Gwendoline and the Shadow of Xi
Gwendoline and U-69 were created by John Alexander Scott Coutts, affectionately known as "John Willie".

The year was 1952...

            The Daily Mail had arrived from London and U-69 lounged in her favourite armchair, perusing the current international happenings. She was casually dressed this day, her lithe, athletic form eased into a pink, wispy sleeveless blouse unbuttoned to propriety's furthest limit and a pair of white cotton shorts that revealed long, powerful, well-kept legs. Her feet were bare, her face was unmade and her silky black hair fell to her shoulders in its usual slight curl at the end and bangs.

      As she noted a report on some political upheaval in Communist China, her hand absently fell down the side of the chair. It came to rest on a pink ribbon. She knew instinctively that the ribbon was serving to bind a ponytail of golden blonde hair and that following the hair would lead to the head of her house mate, Gwendoline. U-69 let her hand trail up the hair until it reached the summit, then stroked her housemate's head as if petting a cat.

      Gwendoline didn't protest. She couldn't. Her mouth was packed with a wad of cloth and covered over with a light blue scarf. She couldn't remove the gag because her hands were bound behind her at the wrist and elbow with stout cord. They were further trapped to her torso by cord that ran around her chest and arms, circling over and under her bosom, as well as a single length that ran from her wrists to her ankles, which were similarly bound. A final cord circled her legs just above the knees, severely limiting the young woman's options for movement.

      Gwendoline shivered as U-69 stroked her head, though not from revulsion or fear. She loved her friend and lived for her touch. It was just that it was a cold morning in the English countryside and, as Gwen was only wearing a thin nightgown, she had inadequate protection from the chill.

      "There's been a shake up in the Chinese situation," U-69 commented.

      "Mmmmph," Gwen answered.

      "Really, darling, you must do better," scowled the British agent to her friend, putting her paper down. "You've been trussed up like that for over an hour. Your breakfast has gotten quite cold."


      "No, not this time. You must learn how to escape these things on your own. I've told you how it's done." She watched Gwendoline squirm impotently in the tight, expertly tied bondage and smiled. "Sometimes I think you don't want to escape," and she caressed Gwen's cheek with her hand. Gwen responded gratefully, nuzzling it.

      "I'm off, Gwen dear!" U-69 called as she neared the door. "Meeting of the section heads. Dreary business, most likely, but I can't get out of it. I should be home in time for supper."

      "What would you like?" Gwen asked cheerfully. She was in a more respectable white frock with puffy sleeves and a respectable neckline.

      "You," her friend replied playfully and Gwen blushed. "I'll settle for beef and cabbage, though. Do try to stay out of trouble."

      "I think I'm the one who should be telling you that," Gwen smiled, an eyebrow arched. U-69 blew her a kiss and was gone.

      The day went normally for Gwen. Housework, which her roommate was never very good at and which she excelled at, filled most of the morning and early afternoon. By two, she was sitting down with a cup of tea, planning the evening's menu and alternately thinking what she might wear tonight for the evening's romp. She wanted to come up with a look that U-69 hadn't seen. The process so absorbed her that Gwen failed to hear the rattle of the front door lock being picked and opened. The footsteps of three intruders were likewise unrecognised and Gwen was unaware she had company until they were standing behind her.

      "Where is the black-haired one?" a husky feminine voice asked in English with a heavy accent.

      Instantly four feminine, strong hands seized Gwen and held her to her chair. The three were all women, all Chinese and all strikingly beautiful in the exotic manner Asian women had. The one in the background, the speaker, had short-cropped black hair and was dressed in black pants, shoes and pullover shirt. She had soft coral lips, a thin nose and elegant cheekbones. These features would have captivated any man, but her almond eyes were indifferent and business-like and projected an aura of calculated menace. She gave off the air of someone who expected to be obeyed and knew what you were thinking before you did. Her companions were similarly dressed and openly deferential to her.

      "Oh, dear!" gasped Gwen. "W-Who are you? What are you doing here?"

      "You will answer the question," the leader commanded calmly.

