“So, I just spent the entire afternoon tied up and gagged… and you’re saying NOT to go to the police??!”
Sophie stared blankly at Kat Forge’s impassive face. The lovely agent shook her head, shining waves of auburn hair dancing about her shoulders.
“I’m simply trying to tell you that it won’t do any good.”
“But—but—you saw what they did. You know what they were after. They… they tied me up!” Sophie repeated with an annoyed sort of hopelessness.
“Which is what you’d tell the police,” Kat admitted. “but I guarantee you Erika Cain’s got at least a dozen witnesses that will swear she was miles away.”
“But you saw…”
“I saw you tied up. I didn’t see it happen, and couldn’t testify as to who did it, even if the agency would let me—which they wouldn’t. I can’t reveal the nature of the secrets she stole, and even if I could, I can’t prove she’s the one who took them—again, the police would have only your word.”
“So you’re saying this woman is untouchable? Well, that just makes me feel all kinds of great.”
“Not untouchable.” Kat’s face softened, as if realizing she had been unduly harsh to her new confidant. “But she has power and influence—quite a bit of both. If she’s going to go down, it has to be an airtight case, not a matter of dueling eyewitnesses. And since she has the Happy Cat…”
“I’m sorry.” Sophie’s face flushed at the reminder of the plan’s failure, “It’s all my fault that I couldn’t fool her. And now she’s got the formula…”
“It’s my responsibility,” Kat reassured her. “And it’s not
as bad as you may think: the formula’s only going to remain viable for a couple
of days, and there’s only a very few underground chemists in the world that
could extract it for her. We’re just going to have to keep them under close
surveillance for a while.”
”You’ll never catch her that way: Won’t she spot that?”
”Probably,” Kat shrugged helplessly. “But if she doesn’t dare approach them, then at least no one will get the viable version of the formula, and she’ll have gone to a lot of trouble and expense for nothing—that’s one small victory, anyway.”
“But not the complete victory you were hoping for-- she’ll still be on the loose. Are you in trouble over all this?”
Kat smiled ruefully. “Well, everyone has the odd operation go south on them now and again, but yeah, it would be better for me if I do bring her in, and sooner rather than later.”
Sophie swallowed, working up her courage. “Count me in.”
”I want to help! I owe her.”
“No way.” Kat shook her head. “I don’t want you anywhere near this operation from now on. You did your part, and I’m grateful. Let’s not press your luck, though.”
“But if I’m already in danger from her…”
“You’re not. Look,” Kat leaned closer, and Sophie felt butterflies in her tummy. “She has no reason to expose herself by coming after you. She must see that I simply recruited you as a matter of convenience…” that replaced the butterflies with a pang, but Sophie did her best to stay focused as Kat continued. “There’s nothing you can tell her she doesn’t already know, and while she’s not above revenge, she’s too smart to take a chance over something that petty.” She paused for a moment, as if weighing an important decision. “Give me your cellphone,”
Sophie handed over her phone, and watched as Kat’s fingers flew around the touchpad. She handed it back.
“Sophie, I’d catch hell if anyone knows I broke protocol this way, but I’ve just put a code into your phone that will dial my phone automatically. No one will know that it’s been programmed in there. Just hit pound, then spell out K-A-T.” Her voice lowered. “I’m giving you this in case of an emergency… and I mean a REAL emergency, like if you actually ever see Erika Cain anywhere near you. Which I guarantee is NOT going to happen. Remember: this is risky for us both—that’s my non-encrypted line, and we’re not allowed to give those out to anyone.”
“Umm… Thanks,” Sophie took the phone, uncertain just how she was supposed to respond. Which mattered more: Kat’s obvious concern for her… or her clear intention to disappear from Sophie’s life?
“Don’t use it,” Kat’s voice was firm. “I mean that: the only danger you face from Erika Cain would be to get involved with me… in any way at all,” Sophie saw something that looked very much like regret flicker across the agent’s beautiful face, but it was gone almost instantly. “The best thing for you would be if you never dialed that number, never saw me again, and just forgot that I existed.”
“Do you mean that?”
