(graphic courtesy of Jane Stonewood)
A bleary eyed Jane Woodstone emerged from her bedroom and stumbled into the kitchen of her apartment. She stifled a yawn and lifted the ringing cellphone to her ear.
"Hello?" She mumbled.
"Morning Jane, I didn't wake you did I?"
She recognised the voice of her editor, Scott Haynes. "Well yeah, actually. I didn't get in until after 2am this morning after that goofy assignment you sent me on with the UFO watchers in Highland Park."
"Ah, how did that go? Did you get abducted by any little green men?"
"No but one guy was kinda insisting I go back to his place afterwards for hot chocolate and to watch the director's cut of Blade Runner." She started boiling water to make tea.
"Ooh, hot date. Did you go?"
"No I didn't Scott and I am giving you my withering glare down the phone. I'll have 250 words for you by lunchtime."
"Hold that thought, I've got something a little more pressing for you to look at. There was a theft at the museum last night. Some pieces of Chinese jade were stolen. It's got to be more exciting than the UFO club. It's your story if you can get over there before 10am."
"I'll be there by 9.30," Jane said. She hung up and headed for the shower.
Jane arrived at the museum just after 9.30. There were a couple of squad cars parked near the entrance and a brown Crown Vic which she guessed belonged to the investigating detectives.
Clipping her press credentials to the front of her jacket Jane wandered inside. She saw a familiar figure in a grey suit and rumpled raincoat standing off to one side consulting a notebook. He was a tall, jaded looking man in his 50's with short hair that was more salt then pepper. She headed over in his direction.
"Good morning, Detective Garver. Care to say a few words for the Chronicle?"
Garver sighed and flipped his notebook shut. "Well if it isn't my favourite newshound. Good morning to you too, Jane. Investigations are continuing but other than that the police department has no comment to make at this time."
Jane was not so easily put off, "Really? There's a decent place around the corner where I sometimes get breakfast. If I were to buy you coffee and a donut do you think you might find yourself a little more verbose?"
"I hope you aren't attempting to bribe a law enforcement official with promises of caffeine and sugary treats?" Garver replied, giving her a tired look.
"Of course not." Jane said, smiling sweetly, "Since we are such good friends I figured maybe I could give you a little break from all this investigating. Besides, my editor gave me this story so I can't go back empty handed."
Garver paused, "When we have a statement to make, you'll be the first reporter I'll call." He tapped his notebook against his chin thoughtfully. "Look, since you made the effort to get here, you could always talk to Professor Conrad, Donovan Conrad. He was working late last night and was able to give us a partial description of the thieves. You might get something from him."
"Great, do you know where I can find him?" Jane said.
The detective sniffed and jerked his thumb towards a hallway, "Has an office down there. Early 40's, tall, brown hair, beard."
Jane took all that in, Garver didn't seem too impressed with him. "You think he'll talk to a reporter?"
Garver raised an eyebrow, "Oh given the way he tried to charm Detective Hastings earlier I think he'll just love you. Maybe almost as much as he loves himself."
Jane already knew Alison Hastings, a pretty blonde. She was Garver's partner and the only female officer in attendance that day. This professor obviously fancied himself as a bit of a ladies' man. Oh well…
She turned to go and find Conrad's office, Garver called after her. "And Jane, try and stay out of trouble for once."
"Trouble?" She grinned. "Moi?"
Donovan Conrad sat in his office nursing an Espresso. He had developed a taste for the strong Italian coffees during his tenure at the University of Bologna a few years back. He needed a strong coffee now as he had been awake all through the night of the robbery and had spent most of the morning giving statements to the police. He wondered if he was going to fall asleep sitting at his desk.
"Excuse me, Professor Conrad?"
Conrad looked up to see a lovely young woman with flame red hair standing in his doorway. She wore a fitted brown jacket over a white blouse. Her chinos were topped with a braided brown leather belt and she wore boots of the same shade. Well, well, first that statuesque blonde cop and now this foxy redhead. He perked up almost instantly and gave the young woman a well practised smile.
"Please come in, and call me Donovan, all my friends do." He walked around the desk and held out his hand. She reminded him of some of the pretty graduate students he had dazzled with his worldly knowledge and brilliant charm. Memories of these seductions rose presently to the surface.
