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The Secrets of Shackleton Grange
by Steve Spandex
stevespandex@planetsuffolk.com | Forum Feedback
© Copyright 2016 - Steve Spandex - Used by permission
Storycodes: Solo-F; reporter; newspaper; discovery; travel; surveillance; caught; F+/f; latex; catsuits; interview; drink; drugged; trap; captive; cons/nc; X
jpn
The Secrets of Shackleton Grange 16: Saskia the Amateur Sleuth Steve Spandex Solo-F; reporter; newspaper; discovery; travel; surveillance; caught; F+/f; latex; catsuits; interview; drink; drugged; trap; captive; cons/nc; X
story continued from part 15

Chapter 16: Saskia the Amateur Sleuth

Saskia checked the CCTV footage for what must have been the hundredth time. Although the image wasn’t crystal clear, she was convinced that the female figure seen walking along the platform at Ipswich station and then getting onto the East Suffolk branch line train was the missing woman. She leaned back in her chair and gazed out of the window of her office. After this morning’s rain, the late afternoon sunshine seemed to have brought the crowds out onto the streets of Ipswich, as directly below her window in Giles Circus, late shoppers mingled with people leaving off work for the day, with running and playing school children wending and weaving their way between the ever moving throng. Pigeons strutted and fluttered between peoples’ feet, whilst herring gulls wheeled overhead and landed on window ledges and roofs, waiting hawk-eyed for any scraps of fast food dropped by the passing human melee. Although dulled by the double-glazing, a general hubbub of everyday life could still be heard above the office sounds created by her fellow workers. Saskia gazed upon this scene for a minute or two, before her eyes were drawn further afield, to where the sun’s rays reflected back off the glass façade of the Willis Building. Pondering, she bit her lip.

It was now five days since the woman had gone missing, a twenty two year old from London by the name of Bethany Hammond; slim and pretty with long blonde hair, if the smiling photo that had graced the newspapers was anything to go by. Under normal circumstances, Saskia would have had no reason to think that the sought after girl had ventured outside the Metropolis; indeed the police had indicated that all their efforts were being focused within the M25 orbital motorway that ringed the capital. And it was probably for this reason, that details of her disappearance had been concentrated in London’s regional newspapers, with scant coverage being given further afield.

So how had Saskia come across evidence to the contrary? Well, it had all been down to good fortune really. As a young investigative journalist who had only been employed by the Suffolk Standard for a period of just over six months, Saskia was always on the look-out for a story that she could break and make a name for herself with. And as luck would have it, this might just be her big chance. Fortuitously, Saskia had a friend who worked as a security guard at Ipswich Railway Station, and this friend had mentioned, in passing, that he’d seen someone matching the description of the missing woman the previous Monday, i.e. the day that she had last been seen. Initially sceptical, Saskia had no real conviction that this really was the person whose whereabouts had become a potential unsolved crime, but, being not only a journalist but also a would-be amateur detective, she had badgered her friend to allow her to go through the rail company’s footage on the security cameras at the time in question.

At first, her friend had resisted this request, claiming that the recordings in question were private property, and that he could lose his job if he was discovered handing them over to the press. But Saskia was nothing if not persistent, and gradually wore him down with promises that she would be discreet and get the recordings back as soon as she could. What she didn’t mention, however, was that she would be making copies of the footage for her own use.

And now, with the originals safely returned to their owners, Saskia could scrutinise the images at her leisure. Her friend had indicated that his sighting had taken place at around four o’clock, give or take an hour of so on either side, so it wasn’t too great a task to fast forward the captured images on the disc until anyone remotely matching the description caught her eye. And after only three or four misidentifications, Saskia suddenly hit the jackpot...or at least that was how it appeared to her. Okay, so the subject was in the distance and quite indistinct, but she appeared to be around the right age, height and build...and she had long blonde hair. Excitedly putting two and two together, Saskia decided that this just had to be the woman that all the fuss was about.

Her boss, however, was less impressed with her discovery. There were thousands of women who looked similar to the missing female, he’d informed her. And anyway, there was no evidence that the subject of the investigation had any reason to come to Suffolk on the fateful day that she’d disappeared. Forget this wild speculation, he’d told her, and stick to the story you’ve been assigned to work on; something about a man poisoning his neighbour’s cat after he’d discovered that said neighbour had been having an affair with his wife....Or was it the other way around? Maybe it was the wife who’d been poisoned after being found in bed with the neighbour’s cat! Whichever it was, Saskia found focusing her attention on mundane matters such as this impossible.

So what else was there to go on? Nothing much really. The East Suffolk line ran through the countryside of England’s easternmost county in a serpentine manner, passing through and stopping at numerous halts and small stations, until it reached its terminus at Lowestoft. Very few, if any, of these stop-off points would be covered by CCTV cameras, and even if they were, obtaining the footage would be impossible for a junior member of the press.