      "T-There's only me here," Gwen thought quickly. "Who are you looking for?" "You lie poorly, woman. Tie her up, quickly."

      Gwen moved to scream, but a wad was stuffed in her mouth before any sound could escape. As one assailant tied a cloth over Gwen's mouth to hold the wad in place, the other produced rope out of a pouch on her belt and in an instant had the blonde's arms pinned to her sides with several passes around her chest. The two Chinese agents worked quickly and efficiently, one binding Gwen's wrists crossed opposite behind her while the other deftly trapped her flailing legs together, binding them at the knee and ankle. In hardly any time at all, Gwendoline was a helpless prisoner, a condition she was all too familiar with. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked up questioningly at the lead intruder.

      "Search the house for the black-haired one," she ordered and the others scurried to obey. "And be careful. She is very crafty." Turning to Gwen, the woman brought a chair opposite her and reclined with an imperious ease, exuding confidence. "I commend you for your loyalty, but you will not be able to protect your friend from me."

      The two underlings returned fifteen minutes later and reported no success in finding U-69, nor any evidence she'd recently been there. Their leader took the news with stoic calm.

      "We must alter our plans," she mused aloud. "Our target will be too observant for us to lie in wait for her here. We will have to lure her to a place we can be sure to trap her." The woman turned to Gwen, the barest hint of a malevolent gleam in her hooded eyes. "Fortunately we have irresistible bait for our trap. Find something to place her in, so that we may leave with no fear of her being seen."

      A cedar chest was brought around as the leader personally bound Gwen into a ball. The young beauty struggled against the efforts to no avail and, with the cords cutting into her skin from multiple angles, found herself lifted up and into the chest. Plunged into darkness, Gwen could only feel her wooden tomb being lifted up and carried out of the house to a fate she didn't dare imagine.

      U-69 returned home and instantly sensed something was amiss. Rather than call out to Gwen and alert whomever might be in wait for her, she cautiously stole into the house, taking in everything that was out of place and all that wasn't. The evening meal wasn't cooking, so whatever had happened probably occurred before five. A careful search of the house revealed Gwendoline was gone and that the house had been searched. In the kitchen, she found a note, handwritten in very precise block letters, as if by a hand used to writing with characters and not script. The note directed her to a tea and spice shop in the Limehouse district of London's East End. It also said to come alone or Gwen would disappear forever. U-69's eyes narrowed.

      Dressed in her black boots, blue jodhpurs, low cut blouse and arm length black gloves, which she considered her work clothes due to their unencumbering fit, and covered in a copper-coloured mackintosh and scarf, U-69 ventured into the dark, ominous back streets of Limehouse. It was a region she was quite familiar with. In her line of work, Limehouse could be as much friendly territory as enemy, and several memorable bouts with German, Russian and Egyptian agents, as well as disagreements with a score of local criminals occurred on these now rain slick streets. For every enemy here, there was also a Wu Fung, Ali Khalid or Limehouse Jack to whom she would trust with her life.

      A gentle mist, caught halfway between rain and fog, fell on the area, dampening the usual night time traffic to nearly nothing. U-69 cursed her foul luck. The usual throng of people, a melting pot of every race, sex and nationality, would have helped conceal her movements. As it was, the tea and spice shop lay on a lonely side street, lonely to the point of being suspect. She knew it was a trap; the note had told her that much. She could see now that it was a professional trap instead of an amateur one. There were a dozen places on the short stretch that could have observers reporting her every move or snipers waiting to kill her.

      The shop itself was relatively small, but backed up against bigger buildings. It whispered its identity as a front to her. She could only guess what actual operation it held. All her training told her to call in and get a field team out here to back her up. But she wouldn't do it; not if it meant Gwen's life.

      Still, she wasn't foolish enough to go in through the front door and present herself to be caught or killed. Working the network of side streets, observing every shadow cautiously, U-69 eased her way around to the blind side of the building connected to the tea shop. Some investigation found a service entrance and some more investigation found no alarms or detection devices. U-69 picked the lock, knowing it had to be guarded on the other side.

