Not already. Exasperated, Linda Fong blew her bangs out of her face, and looked up at the clock. Well, they weren't as early as she'd thought, but she still wasn't ready.
"Linda, it'll be fine. I spoke with a woman from the appraiser's office, and she'll come by on Saturday morning. We'll have the appraisal done, and I'll handle the insurance company."
It had been so easy for David to say, but Linda knew he was hiding something. Was it money trouble again? She wished he'd tell her. He'd been so distant lately.
"Look," he'd said, "make a party of it. Invite Lauren to bring some of her jewelry, and I'll have Rachel and Roz come by." Linda had grimaced at that. "C'mon, I know Roz irritates you, and you think Rachel's a witch, but I know they have some lovely pieces."
I'll just bet, thought Linda, and how would David know that, anyway? But he was so insistent. Whatever he was hiding, whatever troubled him, maybe if she just went along, things would be right again.
And, now, it was time. Where had the morning gone? Linda took a glance in the mirror over the fireplace. No time to change; her white blouse tucked into faded blue jeans would have to do. She gathered her glossy, waist-length hair in her hands, and tossed it back over her shoulder. Maybe David was right. Maybe we really can make a party out of this. She doubted it, but for David, she would try. The bell rang again, and Linda opened the door.
"Good morning. My name is Antonia Andrews." An attractive, well-dressed woman, with blond hair in a neat bun, was smiling at her. "You must be Linda." Over her shoulder, Linda could see a tall black woman in an expensive-looking designer track suit. "This is my associate, Michelle Russell." The black woman nodded expressionlessly.
"Won't you come in?" Linda stepped aside to allow her visitors across the threshold. The blonde was carrying a leather case, and the black woman had a larger satchel over her shoulder.
"Can I offer you some coffee?"
The blonde smiled. "Maybe later. I'm so anxious to see your jewelry; I've heard so much about it." That seemed odd to Linda, but she shrugged, and led the way into the family room.
"That's my jewelry case on the table…" Linda began, but the blonde was looking in her leather bag, and took out a video tape.
"Linda, before we begin, I'd like to have you watch this tape."
Puzzled, Linda tried to be a gracious hostess. "Watch a tape? Shouldn't we… Well, here, let me put it in the VCR." As Linda started the tape, she grumbled to herself: she'd rushed herself off her feet to be ready to show her jewelry, and the woman didn't even want to look at it?
Trying to hide her annoyance, Linda tried to focus her attention on the screen. At first, there was nothing but some hissing and a jumble of color. Linda sighed, and was about to remind her visitor she had to prepare for the rest of her guests, when the image on the television came into focus.
The picture on the television was that of an Oriental man; 30-ish, with a receding hairline which exposed a bleeding cut on his forehead. The video was less than crystal clear, but his face appeared to be dirty and bruised, and there was a look of desperation in his eyes.
"Linda, Linda… oh, my God. Linda, I pray that you're OK. I hope they haven't hurt you! You must listen to me!"
Linda's eyes had grown wide at the realization that this was her husband, David, on the TV. David-- evidently beaten bloody, and obviously concerned for Linda's safety. With sudden horror, Linda remembered that she was not alone. She looked over at the women from the appraiser's. Instead of registering shock or surprise, the blonde smiled almost gently, and used the remote control in her left hand to pause the video; David's face froze in an expression of distress that would have seemed comical at any other time.
"What have you done with David?" Linda shrieked, jumping to her feet. The woman's only reaction was to use her right hand to draw a small pistol from her handbag. She leveled it at Linda, and spoke in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
"Yes, Linda, WE have done something with David. If you want to keep him alive, and yourself, you'll co-operate with us fully." Lovely almond eyes were beginning to tear as Linda goggled at the woman, and at the gun. "Now, sit down, and let's finish watching the video."
Numb, Linda dropped down on the sofa again. The woman pressed the "pause" button again, and the video resumed.
"Linda, I'm OK, just a little banged up. Please, please, co-operate with these people! They've threatened to kill me, and I think they mean it, and I'm so afraid they'll hurt you, too! Please, just do as they say! I--" the tape cut off, and a bright blue glow filled the room from the TV screen. Linda turned, helplessly, and stared at the woman with the gun.
"Linda, I hope you understand just how serious we are. Do you?" Linda couldn't speak. "Just nod your head, if you understand." Linda slowly complied, and the woman shut off the TV and went briskly on. "Good, that will make things go more easily. By now, you've surely figured out that we intend to do more than simply 'appraise' your friends' jewelry today; in fact, we are going to 'appropriate' it, instead. And you are going to help us." Linda almost found enough voice to protest, but the woman ignored her. "David has been good enough to share with us the schedule for the day: each of your guests is scheduled to arrive at intervals of one-half hour. That will suit our plans admirably. Your job is to greet them normally, and put them at their ease while I determine that they do, indeed, have all the jewelry with them that they are supposed to. At that point, we will, um, 'introduce' ourselves to your friends, and relieve them of their merchandise."