Maybe she should tell the police about her find and let them take matters from there. Although this seemed a logical move, Saskia baulked at the idea. If she could somehow find a clue as to where this woman had vanished to and break this story to the nation, then she would get all the kudos, the praise, the acclaim, which would help make a name for herself as an investigative journalist and go a long way to propelling her career to a higher level. So why tell the police, who barely tolerated the presence of the press at the best of times and would give her no credit even if the information she provided cracked the case? No, she would do the detective work all by herself, then bask in the glory should her investigations bear fruit.

But where should she start? Well, there had been one other incident in a village through which the railway line meandered on its way northwards, that, although seemingly unconnected, had got her thinking. Two miles or so from the village of Tuddenham St Peter, almost a week ago now, the burnt out shell of a car had been discovered on a lonely single-track road. Okay, so the culprits had turned out to be teenage joy-riders, who had crashed into a ditch before deciding to torch the vehicle. They’d been apprehended quickly enough and admitted their crimes, but something about the whole incident didn’t seem quite right. They were insistent that they’d come across the seemingly abandoned car on the other side of the village, only a couple of miles from where there journey had come to grief. But where was the owner of the vehicle?

The car had belonged to a known female burglar named Catherine Jackson – usually known as Cathy - who the police had found trouble in tracing since the incident; although being a known criminal, they’d taken the view that she’d gone to ground somewhere and would turn up eventually. And so the incident, whilst making a couple of column inches in the Standard, had soon been all but forgotten about.

By everybody except Saskia, that is.

Looking out of her office window, the twenty one year old did a quick recap of what she had to go on. A woman’s car gets stolen and torched, but the whereabouts of the owner can’t be ascertained. A few days later, another woman disappears off the face of the earth, and the last – possible – sighting shows her getting onto a train that will pass within a mile or so of where the first woman’s car is found.

Two women, two disappearances. Coincidence? Maybe. But Saskia’s imagination had been stirred now, and she needed to know whether the two incidents could be in any way connected.

A shaft of sunlight striking the Willis Building’s glass panels suddenly blinded Saskia... at least physically. But at that precise moment, the fearless reporter suddenly came up with a plan. She would try to retrace the train journey that the missing Bethany had taken, in an attempt to find a common denominator that would link her to the other missing female. Whether that linking factor would turn out to be a place, an object, a person, or something else altogether, Saskia had no clue at present. In fact, she had no real idea of what she was actually searching for. But she wasn’t going to let a minor detail like that stop her from at least giving it her best shot. Tomorrow - Saturday - was her day off, so she would have plenty of time to try her hand at being an amateur sleuth. If she came up with nothing, then nobody ever needed to know. What had she got to lose?

****

Three o’clock in the afternoon of a warm, late spring day saw Saskia standing on Platform One at Ipswich Station, waiting for the two carriage train to arrive which would ferry her into the heart of rural Suffolk. Her map showed that the line ran north out of Ipswich, with the first stop being at the small village of Easterfield, followed a few miles further on by the equally tiny settlement of Oakbocking. From there, the next stop along the picturesque route would be Tuddenham St Peter. Saskia decided that, as the burnt out car had been found close to the latter village, she should concentrate her initial efforts in this vicinity. If nothing came of her time there, then she would continue in a northerly direction on the next available train, although at that moment she really had no definite plan as to what she would do should she draw a blank at her first port of call.

The housing estates and industrial areas of Ipswich soon gave way to open fields and hedgerows, scattered farmhouses and cottages, copses and meandering streams, all lit by bright spring sunshine pouring down from a cloudless blue sky. Many of her fellow passengers that day seemed to be enjoying the scenic Suffolk panorama, but Saskia failed to appreciate the beauty of the countryside as if flew past, instead being immersed in finalising her projected course of action once she reached her destination.

The journey from Ipswich to Tuddenham St Peter took no more than twenty minutes, and before she knew it, Saskia was standing on the small platform watching the train disappear into the distance. None of her fellow passengers had disembarked at this station, nor was there evidence of anyone else in the vicinity once she’d alighted. Once the noise of the engine had faded, she found herself alone, with only birdsong and the buzzing of the occasional bee to disturb the warm air.

Saskia’s plan was to stop anyone she encountered on the street and show them the newspaper picture of Bethany, in the hope that one or other of them would remember seeing her. Unfortunately, although it was a glorious Saturday afternoon, the village was still far from a hive of activity, with no more than a handful of people to be seen. First approaching an elderly man walking his dog, the photograph only elicited a blank look and a shake of the head. A similar reaction was forthcoming from the young woman with a small child in tow, walking down the main thoroughfare. Saskia gazed up and down the street. Aside from a group of boys kicking a football about on the village green, the settlement seemed to be deserted.

