New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

November 28, 2009

Casting Shadows: Underlying Problems

They were all gathered around Kyra and her computer on a small table with their backs to the door when Jack and I arrived. We entered the room, Jack a step behind me, unnoticed until Jack cleared his throat. As they all turned to greet us, my eyes focused on Mr. Candle and his awkward stance leaning into the team's circle and yet remaining an outsider. I wondered why he stayed now that I was free, but kept the question to myself.

"Any luck?" Jack asked.

Tom shook his head signifying the general feeling in the room. His eyes turned toward me for a moment longer than anywhere else and a grim smile appeared and disappeared on his lips. I read it as guilt over my capture, although even I realized there was nothing more anyone could have expected him to do. We had walked or rather drove, straight into a trap and even in its aftermath the subtle hints that might have warned us, seemed less than conclusive and far from obvious.

"Nothing," Dr. Michaels said. "Kyra was able to narrow their escape path to two possibilities but the trail dead ends on both paths without any conclusive evidence."

"I don't think they'll leave the immediate area," I said. "At least not for very long."

"You overheard something?" Dr. Michaels asked.

I stepped forward, moving a little closer to the computer on the table. It occurred to me to respond to Dr. Michaels question with a negative, but I held back. What I had learned from my captivity was not so much overheard as directed at me, but revealing that truth might cause the others to doubt my deductions as things my captors had wanted me to think. It was even possible I realized, but my instincts told me to trust the artifacts and in this case the artifacts and what I gleamed from my captors were leading in the same direction.

"Kyra, I recall you mentioning there were discrepancies between the two maps we found?" I said.

"What do the maps have to do with anything?" Dr. Michaels said.

"I for one believe them to be genuine in origin, but that does not really matter because what does matter is that Olivia and her friends believe they are real and that is why they came here in the first place," I said.

"Evidence to the contrary Miss West," Mr. Candle said, walking to stand like a barricade between myself and Kyra. "How can you be certain of their intentions or beliefs?"

"Because of all the things they could have asked me, they asked about the maps," I said, staring unflinchingly into Mr. Candle's unblinking eyes.

"Hardly conclusive," Dr. Michaels said, leaning up against the table and looking me up and down with a critical eye as if he were evaluating my sanity.

Looking away from Mr. Candle, I closed my eyes and inhaled a deep breath. My ears burned with a touch of embarrassment as I struggled to keep my impatience under control. The last thing I needed was another bare bottom spanking in front of my colleagues, but I knew if I did not watch my step it was precisely the invitation I would be laying down for Jack and everyone else.

"You're right. I don't know definitively what they are planning or why they even wanted me," I said, opening my eyes to gaze confidently at Dr. Michaels, "But we don't have a lot to go on here and I strongly believe we should at least investigate the possibility these maps might actually have a purpose beyond wasting our time."

"Kyra pull up the maps," Jack ordered, joining the rest of us near the computer and twisting his head for a moment to look me in the face, "You've got five minutes to turn us all into believers."

Dr. Michael's eyes narrowed as he looked to Jack, but there was a thin smile on his lips. I turned back to Kyra and the computer and received an approving nod from Mr. Candle as he stepped aside, giving me a clear view. The maps were outlined on the screen in individual side-by-side windows, their differences minor enough as to look identical from my vantage.

"Can you overlay the two maps and highlight the areas of variance?" I asked, already knowing she could and nodding as she did it rather than answering my question. The display highlighted only a single area on the coastline. "Great. Now can you put a modern day map of the island underneath?"

"Okay," Kyra said, making the necessary adjustments with her mouse and aligning all three maps in layers on top of each other.

"Now cut away everything but the region of variance between the first two," I said and Kyra nodded clicking her mouse until only the highlighted region on the coastline remained. "What's there?"

Kyra typed a few characters and the modern day map reappeared with the area we were interested in flashing on the screen. A mouse click later and the map swapped out for an overhead satellite image and a couple more clicks zoomed the picture in until the details on the ground could be seen. I do not think anyone was particularly surprised to find the region was lined with a series of Moai, the whole island is populated with the strange statues, but Dr. Michaels' eyes narrowed and the faint smile on his lips drew flat.

"Curious isn't it?" I said, hoping it would be enough to convince them to pursue my theory.

"Finding Moai on Easter Island is sort of like finding hay in a barn," Kyra said.

"These aren't just any Moai," Dr. Michaels said, looking to me as if he wondered if I too knew the significance, "These are the only ones facing the ocean."

"What's it mean?" asked Jack.

"No one knows," Dr. Michaels said.

"They're markers," I said, looking at Dr. Michaels for any sign of confirmation to my theory, but there was none. "Kyra, do you have a geological survey of the island? Something that could tell us what is underneath those statues."

"What are you thinking, Miss West?" Mr. Candle asked, while Kyra pulled up the information I requested.

"A cave, a vault, something locked away and hidden by the Moai," I said, placing my hand on the back of Kyra's chair and leaning over her shoulder to look at the proof displayed on her screen. A pocket of emptiness showed blatantly on the survey and only a few feet from the misaligned Moai. "There. Whatever they are looking for is inside that cave."

"Turn the Moai so there backs face the sea to find the entrance?" Dr. Michaels said, looking to me as if I suddenly had all the answers.

"It makes sense, but I'm not sure how it can be accomplished," I said with a shrug.

"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Kyra mumbled almost too quietly to be heard.

"Don't know about the rest of you, but I'm convinced," Tom said, leaving his place off to the side of the computer and coming to stand next to me.

"It's worth a look," Dr. Michaels said, giving Jack a slight nod.

"Kyra, keep trying to track their escape route here," Jack said, shoulders tensing and a sparkle of excitement twinkling in his eyes. "Tom you're with Kyra. Dr. Michael's, V, Joe, you're with me."

Tom bristled with annoyance saying, "Jack—

"No arguments. I need you here just in case this is another elaborate trap," Jack said.

Six hours later we were standing on the shores of Rapa Nui staring at failure. The area was cordoned off by local police with tourists standing around, some gaping openly at the sight while others were obviously confused. Their backs now to the sea, the Moai appeared to almost be looking down on me, laughing. Mr. Candle made a call and a few minutes later the police allowed us inside their perimeter, but I held little hope we would find anything left of value.

In their turning, the Moai had revealed a passage undoubtedly leading to the cave we had spied on Kyra's computer screen. Stone steps led down through dead roots and webs of ancient dust. The walls were solid, illuminated by regularly spaced torches, and covered with colorful petroglyphs whose vibrancy would soon fade from their sudden exposure to the elements of modern nature. Dr. Michaels snapped digital pictures as we descended the steep path.

The narrow passage opened up into the larger cavern. At its center, a stone, rectangular altar rose up from the floor, reminding me more of an executive desk than the sacrificial icon it should have suggested. Above it, swinging gently from the ceiling a chandelier made of animal bones provided light and shadows to the circular room. The walls were covered in more petroglyphs which seemed to tell a story beginning on the right side of the doorway and encircling the room back around the left side. I intuitively understood the purpose, but the meaning was beyond my initial understanding.

Dr. Michaels knelt down near the altar and pinched dust between his fingers. Curious, I looked closer and noticed there were a series of similarly shaped piles of dust surrounding the altar. Mr. Candle stepped around to the far side of the altar, studying the petroglyphs on the wall with an odd look of sadness on his face. Dr. Michaels rubbed the dust remnants between his fingers and looked back at Jack who stood at the entrance, taking in the room.

