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Chapter 1 – A Fine Profession

DO NOT READ ON IF YOU ARE NOT 18+

The consummate seductress sat cross-legged on a chaise longue that was as crimson as her feted heart. That secondary bed straddled a voluptuous, Moroccan-inspired, Axminster rug, which added a touch of colour to a boudoir dominated by dark oak. She took a moment to survey the lavish, candlelit bedchamber, which might once have housed Henry Tudor for a night, for all she knew. It was just like many other sanctuaries she had grown accustomed to and those workaday environs no longer held any romance for her. They were as much a part of the illusion as she was.

The plush velvet of her seat somewhat clashed with the French, silk stockings she wore, so fine were they against her smooth, waxed limbs, she avoided static contact, barely moving an inch. The brooding, feminine musculature of her back was visible above a black lace basque, complemented by French knickers, suspenders and a customary pair of patent leather stilettos. The garments she need not have worn, for they left little to the imagination, though perhaps acted as a barrier of sorts.

She looked away from her latest Initiate, who lay face-down on the room’s four-poster, solid mahogany bed, a grand antique piece that would not look out of place in any stately home. The seeming conquistador had arrived earlier that night, sure that the luxurious setting and that stead that loomed so majestically at its centre would be his fount of never-ending pleasure. He lay naked, and chained, to his alleged source of revelatory experience, atop a black fur throw and several scatter cushions. He might have appeared to be resting if examining his pose from an aspect at the foot of the bed, but on closer inspection, once by the side of the frame, one would see how his body hung suspended somewhat, allowing a small amount of access to one particular facet of his physiology. A harness around his midriff and a complex rope system raised his upper body a little. According to her notes, his preference was to have his nipples and scrotum paddled gently. He liked other things to be done more rigorously.

While his eyes were averted, she glanced at her iPhone. Just a quick check in case another challenge awaited her that night. Ah, only Heath. Again. Interrupting a session she was deeply engaged in.

It was probably another in a long line of messages requesting, nay, begging her for the chance to be audience to her story. She had been seeking the person who had given away her number to someone outside of the circle, for she warned her employers never to do so. It annoyed her daily: this unwelcome inquisition into why she does what she does. The enquirer appeared to be a journalist seeking her story for the Nottingham Post. She knew this was a ruse, however, and that this infiltrator was something else.

Weeks ago, his courtship began earnestly, naively even, with a request along the lines of: Hi Lottie. Would you like to meet? I work for the Post. Just want the story. Dave Heath.

She had looked him up and no Dave Heath worked for that particular rag. She wanted to reply to him but she never gave him the satisfaction of knowing she was on the other end of a line. Her device was set to divert all calls; he could send messages but not phone her. It was how she maintained her mystery and cloaked her true identity. She had scorned each and every correspondence he had sent her since. None made sense. Why did he want the scoop? Not the service? She did not understand.

Today’s message was different, however. Not begging, pleading or nonchalant. He had tried all those tactics already.

CT, I am tired of this. We need to meet. Either that or I unveil you to the Press. Consider it. DH

Arrogance. And a threat!

That infuriated her though she rarely allowed herself to become possessed. It was not done. She had to take action. Nip this one in the bud.

She recomposed herself, quietly and quickly tapping out:

David, this is most inconvenient. I did not anticipate becoming undone so easily, but alas, it has transpired. I will retire and leave the borough after you unveil Miss Lottie. It is done. Her time is up. Will you be requiring display of The Service? L

A reply:

No service. Just the facts. The plain, shameless, simple facts. Friday. You state the time and address. I will be there. DH

He did not know what she was really all about and how in being interviewed, she could reveal the true nature of her work, but would never be able to operate anonymously thereafter. She wanted to tell him what a vile and detestable human being he was for hampering what she knew were “good deeds” but she was defeated. She had known her time would one day come to an end. Simply, she responded:

I will contact you with details. Lottie.

She tucked her iPhone in a handy, hidden pocket beneath the chaise longue and rose, standing up to flex her curvaceous limbs for the task at hand. She picked up the leather riding crop that had been waiting furtively on a dressing table nearby and wickedly cracked it against the sturdy wood of the bed frame, alarming the Initiate instantaneously. He shivered and trembled, his body almost in spasm as he sensed torture heading in his direction.

“Now Mister Vine, how bad a husband have you been? Just how bad?” she chided, in a guttural, menacing tone.

His response was muffled from the gag she had placed in his mouth. There came only caveman grunts and rapid, frantic snorts through his nostrils. He managed to turn his head to look in her direction. She once again thrashed her weapon against the bed and he desperately tried to shake himself free. Behind his fear, however, was a small, imperceptible smile.

