by Van © 2020

Chapter 1

Dramatis Personæ


Lady Jo
Lady Jo Gladburn, Chief Executive Officer of THE GLADBURN GROUP, commanded a financial consortium with assets in the tens of billions and far-reaching global influence.  She was also charmingly petite, the perfect blend of striking beauty and adorable cuteness, clever and charismatic on camera, a generous philanthropist, well-liked by the public, and not without friends at the Palace and Whitehall. 

For those reasons, it was only natural that her sudden and inexplicable disappearance sent shock waves through global markets, caused an instant and somewhat hysterical clamor in the press (especially the tabloids), and garnered the immediate attention of Scotland Yard.

By all accounts, Lady Jo had left her ancestral home of Gladburn Castle in Cumbria very early on a Monday morning, ensconced in the back of a limousine driven by a company chauffeur and accompanied by her longtime executive assistant, Olivia Goodbody.  It was Her Ladyship's usual routine, commuting to The City to begin her workweek and returning to The Castle the next Friday.  Sometimes she did take the company helicopter, but most of the time she traveled by limo.

Anyway, on this particular occasion, somewhere between the Lake District and London, her Rolls Royce Phantom simply... vanished.

At GLADBURN GROUP WORLD HEADQUARTERS near the top of 30 St. Mary Ax (aka "The Gerkin Building," aka "The Crystal Phallus"), her absence (and Olivia's) was noted almost immediately and an in-house investigation initiated.  It went nowhere.

By midday, GLADBURN's London Board had made the decision to notify the police.  The story leaked to the press shortly thereafter, just in time for banner headlines in all the evening editions above thoroughly researched stories chronicling all the "known" details of Lady Jo's violent abduction, her unexpected decision to enter a Buddhist nunnery, her clandestine elopement with Daniel Radcliffe, and her secret three-way tryst with Harry and Megan.

Scotland Yard's spokesman was quick to point out that at this point very little was known about Lady Jo's whereabouts or current status and requested the public's assistance.

The Dalai Lama's spokesperson refused comment.

Daniel Radcliffe was strangely silent.
A visibly exasperated Palace spokesperson denied any involvement by the Royal Family and pointed out that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were happily married and the press should all just sod off.  (The elderly gentleman retired shortly thereafter, supposedly to spend more time with his stamp collection.)

The Sun announced that there was credible evidence aliens from Epsilon Eridani were responsible for Lady Jo's disappearance, citing an anonymous and "highly credible" source in the upper ranks of Royal Space Force Command who categorically stated that she was being held captive in the harem of the Galactic Lizard King aboard his orbiting space palace somewhere in the Oort cloud.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense pointed out that there was no such bloody thing as "Royal Space Force Command."

The European Space Agency, NASA, Roscosmos, and China National Space Administration refused comment (which The Sun insisted was highly suspicious and clear evidence of an international conspiracy to mislead the public).

Nothing happened for a week... two weeks... a month... six weeks.

And then, the burned-out shell of Lady Jo's Rolls was discovered in the charred ruins of an abandoned hay barn near Spalding in Linconshire (of all places).

This caused a new round of press reports (meaning a new round of blatantly uninformed speculation).

The Sun pointed out that the Rolls' scorched condition was exactly the sort of destruction that would have been caused by the X-ray lasers of an Epsilon Eridani Star Frigate.

Eventually, the case went cold, Scotland Yard more-or-less admitted it was fresh out of leads, and the press lost interest.

There was at least one person, however, who did not lose interest.

 Chapter 1

Effie Dennings was a successful freelance investigative journalist and well respected by all the important news outlets.  That is, the proceeds from her stories paid the rent on her crappy apartment with enough left over for beer, and most editors returned her calls or answered her e-mails (eventually).

A strapping 5' 1" in her bare feet, Effie was decidedly petite, as cute as the proverbial bug with longish, gleaming brown hair, a dimpled smile, and sparkling brown doe eyes that opened doors, a valuable asset in her line of work.