"Leaves, probably banana leaves," Dr. Michaels said, as if it explained everything. "They were most likely destroyed when the passage was opened exposing them to fresh air."

"Significance?" Jack asked, still looking around.

"They would have been used for writing," Dr. Michaels said, standing back up and shining his flashlight around the room, obviously searching for something else he expected to find. He stopped the light on a lower part of the wall where the outline of a wide rectangle remained imprinted on the stone wall. "Most likely tablets and undoubtedly the reason they came."

"What about the petroglyphs? Do they tell us anything of what might have been on the tablets?" Jack asked, motioning at the walls around us.

Dr. Michaels moved his flashlight slowly around the room, taking a careful look before answering, "It is possible, but it will take some time to discern their meaning."

"Make sure you get a complete photographic record of the whole room," Jack said, nodding. "Joe, V, let's get out of Gene's way and let him do his work."

Outside on the surface, Mr. Candle took my arm and guided me away from Jack and the authorities to a place where we were in essence alone. I shivered with the cold sea breeze blowing through my hair as I looked down below the cliff we stood upon at the endless blue ocean beyond. He was angry like the waves crashing against the rocks.

"I didn't tell them," I said, meeting his gaze with my own.

"I never suggested you had," Mr. Candle said.

"We were late. I tried to tell them, tried to convince them, but no one listened," I said.

"And you think they should have?" He asked.

"I've been right more than I've been wrong." I said.

"Have you?"

"The compasses, the medallion, the crystal, the maps, yes, I've been right," I said.

"And you think those are the only times that matter?" He asked, turning to face me directly and his hand tightening its grip on my arm as if he expected me to try to pull away.

"Are you saying they aren't?" I asked, knowing his inference exactly and wondering if he had the nerve to say it aloud to my face.

"You haven't made things easy," He said. "Jack wants to trust you, but you're behavior makes it difficult."

"I've made some mistakes, but that's no reason to ignore my insights," I said.

"You don't understand. It's not mistakes that are the problem. We all make mistakes, but you give the impression that you think rules are for everyone else and not you," Mr. Candle said, his eyes boring into my own.

I trembled under his gaze. Like being scolded by my parents, I felt insignificant and small and incredibly stupid. His view was not strictly correct, but it was all too easy to see myself through the tinted glasses he wore and it was like staring at a spoiled brat with no concept of anyone but herself. It was not me, but it felt like a sliver of truth anyway.

"I know the rules apply to me," I said, my hand reaching back and massaging my still sore buttocks as proof.

"Then follow them. This team will only succeed when you do," Mr. Candle said. "As much as I dislike it, Jack was right to reduce your standing."

"I'm willing to put in the effort to make up for my bad choices, but can we really afford to lose like we have today?" I said.

"It's better we lose a few times than to allow your recklessness to endanger everyone and everything," Mr. Candle said.

November 25, 2009

Casting Shadows: Dreams & Doubts

I was lucky or so I was told, having escaped without any serious injuries from the hours I was held captive and tortured. I was not certain I agreed with the medical assertion, my back, shoulders and arms felt as if every muscle had been systemically pulled, strained, ripped, torn, and rearranged and then there was my backside. Sitting , standing, laying, position did not matter, my buttocks ached and throbbed worse than anytime I could remember, but that was not all the fault of Olivia or the man in the shadows. Dr. Michaels had his share in that blame as did Jack, although it seemed unwise to point the fact out to either man.

The combination of physical strain and drugs on my system had left me exhausted. Kyra had been kind enough to help me back to our room where I promptly crashed on the creaky bed and fell into a deep sleep. Not surprisingly, my mind wrestled with the unresolved mysteries of my recent experiences, in the form of nightmares.

Confined to an ethereal existence in the form of a child, I watched family and friends scurrying about their lives as if I had never been a part of them. I tried to talk to them, but my words floated passed their ears, unheard. I reached out to touch them and my fingers slipped through their bodies as they walked on through mine. My every attempt to connect ended in failure and added to an ever increasing sense of frustration that should have resulted in tears, but even that luxury was denied me. Faster and faster the world moved on without me, leaving me in a blur of color, sound and motion overwhelming my senses until I was as numb to the world as it was to me.

With nothing left to cling to I floated away into the sky where I soared from the highest peaks of mountains down to the surface of the calmest blue seas. A large, white yacht caught my eye and I changed my course to investigate it as a curious feeling of familiarity washed over me. On the bow, I recognized the face of Alexander Kemp staring out over the railing at the sea ahead and consequently me. Next to him, Olivia leaned with her back against the chrome railing, obviously more interested in something happening on the deck.

She was wore nothing except for her combat boots, but she gave no indication that she minded. Her buttocks were covered with horizontal, red, glowing weals and yet she smiled as if there was no pain to accompany the marks. In her hand, she held a champagne flute, half full and half empty. I drifted to a stop above her, she lifted the glass and nodded at me before taking another sip which oddly did nothing to change its fullness or emptiness. Her attention quickly shifted away from me and back to the scene unfolding on the deck.

Joseph Candle stood in the middle of the deck holding a thick leather strap in his hand. His face was customarily stoic, but his eyes were glowing with glee. Next to him a wooden sawhorse, painted white, rose up from steel joints connecting it to the deck. A naked woman lay, stretched and exposed, bent in half over the sawhorse with her buttocks pointing at the sky. Impossible as it was, the woman was me and she smiled up at me from the down low gaze through her widely spread legs.

He raised the strap in the air and paused to glance up at me with a crooked smile spreading out his thin lips. I tired to scream at him, but no sounds came forth. The strap crashed down on the upturned buttocks and a red stripe rose to the surface as the leather slipped away to rest once more next to Mr. Candle's perfectly pressed, black pant leg. Floating above, I felt the rising sting and burn of the spank as if it had hit me directly. The me below, continued to smile as if the entire experience was joyful and painless.

Reaching back I tried to rub the sting away, but just as no one seemed able to connect with me, I was unable to connect with myself. Mr. Candle nodded up at me from his place below and his eyes flashed with evil mischief while he raised the leather strap once more. Looking at me the whole time, he whipped the leather down across the me bent and waiting before him. Over and over he lashed the strap down on my trembling buttocks and the me below continued to smile while the me above writhed in silent throws of pain. There were no tears, no screams and absolutely no escape.

I awoke with a thud on the floor beside the bed. My sleep filled eyes blinked the blurry room into focus until it became clear I had rolled my way out of bed, physically manifesting the writhing in my dream. I shook my head at myself, wondering just how many years it had been since I had managed to actually roll myself out of bed in my sleep. It took a moment of sitting there on the floor, but soon my recently spanked buttocks were letting me know just how little they appreciated my landing on them. If it had not hurt quite so much, it would have been funny. As it was though, tears stung at the corners of my eyes.

The room was empty and the sheets on Kyra's bed were shoved down to the foot. From the light shining in through the closed blinds, I guessed it was morning and the digital clock on the nightstand next to the bed confirmed it. I hoped no one would object to my sleeping in for the morning, but if they did, they would probably be sorry because it was already feeling like a day in which thoughts and spoken words were likely to blend into one. It certainly was not the best ways of dealing, but even my parents eventually learned to leave me alone on such days. Jack and the others will just have to learn as well.