Linda swallowed hard. "And will--" her voice began to break-- "will you let them go then?"
The woman's smile grew indulgent, as though Linda was a child being lectured. "Now, I think you know perfectly well that we can't do that. With your help, though, we can see to it that no one gets hurt. No, your friends will be staying right here with us until we are through, and I will be counting on you to help us keep things quiet and under control." The look she gave Linda left no doubt as to what might happen should Linda refuse. Before Linda could even consider the consequences of refusal, the doorbell rang. The other "appraiser" stepped to the living room, and glanced through the window.
"It's the first one." Linda's heart sank as she stared past the woman to the living room. Paralyzed with fear, she was only goaded into action by the sensation of the barrel of the woman's gun resting against the back of her head. Antonia's voice was a murmur in her ear.
"Remember, Linda, I could easily kill you and your friends if you make even the slightest mistake. And what do you imagine would happen to poor David then? Or if we fail to return with the jewels, or if any policemen are seen anywhere near this house?" Linda turned to the woman, her face contorted in fear and rage. Antonia smiled. "Relax. You have my word that, if you co-operate, David will not be harmed." Linda wanted, desperately, to believe her, and knew that, in the end, she really had no choice. Antonia tucked the gun into her bag, the other woman settled herself into another chair, and nodded toward the living room. Linda took a breath, stood up, walked through the door of the family room, and went to open the front door.
Rosalyn. Roz. Well, of course, she'd be early. Roz lived right down the street, and worked with David in Marketing. She was a go-getter if Linda ever knew one, a stunning, shapely brunette, who seemed to have been poured into the designer outfit she was wearing. She was impatiently shaking back waves of chestnut brown hair as Linda opened the door.
"Hi, Linda," Roz was moving brusquely, and was past Linda and in the door almost before her fearful hostess knew it. Should she attempt some kind of conversation? David had told her that Roz had recently been passed over for some sort of big promotion at work, and since she really didn't have any other common subject of conversation with the woman, decided not to say anything. She didn't have to, of course: Roz was always a one-woman conversation, anyway, quick with the put-downs and snap judgements. Linda had never really cared for her, and usually stifled an urge to tell her to shut up, for David's sake. Now, Linda scarcely registered a word Roz was babbling as she looked into the family room where the two jewel thieves waited.
"So, in here?" Roz asked. Linda realized that Roz had interpreted her look toward the family room as her cue to move, and was on her way. Roz had some kind of leather case under her arm, and Linda watched Roz' back, and her bouncing mane of hair, as she preceded her into the family room.
Now. Now was her chance. Linda froze in place, looking at the front door. Barely five steps and she could be out the door, and on her way to get help, leaving… well, leaving Roz in the power of armed thieves, and leaving David to--- no, she couldn't bear that. And, yet, there was the door. She stole one more glance at it, and saw that the two thieves had stood up to greet Roz. The one called Michelle was looking over Roz' shoulder, and straight at Linda. The look of menace in her eyes was unmistakable, and all Linda's strength seemed to drain from her. Numbly, she followed Roz into the room.
In the family room, the three women were seated at the table, studying the assortment of necklaces and earrings in the leather case. Linda would normally have been fascinated, but she was barely able to make herself look at them. After a moment, Antonia got up from her chair, and went to stand behind Linda. The other woman was nodding her head as Roz continued to prattle on, when Antonia cleared her throat.
"Thank you so much, Roz, for all that information. I'm sure our appraisal will reflect the high value you place on these items. And, now, Linda, would you please bring me that bag from the sofa?" Linda looked to the sofa, and noticed the leather satchel that Antonia had brought with her. She picked it up and walked back to the table.
"OK," said Roz, "is there anything else you need me to do?" Antonia smiled.
"Why, no, Roz, I just need you to stay right there in that chair." Antonia opened the leather bag, and drew out some lengths of clothesline. She handed them to the astonished Linda.
"Linda, while we do our appraisal, I'd like you to help Roz stay in that very comfortable chair." Linda looked puzzled, Roz was completely uncomprehending.
"What are you talking about? What do you mean by helping me stay in this chair?"
Antonia drew her gun from her bag, and smiled at Roz. "Linda is going to make certain you stay in that chair while we work, because she is going to tie you to it." Roz' mouth dropped open at that, and she started to get up from the chair, when the other thief placed her hands on Roz' shoulders, and sat her back down in the chair. As Roz began to splutter protests, Linda began to sob, "Please, Roz! Please! They have David! They'll kill him if we don't do what they say!" Faced with Linda's hysterics and Antonia's gun, Roz was, for almost the first time in her life, speechless. She stared at the white cord draped limply in Linda's nerveless hands. Antonia spoke to their dazed hostess.