Kat’s smile was sad. “I’m afraid I do. I like you too much to ever want anything to happen to you.”
And that bittersweet farewell had continued to resonate in Sophie’s brain for weeks.
She and Kat had gone their separate ways, but for her part, Sophie found her daydreams taken over, again and again, by a pair of beautiful, dangerous faces: Kat’s green eyes warm and caring, her face framed by the bouncing waves of shiny red tresses… alternating with Erika Cain’s icy blue eyes, all power and command, their cool potency crowned by the smoothly controlled mass of golden hair that set off the pale skin and perfect cheekbones. Two women Sophie wasn’t allowed to remember… but neither of whom she could forget, for even a moment.
And it was only a week or so later that she actually started to dial the forbidden number on her cellphone.
She’d been tempted, nearly every day. Surely, she would tell herself, Kat would understand, she’d be willing to talk, maybe get together now that the heat was off… but, of course, she stopped herself, less due to her own personal risk than the fact that she’d be endangering Kat’s career.
But this was more than just starry-eyed dreaming about a red-headed Fed… this time, she saw something. What kept her from pushing the final button to ring Kat, though, was her uncertainty about just what she had seen. A face, glimpsed from the corner of her eye, she was pretty sure of that. A face that brought back that frightening day… not Erika Cain, though. Juno Briggs? With barely a glimpse, she just wasn’t sure.
Which was equally true the next three times the same thing happened: at some point in her day, usually in the midst of a crowd of some sort, she would sense a presence, turn, and find… nothing. Nothing but the absolute certainty that she was being followed. Only once did she something even halfway concrete: a face that might have belonged to the Vietnamese goth Minh, but a second look brought no confirmation, only an uncertainty that was starting to worry her more than actually seeing the woman face to face would have. Again, she started to dial, but stopped herself. I’m just not sure…
In fact, she was getting to the point where she’d have almost welcomed some kind of overt threat: that would be infinitely better than constantly watching over her shoulder for three women who, for all she knew, might be on the other side of the country, or the world, by now. It was bad enough they’d kidnapped her and tied her up that day—now there were beginning to cause her to doubt her own sanity!
She had taken to walking carefully in crowds, trying to keep one eye peeled for anything suspicious, one hand clutching her cellphone. And each time, nothing.
But one moonlit Tuesday evening, all that changed.
Her evening session at the gym had been typically invigorating; following it up with a swim, some steam, and a brisk shower and shampoo always left her feeling at her best… and a few minutes spent flirting with her pilates instructor had topped the evening off perfectly. On her way out, Sophie had glanced quickly at one of the floor-length mirrors, and was pleased with what she saw: not simply the glow of her light-bronze skin, the sheen of her long sable hair, the figure that showed off the lycra top and shorts to perfection… just as satisfying was the complete absence of mysterious, threatening faces anywhere in sight. Even if it was just the exercise-driven release of endorphins, it felt damned good.
And on the drive home, she let the smiling face of the blond pilates instructor push from her mind any thought of international villainesses or red-haired secret agents.
This is more like it. Real life.
She parked in the carport, and let herself in through the front door of her small condo.
She tossed her keys on the small stand in the entryway, flipped on the living room light, and crossed to the stereo, ready to unwind to some light jazz… but she stopped, her hand poised over the receiver’s power switch.
Through the living room window… the corner of her eye… had she seen something? A shadow on the blinds? She whipped around, trying to see through the lamplight reflecting on the window, and was absolutely sure... of nothing.
Determined to shake irrational fears, she went ahead and turned on the stereo, then went to settle down on the sofa, resting her feet on the polished wood of the large cocktail table. She set her athletic bag down next to the couch, leaned her head back, closed her eyes and tried to force herself to relax. After a few minutes, though, the oxymoronic effort proved fruitless, and she sighed, got up, and headed to the kitchen for a drink.
And it was outside the kitchen window that she saw it—fleeting, ghostly: a flash of moonlight on pale blond hair, a shadow streaking across bone-white skin.
Sophie threw herself back up against the wall, killing the kitchen light. Almost before she knew it, her fingers had tapped out Kat’s contact information and she had the phone pressed almost painfully to her ear; it was answered after barely two whirrs.