Effie was also Canadian.  She worked out of "The 6ix" (the Greater Toronto Area), but thought nothing of following a story to Ottawa, Montreal, The Big Apple, Beantown, Philly, The Windy City, or wherever it led (even Moosejaw on one not-so-memorable occasion). 

And Effie Dennings never ever took no for an answer!  Okay, occasionally she found herself on the wrong side of a slammed door and was forced to take no for an answer, but she was nothing if not persistent.

The Lady Gladburn Disappearance was a HUGE hairy deal when it first broke, and Effie decided she might as well look into it.  Of course, breaking open a story in the UK via phone and internet from Canada was a daunting proposition, and even if she could afford a trip to London she doubted she'd get much further than the locals; however, she could and did look into aspects of the story other than the law enforcement angle, which seemed to be the exclusive focus of the British press.

That's not to say the Lady Jo Mystery was the only thing on Effie's plate.  To mix metaphors, there were a lot fish in the sea and she always had lots of irons in the fire.  She let Lady Jo's possible abduction simmer in the pot with everything else and followed leads when and if they bubbled to the surface.  Effie was persistent and a multi-tasker.

Leads, you say?  What leads?

Effie wasn't a forensic accountant.  Nor was she a business reporter.  However, she had a keen eye for patterns, and while mining GLADBURN quarterly and annual reports, press releases, and puff-pieces in the business news, she thought she might have spotted something.  And after three more months of diligent labor (albeit sporadic diligent labor), she decided she definitely had spotted something!  Probably.  Maybe.

The Dragon Lady!
THE GLADBURN GROUP had long been arch rivals with DRāGON GLOBAL ASSOCIATES, an American consortium based out of New York and run by one Kyler Drāgon.  Both concerns were of similar size and scope, so they were natural competitors; however, there were strong hints that a degree of personal animus was involved.

By the way, the "long a" or "a with a macron" thing with respect to Kyler's last name was a notorious affectation on her part.  It would seem she had a reputation for being something of a blond bitch.  None of the business press would ever call her that in print, of course, but Effie could read between the lines.

Anyway, GLADBURN and DāRAGON had been butting heads for as far back as Effie cared to search the internet—right up to exactly three days after Lady Jo's disappearance, when the two rivals casually announced a joint venture to develop wind farms in Argentina.  Such an occurrence could be explained by unusual economic/financial/political circumstances.  After all, bitter rivals have been known to swallow their pride and cooperate before.  Money was money.  However, as weeks turned into months... reports of cooperation between the two "rivals" became more and more frequent.

Maybe it meant nothing, but Effie had learned a long time ago that when you're unraveling a mystery, an event immediately followed by a highly unusual event indicates a lead!  Sometimes.  Now and then.

Effie reached out to GLADBURN's press office via e-mail, requesting information not disclosed in their press statements.  She received a prompt reply and her questions were answered.  She asked for more information, and again, her request was answered.  And then, after her third request for even more information (and much to her surprise), Effie received a message from Eve Darlington, GLADBURN's Chief Operating Officer (and acting CEO pending Lady Jo's hoped for return).

Eve Darlington

A correspondence developed, first by e-mail, then by telephone, and finally by a series of transatlantic video-chats on Skype.

Effie: "If you don't mind my saying so, I find GLADBURN's ever closer relationship with DRāGON somewhat surprising.  According to everything I've read, there's no love lost between Lady Jo and 'The Dragon Lady,' and now you're practically partners."
Eve [laughing]: "Partners is a bit of an exaggeration, but I get your point.  Our so-called rivalry with DRāGON has been overblown.  Jo's personal dislike of Kyler Drāgon was well known, but we never let it get in the way of business.  A team was working on the Argentinian wind farm venture for some months before Her Ladyship disappeared.  Off the record, Jo was opposed to the project, but once I became acting CEO, the go or no go decision became mine and I had to follow my best judgement.  The numbers were favorable, so I approved the proposal and it went forward."