"Now, Linda, I told you that it would be important for you to co-operate with us. Think of this as a way to show me just how co-operative you can be." Without waiting for a response, she took Linda's arm, and guided her to a position behind Roz' chair. Antonia then addressed the seated Roz.
"Roz, now, I want you to place your hands behind the back of this chair." Roz slowly complied, wrapping her arms around the narrow back of the chair, and holding her two hands together. She felt Antonia's strong fingers take hold of each of her wrists, and give a firm, painful tug on them, pulling them closer together, until they crossed.
"Ouch! Dammit, you can't just--"
The woman released Roz' wrists, and gave a sharp yank on her hair. "Roz, shut up. You're only getting your friend in trouble." Before she could respond, Roz felt her hands pulled together again, behind the back of the chair.
"Now, Linda," Antonia continued, "let me show you how this sort of thing is done." She shifted her grip on Roz' wrists so that she had both of them imprisoned in her right hand. "You see how I've crossed the wrists over each other?" After all she had been through, Linda wasn't sure that anything could surprise her, anymore; Antonia's method of instruction was so matter-of-fact that she just nodded. "Now, take one of those pieces of cord," Antonia gestured with her left hand, "and run a few loops there, where her wrists cross." Linda's fingers trembled as she complied. "That's good, but tighter. It may surprise you, but she'll really be more comfortable that way; her arms will be supported by the chair, without putting extra pressure on her back and shoulders." Linda couldn't see Roz' reaction to this assurance, but as she tightened the rope, an involuntary groan came from the woman in the chair. "All right, now the other way." Linda hesitated, not quite understanding. Antonia showed her how to loop more of the cord in the other direction, effectively isolating the wrists from the arm, and reducing Roz' leverage. This time, Linda pulled the knots more tightly, and Antonia said, "Very good." Nearly hysterical with fear, Linda still felt an odd pleasure at the compliment. She looked up at Antonia, who was busily getting more rope from the satchel.
"OK, Linda," she tossed the cord to her new "pupil", "let's fasten her a bit more securely. We've got a long afternoon ahead of us, and we don't want to have Roz slipping out while we're not looking." Antonia was standing in front of Roz, and indicated that Linda should join her there. Now that Linda could see Roz' face, she had to admire the way she was taking this. While Linda was in tears and halfway hysterical, Roz was glaring daggers at her captors. To Linda's eyes, it appeared that she was not about to push her luck by trying to defy them, helpless as she was, but neither was she "giving in" to them, either.
Antonia then addressed Linda. "Now, to keep dear Roz in place, we'll need to tie her torso to the chair; fortunately, she is sufficiently well endowed that we should have some good places to anchor the ropes. Start by looping the cord around her chest, below her breasts." Linda bent down to reach behind Roz, and her long curtain of silky dark hair swept across Roz' face; Linda thought she heard a sharp intake of breath from Antonia, but she didn't look up, using one hand to sweep the hair out of Roz' face. After she pulled the first loop of cord around Roz' body, she pulled it up against the bottom of Roz' prominent breasts. Her hands began to tremble again, and she thought of stopping before this went any farther. One look at Antonia's determined face, and the ugly gun in her hand, persuaded her to keep going. Three more times she bound the cord under Roz' chest and around the back of the chair.
"OK, Linda," Antonia nodded approvingly, "tie the next few above her chest-make her 'sit up' a bit. No, no, tighter than that." Antonia took hold of Linda's hands, and pulled hard on them, tightening the rope around Roz. "See how nicely she sits up, now?" The ropes certainly were tying Roz very tightly to the chair, and indeed, they were forcing her into a more upright position, her breasts now straining against her knit top. With more assistance from Antonia, Linda knotted the ropes, securing Roz even more firmly in place.
"Kneel down in front of her, Linda. That's right. Now, use this shorter piece to tie her ankles together. Roz, you'll be more comfortable if you cross your ankles first." Glaring, Roz complied. Linda was grateful to have somewhere else to focus her attention, and began tying Roz' ankles together, watching the heavy cord crease Roz' hose as her feet were imprisoned. At Antonia's direction, Linda fastened Roz' bound ankles to the lower rung of the chair. Instructions came next to tie more rope across Roz' lap, and around her waist, looping both around the chair and tying the rope tightly.
As she finished, Linda paused to regard the astonishing sight: it looked like something from a bad television program, a beautiful, well-dressed woman tied to a chair, at the mercy of jewel thieves. The ropes hugged Roz' body, accenting her curves. Her designer top and slacks were already wrinkled by the ropes tying her to the chair, but Linda amazed herself with the thought that Roz had never looked so good.