A long soak in a hot tub of water was what I really needed, but I settled for a hot shower. The steady stream of steamy water felt like paradise washing over my naked skin. Taunt, tortured muscles in my back, shoulders, and arms began to relax and release their extraneous tension. Closing my eyes, I dipped my head beneath the stream and let the water envelop me completely. Like walking through a waterfall, I came out on the other side transformed and invigorated.

With soap and water I scrubbed away the last vestiges of nightmares and dreams alike. My thoughts turned away from chains and straps of leather. There were more important mysteries to peruse and problems needing solving. Plaguing my mind most significantly was the question of the identity of the man in the shadows. No doubt existed in my mind that a connection between him and Joseph Candle existed, but were they the same man? It was unfortunately, frighteningly possible and yet despite the evidence I had seen with my own eyes, a part of me was left with doubt.

It was all far too complicated for my liking, but the voice was what stuck in my head and the man in the shadows had a familiar voice to me, but it was not Joseph Candle's voice, not unless he altered it somehow. No, the voice harkened back to childhood memories and that was what frightened me the most. I could not place it but I knew it and consequently that meant I had to know him as well. The thought brought another one with it which was almost as troublesome; Since meeting Joseph Candle it has been clear he knows things about me and my family he should not know and the deeper I get involved in his quest, the more obvious it seems that a deeper connection exists between us that I am, for some strange reason, totally unaware.

Out of the shower I wrapped the flimsy white, hotel towel around myself and made my way back to the main room to find some lotion. Kyra always seemed to have some with her and I was beginning to realize it was probably a good idea to make sure I did as well. Between the bad soaps, various climates, and less than occasional spankings, lotion was turning out to be almost as necessary as lipstick. Kyra must have anticipated my need because the bottle was easy to find, sitting out on the nightstand between our beds. I could definitely have used her help in applying it but then I guess she probably had more important work to do and even if she did not, she has not exactly been the friendly sort around me. Then again, she had left the lotion out.

How I missed it at first, I do not know, but when I turned around to use my bed as an aide in lotion application, I discovered a blue dress had been laid out on it with a handwritten note on top. The note told me it was from Mr. Barker and that I was allowed to break uniform and wear it for the day. Why Jack had signed the note so formally as Mr. Barker was definitely a curiosity, but I quickly tossed it aside with the note, happy to have something less tight and constricting from the typical business attire for the day.

The dress fit loosely and seemed to flow smoothly with my every move as if it had been custom tailored for me. Sleeveless and opened back, the straps holding it in place could hardly be felt at all and it was almost like wearing nothing except modesty was preserved. I decided the first order of business was definitely to thank Jack personally for the thought and the dress. With all that had happened in the last few days I had begun to think he might be hating me, but I guess he knows the difference between being a boss and being a friend and apparently, when to be which. I could probably learn a thing or two from him on that front.

Jack's door was propped opened when I arrived. He was sitting inside at a small round table by the window. The shades were open, providing a view of the city outside, but Jack was not enjoying it. He was studying the contents inside a manila file which he closed and set aside when he noticed me in his doorway. A forced smile came to his lips which I returned, stepping inside the room and moving closer to him.

"I see you found the dress," Jack said.

"Yes," I said. "It was very thoughtful of you. Thank you."

"You're welcome. How are you feeling?" He asked.

There was genuine concern showing in his eyes. It was touching to think he actually cared, but there was an awkwardness between us, probably caused by the trouble I had caused in the past. We had more important things to discuss, work to do, we both knew it, and yet there was more between us which needed resolving.

"I'm fine," I said.

I was feeling a lot of things and most of them were not constructive or helpful in anyway and the more complicated answer would probably have confused us a both. Brevity seemed like the best choice, but when Jack looked away from me and back at the closed file in front of him, I realized it might have been a mistake. He had not asked his question as a polite courtesy and I had replied as if he had. I might as well have slapped him for his effort.

"Good," Jack said, bristling slightly in his chair. "Were you able to learn anything while they held you?"

His demeanor changed from that of compassionate friend to somber boss. Mentally, I kicked myself for pushing him away when I really could have used a few minutes with a friend. It was too late to go back though and there was no way of knowing what that other path might have brought. I tried to compose myself and focus on the job, but my thoughts lingered on Jack.

"They weren't interested in Arctic ice, melting or otherwise," I said.

"Is that supposed to mean something?" Jack asked, tilting his head at me in a way suggesting impatience.

"I met the man who is likely the one pulling the strings behind Olivia and Kemp's actions," I said.

"Can you identify him?" He asked.

I shook my head.

"No, he kept to the shadows so I never got a good look at his face," I said.

Jack sighed and shook his head, looking down at the table.

"I think Mr. Candle must know him," I said.

Jack looked back up at me with squinted eyes as if he was trying to determine if I was being serious or not.

"What makes you say that?" He asked.

"A hunch mostly, but the two men have a lot in common," I said.

"That doesn't mean they know each other," Jack said.

"Ordinarily you would be right," I said.

"Yes," Jack said, as if it were the most natural conclusion in the world.

"But these men are partaking in the exact same quest. I know why Mr. Candle is doing this and from that I can extrapolate possibilities as to why this other man is involved, but all of those possibilities almost certainly imply the two men are not only aware of each other, but are in fact acquainted and probably closely," I said.

"Sounds like a bunch of conjecture to me. I've told you before to be careful who you point fingers at," Jack said.

"They wear the same shoes, the same trousers, the same belt and belt buckle," I said. "They both have a predilection toward spanking those they consider beneath them and they are both searching for the exact same artifacts which are all connected to a much larger puzzle."

I stepped closer to the table and leaned down on it so my face was level with Jack's. He met my gaze with his own and instead of pulling back he leaned forward, closing the gap between us even more. I could smell his aftershave and practically taste his lips as each of us dared the other to do or say something more.

"I once mentioned Joseph Candle could be our leak," I said. "I'm telling you now, I have real reason to suspect he is in fact that person, whether he knows it or not. We cannot trust him."

"We work for him," Jack said.

"That's not what he told me when I took this job," I said. "Joseph Candle may give us our mission but this team works for you, Jack."

He leaned back in his chair and I straightened back up from leaning on the table. Jack started to nod looking up at me and then laid his hands back on the table. With a deep breath he pushed himself up from the table and came to stand next me. His shoulders were straight and a touch of tension could be seen in his stance but his face was mostly relaxed with the corners of his mouth upturned, suggesting, but not in fact being, a smile. He turned his head to look me straight on.

"An excellent distinction," He said. "However, in your current position I think it might be more appropriate if you addressed me as Mr. Barker."

The formality of his signature on the note suddenly became more clear.

"Of course," I said. "Sir."

"That will do also," Jack said, a hint of teasing flickering in his eyes while he smiled at me. "In fact, I think I like it."

"I thought you might," I said, glancing downward, unable to continue to meet his bold gaze.

"That's because you are a very perceptive and intelligent woman," Jack said.

I smiled at the floor and then at Jack as I grew bolder myself.

"I like the sound of that," I said.

"Good let's put it to some use and see if we can't figure out your mystery man's next move," Jack said.

"Easter Island," I said. "But he doesn't know what he's looking for."

"And you do?" Jack asked.

"I just might," I said.