Suddenly, the jangling of a bell sounded from close at hand, as the door of a shop opened and a man hurried off down the street in the opposite direction. Momentarily, Saskia considered chasing after the fleeing man and waving the picture in front of him, but such was the speed of his departure that she decided against such action. Instead, she gazed at the door through which he’d just exited. The sign above the shop told the world that this establishment was ‘Tuddenham St Peter General Store and Post Office’. Saskia peered in through the window. The dimly lit interior seemed devoid of any other customers, although at the far end of the shop, an elderly woman could be seen behind the counter.

****

The bell sounded again to announce the entrance of the Suffolk Standard’s junior reporter. Walking towards the counter, Saskia was struck by the difference in both lighting and temperature from the environment she’d just left. Whereas it was a gloriously warm, bright spring day outside, in here, the atmosphere was cool and musty, with illumination barely adequate for potential shoppers to see the goods they were being enticed to purchase. Shelves shacked precariously with every product imaginable formed extremely narrow aisles through which customers were expected to navigate. As the slim brunette approached the counter, the woman – who had been restocking the shelves behind her with various household name brands of spirits and liqueurs – turned and looked directly at her next potential customer.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?”

Her greeting seemed slightly less than friendly, as if the sight of a stranger in her shop was not what she either expected or desired on a Saturday afternoon. She squinted through thick spectacles at the press pass that Saskia flashed across her line of vision.

“Hi, my name’s Saskia Lynton from the Suffolk Standard. I’m investigating the disappearance of a young woman who I believe may have visited this village in the last week. Would you mind having a look at this photograph to see if you recognise her?”

The woman, who must have been at least seventy if she was a day, looked suspiciously up at Saskia for a few seconds, then turned her attention to the picture that was being brandished before her. She bent forward, looked at the image through her glasses, squinted, then lowered her head so that she could look over the top of the horn-rimmed frames and squinted again. Taking into account the low lighting and the fact that this woman was clearly partially blind, Saskia was about to withdraw the photo, thank the woman for her time and take her leave. So the woman’s sudden response took her aback momentarily.

“Yes, she was in the shop a few days ago.”

Although shocked at this revelation - and still unsure of this woman’s observational skills - Saskia found herself asking, in a tone that could only be described as tinged with incredulity,

“Are you sure about that?

The woman looked at the picture again for a second or two, then back at the young woman standing before her.

“Yes, I remember her well, as we don’t get too many strangers coming in here.”

Now excited that she might have made a breakthrough in the case so quickly, Saskia probed for further information.

“Can you be more precise as to when she was in here?”

The woman closed her eyes, raised a bony, arthritic hand and stroked her chin, as if deep in contemplation. For what must have been fifteen seconds she stood unmoving, deep in thought. Saskia, impatient for the details she sought, shifted from foot to foot as the woman continued to trawl her memory. Just when Saskia was beginning to think that she’d fallen asleep, the silence was broken.

“Monday!”

Once again, Saskia found herself questioning this one word exclamation.

“Are you certain?”

The woman – whose eyes were now wide open and staring directly into hers – was clearly not pleased with the manner of this interrogation. She gave the young journalist a withering look.

“My dear, I may be old, but I’m not senile. It was definitely Monday. Now unless there’s anything else, I have work to be getting on with.”

The woman turned back towards her bottle arranging, and Saskia realised she’d been too aggressive in her questioning, and that if she wanted continued cooperation, then she needed to be slightly less ruthless and a bit more diplomatic.

“Look I’m sorry if I offended you, but this is important. This woman has gone missing and could be in grave danger. If there’s anything else you can tell me, then I’d be really grateful.”

The woman slowly turned back to face the eager reporter; now keen, it seemed, to show that her powers of recollection were still as sharp as ever.

“It was late afternoon when she came in. I know that because it was just after old Mr Johnson had been in for his tobacco. She was asking for directions.”

Saskia waited a few seconds for the woman to elaborate, but it appeared this was as much knowledge as she was prepared to divulge without further prompting. But if that was what was required, Saskia was only too keen to play along.

“So where was it she wanted directions to?”

The woman sniffed and for a second or two her eyes darted around, as if wary of eavesdroppers. The shop, however, was otherwise empty. But when she spoke again, her words were no more than a whisper.

“Shackleton Grange, my dear. Have you ever heard of it?”

In truth, although the name was familiar to her, Saskia knew very little about the place. But she didn’t want to convey her ignorance to this old woman.

“Did she give any clues as to why she might be going there?”

