Thomas looked miserably at his wife for a long moment and then buried his head in his hands. It was a pitiful gesture and Carol saw hopelessness in every defeated fibre of his body.
Thomas sighed wearily, lifted his head, blinked at her and Carol wondered if she saw the beginning of tears in his eyes.
She had never seen her husband weep and, perversely, Carol found herself speculating what he would look like.
‘What does it matter? They’re on to us. We’re fucked – totally fucked!’
Carol sat at the kitchen table and took her husband’s hand in hers in an effort to comfort him.
‘Thomas, we have to really think. There must be something we can do to delay the creditors…’
‘Do you think I haven’t done everything?’ Thomas said angrily. ‘I’ve tried some stuff – shifted stock from place to place, sold the same stock twice, even three times to get cash but it just hasn’t been enough.’
He shook his head slowly.
‘They’ll come for everything we’ve got!’
‘They’ll take the house,’ Carol muttered, ‘our home!’
‘Yes,’ murmured Thomas, ‘and if they find out half of the stuff we’ve done, we’ll end up in prison!’
Shocked, Carol stared at her husband and withdrew her hand.
‘I’ve done nothing illegal…’
‘Thanks for sticking by me,’ Thomas said bitterly. ‘But, I’m afraid you’re in this as much as I am. You’re a partner and you signed those fake invoices so we could get cash…’
‘You knew what was going on, darling,’ Thomas said softly, ‘we both did, no point in denying it now. It’s all too late.’
Carol stared at the table silently, her mind racing with possibilities and solutions but one by one each was mentally destroyed.
Thomas was, she thought sadly, right.
After a moment, she asked, ‘what do we do?’
‘If we sell the house it will cover some of the debts but there’s a bucket load of debt that we can’t cover so we need to do something radical.’
Thomas shifted in his chair so he avoided his wife’s eyes.
‘Radical?’ Carol asked, hopefully. ‘You have a solution?’
‘The stock value has been inflated for insurance. The factory where what is left of the stock is stored – we could have a fire and…’
‘We’re up for fraud now! We should go the entire way,’ Thomas said earnestly, ‘this is our only way out…’
‘But darling, we could claim the insurance on stock we don’t really have…’
‘No! I will not be a part of that, Thomas!’
‘Think about it, darling…’
‘No,’ Carol said sharply, ‘you think about it! The bank is already suspicious and that investigator, Olivia McMahon is sniffing around now. What do you think they would think if the stock suddenly went up in smoke?
Carol stood up.
‘I’m going to bed. I’m sure something will come up in the morning.’
Thomas watched Carol walk away and then poured another glass of gin.
Life has gone to shit, he thought moodily, everything has gone.
Thomas was bleary eyed when he emerged the next morning. Carol, seated at the kitchen table, looked up nervously when he entered the room.
Thomas laughed bitterly.
‘Only one problem? Christ, what it would be like to have only one problem!’
‘Can you cut the bloody dramatics and listen!’ Carol snapped. ‘Mrs Selena Dietrich telephoned and she said she will be here at noon.’
Thomas wrinkled his brow.
‘Sometimes,’ Carol said angrily, ‘I wonder about you! Can’t you even remember the people you charmed money out of? She’s one of the smaller investors in the business! She was at the first investment meeting? Tallish, about thirty, maybe thirty-five? Red hair, always smiling at us and seemed to hang around longer than the others.’
‘I think I remember; bags of money and you complained she kept touching you?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Did you tell her not to come?’
Carol looked away.
‘It…it wasn’t that easy…she didn’t give me a chance…she sort of controlled the conversation…’
‘What! She’s coming here? What does she want?’
‘I suppose she wants her money! What do you bloody think she wants?’
Thomas sank wearily into the chair and looked up at the wall clock. It was eleven forty-five.
‘We could go down to the pub?’ Thomas suggested hopefully.
‘What for?’ Carol said and, for a moment, she appeared to be on the verge of tears.
Carol was twenty-four years of age but sometimes appeared younger. It was one of the things that had first attracted Thomas and now, sniffling into her hand, Carole looked like a schoolgirl in the headmistresses office.
Strangely, his cock stirred at the sight.