November 22, 2009

Casting Shadows: Friends & Enemies

In the silence and darkness someone flipped a switch and machinery creaked itself back to life after some unspecified length of rest. The hook above me began to lift higher in the air and with it went the chain connected to my arms. Slowly, painfully, my feet were lifted higher and soon not even my toes brushed against the prone man's form. The machinery stopped when I was dangling so high in the air, there was no longer any possibility of touching or being touched by any person below.

Abruptly, a cold stream of water hit me in the legs and then stomach. The light redirected its spotlight to illuminate me for all below to see and in turn blinded me to anything but the stream of water attacking me and the darkness beyond. My body started to swing a little again but without any significant momentum I was unable to do anything more than sway, helplessly high above the platform below and cry out in pain.

The water was nothing after the initial impact. Its cold spray caused the unbearable movement straining my shoulders and arms but the water itself was numbing after a few moments in any one location. I wished it would douse my arms and shoulders in the hopes it would provide the same numbness to them as it had already done to my legs and abdomen. Unsurprisingly, I was not that lucky.

"I need to know what you found on the longship," The man of shadows said.

I remained silent. The words describing the map on the ship's mast seemed alluringly innocent and the temptation to share what had been useless information was nearly overwhelming. Of course if this man was willing to torture me to learn about the map, then it was quite possibly not as useless or innocent as it seemed. I suffered through wondering if anyone was trying to find me and more importantly, if they were anywhere close to succeeding.

Drops of water slipped down my skin gathering into larger drops at my toes until their own weight was sufficient to free fall through the air only to spatter on the platform far below with a soft patter reminiscent of rain falling. The sound was soothing to my exhaustion, helping me to slip peacefully into a state of mind not hampered by pain or cold. As the numb detachedness began to settle over me, my long moment of deliberation came to a sudden end.

I fell. Whatever force had been keeping the hook and therefore me, elevated was released without any warning and the sound of free sliding cable wall all I had to cling to as I plummeted toward the platform in a free fall certain to end with broken bones and the intense pain of collision. I had just enough time to realize what was happening before the fall was brought to an abrupt stop. It was almost like time slowed to a crawl as I stared up at the suddenly stationary hook. The slackness of the chains attached to my arms transitioned back to taunt tension with a jingle of tightening links. My arms jerked upwards and I felt a tearing in my shoulders, shuddering through my body like the echo of a reverberating chord.

My head snapped upward before coming to rest down against my sternum. I watched my toes drift only inches above the platform almost precisely where I had been before my rise to new heights. The switch flipped again and I moaned realizing I about to be hoisted up once more, not that the proximity to the platform below had been any respite for my aching. If the man of shadows had any mercy, he was clearly unprepared to show it to me. With my arms being pulled back into the air and the fire burning in my shoulders I lost hold of any hope at numb detachedness while I waited for rescue. In truth, hope of rescue was all I had and deep down I did not believe a rescue was likely to happen anytime in the near future.

"The longship," The man of shadows said.

"It was fake," I said, with a pleading tone in my voice.

He laughed as if I had just told him the funniest joke he had ever heard. I dangled above waiting and hoping something would bring the pain to an end. Tears streamed down my face and I realized I was crying, no, sobbing uncontrollably, completely beyond the rationality of my situation. It was then I knew why he was laughing; He had won.

"Whatever would make you say that?" He asked.

"Dr. Michaels," I said, between gasps for breath and sobs.

"The fool," He said. "Tell me, what did you find?"

"Let me down," I said, begging for relief or mercy or anything he might grant me.

"We are not negotiating. Tell me what you found," He said.

I tried to utter the words he required from me, but they stuck in my throat. I argued with myself, reasoning the maps were no longer a secret from him. He had the crystal and its map after all, what could the other map provide that he did not already have? It was all very logical and no one could blame me for talking under the circumstances, but I knew that was not strictly the truth. I could not tell him what he wanted to know because in his desperation to get the seemingly unimportant piece of information he had let me know it was not what it seemed at all. Everything was connected and relevant, I had said it myself to Tom, and while I had known it for fact at the time, it was only there, dangling in the cold air, I understood what those words truly meant; The objects were only important so far as they pointed us toward the next piece and it was that information, that connection, which was valuable.

She appeared, walking on air to greet me with a supportive smile. Looking at her, trapped in a ghostly child's body, I saw for the first time the older soul residing inside her ethereal eyes. I wondered if her appearance was signifying some new disaster about to befall me or if she had simply arrived to attempt to bolster my resistance. Was it selfish desires bring her before me or empathy and compassion? I wanted to think there was more to her than selfishness, but I had little doubt her visit had less to do with me and more to do with the man in shadows below.

"You have to hold on," She said. "Just a little longer, I promise."

"I don't seem to be able to do anything else," I said, not caring if the man below thought me crazy.

"Your choice is simple," He said, apparently thinking my words had been meant for him. "Tell me about the longship or endure more pain."

My sobs turned to laughter. Maybe I had gone a little crazy hanging on my hook. The idea that there could be anything more painful than what I was already feeling seemed both frightening and ludicrous. If I could hold out from him with what I was already going through then there was nothing he could reasonably expect to do which would ever cause me to tell him that which he wanted to know. The girl might have brought me to the point of understanding it as simple as it truly was, but I realized the strength was all my own. Amidst all the pain, I clung to the simple pleasure of denying him.

"Tell me!" He demanded, frustration creeping into his monotonous voice.

"They're here," She said and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.

Below me, an alarm blared. Boots clanged on the metal platforms and stairs, echoing in the largeness of the open darkness. The man in the shadows moved to meet the approaching footsteps, undoubtedly concerned about the alarm. I smiled, giddily realizing it all added up to the one thing I wanted the most, although I had nearly lost hope it would ever happen.

"We lost contact with two perimeter teams and we've just verified the perimeter has been breached," A man's voice explained.

"Evacuate," The man of shadows said, "Get everyone out."

"What about her?" The another man asked.

"Secure her for transport and make sure she's out for the entire flight," He ordered.

I heard the switch flipped once more, only this time instead of being pulled higher the hook started lowering me down toward the platform. It was a relief and a worry all at the same time. I definitely did not want to go with them, wherever they were going, but I had no illusions of having any control over the situation. It was all out of my hands.

As the light readjusted and the hook lowered me down, I could see the other men had left, including the man of shadows and all I was left with were two men, one of which had kicked and stood atop his head not too long before. In particular, he did not look like he had forgiven me yet, or in fact ever would. I suppose I could say I felt much the same toward him, he had whipped his leather strap across my buttocks more times than I was able to count and they were in fact, while slightly numb, still sore from the punishing treatment received at his hands.

When my feet finally touched the ground I nearly started to cry again. The relief in stress on my shoulders and arms was immediately liberating. The pain would no doubt, last for days but the relief was almost enough to make me ignore the lingering pain in its entirety. I looked around hoping my eyes would spy something to help me avoid taking a trip with the men, but they came up empty with most of the area still shrouded in darkness.

A cold blast of water hit my legs from behind. It knocked my feet out from under me and sent my crashing down to knees on the platform, much to the amusement of the two men waiting on me. They moved in quickly while I was down, although I had no intention of getting up, and unfastened the leather cuffs from my wrists, freeing my tired arms to fall useless to my sides. I tried to lift them, to fight off the men who were picking me up, but they did not respond to my desires at all. My fingers barely twitched in response to my efforts.