The woman sighed and looked wearily at her inquisitor.

“She didn’t say. And as it was none of my business, I didn’t ask.”

She bit her lip, as if debating with herself as to whether she should share the next nugget of information or not. Finally, she seemed to conclude that, as there was no one else around, she may as well elaborate.

“I did give her some advice though. The same piece of advice I give anyone who asks, and the piece that I’ll give to you now. And that is to steer well clear of that place. It was alright in days gone by when the old squire was alive, but since that woman inherited the estate – what’s her name now? Dolores Devlin or something like that - there are rumours galore about all kinds of weird things going on behind those walls. Wild parties would be my guess... probably drugs and fornication and who knows what else. You see some of the people that the place attracts occasionally – women mainly - zooming through the village in their flash cars on their way out there, especially at weekends.”

She paused for breath, as if all this talking was taking a lot out of her.

“As a matter of fact, there was a car came speeding down the street in the direction of the Grange only a few minutes before you turned up. Probably some orgy going on there tonight I wouldn’t be surprised to learn. The only good thing about those people is that they keep themselves to themselves.”

The word ‘tonight’ caused a shiver to run up Saskia’s spine. She had been listening patiently to the woman’s ramblings, and she was still brimming with questions that she wanted answers to, but the fact that there might be some event going on there within the next few hours suddenly changed all that. All of a sudden she was keen to get out to Shackleton Grange and find out as much as she could about these strange events that were allegedly taking place there. And if one of the missing women had been asking for directions, then it was possible that she was still there now... or at the very least, there might be some evidence that she had been there only very recently. Looking at her watch, she feigned an urgent need to be on her way.

“Look, I really must be off now, as I have to meet someone. Thanks for all your help.”

She started towards the door, then realised that she had no idea how to get to her destination. She turned back towards the counter, where the old woman was still motionlessly watching her visitor’s every move.

“Oh, just out of interest, how would I get to Shackleton Grange?”

The woman began to inform the impatient reporter of the route she would – theoretically – need to take; all spoken in a weary manner that suggested she was fed up with directing people to what she perceived as a house of ill repute.

****

Saskia’s head was spinning as she exited the dark interior of the shop and returned back into the bright sunshine. So she was onto something! The CCTV footage did indeed show that Bethany had travelled to Suffolk on the day that she’d seemingly evaporated into thin air. Not only that, but Saskia even had a destination to which the AWOL woman had been heading: Shackleton Grange. From the depths of her memory, she somehow managed to dredge up a few scraps of long buried information that she’d once been told about the place. It was, if her recollection wasn’t faulty, more or less a stately home. But whereas a lot of Britain’s ancient mansions opened their doors to the public, at least occasionally, Shackleton Grange, as far as she knew, had never done so; successive owners instead preferring a reclusive, or even secretive existence, thus cultivating an air of mystery and rumour. Intuitively Saskia knew she was on the right trail, and she couldn’t let this rest until she had some answers. And there was no time like the present, especially if the shopkeeper had been correct and there was something strange going on there this evening.

For a brief moment, she contemplated ringing her editor and telling him what she’d learnt and where she was. But she quickly rejected this course of action. After all, she wasn’t supposed to be working on this case, and she knew only too well that he’d tell her to leave well alone. Then he’d replace her with another, more experienced reporter, and she’d be sidelined and get no credit whatsoever for breaking the story.

No, the only way was to go it alone, then bask in all the glory once she had concrete proof of foul play.

****

Walking the lanes of rural Suffolk on such a glorious spring day made it difficult to contemplate the nature of Saskia’s mission. After all, the missing woman – or women – might have met with grizzly ends for all she knew. But this morbid feeling of something bad having occurred just wasn’t in keeping with the warm sunshine and the scenic rolling landscape; with fields of grazing sheep or gently swaying crops intersected by hedgerows and the occasional ancient gnarled tree. In the distance, either nestling in secluded vales or standing proudly on the skyline, several ancient church spires could be seen, highlighting the location of the many small villages and hamlets dotted around the area. The roads down which Saskia trod were devoid of human presence, save for a tractor which could be observed in a far off field; the drone of the engine audible in the tranquillity that was otherwise broken only by the songs of the birds and the humming of insects.

The pleasant mood altered somewhat when Saskia eventually reached the high stone wall that she guessed had to be the perimeter of the Shackleton Grange estate. The realisation that the whole mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the missing women might be only a short distance away behind this impenetrable barrier, caused Saskia’s trepidation levels to rise as she confronted this ancient boundary, and the fact that the walls cast their shadow onto the roadway on which she was travelling, meant that her journey was now being undertaken in a far darker, cooler environment than she had been enjoying only minutes before. Even the songbirds seemed to have ceased their accompanying chorus momentarily; their joyous trilling replaced instead by the harsh cawing from a nearby rookery.