"All right, Linda. You've done well, so far. I'm sure that the lovely Roz isn't going anywhere. However, before we're finished, we'll need to make certain that Roz doesn't interrupt our evaluation of your other friends' jewelry. And, for that, I think we should use this." From the satchel, Antonia brought out what appeared to be a dishtowel of long, thin terrycloth. In the center, a large knot had been tied several times. Linda and Roz both stared at it, as Antonia continued. "Really, Roz, I think it will be better for you this way-this will reduce any temptation on your part to try and scream or cry out a warning, with the disastrous consequences that would follow." She handed the cloth to Linda. Linda hesitated, and Antonia snapped at her, "Get going. It must be obvious what you're to do with that."
"But-why…why me?" Linda began sobbing again.
Antonia's smile grew warmer. "Let's just say that I find it more entertaining to encourage such an apt pupil than to do all the work myself." Her face darkened. "Now, if you and Roz can't co-operate on this simple procedure yourselves, then Michelle and I can do it." Her gaze travelled to the other woman, who had been watching the proceedings with a look of bored impatience. "I promise you, though, that Michelle will have less concern for Roz' comfort than you will, Linda." The expression on the face of the woman named Michelle persuaded Linda of the truth of this. She looked at Roz.
"Roz, I'm sorry…I'm just so afraid," Linda sniffled.
The look on Roz' face was not exactly sympathetic, but she said, "That's all right, Linda. I understand." The bound brunette gazed apprehensively at the cloth in Linda's hand, licked her lips, and opened her mouth.
Linda stared, hesitating. Whenever the heroine of a murder mystery was tied up, the villains always knew just what they were doing. Now, here she was, having to play the villainess herself, and she was more confused and frightened than she'd ever been in her life. A derisive snort from Michelle reminded her that she'd better get started. She assumed that the knot in the center of the cloth was to go into Roz' mouth. Gingerly, she pushed the wad between Roz' lips.
"Wider, Roz," came Antonia's voice. Roz gave a withering glance at the woman, but complied, stretching her jaws even more. "Push it in farther, Linda," encouraged the blond thief. Linda used her forefinger to press the knot of cloth past Roz' lips, and between her teeth. She stopped before it went in far enough to choke the prisoner, and Roz bit down on the cloth. The knot in the center was so thick that it still kept Roz' lips wide apart.
"That's fine, Linda. Tie it in place, now." Linda walked behind Roz' chair, and reached forward to pick up the ends of the cloth. She pulled backwards, as gently as possible. Despite her fear, Linda felt a certain satisfaction in seeing the cloth wedge itself deeper into Roz' mouth. Finally, Linda thought grimly, I've found a way to shut Roz up. She drew the two ends together behind Roz' head. At first, she tried to tie them together under the mass of Roz' dark hair, but after twice catching some of the hair as she attempted the knot, she settled for pulling the ends together over the back of Roz' head, compressing the dark hair into a shining helmet. As she tied the first knot, she caught sight of Antonia's face. The blonde gave her a satisfied nod. Linda nearly giggled hysterically: David was always grudging in his praise for anything she did, and she felt strangely gratified at this woman's demonstration of approval. She pulled the ends of the cloth together again, and made a second knot over the first, pulling it tightly again over Roz' hair. The captive grunted through the cloth, and Linda almost smiled to herself. OK, Roz, she thought, got any smart put-downs for me now? With a guilty start, Linda asked herself how she could be thinking that way at a time like this. For all that Antonia had treated her politely, Linda, David, and Roz were in mortal danger, and there was more to come. And, yet, as Linda stepped in front of the chair and looked at Roz, strange feelings were churning inside her. David always seemed to make her feel small, and was forever comparing her with Roz, his "buddy" from work. Now, though, it was Roz who had found herself in Linda's power, bound and gagged, and completely helpless. Linda's fingers seemed to be remembering the satisfying feel of the rope as she had cinched it below Roz' breasts, and the softness of her hair as she had fumbled with the gag. They might all be at the mercy of the jewel thieves, but Linda couldn't shake the feeling that she had scored some kind of personal victory, trussing up this woman she resented so thoroughly. What was going on inside her? Linda looked around the room, as though she expected to find some answers; instead, all she saw was the two thieves finishing their examination of Roz' jewelry.
"Like they said," Michelle muttered. "It's good stuff."
"It is indeed," Antonia beamed. "And it's just the beginning. Now, Linda, you do understand that your role gets harder now. That gag won't silence Roz completely, of course, but Michelle will make sure she stays on her best behavior." The black woman smiled lazily, and Roz shuddered in her bondage. "When your next guest gets here, you'll have to act just as naturally as you did when Roz arrived, and that will be harder for you, knowing that Roz is sitting in here with us, bound and gagged. For her sake, and yours, and David's, you'd better be very convincing." Linda had been about to ask if the thieves couldn't just take what they had and go, when the sound of feet on the front steps came. Antonia smiled. "Here's our next guest, now."
The doorbell rang.