From the darkness, I could hear the sounds of lots of people running and orders being shouted out to direct traffic. I had assumed there were only a few people with us in the place, but as I listened to the clanging footsteps and echoing voices, I realized the operation was many times larger than I had thought. The man of shadows seemed to have an entire army with him. For a moment I pondered why he would even bother running away when he clearly he had the advantage of numbers, but then I remembered Jack showing up with a naval fleet last time I needed rescuing and wondered if there was a battalion of troops on their way to me.

An explosion rocked the platform beneath me and nearly sent the two men to their knees in its wake. No sooner had the sound of the blast faded than the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire replaced it. The two men exchanged looks of concern, obviously not having expected to come under attack so soon. I smiled, hoping it was good sign for me, but the man I had kicked, grabbed my arm and jabbed a needle into my arm.

"Ouch," I said.

The world began to spin a little and I felt like I was suddenly disconnected from my body. The sounds in the darkness became muffled as if heard under water and the lines which should have defined the boundaries of the men and myself began to blur and swirl with the air between us. I leaned downward, moaning and grasping at my churning stomach as the burning taste of bile tickled the back of my throat. My arms were forcefully grabbed by the two me and I was hauled unwillingly to my feet.

They pulled me into the darkness and my eyes struggled to adjust to the lack of light. All I could make out was the rusty metal below my dragging feet and square railing beside the path we followed. The gunfire seemed to be coming from everywhere around us, but the two men were not looking for cover so I assumed we were safe. They rested moment when we arrived at a staircase leading both up and down. I could hear the sound of someone climbing the steps, nearing our location and although I hoped it was a friend of mine, I expected it was more like a friend of my foes.

The source of the sound soon came into view and I recognized it as Olivia. She was stark naked save for a pair of black combat boots and a handgun, held loosely in her right hand. Vivid red stripes seemed to be pulsing out from her buttocks and legs and I briefly wondered what my own backside looked like in comparison. The two men smiled, clearly enjoying seeing her toned, naked body and quite probably the results of the punishment she had received. Olivia smiled at them and then raised her gun.

For an awful moment I thought I was dead once again. She pulled the trigger twice and the gun roared with the expulsion of a bullet each time, but it was the men escorting me who dropped dead to the ground and not me. Olivia stared hard at me for a moment with the gun as the only thing between us. I swayed, unstable on my feet without support and tried to make sense of what she had done and why, but with the effect of whatever drug had been pumped into my veins, I could barely think at all.

"Don't think this makes us friends," Olivia said.

I wanted to ask her why, but she turned and was gone before I could open my mouth or even formulate the thought into a question. My legs gave out and I collapsed to the floor next to the bodies of my former escorts. The effort to keep my eyes open required more energy than I had left. The fight going on elsewhere in the place continued to echo around me and I knew I should be worried that the wrong side might find me, but my willpower was insufficient to counteract the effects of the drug or the exhaustion, or both.

How long I laid there, motionless on the metal floor, I do not know. A noise behind me, startle my senses back to a slight level of alertness but I could not bring myself to lift my head and look. A strong rough hand gripped my arm and turned me over so I was looking up. A bright smile spread across my face as I recognized the grim face staring back down at me; Tom Clark.

"You're alive," I said, slurring the words like a drunk.

He scooped me up in his arms and carried me up the stairs to where the others were all gathered. Kyra draped a drab blanket over me as if my modesty mattered any more. The warmth was nice though and I pulled it tight around me. Dr. Michaels found a folding chair for me to sit on and despite the slight, or not so slight, discomfort, I sat down, thankful for a resting spot.

Jack paced the floor in front of me, looking angrier than I had ever seen him. Tom caught his eye a couple of times but neither said a thing to the other. I gathered there had been disagreements and something told me Jack had lost, but I wondered if there was something more than that as well. The look on his face told me there was more going on than I knew. We were all silent though, lost in our own thoughts and apparently waiting for something.

Everyone's attention was drawn behind me when the clang of approaching footsteps interrupted our silence. I was too tired to glance over my shoulder and so I just waited for the approaching person to come into view. The others gathered closer to me and I almost felt like they were protecting me from something. The footsteps came to a stop and I was staring at shiny black oxfords.

"The area has been secured," Mr. Candle said. "Ms. Stratford and her people got away."

I looked upward from the shoes, following the perfect seems in the black trousers to the waistline where a black belt was fastened through the loops with a small silver buckle, inlaid with an intricate design at its center. I shuddered and stood up, backing away from them all. I looked up into Mr. Candle's charming innocent face and wondered if my first instincts about him had always been right. Was he the man in the shadows?

November 19, 2009

Casting Shadows: Swing & Sting

Olivia paled at the sound of the man's voice. I enjoyed the small victory even though it was not me causing her to cower. In truth, I knew I should be more worried because if she was afraid, then I certainly had reason to be afraid as well. She turned around toward the sound of the man's voice, trembling as she took a step toward him and the darkness shrouding him.

"I just need a little more time," She said.

Silly perhaps, but I could not shake the image of a schoolgirl pleading with an imposing teacher. Olivia would be dressed in a conservative school uniform, her hands smoothing down the pleats of her skirt, staring up with big sorrowful eyes from the small student desk trapping her in place. The teacher approaches, his face masked in shadows and although there was no sense of anger, he was obviously disappointed, demonstrated by the wooden ruler slapping against his open palm. If only I was just another girl in the classroom instead of the one already in trouble and being punished in front of the rest of the class. Of course, we were far from a classroom and punishment in this place had nothing to do with being good or bad.

"Playtime is over," He said, drawing closer, but remaining in the shadows.

"I can make her talk," Olivia said, desperation bringing a whine to her voice.

"Strip,"He said, not deigning to argue with her assertions.

"But—" She said.

"Guards," He said.

"Okay," She said.

Olivia kept her back to me as she quickly stripped off all her clothing at the man's command. I watched in quiet fascination while the ground at her feet became littered with clothing. Once she began the process of disrobing there was no hesitation in her movements, but I could see the tension between her shoulders increasing with every exposing fall of fabric. Naked, she kept her hands at her sides and stood at almost military attention, waiting for more orders, as certain to come as they were to be disliked.

"Take her below," He said, obviously speaking to the men who had been enjoying their view of me.

They moved to Olivia and two of them stood on either side of her, each grabbing an arm while the third collected her discarded clothing. The third man led the way into the darkness and away from me with Olivia obviously trying to move as slowly as possible. I actually felt sorry for her even though I was still the one hanging naked like a piƱata. My thoughts should have been more focused on what this man would do to me, but instead I wondered what fate he had in store for the abject woman being led away.

"Fifty lashes for failure," He said, as the darkness swallowed Olivia, "And another twenty-five for attempting to argue."

There was no acknowledgement, only the receding sound of boots clanging on metal. Olivia's fate was her own doing and yet part of me felt guilty. If I had cooperated, I could have spared her the indignity of stripping herself naked and the pain of a forthcoming punishment I could only imagine in correspondence with the word, "lashes." Why any part of me cared or thought I should is an intriguing question I am not prepared to answer.

