in remarkably good shape. True, there was more white than grey in his trimmed beard and neat coiffure, but his muscled frame was wrinkle free, bronzed and healthy with not an ounce of fat. He stood when his junior approached, ice blue gaze searching her eyes for signs of trouble. Guiding her to the comfortable chair at the side of his desk, his quizzical stare invited an explanation for the unannounced visit.
"Athena. An urgent demand for a face to face meeting is highly unusual. You wouldn’t have been so insistent without good reason. I take it we have a serious problem?"
There was no point beating about the bush. Smoothing the lines of her navy skirt, Athena sat where indicated, took a deep breath and outlined the issue which had brought her here, "I hate to say this, commander, but I think my department may have a leak. Lady Longford has been one move ahead of us throughout this whole da Vinci case and it can’t be through sheer good luck. She turned up at the Italian embassy before Ally could acquire the annotated notebook and then her minions kidnapped the very professor we had identified as our most promising lead. I could dismiss those incidents, but now two of my agents have been abducted from one of our own safehouses. How could that happen? How could she possibly find a secure safehouse without inside information? I don’t see any other option. Somebody in my agency is working with the enemy!"
"I see." Zeus stroked his beard in contemplation, cautiously weighing the implication of Athena’s words. His reaction was more subdued than she would have expected, although his stoic features had always been hard to read. It was almost as if he had been waiting for this news and was simply deciding how best to respond, "This is a very serious accusation. Do you have a suspect in mind?"
She spread her arms in helpless appeal, "No, I can’t think of anyone. Everyone in the agency undergoes a rigorous background check. Their files have all been vetted and check out perfectly. I can only imagine that someone has been turned after their recruitment, but even that sounds preposterous."
"Yes. Yes, it does." The commander murmured his reply, still deep in thought and still scrutinising his colleague with a shrewdly piercing gaze. "Tell me, Athena, how many people know that you came here today?"
"No one in my department. I didn’t know who to trust. The only ones who know about our meeting are the two of us and your assistant."
"Ah, good. That makes things a lot easier, doesn’t it?" Zeus’ stern expression relaxed and he nodded to himself, his air now showing reassurance as though everything was well. He pressed the button which would summon the girl from her outer office then casually stood and moved around the desk.
"Easier? I don’t see how." The apparent lack of urgency was really starting to puzzle Athena. She was also being made to feel uncomfortable by his closeness and the lines of body language. He had stopped directly in front of the troubled subordinate, staring down impassively and hedging her in with the width of this stance.
"Your fears are well founded, but I’m afraid you’ve made one critical error." Zeus loomed even more close. His voice grew deeper, now filled with rumbling menace, "It isn’t your agents who have betrayed you. Think about it. All those situation reports and all those detailed memos that you so diligently send to me. What better source of intelligence than one written by your own hand? You see, I’m the one working with Caroline Longford. I pointed her to the embassy library, I ordered her to kidnap the historian and I’m the one who told her where to find your agents in Paris."
"No! It ... it can’t be. You vile traitor!" The director’s head spun, her world turned upside down in the space of those few short sentences. She surged to her feet, shock on hearing the appalling confession momentarily surpassed by a rush of outraged fury. But any thoughts of confrontation were instantly quelled. A backhanded slap lashed across her face, its swift force sending her reeling, collapsing back down to the chair’s padded seat with a choked sob of pain and astonishment.
"Take care, Athena. This is my kingdom and I don’t take kindly to insults." A stiff finger prodded the air, punctuating the threatening intonation, "You’ve already confirmed that nobody knows you are here. Your fate lies in my hands now. There’s no reason for you to die, but that can soon change if you misbehave."
Clutching a hand to her stinging cheek, the stunned woman curled her legs into a protective ball, not daring to provoke further violent outbursts. She couldn’t believe that she had made such a terrible mistake, that a man she had trusted implicitly could have deceived her so completely. How long had he been lying to her, to the other directors? Zeus was the traitor. Zeus was the monster at the heart of their organisation and she had walked straight into his lair. God, she was such a fool. But it was much too late for self-recrimination. The young aide had re-entered the room. Judging by the neat coils of rope and other accoutrements that she bore on a tray, a bad situation was about to get much worse.
Zeus glanced to his assistant, "Tie her up, Sandra, and do it well. The director’s actions have forced our hand somewhat sooner than anticipated. We’ll be leaving for Europe immediately and taking this unfortunate meddler with us. She’s in for a long and rather uncomfortable journey and I don’t want your knots coming loose in transit."
"No, sir. Of course not, sir." The girl bowed her head obediently, reaching for the first of the smooth nylon strands.
Athena was ordered out of her chair then turned and made to kneel on the floor, facing towards it. The girl’s long nails felt like talons when she grappled with the older woman’s arms, pulling them behind her back and squeezing with persistent pressure until elbows were close to touching. Athena groaned. She did her best to keep fit, jogging daily and paying frequent visits to the gym, but her body was seldom required to show such limberness. The excruciating position was quickly enforced as Sandra began wrapping tight coils of rope about the director’s upper arms. The girl clearly knew what she was doing, keeping the loops evenly spaced, knotting them with multiple hitches and anchoring the whole harness by passing the ends under Athena’s shoulders and back around, tying them off in bands behind her neck. It was a brutally effective arrangement, guaranteed not to slip and leaving no wriggle room whatsoever.