‘What are we going to tell her?’ Thomas whispered, head resting on his hands.
At that precise moment, the doorbell rang stridently through the house.
Thomas whipped his head up, a stricken expression over his plump face and gazed at his wife.
‘Let her in,’ Carol said wearily, standing to check her face in the mirror, ‘we can’t run away.’
She pushed her long blonde hair back over her ears and blinked at her reflection.
‘But…but what do we tell her?’
‘We could try the truth? I know that’s a novel approach,’ Carol said sarcastically, ‘but we could try it.’
Thomas looked at her frantically, his face pale and lips trembling.
‘Go on, darling,’ Carol said, softening slightly, ‘we can’t run forever. Someone has to find out that we’re skint – it might as well be her!’
Nodding, Thomas unsteadily stood and walked towards the front door with Carol following closely behind.
He gave Carol a weak grin and opened the door and Carol peered around him.
A tall red haired woman dressed in a smart pale grey business suit – jacket and knee length skirt – and an expensive French silk cream coloured blouse, smiled calmly at him.
Carol looked her up and down and saw the crisp gloves, large shining leather handbag, charcoal hose and dark shoes.
‘Mister Johnson? How good to see you again. May I come in?’
Before Thomas could say a word, the woman had already marched past him and was standing before Carol, removing her gloves and thrusting them into her large handbag.
‘And the lovely Mrs Johnson,’ Selena said in a predatory manner, looking Carol up and down, ‘very sweet, although you appear a little pale. You should seek out more sun, my dear. One does need ones daily ration of Vitamin D. The living room is through there?’
She pointed and Carol noticed the fingernails were painted a dark plum – almost black – and managed to nod silently.
‘Excellent. My man will join us. Come along, you two.’
Carol and Thomas turned at her clipped words just as a large man filled the front doorway. He was dressed in a dark suit that appeared to be slightly small as he looked to be seconds away from bursting from it. His face, vaguely oriental, was impassive and he stared calmly at husband and wife.
Absurdly, the thought possessed Carol that if she and her husband attacked this giant, they would simply bounce off like Hobbits and the massive man would carry them under each arm as they kicked and squealed.
They turned quickly, shot each other an anxious glance and followed the woman into their living room.
Mrs Dietrich sat calmly in the best armchair and rested her handbag on her knees.
The large and imposing man stood behind both Carol and Thomas who looked nervously at each other.
‘I’m Selena Dietrich,’ the woman said calmly. ‘You may call me Mrs Dietrich. You are both in a bit of a fix, aren’t you?’
Mrs Dietrich smiled knowingly at Carol and Thomas.
‘Please sit down, we have business to discuss.’
Slowly, Carol and Thomas perched on the edge of the sofa and anxiously waited.
Mrs Dietrich gestured to the mountain of the man who hovered behind the nervous couple.
‘You can wait outside, Mister Chung, I’ll call you if I require assistance. I’m sure Mr and Mrs Johnson will be hospitable.’
‘Yes ma’am,’ Chung’s voice rumbled through the room and softly closed the door behind him.
Mrs Dietrich removed some papers from her voluminous handbag and sorted through them.
While she did so, Carol took a moment to study Selena Dietrich and saw an elegant and very attractive woman. Her red hair was impeccably styled and everything about her screamed class in capital letters.
Carol felt a little in awe of her as well as an irrational fear.
Mrs Dietrich looked up, smiled coldly at both of them and said, ‘you’ve both been very naughty indeed.’
Thomas cleared his throat, licked his lips and began, ‘ah…Mrs Dietrich…’
‘Thomas, I don’t believe I have given you permission to speak?’ Mrs Dietrich said mildly and Thomas gulped and looked stupidly at her.
‘Ah…’ he repeated and glanced at Carol.
‘Thank you, Carol,’ Mrs Dietrich said pointedly, ‘I think a cup of tea would be splendid.’
Carol stared at her for a moment and Mrs Dietrich calmly held her eyes with her own.
After a moment, Carol silently rose, and walked through the other door to the kitchen.
As she made the tea, Carol strained her ears to pick up conversation in the living room but there wasn’t any and she wondered how Thomas was handling the uncomfortable silence.