After following the wall for what seemed like an eternity, Saskia finally came to the main entrance of the property. Through the ancient, wrought iron gates, she gazed down an avenue of trees to where the turrets and towers of the mansion house could be seen basking in the sunshine. This was clearly where she needed to be if she was to have any chance whatsoever of solving this mystery, but how was she to get in? Pushing on the gates brought no joy, as the railings stood their ground and refused to budge even an inch. Saskia was just pondering her next move when a faint droning noise reached her ears. It was clear almost immediately that this sound was steadily increasing in volume, and within seconds it had become identifiable as the sound of a car engine. Saskia stepped back into the road and noticed, above the hedgerows away to her right, a vehicle hurtling at what appeared to be too fast a speed for this type of narrow, winding lane. It was obvious that within a few seconds the car would negotiate the next bend and would then be heading directly towards her. Should she let herself be seen, or keep a low profile? As the driver of the car could – indeed probably did, given the out-of-the-way location – have some connection with Shackleton Grange, Saskia thought it best to conceal her presence for now. After all, she really didn’t want to be spied snooping around before she’d had a chance to at least get onto the property. Quickly glancing behind her, she spied a small copse on the other side of the road. Three quick steps and she had cleared the tarmac and concealed herself behind the nearest tree, which luckily had a broad enough trunk to hide her slender young frame.

After no more than three or four seconds, there was a screech of brakes, as the car came to a halt directly in front of the gateway. Saskia peeked out, hardly daring to look lest she revealed her presence to the driver. What she witnessed was a flashy green sports car with the engine still idling. As she watched, however, the door opened and a woman stepped out. Tall and slim, with long flowing blonde hair, the woman slowly made her way over to a small intercom panel in one of the gate’s supporting pillars. But what caught Saskia’s attention and made her gasp, was the woman’s attire. For these were no ordinary clothes as worn by the locals of rural Suffolk. The woman – probably in her late twenties or early thirties – was rigged out in the most tightly fitting one piece clinging garment imaginable. From her neck down to the ankle boots that adorned her feet, this female had poured herself into what looked like a latex outfit that not only highlighted her immaculate figure, but had also been polished to perfection, so that, when caught by the sunlight, it sent out a reflected flash so dazzling that for a microsecond Saskia was blinded. Upon reaching the pillar, the woman pushed a button on the panel, which caused a faint buzzing sound to fill the air. Seconds later, a voice could be heard emanating from the grille, although from her hiding place several feet away, Saskia couldn’t make out what was said. The reply from the tall blonde, however, reached her with crystal clarity.

“Oh hi Dolores, it’s Amber here. I’m here for tonight’s party.”

A short burst of the same incomprehensible metallic voice filled the air once more, followed by a clanking sound as the gates began to automatically open. Immediately the woman trotted back to her car, closed the door, revved the engine, and as a cloud of dust and gravel rose into the air, accelerated through the still moving gates.

For a few seconds, Saskia remained in her hiding place, watching and listening as the car shot off down the avenue of trees and the roar of the motor died away. Gradually, the dust settled and she found herself staring at the open driveway. It took a few seconds more for her to realise that the gates had only just reached their widest limits, and were now – extremely slowly – beginning to revert to their former, closed state. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Leaping across the road in two bounds, Saskia reached the gates whilst there was still ample room for her to squeeze her lithe form through the ever narrowing gap. For a moment she simply stood motionless in the driveway, almost unable to believe that she was now within the grounds of the mysterious mansion. A sudden crash of metal on metal made her jump and brought her out of her trance. The gates had now shut behind her, and if her experience of trying to open them from the outside was anything to go by, then she was now trapped within the walled enclosure that was Shackleton Grange.

****

So what should she do now? Approach the house and search for whatever clues she could find pertaining to the missing women seemed to be the obvious answer, although for some reason she hesitated. What if she was being watched? Were there cameras recording her every move? Movement sensitive monitors perhaps? Or maybe even just plain old fashioned security guards patrolling the grounds? For these reasons, Saskia spurned the well worn track that led directly towards the foreboding manor house up ahead, and instead kept just within the tree-line that ran parallel to the unmade road. Darting from the cover of one tree to the next, she soon came to the spot where woodland gave way to more regimented landscape, although the once grand gardens now appeared to have a neglected, return-to-the-wild look about them, as if nobody bothered attending to the formerly well manicured lawns or lovingly kept flowerbeds on a regular basis.