The girl shook his hand. "Jane Woodstone. I'm with the Chronicle." She handed him a business card.
Conrad looked at the card and then pocketed it as he recoiled with mock suspicion, "Ah the press are here! Let me guess, anything I say will be taken down and misquoted?" He was still holding onto her hand.
"I think we can avoid that, Professor." Jane replied. She took in the Professor's appearance. He was much as Garver had described; mid 40's with swept back brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache. He was tall and slim and wore slightly tinted glasses. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, light blue shirt with a red tie and black wingtips.
"Well in any case, I am sure all you have to do is flutter those lashes and most men would be willing to give up their deepest, darkest secrets."
Jane resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Well there's a little more to it than that. I'd like to talk to you about the theft of the jade last night."
Conrad raised an eyebrow. "Indeed, and no doubt word has already reached our intrepid press that I am, as far as anyone knows, the sole witness of the likely perpetrators of said theft."
Jane fumbled for her notepad. "Well I guess you've already given a statement to the police but is there anything you can tell me?"
Conrad leaned in a little closer and said in a conspiratorial fashion, "I think the police would rather I didn't say anything just yet but no doubt they'll be releasing details later on. Obviously you'll have to wait for the press release but I can give you some exclusive details to go along with it."
"That would be great." Jane said. What journalist could resist anything exclusive?
"Wonderful!" Conrad gestured to a wine red leather couch on one side of the office. "Let's sit, may I take your jacket?"
"Uh, OK sure." Jane replied.
Conrad helped her out of her jacket. He took the opportunity to sweep his gaze over the curves of her body through her form fitting blouse and pants. The wattage of his grin increased.
They sat down on the couch. Jane sat up primly, pen poised over a fresh page. Conrad reclined back, one arm resting along the back of the couch.
"First of all for the record, can you tell me your name and occupation for the report?" Jane began.
"So formal. And there I was thinking we were on the verge of a beautiful friendship." Conrad said with a chuckle, "My name is Donovan Conrad and I am the director of Oriental Antiquities here at the museum."
As Jane busied herself jotting the details in her pad, he busied himself with detailed speculations about her taste in underwear and what lay beneath.
"And you were working late last night at the time of the robbery?"
"Yes, I had just finished eating. I like to cook so I had brought my own food with me and heated it up in the kitchen at the end of the hall."
Jane nodded, "no pizza delivery for you I guess."
Conrad shook his head. "You guess right. I brought in a dish I learnt to cook in Shanghai. Beef in oyster sauce." He gave her what he considered his smouldering gaze. "I am sure you know in many cultures oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac."
Jane smiled sweetly and sidestepped the remark. "What time was that?"
Conrad smiled to himself. So she wanted to play hard to get did she? Well the longer the chase, the sweeter the prize. "Oh that would have been about 11.30pm. That was when I heard the noise."
"Yes, footsteps outside in the ground. It's pretty unusual for anyone to be out there at that time of night so I went over to the window for a look.
Jane stood up and walked over to the window and eased a couple of slats in the blinds apart with her fingers. "Where were they?"
Conrad got up and joined her at the window. His fatigue was forgotten in the presence of this alluring young woman.
He stood directly behind her, close enough to smell the scent of the shampoo she had used that morning. His arm went over her shoulder and he pointed to the wall of the adjacent wing of the museum.
"They were heading that way, two of them. Unfortunately I only saw them from the back. They were both in dark clothing and carrying backpacks. Both were average height and build and wearing watch caps of some kind so I couldn't even tell their hair colour."
Jane could feel his warm breath on her neck and realised she was practically squashed between the window and the wannabe lothario. She slipped neatly aside and held up her notebook. "And you didn't see any glimpses of their faces at all."
"Sadly not," Conrad said with a small shake of the head. He leaned in a little closer, continuing their dance. "Lucky for them really as I have an excellent memory for faces, especially when they are as lovely as yours."
"Um thanks," Jane said. Who did this guy think he was?
She was saved by a voice in the doorway.
"Professor Conrad, may I ask you a few more questions?"
Jane and the Professor both turned to see Detective Garver enter the room. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"Perish the thought, Detective," Conrad chipped in cheerfully. "I was merely enjoying the delightful Miss Woodstone's company." That damn flatfoot had to turn up just when he was starting to get somewhere!