He was a man who didn’t like gaps in conversations and usually rambled inanely to fill them. It was an annoying habit.
When she returned, Thomas was in exactly the same position and Carol noticed that his face was shining with a thin sheen of perspiration.
Mrs Dietrich pointed at the coffee table.
‘Put the tray there, Carol.’
Selena Dietrich poured a cup of tea as Carol sat, nervously smoothing her skirt under her as she watched Mrs Dietrich sip her tea.
Thomas and Carol did not pour themselves a cup and just waited.
‘Adequate but could be improved.’
Selena judged the tea and carefully returned the cup to its saucer.
‘Do you have any idea how much you owe?’
‘Ah…to you?’ Thomas stuttered.
‘Well…I’m not sure…’ Thomas stammered.
‘Six hundred and forty nine thousand pounds,’ Carol said softly, eyes on the floor.
‘I thought you were the smart one, Carol, although why a smart girl would marry someone like Thomas is beyond me.’
Thomas blinked at that and Carol looked away.
‘Yes,’ Selena continued calmly, ‘six hundred and forty nine thousand pounds. It’s rather a lot, isn’t it?’
‘Mrs Dietrich…I know that…I mean…’ Thomas began.
‘That was purely a rhetorical question, Thomas, one did not expect or, in fact, desire an answer. Please do not interrupt. Sit there and listen like a good boy.’
Carol and Thomas apprehensively watched her sip her tea.
‘This is the situation,’ Selena said, holding the teacup and saucer over her lap, ‘you owe an extremely large sum of money which you can not repay. Do you agree?’
Thomas and Carol both silently nodded.
‘Certainly, creditors will sell your house, your car, what business stock is remaining, anything at all to retrieve some of their money but, it will not meet the total debts. I’m sure the creditors will become rather angry, don’t you think? You can answer that question, Thomas.’
Thomas licked his lips again, glanced at Carol and opened his mouth.
‘Well, yes, they will but it’s not our fault, Mrs Dietrich…’
Mrs Dietrich pounced.
‘Not your fault? And who’s fault is it Thomas? Is it mine? Is it Mr Chung’s? Is it the fault of your next door neighbour, Mrs Bush or the investigator from the bank, Olivia McMahon?’
Carol blinked at that.
‘I think we can agree,’ Mrs Dietrich said calmly, ‘that your creditors will become angry when they discover you cannot repay their loans or meet their investments.’
Selena stared coldly at both of them as she spoke.
‘Their fury will increase dramatically when they discover your hi-jinks with the invoices and the duplication of stock sales. I’m afraid that our rather materially focussed society takes a dim view on fraud. Sometimes,’ she sighed, ‘the penalties for fraud appear to be stronger than for murder.’
Both Thomas and Carol gulped at that and looked feebly at each other.
‘No,’ Selena said calmly to the stunned couple, ‘when that is discovered, when the extent of your fraudulent activities are revealed, you will both, inevitably, face prison.’
Thomas gaped at her – he knew intellectually of course that’s what they faced – but to hear another person say it calmly was still a shock.
‘I wonder how you will cope?’ Selena looked at them both calmly. ‘You will be sent to separate prisons, of course so that will be the end of your marital bliss. I believe the male prisons are frightfully rough and the female…well, no need to dwell on it, is there?’
‘What do you want?’ Carol asked softly.
‘She wants her money,’ Thomas screeched, somewhat on the verge of hysteria. ‘Why do you think she’s here?’
Selena held Carol’s eyes and smiled.
‘I was right, you are the smart one.’ Selena finished the tea and placed the teacup and saucer carefully on the coffee table.
‘This is what I propose,’ Selena began and Carol and Thomas, now a little calmer, listened carefully.
‘I have purchased all of your debts. Yes,’ she smiled at the expressions of consternation that flooded their faces, ‘all of it! You owe everything to me instead of a baying mob of creditors.’
Thomas smiled shakily.
‘Well…thank you Mrs Dietrich…’
‘Oh don’t thank me so quickly, Thomas. Look to your wife, she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. You could learn a great deal from her.’
Thomas looked at his wife who was holding Mrs Dietrich’s gaze evenly, waiting.
Selena smiled at Carol.