“Sophie, what’s wrong?” The voice on the other end was brisk and businesslike, giving Sophie no hint of what she might have interrupted.
“It’s her. Erika Cain.” Sophie wanted to whisper, but she
didn’t trust the damn cellphone to pick up the sound. “I’ve seen her,” she
went on in as calm and careful a murmur as she could manage. “Or… at least I’m
pretty sure I did. And I thought I saw that little
Vietnamese girl the other day…”
“The goth? Minh? And Briggs?”
“Well, no… but I don’t think she could be far behind.”
“Actually, they’re an entire continent behind, all three of them: all our current intel has Erika Cain running her game in Europe right now.”
“No, she’s not.” Sophie forced doubt from her mind. “I’ve been unsure all week, but I know what I saw tonight. She’s here.”
“Sophie, I know you want to help, and you showed a lot of pluck before… but do you really think you know more about this than our teams of experienced intelligence officers?
There was a pause, and Sophie strained her ears for sounds, both on the other end of the phone, and throughout the house.
“Ten minutes.” Whether she believed Sophie or not, at least Kat didn’t intend to dilly-dally. “Just sit tight.”
“Stay on the phone with me…?” Sophie asked hesitantly.
“Can’t. We need to keep this short. Like I told you, it’s not an encrypted line, and if anyone’s listening in, that could mean trouble.” She paused, as though realizing that she hadn’t exactly provided much reassurance to the young woman. Be brave,” she concluded with a warmth that made Sophie tingle. “I’m on my way.”
The call went dead. Sophie leaned her forehead against the wall, closed her eyes, and began to heave a huge sigh of relief.
The sigh never fully left her breast as Sophie felt the bottom half of her face enveloped in the cool grip of an enormous female hand.
“Hmmmff!” Sophie desperately tried to push a button on her phone—redial, operator, anything—but she felt it smoothly pulled from her hand by elegantly-manicured fingers at the same time that what Sophie instantly recognized as Juno Briggs’s big arm clamped down on her torso from behind like an iron bar, pulling her off her feet, trapping her arms, and forcing her hard against the tall woman’s curves. Her head was pressed back into the ample bosom as she was turned around, and Erika Cain stepped into the dim light, dropping Sophie’s phone into the jacket pocket of her black Cavalli suit.
“Sophie, darling… why so surprised? You didn’t really think you were spotting us by accident, did you?” Sophie goggled over the stifling hand, and noticed now that all three of her former attackers were here, as she saw Minh tuck a small leather pouch into the pocket of her black leather jacket. Sophie presumed it was the toolkit that had allowed them to enter her house… not that it mattered at this point.
“Honestly,” Cain went on as she moved the blinds enough to glance out the window, up and down the street, “I was beginning to think we’d have to show up on your door like the Jehovah’s Witnesses to get your attention.” She took in Sophie’s wide-eyed expression. “You don’t get it? This isn’t about you—it’s about Agent Forge.” Her voice chilled to sub-zero. “That interfering redhead has stepped on my toes for the very last time. I’d been pondering just how best to deal with her, but she’s hard to get to.”
She stepped closer, and her perfume drifted up to Sophie’s nose, which strained for breath over the huge hand gagging her mouth.
“Then I realized that the answer was simple: since she had no overt contact with you, she must still be keeping you in reserve, a sort of ‘sleeper’ agent, to be used against us when the time came. And if she’s keeping you off the books, then whenever she made contact with you, she would very likely come alone… and it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Sophie made protesting sounds under Juno’s hand, though it occurred to her that it didn’t really matter that Cain had completely misread the situation: all that did matter was that she had used Sophie to lure Kat into a trap.
“Now, the only question remains… how best to greet the lovely Agent Forge as she comes to rescue her little ‘damsel in distress’…” Cain pursed her lips, then jerked her head toward the living room. “Take her in there.”
Juno Briggs carried Sophie out of the kitchen, and the three women took their newly-acquired parcel into the living room. Sophie had no trouble recalling the futility of struggling against the big woman’s grip. She was also acutely aware of just how much less clothing she was wearing than had been the case the last time she’d fallen into their clutches, and decided that wiggling herself against Juno Briggs was just asking for several different kinds of trouble.