"I'd hate to get in the way of police work." Jane said taking her opportunity. She picked up her jacket and shrugged into it. "Thanks for your time Mr Conrad. Detective Garver, it's always a pleasure."
She headed back down the hallway. On the one hand she was pleased to escape from Donovan Conrad. He seemed to think he was Casanova or something. On the other she hadn't learned all that much. She decided she would talk to a few of the staff in the entrance hall and then head back to the office to start writing up a report.
A few hours later, Jane was curled up on her sofa at home dozing with a Carl Sagan book open on her knee.
True to his word, Garver had called Jane with the official police statement, which she was able to incorporate into her report.
Scott was impressed with the report she filed and had then sent her home to get some rest after the previous night's UFO watching.
She was dreaming about a grinning, bearded alien in a tweed jacket trying to lasso her from a flying saucer as she ran through ankle deep treacle. Somehow the treacle gave way to a library. Endless maze-like racks of books rose into the ether criss-crossed by iron walkways.
The bearded alien who was now wearing a morning suit and a top hat with warpaint on his cheeks suddenly cornered Jane. Next thing she knew invisible forces had pinned her up against the books, her arms overheard. She struggled hard but her limbs had the strength of wet noodles. The alien chuckled and produced a raygun straight out of a 1950's sci-fi B-movie. He aimed the raygun at Jane and it emitted a crackling beam. To her horror she realised it was disintegrating her camisole…
For the second time that day her slumber was interrupted by her cellphone. She woke with a start and felt a little flustered from her absurd but very vivid dream.
She picked it up from the coffee table and saw the caller had withheld their number.
"Is that that reporter that was at the museum earlier?" The caller's voice was a low rasp, as if he was trying not to be overheard.
"Uh yeah," Jane replied. "I was there earlier. Who is this?"
"That don't matter but you wanna find out about the thefts right?"
Jane sat up straight, suspicious but also slightly excited. "Keep talking."
"You know the warehouses on the edge of town past the old soap factory?"
"Uh-huh," Jane pulled the cap off a pen with her teeth and started writing down what the caller was saying.
"Well you might wanna take a looksee over there later tonight, say about 9pm. Go to Unit 13. Reckon you'll see something pretty interesting."
"How do I know this isn't a crank…"
"And no cops!" The voice interrupted. "If there's any cops they'll know I squealed and that ain't gonna be healthy for me or for you."
"This is great but why are you telling…" Jane realised she was talking to a dead line. Her mystery caller had already hung up.
She sat back and thought about the call. On the one hand it could be a crank call but on the other hand it could be a genuine tip. She decided to go. She'd be very careful, see if anything was going on, take some photos and then go and report to Detective Garver.
She looked at her watch. It was just after 3 in the afternoon. She would catch a couple more hours sleep and then plan to head out to the warehouse district.
It was just gone quarter of nine when Jane parked her car just outside the small business park where the warehouses were located. She had changed into clothes more appropriate to snooping around; a black ribbed turtleneck, blue jeans and a pair of navy blue Converse All Stars. She had tied her long red hair up loosely and pulled on an old tweed hat with a small brim.
She walked quietly up to the first warehouse. The board above the door announced it was Unit 1. Great, Unit 13 would be the last one.
Jane listened carefully but the place seemed to be deserted and there hardly any cars left in front of the lots. She quietly walked along the quiet row of warehouses and got a prickly feeling on the back of her neck as if she was being watched. She put it down to nerves and carried on walking although she did feel her excitement levels rise as she approached Unit 13.
As she got closer she heard muffled voices and then something that sounded like boxes being lifted.
The warehouse area was designed on an 'L' shape and Unit 13 would be around the corner. Jane stole up to the end of the row, crouched down and peeked around.
A watery light emanated from Unit 13. She could see stacks of pallet boards in the way but through those there was a U-Haul van. She held her breath as two men emerged from the warehouse. One was a huge, bald slab of a man, the other was a wiry weasel faced character and between them they were carrying a wooden crate.
"Careful with that." Said the weasel. "You know how much the old junk in there is worth?"