Beyond being embarrassed at my own nakedness, I gazed into the darkness with a bold stare meant to intimidate the man in the shadows. I could hear him moving around and like a coward, he avoided being revealed by the dim light surrounding me. In the distance I could hear the steps of Olivia and the guards as they descended an unknown quantity of steps on an equally mysterious staircase. I had intuitively felt the place we were in was large and it seemed to be confirmed by the noises echoing around me. It was comforting to know I had gleamed at least some truth about my situation from the scarce evidence at my disposal. If only I could figure out who the man in the shadows was and what he wanted with me.

"You will forgive me if I am staring," He said. "It is not because your are naked, although you are a lovely display stretched out as you are, but I have been searching for you for such a long time it is surreal for me to be here with you."

"Maybe you could let me down then?" I said, hopeful I might finally get a rest from the strain on my arms.

"I am tempted however, you have proven to be rather resourceful and I think we are both safer like this," He said.

His voice resonated in the chilly air between us with a familiar warmth I could not place. I considered the questions I wanted to ask and which of them he might be willing to answer. Something about his pattern of speech and the way he had sentenced Olivia for failure told me the answer was probably none. He wanted control of the situation, of me, and so long as he dictated the topics we would discuss and the information he would share, he maintained that control. It was clearly in my best interest to allow him the luxury of believing his control was real.

"Are you going to tell me what you want from me?" I asked, hoping the question was suitably phrased to avoid ruffling the delicate ego I perceived through the shadows.

"Would you give it to me if I did?" He asked.

He stepped closer to me, stopping when he was standing at the precise point where the light revealed the lower half of him and the shadows kept the upper half of him obscured. His shoes were highly polished black oxfords with perfect laces tied tightly in perfectly uniformed bows. The hem of his black trousers hid his socks from view, but I imagined he wore black ones tightly stretched up his calves and perfectly straight. My eyes followed the seems of his slacks up to his waist where a silver buckle, small and rectangular with an intricate pattern at its center, accented a glossy black belt. From his waistline I estimated his height at just over six feet and his weight somewhere in the neighborhood of a 150 pounds.

"I might if I thought I could trust you," I said.

"Therein lies our problem," He said. "It is a pity Joey found you first."

I had only once before heard anyone refer to Joseph Candle as Joey and while I might be meant to think the men were one and the same, the voice coming from the shadows was not that of Alexander Kemp. Did he expect me to believe he was or was there another purpose for the choice of nickname? Perhaps he expected me to conclude a connection between himself and Mr. Candle that was not favorable to Mr. Candle, but this revelation was nothing new to me. Long before I ever met Joseph Candle I had decided he was something less than a good man and even after agreeing to work for him, I have never allowed myself to fall prey to the assumption he was a pure and decent man. Further, if I had ever thought Mr. Candle approaching me was a random event those thoughts have long since been pushed aside leaving me with a distrustful opinion of the man and a healthy expectation that I was being used in ways I had yet to understand. Maybe that should make me more willing to consider betraying him and the people I work with, but so far every indication told me I was still on the side of lesser evil and until that changes I will be keeping my loyalties intact.

"Had things worked out differently, you might be more comfortable during this conversation," He said.

"That's hardly reassuring," I said. "I'd be more comfortable with cinder blocks under my feet."

"It was not meant to be reassuring," He said. "Your comfort is of no importance to me."

Talk about stating the obvious. If he had cared even the smallest bit about my comfort he would have had me lowered to a point where I could at least support my weight on the tips of my toes. Given he had seen fit to leave me as I was, I held no pretenses in my wildest imaginings that he cared whether I squirmed like a worm on a hook or not. What I still did not know, was what was of any importance to him and more importantly, what it had to do with me.

"Now that we've established what you don't care about, perhaps we could get around to what you do?" I said.

"All in good time. First, it seems you could use a lesson in manners," He said.

A man I had not known was there, stepped forward out of the shadows and into the light. He reminded me of Tom, not overly tall, but well proportioned and clearly athletic. His head was shaved smooth and the light reflected off the top of his head as he walked toward me. He wore his desert fatigues loosely in a way no military officer would allow which told me if he was former military, it was a service to which he was not proud.

In his right hand he held a length of brown leather split in half length-wise. It was the leather, waving ever so slightly in the air as he walked, which drew my attention. I was firmly aware of the purpose and when the man stepped passed me to stand behind me, I expected the painful kiss of the leather against my buttocks at any moment. Instead, I was first pushed forward until I was swinging high in the air.

My arms burned with the intense pain caused by my shifting weight and my legs clawed at the air helpless and wild. On my way back down from the height of my forward arc, I heard the leather cutting through the air and when I reached the lowest point of my backward swing, the leather connected across the center of my buttocks eliciting a high pitched scream from my throat. The process was repeated twice more before the man's strong arms brought my swinging body to a stop.

"I do not expect you to like me," The man in the shadows said, "However, I do expect a respectful tone when you address me. Learn that lesson now and it will not need to be repeated."

A few choice words in response to his expectations entered into my conscious thoughts, but my instincts for self-preservation kept them from slipping off my tongue. In light of my situation I decided silence was the best policy for the moment, although I suspected if I remained silent too long there might be another lesson forthcoming. The leather had elicited a burning pain in my buttocks to rival the strain induced pain on my arms, but it was all becoming dull, as if I was becoming used to it.

Somewhere below us, Olivia shrieked in pain no doubt echoing my own cries only moments before. I could feel his cold stare assessing me amidst the backdrop of Olivia's cries. Whatever effect he hoped the sound would have on me, I hope he found it utterly lacking. Not that I had no empathy for Olivia, but if ever there was a woman in need of a good spanking, she was that woman and of course I had my own pains to worry about.

"What did you find in the Arctic?" He asked.

"Ice," I said, before I could think better of it.

Was I surprised to find myself swinging in the air again? No. Did it hurt when that leather strap bit into my buttocks again? Yes. I think it was four times over before I was brought to a stop by those big, powerful, mean arms. My concentration was quickly consumed by the blazing inferno behind me and yes, I did regret my answer, a little.

"Let us try again," He said. "What did you find in the Arctic?"

I thought about it. I swear, I really did.

"Melting ice," I said.

It was more specific. I could have described it a few other ways I guess, but it just seemed like that was the right answer. He did not seem to agree, but what do shadowy men know anyway? Okay, apparently they know how to get other men to push you high in the air and whack your backside with split strips of leather for their morbid amusement. It still hurt of course, but I was feeling rather satisfied as well. Maybe I was having a bad day and all, but his was no walk in the park either and that was all my doing. Not bad for a naked and supposedly helpless girl swinging on a hook eh?

"I will make this easier," He said.

"Now why would you do something silly like that?" I asked.

Have I ever mentioned how much I liked to swing when I was little? No? Well, I would spend hours sitting, yes sitting, on the swing set my Dad put into our backyard. I would swing back and forth and kick myself higher and higher until the tension in the chain would give out and the seat would sort of jump and take me back down low. I loved that feeling when the swing just gave out underneath me and for an instant I would be falling as if there was nothing in the world to stop me. It all started though, from this desire, impossible as it was, to swing high enough that gravity would not push me back down the way I had came, but instead allow me to fly upside down for a moment and come down on the other side of the swing.

As a child, I was convinced with enough focus and effort I could eventually make that desire a reality and so I spent hour practicing and kicking for the sky believing that if I could just gain that little bit of extra momentum, I could do the impossible. My parents told me I was wasting my time and that if I was not careful I could hurt myself. I did not listen, not that it surprised anyone, least of all my parents, but that all those hours of dreaming and attempting the impossible might actually be of use at some point, like while being interrogated by this unknown man, would most certainly have surprised us all.

