On the rare occasion that she was able to stop and take stock of the events that had taken place in her life over the past two years, it seemed odd to Gwen that there were still things that managed to take her by surprise and cause her to wonder if it would all turn out in the end to have been a crazy dream. She almost laughed out loud when she realised that it had once been as likely for a girl from her estate back home to see the inside of a limousine without a gaggle of other women on a raucous hen night as it would have been for her to step foot on the surface of the moon.
And yet here she was, familiar not only with the surroundings of a limousine, but now being treated to the interior of a private jet. The more of the world she saw, the more it proved to be a wonderful mixture of delight and madness to her eyes.
Gwen sat in her seat, nursing a drink and trying to watch the tiny crew of stewardesses as they went about their duties in the confines of the cabin. Their movements fascinated her as they anticipated the next demand that would be made of them with almost psychic precision born from years spent in the job. As a child she had always wanted to be in their shoes, convinced of the glamour and romance that must have been a part of jetting away on a new adventure every day.
As an adult she had been cured of the idea that romance and childish notions of reality made up the lot of a person’s life. Even before her own life had been changed beyond recognition, she had learned to see the weariness in the eyes of women like these stewardesses. She was well versed in the trick of hiding all that fatigue behind smiling expressions, of being strong and pushing on for the sake of making ends meet.
She had lived a hard and more often than not unfair life for two decades before taking a chance had given her an escape the likes of which she could never have imagined.
For as long as she could recall, Gwen had always been singing. The sound of her voice when she spoke was a jarring contrast to her singing voice, heavily accented and often hard to follow when nerves took her and she began to babble. But in contrast her singing voice was clear as cut glass and naturally able to scale heights that most people could only have dreamed of.
It had taken months of urging from her closest family in which Gwen had swung from one extreme of emotion to the other before she was finally persuaded to audition for a televised talent show. Her nerves lasted until the very moment she was stood in front of the cameras, but in that moment she had found that all of the trepidation had vanished and she was able to sing with a passion that took everyone by surprise.
The run of fortune had continued as she advanced in the competition, surviving each week as other contestants were eliminated by telephone voting. There was nothing that the public loved more than an underdog and in the girl from a humble background they had found one they seemed to adore. Gwen had been one of the final contestants left on the weekly show when she lost out to another act at the last vote. But that was not the end of her story and her departure from the show was marked by a scramble as the media fought to interview and profile a girl who had been plucked from obscurity and yet still retained her down to earth character and charm.
She had done so much in so short a time that it often seemed to have happened to someone else entirely.
There had been the album, the tour, the photo shoots and the interviews as well as the biography that was still sitting on her bedside table in the cellophane wrapper. In truth the thought of the book scared Gwen more than a little as it was far thicker than anything she had managed to read in her life and the picture on the glossy dust jacket had been so touched up that it might have shown the face of a stranger. In her most paranoid moments she imagined reading inside stories of a life that had not been her own, so small had been her own involvement in its writing.
In truth it had been a relief to her when the commotion surrounding her had begun to die down to a dull roar. Gwen had been able to stop for the first time and actually get back to the things that had been important before fame had taken her away from her family.
The only problem was that her management, whom she seemed to have acquired as a result of a process the specifics of which quite eluded her, was not as happy with the downturn in demand as she was herself. In order to keep the face of their charge in the public eye, Gwen was thrust into a series of walk on parts in soap operas, sat smiling on a shopping channel and finally was forced to endure weeks in a remote jungle as part of a demeaning reality TV show that had left the taste of grubs and beetles in her mouth for months afterwards.
Coming after all that, the quiet offer to be the public face of a small charity had seemed like a dream come true to Gwen, who had acted quite out of character in putting her foot down and insisting that she would take the job regardless of the benefit to her media profile.
The leaflet that she had been sent was still in her jacket pocket and she pulled it out once more to have a brief scan of the contents. Some of the words were very large and Gwen was determined not to make a fool of herself in front of the people she was about to meet with by forgetting just what they were all about.