“Did I not warn that it is forbidden to look upon my body?” She was calm in tone but he was afraid. She continued, relentlessly incalculable, “Remain absolutely still, otherwise, there will be no more mornings for little Mister Vine…”

 

*          *          *

Her situation appeared to him to be seedy, sordid and without taste as far as he was concerned. True, he did not know the finer details, but his imagination had thrown up some idea of the treats this Miss Lottie character divvied up amongst her clientele.

Some part of him, that which had a thirst for knowledge, was intrigued by her however. The men she “serviced” apparently did not ever speak out about her and obviously had reason not to. They were probably wealthy and well-known, some public figures, others with wives who would not forgive easily perhaps. Tracking her down had been almost impossible.

David Heath: tall, brown-haired, hazel-eyed and mildly handsome. He drove along the chock-a-block Nottingham bypass to get toward the outskirts of the city. He was finally going to meet Her, the notorious woman whose working name was whispered amongst certain circles. Though he did not belong to them, his work had certainly given him a whiff of the trail she had left behind over the years. A private detective, he had been tasked with finding the Chambermaid ‒ whatever the cost ‒ and had frustratingly missed her on a number of occasions. Once found, his job was to discover exactly why she had severed all ties with her family and friends, dwindling into obscurity to take on such a profession. He feared she did not believe his story about being a journalist, but then, he didn’t really care either way. He just felt this was it, finally.

Through the lashing rain, his beat-up Volvo estate battled on; him peering over the steering wheel anxiously, desperate not to miss the turn-off.

Fosse Way, one of Britain’s longest Roman roads, had mostly green-brown scenery, but there was one landmark along its stretch that had always caught his attention as he passed through en route to Lincoln or the seaside.

The dilapidated Georgian manor house he was heading for sat just off the road atop a hill, seeming to bear down on its lush green surroundings with its deteriorating brickwork perishing against the elements. Perhaps the exterior was once white or light-grey, but it had turned smoky-yellow around the edges. Nevertheless, it dominated the landscape, with dozens of narrow, tall plate-glass windows smashed to smithereens, its roof with either broken or missing slates and the typical grand centrepiece that once stood as its entrance having been barricaded up with bricks as if to cement its unwelcome facade. Yet, a majesty of its former glory remained; it was still large in size and presence. It had been uninhabited for decades following fire, or some other mysterious disaster, he had heard. These rumours, so easily batted about, did not concern him. He was the type to only care about news or gossip if it meant a gain or a loss for him. Such historical greatness in his midst went unnoticed; including the fact that this haunting, dishevelled wreck of former architectural grandeur was once a house associated with the Dukeries. Many passing by always thought the ruins looked too dangerous to approach. It sat uncomfortably against the skyline; resembling a decaying corpse left to rot in entirely the wrong place. It refused to crumble against the wind but had a threatening tale to tell, for sure.

As he reached the junction on the busy A-road, he slowed the vehicle, eager not to cause an accident in such treacherous conditions. He pulled into the unkempt country lane heading toward the remains of this old mansion – and he drove slowly, drawing out the last part of his journey.

He became nervous.

Lottie’s reputation very much eluded him. If she were indeed a viperous bitch, a cunt-wielding manipulator, she would be gorgeous? Clever? Strong – capable of defending herself – in such a line of work? I could be heading toward a date with destiny here, he considered. Perhaps this house hides mysteries that are better kept locked away.

Chugging along the road, he looked in the mirror. He was still drenched-through from having travelled just a few metres from the office to the car. His floppy hair matted, he tried to scrape it into some sort of style, and smoothed his eyebrows down. He tried to pat away the bags under his eyes, but too many caffeine-fuelled late nights and not enough proper sleep ensured he looked evermore like his own father – seemingly once handsome but now frayed and sagging around the edges. If he could just finish his detective novel, if he could just get it done, maybe he could quit his thankless job and live the life of riley. If only.

Heath had been trying to write a novel based on his father’s career as a detective in the Nottinghamshire Constabulary during the Seventies, when he had worked on several missing persons cases. His father Henry’s knack of keeping his head down at work had given him chance to overhear a conversation between colleagues one day…

A secretive society apparently gathered in dark rooms hidden in Nottingham’s Archives and was led by a cloaked, unidentifiable figure, who recruited men and women to join his sex cult. Heath Senior investigated… but found nothing. The sect began meeting elsewhere, obviously having gotten wind of someone sniffing about. This group were too well-connected and had no reason to brag outside of their own, it seemed. He figured the missing persons were probably those who gave themselves to this new lifestyle. Heath’s struggling novel contained several theories of the unsolved missing persons cases overseen by his father, and some even more outlandish theories about the people who returned to society as if they had never left. Now Heath was heading for this uninviting abode, he wondered whether Miss Lottie was one of those who had escaped her dungeon to take on a life of her own. Perhaps a place as dreary as Hambleton Hall would never invite intruders. His mind racing with the possibilities, Heath had to calm himself. This might be coincidence, he told himself, or it might not. Just be cool. Heath Junior had none of his father’s bravery but all of his curiosity.