Saskia was just debating with herself on her next course of action, when the unmistakeable sound of the gates opening once more, was followed by the appearance of another car speeding up the driveway towards the house. From behind the biggest tree in the vicinity, she watched as the car circled the disused fountain that stood directly in front of the house and came to a sharp halt. Within seconds, three young females spilled out onto the forecourt, their good humoured chattering and giggling echoing around the stonework of the ancient building. All three were dressed in figure hugging outfits similar to that worn by the previous arrival. The three quickly retrieved their suitcases from the boot of the car, before hurrying up the steps to the main entrance. As they did so, the driver – also seen to be a woman, with long, flowing black hair - drove off around the side of the house and within seconds had disappeared from sight.

Saskia bit her lip. There were obviously a lot of people in the house, with more turning up all the time. Should she abandon her mission now, or risk being spotted and confronted as a trespasser? In some ways, the fact that there were a lot of visitors today could be seen as a good thing, as it meant that one more stranger might not be noticed amongst the throng. But was her outfit too conspicuous? All the females she’d encountered so far seemed to be wearing second skins of latex or spandex, or some such substance. Saskia glanced down her body towards her feet. As she thought of herself as being on duty – although officially she wasn’t – she had dressed as professionally as she did on normal work days. She was therefore attired in a silk blouse, short skirt and smart jacket, with her legs sheathed in sheer black tights. On her feet she wore flat soled shoes; not her favoured form of footwear, but a concession to comfort over style, as she’d reasoned that heels might be a hindrance should she need to walk any great distance.

This outfit, therefore, didn’t appear to conform to the dress-code at Shackleton Grange, and she would, it was fairly obvious, stick out like a sore thumb if she was seen. But what else could she do? The gates were locked and she would probably have difficulty getting away, so she reasoned that the only logical course of action was to carry on with her investigation. If she got caught, then she would have to think up a story to explain her presence here, although what this work of fiction might entail she hadn’t yet decided. Perhaps she could make out that she was lost? But this probably didn’t really ring true, as the place was surrounded by high walls. She was here for the party? But surely that could be checked and found to be a lie. Maybe her best bet would be to tell the truth – or at least a concocted tale containing elements of the truth – namely that she was a journalist following a lead on a story.

But deliberating on what she would do if she was apprehended was getting her nowhere. Casting aside all thoughts surrounding the pros and cons of what to do if caught, Saskia decided that action was the only way forward. There seemed to be a lull in activity at present, with nobody visible and no telltale car engines to warn of impending arrivals. Briskly and self-consciously, Saskia hurried across the courtyard towards the house; continually glancing up at the many windows before her to check if anyone had clocked her approach. Reaching the wall, she stopped and looked from side to side. At this point she realised that she was breathing faster than normal, and she detected a slight tremor in her hand. So now where did she go? There was no point in simply trying to gain access via the main door, so her only alternative was to have a snoop around to see if she could get some sort of clue as to exactly what was going on here. How this was going to lead to her solving the mystery of the missing women, she had no idea, but the fact that something was taking place today, as witnessed by the young ladies turning up in their unusual outfits, had her intrigued. If nothing else, she could always write an article on the odd nature of the parties that took place in the heart of the sleepy Suffolk countryside.

A sudden burst of female voices away to her left made Saskia momentarily freeze. Although the source of the sound remained beyond her sight, Saskia knew that at any moment she could be spotted. Suddenly galvanised into action, she sprinted away from the sound, towards the corner of the building away to her right. She covered the distance in only a few seconds and concealed herself from view. Now shaded from the sun by the imposing wall that rose above her, Saskia kept moving; determined to find some way into the building if at all possible. Glancing in each ground floor window as she passed, the first two rooms she encountered were devoid of human activity, whilst the third was obscured by heavy, drawn curtains. It was when she reached the fourth window along, that her curiosity was piqued by the scene being played out within.

The window was high enough above the ground for Saskia, at five feet four inches tall, to just about peer in if she stood on tiptoes. This particular window was standing slightly ajar, and the murmur of female voices within told her that the room was occupied. Putting her face to the glass, it took a few seconds for Saskia’s vision to adjust to the relatively dark interior, but when her focus sharpened to the conditions, she gasped in amazement. The three women that she’d seen so recently get out of the car were present, as were two or three others that she’d not encountered before. All bar one of them were standing around the final member of the group, who was seen to be lying on the floor. Well, not exactly lying perhaps... more forcibly compelled to remain where she was by the application of what looked like a thousand feet of tightly bound ropes. With her wrists tied together behind her back and her elbows pulled as close to each other as they would go, the woman had then had her legs bent up behind her and more ropes added to keep her feet and hands restrained in close proximity to each other. What was this type of torture known as?

