"NNgghhh!!! Uggghghghh!" Strangled cries came from under the bandanna that wound viciously between the struggling blonde's teeth, and she flailed her head to try to rid her mouth of the wad of cloth packed beneath it. Penelope Parker would have pulled the cloth from her mouth, but her hands had been fastened tightly at her sides with some kind of coarse rope that was wrapped around her waist like an especially restrictive belt.
The portly, red-faced man was puffing with exertion as he wound more rope around the writhing torso before him. The black suit might have fit him well in years past, but was now stretched ludicrously across his middle, and buttoned askew, to boot. Perspiration was melting the spirit gum on his upper lip, and the black costume moustache drooped in a manner that Penelope might have regarded as comic under less trying circumstances. The battered black stovepipe hat teetered precariously on his head as he used more of the stout hemp to anchor his secretary's legs more firmly to the steel railroad track.
"Hgggngghhh!!!!" Tears streamed down her face. Why?, she wanted to cry. Why me?!?! WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD IS HAPPENING??!!??
Penelope's workday had begun like any other, arriving at the office promptly at 7:45 am, checking her employer's daily calendar, then entering his office to see what dictation he might have prepared for her the night before. She had found Sir Gerald, standing at his desk, his back to her. Even before he turned around, the sight of the ancient hat on his head had told her that this would most certainly not be a normal workday.
"Well, my dear, your decision please."
"My... decision?" Penelope couldn't decide where to stare: at the ridiculous moustache that Sir Gerald was twirling, or the preposterously ill-fitting cheap black suit.
"Will you surrender your ranch to me?"
"My... ranch?" Now Penelope decided that she needed to be looking into Sir Gerald's eyes, searching for clues to the madness that had evidently overtaken him.
"Very well. I see that you choose to defy me." Unable to make any sense of what was happening, Penelope failed to react as her employer began to walk across the small office, toward her. "I do regret the necessity for this." Before his secretary could react, Sir Gerald had bounded the last few steps, and seized Penelope in a bear hug.
"Sir Gerald! What are you doing?" The portly man shifted his grip, so that the girl now had her back to him. "Hellllll---mmmppphhhh!!" A meaty hand closed over the bottom of her face, muffling her lips and holding her desperate scream inside. Though Sir Gerald was many years past whatever physical prime he might have had, he seemed to possess the determined grip of a madman, and Penelope's struggles availed her little as he lifted her from her feet. There were no visitors this early, of course, and the only one that might have seen Sir Gerald leave through his private door was the blonde secretary he now had tucked under his arm. At the flick of a button, the boot of the big Mercedes popped open and Penelope was popped in, the lid closing, shutting her inside a small, dark prison.
Release from that prison, after what had seemed an eternity of screaming and banging against the lid above her, had come somewhere out in the country. The boot was opened, revealing a dingy gray sky. The frightened girl had determined to bolt for her life when she was finally freed, but legs stiff and cramped betrayed her, and she stumbled into Sir Gerald's grip again. He avoided her attempts to kick and hit him, muttering, "Now, my proud beauty, you will pay the penalty for your defiance."
When Penelope was firmly fastened to the tracks, her mouth stifled by the suffocating gag, she watched in horror as Sir Gerald stood above her, his eyes glassy, rubbing his hands together, and issuing what a thriller writer might have described as a "fiendish cackle," but which to Penelope's ears was simply the sound of the last vestige of Sir Gerald's sanity dribbling away. She found it more disgusting than terrifying, but in the next moment, terror took her firmly in hand.
The rail under her had begun to hum. At first, it was only a sound; in moments, though, it had become a rhythmic vibration beneath her bound body. The vibration grew stronger, and it was now possible to hear the sound of the train itself. Penelope's head was pointed in the direction from which the train was coming, and she stretched and strained to try and see how close the infernal thing was. Penelope yanked in futile rage at the rope which held her helpless before the iron monster's advance. She looked imploringly at Sir Gerald, continuing to shriek under her gag, but the man paid no attention, watching her in a detached manner, as though he were seeing her plight on television.
The sound was terribly loud, now, seeming to roar "doom" in her ears. Penelope continued to struggle uselessly, choking in terror on the gag in her mouth. A terrible bellow, now, as the whistle of the engine sounded, followed by a rending shriek that Penelope knew was the gates of the hereafter opening to admit her. The track shuddered horribly, and Penelope closed her eyes, to await the voice of the angel that would carry her away.