Effie: "And Her Ladyship wasn't there to stop it."

Eve [somewhat coolly]: "What exactly are you implying, Ms. Dennings?"

Effie: "Oh, hey, nothing.  Sorry.  I'm sure nothing sinister was involved.  The timing was just a coincidence.  What else could it be?"

Eve [her smile returning]: "Yes, I suppose it was 'just a coincidence.'  But now that you mention it, Kyler Drāgon called me in person to suggest finalizing the deal, and she was quite adamant, even though the arrangements weren't particularly time critical.  We could easily have waited.  Now that I think back on the incident, it seems odd.  Hmm.  You've piqued my curiosity, Ms. Dennings.  Let me have my staff do a little research and we can discuss the matter further.  I'll be in the states next week for my quarterly visit to our New York offices.  Is there any chance we can meet?  I understand Manhattan isn't terribly far from Toronto."

Effie: "New York?  No problem."

Eve: "Brilliant.  We'll have lunch."

Effie: "I'd like that."

Eve: "Then it's a date.  Once my schedule firms up I'll have my secretary make the arrangements and ring you up.  Until then, Ms. Dennings.  Goodbye."

Effie: "Sure thing.  Goodbye, Ms. Darlington."

Eve: "Please, call me Eve."
"And call me Effie!" Effie blurted as her laptop screen went blank.  It wasn't clear if her parting words had been heard.  Anyway, things were looking up!  She might be getting important answers to the rest of her GLADBURN/DRāGON questions and find out what, if any, light they shed on The Lady Jo Mystery.  And straight from the horse's mouth!

 Chapter 1

When Effie received the call confirming the date, time, and location for her luncheon "date" with Eve Darlington, she was stunned!  The Four Seasons!  The luxurious, famous, five-star hotel overlooking Central Park!  And not in the lounge or restaurant, but in Eve Darlington's hotel room!  Wow!

This called for Effie's finest!.  Actually, almost all the business clothing she owned were variations on a single theme: black pants and black jacket.  However, she did have a favorite ensemble, a relatively new black jacket that went well with her best black leather pants.  It would have to do.  Just a tad masculine?  Maybe, but it was business-appropriate and social-appropriate for everything but the most formal of occasions.  She had a Little Black Dress for fancy shindigs, but wasn't sure what signal she'd send if she knocked on Eve's hotel room door wearing her LBD.  Besides, Effie hated high-heeled pumps.  No, black jacket and leather pants would do just fine.  (They'd have to do.)  But she did splurge on a new white blouse and she polished her black Doc Martin Chelsea Boots to a high-gloss shine.

Effie drove her black (previously owned) 2014 Hyundai Accent to New York the day before the meeting and checked into a hotel much cheaper than The Four Seasons.  The next day, she took a cab to 57 East 57th Street, timing her arrival for the scheduled time.  She was met in the lobby by a cute little secretary type in a smart business suit (high-heeled pumps, skirt, jacket, and blouse, all expensive and all in complementary shades of mulberry-red.  She had a brunette pageboy, dimpled smile, big blue eyes, and was only a couple of inches taller than Effie (thanks to her stylish heels) and she was adorable.  She was also friendly, polite, efficient, and led Effie through the lobby to an elevator, then up to a penthouse suite!  Wow!  Effie's adorable guide used a key-card to open the suite's double doors, then stood aside to let her enter.

The room beyond was decorated with exquisite taste—but it was a penthouse at The Four Seasons, so that was hardly surprising.  Across the expansive living room, entry lounge, or whatever they called it, Effie could see a window-wall with an open sliding glass door leading out onto a balcony with a magnificent vista of Central Park and the towers of Manhattan. 
Out on the balcony, with her back turned to Effie, a blond woman wearing a business suit was seated at a cafe table and sipping a stemmed glass of white wine.