From somewhere Saskia dredged up the word ‘hog-tie’ from the depths of her memory. But if this posture looked both inescapable and painful, what shocked the watching Saskia more than anything, was the fact that the victim was laughing and joking with the other women in the room, who were clearly responsible for her unenviable state. In fact, as their voices reached the trespasser’s ears, she realised that the bound woman was berating her colleagues for not having gagged her. This oversight was quickly remedied, however, as one of the cat-suited females bent down beside her willing victim and stuffed some sort of rolled up material into the willingly opened mouth. Another woman now joined her cohort in the kneeling position and began winding several circuits of heavy duty tape around the helpless woman’s face. With this task completed, the two stood up again and joined the rest of the audience in watching as the bound girl now began struggling and wrestling with her bonds. This caused much amusement amongst the assembled group, not least from the restrained woman herself, who giggled into her gag as she rolled around the floor in her helplessness.

Saskia stood open mouthed watching the unfolding scene. Why would anyone want to submit to such stringent torment? So mesmerised had she become by the strange drama taking place only the thickness of a pane of glass away from her, that she failed to detect the approach of four other females until they were almost upon her.

****

“Just what do you think you’re doing here?”

Saskia jumped at the sound of a voice directly behind her, and turned in an instant to find a tall woman with long wavy hair of a similar colour to her own standing only feet away. She was wearing a bright red skin-tight latex cat-suit with a broad leather belt around her slim waist. On her feet she wore knee length leather boots with ultra high heels. Behind her, Saskia could see that her inquisitor was accompanied by three other women, dressed in similar attire to their colleague save for the fact that their outfits were of different colours; one in black, one pink and the third in silver. Also in contrast to the leader of the group, was the fact that these clearly subservient beings wore contour hugging hoods over their heads in the same hue as their outfits. These obscured all facial features save for the eyes and nostrils, with the only clue to their hair colour being deduced from the plume that sprouted from the backs of their heads in ponytail form. But Saskia’s inspection of these unusually dressed women was soon interrupted by the voice of the leader of this patrol.

“I asked you what you were doing here. This is private property and you’re trespassing. Now state your business or be on your way.”

With fumbling fingers, Saskia retrieved her press badge from the pocket of her jacket and waved it under the nose of the woman who was standing no more than two feet away, towering menacingly over her. Her attempted explanation for her presence was both garbled and rambling. It was also a mixture of truth and fiction, as she tried to articulate the reasons for turning up here uninvited.

“My name’s Saskia Lynton and I’m a reporter for the Suffolk Standard. I’m investigating the disappearance of a woman... well two women actually... and I’ve been reliably informed... well someone in the village told me... that one of them might have been on her way here when she disappeared... and I noticed lots of people turning up here today.. and there was talk of strange activities – wild parties in fact - taking place here... and the gates were open... so I came in to see what was going on... I’m sorry, I didn’t know that this was private property... I’ll leave straight away... if you’ll just open the gates for me... I’ll...”

Saskia stopped in mid flow, as she saw that the woman, whose face had been stern and angry up until now, was smiling at her.

“Well you’ve got the bit about the party right, as we’re having what we call our BATH night, this evening. As for missing women, however, I don’t know who your informant might be, but they’re way off the mark with that one. What do you think we do here, kidnap young damsels and hold them against their will?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Saskia was given no opportunity to respond anyway, as the woman continued without a pause.

“But if you don’t believe me, I can show you around and let you see that I’ve got nothing to hide. As you’ve obviously already gathered from what you’ve just witnessed, our main focus here is on bondage in all its wonderful forms and varieties. But none of the girls attending today is being held against their will, I can assure you of that. Everyone is here because they either like tying or being tied.”

Suddenly, an idea seemed to come to her.

“I’ll tell you what, come inside and have some tea, and I’ll give you an interview on what the BATH society and philosophy is all about. There’s a lot of misinformation and bullshit spread by ignorant people about our work here - and bondage in general - so maybe you could print a more favourable piece in your paper and let the world know that we’re quite a harmless lot really.”

Saskia had no idea what BATH stood for, and was in completely uncharted territory when it came to the ‘art’ – if that was what it could be classified as – of tying someone up. But maybe being granted an interview would be an enlightening experience, and a tour of the house could perhaps either dispel or confirm any suspicions that she had about the missing women having ever been here.