      Using the element of surprise, U-69 burst in on the single sentry, an armed Chinese woman. Though stocky in build, the guard was dispensed with a single blow from the deadly agent and in minutes had her hands bound behind her, her legs tied and her mouth taped over with some nearby packing tape. For good measure, U-69 bundled her into a nearby broom cupboard.

      "So is this just some local villain," mused U-69, examining the Russian-made Shpaghin machine gun the guard was armed with, "or is this a Red Chinese Intelligence operation?"

      As she eased her way down a corridor, U-69 observed and thought the problem over. She passed two rooms, each one seeming to be storage rooms for spices the shop sold, though clearly the rooms seemed bigger than the tiny shop needed. Aside from the guard, it looked perfectly normal. U-69 reviewed her briefings; the Chinese weren't up to a specific operation at the moment that section knew of and seemed preoccupied with the political upheaval back home as Mao Tse-Tung consolidated power. Why, then did they want her? How did they even know about her?

      Surreptitiously making her way through the building, U-69 made a furtive search for Gwen. Once she narrowly avoided being spotted by a passing sentry. It seemed like almost a skeleton crew patrolling the building. Maybe most of their forces were concentrated on the front, waiting for her arrival. After the fourth room yielded only another business office or another storage area, the agent began to worry whether Gwen was here at all. Perhaps she had already suffered the dire fate the note predicted for her. If that were the case, someone would pay dearly this night for involving her.

      The last room at the hallway was unlocked. Upon entering, U-69 found another office. It was very spartan and functional, as if only occasionally used. Being at the end of the hall, it had no natural light from the outside and was plunged in deep shadow. As she didn't dare turn on a light, U-69 cautiously sprayed a beam of light from a penlight around the room.

      "Mmmmmmph!" came a stifled cry from the darkness of one corner of the room. The penlight's beam moved to it and illuminated Gwen's face, tear-stained and cleaved by a tight gag. Her look of fear and tenuous hope melted into elation as she recognized U-69. Gwen was tightly bound to a wooden chair with miles of rope, but otherwise none the worse for the wear. It would take a few minutes to get her loose, even with U-69 cutting them with her pocket-knife. The agent worked quickly, praying for those minutes.

      "Perhaps now you realize the importance of learning those escape tricks I've been teaching you," U-69 playfully admonished her friend as she removed the gag. "How long have you been trussed up like this?"

      "Oh, too long, darling!" sighed Gwen, overjoyed at the appearance of her friend. "I'm afraid I lost count. Please hurry! That awful Chinese woman might come back at any moment! She's after you for some reason. She only kidnapped me to draw you here!"

      "Yes, Gwen dear, I deduced that already. Can't imagine what she wants with me, though. Damn, she ties good knots! Better than the old Countess, I'd say."

      "I will take that as a compliment," came a voice from the door. U-69 and Gwen looked to see the Chinese woman and three underlings filling the route to the door. Superior numbers and the pistol in her hand forced U-69 to realize she couldn't take them on.

      "See here," U-69 said in a bluff, rising to her feet. "Just what is the meaning of kidnapping British citizens like this? And what the deuce was that note supposed to mean? You'd better explain yourself or I'll be forced to take this outrage up with Her Majesty's Government!"

      "Do not insult me with so flaccid a pretence," the Chinese woman replied, unmoved. U-69 got a good look at her and could see why. "I have recently discovered you are agent U-69 of the British Secret Intelligence Service. I would not have abducted your friend if I did not think doing so would force you to come to me." She signalled her underlings, who advanced on U-69. "You will pardon my precaution of binding so clever an adversary as yourself. Though your identity was only recently discovered, your reputation is well known in our organization."

      "As is yours," U-69 said calmly as leather straps began to constrict her wrists, legs and torso. "Gwen, dear, you've been abducted by Xi Xiaxang, the most efficient agent the Chinese Communists have." "You surprise me," Xi replied. "I was not aware your government had identified me."

      "The same goes for me. How did you do it?" she asked as she was strapped to a chair next to Gwen.

      "You were identified by one of your Hong Kong operatives who has since gone to meet with her ancestors."

      "Peggy Jennings?" spat U-69 angrily. "No doubt you tortured her! She wouldn't have talked otherwise."