"Well it ain't junk if it's worth money is it?" The slab replied.
Jane felt her excitement build. These must be the thieves from the museum. Funny, they didn't look like Conrad had described though. Nevertheless, she took out her camera and tried to take a photo of the two men carrying the crate.
It was no use though, the stacks of pallet boards were obscuring her view, she would have to move a little closer.
Holding her breath, Jane moved forward and paused behind a stack of pallet boards to take a photo. As she peeked around the boards she could only see the weasel. Where had the slab gone?
In answer to her unspoken question a huge hand was suddenly clamped over her mouth from behind, a thick arm went around her waist and she was yanked off her feet.
"Mmmph!" She squealed into the hand.
"Well whatta we got here?" Slab muttered in her ear.
Weasel appeared around the side of the van with a menacing leer, "looks like we got a snooper and we don't like snoopers, do we?"
"No we don't." Slab chuckled.
Jane felt a twinge of panic. She didn't like the tone of the thugs' or they way they were looking at her. She started kicking and squirming against Slab for all she was worth but her sneakered feet might as well have been kicking concrete posts for all the good it was doing.
A third figure appeared, silhouetted in the doorway of the warehouse office.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't the intrepid Miss Woodstone?
Jane groaned inwardly as she recognised the voice of Professor Conrad. Whatever was going on here, he was obviously neck deep in it. In fact he was probably the ring leader.
Conrad stepped out of the shadows grinning like the cat who had got the cream. "Well I can't say I am disappointed to see you again, even under such circumstances."
"You know this chick, boss?" The big guy growled.
"Oh yes, in fact she might have a little crush on me, isn't that right Jane?" Conrad beamed. He stepped over to the wriggling Jane, flipped off her hat and let her flame red hair cascade down.
Jane glared at him, her nostrils flaring in anger.
Conrad jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the office. "Bring her inside."
Moments later, Jane was deposited unceremoniously on a small, well worn couch in the warehouse's office. Slab stood guard at the door while Weasel watched her from the opposite end of the couch.
In the meantime, Conrad was perched on the end of the desk and going through the contents of her bag. He tutted as he found the camera and made a great show of erasing the memory card, much to Jane's disappointment. He found her iPhone and checked that before switching it off.
Once finished, he turned to Jane. "And I think I'd better search you too. Would you help Miss Woodstone to her feet gentlemen."
Slab and Weasel each took an arm and pulled Jane to her feet.
"Hey get your damn hands off of me!" Jane exploded, pulling fruitlessly against the two thugs. She tried to kick Weasel in the shins but he danced out of the way with a chuckle.
Conrad grinned. "Now Jane, we can do this civilly or I can leave the room for quarter of an hour and my associates will search you instead."
"Oh leave us to it, boss." Weasel leered excitedly. "I guarantee you, if she's hiding anything, I'll find it."
Jane sighed and stopped her struggling. She opted for the lesser of two evils. "Get it over with then."
Conrad stepped behind her, "Now that's more like it."
Jane felt the short hairs rise up on the back of her neck as Conrad's probing fingers ran along her arms and about her neck. She didn't trust this guy as far as she could throw him.
She jerked her head away as his fingers ran up into her thick mane of red hair and rubbed along the nape of her neck.
"Uh-uh. Keep still now Jane, the more you struggle, the longer this will take." He was grinning insanely.
Jane was fuming but also nervous. With the two goons holding her arms out tight and Conrad free to do whatever he pleased, she felt very vulnerable.
She cringed as she felt his fingers run along the undersides of her arms towards her armpits. All of a sudden she felt very ticklish and her skin tingled in anticipation.
Conrad was humming casually to himself as he now ran his hands down Jane's slim back. When he reached her waist he gave her a little pinch which made her squeal.
"Gotcha!" He chuckled.
His hands ran up her front now and even though they stayed on the outside of her turtleneck he probed the edges of her bra and finished by playfully snapping her bra strap.
Even the goons laughed at that one and Jane ground her teeth in silent anger. She thought to herself: One day pal, my boot is going to have a talk with your nuts!
She squirmed as his fingers probed all around her hips, above and below her belt.
"Number one place for a concealed weapon is the belt line. I saw that on the Discovery Channel." Conrad murmured.