As far as she could tell, the charity had been formed out of concern for the rare species of orchids that were apparently in imminent danger of extinction in far flung corners of the world. Gwen, who was always honest with herself, had been totally ignorant of the plight of the flowers and digested every word inside the leaflet in order to better understand the issue at hand. She was amazed that a simple flower, which looked little different to something that could be found on the forecourt of a petrol station back home, could be so important and inflame the passions of so many obviously intelligent people.
“A little light reading?”
Gwen looked up and saw that the seat facing her had gained an occupant while she was intent upon the leaflet.
“I just wanted to read over the plight of those orchids one more time.”
She smiled at the man sitting across from her, showing the slightly large teeth that had inspired less than kind scribes in the media to describe her as horsey and awkward.
“Orchids,” Gwen nodded.
She had to admit to being a little puzzled by the look on the man’s face, as though he was vaguely amused by what she was saying and yet thought himself above showing it.
“Orchids, really,” the man shook his head, “I mean, whatever will he come up with next?”
“Don’t use that term,” the man sounded as though her last utterance had jarred his ears. “Hay is something that you feed to animals; say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Beg Pardon’.”
“Oh,” Gwen glanced down as she absorbed his disapproval, “sorry.”
“And another thing,” she looked up once more as he spoke, “don’t be so deferential all the time. You’re not a whipped donkey and you shouldn’t act like one. He won’t like that at all, I can tell you.”
“Who won’t,” Gwen was starting to become lost, “the head of the charity?”
“The head of the charity?” the man shook his head.
“Oh, my dear, you really haven’t been picking up on the undertones to this conversation have you? Not if you still think that there’s a charity involved in all of this.”
Now Gwen really was confused.
“But if there’s no charity,” she left the thought hanging in the air.
“Do you know,” the man let out a humourless laugh, “I swear I actually saw a light go on behind your eyes just then.”
“So who are you?”
“I’m no one that you need to worry about, believe me. In fact I’m someone that you’ll forget about before you know it.”
Gwen had to admit that the man had point right there. He was so average that he would have blended into a crowd and been lost the second you took your eyes off his face. There was not one detail of his size, build or clothes that really stuck out or lodged in the memory and his voice had an accent that was always just a little too elusive to pin down. If it had not been for his haughty manner of speaking and prim ways, she was sure he could have faded away right before her eyes and into the blurry nothingness that was gathering in the corners of her sight.
The glass dropped from her hand and bounced on the thick carpet that covered the floor before rolling into to a stop at the feet of one of the stewardesses. The woman showed no reaction to the sight of Gwen’s head slowly falling forwards and onto her chest as she sank into unconsciousness. Instead she simply scooped up the fallen glass and glanced nervously at the nondescript man who sat across from her.
He looked up for a moment, pausing in the act of smoothing the lapels of his jacket.
As unremarkable as he may have been, the message in his eyes was clear and the stewardess retreated without a sound to the rear of the plane where she shut herself and her colleague into the tiny galley and made no move to return to the main cabin again for the duration of the flight.
Left alone, the man reached across and plucked the leaflet from Gwen’s lap.
He flicked through the pages, managing a cynical smile as he did so.
“Orchids and doped drinks,” he shook his head.
“What is this, a bloody Bond film?”
The airstrip was a small affair of tarmac and paint with only a single, lonely windsock to denote its purpose. It stood alone on the small plateau as the one man made feature amongst the pine forest that had been cut back to accommodate it. The trees at the edges stood like a resentful crowd, as if glaring jealously at the ground they had been forced to surrender when it was laid down.
Two figures stood silently at the end of the runway, occasionally glancing upwards in the hope of catching a glimpse of an approaching aircraft. They had been waiting for almost an hour in the chill morning air and though they were covered from head to foot in anonymous white hazmat gear, the cold was beginning to seep into their bones all the same.