I think it is safe to say that the guy holding that split piece of leather was most definitely surprised, when at the top arc of my latest swing forward from his pushing arms, I kicked out just enough to break the tension on the chain holding my arms so that I could twist myself around to face him on my way back down. If he was not surprised I dare say I know not why he stood there blinking stupidly, while I swung down at him, feet first, and kicked him with the full momentum of my swing as an ally.

It was rather satisfying to watch him flail backward, head first, into the wall and then fall to the ground. Even more satisfying was when on swinging back, my foot caught on his head and allowed me to stop myself and indeed take some of the strain off my arms while I stood atop his unmoving head. The man in the shadows did not move, which honestly surprised me. I expected he would quickly move in on me and leave me wishing I had just taken my licks like a good girl, but I was not going to complain if he was just going to stand there and watch either. I turned myself around so that I was looking once more at what I could see of my shadowy friend.

"I hope you don't mind," I said. "I thought I'd just make myself a little more comfortable while we talk."

"Not at all," He said. "I was beginning to wonder if Joey was wrong about you."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"All in good time," He said. "Tell me, what clue did you find on the longship?"

I was far from surprised he already knew what we had found in the Arctic. He probably even knew about the map, but how he knew those things was more of a mystery. It was the phrasing of his question which truly captured my attention though. Was it possible he did not know about the second map or what it meant or was there something more I had missed?

November 16, 2009

Casting Shadows: Between Pleasure & Pain

Rays of brilliant sunlight shone through the clouds, spotlighting the road where I was laying, numb and unmoving. My unblinking eyes stung with evaporating tears as I watched the sideways world go on without me. Directly in front of me, Tom hung upside down, suspended by his seatbelt, still stuck inside the car. His own eyes had narrowed with anger and frustration. Fingers clawed at the roof, desperately trying to get a grasp on the knife I had managed to push inside before falling useless on the roadside.

In my peripheral vision, the man I had tackled to the ground, picked himself up and started moving back toward me. Tom grabbed the knife and in a single cut, freed himself from the safety restraint holding him in place. The approaching man started to run and Tom rolled himself out of the wreck, throwing the knife at the running man as soon as he was clear. Tom grabbed the gun off the ground where I had dropped it and despite the knife piercing the center of the running man's chest, he pulled the trigger sending a bullet through the middle of the man's forehead.

Unseen rustling sounds emanated from the brush behind me and I could do nothing but lay still on the pavement. Tom's fingers deftly ejected the mostly spent clip in the gun and slapped a fresh one in its place. With one hand he grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me along the pavement toward the front of the car while his other hand laid down a barrage of gunfire covering our desperate retreat.

I saw the dull black of her combat boots first, but I knew beyond all doubt it was her. I wanted to scream, do anything to warn Tom she was there. My body remained paralyzed and useless lying on the road looking up at Olivia aiming her gun at Tom's back. There was a click from her gun and I could feel Tom start to spin around to find the noise's source. Even as he did, Olivia squeezed her trigger with a smile on her lips. A moment later Tom fell to the ground beside me, blood gushing like a river from his wounded head. His eyes blinked a single time and then his eyes froze in place capturing their final glimpse.

Olivia knelt down next to my head and grabbed a handful of my hair to pull my face up off the ground. She stared into my eyes, smiling with pride at her success. A noise behind me caught her attention and she glanced up. Words were spoken I could not understand until the conversation ended with Olivia nodding her head and dropping mine back to the asphalt. Unable to do anything more, I simply watched as she stood towering over me.

"You really are just a pathetic little girl," She said, looking down on me while she shook a cigarette loose from a crumpled pack.

Olivia slipped the cigarette into her mouth and lit it with a lighter she pulled from a pocket in her vest. A cloud of smoke puffed from her lips and floated in the air over her shoulder obscuring the blue sky beyond. With her boot she rolled me onto my back and came to leer over me with her smug smile and taunting eyes. She waited while the sunlight burned into my unblinking eyes and tears slipped from the corners, rolling from my face into my hair and then she slipped a pair of dark sunglasses over her own eyes. Olivia threw her head back and let loose a laugh, echoing with the taunting chuckles of schoolyard bullies remembered.

Cold, icy water drenched my body in a brutal splash. The nightmare faded away or at least I hoped it had only been a nightmare. The image of Tom's deadly still body remained burned in my mind's eye, but it had just been a dream or so I told myself. My eyes snapped opened and my gaze darted in every direction only to find darkness. I gasped for air as sensations beyond cold returned to me. My arms were strained with the weight of my entire body and bound together, stretching toward the ceiling high above my head. I was swaying slightly and the very tips of big toes tickled a smooth, wet floor below.

"You fucking bitch," I said.

Olivia wiped her face off with her hand and shook a finger at me with that irritating smile still plastered on her face. Slowly, she stepped around to my left and behind me, giving the men an unobstructed view of my nakedness. The part of me that might have actually cared was far too occupied by the pain in my arms to be distracted by a few leering boys. Olivia stepped out on my left side with her head hanging back a moment before pausing to look me close in the face.

"Someone has been a bad, bad girl," She said.

Right, and I am looking straight at her too. Okay, maybe not straight but you trying turning your head when the only thing keeping your body upright is a pair of exhausted arms you used to call your own. I settled on a tired smile that was supposed to say what I was thinking without me actually saying a word at all. I think it worked because a half moment later she reached out behind me and slapped my right buttock where Dr. Michael's recent paddling had left me the most tender.

I sucked in air sharply and only narrowly avoided crying out with the pulsation of reinvigorated pain coursing through my nerves. The force of the blow caused my body to swing like a pendulum in and out of the narrow beam of light illuminating me for their pathetic game of voyeurism. I decided she was definitely talking about herself and given the chance I was most certainly going to let her know, but it was best to keep my head for the moment and bide my time.

"What did you do to me?" I said.

Olivia held up a bullet up for me to examine as I swung passed it. If I could have shrugged, I would have. The object held no meaning for me other than I could have sworn I had been shot in the back with one of those nasty things and should be laying on a slab instead of swinging from rafters. She took her time in explaining anything, apparently expecting the bullet to say it all for her. I considered informing her that bullets do not usually talk, but I had a feeling that would only aggravate my situation further.

"You're security file says you should know what this is," She said.

"My security file probably says a lot of things," I replied. "The question is how much of it is accurate."

It was an interesting revelation from her lips. I am sure she thought it no longer mattered and perhaps it did not, but knowing she had access to Quondam's security files narrowed down the search for our spy. If I kept my head about me I figured I had a good chance of learning some useful information, useful so long as I survive the experience at least.

"It's a non-lethal round for a standard 9mm. Nifty little things, they release a nerve compound into the victim which can incapacitate a 250 pound man for up to four hours. I put two of them into you just in case," Olivia said.

My memory took me back to my first meeting with Mr. Candle and the tour through the company he had taken me on. A floor guarded by military types and a set of labs developing ammunition of the type Olivia was speaking about. The project was supposed to be a secret and none of the ammunition should have been available for sale anywhere. All of it was clues to just how deeply Olivia's employer had infiltrated Quondam Innovations.

"What do you want from me?" I asked as my swinging slowed toward a stop.