"Do I look like I'm carrying a concealed weapon?" Jane glowered.
"Not really, no." Conrad smirked, "but I thought I should probably give you a thorough going over anyway."
He carried on his search, patting down the legs of her jeans and even searching in her back pockets (even though there was nothing there).
Finally he seemed satisfied. Jane was simmering with anger at her treatment but figured she would have to bite her tongue for now.
"Well you seem to be clean now," he said cheerfully, his tone irritating the hapless reporter even more.
"So whadda we do now? She's seen our faces." Weasle muttered.
"Well by tomorrow morning, none of that will matter so we just need to keep her quiet until then." Conrad responded.
Jane breathed an inward sigh of relief. At least they weren't going to shoot her.
Conrad picked up a black nylon holdall and pulled out a coil of white cotton rope. "In the meantime I have other plans to keep the lovely Miss Woodstone out of the way."
Jane's eyes widened, "Hey what's the deal? I'll keep my mouth shut, you don't have to…"
"Oh yes I do," Conrad breathed, his eyes narrowing. "You know it's a shame we didn't meet under different circumstances. We could have gone on a date, taken in a movie. Do you like Alfred Hitchcock? I'm a huge fan. I bet you can't guess which of his movies I like best."
"Psycho?" Jane said.
"Oh that's very good, I love a girl with a sense of humour. But of course, my favourite is 'Rope', for obvious reasons. Now please would you turn around and clasp your hands together behind your back."
"Go to hell!" Jane shot back.
The villainous Professor laughed. "Always more fun when they don't make it easy." Then to his henchmen: "Boys, cover the exits will, I reckon she's going to try to bolt."
Jane looked from left to right as Slab and Weasel moved to the doors. In front of her Conrad had coiled a length of rope and was advancing on her. Well screw it, she wasn't going to make this easy for him.
She kicked out hard, aiming for his balls but he moved slightly and he took the blow on his thigh. He grunted and she tried to dart past him but he caught a trailing arm and flung her onto the couch. Then, quick as a flash he was straddling the backs of her thighs.
"Get offa me!" She shouted trying to buck him off, but he was too well positioned.
Her right wrist was caught and yanked behind her. She felt a coil of rope slip over her hand and then the rope was pulled taut. She growled in frustration.
She lay on her left wrist, pinning it in front of her but this was soon pulled back too and roped to the first.
"You jerk! Great, are you done now?" Jane asked. It was worth a try.
"Not hardly." Conrad said. He was breathing hard and not just from their little struggle. He wrapped the free ends of the rope swiftly around her wrists pulling them together with neat coils. He tied the free ends of the rope off with a square knot and nodded approvingly.
Jane tried to pull her wrists apart but Conrad knew his knots and it was hopeless.
"Give it a rest, sweetheart. It's not like I haven't done this before." Her tormentor said, he added to her humiliation by swatting her on the backside with the flat of his hand.
Next he took a short length of rope, doubled it over and slipped it between Jane's sturdy leather belt and her jeans. This then went around her wrists and secured them against her waist.
"Don't struggle too much or you'll end up giving yourself a wedgie." He chuckled.
He roughly pulled her up into a sitting position. She tossed her head to get her hair out of her eyes and saw the two thugs practically drooling as they watched the show their boss was putting on.
Conrad took a long coil of rope now. He found the middle and draped it over Jane's neck then slipped the loose ends behind her back to begin forming a shoulder harness. He fed the ends around her body and wrapped them a few times just above her breasts.
"Hey watch those hands, mister!" She said indignantly.
"Jane, whatever do you mean?" He said with mock hurt. Slab and Weasel laughed meanly.
On the third pass he brought the ends back around and this time looped them below her breasts. He was using a long coil of rope this time and now used the loose ends to encircle her upper arms, just above the elbow. With each pass, he pulled her arms slightly closer together. She winced slightly as she felt her shoulders pulled back and her chest pushed forwards.
All this was tied off with another neat square knot.
It was pretty obvious to Jane that Conrad had done this kind of thing before and he obviously enjoyed using his skills.
He hooked one of his legs behind her ankle and then kicked upwards. She yelped as she tumbled backwards and her feet ended up in his lap.