All of a sudden, the first pointed into the distance and turned his head to the second.
The tinted visor of the second man’s mask followed his colleague’s gesture and with some effort he was able to see a small dot, approaching and growing larger with every passing second.
Finally they were done with waiting and the work of the day could begin.
Within mere minutes, the dot had resolved itself into the unmistakable shape of a small, private jet making its descent towards the isolated runway. Soon the landing gear emerged from the underside of the plane and the sound of the engines violated the silence of the plateau. This sound was followed by the screech of the tyres as the jet touched down and applied brakes to slow and eventually come to a final stop no more than twenty feet from the spot where the men were waiting.
One of the men hurried to the far side of the airstrip to fetch a set of metal stairs mounted on wheels that would reach the fuselage of the jet and allow access to the nearest exit. The other made a shorter trip to near side of the tarmac apron and retrieved a wheelchair made of heavy duty plastic and boasting wheels that would not have looked out of place on an off road vehicle.
Once the stairs were in place, the exit to the rear of the jet swung open and the nondescript man stepped out onto the top step. He nodded to the men as he descended, more due to force of habit than a genuine attempt to be friendly. They watched him as he stepped onto the tarmac in the same silence, only moving when he made a motion towards the jet, as if handing responsibility for the entire thing over to them before walking off down the path that led away from the airstrip and into the pines.
The men in the hazmat suits turned to watch until he was lost from view then looked at one another for a moment. The first shrugged his shoulders and then the second shook his head and jerked a thumb in the direction of the jet. Though no words had passed between them, it seemed that something had been decided as the first climbed the stairs followed closely by the second.
Inside the cabin of the jet they were alone save for Gwen’s unconscious form, still slumped in her seat. There was no sign of either the stewardesses or the flight crew who must have been behind the controls for the duration of the flight. For reasons that would go unexplained, they chose to leave the men to their task and left Gwen to her fate.
The first man checked her over, taking her pulse and the dilation of her eyes. He seemed happy with what he observed, unclipping the belt that had kept Gwen in the seat when she passed out and catching her body with ease as she now fell forwards. Rather than fight to keep her upright, he instead guided her to the floor of the cabin and gestured for his colleague to join him. While he slipped his arms under Gwen’s own, the second man took hold of her under the knees and together they lifted her gently off the carpet.
Intending to present a professional image, Gwen had dressed in a fawn skirt suit and tan tights, pinning her long brown hair up at the same time. Without intending to, she had made life easier for the first man and harder for the second in doing so.
With her hair gathered and pinned, the man tackling her upper half could see what he was doing with no real problems. But in contrast his colleague was presented with the issue of Gwen’s skirt, which despite being what she would have classed as conservative, was cut above the knee and rather tightly clung to her thighs. She was a tall girl, and as he fought to get a grip of her legs, the skirt was pushed upwards until it bunched around her buttocks. The result was that as the men carried her out of the cabin and down the steps, Gwen was exposed from the waist down and her dignity protected only by her tights and underwear.
The fact that she had been so exposed did not seem to cause any concern in the men and they simply completed the task of carrying her down the stairs and towards the waiting wheelchair. Once she was lowered into the seat, the second man pulled her skirt back into place without a seconds pause and then proceeded to strap her down at the wrists, ankles and across the chest.
As the first man began to push the chair away from the jet, the need for its sturdy construction became apparent. While the surface of the airstrip was necessarily as flat and even as possible, at its edge the tarmac gave way to a wide path of hard packed earth. This was by contrast made harder going by the contours of the forest floor from which it was made and the points where the roots of trees passed beneath its surface.
Though he was silent, the effort on the part of the man pushing the wheelchair was very much apparent and at times his partner was forced to lend his strength to manoeuvre the thing over particularly difficult ground. This became more and more common as the path began to crawl steadily down the side of an incline, which was soon revealed as one side of a deep valley where the pine forest continued on both sides. Now the second man was using his weight to slow the chair and prevent it from running away down the track and his effort was as visible as that of the first.