      "Actually it took only a sizable bribe to loosen her tongue," Xi said, towering over her two captives. "However, it is one we were able to retrieve when we prevented her from turning upon us as she turned upon you." Xi strutted with patient confidence before her two bound and helpless prisoners. "You will now tell me as much about the structure of the British Intelligence network, both here and in Asia, as you know. It will be quite a plum for me to take back to China. It will also allow me to vault to a higher position in the government with the current unrest there."

      "Hate to disappoint you, old girl," U-69 quipped humourlessly, glaring at Xi's every move, "but I'll do no such thing." She glanced surreptitiously at Gwen. The blonde was trembling with fear, but to her credit wasn't imploring her to give in.

      "I anticipated as much," Xi said stoically. "The human body is not graced with bottomless wellsprings of stamina. We shall see how much you can endure." Xi signaled and the other women moved to free the bound captives from their chairs. "And, if you prove too stubborn to even listen to the common sense of your pain-wracked body, we shall see how your golden-haired friend fares."

      It was a struggle to stay awake. U-69 wondered for a moment why she had to. Then her hazy vision settled again on Gwen and she remembered.

      They had been taken to one of the large storage areas in the large building behind the tea shop. U-69 wondered why the vast area was needed until she spotted the heavy truck tire prints on the cement floor. Then it hit her; the Chinese Communists were using this front as a hub, smuggling items into the country through the crates of Chinese tea and spice. It was probably an expendable hub, perhaps in the process of being replaced. Why else would Xi risk its exposure in an attempt to capture her?

      Gwen had been stripped down to her bra and panties. Her hands were bound crossed opposite behind her and her torso then criss-crossed with rope, pinning her arms tight. A length of rope circled over her thighs and under her shins, forcing the woman into a kneeling position. She was gagged and her ponytail tied to her crossed arms so she would be forced to watch her friend's travails.

      U-69 had been similarly stripped down. Her captors had been simple, but efficient with her. She dangled from a hook in the ceiling, her wrists bound over her head. A two-foot bar bound to her ankles spread her legs apart. The bar was anchored to the floor, holding the agent stretched tight between the floor and the ceiling. And then they brought out the needles.

      It was astounding to her how much discomfort could come from so little an implement placed in the right spot. Xi Xiaxang had supervised the process herself. The woman had been coldly methodical, patiently questioning the British agent and piercing her skin with another needle when U-69 doggedly refused to answer. The process seemed to take days. U-69 had, over the course of her training, been briefed with the exotic methods of the Chinese Service, but it hadn't prepared her for this.

      Finally Xi realized her efforts would not succeed at that point. The needles were ordered removed and U-69 was left to hang from her wrists with Gwen watching piteously from below. U-69 was amazed she had managed to outlast Xi, but knew that she couldn't hold out forever. Her droopy eyes looked up. How long had they been left alone? Finally she locked onto Gwen. The young blonde was squirming beneath her, gazing up at her friend, her eyes flooded with tears.

      "Gwen," U-69 gasped finally. "Please, dear. Please do as I've taught you."

      Spurred on by her friend's agonized gasps, Gwen tried to slip out of the loops holding firm around her arms. The rope cut into her skin, leaving burned and chafed marks behind as it shifted to virgin territory. She tried to do it. Her mind pictured just what her friend had drilled into her head over and over and she tried gamely. But the cord was just too tight. It hurt her too much when she tried to slip it. Finally Gwen looked back up at U-69, tears bubbling anew from her blue and white pool eyes. She just wasn't strong enough.

      "There there," sighed U-69, the strain clear in her voice. "Don't cry again. I hate--the way you--snuffle. Suppose--it's jolly well up to me."

      Gwen watched impotently as U-69 closed her eyes. She grew perfectly still. Her breathing became so shallow that Gwen feared for a moment that something had gone wrong. But suddenly her eyes opened and Gwen could see that confidence and sense of purpose in U-69 that made her so thrilling and daunting at the same time.