"You probably deserve a fuller explanation." Zeus calmly observed the procedure, tossing across a second strand so that his assistant could go to work on imprisoning the captive’s hands. "It won’t make any difference for you to know the full story, not where you’ll be going. My allegiance, my true allegiance, is to a group known as the Society of the Flame. It always has been, ever since the day my father first indoctrinated me into the secrets of the society’s past."
Athena listened with mounting incredulity, wincing as a rope linked to her bound wrists was passed around her stomach and tied with further cruel knots, "I don’t understand. What is this society? A criminal cartel? It’s not a name I’ve ever read in our dossiers."
"I should think not. The society has existed for more than five hundred years, all but invisible to those outside our ranks. We are the ultimate power behind the throne, the men behind the curtain who nudge the world’s events on a course of our choosing while profiting handsomely along the way. We stand in the shadows, whispering in the ears of presidents and generals, CEOs and mafia dons. They are our puppets, the unwitting tools who enact our policies across the globe. At least, they were once and soon will be again."
"What does that mean? What has changed?"
The question appeared to irk the bearded mastermind, cutting short his boastful rant, "The society suffered an unfortunate setback at the start of the last century. One of our members was assigned to guide the Russian Tsars. When he was killed he took our most carefully guarded secrets to his grave. It has taken many years to gather the surviving clues, but soon the knowledge lost with Rasputin will be ours once more!"
"What?" This was stretching belief too far, "Are you trying to tell me that Gregori Rasputin, the mad monk, was part of your society? You’re crazy. You’re ... mmph!"
The spongy ball stuffed into Athena’s mouth interrupted a precise assessment of her superior’s mental well-being. A wide elasticated bandage kept the ball in place, layer upon layer circling the director’s lower face, trapping her hair and compressing her cheeks and lips. When the end of the bandage was sealed down with adhesive tabs, all sound was reduced to a few whuffing snorts of indignant protest. An unceremonious shove then sent her sprawling to the carpet where the industrious assistant continued the application of rope. Ankles, knees and thighs were bound together with silent efficiency. It felt to Athena as though she had been rendered into a single shapeless limb, arms painfully welded to her spine, fused legs trailing as a useless extension from her waist. Every turn of rope dug into her skin, nipping or bruising tender flesh. The prospect of escape was a distant one indeed.
"You’ve done very well, Sandra. Most impressive." The toe of Zeus’ shoe prodded the wormlike figure, tipping her from side to side to better inspect the web of abundant ropework.
"Thank-you, sir." The girl blushed, basking in the compliment of her skills, "Will this suffice? There’s more rope left if you would like her curled into a ball or bent back in a hogtie."
"No, that won’t be necessary." The traitorous commander knelt by Athena’s side. His fingers grabbed her by the throat, turning her head so that she was forced to meet his eyes, "Consider yourself privileged, Athena. A convocation has been called. The Society of the Flame stands on the dawn of its new age and you will be there to serve as our witness."
Cries of pain and shrieks of laughter combined in dreadful harmony, a distressing symphony whose percussion beat was the leather paddle slapping against a lovely female backside. Victoria was conductor and performer of the piece, Cristina Torres the helpless instrument on which she played. The Hispanic agent was still bound in cuffs and chains, dangling from a hook and moaning around a gag. The one alteration to her appearance was the rude exposure of her squirming derriere. Her belt had been loosened, clinging trousers and cotton underwear peeled down to reveal an oh-so tempting target. The paddle descended again, its sharp crack eliciting another anguished yell.
"Just look at you dance," Victoria took a break, pausing to admire her handiwork. "A dozen strokes and you still jiggle as though each one was the first. You’re so energetic, so full of stamina. I’ve known some girls who couldn’t even raise a scream by this stage, much less thrash and heave like you. It’s wonderfully refreshing, I must say."
Cristina glared back, glad for an opportunity to catch her breath. Of course she still struggled. She would be doing a hell of a lot more if she could just get free.
"But maybe you’ve grown bored with the paddle. Would you rather sample a different toy?" Setting the hardened implement aside, the dastardly abuser perused the rest of her collection, "Let’s see ... we still haven’t tried the birch, but I was really hoping to leave it until last. We could always give the riding crop a go ... or these! Oh, yes, here’s the very thing!"
A shiny object, almost beautiful in its delicacy, was picked up and carried over. The silver chain might have passed for jewellery, but for the sprung pincers fixed at either end. Cristina frowned, not certain what she was looking at but in no doubt that it couldn’t be good.
"What’s the matter, love. Haven’t you seen a pair of nipple clamps before?" Victoria cupped a hand to her own perky breasts, fingers simulating the now all too obvious function of the nasty little heads, "They’re such an exquisite torture, almost as wicked coming off as when they go on. You’re really going to hate these, my dear ... Huh? What’s going on? What just happened?"
The lights had all gone out. The whole building suddenly plunged into thick and inky blackness.To Be Continued...
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