He reached the grassy area immediately in front of the building and saw a black Audi r8 already parked up. This woman really must be crazy, he thought, bringing a machine like that to a tip like this. He took one last look at himself in the rear-view mirror and decided the ruffled look suited him more. Teasing fingers through his hair, he saw the glimmer of his wedding band. He still wore it, though separated. He knew Lottie would clock it and perhaps ask questions, and he did not need that, so he removed it, throwing it quickly into the glove box. He pulled the collar of his grey woollen coat up around his neck and fetched his shoulder bag from the passenger seat. Checking he had recorder, paper, pens, phone and wallet – you never knew – he hauled himself out of the vehicle and locked it. The elements hit his body. It could not get any worse, so, he casually strolled toward the structure. He headed for the side entrance she had instructed him to arrive at. Dripping and soggy, he stepped onto the flagstone, using the large iron doorknocker on the gargantuan oak entry to announce his arrival. Two minutes later, a girl opened up – a pasty, wastrel form, head bowed and shabby clothes decorating her almost unrecognisable female form. There was nothing to recommend her.

“I’m here to see Miss Lottie,” he announced authoritatively.

She opened the door a little wider, still not giving eye contact, still submissive, still mute.

“Come in,” she murmured.

His heeled brogues clacked against the parquet flooring. The green-grey walls of the corridor were damp-ridden and cracked like shattered glass. He shuddered at the sight of the unwelcoming interior and started to wonder why he was putting himself through this. Always, the reminder came: money.

She closed the door behind him, locked it, offering, “Can I take your coat?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

He peeled it off his dampened form and she hung it on a lousy hook on the wall nearby. He tried to shake his trousers and shirt away from his skin to get the air to them, while she avoided staring, continuing to look at the floor. He knocked into a putrefying wall as he moved about, and flinched in an exaggerated manner, feeling sure the very personality of that house was catching.

“This way,” she finally said, and led him further into the property. The air was bitterly cold as they travelled down the hollow tunnel and the dankness of this former domicile made his lungs wretch at the thought of minute fungi entering his system. He wasn’t one for being concerned about hygiene, but this was taking the biscuit somewhat. It was a danger zone and should possibly have been torn down decades before, he decided.

When they reached the end of the corridor, they entered the former servants’ quarters and continued further still. A set of hazardous steps later, and they were in a wood-panelled hallway of sorts.

She stopped, pointed to a door and motioned, “In there. She will join you shortly.”

“Okay, thanks.”

He grabbed the brass handle, before being forced to shove the heavy door open, with the lintel sticking from wear and tear.

Once inside the spacious room, he saw a roaring fire and darted toward it straight away. He held out his hands and tried to will the rising heat to absorb the moisture clinging to his clothes.

Some minutes passed. He looked around and discovered he was in some sort of drawing room. It was in need of repair too, but was certainly more civilised than anything else he had so far seen. Heavy, discoloured wallpaper with a gold-leaf pattern hung loosely all around, curtains clung to tall windows and cobwebs were not in short supply amongst the rusting candelabra and old pictures no longer recognisable. He almost reached for the whiskey on a steady but unloved mahogany sideboard nearby, but thought better of it. She might offer it anyway, he decided.

That small pulse of nervous energy crept up on him again and he considered a tipple once more, to calm his nerves. He was just about to crack open the flask when… she crashed in, efficiently tackling the rickety door, slamming it behind her. He did not even have chance to blink, before she offered him her hand. He took it and looked down to view her shapely little palm, in his, blurting out, “That was you, out there? You…? I noticed that scarring on your hand before, when you took my coat.”

“Good job, Heath, good job,” she said mockingly, “too bad my hands always give me away.”

His fetish had already been uncovered.

“But, how…?” he trailed off, “…you’re really not the same person!”

“I just wanted to demonstrate the first rule of Miss Lottie, shall we say, Ruse Number One.”

“Okay…”

“Come, sit,” she insisted, motioning to a studded leather armchair. “I can tell you are gasping, so shall I pour?”

“I was just about to grab a snifter…”

“You were? Oh, well.”

She handed him a tumbler and he took the liquor quickly, now much more nervous. Her short, brown hair was slick and tucked back behind her ears. She wore large, silver hoop earrings, a white shift dress without tights or stockings, and inoffensive tan leather ankle boots laced up. The room they occupied was chilly but she seemed accustomed to the temperature, refusing to shiver in the surroundings. She went over to stand by the fire and he admired her figure. She was curvy, not athletic, but certainly not without a fair amount of muscle tone. The clothing before had masked her feminine physique well. Her skin was actually fresh and clear. She’d added a small amount of make-up and seemed slightly flush from a shower. The most disarming thing of all was that her stance and aura had changed entirely, and therefore, the notion that she was a different person altogether wasn’t ludicrous. In fact, she was. Though, also, the same. He couldn’t quite get over it.