In the living room, Cain paused to look around, then nodded toward the cocktail table. “Minh, would you please put that in the center of the room? I think it should make a fine tableau when our next guest arrives.”
The goth nodded, setting down an ominous looking black leather satchel that was slung over her shoulder, and went to move the table as Erika Cain turned to address Sophie again.
“I will have Juno take her hand off your mouth if you promise to be a good girl and not scream. Make any trouble, and we shall see just how well you breathe with her covering your mouth and nose at the same time. Understood?”
Sophie nodded slowly, miserably, and she felt cool air on her face as the huge hand slipped off, and she was now standing, shakily, on her own feet, between the massive Juno Briggs, still inches behind her, and the elegant Erika Cain, who appeared to be taking notice of just how much clothing Sophie wasn’t wearing.
Neither spoke for a moment, then Minh returned, reaching into the leather bag.
“Want me to get started?”
“By all means,” smiled the blonde. “Tie her up.”
“Oh, please… not again… I’ll be good…” Sophie felt the protest die away as Minh and Juno simply ignored her. The big woman lifted her up and laid her face-down atop the large cocktail table. Sophie shook back the glossy curtains of hair that slid down over her face, to look up and see Minh handling some loops of white cord that looked like old clothesline.
She felt slightly nauseous as Juno Briggs rested a palm on her butt to hold her in place while Minh dragged her arms behind her, and laid them across the small of her back, wrists crossed over each other. Bony fingers wrapped loops of the soft rope around her wrists several times, and ran extra lengths between them, twisting them tightly enough that Sophie yelped in pain.
“Not another sound,” Erika Cain purred… “or Juno will give you something to really squawk about.”
Sophie swallowed her fear, thickly, then winced as Minh pulled her arms up and away from her back, cinching more of the cord just above her elbows. Minh grunted slightly with the effort of yanking the cord even more tightly, and Sophie’s body jerked with the pain. It didn’t help that her reflexive writhing caused her buttocks to rise up and meet Juno Briggs’ hand; the big woman chuckled, and stroked the captive’s derriere through the thin spandex shorts. She let her hands run down the bare backs of Sophie’s legs, lightly scraping a fingernail across the soft flesh behind her knees. Minh snapped at her to cut it out, since it was making it harder to tie the captive’s feet. Briggs shrugged, and went back to caressing Sophie’s bottom as Minh trapped the girl’s ankles and wrapped them tightly with the rope. She then pulled upwards, folding Sophie’s legs over her back and knotting the ankle bindings to the rope that so painfully cinched her upper arms. Sophie’s body was now a single painful package; her one consolation that Briggs could no longer reach her ass to fondle it. The bonds were less elaborate than what she’d endured at the store, but she realized they were every bit as effective: laid out on the tabletop, the best she could hope to manage would be to wiggle off the edge and onto the floor… which would not only hurt, but would simply allow Juno Briggs to pick her up and deposit her back on the table, no doubt with attendant molestation.
Erika Cain had seated herself in Sophie’s favorite chair, and opened a laptop computer on the TV table next to it. She tapped a few keys, then glanced up at the tightly-bound Sophie.
“Minh is so clever. This surveillance program she wrote allows me to track any vehicles as they approach. She’s even got a wireless camera mounted near your front door, so we’ll have ample notice when Agent Forge arrives.”
“What… what are you going to do to her… to us?” Sophie’s voice was strained, as much from the effort of keeping her head upright in her hogtied position, as from the very real fear she felt.
“I think I’ll save the details of Agent Forge’s fate until she’s here to learn about it in person. As for you, my dear—well, let me just say that sweet, soft female flesh is a very valuable commodity in certain places.”
Horror kicked Sophie in the pit of the stomach.
“But… but… you can’t do that… you wouldn’t.” Sophie heard her voice getting smaller and far away. “I can tell… you… you… I mean a little bit… I think you like me.” Despite the danger, Sophie found herself blushing furiously at this blatant admission of her shameful infatuation with her beautiful captor.