"'Ere! Wot you fink yer playin' at? Gerraoffa the tracks, ya mad bitch!"
Sir Gerald stood quietly for a moment, regarding the little man cursing out of the window of the halted train. He looked down at the extraordinary sight of his secretary, bound and gagged at his feet. Even without seeing it, he could feel the ridiculous outfit he wore. He chuckled. He cast his eyes to heaven and giggled. He sank to his knees and guffawed. He fell face-down on the ground, and wept.
Tap. Tap. Tap. The chisel crept along the edge of the stone, propelled by the precisely controlled hammer. Diana Steel's lips were pursed into a soft red bow as she concentrated, brown eyes intent on the figure emerging under her skilled fingers.
Tap. Tap. Tap. She paused, and straightened up, tossing glossy auburn hair back from her face, the silky mass settling atop the shoulders of her lavender jumpsuit. Had she heard footsteps? Setting down her tools, she glanced down at the side table where her drink and half a sandwich still resided. Standing next to the glass was a buff-colored calling card:
"Sir Gerald MacCoin. One of our top men in the economic section." Raef Tweed kicked with the tip of his polished black shoe at the wooden railroad tie at his feet. "Stable, reliable, one of the Minister's true rocks. Yesterday morning, he greets his secretary dressed in the black cape and twirling moustaches of an old-time movie villain, pops the pretty lady in the boot of his Mercedes, and drives out here for the time-honored ritual of 'tying the Damsel in Distress to the railroad tracks'. Fortunately, the engineer spots the little melodrama in his path and slams on the brakes, in the 'nick of time'."
Tweed doffed his bowler, and pretended to fan his face with it. "At this point, Sir Gerald evidently regains his senses, and breaks down in tears. He offers no explanation as the police lead him away, and the Ministry would like one!"
"Well, I hate to offer the obvious, Tweed," Diana Steel raised an eyebrow, "but what about sex?"
"I beg your pardon?" Tweed's eyes twinkled merrily.
"I mean," Diana responded dryly, "Sir Gerald. Was he attempting to engage his secretary in some... adventurous practices? Something his wife didn't care to sample?"
"Well, that's certainly the prevailing opinion," Tweed frowned. "But I fear it's less simple than that. Both women are, understandably, terribly upset, but neither of them accepts that idea. His wife insists that he had never shown any indications of frustration in that regard, or of pushing her into anything; and the secretary says he's never offered even the slightest hint of a non-professional interest in her."
"Then why was he out here, dressed for a small-hall production of 'The Drunkard', placing his secretary in the path of an oncoming train?" Diana picked up a long twig, and swung it back and forth through the tall grass.
"And that's another thing," Tweed was looking down at the tracks. "Why this particular spot? It's nowhere near his home or office."
"That might well be the reason."
"Perhaps," Tweed mused. "But look up there." He knelt, and sighted down his umbrella as if it were a gun barrel. "This is the longest straight section of track for miles in any direction, and with the incline, you can see this spot from nearly a kilometer down the track. It's almost as though he had chosen the one place where he would be sure to be seen in time for the girl NOT to find herself hit by a train." He tugged his blue jacket back down over his narrow waist, and straightened up again. "Anyway, while Sir Gerald's currently enjoying Her Majesty's hospitality as they gear up a small army of doctors to examine him, I thought it would do no harm to take a look 'round the 'Scene of the Crime'."
"All right." Diana Steel shaded her eyes against the lowering sun. "Why don't you do a quick check for suspicious fibers and such; I'll get my car and follow the tracks back into town, to see what might lie along the path the train took. We can meet at the pub there in, say, half an hour?"
Tweed pulled a gold watch from his pocket. "Not a moment longer, though," he mock frowned. "It's nearly five."
Diana smiled, shook her head indulgently, and headed back up the way they had come. Cresting the grassy slope, her soft boots crunching on the gravel at the side of the road, she gave an affectionate pat to Tweed's venerable Bentley, and reached for the door handle of her powder-blue Lotus.
Crack. A soft sound, like a twig breaking. The shuffle of feet on gravel. Diana straightened up, to turn around, when something collided with the back of her head, and black night descended on her.
Back to What's New