‘It’s very simple,’ Selena said in a cold and factual voice, ‘I want you.’
‘Us?’ Thomas squeaked and Carol blinked nervously at the supremely calm Mrs Dietrich.
‘From the first time I saw you both at that rather shoddy investor’s presentation, I decided that, if the opportunity arose, I would very much enjoy playing with you both.’
Selena leaned forward, her hand patting Thomas’s knees and then resting on Carol’s.
‘I must confess, I rather enjoy owning people.’
She removed her hand and sat back.
Both Thomas and Carol were completely lost for words and stared blankly at Selena who waited for her words to sink in.
‘I own you both,’ she said in a flat and hard voice that sent shivers down Carol’s back. ‘I own your debts, your assets and your lives. Let me explain and it would be helpful if you listened carefully. Do you think you could listen without interrupting?’
Her eyes glittered as she stared coldly at them and Carol and Thomas nodded slowly, suddenly afraid.
‘I will take all your assets and sell them off. With some luck, it may raise enough to address a quarter of your debt. You will both work for me for a period of two years and at the conclusion of that period, all debts will be deemed as repaid.’
Thomas darted a look at his wife and leaned excitedly forward.
This is our way out, he thought eagerly, a way to get out of this mess!
‘During the two years you will not receive any payment and will only receive food, lodging and any expenses I choose to meet. You will also completely obey me without question. In short, you will both be indentured servants without rights and exist only to serve me.’
Selena stood and walked to the mantelpiece. Carol watched as the other woman ran a forefinger over the mantelpiece and then examined it for dust.
‘If you choose not to accept my offer, I will hand all my information on your business activities to the authorities and you will face prison.’
She turned back to the room and the husband and wife that were anxiously waiting, eyes wide.
‘I will also use my extensive network of acquaintances and friends to ensure you both receive the maximum sentences for your fraudulent actions. I can guarantee you will receive the maximum sentences and will spend those sentences in the most stringent of prisons.’
Mrs Dietrich smiled coldly at them both.
‘If you are considering harming me in anyway, may I remind you that Mr Chung is just outside the door and, I assure you, he can be rather brutal.’
‘Mrs Dietrich,’ Thomas protested automatically, ‘we weren’t considering…’
‘Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought. Eliminating me would be one of the options I would immediately consider if I were in your shoes. I’m sure your wife considered a little murder in your interests.’
Her eyes glittered on Carol and, as Thomas gave his wife a searching look, she glanced away.
‘Carol wouldn’t think that,’ Thomas said earnestly and Selena smiled faintly. ‘What kind of employment would we…’
‘It’s really very simple, Thomas,’ Mrs Dietrich said as she began to pull her right glove on, ‘if you agree you will both become my servants for the two years. You will work seven days a week as servants in my home and you will not have a mind of your own. Your entire world will revolve around what I want, what I desire! Any disobedience, rebellion, refusal or rude behaviour will be punished severely.’
Thomas went white and Carol stared at Mrs Dietrich who smiled sardonically at them.
‘If you think the two years will be easy, you are more foolish than I thought. However,’ she said, snapping the left glove on, ‘it will be marginally better than prison. At least, you will be together.’
Stunned, Thomas and Carol watched the elegant woman walk to the door and opened it. They could see Chung’s broad back blocking the doorway.
‘You may get the car, Mr Chung, I believe I have completed my business,’ Mrs Dietrich commanded and he moved off.
‘I don’t expect your answer now,’ Mrs Dietrich said, turning to them. ‘I will be staying at the Dorchester and you will provide your answer tomorrow night at precisely seven o’clock. If you wish to proceed with my proposition, be at my suite at precisely that time. One minute past the hour and I will assume that you have decided to decline. Do I make myself clear?’
Thomas and Carol nodded dumbly, shock still evident within their eyes.
‘If you do decline, I will immediately forward all the evidence to the authorities and I will despatch Mr Chung to find you. Rest assured that no matter where you are, he will find you! He will then deliver you to the nearest authorities where, thanks to my connections, you will be imprisoned while you await your trial.’
Mrs Dietrich smiled politely.
‘Thank you for the tea. I will see myself out. Good afternoon.’
First Published 2005