"She's here, madam!" the adorable brunette with the pageboy announced.

The blonde stood and turned, and—Effie's eyes popped wide in surprise!  What the hell?  The blonde was Kyler Drāgon!  The Dragon Lady herself!  She was smiling.


Sometime later... Effie realized the adorable brunette with the pageboy had zapped her with a taser!  Also, a pair of statuesque and powerfully built women in black outfits (much like Effie's, but by necessity several sizes larger) had appeared from elsewhere in the suite and were already fully involved in the act of manhandling her!

Belatedly, Effie began struggling.  "What?  Hey!  Hey!  Get your fucking hands off me you bastards!  Mrrrrpfh!"

The female gorillas in black suits—who were obviously bodyguards or security types and very well versed in the art of manhandling petite, indignant Canadians—had crammed a distressingly large ball-gag into Effie's mouth, buckled it tight under her hair, then followed through with a single wide strip of off-white Microfoam medical tape which one of them plastered over most of her lower face!  "Mmpfh!"  Effie was gagged!  "Mrrrrrf!"  She kicked and fought, but her assailants/handlers easily controlled her squirming body and countered her every move.  "Nrrmpf!"  They also unbuttoned her jacket and pulled it over her arms and off her body!  Followed by her blouse!

The adorable brunette with the pageboy smiled and accepted Effie's clothing items, one by one, as the squirming journalist was methodically stripped!  Each item was carefully folded and neatly stacked on a nearby side table.


Next came Effie's bra, followed by her boots... pants... socks... panties... and she was now completely naked!


Also, one of the she-goons had handcuffed Effie's wrists behind her now bare back!  The other continued controlling her struggles with depressingly trivial ease.

By this time, Kyler had entered the suite and were smiling and watching Effie's humiliation and subjugation as if it was a floor show arranged by the concierge for her amusement.  Effie noted that her designer business ensemble was custom tailored, obviously and hideously expensive, and the grinning villainess looked absolutely stunning—not that admiring the clothing of sinister female financiers' was high on Effie's list of things-to-do.

"Oh, just look at that adorable little body," Kyler purred with an openly predatory smile.  "She'll do quite nicely."

Meanwhile, the adorable brunette in the pageboy had disrobed to her underwear—What?—and was donning Effie's pants, blouse, jacket, and boots!  "Mrrrf?"

"Don't worry, Ms. Dennings," Kyler chuckled.  "My Cheryl will take very good care of your things, and you won't be needing them again, anyway."  She smiled at the clothing thief, who apparently was named "Cheryl").  "She's quite the little actress," Kyler continued, "and once she adds the appropriate wig and pops brown contacts into her pretty blue eyes, everyone she passes will think she's you."  Cheryl was slipping her feet into Effie's boots and zipping them up.  "She knows where all the hotel security cameras are located and will be careful not to let them record a usable image of her face."  She turned back to Effie.  "And my people are already emptying out your hotel room and disposing of your automobile.  Once you—by which I mean Cheryl—strolls through the lobby and disappears into Central Park, that will be that."  She nodded at one of Effie's towering handlers.

Effie watched with growing alarm as the handler in question pulled a folded handkerchief and a small glass vial from her jacket pocket and emptied the vial into the white cloth.  "Nrrrrrm!"  Effie managed one swift kick (which was easily dodged by the she-goon with the handkerchief), then the cloth was clamped over her nose and gagged mouth!  An acrid smell burned her sinuses, throat, and lungs... a buzzing began in her ears... her eyes lost focus... then everything went black.

 Chapter 1

Effie opened her eyes.

She was lying on her side on a huge, decadently comfortable bed and staring through an expansive window-wall at the urban landscape of Manhattan.  The tail end of a beautiful sunset was painting the skyscrapers with red-orange light.  And down below, Central Park was already fading into deep purple shadows.  Lights were glowing in many of the countless windows, but it was too early for streetlights.