“Horrible weather,” she started.

“I didn’t think we would be so stuck for conversation!” He chuckled. “Though I admit, now I’m here, I am struggling to know where to start.”

She smirked with confidence as she stood with her back to the flames, looking directly at him. “Well, I offered to show you what it is I do exactly. I mean, it would indeed be much easier to demonstrate rather than explain. However, I guess, we need to maintain some balance here.”

“Yes,” he agreed, secretly also thinking, And in the eyes of God I’m still married.

“I know what you may imagine, but, I shall prove you wrong.”

He smiled back at her and slurped more whiskey, adding, “Perhaps, start by telling me how you came into this profession?”

“Perhaps, start by telling me your story?” She spoke tersely, commandingly. Her sweetness had an edge of sourness.

“I… I am not a journalist.”

“What, then? Policeman? Or someone looking for fun?”

“Almost right… private investigator… private detective, even. Less glamorous. Is what it is,” he moodily admitted.

“Who is trying to find me?” she asked.

“You know. Him.”

“Oh. Does he know you found me?”

“No. I needed to make sure it was you first. I now know. I will get paid as long as I get you to admit why you left. He wants to know the real truth. He accepts your decision but he cannot move on until he knows why you did what you did. His words.”

Heath was really very clueless about what had happened between these two people he was mediating between. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.

“Heath, look, I’ll tell you everything. I will. I had decided already to do so. You can do what you like with my story. I have felt for months like my luck was running out and that I’d had all I was worth and more. I know it is time to give this up. But, let’s get one thing straight, that man is not… innocent. Do not feel sorry for him, okay?”

She was bitter about that, he knew. He saw a brief snapshot of pain cross her dainty features, which were animated one second and closed off the next. He sensed she was complex when he saw her thoughts take her off somewhere else entirely.

“Whatever you say, I am just here to listen, that’s all. But… he did pay a lot. A heck of a lot. He has been paying me for two months. I’ve had all my contacts on the case, all my efforts concentrated on this. On you. It has been… expensive, frequenting all the places you do.”

She was silent for a moment or two, calculating something in her mind. She was making peace with some thought or other.

“I have a lot of money, Heath. I would not allow you here unless I thought you pliable to my cause. Now, listen, I mean to start a new life after we have our chat here. I do. Use my story for your own gain if you like. Get yourself out of this distasteful line of work. Just do not let Him near me.”

What did he do to her? Heath thought. It did not matter, though he was intrigued to find out.

“I accept,” Heath agreed, gleefully pouring another drink, nodding faster than the Churchill dog that sat on his dashboard back at the car.

“Okay, here we are.”

She retrieved a large manuscript from a black satchel on the floor. She slammed it down on the side table near him.

“It’s all there. My life story. I have been hard at it for a year.”

The green-eyed monster stirred inside him. How the heck do people finish theirs, just not me…?

She stood, looking down at the floor, her hands behind her back. She bore a shrewd smile only she could interpret, for it was the result of some far-off memory.

“I think before you begin reading, I must say this… that from what I can gather, you are a divorcee, or perhaps, separated. You have the wounded, deprived look about your manner. You gauge me to be a harlot… a malicious, immoral harpy even, perhaps? You wonder, does that bitch’s thirst for debauchery know no bounds? These conclusions you draw so easily, yet ignorantly.”

“But‒” he started to say, in defence of himself.

“I’m talking,” she insisted.

She raised her head and stared him out, seeing the shock set in across his face. She availed him of his concern, reassuring, “Yes, I decided to allow you into my confidence. I decided, for a simple reason, to allow you to know the truth of my life, for many think they imagine what it has been like, but none really have a clue. For, it seems, you do not have any concept of the true nature of my work or me.”

He threw the last of his drink down his neck, reached for the bottle and poured, slaking his thirst once more. His eyes creased and he smiled with a, So, I’ve been served? grin, and he nodded in acceptance, quite merrily.

“I’m ready for whatever you have to throw at me.” But still, he could not help but think she was just a fallen woman with a penchant for sexual escapades.

“You want to know who I was before, how I came to be this way, etcetera, etcetera…?”

“Of course,” though her question was rhetorical and she was clearly in the mode of her working persona.

“Fine,” she muttered, and moved to sit in an armchair opposite him. She sipped her drink. “There’s a reason I drew you to this mansion. It’s where the Chambermaid’s story began. However, first, you need to hear how I began.”

He picked up the first page and started tearing through her words.

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