Eventually the strange little party arrived at a point where the path levelled out made for a small, almost invisible delve in the valley side. Up ahead the first signs of habitation were becoming visible as a wall made of slate and a collection of low outbuildings of the same material could be seen through the trees. Soon the path reached a stout double door of dark wood set into the wall, the left side standing open and more than wide enough to allow them to enter.
Beyond the wall, the packed earth of the path was replaced by aged slabs of York stone which wound efficiently through terraced gardens of alpine foliage until reaching a house of moderate size, which dominated the grounds around it. The house was built of the same slate as the walls and possessed architecture that placed its origin at the end of the nineteenth or early year of the twentieth century. Its three stories ran over two wings and it was flanked on the eastern side by a large antique greenhouse, positioned to catch the rising sun.
Rather than make for the house itself, the men wheeled Gwen around to the rear of the property and made for the largest of the outbuildings that stood across a small courtyard. The look and shape of the building meant that it could have been nothing but a barn in its original incarnation, but modern features and subtle refinements gave away the fact that it had been converted to serve another purpose entirely.
The men arrived before the large doors, made of solid wood and painted black they looked strong enough to withstand the attentions of a battering ram. The second man pressed an intercom button set into the wall to one side and waited until he heard a click and a low buzz indicating that a lock had been opened to allow them to enter. Without hesitation he pulled open a smaller door set inside the larger and held it while his colleague negotiated the wheelchair over the threshold.
While it might have looked like a simple barn from the outside, the interior of the building had been stripped of all period features and any trace of its original function. Instead the men were greeted with a small anteroom, its white walls made of starkly modern materials and the only other exit being a doorway hung with a sheet of heavy industrial plastic in the place of a door. The only other feature of the room was a basin of chemicals on the floor in which the men washed their boots before once more lifting Gwen from the wheelchair and carrying her through the waiting doorway.
The room behind the flap of plastic accounted for the rest of the space within the shell of the barn and was every bit as modern and sterile as the anteroom had been. The rafters of the barn were hidden behind panels of white as was the stonework of the walls; the floor was covered also with smooth white tiles. Harsh and unforgiving strip lights illuminated the space and picked out the trappings of an operating theatre so that they cast no perceivable shadows in the centre of the chamber. The same light fell upon Gwen’s body as she was laid upon the operating table with great care by the men in the hazmat suits.
With their charge laid upon the table, the men drifted to different corners of the room and began to prepare themselves for their next task.
The first returned to the table with a bin mounted on castors, which he parked behind himself as he lifted Gwen’s left leg. He pulled off her shoe; a sensible piece of footwear with a low heel that she had hoped would complement the outfit, and tossed it into the bin. The right shoe followed a few seconds later before he deftly opened the buttons that held her skirt up and pulled it off in one smooth motion.
Next he slipped Gwen’s arms out of her jacket and pulled the garment from beneath her, leaving her wearing nothing but her underwear and a silky blouse. He dropped the skirt and jacket into the bin and began to unbutton the blouse, removing it once he was done in the same manner as the jacket.
Now for the first time, Gwen was properly exposed and stripped of her dignity before them. Clad in nothing apart from her cream bra and pants and with nothing covering her legs save for the tan tights, almost every inch of her body was laid bare to be seen.
Gwen Livingstone had never been known for having the body of a supermodel, instead she was taller than the average woman and her figure was slightly elongated as a result. Her breasts and buttocks were full as opposed to buxom and her limbs benefitted from her height as it lent them an odd elegance that belied her slightly horsey appearance. Though she was embarrassed by the attention that publicity shots of her bikini-clad form had graced the pages of more than a few magazines, few women would have failed to admire the proportions of her body and few honest straight men would have feigned disinterest.