Without further prompting, the woman moved off towards a side door situated a few yards from where they had been standing. For a millisecond, Saskia baulked at the idea of leaving the relative safety of the brightly lit outdoors and venturing inside the dark confines of the house. After all, two women had disappeared without trace in the vicinity recently. Was she about to become the third? She quickly banished such thoughts from her mind, however. She was a reporter, she told herself, and getting the biggest stories was always going to be fraught with elements of danger. So, with curiosity taking precedence over caution, she found herself obediently following the retreating latex-clad figure. As they neared the entrance, she glanced back to find that one of the hooded girls had fallen in behind her, whilst the other two were flanking her on either side, as if ensuring that she didn’t stray from the route chosen for her. Saskia’s mind was a whirl of conflicting thoughts and emotions now, as the woman led her into a house which - she still had her suspicions - could be harbouring at least one, if not two vanished women. What questions should she ask? Should she start by asking about the so called parties that were thrown here, then gradually build up to the allegation that something underhand, not to mention illegal, might be going on? But it seemed her questions would have to wait, as the woman remained silent and aloof while she led the way further into the maze of dimly lit corridors.

Saskia found herself being ushered into a high ceilinged parlour, where the embers of a fire still burnt in the hearth, despite the warmth of the day. Beckoning her guest to sit in one of two armchairs arranged on either side of the fireplace, the woman gave orders for her troops to organise tea for herself and her visitor. The three women hurried away without a word - if indeed they were capable of speech with their mouths masked by the hoods that all but covered their heads. Once ensconced in the chair opposite her unexpected caller, the woman began by introducing herself.

“My name is Dolores by the way, or Mistress Dolores as I’m more formally known. I do hope that you’re open minded and prepared to report what I’m about to tell you accurately and without bias. So many people just don’t understand bondage, and as with many things in life, what they don’t understand, they ridicule, shun and demonise in their ignorance.”

Saskia had been sitting in silence up to now, but this wasn’t for lack of something to say. In fact, a million and one questions sprung to mind. And she was conscious that, as a journalist, she needed to be probing Dolores’ every utterance.

“So how many people are there in your circle of bondage friends and acquaintances?”

She realised the question was rather lame, but this was the first thing that came into her head.

“You’d be surprised, my dear. My regular list of clients to our classes, parties and conventions, runs to several hundred. People come from all over Britain, and even from continental Europe, just to sample the lifestyle we lead. And further afield, I correspond and keep in touch with people all over the world; America, Asia, Africa, Australia...even Antarctica.”

Saskia was stunned by the final location.

“Antarctica? Surely no one lives there, do they?”

“Oh yes, there are lots of bondage aficionados on my contacts list from out there...”

Dolores gazed at the dying embers in the grate for a second or two and furrowed her brow, as if bemused by some unfathomable conundrum, before continuing.

“...Mind you, they do all seem to be ninety six years old.”

The conversation was temporarily brought to a halt by the reappearance of one of the servant girls – the one in the shiny black second skin - carrying a tray laden with teapot, cups and saucers. She automatically placed this on a sideboard at the far end of the room from where Saskia and her interviewee sat.

“Would you pour for us please Crystal?”

Dolores turned back to Saskia.

“How do you take your tea? Milk and sugar?”

Declining the sugar, Saskia watched as the obedient employee poured the steaming liquid into two cups, then sauntered across and placed them on the low table in front of the fire. Having done her duty, she immediately left the room, closing the door behind her.

“Now where were we? Oh yes, I was just about to tell you about the nature of the organisation I run here. It’s called ‘Bound and Totally Helpless’ or BATH for short.”

Dolores took a sip of her tea and leant back in her chair.

“Do drink your tea while it’s hot, won’t you? I always feel that there’s nothing worse than a cold cup of tea.”

Saskia lifted her cup and took a gulp of tea. She hadn’t realised how thirsty she was until the first mouthful of the warm liquid hit her throat. Swiftly, she took a second swig. Looking over, she noticed Dolores watching her, a slight smile etched on her face. It would be a minute of two more before she realised that this was actually an evil smirk that sent out the message ‘You’ve just fallen right into my little trap’.

Dolores resumed talking about the activities that took place at Shackleton Grange, but within a few seconds, Saskia found her concentration slipping, and the words that spilled from her host’s mouth began to seem nonsensical and garbled. With ever increasing difficulty, she tried to keep focused on what Dolores was saying, but as the seconds dragged by, the meaning of the words became ever more incomprehensible to her. Not only that, but her vision was becoming blurred, and the image of the woman sitting opposite her began to appear hazy and the room started to spin. Through the mist that seemed to have descended all around her, she saw the figure in the bright red outfit suddenly stand and move towards her. From somewhere close at hand, a seemingly disembodied voice slurred the words,

“What’s happening to me?”

It took her several seconds to realise that it was actually her own voice that had raised this query, but by then she was already slumping forwards in her seat, with the Persian rug that lay in front of the fire suddenly looming large before her. She expected to hit the floor with a thump, but no such collision transpired. Or if it did, Saskia was no longer aware of its occurrence... or of anything else for that matter.

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04.12.17

story to be continued in part 17

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