Jane struggled to sit up upwards as Conrad wrapped an arm around her ankles and and fashioned another loop just above her knees. Once again, he made neat coils that bound her thighs together and then the loose ends were passed between her legs, wrapped around the coils and neatly tied off. He repeated the process about her ankles. She was well and truly trussed now.
She could wriggle but that was about it.
Conrad sat back and looked her up and down with a smug expression on his face. "Sometimes I even manage to impress myself." He smirked.
"Well I'm very happy for you." Jane replied, flatly.
He looked slightly abashed as he took a thick square of folded cloth from his pocket. "Some people just don't appreciate good ropework. There is one final touch I need to make though. Say: Ah!"
Jane shook her head, "No way chum. You can forget about that!"
She leaned out of the way as he reached for her and shuffled along the couch but he was quickly on her, pinning her with his body. He pinched her nose, forcing her to open her mouth and then used two fingers to jam the pad between her teeth.
"Mmph! Ghfahommmee!" She spluttered as the material was pressed into her mouth.
He held that in place, muffling the string of curses she was levelling at him. Without a blindfold though, he couldn't do anything about the daggers she was shooting from her eyes. He slowly unknotted the tie from his shirt and wrapped it around her head, securing the gag in place with a tight knot.
"Oh come now, look on the bright side, you'll get an excellent story out of this. I can see the headlines now - I was the prisoner of a dashing and handsome master thief!"
She tried to say, dream on, but it came out more like "Zweem 'n."
"Well I can't claim to understand what you said there but I am going to take it as a compliment. In any case, I think it's time we were away."
Jane let out a muffled squeal as Conrad grabbed her around the thighs and hoisted her onto his shoulder, patted her rump and carried her outside.
He turned to Slab and Weasel, "Gentlemen, I am going to make sure our lovely reporter friend doesn't cause us any more trouble. You continue the loading and I will meet you tomorrow as planned with all the paperwork."
Jane tried to see what was going but all she could see was the back of Conrad's tweed jacket. She was wriggling away but her captor had her well tied and he was holding on firmly.
Weasel watched as Conrad carried the hapless reporter off to his car. "How comes the boss gets to carry off a babe like that and we're here hefting boxes all night." He griped.
"Because he's the boss, that's why." Slab grunted. "Don't sweat it though, when we get paid off the babes will be queuing up."
Conrad carried Jane to his black Lexus. He placed her carefully on the back seat and picked up a picnic blanket from the rear shelf.
"I apologise in advance but I am sure you understand." He smiled, then draped the blanket over her, covering her head.
Jane mewled softly into her gag as Conrad started up the car and drove off.
The stereo in the car came to life and Jane heard the strains of Kenny G wafting from the speakers. Conrad was soon humming along.
Under the blanket Jane groaned and shook her head. Just when she thought things couldn't get any worse!
Nevertheless, the fact she was covered from head to toe was a double-edged sword. Sure, she couldn't see where she was being taken (or for what nefarious purpose!) but he couldn't see what she was doing either.
Jane resolved to do her utmost to undo her bonds or at least find some way of loosening them.
She tried to push the gag out of her mouth with her tongue but the necktie was jammed tightly between her teeth and she made no headway there. If nothing else she was going to have a real case of cotton mouth after this.
There was nothing doing with freeing her wrists either. If she pulled upwards she almost giving herself a wedgie and if she pulled downwards her belt buckle dug into her tummy. In any, no matter how she stretched with her fingers, she was unable to reach any of Conrad's infuriatingly effective knots.
She rubbed her knees and ankles together, trying to move the coils of rope so she could at least increase her range of movement but once again she failed. It was an absolutely maddening predicament for the young reporter and she still had no idea where the weird professor was taking her.
All she managed to do was muss her hair up even more and cause her turtleneck to come untucked from her jeans. None of which was going to help her out much. Her exertions had got her a little hot and bothered but she doubted Conrad would have switched on the a/c for her, even if she had been able to ask him. She would just have to bide her time.
Conrad peered over his shoulder from time to time. He could see his shapely captive wriggling and squirming under the blanket and he could hear her muffled groans of frustration. He couldn't help but get a little excited.
He looked back at the road and saw a familiar signpost. Ah, they were nearly at their destination.
To The Thrilling Conclusion!
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