"Who says I want anything?"Olivia said.

"If you didn't want something I would be dead," I said.

"You should be," She said, "But it's not me keeping you alive."

Olivia sidestepped her way in front of me, careful to avoid getting too close to my slightly swaying legs. If my shoulders had any strength left in them I would have used as leverage to kick the smug smile off her face, but the strain of supporting my weight had drained the possibility away. Her piercing gaze seemed to read the desire and failure in me as she continued on her way to stand tauntingly on my left. Upon reaching her new location she reached back behind me and slapped my left buttock with her right hand, sending me swinging again. I cried out as much from the pain in my arms and shoulders as the sting imparted on my already sensitive rear.

She reach out and stopped my swaying with her left hand resting against my chest. Every impulse inside me wanted to pull away from her vile touch and yet I could do nothing except endure. Olivia seemed to know the thoughts and reflexes within me as her hand shifted from firm pressure against my flesh to a soft tracing of my breasts with the tips of her fingernails. I shuddered unable to suppress the desperate need to pull away and the pain it caused me gave Olivia even greater pleasure. Tears slipped from the corner of my eyes.

"You aren't so tough," Olivia said.

"Says the one afraid to let me stand on my feet in front of her," I said.

Taunting one's captor is probably not the best of ideas, but it does come with a certain sense of satisfaction. The pain was not going to end anytime soon and she could do almost anything she wanted to my body, but whatever it was she or her employer wanted from me it was locked inside my brain and so long as I kept my wits about me, I was safe. It was only a thread from which to cling and there were no guarantees, but knowledge can be its own leverage when everything else fails.

"Afraid of you?" Olivia said with skeptical laughter resonating within her voice. "I like watching you suffer and squirm. You're hanging here for nothing more complicated than my pleasure. Does that anger you?"

"That you're a selfish bitch who gets off on the pain of others?" I said. "It's sad really."

Olivia increased the pressure of her fingernails against my skin and dragged them over the top of my left breast, lightly snagging on the skin as she went. I gasped when her nails caught on the sensitive flesh of my nipple and sent a jolt of cold pain throughout my body. She let her hand drop to her side, satisfied in the reaction she had elicited from me. I focused on controlling my breathing and attempted to ignore the various pains begging for relief.

"What should I call you?" Olivia asked, stepping away from me and into the shadows of the larger room beyond.

The place felt old and abandoned to me although I had nothing by which to make the determination. My hands were bound in leather cuffs and attached to a shiny chain not even old enough to have gathered rust on any of its links, but the chain was wrapped into a large hook descending from someplace high above and the hook appeared rusted in the dim light. The echoing of sounds in the room told me the ceiling was more than a few feet above me and the walls to the sides must be wide as well although the darkness hid the borders of my confinement well.

Behind the leering men I could make out the shape and shadows of a railing giving me the feeling there were additional levels below and possibly above as well. The dampness and cool temperature reminded me of being inside a cave and I considered it highly possibly we were underground in an old mine. I had read about the mines scattered through the desert in Dr. Michaels' notes, many of them having been abandoned since the beginning of the 20th century. It seemed an ideal location to hide from the world.

"We know you aren't Virginia West," Olivia said, from the shadows. "Eventually we'll figure out exactly who you are, there are only so many possibilities. You might as well tell us because what's the point really?"

Mr. Candle's warning about endangering my family if anyone knew my real identity suddenly sounded a lot more important than ever before. It was horrifying to hear Olivia talk about it all so casually as if the life and death of everyone I know was inconsequential. She probably thought I would be foolish enough to think I could protect my friends and family by cooperating with her, but I was certain if she ever found a single name, that person would be tortured or killed in her sick game. I stayed silent, knowing that in the end my anonymity was much harder to pierce than the alias used to protect it.

Olivia laughed a hollow, humorless laugh, edged with evil and darkness. The sound was truly terrifying, surrounded by cold air and dim light shrouded in damp darkness. I watched the men watching me as their expressions grew somber and serious for a brief moment in response to her shrill laughter and the satanic nature to which it alluded. Were it not for the increasingly strong pain emanating from my shoulders and arms, I would have smiled at the realization her own men were more afraid of her than I.

"Don't be foolish," She said, stepping back into the light where I could see her. "One way or another you are going to tell me what I want to know."

It took me a moment to understand her meaning and the threat she was implying. In her hand she held a riding crop with a curiously green tip. She slapped it into her open palm with a wide grin spreading across her face when she knew I finally understood what she intended. I swallowed my fear knowing I had nowhere to run and no place to hide so long as I was bound in the air.

"Green is really not my color," I said, trying to sound braver than I felt.

Olivia laughed again, but this time she was amused.

"Don't worry, it still brings out the red," Olivia said. "And red is definitely your color."

She sauntered toward me allowing the crop to sway in her hand. I was hardly surprised when she disappeared behind me and even less so when I heard the implement whistle through the cold air to slap against the tight and tender flesh of my backside. It probably would have caused minimal discomfort on its own, but with the condition Dr. Michaels had left me in, it stung like an electric shock. My leg jolted wildly of its own accord causing additional pressure on my arms. I screamed unable to endure the pain in silence and knowing it was pointless to hold it all inside anyway. Olivia emanated pleasure from every sense of her being no doubt punctuated with her nasty smile and taunting eyes although I could see none of it.

"Do you want to tell me your name now?" Olivia asked, whispering in my ear from behind.

The cold water she had doused me with trickled down the length of my body mixing with sweat produced by the forced effort of holding myself from the ceiling leaving me drifting between hot and cold. Her close proximity left me feeling revolted and I shuddered. The result was an immediate jolt of pain in my shoulders as my twisting weight increased the already significant pressure.

"Not really," I said, shocking myself by saying the thought aloud.

Her response was a flurry of whipping with her green tipped crop. I listened to the whistling swishes and stinging slaps with detachedness. The skin of my buttocks slowly increased in warmth under her efforts and while the slaps accentuated the discomfort already present, I found myself craving the warmth like a blanket in winter. The pain was a welcome distraction from an otherwise untenable situation.

Olivia, apparently tired of waving her green tipped wand, made her way to stand in front of me once more. She was still smiling, but her eyes betrayed the frustration she felt. No doubt, she had expected me to fall all over myself in trying to please her with anything she wanted in the hopes she would spare me further pain. She was not the only one surprised by my tenacity, but I guess I always have been a bit on the stubborn side.

I watched as she lifted the green tip and laid it gently against my chest. Our eyes met for a moment and I could feel her disappointment when she realized I was no more afraid of her newly implied threat than I had been with anything else she had done. She tried to mask it by dragging the tip along my skin almost tickling my breasts with the lightness of the touch and the gentle flickering as it moved along the mixed surface of tight and loose flesh.

"You'll tell me what I want to know," She said, but the confidence was lacking in her voice.

"Or what?" I asked.

The threats were obvious and she had exhausted them, if not completely, at least to the point we both new nothing on the horizon would be any more effective. She could have stepped up the treatment to something more severe, perhaps even permanently disfiguring, but her hands were tied by something or someone else. I knew it and she knew I knew it which left her in a precarious position between what she had to learn and could not do to learn it. I might have laughed, she would have in my place, but I suspected all she needed was a little push and there might not be any lines left she would not cross.

"That," An authoritative male voice said, from the shadows beyond us, "Is a very good question."