      "Guard!" she cried out in a piteous wail. U-69 seemed to slip behind a mask of broken spirit. "I'll talk! Guard, I'll talk! Call your superior! Tell her I can't take it anymore! Tell her, please!" Then she shot Gwen a wink, just to reassure her.

      Xi Xiaxang entered the cell several minutes later. However, it was not the same Xi that they had encountered before. This was a beautiful woman, a painted face of mystery surrounded by a helmet of fine black hair, silver earrings pointing down to a green floor length silk dress, its thin straps and low cut bodice inviting inspection of her delicate chest. This wasn't a party regular; this was a woman dressed to kill.

      "You have my admiration, U-69," Xi said. "You have endured far more than many could. I had given up hope of breaking you quickly and was about to fall back to an alternative plan, seducing another fool in your Service. He would have provided me with far less satisfactory information. You have saved my expectations and saved me from enduring a night of his insufferable pomposity."

      "Yes, please!" panted U-69. "You have to let me down! I'll tell you anything you want! Just end this!" "You will tell me anything I want," Xi corrected, "and then I will let you down."

      "No!" cried U-69. "Please! I can't take anymore! Please!"

      "What is the name and contact point of your immediate superior?"

      "Please let me down!" she wailed hysterically. "Please!"

      "The sooner you speak, the sooner the agony will end for you."

      Suddenly U-69's body began to convulse with frightening violence, then she went limp against her restraints. Puzzled, Xi crossed over to her, Gwen's muffled screams in the background. She looked U-69 over, a critical eye examining her for the longest time. Then she turned with disgust to her underlings.

      "Take her down," she ordered. "It appears I have gone too far. Let this one rest for now. Later we will take up the question again. If she again becomes reluctant, she may watch the golden haired one suffer. I will be in the office," and she paused with a contemptuous scowl, "with Lord Percival."

      The door slammed shut, leaving Gwen alone with the prone, unmoving body of U-69, lying on the cold concrete floor amid scattered rope. Gwen looked over to her friend with mounting concern. The agent didn't move for the longest time. Then, suddenly, her head sprang up and she gestured to Gwen for quiet.

      "Sorry if I frightened you, darling," she whispered after stiffly scrambling over to Gwen, "but I had to make it look authentic. Nothing less would have fooled Xi Xiaxang. And that's your latest lesson in escape: whenever possible, get your captor to free you. Hang on, I'll have you loose in a tick."

      After Gwen was freed, U-69 paused a moment for a wave of exhaustion to pass.

      "Umm," she groaned softly. "That lot took more out of me than I thought."

      "Darling, are you--" began Gwendoline.

      "I'll be all right," the agent replied and moved silently to the door. She pressed up against it. "Ooh," she groaned in a pained voice for the benefit of the guard. "I feel ill. Gwen, help me!"

      The guard, a young Chinese woman, entered suspiciously and was immediately felled. Working fast, Gwen and U-69 used the scattered ropes to bind and gag the guard.

      "Now what do we do, darling?" Gwen asked.

      "Our first matter of business is to get you out of here. I'm going to have to call in the Home Office, then. This is too big for me to handle by myself, particularly with Lord Percival possibly involved." "Who is Lord Percival?"

      "Civilian Minister to the Service. He deals with budgets and appropriations and the lot. He doesn't know anything particularly sensitive, but he knows who would know and he could lead Xi down the right path to cracking open the Service. Never did like the man, personally. Fancies himself a rogue."

      They made it without incident to the back entrance, where the same guard U-69 had earlier taped up was free and back on duty. The agent, with Gwen's able assistance, left her once more bound and stuffed into the broom cupboard. Clinging to the shadows, Gwen and U-69, still clad in just their underwear, slipped out of the area and made it to a public phone. U-69 rang one of the Service's safe lines and reported the situation at the tea and spice shop while Gwen shivered in the chill evening air.

      After several minutes of reciting cryptic phrases, U-69 hung up and smiled encouragingly at Gwen.

      "Right!" boomed a male voice behind them. The two women turned to find a policeman standing behind them with hands on hips and a tired look of frustration on his face. "What's all this then?"

      "Constable, I can explain," U-69 smiled uncomfortably.