Effie focused on her immediate surroundings and realized she was in a luxurious bedroom.  Was she still in Eve Darlington's penthouse suite?  The view out the window was more-or-less the same as the vista beyond the balcony she'd noticed earlier, so it was a safe bet.

Also—and it was no small thing—Effie was still naked, ball-gagged and tape-gagged, and now she was tightly tied up with white rope, from her shoulders to her toes!


Her bonds were twisted, multi-strand rope, about ¼" in diameter and surprisingly soft.  Silk?  Maybe.  Maybe polyester.  Whatever the stuff was made of, it seemed to hold a knot quite well, not that knots were much of an issue.  Effie's hands had been balled into fists and mummified with taut, smooth, overlapping layers of some sort of strong tape, possibly duct tape.

Effie's arms were behind her back, her tape-mitten-hands crossed, and her wrists and arms lashed against her torso.  Horizontal and diagonal bands pinned her upper arms to her sides, above and below her breasts—yoked her shoulders and crisscrossed between her breasts—encircled her waist and her forearms—and lashed her legs together.  That is, multiple white bands encircled her legs at her mid-thighs, above and below her knees, and around her mid-lower legs, ankles, feet, and big-toes!  And at every opportunity all of the bindings had been cinched—between her arms and torso, between her legs, and between her ankles and feet.  Even her toe-bonds were cinched!

By the way, her rope-crazy captor (whoever he or she might be) had used thin white cord to tie her toes, rather than the thicker white rope binding her elsewhere.  And everything was tight enough to dimple her skin!


Receiving no answer to her imperious summons, Effie decided she'd have to free herself.  She twisted, squirmed, kicked, and rolled on the increasingly rumpled bed, doing her absolute best to perform the required miracle.

Finally, after two very long, very strenuous minutes... Effie admitted defeat... at least for now.  Lying on her side, Effie panted through her nose.  Her heart hammered and her ever-so-slightly rope-pinched boobs heaved... or tried to heave.  She was panting because of her strenuous but failed efforts to wiggle out of the tight ropes, of course, not because she was afraid.  Okay, Effie was afraid.  She wasn't stupid.  Well Effie, she mused, staring up at the ceiling, you've managed to land yourself in a tight spot this time... no pun intended.

So... options.

Effie supposed she could squirm to the edge of the bed—plant her feet on the soft carpet—stand—bunny-hop to the closed bedroom door—somehow manage to open said door with her tape-mitten-hands—bunny-hop all the way to the suite's front door—somehow open that door with her tape-mitten-hands—then bunny-hop out into the hallway and find the nearest concierge, member of the cleaning staff, and/or a room service waiter.  She assumed The Four Seasons staff would consider freeing any naked, bound, and gagged damsels-in-distress they might encounter within the purview of the hotel's world-famous 5-star service.

All that depended on Kyler Drāgon, the two tall amazon gorillas who had grabbed her, and Cheryl-the-adorable-brunette-clothing-thief-with-the-pageboy either being absent or deciding to watch her naked, bouncing escape efforts without interfering.
Effie decided to call that Plan A.  As for Plan B... she'd have to think about it.

Just then, a door opened and Kyler Drāgon casually strolled into the bedroom.  She was wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her torso, so Effie assumed she'd just taken a shower and was emerging from the bathroom.  Apparently, this is Kyler Drāgon's suite, Effie reasoned, and not Eve Darlington's.  I've been duped, and I don't like being duped... or being stripped naked, gagged, and tied up... but then, who does?
"Good, you're awake," Kyler purred as she padded to the bed.

Kyler's beautiful face was set in a friendly smile, but for some reason Effie wasn't reassured.  She noted the blonde's hair was pulled back in a ponytail and appeared to be dry, not even damp.  Effie assumed it had all been stuffed under a shower cap during the assumed shower.  Also, Kyler's makeup was perfect, including her lip gloss.  Apparently, Effie had regained consciousness after her captor had turned off the water and/or finished blow-drying her hair.  Either that or the bathroom was very effectively soundproofed.