Erika Cain gave a low chuckle, and came to stand over the tightly-trussed girl lying on the table.
Sophie’s stomach gave a lurch as her elegant captor reached down to stroke a hand across her face.
“Dear Sophie…” the tall blonde cupped Sophie’s chin in her left hand, “You are a most tempting little morsel, and if I were a woman who places pleasure before business, you may rest assured I would be taking you, hard, on that table, even as we speak.”
The thin smile grew tighter, and she took her hands away. “But your precious Agent Forge presents me with a more pressing problem. And I’m afraid I really don’t have time right now to dally with… bait.”
She reached to a pocket. “Here—let’s add a little reminder to Agent Forge of just how completely she has failed,” and from her pocket, she drew out the tiny Happy Cat statue, and set it down on the table, next to the bound and gagged Sophie.
She then glanced over Sophie’s shoulder, at Minh, and her voice was ice.
“Nooo!” Sophie wailed, heedless of the woman’s earlier threats. “Pl—aggghhhhh!” Her protest became a despairing wail as pain radiated all through her scalp and down the back of her neck: Minh had sunk her fingers deep into Sophie’s mane of silky dark hair, and pulled the girl’s head so far back that her throat was painfully stretched.
From behind, Minh’s free hand came around, holding a dark-colored misshapen object. It was only after Minh wrenched her head back further and began to jam the thing into her mouth that Sophie realized it was a sponge—the rough-textured natural sort.
“Ugghhh! Gaaaah!” Grunts and moans disappeared into the thick sponge as Minh used strong, wiry fingers to press the sponge deeper into Sophie’s mouth. The coarse material began to expand at the same time it began to absorb Sophie’s saliva, drying her mouth and filling it to what felt near to bursting.
Juno Briggs approached, carrying a large roll of silver-backed tape. Minh shifted her grip, now using both hands in Sophie’s hair to hold her head back, her face up and still, while Juno Briggs smoothed strips of tape across the girl’s lips and cheeks. The big woman’s hands caressed and stroked with lewd impunity as she pressed the strips firmly into place. A second strip crossed the first, then a third; each time, the woman’s fingers would play across her captive’s satiny-smooth skin, and when Minh released Sophie’s head to fall forward, Juno Briggs let her fingers continue on up past the girl’s temples to run lightly through the soft tresses.
After a few moments savoring her captive’s helplessness, she was interrupted by an amused Erika Cain.
“That’s enough, Juno—if there’s time for play later, you’ll get your chance. For now, get into position.”
Sophie felt Briggs give a tug on her hair, and a light slap on her cheek. “Don’t go anywhere, now, sweetie.” With that, she stepped back and flattened herself against the wall, extinguishing the light as she did so. Now, the only illumination was coming from the pallid light on the outside walkway and the glow of Cain’s computer screen. From her angle, Sophie couldn’t make out much detail, but she could see that she was watching the camera that had been mounted above her front steps. She saw what appeared to be a car going by, then another… and maybe the first car again? There was no movement at all for a moment, or two, then a dark figure swept past as a greenish blur.
Kat! Sophie realized that the agent, seeing the house dark, had bypassed the front door, and was looking for another way in—not that it mattered, since sooner or later she’d make her way to the living room, where her enemies waited to make her captive. She could only pray that Cain was wrong about Kat not using backup.
“Sophie!” she heard her name called from the back of the house; Kat must have come in via the back window that overlooked the small, dingy alleyway that ran behind the small complex.
Despite the gag, despite her fear, Sophie drew a breath to try and make a sound—any kind of sound—to warn Kat, when she felt Minh grab her by the hair again and pull her head up and back… and the warning died in Sophie’s throat as the little goth held the blade of a knife in front of her face; even in the dim light, the blade had a gleam to it, and Minh poised it barely half an inch from Sophie’s face, just below eye level. She waggled it, as if to show just how slight a movement it would take to remove an eye or slice open a cheek. She twisted her grip in Sophie’s hair for emphasis, and the two remained posed that way, in the dark, captor and captive, waiting as Kat's booted footsteps grew closer and closer...