      "You Limehouse tarts are getting more brazen every day," he replied in disgust. "Off to the Police Station with you."

      It took several hours and a phone call from Whitehall to convince the local police to free Gwen and U-69 from the cells. In that time, clothes had mysteriously been delivered in a motor-car that was left for U-69's use. Tired, hungry and just a little irritable, the two intrepid adventurers bundled themselves off into the car and drove to their home in the countryside.

      "Oh, darling," sighed Gwen. "I thought that Police Inspector would never believe us! I had visions of us standing in the dock in the Old Bailey in our unmentionables!"

      "It would have certainly been a sight for the press," U-69 said, allowing herself a tired smile. "Although I'm betting that one look at you and you'd have been sentenced to ten years in M'lud's chambers." Gwen blushed. The car pulled up outside their little cottage and Gwen, dressed in a light blue dress that fell off her shoulders as if it had a mind of its own, bounced out.

      "Oh, I thought I should never see this dear house again!" she squealed. "What would you like for breakfast, darling? I know I'm simply famished!"

      "Gwen, wait!" U-69 called out. "Xi Xiaxang wasn't captured with the rest! Let me check it out first!" But Gwen was already at the door and entering. Mere seconds elapsed.

      "Oh dear!" U-69 heard Gwen gasp in alarm and, throwing caution to the wind in order to head off another threat, went bounding into the cottage, ready for immediate attack.

      What she found instead was Gwen in the centre of the floor, staring dumfounded at Xi Xiaxang sitting tightly bound and gagged in the green gown they had seen her in the previous evening. Xi glared at them, her eyes blazing murderous revenge at U-69 as she squirmed impotently in the grip of the cord criss-crossing her torso and legs and holding her wrists behind her. Or was she glaring at U-69? She didn't tie herself up and she had planned to go see Lord Percival last night. All these thoughts flew through the spy's mind in a moment, but she tumbled to the truth and turned around too late. As she turned, she saw Lord Percival closing the door from behind it.

      "Jolly good," he smiled with struggling sincerity. "You've arrived just in time to assist me with my prisoner. Foolish girl thought she could seduce me into betraying you all. Utter rot! Played along with the old girl until I could subdue her. I was about to call your--"

      "Yes," U-69 interrupted, remembering the unfriendly ears behind her and noting the pistol in Lord Percival's hand dangling from his hip, "you've done an excellent job, your Lordship. I can handle things from here, if you wish to go home and get some rest."

      "Wouldn't hear of it," he proclaimed. "Leave two lovely damsels such as yourselves with this Asian minx? Never!"

      "It's quite all right, sir," U-69 gently insisted. "She's not going to be any threat to us. You've seen to that. You've done as much as Her Majesty could expect of one man."

      "But, darling," Gwen whispered to her, "I thought he was a traitor."

      "Thank you, Gwen," sighed U-69 as Lord Percival's gun leveled at them.

      "So I'm blown, is that it?" he said coolly. "Well then, perhaps it might be best for me to go abroad for a while. Still, I can't very well leave with witnesses who might be able to testify should I wish to return." He picked up some nearby coils of rope and tossed them to Gwen. "Be a good girl and tie your companion up. And make it tight. I'll check."

      Realizing her blunder, Gwen silently appealed to U-69 for forgiveness. The agent nodded, communicating with her eyes her understanding as the rope bit into her gloved hands. Gwen might be hopeless at escaping ropes, but she was learning through osmosis how to tie ropes, a point that U-69 became painfully aware of. Soon she was on the floor, sitting with her arms and legs bound into uselessness.

      After a cursory check of U-69's bindings, Lord Percival holstered his pistol and began on Gwen. In moments she was on the floor as well, her arms bound at the wrist and elbow behind her, cord looped over and under her expansive chest and around her arms, and her legs knotted at the knee and ankle. A strip of adhesive tape pressed onto Gwen's luscious lips as her eyes darted expectantly to her friend, imploring her for one more miracle in what had become an ongoing series of them.

      "Do you intend to shoot us in cold blood?" U-69 asked, stringing out her time.