Still smiling, Kyler sat on the bed and lightly rested her right hand on Effie's left shoulder.

"Mrrr!" Effie complained, jerking her shoulder away.

Kyler's smile took an overtly sinister twist.  She then reached out, clutched a generous handhold of Effie's left breast—and squeezed.

"Mrrrrf!"  Effie kicked and squirmed but was unable to free her boob from The Dragon Lady's vice-like grip.

"I tied you up myself," Kyler gloated in a near whisper.  "Why should I let my employees have all the fun?"  She released her grip, then began combing errant strands of Effie's tousled brown hair from her gagged face.  "I did a good job, don't you agree?"

Effie shivered in her bonds and stared razor-sharp daggers suitable for skinning grizzly bears at her beautiful, blond, semi-clothed captor.  She didn't bother even trying to answer the obviously rhetorical questions.

Kyler then stood, removed the towel wrapped around her torso, and dropped it to the floor—revealing her tan, toned, curvaceous and exquisitely fit body in all its villainous glory.  "I have a party to finish getting ready for," she purred, "so I'll have to leave you.  But don't worry.  Very soon my ladies will be along to get you ready to travel."

Effie blinked in alarm.  'Travel?'  That doesn't sound good.

Kyler entered a walk-in closet and Effie decided to take that as permission to escape.  Unfortunately, Round Two of twisting, rolling, and kicking her naked, bound, and gagged body on the bed was no more productive than Round One.

Minutes passed... then Kyler emerged from the closet wearing a full-length, strapless, form-hugging, glamorous gown of shirred black silk.  Her hair was free of the ponytail, loose about her shoulders in "tousled" waves, and framing her smiling face.  A necklace of sparkling diamonds that had to be worth a small fortune graced her swan-like neck.  She was a glamorous, gorgeous vision.  Also evil.

"I look forward to our next meeting, Ms. Dennings," Kyler purred.  "Until then."  She then turned and strolled from the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Effie watched her go, then decided Round Three of Operation Free Myself was in order.  Several minutes of futile effort later... she relaxed.

Suddenly, the door flew open and the two amazon gorillas in black suits, Effie's initial captors, trooped into the bedroom.  One was wheeling a large, bulky piece of obviously expensive luggage, something between a small steamer trunk and a very large suitcase.

Effie watched from the bed (with understandable apprehension) as the she-goons opened the suitcase/trunk.  "NRRR!"  Even though she knew it was useless, Effie began Round Four of enthusiastic struggling and squirming.

The suitcase/trunk's interior was thickly padded with some sort of black foam and there was a cutout the exact size and shape of a human body folded into the fetal position!  There were also several wide straps of black nylon webbing with hefty snap-buckles, and clamped in a small cutout in the lid was a compact gas cylinder painted the bright green color Effie knew was code for compressed oxygen!  And dangling from the cylinder's regulator by a length of clear, coiled plastic tubing was a clear plastic breathing mask with a head-harness of more black nylon webbing and snap-buckles!

One of the she-goons busied herself by carefully arranged the straps and breathing mask, readying them for use.  The other strolled to the bed, sat, and pulled Effie's furiously squirming and mewling head and rope-yoked shoulders onto her lap.  Effie continued struggling as the amazon pulled a plastic syrette from her inside jacket pocket and removed the cap!


Effie did not what to be injected with whatever was in that spring-loaded syringe!  Unfortunately, as the she-goon was big and strong and Effie was petite and quite thoroughly tied up, her opinion was entirely moot.  The amazon placed the business end of the syrette against Effie's neck, just under her left ear, and despite Effie's best efforts to squirm away.

Effie heard a quiet click and immediately felt a sting... which was followed by a sensation of intense cold at the injection point... which quickly became a burning sensation... which was followed by... darkness.

 Chapter 1


Chapter 2