      "No," her captor replied jauntily. "Far too many questions that way. I must make it look like an accident. Therefore, and you shall have to admire the ingenuity of this, I have planted a bomb near your stove. The explosion will look like the result of an unfortunate gas leak."

      Lord Percival leaned over and taped U-69's mouth shut. Gwen glanced at her, eyes large over her gag. U-69 could sense Xi behind her, struggling with her bondage. Time was running out.

      Then Lord Percival allowed his ego to overcome his sense. He remained knelt down over U-69, admiring his handiwork after gagging her. She saw the opening in a moment, measured him and delivered her bound knees up against his chin with all the force she could muster. The man fell over, stunned but not out. A sharp kick to the head with the stiletto heels of her boots put him out.

      One problem was dealt with. Another still loomed. U-69 fought with the ropes that held her, trying to bring all the tricks of escape she knew to bear. However, she was too long without rest or food. That and the deprivations of her stay with Xi and her minions made her hands fumbling and unresponsive, her limbs leaden and unable to twist and tug in the necessary ways. She shot a worried glance at the terrified Gwen and communicated her helplessness as best she could. There were no more miracles.

      Gwen stared for a moment, uncertain as she always was as to what to do. U-69 began to search for something to aid her. Suddenly her companion threw herself on the floor. The shapely blonde inched over to U-69, strands of hair tossed into her eyes.

      She reached the raven-tressed agent's hands and began pressing her mouth to them. At first, U-69 didn't know what to make of it, but them tumbled to the message and peeled the tape off of Gwen's lips. She thought Gwen might want to make some sort of sentimental farewell, but immediately she could feel the ropes around her wrists being tugged. She murmured something inarticulate through the tape.

      "I'm trying to free you, darling," Gwen replied between bites of the knots. "I'm trying to undo the knots with my teeth. Do hold still."

      Her plan was hopeless. Even if she did manage to pry open the knots, there was no guarantee it would happen before the bomb detonated or Lord Percival woke up. It was a shot in a million, just the type of action Gwen would choose instead of the logical one. But, as she could think of nothing else to do in place of Gwen's plan, U-69 kept still and hoped that God did indeed look out for the innocent. If that was the case, being next to Gwen was the best protection she had.

      The process seemed to take forever. Several times she thought Gwen might give in to exhaustion or frustration and give up, but to her credit the woman never did. While trying to keep still, U-69 looked over to Xi. While the Chinese agent, whose dress had worked its way down her torso during her struggles, exposing a single small, pert breast, continued to work with little success on her own bindings, she stared with unflinching attention at Gwen. Xi had also concluded that Gwen's desperate shot was their best hope. It was enough to make one begin asking forgiveness from one's maker.

      "This may be the last time I ever see you, darling," thought U-69. "It's doubtless we're headed for different afterlives."

      And then she felt the rope around her hands give. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to let her slither her hands out after a few determined tugs. Once her hands were free, U-69 executed several gyrations most people would think impossible for a human body and quivered out of the rest of the rope binding her torso. Not waiting to free herself further, U-69 dragged herself into the kitchen, found the bomb and ripped the timer loose.

      "Thank you, Gwen dear," U-69 sighed moments later, wandering into the room after divesting herself of the remaining ropes and her gag. She sighed as the onset of exhaustion overtook her. "That little stunt of yours saved us all."

      "It was your lesson that did it, darling," beamed Gwen generously. "You did say that the easiest way to escape was to let someone else do it for you."

      "That I did, and you deserve a big reward for remembering." She freed Gwen's arms, then moved on to the captive Xi, peeling the gag off of the woman's ruby lips. "You're going to remain our prisoner until we can turn you over to the Service. Still, I dare say it's a better fate than what he had planned for you."

      "I expected no less," Xi replied stoically. "You fooled me totally in the storage room. If I am destined to lose this day, far better that it be to a worthy foe such as you than to a greedy buffoon such as him." But when U-69 turned away to minister to Gwen, Xi's eyes narrowed with cold fury.

      "But this is not the last time we shall meet, U-69," Xi thought, "and I shall not be so easily fooled again."

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